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All You Need is Love

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While it is considered the yoga capital of the world, Rishikesh may be best known as the home of the ashram where the Beatles (and other celebrities) spent some time in 1960s and where they wrote much of their White Album. Though it is now-abandoned, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram is still accessible to visitors, if you know how to get there.

Aside from being diligent little yogis-in-training, many of my classmates were also quite musical, so of course had to check this place out! (and even if you’re not musical, who seriously doesn’t like the Beatles?).

With vague instructions and water bottles, six of us headed out to an isolated forested area outside the main village of Laxman Jhula in Rishikesh, eventually stumbling upon the gates of a tall stone structure marked by three pointed domes covered in individual stones. Though the ashram is abandoned, the park authorities who own the grounds still charge 50 rupees (about a dollar) to enter the place, though once there you’re pretty much on your own.

Beatles Ashram 1

We entered through the gate to find a mostly forested area of lush green trees, spotted with crumbling stone dorms and lecture halls that were slowly being reclaimed by the forest around it. Despite a handful of other travelers, there weren’t many people at the ashram and we basically had the place to ourselves. Every now and then, a random Hindu statue of a bull or yoni/lingham illustrated the grounds were once a place of spirituality and religion, though there were no other markings to confirm where exactly we were or what we were looking at.

Beatles Ashram 2

Perhaps the most interesting part of the ashram was discovering the vibrant Beatles Cathedral Gallery, the only evidence we found on the grounds recognizing the ashram’s spiritual and musical influence on the world.

Located in an abandoned hall within the grounds, the Beatles Cathedral Gallery is a colorful open space full of images of love and peace. On one side, a series of spiritual leaders crossed the wall horizontally, painted in shades of black, white and red, including images of the Dalai Llama, Sri Prem Baba, Ananda Mayi Ma, Amma, Yogananda and Swami Sivananda, with an image of the Beatles dominating in the center. Directly across in the front of the room was another mural, this time, featuring an image of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi painted in black, white and red like the others, but positioned by himself on a blue background underneath an om symbol. Two large circles, one white, one black with opposite facing triangles, were painted next to the Maharishi, with images of wind-like trails flowing from either side.

Beatles Cathedral Gallery

A painted note on one of the side walls described the aim of the gallery as follows:

Our story is one of transformation. Together we witnessed the force of alchemy as this abandoned, sacred place regained its roots. Our story illustrates the lila between surrender and rebellion. This work is entirely illegal and entirely holy. Our story is one of growth. In this hall, one artist became an art director. Within these walls, one group of backpackers became first a community, then a sangha. We are painters, musicians, writers, sculptors, daughters, sons, lovers, bhaktas, rebels, renegades, strangers, yogis and friends. This is our gallery. This is our cathedral. This is our home. This is our satsang hall. This is our story. You are part of it now.

Thank you to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Thank you to the Beatles. Thank you to Pan Trinity Das. Thank you to our gurus. Thank you to the birds. Thank you to the sadhus. Thank you to this place.

May all be welcome here. May you love, may you create, may you inspire. May all beings in all realms be happy and free.

Shanti.

From what I read later, the projected was apparently created by a group of volunteers in April of 2012 but closed down by park authorities only two weeks later. When I was there, it still served as a popular destination and was full of graffiti of words of love and peace from visitors from around the world.

Ever devout yoga students, my friends and I took advantage of Rishikesh’s yoga/musical connection and took a series of fun photos documenting the experience:

Beatles Cathedral Gallery - Yoga 1

Beatles Cathedral Gallery - Yoga 2

Inspired by the musical energy, we then relocated to the top of another building inside one of its rooftop cells for an impromptu sing-a-long and chanting session, taking advantage of the ashram’s spiritual energy and acoustics.

As cheesy as it sounds, singing on top of the Beatles ashram in the middle of the forest with friends was a pretty magical experience and definitely one of the coolest moments of my time in Rishikesh. Here’s a slideshow of some additional photos of the Beatles ashram below.

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Yoga School

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If you’ve ever met me, you probably know I’m a little bit nuts.

To describe me as “Type A” would be an understatement, and sometimes I’m amazed how my anxiety seemingly knows no bounds.

When I started yoga shortly after moving to Malaysia in 2010, it was a means for exercise and a productive way to fill some free time in a new country. Then, when I started my India trip a year later, it became a “when in Rome” activity to experience this ancient tradition in its native land. But as I made my way through India, taking different yoga classes, visiting temples, witnessing pujas, studying meditation and philosophy, I began to see a bigger picture. Yoga and meditation became more than a means to physical fitness but a means to mental fitness as well and a desperately sought solution to achieve some calm in my life. I resolved that I would end my trip with a stay in a yoga ashram and see what would happen.

At the end of 2011, I found myself at the Sivananda Yoga Ashram. While I was only there for five days, it was everything I expected and more. The setting was lush and isolated, and the holistic discipline of limited vegetarian meals, meditation and minimal sleep in addition to four hours of daily asana (pose) practice left me feeling mentally and physically stronger than I’d felt in a long time. I knew then that I had to return a do a month-long teacher training program to explore this further.

Unfortunately, my single-entry, three-month visa was almost out, and India’s strict visa regulations required that I wait two months before returning to the country. But I was determined and vowed to travel around Asia for a few months and return later in the year.

I finally returned to India in July 2012, though this time to the Association for Yoga and Meditation in Rishikesh, a city considered to be the yoga capital of the world, with a course with good reviews that was a better fit for my (now much smaller) budget. This would be my last adventure before my big trip home, and I thought it would be a great way to end my Asia experience.

I wish I could say my month in Rishikesh was full of peace, love and butterflies amidst days of handstands, backbends and perfect splits but that was, in fact, far from reality.

As usual, I had set very “realistic” goals for myself.

Yes, I had only been doing yoga for less than two years. Yes, I had been a bit lazy in my yoga practice the past few months. Yes, my arms were about as strong as spaghetti noodles. But, damn it, I was going to walk out of this 200-hour yoga teacher training course as a yoga master, complete with perfect splits, headstands and a gumby-like back to compete with any contortionist. Not only that, my newfound meditation and concentration skills would make me one zen, totally-enlightened bad ass. THIS WAS GOING TO HAPPEN.

"I totally look the part!"

Yoga School Day One: “I totally look the part!”

Well, clearly, that plan didn’t quite work out as I wanted it to. Though our teacher, Mahesh, had warned us not to overdo things early on, my ego and ambition led me to systematically overstretch every single group of muscles in my body on a rotating weekly basis. First, it was my shoulders, then my hamstrings, then my back and so on and so on. There were seriously weeks where it seemed half my asana classes were spent in child’s pose, resting the damaged muscles du jour.

Additionally, I found it emotionally very taxing. Perhaps it was failing the high expectations I had set for myself. Perhaps it was the growing anxiety about returning home after more than two years overseas. Perhaps it was being forced to look inward and examine my thoughts during daily breathing and meditation courses. Whatever the case, I was not the zen little nun I had sought out to be.

If yoga is meant to humble you in the face of a greater power, I certainly got that part down.

Luckily, you don’t have to be a perfect yogi in order to teach yoga, you just have to finish your course. While my asanas and meditation skills were not progressing as fast as I would have liked them to, my knowledge of the practice deepened significantly. In addition to the poses and meditation, we studied breathing (“pranayama”), yogic cleansing techniques (“kriyas”), philosophy, teaching and more. While I might not have been able to stand on my head, I did learn how to teach someone else to do it as well as why they should do it and how to do it safely. I also learned a whole lot of crazy cleansing and breathing techniques, and at one point, was able to hold my breath for a minute and a half.

By the end of the month, I was nowhere near my earlier goals, but I was much improved and actually did get my splits back :). What I came to understand that month was yoga is not a destination but a journey that takes a lifetime. Philosophically, it’s a journey to God. On a more practical level, it’s a tool for mental and physical discipline that can bring you great joy and peace in life.

While I’m still a little bit nuts, I think I covered good ground that month and plan to help others on their own journeys as I continue along mine.

Certified yoga instructor. Boom!

Certified yoga instructor. Boom!

My next few posts will showcase some of the more entertaining/special moments during my course. Below are some fun photos of my progress during my yoga teacher training course.

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Almost Tibet

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Almost Tibet

Tagong 1

As I prepared for the last leg of my trip through China and India, I came up with a plan that would enable me to travel throughout China and reach my final destination in northern India, without having to fly.

After traveling counterclockwise around China, I would continue west through Tibet then south to Nepal before reaching Rishikesh in northern India where my yoga course awaited me. Not only would I get through China and India, but I would add two entirely new and exotic places to my trip, all for what I estimated to be the same, if not cheaper, cost of flying. Brilliant!

Nepal had grown as a leading destination of interest after hearing universally rave reviews from fellow travelers. But Tibet, China’s isolated and controversial land in the west, had also risen to prominence after the sheer amount of excitement and curiosity I found in other travelers who also discussed the journey. Tibet, however, like Myanmar, also brought a whole new level of travel concerns.

An ancient land that had undergone centuries of various autonomous and non-autonomous rule, Tibet declared its independence in 1912 after the fall of the Chinese Qing dynasty. In the 1950s, Communist China invaded Tibet in an attempt to reclaim control of the land. Technically, the Dalai Lama, leader of the Tibetan Buddhism and the former political leader of the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala, India, supports a “middle-way” approach of Tibet being a part of China with a high degree of autonomy, but the issue remains controversial. The Chinese say they are developing the isolated land and saving its people from an oppressive feudal system, while those in support of a free Tibet accuse the Chinese of violating human rights, destroying Tibetan culture and forcing Tibetans to assimilate to the Chinese way of life. The conflict has led to numerous protests both inside and outside of Tibet and restricted access to the land by outsiders, despite growing interest by tourists.

Of course, a mere few weeks before my estimated departure, my brilliant plans were shattered. Protests in Tibet, including several monks setting themselves on fire, caused the Chinese to tighten travel restrictions, eventually prohibiting all tourists from entering the region altogether.

Anyone planning to travel to Tibet knows the borders open and close on regular, and often unpredictable, basis. But as I waited around Chengdu, hoping for a last-minute change, I found myself defeated. Tibet was not going to happen. Not this time.

But I still had more than a week left on my Chinese visa, and I was determined to make the most of it. After discussing alternatives with some fellow travelers, I heard about a small, mostly Tibetan village in Western China called Tagong. Located about 270 miles west of Chengdu, one of China’s last major cities before reaching Tibet, Tagong is a tiny village full of mostly Tibetan inhabitants that would offer a glimpse into the isolated lifestyle that was proving so difficult to experience.

After weeks of massive, crowded Chinese mega-cities, I was ready for a change. So I packed up my bags, bought a bus ticket and headed off.

The first step to reaching Tagong was Kangding, a Chinese city up in the mountains that serves as a jumping off point for many who plan to continue traveling west. The eight-hour bus ride to reach Kangding from Leshan/Chengdu is stunning, albeit, a bit scary at times. Rocky cliffs covered with dense green trees and shrubs surrounded us, topped with hovering mists that let us know we were high enough to enter cloud territory.

Kangding

Kangding

When we finally reached Kangding, I was pleasantly surprised to find the city quite charming. Tall green mountains surrounded the neat city streets, full of a combination of Chinese and Tibetan shops. But Kangding offered another surprise for me: it was cold.

I know I’m from Michigan, land of seemingly eternal winters, but I was not prepared for this. After nearly two years of hot weather, including 14 months in Malaysia which is practically located on the equator, this was quite a shock for me. To top it off, it was raining and nothing is as much fun as being cold except for being wet and cold.

So I put on my jeans, my sole long-sleeved shirt, my broken-zippered hoodie and each of the three pairs of almost-never-used socks I brought and hoped they’d be enough. And I set out to find a ride to Tagong.

Luckily I had made a travel buddy in the process. Daniel was from Germany, and after already having spent several days in Kangding, was ready to head to Tagong. So we hailed a share taxi and found ourselves crammed in the backseat of a minibus with two older Tibetan ladies and a Tibetan man. And it was one of the coldest, most dramatic bus rides I had ever been on.

Apparently old Tibetan ladies don’t get out much, at least not in cars, because these women were extremely prone to motion sickness. At an hour and a half, the ride wasn’t really that long, and though we were up in the mountains, it wasn’t that winding either. But for some reason these women insisted on keeping the windows down in the car, despite the fact it was about 40 degrees outside and raining. Daniel was kind enough to share his blanket with me, but even that wasn’t enough and we remained shivering in the back seat. And though we repeatedly asked the driver to talk to the ladies about closing the windows, they were apparently very adamant about not doing so, at one point even opening the windows all the way so it was a complete wind ambush in the back. Meanwhile, the ladies, with their rosy cheeks, braided hair and colorful Tibetan clothing, lay prostrate on the middle seat, like some Victorian English woman in the midst of a fainting spell. If I wasn’t so cold, I would have been very amused.

Once we arrived in Tagong, I was surprised and charmed at how quaint the town was. With a population of only 8,000 people, it was definitely the least populated city I had visited in China, and with an altitude of more than 12,000 feet, it was also the highest point I’d ever reached on land in my entire life.

Main street Tagong

Main street Tagong

Daniel and I opted to stay at Iya Drolma and Gayla’s Guesthouse, a cheap yet delightfully colorful and charming place listed in our guidebook. The only problem was, despite the high altitude and cold temperatures, there was no heat in our building. In fact, there was no heat in any of the buildings.

Trying to warm up at my guest house

Trying to warm up at my guest house


After settling in and enjoying a delightful warm foot bath, Daniel and I set out to eat and soon discovered the Khampa Café and Art Center, a cozy backpacker haven nearby that would become our second home during the next few days. Full of comfy couches, puzzles, books and a delightful combination of Western and Tibetan food, Khampa Café was the place to go to kill time between adventures or just relax and adjust to the altitude. After months of traveling, I was quite happy to bum around and do nothing for awhile.

I’m not going to lie, a significant chunk of my five days in Tagong were spent curled up in a blanket, chatting with other travelers, playing with the kittens, reading about Nepal and just hanging out at the café. And it was delightful.

But so was the town itself. Only a few blocks long, the town contained a few small restaurants, some generic clothing and hardware stores and several, redundant Tibetan scarf and jewelry shops geared at tourists. With my mad traveler shopping skills, I browsed several of the souvenir stores looking for the best deals for gifts to take home. I finally settled on a small shop owned by a young, friendly Tibetan man who, with his limited English, had given me the best prices. I happily purchased three scarves and five bracelets. It wasn’t until he had finished ringing up my scarves that he asked me to sleep with him, making very clear hand gestures of what he hoped would happen. Needless to say, I quickly left the store. And then found out I’d paid about four times what the scarves were worth. Awesome.

The real charm to Tagong, however, was not its town or necessarily even its monasteries: it was its grasslands. I had never seen anything like it before. Surrounding this tiny village on all sides were seemingly endless miles of rich, hilly green land with barely a handful of trees to break up the sea of grass. Every now and then a herd of yaks would graze, prodded along by a couple Tibetan men on horses. It was stunning.

Tagong Grasslands

Tagong Grasslands

I figured the best way to experience the land was on horseback and signed up for a day-long horseback ride with two other girls. Unfortunately, it had decided to rain the day of the trip, and I found myself, once again, piling on every layer of clothing I had to stay warm. The morning was brutal. My gloves, feet and most of my pants were soaked within the first 30 minutes, and I had no idea how I would last the day. The best part came around noon, when we got to have lunch in the tent of a Tibetan nomadic family.

As we entered the tent, the girls and I were quickly welcomed by the older Tibetan lady, her daughter and her young grandson and we crowded around the fire to warm up. Like many Tibetan people, the family were yak herders and moved their tent around the grasslands to coincide with the care of their yaks.

Life was simple. A kettle heated up over a small fire, while piles of blankets, clothing, buckets and food supplies were strewn around the surrounding grass. Though we could not verbally communicate with each other, the family was extremely hospitable. We enjoyed a basic lunch of Tibetan staples: bread, yogurt and raisins, Tibetan butter tea and tsampa, a not-so-flavorful soup of barley, yak butter and boiling water. Not so different than tsampa, Tibetan butter tea is a savory tea made of yak butter melted into a pot of tea and yak milk. While many Westerners don’t care for the taste, I thought it tasted like liquid brie, and I loved it. Apparently the heavy, salty tea and soup provide great nutrients for life in the cold, windy temperatures of the high altitude, and I’ve read that Tibetans can consume up to 40 cups of yak butter tea a day!

Our hosts

Our hosts

As we left the warm comfort of the nomad tent, we were rudely jolted back to our earlier mission of exploring the grasslands. It was even colder now and the rain had picked up, and we still had six hours to go! With our feet numb, clothing soaked and eyes half shut against the rain, we asked our guide if we could just head back. It was far too miserable to enjoy the grasslands. But we had gone too far and the only way back was to follow the original plan, so on we rode trying our best to remind ourselves we were on the adventure of a lifetime.

Thankfully for us, the weather gods showed us some mercy around mid-afternoon. Though it never got warm, the rain stopped, the sun came out and we found ourselves surrounded by nothing but sprawling green hills and grasslands. At that point, I think we were all glad to have stuck around.

But my happiness was short-lived. Apparently, the nice weather had energized my horse as well, who then decided to go for a vigorous run by himself. Now, I enjoy horses and prior to China, I had ridden them several times throughout my life, though rarely going more than a short trot or canter. While my heart raced with excitement to test my horsewoman skills, this horse had a mind of its own. My attempts to lean back on the reigned paired with “whoa” (I knew nothing else to say) only caused the horse to pause before taking off again even faster. When we approached a rocky area, I was reminded of Asia’s relaxed helmet policy and started to scream.

Our guide was not happy about this. Though he could barely speak English, I quickly understood that I was not supposed to scream at the horses. So things calmed down and we tried again. Sure enough, a few minutes later my horse decided, yet again, he needed to go for a run, and I found myself once more clinging on for dear life and screaming.

Me and my misbehaving horse

Me and my misbehaving horse

Now my guide was angry, but so was I, and I managed to communicate to him that he needed to get this situation under control. Luckily, we had come across one of his buddies who was herding yaks, and I found myself on a horse “leash,” with the yak herder holding on to my reins in addition to his. This ended up being amazingly fun.

Though my wings were clipped, I got to trot along with the yak herder as he did his job. When a few of the yaks strayed, I chased after them with the yak herder to get them back with the group. When they got distracted or slowed down, I found myself whistling along with my new guide to get their attention. While I was merely the tag-along, I felt like I, too, was herding yaks. And it was super bad ass.

By the time we made it back we were cold and exhausted yet exhilarated by the amazing adventure we’d had. I ended up paying for that adventure with a nasty cold over the next few days. But as I headed to the Chengdu airport – indeed, to fly to Nepal – I was grateful that, after weeks of experiencing the “mainstream” Chinese mega cities, I had found a little patch of rural China and experienced a little bit of Tibetan culture. Even if it was, only, almost Tibet.

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The Big Ka-Buddha!

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Giant Buddha

A few years ago I was sitting at a café, when I randomly spotted an image of an enormous Buddha in a travel magazine. I had never seen an image like this before, and I was immediately intrigued. I knew one day I had to see this thing.

I remember glancing at the fine print and reading the Buddha was located in China, but I had never heard of the city before and soon forgot the name. Years later, when I was finally making plans to go to China, I knew I had to find this place. Lucky for me, Leshan, home of officially the world’s largest Buddha, was not too hard to find, and in fact was an easy day trip from Chengdu in Sichuan.

Carved into a cliff face, the Buddha is 233 feet tall, with shoulders 92 feet wide, and toes that are nearly 30 feet long, each! It was constructed between 713-803AD under the instruction of a monk who thought the Buddha’s presence would calm the tempestuous rivers that plagued the shipping vessels that went by. Interestingly enough, the sheer amount of rock that went into the water as a result of the sculpture altered the currents and indeed had a calming effect on the river.

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My trip to the Buddha was lovely, though not quite what I expected. What I didn’t realize was that the giant Buddha is part of an entire Buddhist complex, complete with numerous temples and parks to walk around. What I also didn’t realize is the main part of the complex is level with the Buddha’s enormous head, providing an interesting and relatively close perspective to see just how huge his features are, as well as a bit of a surprise when you enter the grounds. But to see the big picture, you have to line up with the seemingly millions of Chinese people to make the long, slow, crowded descent to the bottom. Luckily, there are enough viewing spots along the way to allow you a good long view of this wonder, which really is pretty amazing. Once at the bottom, you can linger a little (not too long) to take even more photos, before exiting and making the long ascent back to the top.

As a city, Leshan was pleasant enough, but the sweltering temperatures made daytime wandering highly undesirable. I only expected to spend one day there, but since the lone daily bus to reach my next destination in Kanding was booked, I had to spend an extra day. So what to do? See the Buddha again, of course, this time from water :). In addition to (or instead of) battling the crowds on the temple grounds, you can take a pleasant 30-minute boat ride along the side of the cliff instead. Though you don’t get nearly as close to the sculpture or spend as much time viewing it as if you were on the grounds, the boat ride is really relaxing and provides a bigger, more-distant perspective and enables you to see the two flanking sculptures that aren’t visible on land.

Below is a short video of this amazing and striking sculpture and definitely one of the coolest Buddha’s I’ve ever seen.

An Army of Terracotta

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I find the pottery sections of history museums incredibly frustrating. As much as I strive to be “cultured,” the drone of staring at one red pot after another creates a kind of tedium in me that knows no limits. This plus a healthy dose of guilt at my inability to truly appreciate the importance of these gems from the earliest stages of humanity leaves me always wanting to pass through quickly and move on. But, of course, my quest for knowledge and appreciation leads me to return to these museums again and again, though often to no new result.

Though I had specifically included a visit to Xi’an to see the famed Terracotta Warriors in China, my expectations for my appreciation for them were pretty low. As I read further about the warriors before my visit, I tried to fully grasp their importance.

Discovered by farmers in the 1970s, the Terracotta Warriors are a massive collection of life-sized pottery soldiers found buried around the tomb of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, dating from around 210 BC. The soldiers were thought to protect him even after his death. The true significance of the warriors comes not just from the fact that there a ridiculously huge amount of them (more than 8,000!), but that each warrior has his own set of distinct facial features, clothing and identity, all painstakingly detailed, down to the ridges on the bottom of their shoes. Additionally, hundreds of other sculptures, including acrobats and musicians, were found within the tomb, as well as horses, dogs, pigs, cows and other animals, presumably to provide entertainment and food for the emperor in the afterlife.

Knowing this information, I still didn’t have high expectations. In fact, more than being impressed with the warriors, I figured I’d also have an extra-large helping of guilt for not enjoying them all that much. I really did not expect to be COMPLETELY BLOWN AWAY.

I made the trip with my two new Iowan friends (and train travel buddies), Kaleb and Wade, who I’d met in Beijing. The three of us hired a guide and followed the masses to Excavation Site 1, the first and largest of three sites open to the public. I gotta say, there’s something about seeing these pottery soldiers close-up, buried in the original ground they were discovered in that no museum can hold a candle to.

The largest and most impressive of the sites, there were more than 6,000 terracotta figures found in Excavation Site 1 alone! It was only when I actually saw the sheer number of clay soldiers standing attentive, staring back at me did I truly grasp their significance. All I can say is wow.

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Though smaller, Excavation Sites 2 and 3 were also nice, and featured more individually displayed warriors and details about the tomb. Site 2 featured four specific types of warriors, including soldier, general, army chief and a kneeling archer. It also showcased some of the warriors’ finer details, like the groves in their boots. Site 3, the army line closest to the emperor’s actual tomb, contained the highest rank of soldiers, situated differently than the other two sites.

What’s fascinating is that the excavation work is far from finished. In fact, the tomb of the emperor himself has yet to be touched and is supposed to contain the “real” treasure. The tomb, however, is apparently protected by a moat of lethal gases which would take years of planning and advanced technology to unearth safely.

Perhaps when that happens, I’ll have to make another trip to China :).

The Great Wall

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It seems so cliché to go to China and visit the Great Wall, but like the Taj Mahal, it’s one of those things that you just have to see if you have the chance.

With most of these kinds of sights, I always expect it to look just like the pictures, plus a million annoying tourists. But, I gotta say, seeing the Great Wall in person is so much better!

There are lots of places, especially around Beijing, to see the wall, but I opted to join a tour at the Beijing Downtown Backpackers Hostel that does a 6km hike on the wall between the cities of Jinshanling and Simatai.

It was perfect.

I have heard a lot of stories about overly touristy Great Wall destinations like Badaling or Mutianyu, where everywhere you look people are trying to sell you t-shirts and drinks. But on this hike, there were about 20 of us on our tour and only a handful of others that we encountered the entire afternoon.

We could not have asked for a better day. Above us, the sun was shining, with only a few clouds creating a perfect 70-something temperature for a hike. All around were absolutely stunning views of lush greenery and mountains. I had no idea the Great Wall of China would be this pretty!

My visit to the Great Wall was definitely one of my absolute favorite experiences of all of China and maybe of my entire trip. I hope you enjoy the photos!

Great Wall

Great Wall 2

Great Wall 3

Great Wall 4

Great Wall 5

Great Wall 6

Great Wall 7

Great Wall 8

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Breathtaking Bagan

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There are a few times in life when everything just seems to come together to create a truly incredible experience. For me, that was Bagan.

Situated in Western Myanmar, Bagan is THE destination to visit in Myanmar and definitely a highlight of all Southeast Asia. While itself just a small town, Bagan is famous for having possibly the world’s most concentrated collection of temples, pagodas and stupas, most dating from the 11th- 13th centuries. In fact, more than 2,500 temples are scattered among a 13 by 8 km area, leaving endless opportunities for exploration.

While in itself Bagan is a spectacular destination, what really made the experience incredible were the people. For this trip, I was able to meet up with my former India travel buddies, Gloria and Sirisha, as well as a few new friends, Waldo, James and Tom. Together, the six of us spent an incredible three days, cycling around the temples, arguing over what time to get up for sunrise, getting lost and, eventually, cycling back together, four out of six bikes with flat tires (a special thank you to Waldo for cycling back with me in the back seat WHILE carrying my bike when both my tires went flat!). There were also plenty of fun non-temple moments, watching movies, cutting up “80s” t-shirts, and making a strange pact to volunteer to dig up dinosaur bones in Utah with the paleontologists we met at breakfast…

At the end of the day, Bagan is much better seen than described, and below I have the best pictures of the temples, and fun, of Bagan.

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Bridge Over Troubled Water

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Bridge Over Troubled Water

A close friend of mine always says no matter how stressed out I get, things always have a tendency to work out for me. Sometimes I think he’s right.

After having spent an incredible few days in Kyaukme, a small Shan town in northern Myanmar, I headed to Mandalay to meet up with some friends. As Myanmar’s second largest city, Mandalay is noisy, dirty and, frankly, one of my least favorite places in Myanmar. It’s real draw, however, are the ancient cities surrounding it, especially Sagaing, Inwa and Amarapura, home of U Bein’s Bridge, the world’s longest teak bridge.

My friends James and Tom and I decided to share a taxi for the day and hit all three cities together, ending with a spectacular sunset viewing off the bridge.

We hiked up the endless stairs of Sagaing Hill and viewed the stunning interconnected monasteries below. Then we took a boat and headed to Inwa, my favorite, where we took a horse-drawn carriage past endless sunflower fields to view the town’s ancient temples. Unfortunately, as I stood poised to capture a particularly beautiful temple, I heard my camera beep and watched my lens sink back to the base in exhaustion. I had forgotten to charge my battery the night before.

Inwa

Inwa

While I kicked myself for my mistake, James and Tom graciously shared their cameras with me, allowing me to use my memory card so I could take my own pictures. Though it wasn’t a super easy situation, I thought it was a pretty neat trick.

After a busy day climbing steps and walking around villages, our exhausted bodies were ready for a relaxing evening in Amarapura where we could enjoy a peaceful sunset off the bridge.

“Peaceful” ended up being the least accurate word I could use to describe that evening.

Upon arrival in Amarapura, James and Tom headed off to travel the length of the bridge, while I decided to grab a snack before sunset. As I sat down to a steaming plate of deep fried corn (snack options were limited), I met Marcus, a solo traveler from Toronto and struck up a conversation.

When sunset approached, Marcus and I headed for the bridge together, making our way down the 1.2 km bridge to join the hundreds of other tourists who had also come to watch the sunset. I had told Marcus about my camera battery situation, and he generously offered to share his photos with me via email later on.

U Bein's Bridge

U Bein's Bridge, the world's longest teak bridge

But as I looked around at the boats, the people, the water and the sinking sun, I didn’t want someone else’s pictures. I wanted my own. So I asked Marcus if he would mind if I borrowed his camera for a few minutes just to take some photos with my own memory card, and he agreed.

Despite the fact we were standing over a wooden bridge amidst a moving crowd, neither one of us thought perhaps exchanging 32mm x 24mm memory cards might be a bad idea. And sure enough, the second I removed the card from the camera a man bumped into me, and it dropped from my fingers.

As I watched the card slip through the wood cracks, I saw every single non-backed up memory of my incredible experiences in Kyaukme and the Shan villages slip away into the green waters below. Unlike all of my other Myanmar adventures, my trip to the north had been solo.

I’m pretty sure my heart stopped for a full minute, which is especially bad when the whole scene appeared to be in slow motion.

In my shock, I turned to Marcus for confirmation that this horrible stupid thing did happen.

“Did you see that? That old man bumped into me. It’s gone now, right? Like, I can’t get it back, right?”

As he stared back at me, equally shocked, my heart sank. My card, though in itself was relatively worthless, contained all the evidence I had of my experience in Kyaukme. And it was a goner.

I stood there, eyes popped in disbelief when suddenly, a beacon of hope: a monk.

“Excuse me, Miss, I help you?”

The monk had seen everything, and though his English was limited, told me the water below was relatively shallow, and I might be able to fish the card out.

I jumped up excitedly, “Yes, yes!”

As I looked around for the best way to get down, I heard the monk speak to a local boatman below about the situation, and he too agreed to help.

I instantly went into super focus mode. By the look of the sun, I had about 15 minutes left until sundown, when all would be lost. Even if the card was retrievable, this was a race against the clock.

I immediately shot off, gaining an incredible second wind that allowed me to dodge people, leap over obstacles and round off back handspring back to land (more or less ;)). Once there, I realized how far along the bridge I had been and began the awkward walk through the dried plants back in the direction I’d come from to find the closest place from which to wade.

When I finally reached the location (luckily Marcus had stayed to mark the place where I had dropped the card), I was relieved to find the boatman was already in the water scooping with his fingers in the muck below.

As much as I’d like to say I jumped right out there and joined him, I must admit, I had a moment of princess, er, I mean panic… That water looked nasty, and I began to wonder about diseases, infection and any unwanted surprises in general. But I couldn’t let a random stranger remedy my bad judgment without me, so I hiked up my pants, dropped off my purse (my protective traveler instinct wondering if my bag was safe on shore) and waded in.

I kept my memory card in focus while I walked through the unnaturally green, toxic-looking lake. As I sunk my hands into the mud below, pulling up mostly shells, I gritted my teeth and prayed these would be the worst of my findings.

But as my friend predicted, just a few minutes later, my luck returned. The boatman had succeeded and stood, holding out my tiny blue card for me to retrieve.

Memory Card Saved

Memory Card Saved!

I don’t know if I was more elated to have found the card or shocked that we had actually managed to rescue it. All I know is I began jumping up and down and threw my arms around the boatman in a big, awkward thank you hug, which was quickly rescinded seeing his discomfort (cultural barriers, whoops :/).

Memory Card Rescuers

Me and My Heroes!

When asked what they would save if their house was on fire, people almost always say they’d grab their photo albums. I suppose memory cards, hard drives and CDs are our modern day equivalent, and it’s not until these things are in jeopardy that we realize just how precious they are.

I think now, I’m always going to back up ;).

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Off the Beaten Track

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Off the Beaten Track

I had barely awoken from a nap when two energetic young adults jumped into my carriage and asked if they could practice English with me.

In my groggy state, my immediate reaction was to avoid aggressive, young Asians, who usually had an ulterior motive or sale up their sleeves. But then I remembered I was in Myanmar, a gentle country, largely isolated from much of the world, and relaxed.

“Ok,” I replied.

I looked around and realized, despite having already traveled six and a half hours by train from Pyin U Lwin, we were only in Kyaukme, a small town still 20 miles away from Hsipaw, my final destination. I recognized the town from my guidebook, an alternative jumping off point to go trekking in the Shan state, which it had described as “far off the beaten track.” While this had initially interested me, the nice lady at the travel agency in Mandalay had quickly dismissed the idea, saying there was nothing to do at Kyaukme, and Hsipaw was the far better option.

To be fair, I had never really wanted to go trekking to begin with. But I had three days to kill before meeting up with my friends in Mandalay, and after months of playing it safe, I thought it might be a good idea to push my travel limits a little bit and try a destination less well-known.

As I began to chat, I remembered to speak slowly as we covered the basics: Where are you from? What is your name? What do you do?

The two, a 20-year-old boy and a 19-year-old girl, were students at one of the town’s English schools. Every night, they joined a handful of others in the small schoolhouse to learn English with one of the town’s few English speakers, other locals like themselves who’d taken great pains to learn English on their own. Not native English speakers themselves, the teachers encouraged the students to talk with Western visitors during the 30-minute train stop on the way to Hsipaw.

As the conversation continued, another teenager joined our group, and I immediately noticed his English was much more advanced than his peers. John was a university student studying English who worked part time as a tour and trekking guide to the few tourists who make it to Kyaukme. From the off-handedness of the information, I knew he wasn’t trying to sell me anything, yet there was something about him and this small town that interested me more. Small, soft-spoken with carefully-placed “messy” black hair, John looked younger than his 19 years. But his direct, yet polite, demeanor revealed a young man with big plans for himself. I pulled out my guidebook as we continued to chat, searching again for why I had planned on going to Hsipaw. Markets, temples, hills, Hsipaw had lots of attractions listed, while Kyaukme literally had none. I sighed. I liked these guys, but I was going to have to give Kyaukme a miss.

But as I heard the train horn sound to leave, something inside me changed. Before I realized what I was doing, I heard myself say, “Ok, I’ll stay!” and the boys quickly helped me grab my backpacks, as we scrambled off the train.

No guidebook, no fellow travelers, no recommendations, I had no idea what I was getting in to. But I was ready for adventure.

A small village in the eastern part of central Myanmar, Kyaukme has only one guest house licensed to host tourists, and John offered to drive me the short distance on his motorbike. As we rounded the corner to the guest house entrance, he pointed to the young man across the street chatting with an older white couple and told me that was his English teacher, Joy.

With only a few English schools in town, none with native speakers, Joy asked if I would mind dropping in to class to speak directly with the students, and I was happy to oblige.

Later that night I found myself at the “Best Friend English School,” a small classroom in a building in town. As John and I walked in, I realized I was interrupting a lesson on articles of clothing. About 10 students sat in long, rectangular tables facing their teacher who pointed to a pair of pants and a belt buckle drawn on the chalk board.

But despite his own lesson, the teacher warmly welcomed me to the class and immediately pushed me to the front to speak to the students directly.

As I stood in front of them, a bit nervous at first, I was greeted by a sea of smiling faces and a cup of tea. A fairly even mix of men and women stared back at me, all ranging from older teenagers and college students to young adults with established jobs or families.

I really had no idea what I was doing, so I decided to start slowly and see where things went. After a short introduction, the girls especially, seemed very interested in knowing about my life, and I found myself answering questions about my age, what I did, my marital status and what I thought of Myanmar. At some point, I found myself drawing a mitten on the chalkboard surrounded by some half-haphazard wavy lines as I pointed to my hometown(s) and explained Michigan’s shape, lakes, industries and surrounding states.

Kyaukme English School

Me with the students at “Best Friend English School” in Kyaukme, Myanmar

My second visit to the English school took me a little by surprise. Instead of a Michigan geography lesson, this time the teacher asked if I would teach the students a song. Luckily for them, I’m a bit of a diva ;).

Perhaps I was a little homesick, or maybe I just thought a sweet tune with simple, happy lyrics would be a great tool for teaching English, but the next thing I know I’m belting out “My Girl” by the Temptations and pointing to the words I’d scribbled on the board. To my delight, the students really seemed to enjoy themselves, and I got them to do a pretty good rendition of it, if I say so myself. It made me really happy to be able to share a little bit of my home state with them, even if it was in the form of a Motown song that came out 20 years before I was born :P.

Though I enjoyed teaching at the school, I had other ideas on how to spend my time in Kyaukme. As part of the volatile Shan state, the town is only a few hours away from some of Myanmar’s ethnic fighting between the Burmese state and the Shan people, fighting for greater autonomy.

While I was not interested in getting too close to the fighting, I was curious to explore one of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities and see how an entirely different group of people live among a controversial and repressive military regime.

To my delight, John was free to take me to the Shan mountain villages, and since he had his motorbike, I did not have to go trekking after all. It was perfect!

The next day, as promised, John met me bright and early for our journey to the Shan villages. Our plan was to visit three villages that day, sleep over in the last town and return to Kyaukme the next morning.

Helmets on, backpacks attached, we rode through the mountains past endless green rice paddies, grazing water buffalo and children playing in the fields. Surprisingly, we did not pass many other travelers on our two-hour long journey, though the all-encompassing dust resulting from the villagers’ annual burning season let us know that we were far from isolated.

Shan Mountains

Reaching our first destination, I discovered a scene that would repeat itself throughout the subsequent Shan villages. All around, wooden houses with corrugated tin roofs dotting along the windy, dirt road that looped its way through town. Tea leaves lay on mats outside, drying in the sun, as John explained that nearly every villager was a tea farmer. While largely quiet, men worked outside, chopping up bamboo stalks for building or weaving, while women took care of the housework, washing clothes, weaving fabric or preparing food. Nearby up the hill, children gathered in the village’s lone school house, repeating the chanting of the monks to learn their native Shan language.

In the middle of town, a small shop sold snacks, drinks and basic necessities, where adults and children alike gathered to pick up supplies, have a drink or simply to visit. And resting quietly at the top of every village lay a gold-covered pagoda, the town’s center for worship and most sacred point.

Kyaukme Pagoda, Myanmar

On my trip, John took me to visit several families he knew. While communication was limited, these people graciously invited me into their homes, offering me tea and sunflower seeds while I explored their houses. Surprisingly large, the wooden Shan houses were often two stories high, comprising of a main room, kitchen and one or two bedrooms containing basic beds or lots of open space for bamboo mats and blankets. Plastic or wooden chairs and tables filled corners, while photos of family members and children fulfilling their traditional monk duties dotted the walls. And in every home, a large cabinet full of Buddhas, flowers, incense and photos served as the family shrine. Out back, basic, outdoor faucets on concrete floors provided running water with wooden outhouses nearby.

Shan House

Inside a Shan House outside in the mountain villages outside Kyaukme, Myanmar

When we reached our final destination, John took me to the home of the village chief who often provided accommodation to the village’s visitors. While he was out of town, his wife made us a simple dinner of rice, eggs, peanuts and a watery vegetable soup. As the power was often out, sunset covered the town in a silent, all-encompassing blackness where even the stars’ vivid brilliance was not enough to keep the town awake.

Around 9:30 p.m. John and I headed up to the second floor to find our pillows, blankets and bamboo mats laid out among those of the female farm hands who come to the village seasonally to pick tea leaves. Despite the early hour, I fell asleep quickly in a surprisingly restful night sleep. Around 5:30 a.m. in a stereotypical rude awakening, the roosters began to crow to signal the start of a new day. While John wasn’t too keen on the early rise, I enjoyed watching the women prepare for their day, saying their morning prayers, combing their hair and carefully applying the bark-based thanaka paste to their faces to protect their skin from the Myanmar sun.

After breakfast, a large spread of noodles, peanuts and eggs, John and I said our goodbyes and began our descent back to Kyaukme.

While I never did make it to Hsipaw, my last-minute journey to Kyaukme ended up being one of the best travel decisions I’ve ever made and a true adventure off the beaten track.

Though I know much of the rest of my travels will include the well-paved and well-shared roads to monuments, big cities and tacky souvenirs, I will be forever grateful knowing there is at least one memory that is all mine.

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Unglorious Food

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Much to my father’s frustration, I’m not food adventurous.

I don’t eat weird parts of animals. I don’t eat weird animals. I won’t go anywhere near seafood. And, at the end of the day, if I can’t identify it, I’m not going to eat it.

This sort of limits my sustenance options when traveling Asia (and is probably why I will never get my own travel show :/).

That being said, I certainly have observed a lot of strange foods here, particularly in Laos, and have had one close call almost eating something I really did not want to try…

My second day in Vang Vieng, my German friend Marcel and I decided we would go explore one of the caves nearby. As we headed toward the entrance, we saw a row of women selling what looked like grilled honeycomb.

“I love honey,” I thought. “What a great chance for me to try local Laos food!”

Apparently, Marcel was thinking the same thing, so we both headed off to buy one.

Luckily, we decided to share.

Wrapped in pandanas leaves, straight from the grill, this new dish looked pretty good. But as Marcel slowly started to unwrap the honeycomb, I looked back at the grill and noticed something strange: there were bug larvae on top of those honeycombs.

Shocked, I looked at the grilling lady and pointed, trying hard to physically communicate the fact that her food was essentially covered in maggots. Seeing my reaction, she too communicated without words: she picked one up and popped it into her mouth.

As I turned back to Marcel, we began to look more closely at our snack. Instead of honey, we found that every single hole was filled with bug larvae! In fact, some of them were still wriggling around!

That was pretty much game over for me. Marcel, however, after his one bite, informed me the bug babies had an interesting nut flavor (he would not learn until later that many of them were still alive).

Please enjoy a lovely photo essay of our find plus a few other curious, apparently edible, things I’ve found around Laos.

Grilled Bug Larvae

Wriggling grilled bug larvae nestled between honeycomb

Chicken and Fish on a Stick

Chicken or fish?

Feces Soup

There are no words.

Little Fish on a Stick

Little fish on a stick in Four Thousand Islands

Monk Food

Alms made to monks in Luang Prabang

Eggs on a stick

Strangely, these eggs had no yolk in them...

Grilled Frog

Grilled frog in the Four Thousand Islands