Every day here is a little bit happier because of the Lorikeets. They are the happiest birds that always sit and flutter around the house, twittering to their heart's content.
After a very good night sleep in a great bed, it was a beautiful morning again. We got up early to drive through Zion National Park by daylight this time, and get ourselves some breakfast over in Springdale. It was a gorgeous morning drive.
The park has some stunning views, and this was only the part you can see by car. The more stunning bits are in a valley you can only enter by foot somewhere after the two tunnels and the cute goats encountered on the road in the video above. We didn't go there though, and headed straight for breakfast.
At the restaurant we got a little visit from a cute little deer, completely not scared nibbling from some plants in the parking lot. Once he had walked away again, we got back on the road. Our journey took us east again, circling back south of Zion National Park, finding a crossing across a narrow part of the Grand Canyon. The road there was long and sometimes seemingly endless. We made some stops with stunning views, encountered a lizard, as well as some people with caravans the size of a house.
Passing over the Colorado River again, only 17km down stream from the Horseshoe Bend, the water had turned from clear to completely muddied. This is how the Grand Canyon was formed and is still forming: the water erodes the ground heavily, moving tons of earth away continuously.
But then finally, well in the afternoon, we reached the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Such spectacular views. It is hard to comprehend the size of it all by looking at photos. Being there, seeing the cracks form all those rivers, present and long gone, and the huge impact on the land... it's overwhelming.
Right! Time for a few selfies and squirrel shots!
After that amazing stop, we continued the long stretch onwards into the desert. To Las Vegas. But not without first being caught by the Highway Patrol for speeding of course. The sunset that evening over the desert was fantastic, and Las Vegas, well, over the top. The movies are real. And it's surreal to walk around there. Definitely not a place for me. But nice to have seen for once. The pounding of the gambling machine, the too many too much dolled up bodies, the meat market, the sex, drugs and rock'n'roll... it's taken too far there. But as a tourist for a few hours it's alright. Unbelievable how all those insanely large hotels are all completely booked out though...
As an indication of the crazyness that is Las Vegas. The moment we pulled in to the parking lot, and got out of our car, at our motel another car pulled up next to ours and two incredibly ugly hookers got out, trying to get our business. When it was clear we were not interested they immediately swarmed off to the next car that pulled in. As Ilja said: "Damn... they would have had to pay us a loooot of money!"
Ilja had a go at a little poker tournament while receiving free drinks (and passing on to me), and I spent nothing at all but still managed to obtain a cashout voucher for a whole 10 dollar cents! I left it for someone else.... ;-)
To finish it off, here are two videos. One driving through The Strip, the road with all the main casinos. And one walking through the ground floor of hotel Paris. The video quality is crap, but you'll get an idea of the size and crazy scale of this mad city in the middle of the desert, including replica Empire State Building, replica Eiffel Tower, almost-naked bar-dancing ladies, and much much more:
After having driven from Denver to Grand Junction, all through the dark, we had crashed in a cheap motel, like the ones in the movies where your bedroom door is straight on the parking lot. Waking up in the morning it didn't look that good... It was pouring with rain. We got on our way anyway, and lo and behold, within minutes the clouds cracked open and a bright blue and sunny day appeared.
Soon I was finally for the first time properly experiencing the endless American landscapes. You hear about them. You see bits of it in movies. But you don't really know it until you're actually there, driving through it, truly experiencing those massive ridges, deep canyons, and endless prairies, all as far as the eyes can see.
Our first stop was, the Gods know where, along a river through a canyon, with the road being halfway down the canyon edge. This was what I soon learned. The canyon landscape is deep and steep. But it is not just one canyon carved through the ground, but many canyons within canyons, creating a massive and gorgeous pattern of twisting layers. Carved out during millions of years, in multiple stages. The specific bend in the canyon where we stopped used to be an old gold mining spot, with remnants of the old aquaduct to transport clean water along to the miners still visible.
But there was much more to be seen, so we sped on our way again. The mood was good. The weather great. The views never ending and astounding. It wasn't before long that we reached Mexican Hat and had our first distant view of Monument Valley. QUITE a sight! Photos just don't do this landscape justice. It was a great feeling, visiting the Navajo country at last, and felt grateful for being able to see their old native lands.
While we were admiring the view, a long couple of Swiss ladies happened to pass by and offered to take our picture. No selfie this time. ;-) Then we moved on to drive past the impressive rocks, and have a look from the other side.
After having gazed at Monument Valley for a while, we continued our drive through and eventually out of there. Next up would be the start of the Grand Canyon, at the little town of Page. First we had a healthy sandwich break at a Subways, and then we made a visit to the famous 'Horseshoe Bend' just south of there. A very picturesque bend in the Colorado River, right at the start of the Grand Canyon. At this point the water in the river is still clear and sediment free.
After this we hurried on to our final destination for the day: Zion National Park. We were going to stay in a motel just before that, but would like to see if we could still visit the park before sundown. We didn't, but the moon was out, so we drove through the park in the dark, and had some spectacular moonlit views. Impossible to capture on camera, from a moving vehicle, though. We didn't stop, but drove through to the town of Springdale on the other side to get some dinner. We found a nice restaurant where we got some proper food, and proper beers. Very welcome after such a long, hot and dry day. Afterwards we went back through the park, back to the motel. The motel looked really nice, and had a nice pool area. But since we were there for the journey, not for the stay, we didn't actually use it.
On the 26th of August I woke up to be greeted by Maude the cat, who had been sleeping cozily against me. We played a bit, but then soon set out. First stop was the Starbucks opposite, where I got my first raspberry coffee ever. It was very pink, and had no coffee flavour nowhere near it. Fun experiment, but I'll stick to the real thing for now! :-)
Soon we were on the road again in the Mustang, top down, blasting John Denver's "Take me home country road" from the speakers. The roads were used by proper US style trucks and school-busses, and since we were in the state where cannabis is more legal than in The Netherlands, we encountered some of that too. But mostly it was just beautiful scenery.
At the Nederland city limit sign we stopped again, and took a mandatory selfie together, before heading into the wedding. Jon and Andrea were busy getting all dressed up somewhere, and the place itself was buzzing. That didn't deter the super cute little chipmunks from running around the place and delighting us all, though!
The wedding itself was a cute and lovely event. Albeit ironical, for me. There I was, sitting with 2 used wedding rings, at the wrong wedding for those rings, only 3 days after having received the one back...
But that didn't influence the beauty of the ceremony and I swiftly tucked them safely away. Andrea arrived, being given away by her mom and dad, and preceded by the lovely little flower girl and her mom, Andreas best friend. Jon was looking all scrubbed up in his suit, ready to receive his soon to be wife. And lo and behold, only a few minutes later, under the flower garland, it had come to pass. A newly married couple came into existence, and the party could start!
There was plenty of space, and plenty of Dutch and American sweets, food, cake, drinks. And the newly wedded couple looked very pleased with themselves.
When the party died down some hours later in the evening, me and uninvited but very welcome guest Ilja said goodbye to other uninvited but welcome guest Halie, who decided at the last minute not to join us to Las Vegas anyway :-p and we started the first leg of our little road trip, driving into the night.
The early morning straight after returning from Chengdu, China, I had to get on an even longer flight again, all the way to Los Angeles and then onward to Denver. Because my Dutch friend Andrea and her American fiancé were going to get married. And they found the perfect location for it. A little town called 'Nederland' (The Dutch name of 'the Netherlands') in the United States. Coincidentally that happened to be only an hour's drive from their home.
Everything went wrong in the morning. I overslept and missed my taxi pickup. When I got them to send a new one, I almost missed that one too. In the hurry I forgot to take my shaver and iPad, and forgot to close the gate to the house. Luckily my awesome neighbour noticed it and chained up my bicycles just in case. However there was nothing he could do about me not being able to shave or read and play games on the iPad.
Regardless, I survived the 15 hour flight to Los Angeles. Transferred through the airport fairly quickly, bought some minty M&Ms and a book to read, and was soon on my flight to Denver from which I saw the first canyon landscapes (The San Juan River and Mexican Hat I think) and some Rocky Mountains. Quite different form the Alps I had become used to!
In Denver I got picked up from the airport by Andrea and her stepdad, and soon we were cruising along the motorway. I paid a couple-hour visit to the lodge in Nederland where the wedding was going to be, where a lot of guests had gathered already, and took the mandatory selfie at the 'Nederland' city limit sign. Once back at Andrea & Jon's flat, where I would be sleeping while they stayed in the lodge, Ilja arrived in a nice Ford Mustang.
After an intense 1.5 week of getting to know Chengdu and the colleagues there, it was time to depart again. But not before taking care of two important issues.
First of all taking stock of the ridiculous amount of soaps and shampoos and such that you get when staying in a hotel like this. If you open a soap or shampoo, and not even touch it further, the next day it will be thrown away and replaced with a new one. Such an environmentally unfriendly waste. So every day I put everything in my suitcase and only got it out when needing to use it, saving the rest up for use later.
Secondly, and far more importantly, we took off our rings. Despite it having been coming for a long time, it still got very emotional when it really happened. I tucked them safely away, to look at some time on a rainy day.
We then went to the airport, had our final coffee together, and shared a mooncake. We both departed from separate terminals, so we waved goodbye and went our separate ways. Veronika back to Seoul. Me back to Melbourne.
A long but pleasant couple of business class flights was ahead of me. With a 6 hour layover in Bangkok. Departing Chengdu it was amazing how visible the pollution layer was when lifting out of it with the plane. And when we approached Bangkok airport a rainbow appeared, and the lounge was also still there (surprise surprise! ;) ) so it was quite survivable. Eventually we landed back in Melbourne with some clear skies allowing me to have a great view of Victoria from the sky for a bit.
I swiftly went onwards to home. Took out the nice tea sets I bought in Chengdu (One traditional one for me, and one a bit more western-sized as wedding present for Andrea & Jon. Because next stop: US and A! Very nice! High-five!
Part of getting to know Chengdu was to go and experience the Panda Breeding Base. The pride of Chengdu, and pride of China. It was a beautiful day, where another taxi driver tried to rip us off by driving the wrong way around town, and I let him because whatever.
The Panda Breeding Base is a large green area with many open outside enclosures for both the well known black-and-white Giant Panda, and for the totally unrelated but just as cute Red Panda. The pandas get a LOT of space in the park, and even more food. Really, the giant pandas were just sitting in piles and piles of bamboo, doing nothing but eating... or just lying on the floor being passed out. The red pandas were mainly lying around eating what looked like squash, but some were walking a bit too, making them just a bit more active than the giant pandas.
Regardless... they were all very adorable. And there were a whole bunch of just born tiny toddler pandas in the nursery too.
Having started off the stay in Chengdu by tasting some of the surroundings, come Monday it was time to head off to the office. But not before having had some breakfast in the hotel. Once again it was clear how over-the-top they tried to make the place. There were bird cages with very cute looking tweeting exotic birds placed all around the breakfast tables every morning, as well as a lady was playing a Chinese string instrument while a few people were performing Tai Chi in the atrium.
As it turned out the office was pretty nearby the hotel, but every day I had to face two problems:
My working days mainly consisted of knowledge sharing from me to the teams in Chengdu and vice versa, experiencing the way they work and helping out getting a couple of projects moving. Also each day a different group of colleagues would take me to lunch. Unfortunately for the people on the first 2 days I had caught something bad in my food or the water during the journey across the mountain, and I felt really bad, rendering me nearly unable to eat. It was so bad that on the Monday evening, when some guys took me to see the beautiful Jinli Street, I eventually ended up throwing up in the bushes! Luckily the guys were really helpful and got me some medication from a pharmacy. And can I tell you: YAY for Chinese medicine! The night that followed was basically the worst one I can remember I ever had, regarding intestine troubles, but come the following afternoon I was 100% ok again. I could hardly believe it, but the medication had given me a full recovery within 12 hours!
There was also some time for exploring the city during lunch breaks and at the end of the day. One of the places seen was the Global Centre, which is the worlds largest building in terms of floor space. To give you a rough idea: it's nearly the size of all of Monaco (420 vs 499 acres).
We went to visit the centre of town, entering with the underground via Tianfu Square, where I ended up face to face with a C&A clothing shop. Of all places... I guess that also in China "C&AAAAAAA IS TOCH VOORDEEEEELIGEEEEEEER!!!!!" (Dutch inside joke.)
Stumbled upon a building that seems to have a loooot to do with grain. We walked through a shopping mall where we were warned "Do not please on manage area frolic!" and noticed the striking contrast between old communist built structures and the new capitalism induced ones. All in all, every day was a great experience.
On the Thursday there was a special meal served in the hotel, because it was apparently 'Chinese Valentines Day'. So there was an Eastern European girl playing the violin and singing, there were loads of all kinds of food, free cocktails, and I took the opportunity to take a little bit of wasabi with my sushi... ;-)
The Friday was the last working day in the office, and the team took me out to two places. During the day we went for a tour of the Tianfu Tech Park where the office is located. Part of the tour included driving around part of the tech park in an electric bus. It was a nice experience. And as my Chinese colleague Gregory shouted out in excitement: "For 5 years I have seen this bus driving around, but never had I been on it! THANK YOU STEFFEN!!!!" which caused some hilarity.
In the evening the team had a teambuilding event to which me and Veronika got invited too. Basically it meant having dinner in a restaurant and then drinks at a bar. The restaurant is the biggest I have ever seen. I don't know where to begin to describe it, so I won't really try. I just know I have only seen 2 floors of it. One floor, housed a few hundred tables, and the other at least 32 private dining rooms of varying sizes. Ours was quite large, and Gregory once more shouted out in excitement: "This is such an exciting day! First I have been in a bus I had never been in before, and now I am sitting at the biggest table I have ever seen in my life!!! THANK YOU STEFFEN!!!" Not sure how I am to thank for the table, but why not. The table was truly pretty damn large, actually!
After the restaurant we went to a German Beer Bar, where there were more varieties of German beer than I've seen in a German supermarket. As we wanted to get up early in the morning to go see some Pandas we left the team after a first drink to get some sleep and let them enjoy their evening together.
The following morning, after a short 6 hour sleep, which was still an hour later than we wanted, we got up again from our very basic beds in our very basic room to continue our journey. What a joy to wake up in such surroundings. We spent a few moments looking around the temple, making some photos, and then continued our way, following the path past the little restaurant we had eaten at just the night before.
When just on our way we encountered the lady from the restaurant with her daughter, carrying empty baskets on their back. They had just walked 25km total, just to chuck their rubbish away. What a life.
We ourselves continued our journey and soon came upon a cosy little house next to a waterfall, where we went to have some breakfast, prepared for us by the man living there. We (Veronika) ended up having a conversation with the old couple, and after a bit we continued feeling a bit refreshed. The long walk from the day before was well present in our legs though...
The scenery was still beautiful, but the rain also started to set in. Luckily we had a big umbrella, and me a rain jacket. The monkeys didn't seem to mind the rain though, but the cat we encountered at one of the temples looked veeeeery grumpy. :-)
Our legs started to feel extremely heavy, when following all the steps down, and it was a huge relief to finally sit in the bus back to Chengdu. On the way I spotted a Unilever facility. Netherlands, yeah! Back in the hotel some food and a hot bath were seriously welcome.
To get an impression of the endless steps, here's a short video outtake. Now imagine this all day long, 2 days in a row... :-D
The second day of the trip, and the first full dat in China, was going to be spent in traveling to Mount Emei and ascending it. Or at least part of the way. A short weekend was probably going to be too short to walk all the way to the Golden Summit. Mount Emei is one of the 4 sacred Buddhist mountains in China, and covered in temples. It promised to become a memorable experience.
The journey first took us with a taxi to the eastern train station of Chengdu. There we couldn't get any train because they were all sold out. So we went searching for a bus, which we couldn't find. Luckily Veronika's Chinese once again proved to be amazing and she got directions to a city bus, from which we at some point had to change onto another city bus, from which we had then to change onto a regional bus at some small bus station where we first had to buy a ticket to the town of Emeishan.
Once the bus arrived at Emeishan people on the bus told us it was actually possible to stay on the bus and drive onwards to the mountain for a small additional fee. So we showed our ticket to the driver and asked how much it would be to the mountain. The driver was surprised by our ticket, exclaiming "How did you get this ticket!? You're foreigners!!" And I was surprised as well because it was cheaper than the ticket of the Chinese people next to us.
So anyway, we paid a few more RMB and drove onwards to the mountain. It took us a bit of figuring out how to go from there, and actually took a small local bus onwards to the actual spot we wanted to start our climb from, and set off through the masses of Chinese tourists...
The first part of the journey was littered with Chinese tourists. Thousands and thousands of them. But as the path became more remote and challenging nearly all of them disappeared. We soon encountered the wild monkeys we had been warned about. And the warnings were not to be laughed at. Some monkeys were really cute. But many were extremely aggressive, trying to attack us for food. While I took a photo of some cute monkeys, Veronika got a near heart attack because a monkey suddenly dropped on top of her and her backpack. Bamboo sticks, or on our case a big long umbrella, were absolutely necessary to keep the most aggressive ones at bay.
We were amazed at the paths. The entire path up the mountain is extremely well maintained. There is not a single bit of sloping path, but everything is paved with stone hewn steps. My estimations are that in total during the two days we climbed about 10.000 steps. People estimate that to the top of the mountain is about 13.000 steps, putting the 1.000 steps at the Dandenongs near Melbourne in Australia to shame.
The journey was amazing. The views simply stunning. So green everywhere. However, once we were at the Hongchunping temple we underestimated the time and effort it would take us to the Xianfeng temple, and set off on the final leg of the day... The never ending steps got extremely steep, and it got nearly pitch black at some point. But we battled on, and persevered. After an hour of walking in the dark we arrived at Xianfeng temple, where a little restaurant was sitting just outside the steps up to the temple entrance.
We indulged in some freshly made food and tea, before heading into the temple where we were soon fast asleep, hoping to get up early enough for another day of walking and the journey back to Chengdu again.