Tag: retreat

The Silk Road of Zhangye Video

Amazing Kanbula Video

Maiji Shan

The Maijishan Grottoes (simplified Chinese麦积山pinyinMàijīshān Shíkū) are a series of 194 caves cut in the side of the hill of Maiji Shan in TianshuiGansu Province, northwest China.

This example of dramatic architecture contains over 7,800 Buddhist sculptures and over 1,000 square meters of murals. Construction began in the Later Qin era (384–417 CE).

The grottoes were first properly explored in 1952–53 by a team of Chinese archeologists from Beijing, who invented the scientific numbering system still in use today. Caves #1–50 are on the western cliff face; caves #51–191 on the eastern cliff face. These caves were later photographed by Michael Sullivan and Dominique Darbois, who subsequently published the primary English-language work on the caves noted in the footnotes below.

The name Maijishan consists of three Chinese words (麦积山) that literally translate as “Wheatstack Mountain”.  But because the term “mai” () is the generic term in Chinese used for most grains, one also sees such translations as “Corn Mound Mountain”. Mai means “grain”. Ji () means “stack” or “mound”. Shan () means “mountain”.

The mountain is formed from purplish red sandstone and the grottoes here are just one of many cave grottoes found throughout northwest China, lying more or less on the main trade routes connecting China and Central Asia.

Maijishan is located close to the east-west route that connects Xi’an with Lanzhou and eventually Dunhuang, as well as the route that veers off to the south that connects Xi’an with Chengdu in Sichuan and regions as far south as India. At this crossroads, several of the sculptures in Maijishan from around the 6th century appear to have Indian—and SE Asian—features that could have come north via these north-south routes. The earliest artistic influence came, however, from the northwest, through Central Asia along the Silk Road. Later, during the Song and Ming Dynasties, as the caves were renovated and repaired, the influences came from central and eastern China and the sculpture is more distinctly Chinese.

Cave shrines in China probably served two purposes: originally, before Buddhism came to China, they may have been used as local shrines to worship one’s ancestors or various nature deities. With the coming of Buddhism to China, however, influenced by the long tradition of cave shrines from India (such as Ajanta) and Central Asia (primarily Afghanistan), they became part of China’s religious architecture.

Buddhism in this part of China spread through the support of the Northern Liang, which was the last of the “Sixteen Kingdoms” that existed from 304–439 CE—a collection of numerous short-lived sovereign states in China. The Northern Liang was founded by Xiongnu “barbarians”. It was during their rule that cave shrines first appeared in Gansu, the two most famous sites being Tiantishan (“Celestial Ladder Mountain”) south of their capital at Yongcheng, and Wenshushan (“Manjusri’s Mountain” ), halfway between Yongcheng and Dunhuang. Maijishan was most likely started during this wave of religious enthusiasm.

An English-speaking guide charges ¥50 for up to a group of five. It may be possible to view normally closed caves (such as cave 133) for an extra fee of ¥500 per group.

The regular admission ticket includes entry to Ruìyìng Monastery (瑞应寺Ruìyìng Sì), at the base of the mountain, which acts as a small museum of selected statues. Across from the monastery is the start of a trail to a botanic garden (植物园zhíwùyuán), which allows for a short cut back to the entrance gate through the forest. If you don’t want to walk the 2km up the road from the ticket office to the cliff, ask for tickets for the sightseeing trolley (观光车guānguāng chē; ¥15) when buying your entrance ticket.

You can also climb Xiāngjí Shān (香积山). For the trailhead, head back towards the visitor centre where the sightseeing bus drops you off and look for a sign down a side road to the left.





Sometime between 420 and 422 CE, a monk by the name of Tanhung arrived at Maijishan and proceeded to build a small monastic community. One of the legends is that he had previously been living in Chang’an but had fled to Maijishan when the city was invaded by the Sung army. Within a few years he was joined by another senior monk, Xuangao, who brought 100 followers to the mountain. Both are recorded in a book entitled Memoirs of Eminent Monks; eventually their community grew to 300 members. Xuangao later moved to the court of the local king where he remained until its conquest by the Northern Wei, when he, together with all the other inhabitants of the court, were forced to migrate and settle in the Wei capital. He died in 444 during a period of Buddhist persecution. Tanhung also left Maijishan during this period and travelled south, to somewhere in Cochin China, when in approximately 455, he burned himself to death.

How the original community was organized or looked, we don’t know. “Nor is there any evidence to show whether the settlement they founded was destroyed and its members scattered in the suppression of 444 and the ensuring years, or whether it was saved by its remoteness to become a heaven of refuse, as was to happen on several later occasions in the history of Maijishan”.

The Northern Wei were good to Maijishan and the grottoes existence close to the Wei capital city of Luoyang and the main road west brought the site recognition and, most likely, support. The earliest dated inscription is from 502, and records the excavation of what is now identified as Cave 115. Other inscriptions record the continued expansion of the grottoes, as works were dedicated by those with the financial means to do so.

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:





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.



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.


Chiang Mai, Thailand


Get out of the heat and chaos of Bangkok (a city of 18 million people) and away from the crowds on the beaches and experience the more relaxed pace of life of Northern Thailand through true adventure.

Chiang Mai is a 13th-century ancient city of the Lanna Kingdom with over 700 years of history. This is a great place to experience the spiritual side of Thailand, with over 300 Buddhists temples in the city alone. Chiang Mai is a city of culture and tradition in transition. It has a distinct culture (of the Lanna Kingdom), with more temples than any other city in Thailand, and has a lot of historical sites including portions of an old city that are still intact. The inner city of Chiang Mai is a perfect square that is surrounded by an old dirt and brick wall twith a moat on all sides.

There are at least 10 different hill tribes in Northern Thailand, many of them divided into distinct subgroups. The tribes have sophisticated systems of customs, laws and beliefs, and are predominantly animists. They often have exquisitely colored costumes and dances, though many men and children now adopt Western clothes for everyday wear.

Elevated Trips offers an amazing tour of this northern Lanna Kingdom .  During this tour we will hike through the jungle to discover remote hill tribe villages.  We will also have the opportunity to spend time with these hill tribe hosts and guides to learn about their unique cultures and to sleep in a local homestay.

Come and experience this amazing landscape as the local people do organically – on foot and through the rivers that are the arteries of life and culture to this still wild land.


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.