Klutziness on the high seas and a resort review

So, now Roman is in Switzerland and I am in the States. Here in Connecticut, it’s the coldest week we’ve had all winter. We’re talking optimistic highs of 20 degrees Fahrenheit, with lows much lower than that. The skies are clear and the sun is out with full force – everything outdoors is beautiful: frozen, brittle and glittery in the glare of the bright light. I’m happy to observe it from indoors and to let my mind wander back to the warmer climes we enjoyed in the Philippines.

Coral Bay: a retreat from the world

My last post on our time in the Philippines was about its capital city, Manila. We had a great few days there but our main objective in the Philippines was to get some beach time in, do some diving and r-e-l-a-x after our jam-packed time in China.

So our next destination after Manila was chosen very specifically with those goals in mind. We were heading to Coral Bay Dive & Beach Resort, an intimate, rustic resort on a wee island in the midst of an archipelago surrounded by beautiful blue ocean.

Back when we were actually there, I did a quick illustrated post on how to get there: Getting to Coral Bay

Screen Shot 2013-01-23 at 9.01.34 PMThis place is in the middle of nowhere; the closest I’ve ever come to feeling like I was a cast away on a deserted isle. Popototan Island, where Coral Bay is located, is inhabited only by the resort staff and by one seclusion-loving European in a private home. Most of the islands in the area are uninhabited.

Here’s the link to the map – you can click and zoom out to see just how small this island is!

Being so far from anything, the resort is by necessity – and by choice – a bit rustic.

DSC_0115Accommodation is in the form of simple bamboo huts furnished with the basics – a bed with mosquito netting, bedside tables and lamps, a basic bathroom, a balcony with a hammock. There is a generator that supplies electricity from 6 at night to 6 in the morning. Water for showers is not heated. Hearty, home cooked food is available, buffet style, at prescribed times in the open-air restaurant. WiFi is available in the resort’s office only: the goal of this place is to provide its guests with a chance to unplug and appreciate the spectacular surrounding nature.

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Aside from spending all day in a hammock by the water, Coral Bay offers activities: snorkeling, kayaking, island hopping and diving. The snorkeling is one of the place’s best features. Grab the gear from the dive center, hop off the pier, swim a few yards and you’ll be floating above the resort’s private and pristine reef, where thousands of beautiful creatures make their home. Roman and I did this nearly every day we weren’t diving. Floating peacefully just above the fish, clams, anemones and corals all doing their thing – it’s just magic!

Not a great shot, but this is one of the resident lion fish hanging out by t he dock

Not a great shot, but this is one of the resident lion fish hanging out by t he dock

For my personal preference, the cottages could have been a bit better furnished – the bed and seating weren’t as comfortable as would have liked. And the food was a bit on the stodgy side for my taste – very carb and meat heavy and a somewhat limited selection. But this was the case for us everywhere in the Philippines. This country is NOT known for healthy eats… On the balance though, the minor discomforts were well worth the chance to spend time surrounded by so much beauty!

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Moments I want to remember

It’s been a walk down memory lane going through my photos from our stay at Coral Bay. Since these things fade over time I want to make sure I get them down in writing now. 🙂

– We arrived from Manila at Coron, the only town on the big island “closest” to Popototan. We had time to kill before our boat for Coral Bay was leaving, so we got to wander the town, have a snack at a cute little restaurant, and check out the local marketplace. Always one of my favorite things to do. Coron was teeny tiny, sweet and welcoming in the warm sunshine. I wouldn’t mind going back some day to get to know it better! 🙂 Here are some of my favorite photos from our short visit there.

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– One of our first nights at the resort, Roman and I went to the dock to look at an inky black sky strewn with a thousand stars. Suddenly, the hotel’s generator broke down, and everything was cast into total darkness except the glimmering stars above. Looking at the water below, we noticed that there were little lights flitting about – fish with phosphorescence no doubt! We ran our hands through the water below the dock and little specks of glowing lights trailed behind our fingers. Nature lighting up the heavens above and the waters below!

Coral Bay's mangroves at night

Coral Bay’s mangroves at night

P1050721– We were on the island for Thanksgiving. One of my friends emailed and suggested we share photos of our turkey-day grub with each other. So me, my friend in Atlanta and my friend in Poland were together in spirit. And that day, the buffet had roast chicken and potato on the menu – probably as close as I would have come to Turkey and mashed potatoes anywhere in the Philippines anyway. 🙂

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– I loved the silence on the island. No traffic, no TV, no machinery, meant lots of space for the sounds of nature. Every night, once the sun had set, there was a slow-paced concert put on by the local geckos which was just awesome. Check out what it sounds like in this post: Interlude from the Philippines: Sounds of Coral Bay

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No pictures of this memory, thank God!

We did a bunch of dives while we were at Coral Bay. It was my first time ever wreck diving. Things seemed pretty relaxed in the Philippines; I’m not sure we were technically allowed to do wreck dives with our open-water certification. The dives could have possibly been a bit more professional, but we still had a great time and it was a good experience.

Batfish lingering around a wreck

Batfish lingering around a wreck

I had some challenges with the diving (I did a post about it when we were there: Paradise surrendered: lessons from the sea) but once I got past those it was a great time – aside from my klutziness, one more my less admirable characteristics that comes to the fore from time to time.

Somehow on the day in question I had equal parts luck and klutziness going with me which was definitely a good thing or else I may have gotten swept out to sea!

During the first dive of the day I managed to somehow dislodge one of my flippers. The thing disappeared and no amount of searching the area around the wreck was able to produce any trace of it. So I spent the dive swimming lopsided and wondering what sort of insane fee we would have to pay for losing the hotel’s gear. Happily though, the flipper had floated to the surface just next to our boat and one of the crew had rescued it. Win number one!

The bigger fail/win came on the trip back to the resort.

We were on a small boat. It was simple but I assumed it was pretty sturdy. After a day of diving, we were relaxing, watching the horizon as the sky changed colors in advance of the sunset. I borrowed Roman’s camera to take a few snaps. I walked to the prow of the boat for a better view. Trying to get the optimal angle, I leaned against a beam – not realizing that the piece of bamboo was being held in place only by the canvas roof bracing it against the bottom of the boat.

Was the shot worth it? Awesome storm clouds over an island

Was the shot worth it? Awesome storm clouds over an island

I guess I leaned too hard, because the next thing I knew, I was toppling over. My feet flew above my head, my torso plunged over the side towards the water speeding below, and my hands grasped! In some sort of divine instinct, they found their marks, and I managed to grab hold of Roman’s tumbling camera in one hand and a bit of thin rope that – thank God – was securely attached to the ship in the other. The camera and my head stopped thanks to my hold on that rope about five inches above the water and the crew ran forward and hoisted me back onto the boat.

My sarong had dipped into the salty brine, I had a rope burn on my left hand (I still have a slight scar from it today, over a year later) and my dignity might as well have been flung overboard too. The sarong that I’d been wrapped in flew over my head as I fell I have an awful mental image of my pale, flabby body in a bright green bikini flopping around for all the crew to see – poor guys!! But I escaped an unplanned dip in the ocean, or worse, and I even managed to save Roman’s camera. So I guess that’s a fair trade off for being embarrassed to the point of utter mortification!

Yay for rain!

It’s been weeks since my last haiku; it may as well be months and months for how busy we’ve been and how far away Wyoming is feeling.

Circumstance has gifted me with a quiet day today. We are in Big Sur, California. It’s our one full day here and it is positively sodden outside. It’s been pouring since well before I woke up, and the rain continues now into the afternoon, dripping down through the branches of the redwoods all around us and pattering on the rooftop while the puddles outside grow increasingly broad and deep.

Raindrops on Redwood leaves (needles?)

Raindrops on Redwood leaves (needles?)

It might seem like a shame – I’d been really excited to see the beautiful coastline that the area is so famous for. Not to mention that it appears the wet weather has been following us around since we arrived in Seattle a couple of weeks ago. But actually I’m just as pleased to have a “day off” from typical travel.

We’re staying at a little cabin at the Big Sur Campground. Everything is rustic wood and light and warm inside, making it a delightful place to hole up in against the gloomy weather. The place even comes with a “wood stove” with a gas-powered fire, which has been glowing warmly in the corner pretty much since we arrived last night.

Wood stove = heaven

Wood stove = heaven

There’s no wi-fi (I’ll post this when ever we return to connectivity), no cell signal, and aside from the other cabins in the campground, the only things in sight are redwoods, ferns and a swollen, rushing stream. I’m loving it and wishing we were staying in this peaceful retreat for a week, rather than a day.

Our cabin amid some young Redwoods

Our cabin amid some young Redwoods

But (aside from everything in Big Sur being crazy expensive) we’ve recently discovered that we won’t be able to extend the rental period for our leased car – something that we’d been assured was not only possible but easy when we picked up the car back in Connecticut. So our travel plans have now been reduced by two weeks and it’s important that we keep moving if we’re going to make it back to return the car on time.

So I’ll enjoy this time in Big Sur for what it is – a day of comfort and quiet indoors – and maybe we’ll get to come back some day for the beaches and the hiking and the views and all that other good stuff. After all the moving and activity of the past three weeks, being more or less forced to do be quiet and do nothing is exactly the blessing that I need. 🙂

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Rain and redwoods – recorded this morning; the sound of rain pattering on our roof and the metal tank outside our cabin. 🙂

So much to say

So few pictures, so little time, such insufficient internet access lately!

Phew!

The days since my last post have been chock full! We did some wonderful things back in Ushuaia that involved a lot of cold weather and outdoorsy-ness. I left my camera abandoned at the hotel for a lot of it. Some of it even involved getting over some apparently bigger-than-I-thought fears.

We’ve also been on the move a lot. We’ve left Argentina now (!!!) and have been in Chile (!!!!!) since Wednesday night (over thirteen hours on the bus to get there…!). First stop Punta Arenas and now we’ve arrived in Puerto Natales.

The days have been so full and there’s so much I want to say (write) – little details to capture before they slip through the cracks in my memory. It’s already past midnight though and we have to get up early tomorrow for our latest adventure – only recently discovered the existence of Torres del Paine but, when in Rome – or in this case southern Chilean Patagonia… So tomorrow we’re off to go check it out. Will try to get at least a few little vignettes together about recent events before the vividness of them fades before it’s time to board the Navimag ferry on Tuesday…

Just for now here is a snap shot of this moment though.

I’m sitting in the living room of our awesome B&B here in Puerto Natales. The lighting is low, the room is quiet and the fire in the wood stove has collapsed into a small pile of coals but still radiates heat. I suspect Roman may have fallen asleep on the bed in the next room. 😉 Outdoors, the quiet streets are filled with old snow; the sidewalks are miniature skating rinks that we skidded and laughed our way across earlier in the night. The current temperature outside is 30 degrees Fahrenheit, which only makes being inside in the warm all the more cozy. I’ve been scoping hotels on Tripadvisor for some of the next stops in Chile. I’m excited about visiting the National Park tomorrow and for the next day – our hosts at the B&B are lovely and the wife, Fabiana, has promised to show me how she makes her home-made bread. My belly is full of good food (vegetarian even – huzzah!) and tasty Patagonian beer from a local brewery/pub we visited for dinner earlier. Life. Is. Good…

Pingyao: the grey city

I don’t know what Pingyao is like in warm, sunny weather, or during the peak tourist season. If you go to visit it perhaps you will end up with a very different impression.

I, however, got to know it over two and a half cool, misty November days, when visitors seemed to congregate only around the main sights, and most of the streets we wandered were peopled by handfuls of locals going peacefully about their daily business. In my memory, it exists as a quiet place, embraced doubly: first by the thick stone walls (ten meters high!!) that circle and keep watch over the city, and secondly by the seemingly ever-present clouds and mists that hang low over the roofs and slink down the streets, muffling sound, muting light, softening the edges off of everything.

All is rock and fog, grey brick and dark wood, with only sporadic bursts of red lanterns, bright vegetable stands or colorful tiles along temple roofs to remind you that you haven’t somehow landed in an old black and white movie.

To me the shades of the past centuries linger in this place like so much mist. The city is worn, in the best possible way – frayed to softness, smoothness, with traces everywhere of the hands, the work, the people, the times that wore away at this grey stone city. Spend a little time in Pingyao and you can’t help but wonder about all the lives and centuries the city has seen, about the gentle ghosts of the past that linger there today.

The travel-type details

Hotel

We took an overnight train from Beijing (thanks to Roman, who had to enlist the help of a friendly English-speaking hairdresser to help him book our tickets) to get there. It was an easy trip since we both were able to sleep on the train (more details about the train on Roman’s Everlater if you want to know more).

We’d sprung for a nicer hotel, which sent a driver to pick us up from our early morning drop off at the train station. A short ride brought us through the city gates and around some twists and turns to the front gate of the Yide Hotel. I loved – LOVED – staying here. It’s my favorite hotel in China after the Wisdom Inn.

I missed taking any photos of our room, but here is courtyard and a view of the door to our room

The hotel is a beautifully renovated courtyard house, originally built in 1736 – 40 years before the America declared its independence! I didn’t manage to get any photos of our room, but it provided a nice marriage of tradition and comfort, plus it was toasty warm and wonderfully clean so I was a happy camper.

The hotel courtyard lit by lanterns at night – silent, dark, and oh so atmospheric!

Sights

Pingyao is not that big and it’s possible to walk to all of its sights. We took a nice stroll one day on the city wall. I mentioned this in the last post, but it’s worth repeating: the wall was built around 1370. This is some seriously ancient architecture. Only a small portion has been rebuilt; most of it is still original, which is just amazing to think about. Deep grooves in the stone road leading into the city’s Lower West gate were created by years upon years’ worth of carts traveling along the path. Mind blowing.

The city’s wall (left) is higher than most its buildings

Look ma, no guard rails! Roman goofing around..

We had the wall nearly entirely to ourselves for most of the time and being ten meters up gave a fantastic vantage point to take in the monochromatic mosaic of Pingyao’s tiled roofs and stone streets. I also got a kick out of the fact that there were no guard rails what so ever on the inward-facing wall. You know you’re not in America anymore when…. 😉

We visited many of the city’s Confucian Temples. Unlike the Buddhist temples in southeast Asia, I found it consistently tough to connect to any of the Confucian Temples we visited. They certainly are dramatic and impressive, with all their dark wood, dim rooms, swirling incense and fantastical statues. For me, like Taoist temples, they tend to waver between intriguingly foreign/exotic and off-puttingly kitsch/creepy. I enjoyed these temples more than some of the Taoist ones we visited in Vietnam, but the vibe doesn’t melt my heart, like some of the Buddhist temples we’ve been able to visit. Still, it was awesome to see these living spaces of history – the temples are still actively used by the community today and many of them are insanely old.

I did love visiting the Rishengchang Financial House Museum though. China’s first ever draft bank (established in a dye shop in 1823) is now an awesome little museum that gives an interesting glimpse into life for its employees during the 1800s and the beginnings of banking in the country. Pingyao played a major role as a banking center along the Silk Road. Having seen bits of the Silk Road in Xinjiang (which felt geographically so very far away to us at that point, and we’d gotten there and back by the modern day convenience of air travel) it was astounding to think of exotic goods traveling all that way having an impact on and being affected by the efficient bankers of this orderly little walled city.

Yunnan tour: first stop, Lijiang

Ok, back to China! As I mentioned, our first stop in Yunnan province was Lijiang/Shuhe.

Accommodation notes

After swinging by the tourist office in Guilin to (thankfully!) pick up our passports with their extended visas, we flew in to Lijiang’s airport and arrived late at night in Shuhe.

We knew to expect a colder climate in northern Yunnan. We’d read in the guidebook how many hotels in that part of the province provide electric blankets since they typically don’t have heat. I was super excited to crank ours up and get cozy in bed shortly after we arrived at The Bruce Chalet in Shuhe – it was definitely a necessary luxury as far as I was concerned! 🙂

We’d read good reviews about Bruce’s online and we were happy with it. The rooms were small but cute and cozy, the bed was great – one of the nicest and most comfortable ones we found in China (land of notoriously hard beds) – and Bruce, the owner, was helpful in coordinating transport and providing information for our hike at Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Lijiang’s old town: pretty plastic and glimpses of Naxi traditions

Because of our limited time, we spent our first full day checking out Lijiang, leaving exploration of Shuhe for when we returned from our little trip to Tiger Leaping Gorge and Zhongdian. Bruce arranged transport for us to get in to Lijiang – by taxi the ride wasn’t too long and was cheap enough.

Lijiang is a convenient gateway for mountains of Northwest Yunnan. The old town is meant to be very picturesque and I was imagining a gnarly, well-worn, overgrown mountain town – maybe like a Chinese version of a somewhat developed Mcleod Ganj or something.

The old section of town was awarded status as a UN World Heritage Site in 1999, and it seems like the locals, or some board of tourism somewhere in China anyhow, decided to capitalize on this fact.

While the buildings, canals and alleyways of the old town today ARE beautiful, there’s little real life happening outside of the tourist trade (of which there is PLENTY – literally every building is either a hotel, a restaurant catering for tourists or a shop targeting tourists with “local” mass produced goods and plenty of generic and often pointless China-themed souvenirs) and the whole scene feels pretty sterile and Disney-fied.

Plus, while you can maybe see the start of mountains from certain vantage points, the town itself is pretty flat. Mcleod Ganj it certainly is not!

Here’s a snapshot of one of the squares in the center of the old town. Yes it’s busy, but all those people are Chinese tourists, most of them parts of lumbering tour groups, rather than locals. Please note that this is MUCH less crowded than the main square, which seemed to be THE favorite congregation and coordination point for all those tour groups…

If you can handle the crowds, Lijiang does have certain charms, but I’m glad we erred on the side of caution and stayed outside of the city in a smaller, less developed town not too far away. Not that Shuhe hasn’t been affected by tourism too, but it didn’t feel quite so plastic as Lijiang’s old town.

Lijiang has traditionally been home to the ethnic group the Naxis, who were traditionally a matriarchal society and who developed a beautiful pictographic script which is apparently the only hieroglyphic language still being used today. For all my feminist linguists out there, according to Lonely Planet:

There are strong matriarchal influences in the Naxi language. Nouns enlarge their meaning when the word for ‘female’ is added; conversely, the addition of the word for ‘male’ will decrease the meaning. For example, ‘stone’ plus ‘female’ conveys the idea of a boulder; ‘stone’ plus ‘male’ conveys the idea of a pebble.

Which of course I think is awesome. 🙂

This writing was on a wall outside the more touristy section of the old town. The text on the left is Chinese, but the larger characters on the right are Naxi pictographs. No idea what it all says…

The Naxis, as many of the ethnic minorities in China, have a beautiful and distinctive traditional way of dressing. We saw some people wearing traditional outfits while we were in Yunnan; in Lijiang’s Old Town the women in traditional garb were inevitably in the tourist business but outside of the Old Town it was great seeing folks in this traditional clothing just doing normal, every-day stuff. (Some content and pictures about minority garb from my favorite Chinese fashion blog here, here and here)

Water is an important part of traditional life in and around Lijiang. The Old Town is laced with beautiful little canals that were – and sometimes, although less frequently, still are – used by locals in daily life for things like washing clothing.

Of course tourist towns do offer some advantages; we were happy to find the Well Bistro in the thick of the old town’s winding streets whose friendly staff served up Lavazza coffee – give me a decent latte and I am a happy girl! 😉

On the flip side, there were some other for-tourist-delicacies that I found somewhat less appealing. Apparently yak is a thing in Yunnan. There was loads of different kinds of yak meats for sale all over town. Here are some cured yak ribs:

And I’m not sure if I really want to know what part of a yak these things are:

On that appetizing note, I think I’ll finish up on Lijiang for the night. Back in the present/Australia, we had a beautiful day here on the Great Ocean Road but now night’s turned really cold and it’s time for me to try and warm up in our camper bed. 🙂 Goodnight folks!

Dazhai & Dragon’s Backbone travel notes

We only spent three nights in the small corner of China that is Dazhai and I’ve already done more than that number of posts on the place. Clearly it’s got a special place in my heart – but it’s definitely time to move on!

Before we arrive at our next stop (a new province, no less!) here are just a couple of notes for anyone who might want to visit the Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces.

Accommodation notes

Staying at the lovely Wisdom Inn was one of the factors that made Dazhai so magical for me and this hotel has joined the ranks of my short list of most-favorite-places we stayed during our entire trip so far.

The place is run by Sandy and her mother, both of whom are soft-spoken, gracious and welcoming. The inn is simple, with a big open room downstairs where you can eat a meal or have a cup of coffee or join Sandy’s mom playing video games. 🙂

Rustic charm

Upstairs are the bedrooms – simple and rustic but pristine and covering all the basics you could need. The beds with their fluffy duvets were the most comfortable I experienced in China (which is known for its rock-hard mattresses). The water in the newly-furnished bathroom was wonderfully piping hot – a very nice thing during those crisp autumn mornings and nights.

Simple but pristine bathrooms

 

 

I’ve shared a few more details about the place in an earlier post. Suffice to say, while it’s not the fanciest place we’ve stayed, there is something about it – some magic combination of the setting, the peace, the simplicity and the thoughtfulness of Sandy – that made me feel instantly and completely at home there.

One other plus – the Inn is just a short walk from the village gate, which is where all cars have to stop. So if you’re arriving with heavy bags, you won’t have to lug them all that far. 😉

Hiking in and around Dazhai

The hiking in this area is very accessible. For sure you need to have a bit of a sense of direction and at least a mild degree of fitness, but there are plenty of shorter trails that you can enjoy at a leisurely pace. An hour’s hike or a day’s are equally possible and enjoyable here.

The trails are quite well signposted, and some stops along the way even have handy maps and placards explaining local myths. I couldn’t find print versions of maps anywhere, but this photo is high resolution so you can click if you want to study the paths a bit more close-up. Don’t ask me what’s at the Mercedes symbol; we didn’t make it that far. 😉

We loved seeing the rice paddies in the fall, but there should be interesting and beautiful things to see no matter what time of the year it is. Although if you are planning to visit in the winter, do plan ahead a bit as that’s the low season and not all hotels will be open, etc.

Food, funerals and fireworks

It’s really time to leave Yangshuo for our next stop in China, but before I finish up with this place I wanted to share our food and accommodation notes plus a little something extra.

Accommodation and food notes

After leaving Omeida, we decided to treat ourselves and went upscale at a hotel called the River View Hotel. It was expensive for our budget (around RMB 250 per night, or USD 40) but it was also the first nice place we stayed since arriving in mainland China.

A big, clean, comfortable bed, Western style toilets in a perfectly clean bathroom, our own private balcony. All of these made a nice change after the hotels we experienced in Xinjiang and the squat-style toilet and spartan room at Omeida. Also great was the location: the river view was nice enough but having our favorite coffee shop just a few doors down was the real treat. 🙂

MingYuan Café is listed in Lonely Planet. It’s a cute little café with eclectic decoration and probably the best espresso/espresso drinks we had in all of mainland China. …Thinking about it… Yes, THE best espresso we had on the mainland for sure. Unconventional but awesome tiramisu and cheesecake too! We practically lived at this place and it’s a super spot for studying Chinese.

Other favorites included Kelly’s which I wrote about earlier, and Pure Lotus Vegetarian Restaurant, where we ordered a whole mess of different things from the huge menu, and each and every one of them were delicious.
Traveler’s note: There are tons of restaurants in Yangshuo. We tried a fair amount of them and most of them were fairly average – catering to tourists who probably won’t stay long enough to be picky. There are probably other gems out there though that we didn’t get to!

A word of warning

Another random note to travelers – like most hot spots in China, visit Yangshuo during the national holiday week at your own peril!!

We were still in class when the holiday and its thousands upon thousands of giddy Chinese tourists descended upon the place. Suddenly the streets around Omeida were filled to the brim with wobbly tandem bikes (parents with a small child strapped precariously to a seat strapped precariously to the bike bar, couples in matching outfits, young men with flower garlands resting on their brows) heading out to the countryside, while the hawkers around the tourist center redoubled their efforts and the alleyways swelled with tour groups in matching neon hats obediently bobbing along after flags on sticks fluttering above the crowds…

Consider yourselves warned. 😉

The unconventional alarm clock

While we were students at the Omeida Academy in Yangshuo, we lived in a dorm room in the residential part of town. We were on the 2nd floor (1st floor if you’re European – one above the ground floor) of an apartment building filled with a mix of locals and students, with our window facing out on to the sidewalk and broad street below.

One morning early we nearly tumbled out of bed when we were awoken by the tremendous cacophony of hundreds upon hundreds of small but potently loud fire crackers being set up directly below our open window. Blearily peeking out, we could see a crowd gathering in front of the building below.
We asked our teacher about it at class that morning and it turned out an elderly man from the building next door had just died, and what we had witnessed was the start of his funeral ceremony.

By the time our morning class was over, more mourners plus a band had gathered. People were wearing white tissue paper over their clothes and playing cards at tables set up under a tent on the sidewalk. The band would start up every once in a while and someone took it upon themselves to light another round of fire crackers every once in a while.

It was all very interesting and we felt lucky to have a glimpse into this cultural tradition. That is, until the sun started to set and we realized that we were in for a late evening of lurchy-sounding music and fireworks that all sounded close enough to have been taking place on the edge of our bed.

The next day we found out – first hand – that traditional Chinese funerals are a multi-day affair. The noise – I mean celebrations – kicked off around 6:30 in the morning and tended to carry on until close to midnight. The final night there was a crescendo, with no fewer than three bands and one performance troupe participating, and lots of drunk, theatrical, karaoke-style singing.

I don’t mean to be disrespectful of local traditions, but we sure didn’t sleep enough that week and it was with equal parts fascination and relief when early the next morning we watched from our window as there was a last hurrah and the colorful casket was carried down the street, followed by dancing dragons, musicians, mourners and plenty of fireworks.

So, in case you ever wondered what a Chinese funeral might sound like, here are some sound bites. (I especially get a kick out of the car alarms at the end of the second one… 😉 )

Chinese funeral 1

Percussion!

Getting to Coral Bay

Just to give you a sense of where we are and how we got here… 🙂

Start off in urban Manila

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Hop in a plane, fly over amazing, verdant islands and deep blue seas…

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…Until you approach Busuanga Island. Note the lack of urbanization

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Land on the island’s little airport

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Drive to the island’s one proper town, Coron

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From Coron, drive the bumpy path through the jungles to an isolated little dock

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Take a boat ride for about an hour…

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…until you arrive at Coral Bay’s dock

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Find yourself a hammock – you’ve arrived. 🙂

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Xinjiang travel notes

Tour company and other links

We arranged our tour with Abdul Wahab Tours and I can definitely recommend them. I found out about them from the Far West China site but they’re also listed in the latest Lonely Planet. We went for a featured discount package, which was excellent value for money. Other packages were more expensive but if you can afford it I think it’s a fair exchange for the experience.

Coordinating the trip from Hong Kong, everyone we were in contact with was responsive, professional, helpful. We met Abdul himself a few times while we were in Kashgar and he was really great – friendly, helpful, enthusiastic, although a bit harried as it was still high season and he had lots of tours coming through.

I’ve written a bit more about the experience of traveling with a tour guide here.  For me personally, I was grateful to be able to show up and just focus on the experience given the limited amount of time we had in the province. I think we could have managed to arrange a good amount of the stops from the tour ourselves, but it would have taken a good deal of time and effort. Traveling with AWT, we were able to get so much more out of that one week.

For a bit more background and color about Xinjiang:
http://www.farwestchina.com/
http://www.thenewdominion.net/
http://compound-eye.org/rogc/xinjiang/xj-music-pro/comps/mffts-vol1/

Accommodation overview

Xinjiang was our first stop in mainland China. After the plush comforts and modernity of Hong Kong, we knew to brace ourselves, and coming in with the right expectations definitely helped on the accommodation front.

We stayed at hotels in Kashgar, Tashkurgan and Urumqi. All three were expensive based on what we’d gotten used to paying throughout Southeast Asia. What would have gotten us a modern, clean, relatively luxurious room in most places we’ve been so far paid for rooms that were hard-used and in desperate need of a good scrubbing.

Rusting bathroom fixtures, mildew darkened shower curtains, falling-apart furniture, carpets that looked like they’d absorbed about half a century’s worth of grime, unfinished paint jobs, smoky hallways, broken tiles, dark rooms… Xinjiang hotels are POOR value for money, but there doesn’t seem to be all that much to choose from so I was just got grateful that the linens were clean and got back to loving everything outside the hotel doors. 🙂

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Our tastefully (?) decorated room in Kashgar

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Bathroom in Tashkurgan

Where we stayed

Seman Binguan Hotel in Kashgar
Kitsch is the word! RMB 240/night (around USD 38)

Pamir Hotel in Tashkurgan
Dark and charmless but could have been worse. I think it was around RMB 260/night (around USD 40)

Yilisha Hotel in Urumqi
The best of the three but still very “worn”, in a decent location though. RMB 290/night. (around USD 45)

Food

I’m afraid I don’t know the names of any of the local places we ate at. I have to say, unlike the cuisine of many of the places we’ve visited, Uyghur food didn’t thrill me. I loved the bread and the wonderful local pomegranates. If you’re heavy into lamb and mutton though, Xinjiang is the place for you.

Two western food places I can recommend:

Karakorum Café in Kashgar
The food isn’t amazing but it’s decent, there’s free wifi, the staff are friendly, the vibe is chill. Lonely Planet claims theirs is the cleanest bathroom in all of Xinjiang. I didn’t visit enough WCs to be able to substantiate or repudiate this assertion, but it was certainly the cleanest, nicest, best smelling bathroom I saw in the province by far, and boy did it make for a nice change! 😉

Texas Café in Urumqi
Also in Lonely Planet, if you don’t walk in expecting real TexMex food then you’ll be fine. They do a decent job with the ingredients they can get, it’s cute, friendly and cozy and again comes with wifi. And I was overjoyed to have rice and beans again for the first time in aaages!

Tiger leaping gorge: my two cents

This is a post for any normal person wondering whether they should hike the gorge or not. If you’re regular trekker and know what you’re doing, you probably don’t need this advice. 🙂

Wondering how challenging hiking the Gorge really is? So were we…

Roman and I may have been living in Switzerland, but neither of us are serious hikers. But I’m crazy about mountains and we love the outdoors so were interested in doing the hike through Tiger Leaping Gorge in the northwest of Yunnan province. Lonely Planet raved and was encouraging about it but also had this to say about the hike:

“The gorge trek is not to be taken lightly. Even for those in good physical shape, it’s a work out… A few people … have died in the gorge. Over the last decade, there have also been cases of travellers being assaulted on the trail. As always, it’s safer in all ways not to do the trek alone.”

This advice gave us pause and we decided to do some internet research to see what we were potentially getting ourselves into.

We found a lot of info and blog entries; none of it made things any clearer. Some people made the hike sound like the biggest challenge and a life-changing event, others painted it as a piece of cake.

Having hiked it myself now, I’ll jump into the muddle and add my own, hopefully helpful, perspective.

The bottom line

Just to paint the picture, Roman and I are in our early thirties. We are healthy and in decent shape but not massively fit or sporty. (Going into the hike, I even had a cold.) For us, hiking the Gorge was totally manageable.

There are a couple of challenging sections but we paced ourselves for those and were fine. There were also a lot of flat, easy-going sections. There were some bits on the second day that made me glad it wasn’t raining. That would have been do-able even if it was slick but doing it safely would have made for slow, muddy hiking.

We shared parts of the trail with a lovely French couple. I would guess they were in their sixties and they often out-paced us (I blame my cold! 😉 ).

So if you are considering doing the hike and are reasonably fit I would totally encourage you to do so.

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Some bits of the trail are wonderfully flat and totally easy

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Some are more of a scramble. This is looking up after just coming down the steep, rocky path. Ok when it’s dry, would have been tough if it was raining…

Things that might be helpful to know

We did the hike in October, so my advice is based on doing the trail in autumn. Other advice might apply to spring and summer. 🙂

– It is possible to hire guides but the trail is clearly marked with blue and yellow signs and spray painted arrows and advertising from the various guesthouses along the way. We had no problem finding our own way – just keep your eyes open and you’ll be fine.

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Signs along the way on the trail, each of them with the same spelling mistake 😉

– We were told that the drive from Lijiang to the start of the trail would take about an hour; it ended up taking two. The later start meant that it would have been tight for us to reach the halfway point before dark. We weren’t bothered by stopping at an earlier guesthouse, but some people might want/need to get to the halfway point on the first day. You DON’T want to hike the Gorge in the dark.
If you are there at a time of the year when there are fewer hours of light in the day, make sure you start early enough. The drive from Zhongdian/Shangrila was also about two hours. (Maybe both drives will go faster for you, but it’s China – when we were returning from Zhongdian the bus ride between Tiger Leaping Gorge and Lijiang actually took closer to 2 hours 40 minutes when we had to stop for a half hour at one point for no apparent reason…)
I’d also agree with LP’s advice – don’t hike the Gorge alone. Better to be safe than sorry.

– There are different versions of maps of the Gorge – ask your hotel if you need a copy. Most of them list the same hiking times between different points. We found the times listed to be accurate, based on our moderate pace (which included breaks for photo ops ;-)). (I’ll add a photo of the map to this post later)

– Pack as light as possible! I’ll include our packing list below. Lonely Planet advises to bring 2 – 3 liters of water per person. We found that 1.5 liters per person per day was more than enough, but we were hiking in cool, overcast weather. I will bet it gets plenty hot when the sun is out.
There will be spots along the way where you can get drinks and snacks but some stretches you’ll be walking for a while with nothing in sight but the beautiful nature, so it’s definitely good to err on the side of caution with water and I’d have at least a Snickers (sold everywhere in and around the gorge) or some fruit with you in case of and energy lull.

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Gorge views, day one. Overcast but still lovely!

– Accommodation in the gorge is simple but fine. We stayed at the Tea Horse Guest House. For RMB 60 we could have gotten the basic room, which is just a room with a bed. We sprung for the deluxe room at RMB 180, which came with an en suite bathroom (western toilet, shower, sink), soap, TP, towels, hangers and a lovely view. I used the public toilets at the Halfway Guesthouse the next day and while the view was as stunning as Lonely Planet mentions, the smell of it made me REALLY glad that we paid extra for the bathroom at Tea Horse. 🙂

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Arriving at the Tea Horse Guest House. Check out that gorgeous vibrant red Bougainvillea!

Food at the Tea Horse was simple but good and the portions were massive. The electricity cut out briefly a couple of times so it may be a good idea to have a flashlight or mobile phone with a light on hand after dark. 🙂

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Our room at Tea Horse

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Our view at Tea Horse – not bad! 🙂

What to pack

Roman and I each carried our daypacks. Aside from the aforementioned food and drink, here’s what we needed:

• Layers. It was definitely cold and wet at different points during the hike but I also worked up a sweat during the more challenging sections. You’ll want to make sure you can keep warm enough and dry too if you have to hike in the rain like we did. The guest houses in the gorge provide electric blankets but are not heated so having a (dry) long sleeve shirt to sleep in is good. In addition to my base layers I traveled with my fleece, raincoat and scarf which were essential. I had extra clothes as we were continuing on to Zhongdian – I didn’t mind having my warm vest when it was time to eat dinner outdoors at our guesthouse! 🙂
• A side note – keep your clothes and other sensitive things dry by storing them in plastic bags in your pack.
• Sunscreen and lip balm – it can get dry and windy. We didn’t need the sunscreen the first (wetter) day but I was happy to have it the second.
• Tissues. I needed tons because of my cold but these are always a good thing to have on you – never know when the toilet you’re using won’t have TP.
• Basic toiletries only. You’re gonna get sweaty and dirty anyhow…
• Only the essentials of our valuables. We kept the laptops at our hotel back in Lijiang with no problem. Of course you have to feel comfortable with the hotel that’s keeping your stuff…
• Camera – worth the extra weight!

Things we didn’t use but were good to have along just in case:

• Hats and sunglasses – the sun made an appearance only during our last hour in the Gorge but then it was plenty powerful!
• A change of clothes – our rain coats did the trick and kept us dry but it would have been pretty miserable going if our clothes were really wet.
• Basic travel meds – you never know!

I’ve gone into greater detail about my backpack and other gear in earlier posts if you want to know more.

One thing I don’t think I’ve talked about before is socks. I have a couple of pairs of Smart Wool socks. I didn’t use them tons in SE Asia because of the heat, but for mild to cool weather, they are brilliant. Your feet stay dry and warm – never too hot – and they are comfy as heck. Love them!

If you’re thinking about visiting Tiger Leaping Gorge, I hope this info is helpful. Happy hiking! 🙂