Close to a hundred boats leave Guilin each morning for the Li River Cruise, and close to a hundred boats slowly return upstream to Guilin each afternoon. They trudge up the river in single file, then ready themselves to turn around and do it all over again the next day.
One of the other famous sites along the Li River Cruise is Nine horse rock. If you look closely and are supposedly intuitive and bright enough, you can see 9 different horses hidden in the rock. In the 1960s, Premier Zhou Enlai reportedly took a cruise down the Li River and accurately identified all 9 horses, which served as a testament to his competency as a leader.
One of the top things to do in Guangzhou is to take an evening cruise up and down the Pearl River. Along the way, there’s the rainbow Canton tower, several lit up bridges, and even a set of no less than 13 buildings lit up like a single screen. This is a tourist activity that developers have clearly invested in!
Day 0: Lee’s Ferry put in
Lee’s Ferry is the first spot down from Glen Canyon Dam where you can drive a car up to the riverbank. This is where the put in is, a long stretch of sandy beach where you prepare the rafts and put them into the water. Every day, a few commercial trips and between 1-3 private trips share the put in.
We arrived at the put in a day early to pump up the rafts, unpack all the gear from the car, and strap all of our stuff down on the raft. Overnight, we left the rafts in the water and then returned the following morning for a safety debrief from the park ranger before setting off on our trip. All of the planning and packing done, finally time to relax and have fun!
Day 3: Redwall Cavern
One of the first stops of interest on the trip, Redwall Cavern is a gigantic cave carved at a bend in the river. We stopped here to play frisbee in the sand, take some silly jumping silhouette photos, and seek out some fossils in the rocks.
Day 3: Nautiloid creek
Just a short ways from the river is a ledge with nautiloid fossils of various shapes and sizes embedded in it. They’re just faint striped, oblong shapes, so they’re easy to miss. The secret is to pour a little water on it, which darkens the outlines and makes them easier to spot.
Day 4-5: Nankoweap Granaries
Ancient Native American communities lived around the Colorado River, and many of the petroglyphs and artifacts have been left for river runners to visit and explore. The Nankoweap granaries, constructed around 1,000 years ago, are one of the most impressive archeological sites along the river.
The hike up to the granaries has the added reward of one of the best views of the river flowing down the canyon!
Day 6: Little Colorado River
Tributaries flow into the Colorado River as it winds down, and the Little Colorado River is one of the biggest side streams. The Little Colorado River is known for its clear turquoise waters, but depending on the weather upstream, it might be a chocolatey brown or – as in this case – a milky white instead.
On the Little Colorado River, there’s a stretch with small, shallow rapids that you can slide down safely. The preferred gear for this activity is a life jacket worn like a diaper, which both keeps you afloat and protects your butt against sharp rocks. Even with it, though, expect to get a lot of water up your nose!
Day 7: Unkar Delta
An ancient Native American village once sat on the hill at the Unkar Delta. Little remains of the village besides a few rocks that mark where dwellings might have been, along with some pottery shards. When you find something, you’re supposed to put it back where you found it so that archeologists can keep tabs on it, but over time, visitors have built up “collection piles” of artifacts all over the Unkar Delta.
Day 8: Phantom Ranch
Phantom Ranch is the only location on the entire trip where some services (food, cold beer, phone calls, mail) can be found. It’s possible to hike in and out of Phantom Ranch, so some people end their river trips here and other people hike in to take their spots.
I tried and failed to place a call (didn’t work) and order some popsicles (never had them – I was lied to!) But I did manage to send a postcard, hauled by mule from the Grand Canyon.
Day 10-11: Bass Camp
Bass Camp is one of the most popular campsite along the Colorado River. It has a wide, flat camp that’s great for big groups, and there is a hike out to the refreshing Shinumo Creek that originates from the camp. With some strategic planning and a lot of positive waves, we managed to snag it!
Day 12: Elves Chasm
There are a lot of contenders, but Elves Chasm is perhaps the most beautiful side stream that runs into the Colorado River. If elves and fairies existed and, for whatever reason, chose to live in the desert, this is where you might imagine they would live. Except maybe with warmer water. The water here isn’t 55 degrees like the Colorado River, but it’s pretty darn close!
Day 12: Blacktail Canyon
Blacktail Canyon is home to some ancient, ancient rocks. Here, you can put one hand on 550 million-year-old Tapeats Sandstone and another on 1.6 billion-year-old schist. In between is 1 billion 50 million years and 12,000 vertical feet of missing rock, which has been dubbed the Great Unconformity.
Day 14: Thunder Falls -> Deer Creek Loop Trail
The Thunder Falls -> Deer Creek loop trail runs for 7 miles from one camp to another, with spectacular scenery along the way.
First Thunder Falls, a waterfall that blows out of the side of a canyon and leaves a strip of lush green wherever it flows. Then Deer Creek, a small stream that formed its own miniature, narrow canyon, with a path along a ledge that drops straight down.
Day 15: Matkat Canyon
Elves Chasm might be the most beautiful stream, but Matkat (Matkatamiba) canyon holds the title for being the most fun. It’s narrow and sometimes unexpectedly deep, which means that sometimes you can only hike into it by squeezing yourself high up between the walls and using all four limbs.
Day 16: Havasu Canyon
Havasu Canyon is known for its travertine, with clear blue water and polished white rocks.
Day 17: Lava Falls
The biggest rapid on the river, at a class 9, Lava Falls is highly anticipated with a healthy degree of apprehension well before a trip even begins. It’s the big monster that comes ever closer, until finally you have to face it. As the guidebook says, it only lasts 20 seconds – whether you’re in the boat or out of it, at least it’s over quickly!
Thankfully, we all survived intact. The beach right below Lava Falls is known unofficially as Tequila Beach, because everyone stops there to celebrate making it through alive. With Lava Falls out of the way, everyone visibly relaxes for the remaining few days.
Day 21: Diamond Creek take out
Every trip unfortunately ends, and ours concluded at the Diamond Creek take out on day 21. Shuttle runners brought our cars down to the take out, and we began the solemn process of packing all of the gear in the car and loading/deflating the rafts. Until next time, Grand Canyon!
My second stop in Portugal, not counting the Azores, was Porto: Portugal’s second-largest city and the home of port wine. It has many similarities to Lisbon (the riverbank location, the orange tiled roofs), but at the same time, it has a very distinct flavor of its own.
For one, as a local friend aptly described, the the buildings in both Lisbon and Porto are colored -however, in Lisbon, they are a lighter pastel color, whereas in Porto, they are a little more dark.
Regardless of color, the riverside is breathtaking.
The Duoro river separates Porto in the North from Villa Nova de Gaia in the South. It is also the reason why Porto is known as the city of bridges, with a count of 6 bridges, the most famous one being the Dom Luis I bridge.
Fun fact: Villa Nova de Gaia is the actual producer of port wine – even though port wine is stamped with Porto, Porto has no part in the making of the wine. It is actually brought to Gaia because it is cheaper, as Porto was controlled by the church.
Porto Walking Tour
As with most other large cities, I started exploring Porto with a walking tour. In this case, with the aptly named Porto Walkers. The guide started off with a bit of history that I wasn’t able to confirm, but is too good to leave out:
There is a strangely high number of churches in Porto because the city was given to the church in 1120 by Teresa of Leon, before Portugal was even a country. Until the 16th century, even the royal family had to ask permission to enter the city, and could only stay a few days at a time. In the 19th century, the religious orders were expelled and many of the monasteries and convents repurposed. Monks and nuns were not kicked out, however, and allowed to stay until their death. This didn’t always work out well, though, as one nun in the convent marked to become Sao Bento station refused to die for 58 years.
Whether that’s true or not, Sao Bento station does indeed sit in a location that used to house a convent. Construction on the station began in the 19th century, and it was designed by an architect named Jose Marques da Silva. Allegedly, when the station first opened, it lacked a ticket booth, waiting room, and bathrooms. However, the architect made sure to leave his signature (literally).
Inside, the station is gorgeous. It’s decked in hand-painted blue azulejo tiles, an influence from Moorish culture.
On all sides are scenes from Portugal’s history, including one from the famous marriage of John I with Philippa of Lancaster.
Philippa was an English royal who brought a British influence to Portugal, evident even today, right outside the train station:
Another fun fact: The artwork in Sao Bento station has a purposeful mistake, because only God is perfect. If you look carefully at the scene below, 3 tiles are misplaced.
The tour also took us to the area surrounding the Porto Cathedral, a religious center that experienced many changes under the dictatorship of Salazar. The cathedral itself was built in 1120, funded by Teresa of Leon, and it was here that Jon I and Philippa of Lancaster tied the knot.
According to our guide, the cathedral used to be surrounded by houses, but Salazar knocked the houses down in order to build a terrace to highlight the majestic cathedral. He destroyed an old tower in the process, but built a replica of it at the edge of the terrace and paid people to throw rocks at it to make it look old.
Next to the cathedral is a massive building, the Bishop’s Palace. Construction started in the 18th century but took 100 years, and in the meantime, cutbacks from the original plan had to be made. Even so, the building is monstrous – and it contains a throne room, auditorium, and private garden, amongst other luxuries.
The path down from the terrace to the river starts behind the Bishop’s Palace. The first portion of the path is labeled the “truth arch” and the “truth stairs” – formerly known as the “lie stairs,” as it was a prostitution area where husbands came and “lied” to their wives. The bishop was understandably not a fan, so he cleaned up the area and renamed it to proclaim the change.
This area next to the river is Porto’s oldest neighborhood, with houses built in the 13th century.
A frozen rent law was passed under Salazar, enabling some of the residents in the area to pay as little as 5 euros/month in rent. They used to be able to pass this unbelievable rate to their descendants, effectively ending any chance for the landlords to profit. While the passing down is no longer allowed, some residents still pay ridiculously low rent for the remainder of their lives.
Though I’m unable to ascertain some of the things that the guide mentioned, Porto is undeniably a city brimming with intriguing stories. As Portugal’s second-largest city, it certainly holds its own against Lisbon and shows a different side of the country.
Between Porto and Lisbon, it’s difficult to say which I like better. They’re both great destinations, and among my favorites. However, the guide did make an excellent point: it’s called “Porto-gal,” isn’t it? Not “Lisbon-gal!”
Finally time to climb to ABC!
We left promptly at 6am in anticipation, ahead of the crowd. It was semi-dark that early in the morning and hard to make out the route, but still light enough to see this sign:
A little after Deurali, the path crossed over the river and continues up to its right:
We were told that there would be snow all the way from Deurali to Machhapuchhre Base Camp (MBC), but it was fairly dry for about the first third of the path. The big storm was the previous week, so each day the snow melted a little more. We had heard from others that they could hear and even see avalanches along this stretch, but we didn’t hear anything – just the stream as we walked alongside it.
Because we left early, it was just us and the porters. They rushed past us in regular tennis shoes and with heavy loads on their backs, while we carefully picked our way through the rocks and snow.
About 30 minutes in, we crossed back to the other side of the river (the side that we had started on) and then from then on, it was all snow. The snow was still frozen over because it was early morning, and it took a lot of concentration not to slip.
Pro tip: At the Himalaya hotel earlier, I saw a porter wearing plastic bags over his socks in his shoes. I figured I might as well try, since my shoes were sure to get wet at some point because of the snow, and they worked wonders! My socks stayed completely dry. Also, take at least one hiking pole to steady yourself on the ice, especially for the return trip down.
Everywhere you looked, there was a picturesque scene waiting to be captured. Glad we didn’t do this stretch the previous day in the fog!
Eventually we saw MBC in the distance, but it was still a good half an hour away. This one here is just the first of the guesthouses, which is located about 10 min below the other ones. So don’t go up to the first guesthouse, unless you specifically want to stay there!
This is the main collection of guesthouses at MBC, with a view of the Annapurnas.
We reached the top guesthouses at MBC at around 9am. All the estimates said 2 hours from Duerali to MBC, but they’re lies, all lies. Maybe when there’s no snow, but it was a solid and very strenuous 3 hours for us.
At MBC, we stopped for breakfast because we had skipped it in order to leave early. While we ate, we had a view of all the people slipping and sliding in the snow on their way back down from ABC. Surprisingly, there were also butterflies everywhere. Up at 3700m?
We decided to stay the night at MBC, leaving our heavy bags there while we made the hike up to ABC and back. This is what most people we had talked to did (though they made the hike up for sunrise, and walking up in the early morning seemed more pleasant). The guesthouse owner warned that the fog typically rolls in around 1pm, so we set off at 10:45am to make the 2 hour hike up to ABC.
The path from MBC to ABC ran through a field of snow, with only some portions of exposed rock. It must have been better than on previous days, when the snow was piled higher. But still, there were many places where you could sink into the snow up to your thigh if you weren’t careful!
There was a big uphill push in the snow for about the first 30 minutes, but after that we walked along a relatively flat ridge. The day was so clear that we could see ABC way in the distance (right above the left shoulder of the person closest to the camera).
About 30 minutes in, we saw a few clouds rolling up the valley. Uh oh. They seemed to be moving slowly, thank goodness, but we picked up the pace as much as we could.
They eventually filled in the basin where MBC is. But they were still all behind us, and we were so close!
It still seemed like we could beat the clouds. But just as we arrived at the ABC sign, we saw wisps of fog coming over our shoulders.
Somehow, in the span of about 10 minutes, the clouds had accelerated and overtaken us! You can see the difference between our own photos and the one above of the people before us.
All gone, within about 2 minutes.
So close, we were so close!!
It was only 12:20pm, but the clouds had obviously came early. We stayed for 2 hours at ABC hoping that it would clear up, but nope. Finally, we left at 2pm in order to make it back to MBC at 4pm.
SO BUMMED. But what can you do?
Look at the wall of snow that they still had to deal with at ABC:
The whole way down was pure slush, which soaked my shoes through and through. Good thing I had the plastic bags!
At night, it was extremely cold at MBC. Sleeping at night is fine because we have sleeping bags and thick blankets, but we were freezing in the common area while we waited to get food. Finally, unable to take it, we ordered a heater for 150 rupees ($1.50) per person, even though we had no idea what it would be.
The heater turned out to be a propane tank with an open flame, which they put under the (wooden) table.
Talk about a fire hazard! It was super effective, though, nearly (literally) burning holes through our pants.
I don’t really get the pricing scheme – if only one person orders the heater, do they only get 150 rupees for it? Also, everyone benefited from the heater. After we left, the guides and porters all rushed in to take our places next to the heater, as it still hadn’t burned out yet. In any case, the guesthouse owners, guides, and porters must all rejoice whenever a foreigner orders a heater.
I thought about getting up early the next morning to try ABC again, because it’s quite common to make the hike up from MBC for sunrise. But ultimately, to be honest, my main motivation would be to get some pictures. In order to squeeze a 4 hour round trip in before hiking down for the day, I wouldn’t really have time for much else.
So I decided not to, though I did wake up at 4am to see the stars. With little light pollution and a thin atmosphere, the sky is so clear that you can see the edges of the Milky Way. It’s gorgeous, but it was so cold…and my camera couldn’t capture any of it, even with a 12 second exposure. I guess there are some things that you just have to enjoy in the moment.
Generally, success! All that was left was the way down.
Continue on to Annapurna Base Camp Trek Day 8-10: Back down
Varanasi is the holiest city in India, and people from all over the country make the pilgrimage here to bathe in the Ganges or get cremated along its banks. The city also has a reputation for being among the craziest and dirtiest in India.
Both for its religious and cultural significance, I felt I should visit Varanasi to get a better sense of India. Even so, I crossed it off my list midway because it was to far to get to. However, when I readjusted my schedule to stay in India for Holi, it looked like the most logical place to go because it is also closer to Nepal (my next destination). Varanasi was back in the plan!
The waterfront along the Ganges is one long, open walkway, with occasional temples and tucked away staircases leading up to alleys (ghats) within. It’s a beautiful place to take a stroll, and it takes about 45 minutes to walk from the bottom (Assi Ghat) to the burning ghat at the top.
With every 10 steps you take, someone will ask you “Boat? Boat??” You can go on a boat ride at any time, but the most popular times are at sunrise and for the evening ceremony at the main ghat at 6:30. There are various types of boats available for hire, from huge ones that are filled with up to 30 people to smaller rowboats that you can hire just for yourself.
The Ganges is infamous for being contaminated with everything from feces to dead bodies, both in ash form and whole. Despite that, many people still use it as they would any semi-clean water source, washing their clothes and bathing in it.
Sunrise along the waterfront
On my second day in Varanasi, I went down to see sunrise along the waterfront. I wasn’t sure if it was something you had to book with a specific company in advance, but the previous night’s stroll along the waterfront taught me that there are always people offering, “Boat? Boat??”
We went down to the waterfront just before 6am in preparation for sunrise at 6:15, and picked the first boatman that accepted us for 100 rupees ($1.66) per person.
We started out on the boat while it was still dark, and watched as the sky slowly turned lighter and the sun came out.
The sun rises on the opposite bank, casting a strong golden glow over all of the buildings. The other side of the river is curiously devoid of anything. It’s easy to remember which side of the river you are on, that’s for sure.
On the way back up the river, we got some good silhouettes of other boats. As with hot air balloons in Bagan, tourists soaking up the view somehow become part of it themselves.
Ghats are alleys and steps leading down to the river. Every 50 feet along the waterfront, there is a ghat that that leads to the city inside.
The inside streets/ghats are very narrow, with crazy turns and wires hanging overhead.
They are also very difficult to navigate. Google maps is not always correct in terms of what streets exist, what passages don’t go through, and how to get around to certain places. But it is fun to get lost in them.
You pass houses, shops, guesthouses, restaurants, everything. Including cows and people carrying wrapped up dead bodies down to the waterfront for cremation.
Cremations – Aartis
Varanasi is known for the cremations (aartis) along the Ganges, which mainly take place at two burning sites. No pictures are allowed, out of respect for the families. After witnessing two distraught, weeping men that had to be led away because of their grief, I totally understand why.
Pictures of aartis from a distance:
Except for a section with a few metal grills set up, the location of the cremation fires is not clearly defined. They appear to be mostly randomly positioned based on what space there is available at the time.
The cremation fire starts with a bed of stacked firewood. After a procession through the ghats, the family lays the stretcher with the wrapped up body on the wooden bed. They then cover the body with smaller sticks in a teepee, almost covering it but not quite. Finally, someone dressed in a white loin cloth/saree ritually lights the fire with a torch made from a bunch of sticks.
The fire is left to burn down all the way, until all that’s left is a pile of ashes. For the most part you can only see the wood, but occasionally as it burns down you can see shapes in the fire that resemble familiar body parts. That’s when it hits home that you’re witnessing a cremation. Even with no connection to the person who passed and no understanding of the ritual, it’s a sobering experience. And thankfully still a respectful one, despite the large tourist presence.
Varanasi definitely earned its reputation for craziness. But as with the rest of India, it’s not as crazy as I expected. It’s a city that at once has a strong presence of death but is also vibrant and teeming with life. An inexplainable, magical combination that is well worth the visit to witness.