Hospitable Hunan

Jun’s birthday is in the middle of July. To celebrate it, we decided to get away from Shenzhen after having been isolated here since the end of January. COVID-19 cases in China had diminished for the majority of Mainland China. We felt with proper precaution it would be okay to travel to western Hunan. The area is sparsely populated and most of the sights were outdoors.

With that in mind, we booked our hotels and flights and prepared ourselves for the trip. Since I’m a foreign national living and working in China, I had to take a COVID-19 test valid for the week of travel. Two days before we were to leave, I went to the nearby hospital and took the test. I got my results the next day—negative—and was ready to leave Shenzhen.

Jun and I met at the airport after work and we were soon on our way to Zhangjiajie in northwestern Hunan province. When we arrived at Zhangjiajie airport, I was escorted out of the plane to provide my health and contact information because I was a foreigner. The process went smoothly; it did require different health codes specific to Hunan province. Soon, though, Jun and I were in the car he ordered to take us to our hotel in Wulingyuan.

At check-in, we found out that our room was upgraded. The room was spacious and comfortable. By this time it already was early morning. We were both tired and quickly took showers and got ready for bed. We were both soon sound asleep.

Day 1

The morning of our first day started with us looking out the window and watching it rain heavily. We were a bit disconcerted that the rain would hamper our visit to the Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve of the Wulingyuan Scenic and Historic Interest Area.

We took our time getting ready. After breakfast, we decided to just go and explore. We had a general idea of how to get there. We left the hotel and walked to the entrance of the park. Health and security were enforced. We had to go through the different stages of checks before we got into the park. Then when we did, we randomly hopped on a bus and went on our journey.

The bus took us to the 10 Mile Natural Gallery. By the time we got there, the rain had cleared and we were able to see the surrounding sandstone pillars. As we walked along the trail the weather started to turn again. When we started our ascent up the mountain, the rain started to pick up and obscured our views of the surrounding area.

By the time we got up to Tianzi Pavilion, everything was covered in rain and clouds. We were a bit disappointed, but we decided to enjoy the hike and accept that we would only see rain.

As we were going down, though, the rain stopped and the wind picked up. The clouds started to move, and we began to see more of the stone pillars. Eventually, we started to see more and more of them. We were excited and enjoyed the views. The serendipitous moment made it even more special! The landscape is truly amazing, and we could understand why these mountains inspired the landscape for Avatar.

As we were going back down, the clouds started to come back in and covered everything in a thick fog. We were lucky we were where we had been to see the stone pillars.

After we got back down the mountain, the weather cleared a bit more and we were treated to the beauty of this part of the park before catching the bus back to the entrance.

Because we hadn’t eaten since breakfast, Jun and I decided to get an early dinner and found a local restaurant nearby. The food was amazing. The service was even better; they drove us back to our hotel!

We rested and enjoyed our hotel room for the remainder of the evening. We even ordered some ice cream from room service before going to bed.

Our first day ended up being special. Jun mentioned that even if we saw nothing the next day, he would be happy with our trip.

Day 2

On our second day, we decided to start from Zhangjiajie National Forest Park in the southern part of the Wulingyuan Scenic and Historic Interest Area.

When we got there it started to drizzle as we walked around the area towards the buses. We ended up taking two buses to Yangjiajie. From there we took the cableway up to the top. While there, we walked around a bit and saw the Natural Great Wall. At first, it rained heavily, but then it turned into a drizzle.

By the time we got to the next bus stop, the rain had stopped. This bus took us to Yuanjiajie. We spent most of our time that day here. We walked along the Enchanted Terrace, which is the area that inspired Avatar. The clouds started to dissipate and we got to see some amazing views. Because of the pandemic, there were fewer people here than normal. We enjoyed walking around at a leisurely pace and not have to deal with crowds.

Once we reached the end of the Enchanted Terrace we took another bus to Bailong Elevator. The elevator is built on the side of a mountain. It’s the tallest outdoor lift in the world at a height of 326 m (1,070 ft). The bottom part goes through the mountain, while the top part is exposed to allow people to see the surrounding area. Normally there would be long lines and waits, but we just walked up to the entrance and waited five minutes for the elevator to reach the top before getting in and going down to the bottom. The ride itself took only a few short minutes. From there the views were pretty impressive. Looking up at the elevator put into perspective how high up we had been.

After looking around the area, we took our final bus to the same entrance we had used the previous day. We essentially made a circle of the park.

When we got back to the hotel we cleaned up a bit and went down to have afternoon tea. It was a nice way to relax away the afternoon.

When we were done we rested a bit before dinner. Jun found a local restaurant online that he thought looked good and we soon found our way there. It’s a family-owned restaurant. They were friendly and provided us with additional dishes on the house. The people in this area were wonderful and hospitable. Some of the nicest people I’ve ever met.

We went back to the hotel and enjoyed a relaxing evening in our room before calling it a day.

Day 3

Our day started with a bit of trouble as we were checking out. There was an issue with the agency and the hotel in terms of payment. It took the rest of the day to resolve through instant messages and phone calls. It was annoying to deal with, but it ended up being okay.

We didn’t let this issue affect the rest of the day. Jun and I took a shared car to first visit the ancient town of Furong, which was founded by the ethnic Tujia people, one of the non-Han Chinese ethnicities. It’s a quaint town with a waterfall at the end of the village. There was hardly anyone there. We took out time and leisurely wandered around the streets before we left.

We took another shared car first to Jishou so we could change cars again to get to our final destination of Fenghuang. Our second driver was a lovely man who became our impromptu tour guide. Jun asked if he would be interested in driving us first to the Southern (Miaojing) Great Wall and then to Fenghuang. He agreed for a reasonable price and we were soon on our wall to the Great Wall. Like the more famous Great Wall in northern China, this wall was built for protection during the Ming Dynasty. The part that is open to the public as an open-air museum is well-maintained. By the time we arrived there, only a handful of people were visiting. We essentially had the whole place to ourselves to explore. We were lucky we went in the late afternoon as it was a hot day. The views of the surrounding land from the top was quite nice. The rain from the previous few days had cleared up the sky and everything was crisp and clear.

When we finsihed our tour there, our driver took us to Fenghuang where we settled into our hotel. We cleaned up a bit and got ready to go out. We went for a bit of exploring around the ancient town before having dinner. Dinner was a nice affair; typical Hunan food from this region.

After dinner, Jun and I went for a walk to enjoy the lighted structures along the river before we went back to the hotel for the night.

While it was a long day, we both enjoyed it, especially when Jun learned that the payment issue was resolved.

Day 4

Our last day of vacation had us first wander around the river. We found a noodle stall and had breakfast there. We both enjoyed our meal and felt ready to continue our wandering around Fenghuang.

We ended up just wandering the streets. One thing that was interesting about Fenghuang was that the old town wall is still in place in some parts while in others it had been torn down. As we continued our walk, we decided to get some drinks at a café near the river. We enjoyed relaxing in the river breeze and enjoyed not having to do anything. Finally, it was time for us to go back to the hotel to get our things and head to the airport.

We took a taxi. Our driver drove quite fast and got us to the Tongren Fenghuang airport earlier than we had anticipated. When we got there, we learned our flight was delayed. While we waited, I edited some photos and read my book.

Soon we were on the plane and on our way back to Shenzhen.

Jun and I had a wonderful trip! We enjoyed being able to get out of Shenzhen for a bit. We came back more centered and ready to get back to this new normal.

Winter in Finland & Estonia

Jun and I decided to visit Finland during the Chinese New Year at the end of January. We both wanted to see the northern lights and read that Finland would be a good place to see them. So, after looking around a bit we found a direct flight on Finnair from Hong Kong to Helsinki that was quite reasonable.

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Day 1

The start of our trip started really early as we left our apartment in the morning to reach the Shekou ferry terminal in Shenzhen. We decided to bypass Hong Kong immigration and just go straight to the airport. Everything went smoothly and we were soon waiting for our flight at the Hong Kong airport. When we boarded we left on time and sat back and waited to arrive in Helsinki. While most people watched TV, read, or slept, I was working on my class readings and taking notes for my reading journal. It was a productive period. It also made the time go by quickly.

When we arrived in Helsinki we quickly went through immigration and cleared customs. We were officially in Finland! It was around 3:00 in the afternoon when we arrived and it already looked like it was close to night. We quickly bought sim cards and found where the train into central Helsinki was and was soon on our way to our hotel. By the time we got to central Helsinki, it was already dark outside. It was also beautiful with the lights around the central area lit up. We both admired it as we waited for the tram that would take us to our hotel—Scandic Hotel Grand Marina—on the Katajanokan peninsula.

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Check-in at the hotel went seamlessly, and the front desk attendant was lovely and gave suggestions on places we should visit in Helsinki. Soon, we were in our room. We were able to shower and feel human again after a long day of travel.

After cleaning up, we decided to walk around the city a bit to start our explorations of Helsinki. Helsinki at night radiates a beauty that I associate with European cities. We enjoyed our walk and soon went to find something to eat for dinner. We ended up at a lovely Italian restaurant near our hotel that served really nice bread and herbal teas.

Afterward, we went back to our hotel to find little Fazer chocolates on our pillows. It was a nice way to end the day.

Day 2

After a night of rest, Jun and I woke up fairly late only to find it was still dark. Being so far north was still playing a bit of a havoc on knowing what time of day it was. After getting ready for the day we went down to have breakfast. It was a really nice breakfast. There were also sorts of Finnish breakfast foods, like different cold fish, berries used in different dishes and drinks, karjalanpiirakka (a pastry with eggs and rice), and Swedish meatballs. It was a fun adventure in breakfast foods.

After breakfast, we went back to our room to get our winter gear and head out to explore Helsinki! We first walked up to Uspenskin Katedraali, which is an Eastern Orthodox cathedral. It has a beautiful sanctuary and an ornate ceiling. It was also interesting to see how the cathedral was built using the topography of the hill. From this hill, you could look across towards Helsinki Cathedral, which was our next destination.

To get there we walked by the Presidential Palace and some interesting stops before we reached Senate Square. Being winter and a weekday, there weren’t a lot of people there, which was a nice change of pace. We were able to explore the area. When we went inside the cathedral there was a distinct difference in the décor of Helsinki Cathedral to Uspenskin Katedraali. It was quite simple in decoration and everything was in shades of white. It has a calm and solemn feel to the place.

Afterward, we decided to walk down Aleksanterinkatu towards the Design District. We did a bit of exploration of the Design District and saw a really neat store with wooden ties and ended up at Observatory Hill before going back down and had a scrumptious lunch at Naughty Brgr, which had a lot of creative burgers to choose from. It was a nice lunch and got us ready for the rest of the afternoon.

From the Design District, we walked northwest towards Temppeliaukio Church, which is a Lutheran church built directly into solid rock. It has a really unique design as a result of being built into the rock. It was also a nice place to sit and think.

When we were ready to leave, we then went towards Kamppi and walked around the area and decided what we wanted to do next. From there, we thought we would spend the rest of the afternoon at the National Museum of Finland. So we figured out the right direction and started our walk towards there.

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The National Museum is nicely laid out with a lot of interesting information about Finnish history. I was particularly impressed with the modern history exhibits that highlighted how Finland has grown and developed into the country it is today. The struggles and challenges that the people in this country have faced and have worked to overcome were quite revealing about the strength of Finns and how little I knew about the country.

After the museum, we walked back to our hotel to rest before we went out to dinner. I had to do a bit of studying and participate in an online conversation with members of my university cohort. But at the last minute, we had to reschedule the meeting, which meant we could leave early for dinner. We ended up at Restaurant Savotta, which had really nice Finnish food. I particularly enjoyed the salmon soup and my elk and reindeer sausages. It was a lovely meal.

By then it was late for us so we went back to the hotel and had a relaxing evening before bed.

Day 3

Waking up the next morning, Jun and I got ready for a day of further explorations. After breakfast, we walked to the Kauppatori ferry near our hotel that would take us to Suomenlinna. It’s an inhabited sea fortress built on six islands. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it’s still in use by the Finnish navy and other inhabitants.

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As we left the hotel we were awed that is had snowed overnight and that it had left a thin blanket over the city. It was quite beautiful. It also indicated it was a cold morning. When we got to the ferry we decided to stay inside instead of waiting out on the deck. But as we started to leave the dock, we decided to brave the wind to enjoy the view. The temperature became warmer as the sun rose in the sky.

When we got to the Suomenlinna, we decided to walk around the naval area before we ventured towards the main areas. It was quite a beautiful place. Jun and I enjoyed exploring the different parts of the island. Some places were more residential, others were more of the ruins of the sea fortress. It was quite fun to see different aspects of the islands. By the time we made a circuit around the island, Jun and I were ready to have lunch. We ended up a really nice café where we had one of the best creamy salmon soups I’ve ever had. We also had quiche and pasta for a lovely lunch.

After we had finished lunch, we saw that the ferry was about to leave so we ran to try to catch the ferry. The man at the ferry shouted for us to hurry so the ferry could leave. As soon as we got on the ferry it started to leave.

The ride back to central Helsinki was nice. As we got back to central Helsinki, you could see how beautiful the city really is.

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For the rest of the afternoon, we walked a bit around the city and did some shopping. We first went up to Kallio before heading back towards central Helsinki. While we were out we went to the Fazer Café and bought some chocolate. Before going back to the hotel, we stopped at the Moomin Café and had some warm drinks. Breakfast and lunch had been so big that Jun and I ended up just snacking for dinner.

When we got back to the hotel, we did some packing and prepared ourselves for the ferry ride to Estonia the next morning.

Day 4

After we had breakfast we went and finished packing. We quickly checked out and then walked to the Viking Cruise terminal building. We quickly got our tickets and waited to board the Rosella for our trip to Tallinn. When we boarded, Jun and I went to find a place to sit. We ended up on an upper deck that allowed me to do some school work while Jun did some reading and wandered around the ship for a bit. We also got to try some of the chocolate from Fazer that we had bought the day before. The chocolate bar we had was really good!

We soon arrived in Tallinn and walked to our hotel the Three Sisters. Check-in went smoothly and the front desk person was really nice and gave some recommendations of things to do and places to eat. He even upgraded our room to a junior suite. The room was really nice and comfortable. Jun and I regretted that we were only staying for one night. It would have been nice to stay longer.

After we had sorted our things, we went to explore the Old Town. It’s a really neat medieval town with city walls and towers. We started around our hotel and went towards the stairs that led up to the Upper Town. Exploring the city was fun. There were so many alleys and stairways that it was easy to get lost and find yourself again.

By then it was late in the afternoon and we were ready to each something. We ended up at one of the recommended restaurants and had an amazing meal at Restoran Farm. It had lovely Estonian food. Because we went at a strange time between lunch and dinner we had the restaurant to ourselves. It was quite a wonderful meal.

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Afterward, we walked back to the hotel. My rescheduled class meeting was that night and I had to get ready for it. The meeting went well, although with the jet lag I was a bit scattered brain. When it was over Jun and I had a nice stay-in before going to bed.

Day 5

After waking up and getting ready we went and had breakfast downstairs. It was another lovely breakfast with different Estonian dishes that were fun to eat. I found the breakfast sausage particularly delicious.

Then we went out to explore the city a bit more before we head to go to the ferry terminal for the cruise back to Helsinki. Even late in the morning, certain parts of the Old Town were closed off to vehicle traffic. That created a wonderful opportunity to take some nice pictures. As we were walking we ventured around the different streets and did some shopping as well. One of the neat places we visited was the Balti Jaam Market; it had all sorts of different things from Soviet antiques to different sorts of fusion foods. It was a really cool place to walk around. By early afternoon we realized that breakfast had filled us up and that we didn’t want lunch, but that a snack might be nice. We decided to have an early afternoon tea at Café Maiasmokk, the oldest café in Tallinn. It was really nice and a great way to start our afternoon. After our afternoon treat, we went through the Kalev Marzipan Factory Museum to see the different candies and marzipan sold there. We even got to see different marzipan artworks.

From there Jun suggested we walk towards Kadriorg Park. It was quite some distance away, but it did allow us to see the more modern parts of Tallinn. When we got to the park it was nice to walk around it and see the different cultural and natural aspects of it. One of the more beautiful structures there was the Kadriorg Art Museum, which Peter the Great of Russia had built for Catherine I as Kadriorg Palace. It was a beautiful beacon in the drab winter landscape. Jun and I didn’t feel like going into the museum, so we continued to walk around the park.

We soon realized that we needed to walk back to the hotel to get our luggage and then walk down to the ferry terminal. We were lucky with our timing. By the time we got to the ferry terminal, it had started to rain.

We had to wait a bit before we could board the Viking XPRS back to Helsinki. We quickly found a seat and then got some food at one of the restaurants and enjoyed a relaxing ride back to Finland. I took the opportunity to catch up on my studies and Jun went to wander around the ship.

When we arrived in Helsinki we took the tram to the train station and then waited for the train that would take us up north. Because we were a bit late in booking our train tickets, we had to first go to Tempere to catch the overnight train to Kolari.

It went really quick and everyone was really nice in helping us. We soon found ourselves in our sleeper car which was really nice. It had a bathroom with a shower inside and came with full bedding and a bottle of water. Also, since we wouldn’t arrive in Kolari until 10:48 the next day, I could sleep without being concerned that I would oversleep and miss our stop. It also helped that it was the last stop on the journey.

Day 6

After one of the rare nights where I actually slept on a train, I woke up refreshed and thinking it was still early because it was still dark outside. But when I checked the time it was already mid-morning and it was still dark! Being so far north in winter was a bit surreal for me. For the rest of the morning, I did some school work and got ready for when we arrived in Kolari.

By the time the train arrived the sun was rising and we were treated to a winter wonderland. Snow covered everything. With the forests and rolling hills, it was like watching a nature documentary. I sat mesmerized by the beauty of it all.

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Soon we arrived at the Kolari train station and found the bus that would take us directly to our hotel in Levi.

The ride went smoothly and Jun and I soon found ourselves in our room at the Hotel Hullu Poro. Our room was nice with a kitchenette and a sauna inside it. We decided we would try it later that evening.

But first, we were hungry and went searching for something to eat. We ended up at an Italian restaurant called Renna with oven-fired pizza. We ordered a reindeer sausage pizza and an Arctic shrimp pasta. Both were huge and quite delicious. We were so full that we didn’t think we would want to get dinner later that day.

After lunch, we went for a walk around the village. It was a cute little place and we went around the shops and enjoyed being in the snow. As we walked we found a grocery store and decided to stock up on some snacks for our room. It was nice to see the different Finnish products. We ended buying some drinks, fruit, nuts, and other dishes that we could snack on when we didn’t want to go out.

By the time we were done with our shopping, the sun was already starting to set. It was only 3 in the afternoon! The temperature started to go down and we decided we would go back to our room. There, I did more studying and Jun did some reading of his own. We ended up not being hungry and just snacked on the items we had bought earlier.

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Before going to bed we did use the sauna. It was a nice experience and left us ready for bed.

Day 7

After waking up and getting ready, we went to have breakfast and enjoyed the sunset late in the morning. When it was light out, we decided to go out and explore the village more.

We first went to the tourist office to see if there were any interesting activities or events in the area. We ended up booking a dog sled excursion for the next day and a trip to a snow hotel at night that same day. The person at the tourist office also gave us suggestions for what we could do that day. One of her suggestions was to go for a snow hike around the area.

We decided we would go on a hike around Lake Kivijärv. It was near the tourist office, but we first had to find the right trail. There was the walking trail, which we wanted, but there was also the skiing trail and the snowmobile trail. Finding the right one took us a bit of time. When we had found it, however, the hike was really nice. It was really beautiful and pristine in areas with the heavy snowfall. We found a little shelter in the woods for hikers that had a wood fire. It was nice to sit by it and enjoy the view from the window.

As we continued on our hike we ended up walking across the frozen lake and enjoyed the sun overhead. By early afternoon it was already starting to go down. By the time we got back to the village to find a place for a late lunch, it was starting to get dark.

For lunch, we went to KingCrab House which had really nice seafood. It was a wonderful lunch in a really nicely decorated restaurant.

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After lunch we decided to take the cable car up to the summit of the ski slope to have afternoon tea at Café Spiella. We were one of the few people there so we were able to get a seat near the window to look down over the village. It was a nice and relaxing way to spend the afternoon.

When we finished we went back down. We went back to the grocery store and then headed back to the hotel to call it a day.

Day 8

When we were done with breakfast we went down to the tourist office to get ready for our dog sled excursion. As we were leaving we discovered that it was -27 degrees Celsius. It was so cold that day! It was so cold that our transport to where the dog sledding was to happen couldn’t start. We had to reschedule for later that afternoon. As a result, we decided to get some tea and coffee at the aptly named Coffee House. We then did a bit of shopping before going back to the tourist office.

From there we had a quick drive out to where the dog sledding was. We were given an introduction to what to expect and changed into some warmer clothes. Then we were dog sledding. It was fun and a bit different. But it was so cold! After we were done they took us into a warm cabin where we were given hot drinks and biscuits to help warm our insides as we sat by the fire to warm our outsides.

After we were warm again we were driven back to the village.  When we arrived back we decided to have a late lunch/early dinner at Nili-Poro. It was another nice meal. I ended up have reindeer sausage again in a berry sauce. It was quite good.

We went back to the hotel to get ready for our next excursion to the snow hotel. Since it was going to be at night I changed into even warmer clothing.

Soon we were on our way to the Snow Village in Lainio. It was actually a really neat place. All the rooms had a unique design that went with the theme for the year Illusions. We even went down an ice slide. That was fun! After we had gone around the hotel, we went to the café and had hot berry juice and gingerbread cookies. It was a nice way to end our excursion.

Soon we were back at our hotel to relax and enjoy the evening.

One thing we had wanted to see but was proving problematic was to see the aurora borealis. The previous two nights we hadn’t been able to see it, so we were hoping we would get a chance on our last night. We walked down to the lake, which was the closest darkest area and waited a bit to see if we could see it. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to see the aurora and went back to the hotel. We decided that we would one day see it together, but we knew we had time and that one day we would.

Day 9

Our last day in Levi had us go for a hike around the woods and mountains. It was nice to be surrounded by the winter beauty of nature. It would be a while till the next time we would see so much snow. After we had circled back on our hike we went and had lunch at a different pizza restaurant at Kotipizza.

Once done with lunch, we went back to the hotel to check out and wait for our bus to the train station in Kolari.

The bus ride went smoothly and we were soon in our train cabin. When the train attendant came to check our tickets, she informed us that our toilet was out of service but the shower was still working. Because of the inconvenience, they were providing us with a coupon that we could use in the restaurant car. It ended up being okay since we got money for food and the public restroom wasn’t too inconvenient to use. The fact that we could still use the shower was fine with me.

After doing some school work and watching TV, Jun and I went to bed.

Day 10

Our last day in Finland had us start early. After our train arrived with the transfers, we soon arrived at the airport to drop our luggage off and to have breakfast. We still had a few hours before our flight departed, so Jun and I decided to go back to central Helsinki for a few hours.

When we got there we first took the tram so we could see the Sibelius Monument. I remember playing some of his compositions in high school, so it was nice to see a monument pay homage to him. And nearby was the cute Café Regatta that had an eclectic esthetic. It was a nice treat on our last day.

From there we went back to the city center and walked around a bit to do something shopping. We ended up buying a lot more Fazer chocolate. And then we had lunch at Kappeli. The restaurant is in a beautiful building and our server was sweet and lovely. I think it made our food taste even a little bit better. It was a nice meal to end our time in Finland.

After lunch, we had to go back to the airport to get ready for our flight. When we got there we went through security and immigration. We also did some last-minute souvenir shopping and bought the face masks we needed for the trip back to China.

We were both a bit nervous about what to expect when we arrived in China. With all the news about the COVID-19 virus, we had debated about returning. In the end, there were a lot of precautions that the different levels of government had put in place. Being sensible and not panicking has left for a calm period of staying inside most of the time and being probably generally cleaner and healthier.

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We were fortunate that we were able to spend a wonderful time in Finland and Estonia. It was a wonderful trip and something that happy to remember the first half of 2020.

A Chengdu Weekend

Taking a vacation because your frequent flyer miles are about to expire is not the worse of reasons to take a vacation. In mid-October, Jun received a message that he needed to use his miles or lose a significant amount of them. After discussing the merits of where we could go given the number of miles we had, we decided to take a weekend trip to Chengdu.

Day 1

Our trip started with both us leaving from work and proceeding straight to the airport. When we got there we went through security and had dinner at Wagas before our flight departed. The flight went smoothly and we soon found ourselves in a taxi heading to the Holiday Inn in central Chengdu.

Check-in went smoothly and we went up to our room ready for bed. Our room was nice and we even had complimentary fruit and desserts. Such a small gesture was quite welcomed. It was too late to eat anything and we decided to take a quick shower and then go to bed.

Day 2

Waking up I went straight to a piece of cake and ate it. Then I took my shower. Priorities… After we were both ready for the day, we went down to have breakfast. It was a simple affair, but the cook-to-order noodles were nice.

From the hotel, we walked north towards Wenshu Temple, one of the city’s most important Buddhist temples. With the changing foliage, the grounds were a mix of gold and green. It was quite a popular place with people of all ages. There were even children painting the changing landscape. Jun and I enjoyed walking around and just being in a state of calm. As we were walking, temple volunteers handed out flower tea to the guests. The tea was a mix of at least three different flowers and had a nice sweet taste.

After walking around the temple and the surrounding streets, Jun and I rode the metro to visit Wuhouci Temple, which commemorates the Three Kingdom Period’s minister Zhuge Liang. The temple is quite simple, but the gardens are impressive and beautiful. There are red walls that separate the temple’s different areas; in combination with the bamboo shooting out from behind them, a surreal feel is created.

Next to the relative quiet of the temple, is the bustling Jinli Ancient Street. People engulfed this reconstructed area looking for souvenirs and food of all kinds. Jun and I walked around for a bit to see if there was anything we wanted to eat there, but we soon decided that it was too crowded and decided to go somewhere else.

We ended up going to Chen’s Mapo Doufu, which claims to have been open since 1862. It is the place in Chengdu to enjoy authentic mapo doufu. Jun and I enjoyed the food here. They have a way of preparing the food with a blend of familiar and new flavors and textures. Just thinking of the food ushers in happy memories.

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Having eaten a lot, Jun and I needed to go for a walk. Fortunately, Huanhuaxi Park was nearby. We leisurely strolled through the different areas of the park and ended up at Du Fu Thatched Cottage. Built to commemorate the Tang dynasty poet Du Fu, the gardens and buildings at this site serve as a glimpse into Chengdu’s past. At first, I thought I hadn’t visited this area before, but then as we walked around the park I started to remember different aspects of the site from when my friend Jessica and I visited the place in 2014.

By then it was late afternoon and Jun and I were templed out. We decided that we would go shopping around Chunxi Road. I wanted to buy the Swatch destination watch for the city. It’s quite a nice watch with a panda face and mahjong tiles on the strap. Once we did that Jun and I went to Costa for some Christmas drinks and rested until dinner.

 

Since we were in Chengdu, we decided to have hot pot at one of the many restaurants there. Sadly, because we ate so much at lunch, we weren’t that hungry and only ordered a little for our hot pot. It was still quite good, but extremely spicy. My stomach disagreed with what I ate for the next three days!

After dinner, we walked backed to the hotel and called it a day.

Day 3

We had an early start to the day in order to get to the Chengdu Research Base on Giant Panda Breeding. We quickly had breakfast and asked for a late check-out before getting into a cab and venturing towards the research base.

Once there we spent hours watching the pandas. They were so cute and lively in the morning. Although some were still sleeping. Many, though, were eating. We even peeped into the nursery to see a recently born panda cub. While I had visited the research base before, Jun was experiencing the place for the first time. We really enjoyed seeing the pandas actively engage with the world around them.

Soon, though, we needed to leave and get back to the hotel to check-out. Once we had finished everything at the hotel, Jun and I walked to a nearby market so he could buy rabbit meat for his cousin. Apparently, Chengdu is known for rabbit meat.

Then, we went off towards the New Century Global Center. It holds the record as the largest building in the world in terms of floor area. We went there to have lunch and to look for an article of clothing for our upcoming trip to Finland. We had a nice lunch, but we didn’t find what we were looking for.

Finally, we hailed a cab and went to the airport for our flight back to Shenzhen. Everything at the airport went smoothly and we were soon airborne and venturing back home.

The trip to Chengdu was quite lovely and a nice respite from work and Shenzhen. It was fortunate that Jun’s miles were about to expire. It gave us the perfect excuse to have a wonderful weekend.

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Incredible India, Indeed

For our third wedding anniversary, Jun and I decided to go to India for 10 days. I had always wanted to visit India since I was a child. Having read E. M. Forster, Rudyard Kipling, Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Aravind Adiga, and many more, India tantalized my imagination and was always a place I wished to visit.

Finally having the opportunity to journey there was wonderful. And being able to share that experience with Jun made it even more special.

Day 1 

The first day of our trip started early in the morning in Hong Kong. Because of the early flight there weren’t any issues with anything and we were soon on our way to New Delhi.

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We arrived on time and quickly made our way through immigration. We decided since our hotel was near the metro, we would try the metro system in the city to get to the hotel. It was similar in style to the Hong Kong Airport Express and we were soon at our destination.

From there it was a short walk to the Metropolitan Hotel. Check-in was easy. We even got an upgrade! Our room was quite comfortable and we were able to relax a bit before we went out to explore the city.

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From there we went and walked around Connaught Place and got a feel of the area. Then we went to the area around India Gate. The place was busy, but it was still nice to walk around in the warm afternoon with the deep blue sky above us. It was a nice walk around the area. By then we were a bit hungry.

We ended up having afternoon tea at Mister Chai inside the Shangri-La Hotel. I was able to enjoy my first masala chai in India, and it was amazing. In addition to the two cakes we ordered, it was a nice first meal in India.

After having enjoyed our afternoon tea, we walked back towards Connaught Place when we eyed some interesting structures. It turned out we were walking by Jantar Mantar, an ancient astronomical site in the city. We were fascinated with the place. The astronomical instruments are fixed physical structures that would help in the observation of space. Because of their design, they had a very Avant-garde look. It was neat to go around and explore.

By then the early morning flight was catching up with us and we went back to the hotel to rest. By the time we were ready to have dinner, Jun and I were too tired to venture out of the hotel, and we ended up having a nice dinner at one of the hotel’s restaurants: Chutney’s. It was a lovely and delicious meal.

It was also nice just to go up the elevator to our room and rest. But then a surprise happened. A few minutes after getting into our room, the power fuse in the room blew and all the lights went out. Maintenance came and partially fixed the problem, which was fine for the night. Jun and I were able to go to sleep.

Day 2

Our second morning started again with a power surge. So we got ready in the dark. Then we contacted the hotel staff to hopefully fix the situation. They said that it would be fixed by the time we were done with breakfast. So we went down to have breakfast, which was nice, and then came back. The power was back! So everything was fine.

To start the day we went to Old Delhi to walk through the narrow streets and explore. By late morning we ended up at Jama Masjid. It’s one of the largest mosques in the country. It was beautiful and a nice way to start our explorations of Old Delhi.

From there we made our way to the Red Fort, which had been the main, royal residence for the Mughal emperors until 1857. The fort is massive, and there are a lot of beautiful structures inside. It was really nice to walk around the grounds and see the intricate details in the architecture of the buildings.

Afterwards, we went back to Old Delhi to walk around a bit. In the early afternoon the streets were packed with people and vehicles. Jun and I agreed we were ready to go somewhere else. We decided to take the metro south towards the Tomb of Humayun.

The garden-tomb complex was beautiful. There were different tombs located near Emperor Humayun’s tomb, and each was quite beautiful and serene in design. When we got inside the historic park, we first visited Isa Khan’s Tomb. The structure was beautifully decorated and a peaceful place to be. From there we continued our walk towards the Tomb of Humayun. It has the distinct Indo-Persian architectural style that is more famously associated with the Taj Mahal, but the Tomb of Humayun was gorgeous. Jun and I explored the mausoleum and the surrounding gardens soaking in the beauty of the place.

Afterwards we decided to walk to Lodi Gardens, which was relatively close by. The gardens are free for the public to use, but inside the park are some additional tombs and other 15th century architectural works the Lodhis—rulers of the area around the 15th and 16th centuries—had built. People who live in the surrounding area use the open grounds recreationally, so we were treated to college students singing to each other and playing guitars. It was nice to see families and friends have fun. As we were walking, we also saw a monkey going around the park. That was neat. When we were about to leave the park, we also experienced the cacophonous call of the birds in the trees at dusk. I hadn’t heard so many birds loudly calling for a long time. Jun was surprised by it since it’s not that common to have so many birds in one place in the urban environment of Chinese cities.

Before going back to Connaught Place, we walked a bit around Lodi Colony, which is known for the variety of murals on the residential buildings. Some were quite amazing, others were funny, and some were perplexing; they all, however, created a very vibrant neighborhood.

By then it was early evening and we took the metro back to Connaught Place. We had planned on just cleaning up and going out for dinner, but as soon as we went into our room the power surged again. We contacted the front desk and they at this point changed our rooms. By the time we had switched rooms we were tired from the long day and decided to just order room service. Soon after dinner we got ready for bed and slept until morning.

Day 3

After having a nice lie in, Jun and I got ready for a more relaxing day. We decided to venture down to visit the Qutub Minar, part of the Qutub complex of monuments and buildings from the Delhi Sultanate. As we were leaving the hotel, we wished to stop by an ATM to get some cash. But as we walked towards the metro station, every ATM we encountered was out of service. When we got to Qutub Minar, there were no ATMs in service either. We guessed that we would have to get by using our credit cards until we found a working ATM.

When we got to the ticket counter for the site, we were told that there was no network signal so it was cash only. We were frustrated! We’ve been trying to get cash and hadn’t been able to find a place. Instead of giving up, we went for a hunt of a working ATM. We went along the road until we found an urban village. On the main street of the village, we found several ATMs, but not all of them worked with our cards. After trying different ones, we finally found one that did work! After getting the cash we went back to Qutub Minar and started our visit there.

The place is really neat. There are a lot of structures at the site that gives a glimpse of what Delhi once looked like. And the minaret itself is quite grand. The artistic details on it are quite intricate and beautiful. While it definitely took some time to get there, it was worth it to experience such an amazing place.

By then we were ready for lunch and found a nice restaurant near the site. It was quite busy and we had to share a table with other people. The food was great and we left feeling recharged.

From there we took the metro to visit the Lotus Temple. It’s a Bahá’í House of Worship built in the mid-1980s. It’s built in the shape of a lotus flower and is very much reminiscent of the Sydney Opera House. It was nice to visit and see the building.

Afterwards, we went back to Connaught Place to take a break. We ended up at Starbucks and relaxed for the rest of the afternoon into early evening.

Because we had a late lunch and snacks, we decided to just go back to the hotel and call it a day. As we were walking we stopped at some of the stores in the area and just meandered back to the hotel.

Day 4

Our day started early with us checking out of the hotel and going to Hazrat Nizamuddin railway station so we could get the Gatimaan Express, a semi-high speed train, to go to Agra. The train ride was nice. We booked executive class and were treated to a meal, free drinks, and newspaper service. The price was really reasonable as well. Jun and I were surprised. For comparable service class in China, you wouldn’t get any of that, and the ticket price would be much higher. So we enjoyed the ride.

When we got to Agra, we quickly found our way to the hotel. It was really nice, as part of the welcome service we were given double chocolate chip cookies! That was great. Definitely would recommend the Double Tree in Agra. After we had settled in, we then went on our tour of the city.

We started at the Taj Mahal. The place was spectacular. It was simply sublime. Pictures don’t do it justice. We were mesmerized by it as we visited the site. From a distance you can definitely see the beauty, but up close you can see the added details that went into the design and construction of this work of art. We found it difficult to leave. We could have stayed there for much longer.

From there we went to Agra Fort. The fort is still partially occupied by the military so not all of it is accessible to the public. The parts that are open were really fascinating. Like the Red Fort, it had been used by the Mughal Dynasty as a residence, but in 1638 the capital was moved to the Red Fort in Delhi. In many ways Agra Fort’s architecture is much more interesting. We really enjoyed going around the place. It also has a nice view of the Taj Mahal.

By then it was mid-afternoon and we were hungry. We went for lunch and then did a little shopping in the surrounding area. By early evening we decided to go to Mehtab Bagh. It’s a garden complex directly opposite of the Taj Mahal across the Yamuna River. It’s a wonderful spot to see the Taj Mahal and the river. It was a wonderful way to end our day.

When we went back to the hotel we rested for a bit and decided to eat at one of the hotel’s restaurants—Kebab-e-Que. It was a nice meal and we left quite happy. We went back to the room, relaxed, and then called it a day.

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Day 5

As we had seen the main sights in Agra, the next two days allowed us to take things at a slower pace and see some of the less traveled sights in the area.

On this day we took an Ola car to Fatehpur Sikri, which is a town near the border of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. The modern town is built around the remains of a historic capital of the Mughal Empire. Emperor Akbar built the city as his capital in 1571, but later moved his capital in 1585.

Our driver was quite nice and helped us a bit to navigate and orient ourselves at the site. We enjoyed walking around the palace complex and the adjacent Jama Masjid mosque complex. The architecture at the site is quite grandiose. The grand entryway—Buland Darwaza—to the mosque complex is enormous in scale. It sets a distinct tone that you are entering into an important area.

There are a lot of beautiful architectural aspects to the different buildings in the complex. Taking a moment to imagine what it must have been like to have lived here brings forth scenes of imperial splendor and opulence. It was a nice way to spend the late morning and early afternoon here.

Afterwards, we went back to Agra. When we got back to the hotel I asked the front desk if we could get more chocolate chip cookies. The man was surprised that I asked, but he was happy to give us two cookies! I was quite happy. We then went back to our room and rested a bit before dinner. A friend of Jun’s lived near Agra and came into the city to spend some time with us. He took us out to a nice dinner at a restaurant called Pinch of Spice. The food was nice, and he even showed us the proper way to eat with our hands. Jun enjoyed catching up with an old friend, and I was happy to finally meet him and get to know him.

After dinner we went back to the hotel and agreed to meet up the next day before we left on our night train to Jodhpur.

Day 6

After having a leisurely morning, we met up with Jun’s friend who took us to the suburbs of Agra to visit the Tomb of Akbar the Great in Sikandra. Because it’s more remote than the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort, there weren’t a lot of visitors when we went there. It was beautiful. There were a lot of animals on the surrounding grounds, which covers about 119 acres. Jun and I really enjoyed our time there. Jun’s friend chose a wonderful place to take us.

Afterwards we went back to central Agra to have an early dinner. We ended up in a commercial shopping area, and we got to visit an Indian mall. It was not to the scale of Chinese malls, but it was quite nice. We had dinner at a bar-restaurant called Khiskey Whiskey. The inside was much more the whiskey bar than the outside, which was more a casual restaurant. We enjoyed sitting on the balcony, which had a descent view of the surrounding area. The food and drinks were nice; it was another nice place to relax.

By then we decided to go back to the hotel to get our bags so we could then go to the Agra Fort train station to catch our train to Jodhpur. Jun’s friend went with us. As we were waiting, he taught us how to check the train status. It turned out that our train was going to be two hours late and that we had plenty of time to wait. As a result we ended up having tea and dessert at the hotel before we left. Jun’s friend soon had to go and we said goodbye. Shortly afterwards we also left for the train station.

When we got there we had to wait a bit longer than anticipated before our train arrived. When it did, it was quite late and there were two people already in our sleeping berths. The man wanted to trade with us so he could be closer with his family. We agreed and soon we were in our beds. It wasn’t too bad. I actually got a fairly decent amount of sleep.

Day 7

While the train ride was decent, it still wasn’t a nice bed in a quiet, calming bedroom. Several times throughout the night I was awoken, especially in Jaipur when many passengers disembarked and others came aboard. But I did get to sleep some, more so than I usually do on long flights.

When we did get to Jodhpur, we weren’t actually sure we were in Jodhpur. No one made any announcements, and there were people still on the train. Jun and I checked the map on our phones and found out that we were indeed in Jodhpur. So we got off and ordered an Ola car. After finding the driver we were soon on our way to the hotel.

Since we were quite early for check-in, we needed to wait a bit before we could get into our room. But as we waited we were given a garland of flowers and a welcoming drink, and the owner of the hotel came and greeted us. He gave us a history of the hotel—his family has owned it for many generations—and gave us advice on places to see in Jodhpur and the surrounding area.

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Once our room was ready, Jun and I went and took our showers and relaxed for a bit before we left to see what the city had to offer.

We decided we would first go to Mehrangarh Fort, which was built in 1458 and is the largest fort in Rajasthan. To get there we thought we would just take an Ola, but for some reason no one wanted to take our request. We ended up taking a tuk-tuk, and the driver ended up being our main driver while in Jodhpur.

The sheer size of the fort is staggering. It’s huge! The inside of the structure was spectacular. Inside the palace there were some amazing rooms. Walking around and admiring the architecture was a great way to start our stay in Jodhpur. After we left the palace we decided to get some drinks at a café inside the fort. It was a nice and relaxing with an amazing view.

Afterwards we took a walk around the area. After a bit of exploring we ended up at Jaswant Thada, which is a royal cemetery. It’s set surrounded by a lake and rock formations with the city below. It’s quite a lovely place.

From there we then went down into the city. The transition from the calm of Jaswant Thada to the chaos of the city was jarring. We ended up walking towards the Ghanta Ghar Clock Tower inside Sadar Market. The place was neat. The clock tower dominates the center of the bazaar, which had a charm to it that was nice. We continued our walk around the busy streets and passed different corners that were quite blue. Jodhpur is known as the blue city for the different buildings painted blue. In some areas the entire area was blue.

We then backtracked a bit and went to Toorji’s Step Well. Even with the utilitarian purpose of storing water, they were designed in a way that was intricate and ornate in such a simple way. It was nice sitting and enjoying the view. The neighborhood around the step well also has a lot of neat shops that were fun to browse.

By the time we were done shopping we were ready to go find a place to eat. We ended up at a roof-top restaurant with a nice view of the fort: Indigo. The food was delicious and we left happy. From there we took a tuk-tuk back to our hotel and called it a day.

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Day 8

After a wonderful breakfast in the hotel’s garden, we were ready to head out to visit Mandore Garden. After getting into our Ola car, the driver changed his mind that he didn’t want to go to Mandore and had us get out. The guard at our hotel was nice and called a tuk-tuk for us. The driver turned out to be the driver from yesterday! He quickly took us to the garden and even waited for us.

The gardens were nice. This used be the site of the capital of the Marwar kingdom before the founding of Jodhpur. As such, there were royal palaces and tombs in the park. While on a smaller scale than some of the other places we had visited, the structures here were still beautiful and impressive. After enjoying our time there, Jun and I went to find our driver and venture off towards Umaid Bhawan Palace.

The construction of Umaid Bhawan Palace was completed in 1944; it is the last great palace built in India. The palace is still lived in by the royal family of Jodhpur, who live in half of it. The other half has been converted in a hotel and museum. The palace is huge. Non-hotel staying guests or guests of the royal family are allowed to visit only a small portion of the palace. It was still nice to get to see it up close.

From there we went back to the Old City and walked around a bit and did some shopping. We then went back to the step well to rest for a bit. Afterwards, we found a café—Sam’s Art Café—nearby and idled away the afternoon with drinks and snacks.

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Close to the start of evening we decided to go up to Signal Hill to see the sunset. The views from Signal Hill were really nice and we got to see a beautiful start to the evening.

By then we were ready for dinner and ended up at a hostel restaurant called Dylan Café. It was a very low key place, but the food was quite delicious.

After enjoying our meal we found a tuk-tuk and went back to the hotel to call it a night.

Day 9

The next morning we started the day by going to the Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park just beneath the fort. The park serves to protect the delicate desert environment. It’s quite a beautiful place. There were only a handful of people there, so we essentially had the place all to ourselves. It was nice to escape from the hustle and bustle of the city and enjoy the quietude of nature. The area was really well maintained and it was a nice way to spend our morning.

Afterwards, we walked back to the city and decided to have a light meal at Café Sheesh Mahal. It was a nice and relaxing place to spend a meal.

From there we went back to the hotel to get ready for our excursion to Osian, an oasis in the Thar Desert. Our driver was early and was already at the hotel when we got back. We told him we would freshen up a bit and that we could get an early start. He was a really nice man. He even bought us some masala chai on our way to Osian.

When we got there, we first went to the Sachiya Mata Temple. It was busy and full of people there to show devotion to the goddess. The architecture of the temple is quite lovely. It was interesting to experience how Indians show their religious devotion.

From there we went on our desert safari camel ride. It was nice. We got to ride a camel around some sand dunes and we also saw the sunset. It was a nice a relaxing excursion.

Afterwards we went back to Jodhpur and had dinner at a lovely restaurant before going back to the hotel.

Day 10

Our last day in India. We had an early afternoon flight from Jodhpur to New Delhi, and then a late fight to Hong Kong. Everything went smoothly and we were soon on our way home. We even stopped and had pizza Indian-style from Domino’s.

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Our trip to India was amazing. We got lucky with the weather and we were able to experience some wonderful things. We both left wanting to come back and explore different parts of the country in the future. It was a great way to celebrate our third anniversary.

Quintessential Quanzhou

After going back and forth with the pros and cons of taking a trip during the Mid-Autumn Festival so close to the Chinese National Day holiday, Jun and I decided that we would take a trip. Since we waited pretty late to book this trip, we basically searched for a place where there were still train tickets available. After going through different possibilities, we settled on visiting Quanzhou in Fujian.

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Day 1

Our train to Quanzhou left late in the morning, so we were able to leisurely make our way to Shenzhen North Railway Station. After going through the formalities of ID checks and security, we were soon on the train and on our way to Quanzhou. The ride was nice and we soon found ourselves in Quanzhou and waiting for a cab to take us to our hotel—the Hilton Quanzhou Riverside.

The hotel was really nice. Jun and I spent some time freshening up before we ventured out to explore the city.

We first visited Kaiyuan Temple, which is the largest Buddhist temple complex in Quanzhou and the surrounding area. The gardens were nicely tended and complimented the temples structures. The two most impressive sights were the two pagodas that mark the southwestern and southeastern ends of the grounds.