Navimag: after the hype

So here we are, in beautiful, rain-driven Castro, on the mystical island of Chiloé, on the other side of our Navimag journey.

There’s loads of things I want to write about, but after the last post I think it’s fair to do a quick debrief about our time on the Ferry.

After all the hype and psyching myself up about “the good, the bad and the ugly”, I think it’s fair to say that none of the extreme scenarios won out.

Our days on the Ferry were, unsurprisingly, a mixed bag, with the balance leaning towards the good.

Was it a miserable four days filled with vomit and regrets? Most definitely not! Was it a life changing experience? The answer is also no. Am I glad I did it? Sure!

I don’t know how soon I’d do it again, but I love what I got to see along the way, and it made me hungry to visit Patagonia again – by land – for a closer look some day.

Here’s an overview of my personal ugly, bad and good from our four days on the ferry.

The Ugly

Allegedly the cabins in the normal ship are a bit nicer (The Evangelista – currently out of commission waiting for a new drive shaft apparently).

We got to see the Evangelista when we arrived at Puerto Montt

Ours were ok. Simple but fine – but for a few (important) details, like the toilet seat not being entirely attached and my ultimate pet peeve: dirty bedding. The linens were ok, but the top sheet had questionable stains of the variety my slightly paranoid mind likes to run away with. My intellect was “certain” was just mud, but my inner five-year-old inevitably christened it “the poop blanket.” So there was that in my head the whole time to deal with.

Just SOME of the offending stains…

Our cabin

More serious on the ugly list though was taking in the reality of the truckloads of cows who were outside on the cargo deck, tightly packed and standing for the entirety of our journey. (Not to mention how ever long they had been and would be in that condition during the over-land portions of their journey). The patient, half resigned/half hopeful expressions on their faces – whether real or projected – were heart breaking to me.

The Bad

My Spanish skills!

I could just about have very basic conversations (provided things remained in the present tense only!) in Argentina with what I’d learned in the two week’s of class I had there. Chilean Spanish is a whole new kettle of fish though, and I’m really struggling with it.

I was the only person on board with next to no Spanish, and most people couldn’t speak any English at all, so I ended up feeling a bit out of the loop. I am positive that being able to interact more meaningfully – beyond being able to say “hello”, “thank you” and “excuse me” basically – would have made for a more interesting experience on board. Definitely feeling motivated to take some more classes at some point and get somewhat more comfortable with Spanish!

The Good

Patagonia, Patagonia, Patagonia! Our weather was mixed too, but we had enough luck to see some pretty awesome views – and some wild life! Check out the magic:

This is the view we had on Puerto Eden. (Love the recurring theme of awesome colorful houses since we’ve gotten to Chile!)

The Ferry docks here during the summer, but as it’s winter now, boats from the village came out to meet us to pick up supplies from the ship, and this is as close as we got. I would LOVE to come back and check this place out up close some day. From Wikipedia:

Villa Puerto Edén is a Chilean hamlet and minor port located in Wellington Island, in Natales commune, Última Esperanza Province, Magallanes Region. It is considered one of Chile’s most isolated inhabited places together with Easter Island and Villa Las Estrellas. The village is known for being the home of the last Kawéshkar people. Owing to the large tidewater glaciers caused by the region’s super-high precipitation, it is only accessible by sea, on the Navimag ferry from Puerto Montt in the north, or Puerto Natales in the south. There is also a monthly boat from Caleta Tortel.

The population is 176 (2002 census). Owing to the extraordinarily humid climate the village has no roads, with only pedestrian boardwalks connecting the houses and shops. A weekly transport boat takes local fish and shellfish products (the latter mainly mussels) to markets.

And last but not least, some videos. The iPhone had a tough time reading the light, so forgive some overexposure and blurry moments in the first video.

Views from the first day: waterfalls, water fowl and keep an eye open for seals.

And this. Was. Just. Magic.

Seeing this was the icing on the cake for me. Was lucky enough to have the phone in hand as it happened. I didn’t even know that seals did that. I still get shivers down my spine watching it – soooo magic and just awesome.

Good bye Puerto Natales, Hello Navimag!

It’s our last night in Puerto Natales.

Well, technically that’s not entirely true. It’s our last night at the B&B in Puerto Natales – tomorrow night we’ll be sleeping on the ship as we have to “check in” the night before it departs (feel certain there must be a specific nautical term for this occurrence but have no clue what it might be. “Sets sail”? Only the ferry doesn’t have sails to set. Hm.) early on Sunday morning.

As usual, I’m experiencing pangs about having to leave some place I’ve come to love. (It’s an interesting sensation, having a simultaneous abundance of both wanderlust and sentimentality)

We have a draft itinerary for the rest of our time in Chile and there is no place we plan to spend as much time as we’ve ended up spending here in Puerto Natales (unless more unexpected things happen – never say never 😉 ). I’ve arrived in Chile with only a vague sense about the country and I still can’t really imagine what awaits us as we travel north through this shoe string of a country. What I can say though is that Puerto Natales has given us a lovely introduction and welcome. It’s felt really natural staying here and I’ve enjoyed every moment. The city is the gateway to the Torres Del Paine national park and yes, the park IS as incredible and beautiful as everyone says and I’m not lessening it at all but it’s really this little tourist-town-on-the-off-season and the experiences we’ve had here that have charmed me entirely, and entirely unexpectedly. What a lovely thing to have gotten stranded here. 😀

Happily we have something really exciting and adventurous as our next step, which tempers the verklemptness somewhat! 🙂 And that is four nights, three days on the Navimag ferry!

This is a trip through the Patagonian fjords along Chile’s southern coastline, and from all accounts, it can be either sublime or downright hellish. I suspect the reality will fall somewhere in between – so long as the weather isn’t too uncooperative.

(Well, we will see – according to Navimag’s website we are traveling during the second rainiest, second coldest month of the year. There is probably a reason why there are only two other tourists traveling on the ship with us. In fact we’re bunking with them in a room that appears just big enough to fit two bunk beds. Please keep your fingers crossed for both decent weather and decent company!)

I don’t think I can explain it better than Lonely Planet, so please excuse this large excerpt:

The Navimag Experience: The good, the bad & the ugly

Back in the prehistoric Patagonian travel days of the 1980s and the early ‘90s, travelers had to beg and swindle just to stow away on the rusty cargo freighters that plied the waters between Puerto Montt and Puerto Natales. No regular passenger ferries were installed as tourism to the region increased, but the Navimag shipping company caught on and decided to dedicate a section of their boats to passenger transportation. So, these days, you can have that same experience of stowing away on a freighter – packed with 18-wheelers, drunken truck drivers and cattle – but you can make a reservation online and they will charge you hundreds of dollars for your bunk.

The Navimag is not a cruise. If you are looking for a cruise, check out Skorpios and ready your credit card. The Navimag is a quirky travel experience that comes with the good, the bad and the ugly. If you like to have different experiences and are adventurous it just might be the highlight of your trip.

The Good

The boat takes you through days of uninhabited fjords, close encounters with glaciers and views of surreal orange sunsets over the Pacific. It passes through Aisen’s maze of narrow channels, navigates the Angostura Inglesa (a passage so confined that the ship seems to graze the shoreline on both sides) and stops at the impossibly remote Puerto Eden, a small fishing port (etc. etc. – other things that we probably won’t do because of the time of the year, as I’ve been told by the guy at the Navimag office here in town…)

Beyond the stellar scenery, the trip has become a unique bonding experience for independently minded travelers. Strangers become tight friends after numerous bottles of wine, round after round of pointless card games, sympathizing about queasy stomachs (I hope we have enough Dramamine to go around!) deck-top soccer matches, late-night dance parties and plans to meet up in Torres del Paine (most travelers do the opposite direction apparently). Even though the ship’s common spaces are bare and not particularly comfortable, the crew does a yeoman’s job of trying to entertain with games, slide shows, music and a respectable selection of English-language movies.

The Bad

If the weather is poor, your views are limited and you will spend much of your time watching movies or drinking in the dining area. If the weather is worse, you can spend a day or so pitching back and forth on rough seas and fighting to hold down your lunch. If the weather is worse than that your trip can be delayed (for days) prior to departure and you can even be delayed en route if the Golfo de Penas (on the open Pacific) is too rough to cross (the guy at the office told me that too rough means waves higher than 4.5 meters. Yikes.)

In the winter the boat can have less than a dozen passengers (check!), which can be fine or can really detract from the social experience. In the heart of summer, it is often so full that people are packed on top of each other and must dine in shifts. A very crowded boat can make the cramped downstairs dorm rooms seem less bearable.

The Ugly

During the winter, when there are fewer passengers and more cargo, hundreds of head of cattle are kept on the top and middle decks in open-top trucks. They are packed together so tightly that not all animals can keep their feet on the ground and after a day or two the stench of 300 cattle can be tough on your nose – especially if you are already seasick.

However, as you should know by now, no valuable travel experience comes without a dose of hardship. If you have the time, trips on the Navimag will not only change the way that you understand Chilean Patagonia, it will also add depth to your entire trip.

So, let’s see what happens.

Earlier when we booked I was really wondering what we were getting ourselves into. I’m definitely feeling calmer now and mostly just curious to see what it will be like.

Also, it helps to remember our time on the cargo ship in Myanmar – how those three days became and remain one of THE big highlights of our trip so far. Yes, we were sleeping on a one-inch mattress, the nights were freezing cold and I didn’t shower for days, but it was just magic and I wouldn’t give up a second of it. The fjords and open ocean will be something completely different from the Irrawaddy River, and the Navimag ferry is at least 10 times cushier than our ferry in Myanmar.

So, let the adventure begin! 🙂 We’ll be offline for at least a few days, so see you again once we reach Puerto Montt!

Before I go though, here’s a quick peak at Chilean Patagonia… Tons more photos to come at some point in the future… 🙂

Technical difficulties

We went over our to-do list over breakfast this morning. All the little things to sort out in preparation for three days on the Navimag ferry. We headed out to town to get things done, including stopping by the Navimag office to find out exactly what time the boarding was. What a surprise to be told that there wasn’t going to be any boarding. Not until Saturday anyway!

It seems there are issues with the ship we were meant to be on. It didn’t sail on it’s weekly run last week, and as they’re not even sure what the problem is, they can’t say when it’ll be fixed and ready to go again. Navimag has a second ship though – less cushy than the one we were meant to be on – and that is stepping in to do the route from Puerto Natales up through the Patagonian fjords to the port city of Puerto Montt. Only instead of departing tomorrow, it’s departing in five days.

We’ve of course experienced delays during this big trip of ours, but five days is most definitively a record. 🙂

I’m not complaining though. We decided the journey through the fjords is worth the wait, and our lovely B&B has room for us all week, so we’re happy to camp out here in little Natales for a while longer. It’s definitely not a bad place to be marooned, as far as we’re concerned. If nothing else, it’ll give me the opportunity to catch up a bit more on the blog! 🙂

So that’s all the news from our neck of the woods for now. Hope everyone else out there is having a good week – where things go to plan, or, when they don’t, the unexpected is something delightful, like it is this week for us. 🙂

Days without pictures: Ushuaia

We had a super winter adventure yesterday in the Torres del Paine national park. It was overcast but the weather held out and we got to see some beautiful things. (Post about that to come at a later date… 😉

We timed things right. Today it’s nasty out which is just perfect for us. Full license to have a lazy/admin type Sunday in our wonderfully cozy temporary home here in Puerto Natales. The snow and slush are coming down outside. The wood stove is clicking and creaking gently as the fire burns inside. There are plans afoot to cook a curry for dinner at home with the owners of the B&B. I’m a happy girl.

Some snaps from right now, here in Chile…

 

And in the mean time, there’s a chance to finally catch up on some blogging…

So leaving Chile for now to return to our last stop in Argentina, Ushuaia… We had a total of four days there. The first day was a recovery day. Although I thought I had factored in plenty of time to do everything we needed and wanted to fit in prior to our departure from Buenos Aires, inevitably there was too much to do and too little time – how does this ALWAYS happen?? – and our last days there were busy, busy, busy and of course we got the minimal amount of sleep on our last night. So Saturday, our first day in Ushuaia, was all about recovery – relaxing, getting organized and gathering energy for the next four days.

We’ve been traveling for ages now and I’ve learned that it’s good for me to take a break from photography from time to time. I’ve got more pictures than my laptop has space for anyhow, and it DOES change your experience of a place when your more focused on just being there, rather than being behind the lens.

So there are days that I leave the camera behind, and I am always happy when I do. But Ushuaia was different.

We only had four days there, I was head over heels in love with the place, and God was it beautiful. I wanted to photograph EVERYTHING. And in my defense, we have seen and done so much on this trip. Capturing images are a great way to jog your memory later on, to help bring you back to a place and an experience. And Ushuaia is definitely a place I want to remember clearly.

But I also wanted my camera to survive the visit, which means that it got left behind, much to my chagrin, during our winter sport outings.

So, here are some verbal snap shots from my days without pictures (supplemented with some of Roman’s pics – his camera is pocket-sized and therefore much more portable! :-))

Ushuaia winter wonderland number 1: dog sledding

We are picked up by our tour operator and drive out of the city. Any buildings disappear pretty quickly as soon as we reach the city limits, and the views outside the fogged windows are replaced by nature. Snowy woods, pristine mountains. I wrote earlier that Tierra del Fuego looks like a landscape out of a fantasy movie, and today I narrow things down: it feels like I am entering the eternal winter of Narnia.

We come to the lodge where the dogs and sleds are. Inside is piping hot, with wood fires blazing in every room. Next to one a grey cat is stretched on a couch, napping. We are out all day and I swear it hasn’t moved an inch when we come back later in the afternoon.

The crew is organizing the sled and us tourists; Roman and I get to meet the dogs. Siberian and Alaskan huskies. It was awesome to learn about them and they were soooo cuddly and sweet. Apparently they don’t get along so well with each other, and the sled teams have to be carefully arranged – pairs are made up of a male and female dog for example, and order is determined by personality – to ensure fights don’t break out.  But they are tremendously sweet and affectionate with humans, and we got down to petting them every chance we got. The team of the second sled was younger dogs – teen agers – and they acted the part, barking and howling, a lot of talking with not much to say – while our team sat around with quiet dignity in the snow, waiting to get going.

 

Thank you Roman for sharing your pics with me. 😉 The dogs had the most amazing eyes. A lot of them had two different colored eyes. Gorgeous!

The sledding was fun – except for when a dog stopped for a bathroom break. If you ever find yourself traveling by dog sled and you see a dog stop to drop a load, make sure you hold your breath when the sled starts moving again. Husky poo is potent and you don’t want to breath in a cloud of it, trust me on this.

What a sweet face!

We sled along into the woods until my feet and cheeks are just about frozen with the cold, and then it’s time for…

Ushuaia winter wonderland number 2: snow shoeing

I’ve snow shoed before once, with Roman’s mom and step-dad back in the Swiss mountains. That was an awesome experience, so I’m so excited to have the chance to try it again.

There’s a lot of standing around, trying to stamp feeling back in to my feet, as everyone in the group gets kitted up with shoes. Finally we are off, and at first I am underwhelmed as we move slowly through flat forest. Eventually, our quiet but kind guide turns off the flat path and we start to head up hill. It feels good to use my body. The blood starts to pump and I find a rhythm to my pace. My footsteps in the crisp snow are like a yeti systematically making his way through a lifetime supply of Captain Crunch cereal. Up, up, up we go through the hilly woods. I start to forget my frozen toes and notice little details.

The delicate tendrils of sage green moss on the trees. Naked, knobbly, symmetric branches forming vivid patterns above the snow. Small but hardy leaves on bushes, spikey and defiant. The color of the snow. It is thick, pristine and white, but where crevices form – fine cracks that run inches deep along the side of the path – there is a subtle glow of the most pure aquamarine, as if snow and cold were the birthplace of blue.

We come to a clearing and that magic moment happens, when the work of my body has warmed my blood and the heat zooms down to my toes all at once. I love this feeling and savor it as we take in the view that stretches for miles before us. The valley down below, the ranges of mountains reaching out in either direction behind it. Stunning views. This place really is magic.

Then it’s time to head back down. We return to the woods in the valley where a small wooden hut has a fire, hot cocoa and cake waiting for us. Cheeky birds, like sparrows but with vivid yellow breasts, sneak in through the cracks and jauntily land on the table, the cake, claiming it as their own. We laugh and watch them flit about, and take another round communing with the huskies outside before heading back to the lodge and returning to town. An awesome day!

I loved this collection of colorful lanterns back at the lodge. Roman kindly let me steal is camera… 🙂

Arriving at the end of the world (plus a shoe review)

So, here we are now, in Ushuaia. (Concerned and confused about how to pronounce it? Click here for some sound bytes by native speakers 🙂 ).

We haven’t been here long, and Roman is a bit under the weather, so we’ve seen next to nothing of it, but still, I am soooooo excited to be here!

Stole this off the web somewhere but now I can’t find the link. Please forgive me oh internet karma!

Here, in Ushuaia, the southern-most city on the planet. Here at Fin del Mundo, the end of the world. The city is home to around 60,000 people. It’s made up of a clutch of cheerfully colorful buildings nestled between the Beagle Channel (the friggin’ Beagle Channel of Charles Darwin fame!!) and the Martial mountains.

The cold air smells of metal and snow. The white-capped mountains look close enough to touch. They are craggy and fantastical and imposing, like something straight out of fantasy novel or movie. Our hotel room is wonderfully warm and cozy. There’s a perfect balance of exhilarating adventure and homey comfort coexisting in my day today.

Arriving by plane yesterday already felt like a mini-adventure. The views were just unbelievable.

Not the best picture but is that an amazing mountain peak or what?

After flying over clouds and then blank ocean, we finally crossed over to land. Flat earthy-colored expanses gave way first to hills and then dramatic rocky peaks thrusting towards the sky, interlaced with fingers of chilly looking waterways. All illuminated in long, afternoon sunlight. The jagged edges of fierce mountains, topped in snow that glowed blindingly in the sun, sent deep periwinkle shadows running across the valleys. We descended lower and lower, coming closer to the mountains and channel. Wraiths of clouds stuck on rocky peaks were backlit in the sun, luminous halos of water and light. The channel was an expanse of gun-metal grey, pricked by points of white – choppy surf and low-flying sea birds gliding above the water’s surface.

There was nothing outside our plane window in any direction but this rugged, magnificent nature. No sign of humanity’s existence what so ever. The water came closer and closer and then suddenly we hit the tarmac. Ushuaia’s airport is right at the edge of the Channel and I think it is the most beautiful airport I’ve ever seen. It’s like landing at a ski lodge; all vaulting ceilings and light wood. And you step out the main doors and there are all those amazing mountains and the Channel right before your eyes. Such a stunning arrival!

Have you ever seen a prettier airport?

View from the airport

A bad picture taken from the back of our cab but a first glimpse of Ushuaia….

Today is a chilling/planning day. We’ve got a bit of time here and a big wish list of things to do, so we’ve got to get organized for that as well as for our onward travel to Chile. I may also try my luck finding long underwear here since there was none to be had in Buenos Aires. We haven’t picked up much specific snow gear since space is always an issue and we’re mostly hoping that layering will do the trick to keep us warm and toasty.

I did buy some boots while we were back in BA though, and I’m already really glad I have them. They’re knock-off Uggs, a type of boot I would typically never be into. The tread isn’t great and they’re as attractive as Uggs and knock-off Uggs can get (that is, not attractive at all), but they ARE warm and that is totally what I was going for.

I’ve been meaning to do an update about shoes, since I switched out my footgear during our pit-stop in the United States.

Gear check in – sneaker reviews!

For the first half of our trip, I was either wearing sandals or my Merrell Moab Ventilator sneakers. These sneakers were great and I was really happy with their performance. They are pretty versatile in terms of having decent breathability versus some water resistance, they are comfortable, they were totally fine for all the activities we did throughout India/Asia and they put up well with me wearing the crap out of them!

What they were not though, was small or light weight. For sure, they’re not huge, bulky hiking shoes, but when you’re traveling the way we are, cutting down on space and weight where ever you can is always a good thing. So I decided to switch sneakers.

This time I went for New Balance’s Trail Minimus. New Balance partners with Vibram, who provides the outsole in this shoe. From Amazon, “New Balance takes their Minimus line off-roading with the WT20 trail runner. Exceptionally lightweight and breathable, yet ruggedly capable where it counts, your every stride is as sure-footed as it is cool and ventilated.”

After my Merrells, the New Balances feel like I’m wearing nothing, they weigh so little. They’re also tremendously comfortable. No break in time required for these; it’s been like wearing slippers while walking around town since day one. They definitely have a lot less support than I was used to – that’s kind of the point of them since they’re designed to make your foot do more of the work. The woman at the shop I bought them from warned about this and said you should ease into wearing them since it takes a while for the body to adjust to less support. Of course I didn’t and all I noticed was that my calves were perhaps a bit more tired than usual at the beginning. Am doing fine now though.

In defence of her advice, I do have pretty good body awareness from yoga and all that and try to be conscious about my form when I walk and run so I tend not to slam my heels down on the ground – something that a thicker sole will cushion somewhat and an action that is not particularly kind to the skeleton – knees especially.

Anyway, I absolutely love these shoes and am already toying with buying a second pair since they’ve already come out with newer line that is narrower, and my happy yoga toes like to have more space.

My cute NBs in the Australian sunshine! 😀

The New Balance have been fine for everything we’ve done so far in Australia and Argentina. NB – we haven’t encountered much rain and although I’ve not tested them I know they will not keep my feet dry like the Merrels.

They also don’t provide as much warmth as the Merrels. Thus the Ugg knock-offs. Please forgive my fashion faux pas but I’d rather be weirdly dressed than lose a toe to frost bite (or just have cold feet which would be the more likely scenario. ;-)).

Ugg….

Journey through the clouds: Tiger Leaping Gorge

Pressing on with my China catch up, I’ll return to where I left off in Yunnan. We’d just spent the day in Lijiang and were set for the early morning wake up in order to catch a van to the start of the hiking trail that would take us through mythical Tiger Leaping Gorge. A sleepy but bumpy ride through lovely rural countryside got us to our destination, where Roman and I grabbed a quick breakfast at Jane’s Guesthouse (not very tasty but the calories would come in handy).

The hike was well plugged in Lonely Planet and we found loads of enthusiasts on the internet as well. From Lonely Planet:

One of the deepest gorges in the world, it measures 16km long and is a giddy 3900m from the waters of the Jinsha River… to the snowcapped mountains of Haba Shan… and, despite the odd danger, it’s gorgeous almost every single step of the way.

What we also found were quite a lot of varying opinions as regarded the hike’s difficulty. We wanted to be sensible – LP warned that “The gorge trek is not to be taken lightly. Even for those in good physical shape, it’s a workout. The path constricts and crumbles; it certainly can wreck the knees.”

Some bloggers described it as life changing and one of the toughest things they did; others described it as a breeze. It was hard to know who to believe, but in the end we decided not too worry to much and just go and see for ourselves. After completing the hike, I decided to add my own opinion to the online info out there, so if you’re considering doing it yourself, maybe this post will be helpful.

Just to recap though, at the end of the day, while it was pretty steep in places, and slippery since we had bad weather, it was not nearly as daunting as we had thought it might be based on what we read.

It probably would have been even easier if the weather had been better – although I am sure it would have been considerably hotter and sweatier then too. As it was, we had clouds, mist and intermittent rain going on for most of the hike. This made for a cooler (albeit wetter and muddier) journey and often times created a wonderfully mystical atmosphere as wisps of clouds curled around us – but we did miss out on a lot of views that I’m sure would have been spectacular.

The view from towards the start of our hike, with clouds moving in

Even without the views though, the hike was wonderful and I’d recommend it even in cloudy weather. The landscape was an interesting mix – craggy, rocky mountain peaks, lovely peaceful farmlands, quiet woods, bamboo groves. There were a few sections of the path where we were too busy dealing with going up (we are out of shape!) or avoiding the thousands of pellets of goat poop or horse droppings to really appreciate the scenery, but aside from that, pretty much every step offered us another beautiful view.

Cute poopers!

When the clouds cleared enough to let us see through to the bottom of the gorge, we were rewarded with glimpses of the river; mind-blowingly far below and even from our height, the power and force of the water were evident.

The river at the bottom of the gorge. Check out how small the cars and buses look!

I also loved all the mountain flora. I did a whole post on that a while back – you can find that here; please take a look if you’re any good with identifying flowers cause I’d love to know the names of some of the things we saw! 🙂

We enjoyed our overnight in the Tea Horse Guesthouse. We met a lovely French couple, Gerard and Kiki, who alternately passed us or were pass by us all along the trail. Our paths crossed once again at the Guesthouse and we had a lovely evening warming ourselves by the fire (it was a COLD night) in the outdoor dining area, sharing yummy food and conversation.

An early morning start on the second day rewarded me with a first glimpse of blue sky and snow-capped mountains. Both were soon obscured by clouds shortly after this picture. 🙂

Our second day on the trail was just as overcast, but happily less rainy, and we had an easy hike to the end of the trail. The sun finally began to peak through the clouds as we reached our destination, and we enjoyed the sunlit views as we had a bite to eat with Gerard and Kiki – who we found again at Tina’s Guesthouse, and wandered around a nearby waterfall, passing the time until we could catch the bus to Zhongdian.

To give you a sense of the scale of the mountains, there's a man walking along the path in the foreground. Can you spot him?

I loved the small mountain farming villages - so pretty!

Harvested corn and pumpkins in a farmhouse

Dried peppers hang in a guesthouse balcony

Great Ocean Road Teaser

We’ve barely begun our tour of Australia’s Great Ocean Road, and already it’s treating us to some absolutely stunning scenery. I’m determined to keep on catching up on the China posts, but just quickly, here’s a peak of just one of the amazing ocean views we’ve seen on our first day of our Aussie Camper Van adventure! Click to enlarge. The spot is Bell Beach, where just this past Easter weekend the yearly massive surf contest took place.

Some last thoughts on Xinjiang

I can’t believe our time in China is about to end! As of today we’ve been here for eight whole weeks. Tomorrow we fly to Taiwan, where we’ll be visiting a high school friend of mine who I haven’t seen in ages. So excited!

You may have noticed that during these past two months the majority of my posts have concerned the ONE week we spent in Xinjiang. I will be posting plenty about the rest of our time in China but if it’s not already obvious, I totally fell for Xinjiang.

Looking back, I realize I am heavily predisposed to like the place. We’ve been traveling in Asia for a long time now. Xinjiang is not eastern or southeastern Asia; it’s central Asia and being there I could feel its long reaching roots stretching out across the expanse to touch the edges of eastern Europe. This is probably just a flight of fancy, but it made me feel closer to Europe than I have in ages and given how much I love my second home, this made me happy. 🙂

This also might be just me, but I did feel some echos of Eastern Europe and gypsy culture in some of the details of the place. Thanks to Roman (who is half Serbian) I am a huge Kusturica and Bregovic fan, and for some reason something about gypsy style has appealed to me for as long as I can remember. Many people we passed on the streets looked like they could have just stepped out of a Kusturica film; the way women dressed (especially in Tashkurgan) – stripy stockings, glittery heels, ruffles, layers, red, red, red – was like something out of a fantastical fairy tale. For the aesthetics alone I love Xinjiang.

I also have a big affinity for Muslim cultures. My first two Muslim friends in my life, Yasmin and Kumayl, introduced me to the beauty of this religion (thank you both!) and so the presence of this religion is another thing that produces an automatic happy response in me. I also love unlikely cultural mixes, and Xinjiang is about as mongrel as you can get, and fascinating for it. I mean, how many places can you visit where the signs will be in Chinese, Arabic, Roman and Cyrillic characters?? Awesome.

Then there is the landscape. For sheer drama and beauty, I’m hard pressed to think of a place we’ve been on this trip whose nature can compete with that of Xinjiang. And we’ve been to some incredibly beautiful places. Small caveat though – I am a mountain girl at heart. I grew up with my mother’s stories of idyllic childhood in Liechtenstein, I was weaned on Heidi and my vacations as a girl nearly all involved the alps. So mountains automatically make me happy too – and boy were those Xinjiang mountains friggin’ amazing. It makes me sad to think of the mining projects that are and probably will take place there, of the scars that will be inflicted on all that beauty.

Lastly, I am a big sucker for underdogs. There is a lot I don’t know about the situation in Xinjiang, and I don’t want to discount the point of view of the Han Chinese living and working there. But all the literature I could find out about the place cast the Uyghur and other ethnic minorities of the province as the being clearly on the losing side of the equation as progress and development comes to Xinjiang. Certainly the Uyghurs we talked to echoed this sentiment.

One woman explained how controlled their movements were. Where other people in China pay RMB 200 (around USD 30) for a passport, Uyghurs have to pay nearly 1000 times that price, something few people can afford. For her, travel outside of China is a distant dream.

Another man talked about the difficulties of running his business. He was friends with many Chinese in the area but he said that once a Chinese person started to make real money they would change; no longer consulting with others and doing what ever they wanted in their adopted homeland. The success of his business was bounded by the whims of the Chinese government and businesses in the area. “Like Tibetans, we are free to breathe the air…” He trailed off here, implying with a resigned shrug all that is not free to the minorities.

Our guide seemed to harbor strong feelings on the subject; he nervously refused to translate at one point when I wanted to ask locals their views on the increasing presence of Chinese farmers in the area, but at other times his own opinions would come through. I remember him poetically observing at one point “(Spoken) Chinese always sounds like someone arguing and the letters look like broken houses”…

These are just a few small vignettes; I realize that after a week and a bit of Internet research I still have a lot to learn about Xinjiang. But three months ago I’d never even heard of it and I’m so happy that I discovered this place at all!

So thanks for indulging these numerous posts on the topic. Although we had one more stop within the province – Urumqi – I’m going to skip over this and push on to the rest of our trip in China. (Suffice to say, it’s no Kashgar.) I will do one more post though with general travel notes for anyone who might want to do their own trip to this incredible place.

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Thank you Xinjiang!

Silk Road Tour days four and five

The first parts of our tour were so full and so spectacular, it felt like we’d already been traveling for a couple of weeks when we woke up that next morning, rather than only a few days. Our last night on the tour promised to be a good one though, so we wrenched ourselves out of bed and bundled ourselves and our gear into the VW one more time: We were heading to the desert!

The Taklamakan Desert, bounded at its northern and southern borders by two branches of the ancient Silk Road, is the second largest shifting sand desert. Located farther from the ocean than almost any other place on Earth, it is China’s largest and driest desert and was a hazardous place to travel for those brave souls traversing the Silk Road back in the day. (Thanks Wikipedia and eoearth.org)

From Wikipedia: “The name is probably an Uyghur borrowing of Arabic tark, “to leave alone/out/behind, relinquish, abandon” + makan, “place”. Another plausible explanation is that it is derived from Turki taqlar makan, which means “the place of ruins”. Either way, it’s all terribly romantic and intriguing!

But I think the poor Taklamakan got a raw deal. I’d already left my heart back in the mountainous landscape along the Karakorum highway. The weather there was over-cast and damp and our time was very limited; we couldn’t travel all that far into it at all. For me there was no way it could compete with the those massive, awe-inspiring mountains glimmering in that clean, crisp, sun-filled air. I think we’ll have to visit it again in more favorable conditions!

Still, spending the night camping in the desert was pretty cool, I loved getting a bit more familiar with camels – cute with attitude! – and we made a few fun stops on the way there and back. Here are some of the highlights from day four and five of the tour.

Tombs and furry friends

We made a stop at one point at a simple road-side farm. Yusef knew of some traditional Uighur tombs close by that he wanted to show us. Simple, long, clay tombs covered an entire hillside behind the farmstead. Yusef told us that Uighurs prefer to keep their final resting place simple, opting instead to spend money on decorating their earthly homes (as opposed to Tajiks, who apparently keep their homes simple but have elaborately decorated tombs).

Just as interesting to me was seeing the farm-house we had to walk around, made of the same sand-colored mud bricks. We also met a young, inquisitive donkey and its mother while poking around. Super cute! 🙂

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Scenes from Yarkand

We took a small detour to the city of Yarkand, where we stopped for lunch and visited the mausoleum of Ammanisahan, an Uighur queen who is renowned for collecting the “muqam” (more about muqam on Wikipedia). The mausoleum was lovely and peaceful, but what I really enjoyed was the sights of every day life around town.

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The bike seat covers that looked like mini-carpets were everywhere and I got such a kick out of them! Someone in Yarkand mixed things up though with the faux zebra skin! 😉

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Outside Altun Mosque

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Ironmonger/blacksmith shop in the old town

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Yarn for sale

Taklamakan nights

The endless sand dunes were cloaked under thick clouds when we arrived at the desert’s edge. I can only imagine how cool it must be when the skies are clear! We had a team of three camels and two camel drivers – two young men who are cotton farmers in the area, but who work the camel treks part-time for extra income. Abled and Iziz spoke only a bit of English, but with Yusef’s interpretation, we got to learn a bit about their lives and they about ours. They were soft-spoken but inquisitive and kind and it was lovely to get to know them at least a little bit.

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The night out on the dunes was cold but peaceful. I loved toasting myself by the fire in the otherwise pitch black night before it was time to turn in. We all woke early in the hopes of seeing a desert sunrise, but things were still overcast unfortunately. We had another surprise though. After breaking camp and heading back to town, Yusef let us know that Abled had invited us to stop by his home, which was nearby, for breakfast before we headed back to Kashgar.

Abled lives in a traditional Uighur farmhouse – simple but spacious and decorated with richly covered carpets everywhere. He invited us to make ourselves comfortable in the main room and served us tea and bread. We got to meet his father too, who was sweet and gracious.

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Our camel guide, Abled

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Bags of cotton inside Abled’s home

The main crop in the area seems to be cotton, which Abled also farms. We saw many massive trucks, full to bursting with the white, fluffy stuff, along the road to the desert and the next day, when it was time to return to Kashgar and for our whirlwind-intro-to-Xinjiang tour to come to an end…

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! 🙂