Visiting Vang Vieng

In about an hour from now, we’ll be on our way to Luang Prabang, our last stop in Laos.  Vang Vieng has been everything we’d hoped for, and more.  I can’t remember a time when I loved a landscape this much.  It even rivals my love for Vancouver’s Stanley Park.  Vang Vieng is lush, raw and it has everything I love:  trees, mountains, animals and gorgeous winding rivers.

There is plenty to do here, and although the main draw for tourism is tubing down the river, I much preferred our first day here, when we rented a motorcycle and spent the day cruising around the countryside.   My former student, Ivy, said it best:  a beautiful landscape can calm anxiety and help you relax.  With scenes like this, I was finally able to unwind from my stressful fall term:

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We spent 4 hours cruising around.  I feel like it was impossible for me to take a bad photo!  Even on the back of a moving motorcycle, I was in a photographer’s paradise!

We saw plenty of animals along the way.  Cows, chickens and pigs roam freely in the area.  Everyone watches out for everyone else’s livestock.  And here, like India and everywhere else I’ve ever been, cows rule the road.

We passed countless children on their way home from school.  I know that poverty is a real problem here; Laos is a 3rd world country and is on the UN’s list of the world’s ‘least developed countries’ (along with Haiti,  Ethiopia, Bangladesh and others).  Still, the people who live here have a sort of wealth that I envy.  They may not have flat screen TVs, but they have a pretty spectacular view.  They may not have Xboxes and Macbooks, but they play football with the world’s nicest backdrop.  They are wealthy in their own way.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that I’d trade my life for the life of a Laotian.  As I mentioned in my last post, 300 people per year die here from UXOs from the Vietnam war.  Laos’ GDP accounts for only 0.02% of the world’s economy, and as a result, people live in extreme poverty.  They rely on donations from other countries to do things like build bridges or fix roads.

Tourism is important in these parts, and I always take that into account when I pay more than locals for food, drinks and pretty much everything.  I have the money.  I don’t mind paying a bit more.  Luckily, Laos does have incredible attractions for people to enjoy.

Attractions like….

Caves

This cave was small and terrifying so I never went into it.  There are more caves than I can even count around Vang Vieng.  Dave braved his way up this terrifying ‘staircase’ and was at the top before too long, exploring.  I stayed down below and took some pictures of the area.

Lagoons

Blue Lagoon is one of Vang Vieng’s most visited locations.  Unfortunately, it are very popular with the crowds, so we never went swimming.  It was crowded and they were closing soon after we arrived, so we never bothered to try.

Instead, while the rest of our group swam, we explored the area a little bit.

We saw some people giving elephant rides, which was discouraging.  There are so many attractions around these parts that there’s no reason to include elephant rides.  The tour guide tried getting us to come over, but I snapped a picture and turned away.  Mostly I just wanted a chance to remind my readers again how awful elephant rides are.

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The Blue Lagoon did end end up providing us with some entertainment at the end of our stop there.  A Chinese man had decided to jump off the high trunk of a tree.  It was about 20 feet up, and he had climbed up, but didn’t want to jump.  We watched him for more than 20 minutes.  He jumped just as we got on the bus.  It was pretty funny.  I felt bad for the guy, but at the same time, I KNOW I’m a wimp, and that’s why I didn’t go up there in the first place.

Zip Lining

I’m not going to go into much detail about the zip lining because I decided to write a short story about our experience.  My major focus in all of my writing classes was creative non-fiction, and it’s been ages since I wrote a non-fiction story, and our trip out into the mountains had everything that a short story needs:  humour, suspense and a clumsy and terrified protagonist.  I’ll link that story here as soon as I’m done.   For now, here are some pictures.

Tubing on the Nam Song River

Tubing down the river is the main reason people visit Vang Vieng.   A few years back, the tubing experience was wild.  People were getting drunk, getting high and dying on the river.  In 2011 alone, at least 27 tourists died in Vang Vieng (the number is actually higher because many of the injured are sent to Vientiane, where they later die).   Tourists hurt themselves jumping off of trees in shallow areas and many drowned after drinking shot after shot of Lao Lao (a local whisky) before hopping back on their tubes.  It didn’t take long before Vang Vieng became known as South East Asia’s party town.

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It’s such a beautiful place, and it was nearly ruined by tourists being irresponsible 

In 2012, things began to change.  South East Asian tourism was suffering because of Vang Vieng’s bad reputation, and the Laotian government was pushed into making changes. I’m happy to say that the river is now a lovely, relaxing place where there are still bars (but fewer of them), but, for the most part, the environment is controlled and safe.

One thing worth mentioning though, is that if you book your day of tubing with the wrong people, you may not have the best time…

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I wasn’t trying to imitate the locals…I was just trying to protect my poor shoulders from further burning

 

We had planned to take the North river on own own.  We figured that if we didn’t go with a guide, we could take our time on the river (which is very lazy and slow moving) and meet up with like-minded people along the way.  Instead, we ended up going down the south river with a guide, along with 6 European 20 year olds…

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I learned at the beer Olympics this year that beer pong is not my sport.  I wasn’t too keen on 2 hours of it…

We were definitely not happy with the fact that we were made to stay at the first bar for nearly 90  minutes.  Eventually, we told the guide we were going to leave with or without him.  He realized that we weren’t there to get sloshed and assigned us a different guide and let us go ahead.  That hour and half was gorgeous.  I actually fell asleep once or twice because the river was so comfortable and relaxing.

Our tour guide also fell asleep on the way down.  He realized quickly that he didn’t need to worry about us, so he enjoyed the ride down.

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He uses his sandals as paddles and has an awesome hat that he can drape over his face when he naps.  He’s thought this whole thing out…

I wish we’d had a couple of hours of this and that we hadn’t had a guide at all, but still, we made do and had a very nice time on the Nam Song River.

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I took a video at one point down the river.  Notice the silence.  This sort of serenity is exquisite for someone who lives in China 10 months of the year…

When we reached the end of the tour, we found at ourselves at another bar…this time it was for 2 hours.  You can’t exactly go flag down a tuk tuk in the middle of nowhere, so we were stranded and stuck waiting until our guide let us leave.  We found out later that people who had started 2 hours later than us were leaving at the same time, because they hadn’t gone on a tour with a guide who forced them to stay at bars in the hopes of making extra money.

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Dave found something to do right away:  There were kids around who wanted to play soccer!

Travelling does something strange to nomads like me.  When you visit all these different places, certain ones really stick with you.  Kratie in Cambodia, Chiang Mai in Thailand, Goa in India…  These places somehow manage to steal a piece of your heart, and they leave you feeling homesick for them, even if your time there was short.  Vang Vieng is now a part of that list.  I will always remember it and always feel drawn to it.

I hope one day we can go back and see Vang Vieng again.  Until then, I have plenty more to look forward to!

Next stop, Luang Prabang!

 

 

 

Vivre Vientiane

South East Asia is one of my favourite places in the world.  Cambodia and Thailand were both such fantastic experiences and Northern Vietnam lived up to the high expectations those experiences set.  Now that I’m in Laos, I am sure:  South East Asia should be on everyone’s bucket lists!

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Architecture is only 1 of the reasons why everyone should visit this part of the world!

Where to begin???

About Vientiane

Laos and the only landlocked country in South East Asia.  Though it is poor, Laos has been gaining popularity with tourists due to it’s beautiful landscapes, fascinating history and its vast cultural treasures.

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Vientiane is Laos’ capital city.  The Mekong River flows through the city, dividing it from neighboring Thailand.  Vientiane is a small city, with a population of less than a million (tiny by Asian standards!).  Although many tourist blogs tell people not to bother visiting Laos’ capital, both Dave and I have really enjoyed our time here.  There’s been lots to see, great food to enjoy and the people have been just awesome!

Patuxai Victory Monument

The main complaint people have about Vientiane is that there is ‘nothing to do there’.  I disagree.  As I’ve said countless times in the past, my favourite thing to do on holiday with my handsome husband is to rent motorbikes.  We rented one for Vientiane and boy did it pay off!

Our first stop was the Patuxai Victory War Monument.  This beautiful monument was built to commemorate all the people who died in Laos’ fight for freedom.  Laos has been occupied on more than one occasion; most recently by France.  That’s right…Laos was a French colony!  You actually see French architecture and road signs all over the city.

The monument took 9 years to build, beginning in 1957 and the materials to make the structure were donated by the USA.  China also donated a musical pond and Indonesia donated a Peace Gong for the park as well.  It’s a nice place to take a stroll.

Inside the building you find a small market where you can buy souvenirs.  Everything is very overpriced (35,000 kip for something that sells for 15,000 in a regular market), but nobody chases you down or tries pushing you into buying things, so it was a fine little place to take a break between flights of stairs.

Laos’ National Museum

Our next stop had to be indoors because the heat was pretty much unbearable.  We head down to the National Museum where we learned about Laos’ ancient history and modern history.  It was very interesting to see propaganda posters from the other side of the Vietnamese war!

I was a little bit surprised that the museum didn’t have anything about the bombing Laos endured during the Vietnam war.  It’d be great if the museum offered information on that, and the gift shop would do well to sell trinkets made of UXOs.  You find bottle openers, key chains and magnets made of these old bombs in the markets and proceeds are suppose to go towards disarming the nearly 78 million bombs  that are still killing people in Laos every year.  (Don’t worry Mom…the areas we are going have been thoroughly checked!!)

Temples

There are plenty of Temples to see in Vientiane.  So many, in fact, that we didn’t even try to stop at all of them.  We did see 2 though.  Dave noticed right away that the architecture is quite different from temples in Thailand, Cambodia and India.  I, of course, didn’t notice haha!  They sure are pretty though!

The second ‘temple’ we saw was actually called the ‘City pillar’.  I asked Dave why Winnipeg doesn’t have anything this cool…he reminded me that the snow and the cold would destroy it…

Buddha Park

The Buddha Park was definitely my favourite stop in Vientiane.  Located 25km south east of the city, we would never have been able to see this cool place if we hadn’t rented a motorbike.  The drive there was half the fun!

We entered the park and realized we were starving, so we began by eating a local snack.  I have no idea what it’s called, but it had some sort of coconut in it.  It was delicious!

The first thing you see when you enter the park is the giant reclining Buddha.  He’s beautiful.  We were there just before the sun started going down too, so the light reflected off of his face, making him look like he glows.

There are various other statues around.  The buddhas are made to look old, but they are actually quite new.  The park was built in 1958, and it has mythology from both Hinduism and Buddhism.  I personally enjoy Buddhist art more, as it’s less extreme.  Hinduism is sure spectacular, though!

It’s really neat seeing the mixture of cultures.  Buddhism and Hinduism actually have quite a few of the same roots, which is interesting.  An hour in the park is all you really need, and I’d say it’s well worth the trip out there.  It’s definitely one of the most bizarre things we’ve experienced in Asia!

Without a doubt, the strangest thing in the park is the gourd, or pumpkin.

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It’s suppose to represent Heaven, Earth and Hell…I’m not sure about the first 2, but the 3rd one is definitely depicted.  The inside is full of creepy art and scary staircases.  I actually hated it in there and got out as soon as I could.  Dave made it up to the top for some pictures….

The ride back was also beautiful.  I really enjoyed the parties that were going on everywhere!  Lao people like loud music and dancing, we learned!  When I’m back home, I’ll be sure to stitch together some videos, but for now, some pictures of the parties will have to suffice!

Around Vientiane

Dave found a Geo Cache while we were here, which was pretty cool.  It was in at an old stupa that reminded me of ruins of Ayutthaya.  The sight is called That Dam or The Black Stupa.  It’s said to contain relics of the Buddha and legend has it that it was once covered in gold.  Unfortunately, it was attacked and pillaged by Siam in this legend (which some say is history…the line can be blurred) and that the Thais stole all the gold, leaving behind this black mound of brick in its place.

Vientiane really is a charming place.  From the night market, to the Mekong Exercise clubs, it was all a very nice way to spend a couple of days.  I definitely suggest renting a motorbike and I absolutely suggest that you try as much Laotian food as possible, because WOW it’s fantastic!  And of course, enjoy some BeerLaos when you’re here!

Our next stop is Vang Vieng!!  Stay tuned!

Ha Long – How Beautiful

The first leg of our holiday is coming to an end.  At 5:20pm today we fly to Vientiane; the capital of Laos.  I must say, I’ve fallen deeply in love with Northern Vietnam.  I just finished the best bowl of soup of my life; Chicken Pho to rival grandma’s best noodle soup.  The rice noodles are light and delicious, and the fresh lime sits at the top of the soup, too light to sink, and coats every noodle in delicious fresh flavour.  Now, I’m ordering my second Vietnamese coffee for the day.  Dave pointed out just now that it tastes like Baileys, without the alcohol.  He’s right.  Motorbikes are zooming past us, and we’re eating on a balcony on some little side street of Hanoi’s old quarter.  Life is good.

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My view during today’s lunch

 

Halong Bay – History and Modern Uses

Last night we returned from 3 days in Halong Bay.  Translated, it means ‘Descending Dragon Bay’, and it’s located in Northern Vietnam, about a 3.5 hour drive from Hanoi City.  It’s famous due to its karst limestone landscape, 2000 islands  and its many fishing villages.

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Historically, Ha Long Bay is significant.  People have been living in the area for more than 20,000 years.  The bay has also saved Vietnam from Chinese and Mongolian Invasion on more than one occasion.  Now, it’s known for its beauty and tourists flock to Northern Vietnam to experience its gorgeous views.

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Views such as this one

Halong Bay Cruises

The primary way people choose to see the bay is through cruises.   There are hundreds of choices to make when taking a Halong Bay cruise, we decided to go with a mid-range, 2 night trip with a night on Cat Ba Island.  There are also day trips, 1 night trips and some people choose to spend the night on Monkey Island or other places in the area.  1 night on the boat was enough for me.  I don’t know if it was because I was reading Life of Pi, or if the boat noises kept me up, but either way, I didn’t get much sleep during our night on that Vietnamese Junk.

Our boat was comfortable enough.  We had a comfortable bed and a nice little bathroom to ourselves.  The cabin was small, but space isn’t something I expect in Asia, so that was no surprise.  We had a fan that worked and an air conditioner that didn’t, and all in all, it was a cool way to spend a night in Halong Bay!

Activities During The Cruise

I feel like we spent all 3 days getting on and off boats for different activities.  There were a variety of things to do, including kayaking, exploring a cave, visiting a Pearl farm, visiting Monkey Island and floating past a fishing village.  All were interesting in their own way.

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The little boat we took to each excursion

Kayaking was probably the most beautiful of all our stops, but the weather made it less enjoyable than it could have been, but still…being on the water was very nice.  This activity made me very happy that I still have a water-proof camera 🙂

We visited a huge cave shortly after kayaking as well.  It was beautiful and had some pretty spectacular views.

Day 2 began at a Pearl Farm, where locals have found ways to get oysters making pearls in a sustainable way.    It was an educational stop!  We learned how pearls are artificially implanted to produce real pearls.   This is much better for oyster populations, because before this process was discovered, oysters were found in the wild, opened up and killed just on the off-chance they were carrying pearls.

Monkey Island was our last stop before Cat Ba Island.  There’s no surprise regarding what we found there…Dave also went hiking up a steep mountain.  He didn’t take any pictures (because, of course he didn’t :p), but he did scrape up his leg on the jagged rocks.  Vietnam doesn’t baby its tourists the way Thailand and Cuba does.  They let you decide for yourself if you can do something.  As a result, Dave saw 60+ year old grandparents hiking up the mountain on his way down.

Cat Ba Island

As I mentioned earlier, our second night of the tour was not spent on a Junk.  Instead, we went to one of the only islands in Halong Bay where people live:  Cat Ba Island.   Cat Ba island is home to about 13,000 residents, and its main purpose is hosting Ha Long Bay tourists.

As we came into the area, we passed a floating village, home to about 1000 people.  These villages are an incredible sight, even when you’ve seen them before.  We were able to see a floating village in Cambodia during the dry season.  It was very cool seeing one completely afloat!

Once we checked into our hotel, we rented a motorbike and headed for Cat Ba’s most famous sight:  Cat Ba National Park.

The park itself is quite nice.  We didn’t see much for wild life, but I made some canine friends!  Mostly, we were just happy to be out in the wilderness, enjoying the fresh air and the peace and quiet.  The hike up was hard work, but it felt so good to get some good exercise in!  I’ve been too busy this year to get to the gym, and my body was definitely not happy with me on the way up, but it was well worth the trip!

We stopped at a little shop at the end of the hike and ordered some iced coffees.  We figured they’d probably be instant, given the location of the cafe, but this lovely Vietnamese woman made us fabulous Vietnamese iced coffee with fresh grinds and sweetened condensed milk!

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We spent the evening walking around and enjoying the town.   I think my favourite part of this whole tour was Cat Ba island.  I never really feel like I’m on a holiday with Dave until we’ve rented a motorbike!  It was also nice not to have a guide following us around.   We both enjoyed the freedom to explore the things we were interested in, at the pace we wanted.

Unfortunately, all good things come to an end, and before long, we were on our way back to Hanoi.  We met some very nice people on the way back and it was great chatting with them and hearing their stories.  We also learned how to make spring-rolls, which was fun.

It was a lovely trip and I’m very glad we made it!  Halong bay is definitely a must-see for anyone travelling through south East Asia.

Next, I’ll be writing about our time in Vientiane, Laos!  Exciting things are yet to come!!

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Photo from vientienbackpackershostel.com

Cheers!

Initial Impressions

Day one of our 33 day holiday is coming to an end, and it’s time to recap and reflect.

Hanoi City – Organized Chaos

We have begun our trip in Hanoi: a bustling and historic Vietnamese city.  We’re staying in the Old Quarter of Vietnam’s capital, where coffee shops are on every street corner and motorbikes are the primary means of transportation.  There’s an organized chaos here, in every sense of the word.

There are thousands of shops piled atop one another, and everywhere you look, there are people eating bowls of Pho on the sides of the street, and sipping coffee at tiny tables, sitting on tiny plastic stools.  What’s interesting, though, is that all those tiny little shops are organized and neatly merchandised.  My (extremely neat) sister would be impressed by the level of organization these shop owners manage to have in their little side-of-the-road shops.

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A small and popular restaurant in the Old Quarter

A good friend of ours lived in Vietnam for 4 years and she gave us valuable advice before we left for Hanoi.  She told us that the roads here are like a river; vehicles weave in and around one another and never really stop moving.  She told us to walk boldly but slowly and that vehicles would mostly just part around us.  It was terrifying at first, but she was right.  There are no crosswalks in the North American sense, but somehow, we got around just fine.  In a lot of ways it was less scary than India.  Ok…in every way.

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French colonialism is easily identifiable all over the city.  The streets, buildings and even French language are visible everywhere you go.  Cambodia was also colonized by the French, but the impact there wasn’t as obvious as it is in Hanoi.

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So different from China’s Skyscrapers

Hoàn Kiếm Lake – Passive and Pleasant

After a long day of travel yesterday and a long semester of 60-hour weeks, I wasn’t up for much today, so we mostly spent our time down by  Hoàn Kiếm Lake, which was a lovely experience.  The lake is a beautiful spot for wedding photos, so we saw several happy couples being chased by photographers.

There was a small temple by the lake as well.  We paid 30,000 dong each to enter (less than $2 Canadian) and enjoyed the quietness of the place.

There’s plenty to see walking along the lake.  The Old Quarter is a lovely place to spend the afternoon!

Different from Delhi / A Change from China

One of my favourite parts of travel is walking around at night, when the shops are lit up and the weather has cooled.  Vietnam is so different from India.  While there are shops everywhere, just as there is in New Delhi, nobody grabs you by the arms and nobody is too terribly pushy.  South East Asia, though hectic and tourist oriented, seems to have more of a dignity about it.  People bargain, but don’t try and rip you off.  People try and sell their goods, but if you say no, they move on with their days, un-offended and un-worried.

Tonight we walked around for a little while and found a restaurant where we enjoyed the best Vietnamese food I’ve ever had.  Although I love Chinese food, the oil has started to gross me out a bit.  Vietnamese food is fresher and crispier…with more raw vegetables and coconut sauces.  Dinner was delicious…and the coffee I just finished was an excellent way to end the night!

Tomorrow we set off for HaLong Bay…another UNESCO World Heritage Site to add to our list.   We’ll be spending 2 nights and 3 days enjoying one of Vietnam’s greatest treasures.

 

Golden Week Holiday – Xi’an

 

With Christmas coming up, and New Year’s day after that, I’m hoping to have a bit of time to catch up on my blog in the coming weeks.  For now, I’ll begin with a post about our Golden Week holiday in Xian.

The Decision

Every year Dave and I struggle with a difficult choice.  One one hand, travelling during golden week is a nightmare of crowds and scams, and neither of us can be bothered to deal with any of it.  On the other hand, it’s a chance to travel…our love of travelling always wins out, and this year, we decided to embark on an adventure to see China’s renown Terracotta Warriors, in Xi’an.

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Although Dave and I have always taken trips on our own, we decided to switch things up for this holiday and we went to Xi’an with our friend, Kevin.  We’ve met so many new people this year, and it’s been great expanding our group of friends.  When you only live in a city for a year, it’d difficult to make quality friendships, because you’re mostly limited to only people you work with.  In year two, you’ve had a chance to meet people outside of your school as well.  It’s so great having a good base of friends to hang out with, who share our values, our interests and our love for KTV!!  (except Kevin…he hates KTV :P.  This is further proof to my suspicion that he’s not really Chinese at all!)

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A night market in the streets of Xi’an

Because China’s train system is both more convenient and more cost effective than flying, we took the high speed train to Xian.  The trip takes 6.5 hours from Suzhou, but with electric plugs and good company, the time flew by.  Before we knew it, we were in China’s Shaanxi Province, and the former capital of the nation:  Xian.

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In the train!

Around Xi’An

Although we mostly traveled to Xian for the Warriors, there was plenty else to see while we were there.  Our hostel was located near two of the most famous buildings in the city:  The drum tower and The Bell Tower.  Both are beautiful during the day, but even more spectacular at night.

We were also close to another of Xi’an’s main attractions:  The Muslim Quarter.  Chinese Muslim food is some of the best food in the country, and you can find it in abundance in Xi’an.  From street carts, to shops to restaurants, if you enjoy mutton and spicy, high flavoured food, Xi’an will be a treat for your taste buds!

The nightlife in Xi’an was most enjoyable for me.  I found it to be quite hot there, but at night the temperature would drop a bit, and it became easier to wander around the city and see the sights that many tourists don’t usually see.  We ended up in one area where there were dozens of tiny traditional Chinese restaurants.  In that same area, we saw a ‘tea cup breaking’ ceremony that’s suppose to give you luck, and, of course, I made a sport of bargaining for gifts in Xi’an’s markets.  After 4 years in China, I’ve become pretty good at getting good deals in these funny little places!

Xi’an has a lot to offer for tourism, which is why 8 million people came to visit the city during Golden week in 2015.  2016 didn’t seem to be much different, because everywhere we went, we were fighting the crowds.  If we were less positive of people, I would say that the crowds ruined our holiday, but we did our best to stay positive.

All in all, I’ll remember Xi’an for the fantastic meals we ate, and the terracotta warriors. They deserve a post of their own, so I’ll be writing about them next time!!

Stay tuned for a history lesson on China’s Qin Dynasty, as well as some fabulous anecdotes and photos from our trip to see one of China’s National Treasures!

Vancouver: My Favourite Place in Canada (Part 2)

With 60+ hour work weeks keeping me busy, it’s been rough keeping up a decent sleep pattern, but recently I’ve had some time free up, so here I am once more…back to the blog!   Now that I finally have a spare moment, I thought it’s time that I finish blogging about our summer Holiday in Vancouver.  I’ve saved my favourite 2 parts of our stay in BC for last.

But first, take a look at my latest work project:

Stanley Park

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Two of Stanley Park’s Famous Totem Poles

Canada in summer is a beautiful thing.  People always ask me if it ever gets warm where I live, and I always have to laugh.  It amazes me how many people abroad think that Canada is a bleak winter wonderland year-round.   They don’t realize that we have 4 distinct seasons (some longer than others, I will admit) and that summer is actually quite lovely.

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A gorgeous day in Stanley Park

What I love about Canadian summers though, is that it’s just  the right amount of heat. Summer in Suzhou (even in May and June) are oppressive, but Canada (especially Vancouver) has the perfect climate.  We were lucky during our visit to the West Coast because it hardly rained.  We had sunny skies and perfect weather most of the trip.  I don’t feel like the weather was any more perfect than when we were at Stanley Park, though.

Everyone talks about how Stanley Park is a top destination in Vancouver, but I feel like it’s so much more than that.  For me, Stanley Park was a refreshing step into nature and beauty and purity.  We walked around the perimeter of the park, took detours down trails, hopped on the tram and sat by the sea side.  It was such a gorgeous way to spend the day and I felt sort of like I did at Elephant Nature Park, where when it came time to go, I felt emotional about having to leave that amazing place.

Maybe it’s been my time in one of the world’s most polluted countries, but my love for trees has deepened over the past few years.  I’ve always loved a forest trail, but now,  I feel like I could just get lost in them and stay there happily forever.  To be honest, that’s how I felt about Vancouver in general, but Stanley Park definitely was a high point in an already awesome week.

Whale Watching

The other highlight of our week in Vancouver was our trip to see wild orcas off the west coast of British Columbia.  As someone who is morally opposed to companies like SeaWorld (see Blackfish or The Cove if you’re interested in knowing why), I was thrilled at the opportunity to see orcas in the wild, in their element, doing what orcas do.

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When we saw these massive animals come out of the water, we were totally floored!

There really aren’t any words that can describe how cool it was to watch the big male hunting for salmon right under our boat, or the juvenile spy-hopping with his aunt right near our boat.  I couldn’t help but feel like these killer whales were putting on a show for us.  At one point, after a successful hunt, they all started slapping their back fins on the water.  Our ‘naturalist’ said that they don’t really know why whales do that, but they think it’s usually to do with celebration.  How cool is that??

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My only regret is how choppy the water was when we were out on our tour.  We were all getting soaked in the boat, so it was impossible for me to get my good camera out and get any closeup shots.  Luckily, we also own a waterproof camera, so we had that one out the whole time, but of course, choppy waters = a splashed lens, so the shots weren’t always as clear as I’d have liked.

I promise though, that the memories we made that day will be imprinted in my memory forever…and those memories are sans salt water smudges 😉

Here’s a video….I tried to keep it short so that you don’t feel sea sick watching it! (I definitely felt nauseous a few times when editing it down haha!!)

So, You’re Moving to China…(Part 2)

As promised, I am back with part 2 of my post!

5.  Kiss Comfort Goodbye

Whether you’re in your apartment or at a restaurant, the standards of comfort in China are very different from out west.  Beds are often rock hard, couches are frequently nothing more than a wooden bench, and restaurants (in certain areas of the country) forgo purchasing conventional tables and chairs, and have everyone sitting at child-sized tables, with plastic stools.

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Our couch in Guiyang.  My butt would go numb within about 10 minutes.
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One of our favourite hot pot places….not exactly the most comfortable restaurant…

And it’s not only your butt that will miss the comfort.  People here have a different idea of what ‘public space’ means.  I frequently see people watching movies on their tablets in public spaces (in the metro…at Starbucks…in restaurants…), without using ear buds.  When you have several people doing this in the same space, the room becomes so cluttered with noise that it’s difficult to think.

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After taking this picture, and posting it online, I saw someone post an article about how it’s wrong to take photos of strangers.  I agree…except for in cases when those individuals have forsaken their rights to privacy by taking away my right to focusing on my blog…

Smoking is also common place here, and you will see it everywhere you go.  Restaurants, shopping malls and even some schools all allow smoking and although Beijing and several other cities are beginning to make smoking illegal in public spaces, China still has a long way to go before you can enjoy a meal without choking on someone else’s cigarettes.

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Without reinforcement, signs like this don’t actually do very much.  There are ‘no smoking ‘ signs in most elevators, after all…it doesn’t stop people from lighting up in them…

And even in private spaces, China finds it’s way in.  People in our apartment building frequently leave their front doors open to air out their personal spaces….this often results in my own apartment smelling like cigarettes.  Our neighbours across the hall have apparently run out of room in their apartment, so they’ve begun storing personal items outside of their door, in the hallway…They are currently keeping their baby stroller and several other objects (including open umbrellas…) right outside of our door.

And Fireworks….The Chinese use them to ward of evil spirits and the following events all merit their use:

  • Weddings
  • Funerals
  • Birthdays
  • New Businesses Opening
  • Festivals
  • Holidays
  • Just because they like to make noise…
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Fireworks are a constant here.  When you live on one of the higher floors of a building, you’ll wake up to the sound of these things going off right outside your windows.  One day, when we were living in Guiyang, our apartment got smoked out when a new business had opened up downstairs.  We’d had our windows open…

Even babies don’t get any break from the discomfort of living in China.  I can’t help but wonder what this sort of thing means for this poor kid’s neck muscles…

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6. Traffic Laws are Non-Existent…and Mayhem most Definitely Ensues…

It’s rare that you will see a police officer pulling people over for bad driving.  It’s so rare, in fact, that the only time I can remember it happening was in Guiyang, when police officers caught on that they could get bribe money from e-bike drivers who aren’t wearing helmets.

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Take Note: There are no drivers in many of these cars.  In Suzhou, people frequently park in the areas meant for uturns….because… why not?  Sidewalks are another very popular place to park and double parking is common.  There’s no end in sight for this behaviour, because nobody gets ticketed for these types of things.  It’s beyond me…

The results of this lack of enforcement are terrifying.  In Suzhou, the driving isn’t TOO bad.  There are e-bike lanes and for the most part, people pay attention to stop lights and stay in 1 lane at a time…Well, ok, that might be a little generous…

I don’t have many pictures of this stuff, because, I’m usually trying to jump out of the way of drivers who are busy taking selfies instead of watching the road, but this video that I took in Guiyang should give you a pretty good idea of what it’s like driving, or ever walking, in China…

 

7.  You’ll Begin to Appreciate the Most Surprising things…

The most mundane things in Canada become the most appreciated in China.  Something as simple as Shake n’ Bake chicken is the cure to culture shock and bad days.  Although I was never really big on Deviled Eggs back home, I’ve grown to love them in China, because they remind me of Christmas and Thanksgiving.

One of the best things is getting care packages from home.  Getting Coffee Crisps, clothes that fit and western spices is such a great event!  It’s like the best Christmas gift you can imagine!!  I especially love getting letters from my nieces and nephews, though it’s common that China Post loses those.  I’ve had countless letters mailed to me over the past 2 years, but I’ve only every actually received 2.  Most of our family and friends have given up sending things, and I can’t say I blame them.  Canada Post charges an exorbitant fee to send packages overseas, and when they likely won’t even make it to us…what’s the point?

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China Post workers going through their mail deliveries…this could be why so many packages go missing….

On the subject of ‘stuff from home’, I realized something amazing about myself while I was finding pictures to use for these posts.  I apparently have a need to photograph any western-brand sign I see.  It must be the excitement of seeing something from Canada or America IN China…

8.  Signs:  The Good, The Bad and The Incomprehensible

This category doesn’t need much explaining….Let’s start with the good…

The Bad…

And, of course, the ones we can barely understand…

9.  Things are Just Done Differently Here… (Part 2)

Of course, there are a few things I forgot to write in this section of my last post, so here they are…

  • Public space is used differently here…Below is a photo of a man shaving.  In the metro.  On his way to work…

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  • Advertisements are weird.  These women are serving pie…in a glass cage..to promote a new restaurant.  They’re white…and it was weird…so people stopped.

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  • Products are also weird.  The grossest one I’ve seen are the facial creams that are supposedly made of human placenta.  They have a rejuvenating quality to them….yeah….no thanks….IMG_20160319_224523
  • Crowds….crowds like you have never experienced…

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  • Chinese medicine can be questionable.  I have tried acupuncture here and it did not go well.  I wound up passing out and I think the guy did more damage than good.  I’m a pretty firm believer in scientifically backed treatments, but if you want to try eastern remedies, I do urge you to seek out professionals.  Cupping is one of the most popular thing for westerners to try out.  It’s pretty harmless, and it leaves some pretty wicked (temporary) scars that you can show off.  Every Chinese person I’ve asked swears that it does wonders…
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A friend of mine, after a Cupping session.  The welts go away after about a month…

Some Final Tips for your Time in China

  • Buy clothing and shoes before coming to the country.  Even petite girls can have a difficult time finding clothing here, because generally there is NO ROOM for curves in Chinese clothing.  If you’re busty…shop at home accordingly, because you will not find anything above a B cup here.  Similarly, it’s difficult to find shoes bigger than a lady’s size 6 or 7 (36 or 37 in European sizes).
  • While the Chinese are perfectly ok wearing mini skirts where you can actually see their bums when they bend over, cleavage is a nay nay…Be prepared to have pretty high cropped shirts here, ladies.  It’s inappropriate to show off your goods (on the upper part of your body anyway…)
  • Learn how to use Tao Bao!  It is truly a life saver.  You can use Bing Translate or google translate if you have a VPN.  ***Tip:  Translate whatever it is you want to buy into Chinese (Google Translate works very well).  The prices are much lower if you search in Mandarin.
  • Buy bedding foam.  There’s very little worse than having a bad sleep.  The first time I lived in China, I was able to get used to the hard beds, but now…I find it unbearable.  There are all sorts of foam mattresses you can buy (Tao Bao is your best bet!) to soften up your bed.  They are invaluable and I HIGHLY recommend buying one!
  • Find a local store that carries western goods.  Metro, Carrefour, Walmart, Decathelon and Euromart are some of the best.  Tao Bao also carries a wide range of western brands, so that’s always an option as well.  It’s amazing how comforting it can be to find taco seasoning or salty popcorn when you have had a bad week.
  • Get a VPN (preferably before you enter the country)!  I couldn’t blog or keep in touch with anyone on Facebook if it weren’t for my VPN.  For $100 a year you can get set up with Astrill or Express, and both are reliable and fast.  The government does sometimes crack down on that stuff, so expect the occasional glitch in service, but for the most part, I feel that they do pretty well.

My last piece of advice before ending this post:  surround yourself with positive people.  There’s nothing worse than spending time with people who do nothing but complain about the culture and the country.  Of course, it’s inevitable that you will need to rant now and then, and that’s totally okay.  But I’ve met so many foreigners who spend their time abroad angry that the people here won’t conform to what THEY think it normal.  Those types of Lao Wai kinda suck…so don’t be like them.  Remember that there are good things and bad things in EVERY culture, and you don’t come from a perfect country any more than the Chinese do.  Be tolerant, and when it gets REALLY bad…grab some western bevies  (because Chinese beer is pretty terrible) and chill out with people who are going through the same things you are.

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Having a positive group of friends is key to surviving overseas.  I can’t claim that we’re all positive all the time, but we all count ourselves lucky to be having this incredible experience, and when all else fails, beers at Euromart, or a night out at KTV can go a long, long way for the spirit!!

That’s it for today!  My next post will be an update on life in Suzhou!  I’ll have pictures from my first gigs (I’m singing in a band :)), the Drama Festival at my school and all the stuff that’s been keeping me busy and away from my blog!