Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Camping in China: Enshi Grand Canyon and Wanzhou

Bouldering downriver from our campsite
From October 1-7 China observes National Holiday. The new middle class and higher use the spare time to travel, while migrant workers, if lucky enough to get time off, will use the time to return home for a few days. But National Holiday was not always so long. Sometime in the early 2000s the government declared to extend the holiday from a couple days to seven, in effort to boost spending in China, like the creation of Valentine's Day in the U.S.. With a couple good friends and city mates, our plan was the common plan of the rising Chinese middle class during Golden Week: travel--but not too far from home because we have to get back to work soon and flying is too expensive.

Campsite and Enshi light show igniting the crags
Other than our general plan we didn't really have much of a plan. We knew that we wanted to camp. Last year one of my city mates, Maivy, heard about Enshi from some Chinese people and after telling us, we have all wanted to go since. Enshi is a two hour train west of Wanzhou, located in Hubei Province. The Chinese say that Enshi Grand Canyon is comparable to the U.S. Grand Canyon, which I have been to a couple times, and they are right when measuring the awe-factor, but wrong in every other way. To compare a rusty desert to a lush mountainous region with a river at every turn is a senseless competition. September 2013 a few world famous pro-climbers took a trip to Enshi and trad climbed one of the famous stacks, or free standing phallic rock formations, which are the mark of Enshi, and put Enshi on the map of the West. Libby, my climbing friend, contacted some contract English teachers living in Enshi to see if couch surfing was an option for five bodies in their small place. 

Large rock in the river
They consented and dealt with our tardiness. They are an amazing couple, our age, from Arkansas, chilling in China until they decide to go to grad school. We wanted local food and they brought us to a restaurant with  the most complex flavors I have had in China. Also homemade brownies and scones. . . . Even though Enshi is only an hour from the Chongqing Province border, the dialect resembles that of Chongqing, but the food is entirely different. Most of Chongqing only has one flavor, spicy, while what we experienced in Enshi was salty and sweet, with maybe a little fresh-sour.  

Enshi canyon landscape
The next day we left for the Grand Canyon, which is about a two hour bus ride from the city. We bought tons of snacks, water, and fruit before getting on the bus. Our plan was to get to the Canyon, hike out to a village area, make our camp, and well. . . . stuff.

Sam skewering pork for the grill in Wanzhou

Camping at Enshi, Hubei Province: 
Kayla, Maivy, and Sam taking the public bus to the long distance bus station.
 During most holidays in China prices are raised in tourist regions throughout the country, except for public transportation services, of course. For instance, on the first night of National Holiday, Sam and I got in a cab and the driver tried to charge us 100kuai (15USD) when the price is usually 30kuai. I yelled at the driver for trying to cheat us, but he still wouldn't settle below 40kuai and the driver we passed up before him gave us the same quote. The slim stipend Peace Corps allots each volunteer forces us to be more careful of how we are spending our money. The entrance fee to Enshi Grand Canyon was raised from 120kuai to 180kuai. The combination of the price increase and the hordes of Chinese tourists (480 million Chinese were projected to travel during the Golden Week) convinced us that the canyon proper was not worth the effort. 

Redistributing snacks for the hike to find a campsite
A word on camping in China. In my previous posts I have spoken of hiking in China, and how you can just roam, as long as you are not intruding on a government restricted area. Camping follows the same set of guidelines and rules. I know this because I have read Chinese blogs on the topic. If you come to China and experience Chinese style tourism, you might be led to conclude that Chinese people do not do outdoorsy things. But there are many who hike out to extremely rural locations and camp. Prima facie, I think the outdoors market is actually one rapidly growing market that desperately lacks supply of high quality products. Returning to my point, you can camp pretty much anywhere in rural areas. Unless someone tells you explicitly that you can not camp in the location you have already pitched your tent, then you are good to go. The key is to look for villages. If there is a village in the area you desire to camp, then camping is fine. The villagers will probably welcome you. Make sure you have food, cigarettes, or booze to gift to those who visit your site. 

Searching for a campsite from the road down into the gorge 
As long as you know what you are doing it is fine to have a fire at your camp. The peasants have fires in the hills all the time. You will need dry sticks and firewood. For cooking coals are best. One issue with camping in Southern China is unpredictable precipitation, so pray to the gods of good fortune before you embark on your trip. You can forage for dry sticks, but your best bet for dry firewood is to go to a peasants house and ask to buy dry firewood. They need dry wood to cook everyday, so they definitely have it. Even though their dialect will be thick and they might not know what you are asking, don't give up, you can get it. Every time I have purchased firewood from a peasant I just gave them 10kuai, which is probably too much, but they need the money. 

Setting up our tents on an island in the middle of the river
When you camp in China, please observe the 'leave no trace' standard we follow in the U.S.. Even though the peasants litter infectiously, it is not fine for you to follow. If you do not live in China and cannot communicate with the locals, you are most likely going to be eating all prepackaged food and your water will be bottled when you camp.  Make sure to carry every wrapper out with you. If you do manage to get raw vegetables and/or meat, you can buy skewers, tinfoil, and charcoal at larger supermarkets. Grilling in the countryside is a popular activity for urban Chinese with cars, so trust me, these things are available in China. They are just a little difficult to find. 

We searched for a campsite for about 1.5hrs. and settled by a river in a gorge below a high bridge. We got a late start and made it to the river just before sundown, quickly procured some firewood, and started to set up our camp.

Sam carrying a tent back across the river
A local told us that the river level rises randomly, so we had to move our camp off the island to the higher banks. The water level did rise overnight. Local knowledge is invaluable. Although sometimes the locals will tell you that there is no trail in that direction, or you can't climb to the top of that mountain, or you can't do that because they are worried for your safety, so use your best judgement when seeing advice. 

Rice paddies in the gorge

Above is the farmer we asked to buy firewood from. He was nearly blind and illiterate and lives with his wife and two little girls. The parents are most likely off working through the holiday in one of China's major cities in the region, possibly Chongqing, Wuhan, or Changsha. A couple of us went to get him and his family from the field to help us.

Since we didn't really do any planning, we only had prepackaged snacks for dinner, breakfast the following morning, and lunch. Libby, our master of fire, kept us warm. On what to bring, there is no universal camping gear set for China. The climates vary so differently from region to region, and season to season. We were lucky in that it didn't rain, but it was hot during the day and frigid at night. Tents, sleeping bags, a pair of pants, and a thick upper layer was enough for this trip. 

Falling asleep to the sound of the river, the quiet of the gorge, and staring up at the full body of stars was possibly the most at peace I have been since I arrived in China. 

In the morning we were awoken by three boys yelling in Chinese and English, 'Wake Up!' I asked one of the boys what time it was and he ran over to my tent while looking at his watch and said in a whisper, '6:45.' I slept for another hour. 

We didn't have enough sleeping bags so Maivy and Kayla had to double up.

Semi-alert, we foraged for sticks and boiled some water in the morning for our instant coffee. We also went for a swim in the river. The texture and temperature of the river resembled that of ice water. After went for a hike into the mountains.

We stashed our bags at the farmhouse of the family we bought firewood from and hiked down the river looking for boulders we had seen earlier. 

We found some massive boulders sitting in the middle of the river.

Sam and Maivy being daredevils (!) and almost climbing to the top of one. Terrifying. 

That unimaginably picturesque boulder placed in the center of the river with a perfect landing that I didn't send. 

Libby found this excellent boulder with almost every type of hold while walking along the river. 

We went back to the peasant's house to pick up our bags after hiking the river. Above we are using that wood machine to separate spent rice casings from full granules. When we asked him if others had come through to camp, he said we were the first. 
Camping in Wanzhou:

Back in Wanzhou, we realized that we had nothing planned so we decided to camp again. Earlier in the year while scouting destinations for Hiking Club, I came across a spot that was perfect for camping. Flat and smooth dirt floor, overhanging section of rock for rain protection, fire pit made by the peasant who lives around the corner, and only a 40min. hike from my apartment. The camping section is halfway up a mountain on the side facing opposite to the city.

Wanzhou is our home, so we quickly bought all of the necessary provision and set off. For the second time, we were racing the setting sun. What was supposed to be an easy hike ended up being a bushwhacking mission. I led us up the wrong trail and there was some vertical climbing involved. We grilled spicy chicken, duck, potatoes, sweet potatoes, mushrooms, apples, red peppers, and onions, all fresh from the market. Maivy, the excellent cook that she is, made a delicious sweet and spicy rub for the vegetables. Everything was cooked on coal and in foil.

Sam and I went to buy firewood from the old man who lives around the corner of the mountain. He came to hang out with us at dark. He is 85 years old and lives alone. He has five daughters who all live the valley below. When I first scouted the area I met one of them on her way to visit him. His dialect was extremely thick and we couldn't really understand anything he was saying. We gave him a box of Danish cookie, beer, cigarettes, potatoes, and some chicken. He was great company.

Waking up to fog on the mountain.

Sam pulling some morning yams from the fire.

We finished packing our gear by the time the fog started to clear. The sun broke the clouds as we walked down the mountain to the bouldering park around the bend. We did some work on my new project and then left for lunch.

This was easily the most unplanned travel I have experienced to date. The best part about it was that it was the cheapest and most relaxed trip I have been on in China. Even though it was a bit grimy and the Chongqing mosquitos got to us, cooking and sleeping outside, in clean air, did its part in recharging me from the stress of PC work and the anguish grad school apps. Good food, good scenery, and most importantly good friends always makes for phenomenal travel. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Midsummer: Summer Project, Shanghai, and EcoCamp

On a hike in Pengshui, Chongqing Province
This post is out of chronological order. It picks up after Jurassic Park: Visiting a Student in Rural Wulong County.  Comparatively, midsummer appears to be the least exciting part of my summer, but for me, an experience is only half of what it could be without new people and good friends. At PC China's annual Chongqing Province Summer Project, I was fortunate enough to work with every able CQ19. Soon following, meeting new friends and revisiting some old in Shanghai. Then heading off to start the first session of EcoCamp just outside of Chengdu.

Helping Daniel spearhead the shower project at EcoCamp

Lotus from a wetland grey water purifier at EcoCamp

 Chongqing Province Summer Project in Pengshui:
View from our school in the morning
Kayla, Ben (her site mate), and I took a 1.5hrs. bus from Wulong to Pengshui. Every year each PC province has Summer Project, which is hosted by the provincial education department. Summer Project is mandatory for all volunteers. Usually, it runs for about a week and volunteers are spread at different sites around the province, but we got extremely lucky this year and all CQ19s were placed at the same site. There were 16 CQ19s total. Our goal was to teach elementary and middle school teachers from Pengshui alternative English teaching methods. So, teaching teachers how to teach differently ;) 有点meta

Me, Windy, ____, Libby, and Sam
Sam and I were teaching partners. I didn't realize this until later in the summer but I have worked more with Sam than any other volunteer in the PC, and us living in the same small city is only coincidental. We taught over 100 middle school teachers in about a week and a half, teaching everyday for seven hours or so. As I understand, some volunteers focused on exposing the teachers to new concepts such as 'diversity,' while we were boring and focused on direct application of the new teaching methods, but we made it fun, I hope. 

An interesting thing about our Summer Project is that the teachers we taught are older than we are. One man had 20 years of teaching experience, I have 1 and some, so we had to drive the 'new teaching methods' idea pretty hard to convince them that what we had to say was worthwhile. We didn't waste our time though. I still talk to five of them and they said that they are trying to incorporate some of what we taught them into their lessons (I apologize for the verbosity. I increased my daily time studying Chinese and it is frying my English). I think CQ Summer Project was a huge success. My favorite part was getting to see all of the CQ19s in one spot. I had a really great time hanging out with y'all. 

Down the hill from our school I saw a small guitar shop, located in a garage space in an alley, ironically enough, and went to talk to the kids hanging outside of it. Most of them were in high school and they were thrilled to find out that we were foreign and interested in what they were doing. Rethinking the situation, I would not call this place a guitar shop, more like a garage that a bunch of kids sit outside of and practice guitar at. There were a dozen guitars strewn around tables in the shade in the alley. The leader kid, like in the US the one who can shred, standing to the right of me in the picture above, handed me his electric-acoustic and I played something. 

As usual, the kids wanted us to sing a song with them. When I asked what song they would like to sing they responded, "21 Guns" by Green Day, almost involuntarily. I don't remember what I was listening to when everybody was listening to Green Day, it was not as cool for sure, but getting to the point, I don't know any Green Day songs, so I told them that we would learn the song that night and  we would come back the following day to sing with them. 

Keri Ann, Sam, Libby, and I singing, "21 Guns" with high schoolers at a garage guitar shop after teaching  
In small places in China, like Pengshui, when people hear that something unusual is going on everybody comes to check it out. Small towns and cities are not yet totally absorbed in their own lives, homes, and internet. There is still a curiosity for public things, they know that they can't find everything online or on a screen and will leave there home for curiosity, but this is changing quickly. 

When we showed up there was a small crowd of middle schoolers, high schoolers, kids, and elderly. The longer we were there the more they seemed to multiply. We started to sing and many knew the song and joined in. Definitely a PC moment I will not forget. Also, the nostalgia of playing shows with the bands I was in in high school only reinforced the power of the experience. Even though it was a far cry from the true elation, this little performance reminded me that there is no better feeling than the feeling that comes from preforming something you have spent endless hours perfecting and are fully absorbed in and passionate about. 

CQ19s on a field trip
The CQ education department... Ministry of Education, or whatever it is called was extremely grateful for our service and brought us on a field trip of sorts. They got us that nifty minibus to take us from local attraction to attraction. 

We went to this open area forest place and then our host realized we were at the wrong place, so...

Cliff and Aubrey pretend fighting like elves in the woods was the funniest thing I saw during Summer Project. Cliff's invisible bow and arrow...

Maivy and I at cave
The best part about our field trip was that we didn't know where they were taking us the whole time. Thus, a cave.

Cloud at the mouth of the cave
I forgot to mention that it was between 102-105F for most days in Pengshui, with 90 percent humidity. In China, Chongqing is known as The First Furnace of China. Moving means sweating. There was a constant cloud at the mouth of the cave. As soon as you cross the portal into the cave the temperature drops at least twenty degrees. I didn't realize how resilient the earth can be to climate. 

Kayla and Aubrey in the dark
The only developed part of this cave was the stairs that lead down to the first landing area. We wanted to go further so we continued on into the cavern. The only problem was that we had almost no light. I was using the temporary flash on my camera to guide a bit. What you see in these pictures could not be seen by the people in the pictures.

There be ghosts in these caverns
I wished we had more time to walk further into the cave. But walking on wet, sleek rock in the pitch black is not the best idea, especially when you are not supposed to be there. But, hopefully I'll get my caving fix this winter in Guizhou :)

Nam at ledge
They also brought us to a viewing area of this super tall mountain. Even though there isn't an inch of flat ground in Chongqing, mountains as tall as this are very rare. I couldn't really tell, but prima facie, it looks like there is some serious climbing potential at these crags. Just, if you look at the picture below, the approach would take a full day of bush whacking. 

Dan and Nam trying not to die
Our guides also took us to a stone forest on a mountain. The developers, with their brilliant foresight, built a wood plank walkway over the trail, in an environment that it wet for likely, 100 percent of the year. So there was a fine layer of super slippery moss/icky stuff that covered each wood plank. I have hiked steep snow covered passes perched above gorges, passed out because of dehydration on a trail with little water, climbed high ball boulders with no pads (all stupid), but this slippery walkway was the most frustrating. 

During the weekend we went on a hike to a pagoda (pictured at the beginning) with some students. It was really really hot and humid. There is a picture of Nam, myself, and our abnormal ability to perspire, that I won't post here. When we got to the pagoda it started to rain. When the rain cleared a rainbow formed.

I am not exactly sure why, but I look at summer project as one of the best times I've had int he PC so far. I'd like to thank the CQ19s for being awesome. And, it was great getting to know those who I didn't know before. 

Climbing Gym in Shanghai
I flew to Shanghai the day after Summer Project. I only had a few days so I didn't get to visit all of the people I would have liked to see but I might move to Shanghai for a year after Peace Corps to study Chinese, so it is not a big deal. I met a bunch of cool new people this time around, so I kinda hope my post-PC plan B, becomes a reality.

After Shanghai, I flew back to Chongqing city to stay with my student Jason. He is only a year younger than I am so we have similar interests. I met his family and hung out with his friends. I hadn't hung out with Chinese people my age until I went to stay with him. It definitely gave me a new perspective on Chinese youth and what they think about the future of their country. 

English Eco Leadership Camp:
Farmer Gao leading Session One EcoCamp participants to the farm
After spending a few days at Jason's house we left for EcoCamp. We were to meet four of my other students in Chengdu. All five of my students had reservations about coming to EcoCamp, not because they were to live on farm for five days, do farm work, and survive on a vegetarian diet, but because their English abilities are generally thought to be lower for of the ranking of our school is not the greatest. They soon learned that these reservations were founded on little. Sam, Angelina, Daniel, and I spent a few months planning EcoCamp. After raising 6000USD, we were able to afford two, five days sessions for a total of eleven volunteers and fifty students from four of China's SW provinces. 

EcoCamp has three goals: 1) teach English 2) teach leadership skills 3) to teach students new, environmentally friendly ways to live in and interact with their environment. Students were exposed to practical implements such as a biogas digester, wetland grey water filter, special ways to save water, and the farms sustainable development model. Not all activities were entirely practical, but were used to have our students build a more personal relationship with their environment, lessons include: Basics of Nature Photography and Nature Art. After hearing about Session Two, I think it is safe to say that EcoCamp was a total success. Both sessions gave a Prepost Assessment to see if the students had learned anything in the five days at camp. Session One's pre-assessment mean score was 56.1 percent, and rose to 87.2 percent. Session Two increased from 68.9 percent to 82.6 percent. 

I want to thank all of the students and volunteers or doing such a great job. A super special thanks to all of our donors for allowing this to happen. We will have stuff for you guys soon :)

All students and volunteers were expected to help cook. Above, I am showing my student, John, how to make a fried dough breadstick looking thing, after a couple of my girl students had just showed me how to make it. Fried dough is a a fairly common breakfast food all over China. Below, Jasmine is cooking spaghetti with some students. All meals at the farm are vegetarian. This is a big deal for our students because they all think that you cannot be full unless you have meat in your meal. 

Above are a bunch of Jasmine's students and some of us PC people. You can kinda see what the farmhouse looks like in these pictures. In the door on the right, which is covered by a mosquito net, there are generally four bunks per room. 

"Get back out to the field!"

Some brits had come to the farm before and left their shower project unfinished. Farmer Gao, the owner of the farm told EcoCamp to finish their project. It was nice actually, we didn't have to pay for any building materials really, everything was already there. Props to Daniel for spearheading this project, because if he didn't take charge it is likely that Session Two would have had to finish building it and not had time to paint it. 

Ming (in green), a brilliant and amiable employee of the Chengdu Urban Rivers Association, the environmental NGO that developed this area, spent the day giving talk and showing us around the area. We hope he can come back every year to give a similar presentation. 

Jason takes the pre-assessment with a friend, Six-pack. She was featured in my post about the winter pilot project. She was the kitten that had caught on fire because she fell asleep too close to the fire. 


My student, John, building a sculpture made of deciduous items and mud.  

Student's eating with local farmers.

Daniel and Jason finishing the shower. 

We had a bonfire, smore's, and campfire games on the last night to close EcoCamp. Jasmine and I had to head to Chengdu to give a talk to the new PCVs before dawn so this was our goodbye. All in all, I am confidant in saying that some of my most memorable moments in the Peace Corps will have come from my midsummer trips and activities. 

Again, thanks to everybody who donated to EcoCamp. I know, for my students at least, EcoCamp made their summer (and futures) far better than it would have been without it. And, I want to thank Evan, Keri, and others for use of your pictures :)