Yangshuo, China

The magnificence of the karst mountains in Yangshuo, China overwhelms my senses. I feel like a sorceress in search of the magical spell that caused the ground to bubble up like liquid in a cauldron. The topography of the land stimulates my imagination and the shapes of the mountains are striking. I see a bald man with an enormous beer belly, snoring, as he’s napping in the grass. I feel like a child on a warm summer day, with a slight breeze blowing my hair in my eyes, as I’m looking for bunny rabbits, lions, and teddy bears, not in the clouds, but in the undulating hills. This place inspires any dreamer and reminds us that the earth is our giant playground to respect and admire, while we get lost in its crevices.

 

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Hiking Mt. Emei

The Facts:

1)Mt. Emei is the highest of the Four Sacred Buddhist mountains in China. The summit’s elevation is 3,999 meters. There are around seventy-six monasteries scattered throughout the mountain, along with the first Buddhist temple ever built in China. This mountain is extremely momentous!

2)You should give yourself at least two days to explore the mountain. You can stay at monasteries and hotels near the summit, but they cost quite a bit more than the accommodations at the base. However, staying at the top is the best choice for people wanting to view the famous sunrise at the Golden Summit (weather permitting). I highly recommend staying at the  Teddy Bear Hotel. It’s walking distance to the base of Mt. Emei (it takes like five minutes), the food is excellent, the atmosphere is fun, and the rooms are large and cozy. You should book it online before you go through any of the major sites like Booking.com. If you plan on staying at one of the monasteries on the trail, there’s no way to book ahead. So, keep that in mind when traveling during peak times, as there may not be any spaces available.

3)Estimated walking times on maps should not be taken literal. If you consider yourself fit, you will most likely beat the estimated time by an hour, or even a few hours.

4) Take Heed and talk with people along the trail to check in and make sure you are headed in the right direction. There are plenty of signs along the way to help guide you. But, there aren’t signs at every crossroad. This kind of life advice could be both taken literally and figuratively:)

5) You will pay lots of different fees. Of course, you will pay an entrance fee, every monastery will have a separate fee, and if you plan on taking the gondola to the top that is also a separate fee (and quite expensive).

6) You will be hiking thousands of stairs but it’s worth every step.

7) Bus shuttles make life super easy! They can get you (almost) to the top of Mt. Emei and also to the base. Manage your time wisely and be sure to know the shuttle bus times. If you are staying at one of the hotels in town, you don’t want to be stranded near the summit by nightfall because you missed the last shuttle at 4pm.

The Story:

There’s no denying the fact that most major cities in China are affected by smog, so it wasn’t surprising to see that Chengdu suffers a similar fate. I was hopeful that Emeishan would be different. Sadly, it wasn’t. The city was cloaked in a smog so thick, that I felt like my hands could part the pallid curtains before ascending the first set of stairs towards the Golden Summit. This would be the first time that I would hike in a 3M breathing mask. A combination of industrial pollution and local burning created an unsuitable environment for hiking. But I was hopeful once again, in thinking that at higher elevations the smog would turn into the “cloud sea” that Mt. Emei is actually famous for. After all, it is the highest of the Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains of China, reaching an elevation of 3,999 meters.

Ironically, the very activity I sought to quiet my mind by communing with nature led me to the same feelings I was trying to escape. The thoughts that have stayed by my side ever since moving to China almost two years ago leave me stressed- the air we breath is not meant to sustain life. I worry about people living in a world where they are denied the most basic human rights; clean air and water.

The smog traded places with a heavy fog and I climbed into obscurity. It was ghostly, mysterious, and at times nightmarish, because I couldn’t always see what was in front of me. The higher I climbed the more desolate the trek and silence surrounded me. My only companion was my bamboo walking stick that I used to rhythmically tap each stair to alert the Tibetan macaques of my presence. I learned quickly that they were waiting, watching, and following me in the trees. The problem is that in the dead of winter they become more aggressive in search of food. They were also bigger than I expected. In the beginning of my hike, I had attempted to intimidate one macaque and lost very quickly. Once it began showing its teeth and growling at me I knew I had to throw it whatever I could find and fast, as it started reaching towards me. Besides, I knew I had stepped onto their territory. It was they who ruled this mountain.

On another part of the trail, a troop of macaques were seconds from descending upon me when I was miraculously saved by a lone man who was defending his small shop by throwing large rocks into the trees. The macaques broke branches and left their hiding spot in the shadows. I caught a glimpse of the size of them and I was shocked. They were nearly half my size and obviously much stronger than I was. I stayed put until I could partner with some other hikers because there was no way I could protect myself alone.

In the end, I loved this hike. I loved climbing snow covered stairs. I loved stopping at temples along the way to pause and meditate. I loved the dew that clung to my hair and clothes. I loved the fog and the reduced visibility. You never knew exactly where you were going nor where you might end up. I was driven to keep climbing, intrigued by the mystery. 

Heaven is a Place on Earth – Jiuzhaigou, Sichuan, China

I Leave Chendu, passing Wenchuan and other small towns on the ten hour bus ride to Juizhaigou. We drive alongside a jade colored river nearly the whole way. Chinese latticed doors and windows with their beautiful geometric patterns stand out amongst the houses and buildings painted white. Hours pass on windy roads while the bus leaned from side to side, trying to balance itself when passing other vehicles. Of course I was car sick. Ginger chews helped. The land is dry and barren. The Min Mountain range grows tall and snow appears on its peaks. A team of horses drive through the streets almost causing traffic accidents. This happens throughout the trip. We pass ancient Chinese towns and I don’t know their names. Brick walls, grey tiled roofs, and stacks of perfectly piled wood texturize the landscape. Cows graze in frozen fields. Prayer flags are strung along the rooftops of houses. Buddhist stupas stand tall and the gold paint glimmers in the sun. Frozen waterfalls appear along the highway. We pass a man standing on a mountain of rocks who wields a big sledgehammer. He’s smashing them into pieces while a dust cloud forms around him. I’ve completely escaped the pollution of Chengdu and my city of Wuhan. We drive through Song Pan and it’s amazing!! I wanted to walk through its tiny streets, holding hands with my love in the cold, cold night. Snow is everywhere now. I am deep in the heart of Sichuan province in the Ngawa Tibetian and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture. The feeling here is so different and beautiful. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. Words fail me know, except I can’t get this stupid song out of my head by Belinda Carlisle, “Ooh heaven is a place on earth . . . we’ll make heaven a place on earth”.

Arrow Bamboo Lake:

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Rhinoceros Lake:

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Five Flower Lake:

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Pearl Shoals Waterfall:

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Tibetan Village in Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve:

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Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang, China

Situated just twelve kilometers outside of Luoyang in Henan province, China, the Longmen Grottoes are impressive indeed. Up to 110,000 statues of Buddha and his disciples have been sculpted inside 2,300 caves at this UNESCO World Heritage Site. These stone carvings have been considered highly influential to the development of sculptural arts not only in China but other parts of the world (UNESCO). The site can be found stretched along opposing banks of the Yi River covering a distance of one kilometer. The statues range in size from the very small (1 inch) to the very large (57 feet). If you’ve seen one, you definitely haven’t seen them all! What else can I say except that you must go if you have the chance. You must see the beauty with your own eyes. In case you can’t just yet, I’ve offered you a sneak peak.

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(Video taken by my husband Nick Dunn)

I was so happy that the Longmen Grottoes gave me a reason to visit the city of Luoyang because I would have never had the chance to see it otherwise. We stayed close to the city center. Our hotel was located by one of the main city parks (maybe the biggest and most popular one?). We spent the late afternoon walking around the park and we ran into some of the friendliest people I have ever met in China. I haven’t done a lot of traveling in China but even after living in Wuhan for almost two years, I’ve never met so many warm, welcoming strangers.

Music was echoing through the traffic of the streets and the crowds of city dwellers. We stopped to watch some performers and fell into some friendly conversation with a local man. Communication was very limited because my Chinese is on the level of disasterous but it didn’t stop alot of attempts at conversations with lots of laughter mixed in. We continued to walk and watch groups of people playing cards, dancing, singing, and spouting political sentiments. We were spotted by a very outgoing woman who appeared to be hosting her own KTV show. We stopped to watch for too long and we were called out of the crowd. We were invited to take part in a dance routine, with no hestitation whatsoever I accepted the invitation, linked arms with my host and began dancing to a lively song. My husband soon joined. The crowd swelled to an embarrasing number. I soon got self conscious of my dancing and the possible spectacle I was making of myself so after the song was over I retreated to sidelines. She wanted us to stay because I had a feeling that catering to a large crowd was right up her alley. She asked us to sing a song to which we declined. The video cameras had been out for awhile; we were starting to get overwhelmed. We tried to leave just as gracefully as we came and I think we succeeded. We continued to stroll around and fall in love with the people and the culture of Luoyuang.

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(Video filmed in Luoyuang by Nick Dunn)

Cherry Blossoms at Wuhan University, China

More dependable than a groundhog could ever be, cherry blossoms mark the changing of the seasons like nothing else. Flowers are blooming around the city to prove that winter has finally retired and spring fever has returned. People are trading their coats for umbrellas to shade themselves from the sun and I swear people are smiling more. At least I am.

I returned to Wuhan University to witness the famous cherry blossom trees that line Sakura Avenue. It was one of those rarer days where the sky was some kind of blue, making the pastel colors pop against the contrast. The historical architecture combined with the natural scenery at Wuhan University is quite alluring. I spent a few hours walking up and down the tiny street. The sun was setting and I wanted to see everything in a different light.

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Hiking Mount Song

The day began on a cold morning. Our exhalations turned into the same grey mist that clung to Mount Song like tracing paper. Three men painted the scene before our eyes. We stared at their canvases. Each brushstroke gave definition; each line added depth. The artist knows about its subject. The history within Songshan. The birthplace of Zen Buddhism. The origins of Shaolin Wushu at Shaolin Temple and the sacred Taoist mountains. With tools in hand, they attempt to replicate an image of one of the most culturally significant mountains in China. We made our way towards the painted mountains. Invisible to the artists and unremarkable against the landscape.

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My partner and I embarked on our journey meeting the first set of stairs with great awe and enthusiasm not even the slightest bit aware of just how many we would have to climb. Either way, this was of no concern to us. I befriended a dog at the entrance to the hike; I gave her snacks and showered her with attention.  She paused for a family photo and left us shortly after; I was sad to see her go.

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We met a man carrying a large bag of rice who talked with us throughout the entire hike to a monastery situated on a mountain peak. Taking a break from his heavy load, he grinned and pointed out all of the amazing sights to us.

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We were met with a quiet stillness as we hiked Mt. Song in the winter. We spent most of the time alone on the trail with the exception of passing some small groups of hikers. We shouted from the mountains tops and communicated with people on different peaks. We dined and danced on what felt like the rooftop of the world. It was Christmas day and I couldn’t have been happier.

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