Prambanan

When tasked with describing the origins of the ruinous heap of rubble sitting amongst their villages, the people of Central Java chose to err on the side of the fantastical. Long ago, as all legends must start, there were two rival kingdoms, one ruled by a man and the other a man-eating giant. Eager to expand his empire, the giant waged war on the neighboring kingdom, but was defeated by his counterpart’s son, who was said to have supernatural powers. The victorious prince, whose name, Bandung Bondowoso, sounds like what one would expect an Indonesian Marvel superhero to be named, immediately fell in love with the giant’s daughter, who, stunningly beautiful, had apparently not gotten her looks from her father. After being asked to marry him, she reluctantly agreed to, but only if the prince could fulfill one impossible request: build 1,000 temples over the course of one night. Employing his supernatural powers, Bandung summoned an army of spirits and demons who helped him construct the first 999 temples with ease. Worried that her request would be met, the princess and her maidens lit a fire and began pounding rice (a traditional morning task) so as to make it seem like it was dawn. Fooled into thinking it was, roosters began crowing and the spirits fled into the darkness, leaving the last temple unfinished. Furious, the prince turned the princess to stone and used her statue as the finishing piece in the 1,000th temple where it still sits to this day.

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While the temple’s true origins were not quite as captivating a tale as the one conjured up by locals (its building was commissioned by a king sometime in the 9th Century), our imaginations were captured all the same as we caught our first glimpse of it in the distance. Rising from a pile of incoherent rubble were the imposing spires of the main temple complex. Tall and seemingly rooted in the earth below, they dominated the horizon. Serving as their backdrop was a sky that seemed undecided in what kind of weather it wanted to convey for, at any given minute, it fluctuated from blue and sunny to gray and rainy. As we approached the main buildings, it had apparently settled on rainy and we found dry refuge under a nearby tree which gave us time to contemplate the grounds.

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The tree we camped under during the rainstorm
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The birds were undeterred by the rain

While the towers reigned supreme in the sky, less spectacular piles of rock and haphazardly assembled structures dominated the ground, looking as we imagined they would have the day after an earthquake rattled the area half a millennia earlier. When restoration began on the site in the early 1900’s, it had been decided that any buildings that were missing more than a quarter of their original structure would be left to their ruinous state. Given that locals had been using stones from the site for centuries to construct their own buildings and 19th century looters smuggled out statues to serve as unique ornaments for their homes back in Europe, it was no wonder that a majority of the buildings were left unfinished. One could only imagine what the site must have looked like fully restored, though the present state of it, rubble and all, was still enthralling. In fact, our imaginations had been kindled the most walking amongst the rubble, with its half-finished shrines and lonely statues rising up from the pile of rocks beneath it. It was no wonder that locals were able to come up with such an incredible myth about the temple’s origins.

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Walking through the half-finished shrines outside the main temple complex that were thought to have been used for meditation by priests

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Standing in front of one of the shrines that was fortunate enough to be fully restored

As the rain spell passed and blue skies returned, this time for good, we made our way into the main temple complex. If the piles of rubble had enticed us because of what wasn’t there, then the main temple did so because of what was. Standing amongst the towers we had appreciated from afar, we were overwhelmed not only by their magnitude but by the amount of inviting details that covered every inch of them. Bulging-eyed faces knowingly peered out from corners and from atop doors, cheerful lions sat tucked away in darkened nooks, and reliefs depicted grand tales that, like the temple itself, would remain largely unknown and mysterious to us.

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Heading in to the temple grounds
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Inside one of the three main temples, each of which was dedicated to one of the Hindu gods; either Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the keeper), or Shiva (the destroyer)

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We never grew tired of seeing these faces atop the doorways of the temples
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The kalpavriksha tree, a sacred tree said to grant wishes, was a common sight among the temples many carvings. Flanking it are two of the many birds depicted at the site, whose features are so anatomically correct that scientists today can identify their species
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More kalpavriksha trees and birds bookending the puppy-like enthusiasm of a lion

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After spending a couple of hours wandering around the grounds, it still felt like every time we turned a corner we had been hit with a bout of amnesia, experiencing the temples anew as before unseen details emerged. While this phenomenon would never truly wear off, our desire to see new things conquered our hesitation that we might have missed something at the main complex, and we left it to walk to the nearby Sewu Temple. 

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Pausing for a break to take everything in before moving on
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Just before heading to Sewu Temple I was asked if I could be drawn by a local artist who had also done a portrait of Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo
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The finished product, which only took about two minutes
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The scenery on the walk to Sewu Temple was beautiful as well

Welcoming us to the temple grounds were two bulbous stone guards, whose bare, protruding bellies and bewildered expression ruined any chance they had at looking intimidating, even with weapons in tow. The temple itself, pixelated-looking as each brick that made up its facade took on a different shade of gray, was well-worth the walk. Like it’s cousin a kilometer away, Sewu existed, for the most part, in a ruinous state which did nothing to diminish its intrigue. 

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However impressive Prambanan and Sewu were though, with their alluring grandeur and inexhaustible intricacies, we always felt our attention being drawn back to the shadowed form of Mount Merapi, a local volcano that loomed menacingly behind a veil of clouds over the entire area. For all the ingenuity of the civilization that built the temple complex, the volcano served as a reminder that anything can be dismantled, whether it be by the forces of nature, time, or another, less romantic trace of humanity, division and destruction. Historians believe that either an eruption from Mount Merapi or a power struggle between neighboring kingdoms had caused the temple to be abandoned and within generations, its origins had become a mystery and the civilization that built it it and religion that inspired it, supplanted. It was now just a hollowed shell, its once hallowed halls now only filled by myths and imaginations of those who set their eyes upon it.

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Dusk added an entirely different dimension to the temples, unfortunately though our tickets didn’t allow us to stay for the sunset
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Enjoying our meal in a warung before catching the bus back to Jogjakarta

Read on for a poem by Kate:

Musings From an Amateur Ornithologist 

An abundance of feathered creatures
stand against stone.
Tethered and flightless
they display curved beaks
with sharp points
grown smooth by age.

Why birds?

They don’t understand
the significance of this once holy place
buried by jungle, claimed and reclaimed.
Or perhaps it is we who don’t understand,
placing too much significance on our mark
and perceive our time to be much grander
than the score in sandstone that it is.

Kelimutu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Read on for a poem by Kate:

A Kelimutu Fairytale

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

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

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

The surface is still
once more.
Waiting.

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

Ruteng

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

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Having dinner back at the motorbike rental shop after the ordeal

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.

Xiapu

The word “mudflat” is not one that typically inspires images of beauty. In fact, upon hearing the word, you probably picture exactly what it’s name implies: a large expanse of flat land covered in  gloppy mud, which, essentially, is what it is. Surround a mudflat with old fishing villages whose specialty is drying seaweed and the idea that a place like this could ever be considered beautiful now becomes almost laughable. It was to our surprise then that photos we saw of a place called the Xiapu Mudflats, a small coastal area in the north of China’s Fujian Province, could be some of the most unique and transfixing images we had ever seen. In the photos, thin layers of glinting water wove like veins over the mud, creating a tiger-like pattern over the earth. In the nearby ocean, a multitude of bamboo poles used for drying seaweed rose out of it like a dead forest. There were images of fisherman wielding strange devices and mist covered mountains looming in the distance. The mudflats, we decided almost immediately, were a place we most definitely had to see. 

Our experience with them came on the morning of our first and, regrettably, only day in Xiapu. Not wanting to miss the much-hyped (for good reason) sunrises that were featured in so many of the images we had seen, we rose early and hired a taxi to take us to the nearby Beiqi Mudflats. After arriving at the site, we exited the taxi to complete darkness, the only source of light being the bobbing headlamps of fisherman making their way to the beach and a small food cart, conveniently perched alongside the path that led to the viewing platform. Walking past the food vendor and up the small hill, we eventually came upon a small group of people where we decided to stop and secure our spot for the sunrise. 

As light began seeping out of the horizon, the features of the landscape before us slowly began to take shape; everything inhabited an eerie shade of blue. As more light made its way into the scene, the water transformed to a sheath of silver, its glassy finish being disrupted only by the ripples of fisherman wading knee-deep into the shallow ocean. The silver eventually lost its vibrancy and turned to such a degree of gray that we began to doubt whether or not the sun would make an appearance. Our worries were soon put to rest though when, about an hour and a half after we arrived, a sliver of orange peeked out over the mountains to cheers from the crowd which were soon followed by a uniform silence of admiration. Within minutes, the sun was fully in the sky and the water below was now golden. As we watched we knew, from that point on, that mudflat would be a word that we’d always associate with beauty.

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

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

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

Chuxi

To look at the massive earthen structure known as a tulou from above is to see a perfect circle tucked into the verdant, subtropical hills of China’s Fujian Province. While this image may conjure up nothing more than faint curiosity from someone today, it created quite a different impression upon those viewing grainy satellite images of them in the midst of the Cold War. Upon seeing thousands of the circular structures hidden away in the Chinese countryside in 1985, those in the U.S. intelligence community could not help but note their striking similarity to missile silos, believing the entirety of the thousand-plus network of buildings to be a sprawling nuclear base. To get a closer look, two representatives of the New York Institute of Photography were sent for a tour of China with one of their stops conveniently being to see the tulous. The images they brought back with them and presented to the CIA must have garnered some level of amusement from those suspecting a nuclear base for the tulous were anything but, the equivalent of suspecting a child’s flashlight to be a planet-destroying laser; the two were simply unrelated.

Our experience with the tulous fell under less suspicious circumstances, though our curiosity about them must have certainly been on par with those first foreign visitors nearly thirty years prior. As our tuk tuk rattled up to the entrance of Chuxi village, one of the many housing the tulous, we happily paid our driver the minuscule fee for the half hour ride and began making our way toward the centuries-old structures that gave the sleepy agricultural villages their fame. 

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A square tulou mirroring a parked car across the valley

Though we could never recall when exactly it occurred, at some point on our walk into the village we all of a sudden felt as if we had become unattached to the modern world. To our left, an untouched forest climbed out of sight into the punishing glare of the sun, a deafening cacophony of insect noises emanating from its core. To our right, a gurgling stream haphazardly made its way around different rocks and bends, occasionally bursting to life in the form of a small waterfall before quickly returning to a trickle. As we neared the village, a Shire-esque scene unfolded before us. Dominating it were the otherworldly tulous standing formidably over a patchwork of overflowing gardens that covered the landscape. Villagers meandered about, some in an aimless manner suggesting that not only were they not in a hurry to get where they were going, but also that they had no real destination in mind; and others in a more purposeful manner as they busily carried large buckets of water from one garden to the next. It was then that we realized that it wasn’t just the tulous that attracted a steady stream of tourists to the villages, but also the way of life that they helped preserve.  It is one thing to escape modernity on a secluded mountain top, it is an entirely other experience to escape it amidst a community of people.

 

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

This feeling would follow us to Yuqinglou, one of the three round tulous in the village and our place of residence for the next two nights. Upon passing through the massive front door, we were greeted by a charming, yet noticeably oft-rehearsed tea ceremony where we sipped the local tea, chatted with the residents, and learned that this particular tulou dated back to the 1700s. After finishing our tea we were led to our room up two flights of wooden stairs whose sturdiness was put into question due to the cartoonish creaking they emitted under the weight of each step.

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Residents of our tulou sipping tea just inside the front door

Upon entering our room we were rather surprised to find that, despite booking a private room, we already had a roommate in the form of a spider the size of our hand that moved at the speed of vampire as with each blink we would find it had moved several feet across the room. Well accustomed to smashing giant spiders in hotel rooms on previous trips, I decided that my desire to appear courageous had reached its limit and I promptly summoned one of the tulou residents to help. In a hum drum manner, she cornered the spider, sprayed poison in its direction, and then watched nonchalantly as it scurried by her feet and under the bed. After this, she looked at us in a manner that suggested an, “Okay, all done” attitude and seemed slightly surprised when we asked to be moved to another room. Any misguided comfort we took in the idea that our new room would be comparatively less spidery was squashed as the corpse of one blew out from behind a table as we closed the curtains.

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Outside our room

Eager to escape the confines of our room, we headed down to a separate building where the tulou owners cooked dinner for the guests. Upon telling the cook that we only wanted vegetable dishes, he went back into the kitchen and brought back handfuls of different kinds of vegetables that looked as if they had just been picked that day as they were still covered in dirt (we could only imagine what would have happened had we opted for meat!). After nodding in agreement with the choices before us, he returned to the kitchen and shortly after was presenting us with our dinner, a truly farm to table experience. Travel weary, we inhaled the food before reluctantly returning to our room where we would pass the night without the luxury of sleep due to the waking nightmare of spiders lurking in the darkness.

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

While not technologically advanced like the nuclear base they were expected to be, the tulous were still architectural marvels in and of themselves. Built from nothing more than mud, bamboo and stone, they have withstood centuries of natural disasters, political turmoil, and the wear and tear of generation after generation of families living in them. The walls, which can be up to six feet thick, are so strong that during a peasant uprising in one village, the Chinese army fired 19 cannon shots at a tulou only to barely make a dent in its walls. The twentieth shot, they had apparently decided, would have been just as useless as the previous 19. This level of protection proved handy for the tulou’s residents who, when traveling armies of bandits would rummage through the countryside to sack villages, would simply shut the front door and be fairly certain that the bandits would grow weary of trying to penetrate the impenetrable and move on. Each one was essentially a castle with all of the resources that the several hundred residents inside would need to survive existing within the walls. As we groggily rolled out of bed the next morning, our only thought was that we wished they had figured out a way to keep the spiders out.

Happy to ditch our room and explore the village, we quickly perked up as we exited into the courtyard. Gazing around the tulou’s interior had a dizzying effect as our eyes made loops around the encircling corridors whose charming wooden build was always worth making it back around for another look. Hanging from the eaves of each floor were tattered lanterns whose trademark redness had been reduced to a faint pink; we couldn’t imagine them having ever looked new. Equally time worn baskets hung from the balconies along with bundles of drying herbs and spices. One could spend an entire day just admiring and exploring the tulou’s interior we thought, an idea furthered by the cool, breezy corridor we were standing in. 

 

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

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After leaving the tulou, our first order of business for the day was to climb an outlying hill to get an aerial perspective of the village. A short climb led us to a small pavilion where we took in sweeping views of the village and the forests and hills that encased it. The tulous, whose yellowish tone added to their otherworldly aura, appeared synonymous with the surrounding landscape of mountains, forests and terraced fields. We could scantly imagine one without the other. 

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Crossing the river to head out of the village

 

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The view from the lookout never grew old

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Looking closer, we noticed that village life was carrying on much in the same way as it had done the day before. As we watched the motorbikes and people make their way around the village we had the sensation of looking down on a miniature toy set, feeling as if we could almost reach down and pick up one of the people or vehicles moving about. After toying with this idea for what felt like hours, we decided to upend it by going into the village itself and gaining a more realistic perspective into the features we had been examining from above.

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

As we walked through the streets, the feeling of timelessness dominated our thoughts. Apart from the occasional trait of modernity that came in the form of a new car driving past or a satellite dish perched outside a tulou window, we imagined that there would be no real difference between a photograph taken now compared to a black and white one from a century earlier. Tattered signs desperately clung to building walls, remnants of Mao existed in faded portraits adorning the front door of some residences, and equally worn looking villagers sat in courtyards chattering amongst themselves before being interrupted by long contemplative pauses as they re-examined their surroundings. 

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Firewood piled outside the yellow walls of the tulou

The trace of youth was few and far between. Young children could be found running about, some sheepishly approaching us to practice their pronunciation of “hello,” and one afternoon we stumbled across a couple of teenagers playing basketball, chickens scurrying about their feet as they played, but the village was dominated and in essence run by people who looked as if they were enjoying the twilight years of life rather than the prime of it. Perhaps this was one of the biggest purveyors of the sense of timelessness that we felt. The village was stuck, not in an image of today but rather the manifestation of the older villagers’ memory of a time decades earlier. Whatever doom this spelled for the village’s future, it did make for quite a unique experience for us during the time we spent there, a feeling that would sadly end as we climbed in a car the next morning to take us back to Xiamen and away from the slow village life that we had so adored.

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

Luoyang

Few things weigh more heavily on the success of a trip than…breakfast. Often the first dip of the toe into the cultural waters you have decided to immerse yourself in, the first breakfast can send you off with either a good taste in your mouth or bad (both figuratively and literally) about your chosen destination and the people who live there. As we set out for our first day in Luoyang, an ancient capital of China, we found ourselves having the better of the two experiences. On a gray and chilly morning, we mused about viewing the millennia-old grottoes, historic temples, and blossoming peonies that characterized the city over a bowl of steaming soup served out of a giant metal vat on the side of the street as people bustled about us, in a hurry to start their day. The waters, we thought to ourselves, would be just fine.

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Kate waiting in line for fried dough sticks to go along with our soup

Hard hit by the struggles of China’s recent history, it became increasingly more difficult to imagine the glories of its ancient history as we made our way from our breakfast nook towards the Longmen grottoes.  From the seat of our bus, we gazed out the window at the dreary spread of shabby-looking buildings as they passed by one by one. Occasionally, to our delight, a park would flicker by, a patch of fleeting green in the otherwise monotone spread of grays and browns whose lack of vibrancy was furthered by the dim light struggling through the stoic, overcast sky overhead. After nearly an hour on the bus, we finally arrived at the grottoes and exited to find ourselves in an area that in no way hinted that a UNESCO World Heritage Site was within reach but rather resembled a scene much like the one we had been witnessing for the duration of our bus ride.  

Surely we were in the right place though, we thought, as tour buses lined the streets and a steady stream of people was moving off purposefully towards some unseen point in a manner that called to mind an ant colony crossing a sidewalk. Assuming the grottoes lay at the end of the stream, we promptly queued up and within minutes were at the entrance gates. So is the miracle of China, you can be walking down the most derelict street imaginable, turn the corner, and suddenly find yourself in a posh area feeling underdressed or, in our case, amidst a world-renowned tourist destination.

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Enjoying a hot bowl of noodles before seeing the Longmen Grottoes

After purchasing our tickets and passing through the gate, it didn’t take long for us to come across the first carving we would see that day. Heavily eroded and barely bigger than the size of our palm, the three carvings sat humbly indented into the face of the mountain. If we had seen these at the end of our day at the grottoes, we most likely would have passed them by without a glance, but there is always something special about the initial sighting of something you’ve been eager to see. Like the first animal you come upon at the zoo, or first flower of spring, your first glimpse into the whole always seems to resonate more, before you sadly become desensitized to it all and seeing things like thousand-year-old cave carvings starts to feel normal. So was the case with this first one, in no way spectacular when compared to the others that we would see, but captivating all the same.

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The first statue we saw with dead vines still clinging to the mountain beside it

As we left that initial carving and walked on, the mountain took on the appearance of a honeycomb with countless man made caves of different shapes and sizes burrowing into its side. Their holdings, dark and mysterious from afar, came into focus with each step towards them. Cross-legged Buddhas, humble deities, and even the occasional monster emerged from the shadows, emanating an aura of peace and reverence that even the raucous Qing Ming Festival crowds adhered to.

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All of the caves hanging from the mountainside made the site feel like an art gallery
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The oldest cave at the site, dating back to the mid-400s

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Moving from cave to cave, we began to realize that the carvings we paid the most attention to were not the well-preserved ones, whose sharp features time had seemingly forgotten, but rather the heavily eroded ones.  Within these, the separate carvings had all but lost their distinctness from one another, their individual traits disappearing into the marbled strokes of the mountain that ran through them, making them appear like one. 

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Sadly though, not all faded or impartial carvings that we would come across were due to erosion as some did not bear its smooth uniformity but rather jagged hack marks that were the result of the manic destruction of the Cultural Revolution. Signs welcoming visitors to the park claimed that the defaced statues were the results of natural processes but anyone with a sliver of common sense and knowledge of something that happened barely over fifty years ago could tell the difference between the two.  In nearly every cave, we could count on finding at least one statue whose face or sometimes entire body was missing, symbols of peace reduced to reminders of the perils that ensue when fear and hatred of things outside one’s own belief system become the identity of a country.

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As troubling as the defaced statues were, it was comforting to know that, in the end, the mindset that would have served to destroy every last one at the site did not prevail, and that the grottoes now draw people by the thousands and thousands to come see not the ugliness of the mangled statues, but the beauty of the preserved ones. Nowhere was the enthusiasm for the latter more evident than at the center of the mountain, where the carvings, stretching several stories high, were so large that they appeared to have emerged from the mountain rather than having been carved into it.

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There, the crowds, as epic as the statues themselves, buzzed about the plaza that sat at the feet of the monumental effigies as police with loudspeakers reminded visitors to not stop and take pictures so as to keep the crowds funneling through. Like a game of Frogger, we wove through the fast paced tour groups, stationary selfie takers, and occasional wandering smartphone zombie to secure a spot at the feet of the statues.

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Close enough to reach out and touch them, we could never shake the feeling of unattainability they possessed as we took in their every detail. Perhaps it was their height that made them seem this way as they towered well beyond the reach of our heads. Or perhaps it was their age, being carved in a time and place that we just couldn’t relate to. What we eventually determined made them so unattainable though was the thing that made them human: their eyes. While we could see them, we couldn’t meet them as their gaze stretched far above us and into the distant hills.  In the end it was our ability to get so close to the statues yet feel so far removed from them that gave the site a sense of mystery and intrigue that kept us walking back and forth for several hours before finally deciding to call it a day. 

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The view of the grottoes from across the river
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There were caves to explore across the river as well, but none could compare to those we had already seen
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One last picture before leaving the site to head back to our hostel

To say that our hostel in Luoyang felt like a home would be pretty accurate given that it was quite literally a man’s apartment repurposed to hold four small rooms. The owner, who exhibited such relentless kindness so as to make one slightly suspicious, informed us on our first night in the hostel that his hip was fractured, a feat made impressive by the fact that he rode a motorbike to meet us at the bus stop in the pouring rain, walked with us up the seven flights of stairs that led to his apartment, and slept on a mat on the floor as all of the beds were full that night.  He seemed to enjoy it though, chatting with the dozen or so guests inhabiting his apartment, being an armchair guide to the city, and waiting on everyone with as much spring in his step as a fractured hip could allow. On our second day, we asked how to get to Shaolin Temple, the famed birthplace of Kung Fu, but, after finding out it would be an over 6-hour round-trip journey to get there and back, we opted instead to visit White Horse Temple, the birthplace of Buddhism in China. Upon asking the hostel owner how to get there, he excitedly waved us to the kitchen where he unfolded a well-used map to show us the quickest route there.  

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The building our hostel was in…we were on the top floor on the side with the open window

If the Inuit have over fifty words to describe ice and snow, then it would only be appropriate for the Chinese to have an equally colorful array of terms to describe large crowds of people, one of which translates literally to “people mountain, people sea.” At no point is this arsenal of descriptors more useful than during Chinese holidays, when crowds mushroom to the mind-numbing proportions of, well, a sea or mountain. 

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Waiting in line to get our tickets into the temple
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Following the crowds into the temple grounds

As we got off of the bus for White Horse Temple, the image of reverence and peace that one would expect the birthplace of Buddhism in China to evoke had seemingly been trampled under the feet of the enormous crowd jostling for position to get in line for tickets and enter the temple grounds. It was an atmosphere that, much to our dismay, would follow us into the temple, back out of it, and culminate in the frenzy that is hundreds of people with no adherence to anything resembling a line, or order for that matter, fighting each other for position to squeeze onto the infrequent buses leaving the area.

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The temple itself was actually quite beautiful if you could ignore the crowds
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A worshipper lighting incense
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Doorways leading into one of the temple’s buildings

Like a college freshman swearing off drinking for life after their first night of binge drinking, so we swore off traveling during Chinese holidays as we sat on the overcrowded, overheated bus for over an hour, getting off only after Kate vomited in a plastic sleeve that had previously held a painting we had bought. If a perfect anecdote existed to deter anyone from traveling in China during the holidays, this surely was it.

Our third and last day in Luoyang would be dedicated to the city’s famed peonies, which were in full bloom and, more than the grottoes or temples, served as the city’s identity which was evident in their portrayal on everything from hotels to garbage trucks. Wary of facing the monster that was the crowds of the day before, we decided to skip the larger parks of the city and go instead, on the advice of our hostel’s owner, to a free park nearby that he assured us would satisfy our peony-viewing cravings. 

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Enjoying our last street breakfast before going to see the peonies

After breakfast and a short walk to the park, we found ourselves amidst a modest spread of people and an anything-but-modest spread of peonies, whose large and expansive blooms were matched only in their numbers as bush after bush swelled up from the landscape, delightfully clogging our view in every direction.  

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Just one of the many patches of peony bushes lying throughout the park

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Over the landscape, the patchy sky cast long running shadows that would stop abruptly, dulling some flowers while leaving others brightly illuminated by contrast, almost as if they were on stage, a spotlight illuminating each and every petal. 

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Apart from their varying degrees of visibility, the different peonies also differed in ways as obvious as their color, as some burned a hot pink while other wore a humble white, to ways more subtle like how the petals unfurled. On one end of the spectrum were tightly coiled blooms, whose petals gave a spongy resistance when squeezed, and on the other were those that hung loose and floppy like a dog’s ears. It was a scene worth walking through several times, which we did before bidding farewell to the peonies, which, in our minds, was like bidding farewell to Luoyang itself.

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