The Grasslands of Inner Mongolia

This weekend Lukas, Jerry, David and I absconded with our bodies to enjoy a weekend Great Khan-style in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia (a province of China, not the independent country where I turned down the opportunity to help expand AIESEC).

First we took the Friday evening overnight K263 train to Hohhot, the capital of Nèi Měnggǔ province.  Though not the first “hard sleeper” train I had ever taken (that honor goes to the Qingzang Railway), The K263 was the first sleeper train I had taken which did not have compartments for the groupings of six beds, three in a stack.  There were only walls between every other stack of beds, allowing the feet of abnormally tall people like myself to obstruct the train car’s walkway.  After a few beers and a couple of swigs of the Scottish Collie whisky Lukas brought along, we climbed into bed just in time for the 22:00 lights out.  The nightcap protected my slumber from the rumblings of the K263, even when we stopped in heavily polluted Datong at the unholy hour of about 02:00.

The train pulled into Hohhot at 05:00 the next morning, and we stumbled out into the city which is the butt of many jokes by both laowai and Chinese for its conjured image as a rough industrial splotch on the remote Mongolian frontier.  In the dark of the morning, it seemed to be mostly correct.  Hohhot was not our final destination; we were headed to the grasslands tourism hub of Xilamuren, but the first bus did not leave until 07:00.  Dico’s, the Chinese fast-food chicken chain, was the only establishment open for breakfast near the train and bus stations.  After a terrible breakfast there we purchased our bus tickets to Xilamuren, about 21 kuai for a two-hour bus ride.  In and around the bus station, touts claimed that in Xilamuren the grass was dead because it “had not rained in over a month” and that only their spot had any tall grass.  We ignored their lies; Lukas’ friend had been caught in an Inner Mongolian downpour within the past week.

When the bus platform opened we climbed in the back and watched the drunken or senile (or both) antics of an old bald Inner Mongolian man.  We could not understand his stuttering mixture of what must have been Chinese and Mongolian.  The local bus riders watched him with amusement.  It emerged that he had not purchased a ticket but still expected to ride the bus, and no amount of pleading by the bus driver and the passenger whom he had slighted could get him to move.  The bus pulled out with one too many passengers, but as it reached the gate pavilion a police woman stepped onto the bus and demanded that he get off the bus and buy a ticket for another bus.  He still would not move.  Physically removing him would have been far too embarrassing and a huge no-no in the Chinese concept of “face,” but the driver and police woman found a particularly Chinese solution.  The bus driver announced that there were problems with the bus and so we would have to swap buses.  He pulled back around to the bus platform and ushered everyone off, taking care to get the old man’s scarf off the bus seat where he left it.  Someone then escorted the man back into the bus station while the bus pulled up to the road and the driver instructed us to run after it, and we all jumped on and the door shut with the proper dues-paying passengers safely aboard.  Before the bus could leave the station altogether, the old man came running and yelling along the side and stood in front of the bus, decrying the injustice meted on his head.  I could not see what happened next, but I guess someone physically held him back while the bus entered the streets and drove away.

Hohhot is at the southern base of the Great Blue Mountains which rise to form the grasslands plateau.  The bus ride from the relatively polluted city into the mountains grants the rider with beautiful views of striking green grassy hills and a sky as blue as any Alabama has to offer.   By the time we reached Xilamuren, pollution was a totally forgotten phenomenon.  The wind was brisk and ever-present, like the outlet of a great oxygen factory.  This made us smile; when you live in Beijing, this sort of thing is a pleasure even if you just sit still for hours.

The bus dropped us off in a large tourist settlement full of concrete “yurts,” so we decided to walk up the road to find a car that could take us to a smaller collection of yurts.  Less than five minutes after walking up the main drag of Xilamuren, a woman on a motorcycle asked us where we were going to which we replied “Ulan Bator.”  She offered us a stay in one of her yurts, which she promised were much fewer in number than the large settlement and were suitably far away from this agglomeration at seven kilometers up the road.  After haggling the transport price down to 50 kuai for all of us and 100 kuai total for the yurt she agreed to our conditions.  We waited for about thirty minutes before her older sister took us up to the yurt settlement, which was an arrangement of about twenty yurts of differing amenity levels around a common courtyard.  It was small and nice, surrounded by nothing but grasslands and a few similarly-sized yurt settlements hundreds of meters to kilometers away.

It was only 10:00 so we dropped our bags in the yurt and ordered some goat or horse milk tea, I am not sure which.  The yurt boasted a picture of Kublai Khan at the back and a small table in the middle of the raised platform, which was our sleeping surface.  We relaxed with the tea and enjoyed the view of the grasslands, though the sky was rather cloudy and the air a bit chilly.  After a couple of hours and a few bites for lunch we were ready to ride horses.

Lukas Negotiates the Horse Prices
Lukas Negotiates the Horse Prices

I have ridden horses only thrice, the last time over ten years ago.  Each time I rode a horse that was unruly and would run off from the rest of the group, frightening the hell out of me, especially when one almost knocked my head off by nearly running me into a tree limb.  I told myself that now I am no longer a boy and I should be able to deal with it.  We paid for five hours of horse riding at 20 kuai per person per hour.  The first bad sign came when the guide angrily yelled and cursed at the manager that he had been riding all week and did not want to ride today.  He had a sour and angry look on his face the whole ride and would curse randomly.  Having an unhappy guide is not a desirable thing.

Within thirty minutes, after the horses began to trot and gallop, I was moaning in pain.  My horse’s stirrups were far too short.  Even once I figured out the sort of rhythmic rise and fall to avoid being jostled like a jackhammer by the horse’s trotting, my knees quickly gave out since I could not stretch them into a resting position.  It was like I was squatting the whole time, so I was unable to keep up the proper riding stance.  Plus, I received a terribly painful blister next to my tailbone from rubbing against the saddle.  After two hours of this, I knew I would never make it for three more, even though I felt bad for being the spoilsport to the others’ fun.  David was an experienced rider and Lukas handled his horse well enough, and while Jerry had a tough time of it he was clearly not in the same sad shape as me.  I started screaming with frustration and pain halfway through the ride, to which the guide paid no heed.  Thankfully, we stopped at a hut to relax and enjoy some tea, but every movement was painful.  From that point forward, we rode the horses at a walk back to the camp and everyone was sore.  Even right now, forty-eight hours later, sitting down and standing up is laborious and the blister’s pain has not yet been halved.

We took a couple of hours’ rest in the yurt and instructed the camp’s cook to prepare a roast leg of lamb for us.  After our rest we ordered some regular dishes which were surprisingly tasty albeit expensive since this was a tourist resort.  Upon finishing our beers and the regular dishes, a server brought in the glorious roast leg of lamb and placed it at the center of the table.  Our eyes lit up at its steaming mountains of perfectly-cooked flesh and well-rendered fat over thick, large bones.  The cook provided two knives, and we wasted no time in carving and savoring the flavorful bounty.  Lamb is one of my favorite things to eat in China, but it usually comes low-quality and thinly sliced as the barbecue shish kebab yang rou chuan’r sticks that must accompany any warm night out, and the cold ones too when it’s not so deadly icy that the stall cooks stay indoors.  This leg of lamb was orders of magnitude above those miserable sinews in comparison, cut fresh from a healthy specimen killed that day.  We sliced everything until only a small altar of forearm-sized bones remained on the table.  Coupled with teacup mixtures of Scottish Collie and Pepsi, we were satisfied that we had organized a good dudes’ weekend out.

Sunset of Xilamuren
Sunset of Xilamuren
Remnants of the Evening Feast
Remnants of the Evening Feast

Once we licked our lips clean of the lamb’s flesh, the proprietor called us out to the courtyard in the center of all the yurts to dance around the bonfire with the rest of the Chinese tourists.  We participated for a bit and played the regular laowai celebrities, getting our pictures taken with all of the Chinese people.  We then stepped out beyond the commotion of the techno dance party around the bonfire and walked into the darkness of the grasslands to enjoy the starry night sky.  It was the second-best star-scene I have seen in China, next to Nam Tso lake in Tibet.  Twenty minutes granted us with several shooting stars, possibly of Perseid origin, two satellites, and the full arching band of the Milky Way, interrupted only by fireworks from the courtyard and from other yurt settlements.

Before we made it back to our yurt, a Chinese businessman invited us to join him and his colleagues in their yurt.  We grabbed the two small bottles of Mongolian baijiu we purchased earlier and the large bottle of Pepsi and accompanied him to his yurt.  Eight Chinese businessmen greeted us.  They were just getting started on their evening of drinking, and in the middle of their table sat an entire roast lamb.  Lukas and David had seen this very lamb slaughtered earlier that evening.  They invited us to sit at the table,happy that we had brought a gift of liquor.  Before they carved the lamb, they had us all sing a song from our homelands and drink a full bowl of the 132-proof baijiu.  I sang “This Land is Your Land,” and Jerry sang “Henry the Eighth,” while Lukas sang a Czech song and David sang a Colombian song.  After we sang and downed the strong liquor, we were granted a blue khata scarf, a tradition shared by the Mongolians and Tibetans from their long history of cultural exchange.  The businessmen didn’t sing songs, but the girl who served food sang a song while each businessman stood at the front of the yurt, and when she finished singing he would down the bowl of baijiu and take the blue khata scarf.  Once this finished, one of our hosts began carving the lamb and offered everyone a generous slice, with we laowai receiving the first cuts.

Over the course of the evening we consumed about one-third of the lamb, six or seven slices for each of us.  We were heartbroken that we could not eat more of it, but it was clear that our hosts purchased the lamb more for its “face” value than for the actual enjoyment of its succulent meat.  It was more important for the boss of the company to show that he could buy the whole lamb than it was to finish eating it, a fact bolstered by their generous offerings of very expensive cigarettes – I turned them down because I don’t smoke, but if I was engaging in business negotiations with them I would have to accept and smoke them regardless of my personal practice.  Once we finished eating and chatting, the boss of the company directed us all in a simple drinking game in which he turned away from the circle and beat a plastic bottle with a chopstick while we all passed a pack of cards like a hot potato.  When the boss ceased tapping the bottle, whoever had the pack of cards had to take a shot of baijiu.  This continued for nearly an hour, so by the end of the evening we were all in merry spirits indeed.  During our chat, the businessman who invited us boasted that his son is the official in Beijing’s Chaoyang District (where the Central Business District and my office are located) who ultimately signs off on every construction approval in the District.  We surmised that these men, in addition to being the executives of a textiles company, must be semi-influential Party members as well.

Exhausted from so much eating and drinking, we went to bed at about 23:30 and groggily arose with the Sun at 7:30.  It was certainly hilarious to rise from the floor of the yurt to be greeted by the bony remains of our lamb feast from the previous night.  We chugged some water and set out on a grasslands walkabout.  Unlike the first day, there were no clouds in sight and the sun glowed warmly on the steppes.  We walked for nearly four hours, simply enjoying the perfect quiet and the clean air.  It is incredible that this idyllic natural escape is such a short hop away from the incessant clamor and choking air of Beijing.

Our Gracious Hosts
Our Gracious Hosts
Laowai Grassland Nomads
Laowai Grassland Nomads

We packed up our things from the yurt and caught a ride to Xilamuren’s bus stop, where the first bus to pass blew right down the road since it was full.  Not long after, a Chinese couple in a minivan offered to take us to Hohhot for a fee.  The man driving wanted to milk the foreigners for a handsome sum, but we managed to pay only 25 kuai each – just 4 RMB more than the bus ticket would have cost.  He exclaimed to his wife repeatedly that he could not believe he was taking us for such a small sum.

When we left their van in Hohhot, we ate some spicy noodle soup and then went to the Great Mosque, built in fully Chinese architectural style.  Even the minaret is topped by a Chinese-style pavilion roof, the crescent moon on top offering the only indication that this is an Islamic structure.  You can walk around the courtyard for free, but only people coming to pray can enter the prayer hall.  We spent the rest of the day relaxing in the shade of Hohhot’s completely not-old Old City, a disgusting “cultural preservation” that is full of lowbrow street games and low-quality art auctions.

Relaxing at Hohhot's Great Mosque
Relaxing at Hohhot's Great Mosque
Chinese Minaret at Hohhot's Great Mosque
Chinese Minaret at Hohhot's Great Mosque

We boarded the K90 train, which we dubbed “the famous jiǔ líng,” at 21:21 and laid our saddle-sore bodies right down to sleep.  I was thankful for the shower Monday morning, as none of us had cleaned anything but our teeth and our hands since we left Beijing.  The inexpensive and largely free-form trip was the most fun weekend trip I have taken in China, crowned by our night with the Chinese businessmen.

Tibet Trip

I took a trip to Tibet from June 12 – 21, accompanied by Swathish and three Germans: Swathish’s colleague Arndt, Arndt’s wife Carmen, and Carmen’s brother Gege.  It was all Swathish’s idea.

All of my pictures can be found in this set on Flickr.  A map of the places we went can be found here.

The Run-Up

Foreigners visiting Xizang Autonomous Region, as the political unit is officially known, are obliged to secure an official visiting permit before embarking on their trip.  Most people do this through one of many tour agencies which secure the permit, arrange the tour guide and driver (which are also obliged to accompany foreigners), provide accommodation and handle other logistics.  Swathish, his Chinese colleague Maggie and I visited a tour agency in west Beijing to discuss the specifics of what we wanted to do on our trip.  Swathish had picked out some top-ten destinations and thrown them together into an itinerary, which the agency made sense of while we were there.  I meant to do more research on them before this point but we were all quite busy.  Maggie was crucial in our negotiations with the tour agency, who naturally tried to get as much money out of us as they could, but Maggie managed to get several hundred RMB knocked off the price per person.  In the negotiations I mused that it would be great to visit one or two “less-visited” attractions that were beautiful but not overrun by tourists, and this tacked on an extra city and an extra day to our trip – to the complaint of no one.

The total price of the services provided by the tour agency, including a train ticket on the Qinghai-Tibet Railway from Xining to Lhasa, came to about 3,500 RMB.  When I told this to others who had been to Tibet or knew people who had gone recently, they expressed surprise that the price was low, which was an unexpected reaction.  After the whole experience was over, I realized that the best solution would have been to call around to get in direct touch with a Tibetan tour guide in Lhasa who could do the permits himself, as this would remove some of the costs and probably increase flexibility.  Never the matter – we were locked in and ready to travel, after separately purchasing a flight to Xining and then the return flight from Lhasa to Beijing, all told doubling the price of the trip.  Pain!

We met up at Arndt and Carmen’s apartment on the Friday evening before our departure to finalize plans and payment with the tour operator.  Later we enjoyed a large amount of street food in the shadow of the CBD as we got to know each other.  I left home to hit the sack in anticipation of a 5:00 AM rise time for our early flight, but the others stayed up to watch the first games of the World Cup.  Remembering what happened to me the last time I made such a mistake, I decided to learn from history rather than repeat it.

Xining and the Qinghai-Tibet Railway

Our flight on June 12, a Saturday, left at about 7:30 AM.  We landed in Xining, the eastern terminus of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway.  From there it connects to the rest of the country’s vast and expanding rail network.  We could have taken the train from Beijing to Xining and then to Lhasa, but such a move would have added days to our journey and probably would be uncomfortable after a while. We arrived a bit before noon and our train did not leave until about 16:00, so we took the bus from the airport to the town center and walked to the railway station.  A breeze blew and the sun was shining, so it was a pleasant time of day to sit out and enjoy some lunch on the terrace near the railway station.  We sat for a good two hours after eating, enjoying an interesting cocktail of various flowers, sugars and dried fruits brewed into a tea with infinite refills for ten kuai.  We must have enjoyed eight refills before the clouds rolled in and the breeze became a harsh gale, blowing all manner of dirt and construction dust in our faces.  Large bottles of water were purchased for the train ride, and we retreated to the safety of the station.

Xizang Rail Station
Xining Rail Station
The Germans
The Germans
The Huddled Masses Yearning to Go to Lhasa
The huddled masses yearning to go to Lhasa

After a long wait, we boarded the train.  Our tickets were for “hard sleeper” berths, which means you get one out of six beds in a car.  The top bunks are the cheapest, so we had five beds split among three next-door cells in the same car.  We engaged in ticket-trading with our neighbors to secure five beds in the same compartment within an hour of getting on the train.

Thus began our 24-hour trip on the Qingzang Railway, one of the world’s modern wonders.  Finished in 2006, it is an incredibly important and controversial development for a number of reasons.  The most obvious is the facilitated connection of Lhasa and Xizang Autonomous Region in general to the rest of China, which can be seen as any mixture of enormous economic opportunity for Tibet, Beijing tightening its grip on the restive land, the facilitation of massive Han immigration to Tibet, and the opening of Tibet to the rest of China along with many other issues I am not astute enough to know or express.  From an engineering standpoint the railway is a fascinating achievement.  Over 500 km of its nearly 2,000 km length is on permafrost, the top layer of which melts during part of the year.  The railway passes through Tanggula Pass at 5,072 m above sea level, making it the world’s highest railway.  As if this were not enough, the tracks run through the seismically active Kunlun Mountains.  Oxygen tents where the workers could breathe easier were set up to prevent altitude sickness.  I read that during the railway’s construction, the Chinese authorities put up propaganda slogans to inspire the workers: “Never Admit Defeat” and “Conquer Nature” were the most memorable.

The railway is a must for anyone visiting Tibet for the above reasons as well as two more important ones: its enchanting scenery and its role in mitigating the effects of altitude sickness.  My heart leaped with awe many times during the twelve or so hours of daylight we were awarded on the journey, and I wish my camera did not have to contend with the moving platform and snapping through smudgy glass to capture barren wastelands, mountains that looked straight out of Final Fantasy and herd after herd of wild yaks.  Altitude sickness is something that any traveler to a place higher than 2,000 m should consider.  Lhasa’s altitude is 3,490 m and most of the tourist areas in the surrounding area are higher, some as high as 5,000 m.  Although it would be ideal to ascend 500 m every two days, starting at Xining’s 2,275 m and taking 24 hours to settle over 1 km higher is better than flying straight from sea level to Lhasa.

The Companions in Our Compartment
The companions in our compartment
Swathish Enjoys Train Food
Swathish enjoys train food
A Qinghai Railway Scene
A Qinghai railway scene
Blinded By The Light
Blinded by The Light

The following image was my favorite mountain on the railway.  I wish we had passed much closer.   It seemed to me to be a roadway leading to the heavens.  Someday I hope to climb this mountain.

The Road to Heaven
The Road to Heaven

After the sun came to rest in the West, there was not much to do except read and chat.  I read halfway through Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” and drifted off while Swathish played Dire Straits and Queen from his phone. In the morning I awoke a bit later than the others, but the sun was only about one hour awake itself.  Here we traversed the permafrost portion of the railway, having passed into Xizang during the dark hours of the morning.  Whilst asleep my mouth dried out more than I ever recall, due to the rising altitude and resultant dehydration.  I chugged a 1.5 liter bottle of water and got some breakfast, then I took a few pictures.

Permafrost Morning
Permafrost morning
Onlookers
Onlookers
The Long Road on the Xizang Plateau
The long road on the Xizang Plateau

Most of the day I spent reading and sitting by the window, enjoying the beautiful endless landscape.  While I sat in the corridor, a woman from the group of Koreans neighboring our compartment sat across from me.  She spoke good English and claimed to be “from LA,” but I think she had just lived there for a while at some point in her life.  When I asked what they were going to do in Tibet, she quickly glanced around and then did a short hands-together praying motion.  I surmised that they were a group of evangelicals visiting Tibet for the stated purpose of tourism, but were really going to proselytize, which she practiced on me after twenty minutes of idle conversation.

Spaced out approximately every fifty kilometers or so (by my baseless estimation) was a tiny outpost tent made of thick thermal blanket material, situated a couple dozen meters from the track.  Each one flew a modest-sized PRC flag and was staffed by a single soldier, who saluted the train as it passed.  I noticed one such outpost for every settlement in Tibet, even hamlets of only ten dwellings.  Paranoia strikes deep.

Continue reading Tibet Trip

The Long City Beneath My Feet

The last few weeks have been busy, hot and fun.  I am quite tied up on weeknights with Chinese lessons on Monday and Wednesday and the new Beijing Debate Society meetings on Thursdays.  Tonight is our inaugural beyond-the-core-members debate.  This leaves Tuesday as my only “free” night, and it is usually packed with whatever I can’t fit in elsewhere during the week.

I went to Hangzhou a few weekends ago with Jon, Sara, Jerry and Richard for an AIESEC reception weekend.  It was a lot of fun and Hangzhou is beautiful, but the barbecue the LC threw for us on Sunday made us all ill.  I find that the longer I am in Asia, the more resilient my stomach becomes to these incidents.  If had this food when I first arrived, I would have been bedridden for a week.  Now it is just an uncomfortable inconvenience.

Jeff and his buddy Kyle came over from Seoul to visit me for several days in the latter half of last week.  They arrived Wednesday evening and left Sunday morning.  Amid gorging ourselves on delicious Da Dong duck and wandering the hutongs of this mysterious city, our best day was Thursday, when we hiked 12km on the Great Wall from the Simatai section to the Jinshanling section.

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This required getting in the car at 06:30, and Charles and Kathy were kind enough to drive us all the two hours it took to get there.  But why would they drive all the way up there for us?  Perhaps because when we descended from Jinshanling, we changed from our sweaty shirts into the clean alternatives we had packed and headed into TEDxGreatWall.  This was the first TED(x) event I had ever attended.  I have to say that the talks were somewhat lackluster in comparison to the ones online for the official TED event, but hanging out on the Wall afterward, drinking champagne and watching the sunset before eating a nice dinner and jumping over a fire was quite nice.  And free.  Many thanks to James for letting me know about the event.

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Part of the TEDxGreatWall event on the Wall itself, just before the sunset, was to ponder and record either a map or a haiku about where we are with our personal walls.  I came up with this, related directly to my anxiety about finding a job in DC:

A sea of ideas

My ship is seeking dry land

When will Spring begin?

On Tuesday evening, Adam organized a gathering to eat local, non-“restaurant” food in a hutong alley, just to hang out and enjoy some food and beers and to contribute money directly to locals.  The hutong we visited wound up being the most “authentic” hutong I have seen in Beijing.  It is long and bustling and full of Chinese people eating and selling and drinking, and there is not even so much as a print ad for something foreign, much less any McDonald’s or restored areas.  Even more amazing, it is just north of the wall of the Temple of Heaven park, and just south of a subway station.  How has this place not been Qianmen-ified?  If you ever come to Beijing, do give Ciqikou in Chongwen district a fair shake one evening when you feel like ambling with no purpose but to fill your eyes and your belly.

My Year-End Self-Analysis

Per the advice of LifeHacker.

Done while listening to Neil Young’s “Harvest” Album

Accomplishments

  1. Started a relationship with a wonderful woman
  2. Graduated Georgia Tech with a BS in Electrical Engineering, a Spanish Minor, an International Plan and Co-op Certificate, and a 3.06 average
  3. Took my sister on a cool trip to Spain
  4. Had a fantastic cross-country roadtrip
  5. Summited Half Dome
  6. Drew up plans with Kelsey for Entropy
  7. Got a fine job in Beijing
  8. Started the AIESEC Beijing Trainee Committee
  9. Started BrainCanvas with King
  10. Learned a good bit about my ancestry and shared it with the family
  11. Had a wonderful Blue Plate Special shift on WREK


Failures

  1. Didn’t get distinction for graduating
  2. Lost out on my bid for the MindValley traineeship
  3. Didn’t make it into the NOI BootCamp in DC in July
  4. Didn’t get the Eben Tisdale Fellowship
  5. Didn’t make it past the first round in the Unreasonable Institute selection
  6. Got no job offers from the career fair
  7. Fell off of good updating for BrainCanvas
  8. Haven’t started learning Chinese
  9. Started, then stopped working out again
  10. Poorly handled turning down the AIESEC Official Expansion Mongolia invitation

Five Pictures to Sum Up 2009

  1. Revolutionary Beers at City Tavern
  2. Spain Trip 2009 304
  3. California Roadtrip 2009 433
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Looking Forward to NYE 2011

  1. Making Waves in Washington, DC
  2. Working Out my Body, Mind, and Soul
  3. Learned Conversational Chinese
  4. My Writing is Referenced in Influential Publications
  5. Making Music Regularly

Great Blue Ridge Hikefest 2008

Well, we are back!

The trip overall was really great, much-needed and fairly diverse, but the one big disappointment was that it was so foggy no spectacular views, save one on a drive, were experienced.

Anyway, recap:

WHAT: Great Blue Ridge Hikefest 2008
WHO: Preston, Shanky, Davin, Rob
WHERE: The vicinity of Boone, NC; Shenandoah National Park, VA; and Roanoke, VA
WHEN: Tuesday, December 16-Friday, December 19
WHY: What kind of a question is that?

I woke up at 4 AM on Tuesday morning after hitting the bed at 1 AM trying to prepare stuff. Got Shanky and Davin at Davin’s house just a mile from where I live, and then we were off to Loganville, GA to pick up Rob at his house. About 90 degrees out of the way, but definitely not in the opposite direction of where we needed to go. It was well after we got on 85 North – well over two hours after leaving the Duplex in Midtown – that the sun’s first rays began to lighten up the dark cloud cover. We got into the Boone area, via US-221, at around noon. We started out at Linville Falls, which I had hiked around during the App Getaway, but the heavy mist provided a very interesting new perspective on the area. We then went to what I consider a highlight of the trip, a random trail near Boone that went under the Blue Ridge Parkway and went through a hilly bald area that seemed to be someone’s farm – there was barbed wire and plenty of cow chips everywhere. The magnificent thing about it was that the heavy fog produced a sublime aura about the place, as if we had just walked into a dream world. I espoused mythological and pseudo-religious rhetoric, like “We have come to the court of the White King,” upon seeing this scene. I do this all the time now after reading Joseph Campbell. As we came back down from the clouds, the light also ceased, and we made our way to Nate “Nasty Nate” Phillips’ place, he who had so kindly put us up during the App Getaway just a few weekends before. We were dead tired, but Shanky’s trail rice and baked beans made us feel better. Their LCP Laura and another AIESECer named Sarah came by to hang out as well, but we crashed around midnight.

This picture was taken at the foot of Linville Falls:

We woke up a little later than I would have liked the next day, and although the extra sleep was necessary it prevented us from doing any real hiking on Wednesday. We left Boone and continued up US-221 through Roanoke on our way to Shenandoah National Park. I must say that US-221, if taken from its intersection with I-85 in South Carolina all the way up to Roanoke via Boone, is an especially scenic road, and the part of the drive that is in Virginia made my heart skip beats. In that part, there are no subdivisions, no ugly billboards, no haphazard gas stations or bars or pawn shops with muddy gravel parking lots along the entire length. It was totally different from what one would see in North Alabama, or Georgia, or South Carolina. The imagery was almost saturated with bucolic qualities. Also, as I stated earlier the fog prevented great views for most of the trip, but this remarkable scene was witnessed as we came off the plateau of Bent Mountain just south of Roanoke:

We continued on the interstate up to Shenandoah. By the time we reached Skyline Drive there, it was after four o’clock, less than an hour before the park would officially close. Plus, as it’s the off-season, all campsites are closed and so camping is technically illegal there. That didn’t stop us from entering (there was no one at the entry gate), driving up to the first parking area with a trail (Jarmans Gap), and there we hiked up the Appalachian Trail for less than half a mile when we just cut across a river bed and up the ridge out of sight of the trail and the fire road. We pitched a tarp there, cooked dinner, and had a good time. The map below shows where we camped accurate to within about a fifth of a mile, I believe:


View Larger Map

Even though it was cloudy as hell during the day, that night was as clear as they come. I slept under the tarp but Rob and Shanky, the more experienced outdoorsmen, slept under the stars. In the wee hours of the morning however the fog came back, and with it wetness and cold. Breakfast was macaroni with pork sausage. We packed our stuff up, went back to the car, and continued up Skyline Drive.

I am especially disappointed by the fog in Shenandoah, as it is very famous for its views, but we seriously could not see ten meters in any direction. We almost hit a deer because of it. The only remarkable point for us, therefore, on Skyline Drive was coming to an overlook where we could make out a few mountains and we discovered by accident that the echo properties of that particular spot are almost divine. A shout or tongue click amplified as if it were at a rock concert.

We continued north until we reached a trail which Rob recommended, the White Oak Canyon trail. It is considered one of the best trails in the country on which to see many spectacular waterfalls. We hiked a good bit of it down to the first waterfall, but time was pressing as we were due in Roanoke and we had to turn away before getting too deep. It was still a difficult hike for me, proving how out of shape I am. Besides, the fog was such that the waterfalls were visible but not in all of their (intended?) glory.

We made it down to Roanoke at about six, where we were graciously taken in by the family of Kelsey Greenawalt, former LCP of AIESEC LC Chapel Hill. They made us a wonderful dinner, let us shower, and then they introduced to us a drinking game called “Indian,” very much like “Bitches bitches” except with Native American-related names with hand motions. It was a riot! Then we just hung out and talked about various things, notably about hiking and nature with Kelsey’s step-dad Brawdus. The hospitality we experienced was so warm and remarkable that even though it did not involve hiking it was a highlight of the trip. As one of our number said in the car the next day: “plus twenty cool points to Kelsey’s family.”

On our final day of hiking, Friday, we tackled McAfee’s Knob, a solid 3.5 mile hike up the Appalachian Trail from Catawba, VA, just outside of Roanoke in the ridge. The fog cleared up a bit at the top of the mountain, but at the knob itself there was still too much fog to appreciate anything. That was also unfortunate as the pictures I’ve seen of McAfee’s knob show a real treat for the viewer. However we did see a deer cross our path on the way back down.

We were going to hit up the Dragon’s Tooth after that, but it was too late in the day. We just went on back to Atlanta, the overwhelming smell of our humanity riding shotgun on the eight hour ride home.

A particular thing which I pondered during the trip, and even on my drive home to Gadsden today from Atlanta, was how even though I was hundreds of miles away from Gadsden and / or Atlanta, I was exploring a geographic formation that is the same one I grew up around in Gadsden. Gadsden is situated in what is considered the “Great Appalachian Valley” slice of the Appalachians, nestled in between opposing edges of the “Ridge and Valley” province. In my hikes around Camp Sumatanga, on Mount Cheaha, and in North Georgia, I saw the same kinds of scenery and especially the same rock formations as I witnessed this week as far north as Shenandoah and in Roanoke as well as around Boone. It was fascinating to witness how I was plugged in to something that extended so far away from where it began and is overwhelmingly recognizably homogenized, if not uniform, in its makeup – at least to an observer like me. Culturally as well the similarities were apparent. Roanoke is like a larger, more successful, cleaner version of Gadsden (albeit with no river and with higher mountains). Even in the Shenandoah Valley, “Southern” culture was apparent. I had noticed the strength of Southern culture in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia and even in the peninsula north of it when I visited family there as a freshman in high school. The dividing line must be stark, then, as it’s not evident at all in the DC metropolitan area.

Another point of note is that even though I printed out all the mountain music radio stations I could find in the area before leaving, only one quality “bluegrass” song was heard on them despite plenty of dial-switching – an ode to spending Christmas in Virginia on a radio station airing from Mt. Airy, North Carolina. This was disappointing as much of 221 follows “The Crooked Road,” which is Virginia’s music heritage trail, celebrating bluegrass and old-time music. I was hoping for a heavy dose, but all I got was the one song and then a bunch of religious polemic AM stations.

The trip, again despite the poor views, was a much-needed experience. I feel like I’ve come over a high ridge and out into the valley. But there are bigger mountains looming to the West, and I’ve got to prepare well to get the best view from the top.

Ramblin’ On My Mind

The finals are done.

The room cleanup is done.

And before I go back to my Alabama home, I’ve got ramblin’ on my mind:


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I’m hitting up Boone, NC; Shenandoah National Park, VA; and Roanoke, VA, all for daylight hiking and nighttime jiving. In tow are Shanky, Rob, and one of Shanky’s friends.

On a cold winter morning, in the time before the light, we’ll light out for the territory and come back Friday night.

Three Voyages

I’m disappointed I haven’t gotten to write about this yet, but this past weekend was our Fall Break, and myself, Madison, Rob, and Morgan spent it hiking for three days on the Wolf Ridge / Twentymile Trail in the southwest extremity of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.


On the second day, Sunday, we did a pretty solid uphill hike and finally came out at Gregory Bald, a majestic wonderland on “God’s Mountain.” We spent most of the afternoon there. It is on the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, and the tree here we dubbed the “Tree of Life.” Madison’s trail mix came in handy. We made camp about a half mile down trail and came back to watch the sunset in North Carolina, and the magnificent stars in Tennessee, although a bright moon obscured some of the night’s jewels. All in all, it was one of the best weekends I can remember, and a much-needed experience.

I didn’t get much sleep this week but I did manage to hit up the first InterNations Atlanta gathering. It was really cool and there’s a lot of potential for AIESEC there as well. This photo is from the event, at the Bar at Trois:


And, EB applications have wrapped up. Eleven people applied! Amira will have a hard time choosing between them. But it’s a good sign for the health of the LC.

Now I am off to the meeting which I have fought three years for, and which AIESEC US and AIESEC around the world have waited ten years for: AIESEC United States National Presidents Meeting 2008. It’s going to be extremely interesting opening the book on a new era and writing in its first pages. I’m glad Amira is coming with, to be a part of it.