Some days you just get lucky, some days you end up getting pretty much everything you want all in the one day. These days are good days, Khao Yai National Park, Thailand gave me one of these days. On this particular day for me that meant a lot of wildlife sightings, a crocodile, a wild Asian dog, of course the prodigious monkeys, a deer trying to steal an apple from my tent and last, but not least, when we’d finally given up for the day, a wild elephant! A lone bull elephant at a salt lick, in the wild. Add swimming in jungle pools and spending the day marvelling at massive trees and jungle vines, and it was a pretty perfect day out in Khao Yai National park. Day’s like this are the reason I travel. If you haven’t worked it out by now, I really loved Khao Yai, it has to be one of the best national parks I have visited. When they say there is a lot of wildlife in the park they’re not lying.
Walking quietly along the track, my French hiking buddy and I, bought together because we pitched our tents next to each other, hiked through the park, not another human in site. Just jungle and frequent signs about being aware of crocodiles. As soon as I started to see the signs, of course I wanted to see a crocodile. This was no guided tour, we where armed with what I like to refer to as a ‘Disneyland map’, in that it has some lines and major points on it, but no real useful topographical information. I was on the lookout. I have seen a crocodile in the wild before but it’s a completely different feeling when your out there on your own without a guide. I looked and I looked and I looked and then finally, luckily at a time when we where on a bit of a ridge and not to close, I spotted him, sunning himself to the side of the river below. Now I do realise I am not David Attenborough or Steve Irwin, but you make your first solo wildlife spot and tell me that in the moment you don’t feel just a tiny bit like some sort of natural adventurer!
Clambering up and over rocks we found a jungle pool, high enough from the river that crocs wouldn’t be up there and took a refreshing dip. The wild Asian dog I spotted was to quick for me to photograph, but he was there, looking a little like a dingo, a little like a domesticated dog, before he to disappeared back into the undergrowth. The one thing that was alluding us though where the elephants. They are well known in the Khao Yai, and there where elephant droppings absolutely everywhere, teasing me. I knew if their dung was there then they HAD to be somewhere around. Unfortunately, despite my earlier success I don’t actually have any tracking skills or any local knowledge of where they might hang out. We asked several park ranger and always received the same response, delivered with a friendly smile, ‘Don’t know, you can’t be sure, maybe you’ll get lucky?’ After a quick jaunt down to the waterfall that is famous as the setting that Leonardo Di Caprio (or his stuntmen) jumped off in ‘The Beach’ movie we decided to call it a day. I quite wanted to jump off the waterfall myself, but it was low water season, and the area at the top was roped off, so I had no chance to prove my own bravery, and if you know me personally you’ll know how much this bothered me! Khao Yai is a big place, over 2000 square kilometres. It is also a popular spot with many local Thai tourists. So it is quite easy to hitch rides between places. The day felt successful, but I have to admit I was disappointed with not having any elephant success. The end of the day – the Elephant! Sat in the back of a ute, being given a lift back to our campsite, there, suddenly on the side of the road was a lone bull elephant at his salt lick. I don’t think two people have ever banged so hard on the back window (which is the traditional signal that you want to get out) as we did then to get our driver to stop.
We stood mesmerised by this amazing creature as he went about his business. Of course some other cars pulled up too. Everyone stayed on the road, well away from the animal who completed his business and lumbered slowly off back into the jungle, almost like he was showing off.
My day felt complete.
Getting there, costs and tips
Tip: Leaving food in your tent in Khao Yai is inadvisable. Mostly it’s the monkeys that will come in, disrespectfully throw your belongings around your tent and take what they want, but this deer below seemed to sniff out the apple I still had in my bag. The monkeys also turned the contents of this bag inside out – so leave your tent open (or they may rip it open to get in) and lock your food up!
Getting there and costs Khao Yai can be be reached by a shared songthaew (large shared truck with wooden seats) from Pak Chong which is the closest town, for about 40 baht. Pak Chong is easily accessible from Bangkok by bike or train. Inside the park the easiest, and really only way if you don’t have your own transport is to hitch. The park is popular with many Thai tourists – who have cars and will be more than happy to drive you to your campsite or hiking points. The park entry fee is 400 baht – this is good for 5 days, so if you are staying inside the park you will only have to pay it once. Camping costs 30 baht (less than a dollar) a night per person if you have your own equipment. If you don’t have your own camping gear everything can be rented from around 150 baht for a tent.
Absolutely! The wildlife is everything you want from a national park. Many of the hikes are accessible without a guide, which makes exploring the area interesting and cheap. Khao Yai is definitely one of my favourite spots in Thailand.
A long ride up a windy mountain road, seated on the back of a bike of a friendly Khmer man who was very happy to take ‘Madam’ (that’s me) to the top. Soldiers smile and wave as I pass, for this is disputed territory after all. It is also the location of Cambodia’s other UNESCO world heritage site, Preah Vihear.
That’s right! This is not Angkor Watt, Cambodia in fact does have another although less well-known UNESCO world heritage site called Preah Vihear, an ancient Hindu temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. Preah Vihear, built around 1002 AD actually pre dates Angkor Watt by about 100 years and is situated right on the border of Cambodia and Thailand, the territory has long been disputed by both countries.
I won’t spend much time talking about Angkor because it’s probably one of the most well-known historical sites in the world and you have all seen hundreds of pictures of it. I will just say that despite the mammoth crowds it really is well worth the visit.
A quick saving money tip – if you are on a budget it is completely feasible to hire a bike and ride around the ruins. Tuk tuk drivers may try to tell you this is to far and to hard, but it is actually quite doable for anyone with a moderate level of fitness – and the bikes only cost $1 a day compared to around $15 for the tuk tuk.
Personally, I love clambering over ancient ruins, which meant that I really enjoyed my day at Preah Vihear. We started the day early and were the first tourists up there. The journey up there itself is nice ride. I have found throughout my travels that many religions seem to build their temples or churches on top of a hill and this one was no exception. The interesting thing on the ride up to Preah Vihear is that because it is disputed territory the road is lined with army posts. There is no threat though, the soldiers just smiled and waved as we rode by.
The temple itself has some very intact outer parts, with stone carvings depicting Shiva dancing on an Elephants head. Which in Hindu mythology is an unusual combination. A more full explanation of the meaning of the depictions can be found for anyone with a particular interest in Hindu symbolism.
Getting there and costs
It is possible to book a day tour from Siem Reap to Preah Vihear but this will cost around $100+ per person If you’re not up for the cost the independent method goes something like this:
- Take the bus from Siem Reap to Anlong Veng – it leaves daily at ‘about’ 1.30 pm and should cost around $5. You can buy the bus ticket from the office in town near the G.S.T. bus station.
- To catch the bus you will need to get a tuk tuk out of town to where the bus leaves – the cost of that will depend on how good you are at negotiating with tuk tuk drivers
- You will most likely need to stay the night in Anlong Veng. There are many large empty guesthouse to choose from and a room should set you back about $7-$8
- From Anlong Veng there are no real public transport options out there – so you are going to need to negotiate a car. It is over 100 kms so don’t expect it to be super cheap. We managed to negotiate a car for $50 for the round trip – the starting asking price was $100 – so you will need to bargain. Obviously the more people sharing the cheaper this will work out for you.
- The ticket office is located at the base of the mountain. The tickets are surprisingly free, although you will still need to provide your passport and be issued with one.
- Transport to the top of the mountain is sold at a fixed price at the ticket office – $5 to jump on the back of a motor bike or $25 for a pickup truck. It is quite a long steep accent, so while you could walk it you would need to allow yourself a good few hours.
Should I Go?
Angkor Watt: Absolutely of course! There is a reason some sites are so full of visitors – which is because they are amazing and Angkor is one of them!
Preah Vihear: Yes. If you have the time and like me find ancient sites kind of fascinating you will really enjoy this one. The ruins are older than Angkor and more open. Without the crowds you can wander around and get a great feel for the place. If you aren’t a big fan of ancient ruins it is probably a little to far out of the way for the cost.
What is your favourite ancient site?
The saddest, most troubling, confronting day I have spent travelling, or any time for that matter. Thinking of it now as I write this tears come a little to my eyes. This isn’t the story of my country or my people but it is a story about how horrible humans can be to other humans and it is terrifying and sad. Very very sad.
Starting your day with a trip to a Genocide museum, followed up with a visit to a sombre piece of earth where thousands of people were murdered isn’t your normal day sight seeing. The following may be disturbing to some people as I discuss the sites where a genocide was committed..
The day started with a trip to the Genocide museum located within Phnom Penh. The museum was originally a school, turned into one of the Khmer Rouges most infamous prisons S-21. Now it is a place of remembrance. Walking through the rooms it’s not hard to imagine them as the classrooms they where originally. Chalkboards sit on the front wall where the teachers would have stood and the tiled floors look like they are meant to be lined with desks.
The ‘feel’ of a classroom is soon dispelled by the beds, chains and torture instruments left over from more brutal times. Photos on the walls throughout the rooms document the brutalities and fatalities. This place will never be a place of learning or laughter again. Looking down from the balconies you see the graves of the last 14 people to die here, who were discovered when the Vietnamese army defeated the Khmer Rouge.
There are several Killing Fields sites in Cambodia, the most well known and the one closest to Phnom Penh is Choeung Ek. A place where over 8000 people where systematically murdered by their own country men in the name of a crazed dictator.
What’s crazier is this regime was supported by International governments and given a seat in the UN council until the early 1980′s.
On a positive, or at least practical note this was one of the best organised and informed sites I have visited. On entry (included in your entry fee of $6) you receive an audio guide in your language, these tapes are available in many] languages. As you walk the circuit of the Killing Fields the story of what happened here unfolds through the narrative. You are taken on a brutal journey of atrocities and nightmares that you wish where only found in the worst of horror movies, but they actually happened, here.
The audio is also necessary as there are few remnants of the time left as most of the physical structures were removed when the regime fell, to be used as fire wood and building materials for desperate people. All that remains are large ditches, the remnants of where the mass graves where exhumed. Bits of cloth and fragments of bone scattered around, pieces that continue to surface as time, rain and wind blow of the dust and continue to give up reminders of the dead.
The sad thing is that this is not something that happened once and will never happen again. It happened before with Hitler, it’s happened since in Rwanda and is most likely happening today in parts of Africa. How one human being can cause such pain to another is beyond me.
I realise me, one small person writing a blog and getting teary doesn’t change a thing. In fact I know of many people who chose not to visit this place while in Cambodia, and I understand that choice, it’s depressing and heart wrenching and not an enjoyable day out.
In Australia we say on our remembrance days ‘Lest we forget’. We remember the wars we fought in, not to glorify them but to remember that people suffered and fought for freedom. I like to think we remember so that we can stop these things happening again. I can’t speak for others, but my reason for visiting the Killing Fields was that if we chose to forget or ignore that these things happened then they will continue to happen.
These things are still happening now, and I am not naïve enough to think that a bunch of tourists visiting a memorial changes anything. But maybe, hopefully, one day in the not to distant future, enough people will start to say enough and these atrocities will be something only written about in the history books.
Cambodia today to me feels mostly hopeful. All the people I have met smile and laugh and seem to my foreigner eye to be happy and moving forward. The government though as my tuk tuk driver informed me is still, ‘very bad’.
A more recent account of Cambodia’s situation today can be found here – http://keochan.tumblr.com/post/72148029405/a-story-about-cambodia.
From Koh Rong to Kampot, could you get two more different towns!
Koh Rong, an idyllic island in the South China sea off the coast of Cambodia. An island of no roads, loads of backpackers and intermittent electricity. It’s a place to relax and a place to party but sleepy it is not.
Kampot on the other hand is a nice, sleepy little town. If you ask anyone travelling in Cambodia that’s been here, they will tell you, ‘It’s a nice little town’. Ask anyone who hasn’t and they will tell you, ‘I hear it’s a nice little town’. Now I’ve been here, I can tell you myself, it IS a nice little town.
KOH RONG ISLAND
My exploration of Cambodia started with a direct trip to Koh Rong Island from Bangkok. An island where there are no cars and I didn’t wear any shoes the entire time. An island full of partying people’s, beach huts, sunbathing, snorkelling and surprisingly a lot of long term westerners. Koh Rong Island is the type of place many backpackers get stuck in. People go there for a week and here they are months later.
The tourist area of Koh Rong Island really has to 3 parts to it. At one end you have the local Cambodia village type area, where cheap guest houses can be found along with local noodle shops, children running about playing and lots and lots of puppies. Honestly, it’s a puppy epidemic!
In the middle part of the stretch you’ll find more cheapish guest house and lot’s of bars. A great place to party, not such a great place to stay if sleep is anywhere on your agenda. Head right and you will find some still, reasonably priced guest houses – such as Bongs – where I stayed, just before you hit the expensive end of town.
The far end of the beach has a lot of Bungalows, the type with hammocks swinging out the front. Nice for a relaxing holiday, not so nice on a backpackers hip pocket at up to $80 a night. What is kind of incredible is that you can have all of these tasted catered to in one small strip that cannot possibly take more than 10 minutes to walk from one end to the other!
Koh Rong was pretty much the first stop (after Bangkok) for me on this trip, so I was readjusting to backpacker conditions. After about 8 days of doing pretty much nothing on Koh Rong island it was time for me to get my travelling shoes on and move. I am, after all the type of traveller that moves!
I hadn’t really heard of Kampot until I got to Koh Rong. As it turns out, many people on Koh Rong go to Kampot for a break from island life. So I took the boat from the microcosm of Koh Rong back to the mainland and journeyed onto Kampot.
Situated on the river, Kampot has a few guesthouses, a few restaurants and is surrounded by salt flats. As Koh Rong is an island mostly full of westerners and western run places I felt that Kampot was really my first experience of Cambodia and it’s people. Friendly is the first word that springs to mind when I think of the Cambodian people now.
I spent my time in Kampot indulging in a seeing hands massage and using foot and pedal power to see some of the surrounding countryside.
Kampot and surround has plenty to keep you busy for a few days at a very slow pace. Nothing seems to move fast here, locals, expats and travellers amble calmly through their days. Visit the salt flats the falls or maybe even the dragonflies at night.
Should I Go?
Koh Rong Island – Yes. It’s beautiful. It does have a reputation, and is a bit of a party island, but it is also possible to relax and enjoy other activities there, although this blogger admits to not really doing any activity and just lazing around. Just beware costs in general are more expensive than on the mainland and there are no ATM’s – so take all your cash with you.
Kampot – It’s a really nice little town and definitely worth spending a few days at least in. Yes, I know ‘nice’ is a vague term, but go there and you’ll see what I mean. Watch the river flow by and relax.
‘If you don’t know where your going any road will get you there’ Lewis Carrol
It has been around 4 and half months since I’ve returned for an Australian sojourn from my world gallivanting. Well ok, it maybe wasn’t so much gallivanting as a well paced trudge, but I did see a lot of amazing things and needed to come home to regroup, see friends and family. Having accomplished that and even returned to the office for a few months it’s time for me to set off again!
The question I am most often asked now is ‘so where are you going this time?!’. The undertones to the question always seem to add ‘your going away again??’ and some level of incredulity at my obvious lack of responsibility, or perhaps I’m just hearing that as I question my sanity?
So in answer to the above? Well.. I don’t rightly know exactly. But wherever it is I’m sure it will be great!
Actually, not knowing isn’t entirely true. I do know I’m going to Bangkok because, well that’s where I’ve just flown into. I am also almost certainly going to Cambodia in a couple of days and have very strong intentions of visiting Myanmar before it is completely overrun with McDonald’s and ATM’s (I hope I’m not to late). Apart from that, I’d rather not think about it too much. There are a million places I haven’t been to yet to which I’d like to go, and many I have been that constantly pull at my heartstrings to return to. I have a head full of plans and itineraries, and I’m also open to the road taking me somewhere I haven’t even thought of yet.
When I started this blog I was setting out to Cairo, with the intention if travelling for the sake of travel. I spent 11.5 months on the road and ended up in Kazakhstan, a place I had virtually no intention of going to when I left home.
So this time I set off, knowing that whatever I think I’m going to do right now is largely irrelevant. I set off however more firmly committed to living a life full of adventure and new horizons. Travelling, for the pure indulgent sake of it.
China. How to describe it? I liked China and yet was continually frustrated. It’s the most organised place on earth and one of the hardest I’ve travelled through. The people are the incredibly friendly and at times incredibly unhelpful. Food and accommodation (most of the time) are as cheap as the rest of Asia, but I’m over budget nearly every day. It has some amazing landscapes but industrial sites are everywhere. China, I love it and hate it all at the same time. It’s a contradiction that will never seize to amaze and frustrate you.
I thought the best way to illustrate China’s positives and negatives is to give you a list of what I love, and what I don’t. You’ll notice that they are almost two sides of the same coin.
China : The good
From the moment I crossed the border from Laos I found the Chinese people on the street incredibly friendly. People want to talk to you, even if they can only say ‘hello’. Everyone smiles at you in the street as you pass. I always felt incredibly welcome and safe everywhere I went in China.
China is incredibly organised. I’ve actually never come across a place so organised. From the buses and trains, to the way you walk down the street, organisation and consistency are prevalent throughout the country. The buses in one city operate very much like the buses in another city. Once you know the number of the bus you need, the Chinese public transport system is very easy to use.
The Amazing sites
China is full of some amazing sites. I didn’t even visit the Great Wall yet every place you go there is some amazing natural scenery as well as beautifully restored temples, old cities and parks. People play operas in the park and the west of China hosts some stunning scenic mountain and historical sites such as the Magao caves in Dunhuang. I only skimmed the surface travelling up the Western side of the country, you could spend your whole life exploring what China has to offer.
China : The not so good
Put a person behind a desk in China in any kind of government, ticket or service office and it seems they immediately become part of a machine, and that machine is not helpful. There is no point getting angry or even being nice, it just doesn’t matter. Once someone is behind a desk they have a certain set of rules to operate by and they cannot be budged. Make sure you know exactly what your after when approaching any kind of office because you aren’t going to be assisted with working it out, you will get exactly what you ask for, no more and no less, and definitely no smiles.
While you can find cheap accommodation in hostels and food is very cheap if you eat locally (although as a vegetarian you may get sick of veg fried noodles) that is where the cheapness ends. Transport and site seeing in China are not cheap and are quite challenging to a backpacker budget. National park entry fees range from $20 to $50 and the entry fee to historic sites is often in the same price range. I found I had to forgo several sites because my budget could just be stretched that many times. Prices are much closer to European than South East Asian prices and money is charged for everything.
Want to walk up the sand dunes for an hour in Dunhuang – $20. Hiking in places like Tiger Leaping gorge, you won’t just pay the $20 park entry fee, you. Will find people all along the trail demanding money to use specific parts of the trail because they ‘maintain’ them.
Travel RestrictionsThere may not be formal travel restrictions in most parts of China, but go off the main tourist trail and you will find you are restricted in other ways. In many areas hotels are not licenced to take aliens. You are not restricted from going to the city, but you will find it nearly impossible to get accommodation once you are there, or will find that the only place in town you can stay charges an exorbitant amount. I call this China’s open – but not open policy.
Different areas are prone to these restrictions at different times , for example I had no trouble visiting the Tibetan town of Tongren however people have reported problems with visiting the area around Tibetan New Year, so check recent information about wether a town is open or not before heading there.
Should you go?
Despite the frustrations I experienced, I still think that China is a place worth experiencing. It is an incredibly diverse country and part of the frustrations do arise from it being so culturally a different – which is one of the things you travel to experience. So yes, go with an open mind and a good deal of patience. If your on a backpacker budget expect that you aren’t going to be able to afford to do everything. It isn’t the easiest country you will ever travel though, but I do feel it was worth it and I am sure I will go back someday, maybe when I have more cash at my disposal.
Have you been to China recently? What was your experience?
Kashgar, China to Osh, Kyrgyztan. 14 hours, 4 different vehicles, 2 hours of ‘discussions’ with Chinese immigration and some very bumpy roads. Goodbye industrial China, Hello to the untouched mountains of Kyrgyztan!
Kashgar to Wuqia
Most travellers crossing the border from China to Kyrgyztan set out from Kashgar China. It’s a great place to meet other travellers going your way, apart from having some company banding together with a few others will also help with the negotiating vehicle prices along the way. On this particular morning 6 of us set out together, which turned out to be a great number for the trip
There are two border crossings from China to Kyrgyztan, this one is the Irkeshtam pass, which you don’t require any special permits for.
So at 8am we set out on a 20 minute walk to the local bus station in Kashgar. Wikitravel and all our guide books said that we should go to the international bus station, but the hostel assured us we could get a bus from the local bus station. We couldn’t. So a quick taxi trip across town to the international station where there are also no buses. There are however shared taxis (minivans) from here. We negotiated a price of 30 yuan each, waited for a few more passengers (they leave when they’re full) and set off on a smooth 2 hour trip to the immigration checkpoint just outside the town of Wuqia
Lesson Number 1: The Internet is right! As of now (June 2013) there is no bus to Wuqia – despite whatever hostel may tell you. Go directly to the International bus station.
Fun times with Chinese Immigration
The Chinese immigration point at this crossing is about 5 hours before the actual border. Upon arriving we where approached, as usual by taxi drivers offering there services at what seemed like quite high rates. We brushed past them to go through immigration, intending to sort out transport on the other side of the checkpoint. Now wikitravel states that ‘immigration officials will assist you to find a taxi or a truck’. This should read, ‘Immigration officials will now unhelpfully insist you cannot get a ride with a truck, because it is unsafe, and that you MUST have arranged an agreement with a taxi driver before before they will let you pass through immigration. There is also only 4 licensed taxis, only 1 of which was there. Which meant we must arrange a price with this man, and are in no position to bargain because there is no competition. Trying to tell immigration you have agreed with someone outside won’t work – they will insist on meeting the driver.
The discussion between us and them about the unreasonableness of the situation and price went on for well over an hour. I have to say the unfortunate juniour official who had to deal with us was very friendly and tried his best to be helpful. I felt bad for him when his grumpy female superior came out and screamed at him for his inability to get him to deal with us.
It really was just another example of Chinese beauracracy at work. They insisted out negotiation with the taxi driver was out of there hands, yet it was there decision to stop letting people pay truck drivers and only licence 4 taxis that caused the problem
Eventually I think everyone got sick of us and the taxi driver agreed to a marginally lower price. After having our passports checked by 3 different counters we where allowed out.
Lesson 2: If you don’t want to argue for hours to save a small amount of yuan – just pay the guy. If your all a bunch of massive penny pitchers like we where – be prepared to wait them out a while.
Journey to the border
After finally clearing immigration we started the journey to the actual border. It was a lot longer and rougher than I had expected, over 4 hours of mostly dirt roads and a lot of dust.
Lesson Number 3: On reflection the price we paid for the car was pretty fair given the conditions and we may have wasted time with all that arguing
The actual border – China
Finally! The actual border crossing. Due to the Chinese putting immigration some 5 hours from the actual border this has to be one of the more drawn out borders in the world. We got out to have our passports checked one more time and then were told buy the Chinese army cadres to wait while they arranged trucks for us to cross the 7kms of no mans land. They then resumed there posts and did nothing about finding us a truck.
After a while we asked them what why we where waiting, and could we just walk? Apparently we can’t walk because there are people out there with guns and it’s very unsafe and the border is closed for lunch or something and we’ll get a truck whenever it opens again. So we found a place that sold beers, and sat around waiting for the border to open
Lesson Number 4: Taking friends with you is useful for more than just bargain the price of taxis down – you will have people to have a beer with while your waiting to cross borders
Upon crossing the invisible line into Kyrgyztan, things magically changed. The road was a smooth and new, dust stopped flying and a crystal clear blue stream trickled along the road. Eastern European country style houses appeared and the air actually felt cleaner – I’m not making it up!
Kyrgyztan immigration was an extremely simple affair. No forms, no delay. If your from one of the 44 countries that is on the visa free entry list, just a quick stamp in the passport and your in.
Lesson Number 5: For all countries out there with painful immigration – it IS possible to just process people in a few minutes each without any hassle. Speak to Kyrgyztan if you need advice.
Border to Osh
The nearest main city to the border is Kyrgystans second largest city of Osh. There will be vehicles waiting the other side of immigration to take you there. We where able to bargain a good price of 5000 soms for the taxi and where on our way.
The scenery on this trip is spectacular. The Pamir mountain range rises up beside you fronted with rolling pasture hills, dotted with yurts and sheep and farmers on horse back. The snow topped mountains made for some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve seen in a long time. If you cross the border late, it is possible to spend the night in Sary Tash instead of heading straight to Osh. The view is so spectacular that this trip really should be done in the daytime. I think I’m going to like Kyrgyztan.
Lesson Number 6: Make sure you do this leg of the trip in daylight hours – it’s well worth it. Oh, and also if you take a picture of the shipping container they’ve turned into an army checkpoint, make sure the solider doesn’t see you or he will make you delete it.
If you don’t want the hassle of all of the above, there is an international bus that leaves Kashgar twice weekly and will take you all the way to Osh for 550 yuan ($90). The prices here are indicative as they all depend on your negotiating skills. I would imagine they would be much harder to negotiate with smaller group numbers.
Shared Taxi Kashgar -> Wuqia – 30 yuan ($5)
Taxi Wuqia -> Border – 600 yuan ($100) for the car ($16 each)
Kyrgyztan Border – Osh 5000 som ($100) for the car ($16 each)
In total just under $40 each, which is a significant saving on the bus if your willing to put up with a few car changes.
What’s been your favourite or least favourite border crossing?
There are so many of them I’ve inadvertently slipped into a slight mediation, walking along the wall of Tibetan Prayer wheels, circumbobulating around the temple clockwise, spinning the wheels clockwise, always clockwise. It’s said you good karma for this, if that’s true, I’ve gained a lot today! I move along the wall behind some local Tibetans who turn and smile at the lone foreigner following them along the line and continue to spin the wheels. I like it here, Tongren, Tibet without actually going to Tibet.
I would have liked to visit Tibet on this trip, but the permit fee is so high, most backpackers on a budget like me just simply can’t afford it. Couple that with what I’ve heard about having to stay with a guide and being quite restricted with what you see, it hardly seemed worth it. There is another way though!
Not all of Tibet is technically in the province of Tibet. Much of Northern Sichuan as well as Qinghai and Gansu Provinces sit on the edge of the Tibetan plateau and are inhabited by Tibetan people. You won’t get to see the Potala Palace, but there are still quite a few significant Tibetan monasteries and beautiful mountain views to give you a taste of Tibet without the permit hassle.
Tongren is a village in Qinghai province, China about 4 hours bus ride from the provincial capital of Xining. The first delightful thing about visiting Tongren is the bus ride there. Once your out of the city the road starts to wind through amazing mountain pathways taking in lakes and if the weather is clear the peaks of the Tibetan mountain ranges rising up in the background. Small monasteries and colourful prayer flags dot the road and giant painted Buddhas adorn the rock faces, it’s almost worth going just for the journey alone.
Tongren is dusty but quaint little town. The population is made up mostly of ethnic Tibetans and the Muslim Hui, with both cultures equally prominent throughout the town. The main feature of the town is the beautiful, and quite large Longwu monastery. Like a lot of monasteries and cultural sites of China it was destroyed during the cultural revolution and rebuilt in the 1980′s. I don’t want to go to much into the politics of the whole thing in a travel blog, I will just say it is a positive move that many of the destroyed sites are being rebuilt.
Tongren is also a famous centre of the Buddhist art form of Thangka painting. Thangka art normally represents Buddhist deities or Mandalas painted on silk. Actual gold is often used in the paintings. I’ve been in love personally with Thangka art since I first discovered it in Nepal about 7 years ago, so it was amazing to see so many artists in one place working on so many amazing pieces. Just wander the streets of Tongren and you will find many spots to stop and watch these fascinating works being created.
There are many other villages to visit in the Qinghai/Gansu areas to give you a taste of Tibet. I would loved to have had more time to explore the area, but due to an issue with local ATM’s (see ‘things to consider’ below) and a time constraint to get to the Kyrgyzstan border it will have to wait for another trip.
Things to consider
The need to take cash with you
I didn’t take a lot of cash with me. I have found in general in China that the most reliable ATM’s are the ICBC ones. Tongren did not have an ICBC ATM, in fact Tongren did not have a single ATM that would work with any of my cards. The upshot of this was I couldn’t continue on with my journey as planned, as I couldn’t risk the same thing happening in the next town and being stuck without money and not being able to get back. Take plenty of cash with you when leaving major cities
Take a Chinese Language Guide
No one is going speak English. If you want to be understood you will need a Chinese phrase book, or app on your smartphone/tablet. I cannot stress enough how many times this has saved me from complete despair. Communications is the hardest thing I’ve found about travelling through China, and the further away from the cities you get the harder it becomes
The Tibetan issue
I’ve read many times on various forums that these towns are ‘closed’ or hotels won’t take foreigners. From being in the area, this was not my experience at all. It’s probably worth checking, especially around times of Tibetan New Year in March, but generally I think most of that information is quite outdated. When the bus went through one army checkpoint my ID wasn’t even required, so there seems to be no current issues or restrictions on visiting Tibetan towns.
Should you go?
Absolutely! It’s been one of my favourite areas of China so far. Tongren was a delightful town and the area was full of the cleanest air I’ve breathed in China. Scattered with many historic sites and Tibetan towns, I think it’s a great alternative to visiting Tibet itself.
Mt Emei Shan is a beautiful, natural, UNESCO world heritage and Buddhist pilgrimage site located in Sichuan Province, China. It’s full of jungles, monasteries and highway robbing monkeys. The Golden Summit (not the actual summit – which is about 20m higher) at 3077 metres was a welcome destination after a couple of days of stairs, even if I could have just taken the bus and the cable car up.
The Emei Shan Hike
I have to say I enjoyed the Emei Shan hike much better than Tiger Leaping Gorge. There are a lot of bused/cable cared in tourists at the beginning and end of the 3 day walk, but through the middle part, I was surrounded by beautiful green jungle, the occasional pesky monkey and had the track entirely to myself lots of the time.
The Emei Shan hike can be done over as many or as few days as you like. Maps are available from all hostels in town and there are many entry and exit points, as well as monorails and cable cars, so using any combination of these it’s possible to only walk for 1-2 hours if you wish, although if you take a look at the costs section below, I’m not sure just it warrants the entry fee just to go for a day.
I chose to walk from the closest town of Baoguo, which is the furthest entry point and take a few days getting to the summit. The map while helpful was not particularly detailed with distances, and only contained 1 path, where in reality there are several, so this turned the hike into a game of match the Chinese characters to the temples and decipher cryptic clues. I did managed not to get lost, which is actually quite an achievement for me.
The walk itself does involve a lot of steps, but it’s not terribly difficult. The stairs are all of even height and in the organisation I am coming to learn is typical of China, are also swept of leaves everyday. Accommodation along the way is monasteries. They do basic rooms with electric blankets and cheap vegetarian meals. The prices of rooms are a little steep however.
Really, what I loved most about it was just being surrounded by lush green jungle
Dangers and annoyances
In the colder months, you apparently need to be aware of ice on the trail, but at this time of year that wasn’t an issue. The biggest issue was the monkeys. There are several spots on the map marked ‘joking monkey’ sections. These monkeys aren’t so much funny as opportunistic highway robbers. They’ll ignore you if your with a bunch of people, but when they get you alone, watch out! I had one actually growling and about to pounce on me. They say to carry a rock to scare it, but I was surprised when I actually had to throw it. I didn’t hit it, and no monkeys where harmed during the making of this story, just scared away from stealing my stuff.
Getting there and costs
The trail or mountain can be accessed from the nearby town of Bauguoso, where you can also find a variety of hotels.
The cost section of the trip is where it becomes not that great. Costs, if your doing the trek will come to:
- Park Enrtry – 185 yuan
- Monastery Stay – 120 yuan
- Food on the trail – approx 30-40 yuan a meal. Taking your own noodles along will save you money.
- Return bus to Bauguoso – 20 yuan
If you do the day trip:
- Park Entry – 185 yuan
- Bus to and from Jinding 50 yuan each way
- Cable Car from Jinding to summit – 65 up, 55 down
Is it worth it?
For the hike, even though accommodation particularly is expensive I think it’s worth it, for the day trip, I’m not so sure. 185 yuan is about USD $30. To pay that, as well as the transportation costs up there, well I’d want to make sure it was a good clear day.
What is your favourite hike?
I start to walk up the first little hill of Tiger Leaping Gorge and I get that excited feeling in the pit of my stomach. I’m out in nature, which always makes me so happy, the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain rises up in the background and I breathe in the fresh air and set off. I’m headed up Tiger Leaping Gorge, an area that is purported to be one of the most beautiful in China and a well known trek.
My love hate affair with hiking
As I head up into the trek, particularly the middle part of the 1st day which is 1-2 hours of steep switch backs (a trail that zig zags up a hill) I remember that I don’t love everything about trekking. I love walking the easy parts, I love the scenic views, I love reaching the destination. I don’t particularly love the putting one foot in front of the other up a steep hill. Sure it’s rewarding when you get to the top, but it is a pain on the way up!
I often like to think of this as a little reflection on life. Sure sometimes it’s hard, and sometimes you can’t see the top and it just feels like your walking up a never ending hill, but if you just keep making that next step, you do always make it. Also, the hard section of Tiger Leaping Gorge trek is really only 1-2 hours long and not that traumatic.
The Tiger Leaping Gorge Trek
Tiger Leaping Gorge is located about a 2 hour bus ride from the historic city of Lijiang in Yunnan Province, China. It is a well known and well trodden path on the Yunnan tourist trail.
The trek is a two day trek, which is really only a day and a half. The first day is spent walking to what is called the halfway point, but is really much further than half way and is mostly up hill. The remainder of the trek, down to the top of the gorge is mostly downhill and can be completed easily in 1-2 hours. Once at the top of the gorge, most people walk down and back up the actual gorge itself to see the ‘Tiger Leaping Rock’ which is where the area got its name from. The trek can be completed in 1 day if your relatively fit and move quickly.
There where things I liked about this trek, and things I didn’t. It’s about 50/50 so I think the best way to write about it is split it into those two categories.
What I liked about the Tiger Leaping Gorge Trek
The mountain scenery was stunning. Absolutely, breathtaking in parts. There are several lodges at the halfway point where you can stop for the night. The most popular one being the ‘half way lodge’c
The night at the halfway lodges is definitely a highlight of the trip. The top open air deck, the restaurant and even the toilets look out over a stunning view of Karst mountain rocks with snowy mountain peaks rising up behind. Even though it probably is possible to push through the whole thing in 1 day, it’s worth stopping here the night to sit around on the deck and take in the scenery.
The other positive thing about the trek is that it is quite popular, so it’s a good spot to meet other travellers and socialise.
What I didn’t like about the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek
Ok, so I’m going to have a bit of a whinge now. I don’t mean to be negative, but I have to get it out.
The Roads and the Wires
You don’t actually have to walk two days to get to Tiger Leaping Gorge, there is a road there. While I appreciate that the building of roads and hotels makes these areas more accessible to more people, and this is generally a positive thing, the fact that you can see the road below you for pretty much the whole trek makes it feel a little less like your in a beautiful wilderness and a little bit like you may as well have taken the bus.
There are also a lot of blue water pipes and electrical wires that get in the way of the view. The photos I have here all needed to be taken from certain positions to get nice landscape shots
I wrote a rant about touts earlier in my trip. This is the first, and only time since that I’ve come across this kind of thing in China, but it did mar the trek for me. It mostly involves women setting themselves up in different spots and demanding you pay money to use different parts of the trail. They weren’t asking for large amounts of money, but it did become annoying – there is a park entry fee paid to enter and it was annoying having this argument about paying more money to people on the way. When one woman physically restrained me when I refused to pay her it did mar my experience a little.
Getting there and costs
The bus from Lijiang is 30 yuan, your hostel should be able to arrange for it to pick you up or you can walk to the bus stop. Either way it’s the same bus and the same price. The bus back to Lijiang from Tina’s guesthouse at then end of the hike is 55 yuan. Buses are also available to and fro Shangri-La.
The park entry fee is 65 yuan. The bus will stop on entry and a park officer will come on board to sell you your ticket. As mentioned above – you will get asked at various points for more money to use parts of the trail.
Accommodation can be found at various family run guesthouses all the way along the trail. Expect to pay about 30 yuan for a dorm room and around 120 yuan for a private double room
Should I go?
If I’d written this directly after I did the trek, I think I would have been harsher about it, as I was quite annoyed at the incident with the touts. On reflection, I will be softer. It’s a nice walk, it’s not the most amazing trek I’ve ever done, but the scenery is quite beautiful in parts. I am an advocate of hiking over taking the bus in a place like this, but just be aware, that in this case you are seeing pretty much the same thing.
What’s your opinion on roads opening up hiking areas like this? Good that more people have an opportunity to visit? Or does it take to much away from the natural vibe of a place?