Wuyuan

“Mei you hua,” the fruit vendor shouted in a bemused tone as we hiked past her stall perched on the hillside. We were making our way through the mountainous countryside of Wuyuan in hopes of seeing the region’s valleys flooded by the seasonal rapeseed flower and were just told that there weren’t any. The bright yellow sea of flowers that had enticed our imaginations for weeks leading up to the trip would instead be a sea of familiar green. After a cramped 8-hour bus ride to get to Wuyuan and the headaches that came with navigating an entire county using a map the size of our palms, we were considerably disappointed. Over the course of the next few days in the area though, we would find that the yellow bloom of the rapeseed wasn’t the only cause to explore the southern Chinese county, merely just another draw among the long list of beautiful scenes it had to offer.

Our starting point for the trip was Xiaolu Hostel, a sleepy three-story building tucked away down a dusty alleyway in the county’s capital city. After arriving at the hostel, travel weary and ready for sleep, we were informed that the beds we were so looking forward to crawling into weren’t available. It turned out that the hostel had forgotten about our booking, citing that we had made it too far in advance, and given our beds to some less proactive individuals. After telling us this, the woman working the front desk began nervously rifling through the pages of the book in front of her in search of a solution. The one she eventually came to was that Kate would stay in the hostel’s family room whose two other inhabitants were under the impression that the private room they booked would actually stay private…enter Kate. And Ryan would be relegated to the storage room, where they would put together a makeshift bed for him to sleep on. At least there would be no snoring!

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Ryan’s bed in the storage room

After a surprisingly solid night’s sleep we were ready to start exploring the county’s ancient villages and famed countryside. To get around the county you basically have three routes to choose from: the pragmatically named North Route, West Route, and East Route. The latter, which wound through several villages before ending in a hill-encompassed valley filled with terraced fields of rapeseed flowers, seemed the most enticing to us so we hailed a taxi and made our way to the first stop along it: the village of Small Likeng.

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Artists painting the rapeseed blooms just outside of Small Likeng

There’s something eternally alluring about ancient Chinese villages. No matter how many we visit, they always seem to capture our imaginations despite the fact that most of them are relatively the same. They are usually built around a stream, sometimes several, which meander through the village before emptying out into the surrounding countryside. Across the streams stretch bridges and alongside them run the village’s paths, which are bookended by whitewashed buildings whose namesake color has been slowly overtaken by the creeping, black march of mildew across their walls. Ornate wooden carvings hang from the building’s uppermost floors, and cavernous rooms fill their interiors, both tellers of the village’s past glories. The present state of the wood however, worn and faded, tell of the current lack of it. And while many of these villages have the air of a repurposed tourist attraction, there are still pockets within them that give you a glimpse into what life there was like when their purpose was being lived in rather than visited. Down alleyways not meant to be looked down, through doors mistakenly left open, if you look in the right places, a picture of life in the village still exists and is essential to the appreciation of it.

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The main street through the village
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Bridges stretching from the street on one side of the stream  to the residences sitting on the other
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Peering into a home long overtaken by the elements
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One of the few residences still in use that we were able to peek inside of

Another trait all of the village’s that we’ve been to share, quite obviously, is their title of “village,” which means that no matter how interesting they may be, their capacity for exploration is limited. So, after exploring all the corners of Small Likeng, those both hidden and in plain sight, we soon found ourselves nearing it’s outer limits. As we drew closer to the end of the path we were walking along, there seemed to be a perfect balance between the dissipation of foot traffic on it and the buildup of dust in the storefronts alongside it, a testament to their limited visitors and even more limited sales. Fully aware of this situation, we kept our eyes fixated on the scenery straight ahead for we knew that any glance, however brief, at a given item would undoubtedly elicit a desperate “hello” from the shop owner in an attempt to startle us into eye contact and, as a result, lure us into their shop for a look.

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Looking down one of the village streets

Just before reaching the edge of town, our unflinching gaze was broken as we peeked over to an antique shop that had caught the interest of our peripheral vision. The shop was owned by a kindly old woman who seemed very proud of the different trinkets she had on display, which were barely visible beneath the thick layer of dust sitting on top of them. As we looked around, one particular item caught our eye: a tiny vase yellowed by time with a traditional Chinese painting covering its body. We had never seen anything like it before and enthusiastically told the shop owner that we’d like to purchase it. As we handed over our money, questions about the vase’s past coursed through our minds. Was it a family heirloom handed down from generation to generation? Was it found buried in a field while a farmer was digging a well? Was it painted during the village’s heyday by one of the many artists that called its streets home? We couldn’t be for sure, but one thing we did know: it was special.

As we began making our way out of the village though, in a cruel blow to the contentedness we had with our purchase, we passed shop after shop selling the exact vase we had just bought. With each one we convinced ourselves that that must be the only other one in existence in a desperate attempt to maintain the mystery that our vase had held just moments before. By the fifth shop though, our mysterious antique vase had completed its sad and all too quick descent into a common souvenir. Still clinging to some hope of its uniqueness, we told ourselves that the vases are only from that particular village and are really hoping we don’t see it anywhere in Shanghai.

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On our way out of the village

After leaving Small Likeng we decided to make our next and last stop of the day be the village of Jiangling. It was there that we expected to see the scenery depicted in all of the faded tourist posters hung throughout the county: white-washed villages floating in a sea of yellow rapeseed flowers that climbed up the surrounding mountains on the stair-like terraces carved out of their slopes. It wasn’t until our unfortunate meeting with the fruit vendor that we began to expect anything else. Suddenly, we stopped focusing on the yellow flowers that had already bloomed and instead began focusing on those that hadn’t with the latter outweighing the former dramatically. We anxiously climbed up the terraces and, as we reached the top of one of the hills, our pessimism became justified as we stared out over the overwhelmingly green landscape. Don’t get us wrong, it was still beautiful, but when we came expecting this:

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And instead were met with this:

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We couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed, especially after reaching the painful conclusion that probably within a week of our departure from Wuyuan, the flowers would be in full bloom. Not wanting to dwell too much on what could have been though, we enjoyed the scenery for what it was: patternless patches of fields that fit together like puzzle pieces as they rolled off into the distance, outposts of civilization in the form of tiny, clustered villages laying scattered across them and a humble spread of mountains sitting formidably overtop. It was an almost perfect springtime scene and we sat taking it in for nearly an hour before finally calling it a day and catching a bus back to our hostel.

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A couple of villages sitting among the few fields of rapeseed that were in bloom
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Plenty of other flowers had bloomed though, like these cherry blossoms
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Walking through a field of rapeseed on one of the terraces
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Rapeseed blossoms enjoying the bright sunshine of the day

After spending most of our first day either in a village or on the road, we decided to begin our second day with a dose of nature by going to the northernmost point of the North Route to explore Wolong Valley, home of one of the region’s best hiking opportunities as well as China’s tallest waterfall.

As our bus came to a stop in front of the entrance to the valley, we spilled out of it’s claustrophobic interior and almost immediately found ourselves on the main hiking path, which our legs, eager to stretch out, began carrying us down. The path, as we would find out rather quickly, was perfect: not too steep so as to exhaust us to the point of not being able to appreciate our surroundings, but also not too flat so as to rob us of a feeling of accomplishment once we reached its end. The entire way through the valley it stayed fastened to the river that ran alongside it, which always seemed to be in a state of motion. In some places it trickled and in others it roared as it ran over rocks and boulders of every shape and size, wearing them down to an uncanny smoothness.

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One of the many waterfalls along our hike in the valley
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Going through a narrow walkway
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Crossing a wooden plank bridge…it was more exciting avoiding the plywood and walking on the actual planks

Entranced by the river, we continued following it until the hills and trees that had hovered over us for so long came to an abrupt end and the path opened up to a view of the 2,935 foot-tall waterfall and the vast valley that accommodated it. Everything there seemed exaggerated when compared with the scenery that had surrounded us just moments before. Hills became mountains. Small patches of sky poking through the canopy of trees became a bright blue expanse. And the river, whose rumblings had seemed impressive all throughout our hike up, now paled in comparison to the towering waterfall before us, which stretched so far up the mountainside that at times it seemed to disappear as it fell, only becoming visible again as it crashed into the rocks below.

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Looking up at China’s tallest waterfall, which couldn’t all fit into one frame
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A close-up of the waterfall
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Plunging over a cliff
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Getting a closer look

We wandered around the valley as much as it would allow before before finding a good spot to rest and stare out at the waterfall. As we did this, we found it to be ironic that, as we watched the water in it’s most turbulent state, we were at our calmest, taking in the scenery for as long as our agenda would allow before deciding to leave our peaceful perch to go back down through the valley and enter a turbulent stretch ourselves as we headed to the village of Huangling where we would finally experience the force that is a Chinese tourist attraction during a holiday weekend.

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A nice place to rest and take in the falls
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A couple of the many great Chinglish signs hung throughout the park
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Well, if the pavilion says so

For two and a half years we have craftily avoided traveling in China during a holiday whether it be getting out of the country entirely or simply hunkering down in our apartment in Shanghai. To give you an idea of what traveling in China is like, if just .0001 percent of the population decides to go to a certain place on any given weekend, you’re still looking at 137,000 people. Typically, Chinese tourists will wait to travel during one of the country’s six major public holidays throughout the year, undoubtedly bumping that incremental percentage up a few points and turning already crowded tourist spots into a nightmarish mob of people all jostling for sight lines and pictures. Not only had we soberly decided to pursue this situation by traveling during Tomb Sweeping Festival, one of the major holidays, we had also chosen to go to one of the most popular springtime destinations in China being the rapeseed blooms of Wuyuan. Understandably, we were very nervous as to what awaited us on the trip.

To our surprise though, for the first day and a half the crowds we encountered were no different than our other trips in China: big but bearable. It wasn’t until Huangling, our last stop during our time in Wuyuan, that we saw the ugly face of Chinese holiday crowds. As we got off the the bus, we found the outside of it to be more cramped than the inside had been. To keep our sanity, we immediately disregarded the crowd as a collection of individuals and instead viewed it as a single entity, forcefully pushing through it until we reached the tourist office where we got our tickets and joined the line for the cable cars that would carry us up to the mountaintop village.

The line, long enough to warrant snack and water vendors sitting intermittently alongside it, was a source of entertainment for the workers guiding those waiting in it to the cable car station. With smiles of amazement, they snapped pictures of the line, shaking their head in disbelief as they reexamined the images on their phone so as to make sure that what they were seeing was real. Despite its near endless nature though, the line moved along rather quickly (so much so that we didn’t have time to stop and get a snack from one of those vendors) and we found ourselves on a cable car heading up the mountain far sooner than we ever had imagined we would be.

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Rapeseed terraces filling the valley among other, more timely blooms
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One of the village buildings sitting against the late afternoon sky
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Peering through a couple of windows

Once back on solid ground, we made our way to Huangling which we found to be about as close to its original purpose as a hipster shopping scene set in an old factory district. Wanting to escape the crowds and find a bit more authentic place to take everything in, we got off the beaten path and began wandering through the back lanes of the village, which were eerie in their emptiness. Eventually we came upon a former residence open to the public, and climbed up its wooden stairways and out onto a patio overlooking everything.

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Looking out at the drying peppers and vegetables that make Huangling famous
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A couple of empty drying rods

The village, which plunged downward into the valley that it sat atop, seemed to mirror the rapeseed terraces sitting across from it as both rose up their respective mountain’s slopes in stair-like fashion. Stretching out from the houses, like a rack from a giant outdoor oven, were wooden rods of various widths and lengths on top of which sat the drying peppers and vegetables we were so eager to see. The village’s otherwise monochrome display of whitewashed buildings was made vibrant by the bright reds of the peppers.

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Looking down at the village
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A colorful spread of vegetables
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A village roof against a backdrop of terraces

As the sun slipped closer to the horizon, the baskets were pulled back into the houses and with little time left, we decided to explore the surrounding countryside as much as we could before catching the last cable car down the mountain. After making it out of the village, the crowds began to thin out the further along we walked and we found a nice spot to sit and take in the scenery. With the sun now entirely behind the mountains, we stared out at the terraces, taunted by the few patches of yellow scattered throughout them. We closed our eyes and pictured what the valley might have looked like if the other flowers had decided to join them in their blooming. When we opened our eyes, it wasn’t what we had expected but still beautiful all the same.

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In front of the terraces
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Waiting for the sun to set before heading back to the cable car station

Read on for a poem by Kate:

Wu Yuan at Qing Ming Jie

Faded walls
line overflowing
cobblestone footpaths,
while a jade river catching the sunlight
meanders lazily between.
We step in and out
of forgotten mansions,
forgotten lives,
forgotten relevance.
Like it’s history,
we move on.

Too early
for rapeseed,
we sit contentedly,
looking out
at the emerald terraces
spread before us,
imagining
a former reality
before a tourist season
before fame
when Wu Yuan was just
a sprawling
secret
garden.

Jiuzhaigou

If the beauty of a place is measured by the amount of wows muttered and gasps taken while witnessing it, then China’s Jiuzhaigou National Park may very well be the most beautiful place we’ve ever seen. With lakes so blue they practically glowed through the damp browns and greens of the forest surrounding them to mountains capped with mist-blanketed evergreens, the park was never at a lack of sights to keep us in awe.

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The surreal blue water of the park
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Foggy evergreens high in the mountains

The beauty of the park and the area surrounding it was even evident in the taxi ride from the airport to our homestay, that is, when we weren’t closing our eyes, wincing in anticipation of death as our driver swerved from lane to lane dodging oncoming traffic and the occasional yak. After about an hour of this we pulled up to our accommodation for the trip: Zhou Ma’s Jiuzhaigou Homestay, a two-story house situated in a small Tibetan village clinging to the mountainside.

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The outside of our homestay

After spilling out of the death trap that had brought us there, we were greeted by the unfailingly charismatic Ama (Tibetan for “mom”) who had a small arsenal of English that she used more as a means of her own amusement than of communicating, made evident by the deep and hearty laugh that followed the small phrases she would utter to us as she gave us a tour of the house. Immediately upon stepping through the heavily ornamented front door, we were met with an elaborately painted and decorated interior, where not an inch of ceiling or wall was spared the stroke of a brush. Everywhere we looked was a work of art.

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The front door
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Our bedroom

The tour of the house eventually led to our room where we dropped our things and headed out into the village to do some exploring since the waning nature of the day made going to the park out of the question. However ambitious our intentions were though, they were quickly trumped by our weariness from travel and we were soon back in the house, waiting in the common room for our much anticipated home-cooked dinner. As we were the only ones staying there that night, it was a VIP affair with Ama cooking for us and sticking around to chat with us in an unpredictable blend of English and Chinese. This continued for about an hour or so until our mental capacity to continue a conversation in a language we barely grasped failed us and we bid goodnight to Ama and headed up to our room.

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Waiting for dinner in the common room

Our second day started early as we wanted to get to the park as close to opening time as possible due to the forums we had read before the trip telling tale after tale of people having to wait in long and chaotic lines just to get a ticket let alone get into the park. Having lived in China for over two years, our imaginations ran wild with apocalyptic images of mobs of people shoving and shouting and complete mayhem unfolding and ruining what we had hoped would be an escape from the headaches of Shanghai. The reality of it, luckily for us, was far from this. The amount of people there was in typical Chinese fashion, but the scene was nowhere near the one we had pessimistically dreamt up.

After maneuvering through the clusters of tour groups, we found ourselves at the ticket counter where we had decided that we would try to pull a fast one on the ticket attendant by pretending we were university students in hopes of cutting the steep $50 entrance fee per person in half. So, we confidently handed over Kate’s long expired college ID and Ryan’s Ohio driver’s license, hoping they would pass as valid student IDs as they have before. Unfortunately for us, the woman spoke fluent English and it only took her a matter of seconds to see through our facade and hand our cards back to us one by one, saying in a scolding tone, “This is past due and this is a driver’s card…620 RMB.”

Dignity gone, but tickets in hand, we headed towards the main gate and shortly after entering found ourself in the long lines promised by the various guidebooks and forums. It didn’t take us long though to realize that the lines led to the buses that ran from site to site in the park. Wanting to see what was in between (isn’t that the point?), we hopped the railing and within minutes went from something akin to a death metal mosh pit to a secluded wooden plank road winding through the wilderness.

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Starting down the path

The first thing that caught our eyes (and ears) after getting on the path was the river running alongside of it. Not only was the roar of the violently rumbling water just a few feet away something to behold, but also the clarity of it was unlike anything we had ever seen before. It would set the tone for the rest of our time in the park, a constant state of awe and bewilderment at nature the way it was intended to be: vast and void of the trace of human touch.

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Typical scenery along our hike
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There were of birds hopping about near the river

Eventually the path would take us away from the river and towards the park’s resident Buddhist temple. From a distance, the temple seemed rather routine, a white building capped in a golden dome, but as we drew closer, the temple took on the characteristics of the park that inhabited it. Colors exploded from its exterior in the form of Buddhist prayer flags hung all about and the paintings that, much like our homestay, seemed to occupy every square inch of the walls surrounding the temple.

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Zharu Temple
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The main door to the temple
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Prayer flags hanging down from the temple’s first floor
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Kate peeking in

The sun, which had just miraculously burst through the rainy skies we had grown accustomed to during our hike, shone off of the temple’s golden roof, illuminating the valley in which it sat. If we had been Buddhist, we might have described the experience as spiritual, but as far as we were concerned, we were just happy that the rain had finally stopped.

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The sun shining off of the temple’s golden adornments

After the temple, we found our way back to the familiar wooden plank road and walked…and walked…and walked…and, well, you get the point. There were of course breaks every now and then, most notably for a yak meat sandwich prepared for us by Ama, but, most of our time was spent upright, moving further and further into the park. Despite spending nearly ten hours that day on our feet, the fact that we were walking always seemed to be an afterthought. Our focus was never on the path and our striding feet directly below us but rather what that path stretched into. We walked past villages, over rivers, under the shadow of a mountain, past waterfalls and, no matter how hard we tried, there was never the sound of an engine to be heard or a sign of modernity to be seen. You could get lost in it, and we did, for hours. That is until we hit one of the major waterfalls in the park: Shuzheng Waterfall, which sadly meant reentering civilization or at least representatives of it. In what felt like a blink, we went from the seclusion of our beloved plank road to having to wait in line just to advance further along it.

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Eating our yak sandwiches
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The wooden plank road

The slowing of pace was welcomed though as it allowed us a significant amount of time to take in the falls, which were unlike any we had ever seen before. Our experience with waterfalls is a river falling over the edge of a cliff in a few, steady streams to the rocks below, but this was more like a lake sliding down a mountain. The water shot in countless different directions, following the grooves laid out by the eroding effects of time. As we climbed upward alongside the falls, deafened by its incessant roar, we began to wonder when exactly we would reach the top of it. Up and up we climbed and still no sign of an end. When we finally did reach the top it was sort of anticlimactic as the source of all that violently tumbling water was not a tumultuous river or lake but instead a relatively shallow and calm pond, which was amazing to us. Perhaps even more amazing yet was the fact that it never stopped. Hour after hour, day after day, the water goes through a Hulkian transformation, falling down the mountainside. Even as you read this it is happening.

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Shuzheng Waterfall
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The water sliding down the mountainside
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Us in front of the falls

The path followed the water for the next hour or so and we watched it turn from a calm and shallow pond to a body consumed by reeds and trees to the point of the water being barely visible, to a rolling river to, finally, another waterfall: Nuorilang Waterfall. While it shared the same natural name as Shuzheng Falls, Nuorilang was more of a distant cousin than of immediate relation as the differences between the two were many. For starters, this one didn’t slide down the mountainside like Shuzheng appeared to have done but rather thrust itself off of the cliff side, crashing into the rocks below and creating a white and foamy mess that fizzled off into the distance. The cliff, to our delight, stretched off across our line of vision as far as the tall evergreens scattered about would allow. It was truly spectacular and we might have enjoyed it more had another waterfall provided by the clouds overhead not picked up dramatically, making the decision to call it a day and head back to the homestay all the easier.

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Nuorilang Waterfall
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It was much bigger than the last one
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A close-up of the water as it falls over the cliffside
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The raincoats are back on as Nuorilang wasn’t the only thing producing falling water
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As we left the park we saw this: the point where the river from inside the park met with the one from outside of it.  Can you guess which one is which?

If you look at a map of Jiuzhaigou, you’d unmistakably see the letter Y stretched across it, with each line of the letter’s body representing a different valley in the park. From the bottom of the Y to the top is around 30km and, despite hiking from dawn to dusk the day before, we had barely made it to the point where the three valleys connect. Walking Jiuzhaigou in its entirety was out of the question. Instead, for our sday there, we would have to use the shuttle buses if we wanted to see the extremities of the park that our legs couldn’t take us to. This was a difficult decision to come to because we’d much rather hike the park as opposed to ride through it and, as we had experienced the day before, the bus scene was nightmarish. If you’ve ever seen a movie about the apocalypse where hordes of people are trying to push past a line of soldiers, you might have an idea of what the lines leading up to the buses were like, only this scenario, a seat on a bus, was far less dramatic. But, as our experience in China has taught us, an open seat on public transportation is about as dramatic as it gets for the Chinese.

So, bit by bit, we pushed and squeezed and cursed our way to the front, the experience transforming us into rabid animals as we fell victim to mob mentality. As the next bus pulled up, chaos ensued (the video below, taken further inside the park, is a much tamer version of what we experienced at the entrance). Despite being the first in line for it, we were somehow not the first people in. As we finally made it to the door, a little old woman (a bowling ball as we call them due to their ferocity and crashing nature towards an open seat on the subway) came barreling through. We dared not interfere with her and instead followed the open path she created to finally get on the bus and have a seat. It was about the worst possible way to begin a park experience.

Our first stop was Shuzheng Village, which shared the same name as one of the waterfalls we had seen the day before. Jiuzhaigou literally means “valley of nine villages” so we figured it would be in our best interest to see at least one of the park’s nine namesakes. So, after getting off the bus we ditched the crowds as best we could and made our way into the village. Like the valley itself, the village, at least from the outside, seemed not to belong to this time. Colors, much like everything else we had seen in the park up to this point, were the theme. From the peeling paint of the buildings’ exteriors to the souvenirs being sold inside of them to the colorful flowers shooting up from fields surrounding it, the village was never at a lack of dullness. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for its atmosphere as there was an air of unwelcomeness as we walked through the streets. Their lifestyles had been exploited for a profit and we represented the reason why. We felt like we were intruding on something we weren’t meant to. As we found out there and in many other places, people’s lives aren’t meant to be an attraction, no matter how different they may be.

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Flowers outside of Shuzheng Village
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One of the souvenir shops
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Looking our from inside the village

Once out of the village, we decided to hike for a little while before getting back on a bus to head to the farthest reach of the park, the Primeval Forest. Located at a higher altitude than what our previous explorations had allowed, the forest was much colder than the comparatively warmer confines of the lower valley. After getting out of the bus we were met with one of the more beautiful scenes we would witness in the whole of our time in Jiuzhaigou. At our backs, the deep and dense forest stretched off into the distance and, in front of us, a purposeful distribution of mountains were strewn across the horizon, each one covered with evergreens that appeared black in the dim morning light. A thin veil of fog covered the entire scene, appearing motionless as it sat in the vacant spaces between the trees. And, to cap it all off, as we looked out at the scene the snowy peak of a mountain slowly began to materialize from behind the fog. It was as if the scene was scripted, a show put on by nature for its admirers.

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The fog, which seemed frozen in place, hanging over the scenery
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The ice-capped mountain after it materialized from behind the fog
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Getting ready to head into the forest

After the fog had dissipated and the show was over, we turned our backs on the scene and headed into the forest. Deep and dark and motionless, there’s a good reason why forests are always depicted in stories as being mysterious places full of danger. Their empty spaces allow for one’s imagination to fill them with all kinds of fantastical and terrible things. Luckily for us, this particular forest had a familiar wooden plank road winding through it. Familiarity, it seems, is the best antidote for fear.

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The Primeval Forest
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Stopping for a quick picture inside the forest

With the plank road, there was also no need to worry about losing our way. Instead, we occupied our minds with the stillness and complete tranquility that stretched as far we could see in any direction we cared to look in. Even the people seemed quieter and calmer than in other areas of the park. Perhaps we imitate the environment around us. Near the hectic and noisy waterfalls, people were rambunctious, but in the forest, those same people barely made a sound.

After leaving the forest, we hopped back on a bus en route to our next destination: Five Flower Lake, one of the sites we were most looking forward to seeing. The lake got its name because the different colors it takes on makes it resemble a flower garden. The color we were seeing that day was an icy blue, as clear and as crisp as one could imagine water being. The lake sunk to a depth of about sixteen feet and every inch of it was as visible as the fiery leaves floating on the surface.

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People admiring the lake, whose surface is blemished by the ripples of raindrops in this picture
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A bird seemingly unbothered by the rain
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The lake was one of the more popular places to see as evidenced by this crowded bridge running across it

If the water wasn’t enough to incite one’s sense of awe, the trees, laying jumbled like a game of pick-up-sticks beneath the surface, would certainly do the trick. As we looked down it felt like we were gazing upon an ancient shipwreck, whose demise was violent but now sat peacefully preserved in the water. The scene didn’t move or change, but we couldn’t look away. So, as the rain stopped and the crowds moved around us, our eyes stayed fixated upon the lake while our minds struggled to grasp the beauty of it. Sadly, we had other corners of the park to explore and, after leaving Five Flower Lake and enjoying another yak meat sandwich, we were back on a bus and heading to the pragmatically named Long Lake.

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Fallen trees paralyzed below the surface of the lake

The lake couldn’t have been more different from the one we had just seen. Whereas Five Flower Lake was shallow and small, Long Lake was deep and, well, long. So long in fact that we couldn’t even see the end of it as it winded around the corner of a mountain and out of sight. It’s said that when someone experiences the grandeur of nature, they are humbled and inclined to be more empathetic towards others as they are reminded that there are things much bigger and eternal than themselves in this world. Long Lake seemed to have had that effect on the people looking out at it. Much like the forest earlier in the day, everyone there was in a state of quiet contemplation.

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Long Lake
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A fallen tree that hasn’t yet sunk
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Us in front of the lake

With our day now nearing its end, we wanted to see one more lake before calling it quits and decided to hike to the Five Colored Pond, which laid a little further down the valley from Long Lake. The hike there, to our delight, was secluded and, after about a half hour or so we were alerted to our arrival at the pond by the bright blue we saw filling the spaces in between the trees ahead. We giddily descended to the lakeshore, which, like Five Flower Lake, was shallow and small and crystal clear.

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People gathering around the Five Colored Pond
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Our last picture inside the park

Sometimes it’s hard to imagine natural water as being blue. Sure, when you’re a child and coloring an ocean, you make it blue, but rarely does reality reflect that. Rivers run brown, lakes become murky and almost greenish, but this water was truly blue. Not knowing when we would get to see anything like that again, we stuck around, looking out at it all before finally convincing ourselves to head back to our homestay.

That night for dinner, a final home-cooked meal capped off our experience of Jiuzhaigou and the next morning we boarded a bus for Chengdu, the next leg of our trip. It was hard to leave the park and homestay behind us and, even as we write this now, our hearts ache knowing that, most likely, we will never get to experience it again. It will forever be a memory, and what a memory it will be.

Jeju Island

Although we’ve never been to the tropical shores of Hawaii, we now have the pleasure of saying that we’ve been to the “Hawaii of the East,” the often used tag line to describe South Korea’s Jeju island, where we spent the entirety of our time on the Asian peninsula.

The island, we assumed, got the nickname due to its natural wonders, warm waters and the fact that it was the honeymoon destination for practically all Korean newlyweds. Going in early April, we worried about whether we would have enough to do in our five days there without the prospect of wasting one of those away sitting on a beach. We would find just how misguided this fear was though as we sat in our hostel, Jeju Hiking Inn, for the entirety of our first day, confined to our rooms due to an incessant downpour taking place outside.

With time to kill, we began planning out our days on the island and the lines of our notebook quickly filled up with must-dos and must-sees. The problem of finding enough things to do was now one of finding a way to fit everything in. Little by little, we dwindled the list down to one that consisted mostly of outdoor activities and went to bed content that our time on the island would be spent in the best way possible: hiking around its UNESCO recognized natural landscape.

The next morning, we eagerly sprung out of bed and scurried down to the kitchen for our breakfast of toast and eggs. The hostel’s owner spotted us eating and, in his naturally friendly way, used his severely broken English to ask about our plans for the day and then offered to drive us to the bus stop. It’s amazing how much can be communicated with the word “okay” when accompanied with a series of hand gestures and head nods. After driving us there and dropping us off, we hopped on the bus and took off toward our first destination: the Seonsang Ilchubong volcano crater.

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Frying eggs at the hostel.
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Breakfast time!

Throughout the ride there we sleepily looked through the foggy windows at a consistently gray and wet landscape and wondered if the sun would ever be coming out during our time on the island. While it would eventually make an appearance, it wouldn’t be anytime soon, a fact we came to terms with as the bus rolled up to the crater and we got our first glimpse of it. While the base was partially visible behind the blurring effects of the mist, the top was completely hidden behind a veil of fog. Not wanting to sulk too much in our weather misfortunes, we decided not to curse the fog, but rather enjoy it and the mystical effect it created as we ascended the crater.

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The view of the crater as we walked up to it.

On our way up, we were never quite sure where exactly the top was so we climbed until we couldn’t anymore and it was at this point that we found ourselves on a wooden observation deck with nothing to observe. The signs and outlooks pointed towards the volcano crater, but all we could see was the by now all-too-familiar fog, rolling across our line of vision without actually going anywhere. We stayed to see if it would clear up, but the fog clung stubbornly to the crater so we decided to give up our wait and move on to what we hoped would be less-obscured sights. On our descent, to our surprise and delight, the blanket of fog covering the landscape below us began to be pulled away and lying underneath were sweeping views of the ocean and shore. At the sight of this, we quickened our lumbering pace as the prospects of the day now seemed endless with the world now in clearer focus.

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The fog beginning to recede on our way down.
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Finding our way down to the ocean.

Our first order of business after getting to the base was to find a way to get down to the ocean, which ended up being rather easy and one of the more beautiful places we’d happen upon on the island. The one thing that struck us most once we got down was the color black. It dominated practically every plane of vision we could find, whether it be the rocks scattered across the shore, the sand of the beach, the volcano crater standing formidably in the distance or even the water at times if you looked at it a certain way. Unlike most other things around it though, the water took on many other colors apart from the ubiquitous black. Sometimes, it would be an ominous shade of turquoise, nearer to the sky it would seem almost gray, but mostly it would stay within the range of a foamy white as the ocean was violent that day, swaying and cresting into waves that would crash over the black rocks, creating a beautiful contrast. We explored the different nooks and crannies of the shore finding seashells, crabs, sea anemones and the like along the way. After walking around for a while we came to the painful conclusion that, while the scenery would never get old, the day would and, with a couple of worthy-looking shells in tow, we left that section of the coast in search for another called Seopjikoji.

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Finally at the ocean.
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Watching the waves crash into the crater.
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Exploring tide pools.
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Enjoying the scenery.

The walk to Seopjikoji was extremely enjoyable. The rain and fog had all but disappeared leaving a cloudy and gray sky behind, which was all the same to us as it made the different colors of the island more vibrant by comparison. Among these colors, the ones that caught our attention the most were those of the rapeseed flowers, whose petals blanketed the ground from which they grew in a bright yellow. We had seen them out of our window on the bus, but to experience them in person along our hike was another matter entirely. After walking through them for a short while and taking plenty of pictures (that later all looked the same), we continued our walk along the coast.

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One of the many fields of rapeseed flowers we’d come across.

Finding the rest of our way from the rapeseed field wasn’t too difficult, we just had to be moving away from the volcano crater. So, as long as it was shrinking on the horizon behind us, we knew we were going the right way. With the crater at our backs, we worked our way along the coast. As we walked over the crest of one particular hill, we noticed a brown, four-legged speck in the distance that promptly began making its way towards us. As it got nearer, we made it out to be a horse whose steady gallop didn’t stop until he was standing face to face with us. With a clear understanding of where it’s food supply came from, it sniffed around our jackets and pants pockets, leaving strings of gooey slobber behind. It quickly lost interest though as it realized we had nothing to offer apart from a few strokes of its mane. So, we parted ways, the horse clearly unshaken by our departure as it stood on the hill waiting for the next passerby.

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Walking along the coast towards Seopjikoji.
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Making a new friend.
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Saying goodbye.
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Waiting for a more food-friendly passerby.

We walked for another hour or so, cutting inland until we came across a large brown sign pointing us towards a peninsula and notifying us that we had finally reached Seopjikoji. We weren’t sure what awaited us there, but we had read that it had some of the most beautiful scenery on the island so we anxiously pushed on towards it despite the aching protests from our tiring legs. The first noteworthy sight we came across after winding around the tip was an expansive field of black lava rocks. As we looked out at the field, colorful dots that we made out to be people through squinted eyes poked out of the rocks in the distance and we began making our way towards them, awkwardly stumbling down into the field one rock at a time.

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Field of lava rocks.
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Stumbling our way across it.

In front of us as we walked, crabs scampered into dark crevasses at the sound of our heavy feet. If they had been spiders, we may have avoided the rock field altogether, but for some reason crabs don’t seem to demand the same level of fear despite looking almost as equally sinister as their arachnid counterparts. After maintaining a constant balancing act across the field for one hundred yards or so, the rumblings of our long empty stomachs persuaded us to leave the rocky terrain in search of some food.

After climbing back up to solid ground, our noses picked up an alluring aroma of grilled seafood and we followed it to a shoreside food stand where octopus, squid, sea cucumber and abalones were being grilled up and dished out to tame the appetites of hungry hikers. We examined the different options closely and found the price of the abalones and sea cucumbers to be too steep for their abundance and their cooking process, which consisted of the stall attendants plopping them down on the fiery grill alive and writhing in pain, too cruel. So we made the financial and ethical choice of the squid and octopus which was neatly cut up into convenient bite-size pieces and handed over to us in an equally convenient to-go bag. Lunch in hand, we found a nice spot to sit overlooking the ocean and dug in, feeling slightly guilty eating the invertebrates so close to their home.

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Abalones on the grill.
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Enjoying some octopus with Sriracha.

With our stomachs now moderately full we continued our walk around the peninsula, all the while the scenery remained unchanged: white waves crashing into the black rocks, grass-covered hills rolling off into the distance, the crater lying flat on the ocean. In other words, the perfect accompaniment for a walk through the countryside. With nowhere to be, we walked on and on until the light gray that had dominated the sky all day began to darken and we sought out a bus to take us back to Seogwipo (the city our hostel was in) for some rest before what would be another busy day.

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The view along the rest of our hike around the peninsula.
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The crater in the distance.
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In front of the lighthouse on the peninsula.

Our third day on the island started much like the previous one had right down to the car ride from the hostel’s owner to our first destination. The only difference was that on that particular morning we weren’t heading to a bus stop but rather to the Jeongbang waterfall. On our ride there, we were bewildered to look out the window and find not the gray-tinted landscape we had become accustomed to during our short time on the island but instead at a blue and sunny sky. For a day that would be spent almost entirely on the ocean, we were extremely grateful for this fortunate turn in the forecast and began taking advantage of it almost immediately with the waterfall.

The sound of the falls, booming and ceaseless, reached us well before the view of it did, serving as a guide down the steep path towards its rocky base. At the bottom, necks jerked back, we stared up at the waterfall as it tirelessly crashed over the edge of the island and into the ocean. The sunlight, now unobscured by clouds, illuminated the water and and everything around it, including most spectacularly the mist spraying off the violent collision between the plunging water and the rocks, creating a faint rainbow that hovered over the ground. Every angle was a good angle and, after exploring them all, we chose what we deemed to be the best one, a secluded rock across the outgoing flow from the falls, to sit and enjoy the scenery.

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Jeongbang Waterfall
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In front of the waterfall.

Getting to the rock proved to require some amount of effort as, before we could plop down on it, we had to take off our shoes, roll up our pants legs and maneuver across the cold slippery rocks that served as a dividing line between the waterfall and the ocean. The effort, minimal and enjoyable, paid dividends once on the rock as the tranquility of the spot was unparalleled. No one else had crossed the stream and, while the crowds on the other side of it were still visible, their rumblings were muted by the roar of the falls. So we sat, taking it all in until the urgency of our agenda forced to cross back over. Once on the other side, we were alarmed to find that a wave of Korean pubescence had crashed down from the hills above, flooding the surrounding area with shrieks and shouts. At the sight and sound of this, we hastened our exit from the park and began making our way towards the Jungmun Daepo stone columns.

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Walking across the slippery rocks.

We never were quite clear on how the columns formed despite multiple signs informing us of the exact, albeit highly scientific, process, but they were interesting to look at all the same. Hexagonal and varying in height, they fit together snugly so that if you looked at them from above they would give an appearance of a flattened soccer ball. Staring at them from level ground, they looked like a stone forest growing out of the almost glowing turquoise waters beneath. We bounced around from one outlook deck to another, waiting for the scenery to change (it didn’t), so we just stayed at one and appreciated the stillness of it. As we looked out, our enjoyment of the scenery slowly began to diminish with each passing tour group and, after an elderly Asian man poked Ryan in the chest and called him “monkey, monkey” to the amusement of his friends, we decided it was time to go.

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The stone columns.
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The view from above.
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One last picture before moving on.

Before heading back to our hostel, we decided to look for a place to get lunch since we were in the hub of Korean honeymoon resorts and assumed the options would be abundant. We ended up settling on a buffet overlooking the ocean due to the fact that it served a lot of the food we had wanted to try on Jeju: black pork, the candy-like tangerines native to the island, seafood in various forms, and abalones, albeit in soup form, but abalones nonetheless. We were so anxious to try the latter because we had seen them being sold all over the island by shrunken old women in diver’s suits at the heart-dropping rate of ten dollars per shell (they were one hearty bite at best), so we were happy to get to try them without compromising our financial morals. Since we got to the buffet so late in the afternoon, we only had about 45 minutes to eat so we unashamedly stuffed our faces for the entirety of the time allotted to us, washing everything down with a tall glass of beer before paying our bill and waddling out of the restaurant.

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Our buffet lunch.
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“Don’t eat me!”

Wanting to walk off the ungodly amount of food we just inhaled, we found a beach nearby to stroll along. As we walked, we were surprised to find not one, but four of the aforementioned abalone shells washed ashore, alive and kicking. Not quite in the entrepreneurial mood, we tossed the shells (forty dollars worth of them) back into the ocean and hopped on a bus to take us back to Seogwipo.

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Some grandfather stones – ancient protectors of the island – near the beach.

Once back, and with a little daylight left to spare, we went to the nearby Cheongjiyeon Waterfall (not to be confused of course with the Cheong-JE-yeon falls further west). If you haven’t noticed by now, Jeju was not lacking in its supply of long and confusing names, perhaps another reason it was given the title “Hawaii of the East.” Cheongjiyeon, as it turned out, wasn’t too different from the first waterfall we saw that day. Instead of rainbows, oceans, and blue skies, the setting was a dim, misty forest, but, other than that, it was essentially water violently falling over a cliff into the rocks below. The familiarity of the scene in no way diminished our enjoyment of it though for, while the concepts of nature–mountains, rainstorms, forests, etc.–are extremely familiar, to witness the power and size of them in person is always an experience worthy of admiration. So, again we sat, bookending our day perched on a rock and gazing out at the mesmerizing endlessness of the waterfall.

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Our second waterfall of the day.

Our fourth and last full day on the island, sadly, was a combination of misfortune and missed opportunities. Our agenda was full with plans to hike up Mt. Halla, the island’s central peak and tallest mountain in Korea, visit the world’s longest lava tubes that ran under the island, and, if time, go to the Jeju Folklore and Natural Museum to learn a little about the island we had inhabited for the better part of a week. To our disappointment, none of these would come to fruition.

After hiking up the mountain for nearly two hours the skies opened and, with the scenery now blurred by the haze of a rainstorm, we decided to turn back before reaching the peak. The lava tubes, perfect for a rainy day, were closed due to the fact that it was the first Wednesday of the month…silly us. And, to top things off, by the time we had exasperated both of these options, the museum was nearing closing time. In a desperate attempt to salvage the day, we randomly hopped off the bus back to Seogwipo to search for a beach in the illusion that it could still be enjoyable in a downpour…it wasn’t.

If our tone comes across as bitter, that’s because at the time it was, but there were some bright spots throughout the day (none coming from the weather) that made it worthwhile. One of these came on our way to the mountain in the morning. As we walked to the bus stop, we stumbled upon a street lined with cherry blossom trees so big and full that they formed a canopy over the road, creating a floral tunnel for the cars to drive through. On the ground below them, thousands upon thousands of tiny white petals laid scattered about, making it look like a fresh coat of snow had just fallen. For us, it was one of those unplanned moments that you can never recreate, just pure contentedness with where you are and what you’re doing.

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Cherry blossoms hanging over the street.
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Walking through the snow-like petals.

Another of these moments came as we walked back from the lava tubes after finding out they were closed. Despite every excuse to be downtrodden, we found ourselves enjoying the rain-soaked hike back to the bus stop. The rain and wind, while no friend to our shoes or pants, gave the surrounding countryside a sense of beauty that might not have existed on a sunny day. The green seemed greener in the fields of grass that swayed hypnotically in the fluctuating patterns of the wind. Yellow and purple flowers dotted the landscape. Even the humble stone walls, which cut through the entire island, were stunning in the rain, blacker than ever and serving as a neat divide to the palette of colors surrounding them. It was a scene worth walking through very slowly, which we did until the rain picked up and our pace with it until we were back at the bus stop.

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A field of grass along the way.
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The black stone walls.

We spent the next two hours in the humid interior of the bus and, after finally getting back to Seogwipo, it was safe to say that all of the satisfaction we had managed to soak up throughout the day had now been rung dry. Wanting to end our time on the island on a good note, we decided to try a black pork restaurant that would have been way out of our price range on our first day but now seemed perfectly reasonable. It was worth every penny, or won for that matter, and one of the more unique restaurant experiences we’ve ever had.

Shortly after being seated, our table, which also served as our grill, was filled with plate after plate of appetizers by the waiter who culminated his back and forth kitchen runs with two slabs of black pork on the grill. After that, the warm, orange charcoals burning underneath did the rest of the work and in no time we had a feast. For the next hour or so, we existed in a state of bliss as we delicately sampled the different tastes before us with a pair of steel chopsticks, paying extra attention to the juicy, flavor-filled strips of pork that went down like potato chips. It was the perfect meal for an imperfect day.

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Our black pork feast.

Our last morning didn’t consist of much. We woke up early, made a mad dash to the bus station in the pouring rain, by now as omnipresent to the island as the ocean surrounding it, and spent the remainder of our time in the airport. As we waited for our flight and reminisced about our trip, the rainy days and missed opportunities had all but washed away in our memories. Only the good things remained, and there were plenty of those.

Jigokudani

The journey to Jigokudani from Tokyo was long but enjoyable and ended as our bus rolled up a snowy hillside and came to a stop outside a small wooden shelter. The bus driver began shouting some things to the passengers and we listened attentively to the string of Japanese that ended with “snow monkeys” in broken English. At the sound of this we stood up along with everyone else and shuffled out into the cold. After looking clueless for a few moments, we were lazily pointed in the direction of the park and anxiously began making our way further up the hillside, following the signs with little pictures of smiling monkeys on them to guide us. The signs eventually led us to a steep set of stairs towered over by a big banner adorned with pictures of bathing monkeys, our official welcome to the park.

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The view from the bus stop.
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At the entrance to the park.

Despite the icy state of the stairs, we opted to forego the crampons being sold at the foot in the hope that our boots would be sufficient enough to carry us up. Luckily, the hill was short and a rope laid alongside the stairs, both of which served to our advantage in getting up it easily without the traction of the crampons…frugality had won out this time. Once at the top of the hill, we were met with a scene out of a Christmas greeting card. The path, now long and flat, wound into a thick forest of cedar trees, whose branches still carried the burden of the latest snowfall, some of which would occasionally fall on our heads, creating the illusion of a blizzard.

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The scenery along our hike.

It was exciting seeing snow again after nearly two years without it. Our enjoyment of it was aided by nostalgia and the fact that it was the kind of snow depicted in the movies, white and pure, a far cry from the gray, sloppy reality of a Midwestern winter. Without fail, snowballs were made and trees (and occasionally each other) were targeted as we slowly made our way along the path. After meandering for about 30 minutes, the forest cleared out into a valley whose edges we would zig-zag up to continue our hike through the park.

As we walked along, little by little, we would start to notice more people on the path. A person here. A family there. Some were on their way back from the park, parents clutching children who were excitedly recalling what they had both just seen. By that time, the trees and snow had become old news and our pace quickened in anticipation of what we knew was so near. Finally, we came to an area where a small crowd of people were huddled under a tree. As we followed their gazes up it, we got our first sight of the macaque monkeys that gave the park its fame.

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Our first sighting.
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Basking in the sun.

As excited as we were to see it sitting perched in the tree, our attention was quickly diverted because another monkey would brush our leg, or walk by on the railing beside us. Everywhere we looked there were monkeys and as interested as we were in them, they couldn’t have cared less about us. An obstacle in their everyday life. If the rice that they snacked on wasn’t thrown from human hands, who knows if we would have been tolerated at all. For our sake though, we were, and not only that but able to interact with them in a way we had never been able to with wild animals before.

Determined not to overstep our boundaries though, we kept our distance, appreciating the monkeys from afar while on the lookout for the onsen, a Japanese hot spring, where the monkeys famously bathed. We only had to look as far as the crowd of people mushrooming out from a steaming cluster of rocks in the distance to know where to go.

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The onsen on the left among the crowd of people.

Walking up to the onsen was like walking through the TV screen into a National Geographic special. All around the hot spring, monkeys lounged around in different states of indulgence. Some partook in gluttony, lapping up water and picking bugs, others in sloth, sitting on the rocks surrounding the water and soaking in the steam. Perhaps the smartest and most blissful looking of all though were the ones physically in the pool, most of them with their eyes closed, tuning out the world around them. Having just been to an onsen ourselves the night before, we felt a bit like voyeurs gazing in. This feeling wouldn’t last long however as the smell of monkey feces carried to our nostrils by the hot spring’s steam put an end to any trace of jealousy we were feeling.

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Monkeys enjoying their spa treatment.
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One of the monkeys swimming around the onsen.
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Relaxing in the pool.

Occasionally, a monkey would grow tired of the hot spring and climb out, fur soaked and steaming, and make its way through the crowd, which consisted of a slew of paparazzi, cameras ready and hanging on their every movement. Each time a monkey would do this, or anything that resembled exertion, a chorus of oohs and ahhs would accompany it. Despite this and our constant crowding around them, blocking their paths, and shoving cameras in their faces, the monkeys, for the most part, kept to themselves, scoffing at the attention being showered down on them.

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Leaving the pool.
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Glamour shot.

This wasn’t always the case though, as Kate found out first hand what happens when the line of tolerance is crossed. Leaning in to take a picture of one particular monkey whose privacy had apparently been invaded too much that day, Kate was swiped at by the monkey who then proceeded to jump on to her and climb up her leg. As this happened, those around her were much more concerned in extending their camera lenses than a helping hand, leaving Kate to fend for herself. Luckily though, the monkey’s efforts to retrieve the camera were abandoned rather quickly as it lost interest and moved on to its next endeavor.

Taking the hint, we moved on from the hot springs, following the river that flowed alongside it to a more open area where the simian-sapien ratio wasn’t as human heavy. Among the abundance of monkeys lounging along the banks, we chose to sit by three who were picking bugs out of each other’s fur. Shortly after we sat down, the monkeys heads shot up and they and nearly all of the other ones around them began hurrying over to the hot springs. Curious to find the cause of commotion, we followed the migration to a group of park rangers throwing a dinner of rice grains into the hot springs and surrounding snow banks. The bugs, we supposed, had been their appetizer.

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Hors d’oeuvres
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Snacking on some rice.
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Foraging…
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…and more foraging.

Oddly enough, as we watched the monkeys forage though the snow and water in search of the rice we were reminded of our own hunger and decided to bid farewell to our newfound friends, making our way back through the forest and down the hillside until finally reaching the bus stop to take us back to Tokyo.

Hakone

It wasn’t a matter of if but how. Long before itineraries were made or hostels booked, we knew that our trip to Japan wouldn’t be complete without a visit to it’s iconic centerpiece: Mt. Fuji. We had read of train rides that ran by the mountain, offering spectacular views, and of a base camp near its foot where climbers journeying to the peak began their trek, but neither of these had the experience of Mt. Fuji that we were looking for. We craved more than a glimpse from a train car and certainly had no intention of doing any climbing in the dead of winter. Instead, we wanted a place to quietly contemplate it from afar and we found this in Hakone, a small town perched on the shores of Lake Ashi.

Upon arriving in Hakone, we couldn’t help but notice the unmistakeable lake-town vibe it had. The small buildings scattered across the landscape, clear blue skies, cool, crisp air blowing in off the lake, and, perhaps best of all after having just been in Tokyo, a slow and quiet lifestyle. Anxious to take part in the latter, we found a bench near the lake to enjoy a picnic and take in the scenery, which, apart from the beautiful view of Lake Ashi, gave us our first glimpse of Mt. Fuji. From that angle though, it was just a sliver of white peeking out from the surrounding hills.

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The view from our picnic bench.

Eager for a full view, we began working our way around the lake. Along our walk, we went through a centuries-old cedar forest, which, despite being alongside one of the busier roads in the town, was incredibly peaceful. As we passed through the forest, massive trunk after massive trunk sat perfectly aligned along the curves of the road. Tall and straight, they looked almost like ancient Roman columns, only rather than holding up giant marble roofs, these appeared to hold up the sky.

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Ryan standing in between two of the cedar trees.
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Natural columns
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Kate hugging one of the trunks to show how big they are.

Before coming on the trip we had read about the “shyness” of Mt. Fuji and how it’s often obscured by clouds, but, as we emerged from the forest, the reality of our first full view of the mountain couldn’t have been further from this. The peak, nearly perfectly symmetrical, was as clear and detailed to us being miles away as the hills just a few hundred yards away. It was so clear in fact that we could see the veins of black that coursed through the snow capping the peak. The whiteness of it clashing beautifully with the expanse of blue sky.

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Our first view of Mt. Fuji after coming out of the forest.

Even though the scenery wasn’t going anywhere, we decided that we would have to sit for a while to take it all in and fully appreciate the beauty of it. So, we chose a spot along the lake, which was perfect because, apart from Mt. Fuji in the distance and the lake itself, there were plenty of other things to look at. Small, humble hills dotted the shores of the lake, worn rowboats bobbed on the water, and a lone orange torii gate sat partially submerged in the lake. It was like looking out at a painting. An entire story preserved in one scene.

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A quintessential Japanese scene we enjoyed from the shore of Lake Ashi.
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Boats floating on the lake

After nearly an hour of looking out at the view, the first deterrence from the stillness of the scene before us came when a large ship sailed across the water towards a small port out of our view. This was our signal to move on as riding on the ship to the other side of the lake was one of the activities we had been looking forward to doing in the town.

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The pirate ship we rode across the lake.

 

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Kate on the ship

So, we made our way to the port and boarded the ship, which, for some reason, resembled a pirate ship right down to the elaborately dressed captain walking around the docks taking pictures with people. The ride on the boat, while extremely cold and windy, was enjoyable and gave us a different perspective of the lake and Mt. Fuji. After about a 30-minute ride, we got off on the other side of the lake where we discovered that the cable car we had planned to take to the top of one of the hills was partially closed due to volcanic activity. Curious as to how far we were allowed to go and what scenery awaited us there, we took the cable car as far up as they would allow us, which was worth it because along the way we got a uniquely spectacular view of Mt. Fuji.

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The view of Mt. Fuji from our cable car.

With little to do around the cable car station itself and running out of daylight, we decided to start making our way back to the train station, taking the cable car back down the hill and boarding the ship to take us back across the lake. Somehow, with just an hour or so separating us from our last ride, the trip was exponentially colder and windier, making it more a trip of endurance than enjoyment.

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Taking in the view one last time before heading back.

Back on solid ground, we began retracing our steps back to the station. Once back, the setting sun announced it was time to return to Tokyo, but our watches, which only read 6:00, told us otherwise. Determined not to be fooled into an early departure by the premature dusk, we began our search for an onsen, a natural hot spring popular in the hotels and resorts around Hakone.

Because of their popularity, we only had to venture across the river that ran alongside the station to find one. Never having gone to an onsen before, we were clueless as to what to expect, though we anticipated something similar to an outdoor hot tub; however, the experience was so much more than that, being an almost ritualistic experience where there were clear rules and guidelines about what to do and how to act.

The first of these guidelines was that bathing suits weren’t allowed so, naturally, the second one was that we had to go our separate ways. Despite being in different areas for the entirety of our time there, we later found that our onsen experience was pretty similar. As we entered the changing rooms, our first order of business was to remove our clothes. Piece by piece, we removed each article as reluctantly as in a game of strip poker. As we did this, we noticed that we seemed to be the only ones with inhibitions about public nudity as naked children ran around the room followed by equally naked octogenarians.

Being clear outliers in our uneasiness, we quickly dropped it and headed to the indoor pool, the next step in the process that culminated in the outdoor hot springs. Before getting into the steaming water, we had to first stop at a bathing station where we showered our bodies and hair while sitting on a short stool. After our bath, and a quick dip in the indoor pool, we were finally able to head outside into the freezing cold and slide into the onsen’s soothing water. The experience was purely natural, down to the stone interior of the pools, the wooden huts standing over them, and the bamboo forest surrounding it. We laid our heads back, closed our eyes and enjoyed every minute of it.

Unfortunately though, the minutes faded away as quickly as the steam into the frigid nighttime air and, after an hour and half of pure relaxation, we decided it was time to go. As we entered the changing room, we put on our clothes as reluctantly as we had taken them off, headed back to the train station, and boarded our train for Tokyo.

Yuanyang

Our journey to see the rice terraces of Yuanyang, which took an exhausting 17 hours to get to, officially began as our minivan rolled into the village of Duoyishu, which sits in the south of the Yunnan province near the border of Vietnam. Being nighttime when we arrived and in the middle of rural China, we opted to have an ayi (which literally means “auntie”) from Jacky’s Guesthouse meet us as we got out of the minivan. We were thankful to have her as our guide as we were led through a labyrinth of dimly-lit streets, dodging piles of water buffalo dung along the way, before arriving at the guesthouse, a destination we most likely would not have reached on our own and most definitely would not have reached with clean shoes without the help of the ayi. Upon entering the hostel we were met with a candle-lit common room and were told that the village had no electricity that night. The warm glow of the candles created an enchanting atmosphere and gave us a feeling of escape from modernity that we had wanted from this trip.

The dinner was a sampling of Yunnan cuisine, something we were excited for as our favorite restaurants in Shanghai feature food from the region. We were not disappointed as the ayis brought us dish after dish of heaping platters of delicious food that included vegetables, chicken and, of course, rice. We were convinced that one of the dishes served to us, which had a rubbery texture and meaty taste, was either a foreign meat we had never tried before like water buffalo or an organ. Out of curiosity (but mostly politeness) we picked away at the mysterious brown strips, though most of it was left uneaten as we returned the plate to the kitchen. After dinner, exhausted from our day, we retired to bed, anticipating the scenery that we would be seeing the next day.

For those who aren’t aware, China has a single time zone across the whole country, which would be like San Francisco and New York sharing the same time. This, however strange, worked to our advantage as what would normally have been a 5:00 in the morning, drag-ourselves-out-of-bed experience to see the sunrise, ended up being a pleasant 7:00 alarm. A point even more important as our first morning was obscured by fog and rain, rendering the terrace-filled horizon in front of us nearly invisible. After realizing that neither were going away any time soon, we ate our breakfast of instant taro oatmeal packets and headed out to explore the village, whose feeling of timelessness was furthered by the presence of the fog.

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Duoyishu, the village we stayed in
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Village streets on a foggy morning

The pathways of the village, narrow and barely removed from being dirt roads, wound through the mushroom-topped buildings in no discernible pattern and were bordered by narrow and gushing canals of water making their way to the terraces. As for the village inhabitants, they seemed to consist mostly of farm animals. For every adult you would see, chickens, roosters, ducks, pigs, dogs and an occasional water buffalo would amble after, roaming freely through the streets. Amidst the animals were groups of children, most of them playing in the first floors of their homes which also served as the family barn. The game of choice for them was some form of marbles that used stones, which served doubly as ammunition to repel foreigners whose curiosity drew them in too close. One girl, wary of throwing rocks, resorted to spitting on us. Both sent a clear message to move on, which we did, shifting our focus to the terraces as they had become visible again.

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Taking the water buffalo for a walk
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Children playing in their house

All throughout our first day, like clockwork the fog would slowly creep up the mountainside, absorbing the village and the scenery around it before receding soon after, making the valley seem alive as the rhythmic rise and fall of the fog gave the illusion of the valley breathing. As it began to inhale once more, we made our way back to the hostel and were glad to find Jacky there as we had some pending questions, among them what to do if we were fortunate enough to have clear weather the next day. We discussed these as well as his long list of travel experiences (which included a 3-year UNESCO photography project that took him from Barcelona to Bangkok and everywhere in between) over some flaky rose-filled pastries and coffee around the resident wood-burning stove.

We also asked him about the mystery meat from the night before. We were surprised to find that it wasn’t meat at all, but a root (most similar to cassava) that Jacky and the ayis had painstakingly sought it out on the mountain several days prior to us arriving and dug it out of the ground with their own hands over the course of several hours. A feat they were extremely proud of as it was heavily documented in photographs. The more the story carried on, the lower we sunk in our seats out of shame for leaving it uneaten. For the rest of our meals, we practically licked every last grain of rice from the plate.

As our rose cake and coffee supply dwindled along with our conversation, due to more guests arriving, we were told of a secluded outlook to watch the sunrise, which we decided to map out on foot that evening before the little daylight we had left ran out. The route took us out of our village and to the outskirts of another, where, at the edge of a cliff, we were given a sweeping view of the valley, which was flooded with terraces out with mountains climbing out of them in the distance. If the weather was cooperative the next day, we knew the sunrise would be a memorable one.

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A farmer making his way back home as the sun sets

Back at the guesthouse, we were welcomed with sweet potatoes roasted in the wood-burning oven that we had sat around earlier. About halfway into our first potato, a Taiwanese couple joined us and, through our broken Chinese and their unfailing patience, we somehow managed to carry out a conversation that lasted all the way through dinner. Afterwards, to the amusement of the ayis, we played a couple card games to soak in the heat of the stove a bit longer before retiring to our ice box of a room, anxiously awaiting the next day.

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Remnants of sweet potatoes on the wood-burning stove
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Eating dinner with the Taiwanese couple, our patient new friends

We set out in the dark with only a small flashlight to guide us down rain-slicked paths to the outlook for the sunrise. Periodically, out of the darkness, beams of light in the distance would slowly materialize into schoolchildren as they passed us on their way to school. Each was holding a metal pail filled with noodles, rural China’s version of breakfast on the go. Along the walk, to our dismay, the fog swallowed the valley whole which made us dubious about our prospects of seeing the sunrise. Nonetheless, we continued and, once off the beaten path, we trudged through patches of mud on a narrow trail before making it to the cliff we had mapped out the evening before. As we looked out, trees not even 10 yards in front of us, let alone the valley of terraces below, were barely visible due to the clinging darkness and shrouding fog that had, for us, become synonymous with the early mornings of the village.

Just as we were beginning to lose hope of seeing the sunrise, the fog began to recede, revealing the faint outlines of the terraces below. Shortly after, although the sun stayed behind the clouds, the valley slowly began to illuminate. As the light made first contact with each pool of water, the valley became an artist’s palette of dark blue and silver pastels with one transitioning to the next until the entire valley seemed to glow. At that point, the only detail separating the sky from the terraces were the black veins of clay running along each pool of water.

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The terraces at dawn
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Taking in the views

Our appreciation of the beauty playing out before us was interrupted by an intoxicated villager, reeking of cheap alcohol, who stumbled up to us and tried to charge us for watching the sunrise. A crumpled piece of paper pulled from his pocket with Chinese characters scribbled on it was clear justification for this. When we wouldn’t pay he began shouting at us until we begrudgingly left the spot and moved down another hundred yards or so where we were pleased to find the scenery was unchanged. The solitude of our newfound location dwindled however, so we decided to return to the guesthouse for breakfast before embarking on the long day ahead of us. Once back, we were faced with two choices, taro oatmeal in a glass cup or homemade noodle soup. Although we debated briefly, our choice was obvious and we ordered two bowls of tomato and egg soup, which were complimented surprisingly well by a cup of coffee.

Our day’s agenda consisted of trekking through the countryside along the edges of the terraced valley following a hand-drawn map Jacky had given us the night before. Our route started at a local market, which was an experience unto itself as all of the inhabitants of the surrounding villages descended onto one street to sell their goods, which included everything from fruits and vegetables to live ducks to freshly slaughtered pigs whose heads still sat perched on the tables where the rest of their body was being sold (it may be a while until we eat bacon again!). Perhaps the most interesting part of the market though were the people, dressed in their traditional clothes and carrying on with their traditional lives, with only minor traces of the modern world woven into them. It was not uncommon to see a woman walk by with a basket on her back filled with live chickens and large vegetables. Nor was it uncommon to see groups of men (who, it should be noted, do not like to have their picture taken) huddled around each other smoking tobacco out of aluminum bongs. For us, everything was so foreign, but for them it was simply life.

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Local women lining up at the butcher’s counter
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This little piggy went to market…
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Pigs on a leash
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Local man smoking tobacco

As the region was still fairly new to the tourist scene and well-marked roads quickly disappeared into overgrown dirt paths, we stuck closely to Jacky’s hand-drawn maps to guide us along the way. We soon found out that, however charming and personal the map was, it didn’t quite live up to our expectations of reliability, which was crucial given that we were in an area more accustomed to taking the water buffalo for a walk than interacting with tourists. After about an hour of walking and not seeing anything that resembled the checkpoints on the map, we realized that, in our excitement to begin the trek, we had confidently marched off in the complete opposite direction from where we should have gone. So, we backtracked our steps all the way to the market where, to our relief, we saw the first checkpoint, a large red sign literally pointing us in the right direction. We swallowed our pride and, after winding down a road for nearly half an hour, made it to our next checkpoint: a cliff overlooking an unobstructed view of some terraces.

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Midday rest after finally finding the correct path

We perched ourselves on one of the cliff rocks and looked down into the valley, following the seemingly endless levels of terraces climb up the side of the mountain where they eventually disappeared into the sunlight. Each pool of water took a different form from the next, fitting together like a puzzle to fill the landscape. The water that filled them also followed no particular pattern as the color they reflected was determined by how the light touched them. Some glistened in the direct rays of the sun, while others took on the appearance of a mirror, an opaque silver reflecting the sky above. As we drew our gaze inward to the more minute details, an occasional stable would dot the valley and we could even see a farmer and his water buffalo toiling away in the water, unaware that we were watching his everyday life in amazement. With an abundance of other details waiting to be discovered, we decided that there was as good of place as any to have our lunch, which humbly consisted of some oranges bought at the market and a pack of crackers.

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View of the terraces from the cliff
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A stable among the terraces
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One last picture before continuing

After finishing, we put the terraced valley behind us and began wandering from small village to smaller village. Most of our energy along the way was used to decipher Jacky’s map, which was equal parts adventurous and frustrating as some of the checkpoints included things like “two trees” and “a large rock.” Luckily for us, a friendly local would point us in the right direction every few hundred yards or so and we soon arrived at the next major spot on our trek: the Bada terraces.

Although the terraces looked no different from the two we had seen before, it was still easy to lose ourselves in their intricate patterns. By now, the sun was beginning to set and the pools that it’s light hit stood out even more drastically than the rest, emitting a bright white glow. The waning sunlight nudged us along as we began making our way through the quickly diminishing remains of our journey. For the next hour we were taken down overgrown dirt paths clinging to the hillside where we would pass women collecting twigs for their nightly fire, over the terraces themselves, balancing on the narrow, slippery clay mounds that separated each pool, along mud strewn paths where it was difficult to discern between water buffalo dung and mud, and through the roads of a small village which eventually led up to the area’s main road, marking our last checkpoint on the map and, sadly, the end of our journey.

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The Bada terraces
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The waning sunlight reflecting off of the pools
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Nearing the end of our trip

For us though, our long day hadn’t been long enough and, with an hour left until sunset, we hailed a minivan to take us back to the Bada terraces where we found a secluded spot and watched the light slowly recede from the valley. The day, and entire trip for that matter, had given us everything we wanted: a complete and peaceful seclusion from the world around us. The scarce person we would see along our walks seemed to be just as anxious to get away from us as we were from them. It was the perfect escape, making it all the more difficult to say goodbye as our minivan pulled away from the village the next morning.