Denali & Anchorage

Due to the road being narrow and unpaved, Denali National Park only allows visitors, past a certain point, to travel via bus. We decided to take the bus 92-miles to the end, arriving at an old mining settlement, Kantishna.

Although the weather was overcast and prevented us from seeing Denali (only 1/3 of visitors ever get to see Denali) it was ideal to spot wildlife. On our 12-hour drive, we saw 6 mom Grizzly Bears, each with 2 cubs, totaling 18 different bears. We watched a mom flop on her back with her feet in the air and let her two, 200-pound babies climb on top of her and nurse. The driver told us that the male bears stay away from the road and the female bears have learned this, therefore spending the majority of their time near the road to protect their cubs. We also saw a fox, 7 moose, over 50 Caribou, and over 50 Dall sheep. We got off the bus to hike the Savage River Ridge and took in the beautiful mountains and intense winds.

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With heavy rains, we decided to call off our Kesugi Ridge backpacking trip and spent 3 night at Dan’s friend’s cabin. 19-miles down a dirt road there were not many residents, however, the word quickly got out that kids (referring to us) were in town. Within minutes of arriving, a family of 6, with kids ranging from 6-12, spent hours with us. Although disappointed we were not younger, the kids told us we were still fun.

On our last morning in the Denali area, the clouds finally broke and we felt lucky that we got a beautiful view of Denali from the cabin. We drove into Talkeetna and were thrilled our flight was not canceled. We took an hour-long flight in a bush plane up into the mountains with breathtaking glacial views. We even saw 2 chinooks sitting at base camp.

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After our flight, Nick, Dan, and I took the bikes up Hatcher Pass while Hannah drove the truck and trailer to Anchorage. The dirt road followed a windy crystal clear river up through the Tundra. A paraglider flew 50 feet above up us and the combination of grassy meadows, icy glaciers, and rocky ridges made for a great alpine pass. We stopped by Independence Mine State Historical Park, an abandoned gold mine sprawled in the valley that was built in the 1930s.

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We made it to Anchorage, which seemed pretty run down. We stayed at a motel on the outskirts next to the correctional facility, homeless shelter, and Mega Store. It was upsetting to see so many homeless and drunk on the street and intense police activity.

On our first full day in Anchorage, Nick, Hannah, and I left and headed back toward Hatcher Pass to rock climb. Arch Angel Valley is home to some of the best quality trad single pitching in Alaska.  In the tundra, down a trail, across a river, and up a scree field, the views and climbing were unbeatable.

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The next day, Hannah and I hunkered down to submit job applications while Nick and Dan explored the Anchorage Museum. Nick even ran into one of his old co-worker at the museum! In the evening, we drove down the Turnagain Arm to watch the amazing bore tide quickly fill the arm with one wave.

The next morning, we packed up and headed for the Kenai Peninsula.

Fairbanks and Manley Hot Springs

Leaving Tok we headed to Fairbanks. On the way, we stopped at a pottery studio outside of Delta Junction. Originally finding no one around, we read a sign on the door that invited anyone in to browse, pick a piece and leave the money on a table. Not the way things are done in the lower 48! Eventually, the artist showed up to answer some questions. After, we finished the drive to Fairbanks and arrived at Billies Backpacker Hostel. Billie’s was a great spot in town. Not only was it clean and had great service, but they even let us park our trailer for the drive down the Elliot Highway.

The next day in Fairbanks, Stacia and Hannah applied to some jobs for our eventual transition back to reality, while my dad and I ran some errands. On the way, we stopped at the University of Fairbanks Museum and the Large Animal Research Center. The Museum was very well done and gave a lot of information on the natural and cultural history of Alaska. At the Large Animal Research Center, we got to see muskox and reindeer.

After our short stay in Fairbanks, we left the trailer and took the truck and bikes down the Elliot Highway. This 150-mile road which turns to dirt at mile 80, ends in the small town of Manley Hot Springs. Along the way, we got our first flat, which was completely deflated in less than 5 minutes, a real tear!

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Manley Hot Springs, a  town of around 50 people, has a small school (10-15 students), trading post, roadhouse (restaurant and hotel) and even a local bar called “The Woodshed”. Originally a mining town, most people have lived here for generations and everyone we met was extremely nice and helpful. We camped down by the slough of the Tanana River that the town sits.

The springs which the town is named for used to be accessible at a resort with a swimming pool and bowling alley, but this was long gone with the mining money. However, a local family has kept a greenhouse complete with grape vines, tomato plants, and various tropical plants, which also contains four pools. For $10 an hour, anyone can use the greenhouse, with all the money going to a local association. A pretty oxymoronic situation for a town that sits less than 100 miles south of the Arctic Circle!

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After the springs we took a boat ride up the Tanana river with a local man to his friends weekend cabin. The cabin was a beautiful set up on the river and had a true wilderness feel (especially only being accessible by boat or snowmobile in the winter).

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After one more night by the river, we drove back to Fairbanks. On the way, Stacia and I stopped for some climbing at “Grapefruit Rocks”. The “best limestone in the Interior” (super crumbly!). In Fairbanks, we spent one more night at Billie’s before heading south to Denali!

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Yukon and the Top of the World Highway

After driving up the Cassiar highway we made it to the Yukon Territory. We arrived in Whitehorse, a touristed mountain town that reminded me and Nick of Steamboat Springs, CO. We had a great meal at The Klondike Rib and Salmon BBQ and tried to imagine the harsh winters. A bumping town in the middle of nowhere, the first mail delivery didn’t come until the 1920s. We spent a day relaxing, walking the bike path along the river, and visiting the SS Klondike.

The next day Nick, Hannah, and I climbed at Golden Canyon where there was some fantastic crack climbing. We stopped at Bean North Coffee Co. to buy some locally roasted coffee and headed to Takhini Hot Springs to soak.

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The next day, We left Whitehorse and drove toward Dawson City taking a 50-mile detour up the Dempster Highway. We camped at the Tombstone Campground and the next morning took in the beautiful mountain views. While through the tundra we spotted a mountain lion crossing the road, we had no luck at seeing any grizzly bears.

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We drove north to Dawson City where the 2,000 resident population doubled for Canada Day. The quaint town held a fair and short parade. Most parade participants recently completed the annual kayak/ canoe quest from Whitehouse to Dawson City along the Yukon River. We enjoyed breakfast at the Alchemy Cafe and rushed through the Dawson City Museum.

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We left Dawson City via ferry and found it hard to believe that cars drive over the frozen river in the winter. We drove over the Top of the World Highway which offered a remarkable view of the McKenzie range. The dirt road went over a ridge and we soon entered US immigration.

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We successfully crossed and made our way into Chicken with a population of 23 and a winter population of 7. The town offers no electric, sewage, cell phone service, or water. It gets -85 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter and the only road connecting it to the rest of the world closes. A small town named Chicken because the founders could not spell the state bird the Ptarmigan. Chicken, Ptarmigan, same same, but different. We camped in Tok and washed the Dempster Highway off the truck and bikes.

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Olympic Peninsula and British Columbia

My dad, Dan, had been to all 50 states except Alaska. Seeing this as an opening, I pestered him to the point of exasperation. Somehow during those conversations, I convinced him to take the classic road trip to Alaska. That happened in March, a little more than three months before the planned departure. While my dad and I planned, my sister Hannah and partner Stacia saw the opportunity of a lifetime and decided to come along. On June 18th, three days after Stacia graduated from the U of O MBA program and two weeks after Hannah and my dad departed from Washington DC, the group left Portland, Oregon for Alaska. The plan for the trip is a multipurpose blend of sightseeing, motorcycling, climbing, and backpacking. All of these toys are packed into a Toyota Tacoma and 12ft cargo trailer.

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We spent our first day driving up to the Olympic Peninsula along the Oregon/Washington coast. Our first camp was made south of Hoodsport, WA in Potlatch State Park. Here we made our first meals as a group and had our first trials with trailering in reverse.

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The next day, Hannah and I climbed Mt. Ellinor, earning perfect clear views of Mt. Olympus and the rest of the national park. Stacia stayed behind for a job interview, while my dad got out on the bike. We all met again at Heart of the Hills Campground near Port Angeles. This part of the park contains huge old growth trees that are indicative of the temperate rainforests.

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In the morning, we woke up early to catch the international ferry to Victoria, British Columbia. We spent the morning in town, running errands to Mountain Equipment Cooperative, Island BMW and the local Chinatown market for lychee and rambutan. However, we were soon on the road again headed towards the west side of Vancouver Island. On the way, we stopped to see some falls, more old growth forest and the funky Goats on the Roof grocery store.

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The west side of Vancouver Island is only accessible by a few roads. We chose to spend the night at Green Point Campground in the Pacific Rim National Park and Preserve. This immaculate park contains old-growth rainforest, surfing beaches, and rocky coastline. We drove into the town of Tofino for some great seafood at the Ice House Oyster Bar.

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While you could spend weeks or months exploring Vancouver Island, we only had time for two days. We spent our second day driving to the town of Comox. On the way, we stopped in the town of Ucluelet for more Oysters and enjoyed the great motorcycle road (route 4) that bisects the island. Our camp for the night was at Kin Beach Provincial Park, where we enjoyed great views of the Canadian Coastal Mountains across the sound.

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Instead of taking the ferry directly back the Vancouver, we elected to take a series of three ferries along the sunshine coast. The roads in between passed through multiple small isolated towns including Powell River, Madeira Park, and Sechelt. After the final ferry, we drove the first 25 miles of the Sea to Sky Highway up to Squamish.

Taking a break from the road, Stacia and I spent the morning climbing a rock face named the Apron and then met up with Hannah for some single pitching. Squamish is definitely on the list for a return trip!

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Unfortunately, our drive through Canada was jam-packed with driving, leaving little time to explore the areas we stopped in, so the next day we were back on the Sea to Sky Highway. This day of driving was one of the most diverse yet, first rising up into the mountains around Whistler, then slowing changing from mountain tundra to the dry river valleys near Lillooet. My dad and I rode the bikes, while Hannah and Stacia attempted to keep up while pulling the trailer. That night we made it to Quesnel and with rain, we elected for a cheap motel.

The next two days were spent covering ground on the way to the Cassiar Highway. On the way, we overnighted in a pristine city campground in Smithers, BC. This part of Canada became increasingly remote with towns growing farther apart and animal sightings every few miles.

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There are two main arteries through northern BC into the Yukon. One is the traditional Alcan Highway, built during WWII to protect Alaska. The other is the Cassiar Highway which stays farther west and is named for the gold rush during the late-1800’s. We decided to take the Cassiar, mostly on a whim, but also with a desire to see the “friendliest ghost town in America,” Hyder, Alaska. On the way, we stopped in a few first nation towns to admire totem poles and small museums. The surrounding mountains were furry with diverse species of trees.

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Hyder is somewhat of a geographic fluke as the line between the US and Canada was drawn directly down the middle of a channel that cuts hundreds of miles inland. On the north of this channel sits Hyder, Alaska, cut off from the rest of the US by coastal mountains and only accessible to the rest of the world, through its neighbor Stewart, BC. The drive into this area had great views including the bear glacier. We spent the evening being Hyderized in the Hyder (drinking grain alcohol) and the morning driving up to Salmon Glacier. We found it interesting that any crime in the town would not be addressed for an hour and a half until the police fly over the mountains into Hyder.

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The next two days were more long days on the road. Driving north up the Cassiar, we saw 7 black bears and spent the night on Dease Lake watching the sunset around 11:30pm over the water. The Cassiar highway ends soon after entering the Yukon when it hits the Alcan Highway. We pushed on a little further down the Alcan to reach Whitehorse for a much-needed break from driving.

Green Climber’s Home

Before Nick and I left for our Asia trip we took a climbing road trip west. While in Yosemite, a Spanish couple that had been traveling for 5 months came up to us and started petting Koa. The woman (Ainara) showed us a cell phone photo of their dog who was a white golden retriever and looked just look Koa. Through Spanglish and a game of charades we were able to convey that we too would be traveling for a year and missing our dog. We spent the next few days climbing and teaching Ramon basic English commands like “off belay” while 4 pitches up. We eventually parted ways and thought maybe (although highly unlikely) we’d meet again in Asia. Now, 6 months later we were reunited and climbing in Laos!

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Entrance to Green Climber’s Home
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Our tent located behind the luxurious bungalows =)
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Reunited in Laos!

The Green Climbers Home is a remarkable climbing community with bungalows looking up at huge rock faces just outside of Thakhek, Laos. At night, the stars appear between jagged cliff edges. There are hundreds of dynamic limestone routes, friendly people and delicious food. Nick and I camped for a week while having an absolute blast with Ariana and Ramon. We climbed in caves, took some big falls, watched Reel Rock, celebrated Ainara’s birthday, pushed ourselves and rewarded ourselves with some good laughs and whiskey. Although we could have stayed here for months, it was time to continue exploring Laos.

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The reward at the end of a pitch
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Feliz Cumpleaños Ainara!

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Southern Cambodia

Before I start this blog post, huge thanks to Nick who has done the majority of the planning on this trip. Wherever we are, it seems as if he is preparing for tomorrow while I am writing about the day before. Traveling has had it’s ups and downs but I am elated to have this guy by my side.

Kampot

After crossing the corrupt border into Cambodia and overpaying for our visa, Nick and I headed to Kampot. This is a huge tourist town with an enormous expat community. Let me say, these expats are not giving older white males the best name. If it’s watching them flirt with teenage locals or cat calling and insulting tourists they could learn a thing or two about respect.

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If you are not looking for the party scene you won’t find much in Kampot, thus Nick and I decided to head out of town to rock climb, visit Secret Lake and hit the crab market.

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Crab Market, Kep

Nick and I were equipped with our climbing gear and excited to get back out on the rock. We headed to Climbodia, a sport climbing area set up by David, a friendly expat from Belgium. These routes range from 5.7 – 5.12 and scale some interesting cave features. Because we had our own gear we were able to climb independently, however we ended up spending some time around guided trips. These local guides were funny but had some questionable safety standards. Nick climbed a route named Snakeskin, which included 2 snake skins, 1 enormous hornet’s nest, 8 stings and a big fall!

 

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Nick with snakeskins, hornets and big falls!

 

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Favorite restaurants:

Simple Things- a must visit for any vegetarian! The temph sandwich was the best sandwich I’ve had on my travels!

Epic Arts Cafe- this cozy cafe provides jobs to Cambodians who are deaf or have other disabilities. The food is fantastic and there are a variety of handmade crafts for sale.

Chi Phat

In order to protect the southern Cardamom Mountains from poaching and logging, the Wildlife Alliance has turned this river village into a community based eco- tourism project. Nick and I spent 2 nights in Chi Phat and enjoyed our time trekking in the jungle and exploring waterfalls. From Kampot, we took a local bus (squeezing 19 people into a mini van) then a beautiful 2 hour, long boat to the the village. We felt comfortable with spending our money here as we knew this non-profit was helping the local community and conserving the environment.

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Pomelo with Tida

It was our trekking guide, Mr. Kim’s, first day on the job and he was an interesting character to say the least. He ran around laughing hysterically repeating, “Lisa, same same” (he thought my name was Lisa and was certain I was part Cambodian). He led us into the jungle where we saw some sort of bearded dragons, hawks, ant hills and pitcher plants. We spent time picking leeches off one another and continued our hike.

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Jungle hiking in Chi Phat
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I spy a Bearded Dragon

In 1982, Mr. Kim fought against Khmer Rouge and had the bullet scars to prove it. He said on hot days when they were without water, they’d drink the water collected from small pitcher plants (then proceeded to pick a pitcher plant and drink the water and insects inside). As a young child he recalled seeing U.S. B-52’s dropping bombs on Cambodia and visiting an American doctor for vaccines and medication.

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Drinking pitcher plants

We ended the 17 mile trek with a dip in the Chay Khpos Waterfall where we saw the extensive burn scars on Mr. Kim’s back. He had many stories, but so do most middle aged Cambodians. Their country has been through it all and we learned more about their dark history in Phenom Penh.

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Chay Khpos Waterfall

Phenom Penh

Nick and I only had a short period of time in the capital, Phenom Penh, and spent the majority of our time at the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum and Russian Market. We also wandered around the Royal Palace Plaza and riverfront which gave us an excellent view of Phenom Penh’s local nightlife.

*Warning to all of our young readers, the following information may be graphic and unsettling.

Tuol Sleng (also called S-21) was a high school that turned into the secret center of a network of nearly 200 prisons where people were tortured and killed by the Khmer Rouge. Between 12,000 and 20,000 people were imprisoned here from 1975- 1979 with only 12 confirmed survivors. 343 killing sites and 19,440 mass graves were later discovered throughout Cambodia.

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Tool Sleng (S-21)
  • The Cambodians celebrated when the Khmer Rouge defeated the (U.S. backed) Cambodian Government as they thought this would be the end of U.S. bombs (more bombs were dropped on Cambodia during the Vietnam War than during all of WWII). Within 3 hours of the Khmer Rouge takeover, people we displaced from the city and forced to work in the country. Many people died from this trek alone. This was part of Khmer Rouge’s plan to start at year 0, and create a society of working farmers. They eliminated modern equipment and made people work like animals. People were kidnapped, imprisioned and tortured until they admitted to being a spy or working with the CIA.
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Torture at S-21
  • Many people were killed, however professionals and those more educated were some of the first. They killed all medical workers and trained their own staff (although the Khmer Rouge forbid education). They practiced medicine by dissecting and extracting blood from living humans leaving them to die.
  • Not only Cambodians were killed. A New Zealand traveler and his friend in their mid twenties dreamed of sailing around the world. When they arrived to the coast of Cambodia they were taken to S-21, imprisoned, tortured and killed. When interrogated, Kerry Hamill reported Kernel Sanders (KFC) as his boss and other famous Western celebrities as his accomplices.
  • Some of the forms of torture conducted at S-21 included: water boarding, blundering, electric sock, slashes and more specifically, hanging prisoners by their ankles and lowering their heads into vessels of human waste.
  • 1 out of 4 Cambodians died during these 3 years, 8 months and 20 days.

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I’ve learned about the holocaust which was heartbreaking and devastating, but what was different about the Khmer Rouge genocide is it took place more recently (only 37 years ago). There are black and white film photographs documenting almost every prisoner, mass grave site, soldier, and torture device. There is still genocide occurring in the Congo and there is rarely any mainstream news about it. When will we learn from our mistakes? With changing political environment, I hope, with a heavy heart, that we will learn from the past and treat humanity with respect and dignity, excluding war and terror.

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Wooden prison cells at S-21

Central Mongolia

As we headed north, from the Gobi to Central Mongolia, the landscape changed drastically and reminded me a lot of Colorado. There were rolling hills, rivers, mountains, and forests. We saw thousands of animals a day and every animal looked so healthy, especially the horses. The camels were replaced with yaks, cows and ginormous birds. A cold front rolled in and the temperature was around 2 – 11 degrees Celsius. Similar to Colorado the weather seemed to change quickly, it will be a cold rainy morning and sunny afternoon. As we drove through various villages we searched for a post office, but after attempt number 4 failed we waited for our next opportunity.

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On day 7,  we left for a 2-day horse trek down the Orkhon Valley to visit a nomadic family. The horses were small and well trained. They were a bit skittish of shadows and trash (the trash is another issue entirely). We rode to the Tsutgalan Waterfall which was formed by unique volcanic eruptions and earthquakes about 20,000 years ago. Nick swam with the locals in the freezing river (a little too close to the 24 m drop). We rode up the valley in beautiful weather and enjoyed the magical scenery.

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After 4 hours of riding we reached the family’s ger, bathed in the river, played games with goat and sheep ankle bones and entertained their 2 young children. Throughout the trip, we have fallen asleep to the sounds of baby camels crying, dogs barking, goats farting, and horses neighing, but tonight it was the sound of children howling like wolves. We returned on the horses the next morning and made our way back up the valley in the rain. We stopped for salted yak milk tea and made our way back to a family ger. This family ger has the most beautiful alter as the family man is extremely religious. I went back out on the horses to visit another waterfall while Nick rested his poisoned stomach.

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We left Orkhon Valley and after a few hours came across paved roads for the first time in almost 7 days. Our wonderful guide, Oyuna, asked if we wanted to see, what we thought she said was a pillar rock. Turns out she said penis rock (even better). In a valley, which represents a vagina, there is a small rock shaped like a penis where women come to worship in hopes of increasing their fertility.

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A few minutes down the road is Erdene Zuu Monastery. This is a beautiful compound made up of 108 stupas holding 3 old Tibetan monasteries built in 1583 and a newer monastery built in the 90s. This is worth the stop. There were so many paintings, statues, and block printings of various Buddhas and protectors. I learned about Shri Devi, the only female protector who destroyed all of the evil in the world by sleeping with the devil, killing him, and finally eating her own child that she made with him. I also learned about the only female Buddha, Tara, who has 7 eyes. Buddhism is so complex and I look forward to learning as much as I can. Outside of this compound you can walk to the ruins of the old capital, Karakorum. In the mid-13th century, Chinggis Khaan established a supply base here and his son ordered the construction of a proper capital. Excavated by a German exhibition in 1998, the foundation of the great hall is on display. We left the old capital, stopping at the 3 empire statue and headed to Tsenkher hot springs.

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At the hot springs, we stayed at a tourist ger camp for the first time as this is one of the only ways to experience the sulfur hot springs. We felt extremely removed from the local community and missed fermented dairy products, but did enjoy the luxurious amenities (shower and charging outlets). The springs were relaxing and we hiked up to the source where the water comes out of the ground at 86 C and is bubbling. We left the next morning and stopped by Taikhar Chuluu Rock, Chuluut Gorge, and hundred branched tree (holy tree). As we moved north toward the white lake, we noticed more mountains, larger trees, pigs (making more pigs), and pines.

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After the town of Tariat we left the paved road (much enjoyed for the 100km we were on it) for the white lake. As we moved up the mountain pass on a bumpy road (our vehicle almost sideways), we approached an ovoo (rock or wood pile to show direction or worship) then moved over the pass to see an enormous glistening lake. The Great White Lake (Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur) is 20 km long and was formed by volcanic lava damming the Suman River. This lake reminded us of Lake Champlain, only undeveloped and pure. Our ger camp was located meters from the water’s edge and we woke up the next morning to the sound of seagulls.

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We hiked into Khorgo Uul, a 200 m tall extinct volcano that erupted 7,000 years ago and visited various caves on our way back to the lake. We had a relaxing afternoon reading in the sun and swimming in the cold water. The diverse landscape of Mongolia continues to amaze me. Our group played canasta before bed and we woke up sporadically to the grunts of yaks bashing into our ger. (Don’t let their beautiful dog cow combination fool you, if you get too close, they’ll try to charge you. I know from experience.)

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Tea Tips

While in Guilin, we visited the Guilin Tea Science & Research Institute, an organic tea plantation where every step of the production process is done traditionally by hand. We experienced a traditional Chinese tea ceremony and enjoyed Osmanthus tea, Liu Bao Compressed Tea, High Mountain Yellow Tea and a variety of oolongs. Do you know it takes 50,000 tea needles to make a half-kilo of white tea?

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Tea serves many purposes, to quench thirst, aid digestion, fall asleep or stay awake.

The Chinese believe tea should be drunk when you are calm so that you can fully appreciate it. You should not drink it when you are busy and it should be enjoyed with few people to avoid excitement (the opposite of alcohol.)

All tea comes from the same evergreen shrub (camellia sinensis); there are some varieties of this shrub, however tea is distinguished by the time the leaves are picked and how they are treated.

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I learned how much the Chinese value not only the plants, but the water used to make tea. It is said that, “water in mountains is best, in rivers is ok, and in wells is second rate.”

Here are a few tea tips that I learned while in in China:

When drinking black or oolong teas, drink from a clay pot. There are many pores that absorb the tea and after 2 years it absorbs the teas flavor. The clay also helps maintain a high temperature. Pour hot water over of the pot and when the outside is dry the tea is ready to drink. Porcelain pots are best for white and yellow teas as it cools quickly. Green tea is preferred to be drunk in clear glass so that the tea drinker can observe the tealeaves floating and sinking. Remember to always rinse the tea leaves before steeping to purify.

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Tea process: manual picking of tealeaves, checking and selecting of leaves, withering tea leaves indoor, drying tea, kneading tealeaves, manual parching of tealeaves.

White Tea – These leaves are young and/or minimally processed, it includes 1 shoot and 2 leaves, it is light in flavor and good to have in the morning.

Yellow Tea – This tea is good for sleeping or for a sore throat. It has virtually no caffeine and was discovered while making green tea, the fermentation process is called “annealing yellow.”

Green Tea – Not fermented and tastes simple and elegant. It retains the original flavor of tea.

Black Tea – Fermented for 72 days, this is sometimes referred to as “red” tea due to the color the leaf turns the water.

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Oolong Tea – This is somewhat of a combination of green and black tea as it uses green teas finishing techniques and black teas fermenting skill (fermented for 36 days), it is high in energy and good to have in the afternoon.

Pu’er – a specific aged and fermented dark tea produced with leaves from the Yunnan Province. It is a roll tea and is pronounced “pu’ar.”

Compressed Tea – This tea is fermented for 3 months. It is made from combining white, green, yellow, black and oolong tea. It is said that drinking compressed tea helps to burn fat and lower cholesterol. This tea is good for digestions and has no caffeine; it’s good to have after dinner. This tea comes in a brick and should be cut with a tea knife as needed. Due to it’s compact structure it will last for years.

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*ps. Did you know that Japanese matcha whisks are made with a single peice of bamboo?

Kyoto to Tokyo as Fast as a Bullet

Kyoto

Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine – Hike 1 mile under thousands of ionic orange tori gates and spot locals wearing kimonos. This is an easy established hike, surrounded by dense forest and tori gates (this took Nick and I about 40 minutes total). There is a small overlook before the summit and you can take an alternative route down. After hiking in 99-degree weather, enjoy fresh fruit, shaved ice or mochi at the bottom.

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Sanjūsangen-dō – This building holds 1,000 Buddhas from the 1400s (that’s before the U.S. was even discovered by Europeans!). These Buddhas, bodhisattvas and deities come from a combination of Buddhism and Hinduism. Although historic and beautiful, there are many other worthwhile things to see in Kyoto if you have limited time.

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Kyoto Station – Get lost in the Kyoto Station! Explore shops, noodle restaurants, drug stores, bakeries, clothing stores, cosmetics and more! If you plan to purchase a JR pass or take the train as your primary mode of transportation (highly recommended) search for a hotel/hostel near the station.

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Golden Pavilion – Walk around a short loop and enjoy the view of a golden pavilion. This took us less than 20 minutes and is not a highly recommended stop, although the pavilion is very beautiful (a remake from when it was a victim of arson).

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The Rock Garden of Daisen-In Temple – Although the extensive rock gardens were astonishing, the Zen Buddhist mantras written on the walls will stick with me for years to come. 490 years ago, Kogaku- Zenji, not only founded this temple, he wrote compassionate words that we can help guide every individual. The characters below are translated to the following: Have a long mind, soft heart, no anger (sideways character for stomach), small mouth (do not speak too much and never speak poorly of others) and this will lead to a long life.

A variety of this mantra ends with 2 different characters: you (written largely) and me (written extremely small), signifying the importance of always putting others before yourself.

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Nijo-jo Castle – Built in 1603, this was the official Kyoto residence of the first Tokugawa Shogun or samurai. The elegant and simple architectural style and art was favored among the warrior class and today is a world heritage site.

Here, I learned where the phrase “not my cup of tea” came from, and it was not what I was expecting. The Shogun of the time would have hundreds of concubines and when a concubine brought him a cup of tea that he was not interested in, he would simply say “not my cup of tea” and another concubine would be sent to him…

Bamboo Forest – Walk for a half mile surrounded by near hundred foot tall bamboo stalks. Although this tourist stop was crowded, it was a pretty site to see. Each of these stalks grow to their maximum height within a month and die within 20 years. Did you know an entire matcha whisk is made from a single piece of bamboo?

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Gion Distrcict – In the evening we explored the Gion Distrcict where we got a glimpse of the old city and searched for geishas. This is a beautiful quaint area where old geisha schools and homes have been turned into restaurants and stores.

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Hakone- Yumoto

Hot Springs – The town of Hakone is known for it’s natural hot springs. Stay at any hotel and enjoy a variety of hot spring pools overlooking lush green mountains. The pools are always nude and divided by gender. Make sure to follow others, as there are many traditions involved in this process! Wear a kimono to the bath area, the left side should always be on top before you tie it closed, sit on a bench and use a bucket to rinse your body before entering the pools, do not bring a large towel into the pool area, etc.

While in Hakone we decided to take the public bus to Lake Ashi, where we took a boat ride to Tokaido. The lake, volcano and old cedar forest were beautiful, however could have been enjoyed in other more outdoorsy ways.

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Tokyo

Harajuku Street – This “fashion district” is about 7 blocks long, extremely crowded and is must see while in Toyko! This was everything I imagined and more! Wander inside shops with pink fluffy platform sneakers and full leather/ chain costumes. Spot girls dressed head to toe in the weirdest styles with hair extensions and fake contacts. All in the name of fashion, right? This was extremely fun and the street was lined with sweets, including: crepes, boba and mochi.

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Head to Shibuya, the busiest intersection in the world. Hack: Starbucks (of course) is located on the corner of this intersection and if you walk up to the second floor you will have a overview of the hundreds of people crossing from every direction. Explore this area for food and young culture.

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When all you have to do is hit the vegetarian button…

The best meal I had in Japan and the best sushi I’ve had in my life. We went to Sushi Aoyagi, which is inside of the Tokyo Station Hotel and indulged in real sushi (not cheap!). If you have ever seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi, this was a similar experience. You order combinations that include matcha tea, miso soup, and x number of pieces. I assume the fish served is based on the season and availability at the market. Most pieces are served individually and you are advised how to eat it. For example, “This piece of squid has a pinch of seasoned salt on it, so do not eat it with soy sauce.” Although a vegetarian, the only fish I have come to enjoy is raw tuna. Nick enjoyed a variety of fish but I only had the tuna, which was the richest, and softest tuna I have ever tasted. It literally melted in my mouth.

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Despite having to wake up at 2 am, my only regret is not having a chance to see the fish market. This is just another reason to return to Japan, right? Nick and I used our JR passes to get to the Tokyo Station where we hopped onto the Narita Express Train, which took us directly to the airport. Besides the Burlington or Harrisburg Airport, this was the easiest commute to an airport we have ever experienced. The train runs almost every 15 minutes and is easy, clean and efficient.

Now we are off to Mongolia. I am so excited to embark on a new adventure but am nervous, as I have no idea what to expect. My mind is open and my fingers are crossed.

Japan by Rail

Japan overview, thus far…

  • Do not J-walk in Japan.
  • Automatic doors in stores, on trains and on buses, must be opened and closed by the press of a long button usually located on your right.
  • There are 7-11s everywhere, offering a variety of great rice balls and mochi.
  • Japan is extremely clean, however you’ll have a hard time trying to track down a trashcan in a public area.
  • Prices are comparable to that of the states.
  • We purchased a Japan Rail Pass which made traveling extremely easy. The stations (especially in Koyoto and Toyko) are the size of large shopping malls. They have everything you may need, boutiques, restaurants, beauty stores, dug stores, etc.
  • Vending machines and bakeries are extremely popular and make for the perfect breakfast. Get a cold can of black coffee from the vending machine and try a variety of pastries from a local bakery.

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Osaka

We arrived in Osaka at 15:45 and thought we would get to downtown by dinnertime. The subway ended up getting very delayed (supposedly unusual for Japan) at Otori station. After 90 minutes of delay and the sun setting we decided to catch a cab. The entire ordeal ended up costing $20 per person, still cheaper than the $120 a cab would have cost from the airport. People were extremely helpful but still no one seemed to know what was going on, however there was suspicion of a suicide.

Mt. Koyasan

The next morning we took 3 trains, a cable car and a bus to arrive at the town of Koyosan. The public bus dropped us off at the Ekoin (hotel monastery) and we were so impressed with the efficiency of the public transit (definitely proved yesterday was a fluke). After dropping our bags off and getting the details on town from the extremely helpful staff we left to explore the world heritage site!

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We first went to the Kongobuji Temple, the headquarters of Koyosan Shingon-shu Buddhism. There we saw the beautiful rock gardens, intricately painted sliding doors and observed devote monks. The enormous cedar trunks that build the rafters of temple were unlike any structure I had ever seen.

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The next stop was the Sacred Center of Shingon Buddhism, a multi stupa complex dominated by the orange Konpon Daito. When entering the stupas you purify yourself with rubbing a pinch of ground cloves in your hands, an invigorating smell.

After exploring, we returned to Ekoin for some Ajikan meditation and training. We both found it very challenging but immediately felt the calming and centering affects. Hopefully this is something we can practice more in the year to come.

We had a traditional Shojin Ryori cuisine, which included sesame tofu (extremely soft, unlike any tofu prepared in the states), miso soup, potato jelly, noodles, frozen tofu, radish, wheat gluten, salted plums, and rice. While very unique and strange to us, it was still delicious and we ate it all.

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In the morning we went to the Buddhist morning prayer and a fire ceremony conducted by the monks. There was meaning in every signal movement, object, tool, prayer and sound. While we respected and admired the amount of superstition, it was unfathomable. However, siting in a tiny building with 30 people burning a large fire listing to monks chant was uplifting and beautiful.

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The final stop in Koyasan was the Okunoin, a large cemetery with over 200,000 tombs. We started on the Sando approach with many tombs of ordinary people, samurais and past emperors dating back over a thousand years. The end of the cemetery was the moralism of Kobo Daishi the founder of Shingon Buddhism in Japan, which reached eternal meditation in 835. The moss and pine bouquets accentuated the 500-year-old tombs. Some companies even had tombstones for their employees. An extermination company had a tombstone dedicated to all of the termites that have been killed and wishing them peace!

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Hiroshima

We traveled from Koyasan to Osaka then to Osaka to Hiroshima via the bullet train. This is such an efficient, reliable and comfortable form of transportation.

Our first stop was the Hirsoshima Peace Memorial Museum and Park. We walked through the museum with heavy hearts. We learned the story of Sadako Sasaki, a young girl who died of leukemia as a result of the bomb blast despite folding 1,000 origami paper cranes to appeal to the gods to make her well. Now, individuals fold cranes and leave them at her memorial wishing for world peace. We also saw the frame of the Gembaku Dome, the sole building to withstand the explosion. Words cannot explain our experience; you must experience it for yourself.

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A memorial for Sadako Sasaki
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A painting of a dead mother and child in running position
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Gemmaku Dome – the only building to withstand the explosion

We took a ferry to Miyajima Island, explored the Itsukushima shinto shrine and explored the beautiful daishoin temple. This was the first temple that I saw specially worshiping the Dalai Lama. We saw a beautiful sand mandala and explored little shrine caves. We decided to hike up Mt Misen (approximately 2.5 km each way), and was rewarded by a beautiful overlook of Hiroshima. There were many locals visiting the island dressed in traditions kimonos for the festival and fireworks.

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Nick adding a rock to a cairn on top of Mt Misen

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We ended the night eating Okonomiyaki, and learned that “hibachi” was created by westerns. Okonomiyaki is the closest dish cooked similarly to that of hibachi. This was a like a pancake make with egg noodles, crepe, egg, oyster sauce, cabbages, tempura crumbs, green onion, and/ or seafood. It was one of the most delicious meals I had in Japan.

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Stay tuned for a post on Kyoto and Tokyo! ps. if you have any helpful feedback on how we could better organize/present this blog, we’d love to hear it!