Sunday, January 30, 2011

Snapshot Sunday: Sunrise at Angkor Wat

This is a flashback shot from our first trip to Asia.  We visited friends in Thailand, spent some time lazing around the beach and visited the ruins of Angkor Wat.  We were wowed by so many things at Angkor, and the sunrise was no exception!


Thursday, January 27, 2011

Paying a visit to the Selling Grass Market for a little dose of Dr. Ho’s Magic Tea – Lijiang, China


Destination:  Lijiang, China

Number of Days Spent: 3 days

Where we stayed:  Mu’s Garden Guesthouse – 90-100 RMB (we arrived and negotiated this on the spot, advance bookings are a bit more in price, I think 120 RMB) – This place is a cute little find, an old house in the traditional Chinese style!  The rates were reasonable, rooms clean and centrally located on a quiet lane but near the main shops of the old city.  The family that ran the hotel was quite friendly.  It comes with wireless Internet and the family is happy to whip you up some yummy Yunnan tea to relax in the courtyard.  They are also very willing to give you maps and recommendations for hiking the nearby Tiger Leaping Gorge. 

Best restaurant:  We found everything in the Lonely Planet to be waaaay overpriced and of low quality.  We have three places of note.  In the “Selling Grass Square” on the 2nd floor look for N’s Kitchen for delicious pizzas (also free Wifi)!  After weeks of Chinese only food we were delighted to find a bit of western deliciousness!   If you are looking for something more local don’t miss the yak yogurt place, An Yogurt or Am Yogurt (2 locations in Lijiang).  Look for the multi-colored post-its with love notes written on them. Try it with fresh papaya or mango, it is DELICIOUS!  Tracy had it every single day we were in Lijiang (and once she had it twice)!  Oh and there is a little steamed bun place (sorry, it was only in Chinese so I don’t have a name) that was on the outskirts of the old city away from the tourists  We had them for breakfast every morning and brought them on the road to Tiger Leaping Gorge. 

Best of:   The Jade Dragon Mountain was beautiful.  Bike riding along the highway was a bit over-rated but the towns along the route were quite cute and we enjoyed seeing people at their daily tasks as we biked along.  We met “world famous” Dr. Ho and sampled some of his “healthy tea.”  He was quite a character. 

Worst of:    Lijiang is an overly touristy made up little city.  It’s beautiful but somehow it’s so fake that it takes away from its beauty.  It’s one of the most touristy places in China, it’s not just international tourists, Chinese tourists descend upon the city in droves and in in matching red hats usually following a tour guide with an umbrella for a flag poll.

Most Memorable:   This was our first real experience with Chinglish signs which delighted us:

“WIne & dine quietly and healthily.  Do not waste food!”

“Don’t forget to keep civilized behavior during outing and also shopping should be rational.” 

“Selling grass Place”

“No Naked fire here, please"

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Having spent the past couple of weeks in some of the poorest parts of China, we both felt we needed a little break from the ‘real’ China. Lijiang is about as far from that moniker as they come.

In what has become a growing trend all over China, the once quaint and charming village of Lijiang known mostly as being a jumping off point for the Tiger Leaping Gorge has been transformed into one of the most visited tourist attractions. The government has dumped millions of dollars into several of these beautification projects all over the country in the hopes of increasing tourism.  The efforts seem to be working as most nights the streets were packed with hoards of people filing in and out of the numerous souvenir shops.

So sure the town is kitschy, but what in China isn’t? Besides if you were to make an old place new, and then make the new look old I don’t think anyone could argue that the results are not visually stunning. Cobblestone streets, brooks and streams running beneath stone bridges, and vibrantly colored lanterns hang all over the town. Add to that the absence of cars and its all a little too much to resist.





Buildings and streets may fit into the Chinese Government cookie cutter machine, but not all culture and tradition are lost. The Naxi tribe have called Lijiang home for nearly 1500 years and still are alive and well today. Existing as one of the few matriarchal societies, the women seem to run the affairs of the house, in particular, ‘flexible’ arrangements for love affairs.

Mandarin is widely spoken, but the Naxi still use a form of hieroglyphics – one of the few still in use in the world. 


Nestled on the northern edge of town rests the stunningly beautiful Black Dragon Pool Park. Sure there’s an entrance fee and a few cultural exhibits but everyone comes here for the same reason – the view. Pond still waters, the year around snow-capped Jade Dragon Snow Mountains, pagodas and stone bridges come together for one of the quintessential shots in China.


From the park, we headed north of town on a couple of bikes. The surrounding villages are an easy bike ride away and while some of them are just as ‘beautified’ as Lijiang, the ride is flat and easy and passes through some of the prettiest countryside in China.


In  the unassuming town of Baisha lives one of the legends of the area. He goes simply by the name of Dr. Ho and has been administering to the sick in this village for over 50 years and to many a traveller who have passed through. We checked in on the good doc who managed to wrangle us into his shop for some tea and a stroll down memory lane compliments of the hundreds of newspaper clippings and testimonials he has collected over the years. He was even featured in an article on MSNBC once, a testament to either his tea’s healing powers, or his charming personality. . . or perhaps a good mix of both! 

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Finishing our tea, we headed back to Lijiang and began to rest up for the next adventure – the two day hike of Tiger Leaping Gorge!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Snapshot Sunday: Morning Tea in Xiahe, China

While walking the kora one morning in Xiahe, China we saw this monk carrying his morning the morning tea back to the monastery.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Photo Story: Yuanyang’s Colorful Ethnic Markets

Far from the organized tourist trail in China you’ll find Yuanyang.  It’s similar to Sapa & Bac Ha in Vietnam and one of our favorite stops from our two months in China.  Contact the Window to Yuanyang coffee shop for a market schedule before heading to Yuanyang and negotiate with a driver for a sunrise, market and sunset tour.  We paid 250 RMB for the van for the day split between 6 people (roughly $5 per person)   The market schedule rotates between villages based on the Chinese calendar (different animals for each day match up with a village where the market is scheduled that day).  The markets are filled with Hani, Yi & Dai market-sellers and market-goers.  It’s fascinating people watching, but we don’t have to tell you that, just check out the photos below!

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Monday, January 10, 2011

The Stunning Rice Terraces of Yuanyang, China (Yunnan Province)


Destination:  Yuanyang (Xinjie), Yunnan Province, China

Where we Stayed:  Photography Hotel – Instincts are usually right, unfortunately we don’t always listen to them.  Such was the case when we were greeted by the owner of the “Photography Hotel” at the bus station.  Ninety percent of the time the hotel that tries to drag people from the bus station to their hotel is desperate for a reason.  The place was overpriced, water didn’t work right for any of the rooms and he lied to us about a few things.  At least we had a friendly frog to keep us company while we tried to sleep on the mildew infested bed.  The 6 of us that got off the bus as a group woke up the next morning with the same conclusion – get the hell out of here!  We moved to one of the hotels in town (can’t remember the name though – it was nice but nothing special) and negotiated a discount for 3 rooms.

Best Restaurant:  One of the many broken promises by the photography hotel was its promimity to other restaurants.  If by proximity you mean within 5kms then he didn’t lie but walking to dinner that far after a long day already is hardly ideal.  Fortunately the food was ok, but way overpriced, at the hotel the first night.  After the fiasco at the Photography Hotel we moved into town and had two excellent meals, both off the main square and about half the price of the hotel.  Look for the noodle shop for lunch and for dinner look for the restaurant with the fresh case, just go in and point at what you want.

If you’re looking for a coffee break and some information regarding photography spots and ethnic markets check out the Window of Yuanyang.  They also have a book exchange and fairly priced crafts.

Best of: Simply breathtaking rice terraces, both for sunrise as well as for sunset.  Absolutely no crowds.

Most memorable:  Check China off the list of places we have driven in.  Thanks to a communication error, we had to borrow the cook’s motorbike to get out to see sunset.  A little illegal and a mild drop the bike moment, but no harm no foul.

Taking the night train from Kaili to Kunming (did we mention that Chinese trains are super comfortable) we thought we had left some of our language difficulties behind.  We thought that Kunming would be a touristy enough place to have plenty of English speakers.  A more cosmopolitan city with plenty of expats that would increase the use of English.  We thought wrong. 

Emerging from the train station, shaking off a couple of taxi touts, we managed to run into a cop who understood just enough of our primitive signing and pointing at Chinese characters in our phrasebook to get us to the right city bus.  The only problem is that we had no idea where to get off the bus.  An hour later and countless remarks to each other of, “Could this be it?” we arrived at the far south bus station, the last stop on the line…somehow it worked and we found our way to the long distance bus station right behind the one we arrived at.  Another 6 hours on a bus, a purchase of lychees from an ethnic lady to feed our hunger, and we finally arrived at the rice terraces with just enough time to get to a hotel, check in, have a beer and catch the sunset.


The terraces were carved from the surrounding hills beginning centuries ago when China was divided into multiple kingdoms and each kingdom had to be self reliant. Having no natural farmland and an ever increasing population, the kingdoms had little choice but to begin creating useable farmland from the hills.  Extensive irrigation channels were erected to channel just the right amount of water into the individual rice patties. One patty alone represents hundreds of hours of work making the collection of thousands all the more impressive. As it has been done for centuries, the rice is planted, tended, and harvested by animal and human power only. The rice season has four stages – planting, growing, harvesting and dormant. Each stage creates its own unique color and beauty making anytime of year a good time to visit.

Thanks to our beers and an inept hotel manager who was more concerned with selling us beers than taking care of us, we nearly missed the sunset for the first day. A little last minute improvisation involving a motorbike got us out to the terraces just a tad late, but not missing it entirely. Tracy is still upset at the man at the hotel for limiting our time to enjoy the sunset due to his poor planning. Despite the troubles, she still managed to get some amazing shots.

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After a beautiful sunset, we organized a van for the six of us to take out for the whole day, sunrise to sunset. “Many restaurants around my hotel!” equaled none, unless you wanted to walk 5km back into town so we had little choice other than to eat at the hotel. Fortunately the cook was adequate and the meal was actually on the good side, albeit a bit overpriced.

While the sunset the first day was great, the sunrise the following morning blew us away. . . well most of us anyways – this little guy didn’t seem to be as awestruck as the rest of us!


The natural soft lighting and the rolling in of the early morning fog combined for a postcard type moment. We all sat in the jaw dropping moment, munching on boiled eggs from the kids mother, and enjoying the view virtually alone.





During planting season, the terraces are flooded and the workers transplant each individual sprout one by one slushing though mud and muck; bent over for hours on end. Many of the older generation walk hunched over for a reason -  a lifetime of backbreaking work. I don’t think I will look at a box of minute rice the same way ever again.


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After the sun had fully risen, we stopped a few more times throughout the day, taking in sweeping panoramic views as well as the ethnic markets that scatter the area (in the next posting!).









For sunset the next day, we headed to a different set of terraces. As if one massive mountain carved into levels wasn’t impressive enough, the entire area is covered with them. One hill after the other, all growing rice by hand and animal. These terraces, rather than being flooded with water, was already into the growing season and was a vibrant lush green.

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Beautiful and amazing, the rice terraces of Yuanyang are a sight to behold. Amazingly there are few travellers that make it here and finding a peaceful moment isn’t difficult. Taking a break from the rice terraces and the amazing scenery, we next turn our attention to the equally as fascinating markets of the ethnic minority tribes (see next post).