A Rambling Minimalist Approach to Backpacking

St. Barbara's Church, Kutna Hora. It is one of the most famous Gothic Churches in Central Europe and is recognized as a UNESCO Heritage Sight, yet is over shadowed by Kutna Hora's main attraction, the bone church.

St. Barbara’s Church, Kutna Hora. It is one of the most famous Gothic Churches in Central Europe and is recognized as a UNESCO Heritage Sight, yet is over shadowed by Kutna Hora’s main attraction, the bone church.

Like the archetypal image of the convict from black and white films, a backpack overloaded with all the “travel essentials” seems to be the unfortunate, yet necessary ball n’ chain involved in backpacking. Quite ironic, right? Backpack is also the unifying verb, used to describe a presumably more economical and sustainable method of travel. I find that interesting, considering that suitcase travel seems to be an older form, which in English, usually means that it, not the newer form would transform via paleologism or verbing…but I DIGRESS!

Art in Prague

Art in Prague

A common sight in a foyer of a hostel in any given country: a line up of tired, impatient and dripping backpackers, waiting to check in or check out, their framed backpacks slumped in front of them like a not-a-care-in-the-world drunkards, resting against throbbing shins, being kicked and shoved, because it’s not worth the effort to hoist them up onto aching backs for the short journey to the counter. Then there are those moments when you don’t have time to check into your accommodation, or that you have no accommodation and you have to shlog your freakin’ life up the side of a mountain, or along an uneven, ten million kilometer hike (not really ten million kilometer, but it sure as hell feels like that). You begin to despise your helpful travel companion, dread the daunting task of finding a safe and secure place to store it, so you can enjoy light-loaded exploring once again. Then comes the further dread of trying to squish your sagging sack into the aforementioned storage space, which through tear soaked pleading and prayer, you personify as someone that through language you can convince and sway to do your bidding (“please, storage container in the train station, get bigger to accommodate my backpack and I will give you many shiny coins”). I use to think, due to my socio-economic status, that this version of travel was the only practical way to go and that the heavy backpack, was just the burden I had to bare.


But what if…we reassess what a travel essential is. The Oxford Dictionary of English defines “essential” as “affecting the essence of anything; ‘material’, important”. I interpret essential items, as things that are necessary and vital. If I were to look through many a’ backpackers backpacks, I am pretty many of ‘essentials’ I pulled out, would not fit the mold of my definition. A hairdryer and towel are not vital items for travel in warm places. The several scenarios that call for these items can be efficiently be filled by warm temperatures, supplemented by five minutes of physical spinning and/or sprinting. You may get the reputation as the “spinning man or woman in the shower”, but why not? It’s one less thing you need to consider lugging around and I think that reputation will garner you at least one single free drink at the hostel bar.

Old Jewish Cemetery, Prague

Old Jewish Cemetery, Prague

And there are other items as well that are not really essentials. In 2010, my friend who I was traveling with, challenged me to travel for three months with the same size backpack as he was sporting. Backpack is a generous term for a small knapsack that covered a little less than half of the area of his back. Okay, fine, if he can do it, so can I. You, dear reader, having no idea of who this nameless travel companion was or what his demeanor and prowess were like, giving you no premise to judge if my assertion is logical. I am in the clear to make such sweeping assumptions. I spilled the contents of my backpack onto the Amsterdam hostel bed I was to occupy that evening. Looking down the assortment of shapes, colors and their allocated uses, I asked myself a simple question:


With the trip I have planned ahead of me….what will I need?

Flowers, Wawel Castle, Krakow.

Flowers, Wawel Castle, Krakow.

First I started looking at my clothing. All the shades of the rainbow! If your methodology behind packing different outfits is to blend in to the populous of where you are traveling to, to be blunt, more times than not you’re not going to be able to, so why try? Also, what benefit is there to not standing out? If there is none, and if there is, in fact, benefits for standing out (people help you and forgive you when you do something possibly culturally insensitive), then why are you going through such counterintuitive rigamaroo? In these situations, extra clothing, shoes, jewelry, etc. simply amounts to undesirable weight. A few good pairs of socks, two or three undies, a pair of pants, a pair of shorts, a long sleeved shirt, a short leaved shirt, and maybe a sweater, if required, is all you need. If your going to the Gobi Desert in summer, I don’t think a parka is ever going to become a sensible garment to wear. Especially in warm environments, seeking out a washer or dryer is unnecessary. A bar of soap, a sink and maybe something to stop up the drain, and you can wash your clothing and hang it to dry over night or wash in cycles, doing several items at a time to dry throughout the day. Bring durable, clothing you won’t be heartbroken over getting destroyed, because over time, the wear and tear of travel will take its toll on your clothing’s elasticity, shape and color. Skin tight will become oversized, form fitting, malformed.

Adrian Palace, Prague.

Adrian Palace, Prague.

Vitamins, perfumes, facemasks and other niceties are nice additions to your post and pre-bed bathroom rituals, but you probably won’t spontaneously combust if you don’t have them. I understand that there are several toiletries that women require that men do not, but there are also several items that mass media and society says are essential to use prior to leaving your home in all circumstances. These socially induced standards are North American centric. In other parts of the world, ideas of beauty, professionalism and appearance are varied and far from the women of Cosmo or the Men of…..some masculine centred reading material. Again, you are traveling. You are going to be constantly adorned in sweat and food stained clothing, have brown encrusted cuticles and constant layer of fine dust choking your facial pores. We get it. In fact, many people will look at your disheveled presentation with jealousy, wishing that they too could escape the daily meat grinder that was turning them all into wurst. A toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, contact kit, medicine and feminine hygiene products are all you reallllly need. Maybe a hand sanitizer, though, what germs can’t kill you, will make you stronger.

The shop owner near my Prague home in Vysherad in 2008.

The shop owner near my Prague home in Vysherad in 2008. We would exchange English lessons for Czech lessons.

Electronic devices. Is there one device that can substitute several others? A tablet can act as a smaller computer, an e-reader, a music player and a phone. They are big enough to search the web and type emails, yet small enough to carry several PDF or electronic guidebooks, eliminating the old, cumbersome text versions, that easily open up in public and quickly and electronically search what ancient monument or historical artifact that you looking at. It can also be used to store offline Google Maps, replacing the hard-to-refold maps utilized by our ancestors. What about a camera? While it isn’t essential to capturing your trip through photos, it is a nice way to preserve your memories and act as visual aids for your long-winded traveling stories, so your friends won’t be lulled off to dreamland, where more interesting things are happening. But do you need a fancy DSLR? Though it would make sense if you were a photographer by profession and that you had some inkling that your travel photos may look better or have monetary value blown up as posters, then bringing your purdy Canon with five different lenses and several filters may make sense. Yet if you are simply trying to quickly snap an image of that dancing monk or the fast moving, stampeding elephant (random, confusing example images, I am aware), then the camera on a high quality Ipad will do just the trick. And with the numerous Instagram filters and options, your photos will be edited and posted in no time. And to be honest, those viewing them online and in person, will have no clue whether you manually shot them on your expensive-device or dirtily shot them on your Ipad. I may get shot for saying this, but as an avid user of DSLRs, I think alot of the quality I see in their pictures is due to tad of elitism on my part.  And when your Ipad storage with additional 64gig flashcard memory are eaten up? Simply upload them to the eponymous Cloud or DropBox and your back to flashing away.

Wawel Palace Cathedral, Krakow.

Wawel Palace Cathedral, Krakow.

Now, this is by no means a concise or all-inclusive list of what you need and what you don’t need for backpack travel (in fact, I am stopping at this point, because I feel I could go on and on and on…). This list does not take into consideration cold weather conditions, dietary restrictions, people with disabilities, and a plethora of many other variables. Since I was traveling and camping, I required a sleeping bag and tent as well. What I hope to accomplish, in some small way, is to push you to reconsider how you travel and what you need to get up and out there, with no excuses. I believe travel comfort is important and can make or break an experience, an outlook of a place or the concept of travel in general for someone. The ease of mobility as a traveler can make spontaneous trips and walks possible and gives you the ability to cover more distance in a day. Both of these factors may improve a traveler’s chances of seeing more and the plausibility of extending their trip. My anonymous friend challenging me to get rid of my bulging bag in exchange for a more reasonable ruck was a rousing revelation. It had me questioning almost every guidebook pack list I found and think about the consequences of having such burdensome behemoth latched inches above my posterior. Though it’s not always possible, considering downsizing what you bring with you on your journey may open up more outside of the box travel approaches and options. Also, knapsacks fit easily into overhead compartments, under train seats and make pretty acceptable pillows.

Vendor, Krakow.

Vendor, Krakow.



The Great Wall at Mutianyu – Not My Cup of Tea

The Great Wall at Mutianyu

The Great Wall at Mutianyu

“It not a Great Wall. It’s an alright wall. It’s the Alright Wall of China.”

-Karl Pilkton, An Idiot Abroad.

After reading information about The Great Wall in his Lonely Planet China Guide and realizing many of the tourist sections of the wall were rebuilt in the 1980s, to include such ancient devices of revelry such as massive, German engineered slides, hawkers selling you skull caps with a single braid of black hair coming out of the back of them and pits filled with suicidal brown bears, Karl was left unimpressed by what some would consider one of the greatest feats of human skill and endurance of all time. Like Mr. Pilkington, I was very wary to see “The Wall”, as I was not interesting in see Great Wall 2.0. Not even 2.0. Mavericks upgrade. Shitty, cheap and simply a money grab.


The GREAT thing about the GREAT Wall is it is humongous. One, I shouldn’t be so judgement, so….yes…one…fine…gentleman attempted to walk the entire length of the wall. For starters, there isn’t just ONE wall. Regardless, He failed. Like not, you were SOOO close. No. He failed miserably. It goes over ice mountain ranges. Like, your ability to walk isn’t how it is in Skyrim in real life, sir. Its Lord of the Ring’s helicopter shot BIG. Back to the Greatness of this, the Chinese government simply doesn’t have enough resources nor care to “tourify” every inch of it and tourists aren’t going to be bothered to trek into the middle of no where to stare at a wall. Or so they think. I wanted to see The Great Wall. Or more so, the Real Great Wall, not the Fake Wall. Luckily there are enough people on the internets that feel the same way.

For all your up-to-date Wall needs, check out:

Huanghuachang, the Great Wall that goes into a river, due to damming was the planned destination. Buses were researched and on a rainy weekend morning I headed out on a somewhat empty bus from Dongzhimen Central Station. Our excitement was a sweet as sugar, but the rain would not melt it. So maybe it was as sweet as honey as I think precipitation has no effect of that sticky substance. Through the outskirt hills of Beijing, in Huirou city. A few stops. Nothing unusual. Faces come on and off. Sits empty and fill. A pair of eyes meet mine.

“You going to Great Wall”




“Oh. It’s closed.”

Pause. From my research I knew that this was an unregulated part of the Wall. This means no ticket booth or official check in procedures. This SHOULD mean no opening or closing time. I was confused and in my confusion, we got off the bus and loaded into his vehicle. It was like so trance. Like trusting the white panel van full of candy.

“Where are we going?”

“To the Great Wall”

“What? I thought it was closed”

“Mutianyu is open”


Mutianyu was one of the horribly touristic sections of The Wall I had wished to never encounter. We had been duped. The man, who was wearing an official bus staff uniform, removed it. He was a Black Taxi Driver and we were at him whim, along with another white couple that sat in the car with us as well. I counted my wad o’ money. I knew that Huanghuacheng was no longer an option anymore, but I was damned if I was going to pay a zillion dollars to go pay a zillion more dollars to hang out with a zillion tourists on a 5 year old’s macaroni art project, deemed The Great Wall. We came to a “reasonable” deal. Exiting the black cab, we were suddenly drenched from above and from all angles, by rain and dripping hawkers. Pretty sure I don’t need a 4 foot statue of Mao made of the finest plastics. No, thank you, that’s awful kind of you, I just don’t think I am in the mood to buy a pet bird or cat or dog or ?. Though we did need an umbrella. Again, hard bargained, including using the line, I live in Beijing, I know how much this should cost, don’t fuck with me (yeah, I totally have no idea how to say that last line, but imagine that reaction). The adult umbrella was ridiculously priced, so we bought two kid ones. It was like walking on a tight rope, balancing the circumference of the small umbrella perfectly above our heads. Through hawkers row, lined with booths, flashing blinding lights into your retina, like maybe if you were blind you wouldn’t be able to see the piles of shit, drinks, t-shirts, shit and more shit being sold. But, to be honest, they are people just trying to scrape by, so I get it. I feel for them, but on a day where the clouds had opened both physically and metaphorically, I had very little patience to gab. Purchased expensive tickets with a glib smile plastered to my face plastered in wet hair. Climbed numerous stairs up and up and up. AND Viola! On the Wall. Or were we?


The fog, which was as thick as being surrounded by a legion of Santa beards, made it difficult to tell exactly where you were. It felt as if we were on a road in the clouds. The rain was actually a blessing in disguise, as it cleaned the wall of most of the tourists and hawkers. Yet, with map in hand, I had alternative plans. I was heading to the greyed out area at the edge of the map. I was going to see the REAL wall. And no, you can’t go beyond this point sign or cement blockade was going to stop me. Up an over the blockade and finally, we were face to face with antiquity. The fog felt more appropriate here, as if it became part of the myth of the wall, something that existed on a scroll in waves of black ink. We stood atop a crumbling tower, one of the many guard towers that appear along the wall. We followed The Wall for a bit. Old growth vegetation fought its way up through the crumbling structure. At points it was hard to tell where The Wall was and if we were just aimlessly meandering, lost in a sea of evergreens. But then a small rock, a patch of rubble would lead us onwards. We walked for 40 minutes until the underbrush, became the overbrush and we had to turned back, in fears of being engulfed. This part, getting to touch the real stone of this magnificent work, the same stones that the builders had assembled hundreds of years ago at the orders of their Emperor, was the pay off. Done with the Real Wall, the rest of the Wall was simply the elaborate pathway back to the bus stop. But wait! The story doesn’t end there!

I had to go to the washroom. Not being completely savvy in ways of the public washroom at tourist sites in China, I thought there’d be toilet paper. There was definitely not. My favorite game ensued. Check your pockets and see what will work. Several receipts and the umbrella cover. FINALLY, I found an alternative use for those things. Velvety soft.


Famished from the walk and not interesting in indulging in the extremely out of place Great Wall Subway or Baskin’ Robbins, we tried the local inn. The food was meh, but it filled the gap. Unfortunately, the slow service led to us missing our bus. No problem, we’ll just cab somewhere and bus from there. Black carred it to a bus stop. A bus stop in the middle of nowhere. Like NOWHERE. Wait. Wait. Wait…..RAIN. NIGHT. Finally. Bus…..bus comes and takes us into Huirou, where we catch a connecting bus back to Beijing.


The Great Wall is an interesting place to visit and can make a wonderful great day trip from Beijing. Just realize what you are getting into, what you want out of the experience and research alternatives. I ended up making it to Huanghuacheng and it was more of the experience that I wanted. Again, if you want to see an easily accessible, no hassle part of the wall, Mutianyu, may fit the bill. One note: Bring some information about The Wall with you, as it will truly enrich the experience.

Tourist fun.

Tourist fun.

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Quick Dos and Do Nots of the Great Wall of China:

DO your research. There are many sections of the Great Wall to see. Make sure you find a section that fits what you want to get out of the wall.

DO NOT listen to people telling you alternative information than watch you researched, especially shifty guys on the bus. They might be simply black taxis trying to get you to pay exorbitant fares to go with them. The bus will get you there.

DO Bring supplies. Food, water, rain coats, toilet paper. It’s for sale there, but at three times the price. PLUS, I don’t think toilet paper is for sale out there. It’s just a good idea to bring it with you everywhere.

DO NOT listen to the DON’T WALK HERE signs. They are simply trying to prevent you from walking on the part of the Wall they haven’t charged people to walk on. It has nothing to do with Wall preservation. Do you see anywhere else “preservation” happening?

DO bring info about the Wall. It’s a magnificent marvel, but context makes each part of it that much more awe ridden.

DO NOT expect that you will be alone on the tourist parts of the Wall. It will be you and 85 billion people trying to get a picture of the pristine Wall, without dude picking his nose not in the shot.


The Great Wall – Mutianyu (慕田峪)

Cost: 45 Yuan


The fastest way is to take bus 916快 (express) or 916, which run from Dongzhimen to Huairou Bus Station first, get off at the terminus (or Qingchun Road North End or Huairou North Street), Walk to the bus stop on the diagonal corner of the intersection and take bus H23, H24 or 936 (Huairou to Dongtai) and get off at Mutianyuhuandao. Again, these buses’ numbers change frequently. Best to show the symbols of Mutianyu to the bus driver.