Xiapu

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chuxi

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

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

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A square tulou mirroring a parked car across the valley

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

 

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

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

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Residents of our tulou sipping tea just inside the front door

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

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Outside our room

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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Crossing the river to head out of the village

 

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The view from the lookout never grew old

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

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

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

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Firewood piled outside the yellow walls of the tulou

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

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

Zhangjiajie

The Chinese tourism landscape is littered with superlatives. As one travels from site to site, it seems at times that nearly every one of them is preceded by a “most” or followed by an “-est”. Some are rather vague as in the countless countryside villages touting the “most beautiful scenery” in all of China while others are painfully specific as in Zhangjiajie, the mountain range rumored to have inspired the floating mountains in Avatar. There was the “longest and tallest glass bridge in the world” as well as the “highest natural bridge in the world” and the “longest passenger cableway in the world,” and who could forget the “the highest, fastest, largest-loaded outdoor elevator in the world.” These titles, seemingly thought up by a boastful toddler and devised to draw in tourists to a once-in-the-world experience, were misleading in that they made you think that the feat of engineering was the main attraction when in reality, it was what those feats of engineering led you to that was the real attraction for no amount of superlatives could capture how truly incredible the mountains themselves were.

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

Our first experience with the majestic Zhangjiajie came in the unmajestic process of slogging up its slopes in the thick summer heat. Mossy steps wound up and out of sight, disappearing into the dense greens of the forest. Alongside the steps a network of disheveled shrubs and weeds wriggled in and out of each other, their branches and vines spilling over the edges of the path, crowding the ground and air that we walked through. Out of the bushes sprang spider-like grasshoppers whose efforts to evade us, their alleged pursuer, failed miserably as they more often than not crashed into our bodies before falling to the ground and springing away again. Despite one crossing our path every minute or so, they weren’t the most notable insect accompanying our hike up the mountain as a cloud of flies called our face and its immediate vicinity home for the entirety of the climb and all around us the steady humming of the countless other insects inhabiting the forest reminded us that we were not alone on our hike.

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

If all of this sounds rather miserable, I can assure you it was not, quite the opposite actually as the slew of insect encounters was drowned out by the beauty of the scenery we were climbing through. Rising out of the aforementioned lush forest bed rose an army of trees stretching high into the bright sky of summer. And, if you cared to direct your gaze even further up than that, your view would almost always be accompanied by one of the unique columnal peaks of the mountain range. As we climbed higher and higher we couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to take the cable cars.

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

After about two hours we finally reached the top where, sadly, the crowds thickened and walkways thinned. One typically hikes up a mountain to escape crowds and noise, but in China, more often than not, you’ll find more of it at the top than you will at the bottom. Most of the people are harmless, bodies just like us moving around each other as they appreciate the views, but there are always some who, emboldened by their cable car ride up the mountain apparently, feel the need to shout at the top of their lungs every few minutes so as to announce to all other mountain dwellers that they are there.

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

As annoying as the shouts are, and they are always there, they eventually become white noise. As for the crowds, however frustrating it was to move through hoards of people on the top of a mountain, it was a sight designated for tourists which meant cable cars, clearly labeled paths, stone steps to hike up and down and even small shops selling refreshments. As much as we wanted seclusion and serenity, it’s not as if we hiked through raw wilderness to get where we were. Still, it would have been nice if more of our fellow hikers would have recognized their surroundings not as something they had conquered to help make them feel big but rather as something they could appreciate to help make them feel small, for most everyone could use a dose of that in today’s world.

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

As we hiked around more, each step was accompanied by dizzying views that plunged deep into the mountains below. While these kind of views would turn the stomach of anyone even considering a hop over the much appreciated railings running alongside the paths, they weren’t enough to stop some from going over the railing and, in one case, down the side of the mountain on a rope for some audacious acrobatics. We watched in a stunned awe as a man in a yellow suit straddled the side of the mountain with nothing but a rope tied around his waist. Like watching a horrific scene unfold from afar, we looked on helplessly as he began running from side to side, jumping off the face of the mountain, and spinning in midair. As it was clearly a performance and the man doing it his profession, we wondered if he ever got bored by his act. If descending down the side of a mountain dangling on a rope ever became mundane for him. In any case, we most certainly were not bored, and our transfixion on the daredevil was broken only when he was pulled back up the mountainside and into the shrubbery hanging off of it.

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

Now suddenly very thankful for the solid ground under us, we continued our hike, balancing views of our trudging feet below with the more scenic expanse of mountains stretching out beside us. Every now and then, we would come to a level stretch of path, which worked wonders for our legs as well as for our ability to appreciate the scenery. As we looked out, we found the collocational “mountain peak” to be moot as the mountains didn’t come to a point. Rather, they rose bewilderingly like crumbling columns from the valley bed, erect and stretching upwards much like the trees that surrounded them before leveling off at the top where a verdant collection of trees and bushes marked the end of their rise. It was no wonder some referred to it as a stone forest.

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

Our second day began with a delicious hot bowl of noodles for breakfast at our hotel: Yangjiajie MINI Inn. As we ate, the backdrop of mountains served as an ever-present reminder of the day ahead. While the previous day had seen us spending a majority of our time exploring the tops of the mountains, this day would see us traversing less elevated ground by way of the Golden Whip Stream, a winding waterway that cut through the base of the mountains. One often thinks that looking out from the peak of a mountain is the best way to appreciate its enormity, but there’s something to be said too about walking at their feet, dwarfed by their shadow as you move through the eeriness that is a dim setting on a bright, sunny day. This was one such occasion.

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

Apart from the mountains, whose faces poked out at us from above the tree tops, there were plenty of other scenes along the walk that demanded our attention. The stream, a shallow, trickling basin of water, slowly moved around the rocks it had failed to overtake, creating a soundtrack of gentle bubbling noises that would accompany the entirety of our walk. Ahead, the thick foliage of summer created a dense green landscape that stretched into the distance as far as the eye could see. Tree trunks and wayward branches coursed through the green like a network of black veins. Dragonflies and butterflies filled the air and on the ground, our company existed not only in the form of fellow hikers, but also in wild monkeys. Swimming in the stream, moving through the bushes that hugged our path, and swinging on the trees overhead, the monkeys were nearly everywhere we looked.

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

In spite of our close proximity to them, the monkeys could barely be bothered to glance in our direction, that is, unless they heard the rustling of a plastic bag at which point they might as well have been a begging dog. We would have preferred the former, coexisting without co-depending, but there were others who simply couldn’t resist tossing a bag of chips to a monkey in hopes of having some sort of interaction with it. It was sad to see monkeys licking the inside of plastic bags before tossing them in the river, only to be picked up by another further downstream who would snatch it out of the water and examine the bag for any missed remains. If a monkey wasn’t fortunate enough to get a treat thrown their way, they would drop in a dumpster, rummaging through the garbage for any scraps they could find, their grease stained fur serving as a reminder of their longing for a human treat.

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

As if tossing plastic-encased snacks to the monkeys wasn’t entertainment enough for those doing so, there were some that even resorted to violence towards the primates as a means of amusement. At nearly every shop inside the park, slingshots were for sale and, sadly, it didn’t take long for us to realize what they were for. Along our walk, we saw several people using the devices to fire fist-sized rocks at yelping monkeys who scurried away and out of sight. Each time we saw this we not so kindly reminded those doing so in our broken Chinese that their actions weren’t appropriate.

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

After about an hour’s walk along the stream, we reached an area filled with food vendors where we grabbed some spicy potatoes and a bowl of noodles before turning around and retracing our steps along the stream. The walk back was nice as we weren’t preoccupied with looking here and there for new sights and sounds but rather could just enjoy by what was then a familiar setting.

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

As we neared the start of the Golden Whip Stream path and with much of the afternoon still ahead of us, we decided to abandon the comfort of level ground for the inverted pathway leading up to Huangshi Village, which was said to offer some of the best views in the whole of Zhangjiajie Park. Upon reaching the summit, we would discover that it wasn’t a village at all and the views obscured due to a biblical downpour that had ensued upon our arrival at the top. Camped out under the futile protection of a closed China Post-shelter awning, we watched as the downpour only increased with ferocity and an impromptu river formed on the ground where our feet stood, soaking our shoes and socks to a degree that, even several hours after the rains had stopped, would cause an incessant squish-squash to accompany every step we took around the mountain.

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Heading back up the mountain

After the rains finally did let up, we mentally rung ourselves out and hurried to the nearest outlook in hopes of seeing a misty mountainscape left in the wake of the rainstorm. We were not disappointed. Rapidly moving mist crashed into the mountainside and spilled back into itself like violent waves upon a shore. Elsewhere, in the more open spaces of the valley, the mist sat in cloudy clumps, waiting patiently to be dissipated by the suddenly noticeable summer sun beating down from overhead. Slowly the patchy landscape came into a full, crisp view as the last wisps disappeared. As if a show had just ended, we soaked up one last deep gaze out at the mountains before starting back down the mountain through the dripping scenery to make the long journey back to our hotel where another delicious home-cooked dinner awaited us.

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

 

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

Most of our last day in Zhangjiajie was spent finding our way to a point on our map that had intrigued us since we first examined it: the Field in the Sky. Intrigued by the imagery its name evoked, we couldn’t let the chance that it was a gross dramatization of an ordinary scene hinder us from going to have a look. After a long bus ride, we were dropped off seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Our map, which was surprisingly handy throughout our time in the park despite having no real distinct features apart from the sights that were worth visiting, was no help to us. From where we stood, several identical roads shot off in different directions, running off and out of sight behind a crowded forest of pine trees. From what we deemed was our point on the map, a very clear road snaked an inch or so across the page to the Field in the Sky. If only it was that easy.

We asked a group of passing hikers if they knew where it was and, after looking at us confusedly for a brief moment, convened for a muddled, mumbling meeting amongst themselves before shooting a desperate finger in a random direction and hurrying away. We smiled politely, waited until they were out of sight and then began looking for someone else to ask. Eventually, we met someone who, upon mentioning the name Field in the Sky, immediately nodded knowingly and told us to follow the unassuming dirt road that branched off from the road we were standing on.

Still on the path nearly two hours later no longer out of desire to see the Field in the Sky but out of pure stubbornness, we finally came upon it. Exactly as advertised, the site was a terraced patchwork of fields carved out of the top of one of the many gnarled mountains spread across the landscape. The light shimmered off the fields, turning them a bright green that stood out in the otherwise deep and dark tones of the landscape. As the other mountains looked on at the field, they must have been jealous, their moppy tops of unruly foliage were no match to the clean cut look of the field-topped mountain.

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

As picturesque as the view was we had to leave in search of shade and water as the sun was heavy and our water bottle had been empty for the last hour or so of our walk. Being a somewhat popular tourist site within the park, there was luckily a shop not too far down the road where we were able to do just that. Like a watering hole in the savannah, the shop was full of people despite there being not a soul to be found outside of its shady interior. Talking with some others while we sipped our water, we were told that there were amazing views fifteen minutes or so down the path. Having come this far already, we heeded their advice and continued on.

The fairly level path quickly turned to steps that fell over each other down the mountainside before bottoming out at a lookout that, as promised, dropped our gaze directly into the heart of the mountains. It was the best view we had had in Zhangjiajie by far and we sat, legs hanging over the cliff’s edge for what felt like hours staring downward in awe. As we did so, a quote from The Lord of the Rings came to mind. In it, an ancient tree mused about how humans could have such a “hasty” word for mountains. Certainly, he pondered, something that has existed since the beginning of time should have a name more compelling and worthy of the magnitude of the thing it described. Looking out at the hacked trunks that were the mountain range, this idea couldn’t have made more sense. “Mountain” just didn’t seem adequate enough of a word to describe what we were looking at. Perhaps no word or combination of letters could. So, we instead just looked, for nowhere perhaps but in our mind could the majesty of the scene before us be captured.

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

 

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Looking very much like a stone forest

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.

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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.

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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.

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Contrasting styles
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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.

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

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Selling gear for crab catching
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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.

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

 

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A busy day at the beach

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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.

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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.

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The closest we came to drinking a beer at the beer festival
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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.

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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.

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Reflections in the sand
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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.

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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.

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Getting ready to start the tour

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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.

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One of the big vats at the entrance of the museum
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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.

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A wall of beer from around the world
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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.

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Ganbei!
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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.

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Eating a starfish across from the museum
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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.