One of my last blog posts; Hiking Tiger Leaping gorge, and meeting a friend a few days into landing in the diverse, cosmopolitan city of Taipei, sparked two separate conversations. Both quite sensitive politically and both far beyond my knowledge of the history involved.
I had stated that Lijiang was the start of a new adventure and a fair-well to China. Yet, my feet have landed on Taiwanese soil. My statement wasn’t total ignorance, but maybe incorrect to one and sensitive to another. The Peoples Republic of China is a united ‘One China’ and Taiwan is a state longing for independence. My closest Chinese friend felt that I should alter the sentence. I left it with maybe too little thought given to the notion that it may offend. A few days later I’m walking through Chiang Kai shek Memorial Hall with a Taiwanese friend asking if Taiwan considers itself apart of China. She explained the delicacy of the question and I realized the little knowledge I had regarding the situation.
I wandered through the galleries and museums of Taipei to gain an insight into the history. Walking through the streets alone you become acquainted with the past that still lives here. Taipei is a city that has tremendous pride; in its triumphant and tragic history. Memorials stand proud and the buildings of influence of those that once ruled are restored and reworked in a way to give them life again.
Of course Taipei, being a cosmopolitan city, offers more than just its history. The city is progressive. Its tolerance is something I’ve not experienced in China. The openness of the people and their excepting nature of the LGBT community are just a glimpse of the positivity that Taiwan holds in its uncertain future. The people are the most warm and friendly you could meet. Linger for too long at a map and someone will be beside you ensuring you are not lost.
Living in Fuzhou, Fujian, I’ve missed turning a street corner and being able to find a gallery or museum. Taipei is full of them. From the vast collection of ancient artifacts held in the National Palace Museum, to the contemporary exhibition of motion graphics at MOCA. For any art lover, historian and culture seeker, Taipei is a city that won’t disappoint.
After a day of drinking in the culture the evenings come alive. Night markets, restaurants, clubs and bars; all are plentiful in Taipei and you are sure to find whatever it is that will satisfy your appetite. For me this is why Taipei is the most perfect blend of cosmopolitan life, warm, proud people and home of some of the most exquisite example of traditional Taiwanese craft. I highly recommend a visit. It was MUIU capsule inn that brought me here. My first experience of a capsule hotel and a revisit to working in design. I can truly say Taipei offered the perfect environment for inspiration.
This was my last trip exploring Fujian province before leaving my ‘home’ of Fuzhou. An escape to the scenic area of Wu Yi Shan, home to an array of plant species and wild animals. Drawn in by its tranquil beauty, I spent a weekend exploring Wu Yi Shan’s primitive forest, drifting on the water of Wuyi Canyon, and wandering around the caves and tea plantations that make up this stunning and protected scenic spot.
Sunday 6pm. Work is over. Myself and my weekend travel companion have our bags. The bus is on its way, we already have our train tickets. We’re set. Around two hours later the train and bus are behind us and we are exploring Wuyishan city heading to our hotel. We purchase tickets for Wu Yi Shan, pick up an illustrated map and get an early night to prepare for the next few days. We have two and a half days to cover the 60 square kilometers of this natural and cultural heritage site.
Not starting quite as early as planned and our mood being slightly dampened by the weather, we have breakfast and make our way to the bus to take us to the site. Although having a Chinese friend with me makes the travel process incredibly efficient, the area is very tourist friendly and signs, for the most part, are in English as well as Chinese. Stepping off the bus and taking in the surrounding nature, for the first time I’m aware of how fresh the air quality is. Fuzhou is one of the cleaner air cities in China but I have forgotten how crisp fresh air can feel on a cold day. My mood is immediately lifted and we venture inside the site.
The area provides transport to and from the various scenic spots in this mountainous area. We are dropped off and we pick one of the many routes to see where the road takes us. The views are stunning. The mountains are layered with lush forest echoing the sounds of birds and various wildlife. The waters are emerald, clear and full of life. Tearing myself away from the natural beauty we follow the path leading to the Memory Hall of Zhuxi, a Song dynasty philosopher and the founder of Idealism Confucian. The memorial hall was once Wannian Palace and its courtyard houses two cassia trees of one thousand years old.
Continuing around the remains of Wuyi Palace, the oldest Taoist temple in Mount Wuyi, you are aware of the ancient history of this beautiful setting. The gardens hold impressive monuments that are perfect examples of China’s exquisite art. Temple walls hold inscriptions of Taoist teachings and pavilions provide shelter to simply sit and look upon the surrounding beauty. Following the path to an old town you can purchase local crafts and take in the stunning architecture. Wu Yi Shan is famous for its tea that grows in the plantations here and so the tea sets available are some of the most elegant I’ve seen in China.
It is to Da Hong Pao that we venture next. located at the center of Wu Yi Shan, inside the jiulong Nest Grand Canyon. The pathway is enclosed by step cliffs either side and growing out of the cliffs you can see the world-renowned Da Hong Pao tea. This scenic area houses several precious teas but Da Hong Pao is most revered for its color, aroma and taste. People always comment that the British love their tea but non celebrate it with more ceremonial elegance than the Chinese. To drink tea here is to be apart of a historical tradition.
The following day we head to the pick up point for the bamboo raft trip. Taking to the water you become immersed in the poetic landscape. Nine Bend Stream, the name given due to its abrupt changes in course nine times over, is the center piece of Wu Yi Shan. Sitting back and taking in the view of unusually shaped mountains, waterfalls and caves inscribed with ancient text, you lose yourself in natures overpowering serenity. Glancing in to the crystal waters you can see fish and turtles swimming contentedly alongside the raft. The boatmen are cautious in their rows and seem just as in awe of the scenery as though it was the first time their eyes had laid upon it.
With the rafting drawing to a close we hike in search of more water in the form of the Water Curtain Cave. This is the largest cave of Wu Yi Shan and can receive over a thousand visitors. Following the paths steady incline we reach its peak where we find a man feeding a flock of white birds. The backdrop to this scene are mountains and tea plantations. It’s not hard to feel you have been transported into a piece of Chinese classical literature. Taking the bend to the left the water curtain reveals itself. Set in the hues of blues and greens, this waterfall that fronts the cave is responsible for its creation. The cave being eroded by the force of flowing water making it unlike the many other karst caves of the area. You can wander the higher ground to explore the ruins of temples and see the cliff carvings. The sticks placed under the curve of the rocks have their own charm also.
There are many hiking trails you can take here for stunning views of the entire park. Tianyou Peak gives panoramic views of the mountainous area and is located in the center of Wu Yi Shan. Unfortunately this was our last attempt of the day. With heavy legs we decided to stop half way and took rest at a pavilion, watching others continue the ascention of the stone staircase. Regardless of the level you reach you will not be disappointed with the views you find. Choosing a narrow path down between two cliffs we reach the bottom and return to our hotel for another day.
The final day is a half day as we need to return to Fuzhou for work. It would seem then to be a perfect day to explore the temples of Wu Yi Shan. There are grande new buildings in place for worship that, although beautiful, lack the charm of the older, simple temples that can be found if you are prepared to wander. Unlike the new temple, we find a smaller one that is void of other visitors. The building is much more simple in its design with passages to open small courtyards that hold plants and offerings to the gods for prayer. Opposite the temple are living quarters where the monks simple robes are hanging to dry. Bamboo holds these earthen colored fabrics in the air and they sway hypnotically in the wind.
Past the old temple is a beautiful building that is the living quarters of the monks. The windows are cased in wood, the overall design isn’t entirely recognizable as traditional Chinese architecture but fits the surroundings sympathetically. If you continue on you reach a magnificent view-point at the base of a striking white pagoda. Feeling a little rushed we make our way to a bus pick up point to return to the hotel and prepare for our leave. For anyone who has a love of nature, hiking, history and architecture, Wu Yi Shan should certainly be on your Fujian bucket list.
The alarm is quite unwelcome this morning. It’s 6am. Nearly falling down the solid wooden staircase of the dorm bunk I reluctantly make my way to the shower. It’s cold and wet. It looks as though its rained all night. There is one other making this journey with me. A Norwegian who is even less impressed by the weather than the Welsh girl. We meet again at breakfast at 6:30am. The usual eggs and toast doesn’t feel hearty enough for day ahead. 6:50am we’re shuffled out the door. The bus is waiting for us at the end of the winding alley. Already my footwear feels inappropriate for the path I shall soon be on. This is the most unprepared I’ve been for a hike. I’ve gotten used to China’s version of hiking; stairs leading to a view point up a hill. But today, it’s Tiger Leaping Gorge.
Settling in on the bus I remove the already wet layers that need to last the day. Nothing is waterproof. My hiking gear is all comfortably stored in my brothers attic back in the UK. I didn’t see myself really hiking while living in China. The only semi appropriate kit I’m wearing are a pair of merrell hiking sandals. They have the grip but it is raining and they are sandals. I also have little faith that this temperature will increase as the day goes on. The Norwegian is assessing my attire. I can’t blame him. I’m slightly judging myself. He points out we’re on our way to Tiger Leaping Gorge and begins to laugh. I try to convince him, and myself, that the weather will change.
Two hours into the bus journey and the rain hasn’t lifted. We’re nearing the Norwegian’s destination. He is on the full two day hike starting at a village called Qiaotao. I’m further down the road for the day hike; starting at a place called Tina’s Guesthouse. As I’m volunteering in Lijiang I can only give the day to this much anticipated trek, but with my kit and the weather I’m thinking this is the best course for me to take. I will explore the middle of Tiger Leaping Gorge then hike to BenDi Wan village which is the half way point of the hike. From here I can follow the numerous bends to bring me down to the main road for the bus to collect me.
Arriving at Tina’s slightly later than planned I ignore my hunger and start my descent to the middle of Tiger Leaping Gorge. I have 5 hours total for exploring the middle of the gorge and hiking to the halfway point and dropping down to the road. Going by the hand drawn map available at Tina’s my schedule is tight. In fact going by the map I need exactly 5 hours. I’ve been assured the bus won’t wait. I have to be there when it passes for it to stop. I’m feeling exhilarated already. I’ve excepted that if I miss the bus I will hike back to the halfway point and stay at a guesthouse. The less exciting part will be the remaining hike the following day in wet clothes and the apology to my Workaway host for not making it back to Lijiang.
Staying positive I pay the 10 yuan entrance fee to an old woman dressed in the traditional Naxi style to access the middle of Tiger Leaping Gorge. Aware of my time restriction I use the descent to break into a gentle jog. At times I lose my footing as my eyes absorb the scenery surrounding me. For the first time in a while I forget my destination. The setting is reminiscent of the weekends I would spend hiking in Cumbria. The deep browns, rustic oranges and barren trees create such a nostalgia.
The gorge’s roar is echoing off the mountain walls. The route is a mixture of dirt track, scrambling on rocks and climbing up and down iron ladders wedged between rocks. There is no one else around. In the current weather conditions it would only take one misjudged step and the result could be catastrophic. Getting closer to the water the views are stunning. There are little huts with fruit sellers where you can take rest. There are also various access routes to get closer to the water that have been built by the local families of the area. For a small fee of 10 yuan you can walk across a wooden bridge that shakes and bounces simultaneously. I also get a ticket for 15 yuan to climb the iron sky ladder near the end of the route.
Reaching the closest point to the water I sit in silence and observe natures power. The water rolls like white horses galloping out of the sea. The Gorge runs for about 15km in length and at its highest point has a maximum depth of 3790m. The river running wildly through the gorge is called Jinsha River. The story goes a hunter chased a tiger through the gorge and at its narrowest point the tiger leaped to the other side and escaped the hunter. Hence the name ‘Tiger Leaping Gorge’. Feeling the pressure of the chase of time I get up and begin the search for the sky ladder. There are a few locals in the huts boiling tea and after my best impression of climbing a ladder in thin air I was directed to my intended destination.
The sky ladder is a vertical climb. My own weight is pulling away from the ladder with a wire tunnel surrounding me as my only support. with a heavy breath I reach the top and crawl back on to the dirt track. The route from here is a steady incline back to Tina’s. I’ve made it in good time, spending an 1 1/2 at the middle of the gorge. The jog bought me an extra 30 mins to my anticipated time to dedicate to the high trail. Reaching Tina’s and still ignoring my hunger I cross the road to begin the second part of the expedition.
Initially taking the wrong route I find myself in farm land face to face with a caged monkey. There is a moment of silence from us both until I remove my phone for a picture. The monkey begins screaming and shaking against the cage and I realize this is a version of a guard dog. Turning back I look for the now obvious route and for the first time meet people on the path. They are returning from the two day adventure and so finishing at Tina’s where I started. There are painted arrows and colored cloth hanging from trees to aid in the navigation of the high trail.
Various routes present themselves throughout this hike due to locals trekking with horses in the area. During peak season and in the earlier trail at Qiaotao the horses are available to ride to the top. This isn’t something I would recommend as I feel if you’re here you are here to hike and work for the stunning views from the top. As I get into my route there is no sign of horses or any more hikers coming to the end of the trail. I spend the rest of the hike alone. This is the perfect environment for me, alone and isolated in nature.
As the weather continues to decline I ascend into the clouds and feel the cold numb my skin. By this point my clothes are damp and the sandals provide no comfort. My fingers are becoming numb and I’m becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of this condition. The result of this thought process is a quick picture to my brother of my location and a break into a steady jog. At times the path narrows and I need to walk hugging into the cliff face. I continue my run until I warm up while desperately trying to keep my footing and take in every spectacular view that each bend offers. This journey could be just as difficult in Yunnan’s summer heat. I recommend everyone to come far more prepared than I.
As the heat begins to comfort my body I reduce my pace to a brisk walk and enter the village of BenDi Wan. Its the afternoon and I feel my presence is unexpected. I don’t notice any life other than the sounds of nature and so don’t stop for a meal. I’m also concerned on my time frame and so walk on with a banana and find the bends to descend to the main road. Slipping at regular intervals but catching my balance I make my way down the path that seems to never end. When I finally reach the road I am 40 minutes ahead of schedule. Taking the time to eat the food that I at least did prepare, it is not long before I start cooling down.
The bus arrives as I’m circling the road in an attempt to keep warm. I meet a gentleman from Nepal who was also on the bus when I arrived. We talk about hiking trails the world over and future destinations are logged in my memory to research for new adventures. This is my last trip in China for sometime and I couldn’t have chosen a more perfect location. The culture of the minorities in China have always appealed more to me for their traditions and history. The Naxi people of Yunnan are incredibly welcoming and humble. Leaving Lijiang is a start of a new adventure but a very sad farewell to this country I have had the privilege to call home for the last nine months.
After visiting the highly commercialized Lijiang Old Town at night I decided I wanted a more authentic experience of Naxi daily life. Enticing with its bright lights and buzzing sound of life well into the night, Lijiang Old Town for me has lost some of its charm. Rather than being given a glimpse of Naxi culture to appreciate, you are often over charged for the same trinkets that line the alleys. At night the water turns to wine as the clubs open and the youth enthusiastically open their wallets and jump up and down out of sync with each other as their inhibitions fade into the night. A far cry from the slow lifestyle used to describe the warm and welcoming Naxi people. So today is a day for exploring ancient towns. It is a scenic walk to Shuhe followed by a visit to Baisha which sits at the foot of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.
Leaving October Inn I wind through the whimsical alleys. There are flowers hanging from baskets and leaking droplets of water onto the dusty ground. Stone, wood and slate make a striking combination to the old architecture that makes up this part of Lijiang. It is never just my destination that is the scenic pleasure of the trip. Lijiang offers such beauty and is best explored on foot or by bicycle. With the many short cuts the alleys give way to it is not long before i reach the south gate to Lijiang Old Town. It is the more ancient towns that I head for today though so I wander down the road and towards the North entrance of Black Dragon Pool.
A lot of the old part of Lijiang sits in contrast with the new architecture that is springing up everywhere. Unfortunately if there is one thing that never seems to stop in China, it is construction work. The modern design is sensitive to that of its surrounding style but together there is a clear divide between the old and new. What is slightly less obvious are the partial towns that are being developed in the style of old. If it wasn’t for witnessing construction and seeing merchants start the beginnings of setting up shop, I would have mistaken these fusion builds for old, near abandoned relics of a town that is no more.
Leaving Black Dragon Pool in my rear view I’m in owe every time the town opens up to reveal Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. I have no real hiking kit with me in China otherwise it would be those snowy peaks I’d be reaching for as today’s accomplishment. For now, it is ‘the hometown of springs’ for my first destination. The ancient town of Shuhe. Shuhe is one of the earliest settlements of the Naxi people and an extremely well preserved example of a town along the ancient tea route.
Without Tom I wind up walking to the main entrance of Shuhe and needing to pay the admittance fee of 40 yuan. There are many routes in for free but it is knowing where they start. The ancient towns do also fall on the bus route of numbers 6 and 11 for Shuhe and number 6 at the last stop for Baisha. If you take the bus to Shuhe I recommend walking to Baisha. It takes less than an hour and you’ll wander through one of the deserted fusion towns I mentioned earlier.
One thing that caught my attention wandering through Shuhe was the small open stalls that held locals playing small hand drums and playing a beat more familiar with African culture than Asian. Each time I passed one of these drum stalls I could have sworn the same song echoed out of them. Altered by the lost rhythm of the tourists that clambered in to join them. Live music is also a constant present in the streets of Shuhe with some incredible talent coming out of coffee shops and restaurants. I stop for lunch after hours of wandering. I’ve chosen The Cafe on the Creek to enjoy the calm of the water than runs through the town.
Once I’ve had my fill of food and Yunnan’s delicious coffee, it’s back on my feet and to my favorite app MAPS.ME to find the route to Baisha. Walking through rural areas give a better impression of life for the Naxi people. I pass two old women in their traditional dress and can’t help but admire how hard they seem to have worked their entire lives. I hold my phone up for a picture but they decline and I move on with only a memory of their image. The road to Baisha is open and stunning rural landscape. The town of Lijiang does offer such a balanced blend of modern, ancient, convenience and escape.
Getting closer to the majestic snowy mountain, I stumble into Baisha. It is later in the evening now so the town is incredibly quiet. The silence is penetrated by the growl of a dog as I try to quietly wander into the very closed Naxi Embroidery Institute. It is the most influential embroidery institute in Lijiang and aims to promote, preserve and develop other ethnic minority cultures, including Naxi, Dongba culture and Tangka culture. The dog manages to rustle up the attention of a young student who enters the courtyard. I apologies and begin to leave when he attempts a dialogue in broken English. The result is a private tour around the gallery of embroidered artwork. There are pieces in there that so closely resemble the delicacy of oil paintings that I linger staring as close as I can to the glass box they sit in.
I only capture one photograph of the gallery; I’m informed photographs aren’t allowed so I apologize and try not to take up too much more of the students time. Baisha is the smaller of the ancient towns and it’s not long before I reach the end of the road. I seek a local to aid in locating the bus stop as the walk back to Lijiang and up the hill to October Inn was only a little shy of three hours! I’m loosing light also and so I patiently wait nearly 40 minutes for the number 6 bus. There are mini vans that can drive you for 50yuan which if you fill the car isn’t so bad, if you’re happy to wait though the bus is a mere 1 yuan for the return journey.
Exploring the ancient towns has left me which a rather big appetite. Upon my arrival I smell Toms cooking and sit with my fellow travelers to discuss the days adventures. There are an American couple who arrived back from Tiger Leaping Gorge. After hearing their stories I book my bus ticket for the day trip to the gorge. The weather ahead is planned for rain and I don’t have hiking gear on me so going for the day, although slightly disappointing, is by far the sensible option. So come back to visit the Solo Pursuit for the adventure of Tiger Leaping Gorge.
The sun is high, its heat being carried on a strong wind even at the base of Elephant Hill. Today is a climb to a view point of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. I’m told the most beautiful view, other than being on the mountain itself, is actually from Black Dragon Pool. So today I shall see both. Ascending to the peak of Elephant Hill and descending into the heart of Black Dragon Pool in Yunnan’ heat with no hat or sunblock. China is a country that to travel through requires the preparation for several seasons. Regardless of the inevitable sunburn I will suffer today I am determined to explore this area of Lijiang.
As with many of China’s hills and “mountains”, the route is a mixture of steps and dirt track. The wind increases its strength the higher I climb. Although this breeze is welcoming against my skin, I’m aware the effects will be visible later this evening! The path takes me past small pavilions that offer perfect resting ground for a snack and a glimpse of the views to come. You don’t have to climb for long before the whole of Lijiang starts to appear in front of you. The combination of an old town and a new city creates an interesting blend of architecture and scenery. The further I climb I look to the other side of Elephant Hill, the views are in contrast to that of Lijiang. Instead you see mountains for miles only being interrupted by farm land.
It’s not long before I come to a point where the steps split. Upwards for the view point and down to Black Dragon Pool. I continue the climb and come across old gravestones that are decorated with materials that then unfortunately litter across the mountain. I follow the noise of Chinese tourists to find the views that open so splendidly to Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. It’s nothing short of breathtaking. The only negative to this whole scene is that Chinese tourists aren’t one to take in nature and its serene beauty in silence. There is excessive noise and endless selfies so I do not stay long. Instead I circle back to where the steps descend and take the route down to Black Dragon Pool.
This is a back route into the tourist hot-spot and actually avoids the entrance fee of 80 yuan. The ticket is not unreasonable as it also permits entry in Lijiang Old Town. As I enter I come across the Lijiang Academy for Naxi culture research. Although unable to enter the building, the grounds and plant life of its courtyard are quaint enough to wander through. Exiting the Academy I take in the scale of the area. At 40 hectares Black Dragon Pool is a haven for bird and water life. A diverse collection of plant life thrives here also and surrounding the pool are ancient monuments that help make up this stunning landscape.
Many tourists and, I assume, locals have gathered in this park to enjoy the scenery and give prayers at the temple. The pool is enormous and wandering around it’s easy to lose the crowds and enjoy the nature that is on offer. I come to the point on a bridge where Jade Dragon Snow Mountain is visible, set majestically between a temple and a pavilion. Oddly enough, I have to agree. It is this lower view point that offers the best view of the snowy mountain. This park has much history on offer. The emerald spring waters are famous for their curative powers, the temples mystery are surrounded in Chinese mythology, and the nature alone that fills the park gives reason for all who visit Lijiang to come and see Black Dragon Pool.
There is no alarm today. I wake slightly unnaturally to the construction of a new hotel across the road from my room. It doesn’t matter though. The day ahead is full. It’s my final day in this beautiful village of Xingping. Not only does that mean one more day to explore but it also means packing and preparing for my next adventure. In search of coffee and breakfast I begin my checklist of preparations. Forever nervous about missing a fight I plan to be at the airport with double the time required. So not to exhaust myself hiking is off the table. Instead I’m going to attempt to find my favorite fisherman again and discover the original part of Xingping village, the Old Street.
Xingping it seems, often referred to as a village, has grown to become a quaint town. Full of charm set in one of the most stunning landscapes I have ever seen, this has been the most rewarding place I have traveled to thus far. From the traditional cormorant fishermen, the hikes to several villages and the openness of the locals to give a glimpse into their lives. It has also been my first opportunity to volunteer whilst traveling. A desire to travel more ethically inspired by the discovery of Workaway. A website that facilitates cultural exchange, with accommodation being offered in return for work. Although I intend to move towards causes that will have more of a positive affect on the lives of those I become entwined with, this has been a perfect platform to move on from.
After packing my life back into a suitcase and ruck sack I head to the ferry ready to seek out the fisherman. As my feet land on the stones of the other side, I look back to the pier I have just left and glimpse my fisherman headed directly for it. It would seem the universe feels I have had my moment with him and so I laugh to myself and move towards the rivers walkway. Again taking to the stones it is not long before I come across a string of bamboo boats, half on land and half dancing on the water, the magnificent cormorant birds stand asleep.
Cormorant fishing is a traditional ancient technique of using cormorants to fish in shallow river waters. The birds have a snare near the base of their throat to stop the swallowing of large fish but allows the consumption of small fish. Once a successful industry, cormorant fishing now serves mainly the tourism industry. During my visit, China is within its three month fishing ban to protect fisheries and ensure the industry’s sustainability. So although there are plenty of fisherman on the waters of the Li River they are mainly here to pose for eager tourists wanting a glimpse of this traditional fishing technique.
Returning on my regular ferry I reach the pier and follow the road down to a alley alive with tourists, cafes and stalls. I’ve entered Old Street, the ancient part of Xingping town. With all the charm of every old street found in China’s towns and cities I wander through its winding alleys, now and again glimpsing mountains through the ornate rooftops. There are more people here than any area I’ve explored despite its size. Before long I’ve reached the end of Old Streets alley and I’m back on the route to This Old Place Youth Hostel. This hotel has been my home for the last week and its staff have become more than people I work with. I will miss Xingping more than I could have imagined but it’s time to prepare for the next adventure.
6:50am. I’m awake before my alarm, anxious that I may oversleep on my first day of work. I have company in my dorm. I rush to quiet my alarm and practically fall off the top bunk and stumble into the shower. Emerging with energy and a coffee sachet in hand I head to the kitchen for a quick breakfast. The hostel is split in two, today I’m over at the reception side. My hours are 8am to 12pm leaving me with ample time for lunch then off to explore. The work is simple, the people are lovely and the guests are interesting. For my first place volunteering I couldn’t have picked a better location or group of people to work with. After a conversation on where to explore, Gerda (English name) tells me of an offline app (MAPS.ME) I should use for a map with sight locations. This is where I discover Nine Horse Hill.
A slow google search with temperamental VPN functionality shows me my intended destination. It appears the cliff face of Nine Horse Hill has a mural of a group of horses assuming various poses. These images have been present on the side of the mountain for centuries. Former President Clinton was able to identify all nine horses on his visit to the area and I intend to attempt the same. Although the advised view is from the Li River cruise but I am in the mood for a hike.
Leaving the hostel I turn around the corner following the Li River and crossing a beautiful bridge I photographed on my first evening. There are endless tuk tuks that stop to try and sway me in. The tour buses zoom past me at a confusing speed. Why are they rushing? The views are stunning and the weather perfect. I don’t understand why people wouldn’t walk. I see other foreigners who have rented ebikes. I don’t blame them, when I bought my ebike in Fuzhou it took maybe six months for the novelty to wear off. But today is a day for walking.
The streets are lined with markets selling their usual food and trinkets. The first view point though has something new. A woman with a stick across her shoulders where her two fishing birds sit. They are completely tame. They do not move even when children stroke them. People line up to pay for a photograph. I would love to see the birds in their true setting with the fishermen. I move onward. The views are captivating. This karst landscape is something that not that long ago I never thought I’d see for myself outside of ink paintings.
The villages I’m wandering through are full of curious eyes. The children stare wide eyed and the dogs are unsure of walking along side me. The smell of what I believe is jasmine is enhanced by the heat. The fragrance lingers in the wind sweetly. There are workers shaking the trees picking fruit and conversing with others who’s voices are the only sign of their presence, otherwise hidden by branches. Farmers are walking their cows through the street and many buildings seem abandoned or simply half constructed.
I reach a path that leads me to the water. My app is pointing further up to the right but I only see a narrow entrance behind a stall of street food. I pause debating. The elderly woman at the food stall ushers for me to sit on the stool beside her. I do this and there is an immediate realization that we will not understand each other. She pulls out a map and gestures for me to point out where I’m intending to go. I show her Nine Horse Hill and she points to the path that leads to the water. I show her my app and move my fingers to suggest walking higher up what, if you have an open mind, could be a path. At this point we are joined by several curious village men. The fun begins.
I understand the question of where I started my route. My fingers again move to gesture walking and I tell them Xingping. The woman uses her first English word and points to a building and almost shouts “Bus!” They laugh at me and shake their heads. After a little while of pointing and waving my phone showing the map the men begin to use their hands for gestures. The message is clear, the cliff is steep and if I try I will fall, their fingers show that I would no longer be able to walk and have to take the bus! I sit with the woman for a while eating some of her sticky rice. One of the gentlemen senses my disappointment and walks me along the river away from the mountains. We get to a point where the stones create a path out further into the water. He points to the cliff face of Nine Horse Hill and says “ok”.
This is the first time I realize I’ve actually reached my destination I was just at the wrong angle to see it. We wander back to the food stall and the woman is persisting I take the bus back. I point to the incoming ferry and say “boat” with a smile. She laughs and waves me off. The crossing is minimal and although the view is better I am unable to make out the mural of horses. I’m distracted by the near collision with another woman and her fishing birds. Rather than go back the way I came I use the app to find an alternative route back to Xingping. I have a 3hr hike ahead of me and it is already 4pm.
The start of the hike is similar to the earlier route. I wander through villages and become surrounded by the scent of jasmine. Losing sight of Nine Horse Hill I enter more rural landscape and the path opens to a dirt track with potholes that later become muddy pools when the sky opens up to sudden rain. My app is marvelous for the route but shows no indication of the terrain. It is quite the incline for the foreseeable future and light is fading as the rain strikes at intervals. I have the sudden memory of reading that the boats stop at 6:30pm. I can’t recall which boats the guide book was referring to. The ferries or the bamboo boats. Either way I panic and start to enter a jog as I wander how I will make up 30minutes on my hiking time.
The rain is heavy now and the road is becoming harder to tread. I haven’t decided if my energy was weakening or the steepness of the mountain was increasing with every step. A car passes. As I’m silently cursing their transport they stop shortly ahead. I pass and they offer me a poncho. With my umbrella standing proud I smile but decline. They drive on and seconds later pause again. This time they offer me a ride. I jump into the back seat before releasing my umbrella fully and manage to soak my lap. I don’t care though. I’m positively beaming. The driver speaks fairly good English but his wife doesn’t seem to. I show him my app and we climb upwards.
I watch my app race ahead on the map. Then we stop. After a discussion with his wife the driver suggests we head back down the hill. I hold my phone up again saying that we are going the right way but it seems they need to go to Guilin. Ahead they know of a bus where I can go to Yangshuo and take another bus to Xingping. I don’t like this idea. He tells me this route was not the correct one for walking and asks why I don’t take the sensible option of returning to the ferry to walk the way I came. I give in. He offers to drive me to the boat. My heart sinks a little as we drive down the steep path I raced to climb. Suddenly we meet a bus on the road at a corner.
There is no way the bus will reverse and we don’t seem to be stopping. I’ve witnessed a huge amount of impatience when it comes to driving in China. I open my mouth to suggest we reverse but the bus defiantly moves forward narrowing further our path ahead. Clinging to the seat and holding my breath I feel the back tyre come off the road completely. The acceleration roars and we manage to get back on the road and I laugh more in disbelief than humor. My laughter is quickly silenced by that familiar sound of a flat tyre rolling along the road. The guilt hits my stomach and we exit the car to assess the damage.
Not quite knowing what to say at the situation I’ve essentially put them in the couple continue to give me walking directions and tell me not to worry. I walk on mentally willing good karma to find them and head back the exact way I came. The route has been seen but is no less beautiful. The ferry is full this time with children returning from school and I’m still unable to pick out the horses of Nine Horse Hill. I cross and pass the woman who smiles and says “no bus”. I’m starting to think the opposite by this point. Soaked from the rain and tired from my little adventure I climb into a little tuk tuk after walking half way and take in the view of the setting sun.
My second day has been wonderfully eventful, slightly nerve racking and yet full of lasting memories. I think I’m falling in love with this little village called Xingping.
It’s again one of those days in Fuzhou where I don’t know if the weather with hold. There is promise of rain undoubtedly, but a little rain has never deterred me. It’s the near monsoon that springs from nowhere that I don’t appreciate. The sticky climate is a given even in January so I venture out dressed for summer with fall accessories. With camera and umbrella in tow I’ve decided to discover one of Fuzhou’s ancient temples; Xichan. Located in the west of the city, as the name translates, Xichan is one of five ancient temples you can find in Fuzhou. The old sits with the new to impress with China’s stunning architecture. Pagodas, temples, litchi trees…you can explore this place for hours.
Entering the complex I am almost hypnotized by the swaying of the branches that drape low and dance in the wind. I pay the 20 yuan entrance fee and begin to explore. Immediately I look to the water. Its murky appearance is brought to life by glimmers of orange and yellow. Fish and turtles decorate this otherwise gloomy lake. Temples are known as a place where you can abandon turtles to a new home. Something which unfortunately gives a lack of responsibility to some of the foreigners who temporarily call Fuzhou home but feel the need to own “pets”. I gaze up to take in the scope of the complex. Xichan covers an area of more than 40 kilometers. There are statues, gardens and great halls, all of which should not be missed.
Winding across small bridges and under swaying trees I take in all the bright colors that adorn the remarkable design of these structures. It’s not long before I reach a breathtaking pagoda that seems to reach for the sky. No matter how many temples I visit pagodas never fail to impress me. There symmetry and shape of these towers are perfectly balanced in beauty and strength. Walking around this magnificent structure gives was to an equally impressive hall. The dragons that adorn the rooftops give a type of life to these buildings when they cast shadows in the failing light. Every hall houses a different style of Buddha. The Hall of 500 Arhats is considered the most impressive with the Jade Buddha Hall following it.
There is always an inner turmoil I experience at temples. I have only visited a few that are completely open for tourists to take photos along side the statues. This is not one of those. Monks are here in prayer and locals wear an expression of offence when the ignorant visitor flashes away, and rightly so. But I am still one of those that longs to capture the moment and so occasionally I take a photo from the outside peering in at a distance. I’m not excusing myself as this is still considerably rude to one who’s religion I am invading but I’m trying to find a balance. I suppose educating myself in the Buddhist belief system may make me more humble.
Besides the obvious modern structures that sit in contrast with Xichan temple, it is a small courtyard that captivates me. The walls a deep terracotta with two levels of narrow rectangular windows, if it wasn’t for the rooftops I would think I was wandering around a small Spanish town. The appearance of a monk dressed all in grey pulls me back quite sharply to the reality of where I am. I continue around the grounds. The rain heightens the scent of the garden but also means putting my camera away. As the sky becomes dull the trees remind me of Autumn back home. Except there is no chill to the air, just a humidity that I haven’t quite gotten used to yet.
As the rain becomes too heavy I wander out to the bus stop. It’s a strange thing to leave the calm of a temple and transition back into the city. Xichan’s walls guard the ancient serenity of a life that almost no longer has a place against a bustling city that barely sleeps. But I have no doubt the grounds of Xichan temple will stand longer than any recent structures that seem to appear far to quickly for quality architecture to endure. If this city was to shake and crumble I could guarantee the temples would remain standing.
I placed myself in the center, on the unclean wooden floor that gives promise of stains and splinters. I’ve decided this to be the most appropriate place for stability and therefore securing the idea that I won’t go over board. The sun is shimmering on the water and I’ve declared this the most questionable boat I have stepped foot on. Nevertheless we are steadily gliding onward with the roar of the engine that requires a manual start and lights up sparks through the smoke it produces. We are shopping for dinner. On the water. For all my uncertainty on the reliability of this vessel I wouldn’t be anywhere else. We set out early to drive over the mountains and take the boat out to explore the fish farms of Luoyuan bay, my step mothers hometown.
The mountains are beaming with the warmth of the sun. The water is opening up to reveal a floating city of ramshackle wooden houses that stretch out over the sea to cover almost the entire bay. We pull our boat up along side a hut and jump ship for the first expedition. I’m being directed over the uneven narrow floorboards that make up a network crossing that lies on the surface of the water. Below are cages and nets housing everything from lobster to scallops. My attention is guided to the cage of abalone. When opened these shells incorporate all the colors of the ocean. I collect the empty shells that have been washed up among the ropes and wash them off hoping to keep my balance and composure. We bag some up and make our way back to the boat.
Crossing the water surrounded by mountains I’m captivated by these simple homes that float within the fish farms. China’s mariculture industry has exploded over the last 25years and is now so large it accounts for two thirds of the world’s entire production. With this in mind I cannot help but consider the environmental impact harvesting at this level would cause with biodiversity being irreparably damaged. There is a three month ban every year for stocks to replenish but somehow I doubt those numbers balance out what has been lost. Putting these thoughts to the back of my mind I turn my attention back to the scenery and sea air.
This time we are leaning towards the direction of another boat and not quite slowing down as rapidly as we appear to be approaching! With what could be labelled a collision we stop and tie off to each other. Stretching over the sides of both boats I hop aboard and choose my step cautiously. There are nets being half dragged along the wet floor by the hostages inside. I don’t know what has surprised me more. The child in her pajamas waking among the crabs or the squid that is hypnotically dancing on the floor, it’s tentacles feeling for the opportunity of escape. There is a third boat attached with ropes forming a floating line of vessels. We buy fish from one and crabs from the other. While leaving this boat some words appear to be exchanged at a heightened tone and before I ask for the translation a fish is thrown at my feet. This is one of those moments to simply except the differences of this culture. I decide to return the fish to the water without uttering a word or question as to the reason behind this display.
Continuing navigating the fish farms we finally settle behind a larger boat that looks far more capable of crossings seas. We return our circus style routine of balancing along the boards to the security of the platform in front of the hut. The preparation begins for dinner. As we are joined by those I assume own the hut the washing and boiling begins. I’m directed onto the large boat all of a sudden and it seems we are leaving. I haven’t eaten over the entire day and I look longingly back at the food as we head around a mountain. It appears we cannot dock along the stone staircase ahead to reach land. Instead I find myself on a raft held together with rope and floating on barrels. I’m baffled by how I’ve managed to remain dry. It appears we are off for a hike to further work up our appetite.
At the base of this winding hill a phone call is made. As always I’m unable to understand the details so I take in the amazing view of the bay. These fish farms are really quite spectacular and a tourist attraction in their own right. My attention is shifted towards the dirt track ahead and we start to climb. Half way up we meet a truck. There’s a discussion and suddenly I’m in the back of this truck clinging on with white knuckles. My step mother’s wild spirit gives way to laughter. We jump off at the top, I regain stability soon enough yet remain confused as to why I’m not yet eating what we spent the day purchasing. It all comes to light. Walking through an area of forestry I’m confronted by a narrow gap between caves. Obviously this is our route. My step mother joyfully takes lead and moves like a cat, winding her body around the rocks with a childlike excitement which is nothing short of infectious. The view is worth every scratch and spider that is now crawling on me. China is so far the most beautiful country I have seen.
The walk back down the hill is full of stories of how when my step mother was a child she used to hike into the mountains and collect various leaves for tea and dry grass for fire. When I think of my childhood in comparison it’s almost shameful how privileged we are in the western world, without any concept of life outside our own familiarity. There is a man at the base of the hill holding a bottle of red wine and a smile. The answer to the earlier telephone conversation. Back on the raft and a climb onto the boat we are on the move again past the hut and towards another mountain. I’m sticky from the hike in the sun and can’t remember the last time I have been this hungry. Alas, it appears I must wait as this is a day for adventure and earning your meal.
We reach a stone walkway and I see that it is another hike to this next destination. This time I spot a small stall and without notifying my company I’m gone. It was here that I was first introduced to an old ice lolly, a milky taste that is incredibly refreshing. Even with half of it dripping down my hand in the heat I’m relieved to have something to keep me going. I do not have the stamina of my step mother or her friend that has been guiding us this whole time. Upwards we go to discover more caves and a beautiful stone statue that is a place of worship. I’m aware of how little I know of China’s diverse religious beliefs and hope to one day dedicate the time to learning more about this countries ancient history.
As the sun’s light begins to lose strength we find ourselves back on the boat. On the platform the small table is laid and the smell is exquisite. I’ve never had sea food this fresh and the crab is worth every effort required to devour past its shell. We finish the wine and food and take home the remaining crab for the following day. Finding ourselves on our original boat, I take my place on the floors center and we leave the fish farms behind. The sun is setting on the water as we reach our destination and it’s another journey over the mountains home. Although not practical to shop for your food like that every day this has been an amazing experience. I’m incredibly fortunate to have an invitation to this real world of China outside of the guide books and known tourist locations. My step mother resides in Abu Dhabi with my father but I’m fortunate that she is here for my first month in this new country. Along with the rest of her family, she has not only shown me areas that I would never have been aware of but has shared her culture with me in a way that has allowed China to feel like home.
To continue the theme of most of my trips lately its dark, cold and raining. It all adds to the atmosphere though. I’ve taken the speed train to Nanjing, Fujian. Following the 160 minute train journey it’s a 25 minute taxi ride to the bus station and a further 75 minute journey to our hostel that dwells in the heritage site we are here to see. I’ve brought my closest friend here in China along for the adventure. I’m grateful to have Chinese speaking company as although this is a well known tourist sight, I would struggle to find my way here alone. The more rural you go the more essential it becomes to have a grasp of the language. The commute out of the city and into the country is a bumpy route that winds around narrow mountain roads but well worth the effort to see the earthen buildings, the Fujian Tulou houses.
Arriving at night we are greeted by the resident dog of our hostel who sleepily lays at my feet and rolls onto its back indicating the attention I’m obliged to give. After being taken to our rooms we abandon our bags on the bed and immediately head out for food. It’s late and our options are limited but the “mother” of the hostel takes us down the road, the dog in tow, and we order several local dishes that do not disappoint. Suitably full we decide to wander the cobbled streets faintly lit by a rainbow of lights that reflect off the wet stones. There are tea houses, pottery classes and souvenir shops all alive with people regardless of the hour and weather. We return to the hostel after a short while and play cards while drinking tea and discussing the plan for the following day.
We set out early in the rain and begin navigating our way through this rural county to explore the history of these ancient Chinese dwellings. The word Tulou literally translates as earthen structures. Appropriately named, the buildings are constructed with load-bearing rammed earth walls that reach several stories high. They can each house hundred’s of people living as one community, generally made up of several families or the smaller tulou’s house one family clan that span the generations. The living quarters are like a corridor around the peripheral enclosure walls and a common courtyard takes center stage. The rooftops, made from clay baked tiles, are beautiful in their own right.
The first tulou we come across is called Huaiyuan. There is a sea of colorful umbrella’s following the echoes of tour guides giving an account of this earth house which I’m unfortunately unable to be privy to. I ignore the glances that I have become slightly more accustomed to and wander inside this circular dwelling. The architecture is astounding. I have never seen structures quite like this and I am unprepared for how they are still very much lived in. I imagined tulou’s to be more like standing museums of an old way of life but I couldn’t have been more wrong. The kitchens are situated in the lower levels with the preparation areas being outside a few feet away. Food is being washed and prepared by the residents and clothes are being hung out to dry above. I feel almost apologetic for stumbling into another’s home with a camera and no invitation.
I follow the circumference of the building and become more comfortable with intruding this home. Many of the residents have stalls where they sell trinkets, teas and hand rolled cigarettes. Beautiful paintings are also available for purchase along with black caged birds that I have seen being kept as pets in the community I live in back in Fuzhou. I buy various items to take home for friends and move on to find the next earth building named Hegui. Outside this tulou I’m approached by an elderly lady who my friend tells me will take us up to her home inside the tulou for a small fee. The upper levels of the tulous are not open to the public and I’m intrigued to see them but my friend disagrees with paying and we stick to the ground level. Admittedly I regret this decision but it is the one we made.
We wander down the streets of this ancient town and purchase some steamed sweet potatoes to warm ourselves in the relentless rain. We discover an old art studio that is empty but clearly not abandoned. Paints and brushes are out and beautiful work displayed on the walls. Unsure of whether we should really be inside, we quietly explore the studio then take our leave onto discover the square tulou of this sight. The building has an external wall surrounding it and the two structures are divided by a quaint courtyard. The wall i imagine would have been for defense purposes. Tulou’s were built to withstand arrows, gunfire and even cannon fire. A communal well sits within all the tulou’s and there is also a shrine for worship laid with offerings and clouded in incense.
As the day draws in we head back for dinner and get an early night. The morning is a case of taking one bus then another to a second tourist site called Tianluokeng which is a cluster of tulou houses in the mountains. Upon arrival we step on to a balcony and take in a view that even the rain cannot dampen. There are four circular tulou’s with a square tulou sitting in the center. I read a sign that explains the the arrangement is related to ancient Chinese philosophy and represents the derivation of the five elements. Intrigued, we wander down the cobbled slope into the heart of the tulou’s. These seem to be larger structures housing bigger communities. Although the trinkets and souvenirs are all the same, the personalities of each tulou is individual. My favorite being the last tulou we enter that has colored hangings to protect from the rain and the courtyard is full of tables and people that seem to be in celebration. This communal style living has such appeal to me and makes me wish I could become a part of this lifestyle.
The Tulou’s of Fujian have an extraordinary charm to them. They are like earth fortresses that live in harmony with the environment and provide a community lifestyle of equality. They were named a UNESCO cultural heritage site in 2008 after a decade long campaign. To find out more about these fascinating rural dwellings I recommend watching Secrets of the Fujian Tulou, failing that come and visit China and discover one of its many rich cultural sites and open up a world of history unparalleled by any the west can offer.