If you’re wondering how to get to paradise, you should know that getting there is not quite as easy as being there. For us, the process was as follows:
Schedule a doctor’s appointment to get malaria medication and begin taking it several days prior to the trip
If you’re leaving in winter, are far away from an airport and trying to take as little as possible with you to the tropical destination (as we were), stave off frost bite as you spend an entire day commuting to the airport in freezing temperatures wearing nothing but jeans and a light sweater
Board a plane for Indonesia
Spend a week or two traveling around the country (optional, but recommended)
Take a red eye flight to Sorong after spending the night on an airport bench under the glow of a television screen airing coverage of the CrossFit Games
Arrive in Sorong and haggle with a taxi driver to take you to the ferry dock
Buy ferry tickets and board the cramped, liberally air-conditioned cabin for Waisai
Shiver to stay warm for the hour-long ride all the while listening to and watching the offensively bad Indonesian pop music videos on the cabin’s TV
Arrive in Waisai and wait in line for an hour to pay $70 for a permit to enter said paradise
Take an hour-long motorboat ride across choppy waters with no shaded protection from the sun overhead
Arrive in paradise
Are there more convenient routes to take there? Probably, but this was the one available to us and, as we would quickly find, the hassle of getting to paradise is a worthwhile price to pay.
While the collective idea of paradise, uninhabited beaches on remote islands void of responsibility and stress, has many representatives around the world, ours was located in Batanta, one of the four islands the make up Raja Ampat, or four kings, a Papuan archipelago lying at the easternmost edge of Indonesia.
For many visitors to Raja Ampat, accommodation comes in the form of a homestay, which usually consists of one to several bungalows lying on the beach or overtop the ocean itself, most of which are owned and operated by locals. Choosing to go the traditional route, we stayed at Yenaduak Homestay, which was run by a man named Sam and consisted of four bungalows that lied within ten yards of the ocean. Having seen pictures of similar scenes on postcards and in magazines for most of our life and assuming them to be unattainable, we were surprised at times to find ourselves actually staying in such a place.
The thatched bungalow consisted of a bed, one small table and a bathroom with a seatless toilet that also functioned as a sink. To flush, we would have to use a ladle to wash the toilet’s contents through its pipes. The ladle also served as our shower and, since the color of the ground water that filled it looked murkier than the contents of the toilet bowl at most times, we made the easy decision to forego showers for our week’s stay.
While far removed from anyone’s idea of luxury, we found the bungalow to be perfect, an idea furthered by its other feature, a front porch equipped with a hammock and two chairs that would bear the brunt of our lethargy during the lazy mornings and afternoons that are an inevitable byproduct of being on a remote island with no internet connection or phone signal.
The paradisiacal setting wasn’t the only reason people, us included, travel to the islands of Raja Ampat though for, as serene as the above water setting might be, what lies under it can’t be seen anywhere else on Earth. Home to 75% of the world’s coral species and over 1,500 different species of fish, the underwater world of Raja Ampat is one of the richest biodiverse ecosystems anywhere on Earth. Being lovers of snorkeling and aware that finding beautiful and intact coral reefs will be increasingly more difficult in the future we were eager to visit what many snorkelers and divers call the best place in the world for both.
So, with plenty to keep us busy below the ocean and plenty of lazy pursuits lying above it, our time on the island, while limited, was always well spent. A typical day went as follows:
Occasionally we would break from routine to explore the reaches of the shore:
Apart from exploring the immediate surroundings of our homestay, we would also go on a few of the excellent tours that Sam offered guests. The first was to see Wilson’s bird-of-paradise. Never having gone bird watching before, we had a naive pie-in-the-sky picture in our minds of what it would be: the now laughable image of casually strolling through the jungle while birds of all colors and sizes swooped overhead and perched themselves on nearby branches for our enjoyment. Our first indication that it would not be so easy was when Sam told us that we would be leaving for the tour at 3:30 the next morning so that we could get to the lookout in the cover of dark without the birds seeing us.
After waking up at 3:00, having considerable debate about which clothes to wear, and boarding the boat which nearly tipped over a couple of times as everyone got situated, we were on our way. It was slow goings at first as we had to maneuver around the coral reef that boxed the bungalows in to the island. One thing we really liked about Sam and his family was that they always took precautionary measures to make sure that the boat and motor weren’t running over the reef and damaging it. In the pre-dawn darkness, this meant pulling up the motor, using a flashlight to see where the coral was, and then using a long stick placed where the coral wasn’t to push the boat out to sea. Once the reef dropped off, Sam put down the motor and sped away.
With nothing much to look at other than the faint outlines of islands standing against the nighttime sky, our attention turned to the water below, whose unwavering blackness was interrupted by the fluorescent glow of tiny jellyfish which speckled the water. There are many times when the ocean emulates the sky above it, but this was the first time we had experienced it doing so at night, the hundreds of jellyfish illuminating the black water much in the same way the stars do the sky.
As the world brightened, the glow of the jellyfish faded and our attention shifted to the scenery above water. Surrounding us were a handful of islands which sat sleepily behind clouds of mist that were much more vigorous in their early morning pursuits as they hurriedly pushed past the islands in route to blending into the overcast sky above. On the shores of one of these islands our boat would finally slow to a creeping pace as we floated inland, past groves of trees that marked the fringes of the island’s reach into the ocean. The trees, whose exposed and gnarled roots clawed menacingly out of sight into the water below, created an eerie setting when paired with the gloominess of pre-dawn.
As our boat approached a mound of gloppy mud that marked the inner-island’s shore, we emphatically disembarked and began a mad march through the jungle in a race against the sunrise. As we traipsed through swampy patches of earth and pushed through fields of reeds that stretched up to our waists, we were thankful that our wardrobe choice earlier in the morning included hiking boots and long sleeves, both of which we deemed essential totraverse the dark and wet jungle. Our adventurous spirits were put to shame though as we looked ahead to Sam who was walking barefoot over the broken twigs and jagged rocks scattered about the ground and wearing nothing more than a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, which he would later remove. In the Darwinian image of survival, Sam was most definitely the fittest.
The end of our trek was marked by a climb up a steep and muddy hill where we used trees and vines to pull ourselves up to the lookout – a collection of tattered boards lying behind an equally tattered screen meant to keep us hidden from the elusive bird of paradise. As we climbed onto the wet and muddy boards, a couple of which snapped in two while walking across them, Sam gave us some leaves to sit on while we waited for the bird, which was far from a guarantee. Luckily for us, Sam was quite experienced at eliciting the presence of the bird which he did by the almost comically simplistic task of tossing a couple of wet, brown leaves onto the wet, brown earth in front of the screen. Wondering if a trick had been played on us at first, we were quickly applauding the technique as the cartoonishly colorful bird swooped down and began clearing the leaves away. The male birds, as it turns out, are known for setting up their own display courts on the jungle floor where they perform dances for potential suitors. As a dirty court could spell doom for a bird’s chances at securing a mate, they work tirelessly to keep them clear of debris which explained the irritation and immediate rebuttal of Sam’s having made a mess in this particular bird’s court.
Despite our close proximity to the court, the bird still managed to prove elusive as our line of vision was often hindered or blocked entirely by the screen in front of us. Still though, we luckily managed to get a couple of photos of the brilliant bird which we were surprised to find out later only existed on this and one other island in Raja Ampat and was quite rare to see in the wild.
Before going back to our homestay, Sam stopped off at another point on the island to show us a waterfall.
Apart from seeing Wilson’s bird-of-paradise and the waterfall, Sam would also take us to swim with manta rays and go on another, less fruitful, hornbill watching tour. Through our sporadic conversations with him over the course of the week, we learned that he originally worked in a mine with his brother. After the mine collapsed one day, killing his brother, Sam’s dad convinced him to take a safer job working at a resort. While sweeping leaves and picking up plastic that had washed ashore day after day, Sam would hang English words from trees and memorize them as he went back and forth clearing debris off the beach. Eventually, once he had an adequate level of English, he decided to open his own homestay which had expanded from one bungalow to four at the time of our staying there. As more people become aware of one of the last paradises on Earth, we hope that it can remain a paradise, where visitors support locals and everyone recognizes and respects the incredible wildlife that exists there.
Read on for a poem by Kate:
Musings from an Amateur Ornithologist II
Hidden between trees
in the shadowy dawn
rustles a millipede,
gliding over dry leaves,
serpentine, but for his baleen legs
swinging in tandem.
In the canopy,
a regal song rings out,
piercing the morning air
with its vibrato.
holding court in paradise,
flutters from branch to branch
dancing for us onlookers,
aware, yet determined to remain aloof.
A flash of red,
a glint of blue,
swooping to the ground,
then flying off to the latticework above,
leaving us awestruck,
reflecting on the privilege
of being granted an audience.
the thousand-legged jester
continues his crawl
across the forest floor.
To wander into a restaurant in Harbin, the capital city of China’s northernmost province, is to find a scene not too unlike one you might find in a ski lodge. Red faces appear frozen in their last expression, hands cling desperately to hot beverages, mounds of clothes lay piled on any available furniture, and, perhaps most notably, the warm interior air is filled with a murmured excitement.For, while the restaurant offers a necessary respite from the freezing temperatures outside of it, the weather itself, no matter how cold, is exhilarating, and the experiences that can be had in it, whether it be exploring the dusty backstreets of a Russian city left from a bygone era or marveling at the towering ice sculptures that give the city its fame, are so unique that you want to duck into a warm place not out of a want to escape the cold but out of a reluctant necessity to avoid frostbite. And so was our dilemma for the duration of our time in Harbin, balancing our desire to see as much as we could with our desire to feel our limbs.
If there was any part of us that thought that growing up in the frigid winters of Ohio and Iowa meant that we would be better equipped to handle the cold of Harbin, it was laughed out of the room the second we stepped off the plane and felt the arctic air gripping our body as we scampered to the shuttle bus. We would later find that the average January temperature in Ohio and Iowa sits somewhere around 30 degrees Fahrenheit while Harbin’s is down in the single digits. With those figures in mind, we applied layers to our body with reckless abandon the next morning before heading out to Zhongyang (or Central) Street, whose name implied an apt place to start our exploration of Harbin.
The street, and Harbin itself, got its start at the turn of the 20th century when Russian railroad builders chose the site as the terminus station for one of their cross-continent lines. In the ensuing decades, Russia’s influence on Harbin was unparalleled, even among the Chinese, as they essentially erected a city from scratch and filled its streets with its people and culture. After World War II though, with the Russian army in firm control of the city after wrestling it out of the hands of the Japanese, the city was hallowed out when its Russian population, which numbered into the hundreds of thousands, was forcibly deported back to Russia, leaving just 450 left by the early 1960’s. While the people who gave the city its unmistakably Russian character were no longer there, the skeleton of their influence remained in the form of buildings and a culture that were still very much visible during our visit to the city over half a century later; nowhere was this more noticeable than on Zhongyang Street.
Entering the street, we became a bit disoriented as surrounding us were Baroque and Byzantine-style buildings, cobbled streets, Russian cafes and bakeries, and fellow revelers so bundled that it was difficult to make out their species let alone their nationality; in other words, scenery that in no way hinted that we were in China. Pulling us back to reality though was the overly cheerful face of a Chinese girl etched into a block of snow that rose well above the reach of our heads. Surrounding her was an array of less eye-grabbing designs celebrating the upcoming Chinese New Year and that, we decided, placed us firmly, and perhaps a bit harshly, back into the context of China.
As we wandered further down the street, the view of buildings and trees that had dominated our surroundings up to that point gave way to the more open scenery of the Songhua River where an army of amateur snowmen shot off in either direction along the waterfront. If army gives the impression of uniformity and seriousness, the snowmen were anything but, being similar only in number. Rather, they were decorated mostly with an absurd array of googly eyes, cartoon mouths contorted in a variety of exaggerated expressions, and colorful tinsel draped around their bodies like a scarf. Apart from their faces, their size also varied from one to the next from those that barely topped off at our chests to others that stretched well beyond the reach of the tallest tree.
Having taken in our fair share of snowmen, we ventured down to the river which was completely frozen over, so much so that trucks were able to move across it to load and haul away the two ton ice bricks used to build the city’s famous ice sculptures. Along with the trucks were crowds of people partaking in different ice-themed activities that ranged from the familiar skating to a game that involved whipping a spinning top to prevent it from toppling over. With no skates and our whipping skills rusty, we decided to partake instead in the timeless and all age-inclusive fun of running up to a patch of ice and seeing how far we could slide across it.
After doing this several times we walked on, though our ability to stay atop the ice was fleeting for, however cold we thought it was while not walking over a mass of frozen water, it couldn’t compare with the arctic chill invading our bodies not only from the ice below but also from the steady, numbing breeze blowing over top of it. No longer able to enjoy our surroundings, we headed back up towards Zhongyang Street, which seemed comparatively cozy, a feeling we would continue to pursue by stopping in a small Russian restaurant where we basked in its warmth like a lizard under a heat lamp.
Once feeling returned to our fingertips and toes, we ordered an array of hot dishes and tea to aid in the thawing process. As we sat, we watched as others sought the same warm refuge as us. Through the fog of their own breath, layer-laden bodies whose rotundness would make even the Michelin Man blush, made their way to open tables, peeling off coat after coat until a heap of winter wear lay piled up behind them, nearly pushing them off the front of their chair. Like a greedy baron stashing away his money, we kept our layers on, building up as much warmth in our bodies as we could in the fruitless hope that it would serve to keep us warm once we left the restaurant.
We would need all the warmth we could get for a visit to the Ice Festival was in our near future and we expected that, whatever chill we had felt while atop the frozen Songhua River, the one we would be experiencing amidst a city of ice after nightfall would be even more. The sun set at a surprisingly early 3:56 p.m. (perhaps Harbin was a bit too chilly for even the sun to hang around longer than it needed to) and we arrived not long after with any traces of the sun, whether it be light or warmth, long gone.
As we approached the festival, we felt as if we had bought a ticket to another world. The uniform black of the night sky served as the perfect backdrop for the glowing brilliance of the ice sculptures which rose up from the snow-covered ground in every way imaginable. There were walls, bridges, towering buildings, churches, temples, and castles. The Roman Colisseum was even on display. As if the size and scope of the structures wasn’t enough, each one emanated a different color that, when looked at together with the buildings around it, created a rainbow of glowing ice across the landscape. Some of the colors remained unchanged within their given structure, while others faded in and out of each other, purples turning to blues turning to greens as they rose up through the ice, making the buildings they illuminated appear alive as they coursed into the night sky. Funnily enough, the way the ice blocks looked reminded us of embers in a fire, emanating a calm and steady glow. Far removed from the contemplative coziness of a fireside, the ice blocks drew our attention in all the same.
Standing in contrast to the radiance of the buildings were the people moving around them. If the buildings were the definition of light, the figures were the complete absence of it. Always in the form of a silhouette, they seemed an extension of the nighttime sky above them; an unwavering black. You would think that one would pay little attention to the comparative dullness of black when surrounded by a gigantic, illuminated ice city, but the crowd of shadows served as the perfect accompaniment to the buildings, always reminding us of just how bright and monumental they were.
While standing outside of one particular ice sculpture that resembled a church, we were approached by a reporter from a news channel who wanted to interview us about our experiences in Harbin (you can find the videos here and here). However exciting it was to do the interview, it meant standing still for an extended period of time which spelt doom for our waning ability to feel our fingers and feet. After the interview ended, out of sight of the reporter and cameraman of course, we danced and shook our bodies wildly to restore as much circulation to our limbs as possible (sorry, no videos of that one) before continuing our exploration of the festival. Not wanting to lose what little warmth we had managed to restore to our bodies, we would spend the rest of our time there in a constant state of motion, pausing only to snap a quick picture. When finally, the cold became too much to bear, we left the festival to head back to our hotel.
The next day would see us return to Zhongyang Street where, this time, we would be heading away from the river and towards the city’s most iconic permanent structure: St. Sophia’s Cathedral. Wanting to get off the crowded confines of the pedestrian street, we made our way through the Russian quarter’s less-trafficked alleyways which, unlike the restored and admired Zhongyang Street, were full of crumbling edifices whose influence had seemingly been lost along with the population that built them; a fate that the cathedral almost suffered itself.
Built in the early 20th Century to help restore confidence to Russian troops who had just lost a war to the Japanese, the cathedral stood as the center and symbol of the city until the formation of the People’s Republic of China. Like so many other cultural sights within the country, the communist takeover of it spelt doom for the cathedral. While it withstood its intended destruction during the Cultural Revolution, it would endure an equally miserable fate as it became nearly forgotten as concrete apartment buildings and factories were erected within inches of its walls, making the cathedral completely invisible from the street. It wouldn’t be until several decades later, in 1997 to be precise, that it would regain its visibility after wealthy donors pooled together their money to tear down the surrounding buildings and return the cathedral to its former glory.
As we approached the cathedral, the idea that it could have remained unseen and forgotten for nearly half a century became even more absurd as we were met with, what was to us, a work of art. While the buildings of Zhongyang Street looked far from Chinese, the Chinese signs and brands that filled them were steady reminders that they were indeed, made in China. St. Sophia’s on the other hand, looked as if it were ripped from the pages of a Russian travel book and plopped down in the middle of the large ornate square that held it. Apart from the faces moving around it, one would never guess by looking at the cathedral alone that it would belong anywhere but in Russia.
As we looked upon the cathedral, our attention couldn’t help but first go to its green, bulbous roof which crowned the rest of the structure in ceremonious fashion. Trickling down from the roof was row after row of patterned brickwork, whose intricate designs would look far more at home within the pages of quilting book than on the facade of a large cathedral. Pigeons flocked from ledges, swooping back around to their perches almost immediately in a way that could only befit a pigeon. Being smaller than other cathedrals we’ve seen, we were able to make several trips around it, with each one offering a new angle or detail that we hadn’t seen before. Once there was nothing new for it to offer, we headed back to Zhongyang Street for a late lunch and dark beer at Madieer Brewery before retiring to our hotel.
For our last day in Harbin, we would head to Sun Island to take in the other headliner of the Harbin Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. While their icier counterparts across the river were best viewed at night, these, we had read, were at their best during the day. So, after a hearty hotel breakfast, we layered up and got in a taxi bound for the Snow Festival. We’re not really sure how Sun Island got its name, but, upon arrival we could venture some guesses for the midday sun was shining off of the snow to a degree that nearly blinded us in our attempt to view the different sculptures. Once our eyes adjusted, we were able to see that the park was full of the most elaborate snow creations we had ever seen. If the Ice Festival was impressive due to the size of its buildings, then the Snow Festival was so due to the intricacy of the designs on display. There were massive ones of course, but even the smaller ones were able to hold our interest due to their details and ability to tell stories in a way that the ice simply could not.
As we made our way further into the park, the sculptures grew bigger and we even were able to find intrigue in the unfinished projects and the monumental efforts being taken to bring them to completion. In the back of the park, and the grand finale of the festival itself, was a several story high sculpture that dwarfed anything we had seen up to that point and was the clear focal point of the festival as evidenced by the crowds of people staring awe struck at its base as well as the numerous activities set up in the large expanse of snow in front of it. After admiring it for a short while, we decided to escape the cold one last time in the form of a cafeteria and souvenir shop overlooking the massive sculpture. As we sipped our Harbin beers, we reveled in the joys and sights we had seen as well as the fact that, for the first time, we were finally able to enjoy the fruits of Harbin’s winter without having to experience the winter itself.
For those who have made it this far, firstly, God Bless You!, and secondly, there were a few snow sculpture pictures that didn’t make it into the blog that I though were still worth sharing. If you care to go on, here they are:
Pictures can only prepare you so much for the reality that they depict. Just as watching your favorite actor in your favorite movie can never dull the feeling of fluster and starstruckedness upon seeing them walking past you on the street, so a photograph of a beautiful place can never fully prepare you for the feeling of wonder that will accompany seeing it in real life as was the case with the ancient Myanmar city of Bagan. Over the years we had seen countless depictions of the city on websites and in magazines, but it wasn’t until we climbed up our first temple and were staring out at the vast plains of the city and the countless ancient temples and pagodas that filled them that we were truly in awe, a feeling that would never really go away during our time there.
If we could have had it our way, we would have explored every temple that we could see after looking out from that first one, but, as we had three days and not three months in the city, we would regrettably have to pick and choose which ones we would visit. As we rode our bikes down the dirt paths that wove through the ancient city, it seemed as if we were passing temples as frequently as we were souvenir shops, or people, or even trees for that matter. Some laid right alongside the road with life in the forms of restaurants and dogs roaming around their bases, and others sat off in the distance, looking as if no life had existed in their vicinity in centuries. Some were bell-shaped and others resembled castles with their towering tiers and toothed roofs. There were ones that stretched high into the blinding blue sky, blocking out the sun and offering a nice shady refuge from the midday heat, and others that struggled to stretch up two floors. There were fat ones and skinny ones, brick ones and whitewashed ones, restored ones and crumbling ones. In fact, with so many choices as to which temple to stop off at, choosing one wasn’t so much a matter of intention as it was one of feeling. “Ooh, that one has a lion outside of it” or, “The stupa on this one has a unique shape” or rather simply, “I’m tired of this bike and the sun, let’s stop off at the next temple we come across,” were all thoughts that dictated where we would go. And, although some buildings were more impressive than others, we were never disappointed by what we were seeing for each one offered something different from the next which is what made the place so incredible. With over 2,000 temples and pagodas, we never once came across one that completely resembled any other we had seen prior.
After finally giving up the view from that first temple, we clambered down it and hopped on our bikes to head across the road to Gawdawpalin Temple, one of the largest of its kind in the city. Before we could make it through its front gate though, we had other business to tend to: that of purchasing a longyi, the ankle-hugging skirt that men and women alike wear throughout the country. Besides allowing us to fit in, if only slightly, with the locals, its light and loose fabric also offered us an airy alternative to the constricting jeans and shorts we had been wearing up to that point, a difference that would be much appreciated as the day heated up. Later, we would find biking with them to be a nuisance as evidenced by our longyis coming unknotted several times while riding, causing us to nearly flash school groups and other tourists passing by. Apart from that minor downfall though, they were extremely fun and convenient to wear.
So, with our longyis now firmly wrapped around our waists, we made our way into the temple. Shortly after passing through the front gate though, our attention was caught, rather hijacked, by a large group of Burmese tourists who had elected one individual to shyly approach us and ask if we would take our picture with them. “Sure!” we thought, “what harm can a picture do?” After all, we have lived in China for nearly four years and having our picture taken, whether by request or not, had become routine. Expecting one group photo, we were surprised instead to find ourselves getting a picture with just one individual, then another, then another until the entire group of 20 or so had snapped a photo with us as if we were statues in a public square. However odd it was (what do they do with those pictures?) we found the situation more amusing than frustrating.
In fact, before that experience we had had others exhibiting the forthcomingness of the Burmese when it came to foreign tourists. For example, while waiting at a bus station in Mandalay the day before, a handful of people approached us to casually ask where we were from. After we told them the USA they would nod thoughtfully for a moment before quizzically saying, “Trump?” or sometimes “Obama?” in a manner that demanded an opinion from us about the president in question. One person, after opening with the aforementioned dialogue, proceeded to ask probing questions that delved deep into our beliefs about religion and politics. Nestled in the heart of the tourism industry, it became easy to forget that Myanmar used to be, and in many parts, still is one of the most isolated countries in the world. Experiences like these served as welcome reminders of this.
After snapping our last picture with the tour group, our tightly coiled smiles unfurled and we were finally able to make it into the grounds. As we stared up at the towering temple and the deep blue sky that it stood in front of, only one word came to mind: magnificent. We were paralyzed by the grandeur of it; the carvings that lined every window and door and ran along every roof, the sense of timelessness that existed as we walked through its corridors past the lifelike gaze of the Buddha statues that lined them, and the fact that thousands more temples (and at one time ten thousand), many as breathtaking as this one, sat within a few miles radius.
As we moved from the cool inside to the significantly less cool outside to take in the exterior of Gawdawpalin, we found that our steps had to be taken much more carefully as the pavement was scorching hot. As we moved around the temple, we maintained the fragile balance between our desire to see every inch of it with the more urgent desire to avoid burning our bare feet (shoes had to be removed before entering a temple). Tiptoeing from one shady patch to the next, in a manner that channeled our inner Fred Flintstone, we were eventually able to make it around the entire temple before finally making it back to our bikes where we slipped on our sandals and began cycling in search of another temple to explore.
The next one we came to was Ananda Temple, one of the most revered sites in all of Bagan. Legend has it that the temple was designed by eight monks who had shared with the king at the time their experiences living in a cave temple in India. Eager for both the magnificence of the temple being described to him as well as the cool interiors (a novelty in the hot and arid Bagan plains), the king conscripted the monks to build him a temple of equal attributes. Upon completion, the monks were executed so that no other building like it could ever be built again. It is always a surreal experience to be in a place that has lasted as long as the legends that describe it.
Walking up to the temple, our eyes were naturally drawn to the golden stupa sitting atop it like a crown, the midday sun beating off of it at a degree that even made our sunglass-shielded eyes squint. Partially obscuring the stupa was a web of bamboo poles that wrapped around it, a reminder of the ongoing reconstruction efforts that had been taking place following the earthquake that shook the plains not even a year earlier. Even with such a blemish, the stupa was incredible and the rest of the temple followed suit as it expanded out from the central stupa tier by tier before abruptly ending in a two-story wall that shot down into the ground. Intricate carvings of mythical beasts ran menacingly along the eaves while their larger brethren sat formidably on the ground at each corner, dwarfing us as we scampered by in search of the next patch of shade to stand on.
What made the temple truly unique from the other ones we had seen though was its facade, which once had been whitewashed but now took on the color of sand due to what we imagined to be a bleaching process during its restoration. This detail gave the temple an otherworldly dimension as did the four Buddha statues standing as erect and timeless as an old tree inside its cool and dark corridors. As we stared at these and other features of Ananda, we couldn’t help but question the authenticity of them for they looked like an elaborate set for a Hollywood blockbuster or what you would imagine to appear out of the haze in a desert mirage. These things however, are often reflections of reality and not the other way around.
As the afternoon wore on, we became reminded that, while temples and statues can feed the mind, they can’t exactly feed the stomach and, with that thought, we left Ananda in search of lunch. After getting on the main road, there were choices abound and we pulled off at a restaurant called The Moon, where we enjoyed some curry so spicy that workers, upon seeing our red and profusely sweating faces, hurried back to the kitchen to bring us tamarind candies, a Myanmar remedy for spice. The waiters watched in amusement as we unwrapped the candies with the fervor of a Christmas-morning toddler, flinging them into our mouths and effectively extinguishing the fire.
After finishing our meal, which, in spite of its spiciness, was one of the best we would have in Bagan, we set off to find more temples. Unlike the more frequented ones that we had seen in the first part of the day, our post-lunch explorations would see us stopping off at random smaller ones scattered about before finally ending the day back at the temple we had started at. As we sat atop it, we watched intently as the sun slowly descended in subsequent slivers of light bursting through the clouded sky before finally disappearing beneath a silhouette of temple tops and mountain ridges.
Our second day began where the first had left off, sitting atop a temple, this time waiting for the sun to rise. We were warned by countless blogs and articles to not miss a Bagan sunrise or sunset while in the city, advice which we heeded and for good reason as there was something transcendent about the whole experience. Precariously perched on a ledge, we watched as the the features of the plains and the temples that filled them became slowly illuminated, their features emerging bit by bit from the deep blackness that had characterized them just moments before. What made the moment surreal though wasn’t what we could sense but rather what we couldn’t: sound. Apart from the chatter of birds, the soft, distant hum of a motorbike engine, or the subtle shutter of a camera inevitably failing to capture the moment, there was nothing to be heard. A noticeable void that was made moot, or rather mute, only by the overwhelming scenery unfolding before us. As the sun rose higher and higher, the scenery changed less and less and we decided to head back to our hotel, Bagan Thande Hotel, for some breakfast along the banks of the Irrawaddy River before getting back on our bikes to begin another day of exploration.
After riding on the main road for a short while we veered off it in favor of a bumpy path that we vibrated down before pulling off at a cluster of brick buildings sitting outside the gates of Thatbyinnyu Temple, the tallest in Bagan. Before exploring the latter, we decided to check out the smaller ones surrounding it, a decision that was met with enthusiasm by one of the vendors sitting on the steps outside who warmly approached us and began taking us around the buildings and telling us about each one; a nonverbal understanding that we’d be receiving information in exchange for business, an agreement we were happy to make as she was very nice and the things she was selling very cheap. And, as for the information, it was priceless (cue eye roll).
One of the more surprising things we learned from her was that the temple we were walking around had been looted by German soldiers in the 19th century (a fact we weren’t able to confirm in our own research). Never in our wildest dreams would we have imagined that German soldiers, before both world wars, would have been wandering around Bagan on the very ground where we stood cutting statues out of a temple we were staring at. What else had happened there that we were completely unaware of? The answer is unfathomable, but the search for it, whether factual or imagined, can give any place life and context where legends and stories fall short.
Another interesting fact that was shared with us was that the three unassuming brick buildings lying across the dirt path from the temple were built in subsequent centuries. One from the 9th, one from the 10th, and one from the 11th, all sitting side by side and, as far as we were concerned, looking as if they had all been finished in the same day. Their architects may have begged to differ though for, for them, the structures probably couldn’t have been more different. After finishing our impromptu tour, we bought a longyi from our guide and climbed up the 11th century pagoda for a great panoramic view of Bagan before heading to Thatbyinnyu.
Not being able to explore the temple’s signature feature—its height—due to the staircases leading to its top being closed off, we opted instead to just meander around its base, which perhaps was the best way to appreciate the towering nature of it. Unlike the brick pagoda that we had climbed up just moments before, Thatbyinnyu had whitewashed walls which always seem to add to the antiquity of a building. The black mildew lines that ran in streaks across the walls made the intricate features of its exterior seem to bleed together like the age lines on a carved piece of wood. It was nearly impossible to imagine it having the sandy brown exterior of Ananda that we had seen the day before.
After making the full circle around the temple we boarded our bikes and began heading to Shwesandaw Pagoda to scope out where we would be watching the sunset that night. The pagoda consisted of a series of toothed tiers stacked on top of each other with the smallest and uppermost one being capped by a bamboo-encased stupa. Compared to other sites we had seen in Bagan prior, the building itself wasn’t that incredible (which for a 1,000 year old free-standing structure was still pretty incredible), but the views offered from it were unlike any we had seen in Bagan up to that point. As far as the eye could see stretched a forest whose trees, with their different shades of green, gave the landscape the camouflaged look of a soldier’s uniform. It was the perfect backdrop for the sharply contrasting brick temples and pagodas that rose out of it in uncountable numbers. Some were big and thick and seemingly rooted into the ground while others were thin and spindly, sticking out of the forest in a pointed fashion like stalagmites rising up from a cave floor. If you weren’t too lost taking in the magnitude of it all and the details of each individual temple, you would also notice the ring of mountains circling around the landscape or the silver streak of the Irrawaddy River shooting across the mountain’s base or even the bright blue sky shining over head.
As we sat on one of the tiers taking it all in, we wondered what the designers of the buildings would think of their works of art (for that’s what each one was) being climbed upon by civilians, some of them unaffiliated with Buddhism. Or, for that matter, that their creations had been reduced to crumbling brick, worn statues and faded paintings. Our first thought was that they would be disappointed, but upon further contemplation we imagined that they would be very proud. Proud that, not only had their work lasted a millennium, but that people traveled from around the world to see it. Imagine creating something that could captivate even one person 1,000 years from now. In that amount of time would it be the work itself or the age of it that would captivate? In Bagan, it was both.
Knowing we would be returning for a second round at Shwesandaw made it easier to leave the sweeping scenery behind in search of our next stop: Dhammayangyi Temple. To get to the temple we had two choices, take the well-labeled main path or the winding stony back roads that we weren’t entirely sure even led there. Naturally, we chose the latter and it didn’t take the wisdom of hindsight long to tell us that we had chosen poorly. For starters, we were venturing out on an empty stomach (it was well past lunch time at this point) as well as an empty water bottle, which is a recipe for disaster for any experience really as the desire to survive drowns out the desire to enjoy. What’s more, not long after starting down the path we realized that it was impassable by bicycle due to huge patches of sand that made our bikes swerve uncontrollably each time we hit them, which was frequent. So, walking it was, with our bikes in tow and practically no shade to shield us from the sweltering midday heat as the temples and trees that had appeared endless while sitting atop Shwesandaw all seemed to stop well short of the path, which is perhaps why it was there. As we slugged on, each step felt slower and less productive towards reaching an end, but, as tragic as our travails seemed, Dhammayangyi would eventually come.
For as long as the path to the temple had been, it did make our coming across it more meaningful and it almost felt like we were the first ones to have seen it for centuries. While on the path, we hadn’t seen another soul in the hour and a half we were on it and, as we looked at the temple in the distance, all we could see was its ruined state sitting atop an empty plain. There were no noises, no people, not even the sound of wind as the air was heavy and stagnant, just us and the temple. As magical as the moment was, it was short lived as our thirst sent us racing towards it in hopes of finding some water before heading off to find lunch, both of which we did before circling back around to the temple to begin exploring it.
If a building could ever be described as sinister, Dhammayangyi would be it. From the legends that accompanied it to its current state, everything about the temple oozed with a mysteriousness that incited both curiosity and unease. As the story goes, the king who commissioned its building, King Narathu, was not a good man in the slightest. To give you a measure of his character, it is said that he murdered his own father to ascend the throne and become king. Sadly, his intolerance didn’t stop with more powerful family members. When it came to the temple, whose construction he oversaw, he was notorious for being a perfectionist. According to the legend, he would occasionally conduct a test that involved attempting to push a needle between two bricks. If the needle could be pushed through, the mason who laid it was executed. His downfall though, came in his intolerance of other religions. He was known to execute practicers of the Hindu faith, the main competing religion with Buddhism at the time, with one notable example being an Indian princess. Angered by the loss of his daughter, the princess’s father sent eight disguised men to Dhammayangyi where they assassinated the king in its halls before the temple had even been completed. A fitting end for an unfit king.
If the legends that filled the temple’s halls weren’t enough cause for wary treading, the temple itself was. In a completely appropriate use of the term, the interior was cavernous. Darkness crept down from the ceilings and out from holes in the wall for there were places in the temple too deep and ominous for the dim, outmatched light, making its way in from the occasional window, to conquer. The unmistakable squeaks of bats echoed out of the darkness which wasn’t the only trace of their presence as the temple walls were covered in their feces, filling the halls with a subtle, but putrid smell. If the hushed voices and footsteps of other temples were out of veneration, the ones here bore the aura of caution.
The atmosphere though, however repulsive, was unlike any we had ever experienced before and, like a good horror movie, we became addicted to the unease it created. As we made loop after loop, we couldn’t help but think how the late King Narathu would feel about his temple now: a crumbling exterior, an interior more noticeably painted by bats than the work of human hands, non-Buddhists roaming through its halls, and locals taking naps inside to escape the summer heat. The conclusion we came to: not favorably.
With our feet now caked in a range of filth we dared not ponder, we left Dhammayangyi and and rode a few minutes down the road to Sulamani Temple, the last site we would be seeing that day before taking in the sunset. Outwardly, the temple didn’t appear all that unique from others we had seen, which bode well for our sunset viewing as we thought we would be in and out, leaving us plenty of time to get back to Shwesandaw and get a good seat before the masses descended on it. Once inside the temple though, we found ourselves surrounded by paintings, covering the walls and ceilings and anywhere else we cared to look. Some were too big to see in their entirety, as in the reclining Buddhas that stretched from one end of a hallway to the other, while others were small and intricate, as in the paintings of countless palm-sized people depicting different religious scenes. The elaborateness of it caught us completely off guard, as if walking into an old, abandoned warehouse and flicking on a light to find not a room full of dust and spider webs but rather one lined with marble and adorned with gold. We marveled at every square inch, our heads straining up and down, from side to side in an unblinking attempt to not miss a single inch. However incredible it was in the present, we couldn’t even begin to imagine what it must have looked like upon completion, a thought we would have to ponder as we regretfully left the temple to speed back to Shwesandaw (on the main road this time!) to catch the sunset.
Sandals off, we ascended the pagoda and perched ourselves on the uppermost tier and watched as the tour buses and bicycles rolled in, one after the other, until the entire pagoda was full of people watching as the sun took a bow and disappeared behind temple tops and mountain ridges.
Most of our last day in Bagan was spent atop a bike as we peddled to more far off places than the closely clustered sites we had seen the previous two days. After a sunrise at Shwegugyi Temple, and a breakfast on the Irrawaddy, we headed off towards Nyuang U, the city that many of those who work in Old Bagan call home, in hopes of seeing Shwezigon Pagoda. While the pagoda was a bust – it’s signature gold exterior was instead covered with mats due to construction efforts – the ride through the city was not, offering a glimpse into the culture of present day Myanmar in a way that touring the old town could not. Women toting oversized baskets around on their heads, street vendors tucked down forgotten alleys, monks that looked barely out of primary school, and the genuine friendliness of locals that exists once one escapes the bubble of the tourism industry were all on display as we wound through the city streets. As tempting as it may be to spend the entirety of one’s time in Old Bagan, and one could easily be forgiven for doing so, a trip to Nyaung U for a taste of local life should always be considered.
After leaving Nyaung U, we made a stop at MBoutik, a shop selling handicrafts made by the area’s underprivileged women, and grabbed lunch at Sanon, a restaurant that trains area youth in the culinary arts; both being worthy causes to support if you ever find yourself in Bagan. Our last destination of the day, whose arrival was prolonged by the frequent and sporadic stop offs at interesting looking temples on the way back from Nyaung U, was Jasmine Lacquerware Shop.
Having seen lacquerware pretty much everywhere we went in Bagan, from the stalls outside nearly every temple whose prices, if inquired about, dropped by half with each step you took away from the vendor, to the more official looking shops lining the roads of Nyaung U, Bagan was seemingly full of places looking to capitalize off of one of the region’s more unique products. We even had people on motor bikes slow down beside us on our bicycles and, in an almost scripted fashion, ask us, “Where are you from?” followed by, “Ah, good country,” and lastly, “Do you want to buy some lacquerware?” before speeding off after our prompt “No!”
Wanting to find a more authentic place to get our souvenir, we went to a nearby village to visit the small, family run lacquerware shop we had read about online and were very glad we had. Upon arriving, we were given a detailed, step by step description of the lacquering process, which was so much more lengthy than we ever would have imagined. Some of the more interesting pieces of information we were able to dissect from our guide’s heavily accented, but much appreciated English was that most bowls were made from bamboo leaves and some even used woven horse hair as their base, the dyes used for the colors were all made from ground natural materials, and that the dazzling designs adorning each bowl and vase were all done by memory, with no grid to guide the artist’s hand as it made the intricate carvings.
After he finished telling us about the process, we were taken to the family’s shop and given time to choose an item from its vast array of bowls and vases and trays. Upon picking out our item, he told us how amused he was at the different ways that tourists plan to use the lacquerware. One story he told, which he still seemed to be trying to work out in his head as he told it to us, was of a customer who intended to use one of the bowls he purchased to, of all things, put his keys in! It turns out that the bowls and plates made there are usually used to hold food like the betel nuts that many men in the country enjoy chewing as evidenced by their brown teeth, or as a serving dish for tea leaf salad, a delicious local delicacy. We told him that the small bowl and dish that we had chosen would be used for decoration, deciding to withhold that using it for our own keys had been a thought!
After leaving the shop, we realized that the afternoon had slipped away from us much faster than we had expected it to. With precious little time left until sunset, we manically peddled back to Old Bagan just in time to catch the sun dipping below the horizon one last time. We stayed at the temple longer than we had with previous sunsets, being fully aware that this was the last time we would ever experience anything like this in our lifetimes.
“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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
And instead were met with this:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Read on for a poem by Kate:
Wu Yuan at Qing Ming Jie
while a jade river catching the sunlight
meanders lazily between.
We step in and out
of forgotten mansions,
Like it’s history,
we move on.
we sit contentedly,
at the emerald terraces
spread before us,
a former reality
before a tourist season
when Wu Yuan was just
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.