The word “mudflat” is not one that typically inspires images of beauty. In fact, upon hearing the word, you probably picture exactly what it’s name implies: a large expanse of flat land covered ingloppy mud, which, essentially, is what it is. Surround a mudflat with old fishing villages whose specialty is drying seaweed and the idea that a place like this could ever be considered beautiful now becomes almost laughable. It was to our surprise then that photos we saw of a place called the Xiapu Mudflats, a small coastal area in the north of China’s Fujian Province, could be some of the most unique and transfixing images we had ever seen. In the photos, thin layers of glinting water wove like veins over the mud, creating a tiger-like pattern over the earth. In the nearby ocean, a multitude of bamboo poles used for drying seaweed rose out of it like a dead forest. There were images of fisherman wielding strange devices and mist covered mountains looming in the distance. The mudflats, we decided almost immediately, were a place we most definitely had to see.
Our experience with them came on the morning of our first and, regrettably, only day in Xiapu. Not wanting to miss the much-hyped (for good reason) sunrises that were featured in so many of the images we had seen, we rose early and hired a taxi to take us to the nearby Beiqi Mudflats. After arriving at the site, we exited the taxi to complete darkness, the only source of light being the bobbing headlamps of fisherman making their way to the beach and a small food cart, conveniently perched alongside the path that led to the viewing platform. Walking past the food vendor and up the small hill, we eventually came upon a small group of people where we decided to stop and secure our spot for the sunrise.
As light began seeping out of the horizon, the features of the landscape before us slowly began to take shape; everything inhabited an eerie shade of blue. As more light made its way into the scene, the water transformed to a sheath of silver, its glassy finish being disrupted only by the ripples of fisherman wading knee-deep into the shallow ocean. The silver eventually lost its vibrancy and turned to such a degree of gray that we began to doubt whether or not the sun would make an appearance. Our worries were soon put to rest though when, about an hour and a half after we arrived, a sliver of orange peeked out over the mountains to cheers from the crowd which were soon followed by a uniform silence of admiration. Within minutes, the sun was fully in the sky and the water below was now golden. As we watched we knew, from that point on, that mudflat would be a word that we’d always associate with beauty.
To look at the massive earthen structure known as a tuloufrom above is to see a perfect circle tucked into the verdant, subtropical hills of China’s Fujian Province. While this image may conjure up nothing more than faint curiosity from someone today, it created quite a different impression upon those viewing grainy satellite images of them in the midst of the Cold War. Upon seeing thousands of the circular structures hidden away in the Chinese countryside in 1985, those in the U.S. intelligence community could not help but note their striking similarity to missile silos, believing the entirety of the thousand-plus network of buildings to be a sprawling nuclear base. To get a closer look, two representatives of the New York Institute of Photography were sent for a tour of China with one of their stops conveniently being to see the tulous. The images they brought back with them and presented to the CIA must have garnered some level of amusement from those suspecting a nuclear base for the tulous were anything but, the equivalent of suspecting a child’s flashlight to be a planet-destroying laser; the two were simply unrelated.
Our experience with the tulous fell under less suspicious circumstances, though our curiosity about them must have certainly been on par with those first foreign visitors nearly thirty years prior. As our tuk tuk rattled up to the entrance of Chuxi village, one of the many housing the tulous, we happily paid our driver the minuscule fee for the half hour ride and began making our way toward the centuries-old structures that gave the sleepy agricultural villages their fame.
Though we could never recall when exactly it occurred, at some point on our walk into the village we all of a sudden felt as if we had become unattached to the modern world. To our left, an untouched forest climbed out of sight into the punishing glare of the sun, a deafening cacophony of insect noises emanating from its core. To our right, a gurgling stream haphazardly made its way around different rocks and bends, occasionally bursting to life in the form of a small waterfall before quickly returning to a trickle. As we neared the village, a Shire-esque scene unfolded before us. Dominating it were the otherworldly tulous standing formidably over a patchwork of overflowing gardens that covered the landscape. Villagers meandered about, some in an aimless manner suggesting that not only were they not in a hurry to get where they were going, but also that they had no real destination in mind; and others in a more purposeful manner as they busily carried large buckets of water from one garden to the next. It was then that we realized that it wasn’t just the tulous that attracted a steady stream of tourists to the villages, but also the way of life that they helped preserve.It is one thing to escape modernity on a secluded mountain top, it is an entirely other experience to escape it amidst a community of people.
This feeling would follow us to Yuqinglou, one of the three round tulous in the village and our place of residence for the next two nights. Upon passing through the massive front door, we were greeted by a charming, yet noticeably oft-rehearsed tea ceremony where we sipped the local tea, chatted with the residents, and learned that this particular tulou dated back to the 1700s. After finishing our tea we were led to our room up two flights of wooden stairs whose sturdiness was put into question due to the cartoonish creaking they emitted under the weight of each step.
Upon entering our room we were rather surprised to find that, despite booking a private room, we already had a roommate in the form of a spider the size of our hand that moved at the speed of vampire as with each blink we would find it had moved several feet across the room. Well accustomed to smashing giant spiders in hotel rooms on previous trips, I decided that my desire to appear courageous had reached its limit and I promptly summoned one of the tulou residents to help. In a hum drum manner, she cornered the spider, sprayed poison in its direction, and then watched nonchalantly as it scurried by her feet and under the bed. After this, she looked at us in a manner that suggested an, “Okay, all done” attitude and seemed slightly surprised when we asked to be moved to another room. Any misguided comfort we took in the idea that our new room would be comparatively less spidery was squashed as the corpse of one blew out from behind a table as we closed the curtains.
Eager to escape the confines of our room, we headed down to a separate building where the tulou owners cooked dinner for the guests. Upon telling the cook that we only wanted vegetable dishes, he went back into the kitchen and brought back handfuls of different kinds of vegetables that looked as if they had just been picked that day as they were still covered in dirt (we could only imagine what would have happened had we opted for meat!). After nodding in agreement with the choices before us, he returned to the kitchen and shortly after was presenting us with our dinner, a truly farm to table experience. Travel weary, we inhaled the food before reluctantly returning to our room where we would pass the night without the luxury of sleep due to the waking nightmare of spiders lurking in the darkness.
While not technologically advanced like the nuclear base they were expected to be, the tulous were still architectural marvels in and of themselves. Built from nothing more than mud, bamboo and stone, they have withstood centuries of natural disasters, political turmoil, and the wear and tear of generation after generation of families living in them. The walls, which can be up to six feet thick, are so strong that during a peasant uprising in one village, the Chinese army fired 19 cannon shots at a tulou only to barely make a dent in its walls. The twentieth shot, they had apparently decided, would have been just as useless as the previous 19. This level of protection proved handy for the tulou’s residents who, when traveling armies of bandits would rummage through the countryside to sack villages, would simply shut the front door and be fairly certain that the bandits would grow weary of trying to penetrate the impenetrable and move on. Each one was essentially a castle with all of the resources that the several hundred residents inside would need to survive existing within the walls. As we groggily rolled out of bed the next morning, our only thought was that we wished they had figured out a way to keep the spiders out.
Happy to ditch our room and explore the village, we quickly perked up as we exited into the courtyard. Gazing around the tulou’s interior had a dizzying effect as our eyes made loops around the encircling corridors whose charming wooden build was always worth making it back around for another look. Hanging from the eaves of each floor were tattered lanterns whose trademark redness had been reduced to a faint pink; we couldn’t imagine them having ever looked new. Equally time worn baskets hung from the balconies along with bundles of drying herbs and spices. One could spend an entire day just admiring and exploring the tulou’s interior we thought, an idea furthered by the cool, breezy corridor we were standing in.
After leaving the tulou, our first order of business for the day was to climb an outlying hill to get an aerial perspective of the village. A short climb led us to a small pavilion where we took in sweeping views of the village and the forests and hills that encased it. The tulous, whose yellowish tone added to their otherworldly aura, appeared synonymous with the surrounding landscape of mountains, forests and terraced fields. We could scantly imagine one without the other.
Looking closer, we noticed that village life was carrying on much in the same way as it had done the day before. As we watched the motorbikes and people make their way around the village we had the sensation of looking down on a miniature toy set, feeling as if we could almost reach down and pick up one of the people or vehicles moving about. After toying with this idea for what felt like hours, we decided to upend it by going into the village itself and gaining a more realistic perspective into the features we had been examining from above.
As we walked through the streets, the feeling of timelessness dominated our thoughts. Apart from the occasional trait of modernity that came in the form of a new car driving past or a satellite dish perched outside a tulou window, we imagined that there would be no real difference between a photograph taken now compared to a black and white one from a century earlier. Tattered signs desperately clung to building walls, remnants of Mao existed in faded portraits adorning the front door of some residences, and equally worn looking villagers sat in courtyards chattering amongst themselves before being interrupted by long contemplative pauses as they re-examined their surroundings.
The trace of youth was few and far between. Young children could be found running about, some sheepishly approaching us to practice their pronunciation of “hello,” and one afternoon we stumbled across a couple of teenagers playing basketball, chickens scurrying about their feet as they played, but the village was dominated and in essence run by people who looked as if they were enjoying the twilight years of life rather than the prime of it. Perhaps this was one of the biggest purveyors of the sense of timelessness that we felt. The village was stuck, not in an image of today but rather the manifestation of the older villagers’ memory of a time decades earlier. Whatever doom this spelled for the village’s future, it did make for quite a unique experience for us during the time we spent there, a feeling that would sadly end as we climbed in a car the next morning to take us back to Xiamen and away from the slow village life that we had so adored.
Few things weigh more heavily on the success of a trip than…breakfast. Often the first dip of the toe into the cultural waters you have decided to immerse yourself in, the first breakfast can send you off with either a good taste in your mouth or bad (both figuratively and literally) about your chosen destination and the people who live there. As we set out for our first day in Luoyang, an ancient capital of China, we found ourselves having the better of the two experiences. On a gray and chilly morning, we mused about viewing the millennia-old grottoes, historic temples, and blossoming peonies that characterized the city over a bowl of steaming soup served out of a giant metal vat on the side of the street as people bustled about us, in a hurry to start their day. The waters, we thought to ourselves, would be just fine.
Hard hit by the struggles of China’s recent history, it became increasingly more difficult to imagine the glories of its ancient history as we made our way from our breakfast nook towards the Longmen grottoes.From the seat of our bus, we gazed out the window at the dreary spread of shabby-looking buildings as they passed by one by one. Occasionally, to our delight, a park would flicker by, a patch of fleeting green in the otherwise monotone spread of grays and browns whose lack of vibrancy was furthered by the dim light struggling through the stoic, overcast sky overhead. After nearly an hour on the bus, we finally arrived at the grottoes and exited to find ourselves in an area that in no way hinted that a UNESCO World Heritage Site was within reach but rather resembled a scene much like the one we had been witnessing for the duration of our bus ride.
Surely we were in the right place though, we thought, as tour buses lined the streets and a steady stream of people was moving off purposefully towards some unseen point in a manner that called to mind an ant colony crossing a sidewalk. Assuming the grottoes lay at the end of the stream, we promptly queued up and within minutes were at the entrance gates. So is the miracle of China, you can be walking down the most derelict street imaginable, turn the corner, and suddenly find yourself in a posh area feeling underdressed or, in our case, amidst a world-renowned tourist destination.
After purchasing our tickets and passing through the gate, it didn’t take long for us to come across the first carving we would see that day. Heavily eroded and barely bigger than the size of our palm, the three carvings sat humbly indented into the face of the mountain. If we had seen these at the end of our day at the grottoes, we most likely would have passed them by without a glance, but there is always something special about the initial sighting of something you’ve been eager to see. Like the first animal you come upon at the zoo, or first flower of spring, your first glimpse into the whole always seems to resonate more, before you sadly become desensitized to it all and seeing things like thousand-year-old cave carvings starts to feel normal. So was the case with this first one, in no way spectacular when compared to the others that we would see, but captivating all the same.
As we left that initial carving and walked on, the mountain took on the appearance of a honeycomb with countless man made caves of different shapes and sizes burrowing into its side. Their holdings, dark and mysterious from afar, came into focus with each step towards them. Cross-legged Buddhas, humble deities, and even the occasional monster emerged from the shadows, emanating an aura of peace and reverence that even the raucous Qing Ming Festival crowds adhered to.
Moving from cave to cave, we began to realize that the carvings we paid the most attention to were not the well-preserved ones, whose sharp features time had seemingly forgotten, but rather the heavily eroded ones.Within these, the separate carvings had all but lost their distinctness from one another, their individual traits disappearing into the marbled strokes of the mountain that ran through them, making them appear like one.
Sadly though, not all faded or impartial carvings that we would come across were due to erosion as some did not bear its smooth uniformity but rather jagged hack marks that were the result of the manic destruction of the Cultural Revolution. Signs welcoming visitors to the park claimed that the defaced statues were the results of natural processes but anyone with a sliver of common sense and knowledge of something that happened barely over fifty years ago could tell the difference between the two.In nearly every cave, we could count on finding at least one statue whose face or sometimes entire body was missing, symbols of peace reduced to reminders of the perils that ensue when fear and hatred of things outside one’s own belief system become the identity of a country.
As troubling as the defaced statues were, it was comforting to know that, in the end, the mindset that would have served to destroy every last one at the site did not prevail, and that the grottoes now draw people by the thousands and thousands to come see not the ugliness of the mangled statues, but the beauty of the preserved ones. Nowhere was the enthusiasm for the latter more evident than at the center of the mountain, where the carvings, stretching several stories high, were so large that they appeared to have emerged from the mountain rather than having been carved into it.
There, the crowds, as epic as the statues themselves, buzzed about the plaza that sat at the feet of the monumental effigies as police with loudspeakers reminded visitors to not stop and take pictures so as to keep the crowds funneling through. Like a game of Frogger, we wove through the fast paced tour groups, stationary selfie takers, and occasional wandering smartphone zombie to secure a spot at the feet of the statues.
Close enough to reach out and touch them, we could never shake the feeling of unattainability they possessed as we took in their every detail. Perhaps it was their height that made them seem this way as they towered well beyond the reach of our heads. Or perhaps it was their age, being carved in a time and place that we just couldn’t relate to. What we eventually determined made them so unattainable though was the thing that made them human: their eyes. While we could see them, we couldn’t meet them as their gaze stretched far above us and into the distant hills.In the end it was our ability to get so close to the statues yet feel so far removed from them that gave the site a sense of mystery and intrigue that kept us walking back and forth for several hours before finally deciding to call it a day.
To say that our hostel in Luoyang felt like a home would be pretty accurate given that it was quite literally a man’s apartment repurposed to hold four small rooms. The owner, who exhibited such relentless kindness so as to make one slightly suspicious, informed us on our first night in the hostel that his hip was fractured, a feat made impressive by the fact that he rode a motorbike to meet us at the bus stop in the pouring rain, walked with us up the seven flights of stairs that led to his apartment, and slept on a mat on the floor as all of the beds were full that night.He seemed to enjoy it though, chatting with the dozen or so guests inhabiting his apartment, being an armchair guide to the city, and waiting on everyone with as much spring in his step as a fractured hip could allow. On our second day, we asked how to get to Shaolin Temple, the famed birthplace of Kung Fu, but, after finding out it would be an over 6-hour round-trip journey to get there and back, we opted instead to visit White Horse Temple, the birthplace of Buddhism in China. Upon asking the hostel owner how to get there, he excitedly waved us to the kitchen where he unfolded a well-used map to show us the quickest route there.
If the Inuit have over fifty words to describe ice and snow, then it would only be appropriate for the Chinese to have an equally colorful array of terms to describe large crowds of people, one of which translates literally to “people mountain, people sea.” At no point is this arsenal of descriptors more useful than during Chinese holidays, when crowds mushroom to the mind-numbing proportions of, well, a sea or mountain.
As we got off of the bus for White Horse Temple, the image of reverence and peace that one would expect the birthplace of Buddhism in China to evoke had seemingly been trampled under the feet of the enormous crowd jostling for position to get in line for tickets and enter the temple grounds. It was an atmosphere that, much to our dismay, would follow us into the temple, back out of it, and culminate in the frenzy that is hundreds of people with no adherence to anything resembling a line, or order for that matter, fighting each other for position to squeeze onto the infrequent buses leaving the area.
Like a college freshman swearing off drinking for life after their first night of binge drinking, so we swore off traveling during Chinese holidays as we sat on the overcrowded, overheated bus for over an hour, getting off only after Kate vomited in a plastic sleeve that had previously held a painting we had bought. If a perfect anecdote existed to deter anyone from traveling in China during the holidays, this surely was it.
Our third and last day in Luoyang would be dedicated to the city’s famed peonies, which were in full bloom and, more than the grottoes or temples, served as the city’s identity which was evident in their portrayal on everything from hotels to garbage trucks. Wary of facing the monster that was the crowds of the day before, we decided to skip the larger parks of the city and go instead, on the advice of our hostel’s owner, to a free park nearby that he assured us would satisfy our peony-viewing cravings.
After breakfast and a short walk to the park, we found ourselves amidst a modest spread of people and an anything-but-modest spread of peonies, whose large and expansive blooms were matched only in their numbers as bush after bush swelled up from the landscape, delightfully clogging our view in every direction.
Over the landscape, the patchy sky cast long running shadows that would stop abruptly, dulling some flowers while leaving others brightly illuminated by contrast, almost as if they were on stage, a spotlight illuminating each and every petal.
Apart from their varying degrees of visibility, the different peonies also differed in ways as obvious as their color, as some burned a hot pink while other wore a humble white, to ways more subtle like how the petals unfurled. On one end of the spectrum were tightly coiled blooms, whose petals gave a spongy resistance when squeezed, and on the other were those that hung loose and floppy like a dog’s ears. It was a scene worth walking through several times, which we did before bidding farewell to the peonies, which, in our minds, was like bidding farewell to Luoyang itself.
As far as we are concerned, there’s not much to be said about Fenghuang as our wanderings there were vague and our criticisms much more specific. So, as its charms lie not in the experiences to be had there, but rather in the sight of its stilted houses rising precariously along the river winding through it, we will leave you with a series of pictures rather than words to guide you through our experiences in Fenghuang.
As an added bonus, here are some great Chinglish/blatant copyright moments from our time in Fenghuang:
The Chinese tourism landscape is littered with superlatives. As one travels from site to site, it seems at times that nearly every one of them is preceded by a “most” or followed by an “-est”. Some are rather vague as in the countless countryside villages touting the “most beautiful scenery” in all of China while others are painfully specific as in Zhangjiajie, the mountain range rumored to have inspired the floating mountains in Avatar. There was the “longest and tallest glass bridge in the world” as well as the “highest natural bridge in the world” and the “longest passenger cableway in the world,” and who could forget the “the highest, fastest, largest-loaded outdoor elevator in the world.” These titles, seemingly thought up by a boastful toddler and devised to draw in tourists to a once-in-the-world experience, were misleading in that they made you think that the feat of engineering was the main attraction when in reality, it was what those feats of engineering led you to that was the real attraction for no amount of superlatives could capture how truly incredible the mountains themselves were.
Our first experience with the majestic Zhangjiajie came in the unmajestic process of slogging up its slopes in the thick summer heat. Mossy steps wound up and out of sight, disappearing into the dense greens of the forest. Alongside the steps a network of disheveled shrubs and weeds wriggled in and out of each other, their branches and vines spilling over the edges of the path, crowding the ground and air that we walked through. Out of the bushes sprang spider-like grasshoppers whose efforts to evade us, their alleged pursuer, failed miserably as they more often than not crashed into our bodies before falling to the ground and springing away again. Despite one crossing our path every minute or so, they weren’t the most notable insect accompanying our hike up the mountain as a cloud of flies called our face and its immediate vicinity home for the entirety of the climb and all around us the steady humming of the countless other insects inhabiting the forest reminded us that we were not alone on our hike.
If all of this sounds rather miserable, I can assure you it was not, quite the opposite actually as the slew of insect encounters was drowned out by the beauty of the scenery we were climbing through. Rising out of the aforementioned lush forest bed rose an army of trees stretching high into the bright sky of summer. And, if you cared to direct your gaze even further up than that, your view would almost always be accompanied by one of the unique columnal peaks of the mountain range. As we climbed higher and higher we couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to take the cable cars.
After about two hours we finally reached the top where, sadly, the crowds thickened and walkways thinned. One typically hikes up a mountain to escape crowds and noise, but in China, more often than not, you’ll find more of it at the top than you will at the bottom. Most of the people are harmless, bodies just like us moving around each other as they appreciate the views, but there are always some who, emboldened by their cable car ride up the mountain apparently, feel the need to shout at the top of their lungs every few minutes so as to announce to all other mountain dwellers that they are there.
As annoying as the shouts are, and they are always there, they eventually become white noise. As for the crowds, however frustrating it was to move through hoards of people on the top of a mountain, it was a sight designated for tourists which meant cable cars, clearly labeled paths, stone steps to hike up and down and even small shops selling refreshments. As much as we wanted seclusion and serenity, it’s not as if we hiked through raw wilderness to get where we were. Still, it would have been nice if more of our fellow hikers would have recognized their surroundings not as something they had conquered to help make them feel big but rather as something they could appreciate to help make them feel small, for most everyone could use a dose of that in today’s world.
As we hiked around more, each step was accompanied by dizzying views that plunged deep into the mountains below. While these kind of views would turn the stomach of anyone even considering a hop over the much appreciated railings running alongside the paths, they weren’t enough to stop some from going over the railing and, in one case, down the side of the mountain on a rope for some audacious acrobatics. We watched in a stunned awe as a man in a yellow suit straddled the side of the mountain with nothing but a rope tied around his waist. Like watching a horrific scene unfold from afar, we looked on helplessly as he began running from side to side, jumping off the face of the mountain, and spinning in midair. As it was clearly a performance and the man doing it his profession, we wondered if he ever got bored by his act. If descending down the side of a mountain dangling on a rope ever became mundane for him. In any case, we most certainly were not bored, and our transfixion on the daredevil was broken only when he was pulled back up the mountainside and into the shrubbery hanging off of it.
Now suddenly very thankful for the solid ground under us, we continued our hike, balancing views of our trudging feet below with the more scenic expanse of mountains stretching out beside us. Every now and then, we would come to a level stretch of path, which worked wonders for our legs as well as for our ability to appreciate the scenery. As we looked out, we found the collocational “mountain peak” to be moot as the mountains didn’t come to a point. Rather, they rose bewilderingly like crumbling columns from the valley bed, erect and stretching upwards much like the trees that surrounded them before leveling off at the top where a verdant collection of trees and bushes marked the end of their rise. It was no wonder some referred to it as a stone forest.
Our second day began with a delicious hot bowl of noodles for breakfast at our hotel: Yangjiajie MINI Inn. As we ate, the backdrop of mountains served as an ever-present reminder of the day ahead. While the previous day had seen us spending a majority of our time exploring the tops of the mountains, this day would see us traversing less elevated ground by way of the Golden Whip Stream, a winding waterway that cut through the base of the mountains. One often thinks that looking out from the peak of a mountain is the best way to appreciate its enormity, but there’s something to be said too about walking at their feet, dwarfed by their shadow as you move through the eeriness that is a dim setting on a bright, sunny day. This was one such occasion.
Apart from the mountains, whose faces poked out at us from above the tree tops, there were plenty of other scenes along the walk that demanded our attention. The stream, a shallow, trickling basin of water, slowly moved around the rocks it had failed to overtake, creating a soundtrack of gentle bubbling noises that would accompany the entirety of our walk. Ahead, the thick foliage of summer created a dense green landscape that stretched into the distance as far as the eye could see. Tree trunks and wayward branches coursed through the green like a network of black veins. Dragonflies and butterflies filled the air and on the ground, our company existed not only in the form of fellow hikers, but also in wild monkeys. Swimming in the stream, moving through the bushes that hugged our path, and swinging on the trees overhead, the monkeys were nearly everywhere we looked.
In spite of our close proximity to them, the monkeys could barely be bothered to glance in our direction, that is, unless they heard the rustling of a plastic bag at which point they might as well have been a begging dog. We would have preferred the former, coexisting without co-depending, but there were others who simply couldn’t resist tossing a bag of chips to a monkey in hopes of having some sort of interaction with it. It was sad to see monkeys licking the inside of plastic bags before tossing them in the river, only to be picked up by another further downstream who would snatch it out of the water and examine the bag for any missed remains. If a monkey wasn’t fortunate enough to get a treat thrown their way, they would drop in a dumpster, rummaging through the garbage for any scraps they could find, their grease stained fur serving as a reminder of their longing for a human treat.
As if tossing plastic-encased snacks to the monkeys wasn’t entertainment enough for those doing so, there were some that even resorted to violence towards the primates as a means of amusement. At nearly every shop inside the park, slingshots were for sale and, sadly, it didn’t take long for us to realize what they were for. Along our walk, we saw several people using the devices to fire fist-sized rocks at yelping monkeys who scurried away and out of sight. Each time we saw this we not so kindly reminded those doing so in our broken Chinese that their actions weren’t appropriate.
After about an hour’s walk along the stream, we reached an area filled with food vendors where we grabbed some spicy potatoes and a bowl of noodles before turning around and retracing our steps along the stream. The walk back was nice as we weren’t preoccupied with looking here and there for new sights and sounds but rather could just enjoy by what was then a familiar setting.
As we neared the start of the Golden Whip Stream path and with much of the afternoon still ahead of us, we decided to abandon the comfort of level ground for the inverted pathway leading up to Huangshi Village, which was said to offer some of the best views in the whole of Zhangjiajie Park. Upon reaching the summit, we would discover that it wasn’t a village at all and the views obscured due to a biblical downpour that had ensued upon our arrival at the top. Camped out under the futile protection of a closed China Post-shelter awning, we watched as the downpour only increased with ferocity and an impromptu river formed on the ground where our feet stood, soaking our shoes and socks to a degree that, even several hours after the rains had stopped, would cause an incessant squish-squash to accompany every step we took around the mountain.
After the rains finally did let up, we mentally rung ourselves out and hurried to the nearest outlook in hopes of seeing a misty mountainscape left in the wake of the rainstorm. We were not disappointed. Rapidly moving mist crashed into the mountainside and spilled back into itself like violent waves upon a shore. Elsewhere, in the more open spaces of the valley, the mist sat in cloudy clumps, waiting patiently to be dissipated by the suddenly noticeable summer sun beating down from overhead. Slowly the patchy landscape came into a full, crisp view as the last wisps disappeared. As if a show had just ended, we soaked up one last deep gaze out at the mountains before starting back down the mountain through the dripping scenery to make the long journey back to our hotel where another delicious home-cooked dinner awaited us.
Most of our last day in Zhangjiajie was spent finding our way to a point on our map that had intrigued us since we first examined it: the Field in the Sky. Intrigued by the imagery its name evoked, we couldn’t let the chance that it was a gross dramatization of an ordinary scene hinder us from going to have a look. After a long bus ride, we were dropped off seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Our map, which was surprisingly handy throughout our time in the park despite having no real distinct features apart from the sights that were worth visiting, was no help to us. From where we stood, several identical roads shot off in different directions, running off and out of sight behind a crowded forest of pine trees. From what we deemed was our point on the map, a very clear road snaked an inch or so across the page to the Field in the Sky. If only it was that easy.
We asked a group of passing hikers if they knew where it was and, after looking at us confusedly for a brief moment, convened for a muddled, mumbling meeting amongst themselves before shooting a desperate finger in a random direction and hurrying away. We smiled politely, waited until they were out of sight and then began looking for someone else to ask. Eventually, we met someone who, upon mentioning the name Field in the Sky, immediately nodded knowingly and told us to follow the unassuming dirt road that branched off from the road we were standing on.
Still on the path nearly two hours later no longer out of desire to see the Field in the Sky but out of pure stubbornness, we finally came upon it. Exactly as advertised, the site was a terraced patchwork of fields carved out of the top of one of the many gnarled mountains spread across the landscape. The light shimmered off the fields, turning them a bright green that stood out in the otherwise deep and dark tones of the landscape. As the other mountains looked on at the field, they must have been jealous, their moppy tops of unruly foliage were no match to the clean cut look of the field-topped mountain.
As picturesque as the view was we had to leave in search of shade and water as the sun was heavy and our water bottle had been empty for the last hour or so of our walk. Being a somewhat popular tourist site within the park, there was luckily a shop not too far down the road where we were able to do just that. Like a watering hole in the savannah, the shop was full of people despite there being not a soul to be found outside of its shady interior. Talking with some others while we sipped our water, we were told that there were amazing views fifteen minutes or so down the path. Having come this far already, we heeded their advice and continued on.
The fairly level path quickly turned to steps that fell over each other down the mountainside before bottoming out at a lookout that, as promised, dropped our gaze directly into the heart of the mountains. It was the best view we had had in Zhangjiajie by far and we sat, legs hanging over the cliff’s edge for what felt like hours staring downward in awe. As we did so, a quote from The Lord of the Rings came to mind. In it, an ancient tree mused about how humans could have such a “hasty” word for mountains. Certainly, he pondered, something that has existed since the beginning of time should have a name more compelling and worthy of the magnitude of the thing it described. Looking out at the hacked trunks that were the mountain range, this idea couldn’t have made more sense. “Mountain” just didn’t seem adequate enough of a word to describe what we were looking at. Perhaps no word or combination of letters could. So, we instead just looked, for nowhere perhaps but in our mind could the majesty of the scene before us be captured.
If asked to picture a romanticized version of train travel, your mind may disappear into black and white images of women in Victorian dresses waving handkerchiefs at a departing train or to the Hogwart’s Express chugging through the British countryside or perhaps even into the lyrics of a Johnny Cash song. Where this question will most likely not take you is to Sri Lanka, a place that people don’t normally think about when it comes to train travel or in any other context for that matter. Yet, from the moment we stepped up to the counter to purchase our first ticket in Colombo, we found ourselves entering a process that would charm us at every turn through the duration of our journey through the country.
The unattainable nostalgia that trains evoke first hit us in the station itself. Train timetables etched in chalk hung from the walls, hand drawn signs as worn and outdated as the language they used directed you to the “Gent’s Room” or the “Ladies’ Waiting Area,” workers dressed in a crisp white paced about the platforms in anticipation of the next train’s arrival, and each train’s departure was accompanied by a last call before slowly setting itself in motion.
On the train, a moderate clickety-clack marking the trip’s passage eased us into a state of sustained comfort as we watched the lush Sri Lankan landscape pass away outside our window. Vendors frequently made their way down the aisles, their walk a contained stagger as they battled the sway of the train. Fried treats and tropical fruits filled the baskets slung around their necks as they called out the details of the treat in tow in a repetitive fashion that slowly faded as they passed further away. It was from one of these vendors that we bought one of the most delicious cups of tea we’ve ever tasted, a sweet concoction that was poured shakily into a paper cup and practically boiling as it spilled over the cup’s fragile edges and onto our legs. As avid train lovers, the experience was blissful and despite being on the train for nearly half the day, we were a little disappointed when we reached our destination, the beach town of Trincomalee.
After several long plane rides, even longer layovers, a lengthy train ride however enjoyable, and our fair share of travel frustrations along the way, a few days stay on the beach was an appreciated finale to our summer travels through Myanmar and Sri Lanka. A short tuk tuk ride from the train station brought us to our hostel: Orion Beach Way, which sat a mere two minutes walk away from Uppuveli beach. Wanting some sense of adventure in the relatively unadventurous setting of a beach, we decided to book a cabana instead of one of the hostel’s standard rooms.
While the appearance of the cabana, walls made of wooden planks and a roof of leaves, excited us upon seeing it, once inside we found that our proximity to the nature outside was a little too close for comfort. No better example of this could be found than with our bathroom. When you first enter your hotel bathroom, there are many things you are hoping to find such as free bars of soap, a plush, luxurious towel, an elaborate bathtub and so on. What you don’t want to find are palm-sized spiders that, when they move, stand erect on all of their legs before darting menacingly across the floor and out of sight. You also don’t want to turn on the light to find a startled squirrel rabidly crashing around before leaping over your head and squirming through the hole it came in from. Sadly, as you might have guessed, our cabana had none of the former and all of the latter. Like checking for a zombie before entering a room, each trip to the bathroom, and into the cabana for that matter, entailed a fierce banging on the door a few times before entering. However, in spite of these unfortunate encounters, we did enjoy our stay in the cabana not only for the uniqueness of it but also for the shady refuge it provided us during Trincomalee’s unbearably sweltering afternoons.
However enjoyable our time on the beach was, it was nothing to write home about and certainly not worth mentioning in a blog as it consisted mainly of three components: sitting, swimming, and drinking. What was noteworthy about Trincomalee, like anywhere else we had gone in Sri Lanka up to that point, was its wildlife. The most immediate representation of this, the crow, could be seen from our beach loungers and just about anywhere else we cared to go along the coast. Taking the place of the familiar beach staple of sea gulls in both quantity and annoyance, the ominous creatures made it very clear that it was them, not people, who owned the beach. Nowhere was this more clear than one morning at breakfast when a crow swooped over our table and snatched a pancake from our plate shortly after it was set before us. As if this wasn’t agonizing enough, after doing so, the crow perched itself on a ledge a few feet away, refusing to eat the pancake dangling in its mouth for such a time that made us convinced we were being taunted.
Apart from crows, another familiar sight on the beach were cows who either moved along the shoreline in a herd, busy to be somewhere as they moved at a pace that was hard to keep up with, or stood alone seemingly just as surprised to see people on the beach as people were it.
However unfamiliar the familiar crows and cows were in a beach setting, we were hoping to see animals we couldn’t see back in Ohio or Iowa and more specifically ones that spent their time below water, not above it. To do this we would have to secure the help of a boat which wasn’t too hard to do as the only thing that seemed to outnumber the hostels and restaurants of the town were the dive shops whose shacks hugged the shoreline every hundred yards or so. The one we decided on for no good reason at all other than it was there, was called Trinco Water Sports. The owner had all of the charisma you could want from a beachside dive shop owner and gladly signed us up for a snorkeling expedition one day and a dolphin watching excursion the next (we had apparently just missed whale watching season which came at great disappointment to us).
For snorkeling we would have to venture to Pigeon Island which luckily inhabited none of its namesake bird and lied only a few hundred yards off the coast. After puttering up to the island’s shell-filled shores, we slipped on our snorkeling gear and dipped our heads beneath the surface. As we looked down the first thing that caught our attention was the hodgepodge of corals spanning all shapes and colors that rose up in a heaping fashion from the sea bed making it look like a landscape out of the pages of a Dr. Seuss book. The coral, however interesting in its veined textures and sporadic designs, quickly faded from our attention as the waters were teeming with life, the likes of which we had never seen before. Pufferfish teetered about like a toddler taking its first steps; families of cuttlefish squirted by; parrotfish swam about smugly, seemingly aware of their vibrant beauty; needlefish flickered into view, their long flat bodies only visible from the streaks of silver shooting across them as they swam; and blooms of gelatinous jelly fish floated by, each with neon streaks of red and green coursing through them that dared you to reach out for a quick touch; among others. All of it seemed hardly real as the mixture of creatures fluttering about our faces and out of the dark crevasses of the ocean floor were to us like a foreign entity, aliens living in another world that we were lucky enough to sneak a peek at.
The highlight of our snorkeling trip came as it neared its end. Separated from Kate at this point and sensing that our time was coming to a close, I ventured as far away from the island as I could, following the trail of slimy buoys floating on the surface that marked off a protected area of coral closed to snorkelers. After about fifteen minutes of this, and with a burnt back and increasingly tiring legs, I decided to hang up my flippers and swim back to shore. Just as I turned around to make the return journey, two black-tipped reef sharks, one about the size of me, swam within a few feet of my face. Now, logic should have told me that the sharks were harmless given that there were countless tourists that came to the island every day for snorkeling and, as far as I knew, none were ever attacked by the sharks that inhabit the reef. But, logic isn’t the first thing that crosses your mind when a shark glides past your face and you’re at least a fifteen minutes swim away from land. So, I gave a quick and pointless scream, swallowed some salt water in the process, and began flapping in a panicked manner towards shore. As adrenaline gave way to the biding logic that I was most likely safe, my mind became flooded with how incredible it was to see a shark in the wild, if only for a few seconds. After getting back on our boat, we motored back to shore, the entire way being mindfully aware of the plethora of life lying below the surface we were cruising over.
The next day would see us returning to the same shack early in the morning for dolphin viewing. Our boat was scheduled to leave at the crack of dawn, but our fellow boat passengers had apparently missed the memo. As we watched the sun rise higher and higher on the horizon, our frustration turned to panic as boat after boat shot off from the shore. Most of them departed without a hitch, but a few struggled to get going due to their size and the fact that only the captain and a few others were attempting to push it. So, to pass the time, we decided to wade through the cool morning water to lend a hand. In one instance, a boat full of Chinese passengers watched in amusement as we helped dislodge the boat from the wet sand underneath with not one member of their party of twenty or so getting out to help, instead snapping pictures in our faces as we struggled to push their large party of the shore.
It would be good practice for when the passengers in our boat finally arrived behind the furious stomping of the boat’s captain who had to walk to their hotel to wake them up. With dark sunglasses covering their eyes and showing signs of being severely hungover, they stood and chatted while we pushed our boat into the water, upon which they hopped in alongside us with an infuriating aloofness amidst a spattering of accusations directed at one of their members who was a disappointment for having called it quits at 3 A.M the night before. At that moment, we couldn’t think of any worse a companion to have as we set off.
If we weren’t awake prior to boarding the boat, the ride to see the dolphins surely would have done the trick. The ocean, a dark navy blue in the slanted rays of morning, was violent, and our boat’s path traveled directly against the cresting waves it was mustering up one after the other. After shooting off each wave, we would crash down with a violent thud that we could feel in our bones, a process that repeated itself many times over before the boat finally came to a halt near the numerous other ones also on the prowl for dolphins. After the engine hummed to a stop, it didn’t take long for us to spot the rapid rise and fall of dorsal fins slicing the surface of the water in our direction and then past us and out of sight, after which the boat drivers scrambled to start their engines, shooting off in some communal direction in hopes of another sighting and happier client. The dolphins, intelligent as they are, probably found this all amusing as they drug us about from here to there, luring everyone in with their graceful sprint through the water.
Eventually the dolphins must have disappeared for good for our driver began heading back towards Trincomalee. Before making it back to the beach we would stop off for an impromptu snorkel session at a secluded rock far off the shore. The session, which we were thankful for, came at the request of our boat companions who had paid a little extra. With this in mind, it came as a surprise then when the group upon putting their snorkel gear on, swam directly to a small rock which they proceeded to climb on and smoke cigarettes for the duration of the 30 minute session.
The trip back to the beach was bittersweet. We had another great experience to add to the many we had already had in Sri Lanka, but our time in the country (and Myanmar before it) was at its end. As we skimmed over the now smooth ocean surface, a flock of flying fish jumped out in front of our boat, flickering into the sky for a few seconds before dropping back into the water, one last unexpected pleasantry in a country that had given us many.
With one day left in the Sri Lankan town of Polonnaruwa and having already viewed its signature attraction of ancient ruins, we decided to dedicate our last day in the town to one of the other unique draws it had: its wildlife. Within the city limits, stumbling across the country’s biodiversity wasn’t a difficult task as playful macaques could be found on a whim, lizards scampered about, and giant bats filled the nighttime sky. The animal we were most interested in seeing though was one we had seen many times before in almost every zoo we’ve ever visited: the elephant. While we had seen one roaming in the distance alongside Polonnaruwa’s man-made lake, we were eager to see one both up close and not in the confines of the familiar exhibit so we booked an afternoon safari to Kaudulla National Park where we hoped to be able to do just that.
Our day began, as any should, with breakfast. We set out early, riding our bikes down the streets of Polonnaruwa in search of a place to eat, an endeavor that didn’t take long as our attention was caught by one of the first diners we passed. Drawn in by the dizzying array of fried pastries on display in its street-front window, we parked our bikes and headed in for a closer examination. After pining over the selection before us, we decided that there was as good of place as any to eat and soon found ourselves with the dangerous thought of, “Well, I’m only here once and will never get to eat this again in my life.” The result of this thought left us with an anything-but-humble portion of food piled on our plates that, upon eating, left us in dire need of a good walk or else a good sofa. With the latter nowhere in sight, we opted instead for a slow stroll down the road that the restaurant sat on. As we reached the road’s end we were left looking out over a sunny patch of grass where we were delighted to find an extended family, or several, of macaques mingling with each other.
As we watched, we became enamored with one adolescent monkey and its infatuation with an unfurled roll of paper towels.
Our interest in this particular monkey was quickly shifted though as two puppies bolted into the mix, causing a hullabaloo amidst the ranks of macaques. In the beginning, the monkeys cautiously approached the puppies, poking them with an outstretched finger and arm or giving them a light tap on the back before springing away. Their initial caution wore off quickly though as soon they were playfully biting the dogs and grabbing at them in a taunting manner, acts that sent the dogs into a frenzy of manic spinning as the barrage of monkey hands made them unsure of where to turn. However raucous it got, it was clear that both sides were thoroughly enjoying the other’s company, a party that ended only when the puppies’ dad walked up, chest puffed out, and the two dogs slinked off ashamedly into his care. We could almost hear the monkeys snickering.
With our safari now fast approaching, we left the macaques for more wildlife viewing in Kaudulla. We boarded a truck at our guesthouse and after a short drive were being led into the park by a dirt road flanked at all times by a thicket of bushes and overarching trees whose low hanging branches we would occasionally dodge as our heads were poked out of the top of the truck in hopes of seeing an elephant. Despite our fervid gazing, we didn’t see any on the path, being served instead an appetizer of various birds and lizards scattered about the route with the most noteworthy sighting being a peacock, which wasn’t all that spectacular until we wrapped our head around the fact that it was wild. So ubiquitous is the psychedelic bird in the urban wild of zoos and parks that it has become easy to forget that it can exist in a habitat outside of these environments.
Eventually, the dirt road ended and the trees opened up into an expansive savanna that rolled humbly into the distant forests and mountains stretched across the horizon. Eager for our first elephant sighting, we would jab our fingers in the direction of a black mass perched on a hillside only to discover ashamedly that it was a fellow truck also on the prowl. As we continued to aimlessly traverse the landscape, the lack of elephants led us to redirect our attention to the rapidly darkening sky. In our naïveté and knowingly hopeless optimism, we convinced ourselves that the storm would pass…it wouldn’t.
Before the skies could open though, our truck crested a hill and there before us were four elephants moving slowly about each other. Our fascination with seeing the largest land animal not even one hundred yards away from us was overshadowed, quite literally, by the approaching storm, which, by that time, had made the early afternoon seem like twilight and cast an eerie silence and stillness over the savanna. Well aware of what was coming, three of the elephants began making their way towards the forest. The one that had decided not to join them was standing as still as a statue, its gaze fixed firmly on our truck. In a matter of seconds we went from a state of awe to one of frenzy as we watched the elephant begin barreling towards us in a full out sprint. Now less than fifty yards away we began frantically shouting at the driver to get us out of there but the truck wouldn’t start. The elephant was now within a stone’s throw and still running at full speed. We braced for impact. And then, to our surprise, the elephant stopped as suddenly as it had begun its dash. It was now so close we could see the whites of its eyes as it walked away smugly. We could have sworn we saw it smirk.
So relieved we were to have avoided a Jurassic Park-esque experience that we had barely noticed the biblical downpour had ensued in the process of the elephant nearly toppling our truck. As our heart rate slowed and our senses came back to us, we scrambled to put the tarp over the opened top of the truck which was a akin to setting up a tent in a rainstorm. While we eventually would get it up, we were soaked to a degree beyond amusement and for the next half hour or so we sat in our dripping clothes waiting for the rain to let up, which it eventually would.
Driving around the now rain-soaked landscape, our truck struggled in its efforts to wade through the muddy ground, often slipping and stalling as it kicked glops of mud all over us. Eventually finding some traction along the banks of the forest, we watched as the elephants that had sought the refuge of a canopy during the storm began slowly making their way out into the open again. Whole families emerged, relishing in the fact that the water they so enjoyed was now sitting on the ground instead of falling on their heads. We continuously reminded ourselves that we were seeing wild elephants and just how unique that was. They seemed happy in their playful interaction with each other, seemingly unaware of the hoard of trucks encircling them. The watching eyes must have eventually gotten to them though as they left the open area to trot back into the forest. We watched until the last one had completely disappeared, upon which we left the park, our protruding heads happily dodging branches as the still soaked hair that sat atop them dried in the cool breeze of dusk.