Chronicles

Trip reviews and journal entries.

Walking the Plank Road in the Sky: A Lesson in Overcoming Fear

Think of something you fear. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Conjure up the images, sounds and smells that accompany that fear. Did your hands start to sweat? Or your stomach turn flips? That’s how I felt whenever I thought about doing the Plank Road in the sky on a mountain called Huashan in China. Now that we are on the same page, What is the Plank Road in the Sky? Picture a two foot wide plank of wood stitched together with huge, but rusty, nails suspended 1,000 meters above a craggy mountain range. The 60 meter long Plank Road in the Sky, located on the South Peak of Huashan (near Xian, China), is a major draw on the backpacking circuit.  It is an attraction akin to the Death Road in Bolivia – a borderline right of passage for those that make a trip to the respective areas.  The mountain itself is no slouch. It is one of the five sacred mountains of China and is considered one of the most beautiful mountains in all of China. Just look at the sunrise from the South Peak (The sunrise from a Sacred Mountain is kind of a big deal to the Chinese). So I knew I had to hike Huashan. I just had to. What I didn’t know was whether or not I would be able to do the optional Plank Road section while I was there.  In the months and days leading up to the hike, I went back and forth in my mind about whether I could do it. Some people may find the Plank Road nothing more than an elevated stroll with a beautiful view.  Let me...

The mostly overlooked, but greatly underestimated Mount Heng

A sixty-degree incline of stone stairs stood in front of me – 103 stairs to be exact. Atop the stairs was Beiyue Hall, a splendid Daoist temple halfway up Mount Heng in the Shanxi province of China. Mount Heng, or Hengshan, is one of the five sacred mountains of China. Already, I could smell the incense burning inside the temple. Standing just outside was my taxi driver and a woman from Sevilla I met the day before. I was surprised that Oscar, our middle-aged, portly taxi driver, was making the trek with us. When I reached the top, I found Oscar drenched in sweat; the last time he made the climb was 10 years ago. Still, he told me later, he would like to visit all five of the sacred mountains. The five mountains were the favorite pilgrimage points of Chinese emperors during the last 2,000 years. The five mountains are delineated by their direction: North (Hengshan), South (Hengshan as well, confusing right?), East (Taishan), West (Huashan) and Center (Songshan). Emperors from all major dynasties made pilgrimages to the mountains. They were, in effect, surveying the edges of their empire. Supposedly, Hengshan is the least important Sacred Mountain. The five mountains are strongholds of Taoist temples, although they also contain smatterings of Buddhism as well. Due to Hengshan’s northerly location, Chinese commoners mostly overlooked it in favor of the other, more accessible mountains. According to Wikipedia, Hengshan is the least important religiously of them all. Which makes Hengshan less crowded. As we hiked up, we passed a few groups of Chinese tourists on their way down. Since it was late in the day,...

37 Things Backpacking has taught me to be grateful for

I’ve lived outside the US for over 7 years. Most Thanksgivings, I was fortunate enough to spend time with other expats. Often, somewhere between carving the turkey and seconds of cranberry sauce, someone would inevitably bring up what they are thankful for. I always enjoy this part of Thanksgiving because it’s cathartic. But this year, I am backpacking through China and will not have a proper Thanksgiving with all of the literal, and metaphorical, trimmings. So, instead, I decided to write down some of the small things that have made me happy while backpacking. Most of these things are small; but I believe their sum is bigger than the addition of their parts. So here are 37 things that backpacking has taught me to be grateful for: My sense of direction – when it works. Acts of kindness from strangers because without them, I would be lost. Literally. A good book for those long flights and days of travel. Fully charged devices so I don’t run out of juice while taking photos or posting to social media. An extra battery pack for when I do run out. Being fluent in the international travel language (English). Sorry French, German and Spanish! Trains because they are so much more convenient than planes. My ability to go multiple days without a shower. The ability for those around me to cope with me going multiple days without a shower. My ability to eat almost anything. Seriously, I’m like a goat. Local markets and all of their rich, exotic and tasty food. Remembering Immodium and Pepcid AC for after the local market. Leaving cold weather...

How to eat Scorpion in Beijing

In the heart of Beijing, off the side of one of its busiest streets, lies a peculiar market. It’s where tourists go to test the saying that the Chinese will eat anything with four legs and isn’t a table. Actually, the saying shouldn’t be restricted to only four legs, really anything that lives and breathes is a potential food for the Chinese. Flying lizards, beetles, grasshoppers, snakes, scorpions, organs of cow, pig and chicken – the Chinese are not restricted to one Phylum let alone one Class of food. I have my eye on a row of black scorpions. The street vendor notices immediately and begins his pitch. “Scorpion good. Taste like Chicken. You try. Come.” I am still a bit nervous from a run in twenty minutes earlier I had with a snake. It had a slimy, gelatinous texture and even the four scoops of chill sauce dumped on top couldn’t suppress an overtly reptilian taste; something like fish that had gone rotten. Part of the problem was that I couldn’t seem to locate any actual meat, just the scaly, translucent skin. I ate two bites and chucked it in the trash-bin. “Come, come. You try.” He diverts my attention away from the huge black scorpions, to the smaller, brownish variety. The scorpions are skewered on small wooden dowels and displayed in rows. The wiggles of tails and clamping of claws prove their freshness to connoisseurs of scorpion in Beijing, before they are unceremoniously fried. I am no connoisseur, just a tourist with a peaked interest. On my first day in China, I posted on Facebook that I was starting with...

Inside the Mountain that Eats Men: A Photo Tour of the Potosi mines

The deep thud of the blast ripples along the stone walls of the mineshaft. The walls are laced with moisture, the liquid appearing out of nowhere and everywhere. The explosion brings with it a light breeze and the earth shakes around me. It is hot, damp and hard to breathe 30 meters below the earth’s surface. The mask that I wear, made of a material similar to cardboard, is now more black than white. Only 45 minutes earlier our tour group had witnessed the placement of 10 sticks of dynamite. To maximize the explosion’s effectiveness, each stick was muzzle-loaded into its own two foot hole using a makeshift metal rammer. The men stuffing the holes are dinosaurs in the mine, close to 40 years old. The BBC reports that the average lifespan of the miners is 35. Nine more explosions sound off in rapid fire, like an underground 21 gun-salute. Then silence. The blast unearths the bounty of tin, zinc, magnesium and silver encased within the walls. The minerals are collected by the lowest laborers on the totem pole and hauled up to the surface in iron carts. When compared to the young faces pushing them, the carts seem positively ancient. History To history buffs and avid South American travellers, the Potosi mine or Cerro Rico “Rich Mountain” needs no introduction. Up until recently, I was neither, so taking a tour of the mine was an eye-opening experience. Potosi mine has been in operation since 1546, originally under the auspices of the Spanish crown. The silver rush exploded here and buoyed the rise of the Spanish state. Potosi city held the largest industrial...

Thank you Bolivia for Reminding me

“Travel far enough, you meet yourself.” David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas Thank you, Bolivia, for reminding me of who and what I am. I had forgotten. It’s been a slow process and I can’t pinpoint when it was that I started to forget. Maybe sometime during college, maybe even before. Perhaps during high school when I was trying to get over my lanky awkwardness. Perhaps it was later, when I was working at a multinational company, a small cog in a giant machine. And I don’t know why I forgot either. Maybe it was because I was too busy going to parties and having a good time during school. Maybe it was because, afterwards I was too obsessed with my career. Maybe, it’s simply because that’s what you are expected to do when you grow up. In any case, I forgot. Thank you, Bolivia, for reminding me that I like being outside. I forgot how good the sun feels in the early morning, right when the coolness of night is just a faint breath in the air, and the earth is starting to soak up the life-giving heat. Or the way the wind feels when it rushes past me as I ride a bike downhill, the wind whipping my cheeks and shouting in my ear something that only I can hear. Thank you, Bolivia for holding me in the dance of the earth. I remember the feeling. On your ground, I really looked at the stars. I used to do that when I was a kid – look up at them and take in all of the possibilities of what could be out there – contemplate how...