A [Brief] Return to the US of A

The only thing distracting me from the growing knot in my stomach was the overwhelming weight of exhaustion. In just a few days, I had traveled across the entirety of China by way of rail and road. On top of that, the tremendous allure of YunNan prevented me from allowing more than one day of rest – which I filled with a 9-mile hike – before boarding a plane crossing [part of] the Pacific. Good decision? Probably not. Worth it? Of Course.

Any normal person under these conditions would fall asleep immediately upon finding his or her assigned seat on the aircraft. In this way (and I suppose many others), I am not normal. Give me the bumpiest bus ride, and I will sleep; but put me on a plane, and my body refuses to shut down. While the former has ultimately been more useful as bus rides far outnumbered flights, the latter has caused much suffering on those select airborne journeys. My flight from Hong Kong to Honolulu was no different. Add my growing anxiety as we neared American soil, and you have quite the uncomfortable traveler.

I know I sound ridiculous right now. Dreading a landing in Hawaii? Who would ever?! But indeed, that was the state of my consciousness. This so-called paradise seemed to be racing towards me on the horizon, and I wanted to kick up my heels and run the other way. Lucky for me, this is frowned upon on an airplane, for great things were waiting on the runway.

In fact, I would be reuniting with my sister at the home of our family friends in Oahu – a wonderful chance to be with family and pseudo-family after such a foreign experience. And I was looking forward to it. But I was also afraid: afraid to leave Asia after six months immersion, afraid to return to American culture after nine plus months away, and afraid to begin a final chapter of my travels.

In the end, I slept through most of the feared transition. Almost immediately upon arrival at the airport, I could feel my body beginning to shut down. I finally succumbed to the wear and tear of travel – particularly over the past couple of weeks – made manifest in a chest cold. My first few days in Hawaii were mostly spent expending as little energy as possible. Soon enough, I recovered and was able to explore the island with my sister for some much needed catch-up time. Nine months is a long time apart, and I am so happy for the time we had together.

But there was still some shock to overcome and some adjustments to be made. Though Hawaii is pleasantly influenced by many Asian cultures, a big ole hunk of America remains. Grocery stores and prices were overwhelming; English was most exciting. I may have been overly friendly to strangers – it was just too dang exciting to be able to communicate again. For the not-so-exciting transitions, at least I was in “paradise.”

And at least I still have Colombia.

When China sealed my heart.

Never have I seen anything more beautiful.

The un-summited mountains rose out of the shadows, hinting at the fullness of their unfathomable heights. The morning sun kissed their virgin peaks, and the glaciers began to glisten. The full moon lingered above, stalling its descent, as if frozen by the newly revealed glory. I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes, pinching myself unbelievingly – even after three days of familiarity – at the breathtaking backdrop of the Meili Snow Mountains.

This mountain range serves as the border between Tibet and the Yunnan province of China. While I had fully intended to touch on the boundaries of this Chinese province – one prominently recognized by almost any backpacker entering the country for its natural beauty, [relatively] laid-back vibe, and introduction to minority cultures – I had never imagined to travel all the way across it. The impulsive decisions to go one city farther, and then one city farther, made the rewarding hikes, vistas and encounters all the sweeter.

It started in Kunming, the lovely and vibrant capital of the province. I instinctively knew I had entered a province more apt to win my favor. I immediately met fellow travelers – something that had previously been quite a rarity in China – and they began to seduce me with tales of their travels in Yunnan. As much as I enjoyed the city, known in China as the City of Eternal Spring, I was so enticed by the cities to come that I left the next day on a 7-hour bus ride for Dali, one of the most popular spots for solo travelers in China.

With mountains, a gorgeous lake, historic old town, and – most importantly – an utterly relaxing backpacker enclave, Dali was a quick favorite. I reveled in the abundant opportunities to meet fellow travelers, the opportunity for effective verbal communication – a welcome break from my everlasting game of charades. It was here that I met Magdalena, a Swiss solo adventurer who would become my travel buddy over the next couple of weeks.

After a few days in Dali, I headed to Lijiang – a city with a once-beautiful old town that has now been disgustingly overhauled by the worst of Chinese tourism – for the purpose of connecting to the Tiger Leaping Gorge two-day hike, which had been my primary incentive for coming to this region. I arrived in Lijiang at sunset… and was immediately ready to leave, utterly overwhelmed by the hoards of Chinese tourists. That night, Magdalena and I joined with six others travelers to arrange transport to the start of the hike for the next morning.

Conditions for the hike could not have been more perfect – just enough clouds in the sky to limit the heat of the sun, without dampening the effect of the snow peaks looming over the gorge on either side. Magdalena and I quickly outpaced the other travelers, and we found ourselves far ahead. With the exceptions of the few groups of Chinese tourists we overtook, who have a strange affinity for blaring Gangnam Style and other ridiculous “hits” while hiking, it was utterly serene, utterly awe-inspiring. The hike is most enjoyed by spending a night on the trail. We stayed at the Halfway House, where paying a few dollars for bed gets you a million dollar view from the rooftop terrace (as well as from the open air squat “toilets”).

It was here that Magdalena and I made our first “just one city farther” decision. After the hike, you can go back to Lijiang or continue to Shangri-La, a city renamed after the fictitious oasis described in the British novel Lost Horizon, which was supposedly inspired by this region. At the end of the hike, we hitched a ride in an incredibly rickety van pasted with a large American bald eagle to get to the main road. We most certainly inhaled various toxic fumes but were just happy the engine lived long enough to get us to there. From the main road, we hailed a minibus headed for Shangri-La.

The geography changed on the journey. We gained altitude, and things became drier. I watched the transition unfold through my window until the bumps of the bus lulled me to sleep. When I woke, we had arrived in the quiet Shangri-La – a place that provides one of the most authentic glimpses into Tibetan culture outside of Tibet, particularly with the large Songzanlin Monastery located just outside the city.

View from Songzanlin Monastery.

Magdalena and I both immediately liked the slow pace of the city – and the low number of tourists. After wandering the old town, we spent hours at the monastery, just observing the monks, reflecting, and soaking in views of the countryside. Gorgeous low mountains surrounded us, but we had both expected a bit more height based on the elevation of the region. And I think this was when we began to want more of this region. That night, we met five Israeli travelers who had just experienced the “more” we were after: Deqin.

Deqin is the last city/town accessible by bus before the Tibetan border, and it is there, as well as the journey there, that you can see the majestic monsters, the towering mountains reaching up to 6,740 m (22,100 feet). One flip through their photos, and I was sold, regardless of the fact that I was running out of time in China – and about as far away as I could be from my flight out of Hong Kong. These travelers had not only been to Deqin, but they had done the additional hike to Yubeng – a tiny Tibetan village at the foot of the mountains, accessible only by foot.

While intending to only go as far as Deqin, we were once again lured forward, and we found ourselves hiking to Yubeng with two young Italian guys we met on the bus. And boy was it worth it.

The mountains were untouched; the tiny village was perfectly picturesque; and the Tibetan culture was utterly fascinating. We spent a day hiking in, a day on hikes around the village, and a day hiking back. We marveled locals with our blonde hair, and we had entire conversations without speaking the same language. We hiked to a glacier and to a one-monk monastery. We reached 4,300 meters, my highest elevation as of yet, all in my Chaco sandals. It was wondrous. And I didn’t want to leave. Ever. But I had to. I had to start journeying towards Hong Kong. Two nights was definitely not enough, but it’s two more than nothing. And that’s great.

Back in Deqin, after the four-hike from the village, we failed to arrange same-day transport to Shangri-La as we had hoped. This would make the journey to Hong Kong all the more arduous for me, but this became irrelevant. For the next morning, Mother Nature would put on a show, in all her glory, and we would swear it was just for us.

A perfect sunrise
to end a perfect weekend
in perfect mountain bliss.

[Nevermind that two seconds later I nearly walked off a two-story drop, managing to peel my eyes from the mountains, at the last second, with one foot hovering over open air. FYI construction sites are not well marked in China.]