Traveling isn’t complete without people. Sure there are desolate places in the world. But many times, what makes these far flung corners even more amazing, are the miraculous souls that dare to inhabit them, against all odds and possibly most socially accepted forms of reason (which I don’t usually adhere to). Locals make a locality something special. They are part of the history, the food, the culture, the language, the sites, the smells, the adventure, the mystique and, above all, the numerous interactions you will have, which build upon a point in the world’s unique identity.
It is all part of the experience, enriching and enlivening it. But does sharing these connections, these somewhat profoundly personal moments, improve when it is shared with others? Or is to their detriment?
I think like the experience, this is also a very individualized question, based upon what you want out of travel and how easy-going you are. I say easy-going, which is usually attributed as a positive trait. In this case, I see it more as something neutral, that is neither good nor bad, but just the way someone is. I, myself, am easy-going in that if an amazing suggestion to do or try something essentially local is suggested, which doesn’t involve bodily harm or unbalanced heights (I am fine with ladders), I may take it up, as not miss out on a once in a lifetime bit of spontaneity. Yet in other cases I am not as easy going, and want to do, what I want to do. The hour glass sand is rushing, and I see no particularly good reason to waste a grain of it.
I have travelled both solo, in a group and as a couple and with friend. From personal experience, here are some of my observations and thoughts.
AS A GROUP:
THE CONTEXT: In 2010, I cycled from Amsterdam to Istanbul with 13 (or so) cyclists for a charity bike ride.
Since we were traveling under the banner of an organization and were representatives of our country, there were certain guidelines that we had to adhere to, which we advertently broke, such as not having a beer with lunch when we are passing through places like Germany and the Czech Republic. We were also supposed to travel in pods of at least 2 or 3 riders. This was fine when you were cycling with someone who cycled at your speed and wanted to see what you wanted to see or at least would wanted to DO THINGS, as opposed to NOT DO THINGS. Here in lies the problem:
When people are spent, tired, and dirty and on trip of this nature, they want to do what they want to do. Fair enough. The week and a half no showering in Romania does that to people (plus, the weed that grew freely in the fields did other things to us as well, mystical, revelatory, sensorial diverting things). Finding a like-minded person was invariably hard on these occasions I wanted to see as much as I could and if something interested anyone in my pod, I wanted to stop and see it. This something, could be anything and was a lot of things. From museums, to the slowest playing song in the world to essential dance sessions on the top of stacked hay towers. Some of the riders wanted to see how fast they could get to our daily final destination. In fact, we coined one of these riders “Speed Ranger” (German: Shnell Forester). He would ride ahead of his pod, directionless and we would have to wait for him to return to realize he went the wrong way. Frustration almost led to his end (actually, he almost got run over by a truck, but he didn’t, so we can find amusement from this recollection). These speed riders, like Speed Ranger, pushed themselves to never unclip from their pedals, racing through the beautiful landscape, not only NOT stopping to smell the flowers, but not stopping to smell, ANYTHING. Why? Why come allllll the way to Europe to simply ignore your surroundings? Again, to each his own, but somethings are just wrong and this is one of them. “But Irrrrraaaaaa…” But nothing! Some riders liked to nap, instead of see things. What do these nappers dream of? I hope of nothing, because they are currently living one and they are unaware of it. Dreams treated as mundane is clerical work or neighbor interactions. Again, shade is shade is shade. Who cares? I want to pick cuisines to try, not trees that are best suited to nap under. “Well an evergreen has thicker growth, thus blocking out more of the damaging UV rays…” No, do not consider such things. Please. Stop. There were moments, where the lumberjack in me (I am Canadian, you’ve all seen the Logrider’s Song and if you haven’t, you should Youtube it) wanted to chop down all trees to avoid this decision. Days off from riding became personal sanctuaries, away from the bustle of others’ opinions and blasphemes, and systemic voting of what and where and who, where I would wander off on my own and follow my own regiment, indulge in food and history, before returning to the 13 headed hydra that is group travel.
It’s my party and I will cry if I want to is my motto for travel at times and here I had no opportunity to cry unless it was agreed upon by the group. Group travel reminds me of a cruise, or an all inclusive. It hinders your experience, traps you in a social cage, inhibits you from connecting with locals and promotes lollygagging and bloodlust. It was like a scene from Office Space and I just wanted to burn it all down. At one point, my pod almost left one girl behind, because she was slow. Like slow to the point of, you actually had to really concentrate to tell whether she was in motion or not (jokes if you are reading!). At another point, a guy argued with me about directions. I had a map and he had “a feeling”. Cartographers and world explorers did not live out their lives on feelings. Feelings lead to ashrams, crying at Unicef commercials and getting ridiculously, stupidly lost. I am not saying he was suggesting we be mislead on purpose, I am stating it.
So, as you can see, I am not a fan of group travel. Maybe I’d fair better if the group was smaller…
WITH A FRIEND OR PARTNER:
THE CONTEXT: Travelled via car and train with a friend throughout Europe. Travelled with a girlfriend through Belgium, The Netherelands and China.
I threw these two categories together to show a possible ying and yang, depending on the person you travel with. In 2010, when I travelled with a friend, it worked exceedingly well because of one simple fact that is sometimes ignored. If we were in a city, town, village, wherever and we wanted to do a specific activity that the other did not want to do, we could….SEPARATE. He was very much about city walking, seeing the neighborhood. I loved doing that as well, but there were certain activities and sites that I wanted to make sure I saw. So we split apart at times, chose a meeting location and shared our daily events over a meal. I was a great way to experience travel through the eyes of others, without being force to. The opportunities are there if you’d like, but no one’s feelings were hurt if you declined. Plus, the option is one you may have not considered.
The couple situation I was in was vastly different. Not simply, because as a relationship, there is seemingly, though not always, more at stake, but also our vehicle for much of the European part of the trip was by bicycle and she had never cycled before. It became a war of personalities and of comfortableness. She was not accustomed to headwind or hills and I took such trivialities, as just that, trivialities, a challenge accepted. Fights broke out over minute details. Time was wasted squabbling. Though it wasn’t all terrible. Like any travel companion, we were able to share personal highs and lows that later we could recount. We also were able to witness things together and when we were in a specific location, she was very gung-ho to go where I had researched.
In both cases, the couple and friend travel arrangement have their pluses and minuses. In addition to the one’s mentioned, there are just some inherent reactions to its makeup that are unavoidable, both internally and from others. Internally, the two in the tango, needn’t seek anyone else out to interact with. They have each other, so why complicate it or go out of our comfort zones. This is a limitation I dislike, because as I said, part of the experience is the interactions. Externally this is the case as well. For someone looking into couchsurfing, it is always a more close relationship you build when you surf one on one, or one on host family. This is also true on the approach from locals, who see a couple as already a complete entity, not needing any external influence. In a restaurant, in a bar, out and about, I have had less people approach me and inquire about what I was doing in a couple, than when I was travelling on my own (especially on a bicycle, they attract curiousity like blue light and flies). Though, this may not be the case with everyone. For new travelers, the couple or companion style of travel may open doors that they would have never in a million years attempted to do on their own. That goes for the group travel as well, which set up easy to ingest travel trips via packed buses and all inclusive tours.
THE CONTEXT: Several times, cycling from Vancouver to Mexico, training across Eastern Europe and another cycle tour through Netherlands, Belgium and England.
For me, this is the ideal version of travel. For the obvious reasons, I can do what I want, see what I want to see and am able to build personal relations with my couchsurfers and locals. I am also able to read a book, write, sleep, fart without having to consider there is someone else with me (I never consider with the last option in that list). I was able to see this immediate contrasting form of travel in relationship to my couple travels, as I did half of a bike trip through the Netherlands as a couple and half as a solo cyclist. Right away I noticed the relief of felt cycling out of Amsterdam. Days of hellish rain were fine, as I was at my own pace, facing only my demons, with only my fears and my anger to deal with. People would approach me and ask questions, give suggestions, share a laugh, a story. I sat in coffee shops (the ones with coffee in them) and sipped aromatic euphoria, while reading or writing, embalmed in the ambience of the café scene and my own brevity. There is a self-fulfilling courage to solo travel that makes each day of it a feat accomplished. As a creative soul, the mind is free in the silence spans of alone time, to conjour without restraint or interruption. Left or right is your decision, or to not move at all. To live in your own comfort level, which for me is by the seat of my worn pants, my bearded face, my gaunt composure.
Solo travel is solo only in action. You are traveling alone, you are on your own itinerary, but by no means are you alone. As I started this article off with people, I shall end it with people. Solo travel is filled with many of them, for me, much more than any other form of travel. The cast is always in rotation, but like Saturday Night Live, the new faces bring a freshness, their own brand of intrigue to the table. There is no compromise, except your own body and mind. You can decline to see the world for days or never sleep, just to get it all in. You can spend hours playing with a worn internationally exposed bouncy ball in a UNESCO site or stand-off against galing wind off the mighty Columbia River. You can sit under shady brush when you feel tired, but not watch as others do so and you are made to wait on their slumber. Again, rather than give you the pluses and minuses of forms of travel in a general sense, I opted to give you a personalized account of each, resulting from who I am. Generalities generally don’t work, as we are not generic, nor precise to any design, as generality would too easily suggest. The best thing I can suggest, is test the waters, have a sense of what you want from travel and be prepared to possibly add or subtract people from your traveling situation. In other words, if your with people that you want to throttle and through into the nearest body of water wearing led shoes, it’s probably a good idea not to follow through with that, due to the nuisance of legalities and what not.
Part of this is finite, the rest is unrestful, unedited rambles.
“It not a Great Wall. It’s an alright wall. It’s the Alright Wall of China.”
-Karl Pilkton, An Idiot Abroad.
After reading information about The Great Wall in his Lonely Planet China Guide and realizing many of the tourist sections of the wall were rebuilt in the 1980s, to include such ancient devices of revelry such as massive, German engineered slides, hawkers selling you skull caps with a single braid of black hair coming out of the back of them and pits filled with suicidal brown bears, Karl was left unimpressed by what some would consider one of the greatest feats of human skill and endurance of all time. Like Mr. Pilkington, I was very wary to see “The Wall”, as I was not interesting in see Great Wall 2.0. Not even 2.0. Mavericks upgrade. Shitty, cheap and simply a money grab.
The GREAT thing about the GREAT Wall is it is humongous. One, I shouldn’t be so judgement, so….yes…one…fine…gentleman attempted to walk the entire length of the wall. For starters, there isn’t just ONE wall. Regardless, He failed. Like not, you were SOOO close. No. He failed miserably. It goes over ice mountain ranges. Like, your ability to walk isn’t how it is in Skyrim in real life, sir. Its Lord of the Ring’s helicopter shot BIG. Back to the Greatness of this, the Chinese government simply doesn’t have enough resources nor care to “tourify” every inch of it and tourists aren’t going to be bothered to trek into the middle of no where to stare at a wall. Or so they think. I wanted to see The Great Wall. Or more so, the Real Great Wall, not the Fake Wall. Luckily there are enough people on the internets that feel the same way.
For all your up-to-date Wall needs, check out: http://www.greatwallforum.com/
Huanghuachang, the Great Wall that goes into a river, due to damming was the planned destination. Buses were researched and on a rainy weekend morning I headed out on a somewhat empty bus from Dongzhimen Central Station. Our excitement was a sweet as sugar, but the rain would not melt it. So maybe it was as sweet as honey as I think precipitation has no effect of that sticky substance. Through the outskirt hills of Beijing, in Huirou city. A few stops. Nothing unusual. Faces come on and off. Sits empty and fill. A pair of eyes meet mine.
“You going to Great Wall”
“Oh. It’s closed.”
Pause. From my research I knew that this was an unregulated part of the Wall. This means no ticket booth or official check in procedures. This SHOULD mean no opening or closing time. I was confused and in my confusion, we got off the bus and loaded into his vehicle. It was like so trance. Like trusting the white panel van full of candy.
“Where are we going?”
“To the Great Wall”
“What? I thought it was closed”
“Mutianyu is open”
Mutianyu was one of the horribly touristic sections of The Wall I had wished to never encounter. We had been duped. The man, who was wearing an official bus staff uniform, removed it. He was a Black Taxi Driver and we were at him whim, along with another white couple that sat in the car with us as well. I counted my wad o’ money. I knew that Huanghuacheng was no longer an option anymore, but I was damned if I was going to pay a zillion dollars to go pay a zillion more dollars to hang out with a zillion tourists on a 5 year old’s macaroni art project, deemed The Great Wall. We came to a “reasonable” deal. Exiting the black cab, we were suddenly drenched from above and from all angles, by rain and dripping hawkers. Pretty sure I don’t need a 4 foot statue of Mao made of the finest plastics. No, thank you, that’s awful kind of you, I just don’t think I am in the mood to buy a pet bird or cat or dog or ?. Though we did need an umbrella. Again, hard bargained, including using the line, I live in Beijing, I know how much this should cost, don’t fuck with me (yeah, I totally have no idea how to say that last line, but imagine that reaction). The adult umbrella was ridiculously priced, so we bought two kid ones. It was like walking on a tight rope, balancing the circumference of the small umbrella perfectly above our heads. Through hawkers row, lined with booths, flashing blinding lights into your retina, like maybe if you were blind you wouldn’t be able to see the piles of shit, drinks, t-shirts, shit and more shit being sold. But, to be honest, they are people just trying to scrape by, so I get it. I feel for them, but on a day where the clouds had opened both physically and metaphorically, I had very little patience to gab. Purchased expensive tickets with a glib smile plastered to my face plastered in wet hair. Climbed numerous stairs up and up and up. AND Viola! On the Wall. Or were we?
The fog, which was as thick as being surrounded by a legion of Santa beards, made it difficult to tell exactly where you were. It felt as if we were on a road in the clouds. The rain was actually a blessing in disguise, as it cleaned the wall of most of the tourists and hawkers. Yet, with map in hand, I had alternative plans. I was heading to the greyed out area at the edge of the map. I was going to see the REAL wall. And no, you can’t go beyond this point sign or cement blockade was going to stop me. Up an over the blockade and finally, we were face to face with antiquity. The fog felt more appropriate here, as if it became part of the myth of the wall, something that existed on a scroll in waves of black ink. We stood atop a crumbling tower, one of the many guard towers that appear along the wall. We followed The Wall for a bit. Old growth vegetation fought its way up through the crumbling structure. At points it was hard to tell where The Wall was and if we were just aimlessly meandering, lost in a sea of evergreens. But then a small rock, a patch of rubble would lead us onwards. We walked for 40 minutes until the underbrush, became the overbrush and we had to turned back, in fears of being engulfed. This part, getting to touch the real stone of this magnificent work, the same stones that the builders had assembled hundreds of years ago at the orders of their Emperor, was the pay off. Done with the Real Wall, the rest of the Wall was simply the elaborate pathway back to the bus stop. But wait! The story doesn’t end there!
I had to go to the washroom. Not being completely savvy in ways of the public washroom at tourist sites in China, I thought there’d be toilet paper. There was definitely not. My favorite game ensued. Check your pockets and see what will work. Several receipts and the umbrella cover. FINALLY, I found an alternative use for those things. Velvety soft.
Famished from the walk and not interesting in indulging in the extremely out of place Great Wall Subway or Baskin’ Robbins, we tried the local inn. The food was meh, but it filled the gap. Unfortunately, the slow service led to us missing our bus. No problem, we’ll just cab somewhere and bus from there. Black carred it to a bus stop. A bus stop in the middle of nowhere. Like NOWHERE. Wait. Wait. Wait…..RAIN. NIGHT. Finally. Bus…..bus comes and takes us into Huirou, where we catch a connecting bus back to Beijing.
The Great Wall is an interesting place to visit and can make a wonderful great day trip from Beijing. Just realize what you are getting into, what you want out of the experience and research alternatives. I ended up making it to Huanghuacheng and it was more of the experience that I wanted. Again, if you want to see an easily accessible, no hassle part of the wall, Mutianyu, may fit the bill. One note: Bring some information about The Wall with you, as it will truly enrich the experience.
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Quick Dos and Do Nots of the Great Wall of China:
DO your research. There are many sections of the Great Wall to see. Make sure you find a section that fits what you want to get out of the wall.
DO NOT listen to people telling you alternative information than watch you researched, especially shifty guys on the bus. They might be simply black taxis trying to get you to pay exorbitant fares to go with them. The bus will get you there.
DO Bring supplies. Food, water, rain coats, toilet paper. It’s for sale there, but at three times the price. PLUS, I don’t think toilet paper is for sale out there. It’s just a good idea to bring it with you everywhere.
DO NOT listen to the DON’T WALK HERE signs. They are simply trying to prevent you from walking on the part of the Wall they haven’t charged people to walk on. It has nothing to do with Wall preservation. Do you see anywhere else “preservation” happening?
DO bring info about the Wall. It’s a magnificent marvel, but context makes each part of it that much more awe ridden.
DO NOT expect that you will be alone on the tourist parts of the Wall. It will be you and 85 billion people trying to get a picture of the pristine Wall, without dude picking his nose not in the shot.
DIRECTIONS and INFO
The Great Wall – Mutianyu (慕田峪)
Cost: 45 Yuan
The fastest way is to take bus 916快 (express) or 916, which run from Dongzhimen to Huairou Bus Station first, get off at the terminus (or Qingchun Road North End or Huairou North Street), Walk to the bus stop on the diagonal corner of the intersection and take bus H23, H24 or 936 (Huairou to Dongtai) and get off at Mutianyuhuandao. Again, these buses’ numbers change frequently. Best to show the symbols of Mutianyu to the bus driver.
In, Vancouver, having millions of dollars gives you access to the easy life and many people make that quite visibly apparent. From the fantastical, to the ridiculous, it’s not to hard to sound like the narrator from Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous in our not so humble city. Yet with such an influx of millionaires, the castles, the ridiculous cars, the restaurants with “homecooked” meals costing more than your home (or whatever hovel you can rent), none of it really surprises anyone. The gentrification of Vancouver replaces shelters and iconic structures with vegan donut shops and while it all seems distasteful, sadly, we are use to it.
In Beijing this gentrification process is happening as well. The old “hutong” living quarters are being replaced by malls and apartment blocks, but with the such limited space and possibly also the language barrier of not knowing exactly the purpose of the new buildings, the replacement facades don’t seem to delve into financially engrossing statements. Yet once you leave it’s epicenter, get out into the outlying districts, Beijing doesn’t seem as Beijing-y anymore. There is space, vast amounts of unused land, fields, even rivers (though the water in them looks like a liquefied rainbow). People with money head out into these vast expanses, that boarder along some of the poorest areas in the city and recreate worlds they have seen in advertisements and on the television. Since travelling to and from China yields a wealth of it’s own problems, this is the next best option.
Two and half hours of cycling north from my little hutong in the centre of the Dongsi District, which is 15 minutes on foot from the Forbidden City, I was first struck by image of trees. Not planted trees, but trees that were growing on their own accord, wild, uncontained, unplanned. Passed the last subway stop, the wide road heading towards the northern mountains is covered in dirt and garbage falling off and out of trucks, and buses and commuters who come from hours and hours a way to go to work in the hub. The financial pressure of city life allows for nothing better. People live in packed rooms of 10 or 12, in dorms, many miles from their places of work, just to say “I am a Beijinger”. Then again, I can’t say that their lives would be any better back in whatever province they came from.
Yet I wasn’t riding out this way to investigate this phenomena, but actually the polar opposite situation that Beijingers live, lavish and drape themselves in. Messing around on Google Earth, the night prior, I clicked on a picture from the north of Beijing that revealed a beautiful French chateau. What? That couldn’t be right. This was a rouse that would have been ending up in the middle of nowhere with nothing to show, having me grasp for photo ops of cool vegetation to justify my journey to myself and others. Searching “French chateau Beijing” in google peaked even more interest. The house, according the Chinese news, which made it a tad more reliable than google, said that this house did, indeed, exist. And here I was, standing in front of a replica of 1651 French Chateau. Specifically a replica of 1651 French Chateau, called Château de Maisons-Laffitte, located in the unknown, quaint village of PARIS, FRANCE. The replica, built on land that use to be occupied by wheat fields, is actually a luxury hotel and conference centre built by Mr. Zhang for a whopping 50 million. That’s dollars, not yuan (that would be like 5 followed by 75 billion zeros yuan). The landscape, the baroque architecture, the moat surrounding the house, even the staff wearing French period clothing, attempts to and succeeds to mimic it’s source material. Zhang originally wanted to shoot for the Palace of Versailles, but said it was “too big”. Mr. Zhang, I think we’ll let that one slide. No, what you have done here, complete with helicopter landing pad, wine museum, spa and French named restaurants, seems like the logical choice compared to that. The opulence is immeasurable, though I find it laughable, that with such a wealthy history of extravagance, rather than focus on exoticism, a proud Chinese business owner wouldn’t draw upon the his own history filled with massive palaces, temples and gardens. It seems to be a thing in China to idolize the outside world, that rich is better when it’s foreign rich. That’s whooole other post.
Now, I have seen in Beijing a reconstructed medieval Austrian town, which I will post pictures of once I have found them. Yet, once you get up and close to it, you can see the amateurness of it all. The uninspired murals, the lack of attention to detail. This copy, on the other hand, is a work of art on it’s own. Yes, ridiculous, absurd, out of place, but it’s there, so all one can do is admire it, walk through it’s vast dining rooms, ornate sitting rooms, ball rooms, rooms you have no idea what their function is, but possibly they are functionaless rooms just to remind you that when you have lots of money you don’t have to have a purpose, you can simply be.
After a exploring the grounds, the fountains and purchasing a 4 dollar water! (water in the city costs for the same product like 20 cents at most), I left this place, feeling I had discovered something not many people who live in Beijing know exists. Well now you do, so you have no excuse not to try and see this remarkable anomaly.
Of course, there is a sad side to this project. The land that use to be wheat fields fed up to 800 now landless peasants, before being occupied by this singular property. It’s depressing to think that a golf course, use to be fertile ground that provided life sustaining food for many people. Mr. Zhang DOES give the people, as a collective a $45 a month stipend and offers to hire them to maintain the land for $2 a day… Check below for directions and more info!
INFORMATION: Name of Place: Beijing Zhang Laffitte Chateau (定泗路) Directions: Get on Metro Line 5, heading north to Tiantongyuan North. Get off at Tiantongyuan North, exit on the East side, Exit A. Cross passed all the vendors, across the small street that is jammed with taxis, walk north a bit until you hit an intersection that is coming out of the parking lot. Make a right and cross over the main street. Walk north for a bit along the sketchy big road (named Litang Rd or S213). You will come to a bus stop, which should have a bus called 860路. Show the bus driver the name of the Chateau, which should help him tell you when to get off. If not, you can also show him the stop which is八仙庄南大街. Don’t be shy to ASK, even if you don’t know basic Mandarin, people are quite willing to help if you are persistent and simply show them things they can read, as opposed to trying to explain yourself with wild hand gestures and your mom’s dance moves (also awkward looking in front of a packed bus full of locals, trust me, it’s been done). If you have any other questions, tips, ideas, please email or comment on this post. Plus, if you want a moving visual of China and other adventures of have partaken in, check out my youtube page. PS – Really? 6 subscribers? Are cats knocking shit off tables THAT much more entertaining. If they are…. Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL59E469A3DF414464 Twitter:
Being able to connect with the locals, allows for one to access a ground level view of a city from through the eyes of the resident populace. While blogs can uncover the hard to reach places, the obscure museums, they gloss over mundanities and other unassuming treasures, that may be kept secrets only locals are privy to. Not that they are necessarily hiding them, like a Smegal-ish character and a ring, they just never had due cause to tell anyone of them and never considered them as anything out of the ordinary or worth mentioning. One of these places is Black Dragon Pond, located in Miyun County, some 93KM northeast of Beijing.
The reason I found out about this place is that we were going there on a work outing with the company I was with. In fact, even as we headed there, trying to a get the name of the place and it’s location were a difficult task, as no one on our bus seemed to know where we were going and if they did, they weren’t able to translate it into discernable English. The ride on a rented bus, went through some beautiful countryside, mountainous, lush green covered cliffs overhead and even a glimpse at small, crumbling watch towers, curiously peaking out over the foliage like fearful, but interested rodents, their black window eyes, part of the Jiangjun Pass of the Great Wall. The ride was accompanied by a barrage of Chinese singing, laughter, charades, mocking of the three foreign teachers who understood nothing and were attempting to sleep off hang overs, which was near in possible by the vocal screeching, the over zealous chants and the electronic screech of an unnecessary amplification device.
Finally, the suddenly subduing of the amplified yammering and sing-song indicated that we had arrived. The group waddled off the bus. First stop was the barely distinguishable rest room. We cued in a line for the single revolting stall, with mixed emotions. The two foreign male teachers sought elsewhere to relieve themselves, knowing of the terror that waited them in that bog of horrors. When the foreign teachers had finished, we scampered over (trying to find creative movement terms) to an unmarked white building, and upon entering it, realized we were in some sort of information center for the Miyun area, complete with a Houston Control like archaic observance display.
After everyone had completed their one, twos or a combination of both, we entered the Heilongtan area through an ominous structure that served as a ticket booth. The Natural scenic area comprises of a 4km hike, through a cavern, along what appears to be a manmade river. This isn’t a rural hike through nature. There are well-maintained stairs, benches and trash bins as well as the occasionally overpriced food and chachkas kiosk for all your necessary and unnecessary needs. You can also rent boats to survey the small droplets of water by boat. Oh, also, none of the drops of water are connected, so the boat rides are constrained to the area of a children’s pool to pouring out the contents of bottle water into a bread tin. Surprisingly, there were English signs, that are ultimately comedic components to their Mandarin counterparts. What one can draw from this, is that no matter how vast China is and how little the components that make it up are, China’s pride and drive to dominant and control, make naming even the most bereaved of interest things, an important undertaking. The names of each tiny pond and cave echoes this concern, with names like The Miren Caves, the Suspending Pond and what it titled “the masterpiece”, the underwhelming “Black Dragon Pond”. Oh, but don’t miss the “Dripping Pool”, the mysterious “Reed Pool” and the where the fuck is it? “Hedgehog Stone”. All worth to read the signs and stare down upon these stagnant beauties.
After several steps, many of my coworkers, who never take more than several steps, were exhausted. But with a lot of encouragement and several taunts, most of them were rallied to make it to the top. On the top, we admired the pools from above from the viewing platform, had a snack, one of 85 snack breaks we had that day and headed down the same stairs, greeting other coworkers who were sill trying to make it to the top. Dejected, many of those who were ascending, started to descend with the rest of the group. Lucky no one had to be fireman carried. I was prepared to do so. Never the bottom, a red foam pad bridge, attached by ropes, had several of us attempting to cross it, without flipping the pads and sending yourself into the drink. It tempted several of us, including my boss and myself, to attempt, fail and fail some more, soaking our prides and clothing, in water that smelled of the sweat of the elderly. After leaving Heilongtan, we drove for ten minutes for a 100-course lunch and beer. After consuming ten times my weight, we went to a pool, where we were allowed to boat, play ping pong (which I actually was able to hold my own against others, which surprised myself), as well as go in this big inflatable ball that floats on the water, which you run in to make it spin. It’s hysterical, when several people are in it and are completely out of sync, flipping each other laughing at their incompatibility. Several drop kicks to the face it’s not as fun. Yet even more amazing than this wondrous tool of revelry was that some of my coworkers opted out participating in this part of the day because the hike had tired them out and they needed to sleep in the bus. Wow. Wheelchair ‘em now, Dan-O.
Directions are below, as well as an additional gallery. If you liked this please follow, like and share as well as follow me on twitter @pedaleachmile. Follow my adventures on here and at https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL59E469A3DF414464.
DIRECTION AND COST:
ADMISSION: 35 RMB
I have to say, I have not personally gone here by public transit, so what I am pulling off the internet is a conference of several sources.
- Take bus 980 or 980 (express) at Outside Dongzhimen Station, and then get off in Miyun Drum Tower Station. Walk southwest about 656 feet (200 meters) to Miyun Theatre Station. Then take buses Mi-60, Mi-61, Mi-62, Mi-63, Mi-65, Mi-66, Mi-67, Mi-68, and get off at Black Dragon Pool Station. A
Again, before getting on a bus, show them the symbols for Black Dragon Pond, just to verify as buses change frequently.
Episode 6 – Into the Swing of Things – Part 1 -Cuandixia
For the video check out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aOq2LDegb1Q&index=11&list=PL59E469A3DF414464
Some of my foreign friends hated Beijing. They hated the smog. They hated the crowded streets. The noise. The Chinese-ness of it all. To be fair, many of them had never been outside of their own countries before. They were mostly young, teaching kids who only understood half of what they said and were use to a life filled with peanut butter and cheese and alcohol that wasn’t Baijou. Yet for them, Beijing was perfect, for as a metropolitan, they could engage on all of these luxuries. They didn’t ever have to go beyond their comfort zones, eat food they didn’t know, see anything besides the inside of chi-chi bars, malls and Mcdonalds.
My girlfriend and I, on the other hand, had come to Beijing to experience Beijing. To meet the people as best as we could, to eat as much delicious food as we could shove into our hamster cheeks and to explore, explore, explore!
Part of that exploration was food. Not just going to restaurants, but Rachel is an excellent chef and to have all these new products at your fingertips, it would be a shame not to get creative, try local recipes, and use new products to create new spinoffs. The wet markets were a blast to visit, loud, chaotic, unrefrigerated meats, hand-pulled noodles, life fish, frogs sold out of garbage bags, you name it, we saw it, we bought it, we ate it. That became a weekly event in our household. Going to the local market, seeing familiar faces, trying new veggies or fish, buying a new treat from the bakery upstairs, fitting in as best as we could.
Part of that fitting in was going beyond, seeing the MUST SEES and partaking in leisure activities. That includes visiting places beyond central Beijing. Weekend trips, being able to escape Beijing for a couple days to investigate it’s outskirts, it’s green, quieter, cleaner, mountainous surroundings, where life is still lived at a slow pace, possibly an echo of a Beijing long ago, was a way of contextualizing Beijing and it’s people. One of those places was the Ming era village of Cuandixia.
Public transit in China is like Russian Roulette. Nerve racking, ridiculous, yet in this instance, the cause of death will be being lost somewhere in the mountains or missing essential organs. Eeny Meeny Mino Mo. The bus numbers constantly change, have infrequent hours, don’t go to where they say they are going to go and sometimes, stop for inordinate amount of time, as the drive smokes ten packs of cigarettes, has a swig of some that is definitely not water and inhale food equivalent to 2 meals and a half.
Yet the process to get to Cuandixia was quite seamless. One switch and a few hours and we (myself, Rachel and our friend, the wonderful, quite Mandarin fluent, Cian) were there, Cuandixia.
Though it is granted a quick blurb in Lonely Planet, no one I knew (surprise) had been there or knew it even existed. And really, without any basis for considering the pros and cons of coming, left us delightfully surprised and in unexpected awe (though I am in awe of Velcro shoes, so it’s not that much of a stretch). Like many ancient place in China, the government has caught on to the conceit that people are interested in visiting them. So before you enter the town, there is an authentic, ancient tollbooth, with ancient tollbooth guards, appropriately dressed, charging you an entry fee, for which you receive ancient relics (tickets). You can see that the town has received some reconstructive surgery, some botox injections, that may have one questioning the authenticity of some of the structures, some of the quite quaint activities that were going on, in the open, as if for demonstration and entertainment purposes. And yet, beyond the signage, the hotels, whether it was a ruse or not, I did feel as if a slower pace of life had been maintained undisturbed here.
The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644CE) era village has a wealth of sites and activities to see. In a backyard we saw a guy making doors from scratch and in another yard we saw a guy, smile plastered on his face, messing around with bees with just his bare hands. There are numerous temples here, including the Temple of the Goddess of Fertility and Temple of Dragon King Subduing Demons (basically temples for all important occasions), restaurants to indulge in local cuisines like edible plants, mushrooms and wild rabbit (all very simple, but tasty) and old Maoist graffiti to see (basically the Chinese Banksy…kidding…they usually say stuff like “Mao is dope” or “follow Mao, YOLO!”), as well as a lot of old ancient structures to climb, peak into, smell, taste and attempt to move (well covers are heavy). There are even local knickknacks you can pick up, like scary cat stuffies and honey from the dude who was asking to get stung (wackjob!).
For a worthwhile panoramic view of the town within the lush green trees and mountainous surroundings, I recommend you walk up the path on the otherside of the road from the main village, passed the Temple of the Fertility Goddess (love me some fertility), and climb as high as you can up the stairs. Tons of photo ops, meditation points, plus moments where you feel like you are in a real life Skyrim, climbing up rock face to get the ultimate view, forgetting exactly what the hell you are suppose to be doing in this mission. From above, you can see into the ancient courtyards, see the lovely veggie gardens, the ancient grey slat roofs, and the picturesque retaining wall that surrounds the village, as well as people walking around performing their daily chores. Looks straight out of Chinese Lord of the Rings mixed with the Chinese version of the opening scene from Beauty and the Beast (NIHAO, NIHAO).
After exploring the town for several hours and eating, we looked at the map and noticed there was another town up the road a little bit named Baiyu. Rather than staying put for the night, we decided to head up to this other town, thinking possibly it was beyond the tourist machine. From a smattering of reading that exist on the internets about Baiyu, one can conclude that no one visits this place or only pass by, recording as many details they can from a fast moving vehicle.
The day was hot and the sun reflecting of the road was cooking us. Smoking some not so great hasheesh made our slow jaunt towards heat stroke a little more hilarious than it should be. But Cian and I had other plans besides simply getting to Baiyu. As we walked through the valley, rocky cliffs on either side, lush green peaking over their ledges, branches, swaying the breezes, catching and releasing the twinkling light of the sun, we noticed the numerous caves that pocked the side of the incline on either side. They beckoned us like Amsterdam window prostitutes.
“Rachel, wait here, we’ll be right back!”
Rachel looked doubtful. The last time I said that I had left her in a Chinese cemetery alone and got lost in 800 meters of nettle bushes, only to return to her after 45 minutes, scraped, bleeding and guilty as charged of abandonment.
Cian and I saw our cave and scrambled up some “stairs” towards it. The footing was far from stable and sunstroke didn’t help us keep our balance. But finally, we made it, into the mouth of a cave. Headbanging session and photos? Of course!
Getting down from the cave was a bit trickier. I went first, which was a terrible idea and involved me dodging falling rocks from that were being loosened by Cian’s decent. The final bit, involved surfing on a large rockslide, almost being partially covered by it. But what a way to go, right? Rockslides would be great without the “rock” part. I love slides! So misleading they are!
Anyways, after an hour more of slow meandering, we made it to Baiyu. The ancient town with it’s old courtyard grey stone houses, its wandering chickens, dogs and cows, its villagers who looked aghast to see us wandering down the main street, was the real deal. There were small signs of infrastructure, a sign here, a new pavilion there, but nothing complete. The houses themselves were dilapidated, unaltered and ultimately looked as if they had been lived in for 600 years, which undoubtedly, some of them may have been.
We explored the main streets, the alleys, looking over walls, trapsing into open courtyards, waving at villagers, who simply returned our flapping hands with wide-eyed stares and concerned expressions. The village, not surprisingly was made up of mostly the old and young. Presumably, the adults had to find work elsewhere. We stumbled upon a building plastered red posters and caligraphied writing. Entering the partially ajar door, we noticed it was the town hall of a bygone era, complete with 60-year-old sound system, pictures of Mao, Stalin, Marx and Engels on the wall. Free condoms were sitting in an ancient rack in the front. The condoms, like the rack, were ancient, but it was tempting to see, like milk, how far past the expiry date would they still be good. Kidding. Horrible joke. Cian is a proud father and regrets nothing (another joke).
It was getting dark and thanks to Cian, we found a place to stay, inside of a local family’s courtyard home. For dinner we had wild hare and beer as the owner of the establishment, chainsmoking, watching Chinese game shows and smiling and simultaneously watched the crazy foreigners approvingly eat his wife’s food. Though it was hot out, we slept on a traditional “kang” bed, which in the winter, can have a fire lit under it to heat it. The next morning, tea, eggs, blechy millet soup and no plans. We asked the proprietor of the establishment if there was anything worth exploring around here. He handed us a brochure with pictures of The Great Wall. We laughed thinking he thought we meant in the Beijing area in general. He turned to Cian and rattled off some Mandarin. Cian explained that there was a section of the wall an hour and a bit by foot around here that no one knew about really and was discovered by shepherds who used to area to graze their goats in. We hadn’t the time to see it, but made an oath that we would return to find it.
Walking back to Cuandixia and visiting some small pools hidden in deep crevices along the road, I realized that’s what exploration is about, going to the edge of the tourist “map” and then going beyond, simply walking off the grid and realizing the world isn’t flat and you will not fall off. Many pleasant “wow” moments are out there to discover and share.
For directions to Cuandixia and more information, scroll to the bottom of the page!
Follow me on twitter @pedaleachmile
Again, the video of the trip and more China, cycling, travel videos are at:
DIRECTIONS and INFORMATION
Cost: 35 RMB
Recommended Time: Meh…I hate saying, TAKE ONE HOUR or it’s GOOD FOR FOUR HOURS. There are temples to see, food to eat, activities to see, walking to do, relaxing to partake it. An easy overnight or weekend could be made of exploring.
Bring: Toilet paper is a MUST, water, sunglasses, hiking appropriate shoes.
DIRECTIONS: Metro out to the end of line 1, to the Pingguoyuan station. Take bus 892 to Zhaitang (斋堂镇) (6 RMB with subway card or 16 RMB without). From Zhaitang, taxi to Cuandixia (10 RMB per person). Buses are infrequent, but the last bus from Zhaitang to Beijing is 5pm (supposedly…).
The best travel stories come from discoveries you make on your own. Sure, everyone knows where the BIG tourist sites you MUST see are, but sometimes the off-beaten-path places are infinity more personal, engaging, interesting and variant from the norm, making them some of the most fulfilling finds. Some of these places may be local secrets or the locals don’t see any reason why anyone in their right mind would be interested in seeing/experience them. Either way, this is part one of my highly subjective list of alternative tourist/non-tourist destinations that that stand as triumphs to wandering/nomadic jaunts and may also spark a flint in you to explore beyond the travel books, the hearsay, the MUST SEES and the Checklisted. Enjoy.
Beatles Museum – Alkmaar, Netherlands
Alkmaar is a tourist destination in the Netherlands, famous for it’s Friday Cheese Market in the central square, where droves of tourist pile into the stands (yes, as if you are watching a baseball game) to view men, dressed in pork pie hats, white shirts and pants, carry cheese on “sleighs” attached to suspenders to and fro from the old weighing house. Yes. Sleighs and suspenders. I’ll explain another time. Alkmaar also has it’s staple Dutch things to see, such as canals, churches, old architecture, beer houses (and coffeehouses) and ridiculously gorgeous, accomplished people. But a specialty museum hides a somewhat out of place collection, just at the north edge of old town. The Alkmaar Beatles Museum. Why? Did the Beatles ever come to Alkmaar? Sadly, no, but John Lennon’s first guitar was made here. Still. Why? The answer to that, as well as many other questions can and will be answered by the museum’s owner, curator, creator and guide to everything Beatles. On his personal tour through the museum, the proprietor of this small, but extensive collection of memorabilia, will share his insights into his collection (“I have a bigger collection of Beatles stuff than the museum in Liverpool”), about Yoko Ono (“She’s the devil, she tried to buy John Lennon’s clothing back from me. I would never sell it to her”) and general odd anecdotes (“I mean, I have Beatles mothballs, it’s pretty impressive, ya?”). Though it is a single room establishment, the detailed information plaques, plus the amount of stuff shoved into this location, will easily occupy an hour or more of your time. Really worth the sidetrip and a SUPER awesome stumble upon! I took the tour twice, because, MAN, is this guy a Beatles fan (ticket stubs, original contracts, moth balls and all!).
DIRECTIONS and INFORMATION:
Address : Kanaalkade 48, 1811LS Alkmaar, North Holland, Netherlands.
Admission: 2.50 euros
Hours: Tuesday to Saturday 11am to 4:30pm and Sunday 12pm to 4:30pm.
From the Cheese Market, which is located on all tourist maps of Alkmaar, head north of the Waagplein, along either Houtil (Pieterstraat) or Voordam (Kaarsemakersgracht). When you hit the canal, make a left. Paul and John’s faces will greet you at the entrance. Lots of random Beatles gack for sale as well.
Chinese Museum of Women and Children – Beijing, China
Beijing is a very popular tourist destination, where people cram into tight spaces to see the sights: The Lama Temple, Forbidden City, The Drum and Bell Towers. Usually, tourists do not have over a year to explore this city, but since I was teaching there, I had oodles of time to venture into every nook and cranny of this massive, forever growing city. Through some blog posts, I had heard about The Chinese Museum of Women and Children. It was somewhere near my house, but I was not exactly sure. Asking friends of mine who had lived in Beijing for many years, turned up nothing, but, “there is a museum for Women and Children? Well…enjoy!” Thanks. Scouring the alleyways near to the train station, I finally found it, a big glass and metal structure, abnormally round by Chinese architectural standards, hiding down a side street. So what is in a museum dedicated to tykes and the better sex (at least more mature and organized sex)? Well…a lot of random exhibitions. It’s true, this museum doesn’t really have a said direction, but that’s part of the beauty of it. The general subheading, Women and Children, allows this museum to basically run the gamut of weird and crazy ideas that it’s creators came up with, one dark night, ten bottles in of Baijou, Chinese white wine (imagine sweet turpentine (ps I love it)). From a history of customs (marriage, death, birth), a section on clothing from the various ethnic minorities, to toys, to a video game that allows you to be a wheelchair bound child for a day, this museum wins on entertainment and education levels. Again, worth the scavenge and great to fill up more than a few hours, if you are a keener to read things and play wheelchair games and kick digitized water in a digitized puddle, as I am. Oh and the “We are the best country of all time, forever, infinity, win all the games and wars and beauty competitions” style propaganda abound, including a hilarious section about pollution.
DIRECTIONS and INFORMATION:
Address: Beijigelu 9, Beijing, China.
Hours: Tuesday to Sunday 9am to 5pm
Metro Station Dongdan on Lines 1 or 5. Take exit B, take first alley to your left, heading east and then first right. The museum will be on your left. Quite tricky to find as the address on their website is completely wrong. It’s behind a building called Chinatex Mansion. The Chinese characters if you get lost are 中国妇女儿童博物馆
Tuzrakter – Budapest, Hungary
First off a warning. Do not attempt to find Tuzrakter, because it no longer exists. But when I visited this art coop/film space/activist hive/squatter den/bang up food and drink spot in 2010, it was very much alive, debating, swilling, loud, sexy and spilling out into the streets. I was doing a charity bike ride with a group of Canadians, raising funds and awareness for microcredit, so stumbling upon this place on Couchsurfing was pretty much planning a outdoor wedding in Vancouver in Spring and it being a clear, sunny day (if you don’t get that local reference and are use to the more traditional, religious based reference, here it is: “it’s a miracle!”). This place wrote the Hungarian autobiography on cool, without even attempting to define themselves as such. Like a 1920s Parisian café, yet not with a wine and smoke odour, but a beer, burning incense, bike lube and oil, and a twinge of hashish aroma, every night was drum circle night, with rhetoricians, theorists, radicals, avant gardes, raging heat, fire, manuscripts, scripts and manifestos, screaming and rebutting above the rhythm. A cultural hub full of hubbub. Art in non-conventional spaces, on unconventional terms. All of this ended with a price hike in rent from the government, a ploy to shutdown this meeting place for the “ill repute”. Not that shutting such a place will squash the hill. The ants go marching on…
DIRECTIONS: None. “It’s too late to apologize…it’s tooo llllaaaate”
Yita Si – Dali, Yunnan, China
From Tuzrakter to something a little more ancient and still open to the public. Dali, the ancient capital of Bai Kingdom, is a reasonably relaxed city (China wise) in Western Yunnan to soak up sun, use as a jump off point for further exploration in the region and one of the few places in the entire country that has CHEESE as part of their diets. Without getting into a lengthy digression, while food and living costs in China are quite reasonable, the tourist sites, demand ridiculous fees for sometimes little return or a poorly fabricated cultural anomaly that is both laughable and depressing (they charge you to climb random mountains, enter parks, touch statues…). One of the biggest tourist attractions in Dali, are the Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Temple, standing at the based of the Cangshan Mountains. Scouring the Internets, I found a website that showed you possible, unobstructed photo ops without paying the ridiculous entrance fee to the temple. I am all about the experience, so photos are nice to remember how something felt, but do not amount to having done anything. Looking over Dali through Google Earth, I found something just down the road from the Three Pagodas. Yita Park. I knew that “ta” is tower and I knew that “yi” means one, I wonder…Again, onto the interwebs to find some more information about this singular tower, which from pictures, I could see existed. Was it accessible? Was there an entry fee? The only info I could find, were short blurbs, noting that it was a derelict 10th century tower, that was in a neglectful state. Curiosity sparked, asking locals through a series of hand gestures and interpretive dances, no one understand/knew/cared what I was talking about. After several tens of minutes of wandering in the general area where the map said it was, as this blog post insinuates, I stumbled upon it. Passing through a car gate and a crumbling exterior wall, passed an military watchtower and a temple, where workers sawed, hammered, chiseled in a cloud of sawdust, with a curious eye on my girlfriend and I. Upon a dirt mound, surrounded by green pines and long, uncut grass, the solitary tower rose, not derelict, but more defiant to drooling tourist mongrel, which bites at its heels, demanding it to be repainted, stocked full of gaudiness, false priests and boxes to place money for its “upkeep” and the upkeep of fatcat officials. Not yet. It was still free, but I presume that the workers weren’t simply fixing up the old temple for good will. This is the ancient, untouched China that people chase and try to touch. I climbed up to entrance, which was open and peered inside. It was black with darkness and soot from years of burning fires and sacrifice. It’s yellow exterior peeled and chipped with sun and rain and it was such a glorious, phallic like, momentary “fuck you”, to the lion tamers of natural, wild history, which tells its tale through wind, not written words.
DIRECTIONS and INFORMATION:
Address: Entrance at Y juncture in Yita Alley, Dali, Yunnan, China.
From Chongsheng Temple, walk south along the main road (214 National Road). Travel for about ten minutes and make a right on Yita Alley (一塔巷). You will run directly into the park. Ignore all the blockades and fences, run free (both imagination and physically) in history and nature.
Dr. Guislain’s Museum – Ghent, Belgium
Housed in a work psychiatric facility, the museum’s purpose is to inform the public of the history of psychiatric practices and dispel any misnomers or prejudices people may have towards the field. As it says on the website, through its exhibits, it focuses on destroying highly suggestive and value laden terms such as “madness” and “mental disorder”, by presenting the artwork, writing and stories of current and former patients. Both beautiful and inescapably haunting, the museum presents a part of society we tend to ignore, attempt to conceal or pity. This museum is not grasping for pity tears, but rather, evokes honest to goodness awe from the inspirational tales and works of these individuals. A museum, an art gallery and an emotional, humanist rollercoaster all rolled up into one highly effective collaborative effort. Something well worth spending more than a few hours immersing oneself in, reading, watching, emoting, while coming face to face with raw output and sincerity. Even in the museum section, the focus is not on demonizing the profession, but rather showing the charity and positive outcome of the brotherhood that started this hospital. This is truly an experience, which words do little justice to encapsulate, so I will stop at that.
DIRECTIONS and INFORMATION:
Address: Jozef Guislainstraat 43, Ghent, Belgium.
Admission: 8 euros
Hours: Tuesday to Friday 9am to 5pm, Saturday to Sunday 1pm to 5pm
From Sint Pieters station, take Tram 1, stop at Guislainstraat. Spin around and a BIG sign will state that you are at the riiiiight place.
Realism. An art movement attempting to capture the world as it is, without the idyllic visions of the romantics, the lamenting nature of the elegies or the beatified chiseled warriors of the heroics. The photograph took up this charge of the realistic painting, opening up an opportunity for those with no artistic skill to capture a second in their life. The monumental images and glorification of war, society or the satire of government could still be staged and snapped and framed as art, but also the simple recollection of a banal moment in time could fill the pages of any amateur scrapbook affectionado. Here I present with little introduction, my amateur hour of manipulation, without schema or plan, simply an attempt to indicate a feeling, an individualized experience with the nights of Rome and how special they were to me.
The city breathes at night and wafts scents and sounds through haggard and higglypiggly lanes and chipped doorways, spilling with intoxication, conversations of love and hate and exploration. The yellow streets, though old, cannot overshadow the history crusted fountains and ruins, that give power to the casting shadows, over the juvenile flickering lights.
A map and no plans are some of the best days in Rome. Stumble upon secrets, recommendations and a blog or two pick of some hole in the wall vouched for by some subscriber to Tripadvisor. Do it, taste it, inhale its smoke, smut, savoriness and centuries.