Tag Archives: nature

Travel Guide: Yunnan Province

I recently had the privilege to lead a group of grade 11 students on a week-long journey through Yunnan Province in southwestern China. As on the trip to Battambang, Cambodia that I led for this group as grade 10 students, we worked with the JUMP! Foundation, who continue to be my favorite people. They develop, design, and manage the program along with their partner schools and it’s an honor to work with them each year.

This trip was the first time many of our students experienced what it’s like to be a backpacker. We traveled with packs and on overnight trains, moving to multiple locations throughout the trip. There’s a lot of travel in one week because we spend the first and last days transitioning between planes, trains, and buses but it was a phenomenal experience. 

After a series of opening activities (JUMP! programs involve lots of running around and games, which are really fun, as well as group reflections that are valuable) and another bus ride, we arrived in our first base, Jianchuan.  The town itself is quite small and there was no restaurant in town large enough for all 63 of us so one of the restaurant families opened their courtyard and invited local chefs to cook the three meals we’d be eating there. The food we had all week was truly extraordinary and a major highlight for some of the students and even the staff.

JUMP! had told us about Bai, the minority group that we’d be spending much of our time with on the trip. China doesn’t have the best history in its treatment of minorities, but Bai language, culture, and style of dress remain vibrant and distinct. Learning about and from the Bai people began almost immediately. After some food and our first shower in 36 hours, we headed to a traditional pottery workshop and learned about the ancient art of black pottery that is famous in this region. Interestingly, it’s the use of pine wood in the kiln at the comparatively low temperature of 500°C that makes the pottery black. 

Walking through Jianchuan the next day was like going back in time. The main road of the ancient town was part of Tea Horse Caravan Road that connected to the Silk Road and although no longer a merchant spot, it’s still a functioning street.

Our morning activity was a scavenger hunt following a hand-drawn map through Jianchuan Old Town. We began at the central town square . . .

. . . with the goal of investigating the local economy . . . 

. . . a beautiful shrine . . .

. . . and a local park with pagodas.

From Jianchuan we headed to Shaxi where we’d spend the next three nights. Shaxi is a very small town and a bit like a fairytale. Like Jianchuan, it’s part of the Tea Horse Caravan Road, which is really cool. I even did some shopping there!

We had time to wander through town during our stay and it was so serene and beautiful. 

The countryside was equally beautiful and we went on a bike ride through the fields across the river.

In keeping with the connection to nature, we hiked Shi Bao Mountain the following day. It’s a beautiful pine forest with grottos, temples, and views of Shaxi and the fields beyond. My stereotypes of China had been fading since our arrival and I voiced that for the first time with my students up on the mountain. I wasn’t the only one thinking that way. 

At the summit, we had a picnic linch of the rice rolls and rice balls that we’d made that morning, which had been really fun.

Then we spent the rest of the day in a tiny Bai village, Bao Xiang Si-Shi Long. “Bai” means “white” and many of the homes and buildings were painted white and then decorated, which was quite charming.

Much of the afternoon was spent learning a song in the Bai language. Bai bears no similarity to Mandarin, so it was a challenge for everyone. Our hosts also taught us a traditional dance and performed it for us in full traditional dress at a bonfire later that evening. Two singers performed the song that we’d painstakingly learned after transliterating the Mandarin characters and then we tried to show them what we’d learned of their dance. Try is the key word here, but the Bai people have only recently started teaching their language to outsiders so it was an honor to be included.

A major endeavor during our time in Shaxi was a fascinating anthropology research project that had students learning about local concerns as a result of migration, modernization, and the mixing of immigrants to Shaxi and the Bai locals. Students then followed a hand-drawn map around town to conduct interviews, mostly in Mandarin, to ask a series of questions they’d devised to learn more about the problems. Then, they were tasked with coming up with viable solutions, which prompted excellent group discussions about the appropriateness of walking into a culture and trying to be of help. On the last day of the trip, students presented their proposals to each other and the group voted for three of the ten presentations to give to some of the locals they’d interviewed. I certainly learned a lot and I know the students did, too. And as always, food was a highlight.

The end of our interview day was one of my favorite experiences of the trip, probably because it was so simple. We went stargazing! We don’t see stars that often in Singapore because of light pollution and cloud cover, but the sky in Yunnan was clear and bright. It was cold, too, winter cold, but we headed to the rooftop of our hostel after dark to lie there and simply look up. We gazed in silence for a while and then played a game of “I Wonder”. At the end of the day, I wonder how we all happened to be there.

Our final activity the next afternoon was a really nice follow-up to the stargazing, meeting people, and group reflections that we’d done throughout the week. My group’s leader and I also taught a few meditation techniques that our students enjoyed. So when it came time to hike an hour through the rice fields for half an hour of silence and solitude, our students were ready and looking forward to reconnecting with themselves and how they’d changed during the week.

And all too soon, we were back on buses, the overnight train, and the plane home. As a staff, we high-fived at the happy faces and safe return. As an educator, I delighted in seeing my students grow and mature over the week, developing new friendships and connections with others. And as a person, I was happy with the crisp air, bright sunshine, learning, and laughter that made up every day.

In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks. -John Muir

Upstate Hiking

My family has always loved hiking and we used to do a lot of state park camping when we were growing up. I have fond memories of weekends spent in Stony Brook, Watkins Glen, and Letchworth, all of which are just a couple hours’ drive from Rochester. Last summer, we spent a week in the Adirondacks hiking, boating, and spending time without cell phone service in beautiful scenery. This year, for the first time ever, we had a proper staycation in the Rochester area and spent the week doing a variety of Fun Family Activities, which ranged from hiking and wine tasting to board games and bar trivia. We chose Letchworth State Park for our hike because the park is huge and we knew it would be easy terrain for the dog.

I love the gorges at Letchworth . . .

 

. . . the trees . . .

 

. . . and everything that grows and lives along the trails. . . .

 

Pretty, right? I highly recommend a visit. Need a buddy? Happy to go with you if I’m in the area! If camping isn’t your thing, there’s the beautiful Glen Iris Inn in the park, too, and the best view of the gorge is just beyond.

But one hike was not enough, so my sister and I spent a day at her newest local find, Grimes Glen, which has now topped the list of my favorite Rochester area hikes. It’s also probably the most challenging hike I’ve done around here and perhaps the only hike that my sister and I have done just the two of us. And we had such a great time.

Grimes Glen is basically a walk up Grimes Creek that takes you in the creek itself . . .

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I sorely missed my Tevas, sitting unhelpfully outside the door of my apartment in Singapore.

. . . scaling ropes tethered to trees and rocks to get up the banks and waterfalls . . .

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. . . and picking your way through trees, waterways, and shale walls that basically become a playground!

 

There are three major waterfalls at Grimes Glen and we spent a few hours sitting on the ledge of the third fall. It was tricky to get to and we saw exactly three groups of people in the entire time we were there. The noise of the water echoed off the shale and our vantage point from the top of the waterfall let us see all the way to the bend in the creek. It was so unexpectedly private!

 

Once the sun reached the highest point in the sky, we were ready for a swim. I find counting to three very motivating and my sister was kind enough to indulge me until I was (briefly) completely submerged in the frigid water. I couldn’t bring myself to join her in the fall itself, though, not once I came up shrieking because of the cold. My last swimming in a waterfall experience was in Laos a couple years ago where it was much, much warmer!

And the privacy I mentioned? We climbed back up to our ledge and spent a few minutes topless to dry off, enjoying the sun after our dip. And why not, really?


Upstate New York may be older, emptier, and more downtrodden than I remembered, but it’s as beautiful as ever.

Go exploring. Spend some time outside; it’s lovely there.

Across the Bay

My summer break this year started with a few days in San Francisco before I crossed the bridge into Berkeley for the Greater Good Science Center Summer Institute for Educators. I’ve been trying to go to this institute for a few years and I’m finally not moving countries so my school agreed to fund my attendance! The summer institute focuses on socio-emotional learning (SEL), mindfulness, and character education, all of which are at the core of how I believe education can make the world a better, more peaceful place. One of my leadership roles at school is closely tied to SEL and I attended the institute for reasons of personal growth as both an educator and individual and to develop as a leader. I won’t go into the details of the institute here, but please send me a message if you’d like to hear about it! It was a very valuable experience and I’d really love to chat!

Every morning of the institute began with an optional hike or yoga class, which was a clear indication that I’d be spending the week with a group of 8- like-minded people. Choosing between the two activities was easy – I love yoga but one can’t hike the Berkeley Hills anywhere but Berkeley. Beginning the day with time outside in the sunshine makes me very, very happy and a way to start the day feeling alive. The weather at the beginning of the week was chilly, cloudy, and a bit rainy (the first rain in months, we were told) but it quickly turned bright, sunny, and just gorgeous.

The flowers were beautiful, too, whether cultivated in gardens or growing freely in nature. I love seeing the differences between flora (and fauna, for that matter) in different places.

The hikes gave us beautiful views of San Francisco, too, which got better as the weather cleared up, though the locals explained that the marine layer of fog does take time to burn off.

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The institute concluded daily at 5pm and with one exception I spent each night wandering through town with new friends. It’s amazing how people can come to know each other in such a short time under the right circumstances, and I’m really grateful that this was the case. The night I didn’t spend in Berkeley was special, too, because I went to neighboring Alameda to reunite with Singapore friends who moved to Paraguay the year that I moved to New York! I was really glad we could make that work, especially because we missed each other by a day in Washington, DC last summer. I love having people all over the world.

The part of Berkeley around the university was definitely in summer mode. Shops and restaurants had limited hours and were pretty empty, which was both a blessing and a curse. But there were also parts of town that were more “real people” than “college kid”. It made me laugh because I was mentally comparing everything I saw and everywhere we went to Syracuse University where I went to school; our “college kid” was Marshall Street and “real people” was Armory Square. But it was fun to look around, especially considering Berkeley’s social activist history, People’s Park, and excellent street art.

I really enjoyed my time in Berkeley and it was nice to have some time there to collect and wrap up my thoughts about the school year before travelling to Rochester to be with my family. This was an institute for educators, after all, and I did have one assignment to complete for work.

I know I’ve said this about a few different places lately, but I think Berkeley is somewhere I could live in great contentment. There are beautiful places to hike, the weather was glorious (based on my sample size of the last week of June), and the food was delicious. It’s close to San Francisco and it’s near the water. Yoga, zen, and vegetarianism were everywhere.

But then again, especially because I’ve been thinking like this a lot, maybe it’s not so much the place that makes the difference but the mindset that I have while in a certain place, the person I am in that place. Because what do I actually need? What do I want? The simpler those things are to obtain, the easier it is to feel content exactly where I am.

Maybe I’m getting better at that.

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Very small me and very tall tree