Journeys, &c

notes and images

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Western Mongolia

Lonely, windswept, and stunningly beautiful western Mongolia. To think such a place even exists on today’s Earth…

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Family camping at the beach

Let’s face it, camping rules. Once you get away from the city and everything that comes with it – work, devices, lattes – and sink into the nature around you, the rhythm of early starts and early nights, waking to the noise of birds and bugs, you’re always glad you’re there. It doesn’t matter if you’re bivvying solo on a high ridge in winter or with other people at a beach. The beauty is getting out there and leaving everything behind.

But with young kids? It’s surprisingly easy, as we have discovered. I wanted to say “here are some tips”, but there’s no need. Because little kids are, above all else, curious and keen to learn. Camping for them is new, different, and exciting. All you need to do is take them into the outdoors. And car camping at the beach is a great place to start…

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Mystery Wall West of Longquanyu

The first time I took my daughter hiking without her mother, she was just learning to walk (the kid, I mean!). Because this was a test run, I brought my sister along (now a new mum herself). But the challenge arose from the fact little W was still breast-feeding. My sister’s great, but (back then) she couldn’t help with that. Instead, I had a bottle of frozen milk and my PocketRocket…

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Hot Hiking above the General’s Pass


“My car (che) is in Zhangzuo Village, how do I get there?” “Oh you want to eat (chi) in Zhangzuo?” “Okay, uh, (to other lady) is there a bus to Zhangzuo?” “Sorry, I’m deaf!”. Oh. “What did he say? I can’t hear!” Between my rusty Chinese, the old ladies’ rusty Chinese, and a few hearing problems, our hike to the General’s Pass ended in a bit of a comedy of errors. It had been a long day, a sudden heat snap in Beijing’s usually mild spring hitting us during the rugged ten kilometers of rocky, early Ming wall. Negotiating nearly a kilometer of vertical gain with a new puppy who needed carrying most of the way, topped off a pretty tough day. But as always on the Great Wall, there were wonderful views, interesting features, and friendly villagers. As I’ve said before, if you’re tired of the Wall, you’re tired of life.

Click through for photos.

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The High Cliffs of Huangyukou

^ With Ben (left) on top of the cliff at Huangyukou

Most navigation arguments have little real consequence. “You missed the exit!” “That was the exit?” “I told you to get in the right lane!” You might be late, but you won’t have to sleep outside in the cold.

But on the side of a cliff in failing light, they take on a different complexion. So it was in Autumn 2013 near Huangyukou.

There were four of us, but really we were two couples. My regular hiking partner Ben and I on one hand, and my German friend Chinoook and his hiking partner Hin on the other. A simple but understandable error with GPS had left us beating a path up a steep, scrubby and rocky slope as the sun sank inevitably towards the ridgeline.

Finally, it was crunch time. “We should turn around”, I said. “Well, I think if we continue across this face we can probably make it to that tower”, said Chinoook. I looked up. Far across the valley, on a high ridge, a beautiful tower glowed yellow in the setting sun. It was hours away, even if we could traverse the rocky wall ahead – much of which we couldn’t actually see from here. I have had some unpleasant experiences on steep Great Wall hillsides at night – I had no intention of doing it again.

“The sun’s setting”, I reminded everyone. Chinook consulted his GPS. “The sun doesn’t set for three hours”. At that moment, I lost my patience. “Look at the f****g sky, man. Use your eyes. We have ninety minutes of light, max. You do what you like. I’m going down”.

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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

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


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


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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