Beautiful Baikal

Since we first picked up a Trans-Siberian Railway guidebook in a bookstore, I have been captivated by Lake Baikal. During our journey across Russia, I just had to stop there. The Trans-Siberian passes by the southern edge of the lake, but we wanted to see it for more than a few hours, so we got off in Irkutsk, the traditional jumping-off point for Baikal adventures.

Irkutsk was bizarre. In Russia, things are done a certain way, and we weren’t used to that– but it was also weird in its remoteness. It probably would’ve seemed even weirder if we hadn’t just come from Ulaan Baatar. For such a big city that’s also a regional center, there were few shops, supermarkets, or restaurants. We had wanted to try Russian food on our first night in town, but the only reasonably-priced restaurants we found were Italian and Japanese. We didn’t yet know how Soviet-style canteens worked. To complicate matters, we had arrived on a Sunday, when many businesses are closed. We ended up sharing a pizza.

The next morning, we left for Olkhon Island, which is in the middle of Lake Baikal. The journey, by bus and ferry, was rather harrowing. The roads deteriorated the further we got from Irkutsk, and once actually on Olkhon, are nonexistent. I was happy we’d decided to stay five nights on the island, so we’d have a few days to recover before doing that journey again. Happily, from our guesthouse, it was only a few minutes’ walk down to the beach.

It’s hard to convey the size of the lake. It’s so big that the Chinese, Mongolians, and Russians used to refer to it as a sea, not a lake. On a north-south axis, Olkhon is in the middle of the lake, but on the east-west axis, is very far west. The gap, at its narrowest, is was only about 20 minutes by ferry from the mainland. The strait then widens, but compared to the eastern side, this body of water is so narrow it is called the “Little Sea.” Yeah. I’ll say.Lake Baikal

It is the world’s oldest, deepest, and most voluminous freshwater lake. For the record, its beauty is also superlative. We took a jeep tour out to the northern tip of the island, Cape Khoboy. Bob joked that it was called that because when you get there, you take one look and say “Oh boy.”Cape Khoboy

The area seemed to exude calm energy. There were several jeep tours that arrived at the same time, as well as Russian tourists who had driven themselves. People laughed and talked as they climbed up the cliff, but fell silent as soon as they arrived. While I was taking pictures, I noticed something strange: just about everyone was sitting down, staring out at the water. It was as if the lake had some mysterious pull, forcing contemplation from all its onlookers. People contemplating at Lake Baikal

From here, it’s hundreds of miles north through frigid water to reach land. Imagine: during winter, the entire thing freezes, so thick that vehicles can drive across it. Endless Lake Baikal

Spending so many days at the lake revealed many different aspects of it. There are some parts that, when the sunlight hits it, look like a tropical sea. Tropical Lake Baikal?

When it was cloudy, the line between mountains and lake blurred.Sunset, Lake Baikal

The lake is reputed to have mysterious powers: the local Buryat people believe that it’s one of the spiritual poles of the earth. Russians say that if you put your hand in the lake, an extra year is added to your life; your foot gets you two years; your head, five; and immersing your whole body gets you an extra TWENTY-FIVE years. That is, if you don’t freeze doing it. The water temperature, at the hottest time of the year, is maybe 60 degrees Fahrenheit. We took our chances.

Bob tests out Lake Baikal

The best way to do it is just to run in, immerse yourself, and get out as quickly as possible. Bob swimming in Lake BaikalImmersion in Lake Baikal I had said I wouldn’t do it, but after Bob did it, I had to give it a try. LET ME TELL YOU, it was cold. And I hate cold water. Katie in Lake Baikal

I told Bob, “The only reason I’m doing this is for an extra twenty-five years with you.”Katie in Lake Baikal


Erdene Zuu Monastery

Most Mongolians are Tibetan Buddhists. This seemed strange to me at first. Tibet is pretty far from Mongolia, and most people living in between the two regions don’t practice the same form of Buddhism. I was really curious about how this had happened. The story goes like this. Buddhism was introduced to Mongolia by Tibetans in the 16th century. The Mongols originally believed in shamanism. Though the Buddhist doctrine had been spread across all of Central Asia, it had not been very successful in Mongolia, until one Mongolian leader wanted to use religion to unite his people. He invited a Tibetan Buddhist abbot up to Mongolia to hear what he had to say. He converted to Buddhism, and bestowed the title of Dalai Lama on the abbot who had come. The word “dalai” is actually a Mongolian word.

Erdene Zuu monastery was built shortly after these events. Legend has it that, after his conversion, the Mongolian leader was instructed to build a monastery in a river valley that was also near mountains. Coincidentally (or maybe not,) it’s near the ancient city of Karakorum, which was the capital of Mongolia way back in the 13th and 14th century. Whatever the reason, it’s a stunning setting.

Prayer wheels, Erdene Zuu

Parts of the temple have been destroyed and rebuilt over the years, then during the Soviet years, most of the temple was destroyed, as were most religious buildings in Mongolia. The Communist leaders wanted to eradicate religion altogether. During purges in the 1930s, over 10,000 monks were murdered, and more were exiled to Siberia. Religious activity, which had been a huge part of Mongolian life, became nonexistent, and would be so for sixty years. The only two exceptions to the assault on religion were Gandan Khiid monastery in Ulaan Baatar and a section of Erdene Zuu, which was allowed to keep operating as a museum only. While many temple buildings were destroyed (there had been dozens,) a few of them did survive, as well as the surrounding wall.

Wall, Erdene Zuu monastery

In Tibetan Buddhism, colors are of special significance: I can’t remember which was which, but the five colors white, red, yellow, blue, and green each represent one of of the five elements. Temples are always decorated with these colors, so they’re very bright inside.

Buddha statue Like in Mahayana Buddhist temples I have visited, there were guardian king statues near the doorway of the temple buildings. They’re always fierce-looking, but this was the first time I’ve seen a guardian riding a donkey (?), using a gutted human body as a saddle.

Guardian king

Things have changed a lot since the Soviet days. Religion is thriving, and most other visitors we  saw at the temple were Mongolian. It’s a working monastery again, so monks live there, without fear for their lives.

Monks at Erdene Zuu

For foreign visitors as well, it’s one of the most popular tourist destinations in Mongolia. The country has incredible natural beauty, and there are many opportunities to get outdoors, but due to its nomadic (and recently turbulent) history, there aren’t many places to experience Mongolian culture, or imagine its past as an empire. Erdene Zuu is one of those places. There wasn’t much we could see of the old town of Karakorum, but, at our driver’s insistence, we did take a detour to see one stone tortoise statue near the monastery. Later, I learned that this was one of four stone tortoises that guarded the north, south, east, and west boundaries of the city. Stone tortoise, Karakorum

I have to admit that, before going to Mongolia, I was primarily interested in outdoorsy activities and didn’t care about visiting any temples. I only went because my mom wanted to go. But Erdene Zuu was enthralling. Though it’s hard for any attraction to compete with the beautiful scenery, I forgot all about it, just for a little while. IMG_1820

Climbing the Great Wall

You’re in China. Maybe you’re off exploring the Tibetan Plateau, or tasting beer in Qingdao, or lazily drifting down the Li River, admiring the emerald green karsts of Guilin. None of that is going to matter to your family or friends when you get back home, though. The number one question they’ll have for you is, “Did you go to the Great Wall?” You don’t want to disappoint them by answering incorrectly, so you had better squeeze it into your itinerary.

You’ll be glad you did, though, because (loathe as a I am to use this phrase) the Great Wall really is a must-see. However, famous as it is, figuring out how to go about seeing it can be a little confusing. It’s not as simple as telling your taxi driver, “Please take me to the Great Wall.” First, he probably has no idea what you just said. Second, the Great Wall is long – really, really long – so you’ll need to know what specific section of the Great Wall you want to see. There are several options, each offering a different experience. Because of its proximity to Beijing and because it’s been completely restored, Badaling is the most popular section for tourists. It’s the most accessible, but as such, is also swarming with vendors who follow said tourists around, grabbing their arms and yelling at them in Chinese until they just buy something out of exasperation. There’s another section very popular among hikers, which connects Simatai and Jinshanling (about 10 km, but it’s tough going). Simatai was closed for restoration, so we weren’t able to attempt this hike. Instead, we decided to go to a section called Huanghua, which is officially closed to tourists.


Notice I said, “officially.” Unofficially, you can climb all over it, in exchange for a small fee paid directly to the locals who own the land. The reason these signs exist is to discourage people from coming to Huanghua and to encourage them instead to go to one of the other sections owned by the Chinese government, which will then charge them a much higher fee to see essentially the same wall. Technically, you do run the risk of being fined by the authorities if they catch you, but we never had the impression that we might be caught, or that the police would even bother. There’s a restaurant (English menu) as well as a few souvenir vendors set up near the entrance, so it’s not like it’s a big secret that tourists are coming to Huanghua.

The great thing about Huanghua is that it hasn’t been restored and looks properly old and weathered, right out of the Ming Dynasty. Most of it’s in good shape, but you had better watch your step in some parts:


Another advantage is that even in the middle of the day, you don’t have a lot of company. Apart from the four of us, there were only a few other groups climbing. That meant we could take lots of unobstructed photos of just ourselves and the Wall and the mountains beyond. But it’s not so bad getting stuck behind a Chinese family, especially if they take a liking to you and the grandma decides to give you several cucumbers, some hard-boiled eggs, and a tomato.

The most delicious cucumber I've ever eaten on a UNESCO World Heritage Site

You’ll also have a chance to appear in their family album:


No matter what section you choose, though, it’s unlikely that you’ll leave feeling disappointed. The Great Wall is an attraction that fully lives up to its hype; not only is the wall itself an engineering marvel, but the backdrop is fantastic, and the views would be worth the two-hour taxi ride from Beijing, wall or no wall. Most importantly, though, the Great Wall is truly unique; quite a few times on our trip, I would fall into the bad habit of comparing some new site or experience with ones from places we’ve already been. “This city looks a lot like Osaka,” I’d say, or, “I saw something similar in Chiang Mai.” It’s a feeling common to anyone who’s seen and done as much as we have in such a short period of time. Sometimes I even noticed myself enjoying a place less than I ought to, because all I could think about is what it reminded me of. The Great Wall is one of those rare, incomparable places – there’s simply nothing like it.


Hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge, Day 3

Our third day was our shortest day: all we did was hike down to the Tiger Leaping Stone and back. There are two trails; both cost 10 yuan to enter. We chose the one near Sandy’s Guesthouse, which we were told was faster, because it utilizes two ladders.


The other trail has no ladders, only switchbacks. A guy we met along the trail told us that the other trail was more scenic, but we had heard that to go down one trail and come back another would cost double. The trails are run by locals, so the official Tiger Leaping Gorge ticket doesn’t cover entry to these paths. Normally an extra 20 yuan wouldn’t bother us, but we were low on cash and had to save our money for the bus ride back to Lijiang. We hadn’t budgeted well, and there are no ATMs or places to exchange money in the gorge. There are ATMs in Qiaotou, but we tried two of them, and they didn’t accept our card. Maybe they don’t accept foreign cards? Anyway, lesson learned. Again.

It took us just under an hour for each of the descent and ascent. We had seen such incredible scenery on our first two days of hiking that today was a bit of a letdown. There’s not much to see along the way. Reaching the bottom and sitting near the rushing water was exhilarating, but there was little else to look at. The view from the road, high above the gorge, is more impressive than the view up close. As every other visitor before us has probably done, we discussed whether it was possible for a tiger to leap across the river. We decided it was unlikely.


And we took the obligatory commemorative photos:


We went back to Lijiang in a minibus run by Tina’s Guesthouse, which cost 50 yuan per person. Sandy’s Guesthouse also runs minibuses, for the same price. To go back only as far as Qiaotou is 20 yuan. On our first day, we paid 37 yuan each for the bus from Lijiang to Qiaotou, so 50 from the Middle Gorge seemed reasonable to me.

From Qiaotou, it’s also possible to get a minibus TO the Middle Gorge and then just take day hikes, such as to the Tiger Leaping Stone or to one of the waterfalls. I think that while the Middle Gorge is spectacular, I enjoyed the scenery the whole way. I’m glad that we did the whole hike, and if you are inclined and able-bodied, that’s what I would recommend.

All guesthouses serve food, which is mostly bland, generic Chinese and Western food, written out on bamboo stick menus. Prices are about 10-20 yuan for a main dish, and 10 yuan for a large bottle of Dali beer.

Tea Horse Guesthouse
For hikers who aim to complete the trek in two days, this place is at a very convenient stopping point. A bed in a dorm is 25 yuan per night. The pita bread dishes are good value- the pieces of bread are very big. The noodle soups are pretty good, too. The lady who runs the place is very friendly. If they’re full, there is another guesthouse next door, whose name escapes me.

Tina’s Guesthouse
Affiliated with HI/YHA, so if you are a member, beds are 20 yuan. Non-members pay 25 yuan. Only three beds per room, and as there are few solo travelers in the gorge, we ended up with a room to ourselves.

While the guesthouse is fine, the restaurant is not great. Definitely do not order the vegetable noodle soup, unless you like eating noodles floating in eggy water, garnished with slices of tomato. The fried rice is passable. I recommend eating at Bridge Cafe instead.

Bridge Cafe and Guesthouse
Run by a sweet Japanese woman who also speaks English and Chinese. Her cafe, unlike the others we stopped at, serves very tasty dishes made with all fresh ingredients, like organic vegetables from her garden and local goat cheese. It comes at a slightly higher price- 15-30 yuan for a main dish, but highly recommended. Also- if this matters to you- the only Western-style toilet that I found in the gorge is here. They also have rooms.

Hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge, Day 2

Relief. We woke up feeling fine. As if yesterday had never happened. Just in case, we didn’t hurry off, but relaxed on the terrace at the guesthouse, drinking coffee and eating breakfast. Also, it was drizzling until 10:00am, so we waited for the weather to improve. So, like yesterday, we started late, but today’s walk was shorter and less strenuous.


The path was very flat and a little boring

Estimates from Tea Horse to the Middle Gorge range from three to four hours, and we found it took us closer to the longer end of the scale. The first two and a half hours were fairly flat. Like Day 1, there were some great views, but it was not quite as spectacular as yesterday. Maybe we had gotten used to the scenery?


But there was a waterfall! The stepping stones in the pool were obviously placed for tall people. I had some trouble and nearly stuck my foot in the water. It’s not deep, but it would not have been pleasant to hike with wet socks.


There are many encouraging signs painted on rocks along the way, mostly in English (did I mention that this hike is most popular among backpackers?) Homemade apple pie and a hot shower do sound pretty good….


The last hour was downhill, but there’s a lot of scoria and the path is steep, so it was slow going. While it was much easier on the lungs than yesterday, it was harder on the ankles. Luckily the rain had been too light to make the path slippery, but strong enough to dampen the sand and prevent it from filling the air when the wind blew. In wet weather, I think this part would be the toughest.


Don't twist your ankle!

The path ends when it rejoins the “low road,” the paved road we had left behind back in Qiaotou. When we got there, we found several guesthouses and cafes, whose names we recognized from the boulder-signs. We opted to stay at one called Tina’s Guesthouse, which is HI-affiliated and offered a 20% discount for members. Score! This is certainly the best view I’ve ever had for US$3.25 per night:


This area is called the Middle Gorge, which is considered the most scenic. As such, many tourists opt to just drive to this point, without doing the hike. It is a very beautiful spot… but not seeing the view from the top of the cliff would be such a shame. It would be like seeing the Grand Canyon from the middle of the gorge, and not from the top like in all the postcard pictures.

On Day 3: we hike down all the way to the river itself! We’ve seen the view from 3000 meters up, now we’ll see it from 0 (or as close as possible.)

Hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge, Day 1

China’s answer to the Grand Canyon: Tiger Leaping Gorge, a canyon carved by the Yangzi river, in western Yunnan province. At its narrowest point, the distance from one bank to the opposite side is so small that according to legend, a tiger once leapt across to escape from a hunter, hence the name.IMG_0411

The best way to appreciate the beauty and size of the canyon is to take a multi-day hike (or one day, for the extremely energetic) along the cliffs above the gorge. It’s a popular trek, especially among backpackers. We used the new Lonely Planet China book to guide us, but I found their instructions to be misleading. The main trail that hikers use is the “high path” from Qiaotou to the Middle Gorge. At the Middle Gorge (which is agreed upon as the most scenic,) the high path rejoins the “low path” (a paved road.) From there, there are some side trails: one up to a waterfall, or two different paths down to the Tiger Leaping Stone, but not to the Lower Gorge, so to go there, hikers must follow the road. I thought the guidebook made it sound like most hikers walk all the way to the Lower Gorge, then to Daju, and then get a bus back to Lijiang. We prefer to hike on trails and not have to avoid cars, so we decided not to proceed past the Middle Gorge. As it turned out, most hikers we met were doing the same thing. From the Middle Gorge, the guesthouses run minibuses back to Lijiang, so there’s really no need to go all the way to Daju.

From Lijiang’s bus station, buses run reguarly to Qiaotou. Due to roadwork, the ride took longer than we expected- about three hours. The bus stops on the main street in Qiaotou; where there are a few restaurants and maybe a guy offering rides to Shangri-la. The gorge entrance is not well marked, but it’s just straight ahead. Where the road comes to a T, the gorge entrance is on the right. To the left are a few more restaurants, and a fairly gruesome toilet that costs 1 yuan per person.

Right under the archway is a small office, where you pay the gorge entrance fee, 50 yuan. After receiving your ticket, follow the road past Jane’s Guesthouse several hundred meters. We stopped at Jane’s to try to pick up a map, but I couldn’t find any staff- the whole place looked empty. They do have large maps posted on the wall, so I took photos of those for reference, which turned out to be a very good idea, as I used them quite a few times along the way. The entrance to the high path is just a little further along the same road. Walk past the school a few hundred meters and it’s on the left.IMG_0394

Once on the trail, it’s hard to get lost. I’ve read older blog posts that suggest that ten or twelve years ago, the trail was not well-marked, but nowadays it’s quite clearly defined. No problems there. We started late (about 1:30pm) so we decided just to walk as far as we felt like, and stop when we were tired. The first part is quite easy, and the surroundings are pretty and pastoral. IMG_0402

Beyond the rice terraces and rolling hills, snow-capped mountains give a clue as to the altitude. Yunnan borders Tibet, and these mountains, part of the Greater Himalayas, form the southeastern border of the Tibetan Plateau.IMG_0397 There’s a concrete path at first, but it doesn’t go very far, and soon we were on the hiking trail. We had gotten such a late start that we only saw two other hikers. Human hikers, that is- there were also several mountain goats. This little one tried to follow Bob up the hill, then Mama Goat got mad and followed me.


This one was cute, but Mom was scary! Mountain goats can climb pretty fast!

There are a few guesthouses along the way and the first one we came to, after about an hour and a half of walking, was Naxi Family Guesthouse. We didn’t feel like stopping yet, so we continued to the next segment, known as the Twenty-Eight Bends. By far the most strenuous part of the trail, for both your lungs and knees, a series of switchbacks leads up to the highest point of the trek.


Are you ready, Bob?

It took us about two hours to complete this section. The view of the gorge below makes it worth your trouble. For the tired or lazy, there are ponies available for rent. The owners are impossible to avoid (“Rent horse? Rent horse?”) and so are the horse apples.


The altitude reaches as high as 2670 meters (8755 feet) and Bob had some trouble breathing. Strangely, I was fine, though I’m the one who usually has breathing problems (due to asthma.)

There are a few kiosks along the way, selling Snickers bars, water, and fruit, at astronomical prices (but I suppose they did haul that stuff all the way up the hill.) We also ran into a few enterprising locals who attempted to charge us for taking photos. Personally, I felt that it was unfair to charge money for the scenery, especially when I’d already bought an entrance ticket, so I refused to pay. One woman tried to block our path but eventually gave up. I don’t know what the authorities think about this… they probably don’t care. On one hand, I sympathize, because the locals probably don’t get much revenue from all the tourist traffic, but on the other hand, I don’t agree with extortion.

After the Twenty-Eight Bends, there’s a descent for about an hour and a half, then you reach two guesthouses. We were both exhausted, Bob felt ill, plus it was starting to get dark: time to call it quits for the day. We stayed at Tea Horse Guesthouse; we were the last people to arrive for the night, and coincidentally we started chatting with a couple who had been the first to arrive. They had spent the night before at Jane’s Guesthouse so they could get a bright and early start. However, they said that the sun had been in their eyes most of the way, so us hiking in the afternoon was not such a bad idea after all.


The view from Tea Horse Guesthouse

Remember that all of China is on one time zone, which is Beijing time, so that in Yunnan and other western parts of the country, the clock may say 2:00pm but the sun will be directly overhead as if it were noon. Depending how far west you are, the sun may set very late. What this means for the hiker in Tiger Leaping Gorge: even if your watch says it’s late afternoon, don’t forget to put on sunscreen, because the sun is higher than you think. Also, you can probably hike later than you think. Even at 7:30 pm, the light was just barely beginning to fade. Of course, this varies depending on the time of year.

We had a celebratory bottle of Dali beer, which made me feel ill, so we both collapsed into bed before 10:00. Did we bite off more than we could chew? Day 2 awaits….