Kelimutu

When confronted with the wonders of nature, it becomes not at all surprising that it took humankind a few millennia to supplant religion with science. For, when face to face with the restless oceans, bottomless caves and capricious volcanoes of the world, one would be hard pressed to convince someone that behind the scope and fury of the nature in question was not an all-powerful and vengeful god but merely a case of natural phenomenon. It was with this thought in mind that we gazed out at the lakes of Kelimutu, which over the years have taken on any number of colors, from red to blue to green to white to brown and even black. That the lakes were passageways to the spiritual world, a belief traditionally held by locals, seemed much more likely an explanation than the fact that their otherworldly color was a result of “oxidation-reduction chemical dynamics” due to the underlying volcanic activity.

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To see the lakes we would be staying overnight in Moni, a small town on the eastern-side of the Indonesian island of Flores. Our homestay, unassuming in its simplicity, would end up being one of our favorite places to stay during our time on the island and the whole of Indonesia for that matter. This was due partly to its quiet and welcoming setting, but mostly to the owner who, laid back and reggae-loving, embodied Moni. Our short stay there was highlighted by a wonderful dinner he prepared for us, which, we were told, was made from ingredients that he himself either grew or sourced locally. What surprised and impressed us most about this was that it didn’t seem like a business scheme, something he tells visitors to brand his establishment as eco-friendly, but rather what he truly believed in. It was with deep regret then that we would only be staying for one night, if not for giving business to someone who truly deserved it, then at least not for being able to enjoy another delicious meal.

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The grounds of our homestay, surprisingly free of the packs of dogs and puppies that roamed them freely
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Sipping one of what would be many mugs of complimentary coffee outside our room
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Our open-air bathroom…
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…and shower.

Early the next morning we enthusiastically got dressed in a manner befitting of someone going to see a sunrise, for under no other circumstance could we ever be excited or spry after a 4:00 alarm. Once at the foot of the volcano, the incandescent reach of our smartphone’s flashlight, accompanied by a cloud of swarming gnats, guided our way up the dark and overgrown steps that led to the craters. At the top, a small collection of fellow crater-lake admirers had already gathered along with coffee and snack hawkers who, crouched and unmoving as the wind whistled and whipped around them, looked permanent in their perches around the viewing platform.

To describe the lakes themselves, the suffix of -ish becomes necessary for restricting their appearance to just one color would be a disservice to their uniqueness. Amidst the lifeless terrain of grays, browns and dull and darkened greens, the lakes, a pastel shade of bluish-green that would have looked much more at home in a paint can rather than a volcano crater, practically glowed. The sky above, a marbled gray, offered little hope of seeing a sunrise, though one wouldn’t be necessary as the beauty of the lakes made it difficult to imagine our attention being given to anything else.

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As we marveled at the phenomenon, any number of fantastical explanations seemed plausible to explain the lakes. To us, they called to mind the magical contents of a cauldron, otherworldly in color with wisps of fog coiling off of them and up into the sky, making it seem like the lakes themselves were the steaming contents of a witch’s brew. For the local people of Moni, they believed the lakes to be a final resting place for departed souls, one for the elderly, one for the young, and one for the evil souls of the world. 

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One of the many clouds of mist that would roll of the lakes during our time viewing them
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Despite looking rather hellish and an appropriate place for evil souls to be sent to, this is actually the lake for elderly souls
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The lake in front is for young souls and the lake behind it for evil ones

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With a driver waiting to take us back to the homestay and a trip to the nearby city of Ende still on the day’s agenda, we decided to bid the lakes farewell, returning through the deadened landscape to our awaiting transport back to a reality significantly less enchanting than the one we had just experienced.

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Read on for a poem by Kate:

A Kelimutu Fairytale

Long ago in ages past
The sky liquified
and poured itself into craters.
Now it lies,
whispering breaths of steam
that float and morph
among ribbons of breeze.

A piece of rock breaks away
from the wall and tumbles
into the depths.

Sulphuric toxins wrap
around the rough edges,
acidic fingers dissolving
it as it submerges.

The surface is still
once more.
Waiting.

Pulled from the pages
of Brothers Grimm,
The lake is an ethereal queen
with a witch inside.

Ruteng

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

It was with this paragraph that the world was introduced to the beloved hobbits and their seemingly unattainable simplicity that still entices the imaginations of movie-goers and book readers alike today. Having long been enchanted by the creatures in Tolkien’s tales myself, I was surprised and delighted to find that Ruteng, one of the stops along our journey across the Indonesian island of Flores, had a site near it called the “Hobbit Cave.” Looking at pictures of the cave before going however, we found that it was wet and dirty, though we couldn’t speak for the ends of worms, oozy smells, or it’s overall nastiness. There was no round wooden door opening into the cave nor anything pleasant filling it, certainly no places to sit down on, and nothing that spoke of comfort. The cave however, didn’t get its name for its resemblance to the fictitious dwellings of the hobbit but rather from the real life species that used to live there, by some estimates, as recently as 50,000 years ago. Human in form, the homo floresiensis, as it is known, topped off at under 4 feet tall much like the famously stature-challenged hobbit. They also had large, flat feet disproportionate to the rest of their body and are thought to have been particularly hairy.

Unfortunately, the resemblances stop there, especially when it comes to lifestyles, for hobbits, most of them anyway, led quiet, predictable lives whereas the life of the homo floresiensis was believed to be anything but. Far from the sleepy, uneventful hillsides of the Shire, the prehistoric island of Flores was home to a slew of other uniquely-sized creatures that made the island a volatile and dangerous place to live. On the outsized and horrific end of the spectrum were nearly 6-foot tall storks, the island’s endemic giant rat, and Komodo dragons that may have been even bigger than the ten-foot long versions that still roam Flores and its neighboring islands today. And on the wrong end of the spectrum, being victims of insular dwarfism, was homo floresiensis and the Stegodon, a dwarf elephant whose maximum height reached anywhere from four to six feet and served as a food source for the fierce hunters of the island, among which the homo floresiensis was included.

Eager to see the site of one of the more surprising and puzzling anthropological finds in recent memory, we rented a motorbike and began making our way toward Liang Bua, the local name for the cave that predated the discovery of the “Hobbit” bones. As we set out, a thick fog descended on us, reducing our already cautious speed to a crawl. Other motorists, undeterred by the lack of visibility, zoomed around us. However dense, the fog seemed intent on passing through the countryside rather quickly, dissipating with almost as much urgency as it had appeared with. Slowly out of the white nothingness of our surroundings came shadows of trees and houses, creating a haunted landscape. Aware of its fleeting beauty as the fog continued to unroll itself at a captivating pace, we stopped the motorbike to watch the scene play out until the fog had all but vanished, leaving a crystal clear view of terraced fields that had only moments before been completely unknown to us. 

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Shortly after the fog cleared
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The other scenery along the way was equally stunning

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If you’re expecting the next part of this tale to be an account of our arrival at Liang Bua, so were we. As it turns out though, operating a vehicle you’ve only driven twice before in your life on a slick surface more rubble than road that frequently dips and curves unpredictably, mistakes are bound to happen. And so, while in the process of correcting the previous and harmless mistake of taking a wrong turn, I made the much more crucial mistake of accidentally accelerating off of the road and down a six-foot drop to a spattering of jagged rocks below. 

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“Do you know how to drive this?” asked the motorbike’s owner. “Yes!” I replied confidently.

Having blacked out briefly as I crashed down the hill, I came around to the sound of the motorbike’s engine still revving, my leg being trapped between the motorbike and one of the aforementioned rocks, and the sight of Kate, who had luckily gotten off the bike prior to me turning it around, rushing down the hill towards me. Immediately, she stopped the engine and lifted the bike up long enough for me to crawl out of under it. A few local villagers, who had seen the accident, arrived shortly after to help. While two of them took the mangled bike up to the road, another began plucking what looked like weeds from the ground, chewing them up and then stuffing the frothy mixture into my wounds. My faint protests at this development were blatantly ignored. Miraculously, it appeared I had no broken bones. Perhaps more miraculous yet, the man still applying chewed leaves to my wounds was able to utter the phrase “traditional medicine” amidst his other reassurances in Indonesian. 

Already feeling invincible at the optimistic state of affairs given just how bad the alternative could have been, I tried standing. Hobbled, but able to walk, the villagers pointed me in the direction of a house sitting at the top of the hill. “Doctor,” one of them said; we were astounded at their ability to communicate even the simplest of things in English. After arriving at the house, a woman, who seemed not at all surprised by the bizarre situation on her doorstep, got some chairs for us to sit down on, disappeared back into her house, and returned shortly after with oils that she applied vigorously to my leg. What appeared to be the entire village had gathered around us. Adding to the crowd were passing motorcyclists who stopped, parked their bikes, and put off wherever they had been going to take in the spectacle. 

Meanwhile, Kate was frantically flipping through our phrasebook, trying to communicate with the herbalist about my condition and with the other villagers about arranging transport back to our hotel. Among the pages of a phrasebook one never hopes to venture into, namely those under the heading of”at the hospital,” Kate learned and became very familiar with the Indonesian words for “broken” and “leg.” It was with this knowledge that she became panicked to hear the word “rusak“ (the Indonesian word for broken) muttered over and over again among the gathering. We would later find that they were referring to the bike, not my leg.

As the situation calmed down, which did nothing to dispel the crowd, the herbalist said a word that needs no phrasebook to translate in any language: coffee. We told her that we would like some and she came out several minutes later with a tray of cups filled to the brim with the steaming, black elixir whose medicinal contributions, however placebic, rivaled those of the oils. After serving us first, she handed out the remaining cups to other members of the gathering. As we sipped our coffee, we noticed that the witnesses to the accident had taken it upon themselves to explain what had happened to the new additions to the crowd, which seemed to expand by the minute. With each telling, eyes seemed to grow wider, tones more serious, and hand gestures more exaggerated to the point where a casual passerby could have been forgiven for confusing my off-road mishap to the stunts of Evel Knievel.

As coffee cups and conversations ran dry, the crowd slowly began to diminish, its members returning to the agendas they had so readily abandoned upon seeing my predicament. Shortly after, our transport back to the village arrived and we bid the villagers farewell. Their kindness had been overwhelming, made even more so by the matter-of-factness that they administered it with. From the herbalist who scoffed at the idea of us paying for the oils and coffee she so readily distributed to the English-speaking local who drove his motorbike around nearby villages looking for a cell phone he could use to arrange our transport, the warmness we were met with seemed reactionary rather than dutiful. Even back at the motorbike shop, the owner’s only concern was whether or not we were okay. “The bike is just a thing,” he said before giving us a pack of gauze and oils from his home to keep (we of course would pay for the repairs).

The day had been far from what we had expected it would be, but, given all the circumstances, we were thankful for the way it had turned out; if not for the lessons learned, at least for the story it provided.

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Having dinner back at the motorbike rental shop after the ordeal

Xiapu

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 in  gloppy 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.

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A couple of the fisherman we saw. We could never figure out what they were doing. They would throw their net down into the water, wait a few moments, then pull it up and hit it methodically with a stick. We never saw them catch anything and by the end we weren’t even entirely sure if they were trying to catch something.

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Heading down to the beach for a view from the ground.

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The ocean really looks golden in this picture…
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…and almost like snow in this one.
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Heading back to the city. In the distance, you can see where the water ends and the mudflats begin.

Chuxi

To look at the massive earthen structure known as a tulou from 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. 

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A square tulou mirroring a parked car across the valley

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.

 

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Catching a glimpse of the tulous from across the river
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Walking through some of the many gardens surrounding the tulous.
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Some of the small shacks in the garden even had vegetables growing on their roofs.
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A woman, probably in her mid to late 60s, carrying water down the steep hillside
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A view of Jiqinglou, which was built in 1419

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.

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Residents of our tulou sipping tea just inside the front door

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.

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Outside our room

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.

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Enjoying dinner and some glasses of Tsingtao
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Budelees were also on tap

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. 

 

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The building in the center is for special events like ancestor worship, weddings, and holiday celebrations
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The tulous were built with feng shui principles in mind. One of the benefits of this style of building was that, even in the sweltering heat of the summer, the interior remained cool to a degree that was on par with air conditioning.

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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. 

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Crossing the river to head out of the village

 

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The view from the lookout never grew old

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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.

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The shady pavilion offered a nice place for a nap as our sleep the night before was few and far between

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. 

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Firewood piled outside the yellow walls of the tulou

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.

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The boys we saw playing basketball. The one in the pink jersey was quite good and shared a bus with us out of town the next day.
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Before ending our last day in the village, we ventured back up to the pavilion where we played cards while watching the sun set; a nice end to our time in the village.

Fenghuang

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.

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The street leading out of our hostel and to the river
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Enjoying a breakfast of fried dough sticks

 

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Even in the early morning, the city was busy
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People crossing one of the many bridges stretching across the river, around which the town was centered

 

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People washing their clothes in the river was a common sight, especially in the morning
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Enjoying some rare seclusion in our morning walk along the river
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The city wall sitting above a bustling shopping street
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Peering inside a temple that we came across
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Lanterns strewn across the red walls of a temple
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An eye-catching basket shop
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Stopping off to have our skin nibbled away by fish
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Haggling for a bottle of rice wine

 

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The stilted houses that drew us to the town
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The stilts gave the town a unique trait that distinguished it from other water towns we’ve been to in China
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We never grew tired of the sight of the stilted houses and their elongated reflections in the river
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Making our way further down the river
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Boats, and their pyramid-hatted drivers, were a common sight on the river
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Still water creating a barely blemished reflection
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Many of the stilted houses had been renovated, losing their allure of timelessness, but this cluster thankfully was not
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A worker pausing for a break

 

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At certain times in the day, the river turned an otherworldly green
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Cooling off in the river
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We were surprised to find that these interesting-looking fruits weren’t sweet at all, but rather tasted like a cucumber, making it all the more strange as we drank its insides with a straw
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The city lit up at night
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Dimly lit boats drifting off and out of sight under the bridge
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People moving along the city wall

As an added bonus, here are some great Chinglish/blatant copyright moments from our time in Fenghuang:

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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.