Kyoto and its temples

On my second day in Kyoto, the friendly but stickler-for-the-rules man at the Musubi-an Arashiyama guesthouse helped me make a pot of coffee, and I bummed around the hostel in the morning doing a bit of work in the quiet.

In the afternoon, I snacked my way through the Nishiki market, nomming on free samples of all sorts of pickled things. My favorite thing that I ate was a fried ball of dough filled with curry, onions and potato. After the Nishiki market, I made my way to the International Manga Museum (which was filled with a lot of Japanese people filling the hallways and open spaces reading manga), and then to the Fushimi Inari Shrine, which is famous for its hundreds of torii gates, which are large gates that mark the entrance to, or are just positioned inside of shrines.

Continue reading Kyoto and its temples

My undying love for onsen

I flew to Osaka from Shanghai on Thursday, August 10th.

In Japan, a convenient tool for foreigners is the Japan Rail Pass, different versions of which are basically a pass for all the Japan Rail trains, metros, etc. that go throughout Japan. When you get to Japan you can buy some of the regional passes, like the three-day Japan West pass or the Japan East pass, but if you want an all-Japan pass, you have to buy it outside of the country, and the bring your voucher to a JR station and exchange it for the pass. While in Shanghai (part of the reason why I hung around there for about a week), I ordered a JR pass and had the voucher express-shipped to my hostel in Osaka. It’s possible to buy a 7, 14, or 21 JR pass. I got the 21-day JR pass, which pretty much decided for me how long I was going to spend in Japan. (Sometimes you just gotta let the little things make decisions for you…)

After a quiet evening in Osaka, I got up early the next morning to get my JR pass and take a shinkansen (high-speed train) to Kyoto, which would be my first big stop in Japan.

Continue reading My undying love for onsen

The HK-Shanghai Errands Interlude

Ok, I kind of really want to talk about Japan (JAPAN!!!) so allow me to give you the highlights of my three days in Hong Kong and my almost-week in Shanghai:

  • Surprising no one, the Russian Consulate in HK was full of slightly ill-tempered workers who got very annoyed when I showed up with my application but without an appointment. Apparently, this was a new rule they’d imposed in the summer, but they only posted these rules on the HK Russian consulate website, which wouldn’t load for me. So I had filled my application out on a different embassy website (I don’t know how any of this really works), and hadn’t seen or gotten any notifications requiring me to make an appointment. So I got shunted over to the Visa Application Center, which was literally right across the hallway and helped you submit your application appointment-free except for about $40 more and with nicer people.
    • (Special thanks to Jeff and Jaynie‘s blog post on applying for a Russian visa in HK, and WaytoRussia, which I used to buy the visa support document.)
  • I think I sweated out my entire bodyweight in HK while poking around the city looking for new hiking boots. At one point, I ended up in the most haphazard camping store full of towers of shoeboxes that I swear were all read to keel over and bury us all, and they still didn’t have any in my size.
  • Eventually I found a small Merrill outlet in a very, very, very large department store. The shoes were a little too long, but not too snug on my very, very, very wide feet (I brought thick hiking socks so I could check on the width), so I called this a success and bought them.
  • Then I went to Shenzhen and spent a brief night at the Star Whisperer Spacecraft Hostel!!! Which was actually kind of cool, even though the blacklights were 1000% cosmetic and served absolutely no purpose.

    IMG_8465
    Star Whisperer Spacecraft Hotel 
  • Also, it was kind of best to just ignore what it looked like on the outside…
IMG_8461
Totally trustworthy.
  • On my way out of Shenzhen, I was trapped in the airport for a solid 7 to 8 hours. Three cheers to Hannah, who kept me from throwing myself into some abyss of despair when I saw this on the board.
IMG_8470
This is also when I realized Chinese airports don’t have any bars. 
  • Then I got to Shanghai!
  • In Shanghai, I stayed with Hannah, and visited some of the old haunts (like the archery range!), met up with as many friends as I could, and bummed around. It was kind of nice to relax in a familiar place, take a step back from traveling, and watch figure skating videos with Hannah for like, literal hours.

 

Amsterdam!

In July, I went to Amsterdam.

Yes, July was many months ago. I am very behind in this blogging thing…

But, onwards!

I flew to Amsterdam with my friends Anthony and Skyler (Shenzhen-dwellers.) The last time I checked in, I had arrived in Shenzhen to crash on Antler’s (I just made up that portmanteau, why have I never thought of this before??) couch to relax and maybe do some laundry before we headed off to Amsterdam together.

The flight was 12 hours, which I found strange because it’s 12 hours to go from the US to China, but also to go from Hong Kong to Amsterdam? This was explained to me by Anthony as the result of flights to/from China get to hop over the globe, while flights from Hong Kong to Amsterdam have to go around it. I think. I dunno, I don’t look at maps and therefore have no idea how geography works.

Anyway, we arrived in Amsterdam in the evening. The Antler and I split up, Antler to Skyler’s relatives’, and me to a hostel I’d booked on Hostelworld, called Shelter Jordan. (Because Skyler has AmsterdamMagic (aka a Dutch bank card and all that jazz) he was able to get us a more permanent transportation card for Amsterdam right at the airport, instead of just the day cards, which was nice because after this trip, I’m pretty sure I’ll be visiting Amsterdam again.)

My hostel was named Shelter Jordan. When I arrived at its doors, I was greeted with a mural of Jesus Christ giving a sermon on a boat to many disciples. The hostel’s slogan was, “Experience Christian Hospitality!” When checking in, I was invited to join the hostel volunteers in their bible study group, and also reminded that because it was a Christian hostel, no drugs or alcohol were allowed.

Somehow, in Amsterdam of all places, I picked the Christian hostel with a drugs and alcohol ban.

Annnyway. The bed was comfortable. It was a good place to do work from.

IMG_8320.JPG
I’m all about that work/life balance.

Anyway, Sunday morning found me up and early (Amsterdam is 6 hours behind China, meaning my body clock was the kind of weird that isn’t a full flip, which was almost even more annoying), so I did a little bit of work, and then set off at 9ish to meet Skyler and Anthony, and Lani and Phill — who were arriving that morning — at a brunch spot named Bakers & Roasters. My walk took me through a good portion of the center of the city, past beautiful canals and on streets that were fairly empty and quiet.

IMG_8318.JPG
Water! Green trees! Beautiful, colorful buildings! Blue sky! What is this world? 

The buildings, canals, and the cats in the windows I saw were all just stunningly beautiful. Is this real life? I had to ask myself.

Then we had brunch, and I continued to doubt my reality.

IMG_8316
An unreal meal! Okay, okay. Brunch spots do exist in Shanghai, but July in Shanghai is a hot, humid sweaty hellhole that ranges from about 30-40 degrees Celsius (for Fahrenheiters, that’s Really Freaking Hot), while Amsterdam was a sweet 16-20 (for Fahrenheiters, that’s Basically Perfect + A Light Sweater.)

After a very long and lazy brunch, Anthony, Skyler, Phill and Lani went to go find Phill and Lani’s boat-airbnb, and I wandered back through the city to my nice Christian hostel to take a jetlag nap and get some work done. A coffeeshop may or may not have been visited, but if it were, and if I lingered by a few canals in order not to break the hostel’s alcohol-and-drugs ban, or got lost in the Red Light district on my walk back (which is honestly a bit of an uncomfortable place in broad daylight)… well, Amsterdam!

We met up again in the evening to have dinner at a place called Kadijk, with Skyler’s cousins, and then we all went to a very very cool cocktail bar called Hidden in Plain Sight (HPS) where I ordered a blackberry drink thing that I can’t for the life of me remember exactly what it was, possibly because it contained ingredients I literally hadn’t known existed until then, and also because I was too blown away by everything to make notes like I usually do.

The next day, I talked to Katie, who was in Belgium at the time, on FaceTime. I had originally called her to complain that she was in Belgium but not in Amsterdam with me, and somehow our conversation ended with me getting online and buying a train ticket to meet up with her in Luxembourg. I have no impulse control. It’s vacation, I told myself, ignoring briefly that my entire life right now is just one long semi-vacation and I can’t really use this as an excuse anymore. But really, this was Real Vacation, the European interlude away from Asia.

Fortunately, I was rescued from more impulsive decisions by all of us heading off to Kwaku festival, which was a festival full of Surinamese food, and where I was introduced to bara. I had never heard of Surinamese food before, and admittedly I still do not know anything about Suriname, but I do now know that bara are savory doughnut things stuffed with meat curry and are absolutely amazing. The whole afternoon passed away in a haze of eating as much as I possibly could, sinking into a chair to digest, and then eating more. Really, really good macaroons also featured.

The next morning, jet lag got me again, and I was up at 4 am. At around 5:30am, unable to sleep, I decided to go for an early morning run in the Vondelpark, which wasn’t tooo far from where I was staying.

Following my run, the Gang met up again to go on BRUNCH BOAT. Brunch boat was, as you can probably guess, brunch except on a boat that meandered through the canals in Amsterdam.

IMG_8354
More evidence that touristing in Amsterdam is Not Real Life.

IMG_8345

After Brunch Boat, Anthony, Skyler, Phill and Lani headed back for Kwaku noms, Day Two. Since I planned to take a train to Luxembourg the next morning, I went off on my own to do some good old fashioned tourism. I visited the Van Gogh Museum, wandered around the city some more, then returned to Vondelpark and read a book on my kindle with some coffeeshop purchases. (Again: not real life.)

Meanwhile, at Kwaku that evening, Real Life reared its ugly head — Skyler slipped and broke his foot, and when I met up with them again, he was on crutches. (Though, by all accounts, he got some sweet dance moves in before the unfortunate accident.)

The next morning, at Early o’Clock (pre-6am) I was up and out again, this time headed to the train station to get to Luxembourg. In Luxembourg, I hung out in the downtown area (quite small, but very pretty!) and met Katie’s friend Natalie’s roommate Liz. I had met Natalie a couple of years earlier, when she visited Katie in Chengdu. I had never met Liz before, but she was super friendly and energetic, and led me back to her and Natalie’s apartment, where I did work and waited for Natalie and Katie to get back to Luxembourg. They had been on the Belgium coast, and due to a Series of Unfortunate Events, returned to Luxembourg city a little later than originally intended.

But a joyous reunion was had! A movie was watched! And I fell asleep in the middle of it.

The next morning, Natalie, Katie and I slept in (Liz had to go to work.) We had a quiet breakfast, did a little mask thing on our noses because you know, that’s just what you do, and did laundry. (I will always do laundry if it’s free.)

IMG_8363
A charcoal mask. I had trouble making it nose-shaped.

In the afternoon, we went to go buy me an epilator (this is like a razor, except instead of shaving hair, it plucks the hairs!! very cool! ask me about this if you are interested, but for now I will refrain from inflicting my endless enthusiasm for the epilator upon the general public.) After wandering around the downtown Luxembourg area, we went to an Escape Room that was based on the Luxembourgish myth of the mermaid Melusina.

If you don’t know what an escape room is, it involves getting locked in a room and then having to find clues in order to work your way out. This escape room had two rooms actually, and you had to progress from one to the next, and then in the second room you had to solve clues in order to keep a hostage from drowning. (Our hostage drowned. Oops.)

In the first room, I managed to stumble upon a couple of clues accidentally. For instance, there was a wooden bathtub in the corner for some reason, and because I was lazy and tired of standing, I just kind of climbed into the bathtub and sat down. The lights immediately went out.

As it turns out, the lights went out and a black light turned on, and then we were able to read the invisible ink clues on the back of a letter. On the one hand, this was cool. On the other hand, I had nowhere to sit and contemplate our clues from without turning all the lights off.

 

IMG_6616
Sit in the bathtub, Watson, I dare you.

And then we went to Korean BBQ for dinner, because KBBQ should always be an option.

The next morning, we had another lazy morning before walking down into Luxembourg’s Lower City. We had lunch at a place that also had this very alcoholic beer + orange liquor (we got a side-eye from the waiter for ordering these at lunchtime), and then took a glass elevator back up to what I assume is called the Upper City? Or maybe it’s just the Rest Of The City.

Sadly, after this, I had to depart Luxembourg.

But my Magical Not Real Life vacation continued!

Back in Amsterdam, on my last day there, Phill and I went to the Zaanse Schans windmills, where I continued the question the truth of my reality because oh my god, that place was so stupidly idyllic I literally could not contain myself. (Also, mushrooms.)

That evening, Anthony, Skyler and I went to a Mendelssohn + Schubert classical music concert (a contra-bass was involved, the Mendelssohn was amazing but honestly I kinda of dozed off a bit during the Schubert; Anthony helpfully nudged me, presumably when I started audibly snoring or heavy-sleep-breathing) and then the Skyler, Anthony, Phill and I returned to HPS for more Super Fancy Drinks (Lani had left earlier in the afternoon).

And then, the next day, the One-footed Skyler (with a cast), Anthony and I flew back to Hong Kong. Skyler left us at the HK airport to head to a hospital for a check in before his foot surgery, while Anthony and I headed back to Shenzhen together.

“Wow,” Anthony remarked as we got into a shuttle that would carry us back over the border.  “I kind of really missed Chinese.”

“Shut up,” I told him, because despite the incredible Magical Not Real Life, I had kind of really missed Chinese too. I imagine this is what Stockholm Syndrome is like.

 

How to take an e-bike for a walk

Between my last post and this one, I managed to do very little, but somehow that very little included getting one of the worst sunburns I’ve had in a very, very long time.

Yup. Anyway.

So, the last time you heard from me was around the Fourth of July. I promised I was going to write soon after that, but then I got extremely busy doing… I mean honestly, nothing.

After a very brief stopover in Chengdu (for food, cats, company, and, of course, laundry) I flew to Dali and made it there on about July 6th. I booked myself a private room at one of the Lonely Planet’s top recommended hostels for a few days, then booked a private room for two at Lonely Planet’s other top recommended hostel for a few nights, when a family friend came to stay with me.

In the few days before Stella came, it didn’t stop raining. I wandered the old city and found cafes where I would pull out my computer, do a bit of work, and stare at the rain. The staring at the rain was the greater part of what I did. It made work take a long time. Long enough that when the rain slowed to a drizzle, I would pack up and wander the old city until I found another cafe. Rinse and repeat.

IMG_8226
One of the many cafes I sampled while in the Dali old city. This one became a personal favorite. 

The day after Stella came, it was finally sunny. We didn’t really know each other, so I thought it would be a fun idea to rent a moped and drive around the lake. I didn’t realize it was a six hour drive. I also didn’t realize that not all mopeds were made to drive around the lake. But that came later. (Stella was a True Trooper.)

I had read about a market in the Lonely Planet. It happened on Mondays. It was Monday. Stella mentioned wanting to buy some gifts, so I thought it would be a cool place to go to. We walked into the old city and rented a bike without much trouble. I put down a small deposit.

So off we went! If you want to ask about the helmets… don’t ask about the helmets.

We’d asked directions to the town with the Monday market from both the bike-rentals people, and some people on the street. The consensus was unanimous. You just kind of got out onto the road and went right until you reached the marketplace. I mean, it’s a lake. How can you get lost driving around a lake?

Continue reading How to take an e-bike for a walk

a whirlwind of tourism

I don’t really know how to start this post, other than to say that I’ve finally begun traveling! Which I will continue to do until November!

So, after a few short but great weeks at home (and after moving my cat from China to the US, which was infinitely better than last year, when I moved the cat from Chengdu to Shanghai) I headed back to Beijing via Air Canada on June 20th.

I arrived in Beijing on June 21. I had three nights booked at a hostel I’d stayed at a couple summers ago, and my major tourist plans consisted solely of my desire to go to my favorite Beijing duck restaurant, 四季民福烤鸭店 (Siji Minfu Duck).

okay technically, it was a half-duck, but trust me you don’t want to know the details of the anti-social struggles I went through in order to enjoy this half-duck by myself. 

Continue reading a whirlwind of tourism