ZHANGJIAJIE

IMG_1921_SnapseedIMG_1905_SnapseedIMG_1827_SnapseedIMG_1888_SnapseedIMG_1880_SnapseedIMG_1781_SnapseedIMG_1883_SnapseedIMG_1876_SnapseedIMG_1870_SnapseedIMG_1862_SnapseedIMG_1851_SnapseedIMG_1826_SnapseedIMG_1806_SnapseedIMG_1798_SnapseedIMG_1898_SnapseedIMG_1774_SnapseedIMG_1773_SnapseedIMG_1766_SnapseedIMG_1762_SnapseedIMG_1743_SnapseedIMG_1740_SnapseedI’m tempted to just let the pictures speak for themselves. It’s difficult to describe this place in words. The most succinct thing I can say is that the views I saw from Zhangjiajie National Park in China were not just the best of our Asia trip, but the most spectacular natural views I’ve seen anywhere in the world.

Thousands of towering sandstone karsts jut precipitously from the park floor towards the sky, where the evergreen forests that cling to the karst-tops merge ethereally with the clouds. You have to wonder about the wildlife on these tiny forests in the sky – do they know that they live on top of the world?

Armed with our beautifully hand-drawn map of the park, we entered Zhiangjiajie on our first day from the main Southern gate at the Loguta ticket station, and started on the Golden Whip Stream trekking trail. The trail starts out as a gentle riverside walk through the forest, following a crystal clear stream framed by the magnificent stone pillars on either side. Just after the Zicoatan peaks, we turned onto a steep, scenic staircase that 2,000 steps later had us eye-level with the tip of the karsts. This is where we came across two of the most popular sights in the park (and accordingly the crowds). The first, Lianxinqiao bridge, looks across to what is probably the tallest and most impressive karst in the park – Hallelujah mountain. At a dizzying 3,500 feet above ground, you just have to see it to believe it’s possible. If you’re scared of heights you might have trouble here as the bridge is made of a metal grid which lets you see all the immense way to the bottom. Hallelujah mountain is often referred to as the ‘Avatar filming site’ but I’m pretty sure this isn’t true.

Just after Hallelujah mountain is Tanxia Diyi Quiai (the bridge across the sky) – an incredible gravity-defying bridge that you can cross over to visit a small temple. At 1,230ft above the ground, it may be the highest bridge in the world.

From here we took the free bus to what is essentially the centre of Zhangjiajie park – Mcdonalds. (Yes, a huge Mcdonalds, slap-bang in the centre at Tianzishan) By this time it was getting late and the buses had stopped running. We weren’t keen on getting the ridiculously expensive elevator back down so we approached some shopkeepers and in some heavily app-assisted Mandarin managed to ask if there were any available rooms they knew of in the park. As it happened the owner of the shop owned some guest-rooms near his home, which he assured us were very comfortable. By comfortable, they had a bed, a hole in the bathroom for the toilet, and no heating. Since we were in the middle of nowhere and our breath was condensing in the arctic cold of the room, we snuggled in the single bed, popped some sleeping pills and listened to music until we fell asleep.

The next day we woke up to find there was a trail that started right from our guesthouse. If you’re keen to avoid the crowds then this is the route for you – we must have have seen about three people the whole time. The cliff-hugging trail meanders through beautiful dripping wet forest with small detours that lead to viewing points on the tips of some of the karsts. The most memorable was Yibu Nanxing – One Dangerous Step – so named because to get to it you have to walk on a metal grate across a void between two pinnacles. We continued past small waterfalls and streams with rocky stepping stones until the path got too crumbly and dangerous to follow and we had to turn back. We figured this explained the lack of people.

But we hadn’t yet had enough of Zhangjiajie for the day, so we took the shuttle back to Tianzishan and started the long hiking route to the east of Wolongling that would eventually lead us down to one of the park exits (Sansuo fire station). The map describes the surrounding area as ‘three miles of enchanting nature’, and it’s not wrong. We walked down what must have been thousands of stone steps through dense, verdant forest, past waterfall bridges and natural gravity-defying archways. We hardly saw a single other person except for a group of hikers at about half-way who, to my amazement, were making their way up. My legs were in agony from walking down the incredibly long, steep stepways so I can only imagine what they were feeling. I wonder if they ever made it all the way up.

The third day was the mistiest. We took the trail that started right from Loguta ticket station to the Huangshizai scenic area (you can also get a cable car). Not seeing any people on our way up and looking relatively underwhelming from the map, we were wondering what to expect, but the views from here ended up being the most breathtaking in the park by far. An easy walking route once at the top, the walkway leads you past various different lookouts, each one more spectacular than the last. The views reminded me of ancient Chinese drawings I’d seen in museums and galleries, where the dark, decisive outlines of the mountains in the foreground gradually fade into the faint, delicate outlines of the distant peaks, until they  eventually disappear altogether into the mist. With only the tip of some karsts visible through the clouds, I could see why people think Zhangjiajie is the inspiration behind Avatar’s floating mountains.

Oh, and be sure to take the cablecar either up or down, it’s terrifyingly stunning.

 

 

SAPA

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We arrived at Sapa through Lao Cai on the overnight train from Hanoi. Bleary-eyed and slightly unnerved from having shared our otherwise lovely carriage with a very strange tourist, we were soon on a hair-raising bus journey through the twisting mountains into Sapa.

At almost 5000 feet above sea level, Sapa town could be incredibly beautiful, but increased tourism and industry has resulted in a somewhat haphazard construction of hotels and buildings that look strangely out of place in what’s otherwise a very rural setting. Not that it matters, as nobody comes to Sapa for the town; they come for the drama of the country scenery and beautiful simplicity of the mountain villages.

We had a quick nap in our damp, freezing hotel room, (waiting for the electric blankets to heat up was the longest 20 minutes of my life), and then set off on our first hike. From the main town, the most popular hiking trail is down to Cat Cat village. While it’s definitely become commercialized (there is a 70,000 Dong entrance fee and you’ll walk past lots of market stalls), the views of the lush, staggered paddy fields are still beautiful, and the highlight – the Cat Cat waterfalls at the bottom – are as stunning as ever. Most people end their hike at the falls, but there’s a riverside trail you can follow from here that you’ll likely have entirely to yourselves. The walk hugs the stream and ends at a smaller set of rocky waterfalls. On the way back, instead of heading back to Sapa on the right turn of the main road, me and J headed left. It’s impossible to get lost as you simply follow the tarmac, which will lead you to tiny villages with their dark wooden huts and low sloping roofs. Black pot-bellied pigs root around under floorboards and brightly- clothed kids dot in and out of houses in a haze of bluish charcoal-smoke that seems to permanently hang over the villages alongside the mist.

Like many others, we used Sapa mainly as a springboard to visit one of the more typical villages in the area. There are plenty of beautiful ones to choose from and after some research we decided on Ta Van. I can’t speak for the other villages that are probably equally as beautiful, but Ta Van was nothing short of spectacular. At the bottom of a plunging valley, it’s flanked by looming, ephemeral mountains that only reveal themselves occasionally and suddenly from behind the rolling mist.

There’s an ongoing debate when it comes to hiking in Sapa as to whether it’s best to get a guide or go it alone. If you decide you’d prefer to have a guide there’ll be no shortage of ladies from the myriad of local ethnic minorities offering to take you. Of course you can also organise a tour beforehand. We ultimately decided to hike on our own as we had a feeling the guides would likely lead us down the main drag, and we wanted to go as off-piste as possible. Of course this meant that we had absolutely no idea what we were doing. Ta Van is not renowned for its excellent signage, and there are no trekking maps save for the most popular routes. So we just picked one of the many paths we came across and followed it up, and up, and endlessly up.

We soon found ourselves off the concrete and on a muddy, rocky path that went past lush, scalloped rice fields, plunging valleys and towering mountains. I was convinced that at some point the path had to end or start looping back around, as we were so far away from the town and hadn’t seen a single person in hours. It was also quite late in the afternoon and we had no idea if there was a shorter way down before dark. And yet the path just kept leading ever-upwards until we found ourselves not just in the mist, but in beautifully thick, fluffy cloud – the kind you see from airplane windows.

I didn’t imagine we’d find any sign of people this high up yet we were still among the rice terraces, which meant somebody had to be tending them. Just as we were admiring the reflection of the afternoon sunlight on these paddy fields in the sky, the thick mist passed and we could make out the vague outline of a house. A beautiful, dark-wood house esconced in the fog in the middle of nowhere, or rather on top of the world. The family that lived there seemed surprised to see us, and in some sort of Vietnamglish gibberish we managed to communicate that we were looking for a way back down. They pointed, and we thanked and followed.

The next day, totally thrilled by our impromptu trek, we decided to do the exact same thing, just pick a path from the main route (we chose a path up on top of the Silver waterfall on the most popular Ta van route) and keep heading upwards. Today was even foggier. The damp, grey, mist was broken only by the occasional dash of lilac from a spring flower, or the flash of the stunningly bright outfights of the ethnic minorities.

At one point, totally lost in the fog and unable to see the path or even eachother, we had to sit down and wait for it to pass. We could hear the sound of buffalo bells and children laughing and playing somewhere in the distance. When the clouds suddenly parted we could see the whole scene..we were on top of a mountain, the children silhouetted against the rolling clouds, disappearing and reappearing as the cloud drifted along. Buffalo serenely grazed in the paddy fields, sometimes bathed in sunlight and then suddenly in the mist, and all framed by the pink, newly budding blossom trees. It was one of the most memorable travel moments of my life.

WHEN TO VISIT:

March was perfect as we got to enjoy the characteristic mist but it wasn’t so heavy that you couldn’t see the spectacular views when the clouds parted. It’s bearably chilly (which is a bonus when you’re uphill trekking) and the spring flowers and blossoms are just beginning to bloom.

HOW TO GET THERE:

From Hanoi, the options are to take the train or bus. There are no airports in Sapa.

The Train:

The train takes about 8-9 hours from Hanoi and the carriage beds are actually quite comfy so you should be able to get a pretty decent sleep before waking up to the beautiful mountain scenery. The trains often depart between 8pm – 10pm and it’s advised to book your tickets in advance. You can do that here. The final stop is Lao Cai where you’ll have to get a one-hour shuttle into Sapa. Make sure you hold onto something or take a pill if you suffer from car sickness – they take the mountain bends pretty sharp! Whether you’ve got a tour bus waiting or you’ve not yet booked anything the shuttles should be easy to find out in the square.

You can also take the train from Hue, Da Nang and Nha Trang.

The Bus:

The bus is faster at 6-7 hours and it goes straight into Sapa without stopping at Lao Cai. The buses leave at 6.30am or 10pm. You can book here.

WHERE TO STAY: While there are hotels and guesthouses in Sapa, a much more authentic experience is to stay with a local family at a homestay. The accommodation is usually basic but the experience is much more memorable and you’ll be supporting a small family business. Plus, the home-cooked food is usually great! The Backpacker’s Bible has a great guide to staying at homestays in Sapa here.

WHAT TO EAT/DRINK: Homestays usually provide free breakfast and paid meals throughout the day. Some are all-inclusive. There are also usually restaurants dotted around whatever village you choose to stay in.

A Laos diary

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We travelled to Laos from Chiang Rai on the slow boat. ‘Slow’ boat, in this case, is not figurative; the trip takes two days with a one night stopover in the tiny town of Pakbeng.

My expectation of the slow boat trip was of a romantic, languorous glide over the earthy waters of the Mekong river, reading the history of Indochina on cushioned seats and eating lunch with a floating view of timeless, wholesome villages. The reality very soon dawned in the queue to get on the boat (you have to buy the tickets beforehand of course), when I very quickly noticed the yawning discrepancy between the size of the boat and the colossal crowd of people waiting to embark. Suddenly everyone was Usain Bolt’s new-found competition, racing to the front to try to get a seat by the water. The runners-up managed a small, wooden bench facing the other passengers, and finally came the overwhelmed and the oblivious, the latter foolishly thinking they could linger over their breakfasts before the long two-day trip to Laos; they got the floor.

Fortunately, one of the best qualities about people – especially backpackers – is that most have a way of making the best of a sweaty, cramp-inducing situation. In the end there was a lot of laughter, a lot of drinking of over-priced, deliciously cold Beerlao, and some engine-deck smoking of the local produce. One French couple even managed to retain the romance like an oasis amongst the dunes of rowdy backpackers, with the boyfriend reading French novels to his serene and closed-eyed girlfriend for almost the entirety of the trip.

The views on the other hand were exactly as I imagined. Tangled jungles gave away suddenly to a village of thatched huts balanced precariously on wooden stilts and occasionally to the tip of an elaborate temple. On one side of the river women washed and children played on the banks, whilst on the other herds of wild water buffalo sleepily grazed while fishermen diligently untangled their nets.

We arrived in Pakbeng just as it was starting to get dark. It was in this tiny half-way town that we had our most memorable Laotian culinary experiences: Lao Lao and Laap salad. The former was voluntary torture, the latter a revelation. Lao Lao is a 45% Laotian ‘whiskey’, except the undertones are more moonshine antifreeze than smoky peat. If you can brave the taste, you can get yourself a bottle for one dollar and have yourself a pretty good time (no guarantees about the following day). Laap salad on the other hand is delicious – you can make it with almost any type of meat but we thought we’d try the local buffalo. Laap is made by simply browning minced meat in fish sauce and then tossing in loads of fresh herbs; usually mint, coriander, lemongrass, lime juice and spring onions.

Luang Prabang, especially if you’ve just come from Thailand, is like Asia in slow-motion. Hidden high amongst the mountains of Northern Laos, it feels like a land that time forgot. Perhaps because of its status as a UNESCO heritage site, Luang Prabang has avoided the kind of rapid modernisation seen by its neighbours, and, to a a degree, other cities in Laos. The hotels are boutique, often repurposed colonial buildings, and the restaurants likewise. The result lends Laos an otherworldly kind of nostalgia. We spent most of our two days there languidly strolling down hot, dusty streets flanked by French colonial-era buildings, visiting whatever glitteringly gilded temple we happened to come across. The French influence is still keenly felt here – so that you might find yourself eating a freshly-made croissant at a Parisian style cafe whilst watching novice monks playing in the Nam Khan river, taking a well-earned break from their daily Theravada studies.

WHAT TO DO:

Kuang-Si falls:

We went to Kuang-Si falls with the benefit of knowing absolutely nothing about it. Less than an hour’s tuk-tuk drive from Luang Prabang are the most glorious serious of plunge pools and waterfalls I’ve ever seen. They’re not huge, but the texture of the layered levels and unearthly colours make them uniquely beautiful. Topaz-coloured water tumbles from the forest cliff of one single waterfall, feeding a series of smaller falls and swimmable pools below. When we saw the first of these, the lower pools, we were stunned at the beauty – we thought that this was the whole site. Walking further up you’ll come across more plunge pools until you finally get to the surreally stunning main waterfall. This is made up of three tiers – the main fall at the bottom, a middle tier where there is a secret pool which you’ll likely have all to yourself, and the top tier in the jungle where the water originates.

We took a look at the secret pool when we hiked past but since I wasn’t wearing the right shoes, we decided to give it a miss. If you’re keen on braving it past the warning signs then Nomadic Matt has a great guide to finding it here. Past the middle tier, it’s a steep and slippery jungle hike to the top, but well worth it for the views and lack of tourists. Here you can get intimidatingly close to the edge on a bamboo bridge and swing over the surprisingly still water that feeds the rest of the falls.

There are plenty of blogs that cover how to get to Kuang si in detail. We took the tuk-tuk from in front of the post office in Luang Prabang. All the options allow you to take in the scenic rural countryside, but this one is cheap (it should be about 50,000 kip or $6 dollars if sharing), safer than a scooter, and allows you to stay at the falls for as long as you please, unlike the shared minivans.

Entrance fee: 20,000 kip (roughly $2.50)

Opening hours: 8am – 5:30 pm

Kuang-Si bear sanctuary:

The sanctuary is dedicated specifically to rescued Asian black bears, who are illegally poached for their paws and bile. You can watch them swing from their hammocks or play on their tires. 1pm is feeding time, when meat is hidden around the enclosures so that the bears can ‘hunt’ for their food.

Consider giving a donation or buying some merchandise as the fund doesn’t receive any money from ticket sales at the park.

Visit Wat Xieng Thong:

With it’s gracefully sloping rooftop and elaborate gold gilding, it’s easy to see why Wat Xieng Thong is the city’s most visited temple. At the back of the temple is a colourful glass mosaic of the tree of life, a Buddhist symbol of the interconnectedness of nature.

Entrance fee: 20,000 Kip (roughly $2.50)

Opening hours: 8am – 5pm

Hike Mount Phousi:

Whether you choose to go at sunrise, sunset, or in the middle of the day, you’ll get amazing 360 views of Luang Prabang – its temples, rivers and across the surrounding countryside to the mountains in the distance. You can even admire the view from Wat Chom, the beautifully simple temple that sits on top of Mount Phousi.

Entrance fee: 20,000 Kip (roughly $2.50)

Opening hours: 5:30 am – 6pm.

Attend the alms-giving ceremony:

In Luang Prabang, the alms-giving ceremony, or ‘Tak Bat’, is a ritual that has taken place for over 600 years. At sunrise, locals will take their place on the sidewalk with their bowls of sticky rice or fresh fruit, and wait for the procession of monks to silently pass. Watching hundreds of monks silently glide through the beautiful streets of Luang Prabang at sunrise has unsurprisingly received attention from tourists, but as countless blogs have pointed out, the tradition is a serious one. If attending, it’s advised to keep a respectful distance, turn off the flash, and avoid making noise.

Visit the Luang Prabang night market:

The night market in Luang Prabang is lively, has amazing street food, and unlike some other markets across Asia, offers some beautifully made, high quality goods. There are bars and restaurants in the area and generally makes for a fun evening.

The market is in Sisavangvong Road, behind the National Tourism Office.

Opening hours: 5pm – 10pm every evening. (Technically it closes at 11pm but most stalls will have packed up by then)

Cross the bamboo bridge to the other side of the Nam Khan:

Made entirely out of bamboo, the bridge is such a simple structure that it’s taken down every year before the wet season and put back up for the dry season. Cross to explore the other side of town (or get to Dyen Sabai bar and restaurant on the other side) or to visit the paper and weaving villages.

There is a small fee of 5,000 kip ($0.60) to cross.

 

WHERE TO EAT/DRINK:

Utopia:

Famous with the backpackers, this bar is built on stilts directly over the Nam Khan river, and has cushioned mats and pillows for seats. Admire the river views or join in the daily yoga sessions. We came here one night after too much Lao Lao and went bowling with a group we’d met on the slow boat. For some reason it’s a tradition for everyone to go to the nearby bowling alley after closing time.

Bamboo:

This little restaurant was on the way to our hotel and was our favourite place to eat while we were there. Just off the centre, it’s one of the cheapest places we saw, and while the food is basic it’s also deliciously cooked. Try the seafood Pad Thai and chicken in lemongrass.

Khaiphaen:

Amazing food at a good price and is also for a good cause. The menu is full of creative twists on the local food. Try the grilled beef salad with Szechuan peppers and crispy frangipani flowers.

WHERE TO STAY:

I can’t find the name of the place we stayed at. We hadn’t pre-booked anywhere for our trip to Luang Prabang so we just wandered around until we found a local guy that said he could offer us a room for $10 a night. Obviously we took it. The room had a shared bathroom on a separate floor and the only furniture was a bed, but I loved it. Made entirely of wooden slats, the sun would stream through at all hours of the day and the view was of the Nam Khan river. Cold River guesthouse was directly opposite and made a lovely breakfast at a ridiculous price.