Freezing in Harbin

IMG_0242   Harbin. All I had heard about this northern Chinese city was that it was cold and had some cool ice sculptures in the winter. Most expats I know in China had mentioned Harbin as being one of those “must-see” places. So, when planning our trip for Chinese New Year, Emily (my travel companion for few previous trips and this trip) mentioned heading up for the first part of our vacation. I thought it was a good idea and we booked the tickets. It was then that I started to monitor the weather to see if I had enough layers to take. It would be the coldest temperatures I’d ever been in…colder than when I was at Everest Base Camp even. I’ll admit, this Florida girl was worried.

The night we arrived in Harbin, I put on a hat, thick scarf, and a few jackets before bracing the cold walk to the driver’s car. I was hoping the next day, when we explored the city, I would be warmer. I wasn’t.

The first morning in Harbin, we woke up, ate breakfast, and braved (I braved it with four layers on top and three on the bottom, Emily embraced it) the cold to walk to the St. Sophia Church, a former Russian Orthodox church. The church was built in 1907, with Byzantine architecture. In 1996, it became an art gallery where locals and tourist can walk through (we paid 15rmb). The inside offered pictures of the past, while gazing up offered an impressive look into traditional Russian architecture. After our fill, we continued to walk around and came across our first ice sculpture. I was impressed. It was right there off Central Street, and you could walk through the little open ice “hallway”. Of course, it wouldn’t compare to the sites we had not seen yet at this point.

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We continued our walk and came to the frozen Song Hua River. The icy frozen surface hosted lots of activities…traditional ice games, dune buggies going into the sky via a sketchy propeller, slides, and dog sleds. We opted to walk (slowly and carefully for me) across the white expanse of ice to the small island. After about 15 minutes, we made it to the other side (I with a sigh of relief for making it without a broken ankle, and a sigh of annoyance that we’d have to eventually cross it again!) We paid to take a little closed tram around the island to see what it offered. We came across the Sun Island Snow Sculpture Art Expo and decided to hit it up later that evening, after a little more sight seeing. After getting off the tram, we walked to an almost abandoned temple. The only person there was a lady who came out to take an entrance fee from us. I loved the sound of my feet crunching along the snow as I took each step. Again, coming from Florida, it was not an everyday experience for me.

That evening, we headed back to the Sun Island Snow Sculpture Art Expo. People from all over the world came to Harbin to create amazing sculptures out of snow. Each sculpture was truly a work of art, offering impressive details. Every corner you took, another piece of art was there. In the center of the expo, a frozen pond had people “riding” bikes or being pulled by inner tubes. In the back of the pond, I saw many people going up stairs with an inner tube. Now, as I’ve stated before, I am not use to ice and I really was trying to avoid a broken ankle or leg, so I happily waited on the snowy shore as Emily glided gracefully over the ice to the stairs. A while later, she came back and said I had to come. I was skeptical, but begrudgingly went. For a 100rmb deposit, you get an inner tube and go up the stairs. Emily carried my inner tube for me as we went up the stairs (in all fairness, at this point, my body was 70% ice and didn’t move too easily). We were instructed to sit a certain way and then were pushed down an ice luge!! It was so much fun!! It was worth every slippery step on that ice! If you ever find yourself at this expo during the winter, you must go ice luging there! I would have gone another time, but the attendant said no. We left the expo as the sun was setting (in my attempt to get back to the hotel before the night temperatures set in).

The next day, our second and final day in the charming city of Harbin, we set off for a walk through the city. We eventually found ourselves at the Shangri-La Hotel, where I had read about them having an ice bar. I asked about it once we got there. Sadly, they were not doing the ice bar anymore, but they were doing a restaurant with hot pot. I’m not sure what part of my brain (probably the part that had frozen over at this point) thought it was a great idea, but we signed up for a meal. We each got our own pot among the table that had a million things to cook up spread on it. It was cold in there. So cold, that the Coke I ordered was nearly frozen by the end of the meal. Even the meat slices were frozen not long after we began eating. It was a great experience, but at this point, my body was starting to feel the effects from being exposed to the cold I was not normally used to.

Later that evening, we headed to the main reason people travel to Harbin during the winter months: Ice-Snow World. We took a taxi to the venue (which was overpriced but we wanted to get out there and so we paid the 100rmb) and purchased our tickets. Tonight, I was prepared: I had on five top layers, Chinese hot packs (that you can stick to you) on my upper back, three layers on the bottom with hot packs on the front and back of my thigh area, plus two pairs of socks, a scarf, and hat. I was relatively comfortable with all this on, with the exception of my poor nose that was running.

IMG_0300Upon entering Ice-Snow World, you are magically transported into another world, a world made of ice. Once the day starts becoming night, colorful lights blaze through the ice buildings. Some of the buildings were two stories high and offered views of the impressive ice city. I’ve never seen anything like it. After a few hours admiring the buildings, we were about to walk towards the exit when out of nowhere, maybe 20 feet in front of us, boxes of fireworks started going off to celebrate the Chinese New Year (it was considered the Eve of Chinese New Year which means the start of booming fireworks for days in China). After the initial panic and stepping back (because why rope off the firework zone?), we admired the fireworks show before taking the packed bus (much cheaper than the earlier taxi) back to our hotel area.

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But before heading back to the hotel, we had a stop to make since we were heading to the next place on our itinerary in the morning. Before heading to Harbin, we talked to some coworkers (who were from Harbin) about what they would recommend for food. The one thing everyone mentioned was the ice cream. I know, ice cream in those temperatures? Yes. We stopped at one of the vendors and got an ice cream bar. It was so creamy and a delicious frozen treat. A highly recommended treat! The best part? It doesn’t matter how long it takes you to eat it because it won’t melt in those temperatures!IMG_0327

 

We stayed at the Holiday Inn near Central Street. When hotel researching, this one seemed relatively close to what we wanted to see and the price was right. Inside, it was like a sauna and the staff was super friendly. For the night of Chinese New Year Eve, the hotel gave us a bag of peanuts, and in addition invited us to watch a fireworks show at midnight and enjoy a dumplings feast to bring in the new year. At midnight, we stood outside and watched the workers roll out yards and yards of fireworks. Soon, they lit the ends and the show began. We were so close (safety isn’t really a priority when it comes to fireworks in China I’ve learned) that firework shells were hitting us, not to mention my hearing was worse than normal for the following hour. After the 15-minute firework display and attack, we headed to the hotel’s banquet room and were shown to a round table, set up with the traditional lazy susan. Other families sat with us, and together we feasted on multiple types of dumplings and dishes. It was a great way to celebrate the new year and to end our trip to Harbin.

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MraukU of the Rakhine State

When my travel companion and I were discussing where and what we wanted to see during our trip, we knew we wanted a remote area…an area we could see something unique to the country. An experience not a lot of people want or brave. MraukU was the answer.

Our morning journey began early…with a flight to Sittwe. The airport was really just a small two-room building, no computers either. There was a government official in the first room we entered that copied our passport and visa information down before letting us out of the airport. It was there that our guide picked us up at the airport.

Now, after planning our perfect itinerary, we knew there was dissension in the area of the Rakhine State (the region MraukU is located). I kept in contact with the travel company to make sure everything would be okay for us to enter and be safe in the area. I was assured we would be fine and that the disturbances were closer to the Northern border. So, after careful consideration, we decided to keep MraukU on the itinerary. One thing I noticed no matter where we were or what guides we were with, no one spoke of anything negative regarding the country.

After we hopped in the private van at the airport, we were quickly driven through an area the military had taken over from the locals. The area was a significant size. About an hour or two later, we arrived at a jetty, where we boarded a boat which would take us to MraukU. Our estimated time until arrival was about 4 hours. Our guide made us dinner on the boat, as we gazed at the stars that were starting to dot the night sky. There was no light anywhere except for the boat’s lights. At times I wondered how the boat captain would find where we were headed to, but he did. And we arrived around 8 or 9 at night.

The next morning, we set out early for another boat ride, but first we stopped at a local village market. Even though the sun had just risen, the market was full of life. Tons of colorful vegetables and fruits lined the small walkways as we wandered among the locals.

The jetty wasn’t too far from town. We climbed in another boat, this time smaller, and motored through the water for about two to three hours. Soon, our “driver” pulled up to a sandy stretch of land and we jumped out.

We could hear kids laughing and running around as we walked up a small hill. Houses were on small stilts while livestock lounged around underneath and chickens pranced around. We followed our guide to a small area where two small schools had been built, one for younger students and one for older ones. Unfortunately, there were no teachers and so the schools were basically sitting empty. We then were led to where an older woman sat. The town leader introduced us and said for a donation we could take our picture with her. The two of us split a donation and I took my picture with her. Why? you may ask. She was one of the tattoo faced women; I remember reading an article once in National Geographic about tribal women who had their faces tattooed as young girls. She was just one of a few that still remained.

We were then ushered back into the boat and went a little farther to another small village. We were met by another woman with a tattoo face. She was all smiles and joked with our guide, who she knew well. We were led around the small village, where additional tattooed face women tried to sell their woven masterpieces, to the woman’s house. We were shown up the ladder and promptly sat. Our guide served us lunch while our hostess demonstrated how she wove her artwork. She offered us homemade necklaces (still currently hanging on my wall). After asking questions, we learned a little more about the history of the tattoo-faced women. Men of the Rakhine State thought their daughters were so beautiful that enemies would come kidnap the girls. In order to prevent kidnapping, girls around the age of 12 and 13 would be tied down. There was one man in the village that would use buffalo bladder to make ink and tattoo the girls’ faces. He would do one side of the face the first day, leave the girl overnight tied up, and finish the other half the following day. The pain was excruciating. I believe the practice mostly died out in the 60’s, but I could be totally wrong about that. I will say our hostess thought it was entertaining that I willing got my tattoos.

Soon, after eating, learning, and shopping (I never pass up a good opportunity to shop), we were shown the way back to our boat to make the three hour journey back to town.

Once we arrived, we were escorted to a few more temples to look at before sunset.

Overall, it was a pleasant afternoon, and I can only hope that even though there has been even more uproar, including bombings and killings, in this particular area, that the people in the two villages we were able to visit with and learn about are still safe. It saddens me to even contemplate the idea that theses villages may or may not be there anymore.

Final Thoughts: Myanmar is a great place to visit. The people were super friendly and every guide we had went out of his/her way to make us feel welcomed to their country. It was an amazing learning opportunity as well. I would highly recommend Myanmar as a place to go; just as with any place, be smart when traveling and respect the country you’re in. If you’re limited on time, check out Inle Lake and its food for sure.

Another Day in Yangon

Emily and I returned to Yangon for a day before our next place. Our original guide joined us for this day.

Our morning started out with a visit to the Bogyoke Market, aka Scott Market. This market was established in 1926. The bazaar is HUGE, and home to many stalls. Goods are organized by areas; for example, the fabric and clothing are in one section, jewelry in another. Emily and I strolled through the different alleyways looking for good bargains and possible souvenirs. We came to a gallery of local artists. The shop was located on the outskirts of the actual market. It was a hot day, so any chance to get out of the heat was welcomed. However, most places didn’t believe in air conditioning. This gallery was no exception. As I was wandering around the small art displays, I whipped out my mini battery-operated fan. It was heavenly. I sat down next to a Buddhist nun. She smiled at me as she fanned herself with some stiff paper. I held my fan up so she could get some relief from my mini fan. When we were ready to depart and go meet our guide, I handed my new friend the mini fan. She accepted with a smile of gratitude and kindness. I figured I wouldn’t need the fan too much longer so she would enjoy it more than me.

IMG_6055One of our stops was the Kandawgi Garden, which houses a replica of the Royal Barge. It is a beautiful and majestic boat. Surrounding the lake the barge resides in is a long boardwalk. Be careful for where you step, though…some of the boards are loose (which adds an element of adventure). Lots of locals were out walking around enjoying the peacefulness of the area.

We also had a chance to visit an Armenian Church. The church was quiet when we walked in. The steeple stood tall, pointing towards the blue skies. This is a nice stop if you want something different amid all of the temples, pagodas, and stupas.

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We visited one more temple near the City Hall, before heading to a local teashop for a cup of milk tea with our guide. Once again, we were the only foreigners in the shop, which I enjoyed. I always prefer local places.

 

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The next morning we would head out early on a journey to the remote area of MraukU.

In Love With Inle

IMG_5971After the ever-long day on the ferry, I was thankful that we booked a flight to Heho from Mandalay. Our guide met us at the airport and escorted us to Inle Lake, which was an hour away and our home for a couple of days. On the way, we stopped at a place that made paper from mulberry trees. It was pretty cool to see how they made the decorative paper with the little flower touches. And it also helped to break up some of the traveling.

 

Upon arriving at the lake, we were ushered into a not-so-wide, but super long boat. It was me, Emily, our guide, and boat driver. We sped along the lake. The first thing I noticed was that it was hot! The second thing I noticed was that the lake is massive!

Fishermen dotted the lake, slapping the water’s surface with paddles, rowing with one leg, and using huge cone like nets. It was unusual, but fascinating.

Our first stop was at a place for lunch. One thing about Inle Lake is amazing food. The food is fresh and probably some of the best in the country. While we were there, we stopped at a local, stilt restaurant. I ordered the avocado salad, and I’m still having dreams about it. Most of the vegetables are grown in floating gardens, and perhaps that is why the food is so outstanding.

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Black bean cakes and spring rolls

One place we saw while touring the lake was a little “street” of silk weavers, in the Inpawkhone area of Lake Inle. The place we stopped at was famous for its lotus weaving. Our guide brought us inside a room where a few tourists were already watching ladies work, so our guide took us to one lady that didn’t have any bystanders watching and she showed us how she got the lotus silk. Minutes later, we were the only two tourists left in the room. I guess it was time for a snack break because the ladies circled around and invited us over to join in. They even offered us some of their snack (again, delicious food) and allowed us to sit for a few minutes.

And of course, we had time to visit some temples, pagodas, and stupas. The first temple we saw was Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, where five small images of Buddha call home. These images are gilded in gold leaf, so much so that their shapes can no longer be determined. One thing to point out is that only men are allowed to touch Buddha and/or to place the gold leaf on the Buddha. This was a common theme throughout Myanmar, but I was more disappointed by this here since I had purchased some gold leaf from Mandalay.

Another area we visited was in Indein. This area is in the southwestern part of the lake. Along the way, we saw people moving their floating gardens with rafts and even bathing in the river. It offered a peaceful view of the lake life. We had to have the boat take us, but once we arrived we were allowed out to walk around. We focused on the ancient stupas of Alaung Sitthou. Now, I will admit that by this point, I had seen quite a few stupas so I wasn’t as focused on these as I should have been. I allowed a puppy to distract me as I wandered around. But I will say, puppy or not, the area is worth a visit.

One unique experience we had was the opportunity to tour a vineyard/winery. Yes, you read that right. Near the lake, there is Red Mountain Estate, a vineyard that produces award-winning wines. Emily and I decided a nice wine break was exactly what we needed. My favorite was the moscato, but that is not surprising. It was also pretty fantastic to be able to sip on some wine and enjoy some cheese as we gazed upon the Shan Mountains and Lake Inle.

As with Bagan, I would totally return to Lake Inle. The people and the food were simply amazing. And I know I use that word a lot—amazing—but there really aren’t many words that truly relay how I felt about this trip or these places.

A Day in Mandalay

IMG_5875After the amazing time in Bagan, we spent one day sailing on a local ferry up the Irrawaddy River to Mandalay. In all fairness, when we signed up for this trip, we (and I fully admit the “we” should say “I”) didn’t notice that this ferry ride was 10 hours long. If I had to do it again, and I’m pretty sure Emily would agree with this, I would not take the same mode of transportation. I would have spent the extra money to take a car, which would have taken less than 5 hours. Sidenote: Boarding a boat at 5am in the morning on a long wood board (it couldn’t have been wider than six inches) is not my cup of tea I decided.

So, we only spent two nights/one day in Mandalay. The night we arrived via ferry, we went directly to the hotel since it was about 6pm. We ate dinner at the hotel’s rooftop restaurant and called it an early night. The next morning, our guide and driver picked us up. We drove to the area of Sagaing.

Our first stop in Sagaing was at the U Bein Bridge, the world’s longest teak bridge. There is a local market and a monastery near one end of the bridge. We were given some time to wander around, either shop around the market or stroll along the bridge. Emily walked the entire bridge, while I opted to walk just a small amount of the bridge. After a little bit, I decided to sit a bit and simply observe those enjoying the bridge and water. Families walked hand in hand, monks in red glided past, and young ladies tried to sell their crafts. My favorite moment was when a monk, he must have been a teenager, walked by with his family (I assume it was his family). On one side was a young girl (under the age of 10) and on the other side was an old women. The old woman gave me a look and smiled. The young girl waved. I smiled and waved back. The monk nodded and kept walking with this family. To me, it was a magical moment. Because it reminded me about one of the reasons I like to travel…it doesn’t matter our backgrounds or skin color or language or gender, we are all humans and respond to kindness.

After our bridge time, we were taken to the monastery. First, we were shown some the area where the food is prepared for the monks. It was quite the operation in the large open air space. Every morning, the monks go out in the village/town to accept offerings of food. The food is brought back to this space and prepared. As we wondered around the complex, our guide pointed out certain areas…the rooms monks stayed or studied in. We were able to look through window slats to see where they ate as well. Soon, we heard some bells ringing.

The bells signaled the morning breakfast time. We joined the other tourists to view the morning ritual. The monks were in line, and a family (this is usually quite the high honor) served as the monks came through. They were given rice and fruit, plus reading material. The guide walked Emily and I to the back of the area where the monks would sometime take the food back to their bunks. We saw a few young children begging the monks for anything. And sometimes a monk would stop and give the child a book or apple.

Next, we did the local goods circuit…we stopped at a silversmith’s workshop and saw some silkweaving. My favorite out of the three stops was to watch the gold-leaf being made. It was such hard and physically demanding work—I had no idea and now I have a much higher appreciation of it. The gold is pounded into impossibly thin sheets that flutter with just a tinge of a breeze. If ever in Mandalay, make sure to at least see this one trade.

Our second to last stop of the day was at the world’s largest book, Kuthodaw Pagoda. This pagoda houses 729 stone slabs, each being about the same height as me. Each side of the stone provides text.

The last stop was at the Shwenandaw Monastery. First, if you do go to this monastery, go either near sunrise or sunset. The mirrored mosaic tiles are simply amazing and sparkle with every touch of light, which provides a glow around the monastery. But I will warn you…to get to the monastery, there is an elevator or escalator. You have to go barefoot since it’s a monastery. The escalator is not the most comfortable to soles of feet (or at least my sensitive feet).

Our day ended when our guide offered to take us to a local tea shop. We kindly accepted. We ordered some milk tea and sat watching the bustle. The waiters looked like they were younger than 14. Not only were we the only foreigners in the place, we were also the only women. I loved it. The tea was delicious (I’ve always enjoyed milktea). Mandalay wasn’t necessarily my favorite part of Myanmar, but this tea shop was certainly one of my favorite places in the city.

Another beautiful day in Bagan

One thing I saw when reading travel articles about Myanmar was hot air balloon rides during sunrise. Well, I knew no matter what, that I would be doing the same should I ever find myself in Bagan. Lucky for me, my travel partner, Emily, was cool with the idea. I was super excited about it, but also curious as to how this ride would compare to my last hot air balloonride in Tanzania.

Our wake up call was around 4am. Usually this is not a time I ever see, but I did not mind for this morning’s activity. We were picked up and taken to the launching site. This site was home to three different balloon companies. Depending on the package you paid for, you may be in a basket that holds 16, 12, or 8 people. Emily and I had sprung for the lesser price basket, which meant we would be crowded with 14 other people. But again, I didn’t care because I was EXCITED! Well, we were gathering around with the other passengers in the dark, barely able to see the plethora of balloons being filled with hot air, when our names were called. I had a slight moment of panic, thinking maybe we were going to be told it wouldn’t work out for us this morning, but that wasn’t it at all! We were being upgraded. UPGRADED! We were taken to the 8-person basket. I couldn’t believe our luck. The pilot, Christopher, allowed us to walk inside the balloon while it was on its side being filled. Soon it was time for us to board the basket. I was expecting to have to lay on the ground like we had to in Tanzania, but no, we got to climb into the basket; I’d like to report I was extremely graceful as I jumped in, but I wasn’t.

Once we were all in and prepped, we took off. We rose as the sun did…lighting the thousands of temples, pagodas, and stupas under us as we floated above. I’m sure I over use this word, but I cannot think of another one that can describe the moment: it was simply magical. It is moments like that, when I’m experiencing something so out of my usual routine that I remember how huge this world is and how much it has to offer.

An hour later after soaring, it was time for us to land. The landing was smooth and the 9 of us (8 passengers and the pilot) celebrated with a champagne breakfast in a field.

After our very exciting morning, our guide took us to a market. The bright color of the vegetables and fruits stood out in the dark stalls. All looked tasty, but there was one thing that caught my eye…a long stick of fried dough covered in powdered sugar. The dough was from chickpeas. Sadly, I don’t have a picture to share of any because I ate them all before I even thought of taking a picture.

One thing Myanmar is known for is Burmese rubies. Now, I am a big jewelry person. I love jewelry. Not costume jewelry. I’m talking about genuine gemstones. Since arriving in Bagan, I had been asking our guide about rubies. I read somewhere that only government certified places could sell rubies. If you buy one, you need to make sure you also get an certificate of authenticity; if you don’t, and you are caught with a ruby, you could get in trouble. Well, our guide came through and took me to a place that sold these gorgeous stones. Like with any gemstone, price depends on carat size, cut, and quality. I did buy a small one, and as the cashier was ringing me up, another sales associate allowed me to try one some of the most expensive rings they had on display. I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

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Which one came home with me?

Following the ruby time, we drove to the area of Myinkbar village for a short temple stop, and then continued on to Mount Popa. A resort does reside on the mountain and we ate lunch overlooking Myingyan Plain. We enjoyed a nice peaceful lunch at the resort before heading to the village to view a shrine dedicated to the 37 Nats (Burmese animist spirits). First, tons of monkeys populated the area. They were fighting and begging for food. There was an option to hike up to the Nats area, but I decided to stay at a local restaurant (enjoying a local coke) while Emily braved the path. She told me that half way up, she was told to take her shoes off…the path had looked dirty. I was glad I chose not to go.

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View from lunch

 

Bagan

On our second day in Myanmar, we took a morning flight to Bagan, a city full of thousands of temples and pagodas. The flight was relatively short and comfortable.

Our first stop was an old stupa with about four levels. On the outside, people can climb up the very narrow, very steep stairs. So, I tossed on my pants (over my shorts) and kicked off my shoes (signs of respect) so I could attempt to go up. Well, not only are the stairs narrow and steep, they are also tall. My poor knee and feet (the stairs were rocky and rough on my poor sensitive feet) just couldn’t take much more than three flights. So, I let Emily and others pass me and I hung out wandering around the acceptable third story. The views were amazing. Temples, stupas, and pagodas were scattered around in open fields. It was hard for me to grasp that the structures were thousands of years old as I tried to imagine the tales of history they could share if they were able to.

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The next stop was to Ananda Temple, a beautiful temple with four Buddha statues facing the four cardinal directions. The nickname of this temple is the Westminster Abbey of Myanmar, and it was built in 1105AD. Talk about history. The temple is also home to a Buddha whose expression changes depending on where you stand.

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One thing about tours is that there are always the prerequisite stops at traditional shops in an attempt to sale tourists goods we don’t need. But I have to admit, the places our tour company (Which, have I mentioned them yet? Backyard Travels rock. They worked with us, and helped us customize our itinerary.) really took us to some meaningful places. This particular place was a lacquer ware factory. It was actually quite fascinating how these artists created the intricate and fragile details in their goods. There are about 16 different steps the artist takes to get to the final product. And of course, begin the shopaholic I am, I bought a fair amount of goods to bring home as gifts; I even bought a one of a kind little table for myself.

After lunch along the Irrawaddy River, we headed to the fields of temples to take a closer look at several temples, pagodas, and stupas. In the fields were also peanuts and beans. Finally, to end our day, our guide took us to the perfect lookout point for the sunset. It was a perfect ending to another break taking day.

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Myanmar: The Land of Temples, Pagodas, and Lessons (Day 1)

Hi…remember me? The travel blogger that can’t keep up with her own blog? Yep, I’m back. I thought about it, and well, I’m not sure about you but in times of uncertainty, where the world is being torn apart by hurricanes and world leaders are comparing “rocket” sizes, I need a little escape. Hopefully this blog will offer some sort of escape for you.

This time, I’m talking about a country that left a huge impression on me…I’m talking about the country of Myanmar (aka Burma to some). For years I wanted to go to this country, not because of its history or political past, but because it wasn’t too known to the outside world—it wasn’t a huge tourist population. And right now, I feel for what the country and its people are going through. I often don’t have “favorite” places because I feel as though each place I am fortunate enough to experience offers its own unique qualities…but there was just something special about Myanmar. Alright…I’ll get off my mini soapbox and get to the point of this blog…

Now, I should warn you…its been almost a year since we went to Myanmar and I was horrible about taking notes of the people we met and the places we went. I will do my best to give you what information I have kept.

Day 1: Yangon

Emily and I flew into the capital of Yangon. We already had are visa approval letters and did not have to spend tons of time waiting to get through customs. Our guide met us and led us to our awaiting vehicle. Upon reflection, I’m glad we had customized this perfect itinerary, but I was even gladder we had hired private guides and especially drivers. Navigating the taxi lines outside of the airport would have been overwhelming for me.

Our driver whisked us to the city center in an hour long ride of almost bumper to bumper traffic. As we moseyed our way along the highway, I noticed the various architecture…I am not sure you can really define the style. It’s not quite British colonial or even French; not Asian either. Perhaps I can call it a distinctly Burmese architectural style. Locals wore the traditional clothing mostly with a mixture of some western t-shirts. I will admit the longyis did look comfy. The longyis, long pieces of cloth, were worn by men and women in various colors and patterns. Women had thanaka, a paste or cream of bark, along their faces to help protect their skin from the harsh, hot sun.

Our first stop was to Chaukhtakgyi Pagoda, home to a long reclining Buddha who had inscriptions on his feet. Murals surround the open-air structure to tell stories of Buddha’s life. Locals stretched out, resting and eating, with families while we wandered around the pagoda.

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The Strand Lobby

After our first (of many) pagodas, we went to the Strand, a historical and elegant colonial style hotel. This hotel was built in 1901 and is known for its high tea service. I wanted to experience this because 1) I love high tea, and 2) who else could say they had high tea in Yangon? Well, I know I don’t really review things on this blog, but I felt like it was highly overrated. The tiered platters offered savory sandwiches, muffins, madeleines, jam, fruit salad, and macarons…the usual high tea fare. The food was just okay, and the service lacked. Instead, I recommend just going to find somewhere to try some of the local fare…it is much better and fresher than the food at the Strand. Down the street from the Strand is a small gallery, offering a refreshing collection of contemporary art. The name of the gallery is River Gallery. If you have time and are in the area, definitely stop by…some of the art was breathtaking and I would have totally brought a piece home had Ihad room in the luggage.

 

Our final stop of the day was at the Shwedagon Pagoda. This is a highly loved structure of the locals and it is not difficult to see why. The center structure stands over 90 meters tall, and when the sun’s rays hit the stupa just right, the gold-leaf covering shimmers. Locals find their Buddha (based on the day of the week you’re born on) to pray and worship. Offerings are left at the shrines. Intricate carvings and super-detailed mosaic work can be found all throughout this pagoda. We went at dusk, and it was beautiful to see the crowds of locals being able to honor their deity as the gold reflected the setting sun.

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A Summer Holiday in China–Beijing (Days 1 & 2)

One of the perks of living in China is the fact that it’s a large country with lots of places to explore. And a perk of working at an international school is the fact that you can always find someone to travel with. This summer, a coworker (Joscelyn) and her sister (Jenn) invited me to join them as they travelled within Beijing, Xi’an, and Shanghai (well, Shanghai was my request).

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Still smiling even though we had a little snafu with the day’s travel plans.

We left on June 13th, early in the morning. Everything was pretty routine and smooth…until we were an hour away from Beijing. The pilot came on to let us know that he decided to divert our plane to Shenyang due to weather. Now, in America, it would have been easy to communicate with the ground workers and try to figure out an alternative or what to do. In China where Chinese is the primary language? Not so much. We didn’t even know where Shenyang was in relation to Beijing (thankfully our friend, Elaine, was a WeChat away). Luckily, we met a student who attends school in Beijing. Shirley helped us navigate our options: wait at the airport, go to a hotel and hang out until we hear from the airline, or take the high-speed train to complete our journey. All four of us decided to go with the hotel choice. But as we were waiting outside, along with most of the other passengers, the airport for the bus (paid for by the airline) to pick us up, we were told to return to the terminal. So, we all turned around and went back through security with handwritten tickets. Soon, we were back on the plane and headed for Beijing, finally arriving two or three hours later than originally planned. Of course, once we arrived, we still had at least an hour drive from the airport to our hotel, Novotel Xin Qiao. We ate a nice dinner at the hotel’s buffet before calling it an early night since our pick up time for the tour was at 7:15 the next morning.

Justin, our tour guide from Beijing Landscapes, was right on time, meeting us in our lobby. He showed us to the comfortable van waiting outside for us. We got familiar with Beijing traffic while we picked up four more passengers (one young student from Great Britain, an older woman, two men from the Middle East—not together though).

Our first stop was a jade factory. Now, before starting this trip, I told myself to watch the budget and not fall for any traps—you know the ones…the stores that are obligatory for any tour that sell things from the region you’re in. Well, I didn’t listen. At the jade factory, we learned there is actually a variety of colors jade comes in (I thought the only color was green). It’s also a hard stone. Green jade is the only color that changes over time, getting darker as it ages. Shared with us was also the fact that jade pendants or bracelets are passed down from generation to generation; I thought this was a beautiful tradition within the Chinese culture so I bought a bracelet—now, whether or not this is a true tradition or a sales tactic, I don’t know, but I chose to believe the tradition.

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My new bracelet 

Next, we piled back into the van for a ride to Ming’s Tomb, an underground tomb form the Ming Dynasty. Now, if you’ve read my previous entries, you should know I’m not one for remembering the history behind things so please don’t ask me details surrounding this tomb. The tomb is underground, surrounded by cool marble. Once you enter the marble rooms and hallways, the temperature immediately drops 15 degrees. Unfortunately, a lot of the original artifacts were destroyed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the late 1960’s. Outside of the tomb, Joscelyn, Jenn and I asked Justin to take a photo of us…he did, as well as the man from Pakistan (who we did not know at all)…it was a bit weird.

One of the must see items on anyone’s list when going to China is the Great Wall. At one point in history, the Great Wall was one long brick fence, for lack of a better word. Now, only some sections of it are intact. Some parts are more touristy while some are not. Luckily, we were taken to the Mutianyu section of the wall, one of the less tourist-filled areas of the Wall, but is also known as one of the most well preserved sections. We were dropped off, ate some lunch, and then walked up the side of the hill towards the cable car (there are a few ways one can reach the actual wall: cable car, hiking, and chair lift). We selected the cable car (which was still a hike to get to). The ride up to the Wall was quite steep and I found myself having to concentrate on my breathing so I didn’t focus on how steep it truly was. But as with most things that are frightening at first, it was well worth it. The view was incredible! Looking out across the forest below, I found it hard to believe, almost, that I was walking along the path that millions have walked along for centuries. I wish I had a better vocabulary in order to do the moment justice, but I will let some of the pictures speak for themselves. As much as I would have liked to explore much more the Great Wall, our time was limited so we made our way back down to the bottom of the hill to our van for our ride home.

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Still smiling even though we had a little snafu with the day’s travel plans.

But our day was not over. No. We were told we needed to experience the Beijing Opera. Now, I don’t want to ruin the experience for anyone who has plans on seeing this delightful entertainment, so I will not share too much about our hour at the theatre. The one thing I will say is that the costumes were quite impressive and intricate. And, if I had to suffer through the screeching—I mean, enchanting song—everyone else should too, so make sure you experience this Chinese art form.

Our day concluded and we were exhausted, but it was a good day. Again, we opted for an early evening since we had another early pick up coming the next morning.

Coming Up: Tiananmen Square and Peking Duck

A Day Away from Hanoi

Nam greeted us early Tuesday morning; his brother, Viet, was busy that day (his joke, not mine…and I’ll sadly admit that it literally took me until the end of the day to get it). We jumped into a van and headed towards the Van Long Nature area. The day promised to be a busy one.

Our first stop, after a two-hour drive, was a small village. An older gentleman met the three of us with…bikes. Now, if you know me, you also know that I am not a particular fan of bikes. I have tried to get over my small, irrational fear, but with no success. Bikes = potential death to me. But, I promised Sunia I would at least try the death machine since she doesn’t have the same thoughts on biking as I do. So, with reservation (on my part), off the four of us rode through the dirt and gravel pathways of this small village. Kids looked at us, motorbikes passed us, and I held on for dear life to my rackety bike. I stayed in the back and prayed for the hour or so we were on those death traps. Along the way, though, I will have to admit, that I could understand the appeal of riding the bike through the vibrant green rice fields. It was peaceful…well, except for the few choice words I muttered under my breath when I saw my life flash before my eyes…because I was on the death trap.

Along the way, we saw a Buddhist pagoda. The nun allowed us to enter and pray. I always have enjoyed the tranquility of Buddhist architecture; I always feel a sense of calmness when I enter one. Only after about 10 minutes, though, we had to get back on the bikes and continue our ride.

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Soon, we found ourselves entering a gate of a home within the village. The older gentleman lived there with his wife and daughter. They invited us into their home. Sunia and I were outfitted with baskets around our waist and we followed the daughter and gentleman to a muddy pond. As Sunia and I watched the man roll up his pants and step into the slush with a net, a water buffalo watched us with a look one can only describe as humor. I could almost read his mind: “What do these two idiots think they’re doing?” The man shook the net, but unfortunately no fish had been caught. He then lifted some submerged baskets up to check them for any creatures. This time, snails and crabs filled them. He gave the “goodies” to us to place in our baskets. I noticed you had to be quick to put the lids back onto the baskets because those crabs were quick little buggers! We were offered the chance to climb into the mud slush to try our hand at fishing, but we both declined.

After arriving back to the house, we washed our hands and the daughter instructed us to sit down near a camp stove (well, that’s the best I can describe it). She had some cut up sweet potatoes and batter. With chopsticks, she showed us how to take the slices of potatoes and dip them into the batter. Next, we placed them in hot oil until they puffed up into a nice golden brown. Now, I generally am against all things sweet potato, but this snack was tasty and enjoyable. In fact, if I could remember the exact recipe for the batter, I would attempt to make this snack on my own. Next, we were taken into the open kitchen. We were given knives and cutting boards. Together, the three of us chopped up the ingredients for spring rolls. Once the filling was combined with the mushrooms, pork, egg, cucumbers, and carrots, the daughter showed us how to filled the round delicate pieces of rice paper. I mastered the process pretty quickly. And again, this is something I could totally make myself! Who knew? Once they were all fried up, we enjoyed eating them. But before I could eat all of them, we were shown to the family’s dining area. We were served about five different dishes. By the time we were done, we were stuffed! Both of us had no idea the tour would include so much food! Soon Nam told us it was time to go, but instead of riding bikes back to the meeting point, he arranged for our driver to pick us up (yay!).

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Goodbye, death trap!

We drove about a half hour and then stopped at a little area where we could see limestone mountains jutting up from water. This was the Van Long Nature Reserve…the inland HaLong Bay. Nam arranged a boat for us, a sampan boat steered by a beast of a small, old lady. Sunia and I climbed down into the boat, and we sailed through the mountains. The ride was peaceful…we saw birds soar around us, heard the pitter patter of drips inside a cave, and admired the limestone formations. We only passed one other boat during our time. But like most things, our ride ended. We met Nam and the driver, and then drove back to Hanoi.

Here’s the thing about Hanoi…it’s a busy city. A city that is colorful and full of life, so it was nice to be able to get out of the noise and chaos of it for the day, and to learn about another way of life.

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