Posted in travel

On the Tiger Trail – Periyar National Park

From Munnar, I took yet another overcrowded bus on an unnecessarily long journey south to the town that is known as both Kumily and Thekkedy. All across India, I had encountered towns with multiple spellings or pronunciations, and even ones with names so difficult that they were normally just abbreviated (like Tiruchchirappali, which is thankfully just known as Trichy), but here at the gate to Periyar Tiger Reserve, two names are given for the one little town.

Kumily, as I shall call it, is a tiny little town comprised of gift shops, tour guide offices, and hotels. Pretty much all private residences also function as homestays, and anyone not employed in the above places drives a rickshaw for a living. The reason is simple – Periyar Tiger Reserve, which is located right on the edge of town, is a huge draw for tourists across India and abroad. Although your chances of actually seeing a tiger here about as great as the likelihood of seeing the Dalai Lama while wandering through the Himalayas, people nonetheless flock to this little national park that straddles the border between the states of Kerala and Tamil-Nadu. With a population of around forty tigers, as well as some one thousand elephants, it is certainly the region’s premiere destination for viewing wildlife.

I arrived and walked about two kilometers to my homestay – a nice little house on the edge of the forest, run by a polite elderly couple. From the offset they seemed utterly determined to help me enjoy my time in Kumily. They were almost aggressive in their friendliness, in fact. After being shown to my room and told that I must take a rest, they attacked me with cups of tea and advice about what to do, and then booked four days of activities for me after negotiating slightly lower prices than advertised. “You just tell me whenever you’re hungry, David,” the old woman told me. It sounded like a threat, and I got the impression that I might end up being held down and force-fed at some point during my stay.

The first stop on my itinerary was a spice garden. Kumily – and in fact much of southern India – is covered with these little plantations. They are basically just spice farms that have been turned into tourist attractions in order to boost profits since the Kings and Doges of Europe tend to go to Tesco for their cinnamon instead of having it shipped directly from India. Nowadays, friendly tour guides will take you around and show you where your cloves and cardamoms come from, and what pepper and nutmegs look like when they are growing. It is, in fact, absolutely fascinating, and visitors are encouraged not just to look but to grab a handful of each plant and have a good taste or sniff.

A heavily pregnant woman, who told me she was on her last day of work before maternity leave, guided me and two Indian families around the garden, giving us copious details about every plant. Her knowledge of botany was rivaled only by her ability to deal with the Indians, who treated her with the sort of rudeness I’d never before seen. It was so unbelievably casual that they were almost friendly in how they abused and belittled her. It was India’s infamous caste system in action.

The next morning, I was up at four o’clock for a full-day tour of the local national parks. Bleary eyed, I stumbled into a jeep with my guide – a young man who spoke relatively little English and sped off into the night with awful music blasting from the radio. We tore through the dark country roads until we arrived at the entrance of a neighboring national park a little before six.

“The office opens at seven-thirty,” he told me. “You want to sleep?”

I wondered why we had to leave at four o’clock if we were going to arrive an hour and a half early. Couldn’t I have just slept longer at home instead of, as he seemed to be suggesting, the back seat of a small jeep?

I sat patiently until seven-thirty, at which point the guide went in to get my ticket. He came back out and told me that we just had to wait a little longer – for what, I had no idea. Next, he asked if I wanted breakfast, which was really code for him wanting breakfast. Why couldn’t he have eaten during the time we were waiting for the office to open?

It was nine o’clock by the time we got moving. I had been awake for five pointless hours. This had better be a bloody good tour, I thought.

We set off into the park, a vast expanse of dense forest with only tiny roads and a number of reservoirs to remind you that humans sometimes come here. There were two tour jeeps and four private cars. In the other car was an elderly couple from Scotland who liked to complain about anything and everything, which was fine because I have the same hobby. The other cars were filled with friendly but idiotic Indians who I think were disappointed that the park was not divided up into enclosures like a zoo.

That was it for visitors; the park only allowed six vehicles each day. The cars took off at speed, beeping their horns as Indians are inexplicably wont to do, chasing away all the wildlife to ensure that no one would see a damn thing. It probably didn’t matter, though. My driver drove too fast and had little in the way of a knack for wildlife spotting. This was a skill I’d developed during my many safaris in Africa. I saw several sambar deer by the road that he missed, and a number of interesting birds. When we did see something, he was unable to tell me what it was, and gave me all of five seconds to have a look before he took off again. I was decidedly unimpressed.

Thankfully, during the day my driver had the idea of closely following the other jeep, whose driver spoke fluent English, had a wonderful sense of humor, and knew the flora and fauna of the region as you might expect from someone employed as a guide. We were able to latch on to his finds and whenever we stopped, I would strain to hear what he told the elderly couple in his vehicle. Instead of “It’s a bird,” he would explain the mating and migratory habits of the Malabar hornbill. He would point out tracks and scents, and lead us off trail to spectacular viewpoints. Meanwhile, I was surprised my driver could manage to operate the vehicle at all. He didn’t seem to have the requisite intellect for moving different limbs at once.

By the end of the day, we had seen a number of fascinating birds, a family of bison, and honestly not that much else. The park was incredibly beautiful, but the thick forest that protected the animals made it hard to actually see them from the road. I didn’t mind, of course. I was happy to see that such a place existed in an otherwise grossly overcrowded country. There were places where wild animals could live as they were meant to, and I was honored to get close to them – even if I couldn’t actually see many.

The next day I went on a trip into Periyar itself, where my small group hiked for about ten kilometers to a little lake, and then rowed a bamboo raft for half an hour. Along the way, we got within a few hundred meters of some elephants and saw various signs of tigers – like scratches on trees and paw prints in the mud. We were accompanied by several former poachers who had an intimate knowledge of the local wildlife and showered us with useful information. There was also one man who, thankfully, didn’t have a background in poaching as he was armed with a pump-action shotgun. He explained that if we were attacked by a rogue elephant, he would fire it into the air.

“Have you ever had to use it before?” I asked.

“Oh yes!” he laughed, looking very proud.

Later that day, in another part of the park, a ranger was caught unawares by a sloth bear, who was evidently quicker than its name suggests. The bear snuck up behind him and ripped one of his eyeballs out. Everyone seemed very excited about this and not at all worried for the ranger or indeed the possibility of it happening again.

On my third day I took an even longer hike around the park with a group of four other tourists. We mostly climbed over hills on the border between the two southern Indian states during an enjoyable six hours of walking. Again, we got up close with some elephants, saw more bison and sambar, and a huge variety of birds. But, as was expected, there was no tiger sighting.

I didn’t feel much frustration at not seeing a tiger in the wild. I have been incredibly privileged in my life to go on a number of safaris, nature hikes, and even just boat rides into the world beyond human habitation. I have seen lions and leopards, sharks and whales, and a great many of the most amazing species on our planet. Tigers are elusive. They are good at hiding, and that’s probably the only thing keeping them alive right now. All over the world, wherever tigers live, they are under threat. If it were easy to see them in their natural habitat, they would have been wiped out long ago to make fake Chinese medicine and provide trophies for men with small penises.

I would still like to see a tiger in the jungle, but it would not happen on this Indian trip. That’s ok, though. When travelling, you should always leave something unseen or undone. That way, you have a good reason to come back in future.

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Posted in travel

Retreating to the Hill Stations – Kodaikanal and Munnar

During the long colonial period, the various Europeans who lived in India found the summer heat oppressive and escaped to what they called “hill stations” – areas of comparatively cool climates up in the mountains. There are hill stations dotted all over India, and here in the south is one of the most famous, Kodaikanal. Although it is winter now, the more than thirty degree heat at sea level is oppressive enough, and I was eager to venture into the highlands for some decidedly cooler weather. More than that, however, I was eager to escape the crowded, polluted cities that, although they yielded much in the way of culture, were reminding me a bit too much of China.

My trip to Kodaikanal involved another agonizing series of bus rides. On the map, only a little over seventy kilometers separated my destination from Madurai, but the journey took nearly six hours as we wound slowly up perilous roads towards the plateau where Kodaikanal is located. When I arrived, I immediately felt the difference in the pleasantly cool air, and I barely broke a sweat on the thirty minute walk to my hotel.

Now that my feet were feeling better, I soon ventured out on my first hike. A very short walk through scenic – almost European – little villages on winding country roads brought me to a small waterfall in the middle of a forest. I was a little disappointed that it only took fifteen minutes to get there. After all those hellish bus rides, my sense of distance and time had evidently become completely warped.

There was little to see at the waterfall except for piles of trash other tourists had kindly deposited, but there was a group of college kids from Coimbatore who seemed eager to talk with me after I broke the silence by saying hello. Like so many people I’d met in India, they were very friendly and curious about life in other countries. They peppered me with dozens of questions until I turned the tables by asking them about themselves and their lives.

When I asked what they studied, one of them said, “What do you think? We study computer engineering like everyone else in India. Through a stone in this country and you’ll hit a computer engineer.” I hadn’t wanted to perpetuate any stereotypes, but a significant number of the people I’d met in India were indeed computer engineers.

When I asked for advice on where I could travel, they were surprisingly downbeat about their homeland. “India is boring to us. How many temples have you seen already? Too many. That’s all there is to see here – temples and more temples. And everywhere you go, there are so many people pushing and shoving to get the best selfie.”

We talked for about fifteen minutes and I was honestly quite impressed by how negative they were about India. Back in China, if you meet anyone, they’ll ask you the same series of annoying questions that always work up to the big one: “What do you like most about China?” Then they’ll tell you what they like best, which is usually one of the following:

  • The food, which is the best in the whole world
  • The culture, which is the best (and oldest) in the whole world
  • Their president, who is the best in the whole world

I suppose, being from Scotland, I have an innate distrust for anyone who lacks a capacity for self-deprecation.

Over the next two days, I continued to hike further and further from my hotel into the mountains surrounding the little tourist town of Kodaikanal. My first long hike began the next morning as I ventured west, past a number of little churches (India is much more Christian than I expected) and away from the main roads into thicker forests along progressively smaller paths. Every now and then, I would see a small group of people – usually college students – hiking and we would talk for a while before parting ways, but mostly it was peaceful. Sometimes I would see monkeys come down from the trees, and a few interesting birds. But there wasn’t much of a view as there were clouds all around. This just made the cool air even colder and more refreshing.

The further I walked, the quieter it became. I was delighted. Although India had offered up fantastic rewards, the price for these had been the crowds and traffic. Out here, I could hear only the birds and monkeys. But then another sound drifted through the forest. It was a sound that filled me with a sense of dread – the music of Jack Johnson. He is to tourist douchebags what John Williams is to Steven Spielberg movies. Soon I reached a small village of homestays and guest houses all filled with young foreign tourists. As I appeared, it seemed as though they all turned and looked at me and my Guns ‘n’ Roses t-shirt with disgust. They all had dreadlocks and nose piercings and wore Indian clothes probably made from organic cotton. The little shops that lined the narrow dirt street all advertised avocado toast.

What was this place? I wondered. I had come so far into the middle of nowhere and stumbled into some kind of hipster hell. If I wanted this kind of crap, I would have gone to Goa instead. I kept walking and soon disappeared down a tiny hiking trail that mercifully took me away from the little lost commune of assholes. I soon began to feel more comfortable. The trail led through the forest and down the side of a mountain. Occasionally, there were old men and women selling water and crisps, but mostly it was once again just me and my thoughts.

Sometimes I stopped at interesting or peaceful places but there was never much of a view because of the clouds. Occasionally they would part just enough to remind me that there was a world outside the mountain, but for the most part it looked like an old Japanese painting – more white space than actual paint. Once I stumbled upon a gaur – also known as the Indian bison. It is a dangerous but rare animal which inhabits these hills. Absolutely massive, with a large hump on its head, it looks menacing from any distance. However, I was determined to get a photo and attempted to get close to the great beast. I was confident that it would not charge me as I am quite familiar with photographing supposedly dangerous animals. It is true what they say – it is man who is the most dangerous animal. When you show other animals respect, they seldom pose any threat.

Unfortunately, what I didn’t realize was that there was a man nearby, and he chucked a rock at the gaur to scare it out of his path. The gaur rushed towards me as I dived out of the way. Thankfully, I was not gored, nor did I fall to death off the side of the mountain. But nor did I get my photo. I ran down the mountainside after the terrified animal, but it was like chasing bigfoot through the redwoods – I ended up with nothing but blurred shots of fur and trees.

*

The next day, I set out on another long hike through the hills, following a circular route that appeared on a map to be a pleasant walk in the forest. Unfortunately, I had misread my map and it was a road rather than a path that I walked along. I was also unaware that it was Independence Day and so any time I passed anything of even the faintest interest, it was obscured by twenty tour buses filled with loud Indians. Every viewpoint, every cave, and every interesting looking tree had a few hundred people crowded around. Of course, when my white face passed by, each person would turn and attempt to engage me in conversation, and then ask politely for a selfie.

“Where are you coming from, my friend?”

“Scotland.”

“Oh yes, very good police.”

I heard that about a dozen times over the course of the day. It finally dawned on me that they were referred to Scotland Yard, which is of course located in London.

When I returned to the town after twenty-five kilometers of interrupted hiking, it was to a new hotel. The first one, which was rather pleasant, had cast my out after my two night booking expired, and I was forced into a “budget hotel” that was actually far more expensive than any I’d previously stayed in. Whenever I inquired about an amenity – WiFi, hot water, bed sheets – the owner would smile and say, “No, sir. This is just a budget hotel.” I was amazed my room had a roof over it. The hotel was rather inconveniently located opposite the bus station, and all night I was treated to the loud honking that the drivers felt was necessary open entering or exiting the station, or indeed even just while staying parked. At five in the morning, I was awoken again by the sound of two Indians having a friendly conversation on the stairs outside my room. Just like the Chinese, Indians sometimes feel it is necessary to shout at the top of their voice when speaking to someone just a few feet away.

When morning came, it brought even more noise and I quickly checked out of the hotel and boarded a mini-bus for another hill station, Munnar. Located in the neighboring province of Kerala, Munnar sounded like it was more of the same – a cool, somewhat quiet retreat in the mountains. As I was sick to death of public transport, I opted for the far more expensive option of a minibus. I couldn’t bear the thought of another unnecessarily long and cramped journey.

Unfortunately, the owner of the minibus (which was actually just a large family car) had booked seven people into a car which could only hold six at most. My fellow passengers argued vociferously with him as I kept quiet. There were a few reasons for my silence. First and foremost, out of seven people, I was the only person travelling alone and therefore the most likely to be kicked out of the car. Second, I had quietly snuck into the passenger seat when the space issue first arose, and I didn’t want to give it up. And third, I am a coward and quite content to put up with unreasonable situations rather than confront anyone about the matter.

I watched in awe as an English radiologist calmly but forcefully refused to go anywhere in such a crowded vehicle, and demanded a refund if nothing was done about it. In the end, the owner backed down and two people were switched to another car. I was impressed and relieved in equal measure. We hit the road with five people in the car and plenty of legroom.

The bus ride up the mountain had been long and painful, but the ride down was entirely different. It was terrifying. I immediately began to regret sneaking into the front seat. The driver took the hairpin corners at breakneck speed, even though one wrong move would have sent us hundreds of meters down the side of the mountain. In true Indian style, he would approach a slower vehicle and beep his horn before blindly overtaking. If another car came in the other direction, it didn’t matter. Indians seem to think that the horn bestows magical powers on them. It is, in fact, a quirk of drivers all across Asia, and something that probably explains the horrendous number of deaths from car accidents across this bizarre continent.

Even though Kodaikanal and Munnar are just fifty kilometers apart, the route down one mountain and up another extends this journey so far that it took us an incredible six hours to reach our destination. Six hours of utterly reckless driving to the sound of Indian love ballads that came from the car radio. The views were probably stunning from beginning to end, but I spent most of my journey with my hands over my eyes or my head between my knees, alternating between blind terror and carsickness.

When we arrived in Munnar, I felt that my ordeal was over. I stumbled out of the car and went out to find a hotel. It seemed that every second building in Munnar was a hotel, guesthouse, or homestay. How hard could it be to find somewhere to sleep?

Four hours later, after trekking from one end of town to the other and back several times, I finally found a small and grossly overpriced hotel that had one available room. It was only double the price of the next most expensive place I’d previously stayed but by this point, even if the manager had asked me for a kidney, I wouldn’t have thought twice. I wanted to go to bed, not because I was tired but because I wanted the day to end.

Using the hotel’s mediocre WiFi, I arranged a better hotel for the following day. It was highly rated online, located in the quiet hills just outside of town, and marked down to well within my budget. I was delighted. The next morning, I set out for a short hike to some nearby tea fields and reveled in the beauty of the artificially manipulated landscape. It was a stunning sea of green – and best of all, I somehow stumbled into an area with no other people nearby so I could sit and enjoy it all in peace. Things were looking up for my stay in Munnar.

Irritatingly, when I returned to my hotel to pack my things and go, just a half hour before I was due to check in at the new hotel, I received an e-mail saying that they could no longer honor my booking. Those bastards, I said to myself. Those complete and utter bastards. I looked again online and could find absolutely nothing comparable. In the twelve hours since I’d booked, almost everything else had been taken. Instead, I booked a modest room in town and pledged to get the hell out of Munnar the next morning. Beautiful tea fields or not, Munnar could get fucked.

I angrily shoved my things into my backpack and set off on the long walk back through town to the southern end of Munnar, where my hotel was located. When I arrived, I found that my backpack hadn’t been fastened properly and I’d left a trail of clothes stretching two kilometers back along the dusty road. It was, as they say, one of those days.

After confusing the locals by slowly winding back through town, picking up dirty socks and underpants off the filthy roadside, I hunted down a small hiking trail near my hotel and climbed up through the tea fields to the top of a large mountain. It was a long climb, but I had a lot of pent up anger to get out, and the exertion felt good. When I reached the top, I was inside a cloud and there was a gentle breeze. All around me the scenery was beautiful – just the outline of the mountains were visible through the haze. From down below, you could just hear the sound of cars leaving Munnar as the Independence Day holiday drew to an end. But I didn’t care about what was down below anymore. I spent an hour climbing large boulders and scanning the landscape, before just sitting on a big rock and letting all the stress melt away in the wind.

Here’s the thing about travelling in India – it’s not easy, but you should never expect that it would be. If you want a calm, relaxing holiday in a lovely environment, there are countless places in the world to do it. And if you really want to see the best of India and avoid all the shit, you could probably pay for that, too. Instead, some of us travel the hard way in search of something we don’t even know. We chuck some things in a backpack, head for the rickety old local bus, and stay in roach-infested hotels. If you let it, this can all get you down pretty badly. But you need to learn how to rise above it, and when you do, what you find is that you emerge into a better world than anyone else could see. In Thanjavur I had witnessed a busload of fat Americans half-heartedly sticking their iPhones in the direction of incredible carvings and snapping a photo without even taking a look at what was there. They had probably seen so many temples and other historical locations that day that Brihadeshwara meant nothing to them except maybe a few likes on Facebook and Instagram. My time in India had been challenging, but when I look back on it, I will remember the highlights all the more for the effort I put into getting there.

Posted in travel

The Sacred Tibetan Mountain: Meili Xueshan

After spending a little time in Lijiang and Shangri-La, my girlfriend and I took off for a more remote part of China. We were keen to see something different and to get away from the crowds. To use an old cliché, we wanted to get off the beaten path.

From Shangri-La, we took a four hour bus ride up into the mountains. Shangri-La is already at a high altitude. Walking up a flight of stairs there is enough to leave you severely winded unless you’re used to breathing such thin air. But the road north-west leads quickly up into the mountains. It’s slow going on the narrow mountain roads that wind up through the jagged hills. But it’s scenic and the time slips by easily enough. For much of the journey you are following the Jinsha River, which is an early incarnation of the Chiangjiang River (better known in the West as the Yangtze). However, soon this is replaced by the Mekong. I’ve seen the Mekong many, many times in the tropical climate of Southeast Asia, so seeing it here in the high Tibetan Plateau is just bizarre.

Our destination is uncertain at this point. My girlfriend has found a mountain online that seems to hold a peculiar allure, and so we’re going close to it and hoping that there’s something to do in the area. We certainly can’t climb the mountain. Aside from being about 7,000 meters high, it’s actually never been climbed before. Well, not successfully. In 1991, a team of 11 Japanese climbers attempted to summit Meili Xueshan but were all killed by an avalanche. Some Chinese climbers attempted to climb it five years later but failed, too, although they at least escaped with their lives. The mountain has been closed to climbing ever since as it is considered sacred to the local Tibetan Buddhists. This makes it the first and only mountain in China that’s entirely closed to the public for cultural or religious preservation.

Our bus took us to the tiny city of Deqin, embedded in the side of a mountain. It is a remote city and one that looks precariously balanced – in threat of falling thousands of meters down to the river below. The people there look as tough as mountain goats and the buildings suggest that they may indeed have been replaced every few years after falling into the valley. When our bus arrives, we expect to take a car to the nearby town of Feilaisi, but the bus driver tells us he’s going that way and we can just give him 5rmb to stay on.

Soon we arrive in Feilaisi, a tiny tourist town comprised almost entirely of hotels. It’s also built into the side of a mountain, and exists almost entirely because it offers a perfect view of Meili Xueshan. Or rather, it would were it not for the massive cloud bank that engulfs everything around us. Instead, we are stuck in a tiny town with nothing to do, in a grossly overpriced hotel, looking at the inside of clouds.

We take a walk around the nearby hills but the stunning views are entirely hidden. A lonely path takes us on a long walk through a forest. As we get to the farthest points, the winds pick up and the temperature drops suddenly. Then the rain begins to fall hard around us. It is a tough environment here in the mountains. You can’t breathe, can’t see anything, and it’s freezing cold. Yet, as we found out later, despite the cold it’s incredibly easy to get sunburned.

We debated what to do next. Meili Xueshan seemed to have been a waste of time. The stunning mountain views were nowhere to be found. Even the locals told us that it’s very rare to see the mountain. A man in Shangri-La told us he’d taken five spiritual pilgrimages here and never once seen its peak. I decided what we needed was to get closer. Feilaisi was famous as the best place from which to view Meili Xueshan, but if even one of the mountains was enveloped in clouds, there was no view to be had. It made sense that we ought to be closer, even if we ended up viewing the damn things from the bottom.

*

The next morning we stood with a small gathering of tourists (most of whom had large cameras mounted optimistically on tripods) at 5am, looking out at where the mountain should be. Meili Xueshan’s sunrise is supposedly one of the most beautiful sights in all of China. Alas, we could see almost nothing. We stood around in the freezing morning air until it was apparent that there would be no sunrise of any kind, and then headed for our bus.

The next destination was Yubeng, a tiny village near to Meili Xueshan. I didn’t know where exactly it was, and there wasn’t an abundance of information available, but we had found a man driving a minibus that way for just 20rmb, so we hopped on. They say that Yubeng was closed off to the outside world until a man one day appeared and no one could figure out where he came from. They followed him back through the mountains and found his home under a rock. That story pretty much tells you how easy it is to get to Yubeng.

Our little minibus wound its way down almost 2,000 meters in an hour and a half, along some sickeningly steep mountain roads. At more than a dozen places, the mountain had collapsed and consumed the road, and some of these seemed to have occurred in the last few hours. We came to a bridge that had also been hastily constructed to replace the other, just fifty meters away, that had collapsed into the Mekong. When we finally reached a place called Xidang, and were told it was our final destination, we were glad to be off that death trap bus.

Unfortunately, given the lack of information available, we had failed to realize that Xidang was the final stop on the road to Yubeng, and that the rest of the route was done on foot. This was a 12km hike over a mountain – another few thousand meters up and down. The trek would take some six hours and I did it with two people’s luggage on my back. It would have been a beautiful walk, but in fact it was excruciating.

*

At about 3,800 meters up we summited our own mountain and began the walk down into the valley where Yubeng was located. At this point, the agonizing journey became entirely worthwhile. The clouds that had covered Meili Xueshan broke and we were in a perfect place to soak up the view. What appeared in front of us was a perfect snow-capped mountain and a lush green valley. It was straight out of a picture book.

We stumbled down the hillside to Upper Yubeng (the village is divided in town, on either side of a river) and tried to check in at our hotel, Lobsang Trekkers. It went something like this:

Me: Hi, I have a reservation…

Owner: Oh, is that from Booking.com?

Me: Yes.

Owner: Oh, well we don’t accept those bookings.

Me: Yes, you actually did accept it. See, it says here you confirmed the booking.

Owner: We meant to stop using Booking.com a few months ago but we never actually got around to doing it.

Me: I made this reservation yesterday. You confirmed it. You agreed to it. You have to let us stay here. We just walked six fucking hours over a mountain to get here!

Owner: I’m sorry, we’re full.

It went on like that for a while but there was no reasoning with these bastards. They had sold out all their rooms and refused to let us stay. We ended up at a shitty guesthouse a mile down into the valley. Granted, this new place had a stunning view, but it lacked just about every other feature you’d expect from a hotel.

We wandered about the village but by now it was late afternoon and the sun was already going down over the mountains. There wasn’t much to see, but it certainly was quaint. Little mud or wood shacks were tiled with wooden slats for roofs, and people lived together with their horses and pigs. Everything was on a slope going down to a raging river, and walking what would have been 200 meters as the crow flies could take half an hour or more of climbing. We sat and watched the sun go down over the mountain from Lower Yubeng and then called our bus driving friend about how to get out of Yubeng after another day.

There was some bad news: We simply wouldn’t be able to get back to Lijiang in time for our return flight several days later. We had to leave first thing the next morning.

Now this was extremely difficult news to take. We had spent days travelling to get here, not to mention a six hour hike over a mountain with heavy luggage. My legs were dead weight and the thought of climbing back over to Xidang was too much to bear. We weren’t even going to get to explore the valley. There were waterfalls and glaciers to see… but all of that required at least 4-5 hours solid hiking. Yet we had to get out at first light and make a break for the morning buses in Xidang.

*

The next morning we woke in bad moods anticipating a difficult journey back to Xidang. However, we were greeted by a beautiful sunrise:

sunrise
View from hotel window, shot with GoPro.

After that, we started up the side of the mountain. We got only a short distance before I said, “Fuck it, let’s hire horses.”

That wasn’t as easy as you’d think in a village filled with horses. For some reason it took a good two or more hours to get horses, and they weren’t much faster at going over the mountain than we were. I suppose, in fairness, they were actually more like donkeys than horses. Worse, my horse/donkey was incredibly aggressive and kept making sharp runs towards the edge of the path, threatening to throw me over a thousand meter drop. It took four hours to get back, and it was far more exhausting than walking. And besides, we’d missed our damn bus.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR4569.

The horses cost me 900rmb and our only option for getting back was a mini-van full of idiots that cost me another 300rmb. Thankfully, though, it drove us all the way back to Shangri-La. After a quiet night there, we got another bus to Lijiang and the following morning headed to the airport for the flight back to Hefei.

*

The trip was quite exhausting but absolutely worthwhile. It killed me that we didn’t actually get to spend any time exploring the Yubeng valley, especially considering it took us so many hours flying, driving, and walking just to get there… but the views were stunning and most people simply never get to see that when they visit. I’ve done a lot of travelling during my time in China and the lesson I normally come away with is that it’s just not worthwhile… it can be too stressful and crowded and you just come to some disgusting, expensive, polluted shithole in the end. But this time it was different. Meili Xueshan was a real challenge to see, but it was by far the most beautiful place in China I’ve visited.

Posted in Photography

Another Wildlife Spotting

I love shooting wildlife. And by that, of course, I mean shooting them with a camera. Wherever I go, my camera is slung over my shoulder, waiting to be pointed at whatever animal comes my way. It’s been with me around Africa as I tracked lions, rhino, crocodiles, and hippos. It’s been with me in South and Southeast Asia as I went in search of leopards, komodo dragons, and elephants. And while in Scotland, it’s also served me well as last week I was incredibly fortunate in spotting a red fox chasing a rabbit through a field.

Around Scotland, you’ll often find deer in the forests and on the hills, but they’re sometimes difficult to see. At best, you can expect them to appear virtually on the horizon, and if you get any closer, they’ll bound off out of sight in a heartbeat. They are beautiful but very shy animals. I see a lot of them in my walks when back home in Scotland, but even the 42x optical zoom on my camera struggles to capture them adequately. However, yesterday I managed to get a closer experience.

I was out walking on my own over Lucklaw Hill when suddenly a small roe deer appeared in front of me. It was perhaps about fifty feet ahead. It clearly hadn’t noticed me, and when it turned away I stalked closer. I was able to shoot a few dozens photos, but as the light was poor, not many of them turned out well.

This was one of the best:

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The next photo I took was a bit better, and captured the animal as I finally noticed me:

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When finally it realized that I was a person and that it had better not hang about, it turned and ran up a steep hill, making an odd barking noise just once, and then disappeared into the trees.

Posted in Photography

Walking from Elie to St. Monans

Yesterday, on a windy but warm summer day, I walked from the little harbour town of Elie to another little harbour town called St. Monans with my mum. The coast of Fife – and indeed much of Scotland – is dotted with these little picturesque fishing towns comprised of old stone houses that are often painted in bright colours, narrow winding roads, and flower pots dotted around. In the harbour itself there are invariably boats either bobbing in the water or resting on the sand.

We arrived to a busy car park and headed out into the cold, but soon after starting out the coast cut off the worst of the wind, and in the sunshine it was actually quite warm. The walk along the beach was pleasant, and soon we moved up onto the little path, passing by many others who’d spotted a good opportunity for a Sunday walk.

The pleasant scenery made for a good day taking photos:

 

My favourite, however, was a shot I took of St. Monans harbour:

St. Monans Harbour

Posted in Photography, travel

Mount Fuji and Hakone

It’s been a month now since I got back from Japan, and as I was there with my girlfriend I didn’t really make notes or keep a journal, so my mind is a little foggy as to the exact ins and outs of the trip. Also, I’m stupidly busy with work, so this shall be a short entry…

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After the Guns ‘n’ Roses/ Babymetal concert in Saitama, Vera and I headed to Shinjuku and then took a bus out to Yamanakako. It was surprisingly difficult to find the bus station, but thankfully – as is always the case in Japan – a friendly passer by helped us out. Then, friendly staff at the station ensured we caught a bus within a few minutes of arriving. Japanese people are the best.

At Yamanakako we checked into the lovely Yamanouchi Guest House, where we were greeted by a friendly little old lady who spoke not one word of English, but kindly showed us around her home. Then we explored the nearby lake, where I shot some photos as the sun set over Mount Fuji.

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The next day, we decided to climb Mount Fuji, and headed for Fujikawaguchiko. We were flabbergasted by the price of the local bus. In China, $0.20 can get you pretty far. In Japan, a short hop is $20! We booked a ticket on the hiking bus up to the highest station still open in the winter, and enjoyed the slow ride up the mountain.

Sadly, we found that the highest stop had no hiking trails, and so there was nothing we could do except stand around for an hour and a half in the freezing cold, surrounded by hundreds of rude and noisy Chinese tourists. Soon the clouds pulled in and the views were obscured. Mount Fuji, it seems, is better enjoyed from a distance.

We returned to Fujikawaguchiko and climbed a nearby hill, where there were mercifully no Chinese people, and a few birds to watch diving in the dying light. Mount Fuji was cloaked in cloud, and I realized how lucky we had been the previous day to have seen it in its full glory.

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The next morning we set off south for Hakone, a scenic area of mountains and lakes and valleys, connected by a fantastic network of buses, boats, trams, trains, and cable cars. Thankfully, this was all covered under the price of a two-day visitor card, otherwise we would have been broke in a few hours. We checked into a little hostel in Gora, and set out to explore the surrounding area.

The following day, we took in Hakone Gora Park and then took the ropeway to Lake Ashi, from where we could see Mount Fuji once again. It was a beautiful ride there, and a ridiculous ride on a giant pirate ship across the lake to Hakone Machiko. Alas, in Japan everything closes really early and we were soon stuck out in the middle of nowhere, awaiting a bus back to Gora that seemed it would never arrive.

The following day we visited the incredible Open Air Museum, with countless sculptures installed across a vast tract of land in a picturesque valley. We intended only to spend an hour or two, but in fact we lost almost a day explore the artwork, the highlight of which was the Picasso exhibition.

In the evening, as always, we enjoyed the onsen and a few local beers (still not impressed) and sakes (very impressed). It was our last day in Japan.

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The trip back to Tokyo was a long one, but eventually we found ourselves in South Korea for a fourteen hour layover, and then Hefei, before an airport express bus took us home to Huainan. The trip had been short but enjoyable, and unbelievably expensive. Coming back to China is like going back a hundred or more years, and for my poor girlfriend, who had made her first trip out of China, it was a shock to return and see China through fresh eyes – the unnecessary chaos and filth at every turn. Oh well. It is an odd land for sure, but it – for now – our land, and it’s strange good to be back here.

Posted in travel

Matara: Surfer Paradise

From Katharagama to Matara

After a long night’s sleep, mercifully under a mosquito net, as Katharagama is blanketed by bugs at nighttime, I walked to the bus station and looked for a bus to Matara. It didn’t take long to find one, but once I was on the bus, it certainly took its time in getting on the road. I sat in the overcrowded vehicle for more than half an hour, waiting to get going.

Eventually, we did get moving and the bus took off on a long, winding journey along the coast, occasionally moving inland to visit small villages, before returning to the “highway” that leads past white sand beaches and sleepy fishing villages. The bus seemed to stop at every tiny settlement along the way, picking up old women and monks and schoolgirls in their all-white uniforms, so that the bus was never less than entirely crowded. Occasionally, men with tambourines would get on and the blaring rhythmic music from the speakers would cease as the men droned ancient songs for the passengers. At one point it stopped parallel to another bus down a dusty back alley and all the passengers got off and settled into the new bus, which looked almost exactly the same. With no ability to speak the local language, I was left baffled and frustrated.

Some three hours after leaving Katharagama, the bus stopped in Matara and I struggled to get off through the densely packed aisle, practically falling into the bus station. The journey had not been pleasant, and as I stepped out into the heat, I knew I had to choose between a long walk to my next homestay, or else an expensive tuk-tuk ride. I suspected that, as the homestay was in a fairly isolated area, I would be heavily gouged for the ride, so I decided to walk it in spite of the heat and the distance. Annoyingly, the bus had driven right past the street on which my homestay is located some five minutes before reaching the bus station.

I made my way along the waterfront, which was pleasant enough. The beach was very quiet, whereas in town it had seemed rather busy. A number of tuk-tuks stopped to offer me a ride, but I waved them away. After Yala, I needed a few cheap days at the beach to balance my budget. I stopped halfway at a little tea shop and had a sandwich and a pot of tea, which thankfully cost just $0.50 altogether, and then set back out on my long walk. I tried following the beach but it came to a rocky outcrop which, without bags would’ve been possible to climb, but with my luggage was certainly impassable. Instead, I followed a busy road with no pavement up a long, steep hill, with cars and tuk-tuks throwing up dirt and dust.

Finally, exhausted and sweaty, I arrived on a long, narrow street that led down to a white beach. The street had a few hotels and restaurants, but not much else. It seemed like a sleepy suburb that had been half taken over by surfers. Most of the businesses had “surf” in the name, although my destination was called Guillet Beach Homestay. The few people walking up and down the road all held surfboards under their arms, except for one lonely tuk-tuk driver who just grinned stupidly at everyone who passed him.

As with previous accommodations, this was a pleasant little house run by a local family. The chief English speaker was the young daughter, probably about twelve years old, who would talk endlessly whenever prompted. She attended school each day, but in the mornings and evenings she would talk with guests and, as a result, her English was excellent. The rest of the family were friendly but quiet and the father, a tuk-tuk driver called Lucky, was apparently in Colombo for the week. At the house there was a polite young English couple, and a large group of Swedish girls who spent nearly every waking moment on their surfboards.

I spent the late afternoon and early evening walking about the local area. There wasn’t much to see except for the beach, which was clearly the big attraction for the area. The horseshoe bay was beautiful and also funneled waves in constantly at a medium size, making it perfect for surfing. In fact, walking around, I found myself about the only person who didn’t have a surfboard. I sat and watched the sun go down as the stars popped out and began to move across the sky. The waters emptied first and then the beach, and soon it was perfectly quiet.

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Surfing Beach, Matara

Walking Around Matara

The following day, after yet another giant Sri Lankan breakfast, this time eaten in a surprisingly English dining room, covered in floral patterns and dolls, I set off for a walk back into town. This time I intended to follow the coastline all the way around, rather than taking the unpleasant road route. I set off early and clambered over hot, sharp rocks, but enjoyed the peace that came being between the town and the surfers’ beach, completely alone. Even without bags I ended up with bloody hands and knees from the challenging climb.

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Isolated beach, separated by two jagged outcrops

I walked around the bustling little town, admiring the Dutch colonial architecture as it clashed with modern shop fronts, but there really wasn’t much of any interest to see there. It wasn’t unpleasant, but it also wasn’t particularly exciting, and so after a visit to the Star Fort and taking a few photos of the Buddhist island temple, I walked back along the beach to my part of town, getting back by 1pm. I’d expected the trip to take up a whole day.

Finding myself back by lunchtime, I ventured next door to a small restaurant called “Chillz” and, after ordering some reasonably cheap food, I enquired as to whether there was any beer available off the menu… The owner smiled and said, “Yes, today we have.” I was beginning to realize that beer is heavily taxed in Sri Lanka and most businesses simply don’t advertise that they have it in order to avoid certain legal requirements. It had been about five days since I last had a beer and even though this one, called Lion, tasted like crap, it was cold and alcoholic – good enough for me.

After lunch I walked along to a quiet part of the beach (not that any part was particularly busy) where the waves were slightly smaller than elsewhere and swam for an hour or two, soaking up a bit of sun. It had been a long time since I’d swam in the sea. The last time had been in Indonesia during the summer. A few small groups of Sri Lankan men walked by, always friendly, shouting, “Hello, sir, how are you today?”

I returned to Chillz for more cheap food (a roti sandwich) and beer, and then sat on the sand watching the stars until the sandflies drove me to return to the homestay, where I taught Hironi, the little girl, English until her bedtime.

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Surfing Beach at sunset

Matara had proven a nice place to spend a day, but it wasn’t someplace I wanted to stay much longer. Unless I learned to surf, there wasn’t much for me to do. With so much coastline, I figured that there would be better places for me to spend my last week in the country, so I picked a destination and planned on going there the next morning: Hikkaduwa.

Posted in travel

Hiking Around Ella

From Kandy to Ella by Bus

I awoke on my second day in Sri Lanka at the Backpackers’ VIBE hostel in Kandy. On my first day I had seen all I wanted, and it was time to move on to someplace new. I decided on Ella, which lies about 140km south of Kandy.

Walking through Kandy in the early morning, I noted how many people were up and about already, walking quickly to work. Everyone was well-dressed in either traditional or modern attire, and most people took time to turn and bow to the various Buddhist deities that dot the little city.

I found the bus terminal, which was busy and confusing. There were so many buses, and only half had the names of their destinations in Roman script, while the rest were only in Sinhalese. I could see none that were going to Ella. Eventually, I asked a few people who pointed me towards a bus heading south to Badulla, with the promise that from there I could transfer to Ella.

As I sat waiting on the bus, numerous vendors came on board selling mangoes, soy beans, samosas, oranges, ointments, and spices. It was getting crowded when a middle-aged Austrian woman took the last remaining seat – the one next to me. She told me that she was relieved because Sri Lankan men could be quite inappropriate. There are some things you never have to worry about as a male traveler.

The bus took a long, circular route to Badulla, taking almost five hours, but there was a curtain blocking out the harsh sunlight that also obscured my view of the scenery, so I simply engrossed myself in a book I had been given by a friend. All I could see when I tried to look out the window were mountains, and I was sure it was a beautiful scene. On the bus, we were packed in like sardines with absolutely no room to breathe, and right in the middle of an aisle a man beat a tambourine and sang sad songs.

At Badulla we changed to a new bus heading towards Ella. While waiting in the bus station I tried some sort of curry wrap, which I was then convinced was the greatest thing I’d ever eaten, though I never did learn its name. The final leg of the journey only lasted about thirty minutes and the bus was only half full. This time I could see out the window as we passed mountains and valleys and forests and rivers, with great fields of rice and tea. In the middle of one rice paddy I saw a huge peacock standing with its tail feathers fully displayed.

We arrived in Ella, which I was slightly disappointed to find was a very touristy little town. In fact, it seemed every business was entirely devoted to providing for foreign travelers. I set out east for Izuru Homestay, following the map on my phone. Very soon I was out of town, following a windy road through the hills. It seemed that the walk took forever, even though it was only 2km. The heat was intense, despite this being high in the mountains. Eventually, I found the house at the end of a long dirt track, surrounded by tea fields and forests. It was totally isolated.

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Izuru Homestay, Ella

I settled in and soon met all the family. Like most Sri Lankans, they were very shy and quiet, but friendly. The owner works for the government, but the place is mostly run by other family members, including his elderly parents. All of them would ask questions in broken English and then hurry away in embarrassment. They brought me cups of tea, papaya juice, and biscuits as I read on the veranda, looking out on a peaceful hillside that was disturbed only by birds and squirrels and chipmunks.

Trekking Ella’s Train Tracks

Despite being tired and having sore feet from walking so much over the previous days, I set out to find a local landmark called 9 Arch Bridge. On a map it looked like it was close, yet in fact the convoluted route that I took wound its way over many kilometers of hillside. I got lost once and a small child guided me through dense vegetation and a few backyards to a road, and soon after I found the train tracks. In Sri Lanka, it is common for people to walk on the tracks as trains move very slowly and noisily, so there is little chance of being hit.

At the 9 Arch Bridge, there were too many tourists – both Sri Lankan and foreign – and although it was a pleasant enough sight, I quickly continued my way, aiming to follow the train tracks back to town, carrying me in a long circle through the middle of Ella to the homestay. Just before dark, I arrived at Ella train station, which is a charming, picturesque little building that even has a friendly station cat. Flanked by a cricket field, it could well have been somewhere in England rather than Sri Lanka.

I spent the evening in Ella, walking around and eating curry at a small restaurant. As it is a tourist town, everything is grossly overpriced. In Badulla, my little lunch had cost 30LKR, but in Ella I could find nothing less than 300LKR, and most menus listed items around 1000LKR. After dinner, I walked back along the now very dark road, and sat on the roof of the house looking at the stars. After the choking pollution I’d endured in China, it was a huge relief to sit out and see the galaxy through the clear mountain air.

Hiking the Mountains and Valleys

The clear mountain air could also be surprisingly cold. Although Sri Lanka has a tropical climate, at night temperatures can get pretty low, and when I awoke in the morning I was glad of the few items of winter clothing I’d brought with me from China. I sat on the veranda reading and watching the shadows cast by the sun move across the valley, and the light hitting Little Adam’s Peak to the south. Occasionally, beautiful, colourful birds flew about, sometimes coming very close to where I sat. One was a grey hornbill.

A young man brought me my breakfast – a large pot of tea, six pieces of toast with butter and jam, fried eggs, bananas, papayas, watermelon, and roti. It was probably the biggest breakfast I’ve ever encountered, filling the entire table in front of me. Did all Sri Lankans eat this way, or was this just put on for tourists, I wondered.

At 9am, I took a much needed walk to recover from breakfast. I didn’t really know where I was going, but I decided I’d walk until I could walk no more, and hopefully see as much of the beautiful countryside as possible. I started out eastward, heading away from the town, and ended up at the Newburgh Tea Plantation. It seemed you could get a tour of the factory, but I wasn’t interested. Instead, I took a nearby winding road and ended up walking through tea fields for a few hours, where little old women with leathery brown skin worked on the steep tea-covered hillsides, wearing potato sacks for clothes and filling hemp bags with tea leaves. I followed winding paths down through the tea fields and between small houses where women bathed children from buckets and shy, skinny dogs lazily slept in the shadows.

Eventually, I turned and climbed back up the rather large hill to where I had begun, and from there set off for a hill known as Little Adam’s Peak. This refers to the more famous Adam’s Peak, which is further west and a renowned Buddhist pilgrimage point. Little Adam’s Peak looks similar but it is much smaller. I climbed quickly to the top, but found there were many tourists here. After the peace and serenity of the tea plantation and adjacent valley, I continued moving along the top of the mountains to where the tourists had given up, and found three empty peaks that I could call my own. I lazed in the sun for a few hours, acquiring a bit of a burn, before realizing that I was not entirely alone. There was a family of black-faced monkeys (which Google tells me are, in fact, gray langurs) occupying one of the only tall trees on the hillside. They seemed very afraid of me, despite there being a big distance between us, and any time I moved nearer to take a better photo, they seemed ready to flee.

I spent most of the day on the top of the mountain, enjoying the fresh air which allowed me to see for miles in every direction. To the east, and far down below, was Ella’s Gap or Ella’s Pass – a steep, winding road running between Ella Rock and Little Adam’s Peak, and behind it a giant waterfall. Elsewhere were forests and tea plantations. To the south the land flattened out with just a few small hills rising here and there. Just about everything you could see was green, despite there reportedly having been no rain for several months.

On my way back down the hill, I found a small shack selling coconuts, and stopped to buy one and speak with the owner. He was friendly and full of advice. I told him I was going to go to Yala National Park soon, and he warned me not to go. “Too many tourists,” he said. “You never seen any animals. All the people come here and complain, ‘Yala is no good!’” He went on to tell me that I should instead go to Udawalawe, where he said you are practically guaranteed to see an elephant.

With that in mind, I continued my walk back to the homestay on tired legs. Along the dirt path, I saw an old man sitting cross-legged and looking very disheveled. He shouted at me, “Hey, look here!” and opened a little wicker basket. I stopped only momentarily to see what he was doing, and saw as he slapped his hand into the basket, withdrawing it very quickly as an angry cobra emerged. It reared up, hissing loudly and striking this way and that, before the man pulled out an instrument called a pungi, and played his song, putting the snake into a trance. It was clear he wanted me to take a picture of him (he was sitting carefully so that Ella’s Rock was visible in the background) and of course to pay him for the privilege. I immediately continued me walk and tried not to make eye contact, for I felt very conflicted. My initial reaction was amazement. Snake-charming is something I’d only ever seen in movies and on TV, and I had associated it with the exotic setting of ancient India. It filled me with a bit of boyish excitement, even nostalgia for a time I’d never experienced. Yet, another part of me was keenly aware of the cruelty most probably involved. Although I’m no expert, I was pretty sure it was common practice to defang the snakes, or to drug them. In any case, the snakes probably don’t much care for being confined and slapped on the head, and I would give no financial assistance to anyone harming an animal.

When I got back, the old woman made me dinner – a huge spread of curry, dhal, pickles, poppadums, rice, and roti. Sri Lankan food, I decided, is among the greatest in the world.

Posted in travel

New Year at Jiuhuashan (九华山)

Although Chinese New Year is the most important celebration in the lunar calendar, the Gregorian New Year is also important and so January 1st – 2nd is a public holiday in China. As such, I decided to take my girlfriend to Jiuhuashan (Mount Jiuhua, 九华山) for a few days.

Jiuhuashan is one of the best-known mountains in Anhui Province, and is considered one of China’s four sacred mountains because of the number of Buddhist temples dotting the landscape. As China’s transport network has developed and its middle class has grown, Jiuhuashan has gone from being a point of traditional Buddhist pilgrimage to a major holiday destination, although it remains far less visited than its neighboring Huangshan (Yellow Mountain, 黄山).

We left Huainan on Sunday evening and took the bullet train directly from Huainandong to Chizhou – a small city on the banks of the Changjiang River (probably better known in the West as the Yangtze River). Chizhou is the nearest town to Jiuhuashan, and after a night spent in a bizarre hotel, we took a taxi for 80rmb to Jiuhuashan.

When you arrive at Jiuhuashan by taxi or bus, you really arrive at the entrance to the Jiuhuashan National Park, and from there you need to take another long bus up the winding mountain roads to Jiuhuashan Town. Entrance to the park costs 160rmb and the bus is 50rmb return.

Unfortunately, it had become apparent from the taxi that our visit might be spoiled by smog. Most of Eastern China is currently engulfed in yet another “airpocalypse” as a massive bank of thick air pollution blankets large swathes of the country. In Chizhou – which my students had informed me the air is “always fresh” – the air was almost unbreatheably bad and visibility was only about 100 meters. However, as we climbed the mountain roads on the little tourist bus, it failed to improve. It is tempting to thick of these smog banks as low lying, but evidently they stretch up for hundreds of meters as well as going on for hundreds of miles.

When we arrived at Jiuhuashan Town, we set out to look for a hotel before doing some hiking. Yet we were immediately hit by another disappointment. The tiny town was crammed with Chinese tourists. Anyone with experience around Chinese tourists knows that they are absolutely the worst, and sadly they behave even worse at home in China than they do abroad. The roads were crammed with honking cars and people shouting and spitting and doing all kinds of unfathomably stupid things.

Our first turn of good luck came when we saw a hotel and inquired about rooms. The sign said all rooms were upwards of 1000rmb, but the manager told us that was just for the holiday, which had ended that morning. Rooms were now just 250rmb.

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After a quick lunch, my girlfriend and I set off hiking, and quickly realized that although the it was January and we were way up in the mountains, the temperature was really quite high – sometimes around 12 Celsius. Our winter clothes were not needed, and soon we were just hiking in t-shirts, with sweaters and coats stuffed into our backpacks.

We planned our route to take us as far from the town as possible, and also to avoid the one road that leads through the park. It was a steep climb up into the hills, and thankfully as we climbed the noise from below subsided and we met fewer and fewer people. Alas, the smog didn’t dissipate, and although it was at times possible to catch a glimpse of a mountain top, we were virtually blind to the scenery. All we could see was the path ahead of us. That was bitterly disappointing, having come to such a famously beautiful place, but more worrying was the fact that with every deep breath we took we were breathing in dangerous toxins.

Of course, it wasn’t all bad. Despite the disappointment of the view, it was still nice to be in the forest and away from the city. We could see the trees around us for at least a few hundred meters, and everywhere we went there were cats of all kinds, and even a few beautiful birds. In fact, the higher we went, the more cats we saw! For a cat lover like myself, it was paradise.

The temples, too, were beautiful. We stopped off at many of them on our long trek, and admired the stonework and big metal incense burners. Generally, the monks were pretty friendly, although quite a few of them rudely begged for money. At a small village in a little valley we saw monks taking care of dozens of cats, and realized that’s why the felines had proliferated to such an extent, whereas throughout most of China they aren’t nearly so common. The village also had giant walls of dried meat hanging outside every house, and the cats we so well-fed that they didn’t even seem tempted by the veritable feast hanging above them.

Near Baisui Palace, which is home to a mummified priest whose body supposedly didn’t decompose over the hundreds of years since his death, we saw monkeys. I think they were short-tailed macaques. These were by far the most interesting wildlife I’d seen in China, and I could hardly believe they lived wild in the same dull, lifeless province that I live! At first they were very shy, but as my girlfriend and I stood quietly and watched them for half an hour, they become bolder and walked very near to us. These monkeys are huge, and seem only to live on the highest parts of the mountain, foraging food from the bins and from the scraps that the monks leave out.

As we climbed down the mountain and sought out some dinner, we reflected upon the day and decided that the monkeys had made everything worthwhile. Having grown up in China, on the edge of a city, this was my girlfriend’s first experience with real wildlife. She was absolutely delighted not only to have seen the animals, but to have had them come so close to us. It was a transformative experience her.

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The next morning, we set off hiking again, this time with full backpacks as we’d checked out of the hotel. We headed back to Baisui Palace, hoping to trek down into another valley and climb a higher peak. However, our legs at this point were very sore and the extra weight of the bags made it a slow and difficult climb. We were put to shame by the old men and woman carrying giant bags of cement up the steep mountain path for repairs at the temple.

After a few wrong turns that took us on a rather circuitous route up the mountain, we followed a trail heading towards a place called “Tiger Cave” (yes, many places in China are named for tigers and dragons – it’s not just your local Chinese restaurant that follows this custom). We found that along this trail there were absolutely no people, and as it followed the crest between two peaks we were afforded quite impressive views of the valley and mountains beyond. Fortunately, the smog had dissipated a little, and although the view was far from perfect, it was now possible to see the other side of the valley, whereas on the previous day it had been entirely invisible. As we were both very tired, we kept interrupting our walk to stop and take in the view, and soon gave up on the idea of continuing. It seemed that Tiger Cave was actually way down in the valley, and a return up the mountain was a bit unappealing.

We returned to Baisui Palace and nearby we found a troop of monkeys eating from a pile of discarded fruit. There were no people about and we stood in silence, watching the monkeys. A few cats came by, apparently unafraid of the giant simians, and all was peaceful.

After that, we looked around Baisui Palace (really just a temple) and its five hundred gold Buddhas, before descending the mountain and attempting the journey back to Huainan. Alas, as is so often the case in China, the relatively simple trip back was made quite difficult, and it took eight hours on a combination of buses and trains and taxis, arriving home about 11pm. However, after an inauspicious start to the trip, we both agreed that our time at Jiuhuashan had been overall enjoyable – two days very well spent.

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The clearest view during the trip