Journeys, &c

notes and images

Chengde (not Chengdu)

Home to pandas and spicy foods, Chengdu is, oh, right, you mean Chengde?

Yes. Chengde. Four hours up the freeway from Beijing, not four hours by plane. Chengde doesn’t, and probably never did, have pandas. But as the Qing Dynasty’s summer resort it has beautiful gardens, an impressive replica of Lhasa’s Potala Palace, laid back people and a great vegetarian restaurant. Sounds like a perfect weekend destination.

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Borneo Orang Utans

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Evolution. It is as real as gravity; as certain as death and taxes. And on Borneo, if you visit Semenggoh near Kuching, you can see into your own evolutionary past. Because when you look at the orang utan you’re really looking at yourself in deep, distant history. Not your direct ancestor, but a creature who’s also evolved from the same ancient great ape swinging from a tree. Meet the orang utan: your long lost cousin, twice removed.

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Go For Main Engine Start

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Seven years ago, the Space Shuttle was still flying, though not for much longer. China had yet to fly its multi-crew Shenzhou missions to the Tiangong orbital space laboratory, or land the Yutu “Jade Rabbit” rover on the moon, in each case becoming just the first nation after the US and USSR to achieve the feat. I wrote these impressions of the 14 May 2010 launch before I knew much about the Chinese program, and before I’d processed the black and white images included below.

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Daddy Daughter Road Trip in Hebei

“Daddy, I don’t want to go to Jimingyi”. Why not, I asked my two year old over my shoulder, while dodging trucks on the backroads of Hebei Province. “Because it’s not good to go in there. It’s very dangerous”. I’m not sure how much my kid really knew about the old walled village that once was an important relay post for the Ming Dynasty postal system, but she seemed pretty convinced. Still, it couldn’t possibly be more dangerous than Hebei’s roads. I’d just done lengthy battle with literally hundreds of trucks, and I was about ready to pull in anywhere. With one last blast of a truck horn on my tail sealing the deal, I swung off the road for the final night in the back blocks of Hebei.

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Snakes, Ladders & Camo on the Dajiaoyu Wall

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April 2015: Half way up a narrow, steep, crumbling, five hundred year old staircase is not the place to decide to turn around and climb down. It’s still less the place to switch places with your friend. But when I looked at the sagging lower layer of bricks and the loose sand around them, I decided that hauling myself over the top of the nearly two meter brick wall in front of me was too risky. It was the last obstacle before the top, but I didn’t want it to be my last obstacle ever. Cause of death? Crushed in a rockfall. No thanks.

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The Fort and Wall at Beihua Ridge and White Horse Pass

Far to Beijing’s north, the Great Wall runs roughly along the border with Hebei Province. Just west of the well-known “wild wall” at Gubeikou is a little-visited but wonderful section of Ming Dynasty Great Wall called Beihualing – Beihua Ridge. It has everything: dramatic towers, ridgeline wall, remoteness, beautiful Ming stonework lying just where it fell centuries ago, and a really big fort. Just up the road is the equally impressive White Horse Pass, or Baimaguan.

Click through for photos of this incredible area.

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Solo camping…with a two year old child

“When I first met you, you were expecting your kid”, he laughed, this guy I know who came hiking last weekend with me, my wife, our two year old and some friends. “I remember you telling me you hoped to continue hiking as much as you could, and I went home thinking, ‘nup, won’t happen'”.

“But here you are, hiking with your kid”!

Here I am. But the truth is, when we were expecting our child, I did have darker moments where I imagined all that really was over. That my hiking-most-weekends lifestyle was over; that I wouldn’t get to go wild camping again for a long time. Determined not to let this happen, I started hunting around for gear that could help me take a small child into the hills. Somewhere on youtube – and I can’t find it anymore – was a Dad who took his one year old into the mountains using the baby carrier I ended up buying. He really inspired me. It’s fair to say, he changed my entire attitude to impending and subsequent actual fatherhood. From the moment I saw that clip, I wanted to do the same: solo camping with my little kid (my own youtube clip is at the very end of this post).

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Beijing to Shanghai: Bullet train or plane?

The experiment: Shanghai-Beijing. Which takes more time door to door? The plane, or the train?

The result: It’s closer than you might think.

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Ulan Bator on Business

It’s true that you don’t get much sense for a place on business trips. Airports, hotels, conference rooms; if you’re lucky the program includes a “cultural performance” or “typical local restaurant”. Depending on the nature of the trip you enjoy this bit or endure it, waiting to go home to family and friends.

Occasionally though, usually in odd destinations with few outbound flights per day, you wind up with time up your sleeve between the closing remarks and the boarding call. So it was two autumns back when I found myself with an afternoon in Ulan Bator.

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Sunrise above Shuitoucun

Sunrise above Shuitoucun. Set off at three in the morning, a cold November Sunday, hike four kilometers through fog and forest to the pass, down to the Watergate and then up the long line of Great Wall. The first light rises as you breach the cloudbase, and then, southeast, to your left, the huge yellow sun bursts into the world from beyond the range.

A fine end to a year’s hiking. And, hopefully, as the kid gets bigger, a sign of more in the year ahead.

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