Tag Archives: trip report

A Wintery Week in Iceland: Reykjavik

I knew I wanted to go to Iceland. And I knew I wanted to see the northern lights. Like really wanted to see the northern lights. So, Iceland in winter it would be. After doing some research I settled on the small group tour Northern Lights in Style. Booked through Nordic Saga, the tour was operated by the large Icelandic tour company Guðmundur Jónasson Travel. The 6 day, 5 night tour seemed to offer everything I was looking for – nice hotels; the opportunity to try great, local food; someone to drive me around the icy roads of Iceland; the opportunity to see the northern lights; and an itinerary packed with seemingly amazing things. I will talk more about the specifics of the tour itself in a later post, but for now, booking this tour is how I ended up in a cold and snowy Reykjavik on a Sunday morning in February.

Reykjavik is the capital of Iceland. In a country with a population of approximately 330,000, you can imagine that despite being the capital and the area in which the majority of Icelanders live, it is not a particularly large city. What it lacked in size, it more than made up for in color and character.

DSC02858

As excited as I was about being in Iceland, after an overnight flight and a long day of travel, I needed all of the help I could get to stay awake.

Before the 8 hour flight from Seattle
Before the 8 hour flight from Seattle
After the 8 hour flight from Seattle. And the 45 minute Flybus transfer to the Reykjavik bus terminal. And taking a second bus to my hotel. And walking to breakfast. Travel is not glamorous.
After the 8 hour flight from Seattle. And the 45 minute Flybus transfer to the Reykjavik bus terminal. And taking a second bus to my hotel. And walking to breakfast. Travel is not always ever glamorous.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After dropping off my bags at my hotel, I began to carefully tread the ice-covered sidewalks of the city. I marveled at the incredible sunrise as I made my way toward one of the city’s best bakeries. And toward coffee.

IMG_9404

IMG_9405

DSC02766

DSC02767

DSC02769After savoring a croissant, skyr, and, yes, coffee at Bakari Sandholt, I spent the morning walking around the city.

DSC02770

DSC02776

DSC02772

I could say that I had some super-specific plan to fit in as many of the city sites as possible into one day. Because I’m the type of person who usually has some super-specific plan. The reality however, is that I simply wanted to stay upright. Cold air and walking in combination with coffee seemed to do the trick for much of the day.

DSC02781

DSC02786

DSC02784

DSC02783

DSC02836

DSC02838

Using this map, I found my way to the city pond. Mostly frozen over, the edge of the pond was warmed for the geese and ducks who call the pond home year round.

DSC02788

DSC02791

DSC02789

When I was not simply enjoying the charming city of Reykjavik, I was probably shopping. I would not have much time in the city during this trip, so I made the most of my day Reykjavik even though many of the shops were closed because it was Sunday. I rambled along the shopping streets of Laugavegur and Skólavörðustígur. At the top of Skólavörðustígur sits the iconic Hallgrímskirkja, which I would get to explore further the following day. Side note: I would seriously love to hear how you are pronouncing the names of places in your head as you read them. Me? It sounds something like La*mumble,mumble* and Sko-blah-blah-blah and Hallawhattheheck? But maybe that’s just me.

DSC02797

DSC02798

IMG_9421

I even found my way to the weekend flea market, Kolaportið.

DSC02830

DSC02834

DSC02832

Despite my most concerted efforts, I eventually could not resist the allure of an afternoon nap in my cozy hotel bed.

So tired
I was so very tired by this point in the day

Thankfully, I was still able to sleep that evening and be ready to meet my tour group the next morning. The day began with a city tour, including stops at Hallgrímskirkja and Perlan.

DSC02926
My transportation for the week.

The Hallgrímskirkja was designed to mimic the basalt columns that develop from cooling lava. The church is known for its unique design and the large pipe organ it contains.

DSC02855

DSC02897

DSC02856

DSC02857

There is a small fee to take the elevator to the top of the tower. It is well worth it for the unbeatable view of the city.

DSC02871

DSC02867

DSC02863

DSC02862

The design of the church is lovely in its simplicity.

DSC02878

DSC02880

DSC02879I even got all fancy and recorded the organ music, which you can listen to by clicking here: IMG_9455.MOV

One of the final stops before leaving the city was Perlan, or The Pearl. The building sits on a hillside and is visible throughout much of the city. The landmark building contains one of the best restaurants in Reykjavik, where I unfortunately did not get to eat, as well as an observation deck with a 360 degree view of the city.

DSC02902

DSC02916

DSC02914

DSC02909

DSC02905

DSC02904

DSC02903

A day and a half was not nearly enough time in Reykjavik, but I enjoyed every minute of the jet lagged and caffeine fueled time that I spent there. It was the perfect place to begin my exploration of Iceland before leaving the city behind in hopes of seeing the northern lights. Would I be successful in this endeavor? Stay tuned to find out!

 

The Recipe for a Perfect Getaway

Start with a fabulous resort

IMG_8745

Mix in one fancy New Year’s Eve party

IMG_9030

Add in a healthy (or unhealthy, depending on your perspective) dose of delicious food. And then add some more just for good measure.

Stir in a museum (because I’m a nerd and my boyfriend is awesome)

IMG_8787

Fold in some adventure

IMG_8920

Sprinkle in sparkly snow. Because sparkles.

IMG_8871

Add a few relaxing hours at a spa

IMG_8982

And don’t forget the most important ingredient of all – someone amazing with whom to enjoy the food and the fun and the adventure. And to kiss. A lot.

IMG_8739

Bake it all for about three days and enjoy the perfect weekend getaway.

Brandon and I decided to celebrate the beginning of 2016 in the way I pretty much want to celebrate everything – by traveling. This time, I got to explore the Bend area, an area of Oregon that was entirely new to me.

The Resort: We stayed at the lovely Sunriver Resort. The resort offers a bit of everything. Lodging options varied from my cozy, fireplace-warmed room with a snowy view to entire houses perfect for families. There were onsite restaurants, a spa, and access to everything you need to enjoy the outdoor recreation that the Bend area offers year round.

IMG_8748

IMG_8750

IMG_8751
The gorgeous, snowy view from the room

IMG_8754

Not only did I get to check out one of the lodge rooms, thanks to a frozen water pipe which led to a non-working shower, I spent the last night in one of the lodge suites. Termed a suite, the two-story room was more like a small condo.

IMG_8875

IMG_8878

IMG_8877

IMG_8876

When I could manage to pull myself away from the fireplace, which let’s be honest was a bit of a challenge given that the temperature was barely above 0 degrees Saturday morning, I could not help but marvel at the beauty of the resort under layers of snow or squeal like a child because twinkle lights were everywhere.

IMG_8759

IMG_8873

IMG_8888

IMG_8969

The Party: One reason we chose to stay at Sunriver was because of the New Year’s Eve party. The idea was that staying at the resort would be convenient and provide easy access to the party.

IMG_9022

What I had not considered was that, although, yes, the party was quite close to the room, that distance was primarily covered in snow. Snow which I had to traverse in 4-inch stilettos. The bruise on my knee from slipping and falling in the snow lasted at least 2 weeks. Thankfully, the memories – the photo booth, the silly party favors, the band, the champagne toast and kiss at midnight – will last much, much longer.

IMG_9032
I know, I know, a kissing picture. But it was midnight. On New Year’s Eve. And he’s handsome.

The Food: Fair warning. The below photos will both make you hungry and perhaps make you wonder how we had time to do anything except eat.

Stewart's 58 Drive-In was a great find in the small town of Oakridge.
Stewart’s 58 Drive-In was a great find in the small town of Oakridge as we were driving from Eugene.

IMG_8715

Salsa bar
Salsa bar
The housemade black bean burger was spicy and had the elusive (at least in the veggie burger world) perfect texture. Topped with pepper jack cheese and my chosen salsa - jalapeño corn - it was simultaneously delicious and messy
The housemade black bean burger was spicy and had the elusive (at least in the veggie burger world) perfect texture. Topped with pepper jack cheese and my chosen salsa – jalapeño corn – it was simultaneously delicious and messy
IMG_8762
Pre-party dinner at Sunriver Brewing Company

IMG_8767

IMG_8771

IMG_8770
Falafel wrap and sweet potato fries
IMG_8848
You can’t visit Bend without visiting Deschutes Brewery (or in this case the related pub downtown) at least once.

IMG_8858

IMG_8856
Pre-dinner chili fries

IMG_8854

An embarrassingly short time later, we were enjoying cocktails and appetizers at Zydeco. Where we only managed to get a table because we were literally waiting outside when the restaurant opened at 5 pm.
An embarrassingly short time later, we were enjoying cocktails and appetizers at Zydeco. Where we only managed to get a table because we were literally waiting outside when the restaurant opened at 5 pm.
IMG_8865
Fried okra
IMG_8867
Corn and artichoke fritters
Barbecue ribs for Brandon, truffle mac n cheese for me. Everybody wins.
Barbecue ribs for Brandon, truffle mac n cheese for me. Everybody wins.
IMG_8893
Brunch at the resort’s Carson’s American Kitchen was so delicious it required a repeat the following morning.

IMG_8899

IMG_8898

IMG_8894
The view wasn’t too bad, either.
The next morning I branched out and tried this - an everything bagel, topped with hummus, arugula, radishes, cranberries, and granola. It was weirdly delicious.
The next morning I branched out and tried this – an everything bagel, topped with hummus, arugula, radishes, cranberries, and granola. It was weirdly delicious.
IMG_8944
At this point, it really does seem like we did nothing but eat. Which is kind of true. No judging.

IMG_8950

IMG_8948
Checking out the wine list

IMG_8960

IMG_8959

IMG_8958
Sometimes I still have dreams about this seafood pasta
IMG_8961
Spanish coffee
IMG_8962
And when you can’t decide, don’t. Creme brûlée, lava cake, and blackberry cobbler. All great!

The Museum: We spent a cold afternoon perusing the High Desert Museum. The museum’s exhibits varied from regional art to the history of the Northwest Coast American Indians to animals found in the high desert. Amid all of this, we spent most of the afternoon looking for the porcupines. Brandon had told me about the giant porcupines that he remembered from his childhood. More than once, he shared how cool they were and how much I would like seeing them because they were, after all, giant porcupines. After making a full round of the museum, which included plenty of time outdoors in a place that was literally freezing, we wondered how we could have missed them. How does one miss giant porcupines? After asking the kind lady at the front desk, for the second time, where they were located, we again traipsed through the snow. To see this:

This was the most exciting part of the exhibit. That little tiny illustration of a porcupine was as good as it got. Needless to say, there were no giant porcupines. And the one not-so-giant porcupine in the exhibit was apparently hiding from the cold. Did I mention it was like, freezing, outside?
This was the most exciting part of the exhibit. That little tiny illustration of a porcupine was as good as it got. Needless to say, there were no giant porcupines. And the one not-so-giant porcupine in the exhibit was apparently hiding from the cold. Did I mention it was like, freezing, outside?

Fortunately, there were plenty of other things to see.

IMG_8812

IMG_8820
Apparently I have the wingspan of a turkey vulture.

IMG_8819

IMG_8818

The Adventure:

We took a caving tour with Wanderlust Tours. Boyd Cave is the only cave open in winter because it's the only lava cave in the area where bats do not hibernate. Which is apparently important because they eat trillions of mosquitoes per night. Yay bats.
On Saturday we took a caving tour with Wanderlust Tours. Boyd Cave is the only cave open in winter because it’s the only lava cave in the area where bats do not hibernate. Not disturbing hibernating bats is apparently important because it allows them to survive the winter months and they eat trillions of mosquitoes per night when they are not hibernating. Yay bats.

IMG_8942

IMG_8931

IMG_8930
This cave is undeveloped, which meant lots of scrambling over rocks and crawling through small spaces.
IMG_8912
Our guide was fantastic – funny and clearly passionate about his work. Although we could navigate the cave at will, he provided information on the easiest path (e.g., “If you go this way, you can crawl on your hands and knees. If you go this way, you will have to wiggle through on your belly with one arm over your head. Your choice.”) and provided information on the geology and history of the lava caves.

IMG_8907

IMG_8903

IMG_8941

IMG_9029
I ice skated. After spending an afternoon climbing through a cave. The deal was I had to either go around the rink 3 times or fall at least twice before we could leave. I’ll let you guess which came first.

The Spa: Before braving the icy drive home, we stored up as much relaxation as possible with a morning at the spa. A massage, some time in the hot tub as the snow fell outside, and post-massage hot tea and chocolates was a pretty perfect end to a wonderful weekend.

IMG_8978

IMG_8998

IMG_8995

IMG_8994

IMG_8992

IMG_8990

IMG_8985

IMG_8981

The Boyfriend: Also known as the guy who made the weekend perfect.

This pretty much captures our relationship - Brandon doing something silly (like licking my face when it's freezing outside) and me laughing.
This pretty much captures our relationship – Brandon doing something silly (like licking my face when it’s freezing outside) and me laughing.
Happiness
Happiness

Now that I think about it, three days was just not long enough.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conferences Can Be Fun

Okay, so the title might be a bit misleading. It suggests that the default assumption is that conferences are, in fact, not fun and one must work to make them so. However, we all know that conferences are fun because learning new stuff is fun. At least to a nerd like me. That being said, there are some ways to make the most of the time spent in a new city, even if you’re there to work.

Recently, I’ve been fortunate enough to explore two amazing places while also getting to learn new stuff. My first out of town training was at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota and the second was in the nearby Portland, a city in which, despite its proximity, I had yet to spend much time. Here are a few things I did to make the most of my time in these two very different cities.

  1. Enjoy the journey. Whether it was marveling at the view out of my airplane and shuttle bus windows, taking a short road trip to Portland with the boyfriend, or finding a few minutes to ramble while orienting myself to a new place, I love, love, love, to see or experience a place to which I have never been. Even if I have to work the next day.IMG_6802 IMG_6813 IMG_6807
  2. Stay somewhere cool. While in Portland, I was fortunate that the conference was held at the Portland Marriott Downtown Waterfront. Not only was the room super cool and oh-so-Portland (notice the bike art), but the view. Seriously. Plus, it was super convenient to take the elevator down to the conference instead of walking across half a city (usually in the cold and rain) to get to a conference because I was a poor, broke grad student and had to stay somewhere that was both less expensive and significantly less convenient than where the conference was being held. Oh the perks of having a real job. IMG_7144IMG_7155IMG_7147IMG_7170I wanted to extend my stay in Portland a bit longer and decided to stay at the even more cool Hotel Monaco Portland. The room was quirky and comfortable. The boyfriend and I enjoyed the well-attended complimentary wine hour before heading out to dinner. Sydney was not along for this trip, but if she had been, she would have been welcomed and spoiled at the Kimpton Hotels property.IMG_7222IMG_7207 IMG_7209 IMG_7208IMG_7217 IMG_7215 IMG_7214
  3. Eat good food. Perhaps this is more generally reflective of my approach to life, but traveling anywhere is the perfect excuse to find the best food that I can and eat it.
    IMG_6822
    The area around the Mayo Clinic had many excellent restaurants, including this one.
    IMG_6828
    Goat cheese flatbread with oven roasted tomatoes, garlic oil, spinach, and a whiskey balsamic glaze
    IMG_6825
    Br’er Rabbit’s Bramble made with gin, lemon, simple syrup, and Pimm’s Blackberry Elderflower
    IMG_6873
    Lobster mac n’ cheese at Chester’s Kitchen & Bar.
    IMG_6911
    Penne alla arrabiata from Victoria’s. Not only was it delicious, but thankfully I had a mini-fridge and microwave in my hotel room because I had plenty of leftovers.
    IMG_6913
    Raspberry creme brûlée – I couldn’t skip dessert!
    IMG_6991
    City Market was the perfect spot for a quick and yummy lunch.
    IMG_6990
    My veggie sandwich was made on multi-grain sourdough and topped with Boursin cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, onion, sprouts, cucumber, roasted red peppers, and jack cheese.
    IMG_7008
    On Friday I treated myself to lunch at the seafood restaurant Pescara to celebrate wrapping up my training. The shrimp tacos and black bean soup were perfection.
    IMG_7031
    My last meal in Rochester was at Grand Rounds Brewpub.
    IMG_7032
    The chickpea and goat cheese burger with an avocado puree was a great veggie burger option.
    IMG_7165
    One night in Portland, the boyfriend and I treated ourselves to a fancy night out at the Portland Street Grill. The view, the food, and especially the company were impossible to beat.
    IMG_7164
    Salt and pepper seared scallops with caramelized cauliflower and roasted butternut squash – my idea of the perfect meal

    IMG_7162IMG_7206

    IMG_7167
    And because there had yet to be enough deliciousness, pumpkin donut holes
    IMG_7173
    The Bistro in the Marriott was an ideal spot to meet the boyfriend for a quick and very yummy lunch.
    IMG_7175
    Salmon salad with green beans, potatoes, egg, tomato, olives, and a honey mustard vinaigrette
    IMG_7174
    I was perfectly content with the curried cauliflower soup and a Caesar salad
    IMG_7178
    Friday evening, we met my colleagues for dinner at a fantastic Italian restaurant in the Pearl District. Unfortunately, I cannot remember the name. Forgetting one restaurant name is not too bad, right?

    IMG_7179IMG_7180

    IMG_7251
    My favorite meal of the entire Portland trip was at a new restaurant named Lechon. The architecture and design were unique and fun and the food, which, let’s be honest, is what really matters, was beyond incredible. Inspired by South American cuisine, every.single.dish. was delicious. I will definitely be returning.
    IMG_7262
    Gaucho bread with chimichurri
    IMG_7261
    Brussels sprouts, caramelized onions, smoked cashew puree, pink peppercorns – I could eat these everyday.
    IMG_7260
    Grilled octopus, which was really beyond description. Just know it was fantastic.
    IMG_7259
    Grilled corn and braised brisket empanadas – I could have eaten dozens of these. I’m sure they were calorie free, right?

    IMG_7257

    IMG_7256
    Mediterraneo – pisco, cardamom infusion, egg white, lemon

    IMG_7254IMG_7253

    IMG_7277
    Brunch at Red Star Tavern. It was excellent, but relatively overlooked. So in a city that is all about brunch, we were able to get a table right away.

    IMG_7279

  4. Explore. I was quite busy while at the Mayo Clinic, but I did get to spend some time walking around their amazing campus. In Portland, the boyfriend and I explored the nightlife, enjoyed a scenic walk along the river, and spent a very fun afternoon at the OMSI – the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. IMG_6820IMG_6829IMG_6869IMG_6919IMG_6955IMG_6954IMG_6923IMG_6922IMG_7009IMG_7015
    IMG_7264
    We skipped Voodoo Doughnut this time because the line was always ridiculously long. Plus, in case it is not abundantly apparent from the above pictures, it is not like we could have possibly been hungry.
    IMG_7267
    Ground Kontrol Arcade

    IMG_7199

    IMG_7235
    The walk to dinner Saturday evening was gorgeous.

    IMG_7236

    IMG_7248
    This guy makes me smile

    IMG_7240IMG_7238IMG_7237IMG_7280

    IMG_7288
    We totally figured this one out without any help from Google. At all. Promise!

    IMG_7287IMG_7286

    IMG_7285
    Looking good at the IMAX

    IMG_7283

  5. Relax. I took advantage of a free afternoon to check out the spa at the Mayo Clinic’s incredible health center. A little pampering was a perfect way to wrap up a week of long days of work. The services were affordable and the facilities were quite nice. Whether it is a couple hours at a spa, doing some yoga, or taking a walk outside, relaxation helps the brain work better, an important aspect of being able to absorb all the new information you learn at a conference.IMG_7018 IMG_7024 IMG_7023 IMG_7020 IMG_7019
  6. Bring along someone with whom you like spending time. If you have not yet deduced this, the boyfriend tagged along for the conference in Portland. Which meant I could do fun things like meet him for lunch, go out on city dates and do all kinds of non-small-town stuff, and be slightly pushed out of my comfort zone (Ground Kontrol, I’m looking at you…). He definitely made my time in Portland more fun.IMG_7154
  7. As a bonus, I’m going to share one thing NOT to do. Do not, under any conditions, oversleep your alarm the morning you’re going to the airport. Hypothetically, that could result in missing your shuttle to the airport by 5 minutes, which, in turn, could potentially result in a $230 taxi ride. I am not sure who would make such a rookie travel mistake, but just take the offered advice and set an alarm and request a wake up call. Your wallet will thank you.

I have so many exciting things coming up soon: more exploration of Oregon including a New Year’s Trip to Sun River, a last minute trip to South Korea, and a long-planned trip to Iceland early next year. I am looking forward to ending this year on a high note and beginning the next one in the best way possible – going somewhere new!

Couchsurfing in China: The Epilogue

How does one end an amazing, once in a lifetime, trip to China? I don’t know how most people do  it, but I chose to fit in a 24 hours stopover in Dallas. Just enough time to see friends, eat Torchy’s queso, and oh yeah, take a shower after a long day in the city and an even longer flight. But not really enough time to sleep much…

But before we get to all that, this is really important to say: You know how there is this romantic idea of sitting next to the cute stranger on the flight and falling madly in love? Well, the whole sitting next to a cute stranger thing is totally overrated. Do not get me wrong, I enjoyed the dinner conversation with the very attractive world traveling engineer who I was fortunate enough to sit next to on the Shanghai to Dallas flight. However, one never sees the scene wherein the female protagonist (that would be me…) tries to both get some sleep, not exactly the easiest task on a plane in the first place, while not ugly sleeping. Which means no drooling, no awkward head bobbing, no crazy hair, and definitely no accidentally leaning over on your seat mate while sleeping. Have you ever tried looking attractive while sleeping on a plane? Not easy! Especially while wearing compression socks to prevent my feet from swelling. Sexy. Despite all of that, I quite enjoyed the flight…

And then I arrived in Dallas, almost 8 months since I had moved. My lovely friends were kind enough to want to hang out with me despite the fact that I had not showered in an unmentionable amount of time and had been sitting on a plane for 13 hours. We ate Torchy’s (and I may or may not have brought an order of queso back in my luggage), told stories, laughed, and just generally had a wonderful time. And as if all that were not amazing enough, I got to take a legit shower. Sorry Kelsey if I used all the hot water.

IMG_5602
What happens when a bunch of 30-somethings try to use a selfie stick. There was a table of not-so-30 -somethings not-so-silently mocking us.
IMG_5599
This. This is happiness.

IMG_5601

Saturday morning, another sweet friend picked me up for lunch at one of my favorite spots that I miss terribly – Patina Green. After savoring every bite of my cauliflower sandwich and every minute of the conversation, I was dropped off at the airport to finally go home for real.

IMG_5604

IMG_5610

IMG_5607
I have the best friends, hands down.

The amazing part was, as I took in the view while flying into the Portland airport, that I realized I really was coming home.

DSC01115

DSC01118

In the 8 months I had lived in Oregon, this place had begun to be my home despite the distance from every place I’ve ever lived and the total lack of knowing people in the town I had moved to less than a year before. It took traveling far away for me to appreciate for the first time the home that this new place had slowly become. As my flight landed in Oregon, I came home.

I always wish I had adequate words to capture the moments I spend in the places I go. I hope despite my shortcomings as a writer, you found something to enjoy or entice or ponder in the time you spent reading about my trip. It was a week of (mostly) ordinary life in a city in China that reminded me what an extraordinary life I live. Thanks for being a part of it!

Couchsurfing in China: Shanghai

So there I was, at that moment when a trip was ending, memories made, with nothing left but the flight home (well, and then writing about said trip for months on end…). It is always a bittersweet moment for me. By that point, I’m usually tired, missing my bed, and missing my dog. And at the same time, I am never quite ready to leave the place where I am. I always want more – more time, more experiences, and more delicious food that I definitely cannot get at home.

But my trip ended, as all things in life do. I accepted the end of my time in China with as much equanimity as I could muster. It didn’t hurt that I managed to just squeeze in one last stop before heading to the airport. Like just barely squeezed it in. As in I went pretty much straight from security to boarding my plane. But really, that is not relevant. What is relevant is that I had approximately 6 hours to get the tiniest glimpse of the incredible city of Shanghai. Six measly hours, most of which were spent sitting in traffic while marveling at the city surrounding me.

DSC01033
Apartments such as these are typical homes. Single family houses seemed essentially nonexistent. I was amazed that the laundry hanging out of the highest windows to dry had not been blown away.
DSC01036
Pearl tower reflection

DSC01035With time for a single stop, we chose to spend our time at the Pearl Tower, with its amazing view of the never-ending skyscrapers.

DSC01041

DSC01059

DSC01056

DSC01055

DSC01053

DSC01051

DSC01048

DSC01044

It wasn’t until I was in Shanghai that I truly appreciated the population of China, the sea of people moving about in choreographed chaos. Having spent most of my time in a “small” city, my time in China would have been incomplete without at least a brief opportunity to experience the city. Plus, did I mention that the view was incredible?

DSC01064

DSC01066

DSC01065
Not such a fan of the height…

DSC01077

DSC01076

DSC01075

DSC01072

DSC01071

DSC01070And then there was the level with the glass bottom. It was literally breathtaking. As in I felt so anxious I could not breathe. And yet, I kept standing there. Perhaps because I was paralyzed by fear.

DSC01080

DSC01102
Junie was quite brave

DSC01099

DSC01098

DSC01096
Jobie takes after his mom when it comes to heights and was a little more hesitant about walking out onto the glass floor.

DSC01093

DSC01091

DSC01087
Junie is the best part of this picture

DSC01085

IMG_0195

One last day, one last city, one last stop.

DSC01106

DSC01107

My time in China was officially over. Thankfully, my trip was not quite finished. My next (and final China) post: the epilogue.

 

Couchsurfing in China: Hangzhou

One of my last days in China, as my trip was winding down and I was already (sadly) anticipating returning home, I took a day trip to the nearby and lovely city of Hangzhou. A relatively short and inexpensive bus ride from Shaoxing, Hangzhou is often described in China as “heaven on earth.” Candi, Jobie, and Junie were my tour guides, along with their friends Melissa and Alex.

DSC00783

DSC00793

DSC00787

DSC00786

DSC00784

My first view of Hangzhou
First view of Hangzhou

After dealing with an obnoxious taxi driver, our first stop of the day was the China National Tea Museum.

DSC00799

DSC00814

DSC00813

DSC00811

DSC00810
It was not just a museum, there was an actual tea farm. Farm? For some reason it seems like there should be a different word.

DSC00805

DSC00804

DSC00800

The museum displayed teapots and tea settings from throughout China’s history.

DSC00819

DSC00827

DSC00826

DSC00825

DSC00823

DSC00822

DSC00821

After being accosted (in a friendly way) by a group of Chinese students, we explored a bit more of the grounds before purchasing Hangzhou green tea – considered to be the best green tea in China.

DSC00832

DSC00837

DSC00873

DSC00877

DSC00880

DSC00879

At some point “Would you mind taking a picture of me?” turned into “Cora, do this pose.” Exhibited below, the Cora pose, the Chinese pose, the Japanese pose, and the Junie pose. I will let you decide which is which. Disclaimer: all poses are the responsibility of those behind the camera. I am in no way accountable for inaccurate poses.

DSC00864

DSC00863

DSC00862

DSC00861

DSC00868
In case you’re wondering which one was the Junie pose…

DSC00850

DSC00849

After a delicious lunch (described elsewhere) of local Hangzhou specialties such as dongpo pork and beggar’s chicken, we spent a warm afternoon madly shopping the pedestrian only Hefang Street. Shops along the street ran from kitschy to authentic and there was much more to see than could fit into a single afternoon. If you received a gift from me from my trip to China, chances are it was purchased here.

DSC00901

DSC00929
Showing off our new shoes

DSC00927

DSC00922

DSC00918

DSC00910

DSC00907

DSC00906

DSC00902

We ended a busy day with a sunset walk along West Lake, one of the highlights of Hangzhou and a primary reason that Hangzhou is considered such a beautiful city.

DSC00942

DSC00977

DSC00976

DSC00973

DSC00971

DSC00967

DSC00961

DSC00956

DSC00949

DSC00948

We hurried back to the bus terminal just in time to grab McDonald’s before taking a bus back to Shaoxing in the dark. Tired and with aching feet (happily ensconced in new shoes), I watched out the window while reminiscing on what had been a truly wonderful week in China. And it wasn’t quite over yet.

 

Couchsurfing in China: Friendship

Friendship is one of those things that is hard to put into words. It is impossible to describe the complexities of relationships that begin and continue by choice, despite distance and time and change.

Candi and I have been friends since we were 13 years old. We later became family when she married my cousin. We made it through the awkward teenage years, road trips to Florida and back, and being roommates for two years of college. But in the past few years, the circumstances of our lives (ummmm, grad school controlling my life; Candi moving to China) brought more distance into our relationship, both literally and figuratively. Given the recent distance, I was unsure how my week in China would go. Fortunately, I spent a week being reminded of all the wonderful things that friendship can be.

Friends pick up where they left off. Whether it has been days or months or years, with friends it feels like you were never apart.

DSC00532

Friends shop together and share clothes. Okay, so maybe this is not necessarily true for everyone, but it is definitely true for me. In college, my roommates and I used to joke that we each had four closets because we so frequently borrowed one another’s clothes. Even though I was only in China for a week, I managed to borrow multiple items of clothing from Candi and we certainly spent time shopping. Sometimes the only way to make a decision is to get a second opinion from a friend.

Wearing a pair of Candi's leggings because it was cold and so I could ride the e-bike without flashing anybody.
Exhibit A: Wearing a pair of Candi’s leggings because it was cold and so I could ride the e-bike without flashing anybody.
Candi's fleece
Exhibit B: Candi’s fleece
Candi's tennis shoes
Exhibit C: Candi’s tennis shoes

DSC00293

DSC00299

Friends can just be together. You don’t have to do anything special to have a good time. One evening, we went for a walk around campus before buying a watermelon that we shared while sitting on a bridge. It was nothing special, but it was wonderful.

IMG_5514

IMG_5516

Friends make you brave enough to try new things. Whether that is staying out after dark

Apparently Candi being outside in the evening was an almost unbelievable sight
Apparently Candi being outside in the evening was an almost unbelievable sight

or trying new foods

DSC00312

or booking a plane ticket to China, the presence of a friend can be the difference between being too cautious to try something new and feeling capable of going outside of your comfort zone.

Friends may push you out of your comfort zone, but they also share common interests. For me, that usually involves coffee.  Okay, it always involves coffee. In a single week in China, Candi and I went to no less than 3 different Starbucks, not to mention the other times we spent obtaining and drinking coffee.

DSC00378

However, as much as I love coffee, sharing a cup of tea with a friend is a ritual I sometimes enjoy. One evening, Candi and I relaxed over traditional Chinese tea.

DSC00781

DSC00762

DSC00754

DSC00763

Chinese tea is accompanied by the savory, not the sweet - things like sesame seeds, breadsticks, and cucumber, with the sweetest food being something like melon.
Chinese tea is accompanied by the savory, not the sweet – things like sesame seeds, bread sticks, and cucumber, with the sweetest food being something like melon.

DSC00772

Friends survive painful experiences together. Sometimes friends walk with you through the worst parts of your life. Other times, you get massages together at a Chinese spa. One night, and by night I mean like 10 pm, Candi and I found our way to a spa for foot massages. Anticipating a relaxing evening, we ordered tea and sat back in the comfortable chairs.

DSC00993

DSC00986

DSC00982

DSC00981

And then the massage began. First, our feet were forcefully immersed into a scalding hot bucket of water. And when I say scalding, I mean food could have been safely cooked in it.

DSC00988

After holding our feet in the buckets of water, the massages began. A series of miscommunications led to my masseuse increasing the pressure rather than decreasing it. I think I may have cried. Eventually, in response to a combination of Candi’s translation skills, my tears, and a few hand signals, the pressure was reduced and I mostly enjoyed the remaining foot and back massage, although it was certainly unique among the many, many spa experiences I have had. At one point, my masseuse hooked his arms under mine and jerked me up into the air. Like I said…unique.

DSC00989

By the end, I was feeling a bit disheveled.
By the end, I was feeling a bit disheveled, although I will admit I was also more relaxed.

Friendship can be many things – fun and strength and laughter and tears. Friendship is some of the things I have mentioned and many more that I have not. I am thankful for the many incredible friends I have in my life and I am thankful that I got to spend a week in China with one of the friends I have known the longest. Anything you would add to the “friends are.. ” list?

 

Couchsurfing in China: How to Fail at Travel Blogging

A travel blog may be many things. It may be a place to tell stories about far off places, a medium for sharing unique experiences, or simply a place to catalogue memories one does not want to forget. Regardless, one could argue that at a minimum there should be some communication of useful information. So today, I will thoroughly fail at travel blogging by utterly failing to communicate any potentially helpful information. You see, the thing about going to China and being an English speaker is that every. single. thing is confusing. There was not a single moment during my trip where I felt like, “I got this!” Even an attempt to buy a bottle of water independently failed miserably. Today’s post is a reflection of my continual befuddlement while in China. I cannot tell you where I went and I can barely tell you what I did. But at least I can share pretty pictures.

IMG_5554

One afternoon, Candi and Justin were occupied teaching classes and I wanted to explore a bit. One of their students, Kate, kindly offered to take me hiking on the mountain.

DSC00593

Having been told multiple names for the place – perhaps Kuaiji, perhaps Da Yu – as well as being entirely unable to read the ticket, I do not actually know the name of the place that I went. I also do not know how much it cost; I simply handed Kate money and she purchased the tickets because, you know, she actually spoke Chinese. All I know is that the mountain is across from the campus, there were multiple spots to visit on the mountain, that I visited a Buddhist temple complex, and that I climbed a lot of stairs. Seriously, if you take nothing else away from this post, take away that there were seemingly endless stairs.

DSC00557
See those seemingly tiny buildings way up at the top of the mountain in the background? Yeah, that was our destination.
DSC00585
Stairs

DSC00579

DSC00578
And more stairs

DSC00577

DSC00576
And what do you know, more stairs

DSC00574

DSC00567

DSC00566

DSC00562

DSC00560

DSC00559

Kate was a fantastic and friendly guide and I enjoyed talking with her, at least when I was not too out of breath to do so. That and the views from the top made the climb more than worthwhile.

DSC00588
It was a perfectly clear day. The haze over the city is smog.

IMG_5551

DSC00623

DSC00617

DSC00611

DSC00608

DSC00607

DSC00605

DSC00604

DSC00602

DSC00601

DSC00600

DSC00599

DSC00597

DSC00589

Basically, this post will not be at all useful if you are planning a trip to Shaoxing. Although I can recommend climbing the mountain, I cannot tell you where to go or what it will cost. This post is also not particularly informative if you are simply curious about what I did while in China. Travel blog fail.

Couchsurfing in China: I Travel for the Food

If you have read my blog, like, ever, then you are likely aware that I like food. Like really like food. And taking a trip to China was the perfect opportunity to try some new and, ummm, interesting foods. There were also many delicious foods. Many, many delicious foods.

Let’s start by talking about the street food. Across from campus was a myriad collection of food vendors and small restaurants where I most often ate during my stay. At any time of the day, various forms of inexpensive food, both identifiable and otherwise, were available for purchase. One of Jobie and Junie’s favorites is these sweet corn (or corn-like? I’m not really sure what was in them) cakes. Baked fresh and placed into a bag while still giving off steam, these were small bites of puffy goodness.

DSC00245

DSC00246

DSC00249
Sweet corn(?)cake comas

Also available were things like dumplings (jiaozi), fried rice, cold drinks, and mystery meat parts.

Thankfully, Candi was able to order for me.
Thankfully, Candi was able to order for me.
This is a strangely delicious drink called coffee milk tea. Which is exactly what it sounds like.
This is a strangely delicious drink called coffee milk tea. Which is exactly what it sounds like.
Lemon something? It was quite refreshing after returning from a hike up a mountain.
Lemon something? It was quite refreshing after returning from a hike up a mountain.

DSC00336

DSC00335

DSC00348

DSC00337

DSC00338

DSC00343

DSC00342

DSC00340
I do not believe I want to know what any of this is…
DSC00347
However, this I want to eat. Now.

In the same area as the street food vendors were several small restaurants. During my stay, we ate at two of Candi and Justin’s favorites – one specializing in Sichuan cuisine and another in cuisine from northern China. I honestly cannot remember all of the dishes, but I do remember that the vegetables – cauliflower, small eggplants, potatoes, squash – were all especially delicious. Although I thoroughly enjoyed each of these meals, I will be honest. One must put aside any and all food hygiene issues in order to consume food in China.

First, because food is prepared in places that look like this:

DSC00251

I’m guessing there is not much regulation of food safety standards.

Second, meals are served family style. Various dishes are ordered (by someone who actually speaks Chinese) and brought to the table along with a big bowl of rice. Each person dips their own small bowl of rice, but from that point, chopsticks are used to grab individuals bites. Those same chopsticks are then used to place those bites (after adding an appropriate amount of rice) into each person’s mouth. And then back into the plates of yummy food shared by all.

I really found it best to not think about it. That way, I could thoroughly enjoy eating all of these amazing dishes.

DSC00254

DSC00256

DSC00259

DSC00258

DSC00257

DSC00733

DSC00743

DSC00742

DSC00740

DSC00738

DSC00737

DSC00555
In case it’s not obvious, this is the entrance to a dumpling restaurant
DSC00550
Where the magic happens

DSC00549

DSC00548

DSC00544
This was as spicy as it looks and perfect to add to a bowl of dumplings along with some dark vinegar.

DSC00543

DSC00540

DSC00539

DSC00536
I have been craving this for a solid 2 weeks. And I cannot have it. Never go to China because you will eat things like this and your life will never be the same and you will be sad that you cannot eat it every day. Just some friendly advice.

We went out for a nice dinner one night to a place called 70’s Restaurant, although it’s anyone’s guess as to why. Despite the inexplicable name, the food was incredible.

DSC00494

DSC00521

DSC00520
These were little tiny eggplants. As a side note, instead of saying “cheese” when taking a picture, people will say “qiezi,” the Chinese word for eggplant, which sounds more like ches-duh. Obviously.
DSC00518
Mushrooms

DSC00517

DSC00516

DSC00515

DSC00514
This was translated as bread with ice cream. It was a sweet bread with a sugary outside topped with a sweet butter-like substance that got all melty and good tasting.

DSC00513

DSC00511
This cabbage was incredible, especially as it continued to cook and got a little crispy on the edges.
DSC00502
Enjoying some barley tea.

DSC00501

 

Another delicious meal was in Hangzhou. We enjoyed some of the regional specialities, such as chicken in tea leaves and a fatty pork dish.

DSC00882

DSC00884

DSC00891

DSC00895

DSC00894

DSC00893

DSC00892

One of my favorite things to eat was the readily available fresh and delightful fruit, even when I was not entirely sure what it was that I was eating.

DSC00362

DSC00364

DSC00363

DSC00351

 

DSC00353

Dragonfruit smoothies. In a Razorback cup, of course. WPS!!
Dragonfruit smoothies. In a Razorback cup, of course. WPS!!

DSC00266

DSC00268

DSC00267

 

Even the places that should have been familiar had their own unique Chinese twist. Take for instance, Dairy Queen. Forget a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Blizzard. I ordered mango ice cream complete with a macaroon.

DSC00896

DSC00899

DSC00898And then there were the chips. Trying to find a familiar flavor was next to impossible. Because they were mostly flavored like meat. Even the Cheetos were meat flavored. As in, regular Cheetos were not to be found.

DSC00404

DSC00409

DSC00408

DSC00407

DSC00406

 

 

DSC00405
Not meat flavored, but also not particularly good. Trust me.

Even the bakeries were different. Although the pictures may appear to be any bakery in any city, the available pastries tended to be less sweet than what one would typically find. Oh, and the egg custard? Amazing.

DSC01016

DSC01020

DSC01017
And yes, I ate both this and the egg custard. Don’t judge me. I needed lots of energy for a day in Shanghai and a long plane ride home.

Although I ate many wonderful, potentially life changing foods while in China, I also took the opportunity to try a couple of new, potentially not palatable foods. And because I like you, I am sharing the carefully documented series of pictures of me trying gross things. You’re welcome.

First up, stinky tofu. As the name suggests, it is tofu that is intentionally soaked in something that smells like sewage before being fried. The name could not be more appropriate.

DSC00307
This is one of the moments when blogging is an inadequate medium. There are no words to capture the burning trash smell permeating the air as the tofu was fried.

IMG_5505

DSC00312

DSC00314

 

The most memorable food experience was certainly trying chicken feet. I literally ate the foot of a chicken. I think the pictures say it all.

DSC00885

 

DSC00886

DSC00888

DSC00889

One of my favorite ways to get to know any place, both near home and in a far away place like China, is to try new dishes. Whether what I ate was especially tasty or something I would never voluntarily eat again, China did not disappoint.

 

 

 

 

Couchsurfing in China: Images of Shaoxing

In some ways, I hesitate to say that I’ve been to China. The country is incredibly immense and diverse and I only spent an inadequate number of days seeing one small piece of it. I spent most of my time in Shaoxing, the city where Justin and Candi live and work. They teach at Zhejiang Yuexiu University of Foreign Languages and live in an apartment on campus. My trip to China was in no way typical because I had the opportunity to experience the day-to-day life they live in Shaoxing and around Yeuxiu. Today’s post will mostly be pictures of that life. I could say something trite like “a picture is worth a thousand words” or “words could never do it justice.” But the reality is that today I’m feeling a bit lazy.

So, here are some pictures of Shaoxing and the university campus – the tiny piece of China I visited – accompanied by minimal words. Because I’m lazy.

The Apartment: 

This is the apartment building where the foreign language teachers live.
This is the apartment building where the foreign language teachers live.
The view from the apartment
The view from the apartment
The "garage," complete with outlets with which to charge the e-bikes
The “garage,” complete with outlets with which to charge the e-bikes

DSC00653

The Campus: 

Setting out to walk across campus

DSC00239

DSC00238

DSC00237

DSC00236

This is across the street from campus. So. Much. Good. Food. More on that in a later post!
This is across the street from campus. So. Much. Good. Food. More on that in a later post!

DSC00242

DSC00646

DSC00700

DSC00697

DSC00692

DSC00691

DSC00658

DSC00525

Speaking of the campus, I got to help Candi teach some of her classes! Because I am both a psychologist and a lefty, things that are practically nonexistent in China, I was a bit of an anomaly to her students. Also, you haven’t lived until you have played Balderdash using English language idioms with a group of Chinese students. It was both funny and incredibly impressive. I couldn’t help but imagine how terrible I would be if the situation were reversed.

DSC00401

DSC00399

DSC00532

DSC00527

The City: 

DSC00391

DSC00389

DSC00388
Shaoxing is known historically for calligraphy, which is commemorated by this statue. Obviously.

DSC00381

DSC00378
Starbucks!!
What was amazing to me was that Shaoxing is not considered a particularly large city - millions of people live here.
What was amazing to me was that Shaoxing is not considered a particularly large city and yet millions of people live here.

DSC00454

DSC00443

DSC00556

DSC00599
It was a sunny day – that’s smog

DSC01018

DSC01015

DSC01014

DSC01013

DSC01012

DSC01011

Today’s post is all about the pictures, fleeting glimpses of Shaoxing and Yuexiu University. Every moment was so packed with colors, noises, smells, and people. It is impossible to describe the overwhelming wonder of it, each chaotic second leaving me exhausted and wanting more. Now that I’m home, sitting in my comfortably air-conditioned, quiet, organized home, I can’t help but ask myself: when can I go back?