Home to one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on Earth, the underwater world of Raja Ampat is a dream for snorkelers and divers alike. Below you can find some pictures of the incredible marine life we spotted while snorkeling off the island of Batanta.
Read on for a poem by Kate:
we’ve been out
for an hour.
We push up
one more look.
Gear back in place,
we duck under.
Is my mask fogged?
A parade of parrot
fish stretches across
the reef’s drop-off, crunching coral.
They weave in and out
of one another, grazing,
creating clouds of sand that drift
up to shore creating
with swaying palms and birdsong.
We gaze at the school, mesmerized
by their elephantine mass, while
their colorful cousins
the size of our
The stampede swims out to the depths
as we turn to swim inland.
If you’re wondering how to get to paradise, you should know that getting there is not quite as easy as being there. For us, the process was as follows:
Schedule a doctor’s appointment to get malaria medication and begin taking it several days prior to the trip
If you’re leaving in winter, are far away from an airport and trying to take as little as possible with you to the tropical destination (as we were), stave off frost bite as you spend an entire day commuting to the airport in freezing temperatures wearing nothing but jeans and a light sweater
Board a plane for Indonesia
Spend a week or two traveling around the country (optional, but recommended)
Take a red eye flight to Sorong after spending the night on an airport bench under the glow of a television screen airing coverage of the CrossFit Games
Arrive in Sorong and haggle with a taxi driver to take you to the ferry dock
Buy ferry tickets and board the cramped, liberally air-conditioned cabin for Waisai
Shiver to stay warm for the hour-long ride all the while listening to and watching the offensively bad Indonesian pop music videos on the cabin’s TV
Arrive in Waisai and wait in line for an hour to pay $70 for a permit to enter said paradise
Take an hour-long motorboat ride across choppy waters with no shaded protection from the sun overhead
Arrive in paradise
Are there more convenient routes to take there? Probably, but this was the one available to us and, as we would quickly find, the hassle of getting to paradise is a worthwhile price to pay.
While the collective idea of paradise, uninhabited beaches on remote islands void of responsibility and stress, has many representatives around the world, ours was located in Batanta, one of the four islands the make up Raja Ampat, or four kings, a Papuan archipelago lying at the easternmost edge of Indonesia.
For many visitors to Raja Ampat, accommodation comes in the form of a homestay, which usually consists of one to several bungalows lying on the beach or overtop the ocean itself, most of which are owned and operated by locals. Choosing to go the traditional route, we stayed at Yenaduak Homestay, which was run by a man named Sam and consisted of four bungalows that lied within ten yards of the ocean. Having seen pictures of similar scenes on postcards and in magazines for most of our life and assuming them to be unattainable, we were surprised at times to find ourselves actually staying in such a place.
The thatched bungalow consisted of a bed, one small table and a bathroom with a seatless toilet that also functioned as a sink. To flush, we would have to use a ladle to wash the toilet’s contents through its pipes. The ladle also served as our shower and, since the color of the ground water that filled it looked murkier than the contents of the toilet bowl at most times, we made the easy decision to forego showers for our week’s stay.
While far removed from anyone’s idea of luxury, we found the bungalow to be perfect, an idea furthered by its other feature, a front porch equipped with a hammock and two chairs that would bear the brunt of our lethargy during the lazy mornings and afternoons that are an inevitable byproduct of being on a remote island with no internet connection or phone signal.
The paradisiacal setting wasn’t the only reason people, us included, travel to the islands of Raja Ampat though for, as serene as the above water setting might be, what lies under it can’t be seen anywhere else on Earth. Home to 75% of the world’s coral species and over 1,500 different species of fish, the underwater world of Raja Ampat is one of the richest biodiverse ecosystems anywhere on Earth. Being lovers of snorkeling and aware that finding beautiful and intact coral reefs will be increasingly more difficult in the future we were eager to visit what many snorkelers and divers call the best place in the world for both.
So, with plenty to keep us busy below the ocean and plenty of lazy pursuits lying above it, our time on the island, while limited, was always well spent. A typical day went as follows:
Occasionally we would break from routine to explore the reaches of the shore:
Apart from exploring the immediate surroundings of our homestay, we would also go on a few of the excellent tours that Sam offered guests. The first was to see Wilson’s bird-of-paradise. Never having gone bird watching before, we had a naive pie-in-the-sky picture in our minds of what it would be: the now laughable image of casually strolling through the jungle while birds of all colors and sizes swooped overhead and perched themselves on nearby branches for our enjoyment. Our first indication that it would not be so easy was when Sam told us that we would be leaving for the tour at 3:30 the next morning so that we could get to the lookout in the cover of dark without the birds seeing us.
After waking up at 3:00, having considerable debate about which clothes to wear, and boarding the boat which nearly tipped over a couple of times as everyone got situated, we were on our way. It was slow goings at first as we had to maneuver around the coral reef that boxed the bungalows in to the island. One thing we really liked about Sam and his family was that they always took precautionary measures to make sure that the boat and motor weren’t running over the reef and damaging it. In the pre-dawn darkness, this meant pulling up the motor, using a flashlight to see where the coral was, and then using a long stick placed where the coral wasn’t to push the boat out to sea. Once the reef dropped off, Sam put down the motor and sped away.
With nothing much to look at other than the faint outlines of islands standing against the nighttime sky, our attention turned to the water below, whose unwavering blackness was interrupted by the fluorescent glow of tiny jellyfish which speckled the water. There are many times when the ocean emulates the sky above it, but this was the first time we had experienced it doing so at night, the hundreds of jellyfish illuminating the black water much in the same way the stars do the sky.
As the world brightened, the glow of the jellyfish faded and our attention shifted to the scenery above water. Surrounding us were a handful of islands which sat sleepily behind clouds of mist that were much more vigorous in their early morning pursuits as they hurriedly pushed past the islands in route to blending into the overcast sky above. On the shores of one of these islands our boat would finally slow to a creeping pace as we floated inland, past groves of trees that marked the fringes of the island’s reach into the ocean. The trees, whose exposed and gnarled roots clawed menacingly out of sight into the water below, created an eerie setting when paired with the gloominess of pre-dawn.
As our boat approached a mound of gloppy mud that marked the inner-island’s shore, we emphatically disembarked and began a mad march through the jungle in a race against the sunrise. As we traipsed through swampy patches of earth and pushed through fields of reeds that stretched up to our waists, we were thankful that our wardrobe choice earlier in the morning included hiking boots and long sleeves, both of which we deemed essential totraverse the dark and wet jungle. Our adventurous spirits were put to shame though as we looked ahead to Sam who was walking barefoot over the broken twigs and jagged rocks scattered about the ground and wearing nothing more than a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, which he would later remove. In the Darwinian image of survival, Sam was most definitely the fittest.
The end of our trek was marked by a climb up a steep and muddy hill where we used trees and vines to pull ourselves up to the lookout – a collection of tattered boards lying behind an equally tattered screen meant to keep us hidden from the elusive bird of paradise. As we climbed onto the wet and muddy boards, a couple of which snapped in two while walking across them, Sam gave us some leaves to sit on while we waited for the bird, which was far from a guarantee. Luckily for us, Sam was quite experienced at eliciting the presence of the bird which he did by the almost comically simplistic task of tossing a couple of wet, brown leaves onto the wet, brown earth in front of the screen. Wondering if a trick had been played on us at first, we were quickly applauding the technique as the cartoonishly colorful bird swooped down and began clearing the leaves away. The male birds, as it turns out, are known for setting up their own display courts on the jungle floor where they perform dances for potential suitors. As a dirty court could spell doom for a bird’s chances at securing a mate, they work tirelessly to keep them clear of debris which explained the irritation and immediate rebuttal of Sam’s having made a mess in this particular bird’s court.
Despite our close proximity to the court, the bird still managed to prove elusive as our line of vision was often hindered or blocked entirely by the screen in front of us. Still though, we luckily managed to get a couple of photos of the brilliant bird which we were surprised to find out later only existed on this and one other island in Raja Ampat and was quite rare to see in the wild.
Before going back to our homestay, Sam stopped off at another point on the island to show us a waterfall.
Apart from seeing Wilson’s bird-of-paradise and the waterfall, Sam would also take us to swim with manta rays and go on another, less fruitful, hornbill watching tour. Through our sporadic conversations with him over the course of the week, we learned that he originally worked in a mine with his brother. After the mine collapsed one day, killing his brother, Sam’s dad convinced him to take a safer job working at a resort. While sweeping leaves and picking up plastic that had washed ashore day after day, Sam would hang English words from trees and memorize them as he went back and forth clearing debris off the beach. Eventually, once he had an adequate level of English, he decided to open his own homestay which had expanded from one bungalow to four at the time of our staying there. As more people become aware of one of the last paradises on Earth, we hope that it can remain a paradise, where visitors support locals and everyone recognizes and respects the incredible wildlife that exists there.
Read on for a poem by Kate:
Musings from an Amateur Ornithologist II
Hidden between trees
in the shadowy dawn
rustles a millipede,
gliding over dry leaves,
serpentine, but for his baleen legs
swinging in tandem.
In the canopy,
a regal song rings out,
piercing the morning air
with its vibrato.
holding court in paradise,
flutters from branch to branch
dancing for us onlookers,
aware, yet determined to remain aloof.
A flash of red,
a glint of blue,
swooping to the ground,
then flying off to the latticework above,
leaving us awestruck,
reflecting on the privilege
of being granted an audience.
the thousand-legged jester
continues his crawl
across the forest floor.
When confronted with the wonders of nature, it becomes not at all surprising that it took humankind a few millennia to supplant religion with science. For, when face to face with the restless oceans, bottomless caves and capricious volcanoes of the world, one would be hard pressed to convince someone that behind the scope and fury of the nature in question was not an all-powerful and vengeful god but merely a case of natural phenomenon. It was with this thought in mind that we gazed out at the lakes of Kelimutu, which over the years have taken on any number of colors, from red to blue to green to white to brown and even black. That the lakes were passageways to the spiritual world, a belief traditionally held by locals, seemed much more likely an explanation than the fact that their otherworldly color was a result of“oxidation-reduction chemical dynamics” due to the underlying volcanic activity.
To see the lakes we would be staying overnight in Moni, a small town on the eastern-side of the Indonesian island of Flores. Our homestay, unassuming in its simplicity, would end up being one of our favorite places to stay during our time on the island and the whole of Indonesia for that matter. This was due partly to its quiet and welcoming setting, but mostly to the owner who, laid back and reggae-loving, embodied Moni. Our short stay there was highlighted by a wonderful dinner he prepared for us, which, we were told, was made from ingredients that he himself either grew or sourced locally. What surprised and impressed us most about this was that it didn’t seem like a business scheme, something he tells visitors to brand his establishment as eco-friendly, but rather what he truly believed in. It was with deep regret then that we would only be staying for one night, if not for giving business to someone who truly deserved it, then at least not for being able to enjoy another delicious meal.
Early the next morning we enthusiastically got dressed in a manner befitting of someone going to see a sunrise, for under no other circumstance could we ever be excited or spry after a 4:00 alarm. Once at the foot of the volcano, the incandescent reach of our smartphone’s flashlight, accompanied by a cloud of swarming gnats, guided our way up the dark and overgrown steps that led to the craters. At the top, a small collection of fellow crater-lake admirers had already gathered along with coffee and snack hawkers who, crouched and unmoving as the wind whistled and whipped around them, looked permanent in their perches around the viewing platform.
To describe the lakes themselves, the suffix of -ish becomes necessary for restricting their appearance to just one color would be a disservice to their uniqueness. Amidst the lifeless terrain of grays, browns and dull and darkened greens, the lakes, a pastel shade of bluish-green that would have looked much more at home in a paint can rather than a volcano crater, practically glowed. The sky above, a marbled gray, offered little hope of seeing a sunrise, though one wouldn’t be necessary as the beauty of the lakes made it difficult to imagine our attention being given to anything else.
As we marveled at the phenomenon, any number of fantastical explanations seemed plausible to explain the lakes. To us, they called to mind the magical contents of a cauldron, otherworldly in color with wisps of fog coiling off of them and up into the sky, making it seem like the lakes themselves were the steaming contents of a witch’s brew. For the local people of Moni, they believed the lakes to be a final resting place for departed souls, one for the elderly, one for the young, and one for the evil souls of the world.
With a driver waiting to take us back to the homestay and a trip to the nearby city of Ende still on the day’s agenda, we decided to bid the lakes farewell, returning through the deadened landscape to our awaiting transport back to a reality significantly less enchanting than the one we had just experienced.
Read on for a poem by Kate:
A Kelimutu Fairytale
Long ago in ages past
The sky liquified
and poured itself into craters.
Now it lies,
whispering breaths of steam
that float and morph
among ribbons of breeze.
A piece of rock breaks away
from the wall and tumbles
into the depths.
Sulphuric toxins wrap
around the rough edges,
acidic fingers dissolving
it as it submerges.
The surface is still
Pulled from the pages
of Brothers Grimm,
The lake is an ethereal queen
with a witch inside.
Mystified by tales of giant creatures roaming on one of the forgotten isles of the Indonesian archipelago, a group of intrepid filmmakers sets sail for the fabled land in hopes of capturing the beasts on film. So goes the plot of King Kong, and, while we most definitely would never have chosen Skull Island as a destination, we were planning to visit the island and creatures that inspired the 1933 classic to see not the oversized ape that starred in the movie, but rather a different giant and ancient creature that sparks fear and fascination: the Komodo dragon.
To see the dragons we would have to visit one of two islands (Komodo or Rinca) that make up the greater Komodo National Park. Our base for the visit, as there’s no accommodation on the islands themselves, was Labuan Bajo, a rusty port town situated on the westernmost point of Flores, one of more than 17,000 islands that make up the country of Indonesia. The town, as we would discover, was well-accustomed to the tourism scene being a popular stopover for holiday-goers in Bali. Hotels, dive shops, and tour operators crowded the town’s main street among the more surprising establishments like bakeries and Italian restaurants. Along the sidewalks, English-speaking locals functioned as walking advertisements, chatting up any tourist showing even the slightest amount of insecurity in hopes of securing a future client.
It was in this atmosphere that we discovered that finding a tour for the next day would not be a problem; finding one that fit our needs and budget however, would. After hearing sales pitch after sales pitch and having our requests for a tour be met with an enthusiastic “Yes!” followed by a shamelessly exaggerated price to a disgusted “No!” after which the operator returned to playing games on his phone, we finally settled on a place that neatly fit in the middle of those two responses, a reluctant and almost bothered “Okay” followed by a price estimate that we decided was only slightly ripping us off.
The next morning we were back at the shop which was running a group tour that morning as well. While waiting for our tour guide we met an Australian man who began chatting us up. Well into his fifties if not sixties, he was unapologetically boastful about his newfound relationship with a girl barely in her twenties whom he had met while wandering the streets and had paid heavily to show him around the town. Between sporadic and unnecessary reassurances of her beauty as he pointed a greedy, prizewinning finger towards a shadowy figure under a nearby street lamp, he told us of how he had paid for her to go on the tour with him that day and was in the process of getting her a job back in Australia to take her back home with him. Gathering that he had treaded from jolly vacationer looking for an authentic experience with a local to the much murkier waters of trying to secure a reluctant prostitute, we were quite glad that we wouldn’t be sharing a boat with him that day and hoped the best for the girl.
After our guide showed up, and we use the term “guide” very lightly as this came in the form of a high school student who was more ornamental in his accompaniment of us than guide-like, often trailing behind us in a pondering sort of walk that hinted at him thinking whether or not this was really worth getting a day off from school, we made our way to the boat dock past stalls of sleepy-eyed tour operators who clearly hadn’t secured any clients for that day, their heavy eyes trailing us regretfully as we paraded by.
Our boat, wooden and charming in its neon color scheme, was dwarfed by most other boats on the harbor, looking much more equipped to putter across a small pond than brave the testy ocean waters that had forced the harbor to close just a day earlier. As we peered closer at the boat, we found that our captain and his first mate (there was no second mate) were asleep on the deck. After a couple of half-hearted shouts from our guide, they promptly woke up and within minutes we were out on the ocean, beginning our three-hour journey towards Komodo National Park.
After being on the water for a short while and taking note of the pace at which our boat was moving towards the islands in the distance, eternity seemed like a more accurate time estimate than the already lengthy three hours. At times, it appeared we were even moving backwards, our boat losing the battle of progress between itself and the ocean, which swelled with pride as it moved past us and towards the coast. An incessant and deafening rat-a-tat-tat echoed out from the engine, an audial metaphor for the boat’s struggles to push back against the waves. As if the assault on one of our senses wasn’t enough, an inescapable cloud of gasoline fumes encompassed the entire boat for the duration of the journey. And yet, despite these inconveniences, the boat ride, all three hours of it, would end up being one of our favorite parts of the day. The journey was an enjoyable slow, the engine noises and gasoline smells were treated with fondness rather than scrutiny, and the views accompanying us on our trip were at all times breathtaking.
The scenery, grandiose and expansive, stretched out in the form of oceans and mountains and islands that, oddly enough given their scope, had a miniaturized feel to them. Perhaps what made it appear this way was the almost-artificial looking green that carpeted the smooth island peaks that always seemed to exist in the undefinable gray area between a hill and a mountain. Like the greenery of a toy train set, it appeared almost felt-like and if we could have reached out and touched it, and at times it felt as if we’d be able to easily enough, we imagined it would feel velveteen. In some cases the soft and smooth slopes gently slid into the ocean, disappearing beneath the ever-changing color and texture of the water, and in other cases it’s descent into the water was ended abruptly in the form of a cliff made up of a jagged, craggy rock face that heroically bore the brunt of the waves endlessly crashing into it.
While this scene and others that the island had to offer were captivating, our attention at times drifted towards the horizon where our eyes played tricks on us again as what we thought to be the faded outline of clouds jutting across the ocean would slowly materialize into mountains as we crept closer to them. Out of one of these mirages came our first stop: Padar Island, famous not for its reptilian inhabitants but for the sweeping views offered from its peaks.
After leaving Padar, we began making our way towards Rinca Island to see the Komodo Dragons. To visit the park you had to be accompanied by a park ranger and could choose between several hikes around the island varying in length. Our ranger welcomed us and introduced the park with all of the enthusiasm and routine of a theme park ride operator, spewing scripted facts about the island in a monotone, almost robotic fashion. After choosing the longest trek possible in hopes of it increasing our chances of seeing a dragon, the ranger nodded obligingly and took us to our first stop, the rangers shelters, where a worrisome gathering of dragons sat in waiting. Almost sedated looking as they basked in the midday heat, we quickly learned just how terrifying they could be after a loud noise coming from the nearby forest made them spring to life, gargoyles turning to the monsters you feared them to be. As they strutted and slithered menacingly about the grounds, we began to look at our ranger and his tool for fighting off a dragon should they attack: a “Y” shaped stick, with increasing dubiousness.
As we stood and watched the dragons slowly return to their sedentary state, our ranger, as if suffering from amnesia, deemed it necessary to tell us several times without being asked that they never feed the dragons and then posited that they must be lured to the shelters by cooking odors. “Ah, so they feed them,” we thought to ourselves. Eager to see ones in the wild (and not eager at the same time) we left the shelters to begin our trek across the island.
It didn’t take long for us to realize that we were traversing the same hillsides that had so enticed us during our boat ride to the park. Verdant and untouched, it was not at all difficult to imagine spotting a dinosaur munching on vegetation in the distance let alone Komodo dragons. Sadly though, our imaginations would have to suffice for both as for the duration of our hour and a half walk across the island, the ones perched outside the ranger shelters would end up being the only ones we’d see.
Sitting on our long boat ride back to Labuan Bajo, we had plenty of time to contemplate our time in the park. Disappointment at not seeing Komodo dragons on our trek came to mind first but then disappointment suggests an expectation to see such things. Too often in our travels we have witnessed and fell victim to the allure of seeing unique, wild animals through means that don’t keep them wild. Whether it be a parade of jeeps falling over themselves to box in a family of elephants in Sri Lanka or a fleet of boats dropping anchor in an already depleted coral reef in Vietnam, tour operators often pay no adherence to the protection and care of the wild animals that keep their operations afloat in the name of leaving a site with a satisfied customer. Like the filmmakers in King Kong, businesses and travelers alike can get greedy about the experiences and profit that wildlife can provide, but it’s important to remember that nature isn’t an entertainer and adheres to no schedule. Expecting it to do so is selfish and the only truly disappointing thing is that it took us until this trip to finally realize this. It was encouraging then to hear that the park would be closing sometime this year to allow dragon and deer populations to recover, a positive first step that hopefully turns into a long journey for the tourism industry and tourists alike towards a more sustainable relationship with nature.
Read on for a poem by Kate:
in the tropical heat
I scout out a sunny patch
to bathe in the rays,
creeping slowly to a shady bit
under the trees
when the sun begins
On this island
friends surround me.
I snap to attention
in unison with the throng.
Is it my next meal?
just a brick.
Thrown for the amusement
of the crowd of humans
that stands around
day after day watching
me and my bank
I get up and amble toward one
She jumps back in fear,
Just like the brick,
it works every time.
The word “mudflat” is not one that typically inspires images of beauty. In fact, upon hearing the word, you probably picture exactly what it’s name implies: a large expanse of flat land covered ingloppy mud, which, essentially, is what it is. Surround a mudflat with old fishing villages whose specialty is drying seaweed and the idea that a place like this could ever be considered beautiful now becomes almost laughable. It was to our surprise then that photos we saw of a place called the Xiapu Mudflats, a small coastal area in the north of China’s Fujian Province, could be some of the most unique and transfixing images we had ever seen. In the photos, thin layers of glinting water wove like veins over the mud, creating a tiger-like pattern over the earth. In the nearby ocean, a multitude of bamboo poles used for drying seaweed rose out of it like a dead forest. There were images of fisherman wielding strange devices and mist covered mountains looming in the distance. The mudflats, we decided almost immediately, were a place we most definitely had to see.
Our experience with them came on the morning of our first and, regrettably, only day in Xiapu. Not wanting to miss the much-hyped (for good reason) sunrises that were featured in so many of the images we had seen, we rose early and hired a taxi to take us to the nearby Beiqi Mudflats. After arriving at the site, we exited the taxi to complete darkness, the only source of light being the bobbing headlamps of fisherman making their way to the beach and a small food cart, conveniently perched alongside the path that led to the viewing platform. Walking past the food vendor and up the small hill, we eventually came upon a small group of people where we decided to stop and secure our spot for the sunrise.
As light began seeping out of the horizon, the features of the landscape before us slowly began to take shape; everything inhabited an eerie shade of blue. As more light made its way into the scene, the water transformed to a sheath of silver, its glassy finish being disrupted only by the ripples of fisherman wading knee-deep into the shallow ocean. The silver eventually lost its vibrancy and turned to such a degree of gray that we began to doubt whether or not the sun would make an appearance. Our worries were soon put to rest though when, about an hour and a half after we arrived, a sliver of orange peeked out over the mountains to cheers from the crowd which were soon followed by a uniform silence of admiration. Within minutes, the sun was fully in the sky and the water below was now golden. As we watched we knew, from that point on, that mudflat would be a word that we’d always associate with beauty.
Few things weigh more heavily on the success of a trip than…breakfast. Often the first dip of the toe into the cultural waters you have decided to immerse yourself in, the first breakfast can send you off with either a good taste in your mouth or bad (both figuratively and literally) about your chosen destination and the people who live there. As we set out for our first day in Luoyang, an ancient capital of China, we found ourselves having the better of the two experiences. On a gray and chilly morning, we mused about viewing the millennia-old grottoes, historic temples, and blossoming peonies that characterized the city over a bowl of steaming soup served out of a giant metal vat on the side of the street as people bustled about us, in a hurry to start their day. The waters, we thought to ourselves, would be just fine.
Hard hit by the struggles of China’s recent history, it became increasingly more difficult to imagine the glories of its ancient history as we made our way from our breakfast nook towards the Longmen grottoes.From the seat of our bus, we gazed out the window at the dreary spread of shabby-looking buildings as they passed by one by one. Occasionally, to our delight, a park would flicker by, a patch of fleeting green in the otherwise monotone spread of grays and browns whose lack of vibrancy was furthered by the dim light struggling through the stoic, overcast sky overhead. After nearly an hour on the bus, we finally arrived at the grottoes and exited to find ourselves in an area that in no way hinted that a UNESCO World Heritage Site was within reach but rather resembled a scene much like the one we had been witnessing for the duration of our bus ride.
Surely we were in the right place though, we thought, as tour buses lined the streets and a steady stream of people was moving off purposefully towards some unseen point in a manner that called to mind an ant colony crossing a sidewalk. Assuming the grottoes lay at the end of the stream, we promptly queued up and within minutes were at the entrance gates. So is the miracle of China, you can be walking down the most derelict street imaginable, turn the corner, and suddenly find yourself in a posh area feeling underdressed or, in our case, amidst a world-renowned tourist destination.
After purchasing our tickets and passing through the gate, it didn’t take long for us to come across the first carving we would see that day. Heavily eroded and barely bigger than the size of our palm, the three carvings sat humbly indented into the face of the mountain. If we had seen these at the end of our day at the grottoes, we most likely would have passed them by without a glance, but there is always something special about the initial sighting of something you’ve been eager to see. Like the first animal you come upon at the zoo, or first flower of spring, your first glimpse into the whole always seems to resonate more, before you sadly become desensitized to it all and seeing things like thousand-year-old cave carvings starts to feel normal. So was the case with this first one, in no way spectacular when compared to the others that we would see, but captivating all the same.
As we left that initial carving and walked on, the mountain took on the appearance of a honeycomb with countless man made caves of different shapes and sizes burrowing into its side. Their holdings, dark and mysterious from afar, came into focus with each step towards them. Cross-legged Buddhas, humble deities, and even the occasional monster emerged from the shadows, emanating an aura of peace and reverence that even the raucous Qing Ming Festival crowds adhered to.
Moving from cave to cave, we began to realize that the carvings we paid the most attention to were not the well-preserved ones, whose sharp features time had seemingly forgotten, but rather the heavily eroded ones.Within these, the separate carvings had all but lost their distinctness from one another, their individual traits disappearing into the marbled strokes of the mountain that ran through them, making them appear like one.
Sadly though, not all faded or impartial carvings that we would come across were due to erosion as some did not bear its smooth uniformity but rather jagged hack marks that were the result of the manic destruction of the Cultural Revolution. Signs welcoming visitors to the park claimed that the defaced statues were the results of natural processes but anyone with a sliver of common sense and knowledge of something that happened barely over fifty years ago could tell the difference between the two.In nearly every cave, we could count on finding at least one statue whose face or sometimes entire body was missing, symbols of peace reduced to reminders of the perils that ensue when fear and hatred of things outside one’s own belief system become the identity of a country.
As troubling as the defaced statues were, it was comforting to know that, in the end, the mindset that would have served to destroy every last one at the site did not prevail, and that the grottoes now draw people by the thousands and thousands to come see not the ugliness of the mangled statues, but the beauty of the preserved ones. Nowhere was the enthusiasm for the latter more evident than at the center of the mountain, where the carvings, stretching several stories high, were so large that they appeared to have emerged from the mountain rather than having been carved into it.
There, the crowds, as epic as the statues themselves, buzzed about the plaza that sat at the feet of the monumental effigies as police with loudspeakers reminded visitors to not stop and take pictures so as to keep the crowds funneling through. Like a game of Frogger, we wove through the fast paced tour groups, stationary selfie takers, and occasional wandering smartphone zombie to secure a spot at the feet of the statues.
Close enough to reach out and touch them, we could never shake the feeling of unattainability they possessed as we took in their every detail. Perhaps it was their height that made them seem this way as they towered well beyond the reach of our heads. Or perhaps it was their age, being carved in a time and place that we just couldn’t relate to. What we eventually determined made them so unattainable though was the thing that made them human: their eyes. While we could see them, we couldn’t meet them as their gaze stretched far above us and into the distant hills.In the end it was our ability to get so close to the statues yet feel so far removed from them that gave the site a sense of mystery and intrigue that kept us walking back and forth for several hours before finally deciding to call it a day.
To say that our hostel in Luoyang felt like a home would be pretty accurate given that it was quite literally a man’s apartment repurposed to hold four small rooms. The owner, who exhibited such relentless kindness so as to make one slightly suspicious, informed us on our first night in the hostel that his hip was fractured, a feat made impressive by the fact that he rode a motorbike to meet us at the bus stop in the pouring rain, walked with us up the seven flights of stairs that led to his apartment, and slept on a mat on the floor as all of the beds were full that night.He seemed to enjoy it though, chatting with the dozen or so guests inhabiting his apartment, being an armchair guide to the city, and waiting on everyone with as much spring in his step as a fractured hip could allow. On our second day, we asked how to get to Shaolin Temple, the famed birthplace of Kung Fu, but, after finding out it would be an over 6-hour round-trip journey to get there and back, we opted instead to visit White Horse Temple, the birthplace of Buddhism in China. Upon asking the hostel owner how to get there, he excitedly waved us to the kitchen where he unfolded a well-used map to show us the quickest route there.
If the Inuit have over fifty words to describe ice and snow, then it would only be appropriate for the Chinese to have an equally colorful array of terms to describe large crowds of people, one of which translates literally to “people mountain, people sea.” At no point is this arsenal of descriptors more useful than during Chinese holidays, when crowds mushroom to the mind-numbing proportions of, well, a sea or mountain.
As we got off of the bus for White Horse Temple, the image of reverence and peace that one would expect the birthplace of Buddhism in China to evoke had seemingly been trampled under the feet of the enormous crowd jostling for position to get in line for tickets and enter the temple grounds. It was an atmosphere that, much to our dismay, would follow us into the temple, back out of it, and culminate in the frenzy that is hundreds of people with no adherence to anything resembling a line, or order for that matter, fighting each other for position to squeeze onto the infrequent buses leaving the area.
Like a college freshman swearing off drinking for life after their first night of binge drinking, so we swore off traveling during Chinese holidays as we sat on the overcrowded, overheated bus for over an hour, getting off only after Kate vomited in a plastic sleeve that had previously held a painting we had bought. If a perfect anecdote existed to deter anyone from traveling in China during the holidays, this surely was it.
Our third and last day in Luoyang would be dedicated to the city’s famed peonies, which were in full bloom and, more than the grottoes or temples, served as the city’s identity which was evident in their portrayal on everything from hotels to garbage trucks. Wary of facing the monster that was the crowds of the day before, we decided to skip the larger parks of the city and go instead, on the advice of our hostel’s owner, to a free park nearby that he assured us would satisfy our peony-viewing cravings.
After breakfast and a short walk to the park, we found ourselves amidst a modest spread of people and an anything-but-modest spread of peonies, whose large and expansive blooms were matched only in their numbers as bush after bush swelled up from the landscape, delightfully clogging our view in every direction.
Over the landscape, the patchy sky cast long running shadows that would stop abruptly, dulling some flowers while leaving others brightly illuminated by contrast, almost as if they were on stage, a spotlight illuminating each and every petal.
Apart from their varying degrees of visibility, the different peonies also differed in ways as obvious as their color, as some burned a hot pink while other wore a humble white, to ways more subtle like how the petals unfurled. On one end of the spectrum were tightly coiled blooms, whose petals gave a spongy resistance when squeezed, and on the other were those that hung loose and floppy like a dog’s ears. It was a scene worth walking through several times, which we did before bidding farewell to the peonies, which, in our minds, was like bidding farewell to Luoyang itself.
The Chinese tourism landscape is littered with superlatives. As one travels from site to site, it seems at times that nearly every one of them is preceded by a “most” or followed by an “-est”. Some are rather vague as in the countless countryside villages touting the “most beautiful scenery” in all of China while others are painfully specific as in Zhangjiajie, the mountain range rumored to have inspired the floating mountains in Avatar. There was the “longest and tallest glass bridge in the world” as well as the “highest natural bridge in the world” and the “longest passenger cableway in the world,” and who could forget the “the highest, fastest, largest-loaded outdoor elevator in the world.” These titles, seemingly thought up by a boastful toddler and devised to draw in tourists to a once-in-the-world experience, were misleading in that they made you think that the feat of engineering was the main attraction when in reality, it was what those feats of engineering led you to that was the real attraction for no amount of superlatives could capture how truly incredible the mountains themselves were.
Our first experience with the majestic Zhangjiajie came in the unmajestic process of slogging up its slopes in the thick summer heat. Mossy steps wound up and out of sight, disappearing into the dense greens of the forest. Alongside the steps a network of disheveled shrubs and weeds wriggled in and out of each other, their branches and vines spilling over the edges of the path, crowding the ground and air that we walked through. Out of the bushes sprang spider-like grasshoppers whose efforts to evade us, their alleged pursuer, failed miserably as they more often than not crashed into our bodies before falling to the ground and springing away again. Despite one crossing our path every minute or so, they weren’t the most notable insect accompanying our hike up the mountain as a cloud of flies called our face and its immediate vicinity home for the entirety of the climb and all around us the steady humming of the countless other insects inhabiting the forest reminded us that we were not alone on our hike.
If all of this sounds rather miserable, I can assure you it was not, quite the opposite actually as the slew of insect encounters was drowned out by the beauty of the scenery we were climbing through. Rising out of the aforementioned lush forest bed rose an army of trees stretching high into the bright sky of summer. And, if you cared to direct your gaze even further up than that, your view would almost always be accompanied by one of the unique columnal peaks of the mountain range. As we climbed higher and higher we couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to take the cable cars.
After about two hours we finally reached the top where, sadly, the crowds thickened and walkways thinned. One typically hikes up a mountain to escape crowds and noise, but in China, more often than not, you’ll find more of it at the top than you will at the bottom. Most of the people are harmless, bodies just like us moving around each other as they appreciate the views, but there are always some who, emboldened by their cable car ride up the mountain apparently, feel the need to shout at the top of their lungs every few minutes so as to announce to all other mountain dwellers that they are there.
As annoying as the shouts are, and they are always there, they eventually become white noise. As for the crowds, however frustrating it was to move through hoards of people on the top of a mountain, it was a sight designated for tourists which meant cable cars, clearly labeled paths, stone steps to hike up and down and even small shops selling refreshments. As much as we wanted seclusion and serenity, it’s not as if we hiked through raw wilderness to get where we were. Still, it would have been nice if more of our fellow hikers would have recognized their surroundings not as something they had conquered to help make them feel big but rather as something they could appreciate to help make them feel small, for most everyone could use a dose of that in today’s world.
As we hiked around more, each step was accompanied by dizzying views that plunged deep into the mountains below. While these kind of views would turn the stomach of anyone even considering a hop over the much appreciated railings running alongside the paths, they weren’t enough to stop some from going over the railing and, in one case, down the side of the mountain on a rope for some audacious acrobatics. We watched in a stunned awe as a man in a yellow suit straddled the side of the mountain with nothing but a rope tied around his waist. Like watching a horrific scene unfold from afar, we looked on helplessly as he began running from side to side, jumping off the face of the mountain, and spinning in midair. As it was clearly a performance and the man doing it his profession, we wondered if he ever got bored by his act. If descending down the side of a mountain dangling on a rope ever became mundane for him. In any case, we most certainly were not bored, and our transfixion on the daredevil was broken only when he was pulled back up the mountainside and into the shrubbery hanging off of it.
Now suddenly very thankful for the solid ground under us, we continued our hike, balancing views of our trudging feet below with the more scenic expanse of mountains stretching out beside us. Every now and then, we would come to a level stretch of path, which worked wonders for our legs as well as for our ability to appreciate the scenery. As we looked out, we found the collocational “mountain peak” to be moot as the mountains didn’t come to a point. Rather, they rose bewilderingly like crumbling columns from the valley bed, erect and stretching upwards much like the trees that surrounded them before leveling off at the top where a verdant collection of trees and bushes marked the end of their rise. It was no wonder some referred to it as a stone forest.
Our second day began with a delicious hot bowl of noodles for breakfast at our hotel: Yangjiajie MINI Inn. As we ate, the backdrop of mountains served as an ever-present reminder of the day ahead. While the previous day had seen us spending a majority of our time exploring the tops of the mountains, this day would see us traversing less elevated ground by way of the Golden Whip Stream, a winding waterway that cut through the base of the mountains. One often thinks that looking out from the peak of a mountain is the best way to appreciate its enormity, but there’s something to be said too about walking at their feet, dwarfed by their shadow as you move through the eeriness that is a dim setting on a bright, sunny day. This was one such occasion.
Apart from the mountains, whose faces poked out at us from above the tree tops, there were plenty of other scenes along the walk that demanded our attention. The stream, a shallow, trickling basin of water, slowly moved around the rocks it had failed to overtake, creating a soundtrack of gentle bubbling noises that would accompany the entirety of our walk. Ahead, the thick foliage of summer created a dense green landscape that stretched into the distance as far as the eye could see. Tree trunks and wayward branches coursed through the green like a network of black veins. Dragonflies and butterflies filled the air and on the ground, our company existed not only in the form of fellow hikers, but also in wild monkeys. Swimming in the stream, moving through the bushes that hugged our path, and swinging on the trees overhead, the monkeys were nearly everywhere we looked.
In spite of our close proximity to them, the monkeys could barely be bothered to glance in our direction, that is, unless they heard the rustling of a plastic bag at which point they might as well have been a begging dog. We would have preferred the former, coexisting without co-depending, but there were others who simply couldn’t resist tossing a bag of chips to a monkey in hopes of having some sort of interaction with it. It was sad to see monkeys licking the inside of plastic bags before tossing them in the river, only to be picked up by another further downstream who would snatch it out of the water and examine the bag for any missed remains. If a monkey wasn’t fortunate enough to get a treat thrown their way, they would drop in a dumpster, rummaging through the garbage for any scraps they could find, their grease stained fur serving as a reminder of their longing for a human treat.
As if tossing plastic-encased snacks to the monkeys wasn’t entertainment enough for those doing so, there were some that even resorted to violence towards the primates as a means of amusement. At nearly every shop inside the park, slingshots were for sale and, sadly, it didn’t take long for us to realize what they were for. Along our walk, we saw several people using the devices to fire fist-sized rocks at yelping monkeys who scurried away and out of sight. Each time we saw this we not so kindly reminded those doing so in our broken Chinese that their actions weren’t appropriate.
After about an hour’s walk along the stream, we reached an area filled with food vendors where we grabbed some spicy potatoes and a bowl of noodles before turning around and retracing our steps along the stream. The walk back was nice as we weren’t preoccupied with looking here and there for new sights and sounds but rather could just enjoy by what was then a familiar setting.
As we neared the start of the Golden Whip Stream path and with much of the afternoon still ahead of us, we decided to abandon the comfort of level ground for the inverted pathway leading up to Huangshi Village, which was said to offer some of the best views in the whole of Zhangjiajie Park. Upon reaching the summit, we would discover that it wasn’t a village at all and the views obscured due to a biblical downpour that had ensued upon our arrival at the top. Camped out under the futile protection of a closed China Post-shelter awning, we watched as the downpour only increased with ferocity and an impromptu river formed on the ground where our feet stood, soaking our shoes and socks to a degree that, even several hours after the rains had stopped, would cause an incessant squish-squash to accompany every step we took around the mountain.
After the rains finally did let up, we mentally rung ourselves out and hurried to the nearest outlook in hopes of seeing a misty mountainscape left in the wake of the rainstorm. We were not disappointed. Rapidly moving mist crashed into the mountainside and spilled back into itself like violent waves upon a shore. Elsewhere, in the more open spaces of the valley, the mist sat in cloudy clumps, waiting patiently to be dissipated by the suddenly noticeable summer sun beating down from overhead. Slowly the patchy landscape came into a full, crisp view as the last wisps disappeared. As if a show had just ended, we soaked up one last deep gaze out at the mountains before starting back down the mountain through the dripping scenery to make the long journey back to our hotel where another delicious home-cooked dinner awaited us.
Most of our last day in Zhangjiajie was spent finding our way to a point on our map that had intrigued us since we first examined it: the Field in the Sky. Intrigued by the imagery its name evoked, we couldn’t let the chance that it was a gross dramatization of an ordinary scene hinder us from going to have a look. After a long bus ride, we were dropped off seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Our map, which was surprisingly handy throughout our time in the park despite having no real distinct features apart from the sights that were worth visiting, was no help to us. From where we stood, several identical roads shot off in different directions, running off and out of sight behind a crowded forest of pine trees. From what we deemed was our point on the map, a very clear road snaked an inch or so across the page to the Field in the Sky. If only it was that easy.
We asked a group of passing hikers if they knew where it was and, after looking at us confusedly for a brief moment, convened for a muddled, mumbling meeting amongst themselves before shooting a desperate finger in a random direction and hurrying away. We smiled politely, waited until they were out of sight and then began looking for someone else to ask. Eventually, we met someone who, upon mentioning the name Field in the Sky, immediately nodded knowingly and told us to follow the unassuming dirt road that branched off from the road we were standing on.
Still on the path nearly two hours later no longer out of desire to see the Field in the Sky but out of pure stubbornness, we finally came upon it. Exactly as advertised, the site was a terraced patchwork of fields carved out of the top of one of the many gnarled mountains spread across the landscape. The light shimmered off the fields, turning them a bright green that stood out in the otherwise deep and dark tones of the landscape. As the other mountains looked on at the field, they must have been jealous, their moppy tops of unruly foliage were no match to the clean cut look of the field-topped mountain.
As picturesque as the view was we had to leave in search of shade and water as the sun was heavy and our water bottle had been empty for the last hour or so of our walk. Being a somewhat popular tourist site within the park, there was luckily a shop not too far down the road where we were able to do just that. Like a watering hole in the savannah, the shop was full of people despite there being not a soul to be found outside of its shady interior. Talking with some others while we sipped our water, we were told that there were amazing views fifteen minutes or so down the path. Having come this far already, we heeded their advice and continued on.
The fairly level path quickly turned to steps that fell over each other down the mountainside before bottoming out at a lookout that, as promised, dropped our gaze directly into the heart of the mountains. It was the best view we had had in Zhangjiajie by far and we sat, legs hanging over the cliff’s edge for what felt like hours staring downward in awe. As we did so, a quote from The Lord of the Rings came to mind. In it, an ancient tree mused about how humans could have such a “hasty” word for mountains. Certainly, he pondered, something that has existed since the beginning of time should have a name more compelling and worthy of the magnitude of the thing it described. Looking out at the hacked trunks that were the mountain range, this idea couldn’t have made more sense. “Mountain” just didn’t seem adequate enough of a word to describe what we were looking at. Perhaps no word or combination of letters could. So, we instead just looked, for nowhere perhaps but in our mind could the majesty of the scene before us be captured.