Van life: labour, frugality and conscious living

When we think of ‘van life’ and in this modern age, ‘digital nomads’, we sometimes forget that nomadic living is as old a concept as life itself, with migrations centred around seasons. Living in a van or caravan now is associated with either climbing ‘dirtbags’ who don’t work, Roma gypsies who are often also perceived as economically unproductive, or various other societally undesirable forms of vagrants, or on the other end of the scale, millennial hipsters living the digital nomad, Instagram-worthy life or middle-class retirees.

The van somewhere near but outside Parque Nacional de Ordesa y Monte Perdido, in the Spanish Pyrenees.

These perceptions are something I’ve been struggling with, realising my privilege in being able to live this life but not wanting to perpetuate or abuse it. As well as the growing contradiction between previous generations of van-lifers choosing this lifestyle as a way of escaping societal/economic pressures (cue Christopher McCandless), and the present ability to continue working to support this lifestyle through mobile wi-fi and laptops, and so further perpetuating and expanding the spheres of capitalism.

Nonetheless, in spite of all my self-inflicted doubts and insecurities, this has been very much a lesson in the value of labour and skills, and in being very aware of our consumption and production. The whole conversion process – stripping it down, cleaning it out, cutting a hole in the roof for a stealthy window/ventilation (thanks to Omar’s friend James for lending an angle grinder), putting in timber battens, insulating and sealing the insulation with a vapour barrier, putting in the floor and ceiling, building the bed frame (with help from Omar’s friend Jethro), kitchen, dry toilet and cabinets, making the bed mattress covers, doing the electric wiring, plumbing for sink and gas for hobs – was a really interesting and eye-opening process, particularly for someone like me with very little prior DIY experience.

It took about a month and a half from purchasing the van to setting off, with time in between also spent on PhD applications, and only cost about £1300+ at the end. I realised there’s an impossible trinity of budget, rapid, and good workmanship – we ended up compromising between making/having well-made/reliable items and budget, but doing things yourself really saves a lot of money. A pre-made kitchen set (sink, hob, tap and cupboard space) would have cost upwards of £300-400, and we made ours for about £120 with the most expensive purchase being the gas hobs. Similarly, the toilet cost us less than £50 (most expensive item being a urine diverter which separates pee from poo and hence makes our waste smell less, not require water and easy to dispose of) instead of £200 for a ready-made set. Beyond wishing we installed latches on cupboard doors instead of just catches (been quite a few incidences where stuff fell out while driving. Having dark soya sauce all over the floor isn’t too good…), everything’s been more or less working well and up to expectations. 

Having to manage electricity (the leisure battery charges while driving but we also have a supplementary solar panel courtesy of James) and especially water supply makes us very conscious of our consumption. As a consequence of highly effective water-saving campaigns in Singapore, I have always been frugal with water use, especially with dish-washing. In the van, it’s taken to the next level, and we usually manage to wash up with about <2 litres of water – our grey water container is 5l. 

All in all, the convenience and mobility of living in a home that is well, mobile, is pretty good, but the fuel consumption (though less than flying, which I’m trying to reduce) and ultimately privilege of this lifestyle weighs on my conscience. Also, while nomadic living may have had a long history, it’s usually done in larger family groups or tribes, and the lack of community embedded-ness is wearing in this lifestyle. 

La furgoneta


Exploring climbing in Yunnan

Climbing in Yangshuo, China, is well-known, but less so in Yunnan (云南). With a straight flight to Kunming to Singapore (on SilkAir, 4 hours) and much to climb around the capital city itself, we headed there for 10 days to check out the climbs (4 to 14 January 2018).

Kunming (昆明) is known as the Spring City, because the weather is fairly mild all year round, and it’s possible to climb any time of the year, even in the dead of winter. The start of our trip was quite nice and sunny, with a few t-shirt days, but towards the end it got cloudy and cold and fingers were cold (though still passably climb-able) on the rock.

Information on climbing around Yunnan is fairly sparse on the internet, at least on English websites. ClimbChina has a good overview of where there’s climbing in China – in Yunnan province, it can probably be divided to two areas, around Kunming (within city limits and in Fumin) and around Dali and Lijiang. So headed there on the little information we could find online (thecrag, mountainproject, this 2010 article and this lady’s blogpost), we tried to make our way to the crags. Many of the websites are outdated (e.g. saying that RedPoint climbing gym is the biggest gym around and where to go to get info, when it’s apparently closed down, or that kunmingrock.com has updated topo when it really doesn’t have much info)

Western Hills (within Kunming city limits)

We went to a local gym in Kunming (Now climbing) to try and find more information, and was told that we could probably spend a day or two at Western Hills (西山), while still staying in the city, and about a week at Fumin. I also got added to the WeChat group chat for climbing in Kunming, but got locked out of my WeChat account due to ‘suspicious activities’ so never really managed to use it.

We found topo about Western Hills from mountainproject (for the Western Hills escarpment), and so thought we could check it out the next day. It turns out that information online from 2005 really isn’t reliable. A new-ish subway line had been built and one can now take line 3 to Western Hills (end of the line), which was what we did. From there, we were to have made our way to the Dragon Gate shrines (龙门)and go down a flight of stairs (Thousand Steps Cliff 千步崖) before embarking on a dirt path that winds around the hill to the base of the crags. Finding out that we now need to pay for a tourist bus to a mid-point where there’s also a cable-car station, then an entrance fee and another transport fee to get to that Thousand Steps, we decided to go along the base of the hill to the bottom of those stairs and walk up most of it to get to the approach path instead. After maybe an hour or two of bush-whacking with our climbing gear, we finally conceded that there were no bolts and no climbing around the area and headed back. Later on, we met a local climber in Fumin who told us that climbing around that area is now forbidden, and the climbing in Western Hills is actually somewhere near the cable-car station (probably the Dragon Gate village crags?).

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Abandoned crag at Western Hills

Top Tip: Don’t trust online info too much, especially if it was posted ages ago. Searching for information in Mandarin Chinese on baidu.com also did not reveal better info, though that might be due to my limited language abilities.

Fumin canyon

The major sport climbing area is near a smaller town called Fumin (富民) located Northwest of Kunming. There are plenty of coaches there from the North West Bus Station (西北部汽车客运站). Each trip costs CNY11, takes about 30-40 minutes depending on traffic, and the coach leaves when it’s full.

We could stay in Fumin if we wanted, and commute to the crags everyday (about 10-15 minutes by taxi/minibus/motorised tricycle, costing about CNY20, 10 or 5 supposedly respectively). However we wanted to stay in the village and walk there, so we took a cab to Lannitian (烂泥田). There is no proper accommodation in the village, we just wandered up the road asking if any family had a room spare to rent out. Thankfully we found a family who would take us on board, and we ended up paying CNY150/day for an ensuite room and all meals (though we usually only have two in a day) for two people (for reference, a double room in an average hotel costs about CNY100-120 in Fumin).

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The village of Lan Ni Tian

There are kinda four main climbing areas:

1. Beside the river on the East bank (Orange face, Cave crag?, Splash wall) is an easy access climbing area, with two access routes,

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Orange face, splash wall (and maybe a few others?) located right beside the river/road

2. Old Red Rock (including Rainbow wall and Doug’s wall) is the major climbing area, with one access route via Lannitian village,

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Huge outcrop of Old Red Rock, Rainbow wall and Doug’s wall

3. Also beside the river but further upstream (or further down the road from Fumin) there’s Weeping wall and Just Go wall

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Weeping wall

4. Eye cave, located slightly above the river on the West bank with a different access route.

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Eye cave

Access to each of the climbing areas

GMaps Lannitian climbing
An attempt at annotating the various crags and access routes. Image taken from Google, though the roads clearly don’t align with the satellite image.

Most of the climbing is on the eastern bank of the river, so you’ll have to cross either the bridges or the dam to access, cos the road is on the other side of the river.

  1. Splash wall and the others beside it are the easiest to access by far, and so the rocks there are more polished. Apparently, climbers also camp at the Orange face crag cos there’s a flat bit of grass right there.

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The dam to access the crags.

The dam is closest to the crags, but can only be accessed when the river is not (over)flowing. You then have to walk along some concrete dividers to get to the crags.

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Concrete divider between the river and a little canal

When the dam is impassable, the crags can still be access by crossing the bridge at LanNiTian village and walking along the same concrete dividers.

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The village bridge, the concrete dividers and the vegetables villagers grow

 

2. To get to the huge outcrop also known widely to the locals (老红岩), one has to actually enter the village via the bridge, then turn on to a dirt path which somewhat follows the river, albeit higher up.

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Entrance of access to Old Red Rock

The path is quite obvious until a slightly obscure right turn (the path keeps going straight through and ends up at a bit of a dead end, above the crags). It could be that over winter the grasses had all overgrown the path, it was quite clear that no one had been there for a while.

 

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You’ll know if you’ve made the right right turn cos you see this rock. Then just continue along the much smaller path till you see rocks and bolts

We couldn’t find the approach path to Doug’s Wall though (we attempted, and ended up doing some serious bush-whacking to no avail), and the path to Rainbow Wall (or maybe to the furthest end? Not entirely sure where Old Red Rock stops and Rainbow Wall starts…) was blocked after a point by some very prickly shrubs.

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Path along the base of the crag gets blocked by really thorny bushes.

 

3. Although Weeping wall and Just Go wall are physically located alongside the other crags along the river bank, a small stretch of water between the dam and the crags result in climbers having to walk further down the road (from Fumin) and crossing another bridge (the road going up the hill eventually leading to XinMin village) then backtracking on the riverbank to the crags.

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Bridge leading to XinMin village, but also allowing access to the other crags

 

4. The (only?) crag on the western side of the river is the Eye cave, which entails going up a road past a security post (the security officers got us to write our details in a logbook) then following a dirt path round the side of the mountain.

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The end of the road is marked by this memorial. If you go further up along the road, you come up to a shrine (apparently).

 

The climbs

The rocks in Fumin are still mostly unpolished and very grippy, which is a very nice change from the usual. While we were there, the sun shines on the Western side from about 10am and on the Eastern side only from about 12/1pm, and sets about 6+pm. It’s fairly cold out without the sun, though not to the extent that hands freeze on the rock.

Some of the routes are labelled and graded on the rocks at the upper climbing area of Old Red Rock, but quite faintly.

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‘Evo’ route written faintly, with the grade (5.10a) barely visible

I found the routes quite nice, with some very beautiful moves. The exposure however (the wind got quite strong at times) really terrified me and I really only lead climbed 5.9s 😂

The climbing is very varied from crag to crag. The Splash Wall areas are polished and mostly steep, making for rather hard climbing (but short routes, most not more than 20m). The Old Red Rock has a variety of rock faces and climbing styles, some sharp little crimps, some big slopey pinches. The Weeping wall/Just Go wall had some really nice climbing. The Weeping Wall is full of tufas, and there’s one really long and easy fun climb which felt like a 3D puzzle.

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View from the anchor. Anchors (two slings, though there’s also a bolt in the middle) and some of the protection (slings through holes, not bolts) were rather dodgy though.

Just Go wall only has 5 routes, all newly bolted. I really liked the climbs there, fairly easy and not very exposed and not polished either. There’s a little overhang too (One Question, 5.10c) for those who like a little challenge.

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Just Go wall. 

Most of the climbs here are single pitch, though there are a few multipitches. We only did one, the most famous (and the only one properly identified to us), called Fly Me to the Moon. 5-pitch (5.9) with the base starting up the buttress to the right of Eye Cave (just to the left of the two round bushes in the earlier photo depicting Eye Cave). It supposedly ends up on the pavilion at the top of the hill (at least according to online topo), but it actually ends higher up, on the south face.

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We thought the route started somewhere on this face. It’s actually further round the left (south face). You can see the pavilion here at the top of the hill. The descent path is by walking down though, past the pavilion and all the way back down to the road.

We just about had time to at least visit most of the crags and try some climbs. But we definitely did not climb enough, and there’s so much more that can be climbed, would definitely recommend coming here. The second edition of the guidebook is being worked on now by the local climbers, so hopefully with more available information, more people will start checking this place out (though we sometimes get the feeling that perhaps the locals don’t really want too many people to start coming).

So that’s about it for climbing in Kunming, Yunnan. More photos on my Flickr album here. All information true as far as we know it on 14 Jan 2018. We brought a 70m rope, 18 quickdraws, and a small selection of trad gear for protection.

Doing fieldwork as a female

How do females deal with their menstrual period while out field? It is a rather underrated and neglected topic, so today, we had a female health in the field session for the (female) students in NTU’s Asian School of the Environment. Though I don’t teach the students, being a Singaporean who’s used a menstrual cup for the last 6 years on field trips, diving trips, and hiking and mountain-climbing expeditions gave me an insight with useful experiences and stories to share.

The issues surrounding doing fieldwork as a female may not be obvious to males (who are also the more common sex in the field), and many females might feel like menstruation is a taboo topic. But getting menstrual periods is something that happens to half of the world’s population and just needs to be dealt with appropriately. Just as many people with the means to have embraced the use of sanitary pads and so go about their everyday life, instead of being confined to their homes while they’re having their period, we shouldn’t feel like we can’t do field work (i.e. go outdoors without access to a toilet with running water) while we’re having our periods, particularly when alternative possibilities exist.

The session started out with Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs) and vaginal thrush, and how to prevent them. It seems like the best way would be to not hold your pee (wild pees ftw!), drink lots of water, and maintain a basic level of hygiene. Girls do require a higher minimum level of hygiene than boys do I think, going by my experience thru-hiking in Chile. Using toilet paper (and burying it) and changing fresh underwear is almost a necessity for us, whereas guys don’t seem to get UTIs when they neglect those. Most people are aware of feminine hygiene though, I think.

The more pertinent issue was that of dealing with periods while outdoors. Apart from not having a ready bin for disposal (i.e. you have to bag your used sanitary napkins/tampons and bring it with you till you reach ‘civilisation’), the lack of a toilet bowl/running water can sometimes deter females. Personally, the massive waste of single-use, disposable but un-recyclable sanitary pads/tampons are a major con for using them, and after experiencing the comfort of using a menstrual cup as well, I would never use the disposables again (except for emergencies/supplement to prevent leaks!). I switched from using sanitary pads to using a menstrual cup in 2011 when I planned to hike in Nepal, and have since used it even while camping in Australia, climbing Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, on expeditions in Ecuador/Peru, field trips in the UK, and long-distance hiking in Chile.

Menstrual cups are great especially when you’re out in the field because

  1. You don’t have to deal with disposing bloodied pads/tampons, you can just empty the blood out where you’ve been peeing/pooping (buried if necessary!).
  2. You don’t have to bring a massive supply of disposables.
  3. You can swim/dive.

There are many other pros of using menstrual cups over pads or tampons, like

  1. It’s really comfortable. You don’t end up sitting in your warm pool of blood, as you do with a pad.
  2. You save a lot of money not having to buy pads/tampons. I do use a thin, light-flow pad on my heavy flow days just in case my cup leaks because I haven’t had time to empty it, but otherwise a panty liner will suffice, so I end up using just 2-4 pads over the course of my period, as opposed to at least 10. And a menstrual cup can be used for many, many years – I’m still using the same one.
  3. You have to go to the toilet less often. When I was using a pad, I often worried about leaking, and so kept going to the toilet to check. The menstrual cup just needs emptying about twice a day usually, thrice if it’s a heavy flow, and once when it’s the last day.
  4. They don’t cause Toxic Shock Syndrome, because the cup merely collects the blood instead of absorbing it like tampons. Hence you can keep it in for longer.
  5. You’re not contributing to unnecessary waste. So much plastic and other waste goes to our landfills/incinerators every year. Waste less, don’t use disposables.

There is a higher starting up cost to using menstrual cups, in that they cost between S$30 (for Freedom Cups, a Singapore-based company) to S$50 (for UK-based Mooncup, which is what I’m using and was the only option in Singapore 6 years ago). It also took me about two periods to get familiar and comfortable with putting the cup in and taking it out.

However, maintaining hygiene while using the Mooncup is not difficult, I wash it out with water and put it back in (using my water bottle if a tap is not available). I have even accidentally dropped it in the toilet bowl while cleaning it out, and just rinsed it and popped it back in with no further issue (I am not advising cleaning your menstrual cup with toilet bowl water though, especially after you’ve peed in it…).

Everyone would have their own way of dealing with periods while outdoors, but to me, menstrual cups are a genius invention that should be embraced. It would be a huge shame if menstruation was a deterrent to more girls doing field work or going outdoors, though having (really bad) menstrual cramps would be a completely different issue.

We may be physically weaker (for most of the population) and have a slightly greater need of personal hygiene than males, but we shouldn’t fear it to be an impediment when doing fieldwork, nor allow it to be an excuse for not having more females on an expedition, because there is a need and value for women to be in the field at times, as Haifaa Abdulhalim accounts as when working as IUCN’s World Heritage Coordinator in the Arab region.

[Update: 10 May 2017] There are several other slightly more (than just trying to get let the blood out in a less disruptive fashion) drastic options for controlling your period, e.g. birth control/contraceptive pills, and intrauterine device (IUD). They both have the main/side effect of preventing pregnancy, so depending on your personal beliefs, you may prefer to use/avoid them. I’m not as familiar with these options so did not mention them as methods for controlling period bleeds, but from comments provided, they are sometimes a better option than menstrual cups.