Wuyuan

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

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

IMG_2284
Ryan’s bed in the storage room

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

DSC_0006
Artists painting the rapeseed blooms just outside of Small Likeng

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

DSC_0030
The main street through the village
DSC_0052
Bridges stretching from the street on one side of the stream  to the residences sitting on the other
DSC_0093
Peering into a home long overtaken by the elements
DSC_0090
One of the few residences still in use that we were able to peek inside of

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

DSC_0075
Looking down one of the village streets

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

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

IMG_2262
On our way out of the village

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

wuyuan1

And instead were met with this:

DSC_0187

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

DSC_0139
A couple of villages sitting among the few fields of rapeseed that were in bloom
DSC_0173
Plenty of other flowers had bloomed though, like these cherry blossoms
DSC_0207
Walking through a field of rapeseed on one of the terraces
DSC_0216
Rapeseed blossoms enjoying the bright sunshine of the day

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

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

DSC_0283
One of the many waterfalls along our hike in the valley
DSC_0280
Going through a narrow walkway
DSC_0312
Crossing a wooden plank bridge…it was more exciting avoiding the plywood and walking on the actual planks

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

DSC_0317
Looking up at China’s tallest waterfall, which couldn’t all fit into one frame
DSC_0348
A close-up of the waterfall
DSC_0354
Plunging over a cliff
DSC_0360
Getting a closer look

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

DSC_0339
A nice place to rest and take in the falls
DSC_0243
A couple of the many great Chinglish signs hung throughout the park
DSC_0246
Well, if the pavilion says so

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

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

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

DSC_0434
Rapeseed terraces filling the valley among other, more timely blooms
DSC_0558
One of the village buildings sitting against the late afternoon sky
DSC_0549
Peering through a couple of windows

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

DSC_0508
Looking out at the drying peppers and vegetables that make Huangling famous
DSC_0497
A couple of empty drying rods

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

DSC_0514
Looking down at the village
DSC_0495
A colorful spread of vegetables
DSC_0556
A village roof against a backdrop of terraces

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

IMG_2281
In front of the terraces
DSC_0567
Waiting for the sun to set before heading back to the cable car station

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.

img_3564
The main hall of the monastery
img_3552
Lion faces on one of the building’s roofs
img_3594
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.

img_3548
A scene in the monastery’s gardens
img_3545
One of the many statues encased throughout the grounds
img_3598
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.

img_3578
Some of the many Buddha figurines we saw in the main hall
img_3584
Monks leading prayers
img_3585
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.

img_3605
The main hall of Aidao Nunnery
img_3617
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.

img_3621
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.

img_3622
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.

img_3630
One of the shops in the Tibetan quarter
img_3631
One of the larger Buddhas that were on display wrapped up and ready to ship
img_3636
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.

img_3653
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.

img_3838
Walking through the thick bamboo groves that filled the park
img_3858
The park also had some beautiful tropical trees on display
img_3928
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.

img_3671
Breakfast time!
img_3713
Shelling a bamboo shoot
img_3667
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.

img_3694
Taking a much-deserved break from the labors of breakfast
img_3828
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:

img_3767
A baby panda putting up absolutely no resistance to gravity
img_3864
A caretaker who we were envious of
img_3875
Baby pandas cuddling
img_3914
Figuring out how to walk

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

img_3772
The red pandas shared both a name with Giant Pandas and an affinity for napping
img_3843
Waking up a friend
img_3847
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.

img_3937
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.

img_3940
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.

img_3945
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.

img_3690

Leshan

Imagine something you really want. Now ask yourself the question, “Would I cut my own eye out to get it?” If your answer is yes, and hopefully it isn’t, then you are in the company of an 8th Century Chinese monk named Hai Tong.

Over 1,000 years ago he and some others made their living in the present-day city of Leshan, which happened to sit next to the confluence of three rivers. The rivers, tumultuous and unpredictable, wreaked havoc on the villagers and, as it was decided, a water spirit was to blame. So, Hai Tong took matters into his own hands and began raising funds to carve a Giant Buddha into the cliff face to help calm the waters. When asked by government officials to show his sincerity for completing the project, he opted to do another carving, that of his aforementioned body part, in a manner that surely must have convinced them of his dedication. Ninety years later, long after the death of Hai Tong, the statue was completed and 1,000 years later it’s still standing and remains one of the biggest Buddha statues in the world.

img_4111
The Grand Buddha staring out at the rivers that brought about his making

Wanting to see (with both of our eyes) the colossal carving in person, we set our sights on a day trip to Leshan from Chengdu. The bus ride was quick and in no time at all we were buying a ticket and heading through the main gate. As we entered, the atmosphere turned to that of a jungle, or at least what we would imagine a jungle to be. Bamboo shoots shot up from either side of the path we walked down, their thick foliage casting a uniform shadow across the scenery ahead. Below the bamboo canopy hung thin and wiry vines and standing formidably above it was stone wall whose rusty orange exterior was segmented by running streaks of grass and weeds. Deep and dark crevasses, some big enough to be caves, covered the wall.

img_3963
A Taoist shrine inside one of the caves

After a short while on the path, the jungle-like atmosphere turned to that of a mountain as our path tilted upwards before leveling off once more at the foot of our first site: a stone stupa as old as the Grand Buddha himself. After straining our necks to look up at it for a short while, we noticed we were sharing the site with a red-clad monk who, to our surprise, walked up to us and asked in perfect English, “Would you mind taking a picture of me in front of the stupa?” We nodded obligingly and followed him as he slowly walked in a circle around its base, counting his prayer beads in a manner that made us wonder whether he remembered that we were following him. After making a full circle, he stopped in the front, gave a quick smile for the picture, took his smartphone back, and began circling the stupa again.

 

img_3956
The stupa we stopped off at on our way to the Grand Buddha
img_3952
The monk we took a picture of on one of his trips around the stupa

It’s amazing how different an experience you can have of a place depending on which walk of life you come from. For us, we were there solely for touristic purposes while he was there for spiritual ones. We, to marvel at the work of man, he, at the work of God. Despite our different intentions though, the result of our experience was the same: that of pure awe and admiration.

After leaving the stupa, our path would take us through a couple of new and beautifully decorated temples before finally emptying out into a large plaza where we would get our first glimpse of the Grand Buddha. It was one of those moments where you see something so incredibly different from anything you have ever experienced before that, for a brief moment, your mind struggles to grasp what it’s taking in. And then, in an explosion of consciousness, you scramble to take in every bit of detail that you can, wonder trumping disbelief. That is what we experienced upon seeing the Grand Buddha for the first time, its giant eye peering over the encompassing railing, dwarfing the silhouettes of the people standing before it.

img_3969
A statue inside one of the temples
img_3974
A smaller Buddha in comparison to the one we were about to see
img_3972
Candles burning outside the temples
img_3980
Our first view of the Grand Buddha

After walking up to the railing ourselves and squinting down to the Buddha’s feet, we got our first idea of just how big the statue actually was. His ears were big enough for a grown adult to climb into comfortably and nestle in for a nap. His lap big enough to play a half-court basketball game on with room to spare. And his toenails, almost too far away for us to see clearly, were bigger than the people walking around them. It was absolutely gargantuan and the spectacle of it meant heavy crowds nearly everywhere we turned. Although we desperately wanted to descend to the Buddha’s feet, our desire to avoid the long and raucous line to do so was stronger so we decided to leave the descent for later in the day, when, as we hoped, the line would be much shorter.

img_4116
Getting a closer look
img_4055
Zooming down to his feet

We opted instead to explore the rest of the park’s grounds, which as we found out after coming up on our first map of them, were vast and the perfect place to waste time away until we were ready to head back to the Grand Buddha. As we began making our way through the grounds, we were taken down an endless array of paths that wound in and out of each other, up and down hills, through temples and shrines, around a tiny koi fish pond, and past plenty of Chinglish gems.

img_3996
Many of the buildings in the grounds were stained red
img_4010
Making our way through the grounds
img_4017
A faint waterfall we passed during our meandering
img_4018
We still have no idea what this means
img_4101
A sign of encouragement above one of the park’s urinals

Eventually though, the path led us back to the Grand Buddha where we discovered that our brilliant plan of waiting for a shorter line had backfired rather dramatically as the line was now much longer than it had been before. Suddenly we had to use the restroom again, a cheap ploy to avoid getting into the line for as long as we could, knowing what awaited us, which was an inescapable fate of pushing and jostling for line position, pictures being taken of us against our will, and jeers of “foreigner” shouted in our direction. The wait, as we expected, was all of this and more, but luckily it was fairly ignorable as there were bigger things demanding our attention, mainly, the Grand Buddha.

img_4029
The lines leading down to the Buddha’s feet
img_4026
Stopping off of one of the nine turns for a picture

To get down to its feet, we would have to take the nine-turn cliff road, which was exactly what it’s name implies, a jagged path hanging off the cliff side as it descended to the feet. The staircase, which offered incredible views of the Buddha when you you weren’t staring at your feet to prevent a stumble down its steep steps, was an attraction in and of itself. All along the descent, there were statues and figures carved into the rock face, their extremely worn and weathered condition a testament to their age.

img_4048
Aging carvings on the cliffside
img_4047
Some less weathered ones
img_4045
And probably the most elaborate carving we saw on our way down

With each of the nine turns, we made our way further and further down the Buddha, body part by body part, an anatomical descent of sorts. First we started at the neck, then, with the next turn were at the chest, then the torso, then the lap, and on it went until we finally found ourselves standing at its feet.

img_4076
View of the nine-turn cliff road from the bottom

Standing at his toes (which were taller then we were) our eyes naturally trailed up the Buddha’s body and around the two cliffs that bookended it, one of which we had just zigzagged down. Trees, which stretched out from every crack and fissure offered by the cliff side, appeared to be small shrubs in comparison to the size of the Buddha. The people hanging over the railing near his head, like ants. Our minds bounced back and forth from appreciation of the enormity of the statue to speculation of the enormity of the task that made it.

img_4073
Looking up at the Grand Buddha
img_0978
It was difficult to fit both us and the entire statue in the frame

No matter where our wandering gaze took us around the the Buddha, we always ended up back at his eyes, which appeared almost human in their contemplative stare out into the three converging rivers. It was the one part of the statue that was attainable. The rest of the body, while human in form, was anything but. With its cracks and crumbling edifice, it appeared to be blending back in to the cliff from which it was carved.

img_4096
Peering over his lap
img_4088
Blending in to the cliffside

After what must have been an hour of looking up at the statue, we decided to give our necks a rest and start heading back up towards the Buddha’s head. By that time of the day, most of the crowd had cleared out and we figured it would be best to follow suit as the park was nearing closing time and the sun creeping ever closer to the horizon. By the time we made it back to Chengdu it was dark and, hungry from a full day of exploration, we stopped off at a restaurant on the way back to our hostel to try one of Sichuan’s most famous exports: hot pot.

The process of eating hot pot is as enticing as the food itself. First you order an array of ingredients, which range from things as simple as raw potatoes or beef to “do-people-really-eat-that?” things like congealed blood or the lining of a cow’s stomach (we opted for the former). Then you order a soup for the ingredients to be cooked in which varies in degrees of spiciness. Since Sichuan is known for the face-reddening, sweat-inducing nature of its food, we chose one of the spicier varieties.

img_4120
Enjoying hot pot

img_4119

After our waitress had brought out our pot of soup, placed it in the middle of the table, and turned on the stove beneath it, the water boiled red due to the heaping amounts of peppers dwelling beneath the surface. Soon after, plate after plate of the ingredients we ordered were brought out and we began dumping the contents of them into the soup to cook. As we pulled the first bits of meat and vegetables out with our chopsticks and drew them towards our mouth, we worried about just how much of the spice had soaked in.

To our relief, it was the perfect amount and for the next hour or so we sought out the rest of the bobbing pieces of meat and vegetables, plucking them out of the water until there were none left. After paying our bill and with a full day now behind us, we walked contentedly back to our hostel to rest up before our last day in Chengdu.

Jiuzhaigou

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

14650498_10153995455148601_5071358046073464474_n2
The surreal blue water of the park
14732314_10153995453583601_5315564720320603535_n1
Foggy evergreens high in the mountains

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

14666179_10153995441653601_387040178823310121_n1
The outside of our homestay

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

14720582_10153995441688601_6650233010414654158_n1
The front door
14724512_10153995441428601_882536941634931309_n1
Our bedroom

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

14717215_10153995441758601_4619659983903423360_n1
Waiting for dinner in the common room

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

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

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

14717100_10153995442088601_6206287638978756662_n1
Starting down the path

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

14729388_10153995448128601_5782398329067115452_n1
Typical scenery along our hike
14713515_10153995450213601_576992846543204829_n1
There were of birds hopping about near the river

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

14720489_10153995444063601_7981594581169331227_n1
Zharu Temple
14642006_10153995436198601_1858570656344718277_n1
The main door to the temple
14671198_10153995446338601_1876160987387748336_n1
Prayer flags hanging down from the temple’s first floor
14708304_10153995436298601_8713127625130589282_n1
Kate peeking in

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

14642327_10153995442723601_7639700053972104094_n1
The sun shining off of the temple’s golden adornments

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

14671195_10153995451098601_2590465531753071918_n1
Eating our yak sandwiches
14732156_10153995437143601_852856196814181754_n1
The wooden plank road

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

14666306_10153995451038601_2892082807269616174_n1
Shuzheng Waterfall
14650733_10153995451608601_2945407268657382660_n1
The water sliding down the mountainside
14650497_10153995451243601_4767647323416265455_n1
Us in front of the falls

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

14720339_10153995439413601_2848175912080244998_n1
Nuorilang Waterfall
14724620_10153995453143601_5057542931526978703_n1
It was much bigger than the last one
14650457_10153995453333601_4397038142124778675_n1
A close-up of the water as it falls over the cliffside
14670811_10153995439873601_2343981665187054131_n1
The raincoats are back on as Nuorilang wasn’t the only thing producing falling water
14713604_10153995453498601_527125509286556572_n1
As we left the park we saw this: the point where the river from inside the park met with the one from outside of it.  Can you guess which one is which?

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

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

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

14642012_10153995453923601_7345790659251399906_n1
Flowers outside of Shuzheng Village
14724623_10153995454143601_3662384041858035249_n1
One of the souvenir shops
14729243_10153995454353601_8705805678767375185_n1
Looking our from inside the village

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

14650454_10153995455618601_2018696848520487304_n1
The fog, which seemed frozen in place, hanging over the scenery
14572805_10153995455738601_8189430825083917772_n1
The ice-capped mountain after it materialized from behind the fog
14650232_10153995456183601_1741539203821088975_n1
Getting ready to head into the forest

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

14642308_10153995456358601_6318409788199340589_n1
The Primeval Forest
14650068_10153995440468601_740809768146630537_n1
Stopping for a quick picture inside the forest

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

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

14716283_10153995457258601_6428522767158889295_n1
People admiring the lake, whose surface is blemished by the ripples of raindrops in this picture
14702362_10153995457408601_6216734568342650672_n1
A bird seemingly unbothered by the rain
14708228_10153995464418601_5796930742872367865_n1
The lake was one of the more popular places to see as evidenced by this crowded bridge running across it

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

14731095_10153995458328601_1893088257156751491_n1
Fallen trees paralyzed below the surface of the lake

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

14570494_10153995474938601_5163479510388014363_n1
Long Lake
14690836_10153995475293601_4440731203162287088_n2
A fallen tree that hasn’t yet sunk
14671275_10153995474668601_7378995536214303691_n1
Us in front of the lake

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

14720326_10153995476243601_6031443512930939240_n1
People gathering around the Five Colored Pond
14606295_10153995476858601_3750274929360949793_n2
Our last picture inside the park

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

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

A Day in the Life

Jackhammers rattling. Car horns blaring. Dogs yipping. These are the noises that await us as we open our eyes to start our day. Back home in small town Tiffin or Marshalltown, one of these sounds alone would be enough to drive us mad, but, after nearly three years of living in Shanghai, they’ve become white noise, hardly distinguishable from the sound of the breeze rustling through the trees, a testament to our time served in one of the biggest cities in the world.

img_2920
Our apartment complex.

After rolling out of bed and opening the windows to gaze out at the scenery for a minute or two, the rest of our morning plays out rather predictably with plates of toast eaten and cups of coffee sipped in front of the computer as we check in on the world, scrolling through news stories and baby photos so as not to grow too distant from the home we’ll inevitably return to.

img_2818
View of the skyline from our 17th floor apartment.
img_7523
The view on a smoggy day…never a welcome sight.
img_2914
Breakfast time!

As the morning slips away our agenda becomes more lively. Pajamas get replaced by exercise clothes and we head across the street to the neighborhood park where we get in our daily dose of exercise alongside the community’s most senior of citizens. Because the equipment there is rarely graced by anyone born after World War II, our presence is usually met with some level of bewilderment made evident by long and confused stares shot in our direction as we sit down at our first machine. Their interest though, however intense it may initially be, is almost always short lived and we spend the rest of our half hour in the park relatively unnoticed. After finishing our workout, we go pick up a few groceries at various shops around our neighborhood before heading back to our apartment to shower and have lunch.

img_0764
The exercise park.
img_2930
Our local supermarket.
img_2931
The bakery.
img_0772
Fruit and veggie vendors.

At about noon, we get ready for work, throwing pants and shirts and ties on in a flurry before rushing out the door. To get to our schools we take the subway and, depending on how much energy and time our morning left us, our options of how to get there vary. The quickest route is a five minute walk along the street, an option that’s rarely resorted to as it sends our hearts racing and elbows flailing as we push and weave through cell phone zombies and motorbikes and dogs in a mad dash towards the station.

img_2862
The view along our street walk.

Our other options, while more time consuming, are immensely more enjoyable. One route takes us along the river that runs next to our apartment. There are seldom any people on the path and the ones we do pass are usually stationary, sitting on benches or along the river doing any number of odd things whether it be knitting a sweater or fishing. Outside of the people there is a pleasant array of trees and flower bushes to keep our eyes busy and, if our steps are light enough, we can even see the big water fowl that perch themselves on the path railing scoping out their next meal.

img_9392
The view along our river walk…significantly nicer.
img_2891
Just a couple of the many water fowl we see along the river.

The longest route, and least taken for that reason, winds through a park that sits on the other side of the river. In the twenty minutes we spend walking through it, there’s no telling what we’re going to see on any given day though the typical sights usually consist of old men playing instruments or Chinese chess on the park benches, people doing tai chi, a person walking backwards, badminton matches and the occasional person rubbing themselves up against a tree (supposedly a circulation exercise, but we have yet to try it).

img_2897
The entrance to the park by us.
img_9316
The scenery throughout the park.
img_2929
Community choir.
img_2885
A game of Chinese chess, which always draws a crowd.
img_2927
A tree rubber with a guy doing tai chi in the background.

Whichever route we take though, our destination is always the Zhongtan Road subway station where we crowd onto a train car bound for our our schools: Wall Street English for Ryan and Disney English for Kate. Like the park, you can’t really predict what you will see on the train. During our time here we’ve seen, to name a few, men shaving their face with an electric shaver, plenty of adult nose picking (and flicking), a man wiping his snot on a pole, children licking those same poles, children peeing in plastic bottles and, the granddaddy of them all, a grandmother holding her grandson over a plastic bag while he relieved himself over top of it, after which they both left the train leaving the plastic bag behind.

img_2839
Our subway station.
img_9348
A busy day, luckily we don’t experience this often.
img_2848
On the platform waiting for our train.

In fact, about the only thing we can predict upon getting on the train is the thick wall of warm, moist air that will undoubtedly welcome us and that our presence on the train will draw at least one gap-mouthed stare from one of the passengers, who are seemingly astonished by our existence. We’ve learned to ignore the latter unless, as it occasionally does, leads to a picture of us being taken, which usually leads to an exchange of words to express our annoyance and a nervous giggle to express their shame.

img_2852
Inside the train…yes, that’s a mother clipping her daughter’s nails.

Despite its hodgepodge of people and cringeworthy moments though, the subway is incredibly convenient and, at times, even enjoyable. The train we take to work is one of the few in the city that runs above ground, so, about halfway through our ride, we get a beautiful view of the Shanghai skyline, something that, in 2 1/2 years, hasn’t grown old once.

img_0707
View of the skyline along the ride.

After about 15 minutes on the train, we arrive at Ryan’s station and Kate gets off at the one after. Most days we teach from one to nine, unless it’s the weekend when our schedules, especially Kate’s, get exponentially busier. At work Ryan teaches adults (his oldest is 74 years old) and Kate children (her youngest is 3) and our days are exhausting in different ways. Teaching adults drains the mind of energy while children drain the body. In any case, after a long day of teaching, we return home and, despite our tiredness, walk back along the river to take in the beautiful nighttime scenery.

img_0712
The outside of Ryan’s school.
img_0727
Ryan in class. The sizes vary from one student like this picture to 30…
img_0661
…like this one.  This is from a Thanksgiving Day party.
img_0743
The outside of Kate’s school.
img_20160426_170036
Kate in class.
img_20160624_170446
Playing a game in class (Kate’s job is significantly more fun than Ryan’s).

Along the way we sometimes pick up a fried scallion pancake or barbecue skewer at the corner street food stand. With a snack in hand, we walk back past dancing women, couples sitting along the river taking in the beautifully-lit park across the water, chirping insects, and high-rise after high-rise, whose sporadically lit rooms look like stars in the night sky. However long of a day we have had, that walk always allows us to clear our minds and lighten our hearts before getting back to our apartment.

img_0715
Waiting for some street food.
img_0694
Dancing ladies along the river.

Once back, we heat up dinner, watch a TV show and call it a night. We can be sure that the next day will follow a similar trajectory. What we don’t know is what things we will see or people we will come across or cultural or linguistic difficulties we will encounter. While at times this can be frustrating, it is always exciting and new. Even doing the most mundane of things, there’s never a dull moment. In a city of 25 million, how could there be?

Qingdao

When in a coastal town, the ocean, whether seen or not, can be felt. From the smell of the breeze coming in off the water to the rows of inner tubes and goggles stacked outside convenience stores to the lightness of the people ambling about, you’re always reminded that water is near. It’s a feeling we often crave, but hardly get to experience living in Shanghai, which, despite being a subway ride away from the Pacific, feels about as landlocked as Marshalltown, Iowa. So, with summer dwindling and with it our chances to enjoy the beach, we headed north to the city of Qingdao, which, we were pleased to find, was practically overflowing with the feeling of being on the ocean.

img_2058
The Qingdao skyline

Wanting to make the most of the two days we had there, we booked the earliest flight we could find which served our itinerary well but required us to wake up at the unamusing time of 3:30 a.m. After sleepily staggering out of our apartment, we climbed into a miraculously free and waiting taxi, drove to the airport, boarded our plane, and were soon being greeted by our friends, Emmett and Olga at the arrivals gate. Unlike other trips of ours in the past, the purpose of this one wasn’t just to see the place, but also the people who lived there.

After saying our hellos, the first thing on the agenda, naturally, was breakfast. We went to a place near Emmett’s school and loaded up on the aptly named full English breakfast. Delicious as it was, the meal would have been best followed by a trip to the sofa, not to the beach as we had intended. In no mood to take our shirts off any time soon though, we decided to head to Qingdao’s Germantown instead to get a taste of the city’s historic side and walk off the gargantuan portion of food we had just devoured.

img_1933
The cathedral in Germantown

Like other coastal cities in China, Qingdao was the recipient of heavy Western influence at the turn of the 20th Century. While other ports like Shanghai or Hong Kong are best remembered for their French or British ties, Qingdao is remembered for its German ones. This influence has mostly disappeared over the course of the last hundred years but can still be seen today in the handful of centuries-old buildings scattered around the hillsides of the city, each one serving as a remnant of a bygone era.

As we began walking the streets of the Germantown, we found the most interesting thing to be not the buildings themselves, but rather the setting they were in. The two and three story structures would have looked perfectly normal lining the lanes of a European town, but they sat along the streets of a Chinese city which meant that the scenery and atmosphere that existed around them was a far cry from what one would expect to find in Europe. Shiny skyscrapers jutted up from behind their roofs, Chinese characters hung from their exteriors and souvenir shops selling stuffed anime dolls filled their interiors. Like an abandoned house reclaimed by the nature around it, so had the Germantown been overtaken by China.

img_1971
Contrasting styles
img_1936
Anime doll store

All of this made the town rather enjoyable to walk through, which we did until our stroll carried us to within sight and smell of the ocean and we promptly left the curiously contrasting Germantown and headed towards the water.

With no beach in sight, we decided instead to explore the boardwalk and take in the scenery that accompanied it. There were pavilions and lighthouses poking up from the outcrops of land that dotted the water, the Qingdao skyline stretching out to sea until there was no more land left to accommodate it, amateur fisherman searching for clams and crabs in the crevasses left exposed by the low tide, and, of course, the people, who all seemed to be enjoying themselves thoroughly.

img_2026
View of the lighthouse and pavilion from the boardwalk
img_1983
People searching for clams and crabs

img_2024
Selling gear for crab catching
img_2015
Us with the skyline

While the sights were enticing, the thought of the beach loomed in our minds and we slowly made our way along the coast, winding through parks, both natural and industrial, before coming across the unimaginatively named “No. 2 Bathing Beach.” After arriving we filled up on ice-cold Tsingtao beer, our first of the trip, before tiptoeing out into the frigid water. If the beers had for some reason affected our ability to stay afloat, there was plenty of debris to grab onto whether it be the occasional bobbing chicken drumstick or the more unsettling unidentifiable floating objects that blocked our path to the open water straight ahead. After making it past the fleet of garbage, the ocean became much more enjoyable and we swam around in it for the rest of the afternoon.

img_2070
Enjoying a well-earned beer after our walk along the coast
img_2078
The source of the floating drumsticks

 

img_2073
A busy day at the beach

img_2083
A nice view to accompany our time in the ocean

As the sun began to set, we were reminded of just how quickly the day had passed and decided to leave the comfort of the ocean and begin looking for a place for dinner. Our search took us back to Emmett and Olga’s apartment where we settled on a barbecue joint along the street. Instead of a menu, they had all of their dishes on display inside of a glass box. All we had to do was tell the waiter which things we wanted and they would gather it all up and cook it on the grill behind them. Worried that we might miss something delicious, we pointed to nearly everything behind the glass like eager children in a candy shop. If ever the phrase “eyes bigger than your stomach” was appropriate, it was here, a fact we soon realized as the slew of dishes that we had ordered began to be brought out to our table and, in a matter of minutes, there was no longer any room left to put things.

Bit by bit, we picked away at the mound of food before us, but our efforts were futile as more and more skewers of meat or tofu or dishes of fried eggplant were piled on top. By the end of the meal, we looked at the unfinished dishes before us not with delight but with disdain and the process of eating, a normally enjoyable endeavor, became a chore. As we picked away, we slowly began to realize that finishing the meal would be physically impossible so we hung up our chopsticks and called it a night.

img_2099
Enjoying the barbecue

Our agenda for our second day in Qingdao was beer-centric since the city is home to China’s oldest and most recognized beer brand, Tsingtao, as well as Asia’s biggest beer festival, which happened to be taking place during our visit. The night before we had excitedly looked up information about the festival in anticipation of going and were met with photos of packed beer gardens filled with smiling faces holding giant mugs of beer and testimonies of gleeful foreigners whose beer tabs had been covered by drunk Chinese businessmen. Eager to get in on the action, we hailed a taxi after eating breakfast, leaned in the window and told the driver the only word necessary to get us to where we were going: pijiu (Chinese for beer). To our delight, it was enough and we arrived at the festival without a hitch.

As we got out of the taxi, the scene before us was vastly different from the one we had seen in the pictures the night before. The shots of happy drunkards clinking their mugs together all had one thing in common: they were taken at night, which is usually when people go out for a beer. We were at the festival at 11:00 a.m., which is precisely not the time that people go out for a beer. After entering the festival grounds, we were met with the sight of endless rows of wooden tables sitting completely empty and, even though the festival opened at the alcoholic hour of 8:30, the workers seemed shocked and perhaps a bit judgmental as they watched us stroll through. The thought of getting a 1.5 liter mug of beer and sitting alone amidst the apocalyptic spread of empty tables was pondered briefly before being quickly abandoned and replaced instead with a trip to the beach. Beer festivals, as we now know, are not happening places before noon.

img_2104
The closest we came to drinking a beer at the beer festival
img_2105
What beer festivals look like before noon

The beach, on the other hand, was much more populated. As we were in a different part of Qingdao than the day before, we decided to skip the numbered bathing beaches that lied on the other side of the city for the more creatively dubbed Stone Man Beach, whose name came from the large rock sitting on the horizon which is said to look like a fisherman at sea. We didn’t see the resemblance, but then, at times, it seems that the entire creative capacity of the Chinese mind is spent on deciding what rocks look like, kind of like China’s version of cloud watching.

img_2150
Walking along Stone Man Beach

Confusing stone comparisons aside, the beach itself was great. The water, cool and refreshing, was much cleaner than the beach we had gone to the day before and the views, temple-dotted hillsides and an expansive beach that beautifully reflected the sky and people standing above it, much more accommodating. As we waded out into the water the afternoon slipped away and we soon found ourselves up at the boardwalk, snacking on some fried squid to keep our grumbling stomachs at bay.

img_2135
Reflections in the sand
img_2129
Enjoying the beach

After finishing our squid, we had a choice to make: return to the beer festival to see if it had livened up or go to the Qingdao Beer Museum. With a bad taste in our mouths from our first experience with the festival (or was it the squid?), we decided to go to the brewery for a tour and what we hoped would be a thorough sampling of the beer that they made there.

img_2170
The beer museum

We were not disappointed on either front as both the tour and the hour-long free beer binge at the end were equally enjoyable. Perhaps the coolest part about the brewery were the buildings that contained it. Like the parts of Qingdao we had seen the day before, the architecture was uniquely Western. Big brick buildings draped in ivy with currents of wind running through them stretched up several floors, with some being capped by what appeared to be giant beer cans.

img_2182
Getting ready to start the tour

img_2189
Who needs honey?

The first building we went into introduced us to the brewery’s history which dated back to its founding in 1903 by homesick Germans stuck in Qingdao. As we entered, we passed giant vats and machinery that had been used by the brewery during its infancy at the turn of the 20th Century. As we wandered further inward, black and white and then colored photos filled us in on everything that had happened since and we even got a brief glimpse into the beer making process, which, to our surprise, dated all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia where the drink was discovered by accident.

img_2200
One of the big vats at the entrance of the museum
img_2231
Some of the newer machinery

While the tour was interesting, it was noticeably lacking in the important category of actual beer. All the pictures and information about Tsingtao without the real thing had made us thirsty so we began making our way through the museum at a more ambitious pace, passing through various rooms and exhibits before finally making it to the end of the tour where we descended a staircase into a huge, wooden-clad room and began our one hour of limitless beer.

img_2218
A wall of beer from around the world
img_2179
Surprisingly, this was one of Tsingtao’s labels long before World War II

The idea of all-you-can-eat or, in this case, drink, is always a tempting offer, but the reality of it is that, in one hour, you can’t really eat or drink all that much. This was true for everyone except Emmett, who, in the one hour allotted to him, managed to fill and finish four mugs of beer, prompting the bartender to declare that his fourth would be his last. Apparently the title of all you can drink is a courtesy and no one expects you to actually follow through with the offer.

img_2233
Ganbei!
img_2236
Enjoying our beers at the end of the tour

After sitting and chatting for a couple of hours in the brewery, we headed across the street to grab a bite to eat. With bellies full of beer and feet wary of walking, we chose the nearest restaurant and ordered a spread of food in a similar fashion as the night before, though this tIme we were a bit more cautious as to how much we ordered. The warm atmosphere of the brewery carried over to the restaurant as did the conversation and, for the next couple of hours we sat and ate and talked until our plates and mugs were empty, upon which we hailed a taxi to take us back to their apartment.

img_2241
Eating a starfish across from the museum
img_2242
Our dinner spread

After getting back, we said our goodbyes and retired for the night.  The next morning, we tiptoed out of the apartment to catch our 6 a.m. flight back to Shanghai, leaving our friends and Qingdao’s wonderful ocean vibe behind us.

Hoi An, Vietnam

As we dipped our feet into the warm ocean waters, taking in the last remaining traces of sunset, the sky before us caught fire. Deep oranges and reds sat hovering over the mountain-lined horizon, contained by a thick plume of dark and smoky clouds. We were barely two hours into our time in Hoi An, an ancient trading town along the coast of Central Vietnam, and were already beginning to discover the many charms it had to offer, chief among them beautiful scenery. To our delight, the fiery sky remained unchanged for the entirety of our time on the beach, but this didn’t stop us from looking up every few minutes to remind ourselves of where we were or what surrounded us. And so began the theme of our six days in Vietnam. It was never a matter of seeking out new things but rather making sure not to miss them. The sights and tastes and experiences were there, all we had to do was just walk out the door.

IMG_0684
View along the ride to Cua Dai beach
IMG_0691
Sunset on the beach

Long before coming on the trip we had designated our first full day in Hoi An as an unequivocal beach day. While we were aware of the abundance of cultural activities to do around the town and the limited nature of our itinerary, we were also aware of the novelty of being on the tropical shores of Vietnam and that, we deemed, deserved spending at least one day entirely sea or sand bound.

Our day, like all the rest, began with a free breakfast at our guesthouse, Loc Phat Hoi An Homestay, one of the most accommodating places we’ve ever had the fortune of staying at. Pho, a spicy beef noodle soup, was the dish of choice on the menu and we slurped up two delicious bowls of it before renting a couple of bikes and peddling off towards An Bang Beach, our first and only destination for the day.

IMG_0366
Enjoying a hot bowl of Pho for breakfast

I’m not sure how one could feel eager to do absolutely nothing for an entire day, but that’s exactly how we felt as we parked our bikes at An Bang and began the short walk to the beach. As we approached it, we weren’t met with the view of an expansive blue ocean as we had expected but instead with a canopy of grass umbrellas, each with a pair of cushioned loungers neatly situated underneath, stretching across the sand as far as the eye could see. The umbrellas, we had read, belonged to one of the many restaurants looming overhead and we braced ourselves for what would surely be an onslaught of sales pitches to choose one over the other. Before our feet even touched the sand, shouts of “free chairs” filled the air, serving as lures meant to startle us into unwittingly committing to a certain set of loungers and therefore into getting all of our food and drinks from that particular restaurant for the rest of the day. However annoying the attention being thrust on us was, it seemed like a small price to pay for the comfort of cushioned seats and shade on an already hot day and we chose two loungers at random, thus beginning our day of nothingness.

IMG_0706
Biking to An Bang

As we sat in our loungers, the pleasant but unfamiliar feeling that comes with having no agenda or real sense of time in a place where the feeling is mutual overcame us. Our obliviousness to the rate at which the day was passing first became evident as we ordered two beers only later to find out that it was barely 10:00 a.m. For some reason, perhaps due to the fact that the sun was more overhead than before, we had assumed it was closer to noon. In any case, we savored the beers, especially the first few sips, knowing that the cold and refreshing nature of them would be quickly erased by the now sweltering midday heat.

As the beers warmed, our pace of drinking them quickened and, by the time we had finished, our appetites had grown and we abandoned our comfortable seats to fulfill the oath that had secured them for us in the first place. After painstakingly climbing the six stairs to take us from the beach to the restaurant, we sat down and rewarded our effort with an assortment of dishes, one of which was Vietnamese spring rolls, kicking off a six-day love affair with the crispy treat that was a far cry from any version we had had before.

IMG_0804
Lunch break
IMG_0796
View from the restaurant

The trajectory of our day after lunch stayed pretty much aligned with our pre-lunch activities of either sitting or swimming. By this point in the day, the latter of the two became more difficult as any trip to the bath-like waters of the ocean required a frantic sprint across the now scorching beach, igniting a series of “oohs” and “aahs” until our feet finally hit the refreshingly cool touch of the wet sand. In spite of this, we still went often and had even purchased some goggles to explore whatever life existed under the surface.

IMG_0827
Seashells along the beach

To our delight, there was plenty, most notably the scattered legions of jellyfish that had somehow managed to slip through the fleet of fishing boats sitting off in the distance. Unsure of whether they stung or not, we kept our distance aside from the occasional poke of their squishy caps with our fingers. It wasn’t until later when we unknowingly swam into a small crowd of them (they were sneakily transparent) that we realized they were, in fact, not the stinging type. Apart from the jellyfish, we also saw starfish, rainbow shrimp and even small colonies of hermit crabs, who, in this particular case, failed to live up to their name as there were hundreds of them clustered together on the sea floor.

IMG_0735
One of the many jellyfish we encountered

The longer we were in the ocean, the more tempting it became to return to the shade of our loungers. And, usually after a half hour or so, we did exactly that, plopping our bodies down on their cushioned surface. While we sat, the rest of the afternoon slipped away as we took in the scenery around us. Looking out, our gaze couldn’t help but be drawn first to the mountains and islands in the distance, jutting out from the perfectly straight line separating sea from sky. A bit further in, boats bobbed on the otherwise open sea and heads and bodies eventually joined them, black silhouettes evenly spaced from one another so as to create the illusion that the ocean was theirs. Waves would move around them, washing ashore in their mesmerizingly endless fashion. On the beach, between the sea and the shade of umbrellas, not a soul was to be found, only fisherman’s boats which resembled a giant overturned tortoise shells or the occasional sandal or T-shirt that was thrust aside as its owner madly dashed from one heat haven to the other.

IMG_0860
Cocktails on the beach
IMG_0845
One of the beach bound tortoise-shell boats

For most of the day, this view remained relatively unchanged until the late afternoon when local Hoi Aners began arriving to the beach and the quiet wash of the waves became inaudible under the shouts and shrieks of children celebrating the end of another school day. It was strange for us to think of it being a normal day for them as well as imagine their lifestyle, a full day of work or school followed by a quick dip in the ocean.

IMG_0851
Locals arriving on the scene
IMG_0883
Most people just wore their clothes into the water

That night, the sun set in as equally a spectacular fashion as the night before and we sat and watched as the sky was transformed into a canvas of colors. Wisps of clouds, which ran across it like brushstrokes, seemed to change color by the minute as the sun crept further into the horizon. As beautiful as it was, the colors, like the crowds, didn’t last long and began to fade as darkness set in and, with our enjoyably long day coming to an end as well, we grabbed a bite to eat before biking back to our guesthouse.

IMG_0875
Just before sunset
IMG_0899
A fisherman taking his boat out for a night on the sea
IMG_0906
Still busy at sunset

With our beach day now behind us and eager for a taste of Hoi An’s historic side, we decided to spend our third day exploring its old town, a cluster of centuries-old buildings sitting along the banks of the Thu Bon River. After a pleasant 30-minute walk from our guesthouse, we arrived at the outskirts of the town and entered it through the “new market,” which, like most other parts of the town, resembled nothing close to what you would describe as new, starting with the people who occupied it.

IMG_0949
Window shopping on the way to the old town
IMG_0948
One of the many tailor shops we passed along the way

Old women, crouching under the shadow of their pyramid hats, lined the outer edges of the market, a rainbow of vegetables neatly contained in baskets spread out before them. Overhead, tourists and locals shuffled through each other in a manner that suggested that they were either unaware of the other’s existence or else didn’t care to acknowledge it. Baskets of chickens and ducks, slabs of meat, and even the occasional bucket of fish filled the spaces in between, leaving a hodgepodge of odors, none of which were in the least bit pleasant, lingering in the air. All of this, along with a temperature rapidly approaching 100 degrees, made for quite an uncomfortable atmosphere for 8:30 in the morning and we pushed through the market rather quickly, emerging into the immensely more charming lanes of the old town.

IMG_0960
Vendors selling their produce

As we began exploring the town, the views stayed delightfully consistent. Two-storied houses and shops, stained in a mustard yellow, lined the lanes, their exteriors showing the effects of time with worn wooden panels hanging from their windows and long, streaky water marks running through their paint like age lines on a tree trunk. From their roofs, long locks of disheveled plants hung down, a mangled mane of vines and flowers exploding out of the clay tiles. Above the street, a web of wires and cables, from which dangled a colorful assortment of lanterns, stretched from one building to the next. The town looked every bit its age, but that was the point. When you stepped into it, you stepped back in time. Sure the interiors of the different buildings were redecorated and filled with souvenir trinkets and tailor shops, but if you could look past that, it wasn’t hard to imagine what life was like there centuries ago.

IMG_1116
One of the more elaborate yellow-washed buildings in the town
IMG_1102
Rooftop flowers providing a rare escape from the sun
IMG_1076
Lanterns hanging above the street

As we wandered further into the town, we began to notice one of the few unpleasant things about it: a complete lack of shade. This was particularly problematic because, at 9:00 in the morning, we were barely into our day and already the fully harnessed power of the sun was beating down on our heads. At first we tried to beat the heat, slogging through the streets like a couple of snails with a trail of sweat in our wake, but, after about a half hour of this, we decided there was no beating it and opted instead to go inside one of the many buildings bookending the lanes to escape the sun. Among the abundance of options, we chose the Fujian Assembly Hall to serve as our oasis and happily entered into its moderately cooler, but abundantly less sunny interior.

IMG_1055
Outside the front gate of Fujian Assembly Hall

All around Hoi An, there were assembly halls like the one we were entering, all of which were dedicated to different nationalities. Like the town itself, they were remnants of the bygone trading days, when merchants from all corners of the globe would set their sails for Hoi An to do business with the Vietnamese. As we stood in the same halls that a Chinese person undoubtedly stood in centuries ago, we couldn’t help but think just how different our journeys had been to get there. What would they have thought of us getting into a big, metal tube thousands of miles away, shooting off into the sky, and landing safely near the town just a few hours later?

IMG_1041
Some of the decorations inside the hall
IMG_1017
View of the gate through the trees in its courtyard

After touring the hall, we ventured back out into the streets refreshed and ready to continue our exploration of the town. For the rest of the day, we made sure to take frequent breaks in the shady interior of a shop, and, when we did happen to be out in the sun and feeling sorry for ourselves, we would just have to look around at the local women to instantly feel better about our circumstances.

Most of them, to our shock, looked dressed for a blizzard, wearing jeans, two or sometimes three sweaters zipped up to their necks, gloves, big hats, and even face masks. We had also seen it on the beach the day before and, curious as to why someone would put themselves through that, we inquired about it and were told that Vietnamese society prefers women to have light skin, which we thought was a rather ambitious beauty standard for a tropical country. In any sense, it put into perspective any sort of misery we were feeling due to the heat and kept our complaining to a minimum.

IMG_0813
A woman we had seen the day before on the beach

As the afternoon rolled around, we finally hit the edge of the town, marked by a 16th-century Japanese bridge, which looked in every sense the way a centuries-old structure should. The wood of its handrails, cracked and bare, had long since seen the refurbishing touch of a paintbrush, the porcelain that decorated its roof was either chipped or missing entirely, and the red paint covering its exterior was faded. But, like everything else in the town we had seen up to that point, it worked, which was the allure of Hoi An.

IMG_1126
On the Japanese bridge
IMG_1143
The roof with some of its plates missing
IMG_1165
Outside the bridge before beginning our walk back

Despite being a very old place, it was neither in disrepair nor did you get the feeling of over-preservation as you walked through it. Everything fit so well together, even the different influences in architecture didn’t seem to clash. The faded red of the Japanese bridge didn’t look at all out of place in between the mustard yellow buildings, whose endless run along the lanes would be broken up by an occasional sky blue or teal storefront. It all worked, the age, the colors and we enjoyed every bit of it. As the day wore on though, we decided to leave the town for another day and head to the beach to take in another sunset.

IMG_1089
A typical scene in the town

We would pick up our fourth day in Hoi An where the third one had left off, near the ocean. For a majority of the day, we passed the time either in, around, or on the ocean. Our first stop of the day was Cham Island, which we would have to take a speedboat to get to. The ride there, while bumpy, was enjoyable and, after about twenty minutes, our feet were back on solid ground and our tour guide, who vastly overestimated his own English skills, began taking us around the island that he called home.

IMG_1192
On the boat getting ready to head to Cham Island
IMG_1198
One of the many fishing boats we passed along the way

One of the consequences of going on a tour, and the reason why we don’t take them unless we absolutely have to, is that the guide decides what you see and how long you see it. Often times, their ideas about these two things are vastly different from our own and this time was no exception. We were there for beaches and snorkeling, but upon arriving we were instead paraded around the island’s interior, making a stop at the village temple, going by the schoolhouse and eventually going through the village itself, which had long known the advantages of tourism as the streets were practically lined with vendors selling treats and trinkets. We appreciated the tour for what it was though, being grateful for the small pieces of information we were able to gather about the island we were inhabiting for the day.

IMG_1212
Trying a sweet green bean treat on the island
IMG_1215
Heading inland
IMG_1241
A villager making a fishing net

As we began walking back to the boat, our tour guide sought us out (we were the only English speakers on the tour) to tell us a joke he seemed particularly proud of. As we mentioned earlier, his English was elementary at best and, because of this, we were only able to understand a few words of it. We gathered that it had something to do with two chickens comparing their breasts with those of humans with the punchline having something to do with claws. Confused, we asked him to repeat it again and, after the third time, we nervously laughed in a manner that wasn’t fooling anyone. That was the last time he talked with us for the rest of the tour.

After getting back to the boat, our next stop was to go snorkeling, the thing we had been most looking forward to on the tour. Ever since we had gone Boracay two years earlier, we had been anticipating doing it again and were giddy to finally be doing so. As we pulled up to the snorkeling area, our tour guide plopped a bag of goggles and breathing tubes on the back of the boat and set us free to explore. As we dug through the bag of snorkeling gear we were appalled by the fact everything had some degree of mold growing on it and we pulled out the least affected pieces we could find and wearily strapped them on.

Our worries about the mold were soon forgotten though as we jumped into the water and peered beneath the surface of the ocean. Fish of all sizes and colors swam around each other, dipping in and out of the numerous holes and crevasses strewn across the sea floor. Coral stretched up towards the surface like mountains to the sky, swaying in the currents in a similar fashion as trees in the wind. Slivers of light shone down through the water, running over the entire scene like a system of veins. It was like dipping our faces into an entirely different world. Every now and then we would poke our heads out of the water and were amazed each time at how normal the surface looked, giving no hint at the entire ecosystem that existed just a few feet below it.

After about thirty minutes we were summoned back to the boat where we boarded and promptly set off towards the island’s main beach to have lunch, which consisted of a wildly inappropriate amount of food. Plate after plate after plate of meat and vegetables and fried snacks were laid out before us and, not wanting to waste any of it, we shamefully emptied the contents of each plate into our stomachs until there was nothing left. Uncomfortably full, we lumbered to the beach where we wasted away our bloated misery on a couple of shade-covered loungers until we were called to the boat to head back to Hoi An.

IMG_1262
Our lunch…if you can believe it, there’s more food outside of the frame!

We got back to our guesthouse around 2:00 and immediately grabbed a couple of bikes to head to the beach to spend the rest of our day. We decided this time to try a less touristy beach than the others we had been to and were pleasantly surprised that the perks (a lounger and umbrella in exchange for ordering food or drinks) remained the same along with the added bonus of relative seclusion.

IMG_1270
Getting ready to bike to the beach

After arriving we noticed the sky darkening around us and became worried that an ensuing thunderstorm would force us back to the guesthouse earlier than we had wanted to. We expressed this concern to the woman working at the bar and were assured that the storm would only last a few moments. This would have been believable had the crisp blue skies stretching across the horizon not been overtaken by an expanse of dark, gray clouds stretching as far as the eye could see in a matter of minutes. Nonetheless, we decided to wait around and see what would happen, retreating to our loungers as the sky opened up. Sure enough, after about a ten minute wait the rain stopped and our view once again consisted of sunny blue skies. We should have known better given our experience with thunderstorms in the tropics: intense but short-lived.

IMG_1280
The storm rolling in
IMG_1284
The sky ten minutes later, clear and blue as promised

The rest of the afternoon and evening was perfect with a mixture of cocktails, dips in the ocean, and lazing around on the beach. As the sun began to set, we hopped back on our bikes and began to look for a good restaurant along the beach, of which there were many. We chose one at random and spent the rest of the night picking at seafood and watching as the last remaining light was sucked under the mountains and the sky and ocean became synonymous in the black of night. With one more full day ahead of us, we headed back to our guesthouse to get some rest before our early rise the next day.

The agenda for our last full day in Hoi An was a long one and like most other days we had spent there, aimed to be a blend of both cultural and coastal activities, the first of which was a trip to the ancient Cham ruins of My Son (pronounced “mee-sohn”). We had read that walking around the ruins was akin to exploring the inside of an oven, which after 4 days in Vietnam was entirely believable. We also read that the sight is swarmed with people around midday once all of the tourist buses roll in. So, wanting to avoid both of these as much as possible, we woke up at 5 a.m., started up our motorbike and were on our way.

IMG_0379
Our motorbike

To find our way there we followed a surprisingly clear hand-drawn map from one of the workers at our guesthouse. Despite its clarity, the simplicity of it made us constantly question if we were going in the right direction or had missed our road. So, every few miles, we would stop and ask a local shopkeeper or passerby, who were always friendly even at 6:00 in the morning, how to get to My Son. At one point we were sure we had gotten ourselves completely lost and pulled over to ask a fruit vendor for directions and our gazes were shamefully guided to the giant sign right above our heads that read “My Son” with a big yellow arrow pointing us in the right direction. The motorbike couldn’t have taken us away faster.

You would think that feeling completely lost in the Vietnamese countryside while cruising around at 40 m.p.h. on a vehicle that you’ve only driven once before in your life in a country that has no observable traffic laws would be a bad thing, but it really wasn’t. In fact, it was one of our favorite things we did in Vietnam. The sense of adventure we got riding around and taking in vistas of expansive fields, mountainous skylines and small villages just beginning their day all while other motorists and even a truck with pig feet hanging out of it whizzed by us was incomparable to any other experience we’ve had in our travels. It was uniquely enjoyable and, after 35 miles and nearly an hour and a half on the road, it was almost disappointing as we rolled up to the gates of My Son and parked our bike.

At this point, it was still only 6:30 in the morning and the park had just opened. No other motorbikes were parked in the garage nor cars or buses in the parking lot. We seemingly were the first ones there, other than the workers who sleepily greeted us as we bought our tickets and made our way towards the ruins.

We entered the grounds through a dense expanse of trees, whose browns and greens dominated the scenery as far as the eye could see. After about ten minutes of meandering through this, we spotted a speck of orange off in the distance and began walking towards it. As we did, a half-standing tower slowly materialized before us and we soon found ourselves at the first of what would be eight different sights of ruins. Some were small, consisting of just one or two buildings like the one we were at now, others were sprawling, but each deserved at least some degree of contemplation of their role in the society that built them and what the lives of those people were like.

IMG_1446
View through the jungle of one of the temples
IMG_1305
The first temple we came across
IMG_1383
Finding some much needed shade

As we bounced around from sight to sight, we began to notice the relationship My Son had with the jungle around it. After centuries of existing side by side, it was almost as if the jungle had decided to reclaim what was once it’s own. Hills of grassy earth climbed up the walls of the different structures, almost making it look like they hadn’t been built but rather grew out of the earth like the trees around them. It was difficult to imagine one without the other.

IMG_1345
One of the temples appearing to have grown out of the ground
IMG_1404
One of the more ruined sights we came across
IMG_1456
Butterflies were everywhere around the ruins, this particular one we found resting inside one of the temples

Of the many incredible things we saw at My Son though, there was one unsettling one that was present in almost every sight that we visited. Giant craters, so big that one could easily confuse them for small hills, littered the landscape, remnants of the Vietnam War when the ruins were used as a hideout for the Viet Cong. Because of this, the sight was heavily bombed and many of the buildings that once stood were lost forever. It wasn’t until a My Son historian wrote a letter to the US President at the time, urging him to stop the attack, that the bombs finally ceased falling, but the damage had already been done and it was still very much visible fifty years later as we walked through the ruins. Maps and signs pointed to piles of bricks that were identified as once towering buildings and the ones that were still standing were often half-reduced to rubble. It was the first time we felt truly ashamed to be Americans.

Even with the bomb craters, it was very difficult to imagine a war taking place there or anywhere else in Vietnam for that matter. And this is for two people with admittedly very large imaginations. We would see black and white photos hung in shops of helicopters on the horizon and soldiers on the ground, but the Vietnam we saw and experienced was a world apart from this. We didn’t think about this too often though as there were many other things demanding our attention, all of which were much more pleasant than the thought of war.

IMG_1371
There were a lot of interesting carvings in the buildings too
IMG_1441
Carvings of elephants were abundant
IMG_1478
A depiction of the Cham people
IMG_1466
Shiva, the god My Son was dedicated to
IMG_1530
A headless statue outside one of the main temples

After wandering around the ruins until about eleven o’clock, the valley they sat in began to fill with heat and tour groups and we decided that it was a good time to leave. So, we made our way back to our motorbike, hopped on, and began the return journey to Hoi An.

IMG_1473
Exploring the inside of one of the buildings
IMG_1498
A leaning tower
IMG_1525
At our last sight before leaving

Apparently following a map backwards is much more difficult than forwards because the frequency with which we got completely lost (not just thinking we were lost) was exponentially higher than the journey to My Son.  During one of these times, while we were knowingly driving in circles waiting for some familiar landmark to reveal itself, we noticed that our ride was getting increasingly bumpier despite the smooth road we were riding on. Panicked and determined to ignore the obvious, which was that we had a flat tire, we slowly crept along the road in hopes that the problem would fix itself (it didn’t). Just before losing all hope, we heard a shout from the opposite side of the road and looked over to find, to our relief, a man waving us in the direction of his home which doubled as a garage. After pulling up, he pointed us in the direction of some chairs, and, several minutes and $2.50 later, we were back on the road. Cheap and friendly are two things you can always count on in Southeast Asia.

IMG_1554
Cooling off while waiting for our motorbike to get fixed

After getting back, we made a quick run to the beach before hanging up our motorbike keys for good and heading into the old town on foot to catch their monthly celebration of the full moon. The town, like most everything else experienced in both the light of day and dark of night, took on an entirely different form. The yellows that dominated the city during the day now gave way to the red and white glow of lanterns hanging along and above the lanes which were significantly more crowded and filled with life now that the sun was no longer looming overhead.

IMG_1575
The old town at night

As the sun slipped completely under the horizon, the moon, which oddly enough wasn’t full, showed up for its own party and we headed to the riverside where everyone in the town had begun to gravitate towards. After arriving, it didn’t take long for us to figure out how exactly they celebrated the festival.

All along the river, little girls and old women carrying lit candles in paper lanterns impressively maneuvered their way through the crowds asking people if they’d like to buy one. If you did, you were given a big hook that you could use to place the lantern in the river and make a wish. We bought two, happily placed them in the river and excitedly watched as they floated into a pile of other lanterns and were then rowed over by a boat. We weren’t sure how the rules applied, but we imagined that meant that our wishes would go unanswered. Destruction by boat wasn’t the worst fate though as some, after being placed in the water, proceeded to catch on fire and become reduced to smoldering piles of ashes. Hopefully no one wished for world peace.

IMG_1581
The girl we bought our lanterns from
IMG_1619
A group of lanterns collecting in the river

Most of the lanterns did what they were meant to though and floated along the river unobstructed, illuminating the water in the same way as the stars do the sky. Despite the bustling crowds around us, it was an incredibly peaceful experience as we watched the different-colored lanterns slowly float off into the distance. It was so peaceful in fact, that, as we watched them, we were reminded of how tired we had grown and began the long walk back to our guesthouse.

IMG_1612
Lanterns floating off down the river

Our last day in Hoi An wasn’t as much a day as it was a morning. We had an early flight leaving at 9:00 so, wanting to make the most of what little time we had left, we decided to get up at 4:30 a.m. to catch the sunrise. After rolling out of bed and suppressing the protests from our bodies about being up at such a time, we grabbed our bikes and cruised through the eerily quiet streets towards the beach. As we pulled up to it, we found a seat and watched the scenery unfold around us. If some pictures are worth a thousand words than this was a moment worth a thousand pictures. Hopefully three will do.

IMG_1666
The view of the sunrise as we pulled up to the beach
IMG_1683
The clouds in the sky made the scene even more beautiful
IMG_1694
A difficult view to say goodbye to

Once the sun had fully come up and the yellows and pinks and oranges that had occupied the sky just moments before turned to a uniform blue, we hopped back on our bikes to head back to the guesthouse in hopes of catching one last breakfast before our taxi arrived. To our delight, we made it back in plenty of time and, with a full belly of beef noodles, we sadly got into the taxi and bid farewell to Hoi An.