Friday, November 28, 2008

Yang Shuo Fire and Water Tourism and Fruit Trade Show Event (thingy)

It was perfect timing. Yang Shuo has been hosting their annual town festival and we were lucky enough to catch many of the festivities. Without a doubt it makes up for the lack of fanfare for the more traditional holidays back in America. The events calendar and coinciding tourist influx is beginning to wind down now. The traffic on the pedestrian street moves along well again and the municipal park has taken down the stage. It has been a fantastic evening diversion after a long day of climbing to come back to town and always have an exciting new thing to see. So as the banners fall from the street lights and we get on with another couple weeks here let me recap the most notable events of the Yang Shuo Fire and Water Tourism and Fruit Trade Show Event.
We first knew something was up when a large float decorated with plastic flowers and the local fruit (the gui) shown up on West Street. Szu-ting translated the calendar and told me there would be a beer competition, a marketing respresentive contest, dancing, and a fireworks show. All these items seemed vague and slightly uneventful but little did I know the amount of entertainment value the local government could pack in to these ambiguous titles. Sunday turned out to be the day of most of the excitement so we headed to the park following the loudspeakers. We found the place to be packed, loaded with kids chasing cotton candy and ballon vendors, and what appeared to be traditional native cultural dances being performed on an impressive stage. The costuming was intricate and while I understood very little of the music (or the Chinese Opera and one-act plays to follow) the performances and the turnout was still impressive for this little town.
After a break we headed back into town and found the place to be litterally crawling with tourists, most of them from neighboring towns. Police were everywhere but they seemed content just keeping traffic moving along. We arrived at a cross street to watch what was only described as a beer competition - turns out it was a beer drinking competition and I was immediately sorry I missed the sign-up. The first round was the western tourists and as they lined up to ready themselves to pound a TingSao 22 the local paparazzi swooped in for good photos. I shoot my photo from a balcony across the street. There were subsequent rounds of Chinese beer drinkers but somehow the white guys got all the fanfare at this event?
Just after the beer comp we made our way, with our own beers in hand, to the riverside. It was rumored there would be fireworks at 10. As we neared the waterway we recognized the immensity of our position. It looked as as the whole town plus the 5 neighboring towns had turned out to watch the display. We waded through people 'til we got right down to the water - still having no idea where these fireworks would be coming from but figuring the more dense the people the better the view. At 10:10 we were quite surprised to see that the fireworks would be shot off from immediately opposite the river from us (were talking Deschutes River not Columbia River here). Please remember the Chinese indeed invented gunpowder and still make most of the world's fireworks to this day so one can imagine the scope of a firework show at a festival whose name includes the word fire. For forty minutes we watch a few men run around these massive cannons and boxes launching the loudest fireworks I've ever heard into the air above us. The booms resounded off the limestone tower walls and reflected in the river at our feet. The ferry boats of the river lined up perfectly, each lit by a single light and floated idyllically past and out of sight. The fireworks went on and on, short and tall, flares and firecrackers, left and right, and all the time everyone ohhed and ahhed and took pictures with their cellphones.
The next day we were back from climbing just in time to the marketing representive contest. You guess it a Chinese beauty contest for the Queen of YangShuo (I give that name myself, but it is a good translation). On the park stage again, this time in the evening under lights with even more people standing and straining to get a view. First there was the swimsuit round, then the evening gown, then the question and answer, and then they must have crowned the Queen but we didn't stay for that long 'cause the Q and A was really boring if you don't speak Chinese. All in all a great week of giving thanks time events in YangShuo. Mark your calendars for Nov 22nd 2009 - the fireworks are always the same day!
Photos: 1)The best fireworks. Ever. 2) Ballon vendor
3)View from third pitch of the Egg. Yes we go rock climbing too 4)Westerners and paparazzi and beer.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

It's not just another climbing route!
It's a tower in China
The Thumb: Happy New Year! (6 pitches, 6a+)

Yesterday was the first day we climbed a tower of limetsone. It rose from the rice and vegetable fields of rural China. We rode a crowded mini-bus just a handful of kilometers to be dropped off at the tourist spot called Butterfly Spring. It was the weekend and hoards of Chinese tourists rode bikes along the scenic rode and gawked at the magical views. The buses and trucks and cars streamed past as well, constantly honking and swerving around the biking hoards. We crossed through the quiet farmers tending thier crops and stood below the overhanging, colorful wall. The wall was well equipped with closely-spaced modern bolts and two-bolt belay anchors. The climbing was steep, but not too hard, and I struggled up some sections with my sore finger. Szu-ting made short work of an awkward bolted off-width crack nearing the top of the tower. The crack was razor sharp and the exposure was drastic but she nonethless escape upward without adding blood to the hand-eating fissure.
From the top of the tower the constant honking and tractor rumble fell away, and we were able to finally look out across the landscape of endless towers with the Li River weaving a ribbon a life throughout. Tourists and locals biked and laughed along below us and further, rice farmers swept their crop thin across concrete roofs to dry it in the patchy sun of the afternoon. We took it all in from the summit not much wider than a basketball court and then returned to the edge to begin our rappels to the ground. The anchor was pieced together and the strands of rope and webbing shown the wear of sun and rain. We added a caribiner to the mess, threaded our rope through it, and decended through knife-blade limestone and vertical jungle to the next, and much better, abseil anchor below.

China is a very new place for me to be travelling. Culturally it is unlike anything I have seen. There appears to be a great disparity between rich and poor. Though is seems that the rural people live simple and slow lives that have allowed them to escape the many trappings of the modern automobile and information driven society we have embraced in the west. By the way people drive and honk incessently here it appears cars may be fairly new to many of these villages, cell phones and the internet even more so. As the world continues to become more international, as cultures continue to melt into one another it gives me some sort of solace to see old Chinese farmers shucking rice grains with a wooden, hand-crank contraption.
Each night we explore the alleys and streets of Yang Shuo; it if a tourists destionation for not only westerners but for many Chinese from neighboring cities. There are thousands of resturants and craftman shops. There are western bars and hotels and pizza cafes and street vendors selling fruits and whole chickens and tea and deserts and cotton candy made with a bicycle tire and a wooden tub. Szu-ting translates menus, and street signs, and advertisements for me. I am beginning to learn words and phrases in Chinese which I forget and relearn daily. As I begin to understand how the language is put together I begin to understand the immediate and stark differences to English and I am even further impresses by Chinese speakers that have mastered the English language. I am not only thankful, but truly impressed by Szu-ting's speed and agility in daily translation; for it has allowed me to more fully appreciate the place. A place that continues to captivate my western mind.
Photos: 1) The Thumb; our route went basically right up the center of this colorful, vegetated tower. 2)Yang Shuo town and the myraid limestone towers beyond. 3)Looking out the round windows from "Sleeping On Clouds" lookout in Yang Shuo Municapal Park.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Dispatch - Yang Shuo, China - 11/20/2008

After two exciting days of travel we have arrived in Yang Shuo. Since there are no direct flights to the mainland from Taiwan so we first had to fly into Hong Kong. In Hong Kong we had planned on tranferring to a ferry that would take us to another airport across the water in China where we could then fly up north to a town called Guilin. Instead, we missed the ferry transfer to collect our luggage and was then forced through Hong Kong customs - once through customs we would have to find another option to get out of the airport. We choose the airport express train that led to the Hong Kong subway. The subway is very modern but very busy and required 5 transfers which we negotiated with all our climbing gear. The other thousands of people were obviously commuters and were surprised by our amount of luggage. We then reached an above ground line that headed for the Chinese border. At the end of the line we worked our way through Chinese customs and were finally on the mainland. We then spent hours trying o find a bus or train bound for the Szenchen airport - even speaking Chinese and English it took alot of asking to work our way through the confusing transportation network in China. We finally embarked on a wild bus ride through the city and ended at a local airport serving domestic flights within China.

We had yet to aquire tickets to Guilin so we went directly to the airline counter and bought tickets with cash for a later flight. We took all our gear and walked to the small neighboring town and had beers and dinner. There was a school bus full of kids that all ran to the side of the bus to say "hello" to the westerner in town. In all my travels in Asia I had never had this much attention from local children - they were clearly excited to practice their English and wowed by a white guy sitting on the street-side. Szu-ting said she had never got so many looks, for even though she is Chinese we were clearly not locals. We had amazing hand pulled noodles for 3 yen (40 cents) a plate for dinner and returned to the airport. The flight was an hour and 500 km long - the train would have been 13 hours so it was money well spent. We were finished after that day and found a hotel with a massive marble and chandelier lobby - it was $18 USD a night. In the morning we found yet another bus to take us the hour here to Yang Shuo. We have been busy working to find long-term housing, get climbing info, and settle into this tourist town amongst the beautful karst towers this region is famous for. More adventures to come.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Taiwan: Final Dispatch
Sea cliff climbing and Chinese homecooking

One last report from Taiwan before we head to Hong Kong tomorrow morning. Despite the rainy weather outlook we decided we must check out the climbing area here before leaving. So we packed up the Piglet once again and took freeways for and hour and some to the northeastern corner of the island. The climbing is at a rugged cape composed of brightly colored sandstone. You scramble down muddy, slippery fisherman trails right to the edge of the sea and work along boulder fields and tidepools to the base of the crags. Long Dong (yes, that's its real name; it means Dragon Cave) is built from rock unlike any I have seen before. While the guidebooks call it sandstone it compares little to sandstone climbing areas in the states. It is a conglomerate, there are features mixed in that appear to be quartz; the resulting rock is amazingly bombproof and the many fractures create great places for natural gear. Couple amazing rock quality with the impressive position above the sea and you have a noteworthy rock climbing area.

Unfortunately, the winter weather has been consistent since we've been here in Taipei and when we visited Long Dong the rain was between drizzle and downpour. Nonetheless we located a short wall of cracks inside the mouth of the cave and as the choppy waves blasted against the cape we were able to sneak in a few meters of climbing - enough to say we climbed in Taiwan atleast. But the day was only a teaser as now I interpret the routes in the guidebook as more quality than the pictures suggest. I expect Long Dong would support a good week or two of amazing trad climbing and possibly another week chasing around the most recently bolted routes as well.

In other adventure news I have been very fortunate to dine with Szu-ting's family each evening. her mom is an incredible cook and I have had handfuls of amazing homemade Chinese dishes. The meals are always served with rice, which you eat plain just a bit before adding the entrees, and finished with a brothy soup. My favorites have been sea bass, spiced bone-in chicken, seaweed and tofu, handmade sausage, water vegetables and carrots, and mushroom sautee. I have eaten many new items - they are too numberous to list - and I am thankful for the Yi family's hospitality.
Photos: 1)A rainy day ay Long Dong Cape. 2)An array of homecooked Chinese courses. 3) A well-animated cliffside warning sign.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Taiwan Road Trip Part I:

Big cities, chicken rice, and alpine tea

Days are very full and therefore moving very fast here in Taiwan. It turns out this small island figuratively floating off the coast of mainland China has much more to offer than the neon bustle of Taipei city. The rains continued to pour down as our jet lag faded away and as the coastal climbing areas to the northeast sat damp and sad against the Pacific we decided to turn our dreary days into a sunny road trip that headed south and into the rugged interior mountains. Therefore, Wednesday morning we loaded Szu-ting's trusty 'Piglet', a miniature Nissan hatchback not seen in US markets, and weaved through Taipei surface streets to finally gain the comfortable Taiwan southerly freeway. I was constantly amazed by the density of Taiwan's cities, for as soon as we left the trappings of Taipei we passed through city after city, each taller and more built up than nearly every large city in the US. Every few miles was yet another tower of industry, a skyscraper of commerce, or a massive housing project fed by even a more massive power plant. Along this flat west coast the Taiwan Straight is churned up and dark brown, the prevailing winds turn mighty windmills, and the interior mountains are shrouded by haze.

Though, here, in the largest cities south of Taipei is where the true character of Taiwanese people and cuisine emerges. Szu-ting usually starts the introduction to each town like this: “the featured food item for here is ______.” This particular evening, in the town of Jah-yi (it should be noted placed names are provided in English by a process called ping-ing in which you just write letters that somehow make the sounds that are the word, an inexact translation as best) the featured item is 'chicken rice' which turns out is exactly that – chicken (cold with all the parts) and rice (warm). It is not my favorite Chinese dish, Szu-ting likes it a lot. I am glad she only ordered one. I instead opt for a grapefruit and honey drink which is fantastic and then eat some little round cakes cooked in a giant-round-waffle griddle on the street. I find a candy store and an Asian bakery that has some sort of ham croissant that is filling. On the streets there is a bustle that is unlike anything American – scooters and cars mix with vendors selling everything, neon lights bath the streets, ally ways fill with steam of cooked everything, and I wonder how a city can be so alive and interactive – there can be nothing more different from an anywhere-America strip mall.

After Jah-yi we begin our easterly ascent and the driving adventure begins. We wind up one and half lane roads into the steep green mountains illuminated by full moon light. The character of the landscape changes immediately and the cities turn to villages as the terrain steepens – there is no longer room for massive cities, only collections of homes and business perched on terraces seemingly carved from the slope. In one high village, surrounded by fields of tea, we find a karaoke celebration at a temple with a view and locate nearby lodging at a beautiful stilted 'bed and breakfast.' It is mid-week and the proprietor welcomes us to his office for tea served from a antique table made from a slice of old-growth cypress. He has much to tell us about his region, Szu-ting does her best to translate but it is late and constant translation in tiring so I let them talk in Chinese, as I watch the particulars of the tea pouring and making. Pour the tea leaves into a ceramic pot, pour the water over them with reckless abandon letting the water spill over and on to the wooden tray, pour the tea from the pot through the strainer and into the glass pot, pour off the first cup sloppily, but use it to warm the small drinking glasses, which have been pulled from boiling water themselves and set out in front of the guests. When the leaves are ready to provide tea pour it carefully into small ceramic jars with narrow necks, turn the jars into the glasses, and let the aroma of the brewed tea sit in the vase for inspection. The tea is ready. Talk, in Chinese, about mystical giant trees in the mountains, of trains climbing into high forests, of Barack Obama and the American economy, and of your home and your tea and your guests. Drink carefully and quickly, yet enjoy each sip. Walk to the veranda and point out the cities below. Welcome your guests once again. Sleep.

Photos: 1)Wind farms line the entire west coast of Taiwan. 2)Elder sister pond in Alishan National Forest 3)Terraces of tea from our lodging high in the mountains.

Taiwan Roadtrip Part II:
Old-growth forest, winding roads of despair, jungle gorges, the other side of Pacific, and gold-medal traffic jams

We woke up amongst alpine tea terraces and devoured a traditional Taiwanese breakfast of fruited rice, chive omelet, pickled veggies, and shredded pork. Piglet, our squeaky and efficient transportation was ready for another day of driving adventures. When I thought we had already climbed to the top of the highest peaks I found myself mistaken as the road just continued to wind up and up to a place called Alishan. To my amazement Alisan is home to a montane old-growth forest of Taiwanese Red Cypress. It is a well developed and touristy park but that did not distract from the majestic forest that we toured through via a elfin wooden boardwalk.

This forest brought back many memories of old-growth forests past and I could not help but draw comparisons to the sequoia forests of the Sierra that I have come to know well. These Cypress, well over a 1000 years old, occur, just as the Sequoia, in a narrow band at around 6,000 feet on a particular aspect in a particular soil in a particular mountain range. Immediately, upon their discovery, the locals recognized their spiritual nature and protected them from harvest. The story of conservation is very similar to that of the Sierra forests. The park has recently added to their protection by building elaborate boardwalks touring through them, because just as the Sequoia, these giant trees are fragile and sensitive to soil compaction. While hikinh through these mighty trees one comes across elegant shrine's to historical figures past, vintage railway lines, azure Koi ponds, and creeky suspension bridges. These images will be forever imprinted in my mind.

After a morning exploring Alishan, and just when I figured our narrow road had topped out we again climbed up and over rugged mountain passes and had amazing views of many 3,000 + meter peaks. We descended only briefly to find food in a small village and after a soak in a well-developed hot spring the darkness forced us to find lodging in a train station town at the foot of the steep mountain faces. A river ran its course through this town and we found a simple night market with BBQ and candy stands to occupy our evening. In the morning we had a simple breakfast from a handful of street vendors and again headed back into the mountains via the most amazing collection of one-lane roads. The roads are windy, very windy, with mirrors at each corner, which are best used to determine if the oncoming traffic is a bus or heavy truck. Often the road barely fits Piglet because the rest of the road has since fallen into the valley below. I can only compare these routes to those I have traveled in the Italian Dolomites, though somehow building these grades in loose rock and in a land of monsoon rains seems more impressive that those carved out of solid granite. Szu-ting told me the route we took is only a couple of decades old and it is known that 100s of people died in its construction. I did the driving, she only screamed a couple of times, mostly because oncoming big rigs threatened to squish us or catapult us into 2000 meter of air, but Piglet held her ground and we worked our way up and over Taiwan's mountain pass. Many hours and maybe 5000 S-curves later we enter a impressive and very scenic gorge called Toroko on the English signs(tidal goul is what Szu-ting calls it, but that conjures up images of some scary sea creature blob monster from the deep).

Tidal goul (toroko) is far from scary. In fact it was the most impressive natural wonder we came across on this trip. It is a massive gorge framed by jungly vertical walls with a thin stream forming a wash at the bottom, huge marble boulders litter the stream bed and wispy waterfalls pour in from nowhere. An engineer marvel, the narrow road enters and exits endless tunnels as it somehow works its way through the defile. I have no words left to describe this place – but I will, just as Szu-ting suggested, put it on the must see list of any travelers to Taiwan.

After Toroko I though the scenic tour was over but we then gained a road that headed north along the rugged Pacific coast of the island. The ocean was an incredible blue and the green mountains came down to meet the sea in incredible relief. This was the scariest part of the drive as well, as the rain poured down, trucks rumbled along the curves, people passed haphazardly on corners with utter disregard for the double yellow line. We worked our way slowly and finally, much to the relief of both of us reached a freeway leading back to Taipei. We entered a 15km long newly built tunnel taking us northwest, near the end the temperature of the tunnel must have reached 110 degrees. I was only scared for a minute – the rest of the drivers seem uneffected so I drove on and was soon back in the comfortable evening outside air. Once reaching Taipei we exited to surface streets and spent the next two hours weaving through Friday night traffic back to Szu-ting's neighborhood. Buses, scooters, trucks, and cars merged in and out of a constantly changing traffic pattern. There must have been but I noticed no true organization pattern. Szu-ting read the signs, I attempted not to permanently mangle any school children as the weaved through the 4 lanes of crawling commuter traffic. Everyone honked at someone, I was amazed that damaged cars and scooter drivers did not litter the street-sides. Amazingly, without incident, I somehow managed to navigate Piglet back to the MingDe neighborhood and immediately had a cheap Japanese beer for my troubles. An adventure? Yes. Beautiful? Very much so. Driving in the cities and mountains of Taiwan? Unforgettable.

Photos: 1)Highway 14 winds through many 3000m passes in the central mountains 2)Shrine to those that died making the road we just drove on in Toroko 3)Piglet at the top of the pass 4)The Pacific meets the mountains on the Taiwanese east coast

Monday, November 10, 2008

Lost, but at home, in Asia once again

Just one day in Taipei so far and already the adventure has begun. My previous journey's into Thailand and Malaysia have prepared me well for this new place but already I am completely indebted to Szu Ting and she guides me through the maze of eateries and ally-ways in endless Taipei. Just a year ago I was feeling comfortable and at-home in Thailand's biggest cities but here there are many new challenges - most notably the use of Chinese characters in most signage. There is very little English translation and I can only imagine the challenges of eating and navigating without my Mandarin speaking host. My ninja scooter driving and human compass skills have indeed come in handy but they are no match for not understanding a single thing.

After arriving at 6am to the airport and with little sleep we made our way via buses and subways to the neighborhood of Szu Ting's family's home. The weather was windy, dark, and rainy, but somehow my previous summer in Seattle made it feel slightly homely. We wanted so badly to sleep but the timeframe of visa aquitition required us to nearly immediately return to the subway system in search of the proper government office that could reissue Szu Ting a new ID card that would be required for the Chinese entrance 'visa'. The journey, shrouded in a sleepless delirium, took many subway rides and a rainy jaunt on the family scooter through mazes of streets that confused us both. We were successful and rewarded our day with Taiwan Beer and potstickers; which were purchased for $1 and 20cents a piece respectively.

This morning we continued the China 'visa' hunt which turns out is nearly as difficult for Taiwanese as it is for Americans ( mine requires $130 and days in LA traffic jams, hers requires running from office to office throughout the city at half the cost). We added a nesseccary visit at tourist stop Taipei 101- what may be, and appears to be, one of the tallest buildings in the world. I don't know the particulars but it truly towers over an already impressive city skyline and seems to defy gravity as it reaches in the foggy Taipei sky. Taipei in general it should be noted defys the eye in many ways as it reaches in all directions with such a grand density that it dwarfs any American city I have known.

It is a wonder I often have as I travel - how, and why, does it feel good to feel small and lost in an unknown land - to be a foriegner, to stick out of a crowd so completely, to understand nothing and to take solace in that lack of understaing, to have everyone seeing you seeing them and to share that look/unspoken exchange of 'what is your life like?' and... well... I've only been here for two days. We'll get to the and soon enough.

Photos: 1) Street signs guide the way 2)Szu Ting guides the way 3)Taipei 101 - it's huge!

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Dispatch 11/08/08

Today is the day. LAX to TPE (Taipei, Taiwan) this evening.
Quite a harrowing week of preparing for such a massive international trip. Monday I made an early morning trip to LA to apply for a Chinese Visa and Tuesday started off with the loss of my bank card and ended at the filled with joy Joshua Tree Saloon. I have never seen such an emotional and incredible end to an election as all of the young dreamers showed up at the bar to squint through teary eyes as Barack gave his speech. Throughout out the week I have been teaching climbing to my fellow peers at an end-of-season Naturalists-At-Large anchor training that rode on the undertones of a new era in American politics. The regularly hapy and joyous crew was this week overjoyed and hopeful. Friday was syncronistic and insane as I regathered my financial tools and snuck through traffic to acquire my passport and new visa just minutes before being locked out of the Chinese embassy.
As some of you may have known I did some damage to the tendon of my right finger while climbing in Joshua Tree two weeks ago - a challenging injury to undergo just prior to launching off into a three month climbing trip. Because of this and the general nature of adventure my itinerary is splotchy at best and therefore this blog may just be the only reasonable way to keep track off me. I am most looking forward to my adventures in China, and further adventures and climbing with many close friends by the New Year in Thailand.
Keep an eye on IanOutThere for photos and updates