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Trekking to Tungsan

After delaying our trek a day, we were finally ready to depart, not until after one more tasty breakfast buffet. They had veggie tempura this morning to add to their selection. Five of us set off on a trek with our guide Kham Lu who was from a nearby Shan village. One man in our group was from Edinburgh, Scotland and the other women were from the Netherlands.

Kham Lu explained the shrines once our tuktuk reached the rural roads. Every village had a Buddhist shrine and a Nat shrine. Nats were spirits and could be guardians of the village. People worshipped there twice a month and to the Buddhist shrine twice a day. The nat shrines often had horse and elephant statues because the nats also liked to travel.


We passed a fair amount of agriculture including corn, soya beans and tomato grown by the Shan people. Two woman picked herbs by the stream for cooking. Some farmers would rent out their land to Chinese farmers so that they could grow watermelon to ship back to China. Some village women would get married off to the Chinese men and move to China. Some visited afterward but Kham Lu couldn't tell if they were happy or not. Another foreign initiative was an oil pipeline that stretched from China to the Yangon area. It was still under construction, going through the fields and near the road.


Kham Lu taught us hello (mày sǔng khaa) and thank you (possibly: sǔng khaa or ngín cóm) in Shan which both ended in ka like in Thai. The two languages were similar as Shan people (known as Tai elsewhere) also resided in Thailand. There are also some faint similarities to Cantonese because it's a Sino-Thai language.

As we passed the villages, we noticed small hydro operations to power a few houses. They also had cheap Chinese solar panels they'd connect to a car battery to power their lights and maybe one other device. For a country many claim is like a time vacuum, they're using alternative energy well enough.


The road we walked on had just opened and Kham Lu expected it to be paved one day. The bridge was new as well. The villagers had collected enough money to finance it, likely using profits from selling a big teak tree whose trunk we saw. There were few regulations on cutting them down unlike in Thailand where you needed official permission.

We stopped at a small shop and shared spicy chips, some kind of corn puffs and dried noodles. In the home/store, the owner had pictures of her visits to important sites like Shwedagon in Yangon and Golden Rock. A kitten came to sit on our laps and was quite reluctant to let me leave.

There was quite a bit of uphill trekking in the harsh sun that followed. We went through plenty of water and took our own breaks since no one else was stopping. It didn't help that I was feeling a bit sick like I was catching a cold. Ryan offered to carry my bag for part of the trek.

Finally we made it to Pankam village for lunch in a wooden home/homestay that Kham Lu said that Mr. Charles hikes used a lot. He also had a few negative things to say about them that we weren't sure we believed.


Lunch was pretty good and vegetarian friendly after I asked about the dishes. There was an egg dish, green leaf dish, mixed fried veggies and some dried and spiced soy bean that wasn't my favourite. The rest and tea were nice to have.

We explored the town including the tea steaming and drying area that most farmers used as it was the Palaung's primary crop. They could harvest each plant every fifteen days then process it. Dry tea fetched the highest price, but during wet season they couldn't dry it and it fetched a lower price. The average farmer earned about 3,000 kyat a day, equivalent to $3 US, which is sometimes the price we pay for a meal out here.


At the school, we greeted some children with another greeting we'd learned "Chumsa!" In the small rectangular room, four teachers occupied the corners with their uniformed students. One taught English vocabulary, another Math and Burmese. They had white boards and paper booklets to write in unlike the slates of the South. There were a few English posters on the walls too.

The children ran up to question us with stock phrases: where are you from? Are you happy in Burma? How old are you? Kham Lu brought me over to speak with one of the teachers who had moved her classroom outdoors. When I asked her if she was from this village or another one, she froze up and couldn't speak. I should have just asked a simple question. Kham Lu translated for me and explained they got quite nervous.


Kham Lu insisted that I teach the students something. The Scottish man jumped in with Ring around the Roses which had a different tune and lyrics than the one we grew up with in Canada. I got an idea and taught the students If you're happy and you know it as well as head and shoulders, which they'd done before. Interacting with them, it was easy to see their learning had be rote as they didn't respond to questions or prompts, just repeated what I said. It was still fun and they kept wanting to repeat the songs.


The afternoon walk was shorter and we arrived in Tungsan before nightfall. Another group including the German and French guys from the waterfall were there. We even got rooms to sleep in with floor mattresses, walls and a door that we could lock, no lights though. The wash station was a bucket but it was still nice to rinse off a bit.


We went on a walk through the village to the monastery. Many homes had metal roofs and some thicker walls. At the monastery, one American man quite adamantly defended his belief that road lines created inefficient and worse drivers. He wanted the freedom to pass when he wanted no matter any of our arguments.

The Dutch women gave their cameras to some of the village children to take photos with. They said that they'd done it in Vietnam and it was great. One of the woman had done her international development studies placement out there, working at times as a teacher. She'd travelled Vietnam after that too.

Supper was tasty with two pumpkin dishes, one regular and the other white and a touch more bitter. We also had some kind of tofu chip with tasty tomato garlic spice dip and tea leaf salad that had more crispy goodness than bitterness. Of course we had tea as well.

We played cards the rest of the night with Kham Lu, the guide from Mr. Charles guesthouse and a man from the house we were staying at. Kham Lu didn't like losing and some funny rules would pop up only to be vetoed by logic. It was still quite fun. The guides were a bit sad when they realized they wouldn't be able to purchase Uno games in their country. I almost wanted to pick one up in Malaysia and mail it back to them, if only it would get to them.

Posted by Sarah.M 08:44 Archived in Myanmar Tagged trek village china school shan pankam hsipaw pipeline tungsan Comments (0)

The road to Jiuzhaigou

sunny 15 °C

A decent bus ride away from Chengdu was the picturesque Jiuzhaigou National Park that Ryan had seen on the documentary Wild China. When we realized how close it was to us, only ten hours by bus, we booked tickets and set off on our journey.


It wasn't that easy though to get to the station that morning. The local bus to the metro took much longer than we anticipated. The washrooms at the metro used the worst cueing system for their co-ed washrooms and I got cut twice even though I was at the front of the line so I gave up and ran back to buy the tokens. The ride seemed to take forever as anything did when you cut it that close.

Once we got off at the metro, we conveniently used the wrong exit based on my intuition and ended up at the local bus terminal instead of the long distance. We ran down the road and across a parking lot to finally reach the right spot with seven or eight minutes to spare. There was finally a washroom as well with a much shorter line-up. I even managed to board the bus before it started to drive away this time.


The drive itself was quite remarkable when we weren't going through tunnel after tunnel and I silently hoped there wouldn't be an earthquake. The architecture in the villages changed from the traditional Chinese mixed with modern that we had seen so far. Buildings in the mountains became more rectangular in nature and the roofs had right angle triangles at the corner, almost like a castle. Some homes were white and had a design in brown or red painted on near the roof.


We neared Tibet and this was as close as we were going to get without needing a permit. It showed in the colourful flags that climbed the hillsides or descended from the tops of the white and gold stupas in town. There were dome structures as well as fluffy yaks tied up for tourist photos.
The towns closer to the park featured dark brick buildings with flat roofs that made us feel like we'd entered a town from the middle ages. There were even watchtowers. It would have been worth it to find a tour, bus or drive on our own so we could stop and visit a few more of the towns to explore.

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We did stop for lunch where I was blown away by the selection for vegetarians: crispy tofu, eggplant in tasty sauce, fries, garlic cucumber, bean sprouts with noodles and the only one I didn't care for was the vegetable with cilantro. Since it was buffet style, I tried them all. I had to eat quickly since I spent half the time taking pictures since I assumed they'd have little for me to consume. They had meat fare as well, but I enjoyed my veggie heaven. Ryan had a few bites but still wasn't feeling a hundred percent.

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The bus stopped at random places and tried to let us off early. We declined since we needed the bus station as our landmark to find our way. Our brains wouldn't be flexible. Another passenger helped us get off at the right place and after 20 minutes of walking uphill with our bags (perhaps getting off early wouldn't have been the worst thing) we found the Angeline Hotel.


We had booked it online and judging by the prices they had posted in their lobby, serious bargaining was required to get from their posted 600 for a double room to the 160 we were paying for it. It seemed nice with a chandelier and Tibet-style flags coming down from the fourth floor. All the reviews had ranted about the chilly dorms on the roofs so we spent a little more reserving a double room inside the building which had heat, a hot shower and was reasonably nice. It even had a plug in the sink to get laundry done. We couldn't ask for much more, except maybe a more vegetarian supper. It wasn't not too fun picking the meat out of my noodle dish, especially when its tiny and shredded.


Posted by Sarah.M 15:03 Archived in China Tagged food park village national highway long drive sichuan vegetarian jiuzhaigou medival Comments (0)


Kartst, bikes, and river rafts

overcast 26 °C


Arriving in Yangshuo wouldn't be complete without the standard terrifying bus ride, complete with horn blaring and ultra-aggressive driving. It didn't help that it was only a two lane road most of the way. Once we arrived, we followed the directions that the guesthouse had given us. It was only 2kms from downtown, which didn't seem too bad at the time. Unfortunately, the bus station was far more than 2kms from the downtown. There were plenty of tourist maps on billboards to follow to the Li River where large karst formations stood in the background, quickly fading as the sun set. We continued down the long yellow corridor and onto pitch black dirt roads. Luckily, Ryan had his flashlight.

In the end, we walked nearly an hour with our heavy bags, to make it to this little guesthouse in the countryside. It would only be fitting that the signs were poorly mapped and that another tourist couple had to give us directions to the cozy garden. When we arrived, it was indeed cozy with a nice porch in front, relaxing lobby and warm colours. They even had Lonely Planet China. Our room on the fourth floor was like staying in a hotel: soft cushy bed, A/C, towels, soap dispensers and even toilet paper (rare for China). It was a welcome change from the rice terraces.

Supper across the street at their sister hostel was pretty delicious. I had one of their recommended dishes, dragon eggplant that had a spicy, sweet and salty sauce and peppers. Ryan had a chicken burger and fries that he quite enjoyed as well. Back at the hostel, the women at the front, who spoke wonderful English, helped us plan out our day for tomorrow and luckily for us, everything was able to be booked on a whim.

In the morning, the fog covering the spectacular view from our fourth floor window concerned us a bit. We went downstairs to take part in the do-it-yourself breakfast that offered a fully equipped kitchen, eggs, tomatoes, toast, jam, tea, coffee, milk, yogurt all for about four dollars each. The jasmine tea alone made it worth the price, at least for me. It was nice to make something for ourselves for a change as well instead of being restaurant dwelling bums.

The fog remained after breakfast, so we postponed our plans to go rafting on the Li river until the afternoon and chose to do our cycle earlier. With the hot temperatures here, 25-28 degrees, that would probably be more agreeable too. The guesthouse rented us bikes that almost functioned and even gave us a picture book of directions to follow for their countryside cycle to Dragon Bridge. The bikes had really squeaky brakes and trying to switch gears was up to the bike's discretion, although I appreciated the fact that they actually had gears.


The mostly peaceful bike ride took us past fields of rice and mandarin trees. Some were still covered up with plastic, probably to protect them from the cooler temperatures at night. We passed a colourful elementary school, went through village back alleyways, past chickens, dogs and farmers. There were some crumbled brick buildings too, just past their prime.


After being treated to minimal traffic other than motorbikes and the occasional van, we had to go onto the main highway for about 3kms to reach what Ryan referred to as the embroidered rock. He had been reading up on some interesting Chengdu museums with embroidered balls the night before, and was seeing the word everywhere. The ride was alright for the most part, except for the horn-happy tour buses that took up most of the road. Thankfully, 3kms wasn't that far on a bike.


The next villages had more apartment buildings, not much bigger than three or four stories and a relaxing downhill stretch. Just past a bamboo patch, the village turned back to open fields and we soon glimpsed the Yulong river. Locals paddled bamboo rafts with tourists sitting to take in the view of the not so far off karst rock formations.


We reached Dragon Bridge after passing through one more village. We could tell immediately based on the number of souvenir and food vendors along with ladies asking us if we wanted a raft tour. We'd already arranged ours on the Li Jiang river so we declined. We walked around to take pictures and I munched on a cheap and tasty cob of corn while Ryan laughed.


The photos we took didn't really do the plant-covered bridge justice as the riverbanks were too crowded with vegetation and buildings to offer a clear vantage point. We also made the executive decision to skip the optional bridge in the interest of making it to the bus station to go rafting on time. It would have been neat if we had an extra hour to be on the safe side.


On our map, there seemed to be a smaller road that followed the river and could keep us off the highway. Maybe it did exist, but instead we found a really bumpy road with a dead end that cost us twenty of our a hundred and twenty minutes. Not wanting to get lost again, we opted for the main busy road. Ryan asked every local he saw for directions, just to make sure we were on the right path. That beautiful downhill section on the way in was a killer walk in the midday heat, since my bike decided to go into first gear right after I had climbed the whole thing.


With just over an hour left, making minimal progress we found the eroded rock to mark our entrance to the main road. I had my doubts that we'd make it, but forty five minutes of intense cycling -- at least fifteen of those spent coasting on downhill sections, three through a dusty tunnel -- proved that the feat was possible and we had time to spare. We might not have been the most desirable people to sit next to on a confined bus space to Xingping village.

The ride was relaxing after that. We stopped in one village to pick up more parcels than a UPS truck for about ten minutes, including large bags of rice, and then a few stops later, we made it to the village. A woman from the boat tour met us at the bus station. When I went to use their washrooms, not only were they squatters, they also only had half-walls without any kind of door. It really made you realize that everyone is there for the same reason no matter how you dress it up. We had a long walk to the boats after that.

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The bamboo rafts here weren't the authentic ones we saw on the other river. These were made of thick PVC pipe and painted to look like bamboo. The boats ran by motor power instead of manpower and the sheer number made me cringe for the environment. I felt a little bad boarding one, considering we had paid a higher price just to get it to ourselves, because we were tourists and weren't offered the alternative.


The first view was the one on the 20 yuen bill of the karst hills. The driver pulled out bill to show us the resemblance. I could understand why they'd put such a nice scene on their money. The landscape continued, big and small peaks, some treed and others bare. The shadows in the distance soon became more peaks as our boat chugged along.


A migraine didn't help the boat situation. I knew I should have been enjoying the spectacular views with caves, karst, greenery, water buffalo, but I was ready to go back to the guesthouse, without the dreaded bike ride. Ryan gave me an Advil, water and we eventually found a washroom on an island. I was happy to pay for the little metal shack as long as it came with a door.


The ride back was far more enjoyable and we took some more pictures. The morning fog had cleared and we could see much better now. Most of the other bamboo boats had gone back too so the noise was reduced. We got a little lost in town after a free ride in their electric car shuttles, bus eventually found the bus station and made our way back to Yangshuo.


Once there, we were not looking forward to the crazy cycle back. We looked around at restaurants until we found one with some affordable dishes that we both wanted to eat. I ordered some spicy beans as well a very basic fried rice. Ryan ordered some sweet and sour chicken that came on the bone. After a few pieces he noticed the chicken was pink and stopped eating it. We tackled the fried beans instead, which sadly came with meat, meaning I had to pick it all off and inspect each piece. The fried rice was meat-free though.

We went into a travel shop in hopes of buying the train tickets that the train station wouldn't sell us in advance yesterday. Must be bought two days in advance, no more. In the shop, the woman was playing on her phone so we waited there until she acknowledged us as most employees who value their job would. Instead she kept playing on her phone and when we didn't leave, she got up and sat on a street bench to make a phone call without even looking at us. Sorry for disturbing your social life. It astounds me how some people still have jobs with work ethic like that.

We rode back to the guesthouse in the dark, but made it there quickly. The women at the front desk there actually helped us figure out that there were 13 train tickets left to Chengdu and if we went to another hotel earlier in the morning, we just might be able to get them. I really hoped that we could.


Posted by Sarah.M 16:54 Archived in China Tagged trees village corn bike chicken bamboo raft yangshuo karst mandarin dragonbridge Comments (0)

Longji Rice terraces

semi-overcast 14 °C

The next morning, we slept in and had breakfast at the hostel. We could see the beautiful harvested terraces out the window in the lobby area. Cats wandered in and out of the front door, leaving rodent treats for their owners. The hostel girls weren't too impressed. Construction rang out next door.
We used the free map to plan out our day of visiting the sights at Ping'an village and maybe the neighbouring one with the oldest rice terraces. The girl working at the front confirmed that it was possible to do.


We started up toward the viewpoint of the Nine Dragons and Five Tigers. I wasn't sure I could do the whole hike with the uphill sections not letting up, but we eventually made it to the top. The view was pretty incredible every time we took a break. Our cameras got no rest during that climb.
The first crop of rice had been harvested and now the second crop was coming in slowly. Many of the terraces in this area were flooded, giving the spectacular views for miles. An impressive irrigation system was in place to transport water from one terrace to another via a dug channel or bamboo or cement open pathways. Small streams ran down the side of the rock path.

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At the viewpoint, the flooded terraces blended, one curve into another. Even with the overcast sky, the reflection still gleamed. A man at one of the shops at the top offered to take our picture with the Nine Dragons view in the back and we took him up on the offer. He had clearly done that a few times before. It was a bit odd to see the commercial shops up at the top of these beautiful terraces, although the terraces weren't naturally occurring either.

We walked to the next view point Seven Stars with the Moon, which took a bit longer than our first climb, maybe an hour. The green terraces rewarded our efforts along the now mainly flat trek. We passed larger bamboo forest as well as bamboo chopped and split in half that showed off the different segments.
This viewpoint had more shops and restaurants that the previous one had had, but luckily, there were enough Chinese tourists ahead of us to keep the vendors occupied. Some of the women would pay to get dressed up in ethnic-wear from the local tribes, like the Yao with a reputation for their incredibly long hair, and take pictures at the viewpoints.


The visibility was starting to improve, the fog lifting and almost showing the mountains opposite us. We continued down the path to Old Zhuang village where the first rice terraces were a hundred or more years ago during the Qing dynasty. Our first attempt at reaching it got interrupted by us taking a random turn to marvel at more terraces at our level, but we soon realized the path would take us back to Ping'an, the village where we were staying.


The real walk to Zhuang was pretty short and each viewpoint required a fair number of stairs. We walked on many concrete stairs and narrow paths through the village a bit to find the second viewpoint. There would be no way to bring a car up to any of these points which was why we saw everything hauled by people or animals. Chickens wandered the paths and dogs too. I couldn't help but pet an adorable one on the way down.


We finally found the second viewpoint, a bit trickier when half the signs were uprooted and lying on the ground and we had to pick them up, reorient them and then find our way. The views again were nice, but I think the ones near Ping'an were probably the best.

The way back to the hostel was equally tricky. From our entrance point last night, we thought the town was small, but from the other side, hundreds of hotels, restaurants and other wooden/concrete buildings crawled the hillside. As we walked by, many had been locked up or were under construction. I read that during peak season, this village could hold up to 6,000 guests. A far cry from the current maybe hundred around in mid November.


Eventually after climbing and descending many staircases, we found the road with some construction that we had walked up yesterday and we followed it down to the hostel. It was quite the trek yesterday, looking at it in the daylight. It was crazy how the body could just power through.
We settled in for a late lunch/early supper. I tried veggies and mushrooms, since they had such flavourful mushrooms around here but wished there were more of those and less greens. Ryan had his heart set on the sweet and sour pork (off the western food menu) as a French woman had recommended it to us yesterday.

Posted by Sarah.M 18:30 Archived in China Tagged dog village rice hike terrace longji zhuong Comments (1)

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