Journeys, &c

notes and images

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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Once Upon a Time…Northern Vietnam

The past is the past, there’s no going back. Not for the first time in this new existence called Fatherhood, I’ve had occasion to ponder that. Usually, it’s the middle of the night. It helps, for me at least, to understand things that way, the past as water under the bridge, its return impossible and therefore not to be yearned for.

But it turns out that this mental model works better for farewelling the past than fully embracing the present and the future. That takes a little extra help from a friend. By way of a thank you to the friend who helps me with that, and on this appropriate date, here then are some photos from that past. Let’s take it back almost to where it all began. Looking forward, too, may the Journeys, &c, continue. One day at a time.

After the jump: Our honeymoon, northern Vietnam, February 2004. Photographed with film (!)

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Photos: Fujian Province’s Wuyi Mountains

There’s only so many Chinese New Years you want to spend in Beijing. Cold, fireworks so incessant it sounds like one of those week-long artillery barrages from some horrible war, and smog spikes from all that gunpowder smoke. Oh for somewhere a little warmer, clearer, and quieter. This year, having run out of entries on our China visas, we travelled “guo nei” and took the short hop down to Fujian Province’s Wuyi Mountains…

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Choosing your GPS solution for hiking

Self portrait with GPS

Recently, one of Journeys, &c’s most loyal readers asked about choosing a GPS solution for hiking. Though far from expert, I’ve had a bit of experience using GPS, including to save my bacon on at least one occasion.

The trick with GPS is to know how to survive without it. Once you can do that, it adds a welcome margin of safety and convenience to your trips. Read on for the Journeys, &c take on this great technology.

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Climbing Mt Kinabalu


“To be tramping under the stars toward a great mountain is always an adventure; now we were adventuring for the first time in a new mountain country which still held in store for us all its surprises and almost all its beauties.”*

George Leigh-Mallory wrote that in 1922 after his first reconnaissance of Mt Everest. He would die on its high and unforgiving peak two years later, just below the summit, to lie there frozen and unfound until the famous expedition of 1999 discovered his corpse, pale as alabaster, somewhere below 8,200 meters.

I wasn’t thinking of this as we climbed the considerably lower rock slopes of Borneo’s Mount Kinabalu – I just happened on that passage reading Leigh-Mallory’s book on the plane to Kota Kinabalu. But his words describe perfectly the feeling we had that morning, at 3,900 meters and still short of the summit, with a big moon directly overhead and the Southern Cross low on our left side. Pale clouds filled the sky below us, surrounding our little rocky island in the night sky.
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Old Roadhouse on the Silk Road

Local boy running his horses up the alpine meadow

Local boy running his horses up the alpine meadow

High up in the mountains of southern Kyrgyzstan, not far from the mountain pass that leads into China, lies Tash Rabat. Precisely the kind of place I really love, it is an old stone fortified “caravanserai“, standing cold in the high, remote mountains, full of ghosts. Not all ghosts are bad, as I would discover. On a cold night, this place takes you back to the Silk Road five or ten centuries ago.

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The Incredible Black Pass


For only my fourth dayhike without a child on my back in the 16 months since she was born, I headed out to the far northeastern corner of Beijing Municipality. Deep in the forest, beyond an impressive fort, lies this remarkable gate structure. Complete with the stone framework for the gate raising mechanism, and apparently original dragon face decoration, it’s like nothing I’ve seen anywhere else on the Great Wall around Beijing.

Click through for more photos of this remote area.

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The Last Puffins of Gjógv


Last light. Last day of the trip. Despite the rain, it’s been a good one. So why was I running full speed away from the splendid view and back to the hotel? Because of something that happened ten years ago. Or, rather, didn’t. I saw a puffin.

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