Saturday, December 24, 2016

Summit Great Sand Dunes

We first visited Great Sand Dunes National Park five years ago. Chance took us there again this winter and I had a very clear plan this time, that was to make up for what we missed the first time - climb to the summit of the dunefield.

It was a cold clear late Sunday morning, temperature at single digit (F) when we arrived at the park. We watched a video about the great sand dunes at the visitor center and headed toward the dunefield around noon time.

Great Sand Dunes at the edge of San Luis Valley and Snow peaked Alpines 

The best way to hike in the dunefield is to walk along or near the ridges - where the slope is minimum and thus less backward motion for each step. Also small quick steps,  which take advantage of time delayed response of sands to external force,  would minimize the sinking into sands. The sand was much firmer than what we experienced last time due to snow the previous day and very cold temperature, which made the hiking less tiring.

It was still very cold, -9C. The few groups arrived earlier at sand dune parking lot, lingered around in the dried up Mosca river bed. We were the only group marching into the dunefield. In the parking lot and Mosca river, the High Dune is clearly the tallest sand dune in the field. Each of us, applied sunscreen, took a bottle of water and a protein bar, put on skiing-ready coat and started marching toward the high dune. There was no body else in the dunefield ahead of us!
Marching to the Peak

The rest of the group reached the first local peak while I was near high dune by taking shortcut
Initially Justin was leading the way followed by my niece and I. Quickly high altitude and steep slope got to us, we slowed down, taking breath every few steps. We also took the opportunity to enjoy the scenery and take pictures, totally immersed in the moment, between blue sky, brownish sands, white snow and the sound of our footsteps.

As we were approaching the first local peak, two young men got there ahead of us via a different route. One of them turned around, the other continued to high dune.  Since our goal was to reach the high dune, I skipped the first local peak and went straight to high dune via the side of the peak.

I walked along the narrow ridge of high dune gingerly toward the summit,  beautiful scenery in every direction - hikers climbing the curvatures of the sand dunes from east, snow covered Sangre de Cristo mountains to the north and north east, large area of sand dune field  and the expansive San Luis Valley to the south.  The vivid color that snow and blue sky provided made everything so much more beautiful. When the rest of the group was joining me at the summit, I raised my arm to celebrate our success. It was exhilarating to be on top of the "world",

the Ridge of the high Dune and beyond

Justin on the way to High Dune

On top of High Dune, I raised my arms

far field of sand dune from high dune

snow patched sand dune field
End Notes:

1. I tuned on my Garmin GPS tracking to record my trail. It took us about 1 hour 39 minutes for the round trip of 2.62 miles (4.21 km), 1 hour uphill, 40 minutes downhill. My heart beat was about the same as my 5K run.

2. We did indeed reached high dune according to the GPS. The elevation gain was 222m (728ft), which was 24 meters higher than what is stated on national park service website.But high dune is not the tallest dune at the park, Star Dune is according to national park service, which is 1.5 mile west of High Dune.
track of my trail - numbers indicate mile stone marks
3. Two incidents occurred during the visit - a) my glove fell several feet down the ridge of high dune on a steep slope. I sat down and dug in my boots into the sand to prevent mini sand avalanche to retrieve it. b) when we were leaving the sand dune parking lot, my van stuck on a short (~ 20m, 45deg) slope. I decided that the van was too slow when reaching the slope. I backed down the slop, increased the van's  speed to reach the slope. Tires started to slip again in the middle of the slope, so I changed the gear from normal to D2, and then drove on the left hand side of the road where it was less slick. The van slowly overcame the slope!

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Camping and Hiking at Palo Duro Canyon - Photo Journal (2)

We slept well despite the cold night  - with double layer quilts and heater. I got up earlier than the rest of the group ~ 6:30 am. I decided to hike the nearby trail by myself to see the sunrise. Local Sunrise time was 7:40 am.
I quickly got on to the GLS trail, seeing the sunlight touching the peaks of mountains, top of the canyons, moving from top downward, and my surroundings got brighter by the minutes.  
The sun rose around 7:40am at the Canyon. It peeked over the top of the canyon as I reached the 0.6Mile marker on the GSL trail. I turned around to go back to the campsite.

While I was enjoying the sunrise, a group of 4 wild turkeys visited our tent site
Lily got up and explore the valley a bit, she reached the river in the valley.
It was a beautiful crispy clear morning. we decided to hike on GSL trail before leaving for Bosque del Apache 
 Blue sky with thin white clouds made the colors brighter, and contrast sharper.We were closer to rocks and cliffs on this trail as well.The scenery on this trail felt different from those on the light house trail.
GSL trial is a multi purpose trail, we shared the trail with three mountain bikers. A couple early risers were returned from round trip hiking on this trail.
We took a quite a few pictures along the way, moving and stopping, but the average speed was about 1.5 miles per hour. We turned around at 1.5 mile marker and returned to trail head in 2 hours
There are quite a few type of wild life in the park, but we did not see many. In addition the the wild turkey visiting our tents, we met this road runner by chance
Palo Duro Canyon is a great place for camping and hiking, We enjoyed the park very much and wished that we could have stayed there one day longer to explore other trails and experience one more pitch dark camp night and starry sky.

Camping and Hiking at Palo Duro Canyon - Photo Journal (1)

After about 6 hour on the road, we arrived at the Palo Duro Canyon State Park around 3:30 pm. Drove along the road into canyon, we reached our camp site Hackberry Camp site. Our site was site #1, right by the road. Fortunately the traffic was pretty light in the park and there was no noise issue
It took a us ~ 15 minutes to set up tents. We were ready to hike on the most famous trail at the park - light house trail
The trail is at the bottom of the canyon. The main scenery is rock formation. Our speed was about the speed of walking on flat road
Rocks of various shape and colors are on all sides of the trail - close and far
Some flavor of Bryce Canyon Hoodoo and Yellow Stone Artist Point?
The last portion of the trail to the "light house rock" is not sanctioned, and pretty hard to hike/climb. We arrived at Light House Rock formation ~ 5pm
Just in time to see the golden lights shinning on the light house rock from the setting Sun
I climbed to a small peak by the light house rock
The Sun was setting
It got dark really quickly. We were prepared for hiking in the dark and cold. We had flash lights, headlights and brought sweaters or heavy jackets with us, The first "star" we saw was actually the planet Venus. We were the last group off the trail to return to the parking lot - in fact park ranger came to check as we were leaving!
We had noodles, sausages, chickens, Croissant, vegetable and fruit for dinner. After the meal, we turned off the camp lights to watch the beautiful starry sky. The Milky Way was clearly overhead. Walking around the camp site allowed us to see the stars from different angles and viewpoints. At some locations, we could clearly see the city light from Amarillo - and of course we did not see many stars in that direction due to light pollution. At our tents, it was dark, cold, quiet and mystically beautiful!

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Glimpse of Saudi Arabia

I went to Saudi Arabia, right after Thanksgiving, the past week for a short business trip, visiting the mysterious country and region for the first time.

Gender segregation in public places

Gender segregation is mentioned in media here at US so frequently so I paid some attention to it. There is no such segregation on airplane. In fact on the flight from Dubai to Dammam, a women and her child sat next to me, she wore an Abaya (a loose cloak which covers one from head to toe) though. She is a Pakistanis living in Saudi Arabia.  There is no such segregation in stores either, women, wearing Abaya,  can go to any place in the store a male customer can go.

Desert Design - a store at Dharan
I had first hand observations of gender segregation in restaurants and at airport security check.

The first lunch I had with colleagues was at VAPIANO, an Italian restaurant in the Mall of Dharan. It was apparent that male customers eat at the front of the restaurant and female customers eat at the back. But the front part is small, the back part is large, and there is no wall to separate the two parts. We had a large group - 8 persons - so we moved to the back part at a large table, away from female customers and no one protested, but quickly a waiter asked the group to move to a smaller table in the front! In the end it was compromised that we sat at a large table in the center of the back.

I had another lunch in a restaurant at downtown, Five Guys, a burger chain. This restaurant has male and female/family dinning areas separated by a wall, and has different entrance for each area. My expat colleague said if he would have lunch with his wife, he would have to go to the family dinning area wait until his wife arrives.
Dammam King Fahd International Airport
Dammam King Fahd International Airport

Homes and Communities are heavily fortified

I stayed at my company's facility camp and hotel, which was heavily guarded. When we first arrived at the gate, a guard used a mirror to check the under body of the shuttle to see if there was car bomb, then he checked everyone's ID, and finally checked the trunk before letting the shuttle pass.

The road to the gate and the portion shortly passing the gate have speed bumps, some are 5 ~ 6 inch tall. I saw the same at the entrance to Dharan Techno Valley, and the entrance to Saudi Aramco.

Not only business is heavily fortified, homes are too - standalone homes or gated communities. Newly built homes along high way, each has its own brick wall. Gated communities where westerners live are guarded as heavily as business. The two I visited both had guards with machine guns on duty.

barb wired high wall outside my hotel room 

Curious about these security measures, I asked if the crime rate was high. Crime rate at Saudi Arabia is in fact very low due to the punishment according to Islamic laws. They still publicly punish convicted - lashes, cut off hands, decapitate .... none of my western colleagues have been to the events. The security measures are due to 2004 Khobar massacre when 22 people were killed, 25 were injured. The security measures guard  against organized crimes, not random or opportunistic crimes.

Raining Season

November is raining season there. It rained 3 of 5 days when I was there. It usually rained at night and was cloudy during the days. However it rained during the day on my second day there, when we went to Mall of Dharan for lunch. There is no drain anywhere  - highway or local road. There are puddles everywhere when it rains.
rainy day at the mall of Dharan
Terrace of VAPIANO - an Italian restaurant  

 Other Observations

The city is pretty new, the downtown is really impressive but mostly westernized. I was told that there is no public entertainment - no concerts, no movie theaters and only thing in culture center is Islamic religion books. Programs on TV are news and sports.

1/3 of the country's population are foreigners - mostly from southeast Asia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Philippine, Sri Lanka  .... On my flights in and out of Dubai, ~ 80% passengers were from this region, they either work in UAE/Dubai, Saudi Arabia ... or change plane at Dubai to go back to their home countries.

Inside of the Mall of Dharan

Outside of the store Desert Design
Despite the relatively new infrastructures, trashes piled along highway, many unfinished buildings especially stand alone homes - it was said that some may stand unfinished for years!

Known for their slow pace of life, it was surprising to see that the drivers are as crazy as one sees in India or China! People drive on both shoulders of high way - so on a two lanes highway, I saw 4 cars driving side by side. A driver would make a right turn from left most lane. Because of the craziness, traffic light will be in green in only one direction at a time! So the waiting time at traffic light is much longer than it is here in States.

In downtown, streets are separated by high fence in the center of road, there is typically no left turn. One has to take U turn to reach establishments on the other side of the street.

Saudi Arabia Culture Center
The King of Saudi Arabia was visiting the city for the opening of Saudi Arabia Culture Center during my stay there.Because of the the visit,  the King's portraits were hanged along all the streets and high ways! The planed grand opening of the center was cancelled due to leak in the just finished Center from the rains. The King was rescheduled to attend the grand opening on Thursday December 1st, fortunately I left the city around midnight on Wednesday - avoiding the traffic nightmare to be caused by the King's motorcade.

The province I visited, Dharan, is an industry center, and much more liberal than the rest of the country. So what I saw is not a full reflection of Saudi Arabia, but that of Dharan, Saudi Arabia.

People I met at stores, in the workplace, at gates and at immigration check points are generally nice, I never felt unsafe at any time during my stay there. Ordinary people live their life just like people anywhere else in the world, with exception of the religion mandated daily prayers.

*Note  - the five stone structure of the Culture Center represent the five pillars of Islam

Shahadah: sincerely reciting the Muslim profession of faith.
Salat: performing ritual prayers in the proper way five times each day.
Zakat: paying an alms (or charity) tax to benefit the poor and the needy.
Sawm: fasting during the month of Ramadan.
Hajj: pilgrimage to Mecca.