Tag: trekking

Faces of Tibet Video

Jiuzhaigou National Park

Of the 9 total Tibetan villages located inside the park boundaries, 7 of these are still active.  Because the park is now a nationally protected treasure these villages no longer practice agriculture but most of these villagers make their money off tourism in the park.

Sometimes referred to as the “Yellowstone National Park of China” Jiuzhaigou is one of the most beautiful national parks in all of China.  But please be aware that in 2016 the park hosted  5.14 million visitors and most of these are Chinese nationals.  June, July, August, and October Holiday (October 1-8) is especially the tourist high season and you can expect to encounter large crowds and long lines at the park in these times. As an American I feel these crowds take away from the natural wonder of the park and would try to avoid visiting the park in peak season times if at all possible.

The fall foliage in September and October is spectacular in the park,  with dramatic leaf colors of yellow, orange, and red, and we recommend visiting Jiuzhaigou in the off season between September 1 to May 15.

After recovering from an August 2017 earthquake the park is restored and tourism is alive and active in this region.

If you are looking to view the blue lakes, dramatic waterfalls, and pristine forests of Jiuzahigou you can view a sample tour here that travels from Xining to Chengdu:

Jiuzhaigou tour.

You can also contact us anytime at:    info@elevatedtrips.com

 

The History of Jiuzhaigou

Jiuzhaigou is full of history and whimsy across its 9 villages and its breathtaking alpine lakes. According to legend, a goddess accidentally dropped a mirror and the mirror immediately broke into 108 pieces, forming 108 colorful lakes across the park’s ecosystem.  108 also happens to be a holy number in Tibetan Buddism as there are 108 teachings of Buddha and each Tibetan prayer rosary contains 108 beads to help practitioners remember these teachings. Each scenic spot here has it’s own unique legends and we recommend spending some time with a translator to hear some of these amazing stories from local villagers inside the park.

There are nine villages dispersed over the alpine lakes.
Here is one of the nine villages

 

The Culture of Jiuzhaigou

Despite the high number of tourists that visit this park, the total population of the Tibetan villages in Jiuzhai Valley remains only at 1,000, with just over 110 families. While the valley was officially discovered by the government in 1972, the record of earliest human activities here dates back to the Yin-Shang Dynasty, somewhere in the period of  the 16th – 11th Century B.C. Before the 1960s, Tibetans in Jiuzhaigou lived a fully self-sufficient life and were almost completely cut off from the outside world. Then in the 1970s, Chinese loggers discovered these rich forests and the park was soon throttled into the national spotlight as a mystical Shangri-La and a place of impressive wonder.

The nine Tibetan Villages
The nine Tibetan Villages

Most Tibetans in Jiuzhaigou mainly believe in the animistic religion that predates Buddhism known as Bon or Bonpo.   Bon bears some similarities to Tibetan Buddhism but also separates itself from Buddhism as an official religion.  Most notably, Bon followers will walk around a monastery or a holy pilgrimage counter-clockwise, unlike Buddhist pilgrims who will always circumambulate a holy site in a clockwise direction.  Much of Tibetan Buddism actually incorporated the teachings of the original Buddha with the animistic practices of Bon and

Jiuzhaigou is one of the few areas on the Tibetan Plateau where this native form of Shamanism is still regularly practiced.

There are over 60 Benbo monasteries in the Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture.

There are over 60 Bonbo monasteries in the Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture and Jiuzhaigou is right in the heart of this uniquely religious area.

With religion deeply planted at the center of every Tibetan life, do not be surprised to find Tibetans practicing worship in the form of lighting butter lamps or hanging colorful prayer flags in auspicious locations to appease local deities and spread good karma.  Tibetans will often make a pilgrimage to important spiritual locations in the mountains and rivers and will throw up small square white pieces of paper that in Tibetan are called Lungta.  Lungta literally translates to “wind horse” and it is thought that these paper horses carry the prayers of those who throw them as they float on the wind across the landscape.  If you see Tibetans spreading these lungta at holy sites you will also hear them cry, “Victory to the gods!” in Tibetan as they whoop and holler and celebrate these beautiful places. Part of the attraction of Jiuzhaigou is not only the beautiful scenery but the idea that this culture has remained so faithful to these teachings and practices for so many centuries.

 

The Benbo and Tibetan Buddhists worship and make sacrifices to natural Gods.
The Bonbo and Tibetan Buddhists worship and make sacrifices to spirits of the water and the land.

You may also find vertical prayer poles in Jiuzhaigou. These colorful banners are called “Geda” in Tibetan which means the banner on the gate. These banners draw from a Mizong tradition from the central plains of China and are often seen dotting  road to Jiuzhaigou as a symbol of peace and prosperity.

The banners, clad in the 5 colors of the earth, can vary in length from  7 meters to 25 meters depending on the particular intention of the banner.  Some of these banners are used as prayers for the yearly barley harvest while other banners are for instruction on the teachings of the Buddha Sakyamuni.  But all the banners contain prayers which are thought to release prayers into the wind for the benefit of villagers who hoist them across the park .

 

It is a kind of reciting scriptures when the religious banners are affected by wind.

Another popular spiritual symbol you will find throughout the park is the Tibetan prayer wheel. Prayer wheels can be seen everywhere within the region. Some of these wheels are turned by water features like flowing rivers while others are turned by wind and still others (large and small alike) are turned by human hands.  These wheels contain many small pieces of paper containing scriptures and it is thought that by spinning the wheels prayers of compassion are released for all sentient beings.

The Customs of Jiuzhaigou

About five hundred years ago, the father of Jiuzhaigou migrated to here from Ngari, Tibet. Since that time until now, the Tibetan villagers have coexisted peacefully next to many diverse peoples including the local Qiang, Huis and Hans. Today, the original  Tibetan traditions are still a major part of village daily life, including  traditions in marriage, funeral arrangements, and clothing, and dance.   Seeing the colors and rhythms of  a Tibetan circle dance is definitely one of the highlights of the visit to Jiuzhaigou.

 

Lively Tap Dance
A Colorful Tibetan dance in a local square

Butter tea
Yak butter tea

Tibetans also still consume traditional  foods in Jiuzhaigou.  In particular you may get to sample some yak meat or freshly roasted lamb meat along with Tsampa, a powder made from barley flour and rolled into a playdough like ball and usually eaten for breakfast.  You may also get to sample homemade Tibetan barley wine, know as Qiang, or fresh yak yoghurt depending on the season.

We hope you enjoy your visit to Jiuzhaigou National Park!

The Silk Road of Zhangye Video

Amazing Kanbula Video

Prayers in the Plateau with VSA Hong Kong

Outdoor Classroom Team building 户外团队建设课程

Each activity is followed by a “debriefing,” in which the group discusses such topics such as communication, trust, leadership, peer pressure, unity, responsibility, and accountability. Team building exercises offer students a new awareness of their own personal capabilities, allowing them to grow beyond their accepted role in the group and encouraging self confidence and a genuine concern for the well being of others.

每项活动之后都有一个“汇报”问题,其中小组讨论诸如沟通、信任、领导能力、同伴压力、团结、责任等主题。团队建设活动使学员对自己的个人能力有了新的认识,使他们能够超越自己在团队中的角色,并鼓励自信和真正关心他人的福祉。

 

Group Challenges 团体挑战

This is the core of our team building curriculum. Students work through a series of problem-solving tasks designed to develop teamwork, decision-making, and creative problem-solving. The challenge may be a physical one, like working together to set up a tent, persevering to hike a mountain, or getting their whole group through a rope “spider web” without touching the web. The challenges also have a mental challenge, like figuring out how to move a bucket filled with tennis balls with limited tools and numerous restrictions. The lessons promote individual self-esteem and leadership skills through supportive, positive encouragement

这是我们团队建设课程的核心。学生通过一系列的问题解决任务,在发展团队合作,决策,和创造性的问题的解决。挑战的可能是物质层面的,比如一起搭帐篷、坚持爬山,或者是让他们的整个团队通过绳子“蜘蛛网”而不接触网络。这些挑战也有一个心理挑战,比如如何用有限的工具和众多的限制来移动装满网球的水桶。这些课程可以通过支持、积极的鼓励促进个人自尊和领导技能。

 

Elevated Experience

Don’t just go and take a photo to impress your friends on Wechat.
We want you to come back from our trips with more than just pretty pictures. Elevated Trips wants our participants to be changed on the inside with broader minds, that are educated and enlightened. We don’t settle for riding a bus in a group tour and stopping at the touristy, commercialize sites.
Our tours and treks are culturally immersive and full of wonder and life and even delightful spontaneous moments that can’t be squarely placed in a brochure. By immersing yourself in culture you begin to admire it in a new way that you can not as a mere spectator.
We get off the beaten path where few foreigners have ever roamed.
If you want to the see the world through the window of an air conditioned tour bus, Elevated trips is not for you. If you want to experience life through the eyes of a Tibetan living on the roof of the world, we will take you there in a way no one else can. Elevated trips. . . live it, don’t just see it.

不仅只是为了在微信上给你的朋友留下好印象而去拍一张照片。我们希望你能带着的不仅仅是漂亮的照片从我们的旅行回来。Elevated Trips希望我们的参与者能从更广阔的视野去改变自己,那就是受教育和得到觉悟。我们不满足于在旅行团中乘坐巴士,在旅游和商业化的景点停留。
我们的徒步旅行是文化体验式的,充满了惊奇和生命力,甚至是令人愉快的自然而然的时刻,这些都不能被直接地放在一本小册子中。是让自己沉浸在文化中,你会开始以一种新的方式欣赏它,而不是仅仅是一个旁观者。
我们走过了外国人很少出没的偏僻之路。如果你想通过有空调的旅游巴士的窗口看世界,高架旅行就不适合你。如果你想通过生活在世界屋脊上的藏人的眼睛来体验生活,我们将以其他人无法企及的方式把你带到那里。Elevated Trips的旅行是融入生活,而非作为旁观者。

 

How do I schedule a team building event?

Elevated Trips offers several options for team building.
We offer a one day team building training where we leave for the mountains in the morning and then return by dinner time. We also offer a complete team building weekend package where we sleep 2 nights in a mountain lodge and have time for relaxation and a retreat from the big city.
Please see our website for more details:
https://www.elevatedtrips.com/tour_type/team-building-leadership/

We would love to tailor make your itinerary to suit your company needs.

Elevated Trips的团队建设有以下这些选项。
我们提供一天的团队建设培训,我们早上出发到目的地进行团建活动,傍晚回来。我们也提供一个完整的团队建设周末包,我们睡在一个山间小屋,有时间放松和从大城市撤退两个晚上。
详情请参阅我们的网站:

Team Building 高绩效团队建设

 

我们很乐意为您量身订做行程,以配合贵公司的需要。
联系方式:

 

Contact us

Ben Cubbage
info@elevatedtrips.com
+86 13734685336

The British School of Nanjing, Qinghai and Gansu Trip Video

Bingling Temple

With a 1.5 hour drive from Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu, this is a very accessible day trip from Lanzhou.  You could also do this trip as a larger itinerary that continues onto Labrang monastery or Hezuo and Langmusi  as well which are in southern Gansu Province.

The Bingling Caves were a work in progress for more than a millennium. The first grotto was begun around 420 AD at the end of the Western Qin kingdom. Work continued and more grottoes were added during the WeiSuiTangSongYuanMing, and Qing dynasties. The style of each grotto can easily be connected to the typical artwork from its corresponding dynasty. The Bingling Temple is both stylistically and geographically a midpoint between the monumental Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan and the Buddhist Grottoes of central China, such as the Yungang Grottoes near Datong and Longmen Grottoes near Luoyang.

Sadly, over the centuries, earthquakes, erosion, and looters have damaged or destroyed many of the caves and the artistic treasures within. Altogether there are 183 caves, 694 stone statues, and 82 clay sculptures that remain. The relief sculpture and caves filled with buddhas and frescoes line the northern side of the canyon for about 200 meters along the reservoir. Each cave is like a miniature temple filled with Buddhist imagery. These caves culminate at a large natural cavern where wooden walkways precariously wind up the rock face to hidden cliff-side caves as if visiting an ancient civilizaiton. It is here at the top of these steps that you can view the giant Maitreya  or Future Buddha that stands more than 27 meters, or almost 100 feet tall.This 100 foot tall Buddha is the main attraction to visit Bingling Temple and is certainly worth the trip from Lazhou.  As you loop around past the Maitreya cave, you might consider hiking 2.5km further up the impressive canyon to a small remote Tibetan monastery. If you do this extra hike, be aware than there may also be 4Wheel drive ATV’s There might also be 4WDs running the route.

The sculptures, carvings, and frescoes that remain are outstanding examples of Buddhist artwork and draw visitors from around the world. The site is extremely remote and can only be reached during summer and fall by boat via the Liujiaxia Reservoir. Boats leave from near the Liujiaxia Dam in Liujiaxia City (Yongjing County’s county seat), and sometimes also from other docks on the reservoir. The rest of the year, the site is inaccessible, as there are very few  roads in the area because of the rocky landscape.

You can hire a covered speedboat (which seats 9 people in total) for 700 RMB per boat for the one-hour drive across the Liujiaxia Resevoir. Boats do not run unless the boat is full of the required 9 people, so you may have to wait for other guests or you may have to pay the difference to cover the empty seats. In the peak seasons from May to October it should be no problem to find other willing Chinese tourists who will want to share the boat with you. In low season, though, you may have to wait 30 minutes or more for your boat to fill up.

From Liujiaxia you can also hire a private car for around 300 RMB to take you to the other side of the reservoir, although most people opt for the boat since this gives a very nice view of the cliffs from the expansive reservoir. Out of Liújiāxiá, the road ascends the rugged hills of southern Gansu and winds above the reservoir.  While the drive is quite scenic, if you are prone to motion sickness this is not the option for you as the drive is about 1.5 hours and twists and turns through terraced fields. The final descent to the turquoise reservoir, with its craggy canyon backdrop, is well worth the trip.

You can also opt to stay overnight in Liújiāxiá if you want the overnight experience. Most people do Bingling Si as a full day trip, but the Dorsett Hotel at the north end of town is a good option with huge rooms overlooking the Yellow River.

Most people hire a private car from Lanzhou, but if you are feeling more adventurous (and have some extra free time) you can take one of the frequent buses from Lanzhou’s west bus station that cost 20 RMB and take 2.5 hours to get to the Liújiāxiá bus station. From there, you will need to take a 10-minute taxi ( to the boat ticket office at the dam (大坝; dàbà). Try to catch the earliest buses possible from Lánzhōu (these start at 7am) to avoid missing the bus on the way back to Lanzhou. The last returning bus to Lánzhōu leaves Liujiaxia at 6.30pm at night.

Dunhuang

According to legend, in 366 AD a monk named Yuezun had a vision of a thousand radiant Buddhas on the cliff face. This powerful vision inspired him to begin excavating the caves. From the 4th to the 14th century, hundreds of caves were then hand carved out of the rock cliff face containing scriptures, statues, and vibrant Buddhist paintings.Today almost 500 caves remain and there are more than a thousand painted and sculpted Buddhas within the caves which contain the world’s largest collection of Buddhist art.

Excavated into a mile of cliff face outside Dunhuang, an oasis town at the edge of the Gobi Desert, the site’s Chinese name Mogao Ku means “peerless caves.” Indeed, these caves are “peerless” and are one of the largest and best preserved artifacts in all of Asia. The decorated caves’ walls and ceilings, have a total area of 500,000 square feet and are covered by elaborate paintings depicting stories of the Buddha, Buddhist sutras, portraits of cave donors, ornamental designs, and scenes of social and commercial life. The caves also contain more than 2,000 brightly colored clay sculptures of the Buddha and other important Buddhist scholars, the largest sculpture being over 100 feet tall.

The settlement of Dunhuang was one of the first places where Buddhism entered China, through a steady stream of meditation, monks, and merchants who moved north and east from India along the Silk Road. As a major stop on the Silk Road, Dunhuang was a crossroads of Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, and even Christian thought.  Although this is an area of specifically Buddhist worship, the art and objects found at Mogao reflect the meeting of cultures along the Silk Road, the collection of trade routes that for centuries linked China, Central Asia, and Europe. Discovered at the site were Confucian, Daoist, and Christian texts, and documents in multiple languages including Chinese, Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Old Turkish. Even Hebrew manuscripts were found there.

After the 15th Century, the caves lay forgotten and were buried by the sand of the Gobi Desert for many centuries until they were rediscovered by a monk. In the 1890s a Daoist monk named Wang Yuanlu appointed himself guardian of the caves. In 1900 he discovered a cache of manuscripts, long hidden in a small sealed up cave, coming upon one of the great collections of documents in history. Despite their great age, the sculptures and wall paintings in the Dunhuang caves remain remarkably well preserved, thanks in part to the dry desert climate and their remote location.

As more and more archeologists investigated the cave over 50,000 ancient documents were found there. The Library Cave (Cave 17), which was unsealed by Wang Yuanlu, contained nearly 50,000 ancient manuscripts, silk banners and paintings, fine silk embroideries and other rare textiles dating from before the early 1000s, when this cave and all its contents were concealed for reasons still unknown. Shortly after this discovery, many of the objects from the cave were acquired at the site by explorers and archaeologists from the West and Japan.The materials found in the Library Cave offer a vivid picture of life in medieval China. Accounting ledgers, contracts, medical texts, dictionaries, and even descriptions of music, dance, and games were among the finds.

Many of the objects found in the Library Cave can actually be viewed online now. Museums and libraries across Europe and Asia with objects from the Library Cave in their collections have digitized them and made them searchable for free via the International Dunhuang Project, based at the British Library.

The Buddha himself meditated in caves before achieving Enlightenment, and sacred cave sites are found throughout the Buddhist world, including in Thailand, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka. India is home to some 1,200 cave-temple sites, China 250. The Mogao site at Dunhuang is the largest of these.

Top Ten things that a foreigner should know when visiting Tibet

Top 10 things that a foreigner should know when visiting Tibet

1.)   Pointing your feet

Never point your feet towards a monk or a Buddha ( or even a picture of any holy Buddha). If you are sleeping in a Tibetan home, make sure you identify any sacred paintings, statues,  or pictures of monks and avoid pointing your feet in their direction.  If you happen to sleep in a room full of Buddhist idols, sleep with  your head towards the idols and with your feet away from them. Feet are considered a dirty or unholy part of the body and it is disrespectful to point the bottoms of your feet at people – even if it is not on purpose. If you are invited into a Tibetan tent or home, sit cross-legged and try not to point your feet at anyone in the room or at any pictures that hold a religious significance.

Also- Do not point your feet towards someone’s head or walk over people when sitting down.  It is better to walk around them (or for that matter food, tea, or anything else on the ground)  because walking OVER someone or something is extremely disrespectful. In addition, remember that anything associated with your feet (socks, shoes, slippers) needs to be kept low and on the ground.  Please do not hang your wet socks from a stove after a day of trekking and always keep your shoes on the ground. 

 

2.) Avoid touching heads

Never touch a stranger’s head or hat. Just as the feet are considered dirty, the head is considered a holy part of the human body.  So if you see a cute Tibetan kid, please avoid rubbing their head.  It is especially important to show respect to those older than you and make sure you bow before them and try to lower your posture so that you are not looming over their head.

3.)  Watch your behind!

Every part of the Tibetan home has its own history and tradition. For instance, the stove is considered to have its own special spirits that rule over the hearth and the fire.  In light of this belief, never put your bottom on a table or stove. These are not places to sit.   As with most cultures, the behind is considered an unholy part of the body and you do not want to place it on objects that have sacred significance.   When you sit, do not sit with your butt pointed at someone.

4.) Public Displays of Affection

Tibetans are very shy about talking about anything sexual or romantic in public.  In fact, even in these modern times of the internet, Tibetan girls usually do not walk next to or near Tibetan boys.  Genders tend to stay separated and do not appear exclusively in public together. Knowing that Tibetans are very modest and sensitive about public displays of affection, if you are a couple traveling in Tibet, please refrain from kissing or hugging romantically in public.  This is especially true while in a Tibetan village or in a monastery or in front of relatives or parents. Of course, parents can kiss and hug kids and that is socially acceptable.  

5.) Treat the waters kindly

Never pee in a local water source or wash dishes or clothes directly in a river or in a lake because someone will need to drink that water downstream. Tibetans also believe in water spirits called “naga” and they are particularly sensitive about treating the water well so as not to offend these beings. 

6.) Always face people of high ranks

It is Tibetan custom that when you are saying goodbye or leaving the room with a highly ranked lama that as you walk out of the room, you remain in eye contact with that person and do not turn your back on them. When you walk out of the room, back out of the room and do not turn your back to the the lama or teacher.  You must back out the room with your front continually facing the lama.  Never put your back towards an older person or a high monk as this is considered to be a social faux pas and a sign of disrespect. 

7.) Please be modest

Consider that many Tibetan men – and especially monks- have never met or seen a western women. Also consider the fact that most monks have taken a vow of celibacy and purity in their devotion to Buddha.  Therefore, women and men both need to wear long pants in monastery.  Women should not wear tops with spaghetti straps or revealing clothing like mini skirts or tights.  In general, dress respectively and modestly in Tibetan areas as this is the local custom.  

8.) Respect life

Never kill any animals in holy lakes or mountains.  This includes bugs and mosquitoes.  Tibetans consider all life sacred and it is a great sin in Tibetan culture to take even the smallest life.  After all, based on the teachings of reincarnation, Tibetans believe that any given animal could actually be the reincarnation of your great grandmother who has already passed away.

9.)Point with an open hand

Do not point with one finger towards a person or a Thangka painting.  This is considered rude.  Instead use your whole hand (with all your fingers outstretched in an open palm) to point.  Many Tibetan nomads point with their lips so if you are asking for directions and you see them point somewhere with their lips that is the direction they want you to go.

10.) Eat only out of individual bowls

Tibetan chefs do not taste food out of the large pot they are using to cook for a group. Do not eat from the communal pot because if you do sot you may share diseases. Unless you are clearly invited to do so, do not use your chopsticks to reach into a communal pot. Instead focus on eating the food that is served to you in your own individual bowl or plate. 

 

Hopefully these little tips will help you have an excellent experience with your Tibetan hosts!

What exactly is team building?

Group Challenges 

This is the core of our team building curriculum. Participants work through a series of problem-solving tasks designed to develop teamwork, decision-making, and creative problem-solving. The challenge may be a physical one, like working together to set up a tent, persevering to hike a mountain,  or getting their whole group through a rope “spider web” without touching the web.  The challenges also have a mental challenge, like figuring out how to move a bucket filled with tennis balls with limited tools and numerous restrictions. The lessons promote individual self-esteem and leadership skills through supportive, positive encouragement

Elevated Experience

Don’t just go and take a photo to impress your friends on Wechat or Instagram.
We want you to come back from our trips with more than just pretty pictures. Elevated Trips wants our participants to be changed on the inside with broader minds, that are educated and enlightened. We don’t settle for riding a bus in a group tour and stopping at the  touristy, commercialize sites.

Our tours and treks are culturally immersive and full of wonder and life and even delightful  spontaneous moments that can’t be squarely placed in a brochure.  By immersing yourself in culture you begin to admire it in a new way that you can not as a mere spectator.

We get off the beaten path where few foreigners have ever roamed.
If you want to the see the world through the window of an air conditioned tour bus,  Elevated trips is not for you.  If you want to experience life through the eyes of a Tibetan living on the roof of the world, we will take you there in a way no one else can. Elevated trips. . . live it, don’t just see it.

How do I schedule a team building event?

Elevated Trips offers several options for team building.

We offer a one day team building training where we leave for the mountains in the morning and then return by dinner time.  We also offer a complete team building weekend package where we sleep 2 nights in a mountain lodge and have time for relaxation and a retreat from the big city.

Please see our website for more details:

https://www.elevatedtrips.com/tour_type/team-building-leadership/

We would love to tailor make your itinerary to suit your company needs.

Contact us

Ben Cubbage

info@elevatedtrips.com

+86 19917324924

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.

 

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:

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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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.

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!

Exploring Wild Qinghai

 

Most people have never heard of Qinghai Province.  Located on the northeastern corner of the Tibetan Plateau and with a total population of only 5.6 million people, Qinghai is a wide open, high altitude land of nomads and snow leopards, Tibetan cowboys and wild yaks.  Qinghai also holds a wide array of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and mosques to dazzle the eye.  Despite its relatively small population, this is a massive land area with 722,000 square kilometers in total area, making it bigger than the individual countries of France, Afghanistan, Thailand, or the whole of the United Kingdom.

Qinghai Province is the source of China’s two largest rivers, the Yangtze River and the Yellow River.  This unique Montana-like Plateau offers towering mountains, red rock canyons, and is full of meandering rivers and alpine lakes.

Want to know where to travel in Qinghai?

Check out our trip locations all over wild Qinghai:

Rebkong

Dawu

Xinghai

Maduo

Yushu

 

This is definitely the place to get off the map and experience #AdventureTravel at its finest!

 

This Chinese Grandma is Blowing Everyone’s Mind!

Watch Ms. Qi in action in Chinese!

 

Why do the elderly in China have to look after grandchildren all day and do housework? We should be free to live our own lives,” Qi told Pear Video.

By 2050, it’s predicted that a quarter of China’s population will be 65 or older. This statistic  was at 9.7% in 2013, according to the data company Statista.  As of January 1, 2016, all Chinese couples are allowed to have two children and the 35 year old one-child policy was dropped. The predicted decline in the number of people of working age is thought to have persuaded the Communist Party to drop the one-child policy in 2016.

Longer life expectancies, economic reform, and a low birth rate mean China is now facing an ageing population crisis.  As China is faced with an increasing elderly population, many wonder what China will do to cope with and care for this quickly growing population segment. “Filial piety”, a concept taught by Confucius showing the value of respect towards parents, elders and ancestors, is an important value in Chinese society and culture.  This is so ingrained in Chinese thought that most elderly in China live with their children in their old age.

But one women, Ms. Qi, is redefining how society thinks and feels about its older population.  Ms. Qi is showing the world that getting old doesn’t mean the end of fun or a high quality of life.

This 73-year-old retired teacher in China is breaking the stereotypes that are about what old people usually do after they retire. Instead of embracing a traditional easy retirement, Ms. Qi has chosen a life of adventure as she backpacks around the world and has won millions of fans on Chinese social media.

Ms. Qi says in her Pear Video interview that she has been traveling all her life, visiting countries in Europe, North America and Asia.

Pear Video followed her as she embarked on her latest trip to Quanzhou in China’s southwest Fujian Province. She stays in a dormitory in the video, and says she saves money by travelling with students and sharing journey costs. This 3 minute video has gone viral and, consequently, has ignited much online debate about the traditional idea that China’s elderly should move in with their children and spend the rest of their lives taking care of grandchildren.

Ms. Qi says that meeting young people is one of the most important things about her travels and then commented, “I talk with them and they have lots of fresh things to say”.

Her mother is still alive, and Ms. Qi says she video-calls her 92-year-old grandmother every day to let her know how she is. Qi also often posts pictures on social media for her children and grandchildren.

“I have a public account,” she says about her blog, “And I’ve had it for about 5 months. I write everything: my memories, my inspirations – a diary of memories for my children and grandchildren.” For Qi, this is a way to capture her memories and preserve them for future generations.

In China, old people are expected to depend on the younger generation for their care and upkeep. Ms Qi has shown a very different way of living than her peers.  Because of her unconventional life and her intrepid adventures, her video has been seen by millions of people. She has become an inspirational and positive person to talk about and has made many start to reconsider their own conventions and ideals! Online bloggers and the younger generation are seeing Ms Qi as a new role model for old age.

“I hope I can be like her when I’m old,” says one of her devoted followers.

Another follower said it like this: “There are not enough people like this: today’s elderly seem to think that they can’t be the same as when they were young.”

No matter how you say it, this Grandma has got some get up and go and we are cheering for her in her awesome travels!

 

Seven Incredible Days in Ladakh!

 

Ladakh ( known as the “Land of High Passes”) is a region in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir that currently extends from the Kunlun Mountain range to the Great Himalayas in the south. Ladakh is inhabited by people of Indo-Aryan and Tibetan descent and is one of the most sparsely populated regions in all of India because of its high altitude and extreme weather.   The culture and history of this ancient land are closely related to that of Tibet. While the Ladakhi language is different from Tibetan, about 60% of the language can be mutually understood by both Tibetans and Ladakhis.

Ladakh is renowned for its remote mountain beauty and historic culture. Ladakh is the highest settlement in India and as such the population of this expansive land is a meager 274,289.  Among this population there is a mixture of many different ethnic groups, predominantly Tibetans, Monpas, Dards and Muslims. In 1979, the Ladakh District was divided into the Leh District (mostly occupied by Tibetan Buddhists) and the Kargil District (mostly occupied by Shi’a Muslims).

Life in Ladakh is mainly characterized by rhythms of spirituality because the native people have been devoutly faithful to its ancestral customs and traditions.  Life here is simple and relatively untouched by the fast pace of technology and development that is so endemic across the rest of India.  In the winter, hot water is hard to come by, and any running water at all (including flushing toilets or running faucets) is even harder to find.  Leh, the capital of Ladakh, just got its first major provider of high speed internet in 2018 and most homes in the region still use wood and dung stoves for heat.  The architecture in Ladakh exhibits strong influences from Tibet and India and many homes and structures are made from a simple construction of rammed earth and sticks.

The culture of Ladakh is mystical and is quite similar to Tibetan culture. The most popular cuisines of Ladakh, mostly of Tibetan origin, are Thukpa (noodle soup), Momo (meat or potato dumplings) and Tsamba (Barley flour porridge) . Religious mask dances play an important part of Ladakh’s cultural life and religious ceremonies. The traditional music of Ladakh includes the folk instruments like the Surna and the Daman (a type of shenai and a drum).

Ladakh is a highly charged spiritual center and I was most excited to unearth its secrets in my 7 days of travel. This was to be the 10th wedding anniversary celebration for my wife and I. We started our marriage thru-hiking 2,650 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada in 2008. Now, 10 years later, we felt that Ladakh was the perfect place to represent the life we have lived together since that time on the Tibetan Plateau. This was both a shared adventure for our family and a new experience for all of us to enjoy the culture and grandeur of an ancient land.

And so we felt the electricity of excitement wash over us as we landed in the Leh airport as our necks craned furiously this way and that to try to take in all the glory of Leh’s majestic mountains…

 

Day 1

As our plane touched down in Leh IXL airport we were immediately surrounded by gnarly mountains.  The tallest of these mountains just around 30km from town is 6,150 meters / 20,177 feet. I had read that the only way to access Leh in the winter time is by airplane.  It is literally closed off to the rest of the world by road because the high passes are too icy and too high to be crossed safely in the winter.  During the summer months there are many Indian tourists who drive over the pass from Srinagar but in these lonely winters the whole town shuts down and 97% of all hotels and business close their doors.  The entire industry of Leh is focused either on a very short burst of tourism in the mild summers OR a large contingent of Indian military bases who work year round to protect the well guarded border with Pakistan. Looking at these snowy 5000 meter/ 16,400 feet jagged mountains that surround the town I could see why nobody was coming in or going out on the roads. This is a desolate, isolated place.

The flight attendant announced that the air temperature is -7 Celsius outside. While that is certainly in the range of cold, below-freezing weather, I was still surprised.  The travel agency that was hosting us had told us it could get down to -25 Celsius during the day so I was prepared for something quite Siberian (it turns out that it did later actually get that cold on the high passes outside of town). We had to get off the airplane and get onto a bus that drove us to the airport arrivals building.  I stepped outside with no jacket and instantly felt the rush of the mountain wind. We crammed into an old 1980’s jalopy bus and it rattled across the tarmac with several Indian travelers standing up in the aisle. We were almost certainly the only white people in the whole military-style rickety bus. I was surrounded by huge men with whispy mustaches.  These men had a  hardiness- something that speaks of legend and bravery- of life in the Himalayas.

As we walked into the tiny airport in Leh (which literally had one door to get in the airport and only a solitary gate where all the flights board) it at first felt familiar because it was decorated with red paint and the colorful treasure vases and gems of Tibetan Buddhism.  I had seen this type of decor a 1000 times on the other side of the Himalayas in Tibet.  The columns all resembled those of a Tibetan monastery with the eternal knot and other Tibetan religious icons swirling around the pillars.  In fact, it felt more like a small countryside monastery or a home then it did an airport. Except for the singular turning luggage carousel this could have been a well furnished restaurant (except there was no food to purchase here and the whole space was freezing). The tall, steel, restaurant-style space heaters that you see on an outside patio at in upscale Italian bistro- these were scattered around the inside of the airport and passengers wearing all their winter jackets were all bundled around them like campers around a bonfire.  I had never before seen an airport that was so cold that you needed space heaters to keep from freezing as you picked up your luggage from baggage claim.

My wife took the luggage off the carousel amidst the disorganization of everyone trying to get their luggage at once.  Meanwhile, I headed about 50 feet over to the exit hall where there were luggage carts strewn about willy-nilly.  As my hands gripped the metal bar of the cart I was shocked.  This was probably the coldest metal I had ever touched in my life and we were still inside the airport.

My wife and I placed our luggage on the chilly cart and as we did we tuned into the repeating loud speaker announcement that was continually saying that we needed to rest for our first 24 hours because of the severe altitude. We were certainly happy for that advice as we had woke up at 4:00am to catch  our 6:40am flight from New Delhi DEL to Leh IXL.  We wanted nothing more than to hit a comfy bed and curl up for a long winter’s nap.

Rinchen, owner of Atisha Travels, recognized me as I filled out my arrival form (compulsory for all foreigners) and patted me on the shoulder with a warm welcome.  I had not even left the baggage  claim area and somehow my tour organizer was standing next to me.  I guess in a small town of 30,000 people a guy like this knows everyone and can just stroll through security to pick up his guests.  I was also a little taken aback by the fact that he immediately knew my face even though we had never met before.  I guess there were not too many other foreign faces in the crowd so it was an easy process of elimination.

We hopped into the white Toyota Innova van that would be our faithful mountain companion for the next 7 days.  This is apparently the nicest vehicle you can buy in all of Ladakh and is the standard for most private foreign tourist groups.  In America, it would be a mid-end family mini van.  But here among the clunky army trucks and the Indian Tata tractor trailers this is seen as a luxury vehicle. The Toyota Innova is the Mercedes of Ladakh.

Because the town is so small we drove 20 minutes and we had already passed the airport area military bases, downtown Leh, and were now on the opposite side of town.  We arrived at a little alley way with a modest metal signed painted with the words “Shanti Guesthouse”. We walked through an outside stone-walled corridor and were in the lobby of one of the only places that were still open in the winter.  While almost every other hotel and tour operator had packed their bags to vacation on the warm beaches of Goa, Southern India, Nicky and her crew at the Shanti Guesthouse stuck around to brave the brutal winters and host Indian and foreign tourists who were preparing to walk on the frozen Zanskar River.  This is an epic 100km walk over a frozen ice sheet that takes around 10 days to complete.  This trek is known globally as the Chadar Trek and the small amount of tourists permitted to walk this savagely cold river represent most of the groups coming through in the dead of winter in January and February.   This means that Shanti Guesthouse with its 30 rooms was fully booked out every single night while we were there. Much of the only other accommodation available was in local Homestays (which are much more rustic than this official hotel).

We arrived at the Guesthouse at 9am.  It was still early but we all felt totally bushed.  They let us partake of their amazing Indian buffet breakfast and then let us take a mid-morning nap in an unoccupied hotel room while they prepared our room.
Our whole family snuggled under a giant fluffy white duvet and had an amazing sleep.

In the afternoon we drove to the downtown area and had Tibetan momos and Thukpa noodle soup in one of the few restaurants still open in the winter.  Then we took a short drive 10 minutes above town to Shanti Stupa (there is also a series of about 400 steps you can walk up from the bottom of the Guesthouse but we opted for the car ride as we had our kids with us). The Shanti Stupa was a gift from Japan and has an amazing overlook into the nearby mountains. I was eager to photograph the surrounding mountains and this was the perfect place to jump into shooting some of the most incredible panoramas.

We returned to the guesthouse in the mid afternoon and after a nice buffet dinner at the Shanti Guesthouse, our family headed in for an early night. Everything was exhausting.  I felt like I had to take a nap every time I walked up the 12 marble steps to our second floor guest room.  Everything I did at that altitude took the breath out of my lungs and left me gasping for air.  Even bending over to tie my shoes got me out of breath and this simple task took about 5 minutes to complete because I had to take a break a few times. I felt like a 85 year old man who had been smoking his whole life. Yet I had never smoked and was in relatively good shape and I was only 36 years old.

Like many first nights at altitude, I did not sleep well.  That first night in Leh, I was laying in bed for 12 hours but only 7 hours of that time allowed me much sleep. At one point I woke up and was terrifically thirsty for water because of the severe dry climate.  I wanted to listen to an audiobook and drink some water to bide the long uncomfortable night, but it took an hour for me to lean over and grab my headphones and my water bottle because I was in such a daze. I was neither awake nor asleep, my head throbbed and I felt like I was in some form of foggy sleep purgatory. I can only imagine how the mountaineers on Mount Everest feel at the top.  They must be very disoriented and confused in both their waking and fitful sleeping.

The only actual activity we managed this first day was a brief 15 minute car ride up to the Shanti Stupa and a 200 meter stroll around downtown.  Yet that minimal amount of activity had thoroughly worn us out in our first 8 hours at 3,500 meters/ 11,483 feet. Based on this experience, I highly recommend doing nothing in your first 24 hours in Leh.

The lady on the airport intercom was absolutely right!

Day 2

We had a late morning and ate breakfast at 9am.  We met Tenzin, our driver and guide for the week, at 10am and took off to the Leh Palace. Then we drove through the downtown area of Leh and up a winding overlook sitting above Leh.  It was only a 15 minute drive and suddenly we were climbing the steps up into the dark, mud-daubed halls of Ladakh’s iconic Leh Palace.  Ladakh is well known for tall medieval-looking imposing palaces sitting high up on vertical, lofty cliffs.  I was eager to see and photograph these extremely picturesque fortresses hovering above the valleys like untouchable sentinels. But I was surprised to see that such a Palace was just right above the town of Leh.  We were right over the town and the view was incredible!  And, best of all, we had the whole palace to ourselves in the winter low season.

Leh Palace is one of the most important historical monuments of the Ladakh region. Modeled on the Potala Palace of Lhasa in Tibet, this 9-story royal palace was built by King Sengge Namgyal in the 17th century. But later in the 19th century, the royal Ladakhi family abandoned the palace when the Dogra kingdom took control over the Ladakh region. The design and architecture of the palace is similar to the Potala Palace and it resembles the fine Tibetan architectural style with high sloping walls that slope inward at a precise 85 degree angle thrusting upward into the sky like a series of chimneys from a Charles Dickens novel. The dark, relatively unlit interior of the palace is decorated with beautiful motifs and murals and remains rather primitive and rustic.  Walking inside the Palace, it is easy to feel that even for royalty this was a stark and cold place with few creature comforts.

The palace is open to the public and the roof provides fantastic panoramic views of Leh and the surrounding areas. The real highlight of the Leh Palace is winding up through creaky old wooden steps through 9 floors of low ceilings and narrow hallways.  I truly felt like a kid exploring his grandma’s attic for the first time and somehow the passage was leading me not only back in time but to further into the discovery of a mythical Narnian land.  I have to truly say that I enjoyed the exploration of the fairy tale palace as much as my kids as they eagerly climbed the steep steps to the top.

There are several places along the way to stop and take photos on many of the different levels of the Palace, including some medieval open windows where you can actually stand on a barely supported balcony if you dare to step out of the window and onto the ledge.

From the top of the Leh Palace there is an excellent view of the 6,150 meter mountain, Stok Kangri, in the Zanskar mountain range.  There are excellent views across the Indus Valley to the south, with the Ladakh Mountain range rising behind the palace to the north.

After about 1 hour exploring the Leh Palace we drove around the corner to the slightly higher neighboring Namgyal Tsemo Monastery.

Founded in early 15th century, Namgyal Tsemo monastery is renowned for its three-story high solid gold idol of Maitrieya Buddha. Situated on a mountain top behind the Leh palace, the monastery offers similar views as the nearby Leh Palace but from a slightly higher and wider vantage point.

The gompa was founded by King Tashi Namgyal in 1430 AD who was a major follower of Buddhism. As a mark of his respect to Buddhism, the king built the partner monastery above his palace. Situated at the cliff of Namgyal hill, its architecture is impressive.

The view of Leh from the gompa is breathtaking as the view changes with light. For this reason Namgyal Tsemo monastery is a favorite with photographers.

Down the hill side there is the Shankar Gompa which is also associated with Namgyal Tsemo monastery. It is a daily ritual followed by monks to walk from the Shankar Gompa to worship Buddha and light butter lamps at Namgyal Tsemo.

There is actually a mountain path from Leh Palace that runs up into the saddle where Namgyal Tsemo Monastery sits.  This is about a 30-40 minute walk and many either walk up or down between the monastery and the Palace.  If you do take the path rather than driving between the 2 points be warned that you should take steps very slowly and with deep breaths. Overexertion, even on something as simple as a 30 minute hike, can really hit you later on in the day and may make you really feel the first signs of Acute Mountain Sickness or AMS.

After seeing Leh Palace we had a terrific Indian lunch back at the the Shanti Guesthouse and had a rest.

In the afternoon we drove 30 minutes to Shey Palace and had a terrific view of the colors of sunset as they danced over the Leh Valley and highlighted the snowy mountain tops.

We drove another 15 minutes  to our guide’s house, right between Tiktsi Monastery and Shey Palace.  This was hands down one of the highlights of our journey as we got to experience true Ladakhi hospitality and participate in making authentic momos.  This was a process that involved rolling the dough out, cutting it in circles, and stuffing the dough with a delicious mixture of pork and special spices and herbs.

Our hosts steamed the momos and we had a delicious dinner!  Of course, the ones we rolled out didn’t look as good as the perfectly pinched folds of their professional dumplings but, nonetheless, they were all very tasty!

It was an incredible night spent laughing and drinking Chai tea by their warm fireplace and I have to say it was really on that night that I so fell in love with the warmth and kindness and good humor of the Ladakhi people.

We left our delightful hosts at 11pm and were back at our guesthouse by 11:30pm for a much better night sleep than we had had the previous night.  Now we were getting better acclimatized and our breathing was a little less troubled than the night before.

Day 3

Every day we ventured a little further from the town of Leh out into the true wild beauty of Ladakh. On this 3rd day we started to feel a little bit more ourselves and generally started feeling better acclimated. From Leh we drove 3 hours to Lamarayu Monastery. Along the way we stopped at Alchi Monastery. This is a very special monastery because it records the history of Tibetan Buddhism BEFORE it moved into the Tibetan Plateau. Most of the monasteries we saw in Ladakh were created when Buddhism moved from India to Tibet and then returned back into India. But this monastery is from the 11th century and predates much of the the movement of the teachings of the Buddha before it moved north across the Himalayas. After a 15 minute walk down a small alley way through a very tiny village, we arrived in the middle of Alchi Monastery. From a position of size this was not much to look at. There must only have been a handful of monks that still take care of this old countryside monastery. While I have been in monasteries in Tibet that hold thousands of monks and you can hear the roar and bellow of chanting and drums and horns, the only sounds that whispered about Alchi Monastery were the tinkling of a few windchimes and the pittering songs of chirping sparrows. This was a peaceful place.

What Alchi Monastery lacks in size in makes up for in history and character. The woodwork from the stupas and the few small temples (each little bigger than a quaint wooded cottage) bears definite fingerprints of Indian architecture. The wood is dark and stained with years under the bright sun and the the lattice work on the windows is definitely different from the carvings on any other Tibetan Buddhist monastery I have ever seen. Even the main stupa in the monastery courtyard had features that were markedly different from those on the Tibetan Plateau. This stupa has a cave built inside of it where you can walk in under the holy relics inside. Essentially there is a small 2 meter high stupa within the greater 7 meter tall stupa and you can walk in under the smaller (and assumedly holier) stupa. There is a small set of prayer wheels around the monastery and we took the quick 10 minute kora around the compact complex. On the far side of the kora we passed a single pilgrim walking around the monastery clockwise. I stopped as the pilgrim passed and climbed a fenced wall to get a peek into the nearby the flows of the legendary Zanskar River. From there I saw a perfect turquoise blue river that was flowing under a massive vertical cliff face. This view alone made Alchi Monastery so worth it. Altogether we spent about 35 minutes around the monastery. You can pretty much take the whole thing in about 20 minutes because of its size.

We departed Alchi and drove another 1.5 hours on our way to Lamarayu Monastery. Along the way we drove by the confluence of the Zanskar River and the Indus Rivers. It was stunning to see where the glacial ice meets at the convergence these two rivers. Seeing these two rivers pour into one was like watching two brilliant turquoise snakes intermingling and mating and shedding their skins and scales as they merged into one larger churning snake basking against the sunlit backdrop of dramatic reddish mountains with not a scrap of vegetation on them.

20 minutes before we got to the monastery we stopped at a landscape that is literally called the “Moonland”. This is an all yellow and brown landscape that has mountains and hills that arise out of the ground like a network of burgeoning bubbles. There must be 1000’s of tiny humps and ridges (at least they looked tiny to us from far away) and they all sit within a 1 mile area on top of each other like some alien super colony of termites. I am not exactly sure what the surface of the moon really looks like, but I can only imagine that the first astronauts there must have experienced something close to this in the eerie sense of barren unfamiliarity as they stepped out of their moon rover for the first time.

After a few pictures of the Moonland, we dropped down to 9,500 feet to Lamarayu Monastery. This was, ironically, the lowest altitude we were at in our entire stay in Ladakh. Lamarayu Monastery is one of many picturesque monasteries that sits perfectly perched high atop a steep hill. In fact, the location of the monastery doesn’t just make for a great picture, it truly evokes wonder that long before cranes and backhoes and CAD there were men in the 12th century who climbed these great mountains and built 7 story structures in the highest and most impossible spaces. Just the act of building the monastery seemed like an act of spirtual discipline and determination. The distance we drove from Leh became immediately worthwhile. We spent an hour just walking around this impressive structure and taking 100’s of pictures from every angle as we gazed down across the valley and into the jagged peaks that protect and encircle the monastery like menacing guards. There was something very sacred here and I walked slowly around the high, steep walls of the monastery over the rubble and scattered stones of staircases that had crumbled and fallen over 10 centuries of weather and erosion.

While my wife entered a few temples to look at the ornate Thangka paintings, I walked the perimeter of the monastery like a curious child digging a tunnel through the underbelly of a sand castle. Then we both ascended to the roof of the monastery for more incredible views along a line of lonely flapping prayer flags. It was 360 degrees of jaw dropping beauty up there and I really could have stayed on that roof laying in the sun like a lazy cat all day long.

Like Alchi Monastery (and just about every where we went) there was a still reverence here. But this monastery – even more so than the other hill top structures – seemed to also carry a commanding, kingly authority. There was something quite grandiose about this monastery in its geography and in its ancient foreboding walls. This was like a mighty castle looking down on all its subjects in the valley below, confidently certain of its regal position.

Feeling the high from a great scenic drive and the inspiring walk around Lamarayu Monastery, we drove back in the direction of Leh town and pulled off the road to stay in homestay just 45 minutes from the hallowed corridors of Lamarayu. We got into the homestay just as the sun was setting and we could feel as soon as it did that the air significantly dropped in temperature from cool and sunny to dark and icy.

Fortunately there was an incredible wood fire in the stove burning in the homestay and we were very cozy inside. There we ate yet another filling and scrumptious dinner of homemade Indian food.

While there was no hot water (and no heat in our small room) we all had 2 thick blankets on us and were quite cozy and warm in the corner bed room of the homestay.

Day 4

Today we drove from the homestay location to the famous Chadar Trek. We spent much of our time on the road. About 2 hours of this time was actually spent on paved road and then we spent another 5 hours in the back of a Japanese Gypsy SUV bumping our heads against the unpadded roof as we navigated a very narrow and dusty road that winded along the steep canyons that hung 600 meters over the Zanskar River.

Probably the most unnerving thing about the road were the places where backhoes were doing construction amidst piles of boulders to help clear and widen the road from treacherous, unpredictable rock fall. It was at these time that, due to the presence of construction on an already tight road, we were no more than a hand’s width away from the unprotected edge on a road that was not much wider than our own car’s frame. The drop below into the river was at least 300 meters and we would have all died instantly if any rock fall or sudden driving malfunctions were to push us over the edge. I trusted our car and our driver and I just tried not to think about that possibility too much as I knew that our guide had driven this bumpy mountain pass many times with many different groups.

The Zanskar River was made particularly famous by the BBC documentary called “Human Planet”. One of the series in the documentary highlighted a Ladakhi girl who had to cross 100 km of the river to get from her father and mother’s humble dirt-walled home to her small boarding school so she could start her semester with her classmates. The journey across the ice looks particularly daunting and several times she walks with her father across crackling, dangerously thin ice so she can make it to her studies. The particular climax of the whole episode is where most of the ice on the river has melted and there remains only a narrow, life threatening sliver of ice as the single passage along the bottom of the steep canyon walls. Every conceivable path is blocked for this little girl except a thin sheet of ice that is clinging to the side of the river bank; all the rest of the river is surging with the terrible current of fast-flowing, hypothermia-inducing melt water. There is only a small margin of ice less than half a meter wide for the girl and her father to belly crawl under an overhang so she can make it to school. The young girl bravely and faithfully follows her father’s experienced movements through the narrow ice passage and she squirms to an area that is more stable and well protected. Ultimately, the girl heroically makes it to her school for the year without any incidents. But the whole affair leaves the viewer with a sense of awe that so many sacrifices and challenges are undertaken just to make the commute to elementary school.

Since this famous scene in BBC’s “Human Planet”, thrill-seeking curious trekkers have found their way to the north of India to see and discover the river for themselves.

For these reasons, the Chadar Trek (which means “Ice Trek” in Ladakhi) is like no other trek in the Himalayas. Like the girl’s journey in the film, this trek involves walking on a frozen sheet of glass that is ever shifting and creaking above the current of the waters underneath it. Dramatic mountains rise on both sides of the river adding to both the beauty and the danger. While the trek does not gain much altitude because you walk along the icy surface of flat river, it almost feels like an expedition to the North Pole where the temperatures drop down to -35 degrees Celcius at night. The food rations are transported on improvised wooden sledges by local Ladakhi porters and the trekkers find their lodging in such wild and strange places as caves along the rivers’ edge and by beaches littered with sharp ice wedges and snow crevasses.

The trek allows you to get to know the Zankari culture up close through the lense of locals and their hospitality. One of the highlights of the trek is the magnificent Nerak Waterfall that is frozen completely from top to bottom. The best (and only) time to do this trek is from mid-January to mid-February. That is when the Zanskar river freezes and the ice is thick enough to walk across – at least for most of the trek. There are a few sections where the trekkers actually have to traverse the canyon walls like mountain goats on the crags in order to avoid thin or non-existent ice and the rowdy whitewater currents of the below surging river.

I had seen the “Human Planet” documentary and, like many watchers, I was immediately taken by this alluring, bewitching icy serpent. I had even been planning to take my family on the full 10 day trek up and down the Zanskar River and had determined that I would pay a local Ladakhi porter to pull a sled with my kids on it so they did not have to walk across the slippery ice. When I presented this plan to my wife she was not so keen. Having talked to locals, we realized that trek was realistically safe enough for our children, especially under the watchful and experienced eye of local Ladakhis who knew exactly where to step for the best passage on the ice sheet. But I think the real sticking point for our children would have been the blistering cold. It is one thing to walk on a river as an adult in -25 Celcius because we’d be producing some body heat in our movement. But for kids to sit on an ice sledge in that kind of weather and then to spend the night in an uninsulated tent on the ice felt a little imposing for us.

My wife, though, is pretty adventurous so she did compromise with me to at least go out and see the Zanskar River close up. So we opted to make a day trip out of it so at least we could have fun sliding about on the ice without having to commit to 10 days of relentless cold.

As soon as we got out of the car and skidded across the ice, my wife looked at me with a big smile and said, “I wished we had done all 10 days with the kids!” Once we were out there we could see that whole trek was well organized and well equipped. There were fancy cook tents that provided hot meals every night for the trekkers and private bathroom tents and meeting tents that housed each and every expedition. Every day, the government of Ladakh allows exactly 100 trekkers to be out on the ice. These trekkers are usually divided between 5-10 different expeditions, most of which are comprised of Indian travelers who want to walk on the ice. After being on the ice and hanging out by one of the main base camps for a few hours, it was easy to tell that most of these native Indians were wealthy suburban tourists who were looking to get out the busyness of Delhi or Mumbai to have an adventure. These were regular people – doctors, accountants, taxi drivers- and seeing those regular people out doing something extraordinary really made me feel like our family could have probably done the whole trek. My wife and I both agreed that with the right ultra thick and warm sleeping bags (which can be rented from the Chadar Trek expeditions), we could have managed the trek with our kids.

But, in the end, we were totally fine that we did not do the whole trek. After all, it gave us something to come back for. The day we spent out slipping and sliding on Zanskar River was precious. Our kids had a blast throwing huge chunks of ice into parts of the exposed river. And we even got to borrow a little miniature sleigh to pull them along the ice. They loved every minute of it and it was really quite sunny and warm out on the ice under the afternoon sun.

After playing on the ice, we drove back to Leh and got into the Shanti Guesthouse for a nice night in the heat of the hotel’s working radiator. And boy did a hot shower feel good that night!

Day 5

Despite the perceived (but probably not actual) danger of the Chadar Trek, there was something that was haunting me far more than walking on shifting ice. I had heard about the highest motorable road in the world. And I had even watched a few YouTube videos as cars drove carefully over the packed snow and ice on tires covered with chains and with nothing on the edge of the road to protect them from sliding off into a Himalayan abyss. And it all sounded pretty gnarly to me.

The Khardung La is a dirt-road pass that crosses over an elevation of 5,600 meter / 18,300 feet. After driving over some pretty narrow mountain roads myself in Tibet, it wasn’t the steep drop off that really concerned me. It was that I was bringing my family to an elevation higher than any we had been to before. My wife and I had climbed to over 17,000 feet around Lhasa before we had kids, and living on the Tibetan Plateau our kids had even been to 14,000 feet a few times with us on family backpacking trips. In all these conditions we had all done very well in regards to health and acclimatization. But 18,300 feet was a whole new level. This was starting to get up near the top of North America’s tallest mountain, Mount Denali. This was the stuff of epic mountaineers and crampons and oxygen tanks.

But through a lot of research and planning and after many talks with our experienced tour agency, we decided that it was possible. Our kids were, after all, no more likely to get Acute Mountain Sickness than any other adult. We just were not sure if they did start to feel nauseous up there how they would react. But we did know this: we had spent plenty of time acclimating in and around Leh, we had emergency oxygen in the car if we did run into any disconcerning situations, and the best cure for any altitude related sickness is to descend quickly to a lower altitude. Since we were driving up from 11,500 feet to 18,300 feet in a matter of about 2 hours we knew we could descend pretty quickly in our car along the road.

So with those contingencies in hand, we set out to drive over the world’s tallest motorable road with our two children. As we drove up, I kept glancing at the back seat looking for headaches or other signs of discomfort. Other than our son feeling a little sleepy, we got up to the high pass without any incident. And, of course, we snapped a few selfies on the top and we did not spend much time up there in that rarified air because we wanted to descend quickly. All in all, I was very proud of my family for doing so well and we all felt very good considering the winding roads and the high altitude. All my fears about the big high pass were put to rest.

And then came the really fun part. As we descended from the Khardung La into the Nubra Valley, we could see large stretches of sand before us. There was, too, a river that braided in and out between the piles of sand as it wove into the foot the hovering mountains. As we crept down in altitude, the whole valley opened up into a flood plain full of blowing dust. This was the famous Nubra Valley, famous for the indigenous fuzzy two-humped Bactrian camels that lived there. These camels were some of the only animals in the world who could survive in both the extreme cold and lack of water. There were obviously quite specialized to make it at 10,500 feet in one of the driest, toughest places in the world.

Once at the bottom of the valley, we visited Diskit Monastery and the statue of India’s largest future buddha. This statue had to be at least 30 meters tall and it sat on a golden throne that overlooked the entire expansive desert valley. From the future buddha statue we drove through long stretches of highway into the real heart of the Nubra Valley right smack into the rolling sand dunes. At around 5 meters high, these dunes were certainly not anything near the size of the dunes you might see in the Sahara Desert. But there was a very certain texture on them that made them enchanting. The wind blew the sand into an intricate pattern of miniature waves and ridges that almost made the dunes look like they were covered with crochet work.

After jumping into the dunes and rolling down them like we were lost raiders fleeing desperately in the desertscape of planet Jakku in Star Wars, we headed to a remote desert camp. After about an hour drive we arrived at this camp and had a wonderful soak in their hot springs tubs. The water was so hot (being directly piped from the ground) that we had to wait two hours for it to cool off before we could even get in it. But our whole family eventually had a wonderful bath and that was a great way to wash all the sand off our bodies from jumping about the sand dunes.

With an incredibly relaxing hot springs bath we were all very relaxed and clean! That night we slept awesome!

Day 6

Day 6 was our last full day in Ladakh and we definitely took advantage of every daylight hour.
We woke up in our VIP hit Springs Camp and had a warm cup of Chai and jumped in the van.
The sun was just cresting the snowy peaks and the soft morning light played on the new morning snow.

We drove back to the small town where we had lunch the day before and ate a simple breakfast of eggs and Indian bread.

Knowing that we were going to be a long way from civilization on our drive out to Pangong Lake, I wanted to stock up on Snacks and drinks for the 8 hour car ride ahead of us. I stopped in a very small convenience store in a town of about six single-room concrete-block buildings (which altogether had probable total population of around 15 locals) set out in the middle of the Nubra Valley desert. Half of the buildings in town were buried under 3 meters of rubble and trash because of a recent flood that had surged through the floodplain of this desert valley. Desert landscapes are not used to receiving large amounts of precipitation or snow melt and this basin had fully been washed out and submerged in a recent deluge. The town was already very forlorn and rustic looking and having the few buildings in it being destroyed by a flash flood made it even more lonely. To add to the desperate feeling, there was a pack of 10-15 starving wild dogs who roamed the 50 meter-long strip in town looking for food scraps. They were all quite scraggly and were constantly biting and arguing about the pecking order of the group. Just the day before, our guide Tenzin was attempting to feed these wily dogs and had gotten bit pretty severely on his left hand. The dog bite bled on his finger and we were unable to find any Tetanus or rabies shots in the nearby town of Diskit. So a caution to travelers: do not feed the wild stray dogs and be careful to keep your fingers and your food close to your body. Some dogs may be aggressive enough to try to take food from your table or from your hands so have your radar up and do not leave your food unattended.

I was curious what the small dark convenience store had in the way of supplies. I was really just hoping for a few bottles of water and some Snickers. The convenience store had a strange assortment of goods from chips to laundry detergent to pots and pans and plastic flowers. I knew I was in the middle of nowhere when the only bottle of water that was for sale in the whole dimly lit store was an already used half-filled bottle. They obviously had no water for sale. I bought a few juice drink packages of sickly sweet mango syrup juice and hoped that would be enough to stave off thirst and headaches as we drove over another 5,400 meter/ 17,716 foot pass back to Leh. For snacks there were no Snickers. But they had some dried lentil beans which turned out to be quite tasty.

So another warning: When traveling to Nubra Valley and Pangong Lake, I recommend bringing 2-3 days of water in your car because bottled water can be hard to find. As it was, there was no place for us to get clean water for around 24 hours so we had to live off the few almost empty bottles we already had in the car and those sweet box drinks. We turned out to be okay but we were definitely cutting it pretty close in regards to hydration at altitude.

It was another 4 hours drive to Pangong Lake across the vast seas of rolling high desert. There were moments when the winds had completely covered the single track road with drifting sand and we had to drive over newly formed and ever shifting sand dunes in an attempt to find the other side of the road where the pavement continued several 100 meters out. And there were times the road just totally ended without warning and we found ourselves skirting disheveled fields of rocks with no clear path. Apparently in the summer lots of temporary tents pop up offering souvenirs and snacks in this area of Nubra Valley. But in the winter season this was a truly wild, forgotten place. We did not see another single car or a person for hours. One time I saw a lonely Ladakhi nomad walking by himself on the road and I found myself wandering wherever this man could have come from or where he was walking to. There seemed like no point of reference for his journey as we hadn’t seen a town or anything resembling a house for an hour.

We arrived at Pangong Lake around 2pm. There was no one else out on the whole lake except us. The only two people we could see from a distance were two local Ladakhis wearing ice skates and hockey gear who were hitting an ice hockey puck around on the frozen lake. It was strange to see signs of western development and recreation out there in the wilderness. But what I did not know at that moment was that the crowds were already preparing to gather around the shores of the frozen lake for a world record breaking Guinness Book of World Records event. Just the next day was to be the competition for world’s highest ice hockey game. Unfortunately we missed this game by a day since we had to fly out but apparently most of India’s Olympic hockey team is drawn from the ranks of local Ladakhis who love love and cherish the sport!

Pangong Tso (Tibetan: སྤང་གོང་མཚོ) is Tibetan for “high grassland lake” (“Tso” is the Tibetan word for “Lake). This an endorheic lake in the Himalayas situated at a height of about 4,350 m (14,270 ft). It is 134 km (83 mi) long and extends from India into China. Approximately 60% of the length of the lake lies in China and 40% of the lake is in India. The lake is 5 km (3.1 mi) wide at its broadest point. All together it covers 604 km2. During winter the lake freezes completely, despite being saline in nature. It is not a part of the Indus River basin area and is geographically a separate land locked river basin.

The brackish water of Pangong Lake has a very small amount of hardy micro-vegetation. Reportedly, there are no fish or any other aquatic life in the lake, except for a few small saltwater-tolerant crustaceans. The lake is in the process of being identified as a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention. As such it will be the first trans-boundary wetland in South Asia under this convention.

In the summer the waters of the lake are a brilliant blue and this is said by many to be India’s prettiest lake. However, the lake in winter lacks the bright colors of summer and gray ice stretches across the shores and the rim of the lake is spotted with brown vegetation and is chilled by piercing winds that rush across the flat surface. But there is still a rugged beauty here in the silence of winter.

In winter the Indian army drives their trucks across the lake to reach remote outposts that protect this disputed border.

We drove from Pangong Lake back to Leh without stopping too much. On the way back to Leh, we crossed India’s second highest motorable road at 5,400 meters / 17,716 feet. As we descended the high pass back into the Leh Valley the sun was setting right in front of us on the ridges and peaks that stand over Leh. It was a perfect view of dancing pinks and oranges that eventually faded into misty purples and then the ink black night sky.

This was our last night in Ladakh.

Day 7

We got up early in the morning to fly out of IXL Leh airport. As I mentioned before this is a very small airport. Because it is so small I figured there would not be much time spent in getting from one place to another and I thought we could get through security in 1 hour. Thankfully our guide told us we really needed a full 2 hours to make it the 50 meters from the entrance to the flight departures gate.

I was, at first, a little skeptical of this warning, but the whole place is actually very chaotic and it literally took us the full two hours from our drop off at the airport to the time we were at the airplane gate.

Be aware that in India (or at least in Leh) there are several extra steps in flying out that we do not have in America.

The following list shows exactly why we took 2 hours to make our way through a building that was no bigger than a hometown grocery store.

1.) Getting in the door

There is exactly 1 door to get in the airport from the freezing cold weather outside.
Everyone was standing in the freezing cold at 6:30am in the dark parking lot in a confused gaggle (remember that Indians do not celebrate the concept of an orderly “queue”, so you may need to push your way to the front).
There were so many army soldiers all crowded about the doorway all ready to leave their military posts to go home and see their family. Fortunately, a kind airport attendant let us in the front of this mob of people because we had kids with us. Then once we were through the door we had to go through the presecurity check outside of check in to enter into the airport.
Here they examine your bag and after it goes through a X-Ray machine they tag it.
Strangely, at this presecurity check they ask for your flight ticket – which is unusual because you do not even get your ticket until you go into the airport and check your bags at the desk of your airline. So I was a bit taken aback by this but I was able to pull up my itinerary on my email on my phone.
So make sure you have a paper or electronic copy of your flight reservation handy as they will ask for this.

After your luggage goes through the X-Ray machine they throw your luggage into a jumbled pile of 100’s of bags.
Note to travelers: There is no order and all the bags get completely buried here so make sure when you sort through the pile to find all your luggage so that you do not forget small bags like laptop cases, purses, or backpacks which could get easily misplaced in the mess.

2.) Check bags and get tickets

This is what you would expect to be the most normal, standardized process in the whole airport. You walk up to your airline counter and you hand them your passports. The airline attendant taps a few things on her computer and she prints out your boarding passes and voila! – you are free to fly!

But the Leh airport was not quite that simple. As we were standing in line all sorts of people started to cut in line in front of us. This included a ton of army people.

When we finally got up to the counter they took all of our 5 large bags and put them on the conveyor belt weigh station at one time. Apparently Air India weighs the total of your bags rather than each bag individually so they want to weigh them at the same time.
Therefore we had 5 suitcases tottering on that small scale next to the check in counter for all 4 of us. As the rules were explained to us, you get 25 kg per person on Air India (that could be divided between 20 bags or 1 bag- it does not matter to them ).

It took the flight desk about 20 minutes to find our ticket in their system and during that time the power went out in the airport and my poor son was left in the bathroom with no light to see.

Eventually the Air India Staff was able to locate our reservation and we did actually get tickets. In the meantime our whole family bought a few cups of Chai and hoped that somehow they had not goofed our online reservation.

3.) Go through security

One of our hand bags/carry on items did not have a bag tag from the presecurity checks. So when I went to go through security the official there made me turn around and go all the way back to the front door to get a baggage tag. What I did not understand was that these bag tags were all the same generic tags that had the company logo. Every tag was identical and had no individual bar code or cereal number to identify this as a special bag or even your own personal bag. But for some reason they would not let me through without this useless piece of paper dangling from my bag. I suspect this is arbitrary proof that my bags had been through the outside X-ray pre-security screen and they accidentally missed tagging my bag in the chaos. Which, of course, is arbitrary proof that the whole process could do with a little streamlining.

So I dragged my tired son back across the airport and we tagged his little child suitcase and then we were allowed to go through security. At this point my wife and daughter had already gone through the second security screen and were waiting on the other side for us with a Indian pastry filled with microwave-warmed chicken.

4.) Examine your baggage

After you have put your carry on bags through a second redundant X-Ray machine you have to physically go outside in the freezing cold by the airplanes and see where all the checked bags are coming out. Again, the checked bags are lying in a pile and, for some reason, you must positively identify that, yes, your bags have in fact travelled the small length of the carousel and are sitting next the airport bus that will take you to your plane.
I suspect this is because the airport is so disorganized and chaotic that they have lost bags somewhere around this point and need people to make sure that nothing got lost on the hidden conveyer belt from check in to the time you get on the plane.
(Or this might be an added layer of security).

5.) Get in line for your flight

There is only one departures gate in the whole airport. Right next to this gate there is a sign that says “To Gates” and points left. So it would appear that you are to follow the ambiguous arrow to your gate. But actually the sign just points you to walk into a wall and there is really nowhere to go. For some reason this sign is basically placed directly over the one single gate. In fact, if you are standing at the sign close enough to see it’s words, you are already in line to board your plane and therefore have no reason to follow the sign. By this one gate there is no flight info listed on a screen to tell you which flight is boarding.

There were 100 army soldiers in civilian clothes waiting in line, so I just figured we could joined in that line. So like a sheep following the flock, I just got in line. Because there was no flight board or announcement I accidentally got in the wrong line. But eventually we figured out that this was the flight boarding before ours. I guess this is the problem with only having one gate. You might be in the right place, but you never know which flight you are actually in line for.

That first line was boarding a flight to Delhi. We got in the next line at the same gate which flied out to Chandigarh.

6.) Load on a crowded bus and boarded the plane

Just like the bus on our arrival this was an old jalopy that had standing room only. But the people of India are so hospitable that they gave our family some of the last remaining seats so our kids did not have to stand on the moving bus.

In summary, the Leh airport takes a long time to get through. If you are flying in or out of Leh expect that there will be about 2-3 extra steps in the check in process and a lot of people (mostly military) milling around the airport.
So leave yourself lots of time and expect mid amounts of disorder.

But once you are in the airplane what you can expect is the most terrific views of the Himalayas below you (and a lot of turbulence in the first 20 minutes of your flight). Ladakh offers many highlights and opportunities to see the raw breadth of the immensity of Himalayas. It is fitting that as you fly out from this mountain mecca that you pass over the very mountains that have given Ladakh its remote and untouched character.

As I watched the mountains pass away into the clouds I knew I would come be back to this land of mountains, monasteries, and mysteries.
One time was really just not enough!

Thanks for reading our story and hope it helps you along your own travels to Ladakh!
Keep coming back for more travel and trekking tips!

The Best Snacks of Sichuan

Sichuan cuisine is a style of Chinese cuisine originating from Sichuan Province in Southwest China. If you are a newbie to this kind of food, Sichuan dishes will surprise you with their bold flavor and spiciness, mainly from the large use of garlic and chili peppers, as well as the minty and slightly numbing flavor of the famous Sichuan pepper. Our advice is to be bold and give it a try.

In this article we will offer some insight on the most popular and delicious Sichuan snacks!

Liangfen ( 凉粉 )

Liangfen is a common but quite popular Sichuan snack which is served cold. In fact, the name Liangfen simply means “cold noodles”.  It is generally a white, almost translucent, thick starch jelly, made from mung bean starch, but it also can be made from pea or potato starch.

The starch is boiled with water resulting in a viscous paste that is spread on a pan in the form of a sheet and then cut into thick strips. The liangfen strips are then served cold in a bowl with sesame paste, soy sauce and chili oil, seasoned with pieces of carrot, chopped green onion, fresh coriander and crushed garlic. This snack although served cold will warm up your body due to its spiciness and rich flavor. It is really an amazing combination of hot and cold in one dish.

 

Suan La Fen ( 酸辣粉 )

Suan La Fen, aka “Hot and sour sweet potato noodles”, is a well known Sichuan street snack. The main ingredient behind this snack is the thick sweet potato noodles which are much chewier than common flour-based noodles or the instant noodles you may have eaten in college. These noodles are served in a warm stock of either pork bone or chicken bone and is seasoned with tones of pre-fried garlic in chili oil, vinegar, sesame oil, light soy sauce and the Chinese five spices powder. The topping varies from red braised beef, minced pork sauce, or red braised large intestines combined with chopped green onion, fried peanuts and pickled mustard. You can find this snack in almost every city in China, so just give it a go.

 

La Tiao ( 辣条)

La Tiao is one of the most popular snacks in China and it got its international fame in 2016 when this snack was haphazardly featured in a BBC documentary about Chinese New Year celebrations. Apparently the 2 commentators were eating this snack during the filming of the documentary and the audience picked up on this little detail in a big way! Now it is becoming an international sensation!  This snack consists of tofu skins fried in a mixture of water, soy sauce, fresh ginger, sugar, salt, Sichuan pepper, chili powder, myrcia and Chinese fennel species. The end result is similar to potato chips but much richer in taste and pretty spicy. Although very delicious, this snack is rich in gluten, so if you’re gluten sensitive you might want to stay away from this one.

 

Niu Rou Gan ( 牛肉干 )

This is a very traditional snack that is commonly given as a gift amongst Chinese people. If you are wondering what souvenir to bring your father or uncle – look no further! Niu Rou Gan explained in simple words is a spicy dry beef jerky, however there is more to it. This is so much more than just Jack Links jerky! The beef meat undergoes a three step process: boiling, stir-frying, and drying. During the first two steps the meat will be treated with diverse spices like Sichuan pepper, bay leaves, anise, cinnamon, fennel seeds, cardamom, sesame seeds, chili and many more. Therefore, when slowly chewing on this snack you can slowly taste the full spectrum of flavors derived from the spices. This one is especially good if you can manage to find it made from yak meat!  The yak meat is a little richer than cow in taste and usually is 100% grass fed straight from the high open plains of the Tibetan Plateau!

 

Baozi (包子)

 

The world knows this as a steamed bun, but China knows this as Baozi. This snack- often eaten as a breakfast staple by most local Chinese- is a simple but delicious bread-like bun, filled with meat or vegetables and then steamed, usually in a wooden wicker basket. The meat baozi is usually filled with a mixture of ground pork and sliced pork belly, as the extra fat ensures that the filling remains mouthwatering and juicy. The vegetarian baozi on the other hand is filled with various combinations of mixed savoy cabbage, shiitake mushrooms, carrots, and rice all seasoned with soy sauce, oyster sauce, sesame oil, salt and sugar. In the end, every one has their own favorite baozi, as there is a wide selection of it.

Personally, I could eat carrot and potato baozi all day long!

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.

 

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.

Acclimatization in Tibet

Nestled amid the daunting Himalayas and the Kunlun mountain ranges, Tibet is known for offering some spellbinding views of nature. However, traversing through such high altitudes becomes a difficult task with the lack of oxygen and the trekker can suffer from conditions like dizziness, vomiting, or sleeplessness. While some visitors are able to deal easily and quickly with these altitudes others may find themselves feeling quite sick.

When the traveler moves up to a high altitude quickly, flying or driving directly from sea level, altitude sickness may be a common occurrence. The result in such cases is clear and  the climber’s condition quickly gets worse. So, before planning a tour to Tibet, it is necessary that you inform yourself well about altitude sickness and how you can best take care of your body.

Altitudes and Acute Mountain Sickness

Here are the scales of Altitude:

8,000 – 12,000 feet (High)   [2,438 – 3,658 meters]
12,000 – 18,000 feet (Very High)   [3,658 – 5,487 meters]
18,000 feet and above (Extremely High)   [5,500+ meters]

I find most of our visitors can go up to 8000 feet easily without experiencing any problems with altitude. With the decreased availability in oxygen, the rate of breathing becomes higher as the body is trying to breathe faster to take in more oxygen. However, at 8,000 feet oxygen levels in the blood remain the same as when doing household chores at sea level so we don’t have too much to worry about generally at such altitudes unless there is a severe pre-existing medical condition.

While every body adjusts to altitude differently, the symptoms of  Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) generally start to show above the altitude of 10,000 feet. So it is best to try to take 2-3 days adjusting to the altitude around 10,000 feet before ascending higher.

AMS becomes severe as the elevation becomes higher. Try to avoid going to such high altitudes directly from sea level. The traveler’s condition can get worse when they sleep, since the body’s respiration decreases during sleep.
If you can acclimatize properly that is great but if not- move back down. There are preventive AMS medicines which can be taken but make sure you consul a doctor first as there might be side effects or allergic reactions to these.

You can also take test for Ataxia (a lack of coordination due to decreased brain function). Ask the potentially affected person to walk in a straight line, placing his toe to his heel and so on. If that person fails that simple test, start moving down immediately because this is a pretty good sign that AMS has advanced into a moderate or severe condition.

What Causes Altitude Illnesses

The concentration of oxygen at sea level is about 21% and the barometric pressure averages 760 mmHg. As altitude increases, the concentration remains the same but the number of oxygen molecules per breath is reduced. At 12,000 feet (3,658 meters) the barometric pressure is only 483 mmHg, so there are roughly 40% fewer oxygen molecules available per breath. In order to properly oxygenate the body, your breathing rate (even while at rest) has to increase. This extra ventilation increases the oxygen content in the blood, but not to normal sea level concentrations. Since the amount of oxygen required for activity is the same, the body must adjust to having less oxygen. In addition, for reasons not entirely understood, high altitude and lower air pressure causes fluid to leak from the capillaries which can cause fluid build-up in both the lungs and the brain. Continuing to higher altitudes without proper acclimatization can lead to potentially serious, even life-threatening illnesses.

Acclimatization

The major cause of altitude illnesses is going too high too fast. Given time, your body can adapt to the decrease in oxygen molecules at a specific altitude. This process is known as acclimatization and generally takes 1-3 days at that altitude. For example, if you hike to 10,000 feet (3,048 meters), and spend several days at that altitude, your body acclimatizes to 10,000 feet (3,048 meters). If you climb to 12,000 feet (3,658 meters), your body has to acclimatize once again. A number of changes take place in the body to allow it to operate with decreased oxygen.

  • The depth of respiration increases.
  • Pressure in pulmonary arteries is increased, “forcing” blood into portions of the lung which are normally not used during sea level breathing.
  • The body produces more red blood cells to carry oxygen
  • The body produces more of a particular enzyme that facilitates
  • The release of oxygen from hemoglobin to the body tissues.

10 Guidelines for Better Acclimatization

Following are some tips for better acclimatization:

1.) Slowly gain altitude

If you go above 10,000 feet (3,048 meters), only increase your altitude by 1,000 feet (305 meters) per day and for every 3,000 feet (915 meters) of elevation gained, take a rest day.

2.) Keep your body properly hydrated

Acclimatization is often accompanied by fluid loss, so you need to drink lots of fluids to remain properly hydrated (at least 3-4 quarts per day). Urine output should be copious and clear. Keep on drinking enough Oral Rehydration Salts,  water, and other beverages like juice, soup, and milk. In the place of plain water, drink garlic flavored water. You can keep pieces of garlic in your water bottle and this will help regulate the oxygen levels back to normal. Too much black tea and coffee is a no-no because these things dehydrate you.
Also avoid over hydration.
Do not force yourself or anyone else to drink water if they are not feeling thirsty. This might lead to vomiting or even worse.

3.) Avoid sleeping at high altitudes

The respiration rate in one’s body declines when a person sleeps. Thus, it is recommended spend a full day at high altitudes and then descend to lower altitudes in the evening hours. The mantra for mountaineers is “Climb high and sleep low”.  It is very important to make sure you are sleeping as low as possible even if you were up high in the day.

4.) Do not over exert yourself

It is advisable that you should avoid unnecessary exertion. Do not indulge in any excessive mental or physical activity as it may lead to heavy breathing and even headaches and nausea. Even simple tasks like walking slowly can be exhausting with the lack of available oxygen so limit your activity and make sure you are getting lots of rest.  If you happen to be hiking, walk at a slow, consistent pace.  I have seen lots of young guys try to impress their macho friends and end up throwing up because they pushed a little too hard and it caught up with them.

5.) Avoid alcohol and drugs

When traveling at altitude it is best to hold off on the consumption of alcohol, anti-depressant drugs, tobacco, and smoking.
Also avoid anti-depressant medications such as sleeping pills, tranquilizers, and barbiturates. Consumption of these substances can lead to respiratory problems during sleeping, thus worsening your condition at altitude.

Remember:  Save the celebration beer for your return journey after you have already ascended and descended and when you are back below 10,000 feet!

6.) Keep your body warm

Always keep your body warm by wearing layers with synthetic, down, or wool fibers. Make it a point that your clothes are always dry by changing your socks and undergarments daily (especially before bed). It is best to wear wicking fibers like polyester long underwear to keep the fabric next to your skin warm and dry.  When at high altitudes the best way to stay warm is to stay dry so the freezing temperature does not suck heat from your body with moisture.  Also make sure you pee before you go to bed as the excess water in your body requires unneeded heat and energy to keep it warm.

7.) Consume enough carbohydrates

When you are at high altitudes, it is best that you eat a diet that is high in carbohydrates. Our body absorbs 70% of its calories from carbohydrates. Also, consume simple foods that are not likely to upset your stomach.

8.) Avoid sleeping in the day time

It is best if you completely avoid sleeping in day time. If you do feel sleepy, you can indulge yourself in a little nap but if you do so, try to sleep in upright position. This helps keep the blood in your head (and prevents headaches) and aids in better respiration.
Lay your back against the wall or the back of the bed and try to sleep in that position. Another option is just in trying to keep your head at a higher level than the rest  of your body. Where possible try to use a pillow or a fleece to prop your head above your shoulders.

9.) Pack preventive medicine for AMS

As you plan a tour to Tibet, it is advisable that you should consult your doctor about  suitable AMS preventive medicines for yourself and those accompanying you. Also be sure to ask your doctor about any potential side effects or any other likely allergies.  Most high altitude medicine like Diamox increases your oxygen absorption in your blood and needs to be taken at least a few days before traveling to altitude.

10.) If possible, pack a small Oxygen cylinder

If it is possible, you can pack a small Oxygen cylinder to take care of the symptoms of AMS. Using oxygen will surely help but it is advisable that before using the kit, consult your doctor about the amount of oxygen that has to be inhaled during the trip (ie: the flow rate and the percent of oxygen used in the bottle).  In the case of an emergency, regularly and slowly breathing bottled oxygen can help a lot in alleviating high altitude sickness.

And, of course, the best remedy to altitude sickness is always to descend to a lower altitude as fast as possible.  Even a change of 100o feet in altitude can make a big difference in how you are feeling.

 

Symptoms of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) 
The following is a list of symptoms and possible cures for the different levels of AMS:

Mild AMS

Symptoms: Headache, faintness, tiredness, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, vomiting, troubled sleep, and a feeling of sickness

Possible cure: Medication and/or descend

 

Moderate AMS

Symptoms: Reduced coordination (ataxia), Severe headache (not relieved by medicine), other mild level symptoms with increased effect

Possible cure: Advanced Medication and/or Immediate Descent around 305-610 m

 

Severe AMS

Symptoms: Inability to walk, declining mental status, and fluid build-up in the lungs

Possible cure: Emergency Evacuation, Oxygen, Gamow Bag (a portable Hyperbaric chamber) Immediate Descent around 610-1,220 m

 

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.

Qutan Monastery – another incredible day trip!

Qutan Monastery used to house between 400-500 monks. But if you visit it today the monastic staff has been reduced to a skeleton crew of exactly 11 monks who are now in charge of lighting butter lamps and caring for the grounds of this large, holy complex.

Driving from Xining, you can take the G6 highway east towards Ping’An and Lanzhou.
After 44km on the G6 you take the exit for Ledu 乐都 and then get off the freeway ramp into the small, relatively obscure town of Ledu. Ledu in the original Tibetan language means “entrance to the valley” and anyone driving from Lanzhou to Xining must pass this tiny town in order to enter the valley that bisects the large mountains to the north and south of the highway.

Once you have crossed the freeway toll exit and paid your highway toll you immediately take the next right onto the main street of Ledu. After a few kilometers traveling east on this main street you will see a road veer slightly to the right and up a hill with a sign pointing to “Qutan Monastery” and “Qutan Ski Resort”

Take this road and it is about another 20 minute drive to the actual monastery.

This road to the monastery is currently a narrowly badly paved road with a good deal of bumps, potholes, and poorly maintained road repair that winds through a few dusty Tibetan villages to about 8,000 feet in altitude where it drives in front of the monastery. However, as I was driving the road on January 5, 2018 I noticed a good deal of construction and it appears that within the next year the government is planning on building a 4 lane elevated highway to this formerly unknown and remote spot to promote tourism among local Chinese.

After crossing a bridge to the monastery you can park directly in front of the outer courtyard. Unless you are Tibetan or Mongolian, you will need to pay the 50 RMB/person entrance ticket fee for the monastery in the small white tin shack on your right as you enter the monastery.

Once you pay your ticket, you can enter the first courtyard with two large and beautiful temples set among a peaceful environment. During the winter I was practically the only person in the whole monastery complex and we had to ask a monk to unlock a few of the temples which had been bolted shut.

Being one of the few people wondering the temples and the old style stupas made this a very thoughtful and quiet winter experience. The back corners of the monastery were very dark and cold and it felt like no one had set foot there in a few hundred years. And it was certainly one of the cleanest monasteries I have ever been to. Every courtyard and temple was immaculately swept and I did not see a single piece of trash or debris anywhere. I guess the advantage of having such a small staff is that there are not as many people to clean up afterwards.

It would be easy to spend about 2-3 hours meandering around the various halls, temples, courtyards, and stupas of the monastery. Of particular interest are the hand painted Thangkas painted on the back wall of the main temple.

These 7th century artifacts are easily 10 meters high and 10 meters wide and I have actually never seen another Thangka wall painting (not painted on a canvas but directly onto the wood frame of the wall) that was either this big or this original. If nothing else, it would be worthwhile to walk through the temples just to see these incredible pieces of preserved history. Other things of interest in the temples include a giant drum with a 1 meter-diameter leather cow skin stretched over an impressive metal frame. I tapped every so lightly on this skin and it belted out a very deep tone, like the tone of an ancient leviathin rising out of the water from beneath. My mind instantly raced to a time when monks pounded on this monstrous drum and the base vibrations must have shaken and stirred the entire surrounding village with reverence and awe.

If you have a day or a half a day in Xining, I can highly recommend this trip to Qutan Monastery. If you have another 1 hour or so to kill you can drive another 8km up the road (sometimes a little icy in the winter) to Qutan’s smaller sister monastery that has the same small amount of monks taking care of the monastery.
This sister monastery only has 2 temple halls and does not offer much in a divergence from the original Qutan Monastery, so don’t get your hopes up too much here. But the monastery does provide a great view into the high mountains of this valley.

This smaller sister monastery also overlooks the Qutan Ski Resort, which is nothing more than a small bunny-hill type plain with a 5% slope grade where novice Chinese learn to ski. While this “resort” would be an insult to any serious skiiers, the slightly inclined slope looks like a fun place to bring the family in the winter for tubing or just sliding around the snow. With an entrance ticket price of 70 RMB per person this pseudo-ski resort doesn’t offer much in the way of real skiing but could be a nice day trip for families looking to fight off the long wintry “cabin fever” from the chilly winters in Xining at 2,300 meters above sea level. In either case, some may find the gaudy, cheaply built ski resort here as an utter contradiction to the peace and stillness found in both the upper and lower Qutan Monastery complex. I am sure, at the very least, it makes the monks in their red-robed reverence very curious and even cautious about how quickly the world around them is changing.

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 Quick Tips on How to Pack a Backpack

How to Pack a Backpack

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 jagged peaks and alpine lakes of Nyenbo Yurtse

I had been planning this trip for months and yet somehow it was still two days before the scheduled departure date and I still had no idea if I was going or not.

This is not the usual way I run things; usually trips are booked complete with guides, hotels, transportation months before and all the ducks are in a row. But sometimes on the high Plateau you have to be flexible. Especially when you are traveling by yourself to scout out a future trip.

The cause of the delay in this case happened to be a tiny fungus.

I had been contacting my local guide friends for months and had been asking them about going to Nyenbo Yurtse. I had seen pictures and blogs and heard that this was an epic hike amidst shark-tooth snowy mountains and crystal-blue alpine lakes and I wanted to experience this myself. So I made a plan. I would take my family here – including my 5 year old and 3 year old children. They would ride on horseback over the high pass at 15,000 feet (which is high but has a fairly gentle grade) and my wife and I would carry backpacks full of supplies.

This trip had 3 potential purposes:
1.) To have an adventure with our family
Since we had trekked to Annapurna base camp in the last years with our family in Nepal, we have wanted to take our kids out into the mountains for another go. In walking the 8-day Annapurna Sanctuary trek we had stayed in teahouses and had carried our kids on our backs in baby backpacks and the kids loved being in nature after a long time of being surrounded by concrete in a city in western China. Rose and I had started our marriage and honeymoon by walking 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada and backpacking was a big a part of our life together and our mutual passion as a married couple. So it was naturally important for this passion for the natural world to overflow out to own kids. Now they were old enough they could get to some fairly high places, walk a little, and appreciate the wonder around them. So since that last big trek in Nepal, I had been scheming about how to get our family out. Nyenbo Yurtse seemed like a perfect way to do that. And I knew we could hire a horse and guide so it seemed like a sure fire bet to be able to bring them along.

2.) Scouting the trip for Elevated Trips
As an outdoor adventure and trekking business on the Tibetan Plateau it is my job to to get out and find some of the most off-the-track, inspiring destinations in the wilderness. I like to go to these places myself first and then look at the trip from the eyes of potential clients to see how food and lodging and logistics all can work out to make the best, highest quality trip possible. From all the rumors from local nomad friends, Nyenbo Yurtse was a must-see and offered some of the most stunning views and best trekking around. I wanted to add this trip to our offerings not only just for the clients who would come, but as another way to build bridges to local Tibetan communities to help out their local guides, horse men, hotels, and taxi drivers. As with every Elevated Trip, community impact was as high on our priority list as was serving an excellent, unique experience.

3.) It was my 36th Birthday!
I have made it a tradition to celebrate my birthday in the wilderness. Last year I went camping by myself amidst beautiful red rock gorges on a grassy mountain overlooking 14,000 foot LaJi Mountain. I wanted to celebrate and look back on my short life on this earth by enjoying it untouched beauty. And it just so happened that the weather forecast looked pretty good for June 6!

So I had good reasons for going. And I had dates set in motion. The only problem was that I had been contacting my local guide friends in the area and none of them could seem to be able to book in a horse guide. This was an essential part of the plan to be able to get my kids over the high pass because there was no way these kids were going to be able to walk 30km over 3 days in the mountains on their own two feet. I sent several phone calls and emails and never heard anything back from my local contacts.

Then it got to be about a month before the expected departure on June 2 and I still had no guides or pack horses definitely lined up. So I called my guide friend again and he said, “Sorry. I just can’t find any guides for you right now. They are all out in the grasslands picking caterpillar fungus.” I asked many other foreign and local friends with connections around Nyenbo Yurtse and they echoed the same reply. EVERYONE from middle school students to middle aged dads was out in a money-making caterpillar fungus CRAZE!

But first let me explain. Caterpillar fungus, known as Ophiocordyceps sinensis, is considered by wealthy Chinese as an important traditional Chinese medicine, especially as an aphrodisiac. O. sinensis parasitizes larvae (aka caterpillars) of the ghost moth family and then germinates in the larvae, kills and mummifies it, and produces a fruiting body that is like a tiny stick that emerges from the corpse and stands upright, poking like a tiny pencil tip a few centimeters out of the ground. The fungus is ground into a tea or powder and taken either as pill or is drank as a tea. This fungus parasitizes a specific species of high altitude caterpillar that is almost only exclusively found in the Himalayas at altitudes primarily between 3,000 to 5,000 meters in the mountains and so Tibetans and Nepalese mountain villages have a good corner on the production.

Tibetans call the caterpillar fungus “Yartsa Gunbu” and in rural Tibetan economies with few sources of income besides yak and sheep, this is a very big deal. In rural Tibet, the fungi contributed to 40% of the annual cash income to local households and 8.5% to the entire GDP in 2004- and the market has been growing quickly since that figure 13 years ago. In 2008, one kilogram of caterpillar fungus sold for between $3,000 USD (for the lowest quality specimens) to $18,000 USD (for the best quality larvae). These days in 2017, a kilogram could sell for as much as $75,000 USD in the upper end of consumer markets in Beijing or Shanghai.

Needless to say: Caterpillar fungus is big money for often marginalized communities. So every May and June schools and businesses close for a month or so and every Tibetan nomad and their mother and their kids are all out looking for this treasure. In a day, a single nomad might scour 20-40 pieces of this fungus and could easily make $300 USD selling it to traders in their community. That is one person over one day. Multiple those numbers by entire villages, families, and communities over a month and they start to add up. Some Tibetans tell me that they make 80-90% of their entire yearly income in just a period of 30 days by picking huge amounts of this fungus from the
rich pasturelands of their yaks.

Given the incredible (and very strange) economic boom of caterpillar fungus, it is no mystery that not a single horse guide could be found at this time for me. Every single Tibetan horseman would consider my usually generous standard guide fee as small potatoes compared to the money he and his family could make by digging up the fungus. If I had been looking for a guide in July or August or September this would not have been a problem. But in late May and early June, It was like trying to find a needle in a haystack. And so, after about 20 phone calls, emails, texts to a multitude of friends, I was sitting two days before the trek without a horse guide. I had held out hope we would find a horse guide but now it was crunch time. And this meant things were not looking too good for my family to go trekking in Nyenbo Yurtse.

I talked it over with my wife. We had been traveling a lot and had just spent 2 months in about 6 different states in America. She said she would like a break from traveling but she gave me her blessing in being able to do the trip myself.

So I made a last minute decision.

After months of planning the itinerary as a family trip, I would go to Nyenbo Yurtse myself. If I had to I knew I could carry my own 40 pound backpack if there were no guides to be found. So I called my friend, Phil, and asked if he was up for a last-minute adventure to hike Nyenbo Yurtse. We gave Google Earth a search and we looked at the trail and the mountains and figured at least the first half along the alpine lake looked straight forward (after that we were not exactly sure which pass we were supposed to cross but figured between us we could ask someone in the trailhead mountain town to figure it out along the way).

His wife, amazingly, said he could go and we set the departure time for June 2 morning. We did not even have the departure time or confirmation of going until around June 1.

This was probably the most last minute trip I have ever been on. I packed and we set off on June 2 morning.

This is the route we took and this is exactly how I would recommend getting there to and from Xining.

June 2, Day 1
Xining – Labrang

We drove 239km from Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province to Labrang in Gansu Province (Xiahe in Chinese) over 5 hours. In Xining we started out at 2,300 meters and worked our way up to 2,900 meters in elevation in Labrang. This drive, just a few years ago, used to take 8-10 hours to navigate horribly muddy and pot-holed roads (and the trucks broken down in the muddy pits along them) that were especially difficult to drive after crossing the bridge over from Qinghai to Gansu Province. However, now there is a raised highway between Xining and Rebkong (TongRen in Chinese), which is roughly the halfway point to Labrang. This section from Xining to Rebkong is very fast with multiple newly built tunnels that run for a few kilometers directly through mountains and now only takes about 2.5 hours and offers excellent views of the emerald waters of the Yellow River.

June 3, Day 2
Labrang – Maqu

Once in the heart of the Gansu grasslands in Labrang we continued south another 103km, or 2.5 hours, to Luqu, another small town in the grasslands. Luqu offers little in terms of interest for visitors but has some nice noodle shops and makes a good lunch stop along the way for hand-pulled noodles.

After Luqu we continued another 80 km, or 2 hours, south to Maqu. The town of Maqu is seated right on one of the first bends of the Yellow River and we visited a small monastery with about 100 monks just 2 km north of Maqu town. The monastery is quite small and we found there was not very much going on in terms of activity in the monastery but was still interesting to explore the mud-daubed houses of the monks as well as the main temple hall. The highlight for us in this monastery was walking to the top of the hill where the former monastery ruins were and looking down on the town and the large bends of the Yellow River as it winded in and out of the grasslands below us with very dramatic twisting curves for as far as the eye could see. The monastery outside of Maqu is 3,600 meters in elevation while the town itself, as a central region of the Golok Tibetan tribe, is around 3,500 meters.

June 4, Day 3
Maqu – Jigdril

We left Maqu in the morning after a nice Tibetan breakfast of yoghurt and Tsampa and drove for our last and final stint of 5 hours to Jigdril (Jiuzhi in Chinese). After two days of good driving on well paved roads, we were in for some harder driving today as we crossed over the Yellow River two times. The drive from Maqu to Jigdril turned out to be only about 4 hours, but 2 hours of this time was spent going 20km/hour or less on very bumpy dirt roads. These roads will likely be fully paved in the next two years but until then, this is a backcountry road that is under repair and, in wet conditions, it would be best to have a good 4WD vehicle to navigate some of the longer sections of inches-deep mud and potholes.

We arrived in Jigdril in early in the afternoon. Jigdril town, at 3630 meters, is the on Qinghai side of the border of Sichuan and Qinghai Province. From here it is only 75km to the south to the town of Ngawa in Aba Prefecture in Sichuan Province. If one were to drive from Chengdu, rather than Xining, you could drive from Chengdu to Barkam, Barkam to Ngawa, and then Ngawa to Jigdril over 3 days. Jigdril County, one of the 6 counties of the Golok Autonomous Prefecture, has an average elevation of 3,800 meters and is most famous for the incredible peaks of Nyenbo Yurtse National Park.

Once we settled into our hotel, we hiked up from the main street of Jigdril and crossed the local river outside of town to gain about 200 meters in elevation to get a better view of the town. It was a great warm up hike and from here we got our first views of the Nyenbo Yurtse mountains, hovering just 50km from Jigdril town. The rain and fog cleared just as we crested the grassy hill and the peaks of Nyenbo Yurtse, now covered in fresh snow were gleaming against the blue sky and then new rays of sun. I was getting my first views of the mountain and I was getting very excited!

June 5, Day 4
Day one of the trek

We had a quick breakfast of dumplings and tea eggs at a local restaurant and got a taxi to drive us to the Nyenbo Yurtse trailhead. The drive took about 1 hour from Jigdril town (which cost us 150 RMB for a one way trip in a local taxi) and took us over two spectacular high passes, both filled with prayer flags set against new fallen snow. AT the the entrance of Nyenbo Yurtse National Park, we paid 120 RMB per person for our entrance tickets. There is a boardwalk here with a few Chinese tourists, but most of these don’t venture more than a few hundred meters into the park. The trek starts on this boardwalk and winds to the the left of the the alpine lake. The trek starts at 4,026 meters and for the entire 10 km of the first day of the hike, you maintain this elevation as you walk for 6km along the lower alpine Shuntso Lake shore and then another 2.5km along the upper Shuntso Lake that flows into the lower lake.

In our case we actually walked on the path to the right of the lower lake because it had just been raining for 3 days straight and the trail to the left of the lake (usually the one used by trekkers) was said to be very mucky and slippery by our horse guide. There is actually a circular pilgrimage (and thus good trail) around the whole lower lake. So this was no problem. However, in walking the path to the right of the lake we came to the small river where the upper lake flows into the lower lake. We had to take our shoes off and wade up to our knees across about 20 meters of fairly shallow, icy water to cross to the main trail. This was not a problem for us but I imagine this is why most trekkers start on the left, rather than the right, side of the lake.

From the very first moment the hike is stunning. On most hikes you have to gain a few hundred meters and hike 10km or so before you get into the really spectacular scenery. But as soon as you step into the park, there are huge rugged peaks right before your eyes tucked right behind the shores of the turquoise alpine lakes. This hike is very unique because you gain zero total elevation on the first day and yet have incredible views and rewards all the way. Even if I had not done the three day trek, I still would have made the 3-day, fifteen hour drive down to the park AND paid the high park entrance fee, just to spend one day around the lower shores of lower Shuntso Lake.

It is absolutely fantastic to walk along the shores of lower Shuntso Lake and listen to the waves gently lapping against the beach shores with an incredible backdrop of dramatic cliffs. It makes for a very relaxing and wonderful hike and there is no sudden uphill to shock your system into the wilderness on this first day.

After 10 km of walking along the lower and upper lakes camp at upper Shuntso Lakes we arrived at the top of the upper lake and made our camp here. It was very windy here and as soon as we arrived a snow storm blew in. We scrambled to set up our tents quickly in the hail and the snow. Within 20 minutes the storm blew through and the sun was reappearing again to reveal an incredible snowy mountain behind our camp against a bright, clear blue sky.

At our Camp 1, we cooked dinner, made a small fire from some scrubby bushes along the lake and went to bed after a very satisfying first day in the mountains.

June 6, Day 5

Day two of the trek

Departing the upper lake from Camp 1, we ascended 200 meters over a gently sloping sheep trail about 3km over a small pass that was tucked back and to the left of the valley we slept in. From the top of this pass you curve in left enter a large boulder field with scattered truck-sized boulders that are littered throughout an alpine grassland. The trail then flattens out a bit for 1km and you walk further back into a gorgeous alpine valley with sharply pointed peaks all around you. Once you walk into the heart of this valley there are two very clear passes (both of which had snow on them as of June 6) as the valley floor splits into a “Y”. Take the path as it leads to the left and continue to ascend this pass via a sheep trail. I inquired about the pass on the right of the valley and our guide said it was both too steep and too snowy to cross and front the looks of it I fully agreed with his assessment.

From this “Y” in the valley – this is where the hike got quite challenging. We would now ascend the final 300 meters to the high pass over about 1 km.

This is the steepest and most difficult part of the whole hike. The trail rises at about a 7% grade up into the snow-covered, rocky pass through 2 “false summits”. While this grade is not, in itself, particularly steep or dangerous, it is enough of an incline that it gets the heart beating at such a high altitude climbing from 4,200 meters to 4,500 meters. This is where we were especially glad that we had hired a pack horse and horse guide. Getting up the pass was difficult work with a day pack and I can only imagine how tough it would have been with a full, 40 pound backpack full of a tent, food, and sleeping equipment.

Today was also my 36th birthday and I could not think of a better to have spent it! It was absolutely one of the most spectacular things I had ever seen. Crossing the high pass in ankle deep snow was exhilarating. The sun was bright and we could look down the valley to several towering spires, each shooting off the main ridge of the mountain like an arm sticking upright into the cold, clear air.

The high pass was higher than any point in the entire 48 United States and all but the 5 highest peaks in all of Europe. The weather could not have been more perfect. Up here it would be very easy to get snow or rain but we were bathed in the warm sun and could see in all directions.

From the prayer flags and the yak skull on the pass we descended another 4km to our tent site on an upper slope of a third alpine lake. This is where we made Camp 2 at around 4,100 meters.

From here, at this nomad camp, we had an incredible sunset over the mountains with reflections glimmering below in the 7km crystal blue alpine lake. This was a great tent site and we enjoyed a dinner of warm pasta with our Tibetan guides after a long and epic day walking across the pass.

 

June 7, Day 6
Day three of the trek

We woke up in the morning and descended over 4 hours about 12km past the last lake to a small cement road in the back end of Nyenbo Yurtse National Park. We had arranged a 2pm pick up with our previous taxi driver and I think I hit the parking lot at exactly 2pm – so that was pretty good estimation as far as timing.

Coming down off the mountain and skirting this last and longest lake of the hike, I felt excited and energized. I was like a horse heading home to the stable. I was ready for a good warm meal, a hot shower, and clean cotton sheets and now I was only a few kilometers from finishing the trek. I barely stopped, except for a few times to take pictures. The trail was flat or downhill and the views of the long lake were invigorating. I got a good deal ahead of my friends in my excitement and arrived at the outflow of the final lake at least 30 minutes before them. I laid on the grass overlooking the lake under the heat of the high altitude sun and took in the last three days of hiking now behind me. Given the good weather (and the fact that no one else was around) I decided to take a quick naked swim in the lake. The blue color of the lake was just so inviting that I couldn’t pass up this opportunity to finish the trek off with a cool dip!

I gingerly walked with my bare feet over shrubs and sharp rocks along the shore, found a small beachfront, and dived into the chilling water! I was probably only in the water less than 20 seconds! It was all direct melt from the nearby glaciers and it was some of the coldest water I had ever been in. I think it was just about the same temperature as Guitar Lake at the base of Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevadas of California – at least from my memory of that freezing experience!

I rushed out of the lake and let the sun evaporate the cool water droplets off my body. Just as I was exiting the lake, I saw my friends turn the corner of the trail and approach me. They had caught up much quicker than I had anticipated – just soon enough to catch glimpses of me shimmering and diving into the frigid waters. Inevitably at least one of my friends took a picture of me swimming for good measure.

I put my clothes back on, ate a terrific picnic lunch on the shore, and we set off for the last few kilometers of our hike. We could now view the cement road in the distance and it seemed like only a stone’s throw away. We were practically home! I figured this was going to be easy-peasy!

But, as I arrived in the parking lot, I was totally spent. My high energy and enthusiasm from hours before had waned significantly. Now I was baked in the sun and felt like I was walking away from one of my high school wrestling matches – having left every ounce of energy in the arena. The sun and the work finally caught up to me and my legs were starting to feel quite tired and a little shaky.

Another reason for my exhaustion was because of the terrain in the last section. I had just spent the last 1.5 hours traversing a wetlands marsh and hopping from grass clump to grass clump to try to keep from plunging into the soggy mud that surrounded the Nyenbo Yurtse river basin. The high amounts of precipitation that fell in the week previous to our trek had left this latter trailhead an alpine bog as the little streams flowing into the larger river had swelled and overflowed into all the surrounding grasslands. The whole ecosystem below my feet had become one interconnected swamp; when I stepped on one part of the grasslands, the whole thing tumbled and shook in other parts sending a ripple effect throughout the whole rooted, soggy mass. There were times I had to walk 100 meters off course just to find a place where I wouldn’t sink too deeply into the mud. It was all a good deal of mental work for what I thought would have been flat, easy walk.

After passing a nomad herding his yaks along the river bank, I hopped from one tiny tufted island to the next, each just about 1- 1.5 meters apart, sometimes almost not making the connection due to the slippery, squishy mud. But, I finally made it to the parking lot by 2pm and laid down on my backpack. It felt good not to be walking anymore

We paid our horse guide and exchanged contact information. He was now going to do the entire 3 day trek in reverse (in less than one day’s time) to return to his family tent in the next valley and to continue his labors to find and pick the treasured caterpillar fungus.

As for me – I was tired but felt well rewarded. The Nyenbo Yurtse trek had been a truly enthralling birthday event and I could think of few other times in my life when I had felt so alive and so joyful. Despite the mud and the hard work, it had been so worthwhile to do the trek and I couldn’t stop scrolling through my pictures because it was almost hard to believe that I had really been in such a beautiful place with perfect weather. Now it was back to the hotel in Jigdril for a night of rest!

This was definitely one of my best birthdays to date!

 

June 8, Day 7
Jigdril – Henan

This was the long drive day. I had driven to Nyenbo Yurtse in 3 days and we were heading back to Xining in 2 days. This meant a 10- hour driving day through incredible grasslands (particularly famous for their high quality, fresh yak yoghurt).

The road took us back into Gansu Province and then winded off to a newly paved road back into Qinghai Province. Throughout the journey, I picked up a few different hitch-hiking nomads. I had an extra seat in our car and I figured they did not want to walk back home another 25km in the rain.

We stopped for the night in Henan town in Qinghai Province. This was a slightly surreal Mongolian resettlement town in the middle of nowhere. The buildings were all made in the cheap-concrete communist fashion that is so endemic to most grasslands communities on the Plateau. But each building- looking like it was crumbling and falling down after only a few years of use- bore some characteristically Mongolian symbols, especially the blue and white eternal knot and other interlaced motifs. All the signs bore 4 different languages: Mongolian, Tibetan, Chinese, and English. The English, or “Chinglish” was a real highlight. I couldn’t find a single storefront sign that made 100% of sense. Most were just badly translated attempts at English phrases form technology that had not caught up to its place in time just yet.

Some of the real winners were…

(note that as I type them are VERBATIM as they actually appeared):

dongxiang shouzhu pasta museum” (actually just a hole in the wall noodle shop – not a full blown museum 🙂

“He zhou delicious steamde dumpings restaurant” (I think this was supposed to be a dumpling joint)

“Kodak electrical appliance supermarket” (a tiny store that had nothing to do with photography but instead sold horse bridles and plumbing supplies)

“I can I show shoes shop” (probably self explanatory)

“Macro blue department store” (a 7-11 type store that sold plastic balls made in a factory in Guangzhou)

“Casserole yang jia ma la tang” (a Muslim restaurant that sold chicken head soup)

“Snow mountain sand negative” (I never actually figured out what this store was actually selling).

“Global Mobile Square” (a cell phone store that sold knock offs of Apple iPhones)

Convenience of parity vegetable shop” (Obviously just a vegetable shop with a convenience of parity)

“Shining Underwear” (an underwear shop with a catchy name)

And my personal favorite:
the “Virture Fort Burger” (some rip off of a rip off of a rip off of Kentucky Friend Chicken)

June 9, Day 8
Henan – Xining

Today we drove drove 5 hours from Henan town back to Xining. Our route took us through the nomadic trading towns of Zeku and Rebkong. After Zeku we dropped down from a pass through some very scenic landscapes with forests, rivers, and old Tibetan towns.
Along the way I stopped at high pass in the grasslands and spent about 20 minutes hiking up to a cluster of prayer flags flapping in the wind high over the local villages.

We returned to Xining by late afternoon and after the long drive it was nice to be back home!

Summarizing comments

Overall, I can’t highly recommend the Nyenbo Yurtse enough as a trek. The drive and journey there is incredible, although the last 150 km of road getting to Jigdril is quite slow and bumpy along very muddy and bumpy roads, but that is part of what keeps this destination so well-preserved and off the map of the conventional Chinese tour bus routes.

As far as season, we had incredible weather on June 5,6,7 for our 3 day trek. I had decided to go in the first week of June to avoid both the rainy season and higher rates of Chinese tourists that travel to Nyenbo Yurtse National park in the summer months of July and early August. This was a great decision in terms of weather and having almost the entire national park to ourselves. Once we got past the first 100 meters of the first alpine lake at the park entrance, we only saw a few local nomads out picking caterpillar fungus in their own home turf.

However, I can’t recommend traveling to Nyenbo Yurtse as a trekking destination in early June because, as you have seen, that is the high caterpillar fungus season and it was very difficult for us to find a horse and horse guide who were able to carry our backpacks for us up the mountain. Ultimately, the trek could be done without a horse to pack in our backpacks but I think this would have significantly made the high altitude ascent extremely exhausting and would have taken away a lot from the enjoyment of the beauty. I think most people would have a great struggle to carry their own tent, food, and clothing up a 4,596 meter high pass. The trail is probably never more than a 7-8% grade in slope, but the last 3 km leading to the high pass are very fatiguing because of the lower available levels of oxygen and the continual upward slope.

For the best season I would recommend trekking Nyenbo Yurtse in late August (when some of the Chinese tourists have returned to their big cities) or in early September, when the weather is chilly but likely clear.

I think it is very reasonable to follow my same route in taking 3 days to get to the trailhead, 3 days for actual trekking, and 2 days to return to Xining or Chengdu.

Note on registration in hotels in Maqu, Jigdril, and Henan towns
As of early June 2017, foreigners are allowed to stay in these restricted areas but have to sleep in very specific hotels in town that are registered with the police to be able to officially host foreign passport holders. These are the same hotels that we used on our trip.

Do not be surprised if the police personally come visit your hotel room or need to check and copy your passport in these areas. In Jigdril, police came into our hotel room at 9pm at night just to check our belongings and register our passports. In Henan, we actually had to make copies of our passports and drive to the police station across town to register.

In these restricted places, it is very common to be asked to register in such a manner. This bridge in relationships, along with the obvious route finding help on the Nyenbo Yurtse trail, is one great reason I recommend using a local Tibetan guide along this journey (as we at Elevated Trips always do) so that these procedural encounters with the local police are smooth and easily managed.

 

 

To book this trek of a lifetime in Tibet:

Nyenbo Yurtse (shorter trek)

Six days of trekking bliss on Minya Konka

Discover the secrets to this mysterious mountain in this blog post about trekking routes in the region.   In this post we discuss the best seasons to hike this beauty as well as what to expect in a play by play journal of the 6 day trek up to the Riwuche high pass at 4,875 meter (16,000 feet).

Trekking Minya Konka in Spring

On May 11, 2017 I set out with a group of experienced Outdoor Adventure students and staff from a Canadian college for a wilderness expedition to trek Minya Konka, otherwise known as Mount GongGa in Chinese. 

For Tibetans, the taller the mountain, the more powerful the deity that lives on it.  So, by it’s very size and mass at  7,556 m (24,790 ft), Minya Konka is of huge spiritual importance to Tibetans.

The SummitPost reports that until 2003 the mountain was successfully climbed only eight times. In total 22 climbers have ever reached the summit in known recorded history.

While summiting its peak is off-limits to all but the most experienced of mountaineers, there is a more accessible trail which winds around the west of the mountain, following the sacred pilgrimage kora undertaken by many Tibetans each year and this allows for some very stunning trekking.

At this time of year we also found that there were many local nomad families out picking caterpillar fungus.  While each caterpillar fungus is very hard to spot (as little more than just a brown pencil-thin bump in the soil), they can fetch $3- $20 USD per fungus depending on size and quality. And that is the price just at the base of the distribution pyramid.  Once these get to high end markets in Shanghai and Beijing, Chinese consumers will pay great sums of money for this traditional Chinese herbal medicine that only grows in the high Tibetan Plateau. 

The starting point of the Minya Konka kora is just a short 30 minute drive from Kangding; however, we recommend spending a few days in Kangding town (2,560 meters or 8,400 feet) to acclimatize to the altitude before starting your trek. 

The traditional through-trek route takes you past Gongga Shan, along the stunning snow-capped Daxue Shan range of mountains which lie to the east of the trail. It’s possible to start your trek either from the north (Laoyulin near Kangding) and head south (Zimei), or from the south working your way northwards (see below map).

For our trip, we decided to start out at Laoyulin valley nearest Kangding and only go to the high pass at upper Riwuche (listed as “Shang Riwuqie” on the map above) at 4,876 meters or 16,000 feet and then retrace our steps back to the Laoyulin trailhead.  We made this decision on the basis of the snow pack at the top of the pass.  As we approached the high Riwuche pass, we were about 50 vertical meters from the top and we were already up to our hips in deep snow.  The presence of cornices at the pass along with the deep snow discouraged us from going further so we turned back, happy to have gotten an incredible view of the glacier and the 6,000 meter/20,000 foot mountains all around us.  However, we did see two Chinese trekkers go over the pass (and apparently complete the entire through trek).  Both of these brave individuals had full 40lb backpacking packs on and had a great deal of trouble getting through the thick snow.  But after hours of work struggling up the pass and postholing in the deep snow, we saw them disappear over the saddle of the pass and make it through the cornices.  However, I would not recommend doing the through trek of Minya Konka in early May.  If you were wanting to do the entire through trek from north to south or vice versa you would want to attempt this in the months of July, August, September and this would provide you with green valleys and a clear path across the high pass.

Here is a record of our group’s schedule as we trekked Minya Konka.

Click here for more

May 11

Day 1 of the trek

We arose at 6:45am in our cozy hostel so that we could get down to the bus by 7:30am.  Due to construction on the road leading to the Laoyulin trailhead, we wanted to get to the trailhead before 8am, when the construction starts and it is difficult to get by the many machines paving the road.  We arrived at the trailhead at 3,200 meters/10,498 feet and packed our tents, cooking gear, and our food on 4 small Tibetan ponies.  Carrying only our personal belongings and sleeping bags, took off on a small dirt road that wound past a small dam facility.  Within 3km, the road gave way to a proper trail and we were making our way through the rain.

After 7km of soggy hiking from the start at the trailhead, we passed the first pasture where it is possible to camp at 3,600 meters/11,811 feet (listed as “Dacaoba Camp” on the map above)  and opted for a quick and very cold and miserable lunch under the slight protection of a grove of trees just outside the pasture.  We had considered camping here, but the rain and the snow caused us to go on to stay warm through movement. By this time it was snowing and we were all very cold any time we stopped on the trail. 

After lunch we hiked another 8km in rain and snow and walked along the banks of a surging snowmelt river littered with lots of red rocks and dramatic boulders set against boreal forests and high cliffs. At around 4pm we arrived at the second pasture at 3,900 meters/12,795 feet (listed as “Riwuqie Gou” on the map above).  Fortunately, the precipitation let up and we had a chance to warm ourselves by the nice fire our Tibetan guide had made for us.  We quickly set up our tents and got warm, dry clothes on and made a warm dinner of curly pasta and sausages . It felt good to get some hot food in us and to sleep in nice 0 degree Celsius down sleeping bags.

May 12

Day 2 of the trek

After a breakfast of granola and powdered milk, the sun came out and allowed us an incredible view of one of the nearby 6,000 meter/20,000 foot peaks.  We all took scores of wet clothes and hung them up on every rock, crag, and gnarly little thorn bush we could find in a desperate attempt to get the wet contents of our bags bone dry.  For the most part, it worked out well and we all had dry clothes for the rest of the trip, especially because the rest of the trip was filled with good weather and sunbeams and blue skies over the mountains.

We had a lazy morning packing up our tents for the first time together and breaking camp.  We stayed in Camp 1 long enough that we were able to eat both Breakfast and Lunch there and then departed for a short 3-4km walk up the valley.  The trail continued to have a very shallow, gradual grade as it had for the last day’s walk.  This was certainly a big advantage with 20lb packs and less available oxygen as we gained elevation.  We crossed the river on a sturdy log bridge and made our way past Tibetan nomad tents pitched by entrepreneurial Tibetans looking to cash in on the 3 weeks of opportune caterpillar fungus picking. 

Around 3:30pm we arrived at our camp 2 at 4,100 meters by pile of “Labtse” or stones that have been thrown into a pile to appease local mountain and water spirits.  This stone pile, although very different in purpose,  looked remarkably like a western cairn which serves at a high altitude trail marker.  We set up our camp, filtered water, and had a glorious supper of pasta with cabbage and cauliflower, carrots, and red curry. After a relaxed day of hiking, a good debrief and a good dinner, we felt revived from the way the weather had worn us down the day before.

May 13

Day 3 of the trek

We ate breakfast and broke our Camp 2 at lower Riwuche valley (listed as “Xia Riwuqie” on the map above).  Like every morning, we had to tie the tents and luggage in a special way so that each bag or box could be tied to the side of the wooden saddle on the ponies’ backs.  From there we walked another 4km up to the upper Riwuche valley to arrive at Camp 3.  More gentle slopes greeted us as we made our way from one valley floor to the next.  As a tip to anyone trekking up the valley from north to south as we did, I would suggest for you to stay right of the river until you get to a small wooden log bridge.  We happened to cross the river a few 100 meters too early to the left side and it cost us about 30 minutes in travel time as we bushwhacked our way through brush and uncut trail.  We were never in danger and the result (getting to the left side of the river) was the same. 

Just before crossing into the upper Riwuche valley (listed as “Shang Riwuqie” on the map above) , we ascended a sandy slope that reminded me of sand dunes and once we were over that last hump the entire upper Riwuche valley opened up to us and we were surrounded by monstrous 6,000 meter (20,000 foot) peaks on all sides.  The entire trek had been gorgeous, but as we made this last push it became evident that it just kept getting more unreal. 

We set up camp quickly and half of our group made a quick push to the edge of the glacier lake while the other half rested and worked on dinner.

It took us about 1.5 hours to get up to the rim of the glacier lake from Camp 3.  The first 45 minutes was spent traversing relatively flat terrain and navigating the braiding branches of the river and its snowy banks. Then we ascended steeply up  through a rocky gully that forked to the left of the valley and clambered across boulders to the rim of the glacial lake.  Surprisingly, there was only small patches of 3-6 inch snow as we crowned over the rim so the hiking was very manageable and at no time did we posthole in the snow. On the rim we were right at 4,572 meters (15,000 feet).  We were taller than anything in the 48 United States and, boy, were we feeling it!  We all huffed and puffed to get to the top but it was so worth it!  This, for me, was the absolute highlight of the trip in seeing the light of the coming sunset piercing through the blue edges of the glacial ice across the lake.  The lake itself reminded me of Crater Lake in Oregon in the winter- a high craggy rim that encircled a snowy crater below.  But the backdrop was Denali itself in a rugged alpine stark beauty.  It was the kind of wonder that we were all seeking on the trip; the kind of grandiose scene that makes a man feel very small against jagged and fierce cliffs that could wipe him from the face of the earth in just one fervent blast of wind. Even the high trail along the ridge of the lake was a knife edge.  It was the kind of trail that allows for a  foot or two of width in safe passage but everything on either side looked like a long and dangerous drop. 

Our turn around time arrived.  After a few jumping pictures on the rim, we weaved our way in-between boulders and snowpack.  We descended back to camp 3 and wound back down to the mouth of the lake as it poured gently back into the valley and became a rushing river that surged under a icy veneer.

Within 1 hour of departing the rim of the glacial lake, we were back in camp.  And we exhausted.  Thankfully, a hot dinner awaited us.  We ate our fill, cleaned up dinner, and headed for the horizontal position in our sleeping bags.  A snow storm was starting to blow up and none of us were too keen to linger too long outside of the tent at 4,300 meters/14,107 feet.    

May 14

Day 4 of the trek- a day hike from Camp 3

I promised myself as I went to bed the former night that the next day was definitely going to be a rest day for me.  I had felt I had really experienced my highlight of the trip in the glacial lake and I was up for rest day at high altitude. I was starting to experience a headache and had developed some diarrhea, so I figured I could use some rest from pushing myself the day before.  I told my co-leader that I was happy to stay back in camp that day and just watch the tents, pump water, and cook food. 

That was my plan as I exited my tent into 5 inches of thick freshly fallen snow on the morning of May 14. It seemed like a perfect day to listen to the birds flitter and chirp away as the sun melted the snow that covered our tent.

But that plan for rest totally failed.  What was proposed for the day was a quick one hour jaunt to   a nearby saddle from Camp 3.  I figured I could manage such an easy and quick hike from our camp and then be back to have a full and restful afternoon.  So I put on my clothes and my gaiters, anticipating a short and non-eventful foray within a stone’s throw of our camp. 

But then the fog came in right over the saddle that we were aiming for.  And as soon as that fog settled in behind us, the sun, at the same time,  came blaring through the clouds and revealed a brilliant blue sky directly above us.  We all instantly threw off our fleece layers and merino base layers and within 3 minutes we were all standing in fresh snow in our short sleeves.  This changed everything.  Now the saddle didn’t seem so inviting and it certainly wasn’t going to provide any new or interesting views in that fog.  But the pass – the highest pass of the entire hike- looked clear and sunny and inviting.  In those 3 minutes our plans changed.  We weren’t going up just 50 or 100 meters.  Our group was going for the holy grail – climbing 600 meters to a pass that we were not sure we could make it to.  I told myself I was going to turn around half way and come back to camp early. At least that is the way I rationalized taking advantage of the weather.

But by the time we were half way up, the weather was clear and overcast (which was good because the snow was not too bright) and I could see the high pass.  It didn’t look so far and the snow was surprisingly manageable.  Most importantly, no one else was turning around and going back to camp.  So neither was I.

The trek from Camp 3 to the high pass was about 5km each way.  After we had hiked about 3km we found a group of Tibetan horses grazing in the scant grass and shrubs that clung to the rocks. These were a group of horses that had been carrying two Chinese trekkers. The horses at this point could not go any further so they dropped the trekkers off to ascend the pass on their own two fee. As we got to within 1km of the pass, the snow started getting gradually deeper. Each step sunk in a little more than the last into the snow.  But, fortunately, we had some real bold hikers who were willing to break trail and do the hard work. I just stepped gingerly into their well-laid bootprints and hoped I would not break further down deeper into the snow with my own feet.  In most cases, I was able to stay relatively comfortably above the snowpack. Once we were within 300 horizontal meters of the pass, it got noticeably thicker.  Suddenly we weren’t just floating on top of the snow effortlessly.  But I was sinking into it like I was in a boggy swamp.  Some of my steps plunged me right up to my thigh and it took considerable energy to pull myself out of the snow trap I had right-foot lunged into. Right around this time we came upon two Chinese trekkers with full packs and their local Tibetan guide.  As we had approached over the last few hours we had been trailing them (and they had been making a trail for us in the snow).  But over the last hour or so of ascent to the base of the pass we had noticed they had just completely stopped.  We were curious if they were going up.  Mostly because we, ourselves, had the same question in own minds, “With the snow so deep, will we make it to the top of the pass?”

Inevitably we quickly gained on the hikers, to find they had full backpacks and were planning to cross the pass and carry on the rest of the way to Zimei village on the other side of the pass.  We only had slight day packs with water and snacks and we were struggling to make it through the snow.  I can only imagine what was going through the minds and bodies of these two poor Chinese trekkers with full packs.  Every step they took sent them belly deep into an abyss of snow to then struggle and shake and flail  their way out of a deep hole like an overturned turtle escaping a ditch repeatedly .  But they were determined to make it across the pass. In fact, one of the trekkers was so Gung-Ho that he refused to follow his friends hard-earned footprints and instead went all “Lone Ranger” to try to blaze his own trail.  In snow that is 1-2 meters deep, I can not possibly comprehend why anyone would waste so much time and energy trying to make their own path when there is 30% less oxygen available than at sea level.  It was an amazing example of pride and independence that could have really hurt or endangered this trekker.

I wasn’t the only one worried for these two.  Their Tibetan guide gave them directions on which way to cross the snow to navigate the cornices and the narrow pass.  Then he turned around and went back, leaving them on their own for the rest of the hike.   Apparently he was only hired to guide half the hike and then his plan was to go back down to the valley to help the rest of his family to find more caterpillar fungus. But we watched as the Tibetan guide left his two trekkers to ascend while he descended back down the snow slope.  Then we watched him turn around and make his way all the way back to the trekkers just as they were about to cross the pass.  They had gone the wrong way and it was putting them in not just deep snow but considerable danger of snow or rock slides. The Tibetan guide looked back and saw this and came back to to help the two Chinese trekkers. When he came back we all breathed a sigh of relief because we were seriously worried for these guys. As we looked up to the pass, we saw the Tibetan guide help them find their way over the pass and we were happy for them that they made it.  But we knew that they had a long descent down through a lot of heavy snow.  It made us glad that we had decided not to do the full through trek.

In light of the fact that we were in no way obligated to cross the pass, we decided to stop short at a rock pile just 50 vertical meters from the 4,875 meter (16,000 foot) pass.  We probably could have made it, but we decided that it was not worth all the time and energy to just return to camp even more tired and worn out.

As it was, we were engulfed in a cloud of never-ending white.  And we had hit our turn around time, so we knew it was time to head back to camp.  So that is what we did.  Just at that moment the sun came out and started to turn the hard snow pack to slosh.   And suddenly our journey in the snow became a little bit more arduous in the newly melted softer snow.  We plunged and careened down back to the dirt path and rejoiced when were no longer slogging in the slushy goop snow.

Somehow I had managed to do the exact opposite of rest that day.  I had been to an elevation that qualified as probably the 3rd highest I had ever been to in my entire life (next to Tibet’s Everest Base Camp at 5,200 meters and another hike that took me equally as high).  Once again, I was very tired from a long day at elevation. But I was glad I hadn’t turned around.  It felt good to have pushed through. And it felt even better to snuggle up in my tent.

May 15

Day 5 of the trek

We packed up camp feeling a sense of accomplishment.  We had gotten much higher than we ever thought we would as a group.  Now it was time to head home to the stables.  We power walked out and did 17km downhill passing Camp 3, Camp 2, and Camp 1. We descended from 4,300 meters to about 3,600 meters and our lungs were happy and bursting with all the excess oxygen.  We made a camp in the afternoon and had a blazing fire with all the excess wood in the forest (something that was a rare commodity in the high alpine zones of the last few days). Our knees were tired but we were all in good shape.  We camped in an open pasture at 3,600 meters (listed as “Dacaoba Camp” on the map above).

May 16

Day 6 of the trek

We ate  breakfast and were out of camp by 10:30am.  By 12 noon we were at the Laoyulin trailhead again.  The bus picked us up and by 1pm we were in Kangding.  We grabbed a quick dumpling lunch in town and then headed for a well kept secret that only locals know about:  a real hot springs bath house.  The hot springs flow naturally from the ground but the local Tibetans have channeled this water into a few different private and public pools.  It felt so good to soak in the hot, mineral-rich water and wash 6 days of grime off our bodies and let it steam away.  This was the perfect way to end an incredible walk in the wilderness.

The ABC’s of packing a backpack

I love packing for a trip.  It helps me feel ready for what is about to be a highlight of my year. But sometimes it can be so confusing about what to bring and how to bring it.

In this post, I will lay out the ABCs of packing a backpack. Whether you’re packing a duffel bag or a backpack, the ABCs are a simple way to organize your gear and help you look like a pro, because after all, looking good is half the battle.
But before we get into the ABCs, lets start with a few steps.

Step 1: Make a packing list of what you need and check stuff off.

When you come travel with Elevated Trips we will provided you with a quality packing list that details everything you need (and everything you don’t).  We have spent our fair share of days at altitude in both towns and mountains and our experience won’t let you down!
Step 2: Lay out all of your gear out. Yes, all of it. Physically inspect that each piece of gear is laid out and corresponds to your packing list. As you pack it, cross it off on your list.

Here is a great video by Sierra Designs on packing tips:

Now let’s get to the ABCs

A: ACCESSIBLE
When packing, think about your stuff and ask yourself these questions:

What will I need today? What don’t I need?

You can make your life easier by placing the items you need in an easy to reach location. Items like a raincoat, water bottle, sunscreen, hat and snacks should live at the top of your pack, or in a separate, convenient pocket. Items like pajamas, dirty clothes and a sleeping bag should be packed at the bottom. You won’t need these items until the evening; plus, you won’t have to dig through your dirty clothes for that raincoat in a downpour.

B: BALANCE
Balancing a pack is important. Imagine having 30 lbs in your pack. Where would you want that weight? All on one side, at the top or at the bottom? The correct answer is all of the above. The weight of your gear should be distributed so that your pack is an extension of your body. The key is placing heavy items in the middle of the pack, closest to your own back. Imagine the area above your hips and below your shoulder blades; that is where you want your heaviest items. If you have too much weight toward the top, you will be top-heavy, and your shoulders will hurt more.
C: COMPRESSION
Keep your gear tight and compressed in your bag. If you have straps, tighten them down. If you have compression sacks, use those to compress other gear inside the bag, whether a sleeping bag or clothes. This will decrease the size of the bag and help it fit into smaller spaces, like overhead luggage compartments or ocean dwelling dinghy’s.

D: DEFORMITIES
Every space in your pack should be utilized. If you see a small deformity, a little hole of space, fill that hole. Stuff some socks in there, maybe even a shirt or two. This is not the time to fold nicely; stuff it all and make sure all that space is used. Space is limited and we want to be efficient. You can always iron that wrinkly shirt later.

E: EVERYTHING INSIDE
Make sure to pack all your gear inside your pack. That Nalgene strapped to the outside will fall off and that wet towel tied on might not make the trip (especially as you travel through an airport). If you are packing smart, then every piece of gear has a purpose and loosing that piece of gear will create problems. Plus, you will look dialed and professional without gear clanking around on your pack. Once again, looking good is an important theme in this post.

F: FOOD/FUEL
If you are traveling with food and fuel, make sure the fuel is packed below the food. Why? If that fuel leaks and gravity takes it down into some food, that awesome dinner you were looking forward to all day is no good to eat. Or maybe you ate that food and now your body is having a mass exodus. I don’t like either option. (Feel free to substitute items like shampoo and sunscreen for fuel. These items love to leak, especially above your clean pajamas)

G: GREAT JOB
G stands for great job! There are many ways to pack and everyone should develop their own systems. These are some simple tips of ways to organize your gear. Play around. Practice packing. Take many trips. If you’re traveling this summer and packing your gear right now, great job and see you out there!

YouNing Monastery – a great day trip from Xining!

Come see monks light butter candles in the lower monastery and then travel another 7km up the road to the upper hermitage for some incredible views and breathtaking trekking!

In this blog I have included a sample schedule on how I would plan to climb the mountains so you can accurately budget your time and know what to expect for your day trip.

YouNing Monastery is a delightful hidden treasure in Qinghai Province.  Just a short 1.5 hour drive from Qinghai’s capital, Xining, this is an excellent one day excursion from Xining.  You can leave in the morning from Xining, have a picnic near the monastery, and be back to Xining by dinner. YouNing Monastery is composed of a lower monastery complex with several temples and meditation halls and an upper, smaller hermitage that has meditation caves where Buddhist monks go to meditate silently for months or even years.  The meditation caves are located 7km up the dirt road from the larger monastery and are a great way to get away from people and into the mountains.

You could spend all day touring the larger lower monastery complex if you are not into hiking the mountains.  But for me, the reason I come here is to get into the mountains. Here is how I would manage my time in YouNing Monastery if I was traveling there, the hiking times account for a person in average shape with a mild level of fitness:

8:30am- Depart Xining city

10:00am – Arrive at YouNing Monastery, explore the courtyards and monastic halls of the main temples and meditation halls for about an hour.

11:00am- Drive another 7km up the dirt road to the hermitage site.  Park in the upper parking lot there.

11:15am- Depart from cement lot parking past a small sign up a trail that ascends to the hermitage sites.  You  will pass a small monastery (much smaller than the ones in the lower monastery as it only holds a few monks) and then continue another 15 minutes to ascend cement steps to a series of hermitage caves with meditation temples built around them.

11:45am- Arrive at hermitage caves.  Walk up the steps past into the caves for a great view of the mountains. Take a few pictures and descend back to the small, upper monastery

12:15pm- Eat a picnic lunch near the upper monastery

1:00pm – Continue past the smaller monastery to a hiking trail that leads up to a barren mountain ridge.

1:45pm- Stop for a breather at a simple mud home used by nomads to keep their sheep

3:00pm- Reach the saddle of the mountain ridge at 3,700 meters for a great 360 degree panoramic view of the mountains behind the main YouNing Monastery complex.

3:15pm- Descend to the parking lot

5:00pm – Jump in your car at the parking lot and drive back to Xining

6:30pm – Enjoy a nice hearty dinner in Xining as a reward for your tough climb!

 

Below is a picture of the smaller, upper monastery.  This leads to a trail to the upper hermitage caves and is a great place to launch a 4 hour roundtrip hike up to 3,500 meters to a mountain saddle.

 

To get to YouNing Monastery, you travel from Xining to its main lower monastery hall, pictured below

 

These stupas are part of the smaller, upper monastery and offer a great view directly below to the lower monastery complex.

 

View from the top of the 3,700 mountain ridge – what will likely be your furthest point of ascent unless you camp on the ridge and keep exploring the mountains.  This is the ultimate reward for about 3 hours of ascent from the hermitage below.

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