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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 ūüėõ

::: 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 ūüėõ :::

::: 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‚Ķ 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! ūüôā :::


:::: Dongzhulin Temple Рlarge 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! ūüėÄ :::

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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 ūüėõ 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! ūüôā

::: 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 *! ūüėÄ 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 ūüėČ :::

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 ūüėČ )

::: 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 …! ūüėÄ


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! ūüėÄ) 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)ūüėÄ :::

::: 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 ūüôā :::

:::: 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 ūüėČ :::

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¬†ūüėÄ :::

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‚Äôs down, mouth open gasping for breath, your heart is pounding and you can‚Äôt 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 Рdown 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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TOP 10 Tropical Beach Destinations in ASIA- no.9: MALAYSIA, Langkawi Island

Lucky no. 9 goes to a beautiful place that I got to enjoy with a big bunch of my friends from Singapore (featured extensively in the pictures below). Take a look with me, Michal, Wen, Eve, Simon, Lukas, Nihar and Jeremy at …

Langkawi Island in Malaysia !

SCORES:

  • nature: 3/5¬†-> spectacular views but a bit ‘spoiled’ with civilization
  • party: 2/5¬†-> cosy beach bars opened till late
  • atmosphere: 2/5¬†-> quite touristy* but enjoyable as soon as you get out of the town
  • ease of travel:¬† 4/5¬†->no visa needed, easy scooter rental at the airport,¬† English¬†is widely spoken and understood by the locals.

*why so touristy? here’s the first fun fact:

The island was legendary cursed in late 18th century for 7 generations by the beautiful young women named Mahsuri, after the local villagers wrongfully accused her of adultery and executed by stabbing.

The curse ended around 1987 with the birth of¬† Sirintra Yayee (8th grandchild of Mahsuri, now living in Thailand), and strangely enough a new era of Langkawi as a tourist destination began.¬†The island was granted a tax-free status and Prime Minister¬†Mahathir Mohamad¬†decided to transform it into a major tourist resort, helping to plan many of the islands buildings himself¬†. The island flourished as a tourist destination, and by nowadays receives over 3 million tourists a year…

FOR WHO?

Mostly for families and people who want convenient holidays and don’t mind the touristy feel all around them (banana boat rides, Mexican restaurants, cable car to the mountain top etc.). Mind that it’s quite difficult to experience truly Malaysian culture here.

:: My Singaporean family <3 :::

WHERE IS IT?

Langkawi Island is located 30km off the mainland coast of northwestern Malaysia.  The island is a part of the state of Kedah, which is adjacent to the Thai border.

THE BEACH:

There are few beaches here, namely: Pantai Cenang, Pantai Tengah, Burau Bay, Pantai Kok, and Datai Bay, but due to time constrains we’ve been only to one. Pantai Cenang is a 2km long stretch of fine white sand. The beach is lined with casuarina¬†trees and spectacular, tall coconut trees <3.

The water is not very clear so you can’t go snorkeling just off the beach.¬† However, there is plenty of watersports and attractions such as jet-skis, bananaboats etc. if you are into this sort of things. My group was more into smoking cigars, acroyoga and posing for odd pictures:

Along the beach you can find all type of shops, bars&restaurants, open till late. They are great for chilling,eating, watching the sunset and after dusk- fire shows to crazy loud drum’n’bass music.

BESIDES THE BEACH:

  • Advice no 1 -as always- : rent a car or motorbike/scooter and explore the island (especially that there is no public transport…).

Langkawi is not too big (only 25×40 km) and the roads are in a great condition and safe to drive. The rental offices are located at the convenient places – airport, jetty, or by Pantai Cenang beach.

The rate is reasonable (~30-40 RM for 150cc motorbike/scooter) but make sure you agree with the rental office how and when you are going to return it  (if your flight out is early in the morning, the office might be simply closed and you might loose your deposit).

Remember to drive on the left side of the road and enjoy the tropical views!

The gas is dirt cheap – you can fill up you bike for aprox RM5 but keep track of the fuel level, gas stations are quite far from one another (~10 km).

  • Telaga Tujuh Waterfalls aka Seven Wells, (Gunung Mat Cincang, Northwest corner of the island, 45 kms from Kuah, walking distance from Oriental village and cable car (10 min) )

We have been only to the base of the waterfall but if you climb 350+ slippery steps to the higher area you will reach the seven natural pools that this waterfall is named after. Legend has it that fairies used to come down to the pools to frolic- when we saw the inviting cold water we could not resist it either. The water felt amazing after a long bike ride!

  • Klim Karst Geoforest Park

My favorite part of the trip! You are seated in the long boat and swam around a park with a few stopovers:

Depending on your time/budget you can opt to see more or less:

Bat Cave was turned out to be smelly&scary but eagle* feeding was quite spectacular. We were not allowed to do it ourselves (too dangerous!). Instead we observed as our guide throw pieces of meat into the water and immediately large number of large birds appeared to fight for it.

*fun fact! One of the theory behind the name of the island involves combination of the Malay words ‘helang‘¬† (meaning “eagle”)¬† and ‘kawi‘ (meaning “reddish-brown” or “strong”)

 

::: Thick mangroves forest outside the bat cave :::

::: Tiny Fiddler (‘calling’)crab says hi :::

::: Prepare for many funky fish-like creatures that you can touch on Fish farm… if you dare (here : horseshoe¬†crab) :::

  • The¬†Langkawi Cable Car,¬†taking you up to the peak of Gunung Mat Chinchang, where the¬†Langkawi Sky Bridge¬†is located.

The cable car ride strats from Oriental Village (watch out: tourist trap!). It costs around¬†RM55 for foreigners. Wikipedia says that the The SkyBridge is at the top station of cable car which can be reached using an elevator/cabin on a track (SkyGlide, RM15 for foreigners) or through a small forest trail (RM5 for foreigners), the trail is only around a 10 minute walk but involves a lot of stairs. We did not get that opportunity though…

The trip to the top in the late afternoon looked promising…

But after a while we entered a milky cloud that successfully prevented us from seeing the precious view…

The viewing platform did not give us the promised views:

::: All that we were able to see in the ‘viewing’ platform ::: ::: Eve’s takes on the ‘selfie with a view’ :::

::: …and ours ūüėČ :::

::: Simon’s ‘rain dance’ and our over-excitement on a slightest glimpse of a view:::

HOW TO GET HERE:

It’s quite easy and straightforward, since there is an international airport on the island, with connections available from Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and others. You can also enter the island via ferry from Kuala Kedah, Kuala Perlis, Tamalang and Penang.

* fun fact: There’s also ferry service to a nearby¬†Ko Lipe¬†island in Thailand for a fun side-trip (operating October till June)!

ACCOMMODATION

There are many hotels available that you can search through booking.com. As a large group we rented a house through airbnb.¬†Here’s view from our place;

OTHER FUN THINGS ABOUT BEING IN Malaysia:

Remember Malaysia is a Muslim country, so your daily ‘beer routine’ might be interrupted as it won’t be sold in some places (eg. local food court).

Prepare for the sight of wild animals. I managed to meet not one but two (!) specimens of extremely rare Malaysian tiger:

In summary, we enjoyed our short stay in Langkawi, even though for my taste it is a bit too ‘touristy’ and not wild enough. Although I must admit that the wild component was filled out with this crazy bunch:¬†

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TOP 10 Tropical Beach Destinations in ASIA- no.10: CHINA, Sanya

I’ve been living in tropical Asia for a few years already and my European friends keep asking me for holidays recommendation in this area. Thus – I decided to prepare a very special series of posts proposing few quite amazing tropical beach destinations.

So there you have it – a completely subjective list from a person that tends to buy flight tickets to random Asian destination only because it’s cheap, and then figure out what’s there to do!

And the number 10 on the list goes to…

CHINA – and its beautiful resort city – Sanya !

If you didn’t know that China even has a tropical destination or a resort cities – high 5! We found out about it when we were planning trip to completely different place, a mountainous region of Guangxi nearby. Sanya did not disappointed – it had everything that I am looking for in life in general – challenge, little chaos, and palm trees.

SCORES:

  • nature: 3/5 ->the green hills surrounding the city & vast empty beaches
  • party: 1/5 -> zero beach bars and clubs, BUT there are Chinese ladies practicing dance routines to Chinese pop songs on every free spot of the promenade ūüėÄ (check out the video at the end of the post)
  • atmosphere: 3/5 -> nice people, cool holiday vibe, the city and beach coming to life in the evenings
  • ease of travel:¬† 0/5 -> complicated visa process, Chinese signs instead of alphabet,¬† no google or google maps

FOR WHO?

It’s a perfect place for people who want to escape from Western style holidays –¬† beach parties, Justin Bieber songs, bikinis, and banana pancakes. Such as this guy:

::: Michal -happy to be in a Chinese resort (note the empty beer can in a back pocket) :::

WHERE IS IT?

Sanya is the southernmost city of a little island Hainan,¬†the smallest and southernmost province of China. Historically, known to Chinese as¬†Tianya Haijiao¬†(Ś§©ś∂ĮśĶ∑Ťßí), meaning “the end of the sky and ocean” or “the end of the earth”.

THE BEACH:

The beach is vast, clean and empty – what else do we need?

::: My favorite view::

You don’t have to worry that you won’t find a place for yourself on the beach – in Asian culture the most beautiful and appreciated skin tone is ghostly white. Big plus for no tourists from other cultures (besides us ūüėČ )¬†¬†

::: beach babes in China:: 

:: The beach came to life only when the sun was setting down ::

BESIDE THE BEACH

  • as always- rent a scooter (no license needed) and explore the city !

It’s quite interesting how modern the main streets are and how simple and basic it is becoming as soon as you enter the side street. As we rode along the streets and promenades, we could spot many older ladies practicing their dance routines to pop Chinese songs, which was really cute.

Fun facts about scooters: we got the electric one and of course-  it died on us JUST before reaching our destination :

  • Deer Turning Head Park (Luhuitou Park¬†ťĻŅŚõ쌧īŚÖ¨Śõ≠).

Climb the hill outside of the city for the amazing views above Sanya harbour:

Half-way through you can stop to feed the deers in a small enclosure (if you don’t mind their sad faces):

At the very top of the hill you will find a large stone statue, to commemorate the local legend. According to the story,¬† the hunter chased a deer to an isolated headland near the sea. When the deer could not escape, it turned its head to look at the hunter and suddenly… turned into a beautiful woman! The hunter could not kill the deer-girl and instead- fell in love with her. What’s the moral of the story? I have no idea, but it made such an impression on locals that they named a park after it.

HOW TO GET HERE:

:: Haiku Train Station ::

This was a bit tricky. We took a flight from Singapore to Haiku- the province’s capital. Then, we took a taxi from the airport to the train station, hoping that we will find a quick transport to Sanya. At the train station we found a huuuge que and a big display board, obviously all in Chinese. Luckily, smart Michao figured out which signs stands for Sanya and noted what appeared to be the time of departure, so later he could point on the train number we wanted the tickets for. Thanks to the huge que we missed the earlier train and got a chance to walk around Haiku until the next one in the late evening.

 :: Display board at the train station ::

ACCOMMODATION

You would think that in the age of booking.com, you can book a place anywhere in the world easily, right? We also thought so, and easily booked a hostel online that … didn’t existed. When we arrived to the place it turn out to be a giant construction area. We were roaming in the dark allays for quite some time, until we finally found another place to stay for the night . It’s name turned out to be coldly ironic:

FOOD

Personally, I am not a fan of Asian cuisine (lightly speaking). But, if you are at least minimally tolerant person, probably you will find few things for yourself, eg. famous Chinese dumplings:

Ordering is quite easy – simple restaurants often have images of the menu options displayed on the wall, so you just point on what you want.

:: white Coca cola? Nope, just a soy milk in a suspiciously similar bottle ::
You can also find some healthy snacks in convenience stores :

::: chicken feet- yum! :::

::: mmm dried fish – even better :::

::: yyy..a fancy ant delicacy..? :::

OTHER FUN THINGS ABOUT BEING IN CHINA

It’s hard for you to distinguish between the Chinese faces? Well, it works the other way too! Don’t be surprised when people would want to take a photo with you because -to them- you look like a Hollywood star or a famous soccer player ūüėČ

::: Michao and David Beckham- find 3 differences :::

It’s funny how everything have some peculiar equivalent in China. You’ve seen healthy snacks already, but here’s 2 more examples:

:::  Chinese version of the Apple Store  :::

:::¬† Who needs roses when you can get a bouquet¬†of… bears :::

:: Luckily one thing is universal – I always (always!) appreciate good-old hipster coffee shops where I can have my cappuccino ::

That’s it for the Chinese beach resort. Let me know if you curious about anything I mentioned in the post. As you can see my holidays rarely stop on the beach. I would rater rent a scooter to go check out the beach, stay there for some time, get bored and then go ride around the city/island to see what else is there.¬† Luckily I am not alone and I can share the adventure with like-minded¬†Michao!

 

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