backpacking… upgraded

The best laid plans on Fansipan — part two

I surveyed the available cooking utensils. One battered pot with a lid, one veteran pan, an ancient and tar-black kettle, and a metal spatula. From the basket he’d hauled up the mountain Hanh produced a head of cabbage, a sack of rice, a cut of beef, some tomatoes, a green pepper, carrots, onions, garlic, half a dozen eggs, two water bottles filled with cooking oil, and a handful of seasoning packets. How they planned to prepare all this food with a few shoddy implements and a tiny cooking fire, I had no idea.

Hanh arranged a bent iron rod over the fire to serve as a range, then filled the kettle full of water and the pot full of rice and water and set them on the rod to cook. Next he went outside to shave down a thick slab of wood with the machete; in a couple of minutes he’d fashioned a clean cutting board. Back inside he went to work on the potatoes I’d peeled, carving them into thin slivers while Khoa and the other hikers chopped vegetables and cut the beef into strips. My contribution was to shower their workspace with camera flashes in the dying light. I was invaluable.

Hanh had brought along some cocoa powder and made hot chocolate for me to fight the cold. Instead of a mug he sliced a water bottle across the middle and handed me the upturned, capped end. I thanked him in Vietnamese and he said something in reply that I didn’t understand, but it probably meant something like, “This is how Macgyver drinks hot chocolate.”

Khoa turned out to be an ace cook. He fried up the potatoes with chopped garlic and salt. We passed around the bowl of fries — some of the best I’ve ever tasted — as he used the leftover oil to sauté the diced cabbage, and again to stir fry the carrots, onions, and green pepper with the beef. The rice was now cooked and pulled from the fire; Khoa scooped out a fistfull from the top and set a mysterious can into the crater to let it heat up. For his last trick he stewed the tomatoes with boiling water and the juices from the stir fry, eventually cracking and stirring in a couple eggs to thicken it and shaking in some seasoning salt to taste.

When finally we all sat down on a tarp in one of the bunks to eat, the spread was impressive. The rice was cooked to perfection (something I’ve never managed even with the most advanced rice-cooking technology), the beef and vegetables were fantastic, and the from-scratch tomato soup was unbeatable. Even the mystery meat from the can was delicious — Khoa said it was pork of some kind, and I thought better of getting him to clarify any further — with a taste and consistency similar to goose pâte. We washed it all down with swigs of locally-made rice wine, the kind that tickles your throat, widens your eyes, and warms you up immediately.

After dinner we wiggled into our sleeping bags near the fire. Hanh set baby bamboo to boil above the fire as it died away. Exhausted, I was lulled to sleep in a few minutes as the rain began to drum against the metal roof.

I awoke to a thunderclap in the middle of the night, a deluge sounding throughout the room. If this kept up all night, the waterfall between us and the summit would swell and become impassible by morning. Couldn’t be helped, I figured, and fell back asleep. Sure enough, when I awoke in the morning the rain was still torrential. Khoa told me that Hanh had already scouted out the waterfall and thought we’d be foolish to attempt to cross it. We had two options: to wait out the rain, which offered no sign of stopping, or to head back down the mountain. The rain might have kept us in limbo for days, so I chose to head back.

Having climbed to within a few hundred meters of the peak, I was extremely disappointed to be turned away unsuccessful. The more I thought about it during our descent, though, the more I realized that success or failure in summiting Fansipan wasn’t going to redeem or ruin this trip. It would have meant a few more hours climbing in a chilly downpour, and visibility at the summit in weather like this would have been only a few feet anyway. And in the end, the real payoff from traveling is always in the experience, not the accomplishment.

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The best laid plans on Fansipan — part one

Just over a month ago I left Hanoi for Sapa and the mountains of northwest Vietnam. Really I was after a single mountain, Fansipan, the tallest in Vietnam and one whose ascent doesn’t require any equipment beyond standard-issue legs and lungs. However, my trusty guidebook warned that during the summer rainy season (June-September), the volume of water coursing through Fansipan’s streams and down its waterfalls can make the climb too treacherous to complete.

So I kept an eye toward the weather forecast, until finally it called for a 40% chance of precipitation in Sapa the next day. That’s practically beach weather during the rainy season, so I hopped on an overnight train to Lao Cai, caught an early-a.m. bus to Sapa, hired a guide and a porter from a hotel in town, and was on the mountain by mid-morning, 12 hours after leaving Hanoi. The plan was to hike that morning and afternoon to within 300 meters of the 3,143-meter summit, set up camp for the night, then make the peak the following morning and descend thereafter.

We had taken a rattletrap SUV from Sapa to the trail head some 12 km outside of town, and now we shut the doors behind us and took the first of thousands of strenuous steps to come in a thick, stagnant mist. My guide, Khoa, said it had rained on Fansipan for more than two weeks straight, and the soaking ground might as well have been an ice rink in places. While he and the porter, Hanh, effortlessly tread the path in lightweight trekking shoes (and carrying two days’ supply of food and drink), I was a staggering hazard in their wake, catching roots with my heels, dislodging rocks, and leaving gashes in the mud where my boots slid frictionlessly in all directions.

At the halfway point of the first day’s climb, we stopped at a campsite for lunch. Two other hikers and their guide awaited us there. The guide had fallen on the trail and injured his leg too badly to continue the climb, but he asked if his hikers could join us. Of course, we said, and after scarfing down sandwiches of sliced tomato, cucumber, and soft cheese on swollen baguettes, the five of us put our gear back on and set out again. Khoa said it would be two more hours of rugged uphill slog before we reached our destination camp. We spent the first half hour traversing gently sloping hills thick with green growth that fell away into sagging clouds. If this was a slog, I could slog all day long.

My confidence was premature; here came the slog. The rain had held off all morning and into early afternoon, but as we reached the most difficult part of the day’s hike, where handrails had been mercifully erected on either side of the path, the clouds burst. My raincoat, completely waterproof in both directions, proved its worth and then some. My body produced a steam that condensed on the inside lining of the coat, soaking my cotton tee-shirt through. I didn’t mind the cool moisture as long as we kept moving, but as we climbed the temperature fell, and at the end of each brief respite I had to fight off the shivers.

For the next 90 minutes, we pulled ourselves up wet boulders and mudslick hills, using rails and roots and rocks and whatever else we could to keep our bodies plowing forward. On a cloudless day the scenery would have been as staggering as the climb, but in the steady rain on a dissolving path, watching our feet fall was a more prudent option. We took care navigating the home stretch, a bamboo thicket dangerous in the wet because the path had been cleared haphazardly, leaving aborted chutes sticking several inches out of the ground, their tops lopped off at sharp angles. Here and there we found groups of fuzzy baby bamboo chutes, which we plucked and collected to boil for dinner later on.

We made camp with about an hour of daylight left. The camp building was basically a corrugated metal barn with six bunks divided three to a side by a muddy aisle, with a door on each end left open to channel the brisk wind. Inside we found some dried bamboo chutes for kindling and two dozen red potatoes left behind by previous inhabitants. After exchanging my cold, soaking wet clothes for chilly, damp ones, I sat around useless while Khoa and the Hanh built a fire, splitting the chutes in half lengthwise with an imposing machete and constructing a pyramid in the middle of the aisle (pictured at left). The two hikers who had joined us collected water for cooking from the stream outside. The fire crackling away now, Khoa handed me the machete to begin peeling potatoes for dinner. Determined to make it back down the mountain the next day with all my digits intact, I peeled so slowly it was almost dark when I finished. (to be continued…)

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Huang Shan (part three)

(…continued from previous posts)

My tiny alarm clock set to beeping at 4:15 a.m. the following morning. In a semi-lucid state I managed to silence it, sluggishly pondering why on earth I’d wanted to wake up so early. Oh, that’s right, the famous Huang Shan sunrise. Now I’m not ordinarily a wake-at-an-unholy-hour-to-watch-another-day-begin kind of guy, but the sunrise over Huang Shan’s North Sea was said to be breathtaking. Of course, at a mile high and with an intimidating number of stairs separating you and each next glorious vista, ‘breathtaking’ is an adjective you can use pretty liberally in describing this place.

On the right day the sun emerges brilliant from behind peaks a distance to the east, and a rolling “sea of clouds” nestles in the valley between. Today there were no clouds, but my awe was not diminished for it. I lingered around the North Sea area, climbing from lookout to lookout long after most of my fellow sun-gazers went back in for breakfast. I was certainly intoxicated by the view, but with an aching back and tender legs, I was probably subconsciously trying to delay what lay ahead. The previous day’s trek had been straight up the 7.5-km eastern steps; today I would take the winding and strenuous 15-km western steps around the various peaks and back down to the mountain gate.

The western steps afford visitors the very best of Huang Shan’s scenery. At times they cling to the rock face, hiding a sheer drop of hundreds of feet to boulders below, and offer panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and valley. They trace their way through caves and narrows, in places so tight I had to remove my pack and slide through sideways. They perilously twist up to windy peaks and down the other side, the way made a bit easier (and less dizzying) by hand-holds notched into the rock and taut ropes to grip.

One particular highlight is Yingkesong (Guest Greeting Pine), an 800-year old tree leaning out from the rocks, its crown resembling a man whose arms are outstretched, welcoming. It is such an esteemed symbol in China that it has 24-hour ‘bodyguards’ that tend to its every need, monitoring soil and atmospheric conditions and making sure that none of the 3,000-4,000 people who make the pilgrimage each day damage the tree by disturbing it or even smoking around it.

On a side note, atop each of Huang Shan’s peaks you’ll find dozens of padlocks hung from the chains that surround the lookout (pictured at left). They’re called “lovers’ locks”; smitten couples ascend the peaks and leave a lock behind, representing the permanence of their love. I thought it a rather unique and charming tradition.

Because I wanted to make it down the mountain and back to Tangkou in time to catch a bus to Tunxi that afternoon, I went a little faster than I would have liked. The landscape all the way down the western steps is, well, breathtaking, and certainly worth taking the time to appreciate. Next time I’ll pace myself.

Here’s some video I took while walking one of Huang Shan’s paths.

Costs: Shanghai to Tunxi bus – RMB 132 (approx. US$19)

Tunxi to Tangkuo minibus – RMB 14 ($2)

Tangkuo to Huang Shan gate – RMB 14 ($2) by bus, RMB 30 ($4) by taxi

Huang Shan entrance fee – RMB 200 ($29)

Huang Shan summit hotel rates range from RMB 100 ($15) for a 6-bed dorm to expensive luxury suites.

And by the way, don’t make the same mistake I did and wear hiking boots. The steps were only about half the length of my boots in some places, so I would have been safer and more comfortable in athletic shoes with decent grip.

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Huang Shan (part two)

Two things immmediately struck me as I undertook the climb to Huang Shan’s summit. One, the Chinese are a fit people (or perhaps I’m not such a fit people). Picture a white guy clopping his way up a neverending staircase in the woods, loudly laboring to breathe, his face permanently aglisten with perspiration and ever-more pink, his body sporting fewer and fewer articles of clothing in a futile effort to cool off. He stops every few minutes for some desperate gasps and swigs from his water bottle, only to be passed by sanguine-looking elderly Chinese ladies mastering the steps in platform shoes.

The second thing that struck me was the vastness of the effort required ro lay miles and miles of stone path up, down, and all over these mountains. In spite of having a few cable car systems in place to ferry lazy tourists to and from the summit, almost all of the food, supplies, and building materials required to accommodate the thousands of daily visitors to Huang Shan are lugged up the stairs by porters shouldering massive panniered baskets. And just as all that stuff goes up with porters, so does all the waste come back down. According to Polly Evans in her travel book, Fried Eggs with Chopsticks, each load these tiny heroes carry up and down the mountain (and they can usually only take one per day) earns them RMB 40, about US $6.

Needless to say, I wouldn’t last an afternoon as a porter. I did, however, manage to make carrying my backpack look like a heroic effort. I reached the top of the eastern steps in about two hours (and only took a couple years off my life expectancy!), immensely relieved and completely oblivious to the fact that my hotel was another hour’s walk around the summit.

I’ve decided not to share the evidence with you, but let’s just say that in the photos taken of me after completing the eastern steps, I’m the pale thing in between the mountains that looks like a stewed goose.

I kept trudging along until, wracked with fatique and redolent of barn animal, I reached my hotel. Finding my room, a 6-bed dorm, I downed a canister of Pringles and a liter of water, took a cold shower and climbed into my bunk soaking wet. I must have hit REM sleep before I was dry. (to be continued…)

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Huang Shan (part one)

A couple weeks ago I had the opportunity to travel into China’s Anhui province to ascend Huang Shan (Yellow Mountain), a place so abundant in natural beauty that it has for centuries enchanted and inspired artists and poets, earning a prominent place in Chinese lore.

The mountain looms over the town of Tangkou, where I finally arrived in the middle of a Thursday afternoon, seven hours (spread over two bus rides) after leaving Shanghai. I was instructed by the bus driver’s emphatic index finger to get off the bus in the middle of the town, where we had conveniently stopped in front of a local hotel. Inside I was told that it was too late to catch the shuttle to Huangshan’s entrance, that I should get a room for the night. By my clock I still had an hour to get to the gate before it closed for the day at 4:00 pm, so I declined a room and found a taxi outside to take me to the gate. Or so I thought.

After producing a map and assuring me we were headed to the right place, the driver deposited me at the entrance to nearby waterfalls and took off, so I had to take another taxi back to town, where I had to find yet another one to take me to the correct entrance. The whole ordeal set me back nearly an hour and RMB 80 (about US$12), so that I paid the entrance fee (RMB 200) and walked into the mountain preserve at 3:59 pm, the guard locking the gate behind me. I sprightly set off up the hill, a bit frazzled from the taxi confusion but deeply satisfied that I didn’t have to return to the Tangkou hotel and meekly ask for a room after all.

The Lonely Planet guide indicated that the climb up the mountain’s eastern steps would take two-and-a-half hours, which would put me at the top just before sundown. Saddled with a thirty-pound backpack and facing approximately seven billion stairsteps between here and there, though, I knew I’d have to hurry. (to be continued…)

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