Hi friends, just a quick update- because of the terrible bombings in Sri Lanka, I changed plans and will be heading to Frankfurt and into Europe for a while. My cousin and her friends were already in Sri Lanka when the bombs went off but they are safe and staying out of the cities for now. Thanks to all who reached out about my plans!
After a few solo days in Tokyo, my intrepid traveling companion Val arrived. Our first adventure was to suit up in costumes- Stitch for Val and Minnie Mouse for me- and then we go-karted around the busy streets of Tokyo. I realize this makes no sense, but it was a blast.
Next up, a wander through one of my favorite places in Tokyo, the food hall of the chic Mitsukoshi department store. Tokyo is filled with food halls- places where you can buy prepared foods, produce, fish and meats- like the deli counters at Whole Foods, multiplied by 100. Plus they give out free samples. This is the spot if you want to spend $150 on a watermelon or $7 on one strawberry. We bought lunch and had a picnic on the terrace. As for food, I am continuing my ramen tour of Japan- the very light chicken ramen, with a squeeze of lemon and romaine on top has been a favorite so far.
That evening, we went on a bar hopping tour of the Shinjuku area, drinking sake, plum wine and cocktails made with Japanese spirits. Our hotel was also in the Shinjuku area, known for its nightlife and dozens of “love hotels,” where, if you find suddenly find yourself in need of a place to be horizontal, you can rent one for a night, or just a few hours.
A highlight so far was a trip to a digital art museum called TeamLabs Planets. Upon entering, we were directed to remove our shoes and to prepare to wade through water up to our knees. Then we wandered enormous rooms- one with a floor constructed like a giant bean-bag; another with mirrored walls, floors and ceilings and thousands of strands of lights hanging down; a room filled with inflatable balls the size of small cars; another with a lightshow like a planetarium of giant flowers cascading over the ceilings. My favorite was a digital koi pond, where we waded in water while large fish “swam” by.
Always in search of novel culinary experiences, we popped into Milks, where we sat in chair swings and enjoyed soft-serve ice cream with different liquors, dripped on top using tiny spoons.
And then, indulging in our most touristy desires, we dressed up in sumo costumes and wrestled actual (retired) sumo wrestlers. Well, I didn’t wrestle so much as this:
We took a bullet train to Kyoto, a serene, sophisticated city blooming with temples and just as many French bakeries and bistros. We pedaled around the quiet neighborhood where we were staying in the morning, parking the bikes supplied by the air bnb and stopping for crepes.
We joined a tour of electric bikes around the city. We were amazed at how fun and easy they were to zip around with.
The next morning, we woke at five to beat the other tourists and catch the morning sun at the Fushimi Inari shrine. That afternoon, we walked the Gion neighborhood, hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the geishas who live there; not to be confused with women who dress as geishas and stroll around for fun. I’m 99% sure these ladies were not real geishas but I didn’t want to ask.
I’m on a train bound for Tokyo now, the next stop is Sri Lanka.
After flying from Korea to Tokyo, I took a shuttle, a monorail, a bullet train, a slow train and finally a bus to get to Hakone. Hakone is a peaceful, mountainous resort town outside of Tokyo. There are onsens, which are bathing places drawn from natural hot springs, all over Hakone. My hostel, where I spent two nights, had one in the basement, separated by gender- no clothing or tattoos are allowed. My final night in Hakone was in more traditional ryokan, with an onsen and a multi-course dinner. On the day I left it was snowing.
The wonderful Hakone Open Air Museum hosts a large sculpture garden, an array of drawings and pottery by Picasso, and even a foot bath fed by the hot springs.
Next, it was back to Tokyo. Tokyo is also one of the best people-watching places on earth, with young people strutting the streets in quirky fashions and brightly colored hair in the Harajuku neighborhood. It’s a busy center of everything- there are men in suits and ties on the subways on Sundays, and I am staying next to the Shibuya crossing, where a thousand people can cross the street every time the light changes.
Now that I have been traveling in Asia for a couple of months, I’ve become a bit blasé about many of the sights- after seeing the biggest buddha in the world, what’s the point of seeing the second biggest? So for now I’m staying out of temples, palaces and the like. But I did make a visit to the hedgehog cafe in Tokyo, and to the sprawling Gyoen National Garden, to catch the cherry blossoms in their final days.
And the food adventures continue-black and white sesame ice creams, and a visit to Ichiran Ramen, where there is always a line and you order from a machine, then the bowl comes through the window from an anonymous server.
I’ve just finished up my visit to Seoul and the only problem I encountered is that I wasn’t able to try more delicious Korean foods! Highlights were some handmade dumplings and crispy fried chicken bites with a honey garlic sauce. Yum. I took a class on how to make tofu- soak the soybeans, grind, then press out the soy milk, heat with vinegar to coagulate (like making ricotta cheese) and then press until firm. The tofu was very light and fresh tasting, although it was lot of work for a small amount.
Following that, it was a lesson in kimchi making. After salting and soaking cabbage, we coated each leaf with a mixture of chili, green onions, fish sauce and a flour-water paste to make it all stick. We applied the same treatment to cubes of radish. Apparently many Koreans have a dedicated kimchi refrigerator and some kimchi ferments for a year before eating. This was worth the effort and I may be doing this when I have a fridge of my own.
I wandered the neighborhoods of Seoul, some with lovely traditional houses, and just in time for the beginning of cherry blossom season.
The final afternoon was an indulgence in Korean skincare, with a woman who calls herself a, “beautytainer.” In her studio, we tried on Korean skincare products- there are more skincare stores here than anywhere I have ever been- and then some very tastefully applied make-up. I was told my skin was quite dry and I needed a serum.
After three weeks in China, landing in Seoul was a culture shock. It’s a bustling, well organized city, packed with restaurants and beauty supply shops. Korean skincare products are for sale everywhere, even in the subway stations. There is a lovely stream that runs for miles through the center of the city. Google Maps does not work here, I am told because the North and South remain at war and the South did not want to give Google access to the information.
There are a few historic palaces nestled in between the skyscrapers. Many of them were rebuilt after the Japanese occupiers destroyed them. I found it interesting that the people here seemed to harbour much more animosity towards Japan than North Korea. I caught the changing of the “gate warriors” at Gyeongbokgung Palace, and a tour of the Secret Garden at Changdeokgung Palace, where the emperors rested up from all of their ruling of the common people. The palaces waive entry fees for people in traditional dress, which made for delightful people watching.
I stopped into the Meerkat Cafe, where, for a small fee, you can hang out with the little creatures as they quarreled and squealed. Continuing my tradition of awesome animal selfies, I also had this raccoon on my head.
And of course, there has been lots of food. Highlights so far have been the pork-belly barbecue, with kimchi and lettuce wraps, a (better than it sounds) toasted soybean flavored ice-cream, and this fried pancake stuffed with vegetables and glass noodles that I had to wait in a line of about 30 people for.
This morning, it was a trip to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the four kilometer no-man’s land between North and South Korea. Soldiers boarded our bus to check passports. There is an observation point, “built to console sadness,” where South Koreans can look across the border towards their families that are left behind. Rather optimistically, the South built a train station to connect to Pyongyang, but it has never been used for anything other than a tourist’s toilet. Lastly, wearing hard hats, we walked down one of the three tunnels that North Korea built to invade the South, 350 meters down, until we were within 170 meters of the actual border. No photos allowed. I was never much of a student of history, but lately my travels have provided a fascinating real-life refresher course in the Vietnam and Korean Wars, and China’s cultural revolution and aftermath.
I’ll be in South Korea for a few more days before traveling to Japan.
From Chengdu, we traveled to Chongqing, another city of 13 million people we had never heard of. We boarded a riverboat cruise on the Yangtze River, where we were the only Westerners among 250 Chinese tourists. On the first night, the crew welcomed us with rousing versions of those old wedding staples, the Macarena and the Chicken Dance. We all joined in for a rabbit-hop conga line around the ballroom. We were on the boat for three nights and amused ourselves with Texas-Hold’em tournaments and Mahjong lessons (completely different than the version I learned in Malaysia). We shared a dining table with some Chinese tourists who consumed copious amounts of Baijiu, a 52 proof spirit that tasted as if it might be used for removing nail polish. On the last evening, they encouraged us to drink with them, the shots burning all the way down our throats while they toasted us and took photos.
During the day, we cruised through the Three Gorges, narrow river passages surrounded on both sides by steep cliffs. High up on some of the cliffs, there were were wooden coffins which had been tucked into the crevices in the rock wall thousands of years ago.
After leaving the boat, we toured the Three Gorges Dam, a massive feat of Chinese engineering that has inexorably changed the landscape of the Yangzte, pushing the water level upstream up by a hundred meters, and displacing more than a million people who had lived along the river. “We call them immigrants,” the guide said, explaining the utilitarian reasoning; that by building the dam, 14 million homes had been saved from flooding.
We boarded a run-down overnight train for a 16 hour journey to Yangshou, provisioned by packets of unidentifiable snacks and bowls of instant noodles. Yangshou is a smaller city where we saw more Western tourists than anywhere else we had been. They are drawn there by the landscape, towering limestone karsts jutting up from the fertile landscape. There were a dozen chickens roosting on the roof of the building across from our hotel.
In Yangshou, we feasted on the local specialty, fish braised in beer with tomatoes and chilis. We went to Impressions Lui Sanjie, a twilight performance set on a river, with the karsts as background. More than 600 performers wearing lighted costumes danced in synchrony, seemingly floating on water. We were surprised that the Chinese audience never applauded.
We rode bikes through the countryside and drove to a tea plantation set high in the hills. There, we were treated to a tea tasting ceremony, with local green, white and black teas. In the morning, we received a lesson in Tai Chi, where we memorized ten traditional movements and learned the underlying philosophy of yin and yang.
On our final evening, we attended a cooking class that began with a market tour. In addition to chickens a ducks, there were dogs and cats in dingy cages, waiting to be killed and eaten. This was difficult for us to see and sparked a discussion about the ethical consumption of meat in general. After that, our cooking instructor barked orders at us as we stir-fried eggplant, chicken with cashews and the traditional beer-fish.
Leaving China, we all boarded a bullet train towards Hong Kong, where I spent the day in an expat hair salon, caught up on the internet, and a had a fun dinner with some friends from the group. One of the highlights of the trip to China was how well our group got along, entertaining each other on long train rides, rejoicing when we found clean toilets, seeking out great culinary adventures, and just enjoying the shared experience. I have already made plans to meet up with a few of them in the future.
We took a bullet train from Beijing to Xi’an. Along the way, there were stretches of farmland punctuated by massive cities- collections of identical high-rise buildings. Cities of eight or more million people, cities with names we have never heard of, have sprung up across the countryside in the last decade. Many of the apartment buildings are idle, huge swaths of housing just waiting to be occupied. When we arrived, we found Xi’an to be a charming and modern city, where the people seemed to be going joyfully about their business.
The most surprising thing about China is how happy and engaged the people seem to be- well dressed, smiling and dancing, playing cards and socializing over tea or beers. The cities and towns are safe, clean and orderly. They have an optimism about their future, and seem accepting of a bit of surveillance in exchange for social stability, modern infrastructure and prosperity. Our guide believes that the Western media does not portray the real China, and that its sovereignty and choices about how to solve its internal problems should be respected.
Our tour group is composed of eleven westerners, one of whom is six-foot-six tall New Zealander. When out as group, we are constantly photographed and even videoed by the Chinese. They also ask for pictures with us, and especially delight in taking photos alongside the tall New Zealander.
We began our stay in Xi’an with a dumping feast and a traditional dance and music show, but we were really there for one reason- to see the Terracotta Warriors, thousands of life-size and individually unique statues of infantrymen, archers and generals, and their horses. Placed there more than two thousand years ago to guard the tomb of Quin Xi Wang, the first emperor of China, they were found under the earth in the 1970’s by an unsuspecting farmer digging a well. That evening, we wandered the Muslim Quarter of the city, sampling oddities like squid-on-a-stick.
Then it was another bullet train, to Chengdu. We whiled away the afternoon at a century-old sprawling tea house in the central park, which served a dozen kinds of tea and where one might also have their ears cleaned by a man with a headlamp and long metal Q-tips. We then had a rowdy dinner, engaging in quite a few toasts with the surrounding tables filled with inebriated Chinese diners. Even without understanding a word we were saying to each other, there was boisterous laughter all around.
The next day we visited the Chengdu Panda Breeding Research Center, home to more than fifty comically cute pandas. There with small cubs in trees, mothers tending to their young, and a group of rowdy adolescents who occasionally tumbled from the trees. Mostly they just lounged around, loudly munching on bamboo seized between their paws.
The day ended with a traditional hot-pot dinner- a bubbling spicy cauldron of broth and chili oil in the center of our table. We cooked meat and vegetables by holding them in the oil with chopsticks, then dipped them in a mixture of sesame oil, garlic and cilantro.
The next morning we waylaid to see the largest buddha in the world, the Leshan Buddha, carved into the side of a mountain, flanked by a river. We boarded a boat to have a look from the front. The buddha was in the midst of restoration and partially covered by scaffolding. It was, in a word, disappointing. Then we spent the night at the Baoguo Monastery, a sprawling complex of gardens, waterfalls, pagodas filled with golden buddhas, and guest rooms. There was no heat and the temperature dropped into the forties. At six a.m., the monks began chanting and banging on drums, in a reverent but gentle way.
Traveling in China demands adaptation of our Western mindsets. In the monasteries, men and women must sleep in separate rooms, even if they are married. Most of the toilets in China are of the squatting variety, and require us to bring our own toilet paper. Showers are not always enclosed by curtains, and a no-smoking hotel room means that you are discouraged from smoking in bed. There is constant surveillance- train and bus tickets require a passport (ID card for Chinese), and we are photographed at every entrance and exit.
The next day began with a long windy bus ride up Emei Mountain, above the snow line and into the cold. With hundreds of other tourists, we trekked up a hill to a cable car, which shuttled us to the Golden Summit, with a glittering ten-headed buddha at the top.
Then, with each of us carrying clothes for one night, we trekked for a few hours along a stream, with waterfalls, rope bridges and pagodas lining the path. We entered the “wild monkey zone,” where large tailless primates steal any loose bags and occasionally attack people. Some in our group held bamboo sticks, on purchase at the entrance, for fending them off. We were assured by the guide (who carried a slingshot) that there was a clinic close by that would provide rabies shots if needed, but that no one in his group had ever been attacked.
We spent the night in another location, the Hongchunping Monastery, isolated on top of a misty cold mountain, unreachable by any roads. Despite the freezing temperatures, no heat and primitive toilets, we were utterly charmed by the peaceful, ancient buildings and the monk’s early morning prayers.
Then it was back down the hill, unscathed by the killer monkeys, to the Baogou Monastery. We were refreshed by an afternoon at the local hot springs, with luxuries like private hot showers and hair dryers.
I’ve been traveling for two months now and can honestly say I have not been homesick- perhaps because I have no home to go back to. Nor have I felt lonely; I have been able to keep in good contact with family and close friends, and have met many English speakers. But I will confess that as I sat in the cigarette stenched taxi from the airport in Shanghai, I felt like a little girl in a big world.
It was cold and rainy when I was there, so I hibernated a bit. A sign in my hotel room from The General Brigade of Security of Shanghai Municipal Bureau of Public Safety directed me to, “use internet properly,” to avoid “excessive drinking,” “prostitution,” “porn articles of any kind,” and to “follow no strangers to the fun places.” The “Golden Wall” blocks Facebook and all things Google, including Gmail and maps, but I was able to use a VPN to connect occasionally.
Shanghai, the second largest city in the world, is modern, easy-to-navigate and full of contradictions that I can’t even begin to fathom. The people here are so kind- strangers have helped carry my bags and direct me on the subway, but they also push and shove and cut in lines. The People’s Square is flanked by Porsche and Maserati dealerships. The French Concession, a tony ex-pat neighborhood filled with bars, boutiques and restaurants, also houses the building where the modern Communist Party was formed. When I asked my guide if she thought it was a safe city, she replied, “of course, there are cameras everywhere.” The centerpiece of the city is the Bund, a broad pedestrian walkway along the Huangpu River.
On Sundays, parents of unmarried children gather in the park to advertise their offspring- the signs detail the age, height, employment and whether or not they own an apartment.
I’ve really been enjoying the food tours on my travels, and Shanghai was no exception. In addition to the noodles, soup dumplings, won-tons, hot-pot, and tea tasting, my favorite was this warm eggy crepe filled with shredded pork, lettuce, sesame seeds, crunchy crackers and a spicy sauce. Unlike anything I have had before, and delicious.
In Beijing I joined a group tour of eleven other people, mostly from the United Kingdom and Australia. We all seem to be getting along well, and all are seasoned travelers. Beijing has a completely different atmosphere than Shanghai- an ancient city populated by 20 million people. There are massive groups of apartment buildings sprouting up among houses that were built hundreds of years ago.
An article on the front page of the China Daily newspaper explained that there were not more than a million people in the provincial “vocational education centers,” and that the purpose was not “re-education,” but for eliminating religious extremism and maintaining social stability.
The first stop was Tienanmen Square, the largest urban square in the world. Because the National Congress was in session, we were not allowed to enter, and the perimeter was flanked by unsmiling soldiers with perfect posture. Next to that, the Forbidden City, a sprawling symmetrical complex of palaces and courtyards where fourteen emperors have reigned.
Close by to the ancient palaces was the displays of modern architecture at the 2008 Olympic Park- the Bird’s Nest stadium, and the Ice Cube swimming center.
The next day we traveled to the Great Wall, hours of climbing steps and walking along the top of the wall between the watchtowers cresting above the hills. We took a toboggan back down, the guards yelling at us to slow down along the way. Our final night in Beijing was topped off by a Peking Duck feast- crispy duck skin, moist meat, stuffed into pancakes and topped with bits of herbs and condiments.
I made my way from Hoi An to Hue via a winding scenic pass through the mountains. Hue is a modern city with ancient temples, palaces and tombs scattered around, bisected by the Perfume River. I spent hours wandering the sprawling Imperial City, where the emperors of Vietnam lived until the French and Japanese took over governance.
The next day was spent on this mostly seaworthy vessel, which only broke down once. We cruised the Perfume River, stopping at a market and several tombs which were park-like refuges from the city bustle.
The highlight here was a cooking class in a village outside of Hue. We began with a shopping tour of the local market, the center of the town commerce and gossip. In a small cooking school by the river, we started with a drink of fresh sugarcane juice, then we made a few dishes that were spicy, sweet, and savory. Lemongrass and tumeric chicken, caramelized pork in a clay pot, spring rolls wrapped in lacey rice paper, banana blossom salad.
After Hue, I traveled north to Hanoi. It is overrun with motorbikes like Saigon, but is somehow more atmospheric. The sidewalks are so crowded with scooters, street vendors and cafes that most people walk in the street, which has plenty of its own hazards. It’s a smoggy, noisy adventure of a city. Cafes have sprouted up alongside the train tracks- apparently the trains are quite slow moving.
The food continues to be outstanding. I tried local specialities like egg coffee- strong coffee with a thick custard of egg and condensed milk on top; Banh Cuon, a rice paper crepe with pork and mushrooms; and Bun Cha, pork patties in broth that you dip noodles into. There is much more variety here in the food than the Vietnamese food that I am accustomed to at home.
I took a day trip to Halong Bay, filled with thousands of limestone islands jutting out from the sea. We toured an enormous cave and cruised around in kayaks. It was a nice respite from the busy city.
Finally, I went to a traditional water puppet show, with puppets dancing above the water accompanied by Vietnamese singers and instruments.
The most ubiquitous feature of Saigon (now known as Ho Chi Minh City) is the motorbikes. The streets are filled with them, going every direction without any sort of traffic signals at most of the intersections. They carry families of three and four at a time- the adults wear helmets but the kids do not. GrabBikes, like Uber on a motorcycle, are everywhere. The city wakes up quite early in the morning and people sit on impossibly small chairs on the sidewalks slurping noodles for breakfast.
My introduction to the city was a cab driver who scammed me- I paid $40 instead of $4 for the ride from the airport because I had not yet figured out the currency and exchange rates. Apparently this is quite common. I stayed in fourth floor Airbnb with an outside bathroom.
On the first morning I toured the city on the back of one of those motorbikes (sorry, Mom), driven by a lovely young woman who was quite skilled at negotiating the streets. We toured the local sites and what struck me was how all of them were linked to tragedy and war- the palace that was bombed in 1962, the building where Americans fled by helicopter at the fall of Saigon, the street corner where the Buddhist monk immolated himself, the beautiful French architecture reflecting the unwelcome period of colonization.
I was warned by the guide about crossing the streets, “commit or get hit,” he said. Apparently my commitment issues are well known because I promptly got whacked by a motorbike while navigating an intersection. Just a big bruise as a souvenir.
But the food was wonderful here. I went on a food tour, walking with a bunch of Canadians and Swedes, led by a guide who fed us street food- noodles, dumplings, roasted duck, rice paper wraps with salad and grilled beef. We also sat on those child sized chairs.
Apparently Saigon is like Vegemite. You either love it or you hate it. I did not love it, mostly because it felt so treacherous to explore by foot.
I traveled north to Hoi An, a lovely city with many well preserved ancient buildings along the Thu Bon river. The streets are lined with pagodas and temples, tailors and lantern shops. Even though it’s lousy with tourists, the river walk was still magical in the evening.
The food here is fantastic- local specialties like White Rose dumplings- filled with shrimp and topped with crispy onions, and cao lau- thick noodles with roasted pork, fresh herbs and crispy croutons. A banh mi (sandwich) that Anthony Bourdain proclaimed the best in Vietnam. And of course the strong coffee, poured over condensed milk.
Yesterday I went to the Ba Na Hills, a former French hillside resort that was rebuilt into crazy mash-up of an amusement park; fake French villas, Vietnamese pop music blaring, a psychedelic VW bug, Geppetto’s workshop. Downright weird. But I went because of the trip up- the world’s longest cable car, soaring over waterfalls and dense jungles. And then the Golden Bridge at the top, reason enough to brave the crowds.
One more day in Hoi An, then I make my way north to Hue.
No one would describe Kuala Lumpur as a beautiful city, but it feels like one propelling itself quickly into the modern age. Dilapidated government housing butts up against huge shiny skyscrapers. A true multicultural place, with mosques, temples, and churches situated within yards of each other. Many women wear headscarves, and the train had a, “ladies only” coach. I was repeatedly warned about safety- to stick to the main streets, to guard my purse, not to go out alone at night. But I never felt threatened in any way and found the people to be quite warm and friendly.
I started with a food tour, walking for hours around different neighborhoods with a native Malaysian guide who encouraged us to try foods from shops on the street and in the markets. Malaysia is a true fusion of different cultures- Chinese, Indian, Malaysian- we tried them all. Curry puffs, banana fritters, curries, shaved ice with pandan jelly and coconut, fresh wonton noodles, rice cooked in a banana leaf with a spicy sauce, iced tea with lime, and much more. It was a great introduction to the city.
The next morning, I went to a lovely home in the suburbs for a Malaysian cooking class. The teacher Sara gave a tour of her family’s organic garden, where we tasted and plucked the various herbs and vegetables used in Malaysian cooking. We prepared a feast of caramelized pork belly, noodles and wontons, sweet potato and coconut fritters. We talked about her business writing cookbooks and running the cooking school, religion, and even dating. While we cooked in her spacious kitchen, her family arrived from the last day of the Chinese New Year celebration and invited me to play a few rounds of mahjong with them. I’ve never played before and they were patient teachers. A delightful window into their culture.
Last stop was the Batu Caves, enormous caves on a limestone hillside with a Tamil temple set inside. There are 272 colorful steps up to the caves, and of course a few monkeys scurrying about. Always there are monkeys.