Sunday, February 17, 2019

Strawberry Season in Samoeng

                                                                     by Jim Goodman

flowering trees along the Samoeng Road, late winter
       One of the pleasures of living in Chiang Mai is its proximity to fine rural scenery.  Although it is Thailand’s second largest city, it is much smaller than the capital Bangkok.  Its urban area, where traffic congestion can be heavy at certain hours, is not very extensive.  From central Bangkok to any direction you have to drive over two hours before you see a farm, much less a hill.  In Chiang Mai, on a motorbike, even in rush hour, you can reach rural areas in thirty minutes.
       Motorcycle excursions outside Chiang Mai are best in the cool dry months of December through February.  The skies are usually clear, as is the air, temperatures moderate and it rarely rains.  And in late winter, flowers bloom on the trees along the roads.  My own favorite this time of year is a round-trip journey to Samoeng, the Strawberry Capital of the North, about 50 km southwest of Chiang Mai.
strawberry bushes in Samoeng district
glass chedis at Fondcome Meditation Center
       Travelers usually associate the town with the Samoeng Loop, a motorcycle journey that starts from Mae Rim, 20 km north of Chiang Mai.  This route turns west at Mae Rim and then passes several well-advertised tourist attractions like the Snake Farm to watch the cobra show, the Tiger Camp to pose with your arm around a drugged tiger, the Elephant Sanctuary to watch elephants play soccer and paint pictures and then ride one of them, and the Botanical Garden with its flower displays.
fanciful elephant at Fibermaker Chiang Mai
       Soon after that the road goes up and down hills so steep you can’t get out of first gear going up and have to ride the brakes going down.  Forests on each side of the road block any views.  Five km above Samoeng is a junction with a turn right to the town and a turn left back to Chiang Mai.  The return to Chiang Mai is the best part of the route and after doing the full loop my future excursions just covered the route to Samoeng and back.
       Winter is also strawberry season and Samoeng district is famous for them.  It’s not the only place in the north that grows them, but Samoeng strawberries have the best reputation.  To promote the industry, the district authorities from 2001 organized an annual Strawberry Festival in February.  The dates change every year and do not depend on the lunar calendar, but the program is essentially the same.
Fiberware Chiang Mai sculpture
       Vendors set up booths selling all kinds of agricultural products, not only strawberries, jam and juice, but also various kinds of herbal and fruit drinks.  The Saturday of the schedule features a procession that includes flower-bedecked floats, with a strong strawberry decorative motif, the local school’s marching band, ladies in traditional clothing bearing baskets of strawberries and even a troupe of women wearing dresses shaped like strawberries.  In addition, of course, there is a beauty contest to pick Miss Strawberry. 
       From the center of Chiang Mai you drive south along the canal road and go about ten km to the Samoeng intersection and turn right (west).  After passing through a large village, after 2.5 km you come to the first big strawberry field, though there won’t be any more until the outskirts of Samoeng, another 38 km away.  From here on, though, the hills are closer, settlements sparse and forests abundant.
Royal Train Garden Resort
       Just another half kilometer past the strawberry farm, next to a creek flanked by a high wooded hill, is the Fondcome Meditation Center.  Clients can rent lodging here for as long as they choose and receive instructions on techniques.  A few more of these centers lie on the way to Samoeng, usually as part of a temple compound.  The Fondcome Center doesn’t have a proper temple, but does feature a pair of unusual glass chedis.
       A short distance further is one of the most interesting factories in the region, called Fibermaker Chiang Mai.  Among other things, it produces large scale, imaginative fiber sculptures like gigantic crocodiles and hybrid creatures like an elephant with four tusks, a fish tail and a pair of dragon wings.  If you’re looking for a ferocious sculpture to adorn your front yard and scare or amuse your neighbors, this is the place to have it made.
Wat Sri Muang Pong
       Continuing another kilometer you see a road sign announcing a railway crossing.  The actual north-south railway line is well east of here, but the sign is a subtle advertisement, referring to the Royal Train Garden Resort just ahead, which has a train engine and car on a track in its entrance courtyard.  This is the first of several high-end resorts along the road to Samoeng, sited in pleasant, tranquil rural surroundings, embellished by fancy flower gardens, with lodging, like at the Royal Train, often in individual, elegant, traditional style teakwood stilted houses.
       Two km past this resort is the village of Ban Pong, notable for its magnificent temple   The main assembly hall, ordination building and compound gate are in the best northern Thai style, with connected sloping roofs and gilded nagas on the corners.  In the yard in front are message signs in Thai and English with maxims like “Luxurious living turns one into a millionaire on loans” and “To live on what you have is better than live in luxury by installment.”
compound Wat Sri Muang Pong, lying a little off the road.
classic stilted house on the Samoeng Road
       On top of the forested hill behind the compound stands a very ornate white chedi, dominating the landscape.  Like the buildings in the compound, the chedi is relatively new.  But it was built on top of a much older, smaller chedi and curious visitors can take a ride up the dirt road to the summit and take a look at the original chedi inside the new one.
       After Ban Pong the road starts rolling through the hills.  Some of it runs through tracts of forest and in late winter trees along the road blossom, mostly with yellow flowers and occasionally white or red ones.  Even those without flowers can be impressive, such as huge banyan trees along the road.  In the open spaces in between stand more resorts and big restaurants, as well as some wonderful individual traditional Thai houses.

another example of a classic style home 
       About 22 km from Sanoeng lies Ban Kao Dua, the largest village on the route.  A few roadside restaurants here offer a great view down of the village and its many examples of big, classic, upper class Thai houses.  Kao Dua is the site of the American Pacific International School, established in 1997, with a curriculum for grades one through twelve.  The school has over a hundred students, from America and other countries.  About forty reside on campus and the rest commute from Chiang Mai.
       From the roadside restaurants the campus buildings are hardly noticeable.  But besides the big traditional Thai houses, one building does stand out, because it is so anomalous here.  This is the Hillsborough Hotel, with its gray, rural English manor architecture, quite in contrast to everything else in Ban Kao Dua.  No doubt set up to compete with the resorts in the area, it has very English-style rooms, garden, fountains, a small pool, a restaurant and coffee shop with English-style dishes on the menu. 
a mighty banyan tree on the main road
       Oddly though, no one on the staff speaks any English.  It doesn’t seem to draw a lot of business.  Perhaps it attracts Thais who want to experience something exotic (non-Thai) without having to go to another country.  It’s hard to think of foreigners wanting to spend time in lovely rural northern Thailand staying in something resembling home, when they have so many options of lodging in an environment more authentically local.
       Carrying on past Ban Kao Dua the same pleasant scenery persists of shallow valleys, bound by forested hills, themselves backed by higher mountains.  The road makes moderate ascents and descents, sometimes in the forest, sometimes passing cleared areas with more resorts, hamlets and temples.  A royal rose garden lies just off the main road a few km past Kao Dua.  And a roadside temple in a valley further on features a five-tiered, very narrow chedi unlike any other in the district.
Ban Kao Dua
       From this spot the road ascends again into the forest and you soon see signs warning to beware of elephants on the road.  An unpaved road to the north marks the way to the village hosting the Karen Tribe Native Elephants.  In northern Thailand the Karen minority was traditionally the people involved with training and handling elephants.  In the past, their main work was hauling timber out of the forests.  Logging has been banned for quite some time, which left elephants without a job.  Nowadays the animals mainly reside in tourist camps, both for riding and for non-riding experiences.
       Chiang Mai province has many such elephant camps.  Folks at Karen Tribe Native Elephants try to offer a different elephant experience program by limiting the size of the group so that each individual has his or her own elephant.  The Karen hosts first introduce their guests to their respective elephants, then instruct them how to behave with it, hang out with it in the mud baths the beasts like so much, learn how to wash it, feed it and mount it for a bareback ride through the jungle to the Samoeng road.
Hillsborough Hotel
unusual chedi on the route
       Guests can stay overnight with Karen families if they like.  Village Karens in the north tend to be very traditional and this place is no exception.  Women still use old-fashioned backstrap looms to make cloth and men weave baskets from split bamboo.  Both sexes dress in traditional garments.  In fact, they ask their guests to don Karen shirts while they are around the elephants.  It’s a security precaution, to make the elephants think the strangers are Karens, whom the elephants have been trained to respect as their masters.
white flowers along the road in late winter
Karen-owned elephants near the Samoeng Road
       Continuing past the turnoff to the elephant camp the road soon begins descending to the Samoeng valley, beginning with a very serpentine section until the junction with the road to Mae Rim.  The next five km are less winding and just a gradual downhill ride.  The road ends at a t-junction at the beginning of the town.  A right turn here goes into the small suburbs, while to the left is the business section, such as it is, and the main part of town.
the attractive hotel in Samoeng
       Samoeng proper is not a great deal bigger than Ban Kao Dua.  What makes it a town and not a village is the presence of a police station, district administration buildings and central covered market (and a 7/11).  It has several Lanna-style houses, but nothing as attractive as some of the ones on the road back to Chiang Mai.  The best is the Samoeng Hotel, a little past the market, its buildings in a style that seems half-Lanna, half-rural German.  Sculptured steles stand in the yard, some with Hindu imagery.
       Aside from the days of the Strawberry Festival, Samoeng is a very quiet town.  Occasionally hill people like Lisu, Karen or Hmong might turn up in the market, but the town’s tranquility is the main draw for overnight visitors.  Besides the hotel, the other overnight option is in one of the simple lodges at Wongwan Farm, the biggest strawberry plantation in the district.
       The farm lies near the southern end of Samoeng, a little off the main road, with a view of the mountains you just descended to the east.  There’s a nice stilted restaurant to the right, a row of several lodges to the left, and a big strawberry patch in the middle.  You can purchase packets of the plump, richly red, juicy strawberries the district is famous for and enjoy them back in the city.  Relaxing here with a tall, cold strawberry shake makes a fitting climax to a ride that, while still enjoyable any time of year, is always best in strawberry season.

Wongwan Strawberry Farm, Samoeng
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Monday, February 4, 2019

Trekking Through Tiger Leaping Gorge

                                  by Jim Goodman     

on the trail through Tiger Leaping Gorge
       Once upon an ancient time, where the River of Golden Sands rushes between the steep slopes and towering cliffs of two snow-capped mountains, a tiger came hurrying through the forest.  Guided by the clatter of snapping twigs just ahead of them, a band of Naxi hunters followed in hot pursuit.  Their prey rushed headlong downhill until it reached the bank of the turbulent river.  There was no way to swim in that current and the hunters were drawing near.  Summoning all its primordial strength, the tiger made a mighty leap of over thirty meters to the other side, scampered out of crossbow range, and successfully eluded the astonished hunters.
       After the hunters returned home to tell the tale, the local people began calling the place Tiger Leaping Gorge.  Eons later it became one of Yunnan’s most famous tourist attractions; not for the legend behind its name but for the undeniable magnificence of the tale’s setting.  Here the river has cut an 18 km-long cleft between two of the biggest mountains in the province—Yulongshan (5590 meters) on the east bank and Habashan (5396 meters) on the west bank.  Picturesque villages lie scattered on the west bank slopes.  Birds and flowers fill the forests above them.  Across on the other side the sheer cliffs of Jade Dragon (Yulong) Snow Mountain rise straight up from the rapids of the river.  No wonder then that when Lijiang first opened its doors to foreigner travelers in the 1980s, most included a trek through the gorge on their itineraries.
Walnut Grove
       It was a popular though grueling way to enjoy natural scenery.  Conventional wisdom advised two full days of hiking from Daju down to Qiaotou, or vice versa.  That was assuming you were in relatively good shape, you didn’t turn your ankle on the trail, no rockslides or rainstorms impeded you, and your travel schedule was too tight to allow for a more leisurely, less physically exacting adventure.
       With villages popping into sight every two or three hours, and guest houses set up for travelers in each of them, the slower, less exhausting, more appreciative option was always available.  But in general people followed the guidebook dictum and did it in two hard days.  It became a fitness test to cover the route in only two days.  It was something to boast about in the Lijiang and Dali cafés afterwards, until you met the inevitable maniac who did it in a single day’s dawn-to-dusk mad rush.
the trail to Daju from Walnut Grove
       Since the late 1990s another option has been open for going through the gorge—by bus or car on the new paved road that runs on the west bank side all the way to the ferry landing for Daju at the northern end.  Close to the river for the first third of the route, the road gradually climbs up the slopes and is several hundred meters above the river by the time it reaches Walnut Grove, the northernmost village in the gorge.
       This road has enabled a great many more people to see and appreciate the gorge, who would otherwise have neither the time nor ability to go on foot.  Every day tour buses bring big groups to view the scenery, while taxis and minivans shuttle visitors and villagers back and forth between Qiaotou and Walnut Grove.  Veteran trekkers from the gorge’s pre-development days might assume that the new road has spoiled the adventure.  But actually, except for improved facilities and the option of fancier accommodations at roadside villages like Walnut Grove, the new road has not interfered with the traditional trekking experience.
hulling maize near Daju
view from rural Daju
       Tour buses generally just take their passengers to the spot where the tiger allegedly made its leap.  The tourists go down to the bank to pose for pictures next to a statue of the tiger.  Across the river a newly paved road ends at a creek just opposite the tiger statue and buses drop visitors here to shoot telephoto shots of the tiger from the eastern bank.  Depending on the season the river’s width here is 30-35 meters.  It’s hard to imagine even a frog or a jackrabbit twice as big as the tiger able to make such a prodigious jump.  But for people who came to bask in the aura surrounding the site of a famous legend, scientific arguments challenging the authenticity of that legend are irrelevant.
Habashan, from the Daju plateau
       For most tourists, the gorge is just a day trip out of Lijiang.  They will take a minibus to Qiaotou, a town on the Jinshajiang—River of Golden Sand—at its confluence with the Zhongdian River just inside Shangrila County.  Also called Tiger Leaping Gorge town, it is full of tourist services, especially restaurants catering to the organized groups.  A great view of the ’teeth’ of Jade Dragon Mountain is possible just upriver from the town on the road into the gorge.  And the tiger’s alleged leaping point is just a short ride away up either the west bank or the east bank.
       A few go on to spend a night or two at Walnut Grove, a short hike up from the road and the biggest settlement in the gorge.  It has several hotels and the rooms have televisions that, if the electricity works that night, offer programs not only from all over China, but also North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.  No need to feel cut off from the world even while being in a place that looks like it’s cut off from the world. 
the gorge's northern end at Daju
hiking above the road
       Walnut Grove is a good base for short hikes to the waterfall above the settlement or the steep path through the farms to the spot on the bank known as Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge.   The narrowest part of the entire gorge is just above here, but the sheer vertical cliffs on the Jade Dragon side precluded any chance of the tiger making its leap here.  The Daju plateau rises just beyond this crevice and, on clear days, snow mountains crease the horizon further on.  With its traditional Naxi houses nestled on the hillside, a spectacular view, and the conviviality at the guest house dinner tables, a trip to Walnut Grove alone can be easier on the limbs and lungs, yet amply rewarding for the eyes, ears and nose.
Naxi mountain village in the gorge
       An option from here could be to hike to the ferry landing a few easy kilometers away and cross over to Daju.  While there is a point on this side to view the end of the gorge, the landscape around Daju is stark, with barren cliffs on the hills, few trees, a rolling plain mottled by Naxi villages and their farms and swift streams lined by mini-canyons.
       The village nearest the ferry offers accommodations for travelers and a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. Minibuses take people back to Lijiang, but the scenery all but demands a day of leisurely hiking around the area, never as strenuous as through the gorge.  The snow peak of Habashan is visible at various points.
maize harvest on the drying rack
       Yet for the fullest experience of Tiger Leaping Gorge, nothing beats taking the trek.  You tread the same high, rocky footpath the local villagers have been using since the land was first settled many centuries ago.  It is well above the road and its traffic, where the air is pure and fresh, with continuously changing vistas of the lines and shapes of the slopes and peaks. 
       The trail is interspersed with villages of the Naxi minority nationality, the same people who dominate Lijiang County and spill over into adjacent areas in neighboring counties like Ninglang, Weixi and Shangrila.  (In fact, all of Tiger Leaping Gorge lies within the boundaries of Shangrila County.)  The Naxi are a Tibeto-Biurman people with a long history, including several centuries as a powerful autonomous state.  Confucian precepts govern most of their social and cultural norms and, compared to the Tibetans, they are not as religious-minded.  No monasteries or temples stand anywhere in Tiger Leaping Gorge.
       Their villages are of a moderate size, about 15-25 households.  For the trekker, every village has a place to stay the night.  A few families have converted one of the compound buildings into a boarding house with several simple bedrooms.  If none are available, local people will put up the trekker in their own home, vacating a room for the night to accommodate the visitor. 
protective fish on a Naxi house roof
Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge
       Villagers live in one- or two-story houses of wood and stone or mud-brick, with tiled roofs and often featuring carved wooden fish hanging down from each apex of the roof.  This reflects the persistent Naxi animist belief that the fish, representing water, protects the house against the fire of lightning strikes.
       Except for those settlements at a lower altitude close to the river, Naxi villages in the gorge do not cultivate rice.  Maize is the main crop instead, supplemented by buckwheat, vegetables, hemp and sunflowers.  After the maize or buckwheat harvest, people hang the crops on tall wooden racks in their courtyards to dry them before threshing or hulling.
rough gentian
colorful mountain flower
       The view is broader and constant on the northern half of the route, from Wenjia Stream to Walnut Grove.  The trekking trail runs only a couple hundred meters above the road and is relatively level, with no forests or groves to pass through, all the way to Walnut Grove.  This is an easier stretch to hike, quite in contrast to the really rugged section between the stream and Nuo Yu village at the southern end, which is where most trekkers start.  For those who are elderly, corpulent or otherwise physically not up to such a grueling ascent, they can hire a pony with a handler to lead them.
Jade Dragon peaks on a misty morning
       Within this part of the route the trail ascends sharply to the pass at 2670 meters altitude.  On the southern side the path zigzags up what is called the 28 Bends.  The northern side, only marginally less steep, passes through a thick forest all the way to the stream.  But though the trees block views of the mountains, flowers of various kinds, shapes and colors decorate the paths, including two of Yunnan’s prize species—the rhododendron and the bell-shaped rough gentian. 
Nuo Yu village at the south end of the gorge
       At several points along this section of the trail viewpoints devoid of obscuring trees offer a clear view of the gorge and the peaks of the eastern bank.  These are ideal spots to revel in the scenery, watch eagles glide by, chat with trekkers hiking in the opposite direction and perhaps sit and fantasize upon what the gorge might look like if, as rumor has it, it gets dammed up and a huge reservoir is created as a result.  Will future generations of tourists ride a cable car to this pass, sit in an expensive restaurant and sip cool drinks while enjoying the reflection of Jade Dragon’s peaks in the limpid waters of Tiger Leaping Lake?
       Meanwhile, the river still flows freely and in the end the dam may never be built.  For the time being at least, visitors can still marvel at a spectacle wrought by time and the elements.  And inevitably they will depart with the fervent hope that the powers-that-be will ultimately rate the value of the gorge not for its hydroelectric potential but for its positive effect on the hearts and souls of those who travel so far to bear witness to its beauty.

view from Qiaotou of the 'teeth' of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain
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for more on the Naxi and Lijiang County, see my e-book Children of the Jade Dragon