Posted by: Brian | June 6, 2009

Tiger Leaping Gorge. Epic.

Our new best friend, only not.

Our new best friend, only not.

My time in China is now around 60% over, give or take a few days. In that time, I’ve got to say that my absolute, hands-down, favorite part of China has been Tiger Leaping Gorge. It was epic. It was gorgeous. It was moderately dangerous, due to inclement weather. It was China minus the noise, the (bad) smells, the teeming hordes of people that populate most of it. It was two days of rainy, slightly cold hiking, trying to take photos without my camera getting wet or the lens fogging up, meeting other backpackers, and taking my laptop with me to one of the sorts of places that a laptop has absolutely no business being. Here’s how it all went down:

Friday morning we took a two-hour bus ride from Lijiang to a small town called Qiao Tou, which would probably be even smaller were it not for Tiger Leaping Gorge attracting visitors to the area. After trying to convince a local man that no, we didn’t need a guide to hike a clearly marked path, we paid our entrance fee – half off for students! – and entered the park.

Guest houses are awesome.

Guest houses are awesome.

I say park in a very broad sense of the phrase – park in that you’re charged to get in, and it’s scenic, but not so much a park in that there are guest houses dotting the trail, a road several hundred meters below you at the bottom of the gorge, and locals trying to convince you to wimp out and ride a horse. Who does that? Who embarks on a two-day trek along a foot path and then decides that a horse is better? Not us. It was a little difficult at times – notably an area called 28 Bends, where you climb up, up, up a steep zig-zagging path for the better part of two hours – but nothing someone in decent shape can’t handle.

After the first couple hours of hiking, we stopped for lunch at the Naxi Family guest house (Naxi is the name of a local minority). My German friend had the unfortunate and ironic tendency to mispronounce this as “nazi” instead of “na-shi” which is correct. The other three of us aren’t going to let her live that down for a while, I think.

Afternoon was when it started raining. It wasn’t bad – a slight drizzle, more like mist than actual rainfall, but enough to get me thoroughly soaked after several hours of trudging through the stuff. It also made everything very, very slick, and portions of the path turned completely to mud. This, paired with a lack of safety on most of it and a half-meter-wide path that at times wrapped along the edge of a mountain, made for a rather thrilling experience, if not one I would relish repeating.

This? Not normal behavior for me.

This? Not normal behavior for me.

Most of the time, I’m not too fond of heights. I start questioning the logic of why I’m up so high in the first place, what the safest way to get down would be, and why I allowed myself to be conned into whatever adventure I happen to be on. For some reason, this time it was nothing less than thrilling. At times, we would go running down the path just for kicks, ignoring the very dramatic, very steep drop to our immediate right *note to my mother: I promise to never do this again, or not tell you if I do*. It might sound a bit crazy, and it was, but hey, the weather was a nice change from the heat wave Kunming had been experiencing, the view was gorgeous, and the exercise was positively invigorating. You can’t blame us, right?

I feel required to point out that most of the hike was merely a journey, however enjoyable it might have been. The actual point that most people go to see is called “tiger leaping rock,” and it’s at the very end of the hike, at the bottom of the gorge. The way down and back up were fun and incredibly exhausting since they immediately followed three hours of hiking, but worth it. The bottom? Not entirely sure what all the fuss is about. Stories say that a tiger leaped from said rock across the river to the other side, but it’s entirely too far to be true, and the rock itself isn’t particularly special or awe-inspiring.

I shot some footage along the way back up – the path was steep, slippery, and would have been completely impossible were it not for lengths of metal chain and cable that provided a handhold along the side. After getting home, I was disappointed to realize that the viewing the footage wasn’t nearly as exciting as actually climbing it – somehow the incredible lack of safety doesn’t translate. Suffice to say that we were soaked, muddy, and exhausted at the end, and quite proud of ourselves for having made it without dying.

On a final note, I’d like to mention that this is, in a sense, part of a vague series: the oft-mentioned Wei is heading home for Australia soon, so we’re squeezing in as much travel as possible before that happens. Next up is our incredibly relaxing trip to Xishuangbanna, from which I’m currently writing this. After that? We’re climbing Haba Mountain. Should be fun.

Waterfall. It was cool.

Waterfall. It was cool.

Posted by: Holly | June 3, 2009

“No Pasa Nada”

“No Pasa Nada” or “Don’t worry” -this is a phrase that I think sums up Spain. No matter how worked up I get about school, or anything for that matter, this phrase seems to be the typical response of every single Spanish person I encounter, and something that has been forced on me to accept since day one. What is humorous about this phrase is that for some reason I always hear it in situations that do merit worrying- or at least I think so. I am 2 weeks away from taking two finals,which there is a very large chance I am going to fail them both. I don’t mean to seem like a “Debbie Downer” or like someone who isn’t putting forth effort, but I totally underestimated classes – and my anxiety about taking these exams continues to increase the closer they get. Although I feel like I have accustomed myself into the culture as much as possible, it will take a miracle for me to ‘no pasa nada’…I suppose I will just have to pretend until it is all said and done.

wish me luck!


Posted by: Brian | June 2, 2009

Misnomers Are Fun!

Have you ever taken a sleeper bus in China? I recently rode one from Kunming to Lijiang. It was… interesting. First of all, the use of the word “sleeper,” implying the ability to sleep during the trip, is misleading. It’s nearly impossible to get sleep on the trip. Our intrepid driver opted for back-country roads over the highway, presumably to avoid paying tolls. That’s all well and good, except the roads he took were some of the bumpiest I’ve ever been on. Potholes are numerous and deep; on several occasions it became something of a game to see if I could stay in my bunk without falling out or being lobbed onto the person next to me.

That’s another thing – whoever designed those beds must have assumed that everyone riding would either be under ten years of age or starving, because each bunk was maybe 18 inches wide. I know I’m thin, but good grief! Was that really necessary?

On the single occasion that I was able to doze off for a bit, I woke up fifteen minutes later to find the bus parked on the side of the road, with our driver nowhere in sight.  Another passenger was kind enough to inform me and my friends that he had stopped for beer and barbeque, and that there was a chance we would have to wait until morning before leaving if he had too much to drink. Oh, China, your cavalier attitude toward safety never ceases to astound me. Perhaps an hour later we were back on the road, thought I’m not sure whether or not that was actually a good thing. Read More…

Posted by: Brian | May 31, 2009

Notes from a Sleeper Train, Shanghai > Kunming

A town is celebrating something with fireworks, though what it’s for I don’t know.

A haze of smog hangs over a coal-mining town.

The dining car serves food that is not only edible, but tastier than the food at my university’s cafeteria.

A man loudly and obliviously chatters away  as the rest of the sleeper car tries to do just that – sleep.

A  beautiful woman speaks to no-one, instead sitting alone and gazing out the window as towns roll past.

Jazz plays softly over the intercom system, a welcome change from the screeching traditional Chinese singing that was on earlier. I still can’t get used to that stuff.

Without an form of entertainment other than an iPod and my laptop, both of which are rapidly being drained of their batteries, we sleep often and for as long as possible. Other alternatives include trying to figure out which people in our car speak putonghua (Mandarin), and staring out the window.

A gang of children stampede past in the narrow walkway, shouting to each other as they rush to the back of the train.

A group of sketchy men sit across from my bed and stare and me and my friend. I sleep with my pack locked and under my pillow.

Our car has very unreliable air conditioning, and has begun to smell bad, so we periodically walk the length of the train, stopping in other cars for as long as possible before being herded back to our beds. The train’s crew is very determined to keep everyone in their own car. Economic segregation? Over-zealous employees with a sense of empowerment? We can’t decide which is more likely.

We pass through stop after stop in a seemingly-illogical fashion. Stopping at some, flying through others, and occasionally reversing course, we make out way across China.

After 42 hours, we roll into Kunming. All I want is a hot shower.

My dorm only has cold water at this time of day.

Posted by: Zach | May 25, 2009

Taking a break

Dawn happens at 4:30 in Japan. Why, I wonder?

Dawn happens at 4:30 in Japan. Why, I wonder?

Sometimes, you just have to roll with suggestions, no matter how random they are, and experience life to the fullest.

I’ve been negligent in my posting recently, but if you consider that the two (supposedly) largest breaks of my career at Ritsumeikan have happened since my last post, I’m sure you’ll be all-forgiving.

First, there was Golden Week, punctuated by parties and parties and a couple of trips to temples and shrines. And you know what? That was good, in its own way. It was a well-deserved break from the usual studies and tension lying therein.

However, Mukade Wars/swine flu break will be different! Read More…

Posted by: Brian | May 22, 2009

Hanging in Hangzhou

In the middle of my recent trip to Shanghai, we took a one-day, one-night trip to Hangzhou, a city perhaps 200 km outside of Shanghai that is famed for its natural beauty. I can’t recall the exact words, but there is an old Chinese saying that goes something along the lines of, “above is heaven, and below are Hangzhou and Suzhou.”

That saying was a bit of an exaggeration. Hangzhou is nice, but by no means does it qualify as “heaven on earth” in my book. While there, we had some fairly unpredictable weather. It kept switching from overcast and chilly to hot, sunny, and humid. Without fail, I brought the wrong gear each time we went out for a while – sunglasses during the poor weather, and a hoodie when it was hot. I’m just that good. Read More…

Posted by: haleymulf | May 20, 2009

Elections Cont’d and Home

In my last post I didn’t mention anything about the actual election day. It was pretty calm in Pretoria although the lines to vote here, as well as every where else, were very long. Some people waited up to an hour to be able to vote. The polling stations were mostly tents, and there were several cops at each location. One that we drove by had about 15 that I could see. In some areas of the country the power went out and voters had to be turned away. Some places torches and lighters were used instead. I didn’t hear of much violence. There was one riot in Pretoria and there was some violence in the Kwazulu Natal region… the homeland of Jacob Zuma. ANC supporters vs. COPE supporters no doubt. I also heard of voting officials throwing away ballots that didn’t have ANC checked, or adding ballots themselves for the ANC. These guys were kicked out and some arrested. That night we walked by one of the stations before it closed to steal signs (shhh!) and a drunk guy came up to us asking who we voted for. We ended up just walking away after 10 minutes of trying to convince him that we didn’t vote for the ANC because you can’t vote in South Africa if you only have an American passport. It was quite entertaining. What was very different was that it took a long time before the election results were given to the public. Everyone already knew that the ANC would win anyways. It was a very interesting day.

In other news, I am really tired of the City of Tshwane working on the water lines. Two days this week the water was shut off around my area of the city and all of campus for EIGHT hours each day! Last night the water just went off for several hours then turned back on. Although that happens pretty often that the water will go off with no warning and turn back on a little while later. Pretty much every other day I’ll be in the middle of washing my hands or taking a shower and the water will shut off for five minutes or so. It gets annoying but it is also just something else that makes me more thankful for the country I live in.

My mom sent me cheerios and it made my day. It’s amazing how little things like that can make you so happy. I have been thinking lately of how much I will miss all of my friends here and South Africa. It’s has had its ups and downs… I’ve loved it and I have hated it, but I am needed at home and I’m ready to go.

Posted by: Brian | May 20, 2009

Shanghai Trip Redux

After nine days away from Kunming, I’m still trying to recover from my trip. There was so much we did, so much covered… I’m struggling to eve think of things to discuss, as odd as that may sound. Here are some of the highlights from Shanghai (more on Hangzhou and my train ride back later).

Shanghai Museum: My friend Wei and I spent a solid five or six hours in there. They’ve got an absolutely incredible collection of Chinese culture and history, including exhibits on bronze sculptures of each major dynastic period (as well as earlier, preceding times), the development of pottery and porcelain, calligraphy, a display of coinage used along the Silk Road, and a display of antique furniture from the Ming and Qing dynasties. My personal favorite was the exhibit on bronze sculptures, which had everything from massive buddhas to ancient axe heads.

Nightlife: We spend several nights out dancing with some of Wei’s friends from Australia. Overall, it was rather generic and forgettable, though I found the number of awkward white males to be disproportionately high, even for Shanghai. It was both amusing and a little sad. Read More…

Posted by: Holly | May 19, 2009

Those little things called classes…

It is a strange feeling to think I only have 2 more weeks of classes in Spain. Unfortunately, when classes are over it doesn’t mean school is…I have to wait an additional two weeks until I can take my finals…which will take up all my energy. The courses in Spain generally just have one big exam at the end, and that one test determines everything for the course. Although this might sound appealing to some, I am a big fan of having cushion assignments and or tests throughout the semester. Call me a nerd, but I like having an idea of where I stand in relation to the subject matter…and because I prefer it this way, I am pretty nerviosa about taking my finals in another month here…

In my first week/month of classes in Valencia, I thought I would never be able to figure out the way things worked at the university, or get rid of my constant headache that was, without a doubt, a direct result of trying to understand even just  half of what my professors were lecturing on. However, I am starting to get the hang of things.  Although there is a very high possibility that I might not pass all of my classes… the satisfaction I have gained from being able to understand my professors better, take legible notes in Spanish, knowing where to go to get the materials I need for class, and gaining the confidence and ability to talk to my professors about the  doubts I have,  are all things I have failed to see were happening until recently.

I completely underestimated how hard classes would be in another language, and I must say that it has been quite a roller coaster. I am and always have been a very conscientious student and  prefer a good challenge, but I think I have also come to realize that studying abroad is not so much about getting that A, but more about learning how to be thrown into tough situations and being able to persevere and come out stronger than you ever thought possible.

I have a presentation to give on Thursday in one class, and then I am on the downward spiral!

Hasta Luego!

Posted by: Holly | May 15, 2009

El Rey de Copa


I don’t follow soccer or (futbol) closely, but in Spain it is a very big deal to everyone…and on Wednesday the excitement came to Valencia. On my way to class on Wednesday morning I noticed a lot of Spainards wearing red and white jerseys and then I recognized others wearing Barcelona jerseys and became very confused as to why neither one was supporting Valencia. I soon found out that Valencia was simply hosting the King’s Cup or El Rey de Copa, where Barcelona and Atletic Club, Bilboa would compete for the National Title! I live about 2 blocks from the stadium, so needless to say the noise from all the excited fans was loud, but nevertheless fun to be surrounded by.  I wanted Bilboa to win, only because earlier that day I met some Bilboa fans and they told my friends and I they had not won a title in over 25 years!!  I was rooting for them when I was watching the game, but Barcelona ended up winning by 3 points! However, I also like Barcelona so it was a fun night for me either way!

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