A couple of weeks ago, I joined a group of students for a week in the Thüringer Wald, or Thuringian Forest. Our trip was their first group outing since Covid, and it was a delight to be in a reasonably rustic environment with young people who were both comfortable in that context and genuinely glad to be there.
This campground relies significantly on volunteer labour for renovation work and there was a great deal to do. This wasn’t the type of trip where we were doing that, but I think it would have been good fun.
It was dark at night and we were able to see the Milky Way and the Big Dipper, though my photography skills and equipment cannot attest to that. We also made a fire every night, making for a much warmer evening than we would have had otherwise. There’s poetry in sitting under the stars in the cold, but there’s comfort in sitting under the stars with a fire.
While the afternoons were largely free, we had activities planned each morning. A real highlight was the hike led by the campground director, Dagmar. She taught us about the bark beetles that are killing the young trees here in the beautiful Thüringer Wald. The devastation is occurring rapidly in part because of the monoculture that was once common here for logging. It was really sad to see so much empty hillside and to think about the consequences, such as landslides and flooding, that occur under these conditions, also making it really difficult to grow new trees. And trying to do so when they’re being attacked by bark beetles is, as we learned, no easy task.
It’s also interesting to contrast the immediate environment of the valley where our camp was situated with the forest conditions around a village just 15 minutes away by car. (And, for that matter, the stunning environs in yet another part of the Thüringer Wald where I’ve been twice to climb.)
One thing I am really enjoying about Germany is how much it looks just like you might expect from a travel brochure. A walk on our penultimate day from one town to a bus stop in another town was a lot of work on hills but they were really pretty hills.
On the last day, only about an hour from school, we spent the afternoon by a lake. There’s so much here that is a fairy tale – berries and mushrooms in forests that people just happily pick, for example – and it has been so lovely experiencing it all.
This part of the state of Thüringen (Thuringia) is right on the border with Bayern (Bavaria). You know that place. Home of Oktoberfest. Indeed.
After so much time on the Little Red Dot that is fully part of my heart, it’s a real gift to be somewhere else. I’m looking at the world with different eyes and for that, I am grateful.
That it has been two and a half weeks since my last entry and I haven’t noticed should say a thing or two about where my mind has been lately. Everywhere, nowhere, now here.
My friends, colleagues, and I are again spending the summer in Singapore. Our visa status, just like last year, does not guarantee that we will be allowed reentry. It’s hard on everyone, of course, and the best thing to do, the only thing to do, is make the best of where we are and what there is. Lucky for us, there is a great deal of life to be lived if you’re willing to go out and look.
Back in May, on a holiday weekend that otherwise would have found many of us on a plane to somewhere else, two friends and I walked Singapore’s Green Corridor from Hillview south to Tanjong Pagar. This was 13km of the 24km-long trail and I was more interested in the conversation with my friends (and some general antics) than taking photos. Two photos that I did take, however, largely summarize my experience on this part of the trail.
The Green Corridor is an abandoned, overgrown, redeveloped rail corridor that once linked Singapore with the rest of the Malay Peninsula. There were reminders of the railroad everywhere, and reminders that nature, trees, will always be there. Trees are steady, strong, resilient. They bend so that they do not break, reroot to build a new home. They shelter, they provide, they live on. I don’t need to read the research (although I have) on the power of nature to slow down the body. I am reminded every single day.
The tree in the photo below reminded me yet again. It was our first landmark on the Green Corridor. It knew, well before we knew, the role that collective resilience would come to play in all of our lives.
There were points along the walk where the rail line, a marker of what the world was and how it was defined, disappeared. There were times when we were simply walking on an open path between field and road, protected by fences and foliage on either side. Walking south, we watched the distance between ourselves and the shipping cranes in Tanjong Pagar gradually shrink. But every so often, reminders reappeared. Reminders that Singapore, like every place, has not always been what or how it is now. Reminders of how quickly development becomes redevelopment, and the impossible dream becomes the everyday.
Although fenced off and abandoned to prevent people like me and my curious friends from exploring, it was not difficult to imagine the rail depot that this once was. Singapura is the Malay name for Singapore. That’s what this place was, and at its very core, there is so much of Singapura that remains for those who ask, who learn, who look.
Just a few days ago, one of my friends and I finished the walk. We started up north this time, further north than we needed to because the maps are not obvious, and followed the rest of the trail from Woodlands south to Hillview.
Before finding the trail, we lost ourselves on a fortunate detour that took us to the Rainbow Bridge in a part of Singapore we’d never seen before.
And by the time we found the trail, running perpendicular to a current MRT line, we discovered a Singapore that was well and truly Singapura, and before that, a forest.
There were a few times when this northern stretch converged with modern life, but the excitement of seeing different trees, different plants, different flowers, and hearing different birds and animals remained throughout the walk. These are parts of this place that I have never seen but that remind me, somehow, of places I have known. Perhaps in a different story in a different life.
I have a great respect for these places that have taken me from my everyday to a totally different world that was once the world. In discussions of change, I think we forget how rapidly change can occur. And because we forget that, we also lose sight of what exactly is changing, and to what degree, and when. And we forget that nature is stronger than we are.
A very special off-shoot of the Green Corridor is a short walk through Clementi Forest. We heard about it back in May when we saw a few women, covered in mud and exhilarated, rejoin the main train and celebrate. Clementi Forest is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a rainforest. Now. Again. It has grown over the rail line that is still visible through the mud, under fallen trees, and in the gully that was dug long ago to house it. To imagine this island, known for modernity, as the rainforest it used to be is today’s equivalent of the impossible dream of a world powered by technology.
And to take the time to seek out the impossible is to find yourself in a different place, a different world than what you thought you knew. And that’s just it, isn’t it? We only know what we know and there is so much out there to leave us in the child-like embrace of wonder.
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.
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
Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by someone trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place