The past two weeks have been some of the best in my life. I can think of only a few other occasions that have been so full of laughs, 360° scenery and adventure for such an extended period of time. Ever since hearing my grandmother’s description of Mongolia, I knew I would eventually find my way to the Steppes and this summer seemed like the perfect time to go. Rather than a quick foray into the wilds before returning to Ulan Bator in a matter of days, I booked a seventeen day horse riding tour in the Zavkhan Province. Not all of this was riding, the first and last were more bookend days in Ulan Bator with welcome and goodbye meals and we also had a number of days of driving in the ubiquitous UAZ vans.
On the long drive out to Tosontsengel in Zavkhan Province-this took several days-we stopped at the Erdene Zuu Monastery which contains what is probably the oldest Buddhist temple in Mongolia. This was really interesting because-since it belongs to a sect of Tibetan Buddhism-there was a lot of influence from other religions, notably shamanism. In particular the demon statues and paintings were simultaneously mildly terrifying and very cool. The presence of a rainbow and mountainous hills (when does a hill become a mountain?) stretching up beyond the plains further excited me and all I could think was I can’t wait to be riding through this.
The first couple of nights before we met up with the horses and cook tent we stayed in tourist ger camps and enjoyed the last showers we would be experiencing for a while. The first one held a traditional Mongolian music performance by local students in the evening, which was enjoyable and I am still amazed over the throat singing and the sounds it produced. The second camp was next to an extinct volcanic crater, the rim of which we climbed up to and were rewarded with yet more spectacular views.
The next day was when we finally got to meet and ride some of the horses in what I will refer to as speed dating for riders. This was so Haldi-our trip leader-could assess our riding ability and confidence so he could pair everyone off with suitable horses. I was surprised that one of our group had never so much as sat on a horse before and as the trip progressed, was increasingly impressed with how well they took to riding at all speeds. Trying an ex-race horse was a fun experience as he was very quick to canter which I will confess to letting him do, although I have a sneaking suspicion we weren’t supposed to be going any faster than a trot. Whoops. A couple of other horses amused me with their ability to go in only one direction: towards camp. I mean it is not as if we were going in a fifty metre circle anyway.
As the sun rose, waking up everyone along with it (black out tents should be a thing), we devoured our porridge and finally got to find out which horse we would be riding. My horse was one of the ones that hadn’t been ridden the previous day and as I managed to haul my vertically challenged self into the saddle from the ground (lets ignore that I had the shortest horse and that Mongolia horses are short as it is), I was informed he was “fast”. As we started off a a short walk to become acquainted with our horses, he certainly lived up to this, pulling towards the front of the group. Other than this, everything was fine until we spotted some wild horses on the opposite side of the valley.
I could tell relatively quickly that he was getting excited about something as we kept pulling ahead. My plan of attack was circle back into the group and tuck in behind someone else. Unfortunately for me the soon to be christened Demon Horse had other ideas and we cantered off. Here Haldi’s advice of steer uphill came in handy and we eventually drew to a halt. From this point on I spent the ride trying not to ride off in a cloud of dust. Even if Demon Horse was slightly better behaved after our snack break, possibly we were headed down a steep incline, I knew he was just biding his time… waiting.
And indeed he was as I found out as I tried to mount after lunch. This took multiple attempts as with my less than tall nature and the awkward cushion saddle, I struggled to get on quickly and he kept trying to run off when I was halfway on. I felt a small amount of vindication when even the wrangler had the same issue but after he had proved it was possible to get on Demon Horse I was hoisted into the saddle and we set off. The gentle ride quickly devolved into a battle of wills. With me arguing that staying in the group and walking was a good idea and Demon Horse of the alternate view that a nice trot or canter would be far more preferable. I began to suspect that Haldi and I had a different definition of “a little challenging” (I’ll admit to not miding his definition), despite reassurances that Demon Horse would calm down in a couple of days. That said I was enjoying myself immensely. Not only was the scenery delightfully stunning to ride through but Dagii’s food was absolutely delicious and everyone was blown away by how much she could cook on the wood stove-later on in our trip she made bread on it!
The next day we set out from our base camp and began our actual trek out into the Mongolian wilderness. Demon Horse was very well behaved and by the time we returned to our new camp from the short afternoon ride-cantering and galloping across sand dunes-he had been downgraded to Rascal which remained his name for the rest of the trip.
From then on we changed camp location each day with a long morning ride and took shorter afternoon rides to explore our surrounds. Along the way we experienced the warm hearted hospitality of a number of local families, sharing food and drinking (lots of) vodka. From the Mongolian “quick lunch” to cream and dried yoghurt we were plied with food and sampled multiple batches of home made milk vodka. Something the student stereotype in me was excited to discover was the tradition that a bottle must be finished once it has been opened instead of being dipped into now and again.
In the evenings we tried a variety of games and activities, including archery (I suddenly understood why all the female archers at my club used to wear chest guards) and knuckles which Dagii beat us at thoroughly. Playing white bone one night was amusing as it is also played in Scandinavia (by a different name) and since we had one Swede and two Norwegians, I was left with the distinct impression it is the Monopoly of lawn games, with no one quite agreeing on the rules. There was also cake on a couple of nights as we celebrated two birthdays, a most unusual occurrence according to Haldi as apparently there are normally only a couple every season. The only downside was having eaten so much of Dagii’s food we barely had room for it.
All the support team were wonderfull. I’ve mentioned Dagii’s cooking, I still can’t decide if her noodles or fried bread was best. The drivers transported the camp in the UAZ vans each day, having it set up by the time we arrived. A couple of days off roading at the end of our trip to reach the airport, proved their driving prowess and care for the cars. One of our wranglers was nicknamed the man, the myth, the legend and later on part time wrangler, full time badass for the way he would lounge on the floor of the gers we visited and during snack breaks when he would immediately light up. His brown deel was complemented with a trilby and tinted sunglasses. I am fairly certain he and Haldi had an unspoken contest to lounge in the coolest way and spot at each snack break. Halfway through, the wrangler disappeared from the group in a cloud of mystery and while we found out it was due to an argument, this didn’t stop us inventing stories of his adventures.
After lasting most the trip unharmed, we had something of a massive pile up during a long canter. Fortunately, aside from some nasty bruises and a little shock, there was no lasting damage. This did however, signal for everyone else to start injuring themselves in minor ways and were lucky to have a trainee nurse with us, who really should be given a discount since they patched us up so well. I almost came off in the pile up but managed to cling on. It was only later as we were mounting back up that I came off because my saddle had broken, the cushion partially coming off, and Rascal was feeling flighty so took off before I had got my leg over his back.
We wrapped up the trip with some bare back riding (extremely painful on a skinny horse) and trying to pick things up off the ground from horseback. Picking things up was unsurprisingly hard and we all practised on Pumba who was the oldest and most steady of the horses. I was amazed to later see in the Mongolian music videos (playing at the front of the UAZ van) people picking things up at a canter. #lifegoals me thinks.
My words are insufficient to explain the magic of crossing open plains, hills looming ahead as birds wheel in a pristine sky. I can not articulate the emotion of standing atop a mountain and gazing across rolling hills of verdant green and realising the only sign of humanity is those who stand with you. Through valleys and over mountains, climbing rocks and ducking tree branches nothing can compare to the uplifting freedom I felt and the knowledge of belonging on this little blue dot to explore and appreciate its beathstealing beauty. Mongolia is truly an amazing place to visit and seeing it from horseback a humbling experience everyone should seek.
I seem to have a slightly masochistic streak in that, despite a deep seated fear of heights, I love finding sheer precipices to visit. Perhaps it is an addiction to the adrenaline that sees me seeking new heights (literally), or maybe my fear of missing out is greater than my fear of heights (unlikely). However, I suspect the true reason is my Guernsey donkey stubbornness in the belief that enough self inflicted exposure therapy will eventually overcome a fear that is only exceeded by my fear and hatred of wasps.
Enough rambling prelude, let’s start painting a picture of what has got me chattering on about heights and my fear of them. Imagine a mountain which has a (somewhat misplaced) reputation as being the most dangerous hike in the world. Bloggers love to repeat the old wives tale of 100 deaths a year on these precarious slopes and no post is complete without a photo of the notorious plank walk: a plank of wood bolted to a sheer cliff with a 5000 foot drop should one slip.
When first researching China, I stumbled across photos of the plank walk and just knew that I had to try it. It was 90% of my reason for visiting Xi’an, the other 10% being generously allowed for the Terracotta army. Imagine my disappointment (and I’m not too proud to admit, miniscule spark of relief) when I arrived at the entrance of the plank walk to find it padlocked closed.
Admittedly I had known from the start that there was a reasonable chance of the plankwalk being closed. Of the three days I had pencilled in for a day trip to Huashan Mountain, I had picked the one with the least bad weather but conditions were still far from good. When I had set out from Xi’an that morning, it had been in a fine drizzle which accompanied me halfway up the initial six kilometre climb from the Jade Temple. That climb in itself had been rather nervewracking. The first three kilometres had been a deceptively pleasant upwards gradient followed by some slightly tougher stairs over the next kilometre. The two penultimate kilometres before the north peak were continuous steps of evil which saw me using my hands on the steps in front of me for various stretches or clutching firmly to the chain hand rails.
At this point my Guernsey donkey stubbornness once again reared its equine head. I had read that the walking time for the “One Way up Huashan Mountain from Ancient Times” path took between two to five hours with an average time of three and a half. Hence I had decided that I would do it in under two and a half hours. Nevermind that I would never classify myself as particularly fit, there is something about being given a walking time that makes me strangely defiant and determined to be quicker. This meant that I took no respites on my upwards sprint beyond a few five second breathers on the longer stairways. Given the heavy cloud cover, I had no fear of missing out on the any views and was able to devote myself fully to the hike.
I made it panting and sweating to the top of the North peak in two hours and fifteen minutes without falling down any of the ladders masquerading as stairs, so a definite win on that front. There were two precarious feeling climbs that I wanted to complete on the mountain. The aforementioned plank walk and the climb down to the chess pavilion. This latter was on the eastern peak and it was to here that I headed first.
Sadly for me, the northern peak upon which I was standing was the lowest of the peaks and instead of getting a break from all the up I had been doing, I found myself immediately having to climb up yet more stairs. Mercifully these weren’t nearly as steep as the more terrifying stretches of the One Way path. There was a ridge I crossed which was fine as I was crossing it but when I looked back, the clouds to each side had momentarily cleared revealing the sheer drop to either side of the path.
Walking through the clouds was very enjoyable with the tantalising glimpses of mountain tops they occasionally revealed. In amongst the peaks there were far less sheer drops to set my heart beating above what could be excused as a severe case of excessive stairs. This of course changed as I reached the queue to climb down to the chess pavilion. Even after being given my harness I had a long wait to consider just what I was about to do. Only a certain number of people could climb down at a time and it was clear that the operators were letting that number down each time rather than opting for smaller, more efficient groups.
Even though the group before me had all descended when I arrived, it was a forty minute wait before they all returned and we could begin climbing down. This left plenty of time for the clouds to clear for a few scant seconds at a time. Each time I became a little more nervous as I saw the distance to the pavilion. My nerves were not improved as, when it was finally time to start climbing, two of the girls ahead of me quickly backed out and retreated back up the steps.
Once I got started, the initial climb down, the only stretch deemed risky enough to need a harness, wasn’t so bad although my knees shook a little from the pent up nervous energy. The remainder of the walk out to the pavilion was quite pleasant and I took great amusement from a couple of bits that didn’t have a wire to clip one’s harness to but still had a sheer drop patiently biding its time to capture the unwary at the bottom. I guess one must laugh or cry in that situation. Heading back to the top was very frustrating as I had been near the front of the queue going down so had to wait for everyone else to finish climbing down – another half hour wait.
When I finally made it back to the top, safely away from all sheer drops into cloudy oblivion, I walked as quickly as my exhausted legs would allow to the south peak and the infamous plank walk. Each step saw a coil tension winding tighter in the pit of my stomach. My nerves were a delicious crescendo as I walked along the first, safely railed section of the walk. As I realised the walk was closed, the locked gate looming before me, my turbulent emotions deflated like a balloon into a hard little ball of disappointment. Admittedly there was a pin prick of relief that softened the sharpest corners but I enjoy pushing my limits too much for that relief to be overarching.
With nothing left to see on the mountain – I saw no benefit in climbing to the very top of each peak with so much cloud concealing the view. I made my way to the western cable car. While the drizzling fog made climbing to the peaks an exercise in futility and was most likely the cause of my disappointment over the plank walk, it did create some eerily beautiful backdrops, especially where the ubiquitous padlocks were joined with rippling red prayer ribbons on their fences and railings.
The western cable car was ridiculously overpriced, 126 yuan (£14.39) plus 40 yuan (£4.57) for the compulsory bus (unless one wants to pay even more for a taxi, since walking along the road is forbidden) back to the tourist centre. In Europe this may seem reasonable but considering that my student entrance fee to the park was only 80 yuan and that the 120km bus journey back to Xi’an was also only 40 yuan, the cost did rankle somewhat. In hindsight I should have walked around to the northern cable car which is cheaper and from the bottom of which one can walk back to the tourist centre. However, the weather seemed to be closing in even more and all the mini cafes were closing even though it was only just after five so I was worried that the northern cable car would be closed by the time I reached it.
If I let go of my irritation over the cost, the cable ride down was a lot of fun. I had the whole car to myself and there was a breathtaking moment when I emerged from the base of one cloud layer and could see all the mountains poking their heads from the layer below. Even sitting suspended in a box, surrounded in all directions by a white void was a surreal experience, making me feel like I had entered the nothingness.
From the tourist centre, I circumnavigated the cries of taxi taxi and caught the bus back to Xi’an in time to devour a late dinner of a lamb Chinese burger and some excellent 1 yuan beef skewers. The only difficulty was that sitting still on the bus allowed my muscles to seize somewhat and my walk back to the hostel was more of a very slow penguin waddle.
A final note I would like to make for anyone who travels from Xi’an by train to Huashan Bei station is that the taxi drivers will pounce on you as you leave the station and tell you that the free shuttle bus to the tourist centre is closed. No matter how many times you tell them no they will keep following you trying to get you to get a taxi. Ignore them. Walk across the square, passed the statues of musicians, to the carpark. There is a small bus stop. Wait there for the bus and continue to ignore the taxi drivers. Ideally get the number one shuttle bus as it is quicker than the number two. Some websites imply the shuttle doesn’t run outside of peak season but given the level of continuous misinformation, I shall leave it up to the reader to decide if they want to try waiting for the shuttle in the winter months.
After a tediously long but otherwise uneventful series of trains up from Hanoi, I finally arrived in Wulingyuan Village. I am not going to go into detail of my border crossing but for those who do intend to cross the Lao Cai Vietnamese China border, I highly recommend this excellent article by The Asocial Nomad. Arriving in the evening I sought only some food and a bed that was not situated in a fog of cigarette smoke.
There is one reason and one reason alone to go to Wulingyuan and that is the amazing rock formations that surround the area. Perhaps the most famous of these is the Zhangjiajie National Park’s Hallelujah Mountains, more commonly called by the moniker of the Avatar Mountains: it was these gravity defying columns that inspired the floating mountains of Pandora in the Avatar movie. After some confusion about how to get to the ticket office for the park (one has to pass through security first), I played guess the bus to head to the bottom of the Ten Mile Natural Gallery. What I didn’t realise is that the shuttle bus only stopped when the driver was shouted at in Chinese rather than at each stop. This actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise as I discovered upon my descent later in the day.
As it was I found myself disembarking at the Water Winding Four Gates stop. Just inside the entrance was the Golden Whip path and a list of rules to follow in the park. In addition to the Google translate English, what I found particularly amusing was that as I walked around the park, I saw every single rule being broken at least once by the domestic tourists, including the rule not to photograph foreigners. The only possible exception was the final rule which spouted something incomprehensible about poisons and was rather open to interpretation in its meaning.
The further I walked along the path towards the Golden Whip, the less people there were. However, this did not equate to a nice peaceful walk through the breathtaking scenery because for the final stretch before I turned off the path, a gentleman some distance behind me was continuously yelling, I presume to try and create and echo. This chorus was occasionally accompanied by screams and shouts from other individuals. As someone who purposefully leaves all forms of communication behind when they are going on a walk, I was also baffled by the number of people I passed who were facetiming on their phones as they walked. Each to their own I suppose.
Had a sedan chair not been parked at the turning off to climb up to the arching peaks of the Avatar Mountains, I most likely would have missed the narrow staircase that branched off from the main path. Fortunately, I didn’t as this climb was perhaps my favourite part of the day. It was certainly one of the most peaceful sections. Ascending the stairs, I was rewarded with occasional glimpses of sheer cliffs and rocky spires. There was a brief moment of nervousness when I heard monkeys overhead as like in all tourist stops they have a reputation for grabbing bags and trying to steal food. Happily they seemed content to leave me alone and I continued upwards as their calls faded into the distance.
As I got closer to the top, I passed a few small groups descending and a large tour group who were also climbing up to the top rather than having taken the easier and more popular options of bus, cablecar or elevator. To my amusement, they had hired porters to carry their bags for them on long shoulder poles. These were most difficult to overtake without getting knocked on the head. Finally emerging from the trees and realising I had reached the top was a glorious moment. With the famous towers of rock arranged before me, trees clutching to their tops, I once again found myself thinking “I should have studied geology”. Of course that would have involved a chemistry A-level so it is probably just as well that I didn’t.
The increasingly wonderful views were so enchanting that I quickly found myself able to ignore the heaving tides of tourists and the clamour they created. I did however take great (and slightly immature) amusement at the main walkway’s name of Ecstasy Terrace since one rarely hears the use of the word ecstasy outside of drug use and excessively amorous writing. Each corner rounded left a new vista stretching before me and my camera was working overtime. Looking back at my photos there is an element of same same but different as the grandeur of the magnificent, gravity defying karsts is lost on a 2D screen and one set of rocks begins to look much like any other. I am supremely lucky that for me the photos are only a spark to light the true fire of memory.
From the Avatar Mountain section of the park I caught the shuttle bus around to Tianzi Mountain and began my descent back to the exit of the park, passing a McDonalds near the top. This returns us to the topic of my blessing in disguise with the bus not stopping at the bottom of the Ten Mile Natural Gallery. When I had missed the stop earlier in the day, I had shrugged my shoulders and decided to do my planned route in reverse. Seeing the Avatar Mountains first would be no hardship on my part.
This meant that I now descended the path. And by descend I mean descend it seemed the stairs would never end, each time I checked my location, I felt like I hadn’t moved at all. Had I already passed that rock? Was I going round in circles? The whole ten mile description suddenly seemed very accurate. I later met some guys at the hostel who had climbed up the path and they confirmed that the ascent was just as brutal as my descent had suggested it would be, so I most certainly had a narrow escape there.
Dinner that evening was acceptable but I later found out the province is known for it’s spicy food which would explain a lot. It was also tourist prices since Wulingyuan Village seems to comprise solely of hotels and restaurants for the huge influx of tourists that come to visit the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. Though I can’t deny most the buildings are very prettily designed to include more traditional looking architecture.
Feeling that I had seen everything I wanted to in the National Park, despite the ticket being valid for four days, I headed in the opposite direction to the Grand Canyon and the glass bridge that spans it. I was fortunate to run into a couple of other westerners, one of whom spoke Mandarin, on the way which made the day all the more enjoyable for having someone to talk to. We had a little difficulty at the entrance as tablet computers weren’t allowed in the park (’tis a mystery why) so I had to check my bag into luggage storage.
Normally this wouldn’t be an issue but the lockers could only be open by scanning a QR code and paying with WeChat, an extremely popular payment method in China. There were staff on hand who could pay for people who don’t have the requisite 4G and accoutrements. However, the initial two gentlemen at the desk seemed rather untrustworthy, trying to get me to buy entrance tickets off them for an extra fee rather than just waiting until I was through the security check. Luckily, another staff member turned up and was much more helpful opening the locker for me and asking only for the five yuan it actually cost.
After that hassle we made it through the ubiquitous security check and purchased our tickets (yay for 50% student discounts). The bridge was amazing and, as someone who is generally terrified of heights, I was very surprised that I did not have any issue with walking over the glass sections. I suspect the ground was so far away (300m) that my brain just tricked itself into thinking I was walking over a painting rather than a terrifying drop into nothingness.
We then descended into the gorge we had just walked over. This tragically meant even more stairs and my legs, having not recovered from the previous day’s vigorous walk, complained bitterly. I really should stop moaning so profusely given the charming view but I suppose us British do enjoy a good whine. The walk along the bottom of the gorge wasn’t nearly as taxing and we had a good time discussing our various travels and laughing at the signs with such phrases as “No smoking, the mountain shall be forever green”.
For my third and final day in Wulingyuan I had initially planned to visit Tianmen Mountain in Zhanjiajie before catching my train on to Xi’an. However, looking over the costs it was rather expensive and looked suspiciously like everything would have to be paid for separately from the initial entrance fee. Furthermore, I could not find any information on what could be walked and what could only be reached by bus or cablecar, making me reluctant to visit. Instead I wondered around the scenic Xibu Street in Wulingyuan Village and down along the river with other hostel guests before giving my legs a well deserved rest at the hostel until it was time to leave and catch my flight onwards.
They said it couldn’t be done, and maybe it can’t for some, but that didn’t stop me seeing the sights of Ninh Binh province by bicycle. No need for the unanimously touted motorbike. Another broken rule was that I stayed in Ninh Binh City rather than closer to the sights in Tam Coc. This may have meant some longer stretches on my awkwardly shaped bicycle but the longest stretch was still under an hour and a half and honestly when over half of that is through mountainous karsts and alongside rice paddies it is really no hardship. Furthermore, the nature of the Karst landscape in Ninh Binh, commonly referred to as Ha Long Bay on land, means that all the roads are almost completely flat with only the occasional minor gradient.
Having arrived in Nihn Binh
Road City at four in the morning, I wondered around with another guy off the bus until we found a open noodle shop where we drew out eating our bún cha for as long as possible before giving up and sitting in front of a cafe until it opened at six thirty and we could order a much needed coffee. Coffee finished, we parted ways, me to check in to my hostel which had finally opened.
Determined not to waste the day, I settled my stuff and rented a bicycle from the hostel. The bicycle in question was the most uncomfortable I have ever had the misfortune to encounter. Even after I pulled over at a bicycle rental and asked them to tilt the seat forward, the angles of the bike were all wrong and it felt as if I needed an extra six inches of arm and torso to reach the handlebars comfortably. This left me cycling along in a bizarre hunched over position and I must have looked quite odd with my scarf acting as makeshift sleeves to complete the look. All I can say is that at least by the end of the day my abs felt like they had had as good a workout as my legs.
And it was a good workout indeed. I powered along the main road to Tam Coc, as I drew closer and reach the more minor roads, I began having to swerve around large patches of rice being dried on the road, timing it not to get run over by whatever vehicle was coming in the opposite direction. I breezed through Tam Coc pretty quickly as it is the most touristy spot in Ninh Binh and I had already decided to do the Trang An boat trip instead due to The Tam Coc boat trips having a reputation for scams. Instead I headed straight for Bich Dong Temple.
Bich Dong was hidden away in the fold of a karst. While not huge, there was a small flight of steps that lead up the side of the Karst and through a pitch dark cave with a small shrine tucked in the entrance. Continuing up there was a fantastic view of more karsts and rice paddies stretching into the distance. Descending once more into the central courtyard, I exited the temple and walked around to another path the climbed over a ridge in to an idyllic little valley that could have been part of the Shire if Lord of the Rings had rice paddies. For a small fee (I think 10,000đ) a gentleman was showing tourists around a cave but I opted out of that particular adventure, deciding one set of bats was enough for the day. Instead I admired the goats and returned to my bicycle.
From Bich Dong I cycled back through Tam Coc and on to the spectacular Hang Mua viewpoint. Just as wonderful was peddling along the tracks that crisscross through the rice paddies. I knew the general direction I had to head in and which road I would have to join but beyond that I just picked roads at random and meandered between the rice paddies, encountering ducks and water buffalo along the way. At one point I almost went for a swim when I hit a patch of soft mud and swerved dangerously close to the edge of the road. Sadly the rice wasn’t in its most verdant stage of growth, the paddies more brown than green, but the looming karsts made up for this small downside.
I paid the entrance fee to get to the Hang Mua viewpoint and began the massive climb. In hindsight tackling that many stairs under the heat of the midday sun probably wasn’t my brightest idea. Halfway up I began to feel the effects of sleep deprivation and a lack of electrolytes take over. When I reached a fork in the road, the two paths leading to different peaks, I took the path less travelled, Robert Frost ringing in my ears. The view was absolutely breathtaking and there was even a lone chair which I scooted as far back from the edge as possible and parked my arse on for the shamefully long period of time it took me to get my breath back.
Descending and then starting up the other side, I was delighted to encounter a small kiosk where I could get a can of coke to battle the electrolyte loss. I crammed myself into the scant inches of shade to enjoy my drink and admire the huge number of steps still ahead of me. By the time I set out again, I felt much more like my normal self and the blessedly cool breeze at the top restored me fully. Once again the view was astoundingly beautiful and I was hard pressed to decide which peak I preferred. In the end the second peak won out due to having shade, a breeze and a giant dragon statue of which I took a photo by scrambling up some boulders.
I eventually worked up the courage to leave the shade and descend the karst. Not yet ready to return to my hostel, I ponderously cycled through a variety of small back lanes, stopping for some pho bo noodles and scouted out the Trang An boat stop. I had vague thoughts of doing the boat trip that day if it wasn’t too busy but the tour group packs of boats were shipping out in droves so I made a note of the opening time and returned to the hostel, only getting mildly lost when I turned off a road early.
I rose early the next day, determined to beat the crowd to the boat tour. This also meant that I had to gently poke awake one of the hostel staff to let me out of the hostel and get the bicycle out of the garage. It is pretty common for the staff of hostels to sleep randomly scattered through the common areas, often with very little in terms of bedding. In this case the three men who ran the hostel all slept on the floor of the reception. Given that the official breakfast time was only twenty minutes away, I didn’t feel guilty for having to wake one of them up however, it was damned awkward to poke a complete stranger awake.
The boat tour was amazing. Being a solo traveller, I was put into a boat with a Vietnamese couple who spent most the trip talking loudly into their phones and at each other. By this point I had realised quiet is not a concept that exists in Vietnam, be it music blaring in restaurants or the musical tones of car horns, so I just tuned them out as we drifted through caves and weaved between karsts. I was amazed by the endurance of the lady rowing us along the two and a half hour route. The only break she had along the way was when we visited a small shrine halfway round. While the couple elected not to make the climb, I powered up and over the ridge to the small shrine, overtaking a tour group on the upward stretch. There wasn’t much to see but I did feel a certain victory when I passed the same tour group, still descending, on my way back.
Going through the caves on the boat was a tad nerve wracking as the bright lights made me completely night blind and trying to discern which shadows were stalactites waiting to hit me on the head was far from easy. Despite this, our guide steered us unerringly through the caves. As we reached the final stretch, I realised going early had definitely been the correct decision as a steady stream of boats passed us in the opposite direction. Furthermore, cotton wool cumulus clouds had full crowded out the blue sky and the day had begun to turn a little hazy.
Luckily the weather held off for the day. I hesitate to say I have been incredibly lucky with the weather for fear of jinxing the matter, but that doesn’t change the fact that I do not recall getting caught in the rain since Malaysia. There now I’ve said it, I have no doubt my days shall now be filled with rain. Alas I digress. Returning to topic, I cycled to Bai Đính temple. This took just over an hour thanks to some misinformation about the presence of roads on Maps.me but was well worth the trek.
Bai Đính was absolutely huge and I spent several hours exploring it. The compound contained a lot of largests and longests such at the longest arahat hall and the largest Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva statue. I paid to go up the tower (tallest) since the rest of the temple is free anyway. Taking the lift to the top, I was rewarded with yet more stunning views, a recurring theme on Ninh Binh it seems. Upon entering I was given cotton booties to slip over my shoes. These almost proved to be my downfall as they offered no traction and I ended up sliding halfway down a flight of stairs after losing my footing on the way down. Finally having seen all of Bai Đính (I think – the map was rather unclear) I returned to the hostel.
So Ninh Binh and cycling eh? Is it possible? In my opinion yes, it is perfectly possible. Admittedly I didn’t see every site in Ninh Binh but that was more a matter of choice rather than time constraints. Both days I returned to the hostel relatively early. If I had had the inclination, on day one I could have easily fitted in the Tam Coc boat ride or cycled into the bird park instead of looking at the Trang An boat stop and on day two I could have stopped at the Hoa Lu Ancient Capital but wasn’t in the mood for what are apparently very ruiny ruins.
One of the things I have struggled with in Hualien and to an extent the whole of Taiwan, is trying to find out what to do. This was apparent when visiting Taroko Gorge yesterday and again today when I tried to plan my day. There is very little online other than other people’s blog posts and a lot on the brochures are in Chinese or Taiwanese. Even Lonely Planet has left room to be desired. The only real exception to this trend has been the supremely helpful and friendly hostel staff at Journey Hostel here in Taiwan. After asking the them last night, I decided to walk the Zuocang Trail today.
While I had been given rough directions to the trailhead last night, I didn’t know its name so trying to check my route was frustratingly difficult. I was fairly certain I had the correct name from a tourist map but still couldn’t find any infomation about the route. Since reading the sign at the start of the trail, I realise that this may be because the trail seems to have had half a dozen different names in relatively quick succession. Eventually, just running with the rough directions I set out in the hopes I would see a sign sooner or later.
The trail was an old road up the mountainside that used to be used by a cement company to access their mine. It offer some stunning views out over the city and I enjoyed my walk to the top lookout point, even if it it was all uphill. I also took a short side trail near the trailhead to view a lovely little waterfall, though I was a little wary with all the signs warning me to watch out for wasps and vipers, even if my logical brain new they are only really around in the summer and autumn months.
Nestled among the undulating green mountains and sparkling rivers of the Kii Peninsula in Japan is a moment of complete silence, should you choose to listen. Winding over ridge and down mountainside is the potential for imaginations to run wild and souls to recharge. Here among the cedar is the start of an adventure for any traveller who walks the Kumano.
Inspired by the scenic photos of misty mountains and cobbled paths and swayed by a wish to be surrounded by nature, away from the hubbub of cities and every tourist attraction ever, I decided that the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage route was for me. I admit that there was probably also an element of romanticising the idea of walking a pilgrimage route with the hope of coming to some deeper understanding of myself and my faith.
The Kumano Kodo is an ancient Japanese pilgrimage route centred around the Kumano Sanzan, the three Grand Shrines of Kumano: Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Nachi Taisha, and Kumano Hayatama Taisha. Like a spider’s web, routes span out from these three shrines, stretching across the peninsula and beyond. I walked one of the best known routes from Takijiri-oji to Kumano Nachi Taisha via Kumano Hongu Taisha before taking the train to visit the final shrine of Kumano Hayatama Taisha, right on the Pacific Ocean.
29th December 2017
Accommodation: Kiri-no-Sato Takahara Lodge
Route Name: Nakahechi Main Route
Start point: Takijiri-oji
End Point: Takahara
Hours walked: 2
Daily overview: My first day dawn bright and early in Tanabe. As the walk was going to be relatively quick, only two or three hours according to the route book, I took my time packing and headed over to the Kumano Travel shop to store some of the luggage I knew I would not be needing. From Tanabe I caught the bus up to the Takijiri-oji trailhead, admiring the mountains as they gradually began to loom over the road. I was the only person on the bus for the entire journey despite it being close to the new year, a major public holiday in Japan.
After collecting the Takijiri-oji stamp, I started out on the day’s walk. And what a start it was. Guide books and route maps can only go so far in describing what a trail will be like and they had not fully imparted just how steep ascending three hundred meters over a kilometre would feel. What made it particularly challenging was the way most steps were only ever conveniently positioned tree roots or slightly less jumbled rocks. This meant there were a few occasions on which I was left trying to decide if a slope was the path or not.
After this shaky start which had me more than a little worried about my chances of completing the Kumano, the path became a little more legible and I was able to enjoy more of the scenery. Admittedly, the scenery was mostly cedar trees and rocks but it was a welcome change from the city landscapes I have spent so much time in recently. The lodge was lovely, and I luxuriated in having a room to myself instead of the shared hostel dorms I normally bunk in. Like all the meals I had over the course of my journey, dinner was of a traditional Japanese style with lots of different little bits that I can only hope I ate correctly. It was accompanied with a delicious glass on homemade umeshu or Japanese plum wine.
30th December 2017
Accommodation: Guest House Mui
Route Name: Nakahechi Main Route
Start point: Takahara
End Point: Tsugizakura-oji
Hours walked: 6
Daily overview: After a filling and tasty breakfast, I set out on the next leg of my journey. There was a definite bite to the air but the steady uphill hike quickly warmed me up. Re-entering the forests of Japanese cedar felt a bit like entering the depths of Mirkwood with a perpetual gloom enveloping the forest floor. Despite being initially amazed by their height and the straightness with which they grew, after about four hours of almost nothing but cedars (they even blocked any potential views out over the mountains) I began to get a tad bored of them. Another thing I began to notice is that, like cedars which were planted in great quantity after WWII, very little of the landscape has been left to chance with many of the streams and rivers set between concrete banks.
I was the only guest at the guesthouse. Apparently it is too cold for most people to be gallivanting around mountains. A part of me has to agree. The dinner was probably my favourite meal from while I was walking the Kumano and I had a lovely chat with the innkeeper. I was impressed to learn that both he and his wife had walked the Camino de Santiago before coming to run the guesthouse, something I have been eyeing up for 2019.
31st December 2017
Accommodation: Yoshinoya Ryokan
Route Name: Nakahechi Main Route and Dainichi-goe
Start point: Tsugizakura-oji
Via: Kumano Hongu Taisha
End Point: Yunomine Onsen
Hours walked: 7 to Hongu Taisha, 1.5 to Yunomine Onsen
Daily overview: This was the longest hike at over 23 kilometres and I was a little worried I would not manage to finish it before sunset so had a contingency plan to get the bus from Kumano Hongu Taisha to Yunomine Onsen if needs be. However, I arrived at Hongu with plenty of time to spare and was able to walk the whole way.
The day started off with rain and foggy glasses and I was extremely grateful for my walking trousers which kept my leg nice and dry while still being extremely comfortable, unlike many waterproof trousers. Most likely because of the rain, I only saw one other person walking until the final stretch, an American with amazingly yellow waterproof trousers who I ran in to a few times. He seemed to move at an astonishing speed that I confess to somewhat envying.
In 2011 a typhoon caused a crack to form in the mountain next to the path so a permanent detour has been put in place. This was probably the most brutal part of the route, with lots of steep ups and downs. Even the spectacular views of mist shrouded mountains couldn’t make up for it. I think what made the whole detour particularly nasty was the lack of place markers. The actual Kumano has five hundred meter markers and small shrines or teahouse remains that are all marked on the map. However, the detour had nothing so it was impossible to mark my progress.
When the rain stopped around eleven I cheered up a little bit and enjoyed walking through some small villages rather than the gloomy cedar forests which had not improved with the weather, letting absolutely no warmth reach the ground. I eventually made it to Kumano Hongu Taisha which was a hive of activity with ongoing preparations to welcome in the new year. This was a little overwhelming after three days of relative solitude and being wrapped up in my own thoughts so I collected my stamp, had a look around and moved on. The warm promise of a soak in the onsen at my hotel drawing me on.
1st January 2018
Accommodation: Minshuku Momofuku
Route Name: Kogumotori-goe
Start point: Ukegawa
End Point: Koguchi
Hours walked: 6
Daily overview: After catching the bus to trailhead, I set out on the most leisurely section of the route. Gone were the threatening rainclouds of the day before and with the exception of the final descent, there were no particularly steep slopes and many level stretches. The route map predicted four to six hours and unlike before where I’d hovered around the minimum times, I fully intended to take the full six hours to make the most of the sunshine as well as recover from the previous day’s 23 kilometres.
In this second half of the Kumano, I found there was a huge amount more variety in plant life, including many ferns lining the path. With less cedar trees blocking the light, the route was bathed in sunlight and I ate my lunch at the remains of an old teahouse, looking out over the mountains.
This was the only day I didn’t have a lunch box prepared by the hostel so had bought a few things to eat the day before. Included in my lunch were eggs I had hard boiled in the hot spring waters that morning and was very excited about. The only downside to this day was the final descent, not because it was particularly challenging but because it offered an excellent view of what the next day’s hike involved.
2nd January 2018
Accommodation: Minshuku Kosakaya
Route Name: Ogumotori-goe
Start point: Koguchi
Via: Kumano Nachi Taisha
End Point: Kii Katsuura
Hours walked: 6.5 to Kumano Nachi Taisha
Daily overview: This was the day I had been dreading, ranked as the hardest section of the routes I would be walking and to make matters worse, a recent landslide meant an additional 40 minutes of walking along a detour path. Fortunately for me it wasn’t nearly as bad as I had be predicting, or rather, it was bad in a completely different manner.
I had been expect a repeat of that first ascent at Takijiri-oji, with an unclear path and lots of roots just waiting to trip a person up. Instead I got a relatively well “paved” path for much of the way. What made the route so challenging was the never ending ascents and descents. The route started out with four kilometres of pure up. It didn’t seem so bad at first, but gradually the constant gradient sucked all strength from my legs and I found myself taking regular breaks. Only the five hundred metre posts kept me going.
When I reached the top, it was only to begin an immediate descent and so on. The only respite from this constant yo-yoing was the detour, which rather sensibly decided to go around the mountainside at one level instead of going up and over, even if it did add to my journey time. After the final descent (another four kilometre stretch), I reach Kumano Nachi Taisha on wobbly legs.
Naturally there were more steps down to the waterfall, but they were worth it. The Nachi-no-Otaki waterfall is the tallest in Japan and is striking against its rocky backdrop. The whole of Nachisan, both waterfall and shrine was crowded with people going about their first shrine visits of the year, despite the scafolding that covered the shrine, so I quickly moved on.
The well marked part of the Kumano ended here, with only sporadic signs showing up seemingly at random. Nonetheless, I decided to walk a little of the way down to Kii Katsuura, mainly I’ll admit, because I wanted the perfect number of stamps to fill up my stamp book. Extra stamps collected, I caught the bus the rest of the way and had a well deserved early night.
3rd January 2018
Accommodation: Hotel Sunshine
Route Name: N/A
Start point: Kii Katsuura
End Point: Shingu
Hours walked: Sporadic Meandering
Daily Overview: The pilgrimage routes that I may have taken between Kii Katsuura and Shingu have long since been eaten up by roads and railways so I took the train to Shingu. From the station I walked up the most vertigo inspiring stairs ever to Kamikura-jinja shine. They were so steep in a few places, I felt the need to use my hands on the steps in front for balance. Fortunately, the view was worth it and after a little time to recover I descended and made my was along to the final Grand Shrine, Kumano Hayatama Taisha.
Even though it was now the 3rd January, the shrine was still extremely crowded with people on their first shrine visits of the year so I took a few photos, collected my stamps and proceeded to wonder around Shingu until my hotel check in opened. This was a little dull as almost everywhere was closed for the bank holiday but I did enjoy looking around a large stationery store and having crepes for lunch in a really cute little cafe.
All in all I really enjoyed walking the Kumano and was amazed by how few other people I met along the way. While I know I have complained about the cedar forests, they were beautiful in their own way and some of the mountain scenery was absolutely breath-taking. I may have not reach some great deeper understanding but time away from the world has allowed me a little space to arrange my thoughts and look forward to the new year.
Now I only need to complete the Camino de Santiago side of my stamp booklet and I’m all set to be a daul pilgrim.
From two years ago when I was part of the support team for the World Scout Jamboree in Japan, I have wanted to visit the Japanese macau that live in the mountains surrounding the onsen villages of Shibu and Yudanaka. This troupe of “snow monkeys” are know for bathing in the hotspring waters during the cold winter months.
They originally overran the human onsen (public hotspring baths) of a nearby inn, but due to the unsanitary nature of this, a bath was built for them further up the valley in the national park. Since they rarely enter the hotspring in the summer there was little point in me visiting them last time I was in Japan. Hence, the moment I decided that I was going to be visiting Japan in the winter, snow monkeys appeared at the top of my to do list. Even in December, with snow on the ground it is a little too warm for the monkeys to enter the steaming pool in the large numbers one might see further into winter.
Nonetheless I was determined to go and I was most definitely not disappointed. On the advice of Yoshi, one of the superb hostel owners, I caught the 08:20 bus to the snow monkey onsen. This way I hoped to avoid the worst of the crowds but not have to wait ages for the entrance to the snow monkey onsen to open. This worked well for me and I didn’t see a soul for most of the half hour walk through the national park to the entrance.
The walk was extremely pleasant and aside from being icy, not at all difficult. The snow laden trees were picturesque and the sound of the river rushing below in the valley provided a natural melody. Occasional gusts of wind carried the scent of sulphur and the cries of monkeys.
Initaially at the monkey onsen, I felt somewhat out of place as the only person using my phone camera; everyone else has at least one large, lens heavy camera. This was eventually remedied as more people began to arrive, but for those first ten minutes or so it was just me and those few camera wielding enthusiasts.
As I had feared would be the case, only a few monkeys entered the pool itself while I was there, but watching them sit around the edge and interact with one another was still a wonderful experience. They were undeniably cute and I was impressed by how little they were disturbed by the number of tourists, though I suppose in reality this was unsurprising.
With the viewing area getting crowded I walked back to the beginning of the forest trail. This time my walk was somewhat louder with a constant stream of people walking in the opposite direction. Reaching the end of the trail, I decided to walk back to my hostel through Shibu and Yudanaka on the advice of Seongmi, the other hostel owner and Yoshi’s wife. This turned out to be a really good idea as the views of the distant snow capped mountains were stunning and my walk took threes times longer than it should have because I kept stopping to admire them.
I also had a bit of fun resting my feet in a public foot onsen and after repacking my bag at the hostel, I walked back to Shibu. This time I walked through the onsen area and collected the stamps of all the public onsen in my notebook and tried some delicious soft boiled eggs that had been cooked in the hotspring water. It was lovely to walk through the winding streets and see the drains streaming where hot water gurgled below.
My final stop before dinner was one of the many onsen. I handed over the voucher I had purchased at the hostel and spent the next hour relaxing in mineral rich water and contemplating my day. The outdoor pool was beautifully designed and I can’t think of a better way to unwind after a day’s walking.
Back at the hostel, I met up with the two skiers I’d had dinner with the night before and we headed out for dumplings, grilled skewers and soba noodles. This was yet another delicious meal and a pleasant conclusion to the day.
Today I’m travelling down to Kyoto and I will be sad to leave Yudanaka and the Hostel Aibiya behind. The hostel is built in the traditional Japanese style and has a small store showcasing local artists. Both Seogmi and Yoshi were fantastic hosts, full of advice and local knowledge. The breakfast was amazing, especially the granola, and I truly look forward to a day when I might return, be it for hiking in the summer, skiing in the winter or maybe just to try more of the mouthwartering food offered by the nearby restaurants.