Land of Enlightenment

“It is better to travel than to arrive.” – Buddha

At the beginning of my second year in China, I had the opportunity to travel to the mystical regions of Yunnan and Tibet. They hold the heart of modern Buddhism, and I was not disappointed in my exposure to unique culture. We were able to visit Lijiang and Shangri-La. Both mountain cities were beautiful, full of wonderful people and traditions, and hosted many activities and different types of foods.

We began our journey in Lijiang, in the heart of the mountains in Yunnan. The hotel was in Lijiang Old Town. It was a beautiful traditional Yunnan building, and because we went in the low season, we had the hotel to ourselves. Old Town itself was a large labyrinthian village filled with quaint homes and lovely shops. The smell of flowers and baked goods wafted through the streets. The runoff from the mountains run through the streets.

We spent the first day exploring Lijiang and trying local food. The next day, we were able to climb the local tall peaks of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountains. They were breath-taking. We walked to the middle level of the mountains, then the lifts took us to the peaks. From there, we were able to climb to the top. We were able to see across all of Yunnan from that height – 5200m (16000ft). The wind and clouds played across the top, and I felt exhilarated to have climbed to the top with my wife.

After the peaks, we were able to explore to springs created by the runoff from the mountain ice and snow. The pools were gorgeous. The streams and rivers collect and serve an entire area of Yunnan around the mountains. The locals gather have held these pools and streams in high esteem for centuries. They have a tradition of hanging prayer bells and prayer flags (flags and bells with prayers on them) – the idea being they will pray on your behalf. These are always hung in sacred places, such as the peaks and pools of the mountains.

I was able to see many mountain traditions while in Yunnan. Traditional dance was something that many locals know. Many of the locals display these dances in shows for tourists. Another tradition is sending candles in lotus flowers down the rivers as prayers. Today, locals and tourists alike send paper lotuses down the streams as both prayers and a tradition of those prayers. We also discovered a wonderful small Irish pub hidden in the rock walls, called Stone the Crows. It is run by an Irishman, and sells traditional pub-fare with Guinness on tap.

Our next stop on this trip was Shangri-La, the mystical mountain village nestled between Yunnan and Tibet. Shangri-La was exactly what I expected and exactly not what I expected. It was both ancient and modern, mystical and practical, sacred and ordinary. The old village of Shangri-La was dozens of miles from the temples that most people know. The old village was also ghostly, as it was off-season, and frigid even in daytime. We were able to see one of the largest prayer wheels in world. A prayer wheel is similar to the prayer bells and prayer flags, it has prayers that are sent when you spin the wheel. We also sampled Tibetan food that made me love the highlands even more. We had barley bread, butter tea, and an assortment of other dishes and soups.

The temples of Shangri-La were a sacred marvel. There are 108 separate buildings in the temple complex on the hilltop. We walked through all of the open temples. We lit a prayer candle. We were even blessed by a monk and given prayer beads. It was an enlightening experience. I felt that I had felt one more part of the world, one more part of humanity.

Although I have enjoyed all of my trips through China, I loved my trip to Lijiang and Shangri-La. The food, the sights, the people, and the traditions that we were able to see and take part were wholly awesome and life-changing. I fully intend on us returning sometime with our son.

 

 

 

Spine of the Dragon

“But it is one thing to read about dragons and another to meet them.” – Ursula K. Le Guin

The Great Wall. It is one thing to call it great, to see it in pictures, to hear about it from travelers. It is quite another thing to see it for yourself. The Great Wall is well and truly great. I was able to go there, to see it, smell it, run my hand along millennia of powerful history. I was in awe of its magnitude.

In October, my wife and I had the second part of our honeymoon. We left Beijing and travelled north to Badaling, an area rich in history, including still standing sections of the Great Wall. We stayed at The Commune, a lodging village in the mountains, nestled among the broken edges of the preserved wall.

There were many sections of the Great Wall. The place we were able to see first was a private wall behind the village. There were only a handful of people visiting, and we were able to take great pictures of ourselves there. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity.

In addition to the wall, the village had a wildlife area and forest enveloping it. It gave it a very remote feeling, which is not something you get China. The village featured large buildings with several rooms sharing common rooms and kitchens. The lodge had a very nice restaurant.

Badaling has many historical sites. Another famous spot, however, is the Badaling Safari. There are many wild animals, such as lions, bears, monkeys that can roam freely in large areas in which visitors drive through. It is a unique twist to the normal zoo experience. For once, the humans are the ones in cages. Caged buses take patrons through the safari, allowing them to see the animals up and close. There is also a larger section with less dangerous animals. Tourists can walk through that area.

I was able to try traditional mountain food. This included black chicken, spicy beans, and flat bread. The food had a wild taste that I loved. The spice, as always, is one of my favorite parts of Chinese cuisine.

Later in October, we were able to celebrate our annual Halloween fright night in Beijing. In the far south of Beijing is a theme park called Happy Valley Park. They have their own version of Horror Nights that was actually fun and enjoyable, complete with their own haunted houses. The park included a traditional form of drama acting that told history in a satirical way. It is another must if you are in Beijing!

In Novemember, we flew across the small pond to South Korea. More specifically, we visited Jeju Island. It was surprisingly modern and westernized. I enjoyed the mix of Korean food and western business fronts. The island was built around a long dormant volcano that now serves as a wildlife park. The park was beautiful and holds its own treasures, including fairly tame animals and ancient burial mounds.

As my year was closing, I was contented that I had already visited three countries in Southeast Asia, along with several parts of China. I enjoy traveling, and I hope that through this blog I can share my travels and stoke a fire of your own.

Thai Honeymoon

“Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.” – Marthe Troly-Curtin

My wife and I decide that since we did not have the opportunity to have a honeymoon when we married, we would take a late on during the summer. We decided to go to the tropics and visit Thailand. Thailand was amazingly beautiful. Our trip went through Bangkok, then south into the jungles to the islands at Krabi.

Bangkok was larger than I had expected it to be. There were several temples and many interesting areas that showed local culture, like the night markets and the river cruises. The city as a whole gave the false first impression of being like any other large western city. While there were high rises, large shops, and chain restaurants, there were also many local places to eat and shop, not to mention the cultural shows (yes we were propositioned to see Ladyboys and Ping Pong shows).

We stayed in the Clover Hotel, overlooking a local park and part of the city. The Hotel had a bit of a mad wonderland feel, which was really cool. The pool was on the roof, and hung from the edge. The bottom on the outside was glass, which let you see the street several hundred feet below. Being afraid of heights, that took some time to swim.

After a night in Bangkok, we headed for Krabi. There we explored the jungles on elephant back, climbed to a high peak (2500m nearly straight up the mountain), and visited a few local markets. On the beaches, we visited the islands on a personal boat and went snorkeling to see reefs and tropical fish.

We ate only local Thai food while we were there. The food was much more sour than I expected. It was just as spicy as I expected. There were more noodle dishes than I had previously known, and the local diet (especially in Krabi) had more seafood than I had suspected.

What would be the first honeymoon of several we would have this year, Thailand was an unbelievably beautiful place with amazing things to do. It was unforgettable.