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wanderlust

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Leaving my last Workaway in Keelung I was feeling it was time for a break from volunteering. The next stop on my east coast route of Taiwan was Hualien. Everyone had told me this was a place for the scenery. Without looking much into what to do in Hualien, I booked the train ticket and made my way south.

I booked into a hostel called Big Bear Hostel conveniently located in walking distance from the train station. The weather is humid with the lightest of rain when I arrive. Settling in I venture out to get a hold of my surroundings. In Keelung I was used to wandering outside and finding an array of markets full of every kind of vegetable, fruit and meat that you could desire. Walking from my street into the main city I’ve yet to come across fresh produce. Instead there are the neon lights of 7 11 and family mart everywhere. Choosing a local restaurant for food, I head back to the hostel in the evening to meet the other travelers.

Beginning to explore Hualien

I wake up fairly late having decided not to set an alarm and realize it’s not raining. The sun though has yet to show itself from the what to do in Hualienclouds. My “what to do in Hualien” list includes finding myself on a beach. It may not be a tropical beach but Chishingtan Scenic area was less than an hours walk away to a stony but pretty looking coast line.

There are of course buses to take you to this beach in around 10 minutes or alternatively, Hualien is much easier to rent a motorbike than Keelung, providing you have an international license. I always choose to walk though as it allows me to see the locals of the area and discover unexpected charms of a place. Passing temples and shop owners I follow the road and come across what is either a prison or an air-force. Which ever it may be it creates a stark contrast of barbed wire cutting into the now blue skyline. Lined with mountains and palm trees the road makes me think of pictures of California.

Pebbles and currents

what to do in HualienBreaking from the main road I head towards the pink and white colored houses that are perfectly reminiscent of seaside towns. The area is so quiet I almost think its abandoned until I see the odd person sitting in their darkened store. I follow the sound of crashing waves and begin the unbalanced walk over the stones that make up the beach here. The water is beautiful. It’s been so long since I have seen blue waters.

The few people that are here are fully clothed and getting only their feet wet for a short time for photographs. I take some pictures for myself but soon I consider undressing to my bikini. I sit for a while. I’m not hugely confident that this is a beach for sunbathing. But I am here, and after calling myself a coward I race to remove my own dress so quickly that hesitation is unable to take hold of me. Moving straight to hide in the waves I quickly realize the sea deepens suddenly and carries the strongest current. I wouldn’t recommend using this beach for swimming.

what to do in HualienWhether it was the rush of excitement or the fact I have been absent of a beach for so long, I neglect to put any sunscreen on. Nearly two hours later I’m walking into a store for a cool drink and met with quite a gaze from the shop owner who motions towards my arms. I return to the hostel hidden under an umbrella and once I shower I realize how much damage I have done. I resemble a lobster in the transition of life to the boiling pot! The next few days involve fainting, drinking huge amounts of water and applying copious amounts of aloe gel onto my skin.

What to do in Hualien when it rains

After a few days recovering, still very pink, the heavens have opened to days of rain. My current state is appreciative of these cooler days. Yet finding what to do in Hualien, a city known for its scenery, in the rain isn’t the easiest. Had I the energy I would have ventured to Taroko gorge. The aboriginal tribe who reside in this area have aptly named this place. Taroko, in the language of Truku that belongs to the tribe, means “magnificent and splendid.” I may have only seen pictures but it is a place I regret not being able to make it to.

what to do in HualienNot up for anything to strenuous I walk in the rain in search of a place called Pine Garden. Along the way I come across Martyr’s Shrine. Perched high on a small hill at Meiluen Shan Park, the colorful roof of this beautiful architecture shone through the clouds and rain. After the Chinese Civil War, the shrine was built to honor the fallen Kuomintang soldiers. I was fortunate to have this place all to myself. I take some time to enjoy the peace of this area. After a while I walked up past the shrine to explore some gardens.

The command center of Pine Garden

what to do in HualienFollowing the road that leads around the shrine I continued on to find Pine Garden. Overlooking the Hualien harbor I reach an extremely well preserved and charming example of Japanese military structure. Situated at the highest point of Hualien city, Pine Garden was a strategic point that allowed the Japanese forces to command their battleships and fighter aircraft’s without difficulty. Today, it is a prestigious cultural hub dedicated to poetry in the beautiful city of Hualien. There is an eerie atmosphere behind its walls that leave some believing the building is haunted. Reach the top floor though and you will only find a gallery of unique artwork.

what to do in HualienAfter exploring the main building there is a coffee shop in the garden where you can rest for a snack. There is also two gift shops of charming trinkets that make great gifts or personal mementos. If you continue on the road past Pine Garden you will come across a store of artwork and wood carvings. Reaching the main road there are further monuments to take in and steps to take you down to the harbor.

I slightly ruined my Hualien trip for myself by punishing my skin in the sun. There is so much more to explore here and it is a great location to use as a base for bus trips to surrounding areas. Hualien will certainly move to my list of areas to revisit on my Taiwan travels.

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what to do in Hualien
Bunker at Pine Garden

what to do in Hualien

jiufen from keelungTaiwan’s summertime is notorious for its volatile weather. After a few days of consistent rain in Keelung I had exhausted most things you can do here on a rainy day. Not one to stay stuck indoors for too long I decided to find out how to get to Jiufen from Keelung. I figured why not move to a town for a day in the rain.

Although I enjoyed the day I do recommend you attempt to visit when it is nice weather. The views would have been stunning if it wasn’t for the mist and sea of umbrellas. There are areas to hike to make this a day packed with versatile activities. Enthusiasm wanes when you area wet through though.

Jiufen from Keelung

jiufen from keelungI am not one with an amazing sense of direction. Keelung fortunately has an amazing Information center at the bus station with many employees speaking English. To get to Jiufen from Keelung is so straightforward. You take the bus 788 all the way to the last stop. The cost is 30 NTD and the bus announces the stops in English also. You will arrive less than a minute from Shiqu Road (aka Jiufen Old Street).

The streets and alleys are narrow and today packed with tourists. The area was reinvented as a tourist destination in the 1990s following its attachment to several movies. The most well-known perhaps is Spirited away, where several of the buildings seem to have acted as inspiration for the movie. The other being A City of Sadness. This was the first film to openly discuss the 2-28 massacre and the White Terror era.

History of Jiufen and  Jinguashi

A beautiful town with a darker history. In 1893 gold was discovered in Jiufen. Following the Japanese control of Taiwan in 1896, the area developed into a prosperous gold mining town. During WWII the Japanese built a POW camp in Jiufen. Allied soldiers captured in Singapore were forced to work the mines in appalling conditions which resulted in many men dying. There is a Museum of Gold in Jinguashi that is worth visiting to better understand the history of the town. The museum is housed in an interesting location in the former offices of the Taiwan Metal Mining Corp. Many relics can be seen here including a giant piece of 999 pure gold weighing in at 220kg.

jiufen from keelung

What you should see in Jinguashi

jiufen from keelungComing all the way to Jiufen from Keelung meant I wanted to see more than the alleys and museum (both still would have been worth the trip). However Jinguashi offers more than this. Shuttle bus, taxi, walking, which ever is your preference, it’s not far to make your way down to the Golden Waterfall following a wander around Jiufen old street. Due to the  abundance of heavy metal elements deposited in the riverbed, the water flows a beautiful golden color. The cascading water is in stark contrast to its natural green setting. If you follow the stream down you can walk all the way to the Yin-Yang sea.

jiufen from keelungBefore you reach the sea you will enter a car park that is overlooked by the remains of Shuinandong Smelter; a refinery plant built during the Qing Dynasty and then was used by the Japanese during WWII to refine gold. Wandering down to the front this is not an ocean with a beach. But following the wall along I was lucky enough to make it down to where fisherman were out in the rain waiting for their catch. This area really is a place of natural beauty that makes a perfect break from the city.

jiufen from keelungMy timing to return to Keelung was poorly planned. I suggest going early to Jiufen from Keelung and either returning early or later in the evening. The traffic made the journey nearly two hours rather than our simple 30 minute ride to get there. I would also avoid bringing too much with you to carry as the narrow alleys don’t provide much in the way of space. All that being said, Jiufen is not a place to miss when you are in the North of Taiwan.

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jiufen from keelung

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.

Taipei city

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.

Taipei winding streets

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.

Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial

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.

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National Palace Museum
MOCA Taipei
Longshan Temple

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.

map of wu yi shan

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.

wu yi shan views

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.

 

memory hall of zhuxi
monuments to zhuxi

 

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.

wuyi palace
wuyi palace temple
taoist text

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

donhongpao tea plantation

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.

bamboo rafting
water curtain cave

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.

 

ancient cliff text

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.

modern temple
temple gods

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.

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old temples
monks living quarters
cliff temple ruins
white pagoda
chinese artist sculptures

 

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.

barren mountains

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.

monkey standing guard

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.

tiger leaping gorge

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.

fierce water

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.

hand made bridges

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.

sky ladder

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.

high views of tiger leaping gorge

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.

hiking in clouds

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.

narrow path

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.

mountain peaks in clouds

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.

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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.

Lijiang Old Town

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.

Shuhe entrance

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.

Shuhe architecture

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.

horses in Shuhe

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.

charming buildings in Shuhe

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.

architecture in Shuhe

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.

route to Baisha

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.

style of Baisha

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.

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Naxi Embroidery Institute
embroiders tables
embroidery gallery
steps to Elephant Hill

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.

Lijiang from Elephant Hill

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.

mountain views

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.

graves of Elephant Hill

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.

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain

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.

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Academy Naxi Culture Research
Longevity Corridor

Leaving Xingping behind with it’s stunning karst landscape has left me with mixed emotions. Excited for my next adventure yes, but not feeling entirely ready to leave Yangshuo. It’s not long before I leave China, most likely for quite some time. I don’t feel ready to leave this beautiful and diverse country but being true to my nomadic self the wind is calling and I feel it’s push. For now though it’s a flight to Kunming followed by another to Lijiang, Yunnan province. Through my second use of Workaway it’s a week at October Inn, one of the most unique hostels I have ever seen in China.

October Inn

Arriving around 7pm a car pulls up to collect me. It’s Tom, the owner of October Inn and a friend. I’m being given a guided tour of our route from the airport bus drop off to the top of a hill in the old part of Lijiang where October Inn resides. Grateful  for not having to walk I immediately shower ready for dinner. To start the shower is the hottest I’ve experienced in China and consistent with the temperature. I could stand there for hours but Tom is cooking dinner for the guests in my honor. The food rivals any restaurant and the setting is the most welcoming environment. We are all on long sofas that stand either side of a long table. At the end there is an iron table that holds a fire in the center.

October Inn interiors

With travelers exchanging stories and drinking beer the night soon becomes the early hours of the morning. Those of us insistent on remaining awake move to the rooftop of October Inn, taking in the view of the city. It’s been a long time since I’ve been surrounded by such a diverse group of foreigners. Tonight we are a group made up of Americans, Singaporeans, Dutch and British. Tom tells me October Inn rarely has Chinese guests and  that he loves meeting foreigners from all over the world. As the noise of the town slowly dies away, we too retire to our dorms. The beds are solid wood and extra wide, all with heat blankets. It’s the most comfortable nights sleep I’ve had for a while.

Shuhe and mountains

The stir of guests wakes me from my slumber. I move slowly from my bunk with the early signs of a headache and head to the shower. I meet Tom on my way back and within minutes I’m in the sun eating oats with cinnamon and apples. There is also a small cup of Yunnan’s coffee in front of me. Coffee isn’t something that I would say is done particularly well in China but this is a strong cup with a smokey flavor. The aroma alone lifts my headache and I enjoy the heat of Lijiang, without the humidity of Fuzhou.

shuhe coffee shop

Following breakfast, Tom suggests we take a ride around town so I can become familiar with my surroundings to better advise guests on places of interest. It’s been a while since I’ve been a passenger on an ebike and I’m wearing an awkward dress for the occasion. With the resident puppy in tow we are off down the hill, winding through the old alleys. The tour begins. The well preserved architecture of this old area is quite beautiful. The more the alleys open up I’m given glimpses of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. A breathtaking mountain that is covered in snow all year round and made up of 13 peaks. Entering the main road we pass the tourist hot spot of Lijiang Old Town.

Shuhe town Lijiang

On route I’m supposed to remember things like the bank, places to eat, bicycle rental shops…instead I’m excitedly taking in this city with its echos of Naxi culture everywhere. From the passersby in blue hats to the embroidered cloth that holds against the wind in open shop windows. As we move out of town through farmlands the Naxi presence is even stronger. We finally stop at the ancient town of Shuhe which lies at the foot of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. It’s like discovering an old village hidden among a forest. One of the earliest settlements of the ancestors of Naxi people, the town of Shuhe is full of charm and character.

handicrafts of Naxi culture

Wandering along the alleys and crossing small bridges I notice countless fish in the clear waters that run through the town. Shuhe has a tranquil and poetic rural setting that allows you to escape the bustling tourist hotspot of Lijiang Old Town. It’s almost possible to forget modern life whilst here. There are even horses being guided through the streets. Just as time seems to flow backwards the everyday comes to light. We are now surrounded by coffee shops and restaurants. We enter a restaurant belonging to a friend of Toms and immediately we are greeted with tea and the resident cat who becomes slightly unsettled when our company canine totters in.

traditional store of Shuhe

Shortly after tea we are back on the bike heading for a village called Baisha. Arriving, it is clear that this village is far less commercialized than that of the old towns and is a more honest portrayal of Naxi culture and every day life. It’s history is painted on the walls and woven into its textiles that blow in the gentle breeze. We are not here long but it is certainly a place I shall revisit. For now it is back on the bike to return to October Inn. Passing through farm land, the new city and the old town, it’s back up the hill to where the old architecture stands, well preserved, in the fading sunlight. The rooftops always capture my attention in China. Curved, decorated and ancient. All of Lijiang is beautiful and I can’t wait to explore more.

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View of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain
textiles of Baisha
Baisha textiles

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.

The escaping fisherman

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.

Cormorants resting on bamboo

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.

resting cormorants

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.

 

Stalls of Old Street

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.

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local basket weaver
Old street with mountain views
Old Street Alley
alley of Old Street

After five days of hiking I decided to have more of a relaxed day. My feet were starting to ache and I feared my legs would loose all momentum. I felt it worth revisiting Nine Horse Hill after utterly failing to recognize any of the nine ancient murals on the cliff face. As it is a route I’ve done before I take the Li River walkway to my destination. I follow the upper path back as it occurred to me after visiting the famous landscape printed on the back of the 20 yuan note I failed to take a picture. This time a 20 yuan note sits in my wallet waiting for its moment of glory.

sleeping cormorants

I take to the river stones rather than the paved walkway. Allowing their uneven firmness to slowly massage my feet. A type of remedial reflexology. This allows me to stay close to the water. I’m looking for the elder fisherman I passed yesterday hoping for an opportunity to recapture him but today I’m out of luck. However, I do stumble upon two sleeping cormorants on a grounded bamboo boat with its basket sitting still. The image is beautiful. The eyes of these magnificent birds are wide open but their beak stays nestled into their wings. Incredibly tame and unnerved by my presence, I glance around for their keeper and quietly move closer. In a flawless synchronized motion they raise their heads, a caution perhaps so I take a picture and leave them be.

rousing from slumber

There are several rustic boats floating alone on the water. Abandoned except for the few clothes that hang to dry. I’m unsure as to whether these are homes or vessels of temporary life for the boatmen out all day, transporting tourists on the motorized bamboo rafts to and from various scenic destinations. The surrounding landscape is alive with the sounds of birds hidden among the mountains. Combined with the gentle knocking of rocks under feet and the rippling water that trickles by there is a moment of pure tranquility. Of course a ferry full of tourists soon passes by and test their vocal cords in the echo of the mountains.

 

river rafts

Glancing with a frown at the ferry I spot another rusty house boat I wish to capture but it is at too far of a distance. I decide to cross at the ferry point again at Nine Horse Hill, something I had no intention of doing following my near disastrous hike that resulted in a friendly couple coming to my rescue and popping a tyre! Day 2 of my Xingping adventures for those of you who are curious! Across the river gives a better view of Nine Horse Hill anyway and will allow me to capture the charming if some what disheveled boat.

rustic abandoned boat

I stand opposite the sight of Nine Horse Hill. Straining my imagination past its usual creativity I fail again. There is not a single image that gives shape of a horse, to my eyes at least. For the second time I give in. I follow the narrow path to the left and settle on an image of the boat. Along the way I come across a horse grazing freely. The scene is perfect. Cautiously approaching I’m able to capture the beautiful animal with the back drop of Nine Horse Hill. In my opinion I have succeeded beyond my original pursuit. A second horse comes into view as I come around a corner. This one is attached to a chain and has a spirit slightly more wild than the other. Still, the image is too perfect not to capture and I draw closer slowly.

Nine Horse Hill

After a while of standing surrounded by this perfect vision of nature I capture the house boat hoping not to rouse any occupants. The ferry does its duty and I return to the other side. I’m disappointed not to see the helpful old woman with her sticky rice steaming away. This is the upper route that I’ve wandered before. The last time I was on this path it was full of stalls and tourists but today is much quieter. It’s how I prefer it. I’m always drawn more to villages and small towns for their gift of solitude. Xingping, although a popular destination, has offered many treks to surrounding villages where the only people I’ve met are the locals, always small in numbers and usually within trees!

horse of Nine Horse Hill

I finally come to the landscape that’s printed on the back of the 20 yuan note. The area lies between Xingping and Yucun. Unlike in the note, the Li River is void of a fishermen floating down the river with his faithful birds but is a stunning landscape regardless. Capturing the landscape with my 20 yuan note I feel very much the tourist. This is the last time I will take in this karst mountain landscape, from this view at least. These mountains haven’t failed to move me since my arrival. They hold an ethereal and evocative beauty that hasn’t been matched yet in my experience of this fascinating country. As the wind rises gently to bring a chill to the air I continue ‘home’ content again from the days roaming.

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charming rustic boat
wild horse views
20 yuan landscape