Traveling through Yunnan – First Leg: Lijiang

May Day Holidays, 28th – 30th of April, 2018


The May Day holidays were spent traveling through Yunnan province! Its a beautiful place with very friendly people, delicious food, and incredible sights to visit. Just sitting in one of the rooftop cafes and enjoying the view of the city is a great start into our travels. The weather was cooler than expected, even though we knew that we were traveling in somewhat higher altitudes than usual.

Its not only available in Yunnan, but breakfast every morning consisted of Xiaolongbao, local bread, and a bowl of Doujiang, which is a sort of Tofu drink. In the background is the oldtown of Lijiang, a UNESCO protected part of the city famous for its cobble stone streets and traditional buildings.

Streets like these are a typical sight in Lijiang, with narrow stone paths winding through rows of old traditional Chinese houses. Many of them are used as hostels now, but it is easy to imagine how people used to live here in the old days.

A well-known feature of Lijiang are the small water ways running through the whole city. In former times these were used to channel water to every part of the city, and today especially the older generation still uses it to wash vegetables.

During the day there are still a lot of quite places to enjoy the architecture and serenity of this ancient town, but come nighttime many of the shops turn into booming tourist bars with loud blaring music and bright disco lights. A lot of local tourists seem to enjoy this as well, we preferred to the quite Lijiang, though.

Mangrove Kayak Tour through Langkawi’s Kilim Karst Geoforest Park

Malaysia, 24th of September 2017


Already a few month back we joined an adventure tour group to kayak through Langkawi’s UNESCO protected Geoforest park. The day before we had arrived on this incredible Malaysian island and even though the resort (and especially its infinity pool) was unbelievably alluring, we made it in time for the pick up at the lobby and were taken to the mangroves. It actually didn’t take that much convincing to excite us for the adventure since we had been looking forward to it for weeks – as a suggested activity in our LP it was very easy to find and book the desired trip online way in advance of our holiday. Early after breakfast the guides came by our resort and picked us up as the last passengers on their mini bus and drove us 45 minutes up to the other side of the island. Some of our fellow passengers split from the group to undertake the mangrove boat trip, whereas us and six others went on to paddle through the maritime forest ourselves. Or so we thought. Actually, the first stop on our agenda was the Gua Kelawar, a small cave inhabited by a few hundred bats. There used to be thousands of horseshoe and roundleaf bats living in the cave, but tourism and the subsequent spot-lightening of the dark interior forced them to abandon the place. When the bats were gone the tourists stayed away as well, so as a compromise the agencies removed the floodlights and returned the stone hall into complete darkness again, allowing only small groups of visitors to enter the cave with one flashlight (handled by the tour guide). After a while, this measure convinced a few bats to re-inhabit the cave, but the colony is still much smaller than it used to be before the human intrusion and the continuous disturbances by disobedient tourists with cell phone lights and camera flashes (a lot of them Chinese, unfortunately). When our group entered the bat cave through a small hole in the mountain wall, there were still a few bats hanging from the ceiling. You could guess from the dark pee stains on the stone walls that it used to house many more winged creatures, but even so we were warned not to look directly up to avoid getting bat droppings into our face/eyes. Another interesting feature of the bat cave were the stalactites and stalagmites that at some points went floor to ceiling in intricate shapes, some of them even connecting in the middle to form a delicate pillar.


A macaque monkey watching our tourist group exit the bat cave.


Occasionally, a macaque monkey would walk along the baluster of the wooden bridge that wound through the cave, prompting the two tour guides to remind us to keep a close eye on our belongings (they love to steal things/food). They also asked all of us not to feed the monkeys with anything we brought with us, since it obviously disturbs their natural hunting habits and makes them depended on tourists to bring food to them. Apart from a divers diet of fruits, leaves, and small birds, the monkey’s full name “crab-eating macaque” suggests that they also go for small crustaceans they find in the brackish water of the mangroves. Since these crabs live in somewhat salty and sandy water, the monkeys sometimes wash them in fresh water before devouring them. I would have loved to see this eating habit, but unfortunately a large group of Chinese tourists (all with their own flashlight) existed the cave after us, some of them handing out crackers to the monkeys, completely drawing the animals’ attention towards them.


On our way to the dock of the small water village to board our kayaks.


It was time to return to the petrol-powered boat that had brought us to the bat cave and begin the actual kayaking tour. Since the kayaks are kept on the docks of a small water village upstream, the boat followed the water way right through the towering lime stone mountains the geopark is famous for. The people living there depend on gas and oil from the “mainland”, so our boat picked up two men carrying a gas tank and some other tools. They didn’t want to keep us waiting too long, so once out boat was moored the men quickly grabbed their supplies and came on board. Or they tried. Right in the moment the first guy stepped onto our boat,  a bow wave from another passing boat rocketed our boat and made him sway dangerously close to the water. And just when we thought he had regained his balance he and his gas tank went overboard. Luckily he hurt nothing but his pride and since it was around noon and temperatures were close to 30 degree C at least he didn’t have to worry about his wet clothes.


Team kayak.


Finally it was time to gear up and prepare to get onto the water. After donning a life vest everyone received a paddle and a short but concise introduction to kayaking. We all booked the trip in pairs so each team of two was assigned one kayak and we set out to take a few careful rounds close to the dock. It was unexpectedly hard to coordinate the movements of the two paddles, not to mention more complicated moves like making a turn or navigating through the narrow mangroves. Even though Jelte & I both thought that we already had some good practice from rowing during our time in Duisburg we discovered that kayaking is an altogether different discipline (not that we were experts at rowing). It was beautiful to be on the water and have the prospect of a few hours of kayaking exercise ahead of us. We didn’t dress for the occasion though: late summer days on Langkawi see a lot of clouds in the sky, sometimes even rain, but still the temperature is very high and when the sun does come out, it is very hot on the skin. It didn’t take us long to understand why our two tour experienced guides were wearing long pants and sleeves, plus a scarf around the neck and a broad hat, despite the heat. Within the first few minutes in the kayak we felt a sunburn develop on our shins and shoulders and we were very grateful when the tour began and we entered the shade of the mangroves.


The sun peaking through the clouds and reminding us that we forgot to wear long sleeves in the kayak.


To get to the entrance of the mangroves we had to cross the lake and paddled a few hundred meters downstream. I would have missed the small gap between the roots if the guide hadn’t shown us the way in. It was so narrow that we could only enter one boat after the other and were greeted by a small group of macaques that roamed the roots in search of a meal. They make use of the low tide to climb in between the otherwise submerged root system of the mangroves looking for clams and crabs. I wouldn’t have though that the tide could have such a strong influence on the water levels of the mangrove’s brackish water, but even the river that flowed right past the visitor center dries up when the water levels fall. With the water gone from the lake many iguanas wade through the mud and mud-skippers show off their jumping skills. There are even some parts of the mangroves that can’t be accessed by kayak, let alone boat when the water sinks, and depending on the time of the day the guides pick a different route for the guests to explore the mangroves.


A gap in the the lush green of the mangroves opens onto a large lake, and ultimately, the Andaman sea.


Within the forest all sounds seemed subdued and a pleasant calm unfolded. We slowly made our way through the tangles of the roots looking for animal life, and the first mangrove inhabitant we saw (after the macaques, who strictly wouldn’t count) was a small black snake coiled up underneath a knot of roots. We had found a poisonous viper that was on the hunt for small fish. All sorts of ocean as well as freshwater fish use the protection of the mangroves to lay eggs and raise their offspring, since the narrow root system makes for a far better nursery than the open ocean/water. Unfortunate for the fish that is no obstacle for the small viper waiting well-hidden and camouflaged close to the surface. After about an hour we exited the first mangrove forest and went out onto a large lake enclosed by karst mountains and water forest on all sides. Through an opening at the far end we could see the open sea but we simply crossed the lake and entered another batch of mangroves through a narrow gap in the trees like before. In the middle of the lake we noticed a few eagles circling above us, their wings spread wide in flight, observing the surface of the water below.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

It didn’t take long to understand why the majestic birds were flying above us. Soon after we encountered a tourist boat stirring up a fountain of water behind it and it seemed as though the eagles associate the revving sound of the gasoline motor with being fed. Unfortunately tourist (and tourist agencies) keep feeding them to attract greater numbers, a practice that ruins the natural hunting instincts of the birds and makes them lazy. In many ways, this is quite dangerous for the eagle population, especially because the fatty diet weakens the shells of theirs eggs to the point that they break before the baby eagle can hatch.

The agency we chose for the mangrove tour had decided long ago that they would not take part in the manipulation of wildlife just so that visitors could get a closer look at the animals. It is always a fine line between ethical tourism and the mere exploitation of nature in pursuit of the biggest profits, and so we are grateful that more and more preservation programs are called into life to protect the scarce and often fragile ecosystems and still make it possible for people to experience them up close.


 

Exploring Beijing’s White Cloud Temple

Sunday, 26th of November, 2017


Apart from the many well-known tourist attractions Beijing has on offer there is a surprisingly large number of remarkable sights that draw a lot less attention to themselves. Beijing Bai Yun Guan is honored as the chief temple of the Three Ancestral Temples of the Quan Zhen Taoist tradition. Originally called Temple of Eternal Heaven, it was built in 741 A.D. under Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang dynasty. In the Song dynasty it was renamed Tai Ji Gong. At the beginning of the Yuan dynasty, Master Qiu Chang Chun was appointed to this temple by Genghis Khan to preside over Taoism in China, upon which it was renamed Temple of Eternal Spring. After Qiu Chang Chun’s death, Chu Shun Tang was built to enshrine his physical remains, a hall located east of the Chang Chun Gong. In the early Ming Dynasty, the temple was ruined by war. Since only Chu Shun Tang remained it became the center of rebuilding and the temple was renamed White Cloud Temple. Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the temple has undergone three extensive renovations with support from the Chinese government and so the traditional magnificence of this time-honored temple had been revitalized. At present the temple buildings cover an area of approximately 10.000 square meters, including nineteen deity halls carefully aligned along three north-south axes, with a rear garden, the overall area of the temple is about 60.000 square meters. Listed as a historic site under the protection of the Chinese government in 2001, it houses the offices of the Chinese Taoist Association, The Institute of Chinese Taoist Culture, the Chinese Taoist College and the Editorial Department of the Journal of Chinese Taoism.


Ayutthaya – Bang Ian Night Market & the Wat Mahathat

Ayuthaya, Friday, the 3rd of October 2017


In Ayuthaya one of the most famous sights is a single severed buddha head that looks out from under the tangled roots of an ancient bodhi tree. It’s hard to imagine how it got there since the body of the statue is long gone, but there might have been a shrine in front of the tree once that held an image of buddha. On the day we arrived in Ayuthaya light rainshowers kept coming down, convincing us to postphone the sightseeing to the next day. We did take a long walk around town though and found the Bang Ian night market around nightfall.



The next day, the first thing we went to see was the Mat Mahathat, the temple that holds the bodhi tree with the buddha head. It opens early in the morning at 8am and we were almost the first to buy a multi temple pass for the day. The temple ground was muddy and wet from the rain the day before and it didn’t take us long to ruin our shoes. But even with all the dirt and the bad weather it soon became quite clear that we were at a place that used to be of great importance once. Before Bangkok became the capital of Thailand, Ayuthaya was the center of Siamese power. And the city still is peppered with ancient Khmer ruins, making it an ideal gateway city to the history-ladden other cities in Central Thailand.


Panorama Langkawi – SkyBridge, SkyCab and the 3D museum

Day 3 – Monday, the 25th of September 2017



A lot of time and effort went into the planning of this year’s October holiday. As with almost any destination, the LP is a good first source of information and inspiration. One of the things highlighted was a cable car ride up Langkawi’s Machincang mountain, on top of which a suspended sky bridge gives a 360 degree view over the bays and small islands of Langkawi.  It is also said to be longest free span and curved bridge in the world and is suspended on a single pylon 82m above virgin jungle. The SkyCab going up to the top also holds an entry in the Malaysia Book of Records as the country’s longest free span mono-cable car, and will carry you over a distance of 1700m past two pretty waterfalls and above the tropical canopies of the thick jungle vegetation below.

The incredibly long monday morning queues waiting to enter the SkyCab.

I was temped to buy the advertised express way tickets online to avoid long queues at the SkyCab, but Jelte convinced me to try our luck and purchase tickets at the counter on site. As it turned out this was money well saved, since upon our arrival at the entrance late on a monday morning only some 10 other people were waiting to buy tickets. There are different types of tickets available, with one offering a ride in a glas bottom gondula. This type is three times the price of a regular ride, the latter of which didn’t seem half bad considering the magnificient view we expected. Unfortunately, the windows of our gondula (and probably of every cable car) were pretty badly scratched up, so the look outside was always partly obscured by a thousand or so hairline cracks. But even with the air-condition broken and with no opening in the windows to let in some fresh air, the 10 minute ride up to the top of the mountain was quite cool. Haha.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Included in the entrance ticket to the SkyCab came the entrance to Panorama Langkawi’s 3D museum. Leaving your shoes at the entrance, you walk through a variety of themed rooms that let you be part of the wall drawings.


Since this was our last day staying in a luxury resort with infinity pool access, we only spend a couple of hours at the Panorama Langkawi, before getting back into a cab and taking the 45 minute ride to the other side of the island.

Dataran Lang – The 12m tall statue of an eagle poised to take flight.

The hotel is located on the south east end of the island, with the road going right past Langkawi’s signature Eagle Square, so we took the opportunity to pay it a quick visit before heading back. The harbour was as good as deserted due to the intense midday heat, and so the only other people there were a group of 10 boys visiting from China ( – go figure!), who offered to take a picture for us.

We would already leave for Penang on the first ferry the next morning at 10am, the tickets for which we purchased right there next to the Eagle Square at a small row of counters next to KFC (only one of the booths sells ferry tickets to Penang). And with that we ended our half-day trip and walked straight back up the road to our resort, spending the rest of the day lounging in the pool drinking coconut cocktails by the Andaman sea.

 

The Blue Mansion, Penang

Tuesday, the 26th of September 2017

The Blue Mansion was the first place we went to see after arriving in Penang. Since this historical house opens to visitors only three times a day, we joined the guided tour at 3:30pm. Our ferry from Langkawi had just arrived and after checking into our hotel, we conventiently walked to the Blue Mansion and spend the remaining time until the start of the tour drinking iced bubble tea from a mobile vendor in front. Tourists cannot enter the estate without a tour guide and only some rooms are open to the public, while half of the property is used as a hotel with fine dining restaurant.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.