Snapshots: Amsterdam & The Red Light District (And the FOOD!)

Red Light District of Amsterdam

In “Meeting Corrie Ten Boom & Anne Frank” and “How a Smile Changed my Trip to Amsterdam“, I wrote about being inspired and rejuvenated in Amsterdam. While searching for new post material, I realized that there are lots of experiences … Continue reading

My Travel Reading List

My least favorite part of travel is always the “getting there” stage. whether by plane , train, or bus being stuck in a tiny seat and surrounded by strangers is never very comfortable. Luckily , I’ve found that another passion of mine – reading – is the perfect pastime. The hours seem to melt away and I can block everything and everyone out.

Here’s what I’ve been reading while  in transit .

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Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch

A bi-racial detective discovers he can use magic  and must develop his skills as a demonic force causes the faces of London’s innocents to fall off.

I liked it so much that I already have the sequel , Moons Over Soho, packed in my bag for the next flight.

Half-Bad by Sally Green

A product of a good white witch and the most evil black witch , a boy has to fight through a childhood of  torture to figure out where he belongs.

This was gory and entertaining but I don’t know if I liked it enough to pick up the second book in the series.

The Hiding Place BY Corrie Ten Boom

The true story of Corrie Ten Boom, a Christian who was sent to a concentration camp for hiding Jews in her home during the Nazi occupation of Holland.

I read this once in middle school but decided to have a reread after visiting the house in Amsterdam. I would recommend  reading this on a long overnight trip, when there’s plenty of time to think and the darkness will hide any tears.

 

What have you all been reading?

Top-Ten Tuesday: 10 Reasons to Travel with G Adventures

Today’s Top-Ten list is simple and short; it’s a review of my China trip with G Adventures. If you don’t know, G Adventures is a travel company that provides local guides on trips throughout the world.

Here are 10 reasons to travel with G Adventures

10. Insider Guides

Having a guide who spoke the native language, could explain the currency, and give detailed directions  was  extremely valuable. I actually got to enjoy the sites instead of searching for hours and then being too exhausted for more than a photo-op.

9. Use of Local Transportation

I actually prefer using public transportation. It easier, much cheaper, and you get to interact with the locals in an authentic setting.  On the tour, we used a plane and charted buses to bridge the long distances between cities. Once we were there, it was all subways,buses,and overnight trains. Chinese public transportation is an experience all of its own so it was a worthwhile experience.

8. Solo Traveler Friendly

Even the solo traveler craves a companion sometimes. It’s also helpful to belong to a group if you’re heading to a notoriously difficult or dangerous location.  A major plus for G Adventures is that solo travelers aren’t charged extra automatically. They share accommodation with others traveling alone or could choose to pay for their own room.  (In most cases-some Thailand trips seem to charge a single-supplement)

7.  A One-Stop Place

It was very easy for me to book and confirm my trip, email them the required documents,and buy the necessary travel insurance in one afternoon. After booking, I simply called their office and brought their travel insurance. If you need to, you can also arrange for airport transfers and extra nights while booking.

6.They Know the Hot-Spots

Because G Adventures guides are also natives, they know where to go for the best food,cheapest shopping, and cleanest bathrooms. (Trust me-this information is worth its weight in gold.) Our guide knew where to go for the best late-night dumplings and escorted us to the cheap yet safe shopping areas. China has a strict policy when it comes to antique and souvenirs so without his guidance, I could have  loaded up on gifts and trinkets that wouldn’t have made it past customs.

5. See the Best of the Best

The itinerary is made to fit in all of the major to-dos. In my 8 day trip I saw four different cities. It felt rushed at times, but there was always moment where I could stop ,reflect, and realize I was in either a very special or a very beautiful place.

4. Meet a Diverse Group of Travelers

On my trip, our small group consisted of 6 people: 2 Mexicans, 4 Americans from all over the US, and , of course, our Chinese guide. While traveling, I got to learn about all these different cultures and practice my Spanish as well. I like traveling with people from all over; you get to learn a bit and get ideas for future traveling.

3. Location,Location,Location

G Adventures offers trips to both the most common and most  exotic of places. That makes it easy to get to uncommon places or places where the language barrier can be unforgiving.

2. “If you’re confirmed, you’re going”

Group sizes are limited to 12-16 people. However, you’re not punished if no one else signs up for your departure date. As long as you pay, turn in the required documents ( copy of passport and flight information) and get a conformation email, you’re going.

1. Pick a Budget, Any Budget

The best thing is that there are trips to fit every budget. There are trips for the student’s budget,for the adventurer who wants to spend a bit more to party hard, comfort style for those who want Western comforts overseas, and family trips for those with small ones to accommodate.

I obviously loved G Adventures and plan on using them again in the future.However,for the sake of a well-rounded review, I’ll have to include some things I didn’t love.

Some Things I Didn’t Like…

No Heads Up About Tipping for Services 

Before leaving, you get a suggested budget that covers things like food,transportation, and emergency spending. I had planned for each of those categories plus a bit of souvenir shopping. Knowing that tipping wasn’t common in Asia, I didn’t think we would have to tip for drivers or extra tour guides during outings. I thought it was included in the fees. It was normally 20 yuan which isn’t big deal-especially when converted to US dollars- but it did force me to make a few unexpected ( and fee-ridden) trips to the ATM.

Optional Excursions

Most days, there are optional outings that you pay for separately. Most of these are cultural events and I did enjoy the majority. Some of them, however, fell a bit flat and were expensive. However, that’s probably more of an interest and personality thing.

Have you had an experience with G Adventures or another tour company? Leave a comment below ! I would love to know what other tour companies are like.

Best of China: Floating Around in the Venice of the East

If Suzhou sounds unfamiliar to you, it’s probably because you’re used to hearing one of its many nicknames. Also referred to as “Heaven on Earth” or “The Water Town”, it is best known as the “Venice of the East”. Although I haven’t seen the real Venice, if it’s half as beautiful as this tiny,traditional town , I can see what all the fuss is about.

Like its sister over in Italy, the city of Suzhou is built over and around a series of canals and waterways. Shortly after arrival, my group headed to a private boat tour of the canals and a traditional village built on its banks.

A bridge view of Suzhou  ©thepinkepat

A bridge view of Suzhou
©thepinkepat

The trip down the canal was long and very scenic. Red lanterns and intricate stone carvings decorated either side. Most interesting ,however,was watching the people go about their daily lives. People sat on the steps of their houses and washed dishes, did laundry, and even bathed their pets.

Houses on the bank  ©thepinkexpat

Houses on the bank
©thepinkexpat

House on the bank ©thepinkexpat

House on the bank
©thepinkexpat

Dogs get to enjoy the water too!

Dogs get to enjoy the water too!

After turning down a particularly narrow street, our boat drifted towards a stone staircase. Hidden just beyond the stairs was the entrance to the village.

Inside , the village was a crowded maze of activity. Even though crowds quickly parted to stare at the foreigners, it was difficult to maneuver. If you weren’t careful, you could wander into the path of a biker or into a chicken coup ( seriously !).  The village was mainly a huge marketplace; a quick walk took us past displays of clothing and fresh and live food stands.

Live birds for sale ©thepinkexpat

Live birds for sale
©thepinkexpat

On the last afternoon in Suzhou, I had the opportunity to visit  The Master of the Nets Garden which also happens to be a  UNESCO World Heritage Site.  On the day I was here, it was nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit and people were more interested in finding a bit of shade than really exploring. It was lucky I took the time to snap a few pictures so I could at least reflect on the beauty later on in my air-conditioned apartment.

The courtyard of the garden. ©thepinkexpat

The courtyard of the garden.
©thepinkexpat

Entrance to the Garden  ©thepinkexpat

Entrance to the Garden
©thepinkexpat

Pretty but no idea what it means

Pretty but no idea what it means

If you’re ever exploring China and need a day to recharge, Suzhou would be the perfect place. Because it’s a smaller town, the attractions weren’t as overwhelming. There’s a lot of beautiful sites to soak in before heading off to the nearby, hustling Shanghai.

Top-Ten Tuesdays: Favorite Korean Foods

10. Waffles

blog.korea.net

blog.korea.net

My students buy these in prepackaged bags and try to munch on them in class.

9. Teok Rice Cakes

Korean rice cake dessert

Korean rice cake dessert

I didn’t like these at first, but with my school handing them out nearly every week, they’re growing on me.

8.  Rice Stew

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Leftover rice is allowed to boil until nearly burned. If seasoned with juices from leftover meat, this is delicious.

7.Soju

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The most popular alcohol choice in Korea by far.

6. Mandu Soup

koreataste.org

koreataste.org

Meat-filled dumplings in soup. Very simply and very delicious .

5. Instant Kapi

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Kapi is how “coffee” is pronounced in Korea.While Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts blot every corner, instant coffee seems to be popular, especially in office settings.  Everything-coffee,sugar,and cream-comes in one cute little package.

4.Japchae

yelp.com

yelp.com

Noodles and vegetables in a brown sauce. It  tastes amazing.

3. Tteokbokki

dukbokki and soup

dukbokki and soup

One my favorite Korean meals so far. Spicy, circular rice noodles in a spicy red pepper sauce.

2. Bulgogi

commons.wikimedia.org

commons.wikimedia.org

Flavorful beef cooked on a table-top grill. When it’s done, you wrap it in a lettuce leaf and make a scrumptious type of Korean taco.

1.Bibimbap

bibimbap

bibimbap

A mixture of ground beef,vegetables, and rice topped with a spicy red sauce. If you want to try the best of the best, head to Jeonju, the home of Bibimbap.

Have a favorite Korean dish or top-ten list of your own? Comment below!

The Best of China: Learning Mongolian on The Great Wall

My days in Korea are filled with school, Skype sessions home, and more school. So, I was very much looking forward to a week of new sites and experiences. Luckily, if there is any word to describe my time in China, it would be new. Completely novel,unique, unfamiliar and – at times – baffling.

In eight days I saw four different cities, took a flight, and spent a night on a  train in the countryside. It would be impossible to share every moment so I’ll settle for recounting my most memorable parts of the trip in a new series called The Best of China. There will be a new post about my trip every week in August.

The Great Wall

On my second morning in China, I set out for the The Great Wall. After a two-hour ride from the center of Beijing, the bus pulled into a parking lot. It was pretty unremarkable at first; just concrete,a few dozen venders setting up their stalls, and a Subway restaurant.

Then I looked up. Through the fog, I could just make out the famous fortress.

Can you see it?

Can you see it?

That’s when it hit me. I was actually going to climb the Great Wall.

Despite others telling me I would miss out on the “authentic” experience , I bypassed the hour-long hike and took a scenic cable-car ride to the top of the wall. As I reached the platform,  two Chinese men leisurely standing around  began gesturing wildly. “Sit! Sit!”, they yelled. I looked around clueless and then saw the cable car quickly making its way towards me. I sat-or rather, fell-into the seat just in time. The safety harnessed snapped into place and in seconds, I was flying over lush, dense forestry and getting closer and closer to the wall. Now I could just make out the watchtowers and the sparse Chinese flags placed randomly around them.

The cable car ride

The cable car ride

Finally, I was there. My feet were planted firmly on the ancient Great Wall. Fortunately, there was still plenty of  it left to climb. Even after reaching the top, it was a strenuous walk up and down the jagged stone steps and many watchtowers. Even though it was overcast and there was a nice breeze, I still ended up drenched in sweat. Some areas were crumbling and others were well -preserved but all of it was steep.  So steep that women kicked off their heels and sandals and it wasn’t unusual to see people on all fours.

Stairs of the Great Wall

Stairs of the Great Wall

Most impressive were the venders, who trekked to the highest peaks with pounds of food and souvenirs strapped to their back.  I got the chance to speak to one of the venders , an older women who kept removing her glasses to wipe the sweat off her brow. She motioned to one side of the wall and , said “Mongolia” and pointing to the other side said , “China.”  Finally, she pointed to herself and proudly said “Me…Mongolia. Two hours.” She ran two fingers across her hand to mimic walking. This woman was telling me she walked two hours  just to get to the Great Wall. That’s not even counting the time  and effort it took her to climb up the wall. “Everyday?”, I asked her while handing her 10 yuan for some water and a photo she took of me. She handed me my camera and still smiling, just nodded. “Everyday.”

One of the many vendors

One of the many vendors

The trek wasn’t all bad of course. If you took a minute to pause and look around you , there were views like these:

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The Great Wall Black & White

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Great Wall

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Early Morning= Empty Wall

After three hours of  wandering, I raced a Toboggan back down. The six-minute ride offered the perfect opportunity to  reflect on the history I just experienced and marvel at the beauty of this place one last time. I closed my eyes; tried to imagine what it would have been like to build this wall. Or to be one of its watchful soldiers, running up and down the twisting stairs multiple times a day.

And yeah, I’ll admit it – I was singing the Mulan soundtrack in my head.