Cultural fondue

I love me a good melting pot.

Visiting locations where dramatically different cultures, histories, languages or traditions have been thrown together (voluntarily or otherwise) and have stewed (sometimes at a pleasant simmer, sometimes a roiling boil) for long enough to produce something that still tastes of the original elements yet still is different, new and unique have been among my favorite experiences of the big trip.

India, with its exuberant jumble of Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Sikh temples, holy places and practitioners, with traditions of Jain, Zoroztrian, Judaism and Baha’i faiths thrown in for good measure.

Xinjiang, where historically disparate regions flowed into each other along the Silk Road. Xinjiang, today the province in China that over ten different “minority” groups call home, where you can walk down a street and see signage in four different scripts: Arabic, Chinese, Roman and Cyrillic.

Places like this are fascinating and captivating to me.

Introducing the Philippines

I didn’t know it before we decided to travel there as a respite from all the cool, grey weather we endured in China, but the Philippines has a cultural mix to rival the best of them.

Technically it’s a part of Southeast Asia, but it sure feels like unlike any place we traveled in that region.


(What looks to me like) a Chinese-style statue in front of the exterior of a Catholic church in Manila

I suppose it’s understandable when you look at the major historical and cultural influences on the archipelago: Indigenous, Malay, Indonesian, Chinese, Spanish and American (of the United States persuasion). Comidienne Lisa Lampinelli lovingly described Filipinos as a “weird mixture… the Swiss Army knife of minorities.”

It’s a pretty eclectic mix and helps to make the Philippines and the Filipinos a country and a people like no other! (this site has some really interesting perspectives from Filipinos on the topic in case you want some extra reading: http://www.interaksyon.com/whats-a-filipino; this article in particular provides an interesting overview for folks who are less familiar with the country’s history)

Arriving in Manila felt like entering a completely different world after all the months we spent in Southeast Asia and China. The countries we had visited, while welcoming, always definitely had an air of the exotic and foreign for me. After adjusting to cultures so different from my own over all those months, it was a bit of a shock how familiar the Philippines felt by comparison while feeling at the same time equally exotic.


A jeepney – the ubiquitous form of public transport in Manila. “Maldito” is definitely Spanish as far as I’m aware

Over 170 languages are spoken across the islands, but we mostly got to hear Filipino spoken. To my naïve ears, the language called to mind Spanish with its cadence and lilt. Even though I couldn’t, I felt like I SHOULD understand at least some words here and there, like I do with Spanish. This was a unique feeling after being in completely unknown linguistic waters in all the other countries we’d visited. And when Filipinos spoke English with us, the accent was just as familiar – I felt like I could be listening to a speaker from somewhere in middle America.

The Philippines is also the second largest predominantly Catholic country in the world. 90% of the population is Catholic and it was trippy to see churches (distinctly Catholic AND Filipino at the same time) and their influence in such prominence after months of visiting Buddhist and Taoist temples and the occasional mosque.

It was funny for me to see the flower garlands on the wrist of a Catholic saint – till then I’d only encountered these in Buddhist and Hindu places of worship.

And even though there was nothing I could quite put my finger on, somehow there was a good amount of America in the air (in the cities at least). I think Lonely Planet can explain it better than I:

“Describing the country is like trying to pick up a bar of soap in the bath: you may come close to grasping it, but it always seems to elude you. The Americans have something to do with it. Ruled by the United States for 45 years, the Philippines maintains a close spiritual bond with its former colonial master… The US legacy arguably looms even larger than that of Spain, the Philippine’s original colonisers who ruled the country for 350 years.”

And with all this influence from far-flung corners of the globe, the Philippines still have something intrinsically Asian about them.

We went there for the nature and the beaches. These were great, but what for me remains most vibrant in my memories of our time in Philippines is its odd-man-out-in-southeast-Asia essence and the tenacious, effervescent nature of its people.

We didn’t spend enough time – most of our interactions were just fleeting but as well, most of them involved a smile if not a laugh. I usually find it easy to fall in love with the people in a new country. It was easier than usual in the Philippines though, and I hope some day I can return and get to know this special place in greater depth.

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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… 🙂

Xi’an: Food in the streets and one very special Mosque

Our time in Buenos Aires is rapidly drawing to a close. We’ve been busy with lovely things and practical things. Today is more of the same – yoga and lunch with some new friends from here then more shopping for supplies, research and packing are on the roster.

In terms of posts on this blog I’m getting close to the end of our time in China too, so I’ll press on with the catch up! 🙂 By the way, if you ever are confused by all my bouncing around time and space on this blog and want to check where we were when, Roman’s Everlater page is accurate and up-to-date plus the map is pretty nifty if you ask me. 🙂

So, back to China….

More than just the warriors

We left Pingyao for Xi’an. The lovely staff at the Yide Hotel made arrangements for us, booking the bus ticket, getting us to the bus stop along the highway (the cabbie even waited for us to make sure we got onto the right bus), and even writing out the address of our next destination in Chinese characters for our future cab driver’s reference. Note – if you’re traveling in China it’s not a bad idea to keep a look out for nice people who will do this sort of thing for you; most cab drivers we encountered don’t speak or read a lick of English. The bus ride was easy enough and we arrived at the bus station that evening.

Xi’an is the access point to the iconic Terracotta Warriors, and that of course is why we were there. But before we would come face to face with that silent army, we had a bit of time to poke around the city itself.

Xi’an was quite a change to quaint and quiet Pingyao. It too is a walled city with plenty of centuries old history. But that’s where the similarities end.

The city wall, all lit up at night

Xi’an is a bustling metropolis, and though the walls are old, majestic and mighty, they are surrounded by rivers of traffic, fast food joints, flashing LCD screens and plenty of other signs of modernity. The city within the walls – or what we saw of it – is mostly very modern, with plenty of shopping malls and things like McDonalds and Starbucks right next to the most touristy bit around the central Bell and Drum towers.

The drum tower

The Muslim quarter

The part that we found the most interesting was the quieter Muslim quarter. Unlike the Muslims in Xinjiang, the community in Xi’an is ethnically Chinese, which was interesting to see. From Lonely Planet: “The narrow lanes are full of butcher shops, sesame-oil factories, smaller mosques hidden behind enormous wooden doors, men in white skullcaps and women with their heads covered in coloured scarves. It’s a great place to wander…”

Lonely Planet’s got it exactly right; it was a fascinating place to poke around – although you might need to harden your stomach a bit. We happened to be there around a religious festival, and the butchers were hard at work that day preparing sheep for feasts. Kinda gross.

Lots of cooking in the street in the Muslim quarter. It’s not the best picture but I love this out door stove. The flame was shooting out of the exhaust pipe like crazy! 🙂

Hot stuff!

Poor sheep!

Anyone for feet?

Far more serene was the Great Mosque. An amazing building and one of the largest mosques in China and probably founded in the 8th century, it is an awesome blend of Islamic and traditional Chinese architecture. A minaret that looks like a pagoda, Chinese-style tiled roofs and elegant Arabic calligraphy – it was beautiful and an incredible place to visit.

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

Snow and then

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I’m so excited! After a month back home in New England, we’re finally getting visited by a proper snowfall! 🙂 It’s the perfect excuse to have a peaceful day inside, feeling warm and snuggly as the white flakes swirl outside the window. I love winter in general but especially for days like these.

It also gives me a chance to remember and write about a place in China that made me feel equally at peace, safe and content.

There’s something about Dazhai

There were many highlights during our months in China and the rest of Asia, but Dazhai stands out for me as the one place during our trip where I felt instantly at home in a very quiet but very deep way.

When we were first researching China, deciding where we might visit, I was wandering around the Lonely Planet site, and this is the one image that captured my imagination completely. I remember shooting Roman the link right away and telling him, I want to go there.

Once we were actually on the road in China though, I forgot completely about that photo. It turned out though that we ended up having time to burn while still in Guangxi – we had to extend our visa and until the paperwork got settled, we couldn’t travel too far afield.

(Chinese visa side-note. Although it wasn’t too painful a process, it took longer than we would have liked and it could have been smoother if we’d received more detailed information ahead of applying. For example, if you do need to extend your visa within China, make sure that you fill your paperwork out in black ink only!)

The Longsheng Rice Terraces, or the Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces in English – someone with a romantic poet’s heart saw the scale-like layers of the terraces and the undulating lines of the hills’ ridges roaming into the distance and came up with this beautiful name – seemed like a perfect place to spend a few days while waiting for our paperwork to be processed. Not too far from both Yangshuo and Guilin (the province’s capital, where our passports were being interred in official procedures) and the hotel we’d found was happy to take us without our papers (usually you have to register with your passport and visa in hotels in China).

We’d opted to stay in Dazhai, which was meant to be less touristy than the biggest village in the area, Ping’an. There was an over-the-top tourist check-point/rest stop to mark our entrance into Longsheng, but after that, the tranquil and gorgeous woods and fields spread out before us in all directions.

As soon as our car began the ascent into dramatic landscape, my heart began to quicken. Lots of twists and turns along the road eventually brought us to Dazhai’s gate. We left the car behind and a short walk brought us to our hotel where we received a warm welcome from Sandy, the owner.

DSC 0003The view from just outside our guesthouse, with the stream in the foreground

The day was beautiful – an afternoon full of warm sunlight – and my heart thrilled to be in this place. Elegant wooden farmhouses connected by cobblestone paths made up the village, which was surrounded by the terraced hills at the end of the rice-growing season, glowing in the sun. The lack of cars meant that the village was refreshingly quiet – there was room enough to hear the sounds of children playing, farmers at their work, the babble of the stream just outside our hotel. I breathed in the air and felt at once excited and at peace… What ever instinct had perked up at the sight of that picture online, months earlier, was rewarded. Arriving in Dazhai, I settled into the moment, knowing that right there, right then, was exactly right where I wanted to be.

More to come in the next post but in the mean time here are just some photos from our first day in Dazhai.

DSC 0011As soon as we’d settled in and rested up at the guest house, I dragged poor Roman out for what ended up being a proper hike up into the terraces – I just couldn’t wait to “get out into it”. It was the end of the farming season; this is cut rice waiting to be gathered.

DSC 0037One thing I found fascinating about the area was the wild mix of plant life. Palms and banana trees, thick bamboo, rugged, spicy smelling pines, delicate flowers and of course rice, rice, rice. An interesting mix! Here’s a view of just some of those plants in front of a farmhouse up in the hills.

Chillies drying in front of a farmhouse


Harvest


Working at the edge of the sky – if you click the panorama you can see a farmer threshing rice on the foremost terrace.

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! 🙂

Expectations and endless green

At this point in the trip it was feeling like quite a challenge to get off of the well-beaten tourist path in Vietnam (more like the well-bulldozed, completely paved six-lane highway of tourism actually). Most destinations listed in Lonely Planet were so well established that the “experience” of them was pretty pre-packaged and ready-made by the tourism machine.

Many places we looked into that were not on the major hit list were described, by Lonely Planet and other sources we cross-referenced, in such a way that they came across as totally and completely unappealing. *

So when we stumbled across information about a “farm stay” that was too new to be in Lonely Planet but came with favorable reviews and wasn’t at a major tourist destination, we were keen to give it a go.

So, we’re not 21 anymore

The Phong Nha Farm Stay was in a small farming village in North-Central Vietnam called Cu Nam. The closest major transportation stop is the beach town of Dong Hoi. The place is owned and operated by an Aussie/Vietnamese couple and her (she’s the Vietnamese half) family.

I think we calibrated our expectations a bit too high.

We’d had such an amazing time at the home-stay in the rural village in Laos, where the family was clearly running a business taking on tourists but none-the-less welcomed us very warmly. The interactions we had with them felt genuine – down to earth and grounded in the simple kindness and straightforwardness we experienced again and again throughout Laos.

So we probably had a bit of that experience lingering in our minds as we anticipated something like a B&B with a farm-like/homey atmosphere at Phong Nha.

The place is more of a proper hotel though, a newly built two-story building with a lounge/restaurant/bar downstairs (complete with pool table) and even an in-ground pool out back. The owners were chummy enough but in an off-hand, impersonal way, and the place seemed geared towards younger backpackers, with drinking being the preferred evening activity for both guests and the Aussies working there.

Not that any of this is a bad thing, but it’s not what we expected (ah, those pesky expectations again!) and not necessarily the scene we’d go for.

Green relief

That being said, being out in pure countryside again after all the time we’d spent in busy cities and tourist spots made for a welcome and nice change. And what countryside it was!

I think I wrote in an early post that I never seem to tire of looking at rice paddies. I can safely say this remains true.

Brilliantly green fields stretched off into the distance just across the road from the hotel and whether from our balcony view or from paths walking or biking along or through the paddies, I just kept drinking in the gorgeous ocean of green stalks swaying in unison like a glowing cloth in the wind.

Low, rounded mountains framed the farmlands in shades of soft purple and blue, like something out of a painting. I’ve included some my photos below; I’ve tried to exercise restraint as most of the pictures I took ended up being simply a whole lot of green and things could get repetitive quite quickly! 🙂

Into the belly of the Earth

One day we visited the Phong Nha cave. It’s apparently a popular destination for Vietnamese tourists and can get pretty crowded and loud, but we got lucky with our timing. The cave is nearly 55 kilometers long, with the first kilometer accessible by guided boats and illuminated for tourists’ benefit by dramatic, colorful lighting.

We had braced ourselves for kitsch but actually it was really spectacular. Entering the yawning mouth of the cave the temperature quickly drops as you are enveloped in darkness. Massive, incredible, rock formations, intricately patterned by centuries upon centuries of water flow, loom to either side of the pitch-black waters being quietly parted by the boat.

I let my imagination wander and at times felt like I was being peacefully rowed to my just desserts along the silent river Styx. 🙂

I didn’t bring my camera along that day, but I don’t think any photo would be able to convey the amazing feeling of being that deep in the earth or the beauty of the natural rock sculpture anyhow – you’ll just have to use your imagination! 😉

Little things I want to remember:

–       We saw numerous churches along the riverside as we explored the area. We didn’t find out any information about this influx of Christianity in the countryside, but it was fun and funny to see the familiar shapes of spires and crosses as we poked around.

–       The arrival of western tourists to the area already seemed to be making its mark on the locals. We were greeted with enthusiasm by village kids who knew only two words in English and used them with great gusto (and repetition): “Hello money!”

–       The sound of the baby buffalos calling out to their mothers across the rice fields. So cute! 🙂

–       Stopping at a random “restaurant” for a coffee on the way to Phong Nha cave. The woman who ran the place was very sweet and her two young grand kids were adorable. I liked the random chicken in a box on the shelf that would occasionally poke its head over the edge to check out the action at my table.

–       The sight and sounds of a large, chatty flock of ducks being “herded” home across wet fields each night as the sun sunk colorfully below the mountains.

–       The gorgeous sunset moped ride to the bus station – getting to see a thin new moon rise up over the fields as we wound along the curvy roads. Beautiful! (And much more fun than the subsequent hours spent waiting at the road-side bus stop watching bus after bus pass by while ours was two hours late!)

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“Hello money!”

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Farmer lost in a sea of green

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Rice close up

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Heading home with the day’s harvest

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Sunset

(Lonely Planet descriptions of places we were considering using as pit stops included encouragement such as “Most people seem to be passing through the dismal town on their way elsewhere…” “There’s no reason to linger in Lao Bao…” “Quant Tri was once an important citadel city, but little of its old glory remains” “The sales pitch can be relentless, even intimidating. Some rowers have refused to budge until visitors purchased something.” (this for one of the more beautiful landscapes they recommended visiting) “Despite attempts to prettify the place with trees and parks, this is an industrial city through and through. There are precious few reasons to stop here…” It wasn’t all like this, but sometimes we got the feeling the authors of this particular LP didn’t actually like the country they were writing about very much!)

Quick notes on Da Lat

I wrote a little bit about Da Lat back when we were actually there.

It took some doing to get there as our original flight was canceled due to a severe storm in the area. It worked out for the best though as I got sick with some sort of flu and was better off in bed burning off my fever than traveling on the day our flight had been scheduled. If only we knew before we got to the airport that it had been canceled! 😉

The cab drive up the mountain from the airport to the city itself was … exhilarating! Our cab driver had a penchant for speed and passing anyone and everyone on the road. Luckily for us his speedometer was broken and the needle sat reassuringly at 0 km/hour – I don’t think I want to know how fast he was actually driving! 😉

Da Lat is known for its cheesiness and serves as a starting point for regional bike tours of the Central Highlands. From Lonely Planet: “Whether it’s the Eiffel Tower-shaped radio tower, the horse drawn carriages or the zealously colourful heart-shaped cut-outs at the Valley of Love, this is a town that takes romance very seriously – yea, unto the full extent of kitsch.”

We decided to take limited part in Da Lat’s standard offerings, doing a bit of sight seeing but mostly just reveling in the change of scenery from Saigon and from the wonderful mountain atmosphere and cooler weather. We also decided against doing a bike tour – since we’d pretty much only just gotten over being so waterlogged from our bike adventure in Laos and the weather in Vietnam wasn’t any drier! 😉

The town was a gorgeous place to walk around and explore though, with some interesting architecture (from the surreal, over-the-top Crazy House to the slightly forlorn but interesting colonial-era train station).

I was mostly indulging in fantasies about Switzerland though; with a cozy little restaurant where we went for breakfast transforming into a chalet-style Swiss café in the mountains, or the drink we had along the lake bringing me back to times spent by the Zürich See. (Have I mentioned how grateful I am for the wonderful time and life I had in Switzerland?? If not, I am doing so now! 🙂 )

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Entering the Crazy House

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Locomotive at the train station

Accommodation and food notes

We hadn’t booked ahead, knowing that Da Lat is a tourist stop with plenty of hotels and that we weren’t in peak season. However, we were surprised to find that our first choices for hotels were all booked. We had expected things to be more like in Cambodia but throughout Vietnam it seemed that rooms the best hotels (as per Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor) were always being snapped up very quickly.

We ended up staying at Hotel Chau Au – Europa, which had run down but interesting and spacious rooms and a super nice owner (although his wife was less friendly!). We didn’t find any amazing food while were there, but I really enjoyed the ambience and the food was quite all right at Art Café. Our breakfast spot was Chocolate Café – pretty average but the place just had something about it that charmed me. Maybe it was the fake flowers in the window! 🙂

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Fake flowers; oddly comforting

And now for something completely different

After the weeks and months we’d spent traversing Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, we figured we had a decent handle on South East Asia. We knew some of Vietnam’s cultural roots were pointing in a different direction from its westerly neighbors, with heavier influence from China over the centuries, so we arrived anticipating a variation on a theme. What we discovered, however, was a whole new melody all together.

For starters, Vietnam is highly developed in comparison to the countries we’d just come from. Perhaps there are areas of the country that are different, but in our travels, I observed only a handful of wooden houses. This was in village that was not on the typical tourist stop, and even there, most of the homes were made of concrete. There was not a single bamboo hut to be seen, neither in the places we visited or during any of the bus rides we took.

Vietnam has capitalized on its best sights, creating a slick and efficient tourist industry. Of course there have been tourists in all the countries we’ve visited. You expect and tolerate the song and dance and the crowds at places like the Taj Mahal and Angkor Wat but then you go to some place less famous and can get some space from all that.

In Vietnam it was difficult not to feel like part of a herd of Westerners that was being shuffled through the country. Most of the places we looked into that were not on the tourist trail sounded dull to somewhat unpleasant. We got off “the trail” for one destination and while it was drop dead gorgeous countryside, still we had some mixed experiences there too.

Like in any village we’d visited we got a lot of attention from the kids living there. They had a new way of greeting us though. Whenever we ran into some children, inevitably they’d start calling out “Hello, money!” Hmm…

Other differences and signs of development: This was the first country we’d been to that didn’t have any tuk tuks! I couldn’t believe it. Discovering each country’s take on this Asian, three-wheel wonder has been one of the little things I’ve really gotten a kick out of as we’ve been traveling (Northern India’s uber-compact green and yellow autorickshaw remains my total favorite!) and it felt like something was missing when Vietnam failed to produce one.

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A small flock of tuk tuks outside a train station in India (I can’t believe I didn’t take more/better photos of them while we were there!)

Although it does have the cyclo – like a backwards tricycle with seating at the front for passengers. It’s a really lovely way to get around a city – if you don’t get scammed or into an argument with the driver about the price.

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A couple of cyclo drivers observing the traffic outside the Reunification Palace in Saigon

We noticed that there were no street dogs anywhere – also a first. I wonder what they do differently from their neighbors to keep the population in check.

The primary mode of transportation, famously, is the motorbike. I was amazed and pleased to see the majority of people where headgear. The helmet comes in all colors and styles in Vietnam. There are even women’s versions that have an opening in the back for pony tails. It also was the first country where I saw any kids in child-sized helmets too, although even in Vietnam the vast majority of children ride without.

One thing that I hadn’t realized and that took getting used to was that Vietnamese is written in the Roman alphabet. Any time I’d seen letters I could recognize in Asia, almost inevitably the words would be in English, so I was used to keeping my eyes open for the alphabet for possible useful information. It took a while to adjust to the fact that seeing Roman letters didn’t equate to me being able to read and understand anything.

While Vietnam, like most of the other countries in mainland Southeast Asia, is primarily Buddhist, it primarily follows the Mahayana form of Buddhism, while in Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, Theravadin is the prevalent branch (You can learn a bit more here).

Visiting Buddhist sites in the other countries we’d been to has been one of the highlights of travel in Asia for me. For me, there has been something about just stepping into a temple that has often helped quiet my running mind and something familiar and comforting about the peaceful faces of the statue work that can often be found around or within them.

The temples we visited in Vietnam were fascinating and beautiful but had a completely different vibe to them. I enjoyed seeing but couldn’t connect to them in the way I had in other places. They were dark rooms, decorated with lots of red and dark wood, with altars full of impressive but sometimes gaudy statues. Even the incense burned had a whole new smell from what I knew from other countries.

We hardly saw any monks. The cheery orange I’d come to associate with monks’ robes in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand in Vietnam had been assigned to trash collectors’ jumpsuits. The handful of monks we did see in Vietnam were dressed in somber maroons and greys.


Monks in Cambodia

A trash collector in Saigon at night

Buddhist temple decorations

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Myanmar

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Thailand

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Laos

A totally different feel in the temples we saw in Vietnam:

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I wonder if this description is tending too strongly towards the negative.  Along with all the other differences, it was the first country in which we actually experienced the “dangers and annoyances” always listed for each location in Lonely Planet, with some flagrant rip offs on the part of taxi drivers and of course my iPhone episode. Throw in catching a flu in Saigon and my bout with food poisoning in Hue and I’d say some days it felt like Vietnam was defying me to like it.

It wasn’t all bad though and for all the less-than-positive experiences we had, there was still something I liked about Vietnam that I’m still trying to put my finger on. Maybe its unapologetic attitude. 🙂 And there are certainly positive points to all the development and tourism like plenty of hotels to choose from with a pretty consistent and decent level of quality, wifi virtually everywhere, etc.

There is a lot of beauty too: From the glorious green rice fields to the impressive karst mountains. From the intriguing red and black temples to the forlornly lovely French-colonial architecture. From the picturesque vendors in conical hats bearing their baskets of wares hanging from poles slung over one shoulder to the blinding rainbow of neon that comes to life in the cities after sundown.

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So if you’re thinking of going to Vietnam, I’d say that you can hope to fall in love with it – just don’t expect it to love you back. 🙂

Accommodation, transport and food notes: Mumbai and Goa

We weren’t sure until the end how long we’d be staying in Delhi, so by the time we were ready to make reservations for hotels for Mumbai and Goa, the places we picked from Lonely Planet were all booked out. After a good deal of internet research (thank you Roman! :-)) we managed to book what turned out to be two gems – although at gemstone prices compared to what we’ve been paying.

Lonely Planet had warned that both locations tend to be pricier than the rest of India, and booking so late in the game during the holiday season also means we were paying top dollar. We’ve also had a tough time with train transport – most of the trains we’ve tried to book have also been completely. Luckily we can afford both plane tickets and to be flexible in our planning, so we were able to sort out a route in the end. However, if you’re ever planning to travel in India in December, I’d recommend booking ahead.

Accommodation

Chateau Windsor in Mumbai (Rs. 5,000 / USD 110 per night)

It’s not nearly as posh as the name might imply, but Chateau Windsor had two things going for it.

Number one: The service was just great. Everyone on the large staff was SO friendly and helpful – without being overwhelmingly so. They were always smiling and there when you needed them, but didn’t hover, which was the case at some of the upscale places I’d stayed at during the group trip. Really excellent service.

Number two: I’m not sure what the standard rooms are like. We ended up at some place different – room 526. It looked nothing like what is shown on the website. It was relatively clean and quirky – funky color scheme and the room was made to feel bigger by the inclusion of two massive mirrors on the walls (one of which I am convinced was a two-way mirror. Needless to say I kept on my best behavior in the room, just in case! ;-)).

But what was great about it was the fact that it was the only room on the roof – our own little penthouse! The hotel’s roof is massive, and there is a beautiful garden of potted plants complete with tables and chairs that was our very own private rooftop terrace.

The rest of the building was quirky-charming too, with the reception on the fifth floor reminiscent of the office at my high school and one of those old-fashioned open-cage elevators complete with elevator operator (also more quirky than posh).

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The room – check out the massive mirror to the left!

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Our private rooftop garden!

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View from the roof

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The crows that joined us for breakfast on our rooftop terrace

Ciaran’s in Palolem, Goa (Rs. 3,600 / USD 79 per night)

We really lucked out with this place. To quote Lonely Planet, ‘Most of Palolem’s accommodation is of the simple beach-hut variety, with little to distinguish where one outfit stops and next door’s begins.’

While the different hotels were literally back-to-back along the entire coast, I do think we were at possibly the nicest one on beach. Ciaran’s grounds were just beautiful and its bar and restaurant with paper star-shaped lamps were lovely. We heard a lot of club music, house and techno, coming from other spots as we went on our after-dinner beach strolls. Happily for me, Ciaran’s sountrack was much more chilled out – perfect to suit my mood – playing artists like Zero-7 and Nora Jones and tracks right out of my own yoga classes.

Our beach hut was perfectly atmospheric. It was a simple structure (thin walls made of natural fibers meant that you could hear everything outside like it was right there, which was less than optimal when someone in the hut next to us was throwing up at 2 in the morning, but mostly great as the crashing surf was just lovely to fall asleep to at night) and clean enough. I’ve come to understand and accept that stained sheets are just par for the course in India. 😉 I know it’s purely psychological, but being out in the middle of nature though, the dirt in the beach hut somehow seemed more fitting than in hotels in the city. 🙂 The room was also very cleverly decorated, with low, warm lighting (a wonderful change from all the unforgiving fluorescent eco-bulbs at most hotels) and black stone floors and bath towels, all of which hid a multitude of cleanliness sins, no doubt. 😉

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Inside the beach hut

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View from the beach hut’s roof terrace

Food

Eating in Mumbai and Goa has been such a treat. For the foodies out there I just have to share. Yes, I realize I am obsessed. 😉

We were so happy at Ciaran’s in Goa that we didn’t bother eating anywhere else. We went seafood crazy. Highlights included the Goan prawn curry and freshly caught barbecued red snapper. Delish!

In Mumbai, we stuck to all Lonely Planet recommendations, and were not disappointed. We did take a bit of break from Indian cookery though and indulged in some of the international fare on offer in the city.

Mocha Bar, right down the street from our hotel, became our regular stop for decent coffee (although Barista’s espresso still cannot be beat as far as Roman, the resident expert, is concerned. :-)). You can smoke hookah pipes indoors, but we stuck to the breezy, open, street-side room which, with it’s cute, mismatched second hand furniture and good taste in music was a lovely place to start to our day. We ate lunch there during one of our visits, and the cottage cheese (think paneer, not health food), veggie and pesto Panini was so good that it honestly made my entire day. 🙂

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The breezy front room

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The Panini of my dreams on the left. The hummus and tsatziki platter was good too

Lonely Planet recommends Trishna as quite possibly the best seafood in Mumbai. We had nothing to compare it to of course, but the king crab I had with butter, pepper and (above all, tons and tons of) garlic sauce was melt-in-your-mouth divine. A totally decadent treat. Roman tried the dish Bombay duck, which actually a deep-fried white fish – good but not as exciting as my king crab in my opinion. 🙂 The restaurant itself felt a bit touristy, but was nice enough.

Honestly it felt like we could have been in Manhattan when we went to dinner at Baslilico. It’s in a cute, quiet neighborhood in Colaba. The restaurant looks and feels understated-chic with cute red fairy lights on the tree outside and a simple but elegant décor inside with chill, low lighting. The salad starters were simple but tasty and the design-your-own pasta we ordered was just great (they had set pasta dishes as well, but it was nice to customize the ingredients. My spaghetti with veggies and pesto was exactly what I was craving). Only my dessert was a disappointment – Oreo cheesecake that tasted neither like Oreos nor cheesecake. But their dessert was worth gambling on  – Roman’s chocolate walnut cake with vanilla ice cream was blow-your-mind amazing.

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Chocolate walnut divinity