A Pakse of Four Thousand Islands


Champasak lends itself well to superlatives.

The southernmost province embodies such awe-struck descriptions as “most beautiful” place in Laos with the “best coffee and goi pa/ກ້ອຍປາ” and astounding sunsets.

Starting from Champa’ and traveling west, you would encounter the region of Isaan within the country of Thailand. Turning east toward the rising sun, ascending the Bolaven Plateau, and keeping onward, you would find yourself in the wet heights of Attapeu or Sekong Province. Southward to the Cambodian border, you would come across four thousand islands carved by waters that came all the way from Tibetan elevations.

Pakse, the capital of Champasak Province and second-largest city in the country, is often the beginning and end point to exploring the rainy, coffee-growing region. It also serves as a jumping off point for trade and travel to Cambodia, Vietnam, or Thailand. Like many large cities in Laos, Pakse lies along the Mekong; unlike every other large city in Laos, it’s divided into two by the southerly meander of the Nam Xe Don tributary.

The city offers some fairly impressive views of both rivers and their confluence. One of those views — from the hill across the Lao-Nippon Bridge — is intended for those prepared to handle some dilapidated wooden stairs (and just stairs in general). The lookout near Wat Phu Salao and its Golden Buddha offers an expansive view of the City-split-in-two:

However, Champasak’s main tourist draw is its plentiful waterfalls.

Assuming you know the road and have a motorbike, you could visit at least three in a day. Some waterfalls are encircled by restaurants and small-ish resorts, meaning that no trekking is required. Others require a little more from their would-be visitors (and offer more in exchange). Tile 2’s Tad Gneuang Falls, for example, first transforms its visitors into unwitting worshipers. Then it drenches them in a mildly holy mist as they clamber down a path of slick and steep stone stairs to snap a shot in fleeting wonder.

The Khone Phapeng Falls (ນ້ຳຕົກຕາດຄອນພະເພັງ) just north of the Cambodian border are a veritable apotheosis. Over 11,000m³ of water pass over these falls every second, making them one of the largest falls by volume in the world — a full four times larger than Niagara Falls and ten times larger than Victoria Falls.¹ The falls consist of a network of narrow channels and steep cataracts that spans 10km altogether, making it the widest waterfall in the world.

About 40km upstream of the Khone Phapheng Falls, the Mekong already begins to stretch itself out into a patchwork of waterways and rapids patterned with proliferate islands. Together, they form the eponymous archipelago of Four Thousand Islands//Siphandon.

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The challenging river terrain once stymied French colonial traders seeking to connect the then-colony of Indochina with China at the Mekong/Lancang headwaters. Khone Phapheng’s rocky rapids forced them to build a small-gauge railway between Don Khone, the largest island, and its neighbor, Don Det, to circumvent the impassable falls. The railway eventually fell into disuse in the 1940s, but was, for a time, the only railway built in Laos until Thailand’s Northeastern Line was extended from Nong Khai to Vientiane in 2009.

Nowadays, the islands are still just as split-up and surrounded by the Mekong as they were a hundred years ago. Bridges and ferry boats connect the islands across the copious channels that flow between them. These channels act as a natural funnel for the river’s fish, making some areas — like just downstream of Khone Pasoi Falls, for instance — ideal fishing grounds.

Champasak isn’t just the sum total of tourist descriptions of waterfalls and dreamy islands, though.

Sure, many of Champa’s observable features could be recorded and told in denotative language, but they’re often meaningless without an underpinning of value. Frequently it’s the things that are less observable that inspire that value. However, those less-observable things are themselves the product of some sort of secret summation based on physicality and straightforward perception.

So, with some simplification, Champasak is a place where things occur and continue and are built upon or removed. Lumber and steel and clay bricks have been arranged here. They’ve been moved just as much as the black opalescent butterflies and dalmatian clouds glide northward to Salavan. This space is where ant colonies function. In July, a new crop of glutinous rice will be transplanted, then grown, harvested, processed, and cooked.

In Champasak, families build houses and share meals and peer across the table at one another. Here, people walk across somewhat reddish soil that, when trenched into paddy and inundated by seasonal rain, appears more brown than its un-wet color.

In juxtaposition with the sky and its green-leaved downstairs neighbors reaching into the upward open, the dirt path and side-of-the-road wooden fences are quite content to stay put.

And that’s alright, here is both.



Beginnings of things might be when the-other-way-around comes rightside-up.
For example, watching some birds and bats and airplanes fly upside-down outside the window then sitting up to see them cruising the typical way.

Ends of things might be when they slowly topple down head-first or their physical becomes something else’s physical.
Example: when Pakse drifts off to some southern and eastern place and then, one year later, starting to wonder how long the distance has been.

Because of those upwards and downwards, and because the evening can slowly turn purple to pink Navel orange,

Earth heals.

It stitches them together as if it’s “been there” too — starting out/settling down.
Water listens before anything else, even when stepping into the warm rain bathing (brown) in this rice paddy,
and the sky feels breath-heat, making space.

Green things are a cure. Seriously.
Which is why it’s alright to watch things upside-down, wonder about four thousand islands in Berlin, and still have muddy toenails for many days.

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Huangshan, the Mountains of Primordial Ink


Painting personified.

The colossal forces that formed the mountain range of granite peaks roughly 250 miles inland from what would later be known as the East China Sea succeeded in inspiring countless artists, poets, Buddhists, and travelers to imagine their world as crafted by powers greater than themselves.

An ancient titan drew up enormous mounds of earth from the Mesozoic sea floor¹ and took a hammer and chisel to the whole thing with reckless abandon. The mountains that remain are the work of that capricious giant.

Li Bai, the famous Tang Dynasty poet, once described the mountains: “The place is still traceable where the immortal/Before ascending to heaven made elixir out of jade.”

The scale and intensity of geologic change is unfathomable.

Humans call this mountain range shaped by the demiurges of time, tectonism, and erosion Huangshan (lit. Yellow Mountains).

Located in the south of modern-day province of Anhui, the 72 peaks of the Yellow Mountains still stand with 6,000-foot-tall shoulders above an ocean of clouds.

Climb

The UNESCO World Heritage Site asks much of its visitors.

The mountains require traversing endless paths of steep stone steps to truly appreciate the scene. These 60,000 steps are said to have taken over 1,500 years to carve out of the mountain.¹

For the countless porters laden with loads of food and supplies weighing more than they do, climbing the mountain unburdened would be no problem. The muscles in their calves are evidence enough that they could reach the peak in half the time it takes the average tourist. As such, the Yellow Mountains demand payment for their incredible vistas (and all the amenities available at the top of the mountain), and those who aren’t short-of-breath receive nothing in exchange. Sacrifice must be made for the mountains to rewards photographers with beautiful photos.

The mountains also require that artists portray their curves and juxtapositions beautifully. Chinese shan shui (山水) painting is a type of ink wash painting that is particularly well-suited to the natural aesthetics of Huangshan. The style of traditional Chinese painting has been used since the 5th century;² countless images of the mountains have been produced in the shan shui style since then.

Photographers have also adapted some elements of good shan shui painting to the different medium.

The Yellow Mountains and their surrounding villages draw thousands of visitors every year. The villages of 宏村//hong2cun1 and 西递村//xi1di4cun1 at the base of the mountains are renowned for their 600-year-old buildings³ and status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Scenes from the famous Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon film were filmed in Hongcun.

Gnarled trees clinging to unorthodox (and precipitous) formations of megalith aren’t the only draw to Huangshan. The location also produces some of the China’s most famous teas: Maofeng, and Keemun (祁门//qi2men2).

More information about Anhui’s Huangshan can be found on the local government website, which also features some incredible images and descriptions of the mountains’ most breath-taking sites.

Luoyang: A City from China’s Heartland


China was born here, in Henan.

The place is both unique and ubiquitous at the same time. As one of the 中国四大古都 (China’s Four Great Ancient Capitals), the city of Luoyang still embodies a part of China’s soul and history. The city was prominent as far back as 510 BCE as the capital of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty. This dynasty existed on the very edge of ancient Chinese history, directly following the quasi-mythic Xia Dynasty (2070-1600 BCE) and China’s first archaeologically proven dynasty, the Shang Dynasty of 1600-1046 BCE.

The Zhou Dynasty, which existed between 1046 and 256 BCE, is itself divided into the Western and Eastern eras, the latter of which encompassed the Spring and Autumn period and the subsequent Warring States period when monarchical authority crumbled and various minor kingdoms rose and fell.

As such, Luoyang represents an era that later marked a critical turning point in Chinese history. With the fall of the Zhou Dynasty came the rise of the first dynasty of Imperial China, the Qin Dynasty, whose initial emperor unified six of the warring states. His accomplishments are forever commemorated by his massive mausoleum (still being excavated today) and the famous Terracotta Army in Xi’an.

Remnants of the past still persist in Henan. Luoyang’s 白马寺//bai1ma3si4 (White Horse Temple) is traditionally thought to be the “cradle of Chinese Buddhism,” as the first Buddhist temple in China. The temple’s historical roots stretch all the way back to 68 CE, when it was constructed under Emperor Ming after having a vision of the Buddha in gold.¹

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Astounding in their size and quality, the Longmen Grottoes on their own are worth the trip to Henan. The incredible grottoes feature Buddhist figures carved directly into the limestone hillside.

The site was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000, with its 2,000+ caves, 100,000 statues, and over 60 pagodas.² Most of these are over 1,000 years old, dating back to the culturally and socially inspired Tang Dynasty before Emperor Wuzong’s xenophobic Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution that attempted (and, in some cases, succeeded) to purge nonnative religious influences.

However, Longmen’s enormous carvings survived until modern times for flocks of tourists to stand in awe and selfie.

The Rice, Rivers, and Rocks of Guilin


The Rice Terraces near Guilin are one of China’s most famous landmarks.

And for good reason: they’re stunning. Picture miles and miles of rolling hills terraced in green and gold. If you visit during the right season, you’ll find the curved basins filled with water, shimmering in the sunset and reflecting the thousands upon thousands of rice plants jutting up from the muddy deep.

Guilin, in the northeast of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, is very much a travel hipster’s mecca. Hostels cost $5 a night on average, there are copious rock formations, hikes, and rivers, as well as seedy karaoke clubs and meals that involve horse meat

But that’s not why you came.

It was the rice terraces. You left the Nanjing Earthen Buildings too soon for this — left the tobacco-growing hills of Fujian and the flash-flood, tea-leafed, guest-accommodating 土楼 to come here.

And you’ve never seen anything like it. It’s as if you’re hiking across giant dragon’s scales made of clayey soil and silver irrigation water.

You’ll need to take at least three buses to get there. Head to Guilin’s all-traveler bus station (桂林汽车客运总店), book your tickets to the 龙胜梯田//long2sheng4ti2tian2, also known as the 龙脊梯田//long2ji2ti2tian2.

Guilin City itself is the seat of the prefecture of the same name. It administers 17 smaller political divisions, two of which are termed “autonomous counties” and are home to the 瑶族/yao2zu2 (Yao ethnic minority) and 苗族/miao2zu2 (Miao/Hmong ethnic minority) peoples.

The majority of the Yao people in China, also known as the Mien people, live in the hills of southeast China (Hunan, Guizhou, Guangdong, Guangxi, Yunnan), Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. They are famous in China for their bright headscarves, intricate needlework in dress, and, of course, their ingenuous terraced agriculture.

[trigger warning: offensive terminology]

The Miao (Hmong) people have a storied history, beginning in the southern Chinese area, but marked by cultural and linguistic division, relocation, and refusal to be subjugated by the majority-Han Ming and Qing empires. The term “Miao” itself was used officially by the Chinese government in the middle of the 20th century in its attempts to identify, classify, and administer the ethnic minorities of southern China. The term has a history of being applied inconsistently in China and the West to refer to several different non-Han peoples. The term is accepted and used autonymically in China but is derogatory in Southeast Asia and the West, where “Hmong” is preferred.

Be awed. This place is awesome: hillsides costumed in rice terraces while foals nibble on grass and flower and just revel, satisfied.

The next day you’ll wade through the large puddle/small pond outside your hostel on the way to the long-distance bus station.

You’ll want to grab a ticket to either Yangdi (yang2di1//杨堤) or Yangshuo (yang2shuo4//阳朔) via Yangdi. This is where you’ll get on a bamboo raft and speed down the 美丽漓江//mei3li4li2jiang1.

And incredibly 美丽 is the 漓江. With its karst stonescapes and hazy backdrop, the Li River is like a scene out of a Chinese watercolor painting. That’s no exaggeration — tap in “Li River watercolor” to any search engine for proof.

Get your guide to let you disembark somewhere before Xingping Village (兴坪村//xing1ping2cun1) so you can trek the rest of the way.

Take a detour through the citrus orchards. Stop for a lunch of cold rice noodles with cha shao, chili, onion, chives, and pickled beans in broth.

Go slow: the famous “back of the 20 yuan note” scene will still be there when you arrive.

Spend the entire next day eating mangos, loquats, and rambutans in the city. Guilin City proper is home to some incredible scenes of the Li River and craggy granite towers sprouting up between urbanite.

The Seven Star Park (七星公园//qi1xing1gong1yuan2) is pricey (75 kuai) but worth it for the views, and if you visit while it’s raining, you’ll have the place to yourself. Artists, believers, historians, and tourists all have something for them: caves with historical inscriptions and Buddhist statuettes with incense at their feet, residence studios, vistas that let hikers peek out through the misty green at the city and mountains…

Look back before you leave. Take a picture of where you were at the top of the mountain from where you are now at the bottom of the mountain.

Turn around, hail a taxi to the train station, head home to Shanghai.

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Two from Jiangsu: Suzhou


Suzhou is silk, gardens, and Green Snail Spring.

That is: Biluochun (碧螺春//bi4luo2chun1), which is yet another of China’s most famous teas. It’s so named because it’s a green tea, rolled into a spiral resembling snail meat, and harvested in early spring. This tea has a very light, sweet flavor with a delicate floral aftertaste. Many experts rank this tea just as highly as Hangzhou’s Longjing.¹

Biluochun

Suzhou is also renowned for fine silks and embroidery. The Suzhou-style (苏绣//Su1xiu4) has a history of over 2000 years and is noted for its pastel coloration and masterful depiction of environment scenes like flowers, birds, animals, and gardens.² The tiles were taken at a small gallery showcasing the silk embroidery.

The classical gardens of Suzhou are a UNESCO World Heritage site and well-loved tourist destinations at any given time. These gardens, built during the Northern Song Dynasty until the late Qing Dynasty (11th-19th century), have nearly a thousand years’ history. Mostly built by wealthy scholars, they mimic in microcosm natural scenes of mountains, hills, rivers, and forests.

Arguably the best and most prominent of the city’s classical gardens is the Humble Administrator’s Garden, which seamlessly melds natural scenes (eg. plots of flowers or trees) with human architecture (pagodas and stained glass windows). Once you’ve been here, all other gardens pale in comparison, really.

You won’t enjoy the handcrafted beauty in solitude, though — you’ll enjoy it in noisy peace and collective excitement. You’ll have to be patient if you want to take a photo of the scenery without other tourists in the shot (if that’s your MO). In comparison, you might not have to wait as long to be pointed out as a laowai (if that’s your MO). The photos below I took while venturing off the main path to the behind-the-scenes bonsai potting area.

Two from Jiangsu: Nanjing


An ancient Chinese capital marked (but not marred) by recent history.

Before I came to China, I knew about Nanjing.

I knew about the war crimes committed there. I knew about the looting, arson, and destruction committed by the Japanese army during the Second Sino-Japanese War. I knew about the monstrosity of rape and murder that occurred there. The horrifying details (which I’ll not name, but can be accessed here) I had mostly put out of mind. Physical and mental distance from the massacre coupled with a human desire to not dwell in past atrocity let me forget how terribly gruesome and inhuman we humans can be. The Rape of Nanjing is an apt name for this massacre of human life and morality.

I went to Nanjing to see the Nanjing Massacre Memorial. I saw the mass grave where corpses — infant, child, teen, young adult, adult, middle-aged, and elderly alike — were buried hastily and indiscriminately. I saw signs bearing the unholy number 300,000 and the monuments erected in memoriam.

But Nanjing, due to and despite its history, is much more than historicity.

The city is authentic, the people and places genuine. Events big and small happened here, and will continue to do so for a long, very long time. The actions we take in Nanjing are a real part of what Nanjing is. You’re part of the scene, as is everyone else. That means other tourists will sneak a photo of you or take it overtly with gusto. If you’re not asked for your permission beforehand, then, well, speak up or get over it.

It should be noted that Nanjing is home to the BEST potstickers in China. Ground meat (usually pork) with green onions or spinach wrapped with thin pieces of dough into half-moon-shaped pockets then pan-fried in a large, shallow wok — what could possibly go wrong there? Somewhere near the eastern entrance to the city’s Purple Mountain scenic park you can find the best of the best.

Nanjing Potstickers

The beautiful Purple Mountain scenic area [Tiles 1-4] is much bigger than you think. You could wander around the park’s trails, temples, Ming Dynasty palace and tombs for days, but you’re here to see Dr. Sun Yat-Sen’s Mausoleum [Tiles 5-8]. The 中山陵 (zhong1shan1 ling2) commemorates the life and accomplishments of one of greater China’s most formative leaders.

Sun is well-respected in both China and Taiwan despite lingering ideological (and subsequently, separatist) disputes from the Chinese Civil War, in which Sun’s Kuomintang, under the leadership of Chiang Kaishek, played a central part. He is seen as the “Father of the Nation” (国父 孫中山先生) in Taiwan or the “forerunner of democratic revolution” (革命先行者) in the PRC because of his role in ending Qing dynastic rule and establishing the Republic of China.¹

Nanjing’s most famous Confucius temple, Fuzimiao, has 11th century roots as a temple and university, though the standing building dates from the 19th century Qing Dynasty.² The temple and nearby complex were restored in 1985 after it was used as army barracks during the Kuomintang regime of the late 1920s and early ’30s.²

The city’s downtown food scene is incredible. Surrounding the Fuzimiao and all along the nearby Qinhuai River are countless made-to-order buffets. The food is cheap and unbelievably tasty, and the restaurants are an absolute melee by lily-livered Western standards. Speak Chinese or no, you will get lured, smooth-talked, and/or berated into buying far too many dishes. Just go with it — you won’t regret it anyway. Personal recommendations are the tangbao//汤包 (like a giant xiaolongbao eaten with a straw and chopsticks) and whatever the sweet, jelly, fruity soup is below.

Once you’ve had a nice, over-sized lunch, take a walk along the ancient city wall to digest — you’ll need to make room for dinner.

Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province


Sunshowers in China’s inimitable tea capital.

Without a doubt, it will start raining while you search for the aptly underwhelming Old Dragon Well, the namesake of Hangzhou’s most famous export: Longjing tea (龙井茶//long2jing3 cha2). However, you’ll find a place to stop for lunch and a couple cups of tea because of the fickle weather. Whether you’re a beginner or connoisseur, you’ll recognize that the Dragon Well tea is incomparable. Surprisingly full-bodied (sweet, slightly nutty) with pleasant earthy and floral undertones, Longjing tea is considered by some to be the best green tea in the world.

Old Dragon Well

Several legends connect the now world-famous Longjing tea to Emperor Qianlong. While in Hangzhou, the Emperor visited the Hugong Temple on Lion Peak Mountain (狮峰山//shi1feng1shan1) and was presented a cup of Longjing produced from 18 trees near the temple. He was so impressed that he conferred them the honor of 贡茶//gong4cha2, or imperial status tea (also, tribute tea). Tea is still produced from those 18 trees and is sold for more money per gram than gold.¹

The famous West Lake that inspired artists and emperors is very much “an idealized fusion between humans and nature.”² The tiles below depict the bridges and boats that allow visitors to themselves become a part of this beautiful fantasy.

If China is the green tea capital of the world, then Hangzhou is the capital of capitals. Any trip there would be incomplete without traversing the tea-growing hills east of the West Lake and seeing the Lion Peak Mountain itself. Green leaves, whose precise preparation contributes to its celebrated status as much as its remarkable flavor, are arranged in terraced rows of hedges to soak in the sun and rain. Their fate is a kettle of boiled water halfway around the world.