Friday, March 20, 2015

Holiday on the Great Wall

We awoke even earlier my second day in Beijing, planning to venture out to see the Great Wall, and not knowing how difficult it would be to reach, or how crowded it would be once we were there.  It was a national holiday, and though this was one typically spent home with family, it was possible that many would take advantage of the day off to see some tourist sites.  We set off around 8:30, catching a local bus to a larger long-distance terminal, and followed strict orders from Jeff's wife Evelyn as to which bus we should take for the ride out to the wall.  Thankfully we listened, rather than following the "friendly advice" offered by the bus terminal staff, who tried very hard to get us to take a different, "faster" bus.  After about an hour we hopped off at the closest stop to the Wall, cramming into a taxi van with two Germans and three Chinese.  We quickly learned that the Germans had taken the "advice" of the terminal staff and had been taken much further than they needed to go, and they had needed to pay a car to get them back to our stop!  Not long after, we arrived at the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall.  

The weather couldn't have been more perfect, with absolutely clear, smog-free skies - nearly unthinkable in Beijing - and we could see the line of the wall atop the mountain at a distance.  Jeff joked that it was proof the government controls the weather, having such a gorgeous day on a national holiday!  We bought tickets for what we thought was a gondola-style ride to the top and back, though what we wound up taking was more of a ski lift-style lift up.  We sort of ended up at the far right portion of the wall, so we turned left, working our way towards the gondolas, a bit set of stairs, and eventually the non-tourist section that hadn't been refurbished.  

The crowds on the Monday holiday weren't too bad, and the wall itself was an absolutely incredible sight - the massive stone structure stretching and snaking along the mountaintop.  We walked a bit down, mostly up, following the crest of the mountain from stone to gate, taking refuge from the sun inside each one, climbing up on the roofs to take in the view where we could.  And the view was amazing - from high above overlooking the little town, and as we climbed higher we saw beautifully textured brown mountains off to the other side.  From even higher we could start to see water and the shape of an enormous city, which we assumed to be Beijing.  We couldn't believe our luck with the weather, but the skies were indeed a deep blue, and completely lacking the trademark smog that had been so heavy just a day prior.

After we had passed the actual gondola and continued along, we eventually came to a long, steep incline.  after what felt like an endless amount of stairs, we reached a platform that most tourists would consider the end, which did have a magnificent view, a couple of Chinese flags, and a handful of hawkers selling trinkets.  After a brief pause, we pressed on, continuing our climb, the number of other tourists thinning out considerably at this point.  We reached another gate area, then climbed up a ladder to the roof to continue onto the next section of wall.  We reached the final gate on the restored path just as a number of people with small packs were emerging from the other side, having camped out somewhere on the wall the night before.  I made a mental note that if I ever had the chance to return to China, I would absolutely return to this section of the wall and do exactly that!

We then began our walk on the unrestored section, a sharp contrast to what we had just covered, in that trees and plants were sprouting out of the center of the structure, and the stone pavers were often broken or steep and slippery.  After passing through a flat, section with thick greenery, we began a steep ascent, more of a half-climbing scramble than simply a walk, as we grasped the sides of the wall and various trees to support ourselves as we moved upward.  

We finally reached a small, half-crumbled gate at the highest point, and we scrambled up to the top.  We stood there taking in the breeze and the panorama, still amazed at this mammoth structure under our feet, snaking off in either direction.  The fact that hundreds of years ago, people had actually moved the stone up to the top of these mountains, for hundreds of miles, to build this incredible work of architecture that still stands strong today, was absolutely mind-blowing.  

After soaking in our surroundings and taking a few photos, we began our descent, with that initial section feeling even more treacherous on the way down.  We switched over to a more rough side of the wall, picking our way down carefully.  Once we reached the flat, it was much easier, until the knee-pounding descent down that long, steep section of stairs.  

Having had only a Snickers bar since breakfast, I was hungry and exhausted and feeling quite sunburnt by the time we reached the gondolas, and I was incredibly thankful to finally be done with walking and catch a ride down.  Of course, as soon as we tried to board, they told us we had purchased a ticket to the other lift, and that they were different companies, and we would either have to buy a new ticket or walk to the other one.  Note that they had been sold from the same window at the base of the mountain, and they cost the same, so we had no way of knowing they were exclusive - even to Jeff who speaks fluent Mandarin!  They wouldn't trade the ticket or sell us "half of a ride" (since we were only going down, not up and down), and they wouldn't budge.  So I dragged my exhausted butt and achey knees back up to the top of the wall, up to the next gate and through and down, until we finally arrived at our original point of entry.  This one actually had a little downhill "chute" you could ride down on a sort of wheeled sled, identical to something I had seen in Queenstown, New Zealand, years ago.  So, we hopped on board individual sleds for the long, winding sled down - generally fun, though not the most comfortable contraptions!  

At the bottom, I was never happier to spot a Subway and Baskin Robbins, and I ran inside for a quick sandwich and scoop of ice cream, cheering me back up instantly.  Finally full, Jeff and I left the complex, joined another pair looking for a taxi to get back to the bus stop, and caught a ride.  When the bus did arrive, it was overly full, with a handful of people already standing in the aisles.  Despite the ride being over an hour long, we crammed on board, standing in the aisles until I finally sat down on the step down to the back door for the ride back to the city.

When we finally arrived back in Beijing, we switched to a local bus, and though we had to wait ages for it to arrive, we were treated to an incredible sunset lighting up the sky in bright reds and oranges.  We finally arrived homes and took turns getting cleaned up and relaxing a bit, then we set out with Evelyn to find Peking Duck.  First we caught a bus over to a typical Chinese spot on the second floor of a large building.  They looked like they would be closing soon, and we quickly discovered they were out of duck!  Evelyn got on the phone to a few places, successfully ordering a duck at another restaurant.  

After we left, we had a long wait for a bus, a relatively short bus ride, and a long walk to reach the restaurant, but I was delighted to see an outdoor patio with dozens of little strands of lights and red paper lanterns when we finally arrived.  Evelyn explained that this restaurant - called Jing Zun - was a bit nicer as it caters more to westerners.  Thankfully the food was still authentic and delicious!!  We found a spot on the patio and ordered drinks and a couple of dishes to share - spicy bok choy with peanuts and a plate of sweet tofu with the consistency of bread pudding - while we waited for the duck to arrive.  And finally, there it was.  Evelyn doled out the little light, crepe-like discs, into which we placed pieces of rich duck and crispy skin dipped into a thick, sweet sauce, along with bits of cucumber and onion, then rolled them up into little two-bite sized packets, and devoured them. 

I felt so lucky to have connected with these long-lost friends across the globe who could show me a side of China I never would have discovered on my own.  And as a result, the past few days in China had definitely been some of the best, and it was a sort of a shame to leave so soon.  But between the day spent wandering along the Great Wall and the evening spent devouring Peking Duck, it was a fantastic and appropriate ending to my time in Beijing, as well as China as a whole.  And I had a pretty incredible stretch to look forward to:  three weeks in paradise with my Portuguese pirate - a vacation within my travels.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Explore the Elements

Today's post is a bit of a departure for me - my friend Jimmy nominated me to participate in the Explore the Elements contest hosted by Thomas Cook UK, and it was hard to resist the chance at some incredible prizes... Plus, it was fun to look back through my photos from the past year or so and find some images and stories that represented each of the elements.


Beng Mealea, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Far from the typical tourist trail around Angkor Wat sits Beng Mealea, a temple that has become so intertwined with the earthen elements around it, that it would be impossible to separate the two.  Of all the stunning ruins I viewed during my time in Cambodia, Beng Mealea was the one that felt the most wild and reclaimed by the earth.  It reminded me of the stubbornness of the natural world, and how no matter how magnificent the structures that we built are, the earth will always be there, working its way back in.  It was a powerful reminder that it's impossible to separate ourselves from the earth... and why would we want to?  The image above in particular reflected the beauty in the earth's embrace of the forgotten stones.

Dave Bouskill is judging the Earth category.


Inle Lake, Myanmar / Burma

The people of Inle Lake in Myanmar live their entire lives on and around water.  Building homes on tall stilts above the lake, making their way through the reedy pathways and landmasses by boat, the people fish and farm on the water.  As we cruised slowly past the floating gardens at sunset, we happened to pass a young boy, dressed only in the typical longyi, slowly steering his longboat using a customary standing one-leg paddling technique.  The resulting image was a striking depiction of a people who depend so much on the water surrounding them.

Ken Kaminesky is judging the Water category.


Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia, Chile

Fire is a destructive force.  But it is also a catalyst for change and new growth.  While trekking the W trail over four days in late 2014, it was impossible to miss the fire damage caused by a careless camper nearly three years prior.  Hundreds of trees were left scorched, leaving blackened skeletons of their former beauty along the trail.  However, if you looked closely, you could see new growth all around the trees - grasses, flowers, bushes, and new tree sprouts.  As devastating as fire can be, it can also open a path for new life to rush forward.  This image represents the change, the growth, that can come from something that on the surface seems such a powerful force for destruction.

Elia Locardi is judging the Fire category.


Swayambhunath / Monkey Temple, Kathmandu, Nepal

High above the sprawling city of Kathmandu sits the Swayambhunath Temple.  Far from the dust of the streets below, the stupa provides a sense of openness, peace, freedom, and adventure, which would lead me to attempt a week-long trek through the incredible Annapurna Range stretching out before me.  The colorful prayer flags, fluttering in the breeze, became the symbol of that spirit that would follow me from the stupa all the way up the mountain path to my own personal summit - Annapurna Base Camp.  This image represents that feeling of freedom and adventure and peace which took hold inside of me when I saw those flags moving in the wind, like air filling my lungs.

Nicole Young is judging the Air category.

My Nominations:

Even though the entries are due today, I'll still nominate a few folks - sorry, guys!

How You Can Enter:

  1. Publish an Explore the Elements post on your blog with an image for each element or as many as you want to capture. 
  2. Nominate 5 of your fellow bloggers to take part.
  3. Notify Thomas Cook that you've entered by tweeting @ThomasCookUK or emailing them with a link to your post before the competition closes on March 16.
  4. Thomas Cook and the competition judges will share and retweet some of their favorite Explore the Elements posts throughout the contest's 8 week duration so be sure to follow their Facebook and Twitter accounts closely!
  5. Every Explore the Elements blog entry will be judged by the 4 judges with each judge selecting an element category winner to receive either a Fujifilm camera, an Apple MacBook Air, or an Apple iPhone 6 with Bose noise-canceling headphones depending on their choice.  The judges will then work together to select the overall winner of the 5,000 travel fund.  For further information about the judging and the prizes see the Terms & Conditions by clicking the link below.
  6. Terms and Conditions

See more at 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A Walking Day Tour of Beijing

Fresh off the bullet train from Shanghai, I arrived into Beijing late on a Saturday evening.  It took nearly an hour for me to make my way to my friend Jeff's neighborhood, despite the excellent directions he gave me.  Jeff and his wife Evelyn met me at a small cafe, having just returned from a one-day ultimate frisbee tournament outside the city, and led me back to their apartment.  It was the first time I had seen Jeff since a mutual friend's wedding just after we had graduated college - he had spent the years since teaching English in Korea and China, getting married, becoming fluent in Mandarin, and now working as a freelance translator.   

We got up early the next morning - Jeff was in between freelance assignments, so he offered to be my tour guide for the two full days that I had in the city.  He was an absolute godsend, expertly navigating the city's mass transit systems and leading me through narrow neighborhood alleys to sites and restaurants and breweries.  I was perfectly happy to follow his lead, relax, and enjoy my time.

We picked up a couple of compact, portable breakfasts from a shop around the corner from their apartment - a sort of pancake with lettuce and meat that was filling, delicious, and cheap.  Our first stop was Tiananmen Square, just outside the Forbidden City, and most well-known for the massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in 1989.  Since it was a public holiday weekend, Mao's mausoleum was closed, which makes two communist leaders whose preserved bodies I have been near to but haven't seen!  The day was incredibly hazy, and we simply wandered the large square a bit, slowly making our way towards the Forbidden City and the massive portrait of Mao out front.

We crossed the street, passing under the road and up to the other side, entering the gates and purchasing our tickets as we watched a pair of girls wearing headbands with "traditional" ornamentation take selfies while holding Chinese flags.  Ah, China.  Inside the next gate, there was a massive courtyard with a central building, a pattern that would continue as we made our way through the city.  There was a set of three small bridges, the central one more ornately decorated, leading over a small moat, which we crossed to enter the central pavilion.

The other sections blend together in my mind, but we saw huge lion sculptures in bronze - a male and a female, the male with his paw on a ball representing the earth, the female with her paw on a cub.  There were other bronze statues as well - a crane and a turtle with a sort of dragon head.  There were tiered pavilions with dragon head "gargoyles", and there were massive slabs of stone with intricate carvings of dragons, a symbol of the emperor.  The interiors of most of the buildings were open enough to look in on the decor from the open doors, each venture to do so resulting in much pushing and shoving and jockeying for position… in other words, the Chinese method of queueing.  The buildings themselves were covered in subtle ornamentation, bronze dragons swirling in the window frames.

We briefly stepped into a side area - one of many - this one displaying a set of bronze bowls and other objects.  We then cut into a garden featuring a massive tangle of stone with a Chinese roof on top, as well as other stone features, statues, and neatly trimmed bonsai-style trees.

From the garden, we wound our way out of the expansive city, heading immediately across the street to Jinshan Park and heading straight up the stairs to the very top, to a small temple with an excellent view of the Forbidden City spread out in front of us, through the hazy smog.  

I followed Jeff as we descended down one side, into a larger park, where we almost immediately came up on a large group of men singing a cappella, conductor and all.  We stood transfixed for a few moments, taking in the amazing music until they wrapped up the song, then continued a bit further, as we could hear other groups in the distance.  We also came across a small group putting on a sort of ballroom style dance practice / performance, but as soon as I got close, the lead guy with the microphone started trying to recruit me to join, and I quickly retreated.  We walked back towards an exit, walking out just as a handful of sleek black cars with diplomat plates pulled up, secret service-looking personnel in suits and earpieces swarming, and a couple of well-dressed women got out, began shaking hands and chatting, and walking towards the park, entourage in tow.  I have no idea which dignitaries they were, but it was a fascinating sight!

It was already well into the afternoon, but Jeff had a specific lunch spot in mind, so we got to walking, first down a quiet alleyway between typical old Chinese homes - these alleyways are called hutongs - then past a small lake through a small park that made me think of a particular section of New York's Central Park.  This one was full of little pedal boats, many in the shape of rubber duckies, and despite signs saying, "No Fishing", "No Swimming", "No Climbing", there were plenty of men fishing, a group was swimming (and splashing loudly), and dozens of people were perched up on the fences watching it all.  

We turned and crossed over a small canal, just opposite a romantic little bridge, turning down into another hutong, until we arrived at the spot Jeff had in mind, a little Muslim spot that promised a similar set of flavors to what I had tasted in Xi'an's Mulsim Quarter.  Just as similarly, I grabbed a little glass bottle of drinkable yogurt from a store next door to wash down the spicy, savory flavors of the chicken dish we shared.  Our next stop was just around the corner - the Great Leap Brewing Company.  It had a cozy little courtyard and was filled with locals and foreigners alike, and I sampled a flight of four of the unique beers they had on tap, while Jeff enjoyed a couple of pints.  For me, the Banana Wheat, the Liu the Brave Stout, the East City Porter, and the Honey Ma Gold.  The last one is made with Sichuan peppercorn, leaving a tiny hint of numbness on my tongue!  Jeff had the stout and the Buddha Blonde.  I was very happy with my selection, and the rest and the tasty beverages revitalized me.  

From there, we continued through the alleyways of the hutong, turning onto Nanluogu Xiang, a mostly walking street packed with people and unique shops - bars, restaurants, souvenir shops, boutiques, and all sorts of inventive snacks, from decorative hard candy to a light doughy pastry I sampled.  Vendors were also dotted along the streets selling everything from Lego-like figures to swirls of cotton candy.  We walked all the way to the end of the street, then turned back to the other end, where we caught the metro back to the apartment.  

Exhausted, I didn't think I was hungry enough to venture out for a real meal, but I joined Jeff and Evelyn at an outdoor table at a neighborhood restaurant, where we had the most delicious Kung Pao chicken I have ever tasted.  The next morning, Jeff and I would venture out to see one of the sites I had built my entire RTW journey around…. the Great Wall.