“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” -Mark Twain

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Hong Kong and Macau

Woah boy, do I owe you blog post.  I haven't updated since 2015.  I owe a bit of Madrid, some Thailand, Switzerland, Milan, Paris, and Mumbai.  For now I'll focus on Hong Kong and Macau.  This trip - more than any other - was chock full of learning experiences and I just had to get words on paper.  Whenever someone asks about this trip, I just want to point them to a blog so they can understand just how this journey went, and even after years of traveling, you can always learn something new.

HK happened quickly.  Airfare sale was spied and the ticket was bought immediately.  It worked out this year just Istanbul 2012 did: fare sale over Thanksgiving weekend allowed us to take few vacation days off work.  Bonus: we'd miss Black Friday insanity and have Chinese turkey, aka, roasted goose, for our Thanksgiving feast.  After the Mumbai trip I came to appreciate a solo hotel room.  In Mumbai that was possible.  In Hong Kong, notsomuch.  We're not made of money.  Basic Holiday Inn rooms were going for $250/night and that was with a Friends and Family discount.  I stumbled upon a 3 bedroom apartment on AirBnB in quite neighborhood on Hong Kong Island and across the street from a subway line.  Kitchen, washing machine, balcony with a water view, and most importantly, since we were a trio on this trip, one room for each person.  We paid under $1000 in total, which made this an ideal choice.  Listen, I'm a night owl and not a morning person.  I'm the last to get up and the last to bed.  Separate rooms are a relief for everyone involved if you can be on your own schedule in solitude without disturbing anyone else.  I tend to get overstimulated by too much activity, noise, and goings-on (like not being a morning person, but all day), so to be able to shut a door in quiet solace helps bring the volume in my brain back down to a reasonable level.

Usually my routine involves sleeping on the plane, checking in, napping, then going out.  This time we hit the ground running.  Ever since being scammed in Buenos Aires by a taxi driver upon arrival, I've always scheduled a private car/pickup at the airport.  Mumbai spoiled me for a comfortable Mercedes, so we did this again in Hong Kong.  The cost split between a few people was unnoticeable once we arrived, were escorted to our car, and driven across the island in comfort.  Worth every penny instead of stepping off a plane 20 hours later and having to navigate a new subway system.  Lately I've been relying on a concierge service provided through my Citi AAdvantage credit card (which gets me Admirals Club lounge access +2 guests which I will never give up).  In the past, the concierge service helped me book two hard-to-get restaurant reservations in Paris, so I turned to them again for the car service.  Upon my request, they triple-bid a car service and HongKongShuttle.com gave us the best rate by far.

Back to our schedule... we arrived on Wednesday, were delivered to the apartment, and really did hit the ground running.  We had plans to have tea at the Peninsula Hotel at 2.  Carrie has carefully detailed the food and experience at the Peninsula on her blog so I can skip the pictures.  It was nice, and finally a chance to relax.  Well-worn silver, tiny treats, and the obligatory champagne lead.

Go Cubs Go!
We explored the idea of doing a hop on/hop off bus pass on one of those double-decker buses.  The three of us bought a pass, with Kat getting a 48 hour pass (Carrie and I had other plans the next day).  In hindsight, if you're doing to do this, then don't schedule anything else for that day.  We only managed to take advantage of the bus to get us to Victoria Peak (the bus ticket included a pass to the Victoria Peak tram and able to skip that ticket line).  After Flying the W over Hong Kong, we had a food tour to catch, which was 4 hours long.  Fantastic, but that cut into our bus tour time.  We explored around Mong Kok neighborhood during our food tour (Thanksgiving Day roasted goose and snake soup!), then hopped back on the bus to get to the Peninsula to catch the night tour bus.  It just so happened that the night tour (that we paid extra for) was the same route as the regular daytime blue line bus tour.  We could have saved some money here.  The next day when Carrie and I headed to Disneyland, Kat took advantage of her Day 2 bus ticket and toured all around the city.  She wasn't even the first person back to the apartment that night!  I may not opt for a bus tour in all cities I visit, but it is a good chance to get from point A to B and do some sightseeing while sitting down.

Mystic Point at HK Disneyland
Friday took us to Disneyland.  This was Carrie's day to plan.  She was going with our without Kat and I, so I decided to join her.  I've never been to any other Disney property outside Orlando, let alone an amusement park in another country.  Like all things in navigating Hong Kong, you have to be a dummy to not be able to find your way around the city.  Disney was no exception.  The park even had its own train line.  I've never experienced a more sophisticated infrastructure than in HK and we were all thoroughly impressed with how easy it was to navigate, and how clean and comfortable the trains were, including all the pedways.  America, you have some major catching up to do.  Disney was like Bizarro World... everything was the same but just slightly different.  Sadly there was no Pirates of the Caribbean ride, but there is a Jungle Cruise, the Tarzan Treehouse replaced the Swiss Family Robinson treehouse (I want to live in there!), and the Haunted Mansion was replaced by the Mystic Point mansion which I absolutely LOVED!  Ghosts don't exist in Chinese culture, so Mystic Point was a story about a professor and his naughty monkey companion who opens a charmed box and releases magical light that took us on a journey through time.  Very well done.  Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in HK was the Grizzly Gulch coaster ride and it had a few surprises thrown in!  I won't spoil it for you, but this HK ride is even better than the Orlando version!  If you want to delve into details, Carrie has the info here.

In the meantime, Kat journeyed with us to the Disney train connection, where we got off and she continued to the end of the line to see the Big Buddha.  Carrie and I didn't do this until the last day of our trip.  I didn't make it an entire day through Disney, as I tuckered out at about 4 and headed back to the apartment.  Carrie stayed for the night parades and lights.  If I had to do it all over, I would have gone to the Big Buddha in the morning and met Carrie later at Disney to see the night lights.  Our experience 3 days later at the Big Buddha had us standing in lines for hours to get a ticket then another hour to get on the gondola, then another hour to get back.  At that point we were lugging our carry-on luggage and I had a major indentation in my shoulder from dragging around a large tote bag with a vase that I had purchased in Macau.  I could have gone to the Buddha 3 days sooner, not been lugging the bag, and not waited in lines as long.  But in the end, we saw what we wanted to see, so I hope to save you some time with logistics.  The Buddha is near the airport, so we opted to go to the statue first then head right to our flight, hence our carry-on bags.
Big Buddha

Which brings me another infrastructure point: the airport express train line.  It runs from Central to the airport.  And if you were like us and had an evening flight but nowhere to put your bags after checking out of your lodging, you can go to the airport express train terminal in Central and CHECK IN YOUR SUITCASES TO YOUR FLIGHT!  I kid you not.  The train station had airline desks and computers so we checked in to our flight from across town, saw our bags get toted off, they were put on a train, and appeared in Chicago 24 hours later.  Magic.  The HK transportation system is so efficient that it blew my mind.  There is no reason why Chicago couldn't do this with the Blue Line that runs from downtown to O'Hare and just tack an extra luggage car to the back of the El train.

While I'm talking about infrastructure, let's discuss HK culture.  It's the most densely-populated city in the world, home to 8.5 million residents.  We were there for 5 days.  Not once did I hear a car horn.  It took 5 days until we saw a police officer.  Not a lick of trash anywhere, including anything washed up along shore.  Nothing.  The trains didn't smell like urine, no one ate or drank in on the subway, the floors were very clean, and signage was abundant, including guide lines to stand off to the side to permit others to exit the train car first.  Glass partitions separated the train platform from the tracks, a major point if you life in NY or Chicago and are used to delays due to people jumping, falling, or being pushed in front of trains.  *sigh*  Why aren't all subways built this way??

Tea at The Peninsula
So some thoughts about food... A few things were mandatory: Tea at the Peninsula, a food tour, lunch at Amber, and dim sum.  We chose The Peninsula because of the time-honored tradition of high tea there, done in a traditional British manor.  The scones were worth writing home about.  The silverware was so pure and heavy I was tempted to pocket them.  No worries, nothing was taken, but it did give me flashbacks to my childhood of polishing our mother's silver.  Tip: Tea starts at 2, and we were in line just after 1:30.  They don't take reservations, so be prepared to wait.  We were seated a few minutes past 2 with no problems.  And dress up a little.  Call me old fashioned, but I just because you're a tourist doesn't warrant jeans and a t-shirt.

Snake soup
Also mandatory on the food front: A food tour.  We took the Kowloon tour via Hong Kong Food Tours because it was a bit more adventurous.  We spent Thanksgiving Day eating roasted goose!  It was a long 4 hours and we were stuffed, but the group was small and made for good conversation.
 We got a bit of history, a bit of pastry, tofu, dim sum, snake soup (yep!) and a stroll through the seafood market.  You won't need any other big meals this day if you're on this tour.

Dim sum was another obligatory item on the food checklist.  Since we got acquainted with a few new bites via the food tour, we felt comfortable venturing into a dim sum restaurant on our own.  We had heard of Tim Ho Wan through other foodie blogs and knew about their Michelin star.  There are a few branches throughout the city; we frequented the shops in Central and North Point.  It's well worth the stop!  The restaurant has a green sign written in Chinese, and no identifiable markings in English.  You know you're in the right place by seeing every table packed with diners, a line outside, and a tiny red Michelin sticker on the door.  We even saw a few other lone tourists looking at their phones, looking lost, and helped them out with a shout of, "You're in the right place."
Tim Ho Wan dim sum

Something that Carrie and I do whenever possible is dine at one of the World's 50 Best Restaurants if there's one in the city we're visiting.  Hong Kong happened to have a few, so we chose the best in town: Amber.  Once in a while we can splurge on a full dinner tasting menu with wine pairing, but last I checked, the money tree in my living room window was dead.  So we opted for the Wine Lunch which kept the individual tab under $200.  It was a lovely long lunch and our table had a great view of the dining room.  The restaurant captain was from Paris and eau-so-very French at that.  A table across the way was full of businessmen (and one woman) who appeared to be a mix of French and Chinese diners.  They also opted for the wine pairing lunch, and the three of us were appalled at their inability to finish their glasses of wine.  So much good vino left on the table!  Lightweights.  Amber had a standard waiter, a bread person, a sommelier, busers, water person, etc.  The captain roamed the room keeping a sharp eye on the goings-on.  At one point, one of the French gentlemen at the opposite table got up and helped himself to the bread basket that was on the service station at the center of the room, and returned to the table.  *GASP*  Serious faux pas!  The captain caught this and approached the man, both talking in very hushed French tones, perhaps delivering a scolding.  As a guest, you don't help yourself to anything but the restroom in a 3M-star restaurant.  A schooled Frenchmen should know this.  The captain knew this.  We knew this.  Eventually the captain stopped at our table to chat, and we hinted that we saw what happened, and that we knew it wasn't kosher.  He rolled his eyes and shook his head toward the table.  Mind your manners, people!  It may seem like a small gesture, but in an industry and restaurant that prides itself on delivering service, and following protocol, helping yourself and stepping on the staff's toes is a big no-no.

Besides eating, we did do a bit of shopping.  Okay, I did a lot of shopping, Carrie and Kat did a bit of shopping.  Kat and I were set on hitting the Jade Market, and we had a great time, especially since we went early one Saturday morning as soon as they opened and practically had the place to ourselves.  It took a while to get a feel for how to identify the real versus fake jade.  The fake glass "jade" was easily identifiable by the sheer volume of items on display on the tables.  If it's piles high, it's
I use this method at home now.
probably cheap and easily manufactured.  But that's not to stop you from buying something you like.  Just haggle hard.  Be prepared to walk away because chances are there are five other stalls selling the same thing.  Shop around first to get a feel for pricing, then go back to the stall you want to deal with.  A lot of stalls are owned by the same family or groups.  The real jade can be spotted by looking for the stalls with just a few items, and locals huddled around.  Once I figured this out, I also realized that these dealers don't haggle as much.  Their prices don't drop as easily, and they're happy to wave you off and not make a sale at all.  I landed at a stall near the rear that was selling beautiful light green Burmese jade.  I picked out a bracelet, beaded necklace, and a small wheel-like pendant.  At first I couldn't get the bracelet on my arm.  Too small.  The woman shook her head and put a small plastic bag over my hand, then slipped the bracelet over it.  Magic!!  The jewelry went on and off with ease.  Her prices were higher than the fake stuff, but the value was fine for me and I was happy with my purchase.  It's very much worth making a stop here in Kowloon (north of the Temple Street Market) if you're a fan of jewelry.  Plus I walked out with two blue glazed ceramic foo dogs to boot.

Faberge phoenix at the Wynn Cotai
We also decided to spend one day in Macau.  It's another independent Chinese territory just an hour's ferry ride away.  We didn't plan much for this.  Figured we'd just head down to the ferry, buy a ticket, and be on our way.  Lesson: Set aside one day for this and don't make any other plans.  It took nearly two hours to get tickets, go through passport control, board, sail, disembark, back through passport control, and we were in Macau.  And... this is where we really should have planned more.  We had no idea how to get from the ferry port to the old city center.  Didn't see a taxi stand.  Had no idea how far the city center was (is that a mile on the map, or five?).  After wandering a bit we saw free casino shuttle buses lined up and figured we'd just get on one that would bring us nearest to the old center, and we could hoof it.  We saw a bus for the Wynn, and knew that casino was near where we wanted to go.  And hey, the Wynn is a classy joint.  We figured we could trust it.  It wasn't like getting on the bus to Circus Circus ifyouknowhatimean.  If we got to the Wynn, somewhere a concierge would help us out.  So on the bus we go, aaaaaand over a bridge we go.... away from the city!!

We didn't realize that the Wynn also had a casino on the other side of the territory on the other island and we got on the wrong bus!  Whoops!  We were headed to Cotai.  Welp... this is where so often we realized that the three of us developed an unspoken dynamic.  Kat was always ready to walk up to any hotel concierge and request information and ask for directions.  Carrie was good at spotting landmarks and signage that we needed to keep an eye on.  And I usually would get us from Point A to B (okay, except this one time in Macau).  After a lovely spin around the Wynn Cotai, we hailed a cab from taxi stand and headed into old Cotai.  I had previously flagged a traditional Portuguese restaurant on this side of the city and it was time for lunch.  The cab didn't have any idea where we wanted to go, so I sat up front with Google Maps and directed him.  We found the restaurant on a pedestrian side street and loaded up on Portuguese goodness.  This was a nice break from Chinese food which was frequently full of bones and chicken feet (apparently the Chinese cuisine is big on texture and working for your food).  Another taxi got us back to the old colonial center of Macau where we hit up a couple churches and historic sights, and decided to head back to Hong Kong.

Except we also should have purchased our return ticket that morning.  The ferry back was out of space and we stood in standby lines in the ferry terminal to try to get on the next ferry.  We had reservations for a traditional Chinese junk Victoria Harbor cruise that evening.  We did get on an earlier ferry, but missed our cruise boarding time.  All this took another 3-4 hours to get back to Hong Kong.  At the Aqua Luna cruise dock, I explained the situation to the host, and she was happy to let us on to a later cruise.  We had paid for a more expensive, earlier cruise that we had missed, so in exchange, she agreed to allow us additional free drinks on the later cruise.  Woot!
It was no hassle at all and the staff was very accommodating.  We arranged to board the cruise on the Kowloon side, but since our plans had all been re-arranged, we wanted to actually disembark on the Central side.  Again I spoke to the cruise host, explained the entire situation, she spoke to the captain, and they agreed to make an exception for us and let us stay on until we reached the Central dock later in the evening.  Aqua Luna had been double-accommodating and I have to remember to leave them a rave TripAdvisor review.  The cruise was so relaxing, sitting on the front of the boat, reclining with a glass of wine and a warm breeze and staring at the gorgeous Hong Kong skyline.  For as crazy as that day was, everything still worked out.

We combed Hong Kong.  By the end of the week we were exhausted and not looking forward to 11 hours in cattle class.  Fortunately Carrie and I applied for upgrades and we scored seats in Business Class (I love free pajamas and lay-flat beds!).  We had a layover in LAX, and Carrie was my guest in the Admirals Club lounge.  After 10 hours in flight, I used the lounge showers to freshen up and feel a bit more like myself before getting on the red eye to O'Hare.  I may never give up lounge access.  Free wine, snacks, soups, salads, showers, power charging stations, and friendly service.  Bless them.

Hong Kong was a success.  I learned so much on this trip.  Just when I thought I had traveling figured out, it throws a curveball and you learn on your feet again.  I'd happily go back.  It's friendly, clean, organized, well-marked, cosmopolitan, international, and just beautiful.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Madrid: Tapas, Wine, Sherry, and Nun Cookies

We have been in Spain for five days and I've finally found the time to sit down and write. Our arrival routine was typical, dropped off our items at the hotel and quickly found lunch.  A lovely start to our gastro-cation involved an octopus sandwich, carmelized duck liver on toast, and homemade sausage. We napped hard afterward and prepared for our tapas tour later that night.  Our hotel was perfectly situated located in the Centro region of Madrid, equally between the Palacio Real and Parque Retiro. We were steps from the Plaza Mayor which was a great point of reference for finding our way around.  On the way to the tour we swung through the Plaza, and I promptly located a shoe store that has been hand-making espadrilles for nearly 175 years.  I walked out with two pairs. 

My grandparents were ecstatic that we were taking this trip and Opa gave us lots of recommendations, including eating at La Botín, the oldest restaurant in the world, in Madrid.  We found the restaurant for future reference, but never fit it into our schedule. They gave us lots of recommendations, some that we were able to commit to, and some that just didn't fit into our plans.  And I realize that when I give other people advice about what to see and do and eat in other countries or cities, they may never follow through, and it's not personal.  Sometimes the plans just don't coincide.  But I am making a mental list of other locations in Spain to visit thanks to Oma and Opa, which we'll attempt on our next trip here.  Oh yes. There will be another!

I had leaned Castilian Spanish in high school and college and thank goodness.  I was more capable of understanding Madrileño Spanish much better than the Mexican or puertoriqueño Spanish back home.  The Spanish is flowing more easily now and I'm excited when I learn new phrases and words. "¡Una otra ronda!" to call for another round of drinks!

The tapas tour was a great way to start off the trip.  We visited four tapas bars representing the different regions of Spain.  The first was one that served cider, where we learned how to pour it from a great height into a glass.  The higher the pour, the more bubbles are introduced.  Spanish cider is naturally flat.  Much wine was consumed group the night, and olives! I typically hate olives, but the green Spanish ones were very tasty.  We had anchovies on potato chips, dogfish bites, chickpeas with tripe, morcilla, jamón iberico, croquettes, and French fries covered in blue cheese sauce.  The group was merry and we made great conversation.  There were couples that joined us from Finland, Dallas, Canada, and Australia.

The next day we headed out for some sightseeing and a nosh.  Breakfast was at a cafe nearby where I had a tasty bit of toast with olive oil, crushed tomato, and ham.  This would become a theme, tomato on bread.  Lunch was a pop into the San Miguel Market that was a smorgasbord of tapas stands.  Locals and tourists filled the place, and it was a great stop to browse if we didn't know what we wanted to eat.  This was my first sample of Vermut, a dry crisp cocktail best enjoyed mid-day.  Next we headed to the Temple of Debod, which is an Egyptian temple gifted to Spain for their assistance in building the Aswan Dam.  The temple closed for midday at 2, so we had a respite in the shaded park that surrounded the grounds, as the day was hot and sunny.  

We had considered visiting the Palace next, but a snack was in order, and nearby was a tapas bar we had visited the night before and remembered it was quite good.  We saddled up to the bar and ordered white wines, and the barkeep Martín promptly presented us with a plate of paella and two forks.  Delicious!  We got to talking to him (in Spanish) and made a fast friend.  He was so passionate about Spanish food and wine, and we told him of our travel plans.  He approved, and kept feeding us more tapas selections from the bar, the cold marinated mussels being my favorite. As we sat, talked, and laughed with Martín, in walked a couple from Canada that was part of our tour the previous night.  They joined us at the bar and instead of visiting the palace, we stayed for two more rounds of wine and more tapas with our new friends. 

The next stop out of the tapas bar was to find the nun cookies.  There is a convent of cloistered nuns that bakes cookies, but finding the entrance is the first challenge.  The Canadians had a detailed map and we had already done previous research.  We found the front door of the convent.  A homeless lady that was perched on the convent steps had shuffled over to help us, and rang the bell, giving us instructions to wait 5 minutes and assured us the door would open.  Sure enough, it had and she gave us directions to navigate the convent halls.  We found a small door that hosted a lazy Susan with a menu of cookies.  The nun's voice could be heard - but not seen - from behind the revolving wooden door, and she passed through a box of cinnamon cookies.  Just as we were taking our purchase, the Canadians showed up right behind us! We helped them purchase their cookies, and were all giddy with excitement that we had found the elusive nun cookies.  A quick taste before dinner back at our hotel, and we made our way to the Prado museum for the free admission after 6. The major attraction here were the works of Goya ("The Third of May") and other notable Spanish artists, such as El Greco and Velazquez.

At this point, a cold was coming on. Someone at work had a cold just a day before I left, and behold... I caught it.  Again.  I need to be in quarantine at work when someone gets sick.  I was desperately hoping this wouldn't be like a Rome situation where I was barely functional.  But I had my medicinal reinforcements, and hope.  We dined outside on the Plaza Santa Ana on a warm summer evening and planned our next day. 

The next morning, the cold really had set in.  Ugh.  Regardless, we had things to do and places to go.  Back to the shoe store for more espadrilles! Then on to the Palace finally.  Some of the rooms rival those of Versailles.  I have never seen their equal.  It was impressive indeed.  This second evening was a required visit to the Reina Sophia museum.  We had time to kill before the time of free admittance began, so we walked across the street to the Atocha train station.  This is the largest station in Spain and we were surprised at how beautiful it was.  Rain forest vegetation filled the central atrium, and a pool with hundreds of turtles encircled it.  They were entertaining to watch.  This was also the sight of the deadly train bombings in Madrid a few years back that they equate to their 9/11 and England's 7/7.  Yet onward into the Reina Sophia where I had one goal: to see Picasso's Guernica. In 1937, Hitler lent Franco air equipment to practice bombing raids, and the Basque town of Guernika was the guinea pig. The painting depicts the suffering and destruction of the town. Meanwhile, the museum also housed other famous Picasso pieces, including Spain's greatest surrealist works from Dalí and his contemporaries, and Juan Miró. I was pleased.

The night finished with a tapas crawl of our own, no special place in particular.  This time we were really on our own at night to navigate the world of the tapeando.  Our first stop was pleasant enough, and on the way out we passed a wine shop.  It was cute so we stepped in to talk to the proprietor. This conversation was mostly in Spanish, and i have to pause to say that although Carrie has never had a formal lesson in the Spanish language, her comprehension is amazing.  She is picking up lots of words and her ear is keen.  She enthusiastically wants to learn the language now.  The shop owner described the many different wine regions of the country, including sherry, made in Jerez, and suggested if we wanted to try sherry, there was a sherry bar around the corner.  He drew us a little map on a business card and off we went!

This bar hadn't changed since the 1930s.  Stained walls, dusty bottles of sherry on the shelves, and the sherry itself was served from wooden barrel taps.  Two dogs sat behind the counter while an old black cat held court on nearby table.  No photos were allowed, a rule in place since the civil war to protect the Republican patrons from Franco spies.  We enjoyed our sherry (me more than Carrie), and two gentlemen next to us began engaging us in conversation.  Carrie referred to one of them as Phil Collins as he was the spitting image.  They were smitten with us. The night had to come to an end as we finished up with obligatory chocolate and churros.  

Madrid tugged at my heart strings for sure.  It was a very easy and comfortable city to settle into. Everyone was more than friendly and forgiving. The city is clean and certainly doesn't feel it's age despite what the historic architecture reflects. I am happy here, and have many more adventures to come around the country these next couple weeks.

Monday, July 27, 2015

This is 40: Spain Edition

My family traveled the world when they were young, long before I was born.  My travel bug was inherited from my Oma and Opa who lived in Europe and toted the kids around nearly every weekend to the far corners of the continent.  Many of my mother's souvenirs were dolls in traditional national dress from each country they visited.  Growing up, I was drawn to one doll in particular.  She had a veil of black lace, an elaborate dress, and tiny wooden castanets in each hand.  She was from Spain.  As I grew up, Cabbage Patch Dolls were becoming popular.  Perhaps I was about 8 years old when I asked my dad for one.  But not just any Cabbage Patch Doll... oh no, I wanted one from the World Traveler collection, the Spanish Matador, complete with passport.

At the same time, I was immersing myself in Egyptology.  One day I would visit, and I made that dream come true in 2006.  Now, there was a second dream that I had yet to realize.  This dream was Spain.  I'll never be able to explain why my heart was drawn to Spain.  In junior high, I was picking out my high school courses, eager to enroll in classes that the "big kids" got to take.  The language courses were French and Spanish.  Growing up in a French-Canadian city in Rhode Island, I had heard enough French (everybody calm down, I'm fully aware of the difference between Quebecois French and Parisian French), and what would be come a personality trait - choosing a path contrary to popular opinion - I quickly enrolled in Spanish.

This year I turn 40, and I wanted this trip to be somewhat different than the ones I've taken in the past.  Sightseeing would be secondary.  Spain has a lot going for it these days.  They've been rescued from a Greek-like economic disaster.  Although unemployment remains dramatically high, the economy needs our dollars.  The ETA has laid down arms, opening the Basque country to the world.  The Euro is lowest against the Dollar than has been seen in years.  Spain boasts more Michelin-starred restaurants per capita than any other country in the world, namely in the very same Basque country.  With so many restaurants on the World's Top 50 list, it was high time that we spent our time and money on gastronomic tourism.  And what goes well with food?  Wine.  Spanish wine.  Rioja and cava.  And it shall be done.

We have spent years discussing, and 5 months of planning, as we're mere weeks away from our two-week Spanish adventure.  We won't be experiencing the land of flamenco, paella, or gypsy singing.  We won't be climbing the citadel walls of Toledo, or - sadly this time - not basking in the beauty of the Alhambra.  It's been decided that we'll need to make multiple visits to Spain.  This time, our journey is through the tapas bars, vineyards, world-renowned restaurants, cider houses, seaside shellfish towers, cava on the Mediterranean, and enough jamon to survive the zombie apocalypse and then some.  It is about viniculture and food.  With a little Gehry, Picasso, Dali, Gaudi, and Goya thrown in for good measure.  How did we get here?  And how did we decide where to go, with so many wine options in Spain?

It's no secret to those close to us that we're fans of good food and wine.  We try to take advantage of every opportunity to collect knowledge from an expert.  We had success with this plan before, so at the beginning of our dinner at Alinea late last year, we asked the sommelier for recommendations to wineries in northeastern Spain that we should visit.  By the end of our dinner, he presented us with a list of his favorite bodegas in the Rioja, Penedes, and Priorat regions.  Bingo: We had a place to start our trip planning!  A wine and food tour of Spain based some of Chicago's very own recommendations.  Next Restaurant is currently "playing" their Tapas menu, based on Achatz' and Beran's tapas research with some of Spain's legendary chefs.  Yeah, so... their Twitter feed was also a solid base for restaurant recommendations.

I urge you to follow along on this adventure.  We'll be two gals in a car (!) on a Spanish road trip through cities, farmland, from Atlantic to Mediterranean, and through the Pyrenees.  Our journey begins in Madrid, where, after our chance at a siesta, we'll start our vacation immediately with a guided tapas tour.  This will give us the lay of the land, er, tapas bars, to get our bearings on how to order, what to order, how to pay, and how to blend in.  Our total three days in Madrid will likely involve a visit to the Prado and Reina Sofia museums, the Royal Palace, the Temple of Deblod (yay, Egyptian!), and definitely involve more tapas, late dinners, and even later churros con chocolate.  And shopping.  My Desigual card is ready to go.

The car trip begins when we drive north out of Madrid and head to Elciego, in the heart of La Rioja
Marques de Riscal
wine country, to stay at the Marques de Riscal winery, with the hotel designed by Frank Gehry (who also designed Chicago's Pritzker Pavilion). We booked a package deal here for one night's stay, tour of the winery, tasting menu in their Michelin-star restaurant, and breakfast.  And more wine.  Maybe squeeze in some time in the spa.  With wine.  Maybe we'll be too busy with the wine.  This is our birthday treat to ourselves, as Carrie and I are both 40 this year and this is our dual celebration trip.  One night in Riscal is enough for our pocketbooks, so the next day we head further up Rioja country to the heart of the region, Haro.  We have a tour and tasting booked at Lopez de Heredia, which is partners with the Guggenheim Museum (more Gehry!) in Bilbao, so we'll collect our free tickets here.  We'll also try to find some time to book tastings in town at Muga, Cune, La Rioja Alta, and/or Ramon Bilbao.  Perhaps one of the most interesting accommodations we booked is in Haro, at Los Augustinos, a hotel built in the 1300s that also used to be a convent, military garrison, and hospital.

Our next move brings us to the very heart of the culinary world, in San Sebastian.  We haven't booked anything outside of meals in this town because, well, we're here to eat.  The food is the star.  One afternoon lunch has us booked at Arzak, the #17 restaurant in the world, which has maintained 3 Michelin stars for a record 30 years.  We'll leave the evening open to tapas-hopping (tapeando?), followed by another stellar lunch the next day at Extebarri, located in the hillsides outside Bilbao.  I was on the fence about eating here, until I met the rep from Ramon Bilbao winery at the Rioja Wine and Tapas festival in Chicago (research!), and he insisted we visit.  I'm all for meat cooked over an open fire, which is what Extebarri, #13 in the world, is known for.  We'll use our free passes at the Guggenheim this day, then head back to San Sebastian to lay around the famous beach and attack more tapas before we head out of town to visit a sagardotegia, which is Basque for "cider house."  From what we've learned, hard cider has been brewed in this region for hundreds of years.  Fans of cider that we are, we're not passing up this opportunity.  I might change my tune after driving in Spanish traffic, but so far I'm happy we'll be renting a car so we can explore so many of these special places.

At this point in the trip, a mini-vacation likely be necessary, so we'll be high-tailing it through Pamplona and Zaragosa on the way to Sitges, which is a seaside resort on the Mediterranean, just south of Barcelona.  We were sold on the beachfront hotel when they noted cava was free with breakfast.  Easy like Sunday morning.  Beach and bubbly and some relaxation will recharge us for the rest of the trip.  A pass through cava country in Penedes on the way to Barcelona will allow some time for tastings (shaking things up a bit from red wine and cider).  We'll be in Barcelona during the Catalan national holiday, so we're looking forward to what festivities we'll run into.  We'll likely keep our sightseeing here to the Picasso Museum and La Sagrada Familia, focusing on leisurely lunches and more tapas.  Carrie found a most-excellent hotel with a bakery in the lobby, so waking up to fresh baked-bread will be an added bonus.

Our last day will be a morning drive back to Madrid to catch our flight to Berlin for the night.  Berlin.  Yeah.  Didn't see that one coming?  We both used frequent flyer miles for flights (and for the car rental), so connecting in Berlin back to Chicago was $283 cheaper in taxes than connecting in London.    We don't care that Berlin isn't on the way back, or a bit out of the way.  That's $283 saved.  That's a good meal out.

So there you have it.  Our 40th year birthday celebration in Iberia.  I owe my Oma and Opa an apology for not visiting Toledo (which they spoke so highly of) or making a swing through Portugal or the Costa del Sol while we're there, as we only have 2 weeks, but I do thank them for the spirit of travel that I only began to appreciate as an adult.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Value of Tech on the Road

Thailand.  I'm in love.  This winter saw my second trip to the country and I can see why friends love it so.  Sunny, warm, inexpensive, friendly, and yes, safe.  Although I try not to visit most countries more than once (Mexico being a glaring exception because it's so close to home and quick/easy/cheap to get to), I learned the value of returning to a familiar place.  Orientation is faster.  Remember a few more words than last time.  Knowing how much that cab ride really should cost.

This time, I decided to tackle a couple more new adventures, such as navigating Chiang Mai's songthaew system.  They're the red pickup trucks that roam the streets with a couple benches in back.  You flag them down, tell the driver through the window where you want to go.  He either waves you off, or nods for you to get on.  Don't take offense if he says no, he likely isn't going the direction you are.  It helps to ask the fare before you get it.  Not knowing Thai isn't an issue, just wave a 20 baht bill and see if he nods.  Done.  Fare set.  Hop in back!  When you've arrived at your destination, he'll either slow down and pull over, or you can knock on the back window or ring the buzzer on the ceiling indicating when you want to stop.  Hand him the bill through the front window and you're set!  I'd advise that you have a reasonable sense of direction, though.  It can be difficult to know when you've arrived at your destination when you've never been to where you're going before.  This where some tech helped out.

Before I ventured out, I staked out the area I was heading to on Google street view so I'd recognize my surroundings when I arrived (Wararot Market!).  The TripAdvisor City Guides app showed my progress on our ride over with its offline maps with real-time location tracking (without using the phone's data plan!).  Google Maps has also been recently updated to make maps available offline, so I'm eager to test this out overseas later this summer.  City Apps syncs with your TripAdvisor profile so all saved locations show up on the offline map.

One of my favorite and necessary apps on the road is TripIt.  It's an itinerary-building app to keep day-by-day details of flights, hotel reservations, tours, directions, maps, notes, links, and has a budget tracker.  The data also works offline, so when I'm checking into my hotel or flight, the app is immediately available to recall confirmation numbers.  Or remembering where to meet the food tour guide in the market.  If you subscribe to the Pro version, it tracks your frequent flyer and hotel reward stay points, plus alerts you to flight and gate changes.  The minute I begin planning a trip, I start a new TripIt itinerary.  Adding info is a breeze.  Just forward you email confirmations to a plans@tripit.com and the itinerary automatically populates.

I didn't think I'd need to sign up for an international calling plan before I left, but it turned out I needed my phone more than planned.  A $5 international plan on Sprint would have saved me about $35 off my bill, so note to self next time.  Confirming restaurant reservations, calling for a new van when our driver never showed up, and connecting with friends meeting up is when a good old fashioned phoned call came in handy.  Text messages are considered part of a voice plan so if you turn off your data, texting should still work.  Just remember that outgoing texts usually cost more than incoming ones.

XE Currency app is also one of my favorites.  It's great in a pinch when trying to calculate currency conversions on the fly.  Sometimes I keep my data signal on my phone on but only allow it for certain apps.  XE is one of those that I'll allow.  When you're overseas and using data apps on your phone, try to keep the time short, and know what you're looking for and need before you open an app.

GateGuru has been helpful when navigating gigantic airports like Hong Kong, Seoul Incheon, or Beijing.  When I have a layover, the first thing I need off the plane is Starbucks, followed by some quality airport shopping (I go gaga over airport shopping, no idea why).  Connect to the airport wifi if you can, and use GateGuru to locate a coffee shop, airline lounge, ATMs, and other amenities.

Lastly, before I leave home and am preparing for a big trip, I use PackTheBag, a packing app.  When I begin planning a trip, I set up the packing list and set out a suitcase.  Whenever I think of something to bring with, I toss it in the suitcase and check the item off the packing list.  Next trip: remember to pack the wine bottle packing materials.  This is a hint for the next blog entry.  Enjoy!

Beijing Day 5: Summer Palace on a Clear, Sunny Day

Our last day plan was to visit the Summer Palace.  An ancient canal ran from central Beijing out to the palace, and fortunately we picked an excellent day to take the slow boat to China.  The rains of the past week cleared the thick smog and we were able to enjoy a warm, clear, sunny day.  I had no idea that Beijing was surrounded by mountains.

The boat ride was a pleasant change from walking, taxis, and subways, and along the canal we passed couples out for a walk, friends strolling, a naked old man sunbathing (I didn't look twice), an man fishing with a trident (I had to look twice), and a girl taking her pet squirrel out for a walk on a leash (I had to stare).  What we didn't find out in our research that the boat ride was cut in half.  The boat docked where we had to exit (we were "shooed" because we didn't realize we get to get off), then followed the crowd to another dock where we boarded our last boat.  This wasn't anything I saw mentioned on TripAdvisor so we were a bit confused about the unannounced transfer.

The total trip was under an hour and left us at the south entrance of the palace grounds in front of a large lake full of rowboats and dragon boats.  Plenty of locals and tourists were out enjoying the grounds and weather, eating ice cream cones and snapping pictures. We climbed the central pagoda of the palace that overlooked the city and it was nice to see the entire metropolis without the smog.

Carrie and I have a tradition finishing our trip with a fantastic meal on the final night.  Usually it's off the Top 50 list, or another highly-rated restaurant.  Our choice this time was TRB, which coincidentally was at the end of the alley of our hutong.  After a week camping in Mongolia, followed by a hot summer week in Beijing, hiking, walking, rain every day, and a 3-star hutong hotel, I was ready to spoil myself.  Tasting menu, wine pairings, linen napkins, Michelin-ranked restaurant. This was long overdue.  

There was something about China.  Two weeks isn't a long time to be away from home, but for some, it really is.  Near the end of the trip I started to feel comfortable being away.  I wasn't ready to go home.  Fortunately, the portion of the return trip I was looking forward to was in First Class.  I settled in to a spacious "cubby" with linens, pillows, and a duvet.  It was a bit odd being the first person to board the plane.  The flight attendant handed me pajamas (which are now my favorite set in which to bum around at home), and shortly after a lovely steak dinner, my bed was made up and I relaxed with some bubbly, Maleficent queued up on the video screen, and a comfortable bed.  The 14 hour flight seemed to only take a few hours.  Breakfast was served while I was in "bed", still cozy in my PJs, brought to me when I roused from sleep and freshened up.  I had every plan to visit Carrie and Danielle during the long flight, but the creature comforts at the front of the plane kept me in place.

I would return to China.  It was fascinating.  A culture so entirely opposite of my own, it was a feast on the eyes and mind. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Visa Saga: Getting a Chinese Visa if You're a US Citizen born in Taiwan

Usually I am the one with the suspect travel documents.  My old passport still had my married name on it so I would travel under that alias and not my current legal/maiden name*.  When I need an entry visa, I prefer to apply in Chicago beforehand so I'm confident I have all my travel documents in order and have time to fix any speedbumps that might appear.  So for the China portion of our next trip, we were a on our guard that we may run into an issue with F's visa.  F was born in Taiwan, moved to the US as a child, was naturalized, and is now a US citizen with a US passport.  You'd think this would be enough, but little did we realize what we were about to get into.

The first issue to arise was Danielle's passport.  When she bought her plane ticket, her passport was about to expire so she applied for a renewal and expedited the process.  She had a new passport in her hands in two weeks.  Excellent.  Then she mailed it via USPS to Carrie in Chicago (certified, signature required) at her office because Carrie was going to take care of her and Danielle's Chinese visas at the local consulate.  This is where it went off the rails.  The downtown Chicago post office lost Danielle's passport package.  Someone signed for it at the post office, but they couldn't locate the package.  We were 6 weeks from departure.  Danielle was distraught and Carrie was on a mission.  She opened a case file at the USPS.  She called daily.  The office manager at her agency said sometimes it takes a few days for packages to go from the local post office to the office buildings... sit tight, it'll come.

It didn't.  Carrie stepped up the pressure.  I don't know how the post office did it, but they found Danielle's passport a week later.  When they realized it contained time-sensitive, legal, and highly personal information, they increased their search.  Carrie was then able to get their visas.

Lesson learned: Send via FedEx or UPS.

While this was going on, I was responsible for getting my and F's visas.  When I arrived at the consulate, they accepted my paperwork.  They handed F's back to me.  No dice.  Since she was born in Taiwan, they considered her a Chinese national so we had to change her application to read original nationality as "China" and not "Taiwan".  "Taiwan is not a country.  China is."  Duly noted.  And since she was a former Chinese national, they wanted a copy of her original Chinese passport and birth certificate.  F said that she nor her parents have these anymore.  And a birth certificate was back in Taiwan.


Could F get into China??

Carrie and I were making a brief road trip to Cedar Point, so in the car we mapped out backup plans to how we could get F into China if she couldn't get an official visa.  72 hour visa waiver?  Change flights?  We had a decision tree.  We had a backup plan.  I filled F in when we returned and told her we'd start with the paperwork and tackle the hard part first: priority was getting that official entry visa!!

I combed TripAdvisor and other travel sites for others in the same position: US citizens born in Taiwan.  Over and over I read that it couldn't be done, they couldn't get a visa.  I wasn't giving up.  There HAD to be a away.  The mission for an entry visa was becoming a full-time job.  F wasn't the only person the planet in this position.  I happened upon a post by a woman who said her husband had the same predicament and was able to get a visa using alternate paperwork, expediting the application, and applying in person.

F and I got together, we combed through her documentation.  She had a copy of an endorsement stamp from her mother's Chinese/Taiwanese passport from when F was a baby, with F's Chinese birth name.  Not the entire passport or the data page, but just the stamped endorsement page.  She had her certificate of citizenship, and the legal paperwork for her name change.  The name on her endorsement match the name on her citizenship certificate which matched the name on her name change document which matched the name on her passport.  We were going to try this again.

As a precaution, we threw money at the problem to expedite the process.  We had enough time, but we wanted to give this priority in the consulate's eyes, plus it was a sign that we meant business.  Additionally, I made 6 more versions of her visa application, noting her original nationality as China and not Taiwan, and adjusting other little details.  If they said an application was incorrect, we had 5 more versions of it in our back pocket signed and ready to put on the table.  This time, F joined me at the consulate.  A sympathetic face may help.

The same gentleman that granted me my visa was at the window again when F and I stepped up days later.  I explained that we were on the same itinerary and they had given me my visa, and I couldn't go alone (white lie).  We walked him through the chain of F's paperwork, from Taiwan to the US, and through her name changes.  He asked her to pronounce her Chinese name so he could write it in Chinese characters on the application.  She was a baby when she left Taiwan so she never learned to write in Chinese.  Good thing she came along because I had no idea how to repeat her name properly.  We told him we were expediting as well, he stamped the application, handed us a receipt and told us to come back in 2 days.

One step closer!  I returned on Monday to pick up the passport and pay for it.  I nearly fell on the floor with relief.  My dad was in town visiting and I brought him with, finally jumping and cheering with joy on the sidewalk when we stepped outside.  F was able to join us in China!!

And, well, if you read the Mongolia and Beijing entries, you'll see she made it.  :)  I didn't want to write about this escapade until we had returned safely and uneventfully from China.  You never know who is monitoring the interwebs so we were playing it safe in case we were stopped/detained in China.  In, out, done.

Lessons learned: When it comes to visas, especially for notoriously strict governments, give yourself PLENTY of time.  Visit the consulate in person, if possible.  Have backup plans.  And don't give up.

* Regarding my own passport issues, my book was full upon returning from China.  Thailand is the next stop in a few months and it wouldn't fit any more stamps.  It was high time to get a new passport and change to my REAL name in the process.  I applied in late September and had it back in a couple weeks.  Well, the book as come back, now I'm waiting for them to return my old passport and supporting ORIGINAL documentation.  I requested a double book of 52 pages instead of 26, which is no extra charge.  You've all been warned, help me fill in this new book!

Beijing Day 4: 798 Art District and Hot Pot

After the a week in the wilderness, Forbidden City, Tienanmen, night market, shopping, and the Great Wall hike, I was exhausted and my knees were in pain.  It was time for Fay to return to the US the next afternoon.  She, Carrie, and Danielle decided to venture out for some more shopping then return in the late morning to finish packing.  After breakfast I climbed back into bed and relaxed with my iPad.  I didn't have the energy.  The plan was to escort Fay through the subway to the airport express train, then the remainder of us would visit the 798 Art District in the northwest of the city.  Knowing we'd be walking all afternoon, the girls went ahead of me and I rested.

Before the 2008 Olympics, Beijing only had two or three subway lines.  Now there are 15 and growing.  The stations are clean, spacious, modern, and everything is written and spoken in Mandarin and English.  Once you've ridden a subway line outside the US, they're really the same everywhere.  And at 2 Yuan, it was only a few cents to get to the airport line, which was another 25 Yuan.  We found our way easily to the line and bid our farewells to Fay.  Off she went down the escalator, out of sight... and then there were three.

Beijing is an interesting city.  Dogs don't bark.  They're well-behaved on their leashes.  Kids aren't running around, they stay near their parents and are barely heard.  We only saw two strollers all week: parents carry their children in their arms.  No diaper bags.  Beijing fashion is no fashion: If it fits, put it on.  Mixed patterns, mixed colors.  Pantyhose.  Parasols to shade from the sun.  Bikes, mopeds, and scooters.  The mix of old and new.  It was charming, adventurous, so very different from Western society.  If there was a place that was opposite of America, we were standing in it.  For the beginning of our visit, we remained in central, old Beijing.  We wanted to get out of the neighborhood and see how the rest of the city lived.

The 798 Art District was formerly an area of factories which had been converted into low-rent artist studios.  Nestled behind modern apartment buildings and suburban office complexes, the art district had an intimate feel about it.  Graffiti, public art, sidewalk cafes, galleries, shops, and ice cream stands.  Since none of the three maps we had on hand were up to date (the city is developing so rapidly), the subway stop we wanted was actually closed (or did it even exist?), so by the time we walked from the next nearest stop to the district, it was mid-afternoon and we were famished.  We had identified a cafe mentioned in the Rough Guide with rave reviews so our initial focus was to find food, then explore.

@ Cafe was just what we needed.  The outdoor patio had large umbrellas that would shield us from the rain that had been teasing us all day.  The decision was swift: we were ordering a bottle of champagne and three glasses.  And roast duck.  And pizza.  And broiled fish.  And bruschetta.  it was perfect.  The noodles and rice of recent days were delicious, but we're Americans and need variety in our lives.  We topped off lunch with a visit to the ice cream stand across the street and began exploring the district.

I loved this neighborhood.  Jewelry designers, galleries, fashion designers, wall hangings, fabrics, pottery and ceramics, and random brick-a-brack.  From one shop I ended up with three beautiful painted glass plates of different sizes, with a heavy stylized image of a pack elephant.  With plate stands, which weren't originally for sale, but EVERYTHING is for sale in China, and I walked out with the plate stands after some haggling.

The rain and a weekday had kept most people away so it was lovely to wander the alleys without the bustling crowds of central Beijing.  The rain had increased and the consensus was to take a taxi home.  This would be our first taxi ride since we had been in the city.  Rain + rush hour = not easy to hail a cab.  Those that we initially stopped didn't want to take us downtown.  Eventually after a few tries we found one.  Chinese taxis: No tipping!  The fare is also calculated by the kilometer, so when you're sitting in traffic for ages you're not worrying about racking up a steep bill.  50 Yuan back to the city center and we were still dry.  The days of rain had started to sweep the smog from the city basin and we were finally able to see the mountains that ring the metropolis.  That night we were finally able to see stars and were hopeful that the smog would be kept at bay for our final day in Beijing the next day.

The Chinese eat later in the evening than we do, around 6pm, so by the time we get hungry at 8 or 9, most restaurants are closing down.  Our options were limited.  One place that was still open was a hot pot restaurant around the corner with the most fabulously gaudy exterior and giant red paper lanterns hanging over the front parking lot.  The lot was always full of cars and people so we figured this was as good a place as any to try; crowds = good.

Oh, and was it!  Thankfully Carrie and I had done a hot pot run in Chicago's Chinatown weeks before so we were able to gauge how much food we needed and how hot pot actually worked.  Here, instead of a giant single pot, we each had individual pots.  This worked out well for Danielle who had her vegetarian pot to herself and it wasn't contaminated with our meaty goodness.  I spiced mine up quite a bit with red chili peppers.  Carrie went the Goldilocks route and her hot pot was just right.  The service was quick and efficient, and we had another round of the plum drink that we first sampled at the night market.  How do you know what to order?  And how do you eat hot pot?  Between the three of us, we picked a plate of sirloin, some fish tofu, tiny dumplings, and squid.  It was just enough, and we could have spared leftovers if we weren't forcing it down.  We also added cabbage and mushrooms.  Add red chilis and some green onion to the broth to adjust spiciness, and cook the meat thoroughly, which only takes a minute or two in the boiling soup.  Dip in sauce and enjoy!

We had one more day to go in Beijing.  The Summer Palace was definitely on the list, including a hopeful visit to the Temple of Heaven and the CCTV building.  We still hadn't had Peking duck or dim sum.  In a city this vast, we were finally sobering up to the reality that there is too much to see and eat for only 6 days.  We would see how much we could accomplish on our final day.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Beijing Day 3: The Great Wall (and Rainstorm) of China

This trip was organized around the theme of Genghis and Kublai Kahn, to see the Mongol empire at its heart, and to see it from the other side of the Great Wall in Beijing, and points in between.  All the reports of the Great Wall excursion were those of a carnival-like atmosphere at the largest tourist access points, such as Badaling.  Gondolas, toboggans, vendors, souvenirs, food carts.  On top of it, I had read so much about signing up with a tour company and being brought to other vendor points in between or gently coerced into purchases at shopping stop-offs, so I was weary of how we'd get to the Great Wall and avoid any headaches.  I wanted to feel the essence of the Great Wall without all the hoopla.  So our plan was to find a driver, a guide, and get out to the wall headache-free.

Huanghuacheng Great Wall

Once again, TripAdvisor delivered and we found a guide and driver.  It was [again] drizzling in the morning but we hoped the weather would hold out at the wall for our hike.  Joe our guide met us at our hotel and we had a 2 hour drive ahead of us through some rush our traffic and more rain.  It was a comfortable ride, glad to have a private minivan to ourselves.  Fay and Carrie nodded off in the backseat and eventually I did, too.  It was an uneventful ride, and after another hour of winding through hairpin turns, our driver dropped us at the side of a road with some small signage above a path.  Our plan was to hike the Huanghuacheng section of the wall, which was reportedly away from any tourists.  This was indeed true.  The "entrance" to the wall was from the roadside path, up to someone's house, where we walked around to the back and up a small but steep path to the wall.

It was already beautiful as we stood at the top of a hill on the wall, looking down at a reservoir, dam, and small town.  We could see the wall stretching out before and behind us.  Aside from a couple of Chinese male tourists making their way down off the wall ("Take a picture with us!"), there was no one else in sight.  This was perfect.  Exactly what we wanted.  Us and the Wall.

The hike up to the wall was steep, no lie.  Carrie and I took our time going up and I took a preventative hit from my inhaler.  I haven't needed it yet in the Beijing smog (which was still present up here at Huanghuacheng), thank god.  Note, I had been pretty worried about the level of smog in the city and how my asthma would react to it.  The smog was just as bad what I'd heard and pictures I'd see.  My doctor advised me to wear a mask daily and take Prednisone when needed.  I didn't do either and was fine all week, so I hope this was because my daily inhaler was managing my condition well.

It is a steep wall.  I recommend hiking shoes.  The grip was necessary.  Heck, sometimes even walking backward up the wall was helpful, using other muscles.  We spent hours on the wall, 4 in total.  We anticipated a 3-4 hour walk so I was glad that we weren't slowing Joe down.  Between the 5 of us, we alternated rhythm and position, sometimes not consciously... at times I wanted to take my time and be in back, at times I would get into a hiking/breathing rhythm on inclines and didn't look down, choosing to stay in the rhythm in whatever position I was in.  For anyone that was taking more time to reach a rest point, it wasn't an issue because someone else would rest and take in a snack.  We were all moving at a perfectly fine pace and I'm glad we didn't feel rushed.  This was no place for a competition.

The wall was crumbling, at times we almost couldn't tell if we were even ON it.  Sections were overgrown with shrubbery and decades of silt.  Where we first entered the wall, it was generally restored, but deteriorated quickly once we were well off the road where we started.  At one point we had to climb off the wall and follow a path alongside it because it was too risky to remain on it.  Ancient stones were slippery from the smog/fog combo... there were few level places to walk, our legs were hit by branches, our footing uncertain, so a guard tower every few hundred feet was welcome.

I was fascinated by the construction of these parapets, built with random uncut stones placed as the inner fill wall, and finished stones with mortar creating the facade and inner walls.  Few keystones were used, only slivers of a keystone present in places with arches inside the towers.  Some towers had roofs that were accessible from inner stairwells.  Some were ruined nearly beyond recognition.  In many places, Chinese graffiti littered the walls.  The Ming dynasty section of this wall had a stone plaque mounted, written in ancient script, detailing the number of soldiers, length of time, and commanders in charge of building that section of wall.

It was truly beautiful, standing atop the wall, greenery blanketing the mountains around us, the wall stretching out and tracing the ridge tops in two directions.  We were alone with the Wall... then save the four European travelers we encountered in another section... they climbed ahead of us, then stopped where we finally did, and followed us and Joe down the mountain.  Having a guide wasn't a bad idea, and they used ours for a bit.  They were taking a bus or taxi back to Beijing, so we were thankful once again for hiring a car that would be waiting for us at the bottom of the wall.

The four hour hike came to an end where the wall jaggedly wound down a very steep mountainside and fell off into another lake and dam.  From here, we walked down the mountainside along another pebble-ridden path that had a few of us on our rear ends at least once.  Walking down mountains always seems to be just as difficult walking up them, as experience told us from Huayna Picchu.  It was like holding a squat for 40 minutes.  What propelled us along was the prospect of lunch at the end.

It was a small village, a roadside restaurant with just the owners inside.  We collapsed into chairs on
Best meal of the trip.
the patio outside, under an umbrella, when the rain started again.  We didn't care.  The hike was over and the rain held off until we were done.  And lunch... lunch was... This was my favorite meal of the trip.  Joe ordered for the table, dishes arrived, and were placed on the lazy susan in the middle.  Fried potato slices inside spicy boiling oil, cabbage with sesame oil with a side of red bean dipping sauce, sweet and sour pork, stewed tomatoes with egg, another pork dish, green beans with spicy red pepper chilis (my favorite), steamed rice, hot tea, and cold Coke.  I was famished.  It was 3pm and we hadn't eaten since breakfast, and I hadn't really eaten much in quantity since this entire trip started.  This time, I couldn't keep my chopsticks out of the plates.  I had seconds of rice to finish off one of the pork dishes.  The spicy red chilis with the green beans were like candy.  I used to be a spicy wuss years ago, but Thailand started to adjust me to a spicy meal, and this time I wasn't disappointed, nor did I find the food outrageously spicy.  Just happily spicy enough.

...Aaand.... it kept raining.  A formidable deluge once we made it back to the city.  Central Beijing doesn't have any drainage system, so the streets turn into rivers.  There's no real way to fight it.  If you can't beat it, join it.  One woman had.  We saw her riding down the street on her bike in a bathing suit... complete with swim cap.

China certainly has its share of quirkiness to the Western eye.  I'll delve more into that in a future entry, but note that it includes squirrels on leashes and tridents.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Beijing Day 2: The Forbidden City and Tienamen Square

We went halfway around the world to find out.. we were the tourist attraction.  Many a time we found people taking pictures of us, next to us, and even WITH us.  As a traveler who prefers to blend in, this made me very uncomfortable to stand out.  I didn't feel this amount of attention in Mongolia, Thailand, or Cambodia, so I wonder why in China... It took about a day until I noticed it, when it became obvious in The Forbidden City.

The tourist capital of China.  The seat of government.  Forbidden City, Great Wall.  I imagine it's like the Washington DC of the East, with citizens making a pilgrimage from far and wide to see their nation's capital.  At first I was tentative of walking around with my camera out, but soon realized that 1) I cannot blend in here, and 2) Everyone else also had their cameras out.  We were all tourists together.

The day began with The Forbidden City, on which we went on a Sunday.  We entered from the east Tienamen entrance with four metal detectors and bag scanners.  It was the only way to get into the Forbidden City and Tienamen, and I would hope there would also be an entrance on the west side opposite us, as well.  Shoulder-to-shoulder crowds it was, about 10am on a Sunday morning, a weekend, so it was thick, crammed into a barrier corridor.  Don't get anxious of impatient, the shoving and tightness of the crowd is normal, so just go with the flow and don't worry about apologies.

Also known as the Imperial Palace, it is vast.  Once inside, perhaps veer to the left or right to get around the
crowds, then double back at the end of the day when crowds are thinner to see some of the marvelous central buildings.  The day was almost sunny.  That is, we saw apparitions of the sun through some thinning fog.  Perhaps it was the rain that had started to part the blurring smog.  The level of smog was just as I had seen the pictures, but seeing it for my own eyes was almost beyond belief.  I thought I could just come to accept it, but after the next few days of seeing peeks of the sun and clear skies, within only days I could fully appreciate clearer air.

Visions of Peter O'Toole overseeing a tennis match between Puyi and his wives had flashed through my heads, references to The Last Emperor filling in the holes of my guidebook.  It was worth dashing into some of the side buildings that housed small museum collections, if not for the fine art, but for the air conditioning and a break from the throngs outside.  Through the alleys we roamed, taking more peeks around corners than we did covering every inch of the palace.  We had already been there two hours and had already started to feel the exhaustion of the walk to the City, the security line, ticket line, more gates and lines, and the heat.  Highly advised to tuck a snack into your bag with a bottle of two or water.  Thankfully there were plenty of tiny concession stands inside and we took a well-deserved ice cream break from a vendor.

A few important notes about The Forbidden City:

  • The gardens by the north gate are worth spending quality time
  • You cannot exit through the south gate
  • Once you have exited, you have to go back around to the south gate, back through the security line
  • The same security line is also necessary to enter Tienamen (so perhaps visit here first, then Forbidden City), or even to get back to the FC gift shop
  • The east gate doesn't exit through a gift shop.  And here I thought the Chinese government was embracing capitalism.

By the time we were done with the Forbidden City, it was well past lunch and we tucked into a small restaurant a good block south of the east gate.  We tended to look for places that appeared to have a picture menu so we could point at what we wanted.  The interesting part of this is that one of our party is a vegetarian, so we sure hoped that whatever she ordered was at least tofu and not mystery meat.  Lunch was cheap (about 25Y each), tasty, and even a little stray kitten wandered in and pranced about with discarded napkins and dangling shoelaces.

A couple of us had thoughts of tackling the Temple of Heaven after visiting Tienamen - after just leaving the Forbidden City - but as we nursed our aching feet under the lunch table, visions of a third sight to see started to drift away.  We had just enough energy in us to visit Tienamen... well, I don't think even all of us wanted to go that far.  But listen... we were already south.  It was just one last thing.  It was still the afternoon and a few hours until dinner.  We could just squeeze in the public square, walk home, and still be able to rest a while before figuring out dinner plans.  I know, it sounds like a long day by anyone's standards, and it was... but push on because lord only knows if/when we'd be back.  I felt I should see Tienamen for myself, a sort of personal responsibility to bear witness to a glance into the past.

To get into Tienamen, one has to go back through security then underground through tunnels to surface within the square.  Signage isn't entirely clear, so if you're heading to the square, don't follow the "Exit" signs.  Those are real exits, not exits from the tunnels.  If you exit, you have to back through security underground.

So, yeah, we learned that the hard way.

Frustrations behind us, we surfaced opposite the portrait of Mao across the street, standing in the infamous Tienamen Square.  And honestly, it was eerie.  Perhaps we all had our own pensive moments.  Thinking back of what happened here 25 years ago.  Quietly we spoke together about what did happen, in so few words, and contemplating that an entire generation of Chinese citizens exists right now that has no idea what took place those weeks in 1989.

On return to the hotel, Fay smartly hopped into bed for a nap as the rest of us propped our feet up on a small table while nursing some cold beers and updating Instagram.  The skies opened up again with rain.  Happily it held off through the day and we were safely back at the hotel - DRY - and exhausted as we were, decided to eat in the small restaurant on the premises.  It was acceptable, and inexpensive, and steps from the front door.  The next day ahead would be the hike on the Great Wall so I think we were all happy not to venture far and take it easy for the evening.  Perhaps the rain was a blessing in disguise.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Beijing Day 1: Jingshan Park and Night Market Food Tour

Hutong by our hotel
Part Two of the trip was about to begin, from Mongolia to China.  I was looking forward to Beijing after spending a week sleeping in tents or gers, at least we'd have a hotel room, bed, linens, and a shower.  Our hotel was tucked away in a hutong in a traditional Chinese courtyard-style setting by Jingshan Park.  After meeting Danielle and Carrie at the airport in Bejing, we rode together to the hotel and formulated a plan for the next day.  They would likely still be acclimating to the time change so we figured we'd go easy, get a feel for the neighborhood and take it easy before our night market food tour.
Jingshan Park pagoda

First stop was Jingshan Park since it was just across the street and only 2Y entry.  We initially had thought the day was overcast or that our contacts were dirty, but we soon discovered that it was smog.  It was a lovely warm day and a bit nice not to have the hot sun beating down on us, but a bit disconcerting to know that we were staring through smog and not fog, since the atmosphere lacked humidity yet was still hazy.

Jingshan Park
What was immediately noticeable was that it seemed Everyone in Beijing was out for the day.  It was Saturday, and the park was packed with revelers.  People dancing tango in one corner, others playing instruments while women danced.  Hackey sack, table tennis, singing, and other activities were taking place.  I've never seen a park so full of people just enjoying themselves and each other.  Even parks in Chicago people just walk around, lie in the sun, or picnic.  In Beijing, people were busy DOING things, active things.  No children running about yelling, but mostly adults recreating.  It was lovely.

We mounted steps to the top hill in the park that overlooked the Forbidden City and the whole of Beijing.  Again the smog was a presence, but it did give us our bearings on direction and distance.  Danielle and I would be the main wayfinders so we were glad to be up high to get a lay of the land.  As we left the park and walked north to explore more, we passed what appeared to be a playground, but was full of middle-aged and elder adults exercising on various machines, and every table tennis station was occupied.  This was a week-long trend, to see adults exercising every day.
Forbidden City view from Jingshan Park... and the smog.

Next on the list was lunch at Mr Shi's Dumplings, nestled in a hutong up north.  We finally found it, but the majority of patrons inside were Westerners.  The walls were drawn upon by other visitors from around the world.  I would like to think that in a city as large as Beijing we could find a perfectly fine dumpling shop that wasn't full of tourists, but the dumplings were good just the same.  I was a big fan of the fried mutton dumplings.  The smoked tofu salad I could do without.  As a matter of fact, I could do without any kind of tofu salad.  I don't mind it in miso soup or hot pot, but I have limits (foreshadowing: apparently sheep testicles are perfectly fine, but I had my fill of tofu).

The roads to and from the dumpling shop was full of small shops we so stopped in a few of them to see what piqued our interest... the silk shop was a hit, but as an American size 8, a Chinese 2XL was still too small for me.  I practically laughed myself out of the dressing room.  I had to come to the conclusion that shopping for clothes in Beijing was going to be a challenge, but I easily settled on a few pairs of shoes.  Also distracting us from our hunt for dumplings was my curiosity of street food, so we also made a stop at a shop front selling cheese-stuffed fried chicken (under-cooked, but I survived), and Danielle ordered fried squid balls.  These were delish.

Hutong shopping
We quickly passed by the Drum and Bell Towers but learned they were closed for renovation through October, so a peek through the gates sufficed.  We still had plenty of time before our evening food tour, so more shopping was at hand!  We didn't have a mapped plan of where we'd go, just in the direction of our hotel, when an archway into a very crowded hutong attracted our attention.  It was a pedestrian street full of shops of all sorts.  I was in haggling heaven.  As we roamed about, I remembered on the map that perhaps we were in the area of a lake and nightclub district.  An obligatory Starbucks stop was made when one was spotted, and we enjoyed a walk around Qianhai Lake, noting all the restaurants, bars, and nightclubs that lined the neighborhood with rooftop seating, karaoke, and hookah bars.  We made a mental note that we should come back one evening to enjoy a few cocktails... spoiler: it rained every other night and we never made it back.

Sure enough, down another side alley, a large lake made its presence known.  Throngs of people walked along the lakeside, took pictures, paddled boats, rode bikes, and snacked on food on sticks, enjoying the lovely Saturday afternoon.  Street food curiosity struck again when I ordered something from a stall, which turned out to be balls of chopped octopus in an egg batter, topped with eel sauce and fish flakes.  It wasn't half bad.  Better than the cheesy chicken.

Qianhai Lake
After a bit of rest at our hotel, our night market food tour was to begin.  One lesson we learned from Istanbul was to schedule a food tour at the start of vacation instead of at the end.  This way we can identify what we like immediately and have the rest of the trip to enjoy what we learn.  And this is exactly how it turned out, perfectly.  We were to meet in the Wangfujing shopping section of the city, which was less than an hour walk from Jingshan and pretty easy to find.  Tiny alleyway shops of the hutongs were replaced with the glittering neon signs of Chanel, Prada, and Hermes, with Zara and H&M thrown in.  Knock-off shops these were not, it was Times Square-esque in its flashiness.  And it felt a little bit like home.

I love me a good night market.  The Food!  Oh, the glorious food.  Such an adventure.  We met Mao, our guide, and he walked us through the Wangfujing Night Market and the Donghuamen Night Market.  The former was tucked away in some small alleys off to the side of the pedestrian Wangfujing stopping street.  We hadn't met a single Chinese person all week who had ever tried a scorpion on a stick; I'm convinced they're only there for the photo op and novelty.  First, to drink, which I loved, was a sort of plum juice in a short, stout bottle.  Then we moved on to the food: lamb skewers with red chilis, (a staple of the Muslim Uighur community from northwest China, now a popular street food item), grilled squid on a stick (yum!), dumplings, triple spicy meatballs (and fish balls, loved the spiciness but it wasn't overwhelming), stinky tofu (not as stinky and foul as I'd heard about on TV), cold spicy Sichuan noodles (my favorite), candied fruit, pineapple rice (reminded me of mango sticky rice), jackfruit, vodka made from sorghum, and sheep testicles.  Now, Carrie and I are adventurous eaters.  When Mao suggested these, she and I were completely on board, and he had to ask a couple times because he thought we were joking.  But really, they were good.  Not my favorite of the night, but perfectly acceptable.  They were a bit heavy on the iron flavor of other organ meats, but just fine.  
Scorpions on a stick

Lamb skewers

Wangfujing Night Market

Calling for patrons

Bubbly drink with dry ice

Soup with a tentacled creature that seemed a favorite

Donghuamen Night Market


More lovely food on a stick

Sheep testicles. A bit irony, but good.


Even the locals enjoying the night market

Extra spicy foodstuffs on a stick.  Delish.

Centipedes, snakes, silkworms, and other delicacies.

Pineapple rice

Carrie wrote more detail about our foods on her blog, so for more info...
The tour came to an end, and it was still a pleasant night, until we felt a drizzle.  Should we take a taxi home?  It wasn't a far walk.  But I was uncertain how taxis worked here and if we were easy marks for a scam (see also: Bangkok and Buenos Aires).  Eh, we'd walk.  I had a rain jacket, Fay had a poncho, and Danielle and Carrie shared an umbrella.


Until we needed an ark.  Oh how the skies opened up.  Just when we thought it couldn't get any worse, it did.  I was starting to get concerned for the camera in my bag, which was water resistant, but not waterproof.  Every shop we passed, I glanced into for umbrellas.  I finally found one and ducked inside to inquire.  45Y for an umbrella??  Phooey, we were already soaked.  I'd take 2 for 30Y and call it a night.  The lady agreed and I handed one over to Danielle.  We were already halfway back to the hotel.  But did we get washed.  Bathed.  Soaked.  There is no drainage in central Beijing, so the streets were flooded with at least 6" of water.  Down the water gushed out of the alleyways into the main streets.  Puddles with nowhere to flow to.  Fay and I had Crocs and flip-flops so walking through small seas wasn't an issue, but poor Carrie and Danielle were wearing legit shoes that I'm pretty sure took 3 days to dry out.  Fay struck gold with her Maid of the Mist poncho that I toted along from last year's visit to Niagara.  She was dry.  On the bright side (?), it was a warm night, the rain wasn't cold, there was no traffic and no people in our way, and we were safe.  Mao had said that Beijing was safe to walk around at night: the penalty for owning a gun was death, only police carried guns, and women should feel perfectly safe.  And in a practical monsoon, taking a dive off a curb into a makeshift river would be the most of our worries.

We can laugh about it now.  Little did we know that it would rain every night for the next 3 nights... but the rain always held off until we were done with our daily activities.  So, y'know, there's that.  A good first day in Beijing overall.  We'd need our beauty rest, for the next day we were headed for a long day of sightseeing at The Forbidden City and Tienamen Square.