In retrospect the best things in China this time were food, tea and hiking in Tiger Leaping Gorge. Indeed Chinese food is amazing and I am talking about the real Chinese food and not a poor substitute you get in the West. It is beyond me why it is near impossible to get an authentic Chinese food experience outside China. It cannot be because of unique ingredients or complexity of recipes, as most dishes are extremely simple. For example, take cucumber and peanuts. Add soy sauce and a splash of sesame oil and you get an amazing side dish. Simple as that, but I have never seen it served anywhere outside of China. Anyhow, it seems that the Chinese have mastered everything food related, including desserts and bread (something that Asian cuisine often falls short on). My own favourites include deep fried bread and tea eggs, a typical breakfast affair. Normally I am not a big fan of dumplings, unless we are talking about the Chinese kind. I don’t know whether it is the sauce or some other mysterious ingredients, but it is simple, effective and yummy. China felt unbearable at times, but a good meal always lifted the spirits.
China made me realise how poor tea cultures of other countries are (with an exception of Japan). What you normally get in other countries is black tea and no name green tea if you are lucky. In China sky is the limit when it comes to tea. White, green, black, puerh, oolong, lapsang and so on. Each comes in hundreds of varieties and prices fluctuate from dirt cheap to crazily expensive. A new finding was buckwheat tea, a special kind of buckwheat infused in hot water. Tasty and reputed to help to lose weight or at least what they told us in a tea shop. Buying tea proved to be hard though, due to the language barrier and the general ignorance about tea quality. Unless you really know what you are doing, the best way to buy tea is in a supermarket, instead of a specialised tea shop with no prices on display. After an hour of searching, quarrelling and frustration we managed to find a tea shop in Chengdu with an English speaking girl. Another hour was spent tasting teas and getting confused about prices, which fluctuated every time we asked. Haggling was out of question as the girl assured us that teas were high quality and unlike other shops they did not rip tourists off. Finally prices were agreed on and a bunch of teas were we bought. The experience left me with a feeling that we overpaid, but it was compensated by a free puerh tea cake that the clerk put in a shopping bag apparently by accident. Whether it was a honest mistake or intentional, I will never know. No complaints on my part, though.
Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the best known hiking trails in China. Located between Lijiang and Shangri La, it is a natural stop in Yunnan’s tourist trail. It is amazingly beautiful and can be easily walked in two days (or three if you choose for a longer route). There is no other option than walking, which filters out hordes of Chinese tourists. I had a vision that in five years there would be a cable car going through the entire gorge, but for now it is refreshingly undeveloped. Just natural trails, small mountain villages providing lodging and food, plus occasional shop stands selling refreshments and charging money for taking pictures from “their” viewpoints. Not that many visitors too, a rare treat in China! The undeveloped nature of the gorge did not prevent the government from charging an entrance fee. In fact the fee is even applicable if you ride a car on the public road in the bottom of the gorge. Because China.
This is what the trail looks like. No paved business.
A horse rider had been methodically following this couple with full sized backpacks in hope for them to exhaust.
Refreshments on sale just before the main ascent, 28 bends.
Horses for hire just before 28 bends (the steepest ascent).
A Korean hiking group on the way to the peak.
On the highest point of the trail with Chris and The Curb Crawlers from California
The gorge is steep and the trail is outright dangerous at times.
A monk in a hurry.
Mountains in their glory.
A group of French tourists encountered on the way.
A local man chilling on the edge of the trail.
A magical waterfall in the rays of the morning sun.
A bridge over the gorge at the end of the trek
A hanging bridge leading to the Tiger Leaping stone itself. The bridge use is naturally not free.
River at the bottom of the gorge.
Another pay bridge.
Kalaw is a former British hill station in the Shan state of Myanmar. It is at an elevation of 1350m and 50km from the Inle lake, which makes it a popular hiking route. Initially we planned to do a trek on our own, but everywhere we asked they told us it was no possible citing the reasons like wild animals and military presence. After some research we opted for a three day hike with Sam’s Family Trekking, which is reputed to the best in the area (Jungle King is definitely to be avoided by the stories we heard). Even though it is possible to hike on one’s own, it is a very hard to do for a number of reasons. First of all, there are no maps. Google Maps, for one, is not aware of any villages or roads we walked. The best bet is to download one of the GPS tracks recorded by fellow hikers that can be found on the Internet. Second, there is no tourist infrastructure on the way. No hotels, very little restaurants and shops. In some villages they didn’t even sell bottled water and other villages had unmarked shops that were hidden inside people’s homes. Sleeping in monasteries is definitely an option, but the lack of restaurants and shops on the way is challenging. Thirdly no trekking company will forward your baggage to Inle. We asked at several places and the answer was no. Finally we got so much more out of the trek with a guide and it turned out one of the highlights in Myanmar. Definitely money well spent.
Kalaw area is hilly and dry. Dust is naturally everywhere.
Hiking is popular among tourists. As elsewhere in South East Asia locals are not very fond of walking, especially long distances.
The area can be described in terms of desolated landscapes and hill tribe villages
Farming is the main source of income for local people.
Among cultivated crops are oranges…
… and potatoes
Farming is hard work in this climate. Everything is done by hand, no machinery used.
Momo, our guide
Our team. Julie, Nicky, Amber, Kim, Anu and myself
Hiking was not a walk in the park, especially as the bulk of the walk done during the midday under the blazing sun.
Sunrise over rice fields on the first day of the hike.
There are very little signs of tourismization.
No hotels, no taxis and no hawkers.
There are not many restaurants on the way. Another reason why doing hike solo is difficult. This restaurant is in one of the bigger villages and is very basic.
Children are used to tourists and expect presents. We did not have any.
Older children were more shy and only gazed at us
Children playing on monastery grounds
And trying to avoid the camera.
The journey also led us to a railway. We managed to walk just during a gap between trains, although dodging slow-moving local train would not have been a problem.
Two women enjoying tea in a tea shop on a train station
A misty morning on the third day of the hike.
Cows in the mist.
Cameron Highlands must be one of the coolest sounding names. Sean Connery, Scotland and Highlander come to mind for some reason. The fact that is in Malaysia, right in the tropics and not somewhere in England only add bonus points. In fact, this place does not feel Asian at all. Cool temperatures, frequent rains and fogs all over the year, green hills, strawberry plantations and Cenral European-like architecture make Cameron Highlands truly stand out. The moment I got here made me really wonder if I am still in Malaysia. Weather is very like Finnish summer with temperature around +20C – +25С in the daytime and around +10C in the nighttime. Very refreshing after the blazing heat of Penang and even cold in the nighttime (socks and a jumper are a must). To make the Finnish summer impression more complete, they even have strawberry plantations here. In fact it is the only place in Malaysia to grow strawberries. A truly exotic fruit from an average Malaysian point of view, unlike for example a durian.
Cameron Highlands sports one of the most stunning scenery I have seen so far. Hills covered with tea plantations are simply breathtaking. The first time I saw all this idyllic beauty I could not believe my eyes and just kept staring in awe. Green hills and blues skies (when it does not rain) are a truly awesome combination. Then there is the idyllic mossy jungle with its entangled tree roots and massive waterfalls powerful enough to support a hydro power-station. A walk through the jungle on one of well-maintained trails (trails number 1 and 9 are the best) puts you right in the epicenter of a fairytale. Not as wild as the jungle on Ko Phangan, but certainly more enjoyable.
Unfortunately as beautiful as this place is, I experienced the place inflation very quickly. After two and half days here and I already got the feeling “been there, done that. Next!”. There is nothing much to do here, apart from jungle hiking and some dubious sights like a butterfly farm (did not go) or numerous strawberry / veggie farms. The next destination is Taman Negara national park, which is one of the oldest rainforests in the world. Will try to fit it into the schedule to make it to Singapore before Friday to see Sven Väth.