To Kiss the Clouds

I was warned that I might not actually see Mount Everest, because it’s the rainy season in Tibet, and nature is fickle. But seeing it or not, I was still determined to make the journey there. I wanted to feel what it was like to stand on the rooftop of the world, and was not that hung up on snapping the perfect photo.

At this point in the trip, I was the only traveler, the other two in my group not having signed up to see Everest. We left Shigatse and wove into the barren wasteland that is the Himalayas. At times, I got glimpses of snow-capped mountains, and at others, cloud-drenched rock. WeChat Image_20170723175107We entered what I like to call “The Road of Insanity” because it’s a very rough, relentless dirt road that lasts for several hours. Dust billowed in the sky, at times twirling into dust devils or cloaking the other cars altogether. Desert sand lumped into moguls. Blunt rock jabbed out of the earth. Still, we climbed.

I got my first glimpse of Mount Everest after we had snaked our ways up a sloping mountain, and after we’d passed striated, almost lava-like cliffs that I was told were the tectonic plates pressing together. We stopped at the top, and embedded in clouds, I saw the base of the world’s tallest mountain. WeChat Image_20170723175245I thought the elevation would go down from there, but after we went down the mountain slope, we entered the valley of giants, in which we were surrounded by snow caps and my ears popped every three seconds from their sheer height. The rock turned grey, barren. And in the midst of this massive display of stone, Everest Base Camp appeared as a collection of large black tents.

We took a bus to an outlook for Mount Everest, with workers toting oxygen bottles in every other seat. The mountain’s peak poked through the top and within its white cloak, it lay in wait.

But I hadn’t come to Mount Everest to just look at it and call it a day. If I had, I would be quite disappointed and deemed the trip ruined because of clouds.

It’s a queer thing climbing in the clouds, though, which I experienced the next morning hiking the distance we’d covered by bus the previous night. You don’t realize you’re inside of a cloud because no matter the altitude, you always think the clouds are higher. But out here, we met the clouds face to face, and as I walked the slow, breathless walk to the outlook, I could feel the clouds on my lips like mist.

I couldn’t see Mount Everest that morning, but I could feel it all around me. It was in the stones I walked upon (and yes it counts: I hiked on Mount Everest), it was in the air I breathed, and most of all, it was in the clouds I kissed as I went to greet it face to face.

 

Travel Sneak-Peak: Tibet and Qinghai

Now that my roommate and I are at last all moved into our new apartment, I can start to think about my next big trip, starting in July. As I’ve mentioned before in other posts, I only have 4 more provinces to travel to in China before I’ve been to them all! So with that in mind, July is when I’ll be tackling another piece of China’s Wild West by visiting Qinghai and Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR).

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My map of past trips and remaining places.

I’ve been asked before how I travel, or how I plan my trips. Everyone does it differently, but I tend to think more in terms of directions/overall shape. For example, I know what the spots I’d like to reach, but in terms of exact day to day planning, it’s more up in the air. I know what general direction I’m heading and how to get back, but that’s it.

For this trip, my “general shape” is that I’ll start at a magazine launch in Shanghai where one of my poetry translations has been published. Then, I’ll board a train to get out to Qinghai, then TAR! From Lhasa, a 48-hour train (they have beds) all the way across China to see the landscape fold together. It should be an exciting trip, especially since I’ll get to experience the highest altitude in the world and see mountains well beyond my imagination.

Here’s a breakdown of the trip.

Shanghai

Well, I’m no stranger to Shanghai, given that Hangzhou is only one hour’s train ride away. I’ve gone there to meet friends during international flight layovers, I’ve gone for the literary festival, I’ve gone for a bachelorette party, and I’ve gone to just straight up travel of course.

This time I’ll definitely have a pretty clear goal, which is to attend a magazine (“The Shanghai Literary Review”) launch, and hopefully meet some other interesting writers and editors. I’ll be fancy, I’ll be (hopefully) charming. In other words, I will be the exact opposite of what I’ll be like traveling in the following weeks when my clothes get rumpled from the washed-in-a-sink routine.

While in Shanghai, I may call up some friends, or I might just scuttle into a nice western restaurant to enjoy a good meal before boarding the train.

Qinghai

First off, to get to Qinghai, I’ve figured out a train system that will get me there. First, I’ll be doing an overnight train to Lanzhou, in Gansu Province, and then a short 1-hour train to Qinghai’s capital city, Xining. It sounds complicated, but it’s actually not so bad, especially considering that I’m basically crossing the entire country.

Since Qinghai is part of the Tibetan Plateau, is home to Tibetan people, and is historically Tibet, much of what I want to do in this province is related to Tibetan Buddhism. I don’t have many specifics nailed down for the 10 days or so that I’ll be here, but there are three things I want to do: Find the salt lakes, go to a Tibetan village, and go hiking. From what I’ve read online, all of this is extremely doable. There’s the Chaka Salt Lake, which is just to the North/Northwest of Qinghai Lake (the huge one), and there are national parks, and there are several Tibetan villages, including Tongren, to name just one.

This part of the trip is travel like I’m used to — the kind in which I’m a leaf on the wind, and enjoying whatever experiences come my way.

Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR)

To get to Lhasa, I’ll be taking the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, which has been dubbed “The World’s Highest Railroad,” because of the altitude. While there are flights going into Lhasa, it’s better to go in slowly because 1) the scenery is amazing, and 2) it helps you adjust better to the high altitude.

As for my time in TAR, I will be on a much clearer schedule, because I’ll be going with a small group tour.

Oh yes, I’m not a huge fan of group tours, and yes yes, it’s more rewarding to travel alone, but that’s simply not the best idea when budget traveling in TAR. This is because all foreign travelers in Tibet must have a guide and a driver, since we are not allowed to take pubic transportation outside of Lhasa. Likewise, there are areas that foreigners are discouraged from visiting. Because having a guide and a driver can get pretty expensive pretty quickly, I’m joining a group to make it more affordable. That being said, the two companies I’m considering (Budget Tibet Tours, and Tibet Highland Tours), seem to have good itineraries in mind.

(By the way, if you want to know a lot more about traveling in Tibet, check out this website. The writer is very friendly and actually responded to my questions!)

The trip I want to take will be an 8-day journey from Lhasa (where we will see the Potala Palace, which in itself is entralling) all the way to the Mount Everest Base Camp. (“OMG you’re climbing Mt. Everest??” NOOOOO I’m not a mountaineer and would need many years of training to even think of that — this is a “poking the base of the mountain” trip). The journey will take us past glaciers, the world’s highest monastery, and I assume more gorgeous scenery.

Oh, and while I’m in Lhasa, I also plan on riding the World’s Highest Ferris Wheel. (Again, because of the altitude.) It’s barely mentioned online, but it’s just odd enough to attract my attention.

Anyway, I’m getting pumped for my trip, and will share details as they come/I hit the road. As for now, that’s just a glimpse of where I’ll be in less than a month!

 

Slowly and Smiling…and elephants, too

As I said, our original draw to Sabai Tours was the possibility of riding elephants.  In the bargain, we got an excellent trek, gorgeous scenery, and on our final day the big she-bang: white-water rafting, bamboo rafting, and…

“LOOK!  ELEPHANTS!”

Yes.  The big, elephantine, she-bang.

There was another tour we could have taken that involved bathing, riding, and grooming elephants, but since there wasn’t as much…jungle! in it, we opted for the shorter elephant-jaunt.

They had a small sort of path that the elephants followed–one that took us far enough away from the parking lot, but also not so far as to lead a war rampage.  My friend climbed into the designated seat on the elephant’s back, and I turned to the guide and said “I really want to ride it’s neck!”  And so I slid onto the space behind the elephant’s ears as it chomped on some bamboo.  And its muscles and bones rode up and down with me as it stepped one foot in front of the other.

It was one-part primeval princess, one part Dumbo.  On the one hand, I liked physically touching the elephant (you know me, I like to poke things…) and feeling the very real flex of its muscles as the powerful animal processed.  The skin is dry, bristled with black hair and rough.  But I think I would be lying if I said it was my favorite part, because once the primeval princess wore off, I began to wonder how many circles this animal had to walk every day.  I mean, elephants are a huge draw in Thailand (including, apparently, elephants that can create paintings!) but if all the world’s a stage, I will maintain that it’s not a circus ring.

In the end, I was glad to have chosen the tour with less elephants, more…jungle! because I will then remember Thailand not for its parade of trunks, but for the untamed vines wrapped around tree trunks and the promise that, tours or no, there is a wild world out there.  There are eyes in the shadows, unclassified creatures, and the kind of places that require confident machetes.  They are still out there.  And hopefully, no one will ever see them.

Still Slowly and Smiling

As charmed as I was by the roosters, they were very insistent on the very first rays of sun, whether or not they actually saw them.  Which is to say that at 3 AM they were squawking up the day, and we, the weary travelers, had no choice but to accept.  

Enter day 2 of our jungle trek.  

As per instruction, we were to “take it easy” and accept our day “slowly and smiling.”  So it was that we set out on the trail–to find a waterfall that we were told was not suitable to slide down like the one we had the day before (which I of course did, cheering and splooshing in the water like a toddler) but was good for a swim or shower.

Of course, today was the day we had to go down, down, down.

“You want a walking stick?” our guide asked.  Before any of us had said yes (it was my friend and the Koreans now), he dashed off into a thicket of bamboo with his machete and lopped off some branches.  After a while, he came back brandishing our sticks, which were very sturdy, and as it so happened, very necessary.

We were walking sideways on day two.  Sideways because of steep slicks of dirt, rocks, vines, roots, and the occasional bamboo bridge to cross.  I stabbed my stick into the ground ahead of me to brace whatever steps I had to take next, while a Korean crossed a fallen tree trunk as though a tight-rope walker.  Whatever was in that whiskey, it must have turned them into gods.  

We rested against rocks, more tamarin-earth, and soon made it to a waterfall for lunch.  I thought it was THE waterfall and was wondering how one was supposed to swim in it.  Instead I watched make-shift waterwheels spinning with the waves and tried to see how well bamboo floats.  (Not very well, actually).

Our guide had machete’d us some chopsticks and we ate lunch.  And then, after more trekking, we found THE waterfall.  

We cut to the chase.  Swimsuits on, people in.  The water was bracing, and still I waded in with my friend over to a spout of water where our guide was shampooing.  

“Yahhhh!”  we said when the cold water splashed us.  

He handed us the shampoo and we washed.  And now we have the distinct pride of saying that we showered in a waterfall.

That night, as we settled into our jungle hut, the Koreans begged our guide to buy them some pig.  We thought they were joking, but for 1000 Baht, he went on motorbike to go get some.  And then, as strange as it was, we were having a Korean BBQ with pig in the middle of the jungle.

“Oh my Buddha!” our guide said.  Apparently, this is not the first time this has happened.

More whiskey, more singing, more firelight.

And when we woke the next day, it was time for elephants.

Slowly and Smiling

I wanted to get into the jungle, and I wanted to get far enough in that I wouldn’t be thinking of cars and computers, of metallic hulls bringing me rocketing around u-turns and the neon flash of need.  

But that’s not where it began.  Actually, it began with elephants, in my “let’s try to take every form of transportation as humanly possible” quest.  I’ve taken motorbike, truck, three-wheeled motorbike, train, plane, car, van, ship, slowboat, longtail boat, horse, bike…the list goes on.  So my friend and I looked for elephants, and in the pursuit of them, found a three-day jungle trek through Sabai Tours in Chiang Mai that vaguely included elephants, but mostly involved…the jungle!  

I ended up on an impromptu jungle trek when I went to a national park near Krabi, Thailand.  The sign said “nature walk” but what it failed to say was that it was the kind of walk that would take me up and over a terrifying combination of vines, deep forest, and loud crashing sounds that did nothing to assuage my pounding heart.  I was terrified.  Which, of course, meant that I wanted to go back.

“Today we will be walking, yeah?” said our guide when we met him.  He was a smiley Thai guy with a tiger on his shirt and a machete by his side.  (NOTE: in all the time that we trekked, he used said machete to cut walking sticks, chopsticks, and then a random hair accessory that he promptly chucked into the forest again.  When I asked him “Have you ever had to fend off an animal with that?” he said he’d seen an anaconda on the road once during the rainy season, but didn’t even try filleting it, rather saying “Okay, now we all RUN!”  Good man.)

The weather was fine, blue, and clear.  The walk was up, up, up, first along a dirt road with tamarin-brown earth, and then along some rocks and through tall grasses.  In my company: my friend, a French couple, a couple of mysterious background who sort of kept to themselves, and then 5 Korean guys who produced an endless supply of oranges, snacks, and these bottles of what looked to be milk.  We trooped through the forest, took turns shooting our guide’s slingshot at an empty bottle of water, and then after breaking several times, arrived at where we would be staying the night.  In a village, on the side of the hill overlooking palm trees and grasses, in a bamboo hut.  

I was charmed by all of the roosters (animals that you just don’t hear in urban China) and as the day died down, we all gathered for dinner and then a campfire under the stars. As it turned out, the milk cartons that the Koreans were carrying were all cartons of whiskey.  

“We sing Korean song!” they garbled after we had sung through some random English songs.  And while I was expecting some strange convoluted mess of notes, they all broke out into full-throated song, deep and resonating.  And then they danced around the fire, and I joined them, as though it was a natural thing to do.  Considering the jungle, though, I guess anything goes.

And then I retired for a moment to look up at the stars.

I think a lot of my friends in China agree that stars in the PRC are hard to come by.  I take them as they come, because when people say “there are no stars” I don’t believe them and always look up.  There are usually a handful that I can see between apartment towers, and this handful is something I cling to.  I look every time I’m outside at night, because if I’m lucky, I’ll see them.  My handful.

But imagine–the entire sky.  

The guitar behind me still thrummed and sang but I was enchanted by above and beyond.  And the more I stared, the more it looked like my interpretation of the skies, or of my expectation of it, I’m not sure.  All the same, it took my breath away.  It’s amazing the things you adjust to without realizing it. 

I stayed up late that night until the stars were occluded by the clouds, and then went to bed with the buzzing of wildlife, the distant flutes from the village, and then the growl-like rumbles of motorbikes putting through the village.  

And as our guide had instructed us to do all day, we took it “slowly and smiling.”

Damnit, granite!

When I packed my bag to climb Yellow Mountain, I included several notebooks, my journal, and a book.  Food was an afterthought of dried goods that could pack small, and warm clothes just layers that could fit under my jacket.  Sensibility wasn’t the goal of this trip.

I recently turned 24, and it was a friend of mine that made the observation “We tend to think about life in years.  So, what do you want your 24th year to be?”  I couldn’t give her a straight answer.  Because I didn’t have any straight thoughts—instead, crooked meandering musings that didn’t seem to lead anywhere in particular.  And if I’m being honest, it freaked me out. 

So to begin my 24th year, I decided to do something physically grueling to toughen up—that is, Yellow Mountain.

There are several ways to “do” Yellow Mountain.  You can climb the entire thing from entrance to top.  You can take a bus to a point near the base and climb up.  You can take the chairlift up and hike around at the top.  There are even different paths going up and down the mountain.  The Eastern Steps, which are the most common ones to take up, though no less simple, and the Western Steps.  The Western Steps are said to lead to the most stunning parts of the mountain, though are the most strenuous and exhausting.

You can guess which option I went for. 

At the base of the Western Steps, it didn’t look so bad.  There were steps, steps, steps, but this is China.  Dirt trails are rare.  So I began the climb amid the autumn leaves, which dipped the air in gold and punched against the periwinkle-blue sky.

About half an hour in, I was already panting.

“What the hell was I thinking?” I gasped.  But of course, I already knew the answer: I wasn’t.    

Ahead on the steps, men with yokes laden with cases of water, metal basins, fruit, vegetables, and snacks, dragged their cargo up for the hotels and convenience stores at the summit.  My shoulders smarted with the weight of the book and water bottle, but after watching them drag their feet in front of the other like oxen, I had no right to complain. 

The steps kept coming.  What seemed like an innocent trail up a mountain quickly became a death-march.  I kept going.  Really, there isn’t any other choice.

I tried to take notes, write observances and witty thoughts along the trail, I really did, but after a while, physical exhaustion overrode thought.  There was no art, only brute strength dragging my legs onto each step.  At times, I was on my hands and knees crawling up practically vertical shafts of stairs.  At others marching.

Off the mountain, directions are hard, twisting and twining into each other until it’s just a jumbled mess of crossroads.  But when climbing, direction is easy.  You just keep going. 

You just go up.
You just go up.
At some point, the golden trees faded to be replaced by passionless granite.  At times, so bulbous and odd looking that I thought it was fake, even though it wasn’t.  The pine trees stuck out of the rocks like badly combed hair, and when I looked down to see the trees I’d already surpassed, they all looked like broccoli. 

I was at famous spots near the top, which was obvious by the sudden crowds of people and loudspeakers.  (These were the people that simply rode the chairlift up.)  Famous or not, it didn’t matter at this point.  I reached a summit and only had enough breath and energy to say “wow” and that was it.  Which at some point, is enough.  There doesn’t always need to be poetry. 

Sometimes the eyes say it better than the tongue.
Sometimes the eyes say it better than the tongue.

Wow.
Wow.
The final plod to the hotel I was staying at is pretty blurry in my mind.  There was a nice boulder and impressive cliffs.  I looked at them and thought nothing about it.  Only looked and said “wow.”  And after forcing myself to see the sun set, I went to bed.

The morning was spent prowling the scenic spots at the top.  A gorge carved out of the earth, a devastation of cliffs and overhanging stairs to reach them.  People shouting in whoops and hollers like morning cathedral bells echoing across the valley. 

But eventually, the long march down. 

I tried to savor the descent, I really did.  I’d spent so much time at the top, so much effort on the way up, that I wanted the way down to be just as memorable.  But I was like a rabid wolf.  My legs hit a rhythm and I was practically flying down the mountain. 

At some moments at the peak, I was disappointed that for the most part, my mind was empty.  I kept trying to force myself to really stop and think of something, or even to compare a rock precipice to a turtle, like the signs along the way were telling me.  But that’s what it takes to move.  No time for baggage, no time for anything other than what will get you from one place to another.  There’s just arriving and saying “wow” and leaving it at that.  Of course, I did, in the end, journal a bit nonetheless at the top.  (Because even if I was falling off of a cliff, I would still be thinking “oh, so this is how it feels!  I should write that down…”)  But the books?  The extra notebooks?  Untouched.  Instead, my muscles throbbed from the sheer effort of arriving–all 15 hours of climbing that it took. 

But arrive I did.  Not by thinking about it, but by moving.

And that, I think, is how my 24th year will be.