Between the Rivers, East of the Clouds: A Short Visit to Hà Nội

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To me, Hanoi resembles the pressurized, heated, perpetually moving environment of the human circulatory system. Its convoluted streets are packed to their narrow edges with such an insistent volume of motorbikes and other vehicles that its ability to function more or less uninterruptedly appears miraculous. As the regional metropole and a bustling center of commerce for most of the last millennium (periods of American military destruction excepted), Hanoi, especially its Old Quarter, is an intensely complex place resembling a respiratory system in which even the smallest unit – the red blood cell – is represented analogously: walnut faced old women watch over bootleg football jerseys wedged into the tiniest of spaces between buildings. Everything is interconnected.

Clothing Store

I’m reaching a bit with the vascular metaphor, but if you have a chance to visit you’ll understand. The bronchial system of avenues, streets, alleys, and side-alleys conveys a nearly literal flood of delivery vehicles carrying the oxygen of a commercial district: building supplies, beer, vegetables, livestock, people, documents, consumer electronics, and on and on. Those same vehicles (or vessels) remove the byproducts of Southeast Asian urban metabolism: hung-over Australians, Bia Hanoi empties, organic waste, assorted rubbish.Vietnam, Hanoi, Apps

We arrived in January and as tempting as it is to believe that Hanoi is a brutally hot, oppressively humid tropical party zone, winter is undeniably damp and cold once the sun goes down. Hanoi also has an uncommonly early bedtime, when considered beside its sister capital cities in Southeast Asia. Nearly everything shuts down pretty early – between 10pm and midnight – a result of both cultural and governmental influences, so if you plan on raging until the sun crawls up and over the eastern horizon you should probably save it for Ho Chi Minh or Phnom Penh.

Frenetic daily life and the anonymity afforded by such lend Hanoi a romanticism that is hard to escape. Yeah, sure, plenty of other major cities are hive-like centers of commerce with long histories but in northern Vietnam this has been operating almost seamlessly for well over 1,000 years. Northern Vietnam has long been a thorn in the Chinese underbelly, an intractable region that has, throughout the centuries, forced the Middle Kingdom into tributary state arrangements, wars of conquest, wars of maintenance, and wars of retribution, not to mention complex border negotiations.

Hanoi is a part of a proud culture that fell under the colonial heel (as the variety of French colonial houses and the ubiquity of baguettes throughout the city prove), fought its way out against the most advanced, well funded military on earth (America!) and has emerged again as an important center of manufacturing and trade. It is fun, vibrant, a mix of old and new (each street is named after the craft guilds that used to occupy it), and an undeniably alluring place.

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7 Days in Taiwan

7 Days in Taiwan

7 Days in Taiwan

Day One – Fly into Kaohsiung

Day Two – Shared taxi to Kenting

Day Three – Kenting

Day Four – Bus to Kaohsiung, then train to Hualien

Day Five – Hualien

Day Six – Train to Taipei

Day Seven – Taipei back to Beijing

Day One – Kaohsiung

We arrived early into the Kaohsiung International Airport and from there we took the subway (KMRT) to our hostel in the city. Since we couldn’t check into our hostel yet, we ventured out to see what Kaohsiung was all about. With no luck renting a motorbike, we opted for the Kaohsiung city bikes and rode around in search for food.

Afterwards we made our way down to the harbor to see the famous rubber duck designed by Dutch artist, Florentijn Hofman, that has now made Kaohsiung his new home. You can tell the city is quite proud of this, because rubber duck memorabilia is for sale in nearly every shop, stand, and place of business in the entire city.

Once we could check into our hotel, we took a nap and awoke hungry. So we went back out in search for food. I’m not sure if we were having a stretch of bad luck, or the day we arrived was a holiday, but it seemed like every restaurant was closed. The options that were open either didn’t have english menus or just didn’t seem that appealing. Anyways, we settled for a small, street-side restaurant and ordered dumplings, chicken and noodles.

Later, we walked down to the Night Market. After a quick breeze through, we then headed back to the hostel to get ready for an early morning.

Giant rubber duck in Kaohsiung Harbon

Giant rubber duck in Kaohsiung Harbor

Day Two – Kenting

We woke early for the shared taxi to Kenting. We arrived at our hostel on the  Kenting Strip around noon and grabbed some lunch.  From there we rented a motor bike and rode up and down Highway 26 along the coastline, riding through the various small fishing villages dotted along the way.

Kenting National Park

Kenting National Park

Kenting National Park

Kenting National Park

At night, the Kenting Strip turns into a night market with tons of food stalls ranging from seafood, desserts, fruits, alcohol, and plenty of souvenir knick-knacks. Devin opted for deep fried fish with roe inside. Not a fan of eating fish eggs, I made the better selection of enjoying some banana roti. A favorite delicacy I enjoyed during our time in Malaysian Borneo, the banana roti was very yum!

Enjoying fried fish at the Night Market

Enjoying fried fish at the Night Market

Day Three – Kenting

After breakfast, we hopped back on our motorbike and decided to head away from town on Gongyuan Rd (which later turns into Shexing Rd.) towards Sheding Natural Park. This was a pleasant peaceful ride through lush forest, perfect for nature lovers. This road connects back onto Highway 26 and back onto the coast.

Sheding Natural Park

Sheding Natural Park

If you keep heading southeast on Highway 26, you will come along several high cliffs called Longpan overlooking the South China Sea. You will need to take caution because there are some extremely strong winds up there, but the views are incredible!  The large gusts of wind also add to the whole drama of the experience.

Longpan Cliffs

Longpan Cliffs

Next up, we decided to head to the Hengchun Old Town (just take Highway 26 North, it’s about 15 minute ride from town). Which at first glance doesn’t look old at all.  We actually had to stop and ask a local where it was. Literally standing in front of it, he points behind us and says, “there.” Basically the Old Town is made of an ancient brick gate, which marks the entrance. Further in you have narrow streets lined with small shops, restaurants and various vendors. I felt the town had some charm to it, and supposedly it’s a great place to go have dinner at night.  However, unless you have the time to fill, I would say this is an attraction you could skip.

Hengchun Old Town

Hengchun Old Town

Since we had been scooting all day around Kenting, we decided it was time to relax by the ocean. Devin bought goggles and a snorkel and beer, lots of beer.  We made our way down to the Little Bay beach (East of town on Highway 26), and found a nice umbrella with several little chairs underneath. The umbrella renter comes running over to negotiate a price. He wanted 300 NTD, saying, “all day price.” Since it was already 3:00 pm, I suggested 150 NTD to which he said, “okay.” I’m not sure if that is a good price or not, but the sun was blazing and all I wanted to do was read my book and drink my beers. (note: Bar Beer from 7Eleven or Family Mart is a great inexpensive choice, with The Beer as a runner up option).  Devin snorkeled around the reef, however he said there wasn’t much to see. Perhaps there are better beaches for snorkeling?

Sunsetting in Little Bay

Sunsetting in Little Bay

After a nap and some dinner, we made our way back to the Night Market. Both of us finding the same stalls from the night before. With our bellies full, we headed back to our hostel for some sleep.

Banana Roti at the Night Market

Banana Roti at the Night Market

 
Day Four – Hualien

Early bus to Kaohsiung train station, followed by a long train ride to Hualien, and we finally make it to our hostel.  We find a motor bike rental, and get our new wheels.

Since we arrived fairly late in the day, around 4:00 pm, we just decided to head into downtown for dinner. Hualien’s downtown is very vibrant and is full of energy (and people). Off of the main road you will find many tiny streets jammed full with shops, cafes, and bars (location: take Zhongshan Rd south until it intersects Zhongzheng Rd or Zhonghua Rd). I wish we had more time, because I imagine you could spend hours wondering around down there.

Hualien City, outside the train station

Hualien City, outside the train station

 
Day Five – Hualien

We woke early, grabbed some breakfast and heading out to see the beauty of the 19 km-long canyon, Taroko Gorge (take Highway 193 North to Highway 8 West – follow signs to Taroko Gorge). It’s a nice 30 minute drive with the coast on one side and massive mountains on the other. Once you enter the entrance gate, its a breathtaking ride through the winding road that follows the gorge.  We took our time, stopping off about every few kilometer to get our snapshots and breath in the fresh air. We drove out all the way until the road stopped following the gorge, which was still a nice ride.  However, since we had a lot to pack in the day, we decided to turn back around and say our good-byes to Taroko. I have to say, Taroko is sooooo worth the hype!

Taroko Gorge

Taroko Gorge

After we got our gorge fix, we wandered back into town and decided to ride down the scenic Highway 11 coast. We started heading south first along the coastline crossing over the Hualian Bridge.  After crossing over, the traffic dwindled down and it was surprisingly quiet.  All I could hear was the wind in my ears and the crashing of the waves. The only bad thing is riding south it is difficult to even see the coastline unless you pull off the road and run across the highway and peek over the high cliffs.  But since there wasn’t much traffic, making frequent stops wasn’t a huge hassle.

Once we got past where the road splits from the coastline, we were quickly educated on how unreliable the Taiwanese scooter’s gas gages are. It went from 3/4’s full to empty in one tick. Since we predicted our chances of finding a gas station up ahead slim, we made the decision to head back north up Highway 11 to fill up the tank. Luckily we found a gas station after crossing back over the Hualian Bridge, because at this point we were riding on fumes.

Filled up and ready to go, we ventured north following the coastline (which will put you onto Highway 193).  We stopped off at various scenic spots to overlook the massive and captivating waves that crash against the shore. We rode until almost sunset making our way to Cisingtan Scenic Area.  Truly a beautiful place to just relax and watch the majestic waves roll in and out on the beach. I wish I had found Cisingtan earlier, because it would have made the perfect spot to laze around for a few hours, while drinking some Bar Beers and writing a few postcards.  Oh well, we were there long enough to catch a glimpse of a rainbow peaking out from the clouds.

As it was getting close to 5 pm and we had to return our wheels, we rode back towards our hostel and prepared to say good-bye’s to Hualien. Hualien, I think I love you..

Scenic Highway 11

Scenic Highway 11

Hualien

Cisingtan Scenic Area

The waves at Csingtan

The waves at Cisingtan

 
Day 6 – Taipei

Back to the train station for the last leg of our trip, Taipei. It was a quick 2 hour journey until we arrived at Taipei station. Unfortunately, so had Typhoon Fitow.  Fitow brought rain and gusty winds, making it difficult to explore the city.  So we basically used the day to catch up on some much need R&R.

Day 7 – Taipei (The End)

On our final morning, Fitow had moved on and Taipei  was clearing up. Guilty that we hadn’t gotten to explore much of Taipei, we set out for some breakfast and a quick glance of this beautiful city. The morning was lively and the street vendors were in business. We decided on some dan bing  which literally means, egg bread. It’s more like a pancake than bread and it was so delicious. Topped off with some bacon and cheese…ahhhh….

Dan Bing

Dan Bing

So long Taipei, hopefully we will meet again under better circumstances. Next stop, Beijing!

Picture of the Week: Longpan Park, Kenting, Taiwan

taiwan, kenting, cliffs, travel, photography

Typhoon Fitow kicks up an angry surf along Taiwan’s southern coast as seen from Longpan park, near Kenting. Longpan, lying between Jiae Road and the emptiness of the western Pacific, is a gorgeous coral limestone tableland, with expansive views, windswept grasslands, and rambling cliffs that transition into pastureland at their base. Winds were extremely powerful on the day we stopped, strong enough to make stinging missiles out of sand and grit, strong enough to knock over people and parked scooters, which only added to the expansive feel of the place. ‘Tropical Ireland’ is perhaps an accurate metaphorical take on Longpan, with its low shrubs, vast fields of grass, and grazing animals dotting the countryside.

Borneo Chapter Three: An Untouched Piece of Art

semporna, malaysia, borneo, travel, photography

Semporna is a hot, dirty, rat infested town perched on Malaysian Borneo’s far eastern coast, not far from the Indonesian-Malaysian border. The town is home to an extraordinarily pungent fish market – even by fish market standards, a small army of the most shabbily put-together ladyboys in all of Southeast Asia, and a rundown yellow mosque whose bells toll a heartless, languorous tribute to oppressive heat and dust. There is no quaint water front; there are no cozy hotels; the roads are strewn with plastic trash.

Getting to Semporna isn’t exactly wonderful either – an hour and a half ride from Tawau airport through the peaks and troughs of a featureless palm tree ocean. To feed mainland Asia’s new and voracious middle classes (and to make sure that hypertensive, convenience-obsessed westerners maintain an uninterrupted supply of artificially cheap processed food) Malaysia’s political elite, in often blatant self-enrichment projects, have embarked on a kind of ecological scorched earth campaign clearing massive swathes through some of the planet’s most biodiverse rainforests and converting the broken leftovers into mile after mile of palm oil plantation. Transit to and from Semporna in unremarkable, the town itself is un-enthralling by almost any conventional signifier of traveler fancy, and shore-side comforts are scarce at best.

semporna, malaysia, borneo, travel, photography

Looking across the lagoon at Bohedulang Island, Tun Sakaran Marine Park. A dock leading to the Giant Clam and Marine Invertebrate Hatchery can be seen in the background.

And yet Semporna is rapidly becoming one of the most sought after destinations in Borneo. This can be attributed directly to the fact that the islands and barrier reef systems located short boat rides from the crowded central wharf are nothing short of littoral, intertidal, maritime, underwater fantasy lands. Called an, “untouched piece of art,” by no less than Jacques Yves Cousteau himself, the diving in and around Semporna is legendary – known for sheer walls, thriving coral, and one of the most biodiverse marine habitats in the world. Steep sided volcanic islands, most within sight of mainland, are enveloped by water ranging – on a scale of blues –  from cobalt to hues so light and clear they resemble rarefied electric clouds more than saltwater.

Resulting from volcanic activity, steep coral faces are found throughout Semporna and contribute to the incredible diving. An abrupt drop off is shown by the stark differentiation in water color.

Resulting from volcanic activity, steep coral faces are found throughout Semporna and contribute to the incredible diving. An abrupt drop is given away by the stark differences in water color.

World class diving and snorkeling sites are strewn in liberal, almost careless fashion across the Celebes Sea around Semporna. At Tun Sakaran Marine Park, comprised of Sibuan, Mantabuan, Selakan and five other volcanic remnants, and at the incomparable aquatic paradise of Sipadan divers and snorkelers will encounter species that have largely or entirely disappeared from other popular regional destinations. One of the most fascinating attractions at Tun Sakaran is its Giant Clam and Marine Invertebrate Hatchery. Some of these humble bivalves can weigh in at over 400 pounds (once released into the wild) and at over 4 feet in length a person could literally sleep inside an empty shell.

semporna, malaysia, borneo, travel, photography

A family of Bajau Laut, or Sea Gypsies, gather around their boat. Many of these people spend almost their whole lives on boats or in small huts built over coral atolls, from which they make a living.

Adding to the Melville-ian atmosphere of littoral Semporna are the Bajau Laut, also called Sea Gypsies, who live in small stilt villages built directly over coral atolls. As their livelihoods come almost exclusively from the sea, most of the Bajau Laut spend their entire lives on or in the water, only coming ashore to sell fish or bury their dead. Like almost every other environment on earth, this liquid empyrean faces severe ecological pressures, primarily from overfishing (and the continued, highly destructive use of dynamite by local fishermen), pollution, and wear and tear from the explosion of tourist interest in the area.

For those who want to make the trip, spend your time offshore, on an island or in the water, and book Sipadan in advance – it is one of the most sought after dive destinations on planet earth. Check out Scuba Junkies, they’ve been in the area from almost the beginning and devote a not insignificant amount of time and resources to marine rehabilitation and conservation efforts. Wear sunscreen. Semporna is a heat-blasted place, with an unforgiving sun. And prepare for several rounds of tiger beer and comparative storytelling, which will almost certainly be needed after a day or two spent in these fauna rich waters.

Check out the rest of the pictures below.

Surviving Winter

Marijuana

So this is how Tibetans survive the darkened boredom of bitter, unrelenting winters. I watched a 70-80 year old man harvesting a couple towering plants growing in downtown Kangding, Sichuan Province, China. I am sure these shrub like weeds are used for a variety of purposes, its edible seeds, making rope, offsetting greenhouse gas emissions from large yak populations, or as ground cover for erosion prevention.

Build a Bike, See a City

china, chengdu, travel, photography, bicycle

I bought a bike in Chengdu, China in October and it got me thinking about modes of city-seeing. And here’s my pitch:

A perennial topic of discussion among the books, blogs, and conversations of travelers is the best way to see a city, or the best way to experience both familiar and unfamiliar urban environments. Although ‘walk cities,’ seems to be an article of faith, taken as gospel, and despite the fact that per-ambulatory strolls are high on my list of enjoyable activities, I’d like to put forward an argument that the bicycle represents the method par excellence for taking in a city, whether new or familiar.

As the argument goes, walking permits the traveler to really soak in the nuances of a city, to discover by virtue of meandering pace the dives and shops, tiny eateries and curios from which ‘real’ character emerges. Walking paints a detailed portrait while other, faster, forms of transportation render abstract blurs punctuated by random detail. This argument is true to a certain extent: walking does offer the most intimate way to understand small parts of cities, to take in individual neighborhoods, but the methodology breaks down if you want to understand larger swaths of a city, its environs, and how larger structures interact with each other.

Bicycles provide an optimal mix of speed, control, access, and most importantly, independence. Put simply, bicycles provide a great deal of freedom and the ability to traverse long distances while simultaneously observing surroundings. On a bicycle one can understand far better the rhythms of a city, how major avenues interact with discrete neighborhoods, the spatial and temporal relationships between exurban, suburban, and interurban regions. To bike around and outside of a city is to develop an understanding of its almost organismic nature. Armed with a bicycle, the range of potential activities for any given period of time is also increased without serious loss of interaction between yourself and the surrounding city. Proximity is a function of time, not of space.

So, have I settled the debate? Nope, both forms have obvious merits, as buses, camels, rickshaws, elephants, running, and hot-air ballooning most likely do as well, but I do hope I’ve at minimum made a believable case for the bike.

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Five Days of Palawan

Remote, lush, sparsely populated – northern Palawan is often called the Philippine’s ‘last frontier’, a region of stunning natural beauty, rustic charm, and nearly unmatched diving and snorkeling environments. Home to the Calamian Islands, the Palawan archipelago is composed of sparsely populated or altogether uninhabited bits of jungle covered rock accessible primarily through local tour companies or private boats.

For travelers hoping to escape the crowds and commercialization of more conventional destinations like Phuket or Bali, you can’t do much better than this oft-underappreciated corner of Southeast Asia. While a variety of vendors, routes, and itineraries are available, we settled on Tao Philippines, a small company specializing in 5 day expeditions between Coron and El Nido, two small seaside towns in northern Palawan.

Coron, Fish, Photography, Travel, Philippines,

A pile of Matambaka (also known as Big Eyed Scad) await buyers from a counter top in Coron’s fish market. As international fishing fleets have moved into the waters surrounding Palawan local catches have dropped off to unprecedentedly low levels, endangering fisheries and the single most important economic and dietary resource for locals.

So, at 8:30 am the first day, we strolled through Coron’s public market, past the stalls of ubiquitous, imported, plastic Chinese doodads, past the fish mongers and the boatmen, out to the wharf and were ferried out to the Buhay, a long, narrow, two-story boat that would become our floating home (during the day at least) for almost a week.

This particular expedition worked roughly as such: each day was spent cliff jumping, fishing, snorkeling reefs and shipwrecks, kayaking, swimming, or just enjoying empty beaches – or a combination thereof, and each night the boat stopped at a camp, which are scattered liberally between Coron and El Nido, to rest, relax, and fill ourselves with intoxicating amounts of food and booze. Accommodations are similar, almost identical actually (bamboo and thatch huts), but the personality and surroundings of each camp vary widely.

Our first stop, Pass Island, was a semi-circular speck of land raised barely twenty meters above the sea at its highest. I doffed my shoes and raced local children up a small berm, to the low bluffs on the leeward shore to capture the sunset with my lowly point and shoot, managing to avoid any serious injuries from the dried coral scattered across the groud. That night we feasted. Fresh mackerel, vegetable curry, rice, San Miguel Pilsens – packing all that food and drink onto a full day of snorkeling and a stage 3 sunburn made it an easy call to dive under the mosquito nets at a decent hour. But not before checking out the nighttime sky. There are stars at night in Palawan, and by stars I don’t mean a light dusting of the brightest neighboring suns. I mean the disc of the Milky Way can be seen edge on, a river of glittering cosmic sand flowing right down the middle of the sky.

Philippines, Travel, photography, tropical, vacation

Leaving our island home on Pass Island and heading south, slowly, towards El Nido.

I woke up on the second day and knew, instantly, I couldn’t go shirtless for the rest of the trip. My back looked like a Rorschach test. A small constellation of pasty splotches set against an angry, blood red backdrop of sunburned flesh. I doused myself in SPF 80 and sat down for the morning meal: Puso ng Saging – banana blossom fritters, buttered bread, fried eggs, and fruit. Traditional Philippino meals and snacks are delicious, communal events. Most of the ingredients were gathered or caught the day of preparation. Fresh fish, coconut, bananas, papaya, sweet potatoes, turmeric, ginger, eggs, pork, chicken – travelers literally watch their food go from farm, forest, and sea to fork.

Arao Beach, photography, travel, philippines

Sailing toward the boundary waters of the Sulu and South China Seas. Arao beach sits to the left, with the ‘7-11’ just visible amongst the palms ahead. A thin shallow band of emerald water hugs to shoreline, indicating the tidal zone, and rapidly plunges off into thriving coral deeps.

After breakfeast it was off the island, onto the Buhay, and wending south to Arao beach, codenamed ‘7-11’ by locals for its small ‘convenience store’ – a diminutive hut selling fish and basic supplies. Arao is an absolutely stunning ribbon of white sand set beside a narrow strait at the confluence two currents, one from the South China Sea, the other from the Sulu Sea. Nutrient rich waters have produced a gorgeous reef, extending perhaps 50 meters from shore and running in an explosive, multi-colored riot of sea creatures and corals off into the deeps of the strait.

Our second day ended at Kulaylayan, a secluded cove on Linapacan Island, under a liquid sunset. We all sang videoke (from where this machine came I have no idea) on bellies fully of Tanguay rum and white snapper, tried to climb coconut trees, and caroused around a bonfire until dawn. I carried my thin mattress and sheet out to the beach and slept for a few hours under a low tree. A brief note about rum and Filipino homeopathy: if suffering from a cold or sinus problems, pour out a handful of Tanguay, a caramel colored elixir of near medical strength, and snort it. My third night was spent under the towering canopy of a coconut grove where an entire hog was roasting as the boat pulled ashore. Amid steaming plates of pork, sweet potatoes, and green beans everyone shared stories until at least 3 am.

Travel, philippines, photography, beach

Preparing to drop anchor off Cadlao with its ancient jungles and Kharst walled guardian mesas. Tao village, located just beyond the beach at its left end, is the seasonal home of Tao Philippine’s owners – an undeniably wise choice considering the staggering amounts of natural beauty permeating every square inch of the island.

Cadlao, an island lying just west of El Nido, was home to the fourth and final camp. Approaching Cadlao is like sailing out of the twenty first century into a primordial, forgotten land; thrumming jungle lies just beyond the beach that is, in turn, backed by towering limestone cliffs reaching vertically almost 300 meters. An ecological preserve, the island is covered in old-growth, multi-canopied topical forest with enormous trees and cacophonous wildlife. Swiftlets, whose nests are collected and exported to China filled the air above camp, travelers passed around beer and food, and I, nearing the end of the trip laid in a hammock and listened to the jungle and the ocean, eating coconut and wondering how the five hour van ride from El Nido to the Puerto Princesa airport over gravel roads was going to be.

It would be easy to run wild with cliché describing this corner of the Philippines. Electric blue water, untouched beaches, vibrant coral and shimmering clouds of fish, a thousand languid pleasures waiting a few short plane rides from the Asian mainland – and every one of them would be an unexaggerated truth. For those who want to get away, really and truly away from loud, high density, chattering tourist districts, Palawan should be somewhere near the top of your shortlist. Just make sure to bring sunscreen.

And, because in-text photos are limited by space, here’s a slideshow if you’d to like to peruse a few more images.

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The Ruins of Guyaju (And the Future Ruins of Jackson Hole, Beijing)

Guyaju, China, Beijing, Travel, Tourism, Photography

That’s me! My awesome beautiful girlfriend took the picture from a rocky lookout point about half a klick away by foot.

Dongmenying village, a part of Zhangshanying town, lies in northwestern Yanqing County, one of Beijing’s 16 administrative districts. And once you’ve waded through the confusing strata of prefectural and subprefectural nomenclature, and have conquered the incomplete or deficient maps, and have pushed on in the face of wrong turns and vague directions – once all that is done and you arrive in Dongmenying village you will find just beyond its drowsy outskirts the ruins at Guyaju, China’s largest network of ancient cave dwellings, which I will address shortly. But First:

It is not, in fact, as difficult to find the cave complex as I’ve colorfully exaggerated, provided of course one is armed with a friendly, knowledgeable driver from Beijing, and are in the company of people who speak Mandarin with conversational proficiency. Meet those two prerequisites and the caves can be reached from the city center within two hours. There are several straightforward alternatives, it’s not all ordeal, but some of you enjoy ordeal and self-discovery of routes and locations and transportational methods, so the easy ways are at the bottom.

And now the relics:

The ruins at Guyaju are truly fascinating. 170 caves and more than 350 rooms make up this 1000 year old community and although they’ve been uninhabited for centuries the structures are extremely well preserved. The two-story buildings are connected by carved stairs and steps, and presumably by ladders at some point, which could’ve been withdrawn to delay anyone looking for free livestock and women (that last thing, about the ladders, is an assumption and not historically proven, it would’ve made a lot of sense though right? and probably a great setting for an epic battle scene in a subtitled Chinese film).

Other features that make total sense: differentiated rooms for livestock, cooking, storage, living, communal events, royal quarters, and religious rituals; drainage and water storage systems; a network of elevated, defensive observation posts carved in what should be impossible locations. Rooms, doors, and windows of varying sizes that open into 100 meters of air.

Guyaju, Ancient caves, china, beijing, travel, photography

Looking up into one of two primary living networks from the main ‘square’, a flat area of rock about 150 meters off the canyon floor. Behind and below-left of the camera is the ‘throne room’, an area with carved columns and 4 alcoves, two above and beside the main dais. This area is large, with rooms and windows and tunnels set at least a hundred feet up in a narrow slot canyon.

These ancients, which some archeologists believe were Xi people escaping raids and banditry during the Liao dynasty, lived a vertical lifestyle, nestled into hand carved warrens high and safe above the waning edge of the North China Plain.

A second exercise in historical supposition: it is easy to imagine the residents of Guyaju cautiously shepherding animals through the narrow enfiladed and defiladed canyon entrance to their village and out onto the spacious grassland a mere 2 kilometers away. Coincidentally, that grassland is in possession of a once broad river that most likely watered their crops, animals, and selves. I say once broad because it’s been diverted and dammed and poured onto industrialized orchards and cornfields so much that it doesn’t really exist anymore.

What else is important to know about Guyaju? It’s 20 kilometers from Badaling, the most Chinese and foreign tourist infested stretch of Great Wall in existence, including any single kilometer or individual site on the primary, secondary, or tertiary walls and other structures.

beijing, Guyaju, Jackson Hole, suburbs, china, travel, photography

Looking out from the highest accessible point at Guyaju. One of the northernmost open spaces of the North China Plain can be seen, as can the ideologically ironic Jackson Hole, Beijing resort. This monster of a vacation home complex will probably demand more water than the region can possibly supply, and appears to be replicating not only the American propensity for residential spread, but the prototypical American disregard for environmental carrying capacity. Also: a firm belief in the impossibility of real estate bubbles. In the foreground is the uppermost slopes of the narrow canyon by which the ruins can be accessed.

Aside:
Do not go to Badaling (unless you want to see a Nixon-eye view of China circa 1972). Go to Jiankou, which is also close to Guyaju, and camp there and feast your eyes on the unreconstructed grandeur of a hand built rock highway that has laughed and laughed at brutal winters and sweltering summers and wars and a revolution predicated entirely on demolishing evidence of China’s history for something like 2000 years.
China, Longqing Gorge, Travel, Photography, Beijing

A smoggy day at the Gorge, but not smoggy enough to entirely obscure the epic scale and impressively jagged scenery.

Longqing Gorge is a half hour jaunt by car from Guyaju, and despite the fact that it’s now a giant resevoir, it is absolutely spectacular. Go ahead, Google picture search ‘Longqing Gorge’ and see what I mean. I suppose that’s pretty much it for the ruins of Guyaju.

Is it worth your time and more importantly, your money? Yes I say. 200 kuai (32 dollars at current exchange) per person will get you a driver for the whole day who, should you choose your driver wisely (check thebeijinger.com or couchsurfing.com for references), be able to navigate anywhere you want to go without getting lost for more than 15 minutes. There are entrance fees at all interesting locations, but they’re marginal, and if you forget food and water, snack and drink stands are ubiquitous throughout what is probably the entirety of China. You will survive as long as you have a few crumpled bits of Chinese currency. A hilarious……..thing is also available for visitation and its barely a half kilometer from the entrance to Guyaju. It is called Jackson Hole, which you might rightly argue exists in America, but now, thanks to the triple marvels of international trade, a status hungry Chinese upper middle class, and a bunch of Americans looking for work abroad because the domestic economy is flatline, there is a new, even cheesier and wasteful attempted replica of Jackson Hole in the scrubland of northern Beijing. I’ll let this Foreign Policy article do the talking:

Wild, Wild East – lots of pictures here illustrating the ridiculous, yet humorous, existence of a symbol so overtly capitalistic right in the heart of the ChiCom empire.

Less cheekily: Guyaju is a pretty incredible place, hewn from granite, hundreds of meters tall, vertigo inducing in some places. It is surrounded by some of the most rugged scenery near Beijing, great hiking, and faultlessly hospitable people who will feed you until coma. There are nearby attractions, and it is an objective fact of the reality we all inhabit that the air out at Guyaju is probably fifteen hundred times cleaner than inner city particulate soup. If you’re in Beijing and you have a day to plan and a day to wander, go see Guyaju and the wall and the gorge. It’ll be fun.

And a final note: check any of the activity schedules on the following sites and you may be able to find a guided tour of the area which will also be conspicuously affordable.

Culture Yard – An esoteric collective of young people who wander all over Beijing and its environs. Very cheap, well organized, lots of different activities all the time.

Beijing Hikers – The best, most organized, oldest, most respected group of outdoors enthusiasts in Beijing. Probably one of the best guided outfits in the capitol city. Always bilingual, accommodating, extraordinarily well organized and probably thousands of trips worth of experience. This group is almost solely devoted to hiking, although occasionally other activities make it to the events lists.

China Culture Center – A bit pricier than the others, but very professional, lots of different activities, they are primarily concerned with your comfort. If you see any trips with Andy that look interesting, take em’, he is an awesome guy.