Pamir Highway to Afghanistan

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The route of the Pamir Highway on a map of Central Asia. I went from Osh, Kyrgyzstan to Dushanbe, Tajikistan though the reverse is perfectly manageable, too. Image taken from Wikipedia.

Why do it?

It’s an awesome road trip through spectacular scenery alongside some of the world’s highest mountains. There are stunning glimpses of the Hindu Kush, and this is arguably the best way to see some of Afghanistan (albeit from the outside). A large chunk of the route travels along the Afghan border, separated only by a small river and a few dozen meters.

Route History

As an old Silk Road link, the Pamir Highway has served as a trade route for thousands of years. After centuries of fading into relative obscurity, nowadays its more lucrative commercial activity revolves around smuggling heroin from Afghanistan. Hence the route’s nickname as the Heroin Highway. My Central Asia guidebook claims that a large majority of Tajikistan’s economy is rooted in heroin, with much of the rest coming from Tajiks performing unskilled labor in Russia and sending small sums back to family.

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A clear day in the Hindu Kush. I took this photo in Tajikistan, but the mountains across the river are all in Afghanistan.

Nestled among the world’s highest mountains, this has historically not been the easiest place to visit. Traversing the poorest part of the poorest Soviet republic, this region is still extremely underdeveloped. After ties with Moscow were severed, Tajikistan plunged into civil war for much of the 90s. Gorno-Badakhshan, the region of the Pamir Highway, tried to separate with the help of the neighboring Taliban. People bearing ID cards from the region were publicly executed on the streets of Dushanbe, the capital city.

The separatists lost the war, and the current regime has brutally maintained order. Coalition forces entered Afghanistan from the Pamir Highway in late 2001.

Is it safe?

Yes. Right before I did this trip some Islamic fundamentalists drove a car into a group of Western cyclists, killing four. It seems to have been an isolated incident with people connected to the separatists from the Tajikistani Civil War of the 90s. The government immediately and without trial executed a number of locals who may or may not have been linked to the murders, parading their bodies on television. In these kinds of places, anybody who could possibly threaten tourist dollars entering the country is quickly killed.

The New York Times posted an article the same day about 66 shooting victims in a single weekend in Chicago with no arrests. Statistically, you’re much safer in Tajikistan than in the United States. Which, as my non-American friends would counter, doesn’t really say much.

Visas

It’s gotten much easier over the past few years to visit Central Asia. Most people from developed countries can enter Kyrgyzstan without a visa. The Tajik e-visa is easy to obtain. Online I uploaded a scan of my passport’s bio page, a photo of my lovely face, and paid the $50 fee via credit card. The e-visa was in my inbox within 36 hours. You need an extra permit to visit the Pamir Highway, which costs $20 and nowadays just involves checking an extra box during the e-visa application process.

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Checkpoint near Afghanistan. We had to stop every couple of hours for passport and visa inspections along the Afghan border.

Cost and Logistics

The cost of driver with car plus fuel for 4 days cost $744, split three ways. So, I paid $248 for my share. You can have more people in your car, but it wouldn’t be that comfortable. Food and lodging came to an extra $20 per day. Meals and lodging were all at homestays. The drivers know where to go, and probably get kickbacks. The people in this region are Persian, like across the border in next door Afghanistan, and it’s a great way to experience Persian life for a bit.

The most common way to do this trip is to rent car plus driver for 4 to 6 days. You can start in either Osh or Dushanbe. From what I heard the best place for organizing the trip is the Osh Guesthouse, and in the summer months there are departures every couple of days. There’s a signup board with names and contact info for people who are looking for others to help split the cost. I contacted a guy from the signup board, but I got bad vibes from him and instead ended up posting my Kyrgyz phone number at caravanistan.com (the best website for travel details in Central Asia). A couple of guys from Romania contacted me within a couple hours, and the three of us organized the trip through the Guesthouse. The driver picked me up at my hotel in Osh early the morning of day one.

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The beginning of the route on the Kyrgyz side is mostly paved, but once you get into Tajikistan it’s rough dirt road. Stalin had the highway built in the 30s to help with troop movement.

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The village of Sary Tash, near the Kyrgyz-Tajik border. We stopped for lunch here at a local hole in the wall. All the meals were pretty much the same: black or green tea, with some kind of pasta accompanied by a chunk of meat.

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The first night we stopped at a yurt camp populated by Kyrgyz nomads. They let me set up my tent in their pastures. It got below freezing that night, and I’d wished I’d stayed in one of the yurts with a fire.

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Closer photo of the yurt camp. The Kyrgyz herders bring their sheep up here during the summer months. Lenin Peak, the tallest mountain in the former Soviet Union at 7,100m/23,400ft, rises in the background. I’m not sure exactly which peak it was… The herders asked for a couple of dollars for a hot dinner.

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At the beginning there were a couple of other of cars, mostly French guys. Here’s a stop where we got out of the car to stretch our legs along with some others.

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This is one of the Romanian guys with whom I rented the car plus driver. He didn’t really speak English but his friend, who was closer to my age, used to live in the US and was fluent. The highest point on the Pamir Highway was here at Ak-Baital Pass, 4655m (15,270 ft.). 

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Going from Osh to Dushanbe over the course of 6 days gave me time to do some side trips, like this solo hike I took for about an hour off the main route.

Early on day two we entered Tajikistan, which was a pretty painless border crossing. I noticed our driver slipped the Tajik border guards some cash, which probably played a big role in how quickly we were able to get through the formalities. I never had to pay a bribe at any other border crossing in Central Asia.

Ever since leaving central China, all the locals I’d encountered had been dark skinned, dark eyed descendants of Turkic nomads. The Tajiks looked very different and much more European. The high prevalence of blue eyes was a bit of a shock to see after all my months in Asia.

Tajik means “not Arab, not Turkish.” Ethnically they’re Persian, and they speak Persian. Most Tajiks live in Afghanistan but during the Great Game, when the Russian and British Empires of the 19th century carved up Asia, some of the Persians were given to the Czar (in present day Tajikistan) and the rest were dumped into the newly created buffer state of Afghanistan, where lots of completely different peoples were forced together into one bizarre amalgamation.

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Sometimes the Pamir Highway wasn’t as developed as in other places.

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I still have no idea what this car was doing. We saw some guys doing the Mongol Rally, which is an annual event in which people drive from London to Mongolia. They don’t really spend any time in the countries they visit, but rather just drive.

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Across the river is Afghanistan. We spied a couple of small villages there, but I only saw somebody on the other side once: a man on a horse. The Afghan side of the river was even more underdeveloped than Tajikistan.

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A typical sight along the Pamir Highway.

There are no ATMs on the Pamir Highway. Instead, you must bring all cash you will need for the trip. Although each Stan has its own currency of dubious value, the local economies are focused on the US dollar. You can get $100 bills out of the ATMs in Kyrgyzstan, or you can buy them from ubiquitous money change kiosks that offer very close to the online bank rate. Fun fact: I didn’t know what $100 bills looked like from my own currency, so I had to study the images online to make sure I wasn’t being given counterfeits. I never use cash in the US, especially not $100 bills.

It’s also possible to buy Tajik somoni, the Tajikistani currency, in the Kyrgyz city of Osh. I brought about $50 worth of somoni and $250 in US dollars. In Khorog, a Tajik town we spent the night in, we went to the “market” to exchange dollars into somoni. The market ended up being a semi-deserted sea of shipping containers, out of which emerged an elderly woman whose teeth were all gold.

She didn’t speak, but rather just used a calculator to tell us the rate, which was pretty decent. We weren’t sure how much she’d be able to exchange, this being a very poor country, but she was eager to get our dollars. Us plus another group ended up converting somewhere around $700 into the local currency, and once she’d gotten all she wanted she found more elderly locals who wanted to buy dollars.

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By the end I was as exhausted as I look here, with Afghanistan in the background. Oftentimes there would be electricity for only a few hours a day in the places we stayed at. The homestays were quite nice! They’d usually have a big room with bedrolls on the floor, with Persian carpets covering the walls and floor.

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Another shot of the Hindu Kush, closer to Murghab. Murghab is across a bridge from Afghanistan, though I don’t think anybody really crosses there. There used to be a Saturday market in the area where you gave your passport to a border guard, and could walk into Afghanistan for a couple of hours and peruse the sales. Now that the Taliban control this area on the Afghan side, the market no longer happens. In Murghab I parted ways with the Romanians, stayed a day, and then caught a 13 hour cramped shared taxi to the Tajik capital of Dushanbe. I stayed in a great homestay with a woman who did a semester abroad in college in Akron, Ohio not far from where I grew up. She was so excited to have an Ohioan stay with her, and talked to me a ton about her year in Ohio. The other members of her family sharing the large house with her didn’t speak English, but they were quite friendly. I knew some very basic Persian/Russian words and phrases, which helped. Most people in Central Asia speak Russian as their second language because of the Soviet Union, though many of the younger generation also speaks at least some English.

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An old Silk Road fort that’s seen better days.

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Tajikistan and especially Kyrgyzstan have some great hiking opportunities. Many people told me Kyrgyzstan was known as the Switzerland of Central Asia back in the Soviet days, and that Tajikistan is where the Soviet mountaineers trained. Kyrgyzstan does seem a lot like Switzerland, except much cheaper and with friendlier people.

The 13 hour shared taxi from Murghab to Dushanbe, the end of the Pamir Highway and close to Uzbekistan, was definitely not something I would want to do again. There’s a semi-regular flight in a small propeller plane through the Afghan Hindu Kush to Dushanbe, but I wasn’t able to get tickets because of a backlog due to recent storms. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Nobody in my car spoke English, but they seemed fascinated by the foreigner. There was a new mother who looked exhausted, and spent most of the bumpy ride in a deep coma from which she only emerged for ice cream and bathroom breaks. Her baby was passed around from person to person, and at one rest stop a guy motioned for me to pass him the baby from the backseat. I’d just met these people and they were already asking me to hold their baby and carry it briefly.

I only did the Pamir Highway because getting a visa to the isolated bizarre Turkmenistan proved overly tedious (don’t know what else you can expect from a country whose president renamed months of the calendar after his family), but overall I was glad I did it. I’d highly recommend it to anyone else doing a jaunt through the Stans of Central Asia.

 

Western China to Kazakhstan

The Liuyuan high speed rail station consists of a lonely and quiet pair of platforms in the Gobi Desert. A quick look at the map on my phone shows me I’m not far from Mongolia. Military policemen handle oversized guns, the first firearms I’ve seen in months. My documents are pored over by women who bark commands at the queue of passengers awaiting entry into the station, while the guards stare at me: the only foreigner.

Rail stations in the more populous East, where the vast majority of the 1.4 billion Chinese live, are chaotic affairs. Vendors hawk skewers of roast duck and steamed dumplings, while in the megacities trains arrive and depart every few seconds. But this rail link to the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, or Chinese Turkestan, is mostly silent.

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Xinjiang province is highlighted in red on this map of China.

In the 18th century, warring factions of indigenous Turkic peoples, called the Uyghur (wee-ur), invited the Qing dynasty to invade and restore order. The fighting consequently stopped, but as of 2018 the Chinese still haven’t left. Renaming the area Xinjiang, which means New Frontier in Chinese, the resource rich and strategically important region was annexed into the empire.

The comfortable and air conditioned bullet train to Urumqi, the provincial capital and world’s farthest city from the ocean, zips through the cold, rocky Gobi Desert at around 200mph. Journeys in the verdant plains of China proper east of the Gobi traverse through villages and cities surrounded by farmland, but this corner of the Middle Kingdom is brown and desolate.

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Outside the train station in Liuyuan, near the border with Xinjiang.

At Urumqi Station, the western end of the Chinese high speed rail network, I disembark to go through security and processing. My belongings pass through a large scanner, and a woman surrounded by heavily armed military police tells me to look at a camera. Identity confirmed, entry authorized flashes across the screen. A green light accompanies the opening of the gate in front of me, which slams shuts before the person behind me can cross.

My friends back in the West say my stories of life in China are reminiscent of a dystopia a la 1984. After a short while you get used to knowing all text messages, purchases, and movement are being recorded by the government. There are certain topics you can’t discuss, but you learn how to avoid bringing them up and/or find out appropriate ways of saying one thing while meaning something else.

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Facial recognition software being used to identify and publicly shame jaywalkers on a billboard.

In Xinjiang the “security situation” is more in your face. Heavily armed police patrol the streets, the cameras that track everyone via gait and facial recognition software are more ubiquitous, and there are police stations every few hundred meters. Western news media have lately been paying increased attention to “re-education camps” housing hundreds of thousands of local Muslims, who are forced to eat pork and give lavish praise to the President and Communist Party.

The exit from the Urumqi train station spits you out in a small, busy plaza with Han Chinese and Turkic locals milling about. The ambiance has made an abrupt shift from East to Central Asia, with a dose of military-grade security paranoia thrown in the mix. Chinese and Arabic script plaster buildings and billboards. Back in eastern China, the security looks bored and my obviously foreign looks draw curious stares from passersby. Here, the armed security stare at me with hostile suspicion. I’ve dealt with this before in obscure corners of Eastern Europe, and I head confidently in what I hope is the direction of the bus stop. Luckily, it is.

The Urumqi Rapid Bus Network links the train station to my hotel, one of the few in the city authorized to accept foreigners. I drop a one yuan note (14 cents) into the fare box and disembark when I reach my station, with announcements in Mandarin and Turkic Uyghur. Though the indigenous Uyghurs ply the streets hawking wares it’s largely a Han colony in a somewhat remote corner of Central Asia. Because of Han immigration, the Uyghurs are now a minority in their ancestral home.

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Foreigners are highly discouraged from taking photos in Xinjiang, and this is one of the only shots I took in the region. Just a museum with Silk Road exhibits in Urumqi.

I translate back and forth between Chinese and English to help another American, who arrives as I’m being handed my key. He brags about how the receptionist offered a rate lower than that listed on the wall, but I don’t tell him I paid even less. He quickly comes across as kind of a jerk, so I make an excuse to leave. My room is comfortable, though the bathroom is bizarrely enclosed in a transparent glass wall. There’s no exposed electrical wiring in the shower, and it’s quiet at night, so I can’t complain much.

I’d hoped to visit the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar in southwest Xinjiang, but I’ve heard the security there is even more intense than here. I’m worried about my hiking equipment being confiscated, and I’ve read online that the government has recently demolished much of Kashgar’s older architecture. The former governor of Tibet now runs Xinjiang, and many of his practices seem to have followed him. Plus, I’ve heard that guards have been turning back foreigners that try to cross from Kashgar into nearby Kyrgyzstan. So I instead travel by train to Yining, 6 hours from Urumqi.

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Some random photo I took of myself in the Urumqi high speed rail station to show a friend my beard and hair trim. It took going into three barber shops in downtown Urumqi before I found a guy who was willing to cut a foreigner’s hair. He told me my beard looked awful and asked if he could trim it. I think he did a good job.

Yining is a small town of half a million near Kazakhstan and home to a decent hostel, the former being the main reason people visit. An older woman with her daughter and infant granddaughter ask me to lift their luggage onto the overhang rack because of my height. Although I’m only 164cm (5’4”), and short amongst my age group in Shanghai, I tower over many of the locals this far from the wealthy coast.

All I do in Yining is eat dinner and withdraw from the ATM some Chinese yuan, which I’ve heard I can exchange for Kazakh money at the border. While walking to the bus station to catch one of the hourly departures to the border town of Khorgos, I pass by a bunch of construction workers who look Kazakh. Construction immediately halts and the two dozen men just stare at me wordlessly.

It’s two hours in a cramped minivan to the border, and shortly before arriving in town we arrive at a checkpoint. Every 50km or so in Xinjiang there’s a checkpoint where foreigners must disembark, have all luggage scanned, and explain to the Chinese police what you’re doing. I’m crouched low in my seat, trying to look inconspicuous, and the officer is about to wave us through when he sees me. I’m shown into the checkpoint terminal, a drab one story building where I smile like an idiot and pretend not to speak Chinese in the hopes of speeding things up.

“We need an English translator,” I hear the guard say into the phone. I wait 10 minutes for this translator, but when it turns out the only English word he knows is bicycle and that my “dumb ghost man” act isn’t going to work I provide my government issued credentials, explain in Mandarin that I’m a university employee on summer vacation heading to Kazakhstan, and upon hearing I’m leaving the country they wave me through.

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Driving through the deserts of Western China.

The Chinese in the van don’t seem bothered that we had to wait an extra 15 minutes because of me. “He speaks Chinese!” the driver tells them, and then they pepper me with the usual questions re where I’m from, what I think of Chinese food, why I’m 27 but still not married, how much I earn each month, etc. “Wow, meeting an American all the way out here!” a few of them exclaim to each other.

Two things I’d read online are true: it’s hard to figure out where to cross the border, and the money changers will find you. The rates aren’t bad, and I exchange about $60 of yuan to Kazakh tenge. I walk 20 minutes to the physical border, where a driver says, “I take you my country, get in truck.” I decline and keep walking to immigration control, where I get turned away and told I can only cross via bus. I’d heard I could cross the border and hitchhike 30km to Kazakhstan immigration control where buses headed toward Almaty, a European city in the heart of Asia. But after confirming with a second set of guards that I can only go by bus, I flag down a taxi that agrees to take me the 2km back to the bus station for 90 cents.

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Kazakhstan shown in red on a world map.

The big goal is to cross the border into Kazakhstan. Once I’m there I can figure out a way to Almaty, whether it’s standing by the highway with my thumb out or flagging down a bus. The Chinese ticket vendor sells me passage to Zharkent, Kazakhstan for about $11.

Leaving China is simple, but I hit a snag when a border guard looks with a confused look at the array of Chinese stamps in my passport.

“How’d you most recently enter China?” he asks in Mandarin, studying my entry stamp following my recent ferry trip to Taiwan.

“By boat,” I say, leaving it at that.

“How would you enter China by boat? How does that work? Where would you even come from in Fujian province?” My eyes go a bit wide. Oh God, am I seriously going to have to explain to this true believer that the People’s Republic doesn’t have control of Taiwan? TAIWAN IS PART OF CHINA is what diehard nationalists will often screech if you mention the “province in rebellion,” but this is the first time I’ve met a flat out denier of the existence of Taiwan. I’d heard they exist, but to meet one in the flesh…

“Give me the foreigner’s passport,” his supervisor barks, having overheard the conversation. She’s pleasant and easy to deal with after I explain that I’m not in Xinjiang to foment rebellion, but rather as a university teacher on vacation.

Crossing into Kazakhstan is easy, minus the hour delay for the guards to finish lunch.

“Kazakhstan tourism?” the guard asks in disbelief after reading the entry slip I’d handed him.

“Yes.”

“Really? Tourism?” And I am once again back traveling through countries that can’t believe a westerner would visit willingly.

“Kazakhstan great country, tell friends,” he says, stamping my passport and sending me on my way.

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Kazakhstan is largely a Russian speaking country, but most of the signs are also written in the Latin alphabet. Here’s an example of the dual alphabet usage in the Almaty, Kazakhstan metro. My hostel was by Baikonyr metro station.

The ride to Zharkent passes through arid desert along a well maintained Kazakh highway, and there are many drivers looking for passengers onward to Almaty. There’s really nowhere else out here in the middle of Asia, and Almaty is the only place the highway travels.

At a highway rest stop, complete with chickens roaming about, my driver chats with some middle aged Russian women. One speaks a little English, and tells me to get on their bus with them. I have no idea what’s going on, but the Russian lady manages to convey that her bus is closer to my hostel than where my original driver is heading.

The lush mountain backdrop of Almaty, nestled at the base of the massive Tianshan Range, slowly rises as we approach the city.

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The view of the city and surrounding mountains from the roof of my hostel in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Trekking the Kyrgyz Tianshan: Jeti Oguz to Kyzyl Suu

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Map of Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia, with the village of Karakol in the northeast of the country to the east of the large alpine Lake Ysyk Kol. Taken from Wikipedia.

Karakol is the trekking capital of Kyrgyzstan, the country which boasts to be the Switzerland of Central Asia (minus the economic and political stability). Marshrutkas, the Russian name for passenger van, leave from the chaotic Bishkek West Bus Station when full for Karakol. Wait times in July seem to be 2 to 20 minutes, and tickets are bought directly from the counter with large letters proclaiming Касси. Ignore the touts out front and follow the crowds of locals into the large, open-air terminal. Tickets should be about $5.50 for the five and a half hour journey, which parallels the mountainous Kazakh border much of the way to Karakol. The babushkas on board seem to have built a heat tolerance in the depths of hell, and will ask you to shut all windows if the temperature dips below 90F/32C.

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You don’t go to Kyrgyzstan to see the towns. You go to the towns to springboard into the surrounding countryside.

Pretty much all of the backpackers in Karakol stay at Duet Hostel, which is one of the nicest joints I’ve stayed at in the 48 countries I’ve visited. The price is pretty typical for this part of the world at $5 or $6 a night for a bunk in the dorms, and the young Kyrgyz woman with flawless English running everything has plastered trekking maps, detailed step by step instructions on how to get to each trailhead, and contact info for tour organizers all over the walls of the adjacent cafe (which she also runs, and serves great milkshakes, pizzas, sandwiches, and tea).

Taxis from the Karakol bus station to the hostel should cost no more than $1.50, but you’re highly unlikely to get that price. It only costs 15 cents to ride on a marshrutka from the station to within a 5 minute walk of the hostel (which would probably be a 35 minute walk with no vehicle). Just tell the driver a-stan-ah-VEE-tyeh, which I think means stop in Russian, when you want to get off.

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Duet Hostel in Karakol, photo taken directly from their website.

One of the more popular hikes in the region is Kyzyl Suu to Jeti Oguz. By Kyrgyz standards of popularity this means that over the course of 72 hours I saw two other groups of hikers on trail, both within a few hours of each other. I hiked the route in reverse, but I’d recommend doing the standard Kyzyl Suu to Jeti Oguz direction because it’s way easier and less steep of an ascent.

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You can hitch a ride pretty easily from the road through the Jeti Oguz gorge, which pretty much everyone does to skip about 20km, but I found it to be a pleasant walk along rivers and Kyrgyz summer yurt camps.

Marshrutkas leave about every hour starting at 10am from the Karakol bazaar. You’ll know you’re in the right place when taxi drivers start telling you the bus service has been discontinued and you can only go by taxi. Duet Hostel has little pieces of paper with maps and detailed walking instructions that will take you to the exact spot to pick up transport to Jeti Oguz, which is about a 20 minute drive and should cost around 40 cents.

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The river crossings are all done by bridge, which don’t look stable but seemed fine. I took this photo while standing on one of those bridges.

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I saw this while walking from the tiny village of Jeti Oguz along the only dirt road heading towards the mountains.

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A bit different from the road walks on the Continental Divide Trail. But the scenery was actually pretty similar.

I was a bit surprised how much of the hike was along a road, which has a decent amount of traffic coming out of Jeti Oguz for the first 15km. Multiple cars stopped to offer a ride, but I was enjoying myself and just walked. There’s one touristy spot where the gravel road ends and a rough dirt road begins, and this is where you’ll stop seeing people. At 6:30pm I’d already covered 22km since noon, and with a storm coming I set up my tent by the river the road parallels. You could set up your tent next to a yurt camp for about $1.50, just ask the owners permission, and a hot dinner would probably be inexpensive. I never took advantage of that option so I can’t comment on it. The locals don’t seem to care if you camp in the forest and clean up after yourself.

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Because it’s so full of sediment and murky, the river looks way deeper and more treacherous than it actually is (in person it looked way worse than in the photo). You can pay a local man with a horse $1.50 to cross on horseback, which honestly is probably the way to do it. Stream crossings are the most dangerous part of all my hikes (not bears or murderers in the woods!).

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Navigation is pretty easy when you just have to follow a river upstream.

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Looking back downstream as storm clouds gather. The weather changes fast.

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The river I followed got smaller and smaller as I reached its source.

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Snowcapped huge mountains everywhere in the distance!

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Eventually I got high enough to be level with the snow. Basically I just ascended a valley from 6k feet to 12.8k feet (1800m to 3900m).

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I was below the only pass of the trip when it started hailing. I set up my tent and waited it out. Within 45 minutes, the intense storm had vanished and been replaced by clear, sunny skies. So I packed everything back up and booked it to the top. After ascending a couple thousand meters since the morning, and going at a very steep incline, I wasn’t walking very quickly.

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The pass is up there somewhere. It was a tough scramble, and there were parts that were very unstable. Cairns marked the best route, which wasn’t obvious looking at it from a distance. There were multiple parts where I just didn’t look down. At 6pm a group of Germans with insanely huge packs told me there was no way I’d get over the pass and be able to camp by nightfall. Within an hour, 7pm, I was in my tent. It gets dark around 9pm in late July.

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The pass, Archa Tor, was beautiful. But the weather had soured by the time I literally hauled myself up a snow bank and onto the pass, so I took some photos and then hurried down.

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Proof that I made it to the top!

I set up my tent in a clearing about 300m below the pass, down another steep scramble. The hail started again, not as intense as before, shortly after I climbed inside my sleeping bag. My socks were soaked, and my sleeping bag had gotten a bit wet during the previous hailstorm. Since it’s a down sleeping bag and has gotten over 300 nights of use, the warmth and loft aren’t what they used to be. It was a bitterly cold night because of that, and it didn’t help that at 9pm a herd of cows graced me with their presence. I seriously don’t have any clue why cows would decide to chill out at night at 3600m on a mountain, but they shit and pissed wonderful smells all around my tent. They also tripped over the guylines supporting my tent all night, and one managed to get inside my food bag to eat my chocolate bar. I got around 1.5 to 2 hours of sleep that night and developed a cold, which was not ideal.

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The next morning was gorgeous, with clear skies and awesome vistas.

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Damn cows everywhere on the mountain.

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A cow path tracing its way around the mountain. I wonder if they ever fall off the edge. Sometimes I hoped so.

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At one point you cross the river for the final time on a cart with pulleys operated by two young Kyrgyz boys who charge a whopping $1.50 per trip.

I ended up road walking from the end of the trail to Kyzyl Suu, camping behind some bushes by the road along the way. I wasn’t feeling very well by that point, having caught a cold from lack of sleep and the wet, sub-freezing temps the night before, and passed out for 8 hours straight in my tent. It was glorious, and the next morning I had a 2.5 hour walk to the highway.

I’m sure there’s a marshrutka or something from Kyzyl Suu back to Karakol, but I was able to hitch a ride within seconds once I reached the highway. The local driver asked for $1.50 to take me on the 35 minute ride, and picked up some others along the way. Hitchhiking is common and safe here.

I was back at Duet Hostel by 10am, and spent the rest of the day chatting with other foreigners, eating, and drinking iced tea.

 

The Chinese Silk Road

The police came to the Xi’an hostel looking for someone, but move on when they couldn’t find him. It was a bit strange to see the state police trying to find a presumably foreign national while Taylor Swift blared in the hostel common room, but China is a weird place. They weren’t after me, and that’s all that really matters for these kinds of things.

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A map of the various Silk Road routes leading from Xi’an west. There wasn’t a single universal path, but rather a variety of different routes meandering towards the Middle East. For various reasons I’ll discuss later, I chose the northernmost route on this map. Image taken from China Tour Guides.

The older Chinese train stations tend to be downtown, like in Europe and America, but high speed rail needs a separate, new set of tracks. Since these specialized tracks were largely built in the last 10 years, bullet train stations around the world tend to be well outside the center of the city. Xi’an North Station is no exception, but because Chinese infrastructure is amazing it’s only a 25 minute subway ride from downtown.

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A typical Chinese train ticket. Tickets must be printed at the station, and foreigners have to queue to retrieve tickets. Because I can read and write Chinese, and have a local bank account, I can purchase tickets using Alipay on my phone. I then get a text message containing the number, which I present along with my passport to a clerk who prints my ticket. Station security is usually pretty quick and easy.

My first stop was Lanzhou, capital of Gansu province on the western edge of China proper. Hemmed in by mountains to the north and south, Lanzhou sprawls for miles to the east and west along a river. There’s very little of interest to a traveler, but because it’s the region’s transit capital most Silk Road backpackers stop here to change trains. It’s also a jumping off point to explore a little visited part of Tibet.

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This is a map of Tibet in southwest China and surrounding countries. The cultural boundaries of Tibet are much larger than just the Chinese province of the same name. Xizang is the Mandarin name for the province of Tibet, but translates to West Tibet in English. India, Bhutan, and Nepal also are home to the Tibetan people.

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In Lanzhou I ordered a taxi on my phone, and this beautiful plot of land is where he picked me up. He took me to my hotel, and on the drive I couldn’t figure out how the hell he had a perfect five star rating on the Uber-type app considering his terrible driving skills. He wouldn’t let me out of the car until I gave him a five star perfect rating on my phone, so I’m guessing that’s how he’s managed it.

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Hotels in China must have a license to host foreigners. These restrictions are especially felt in the west, and Lanzhou has a serious lack of reasonably priced hotels that can accept ghost men like me. This hotel, which I reserved online and was very nice, cost $30 including tax. The walk-in rates posted were almost twice that, but I don’t think anybody ever really pays those. Reserving and paying online gets you the cheapest rates.

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From Lanzhou I took a four hour bus to Labrang, a village in the Amdo region of Tibet. Labrang is home to a monastery, which was a cool place to wander around for a day. I stayed in a very nice hostel run by a Dutch woman, and had the entire men’s dorm to myself. This was high season, and shows these places don’t really get that many foreign tourists.

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Prayer wheels at the monastery.

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The sign for Labrang Monastery. It rained off and on while I was there.

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The monastery was at about 10,000 feet (3000m) elevation, and I definitely felt the abrupt change in altitude when going up the three flights of stairs in my hostel.

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The bus ticket from Lanzhou to Labrang, called Xiahe (“Summer River”) in Mandarin. The ticket cost about $11, and the ride was on well paved roads in a decently comfortable bus. We stopped halfway through for a bathroom break.

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I was told this goat, who lives at the monastery, will charge.

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Lanzhou is known across China for its spicy beef noodle soup, pictured above. I love Lanzhou beef noodles, so I had to try it at its source. Well worth the $3 for the meal. Chinese noodle bowls generally come with some bak choy and chunks of meat, and you can add eggs, more veggies, and meats for a few more cents.

After returning to Lanzhou for a night, I caught an afternoon bullet train a few hours to Jiayuguan. Situated at a mountain pass controlling travel between China and Central Asia, the Chinese built the western terminus of the Great Wall here. Nowadays it’s a popular tourist destination for domestic travelers. There’s not much to the actual town of Jiayuguan, but the Great Wall fortress was well worth the visit.

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Guarding the entrance to China from Central Asia, people exiled from China in historical periods were thrown out the gates to the west. Very few returned.

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Jiayuguan was built where the Tibetan Plateau meets the Gobi Desert.

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By the end of the Cultural Revolution this, like many of China’s historical relics, was totally destroyed. It was rebuilt in the 80s.

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The dirt rampart in the center is the Great Wall, which extends from here all the way to what is today Pyongyang, North Korea. To the left is the oasis which has fed people for thousands of years, and to the right is the inhospitable Gobi Desert and Central Asia.

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A map of Gansu province in western China. Dunhuang, my stop after Jiayuguan, was an important oasis town and resupply stop on the Silk Road. Today it’s somewhat obscure, and there’s nothing of significance in the town itself nowadays, but I stopped there for an afternoon.

A high speed rail line connecting Lanzhou to Urumqi in the far northwest Xinjiang province was completed a few years ago, but Dunhuang is on a spur line 180km away from the main artery of the bullet train corridor. Jiayuguan has a daily departure at 7:16am to Dunhuang, with a ticket in regular seating being $8. Also called “hard seat,” this is the lowest cost seat (other than standing) on Chinese slow trains, which go “only” 70mph. The train I took started two days prior in Beijing, and was surprisingly clean, air conditioned, and not bad. I wouldn’t want to do hard seat for much longer than the six hours it takes to get to Dunhuang, but it was fine.

One of the best and worst parts of being on the Chinese slow trains is that you’re traveling with a bunch of locals that are instantly your best friend and want to know everything about your life from birth to the moment of conversation. The scenery was outstanding with the Tibetan plateau to our left and the Gobi Desert to our right, and I spent a few hours chatting with some older Han from Xinjiang and Qinghai provinces. The woman I spent the most time talking with was born and raised in Xinjiang province’s city of Aksu, and had made a vacation with her husband out of going to visit her son in Lanzhou. She had a lot to say about growing up in the far west of China in the 60s.

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It was a two hour bus ride from Dunhuang to the closest high speed rail station in Liuyuan, which is the only way to head west.

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This is the view from the high speed rail station in Liuyuan, in the middle of nowhere in the Gobi Desert. I caught a bullet train from here six hours to Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang province.

Xi’an

Sometimes life doesn’t go as planned. Which resulted in me trying to figure out how to get from Shanghai to Xi’an with a sudden surge in demand for tickets.

Admittedly, there were plenty of tickets on the 21 hour slow train if you wanted to stand. But I decided to wait a few days with 35 million of my closest friends at the world’s busiest port instead. Above is the flag of the People’s Republic with the Shanghai skyline in the background as a storm rolls in from the Pacific.

There’s not a whole lot for a tourist to do in Shanghai, but I like to go there to eat western food, speak English, and get a break from the constant stares you receive for being visibly foreign in China. I told one of my hostel roommates that Shanghai felt like being in the West to me, and he said I’ve probably been here too long. Maybe that’s true. He also seemed fairly perturbed by how blasé I was about censorship and the government’s efforts to “achieve a peaceful and harmonious society.”

China has some pretty good facial recognition software. There are cameras on the streets and in most public places that identify you based on your gait and face. You have to submit face photos upon entering China, and the government constantly tracks the movements of all citizens and visitors. In some restaurants you can pay via the facial recognition cameras if your bank account is linked to your government ID info. If you jaywalk in some places, the cameras identify you and post your government ID photo and personal contact info on digital public notice boards to shame you. I took this photo of the public shaming board in Xi’an.

“Be back in my office on the 8th of September, okay?” my boss told me after I signed the university paperwork certifying my students’ grades.

Xi’an is pretty lit at night.

Xi’an is my first stop on my journey west. As the eastern terminus of the Silk Road, boasting status as a former Chinese capital, and home to a vibrant Muslim community, it’s definitely on the tourist circuit. The 7.5 hour bullet train here ($100) was smooth, and the Chinese countryside rolled along outside at 200mph. The urban behemoth of the Yangtze River delta slowly gives way to farms and villages. Almost the whole train disembarke at Luoyang, an obscure city in Henan province I’d never heard of before.

Xi’an has a Muslim quarter with amazing street food.

I definitely got multiple meals in the Muslim quarter, with lots of restaurants run by people from the Hui minority.

Most of the foreigners I met in Xi’an had come direct from Beijing, and were heading to Chengdu or Shanghai afterwards. The Terracotta Army is the city’s biggest tourist draw, and was discovered by chance with the help of some farmers in the 70s.

Most foreigners head to the Terracotta Army by private tour, which is easy to arrange. It’s also not that difficult to reach by public bus, which takes around an hour and 15 minutes. The cost is $1, and leaves from the east parking lot of Xi’an Rail Station every few minutes. If you don’t read or speak Chinese it could be a little difficult, but is definitely manageable.

There are three main excavation pits housing the approximately 8000 soldiers, each of which is unique.

The tables in the photo are used for archeological research purposes.

The main pit is massive and sheltered in a building the size of an aircraft hangar, but the other pits are smaller. Albeit still quite large.

It’s pretty amazing what has survived in the 2000 years since the Army was made. But there’s a lot more to Xi’an than the Terracotta Army.

The Great Mosque of Xi’an is hidden in the curving, narrow alleys of the Goat Market. It was interesting to see the flowing calligraphy in Arabic and Chinese.

A hot pot joint I found downtown while walking around.

Everywhere I go in the world they say foreigners can’t eat spicy food, and then I order the hottest dishes and survive.

Planning for the Silk Road

It’s about three weeks until I set out on my overland trip from the Pacific to Uzbekistan along the Silk Road. Here are some common things people ask about my trips:

Isn’t it dangerous?

Short answer: probably not.

Long answer: Despite what American cable news says, the world probably isn’t as dangerous as most think. I’ll keep an eye on the news, but at the moment things look good for the Chinese provinces and former Soviet republics I’ll be visiting. In the past I’ve had to change travel plans because of protesters storming and burning government buildings in Paraguay, floods in Albania, and the like. I’ll adapt if need be, though I don’t think I’ll need to.

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What most Americans think the outside world looks like.

Even the US Department of State travel advisory page says the areas I’ll be visiting are safe. They’re extremely overcautious and I’m not that concerned. Cumulatively I’ve spent years abroad in 45 different countries, and I think I’ll be fine. The most dangerous and violent place I’ve ever been is the United States.

How much will it cost?

Short answer: comparatively not that much.

Long answer: I don’t expect this trip to be that expensive. Hostels should be $8 to $10 a night. Chinese train tickets are pretty reasonably priced ($10 to $15 an hour for high speed lines, $4 an hour and up for slower night trains with a bed). Transportation in the Central Asian republics will be by van and train, and should be cheaper than in China. Local cuisine is about $2 to $3 a meal in China, and I don’t expect my food costs to be high in the Stans.

Typically, visas are a major cost and headache for Silk Road trips. I’ll explore that later in this post, but I expect to spend around $250 on visas. At the end of my journey I’ll likely fly from some capital city in Central Asia back to Shanghai on a Chinese airline. There are many daily flights between the Stans and Shanghai, with connection in northwest China’s Urumqi, running about $300 one way.

How will access your money?

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The merchant can scan a code on your phone to pay with AliPay or WeChat Pay.

Nobody in Han China uses cash anymore, instead opting for AliPay or WeChat Pay. My phone reads my fingerprint, which unlocks a QR code (see photo above). The merchant then scans the code on my phone, and within about two seconds it’s finished. These smartphone apps are pretty useful, also allowing you to buy train tickets and order taxis, and draw funds directly from my Chinese debit card. That card is linked to my account at the China Construction Bank, which has offices and ATMs all over the country. If I need cash I should be able to withdraw yuan at their ATMs as I go without cost. I don’t know if electronic payment systems will be common in the non-Han areas of Tibet and Xinjiang province (I suspect not, since they require some knowledge of how to read Chinese).

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan all have their own currency. In these places I’ll use my Charles Schwab debit card, which has zero foreign conversion costs and refunds all ATM fees at the end of the month. This card refunded me about $750 in ATM fees in South America. I expect the Stans to be cash-based economies, and that I’ll be using my card to withdraw cash a lot in the former Soviet Union.

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Cash exchange listing in Transnistria.

Back in the Balkans, where you drive two hours and enter a new country with a totally different currency, faith in the local money was pretty low and so were conversion costs for cash. Changing from local currency to the more stable euro was commonplace, and there was a lot of competition for these services. You’d typically lose around 1% of the value of the cash to convert something like Serbian dinar or Albanian lek to euros, which could be used to pay hostel bills in every country (accommodation was always priced in euros, but hostels would let you pay in local currency at good rates too). Those euros could also be used to buy local funny money in the next country at good rates (definitely NOT the case in the more advanced economies of Western Europe). Substitute the US dollar for euros, and from what I’ve heard it should be very similar in the Stans.

Visas

Central Asia traditionally hasn’t been the easiest place to visit. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Stans maintained restrictive entrance and travel policies for foreigners. Although it can still be a bureaucratic nightmare, it’s become much easier over the past two years to do this trip.

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Usually a pain in the ass. But I have a multiple entry work visa valid through January of 2019, so I shouldn’t have issues.

Kazakhstan

No visa needed.

Kyrgyzstan

No visa needed.

Tajikistan

I’ll have to apply for an eVisa online, which basically entails paying $50 and uploading a scan of my passport’s bio information page. It should take around three days to get the eVisa.

Uzbekistan

Supposedly Uzbekistan is launching an eVisa program similar to Tajikistan starting July 1st, but I’ll believe it when I see it. If I make a reservation and get a letter of invitation from a hostel in Uzbekistan, then I should be able to get a visa within a few hours from the embassy in Almaty, Kazakhstan or Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. The visa fee for American citizens is $160.

Language

I speak conversational Chinese, which should serve me well until I leave Urumqi in the northwestern Xinjiang province. Urumqi has a large Han population, but outside of this provincial capital people likely won’t speak Chinese or English. Instead, it’ll be a language related to Turkish. They’ll speak Turkic languages in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, while Tajikistan speaks a relative of Persian. Russian is likely the main lingua franca of this region, owing to the days of the Soviet Union, but maybe the younger generation will speak some English? I can read Cyrillic and should be fine.

Quemoy, Taiwan

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Hangzhou East Railway Station, the main hub for high speed trains in the city. Most of the modern train stations in China are built on variations of this theme. The second floor is filled with various restaurants and coffee shops, below which are seats and newspaper stands for passengers waiting to board. Ten minutes before departure passengers descend below to the train.

Train is definitely the way to travel China. The stations and carriages are clean, tickets are reasonably priced, and with speeds of up to 220mph/350kph you can quickly reach almost any Han city (infrastructure outside of ethnic Chinese areas is noticeably subpar).

If you speak, read, and write Chinese then buying tickets is pretty simple. Even if you don’t, there’s a smartphone app called Ctrip that lets you look at schedules and purchase tickets for a $3 fee. I purchase my tickets without booking fees in Chinese on WeChat Pay or Alipay, the latter being the ubiquitous smartphone payment app run by the eponymous Alibaba tech giant.

A leftover from the days of tight travel restrictions, which have largely been lifted outside of Tibet, tickets can only be printed at a Chinese rail station after presentation of a passport. The self-printing kiosks can only be used in conjunction with a Chinese ID card. In the larger cities there’s usually a booth in the ticket halls where a clerk speaks at least some English. Just be prepared to shove out of the way any elderly patron who tries to cut in line (locals will help you do this, and it’s a great way to learn Maoist-era calls for behavior reform).

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This was a lovely place to wander around at night whilst searching for my hotel. In reality, I’ve never once felt unsafe in China. I’ve never heard of anybody here getting mugged or robbed.

The journey by high speed train from Hangzhou to Xiamen, down south in Fujian province, takes a little less than six hours and cost 389 yuan ($61). I arrived around 8pm and immediately ordered a taxi on my phone to take me to my hotel. Uber lost the ride hailing battle to Didi, the local competitor, and you can use the popular WeChat messaging app to order and pay for rides (I prefer to use Alipay, but for whatever reason it says I don’t have enough “social status points” so I use WeChat; I use Alipay for everything else, like ordering delivery). It cost less than $2 for the 10 minute taxi to my hotel. Taxis in China are cheap.

The driver dropped me off in some back alley, which our maps said was the location of my hotel. “This can’t be it,” I thought to myself, so I wandered around a bit trying to find it. There were 15 hotels all right next to each other, and I finally walked in and asked a clerk for directions.

Chinese people all see me and immediately think, “WE MUST HELP THIS POOR, DEFENSELESS FOREIGNER OR HE WILL DIE.” He told me to sit down, gave me a Coke (coca cola, I’m not in South America anymore), and called my hotel to have someone walk me over. Turns it out I had reserved a room at the exact hotel in the alley I thought for sure couldn’t be it.

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This is what $15.50 a night gets you in a back alley near the Xiamen North Railway Station. There’s a private bathroom not in the photo.

Rather than brave public transit, I took a taxi straight to Xiamen’s Wutong Wharf. The 30 minute ride cost only 66 yuan ($10.45) and was definitely worth it.

Ferries depart every 30 to 60 minutes from Wutong Wharf to Jinmen Island, just a mile from China. Jinmen, formerly Quemoy, rose to fame in the post-WWII and Cold War era. In 1949, Republican forces under Chiang Kai-Shek evacuated to the island of Taiwan but opted to keep forces on Jinmen and Matsu islands. The People’s Republic of China, which controlled the mainland, knew that to launch an invasion of Taiwan they first needed to control these islands. Because of miscalculations and errors, Mao Zedong failed to take these strategically located sites and thus was unable to conquer Taiwan. Through the Cross-Strait Crises of the 1950s China shelled Jinmen, which is only a mile away from its coast (and about 100 miles from Taiwan). In the 1960 presidential election, JFK and Nixon sparred over who would be tougher on China and the prospect of a nuclear confrontation over Jinmen was raised.

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On Jinmen Island you can still see the barricades to protect against a Chinese invasion en route to Taiwan.

Tickets from Xiamen, China to Jinmen (controlled by the Republic of China, AKA Taiwan) cost 140 yuan ($22). Within 5 minutes of entering Wutong Wharf I’d purchased tickets on the next boat and had cleared the minimal security check. Although China fervently claims Taiwan, the reality is that Jinmen is not controlled by China. So I went through Chinese immigration control, which was very easy. It took about a minute of digital facial scanning, verifying the validity of my passport, and confirming the authenticity of my visa to get permission to leave the country and an exit stamp.

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A map of Taiwan with the outer islands, including Kinmen (also called Jinmen or Quemoy) by China’s Fujian province. Control of Kinmen helps regulate access to Taiwan and the South China Sea, so it’s strategically very important.

After an uneventful 25 minute boat ride I arrived at Shuitou Port. After leaving China it was a little strange to see large signs proclaiming WELCOME TO CHINA. Taiwanese immigration consisted of filling out a short customs form, and about 30 seconds later the immigration official had stamped my passport…right next to my Chinese work visa (coincidence?). Americans don’t need a visa to enter Taiwan, so it’s really easy.

There’s no ATM that accepts foreign cards at the port on the Taiwanese side, but I had some Chinese yuan with me and was able to convert into Taiwanese yuan. The Chinese and Taiwanese 100 yuan notes look almost exactly the same, and I thought I was going to cause World War III when I accidentally handed a clerk in Taiwan a banknote from across the Strait.

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A pagoda near Jincheng, the largest city on Jinmen Island.

“You’re 27 and still not married?!” a local asked me in a thick Min accent and incredulous tone as we both waited for the bus to Jincheng, the island’s capital “city.” There are backpackers that wear a wedding ring when traveling through these kinds of places to stop all the interrogations about why aren’t you married and would you like to meet my daughter she’d love to move to the United States here’s her phone number. Women get asked that way more often than men, though. It’s also more of a conversation to be had on Chinese sleeper trains, where the best and worst part of the experience is sharing a compartment with an elderly woman from a small town that is your new best friend and wants to know absolutely everything about your life from the time you were born until the present day.

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My first duty was to get lunch at this dumpling joint. Seafood and curry dumplings are really good, especially with hot and sour soup and black iced tea with red bean jelly. Lunch cost about $3, a typical amount there.

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In Taiwan you usually just write down what you want to order on a form like this, and hand it to a worker when you’re done. Taiwan uses traditional characters, while I learned simplified characters as used in China, but I was able to piece enough together to order what I wanted. One US dollar is about equal to 30 Taiwanese yuan. 

Accommodation in Taiwan is a lot more expensive than in China, so I stayed in a hostel in a village a few miles outside of the capital town. Jinmen Island is mostly rural farms and jungle, just above the Tropic of Cancer and about the same latitude as Cuba, and it was a nice change of pace to stay in a village rather than my usual Chinese megalopolis. I did notice a high proportion of locals missing an eye, arm, or leg, and wonder if the shelling from China decades ago had something to do with it.

“Why would an American come to an obscure village on an obscure island in Taiwan?” the hostel worker, a Taipei native doing seasonal work to get away from the big city, asked me. This is a pretty out of the way place to visit, but after two and a half months in some of the world’s largest cities it was nice to visit a tropical island of sparsely populated villages. Plus, China is pretty dystopic and I needed a break.

Connecting to the hostel wifi was an experience. Lo and behold, I was able to access Whatsapp, Google, Facebook, and Youtube! Much of the internet is blocked or tightly regulated in China, though I can access restricted content at low speeds with use of a virtual private network (VPN). Taiwan doesn’t have those restrictions, and it was a little weird to see people openly using things like Instagram and Facebook (both of which were blocked by the Politburo in China).

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Almost all the hostel backpackers were from Taipei. One was a professional photographer, and he helped me use slow shutter speeds and the light on smartphones to make this. My 27th birthday was the day after I left Taiwan. The Chinese city of Xiamen, just one mile away, is visible in the background skylights.

They speak Mandarin in Taiwan, though the Jinmen locals speak a dialect called Min. I had no trouble conversing in Mandarin on the island, and the Taiwanese backpackers convinced me, another American, and a Czech woman to take seven shots of 58% alcohol liquor. I don’t know if it made my Mandarin better, but it was a really fun night and I talked for a couple hours with the Taiwanese. We were all in our mid-20s, which was nice.

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The Taiwanese flag in the heart of bustling, industrial downtown Jincheng, the tiny capital of Jinmen Island.

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A wind lion god statue, of which Jinmen Island has many.

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A temple (which doubles as a fortress with cannons) outside of Jincheng city.

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I took this angsty selfie after getting sunburned (forgot I was in the tropics and should have put on more sunscreen, though my burn wasn’t bad at all) and spending 8 hours with a guy from the hostel who drove me and this Czech woman around the island. It was great seeing the island from a car, since the public transit isn’t that great, but he left us for a few hours by a beach. We hitched a ride to the closest town, where we ate ice cream until he came and found us. Then he took us to this lookout.

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There are sealed bunkers and tunnels throughout the island, and we found an open door where you could enter and walk around. The Chinese were never able to conquer the island.

Recently, China and Taiwan have made it easier for people and trade to cross the Strait between the two countries. There are some hassles for locals because both countries make a show of refusing to recognize the other’s passport, but for foreigners it’s quite easy to enter and leave each as long as you have a Chinese visa. Taiwan doesn’t require a visa for most Westerners. Jinmen is a very popular way for people to go from China to Taiwan or vice versa, and I heard you can buy air tickets from Taipei to Jinmen or back for $50 to $60 on the day of travel. Then it’s $22 each way by boat to China.

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By coincidence, another American I’d met and liked a lot from the hostel in Buenos Aires back in December 2016 happened to be in Xiamen at the same time as I was. She’s doing a trip through China’s Yunnan, Sichuan, and southeastern provinces. She’s half Chinese, and spent a couple years teaching in Taipei. People overheard us speaking English in a park outside of Xiamen University and made a show of coming up and asking us questions. One such example was this group of school kids, whose teachers wanted them to take a class photo with me. They completely ignored my American half-Chinese friend, who said she’s used to this treatment when she’s out with white friends in China and Taiwan.

Roaming Canton

I’m still not really sure what Chinese people actually do for the Tomb Sweeping Festival. Presumably at least some go sweep the tombs of the deceased, but so few Chinese actually live in their 家乡/jiaxiang (ancestral home) anymore.

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A newspaper headline detailing the tariff war with America.

It was completely my fault that I only belatedly discovered I’d have four and a half days off work for the holiday weekend. I’d misread the emails from the English Department, erroneously thinking I’d have to make up classes on the Sunday immediately after Thursday’s national holiday. It wasn’t until the Foreign Studies Department field trip I attended a few days prior that I heard from colleagues the Sunday makeup day was for Friday’s classes, not Thursday’s…and I don’t have classes on Friday = Connor can travel!

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My Airbnb host and me eating legit dim sum in Guangzhou. I’d mentioned that I really wanted to go try it, and he and his girlfriend were trying to decide what to do for lunch so we just went together. It was awesome, probably one of the coolest dining experiences I’ve had.

Finding train tickets last minute for a Chinese long weekend is not an experience I’d recommend to others. Most everything was unavailable, and my original plan to spend a few days on the island city of Xiamen (formerly the British colony of Amoy) in the southeastern Fujian province consistently ended in “ALL TICKETS SOLD OUT” error messages. Tickets to Hubei province to see the Three Gorges Dam were gone. Sichuan province, home of spicy food, wasn’t going to work out either. But finally…I scored a bed on one of the numerous daily departures from Shanghai to Guangzhou, conveniently stopping in my Hangzhou along the way.

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For dim sum you mark out what you want to order off a big paper menu, though in some places you just pick things off carts doing rounds through the restaurant. I told the Airbnb host’s girlfriend that I’d be willing to eat anything. “That’s a dangerous thing to say in Guangzhou!” she replied. There’s a saying that the Cantonese will eat anything with four legs that’s not a table, anything that flies that’s not an airplane, and anything that swims that’s not a submarine.

Guangzhou has a reputation for being a gritty, industrial (read:polluted beyond belief) city in the far south between Hong Kong and Vietnam. It’s not typically on a tourist’s itinerary, but I was desperate not to spend the holiday weekend staring at the walls of my apartment.

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Trying fried chicken feet, with bones and everything still inside.

The Chinese use their phones for absolutely everything imaginable, plus more. The popular messaging app WeChat also doubles as a sales point for the Middle Kingdom’s vast rail network. The one caveat of Chinese train travel is that tickets must be printed in person at the station, which entails queues of anywhere from 30 seconds to 30 minutes. I was lucky in that I’d remembered to bring a book and only had to wait for about 15 minutes. An older man behind me with his friend would verbally attack in a thick unidentifiable accent any and all who dared try to cut in line. 每一样,每一样,都需要排队买票阿!Everyone is equal, line up for your ticket just like everyone else!

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Another dim sum photo. One of the big reasons I came to Guangzhou was to eat tons of delicious food. It was a success.

My passport is at the police station being processed for my residence permit, but I’d been given temporary ID papers and travel authorization which got me my tickets without problem. Chinese train stations in major cities are sterile, incomprehensibly massive feats of engineering that lack the charm and character of Europe’s old rail ports, but they efficiently link the vast country’s Han-inhabited areas.

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Clear skies along one of Guangzhou’s numerous waterways.

My bed was already made when I boarded in Hangzhou, a bottom bunk in a four berth compartment. The ten hour ride, covering a roughly equivalent distance as New York to Chicago, wasn’t the fastest train available but was quite comfortable. I woke up as we passed the Hong Kong border in Shenzhen, pulling into Guangzhou South Station exactly on time.

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A couple walking across the bridge to Shamian Island to take wedding photos, with the Guangzhou skyline in the background.

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Green, leafy Shamian Island was where the Europeans used to live during colonial times. Today it’s home to pleasant walks and the American consulate.

As a city of 12 million, Guangzhou has an efficient metro system with announcements in Mandarin, Cantonese, and English. Cantonese is a dialect separate from Mandarin, but I had no trouble communicating with most people in the latter. Canton comes from the Portuguese transliteration of the Chinese name for Guangdong, a province of 109 million of which Guangzhou is the capital.

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I took the metro to the south side of the city, then hopped on the number 30 bus to an old Cantonese imperial garden. This is the bus stop outside the subway station.

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I was the only foreigner at the imperial gardens, which were very pleasant with an extensive bonsai tree collection. Oftentimes Chinese tourists want to take a photo with me, and my requirement is that they send me a copy.

I loaded $20 onto a public transit card, which let me board all trains and buses within the city. Since I can read Chinese and enjoy looking out the window at the city, I usually opt for buses when possible.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to try absolutely everything that I wanted to eat in Guangzhou. But I tried a ton of new foods and didn’t get sick once, the latter being a big success in a place like China.

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At this stall, which was constantly crowded, you pick out what grilled meats and vegetables you want. They put it in a bucket and cover it in a spicy sauce.

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A woman pours rice milk pudding, a popular Cantonese dessert, into a bowl for a customer holding out her white payment slip. 

Cantonese desserts and pastry shops are popular across China, but in their hometown of Guangzhou they were truly amazing.

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Enjoying rice milk pudding in a typical Cantonese dessert cafe.

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A chunk of grilled squid tentacle.

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Inside a Chinese traditional medicine shopping mall. I later saw dried seahorses in a jar.

One Month in the People’s Republic

Maybe my tolerance for the bizarre has some serious calibration issues, but after a month my life in the People’s Republic of China seems pretty routine. And I really like it here.

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Walking along the Bund in downtown Shanghai.

The 15 hour flight from Chicago to Shanghai wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d dreaded. Having stocked my Kindle with plenty of books to keep me occupied, including the newly published Lonely Planet Guide to China, saved my sanity (though I did start to kind of lose it after the 10 hour mark).

Chinese immigration procedures were straightforward and painless, leaving me with my checked suitcase at the Shanghai Pudong Airport train station about 40 minutes after disembarking from the plane. The maglev from the airport to downtown is the fastest commercial train in the world at 270mph (high speed trains generally go about 185mph) and dropped me off at a Shanghai metro station, which I used to travel to my Airbnb.

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Downtown Hangzhou. I live in a quiet suburb about a 40 minute subway ride from where I took this photo.

The subways in Shanghai and Hangzhou, my current home, aren’t as crowded or chaotic at rush hour as the equivalent peak times on the Metro de Madrid. Aggressively jostling each day for space on trains and buses operated by the Consorcio Regional de Transportes de Madrid prepared me well for navigating Chinese public transit systems, which are ultra modern and efficient.

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There are a lot of restaurants where you just pick from a wide variety of noodles, meats, and vegetables and the cooks turn it into a soup. Or, at some Sichuanese restaurants, you can add insane amounts of spice so that your tear ducts get cleared out. I have a pretty high tolerance for spicy food, but at Sichuanese restaurants it can be a little rough. 

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Crispy roast duck, soy rice, cooked bok choy, eggs, tomatoes, and soup. This is from a super popular hole in the wall place across the street from my university, and the not-too-approachable middle aged woman who runs it serves the best food I’ve had in China. Like in most restaurants in China, meals run from $1.50 to $3. Cooking for one’s self isn’t as common in China as in other places.

I gave myself a full day in Shanghai to get adjusted to China and the new time zone, literally on the other side of the world from Ohio, as well as print my train ticket at the station. My job is in Hangzhou, an hour’s bullet train ride from Shanghai Hongqiao, the largest train station in Asia. The building is almost incomprehensibly massive. There’s a train leaving about every 45 seconds with 14,000 passengers boarding or disembarking every hour.

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There must be thousands of different passport photos of me in various Chinese government records by this point. Every little part of applying for my residency permit, which will let me enter and leave China without a visa, requires a passport sized photo.

Getting from Shanghai to Hangzhou is pretty easy, a $12 train ticket with departures every five minutes, but in China you can only print your ticket at the station. This took about 30 seconds, I just told the attendant in Mandarin what I wanted and gave her my ticket number with passport. I’d previously bought the ticket online before leaving the US.

At Hangzhou East Station the university had a man with my name on a piece of paper waiting for me. It wasn’t hard to pick me out of the crowd, and the man drove me to my highrise in the suburb of Xiasha. I checked into my apartment, a comparatively spacious studio with shared kitchen and washing machines down the hall, and walked down the street to get a Chinese phone plan.

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An interesting ad for donkey meat sandwiches I saw recently. Some of the English translations are pretty bizarre around here.

“Don’t pay attention to those prices, nobody actually pays that,” the attendant at the store told me when she caught me reading the list of prices for phone service. “It’s 18 yuan (~$3) a month for 6GB of data for use inside the province, and then $1.50 for 500MB if you leave to go to Shanghai or some other province.”

“I don’t know my address,” I told her during the registration process.

“No problem, I’ll give you one,” she replied. And within 10 minutes I’d loaded money onto my account and was connected to the China Unicom network.

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Eating lunch on a school trip.

A professor from the College of International Studies picked me up to show me around and help me set up an account at the Construction Bank of China, a national bank with ATMs all over the country.

I teach five English conversation classes that are 90 minutes each, and so far I’ve been pleasantly surprised at my students’ English ability. They’re around 20 years old, all freshmen or sophomores, and some have near-native levels of fluency.

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There’s a great bike share program in Hangzhou. You scan a code on the bike using your phone, which unlocks the bike. You can pick up and drop off the bikes almost anywhere, and it’s about 16 cents a ride.

My first week I made all the students give a four minute introduction in English, which I’d interrupt with follow up questions to gauge their English level and better help me plan the class. Most of the intros were predictably banal, though there were some notable exceptions. One went on a long diatribe on a Japanese mystery novel she read over break about a police officer who rapes his son’s girlfriend and then is tasked with protecting her from the mob in some kind of witness protection program. I just stared dumbfounded that she’d go into such graphic detail about this on the first day of class. Admittedly, I did have to tell the students that the oft repeated phrase “Over winter break I enjoyed a decadent lifestyle” is not something one would typically hear in English.

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I saw this woman on the Hangzhou subway. I liked that the pentagrams had little colored pom poms on them.

One student stayed after class to tell me I had the facial bone structure of a movie star and that she thought I was beautiful. The list of movie stars I’ve been told I resemble is growing increasingly long and bizarre, though locals have admitted to me they have trouble distinguishing between white people. The most common one I’ve got so far is “that guy from 50 Shades of Gray,” which I’m convinced is because apparently the lead actor has a beard. Chinese people don’t have beards, and I’ve been asked a few times if it’s sharp enough to cut skin. I’d be surprised if that movie survived the censors, though I admittedly know very little about it.

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Soy braised beef noodle soup from a Hui restaurant by my apartment. The Hui are a Muslim minority, and this is one of my favorite restaurants in Hangzhou.

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Went on a hiking trip to a national forest in Zhejiang province (my province) with the International Studies Department.

Being behind the Great Firewall of China has its advantages. It’s kind of nice not hearing about the news each day, which is tightly controlled and determined beforehand by the Party. Politics and 20th century history is something that’s never talked about, but there are some pretty creative ways of talking about something without actually mentioning it.

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Also went on a boat ride on that aforementioned trip.

CDT New Mexico: Mt. Taylor to Pie Town

When I wake up the next morning, I unzip my tent to find Surprise staring daggers at me. When I lose his attention, he switches his stare to look lovingly at Murphy. The other three cowboy camped last night, but with the creepy old doctor staring murder at me coupled with all the tarantulas in the desert I thought it best to just sleep in my tent. With my box cutter next to me.

Deciding to GTFO, I quickly pack up my things and leave. It’s cold, and I’m wearing all my layers hoping to just book it to town. Last night I mentioned to Murphy and Stomper that I was running low on food, having planned on doing more miles each day than our current pace. They gifted me a bag of jalapeno cheddar pretzels and an oatmeal bar, but my food bag was still too light. Time to get to Grants.

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Looking back on the trail towards Mt. Taylor. I’m not really sure how you could get lost heading there, considering it’s a pretty obvious mountain (maybe not in the lighting when I took this photo), but Surprise somehow managed not to make it.

The CDT crosses Interstate 40 at Grants, just west of Albuquerque. There’s a steep drop before joining a highway to town, and ibuprofen is the only thing getting my knees down there and making a beeline to get a pizza.

Men are trash, a grandmother I hiked with earlier on the CDT texts me when I tell her about all the crazy drama with Surprise. Not you and Stomper, of course. Just most men.

Murphy texts me when it’s safe to head to our motel without a surprise from Surprise.

He said he’s going to head to Albuquerque and catch a flight home to work things out with his wife, she wrote to me on her phone. Surprise had been following her constantly, so we couldn’t talk without him overhearing her side of it. If he just leaves we can avoid a lot of drama.

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There was a road walk by a prison into the interstate town of Grants.

“They had a three bed room!” Stomper says excitedly when I knock on the door to room 12. I drop off my pack in the corner, claim the bed closest to the heater, and get caught up to date.

“We told him the three of us were going to split a room, and that he was to be by himself,” Murphy said. “He said that was fine, and that he wanted a goodbye dinner.” They’d gone next door to a local New Mexico burger chain and had a meal while I ate an entire large pizza, sitting on the sidewalk outside the Pizza Hut and looking thoroughly homeless.

Murphy’s phone buzzes, and she lets out a groan of frustration when she reads the message. “Apparently that wasn’t our goodbye dinner.”

I’m not Surprise’s favorite by any means, and thus thankfully unwelcome at his goodbye dinner. Murphy and Stomper reason that if they never have to see him again it’s worth it, and they pass an awkward hour at a Mexican restaurant while Surprise mainly ignores Stomper to focus on Murphy, his unrequited darling. I enjoy my first shower in days, and feel like I definitely got the better outcome.

Miss you guys already! Surprise texts Murphy the next morning. We just get busy doing our town chores, and since Grants is so spread out it’ll take most of the day to do laundry, buy food, and head to the post office.

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Satisfied my pumpkin spice latte addiction at McDonald’s, where some random guy argued with me about what towns the CDT visits and where the trail goes. Most people assume I have no idea what I’m doing.

Throughout this time Surprise keeps texting Murphy about how I’m an immature asshole (to be fair, he said I was a “hassle without the h”), and that I have no respect for my elders. This seems to upset Murphy much more than me, and I wear his assessments of me like a badge of pride. He then rants about how he’s making so many sacrifices by hiking on without us so as not to cause drama. Apparently his plan to go back to North Carolina and repair things with his life didn’t last long.

Stomper, Murphy, and I stand by the side of the highway with our thumbs out, really not wanting to walk the mile and a half to the post office. Within minutes a woman pulls over, telling us to pile on in.

“I run the bus system in Grants. No buses today, but hikers are always welcome when they’re running!” she tells us.

On this trail more than most, we have to mail ourselves packages of food and order various pieces of gear from online. Some of the towns we pass through don’t have any grocery stores, such as the upcoming Pie Town (I’m really interested in finding out what a place like Pie Town is like). The CDT Handbook, published by a woman named Yogi, has all the addresses of where we have to mail our things. These places are used to hikers and, in my experience, it’s almost always gone smoothly.

“Oh, hey there!” Surprise calls to me a few minutes after we enter the post office.

“Uh, hi,” I say, trying to act busy with arranging my maps into various envelopes to mail off to later towns.

“I’ve been really enjoying my solitude,” he cheerily tells me in direct contradiction to the texts he’s constantly sending Murphy, whining to her about how lonely he is.

“That’s nice,” I respond, heading off to find Murphy. She’s waiting in line to mail a package.

“He’s here,” I whisper to her, watching him read our ETAs on our supply packages. Probably so he can know when we’ll be in each town and can duly stalk us some more.

“I know, I’m just pretending not to,” she replies.

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My aunt sent me a box of cookies to general delivery at Grants, and I used taking this photo as an excuse to not have to deal with Surprise.

The walk back to the motel passes in a 20 minute awkward silence. I’m walking side by side with Murphy so Surprise can’t prey on her as easily. I turn back and involuntarily scream, not realizing he was so close behind us and almost literally breathing down her neck.

“Just didn’t realize you were, uh, so close,” I say.

At the motel Stomper goes off to buy a cherry coke while I search through my pack for our room key.

“He’s coming!” Murphy says. Surprise is indeed making his way over to us after having left to, we naively though, go back to his own room and leave us be. I’m tossing all my clothes and bags of food onto the sidewalk in front of our room.

“I’m looking for it!” I finally find the key and open the door. Murphy zooms in and I pick up my items wholesale, throwing them into the room.

“I got you guys some presents!” Surprise says. “I don’t know you well enough to get you anything, though. I hope you don’t mind.”

“Nah, it’s cool,” I say quickly as I slam and lock the door in his face.

“The candy is right here,” he says through the door.

“I know!” I say, leaving it out there.

Let me know when you guys order pizza so I can get in on it, Surprise texts Murphy. He’d overheard our dinner plans. Turns out the goodbye dinner, and his promises to hike on without us and give us some space, didn’t really mean anything.

So we have Stomper go over to Surprise’s room and tell him to fuck off. He returns 45 minutes later, saying Surprise is obsessed with his hatred of me and that he finally gets the message.

We opt to take a second day in town to recover from the previous day’s drama, and to give Surprise time to head off. We purposefully never told him when we were leaving Grants.

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Stomper crossing the bridge heading south from Grants.

“Surprise woke us up this morning knocking on our door asking when we were going to head out,” another CDT hiker tells us. Surprise can’t seem to function unless he’s following someone, but we’re just glad it’s not us for the time being.

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There was a train going under the bridge while we crossed.

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Spent a couple days in the Malpais National Monument, crossing lava fields with crevasses. We kept thinking we’d find Surprise waiting for us behind every corner, but we never saw him.

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Had a bit of a highway walk after the Malpais.

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L to R: Stomper, me, Baby, Luna, Dingo.

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Dingo and Murphy heading off on a dirt road towards Pie Town in the afternoon. We ran into Dingo, Baby, and the latter’s dog Luna on the road walk. The six of us camped a little over a day’s walk out of Pie Town in a farmer’s field to the left of the road. No cars came by to bother us.

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Dinner break by the road.

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Nighttime photo of Murphy and me laying out our sleeping bags under a tree in the forest. There were tons of NO TRESPASSING signs so we found a section of woods that wasn’t fenced off, walked off into it, and decided to not set up our tents so as to make it harder to see us. There were mountain lions in the area, and I agreed to cowboy camp only if we were all uncomfortably close together. Murphy and Stomper were fine with that. Dingo, Baby, and Luna kept on hiking to make it to Pie Town that night.

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The Thomases are a couple in their 90s north of Pie Town who let hikers use the spigot in their front yard, and also welcome us to camp on their property. They provide an important water source on a dry section, and are super friendly. We spent a couple hours in their house chatting with them. I think they’re pretty lonely and enjoy hosting hikers. 

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Took a selfie with a dead coyote on the way into Pie Town.

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Pie in Pie Town! 

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L to R: Baby, Dingo, me, Stomper, and Murphy enjoying pie at the Pie-O-Neer Cafe in Pie Town. They only serve pie. Pie Town was an interesting place. No grocery store, so you have to mail yourself a box of food to the post office (which is open until noon). I’d heard the guy who runs the post office was unstable and habitually threatened people, but he was friendly to us.