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Caves and Safaris

semi-overcast

This morning, monkeys were gathered up by the bathrooms, jumping around from branch to branch. They were the first animal we spotted before our next wildlife tour. We hopped back in the longboat to see the same type of hornbill we'd seen at night. It had a black body, white chest, plus a long tail and beak. When they flew, they had an orange/yellow stripe across their wingspan and their wings made considerable noise. We also saw the bright blue kingfisher.
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For breakfast, we had banana pancakes plus another banana on the side for good measure. We lounged around until the 10 am checkout then took off in the longboat for our second cave adventure. It took an hour's voyage on the uncomfortable wooden plank boat seats to reach the next platform.

The hike took an hour or so, steeper than yesterday. We went up with a local ranger and Two. Two showed us a large tree with air roots that climbed other trees before strangling them to take their place. It was their invasive way of reaching the sunlight. More cicada mounds were along the path along with their shells and some spiders.

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This cave was big but the tour wouldn't be as extensive as yesterday's. The cave held high levels of carbon monoxide and it could be dangerous to stay down there more than a few dozen minutes. As we explored, we found the critters here were bigger: the bats, spiders and crickets.

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We walked down to the cave on a sometimes slippery path. There was a rocket-shaped stalagmite that Two joked about. We had to scale around a rock wall, and at the end Two shouted out about a two meter long snake we could see. It was lightly coloured and moved slowly enough at a distance from us. We went in a bit further to see spiders and crickets. Finally, we visited the large guano-scented bat cave with thousands of black critters just hanging out.

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We trekked back down, begging the rain Gods to make our path less challenging by staying at bay. It worked and we walked the final path across a big fallen floating log and over the random boards and rocks, hoping not to slip. We had a lunch of fried rice and egg plus creatively cut pineapple and watermelon where the peel was the eco-friendly tray.

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Back at the mainland pier, our luggage waited for us in the back of a van. We thanked Two and got dropped off at a nearby bus station. Tickets to Surat Thani were 150 baht. I ran into the nearby Big C grocery store to cool off with their A/C and pick up snacks: panda cookies, croissants, M&Ms and goldfish knock-off crackers I always used to buy.

Once arrived in Surat Thani, we turned down pushy tour agents offers, found our own way to the pier and saved no money on the tickets. Sometimes we learned, people could be honest in sales. We sat at the waterfront pier area near a lively market selling clothes, household items and food. We managed to find food and drinks at a nearby restaurant stall. Ryan got to try satays, I had some big fried noodles and we both had EST Thai cola.

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We had pancakes for dessert, small but tasty, made by a lady watching a football match intently with a few other vendors, and by 10pm it was time to board the overnight boat to Koh Tao. Stepping inside it looked more like a dorm than a boat with dozens of big bunk beds everywhere. At least they had toilets with toilet paper and soap, a rare find out here. Since we were travelling together, Ryan and I got the slightly larger than a single shared bunk mattress.

Posted by Sarah.M 15:39 Archived in Thailand Tagged lake cave safari snake khao_sok hornbill Comments (0)

Khao Sok Lake

overcast 25 °C

We moved out of our cozy jungle bungalow and had a bit more French toast before taking off on our tour. We all jumped in a songtao to go to the dammed lake. There were a few German friends, a Belgium couple and a Russian lady in our group. The drive took just over an hour, more than long enough bouncing around in the back of a songtao. Mr. Bao assured us that our big bags would arrive the following day on our through voyage to Koh Tao.

Our enthusiastic guide met us with aviators, a plaid shirt and a long braid. He introduced himself as Two, 'like one, two', he explained. We bought the 200 baht entrance tickets and boarded the longboat for an hour's journey to the raft houses we'd be staying in.

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The whole area had been flooded so they could have a dam, which made the lake here quite deep. Since it was done recently enough, a lot of the old treetops were still standing in the water, dead, but a testament to how far below the former ground would have been. There were ample limestone peaks with vegetation to keep our cameras busy until too much water would splash in. I pulled out my purple poncho from 7-11 at one point to stay warm and dry. The sun and thin plastic achieved an unsettling sweaty heat quite efficiently.

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An hour later, we pulled up in front of a bamboo raft complex. It had a small docking area attached to a floating restaurant. Further down the bamboo bridged path were small raft houses, really basic, just a mattress, a door and a couple chairs on the deck area each. No lights or locks. Our daypacks just fit inside the room with us, but it would only take about three steps before we'd be able to take a dip in the beautiful lake. It was a decent trade off.

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Our guide, Two, explained that we'd have lunch, have some down time and then start our cave tour. We hadn't really bothered looking into the whole itinerary (though it was available to see) so the cave tour came as a pleasant surprise. We did love our caves.

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We hopped into the lake for a refreshing swim. The water was a bit cool considering the outdoor temperature was also chillier, but it was still really nice. Ryan and I swam around from one log to another in the sectioned-off swimming area.

For lunch, there were several dishes, two of which were vegetarian friendly. Both were mildly flavoured stir-fries we shared with the rest of our group at a communal table. After that, we had a bit of time to rinse off, change and rest before the tour.

The boat ride to the caves took all of four minutes. We'd hike quite some time up, then do an hour through the cave and half an hour walking through the jungle to get back to the start. Our uphill hike took us through a number of small rivers so walking sandals were ideal. Two stopped to show us chameleons, spiders, a millipede, and cicada homes which were deep holes that the bugs dug in their youth to sleep in and grow wings.

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At one point, we stopped and there was a black wild cat with a long tail. As we were at the back, we didn't get to see it, but Two and out other guide told us they were quite rare during the day and were pretty excited encountering one.

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Two made sure it wasn't going to rain before the final hot and sweaty climb to the mouth of the cave. Inside, caverns were quite tall and large. Bats hung from the ceiling and our lights picked out a few more golden spiders. A snake was slithered around a stalagmite and crickets were abundant in some areas. Luckily, Mr. Bao had provided us with headlamps as a final thought to make the journey easier. Some of the cave formations were round and porous with water running down. Others were jagged and tall.

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About halfway, we gave our valuables and clothes to Two for safe keeping in the dry bags and tied our shirts around our heads like turbans to save space and keep them dry. In just our bathing suits, we walked carefully through the water which at times came right up to our neck and chest. Then the cave would change and we'd be on solid ground again.

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One section required us to scale down the cave walls to avoid being sucked away in the strong flowing water. Here the ceilings were high but the corridor was quite narrow. Two found his own sneaky dry path around the river after giving us instructions on the descent and making sure we cleared the dangerous section. We had a bit more wading ahead of us before we reached the natural light trickling through the exit and lighting up the now gentle flowing water. We'd made it safely back to the rainforest.

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As we took pictures around the cave and got back into more hike-friendly attire, Two shared the story of two guides and six tourists who had died in the cave in previous years. A storm had come and rain had rushed into the cave. With the narrow pathways, the cave flooded quickly and people were washed away. Only one woman had survived, pushed up to a high spot by someone where she stayed for a few days before it was safe to rescue her. We had no idea it could be so dangerous and were thankful it hadn't decided to rain.

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The cave had another interesting bit of history. It used to be home to students affiliated with communist organisations fleeing the government. The local people didn't care too much about the politics, but helped feed them because it was the right thing to do. The rest of the hike went by quickly and we had another rest by the cabins.

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On the way back from the cold showers, I caught the reflection of the bamboo raft houses on the still turquoise water and it was absolutely stunning. For supper, we had a tasty massaman curry, another stir-fry, a big fried fish (head and all) and a giant plain omelette. We found out that nearly everyone in our group was a teacher or in-training to be one. The Belgium couple had travelled from Laos, Cambodia and Thailand and were heading back home in the new year.

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Our night wasn't over yet, time for a night safari. With a spotlight and a longboat, Two showed us sleeping hornbills on the Banyan tree and some of the big cats with red eyes. All we could glimpse of the latter were the eyes, but it was still neat. The cicada wails were quite strong too. Two found one of the insects to show us. The bug got accidentally dropped back into the water and was subsequently rescued. When we brought him back to the raft house area, he flew away.

Posted by Sarah.M 21:48 Archived in Thailand Tagged lake cave longboat night_safari khao_sok Comments (0)

Summer Palace

Old and New

sunny -5 °C

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It was less motivating to get out of bed when the weather was chilly. I had come to realize that as Canadians, we were a bit spoiled when it came to dealing with cold weather. Sure, outside it was frigid colder than Mars, the North Pole or wherever, but inside our homes, central heating made us forget the weather unless we looked out the window or needed to leave. In China, we hadn't come across central heating so the chill of winter was always around meaning that you were almost always in a sweater or two. Showering became more infrequent since stepping back out into the chilly non-bathroom was unfavourable. Luckily, my friend had heat lamps in her shower that made the experience better.

We geared up for the day with sweaters, jackets, mitts, hats, scarves. We had a mix of fruit and 7-11 breakfast before using the straightforward subway to get near Summer Palace. At our stop, there were plenty of restaurant chains, although none of them had vegetarian options so we just ended up in Subway. Sometimes we just got sick of trying. We did take advantage of the free refills situation though.

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The walk to Summer Palace was, as per usual, much shorter than described by the taxi drivers' sales pitches. We bought the pricier of the two entrance tickets and wandered into Benevolence and Longevity Hall. There was the standard Chinese architecture we expected along with statues of a lion and dragon.

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Summer Palace served as a home and entertaining area for the royal family. It had commissioned in 1750 by emperor Qianlong. It was damaged during the Second Opium War, then rebuilt and embellished by Empress Dowager Cixi in 1888. She had used funds allocated for the navy to do so. I could see why dynasties went out of style soon afterward.

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Down a path and outside the walls, sat Kunming Lake in the mid-stages of freezing solid. We could see this from our position at the Spring Pavilion. The lake and the hills surrounding it were artificial in the sense that one had been dug and the other formed from the residual earth. Quite an impressive feat, given the immense size. One of the tour guides said that the grounds were eight times bigger than Forbidden City, although that may have been just another sales tactic to promote the usefulness of their services.

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People walked across the lake in the distance despite there being water between the walkway walls and the layer of ice with a mysterious thickness. They must have found a different starting point. Some paddle boats were frozen in the lake as well.

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The leaves had fallen off the trees which was a real shame for the beautiful willows. I supposed winter probably wasn't the optimal time to visit
Summer Palace. We visited a gallery that was mainly closed then went back to the lakeside to make it to the causeway. Designers had tried to replicate the one in West Lake, Hangzhou, but the original was still more impressive. A lot of the temple on the island was closed for the season, but the views of the hills in the distance and pagodas built atop them were impressive. The people walking on the glass-like ice turned out to be locals ice fishing. Quite bold.

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Back at the main Summer Palace area, the tradition of building courtyard after courtyard continued along with the theme of many of the displays being closed. Red coloured the columns while paintings sat right below the curved roof eaves.

We walked down a long corridor to reach the Temple of Buddhist Virtue, a tall tiered temple with a great view of the whole city. It had clusters of stairs to reach the top. On the way down, we saw the Bronze Pavilion which was the only section not destroyed by the Allies during the Second Opium War and by international forces during the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion. Many buildings in the palace had been restored to the state it was in today after fires, but looting had claimed many of the treasures.

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Continuing the walk, we passed a large marble boat called Qing Yan F«éng to reach Suzhou Street, an underwhelming market area by the water. Our all-access admission cards became a bit of a scavenger hunt as we tried to locate and visit them all to make the tickets pay for themselves. Only a few other people descended the stairs to see the few souvenir shops still open and the frozen river.

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The Sumera Tibetan temple at Wanshou Longevity Hill caught our eye. It required a hefty climb to reach the top. Some of the stupas were rounder. One of the temples featured a wall with thousands of hand sized Buddha figures carved in it. We realized as we left, that we really should have took the shortcut from the Temple of Buddhist Virtue earlier to save us doing the climb twice.

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Our final stop, after debating whether to stay and complete our bingo card admission ticket or try to catch a glimpse of Old Summer Palace, was the Garden of Virtue and Harmony. By this time, it was pretty relaxed. The pond in the center and the beautiful willow trees were highlights for me.

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We left Summer Palace, looking for the 33 bus to reach Old Summer Palace. We still had maybe an hour or two of daylight. The bus ride was cheap, once we managed to explain our destination to the driver, only a few stops away. We got dropped at the farther South Entrance, so we paid our admission and sped walked past the beautiful park and ponds.

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With the sun still in the sky, we arrived at the ruins we sought. During the Qian dynasty, Emperor Qianlong built a European style garden in Baroque style with the help of Italian painter Giuseppe Castiglione and French missionary Michel Benoist. Construction was completed in 1759. The area featured several pavilions, fountains and even a maze. The buildings incorporated Chinese style in their architecture. In 1860, the Allies also burned and destroyed the grounds. Since many of the pillars and floors were stone, they survived to an extent.

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It was neat to walk the different sites with collapsed and cracked pillars, blocks statues and tiles. The carvings in them still survived. Conservation wasn't at the forefront of the government's mind as all visitors were allowed to walk around and through the ruins, given that they paid the admission fee. Some of the fountains still retained their shapes. There were bronze zodiac animal statues on display too.

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As the sun set, we tackled the maze. The walls were below eye level so we could see most of the layout, but that didn't make it too much easier. A Chinese man helped point out the way to us so we could reach the stone, dome roofed pavilion before complete darkness. We took a few pictures before running back through the park and to the subway.

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We followed directions from the Lama Temple stop to find a hutong area, which was the term for the old alleyway style streets that used to be more dominant in Beijing until urbanization took over. Now they became pieces of protected nostalgic pieces of history and by the looks of this one, a trendy hipster neighbourhood. We found Veggie Table down there, a vegetarian place our guidebook had recommended. The prices were a bit high but I was pretty excited to be able to order essentially anything off the menu. I chose hummus and a chili while Ryan went for a veggie burger. The atmosphere was nice and relaxing, like a trendy bookstore.

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Hutong exploration continued past souvenir shops, trendy bars - even a vampire themed one - and international restaurants including mouth watering Greek food. Ryan's eyes went wide and we agreed to come back to the area. Someone had even built a Christmas tree out of green beer bottles that many stopped to photograph. It felt like Osborne village.

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We came across a paint-your-own-cat store. Ryan was flabbergasted and quite entertained with the idea of people bringing in their cats in on a leash to be commemorated by portraiture. How would they stay still enough? It wasn't until I pointed out the ceramic cats, that he realized the store's true intention. He insisted his idea was better. Perhaps he'll open up a branch in Winnipeg. My initial interpretation of his statement was that people would slap a coat of paint on their poor cats. It's probably good both of us were wrong.

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Posted by Sarah.M 00:56 Archived in China Tagged ruins palace lake china summer beijing fishermen frozen allies boxer rebellion paintcat rebuilt Comments (0)

Jiuzhaigou National Park: Beauty and Madness

semi-overcast 8 °C

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The next morning, we were up early enough and since it was so cold, for China, we waited until the sun went up. As we walked down to the park, we passed several Chinese tour groups. We managed to use our students cards at the admissions office to get a great discount. It was nice considering it was mandatory to pay for the bus in addition to admission.

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The bus took us all the way up to the top of the trail and played a movie in Mandarin about the park with English subtitles. Our attention was torn between that and the beautiful lakes, rivers and waterfalls on either side of us. Leaves had all fallen, hence the drastically low off-season prices, but the waters still retained vibrant colours and were abundant in nature.

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Using our map, we tried to walk up to Swan Lake but a woman started yelling at us and another Chinese man who we had initially followed. They hadn't posted anything in English or in pictures and there was nothing clearly marking it off. How were we to know?

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Instead, we joined the hoards of Chinese tourists walking down the narrow wooden walkways across Arrow Bamboo Lake. The walkways were scarcely wide enough to accommodate those who wanted to marvel at nature along with those who needed a picture to prove they had been there every five to ten feet. We didn't know what they'd ever do with so many pictures of themselves.

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We could understand why they wanted to be in at least one photo. To the North sat beautiful snow-capped mountains. The lake was quite calm and almost glass-like in appearance. The water stayed so cold that logs that fell in couldn't decompose due to lack of bacteria. We could see them sitting beneath the surface through the clear water.

The walkway reached the opposite site of the lake and to our good fortune, the masses of people thinned out. The ones who were still there had a similar walk the park goal to us so we all could move, occasionally stopping for stunning photos.

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The lake grew more greeny-blue as we walked toward Panda Falls: a moderately slippery area due to the moisture and droplets partially freezing on the boardwalks. The falls spanned quite far and we walked a few different boardwalks with care to see them. We posed for a few pictures with Chinese tourists as well which was fun. The walk did get slowed a fair bit by people constantly stopping to take their selfies with or without the strange selfie sticks.

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At that point, our walk came to an end as the park staff had barricaded the next path and we were forced to line up and hop on one of the buses. It was because of fire prevention. Apparently people couldn't control their smoking habits. On a weekend with thousands in the park, boarding buses wasn't the easiest task. We made it on the second cramped bus to my surprise and jumped off as soon as they'd let us.

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We visited Five Flower Lake, which featured different tones of blue and green in its water. Most of the lakes in the park were quite shallow, maybe five meters deep, fluctuating with the seasons. We found a nice quiet spot to sit and enjoy the rest of our Guilin pomelo instead of all the instant snacks and meals for sale. The hot water poured in the instant noodle soups and coffees did make our cold hands and feet envious though.

Our walk continued past Golden Bell Lake and to the remarkable Pearl Waterfalls. Initially, we crossed to the opposite side and went down a pretty relaxed staircase positively excited at the lack of tourists. Then we saw the sign for waterfalls on the opposite side of the river and soon found out that people had sought out the better view. There was still no complaining on either side though as every angle was remarkable.

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We followed the signs and were blown away by the tall and wide waterfalls along the whole walkway. Green moss gleamed in the sun. The park had a platform and tourist area at the most impressive section so we took another snack break there.

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The path got cut off again just before Mirror Lake. People were far less civilized at this stop, pushing like mad in the lines. Our backpacks got pulled and stuck as everyone tried to vie for a spot. Other people thought they could push everyone aside. Elbows were required just to stand your ground. I feared for the poor small children who could easily be hurt in the madness. Some parents had sat them on their shoulders. Ryan commented that cattle were better behaved than this group. We tried to understand that in a society where there were so many people, you did have to fight for resources and to get what you wanted, but this was too far. Our spirits weren't so high after that ride.

We got off the bus at a transfer point and after some closed off paths, souvenir shops and nearly giving up, we found Nuorilang Falls, smaller than the last but still impressive. They were a bit more chill in relation to tourist numbers. We kept going to Rhinoceros and Tiger Lakes, and past Shuzheng Falls to find more blocked off paths.

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We finished off with Shuzheng Stockade, an empty Tibetan village converted into tourist gift shops. They sold a lot of yak meat and products along with the standard tourist fare. They had a temple with cylinders that people spun for good luck and many stupas. There were also colourful flags hanging near the mountain backdrop.

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We caught the bus back with familiar pandemonium. At least there was a staff member or two there to manage it this time. As it drove the path back to the entrance, we saw a nice long uninterrupted walking path out the window, but we were to tired and frustrated with the whole bus ordeal to want to get off and risk fighting the crowds again. We'd also seen a lot of lakes and waterfalls that day. It was time for a rest.

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For supper, we found a local restaurant with a menu quite similar to yesterday's. I came armed with my Mandarin book to avoid having to pick meat out of my food again. We had potatoes and cold fungus, which was actually much tastier than it sounded. The mushrooms out there were rich in flavour although the texture reminded me of a jellyfish.

Posted by Sarah.M 16:42 Archived in China Tagged bridges lake china crowds waterfall sichuan jiuzhaigou Comments (0)

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