Raja Ampat – Underwater

Home to one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on Earth, the underwater world of Raja Ampat is a dream for snorkelers and divers alike. Below you can find some pictures of the incredible marine life we spotted while snorkeling off the island of Batanta.

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There were plenty of beautifully-patterned clams lying on the sea floor
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These ones, always tucked neatly into the crevices of the reef, would close tightly as we swam overtop of them, leaving nothing but a squiggly blue line to mark where their mouth had been.
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This clam was by far the biggest we would see while snorkeling. If we could have swam down next to it, it would have stretched from our waist to the top of our head.
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Apart from giant clams, we would also come across some oversized fish during our time under water. This angel fish, which in this photo is about 20-30 yards away, was bigger than we were…
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…as was each parrotfish in this school, a video of which you can find here.
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We also saw two cuttlefish swimming together, each the size of our torso.
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Here‘s another video of them.

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A brave clown fish peeking out from an anemone.

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Apart from snorkeling around our homestay, we also went on a manta ray-watching tour where we got to swim with several of the graceful creatures that, like so many other things we had seen underwater, were larger than we were.

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On our very last snorkeling outing before leaving Raja Ampat, our underwater camera malfunctioned and we lost all of our pictures from our entire time in Indonesia due to the memory card getting wet. Luckily, after getting back to China, we were able to recover most of the pictures and videos after purchasing a data-recovery system.

Read on for a poem by Kate:

Bolbometopon muricatum

Limbs tired,
we’ve been out
for an hour.

We push up
our masks,
pop out
our snorkels.

Go back?

Okay.
But first,
one more look.

Gear back in place,
we duck under.

A herd
of trunkless
elephants
blunders by,
trumpeting silently.

Is my mask fogged?
No.

A parade of parrot
fish stretches across
the reef’s drop-off, crunching coral.

They weave in and out
of one another, grazing,
creating clouds of sand that drift

up to shore creating
paradisiacal beaches
with swaying palms and birdsong.

We gaze at the school, mesmerized
by their elephantine mass, while
their colorful cousins
the size of our
hand dart
past.

The stampede swims out to the depths
as we turn to swim inland.

Raja Ampat

If you’re wondering how to get to paradise, you should know that getting there is not quite as easy as being there. For us, the process was as follows:

  1. Schedule a doctor’s appointment to get malaria medication and begin taking it several days prior to the trip
  2. If you’re leaving in winter, are far away from an airport and trying to take as little as possible with you to the tropical destination (as we were), stave off frost bite as you spend an entire day commuting to the airport in freezing temperatures wearing nothing but jeans and a light sweater
  3. Board a plane for Indonesia
  4. Spend a week or two traveling around the country (optional, but recommended)
  5. Take a red eye flight to Sorong after spending the night on an airport bench under the glow of a television screen airing coverage of the CrossFit Games
  6. Arrive in Sorong and haggle with a taxi driver to take you to the ferry dock
  7. Buy ferry tickets and board the cramped, liberally air-conditioned cabin for Waisai
  8. Shiver to stay warm for the hour-long ride all the while listening to and watching the offensively bad Indonesian pop music videos on the cabin’s TV
  9. Arrive in Waisai and wait in line for an hour to pay $70 for a permit to enter said paradise
  10. Take an hour-long motorboat ride across choppy waters with no shaded protection from the sun overhead
  11. Arrive in paradise

Are there more convenient routes to take there? Probably, but this was the one available to us and, as we would quickly find, the hassle of getting to paradise is a worthwhile price to pay.

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The view of our bungalow and island from the ocean

While the collective idea of paradise, uninhabited beaches on remote islands void of responsibility and stress, has many representatives around the world, ours was located in Batanta, one of the four islands the make up Raja Ampat, or four kings, a Papuan archipelago lying at the easternmost edge of Indonesia. 

For many visitors to Raja Ampat, accommodation comes in the form of a homestay, which usually consists of one to several bungalows lying on the beach or overtop the ocean itself, most of which are owned and operated by locals. Choosing to go the traditional route, we stayed at Yenaduak Homestay, which was run by a man named Sam and consisted of four bungalows that lied within ten yards of the ocean. Having seen pictures of similar scenes on postcards and in magazines for most of our life and assuming them to be unattainable, we were surprised at times to find ourselves actually staying in such a place.

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Our bungalow and the ocean which lied just steps away

The thatched bungalow consisted of a bed, one small table and a bathroom with a seatless toilet that also functioned as a sink. To flush, we would have to use a ladle to wash the toilet’s contents through its pipes. The ladle also served as our shower and, since the color of the ground water that filled it looked murkier than the contents of the toilet bowl at most times, we made the easy decision to forego showers for our week’s stay. 

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The inside of our bungalow with our bed covered by a mosquito net
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Our bathroom facilities. We used the red spigot to fill the bin with groundwater, which we would then ladle out to flush the toilet.
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One of our biggest fears before going to Raja Ampat was about what critters and insects would be sharing the bungalow with us. Luckily, this spider, which barely moved an inch during our stay, was the worst we would see. As for the worst we wouldn’t see, one night we woke up to a large thud near the window of our bungalow followed by the scampering of heavy feet and scraping of claws across the floor and walls. As the island is home to large tree lizards (most notably the Varanus indicus–monitor tree lizard), we assumed that that was what it was. To our relief, it was gone by morning.

While far removed from anyone’s idea of luxury, we found the bungalow to be perfect, an idea furthered by its other feature, a front porch equipped with a hammock and two chairs that would bear the brunt of our lethargy during the lazy mornings and afternoons that are an inevitable byproduct of being on a remote island with no internet connection or phone signal.

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The view from our porch

The paradisiacal setting wasn’t the only reason people, us included, travel to the islands of Raja Ampat though for, as serene as the above water setting might be, what lies under it can’t be seen anywhere else on Earth. Home to 75% of the world’s coral species and over 1,500 different species of fish, the underwater world of Raja Ampat is one of the richest biodiverse ecosystems anywhere on Earth. Being lovers of snorkeling and aware that finding beautiful and intact coral reefs will be increasingly more difficult in the future we were eager to visit what many snorkelers and divers call the best place in the world for both.

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A sampling of the coral lying just off the shore of the homestay
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Schools of fish were a common sight…
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…as were clown fish.
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We even got to see more unique creatures like sharks, giant parrotfish, and this cuttlefish which was about the size of our torso.

So, with plenty to keep us busy below the ocean and plenty of lazy pursuits lying above it, our time on the island, while limited, was always well spent. A typical day went as follows:

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At dawn we would wake up to the sound of tropical birds cawing from the jungle behind us and waves gently lapping from the ocean in front…
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…and walk out to the beach to catch the sunrise.
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Then we would get some coffee and sip it on our porch…
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…before heading out for a morning snorkeling session.
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Once the tide got too low and the sun too hot to continue snorkeling, we headed back to our bungalow where we awaited the appearance of the green basket that signaled that lunch was ready (the basket covered the food to keep bugs out)
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Enjoying lunch, which sometimes happened alone and other times was in the company of our fellow guests at the homestay
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Afternoons were lazy and usually spent reading books…
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…sipping coffee and eating snacks…
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…and playing mancala on a homemade board comprised of seashells and rocks we found on the beach.
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The coral reef sat so close to the surface of the water that, when the tide was low in the afternoon, it was very difficult to swim overtop of it. So, to know when it was okay to go snorkeling again, we would sit on our porch and wait until the fields of sea grass that sat in front of the coral were no longer visible above the water.
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After snorkeling, we would watch the sunset and eat dinner with the homestay’s other guests before going to bed.

Occasionally we would break from routine to explore the reaches of the shore:

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On one part of the beach there were dozens of these clinging to the burnt remains of a tree. When we got close to them they would skip across the water, using their tail to propel them.
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In one tide pool we saw this starfish that we thought was an octopus at first because it was writhing around in the water and then quickly tucked itself under a rock once it sensed our presence.
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Every now and then we had to remind ourselves to look up as the trees were often full of surprises as well.

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With no proper waste disposal system, guests in Raja Ampat are encouraged to take all of their garbage with them upon leaving the islands. Only being there a week, this was very easy for us to do. However, there was nothing we could do to stop the collection of plastic on the island’s beaches. Even after collecting all of it one morning, by the afternoon a fresh supply had washed ashore.

Apart from exploring the immediate surroundings of our homestay, we would also go on a few of the excellent tours that Sam offered guests. The first was to see Wilson’s bird-of-paradise. Never having gone bird watching before, we had a naive pie-in-the-sky picture in our minds of what it would be: the now laughable image of casually strolling through the jungle while birds of all colors and sizes swooped overhead and perched themselves on nearby branches for our enjoyment. Our first indication that it would not be so easy was when Sam told us that we would be leaving for the tour at 3:30 the next morning so that we could get to the lookout in the cover of dark without the birds seeing us. 

After waking up at 3:00, having considerable debate about which clothes to wear, and boarding the boat which nearly tipped over a couple of times as everyone got situated, we were on our way. It was slow goings at first as we had to maneuver around the coral reef that boxed the bungalows in to the island. One thing we really liked about Sam and his family was that they always took precautionary measures to make sure that the boat and motor weren’t running over the reef and damaging it. In the pre-dawn darkness, this meant pulling up the motor, using a flashlight to see where the coral was, and then using a long stick placed where the coral wasn’t to push the boat out to sea. Once the reef dropped off, Sam put down the motor and sped away.

With nothing much to look at other than the faint outlines of islands standing against the nighttime sky, our attention turned to the water below, whose unwavering blackness was interrupted by the fluorescent glow of tiny jellyfish which speckled the water. There are many times when the ocean emulates the sky above it, but this was the first time we had experienced it doing so at night, the hundreds of jellyfish illuminating the black water much in the same way the stars do the sky.

As the world brightened, the glow of the jellyfish faded and our attention shifted to the scenery above water. Surrounding us were a handful of islands which sat sleepily behind clouds of mist that were much more vigorous in their early morning pursuits as they hurriedly pushed past the islands in route to blending into the overcast sky above. On the shores of one of these islands our boat would finally slow to a creeping pace as we floated inland, past groves of trees that marked the fringes of the island’s reach into the ocean. The trees, whose exposed and gnarled roots clawed menacingly out of sight into the water below, created an eerie setting when paired with the gloominess of pre-dawn. 

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Our boat floating through the mangroves after bird watching (it was too dark to capture the trees before it)

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As our boat approached a mound of gloppy mud that marked the inner-island’s shore, we emphatically disembarked and began a mad march through the jungle in a race against the sunrise. As we traipsed through swampy patches of earth and pushed through fields of reeds that stretched up to our waists, we were thankful that our wardrobe choice earlier in the morning included hiking boots and long sleeves, both of which we deemed essential to  traverse the dark and wet jungle. Our adventurous spirits were put to shame though as we looked ahead to Sam who was walking barefoot over the broken twigs and jagged rocks scattered about the ground and wearing nothing more than a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, which he would later remove. In the Darwinian image of survival, Sam was most definitely the fittest.

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The end of our trek was marked by a climb up a steep and muddy hill where we used trees and vines to pull ourselves up to the lookout – a collection of tattered boards lying behind an equally tattered screen meant to keep us hidden from the elusive bird of paradise. As we climbed onto the wet and muddy boards, a couple of which snapped in two while walking across them, Sam gave us some leaves to sit on while we waited for the bird, which was far from a guarantee. Luckily for us, Sam was quite experienced at eliciting the presence of the bird which he did by the almost comically simplistic task of tossing a couple of wet, brown leaves onto the wet, brown earth in front of the screen. Wondering if a trick had been played on us at first, we were quickly applauding the technique as the cartoonishly colorful bird swooped down and began clearing the leaves away. The male birds, as it turns out, are known for setting up their own display courts on the jungle floor where they perform dances for potential suitors. As a dirty court could spell doom for a bird’s chances at securing a mate, they work tirelessly to keep them clear of debris which explained the irritation and immediate rebuttal of Sam’s having made a mess in this particular bird’s court.

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Our lookout
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Waiting for the bird to arrive, which took around two hours
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Our view through the screen
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While waiting for the bird to appear, we became entranced by a millipede on the ground that we confused for a snake at first due to its size.

Despite our close proximity to the court, the bird still managed to prove elusive as our line of vision was often hindered or blocked entirely by the screen in front of us. Still though, we luckily managed to get a couple of photos of the brilliant bird which we were surprised to find out later only existed on this and one other island in Raja Ampat and was quite rare to see in the wild.

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Even high in the trees above the bird was captivating
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Hiking back through the jungle
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Getting back on the boat

Before going back to our homestay, Sam stopped off at another point on the island to show us a waterfall.

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The path leading up to the waterfall

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Ancient-looking trees were a common sight in the jungle around the waterfall

Apart from seeing Wilson’s bird-of-paradise and the waterfall, Sam would also take us to swim with manta rays and go on another, less fruitful, hornbill watching tour. Through our sporadic conversations with him over the course of the week, we learned that he originally worked in a mine with his brother. After the mine collapsed one day, killing his brother, Sam’s dad convinced him to take a safer job working at a resort. While sweeping leaves and picking up plastic that had washed ashore day after day, Sam would hang English words from trees and memorize them as he went back and forth clearing debris off the beach. Eventually, once he had an adequate level of English, he decided to open his own homestay which had expanded from one bungalow to four at the time of our staying there. As more people become aware of one of the last paradises on Earth, we hope that it can remain a paradise, where visitors support locals and everyone recognizes and respects the incredible wildlife that exists there. 

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Sam (in the red hat) with our bungalow in the background as we left Batanta

Read on for a poem by Kate:

Musings from an Amateur Ornithologist II

Hidden between trees
in the shadowy dawn
rustles a millipede,
gliding over dry leaves,
serpentine, but for his baleen legs
swinging in tandem.

In the canopy,
a regal song rings out,
piercing the morning air
with its vibrato.
The bird,
holding court in paradise,
flutters from branch to branch
dancing for us onlookers,
aware, yet determined to remain aloof.
A flash of red,
a glint of blue,
swooping to the ground,
then flying off to the latticework above,
leaving us awestruck,
reflecting on the privilege
of being granted an audience.

Meanwhile,
the thousand-legged jester
continues his crawl
across the forest floor.

Komodo National Park

Mystified by tales of giant creatures roaming on one of the forgotten isles of the Indonesian archipelago, a group of intrepid filmmakers sets sail for the fabled land in hopes of capturing the beasts on film. So goes the plot of King Kong, and, while we most definitely would never have chosen Skull Island as a destination, we were planning to visit the island and creatures that inspired the 1933 classic to see not the oversized ape that starred in the movie, but rather a different giant and ancient creature that sparks fear and fascination: the Komodo dragon. 

To see the dragons we would have to visit one of two islands (Komodo or Rinca) that make up the greater Komodo National Park. Our base for the visit, as there’s no accommodation on the islands themselves, was Labuan Bajo, a rusty port town situated on the westernmost point of Flores, one of more than 17,000 islands that make up the country of Indonesia. The town, as we would discover, was well-accustomed to the tourism scene being a popular stopover for holiday-goers in Bali. Hotels, dive shops, and tour operators crowded the town’s main street among the more surprising establishments like bakeries and Italian restaurants. Along the sidewalks, English-speaking locals functioned as walking advertisements, chatting up any tourist showing even the slightest amount of insecurity in hopes of securing a future client. 

It was in this atmosphere that we discovered that finding a tour for the next day would not be a problem; finding one that fit our needs and budget however, would. After hearing sales pitch after sales pitch and having our requests for a tour be met with an enthusiastic “Yes!” followed by a shamelessly exaggerated price to a disgusted “No!” after which the operator returned to playing games on his phone, we finally settled on a place that neatly fit in the middle of those two responses, a reluctant and almost bothered “Okay” followed by a price estimate that we decided was only slightly ripping us off.

The next morning we were back at the shop which was running a group tour that morning as well. While waiting for our tour guide we met an Australian man who began chatting us up. Well into his fifties if not sixties, he was unapologetically boastful about his newfound relationship with a girl barely in her twenties whom he had met while wandering the streets and had paid heavily to show him around the town. Between sporadic and unnecessary reassurances of her beauty as he pointed a greedy, prizewinning finger towards a shadowy figure under a nearby street lamp, he told us of how he had paid for her to go on the tour with him that day and was in the process of getting her a job back in Australia to take her back home with him. Gathering that he had treaded from jolly vacationer looking for an authentic experience with a local to the much murkier waters of trying to secure a reluctant prostitute, we were quite glad that we wouldn’t be sharing a boat with him that day and hoped the best for the girl.

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Enjoying breakfast at our hotel before the tour

After our guide showed up, and we use the term “guide” very lightly as this came in the form of a high school student who was more ornamental in his accompaniment of us than guide-like, often trailing behind us in a pondering sort of walk that hinted at him thinking whether or not this was really worth getting a day off from school, we made our way to the boat dock past stalls of sleepy-eyed tour operators who clearly hadn’t secured any clients for that day, their heavy eyes trailing us regretfully as we paraded by.

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Our tour guide, who, several times throughout the day, asked for me to take a picture of him and Kate together using my camera which puzzled us since he had his own smartphone. He never asked about the pictures later.

Our boat, wooden and charming in its neon color scheme, was dwarfed by most other boats on the harbor, looking much more equipped to putter across a small pond than brave the testy ocean waters that had forced the harbor to close just a day earlier. As we peered closer at the boat, we found that our captain and his first mate (there was no second mate) were asleep on the deck. After a couple of half-hearted shouts from our guide, they promptly woke up and within minutes we were out on the ocean, beginning our three-hour journey towards Komodo National Park.

After being on the water for a short while and taking note of the pace at which our boat was moving towards the islands in the distance, eternity seemed like a more accurate time estimate than the already lengthy three hours. At times, it appeared we were even moving backwards, our boat losing the battle of progress between itself and the ocean, which swelled with pride as it moved past us and towards the coast. An incessant and deafening rat-a-tat-tat echoed out from the engine, an audial metaphor for the boat’s struggles to push back against the waves. As if the assault on one of our senses wasn’t enough, an inescapable cloud of gasoline fumes encompassed the entire boat for the duration of the journey. And yet, despite these inconveniences, the boat ride, all three hours of it, would end up being one of our favorite parts of the day. The journey was an enjoyable slow, the engine noises and gasoline smells were treated with fondness rather than scrutiny, and the views accompanying us on our trip were at all times breathtaking.

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On the way to Komodo National Park
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Coffee is always on tap in Indonesia, even on the ocean

The scenery, grandiose and expansive, stretched out in the form of oceans and mountains and islands that, oddly enough given their scope, had a miniaturized feel to them. Perhaps what made it appear this way was the almost-artificial looking green that carpeted the smooth island peaks that always seemed to exist in the undefinable gray area between a hill and a mountain. Like the greenery of a toy train set, it appeared almost felt-like and if we could have reached out and touched it, and at times it felt as if we’d be able to easily enough, we imagined it would feel velveteen. In some cases the soft and smooth slopes gently slid into the ocean, disappearing beneath the ever-changing color and texture of the water, and in other cases it’s descent into the water was ended abruptly in the form of a cliff made up of a jagged, craggy rock face that heroically bore the brunt of the waves endlessly crashing into it.

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The gray morning skies made the scenery look even more mysterious and prehistoric

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While this scene and others that the island had to offer were captivating, our attention at times drifted towards the horizon where our eyes played tricks on us again as what we thought to be the faded outline of clouds jutting across the ocean would slowly materialize into mountains as we crept closer to them. Out of one of these mirages came our first stop: Padar Island, famous not for its reptilian inhabitants but for the sweeping views offered from its peaks. 

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The path leading up to Padar Island’s lookout
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Halfway up!

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On the way to Rinca Island

After leaving Padar, we began making our way towards Rinca Island to see the Komodo Dragons. To visit the park you had to be accompanied by a park ranger and could choose between several hikes around the island varying in length. Our ranger welcomed us and introduced the park with all of the enthusiasm and routine of a theme park ride operator, spewing scripted facts about the island in a monotone, almost robotic fashion. After choosing the longest trek possible in hopes of it increasing our chances of seeing a dragon, the ranger nodded obligingly and took us to our first stop, the rangers shelters, where a worrisome gathering of dragons sat in waiting. Almost sedated looking as they basked in the midday heat, we quickly learned just how terrifying they could be after a loud noise coming from the nearby forest made them spring to life, gargoyles turning to the monsters you feared them to be. As they strutted and slithered menacingly about the grounds, we began to look at our ranger and his tool for fighting off a dragon should they attack: a “Y” shaped stick, with increasing dubiousness.

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If you zoom in on the girl taking a selfie, you’ll see that she is completely aware of the approaching Komodo dragon.

As we stood and watched the dragons slowly return to their sedentary state, our ranger, as if suffering from amnesia, deemed it necessary to tell us several times without being asked that they never feed the dragons and then posited that they must be lured to the shelters by cooking odors. “Ah, so they feed them,” we thought to ourselves. Eager to see ones in the wild (and not eager at the same time) we left the shelters to begin our trek across the island. 

 It didn’t take long for us to realize that we were traversing the same hillsides that had so enticed us during our boat ride to the park. Verdant and untouched, it was not at all difficult to imagine spotting a dinosaur munching on vegetation in the distance let alone Komodo dragons. Sadly though, our imaginations would have to suffice for both as for the duration of our hour and a half walk across the island, the ones perched outside the ranger shelters would end up being the only ones we’d see.

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The first part of our hike included a walk through the forest where we saw nesting sites for the Komodo dragons

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Sitting on our long boat ride back to Labuan Bajo, we had plenty of time to contemplate our time in the park. Disappointment at not seeing Komodo dragons on our trek came to mind first but then disappointment suggests an expectation to see such things. Too often in our travels we have witnessed and fell victim to the allure of seeing unique, wild animals through means that don’t keep them wild. Whether it be a parade of jeeps falling over themselves to box in a family of elephants in Sri Lanka or a fleet of boats dropping anchor in an already depleted coral reef in Vietnam, tour operators often pay no adherence to the protection and care of the wild animals that keep their operations afloat in the name of leaving a site with a satisfied customer. Like the filmmakers in King Kong, businesses and travelers alike can get greedy about the experiences and profit that wildlife can provide, but it’s important to remember that nature isn’t an entertainer and adheres to no schedule. Expecting it to do so is selfish and the only truly disappointing thing is that it took us until this trip to finally realize this. It was encouraging then to hear that the park would be closing sometime this year to allow dragon and deer populations to recover, a positive first step that hopefully turns into a long journey for the tourism industry and tourists alike towards a more sustainable relationship with nature.

Read on for a poem by Kate:

Rinca Holiday

Growing lethargic 
in the tropical heat
I scout out a sunny patch
to bathe in the rays,
creeping slowly to a shady bit
under the trees
when the sun begins
to roast.
On this island
friends surround me.
I mingle,
poking fun 
and enjoying
the company.

Whiiiiiizzz,
thud.

I snap to attention 
in unison with the throng.
Is it my next meal?
A snack?
No,
just a brick.
Thrown for the amusement
of the crowd of humans 
that stands around
day after day watching
me and my bank
live life.
I get up and amble toward one
She jumps back in fear,
I smirk.
Just like the brick,
it works every time.

Zhangjiajie

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.

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The highest natural bridge in the world
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People being shuttled up the mountain in the Bailong Elevator
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One of the unique “mountains” of Zhangjiajie…
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…and the more familiar mountain scenery that surrounded it.

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.

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Our path leading up the mountain
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One of the many spider-like grasshoppers that propelled themselves into us throughout the entirety of our hike up the mountain
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An interesting beetle we came across on our climb
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Caterpillars were aplenty as well

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.

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Staring up at one of the crumbling columns that made up the Zhangjiajie mountain range
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Less sweaty selfies were the result of some people wanting the experience of hiking up the mountain without the hassle of actually hiking
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Getting closer to the top

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.

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One particularly narrow and crowded passageway we came across
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Thankfully, it was less crowded when we returned
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A busy path winding along the cliff’s edge
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People weren’t the only ones crowding the mountaintop as monkeys populated certain areas too
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Our interest in them wasn’t at all returned

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.

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A busy lookout
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Appreciating the unique climb up to a  lookout
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Taking a break from the scenery a quick picture

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.

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A typical scene along our walk
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The yellow-clad daredevil
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We were barely comfortable watching this and our stomachs turned at the thought of one of us doing similar acrobatics

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.

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Hallelujah Mountain
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One of the many stunning views accompanying our walk around the mountaintop
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A close-up of one of the mountains “peaks”
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The top of this mountain looked like a stage, the trees the actors, and the other mountains the audience
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Layers of mountains slowly fading into the tones of the sky

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.

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The path running along the Golden Whip Stream
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A bright sky still couldn’t reach some places dwelling under the shadow of the mountains

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.

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Kate atop one of the many large boulders flung about the stream
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Speedy walkers disappearing into the forest ahead
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A tiny butterfly perched on equally tiny flowers
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One of the many dragonflies crowding  the stream
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A troop of monkeys

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.

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A snacking monkey
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Some took their treats to the trees for a more secluded snack session
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Babies clinging to their mothers were a common sight too
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Moving through the tall grass along the stream
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We came across this one contemplating its surroundings

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.

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A mother and baby
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And another
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This monkey looked eerily human
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An adolescent pondering its next leap

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.

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The delicious (and spicy) potatoes on tap throughout the park
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An equally spicy bowl of noodles
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Filling up the water bottle to help quench our still tingling mouths

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.

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Heading back up 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.

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Mist gathering on the mountains…
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…obscuring their faces
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A wisp of mist curling back into itself
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An ominous view of the misty mountains

 

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After a while, the mist cleared from the valley and was relegated to small clouds sitting on the mountain tops
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People still looking on after the mist had cleared
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Still significantly soaked long after the skies had turned blue again

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.

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The Field in the Sky
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The bright green terraces gleaming in the sun

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.

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Sitting on the cliff’s edge
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The view from our perch

 

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Looking very much like a stone forest

Trincomalee

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.

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Our train winding through the Sri Lankan countryside
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Our heads usually weren’t the only ones poking out of the train’s windows and doors

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.

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A train table hanging from the wall at Gal Oya Junction
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Passing the time during a layover at Gal Oya Junction
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Waiting for the train to Trincomalee

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.

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If we grew tired of our seats, we could always go sit in the train’s doorways…
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…which offered a welcome breeze

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.

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Sitting outside our cabana

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.

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The inside of the cabana
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Spiders and squirrels weren’t the only creatures calling our cabana home; we found this lizard scuttling about on our roof

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.

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Cricket was the game of choice on the beach
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Some colorful beach wear
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A crow snooping around someone’s discarded belongings

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.

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A herd of cows speeding off along the shoreline
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This cow stood in the same spot the entire day watching all of the people intently as they walked past

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).

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Sunrise over the ocean
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A fisherman we passed on our way to Pigeon Island

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.

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Passing the rest of the day away on the beach
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Enjoying the refreshingly cool ocean water

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.

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The dolphins were extremely hard to capture as they moved very fast and our boat was rocking about
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A lucky shot just before they slipped underneath the water again

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.

Kaudulla National Park

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.

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Still making our way through breakfast
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One of the many macaques hanging out in the trees above us
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A younger monkey getting ready to leap

As we watched, we became enamored with one adolescent monkey and its infatuation with an unfurled roll of paper towels.

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Securing his towel
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Taking it for a ride up a tree
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On the prowl against envious towel snatchers
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Trying out its fashion qualities
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Keeping out of the sun

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.

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Testing the waters
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On the defense
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Getting backup from some friends
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Taking a water break together shortly before the puppies’ dad arrived

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.

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Heading into Kaudulla National Park
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Some of the more interesting looking birds we would see on our way into the park
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Our guide had a seasoned eye as he was able to spot this tiny lizard perched on a tree
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A lonely egret

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.

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The storm rolling in
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One of the many fellow trucks on the lookout for elephants

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.

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The elephant looking at the camera is the one that charged us

 

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.

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The rainstorm offered some neat pictures of the gray landscape
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An elephant emerging from the pond
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An apocalyptic scene
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After the storm had passed

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.

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Finally emerging from the forest
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This elephant seemed very content with himself as he trotted along

 

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Having a post-storm snack
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Family bonding
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Giving mom their love
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Heading back into the forest

Chengdu

The slogan for the whole of Sichuan province is “more than just pandas” in a clear nod to the area’s most famous resident and biggest draw for tourists. Wanting to put that slogan to the test, we decided to spend our first day in the province’s capital, Chengdu, seeing what else it had to offer.

To our delight, it had many, and, conveniently enough, most of those places fell within walking distance of our hostel: Chengdu Mix Hostel Backpackers. So, after a very modest breakfast of toast and instant coffee, we grabbed our umbrellas and headed out into the city, our first destination being Wenshu Monastery.

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The main hall of the monastery
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Lion faces on one of the building’s roofs
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Finding our way through the grounds

Just coming from one of the most beautiful national parks in all of China, if not the world, it was a bit disheartening being in a city again, which is why the monastery was a perfect starting point for our time in Chengdu. Upon stepping into its grounds, the noise and bustling environment of the streets and shopping districts surrounding it all but vanished into a perfectly peaceful balance of gardens and temples, offering us a much needed middle ground in our transition from the natural world to the industrial one. There were people there of course, but we seemed to be more of a bother to them than they were to us. Nothing ruins an 8 a.m. tai chi session like a couple of camera wielding tourists idly wandering in circles around you.

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A scene in the monastery’s gardens
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One of the many statues encased throughout the grounds
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An elegant pagoda

As we worked our way further into the grounds, we were met with familiar sights from countless other temples we have visited during our time in China. The gardens, buildings, and statues don’t vary drastically from one to the next, but, somehow, each temple still finds a way to distinguish itself from its peers, offering at least one thing that’s unique to that particular one. In the case of Wenshu Monastery, this came in two forms: one, a hall atop the main building where thousands of Buddha figurines sat encased in individual glass boxes, each one placed there as an offering from a congenial congregant (or so we guessed); and two, the fact that we had gotten there during prayer time and were able to see monks leading processions and prayers around the temple. As the latter began, the sound of gongs echoed off the walls of the closely clustered buildings, underscored by the uniformed murmuring of prayers. It was all very calming, but, not wanting to intrude too much on their time of worship, we didn’t stick around for very long, instead opting to begin our search for the exit.

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Some of the many Buddha figurines we saw in the main hall
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Monks leading prayers
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A monk heading towards the light

By the time we found it, late morning had arrived and we headed to the nearby Aidao nunnery for their daily vegetarian lunch. We wouldn’t have known about the lunch had our hostel not recommended it to us as one of the more unique experiences one could have in Chengdu. Eager to see why, we cluelessly strolled into the nunnery, hoping that the location and details of the lunch would be evident…they weren’t. So, through a series of simple questions (literally “where is lunch?”) aimed at anyone who would listen, we eventually found our way to the dining hall where one of the regulars took us under her wing and explained the process to us through a series of powerful jabbing points to her gaping mouth, then her stomach, then to the dining hall. If we hadn’t known lunch was available before meeting her, we most definitely would have afterwards.

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The main hall of Aidao Nunnery
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A man waiting for lunch to begin

The lunch, as we found out rather quickly, was a process as mechanical as it was charming. First, as communicated to us by our pantomiming new pal, we had to go to a little building at the far end of the grounds to get two bowls and a pair of chopsticks. Once we had those in hand, we could take a seat on the long, wooden benches of the dining hall, where we would wait for the nuns to come in and dish out our lunch. While we sat there, others trickled in, most of them with their own set of bowls and chopsticks in tow. This seemed to be a daily occurrence for them as made evident by their clear understanding of the intricate process of the lunch and the friendly nods and polite chitter chatter they exchanged with each other much in the same way that people do at Sunday mass.

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Bowls at the ready as everyone waits for the nuns to enter the dining hall

Once the nuns, barely distinguishable from their male counterparts with their bald heads and baggy robes, came in though, the room fell silent. The atmosphere turned meditative as the nuns rang a bell several times, sang a short hymn, and collected rice to be offered to one of the shrines outside the hall. Shortly after, one of the younger looking nuns who couldn’t have been much older than 16, began winding up and down the rows of tables, a cart with a large pot of vegetables trailing behind. One by one, each person received a steaming heap of oily greens slopped in their bowl and then immediately began shoveling the contents into their mouths. Being barely past 11:00 a.m. at that point, we knew hunger certainly wasn’t the reason, but we would soon find out what was. After the nun finished scooping out the first pot she went back and got another…and another…and another. Eventually we lost track of how many it added up to, all of our energy being dedicated to making sure we ate fast enough to make room for the next round of vegetables. Our chopstick skills have never been more vital.

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Nuns preparing rice for the offering

By the time it was all said and done, we must have eaten at least three bowls of food, which then made us wonder how much all of it would cost. Somehow, despite having zero experience with vegetarian lunches at Buddhist nunneries, we settled on the price of 30 RMB. We looked over to our friend to see how much she was pulling out and she held up a friendly three fingers. “Ah! We were right!,” we thought, only soon to find out that her gesture didn’t represent thirty as we had presumed but, quite literally, 3 RMB. For those who don’t know the conversion rate, that’s equivalent to about 50 cents for an entire day’s worth of food. This was a place that could have transformed itself into a tourist attraction and charged whatever price it wanted under the headline of a “unique experience,” but it didn’t. There were no signs outside the nunnery or people herding us to the dining hall and snatching our money as soon as we set foot inside in a desperate money grab that so many other places we’ve visited have fallen victim to. No, it seemed that the lunch was simply meant to benefit the public, whether it be spiritually or nutritionally. After the bells were rung again and everyone sang a closing hymn, we humbly walked back to wash our bowls and chopsticks before leaving.

For the rest of the afternoon, we spent our time hopping on and off buses to visit different shopping and historical districts in hopes of finding a worthy souvenir to take back to Shanghai with us. Eventually, our rambling took us to the city’s Tibetan district, a series of tree-encased lanes, bookended by stores selling everything a Buddhism-enthusiast’s heart could desire. From clothing stores selling monks’ robes and attire to jewelry shops selling prayer beads to ones filled with Buddha statues of every imaginable size, including monumental ones that looked like they belonged in a temple, the district seemingly had it all. Everything, that is, except what we were looking for unfortunately, so we left the area for the nearby Jinli Street, where we spent an hour or so squeezing our way around its crowded alleyways before calling it a day and heading back to our hostel in anticipation of seeing the pandas the next day.

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One of the shops in the Tibetan quarter
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One of the larger Buddhas that were on display wrapped up and ready to ship
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Lanterns hung along Jinli Street

Believe it or not, there’s such a thing as panda diplomacy, which is when China, in hopes of bolstering their relationship with certain countries, sends them a panda or two. Sure, they’re a bit less grand than shipping the Statue of Liberty across the ocean, but what better animal to link your national identity to than probably the most beloved one on the planet. Since the practice started in the 1970s with the opening of China to the world, the giant panda (or “big bear cat” in Chinese) has become an international icon. Whether it be their symbol for the whole of wildlife per their place on the WWF logo or fighting villains in the Kung Fu Panda trilogy, everyone seems to want a piece of the cuddly quadruped.

Wanting to see the cause of all of the (forgive us) panda-monium, we decided to spend our second day in Chengdu visiting its world-famous Panda Breeding Research Center. We had read articles about it in National Geographic before, highlighting their unique methods for taking care of the pandas (most notably workers dressing in panda costumes and spraying themselves with panda urine so that the cubs they hope to reintroduce into the wild never get accustomed to a human presence), but we had no idea what the actual park would be like for a tourist.

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Outside the Panda Breeding Research Center

After walking through the front gate, which was fittingly shaped like a giant contemporary-looking panda, we found ourselves on a path stretching into the bamboo forest ahead and immediately began walking down it. At convenient intervals along the way were wooden posts with arrows pointing us in different directions, which we would find out later in the day weren’t all that helpful as the park was a labyrinth, but they got us going in the right direction. The particular sign we were following at that time was pointing towards one of the several adult panda exhibits. Soon enough, we could see a crowd of people, and as we tiptoed our line of vision above their heads, we got our first glimpse of the main attraction.

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Walking through the thick bamboo groves that filled the park
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The park also had some beautiful tropical trees on display
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Getting ready to see some pandas

Rotund and munching away at some bamboo (we had gotten there during breakfast time), the panda had its audience captivated. Each grab for another bamboo shoot was cause to hold one’s breath in anticipation of watching it peel the skin off with its teeth and chomp a few inches off before reaching for some more. Anything outside of this routine was cause for a deep communal sigh of admiration from the crowd, whose bottled up excitement at seeing a panda was waiting to explode at the sight of something truly amazing like, perhaps a sneeze, or, cross your fingers, the panda walking. While our tone may sound exaggerated, it really isn’t. People absolutely adore pandas, us included, and a chance to see them so close with no glass in between was incredibly exciting.

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Breakfast time!
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Shelling a bamboo shoot
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Reaping the rewards

We must have sat and watched that first panda for at least half an hour, completely entranced (and a bit judgmental) at its endless eating, before moving on. As we bounced from one enclosure to the next, we quickly discovered that the only thing that rivaled the panda’s capacity to eat was its unparalleled capacity to sleep. Outside of these two basic components of existence, they didn’t seem to do much else, which made us wonder how exactly they made it in the wild for there are a number of other factors, outside of their infatuation with laziness, that make a strong case against their survival.

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Taking a much-deserved break from the labors of breakfast
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This particular panda has mastered the craft of existing somewhere between taking a nap and eating bamboo

For starters, the female panda can only be impregnated two or sometimes three days out of the entire year. If she and a male counterpart manage to mate in that time frame, there is about a fifty percent chance that the pregnancy will result in twins, which would be great for the panda population if it weren’t for the fact that they have very little energy. Despite eating lots and lots of bamboo (so much that they can defecate up to forty times a day), the panda’s stomach is still carnivorous in nature and, because of that, doesn’t absorb very much energy or nutrients from the bamboo, hence the eating and the sleeping. So, without enough energy to take care of both cubs, the mother must choose one to nurture and let the other die.

Mother Nature, it seems, has been trying to nudge the yin and yang patterned bear towards extinction for some time and yet they are still here and have been for 8 million years. Something we were very happy for as we walked around the park some more, catching a rare glimpse into the bears lively nature:

Seeing them at their cuddliest:

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A baby panda putting up absolutely no resistance to gravity
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A caretaker who we were envious of
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Baby pandas cuddling
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Figuring out how to walk

And even spotting a few red pandas (or as they’re know in the Shanghai Zoo: “lesser pandas”):

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The red pandas shared both a name with Giant Pandas and an affinity for napping
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Waking up a friend
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Contemplating life

By our third time around the park, we had seen everything we were able to and, after exiting through the belly of the giant panda gate that had welcomed us, we boarded a bus back to Chengdu to catch one of Sichuan’s famous mask-changing ceremonies.

Before being shown to our seats, we were taken to a waiting area and given a complimentary cup of tea to sip on until shortly before the beginning of the show. As we looked around the room, one sight stood out among the otherwise uninteresting spread of tables and people: that of a man bouncing from one person to the next to, to our bewilderment, clean their ears. Of all the things people want to do while they are waiting for something (read a magazine, browse the Internet, etc.), having your ears cleaned must certainly be at the bottom of most of those lists. Yet this man had somehow tapped into that niche market and seemed to be doing very well for himself in the process for at least one person from each table desired his services.

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Digging in!

With tools that looked more equipped to mine a mountain than an ear (including a head lamp!), the man was Edward Scissorhandian with all of his long and sharp utensils, picking and prodding each client’s ears for a minute or so before moving on to the next. As intriguing as it was to watch, there was no way we were letting him get anywhere near our ears, which wasn’t an issue as, before he made it to our side of the room, the theatre doors were opened and we filed in to our seats.

From the moment the show started to its conclusion, we were completely clueless as to what was happening on stage despite a loose storyline that was explained in English on giant screens hung around the theatre. Through all of the confusion and strangeness though, it was still incredibly entertaining and had plenty of other things to hold our interest, including outlandish costumes, percussion-heavy music and even a random rap about the city of Chengdu that was haphazardly thrown into the middle of the show and made us lose all hope of being able to follow what was going on.

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A scene from the opera

As the show came to a close, the headlining act began as different masked men scurried out onto the stage and, one by one, changed one colorful mask for the next, which doesn’t sound all that spectacular, but the speed at which they did it left us gap-jawed and clueless just as in the best magician’s trick. If you put your hand above your head and wave it across your face as fast as you can, the incremental amount of time your hand is over your face is how long it took them to change from one mask to another, with no sign of the former in sight. There were ones that blew fire, one with multiple masks that changed simultaneously, and even a marionette whose puppet, through a level of skill we will never know, was able to change it’s masks as flawlessly as the rest.

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The mask-changing ceremony

After wowing the audience for a half hour or so the ceremony ended and with it the show. Supremely satisfied, we exited the theatre and found our way back to the hostel. A day trip to see the Grand Buddha at Leshan would follow the next day and our last day in Chengdu was so uneventful that the highlight of it came in the evening when we saw a movie at the mall cinema. Safe to say we were ready to head back to Shanghai. Chengdu, and the whole of Sichuan was, as its slogan promised, much more than just pandas…but pandas always help.

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