Breathless in Bolivia

Greetings from La Paz, the seat of Bolivia’s government and, at an elevation of around 3,650 meters/11,975 feet, the world’s highest de facto capital city! Phew!

We’re both literally and figuratively out of breath. We’re having a whirlwind journey through Bolivia. We’re only in the country for a week (if we manage to book the bus ticket that we are hoping to this afternoon, that is. Fingers crossed!).

The trip that took us from the edge of Chile and through the barren, rugged and mind-blowing landscapes of Bolivia’s southwestern corner was, in a word, awesome. Three jam-packed but peaceful days. Time got stretchy. We saw SO much, but also managed to just sit and attempt to absorb the mind-bending vastness and awesomeness of nature.

This map is actually oriented west-east, instead of south-north, but I like it cause it gives you a sense of the altitude. 🙂 Source: http://www.boliviabella.com/geography.html

We’ve been battling colds and dryness and dust and the altitude. Nothing like a few extra thousand meters to make a girl REALLY feel out of shape. 😉 The temperature shifts in the elevated desert have been extreme and I’ve actually had to wear MORE layers than I did when we were down in Patagonia and Tierre del Fuego, relatively close to the South Pole. Roman makes fun of me but if it takes three layers of pants, four pairs of socks and as many shirts as I can while maintaining a degree of mobility to keep warm, that’s what I’m gonna be wearing. Yes, I am a wimp. 🙂

Mostly we’ve been laughing about the insanity of it all, including the truly insane amount of tissues we have been and still are going through a day. Gross. 😉

An overnight bus ride from the dusty town of Uyuni dropped us off at La Paz early yesterday morning. I’m quickly and easily falling for this small, scrappy city, clinging defiantly to the rugged mountain peaks. I’m grateful that we have at least a bit of time here.

Tons to write about (as per usual……), but not today – it’s our only full day in La Paz and we have loads to see and do. If all goes well we will be in Peru by tomorrow night.

But I will take advantage of having internet again to share these few photos from our time in the desert. These are some of my panoramic shots, so click for a larger view. See why I’m in awe? 🙂

 

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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… 🙂

Winter wonderland without pictures part 2, or “Overcoming my winter sport phobia”

And for my mental record, here is the verbal account of further snowy adventures in Ushuaia.

We got back from dog sledding and snow shoeing. High from the cold, beauty and exercise, we popped happily into our favorite café in town where I foolishly downed a Bailey’s-laced coffee. This pushed my sensibilities over the edge of a mountain, so when Roman suggested we forget the insane cost and just jump at the chance of skiing/snow boarding at the end of the world (for goodness’ sake!!), I was just silly enough to enthusiastically gush: yes, absolutely! I am up for it! How could we not??

We ventured forth to make arrangements and rent equipment for the next day – our last in Ushuaia.

We staggered forth from the rental shop to our hotel. I felt increasingly sober AND klutzy with each step in the cold winter air and my mind began to wander towards all the things I had wanted to do while still in town plus my last two experiences on the pistes.

The first was as a child, where I spent an endless miserable afternoon trudging duck like up a slope with what felt like lead skis attached to my feet while developing a raging fever. Strike one against winter sport.

The second encounter was more recent. Roman is a snow boarder and had convinced me to overcome my childhood misgivings and give his favorite winter sport a go. This was after I’d already lived in Switzerland for many years without ever visiting the mountains at winter – a feat I had found very sensible and was quite proud of. I gave in to his coaxing and even started boasting around the office about how we were taking a week off at a ski resort and I was going to learn how to snow board, just watch me!

So children, let this be a lesson about hubris, because I didn’t even make it through the first day.

My instructor was a sweet lady and we were taking it slowly, learning how to stand and slide on the board on a flat bit of snow, not even on the bunny slope yet. I made one stupid move and down I went – crack! – right onto my sacrum. The wind was knocked out of me and my eyes teared up as I lay there, stunned, staring at the sky. I got up and tried to get on with the lesson but by the time Roman and I had left the slopes for the après ski beer, it was clear that something was wrong – I couldn’t stand to sit down, even for a reviving beer.

I spent the rest of my ski-vacation-week moving around our rented flat like an arthritic 100-year-old woman, lying on my stomach reading magazines and books and trying to nurse my bruised ego. The worst was showing up at work the next week, having to tell everyone the story AND stand at my desk, because it was another week or so before I could sit properly again. 😛

So, all these fond memories were swirling through my head as I tried not to drop my ski poles (still too soon for snow boarding!) or impale Roman or myself on my skis. By the time we made it to our hotel room, I was having a full-blown freak out. I did my best to contain it, but it was still there when I woke up in the morning as we boarded the bus to take us to the slopes. Boy was I a miserable cow! I buried my head in Roman’s shoulder and tried to sleep until we arrived, hoping for oblivion and that this whole thing was just a bad dream I could still wake up from.

But then we were there, having a coffee, buying our lift tickets and signing me up for an afternoon class. Roman offered to stay with and comfort me until the instructor showed up but I thought there was no point as I was inconsolable and I wanted at least one of us to have a good time. I sent him on his way and proceeded to wait till it was time for class, experiencing the definition of a bad head space:

Suddenly all the people around me looked 20 times more glamorous, sophisticated, at ease and graceful. I, by contrast, felt like I was stomping around like an elephant in a tea shop. I felt ugly and awkward and out of place, lurching around in my massive ski boots. I already had lost complete feeling in my feet and was getting colder and more miserable by the minute. I was convinced I was going to injure myself again and started fantasizing about skipping class, going back down the mountain to where my comfy Ugg boots were waiting, and drinking beer all afternoon while Roman boarded. I decided my teacher was going to be some arrogant guy who only spoke Spanish, and I started working on phrases in my head with my rudimentary vocab about how I was scared, not feeling well, currently hating my boyfriend for “convincing” me to go through with this, etc.

I’d worked myself up to a point where tears were actually welling in my eyes when this little sprite of a girl in oversized ski gear, a wild pony tale on the top of her head, a button nose and apple red cheeks came up and kissed my cheek (as Argentinians do with friends), introduced herself as Dana, my ski instructor, and immediately, effectively washed away all my fears with the strength of her warmth, ease and down-to-earth presence.

I don’t even know how she did it but clearly she is a charmed ski instructor because before I knew it, I was swishing my way down gentle hills, taking turns, laughing out loud at the rush and yes, even ENJOYING myself. Miracle worker.

She is ten years my junior, has been competing in ski competitions around the world for well more than half her young life, is from Ushuaia and LOVES the place, loves the sport, loves what she is doing. And that love and passion was so strong that I couldn’t help but focus on that instead of all those cobwebby fears I’d spun in my head.

We chatted about all sorts of things and I even got to practice some of my Spanish, and in between that, she taught me the basics of skiing. She also reminded me to stop, to breath and look around at all the beauty – the light coming through the criss-crossing patterns of black, back lit tree branches. The stunning, wide view over the mountains and valleys. The color the sky turned as the sun began to get low. This is the power of a true, passionate teacher.

So, thank you Dana, for not only helping me to overcome a fear, but transforming it into something really joyful – a beautiful memory from our last day in Argentina!

Obviously left the camera at the hotel for this day too, but here are some pics Roman took with his phone

Elated not only about having survived but about having actually skied AND enjoyed myself!

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….

Mountain state of mind

It’s Tuesday morning here in Buenos Aires (post written this morning; posted this afternoon due to slow internet), another wonderfully sunny day, but the temperatures are definitely starting to head south this week, and we are getting a real sense of late fall/early winter weather in JUNE. I know this is normal in the southern hemisphere, but it’s still quite the novelty for me! 🙂

We’re also getting organized for some travel in Argentina. We’re still waiting for confirmation to come through and to sort out some of the details, but chances are that we’ll be experiencing a good deal MORE cold before our time here is through. We’re also going to be catching our first look at the Andes, which I’m really excited for.

All this has got me thinking back to the last place we traveled that had both cold weather and mountains. The coldest weather we’ve experienced so far during our trip has got to be during our road trip along the ah-maz-ing Karakorum Highway in Xinjiang, China.

Second coldest though would be in Zhongdian, the closest we got to Tibet, in the Yunnan province, and a place that was definitely worth braving the cold for. I’ve posted about Zhongdian already, but I haven’t shared photos from the Ganden Sumtseling Monastery or Baiji Si Temple yet.

Two Tibetan Buddhist sites, both totally awesome in two very different ways.

The Ganden Sumtseling Monastery is one of the major tourist draws for the area. Over three hundred years old, it’s the biggest monastery in Yunnan and is home to around 600 monks. It used to be able to accommodate well over double that number, but was badly damaged during the cultural revolution and a lot of what stands there currently has been rebuilt in the past decades.

It has the feel of a walled medieval city (if it was completely Tibetan that is). You pass through stolid walls to enter the residential part of the compound. Small but beautiful houses are interspersed with lesser temples, all of them moving up a hill to the culminating, massive main temples up the hill, which loom majestically overhead. It really feels like something out of a fairytale.

Not the best panorama photo, but click to see what I mean:

The place definitely has some touches of Chinese tourism, like a shop in the middle of the Monastery selling loads of prayer beads and tonkas, but also sun glasses, keychains and other pretty secular stuff, right next to the sausage stand…

A monk serves Chinese tourists in the shop

But we found it quite easy to avoid the most popular/touristy spots and were able to explore and enjoy the dimly lit, mysterious temples, crumbling alleyways, amazing architecture and beautiful views pretty much on our own.

Here are some photos from around the monastery. Photography was not allowed inside any of the temple, so that’s why there are no interior pictures.

Baiji Si Temple was a completely different experience. A small temple set on a hill within the city of Zhongdian (the Monastery is outside the city), we hiked up to it on our last morning in town.

A steep but short hike up to Baiji Si

It was a sunny autumn day. The hill and temple were completely deserted (not even a chicken in sight – Baiji, for the record, means 100 chickens :-)), but alive nonetheless with the flutter of brightly colored leaves and thousands upon thousands of Tibetan prayer flags that were strung on lines all over the place. The atmosphere was peaceful, the sun was warm on my face, the light and colors magical, the views over the city and landscape awesome.

I didn’t want to leave, but we had a bus to catch…

These amazing flowers really were this blue! I wish I knew what they’re called.

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

Getting back to China: an intro to Yunnan

It’s our last night in Melbourne. Tomorrow we start a new chapter in Australia as we get away from city life and start exploring a bit of the great outdoors in a camper van! I’ve never traveled by RV before and I’m ridiculously excited about it. I have had romantic notions about gypsy life since I was a girl, and this is probably as close as I’ll ever come to living out of the brightly painted, horse-drawn caravan.

Before we switch travel gears though, I want to get back on track with this blog and pick up where I left off ages ago with China.

Last China post, we were experiencing golden fall afternoons in the mountain village of Dazhai. The fact that the weather here in Melbourne has turned down right cold the past couple of days is making the little bit of Spring we experienced in the States, not to mention those lovely Autumn days in China, feel even further away than normal.

Our next stop in China, after Dazhai, was the Yunnan Province. Wikitravel has a blurb that does an so-so job summarizing a province that is as multi-faceted as it is beautiful (in my humble opinion anyhow :-)):

Its name literally means south of the clouds. The province is one of the most diverse in China… The province is famed for its multitude of ethnic groups, whose diverse customs can still be seen today. Of China’s fifty-five officially recognized ethnic minorities, twenty-five can be found in Yunnan: about one-third of the population is not ethnic Han-Chinese.

Certainly one of my favorite aspects of all of China and definitely Yunnan IS the diversity of its people. Yunnan has that and more going for it. Its landscapes and climates are multifarious and gorgeous (pun intended…).

The dramatic Tiger Leaping Gorge

Lonely Planet give this overview:

Then there’s the hugely varied splendor of the land… In one week you can sweat in the tropics and freeze in the Himalayas, and in between check out ancient towns… However long you’ve given yourself in Yunnan, double it.

Unfortunately, due to our visa situation and how much we wanted to see, we really had to be thrifty with our days in China.

Lantern-lit village pathways at Shuhe

In the West and South, Yunnan is bordered by Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. It even is dissected by the Mekong River, which we got plenty familiar with in Laos. Since we’d spent loads of time in those three countries, we didn’t feel too bad skipping tropical Yunnan and heading instead into its mountains.

Tibetan prayer flags and a stupa lit up at night in Zhongdian

We only had one week in this amazing place, but we managed to pack in a lot. Here’s our itinerary:

Day 1: Arrive late at night in Lijiang/Shuhe
Day 2: One full day in Lijiang/Shuhe
Day 3: Early morning van to Tiger Leaping Gorge. Day one of hiking and an overnight in the mountains
Day 4: Second half of the gorge hike and another van ride to Zhongdian, also known as Shangri-la
Day 5: One full day in Zhongdian
Day 6: A morning in Zhongdian, a long bus ride back to Lijiang/Shuhe
Day 7: A morning’s recovery and then an afternoon/evening checking out Shuhe
Day 8: One final breakfast in Shuhe and then it was already time to fly on to Beijing

Details of these days to come in future posts. Watch this space! 🙂

Dazhai – a feast for the senses! (part 2)

Sights

One of the most fun things we saw during our short stay in Dazhai was villagers rehearsing for an upcoming parade. There was an open space a stone’s throw from our hotel where a group gathered to practice their roles in a dragon dance. We joined the locals and watched and laughed with them, listening to the music and watching the small-town spectacle as, through enthusiastic instruction from the choreographer and many a fumbled step, the act slowly came together over the course of the day.


A view from above the village


A closer look


We weren’t the only ones enjoying the show. 🙂

Smells

Another thing I loved about Dazhai was how it smelled. The air was SO fresh up there in the mountains, autumnal crisp and such a nice change after traffic-clogged Guilin.

The days were sun-filled, gold-spun. The warm, slanting sunlight of autumn set the hills ablaze with light and filled the air with the smells of warm, dry end-of-the-year vegetation. Nights turned cold, and silver stars blazed above us in a dark, clear sky as the village became perfumed with the spicy scent of wood smoke.

Our hotel smelled great too. The walls of rough timber, which our hostess said were “Chinese pine”, perfumed the entire building with the most delicious, fresh pine scent. The whole atmosphere was rustic but clean, peaceful and totally uplifting; I felt like Heidi happy, comfortable and comforted in her grandfather’s mountain cottage.

The one smell I didn’t enjoy was one we came across time and again in Asia – the awful scent of burning garbage. I can understand that places as remote as Dazhai don’t have regular garbage collection, but still, I can’t help but cringe at the sight and smell of burning plastic.

It’s probably not the worst smell in the world but everything about its sickly sweet scent screams crime against nature to my olfactory system. I hate it. I’m happy to say though that overall the nature in and around Dazhai was very clean and clearly loved, and if there was smoke in the air, it was much more likely to be from burning brush as the farmers cleared their fields, rather than non-organic trash, like this:

Perhaps in part because of signs like these, that were all over the hiking paths 🙂 :

Tastes

Of course food is always one of my most favorite ways to experience a place! The eats in Dazhai were pretty simple, but I enjoyed them – for the most part. Sandy, the owner of our guesthouse, was also the cook, and she provided us with simple but lovely meals; bread and yogurt made fresh in-house, nice veggie stir-fries, delicious local tofu, things like that.

We ate out one night at another guesthouse down the road, where the menu was a bit more expansive. We stopped there earlier to enjoy a coffee and watch the parade practice. I was so proud of myself when I used my super limited Chinese to ask for milk for my coffee. The sweet woman who ran the place promptly responded to my request by squeezing milk from a small juice-box-sized package into my cup. Unorthodox technique but not quite so unorthodox as the flavor-combination of coffee and strawberry milk – the pink packaging should have tipped me off – which is not a drink I’d recommend to anyone! 😉

I wasn’t so put off though and I’m glad we had food there later. The “fried wild vegetable” was a tad on the healthy side but I’m happy I tried it; the “fried wild tuber onion” was off the hook in my opinion (I am a fiend for all things in the onion family though) and my in-China-favorite, pumpkin was also totally delicious!