4 feet 2 mouths

walking and eating our way around the world

Archive for the tag “Adventure”

Trip Tip #2: The Art of Packing (by Carmen)

Nathan and his 12kg (26lb) REI pack

Nathan and his 12kg (26lb) REI pack

My durable Gregory backpack and REI shoulder bag that's lasted 7 years and counting

My durable Gregory backpack and REI shoulder bag that’s lasted 7 years and counting

Back in August, I described our packing list for our trip through Europe and Asia.  I am happy to say that it was a success!  In the 7 months of our journey, not once did we think, “if only we had brought that tool/gadget/extra shirt.”  Nor did we really feel that we had brought anything unnecessary, an important sentiment when you have to carry everything on your back week after week.  As we traveled, we did pick up a few things here and there – a shirt, earrings, little souvenirs – but most importantly we gained expertise on what is truly essential to pack.  This post is intended to share our expertise with you.

TRIP TIP #2: Pack what you need and need everything you pack.

The internet has A LOT of advice on packing.  Everything from how to coordinate wardrobe colors to elaborate folding techniques.  This is rather simpler than that.   I’ll cover the basics in three categories – clothing, simple travel tools, and electronics – and how they worked for us.  But there is one piece of advice that is often found online and in print that I would like to reiterate – PACK LIGHT!  I know, you’ve heard it before.  You already understand that it’s easier on your body to maneuver a smaller piece of luggage than a bigger one.  But consider this – I truely believe that one reason we did not experience any thievery on our entire world trip was because our small backpacks ensured we were able to move easily and quickly.  I’ve seen too many backpackers with enormous packs on their backs, another on their front, and then carrying one or two hand bags on top of it all.  Or people with gigantic suitcases that struggle to move about.  These travelers are slow and easily targeted.  So pack light. I promise you won’t miss a thing.

Happy packing!

4 happy feet in comfortable sandals

4 happy feet in comfortable sandals

4 happy feet in comfortable shoes

4 happy feet in comfortable shoes

CLOTHING

  • The right amount of clothing – My last packing post got into more detail but here is the basic formula that we traveled with for 7 months – and we could have gone even longer!  It works for hot to moderately cold climates.  When we got to China in the dead of winter, we had to purchase jackets, hats, gloves and scarves but any cold weather area will have these.  Also, be sure to bring different types of layers, for example, a light long sleeve and a heavy long sleeve.  This will help keep you prepared for any weather condition.
    • Nathan = 3 short sleeves + 3 long sleeves + 2 pair pants (both convertible to shorts) + 1 set running tank top and shorts (doubled as pajamas) + 1 light rain jacket + 3 shoes (sneakers, sandals (Tevas), flip flops)
    • Carmen = 2 tank tops + 2 short sleeves + 3 long sleeves + 2 light sweaters + 1 pair shorts + 2 pair pants (one pair converted to shorts) + 1 skirt (doubled as a top) + 1 cotton dress + 1 set running shirt and shorts (doubled as pajamas) + 1 light rain jacket + 1 light scarf (doubled as a beach or picnic blanket) + 3 shoes (sneakers, sandals, flip flops)
  • Extremely comfortable shoes – You absolutely must invest in high quality shoes!  Outside North America and Europe, it can be impossible to find comfortable, durable shoes with good cuishion and support.  And there’s nothing worse than feeling tired and achey just because you have improper footwear.  Personally, I loved my Naot sandals from day one and they have lasted hundreds upon hundreds of miles without giving me an ounce of discomfort.  Ditto with my lighweight Puma running shoes.  Nathan has said similar praise for his Teva sandals.
  • Long underwear or leggings – Similar to shoes, it is hard to find good quality versions of these on the road (or in the case of men, impossible).  But they’re important as they widen the range of temperatures you can handle without a jacket by at least 10 degrees.  They’re also great pajamas in cold weather places.
The trusty day bag made it to many a photo

The trusty day bag made it to many a photo

4feet2mouths packing essentials

4feet2mouths packing essentials

SIMPLE YET ESSENTIAL TRAVEL TOOLS

  • A good day bag – I said above that I think our small backpacks protected us from being targeted by thieves.  Similarly, I think our well-constructed day bag helped deter pickpockets.  I purchased our day bag from REI in 2006 and it has been going strong ever since.  The key features that I like are a durable rain-resistant exterior, a sturdy cut proof strap, side water bottle pocket, zippered pockets for security, and lots of organization features to quickly find everything.  An important factor for me is that it is a small messenger bag NOT a backpack.  Backpacks are inconvenient for getting out frequently used items like maps and are also vulnerable to bag slashers. We did use an REI backpack we love for some things, like carrying our towels to a beach day, but not everyday.  Unfortunately, REI no longer makes my beloved day bag but another from REI and one from Eagle Creek look like pretty good alternatives.
  • Organization tools – packing cubes and ziplocks – I’ve already sung the praises of packing cubes in my last packing post.  But I’ll say it again – they’re an amazing organization tool!  We didn’t leave behind or lose anything in our travels in part because of our cubes.  A friend recently asked if one couldn’t just use a large ziplock instead.  I had to do this myself in South America when I forgot a cube.  But the packing cube is superior in four key ways: 1) You can compress you’re clothes much more, which means you’re carrying less air and a smaller bag. 2) Sometimes you won’t have a good place in the room to put your clothes. A cube has just enough structure to set it on the floor and move things in and out of as needed. 3) Cubes are ventilated with mesh panels which is better for your clothes hot and humid weather travel. 4) The cube has a handle to more easily pull it in and out of your bag.  In case this a useful gauge, I used one full size and one half for clothes, Nathan used two full.  Also, do bring a variety of ziplocks with you as well.  They don’t weigh anything and are great for one-offs, like  wet swimsuits or open packages of food.
  • Sleeping gear – eye patch, ear plugs and inflatable neck pillow – These may seem like luxury items as opposed to essentials, but I disagree.  Chances are you are going to take an overnight bus or two (or in our case 16!).  You don’t want to arrive in the mess of a bus station with touts and taxis shouting for your business without having had any shut eye.  No, the balled up sweatshirt does not adequately substitute for neck pillow.  And of course, the eye patch and ear plugs help no matter where you are sleeping – bus, noisy hotel, airport chair.  All these are truely essential for guaranteeing some quality zzzzz’s which means more time for exploring when you get there.
  • Repair tools – travel sized duck tape and mini sewing kit – Nathan and I wrapped duck tape around an old plastic gift card and voilà you have a travel sized version.  Great for patching up various holes and tears.  The mini sewing kits was also very handy for more permanent repairs to tears in our backpacks, cubes, socks, clothes, etc.
  • Medical tools – ciprofloxacin, cold medicine, blister band aids and elastic bandage wrap – Cipro is usually prescribed by doctors for visitors to developing countries to treat travelers diahorrea.  It really works and, even if you don’t use it, it gives peace of mind that you have some defense against pesty stomach bugs.  We didn’t really have many stomach problems on our travels but we did catch a few colds.  While it’s easy to grab some lozenges on the road getting simple cold medicine is more challenging.  Bringing it with you can alleviate some of the more annoying symptoms like a runny nose or congestion.  We carry a tiny pocket medkit with a handful of bandages, but most important are blister band aids (also called compeed), they are somewhat rubbery and saved our feet during many hikes.  Finally, I am so happy I decided to bring the elastic bandage wrap.  When Nathan banged his arm into a light pole, it helped keep the swelling in check.  When I twisted my ankle, it helped keep it strong. I’m always going to carry one now.
  • Laundry tools – universal sink stopper and stain removing pen – When you’re traveling light, you are going to do laundry often.  So that you don’t have to constantly send it out to the laundry service it’s easy to do a few pieces here and there by hand.  I bought a universal sink stopper for this trip and it was awesome at plugging any sink, anywhere.  Made doing laundry a breeze even when I had to soak and treat stains.  With so few clothes, stains are a traveler’s enemy.  Therefore, treat them as soon as possible with a stain removing pen. We carried it in our day bag and used it often.  Generally, 1 stick lasts about 6 months.
  • Favorite sunscreen, chapstick and anti-perspirant/deodorant – We brought travel size shampoo, conditioner, soap and toothpaste with the intention of replacing them along the way.  But not sunscreen, chapstick or anti-perspirant.  Stores abroad do not offer many options or variety for these items, if they offer them at all.  As a side note, I am intrigued by a recent blog post on travel-friendly homemade deodorant.
  • 1L water bottle and steri-pen – Nathan and I chose to drink the local water if the streets were generally clean and the infrastructure seemed to be in good order.  We would judge the latter by seeing how roads and sidewalks were maintained and finding out whether it was ok to flush toilet paper (many places you are asked not to).  If we could, we felt it was a good sign that the water infrastructure was modern.  This is by no means a foolproof method.  You really just have to follow your gut feeling.  But we never got sick from bad water.  You can buy bottled water anywhere and everywhere, however, it results in a lot of plastic waste.  We were happy to have our 1L Nalgene bottle and our steri-pen in order to reduce waste.  Even if you don’t care about the environmental effects, it’s useful for those times you really don’t want to have to leave the hotel just to get a drink. The basic concept is that you fill the bottle with water, swirl the UV-light emitting steri-pen in the water for a minute, and then you have cleansed water.  Simple and useful.  But be sure to bring extra batteries.
  • Camp towels and silk sleeping bags – Not all budget hotels and hostels have towels.  It’s much easier to bring your own.  We like the REI large towel for traveling and camping.  The same goes for sheets.  Let’s just say cleanliness standards vary for sheets.  Silk sleeping bags are very useful for having an extra layer of protection or warmth as the case may be.  In hot weather, they’re great for having a light layer to protect from mosquitos.
  • Head lamp – There are many reasons to bring a lightweight head lamp.  The reading lights on buses only worked some of the time.  On Chinese trains it’s lights out at 11pm sharp.  Roads in small towns and villages are very dark at night.  Electricity goes out.
  • Notebook and pen – Ahh, yes. Back to basics with this one.  We had two notebooks on our journey and both proved invaluable.  One was very small and fit in our day bag for us to jot notes on the day’s activities.  The second was a simple composition notebook in which we drafted blog posts, wrote ideas, drew pictures, wrote down contact info for people we met, jotted down to do lists, mapped out our calendar, noted budget calculations, etc.  It’s better than scrounging for scrap paper and it can be easier than trying to do everything electronically.  Which brings me to the next topic…
Useful travel technology to take with you (photo credit: Lonely Planet, Gadgetian.com, OpenCulture.com)

Useful travel technology to take with you (photo credit: Lonely Planet, Gadgetian.com, OpenCulture.com)

ELECTRONICS

  • iPod touch (or smartphone on airplane mode with wifi turned on) – We loaded all of our Lonely Planet country guidebooks as PDFs on my iPhone and it was glorious. All the information we could need right at our fingertips.  For individual cities you can even download guidebook apps that are even easier to use than PDFs.  I loved that it was so much lighter than carrying the physical book, as we sometimes did in South America.  And of course, it can do so much more – use the compass, take pictures and video, show people photos, download maps, find free wifi to look things up on the go.  My most used travel apps were Hostelworld, AirBnB, Couchsurfing, Kayak and of course Skype.  I also downloaded some useful and free(!) language apps from World Nomads.
  • iPad for blogging – We brought an iPad purely to keep the blog going while abroad.  In South America we did this from hostel computers but this strategy was highly inconvenient.  Blogging from an iPad is definitely doable but can be frustratingly slow and cumbersome compared to a computer.  It’s really a matter of personal choice.  If you are doing a simpler blog with less text and editing, I would recommend an iPad mini.  If you’re not blogging, stick to only the iPod.
  • E-reader – I’m an avid reader and love to read cultural books about a place before I visit.  This can lead to a lot of weight in my bag.  Instead, I loaded a bunch of books on my e-reader and brought it with; a choice I was very happy with.  You can find English books in most places but they’re heavy and pricey.  An e-reader saves so much weight and my Nook even used the same charger as the Apple products (only bring the cord).
  • Audiobooks – But even more genious than the e-reader are audiobooks.  I borrowed CDs from the library, uploaded them to my iPhone and then took them with me.  I listened while walking the Camino de Santiago, on trains, planes and buses, in the Laotian jungle, in my bed before going to sleep.  It was especially great when I started feeling carsick from reading or if I forgot my headlamp and the bus was dark.

You may notice one key piece of technology missing, our camera.  That’s because Nathan will be covering the equipment and applications that we used to bring you photos from around the world!

Trip Tip #1: How to Travel The World…Forever (by Nathan)

Traveling the world (Credit: Pan Am)

Traveling the world (Credit: Pan Am)

So the biggest questions we get about our travels are: how did you do it? How do you afford it? And what was your favorite place? Picking a favorite is challenging and still as impossible as Carmen and I made it out to be in our summary posts. The costs of travel require the simple task of tracking the money that is one minute filling the pocket and the next lost in a flurry of memories, tastes and excitement. The planning, packing, financing and execution of a trip like ours takes finesse and commitment. A new chapter in our lives will be sharing our skills and educating the world in the ways of 4feet2mouths travel.

This is the first post of our two-sided travel series to educate and entertain all of our readers. The first series will be Trip Tips, which this post is part of. We will delve deep into the topics of planning, packing, financing and even bargaining to help everyone get out and see the world. The second series will be called Costs of Travel which will look at the real costs of travel that we experienced. We will show off some impressive graphs and we hope to provide some insight on how to travel the world for under $50 per person per day including flights, visas and everything.

Nathan in the woods, age 9

Nathan in the woods, age 9

To answer the questions of how, I first want to describe my motivations for travel because they have an impact on my travel style and choices.  This requires a brief history of myself: I was born and raised in a mountain resort community; we had a pet cow, endless pine trees and the companionship of dogs, many dogs. Looking back on it I think the mourning of each runaway, each death was quickly suppressed with the introduction of a new puppy. I kept mostly to myself, but with all these dogs I always had a friend to wander the woods and explore the forests with. I thrived roaming the hillsides and I always had a companion to share in the adventure. Quickly I learned the need of a good travel partner, the essential reinforcement that one gets from a friend.

As I got older I was eager to see something other than the mountains I knew so well. I wanted to be a little caught off guard and out of my element. I needed something different. I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area at 18, eager to get out of town. It is such a freeing experience to leave home; the confines of a roof disintegrates and opens to an enormous sky of stars. I let go of all my past and I moved away for good.

Berkeley is obviously on the opposite spectrum in comparison to the mountain I grew up. How exciting it was to finally be in a place that welcomed cultures and people from around the world; the birthplace of free speech was bound to teach me a little more than engineering. My excitement for exploration continued and I was eager to see more of San Francisco.

Sunrise on the Camino de Santiago

Sunrise on the Camino de Santiago

Right about then I got an invitation from a young lady down the hall from me to go to a Mexican/El Salvadorian festival in San Francisco. My first exploration of San Francisco involved hours of walking, talking and meandering through the stomach of San Francisco, the Mission neighborhood. Instantly our relationship grew; each step planted roots, each meal was another experience and each neighborhood was a new adventure. Welcome Carmen into my life.

Five weeks in Europe in 2006: Monarola cliffside homes, Cinque Terra Italy

Five weeks in Europe in 2006: Monarola cliffside homes, Cinque Terra Italy

Egg custard tarts first tried in SF, led to a trip to Portugal.  The best in the world are in Belem!

Egg custard tarts first tried in SF, led to a trip to Portugal. The best in the world are in Belem!

From there, Carmen and I shared a insatiable love to explore everything and anything. I found my companion. We let go of our hearts and we bound ourselves to each other. We hiked weekly in the Berkeley hills, we fulfilled our weekends walking across San Francisco and attempted to check every world cuisine off our lists. Our adventures started small, built confidence and grew rapidly and broadly. Quickly we wanted to explore more of the world. We started with small trips: a weekend backpacking trek, a week in Rosarito, Carmen studied the summer abroad and we eventually moved to London to work to work for six months. We planned and executed five weeks in Southern Europe in 2006, four weeks in Germany and Poland in 2006, three weeks in Portugal in 2010 and six weeks in Asia in 2009. Each trip was building our skills to plan, value pack, finance and travel with one another 24/7.

Carmen and I in May 2012 returning from Peru

Carmen and I in May 2012 returning from Peru

TRIP TIP #1: Letting go is easier with a good travel companion.

Then in 2012 we began the biggie- fourteen solid months of traveling. The idea of this trip was more or less in the making for several years before we actually got to it. The reason was that we had to learn to let go. Short-term travel pushes a pause button on typical routine life, the vacation happens, and then life is resumed with workflow, money-flow, friendships and daily life continuing uninterrupted. Long-term travel is different. Routine life is stopped; jobs are ended, friendships are pushed away and personal possessions are thrown out. It takes courage to tell society “enough time has been spent on your clock, I’m doing this for me!” This can be difficult.  The dull heart-wrenching feelings of telling your family you are not coming home this holiday was a hard choice to make.

Self-discovery requires more than just maintenance of the status quo. It takes letting go. We had to let go of everything that was stable in our lives; we suppressed it and welcomed the uneasiness and excitement that is part of a real adventure. It takes commitment to travel like we do. It is not easy living out of a suitcase. I still get uncomfortable watching my life savings deplete by the day. And the constant anticipation/fear/challenge of where we will be in two days time is often so overwhelming it feels like we could explode. But there is a WE, a companion is an essential part of letting go and taking flight into the world.

Durian is a sought after fruit across SE Asia.  It takes an open mind to get past its pungent smell and taste the unique sweet creaminess that is only Durian

Durian is a sought after fruit across SE Asia. It takes an open mind to get past its pungent smell and taste the unique sweet creaminess that is only Durian

Together, Carmen and I could support and encourage each other to achieve everything that you have witnessed on this blog. We experienced an uneasiness when we freed ourselves into the world, but it all became possible with knowing that we were together. Letting go of the handrail of our old life was possible knowing that we had the stability of each other’s hand to grab in case we fell.  To really travel, to really experience the world it takes an open mind to see everything and taste each morsel of a culture even if conventionally it is not comfortable. Letting of those conventions is that much easier with a teammate.

 Friends are essential travel partners gather as many as you can.  Here we are on the Salar de Uyuni.


Friends are essential travel partners gather as many as you can. Here we are on the Salar de Uyuni.

I am not saying that only couples can travel. We have met hundreds of travelers, many of them single. Most of them find a friend to travel with. There is comfort in pooling resources, communicating in a common language and struggling through regional transit. The nomadic lifestyle of world travel improves in small numbers. Travelers are some of the most welcoming and open-hearted people you can find. When traveling, let go of your guard and open up to a new friend, the travel will be more fulfilling and the friendship priceless.

An inspiration bridge in Putrajaya Malaysia.  So much is possible with an open mind and heart!

An inspiration bridge in Putrajaya Malaysia. So much is possible with an open mind and heart!

Lesson learned, we let go and we found a companion. We said goodbye to our belongings, postponed our careers and opened ourselves to the world. Becoming a world traveler required cutting loose those heart strings that guarded us. We lucked out finding each other. We grabbed onto the reins of our lives and took off in any direction we wanted. The plan is not to travel forever, just yet, but if we wanted that, we know together we could make that jump.  Our journey crossed drastic landscaped and diverse cultures; each day and each week we improved our ability to travel. Our experiences of traveling the world need to be shared. We look forward to delivering our Trip Tips series and Costs of Travel series to you. Let us know if you have any questions and we’ll try to address each one individually.

Nathan and Carmen - World Travelers

Nathan and Carmen – World Travelers

The Best of 410 Days of Travel (by Nathan)

Northside of Uçhisar castle in Cappadocia

Northside of Uçhisar castle in Cappadocia

Life without travel, to us, is not life.  In February of 2012 we set out on an adventure beyond what anyone could fathom.  Our destinations would be magnificent and our itinerary complex.  We gave up most of our possessions and set out to explore the world.  I remember our last night in Berkeley, we sat on the floor of our empty apartment eating a fabulous cheeseboard pizza washed down with rosé (from a winery aptly named L’aventure, The Adventure).  Both of us were nervous about what might happen over the next year.  We wanted needed to travel. There is only so much ground that can be covered on two week vacations, so we postponed our careers in search of historical, cultural and culinary education.  We met wonderful people and saw countless jaw-dropping sights.   In total we explored over 100 villages, towns and big cities in eighteen countries on four continents through 410 days of travel.  It was a wild ride of buses, rickshaws, trains and walking on our own two feet.  The best part is that I would not change any bit of it.  Every experience has its place and memory that I love.

Last meal in our Berkeley apartment: Cheeseboard pizza & L’Aventure Rose (perfect)

Last meal in our Berkeley apartment: Cheeseboard pizza & L’Aventure Rose (perfect)

I think the most impressive achievement of traveling is the accumulation of memories.  Every day traveling creates a new experience, a beautiful sight, a peculiar food or an awkward cultural exchange.  Each one of these unique events is stored within my brain like a painting of a vibrant and textured year.  The events shine with such color and flavor that Carmen and I can quiz each other and remember what we ate, saw and did exactly on any day of the last year.  What were you doing last May 7, 2012?  We woke up at sunrise and walked across the Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, then bused to Puno, Peru and had Chinese food while watching a Bruce Lee soap opera with a funny theme song chorus.  I look back at my years working and there are a few standout events, work milestones, or an exceptionally fun weekend or a fabulous meal we created with friends.  But for the most part, memories just are not stored vividly because they get lost in the routine of the day to day while traveling provides so many novel experiences.

Nathan taking a rest during a hike

Nathan taking a rest during a hike

Carmen and another day of travel

Carmen and another day of travel

The memories of our trip hit me with amazing detail.  We are constantly asked what our favorite part of the trip was.  It is virtually impossible to compile millions of wonderful memories and synthesize them in a single answer.  We hiked mountains, canyons and through forests and ate dosas, ceviche and hot pot.  And we loved every bit of all of it.  I have tried to go through some of our favorite activities, tastes and sights and tried to compile a brief list of some of the “bests” of fourteen months of travel. 

Rio de Janiero - Ipanema Sunrise

Rio de Janiero – Ipanema Sunrise

Best Big Cities: London, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Chengdu

Best Big Cities: London, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Chengdu

4FEET2MOUTHS Best Big Cities

Carmen and I love big cities.  We love the life that one can feel in a city.  The people thrive with high-rises, public transit, beautiful museums, beaches and sights.  The food tingles with flavors so intense that the tongue and entire body becomes addicted.  And although there may be culture-shock these cities are welcoming and encouraging to be a tourist and maybe an inhabitant.  I loved Rio de Janiero from our week traveling there in March 2012.  The city is beautiful and the music passionate.  I can’t wait to go back.  London and Hong Kong are of course one of our most favorite cities in the world.  Chengdu feels a bit more scattered in its design, but remains one of my favorites for the food alone.  Istanbul is a gem in the world, a perfect crossing point for Asia and Europe with all the delicacies and beauty that make it uniquely Turkish.

Shaxi, our favorite small town

Shaxi, our favorite small town

The small towns often get missed in lists like these.  We visited a perfect little village named Shaxi in between Dali and Lijiang.  It was quaint and picturesque, and a wonderful variation from the Chinese tourist cities that are so common.  Unfortunately it is changing and I expect that it will not be the same when I return.  We visited countless small towns during our Camino de Santiago trek, each dainty or dusty, but fun to explore in search of a café cortado.

Tartine bread pudding with strawberries

Tartine bread pudding with strawberries

Best Sweets: baklava, sweet soup. Mango sticky rice & alfajores

Best Sweets: baklava, sweet soup. Mango sticky rice & alfajores

4FEET2MOUTHS Best Sweets

Amazingly enough we did discover coffee during our travels abroad.  Both Carmen and I appreciated coffee, but refused to be addicted so we drank it very rarely.  Walking across Spain changed that, now we just have to limit intake.  There are few better things to have a coffee with than bread pudding.  Tartine in San Francisco makes my absolute favorite dessert of the year.  We always used to eat here, but after having it again with strawberries, I cannot help but put it at the top of the list.  Other favorites include Honeymoon Desserts’ sweet soup and alfajores.   Mango sticky rice is so simple and perfect that I wish I could eat it every day.  In Turkey we tried to eat baklava every day, which were all phenomenal.  One place, Karaköy Güllüoğlu, created nut and phillo pillows of gold.  The fact is that there are just too many excellent places to eat while traveling.

Gong Bao Ji (Chicken)

Gong Bao Ji (Chicken)

Best Foods: ceviche, rajas y queso, boat noodles & pho

Best Foods: ceviche, rajas y queso, boat noodles & pho

4FEET2MOUTHS Best Food

I still stand my original statement on Chengdu that the gong bao chicken we ate on Renmin Zhonglu remains one of my favorite meals.  I am so happy that we ate there twice!  Another favorite is La Super Rica; you can order blindly here and you will be very happy.  Boat noodles and pho are charactieristic of the flavors of Thailand and Vietnam.  In general, the everyday food in South America is rather mediocre.  Culinary enthusiasts should rightly stay in Asia.  Although we loved the pizzas of Buenos Aires, my real favorite of South America was the ceviche that we consumed in large amounts in Lima Peru.  Survival during travel is not on food alone, it is the sights that often distinguish the destinations.

Ephesus library

Ephesus library

Best Ruins: Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat, Caryatids on the Acropolis, Vittana Temple & carved church in Cappadocia

Best Ruins: Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat, Caryatids on the Acropolis, Vittana Temple & carved church in Cappadocia

4FEET2MOUTHS Best Ruins

In school I never really liked history.  It seemed like such a mish-mash of random wars and crap that never mattered.  Then I started traveling and developed a love of understanding cultures and people and the history leading to their current lives.  I find that I can spend all day bouncing around a set of ruins, crawling around a cave or reading countless interpretive signs.  Seeing a place brings the history to life and ingrains a sense of reality that these events actually happened.  Some of my favorite places were the Inca Trail, Angkor and Athens; there are so many ruins that can be enjoyed and each building, wall and path defines a little bit of history that is easier to understand.  India’s civilization is thousands of years old and the variety of ruins and temples demonstrates a wealth of history.  One of our favorite cities was Hampi, the ruins were spread out, but beautiful and easy to explore.  Cappadocia was honestly unbelievable: underground cities and fairy chimney houses really do exist.

Hagia Sofia, most impressive building

Hagia Sofia, most impressive building

We were doubly awestruck when visiting the Hagia Sofia.  It is old enough to be in ruins, built 500ad, but still remarkably towers above and beyond what many modern engineers are designing.  I was deeply moved and inspired by this magnificent building and I look forward to seeing it and Istanbul again.  Beyond the buildings and the history it was the landscapes that intrigued us and kept us walking and walking and walking.

Grand Canyon Sunset from Cape Final

Grand Canyon Sunset from Cape Final

Best Landscapes: Salkantay, Camino de Santiago, Salar de Uyuni & Cappadocia

Best Landscapes: Salkantay, Camino de Santiago, Salar de Uyuni & Cappadocia

4FEET2MOUTHS Best Landscapes

The landscapes of the world vary drastically.  The contrasts between mountains, canyons and forests are immense, but one thing is for certain: the human heart is sure to skip a beat at certain places on this planet.  We sought out many of these spectacular sights, and some of my favorites include: camping beneath Salkantay mountain on the Inca Trail, The deserts, rocks and salt flats leading up to the Salar de Uyuni and Cappadocia rock formations and hot air balloons.  Grand Canyon, despite its ubiquity as being a beautiful destination, remains one of my favorite places.  We trekked for eight days and loved all the nuances, textures and colors that transition throughout the day.  We experienced so many beautiful things: Tiger Leaping Gorge and Zhangjiajie come to mind in China or Cafayate and Iguazu in Argentina; each is its own special and vibrant memory.

Walking the Camino de Santiago towards Sahagún

Walking the Camino de Santiago towards Sahagún

I value each experience of our trip uniquely, but one was critical to my well-being and my development as a human- walking the Camino de Santiago.  The steadiness of walking, the meditation involved with each step and the time to think is phenomenal.  I finished the Camino confident that I could achieve anything, but humbled that I finished it with someone I love, Carmen.  Walking the Camino de Santiago is special and life-changing for everyone in their own way.  I feel that I could walk it again tomorrow and it would still bring value and pleasure to my travels.

Nathan & Carmen at Condoritos Park

Nathan & Carmen at Condoritos Park

We often get concerns about our travels.  People care to know about muggings, stolen property and the life and death situations that might have caused us head home.  Carmen and I were very fortunate to not have any serious turmoil happen to us while traveling.  Our worst evening was spent shivering on the side of the road next to the Condoritos Park.  We did hear of some friends who had cameras stolen from buses in Tupiza, or friends of friends who were pick-pocketed in Rio, but none of these things happened to us.  We did accidentally leave a nice steel canteen in Sao Paulo and another Nalgene on a minibus in Zhongdian, but that is it.  Carmen and I are very meticulous to carry very little, we pack light and we walk with our hands free and we secure our money when we get it.  We were lucky, but I feel that the people of the world are generally nice and helpful.  People in Vietnam were extremely welcoming and kind to us throughout our trip and we experienced zero hard feelings for being American. In fact, everyone was welcoming; we, for the most part, only encountered nice and thoughtful people.  (That crazy girl in Tiger Leaping Gorge kung fu kicks into my memory.)  Our trip was a great success and I feel confident that we could travel anywhere and have similar experiences and treatment.

Nathan getting a mud cleanse

Nathan getting a mud cleanse

Just as fast as the date came for us to embark, it was time to settle down.  We traveled hard and fast.  We were diligent to explore as many parts of the world as we could.  Language and food was no barrier, and we were entertained by the beautiful sights that both nature and humans have created.  The challenge with any travel is that the world never feels smaller.  The world feels more accessible, but our bucket lits of places to go and things to see has only grown larger than when we left.  The question we have to figure out now, is what country we will travel to next?

Carmen sandbar silhouette in Ilha do Mel

Carmen sandbar silhouette in Ilha do Mel

Many of you have been our readers throughout this journey and I thank you for your support.  For those who have just started following us: there is a wealth of excellent photos and information in our past posts.  Future posts will continue to entertain on the travel and food theme that we all love.

Chinese-isms and Attempting to Understand China (by Nathan)

1763 Chinese Map of the World (Credit: wikicommons)

1763 Chinese Map of the World (Credit: wikicommons)

I think it was Churchill that described Russia as a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”  The idea was that in no way was it possible for Churchill to understand or justify the actions that he was witnessing.  But, what about China? Things have changed a lot in the last 75 years, but I think it is appropriate to say that China is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma with a gold and red bow.  We were definitely challenged in our travels in China. We spent TEN weeks exploring the country; we traveled in six provinces, we visited twenty cities and I feel that I have only grazed the surface of Chinese culture, the food and the landscapes.  China is a country that is magnificent and confusing and it needed a summary of its own.  We saw so many beautiful places and we ate very delicious food, but we also had cultural experiences that left us perplexed.  Occasionally we came across a few good “Chinese-isms” or chinglish that provided some smiles along the way.  I’m posting pictures of some of the best ones as well as my random observations on food, transport, hygiene, speaking Mandarin, translations, censorship, materialism, staring and being a lao wei in China.  Scroll down towards the end for a breakdown of our daily costs in the mainland and in Hong Kong.

I think of Hansel and Gretel with this one, only bewitched stuffed animals were sold inside.

I think of Hansel and Gretel, only bewitched stuffed animals were sold inside.

I love that the words “angle” and “Salisbury” were just added for fun.

I love that the words “angle” and “Salisbury” were just added for fun.

This is not just any trash bin, it is the one where “unrecycling” is necessary

This is not just any trash bin, it is the one where “unrecycling” is necessary

I think that China and I have one of those love/hate relationships.  I think it is a beautiful country that is continuously complicated with all types of irony.  I am completely fascinated and head over heels for Chinese food also all its varieties.  From Yunnan, to Hunan or Sichuan, the most humble peasant shop owner can turn out dumplings and noodles that I still dream about.  Few places on earth have food like China.  The Chinese definitely love their food too.

The is where Jim Carrey created his signature line in “The Mask”

The is where Jim Carrey created his signature line in “The Mask”

We took buses every day in China and for some reason it is a thing for older men to snort and pull up phlegm from their entire bodies then spit it on the floor of the moving bus.  People didn’t just spit on the bus, of course, they spit everywhere.  But it was when it occurred in enclosed spaces, like buses and restaurants, that it was particularly gag inducing.  Seriously, wtf.  Even the excellent and modern long distance trains were not safe.  China has such an excellent rail network.  I love the subtle sway and knocking of trains, even the tiny compartments provide a cozy comfort. We were sitting on a train and I watched a guy sneeze (it was close quarters); he of course did not cover his mouth or nose.  With snot all over his face and shirt he turns to the train curtain to wipe himself off.  It is a bewildering attitude towards hygiene when one sees people cleaning their chopsticks in hot tea before eating but not washing their hands, covering their sneezes and spitting everywhere.  We rarely got sick in the rest of our travels but in China we consistently developed new colds.

It’s a barbecue place with fries?

It’s a barbecue place with fries?

I searched and searched for such a couch, but I only found paintings of “conches.”

I searched and searched for such a couch, but I only found paintings of “conches.”

There is no doubt that I struggled to speak mandarin in China.  In fact, Carmen and I worked pretty hard to learn some key phrases of Putonghua, the dialect of Beijing, but we repeatedly found that the dialects throughout the country vary so diversely that we were lucky if we could get our duoshao chen (translation: how much is it?) understood by the people.  We resorted to copious amounts of pointing and we found amusement in the translations that restaurants and shop owners found for their signs.

Mystical flower shop in Changsha

Mystical flower shop in Changsha

Yay, Chinese shipments of pharmaceuticals directly to my “Little House on the Prairie”

Yay, Chinese shipments of pharmaceuticals directly to my “Little House on the Prairie”

The food better be good here!

The food better be good here!

As it turns out there are thousands of business owners that have included English on their signs.  Unfortunately this does not mean that they actually speak English, but more that they are hip to the fact that English looks pretty cool on a sign.  So it is very doubtful that the pharmacy had anything actually to do with a “little house on the prairie,” or that there was a “yellow brick road” leading to a flower shop.

Honor and disgrace in China, do people really regard their actions as following this?

Honor and disgrace in China, do people really regard their actions as following this?

Three Gorges Dam and “willingness” for eminent domain

Three Gorges Dam and “willingness” for eminent domain

One idea that China challenged me to think about was: what is truth?  Is something true because we are told by a higher authority it is true, or that major news sources report it, or is it because people around us believe it to be correct?  In China, everything was censored, we could not access our blog, Facebook, YouTube, NY Times or BBC as they were all blocked and the only news released in the country is approved by the government.   I was surprised to learn that mainland Chinese people still think that Taiwan is part of China.  There is no concept that Taiwan votes for a president or survives as an independent country. Within China they are told Taiwan is another province of China.  And thus we found subtleties in newsprint and billboards that, to us, feel like major distortions from the news we know, but to others are this is the truth.  I encourage you to read it for yourself, Google China Daily and read a bit; it’s English with a clear pro-China bias. I think it is the hush-hush cover-ups that bother me- the tens of thousands killed in the Sichuan earthquake but the paper says that there was no damage in Chengdu, which is highly doubtful.  Another example was about the three gorges project.  We found a nice little description in a museum describing the excitement of villagers to leave their homeland.  Since when is eminent domain a happy experience?

Friend this oxygen bar!  Why is there a mound of trash then?

Friend this oxygen bar! Why is there a mound of trash then?

I was lost in the national park and this is the map I found.

I was lost in the national park and this is the map I found.

Another thought: what is high quality?  China has mastered reproduction and manufacturing, but at the cost of creation.  As long as it “looks” like a person has an iPhone or a Louis Vuitton bag, a person must be high-class.  There is so much effort in copying everything else in the world that there appears to be a serious loss in modern creativity.  Appearances are everything, which means that clothing and in particular shoes are very important; it does not matter if they are fake or fake leather or that they even last more than a few weeks.  What matters is the tag and how they look now.  During our travels we would encounter other Chinese tourists or locals that would stare at our faces, then our shoes and then analyze our entire clothing.  I think their thoughts were “you are white, why aren’t you rich.”  Our clothes after seven months of travel were not at their best, but this obsession with material glamour is something that I have never understood.

Just one letter off but Antique Cliffy Painting got Carmen's funny bone

Just one letter off but Antique Cliffy Painting got Carmen’s funny bone

Carmen and I were the object of constant staring in China.  Yes, I have blond hair and yes, we were sometimes visiting places that few westerners visit.  But the challenge in China was not that there were a few glances here and there; it was that whole families would stare at us forever.  Imagine being on a bus and every time you turn your head to look along the aisle of the bus there were ten people hard-nose scrutinizing everything about us.  Yes, they were curious; fine I get that, but it never came across as amiable (like it did in India) and it still made me a tad uncomfortable, even after fifty days of it.

Who carries religious list?

Who carries religious list?

When  jumping, one flies in a “parabolic” shape

When jumping, one flies in a “parabolic” shape

It is a subtle euphemism, and again no jumping off the cliff.

It is a subtle euphemism, and again no jumping off the cliff.

It came a sharp reality to me, that in China I can only ever be a lao wei.  I want to be judged by my merits rather than my outward appearance.  This is an ideal Americans hold dear in theory, if not always in practice.  But no matter what I do in China, even if I lived there for the rest of my life, I will always have the label of foreigner plastered across my forehead and would be judged first and foremost by this fact.

So true… suburban lawn owners and golfers unite!

So true… suburban lawn owners and golfers unite!

One of those interpretive signs that means well and says nothing.  Erosion caused the club shape, duh.

One of those interpretive signs that means well and says nothing. Erosion caused the club shape, duh.

All that, and I will still travel in China again, I would even live there! (Carmen is not so sure about that last part.) It is the challenge and the beauty of it that will always draw me back.  There are countless wonderful things about China that far outweigh the spitting and awkward stares.  The infrastructure in China is fantastic.  We took a six hour bus ride that went through over fifty tunnels and bridges!  The metro systems are all new, easy to use and cheap.  I look at San Francisco trying to make a designated bus lane on Geary Blvd and it is painful, but China would have 5 underground metro lines by now!  The natural landscapes are phenomenal, China is growing at a rapid pace, but suburbs in the Western sense are rare; this means that all one billion people are pretty centralized.  This leaves beautiful canyons, forest and landscapes ready for us to explore.  The food, I can’t write about it enough, but it is really that good.  China has five thousand years of history and the last fifty years is a minor blip in a long history of culture and tradition.  There is so much to explore and enjoy; we have only seen a fraction of it.

China in numbers:
51 days in China
6 provinces
20 cities
10 accidental viewings of babies pooping on sidewalk
15 hacks and spits seen per day
42 local bus trips
28 regional bus trips
6 train rides (3 overnight)
20 metro trips
80 photos taken
12 market meals
400 Sichuan peppercorns consumed
90 cheap beers consumed (they only have 2.5% alcohol)
75 bowls of noodles consumed
65 dumplings eaten
35 temples explored

Travel Costs in China

Carmen and I are scrupulous in understanding travel and what it takes to survive a life as a tourist.  Thus I performed a little financial analysis for everyone to learn about what the costs are associated with traveling in true 4FEET2MOUTHS style.  The costs of flights, country visas, travel insurance, bank fees and initial planning costs have been smeared into the whole trip and cost about $15.50 per person per day.  That means it costs only $31.73 to bounce between cities, eat enormous quantities of food and sleep in clean, but small double rooms.  We have an expense that we call “get in” which is the transportation costs moving from one city to another by train or regional bus.  Thus, 50% of our total budget in China is getting to the city we want to see.  Furthermore sleeping, eating, shopping and fun make up the rest.  Entertainment or “fun” to us is any park entrance fee, bars or desserts on their ownPark entrances are exorbitant; we spent over $400 in entrance fees.  Be ready to shell it out in Zhongdian, Yuanyang, Zhangjiajie, Leshan, Emeishan and every other beautiful place China has.  It is a nice pie chart, as a couple it costs us only $94 to travel each day in China.  Who can say they travel for under $100 per day ($50 per person)? We have created one of these charts for every country and we will be sharing them with you over the next few weeks.

Is this HK bus a submarine too!

Is this HK bus a submarine too!

From our 2009 trip to Shanghai:  no shitting in the park (point 2) and no feudalism (point 5)

From our 2009 trip to Shanghai: no shitting in the park (point 2) and no feudalism (point 5)

In some amazing way, Hong Kong is different, the same and unique all at once.  Hong Kong has all the great modernity of infrastructure: buses, metros and bridges with people that are kind and patient to wait in lines.  The food is fabulous and the language is equally difficult to understand.  I particularly like that the double decker buses have a real periscope.  No one spits in Hong Kong, no hacks interrupt ones dining and restrooms have actually been cleaned!  We visited Hong Kong for two weeks this trip and it came as a welcome relief after several weeks of struggling though China.

Travel Costs in Hong Kong

All the glamour and glitz that is Hong Kong comes at a price.  Most specifically, hotels are expensive and there are nicer restaurants fulfill every foodie’s appetite.  Hong Kong is well worth visiting, but the total costs are $70 per person per day or $140 per couple per day. Thus, as you can see eating in Hong Kong is twice as expensive as in China.  Lodging is a whole other system in Hong Kong; the rooms are smaller, cleaner and definitely nicer quality.   We resorted to couchsurfing six out of the 14 nights which saved us $250 ($17/day).  Hong Kong is worth it and much more.

China and Hong Kong are inherently linked.  In 1997 China regained control of Hong Kong as the colonial ties ended.  There is a fifty year grace period as China figures out what to do with Hong Kong’s free speech, capitalism and voting.  This essentially means that all the advancement and human sensitivity that Hong Kong embraces is at risk of being swallowed by the behemoth of Chinese mainland culture.  I love both China and Hong Kong, but I like them different, two flavors that shouldn’t be mixed too much.  I encourage everyone to visit, explore and integrate themselves into China and Hong Kong, it is a complicated but phenomenal experience.

Past, Present and Future (by Carmen)

PAST
Looking back on our trip is an adventure unto itself as it provides me a rapidfire onslaught of memories and emotions.
 We had such a variety of experiences this past 14 months, how do I begin to summarize it all?  Fortunately, we have done a couple summary posts already.  Therefore, I’m going to pick up where we left off.  Here is a selection of favorite memories from the last part of our trip, Cambodia through to Hong Kong:

Clockwise from left: cooking amok, hanging out with Dalat locals, banh mi

Clockwise from left: cooking amok, hanging out with Dalat locals, banh mi

  • Squeezing fresh coconuts for milk and adding it to my fish curry in ultra laid back Battambang
  • That first bite of banh mi in Saigon – crispy, crunchy, sour, sweet, creamy, savory goodness
  • Being invited by locals for watermelon and rice liquor next to Pongour Waterfall near Dalat
Clockwise from left: Halong Bay, Thai stewed pork, mushroom bun, Laotian jungle

Clockwise from left: Halong Bay, Thai stewed pork, mushroom bun, Laotian jungle

  • Chilling on the deck of our boat with Julia and Jonathan in Halong Bay
  • Observing a simpler way of life in the jungle villages of Luang Namtha
  • Being served delicious stewed pork by a street vendor in a cowboy hat in Chiang Mai
  • Sampling Yunnan’s famous mushrooms in steamed bun form at the early morning market in Kunming
Clockwise from left: monastary in Zhongdian, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, stinky tofu, rice terraces

Clockwise from left: monastary in Zhongdian, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, stinky tofu, rice terraces

  • Getting up close and personal with Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and the intense rapids at its base within Tiger Leaping Gorge
  • Devouring dumplings then getting a taste of Tibetan spirituality at Ganden Sumtseling Gompa monastery in Zhongdian
  • Trying to get my head around the incredible rice terraces of Yuanyang while making new friends Michael and Albert
  • Eating the infamous black stinky tofu of Changsha and actually enjoying it
Clockwise from left: hot pot, hong kong high rises, tied tofu skins in Chengdu, tea house in Zigong in Sichuan province

Clockwise from left: hot pot, hong kong high rises, tied tofu skins in Chengdu, tea house in Zigong in Sichuan province

  • Dipping fresh tofu in a bubbling red hot pot while sitting in a converted bomb shelter in Chongqing
  • Hanging out in the convivial tea houses of Sichuan
  • Finding my food mecca in Chengdu – mapo tofu, gong bao chicken, twice cooked pork, fish fragrant eggplant how I miss you so
  • Absorbing the vivacious energy of Hong Kong in its streets, dim sum halls, hidden bars and Michelin starred hole in the walls
"This food will change your lifestyle" from a 2009 trip to Malaysia

“This food will change your lifestyle” from a 2009 trip to Malaysia

Many of my memories have to do with food because I don’t eat to live, I live to eat. Throughout our travels I was struck by how much difference it made to eat a cuisine in the place it had originated. And it’s not just because things taste fresher. It is a about the environment and the people too. Take dosa for example.  I had eaten dosa, the Indian roll stuffed with potatoes and veggies and served with daal and chutney dipping sauces, in Berkeley.  But it wasn’t until I was in India – eating my dosa at breakfast on a metal plate with a metal cup of chai tea, breathing in the thick humid air, watching other groups chatting happily in their sing song accent – that I really got it.  Dosa is filling but not heavy.  Basically, it is a damn good way to start the day.  In each country, I learned more about foods that I thought I had known with the result being that I now have a greater appreciation for these cuisines.

Of course, travel is about more than food.  Travel changes you but not necessarily in a dramatic way.  I had experiences that caused me to do some thinking, yes, but no light bulb epiphanies that changed my life. When confronted with so many new or unique experiences each day it’s hard to gauge change within yourself. Perhaps a better way to put it is a better sense of self.  Because the saying is true – “wherever you go, there you are.”

Sleeper bus to Yuanyang

Sleeper bus to Yuanyang

And we went a lot of places.  Over the past 14 months I have ridden high speed trains, a 27 hour sleeper bus, overnight ferries, small vans overburdened with 22 people, and what I like to call the rickshaw roller coaster. Powered by my own two feet I weaved through traffic packed streets on a bicycle and walked 500 mile across Spain.  My career is in transportation and I can’t help but feel that these experiences brought greater insight to my work.

Women skillfully carrying their goods

Women skillfully carrying their goods in Hubli, India

To remember all these places, experiences and transport modes gives me an immense sense of gratitude.  I know how fortunate I am for the health and resources to do this trip.  As a woman, I’m also grateful for the fact that I was born in the West.  Sexism is alive and well in the USA but I’m happy we got past the women as second class citizens thing.  Not so in many other parts of the world.  It was annoying to see groups of men and women working in China because often the men were sitting around while the women were shoveling or raking or doing whatever job had to be done.  Of course in Turkey there is gender separation as a result of religious norms, though as a tourist I personally did not feel any discrimination. The country we visited where I felt it most was India.  The culture is positively obsessed with gender and the idea that men absolutely can’t control themselves in the presence of a woman.  Women must cover, must hide away, must have their own train car in order to not be groped.  It wasn’t until I arrived in Thailand just after India that I realized how oppressing it all was.  I could finally wear a tank top to deal with the heat and nobody looked twice!  There were more women walking the sidewalks, women riding scooters, women sitting next to the men they didn’t know on transit (gasp!) and life went on.  I do hope that India finds a better balance of equality in the years that come.

This tower of dolma was one of the few things we got to "cook" during our travels

This tower of dolma was one of the few things we got to “cook” during our travels

PRESENT
Given my tales of culture shock and exhausting bus rides, it’s no wonder people often ask if I’m tired of travel. I think I surprise them when I say not really. If someone offered me a ticket to Italy leaving tomorrow, I wouldn’t hesitate to pack my bags.

That said, I am excited to resume some of my hobbies that I haven’t been able to do because of my travels. Cooking and having my own kitchen is a big one. I’m looking forward to have those lazy Sundays when I get to dedicate my day to making a delicious bolognaise. Also, learning about some many cultural histories has me thinking about my own familial one. I’ve always wanted to make a family tree and now I’m more inspired than ever.

Therefore, we are now in the process of settling down. At least for a short while. The big question is where. Part of the impetus of this trip was an was a desire to move from the San Francisco area, where we had spent nearly 10 years. We are looking for a new place to call home. Our main desire is a big city that supports our lifestyle of exploring by foot and eating good food. Will it be New York? London? Hong Kong? I wish I knew! But the main determinant will be where we can land jobs.

In the immediate future, there is our wedding to plan which is both exciting and anxiety-inducing. Meanwhile, we will be posting on some of our local travels to see friends and family as well as advice on how to plan your own trip.

Clockwise from left: the Camino, Hong Kong clay pot restaurant, baklava in Turkey, Santorini, Chengdu delicacies, sunset on the beach in Koh Tao, spring rolls in Saigon

Clockwise from left: the Camino, Hong Kong clay pot restaurant, baklava in Turkey, Santorini, Chengdu delicacies, sunset on the beach in Koh Tao, spring rolls in Saigon

FUTURE
But just because we are staying in one place doesn’t mean I can’t already plan my future travel adventures. Taking a year off just opens your eyes to more places to visit and explore.

My dad asked me where would I return of all the international places I’d been this year, which is much better than asking what my favorite place is (impossible to answer!).  For some places, one visit is enough.  But it’s the ones that call you back that indicate that there’s something special there. Here is a list of places I would return (* means I visited pre-blog):

  • The Camino
  • Greek islands
  • Istanbul, Turkey
  • Southern Vietnam
  • Thailand beaches
  • Sichuan
  • Hong Kong
  • Japan*
  • Anywhere in Europe*
I want to have a wall map in my apartment (photo credit: Urban Outfitters)

I will definitely have a wall map in my apartment! (photo credit: Urban Outfitters)

And then of course there are the places you hear about and see tantalizing pictures of.  A list of countries I have never been but want to explore:

  • Australia
  • New Zealand
  • Korea
  • Western China
  • Nepal
  • The “stans” in Central Asia
  • Russia
  • Croatia
  • Lebanon
  • Jordan
  • Egypt
  • Morocco
  • Botswana
  • Northern Brazil
  • Southern Argentina

It’s time for us to put down some roots and have a bit more routine in our life. But wherever we end up one thing is for sure. A map will be posted on the wall. Pins will be pushed in to the countries we’ve been to, the ones we need to go back to, and the ones we’ve yet to explore. It will serve as a reminder of fortunate we are to have seen all that have as well as an indicator that the next adventure just around the corner.

But this is not the end!  Stay tuned for Nathan’s thoughts on the trip coming up next.

Hong Kong, the Finale (by Nathan)

Soup dumpling at Din Tai Fung

Soup dumpling at Din Tai Fung

The final hoorah to our around-the-world trip was here.  As I described in the previous post, Hong Kong has everything we love about travel.  There is fantastic public transit, jaw-dropping sights and mouth-drooling foods.  So much so that one post couldn’t handle it all.  Here is continuation of the days we spent exploring the ins and outs of the city and the surrounding mountains.

There are numerous excellent restaurants in Hong Kong.  And many of these have Michelin stars.  Since we are traveling on a budget we like to focus on value and Din Tai Fung is one of those amazing places that has fairly inexpensive and high-caliber food.  It was tucked into a mall but the service was top notch even down to the explanation card describing the proper consumption of a soup dumpling.  We dipped the xiao long bao dumplings in black vinegar and chili oil and slurped the soup contents through the paper thin skin.  We also ordered some noodles and seasonal greens, but we wished we had ordered one more bamboo basket of xiao long bao.

Tim Ho Wan dim sum

Tim Ho Wan dim sum

Baked barbecue pork bun at Tim Ho Wan

Baked barbecue pork bun at Tim Ho Wan

We kept on the theme of awesome restaurants and went to Tim Ho Wan, the most inexpensive Michelin star restaurant in the world!  And they sell dim sum!  Their prized piece is a baked pineapple bun filled with barbecue pork.  It was amazing, very sweet, but a nice variation off the cha siu bao we usually order.  The shrimp dumplings and cheung fun (folded rice noodle sheets) were exceptional.  We feasted and stuffed ourselves and waddled our way back onto the street.

Massage chair paper offerings, burn this at your ancestor’s grave and give them a comfortable afterlife

Massage chair paper offerings, burn this at your ancestor’s grave and give them a comfortable afterlife

Around the corner from Tim Ho Wan were a handful of stores selling various ancestral offerings.  One cardboard miniature massage chair could be bought alongside a whole feast of paper fruits, vegetables and meats.  These paper goods are then brought to a relative’s grave and burned.  The offerings are to ensure that they have these items in the afterlife!

Honeymoon dessert

Honeymoon dessert

If I was to die tomorrow I would want someone to bring me a Honeymoon Dessert.  There is something fun about these east/west fusion dessert place.  They make sweet soups of various jellies, lychee, longan and tapioca with coconut cream, almond milk or sesame sweet paste.  We splurged for some with sliced mango and green tea ice cream for some extra decadence.  We loved this place a several weeks ago when we were first in Hong Kong, so it was worth visiting again.

 Harbor at Stanley Beach


Harbor at Stanley Beach

Stanley Beach pier

Stanley Beach pier

This time in Hong Kong we wanted to see some areas that we had never been.  Stanley Market is extremely accessible on a one hour bus ride and seemed to be the perfect place to escape from the high-rises for an afternoon.  We sat on the upper story of a double decker bus that bounced up the mountainside; it was like a rollercoaster weaving and diving through the jungle.  The actual Stanley Market area was very touristy, but the walk along Stanley Beach was very peaceful and the pier had very pretty Victorian wrought iron.

Hong Kong island on a misty night

Hong Kong island on a misty night

Hong Kong Island’s skyline is beautiful at night.  The colors of the ICF tower and Bank of China stand out among the skyscrapers.  The mist of the bay added to the ambiance.  It is always enjoyable to walk along the avenue of the stars in the day time or at night.

High-rise city model

High-rise city model

The view northwest from Hong Kong Island

The view northwest from Hong Kong Island

Looking out from Bank of China building

Looking out from Bank of China building

There are two tall buildings that allow for visitors into the upper levels.  The viewing platform of the Bank of China building looks towards Kowloon and the ICF building has a monetary museum and a wall of glass that looks into the south hillside of Hong Kong Island.  I love the sheer number of fifty story buildings stacked on top of one another.

Lamma Island

Lamma Island

Caught in the rain

Caught in the rain

We explored all corners of Hong Kong so we hopped on a ferry.  Lamma Island does not allow any motored vehicles, only bicycles.  We arrived hungry and had an overpriced seafood meal, but spent most of the time walking up and down the mountains and around the island.  We walked from Yung Shue Wan to Sok
Kwu Wan where we ferried back to Hong Kong Island.  Just as we got off the ferry we got caught in a rain storm.  Not just any sprinkle but a full blown dumping from the heavens.  We had little resistance without an umbrella so obviously we wound up extremely wet.

Chowzhou feast

Chowzhou feast

Us with our friend Franco

Us with our friend Franco

We dried off and warmed ourselves with dry and waterproof clothing and we were back off to Kowloon.  (Of course, now that we had our rain jackets the rain stopped.)  We met with Franco, one of my friends from Cal, for dinner at a restaurant specializing in Chowzhou cuisine from northeast Canton.  We had sweet glazed pork that was one of the richest things I have ever eaten.  We also ordered fried oysters, cabbage soup, roasted duck and donuts with condensed milk.  The traditional tiny cups of Chowzhou tea were fun, especially when we learned that subtle nuances of cup holding can turn into a challenge to fight.

Da Ping Huo place setting

Da Ping Huo place setting

Twice cooked pork

Twice cooked pork

As one of our last meals in Hong Kong we wanted to revisit one of our favorite foods: Sichuan.  The first time we visited Hong Kong was in 2009 and we saw the description for Da Ping Huo in our guidebook.  Under the impression that it was a casual eatery, we made our way to the address in the book.  We searched and searched, but we could not find the entrance (turns out it was artistically hidden behind a sculpture at the time).  We did find a door in an alley that went through the kitchen.  We introduced ourselves to the kitchen staff and we sat down at a table awkwardly.  The place was much more upscale than we thought and we were definitely out of place in our shorts, t-shits and sandals.  Within minutes the dishes started to arrive and the kind owner did his best to explain each element to us.  In the end we had ten courses, each was spicier than the next; our mouth sizzled and tingled with numbness. It was great!  We were overstuffed and out-spiced, but we loved every minute of it.  The chef (the owner’s wife) even came out at the end of the evening and sang us a Chinese opera.  We had to return to Da Ping Huo when we returned to Hong Kong.

Ma po dofu

Ma po dofu

We (heart) Da Ping Huo

We (heart) Da Ping Huo

As all of our readers know, we have been training for this moment for the last year.  I have to say that I was scared to try the ten course meal again, it was not the spiciness, but ten dishes is easily two days’ worth of food and I did not want to feel sick on my last day in Hong Kong.  We opted for the five course lunch menu, which was absolutely perfect.  The food at Da Ping Huo is succulent, crispy and absolutely delicious.  They came with two classics: ma po dofu and twice-cooked pork (our favorites) as well as a chicken and cabbage soup, stir-fried potatoes and jelly soup for dessert.  I love this restaurant and it is essential to anyone’s visit to Hong Kong, especially if you do not make it to Sichuan.

Central market

Central market

It is the buildings that separate Hong Kong from cities around the world.  Few places have a number of skyscrapers that even stand close to Hong Kong.  There are places in Kowloon that have 43,000 inhabitants in a square kilometer!  I think that it is fantastic that even though some of the tallest buildings in the world stand overhead that there are still street side markets that serve every community.  One of my favorites is a series of tiny alleys and streets in Central HK with everything from touristy trinkets to fruits, vegetables and meats.  There are a handful of excellent markets around town- jade market is good for real and fake antiques, the woman’s night market in Kowloon offers some good deals and the Temple St Market has about anything and everything for souvenirs.

Crystal Jade at the airport!

Crystal Jade at the airport!

So, how do we pay tribute to a city that we enjoy and love so much?  While in Hong Kong, we decided that it would be nice to live here someday.  We have begun applying for jobs and hope to begin work this year.  This city has all the excitement that we love about the cities, with plenty of hiking available that us accessible by transit.   We will also be connected to travel more throughout Asia. Even the HK airport had one of our favorite restaurants- Crystal Jade.  We enjoyed a last meal of soup dumplings and spicy beef noodles.  It was bittersweet boarding our plane; on one note we were excited to see our families, but then we were sad to leave Asia and conclude our trip.  We know that travel will continue to be a theme of our lives, and Hong Kong will have a place in our hearts.

Although this post may be a “finale” to the around-the-world trip there is much more to be discussed on the 4feet2mouths blog.  In the next few weeks we will be sharing our summaries of the last seven month trip including our favorite places, experiences and meals.  We will begin a series blog posts discussing the planning, transportation and finances necessary to travel the world for fourteen months.  Do you want to know how to travel around the world on $50 per day?  I believe that most everyone can travel and we’ll show you how.

Eating Our Way Through Hong Kong, Again (by Nathan)

Urban density from ICF building

Urban density from ICF building

Flying into Hong Kong is such a wonderful and exciting experience.  We were both giddy in our seats to return to one of our favorite places on the planet.  We were having a great time in China, but Hong Kong is a magic place that brings out the best of East and West. Let’s recap:  we explored Yunnan and Southern China for a month then landed in Hong Kong to rejuvenate and refresh our visa.  We then when back into China to explore Hunan, Chongqing and Sichuan provinces.  Now, we have returned to Hong Kong as a final hoorah to our around-the-world trip.   In Hong Kong, we could continue eating the phenomenal Asian food we love as well as sample restaurants that pull their inspiration from every corner of the world.  The subway and transit in Hong Kong is one of the best we have ever experienced and it is especially nice to not have to push our way on as we did in China.  Clean bathrooms, English signage and menus and the lack of honking scooters make Hong Kong accessible to everyone.  I particularly love the density of Hong Kong; fifty story building tower in every direction.  People are everywhere, but Honk Kong does not feel crowded; it feels efficient, welcoming to visitors and entertaining in every direction.

View of Mong Kok from our Kowloon apartment.

View of Mong Kok from our Kowloon apartment.

We rented a small, but well organized apartment for a few days.  It was a studio with an efficient layout and plenty of room for two people.  We especially liked that one of the panels of the closet could be pushed inward to reveal the bathroom.  When the door was closed it was impossible to tell that there was another room beyond the wall of cabinets.  The view from the 16th floor was beautiful.  We had a great time watching the tiny ants of people scurry around the city streets.  Or we watched the groups of teenagers playing basketball. It was a cozy apartment in the middle of Kowloon and a fifteen minute walk in any direction would unveil thousands of restaurants.  Thus we had our work cut out for us.

Pork and rice clay pot at Four Seasons

Pork and rice clay pot at Four Seasons

A very busy Four Seasons restaurant near Temple St market

A very busy Four Seasons restaurant near Temple St market

We decided to start with some restaurants that we knew.  This is our third visit to Hong Kong each time we leave we could not wait to come back.  One of our favorite restaurants is Four Seasons Clay Pot.  They have a decently sized menu, but the real challenge is what to get in the clay pot; we ordered one with some Chinese sausage and pork and another with duck.  They bring the fired clay pot and practically slam it on the table.  We opened the lid squirted some soy sauce and hot sauce inside and placed the lid back over the top.  We learned that this is a good way to add some moisture to the pot and loosen the outer edges of rice that get crispy and sometimes burned.  This is a remarkably simple dish but the thirty person deep line outside is evidence that it is worth the visit.

 One of my favorite restaurants – Australia Dairy Company


One of my favorite restaurants – Australia Dairy Company

Macaroni soup, scrambled eggs and steamed egg custard at Australia Dairy Company

Macaroni soup, scrambled eggs and steamed egg custard at Australia Dairy Company

We could not visit Hong Kong without eating at this restaurant.  Australia Dairy Company epitomizes the Hong Kong diner by perfecting comfort food.  Unfortunately when we were here during spring festival the restaurant closed down from a week, but this time we were not going to miss out.  The waiters are a group of hyper attention deficit and gruff men. Within seconds of sitting you down they are hovering over you waiting for your order.  The environment is a little crazy at first, but I have learned to really enjoy how methodical and quick this place is.  We like a set menu that comes with a macaroni and ham soup that is rich well beyond its looks.  The set also comes with toast and scrambled eggs that are so light and fluffy that I have not successfully recreated them.  I think they must fold in beaten whites and fluffed butter into the yolks.  All this comes with a hot milk tea.  We also ordered one of their specialties- a steamed egg custard made from just the whites of the eggs.  We enjoyed our massive breakfast tucked into a tiny corner of the restaurant.  Both the food and the clientele reflected the influence and mix of cultures that makes Hong Kong great.

Peking Duck awesomeness

Peking Duck awesomeness

How could we resist making a duck taco?

How could we resist making a duck taco?

We did not visit Beijing this trip, but Hong Kong has everything, including one of the top rated Peking ducks in the country.  We walked right into this bowtie restaurant not knowing exactly what we were getting into.  Supposedly reservations were essential, but since we were only two people we had high aspirations.  To our great luck they had a table just for us.  We ordered a whole duck and some steamed vegetables to accompany it.  The ducks here are made to order so we had to wait a good 45 minutes for our duck to be injected with air, glazed and roasted.  They seal the duck and fill it with air to separate the skin from the body and create a crispy skin.  One chef is allowed to carve the ducks for the entire restaurant.  He pushes a small cart from the kitchen and sets to work.  He carves 1/4 inch slices starting from the neck and working down the body, each contains a crispy segment of skin.  He flips the carcass and repeats.  The waiters bring plates of cucumber, tender green garlic, hoisin sauce and Peking pancakes.  The round floury pancakes have a very close resemblance to tortillas; we combined all the ingredients and consumed our Chinese “tacos.”

Lin Heung pork and rice bowl

Lin Heung pork and rice bowl

Our last trip to Hong Kong involved one of our favorite dim sum places: Lin Heung.  Of course we returned and ordered a feast of dim sum.  This was a weekday so it was just slightly calmer than the last time we visited.  We ordered our usual array of sieu mai, ha gow, cha sieu bao and one additional pork and rice pot.

Man Mo Temple incense

Man Mo Temple incense

Just up the hill from Lin Heung is a beautiful temple.  The temple has been here for a couple hundred years and is a nice reminder of the traditional Chinese village that existed on Hong Kong Island before it became a financial headquarters to the world.

Delicious shortbread egg tart at Tai Cheong

Delicious shortbread egg tart at Tai Cheong

Flakey crust egg tart from Honolulu Bakery

Flakey crust egg tart from Honolulu Bakery

It was the Portuguese that invented the egg custard tart.  A convent in Lisbon had a habit using enormous amounts of egg whites to starch their habits. They searched for some use of their overabundance of egg yolks and egg custard tarts were born.  When the Portuguese created colonies around the world, they brought custard tarts with them and slowly the dessert made its way into Cantonese cuisine.  Now egg custard tarts are served throughout the world in dim sum restaurants and bakeries.  The tarts we ate in Lisbon were heavenly, but Hong Kong can create a few that are truly decadent.  There is actually an ongoing competition for the bakery that can make the best egg tart in Hong Kong.  We decided to try out two of them: Honolulu bakery, known for the best flakey crust and Tai Cheong, known for the best short bread crust.  Both tarts were phenomenal.  I liked the run-down diner feel of Honolulu bakery, but in terms of flavor I am a sucker for the buttery crunch of shortbread.  All in all, we ate quite a few egg tarts, but neither Carmen nor I could declare a true winner between these two.

Korean awesomeness

Korean awesomeness

After a few days in a rented apartment we decided to save some money and meet some new people.  We moved down the street to couchsurf with a new friend of ours.  He lived in a Korean neighborhood in Kowloon.  There were at least fifty Korean restaurants within two blocks of each other.  We ate kimchi pancakes, bimbibop, bulgogi and sweet potato noodles.  I love how in Korean restaurants they serve the set of tiny dishes filled with pickles, kimchi, radishes and daikon.

Hong Kong history museum

Hong Kong history museum

The Honk Kong history museum is one of the best museums we have ever been too.  It has this amazing layout that teaches the geological origins of the city through its present day modernization.  There is a cultural aspect of the tribes that first settled it and the traditional festivals that still continue.  Both Carmen and I love learning about a city, its origins and its development and learning about Hong Kong, one of our favorite cities, was just icing on the cake.

Checking out the view of Hong Kong Island

Checking out the view of Hong Kong Island

A challenge with Hong Kong, for us, is that there is just too much to do.  There are fantastic museums, exciting harbor walks, island boat ferries, high-rise mazes and exorbitant amounts of food to eat and try. I love Hong Kong, it’s big and beautiful and everything I enjoy about the city.   We conquered most of our favorite places, but now it was time to see some new things.  Of course, that will have to wait until our next post.

Taking a Long Sip in Pingle (by Carmen)

Canal bridge in Pingle

Canal bridge in Pingle

One of our favorite places in Yunnan was Shaxi, a town with maybe a thousand people. The size of most cities in China are jaw dropping. Visiting the tiny towns provides insight to a slower and community oriented side of life. With this in mind we decided to take a day trip to Pingle, a couple hours east of Chengdu.

Pingle street

Pingle street

5D show!

5D show!

Pingle is over 2000 years old and was a stop on the famous Silk Road trade route. Little has changed architecturally since the Ming dynasty – some of the towns trees have even been in the same place for a thousand years. But that was then. Now, everything in China is rapidly changing. While we were there many of the little lanes were under construction to better support the tourist masses. And of course all the tourist junk shops. My favorite though was the Avatar 5D stand. 3 dimensions just wasn’t enough!

Wall of bamboo

Wall of bamboo

Nathan wondering how to climb bamboo

Nathan wondering how to climb bamboo

There wasn’t a whole lot of information on Pingle online so we discovered our activities while there. For example, we saw a sign pointing to a bamboo forest. Plenty of rickshaw drivers tried to take us there but we decided to walk. About 10 minutes later we found a valley filled with a sea of bamboo.

Crossing the stream

Crossing the stream

Picturesque bamboo stream

Picturesque bamboo stream

Most of our walk was along the one road that cuts through the valley. That meant that every so often we had to jump to the side as a car or rickshaw going much to fast sped past us. But for the most part it was peaceful and beautiful. Eventually we found a small path that crossed the river and wound along the stream for a bit. Then we caught a rickshaw back to town.

Roof tiles in town

Roof tiles in town

Riverside tea

Riverside tea

Finally, we drank our tea. This was the real reason we came to Pingle. Nathan and I had so enjoyed the tea houses of Chengdu and Zigong that we wanted more. The ones in Pingle line a calm river where kids played in the mud and casually threw their trash into the flowing water. In the tea houses the clink of mahjong tiles and families having convivial conversations filled the air. It was as chill and peaceful as China gets. The tea was delicious and Nathan and I settled in for a long afternoon of sipping and people watching.

The Real Reason We Went To Chengdu Was To Eat! (by Nathan)

Sichuan snack sampler set (xiao chi tao can) at Long Chao Shou restaurant

Sichuan snack sampler set (xiao chi tao can) at Long Chao Shou restaurant

The pilgrimage continued in a different kind of way when we were in Chengdu.  This city is sacred because it contains one of the most delicious cuisines in the world- Sichuan.  Sichuan literally translates to “four rivers”. These waterways created fertile valleys that supported bountiful harvests and a highly advanced cuisine. When we finally made it to Chengdu we were overwhelmed with choices and the main challenge each day was deciding where and what to eat.  We couldn’t go wrong with Long Chao Shou restaurant that made huge platters of Sichuan street foods for those like us with a sacred appetite.

Wontons in numbing oil and fiery dan dan noodles

Wontons in numbing oil and fiery dan dan noodles

Sichuan peppercorns (photo credit: wikicommons)

Sichuan peppercorns (photo credit: wikicommons)

Carmen already covered what to do in Chengdu.  Those activities were fun, but I want to be honest with all of our readers, we really went to Chengdu to eat.   Sichuan peppercorns, for us, are way cuter than any panda bear.  Our love for Sichuan food actually began in Beijing during a cooking class in 2009.  An Australian friend we were cooking with encouraged us to chew on this tiny little pink peppercorn.  The rush of sour tastes was initially awkward, then later settled with intense salivation and saltiness.  The funny thing about Sichuan peppercorns is that they then numb the entire mouth.  The tingle strangely caught me off guard.  I pulled and tugged at my lips enjoying drunken dumbness of my mouth.  The feeling soon disappeared, but from that taste I was hooked and eager to use Sichuan peppercorns in everything.  We read the amazing autobiography (Sharks Fin and Sichuan Pepper) and cookbook (Land of Plenty) by Fushia Dunlop and our Chinese food skills quickly advanced.  I also threw the kernels in all sorts of dishes like pizza, barbecue sauce and deviled eggs.

Legendary mapo dofu

Legendary mapo dofu

A delicious chunk of gooey mapo tofu

A delicious chunk of gooey mapo tofu

Sichuan food is amazing because of its intense flavors and textures that are only matched by the best of world cuisines (Mexican, Thai & Indian- Sorry France, suck on my chili and peppercorns!).  A classic Sichuan Chinese dish is mapo dofu, tofu tossed into a fiery broth of broad bean paste, dried red chilies and Sichuan peppercorns.  A touch of sugar, dark soy sauce, black vinegar, green onions some ground bacon is all that is needed to make this magic.  The result is a dish that is a touch sour, but spicy and savory with a slightly sweet ending.  The tofu is flavorful and creamy, the peppercorns are crunchy and the green onions slightly crisp.  In Sichuan it was served more dramatically than in the States.  The oils in the bowl are still sizzling the tofu when it hits the table, and the whole thing is topped with an additional spoonful of ground peppercorns and red chilies (and probably MSG).

Twice Cooked Pork

Twice Cooked Pork

Another favorite of ours is hou guo rou (twice-cooked pork).  This dish is basically pork belly or bacon that is boiled, then removed and cooled.  The pork is sliced and wok-fried with green garlic and of course chili peppers.  Yes, it is fantastic and rarely disappointing.  We ate this dish five times while in Sichuan.

The best gong bao chicken we’ve ever had

The best gong bao chicken we’ve ever had

Stewed pork belly, gong bao ji and seasonal greens

Stewed pork belly, gong bao ji and seasonal greens

There is one Sichuan dish that has made it to Panda Express, but don’t insult the Sichuan food gods.  Gong bao chicken (better known as kung pao chicken) is from the heavens and they don’t mess around in Chengdu.  And funny enough we found a crowded no-name restaurant with wooden tables three blocks south of Mix hostel on Renmin Zhonglu.  Their gong bao stands as one of my top three food items of this entire trip.  Somehow it is the simplest and known dishes that surprise us sometimes.  The chicken was caramelized with sweet, salty spiciness.  The peanuts had extreme flavor and crunch compared to the ones I have cooked with.  The dried red peppers provided an easy way to intensify and mitigate the spiciness.  Oh, and there were some green onions in there just because ;)

Sichuan snack shop

Sichuan snack shop

We also found ourselves eating delicious street food served within tiny restaurants.  One classic shop was across the street from the Wenshu temple and across from Long Chao Shou that I described earlier.  They served maybe twenty types of Sichuan snacks from spiced bean jellies, to wontons and what we went for- the heart, and gut of Sichuan food – dan dan noodles.  This noodle dish is basically egg noodles thrown onto a ground pork and red pepper oil.  The bowls are served small, like boat noodles in Thailand, and we found ourselves grabbing a bowl in between meals.

Street kabob on sesame flatbread

Street kabob on sesame flatbread

Like in many Chinese cities, there were a handful of Uyghur kebab vendors in Sichuan.  We could smell this one for several blocks outside the Wenshu temple.  He grabbed a handful of skewers and placed them over the hot coals.  He fanned for the heat and after a few minutes we were given the succulent kabobs and a sesame flatbread.

Made to order Chinese pocket sandwiches

Made to order Chinese pocket sandwiches

Sichuan street sandwiches

Sichuan street sandwiches

Carmen chowing down

Carmen chowing down

I spotted this 20 sqft shop from the bus.  The line of people extended from the restaurant and wrapped around the street.  Another day around the corner I saw two women devouring pita pocket sandwiches, I jealously watched the dripping juices and food moans.  Call it food porn or whatever, but they looked good, the sandwiches I mean.  I had to figure out what they were and where they found them.  To my great excitement we walked by this tiny black sign and there were more sandwiches; to my great excitement this was the place I was eyeing. There are only a couple choices, mushroom, pork, beef and pig ear.  We ordered a couple, and the next day a couple more and the next day I would have eaten them again, but our stupid flight got in the way.  Each sandwich is made right there in front of the customers.  Two street chefs roll dough balls and bake the flat bread over a fire.  Then a handful of “stuffer” chefs toss together shredded carrots and daikon with chili oil and the meat or mushrooms.  Hell yeah I want it la jiao (spicy).  They stuff it into a hot flatbread, wrap it in wax paper and shove them into our hands.  We walk away happy and eager to find a secluded place as it was now our turn to devour these on the public sidewalk.  If you want to try these amazing sandwiches, the closet of a kitchen is called Chuan Bei Famous Snacks and it is on the east side of Renmin Zhonglu just between Hongshizhu Street and Wenwu Street.

Hot pot tofu skin knots

Hot pot tofu skin knots

Our raging hot pot and round three of veggies

Our raging hot pot and round three of veggies

We could not leave Sichuan without revisiting the craziness of hotpot. Hot pot is famous throughout Chengdu and Chongqing and we were feeling pretty confident that we could tackle it again.  We went to Yùlín Chuànchuàn Xiāng, we sat down and we ordered a spicy broth and a couple beers.  It was enormously easier to order here because there was an entire walk-in refrigerator lined with vegetables, tofu and skewered meats ready to be tossed into the bubbling broth.  Our essential favorite was the twisted tofu skin, and we also enjoyed broccoli, button mushrooms, cabbage, meat balls and a whole fish.

Various bowls of wantons in spicy oil, or broth or with cabbage

Various bowls of wantons in spicy oil, or broth or with cabbage

I get hungry just thinking of Sichuan food.  I had read about the food of Chengdu as if it was the stuff of legend.  The flood basin that makes the Sichuan province provides a bounty of culinary abundance truly defining it as a land of plenty.  This essential destination fulfilled our wildest dreams of flavors and textures.  Visiting Chengdu has provided us a context to the food, an experience within the Chinese culture and memory linked to my taste buds. It was difficult to leave, but we’ll be coming back and our stomachs will be grumbling until then.

Stairway to Heaven in Emeishan (by Carmen)

Stupa at the top of Emeishan

Stupa at the top of Emeishan

We were peregrinos once again. But this time it was a little different. For one, we were in China on the holy mountain of Emeishan. Second, we were only going to hike 50km not 800km. Instead of churches, we would encounter temples. Instead of a bottle of wine with our patatas bravas we would eat a simple bowl of vegetarian noodles and drink tea. Instead of the end of summer we were hiking at the end of winter. All in all, we were ready for these changes and excited to see a more spiritual side of China.

Carved Buddha at trailhead

Carved Buddha at trailhead

Forest steps

Forest steps

Map of Emeishan

Map of Emeishan

Emeishan is one of four sacred Buddhist mountains in China and has been a site of ancient pilgrimages for centuries. A series of temples have been established along the trail to house and feed people walking to the top. A carved Buddha welcomed us at the trailhead and we began to ascend the steps built into the forest. We struggled a bit to find the correct trail since the best map we had was a schematic one from the hostel. But after some asking around and pointing we made our way to the temples.

Tibetan style Shenshui Pavillion

Tibetan style Shenshui Pavillion

 Psychedelic purple cabbage

Psychedelic purple cabbage

One of the first temples we encountered was the Shenshui Pavillion. It was covered in a riot of bright colors, similar to the Tibetans ones we had seen in Zhongdian. We took a bit of a break, then pushed on. Shortly afterwards we saw this awesome purple cabbage plant; nature’s own version of colorful decorating.

Stairway in the forest

Stairway in the forest

Wannian Temple entrance

Wannian Temple entrance

Up and up we went. The stairs through the forest at times seemed never ending. But we kept looking out for the next landmark or temple. In a few hours we were able to reach the famous Wannian Temple

Six tusk elephant at Wannian Temple

Six tusk elephant at Wannian Temple

1100 year old bronze elephant

1100 year old bronze elephant

Wannian Temple is the oldest on the mountain and is dedicated to Bodhisattva Puxian. He liked riding a white elephant and this has become a symbol of the mountain. A giant bronze elephant with six tusks was constructed 1,100 years ago(!) to honor him and bring luck and long life to the people.

Stairway down

Stairway down

Stairway up

Stairway up

And then there were more stairs. We had started the day at 500m (1,650 ft) and our ultimate goal, the Golden Summit, was 3,077m (10,100ft). But it wasn’t one straight up shot. There were foothills to traverse and winding paths that followed the natural contours of the mountains. So we definitely felt like we had climbed all 3000m, if not more! When we couldn’t take the steps anymore, we would take a break. There were plenty of cafes and tea houses along the way vying for our business. We eventually stopped for lunch in a café that seemed to be full of local construction workers. Gong bao pork and stir fried greens is an excellent way to fill up for a hike.

White elephant bathing pool

White elephant bathing pool

Simple noodles at the monastery

Simple noodles at the monastery

Looking down at white elephant temple

Looking down at white elephant temple

Our final destination for the night clocked in at 2000m. The White Elephant Bathing Temple is so named for the time Puxian flew his elephant to a pool at this site in order to bathe it. By the time we made it to the top of the infinitely long staircase, we were exhausted and so happy to the bright red walls of the temple. After checking in for the night, we went directly to the dining hall for a hot bowl of noodles. The cook got a big kick out of the fact that we wanted it lao ji (spicy) – many people can never believe that a lao wei could like spicy. But we piled it on and were very happy and comforted. We then took our large water thermos to our room to drink tea and warm up with our electric blankets.

Sunrise at White Elephant Bathing Temple

Sunrise at White Elephant Bathing Temple

Oil lamps at the rustic Taizi Ping temple

Oil lamps at the rustic Taizi Ping temple

Prayer flags

Prayer flags

The next morning we were on a mission. We stopped briefly at the temples along the way, soaking in each one’s individual flavor. Some, such as Taizi Ping, were very rustic affairs in comparison to the more elaborate Wannian or even Shenshui.  Hidden from the path Nathan spotted enormous curtains of prayer flags that weaved through the forest.

Deep gorge

Deep gorge

Cliff

Cliff

Monkey on the cliff

Monkey on the cliff

As we neared the top, the trees became less dense and we could see the dramatic gorges and cliffs of the mountain. And that’s where we encountered the monkeys. Monkeys are a common theme in many Chinese parks and people love to feed them. It’s odd, though, that they are then terrified of them when they get close. I do not quite understand the Chinese relationship to wildlife – it’s like a mix of entertainment and distrust.

Nathan on the final steps

Nathan on the final steps

Six tusk elephant at the top

Six tusk elephant at the top

Finally, after two days, 50km and 3000m, we were on the final steps of Emeishan. White elephants greeted us as we made our way to the top.

Stupa at the top of Emeishan

Stupa at the top of Emeishan

Us with stupa

Us with stupa

And then we were at the golden stupa. It was installed about 6 years ago so it does not have much historical significance. But I think it adds a lot to the atmosphere and is beautifully crafted.

Golden Summit Temple

Golden Summit Temple

Golden Summit Temple with stupa

Golden Summit Temple with stupa

We were lucky to have such a sunny day as the mists of Emeishan are legendary. And so are the crowds. I haven’t mentioned that 99% of the thousands of visitors that day had not taken a step on the path we took. Sadly, Emeishan has been overrun by the cable car. Many people were there just to take their million photos, including with us, and then they head to the gift shop. I understand that not everyone can hike the way Nathan and I did but it does cheapen the experience when those that can don’t try at all. Is it really a pilgrimage anymore when you haven’t even had time to ponder your journey, to the top and in life?

Father and daughter who wanted to take a picture with me

Father and daughter who wanted to take a picture with me

The one good thing about this easy access to the top is the easy access down. Nathan and I hike an hour down to the bus station and caught a minibus for the 1.5 hour drive back to town. I was mulling over my thoughts and getting over the shock of being in such a tranquil environment during most of the hike and then being jolted by so many people at the top.

That’s when something strange happened. As the driver took a bathroom break at one of the cable car depots, he opened the back door for anyone who wanted to get out. At that point, a lady threw her walking stick out the door. A very old woman then felt around the ground for it and I realized that she was blind. The woman on the bus had given her the stick so that she could resell it later but didn’t even have the decency to hand it to her. Fortunately, the old woman had a companion, another woman of the same age, who helped her find the stick. Together they lifted up empty plastic bags apparently asking for something. It felt like everything was happening in slow motion as I was trying to figure it out. The companion pulled out a plastic bottle and it finally dawned on me – they simply wanted plastic bottles. It was at that moment that the driver, who had returned, shut the door and left them in a cloud of dust. Something about these two women pulled strongly at my heart. Simply based on history, these women must have experienced a lot of hardship in life. They should be honored, but instead were treated with disdain. They were extremely humble to all these people on board who had just paid 150RMB ($25USD) to go into a spiritual, sacred site. I can only imagine what $25 would have meant to them. I thought about these women a lot since I’ve seen them. I had plastic bottles I could have given them but due to confusion and language barriers, I pulled them out too late. I hope they are ok. I wish there was more I could do. And I wish there was more focus on helping these hard working yet destitute elderly woman than building more malls for the nouveau riche… And there is my tale of temples, burning thighs and heart ache on Emeishan.

Post Navigation