Tag Archives: Sun

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

Travel Guide: Santorini

One of the perks of being an international educator is the time and opportunity to travel. This October break, we scooted off to Greece! (Literally – Scoot is the name of the budget airline that provided an eleven-and-a-half-hour direct flight with food, water, blankets, or entertainment not provided but available to purchase. But it got us to and from Greece for under SGD550, so I’m not complaining.) Upon landing in Athens, my girlfriends and I switched terminals and then boarded our 45-minute flight to Santorini. (Olympic Air is a budget airline so we got those little cleansing towelettes and two snacks – Greek hospitality is just so lovely.) We were staying in Oia,  the town you probably picture of when you hear “Greece”. It is simply stunning.

Oia is pretty at night, too . . .

. . . and it has a fantastic bookstore, Atlantis Books, which we visited and purchased from twice. The exterior should give you a hint at the wonder of the interior. Books in all languages stacked floor to ceiling, hidden behind the staircase, and available to borrow and trade on the upstairs patio. Small signs and notes with suggestions from the bookstore employees. Just the best.

Watching the sunset is a popular activity in Oia, and considering how crowded the western part of town grew in October, I can’t even imagine how it would be during peak tourist season. It was cloudy every night, though only once during the day, so many of our fellow viewers were disappointed but I thought the clouds made for some really beautiful pictures. And just being there with good friends was easily the best part.

We took a few adventures from our first base in Oia. On our first full day, we spent five hours on a very fancy catamaran with a delightful crew, unlimited beverages, and delicious lunch. The weather was bright and sunny but slightly chilly so they even made us coffee!

We stopped at the hot springs, where I actually got into the very chilly water . . .

. . . the Red Beach . . .

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. . . and the White Beach. Snorkeling was an option but it was cold! And I was perfectly happy to bask in the sunshine and chat with the crew. I miss being on boats.

The next day, we walked down the steps of Oia, from the top of the volcano to the water, to check out the seafood restaurants at Ammoudi Bay and go on our next adventure. I’m a vegetarian but one of my friends was really excited about the sun-drying octopus and booked us a seat for dinner at a restaurant that turned out to be delicious.

We waited at Ammoudi Bay for a ferry to take us across to Thirasia, another of Santorini’s islands. My brother recommended that we go and it was really cool to be able to share travel experiences and advice with him. He told us to walk up all the stairs . . .

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. . . and eat at the restaurant at the top where an elderly man greeted us, singing and grilling fresh fish. So we did!

And then we wandered around town, which was eerily empty. It felt like a combination of an abandoned film set and a ghost town. In addition to the people running the restaurant, we saw three construction workers, one elderly woman, and another woman running the town’s only other restaurant (it was actually called Different Restaurant because it’s obviously not the one, but the different one). My pictures are a little weird and grainy, which accurately reflects the strangeness of the town but is actually because I mistakenly used the wrong setting.

The part of the town near the water was more like a boardwalk of restaurants and again, this was low tourist season. Empty.

Our last full day in Oia was probably my favorite day of the whole trip and that’s because it was the greatest adventure. It’s pretty common for travelers to hike the path between Fira, Santorini’s largest city on the eat side of the island, to Oia on the west. We’d read that the path is mostly downhill, not terribly strenuous, and difficult to lose. Great!

But not so when you go the other way! Of course, we learned this hiking the other way, from Oia to Fira, and it was challenging in parts, a little scary when we found ourselves on the side of a cliff in gusts of wind, and a little more scary when someone we couldn’t see started hunting birds. But we made it!

We left Oia at 7am, which is before the sun rises and before anything is open. It was so cool seeing the streets dark and empty, lit by streetlights.

There were some signs along the 10.5km route . . .

. . . but also a critical point that was difficult to navigate coming from Oia. Turns out we did have to go behind the desalination plant on the edge of the cliff. Found that out after realizing we were on a road curving the wrong way and had to hike up a hill behind a hotel to reorient ourselves. And then, under a menacing sky and loud gusts of wind, we traversed the beautiful, sometimes desolate wilderness that is the edge of the caldera.

No matter how tiny or empty the landscape, though, Greece has many churches . ..

. . . and their frequency increased as the hike became more urban. . . .

At times, the hike took us through resorts and villas, which was a little strange, but it was also comforting to see people. After a stop for breakfast and about four hours, we were delighted when we finally reached Fira!

Once in Fira, we found a taxi to take us a little further to Santorini Brewing Company, the only brewery in Santorini. They brew five beers and offer free tastings of three, which we enjoyed very much. And because I wanted to be able to say I’d had all of them, we bought bottles of the remaining two and sat outside the brewery (because it doesn’t have a liquor license) to drink them.

Afterwards, hungry from our hike and having made the acquaintance of the adorable kid on staff at the brewery, we asked for recommendations for lunch. He suggested Artemis Karamolegos Winery, a 5-minute walk down the road. The winery is beautiful, staff delightful, and food absolutely excellent. Best meal I’ve had in recent memory and the most full I’ve been in recent memory. And then they turned up with desserts and a digestif, which happened throughout our time in Greece. Truly an amazing country with wonderful people.

Finally, we decided it was time to return to Oia. Hiking the four hours back would have lost me two friends so we took the local bus first into Fira and then onto Oia. Forty minutes and keeping my friendships instead of four hours and losing them seemed worth it.

All in all, we loved our time in Santorini (and in Athens and Delphi). The people were wonderful, the food superb, and the wine plentiful. And it’s just gorgeous.

Travel Guide: Sapa

When my sister told me she was coming to visit, I knew I wanted to take her to Vietnam, but I also wanted to go somewhere I’d never been. We spent a day and a half in Hanoi before taking a very lovely night train northwest to Sapa to spend two days trekking with local Hmong guides. I first learned about the Sapa trek from someone I met on an airplane on the way to Hoi An a couple years ago and was excited to finally make it there!

We booked this part of our trip with the friendly, helpful, ever knowledgable people at Lily’s Travel Agency. They were very responsive via email and WhatsApp, which made the planning very easy on my end. Lily’s Travel works with Mao, a Black Hmong woman who leads Sapa treks, to provide a “backroads” trekking experience and an authentic look at the lives of the Hmong people.

Our train left Hanoi at 10pm and we arrived at Lao Cai station at 6am. It was very cozy and truly delightful to curl up with a book and listen to the sounds of the train. I’ve always found the whistle of a train to be simultaneously romantic, mysterious, and exciting.

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From there, we took an hour-long bus ride to Sapa where we met the spunky, warm Mao. Everyone we met in Sapa seemed to know her! Mao introduced us to several other local guides and to her sister-in-law, our guide for the next two days. Mao took a particular liking to my sister’s pink curly hair – but then again, who doesn’t?

Our trek started from the town of Sapa at about 8:30am to give us time to swap the glasses for contact lenses and have some eggs and coffee. It was sunny but cold and I was glad for my winter coat and gloves . . . and skiing sweatshirt . . . and thermal leggings. (My sister, on the other hand, had come from the very cold upstate New York and maintained that it was in fact rather balmy.)

I really love meeting fellow travelers and trekking in Sapa provided a great opportunity to do that. Our group included a Malaysian man, several Singaporeans, a French woman, and two German girls. Along the way, we met other travelers from the US, Canada, and Israel. I really enjoy knowing that people from all over the world were on the same trail on the same chilly but sunny day, happy to be where they were and excited for what they would see.

I also really loved that we were all guided on our journey by a group of Hmong women who were wonderfully knowledgeable, liked to talk and make jokes, and made for excellent company.

The trek took us through rice paddies that are dormant in the winter because of the weather. Winter in northern Vietnam is too cold and dry for rice to grow but I’ve been to rice plantations in Malaysia and can imagine what it looks like in the summer. For that reason, though, I loved seeing the landscape at a different time of year. It was beautiful just as it was.

We also saw our fair share of animals! Pigs, water buffalo, and dogs were all in abundance.

By the time we arrived at the homestay, also coordinated by Mao, we were exhausted and very glad to huddle up around a charcoal fire in a large stone bowl on the floor. Our crew for the night was a really lovely group – the German and French women we’d been with all day and an American living in Thailand who we’d met over lunch. One of the girls was brave enough to test the hot water in the bathroom located just outside the house. Thanks to her, we all took a hot shower! The hardest part was figuring out where to keep our clothes so they wouldn’t get wet. Except for my sister, we wore jackets, hats, and scarves indoors because any spot away from the fire was as cold as being outside. I slept in my jacket, too, but I think I was the only one.

It was really relaxing to sit and talk and get to better know the people we’d hiked with all day. Because of that, I’m glad we stayed in the more traditional of Mao’s two houses. Our homestay had a ladder to reach the unlit second floor loft, which housed cozy mattresses and quilts under mosquito nets. There were curtains on the main floor separating one room from the other, single lightbulbs to illuminate the kitchen and main sitting area, and a combination lock to secure the sheet metal door at night. Our guide told me that her home with her husband’s family is very similar to the house where we slept. We visited the newer homestay the next morning and while it was made of brighter wood, better lit, and had private bedrooms with doors and a staircase to the second floor, I feel that we had a far more authentic experience  than we would have otherwise. At any rate, it was an adventure and that’s why I travel.

And speaking of adventures, the second day of our trek was my first day of mountain trekking in mud and rain! The rice fields looked completely different and the mist all around us made for an experience quite unlike the sunshine of the previous day.

It was still pouring when we finally returned to the town of Sapa where we had arranged to spend a night in a proper hotel rather than taking the 9:30pm train back to Hanoi the same day. Since the downpour continued and we were cold, wet, and muddy, I am very glad we made this decision. I would not have enjoyed sitting on a train for eight hours under those conditions, let alone trying to sleep on one.

There isn’t much to do in Sapa, but we enjoyed a calm day of wandering. It was much warmer in town than in the mountains, which also very welcome.

That night, we were back on the train to Hanoi, already missing the mountains and the “trek life”, as my sister termed it.

I’ve been hearing wonderful things about Sapa since my first trip to Vietnam and I’m really glad that my sister and I could experience a new place together. After a couple days in Hanoi, we were off again, this time to one of my favorite destinations – Chiang Mai! Stay tuned!