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.

 

Vancouver: My Favourite Canadian Destination – Part 1

About a year ago, I purchased a map off of this neat website that had all sorts of unique and beautiful products.  Although I loved the look of the map, it wasn’t just the design that encouraged me select it among the many choices the website offered.  This map is special, because you can scratch off areas of the world that you’ve visited.

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About a month ago, Dave got around to making a proper mount for this beautiful map.  He spent a few hours finding supplies on TaoBao, and a few hours making it, and I decided to take care of the fun stuff: scratching the places we’ve been!   Being the travelers that we are, I figured that I’d spend hours scratching away.  I was disappointed, however, to discover that so much of the world remains unseen by my eyes!  So, tomorrow, we set out on our Golden Week Holiday to Xi’an, with our friend Kevin.

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Of course, now that I’m about to head out on another adventure, I realized that I should probably write about our last adventure:  Vancouver.  So here it is, the post all of my Canadian readers have been waiting for!   Part 1 of our stay Kitsilano, Vancouver!

Kits Beach and Area

When first pricing out hotels in Vancouver, we were a little overwhelmed with the cost of accommodations.  Vacationing in Canada is EXPENSIVE when you compare it to the places we’ve been in Asia, so I was a little worried we’d need to forgo some of the things we wanted to do because hotel prices were so high.  I’m pretty sure we are the luckiest people in the world though, because as it turned out, a good friend of ours was going to in Manitoba while we were in Vancouver, leaving her apartment in Kitsilano free for us to rent for the week!  We couldn’t have planned the timing better if we’d tried!!

We fell in love with Kits pretty quickly.  The beach was gorgeous, Sophie’s Cosmic Cafe was an adorable place to stop for a good breakfast, and we were a short walk or bus ride away from pretty much every thing we wanted to see.  We were originally thinking of staying downtown, but I am SO glad we spent our time in this little suburb of Vancouver.

Downtown, Gas Town and Canada Place

Two days of our trip to Vancouver were spent exploring downtown and Canada Place.  When I first visited Vancouver 8 years ago, I was blown away by its gorgeous skyline.  Of course, now that I’ve traveled to cities like  Shanghai, Bangkok and Mumbai, Vancouver seemed a little less spectacular, but the little areas in the city’s center still impressed me.

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Gas Town is probably my favourite area of down town.  There are tonnes of little shops where you can find maple-flavoured everything and tonnes of little restaurants to try. Best of all, the architecture in Gas Town is pretty cool.  I regret that I didn’t get many pictures of that particular area, because every time we visited it was after dark, and the area can be a bit shady.  My camera is one of my most prized possessions, so it stayed tucked away in my bag.

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Gas Town’s Famous Clock

Canada Place was quite impressive too.  The last time I was in Vancouver, it was all under construction because of the upcoming Olympic games, so it was nice to see it all finished. Dave especially enjoyed this part of our time downtown as he was able to watch planes take off while I hunted Pokemon!!

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Granville Island

Of all the places we visited in Vancouver, Granville island is where we spent the most time. We wound up on that sweet little island 4 or 5 times throughout our stay and this was mostly because we enjoyed walking down there so much!  It took about 40 minutes to walk from Kits Beach to Granville island, but it was such a lovely walk through parks along the beach, that we tended to gravitate in that direction any time we went out.

Granville is the place to go if you want fresh sea food, craft beer, shopping or if you want to book a whale watching tour. There is also a lovely park on the island, where we walked around a few times…just to breath in the fresh air and admire the ducks and geese that hang out there.

Meeting New Friends

During our week in Vancouver, we met up with a couple of people that I’d never met before.  Dave’s cousin, Michael, lives in the area so we met up with him and his girlfriend, Gabriella, during our stay in Kits.  We hit it off, and I think we were all a little amazed at how much Dave and Michael are alike!  This new friendship lead us to take a trip up to Mount Seymore for the Persius Meteor Shower, which was spectacular and unlike anything I had really experienced.

We also spent an evening down in New West Minister with an old friend of Dave’s.  Sitting by the harbour, eating wings and poutine, was a fantastic way to spend a night in that lovely city.  While enjoying our evening in New West, Kaitlin gave us lots of tips and ideas of places to go while in Vancouver.  This led us to one of the most exciting parts of our stay in BC; the Vancouver observatory!  While we were there, we were able to see a gorgeous view of Saturn (rings and everything!), a close up of the moon, and the Herculese star cluster, which happens to contain 300,000 stars and is 200 thousand light years away.

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The Vancouver Museum of Anthropology 

Although we very much wanted to climb Grouse Mountain, I realized that after 6 days of being on my injured leg, walking 10km+ per day, I needed to take it easy(er).  I did a quick look online to find a more low-impact activity for our last day in Kits, and came across the Vancouver Museum of Anthropology.  It was a lovely visit and we saw everything from traditional and modern Aboriginal art, to 4000 year old pots.

It was difficult to even understand the number of artifacts this museum contains and I know that we could have easily spent an entire day (and then some…) exploring every little thing the museum had to offer.  The museum has little areas for countless cultures and in each area, there are pull-out drawers that contained hundreds of small artifacts to admire.  Although it wasn’t the most glamorous thing we saw in Vancouver, I’m really glad we made the stop.

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That’s it for part 1 of my post. In part 2, I’ll be writing about my 2 favourite parts of our stay in Vancouver:  Stanley Park and seeing Resident Killer Whales off the coast of British Columbia!

Stay tuned!!!

Update Time!

It’s hard to believe how quickly 6 weeks can fly by!   After 5 weeks in Manitoba and then 1 week in Vancouver, it’s an understatement to say that I was happy to sleep in my own bed again!  Our cats were well cared for over the holiday and are happy as clams to have us home, back in our little routine.  Poe continues to act as my alarm clock and Hugo seems to be even more cuddly than ever!  Life is good here back in Suzhou!

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As you can see…she’s been VERY stressed…

Manitoba was a grand time.  We were able to catch up with friends, spend time with family and I even got to meet my nephew, Zachary, for the first time.  It’s funny because adults change so little from year to year, but the kids….WOW do they grow!  I’m convinced that at least 1 of my nephews is going to be taller than me next year!   My niece, Ellie, learned how to read over the past year and her little sister began talking…things change so much in their little lives while we’re away!

Our 5 weeks in Winnipeg were spent well.  We were able to see a Fringe Show, visit the Forks and even visit the Canadian Museum for Human Rights!  Last year had been too rushed to stop by this architectural marvel, but I really enjoyed our afternoon there, learning new things and being reminded of things that shouldn’t be forgotten.

I organized a Paint Night with some of my favourite gals and that turned out to be a tonne of fun!  I’d recommend it as a fun night out to anyone who wishes they can paint or actually can paint!  I have artistic skills in that way and mine still turned out pretty well!  See!!!

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A good portion of my summer was spent outside.  I was able to play at the pool with my nieces and nephew, sit around bonfires and spend LOTS of time outside!  The air is so fresh and clean in Canada and the temperature is perfect for being outside.  Currently, it’s sitting at about 40 degrees Celsius in Suzhou, so I definitely miss the Prairie temperatures already!

Oddly enough, it was a game that took up most of our time in Manitoba!  Pokemon Go was all the rage back home and Dave and I spent countless hours walking around Steinbach and The Winnipeg Forks trying to catch a Pikachu or hatch a Snorlax.  I was never lucky on either of those counts, but my sister managed to catch 3 of the little yellow Pokemon!  I will forever be jealous, because Pokeman Go is banned in China.  It runs through Google Maps, which is blocked by the Great Fire Wall, so there is no Pokeman here for us to play.

We also had our yearly BBQ at St. Malo Provincial Park!  It was such a blast last year that we planned it out again this year.  We had loads of people come down and spent the day out in the sun with ys, playing in the water and enjoying WAYY Y too much food!

It’s hard to point to a ‘favourite’ memory of our 2016 trip home, but the most inspiring event was definitely Steinbach’s 1st Pride Parade.  Dave and I attended, expecting there to be a small crowd of maybe 100 or 200 people…little did we know that over 3500 people came in from all over the province for the event!  There were actually people who flew in all the way from Orlando for Steinbach’s first pride.  It was a pretty huge deal!

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The number of attendees was inspiring in of itself, but Steinbach’s reaction to the event was also good.  The Automobile City has caught a lot of flack over the last few years for their stance on LGBT rights and a variety of other subjects.  There have been issues within the school division over these matters and protests regarding bullying bills aimed at protecting LGBT students.  But instead of holding a protest or causing a fuss over the parade, Steinbach let it happen.

There were plenty of spectators there who were watching the parade and there was a tonne of support.  Many people in Steinbach have softened their views on homosexuality as they’ve grown to know people in the LGBT community or have learned that people in their own families are gay.  I saw many signs that said things like ‘proud parent’ or ‘supportive parent’.  It was really beautiful to see such acceptance  in a city that has previously been branded intolerant.  It was a huge step for Steinbach and although I know not everyone in the city agreed with the event…that’s not the point!  It’s ok not to agree with it…I’m just happy no one showed up with eggs or protest signs.  That’s what tolerance is, after all…accepting that people might thing differently than you.  You don’t have to agree with them, but you should give them the freedom to have their own beliefs.

So that is a very brief summary of our stay in Manitoba!  Our final week in Canada was spent in Vancouver, which I will be writing about soon!  I have 1 or 2 posts planned before I can get to our time on the West Coast, but I’m still off work until September 1st, so I should be able to get a fair amount of blogging in between now and then!

So, stay tuned for entertaining posts such as:

  • Beginning a new Semester in China…things teachers should know
  • Tips for new Expats living in Suzhou
  • Vivacious Vancouver: From Kits Beach to Stanley Park
  • Whale Watching off the West Coast of Canada

 

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!

 

 

 

Should I go to India? (Rajasthan)

It’s difficult to imagine a country more diverse than India. With 22 official languages,  6 major religions and countless traditions and cultures, your experiences in India will depend greatly on the areas you visit.  Of the places we visited, Rajasthan was the most flaunting of their customs and traditions, and no matter where you travel there, you get a taste of the individual cultures that make up this desert state.

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Rajasthan is a state located in north-western India.  Although it is mostly famous because of its Thar Desert, Rajasthan has much more going on than just sand.  We visited 5 cities (and could have doubled that number if we’d had the time) and had some pretty awesome experiences.  Here are some of the highlights of Rajesthan.

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Palaces and Forts

Prior to its independence from England in 1947, India didn’t look the way it does today. Although it is now a democratic country, India used to be made up of several small city states, run by kings.  As a result, there is an abundance of history in Rajasthan and if you like seeing antiques and learning about the past, the palaces and forts in Rajasthan are excellent ways to spend your afternoons.

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Rajasthan’s forts speak volumes about India’s past.  The different colours seen here are because these two areas were built in different times and of different materials

The fees to get into some of these palaces were quite high, and from what I heard from other tourists, not always worth the money.  In Udaipur, we opted to skip the palace because of the high camera fee.  We were relieved to hear from a couple later on that it had been wise to skip it; there was little more than a few paintings to see.  In other places, like Jodpur for example, the forts (and attached palaces), are well worth your time and money.

Many of the hotels in Rajasthan are actually old palaces and government buildings from past rulers.  We stayed in several of these buildings, known as Havelis, while in Rajesthan…each had beautiful architecture and interesting rooms.

Architecture

Each city we visited in Rajasthan seemed to have a nickname.  Jaipur is ‘The Pink City’.  Udaipur is ‘The Lake City’, Pushkar is ‘The Pilgrimage City’, Jaisalmer ‘The Golden City’ and Jodpur ‘The Blue City’.  Each of these nicknames comes from the unique architecture and geography in the area.

Jaisalmer impressed me the most with its beautiful sandstone carvings.  Not only is the golden colour of the sandstone beautiful, but the intricate detail found all around the city is a photographer’s dream.

Similarly, Udaipur’s gorgeous hotels built along the lake are a sight to see.  The white buildings reflect on the lake, giving the city a serene atmosphere.

And if the cities themselves aren’t beautiful enough for you, the temples and other landmarks in India are also sights to behold.  After all, the Taj Mahal is just one of India’s famed buildings…there are many, many more!!

Markets

If shopping is your favourite pass-time during travel, Rajasthan is for you!  Every city we visited had markets where you can check out Rajasthan’s unique textiles.  And, for a state famous for its desert, you wouldn’t believe the colour you’ll see in these markets!!

Among the best cities for shopping were Pushkar and Udaipur.  While the shopkeepers in Jodpur and Jaipur were pushy and known to chase you down the street…Pushkar and Udaipur had a much calmer feel to them.  There was an abundance of art and textiles (bedding, scarves, clothing etc…) to see everywhere we visited in Rajesthan, you could only really peacefully visit shops in these two smaller cities.  We bought the majority of our souvenirs in Pushkar, where the prices were fair and where I was given the chance to try things on without people grabbing my arms and trying to drag me into different stores (a frequent experience in Jodpur!)

Of course, you do need to be careful when shopping in Rajasthan.  The prices aren’t nearly as inflated as they are in the Golden Triangle, but you will still be ripped off if someone sees the opportunity.  Pushkar specifically had an interesting scam that involved locals trying to push you into paying for flowers that are originally presented as being free.  A rule of thumb in Pushkar…people are really nice…just DON’T BUY THE FLOWERS!!!!  And, of course, be weary of anyone telling you that their products are 100% Kashmir or Pashmina…they most likely aren’t.  I paid 1000 rupees for a scarf that I saw for 400 rupees only a few days later in one of the smaller cities.  Be skeptical of initial prices and BARGAIN HARD!  (even when they try and make you feel like you’re ripping them off…it’s part of their shtick)

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I saw these table clothes for 500 rupees in the market.  We ended up buying 3 of them from a gentleman in Jaisalmer, who was selling them for some of the women living out of the city.  We paid only 100 rupees each and we knew he was STILL making good money on our purchases.

Wildlife and Landscape

Rajasthan is THE place to visit if you are interested in diverse landscapes and wildlife. From monkeys to cows, there won’t be a day you don’t see an animal while in India.  And because Rajasthan covers such a large area, the landscapes change a great deal as you travel around the state.

The farm life within the cities is astounding.  Not only cows roam the streets of Jaipur and Jaisalmer, but also goats, sheep, pigs and chickens…

There are monkeys all over the place in Rajasthan!  I’m always afraid of being bitten because monkeys can be so aggressive, but the zoom on my camera made it easy to get some good close ups of these cool little dudes…

 

And of course, I can’t forget about the friends we made in the desert

The most remarkable animals we saw in Rajasthan were the famed Demoiselle Cranes we saw outside of Udaipur.  These cranes are famous because they have the most difficult migration of any bird on earth.  Not only do they need to fly over the Himalayan mountains to get to their breeding grounds in India…but they get attacked and eaten by Golden Eagles along the way!  Don’t believe me?  Watch Planet Earth!   We watched the episode about Mountain Landscapes after we got home, just to see the cranes that we’d been lucky enough to see up close in Rajasthan!

Some Cautionary Tales

There are far more ups than downs visiting Rajasthan.  For Dave and I, the biggest downer was our driver, who was strange and actually pretty terrible at his job.  Look around for drivers that have good reviews before booking because you’ll be spending 35+ hours in a car with that person…and trust me…you don’t want a guy who plays the same 5 minute Ohm on repeat the entire time!  It can really ruin a trip!

Additionally…it’s a good idea to book ahead of time.  While it’s often better to book tours once you’re IN a country, you will be overwhelmed with the number of tour guides trying to sell you packages once you’re in New Delhi.  Many of them will lie to you to get your business (ours assured us that they were government run…they were not!) and they will all try and rip you off.  Check Trip Adviser before you get tied in with anyone in India.

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Also…make sure you’ll be being driven around in a decent car.  This was our driver and car…the driver was ok…the car was nice.  I can’t imagine how horrible it would have been to spend 35 hours in something without proper suspension!

Aside from drivers…make sure to look around before buying things so you get a feel for what prices are in markets.  Don’t believe anyone who tells you their scarves are 100% anything…they are lovely, and I wouldn’t discourage you from buying 1 (or 3…), but I would caution you to limit how much you spend.  Most of the time, the Kashmir or Pashmina scarf they’re selling you is mostly silk or even polyester.

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And, of course, I highly recommend that you make purchases at places like Belissima…shops that specialize in art and textiles being made by people in need…This particular shop helps women who have been widowed or who were never married.  (it’s located in Jaisalmer fort…there are signs everywhere so it shouldn’t take long to find!!)

So there you have it…Rajasthan is chalk full of things for every type of tourist.  From gorgeous landscapes to intricate architecture, you’ll find something interesting at every stop you make.  If I could do things differently, I would have taken 3 of the days we had in New Delhi and added them to our time in Rajasthan so we could have seen Bikaner or Rathambore.  Perhaps some day I’ll get the chance…

Awesome Agra

Often, when it comes to traveling, I am underwhelmed by ‘must see’ sights that everyone else seems to love.  At Yellow Stone, I didn’t find Old Faithful to be particularly punctual or impressive.  In Cambodia, I preferred several temples over Angkor Wat.  Even in Thailand, I preferred Elephant Nature Park and Ayuttaya over the crowded beaches.  Agra, however, was the exception to that rule…Although I arrived at the Taj Mahal expecting to be underwhelmed, within minutes, I realized I had underestimated India’s most iconic building.

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We traveled for hours in a thick fog and Dave and I were both very worried that the visibility was so bad that we wouldn’t even be able to see the building.  Luckily, as the sun climbed in the sky, the fog dissipated and we arrived at Taj Mahal’s front gate with beautiful blue sky above us.

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India’s pollution problems + Winter fog = poor visibility for some tourists!
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We were so glad the sky cleared by the time we made it to the front gate.

We were provided with a tour guide while we were in Agra.  I don’t typically like guides, because they can take so much away from the experience (I hate being shuttled around) but this one was pretty good.  He offered a lot of information about the structures themselves, although we did find out later that some of his facts weren’t exactly true (more on that later).   The things that were true, though, made it worthwhile having a guide at this particular attraction.

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I doubt he liked us very much, though.  He learned quickly that we weren’t big spenders when we opted out of the 1/2 km carriage ride to the Taj Mahal.  The weather was nice and so was the walk 🙂

Now, about the the building and grounds themselves…

In 1631, the Mughal emperor of India, Shah Jahan, lost his beloved wife during the birth of their 14th child.  After spending a year in secluded mourning, the emperor hired an architect to design a beautiful building both to commemorate his late wife, and to act as her final resting place.   The architect did his job well and today, thousands of tourists flock to the Taj Mahal to visit the burial sight of Emperor Jehan and his wife, Mumtaz Mahal.

Now that you have some history, I should explain why this UNESCO World Heritage Sight is so renown.   I like lists, so let’s do it that way…

#1 – The Optical Illusions

When you are (finally) done with security and have bought your tickets and paid for your camera fees, you make it through the front entrance.  This is when you first see the Taj Mahal.  It looks enormous and very close, and you can’t quite figure out why you hadn’t seen it behind the front gate.

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When you first see the building, you realize that photos could never possibly do it justice.

But as soon as you step through that doorway, you realize that there is quite a bit more walking to do before you actually get TO the building itself.  The doorway just makes it look closer than it really is.

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The view from the other side of the gate

There are also optical illusions on the building itself.  For example:

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This pillar does not actually have points everywhere.  It only looks like it is because of the way the stones are inlay-ed (we’ll get to that…)

 

More interesting yet, depending which time of day you visit the hall, it changes colours!  I had always seen the Taj Mahal in pictures during sun sets, so it surprised me a lot when I saw that it is white!  The entire building is made of high quality marble.  The material is actually partially translucent, so it reflects light in some very interesting ways.

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With a really beautiful sunrise or sunset, the building actually turns pink

This marble is very valuable and delicate, so India has come up with an interesting cleaning regiment for their famous landmark.  Instead of washing dust and dirt off with a pressure washer (or a harsh equivalent) they cover parts of the building with mud, and then gently wipe it away by hand.   The mud helps to delicately scrub away any built up pollutants on the Taj Mahal’s pristine facade.  They were working on 2 of the towers when we were visiting.

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#2 – The Symmetry

Every aspect of this building is symmetrical genius.  From the trees, to the pools to the mausoleums that stand on either side of the main building, the Taj Mahal is balanced.  As you walk through the gate, you are met by a long pool that leads up to the Taj Mahal itself.  The line in the middle of that pool runs directly to the center of the main building, making for perfect picture taking.  Even the most amateur photographer can get a straight picture if they know where to look.

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And everything from the trees to the stone steps to the pools on either side are mirrors of themselves.  It’s really quite impressive because as long as we were with our guide, he never seemed to run out of things to show us that were perfect mirrors of one another.   Both inside and outside of the building, everything from the art to the pillars to the shape of each room is a perfect reflection of the other side.

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Obviously I didn’t take this picture, but it shows that no matter which side of the Taj Mahal you are standing on…you see the same thing!
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Similarly, the pools are designed to reflect the Taj Mahal perfectly and there is a mosque built on either side of the main building.  Each of those mosques are also perfectly balanced.

But wait!  I’ve saved the best for last!!!

#3 – The Inlay Art

What impressed me the most about this incredible structure wasn’t the symmetry or the marble.  It was actually the art and how that art was made.

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A close up of one of the entrances.

Now, the Islamic writing around the arches is painted on…but all of the other art you see…the flowers and vines…that’s not paint!

Every piece of those flowers and vines are actually made of precious and semi-precious gems.  Here’s how it’s done…

The high quality marble that was used to make the Taj Mahal was carved into by artists.  The designs were chosen ahead of time, and gems were brought from as far away as China and Egypt to complete the task.  The gems were sanded down to fit into the holes in the marble and then glued into place.  So instead of having paint all over the Taj Mahal…you have incredibly detailed inlay work.

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All symmetrical and all inlay-ed precious stones

We went to a factory where this form of art is still being practiced.

This form of art is called Parchin Kari in India or Pietra Dura elsewhere.  In order to decorate the Taj Mahal, Emperor Jahan had Jade brought from China, Sapphire brought from Sri Lanka and even Turquoise from Tibet.  The results are magnificent.  Not only is the art beautiful, but when the light hits certain gems just right…the whole building sparkles!!!

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It is a bit difficult to catch on camera, but you can sort of see it in a few places here.

Sadly, because this building is so famous, it gets a lot of attention from thieves.  Repair work is almost always being done on the building because tourists try and remove stones and are sometimes even successful!

 

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Myth vs Facts

India has worked hard to protect this  building, and during the second world war and wars with Pakistan special measures were taken to keep the building from being bombed.

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Although only partially covered in bamboo here, it is believed that India covered the entire building during WW2, to keep the Nazi and Japanese forces from recognizing and bombing their most famous landmark.

Of course, this is one of the more interesting TRUE stories about the Taj Mahal.  I learned later on that some of the other interesting stories our guide told us are completely fabricated.  For example, there were never plans to build a second BLACK Taj Mahal across the river.  It is a myth being perpetuated by tour guides in India.

Another myth that has added interest in the Taj Mahal states that the Indian Government had plans to demolish the building and to sell the marble.  This story has no more truth to it than the black Taj story does, but it continues to be told because it increases interest in the famous landmark.

To me, I think the building is fascinating enough WITHOUT fabricating additional stories.  But hey…I suppose they know what they’re doing…there’s no such thing as bad press, right?

After visiting the Taj Mahal we also went down to Agra Fort, which was built during the same period for the same emperor’s family.  It wasn’t as interesting as the Taj Mahal itself, but it was still pretty neat and definitely worth some photos!  (click on the photos for captions and explanations)

I have 1 last post that I’m still working on for India.  I hope to have it up soon!

If you found this blog post interesting, please feel free to share with your friends.  As always, comments and likes are always appreciated (and make me feel a little less like I’m talking to myself;) )

When Culture Stops Being an Excuse

I love my life in Suzhou. I’ve made some incredible friends and adopted some awesome cats. I’m working at a great school in a well-run department where I am respected and valued. I have opportunity for growth here in Suzhou, both professionally and personally and I’ve even been able to focus more on my health here, going to the gym and being more careful with my diet. I’ll be 30 soon and I need to stay healthy so that my 30s are as rockin’ as my 20s were. Still, today I’m not feeling much love for the Venice of Asia. Perhaps it’s the smoggy weather or maybe I didn’t sleep very, but China is getting on my nerves today!

This morning Dave and I met a friend for breakfast, and as is often the case with Michael, we got into a discussion about what it’s like living in China. Michael’s still on his first year here and he is still noticing some of the things that Dave and I have learned to ignore and his perspective on life here always reminds me of the things that foreigners live with on a day to day basis out here in the orient.

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A Frequent theme in my blog

And all things considered, there really isn’t very much that we need to worry about. China is safe and the people here are kind and friendly, the countryside in this country is diverse and stunningly beautiful and the expat community is quite large so it’s easy to make friends in Suzhou. But, as is the case anywhere, China (and Suzhou) has its problems…

As I mentioned earlier in this post, I’ve been going to the gym. I’ve been pretty good about going 3 days per week and although I haven’t lost much in the way of weight (I think I’m building muscle), I’m becoming noticeably more toned and I’ve been slimming down. I’m very proud of the way I’ve been looking lately and I feel good about doing something positive for a body that has treated me pretty well so far in my 29 years. But I’ve gotta say…as much as I love working out and feeling energized, it is EXTREMELY difficult to love Chinese gyms!! Where should I start?.

 

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I discovered, while writing this blog post, that Powerhouse is a chain outside of just China.

The Equipment: Although there are about 20 treadmills at Power House, they only have 6 eliptical machines, 1 stair master, 10 bikes and some weight side to side machines that kind of make you feel like you’re skating. Now, I have no problems with the treadmills…there are more than enough and they are in good shape…but I also don’t use treadmills very often because they kill my knees. So that leaves 20 cardio machines that I CAN use…except 8 or 9 of them are almost always broken. The ones that AREN’T broken are such poor quality that they always feel like they’re about to fall apart underneath you. Out of all the elliptical machines, only 1 of them accurately tracks distance and calories…1!!! It’s the same with the weights and the resistance machines. Many of them are missing pins so you can’t adjust the resistance without first hunting down a pin from some other machine. Plus, nobody puts their equipment away after they use them, so there are random weights just hanging around on the floor…a little bit dangerous…

Sanitation: This is a big one. There are no towels or spray bottles anywhere at Power House so people don’t clean their equipment like they do in Canada. I can’t tell you how often I get onto an elliptical and realize that the handles are covered in someone else’s sticky sweat. I bring my Norwex towel with me to help with that kind of thing, but it’s still pretty gross. The bathrooms are also pretty dirty. People don’t flush their dirty toilet paper in China (something about the sewage systems not being able to handle it), so the garbage cans are full of that dirty toilet paper. It smells awful and the cans get emptied so rarely that the entire hallway around the bathrooms and change rooms stinks like urine.   Not pleasant…

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The biggest problem with squatters themselves is that it’s sometimes hard to control where your pee ends up….so most of the time, it ends up on (at least) the bottom of your shoes, and you end up tracking it out of the bathroom…

The People: This is the worst part of going to the gym. I can’t even tell you how many times I haven’t been able to finish my work out because someone is sitting on a machine I need, texting or checking their WeChat accounts…it’s infuriating but I often feel like I’m the only person who cares. This kind of thing was especially bad in January and February, when all the New Years resolution memberships started up. Girls (the worst offenders) would hop on a treadmill and spend 10-15 minutes going back and forth between stretching (on the machine!!) and taking selfies to post on WeChat. This isn’t a huge gym, and while there are plenty of treadmills, that can’t be said about any other machine in the building. Yesterday I gave up after waiting 5 minutes for a guy to get off the crunch machine I wanted to use to target my upper abs. And that one elliptical machine that works…the one I mentioned before…people hog that machine for 50+ minutes…some of them hardly even breaking a sweat they are going so slowly because they are too busy enjoying their favourite TV show on their cell phones.

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And most of the time, people aren’t just taking short breaks between sets…they literally use the equipment like public benches…

And this is where the title of this post comes in…a lot of these problems are annoying but forgivable. After all, I know my standards are high…I’m lucky and I was born in a wealthy country where I have the luxury of having problems as shallow as ‘not having cold enough water’. I also know that the sewage issues in China are complicated and that not everywhere in the world is as sterile as North America (it’s weird coming home for visits by the way…everything feels too clean…the whole country feels like a hospital).  There are absolutely things that can be explained by pointing out cultural differences…and foreigners who have been here for a while are always quick to point out that you’re being judgmental for getting upset about some of the things we deal with here in China.  I always feel bad when someone says that to me, because I try very hard to be understanding of cultural differences…

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A picture depicting the difference between line ups in North America, vs the way it’s done in China…I even learned to embrace this in Guiyang and Xiamen (it’s not to bad in Suzhou).  I put aside my Canadian upbringing and learned to push my way to the front, just like everyone else…

But this morning, when we were having breakfast with Michael, he said something that really rang true with me during my work out today: When can we stop pretending that EVERYTHING is about culture? How many things can we blame on cultural differences, really?? When does Culture become an excuse?

 

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The Chinese think that drinking cold water is bad for your stomach…so even at the gym, you can only find hot water, or room temperature.  At Power House, one of the options is suppose to be cold, but it comes out warm enough to steam up my bottle, sooo…

I don’t think that the selfie taking at the gym is forgivable just because I’m in China and “things are different here”. I also don’t think people have to leave their equipment all over the place for others to trip on. And I definitely don’t think that a gym like Power House, who claims to be the ‘western gym’ and charges western prices, has any excuses as far as buying terrible equipment is concerned. None of these things are cultural…they’re just people being inconsiderate of others. And maybe it’s my Canadian background…maybe it’s just my upbringing…but I really have very little patience for inconsiderate people. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if everyone just paid attention to other people’s needs and tried to be more aware of the world around them?

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Another example of this behaviour..some one took off with the school kitchen’s mop over the holiday.  There was a water issue in the kitchen and the only way I could get the water out of the mop they left behind, was to take it outside and step on the mop to get the water out…People take things from that kitchen all the time and leave messes as well.  I don’t know if they just don’t realize that SOMEONE has to clean it (that someone being me), or if they just straight up don’t care…

So those are my thoughts today. Living overseas can be very hard some days, and although it’s gotten ions easier for me since moving to Suzhou, there are still thing here that tick me off. I guess I still have not succeeded in becoming the Super Wizard that I long to be… a Super Wizard who is annoyed by nothing and can aparate to Canada any time she wants to go to the gym or meet her gorgeous new nephew, Zachary.

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Thank goodness I have these 3 to keep me sane!

There’s still more about India on its way! Thanks for checking in!!!