Great Wall of China
Joe and I stopped in front of the sheer wall of the abandoned watch tower and looked at each other, then over at our guide, Oliver. We were in our second day of hiking the Great Wall of China, and the “Wild Wall” stretched out behind us - a part of the wall that hasn’t been restored and is slowly being reclaimed by nature. We hadn’t seen anyone else since we’d packed up our tents that morning, and now it looked like there was no way forward.
Before we had time to worry, a face creased with lines from a lifetime of sun and smiles peeked over the wall. A woman at the top lowered a homemade ladder and extended her hand with a grin. Oliver chuckled as he explained.
“This is the only way forward. It’s fifteen yuan to use her ladder.” Joe and I laughed along with him, then fished out a few bills and handed them over so we could clamber up onto the (mostly) abandoned watchtower. It was tough not to admire the woman’s entrepreneurial spirit here in a sparsely populated region of China.
Hiking and camping along the Great Wall of China was our first stop on a honeymoon we had been dreaming about for years. Just a few weeks before, we had gotten married on a farm in Sonoma, California. Right after getting married, we sold most of our belongings, gave up our San Francisco apartment, quit our jobs, and planned a six-week honeymoon throughout Asia. We’ve visit six countries in six weeks: China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. At the end of the six weeks, we would be moving to Guadalajara, Mexico, to live and teach for two years while continuing our adventures.
Rather than registering for wedding gifts that we wouldn’t be able to bring on our travels, Joe and I created a Traveler’s Joy registry to help us pay for our $13,000 honeymoon. We had so much fun planning out each of our stops, creating our customized Traveler’s Joy page with a description and photo for each one, then shared it on our wedding website.
At first, a few of our relatives said they weren’t sure about this whole new “travel registry thing,” but when they saw our trip mapped out with such detail, they got super excited about it. We’d get emails from aunts and family friends saying that they had just contributed to an experience in Vietnam or Borneo and they couldn’t wait to hear about it! Two of our friends gave us our hotel and dinners out in Beijing and wrote in their Traveler’s Joy message, “What a great idea for wedding gifts! I guess we’ll have to return the blender!”
My Aunt Molly, who can always be counted on for her quirky humor, was especially excited to gift us our two nights sleeping in one of the Box Hotel’s tiny rooms. Throughout our trip, we sent emails with photos of our adventures to the family and friends who had helped make the honeymoon possible, and it was so much fun to share our adventures that way.
When we finished our third day of hiking, Joe and I headed back to Beijing, then to the airport. Our next destination: Langshi Village, a remote fishing town tucked into a bend of the Li river and hidden amongst the towering limestone karst formations typical of the region. From the airport, we had an hour and a half taxi ride to Langshi Village, and the views outside slowly changed from pretty to breathtaking.
“Pat, Look!” Joe smacked my arm and pointed out the window for the umpteenth time. “Look at that!”
I couldn’t even get annoyed. The flat farmland we were driving through would suddenly heave skywards in a massive hump of limestone, and then just as quickly return to the flat plain. The karsts looked like something out of another world.
“I bet there will be even more of them when we get to Laojia.” Joe sat back into his seat and grinned in anticipation.
Laojia is an Airbnb located in Langshi, and it’s where we would be spending the next five days. When putting together our honeymoon itinerary, we were so excited to explore parts of the world that we were unlikely to visit at another point in our lives. My absolute favorite thing to do is research travel to places that are off the beaten path, and as I planned our honeymoon, I stumbled upon this Airbnb. It might just be the coolest place that we’ve ever stayed in.
The owners of Laojia spent three years restoring an original Quing Dynasty style home. It is absolutely beautiful. Their mission is to give travelers the opportunity to experience life in rural China. The house has a meditation room, unbelievable views of the karsts stretching up into the sky, and the Li River is just outside. My sister was so excited to give us this gift from our Traveler’s Joy registry. She thinks we’re crazy for wanting to spending our honeymoon in a rural village, but she humored us!
Our taxi eventually came to a stop at the edge of the Li River. We grabbed our bags, hopped out, and looked around. Our taxi took off. Although we couldn’t be sure, it definitely seemed like we needed to get to the other side, and there wasn’t a bridge in sight.
“There,” said Joe, pointing to a small boat pulled part way up the riverbank. “That must be who we’re looking for.” We could see the hat and toes of a reclined man peeking over the sides of the boat.
“Let’s hope so,” I said, and we walked over, waving enthusiastically like the foreigners we were. Through a combination of charades and pointing at maps, we learned that, yes, this man did run the only ferry in town and, yes, we did need to get on in order to get to Langshi Village. Throughout our entire performance of pantomiming and dancing where we needed to go, the man didn’t crack a smile. It promptly became our goal to coax one smile out of him before we left Langshi.
Over the next five days, Joe and I explored many of the villages along the Li River, hiked through the karsts, puttered down the river on a bamboo raft tour, and relaxed in our incredible Airbnb. If we left our door open during the afternoon, one of the men who lived nearby would stop in for a companionable cup of tea. One of our favorite days was spent hiking up into the karsts with a woman to visit her herd of goats. Although she was easily twice our age, her ability to scale slippery rocks far surpassed ours; she would periodically turn around, look at us struggling along below her, then toss her head back and laugh. It was a friendly sort of laughter… we think.
At the end of our stay in Langshi, we left feeling relaxed, energized, and ready for the next adventure. Good thing, too, because two days of travel by bus, train, and pick-up truck later, we were knee-deep in the jungles of Northern Cambodia.
“Leech check!” Joe would sing out any time we stopped hiking for a brief rest. We would both pull up our pant legs and pull down our socks to see if any thirsty little creatures had attached themselves to our ankles. Although this may sound unpleasant, it did make for some quick bonding with the other people hiking alongside us.
Joe is crazy for elephants, so we visited the Mondulkiri Project, an organization that purchases Indian elephants who have been overworked in the logging industry and then reintroduces them into a forest preserve. We spent one day trekking through the jungle with ten of our new, leech-free friends, before arriving at our home for the night. It was incredible. We slept in hammocks that zipped up with mesh in an open-air pavilion that overlooked a forested valley. A stream twisted through the center and steam rose up from the plants. We enjoyed this view while dining on a delicious dinner of rice, vegetables, meats, and fruit, then sipped on rice wine while playing card games with our guides and fellow hikers.
Joe shook me awake in the morning by kicking my hammock, then grinned in at me. “It’s elephant time,” he whispered, practically bouncing with excitement. “Get up! We’ve got to be ready.”
Naturally, we were the first ones dressed and sitting expectantly at the front step of our sleeping pavilion. As soon as the sun was high enough, we headed off on foot with bundles of bananas in hand. When we came across an elephant, they were eager to snag some bananas, but our guides made it clear that no one was allowed to approach an elephant uninvited.
The Mondulkiri Project is a rehabilitation and conservation effort first and foremost, so the needs of the elephants come first. Still, getting to stand right next to these giants, feel their curious trunks exploring our hands and faces, and get a free mud bath was a dream come true.
Another of Joe’s childhood dreams was visiting Camp Leakey in Borneo to see the orangutans who live there (are you noticing a theme in Joe’s travel dreams?). It isn’t easy to get to Camp Leakey! We took two planes, a taxi, and then a boat along miles of river to reach the camp. We stayed at the Rimba Ecolodge, a rustic, but beautiful resort on the Sekonyer River just 30 minutes from Camp Leakey.
The only way to travel in this region is by boat, so we spent our days cruising the rivers and rainforests in klotoks (wooden boats), enjoying the chattering of gibbons in the trees, spotting crocodiles floating by, and keeping our eyes peeled for a glimpse of orangutans - the “people of the forest.” Camp Leakey was founded in 1971 by Dr. Birute Galdikas. Dr. Galdikas had studied with Louis Leakey, along with Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, before heading to Borneo to study orangutans. Forty-seven years later, Camp Leakey is still an active research station.
We were lucky when we visited. Although the skies leaked drizzle off and on, we never got soaked and were alone for most of our time in the forests. The orangutans were most definitely still out in the rain, and at one point we saw more than 20 apes in the same area of forest! One mother orangutan stopped directly above us for several minutes with her baby clinging to her fur. We snapped so many great photos, excited to send them to our family and friends who chipped in on Traveler’s Joy to send us to Camp Leakey. At the end of our time there, Joe had his wildlife fill and it was time to fulfill one of my lifelong dreams.
Our boat cruised along the South China Sea toward a small island off the coast of Borneo. As we got closer to the island, Joe started filming. That was my cue.
“You are witnessing one American begin an adventure that will forever change his life. My name is Patrick O’Donnell and I’ve been give 3 minutes to create a Survivor audition tape and salvage whatever I can off this boat. My destination - this island right here - Pulau Tiga, the location of Survivor season 1. I am a huge Survivor fan and it’s been a lifelong dream to visit Pulau Tiga and to win Survivor. But first, for the next 3 days, I will be marooned here. Three days, one audition tape, one Survivor!”
With that, I jumped off the boat and started swimming to shore while Joe secured the first 30 seconds of my Survivor audition tape.
It’s an understatement to say that I’m a huge fan of the TV show Survivor. I’ve watched every episode of all 35 seasons and it’s always been a bucket list dream to travel all of the way to Pulau Tiga, Borneo to visit the beach where the phenomenon was born. Pulau Tiga is a tiny island, but it’s home to Survivor Lodge, a resort of about ten bungalows and the place where the Survivor crew set up shop while filming the show.
Of any of the items on our Traveler’s Joy registry, this was my favorite one and I had a good guess who would give this to Joe and me as a gift! I have a group of friends from college who are also Survivor fanatics. Once a year, we all get together for a weekend and play Survivor together - we split into tribes, live on the beach, compete in challenge, and vote each other out at tribal council! It’s a total blast and, sure enough, they all got together and went on in on this dream gift for Joe and me.
Joe and I spent our days on Pulau Tiga walking Pagong and Tagi beaches where the tribes lived, trekking through the jungle to the tribal council location, and best of all - doing a Survivor-style photo shoot.
“You’re the Survivor fan, right?”
I turned and saw one of the staff members of the Survivor Lodge carrying a backpack of camera equipment and two tiki torches. He was ready to hike to Bird Island, a rock that juts out of the ocean that became an iconic image from Survivor - the silhouette of the sole survivor stood on top of bird island holding a tiki torch. Part of the gift that our friends got us was an official photo shoot on Bird Island where we’d recreate the iconic image.
We began our hour-long hike through the jungle, Joe and I each carrying one of the tiki torches. We reached Bird Island as the sun began to set and helped each as we climbed the precarious rock, trying not to slip and fall into the water below.
Once we were up, we lit our torches and stood on the rock for literally two hours as the photo crew took what must have been over 100 photos of us in various Survivor-style poses. The Survivor Lodge crew was amazing - talk about going above and beyond to help a Survivor fan out! Spending three days on Pulau Tiga was surreal. I feel so lucky that we had the opportunity to travel to such a remote location and to live my Survivor dream!
El Nido (aka Paradise)
“Hello! Welcome to Miniloc Island.”
Greeting us with big smiles, two resort staff members handed us a tropical drink while another group of staff members strummed guitars and serenaded us with a boisterous and joyful welcome song. Joe and I had just stepped foot off the boat and onto Miniloc Island, a tiny island in El Nido. We were surrounded by turquoise waters, a white sand beach, and stunning limestone cliffs. After 5 ½ weeks of globetrotting, we were at our final honeymoon destination, the Miniloc Island Resort, a luxury island resort in the Philippine archipelago.
This resort was hands down the nicest that we had ever stayed in. For the last stop on our honeymoon, we wanted to splurge, so we went all out! Our room was one of six over-the-water bungalows. The resort is so small and remote that we often felt like we had a tropical island all to ourselves and we’d spend our days enjoying all of the Traveler’s Joy activities that our family and friends had given us - snorkeling in the coral reef, island-hopping excursions on catamarans, exploring the island on stand-up paddle boards, and learning how to navigate a coracle (a circular boat that looks like a basket).
When we needed a break from adventuring, we got relaxing massages in one of the thatched-roof bungalows and had countless tropical drinks on the sand. It was paradise and many of our friends and family were excited to contribute on to our final three days of luxury. As my Aunt Sheila wrote in her Traveler’s Joy message to us when gifting us this trip to Miniloc Island, “Love you and respect your desire to live on Survivor island, but I want to contribute to your comfort!”
On our last night, we sat down to a romantic sunset dinner on the sand. Sharing a bottle of wine, we listened to the soft lapping of the waves on the sand, just feet from our table. I took a sip and sighed. “I can’t believe this trip is finally ending.”
Joe smiled back at me. “It’s been incredible,” he said, “but the best part is still ahead of us.”
We’re now in the midst of our next adventure -- teaching in Guadalajara, Mexico -- and we constantly talk about our six weeks in Asia. We are so grateful to Traveler’s Joy and to our family and friends for helping us kick off our marriage with the most epic adventures!