Tag Archives: Flowers

Travel Guide: Yunnan Province x2

I’ve been very privileged to be able to travel abroad to wonderful places with students. Just like last year in Yunnan and the previous year in Battambang, Cambodia, my school worked with the JUMP! Foundation who develop, design, and manage our programs. As trip lead for the past three years, I have a close relationship with JUMP! – and in all honesty, they make me question my career choices every time. It is an honour to work with them.

Yunnan is in Southwestern China. It borders Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam.

For many students, this was their first time playing backpacker. We took an overnight train, three bus rides, and a short train throughout our trip. There’s a lot to see and do in Yunnan and we were all over the place in our six days of travel.

Our first stop was the town of Baisha. We arrived there after flying from Singapore to Kunming and taking a nine-hour night train from Kunming to Lijiang. This was my third experience on a night train and I slept surprisingly soundly. The earplugs probably helped, as perhaps did having the lower bunk. From Lijiang, Baisha is only about thirty minutes away by bus.

Like most of where we go on these trips, Baisha is a small rural community and it’s beautiful.

I was particularly fascinated with how buildings are constructed and how space is used.

Our primary reason for being in Yunnan was to engage with the environment around us and the minority groups that live there. Our first real activity was a hike up to Fuguo Monastery, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery that has been around since 1601. The hike was beautiful and we really enjoyed the cool air. We don’t get air like that in Singapore.

I’ve been to many temples and monasteries and I really enjoy them. I enjoy their beauty, their quiet, and their overwhelming sense of peace. I do sometimes wonder if that comes from shutting out the outside world and its problems, but that did not seem to be the case here, such as when the monks utterly defeated our students in our annual basketball game.

Our exploration of the landscape continued the following day. We hiked up to a reservoir located just outside of town towards the monastery and then down to a village located alongside Wenhai Lake. The terrain was steep and damp from the previous night’s rain and it changed as we walked. Once again, the air tasted different from the air that we have in Singapore and the wind came from a different direction. There were times during our walk when I lost myself in the forest and in the sensations of being somewhere foreign yet completely familiar.

It is a true pleasure to feel like I’m somewhere new and to look around at a completely different sky. Singapore is dense and full of tall buildings; our time in Yunnan gave me some much-needed solace and an escape from a world that I often feel is moving too quickly.

From our forest walk, we visited the Baisha Naxi Embroidery Institute where we learned traditional Naxi Dongba calligraphy. The symbols are pictographs that can be combined in a variety of ways to create many different messages. It was a lot of fun to use the calligraphy brush! We also learned traditional embroidery, which the kids really enjoyed and which reminded me of the sewing I used to do in elementary school.

We did not stay still in Yunnan, however. After two nights in Baisha we took a three-hour bus ride to Laojunshan. If I’m going to return to any part of Yunnan on my own, Laojunshan is it. I didn’t know it before I arrived, but the area is China’s traditional climbing heaven and as soon as we got there, I understood why.

The buildings are beautiful, too, and fit so completely into the red sandstone that was everywhere.

Many people from the Lisu minority community live in the area around Laojunshan and are known for their music and dance. We visited the home of famous Lisu musicians who have performed as far away as France. We spent an afternoon with them to make bamboo flutes and learn traditional Lisu dances. A week later, my flute still tastes and smells like wood and smoke, which I love.

Later that evening we had the opportunity to put our Lisu dance steps into practice, which was great fun. Laojunshan is basically one long street and the nightly entertainment is dancing! We gathered with the community after dark in a large courtyard with lights, tables, and benches and followed along as best we could. The Lisu women had beautiful costumes and many men were involved in the dance, too.

When we left the dancing, I looked up at the stars. It was so dark and there were so many stars. We don’t see that in Singapore.

Another thing we don’t see in Singapore is mountains. The following day we climbed Thousand Turtle Mountain, which was astonishingly beautiful. The views are glorious and the day was fresh and new from rain the night before. I loved watching the light and the mountains appear from the mist. I took some time to write and to sit and breathe the air; there aren’t many occasions when the world feels right to me but this was certainly one of those, for which I am grateful.

Thousand Turtle Mountain feels like a different world from anywhere but it was starkly different to Lijiang, our final destination that afternoon. Lijiang is about three hours by bus from Laojunshan and the home of the closest airport to where we were. At just over a million people, one of my Chinese colleagues pronounced it tiny. Considering we’d spent the week in towns so small that you could count the number of streets, Lijiang felt huge.

Rather than spend any time in the city, though, we headed straight to Lijiang Old Town, which used to be the market district. It maintains that character and flavour through winding, twisting, narrow streets full of shops but the shops today are for tourists. They sell souvenirs, food, and beverages of every kind. I do enjoy a market in any form and it was fun to wander around and see what there was to see. I really did like the architecture, too. Most buildings in the parts of Yunnan I have visited have exteriors far grander than I would have expected and it always catches me by pleasant surprise.

Throughout our time in Yunnan, I photographed flowers. We have lots of flora in Singapore but I love exploring the beauty of the places that I visit. It’s all so different! And there were so many purple ones!

The following day, we were back at the train station for a high speed train to Kunming to catch the flight that would take us to Singapore. We spent six days in a different world and I am grateful for each one of them, and for the people I spent time with along the way. It is experiences like this that make me feel right in the world and this one came at a good time.

Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt. – John Muir

15 Miles on the Erie Canal

If you grew up in upstate New York, you know the song I’m referring to in the title. My favorite version of this 1905 song by Thomas Allen is by the Dady Brothers, a local group best known for their Irish music. Whether you know the song or just want some appropriate background music for the post below, you can listen here. This particular song is the fifth track, “The Erie Canal Song,” and the second song in the sample. Enjoy and enjoy!

The rest of the album is great, too. We listened to it every single cruise when I worked on tour boats on the Erie Canal and Genesee River. These waterways created Rochester and its surrounding towns and villages, gave them life. However, Rochester has also suffered over time and that began when trains supplanted boats as the easiest way to ship goods. Have you ever wondered why the canal bridges are so low? (“Low bridge, everybody down, low bridge for we’re coming to a town!”) Because the train companies built them that way! You can’t stack goods on line boats (built for cargo) when going under low bridges.

Anyway, I’ve been fortunate in learning about the waterways here and spending so much time getting to know them. When I’m in Rochester for the summer I run on the canal several times a week and I’m captivated, every single time, by the world around me. For many years, I preferred a route from Pittsford village west to Lock 32 but this summer I fell in adoration with a route heading east from Pittsford towards Fairport. Because it’s beautiful I wanted to photograph it and share it with you. Please join me. I promise I won’t talk too much.

Views of a Run While Walking

My run begins a little ways outside the village but it’s the bridge I’m excited for. Instead of crossing the bridge (one of three in my immediate view) I follow the path underneath.

Hey look, my former “office”!

The Sam Patch is operated by Corn Hill Navigation. They’re a wonderful non-profit focused on educating people of all ages about the Erie Canal. (And they are my friends and former employers but not aware that I’m saying such nice things about them.)

I approach a cluster of abandoned buildings that have been abandoned for as long as anyone can remember. Imagine the stories they could tell!

The canal is lined with trees that lead the way . . .

. . . under a bridge . . .

. . . and onto a path that soon turns to gravel.

And then I’m overcome. There’s a breeze today and it’s brisk with traces of almost cool, the night burning off into a warm day. The air smells like morning and like sunshine. First I find the flowers, vines, and leaves.

Although I especially love the wildflowers . . .

. . . I’m almost reluctant to look anywhere except at the trees reflecting in the water masquerading as glass. The Erie Canal might be murky due to its natural bottom, but this is beautiful.

The people who live here have docks and I think of how nice it would be to watch the day dawn and the evening turn to night.

The light is dancing and as I look more closely, I smile at how dynamic the water actually is. A painting is before my eyes.

That’s more like it!

There are signs of life long past, too. This notice has been there for a very long time and the rules are still the rules . . .

. . . and this house was designed to fit into the landscape of farms and mule barns along the canal. After all, the mules had to rest!

There’s one more bridge I can photograph before my camera runs out of battery . . .

. . . and I can’t resist standing underneath it as cars cross overhead. How that scared me the first time!

Had I planned better I would have packed a snack, made coffee, pumped up the bicycle tires, and charged my camera. But I didn’t plan at all. Instead, I jumped out of bed with an idea and I ran with it. Sometimes it’s okay to do that.

Some years ago I wrote about how it feels to run along the Erie Canal in the morning. I can’t say it now better than I said it then, but now there are pictures to help tell the story. Thank you for spending this time with me.

Travel Guide: Montreal

During the annual summer trip to see our grandparents, my siblings and I had the chance to do a little exploring. My sister and I were born in Montreal but we moved when we were very young. We’ve been there somewhere around a million times to visit family but have rarely seen or experienced Montreal as a living, breathing city. It was great to have a chance to do so this time!

We spent our first afternoon in Old Montreal, charming with old buildings and architecture that makes it feel more European than particularly Canadian. French and English heritage are obvious in the signage, statues, and bustling activity of restaurants and sidewalk cafés.

Old Montreal is especially busy during the summer when the weather is warm and festivals are in full swing. (We were really excited to accidentally find ourselves at the Jazz Festival a little ways away!) There were street vendors selling everything from ice cream to jewellery and it was fun to look around. The restaurants were crowded with people enjoying the sun, and everyone we met was friendly and helpful.

As with many old cities, Montreal is located on the water. The Port of Montreal was full of people riding bikes, eating snacks, shopping for souvenirs, and celebrating Canada Day.

The Port of Montreal even has its own flag, which unfortunately didn’t photograph as well as I would have liked.

From left to right are the flags of Canada, Quebec, Montreal, and the Port of Montreal

We had dinner as a family to celebrate my grandparents’ anniversary. It was so normal – grandparents, uncle, aunt, and grandchildren all in one place! – and spent the evening laughing as our grandparents reminisced about their 61 years together and the spaghetti dinners they used to buy for 69 cents. 69 cents!

After breakfast the next morning, we the children went off to Jean-Talon Market where none of us had ever been. As you know, I love markets anywhere and my travelling companions felt the same way. We loved the fresh and local produce . . .

. . . herbs and flowers . . .

. . . and speciality shops and prepared foods.

There was even a cookbook bookstore!

I would have loved to do some shopping and cooking but we had other plans for the day and they were not to be missed. Rather than eating at the market we headed for Schwartz’s, a Montreal institution located on the popular Saint-Laurent Boulevard not too far from McGill University. In my limited excursions around Montreal, I’ve been to Schwartz’s more than a few times, which should indicate its prestige in the eyes of my family. They serve smoked meat sandwiches on rye bread with mustard and various sides like fries, coleslaw, and pickles. And that’s about it. (The Wikipedia page has a bit more information.) After waiting in the ever-present line out of the door, this vegetarian even ate half a piece of smoked meat!

We spent the rest of the afternoon continuing our walk through the neighborhood between Schwartz’s and McGill. We visited campus and then followed the street art through the main shopping area of downtown. Like markets, I love street art anywhere in the world and it was fun to get a sense of the cultural life of Montreal.

I was also very excited to see signs of community engagement in the painted piano sitting out for anyone to play and a very cool ground mural marked with the best spot for a photo.

Considering how little time I’ve spent in the city of my birth, it was really lovely to do some exploring. I got a sense of the city’s geography and can now better understand the streets that my grandparents and parents mention in conversation. I was able to practice a little bit of French and enjoyed being somewhere simultaneously a little bit familiar and quite a bit new. And, of course, it was great to see my family. It always is.