Backpacking Northern Vietnam IV – Three day motorbike tour to Meo Vac

29.01.2017 – 30.01.2017

So here is the fourth part of our travel documentary from Northern Vietnam at the beginning of this year (2017). In the last blog entry we were still discovering Bac Ha and the trekking routes around that small village with our local guide. We stayed one more night in “downtown” Bac Ha in the Ngan Nga hotel to discover the village a little more.

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The roadtrip, 31.01.2017 – 02.02.2017

A map of the route from Bac Ha to Ha Giang.

Since we were still travelling during the Vietnamese New Year, we had to be a little inventive to get all the way from Bac Ha further up north to Ha Giang. Again, Mr. Dong proved to be a very helpful contact who organized a private shuttle bus with driver in less than 24 hours before the trip. Drawing a linear line from one city to the other, the distance might be less than 80km. In this part of the world these units mean little though. First of all, there is no straight route connecting the one place with the other. There are very few streets passing through the mountains of Northern Vietnam, and even fewer that are accessible with anything else than a heavy-duty motorbike. Most of the streets are mere dirt paths with potholes the size of small swimming pools and our vehicle had to drive at under 30km/h average in order not to break down or get stuck in the muddy mess the spring rains caused. Needless to say there are no highways here, so it took us the better half of a day to make it up to Ha Giang. Once there, we took a room in the Cao Nguyen hotel and asked the receptionist to help us apply for a travel permit into the frontier regions of the north.

The travel permit officially allowing us to enter the frontier regions bordering Southern China.

Since it was only allowed fairly recently for foreigners to access the mountains bordering the People’s Republic of China we were thrilled to have the opportunity to visit. When it was time to rent a scooter for the roadtrip, the girl at the reception of our hotel was very helpful again, renting us her uncle’s motorbike for around 8€ per day. She made sure it had a comfortable seat that was large enough to fit two people plus backpack. Next, we went to a mobile phone store and tried to buy a SIM card with mobile data so we could access online maps during the trip. Unfortunately, they were sold out (or that is what we thought we understood the sales person said) and in the end the receptionist provided us with a mobile phone card. Right in front of our hotel a street market wound its way a kilometer up the road and we spent the evening before our trip buying fruit for the tour and discovering Ha Giang a little more. Very early the next morning we left most of our luggage with the hotel and only took one backpack with clothes for three days with us. Since we did not pay a deposit for the scooter, I guess this also served as a form of security for our return.


Photo documentary of our roadtrip from Ha Giang to Tam Son, over Yen Minh and Dong Van all the way up to Meo Vac and back.

 


The Vuong Palace and the past glory of the H’mong people

On the way to Dong Van we stopped by the Vuong Palace, a two-storey mansion built for the local H’mong king. In the 20th century, this old mansion was once home to an influential family headed by a powerful don. Up there in the mountains, where buildings tend to be small and practical, this structure takes a very special place in the landscape. The road winds down into the valley, so we expected to see the palace from a distance. But since it was built in a turbulent era and had to be protected from enemies, a small forest of trees was planted all around to hide it from view. Relatively speaking the place isn’t large and you would probably have overlooked it in any other context. In the mountain ranges of Ha Giang province though its quite a unique sight. Built in a Chinese courtyard style with a communal open-air space in the middle, the four “wings” on each side house more than 60 small rooms, some of which have secret passages that connect the whole structure. Some of the doorways were tiny, and even though the people who used to live here were probably smaller, I still have to wonder if they had to tuck in their heads to pass through like us.

With fresh snacks in our backpack we continued our roadtrip up north. The landscape became steeper still and the mountain road twisted and turned around the conical hills. Except for the occasional car we only encountered people on motor bikes or walking on foot alongside the street. I often asked myself what the people on the other bikes where doing today and what purpose they had driving or walking along this road that day. This being the only way through this region some of them might have traveled between the few larger villages, maybe from Tam Son to Yenh Min, or even farther up all the way to Dong Van to visit family. Some people obviously went grocery shopping, one couple even carrying a live chicken bound with a rope around its feet to the backseat of their motorbike. Every few hours the public mini bus would pass us by, speeding along the dirt round and announcing its arrival before every corner with a honk from its horn. That is what every one did to make sure they were not run over by oncoming traffic, so every time we made a turn – which was more often than not – we also sounded our horn. The best thing about doing this trip on a scooter rather than by public transportation was that we were free to stop whenever we felt like it. Since it was early in the year, it was still quite cold and my knees would freeze stiff when I sat too long on the bike. Even without that excuse to take a break every once in a while, it gave us the possibility to take in the landscape whenever we saw something interesting. Sometimes that would be a small stonepark long the street, or like in the pictures above a street market popped up on an intersection of the road. But most often it was simply the breathtaking views over the misty mountain ranges that made us hit the breaks and simply enjoy the nature.

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The Eastern Qing Tombs and Dowager Empress Cixi’s Final Resting Place

Sunday, 30th of April 2017


Strolling towards the tombs of one of the most powerful women of the Qing dynasty – the dowager empress Cixi.


Weekends are for daytripping – at the end of last month that motto brought us to the Eastern Qing Tombs in Zunhua, almost 130km northeast of the Jing in the province of Hebei. Since online research suggested that regular public transportation wasn’t an option we went to Qianmen to buy a bus ticket with one of the public tourism companies a day in advance. We must have scored two of the last tickets, because early the next morning when we entered the bus, almost all the seats were taken. Five hours later, when we finally arrived at the Qing Tombs, we definitly learned some lessons:

  • Always arrive some 30 minutes ahead of time if you want to have adjecent seats

    I’m not gonna translate that (go ahead and use the translator)

    in the bus (that one should go without saying, and it proved to be true once more);

  • Boiled eggs are a type of “fast food” snack in China and a fart-like smell that creeps through the centre aisle does not necessarily mean that somebody couldn’t restrain themselves;
  • No matter how innocent an intersection looks, you can be almost certain that traffic will jam for miles nonetheless (giving you the time to stretch your legs and buy some ice cream at a rural 小卖部);
  • If you didn’t think about “doing your business” before the trip, you better be prepared to pay 10 Kuai to use the roadside thunderbox for a No. 2.
  • Never trust that the bus driver knows the way – even after continously consulting his cell phone map, he chose a road that allowed only vehicles no taller than 2.9m (yes, a long distance bus is taller than that). Luckily, pragmatism wins, and ten minutes after being stuck here a

    Our bus driver didn’t agree with the hight limitation of the road he chose, so he asked the gatekeeper to lift it.

    chubby gatekeeper arrived to ramp up the steel barrier and let us pass.


Exploring the Qing Tombs

The burial site was too large to see it all in three hours, and we will definitly come here again with a rental car. Along the way many locals offered rural homestays for rent, so it might even be an option to make this a weekend trip. The imperial mausoleum complex is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and requires a whole day of sightseeing if you want to see it all. On the tomb grounds, shuttle buses and golf caddies transport visitors from one grave to the next.

Again, I have embarrassingly little to write about the historic significance of the Qing Tombs. In fact, I am still waiting to discover a tourist site in China that actually has meaningful descriptions that provide some background information about the place you are visiting. So instead of paraphrasing Wikipedia I trust that the images convey the grandeur and splendor of the Qing Tombs. Enjoy.

At the entrance to the expansive tomb grounds ponds with water lilies and marble bridges greet the visitors.

Three gates granting access to the necropolis of the Qing emperors. The left (eastern) gate is the entrance gate for the emperor, whereas the west gate was used by the ministers. The coffin was carried through the center gate.

The Eastern Qing Tombs.

Yu Tomb (Qian Long) Stone Tributes, representing an altar with an oven, two candle holders and two vases on it. It was used to worship the ancestors. During the Qing dynasty, the royal harem could go no further than here.

Yuling, the tomb of the Qianlong emperor is one of the most magnificient royal graves in Chinese history. A series of nine vaults separated by four solid marble doors, weighting 3 tons each, are located at a depth of 54 metres. In 1928 the underground palace was robbed by the warlord Sun Dianying.

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Down below in the Yuling tombs, all the walls, vaulted ceilings, and gates are covered with Buddhist imagery and more than 30,000 words of Tibetan scripture and Sanskrit.

Reenactment of a royal ceremony.

Marble bridges leading to the Xiao Tombs Tablet Tower. The double eave gablet roof covers the tablet on which Emperor Shun Zhi’s title is carved in three languages – Manchu, Mongolian, and Chinese.

Cixi Tomb Small Tablet Tower.

Looking down from the Ming Tower of Cixi’s Tomb, the highest site of the mausoleum.

Below, the grave grounds span all the way to the mountains.

The Pride of Lions guarding Beijing’s Marco Polo Bridge

Saturday, the 29th of April 2017


One more of Beijing’s sights is down from our tourist bucket list. Last weekend we took a bus all the way out to the suburbs of Beijing and visited the Marco Polo Bridge, a historically significant place in the south-west of town. There is not much else out there, but the bridge in itself is definitly worth the trip. Along the railing over the river some 500 different lions from different eras of Chinese history guard the bridge, and myth has it that no two persons will count the same number of lions there. One of the reasons why is that each individual lion is oftentimes joined by many more small baby lions hiding all around the stone sculpture. Below is a small selection of the creatures that can be seen there.

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Temple of Ancient Monarchs Li Dai Di Wang Miao in Beijing

Saturday, the 21th of January 2017

The Temple of Ancient Monarchs


Today is another day of brilliant blue skies and sunshine in Beijing. Three weeks into the new year the weather is freezing cold, but due to the icy winds the air is clear again and you can see the mountains surrounding the city miles away. Naturally, we always want to make good use of bright days like this and decided to go visit the Temple of Ancient Monarchs, also called The Historical Emperial Temple of Beijing [Li Dai Di Wang Miao 历代帝王庙].

Personally I get the impression that many of the sights in Beijing look quite alike and I’m sure architects or historians see the many unique features in every one of them. Risking to appear ignorant I’d say I rather visit the temples that are a bit off the trail and attract less visitors but appear to be carved from the same wood than join the masses and squeeze through the entrance of the Forbidden City. First time visitors to Beijing will probably disagree and will gladly endure the crowds to enjoy the magnificence of the top rated tourist sites. And I have to admit that you probably cannot travel to Beijing and later tell your friends and family that you wouldn’t visit the Lama Temple in fear of too many people. I will still try to convice you that the Temple of Ancient Monarchs is very worthwhile even though it might not be the number one priority on your Beijing bucket list.

Since we only have one week left until Chinese New Year – a week of holidays with abundant fireworks and merry family get-togethers – red laterns and lucky symbol appeared all over the city virtually over night. Contrary to the jammed experience of tourist sights during the Spring Festival itself, today the Temple of Ancient Monarchs was almost completely deserted. On the one hand, that might be due to the fact that almost nobody is actually a “native” Beijing citizen and thus returned to their home provinces for the festival already. On the other hand minus 5 degrees C and a stiff wind probably convinced people to stay indoors despite the beautiful sunshine.

The Historical Imperial Temple of Beijing is easily seen in an hour’s time. There are three major halls, all of which contain religious artifacts. There are also two halls housing a large buddha, and two pavillons with traditional Chinese “turtles”. In the west annex hall leading off the main structure to the left you’ll find the small Guan Di Temple. Outside, a small steel oven is used to burn incense, while inside a regious entity may be adressed for prayers. In the east annex hall visitors may see the Well Pavilion, used to make sacrificial soup and to clean up after the animals were slaughtered for sacrifice.The well’s roof has a square hole in the center facing the mouth of the well, symbolizing that heaven and earth were linked together.

For an overview of the temple’s layout see the map below.

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Winterly Temple of Heaven in Beijing

It’s our first week back after the Christmas holidays and I have to say the weather treated us very nicely. Over newyears our friends who didn’t return home as well as the German media repeatedly reported the devastating smog situation in Beijing, and I already expected the worst. Fortunately, we brought the clean air back with us and the last few days have seen brighter and brighter skies. Exploiting the opportunity to be outside without wearing a mask, we paid a visit to the Temple of Heaven, one of the few sights that I haven’t been to in the 16 month that we have been living here. It’s quite an amazing monument and is conveniently located at it’s own subway station (Tiantan Dongmen, Exit A). As it so happens the Pearl Market is directly across the street, so you could also get some (souvenir) shopping done since you’re already in the far south of the city. Tiantan one of the less expensive tourist attractions of Beijing and a regular “through ticket”, which grants you access to the main temple and some other importants parts of the area, costs 28 RMB (student price is 14 Kuai less). I recommend to buy the through ticket immediately and pay the extra 18 Kuai on top of a regular ticket, otherwise you can only get access to the front plaza and won’t be let through to the main temple. You’d have to buy a seperate ticket for 20 RMB if you haven’t gotten the through ticket right at the entrance.


Walking towards the main temple, you will see groups of elderly people playing cards and mahjongg. I’m always inspired by this routine, prefering to spend the sunny hours of the afternoon with old friends outside, rather than sitting isolated in your living room and counting the hours.

Many parents also took advantage of the clear and sunny day and visited the temple grounds today. A mother with her two kids positioned themselves in front of the main structure and captured the trip with their cell phone camera. She tried to convince her daughter to let her sister give her a smooch on the cheek, but as you can imagine she wasn’t too fond of the idea.

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Roadtrip to Panlongshan Great Wall, Gubeikou, Beijing, China

Having a drivers licence in China (or a boyfriend/girlfriend/good friends that don’t mind bringing you along who have one) turns out to be of great great advantage when living in Beijing. On weekends you can spontaneously rent a car (i.e. from Avis near Dongzhimen for 290 RMB/day), pick one of the many sightseeing spots that lie just outside of the city, and get started. So yesterday we did just that and started our trip Friday night after work – en route out of the city center traffic jams are notorious and unavoidable anyways, so you might as well get it over and done with then, and start the saturday and first day of your weekend trip after a good night’s sleep in closer vicinity to your destination.

Yesterday we set our target on Miyun 密云, a smaller district some 50k out of Beijing proper, and spend the night in a hotel there. Although a very Chinese-style breakfast was included, we quickly packed our stuff at 6:30am the next morning and drove the remaining 50k to Panlongshan, east of Gubeikou Village. With a nice headstart on all the other tourists, we arrived there at around 9:30 am, but we needn’t have worried: although it’s supposedly the only part of the Great Wall that has never undergone any reconstruction, it doesn’t attract many visitors. The small parking lot was almost empty except for some 10 cars, and during the entire time of our walk along and on the Wall we met only a handfull of hikers. And a hike it was. The short ascent through the “forest carnival” (= the obligatory tourist entertainment park/trap along the entrance area, complete with jungle gym and rope garden) leads you up a few hundred steps, before you reach the actual Wall. Compared to other much more popular parts, Panlongshan Great Wall doesn’t have such steep climbs and/or hilly sections and it simply continues on the soft ridges of the surrounding mountains. It is however far less developed and you oftentimes walk next to the wall due its high degree of decay. You definitly have to have good physical condition and some experience walking on uneven terrain. The trails are littered with debris and the steps up (and far worse – down) are crooked and of various sizes, shapes, and hights, so make sure to wear sturdy footwear. Yet, all of this contributes to this tour’s unique charme and natural beauty which all the other parts of the Wall I visited so far lack of completely. You won’t have all the souvenir shops and map sellers here, so remember to bring enough bottles of water and some snacks, because there are also no vendors along the way.

As the pictures below will show, we were exceptionally lucky in terms of the weather conditions. Even though it was already fall according to the Chinese moon calendar, temperatures still climbed above 30 degree C during midday, and those of us who remembered to apply sun screen in the morning definitly had an advantage.

There are two major watch towers along this tour, the General Tower, which has two sides with four windows and the other two sides with three windows, and the 24 Window Tower, which has – as the name correctly suggests – six windows on every side. Or used to have: two sides of the tower were destroyed during the Japanese invasion, so you need some imagination to envision the whole building today.

After making our way back down from the wall we were pretty starved (remember, no vendors along the way), so we entered the Gubeikou Ancient Village and were suprised to find it almost deserted. Lucky for us two lonesome men dressed in military uniforms (wtf?) were just setting up chairs for a wedding ceremony (WTF??) and the guy instructing them on how to align the rows was married to a women living close by who agreed to cook lunch for us. Obviously she didn’t have a menu to guide us through the food options, so she prepared us a meal from the ingredients she had at home (…I hope we didn’t eat all her supplies for dinner with her family…). We ended up with a fairly delicious choice of dishes, ranging from chicken marinated in soy sauce, over a cooked cucumber salad, to thick slices of bacon with a side of crispy onions.

Shortly before we began our drive back home, massive storm clouds darkened the sky and a major rain and hail storm came pouring down on us. It was quite impressive to see the weather change so quickly, having bright blue sky on the one side of the horizont, and dark menacing clouds on the other. As suddenly as the storm came, as quickly it was gone again, leaving the streets and everyone who didn’t make it home in time soaked and steaming in its wake.