January 2019 – Travelling to Nepal to see out the winter before heading south once again towards equatorial Asia. Please tune in to my random jottings as I venture across Southeast Asia.

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Welcome to Another Random Jotting from Backpacker Paul!

China – Exploring The Ancient Town, Fenghuang 1

Fenghuang, China, April 2019: According to what one reads, the consensus reached on the age of the town settles at around 400 years old, so yes, its an ancient town without doubt. How much of the place is original, well that’s hard for a non-Chinese tourist to figure out but I’d guess there’s been plenty of restoration and sprucing up for tourist effect. Anyway, lets take a gentle meander around the Phoenix Ancient town and try to immerse ourselves into a little piece of old China.

Perhaps a less conventional way to cross the river here, is to negotiate a series of stepping stones! Quite a famous selfie spot for those brave enough to take the risk. One false move and its all over I should imagine.  Yes, it has to be a brave soul to risk life and limb like this, especially in the rain. I wonder how many phones are laying on the river bed?

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No room for error – no pushing and shoving here! And how do they get those boats upstream?

For those without the nerve to cross on the stepping stones, well, here’s a slightly less precarious method. Thankfully not crowded today, Better not let the kids run around though, those planks could be slippery!

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A tourist town with a river inevitably means boat rides. Here in the ancient town tourists can ride up and down the gently flowing river and observe other tourists going in and out of pubs, bars and shops and restaurants. Boats are lined up on the Southern end of Tuojiang River although the price and duration are not easy to discover – maybe time to sharpen up those haggling skills.

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Another precarious method of crossing the river.

Being a popular tourist spot, its of course no surprise that the place is packed with enough shops to satisfy the most ardent of shopaholics.  Yet despite the inevitable consequences of mass tourism, the ancient town admirably retains charm and character, at least along the along the river banks, added rain for good measure.

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Densely populated with shops but still with charm and character.

An intriguing feature of the place are a collection of wooden structures with a room or perhaps more accurately, an extension, jutting out over the river, supported on stilts, while the main portion of these are constructed on solid foundations. These are all tourist venues – cafes, bars with live music in the afternoons and the odd hostel for backpackers, accessed from the front street of course. All along the Tuojiang river there are features and relics (not just local old-timers) to observe including the towns old pagoda.

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On stilts making quite a unique scene of ancient quaintness.

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A few secret passages and chambers no-doubt. All looks pretty ancient to me!

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An Ancient Pagoda in an Ancient Town

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Climb a hill to get that enchanting scene.

To get an elevated view that so often makes a good photo, one can climb the hills around Fenghuang, accessed by stomping through the back streets. Somehow the place looks quite enchanting from altitude where views along the river reveal just why the place is on the tourist trail.

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HongQiao Bridge, the towns original although one suspects a few rebuilds and restorations at various points during the last 600 years.  Nowadays, pedestrianised with a hall so visitors may shelter from the rain while looking at some local art. 

Next time, a look into the back streets of Phoenix Ancient Town.

China – Phoenix Ancient Town, Fenghuang

Fenghuang, China, April 2019:  Fenghuang is actually quite a big town with it’s ancient core sitting in a valley with modern residential units spreading up into the nearby hills. it doesn’t take long to establish that here is another tourist destination with all the associated establishments that contribute to such. Nonetheless, one can also quickly establish that Fenghuang has a uniqueness that doesn’t come along that often on ones travels. The river with picturesque bridges of historic proportions along with an interesting blend of historic (and not so historic) architecture is going to make this visit to Phoenix Ancient Town well worth the effort, I can just feel it!

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Lone boatman on the Tuojiang River

There’s no rush to get around here – 2 full days to explore the small historic core of the this ancient town along with a few ancient traditions along the way such as Venetian style boating. With daylight fading and the drizzle annoyingly persistent once again (it must be all across China) time to grab some photos from an initial stomp around before  bad light stops play. So, here are a few snaps before a more comprehensive look around tomorrow.

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less historic bars, pubs and night clubs!

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Chinese Alcoholism is well catered for as bars, pubs and clubs line the waterfront. Here though is one less boozy joint to choose from!

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Plenty of street hawkers in Fenghuang. Here, domestic tourists haggle over the price of black olives.

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Olives and apricots for sale.

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Plenty of options to cross the river.

China – Introducing Phoenix Ancient Town, Fenghuang

Fenghuang, China, April 2019:  I’ve arrived at Fenghuang town after a 3 3/4 hours bus ride from Zhangjiajie. Despite a lifting of the cloud base earlier enabling a few en-route photo’s, its back to mist and drizzle as I hike downhill towards the old town and my Air BnB accommodation. I shall be here for the next 3 1/2 days, aiming to immerse myself with some real old Chinese culture. By all accounts this is the place for that, a well preserved historic town that is also a tourist hot-spot.

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Phoenix Ancient Town

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First glimpse of Phoenix Ancient Town.

As one descends the hill and rounds the corner, emerging from the mist and drizzle is this rather enchanting glimpse of the ancient town. The river gently flows as rising mists give the place a mysterious aura as though one is about to enter a magical kingdom.

But first  I must find that Air BnB, grab some tea and food before hiking around the town.

Next..China Enchantment

China – Zhangjiajie to Fenghuang on the Bus

Zhangjiajie, China, April 2019: In a few hours I shall be heading to my next destination, the ancient town of Fenghuang. Not for any scenic agenda, but primarily for the town itself, said to be a well preserved living, working example of very old China and worth a look. I shall aim for the 12:30 bus scheduled according to the China Bus Guide, which has been pretty accurate thus far.  So, before that, lets tank up on MacDonald’s Coffee since the place is conveniently next to the bus station.

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Its a VIP type tour bus for this 3 1/2 scheduled ride to Fenghuang – packed to the rafters with natives and a handful of Westerners. Comfortable enough as the bus meanders away from Zhangjiajie. A pretty hostess checks my ticket, ticks her papers and smiles as if to say “yes your on the right bus, have a nice day”.  A service station stop about half way, welcome for those that need to choke, spit and smoke, also a chance to snap some en-route scenery under the all to familiar overcast.

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A ghostly appearance, looking down on an abandoned settlement. Could have been some kind of mining operation or a secretive research base. Either way, its a rather intriguing scene here at the service station.

Fenghuang, on schedule as the bus rolls into the northern bus station. I had planned to take a local bus to my accommodation in the Phoenix town but since I can’t find bus number 1 and no one here speaks English, that idea is soon abandoned – a good old fashioned hike in the drizzle it is then!

 

 

China – Avatar, A Jurassic Non-fantasy, Zhangjiajie

Zhangjiajie, China, April 2019:  I’m on my way to the Zhangjiajie Inter-City bus station, just about a 10 minute walk from the hotel district. Plan is to get a bus to the Wu Ling Yuan scenic area, famed for its Jurassic landscapes providing inspiration for the scenery one sees in the 2009 fantasy movie ‘Avatar’. So, if all go’s to plan, this should be another unique experience following on from Tianmen Mountain. The weather is typically overcast, but the clouds are high and there is a little brightness in the warm spring air so lets try to stay optimistic!

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Lets go to Wu Ling Yuan.

The only way to find the bus to Wu Ling Yuan is ask someone – or rather just show the ticket otherwise one will end up aimlessly lost in the vast Zhangjiajie bus station trying hard to decipher the system in place here. The staff are friendly enough directing me to the correct bus for this 40 minute ride North at £1.76 single fare (15 Y).

Wu Ling Yuan town is little more than a collection of big name hotels and streets lined with the inevitable tacky tourist souvenir shops. Yes, all the paraphernalia associated with a tourist hot-spot is here as one steps off the bus and strolls the long wide boulevard to Wu Ling Yuan entrance – let battle commence, a statement based on my experience of getting up and down Tianmen mountain!

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Follow the crowds…

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Pagoda marking the entrance to Tianzi Mountain.

Unfortunately the weather is deteriorating – low clouds and drizzle. Do I continue, spend the £35 entrance fee and hope for the best or turn back and save some money? Lets carry on and hope for the best! The ticket queue is short, only 20 minutes long, and bus queues even shorter. Here I am, prepared to do battle with thousands of tourists whom have failed to materialise, or is it that I’m the last to get on the bus! A short ride to the cable way station where visitors can pay about £10 to ride up the mountain or alternatively take a 2 hour hike to reach the Tianzi scenic area. For me, it’s the cable car since I really don’t relish a long hike in drizzle.

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An eerie, surreal ride between the Jurassic sandstone structures as the cable car ascends into the low clouds. A brief but interesting glimpse into the Wu Ling Yuan Avatar mountains which soon is enveloped with fog – a real thick blanket that I think is here to stay. So, for the now there’s little point wasting valuable stomping energy, so lets bunk down in the large and empty MacDonald’s here on the top of Tianzi Mountain for a while and hope for a lucky break!

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as one leaves the relative comfort of MacDonald’s, no sign of any imminent improvement in the weather – socked in good! Looks like the only scenery I’m going to see is tour guides screeching through megaphones and amplified PA speakers while their clients cackle, spit and yell into the fog expecting to hear an echo – no exaggeration! A host of food stands and the very familiar tacky tourist trinket stalls are abundant here. There really isn’t much else to say except at 1.15 PM one has to abandon all hopes of any mountain top sightseeing and start the journey down – might as well walk since gravity is on my side at least!

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Defeated by the weather

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For about £40 one ca be carried up or down in a chair!

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Another glimpse of Jurassic Park 

Its a 2 hour hike down and quite peaceful as the tour groups exit the same way they arrived – by bus and cable car. The only thing to meet are the dodgy characters waiting for a sedan chair customer and a few monkeys, that is until at the bottom where one joins up with the tour groups once again. A succession of buses back to the entrance and back to base in Zhangjiajie, where its not raining, yet!

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If one is to draw a conclusion then this is it – ‘Spring isn’t a good time to be conducting a scenic tour of China’.

China – Quick City Stomp, Zhangjiajie

Zhangjiajie, China, April 2019: It’s A compact city centre with a small Central Business District which includes the train station, bus station, hotel district and the airport – all within walking distance of each other, well, perhaps not the airport, which is really just a 10 minute ride away. Today I’m om what I call a stomp around – pounding the pavements of the local area to discover some of the city’s sights.

The city centre is separated from the suburbs by a rather wide river – the Lishui according to Google. Here is perhaps the most picturesque city skylines I have seen in a while – certainly in China anyway. The river extends East-West and here, just north of the city centre is a rather fine city bridge contributing to some pretty good photo scenes.

For those who like an elevated view, the 5th floor of a nearby shopping centre fits the bill – but only for boys! yes, the only window I could find with good views was in the male toilets! So, here’s what a quick City Stomp of Zhangjiajie looks like. Notice the lack of glass sky-scrapers and glitzy malls, that’s because they simply don’t exist here.

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City bridge across the Lishui River

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Zhangjiajie’s Church, across the river.

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Zhangjiajie’

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Across the river

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Chinese plants

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City Park Entrance gate

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Zhangjiajie’s old district.

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Zhangjiajie’s shopping Mall

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View from floor 5 of the shopping mall.

And as the sun sets across Zhangjiajie, here’s a look across the rooftops towards the Tianmen mountains.

 

China – Wrapping up Tianmen, Zhangjiajie

Zhangjiajie, China, April 2019: Having survived the Tianmen Mountain glass walkway (physically and mentally), then finding refuge from the thousands of domestic tourists by hiding out in  Shangri-La on Tianmen, its now time to move forward and complete this hike around the Tianmen Plateau. According to the map the colour coded path turns red from here, indicating the final section and possibly the most scenic portion of the hike now that the clouds have dispersed – lets take a look.

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For those feeling adventurous, an open chairlift will take folk across the forest canopy and up to the fairy peak and another Temple. – about £9

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A Chinese tradition, something to do with love and fertility one would assume, not entirely sure though.

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Insanity strikes, but its all pretty solid – hopefully earthquake proof!

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Bridging the canyon with this suspension bridge.

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Hazy scenery looking towards Zhangjiajie City

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Here’s another glass path hanging on the mountainside. Having survived the first one earlier, I’m not inclined to push my luck any further! 

So, as this hike around Tianmen Mountain draws to a close, here’s one last look at the hazy scenery before heading down to the cable way station where undoubtedly one will need to fight for cable car seat, the same way one had to fight for a bus seat on the way up here earlier this morning.

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At 3.45 PM the queue for a cable car ride down is 2 hours  long.

Having just completed a 2 1/2 hour hike around Tianmen Mountain, There is now a massive queue for the cable car – at 3.45 PM the cable car ride is at least 2 hours away. Tired legs forced to stand for another 2 hours as natives tentatively try to queue jump. Thankfully the security guards quickly spot those attempting to cheat and order is restored. With that, the shouting and spitting, its enough to try the patience of any saint!

At 5.45 PM a vacant cable car rolls around and at last, possibly the worlds most exhilarating ride off a mountain top – short of jumping off in a winged suit of course!

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Coming down the Mountain in a cable car.

 

 

China – Shangri-La on Tianmen Mountain, Zhangjiajie

Zhangjiajie, China, April 2019:  To recap, I’m on a clockwise hike of the Tianmen Mountain plateau, along with thousands of Chinese domestic tourists. Having survived a glass sky walk some 4,500 feet in the air, my attention is now turned towards a collection of red buildings in the distance. A small village or hamlet perhaps, either way my interest has been aroused, so lets go and explore, lets think of it as traveling to Shangri-La

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The closest place to the settlement on the tourist map is marked as Tianmen Mountain Temple, accessed from Cherry Bay Restaurant. Actually, there’s no restaurant here but a collection of fast food outlets and a booth selling that awful 3 in 1 Nescafe coffee mix. Those with a desire to buy those tourist souvenirs can do so here, and without any sales pressure! From here one leaves the tourist main path and heads off towards the temple settlement arriving onto a concreted plaza lined with cherry trees, in full blossom – looks real enough, no faking this lot! So as one wanders between the selfie obsessed Chinese folk, here’s a few snaps of springtime China…

As one ascends the stone steps here, there’s a courtyard of tranquility, peace and just a handful of tourists. Yes, those annoying, noisy tour groups obviously don’t have this place on their itinerary – for obvious reasons when one thinks about it! So, Shangri – La here on Tianmen Mountain is a religious complex of temples, outhouses and meeting halls, all presented with some of the nicest architecture I’ve seen in China thus far. Here’s where photo’s can tell a better story…

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Unofficially, Shangri-La on Tianmen Mountain.

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The Centre Piece, access to climb is denied! 

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Ornate Architecture 

So, to sum it all up – what a wonderful little place. A corner of the mountain where one can escape the spitting, the shouting, the pushing and shoving and enjoy an hour or so of quality peace.

China – The Glass Sky Walk Tianmen Mountain, Zhangjiajie

Zhangjiajie, China, April 2019: Having made it all the way to the top of Tianmen Mountain one is again faced with the wrath of mass Chinese tourism. The noise is quite deafening, a ‘who can shout the loudest competition’ it feels like, here on the fast food plaza. Hot-dogs, spicy pizza and pot noodles on offer as lunchtime gets underway – so if one isn’t a fan of spice or artificial foods then options here are rather limited. Thankfully, I had the foresight of such a predicament and grabbed a few steamed buns from town this morning.

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According to the tourist map, one can expect an easy hike on a plateau with some undulating terrain. Quite how long this will take can’t be determined right now, but since I came without time constraints, well, lets just roll with the good folk of China and see! One thing is abundantly clear though, they have no idea about the virtues of peace and tranquility, not here on the top of Tianmen Mountain!

Unfortunately the path I’d initially chosen to begin the Tianmen hike leads straight into thick clouds. Now, I’ve doubled back and will take the clockwise route where there appears to be less cloud and a few less people to.  As one looks back then, a visual realisation at just how massive the Chinese mass tourism market really is as thousands tread the mountainside elevated walkways – path in the clouds!

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Can you imagine the sounds of mass tourism?

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And the clouds come rolling in.

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Head in the clouds.

So, having pounded the clockwise path for about 20 minutes, one is thankful that the clouds have dispersed revealing some of the below scenery, and just in time for the mountains most famous attraction, the glass bottom path – Tianmen Mountain Sky Walk.

The Tianmen Mountain Sky Walk is not recommended for persons of a weak or nervous disposition – seriously! Constructed onto the side of Tianmen with nothing below except 4500 feet of clear air, a few birds and some rocks at the bottom. Yes, for sufferers of vertigo I’d suggest an alternative path, and even I have to admit to a little nervousness as I tentatively approach the prospect of what if it all go’s horribly wrong! Before anyone steps onto the glass though, shoe covers are required at a cost of 60p for the pair then one can join in with the flow of natives, some of whom are extremely anxious. Its all pretty solid though, the glass fairly thick and once those first steps are taken the rest of it is plain sailing with some awesome scenery adding to the experience.

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Despite appearances the whole path is pretty solid!

Next time… calm and tranquility returns to the mountain, Tianmen Shangri-La discovered

 

China – 999 Steps to Heaven on Tianmen, Zhangjiajie

Zhangjiajie, China, April 2019: Its taken about 50 minutes from ticket purchase to arriving one quarter of the way up Tianmen Mountain, another of China’s tourist hot-spots. To reach this far has felt like being in a battle – fighting to keep my place in the queues, fighting for a seat on the bus and now it looks like a fight to the 999 steps that begins the ascent proper of Tianmen Mountain.

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Extraordinary scenes as crowds head for Tianmen Mountain.

Depending on ones beliefs and knowledge of Chinese mythology, the 999 stone steps in the distance there will lead to heavens gate, heavens doorway or just simply Tianmen cave. In practical terms, a staircase leading to a gap in the mountain with clouds seeping through! For those not upto the 999 step challenge, there’s an ascending escalator inside the mountain located right of the plaza and for £7 one can reach heaven in about 5 minutes. Its the steps for me though, so let battle commence!

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All about Tianmen Cave

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Only 999 steps to go!

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Rush hour on the mountain is subsiding at 11 AM, only 600 steps to go.

after 150 of the 999 steps one begins to feel rather worn out. The incline is steeper that it looked earlier, but thankful there are others in the same boat. Yes, its pretty hard work climbing up to heaven. I wouldn’t recommend this for those of a weak disposition, scared of heights or more importantly those with a dodgy heart – I guess that’s one reason why its referred to as the stairway to heaven! There are rest platforms along the way so if one is feeling the worse for wear, its a place to hopefully recover or await rescue.

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Scenery along the way, only 500 steps to go.

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Looking back, only 200 steps to go.

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0 steps to go – view from heavens gate

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Clouds and mist once again.

Its about a 30 minute climb including rest periods. The views from heavens gate are pretty nice and I’d say its definitely worth the effort. At the halfway point of this ascent  Tianmen mountain’s summit. The tidal flow of tourists quickens as we are all channelled onto a narrow path seemingly bolted onto the mountain side! The next stage then as a queue forms for an escalator ride up. Actually, a series of escalators impressively construed through the mountains core – a 25 minute journey on 7 escalators to the top of Tianmen Mountain, unfortunately clouds have gathered and views somewhat limited.

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Top of the world.

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Darn Pesky Clouds again!

Next… Exploring the mountain