Bali, Indonesia

I always thought Bali was the quintessential tropical island getaway. I had visions of lounging underneath billowing canopies and a perfectly blue sky looking out over a powder fine sand beach towards a clear turquoise sea. Turns out Bali is not quite like this. The sky was a mix of blue and stormy during our visit. The beach was a little less fine and a little bit more littered. The ocean might be turquoise if you venture past some of the muck. And I’m sure you could find a place to lounge under a billowing canopy but it will cost you. This is sounding like a negative review of Bali but it isn’t really. Bali is just different from what I had expected.


We stayed in two parts of Bali so that we could get different experiences since it was our first visit. We started out in the laid back town of Ubud which many consider to be Bali’s cultural heart. It’s in the interior of the island but from there any of the coast is within a day trip away. If we were to return to Bali, this is where we would base ourselves. Here are some scenes from around Ubud:


Bali is the Hindu enclave in Muslim Indonesia


This is a small hotel in Ubud. Very typical look for private homes, small hotels or homestays in the town.


An example of ornate Balinese decorations found on buildings.


An elaborate entrance in a temple but this kind of intricate decoration is also found on private residences.


Offerings like these can be found daily on most sidewalks, doorsteps, shrines, etc. 


Balinese women carry things on their head. Even heavy construction material that require others to assist you in getting it on your head.


Statues like these are found all over Bali.

When in Ubud, the must visit destination is Monkey Forest, where there are so many monkeys you’ll literally trip over them. These monkeys are the naughtiest we have seen in all of Asia. We got clued in we were close to Monkey Forest when a monkey came running down the street (crossing traffic no less!) to snatch the bag of chips out of Dominic’s hands. By the time we realized what was happening, that little cheeky monkey was already back across the street and ripping through the bag.


This monkey was actually outside the forest waiting for unsuspecting visitors.


Just another day in Ubud.


Yep that baby has his mama’s teat in his mouth.


If you didn’t care for monkeys, Monkey Forest is lovely just for a stroll.


Top monkey


Pretty spaces in Monkey Forest


Hoping Marc had something for him in his hand

To recover from Monkey Forest, we took a nice peaceful bike ride around the Bali countryside. Take a look:


During the bike ride we stopped to talk to a couple harvesting cocoa beans. Yep, this is the start of heavenly chocolate.


We passed pretty villages like this one.


And farmers tending to their crops.


We stopped to chat with these woman who had gathered to make preparations for a community celebration in three days time. The whole community comes together for the preparations.


The most expensive coffee in the world comes out of this sad creature’s bum. Yep, we stopped for refreshments at a coffee plantation where the specialty is Luwak coffee or otherwise known as civet poop coffee. 


After the beans have been “processed” by the civet, it gets hand roasted (likely by little old ladies like this one).


A complimentary flight of coffee and tea. This does not include the Luwak coffee. A cup sets you back $5 which is enough for a meal at a restaurant in Bali.


After the bike ride, we went for a stroll in the countryside.


And crossed rivers with only a soft plastic pipe as a bridge.

We completed our Balinese experience by watching a Kecak performance (dance and music drama) and fire dance. The Kecak performance involves over 100 men sitting in a circle creating music by rhythmically chanting while the main dancers performs the story of Ramayana.


The setting for the performance.


The Kecak performance


The fire dance where the dancer kicks and dances through hot embers.

But no matter how we spent our time in Ubud, we always took time out in the afternoon to refresh. For $50 a night, we got a huge room with breakfast and this lovely pool.


Just lovely and peaceful.


Until these guys get in. The boy got so good at jumping and swimming that he has now given up his swim bubble and free swimming. Yay!


Since we stayed in an interior location, we decided on the beach town of Sanur for our other location. From everything I read, it was slower pace than the main beach town of Kuta and had a nice beach good for families with young children. Sadly, it was unimpressive. During our three days, we went to the beach once and then spent the rest of our time hanging out by the very nice pool at our hotel. Nevertheless, here are a few photos from our stay in Sanur.


Just an ok beach.


Colourful Balinese boats


The pretty pool at our hotel.


We did manage to visit a tiny sea turtle conservation (tiny = 4 tanks on the beach) and saw these adorable baby sea turtles.


And a few gorgeous adult sea turtles like this one.


Permai Rainforest Resort, Borneo

From Kuching, we moved to the village of Damai (less than an hour drive) to stay in a cabin in the trees at Permai Rainforest Resort . The resort is the real deal. It’s located right in pristine Bornean rainforest so you are sharing the resort with all kinds of wildlife: monkeys (macaques, silver leaf and proboscis), river monitors, snakes, birds, flying lemurs, and of course all kinds of insects and lizards. The resort faces the South China Sea where the Irrawaddy dolphin can be found. And just a few minutes boat ride away is the mangrove forest of Kuching Wetlands National Park, home to crocodiles and the endangered proboscis monkey. The resort’s accommodations include numerous cabins, ten treehouses and one campground and they are all by no means fancy but they offer a rustic comfort in spectacular surroundings.


Looking at the resort from the South China Sea (you can see a bit of treehouse #2 and #3 peaking out at centre left).


One of the cabins


Our treehouse (#10)


View from restaurant


Natural jungle pool


One of two private beaches at the resort


Sunset at the beach


The resort also offers a multitude of activities that we took full advantage during our three-night stay. We signed up for a night walk in the forest, a daytime boat trip that included dolphin watching, a visit to a turtle hatchery and snorkelling and an evening boat cruise to the mangroves of Kuching Wetlands National Park.

During our night walk we saw numerous insects and lizards including giant stick insects, a huge cave centipede, and several blue-eyed lizards. Sadly I didn’t bring my camera so no photos to share. But here are some wildlife we saw during the daytime around the resort:


Can you spot the flying lemur? It was on a tree right in front of our treehouse.


One of many lizards we encountered. Not sure what kind this one is.


Horseshoe crab just cruising the shallows at the beach.


One of many river monitors we saw.


A cute little leaf snake hanging out on a tree by the resort restaurant.

On our daytime and evening boat trips we saw all of the animals we hoped to see with the exception of the sea turtle. We saw several dolphins but these were even more difficult to snap a photo of than the pink dolphins in the Hong Kong harbour. And we saw proboscis monkeys and crocodiles in the mangroves but it was impossible to photograph them due to camera capabilities, distance of proboscis monkeys from eye level and speed that the crocodiles move. You’ll just have to take my word for it that we saw them all.

Here are some photos from our activities nonetheless:





Mangroves of Kuching Wetlands National Park


A fishing village located in the mangroves.


Nightime in the mangroves. There were fireflies everywhere but this photo just couldn’t capture their magic.


During our dolphin watching trip, we cruised by this protected “bird island” full of migrating birds.


Satang Island. Privately owned but the owner allows the national park service to run a sea turtle conservation program there.


Old sea turtle tracks leading from the water to the site where she buried her eggs. 


The national park staff dig up the eggs buried by the sea turtles and transplants them to tubs for their protection. When they hatch they are released to the sea. There are 140 Hawksbill turtle eggs in this red tub. 


Walking the lovely beach at Satang looking for evidence of sea turtles.


Hiking the trail at the resort. There were challenging parts like this one that you climbed with the assistance of ropes. The little guy did great!


Tree in the forest on the trail.


Right by the resort is the Sarawak Cultural Village where you can see traditional homes and crafts of the areas indigenous tribes. It is also possible to homestay at the village in one of the traditional homes. There were demonstrations of some of the tribes’ practices.


Playing music on a traditional instrument that has been modified for electric capabilities. Unfortunately I cannot recall which tribe this musician belonged to now.


There were also activities at the village like this one where you could shoot a real blowpipe. Marc got 2 out of 3. Pretty impressive!


The cultural village also had a show two times a day demonstrating traditional dances. This one even picked up a heavy trough with his teeth while he danced.


Tribal person in traditional hunting outfit getting dart ready to shoot from blowpipe.


Guess who he picked out of the audience to shoot a dart out of his blowpipe?

Our time in Borneo was incredibly memorable. Yet there’s so much more to do and so much wild to explore. It just means we will have to return! For now, onwards to Indonesia…




Bako National Park, Borneo

The second day trip we took from Kuching was to Bako National Park, the oldest national park in the state of Sarawak. The park can only be reached by a 30 minute boat ride from the village of Kampung Bako, which is about a 45 minute drive from Kuching. We took a taxi but there is also a bus that runs to the village.

Bako is a great park to visit as it offers a variety of eco-systems to explore: beach vegetation, cliff vegetation, heath forest, mangrove forest, mixed dipterocarp forest, grasslands vegetation and peat swamp forest. Of course, it goes without saying that the wildlife is spectacular. In the first 10 minutes, we saw a Bornean bearded pig and several monkeys. Bako certainly has way more to offer than can be covered in a day trip. And it’s so humid that you can only likely manage to hike half of the distance that you would under less humid conditions. If we return to this part of Borneo, we would definitely spend more time here and utilize some of the accommodations the park has on offer, from chalets to a campground.

Here’s a little bit of Bako for you:


Coming into Bako


Lots of beached jellyfish


Telok Assam (beach that greets visitors upon arrival at Bako)


Bako’s greeter:



Macaques everywhere doing their thing


Hide your food!


Tide was very far out early in the day but by the time we left these trunks were all half submerged.


Lots of climbing in the beginning of the hike we chose


Roots like a plate of spaghetti


Biology lesson



Beautiful patterns made all over the beach by industrious crabs


Sitting under some cool rock formations


Coastal Bako



Semenggoh Wildlife Centre+Bamboo Rafting, Borneo

Several day trips into the wild of Borneo are available from Kuching. We decided to spend our first day visiting Semengohh Wildlife Centre to hang out with wild orang-utans for an hour before rafting down a river on a bamboo raft and foraging in the jungle for our lunch. Well technically our guides foraged and we just did our part by eating the most amazing meal of our lives. A girl’s got to do what she does best.


Semenggoh Wildlife Centre and Nature Reserve. There are many plants and animals to see at Semenggoh but unfortunately it was only open to the public during orangutan feeding times. There were previous incidents where people were attacked by the orangutans so there is no longer unsupervised visits at the nature reserve. The orangutan feedings happen twice a day. There’s no guarantee they will show up as these are wild orangutans but we were lucky to see five of them.


This mother and child didn’t disappoint


Showing her/his agility


He found the snail more interesting than the orangutans


And insisted I take this close up of the snail


The pitcher plants were cool and found all over the forest

And here’s a video of a really bored baby orangutan. I completely understand when the mother gets irritated by the baby’s antics and tries to move away:

From Semenggoh, we headed towards the river where our bamboo rafting guides were waiting for us.


Putting together the bamboo raft


Off we go!


River through Borneo rainforest


Periodically we had to get off and our guides had to haul our raft over rocks


Peeling a bamboo shoot gathered from the forest (with a machete of course!)


Fresh bamboo shoot for lunch


Jungle grocery shopping


Preparing the ferns to cook


Our guides also made the children some toys from bamboo gathered from the forest. Dominic’s blowing a bamboo horn and Isabella is shooting red berries from her bamboo shooter.


Almost everything used for making our lunch came from the forest, including the firewood and “stove”.


Packets of food wrapped up in leaves stuffed inside bamboo tubes ready for cooking.


Our lunch cooking. Everything you see came from the forest.


The only items brought in by our guides was the meat and the metal grills to hold it.


Our incredible lunch spread served in homemade bowls made from palm husks.


One of the rare times I actually took a photo of my food before gobbling up the deliciousness.


Swim up dining


We even had tea (or coffee if you wanted), served in fresh bamboo tubes of course.


Our rafting adventure ended at the homestay that ran our tour. The homestay was built based on a traditional Biduyah longhouse complete with a bamboo footbridge. Biduyah is one of the indigenous tribes of Borneo that our guides belonged to.

A little taste of what it was like on the river:

This trip was arranged through our hotel with a group out of Peraya Homestay who runs day trips, multi-day tours and survival camping for those who are so inclined. I don’t normally give a tour operator so much coverage but we loved our experience with Valentine the owner and his exceptionally experienced and professional guides. If you want to experience Borneo as it should be, you should definitely give Valentine a shout.



Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia (Borneo)

Borneo is the third largest island in the world and contains one of the oldest rainforests on our planet; which is home to many endemic plants and animals. It is divided administratively by three countries: Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. Before I started planning our trip to Borneo, I thought getting there and around would be complicated but it turns out that reaching Borneo’s natural treasures was quite easy. We used the city of Kuching in the Malaysian state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo as our launching point. Less than two hours flight from Singapore, Kuching is touted as Borneo’s most “sophisticated” city. Here’s what sophistication looks like for a city that is the gateway to one of the oldest rainforests in the world.


The Sarawak River divides the city in two parts that is separately administered by two mayors.


Nicknamed cat city. The city name of Kuching is possibly derived from the Malay word for cat “kucing” but its origin is unclear. However, the city has claimed the relationship to the felines by the many cat statues found throughout the city.


I give to you evidence #2 of the association between cat statues and Kuching.


The Sarawak State Legislative Assembly building


Young hip Sarawak Malaysian people and art


A sophisticated city in Borneo is still Borneo as evidenced by this large tree with impressive buttresses.


Following the hornbill on the Sarawak River. Sarawak is the land of the hornbills but we did not see any actual birds during our visit.


This is what sophistication looks like in a city in Borneo.


Another example of Borneo sophistication


Someone’s fortress of solitude


A major mosque in the city. Almost half of Kuching’s population is Muslim.

I don’t know how other travel bloggers keep up with their writing while they are travelling but I’m struggling here. I usually write after the kids go to bed but I find that I’m ready for bed before the kids are most nights! With my brain already in sleep mode, any words that come resemble that of a toddler’s. Borneo. Jungle. Animals. So you’re going to get fewer words from me for upcoming posts but I’ll try to make up for it in photos. Coming up: orangutans and eating from the jungle.


Hong Kong, who has for many years stood as our favourite big city in Asia, has just been usurped by the underdog city-state of Singapore. I refer to Singapore as the underdog because I really wasn’t expecting much from it and in fact didn’t really want to go (sorry Singaporeans!) but felt obligated to agree, as Marc was interested in seeing the city’s world-renowned green infrastructure. I am after all a supportive spouse. Plus it was an easy stop on our way to Borneo. Well Singapore surprised us. Instead of a chaotic busy metropolis it was a beautiful, clean, and well-planned city. Everything about Singapore is thoroughly organized. If there is ever a perfect city for Type A personalities like mine, it’s Singapore. It felt more like a midsize city rather than the city-state that it is. At a population of 5.5 million, it’s not small and with an incredible mix of people from around the world, it’s one of the most multicultural countries I know. It also has an incredible food and shopping scene that rivals Hong Kong’s (and likely a happening nightlife but we didn’t really get to experience that travelling with two young children). Sadly I did not get to indulge in the shopping either as we are travelling four more countries with overweight luggage.

Singapore is also architecturally impressive. It might even give Barcelona, the reigning champ for best architectural city in our travels, a run for its title. Many of the city’s architectural jewels are a result of the city’s dedication to green infrastructure. The crown jewel is of course Gardens by the Bay.


The domes and super tree grove of Gardens by the Bay


Gardens by the Bay next to the incredible architectural feat of the Marine Bay Sands Hotel


Before we arrived and experienced Singapore for ourselves, we heard how expensive the city was and how many strict rules it has. Yes, the hotels (especially for families) are quite expensive but we found the food and other costs to be relatively affordable and dare I say quite cheap compared to Hong Kong. As for Singapore’s reputation as being strict; this is something Singaporeans are well aware of and even make fun of on tourist t-shirts. Perhaps it’s because we have been living in tightly controlled China for the past nine months but we didn’t find Singapore’s rules confining. It’s all relative I guess. Perhaps the rules in Singapore actually make sense (where so many in China do not) i.e. many of the residential apartments are government housing (to keep cost of housing affordable) and there’s a rule about the ethnic make up of the apartment to make sure there’s a even mix of people throughout the city and that one apartment is not all Malay or all Chinese. I think this is a good solution to ghettoization. Or the new city policy that any new roads constructed must have an even amount of green space i.e. however wide the road is the green space must be the same width. Just imagine that. Imagine if Toronto adopted that policy. Is having strict rules wrong if it promotes a different kind of city, a better city? Then again, I don’t live in Singapore and my opinion is really only that of a visitor.

Here are some highlights from our short visit to Singapore:


View from our hotel room


Food heaven at great prices at the Food Junction at the Bugis Junction. Something for everyone. We ate here two nights in a row.


Look what was parked outside the Science Centre Singapore


Along with hundreds of hands on activities, the science centre also had a nice eco garden to walk through.


Historical Clarke Quay


Colourful restored warehouses at Clarke Quay



The amazing Gardens by the Bay. A must visit for Singapore! While in the gardens we visited the Cloud Forest, the Flower Dome and the Supertree Grove. 


Supertrees at the entrance to the Gardens by the Bay


The waterfall greeting as you enter the Cloud Forest.


In the Cloud Forest


Ramps and walkways in the Cloud Forest


A garden in the Flower Dome


A display in the Flower Dome. Can you spot the Lego plants from the real plants?


Inside the Flower Dome


A display inside the Flower Dome.


The Supertree Grove at night


Singapore Flyer at night


The Helix Bridge, a pedestrian bridge in Marina Bay


Examples of spectacular architecture: Helix Bridge. Marina Bay Sands Hotel. Artscience Museum.




Hunan –the China from imagination

Before I begin my posts on our travels after China, I have a guest post for you from my incredible husband Marc who travelled to Hunan to visit a field site. Unfortunately, we were not able to join him as I was finishing our preparations to leave China. So, here it is. Enjoy!

China today is a living contrast between the old and new, between slow paced peace and the hectic speed of modern life, and between nature and full-blown industrialization. There are two images of China: one of massive cities and factories dominating landscapes; and the other image is best captured in classic Chinese ink paintings of landscapes and villages. Clouds wrap around rough rock towers, gnarled trees cling to rock faces, and idyllic villages are nestled at the base of a mountain.


Classic Chinese landscape painting -called ‘Morning in the Mountain Village

After more than eight months of living in China, I have come to doubt the existence of this romantic China. It seems like a China that exists only in imagination; that is until I visited Hunan province. Hunan jumps from canvas to reality and offers unparalleled beauty. Here you can walk through these classic Chinese paintings and peer through the mist that shrouds mountains and glimpse those villages that seem like time forgot.

In Hunan, you can be freed from the packed hectic megatropolises of the east and the polluted human-dominated landscapes that surround them. I wasn’t really expecting this –I went to Hunan to visit a field experiment and give a talk at Jishou University, but my hosts added in some stops to lovely sites around Hunan.

I started the tour in the city Zhangjiajie, whose sole existence seems to be as a gateway to the world-renowned Wulingyuan scenic area, also commonly called Zhangjiajie Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Wulingyuan is famous for what is referred to as ‘sandstone pillars’ but this description does not do this place justice. The awe-inspiring sites defy adequate description, but the best I can come up with is ‘rock skyscrapers’. That is what they are, rock towers, many of which are between 200 and 380 m tall! To put this into perspective, the tallest building in Toronto (not including the CN tower) is the First Canadian Place building at about 300 m. There are hundreds of rock towers taller than 200 m, rivalling the skyline of New York City. Wulingyuan is simply one of the most remarkable natural areas I have ever seen. The only disappointing part was the fact that our visit coincided with an unrelenting rainstorm; so much of the beautiful scenery remained shrouded in mystery.


The base of a rock office tower


Towers peeking through the mist


Just like a classic Chinese painting


Imagining the beautiful sight before us. And, I never knew that twinsies came in multipacks


One of the marketed selling points of this park was its connection to the movie ‘Avatar’. Local tour operators and photographers will tell tourists that the Hallelujah mountain scenes in the movie were filmed there. You can have blue aliens superimposed on to a photo of yourself on the ‘Hallelujah mountains’ or you can even mount a fibreglass dragon from the movie. Sometimes reality gets in the way of a good story –the movie wasn’t filmed there and the movie creators said the inspiration came from a number of sites around the world, including Hunan. This is another example of the creative marketing that seems to be common in China (I saw a guy charging people to touch a 1000 year old turtle…).

“The wild monkey infesting area, caution! Do not tease feeding”

While these magnificent rock towers immediately draw your gaze, the park has many wonderful sites and hiking trails. But another aspect that really impressed me was the pristine state of the surrounding forest. There were animals everywhere, and wild animals are sadly in short supply in China. Wild nature is always at the losing end of conflict with human development, and with so many people in China, this means that nature exists in just a few remaining pockets.


The rhesus macaque -a very photogenic species.


Baby macaque and the best sad face to solicit handouts


Monkey infestation! Do not teases feed. Of course this is exactly what many domestic tourists were doing


Bird -all tail.


The landscapes modern China forgot

The next day I needed to visit the experimental site and give a talk in Jishou which was a 3 hour drive away. We passed through what seemed like an endless expanse of forested rugged mountains, making Hunan easily one of the greenest provinces I’ve seen. Along this journey I saw those idyllic villages at the base of mountains and perfectly laid out rice terraces. People used ox to plough fields while wearing the stereotypical straw hats. Besides Zhangjiajie and Jishou, we went to Chongqing, Fonghuang, Biancheng, and Huai Hua. Fonghuang is a famous ancient city, and like other famous ancient cities we’ve been to in China, it was overrun with karaoke bars and kitsch tourist shops. Biancheng is another ancient city, but for some reason is not a typical stop for tour buses and so retains its original splendid and quiet character.


Planting the rice paddies


Ploughing the terraces with ox


Biancheng was full of narrow alleys


Biancheng scene -crossing the river brings you into the neighbouring province


Biancheng water taxi fighting the current in the rain-swollen river.


Keeping out of the rain with a game of majong


Man with backpack basket. These were commonly carried by the local ethnic group and were used to hold everything from food and goods to small children.



The food in Hunan was quite different from other parts of China -and it was delicious!


A scene from the uber-touristy Fonghuang

Hunan is the China of history and art, but like the rest of China, it has been impacted by modern industry, its just not as readily apparent as elsewhere. The main purpose for my trip to Hunan was to visit a field experiment. This is a globally unique and significant experiment that examines how plants can help clean up soil that has been contaminated by toxic pollution. The area was severely polluted by mining waste and the soil is virtually barren of all life.


The field experiment with the abandoned mine processing facility in the background. The grey soil is contaminated with zinc, nickel and cadmium, and has been devoid of plants for at least 6 years –nothing grows on it (at least until the experimental plots were established). This experiment will provide valuable information on how plant communities can be used to help clean polluted sites.

Hunan represents everything that is good about China and is a part of the country that visitors must see. I have two regrets about my visit to Hunan: it was a much too short of a visit and my family did not come with me. At least now I have a perfect reason to visit again.







Shě bù dé

In the blink of an eye, nine months has passed and today we start our slow journey home. From here we will travel through Singapore, Borneo (Malaysia), Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand and Vancouver before finally arriving home to Toronto at the end of July. Let’s see if our plan to overcome jet lag by travelling East one country at a time works.

There’s a phrase in Chinese that best describes how I feel about leaving Guangzhou,“shě bù dé”, meaning the person cannot bear to leave or is in fact just quite sad and reluctant to leave a person or place. I love this phrase for the simple way it captures a much more complicated mix of emotions because that is how I feel about leaving China. It’s complicated. It’s a relief to leave the constant Chinese crowds where survival is based on one’s ability to get there first. No handicaps for the handicapped in this country. It’s a relief to go where what I read and what I do online is not censored. It’s a relief to leave behind toxic pollution days that leave my throat sore and my head hurting. So why can’t I bear to leave? Because this place has become home to me. That sense you get when you walk in your front door or when you get into your own bed and lay your head down on your pillow. Familiar ground. The people and places have become so familiar that it’s hard to say good-bye. Wǒ shě bù dé. Fortunately, it looks like we are not really saying good-bye forever so zhí dào xià yī cì Guǎngzhōu (Until next time Guangzhou)!


Langmu, Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, China

After a wave to the nice police sending us off, we were headed to our final destination, Langmu (town and monastery). And you know how I thought we travelled on the Worst Road Ever to the grassland field site? Well, as luck would have it, we found one that was even worse than the Worst Road Ever. We ended up on a rutted and impossibly narrow mountain road that really could benefit from some nice sturdy guardrails. Thankfully we never encountered any cars coming from the opposite direction, as there would have been no way for two vehicles to pass on the road without one dropping off the side of the mountain. It was either a miracle or there was good reason no other car was travelling on this road. Perhaps it wasn’t really a road but rather a yak trail. Our van bounced and skipped up and down mountains hugging the inside of the road with our hosts giving regular assurances to our agitated driver that we were almost at our destination. This was not the case for quite some time. When we finally saw Langmu, we were like the marathon runner who finally sees the finish line. Instead of a medal, we got this:












Monastery and town in Tibetan culture seem to have a symbiotic relationship and it would be difficult to separate one from the other. Just as the Tibetan person is inseparable from their family, they are inseparable from their Tibetan culture and by way their connection to the monastery and their faith. Prayer beads are an extension of the person. Monks are part of the community. A fellow Tibetan whom you meet for the first time is seen as a brother or a sister.

We were incredibly fortunate to have our Tibetan friend along for our first experience of Tibetan culture. During the journey we heard stories of his childhood and family and what it was like for Tibetans of his generation growing up in China. There were subtle pressures on their Tibetan identity that were presented as choices: keep their Tibetan names or use a Chinese one in school and they had to choose between Tibetan or English in school. For a culture that is fiercely proud of their identity, there was a lot to prove. But it’s different for the Tibetan youth of today. We met our friend’s 15 year-old nephew whose father and mother are both Tibetan. They live in a Tibetan prefecture yet if we didn’t know him, we would not be able to identify him as Tibetan. The Tibetan youth of today appear, act and sound Han Chinese with many no longer even able to speak the Tibetan language. A culture assimilated no longer has anything to prove.

Gannan Tibetan Grasslands,China

From Labrang we made our way to the city of Hezuo, the capital of Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture to enjoy a delicious Tibetan dinner and spend the night.

Our Tibetan dinner included roast Tibetan sheep, shabalep – fried dough stuffed with meat, momos – dumplings, masan – pastry made with tsampa (roasted barley flower) and yak milk tea. Unfortunately, I always forget to take photos of the food we eat as I’m too busy stuffing my face so you’ll have to take my word for it that the experience was incredibly satisfying.

After a good night’s sleep, we headed off on what would become the journey on the Worst Road Ever. A road that is more suitable for an ATV rather than the minivan with questionable suspension we were travelling in. We are; however, grateful for the disproportionately high clearance of the van’s ceiling as we would have surely hit our head on many occasions as we bounced along for what seemed like an eternity. Thankfully we were distracted from our misery by the gorgeous scenery outside. Out our windows we saw herds of yak and sheep, sometimes in the company of a Tibetan cowboy on horseback, yurts set up in their summer pastures, fat marmots lounging in the sun, and ground squirrels darting from hole to hole, careful not to be caught by one of the many condors soaring above.


Endless grasslands marked by the occasional yurt in the distance

Just when my brain started mulling the possibility of shaken baby syndrome in older children, we reached our destination. The grasslands of the Tibetan plateau were just beginning to wake up from its winter slumber but it was already incredibly magnificent. I can’t imagine how much more jaw-dropping it will be in July or August when flowers blanket it.


The field site


DSC02272 copy


Ecologists at work


Driving through endless grasslands past herds of yaks


Yaks everywhere



Treasures found at the field station



Yurts in summer pastures



Marked sheep. Tibetan sheep have horns that go straight out from their heads.



Travelling through the grasslands really gave us a sense of the openness of the plains and the freedom it offers. It is understandable why 40% of Tibetans remain nomadic despite attempts by the Chinese government to settle them. Being nomadic allows them to liberate themselves from the restrictions imposed on them.

Restrictions we felt when we tried to get a hotel room that night in the Tibetan town of Maqu (closest town to the field site). We were told that all the hotels in the town were not allowed to accept foreigners due to a festival/holiday that was a month away. Our hosts were not surprised but had been hopeful that we would get lucky. It seems the upcoming holiday was just an excuse as this practice happens regularly. Apparently, another biologist and his foreigner guest were woken up in the middle of the night and asked to not only leave the hotel they were staying in but the town of Maqu. Our only recourse was to ask for permission at the police station, which turned out to be a thoroughly absurd process. We were told the police supervisor was not available to give us permission as he was apparently out drinking. It seemed that travelling with small children in tow was not convincing enough that we did not have an ill intended political agenda. (Although we feel strongly that the policy is not to send a message to visiting foreigners but rather to the local Tibetan people.) Our host considered the feasibility of going to where the supervisor was and drinking with him. Fortunately, he is a Tibetan well versed in the practices of the area. A few cigarettes proffered and the right respectful words seem to have done the trick. We would be allowed to stay the night if we provided copies of our passports to the police station . The process didn’t just stop here though but rather continued until we left town. There was a police officer at the hotel to check our documents again when we went to check in and then the next morning at check out, two police officers arrived to once again ask why we were in town. I think they just wanted to make sure we were leaving. Nothing is ever simple in China.