The Agony and the Ecstasy (thanks to Irving Stone for the title)

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October 23rd 2010
Published: October 23rd 2010
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For those who have never done the backpacker / travel-on-the-cheap thing, I have to tell you, it can be some seriously hard work at times. I mean, there really is an art to travelling as cheaply and close to the ground as possible. I was reminded of this recently when I caught an overnight train from Yichang (the end of the Yangtze River Cruise) to Zhiangjiajie. I caught the train at 1am and had to be up again at 4am to get off at my stop. When I walked out of the train station at 4:30am, absolutely everything was dead minus a few taxis and a local bus. I needed to catch a minibus from Zhiangjiajie City to Zhiangjiajie Village, and they didn't start running for another two and a half hours. Of course the first person to give me advice - a taxi driver - said there were no buses to the village and that I needed a taxi. Big surprise! When I showed the name of the village in my book to the cop next to him, he pointed at the bus right in front of us.

After about 10 minutes riding through town, the bus dropped us
The Dragon BoatThe Dragon BoatThe Dragon Boat

The name seems pretty obvious, but I have no idea how you get a ride on it.
all off on a very dark street full of minibuses. Now, in case you haven't picked this up yet, it's very hard to tell the difference between "Zhingjiajie City" and "Zhianjiajie Village" in Chinese characters, at least for someone who doesn't read them (I later found out that they refer to the village as "Forrest Park" in characters, so I really had no idea what I was looking for), so I marched up to the first minibus, pointed at my book, and shrugged my shoulders for a question mark. Fortunately, the driver understood and pointed at the minibus next to him. So I walked over and did the same to the next driver, and I got the same response with him pointing at the bus next to him. After five iterations, I came to the end of the line and the last driver pointed over his shoulder at a dark alley. When I looked in, I found that there were about 30 minibuses! With a little help, I found the right minibus, and had to wait in the dark (with a bunch of other people) for an hour for the driver to arrive.

Okay, so 6:30 rolls around, and we get on the road. Now, over the course of the next 1-hour ride, I really started to feel like I was "travelling" for the first time on this trip as our minibus turned into a school bus, a produce delivery truck, and an ambulance! At one point, the 18-seat bus had 20 adults, 15 kids (most in strangers laps) including one who was bleeding pretty badly from a deep cut, and about 12 baskets of vegetables. The produce baskets were nearly stacked to the roof! When we were just about to bursting, I looked out the window and saw a nice, air-conditioned tour bus roll by, and I realized that I was travelling with the locals who were stocking and supplying the National Park. Of course I absolutely loved it! I just thought it was funny to realize that I was travelling far more cheaply than the local tourists - which I feel is quite a feat!

So, anyways, the "agony" I was referring to was the long two days with only a few hours of sleep (I even climbed a 3000ft mountain on that second day before I actually got a good night's rest). In order to do this kind of travelling and see some amazing things, you really do have to take some punishment on the transportation front.

While I am on the topic, I thought it would be nice to run through a quick list of some of my favorite "now we are really traveling" moments:

- Standing on the back bumper of a pickup truck to get to La Barra, Mexico (w/ Amol)
- Riding in a boat past some cows on a flooded pasture in Costa Rica while headed for Tortugeuro National Park (w/ Jenn)
- Jumping from one Dolmush (Turkish minibus) to another to avoid the 18 inches of flood water that were running over the road in Fetiye, Turkey (w/ Jeff)
- Having a man carry a pig in a duffel bag onto a colectivo minibus in Huaraz, Peru.
- Having the pig in the duffel bad pitched onto the roof of the bus (w/ three other riders who were already there) because everyone inside complained about the smell.
- Standing on top of a moving bus in Uyuni, Bolivia while desperately to find my backpack.

Now back to my story. For the ecstasy part, that's easy. It
The DamThe DamThe Dam

Typical smog
comes when you get to settle in a place for a day or two and see some pretty amazing things. For example, in the park at Zhiangjiajie, I had an hour where I just sat and watched a large family of monkeys (more than 20) playing by the river. They were going nuts wrestling with and tackling each other. They even started doing cannonballs into the river! Seriously! At first I thought it was an accident and one of the monkeys missed a branch, but then he floated down stream and rode out a couple of rapids and then ran back 100 yards and did it again! And then four others followed suit. If I didn't know any better, I'd guess they'd stolen a bottle of banana schnapps off a passing tourist - they certainly take most other forms of food and drink (I was actually chased by one in a different part of the park).

Additional photos below
Photos: 26, Displayed: 25


Zhiangjiajie 4Zhiangjiajie 4
Zhiangjiajie 4

Okay, I know this place is famous for being the inspiration for the planet Pandora in Avatar, but I swear I felt more like I was in Jurassic Park. Every time the bushes moved I was on the lookout for a dinosaur!
Fenghuang 1Fenghuang 1
Fenghuang 1

This is the view from my dorm room - a little bit of that ecstasy I was refering to.
Fenghuang 5Fenghuang 5
Fenghuang 5

Here's why they say travellers should make sure their food is cooked thoroughly!

I had about severn different things off this cart, and I only knew what two of them were
The George Costanza Shower StallThe George Costanza Shower Stall
The George Costanza Shower Stall

For those who aren't familiar with squat toilets, here's the ultimate efficiency of a toilet and shower in 1!
I'm no Robert LangdonI'm no Robert Langdon
I'm no Robert Langdon

Okay, so my guess was that the big lion stepping on the small one was a symbol of the emperor's supreme power over his subject. Apparently I was way off because the sign said that it was a symbol of the maternal nature of protection. The symbol of the emperor's power is another lion that looks to be playing with a ball. Go figure!
I told you so!I told you so!
I told you so!

Just so you guys don't think I was lying in my earlier post, I figured I'd get a picture on my camera of some of the people who ask me to be in their pics. I'm probably averaging being in 6-7 photos a day, though the people usually aren't in costume like they are here.

23rd October 2010

Pretty spectacular photos. So jealous! Miss you.
25th October 2010

Jackie - Glad you're enjoying the blog. You have to hurry up and finish your thesis so you can do some travelling of your own :) And thanks for the Youtube link! I'll definitely check it out once I'm out of China (it's blocked yere).
25th October 2010

Hey Andy----a great entry! Your story about the monkeys was great along with your bus story. Yes, that does sound like the way that you like traveling with the locals. Also, great photos.
26th October 2010

Liz - Great to hear from you! How are you doing on sleep and how is the new and enlarged Latimer crew doing? You need to send out some new pics. As for your friends, their plans line up perfectly with mine. I'm planning to get to Phnom Penn right around Christmas and spend the next three weeks there in Cambodia (w/ my girlfriend if she can get the time off). If they are game, I'd love to meet up with them. Who know's, we may even be heading for some of the same sights (abvously Ankor Wat).
27th October 2010

So what do you think about the squat toilets and have you experienced Japanese toilets??
28th October 2010

No experience with Japanes toilets yet. The squat ones are okay so long as they aren't TOO dirty :-/
28th October 2010

You are a magnet for funny stories:)
Seriously Andy, I only have one other friend who has more weird stuff happen to them! I've been relaying your stories to Brad and Brian here at the Embassy. But the pictures are great, keep them coming. And glad to hear you are taking time just to relax and enjoy your surroundings! I have to say, after reading your previous comment about how cheaply you can travel around in China I'm pretty tempted to book a trip! Stay safe in those crazy dark alleys full of minibuses:-)
29th October 2010

Hopefully the stories get even better once I'm finally into the swing of writing again. I'm still a bit rusty. And regarding the trip, you should definitely book a ticket! Anywhere in southeast Asia should be awesome. And Brian can give you tips!

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