Tag Archives: Mountains

Patagonia: Incredible mountains and glaciers

We flew from Buenos Aires to El Calafate, the jumping off point to see the illustrious Perito Moreno glacier.  El Calafate also had a lake with a nice marsh for birds including flamingos!  Seeing the flamingos in their natural habitat was a nice surprise.

After our day tour to the glacier, we headed for El Chaltan for some hiking.  Driving into El Chaltan, we were struck by Mount Fitz Roy and the surrounding mountains, which looked like a natural castle.  We spent the next few days hiking around, and Jen did a day tour to the Viedma glacier to go ice climbing!  Jen got lucky with good weather and a small group, but unfortunately a back injury from falling in Bariloche prevented her from really getting after the ice.  Jen got to go on this expensive adventure while Jon enjoyed another hike, since he had used up his adventure cash mountain biking.

Next, we were really excited to meet up with friends from Boulder:  Jenn (who also met us in Beijing!), Andrea, her husband Ryan, and Harlan.  They were joining us to hike the famous W track in Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia!  We had already had a few winter ski hut adventures with Andrea, Ryan and Harlan, so this was not our first backcountry adventure together.

We arrived in Chile a few days early to plan, buy food, and pack.  We hiked in to the first campsite on our own, and headed up the hill to try to see the gorges “Los Torres” peaks while the weather held out.  Torres del Paine is famous for severe and changeable weather, so any sun is a blessing!   We waited and waited for our friends to arrive at the Refugio, and they finally made it around 9 pm due to some South American antics.  Since they were on a shorter (and more luxurious) vacation, they opted for staying in the refugios and paying for cooked meals, while we camped and cooked for ourselves.

The next morning, the rest of the group hiked up to the Los Torres peaks, and later we all took off for our next campsite at Los Cuernos.   The next day, we hiked up the French Valley to some of the most amazing views of the hike.  Unfortunately, the photos from this part of the hike did not turn out due to some snow and low lighting, but we could hear either glacier calving or avalanches thundering as we hiked towards the glaciers hanging off of the huge mountains.  That night, we relaxed by joining our friends in their backcountry hot tub that came with the cabins that they booked.  Unfortunately, we did not make it up to the glacier at the end of the lake (to complete the W) due to 80 km/hr winds which kept us up all night by literally slapping us with the tent.  We will be back to hike in this park again!  Patagonia with its granite rock formations was probably the most stunning scenery of the trip.

We had an amazing time with our friends, but they were heading to Buenos Aires and we headed to Brazil in time for CARNAVAL!

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Middle Earth

The next part of the trip really knocked our socks off.  It was probably the best scenery of the trip.

We drove from the rainy glaciers on the coast into the lakes and mountain views of Wanaka.  On the great advice of our friend, Kate, who lived in Wanaka, we stayed at our favorite backpackers of the trip, Wanaka Backpacka, with gorgeous views of the lake, and a friendly vibe.  We loved biking around the lake, and hiking to another glacier with some friends from the hostel.  We even saw a movie at a great theatre in town, which serves homemade ice cream and cookies at intermission.  Yes, intermission!

We wished we could have spent more time in Wanaka, but off we went to Glenorchy, to camp and do a day hike of the Routeburn Track, a Great Walk in New Zealand.  Some of the Lord of the Rings movies were shot in Glenorchy, and it did not disappoint, aside from some small battles with sandflies, our constant foe.  We wished we could have done the entire Routeburn hike, but unfortunately the logistics did not work out.   We will be back to do the rest of this hike!

Driving into Queenstown, we couldn’t help feeling giddy at the sight of the gorgeous peaks of the Remarkable range above the clear blue water of Lake Wakatipu.  We did another bike ride around the lake together, and Jon did some mountain biking.  While Jon was mountain biking, Jen headed to bask in the sun with some ice cream and a Bostonian friend, Jenny.  Just when we decided that the day couldn’t get any better, Jen and Jenny were invited to join a spinning speedboat on the lake and canyons for FREE!  Granted, the boat’s captain was only practicing and we were his second ride, but it only added to the excitement.  Did he actually mean to almost swerve into that rock or pole?  We’ll never know, but we survived the ride, delighted and declaring that the day really was the best ever.   We topped off our perfect day with the perfect gigantic burger from Fergburger, more great advice from our friends Nick and Sarah.  We can’t wait to get back to Queenstown!

From Queenstown, we headed to Te Anau to tramp the Kepler Track, another Great Walk.  We were worrried that our sunny weather luck had changed, as the forecast showed three days of rain.    However, we only had mysterious clouds that would come and go, revealing the tops of mountains or bottoms of lake.   We lucked out with only occasional sprinkles of rain or misting throughout the entire 3 day 53 km (33 miles) walk, aside from the last hour, when we were stuck in a big downpour.

China – Off the Tourist Path (a bit)

We actually have Pinterest to thank for our days in Southern China’s Zhangjiajie National Park.  Jen found photos of this place on Pinterest.  In spite of the Pinterest dreams, we never could manage to pronounce “Zhangjiajie” correctly, so we started calling it Jumanji instead.  So, I will continue to refer to it as Jumanji in this post.

During trip planning, we figured that we could try to get there from Guilin.  It didn’t look that far on a map, right?  Wrong.  Different province, and quite a distance between the two, especially when we discovered that the overnight tourist bus to Zhangjiajie, promised by several websites, did not exist.   We were at the bus station, coming to terms with this information when we were told that a bus leaving for another town where we could catch a train to Jumanji was leaving in ten minutes.  Without much thought and no great alternative, we jumped on the bus to avoid losing another travel day.   We boarded to a bus full of stares, as we were the only non-Chinese on the bus.

It was on this bus ride that we learned just how rustic toilets can get.  (A warning to our delicate readers: the next few sentences are definitely about toilets.)  We had already discovered that standard toilets in China are as follows: a squat toilet, BYO TP, which may or may not have a sink, which almost never has soap.  This includes toilets in nice areas.  The one exception were our toilets at the hotel.  (THANK GOODNESS.)   However, the squat toilets at the one stop on our locals-bus had the added bonus of lacking doors or walls between squatters, and only small bricks separating the holes in the ground.   Lovely!  I would rather go in the woods.

We rolled in a town called Huaihua around nightfall.  Unfortunately, the town was not even in our guidebook, and we had no access to internet to book accommodation after our quick decision.  Then there was the unfortunate fact that we don’t speak any Chinese – we had learned that few people speak English in outside of tourist areas of China, even at our hotels.  We had been getting around with a combination of help from our hotels and a translator application on the iPhone.

Stumbling off the bus to a street that was completely shut down at 7 pm, we were suddenly surrounded by a group of Chinese people who all seemed to want us to come with them.  We were feeling a bit overwhelmed when suddenly we heard a meek, “Hello, do you need help?”  A young Chinese couple had come to our rescue.  They guided us out of the excited mob and towards a hotel.  They even helped us check in, as no one at the hotel spoke any English.  Jen was so appreciative that she hugged the girl, who almost certainly did not appreciate the physical contact.  The hotel was actually pretty disgusting, but overall we were still happy to have been helped.

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Extremely grateful to our saviours in Huaihua, bringing us to a hotel after getting off a bus  in a Chinese city that sees almost zero tourists

We made it onto the train station the next day (On our own!  Victory!) and boarded a train for Jumanji.  It was on this train that we experienced the trash and other small kind acts from our fellow passengers mentioned in the last post.

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Pretty views of mountain countryside en route from Guilin to Zhangjiajie, via Huaihua.
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Along with the pretty views comes the not so pretty interior of the “hard seat” class – no trash cans, but people did come by to sweep up every so often
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Talking with some of the locals from Huaihua to Zhangjiajie was fun, here a young Huaihuan entrepreneur explained to Jon his business.

Jumanji was all that Pinterest promised it to be, and more.  Spires of karst limestone in deep valleys, including the spire that supposedly inspired the mountain in the movie Avatar.  We climbed up 3,878 steps (according to our guidebook) the first day, to incredible views of the formations in the valleys below.   We also soared through the spires on gondolas and watched the valley wall as we descended on a 335 meter glass elevator.

We walked around, and quickly learned what it must be like to be famous, because at least once an hour, Chinese people would request to take photos with us.  It would usually start with one group pose which would turn into many other arrangements with their extended friends and family.  Other times, folks nearby would see the photo session and want to have their own photo series with the random Western couple at the park that day.  Occasionally other Chinese people would randomly snap photos of us as they walked by: sometimes covertly, other times not.  A couple of times, we would request photos of the event as well, if we were feeling especially amused by our new-found paparazzi.   Although we have been asked to be in random photos before, the frequency of our paparazzi in Jumanji was astounding.

We had two other interesting cultural experiences in Jumanji – pushing grandmas and kids doing their business in public.  The first, pushing, usually involves shoulders etc in crowded areas, but in the particularly beautiful viewing platforms and while attempting to get on a bus, we experienced the two-hand push of grandmas.

The second, pooping kids, starts with holes in the crotch of small children, usually under the age of 4.  It’s common for children of this age to have the entire crotch of their pants open from front to back.  We learned what this was for when we saw children doing their business on the sidewalk, on the street, or wherever they had to go.  It could be into a bag, onto newspaper, or directly onto the ground, whether number one or number two.

We ended the time in Jumanji (alright, Zhangjjiajie National Park) amazed by both the views and the cultural experiences.

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Late dinner at the Huaihua hotel restaurant – language was a barrier, so honestly we weren’t sure what some of the food was 🙂
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Chinese breakfast served by an older gentleman in army fatigues each morning, who seemed to be yelling at us (no English of course), but had a heart of gold and became a highlight of our stay at our hotel in Zhangjiajie City.
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Delicious dinner at a Zhangjiajie City restaurant – we didn’t realize plates came “family style”, but we were happy to take leftovers home 🙂
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Lively street where our hotel was in Zhangjiajie City.

Now onto big city living, Chinese style – Shanghai and Beijing (with some 2,000 year-old warrior action thrown in-between).

China Mountains, Rivers, Valleys, and Terraces

At the time of writing this post, we are rolling through the Chinese countryside on a train.   Outside are pretty terraced rice fields with small hills rising between.  Inside, people are smoking cigarettes, spitting, (seemingly) yelling, and throwing all of their trash onto the ground, including peanut shells, wrappers, and plastic bottles.  However, our seat mates are friendly; one even bought water for us from outside the train at a stop!   Another practiced her English with us and gave us little moon cake snacks.  Such are the pleasures and difficulties of our time in China.

Jon and I had been in Southeast Asia for about 6 weeks at the time we entered China, plus the last 4 days spent in Hong Kong.  However, arriving in mainland China was still culture shock akin to a slap to the face…with a fermented fish.

We flew into Guilin, China, and pleasantly surprised to have no issues with Visa or arrivals whatsoever – we can probably thank the arrival at the small Guilin airport for this.  We were instantly attracted to the mountains surrounding the town, and eager to explore one of the top  tourist cities of China.   There was a night market that ran up and down the two streets that are hotel was on, which was cool, but other than that and a very artificial setup downtown with pretty lights all around the downtown lake.  Overall, the town of  Guilin was “meh,” but the surrounding scenery was gorgeous.

We did take a one day tour to “the Dragon Rice Terraces”, about a 3 hour bus ride from Guilin.   Situated deep in a river valley then rising up the sides of the mountains were centuries-old rice terraces.    Jon had a lot of fun hiking and exploring the trails and villages that winded throughout the terraces; Jen took the gondola due to an ankle injury.

We did have to endure the Chinese-style tour.  We quickly learned that this involved a Chinese tour guide speaking incredibly loudly for incredibly long stretches through a loudspeaker, in addition to being shuttled around like cattle.   Even the oft-used horn on the bus seemed to be at volumes many times the U.S. standard.   All volumes in China – speaking, phone calls, car horns, microphone, etc – seemed to be at much higher volumes than we are used to in the Western world.  Or, perhaps the rest of the world.  We learned our lesson…no more tours!

Our next stop was Yangshuo, which according to our guidebook is now often the preferred tourist city over Guilin.   To get there we took a “bamboo boat” river cruise down the Li River.  It was gorgeous scenery: the river is even featured on the back of the Chinese 20 Yuan bills!

Yangshuo was one of the highlights of China.   The “town” (which in China still means a population around 300,000) is surrounded by mountains and a river, and the central part of town is a pleasant place to stroll around and explore.   The lively walking street had it all: bars, restaurants, live music,  and even archery!

Best of all, Yangshuo is the perfect place to bike around.   We took off from our hotel just outside town, biked through town, crossing rivers and valleys leading outside of town to a mountain hike.   On the way back, we followed the Yilong river, which winds among the mountains and back rounds end up back in town.  One of the best (road) bike rides ever!

The karst limestone mountains around Guilin and Yangshou were stunning, despite the culture shock.  We headed for more mountain views in Zhangjiajie, China!

The End of Africa

We took an overnight bus from Zimbabwe to Johannesburg, and I have to say that we were ready to be in South Africa again.  Despite the bad reviews we had heard of Johannesburg, we had a great time in the big city.  We went out to nice meals and fun bars and clubs in a trendy area near our hostel.  Jo’burg was surprisingly hip but still laid-back.  It was encouraging to see diverse groups of people, at least in the ritzy nightlife scene.  We met friends from the US and Botswana in our hostel and joined them for the night on the town.

The next day, we visited the Apartheid Museum, which was incredibly powerful and beautifully presented, and the World of Beer, which was commercialized and worth skipping.  As we were walking out of the World of Beer, we received a phone call from our friends from the hostel.  “Um, can you pick us up?  Our car was stolen!”  “Of course!”  “We’re in a shopping mall.”  “Be right there.”

We drove as the sun set…and we drove and drove.  We saw a sign for “Soweto,” the historical township, and current high crime area.  We started getting nervous.  Not a good idea to drive here at night. Random objects in the road, then people walking in the road.  “Don’t stop at stoplights,” we had been told, which was easy because the street lights were mostly out, adding to the darkness and our increasing anxiety.   We called our friends: “Our GPS must be wrong!  It drove us straight into Soweto!”  “No, that’s right – we’re in a shopping mall…in the heart of Soweto.”  Well, that would have been good to know – we thought we were driving to one of Jo’burgs chic malls.  Despite our better judgment, we picked up the stranded group in Soweto.   “Now, can you drive us to the police station?”  “Allllright.”  We didn’t get out of the car for the entire two hour rescue mission, even at the sketchy-looking police station.  It turned out that they had stopped at a chain food shop in a strip mall, and their car had been stolen in less than 6 minutes in broad daylight in a crowded parking lot.  All in all it was quite a long rescue mission, and they never did find their car.  We were glad it wasn’t us and happy to have helped.

After a few days in the big city, we headed to the Drakensburg Mountains.  We spent a day staying with the hospitable and kind family of Jon’s friends from college, Cameron, on a beautiful cattle farm.  We then spent a night in their rustic cabin near the entrance to the national park into a section of the Drakensberg Mountains.  We hiked to some cave paintings, and tried to stay warm with a fire.  Jen came down with a stomach bug, so Jon went on a hike in the morning, and then we headed for the coast and warmer temperatures.

Durban had perfect temperatures and a nice beach, a perfect antidote to freezing nights in the highlands.

Overall, we loved our time in Africa…  the people, the diverse natural beauty of desert, coast, mountains, and valleys, and of course, the animals.   We both agree we will make a return trip to Africa, it is a special place.

But for now… next-up, brief stop in the Middle East and then on to Asia!  Can’t wait!

Garden Route: Stunning coastline and mountains

After the sun ran out in Cape Town, Jon and I jumped in a rented pint-sized, yet trusty, “Chev” (AKA Chevrolet) “Spark Lite”.  Jon began the task of learning to drive on the left side of the street! To our delight, he was mostly a champ, with only a few minor lapses into the right side of the road, and we survived.

We spent long days in the car, driving east from Cape Town on the Garden Route, watching the scenery as we rolled by.

Our first stop was blustery Mossel Bay, where we enjoyed a delicious seafood dinner while watching the waves crash, and a lovely seaside coast walk the next morning.

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Jon hiking along coastline at Mossel Bay

We continued to sleepy Knysna, with its lagoon and stunning cliffs.

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Looking across at some spectacular property along the cliffs in Knysna
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Jon where the ocean comes into the bay in Knysna

Next was glamorous Plettenberg Bay, where we had the highlight of our mini-tour:  a hike along Robberg Peninsula, a nature reserve.

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Panorama at Roberg Peninsula in Plettenberg Bay – STUNNING scenery

Here, we also stumbled upon a farm with homemade organic cheese, meat, cream, etc, and naturally Jen went nuts bought entirely too much food to eat and cart around with us.  We stayed at a B&B in a nature reserve, with 360′ views of both the forest and the beach.

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Incredible view in the common area of the guest house in Plettenberg Bay – lucky to share it with just the owners while it was the off season!

Jon delighted every time someone passed us and gave us the universal “thank you”: a few flashes of the emergency signals.  Jen delighted every time someone called her, “MAMA.”  We won’t discuss the time when Jon almost lost his wallet.

Upon the solid advice of Cameron, a UVA friend of Jon’s, we headed inland for the drive back, through some amazing mountain scenery.

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Mountain pass heading up from the coast to the scenic, more in-land “Route 62” route.

We came upon an ostrich farm and Jon tried out his hand as an ostrich-jockey.  Jen declined, but had a hilarious time watching two men try to hold back the poor ostrich that ran like mad when it realized that Jon was on his back.

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Jen and the foster mother ostrich – she and her mate raise young from abandoned eggs
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Jon “Ostrich Jockey” Wohlers

We stayed on a beautiful farm with the nicest elderly South African/English couple that ever could be.

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View at the farm where we stayed in Montagu

We drove quickly back to Capetown through some pretty mountains so that Jon could meet up with Cameron to mountain bike… unfortunately, when they got there it was pouring and had to cancel.   Instead, they met up at a REALLY good brewery in town, Devil’s Peak, named after the mountain next to Table Mountain.

Jon and Cameron at Devil's Peak Brewery in Capetown
Jon and his UVA friend, Cameron, at Devil’s Peak Brewery in Capetown

We head out to wild Namibia tomorrow, for sand dunes, big game, and real adventure!  Can’t wait.

Wow! What an amazing first day…

…it really is hard to imagine 9.5 months of days like this…

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Being Coloradans, we began plotting when and how we would climb Table Mountain as soon as we set eyes on it.  We set out the first morning.    It was cold and wet (no rain, just waterfalls and puddles left over from lots of rain yesterday and overnight), but an incredible 2 hr hike, lunch at the top, and then a tram ride down. After a taxi ride back to the hostel and a hot shower, we caught one of the local doubledecker, open-top sightseeing tour buses that go around the city and took the route that goes around Table Mountain and the surrounding towns that we could see from the top of the mountain.  We also stopped along the route at the botanical gardens and Camp Bay – both very cool!  We ended the day with an African game meat platter – croc ribs, warthog ribs, gemsbock and ostrich – and some SA wine.

It’s going to be a great trip!