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Falling in Love with the Philippines

The Philippines government has a tourism campaign called, “It’s more fun in the Philippines” and until we had a few days of Filipino sand under our feet, I thought it was just another silly marketing ploy.  But dude!, it’s true: everything really is more fun in the Philippines.

We started our journey on the island of Bohol, west of Leyte and east of Cebu in the central part of the Philippines – the Visayas.  First, let me explain how difficult it is choose a destination in the Philippines.  The country is made up of 7,107 islands.  That’s over 7,000 islands to narrow down to just two or three.  My main requisites were good beaches and calm waters.  All I could envision was the two older littles scavenging the beach for hermit crabs and galavanting through clear waters while I nursed the baby on shore – everyone content and happy.  Now, to be sure, this didn’t exactly create a short list of islands, but it did give me a place to start: a CNN travel article titled, The Philippines best beaches and islands.  The Philippines most famous beaches are found on Boracay, but that means that they are packed to the gills with tourists and that wasn’t going to make anyone content, so I quickly crossed it off the list (though plenty of folks do give Boracay glowing reviews).  Half of the top ten beaches were very difficult to get to and that didn’t satisfy my second and last requisite – our destination needed to be relatively accessible – which meant no 8 hour bus rides or long ferries.  We’re generally game for whatever it takes to get to where we want to be but the newest addition to our tribe has temporarily modified our travel style a wee bit.

Panglao, an island connected by bridge to Bohol, was a clear winner.  Our hotel was less than 10 kilometers from Tagbilaran Airport and the beaches were supposed to be great.  The main tourist area on the island is Alona Beach, which we avoided for the same reasons we scratched Boracay off the list (though it is a great place to grab dinner and drinks, even with three kids).  We decided to stay at the northern end of the island in a fairly undeveloped area called Dauis.   Lucky for us, it just so happens that there is an awesome little guesthouse just next door to a beautiful big resort there – get a more intimate, provincial experience for a fraction of the cost by night but still take advantage of the luxuries of the big resort by day.  Sign me up.

Natura Vista Resort (hardly a resort, more of a guesthouse), is as cute as they come.  The rooms are set around a central courtyard teeming with beautiful foliage… and a slightly strange little pond/plunge pool/fountain-with-no-fountain thing.  We arrived on Valentines Day and they had the place decked out, including gratis chocolates for dessert and a heart pillow on our bed.  We stayed in a family room with a queen sized bed and a bunkbed – complete with a private deck with hammock chairs that the biggest little affirmed was “as fun as all the rides at Disneyland”.  It doesn’t take much, folks.

We basically had two full days on Panglao, the first of which we spent at the fancy resort mentioned above, Panglao Island Nature Resort.  Beautiful grounds meet lovely beach meet gorgeously calm and clear water.  For 500 pesos per adult (about $10), we could enjoy the resort until 10pm and apply 350 ($7) of those pesos toward food/drinks.  Yes, please.

We got there early on a Sunday and the place was virtually empty until the new influx of guests came around 4.  Though we all managed to come home sunburned, it was a miraculous start to our journey.

By day two, I began to wonder if the resort staff we had come into contact with were  just super professional, or if it was a theme we’d find throughout our journey – that the people of the Philippines are incredibly friendly, warm, open, and generous… and effing fun too.  I’d have to experience more to find out.

After the relaxing start, we opted to take on an adventure for our last full day on Panglao – we tend to have a hard time sitting still on vacation – new places always feel too exciting.  And so we took a pom boat out to an island about an hour from Panglao, Balicasag.  Balicasag is a prime diving destination in the area, with great snorkeling as well.  Going out there, I’m not sure how we envisioned the snorkeling to go down.  Maybe we thought we’d just snorkle off the boat we took there (which was plenty big for the littles to stretch out and for the baby to chill in his travel bed), or perhaps just off the shore.  As it turned out, we got dropped off on the island and then had to take another – very small – pom boat out to the shelf where the fishies were.  Which meant, to be clear, all five of us on this very small boat that had no sun shade.

The bigger littles plastered in sunscreen and the baby covered by the shade of an umbrella, we paddled out.  The Mister was first to jump in and while we waited, I held the umbrella with one hand and a nursing baby with the other, all the while praying that neither of the other two lost their shit.  Which they didn’t, partially due to our accommodating “boat man” (a term we came to learn referred to any man whom manned a boat) who kindly fed the fish biscuits so the kids could air snorkel.  I loathe wild creatures being fed with human food, but for the sake of mental sanity, it’s funny/disturbing how quickly these sorts of ideals are compromised.  It’s called survival, people.  And the relaxing of ideals.  And the disappointing result of parenthood.  And realism.

At long last, it was my turn, yippee!  We were just next to a shelf that dropped down into the great abyss of the sea, a first for me snorkeling, and I could have stayed there all day.  “Boat man” free dove into the depths while I floated, completely mesmorized by it all.  We have yet to sacrifice the time of a tropical vacay to get scuba certified – but it can wait no longer – I must soon experience the great abyss.  Though Balicasag reef is well known for its turtle population, we sadly saw none the day we were there.  My cake tasted plenty sweet without green sea turtles sprinkling on their magic though.

We rounded out our journey at Virgin Island, a small island with a long sandbar and while the mister and the “kids”, which for all purposes stated herein shall refer to the older two littles, adventured about the isand, baby and I chatted with our “boat man”.  Also known as Rafael, he was from the teeny tiny  island of Balicasag and had recently finished high school on Panglao (where he would live in dorms during the week and go home on weekends – something that seems to be quite common in Asia).  He and his assistant wore American t-shirts, most likely picked up at a second-hand clothing stall.  Something like the stuff that doesn’t sell at thrift stores in the US, gets sold to developing countries.  Something like that, I’ve read about it – can’t recall exact details.  But the point is that the stuff we don’t want and that it turns out no one wants, actually gets sold, for money, to other places.  People have to pay money (and more importantly, people make money) for one man’s trash, twice over.  Free trade agreements at their finest.  The result of this is that local industries don’t have a chance and money gets funneled to places it shouldn’t be going.  The rich get richer and the poor stay poor.

Anyway, more about our first world problems (that somehow feel extremely trivial now).

Hungry upon our return, we grabbed dinner from the “Great Australian BBQ” that was run by an American man from Oregon.  It was here that I became witness to a trend we would see throughout the country: young Filipina women and older western men.  A scenario I’m not altogether unfamiliar with having traveled quite a bit throughout Asia, but found in far greater frequency in the Philippines.  While I’m sure that the vast majority of these unions are by choice and are mutually beneficial, it almost never ceases to send a quiver down my spine; it’s the same feeling I get when I see American immigrants barely scraping by and sending every extra penny back home or read stories about Nepali domestic helpers in the Middle East working as modern day slaves (though a far more extreme form of inequality, I realize).  It’s just not fair.  The world isn’t equitable.  The disparity of wealth is staggering.  It’s like being born in a geographic prison.  To get out, you have a sell part (or all) of yourself.

And then we ate delicious organic ice cream made by Bohol Bee Farm.  How incredibly fortunate we are.

When we woke up the following morning, my girl let out a cough and another quiver was sent down my spine (suffering is relative, right?).  She had had viral pneumonia not 6 weeks prior (that found her on the couch with a fever for 14 days) and I knew that her little lungs were ever more vulnerable to any measly cold virus that entered her body.  Sure enough, she was already hot.  And lethargic.  We had three pretty big travel days ahead and I began to scour the internet for the best hospitals in Manila, should the need arise.  Fortunately, we were just transferring an hour to a resort on Bohol that day, Luboc River Resort, which turned out to be the loveliest of places to be sick in bed.

Occasionally your travels find you in places that just resonate and leave you wishing you had more time to soak it up.  Luboc River Resort was one of those, maybe all of Bohol for that matter.  Nestled in the forest on the banks of the Luboc River, the stilted rooms meander over lush foliage and look out onto emerald green waters.  The Luboc River majorly flooded after an intense rainstorm and delinquent release of a damn upstream not two months prior, flooding all of the rooms at the resort almost to their ceilings.  The resort owner said that within 10 days time, they had restored the resort and if she hadn’t brought us down the road to the grounds keepers house, we would have never seen any sign of the destruction.

The little kitty cat (she really is very cat-like) was able to squeeze in some school work after a dose of Panadol (another of the acetaminophen varietals, Tylenol as we know it in the states), reluctantly given to ease our journey from hotel to hotel.  She was also somehow able to muster the energy to ride a water buffalo.  Yes, a water buffalo.  A first for her and an experience she won’t soon forget.  After the daily “monkey feeding”, the owner of the resort insisted that we walk with her to see the resort pig.  They are trying to create an eco-tourism theme, in a man-made/manipulated sort of way.  As in, they have created a pump system that diverts river water through a waterway on their property, making an island home/cage for the monkeys that by the sounds of it, were rescued as pet monkeys.  They also had a rescued eagle for a while but it’s not quite as easy to keep an eagle confined on an island; it apparently found a gf and flew the coop.

It wasn’t quite clear what the water buffalo was for, tourism or work, but the ground keepers six year old son had become the resident buffalo rider.  When the owner asked if the kids wanted to ride, we initially blew her off, citing the kitty-girls lethargy.  Albeit also a tad bit concerned about the safety of riding a water buffalo of unknown origin.  But cats are to buffalo like glue is to paper and before long, our girl was holding onto her new friend as they waddled down the road.

The restaurant at the resort is beautifully designed, open and airy, and were the food to have matched its thoughtful creation, Luboc River Resort would have been perfect.  But the food basically sucked.  We had breakfast, lunch, and dinner there and all three were equally lacking – though the included free breakfast was the clear loser.  Luboc town is just far enough away that going out is slightly inconvenient but probably what would need to happen if you stayed for more than one night.  Even still, hanging out and relaxing at the restaurant was lovely, bla food and all.

Sure enough, our girl went to bed with a 103 and woke up the next morning nearly as hot.  We had exactly 8 hours left on Bohol and still hadn’t seen the Chocolate Hills or any Tarsiers (the world’s smallest primate) though, so we hired a driver/van, set her up a bed in the back seat, and went to complete our adventure anyway.  What upstanding parents we are, huh?  In our defense, she was able to sleep in the van and we were already debating cutting our trip short to get back home and nurse her back to health in the comfort of her own confines, not knowing if this bout was going to last three days or three weeks.  She was. so. sick.  She couldn’t take but two steps without having to be picked up and her fever wasn’t showing any signs of breaking.

At the very least, our animal loving sick girl would get to see her very first tarsier.  And a sea of brown hills (you can imagine how excited she was about that part).  Generally speaking, there is only so much appreciation you can expect young kids to have of landscape scenery.  The most majestic views are often lost on them.  It’s not reaching the top of the hill that’ll stay with them, it’s the snake shaped stick they found and the ice cream they had on the way that will leave them declaring what a great day it was.

The drive to the Chocolate Hills and the hills themselves were a totally worthwhile journey, even given our circumstances.  Lush rice paddies, limestone mountains, and a driver sweeter than candy passed the time quickly.  Carlos, our driver, was native to Bohol, a father of three who had just rebuilt his house after the flood (his kitchen had completely washed away).  He was in a cooperative that managed a small fleet of tourist vans and had taken it upon himself to thoroughly learn the history of his island and the Philippines (both political and natural) after getting questioned enough by his van hires.  He was awash in facts and kept my husband busy chatting nearly the entire time.  He told us that he only kept 20% of the fare and the rest went to managing the cooperative (a fact that found us generously tipping him) and that as long as he could make 4000 pesos per week (less than $100), he and his family could get by happily.  And he was happy.  The one thing he wished for was to see snow once in his life.  He said that he taught his children to never want more than they needed but that if they did well in school and were able to go to college, they’d be able to achieve more than he had.  I’ve never wanted to give my airline miles away so badly.  Or start a GoFundMe campaign for him.  I REALLY hope that Carlos sees snow someday.

After a fairly agonizing journey back to Manila that afternoon, we were welcomed to the Hyatt City of Dreams with a red carpet.  Talk about spoiled.  Within 20 minutes of arriving, we were in our room eating a free plate of sushi while a doctor listened to our girl’s lungs, waiting for fresh chicken noodle soup for the sicky.  Lungs sounded clear, no surprise (it took three doctors and eventually a chest x-ray to diagnose the pneumonia the first time), so we gave her another dose of Panadol, some kids melatonin, and tried to get some shut-eye.  Not an hour after she went to sleep, she sat up in bed incoherent and crying.  I brought her to the bathroom so she wouldn’t wake the other two and she continued with her helpless hysteria, sort of thrashing her head and crying.  As I pleaded with her to talk to me with no success (she’s naturally a sensitive, introverted processor, so I’m no stranger to sorrowful obstinance when it comes to using words to explain what’s wrong), I began to panic.  This was unlike anything I had ever experienced.  It went on for a few more minutes until I forcefully held her close to me and she eventually spoke the word “mama”.  With my heart racing, we snuggled back in bed while I googled her symptoms.  My diagnosis was a night-terror brought on by her fever.  Strangely enough though, she would have another one when we stayed at the same hotel four days later after her fever had for the most part gone away.  Coincidence?  I can only assume so.

Though she was still hot the next morning, we continued on our journey, knowing our next destination was within a few hours drive of Manila and plenty of competent hospitals.  We were headed to an American/Philippino(a) wedding, so like the screen print on our wedding welcome bags decreed, we decided to “keep calm and party on”.

Though she was still hot the next morning, we continued on our journey, knowing our next destination was within a few hours drive of Manila and plenty of competent hospitals.  We were headed to an American/Philippino(a) wedding, so like the screen print on our wedding welcome bags decreed, we decided to “keep calm and party on”.

As it turned out, one of the wedding guests was an ER doc and was able to listen to our gal’s lungs on demand – which like I said, always sound clear, even when she had viral pneumonia – so this was only so much of a comfort for me.  But nonetheless, a comfort.   Our room was situated on the first floor, pretty much right outside the courtyard where the wedding festivities ensued, which was one part NUTS and one part a blessing.  The NUTS part was the fact that one of the major traditions of a Filipino wedding is music, lots and lots of music.  Not to mention that a couple dozen, perhaps more, of the attendees had been in bands with one of the brides.  Don’t get me wrong, listening to person after person with enough talent to be on stage opening for Sam Smith was awesome, but by 3 in the morning, the bumping bass overwhelmed my sensitive little ears.  Let’s be honest, they were overwhelmed by 11.  All I’m saying is that I didn’t get a whole lot of sleep over those four days.  The blessing, however, was the fact that we were so close to the celebration that we could leave the sicky girl to rest in bed watching movies while we joined the festivities just outside our door.  In the end, it isn’t the missed sleep I will remember.  It is the extreme fun, generosity, and love that was present there.  A spectacular wedding indeed.

In other news, Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen, parked his mega-yacht next door to the resort while his team searched and found a long-lost World World II Japanese battle ship, Musashi.  FYI.

By the time we left the wedding and headed back to the Hyatt City of Dreams (which I must say we were pretty excited about based on our first experience) and then onward to Cebu, we were basically smitten with the Philippines.  Its people, its land, and its warm, welcoming ways.

With baby girl on the mend, we kept par for the course and headed to a teeny island (far from any hospitals I’d feel confident about) off the northern coast of Cebu, Bantayan.


Into the Mountains of Yunnan: Tiger Leaping Gorge and the Baishuitai Water Terraces

Does anyone else have an image of the Yangtze River in their minds from oh, I don’t know, learning about it circa 4th grade?  Well, in my mind, it’s up there with the Tigris, the Euphrates, and the Nile.  The little geologist in me was jumping in her britches when we first crossed over this mighty river on our way to Tiger Leaping Gorge, or in Chinese, Hutiaoxia.  The YANGTZE!  We’re driving adjacent to the YANGTZE!  Am I the only one here because I’m fairly certain my husband didn’t share in my giddiness either?

As you approach Qiaotou (the gateway town into Tiger Leaping Gorge) from the south, you have the Yangtze on your right and a series of 16-18,000 foot snow-capped peaks looming in the distance.  And this is just a small taste of what’s to come.

This was the portion of our journey that strangely, I was able to get the least information about despite its international acclaim.  I needed to know whether or not we would be able to physically take a car through Tiger Leaping Gorge and north toward Shangri-la and could only seem to get answers on how one would go about hiking that distance.  So we winged/wung it.  On our way, we called a guest house at the other side of the gorge (upper TLG) to see if they could fetch us from Qiaotou and sure enough, YES! we could drive our lazy little asses through the gorge without ever having to step foot outside.  With regret I say this because had our circumstances been different, we would have totally done the two day trek on our feet and not by car.  Did I mention that I’m pregnant (it’s not really public knowledge yet but I felt the need to explain our inactivity)?  At a mere 16 weeks, there was only a certain amount of body pushing I was willing to endure – as visions/visceral feelings about our Annapurna trek in Nepal surfaced, there was no way I was about to take on carrying a kid through this vast landscape.  And so, with excitement, we drove through the gorge.  And MY LORDY was it ever a gorge.  One of the deepest in the world, Hutiaoxia, at its greatest depth, spans an elevation of 12,434 feet.  And we drove right through it.  Sheer rock walls on either side of us, there were points in the drive (driving into the gorge from Qiaotou, you’re cliffside) that my stomach dropped into my toes, or maybe my head, I can’t be sure.  The larger Little Explorer, whom is nothing but a brave trooper usually, even announced that she’d “rather be walking over the mountain than driving on a cliff next to the mountain”.  But it was spectacular.  SPECTACULAR.  Again, we didn’t have grand expectations and knowing it was such a well traveled area, we/I had poo-pooed it as tourist hype.  Come on though, 12 thousand foot sheer cliff walls, how could that be anything less than spectacular?

Though that 30 minute drive was by all means fantastic, we were all happy to arrive safely at Sean’s Guest House, our home for the night.  The kids have taken to calling hotels, Hotel-Home – perhaps a result of the myriad they have stayed at to date.  We settled into our family room, thrilled to find out it even had a sweet built in stone bathtub, which meant clean kids and happy parents.  Though our stay in Tiger Leaping Gorge was the most expensive of our trip, the view from the patio more than justified it.

We dined leisurely on the deck that evening and made preparations for our next day’s journey.  We’d drive from our guest house, out of the gorge and into the mountains to the Baishuitai Water Terraces in Shangri-la county.

Again, we were totally unprepared for the incredible landscapes we’d come across on that drive.  Surrounded by 14-18,000 foot peaks, we were driving through the mountains.  There they were, just a stone’s throw away (okay, maybe a little further).  It was a 2.5 hour drive each way and I spent every moment I wasn’t  distracted by the kids, awe-inspired and gazing out the window.

The first dramatic scene unfolded as we crested a mountain pass and began descending into Haba Village.  Flanked on one side by Haba Snow Mountain, a near 18,000 foot peak, the valley that prevails down its foothills is astounding.  It looks like a lava flow made out of lush, green farmland.

The entire time, including that of our drive through the gorge, I kept envisioning what those rocky mountains would look like in the rainy season.  You could see where the water naturally flowed and all I could imagine was a mountainscape full of waterfalls and rushing rivers.  I, however, am not sure that I’d want to navigate those back country roads while all that water was flowing, so my daydreams put us hulled up in a little cabin for the season, watching the scene unfold from the safe confines of our abode.

Upon arrival to Bashuitai, we were all hungry little beasts and were ushered to a small restaurant by our driver and brought into the kitchen where there was a wall of prepped veggies.  We proceeded to point and explain in our primitive Mandarin what we wanted, quite uncertain about the dishes we’d actually receive.  Much to our delight (and despite the most grease-caked kitchen we’ve ever laid our eyes on), it was nearly the best meal of our entire trip.  Our host cooked everything to perfection and even had our picky little eaters chowing down on her tofu and cauliflower dishes.

We haven’t come across many Americans in our Asia travels, but for some reason, we came across quite a few during our time in TLG.  The first was while eating out of that greasy kitchen shown above – he was from Vermont and on holiday after a trade show in Hong Kong, whom we chatted with about Vermont’s heroine crisis and the future of our planet.   Another at our guest house – a Duke business school professor and his student, touring around after a university trip to Shanghai and Beijing, with whom we had great conversations regarding energy and the environment.  And also a couple from Washington DC, visiting their daughter who was studying Chinese in Kunming and whom provided equally stimulating conversation.  Though we surely don’t relate to all Americans, there is something nice about running into someone who relates on a deeper cultural level while in a totally foreign land.

Back to Bashuitai.  From the road, it’s only a 20 or so minute stroll up to the water terraces, but because we were unsure how long and how steep the path would actually be, we rented a horse from a sweet, horse toting hawker, to schlep the kiddos up the hill.  Who am I kidding – we rented a horse because our Little Explorers BEG to ride them at every chance they get.  And because I’m pregnant and lazy and the reality of carrying one of the them up the hill was clearly too much for me to handle.  BIG problems people, big problems.

As it turned out, the little bugger couldn’t even get them all the way up to the terraces and the path was so uneven that the woman guiding the horse was a nervous wreck the entire time and both the Mister and myself spotted the wiggling kiddies as they were shuffled up the path.  Basically, carrying them up the hill if needed, may have been the easier of the two options.

As we neared the terraces, a fresh stream of water flowed down the hill and with the sun blazing, it was all I could do not to strip down and submerge myself then and there.  Clean, fresh mountain water – how divine!  We compromised with a head splashing and moved on toward the main attraction.  The bottom side of the terraces are a series of rolling limestone pillows that glisten with the trickle of water flowing over.  It reminded me of a chocolate fountain – you know the kind you find in overpriced hotel buffet brunches, meant for strawberry and marshmallow dipping?  Or at fancy weddings.

We hadn’t taken into account the fact that we were arriving at the terraces on the backside of the dry season, so the water was probably quite a bit more stagnant than normal, which did and did not effect our experience.  The first set of water terraces was exactly what I imagined them to be – a totally unnatural creamy aquamarine color that screamed to be jumped in (which is very much not allowed).  I should explain.  The water terraces are natural limestone rock formations that have an eons worth (200-300 thousand years!) of calcium carbonate from the surrounding mountain spring water built up within them, giving them the unnatural, but totally natural pigment.

As we walked beyond the first set, the rest of the tableland, as it is also known, was a bit of a let down.  I’m assuming that it’s due to the season we were seeing them in, but the primary part of the terraces (the area photographed time and time again) was a series of algae infused pond water.  It was green.  And mossy looking.  Not the white pools with pristine aquamarine water we’d expected.  Algal blooms are generally a result of nutrient loading (mostly human introduced) and I’m really hoping that these pools weren’t just polluted but that because of reduced water flow, they naturally lacked both the refresh and calcium carbonate that the spring waters normally provide.  The rock formations were none the less a pretty marvelous geologic phenomenon to witness (the terraces at Bashuitai are among the largest crop in all of China).

Despite this minor let down, the kids then proceeded to catch and release tadpoles with our driver for the next hour – which honestly capped the excursion off just perfectly.

Because we had opted to spend almost an entire day adventuring to Bashuitai, we decided to stay another night in the gorge, so that we could head out on foot and REALLY see the gorge the next day.  What we were told would be a 3 hour hike turned into an almost 6 hour grueling trek that nearly made us miss our bus back to Lijiang the next afternoon.

The descent into the gorge, which we figured was about a 2500 foot drop, was peaceful and lovely.  The Little Explorers hoofed it most of the way, the sun was at a comfortable level of saturation in the sky, and we were experiencing the mightiness of the river flowing through the gorge for the first time.

However, this was all tempered with the small piece of knowledge that we’d then have to climb back out all 2500 feet, when the sun wouldn’t be at such a hiker-friendly place in the sky.  Deep breath.

The views/river/gorge was fantastic though.

After rewarding ourselves with popsicles and arming ourselves with multiple frozen snickers bars and what turned out to be not enough water, we began our ascent.  Foolishly, we opted to take the more steep route up, hoping that at least it’d shave some time/distance off our journey.  BAD choice.  At this point, it’s HOT, like hot HOT and there is little to no shade on the trail.  Up, up, and up we climb, with no end in sight.  The Mister begins carrying one kid at a time, while the other kid holds my hand and somehow shuffles their little weary feet up that monstrous mountain.  Remember, I’m carrying an apple inside my womb and have been rendered pretty useless – seriously, there was a point that even I wanted to cry – it was that bad.  As we carry on, neither of the Little Explorers has any oomph left in their step and our arsenal of Snickers is empty, which means only one thing: that the Mister will have to carry not one child, but two children up the mountain (one in the ergo on his back, one in his arms).  Someone really needs to give him a Father of the Year award for this one.  It seriously must have sucked for him.  By the time we reached the top, the smallest explorer was shoeless because it was so hot that his feet had overheated and were it not for the random broken sprinkler spraying dirt upon our arrival, we may have all keeled over.

But there was s broken sprinkler and there was a stream of water flowing next to the road we had reached and there was a ride back to our guest house.  And two large bottles of water once we returned.  And no missed bus.  We made it!  It was grueling, but spectacular.

Thoroughly exhausted but entirely fulfilled, we boarded our bus back to where our journey began – Shuhe Ancient Town in Lijiang – where we would find China’s greatest boutique hotel, eat bomb grilled tofu, and let teensy tiny fish nibble on our feet (yes, all 8 of them).




The Splendors of Yunnan: on the road from Lijiang to Shaxi

I’ve wanted to go to Yunnan Province since I was in college after a botched attempt to join a wildlands studies program focused on the relationship between the minority peoples and the environment in the region.  Images of remote ancient villages, vast mountain ranges, and the indigenous cultures of Yunnan imprinted themselves in my mind and have kept my interest after all these years.  Needless to say, I had high expectations for this area of China.

Located in Southwestern China, just north of Myanmar, Yunnan lived up to my expectations one hundred percent.  With less than a week to explore, we surely weren’t able to canvas the entire province, so I can really only speak to the northern part.  You’d need at least two weeks to explore both north and south of the capital, Kunming.

Our journey began in Lijiang, which as it turns out, is extremely popular with domestic tourists.  Lijiang is split up into three parts – Lijiang City, Old Town, and Ancient Town.  Just like much of Chinese antiquity, both Old Town and Ancient Town’s have been entirely reconstructed partially due to the destruction of the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, where most of China’s historical relics and cultural and religious sites were destroyed.  Though they’re tasteful in that the ancient style is maintained throughout, it’s no doubt a glorified, glamorized version of its former self.  Because of this, we realized prior to arrival that Old Town could be left off the itinerary completely and that while in Lijiang, we’d focus our sights on Lijiang Ancient Town.  Despite its commercial appeal and club-hopping nightlife, our experience of Lijiang [Shuhe] Ancient Town was a net positive.  Yes, the eateries are far too expensive and yes, the shops are full of commercially produced goods with non-negotiable pricetags, but there is still much charm to be found and cheap, delicious grilled tofu to be devoured.

Our first night in town was spent at The Bruce Chalet, outside of Shuhe proper and adjacent to the surrounding farmland.  I don’t have glowing reviews about the room we stayed in, other than the fact that they upgraded us to a larger room for free, but the courtyard within the guest house grounds was beautiful, serene, and just lovely, and the all-you-could-eat freshly prepared breakfast was delightful.  Bruce is from Hong Kong and speaks impeccable English, which is always nice when you’re in a new area and need the skinny on the lay of the land.  Also nice when you show up in town, driven by a female taxi driver who refuses to take your coin money upon exit, holding your bags captive in her trunk while you try and figure out why she’s so bent out of shape and need someone to translate the altercation for you.  A word of caution with Lijiang taxis: don’t use them if you don’t absolutely have to.  They remain largely unregulated and totally unmetered because of local laws and as such, have pretty much all of the power.  A better alternative are blue vans that you can pick up just as you can taxis and can also be arranged through your guest house.

After meandering through Shuhe for the afternoon, with both a cultural performance and horse ride under our belts, we happened upon our best Lijiang discovery: the creek that runs through the west side of the village.  Though we later found out that upstream, in Baisha, the waterways are largely used as garbage dumps, our first glimpse of the creek running through Shuhe was clean and pristine – so clearly, we let our kids waste the evening away frolicking amongst its seemingly clean waters, racing leaves and throwing rocks.

It doesn’t take more than five minutes of their pure joy being in nature to reaffirm for me that this is where children belong – in streams and near trees – not on pavement and plastic playgrounds.  Both of our Little Explorers could happily entertain themselves outside, playing in dirt and sand, for hours.  HOURS.  I’m sure this isn’t true of every child, nor would I ever claim that a city-kid is any less well-balanced because of reduced exposure to nature, I purely speak from personal opinion regarding my own children.

The creek is lined on one side with eateries, where a bottled local beer will put you back almost $10, but that are filled with couch like seating where you can melt the day away lounging creekside in the trees.  We justified our $9 side of french fries on the location/comfort and felt it was well spent.

Mid-way through the village, there is a street lined with restaurants and full of fruit vendors.  Most of the restaurants appeared to turn into clubs by night and were also quite pricey, so we opted for a smaller restaurant a bit off the main drag and a bag of delicious locally grown fruit.

The next morning we arranged a blue van from The Bruce Chalet to drive us to Shaxi – an intact ancient village about halfway between Lijiang and Dali.  In my search for more authentic ancient architecture/culture, Shaxi was one the few accessible villages and well worth the detour south.  And it also happened to be very near a national park preserve that in my opinion, is a must for any traveler headed to northern Yunnan, Shibaoshan.  Dali is up there with Lijiang on the tourist trail and crossed off our list because we were less interested in commercially reconstructed culture and wanted as much as possible, with limited time and two kids in tow, as much access to ancient China as we could get our feet on.  Just like the taxi’s in Lijiang, the blue vans are unreasonably expensive – we paid moret to be driven the two hours from Lijiang to Shaxi as we paid the following day for a driver to tour us around for nearly 8 hours, covering far more distance.  And for this reason, staying off the tourist track generally leads to a more authentic, albeit more economical journey.

As we rounded corners on back country roads, with trees giving way to magical little villages nestled in the hillside, we knew Shaxi was a good choice.  Our night spent in Shaxi was at Dali Shaxi Cato’s Inn, presumably including Dali because Shaxi has for the most part been off the tourists beaten path until quite recently.  A major highway was completed last year that has made villages in between Lijiang and Dali much more accessible.  Cato himself met us at the bus terminus in town and transported our bags via his rigged up bike trailer through Shaxi new town and into the cobblestone streets of Shaxi ancient town, where his inn was located.  Sure enough, upon our first glimpse, we were happy with our decision to visit Shaxi.  It was sleepy, it felt authentic, the people were friendly, and the surrounding landscape was just what we imagine Yunnan to be – green, mountainous, and fertile.

We spent our afternoon perusing the local Friday market in the new-ish area of town – which was actually the reason we traveled to Shaxi when we did.  The Friday market finds local villagers (Yi and Bai ethnic minorities) from all over the valley bartering and buying their weekly goods.  We even scored a few cheap Chinese DVD cartoons for the kids – something I’ve been looking for for quite some time.  As we sat eating lunch that afternoon, it was so fun to watch the procession of Bai women carrying their acquisitions in traditional woven baskets on their backs, back across the river to their villages.

Shaxi’s southeastern border (don’t quote me on that) is a meandering river that I’m sure in the rainy season is much more picturesque than the dry version we witnessed.  Nonetheless, it makes for a scenic evening stroll down its bank, with the sun gleaming out from behind the clouds floating above the lush mountains in the distance.  Even at the end of the dry season, this valley still feels lush and vibrant.

For dinner that evening, we quite randomly decided to walk into a fairly indescript restaurant in the alleyway headed towards the west gate in ancient town, called Hungry Buddha.  As it turned out, we stepped off an ancient Chinese street and straight into Italy.  The Italian owner, Mauro, has lived in Shaxi for a number of years – transplanted via Shanghai, where he worked as an Italian chef.  With a simple menu, he has created a boutique restaurant that lives up to every adage of Italian cooking, in precisely the location you’d least expect to find it – making it all the more charming.  As well crafted as the food, was the design of the not much more than 300 square foot restaurant.  I could have stepped back out onto the streets of Florence and assumed I was just dreaming it all into being.  And the best part?  He sources most of his ingredients locally, makes everything from scratch (cheese and all)  AND only cooks vegetarian fare.  All of which are hard to find, from my experience, in China.  Often, international restaurants boast their “imported” products because it gives them some aire of prestige.  But here it was, the most authentic international cuisine we’ve come across, made out of ingredients sourced within the immediate area.  Without a doubt, the pizza we ate there will hold up as the best pizza we’ll ever have in China (and in a long list of other countries as well).

Cato and his wife, Helen, both speak very good English and turned out to have some of the best customer service we’ve experienced in this vast country.  Though their inn is probably two to three times more expensive than a standard budget guest house in the area, both the location and the quality make it worth the price.  Because it’s the end of their dry season, many of the guest houses in the ancient village don’t get water during the day because the pumping systems aren’t powerful enough to get the limited (but seemingly abundant – based on the constant stream of water flowing through town) supply to where it needs to go.  As such, we didn’t end up having water for our entire stay (though Cato did fetch us a water basin so we could at least flush our toilet).  Instead of making us bear the brunt of that burden, they comped our breakfast the next morning – which is served out of their restaurant, Fusion Kitchen, and complete with freshly made yoghurt and homemade bread – and also comped our room upgrade.  So what we left dusty and grimy – we saved $50.

After arranging a car and helping us cart our luggage to the main road, Cato sent us off to explore Shibaoshan and then onward to Hutiaoxia, Tiger Leaping Gorge.  Shibaoshan was just icing on the cake during our visit to Shaxi, as our detour south had already proven totally worthwhile.  We were prepared for green, alpine mountains and a spattering of temples, but were utterly caught off guard by their majesty.  Shibaoshan, Stone Treasure Mountain, was one of the first nature reserves to be protected in China 31 years ago and has remained largely untouched and unspoiled for this reason.  Because of inaccessible roads and its remote location, Shibaoshan survived the destruction of the Cultural Revolution and  has also remained off the tourist circuit until just last year when the Dali-Lijiang interstate was completed – even so, we didn’t witness one large coach carting matching tourists or anything that resembled mass tourism for that matter.

Our first stop was Baoxiang Temple (pictured above) and having no expectations, we set off into the forest and up the couple-hundred-or-so steps to reach it.  Might I add that both of the Little Explorers made it 95% of the way without needing to be carried – this kind of endurance is totally appreciated and completely novel to us still.  And then we discovered Atlantis.  Set into the face of the mountain, Baoxiang Temple was constructed during the Yuan Dynasty around 1291 A.D. and is stunning.  As you cross through the first part of the temple, you enter into a courtyard where you get the first glimpse of the the portion built into the cliffside, complete with a waterfall cascading down its periphery.  All of it entirely unexpected.  More charming still were the sacred monkeys that roamed its interiors, acting as its protectors (and protect they did, on more than one occasion, a Little Explorer felt threatened by an aggressive simian).  And to top it off, and this probably contributed greatly to our experience, was the fact that other than the monkeys and a few male caretakers, we had it all to ourselves.   To speak of the caretakers, we found it interesting that they seemed more like security guards/cultural protectors than Buddhist monks.

The next and final stop was Shizhong Temple and its surrounding grottoes.  After our stair climb, the Little Explorers had it in them to trek the mile or so through the forest out to the temple but required a fair amount of coaxing/carrying on the ascent back out.  Shizhong Temple is best known for its ancient rock carvings, which are some of the oldest in China and also some of the most intricate.  Dating back to _____, these rock carvings speak to the spread of Buddhism from Tibet and also reflect the matriarchal traditions of the Bai people.  Photography is strictly forbidden for fear of compromising the carvings, and being the respectful tourist that I am, I have no proof of these ancient carvings unfortunately – but I do have evidence of the alpine forest we hiked through below – which almost made me feel like I was hiking through the Sierra Nevadas in California.  Again, we were some of the only tourists adventuring through the area which created another fanciful, magical journey into ancient China.

And then it was naptime.  So we took to the road and let the Little Explorers dream about other adventures as we made our way into the mighty Himalayas.