Tag: Outdoor Education

The six most common wilderness injuries that you should know how to treat

Any hobby that has a degree of excitement comes with risk, and traveling in the wilderness is no exception. As a smart hiker, you’re probably already taking steps to mitigate some of the risks, like bringing warm clothes to protect yourself from the cold, or flashlights to protect from the risks associated with darkness.Any time you’re more than a few hours from advanced medical aid, you should also be thinking about the risk from simple, common backcountry injuries that have the potential to ruin a trip, or worse.If a medical emergency happens in the backcountry, anyone who is on-scene immediately becomes a “first responder,” whether the injured person is in your group, or just someone you encountered along the trail. In order to be a safe, responsible hiker, you should know what to do if someone needs basic medical assistance.I’ve compiled a list of the skills and treatments that I’d consider “essential” for anyone who goes deep in the backcountry, based on my own experience in the outdoors.The specific instructions are pulled from widely-regarded sources including:

This article is obviously not a substitute for proper medical training, and you shouldn’t be used in place of good judgment. If you’re interested in leaning more I’d highly suggest taking a full Wilderness First Aid (WFA) or Wilderness First Responder (WFR) class.

Here is a quick look at the six injuries that are most common in the backcountry:

  1. Wounds & Infections
  2. Burns
  3. Knee & Ankle Injuries
  4. Blisters
  5. Dehydration
  6. Shock

Wounds & Infections

With lots of sharp tools, jagged edges and rough surfaces, there are all sorts of hazards that can lead to cuts, scrapes and puncture wounds in the backcountry. Knowing how to treat a serious wound and prevent it from getting infected is an extremely useful first aid skill.

Anytime you have substantial blood loss there’s an immediate risk of “bleeding out.” The average adult human has 5-6 liters of blood in their body – picture 5 nalgenes. When you donate blood, they take half a liter (500ml) which the body can easily handle. If you lose one to two liters of blood, you’re going to go into shock (more below). Anything more than two liters of blood loss and you’re in dire straits.

Controlling Bleeding

Most forms of bleeding can be stopped with a combination of direct pressure onto the wound and elevation of the wound above the heart. Always make sure you put on gloves before touching someone else’s blood, I carry a few pairs of these in my first aid kit.

Hand the patient a piece of clean gauze and tell them to put pressure on their own wound as you put your gloves on. If the gauze is getting saturated, add more gauze on top but do not remove any existing gauze that’s already in the wound.

If the situation requires your hands to be free, or you’re having trouble keeping pressure on the wound, you can make a pressure bandage. Place gauze over the wound and wrap it tightly with something like an ace wrap or bandanna. Your goal is not to make a tourniquet, you should be able to slide two fingers under the wrap and the patient should have no tingles or loss of feeling in the extremities.

Preventing Infection

Once the bleeding has been successfully controlled, the next steps to think about are preventing infection and promoting healing, especially if your plans call for you to still be out in the backcountry for several more days.

The first step is to wash, or “irrigate” the wound with at least half a liter of clean water. The goal is to flush out any dirt and germs that have already made their way into the wound and under the skin. Ideally you use something with high pressure like a syringe or the backwash pump that comes with the Sawyer Mini Filters. If there are any large pieces of dirt that you can see in the wound, be sure to pull those out carefully with tweezers.

Most first aid kits have alcohol wipes, which should be used to wipe the skin around the wound, but should not be used to clean inside the wound, since they can damage good tissue. Now that the wound is relatively clean, you can cover it with antibiotic ointment and then clean gauze and a wrap to hold it all securely in place. Note that antibiotic ointment is not a substitute for good wound cleaning, so make sure you get things nice and clean before applying it.

You’ll want to check on the wound once or twice a day to reapply the ointment and monitor it for signs of infection. A little bit of swelling, warmth, redness and puss is normal to see as the body fights off bacteria. But if the symptoms get more extreme – hot to the touch, bright red, hardening skin, painful and itchy – then that’s a sign that the body is losing its battle against an infection and you need to step in.

You’ll need to open the wound back up and re-clean it very thoroughly with at least a full liter of water. It also helps to soak the wound in the warmest water that the patient can tolerate (without causing burns). If you have pain killers or antibiotics, ask the patient about them and consider using those as directed.

If a wound is going to get infected, it will usually show up in the first 24-48 hours. You should stop the trip and evacuate any patient where you can’t control the bleeding or there are persistent signs of a bad infection.

Burns

On camping trips, you’re likely to be handling fire, boiling water and hot pots with primitive tools. Burns are another common risk that you should be aware of in the backcountry. This also includes sunburns, since those are also burns, albeit much more minor.

The very first step for treating any burn is to stop the burning process. Remove whatever the source of heat is and immediately cool the affected area with cold, clean water. Depending on the thickness of the burn, it may take several minutes of soaking in cold water before the burning process has stopped.

Once the burned area has cooled off, you may want to scrub the area with clean water and a bit of mild antibacterial soap, if it’s available. The goal is to prevent infection if the burn goes deep into the skin.

Next you should cover the burned area with antibiotic ointment and clean gauze or clothing. This will help protect the burn site, and also help reduce the patient’s pain. Feel free to offer the patient ibuprofen as well, as there will usually be substantial pain.

For burns in extremities, keep the burned area elevated to reduce swelling. For more long-term care, it’s important to keep the patient warm and well-hydrated since the major risks to life are fluid loss (see dehydration and shock, below).

Evacuate any burn patient if the burn:

  • exposes deep layers of skin or bone
  • is circumferential, going completely around a limb
  • is on sensitive areas like the face, groin, armpit, hands or feet
  • covers a significant part of a patient’s arm, leg or torso

Knee & Ankle Injuries

According to a Reddit AMA with search and rescue volunteers, soft tissue injuries are the most common things that people need to be rescued for. And while an injured wrist, elbow or shoulder might be inconvenient, lower body joints like knees and ankles can have a serious impact on your ability to hike out on your own.

Whether they’re chronic injuries that flare up from over-use or sudden injuries from a bad step on steep or uneven terrain, it’s important to stop and address soft tissue injuries. Trying to “tough it out” can lead to permanent, lifelong injuries that require ongoing physical therapy.

I can speak from personal experience on that, I took a bad step on a mountaineering expedition years ago and kept hiking down the mountain on it – it still bothers me to this day, whenever I do too much hiking on it. 😢

As a lay-responder, your job isn’t to diagnose whether it’s a strain, sprain, tear, fracture or other specific injury. Your goal should simply be to diagnose whether the injured joint is usable or unusable.

“Usable” Injuries

Wrapping a usable ankle injuryIf the patient still has most of the mobility in their joint and can comfortably put weight on it, then you can support the injury by wrapping it with athletic tape or an ace bandage.

There are also special-made wraps you can buy for various joints at stores like Walgreens or CVS. If you have a chronic injury in a knee or ankle, it’s a good idea to strap one of these on before you head out into the woods at all.

If you’re able to keep hiking on it, albeit gingerly, make sure you take sufficient time to address it when you get to camp.

The common RICE acronym is your guide:

  • Rest – especially if each use causes pain, which is a sign of tendinitis
  • Ice – alternate 20-30 minutes of cooling with 15 to naturally rewarm
  • Compression – wrap securely with an ace wrap, making sure circulation is preserved
  • Elevation – have the patient lie down on a sleeping pad and elevate their feet on a backpack or two

If your schedule allows you to take a day to rest the injured joint, this can go a long way to preventing complications and letting it heal. If you can keep the injury cold, compressed and elevated, this will help reduce swelling and make it more likely you’ll be able to continue hiking on it again shortly.

“Unusable” Injuries

If the patient can’t easily move the joint through its full range of motion or feels pain when putting their weight on it, then the joint should be considered “unusable” and treated as such. Note that an injury that starts out as usable may become unusable if the patient continues to hike on it, or swelling starts to set in.

For treating unusable joints, you want to splint the joint in a comfortable position:

  • For ankle injuries, keep the foot at 90 degrees to the lower leg
  • for knee injuries, bend the knee about 5 degrees from straight

You want to pad the injured joint with whatever is available – jackets, sleeping pads, clothing, etc. You also want to add something stiff like a hiking pole or canoe paddle to keep the joint from moving at all. Finally, wrap everything with something wide like a belt or webbing, and cinch it all tight. Remember this equation:

padding + compression = rigidity

Keeping it tied tightly will help hold everything together firmly as you begin your long, slow hike out. You will likely need to stop and readjust things often, whenever the patient is sufficiently uncomfortable.

Remember that you never want to tie anything so tight that the patient loses feeling in their extremities. Check periodically to make sure you can slide two fingers into the splint and that the patient can still wiggle their toes and has feeling in their toes when you touch them.

If the injury is so bad that there’s no way the patient will be able to hike out on it – like if bone is protruding through the skin – you’ll need to send someone to fetch professional help.

Getting carried out on a litter

Note that even the fastest search and rescue teams will take a few hours to reach you, and that being packed and carried out in a litter is generally a pretty terrible experience for everyone involved. Don’t expect most local SAR agencies to send a helicopter, you should encourage the patient to hike out in a splint if you don’t think it will complicate the injury.

Blisters

While not technically a medical emergency, blisters are one of the most familiar backcountry injuries to many people, and can certainly go a long way to ruining your trip if they’re not handled well. Blisters are also one of the most misunderstood backcountry injuries, and there are a lot of conflicting tips on what to do – the NOLS mythcrushers even tackled the issue:

A blister is formed when thick skin – like on your palms or feet – is rubbed, and it begins to separate from the softer, more sensitive skin beneath. Blisters are especially likely to form when the skin that’s being rubbed is warm or sweaty, which is exactly the conditions you’ll find inside most hiker’s boots.

With blisters that don’t occur on the foot, your best bet is just to leave them be. But if you have a firm, fluid-filled blister is on your foot you don’t really want to “tough it out” and risk having the blister pop inside your dirty, sweaty sock – leading to an infection (and a gross sock). It may also be too painful to continue hiking at all if the blister has grown too large.

To treat blisters, the best option is to carefully and slowly drain it, and then treat it like a minor wound. This will relieve the pressure and allow you to continue on your way.

Begin by washing the area around the blister thoroughly with water and then an alcohol pad. Sterilize a sharp point with either alcohol or by holding it over a flame.

To reduce the risk of cutting a jumpy, antsy patient, hold the sharp point so that it’s nearly parallel with the skin of their foot, and slide it up into the bottom of the blister’s roof. The skin of the blister should be dead, so the patient should only feel the tug of your point lancing the outside of the blister, not any sharp pain.

Once you’ve lanced a hole in the blister, leave the rest of the roof intact to protect the inner layers of skin. Give the blister at least a few minutes to drain, applying light pressure to help squeeze out the fluid. Then cover the area with antibiotic ointment to prevent your lanced hole from getting infected.

Some people use a donut of moleskin around the blister to hold the ointment in place, and then another piece of moleskin or tape over top to keep it all together. There are also products like 2nd Skin Blister Pads that you can slap over a lanced blister to help protect it.

Some people really don’t like the idea of another person sticking a knife into their foot, but the relief that comes after the blister has been drained is usually well worth the anxiety involved in lancing it. There’s no need to evacuate a patient with a friction blister, unless you’re starting to see signs of infection.

Dehydration

Like blisters, dehydration isn’t often a major, life-threatening situation, but it can certainly create issues if people aren’t watching out for it. Being well hydrated helps keep joints lubricated, muscles healing and your digestive system chugging along. Water also supports crucial brain function. Letting yourself or those in your group get dehydrated can make all sorts of other issues more likely.

Mild dehydration is something that we’re all familiar with – dry lips and a mild thirst. More severe dehydration can lead to fatigue and joint soreness, and eventually to irritability, frustration and poor decision making as the brain begins to shut down. This is especially likely if you’re also suffering from heat-stroke, but even in cold environments, dehydration can sneak up, so it’s important to know the signs.

I always think of dehydration like those Snickers commercials – you’re not you when you’re dehydrated.

To ensure everyone in your group stays hydrated, remind them of these simple rules:

  • If you’re not peeing every 4-5 hours on the trail, you’re probably dehydrated
  • If your urine isn’t clear, copious and bubble-free, you’re probably dehydrated

It’s also important to remember that dehydration also comes from a loss of key electrolytes like sodium and chloride. Ideally, someone in your group brought powdered sports drink mix to share, and everyone is consuming salty snacks like peanuts.

Shock

Shock is the body’s response to a sudden drop in blood pressure, in order to prioritize blood flow to the brain and other vital organs. Shock is a common response to major trauma or bleeding, or it could also be an issue with the heart not pumping enough, or blood vessels dilating and not maintaining high enough pressure.

Imagine that you’re trying to take a shower in a cabin on top of a mountain, and the shower is fed with lake water from the base of the mountain. If you turn on the shower head and nothing comes out, there could be three potential issues:

  1. The pump at the bottom of the hill (ie, your heart) isn’t putting out enough force to move the water adequately
  2. The water itself (ie, your blood) is leaking out of the pipe, or there just isn’t enough of it
  3. The pipes between the pump and the cabin (ie, your blood vessels) are too wide to maintain good pressure

In this analogy, you can think of the flow of water from the shower head as the flow of blood to your body’s various tissues. While a non-functioning shower is a big annoyance, if your tissues aren’t getting the blood flow they’ll need, that can cause life-threatening issues.

The various causes of shock are outside the scope of an article like this, but as a responder, you should look for signs of shock whenever there’s major injury or someone is feeling really off. Symptoms include:

  • anxiety or confusion
  • rapid pulse and rapid, shallow breathing
  • cool, pale clammy skin
  • weakness, dizziness, lightheadedness
  • nausea and vomiting

If you are able, you want to focus on treating whatever is causing the person to be in shock. But also keep these treatments in mind for any patient that’s exhibiting signs of shock:

  • keeping the person calm and reassured – by staying calm yourself – helps lower their heart rate
  • try to reduce their pain and discomfort by having them lie down on a sleeping pad in a comfortable position
  • elevate their feet on a backpack (unless you suspect a back injury) to keep blood in their core
  • even if it’s not freezing cold, wrap them in a sleeping bag and try to keep the patient warm and dry
  • if the patient is able to drink on their own, make sure to keep them hydrated – but never force them to drink if they might choke

Any patient who is exhibiting signs of shock will likely need to be evacuated with professional help. As you’re waiting for help to arrive, it’s a good idea to keep a log of the patient’s heart rate and mental status every 10 to 15 minutes. You will be able to hand this information off to rescuers to help their evaluation when they arrive.

Learn More

Well that’s 3500 words to get you started with the basics of wilderness medicine. Want to learn what I always carry in my first aid kit?

Check out this blog on Essential items to carry in your backcountry first aid kit.

If you love learning about this stuff, I’d highly recommend checking out a local Wilderness First Aid class. Some reputable companies that teach wilderness medicine include:

  • NOLS’ Wilderness Medical Institute
  • SOLO
  • Wilderness Medical Associates

The wilderness medicine community is full of some of the smartest, most interesting people I’ve ever met, and taking a class is also a great way to meet up with like-minded adventurers in your area.

If you can’t find a class near you, or if you want a handy reference or some not-so-light bedtime reading, I’d definitely recommend picking up a copy of Wilderness First Responder: How To Recognize, Treat, And Prevent Emergencies In The Backcountry.

Make sure you share this information with other people you often head out into the wilderness with. You never know when it could save their life – or yours.

Article by:  Hartley Brody

Be sure to check out this awesome adventure blog for more great content:

https://adventures.hartleybrody.com/

 

 

What do you need in your First Aid Kit?

But if you think that tossing a store-bought kit straight into your pack will get you out of any emergency situation, you’re in for a pretty terrible surprise if something actually goes wrong.
First Aid Kit Cartoon Diagram
Backcountry first aid kits are pretty different from urban emergency kits.
Anyone who is venturing more than a few hours away from civilization needs to be fully prepared for handling the most common emergencies and injuries on their own.Even if you find yourself in a truly dire situation, search and rescues teams often take several hours to reach your location by foot. You should have the gear and knowledge to prevent bad situations from getting worse, and to get yourself out safely.I’ve broken this comprehensive guide to first aid kits into a few sections, for review:

  1. Medical Situations an Outdoor First Aid Kit Helps With
  2. Specific Considerations for Your Trip
  3. Building Your Own Customized First Aid Kit
  4. Checklist of Items in a Backcountry First Aid Kit
  5. Recommended Popular Commercial Kits to Start With
  6. Other Resources For Building Your Own First Aid Kit

Medical Situations an Outdoor First Aid Kit Helps With

Before we even dive into the nuts and bolts of building out a great kit, it’s important to know the most common backcountry injuries and medical emergencies that you can handle on your own. I’ve written more extensively about those before but here’s a brief overview of what a first aid kit can help you prepare for.

Cleaning Wounds and Protecting Skin

In the wilderness, you’re likely to be working with fire and using sharp, primitive tools that you might not be totally familiar with. Cuts, scrapes, and burns are all relatively common injuries that can usually be treated without much fuss.

The majority of cuts you’ve gotten in your life likely stopped bleeding on their own, or with a bit of direct pressure and elevation. A good wilderness first aid kit will have items to help you control someone else’s bleeding (gloves and gauze) as well as tools for cleaning deeper cuts and keeping them from getting infected.

Supporting Injured Joints and Fractures

Especially when carrying a heavy backpack over rugged terrain, one bad step or a poorly timed fall can lead to fairly debilitating musculoskeletal injuries. These are the kinds of injuries that can not only ruin a trip, but make it difficult to get back to civilization on your own.

Having a few key items on hand can make a big difference in dealing with injured joints or broken bones, and can prevent smaller injuries from getting worse over time.

Maintaining Normal Body Functions

While issues like diarrhea, mild fever, seasonal allergies and low blood sugar are annoying but easily treatable in the front country, anything that gets you laid up and prevents you from hiking out can become a serious issue in the backcountry.

If you find yourself struggling with these issues on a backpacking trip, some simple over-the-counter medications can make a huge difference in your ability to get back to the trailhead safely.

Relief for Pain, Soreness and Discomfort

While not the most heroic form of first aid, sometimes offering a few advils or a tums can go a long way to improving someone’s experience while they’re out on a trip.

Being able to treat blisters can make you seem like a super hero to someone who has been struggling with one all day.

Specific Considerations for Your Trip

When preparing your gear list for a trip, you should already be thinking about key packing considerations like group size and expected weather conditions.

It’s important to also think about the hazards that each trip presents, in terms of first aid situations you’re likely to encounter. Here are a few questions you should ask yourself before each trip.

  • Are there members of your group that are older, out of shape, or otherwise at risk for a heart attack?
  • Is there anyone on the trip with known, severe allergies that would be at risk of anaphylaxis?
  • Are there venomous creatures like snakes or spiders in the area you’ll be hiking through?
  • Are you at risk of puncture or gunshot wounds on a hunting trip, or a hike during hunting season?
  • Could the weather conditions lead to heat or cold related injuries?
  • Will there be ticks, leeches, mosquitoes or other small biting pests you’ll have to contend with?

The answers to these questions will often vary from trip to trip, but it’s important to consider each of them to ensure you’re prepared for the situations you’re likely to face.

Building Your Own Customized First Aid Kit

We’ll talk more about pre-made, commercially available kits later in this article, but I’d really recommend building your own (or heavily customizing a purchased one) for a few key reasons.

Cheaper in the Long Run

There’s often a huge markup on store-bought, pre-packaged kits. You’re paying for the brand name and the heavy bag that it comes in. Each of the materials can often be purchased for much cheaper online or at your local pharmacy.

This is especially important if you think your first aid kit will be getting some decent use over the years. It’s much easier to buy most items in bulk, store them in your medicine cabinets and then restock your kit whenever you need to.

Easier to Customize

While most kits make a decent attempt at preparing for the generic problems a hiker is likely to face on the trail, often they don’t really hit the mark. I’ve usually found that most kits include way too much gauze and not nearly enough ibuprofen, for example.

Building your own kit also forces you to think about your own personal needs and those of your group. You might be more likely than the average hiker to be dealing with allergies, chronic joint pain or blood sugar issues.

You Know What’s In It

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen someone hike for miles with blisters or a headache or some other easy-to-treat issue, without realizing they’ve been carrying the solution to their ailment on their back the entire time.

Build your own kit forces you to consider each of the elements that you’re carrying, and makes you much more likely to recall and use them in the appropriate situations.

Keeping everything in a sturdy, clear ziplock freezer bag is fine. Just make sure it’s well labeled so that someone else can find it in your pack in an emergency.

Checklist of Items in a Backcountry First Aid Kit

I tried to err on the side of including more stuff rather than leaving something out that might be important for your trip. You likely won’t need all of these items for every trip, but I’ve put asterisks next to essential items – the ones that I always carry.

Medications

Common medications in a first aid kit

Pills weigh almost nothing and are easy to keep in a small baggie. I toss a few grains of rice into my pill bag to help soak up any moisture that might make its way in. Make sure to take stock of your pill bag before each trip so don’t run out of anything at a bad time.

  • Ibuprofen (Advil)* – Common for headache and pain relief as well as for reducing fever and inflammation. Affectionately known as “Vitamin A”. 💊
  • Diphenhydramine (Benadryl)* – Antihistamine for allergy relief and early anaphylaxis. Can also be taken as a sleeping pill.
  • Loperamide (Immodium)* – Anti-diarrhea pill that can be essential for getting yourself out of the woods if you catch a bug due to bad food or poor hygiene.
  • Epinephrine (Epi-pen) – My WFR instructor described an epi-pen as pound for pound, the most lifesaving piece of gear you can carry if someone in your group has severe allergies.
  • Aspirin – Good to have on hand if someone in your group is likely to suffer a heart attack as it can decrease the associated risk of death.

Wound Care

Wound care items for a first aid kit

 

This is the stuff that usually takes about about 90% of a hiking first aid kit. The goal of these items is to help you stop the bleeding, control infections and promote healing.

In a pristine hospital setting, anything that goes on or into an open wound must be sterile. In the backcountry, you’re unlikely to have that luxury, so “clean” will usually suffice. Make sure you follow up with any sketchy wounds when you get home or if they start showing signs of infection.

  • 3” Fabric Band Aids* – Your normal, everyday bandaid for protecting most minor cuts and scrapes. The fabric ones breath well and stretch with your skin as you move, so they’re more likely to stay on and not get gross.
  • Triple Antibiotic Ointment (Polysporin)* – Once a wound is no longer bleeding and has been flushed with water, add some of this ointment to help prevent infections and promote healing.
  • 2” Roll of Gauze* – A lot of off-the-shelf kits contain individually-packaged squares of gauze in various sizes, which creates a lot of waste and extra weight. A 2” roll of gauze packs down small and lets you use the right amount for any given wound.
  • Alcohol Pads – Use these for cleaning the skin around a wound before dressing it.
  • Quickclot Dressings – A vacuum-sealed packages of gauze impregnated with a hemostatic agent, they’re designed to be used on cuts or punctures with extra-strength bleeding to bring it under control quickly.
  • Nexcare Steri-Strip – These are long, thin pieces of tape designed to be laid across a wide cut to pull the skin together on both sides. They basically function like stitches that you can apply yourself to keep a wound closed.
  • Spenco 2nd Skin Blister Pads – A small pad that sticks well and protects blisters and small burns, allowing them to heal faster and with less discomfort.
  • Irrigation Syringe – You can get a small 5ml syringe for free from your local CSV pharmacy if you ask nicely. These are useful for pushing clean water into deep lacerations to help flush out the nasties.

Two other pieces of wound care gear that are commonly mentioned that I would not recommend:

  • Sheet of Moleskin – It’s really only useful for one, non-essential job – padding around blisters, and it takes too much fiddling to cut out a piece that is the correct size and get it to actually sticks to your skin. Learning how to safely drain a blister will relieve the pressure with a lot less fuss.
  • Israeli Bandage or Tourniquet – I really struggle to come up with a situation outside of a battlefield where this would be useful. You’d have to have a high chance of losing a lot of blood from an extremity for it to justify its own weight in your pack. That said, it might be good for hunting trips.

Other Essentials

Other essential first aid itemsAs a general packing philosophy, I tend to prefer simpler items than can perform multiple jobs rather that specific pieces of gear that can only do one thing. With that in mind, here are a few extra pieces of gear in my kit.

  • Leukotape* – The best thing I’ve found for sticking to skin while not being painful when you eventually want to remove it. It breathes better than duct tape and sticks better than medical or athletic tape. It’ll last you the entire trip back to the trailhead and then some.
  • Nitrile Gloves* – These should be standard in any kit but unfortunately aren’t. Nitrile protects you from coming in direct contact with another person’s blood and fluids while you’re working on them. Ask for a few pairs the next time you’re visiting the doctor.
  • 2” Elastic Bandage* – Can be easily fashioned to support an ankle or knee injury, if the joint is still usable. If it’s not usable and you need to make a splint, this is also very handy. I prefer the ones with velcro closures over those bendy metal pieces that don’t last.
  • Tweezers – Can be used for any task where you need fine motor control and precision, like removing a splinter or pulling off a tick.
  • SAM Splint – A stiff but packable splinting material commonly carried by many search and rescue teams. Useful for stabilizing and supporting injuries.
  • Snub-nose Scissors – If your pocket knife doesn’t already have a pair, a small set of scissors is useful for trimming gauze, opening packaging and removing clothing in a pinch.
  • Safety Pins – I carry a few in case of gear repair issues anyways, but they’re also great for draining blisters safely.
  • Q-Tips – Useful for applying ointment deep inside a cut without sticking your fingers into it. Also useful for cleaning ears and noses as well as gauging a person’s skin’s touch sensitivity.
  • Triangular Cravat – Basically like a giant bandana that you can use to help fashion a splint or pack into a wound. This is easily improvised with the bandanas and clothing that you’re likely already carrying.

Recommended Popular Commercial Kits to Start With

While there are many benefits to building your own kit from scratch, it can be intimidating if you’re not sure where to begin. Instead, it might be better to start with a pre-built commercial kit and customize that to your needs – tucking the excess supplies it comes with into your medicine cabinet and bolstering the kit where it’s lacking.

Adventure Medical Kits Mountain Series Hiker Medical Kit

Adventure Medical Kits Mountain Series Hiker Medical Kit

Weight: 7oz
Price: Click for Price & Availability

The Adventure Medical Kits Mountain series is a great light-and-fast set of first aid kits that don’t skimp on essentials. Their Hiker Medical Kit has 3 pairs of nitrile gloves, a stretchy elastic wrap bandage as well as roll gauze, which are all excellent essentials.

The bag itself is lightweight and no-frills, and it also comes with a handy pocket guide to wilderness medicine which can definitely be useful in an emergency situation.

I’d ditch the trauma shears, moleskin cutouts and giant gauze pads for most trips. I’d probably also swap out the fabric tape with some Leukotape and add way more ibuprofen (they only include 4 pills).

This is a great all-around starter kit that’s light and flexible and comes with a bunch of useful items that you can choose to leave at home on specific trips if you’d prefer.

Adventure Medical Kits Ultralight & Watertight .7

Adventure Medical Kits Ultralight and Watertight Medical Kit .7

Weight: 8oz
Price: Click for Price & Availability

Another great starter kit from Adventure Medical Kits is their Ultralight & Watertight 0.7. This kit is even more compact that the Mountain Series Hiker, ditching the shears and bulky gauze pads, but still includes 1 pair of nitrile gloves, a stretchy elastic wrap bandage and a roll of 2” gauze.

The bag itself is allegedly waterproof, making it a pretty durable package for your kit. However, the slim profile also makes it a challenge to add bulkier items like an epi-pen or scissors, if you needed to toss those in on an occasional trip. It also seems to weigh a bit more that the Mountain Series Hiker kit, despite the “ultralight” name.

I’d remove the moleskin sheet and swap the fabric tape for something that sticks better. The kit also includes some duct tape and safety pins if you need to MacGyver a wound together, but you might already be carrying these staples elsewhere in your backpack already.

This is a good no-frills kit for the minimalist who doesn’t plan on adding much extra gear of their own.

REI Co-op Backpacker Weekend First-Aid Kit

REI Co-op Backpacker Weekend First-Aid Kit

Weight: 9.5oz
Price: Click for Price & Availability

REI has a whole series of their own first aid kits but the Backpacker Weekend First-Aid Kit seems to strike the right balance of gear. It has important essentials like a roll of gauze, elastic wrap bandage, and a wilderness first aid manual. It doesn’t have gloves but it does have an assortment of small creams for burns and stings.

REI seems to tout all of the many labeled pockets in their kits as a way to keep everything organized. However, they add a lot of bulk to the packaging and make it much more difficult for you to reorganize it with your own gear mixed in.

This is a good starter kit for anyone who appreciates the organization and doesn’t plan on customizing their kit very much.

Other Resources For Building Your Own First Aid Kit

All of the advice I’ve given so far is based on my own experiences treating and managing real backcountry medical emergencies, as well as my Wilderness First Responder training.

But don’t just take my word for it.

Whenever you’re putting together something as important as your first aid kit, it’s important to consider multiple sources. Here are a few other great resources to help you think more carefully about what you should bring for you next trip.

“Backpacking First Aid Kit for soloists & groups” by Andrew Skurka 
Andrew Skurka is a well-known adventure racer and ultralight backpacker. In this post, he lays out the core first aid essentials he brings as well as group considerations that might add a few more items to his kit.

“Building a Wilderness First Aid Kit” by Wilderness Medical Associates 
Wilderness Medical Associates is one of the leading backcountry medicine training providers in the US. In this article, one of their staff members lays out her ideal first aid kit for remote trips.

“First-Aid Checklist” by REI 
In this article on the REI blog, they list every possible item you might ever want to include in your kit, including many I intentionally skipped over, like a magnifying glass, mirror, CPR mask and oral thermometer.

“What Items Belong in My Backpacking First-Aid Kit?” by Outside Magazine 
A very minimalist perspective from another Wilderness First Responder. He lists the core essentials he takes on every trip.

“Can we talk about First Aid?” on Reddit 
If discussions are more of your thing, here’s a great thread on the Wilderness Backpacking subreddit where a bunch of people share what’s in their kits and debate what they feel is necessary.


Ultimately, a first aid kit is just a collection of a bunch of small but essential pieces of gear. It’s a backpacking myth that a survival kit alone will get you out of any situation you get yourself into.

In reality, it takes training and thoughtful decision making to handle backcountry medical emergencies.

If you’re interested in learning more, check out my article on essential Wilderness First Aid skills. I’d also highly recommend taking a weekend-long Wilderness First Aid class in your area.

 

Article by:  Hartley Brody

See more awesome wilderness content here:

https://adventures.hartleybrody.com/

 

 

10 Most Legendary (And Infamous) Travelers In History

10 Most Legendary (And Infamous) Travelers In History

By: Matthew Kepnes
History is filled with amazing adventures who paved the way for future explorers and inspired generations of wanderlust. Here are some of the best.

Fridtjof Nansen

Fridtjof Nansen was the first man to cross Greenland’s ice cap. He also sailed farther north in the Arctic Ocean than any man before him. That’s pretty awesome. He and a colleague even endured nine winter months in a hut made of stones and walrus hides, surviving solely off polar bears and walruses. Nansen explored the great white north and had an asteroid named after him.

Christopher Colombus

Here’s a guy who had no idea where he was when he landed so assumed he was in India, enslaved a population (for which he admitted to feelings of remorse later in life), and brought a host of terrible diseases to an entire hemisphere (he got syphilis from the native people, in return). Colombus showed Europeans there was a new world out there and ushered in a new age of European exploration.

Ibn Battuta

Ibn Battuta was a great Muslim explorer who traveled more than 120,000 kilometers through regions that, today, comprise 44 countries — from Italy to Indonesia, Timbuktu to Shanghai. He was mugged, attacked by pirates, held hostage, and once hid in a swamp. His travel writings provide a rare perspective on the 14th-century medieval empire of Mali (from which not many records survive).

Xuanzang

Xuanzang was a Chinese Buddhist monk, intrepid traveler, and translator who documented the interaction between China and India in the early Tang Dynasty. He became famous for his 17-year overland journey to India, on which he was often ambushed by bandits, nearly died of thirst, and survived an avalanche.

Lewis and Clark

These two guys lead an expedition of 50 men to chart the northwestern region of the United States after the Louisiana Purchase and establish trade with the local populations. They set out in 1804 and didn’t return until 1806. They rode off into the unknown, were helped by the famous Sacagawea, and were the first Americans to set eyes on the Columbia River. They faced disease, hostile natives, and extreme weather conditions. They were true adventurers and scientists.

Ernest Hemingway

The manliest of manly travelers, Hemingway traveled extensively. His journeys inspired many of his greatest stories. He was a fisherman, hunter, soldier, and ardent drinker who lived in Paris, Cuba, and Spain. He was the most interesting man in the world before it was cool to be the most interesting man in the world.

Marco Polo

This legendary Venetian set out with his father and uncle to explore Asia when he was just 17 years old. They came back 24 years later after traveling over 15,000 miles. He’s inspired generations of travelers with tales that provide fascinating insight into Kublei Khan’s empire, the Far East, the silk road, and China.

Ernest Shackleton

Antarctica’s most famous explorer (though Roald Amundsen was the first to reach it in 1911), Ernest Shackleton is synonymous with Antarctic exploration. He traversed the continent many times and is most famous for the 1914 voyage that trapped his ship Endurance in ice for 10 months. Eventually, she was crushed and destroyed, and the crew was forced to abandon ship. After camping on the ice for five months, Shackleton made two open boat journeys, one of which—a treacherous 800-mile ocean crossing to South Georgia Island—is now considered among the greatest voyages in history. Trekking across the mountains of South Georgia, Shackleton reached the island’s remote whaling station, organized a rescue team, and saved all the men he had left behind. That’s badass.

Neil Armstrong

The first man to set foot on the moon. That pretty much means he wins. He was a modern adventurer who traveled to the moon (no easy feat) and took one giant leap for mankind. Neil Armstrong is living proof that when we put our mind to it, there’s no place we can’t explore.

Freya Stark

In 1930, Freya Stark – who had also learned Persian – set out for Persia. The goal of her trip was to visit the Valleys of the Assassins, at the time still unexplored by Europeans, and carry out geographical and archeological studies. The Assassins were fanatical followers of a sect belonging to Shiite Islam, who used religious reasons to justify killing their enemies. They were said to enjoy hashish, which is reflected in the name “hashshashun,” or hashish-smoker. French crusaders derived the word “assassin” from the word “Hashshashun”, which came to mean “murderer” in Romance languages. The reign of the Assassins began in the 11th century and ended in the 13th century after the Mongol conquest.

On the back of a mule, equipped with a camp bed and a mosquito net, and accompanied by a local guide, Freya Stark rode to the valleys near Alamut (= ruins of a mountain fortress castle near the Alamut River), which had not yet been recorded on her map. Malaria, a weak heart, dengue fever, and dysentery plagued her, but she continued her trip and her studies. Back in Baghdad, she received much recognition from the colonial circles; overnight she had gained a reputation as an explorer and scholar to be taken seriously.

 

And here are some inspiring quotes to take you further in your travels:

“Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”              – Ibn Battuta

“We travel, some of us forever, to seek other states, other lives, other souls.”        -Anaïs Nin“You can shake the sand from your shoes, but it will never leave your soul.”

 

 

If you like these articles, feel free to pin and share them around.

Happy reading!

Follow us on WeChat and you will find a lot of interesting articles about adventure travel:

 

 

Taking the Train in China: What You Can Expect

 

How to Take the Train in China

Here are the basic steps you will need to follow for a successful journey

Step 1: Arrive at the railway station at least 1.5 hours before your train departs

Step 2: Pass through the security check and ticket check at the station’s entrance

Step 3: Find the right waiting room and wait for boarding

Step 4: Check in at the right boarding gate

Step 5: Go to the train platform for boarding

Step 5: Settle in, and store your the luggage and sit down (or lie down) to enjoy your trip

Step 6: Upon arrival, get off and exit to your destination.

 

Now let’s look into the details of this process…

 

7 Things to Know Before Riding A Train in China

You may have heard that train travel in China can be a delightful adventure and this is absolutely true. My family recently took the train from Xining to Chengdu and we thoroughly enjoyed the journey in our private soft sleeper rooms.  Our kids (ages 4 and 6) really loved the experience of being in their own bunk bed and looking out the window while the beautiful, lush Sichuan countryside passed by.  The whole 14 hour drive was quite magical for them.

The train in China is really a memorable experience – for adults and children alike. There are many times in our lives when we just have between 12-50 hours to relax, read a book, and watch beautiful dream-like landscapes through a train window.

But there are a few things you need to know before you depart on your journey to make it a success (and not a stressful undertaking).

Read on for things you should know before taking a train in China, like how to get to/through the railway station, how passengers are searched at security checkpoints, what drinks/food can be purchased on the train, and what the toilets are like. When you travel, it is the details that will make the difference in your journey and knowledge is power 🙂

1.) How to Read Your Train Ticket 

Station Information

Go to the Right Departure Station

Check the departure station carefully. Most cities in China have more than one railway station and they are often far away from each other (usually 30-90 minutes away on different sides of the city). It is recommended that you find out how to get to your station in sufficient time before your departure. And make sure you are going to the right station.  If you are arranging a taxi or preparing to board a subway or bus to your train station, make sure you check with your hotel staff first or travel agency just to make sure you know exactly which station to get to and how to get there.

train ticket
A train ticket from Guilin Railway Station to the Liuzhou Railway Station 
(NOTE:  This is train #D8265 / Train Car #: 3 / And Seat #: 6A/ This train departs at 9:50am on April 8, 2016)

If you accidentally go to the wrong station, you will find that the electronic boards do NOT show your train’s schedule at all (this is your first hint you may have gone to the wrong station). By the time you realize your mistake, you likely will not have enough time to transfer to to the correct station and you therefore will probably miss your train as it will take more than hour to transfer to the right departure station.

If you miss your train, you can make an alteration at the ticket window in the correct departure station for the next train on the same day. The alteration is free of charge, and you will get a refund for the difference if the next train’s ticket is less expensive, or you will be asked for an additional payment if the next train’s ticket costs more.

Don’t Get Off at the Wrong Station

It is also important to correctly read the information for the arrival station. For example, the southbound train from Beijing will first reach Guilin North Railway Station (桂林北站) and then Guilin Railway Station (桂林站). So make sure you know which station you are getting off at.

Getting off the train at the wrong destination can cause you to pay a penalty fare if you continue the journey too far, or require a trip across the city if you get off too early. If you have scheduled a pick up at your destination this may also cause a great deal of confusion with your party as they may be waiting and looking for you for hours at a station you are not at.

Pay attention to the announcements on the train as they will tell you which station you have arrived at. If you take an overnight train, a member of staff will wake you up to exchange your sleeper card for your original paper train ticket about half an hour before arriving at your destination.

Here is a tip once you have reached your destination:

Look at the arrival time for your train and set your alarm for 1 hour before that time.  Sometimes trains arrive a few minutes early or late for their scheduled arrival times so make sure you account for this.  Once the train stops you may only  have one or two minutes to exit (especially if your train is continuing onto another destination).  So make sure you are all packed and you have all your charging cords, electronic devices, and all your luggage all packed and ready to go.

Get a visual idea of how to read China train tickets.

2.) Luggage Allowance — Pack Smartly

a porter at guilin railway station

Sometimes the excitement and anticipation of travel is half the fun, so make sure that you leave plenty of time to pack for your travel and get all those last minute items. Separate your belongings into large luggage and small carry-on items. Important things, such as travel documents, tickets, money, and valuable items should be kept on you at all times. Having a fanny pack, day pack, or purse is handy. The outside of train stations are notorious for pickpockets so keep your things close to you and always be mindful of your luggage and do not leave items unattended. Remember to put your tickets and passport away safely after the ticket checkpoints. If you lose these – your vacation will suddenly not be so fun.

Packing light is important. You can find all kinds of tips about packing light on the internet and everyone has their own style of packing. If you are not able to lift your luggage above your head, the train stewards can assist you in this task. Often times, luggage can either be placed under your hard or soft sleeper bed or in a public overhead compartment (which has no lock or door). Therefore, it is important to have your luggage zipped up or closed securely using a combination lock.

When taking an overnight train, you should consider taking flip-flops, bathroom supplies (toilet paper and a toothbrush), and perhaps earplugs and an eye mask. Take a book or an iPod to help pass the time.

Carry-On Luggage Regulations

  • Ordinary passengers: 20 kg (44 pounds)
  • Children with a half-price ticket (1.2m–1.5m) or no ticket (under 1.2 m): 10 kg (22 pounds)
  • The total length of each item cannot exceed 160 cm, unless it is rod-shaped.

The above limitation is not applicable to wheelchairs, which can be taken on to the train for free.

The limitations for luggage are not as strict as they are for airplanes.

Senior travelers or passengers with excessive luggage can hire a porter at the station entrance — they are easily spotted as they wear sleeveless red jackets and red hats. The price is approximately 10 to 15 yuan. They will help to load the luggage onto the train. Beware of people that offer to help you carry your luggage who do not wear the official train uniform. These people will rip you off to carry your luggage only for a few minutes and they should be avoided.

3.) Arrive At the Station 2 Hours Before Your Train Departs

Arriving at a train station generally follows the same rules and processes that you would follow if you were to arrive at an airport.  If you are not a fan of taking risks, it is always better to arrive early at the railway station (especially if you have to pick up your tickets at the station). Nobody likes waiting around, but we suggest that you arrive 2 hours  before your train’s departure time.

Here are a few reasons to leave yourself a little extra time:

Leave Extra Time to Get to the Station —In Case of Traffic, Getting Lost, and Crowds

Some railway stations can be as vast as an airport and are situated a long way from the city center. It’s a good idea to leave your hotel or last activity in plenty of time in case of traffic, queues, crowds, or in the event of getting lost. Give yourself enough time to enjoy a relaxing journey. Usually 2 hours is enough, but the time can be reduced if going to a very small, local train station.

There Are Many Things to Do Before Boarding— Long Distances and Lines

guilin train station
A crowded train station

The distances between the ticket office, security check, waiting room, and station platform can be quite long, and it is sometimes necessary to walk from one side of the station to the other.

Remember that you are not doing this alone; there will be hundreds of people doing the same thing, meaning that you might be standing in waiting lines for a long time (especially around holidays and times of high-season travel such as Chinese New Year, October Holiday, and May Holiday). From the moment you arrive at the train station, you will likely need to be queuing in crowded lines (And remember- Chinese people do not always form or respect an orderly single-file line. So you may have to be a little aggressive to maintain your spot in line).

At the station entrance you will need to pick up your ticket at the “ShouPiaoChu” or 售票处. This is often separate from the train station entrance itself and they may not allow you into the station until you have been to the nearby ticket pick up office to get your ticket.  Here at the ticket pick up gate, you will have to stand in line (maybe a half an hour or more, unless you’ve used a ticket delivery service or got your tickets delivered in advance to your hotel), then pass through a ticket and ID check followed by a security check.  After this you will need to locate and walk to your train’s specific waiting area, then, after a 10-15 minute walk through a busy station, will need to wait again in line at the waiting room ticket gate.

xian north railway station
Explore the train station if you get to the station early.

Things to Do If You Get There Too Early

No time needs to be wasted, even if you get there early. For first-timers, early arrival at the railway station gives you a good chance to explore the station and observe the locals. You can purchase some food or drinks at the shops so that you won’t go hungry during the journey. If you are traveling with kids, an early arrival gives you some time to calm them down and prepare for a good trip.

Bear in mind that the station will stop the check-in facility 5 minutes before the train departs. So don’t lose yourself in the stores at the train station. You are recommended to get to the waiting room at least 30 minutes before the train departs (especially if you want to find a seat amidst 100’s of other passengers waiting for the same destination).

4.) Security Checks

Prepare Your Passport and Ticket

security check

All passengers and luggage are required to pass through a security check at the station entrance. Please prepare your train ticket and passport (or Mainland Travel Permit). You need to line up for the security check, just like at an airport. After the security check keep your passport and train ticket on your person, and don’t lock them in your suitcase, because you are going to need them for another ticket check or two when you board the train.

There may already be a long line at the entrance so, as we have already mentioned, you are recommended to arrive at the train station early.

5.) Boarding Smoothly

Getting to the Right Waiting Room, Gate, Platform, Car, and Seat

Find the Right Waiting Room Using the LED Screens

beijing west railway station
An LED screen at Beijing West Railway Station

After the security check, you need to find the right waiting room. A train station may have many waiting rooms for different trains. And usually the information on the screen is in Chinese only, although some screens display both English and Chinese.

Look up at the large LED screens for your train number, and see which waiting room is allocated to your train number. Your train number is a letter with numbers displayed on the top middle part of your train ticket, such as G655 or D3201. A large LED screen shows different trains’ departure schedules in rotation, so you might have to wait for the screen to change once or twice to see your train information.

Usually the waiting room information shows the floor and room number, such as”2楼1候”,meaning ‘2nd floor 1st waiting room’. You could ask someone near you for help to get to the right waiting room, by pointing at your ticket then the LED screen, then saying, “Wǒqùnǎr?”(我去哪儿/wo choo narr/ ‘I go where?’), or read the Chinese yourself.

Get to the Right Gate

check in gate
An LED screen of check-in gates

A waiting room may not only have one platform gate (like in an airport). There may be several gates going to different platforms to board different trains, so don’t line up at the wrong gate.There are generally rows of seats either side of a gate’s lining up aisle.

LED screens for each gate in each waiting room show different trains’ numbers, departure times, and platform information. If you know Chinese, you can listen to the broadcasts for boarding information.

Get to the Right Platform

Once you get to the right gate, generally, you can check-in with your train ticket 15 minutes before departure. Before you walk along the long corridors to the platform, look up at the LED screen for the last time and find your platform number. Look for your platform number showing which stairway to walk down to get to your platform.

Getting to Your Seat/Bunk

seat number
Seat number sign on a bullet train

Check your train ticket for your car number (listed as: 车 on your ticket) as you descend to the platform. There will be staff at each train car door. You could show your ticket to a member of staff. He/she will check that you are boarding the right train car. The character 车 denotes your car number.

Once on the right car, find your bunk number (shown by 铺 on your ticket: 上 for top, 中for middle, 下 for bottom), or seat number (shown by 座 or “seat” on your ticket), usually displayed on the luggage racks around head height.

Chinese “Cheat Sheet” for Getting Help

You could carry a card (or an image on your device) listing useful sentences written in Chinese to find your waiting area, platform, coach, and seat, and show these sentences to any staff member or passer-by, along with your ticket(s):

Chinese English
我搭这趟火车, 请问我的候车室在哪里? I am taking this train; would you please tell me where the waiting hall is?
我搭这趟火车, 请问我在哪个站台上车? I am taking this train; would you please tell me which platform I should go to?
我搭这趟火车, 请问我在哪个车厢? I am taking this train; would you please tell me which coaches I should board?
我搭这趟火车, 请问我的座位是哪个? I am taking this train; would you please tell me where my seat is?

6.) Know What’s on the Train

Food, Water, and Toilets

Different trains offer different services and facilities. High-speed trains are modern and comfortable, while normal speed trains may not be so convenient for foreign travelers.

G, D, and C: High Speed Trains — Modern Facilities for a Convenient Journey

When taking high-speed trains, lettered G, D, or C, you can enjoy a more comfortable train journey.

Seating: High-speed trains are fully air-conditioned. The seats are adjustable, just like seats on a plane, for you to sit comfortably. What’s more, there is a 220V AC socket under each seat for your devices.

Food: High-speed trains offer different types of set meals (including Muslim food).You can go to the restaurant car to have a meal, where they offer made-to-order meals at 20 to 50 yuan per dish. Or you can buy a set meal from the attendant’s trolley. You can also go to the canteen bar to buy some snacks and drinks.

Water: Free boiled/cold water is available between the coaches.

Toilets: Chinese/Western-style toilets and handicapped restrooms are available between the coaches. However, the toilets have usually run out of toilet paper or don’t provide toilet paper in the first place.

LED screen: Every coach with an LED screen indicates the speed of the train.

Luggage racks: There are luggage racks over the seats at either side of a coach. You can take a 24-inch suitcase on board and place it on a luggage rack. There are some shelves between the coaches for large baggage. Shelves for large suitcases, suitable for a 70cm (28-inch) suitcase.

K and T Number Trains: Normal Speed Trains — Not as Comfortable

Normal speed trains are not as convenient and comfortable as high-speed trains. If you have to take such trains, you are recommended to buy tickets for soft seats or hard/soft sleepers. If you choose to book the hard seats for your party, you should be prepared to sit next to a lot of Chinese men playing cards, making loud jokes, and smoking cigarettes all around you for long hours. The hard seats are slightly cheaper than the hard or soft sleeper beds but offer little in the way of privacy or cleanliness.

Seating: Hard seats are not adjustable. There are no power outlets. Normal speed trains, apart from the oldest number-only ones, are fully air-conditioned.

Food: Some trains don’t have a restaurant car, but most T and K trains do, and there is often a staff member who walks through the coaches selling somewhat overpriced simple small items, snacks, and drinks from a food trolley.

Our suggestion is to purchase some simple food and drinks before boarding, such as a takeout from KFC or McDonald’s.

Water: There is free boiled/cold water is available between each coach car. Make sure that the water is labeled as “drinkable” because all the other faucets on the train provide water that is NOT suitable for drinking.  There are sometimes hot water kettles available in the soft sleeper cabins where you can store your boiled water in case you want to prepare some instant noodles or Starbucks VIA coffee.

Toilets: Most trains only have Chinese-style squat toilets, which are usually quite wet and dirty. Some soft sleepers / deluxe soft sleepers have Western-style toilets which are a little cleaner. In either case, keep your bathroom expectations pretty low and bring lots of hand sanitizer and wet wipes.  Never enter a bathroom without shoes as the floors can be quite wet and messy.

Luggage racks: After you board the train, you can place your baggage on the luggage rack above the seats. If you are on a sleeper carriage, you can place your baggage on the opposite side of the berths, under the lower berth, or under the small desk in your compartment.

5 Places to Buy Food for Your Train Trip in China

Chinese people always buy snacks for short-distance trips and food for long-distance train trips. Generally, the food prices at the train station and on the train are higher than those in the outside restaurants or stores. If possible, you should take your own food or snacks. I have some friends that always prepare a nice bottle of wine and some imported cheese and crackers for their journey and think this is a great practice.  With a little preparation, the train ride can be a fun little traveling picnic!

There are five places you can buy snacks or food in and around the train:

  • Shops or fast-food chain restaurants around your hotel or city center, such as Subway, KFC and McDonald’s. You can buy the food in advance then go to the train station to board your train. You have more options if you prepare the food in advance.
  • Small shops at the train station. There are lots of shops at the station. You will find fruit, bread, milk, and eggs in the shops and these are something similar to what we would consider American “gas station food”.  You can pay for these items using Chinese yuan cash OR Wechat or Alipay
  • The platform at the train station. When the train stops at a station, you can get off the train to buy some food. There are vendors selling local dishes or more simple food. You will find food like boiled corn cobs and tea-flavored boiled eggs. But make sure you only take a few minutes as you do not want the train to leave without you!
  • There is a dining car on long-distance trains that is open to all passengers and this area sells snacks, beer, and soft drinks. There is a canteen bar on high-speed trains. Try to go there as early or as late as possible because it will be very crowded at meal times. The dining car offers prepared and heated packed meals and the prices range from 15 to 45 yuan.
  • Railway attendants take trolleys through the cars frequently and you will hear them yelling by your cabin. There are packed meals at meal times and each one is about 25 yuan. The Chinese meal includes rice, meat, and vegetables. You can buy instant noodles too (which almost all the Chinese eat). There is free boiled water on each car. At other times, the attendants also sell drinks, snacks, packed fruit, and some toys for kids.

7.) Travel Safely

Train travel in China is a fairly safe and standardized process, especially when compared to traveling in India or Nepal.  Yet good advice never hurts.

When you are traveling with young children, keep them close by your side and keep an eye on them. Don’t allow kids to run up and down the train coach/platform, or lose them in the station. Beware of pinching fingers in the (automatic) doors. Hold onto the hand knobs and rails while walking inside the coach. The bathroom floor can be slippery (and sometimes a little nasty), so be careful in there.

Don’t leave your valuable belongings unattended. There is a power socket under the seat (on high-speed trains) or on the small table (on non-high-speed overnight trains), which can be used to recharge your devices. Never leave your valuables unattended. When taking an overnight train, keep your carry-on items close to your body. Your passport and ticket should always be kept with you.

 

Travel in China With Us

If you are planning to take a train during your China trip, please see our recommended tours below for inspiration. You can enjoy hassle free travel with Elevated Trips. All you have to do is arrive in the train or plane station and we take care of everything else.

If you have more questions on train travel, do not hesitate to contact us here.

 

Visiting the Pandas of Chengdu

 

The giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca, literally “black and white cat-foot”) has a very cute name in  Chinese: 大熊猫; pinyin: dà xióng māo.  This literally means “Big bear cat”.  The giant panda is also known more commonly as the panda bear or simply panda, and is a bear native to south central China, particularly the lush bamboo forests of Sichuan Province.

It is easily recognized by the large, distinctive black patches around its eyes, over the ears, and across its round body. The name “giant panda” is sometimes used to distinguish it from the unrelated red panda. Though it belongs to the order Carnivora, the giant panda’s diet is over 99% bamboo. Giant pandas in the wild will occasionally eat other grasses, wild tubers, or even meat in the form of birds, rodents, or carrion. In captivity, they may receive honey, eggs, fish, yams, shrub leaves, oranges, or bananas along with specially prepared food.

Here are 10 facts from WWF, the World Wildlife Foundation (whose logo is actually a giant panda) about these cuddly animals:

 

10. The first panda came to the United States in 1936—a cub to a zoo in Chicago. It took another 50 years before the States would see another.

9. A newborn panda cub is 1/900th the size of its mother and is comparable to the length of a stick of butter.

8. A panda’s paw has six digits—five fingers and an opposable pseudo-thumb (actually an enlarged wrist bone) it uses merely to hold bamboo while eating.

7. Of all the members of the bear family, only sloth bears have longer tails than pandas.

6. Pandas rely on spatial memory, not visual memory.

5. Female pandas ovulate once a year and are fertile for only two or three days.

4. The giant panda’s genome was sequenced in 2009, according to the journal Nature.

3. The WWF logo was inspired by Chi-Chi, a giant panda brought to the London Zoo in 1961, when WWF was being created. Says Sir Peter Scott, one of those founders and the man who sketched the first logo: “We wanted an animal that is beautiful, is endangered and one loved by many people in the world for its appealing qualities. We also wanted an animal that had an impact in black and white to save money on printing costs.”

2. Historically speaking, pandas are one of the few animals whose parts have not been used in traditional Chinese medicine.

1. Approximately 99 percent of a panda’s diet—bamboo leaves and shoots—is void of much nutritional value. Its carnivore-adapted digestive system cannot digest cellulose well, thus it lives a low-energy, sedentary lifestyle but persists in eating some 60 species of bamboo. Pandas must eat upwards of 30 pounds of bamboo daily just to stay full.

 

Here are details on tickets and entry
Entrance tickets= 55 RMB/ adult
Kids under 120cm are free
Also the cost to ride the park’s golf cart shuttle is  an extra 10 RMB/ seat. The Panda Base is quite big and you will find yourself walking 5-10 km in a course of 3 hours to fully explore the entire site.  If you are traveling with young kids, have a disability, or are just short on time you might want to think about taking the shuttle as it will save you about 1 hour of walking.
Be aware that you are only allowed on 2 trips total for the shuttle (one out from the gate and one directly back to the entrance gate).
Generally, you buy the shuttle tickets right after the entrance to the park and the park shuttle takes you to the furthest point in the park.  From there you can get off and make your way slowly by foot back down to the entrance as you explore the various Panda exhibits.  At any point when you are ready to exit, you can jump back on the shuttle and it will take you directly back to the main entrance. Do not get back on the shuttle until you are ready to exit as the shuttle does not transport you from one exhibit to the next.
Park Hours:
9-6pm (Summer)
9-5pm (Winter)
(Check these hours)
There is a Bank of China ATM hidden to the right of the entrance. The park gate Accepts Wechat and Alipay and Chinese Yuan (or RMB).

What is it like to sleep in a Tibetan nomad tent?

A picture is worth a thousand words.  So we have put together this video so you can see what it is like to live like a Tibetan nomad in the grasslands:

 

 

Xining

 

西宁 Xīníng (Standard Tibetan: ཟི་ལིང་། Ziling) is the capital of Qinghai province in western China  and the largest city on the Tibetan Plateau.  As of the 2010 Chinese census, Xining had 2,208,708 inhabitants and, as such, is a modern city that offers plenty of fast food restaurants and shopping including H&M, Sephora, UniQlo, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, and Burger King restaurants (not to mention a fair share of knock off brands that imitate these same restaurants).

The city was a commercial hub along the Northern Silk Road’s Hexi Corridor for over 2000 years, and was a stronghold of the Han, Sui, Tang, and Song dynasties’ resistance against nomadic attacks from the west. Although long a part of Gansu province, Xining was added to Qinghai in 1928. Xining holds sites of religious significance to Muslims and Buddhists, including the Dongguan Mosque and the Kumbum Monastery (aka Ta’er Monastery 塔尔寺 ). The city lies in the Huangshui River valley and is surrounded by 3,500 meter mountain ridges on both the north and the south.  Owing to its high altitude, Xining has a cold semi-arid climate. It is connected by rail to Lhasa, Tibet and connected by high-speed rail to Lanzhou, Gansu and Ürümqi, Xinjiang. The Xining XNN Caojiapu airport does not directly serve international destinations but this airport can easily be reached, often in 2 hours, from Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Xian, Lhasa, and most other Chinese cities.

The climate in Xining is characterized as having an arid climate with little rain and has plenty of sunshine; it is dry and windy in spring, and has a short summer season and a long and cold winter. While the winters are generally below freezing for 4-5  months, the dry climate in the rain shadow of the Himalayas yields little snow and, on any given day in winter, most travelers experience cold air and brilliant blue skies.  Xining is known around China as the “Summer Capital” or 夏都 because it makes a great place to escape the sultry summer heat of Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Wuhan, Hong Kong, and other southern cities with high humidity and heat. As the gateway into Tibet, Xining has a continental climate with highland features.  The average annual temperature is about 6 degree Celsius year round. In the coldest months (January and February) the temperature may drop to -15 degree Celsius, and in the summer it is always less than 20 degrees Celsius.

A popular route through Xining is fly to Xining XNN from Chengdu CTU airport and then take the train to Lhasa (the highest railroad in the world) for the stunning landscapes and to aid in the acclimatization to altitude. Because few people have ever heard of Qinghai Province most people use Xining as a gateway city to get into Lhasa and spend little time in and around Xining city itself.  This means that there are still many astounding, wild places in and around Xining and most of these places have never been seen by western or Chinese tourists. There are, in fact, several 5,000 and 6,000 meter mountains in Qinghai Province that have never even been climbed or named.  This makes Xining  a perfect destination for people looking for authentic Tibetan culture without all the hassle of Tibet Travel Permits and the bureaucracy of Lhasa, Tibet.

To acclimate to any adventure into the Tibetan Plateau, we recommend spending a night in Xining, at 2,300m above sea level,  and this will help partially in your acclimatization process. To truly do your health and wellbeing a favor, it is best to spend 3-5 days in Qinghai’s capital and surroundings so that you are ready to tackle Lhasa’s 3,600m of elevation with greater ease.

While Xining is a typical medium-sized Chinese city with cement high rises and dime-a-dozen convenience stores that all sell the same products, it also offers a whole lot more character than your average all-Han Chinese city.  After over 8 years of travel on the Tibetan Plateau, I have three suggestions for day tours from Xining that will not only take your breath away but will give you the time and space to help you acclimatize properly before you head into the high regions of Tibet.

Here are some of the top 3 day trips you can take from Xining (these can make for a great day trip if you are in a hurry but you can easily spend at least 3-5 days in all  of these magnificent areas) :

1. Zhangye Danxia Landforms

Located just a 45 drive from Zhangye town, one of the most impressive landscapes you will ever see is that of the Zhangye Danxia Landforms (elevations range from 1,500 – 2,500m), one of China’s many UNESCO sites. Usually a 6 six hour drive in a private car, I recommend taking the 2 hour high speed  train from Xining 西宁 to Zhangye West station 张掖西 and spend a day in the area. The Danxia Landforms, also known as the Rainbow Mountains or 七彩山 , is a mountain range layered with almost all the colors of the rainbow (or at least distinct shades of reds, yellows, purples, greys, and oranges). The magnificent patterns in the hills were formed from the land’s red sandstone bedrock and the passing of time with erosion and uplift. Danxia is perfect for photography enthusiasts and lovers of hiking. Take the afternoon to soak in the scenery and admire this UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Just a 20 minute drive from the Zhangye Danxia National Park is the lesser visited (but equally as beautiful) BingGou National Park.

 

 

2. Rebkong

The small monastic town of Rebkong (Tongren 同仁 in Chinese) sits  2.5 hours from Xining at 2,500m above sea level and is a great option for a one to three day trip outside of Xining. Rebkong  is home to some of the most famous thangka paintings in Tibet and its artwork is highly valued not only on the Tibetan Plateau but by Buddhist practitioners around the world. After a stroll through Rebkong’s two most famous temple complexes, Rebkong Longwu Monastery and Wutun Monastery,  you can watch 17-year old teenagers painstakingly produce some of Tibets’ most colorful and detailed paintings.

 

3. Qinghai Lake

Qinghai Lake (3,200m), China’s largest inland lake, is one the first landscapes you will spot from the train to Lhasa, but to truly experience it, take a day trip or multi-day trip from Xining. The lake is famous for its sweeping natural scenery, abundant birdlife and nearby grasslands that are home to traveling nomadic Tibetan tribes and roaming yaks. You can go biking (though take it slow at the high altitude) or have a champagne picnic by the lake’s shores as you watch the waves lap against the beach shore. Qinghai Lake is 150km (80 miles) from Xining and about a 2.5hr drive. But please be aware:  in the summer months (June, July, August) this is a MADHOUSE of Chines tourism and if you go in these months you are sure to see 1,000’s of Chinese tourists descending upon the lake every day and you are likely to spend a few more hours sitting in traffic than normal because of the immense amount of visitors this spot receives.  I personally recommend if you are going to visit Qinghai Lake – do it in the winter.  There is no one else around for miles, the hotels are much more affordable, and the slowly crashing chunks of frozen ice, circling the lake for over 300km, hold an enchanting beauty in the eerie quiet of the winter.

 

Hezuo

The Tibetan name /Hzö  གཙོས། is pronounced Dzoi in Standard Tibetan and pronounced Hdzoi/Hdzu in the local dialect.  Zö is the traditional name for a Tibetan Ibex and you can see statues of this animal throughout the town.

Today the city has been named Hezuo or 合作

Hezuo is the capital city of Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in southern Gansu Province. Standing at the junction area of Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan provinces, it is the hub of nomadic activity of the central plains region and the Amdo Tibetan region. And it is also the center of commerce between historical Tibetan and Chinese trading.

Located at the northeast edge of the Tibetan Plateau, Hezuo is 276 kilometers south of Lanzhou. The city contains many large hotels and every sort of restaurant you could hope to find in a middle-sized Chinese city. There is no railway running from Lanzhou to Hezuo, however, regular buses are available every day from Lanzhou every 35 minutes from 05:50 to 16:04. It takes about 4 to 5 hours by bus to get to Hezuo and the ticket fee ranges from 37.5 RMB to 49.5 RMB depending on the departure time. 

Hezuo’s main attraction is the 9-story Milarepa Temple. It is said that there are only two temples of this kind in the whole Tibetan area, and the one in Hezuo is the only one which has nine floors and is dedicated to a primary founder of Tibetan Buddhism, Milarepa. Milarepa is one of the few saints who is thought to have attained enlightenment in one lifetime.  He is often pictured as very thin and bony (as he was meditating and fasting in a cave for most of his latter years) and with his hand to his mouth as he would often sing his lessons and teachings to his disciples so they could better remember his ideas.

The Milarepa Temple is about 40 meters high and was originally built in the Qing dynasty. There are perennial resident monks and lamas studying here and if you have the time, spend an afternoon watching them perform their ritual duties, including burning juniper and lighting incense.  There is also a very nice pilgrimage around the entire monastery that can take around 30-45 minutes to complete if you are up for a leisurely stroll with Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims. Once you have finished this walk, you can also meander over to Folk Street and Century Square which are a short walk from the monastery complex.

It’s worth a rickety climb up the steep wooden steps of the nine floors not only for the artifacts but also for the decent view of the city from the top. A nice monk who oversees the grounds may invite you into his office for tsampa and tea if you speak a bit of Chinese or Tibetan and have a little free time.

Lijiang

The Old Town of Lijiang is located on the Lijiang plain at an elevation of 2,400 meters in southwest Yunnan Province, China. The Jade Dragon Snow Mountains are to the northwest and this incredibly scenic and snowy range is easily viewed as you take a leisurely stroll through time in the old quarters of Lijiang.  These mountains are the source of much snowmelt that supplies the rivers and springs which water the plain and supply the nearby Heilong Pool (Black Dragon Pond) and the classic canals that wind through the old town of Lijiang .

The Old Town of Lijiang contains 3 main areas and you could easily spend 1-2 days getting lost amidst the cobblestone streets and antique coppersmiths that give this area its characteristic charm. These 3 areas include: Dayan Old Town (including the Black Dragon Pond), Baisha Old Town, and Shuhe Old Town. Dayan Old Town was established in the Ming dynasty as a commercial center and includes the Lijiang Junmin Prefectural Government Office; the Yizi pavilion and the Guabi Tower. Numerous two-storied timber-framed houses combine elements of Han and Zang dynasty architecture and decoration in the arched gateways, screen walls, courtyards, tiled roofs,  and carved roof beams are representative of the Naxi culture and are built in rows following the contours of the mountainside. Wooden elements are elaborately carved with domestic and cultural elements – pottery, musical instruments, flowers and birds.

Baisha Old Town, though, was established earlier than the Dayan Old Town sector.  Baisha was built during the Song and Yuan dynasties and is located 8km north of the Dayan Old Town. Houses here are arranged on a north-south axis around a central, terraced square. The religious complex includes halls and pavilions containing over 40 paintings dating from the early 13th century, which depict subjects relating to Buddhism, Taoism and the life of the Naxi people, incorporating cultural elements of the Bai people. Together with the Shuhe housing cluster located 4km north-west of Dayan Old Town, these quaint mountain settlements reflect the blend of local cultures, folk customs and traditions over several centuries. You can even see the local tile work depicted on the courtyard floors of the homes representing bats, cats, and other animals thought to scare away local spirits. The local Naxi people still walk barefoot over these intricate tile floorscapes, feeling every ridge and crest of the hand laid tilework in what they call “a free foot massage”.

The colorful village space, the delightful sounds of the water, the outstanding folk art and calligraphy and the old style of the local architecture all make for a very pleasant environment that will leave you with a deep feeling of peace in this gem hidden among the mountains.

 

Tiger Leaping Gorge

Tiger Leaping Gorge, set to the backdrop of the majestic Jade Dragon and Haba Snow Mountains of China, is one of the deepest gorges in the world.  The Jingsha (aka Yangzte) River flows through its beautiful 16km length, nestled between towering cliffs that have an incredible 3,900 meters in vertical drop from the top of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain to the surging river below.  At its narrowest point near the mouth of the river, a large rock sits midway across the water.  According to a local legend, a hunter was chasing a tiger down through the gorge and the tiger jumped across this chasm to this rock to escape the hunter’s arrows.

Generally the trek takes a total of 7-8 hours of actual hiking time and most hikers get comfortably through Tiger Leaping Gorge in 1 nights / 2 days, but if you wanted to take your time and really relax you could take 2 nights/ 3 days. Here is a great blog post on the more relaxed 2 night/ 3 day itinerary. Note that all guesthouses have full service bedding and restaurants.  So all you really need for this hike are some snacks, water bottles, rain gear, a fleece, a change of clothes, and a medium to large daypack (probably in the realm of 20-35 Liters). The hike is pretty exposed so you may want to bring a sunhat, sunglasses, and sunscreen as well.  While there are significant vertical drops down to the river I, in no way, see the hike as being dangerous as long as the conditions are dry.  In fact, there are few other places in the world where you can have a leisurely walk and see such incredible vertical relief

The following itinerary was accomplished by a group of 40 middle school students (and believe me these guys travel pretty slow).  So, I imagine if these middle school students can do this itinerary, you can too.

The entrance of the gorge is the small city of Qiaotou, located at 1,900 meters above sea level. The upper hiking trail (which is the one you want to take) will bring you up to 2,650 meters high (at the end of the 28 bends) before going down to Tina’s Guesthouse at 2100 meters high, which is the end of the trail.

 

Tiger Leaping Gorge Suggested Itinerary

Day 1

Depart Lijiang around 8am in the morning. Drive 2.5 hour from Lijiang to Tiger Leaping Gorge (QiaoTou is the name of the small village where you enter the Tiger Leaping Gorge park and pay the 65 RMB park fee)

Pay entrance ticket

Drive 10 minutes up the road past the ticket gate

Start hiking up to Naxi Family Guesthouse

1.5 hours up to Naxi Family Guesthouse on a concrete road (don’t worry – after this the path becomes natural dirt or stone)

Lunch at Naxi Family Guesthouse

Afternoon- hike up the infamous “28 Bends”.  Most of the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek is relatively flat as you are walking along a path cut sideways across the vertical rock face.  However, this particular section is the exception.  It is not terribly long but you can expect to gain most of your elevation on the whole hike on this section.  There is a small store about half-way up the bends if you need water or snacks.   

Walk 2.5 hours From Naxi Guesthouse to the top of 28 bends at 2,650 meters

Then 2.5 hours down to Teahorse Guesthouse, eat dinner and sleep at Teahorse Guesthouse

Day 2

8:30am – Depart Teahorse Guesthouse

Walk 2 hours

10:30am- Break and snack at the Halfway House, great views looking down one of the steepest parts of the gorge

11:30am- Depart Halfway House as you make your final descent down the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek. 

1:30pm- Arrive Tina’s Guesthouse for lunch.

2:30pm- Depart for Shaxi or Lijiang or Shangrila.

2-3 hour bus drive

5:30pm- Arrive at hotel and settle in.

 

 

 

Win a brand new HYDRO FLASK!

Here is how to enter to win!

Each of the following actions gets you one entry into the contest to win a brand new 32 oz Hydro Flask:

Make sure you use the tag #HydroTibet in all posts so we can follow and track all your entries.

 

1.) Instagram:  Follow us at:  elevated_trips

Then tag two of your friends in the comments of one of our recent posts

2.) Facebook:  Like and Follow our Facebook page @elevatedtrips

3.) Vimeo:  See our newest video at:  bit.ly/zhangyevideo

Then follow our Vimeo account

4.) Twitter:  Follow us on twitter @elevatedtrips

And like one of our posts!

5.) Google + :  Follow us on Google + HERE

6.) Scroll all the way down to the bottom of this blog post and sign up for our newsletter.

7.) Send us an email at:  info@elevatedtrips.com  and tell us a funny joke or a great travel story!

 

 

Contest Rules: Contest is giving away one Hydro Flask 32 oz Double Wall Vacuum Insulated Stainless Steel Leak Proof Sports Water Bottle, Wide Mouth with BPA Free Flex Cap (in any color of your choice)

*Shipping only available in America and China.

 

 

And if you are curious, here is some information from the Hydro Flask website on what makes their bottles so unique…

Made for the outdoors.

Big enough for a whole day in the backcountry, our 32 oz Wide Mouth bottle is made with professional-grade stainless steel and a wider opening for faster fill. And because it’s designed with TempShield™ double wall vacuum insulation, it keeps your ice water refreshingly ice cold up to 24 hours and hot drinks hot up to 12. Which means you’ll always have the perfect temperature drink.

Product Benefits

  • Ideal size for all-day hydration
  • Fits most backcountry water filters
  • TempShield™ insulation keeps beverages cold up to 24 hours and hot up to 12 hours
  • Durable 18/8 Pro-Grade Stainless Steel construction
  • BPA-Free and Phthalate-Free
  • Compatible with our Hydro FlipTM Lid and Wide Mouth Straw Lid
  • Lifetime Warranty

Can you believe that this guy skiied down the world’s second highest mountain?

K2 is perhaps the most dangerous mountain in the world. One in every four people who makes an attempt to summit it dies, and nobody has ever climbed it in winter. Only 300 or so people have ever even reached the peak of K2, and its relatively northern location on the Pakistan/China border makes it a particularly unpredictable mountain to tame.

With the height of 8611 meters, K2 is the 2nd highest peak in the world after the Mount Everest, which has the height of 8848 meters. K2 is also known as Mount Godwin-Austen or Chhogori and it was referred as “Savage Mountain” by the famous American Climber George Bell. He referred it savage because of its unmatched difficult terrain. When asked about his experience for making an attempt to climb the K2, George Bell noted,  “It’s a savage mountain that tries to kill you.”

In 1956, when it was first measured by a British surveyor, TG Montgomerie, it was given the temporary designation- K2 (for Karakoram 2). The K2 was so remote that no other suitable name could be found!!

Unlike other eight-thousanders, K2 has never been climbed in the winters. The best weather to climb the K2 is from April to October. Among the eight-thousanders, K2 has the 2nd highest fatality rate with one death for every four successful ascents (first being the Annapurna (191 summits and 61 fatalities). The peak climbers say that it is due to the extreme difficulty of ascent.

 

 

And, on July 22, 2018, a man just skied down from the summit for the first time in history. Polish adventurer Andrzej Bargiel first tried to make the historic descent last year in 2017, only to call the expedition off because of falling rocks and the high avalanche danger. This year, with better weather and less unstable snow pack, Andrzej made it all the way from the K2 summit to base camp in 7 hours. The majority of mountaineering accidents occur during descents, and skiing on near 90 degree snow slopes with 2000 meter drops obviously increases that risk dramatically.

Andrzej is not the first person to attempt skiing the savage mountain, though.  Italian alpinist Michele Fait died trying to ski K2 in 2009.  This was just a year before his friend Fredrik Ericsson fell to his death near the K2 summit. In 2001, Hans Kammerlander stopped after just a quarter mile when he witnessed a Korean climber fall to his death. And climber Dave Watson actually made it through the infamous bottleneck section all the way to base camp in 2009, though he didn’t start from the summit.

Bargiel reached the summit around 11:30 a.m. Sunday morning on July 19, and he made it to base camp eight hours later after being forced to wait out cloudy weather a few times.

When Bargiel finished up, he was greeted with hoops and cheers from his Red Bull crew.  Upon his epic descent, he said he was pretty much all done with K2 for the rest of his life. “I feel huge happiness and, to be honest, it was my second attempt, so I’m glad that I won’t be coming here again.”

Islam in Western China

Islam in China has existed through 1,400 years of continuous interaction with Chinese society. Currently, Muslims are a significant ethnic group in China. Hui Muslims are the majority Muslim group in China and he greatest concentration is in Xinjiang, with a significant Uyghur population as well. Lesser but significant populations reside in the regions of Ningxia, Gansu, and Qinghai Provinces. Various sources estimate different numbers of adherents with some sources indicating that     1-3% of the total population in China are Muslims. Of China’s 55 officially recognized ethnic peoples, ten groups are predominantly Sunni Muslim.

The ten Muslim ethnicitiies of China are categorized by their ethnic origin. Six of the ten Muslim ethnicities—the Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Tatars and Tajiks—live predominantly in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region in the northwest of China. They all speak Turkic languages, except the Tajiks who speak a Persian-based language. The Huis are found throughout China and especially in Qinghai and Gansu Province. The remaining three Muslim minorities— the Salars, the Boa’an, and the Dongxiang, live in different regions neighboring the Tibetan Plateau and Mongolia.

The Salars are another Turkic speaking Muslim people group in China that live in a region that borders Gansu and Qinghai Provinces. The Salars trace their ancestry back to people who migrated from the Samarkand region during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). It is said the Salars were fleeing persecution and strapped a Quran to the back of a camel and let the camel guide them to their new homeland in western China.  The camel finally stopped walking at a spring near the current town of Xunhua and that is where the Salar people settled.  The Salar still live in this place and claim to be the inventors of the famous Chinese dish, Mian Pian 面片 (noodle pieces).

The Boa’an live in the southwest of the Gansu province, while the Dongxiang live in the western-edge of Gansu province. Both trace their ancestors back to the Asian troops sent out during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). The Boa’an and Dongxiang languages also originate from the Mongolian language family, even though they are different from each other.

Chinese Muslims have been in China  and have had continuous interaction with Chinese society since just after the death of Muhammed himself. Islam expanded gradually across the maritime and inland silk routes from the 7th to the 10th centuries through war, trade, and diplomatic exchanges. As China opened up to Buddhism and other foreign concepts the Silk Road brought many imports – not only of spices and exotic fruits but of ideas. And these ideas still today have a very far reaching importance on the crossroads of cultures and beliefs that is western China.

Most of us in the west when we think of Islam picture a man in the Middle East wearing a turban.  However, Muslims in Xinjiang include both Central Asians (Uyghur) and those of Chinese ancestry (Hui).  Each has their own unique head wear but it was never a turban. More often the headwear is simple plain white hat or a dark hat embroidered with gold or green thread (somewhat similar in size and appearance to the the Kippa or yamaka worn by Jewish males).

I recently found out that 69% of Muslims in the world today reside in Asia.  China boasts more Muslims (21 million) than Syria (20 million) and a good portion of those can be found in the province of Xinjiang.  That blew me away, especially with my stereotypes about the Middle East. Since living in China, I have learned so many things about that have surprised me about China.  Rather than seeing it as just one culture I have begun to see it more as a great melting pot of so many surprisingly diverse languages and cultures.

Come visit us in western China and discover some of the great hidden treasures as you experience the famously tasty Muslim food and their lively culture.

Kanbula National Park

 

Located about a 3 hour drive from the Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province, Kanbula National Park (or as it is called in Chinese “Kanbula National Forest Park”) is a wonderland of soaring red rock cliffs located right on the banks of the emerald green Yellow River.  If you are driving the 2.5 hours south to Tongren 同仁 to see Rebkong Longwu Monastery, this makes an excellent side trip.  In fact, you can see one of our favorite, best selling itineraries that combines Kanbula National Park and Rebkong Longwu Monastery HERE.

The Kanbula area is famous for its unique sandstone Danxia landforms. This scenic area has abundant rainfall and a cool and moist climate and, unlike most barren places in Qinghai Province, there are prolific evergreen forests here; the forest coverage rate is about 28% and its plant resources are extremely rich with some of the best wildflowers in all of Qinghai Province. Some of the tree species represented in Kanbula National Park are the Qinghai spruce, chinese pine, white birch, and various species of azaleas and honeysuckle.  Other species include Ulmus glaucescens, Prunus sibirica, Salix oritepha, and Spiraea alpina.  Kanbula also hosts a number of rare birds (including larks and cuckoos) and fauna like blue sheep, argali.

Buddhism here has a long history and this park is known for its meditation caves situated high above the park where monks and nuns silently retreat for periods of 2 months to 2 years eating only a simple diet with a singular bowl of rice per day.  This is a ritual and discipline that is part of the practice of Tibetan Buddhism and is thought to help the practitioner release themselves from the attachments and distractions of the world. The hermitage caves are a short 45 minute hike up wooden steps just above the Aqiong Namzong Temple and are located on a 20 minute ride down a bumpy dirt road that leads off the main paved park road.

Kanbula offers amazing, unmatched views and is certainly one of the off-the-beaten track highlights of Qinghai Province.  However, the price tag of tickets reflects it’s beauty, at 250 RMB/person.  Kanbula can be seen as a day trip from Xining, but it has so much beauty that most of our guests prefer to spend at least one night in the park, sleeping in a local Tibetan village homestay full of roaming donkeys and colorful prayer flags waving high on the wind. On all Elevated Trips adventures transportation to and from the park as well as the entrance tickets to the park are included in the price of the tour.

Zhangye

The Silk Road was a network of trade routes connecting China and the Far East with the Middle East and Europe. Established when the Han Dynasty in China officially opened trade with the West in 130 B.C., the Silk Road routes remained in use until 1453 A.D., when the Ottoman Empire boycotted trade with China and closed them. Although it’s been nearly 600 years since the Silk Road has been used for international trade, the routes had a lasting impact on commerce, culture and history that resonates even today.

From July 15-17, 2018 we took out an amazing couple from America to explore the Silk Road of Zhangye in Gansu Province of Western China.  These incredible mountains are surrounded by the 6,000 meter peaks and the glaciers of the Qilian Mountains and offer one of the most unique and authentic insights into the amazing history of trade and culture of great empires that once were.

Have you ever wanted to see the Silk Road?

Venture with Elevated Trips to see the incredible Hexi Corridor of the Silk Road and walk through 1,500 years of history as you..

  • Get to sleep in a Mongolian Yurt Camp right at the base of Danxia National Park
  • Sample the local cuisine
  • Explore 33 Buddhist cave grottoes on the side of a Monastery tucked high up on a cliff face

You can see a possible itinerary HERE.

The Potala Palace

Potala Palace

Built in the 17th century by the fifth Dalai Lama on the site of the surviving Buddhist meditation caves first built by Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo in the 7th Century A.D., the Potala Palace is composed of two parts: the central Red Palace at the top, which is used for religious affairs, and the secular White Palace at the bottom, which houses the  former affairs of government and daily life.  This is something like the White House in Washington D.C.  combined with the Vatican in Rome – the seat of historical religious and political power all in one.

The top of the Potala Palace is 119 meters above the courtyard below and the palace itself contains 1,000 rooms-including assembly halls, government offices, and temples- and has over 10,000 altars and 200,000 statues. Amazingly, the whole structure was fastened together without  steel or nails and was fully constructed of wood, stones and mud bricks using perfectly carved interlocking blocks. At one point in history before the Industrial Revolution, this hand built architectural marvel was the tallest building in the known world.  The roofs are covered with gilded bronze tiles that glitter in the sun and can be seen miles away.

In almost every chapel, red robed lamas collect donations and sit on a cushions sipping tea and chanting scriptures. Murals and thangkas are illuminated with flickering wax candles and you will see many pilgrims offering butter in thermos containers as offerings to the holy site. The gold-embossed tombs of former religious rulers contain the mummified bodies inside and these are the central attraction of the 1 hour tour that marches from the bottom to the top of the palace and winds through many dimly lit and sacred rooms .

The Potala is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and most Tibetans will try to visit this holy site at least once in their lives. You can find a link to the UNESCO World Heritage Site Map here.

A seven-year $43.9 million renovation of Potala Palace and Norbulingka Summer Palace was completed in August 2009. The aim of the renovation was to foster tourism and promote Tibetan culture.

In August 2006, the number of people allowed to enter the Potala Palace was increased from 1,500 to 2,300 people per day.  Because there are so many people that go through the palace in one day, tour times are scheduled and are limited to one hour once you are inside the palace gates.  This is enough time, but it does not allow for a lot of time to just “float around” and meditate.  So you can expect to be rushed a little and “herded” through crowds in the palace in order to make your time slot.   Your guide (who is required to bet with you for the tour) will schedule in a specific time to enter the Potala Palace, so your day schedule will generally revolve around whatever time your tickets say that you are allowed in.

To see a possible tour itinerary that includes the Potala Palace, Jokhang Monastery, Sera Monastery, and Everest Base Camp check here.

 

Admission Fee

May 1 – Oct. 31: CNY 200
Nov.1 – Apr. 30: CNY 100
Free for children under 1.3m and the elderly above 70 (also free for Tibetans, Mongolians, and Nepalese who practice Tibetan Buddhism)

Ticket Purchase Procedure: Your guide will have to purchase the ticket 1 day in advance before your visit using your original ID card or Passport. Once the ticket is purchased, you will then be given a certificate with your specific visit time to the Potala Palace for the following day’s tour.

 

Tips when visiting the Potala Palace

1. There is no heat inside this ancient building.  So be aware that it can be very cold inside the Potala Palace. It would not be a bad idea to take a coat with you even on the sunny Lhasa summer days.

2. As this is a religious site, it is hard to find an adequate bathroom during your tour. So make sure you try to take care of business before you leave your hotel in Lhasa.  If you do end up finding one of the few bathrooms along the tour, it is said the bathroom at the right side of the White Palace Square is the most beautiful one on earth with an excellent view out onto Lhasa :). Lucky you if you make it here!

3. As we mentioned before, the tour time in the Potala Palace is limited to 1 hour. So don’t dilly dally and make sure you stay close to your guide.  It might be easy to get lost amidst the many steps and the labyrinth of rooms and holy sites if you were separated from your tour guide.

4. Entering the palace is like entering airport security.  You will have to check your bags through a X-Ray machine and lighters and any kind of liquid are forbidden. (You can buy bottles of water inside the palace for about twice as much as they are sold for in Lhasa).

5. The best spot to take pictures of the Potala Palace is Chakpori Hill, across the square from the palace. I highly recommend visiting this place at night because seeing the palace all lit up in the dark is pure magic!

 

Lhasa

As the beautiful capital city of Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), Lhasa is situated in the south central part of the region, on the north bank of the Kyichu River (a tributary of the Yarlung Zangbo River) in a valley surrounded by imposing mountains. The altitude of Lhasa is 3,656 meters (11,995 feet) above sea level.

Located at the bottom of a small basin surrounded by the Himalaya Mountains, Lhasa lies in the heart (both physically and spiritually) of the Tibetan Plateau with the surrounding mountains rising to 5,500 m (18,000 ft). The air here only contains 68% of the available oxygen one would find at sea level so be prepared to walk a little slower (and with heavier breath) and to pop a few Ibuprofen for the high altitude headache that you will probably have your first night in Lhasa.  Make sure you drink lots of water and try to stay away from coffee and alcohol your first few nights in Lhasa.  Also get lots of rest and take things slow on arrival here because you want to acclimatize slowly.
Generally the period from March to October is the best time to visit with March, April, October, and November offering clearer skies (and thus better views of Mount Everest) and less Chinese tourists. Since the city is located at such a high altitude most tours to Lhasa and Mount Everest will usually include 3-4 days to acclimatize in the city before departing for wilder, higher places. Generally speaking, the temperatures in the day can be quite comfortable and spring-like under the bright sun and then nights are quite chilly to cold, often below freezing in the spring and fall. You are definitely going to want to bring your thick down puffy jacket, especially if you are planning an excursion from Lhasa to Mount Everest Base Camp at 5,200 meters (17,060 feet).
However, because the high altitude sun is so intensely bright, sunglasses, suntan lotion, and a sun hat are mandatory items if you’re going anywhere outside your hotel 🙂

Demographics

Lhasa has a population of roughly 1 million people, and about half of this population is comprised of Han Chinese while the other half consists of Tibetans (there are also a few Hui Muslims here that make up a small percentage of town and there is an active Mosque in the Tibetan quarter of town). Although the Tibetan quarter is very historic with ancient stone architecture (this is definitely where you want to stay and spend most of your time) Lhasa is quickly developing and the areas outside of the Tibetan district are starting to look more and more like a regular Han Chinese city. The large percentage of tourists that visit this city are mostly Han Chinese and there is a lot of infrastructure that supports this growing population, including massage parlors, outdoor gear shops, karaoke bars, fancy car dealerships, and Sichuan style restaurants. With all the recent development, as long as you have given your bank proper notice, you should have no trouble using your international credit card here at ATM’s in large banks such as ICBC, Bank of China,  or China Construction Bank.

In fact, more than 95 % of tourists to Tibet are Chinese. In 2014 alone, more than 15 million tourists visited Tibet Autonomous Region [TAR], a number up more than 20 percent from the 2013 statistics, according to the local government. In 2014, a record 3.15 million people arrived by air to Lhasa and most of the rest of the tourists came by the world’s highest train,  the famed Qinghai-Tibet Railway. The China Daily reported the numbers of a regional tourism bureau report: “Lhasa alone saw more than 9.25 million tourists and reaped tourism revenue of 11.2 billion yuan ($1.79 billion)”.

 

History of Lhasa

Lhasa was an important holy city even before Buddhism arrived in Tibet in 642 A.D., and until the 1950s half of its residents lived in monasteries.

In the 1940s,  Lhasa would have been best described as a village. Its 600 traditional buildings were dwarfed by the massive monasteries and palaces that were home to 20,000 monks. Between 1950 and 2000, the population of Lhasa increased 17 times to around 200,000 and has increased 5 times since then. The expansion is mainly the result of arrival of large numbers of Han Chinese but has also been affected by a migration of Tibetans from rural areas to Lhasa.

The Potala Palace and the Barkhor Street centered in Lhasa city, north to the Sera Monastery, west to Duilong Deqing county. Viewed from the overlooking the Lhasa city, Post and Telecommunications Building, News Building, Lhasa Hotel, Tibet Hotel and various buildings dotted. Standing on top of the Potala Palace to overlook the Lhasa city, the Lhasa city is full of pieces of new building hidden in the trees, and Barkhor Street surrounding has waving prayer flag. Here densely covered a national style of houses and streets, gathered from all over the Tibetan people, and many of them are still in Tibet traditional clothing. It seems that prayer wheel and prayer beads never leave their hands which clearly show that Buddhism has become a way of life in fact.
Transportation in and out of Lhasa
NOTE: 
All Foreign travelers to Lhasa and the Tibetan Autonomous Region have to join a tour group pre-arranged by a registered travel agency.  You can not enter the this area as an idenpendent, free-wheeling tourist and all your travel and hotel bookings must be made in advance by a travel agency accordingly.  Because of this regulation, you will need to receive your Tibet Travel Permit BEFORE you board your plane or train into Lhasa.  Your travel agency will send this to you (sometimes to a Chinese hotel in Beijing or Chengdu where you are staying before your tour)  to enter that region.

Currently there are two options to reach this mysterious high land, either by plane by train. The bus station in Lhasa will not sell tickets to foreigners and bus drivers will not allow foreigners onto buses that go outside of Lhasa. All travel within the TAR for foreigners must be booked in private vehicles.

1. Taking an airplane is the most comfortable, quick method of travel to Lhasa, but this offers less time for you to acclimatize to the altitude of Lhasa.  Lhasa Gongar Airport (LXA) is a one hour drive from downtown Lhasa, or about 62 kms (38.5 miles).  There are over 40 flights to/from major domestic cities that fly in and out of LXA including Beijing, Chamdo, Changsha, Chengdu, Chongqing, Dazhou, Diqing, Fuzhou, Golmud, Guangzhou, Guiyang, Hangzhou, Kangding, Kunming, Lanzhou etc.

 

 

2. Taking the train to Lhasa is a fabulous new option, giving the opportunity to see previously unseen mountain scenery on a train that is built on over 550km of permafrost. With the opening of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway on July 1st, 2006, more and more visitors opt to get a soft sleeper or a hard sleeper bed on the train to experience the lay of the land and the incredible scenery from their train window.

Getting to Lhasa from Beijing by train will be a once in a lifetime experience for you. The Beijing –> Lhasa train (Train # Z21),  takes about 40 hours and 30 minutes, runs for 3,757 km, and crosses 8 total provinces from the plains of northeast China to the worlds’ highest plateau.  Some of the highlights of the scenery along the way include glimpses of the Gobi desert, the 6,244 meter (20,485 ft) high snow-capped Yuzhu Peak, and the lofty Tanggula Mountain. And, of course, there will LOTS of open high-altitude grassland (and maybe even some wildlife roaming about).  All I can say about this journey is for you to make sure you pack lots of snacks.  I have friends who pack wine and cheese every time they ride a train in China and I think they are really onto something by preparing so well for the occasion!

The Complete Packing List for Mount Kailash

Mount Kailash is a high altitude behemoth in western Tibet and provides some of the most stunning trekking in all of Central Asia.  The highest point of the 3 day trek is 5,636 meters.

For this trek you are going to need some serious cold weather gear.  But at the same time, because you will be sleeping in tea houses that provide food, beds, and blankets there are definitely some things you will NOT need to bring.  Here is the packing list I recommend for anyone doing the trek in 3 days.  As always, the less stuff you bring, the more your back and legs will thank you!

 

Packing list for Mount Kailash

Tops

  • 2 x Synthetic or merino long underwear top (one of these is for sleeping)
  • 1 x long sleeve wicking hiking shirt
  • 1 x fleece jacket
  • 1 x Goretex rain jacket
  • 1 x Down puffy jacket for cold nights or when you are not hiking

Bottoms

  • Synthetic or merino long underwear bottoms
  • 1 x pair of waterproof rain or snow pants
  • 1 x pair of fall or winter weight soft shell pants

Feet and head

  • 4 x pair of wool hiking socks (keep one dry pair for sleeping)
  • Boots or trail running shoes with a good tread (I wore a low top Salomon trail runner in the first week of May 2018 and was fine but you will need to check weather and snow reports as some years get up to 5 meters of snow on the Dolma La Pass)
  • Gaiters for snow and mud (especially if you are wearing low top shoes)
  • 1 x synthetic or wool winter hat
  • 1 x sunhat (the sun up at altitude is intense!)

Other

  • 1 x foreign passport
  • 1 x day pack (20-30 liters)  – If it is bigger than 35 liters you are carrying too much stuff!
  • 2 x one liter water bottles (can be refilled with boiled water at the teahouses for a small fee)
  • 1x mid-weight winter gloves
  • 1 x sunglasses (preferably polarized for the bright snow)
  • 1 x chapstick or lip balm
  • 1 x suntan lotion
  • 1 x small bottle of Tylenol
  • Optional:  Diamox – for altitude sickness (consult your physician beforehand)
  • Optional: 1 x small aerosol bottle of oxygen
  • 4 x small packs of tissues (paper is not provided in the rustic “squatty-potties”)
  • 1 x cell phone or camera
  • 1 x charging cord and external battery charger (the tea houses have solar powered electric outlets but the electricity is spotty)
  • 1 x hand sanitizer bottle (there is no running water on the trek)
  • 8 x Snickers or Clif Bars
  • 500 RMB for food (assuming your lodging is already paid for by your tour agent)
  • Optional but recommended:  1 x set of trekking poles (the descent from the high pass can be rather steep and icy)
  • Optional:  a thin sleeping bag liner to add warmth/sanitation to blankets provided by the tea house
  • Optional:  “Hot Hands” – single use heat packs for keeping your hands and feet extra warm

 

Trekking Mount Kailash

The purpose of this blog is to provide complete updates on trekking itinerary, detailed maps, and info on where to stay and what to expect from this 3 day high altitude trek in western Tibet as of our May 2018 Mount Kailash Trek.

But before you read the blog, revel in the mountain splendor as you watch this video:

 

 

Overall Itinerary

Mount Kailash is located 1,400 km almost directly west of Lhasa city (just about 20-30km directly north of the western India/Nepal border) in the Tibetan Autonomous Region.  So this 3 day trek is, inevitably, part of a much longer 15-17 day journey that includes 3 days of acclimatization in Lhasa and lots of car time (expect being in the car for 4 days at 6-8 hours per day before you even reach the base of Mount Kailash).  So there is lots of driving through beautiful, stark high altitude environments before you attempt trekking (and sleeping at) at 5,000 meters. This provides for plenty of great photo opps of alpine lakes and glaciers and allows sufficient time for acclimatization before you trek across the high pass of Mount Kailash, Dolma La at 5,636 meters.

A typical full itinerary might look like this:

Lhasa–> Shigatse –> Lhatse–> Saga –>  Mount Kailash –> Manasarovar Lake –> Guge Kingdom–> Manasarovar Lake –> Saga –>Everest Base Camp –> Lhasa

Here is a brief overview of the entire trip to give you a better idea of the bigger picture of the trip I took in May 2018 (although you could certainly cut out Guge Kingdom and shave 2 days off your total trip):

Day 1: Arrival in Lhasa, Elevation: 3600 meters

Day 2: Lhasa guided tour, See the Potala Palace and the Jokhang Temple

Day 3: Lhasa guided tour, Sera Monastery debates

Day 4: Driving Day // Lhasa-Yamdrok Lake-Karo la Glacier-Gyantse-Shigatse, Distance: 354kms,  Elevation:3840m

Day 5:  Driving Day // Shigatse to Latse Distance 150kms Elevation:4200m

Day 6:  Driving Day // Latse —Saga, Distance: 340Kms, Elevation: 4500m

Day 7:  Driving Day // Saga To Manasarovar Lake 520kms, Elevation:5000m

Day 8-10: Kailash Trek Distance: 54kms, Max Elevation:5639m

Day 11: Darchen—Guge Distance: 254kms, Elevation: 3699m

Day 12: Driving Day //Guge—Manasarovar lake Distance: 290kms Elevation: 4597m

Day 13:  Driving Day //Lake Manasarovar-Saga Distance:897kms Elevation:4500m

Day 14: Driving Day //Saga— Mount Everest Base camp Distance: 493Kms Elevation:5200m

Day 15: Driving Day //Everest Base Camp to Shigatse Distance: 350kms Elevation: 3840m

Day 16:   Driving Day //Shigatse—Lhasa Distance: 260kms Elevation: 3600m

Day 17: Departure from Lhasa

 

Mount Kailash, 3 Day Trek Itinerary

But for the purposes of this blog, we are just going to focus on the 3 main days of the Mount Kailash trek itself.

General Information and Packing List

Every Kailash Trek begins and ends in Darchen town.  While this town only has a population of around 500 local Tibetans, I was expecting only a yak hair tent with dirt floors and no running water.  So the hot shower in Darchen with reasonably comfortable 3-star hotel accommodations was a big surprise and upgrade from what I was expecting.

Darchen is also called as “Tarchen” or “Taqin” in chinese pinyin. It was formerly an important sheep and yak trading post for Tibetan nomads and their herds. Until 1994, there were just 4 or 5 permanent buildings here in this town. In 1995, a medical center was founded by Swiss partners which has become a training center for doctors. After nearly 20 years of development, it now contains about 12 small restaurants (Sichuan and Tibetan food), several hotels with heat and hot water and internet, a Karaoke bar, and a Public Security Bureau for registering foreigners. In addition to that, there are a number of simple convenience stores where you can buy Snickers, water, and Instant noodles. There is not much to see here, but you can leave unneeded luggage in your hotel or in your travel agency’s car or van.

Darchen is also the place to make last minute plans for your trip including organizing pack animals (yaks or horses) from local nomads.  Although you will not need to carry any tents, sleeping bags, or breakfast, lunch, dinner you will need to carry winter clothes, snacks, and water. Your day pack for the Kailash trek will probably weigh 15-20 pounds.  That does not seem like a lot at first but at 5,630 meters you will be extremely fatigued and that extra 20 pounds could be excruciating for you.  While a 20 pound backpack at sea level seems easy-peasy, I promise you are going to struggle over the high Dolma La pass (no matter what shape you are in) and that you would be happier to hire a yak or a human porter for the 3 days of the trek. In our group of 6 participants, the Tibetan guide along with two other members of our group ended up carrying the bags for the other 3 members of our group who were struggling.  We were happy to assist our fellow travelers, but I have to say that it definitely made an already difficult trek a little less enjoyable because we were carrying two backpacks (our personal backpack on the back and another person’s on the front).  Please save others and the guide in your group the added strain of having to carry your backpack up or down the high pass and just go ahead and hire a porter or a yak from the beginning. It can actually be quite difficult to arrange a yak or porter in the middle of the trek because of the remote location.  So if you are going to do this (and you should) you should take care of this the night before you leave Darchen town.

Because of the altitude, I highly recommend really minimizing your gear as much as possible and considering hiring a yak or two or a porter for your group.

You can find a detailed packing list for Kailash here.

For your reference, for our 3 day trek from May 5-7, 2018, day temperatures at 10:30am at the beginning of the trek under a brilliant sun were 6 to 8 Celsius. As we set out from Darchen the weather was a little chilly with a slight breeze.  As we hiked we definitely took off our layers under the bright, high altitude sun and just a single long sleeve shirt and/or a fleece was plenty warm as long as we kept moving along the trail.

This is generally the pattern in the spring and fall trekking season with relatively warm and springy conditions in the day and everything outright freezing cold once the sun goes down.   We found that we got either light rain or snow every afternoon sometime between 2pm to 5pm so make sure you leave early and give yourself the better part of the morning to hike because once the afternoon comes there is a greater likelihood of meeting inclement weather.

Generally the best months to hike Kailash are May, September, and October.  Before May 1 or after October 31 you are likely to encounter a good deal of snow and some of the teahouses may be closed at that time.  The summer months are also okay to hike, but expect a lot of Indian tourists coming from low altitudes to hike this sacred pilgrimage and the views are also not guaranteed to be as clear to see the mountains during the summer rains.

Safety note:

There is a dirt road that parallels the kora for the first 20 km on day one and the last 10 km on day three of the trek.  If something were to go wrong you could use this road for an emergency to get out but medical care is very simple in Darchen – there is is only a small clinic here.  If you do decide to turn around or need a sudden evacuation you can expect to pay a premium to travel this gravel road back to Darchen town; fees to ride in a truck along this road can range from 500 to 2000 RMB just to get a lift up or down the trail for a few kilometers.

The closest medium-sized hospital from Darchen would be in Shigatse- this is 670km from Kailash.So advanced medical care is at least 14 hours away.  So as you are on Kailash be mindful of the altitude and take things slow.

Maps for Trekking

Here are two maps that will give you the idea of the general waypoints on the trail.  Note that each Tibetan guide provides slightly different measurements for the trail based on their own calculations, so there may be some small differences between the two maps, but the general idea remains the same:

Trek Day 1

Note:  Below are given the times we, as a group of 6 moderately fit hikers, achieved.  We had three people with us who had never hiked before in their lives and 2 of them lived in Holland at five meters below sea level.  So, I’d be willing to bet that these times were on the fairly average side for most groups and, though your own times might be a few minutes off of ours depending our your pace, you will find this to be a fairly accurate estimation for your own departure and arrival times on the trail. 

The first day of the trek will take us 20 kilometers from Darchen town around Mt. Kailash to Dira Puk Monastery (aka Drirapuk Gompa). The total elevation gain over these 20 km is 433 meters, so the trail is relatively flat for most of the day.  But hiking this first day is still a lot of work as you are walking a long distance at altitude.

Today you will follow this ancient pilgrimage route with Tibetan Buddhist and Indian Hindu pilgrims. You will stay in a small guesthouse near the Dira Puk monastery. The elevation of Dira Puk Monastery is 5080 meters.

7:30am-Depart Darchen Hotel at 4,647 meters

Eat simple breakfast in Darchen town
(Boileed eggs rice porridge, simple bread)

8:00am- Start Walking from Darchen town

The first 5 km of the trail are a very gradual uphill.
Here you gain 100 meters as  you approach the first set of prayer flags

From the first set of prayer flags, then the next 1-2 km of trail gradually drops down and lose 100 vertical meters.

10:00am- Arrive at first view of Kailash,with prayer flags

Watch pilgrims prostrate around Kailash

Many of these Tibetan pilgrims do this 52 km kora in one day, leaving at 4am and returning to Darchen town at 8:00pm

Here at this first rest point, you will see pilgrims prostrating around the holy mountain. Young pilgrims will carry the clothes and goods for the elderly to a certain point and then go back and prostrate the trail themselves again.  In this way they are actually doing the entire pilgrimage circuit 3 times.

For a young, healthy Tibetan, prostrating every 2 steps takes about 16 days to get around the whole mountain kora (this is a minimum for younger ones- older folks take longer.) Although there are about 8 simple teahouses on the trek that provide food and lodging, there are not enough Guesthouses for 16 days of total travel since the usual trek takes 2 nights/ 3 days. So pilgrims who are prostrating the entire trek often just sleep on the ground in warm blankets and sheep fur lined robes along the trail.

11:00am – Arrive at Serdshong Check Point (this is 7km from Darchen town).  The government may check your official Tibet permits here.From this point walk another 2.6km to the first teahouse.

12:15pm- Arrive at first teahouse by bridge at 4,747 meters in altitude.
This is about the halfway point to the teahouse where we will sleep this first night.To the teahouse bridge is 9.6km from Darchen town, and it is another 11km to our sleeping destination at Dira Puk Monastery through the Lha-Chu valley.

At this first teahouse, the food offerings are very scarce. You can buy a bowl of instant noodles for 10 RMB, refill your bottle with hot water for 8 RMB, or a coke or a soft drink for 6 RMB.  As you get further from civilization into the trek, these prices will go up slightly at each successive teahouse.

1:00pm- Depart first teahouse  after lunch
From the first teahouse walk 6.8 km to second teahouse

This is a 1.5 hour walk
From the second teahouse walk 4.2 km to the third teahouse at Dira Puk Monastery.

This is a 2 hour walk.  As you approach a large bridge with prayer flags on it, you will need to ask your guide where your guesthouse is in relation to this bridge. This bridge leads to the actual Dira Puk Monastery which you can see in the distance.  This is the old sight for simple guesthouses (and some groups still stay here).  Our particular accommodation was in in a corrugated tin building with an all dirt floor that lay on the main trail  right under the shadow of Kailash (so we stayed straight on the trail  and did NOT cross left to the Dira Puk Monastery). As with most things in western China, there was construction here and this area was developing rapidly, even for being so remote.  When we were there at the teahouse we saw several workers building a large 2-story concrete guesthouse which dwarfed the corrugated tin shacks and canvas tents where we were staying in size.

4:30pm – Arrive third teahouse at 5,080 meters where we will be sleeping the first night.

Note on sleeping:

Sleeping at 5,080 meters is almost as high as sleeping at Mount Everest base camp on the Tibet side.  Even though your body will feel very tired, this will probably not be a great night of sleep for you because sleeping at altitude in such sheltered but primitive conditions will likely not yield a full 8 hours of rest.  The simple guesthouse does provide plenty of blankets and cooked us a simple meal of hot rice and boiled egg and tomatoes.

Overall the walk on the first day is 20km and involves about 6-7 total hours of walking time (not including lunch and rest time)

Along the way there are 2 tents (teahouses)  with hot water and instant noodles and these are nice places to stop to rest, refill, and get out of the bright sun and blowing winds.

Trek Day 2

The second day of our trek around Kailash will take us up and over the Dolma La Pass, the highest pass on the circuit at 5,636 meters. Although this is certainly the hardest day of the 3 day trek, excellent mountain and glacier views will follow you for most of the day. From the Dolma La Pass, you will descend to Zutul Puk Monastery (aka Dzutrulpuk Gompa on the second map), elevation 4,820 meters. The total trekking distance this day is 22 kilometers

This day you will walk 22 km total – up and down the high pass.

The total altitude gain is 556 meters up and then you will descend to 4,817 meters at the Zutul Puk Monastery.  So the second night of sleeping is about 200 meters lower than the first night’s camp (this is good news!).  There are at least 2 teahouses where it is possible to sleep after descending Dolma La but both of these are more primitive than the one at Zutul Puk Monastery and, in the case of the first one you reach after the pass,  is much higher in altitude.  The first teahouse you come to after the Dolma La pass is at 5,236 meters (17,180 feet) – this one is about 4km after the Dolma La Pass.  The second teahouse (which is only a 30 minute walk from the Zutul Puk Monastery teahouse) you come to after the Dolma La pass is at  4,807 meters (15,771 feet).  If you were really having a hard time, it would be possible to stop and sleep at either of these teahouses after Dolma La pass.  But because the Zutul Puk Monastery teahouse has real hot food (and not just instant noodles) and was much more protected from the elements and felt a lot cozier, we were glad we pressed onto to the Zutul Puk Monastery teahouse even though it meant a longer day.

7:00am- Wake up at 5,080 meters in Teahouse near Dira Puk Monastery.  Eat a simple breakfast of Tsampa or noodles in the teahouse.

You are going to want to have an early start because it is a long day and the snow and the wind comes in often in the afternoon, while the mornings generally have a better chance of giving clearer weather that is more comfortable for trekking.

7:30am – Depart teahouse

 It is 8 km to the high Dolma La pass at 5,636 m

The road continues to be flattish with a slight incline for the first 4km of your day.

10:00am- Arrive at the last tea house before the Dolma La pass.

This is about half way to the pass.  Make sure you get lots of rest and plenty of snacks here because the next 4km up to the pass is going to be the most challenging section of your whole trek, not only because you will be at the highest altitude of the whole trek but also because the last 1 hour of the trek up to the pass is the steepest trail you will encounter on the trek.

This is last place for water and snacks for another 13 km, so make sure you fill up your water bottles with hot water.  You are going to need a lot of water to fight those high altitude headaches on the pass!

10:15am- Depart for high pass

The trail from the last teahouse before the pass starts out as fairly flat.  Then you make a right turn at a gully and you start to go up dramatically.

About 30 minutes before the actual pass, there is a false summit of prayer flags as you go under a bunch of flags and ascend to the ridge line.  I made a big push for the top thinking I only had 1 minute left to the actual pass and actually ended up wasting a lot of energy because I was still another 30 minutes from the real Dolma La Pass.

Do not make the mistake I made!  When you get to this first cluster of prayer flags (that are like a little colorful cave you have to walk through and duck under) know that you are roughly at the halfway point between the sharp turn up the gully and the top of the pass.

The Dolma La pass had about 1 meter of snow on the top but there was no need for crampons, Yak Trax, or boots.  The snow here was consistently between 30-100 cm thick but was all trampled down by the 1000’s of pilgrims who had all walked the same path in the previous weeks.  I did not posthole even once in the hard packed snow up at the top of the pass.

12:30pm- Arrive Dolma La High Pass at 5,636 meters/ 18,500 feet. Spend a few minutes celebrating and taking pictures but do not stay too long up here!  Your body will definitely be wanting to descend as quickly as possible as every step down will give you that much more available oxygen!

1:00pm- Descend
The first hour of the descent from the pass is a relatively steep.
The descent is often on slippery snow and you will need to watch out for pilgrims prostrating face first down the hill.  I had to step around a few pilgrims as they prostrated down the hill and it made for tricky footing on the narrow, icy trail.
You will probably want trekking poles as this is steeper than the ascent to the pass and some of the melting ice can be slippery.

2:00pm- Cross Ice river

After one hour of navigating slippery switchbacks, you finally level out more on a usual evenly- graded trail.  However you have one more small obstacle before you are scott free.  At the bottom of the switchbacks you have to cross an frozen river (or lake?)  The body of water is frozen with several meters of ice and so it will certainly hold your weight as you walk across it’s 50 meter long ice sheet.  But do be cautious here with your footing as walking on solid ice can certainly result in a pretty big fall on your butt or your side.  With a backpack this ice crossing is a little unwieldy but doable if you take it slow.

I was pretty tentative crossing the ice as I was not sure, at first,  if the ice sheet would hold me.  My body weighed 90 kilograms and I had two backpacks (one on the back and my friends strapped to the front) and I was afraid if I fell in I could not get my hands free from the tangle of straps on the backpacks.  But after a few steps out on the ice I saw I could trust the ice to hold my body weight just as it had done 1000’s of pilgrims who walked before me on this same path.

From here on out, most of the trail is smooth sailing and you can make good time as you descend to a lower, more comfortable altitude.

3:00pm- Arrive at first Teahouse after the Dolma La Pass

We had a late lunch here at 5,236 meters (17,130 feet).  It was a nice place to wind down from the intensity of the snow and the altitude up on the pass and I laid down here for a few minutes.  As I closed my eyes I could feel the swirl of light from the bright snow stimulating my eyes behind my closed eyelids.  I was very thankful I had good polarized sunglasses because I could only imagine how overstimulated my eyes would have been in the 360 degrees of bright snow without the eye protection.

This teahouse is pretty simple and only offers instant noodles and soda.  While that was not exactly checking the list for all my hunger cravings, it made for a refreshing stop.

From this teahouse the trail becomes a dirt road that a car could drive on and all you have to do is put one foot in front of the other and make good time to as you hike another flat 10km slightly downhill to your sleeping destination.

6:30pm- Arrive at Zutul Puk Monastery

Get settled and sleep at  Zutul Puk Monastery.  This guesthouse offers a nice stone block guesthouse with cozy rooms. Our rooms did not have any heating but putting 6 people into a small room was more than enough (that combined with the ample thick blankets available) to keep us cozy throughout the night.

The guesthouse has a simple stone building with squat toilets outside and offers a little restaurant where you can eat simple bread and home made Tibetan fried noodles, french fries,  and Tsampa.

Trek day 3

The third and final day of our trek will cover 10 kilometers from Zutul Puk Monastery back to the town of Darchen. After the trek, we will return for one final night along the shores of scenic Lake Manasarovar.

From Zutul Puk Monastery to Darchen the road is all down hill and flat but is long

8:30am- Breakfast – Tsampa and Tortillas with Egg at teahouse

9:00am- Depart / walk down on a dirt road

1:00pm- Arrive Darchen/ eat lunch in Darchen

2:30pm- Drive to Lake Manasarovar / 30 km

4:00pm- Arrive Lake Manasarovar / Check Into Guesthouse on Lake (has beds and blankets but no shower/ toilet is a simple concrete squatty)

 

Lake Manasarovar lies at 4,590 m (15,060 ft) above sea level, a relatively high elevation for a large freshwater lake on the mostly saline lake-studded Tibetan Plateau.

Lake Manasarovar is relatively round in shape with the circumference of 88 km (54.7 mi). Its depth reaches a maximum depth of 90 m (300 ft) and its surface area is 320 km2 (123.6 sq mi). Lake Manasarovar is considered one of the 4 greatest and holiest lakes in Tibet. It is said just a single dip in the lake’s frigid waters can wipe away a lifetime of sins.  It is connected to its “evil twin”, the nearby black waters of Lake Rakshastal,  by the natural Ganga Chhu channel. Lake Manasarovar is near the source of the Sutlej, which is the easternmost large tributary of the Sindhu. Nearby are the sources of the Brahmaputra River, the Indus River, and the Ghaghara, an important tributary of the Ganges.

Like Mount Kailash, Lake Manasarovar offers a holy pilgrimage and this kora is 110km in length around the the lake’s shore.

You will see pilgrims prostrating around the lake against the brutal winds and fierce colds of the high altitude lake.  Many of the Tibetan pilgrims, despite their naturally silky black hair, look as if their faces and hair are all totally white from weeks spent prostrating in the dirt and salty sands around the lake.

This is one of the most inhospitable places in the world yet somehow there is a lively population of shorebirds and migratory ducks that live off the insects that bury in the shore’s muddy banks.

Curiosity got the best of me and I decided to try to jump into the lake’s water for a swim.    I was expecting to dive into the waters to wash off several days of dirt and stench from hiking but I found that the lake shore was very shallow and muddy.  With only a water depth of around 6 inches (15cm) for the first 100 meter of shoreline, there was no choice but to plop in the mud and roll around the mucky waters.  As I was traipsing around the mud I totally submerged both of my Crocs in the mud and almost lost them forever to the sucking, sinking abyss.  I rooted through the icy mud for a minute and recovered my shoes but I decided it was time to get out of the soupy pool of muck on the shores of Lake Manasarovar.

After about 2 chilly, muddy minutes in the lake, I dashed onto the shore where I had stashed my clothes away from the blowing winds and as I trotted over to get some clothes on I was hit by an intense sand storm. The sand pounded right into my face and sent a terrible chill through my body.  Shivering and with my heart pounding from the bitter cold, I put my clothes on and desperately ran the 200 meters back to my guesthouse to get warm and dry.

After this little excursion, I opted to go 200 meters up the road to a natural hot spring bath house.  The hotspring had been piped and captured in a concrete building that offered 10 private wooden tubs with the hot spring water, so it was not exactly a totally natural outdoor experience.   There were also no towels or soap provided-  just a tiled room and a wooden tub full of hot water.  Nonetheless, it was wonderful to wash off and get clean and this certainly made for the perfect end to days on a dusty trail and a wild Kailash trek.

7:00pm- The guesthouse on the shore ofLake Manasarovar offers a simple Tibetan restaurant and we had dinner here.

After dinner I walked along the lake shore and got some great pictures of a brilliant sunset over Lake Manasarovar.  When it turned darked, I turned in for sleep in the simple concrete rooms at the guesthouse (with no running water or heat or electricity).    The guesthouse was cold and there was no electricity or heat in our room but most of the clients wore 3-4 thick blankets to keep warm.

I was definitely ready to descend to a lower altitude!

Should I ride an elephant in Thailand?

Into the Heart of the Jungle from Ben Cubbage on Vimeo.

The elephant has been a major part of Thai society and a symbol of national pride for many centuries.   The Thai elephant (Thai: ช้างไทย, chang ) is the official national animal of Thailand and has been used as the gift of kings and a staple of the ancient Thai army in fighting wars with invading tribes. The elephant found in Thailand is the Indian Elephant (Elephas maximus indicus), a subspecies of the Asian Elephant. In the early-1900s there were an estimated 100,000 domesticated or captive elephants in Thailand. By mid-2007 there were an estimated 3,456 domesticated elephants left in Thailand  and roughly a thousand wild elephants. It became an endangered species in 1986.

There are two species of elephant: African (much larger with bigger ears) and Asian. Asian elephants are divided into four sub-species, Sri Lankan, Indian, Sumatran and Bornean.Thai elephants are classified  as Indian elephants. However, Thai elephants have slight differences from other elephants of that sub-species. They are smaller, have shorter front legs, and a thicker body than their Indian counterparts. Thai elephants also have beautiful pinkish spots behind their ears.

Elephants are exclusive herbivores, consuming ripe bananas, leaves, bamboo, tree bark, and other fruits. Eating takes up 18 hours of an elephant’s day because they poop 40 minutes after eating and so they need an immense amount of food to satisfy their extreme size and constant appetite. They eat 100-200 kilograms of food per day. A cow (female) will eat 5.6 percent of her body weight per day. A bull (male) will eat 4.8 percent. Thus a 3,000 kilogram cow will consume 168 kg per day, a 4,000 kg bull 192 kg per day. As elephants can digest only 40 percent of their daily intake, the result is about 50–60 kg of excrement per Elephant per day. As elephants will not eat or sleep in unclean surroundings fouled by dung, their instinct is to roam to a new area.

With elephants being such an important part of Thai society and such a unique part of the ecosystem in general, it is important how we treat them as their numbers decrease and their native habitat rapidly disappears amidst fast-paced urbanization and development.

One of the most popular ways that foreign tourists have engaged these giants in the past 20 years has been to ride on the backs of elephants. This, of course, has offered an amazing chance for humans to get up close and personal with these intriguing and beautiful animals.

This activity has become particularly controversial in the last few years with many new brochures advertising “No Elephant Riding”.  As a public outcry has emerged against Elephant mistreatment,  elephant farms and sanctuaries have responded by offering more ethical experiences which involve Elephant bathing, feeding, and walking beside (rather than riding on top of) elephants.  These efforts show a positive move in tourism to try to live beside nature rather than “dominating” it or “using” it for one’s own material pleasure. 

I want to address two areas of concern regarding elephant abuse.

1.) Ethical Elephant Training and Care

The first area is how Elephant trainers have been treating and training their elephants.  Like anything that is commercialized and sold to the public, there are very reputable and ethical Elephant camps which treat their elephants with love and respect, and there are certainly a fair share of tourism experiences that put profit ahead of the elephant’s well being.  As soon as the elephant camps make money their number one goal, putting quick profits ahead of the health and needs of the elephants, these animals quickly become caged and abused and neglected. Elephant trainers may abuse their elephants in the same way a sideshow traveling circus might force their animals into submission with mean and abusive tactics and shelters that are inadequate for these normally wild animals.

No doubt, it is these places which have given Elephant tourism a bad name in the last few years. In response to the abuse of elephants, many rehabilitation camps and sanctuaries have arisen to take care of abused and neglected elephants.  These rehabilitation camps are a good start to engaging ethical experiences which allow access to elephants in a sustainable and compassionate manner for the tourist. 

The variety of positive and negative experiences makes it important for the tourist in Thailand to be selective and educated about which elephant camps they choose.  Do your homework before you go and do not just hire some guy on the street or from the airport.  Plan your elephant experience with intentionality and thought.

Here I want to address one particular issue, which is the equipment elephant trainers use.

An elephant guide is a tool that is used to teach, guide and direct an elephant. In the past, some people have called this an ankus or a bullhook. These names are outdated and do not provide an adequate explanation for the proper use of the tool. “Ankus” is a term used to describe the elephant handling tool used in many Asian countries, which is much sharper, longer, harsher, and more warlike than most modern day guide tools . The term bullhook was coined over 100 years ago by circus men who called all elephants, regardless of sex, bulls. Both the ankus and the bullhook have been associated with elephant abuse in the past and, in fact, the bullhook is now illegal in California for use in elephant training.

Elephant management has evolved  a lot since then, and its tools and their uses have evolved as well. The elephant guide consists of a blunt hook mounted on one end of a plastic or wooden shaft (usually about 1 foot or a forearm’s length). The ends on the hook are tapered to a point so that the elephant can feel the pressure of the guide through their thick skin, but blunt enough so that the hook does not scratch or penetrate the skin. The design of the guide allows the elephant to be directed with either a pushing or pulling motion. The elephant guide adds a physical and visual cue to a verbal request. To train an elephant to raise its foot using an elephant guide, the keeper places the guide behind the foot. The keeper then touches the back of the foot with the guide and using only slight pressure, uses the guide to prompt the elephant to lift its foot. When the foot reaches the desired level, the elephant is praised and given a treat. Once the behavior is fully trained, the guide is no longer necessary as a visual/physical cue, as the elephant responds to the verbal request alone.

I have seen many blogs across the internet that take a photo of an elephant trainer holding this 1-foot long tool with its curved hook and they say something like, “How can you hurt the elephants with this cruel device?”

I admire their compassion for animals and their voice on the internet.  There certainly are trainers who may misuse this tool in anger or abuse or misinformation and, to these trainers, the cry for justice and better practice is sound.  But I asked Thom at Thom’s Elephant Camp about this device and her answer made sense to me.  Whether or not you believe in spanking, as a parent you learn part of your relationship with your child is discipline and correction.  A small boy left without correction would easily put himself in danger or might break things or harm others.  The same is true for an elephant, except that this is a 3,000 kg animal who could easily kill a human with one move or squeeze of its trunk or one misstep of its foot.  In such a precarious working environment, certainly love and relationship are the foundation of effective communication but there is a place for correction for the safety of all those involved.  If the mahouts did not yield this tool, those in and around elephants (including visiting tourists) could easily be trampled.  Used lovingly and wisely, I do not think it is unreasonable to use an elephant guide as a tool to navigate around the elephant’s body and to aid in training.  After all, if you consider the extreme size of an elephant and the toughness of its skin, using a tool that is about as big as a paint roller is actually quite minimalistic in terms of discipline.

Many elephant experiences are offered in the Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai area as Northern Thailand offers mountains and jungles that are still fit for elephant habitats and a little more protected from the rapid urbanization of Bangkok and the beaches of Pattaya, Phuket, and While I was traveling through Pai, Northern Thailand there are a number of elephant camps available there for the many backpackers to choose from.

After some research on the internet, our group chose to go with Thom’s Elephant Camp.

First of all, let me say if you do a little research yourself on TripAdvisor you may instantly come across some negative reviews of Thom’s Elephant Camp.  I read reviews that the elephants were cooped up and chained, including baby elephants who were being mistreated.

Let me refute these reviews by saying that Thom of Thom’s Elephant Camp is a 4th generation Mahout (professional elephant trainer) who he has the deepest care and veneration for her elephants.  When asked if she had children, Thom laughed gently and told me, “These are my children.”  After I spent the afternoon with Thom, I knew she was not just giving me a pat answer; Elephant Care was the central truth and the very axis of rotation of her life.  Thom has established her Elephant Camp in Pai over 20 years ago and todays has 3 very healthy and happy girl elephants who are all 25, 35, and 54 years old respectively (elephants often live to 70 years old in captivity).  Among her 3 “children” none of these elephants were attached to a chain and they all slept in the wild jungle at night and often freely roamed around a massive, uninhabited Jungle. And there were no baby elephants. 

I believe the negative reviews were written by a well meaning but confused tourist who mistook the unsigned copycat (and much newer) Camp across the street for Thom’s Elephant Camp.  This Camp, just 20 feet away from Thom’s, does, in fact, chain their elephants and does allow tourists to ride on a metal cage on the back of their Asian Elephants, parading for a few minutes down the local paved street in a very unnatural environment.  So it would be easy to mistake the two establishments and confuse Thom’s for another less ethical business. 

The other possibility is that Thom’s reputation is being incorrectly attacked by jealous businesses who stand to gain a share of Thom’s well established market.  Competing  businesses have been known to write falsely negative reviews on TripAdvisor (and other travel review sites) to discourage business in their competion.  With the increase in web-based reviews, there is better access to decentralized knowledge on the web for better researched travel and this information has greatly empowered the discerning traveler with far better choices.  However, the popularity and dependence on web-based reviews has also opened the door for unethical and dirty practices, equivalent to presidential election smear campaigns, in corners of the tourist market.  While this is not a certainty regarding the negatively biased reviews of Thom’s, I will say it is not terribly difficultly to create a fake email address and TripAdvisor account to say nasty things against rival businesses.  Thom herself had her own very good reasons to suspect such malicious activity and I told her it was a shame that likeminded businesses could not collaborate to better a community rather than greedily competing as if there was not enough to go around for everyone.

Wherever the negative reviews come from, it is evident they are hurting Thom’s business.

Once the first elephant Camp in Pai, Thom has lost a good deal of her once-thriving business because a handful of errant reviews.

As an unpaid plug for those looking for an elephant experience in Thailand and as an advocate for all ethical community-based tourism, I could not more highly recommend Thom, both as a person and as an experienced trainer. 

Thom spent all afternoon with us explaining elephant habitats, life span, and gestation while we walked beside the 54 year old elephant in an open jungle and watched her tear down entire banana trees to get the juicy pulp out the fiber of the large tree. After washing the elephant in the river and feeding her bananas, Thom took us to a local hot spring and sat with us as we cooled off with a drink with a cool breeze under an umbrella.

We stayed the night in a very affordable bungalow on Thom’s property.  The next morning Thom took time out of her busy schedule in managing the elephant Camp to eat breakfast with us and teach us more in her sweet, informal, hospitable way about life as an elephant  trainer.

Although Thom does allow for riding on top of an elephant with only a blanket, our group never once got on top of the elephant.

 

2.) Riding Elephants

This brings us our second area of concern: specifically whether or not humans should ride elephants as a tourist experience.

Let me address this question with some pure math.

An average full grown female elephant might weigh about 3000 kg or 6,614 pounds.

If an average female human, around 30 years old, is about 68kg or 150 pounds is riding an elephant then that elephant is carrying about 2% of its weight on its back.

Comparatively, this might be the equivalent of that same 68 kg (150 pound) female carrying a very small, totally compressible 1.5kg (3 pound) backpack on her back with a bottle of water and a rain jacket.

That amount of weight seems pretty manageable to carry for most females. 

In fact, most female travelers easily carry a purse or a backpack that weighs much more than that bare bones simple backpack and they do it happily and comfortably all day long.

So the issue of riding an elephant is certainly not an issue of weight.

The human can ride an elephant as easily as a sparrow would ride on the human’s shoulder.

The problem comes when you put an uncomfortable, rigid metal cage on the elephants’s back and make it walk around in repetitive, endless circles day after day while carrying that same 68 kg human. Suddenly the comparably small weight creates physical friction, abrasion, and irritation, not to say anything of the emotional stress from living as a prisoner under cruel human rule.

So, really, it is not just riding the elephant that presents the difficulty but how you do it.

It is about the mentality of the trainer and the tourist.

Are we treating the elephant with the dignity it deserves as an intelligent, feeling being or are we using it for an Instagram selfie snapshot for our own “fame”?

At Thom’s even those who ride the elephant bareback (without a wire frame seat) are seeking a connection and a mutual relationship with the elephant rather than a singular moment or a picture.  This idea of relationship with the elephant being central to the entire process is Thom’s heart in keeping her elephants and I hope that whatever elephant experience you find yourself at in Thailand represents this same positive ideal.

Danba

Danba used to be an important stop on the Tea and Horse Caravan that traded Chinese tea for Tibetan salt and horses.  One look at the surrounding terrain and it is not hard to imagine that it must have been a grueling journey to get here with 200 pound backpacks full of tea leaves over the treacherous mountain passes. Even today, to reach Danba you have to travel through almost 100 km of nearly continuous interlinked tunnels that penetrate through the steep cliffs that protect the area. As you pass through these concrete tunnels, remember the coulies who had no shoes on their feet and had to walk the very craggy mountains that you now are driving under. 

Danba county varies greatly in altitude, from peaks that are as high as 5,820 meters to river valleys as low as 1,700 meters. The Big Jinchuan and Small Jinchuan Rivers meet here, marking the beginning of the Dadu River.

The county’s landscape varies a great deal and can change quickly in vertical relief, from the high-altitude snow-capped mountains to the low altitude grasslands and valleys.

Danba is the hometown of Jiarong Tibetans, a small subgroup of Tibetans who are known for residing in the lowest part of the entire Tibetan Plateau.  Because of the relatively low altitude (at 1,893 meters/ 6,211 feet) this is a very isolated and fertile valley.  While many other Tibetans often struggle to eek out a living by herding yaks on the unforgiving, windswept grasslands and alpine tundra at 4,000 meters, the Jiarong Tibetans have the benefit of some of the richest (and warmest) cropland available in all of western China. It is not uncommon to see piles of corn or basketfuls of Sichuan peppercorn adorning the large 4 story stone houses that Danba is so famous for.

Usually distributed along the southern mountain slopes and facing the sun for optimal solar radiation,  the whitewashed homes consist of three or four stories, all made of local stone.  Each of these large castle-like homes houses an extended family and is surprising in its elaborate architecture. The exterior walls of the top floors are usually painted yellow, black, or dark red and  are decorated with the patterns of the heavens and other religious designs. The ground floor is usually used for feeding and bedding livestock, while the upper floors contain the hearth and heart of the home: the kitchen, storeroom, living room, and scripture hall. On the 4 corners of the roof there are 4 white turrets which are used to offer sacrifices  to the local deities thought to govern the nearby hills, trees, rivers and fields. Prayer flags hanging around the houses ripple in the wind, adding more charm and color to the already ripe green and yellow fields of the region.

Outside the handcrafted homes, orchards of apples, pears, peaches and pomegranates adorn the outer pastures of the valley. In the hillside fields villagers plant crops such as highland barley, rapeseed, corn, and potatoes and these crops enjoy a much longer growing season that almost any other part of the Tibetan Plateau.

Claimed as the “most beautiful ethnic village in China” by Chinese National Geographic The Danba Valley is actually divided into several small villages.  While there are a few luxury hotels in the area, most tourists find themselves cozying up in the stone castle-homes of the friendly Jiarong Tibetans for a delightful homestay experience, sometimes even complete with Yak Butter Tea and an ethnic Jiarong dance. The principal villages that you are likely to encounter as a tourist include: Zhonglu 中路, Jiaju 甲居, and Sopo 梭坡. There are entrance fees in each of these places although many times if you get there after 6:00pm you will find the ticket collectors have gone home for the night. Of the three villages, Sopo 梭坡 has the greatest number of watchtowers although Jiaju and Zhonglu certainly see the greatest numbers of visitors.

Jiaju Tibetan Village and Zhonglu Tibetan Village

Lying in the north of Danba, Jiaju Tibetan Village in Niexia town stands out from all the other villages. It is about 5 miles (8 kilometers) from the county town and occupies an area of 1,200 acres (486 hectares), with more than 140 families residing here. Generally speaking, a house is owned and occupied  by one just one extended family. Some houses have a more convenient location right in the center of the village while others are farther away from the village gossip and activity. Stepping into the Tibetan homes, you will find yourself in a world of wonder. The walls, beds, and cabinets are all adorned with delightful patterns such as lotuses, trees, rivers, mountains, and lamas in various bright colors,. 

You can spend the whole day wandering around the village and exploring the marvelous interior of local Tibetan homes with beautiful stone and wood work. The entrance fee was 50 RMB as of August 2016, however if you come after 6pm, nobody will be there to charge. There are plenty of houses to sleep in across the village as most villagers are accustomed to housing visitors and showing them local hospitality.  Accommodation prices vary from 40 – 100 RMB per night per person, and homestays may include a freshly cooked local dinner.

Aside from Jiaju Tibetan Village, the Tibetan houses in Zhonglu Town and Badi Town are very famous too. The narrow winding road from Jiaju brings you further into the mountains to Zhonglu, less visited than Jiaju, but equally beautiful. The Zhonglu village is surrounded by forest, so if you are looking for a relaxed nature walk you may find this interesting. 

Both Jiaju and Zhonglu are are authentic and traditional Tibetan villages where you can still find locals picking Sichuan peppercorns in their hand woven baskets or up in a tree picking the fruit from their pear trees.  Jiaju Village is more popular for tourists because it has more houses, while Zhonglu is more secluded and fewer travelers go there.

Suopo Stone Watchtowers (Diaolou)

Suopo has in total 84 watchtowers, the largest concentration in the area, and as such is the best place to see Danba watchtowers. One can view the plethora of towers from across the road or can walk through the village for a closer look. The history of these stone towers dates back to around 2000 years ago. Local Jiarong Tibetans claim that these towers were constructed mainly as a result of battles their ancestors had in defending their local lands and wealth.  Although apparently the towers have also been used as spiritual high places to exorcise unwanted demons and spirits from harassing the Danba Valley. 

Dangling

Located 68 km northwest to the town of Danba, Dangling is a gallery of natural alpine lakes, forest, hot springs, grassland and a perfect hiking destination in Sichuan. Thankfully, it is still a relatively undeveloped and untouched place in Tibetan area of northwest Sichuan. Over 24 mountains here hover over 5,000 meters and many of these still remain unclimbed and unexplored even in 2018.

Whether you go for the nature, the culture, or the architecture, a trip to Danba is surely going to be a trip of a life time and is certainly worth 2-3 days of your travel itinerary.

Dawu

Dawu is a great place to launch a road trip into either the Nyenbo Yurtse mountains (to the south) or the glaciers of the Amnye Machen range just to the west.  It is one of the last outposts of civilization and with a fantastic monastery on the edges of town, it would be easy to spend 1-2 days here acclimating and filling up with good, hot food.

It used to take about 10 hours to drive the horribly bumpy dirt road from Dawu to Huashixia 花石峡 to drive past the glaciers of Amnye Machen. But now with a brand new highway, the drive takes about 4 hours through 2 new tunnels that pierce right through the heart of the snowy mountains.  The tunnels have taken away some of the rustic beauty of the formerly adventurous drive whereas you used to drive over 4,500 meter mountain passes covered with prayer flags just at the base of the Amnye Machen glacier.  But they have also made the drive much more reachable and certainly much safer than the dangerous icy passes used to be. Be warned of Chinese construction:  it happens fast and when it does it is not always marked well.  In driving from Huashixia and Maduo to Dawu in November 2017, it took me about 1 hour to find the entrance to the highway to Dawu just 15km north of Huashixia among a confusing new construction site of  circling “cloverleaf” highway ramps. Also note that as of November 2017 that none of the off ramps between Dawu and Huashixia were open, in particular Xueshan 雪山, which leaves the traveller with few options for lunch stops or gasoline.  Make sure you fill up your gas tank as you depart Dawu because you might not be able to get gas for another few hours along this beautiful, high altitude road. 

Golog (or Guoluo) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (Chinese: 果洛藏族自治州; Tibetan: མགོ་ལོག་བོད་རིགས་རང་སྐྱོང་ཁུལ་), is an autonomous prefecture occupying the southeastern corner of Qinghai province, in western China. The prefecture has an area of 76,312 km2 (29,464 sq mi) and its seat is located in Maqen County in Dawu. 

Golog Prefecture is located in the southeastern part of Qinghai, in the upper basin of the Yellow River. Gyaring Lake and Ngoring Lake on the western edge of the prefecture are considered to be the source of the Yellow River. However, these lakes do receive water from rivers that flow from locations even further west, in Qumarleb County of the Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture.

The lay of the land of the prefecture is largely determined by the Amnye Machen mountain range (maximum elevation 6,282 m), which runs in the general northwest- to-southeast direction across the entire prefecture, and beyond. The existence of the ridge results in one of the great bends of the Yellow River, which first flows for several hundreds of kilometers toward the east and southeast along through the entire Golog Prefecture, along the southern side of the Amnye Machen Range.  The Yellow River continues until it reaches the borders of Gansu and Sichuan Province and then turns almost 180 degrees and flows toward the northwest for 200–300 km (120–190 mi) through several prefectures of the northeastern Qinghai, forming a section of the northeastern border of the Golog prefecture.

Several sections of the Sanjiangyuan (Source of the Three Rivers) National Nature Reserve are within the prefecture.

Guoluo Airport Or Golog Airport (Chinese: 果洛机场) is a small airport that has been recently under construction in southeastern Qinghai Province outside of Dawu town.  The airport is in the Caozichang (草子厂) on the Dawutan Grassland (大武滩草原). Construction Began on 14 September 2012  with an estimated total investment of 1.24 billion yuan and the airport was expected to start operation in 2015. I personally have not heard of this airport being open as of 2017 but I am sure that when it does its flights will not be terribly cheap but will allow those with a good traveling budget to avoid the 10 hour drive it takes from Xining to Dawu.

The airport will have a 4,000 meter runway (Class 4C), and a 3,000 square meter terminal building. It  is projected to handle 150,000 passengers and 375 tons of cargo annually by 2020.

Twenty Five Quotes To Inspire You to Get Outside

“I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.” –Henry David Thoreau

“In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and winds long to play with your hair.” –Kahli Gibran

“Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” –John Muir

“I go to nature every day for inspiration in the day’s work.” –Frank Lloyd Wright

“Nature gives to every time and season some beauties of its own.” –Charles Dickens

“Wilderness is not a luxury but necessity of the human spirit.” –Edward Abbey

“Choose only one master – Nature” –Rembrandt

“The richness I achieve comes from Nature, the source of my inspiration.” –Claude Monet

“The sun does not shine for a few trees and flowers, but for the wide world’s joy.” –Henry Ward Beecher

“We do not see nature with our eyes, but with our understandings and our hearts.” –William Hazlett

“Afoot and lighthearted I take to the open road, healthy, free, the world before me.” –Walt Whitman

“There is pleasure in the pathless woods. There is rapture on the lonely shore. There is society where none intrudes, by the deep sea and music in its roar. I love not man the less, but Nature more.” –Lord Byron

“I go to Nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put together.” –John Burroughs

“You don’t have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary. But the stars neither require nor demand it.” –Annie Dillard

“The earth has music for those who listen.” –William Shakespeare

“There is a way that nature speaks, that land speaks. Most of the time we are simply not patient enough, quiet enough, to pay attention to the story.” –Linda Hogan

“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” –Albert Einstein

“He is richest who is content with the least, for content is the wealth of nature.” –Socrates

“Come forth into the light things, let nature be your teacher.” –William Wordsworth

“It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.” –Robert Louis Stevenson

“Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach of us more than we can ever learn from books.” –John Lubbock
“Like music and art, love of nature is a common language that can transcend political or social boundaries.” –Jimmy Carter

“Woodland in full color is awesome as a forest fire, in magnitude at least, but a single tree is like a dancing tongue of flame to warm the heart.” –Hal Borland

“Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake.” –Wallace Stevens

Ten things to know before visiting Chengdu

Here are 10 interesting things for you to think about when planning your trip to Chengdu…

  1. Visit the home of the Giant Panda.

Chengdu is probably most famous for being the home of one of China’s great treasures, the magnificent giant pandas. This creature’s name in Chinese is XiongMao 熊猫 and that literally means “Bear Cat”.   Both Chinese and foreign tourists flock to the panda centers of Chengdu to view these unique creatures in their natural humid bamboo habitat. While pandas are technically considered omnivores, and do occasionally eat small animals and fish, bamboo makes up 99% of their diet.  Every day a single panda may gnaw lazily on bamboo for up to 12 hours and may eat as much as 12kg of the plant in that time.

The panda is an internationally recognized icon of China and is strictly protected by the Chinese government. The research being done to ensure pandas continue to flourish in China is led by top researchers in Chengdu. The entire country rejoices when news of a new panda cub’s birth is announced. They are very proud of the creatures and the work being done to protect them. Sadly, these beautiful bears are endangered, and it’s estimated that only around 1,000 giant pandas remain in the wild today. That’s why we need to do all we can to protect them!

For those with an interest in conservation and preservation efforts, the panda research centers offer informative programs and viewing opportunities that allow the public access to the efforts to save the giant panda. Some of the top places to interact with this preservation include: the Panda Breeding and Research Center, the Bifengxia Giant Panda Base, and the Dujiangyan Panda Base.

2. Chengdu offers amazing museums

Chengdu offers many historical and cultural museums for those with an interest in Chinese history and development. Some of the best museums to visit are the:

Sanxingdui Archeological Site and Museum in Guanghan

Go back in time 1000’s of years as you venture 40 km northeast  of Chengdu to the the Sanxingdui Archeological Site, offering a trove of  artifacts that date back as far back as the Bronze Age.  Exhibitions in this museum date as far as 5000 years, with a wide range of relics such as bronze masks, jade articles, and some interesting gold pieces. It is the largest museum in southwest China, with a vast array of precious relics that reflect it’s name as “the origin of the Yangtze River civilization”.

In 1986 two major sacrificial pits were unearthed that stirred academic attention around the world. Archeologists realized that the relics found at these pits and subsequent discoveries were the remains of a previously unknown city and civilization that existed during the Shang Dynasty period (1600–1046 BC).

Wenchuan Earthquake Museum

The 2008 Sichuan earthquake, aka the “Great Wenchuan Earthquake” occurred at 2:28pm on May 12, 2008.  Measuring a 8.0 on the Richter Scale, the earthquake’s epicenter was located 80 kilometres (50 mi) west/northwest of Chengdu.

 

The earthquake was also felt in nearby countries and as far away as both Beijing and Shanghai—1,500 km (930 mi) and 1,700 km (1,060 mi) away respectively—where office buildings swayed with the tremors of the earthquake. Strong aftershocks, some exceeding a 6 on the Richter Scale,  continued to hit the area up to several months after the main quake, causing further casualties and damage.

Over 69,000 people lost their lives in the quake, including 68,636 in Sichuan province. 374,176 people were reported injured, with 18,222 listed as missing as of July 2008.  The earthquake left about 4.8 million people homeless, though the number could be as high as 11 million.  This has been rated the 21st deadliest earthquake of all time.

The Wenchuan Earthquake museum preserves this event and details the relief work after the earthquake and holds a monument to the earthquake victims  The museum also models the Wenchuan earthquake site, offering audio, visual, and tactile  simulations to help visitors understand the size and feel of the earthquake.

3. Chengdu locals speak a different dialect of Mandarin.

In many parts of China, the local dialect differs from “Putonghua” or standard Mandarin. Provincial dialects are often difficult to understand and differentiate between, even for native speakers. In the Sichuan province this dialect is known as Sichuanese or “Sichuan Hua”. 

Notoriously, “Sichuan Hua” tends to blur the stronger “SH” sound into simply the hissing of an “Ssss”.  Classically many visitors find it hard to barter about price because the “Shi” of the number ten ends up sounding a whole lot like the “Si” of the number four. But not to worry – most vendors carry calculators so that helps bridge the divide as you negotiate and haggle 🙂

4. The food is some of the best (and spiciest) in China!

Have you ever been to Chinese restaurant in the west and seen a menu listing “Szechuan Beef” or “Szechuan Chicken”?  That is an variant spelling of Sichuan and indicates that these dishes have made it all the way around world, albeit a little changed for the western palate. If you ask anyone in China where to find the spiciest food, they will tell you its in Sichuan Province. Chengdu is famous for its spicy hot pot and many other mouth tingling dishes. This is because of the world famous Sichuan peppercorn  that is grown in the region. The spice gives a numbing feeling to all the dishes it is used in, which is a great favorite with the Chinese palate. It may take some getting used to at first, but the spicy food of Chengdu is a regional cuisine not to be missed. 

5. Sichuan opera is a classical Chinese art form.

Chengdu is an excellent place to witness a performance of a traditional Sichuan Opera. Sichuan Opera is like the precursor for today’s rioting Cirque Du Soleil performances with features including acrobatics, fire spitting, and illusionists. Among some of the greatest illusions are the magical “face changing” acts which are a a celebrated tradition and part of one of the oldest regional opera cultures. This unique performance is practiced almost exclusively in Sichuan and the best masters of the art can be seen in Chengdu. 

6.The Leshan Giant Buddha and other marvels

Many of the ancient sites around Chengdu reflect the influence of Buddhism, as well as the agricultural history of the region.

In particular, the Leshan Giant Buddha, or  乐山大佛, is a huge statue which is carved into the stone on the side of Mount Lingyun. The stone sculpture faces Mount Emei, with the rivers flowing below its feet. It is the largest and tallest stone Buddha statue in the world and it is by far the tallest ancient statue in the world. The Giant Buddha is about 71 meters high and 24 meters wide. Just the feet alone have an 8.5 meter wide instep, an area large enough to accommodate 100 people. The big toe itself is large enough to accommodate a dinner table.

The statue depicts a seated Maitreya Buddha with his hands resting on his knees. The Maitreya is thought to be the future Buddha, who will appear to preach the dharma (teachings of Buddha) when the teachings of Gautama Buddha have long been forgotten. The construction began in 713 AD during the Tang Dynasty and was completed in 803 AD.

As the platforms inside the scenic spot are steep and narrow and can get quite congested with tourists, taking a boat on the adjacent river may provide a better way for tourists who are not good at climbing to view the fullness of this huge Buddha. Taking a boat to look up at the Giant Buddha is highly recommended in peak tourist season (July-October).

Several drainage passages are hidden in the Buddha’s hair, collar, chest, and in the holes in the back of his ears and chest,  and these prevent the Buddha from serious erosion and weathering under the heavy Sichuan rains. The buddha has been carefully maintained on a regular basis throughout his 1,200-year history, however moss does grow on the statue.But for something this old, it is really remarkably preserved. 

If you are looking to better understand Buddhism and historical architecture inside the city limits, you may also want to check out, the Wenshu Monastery, the Wu Hou Temple, the Dufu Thatched Cottage, and the Jinli Old Walking Street.

7. Chengdu is a regional migration magnet.

Chengdu is the second largest city in the western half of China (after Chongqing) and one of the cities in China with the most potential for international investment. Many international and large national companies operate in Chengdu, which draws a large population of young working people both internationally and locally. 

The city is vibrant with the spirit and the spice of its economy. Old meets new on its busy streets as some of the oldest tradition and meals can be eaten and observed alongside modern developments and state of the art research. Chengdu provides a unique view into the fascinating leap China has made into being a global power. If you want to see a unique blend of old and new China, Chengdu is one excellent place to start.

8. Chengdu has the biggest building in the world!

The New Century Global Center is about twice the size of both the previous mall record holder in Dubai and the biggest mall in Guangdong called the New South China Mall. It is designed to be a self-contained town.

The center is a mall on steroids and is 18 stories high and a colossal 1.5 million square meters (16 million square feet) in area. Built in 2013, it contains a water park, IMAX theater, and 2 hotels with 1,000 rooms, as well as many, many high end stores.

9. You should visit in the fall

While visiting Chengdu is popular amongst local Chinese tourists from June to August, Chengdu summers can be both hot and crowded. The temperatures in Chengdu often resemble the spice of its food — sweltering hot! Visiting Chengdu from September- November ensures that you avoid the sweltering summers, gloomy winters, and the rainy season from spring to summer. Fall provides cool temperatures and easier transportation for visitors looking to see the most Chengdu has to offer. (Just avoid the October Holiday from October 1-7!)

10. Awesome hiking opportunities

Four Sisters Mountain

Mount SiGuNiang is also known as the Four Sisters Mountain Range.  Here there are 4 distinct peaks and the highest of these is Peak 4 (aka YaoMei) at 6,250 meters. You can start the hike at RiLong village which is  about 240 km away from downtown Chengdu and this trip takes about 7-8 hours to drive.   The most accessible peak of the Four Sisters is Peak 1, known as DaFeng Peak at 5025 meters. DaFeng peak is considered the easiest peak among the peak to summit as it requires no technical experience.  Peak 2 (ErFeng Peak) at 5276 meters  is a bit more challenging as it involves some basic mountaineering and some technical climbing equipment. Peak 3 and Peak 4 are longer trips and require a higher level of mountaineering. Trips to summit Peak 1 can usually be accomplished in 8 days with  3-4 days of trekking and 2 days of round trip driving. 

Gonga Shan

An 8 hour drive from Chengdu, Kangding is like a sort of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with quick access into the impressive mountains all around it. Just a short 30 minute walk up the hills of Kangding will yield spectacular views of the neighboring alpine peaks. Outdoor activity opportunities abound with particular focus on hiking and mountain biking. And just a short 30 minute drive from Kangding is the trekking trailhead to Minya Konka, or Gonga Shan, Sichuan’s tallest beastly mountain, standing at a staggering 7,556m, and is consequently of huge spiritual importance to Tibetans.

Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport (CTU) is located 20km (12 mi) outside of the Chengdu city center and is one of the main air hubs in China, recently ranked 4th in passenger volume. It serves flights to/from most major cities in China, many smaller cities within Sichuan, and some international destinations including Amsterdam, Bangkok, Denpasar, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Kathmandu, Paris, Melbourne, Sydney, Moscow, Osaka, Kuala Lumpur, San Francisco, Seoul, Singapore, Taipei, and Tokyo.  And there are new international routes being added quite often.

Langmusi (郎木寺) – Taktsang Lhamo (སྟག་ཚང་ལྷ་མོ་)

Langmusi, at 3,345 meters in elevation, is a town that is known for it’s rich Buddhist culture and it’s amazing scenery, tucked away in the crags of 5000 meter mountains. It would be very easy to spend at least 2-3 days here in this quaint wonderland.

Kirti and Serti Monastery

The two main temples in Langmusi are the Kirti Monastery, located on the southern Sichuan side, and the Serti Monastery, located on the northern Gansu side of town. Serti is certainly the more lavish of the two monasteries as it receives some of its funding by the Chinese government, and the monastery in turn supports China’s appointed Buddhist spiritual leaders. Serti, the cleaner and more prestigious of the towns’ two monasteries, shines under the high altitude sun with brilliant golden roofs and is often undergoing major renovations and expansion upgrades.

Kirti Monastery, on the other hand, receives no funding from the government. Consequently, Kirti maintains an older, more organic feel as it’s temples are made wood, mud, aluminum, and cement. The roofs lack the loud colors and glam that adorn the Serti Monastery. Most of the Kirti side is comprised of the slightly tattered but humble living quarters of all the monks who reside there. But, while being a bit more toned down than neighboring Serti Monastery, I’ve found that most of the Tibetan pilgrims that walk and prostrate for months when traveling to Langmusi all go to Kirti, not Serti. In fact, most of the major gatherings of lamas and monks happen at Kirti despite its more rustic character.

Regardless of personality, both monasteries are certainly worth a visit and it is a fantastic experience to walk alongside the pilgrims who have come from 100’s of miles all around the grasslands to land and worship in Langmusi.

 

Hiking and Horse Trekking in Langmusi

Namo Gorge and Huagai god Mountain

Walking through Kirti Gompa and up the valley, you will reach the start of Namo Gorge. You have to pay 30Y at the entrance to the monastery, which gets you access to the monastery itself and the gorge, but it is possible to bypass this if you walk up the road to the right of the ticket office, up and over the hill and down to the start of the gorge.

Once past the ticket gate, there is a wide open field where you might happen to stumble upon young monks playing soccer or relaxing in the grass reading a book. This is the just outside the walls of the Kirti Monastery and as such is the “playground” for the 100’s of monks that reside there. Moving past this area as you follow the river upstream you quickly enter a narrow gorge. Just on the right of this gorge is a statue of a tiger wrapped in Cata scarves and is a small cave, known as a home to local mountain spirits. The cave is no bigger than a modest size apartment but there is a small hole in the backside of the cave where you may find that local Tibetan nomads are trying to wiggle in and out of. Legend has

Once you pass the cave, you will walk alongside the White Dragon River for about 10 minutes until you eventually come to the spring that the river emerges out of. From this point continue up the dirt trail another 20 minutes to another gorgeous open grass valley. This is about as far as most tourists get, so if you continue in the canyon to your right up the fork, you will virtually have the whole gorge to yourself. It is possible to walk for a considerable distance into the gorge and mountains beyond, being surrounded by amazing scenery and peace and quiet. Eventually the trail (if you keep just staying right ) will take you along the side of some brush and over the top of a tableland known as “Huagai god Mountain”. From this view among the sharp rocks of the peak at 4,200 meters you get an excellent view of both Langmusi town and the wide open grasslands.

The hiking in this gorge can be anywhere from 20 minutes to 8 hours. There is really enough here for any level of adventure seeker!

Red Rocks hike

Walking in the other direction from the village – towards the main road – one encounters an interesting sandstone formation or mesa whose top is accessible. To access this, just look up to the Red Rock formations immediately outside of town, and walk a street about 1km out into the open pastures at the bottom of the mountain. From here wind up through an old sheep trail to get on top of the red rock cliffs. The hike up from town is about 2-3 hours and the Prayer flags here on the top are around 3,700 meters. There is a great view looking back on the Gansu side of Langmusi town and this makes for a great half day hike and an excellent picnic ground.

Horse Trekking

One of the town’s must-do activities is the horse trekking. Langmusi offers anything from 1 to 3 day horse treks where you can stay with real Tibetan nomads in their tents. The guides on all their trips are professional and experienced. Liyi, the owner at the horse trekking place speaks excellent English and is a great resource for any questions or tips about Langmusi. They also do biking trips and bike rentals. You can go to the grasslands by yourself with the bike or organize an amazing two-day homestay bike trip directly through them. They also own the Black Tent Cafe across the street – which is highly recommended for a little coffee, cake, or for their smoothies.

Sky Burial

Please beware that the information below might be disturbing to some. A sky burial is where the deceased Buddhist is hauled up a mountain, adorned in prayer wrappings, and left to be taken by the birds. After the birds do most of the work, the body is chopped up and burned. For many Tibetans, a sky burial is an entirely natural and beautiful way to go (and is often considered as a last act of compassion in giving one’s body to nature). I tend to agree and would much rather have a sky burial than be put in some box in field of other boxes. That said, visiting a sky burial site not long after a burial is quite an experience.

If you walk up past the left side of Serti Monastery, you’ll eventually come to a clearing near a hilltop (ask any local around Serti and he or she can point you in the right direction). The clearing has two boxes of axes and knives, prayer flags, and a pile of ashes. Once the birds are basically done with the main job, the remains are burned. However, not everything makes it into the fire, which means the site is literally littered with skulls, hip bones, and other various bits and pieces. We’d come only days after a burial, so some of the bones even had flesh and skin still on them.

I know it sounds gross, but if you’re curious about this sort of thing, I’d say this is a must see, as chances to experience this sort of thing don’t come around too often.

 

Langmusi in General

Langmusi is a sleepy village in a remote breathtaking location predominantly inhabited by a colorful mix of Hui Muslims and Amdo Tibetans. It is said that the provincial borderline runs through the middle of town with Sertri Gompa in Gansu and Kirti Gompa located in Sichuan. The power struggles between the two Gompa may have been the reason for the border location. Both temples have distinct styles making both well worth the visit alone. The surrounding mountains give off a very much alpine flair reminiscent of rural Austria or Bavaria and perfect for hiking and horse trekking.

While there are continually construction projects in all seasons (as in virtually every Chinese town, down to the tiniest backwater), much of the money that tourists bring in appears to be going to renovating and improving Tibetan temples and meeting places, or into local businesses catering to the seeker of Tibetan culture.
At this point [October 2015], the village has developed a budget-friendly backpacker vibe, not unlike Shaaxi village in Yunnan province. Yet, even in high season [the height of the October holiday, and after the swarming hordes of Jiuzhaigou], tourists are relatively few, and this is very much an active religious community with many monks and initiates to be seen walking the roads and playing behind the major monastery. The monks and students are not shy, happy to have a chat in Chinese and to a lesser extent English, and deeply appreciative of even the most basic Tibetan greetings (‘tashi delek’ means “Hello”). The majority of the visitors to this town are Han Chinese, and few if any make the effort to learn any Tibetan phrases.

 

Getting there

There is only one bus every day from Xiahe direct to Langmusi leaving at around 7:40 a.m. (Dec 2014) from the Xiahe Bus Station. 72Y.

If you miss this bus, or if you can’t get tickets, you can take any early morning bus to Hezuo (1 hour from Xiahe) and then take one of the Hezuo(合作)buses to Langmusi. There are a couple buses from Hezuo to Langmusi each day. There definitely is one leaving at 10:20AM.
When you get to Hezuo, you will need to take a taxi across town to the South Bus Station (Nan Zhan – 南站) where the buses leave for Langmusi.

If you were thinking of hiring a car to take you directly from Xiahe to Langmusi, be ready to pay a lot of money. It will cost you at least ¥350 to hire a car for the trip. The bus is only ¥ 71 per person. If you do end up taking a taxi, be sure to ask to take the “scenic route.” The road is a little bumpier than the new highway, and a takes a little longer, but you pass beautiful grasslands, mountains, and tibetan villages along the way.
There are also direct buses to Zoige (Ruo’ergai) in northern Sichuan. There is currently no direct bus to Songpan but the situation may change, as a new highway was completed in 2007.

You can also catch a bus in Jiuzhaigou to Langmusi. There are multiple buses leaving every morning between 7am and 8am. The bus will let you off on the main road outside of Langmusi, not actually driving into town, leaving you with a 1+ km walk, or there will be cars around to get you into town (for a few yuan).
To get out of town up towards Xiahe, there is only one afternoon direct bus a day. You can get morning buses to Hezuo, then a cab to the West Bus Station, then catch a bus to Xiahe. There are many buses to Xiahe each day.

Dege སྡེ་དགེ (德格)

The historic town of Dege makes up one of the five former great kingdoms of the Kham Tibetan area and many describe this town as the “heart of Kham”. Dege sits in a narrow valley at 3100 meters (10,170 ft) surrounded by mountains and the Sèqū River色曲河 that runs through the town. The city is famous for its Tibetan lamasery which hosts an invaluable treasury of wooden printing blocks with Tibetan Buddhist texts. About 70% of all Tibetan scriptures used across the Tibetan Plateau are produced in this very important printing press. A cultural center (more like a high end gift shop) has opened near the Printing Press & Monastery. Nevertheless the surrounding quarters on the valley’s slopes still preserve the old Tibetan traditions including the temple complex that contains a maze of wonderful old style Tibetan buildings made from rammed earth and logs. If you come here for nothing but the old log-cabin style buildings the trip would be absolutely worth it! This is one of the only places in all of Tibet where you can find such unique architecture, mainly because it is one of the only places that actually had any sizable forest.

If driving from the north, from Yushu, Serxu, Ganzi, or from Qinghai Province, Dege can be reached via the incredible, infamous Trola Pass.. The road between Ganzi and Dege is beautifully paved with the exception of the 5050 m high Tro-la Pass which is in disrepair with many potholes. Also be warned that this high road over the Trola Pass can be very dangerous in the snow or ice so check weather conditions before you set out on your trip. Parts of the pass also wind up the mountain and have no shoulder or railing with a drop of several 100 meters below. So this is not a drive for the fainthearted or inexperienced. But the incredible views from Ganzi over the Trola Pass (5050 m elevation) make the grueling day trip over Trola pass worthwhile.
Coming from the south, one can enter Dege from a route from Chengdu to Kangding. Reconstruction work on the Kangding (Dartsedo) to Ganzi highway (G317 / S303) is complete as of 2014 and the road from Kangding to Dege is now well paved. Dege to Kangding is now a one day journey by bus. You can leave Dege on a public bus at 6am and then arrive in Kangding around 8 or 9 pm. If you have your own 4WD car, Chengdu to Dege can also be driven in one long, epic day, but this is a very good way to get altitude sickness with a very quick ascent from Chengdu at 500 meters to Dege at 3,100 meters . It is recommended to stop at least one night in Kangding to acclimatize.
A new airport called Ganzi Gesar Airport(甘孜格萨尔机场) is about 60 km from Garze; 15 km from Manigango village. As of Spring 2016 this airport was almost finished and certainly presents the quickest (albeit not the cheapest) way to get from Chengdu to Ganzi to Dege.
Derge Gonchen monastery

Derge Gonchen monastery was founded in 1446 by Yogis Hang Stong Rgyal Po and the first local king Bo. It doubled as a palace for the kings, but is most famous for being one of the cradles of Tibetan Buddhist study and practice. Unfortunately, there are only a few old buildings remaining and the newer ones aren’t all that attractive in a sense of ancient architecture. Head farther uphill from the Printing Yard along the river following a road lined with Stupas. The entrance to the main temple is in the big red building on the left.

Dege Buddhist Scriptures Printing House

The Dege Buddhist Scriptures Printing House (Tibetan: Derge Parkhang) is independent from the monastery and is the first substantial building you’ll encounter walking south from the town’s center along the river. The Printing House is in a beautiful traditional temple which was restored in 1991. It is constantly circumambulated by townspeople and pilgrims. Here the admission fee is ¥50/person, and normally photography of the sections with the printing blocks is not allowed, though you can take pictures of the printing process. It is always worth asking your guide if it’s allowed to take a particular photograph as the rules change from time to time. The institution was founded in 1729 by Chogyal (dharma king) Denba Tsering. There are more than 140,000 printing blocks, a large collection of national cultural relics and a library comprising 830 books consisting of 10000 volumes. The last surviving copy of an old history of Indian Buddhism is amongst them. Inside you can wander the corridor lined with shelves accommodating the printing blocks and their protruding wooden handles. On the 3rd floor there is the workshop where 6 or 7 pairs of workers ink the blocks and press the paper on them with amazing speed. This is truly a glimpse into the printing techniques of a bygone era. On the next floor, the prints are dried and then assembled into books. In an extra chamber, large format pictures and scripts are printed on cloth. Once you make your way to the top of the printing press the roof offers nice views over the surrounding Tibetan neighborhood and the new town. A tour of the dark temple concludes the visit.

From the Printing House head west into the old quarter and follow a path leading down to the river. Hidden within a maze of traditional houses you will find the Tangtang Gyalpo Lhakhang, a tiny temple. Most any time of day you can find monks inside chanting scripture.
Dege is certainly worth at least 2 nights stay as a semi-halfway point on a long road trip between Xining and Chengdu. This is a great place to take a rest day along your long journey or to explore the printing press and stroll back through time as you wind through alleys full of handmade red wooden log homes.

Watch our new video and see how we roll

From July 21-25, 2017 we hosted 6 amazing people from Beijing and Shanghai.
We camped on a mountain at 3,700 meters, climbed up to an ancient Buddhist hermitage for a view of incredible red rock cliffs, and watched Tibetan Buddhist monks debate philosophy.

See it all here:

Red Rocks and Monasteries tour

What is a “DDQ Wild”?

Check out our new free podcast in iTunes and listen to find out what the DDQ Wild is all about:

DDQ Wild! Podcast

DDQ is an acronym that stands for “Destiny Discovery Quest”.  This is a 20 hour curriculum that uses powerful questions, life coaching, journaling, and reflection to set you on a journey to discover and walk in what you were made for. This curriculum, recently rebranded “Living By Design” in the US, is usually a weekend event that happens from a Friday night to Sunday afternoon and is run in multiple professional trainings, churches, and schools across Asia and America.

We’ll admit.  The name is a little cheesy.  But the important thing is that we want to help you walk in your destiny and give you tools to feel connected to your design.  Elevated Trips believes that every person has a unique purpose and path and we want to help you live up to that potential to the fullest degree!

We have taken this engaging curriculum (usually run in an indoors space in the frontcountry) and have put it inside an event that is part retreat and part outdoors adventure and all fun! The mental journey we will engage together will parallel the adventure and discovery of our 4 night/ 5 day physical journey as we explore caves, hike mountains, and kayak rivers in an untouched environment.

Every day we will have about a half day of adventure activities mixed with a half day of teaching and facilitation. Topics include: finding your values, identifying your dreams and the natural barriers that prevent them, and living by design. And, of course, there will be lots of great food and chances for your own quiet reflection in a tranquil atmosphere.

The schedule for the DDQ Wild! starts out mining out some general information and then with every proceeding session reveals more specific and useful understanding about you and your dreams.

Usually the flow of the course looks something like this:

Day 1- Introduction and Gleanings.  

In Gleanings we will take a broad survey of our life, gathering information and history from:

  •  Comments that people have spoken about us
  •  Our own dreams, passions, skills, and talents
  •  Our own unique experiences from childhood to adult

This is the broad stroke top of the funnel and will provide us with the information we will use in later sessions as we reflect and collate this information to gain a clearer understanding of ourselves.

Day 2 – Dreams and Dream Busters

We will look more specifically into a few important dreams and really dive deep into these. For us, it is not so important as to whether the dream is tangible or not in a practically achievable sense. But we want to look at the data behind the dream to see what this says about your passions and desires and what really fuels and drives you.  Then after looking into our dreams we will identify the barriers or “dream busters” than stand in the way of these.

Day 3 – Values

Find out what really makes you tick as we work to uncover some of your possible core values that drive you and your decisions. Knowing your values allows you to be able to say “YES” to that which aligns with you and “NO” quickly to that which does not.  This can save a lot of wasted time and effort working for things that others urge you to do but have no real personal impact or meaning.

Day 4- Mini Convergence

After sifting through many of our dreams, we will focus in on our “sweet spot” experiences – those times where you were really firing on all cylinders and life just absolutely came together for you and you said, “This is what I was made for”. It could be something as simple as a movie that drives you to tears or something larger like working to impact youth in an orphanage.  We will explore at least one major “mini convergence” moment and unpack it.

Day 5- Wrap up and Declarations

We wrap the course up and reflect on what we have learned about ourselves, our dreams, and our values. And then we stand up and make a powerful declaration about ourselves based on what we learned throughout the week together. This allows us to move forward into action to put feet to the ideas and revelations we have had during the DDQ Wild! event.

 

The DDQ Wild! event happens in many different locations from the jungles of Thailand to the high, snowy peaks of Tibet, but whatever the location you will find you get a chance to walk into your greater potential in a stunning natural environment.

 

For a detailed itinerary of the

September 29-October 3, 2017 DDQ Wild! event see here:

DDQ Wild! Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand

See testimonials here:

Reviews & Testimonials

 

The Laji Mountain Team Building Weekend

For expats and their kids, life in China can often be very strange while living with unfamiliar customs, traditions, and rhythms that are so different than those they are used to in their home country.

For this reason, many expat kids are often called TCK’s or Third Culture Kids. 

This term implies that these youth are not part of the culture of their birth country (because they do not live there and have grown up in a foreign country) and are not fully assimilated into the foreign country either (because no matter how much of the language they speak locally, they are still considered “outsiders” by the locals).

Thus these youth exist in a strange “purgatory” between worlds, striving to understand where their home and identity is.

In the city we live in in western China, there is a group of about 30 teenage youth who face such similar questions  in identity and belonging in living abroad.

On the weekend of June 16-18, Elevated Trips took these energetic youth out for a team building retreat  with a focus in creating unity among a group from as diverse nations as:  New Zealand, Germany, Switzerland, Holland, Korea, and America.

On Friday afternoon we took a bus from Xining to the mountains of LaJi Shan.  It was about a 1.5 hour drive and we stopped at a high pass along the road for pictures of prayer flags and views dropping dramatically 1000 meters into the below river valley.

As soon as we stopped all the teens piled out of their bus and were exploring the area and doing pull ups on the rafters of a local wooden terrace that provided great views to the green pastures below us. 

From the high energy and enthusiasm of these youth, I could  tell this was going be an exciting weekend with no small amount of laughter and activity.

After our stop at the pass, we loaded back into the vans and drove another 15 minutes to our trailhead.

We parked under two tall red rock pillars at 3,400 meters.  After unpacking our backpacks from the buses, we played a classic warm up game that is always good for getting the limbs moving after a long bus ride:  Run and Scream.  All 30 youth lined up facing me and when I said “Go” they all took off screaming.  The object was to run as far as possible using only one breath to produce the longest, loudest scream possible. Once their one scream ran out they stopped in their place.  Some of the kids made it almost 70 meters on one breath- an impressive distance for a lack of oxygen.  Then we played “ Kick the Shoe”.  Here the kids loosened their shoelaces and they competed to see which of them could flick their shoe the farthest while standing still on a starting line.  It was a blast to see all color and manner of shoes flying willy nilly across the Tibetan grasslands.  After almost getting hit by a flying shoe and seeing the nearby pika scatter into their holes, we measured the distance and declared a winner.

And that was the beginning of our weekend together.  From there we gathered our bags and circled up to talk briefly about the schedule and purpose of the weekend.

From the very start, a high level of functionality and performance  existed in the group.  These were kids who, among a land of unknowns and constant transition, held strongly together.  One of the students had just recently broken their collar bone and was unable to carry his 35 pound backpack to our campsite.  Without even asking for volunteers, people stepped forward to carry the contents of his bag so he could walk free without weight on his shoulders.  This level of self-sacrifice and helpfulness is often a landmark we work to reach at the very end of such a trip. Yet from the very beginning these tight knit youth were already demonstrating positive traits of selflessness and teamwork that go against the usual current often found in self-preserving, comfortable, entitled modern  teens.  The kids even pitched in to carry extra weight, including fire wood for a camp fire, extra water, and extra food.

It was about a 40 minute walk up to our campsite at 3,800 meters with full packs.  The kids handled the walk with ease.  As I needed to show the kids the campsite, I was at the head of the pack with kids and chaperones trailing behind all along the short walk up from the trailhead.

As soon as we arrived at camp, there were about 6 of us and we were all quite tired from the short trek at altitude.  I put my pack down and drank some water.  I expected the teens around me to do the same.  Instead, they threw their packs onto the grass and immediately turned around to help those who were slower on the hike.  I was very impressed by the initiative.  Again- I had not said a word and this was their own idea.

Within 15 minutes all the teens were shuttling packs back and forth from the bottom of the hike to the top.  Some of the teens made 3 or 4 trips up and down the mountain to help their more tired peers.  In this way, everyone got up relatively quickly and in high spirits.  It was amazing to see the level of action and performance in this rare group! It truly proved the African proverb, “Many hands make light work.”

We all rested a bit and set up our tents in  the high grassland.  Then we separated into cook groups and worked together to light the camp stoves and cook chili by our campsite.  I gave the safety briefing on how to properly use the stoves (and reminded them that if they spilled the food in the grass they still had to eat it) and the groups divided to separate areas of the site to cook up their well deserved dinner.  I often see cook groups and tent teams learn as much about leadership, teamwork, and potential through these activities as in any intentional team building game.  And this was no less true on this camping trip.  Putting up a tent together is a task that requires problem solving and communication, especially as many of the participants may never have slept in a tent before. Cooking together yields similar results.  With proper direction and modeling, allowing students to use stoves and prepare food in the backcountry teaches them new skills that they never thought were capable of.  Suddenly they have a greater level of confidence and  a greater awareness of their potential.  All because they boiled some water, made some chili, and created a “home”without any of the modern conveniences found in their own room or kitchen. I love seeing the lights come on as they figure out together how to get the tent fabric taut and perfectly rainproof or to see the joy of being able to eat something that they made themselves!

After dinner, we had a teaching on unity and then played 4-way capture the flag in the dark.

Although it was just a fun game where we were sneakily stealing shoe laces from the other teams, this was another subtle lesson in unity and each team worked together marvelously to accomplish their unified goal of getting the most points without being caught. 

In the morning the kids slowly arose from their tents to brisk, chilly air under an overcast sky.  We ate a breakfast of homemade banana bread.  Some of the more curious teens hiked 15 minutes up a nearby red rock cliff to get a better view of the surrounding 4,500 meter mountains.   Our campsite – nestled in the nook of a grassy knoll- looked directly across to sharp, craggy mountains and it made for a great view!  With the morning dew hanging about and the sun refusing to come out, I lit a small fire and used some of the wood we had brought up from the trailhead.  Immediately the youth huddled around the fire for warmth and somehow the S’mores came out and everyone started eating warm, gooey marshmallows and S’mores for breakfast.  I can’t say if this is recommended as part of a balanced diet, but it sure did help to warm up everyone’s bellies and brighten their spirits from the overcast weather.

With that, we had another teaching on unity and togetherness and then played a game to help us put the teaching into practice.  The game was called “Toxic Waste”  and involved working together to move a bucket full of “toxic waste” from the starting location to a “safe zone” about 50 meters away.  The trick was that the students had only a few long strings and a giant rubber band to do it with and they were not allowed to touch the the bottle or bucket at all.  If the toxic bottle inside the bucket touched the ground the whole team had to start over.  We divided the youth into 2 teams of 15 people each.  Each team was competing against the other to devise a clever way to move the bucket and bottle without touching the “harmful chemicals” or letting them drop. 

I have played this game many times with both adults and youth and the outcome and creative process is different every time.  But this was, hands down, the most exciting conclusion of the game I have ever seen.  After 1.5 hours of struggling and problem solving, both teams managed to lift and carry their toxic waste bucket within 1 meter of the finish line at the exact same time.  Both teams were rushing to beat the other team (and in a crowded workspace) to get their bucket to the safety zone.  In the madness of hurried competition both teams accidentally dropped their bottle just a few centimeters from the proper safe zone and had to start again.  My heart sank as I had to watch them return to the starting line after being so close.  But eventually they figured it out and there was a clear winner. 

After our heart-pounding team building adventure, we set off to summit a nearby mountain up to the 4,000 meter apex .  It was only another 40 minute hike to the top from the campsite, but it was a pretty steep walk up the side of the grassy ridge.  At times, it felt like we were walking up very steep attic steps as we stepped from one grassy clump to another grass clump at another level.  I was very proud of all the students.  Despite the fatigue at altitude, they all made it and did a great job encouraging each other up to the top.  At the top, we all had a lunch of pepperoni, cheese, and crackers and then we allowed the students to have some free time.  Some chose to walk back to camp and rest and some explored other aspects of the ridge and its surrounding peaks in the afternoon.

By the time we made it back to our camp, the skies had opened up and it had started raining.  It was now 5:00pm and I knew we had to get the water boiling to cook the pasta for dinner.  I asked for volunteers from each cook group who would not mind standing out in the cold rain to cook dinner.  I found several eager volunteers who were in high spirits despite the murky weather.  We all worked together and boiled about 5-6 pots of water and made the pasta and sauce while everyone else retreated back to their tent to get warm. 

Eventually the rain stopped for a few minutes and everyone was lured out of their warm tent by the prospect of hot food. We ate and cleaned the dishes quickly.  And then it started raining again.  Everything in camp was wet as the rain continued to pour down steadily all night long.  I had prepared other lessons and games for that night, but the weather dictated that I put my plans on hold.  I always say on these events that we hope and pray for good weather.  But God knows really what we need and He always gives it to us.  In this case, the rain actually thwarted my plans to teach but ended up sending everyone into their tents.  This turned out to be a real highlight for everyone in camp, because all the youth piled into their tents and played cards, told jokes, and laughed about the day.  Every tent was lit up with flashlights and produced a large amount of giggles and exhilarating stories.  I can only imagine that those kids will remember the good times they had that night tucked away in those cozy tents so much more than anything I would have said to them about unity.  Whereas I wanted to talk about living out of unity and respect, they were all living it as they huddled and whooped and chuckled in their tents.

The next morning, the rain stopped, but it was still quite damp and wet.  We played a team building game where each team had to see how many times it could consecutively hit a ball without dropping the ball or letting it touch the ground.  And then we packed up our soggy tents and put our sleeping bags in our backpacks.  Camp was all packed up slowly but surely. 

And we made a huge pile of all of our gear in the middle of the camp.  Next to the huge pile of gear was all the leftover food from the weekend.  It was a motley assortment; potato chips, brownies, whole carrots, crackers, pepperoni, cheese, Cheetos, fruit leathers, marshmallows and who knows what else.  But we told the kids that they had brought this stuff up the mountain and that their packs would be lighter on the way down if they ate it all.  And they got the message.  The group crowded around the pile of random leftovers and did what only a group of hungry, motivated teens can do in such a situation. They nearly finished everything that was left! 

With that, we swept the campsite for trash and food scraps, swung our backpacks on, and descended the mountain to the trailhead.

I had only completed about half of my planned teachings and activities due to the inclement weather.  But somehow along the way, the students had harmoniously lived out much more than just good concepts or ideas on unity.  They had, from the very beginning, shown an incredible aptitude for team work.  And I had a feeling these were lessons they would all remember and live out for a long time.  This was so much greater and more valuable than any text book knowledge or paper test they would ever take.  The difficult conditions had brought them together to really work as a unit and show care for each other.  And that, to me, made the weekend an incredible success.


Notice: Undefined variable: signup_slide in /home/elevatedtrips/web/elevatedtrips.com/public_html/wp-content/themes/cornerstone-child-theme-base/footer.php on line 93

Notice: Trying to get property of non-object in /home/elevatedtrips/web/elevatedtrips.com/public_html/wp-content/themes/cornerstone-child-theme-base/footer.php on line 93

Booking/ Enquiry Form

Please fill the form bellow with the details of the trip you are interested in. We are more than to happy to assist you in planning your trip.