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Archive for May, 2012

What can we really say about The Great Wall? It was as incredibly breathtaking as we had imagined; we couldn’t have dreamt it to be any better. The part that we visited, between Jinshanling and Simatai, is one of the furthest from Beijing, meaning that it is undisturbed by the masses of tourists that flock to the closer sections, and it also retains its authenticity since it has not yet been fully restored. Here are a few photos of our visit; we took hundreds and will spare you by only sharing a few of our favorites.

Miles and miles of wall stretched out in both directions as we began our hike from Jinshanling to Simatai.

As we hiked, the views kept getting better and better.

This section of The Wall contains 22 watch towers, each with their own unique style.

We were by no means the only people on The Wall that day, however, at times it felt as though we were out there on our own.

Smiles come easy when you’re on The Great Wall.

Great Wall aside, hiking through this lush green mountain range was spectacular in and of itself.

Many of the towers along the way offered commanding views of The Wall’s snake-like figure rolling from peak to peak.

We found ourselves snapping a photo nearly every minute; we had to constantly remind ourselves to take breaks from our cameras and soak up the present moment.

This steep section of the Simatai wall is currently closed and expected to reopen in October 2012.

We loved encountering rustic stretches of The Wall that have yet to be restored. At times it felt like the stones might crumble away.

It is impossible to measure the length of The Great Wall in its entirety, but estimates put it at more than 5,000 miles long.  To give you an idea of its vastness, that is longer than I-90, the longest interstate in the USA, which runs from Seattle to Boston.

Some of the best views came towards the end of our hike as we climbed steeply to the East Simatai Gate. Our glutes were killing us the next day!

7km. 22 towers. 100s of photos. 1 great day!

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Before diving into Shanghai itself, we must talk about how we got there. There are many ways to get from place to place in China; for the budget backpacker, overnight trains are the best option. We opted for “hard-sleeper” beds, which, as the name would suggest, are quite firm and stacked three-high in a car without doors or curtains; basically a moving bunk room with 70+ beds. While it’s not the most private way to travel, it is actually quite fun! Small tables and folding chairs line the corridor, making for a very communal feel. All of the train cars are equipped with steaming hot water taps, and we learned early on that dried noodle bowls are the meal of choice for long train rides. Add a deck of cards, a good book and a flask of whiskey to the mix, and you’re set with all you need to make the most of the 23 hour, 950 mile journey.

I’m on the night train!

Our bunk mates eating the standard Chinese night train fare of cup-o-noodles.

We spent our first day in Shanghai visiting the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Museum. It has to be one of the most oddly located museums in the world. With the address and Chinese name in hand, we arrived at what we thought was the entrance. At first, we weren’t certain we had found the right place as it was just a big apartment complex. The security guard handed us a business card that pointed us around the corner and down a floor to the basement of building #3.

Who would have thought this was home to Shanghai’s Propaganda Poster Museum?

The museum houses a very extensive collection of original Chinese Communist Party propaganda posters. Almost all of these posters were destroyed following Mao’s death, so a collection this size is quite remarkable. The dates of the posters range form 1930-1979; the imagery and verbiage used on the posters are both powerful and thought-provoking. We highly recommend visiting this museum on your next stop in Shanghai.

Viva la revolucion!

“Grandpa Mao” as they refer to him in China.

Possibly Shanghai’s most well know attraction, The Bund, is a historic part of city with predominantly European architecture. It was home to many important residents, businesses, and government offices during the British rule of the city. Today the area is a meeting ground of old and new. Sitting just across the Huangpu River from The Bund are countless ultra-modern skyscrapers that fill Shanghai with neon lights each evening. For us, the view was somewhat reminiscent of Hong Kong, but let there be no mistake about it, Shanghai is mainland China through and through, not an SAR.

The Bund after nightfall

View of the Pudong skyline (East bank of the Huangpu River) from The Bund.

Another remnant of Shanghai’s colonial past is the neighborhood known as The French Concession. Its wide, tree-lined boulevards, well-kept mansions and designer fashion stores transport you far from the chaos of the city center, and can almost convince you that you are in Europe not Asia. We strolled through the area one afternoon and stumbled upon something we had been missing since we left home, a micro-brewery. Yes! Any cold beer goes down easily on a hot, humid day, but the beer in China leaves a lot to be desired. Being from Portland and Denver (the micro-brew hubs of America) we require a good craft beer from time to time; Boxing Cat Brewery in the French Concession fit the bill.

These red and pale ales tasted incredible to our taste buds after months of watery, light beer.

Each region in China boasts its own local flavor. In Shanghai, the regional specialty is dumplings. Every restaurant and street cart sells their own version. We came to love the dumpling vendor on the corner next to our hostel, and stopped by every morning for breakfast. We never quite figured it out, but each day we paid a different price for the same dumplings. It seems that China is one of those places where you can decide what you’re going to pay for a product; hand the person your money with confidence and they will likely accept it with a smile.

Rice dumplings – the real breakfast of champions

Beyond dumplings, we enjoyed many other delicious treats from vendors on the street in Shanghai. Some of our favorites were two well know dishes in the western world, fried noodles (chow mein) and fried rice (chow fahn) prepared on a makeshift, propane-powered stove top that was attached to a bicycle.  Ready in less than two minutes, these dishes were phenomenal late-night snacks.

Tasty chow mein, MSG and all.

Last but not least, KTV. We had heard a lot about it since arriving in China, and were excited to partake in this beloved Chinese pastime. One Friday night in Shanghai we met up with a friend of a friend to see what KTV was all about. Essentially, it is karaoke, but is much different than the karaoke bars found in the US. Forget the dive bar with a large screen where you sing in front of a crowd of strangers. Now, picture walking into the lobby of a high-rise, heading up the elevator, exiting into a fancy corridor of numbered rooms. Behind each door: couches, a flat-screen TV, song selection computer, microphones, bottles of liquor, snacks, dice games and, most importantly, a good group of friends. We stayed at KTV with our new Chinese friends until 4am, and it was truly a night to remember.

The KTV crew

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With a population of nearly 1.4 billion people, China can be a tough place in which to escape the hustle and bustle of city life. Even when traveling to “small towns” you often find yourself in the midst of millions. In need of some peace and quiet, we headed towards the Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces in Longsheng County.

The Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces. It only took a few photos to convince us to add this area to our China itinerary.

The Longji rice growing region is home to several villages speckled throughout the mountains. The most popular village in the area is Ping ‘an, but popular is not what we were looking for. We wanted something a little more secluded; so we set off from Guilin for the village of Dazhai, which has a reputation as a smaller and more chilled out place to use as a home base for exploring the terraces.

View of Dazhai village from above

As is usually the case when riding buses in China, we were the only westerners on board and weren’t entirely sure where our stop was, but that always helps to build the sense of adventure. After about two hours, we were dropped off at a pretty deserted little bus stop, if you can even call it that, and our bus sped on down the road. Luckily for us, a young Chinese couple from Guangzhou had gotten off the bus as well, and we decided to share a van to Dazhai (thanks to them, we were able to get the real “Chinese” price and we were confident that we were headed in the right direction).

When we arrived at the gate to Dazhai, the driver told us that we would have to hike the rest of the way as motor vehicles are prohibited beyond the city gate. Thank God, no motor bikes to dodge for at least a few days! We had found the solitude we were looking for.

While very secluded, Dazhai is situated at the base of spectacular terraced mountains, so we decided to continue our trek uphill to another village called Tiantou. Tiantou is even smaller and offers the best panoramic views in the area. Everything in this village is carried up by a person or packed on the back of an animal. We saw everything from live chickens to rice noodles to beer being brought up on the back of mules. We even saw a Chinese tourist being carted up the mountain in a wooden chair carried by four other men. Lazy? Or smart?

Those mules must work hard. And for all that effort, beers at the top are still only 8RMB!

About half way into the 40 minute hike to Tiantou, it started to dump rain as thunder reverberated between the peaks; we quickly realized we were in the midst of our first monsoon. Our umbrella wasn’t doing much of anything, so we started running until we found shelter under a covered bridge.

Soaking up the monsoon. The smiles came after finding shelter.

When the rain slowed down a bit, we marched onward until we finally reached Tiantou Village and came across a hostel with a spare room. Turns out the storm had caused several landslides knocking down lines and leaving the entire village without power. No electricity meant using flashlights, meals cooked by fire, no internet, and no hot showers. It lasted our entire stay and it was absolutely fantastic! For the first time since we began our journey, we truly felt off the grid.

The amazing view from our bedroom’s window.

The rice paddies in this region are incredible. Not only are they beautiful, but they are a true testament to the lengths people will go to create a steady source of food. The mountains are terraced into steps that seem to reach into heaven, and, with some imagination, it is easy to see where the name “Dragon’s Backbone” comes from.

Crazy shaped terraces. How did they do this?

Our visit overlapped with planting season, so workers were hard at work clearing and shaping the land, filling up the paddies with water and planting seedlings in the muddy terraces. In just a few months all of the terraces will be completely filled and covered in green growth which must be a spectacular sight.

Worker preparing the paddies for planting. It’s hard to believe rice is so affordable when so much effort goes into its production.

The rain that we encountered on our first day persisted throughout most of our stay, but that didn’t make our time any less enjoyable. We spent a lot of time reading, playing cards, and enjoying the rain storms from the sheltered patio of our hostel. We were, however, fortunate enough to catch a break in the weather long enough for one full day of hiking. The area offers many trails that follow the contour of the terraced mountains, and steps allow you to transcend up and down between villages and viewpoints.

Cruising the paths through the terraced paddies.

After a long day of hiking, we were tired; our legs were killing us from all the stairs. But we had to capture the excitement that we still felt from being in such a magical place. We decided to end our hike with a little photo shoot and jump for joy atop our final viewpoint.

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Upon arriving at the dock in Yangshuo, we said goodbye to our boat full of new Chinese friends and set off for our hostel.  We heard many stories about the budget accommodations and even cheaper food to be had in China, but until Yangshuo, we had yet to fully experience them.  Our hostel was awesome and we were shocked to find beds for only $2.50 USD.  We instantly realized the cost benefit of traveling in China; no wonder so many backpackers flock to this region.  Our one-year trip may have just been granted an extension.

The center of Yangshuo with the spectacular karst peaks in the background.

The cruise down the Li River offered spectacular views, and during our four days in Yangshuo we continued to be wowed by the magnificence of the limestone peaks.  At home we spend much of our free time hiking and enjoying the outdoors, so naturally, we like to do the same while on the road. One of the best bike rides of our life happened in Yangshuo, through the Yulong River Valley.  We cycled for 20km up and down the river on rocky paths exploring small villages, rice paddies, and the surrounding peaks.  The farmers who live in the region work hard under the heat of the sweltering sun, but man do they live in a beautiful place.  We found ourselves wondering if they realize that their home is situated in one of the most unique landscapes on the planet.

Adventure biking along the Yulong River.

Glistening rice paddies.  If you have to work knee deep in mud, this is the place to do it.

Mike cruising the trails alongside acres upon acres of farmland in the Yulong River Valley.

We spent another one of our days in Yangshuo hiking toward the town of Fuli, but this time the heat was too much to handle.  We only made it about 6km into the hike before opting for a more enjoyable plan: beers in the shade along the Li River.  At our apartment in Denver, we frequently enjoyed sitting on our balcony and taking in the view with a beer or glass of wine, and we enjoy doing the same while traveling.

View of the Li River from our secluded beer drinking spot in the shade.

Throwing up the peace signs is a must when taking photos in China.

One of the many villages that sit along the Li River. Beautiful sky, but man was it hot!

On our last day, we took a bus to the nearby town of Xingping.  You can never really get tired of the amazing mountains in the area, but what we most enjoyed about Xingping was the town itself.  Its relaxed vibe stems from its small size, smiling locals and lesser influence of tourism than its neighboring cities of Yangshuo and Guilin. We considered changing our travel plans to relocate there for a few days, but the Longji Rice Terraces to the north were calling our name.

The view of the Li River from the town of Xingping.

Back home, cooking and savoring fun and inventive meals is something we truly love, and it’s no different when we find ourselves in a foreign place. We were surprised by a cafe in Xingping where we enjoyed one of the best Chinese meals we have had so far. The pineapple duck and side of taro root with bok choy lingered deliciously in our mouths for the rest of the afternoon.

Roasted duck with real, fresh pineapple! “Please Sir, I want some more.”

The walls of the cafe where we ate in Xingping were covered with notes of praise from customers from across the globe.

Our week of biking and hiking in Yangshuo made us feel at home. May 16th marked four months since we arrived in Barcelona to begin our RTW trip.  At times we honestly do get a little homesick, especially when our friends and family reach milestones in their lives.  Even though we are living our dream, we know that life goes on back home for those we love.  That being said, we are going to end this post with a throw-down of shout outs to some very special people; they have been in our hearts and minds throughout the journey (events in chronological order, no favorites here)…

Abe – We miss you greatly, but your love for travel lives as we explore this amazing world.

Max & Tamara – Another Siler, yes!  We are so excited to meet Paul!

Cindy & Marisol – Congratulations again on your engagement!  We will 100% be there to celebrate with you on your wedding day!

Alina & Mike – We welcome Sebastian into the world and our family!

Liz & Alyssa – Sorry we couldn’t make the Portland Juice Press launch party. So proud of you and looking forward to our first taste of the juices upon our return!

Nick – You the man! Congrats on your graduation and starting a new chapter in your life. We love you!

Christina – You’re done with law school! Congratulations friend!  We hope to celebrate with you down south after you take care of that pesky bar.

And a big thanks to ALL of our readers! Sharing our experience via The Chamborres Expedition makes us feel a home wherever we may be.

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Guilin, situated in China’s southern province of Guangxi, is known for its scenic karst peaks that dot the banks of the Li River. Boating down the Li River from Guilin to Yangshuo is one of the most popular tourist activities in China and you cannot possibly visit the town without being offered “Bamboo boat?” by an old woman several times per day.

Each turn produces more beautiful karst peaks.

We were excited to cruise the river, but were surely not willing to pay the ridiculous prices charged by many tour companies. With a goal in mind, we set off one morning to haggle our way to a solid discount. Turns out the cheapest way to get down the Li is to forgo the English tour guide, and go on a Chinese boat instead. Why not? The river’s scenery should do all the talking anyway; who wants an annoying narration to cloud the natural beauty? Skipping the English practically cut the price in half; so, we forked out our money and signed up for the Chinese boat.

The next morning, a bus picked us up at our hostel as planned. So far, so good. After all of the passengers were on board, we headed off on a short drive to the pier. Eventually the tour guide got on her mike and started doing her thing. We had no clue what she was saying, hell, she could have been telling the entire bus that we were ugly and smelled, but it didn’t matter to us.

Our tour guide was all smiles before things got ugly.

Next thing we know, the pitch of the tour guide’s voice was raising and a few other passengers were beginning to speak up loudly. The tour guide was pointing her finger and speaking quite quickly while sighing and rolling her eyes. At one point or another, pretty much everyone on the bus had chimed in. Clearly, there was an intense argument going down. It’s amazing the things you can figure out without understanding a single word. To this day, we still have no idea what it was all about, but at the time we thought it was hilarious and were relieved that it didn’t involve us.

After the fight was over, the bus pulled over on the side of the road. “Are we here?” we both asked each other. Everyone emptied off the bus, so we decided to follow suite. Down the hill a bit, a dodgy looking boat was pulled up next to a rickety dock. There were not enough seats for everyone and we were beginning to think that we had been duped. Maybe this was what the argument on the bus was about? Nonetheless, we just went with it.

We were excited to be on the water, even though this was just our shuttle boat.

After a few minutes of cruising the river, our camera was snapping away. Just when we had come to terms with the sub-par condition of our boat, we pulled up to another pier, this time with several other boats docked next to it. Hmmm…what was going on this time? Turns out we were now supposed to switch to another boat. Still, having no clue what was happening, we just followed the other passengers. This boat was much cleaner and safer looking, had enough seats to go around, and was even equipped with a toilet!

Our real boat!

The cruise was now officially underway! We marveled at the spectacular scenery during the entire four hour ride. Visiting in May is an ideal time because the limestone peaks are coated in a lush green cover.

Small bamboo rafts and larger boats float together down the Li River.

Even though we did not know what the tour guide was saying, we could always pick up when a peak of particular interest was coming up. The Chinese would rush the top deck, cameras in hand.

Wow, this must be a famous peak or something!

Close to the beginning of the boat ride, someone came up to us and motioned towards their camera. Oh, they want us to take their picture. “No problem” we say. “No, no, no. Photo” she says as she points to us. Next thing we know, we are in the middle of an all out photo with her and her entire family. And this was only the beginning. We found ourselves cracking up during the majority of the boat trip as more and more people asked to take pictures with us. We felt like celebrities. We even caught this guy taking our photo on the sly…

You want to take our picture? OK, we’ll take yours too and post it on our blog!

Scenery, bus fight, photo shoots, and all, it was a great boat cruise down the Li River.

We couldn’t get enough of these views.

The moral of the story is, when you visit Guilin, definitely opt for the Chinese boat cruise down the Li River. It will be far more eventful than sitting with a bunch of old farts on the western boat. You will pay less, see the same beautiful scenery, take tons of photos with new friends, and maybe even learn a little Chinese while you’re at it.

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Hong Kong is one of those places that will increase your heart rate within minutes of arriving. It is a bustling city with skyscrapers, neon lights and crowds of people at every turn; it even holds the record for the most densely populated place on earth. One of its neighborhoods, Mongkok, houses more than 130,000 people in one square kilometer! What many people don’t realize is that Hong Kong is more than a city; the region also boasts hundreds of islands and large expanses of sparsely populated coastal jungles.

The Hong Kong skyline lit up during the nightly light show. Image: hksalad.com

Not only are Hong Kong’s diverse landscapes intriguing, but its socio-political situation also leaves you wanting to learn more. Long held by the British and returned to Chinese control in 1997, the city is still in its infancy as a Special Administrative Region (SAR). Its western style is prevalent, while its Chinese roots are unavoidable. During our week visit, we often found ourselves teetering between two different continents. Although technically part of China, Hong Kong feels like its own small country. It has its own immigration and customs controls, currency and flag. At the moment, only Hong Kong and Macau are designated as SARs in China, but the model is seen as a possible solution for future reunification of contested islands, such as Taiwan.

Hong Kong’s mainland neighbor, Shenzhen, provides an interesting parallel to Hong Kong. Shenzhen was China’s first experiment with Special Economic Zones (SEZs), which are pockets of “capitalism,” for lack of a better word, within this Communist country. In just under 60 years, Shenzhen went from a small fishing town to a bustling, skyscraper-laden mega-city of over 10 million in the greater metro area. We stopped in Shenzhen for a few days before entering Hong Kong; it was an interesting place to visit to gain a brief education on how Deng Xiaoping’s policies reformed China and how Shenzhen shaped the future of the nation’s SEZs.

View from the St. Regis Hotel in the Kingkey 100, Shenzhen’s tallest building at 441.8 metres. It is currently the world’s 10th tallest building!

Politics aside, Hong Kong is a playground for travelers from all walks of life (although budget backpackers be warned, it is not a cheap destination). Both the cuisine and shopping run the gamut from the finest international establishments to the most budget options around. As long as you can handle the heat and humidity, outdoors enthusiasts could spend weeks in Hong Kong jumping from island to island.

Random fact: Hong Kong is composed of 263 islands.

We made our home base on Hong Kong Island in the area known as Causeway Bay. Although one of the more expensive hostels we’ve stayed at thus far, the view from our room on the 14th floor could not be beat! The building boarders Victoria Park, one of the largest green spaces on Hong Kong Island, and the views spanned all the way across the harbor to Kowloon, the mainland part of Hong Kong.

Looking out on Victoria Park from Parkview Hostel.

Since many HongKongese work in Causeway Bay, it is home to some of the best and most affordable local lunch spots in town. You can eat until your stomach is bursting at one of Hong Kong’s famous dim sum restaurants, or choose from a variety places that serve up everything from Cantonese cuisine to hot Szechuan dishes. The prosperity of the city has made it a melting pot for immigrants from all over the world. If there is a particular type of cuisine that you are looking for, it can certainly be found in Hong Kong.

Shrimp wonton noodle soup can be found from most hole-in-the-wall restaurants in Causeway Bay. A tasty and cheap meal for only 20-25HKD.

Get our dim sum on with some BBQ pork buns.

Before arriving in Hong Kong, one of our friends suggested that we absolutely not miss the Peak Tram. He was spot on with this recommendation. The tram itself feels like riding a roller coaster up the side of a mountain, and once at the top, the views of Hong Kong are incredible. We quickly skipped through the horde of tourists at the top and headed straight towards the network of trails that meander through the hills. The canopy of trees and ferns are not only beautiful, but help to lower the temperature which is a welcomed change from the heat beating down on the concrete jungle below.

View from the top of the Peak Tram. It must be breathtaking on a perfectly clear day.

We like to think of ourselves as smart and seasoned travelers, but from time to time, we do fall into a tourist trap. Although it pains us to admit it, one such incidence happened in Hong Kong. We had heard about a Big Buddha on the island of Lantau, and having not been in Asia for more than a few weeks, it sounded pretty cool. So, we hopped on the metro, and then a bus, and after about two hours, we had arrived. To our disappointment, said “Big Buddha” was situated in the middle of a fake village, all of which had only been built in the 1990s. The town even included a 7-11; Slurpee while you see the Buddha, anyone? To make matters worse, the statue (albeit big) was nearly completely hidden by a thick mist. We will include a photo for you all to see; this way we won’t feel like our trek to Lantau was a complete waste of an afternoon.

The Big-But-Hard-to-See-Buddha

No visit to Hong Kong is complete without a little beach time. After all, how can you visit an archipelago of islands in the South China Sea without getting a little R&R? To get away from the city, we took a ferry to the Island of Cheung Chau. Mainly a fishing harbor, the island also offers some fantastic beaches and hiking. Our time at the beach was, well, time at the beach…plenty of sun, sand, and cold beer.

Putting in our time at the beach on Cheung Chau.

In the afternoon, we set out for a hike around the exterior of the island. The views were great and the ocean breeze was so refreshing after baking in the sun.

Walking along Cheung Chau’s Mini Great Wall.

We hadn’t expected too much excitement, just a leisurely hike, but all that changed when found ourselves face to face with a four foot Chinese Cobra. The whole encounter lasted only a few seconds, as the snake made a wise choice and quickly fled up the mountain, but just seeing a snake like that is enough for a hefty shot of adrenaline.

Taking our own photo wasn’t a high priority at the time, so we borrowed this one. Image: http://www.flickr.com (robferblue)

Exotic yet familiar, Hong Kong is truly one of those places that you have to see to believe. It has so many moving parts, but somehow everything still seems to gel. If the travel bug inside of you is yearning for the excitement that the Far East offers, but you are a little unsure about taking the plunge, Hong Kong is the place for you.

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Hello China! Stepping off the plane in Guangzhou felt like landing in any other country. Although the immigration lines were long, the process was simple. No questions asked; they just looked at our passports, checked a few things in the computer and sent us on our way without even scanning our bags. This was a relief because we were a bit concerned that the several bottles of prescription meds (malaria pills, antibiotics, etc.) that we carry with us might raise some eyebrows, and China has very severe drug policies.

Officially stamped into China!

Upon exiting the airport, we quickly learned that very, very little English is spoken in Guangzhou. Based on the directions provided by our hotel, we were able to find the correct bus (win!); however, once on board, we wondered if we would make it alive, and if we did, where we should get off. It was monsooning outside, which did not seem to faze the driver in the least. He was weaving in and out of other buses and tiny motorbikes, not to mention the horn was blaring for more than half of our 40 minute commute. Keep in mind, both of us have experienced the South and Central American chicken buses, and the fact that this driver freaked us out is a really bad sign. Based on a suggestion from a friend, we found the most hip looking young person on the bus and asked if he knew where we should get off. He spoke a little bit of English, and pointed us in the right direction.

Just like the movies, the streets of China are chaotic, filled with motorbikes and completely lacking rhyme and reason. We quickly learned that pedestrians do not have the right of way, traffic lights and cross-walks do not mean much, and people frequently drive against traffic to get where they need to go. Based on our experience with the wild traffic in Morocco, we now use the term “Marrakech-ing” to describe the process of crossing the street by weaving in-and-out of speeding cars and bikes. Yes, it sounds and is dangerous, but it is the only way to get from one side to the other. It is always a bit of a relief to make it across unscathed.

As usual, one thing we were really looking forward to was the Chinese food! We know, we know, we talk about food all the time, but it is a very central part of our lives. After all, everyone has to eat.  Since Guangzhou is not a destination for most non-Chinese tourists, it was easy to find a local restaurant. Surprise, surprise, there was zero English on the menu. But luckily, menus with pictures seem to be fairly common in China. We pointed at a few tasty looking dishes, and next thing we know we had devoured our first real Chinese meal. It was incredibly spicy, and incredibly delicious. We ended our first night in China feeling quite satisfied with the fact that we had managed to enter the country, get to our hotel and eat dinner without having our hands henna tattooed (didn’t get the inside joke? It’s OK, just read this post).

To start our next day, we went to the front desk and asked how to get to one of the city’s museums. The agent responded with a laugh “ooh, it very far.” The fastest way was a taxi, but we don’t do taxis unless absolutely necessary. A colleague of Mike’s gave us some advice about cab drivers when we were in Croatia. He said, “Don’t take cabs. The drivers are all crooks and thieves.” We know that most cab drivers are honest people who work long hours, but we agree with Denis that taking a cab in a foreign place is a pretty easy way to get fleeced. But, back to Guangzhou, we ended up taking a bus back to the airport; then, caught the metro. Guangzhou is a city of about 13 million people; the train system is modern, efficient and absolutely packed. Each train is about 12 cars long, and you can barely see the end of the loading platform. Just when you think no more people can possibly fit into the car, people will run, jump and launch themselves through the doors.

Just another day in a Guangzhou metro station. Image: http://www.echinacities.com

We ended up being quite impressed by the Guangzhou Museum. It is free as long as you agree to having your passport checked (apparently this is how China rolls). The exhibits are visually stimulating with many life-size dioramas to help convey the history, resources and traditional art of the Guangdong region.

Entry to the history exhibit at the Guangzhou Museum.

After the museum, we hopped back on the metro to the other side of the city. Although we eventually found the Temple of the Six Banyon Trees that was our intended destination, the street life caught our interest more. We found everything from teapot vendors to egg-on-a-stick food stalls. We even saw a few people that were charging money to let you electrocute a caged rat.  Along the way, we even ran into one of China’s oldest mosques. Legend has it that it was built by Sa`d ibn Abi Waqqas, the uncle of the Prophet Muhamed in 650 A.D.

The smell of burning incense fills the area at the Temple of the Six Banyon Trees.

Fried eggs on a skewer, what an incredible invention!

Mike souping up the eggs with some HOT hot sauce.

Guangzhou doesn’t make guidebooks’ must-see lists in China, and many people will pass it off as just “another large Chinese city.” What we enjoyed about Guangzhou is that it seemed to be very authentic. Very little English and very few people trying to make a quick buck off of tourists. All in all, it was a fun and eventful introduction to China.

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For the second post of our Istanbul Photo Series, we are highlighting the mosques of the city. Although Turkey is secular by law, the presence of Islam is clear. The skyline is filled with domes and minarets of the numerous mosques, and the calls to prayer can be heard in all corners of the city. Yet, at the same time, locals are very much embracing Western culture, European fashion and a hopping nightlife. It is a city with many dualities. In some countries, mosques cannot be visited by non-Muslims; however, in Istanbul, mosques are a top tourist destination.   (NOTE: there are many photos in this post, therefore it may take some time to load)

THE BLUE MOSQUE

We arrived in Istanbul just as a fair was being set up in front of the famous Blue Mosque. Turkey’s strong sense of national pride can be seen by the flags hanging from windows, poles and bridges all over the city.

The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art was one of our favorite stops in Istanbul. The exhibits were magnificent, and the view of the Blue Mosque was icing on the cake.

The inside of the Blue Mosque is jaw-dropping. The mosque gets its name from the haze of blue light that emanates from the painted blue tiles which touch nearly every surface in the building.

As one of the city’s main attractions, the Blue Mosque remains lit-up throughout the night, making it an awe-inspiring structure 24 hours a day.

The construction of the Blue Mosque was inspired by Istanbul’s main attraction, the Hagia Sophia. The Sultan Ahmed built the mosque just a few hundred meters away to try and trump the magnificence of the Hagia Sophia. The result was two unbelievable places of worship in the same block. This photo of the Blue Mosque was taken from the second floor of the Hagia Sophia.

THE HAGIA SOPHIA

The Hagia Sophia is one of the Seven Wonders of the Medieval World, and now we know why. It is hard to believe that this magnificent structure was constructed between 532-537 A.D.

As you enter the Hagia, symbols of the various religions that it has served can be seen. First constructed as a Cathedral, it was later converted to a mosque, and today is a museum.

The sheer size of the Hagia is impressive. The central dome is supported by 40 ribs, each of which has a window at its base allowing natural light to flood inside.

The juxtaposition of Christianity and Islam can be seen by the tile mosaic of the Virgin Mary with Jesus in the background of the Minbar.

THE LITTLE HAGIA SOPHIA

We found visiting the Little Hagia Sophia much more enjoyable than its well-known counterpart simply due to the lack of crowds. It is named as such because it is thought to have served as a model for the Hagia Sophia.

Behind the Minbar, you can see the apse of the former church that this mosque used to be, the Church of the Saints Sergius and Bacchus.

The restoration and maintenance in the Little Hagia can be seen in this ornate painting in the central dome.

YENI CAMI (THE NEW MOSQUE)

Only in Istanbul would the “new” mosque refer to a mosque built over 400 years ago.

SÜLEYMANIYE MOSQUE

This is the ablution area where Muslims wash their hands, feet, face and forearms before entering the mosque to pray.

The sunny day on which we visited Süleymaniye made for a vibrant contrast between the blue sky and stone white minarets.

Many of the historic sites we visited had been restored using preservation techniques. In this mosque, however, the interior was scrapped away and completely redone. Controversy aside, it gave us a feel of what the mosque may have looked like when it was initially constructed.

The Süleymaniye Mosque sits atop a hill that provides beautiful views of the city, Golden Horn and Bosphorus River. This photo was taken from the Galata Bridge, where fishermen line up to catch fish each day.

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If you’re hungry, eat before reading this post. We spent more than a week in Istanbul and are confident in saying that it is one of our favorite cities in the world. There are so many things about Istanbul that we want to share; so many that writing about all of them could take weeks. That being said, we’ve decided to create a photo series dedicated to this spectacular place. For our first installment, FOOD!   (NOTE: there are many photos in this post, therefore it may take some time to load)

ÇAYTurks drink a lot tea which they call çay (pronounced chai)

“çay, çay, çay, çay” are words you will hear all over Istanbul. Locals sip Turkish tea all day long; always served very hot with 2 sugar cubes.

We stopped at a tea house in Gülhane Park which overlooks the Bosphorous River. Çay is traditionally served from two kettles, one with concentrated tea and the other with hot water.

STREET FOOD – The best restaurants in the world don’t have websites

“Fish Bread” served with lettuce, onion, lemon juice and salt. The best lunch in town for 5TL ($3 USD).

These tasty fish sandwiches are prepared on boats floating near the Galata Bridge. The fish is grilled, deboned, placed in the bread, and handed to the cashier onshore.

Once seated with fish bread, you’ll find vendors walking around offering up a variety of extras to complete your meal. These dough balls are fried, drenched in honey, and sprinkled with ground pistachios.

Mr. Foko set up his kebab stand near our hostel in Sultanahmet everyday around 6pm. He grilled up spicy chicken, meatballs or lamb and served them in bread or wraps for only 5TL. It is the best and most affordable food in this expensive area of town.

Grilled corn vendors are posted on most streets and squares in Istanbul. The ears come hot (if you insist on one fresh out of the boiling water) and heavily salted.

Mike ordering up an ear of corn outside of Topkapı Palace.

RESTAURANTS – Great local eateries off the beaten path

We vote this the most fun bread served at a restaurant. It comes straight out of the oven to your table, puffed up with air and sprinkled with tiny sesame seeds.

Each dish of hummus we had in Turkey was very unique; ranging from creamy to grainy and with a variety of spices. This photo is of one of favorites and was served with the puffy bread pictured above.

Our waiter handed Amy this knife and said “kill him.” It was a very confusing interaction. Turns out this is the traditional (or perhaps invented for tourists) way to open up Turkish pottery kebabs. Enclosed clay pots are filled with meat, vegetables and bulgur, covered with dough and put into a fire. Once ready, tapping a few times with a sword opens them right up.

Once opened, the bubbling goodness is revealed. But, watch out for chips of clay!

Possibly our favorite Turkish appetizer, çiğ köfte, is made from bulgur, tomato and dried pepper. The dish originally contained ground beef as well, but nowadays is purely vegetarian. Served with lettuce and lemon, it is a great way to start a meal.

During our second visit to Istanbul, we found a fantastic local restaurant called Hayri Usta. We tried a variety of wraps over our four meals there, and the Adana Durum pictured above was our favorite. The frothy drink is called ayran, which is yogurt water (sounds gross, but is delicious) – a must have with any Turkish meal!

DESSERT – Turkish sweets are normally taken as an afternoon pick-me-up, rather than following a meal

Beautiful and delicious pistachio pastries

Last but not least, the famous Turkish Delights. There are countless flavors of these delightful delicacies to be found all over the city with the greatest selection at the city Spice Market.

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