16 Jun 2009 The Maldives
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While Sherri and her brother went to Nepal, the timing worked out for me to fly down to the Maldives for a week.

The Maldives are A-M-A-Z-I-N-G!!! Gorgeous turquoise waters surround a group of atolls located south-west of India. The Maldives have over 1,192 islands, of which only about two hundred are inhabited.

We took a small float plane from Male to the W’s private island. It was so beautiful flying over all the little islands and resorts along the way!
We snorkeled almost everyday and we even went diving! We saw sooooo many fish…huge Batfish followed us and would sneak up right behind you.
We also went deep sea fishing and caught 2 tuna (small ones), 2 Wahoo, 1 Dorado and 3 Barracuda! It was great! We ate the Wahoo for lunch…the kitchen made us fish quesadillas! And for dinner we had fresh tuna sashimi, barrcuda stir fry and grilled Dorado (mahe-mahe).
There is also an amazing spa on the property!
The Maldives are definitely one of the most beautiful places in the world!
The service and staff at the W’s resort and spa is unbelievable, making it a vacation you’ll always remember!
15 Jun 2009 Yoga Retreat – Pokhara, Nepal
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High atop a hill overlooking Lake Pokhara, exists a magical place…the Sadhana Yoga Retreat. My brother David had found it online a few months ago. While in Kathmandu, Nepal, we met a lovely lady, Linda, who had just come from Sadhana and she raved about it, so we were super excited to get there. We took a 20 minute flight on a small 30 passenger plane from Kathmandu to Pokhara. The views of the mountains from the plane were amazing. Before the plane took off a flight attendant handed out candy and cotton (to put in your ears since the plane was so loud). As the taxi drove us through the quaint little lakeside town of Pokhara, we instantly fell in love with it. The lake and mountain views reminded us of Switzerland.

Linda had warned us that we would have to walk up a long steep hill with all of our luggage to get to the retreat. The hike took us over an hour since we took the long way because we missed a sign. Luckily, towards the end, a nice neighbor offered to have his children guide us the rest of the way and help us with our bags. Since they were quite small we gave each of them our smaller backpacks, which was about twice the size of the little boy, but he said he was fine and happily lead the way. We were so exhausted, sweaty and unsure which way to go, that we were thrilled to have their help and gave them each some rupees at the end. When we arrived at the guest house we were blown away by the the amazing view of the lake and surrounding mountains. The grounds of the retreat were lush with lots of vibrant plants and flowers. We were greeted by Durga, who runs the retreat with her husband Asanga. Asanga leads the yoga and meditation while Durga leads the chanting (she’s also going to beauty school and gave me a free haircut). There’s also a younger guy who took us on the morning walks, lead us in the nose cleaning, prepared our mud or steam bath and lead us through afternoon meditation. Our daily schedule went as follows:

06:00 Pre-Meditation practice
06:15 Meditation
07:00 Morning Walk
07:45 Tea Break
08:00 Yogic Cleansing
08:30 Morning Yoga
09:45 Breakfast
10:30 Mud or Steam bath

12:00 Pre-Meditation practice
12:15 Meditation
1:00 Lunch
3:00 Talk
3:30 Karma Yoga
4:00 Tea Break
4:30 Chanting
5:30 Evening Yoga
7:00 Dinner
8:00 Retiring

I’ve done lots of yoga before, but I’ve never done any meditation, but I loved it! Since I’m not a morning person it was definitely a nice gentle way to wake up. The yoga meditation room was very peaceful with windows on all of the walls that look over the lake or out into the trees. The morning walk was also a nice way to wake up. We’d go down the hill on one side, walk along the lake, and then back up the hill on the other side. The scenery was beautiful and it was interesting to see the villagers fishing, gardening and doing their other morning activities. As we passed by many of them they would yell out “Namaste” to us.  After the walk we had some lemon grass tea, then it was time for nose cleaning, which is pouring warm salty water in one side of your nose while letting it pour out of the other.  I was a little apprehensive about it, but it actually wasn’t to bad once I got the hang of it.  And after all of the dusty roads I’d been on my nose needed to be cleaned out.  Next we got to choose between a steam bath or a mud bath.  We chose the mud bath the first day and it was so much fun!  It was like being a kid again.  They gave us a bucket full of orange mud which we rubbed all over our bodies and then laid in the sun.  Once the mud was dry we rubbed it off and then showered in the outdoor shower.  My skin was so soft after wards!  Next we had some free time, then afternoon meditation followed by lunch.  After lunch we did Karma Yoga, which was doing yard work or helping out with something around the retreat. Then we would have afternoon tea and popcorn followed by talk time with Asanga, where we could ask him any questions we had.  Then we had chanting with Durga, who has a beautiful voice.  I liked the chanting way more than I thought.  It was very relaxing.  Next we had our last and most strenuous yoga class of the day, which lasted for an hour and a half.  Shavanasa was my favorite part…the ten minutes at the end where you lye still on your back and relax after you have stretched and worked all of your muscles.  I loved the song he played during Shavanasa and the guitar fusion music that he played earlier in the day, so we had Asanga write the names down of the two CD’s and then we went into town on our last night and bought them along with a few other Nepalise CD’s.

While at the retreat we met some nice people from England and the States.  The first day there were only 7 people at the retreat and on the second day there was just David and I and a very cool couple from New Orleans.  Asanga said it was the most Americans he has had in his class in 10 years and the first time he’s had a class of only Americans.  We really enjoyed talking to the other students and hearing about their travel adventures. The couple from England showed us some amazing pictures of their travels and told us how they had traveled in Thailand for two months on one motorbike with two cats (who had been given to them as a gift).  I’ve seen a family of 5 on a motorbike, but two westerners with two cats on a motorbike was quite the visual.  The couple from the states also had some great stories to tell.  They told us about their home stay experience with a Buddhist family who had a bee hive inside their house and a ton of pigeons on their tin roof that the father would feed very early every morning, making a huge racket on the roof. (Buddhist’s don’t believe in killing anything).  I thought I was adventurous, but not after hearing some of their wild stories.

The weather was perfect and every afternoon during tea time we would get a huge thunderstorm, which just added to the magical atmosphere.  The first day we even got one inch hail.  Russel ran out on the lawn and struck a few yoga poses while the hail beat down on him, which looked kind of painful to me.

One night we decided to go down to the lakeside to check out the town and get our feet wet in the lake.  We ended up finding a great restaurant (Elegant View Restaurant) on the lake where we had a few cold beers and a yummy tandori chicken pizza while we watched the sunset over the lake.  It was a stunning sight as the sun was shining down through the clouds making perfect rays of light with the magnificent mountains behind them.  I couldn’t stop snapping pictures.  It was pitch black by the time we got back and had to make the steep hike up to the retreat.  Luckily we had brought our head lamps and there were luminous fire flies dancing around us through the trees.  Unfortunately, about half way up one of my flip flops snapped, so David gave me a piggy back ride until I remembered that I had a safety pin on my bag because it was falling apart.  I was able to fix my flip flop and walked about 20 steps until my other flip flop broke…then I was back on David’s back again…it’s a good thing he’s so strong because it was the steepest part of the hike.  When we finally made it to the top of the hill I went next door to the Hidden Paradise Guesthouse and got a one hour massage, which I definitely needed at that point.

The yoga retreat was an awesome experience and we would highly recommend it!  We even plan on coming back again someday.  Durga said that they are planning on having spa treatments, massages, a cooking school and a swimming pool in the future…so it’s just going to get even better!


13 Jun 2009 Kathmandu, Nepal
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We hired a driver to take us from Darjeeling to the border of Nepal.  It was supposed to be a 5 ½ hour drive, but this guy had a lead foot so he got us there in under 4 hours.  We crossed the border in a rickshaw (like a horse buggy but with a bike instead of a horse) and got our visas on the Nepal side.  After much confusion from people all around us trying to lead us in different directions and sell us flight or bus tickets, we were finally able to get on a night bus to Kathmandu just at it was about to leave.  I climbed onto the roof and locked all of our bags to the bars on the roof with the long chain and lock I carry with me for train and bus rides.  

This bus was seriously the 15 hour bus ride from hell!  The seats were all broken and reclined back into our laps, so there was no leg space and the driver was flying down the bumpy road so fast that we had to hold on and brace ourselves and actually caught some air a few times.  We were so happy when we finally arrived in Kathmandu the next morning.  I had downloaded a travel guide application about Nepal on my iphone (it’s a lot easier to carry around than a heavy travel guide book) and one of the hotels it recommended was the Kathmandu Guest House.  Before it was turned into a hotel it was the Rana Palace.  The hotel is pretty famous and has won lots of awards…the Beatles have even stayed there.  It is located in the touristy area of Thamal.  We loved it!  We got a deluxe room overlooking the garden (which I negotiated for a lower price).  David still wasn’t feeling that well from getting food poisoning in Darjeeling and then the horrendous night bus, so we were glad to be staying in a nice hotel.  

During our short stay in Kathmandu, we visited Swayambhu, also known as the Monkey Temple.  The temple is perched high on top of a hill that overlooks all of Kathmandu and the surrounding mountains.  The long stairway leading to the top is lined with vendors, artists, beggars, Buddha statues, prayer flags and lots of monkeys scampering about.  It was a fun place to explore with lots of great picture opportunities.

Kathmandu is a beautiful city full of lots of culture with plenty of things to do and see.  It is the largest metropolitan city in Nepal and is inhabited by about 2 million people.  Since the 1960′s it has been popular with Western tourist as it was a key stop along the “hippie trail”.  The city stands at an elevation of approximately 1400m and is the jumping off location for trekking in the Himalayan region.

08 Jun 2009 Darjeeling, India
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Ahhh…what a difference a train makes. After our last two train experiences Sherri and I were kind of dreading the overnight train trip to Darjeeling. Previously we’d traveled in 2nd class, which was ok, but the 17 hour train trip back from Varanasi in sleeper class with no AC and sleeping in shifts was “an experience” to put it mildly. For the trip to Darjeeling we had tickets in 3rd class and Sherri’s brother, David would be traveling us, so we at least felt it would be safer and hoped we could get some sleep on the long overnight train.

We boarded the train and were even shown to our seats by a professionally dressed train employee. As the train pulled away from the station relaxing music played from the speakers overhead…soon a train attendant appeared with a tray of candies, an then another attendant appeared with a tray of sodas, followed by a tray of savory snacks…all complementary, of course! Sherri’s brother David looked at us questioningly, “you guys are crazy, these Indian trains are awesome” he said, but he had no idea what we had been through. This was definitely the train experience we had hoped for…we were served a delicious Indian meal and we were seated with a nice Indian family on their way home to Sikkim. The three children were super sweet, sharing some of their candies with us and Sherri and I taught the father how to play gin rummy, in which he totally beat us in the first round…beginners luck! Even though 3rd class meant there was a little less space (beds are stacked with 3 on each side versus only 2 on each side in 2nd class) we were much more comfortable and happy on this train which we later realized was specially operated by a tour company, hence providing a much higher quality of service.

We arrived in Siliguri by mid-morning and were swarmed by taxi and jeep drivers all clamoring to take us on the three-hour drive up the mountain to Darjeeling. After much negotiation we found a driver with small car that would leave right away and not try to squeeze any additional people into the car.

Darjeeling was such a welcome relief from the hot sticky city. The air was crisp and clean and the views were magnificent! Even the people in Darjeeling were different…a mixed culture of Indian and Tibetan people, whom we found to be much friendlier and happier than the people in the city.

Darjeeling, also known as “Queen of the Hills” is a hillside town located at an elevation of nearly 7,000 feet. Darjeeling is well known for its tea and we definitely drank a lot of it! At home Sherri and I are big tea drinkers, so it was really cool visiting a well-known region where it is grown. We visited the Happy Valley Tea Estate where we got to observe them plucking the leaves by hand. We also got a tour of the processing plant to see how the tea is dried, separated and made ready to package and sell. After learning all about tea we went to the Elgin Hotel for a proper afternoon tea, complete with fresh scones, preserves, sandwiches and all sorts of yummy pastries.

One morning we got up before dawn to watch the sunrise over Tiger Hill. It was awe-inspiring watching as the sun slowly rose. Lighting up the clouds, its rays reached the snow-capped peaks of Mt. Kanchandzonga and the surrounding Himalayan mountains. We spent the morning walking back to Darjeeling stopping to explore the various monasteries along the way. The Santen Choling Monastery was by far my favorite! We stopped there to have chai in the courtyard and you could hear the monks chanting from within the temple. We were invited to go inside, sit and observe as a young group of monks (probably around the ages of 7-10) chanted their scriptures. It was a very cool experience!

Darjeeling is a great place to visit for anyone that is in the West Bengal region. It is especially a great place to escape the heat if you happen to be visiting India during their scorching hot summers. We stayed at the Lunar Hotel, which is centrally located, has very nice rooms with great views and the Lunar restaurant inside the hotel is known as the best vegetarian restaurant in Darjeeling. We loved the food! It was the best hot and sour soup I’ve ever had! The room rates they first quoted us were a bit high, but they are willing to negotiate cheaper rates if you ask!

03 Jun 2009 Varanasi, India
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Sherri and I had heard so much about train travel in India…how it is a wonderful way to get around the country, how relatively cheap it is to travel and that some trains are quite luxurious. Loving to travel by rail we were excited for our 1st Indian train experience. We had hoped for 1AC (first class with air conditioning) but it was unavailable so we booked 2AC (second class with air conditioning) which was supposed to still be quite nice. Train travel in India is really affordable, our 2nd class tickets were only 1200 rupees ($25 USD) for an overnight train trip.

Sherri in her 2nd class bunk

Sherri in her 2nd class bunk

Arriving at the train station was pure maddness…our taxi driver zigged and zagged like a madman in and out of traffic, nearly running over multiple pedestrians in the process. The station was packed with people…it was crazy. We boarded the train and found our seats/beds. Much to our dismay it was not what we were expecting. While all sleeper trains we have been on in the past throughout Europe and even in Vietnam consisted of a cabin with either 4 bunks (2 on each side) or 6 bunks (3 on each side) this configuration was much different. There was no cabin…just the 4 bunks separated from the aisle with only a curtain…and then in the aisle were two more bunks running alongside the aisle with only a curtain. There was no privacy or security. Luckily we had bought chains and locks to secure our luggage…but sleeping on the train was a bit sketchy as Sherri and I were separated…her sleeping across the aisle in one bunk and me sleeping on the other side of the aisle behind the curtain in the 4 bunk configuration with a grumpy Indian man who snored very loudly all night. Normally I sleep really well on trains but this was not the most restful night.

We were very happy to arrive in Varanasi, but little did we realize we still had quite a journey ahead. We were swarmed by drivers upon exiting the train station. After much negotiation, where we even got in and out of a few means of transportation we finally settled with a tuk-tuk…it was quite a ride (see video clip below)! The tuk-tuk was unable to take us all the way to the hotel (supposedly motorized vehicles were not allowed to drive any farther down the road…first rule of the road we’ve ever seen followed in India) so he dropped us off in the middle of the busy dusty street. Still far from our hotel, unsure which way to go and sweating profusely, we next got into a bicycle powered carriage who promised to take us to the door of the hotel, but he didn’t so we ended up walking down many skinny twisting alleyways while dripping sweat and narrowly avoiding the cow poop that littered the streets. The guesthouse was located right on the ghats (steps) of the Ganges River and our room had a nice view…the room was a bit dirty, but it was cleaner then the one in Kolkata!

We only had 2 days/1 night in Varanasi but we definitely made the most of it. It was fun exploring the tiny twisting alleys, that sometimes lead to a dead end…we just wandered around taking tons of pictures. Varanasi is known as the cultural capital of India, famous for its religious and spiritual lifestyle. It is one of the most important pilgrimage spots for Jains, Buddhists and especially Hindus. It is situated on the banks of Holy Ganges River, which plays an important role in day-to-day lives of the people of Varanasi. We took a sunset cruise along the Ganges where we got to see the burning ghats where you can actually see them burning the bodies and tons of people bathing in the river. We even went across the river and got out on the sandy bank along the opposite shore to walk around amongst the cows and people. The Indian culture is very, very different. The women wear traditional clothing such as saris or salwar kameez and even when bathing in the river the women remain covered, while the men bathe in the river wearing practically nothing.

After sunset we strolled along the ghats and watched part of a religious ceremony. We had planned to go out somewhere for dinner but the electricity went out (which it often does in India) so we decided to eat by candlelight at the guesthouse rooftop restaurant. They had a generator that worked some of the time and powered the lights and the fan (but not the AC) in our room…we called it an early night.

We got up to watch the sunrise and go on another boat ride along the river…it was really cool to see people along the ghats performing their morning rituals and prayers. We spent the rest of the morning wandering the street exploring, taking photos and just taking it all in…there is so much color and culture in India, especially in Varanasi. While roaming around we noticed that a young teenage boy (he was probably 12 or 13) seemed to be following us. He kept appearing either in front or behind us as we zigged and zagged down the narrow alleyways. At one point he tried starting up a conversation but we told him we didn’t want to talk and to please leave us alone. He continued to magically appear wherever we were…he then came up & asked each of us for a hug which we both of course declined. Repeatedly we kept telling him to go away. We tried ignoring him but then he walked up to Sherri, started unzipping his pants and asked for sex! She ran past me as she was running away from him and he ran between her and I, blocking my path with his dick out. I lost it…I yelled & screamed at him and then he quickly ran away. Good thing too, because a knee to the groin was the next step. Some nerve! Being a female in India is not easy…we had been forewarned by fellow female travelers and the guidebook that women traveling in India need to be especially careful. Unfortunately it is quite common for some Indian men to try groping women (especially western women) in public. We even purchased traditional Indian salwar kameez outfits, which hide the shape of your body, to try and discourage any attention, but with our light skin and my blonde hair we still stand out.

Me, trying to get some sleep while people hover nearby

Me, trying to get some sleep while people hover nearby

For the night train back to Kolkata we were in sleeper class…we had thought 2nd class was a bit rough around the edges, but we had no idea! The bunk configuration in sleeper class was similar to 2nd class, however in sleeper class the bunks were stacked 3 high, there were no curtains, no privacy, no sheets or pillows, no AC and it was sticky hot! To top it off no one seemed to be checking tickets and there were way more people than there were seats…people were sitting everywhere and the aisles were packed! Sherri and I had the upper and lower bunk that ran lengthwise along the aisle. We both sat together on the lower bunk and didn’t slide the upper bunk down so that we had space to sit up. Several times we had people come by and try to unhatch the bunk above our heads. We had to explain over and over that we had paid for both bunks and just because we weren’t currently occupying one did not mean we were giving it up…we got a lot of blank stares but we stood our ground. Due to the openness of the bunks, our location right on the aisle, our experience with the teenage boy earlier that day and the constant flow of people getting on and off the train we decided it wasn’t safe to sleep as we could easily be groped or robbed. But we were too tired to stay up all night so we decided to sleep in shifts…I went to sleep first but woke up when a fight broke out right next to us…one guy totally beat two guys up! He was slamming one guys head into the bathroom wall and shouting…it was crazy. Eventually things settled back down and I tried to get some sleep.

Around 3am Sherri woke me up…it was my turn to stand guard so she could try to get some sleep. I wrote in my journal and stared out the window as dawn began to break. The chai vendors would jump on the train at each stop, stepping over people in the aisle calling out “chai, chai, chai”. For only 5 rupees (about 12 cents) you get a little plastic shot glass of chai. It tastes sooo good and helped me to stay awake. The train was supposed to arrive in Kolkata around 8am, however we didn’t arrive until 11:30am! It was so hot by that time and the journey ended up being over 17 hours! We were soooooooo happy to get off that train! Sleeper class should be renamed, as one actually gets very little sleep on it.

30 May 2009 Six Hours in Singapore
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On our way to India we had a layover in Singapore. Being the go getter’s that we are, we decided that was enough time for a quick glimpse of the city. Plus we had met a really cool girl, Audrey (at Suk 11 our hostel in Bangkok) that lived in Singapore and she had offered to show us around. We’ve met so many nice people on this trip. It’s always great to see a city through the eyes of a local, as it makes the experience that much better.

Audrey met us at the airport and we hopped on the Skytrain to the city. We strolled around checking out all the cool buildings and ate some really good dim sum for lunch. The afternoon flew by, but before heading back to the airport Audrey took us to one of the best little chicken places so we could try a signature Singapore dish – roast chicken over fragrant white rice with cilantro and cucumbers. The man working at the shop was hilarious…joking around with us & mimicking our high pitched laughter. We took it to go for the plane ride and I must say it was delicious! Our time in Singapore was short, but thanks to Audrey it was great! This is definitely a city I wouldn’t mind returning to and spending some time in.

xo, Rana

29 May 2009 The Great Wall of China
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The #1 thing Sherri & I wanted to do while in China was visit the Great Wall. From Beijing the closest place to see the Great Wall is Badaling, about an hour or so from the city, however this portion of the wall is known for being overcrowded and has been restored, not making for a very authentic experience. The 10K hike from Jinshanling to Simatai was supposed to be a lot more remote, with less people and amazing views as you trek up and down the steep ridges of the crumbling wall. We found a tour company that guided small groups (max of 10 people) for the 10K hike and included spending the night on the Great Wall. We were so excited!

Our guide, Jack, picked us up at 8am. Jinshanling, where we would start the hike, was about 3 1/2 hours drive from Beijing. Along the way we stopped at the Ming Tombs which is the burial site of the 13 emperors of the Ming Dynasty. A path called the “Sacred Way” leads into the sprawling complex, lined with larger than life stone statues of guardian animals and officials. The Ding Ling tomb is the only Ming Dynasty tomb that has been excavated, in which they found valuables, as well as the bodies of the Wanli Emperor and his two empresses. After the tombs we visited an amazing jade factory where we got a short tour which included seeing the artists in action carving their intricate pieces of work.

We arrived at Jinshanling in the late afternoon where we met Mr. Wong, a local farmer, who took us up for our first glimpse of the wall. It was raining as we walked up the steep hill but even in the rain the views were breathtaking. We spent about 2 hours hiking, exploring and taking tons of photos along this section of wall that we practically had all to ourselves. It was awesome!

Dinner was served back down the hill in Mr. Wong’s family shop. There we were joined by a couple from the East Coast & their guide Jen. We all sat down to an amazing meal prepared by Mr. Wong’s sister. It was delicious! Some of the best Chinese food we had while in China and so much variety! It was a really fun meal, as we sat around telling stories, eating way too much food and drinking ice cold beers. Mr. Wong even showed us how to open beers with wooden chopsticks! Soon it was time to set-up camp on the wall. We grabbed flashlights and hiked back up the hill to the watchtower where we would spend the night. Since we had a small group (just 4 of us) only Jen stayed on as our guide for the overnight and 10K trek. They supplied pillows, sleeping bags & padded mats so we were quite comfortable. There was even a small building where they stored the supplies that you could sleep in to shelter you from the rain and cold. The sky was clear, so Sherri & I opted for sleeping out in the open under the stars. Everyone else had gone to bed while we stayed up talking, laughing and admiring the view. Even in the dark you could see far out into the night. The clouds had cleared, the moon was a tiny sliver and stars filled the sky. It was gorgeous! As we sat there pinching ourselves (we were spending the night on the Great Wall of China!!!) a low fog rolled in…it was so cool watching it pour over the steep ridges and into the valleys. It was magical! I only wish we could have captured it in a photo but that image is one that will always remain in our memories.

We awoke early to a group of about 6 Chinese tourists snapping photos of us in our sleeping bags. As I opened my eyes I was greeted by big smiles and them giving us the thumbs up. Shortly after they left Mr. Wong arrived with coffee, tea and a simple breakfast of muesli and bananas. We ate quickly and started moving around to keep warm…the fog had rolled in thick overnight and it was chilly! As we set out hiking towards Simatai the fog was so thick you could barely see from one watchtower to the next…it was still really cool as it gave the hike an eerie feeling (plus it saved us from hiking in the hot sun!). Eventually the fog cleared and the views were amazing as we hiked up and down the steep mountain ridges of The Great Wall. Even though it was only 10K, it was challenging due to the terrain but we took our time and stopped for lots of photos. By midday we were almost there…good thing too, because the sun was out, it was hot and we were getting hungry. Arriving at Simatai you first have to cross a large bridge over a beautiful river and then climb a bunch more stairs. From there you can walk down the path about 20 minutes or for an additional $5 you can zip line down over the river and then take a little boat to the Simatai entrance. We of course opted for the zip line, as it looked like way too much fun to pass up! And it was!

Jack (our guide & driver) met back up with us in Simatai and we all sat down to a great lunch. In the car ride back to the city Sherri & I both fell fast asleep…we were a little tired! Back in Beijing we stopped at the Olympic Stadium for a quick look at the Birds Nest and Water Cube which housed the 2008 Olympics. The day ended with a tea tasting ceremony in a traditional courtyard tea house! The entire tour was such an amazing experience! We would definitely recommend it! You can reach the tour company at pooooppppy@gmail.com

28 May 2009 Beijing, China
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We only gave ourselves 4 days in Beijing as our main goals were to hike on the Great Wall and go to the Forbidden City.  The Forbidden City is one of China’s most venerated monuments.  It was built during the 15th Century, involving up to 10,000 artisans and about a million laborers.  The halls were laid out according to geomantic theories, which is the balance between yin and yang (or negative and positive energy).  It’s also similar to a labyrinth, there are long halls and tall walls with large doors everywhere…some that open and some that don’t.  Soon after we arrived, we had already gotten lost and kept wandering until we found ourselves back in the Imperial Garden where we had started.

The good thing about winding up where we started is that we got to explore the Imperial Garden more and were invited into a tea shop for a free tea tasting.  We tried several different kinds of tea and Paul, who spoke great English, told us a lot of interesting facts about tea.  He also showed us some very cool tea mugs that were black with red Chinese symbols on them, but when you poured hot water in them they would magically change to a scene of the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, or the Summer Palace.  We loved them and since we are both avid tea drinkers we had to buy some.  He didn’t have all of the ones we wanted and we didn’t want to carry them around all day, so he said he would deliver them to our hotel that night…now that’s service with a smile!

After that we wondered around the rest of the Forbidden City and took a zillion pictures…we also posed in several pictures for Chinese tourists.  Then we set off to find The Emperor Hotel that we had read about that had a roof top bar with a view overlooking the Forbidden City.  When we left we had the hardest time getting a taxi to take us back to our hotel since none of the cab drivers could speak any English or even read a map.  We would get in each cab, tell them where we wanted to go, and would receive blank stares in return. So then we would point to where we wanted to go on a map and they would just look confused, shake their head and motion for us to get out.  We must have gotten in and out of 6 cabs before we finally showed a cab driver a picture of a hot pot from our guide book of a restaurant we wanted to go to..finally we got a nod and were on our way.  We’re not sure if it was the same as the one in the guide book, but it was a hot pot restaurant.

The menu at the restaurant was a little overwhelming as much of it was things like cows tongue, chicken feet, sea urchin, intestines, etc.  We settled on cows brain beef (which we think means it was near the brain, not actual brain), and several vegetables…it was so delicious.  We cooked everything in a huge sizzling hot pot on our table, which is a traditional Beijing Meal.

When we left the restaurant we only had 30 minutes left to get back to our hotel to meet Paul and get our new tea mugs.  Unfortunately, we had just as hard a time as before getting a cab that would take us where we wanted to go.  Some of them even got out a magnifying glass, and scary enough, one of them even pointed at his eyes and shook his head to tell us that he couldn’t see well enough to read our map (don’t they give taxi drivers eye exams?)  Finally, some very nice people who worked at the restaurant and must have seen us repeatedly getting in and out of several cabs, came to our rescue.  About 5 people had joined our mission to get us in a cab that would take us to our hotel.   Even their first attempt failed and the cab sped away.  But luckily the 2nd cab they gave directions to in Chinese, agreed to take us.  In all of the countries we’ve traveled to, we’ve never experienced one where so few people spoke any English…and Beijing is the largest tourist destination in China and it hosted the 2008 Olympics.  We read in our guide book that all taxi drivers were supposed to learn English before the Olympics, but that the most of them didn’t.  But at least the staff at our hotel, the Hutongren Culture Hotel, (www.ccthome.com) spoke English and were super sweet and helpful.  Although they wanted to charge us three times the amount than was listed in the guidebook, but we were able to negotiate them down to a way better rate.  And we did really like it there…it was very homey and cozy with different little private living room areas, waterfalls with fish ponds, and a roof top patio.  The best part about it was the laptop computer in our room.  The hotel is located in the district of Hutongs, where the bustling alleys behind Houhai Lake reveals the city’s real side that is vanishing in Beijing.  We fell in love with Houhai Lake.  The scenery is beautiful and it offers great people watching and is a great drinking and dining hot spot.

The morning we left we had to leave for the airport at 6:00a.m.  When we walked out to the street in front of the hotel there was a cab sitting there.  We told the driver that we wanted to go to the airport, he shot us a blank look (which we had been getting use to seeing) and started rambling to us in Chinese.  Since we were in a hurry and we knew this could lead into jumping in and out of several cabs, Rana got out the Lonely Planet book and luckily in the language section it had the word “airport” written in Chinese.  We pointed to that and 30 minutes later we arrived at the airport.  Thank God we had our Lonely Planet book…we’ve never used it more than we did in Beijing.

27 May 2009 Say “Cheese”
 |  Category: China, Hong Kong, Our Trip  | Tags:  | Leave a Comment

While on the subway with Aaron in Hong Kong, Sherri & I were stared down by a Chinese man and woman. They kept looking us up & down, up & down, and even when you looked back at them they still continued to stare. Aaron noticed, laughed and told us that they were probably from a remote area in China and probably had never seen two white girls in person before. This was just a warm-up for what was in store for us in China.

Posing for photos inside the Forbidden City

Posing for photos inside the Forbidden City

While wandering through the Imperial Garden inside the Forbidden City we were approached by a Chinese tour group. Their guide asked if they could take a photo with us. Being total hams & loving to have our picture taken we of course said yes. We posed for pic after pic with each individual tourist. It was hilarious…some even motioned for us to take our sunglasses off because they wanted to be able to see our eyes in the photos…random passersby were even stopping to take photos. We posed for so many pics (seriously 25 or more) that my cheeks started to hurt from smiling so much! This continued to happen to us as we explored the Forbidden City…people would just come up and motion (most did not speak English) for us to pose for a photo with them. A few would even try to be discreet about it…walking in front of us & then turning around to snap a quick pic. We couldn’t help but laugh.

Cocktails on the roof of the Emperor Hotel

After the Forbidden City we went for a sunset cocktail on the rooftop bar of The Emperor Hotel. They happened to be doing an editorial photoshoot for an Australian magazine and the photographer came over and asked if he could snap a couple pics of us enjoying our martinis. If they end up being published in a magazine we’ll let you know!

We also awoke after camping overnight on The Great Wall of China, to a group of about 6 Chinese tourists snapping pictures of us in our sleeping bags. They were clicking away as we just barely opened our eyes…it was 5am! They gave us the thumbs up, smiled, took a couple more pics and continued on their way. Again you just had to laugh…

23 May 2009 Hong Kong
 |  Category: Hong Kong, Our Trip  | Leave a Comment

Hong Kong is an amazing city…it’s so clean and incredibly efficient! Our friend Aaron, who use to be my roommate and worked at Billabong in Irvine with Rana, has been living in Hong Kong for the past 3 years. We’ve always had a blast hanging out with him and were super excited to visit him as we have been saying we would ever since he moved there.

As Aaron instructed, when we arrived at the airport we took the Airport Express train to Hong Kong Island. The train drops you off in a beautiful mall. From there we took a short taxi ride to the trendy Soho area, where Aaron lives with his girlfriend Li Ting. When we arrived, Li Ting was waiting for us on the sidewalk by their building. She is very sweet and was a wonderful hostess…she even gave us a little bag complete with an extra cell phone that we could use, 2 rechargeable subway cards, tissues (since a lot of public restrooms don’t have toilet paper) and she even lent us her Lonely Planet book on Hong Kong. Their apartment was super nice and we loved their rooftop patio…it had an amazing view. We thought we were going to be crashing at their pad, but they surprised us and arranged for us to stay in a vacant furnished studio apartment across the hall from them. We were so stoked! It was cute and modern and had an incredible view of the city. We seriously couldn’t have asked for a better host and hostess! They took us out to some great restaurants…we ate at Sushi, Chinese (of course), Mexican (surprisingly great), a steakhouse, Japanese and a tasty dim sum restaurant by Aaron’s work. We let Aaron order for us at each place so we could try his favorites and we absolutely loved everything, especially since were were starting to get burnt out of Thai food.

In addition to eating good, we also had a wonderful time exploring the city. We road on the world’s largest escalator (which goes up the steep city hills), took a cable car ride over the bay and mountains to the world’s largest bronze Buddha, and had dinner at The Peak overlooking the entire city…the view was breathtaking! We even fit in a great workout when Li Ting took us to her yoga class. And of course Aaron took us out for a fun night of bar hopping and we weren’t planning on going out that night…but several pitchers of margaritas later we found ourselves out on the town until the wee hours of the morning. We got lucky at Club Volar and got to dance the night away to the music of turntable prodigy DJ A-Track. It was such a fun night…which we ended with 90 minute massages at 3:00am…thats right, their spas are open 24 hours!

Another thing we loved about Hong Kong is that