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(updated: april 2018)


the great wall of china at jiayu pass, gansu province

The westernmost point of the Great Wall of China is actually just a fort. We expected to walk along a majestic stretch of wall among arid landscape and high, high mountains. Instead, bus #4 from Jiayuguan city took us and a hoard of eager Chinese to a highly organized tourist site (much like the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an), where we paid ¥120 (student rate ¥60) to walk around a pristinely kept fort and try to gawk at the majestic Qilian mountains (in the far far distance) without getting distracted by the industrial smog of the city nearby. But hey! At least we saw the Great Wall of China, and there weren’t as many tourists as at the sites of the wall in Beijing!

danxia geological park

Rolling hills of Danxia Geological Park, China, upon which we took a languid stroll before the cops/guards megaphoned us down angrily.

Edit (2017): If everyone else did what we did, these beautiful hills would not be half as perfect as they look today.
It is true what they say about the colours being the most vivid after rain. Even more so at sunset. We were so lucky to chance upon both.

Today I lived a dream.
When I realized a few months ago that what used to be my desktop background for years is a real life place in China that I can visit, I knew I had to go. So here I am. Zhangye Geological Park.
When we set out with a shared taxi (50¥ return trip, to/from our hostel) I could hardly contain my excitement. It was about an hour ride to the gate of the park (40¥ adult/20¥ student) from which a mandatory shuttle (20¥) took us to sites 1, 2, 3, and 4 of the geological park. I couldn’t help but gawk at the views from the shuttlebus itself until, alas, it started to rain… My heart dropped.
We arrived at site 1 to find groups of people shivering in the plummeting rain, pushing to get onto any shuttlebus to hide from the torrential downpour. We were soaked, shivering, smiling, but let down. There was no way we could walk on the clay ridges, and the rainbow colours seemed to wash away with the rain.
Thankfully, the shuttle busses aren’t signed in english and it’s impossible to tell which bus goes to which gate (north, east, west, and perhaps south?) without knowing the Chinese characters for either direction. We arrived at the north gate and realized that our taxi was in fact at the east one. The rain was so heavy that the shuttle busses wouldn’t go into the park again until it calmed, so we waited until finally the rain stopped altogether and blue sky appeared. The late afternoon sun glowed on the rainbow hills. My heart sighed relief. (I dropped Ryan’s android in utter admiration and cracked the screen.) No photoshop needed, the sunset brought out the natural colours of the hills so beautifully after their afternoon shower.
We got lucky.

18h train, standing ticket

We needed to get out of Beijing, for the sake of saving money and travel time, as soon as Ryan got back from his visa run in Hong Kong. I’d discovered that you can actually buy train tickets online instead of having to lug yourself to the train station or a ticket office with passports and an explanation written up in Chinese for the counter person to understand - it’s easier to do on a booking site, like ctrip, and I was able to book in this way with passport numbers and a credit card. Unfortunately, however, I found that the train we needed to catch (being one of the two heading westward to Xinjiang from Beijing) was completely booked up apart from standing tickets, which cost the same as a hard seat (approx 40CAD). I booked the 18h, crestfallen, although the confirmation cheekily stated that it was “hard seat.” Yeah, right. We got to the train station after a 2 hour sleep, half expecting a hard seat, and being gestured to by train staff that no, it was in fact standing. Shit. 10am, 18hours to go. We snagged a spot huddled by the carriage doors, having to rise every hour or so as the train stopped in order to let people get off and on and continuously fight, push, weasel our way to get our spot back. We were fortunate enough that no woman armed with multiple babies and big bags didn’t try to edge her way into it, or I certainly would’ve given it up. To say that the train was crowded is an understatement. The thing is, I’ve taken dilapidated trains in Myanmar, even some in Thailand, but never have I had to pay so much for a seat, or a standing ticket, for that matter. When a ticket costs you the equivalent of 3CAD or in the case of Myanmar sometimes a third of a dollar (for 12+h journeys), you can’t really complain about having to cram in a wooden seat or sleep in the restaurant carriage on the cockroach soaked floor. But for 200¥… Midday, a cup of noodles. 6pm, another cup of noodles. 3am, more noodles. Thank goodness for hot water on trains, but any more instant ramen and I’ll turn into a big noodle myself. All the passengers with standing tickets were lovely. We would take turns allowing for the other person to extend their legs, or for some men - who had sometimes been standing for hours, with no space to so much as squat, even - to crouch for a few hours and rest. A no smoking policy appears to be in effect on trains, but very much ignored. The space between carriages is, in most Chinese trains, the designated smoking area, and even though the conductor was adamant in reminding people not to light up, men would find their way over and try to have a cigarette nevertheless. I think that by nighttime the conductor had given up on yelling at people, while other passengers kept to smoking in the lavatories (making the wait for a wee unbearable). It was amazing how little of a crap some people gave about the conductors orders and the new rules. At one point, around midnight, we’d stopped at a station for a 10min leg stretch, and a group of men went off to buy beers. They tried to board the train but the conductor told them they couldn’t bring on their beers. They shrugged and boarded on the next carriage instead. The conductor sighed defeatedly. While the price of the standing ticket, being equivalent to that of a seat, is a bit steep, it may actually be a more comfortable way (if there can be a “comfortable” way to be on a train for 18hours) to ride. Once we’d established our half metre squared area, people were respectful and understanding of it and in turn we’d make room for others. Being on a train from 10am until 5am is brutal, but this time it was an interesting (and exhausting) experience as well. To bed!

vegan's guide to chinese hot pot

Hot Pot chain: Pick out any and as much veg, herbs, tofu, noodle (and meat, if that’s your thing) as you like into a tray, pay by weight, and get it cooked up with flavouring of your choice. This one’s a sesame broth, and only cost me ¥15 - the equivalent of 3CAD for a big bowlful of fresh, flavourful leafy greens and mushroom. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, this will cure what(ever the hell) ails me!

ps. Still not sick of noodles!

looking for coffee in xi'an

Sometimes, when you travel, you run out of Nescafé. There’s no black coffee to be found. You hate those 3-in-1 sachets. You’re a pissy person when you don’t get your daily dose of caffeine within an hour of waking up. You bike by a ritzy café district, and decide that if you don’t get a coffee now things may not end well for anyone you interact with. You gotta treat yourself to that espresso that costs half of what you’re paying for accommodation (and you’ll order a second one, inevitably).
Oh, well.

relocating in xi'an

After a debilitating weeklong illness and remaining confined to our room (albeit lovely room, plus ensuite -thank goodness) at Warriors Hostel, we decided that although we weren’t well enough to hop on another night train just yet, it was time for a change of scene. We had barely seen any of Xi'an anyway, and our wallets would appreciate the change of accommodation. So, this morning, Ryan’s tummy still funny and my head still fuzzy, we bid our goodbyes to the lovely staff at Warriors Hostel, our broken toilet seat, and the flowery panelled ceiling that we had stared at all week, lying immobile in that damn bed thinking up our own burials with terracotta warriors. For a “fresh start” in Xi'an we booked a room with Haoji Apartments, a family run business letting up rooms in standard apartments of local Chinese people in the outskirts of the city. We pedalled around asking anyone and everyone for directions (thank goodness for the directions in mandarin provided by, when finally a lady gestured for a young man on the street to walk us to the place. We wouldn’t have found it on our own. There is no signage in English, and the Chinese characters aren’t even visible from the main street. We entered, hesitantly, an apartment complex, led to the first building, and tentatively rode the elevator to the sixth floor, as specified on I waited around for a while as some people crammed their motorbikes into the elevators. Finally, I made it to the sixth floor and found the “office” of the apartment rental, a small room with a computer desk, a bed, and a naked toddler playing on an android phone. We were led to our room, bikes as well (up the elevator, crammed in with all the other residents of the building), and made our grand entrance by breaking a glass table in our room within the first couple minutes of getting in. Heavily apologetic, the incident was brushed aside by the kind owners and the shattered glass was brushed off the floor. We insisted on paying for a replacement, in turn getting the Bing translation for “don’t take it to heart, no problem.” So here we are, in a room of an apartment, our bikes propped up against the extra bed, sharing the bathroom with neighbouring Chinese families, in a relatively run down condominium in Xi'an, a spa in the next room, and some offices on the floor above us. There are 3D pink flower stickers on the walls. Where are we? What is this place? This trip doesn’t stop getting ridiculous.

venice of the east

Cycling through the ancient town of Suzhou I came upon PingJiang street, a bustling stretch of fancy bars and street eats along a magnificent little canal. A particularly pleasant spot for people watching, in the breeze of Suzhou’s already poetic air.

couples' retreat garden

Many people told us to visit the Humble Administrator’s Garden in Suzhou, that it would be worth it, that it’s the most beautiful, a must-see when in the Venice of the East. Unfortunately, however, we are still backpackers, and we couldn’t justify spending 90RMB (18CAD) to see a garden to which hoards of Chinese tourists flocked. The vibe wasn’t appropriate. Instead, we followed Goats on the Road’s advice and cycled over to the Couples' Retreat Garden a few streets away. Tucked away by a small canal, we knew this was a garden we’d have to visit, quieter than the others and much less costly. Standard entrance was 25RMB (and a half-off discount with my ISIC student card). Despite some groups of microphone-led tour groups, it was infinitely more peaceful than the other sites in Suzhou.
We even spied some cheeky lovers hanging out in some of the more secluded areas of the property. Suzhou truly is a city of romance. The Couple's Retreat Garden, especially, is a place to tread lightly, to speak softly, to listen to the cicadas hum and the birds chirp and forget about the outside world.

if you're looking for the herds...

Upon arrival in Shanghai we thought, “hey, this place isn’t as busy as it’s made out to be!” That was, of course, before witnessing the hoards of Chinese flocking the streets of the Bund in the evening. If you’re wondering where all the people are at, a safe bet is that they are, along with thousands of others, promenading along the elevated riverside walkway, roping through the sky scrapers and flashing lights of the fancy Bund district, vaguely reminiscent of la Seine river in Paris.

tree-lined streets of shanghai

eating vegan in china

Finding vegan food when travelling is never impossible, but takes a little bit of extra work for sure. In China especially, there seems to be meat in everything. I found a fantastic webpage that has little blurbs explaining in mandarin phrases like “I’m hungry but I don’t even eat a bit of meat,” “I don’t eat eggs either,” and “I’m allergic to dairy products.” I usually whip out my phone and flip through the screenshots I took of those three, elucidating a more incredulous laugh every time I tack on another food restriction and mostly a fervent head shake that I won’t be able to eat at the given food stall. I’ve been interpreting this reaction as, loosely, “girl you’re screwed.” Though we both laugh it off, my hunger still rages as I saunter away and pick up (yet another) banana from a grocer nearby. I feel like I’ve accidentally fallen into one of those once-trending “30 bananas a day” diets.
For lunch yesterday I finally found a woman who didn’t wave me away and got this noodle dish for 12yuan. I had a suspicion that the broth was meat-based, however the rest of the ingredients appeared to be veggie (I’m thinking noodles, kelp, cucumber, and peanuts). I might be very, very, very sick of noodles by the end of this trip!

getting a chinese visa in vancouver, bc

The process of getting a visa is quick and easy. Basically, all the info you need can be found here, at this website. I applied for a tourist visa and received, for 142$CAD, a multiple entry visa valid for the next 3 years at 60 days maximum per entry. I dropped my documents off on a Monday around 2pm (and the office was fairly empty - no lineups) and my visa was ready to be collected on the Thursday.

- Located on the corner of Oak Street and West Broadway, at 999 West Broadway. Take the elevator to the 2nd floor.
courtesy of Google Maps
- Open Monday-Friday (except some holidays - see website)
     Application 9am-3pm
     Collection   9am-4pm
- Payment upon collection, ca$h or debit
- Visa photos can be done at BCAA on the ground floor - you only need one
- Public computer, printer, and scanner available (25c per page) - while I had an invitation letter prepared from someone in Shanghai, it was futile since I didn't have any documents/photocopies of their visas and proof of legal residence in China. Thus, I had to make a reservation at a hostel for my first night in Shanghai and printed it off at the visa centre (subsequently cancelling the reso right after handing over the paperwork).
- Itinerary not required, but bring flight bookings in/out of China, one photo, a copy of your passport page, your passport, and reservations for your first night in China (including your name).
- They've got free wifi, don't worry. (Great Firewall of China not included)

going to the great firewall 

I'll be posting from my tumblr blog since blogspot (or anything Google-related) is banned in China.

southbound, sunbound

To California and back again, in 10 days. November, 2014.

the 411 on bicycle touring in thailand

     I remember when I first came up with the idea of buying a bicycle and touring Thailand on it, a lot of people kept discouraging me, telling me it would be extremely difficult, that I'd have to install special handlebars, that I'd need proper bike gear.. In the end, I threw their comments aside and just rode.
     My first day cycling out of Bangkok... - I'd neglected everyone's advice to take a train out of the city and, as a result, spent 3 days biking on a dusty highway, my little backpack strapped to my bike with bungee cords, bags of carrots and other groceries dangling haphazardly from it, barefoot, sweaty, but 100% ecstatic anyway.
     In retrospect, I probably shouldn't have been so stubborn as to ignore every single piece of advice - sometimes even going as far as countering it - but I'm glad that I didn't let myself get scared out of the adventure. You don't need a bike computer. You don't need to plan out every route. You don't need special cyclist clothes, or special shoes. And you definitely don't need to change your handlebars. As long as you're not a professional cyclist looking to conquer to world or whatnot, you'll be fine without these things. Whatever you're told you might "need" is load of bull. All you really need is an open heart, a positive attitude, and a whole lot of spirit.
My girl Whiskey, decked out - first time bicycle touring
     When I first came up with the idea of buying a bicycle in Bangkok and travelling on it, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was in Myanmar, completely in love with the country and dreading the flight into Bangkok for my first visit in Thailand. I'd heard some pretty unappetizing things about the tourist scene in Thailand and, especially after magical Burma, I wasn't ready to face the typical South East Asia backpacker party culture again. Having had crossed paths with the same cyclists 3 times in a month (two of which were a couple that had been bicycle touring for over 7 years!), by the last time I decided that it must be some sort of sign, and told myself that I'd buy a bicycle the minute I got into Bangkok. My friend Minsung, one of the bikers I met in Myanmar, gave me some heads up on how much a bicycle should cost me, the bare bones of how I should prep it for a long trip, as well as listing for me the 5 places I can sleep at should I not find a guesthouse while touring in Thailand.
     Thailand is probably one of the easiest countries to start a bicycle trip in. The people are super friendly and super enthusiastic about bikes, and there are 7/11s everywhere (not to mention the fact that they sell electrolyte beverages, too), so you don't have to worry about starving.
1 baht water dispensers
     A great country for a first-time bicycle trip, and Bangkok is chockfull of places to buy a decent bicycle (see my post here on buying a bicycle in Bangkok) and anything you might need for your trip. It makes a great starting base. On the road, it's easy to find parts around the country as many locals are experts at bicycle repair (even if sometimes they don't know how to ride one themselves!) and there is always a little bike shop or two in every town. When it comes to water, I personally would buy a large bottle every few days and fill it up for just 1 baht at local waterbottle-filling machines (that's less than one Canadian cent! ~ 0.03$) or under any tap. Locals may say the water is unsafe to drink, but I believe it is only the case when it is consumed for extended periods of time, so I drank it anyway. With regards to the scorching heat? Yes, it's hot. Plan to do most of your cycling before 11am and after 3pm, as the hours between the two are the hottest of the day. Hide out under a tree and read a book, or make friendship bracelets for children. Some cyclists I met in Myanmar gave me some tips on where to sleep when you're touring Thailand by bicycle, and I spent many nights squatting in 24h gas stations (after asking permission, of course) if the nearest accommodation was too far/too expensive.

no confessions

In the cycle of nature there is no such thing as victory or defeat: there is only movement.

today I realized...

     I'm not a biker. In highschool, I was that fat kid on our cycling trip that demanded to get picked up cause I couldn't go any further. Hell, I'm not even a traveler. The feeling has been itching me for a while now, but today it hit me - I don't actually like traveling. What I like is seeing new places and staying, not moving constantly, breaking bonds with beautiful people every few days, looking for... looking for what, exactly?
     Today I realized that I'm not cut out for this. Today, biking from Bangkok to Ayutthaya, the first leg of a long journey, a buildup of emotions began to catch up with me. I had made all these big plans: bike around Thailand another 2 weeks, pass through Myanmar, and eventually make it up to India; but then I thought, why? And I didn't have an answer. I considered going back to Bangkok, where I could rent a room in a shared home with my friends and work, but I thought, again, why? And I had no answers. Worse, I had no one beside me to answer these whys for me. No one to mull these questions over with. No one to hear out my thoughts.
     Traveling alone isn't easy for me. I'm a social person, and going for hours on end on a bike without as much as another presence alongside me can sometimes take a toll on my mental health. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but there are definitely days when the solitude gets to be a little too much (maybe that's why I'm so overly excited when I meet strangers?). Of course, there is always that friendly Thai (or wherever I am) that will no doubt pop out to save my day eventually, but the one-time kindness of strangers only goes so far below the surface of things. I'm endlessly grateful for the years I've spent traveling alone, they have shaped who I am today, but I'll admit that I am not fearless. Every night before I set out on a big journey, I am shaking with anxiety. I'm stressing about this, and that, and that... And then I sit with these stresses. I get on my bike and I sit and I pedal, and no, the stresses don't get left behind. I try riding away from them, but I'm still that dork struggling to keep up on her bike, and the stresses are faster than me and they still catch up. I try to hold it together, but some days it all comes pouring out. Today, about 10km from Ayutthaya, I stopped to ask a woman for directions. I didn't make it to the end of my crap thai sentence before I started crying at her. Her face showed a mixture of compassion and shock, more so when I decided to scrap the direction-asking and rode away in tears. She called out, "Where's your boyfriend? Where are your friends?", genuinely concerned. A truckful of happy Thais stopped me a few minutes later. She had waved them down and told them to pick me up on their way, and they drove me the remaining leg to Ayutthaya. People never cease to amaze me, and all the good makes me... Well, quite frankly, it makes me sigh. Deeply. Often. In a good way.
     I'm not a biker. As much as I love my bicycle, as much as I love riding it through beautiful countrysides or busy capitals, I'm letting myself off the hook. I tried to prove to myself that I can cycle, and I did over 700km in June. Now, I realize that there is absolutely no shame in admitting that I am not married to the idea of this trip being a bicycle tour. I love my bike, and I will ride it whenever I like. That being said, I will also allow myself to take a train here or there if I feel like it. So there.
     I'm not a traveler. I'm not a traveler, but that doesn't mean I'm going to book my flights home today. It doesn't mean I'm going to hurry back to Bangkok tomorrow. I'm deciding that I'm going to take my time, and I'm going to take each day as it comes. It's not like there's a rule that I need to be moving around often! I need to keep reminding myself of the flexibility I have, reminding myself that there is no "right" way to travel. Being alone forces me to put up with myself - or, to put it nicely, to get to know myself, - and to adjust my lifestyle accordingly. I'm writing this spiel on here because after a full day of painful solitude (not that it's always painful!), I arrived at the guesthouse here to find that it's completely empty except for myself. Get that - full last night, and today, when I most need human contact, there's no one around. So here you go, this post is a treat. A raw account of what the first days of my solo adventures are truly like. But things only go uphill from here, I promise!

meals on wheels

     Travelling with a gas burner is always handy. Sometimes, it happens, you get tired of the local food, you get fed up with MSG, you just want to cook your own food, or you're just too stingey to dish out those 30 baht for some standard pad pak (yeah, one whole dollar for fried rice!). When you're hit with any of the above, you'll be super glad to have your own just-in-case provisions. I've long run out of my trusty Clif bars, - always a nice treat when I need a home comfort, - but oatmeal and/or veg soup have been my go-to home cooked meals when travelling in Thailand. All you need are a couple of ingredients, all of which you can find at local markets and 7/11s, or grocery giants like Tesco Lotus. Some ideas for cheap eats on the road:

oatmeal - 55฿/500g 
hot water - free 
banana(s) - 10-25฿ 
soymilk - 10฿ 
peanut butter - friggin' expensive! 
- peanuts - 10฿ 

travel wardrobe

     I like to plan my packing long before I travel. Just kidding. I spend the night before lying in bed, staring at the wall, and at 5 minutes after I was supposed to leave you'll find me skidding around the house looking for my passports. What I do do, the night or a few before, I try to write up a checklist of things I need to pack so that I can just tick them off as I dash around mindlessly. In the end, though, all I really need is a passport, a smile ...and some cash can always come in handy. When I was younger, I used to stuff half of my wardrobe in the bag I took for the summer, most of which I'd never even get around to wearing. Nowadays, anything more than the clothes I have on my back feel like too much to lug around. Truth is, when I travel, I only stick to wearing the clothes that I feel most comfortable in, so what's the point in bringing a tight miniskirt if I've got the choice between it and a pair of airy elephant pants? Not that I would ever consider cycling in a tight miniskirt anyway...
     When you Google search for a packing list for travel, you come up with looong lists of "essential" things you just simply caaan't forget to bring with you. Truth is, only you can know what's indispensable to you, and hey, maybe you'd rather bring a harmonica in place of 2 extra pairs of underwear! So I make my own packing list, and for this trip, it looked a little like this:

musings from up above

august 28, 2014
     The man across the aisle from me is buttering his cookie. I'm forking my "lunch" of a green bean salad and 2 slices of peeled orange as dessert. I guess the veg*an meal option on Aeroflot airlines translates into "low-fat, low-carb diet food for rabbits that can sustain themselves on a tablespoon portion of legumes and a single cherry tomato." Although I'm still starved after the meal, I appreciate that I was able to eat anything at all. I always try to call the airline a week before my flight to order the complimentary veg*an meal, though I make sure to pack an enormous amount of snacks anyway, just in case. Sometimes my veg order doesn't go through, and I'm stuck in the air stuffing myself with leftover buns and untouched salads after the other passengers had finished eating. Mmm, yummy AND nourishing.
It's not my favourite way to spend 13 hours, so I'm always coming prepared, with snacks (they help with the boredom of long flights, too. Nothing like cracking out some sunflower seeds at the 7 hour mark!). Today I stocked my backpack to the brim with apples, cucumbers, peaches, an orange, bags upon bags of nuts and seeds, and, of course, a chocolate bar and some wafers, so I think I'll make it to Bangkok without starving too much. I also like to save money at the airport by bringing a large, empty waterbottle through security and then just filling it up on the other side instead of having to buy the overpriced water they sell there. Plus, as the humidity in the cabin can be up to 6 times lower than it is normally, it's important to drink at least a glass of water every hour spent in the air to avoid dehydration. Anyway, I'm set, with my new tyres around my arm (or neck?), and here goes the umpteenth leg of this year's adventures!