Tag Archives: hostel

Part 10: Beijing/Great Wall — Little Big Trip 2014

Part 9: Rome

Why Beijing/Great Wall?

Because it’s the Great Wall. So many people have been, and I wanted to see it for myself, up close, and see how it’s structured.

I wanted to go to Beijing to visit Tiananmen Square because of the history, and I wanted to visit the Olympic Park and Stadium because I love the Olympics.

Itinerary

  • Wednesday, 5 November: Arrived in Beijing. Visited Tiananmen.
  • Thursday, 6 November: Visited Olympic Park.
  • Friday, 7 November: Great Wall tour, including jade factory and teahouse visit. Checked out Street food Street and Sun Dong An Plaza shopping center.
  • Saturday, 8 November: Visited Forbidden Palace. Checked out “dessert street”.
  • Sunday, 9 November: Depart Beijing.

My Impression

Beijing was nicer than I thought and have heard. My previous experiences of mainland China was only the southern region when I entered through Macau and Hong Kong. Compared to the westernization of the two cities, mainland China was very basic, less developed, and less maintained.

Beijing was slightly more organized and maintained, although I wondered if that was because APEC was visiting at the same time. However, there was little to bring me back to Beijing. I felt that I had seen enough.

The Great Wall was great. But it’s hard to comprehend the scale at which these walls were built, especially when I stood at a higher spot on the wall and looked out at a mid-point along the curving walls, trying to get a sense of scale and distance, and then imagine multiples of that as I looked out farther into the landscape.

Getting There

I flew direct from Rome to Beijing. The flight was ten and a half hours, but it didn’t feel that long, partly because it was an overnight flight and I slept for a good amount of the time.

From the airport, I took a subway train into the city. There was a special booth to buy the ticket, and it costed twenty-five yuan. The ride took about 30 minutes. It dropped me off at one of the subway stations, but I had to exit the station for the airport train first before I could enter the subway system.

Accommodations

Beijing - Hostel - LBT 2014

For Beijing, I booked my stay at the Peking Yard Hostel, partly because it was close to a subway station and that it was part of Hostelling International, which I became a member for this trip (although the only other time I used the membership was in London).

Since the hostel was located in the middle of a hutong alley, I studied the location on the map ahead of time to make sure I was going to the right place. Fortunately, there was the Hostelling International sign (albeit small) in front of the entrance.

Hutong to the hostel.

The Staff

Checking in was relatively simple. Knowing that I couldn’t speak Mandarin well enough, I eliminated all doubt that I was going to speak it by greeting the front desk with a gentle “Hello.”

The staff working there seemed to be young adults, late teens or early twenties, maybe in college and this was their part-time job. But they were all very professional and friendly to customers but were casual amongst themselves. The more senior staff could speak English well enough.

At check-in, one of the staff came out from behind the desk with a full-size airport security handheld metal detector to scan my luggage. I thought it was really unusual, but I wondered if it was because the APEC summit was happening. But she didn’t really scan the bag fully anyway. I saw her do that again with other new guests, and it was almost comical to watch.

One time, I was hanging out in the common area, and I was asked to watch the front desk because one of the staff had to step out to help another guest, and she assumed I spoke English. Fortunately, another staff member came back and I didn’t have to do anything. When the original staff member returned, she mentioned how she asked me to watch the desk, and the other staff member revealed to here that I didn’t speak Mandarin. They all had a laugh and they gave me a free tea. It looked pretty but tasted like regular tea.

Free tea for involuntarily helping hostel staff.

The Room

I booked a dorm for my stay. Each guest was issued a key card for the room and a locker key.

Hostel key card and locker key

My room held four bunk beds along one wall on the main floor, and there was a ladder between the bunk beds leading up to the attic for at least two more beds. They really crammed as many beds as they could. I was going to check out the attic but wasn’t sure what I would do if someone was up there and they caught me peeking.

The room had very limited lighting, so it was dingy-looking for most of the time. I had the top bunk so it was slightly better.

Quick tour of my dorm in Beijing.

The room had an off-and-on faint sewage smell. I tried to track the smell to the bathroom, but it wasn’t it. When I first got to the room, I thought it was going to be a miserable four nights. But the smell went away randomly, and I was not too bothered by it throughout the stay, knowing that I was going to leave in a few days.

I was the top bunk, and it included a little shelf, a lamp, and an outlet next to the bed. The sheets were provided and made, and a light duvet was included as well, and it was all sufficient.

Lockers

Each guest had an assigned locker, and they were wooden cabinet with a key lock, and we’re assigned issued key at check-in. My locker cabinets had a slightly broken door hinge, most possibly from overuse. It’s been used a lot. It could fit a large backpack (though backpackers’ backpack wouldn’t fit because of the depth.

Laundry and Bathroom

I heard there was laundry service at the hostel but I did not bother to ask. So I washed my clothes in the bathroom and hung it in the empty space behind the ladder to the attic. Technically, it was probably communal area, but I doubted anyone was using it, so I took advantage of it. I hung my underwear and things, but I didn’t care; I needed washed clothes.

Hanging my clothes behind ladder in hostel dorm.

However, because the sink looked dirty, I instead washed my clothes in a large clean plastic bag that I had with me. For some reason, after I was done washing my clothes, the previously clean plastic bag had the same random sewage smell as the room. I was pretty certain the smell did not come from my clothes, so it may have been the water or the shower floor, where I rested the bag when I stirred the clothes and water inside.

The bathroom situation in my hostel room.

The bathroom was really basic with a shower stall, a toilet, a trash can, and a few hooks on the wall, though it didn’t feel enough for me. Also, the trash can was for discarding used toilet paper, just like what I had to do in Peru. While I was familiar with the process and got used to it pretty quickly, the idea still felt quite strange and gross to me.

Sign in bathroom in the dorm in Beijing.

Common Area

The common area was pretty nice. There were a few grouped sofa seatings along one wall, and a few small tables next to them. On the other side was a dining table and pool table. There were a lot of plants (perhaps they were fake), which made the space much more friendly and comfortable.

There were just enough power outlets to charge my phone or tablet, but that was only when there were a few people around. If the whole place was packed, then there would not be enough people to charge their devices.

Hanging out in the hostel common area.

The casual vibe was also achieved by the mellow English songs playing throughout the day. One time, I heard a few of Jack Johnson’s songs playing back to back, and that made my day, for bringing a piece of my life to the trip in an unexpected place.

Wi-Fi/Internet

Wi-Fi only worked in the common area. The speed was slow compared to the States and Europe. It was good for light browsing.

Also, they blocked many sites. For a few moments at the beginning, I felt a little lost for not being able to check Facebook. I was a little shocked to be able to experience first hand how some seemingly common and popular sites and apps were blocked.

There was also a Windows desktop computer with Internet access. I actually used the computer to transfer and back up the photos and videos from my phone to the flash drive I bought in South Africa, and that worked pretty well. I felt good to backup my photos so quickly, unlike the weeks of transferring them to the cloud.

Food

See Food section, but basically, the hostel had a decent menu of Chinese and Western dishes. The quality was solid, and the price was reasonable.

Next Time

While the staff was nice, the food was good, and the location was close to a subway station, after experiencing the setup on my room, I felt that I was grown up enough to be able to afford a regular hotel room instead. It would’ve made a lot of things easier and more comfortable, although I would have lost the opportunity to meet people like I did at the hostel.

Getting Around

Subway and walking. Beijing was surprisingly big. For farther distances, I took the subway, and for the rest, I walked.

I was surprised that Beijing had a subway system, and one that was pretty clean and reliable. That’s why I didn’t get a special multi-day or multi-use pass. But each ride was 2 yuan, about 30 U.S. cents, much more affordable than European and American subway fares, so I didn’t mind buying individual tickets, as I needed.

Most stations had a security checkpoint, where my backpack had to go through a scanner. Depending on the station, smaller bags were okay. I was rarely in a rush, so that was okay. I couldn’t imagine how rush hour would look and feel like for commuters. The stations at the Tiananmen Square even had security checkpoints for leaving the station.

Some station had machines that sell tickets. Some have staffed booths. Buying tickets at the booth was pretty quick. The staff are pros with trays of tickets, bills and coins in front of them a touchscreen next to them, ready to collect money, tap the screen to mark a sale, count the change, and issue the ticket. The tickets were in stacks at the ready, so I think they were reused.

At the platform were plenty of signs with route numbers, station names in Chinese and phonetic English, route map posters, and digital signs for arrival estimate. The space was also pretty clean and well maintained. There were glass walls and doors next to the boarding zone, and they would open in sync with the train doors. Some stations had signs pasted on the floor instructing where they should queue up, and people actually followed them. It’s consistent with my experience in Chinese culture where the people respect queues for public transport, but in every other instances, it’s a mob of people crowding and pushing to get their share.

On the trains were also route maps above the doors with lights along the route, marking the path with different colored lights. There was also a lot of advertising, on the walls, on the overhand handles, on TV screens on the walls. There was even advertising outside of the train in the form of frame-by-frame posters along the tunnel walls synced to the speed of the train so they practically looked like a video ad.

An example (from a video I found online):

Most subways stations were spaced a good distance apart. When I arrived in Beijing and took the subway for the first time to get to my hostel, I got off at a station that was the second closest to my hostel because it didn’t actually connect to the closest station. I thought I should just walk it. But it turned out to be a twenty-to-thirty-minute walk with my carry-on luggage on my back. I was fine at the end of the walk; it was like a good walking workout. But I learned my lesson and made sure I got off at the closest station wherever I was going, even if it meant that I would have to take different trains.

Climate/Clothing

  • Time of year: Early November.
  • My body composition: 29 years old, 160-ish pounds, 6 feet tall, prefers high 70s/low 80s, primarily sweats during exercise only.

The weather was mostly cool. I wore layers and long sleeves all the time. In the middle of the day, when it was sunny and warmed up a bit, I would take off my jacket, but I’d still have my long-sleeve layers.

At night, it got very chilly, and I had my buff to cover my neck like a scarf. I wore my leather gloves as well.

On the Great Wall, it was still cool, but because of all the walking and hiking, it didn’t feel as cold as it would have if I had just stood still.

People

I was in a different situation from other American/Western travelers in China because I am Chinese. The locals treated me more like one of their own, until they could tell that I wasn’t a local.

In many instances, that came to my disadvantage because I was expected to behave and interact at a standard different from other travelers, but I inevitably fell short. That made me look incompetent to them.

One time at a bakery, the cashier did not have enough change to give back, and asked if I had smaller change. I understood the situation but couldn’t understand her exact request and question. All I could do was just shake my head and say, “Don’t have.” and I wanted to say “Don’t understand” in Chinese. Stuck in a tough situation, she started complaining at me, for making her get her coworker to help her get change and slow things down. In the end she had to give me change in the next highest denomination she had, which was a lot more than what she owed me and probably why she was so upset. If I looked more like a foreigner, she would probably still ask her coworker for help, but she would be more understanding and take it upon herself to resolve the issue instead of relying partly on me to help her as a fellow Chinese..

In general, though, because I stayed within touristy areas, the locals seemed to be used to travelers and would be fine helping them as best as they can. There may be prolonged stares if the visitors looked foreign, which may feel intimidating. But I can speak for Chinese people that most of them have a tendency to stare (albeit harmlessly) without realizing the how threatening they looked. Regardless, this was one of the advantage of looking more like the locals, the ability to blend in.

Language

I grew up speaking Cantonese, but Mandarin was the main dialect in mainland China, including Beijing. I could understand basic words in Mandarin and speak it if it’s spoken slowly enough. But for travel, I would still need to know more phrases to successfully communicate with locals.

I learned Mandarin through audio tapes like the other languages for the trip. It was both easy and hard to learn because I was already familiar with some of the words and phrases but not others, so my mind was switching back and forth, figuring out if I already knew the word, and if I did, whether it was used the same way that I thought, and if it wasn’t, I had to relearn it and remember the new definition and usage.

Nonetheless, it was still helpful to know how to read some Chinese characters so I could have some confirmation from posted signs that I was heading in the right direction or that I picked the right thing.

The subway was usually pretty good with including English in signs, although most of the station names were converted to Chinese phonetically instead of translated, so those who didn’t understand Chinese would have to read the names carefully to make sure they go to the place they wanted. Outside of the subway system, it’s a bit more tricky; it’s a matter of luck for signs to include English.

Tours/Sightseeing

Tiananmen Square and Gate

Just like with the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and the Colosseum in Rome, after settling into my hostel in the early evening, I left the hostel and visited a major landmark in the city; I went to Tiananmen Square, specifically the Tiananmen gate.

I took the subway to one of the two stops for Tiananmen. That’s when I noticed the security checkpoints to leave the station. I was also just figuring how to pick an exit, because oftentimes, it was harder to cross the street above ground, especially at an iconic site like Tiananmen Square.

Originally, I was going to check out the Square itself, but I arrived too late and visitor hours were over. There were guards at the crosswalks stopping anyone trying to get through. I saw one guy obviously running across the street to get in, but he was promptly turned away.

Between Tiananmen and the Square.

The sidewalk where the gate was, however, was still open to visitors. So I had to cross the street underground through the station.

While in front of the gate, I realized that less than twenty-four hours before, I was in from of the Colosseum in Rome. A flight and some traveling later, I arrived at another landmark almost half way around the world. It seemed like a common enough event, but it still felt special to me.

Less than twenty-four hours before:

A few days later, I made another visit to Tiananmen Square, after checking out the Forbidden Palace, which was behind the Tiananmen gate. Tiananmen Square was incredibly huge. It’s hard to imagine any sort of public gathering that could fill the entire square with people.

To get to the Square, there were a few entrances. I took the eastern entrance, which was accessible after a crosswalk. There was a security checkpoint station with bag scanners. Lines were formed amorphously so like everyone else, I slowly pushed my way to the front.

Once inside, there were a lot of tourists, but like I said, because the Square was enormous, it actually felt sparse.

Tiananmen Square was really big.

I noticed very few guards in the middle of the Square; they were mainly at the perimeter, especially the side closest to the iconic gate.

Olympic Park

I took the subway all the way north to the Olympic Park. There were two stations that stopped at the Olympic Park, but only the northern one was open. And since the Olympic Stadium was near the south side, I walked down the entire park, with very little to see along the way.

At Beijing Olympic Park looking south.

I found out somehow that the Olympic Stadium was closed to visitors, most likely because of the APEC summit. Even the area around it was closed off. So the closest I go to the stadium was the southern perimeter of the park. It was often obstructed by trees and fences, so I had partial view of the stadium and the Olympic Cauldron.

Olympic Cauldron next to Bird's Nest.

As close as I got to Bird's Nest.

I walked around the southern perimeter, which was a ramped, trenched alley, and emerged on the west side, which was where the Water Cube aquatic center was. It looked closed off, too, so I only took pictures from a distance.

As I made my way back north, I noticed an art sculpture with a bunch of boxy-people figures stacked to create a giant tower. I thought it was really interesting and optimistic, so I took pictures of it, including a selfie.

This tower delighted me to take a selfie.

To my surprise, the day after I returned home from the trip, I was running errands in downtown San Francisco and noticed a similar sculpture. Having just ended the trip, memories were still fresh in my head and seeing the sculpture was a nice reminder and full-circle throwback of my experience.

Stacking people structure in downtown San Francisco the day I returned from the trip.

While I had only planned to check out a small section of the park (the stadium side), I managed to start from the north side, make a clockwise loop around the park, and arrive back at the northern station for my exit. It was a very long walk, but it was all I could do to milk my experience at the Olympic Park.

Overall, the visit to the Olympic Park was nice, but I was very disappointed that I could not see the stadium and the Olympic Cauldron up close or get inside. And since the Olympic Stadium in London was also having work done, my dream to visit Olympic Parks in the inspiring way that they had been for me was still unfulfilled with this trip.

I had little plans to visit Beijing again, but being able to check out the stadium, cauldron, and aquatic center up close, and hopefully inside, would be the only reason I would return.

Great Wall Tour Package

Beijing - Great Wall - LBT 2014

I booked a Great Wall Tour through Viator. There were tours that went to either Badaling or Mutianyu, and after looking up reviews on TripAdvisor, I decided to go to Mutianyu because it was supposed to be less crowded. Before booking the tour, I also briefly looked into getting to the Great Wall myself, which involved taking buses at certain times and whatnot, which, from previous experience of transportation in mainland China, I would feel more confident purchasing a tour that took care of all of that for me, similar to my Machu Picchu tour in Peru.

My tour guide Jacky called my hostel the previous day to confirm the tour and the pick-up time. The morning of, Jacky picked me up and I followed him down the hutong to the main street and hopped on the van. As we made our way, he asked where I was from and if I spoke Mandarin, in Mandarin. I responded in English that I was from the States and I spoke Cantonese and very little Mandarin. Once I got on the van, I sat in the back since I noticed that the van was full and I was the last pickup.

The tour included a stop first at a jade factory in the city. We saw workers behind glass walls filing down jade into shapes, and went into rooms checking out the different types of jade and learned how to spot fakes. Then we were given a good amount of time to browse through the sales floor and shop for jade products. I didn’t get anything because 1) I had no plans to buy jade on the trip; my plan was to see the Great Wall, and 2) any purchases would take up an additional space in my luggage.

After the jade factory, we made our way to the Great Wall. The ride didn’t feel too long, especially when Jacky was practically constantly giving us little factoids and history about the Great Wall. It was almost getting annoying. He even started to sense it and mocked himself, asking us to remember the factoids to recite to our friends, in addition to mentioning that the tour guide never stopped talking. For what it’s worth, I commended him for putting in the effort and energy to inform and to keep us awake and entertained.

As we approached the site, Jacky explained how the tickets worked. He mentioned how we could hike our way up the mountain to the Wall, or take a ski-lift ride up, which costed money. In my head, I thought it would be fine to get to the wall on foot, but everyone else seemed to want to pay to ride up, and also honestly, I was confused by Jacky’s explanation, so I just did what everyone else did.

I continued to follow everyone else and took a ski-lift ride up the mountain. It seemed like an exciting thing to do, but considering all the stuff I had done already on the trip, it was pretty anticlimactic. The one thing I noticed was a track for toboggan slide down. Considering how this was China, I felt a bit uneasy to doing something like this, putting faith in the construction quality of the track.

Lift to the Great Wall.

Once I got off the lift at the top of the mountain, walked up the stairs to the wall, and stepped foot on the inside of the wall, a rush of excitement went through me very briefly. I had the “I am really here!” feeling quite quickly; usually, I had to stop what I was doing, become aware of the present, and remind myself where I was and be grateful about it. But for some reason, seeing the top of the wall, and that it continued down both sides for as far as I could see, made me feel very open, free and compelled to explore the the entire length. I was very giddy in my head, though I did let out a smile. But I soon calmed myself down and began my walk.

Some of the towers between the walls looked very well-designed with built-in walls dividing the interior into different sections. I couldn’t really imagine what could possibly be in these sections, other than weapons. But the window views were neat to look through.

View from the window in one of the towers on the Great Wall.

A sense of space in a tower.

Some parts of the walls had very steep steps, some as tall as two feet, I felt. It made me wonder how soldiers back then would be able to go from one tower to another tower without becoming winded just from climbing the steps.

Tall steps to get up to the tower.

At the end of our allotted time, I returned close to where I got off the ski lifts, but instead decided to ride the toboggan back down, partly because two other guys from my tour group did it, and partly because this was a rare opportunity, and I had to take it.

The toboggan ride was kind of fun. It had a smooth metal track but the speed was medium so there was not a point on the ride where I felt like it was so fast that I could potentially fly off the track. There was one control: a stick between my legs. It allowed me to slow down the toboggan and to stop it. Even though there were plenty of signs along the way that said “NO STOPPING”, I had to slow down a few times because there were a few riders in front of me that required me to slow down or stop so I didn’t crash into them.

Someone’s video of riding the toboggan:

Throughout the ride down were also small spaces where someone would sit at a chair with the radio, monitoring traffic. There were also signs along the way to discourage riders to stop the toboggan to take photos. The only photo I took was me at the start of the track getting ready to ride down.

Getting ready to ride the toboggan down the mountain from the Wall.

Lunch and Cloisonné Enameling Factory

After getting back to the base of Mutianyu, we made our way back to the van and headed for lunch. We went to a small restaurant in the middle of nowhere and had a standard Chinese lunch. I got a chance to learn about the other people from my tour group and it was interesting hearing people’s backgrounds.

There was this one lady and her teenage son, who were from LA. She seemed to have, let’s say, a lot of care taken to her facial appearance, which was an LA stereotype, and her son looked like a skater boy type of teenager and appeared to be bored most of the time. But when she talked about her travels around the world, she gave a spiel about how people in other countries making less money than we did or living in homes that we considered undeveloped were actually not poor, that it was just the way they lived and their standard of living was just lower, and to judge them based on that was unfair. And when the son took off his beanie, he looked more like a mature teenager, happy to take a trip with his mom. That and the spiel made me feel bad and guilty about the assumptions I made about them, and it reminded me to continue to be open-minded about other people, especially strangers.

After lunch, I thought we were going to get back on the van and head back to Beijing. Instead, Jacky led us to the Cloisonné enameling factory right in the same property as the restaurant. I had no idea; and it started to make sense why we had lunch at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere.

Cloisonné was apparently an ancient art form where special color powder were decorated onto copper pieces and then baked in a kiln to set the color. We took a brief tour of the factory, which pretty much consisted on room after room, divided by the different stages of the process. The store sales floor obviously had a lot of cloisonné merchandise for sale. The pieces there were quite impressive, especially large floor vases. Despite the beautiful work, I still diddn’t buy anything from the store.

Teahouse

Our last stop the Great Wall tour was to learn how to make and drink tea at a teahouse in the city. We were led to a room with chairs around a table full of jars and set up, and we were introduced our tea expert. She taught us the etiquettes and process of drinking tea in Chinese culture, along with the different tea types that they made.

Staff explaining pu-erh tea.

Staff's tea tasting table set up.

I had interest in teas, though not to the extent of setting it up like a teahouse. In my fascination and raised interest in discussions about teas, after the tea tasting, I picked out one of the teas I liked and bought it. This was different from how I normally behaved, especially from earlier that day at the jade factory and the Cloisonné enameling factory. Also, the tea was kind of bulky so it would definitely take up some space in my luggage. But I thought that since my trip was going to end soon, I could afford to carry that weight for just a little bit of time.

Lychee red tea from teahouse.

One of the stories Jacky kept mentioning before the teahouse was how it’s important to hold the tea cup a certain way (with all fingers inside) and not with pinky pointing out, otherwise the person would be considered a “lady boy” like a gay, who would have served the emperor in the old days. Perhaps it was my Californian sensibilities, somehow that sounded insensitive and a little ignorant to me. Knowing the culture, though, I’m almost certain it was only meant as a joke. An outdated one by my standard, and I was not amused.

Shopping Area

After the Great Wall tour, I asked the two German guys from my tour group if I could join them in checking out the apparently well-known street food scene. So instead of being dropped off at my hostel, I got off the van and said goodbye to Jacky and the rest of the tour group.

We ended up around the intersection of Donghuamen Street and Wangfujing Street, which seemed to be a large tourist/retail area.

Retail area in the evening. Intersection of Donganmen St and Wangfujing St.

We started exploring the area, looking for the street food. On the way, we noticed an interesting looking vehicle where the wheel was the frame, and the whole thing rocked back and forth. It looked kind of cool and I wanted to try it.

Hamster wheel cart in action near Sun Dong An Plaza.

We found the street with the long row of street food vendors. Apparently, it was one of those street foods that served insects on sticks. One of my new German friends was so excited about this and had a mission to eat different types of large insects and bugs. The vendors also seemed to favor and call out foreign-looking travelers in their best English to try their food. It’s a thing that I was not aware of but also not surprised by.

Various insects on sticks.

Tour group mate eating scorpion.

For me, I stuck to more regular food, like potstickers.

I stuck with potstickers, thank you.

After that, we checked out the Sun Dong An Plaza shopping center nearby. It was really nice and large. We looked for more food (I had a McDonald’s sundae, even though we ordered McFlurrys), checked out movies that we could maybe watch in the theater, and checked out the giant screen showing us on the ground floor.

Inside Sun Dong An Plaza.

Seeing ourselves on the big screen at Sun Dong An Plaza.

After that, I led the two guys, who didn’t know any Chinese, to the subway station so they could have a better chance of getting back to their super cheap hotel somewhere south of where we were. I took the subway and returned to my hostel.

Forbidden Palace

Beijing - Forbidden Palace - LBT 2014

On my final full day, I decided to check out the Forbidden Palace. I took the subway to Tiananmen and lined up where the signs directed. The place, which was considered a museum, opened at 8:30am, but there were already a lot of people in line. Fortunately, once the doors opened, the lined moved pretty quickly.

I actually got to walk through the main Tiananmen gate, the same one commonly seen in photos of Beijing. I felt the weight of the giant portrait of Mao as I walked towards it, conflicted by the differences in political ideals, despite this supposedly being the land of my people.

After walking through another gate (Duanmen), I queued up to buy my admission ticket. Then I looked around for the place to get an audio guide, which was near the entrance of the actual museum. The staff who loaned me the audio guide was surprised I wanted the English version.

The audio was kind of cool because it had a map of the museum, with different lights at different locations. Depending on where I was, the audio guide would detect it and play the corresponding recording about that spot.

Back of audio guide for Forbidden Palace, with map and lights to indicate where I was.

The first few sections of the tour were the main gates and buildings of the palace, like the Meridian Gate and the Hall of Supreme Harmony, where the emperor meet officials and guests and whatnot.

Then I moved on to the side quarters where the emperor’s wives and other relatives lived. It was a bit disorienting because it was essentially room after room and red-walled alleys one after another.

One of the alleys in the Forbidden Palace.

For some reason, I was fascinated by the red walls. Even though the museum probably has people repaint he walls red every once in a while, I felt that they could still tell so much history about the place. Also, the fact that they were just painted red without any other decorative paintings or writings. Compared to modern times, blank walls would be subliminally asked to be filled or vandalized.

Red wall and roof.

More red wall.

Near the end, there was a room that displayed the last emperor’s things. One of them was a plate that showed the Coronation of Napoleon I.

Coronation of Napoleon III on a Plate at the Forbidden Palace.

I recognized that painting very clearly, for I had seen the real thing a few weeks before in the Louvre. This was somewhat trippy, because I immediately imagined France in the early 1800s, picturing how that painting would someday be copied onto a plate and delivered almost halfway around the world. I also wondered how the French would explain the significance of the painting. Seeing how history transports and intersects was very fascinating to me.

Saw this in history class. Coronation of Napoleon I at the Louvre.

The last section of the museum was a garden, where a lot of people were hanging out, perhaps because they didn’t want to exit just yet. I hung out there too for a bit, but ultimately, I returned the audio guide, which was buzzing anyway either because it ran out of power or that it automatically signaled the end of the tour.

Food

A note about my relationship with food: I am more of a “eat to live” type of guy. In my regular daily life, I try to eat very healthy, and I splurge a little bit once in a while. When I’m traveling, I loosen my restrictions a bit and eat what I can get, while still trying to select the healthiest choice. However, if there is a dish or a food that is well known where I’m traveling, and it’s within my taste preference and budget, I would put in extra effort to try it. And my weakness is desserts.

Beijing - Food - LBT 2014

Hostel

Surprisingly, the hostel had a decent selection of food. The menu consisted of half Chinese dishes and half Western dishes. For breakfast one day, I ordered a western breakfast, which apparently consisted of toast, a fried egg, sausage links, potato patties, and bacon. But food seemed to be smaller in China, and I wasn’t sure what kind of meat was considered bacon in China.

Breakfast at hostel.

I also ordered a spaghetti with carbonara sauce, because after my experience in Rome, I still thought carbonara was a red sauce.

Pasta with carbonara sauce. Not bad.

Nonetheless, the cooked meals at the hostel was solid, probably because guests had to pay, so the quality had to be at a certain level.

Convenience Store Food

I had trouble finding a standard grocery store near my hostel in Beijing. All I could find were convenience stores that sold snacks.

One of the things I got was “biscuit rolls”, which were very flaky egg-based victor in the form of hollow rolls. They’re usually sold in large tin boxes, but at the convenience stores, they’re available in smaller, manageable boxes.

Biscuit roll.

Chinese Pastries

Aside from the meals at the hostel, I relied on bakeries to fill the gaps. When I was growing up in Macau, I must have had pastries a few times a well for breakfast and as afternoon snacks. There was a wide variety, and I had my favorites.

Chinese pastries.

I couldn’t tell what these were exactly, but they may very well be hot dog bun and raisin bun. My other favorites included the cocktail bun, which was actually a coconut and custard filled bun, and the pineapple bun, which was a regular bun with crusty egg-sugar layer.

One of the bakeries also sold prepackaged pastries, including gChinese rice krispies, which were more crunchy than the Western version, and a version of the “wife cake” which was a flat flaky cake with filling inside.

Chinese rice kripsies.

"Rose flower" cake for the airport.

Dessert

I asked the hostel staff where I could find Chinese desserts, especially the warm, soupy ones. One of them told me there was this street a few blocks from the hostel that was called “Dessert Street”, officially South Luogo Alley. She gave me directions and I decided to make a trip a little later in the night, even though it was very cold outside.

Sure enough, the street was lively with people, despite the cold. I did a quick walk down the street and back to see what types of shops were available. There were warm desserts shops, for sure, but there were also candy shops, bars, and cold dessert shops as well. I usually had no problems eating ice cream in the winter, but I felt that there was no satisfaction in eating cold dessert when my face started to get numb.

I found a simple, humble tofu dessert shop, and I ordered a warm tofu dessert with red bean. The tofu was fresh and light, but it was almost lukewarm, and it pretty much didn’t do much to help with the cold. Still it was a nice treat to have.

Tofu dessert with red bean on dessert street.

Tofu dessert with red bean.

Getting out

I took the Airport Express train from the city back to the airport. When I was at the station to take the train, there was a long security line to scan bags before entering the platform.

Once at the airport, I took an airport shuttle to transfer to the correct terminal based on my airline and flight. The airport seemed to be split up into isolated terminals where people could only go from one to another via the airport-controlled shuttles. I was glad I had lots of time before my flight; I would’ve been much more antsy on the shuttles and out of breath from running across the hall.

From My Travel Log

23 November 2014, 11:17pm, SF Home, bed

  • ​People have been asking me how the trip was, and while I want to go in detail, all I could say was “great” and that it was a lot of things happening in a short time. I’ve also been saying that my favorite spots where Machu Picchu, Eiffel Tower, and Great Wall. My favorite locations were Nice and Maui, coincidentally places with beaches.

Thanks

  • Italian guy next to me on plane
  • Guy in airport elevator who told me without words but just sounds that I was already on the right floor
  • A mom and her daughter and the mom’s friend chatting on the airport train
  • Hostel reception
  • The two workers at the nearby bakery who ask me for small change but I didn’t have any and I couldn’t express sufficiently or answer their following questions so I stayed quiet and they ended up rounding to next yuan and gave me more change
  • Everyone who worked at the subway stations
  • Guards who work around the Olympic Park
  • Jacky the tour guide
  • John, Patrick and Patrick, Canadians, Swedes, Californian mom and son
  • Toboggan operators
  • Copper pot explainer
  • Tea house staff
  • Couple who helped me takes slanted wall picture
  • Guy from group in CA who took pics of me at Great Wall with Mao sign on hill
  • Lady at Forbidden City tourist center who awkwardly directed me in good English where audio guides were
  • Lady at audio guide booth who seemed surprised I wanted English guide and explained how the thing worked
  • French guys who I briefly talked to in French and English and who helped me take a photo that didn’t turn out as cool as I expected
  • Obnoxious guys at Tiananmen Square who tactlessly asked me to move away from their shots
  • People who kindly sold me till for dessert on cold desert street
  • Bakery people who sold me stuff

Tips

  • If you’re taking the subway to get around the city, make sure you get off at the closest station for your destination. The stations are relatively far from one another, unlike the stations in major American and European cities.
  • Most subway stations in Beijing had security checkpoints. It would be wise to travel light whenever possible so you may not need to scan your belongings. Mainly because of this, give yourself enough of a cushion so you’re not late.
  • The quickest entries into Tiananmen Square would probably be the southern corners of the square, because it’s the farthest from the Tiananmen Gate, so there’s less people already in that area. I noticed this after I entered the Square and saw the line to enter through the south side had a lot less people.
  • If you’re going to Mutianyu to see the Great Wall, take the toboggan ride down if you can. For most people, it’s not scary. It’s almost like a children’s ride.
  • If you’re taking the toboggan ride down, wear a GoPro so you can capture the ride without finessing with your camera while riding down the track.

Links

For More

If you have questions about specific experiences of Beijing or the Great Wall, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer.

Part 7: Nice – Little Big Trip 2014

Part 6: Paris

Why Nice?

I wanted to see if the “south of France” was as beautiful and lovely as people said it was. I was deciding between Nice and Cannes, considering the differences in people and vibe. Ultimately, Nice won out.

Itinerary

  • Tuesday, 28 October: Arrived in Nice
  • Wednesday, 29 October: Walked down Promenade des Anglais, Went up to Colline du Chateau, strolled through old town Nice
  • Thursday, 30 October: Depart Nice

My Impression

Nice was a very nice and beautiful city. It’s quite different from Paris, but it was still France. It was relaxing partly because I decided to relax instead of packing the day full of sightseeing.

I wish I had stayed longer, I wish the beach was made of sand instead of rocks, and I wish I visited when it was warmer.

I also only learned when I got there that while there was little to do in Nice, it was the town to take day trips from because there were so many cities nearby that had slightly different vibes. I would definitely return.

Getting There

I took an SNCF train from Paris to Nice, with many stops along the way. It took about five and a half hours.

I booked a first-class seat to see what it’s like, but the car and the seats did not look first-class. The car was mostly empty, but I sat across an older classy lady who seemed to want to have as little to do with me as possible, so I kept to myself for the ride. I even tried to keep my snacks and things on my side of the table, and she seemed to have done the same. There was an outlet that kind of worked depending on how the plug was inserted; at first I thought my phone suddenly stopped charging.

Once I arrived at Nice-Ville station right before, I bought a train ticket to Ventimiglia for my departure in two days at the counter before they closed for the day. I asked the staff about departure times, and for the life of me, I could not understand French numbers. She said something like “Neuf heures vingt-cinq minutes” and while I recognized that those were French words, I had to repeat it to myself multiple times, until she got a little frustrated and wrote it out, and everything suddenly clicked and made sense again. Embarrassed, I continued to communicate in French, because I didn’t think she knew I spoke English, but I said as few words as I could, like “D’accord” (Okay) and “Merci beaucoup.”

Then, I walked the fifteen-or-so minutes to my hostel, which was near the beach. It was already dark, but it felt pretty safe. While the temperatures were already cool, the small streets and short buildings definitely had that small vacation town vibe, and like many of the European cities I had been to so far, it reminded me a little of of my original hometown of Macau.

Accommodations

The walk up to the hostel felt a bit shady, partly because it was kind of dark and unappealing. It felt like a regular old apartment building. There was also a sign on the elevator door saying that those staying at the hostel may not use the elevator. But once I got to the reception floor, the place looked like pictures online, albeit a bit more worn.

Checking In

The space was pretty cozy, and there were plenty of people hanging out. There was only one person working at the front desk, and he was already helping out the guests ahead of me. The guests spoke Spanish, and the staff (named Luis) seemed very comfortable and fluent in communicating in Spanish as well. I also heard him speak English to another guest in between, so that comforted me.

I could tell by Luis’ body language that he was a bit stressed at being seemingly the only staff taking care of check-ins and guest issues, but he also seemed to handle it with determination. I could not imagine how it would feel for me to be doing a job like that.

When I checked in, Luis was very friendly, professional, and thorough with everything. Even though it was busy, he did not rush through the process and made sure I had what I needed. I was given my key, the password for the Wi-Fi, and a map of Nice.

My Room

I booked a four-bed mixed dorm. When I entered the room, there were four twin-size bed laid out in a room with just enough space in between to walk through; three across and one on the side. I couldn’t believe how basic it was. There were already two guys laying down in their beds looking at their phones. They were both Asian but they didn’t seem to know each other. I briefly said hi and just kept to myself, unpacking and settling in on the only empty bed, which, to my relief, was by the wall instead of being in the middle of the room between other guests.

I met the remaining roommate later in the evening. To my surprise, it was a woman. I forgot I had booked a mixed dorm, and seeing the two guys in the room when I entered made me think it was an all-male dorm.

The woman’s name was Lisa, and she was from Australia. She was traveling for a few weeks before heading back to work. She’s a really cool chick who convinced me to relax and take a breather in Nice (see People).

Panorama view of my room at Hostel Meyerbeer Beach. Middle was bathroom. Right was door.

(In the panoramic photo, the middle part was the bathroom, and the right was the locker cubbies and entrance)

The bed was a simple mattress with sheets and on a frame. There was an outlet and lamp next to each bed. There’s a small nightstand table in between the beds to share.

There’s a full-height window with a small balcony for a view onto the street. There’s an air conditioner but it wasn’t used. At the entrance were small locker cubbies. But that area was too dark to see inside. The entire room had limited lighting overall. I want to say these rooms were refitted to be used as hostels, but I wouldn’t be able to figure out what the shape of the room used to be; because the room as it stood had a weird shape.

Bathroom

The bathroom looked like a regular home’s bathroom. With a sink, toilet, and shower tightly fit into a space.

I had to wash my clothes, but since there was no place to hang anything in the room, I hung my clothes in the bathroom overnight. But I forgot they were in there the next morning, and Lisa moved them aside so she could take a shower. I was a bit embarrassed but she said it was fine.

On my second evening, the toilet became clogged, and we couldn’t fix it. Flushing it just filled the bowl with more and more water. We told the staff and they said they would have someone fix it the next day. In the mean time, we used the bathroom by the front desk downstairs, which was weirdly also a full bathroom with a shower, along with all the shampoo bottles that old guests left behind.

Common Area

A few feet from the front desk was the small couch area. A few feet from the front desk was the small dining area. A few feet from the front desk was the small kitchen. The entire common area was a small space. It could be converted to a small apartment for a couple or a young family, and even then it’s kind of tight. Instead, it was used as the hangout area for fifteen to twenty grown adults. Somehow the photos online made the place look larger than it was.

It was the only place in the hostel that guests could socialize. Guests hanging out in the common area were either already in a group or socially forced to switch on their extroverted side and start talking to people and make friends. My theory was that because everyone was so close together in that space, the awkwardness of not talking to strangers next to them would be so strong they had to talk to break the tension.

The kitchen was moderately equipped with pots, pans, and utensils. However, the problem was having three groups of people trying cook dinner at the same time. Even though many people were cooking pasta; it was a slightly different variation and the pots could not be reused. Also, some people would leave the used equipment in the sink while other people were still trying to cook and may need something from the dirty pile.

Seeing this, I decided to just make a simple salad by getting the items from the store and assembling it in the kitchen. But even then took more effort than it needed to be. There was limited counter space, and we ran out of forks. I had overage so I had to leave some stuff in the kitchen while I ate my first serving. And of all the things this kitchen was equipped with, paper towels or napkins were not one of them, so I ran to the Carrefour City downstairs and bought some with my own money and just left it in the kitchen for all to use. It was a cluster-F but somehow it all worked out, though I didn’t stay to find out who did the dishes.

Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi was good. More or less the same as urban areas in major American cities. It worked in the hostel room as well as the common area.

Impression of the Hostel

The hostel was in a great location, and for the price, it’s pretty decent. This is closer to what I thought a hostel would be. But after having stayed in more organized hostel organizations in London and Paris, I would pay a little more to have more space and organization. Still, for a few nights, this place was doable, affordable, and allowed for socializing opportunities.

Getting Around

There was a bus system in the city, but since I had very little agenda in Nice, I walked everywhere in the area. And the area around the beach was very walkable, provided there was enough time

Climate/Clothing

  • Time of year: late October.
  • My body composition: 29 years old, 160-ish pounds, 6 feet tall, prefers high 70s/low 80s, primarily sweats during exercise only.
  • During the day, the sun warmed up the city just enough to be comfortable. Since it was already late October, the temperature couldn’t really get too high. When walking a lot, especially up a bunch of stairs, it got a little warm. A T-shirt would be fine.
  • In the early hours or later in the day, it cooled a bit, and a light jacket was needed, especially when not moving much.

People

The people are generally in a good mood. It’s Nice, and the south of France!

One of my hostel roommates, Lisa, the one who inspired me to take a day off (see Activities), was an outgoing Australian woman who made friends on her trip left and right. She was cool to talk to, with no agenda other than to enjoy the company of fellow travelers. She included me into her group of newly made hostel friends at dinner and even invited me to go out with them to bars afterwards, though I politely declined.

We talked about travel styles, and we discovered we were practically on the opposite side, at least on this trip. The way she describe the freedom she had of not knowing where on her travels she would be or do the next day planted the seeds in my head that I should consider that travel style the next time I traveled.

Language

By this time, I was getting used to being around French words and phrases. Since I took it easy in Nice, I didn’t really interact with that many people that would require me to speak French. Other than buying the train ticket at the station, I didn’t really have to use French so much. The staff at the hostel spoke English. At the grocery store, I just looked at the number on the cashier machine and gave them my money. At a candy store, the lady just assumed I spoke English.

Activities

After four action-packed days in Paris, the city of my fifteen-year dream, I was pretty exhausted, both from Paris and from the trip. I originally planned to visit the Matisse Museum on the other side of town, but the thought of researching bus routes to get there made me realized I needed a break.

Fortunately, I told one of my hostel roommates about this and she commiserated with me, telling me that it happened to her recently, and she decided to just do nothing and take a day off. The idea intrigued me, and as the evening went on, I was more and more on board with doing that.

Promenade des Anglais

So the next day, I slept in a little bit, had breakfast at the hostel, and took my time to get ready. I first walked toward the beach, which was two blocks away, and enjoyed the beautiful view of the water. It was such a calming scene that I wish I could have that for the rest of my life.

Walking down Promenade des Anglais.

I consciously told myself to take my time and stroll along the promenade, but it felt strange because every day for the past three weeks had been planned out, at the latest one day before. That day, my one goal was to head up to the Colline du Chateau, and the rest of the day was unplanned. Not knowing what I would be doing was a little scary and still felt a little wasteful, especially when I would be in town for one full day and I still wanted to make the most of it. I reminded myself it’s what I needed, so I went along with it.

Colline du Chateau

I got to the end of the promenade, at the foot of Colline du Chateau. I noticed that there’s an elevator ride for a small fee, but being used to walking and hiking for the past few weeks, I did not mind taking the stairs instead.

The stairs went on longer than I thought, but it was doable given enough time. Once I got to (first?) observation deck, I could see the iconic view of Nice and the shore. I took a few photos, including one for my friend who had been there six months and one day prior.

View of Nice from Colline du Chateau.

Old Town Nice

After Colline du Chateau, I had no other plans. So I walked away from the promenade and the beach into Old Town Nice and walked around. The roads were much narrower and more windy, making the buildings seem taller. There were mainly souvenirs shops, which didn’t really interest me.

Retail Stores

I got out of Old Town and crossed a long strip of greenery, the Promenade du Paillon, and to more regular streets. I bought some lunch and snacks at a Carrefour City grocery store, and continued walking aimlessly until I reached a long street (Avenue Jean Médecin) of big retail stores, along with rail tracks down the middle. It was meant to be the shopping area of Nice, I suppose.

I walked up and down the avenue, looking for restaurants that might interest me, even though I already bought food. I checked out a candy shop and bought different kinds of caramels.

Lunch at the Promenade

I was getting hungry so I made my way back to the Promenade, walking through Jardin Albert I. I sat at one of the benches on the Promenade, had my lunch and snacks (store-bought macarons). And watched people pass by.

Passing the time in Promenade des Anglais.

Then I moved to a bench that was closer to the beach and just looked out into the sea for as long as I could, logging a little bit as well, making an effort to relax and enjoy the moment. I think I still needed to work on that.

After probably an hour and a half, I headed back to the hotel and rested there and cleaned up my things a little bit to get ready for my departure the next day.

Food

A note about my relationship with food: I am more of a “eat to live” type of guy. In my regular daily life, I try to eat very healthy, and I splurge a little bit once in a while. When I’m traveling, I loosen my restrictions a bit and eat what I can get, while still trying to select the healthiest choice. However, if there is a dish or a food that is well known where I’m traveling, and it’s within my taste preference and budget, I would put in extra effort to try it. And my weakness is desserts.

Breakfast

There were many cafes near the hostel, but again, the intimidation of going to a restaurant was getting to me, and a quick glance at the menu signs and pictures of dishes didn’t seem to interest me.

So for both mornings, I had breakfast at the hostel. The kitchen/dining area was small to begin with, so there was only so many foods laid out to guests to have. There were the usual toast and different spreads, coffees, teas, juice.

There was this “croissant” pastry that was individually prepackaged and came in two flavors: I believe one was chocolate and the other vanilla. They were essentially breads shaped like a croissant and had filling inside. While they tasted fine, the marketing disappointed to my imagination. Still, since there was little else to eat, I grabbed two.

I believe there was yogurt too, and despite having removed dairy from my diet, I had it anyway just so I can be full.

Lunch and Dinner

For “proper” meals, I made salads by getting prepackaged salads from the Carrefour City right next to my hostel and added canned tomatoes and chicken slices. It may have been a sad salad, but I actually found comfort in the self-sufficiency and being satisfied with this simple dish as a meal. It also helped cleaned my system a little bit from eating all the snack food on the trip.

On my full day in Nice, I bought a pre-assembled salad from another Carrefour City, but with as many ingredients from my normal diet and as as few ingredients not in my diet as I could find, again to try to eat clean. I didn’t eat the breadsticks or use the vinaigrette dressing. I did eat the cookie though.

Healthy salad from Carrefour City store.

For the snack side, I got a pack of macarons from the store and they tasted dry and over-sweetened. Now I could tell the difference between good macarons (like Ladurée’s) and mediocre ones (like from a grocery store).

Store-quality macarons.

In my aimless walk around town, I bought some caramels from a nice little shop on Avenue Jean Médicin. They had lots of chocolates and caramels. And since I was staying away from chocolate for a little while, I got two types of caramels, and they were both delicious. The plain caramels were rich and with the right balance between sweet and salty.

Caramels

In the hostel dorm room, there was a binder with recommendations for things to do and eat in Nice. One of the items famous in Nice was the Niçoise Salad. I actually tried to look for the recommended restaurants near the old town area, but I either couldn’t find them or they were packed with diners. I regretted not trying it but would definitely do a better job next time.

Getting out

I walked the fifteen-or-so minutes from the hostel back to the train station, but this time during the day, and the walk somehow felt longer than before.

The train from Nice to Ventimiglia was relatively short (thirty minutes). The seats were more compact and looked more used. It was sort of like a commuter train, especially since I saw crowds in business attire come on and off the train at the same stops.

The train also made a quick stop at Monaco station. I didn’t get off, but I think that still technically counted that I was in Monaco.

Brief moment in Monaco.

Passing through Monaco.

The train also took a scenic route by water in the south of France before heading inland. That made me realized that I had not been by a body of water at all for the entire trip so far, and I would not again until the end of the trip. That was also probably why I liked Nice so much.

Beautiful view of southeast tip of France.

Last view of the water in South of France.

From My Travel Log

29 October 2014, 2:36pm, Nice, Promenade des Anglais

  • Decided to take Australian roommate’s advice and just do nothing today. After days of activities or staying in the hostel using the Wifi, it’s taking some getting used to to do nothing by the beach. Still not used to it.
  • Three weeks ago was 10/8, and it was my free day in Cuzco…

30 October 2014, 9:37am, France, outside of Nice, on train to Ventimiglia

  • I haven’t mentioned this on the log, but I’ve said it a few times to others. But ever since arriving in Paris, I felt very tired of traveling and want to go home. But knowing that there’s a whole other half of the trip I haven’t been to and haven’t done was enough to snap me out of that thinking and continue. I still feel tired but I’m not going to let that stop my trip. It’s just too silly. That’s also why I took it easy yesterday in Nice. In retrospect, it felt a little like a waste, but I felt that it was a bigger waste of my schedule to only have one full day to explore a place. For all my future trips, I’m going to do at least three nights, two full days: first day to arrive and get settled, second day to do a city tour and go out at night, third day to do whatever else and also go out if I want, and fourth day to leave. That’s the bare minimum for a new city/destination. More if it’s a major place like Paris.

4 November 2014, 2:59pm, rome Da Francesco

  • Of all the places I’ve been in Europe, I think the place I would most likely to come back to is Nice. The scene is beautiful, and there seems to be more things to do in the area.

Thanks

  • Lady who was patient with me when I bought Nice->Ventimiglia ticket, can’t figure out “nerf heures vingt-cinq”‘s meaning on the spot.
  • Luis the receptionist
  • Lisa who’s full of extrovertedness and inadvertently suggested that I not do anything in Nice, which makes me feel unproductive still, but I think I need it at the moment to not do more planning for the day.
  • Hostel roommates
  • Conor and Lisa’s gang
  • Breakfast peeps
  • Australian ladies who helped me take photo from Colline du Chateau
  • Lady who helped sell me caramels and spoke English as I try to use my Italian
  • Receptionist lady who helped explained toilet situation
  • Couple from Denver who were on train to Milan also and made me feel relieved that Milan train doesn’t have a platform.

Tips

  • The beach in Nice are mostly rocks. But the view is still gorgeous.
  • If you have time, take day trips out of Nice, like to Cannes, Antibes, Monaco, and any other places people recommend.
  • Go up Colline du Chateau for another beautiful view of Nice. There’s probably one of the most frequented places, but there’s a reason.

Links

For More

If you have questions about specific experiences of Nice, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer.

Part 5: London — Little Big Trip 2014

Part 4: Tromsø, Norway

Why London?

It’s one of the first cities I had heard of in my life. So much of the world’s history seemed to revolve around it and its country, especially when I grew up next to the city that was under its rule for most of my childhood (Hong Kong). Whenever the topic of international travel was brought up, London was often one of major cities mentioned. And also, since the Olympics were held there recently, I had to visit their Olympic Park.

Itinerary

  • 22 October: Arrived in London, dinner at Nando’s Greenwich with my cousin and his wife, quick tour of Tower Bridge, Big Ben, and London Eye
  • 23 October: SoHo/Chinatown, Olympic Park, London Eye, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, lunch at Dishoom, personal walking tour with former creative director from work: Trafalgar Square, South Bank, Tate Museum, Globe Theater, Clink Street, Golden Hinde II and London Bridge. Abbey Road, dessert take-out from Princi for dinner.
  • 24 October: Left London via St. Pancras International train station.

My Impression

In the less-than-48-hours that I was in London, I thought it was a solid city. I drew similarities to my experience in New York, with its constant stream of activity during the day, and the similar neighborhood vibe I got from Chelsea in New York and SoHo in London. The familiarity made me feel less impressed with the city, but I must withhold ultimate judgment until I spent more time to explore more areas in the future.

Getting There

I flew in from Tromsø, Norway, with a connection in Oslo, and landed at Heathrow airport. I had heard so much dissatisfaction with Heathrow but my experience was typical of most airports. I then took the Piccadilly and Bakerloo trains into the city, and checked into the hostel.

Accommodations

Since I only had less than two days in London, I wanted to be central and close to the action, or at least to a popular Underground station. Unfortunately, the hostels I considered staying had one night of availability each. It sort of cut into my time to explore London by having to change hostels midway, but I made the best of it.

YHA London Central

I got off the Regent’s Park station at around rush hour and was already experiencing the liveliness of London, with people walking quickly and cars in traffic on Marylebone Road.

I found my way to the hostel using a cached map on my phone. The front desk area looked pretty much like the photos on the website, which was reassuring and exciting whenever I physically arrived at a place I had only seen in pictures, like when I finally walked by Jardin Sagrado in Cuzco that I had only seen multiple times in Google Street View (and once in my dreams).

The staff was friendly; Americans should have no problems interacting with them. One of them did have limited and stereotypical knowledge of San Francisco, which was interesting to see my home from a foreigner’s point of view, and it also took me out of the bubble and realize that the Bay Area was not the center of the universe.

My room

My first night in London, I stayed in a six-person dorm. When I got to my room, it looked pretty empty, and I was told I could take whatever bed that wasn’t taken and clip my receipt next to the bed. But I found out pretty quickly that there were people napping in their beds, and there were only two beds available, so I chose the one by the window and unpacked quietly.

I didn’t interact with my dorm mates too much throughout my stay, but I did discover one by one that most of them were middle-aged men. I chatted with one of them briefly, and he had a long journey coming to London from elsewhere in the England, which was why he was napping in the early evening.

6-person room. YHA London Central.

The beds were fine. There were three bunk beds and I was the bottom bunk of one of them. The beds were made and sheets were included. I loved that there was a shelf next to it with a lamp and outlet. I quickly took out my adapter and starting charging my phone.

6-person room. YHA London Central.

There were large cupboard lockers, enough to store a large luggage. But it was kind of noisy to open and close, and lock and unlock (with my own lock), so I tried to limit my use and take out or put back multiple things at a time.

Every guest was given a key card to get to only their floor and only their room. They also need it to enter the hostel after hours.

Fancy key card. YHA London Central.

Bathrooms

The bathrooms were separated into individual water closets with toilet and sink, and individual shower rooms. The rooms were tight with medium ventilation. The sink in the water closet was incredibly small and had a shelf over it, so it was hard to bend over to wash my face without risking banging my head on the shelf. It was also difficult to dip and move my hands in the sink to wash without the faucet splashing water. It just seemed like poor design.

The shelf made it hard to lean down to the sink. YHA London Central.

Common Areas

The hallways on sleeping floors were a series of door after door. I got lost a few times.

The main common area was next to the front desk, and it had a bunch of long benches and a few couches in the corner. Computers were along one wall with extra outlets, and those were the only outlets I could find, other than the couch areas (which were occupied anyway), so I had to sit next to the computers to use my phone while charging it. There were signs throughout the common area listing activities the hostel was organizing, including movie nights and local tours.

Breakfast

Buffet breakfast was available for a small fee that I paid right at the front desk/breakfast bar. But the process was a bit confusing since it was an open area and there were no signs saying where to pay or how the flow went.

The selection of food was decent and typical (toast, cereal, juice). There was an espresso bar for the staff to take drink orders. The breakfast selection had too little meat for my taste. I felt that I could probably get a better breakfast in the area for only slightly more money. Still, this was a decent alternative if you were in a hurry or crunched for time, like I was.

Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi only worked in the common area, and a little bit at the hostel entrance. When I checked in, I was given a code. I found out the following night that the same code worked in my second YHA hostel as well. The speed was good by American standard.

Next Time

If I were to visit London and stay there again, I would come with friends. And I would spend at least more than one day so I could do some of the activities the hostel was offering.

YHA London Oxford Street

My second night, I stayed at the Oxford Street location a few blocks away. That morning, I checked out of London Central, checked in to Oxford Street early, and dropped off my luggage. The entrance to the hostel was almost unnoticeable. I buzzed the door bell and got a muffled response. I tried to explain I had a reservation, and I heard a muffle response again, but the door was opened.

Once inside, it was a tight space with narrow staircase and an elevator. I couldn’t figure out how to work the elevator so I took the stairs up. I discovered the hostel was about five to six floors above ground.

Luggage Storage in the Basement

After checking in, I was directed to the basement to lock my luggage. At the end of a hallway from the elevator with limited signage pointing towards it wa the room with the lockers. There were two sizes of lockers: the smaller costed two pounds, I believe, and the larger costed three pounds. And it only accepted one-pound coins. Once the locker was locked, the key could be taken out, and opening it would reset the locker, requiring more money to be added to lock again.

My Room

This time,e I stayed in a four-person dorm room. Again, my dorm mates were middle-aged men. I was surprised how popular these youth hostels were for middle-aged folks. Regardless, these men were friendly but could actually be a bit talkative.

This time, I was given the top bunk, which I was excited about at first because up until that point in the trip, I had only slept in the dark, bottom bunk. But the novelty of the top bunk quickly wore off as I had been assigned top bunk in all the hostels for the rest of my trip.

4-person room. YHA London Oxford Street.

Like the YHA London Central location, these beds also had a shelf, a lamp, and an outlet next to the bed. There were also similar lockers at the foot of my bed, but it sort of created a congested area when everyone needed to use it as we got ready for bed.

The bathrooms

And like the other hostel, the bathrooms were split into individual toilets and showers. One difference was that the sinks were even smaller. I think it was the smallest working sink I had seen anywhere in my life.

Smallest sink I've ever seen. YHA London Oxford Street.

The Staff

The staff was friendly and pretty relaxed. In fact, at one point, they were prank-calling another YHA pretending to be a potential guest asking about the rules on pets, until the staff on the other end finally caught on and everyone had a big laugh.

I asked them for recommendations in the area, and they were able to give me a few suggestions.

The Staff and the Chinese Guest Who Couldn’t Speak English

The staff who was working the night shift was otherwise friendly, but he had a lot of problems communicating with an old Chinese man who didn’t speak any English. He lost his patience many times and started yelling things like, “I DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU WANT!” at a slow pace, as if the Chinese man could suddenly understand. To my surprise, the Chinese man did not yell back in anger, probably because he felt very lost and desperate for help. So I tried to intervene with my poor Mandarin and managed to resolve the situation by helping the man pay for the computer usage time and print out an email that his relatives wrote for him to get to where he needed to go.

Common Area

Oxford Street YHA hostel was much smaller than the London Central location, at least in horizontal space. The common area was a multi-purpose room that had a few tables and chairs, a custom cushioned seating area along one corner of the room (which had outlets hidden by the cushions), a few beanbag chairs that were seemingly for children, and a few computers on a long table along another wall. There’s also a TV hanging from the ceiling in one corner of the room.

Computer use was charged by the minute, and one needed to buy credit from reception. Printing also costed a fee.

While there, I saw a family or two with kids. I could imagine this being a more affordable alternative to hotels for family visiting London. Therefore, the “youth hostel” vibe was barely there.

Next to the Common Area was the kitchen that guests could use apparently, but it looked so much like a commercial kitchen that I didn’t think to prepare food there in the evening.

Wi-Fi

The Wi-Fi only worked in the Common Area, and a little bit in the lobby/front desk. As I mentioned, the Wi-Fi code I got from London Central location worked at this hostel as well. It apparently could be used for seven days.

Breakfast

There was an option to pay for a regular buffet breakfast, or to order an item in addition to the buffet, which they would make/heat up to order. I ordered an extra sandwich because I felt the standard breakfast would not be enough for me. The buffet also seemed to have a relatively smaller selection of food than the London Central location.

And like the London Central location, I wish they would do a better job explaining how the breakfast flow worked. I felt that if food was laid out in a public space (the kitchen), it’s up for grabs. That just might be my American way of thinking.

Getting Around

Handy subway map. Better than on the phone at times.

Because I was tight on time, I had planned my route ahead of time and grouped the places I wanted to see. I took the Underground to get from one main area to another, and walked my way through the spots I wanted to see before getting on the Tube again.

A friend gave me her Oyster card before the trip so I loaded it with some money at the airport. The fare system for the Underground was too complicated for me to decipher, and the fact that I was going to be in London for less than two days made getting any special multi-day passes pointless, so I just paid regular fare for each ride.

Climate/Clothing

  • Time of year: Mid-October.
  • My body composition: 29 years old, 160-ish pounds, 6 feet tall, prefers high 70s/low 80s, primarily sweats during exercise only.

The temperatures were pretty mild, a little cool. Long sleeves and light jacket should suffice. In the afternoon I got a little warm from the sun peeking out of the clouds from time to time as well as from walking for hours.

People

The people I encountered were fine; typical big city interactions. The staff at the Indian restaurant Dishoom were particularly friendly and attentive. I wasn’t sure if it’s because I was a party of one in a crowded restaurant during peak times.

Language

People spoke English, but in a funny accent. Just kidding. I barely noticed the accent; I just accepted it as how people talked, and I think people did the same with me, probably because they’re used to tourists. I did noticed one of the guys who worked at the hostel having a strong regional accent or slang that I couldn’t follow half the things he said, so I just nodded and smiled.

Sightseeing

This is my account of my one and only full day in London.

Chinatown

I read that Gerard street was the main street in Chinatown, so I headed that way, only to find the street being two blocks or so long, and with me visiting on Thursday morning, very few shops were open, and half of them seem to be restaurants. The street barely had people walking by; it was mainly workers unloading shipments from a truck. Very different from the Chinatown of San Francisco or New York.

Olympic Park

I got off at Stratford station to find myself at one end of the shopping center. I made my way to the park side, using the stadium in the distance as my north. Most of the park was empty. I saw a few joggers and one or two small groups of people hanging out.

Union Jack bus art piece at the Olympic Park.

I walked by little sculptures and displays throughout the route, trying to picture two years prior, when a lot visitors checking out the park.

I got to the stadium but there was construction, and the perimeter was blocked off. I walked around it to the ArcelorMittal Orbit, of which I was still confused by the concept. I noticed a few class field trip groups in that area as I sat down on a bench to take a break and have some snacks.

Aquatic Center. Couldn't find visitor entrance.

I walked some more towards the Aquatic Center and found the entrance where there were young kids coming in and out of swim practice, but I couldn’t see any information about checking out the pool. I walked around and peeked through the tinted windows and noticed a standard looking Olympic-sized pool, so I probably saved some time and money by not going inside anyway.

I walked back towards the shopping center to give it a browse, but there were very few interesting shops to peak my interests.

London Eye and Jubilee Gardens

The London Eye had a long line, so I avoided it, as much as I wanted to have an elevated view of London. I did take a quick look of the timeline exhibit of the Jubilee Gardens nearby and learned about the history of that street block in the past century.

Big Ben

Took pictures of it, including selfies from Westminster Bridge, like all the other tourists.

Big Ben and London Eye during the day.

St James’ Park

I continued down Westminster Bridge and made my way past a couple of people in suits and suddenly, the scene turned very manicured and recognizable from scenes I had seen on the news. I didn’t know where I was exactly at first, though I had a hunch. I saw park maps pointing towards the Buckinham Palace so I strolled through the park, enjoying the walk and the sights of little bridges and lakes.

Buckingham Palace

Out of St. James’ Park I noticed really tall, fancy looking gates and finally seeing the palace in the distance with a giant traffic circle in between. It took me a while to figure out the quickest way to get to the front of the palace, and that was a series of crosswalks and detours. At many points, I was tempted to just run toward the middle circle when there weren’t cars, but I didn’t do it because 1) it was rare and unpredictable to spot cars going by; I was confused which traffic lights were for which lanes, and 2) with it being the Buckingham Palace, I was afraid there would be security catching me and ordering me to leave the premises. So I took the long and proper way to get in front of the palace, took a “few” photos, and moved on. It was after noon so the Changing of the Guards already happened that day anyway, so there was very little reason to stay there.

Trafalgar Square

After lunch at Dishoom, I met up with my former creative director, a British woman, who contacted me earlier that day when she found out I was in town (after I sent a selfie with Big Ben to her and another former manager who used to live in London). We walked to Trafalgar Square, and she told me the history and significance of it because I knew absolutely nothing about it, not even how to pronounce it, until that afternoon. (I still have very little understanding of it.) To me, Trafalgar Square was a really big square with a lion sculpture in front of the National Gallery, and a giant column in the middle. We took a few pics and moved on.

South Bank, Tate, Globe Theatre

We made our way toward the Thames, crossed the Golden Jubilee Bridge, and walked along the South Bank while she became my personal tour guide and gave me a very brief history of the area.

We stopped by the Tate Modern and checked out the exhibition they had in the lobby before resuming our walk by the Thames. She pointed out Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, which I wasn’t expecting and also felt sort of hidden if she hadn’t pointed it out to me. I took an obligatory photo and continued our walk.

Clink Street, Golden Hinde II, and London Bridge

She then took me down Clink Street to show the really old English buildings and the way streets used to be. We arrived at the Golden Hinde II, which was a replica or something of a ship with great history, which I forgot.

Then we ended our tour at the foot of the London Bridge as she had to meet up with other friends. She pointed out the Tower Bridge in the distance, which I could almost see, but that was as close as I got to it in the day time. I had seen it the night before when my cousin drove accross it, with lights beaming on the over-the-top ornate details. I was tired from the long walk by the river so I decided that was good enough and I should head to my next destination instead.

As close to Tower Bridge as I got in the daytime.

Abbey Road

It took me two tries to get to the right place. Somehow I thought the station to get off was Kingsbury, but a double-check via some random wifi outside of Kingsbury station revealed that I was supposed to get off at St. John’s Wood.

It was getting dark and looked like about to rain, so I walked as quickly as I could toward the pin on my semi-cached map. The intersection was a fork, and it took me a while to figure out the best place to take a picture of the famous crosswalk. I debated whether I should get a picture of me doing the pose. I thought it was cheesy and awkward to be just one person in the picture. But I did see a group of ladies being directed by some guy who seemed to be hanging around with an iPad for this purpose, so I took photos of their process.

Some guy rehearsing visitors on the pose.

The pose.

After seeing them take the photo, there was little else to do; it really was just a crosswalk. So I made my way back to the station, but not before getting the start of a downpour.

Food

A note about my relationship with food: I am more of a “eat to live” type of guy. In my regular daily life, I try to eat very healthy, and I splurge a little bit once in a while. When I’m traveling, I loosen my restrictions a bit and eat what I can get, while still trying to select the healthiest choice. However, if there is a dish or a food that is well known where I’m traveling, and it’s within my taste preference and budget, I would put in extra effort to try it. And my weakness is desserts.

Nando’s Greenwich

The first night, I went out to dinner with my cousin and his wife at Nando’s Greenwich. The food was good; it was what I expected from a higher-than-fast-food restaurant.

Breakfasts

For breakfasts on both days, I paid for it at the hostel. I think it would’ve been better to get breakfast outside of the hostel if there was more time for it. Otherwise, paid breakfast in the hostel was still fine.

Dishoom

Chicken dish and naan at Dishoom in Covent Garden

A coworker highly recommended Dishoom. I thought the food was solid but not exceptional. I had a chicken dish with curry, naan, and rice as well as a lassi. Everything was delicious, but nothing really stood out.

Rose and Cardamom Lassi at Dishoom in Convent Garden

Service was really great, even when I was by myself and it was very busy. They wanted to squeeze another party so they asked me very nicely if I could move down a seat, which I totally understood and moved without hesitation. And they were very grateful afterwards as well.

Princi

I was craving dessert so I went to this restaurant and got a mango cheesecake and a tiramisu. Only afterwards did I find out that Princi was one of the pastry shops my former manager recommended. I had the desserts for dinner at the hostel, and both cakes were both good. Again, they’re of expected quality but neither were remarkable.

Prince pastries: Tiramisu and a lemon/mango-type cake

I guess I didn’t have any traditional English food. I knew I didn’t want to get fish and chips because of a prior experience. However, I heard from somewhere that Indian cuisine was the most popular in the country, so I did have that.

Getting out

I took the Underground to King’s Cross station/St. Pancras International station to take the Eurostar train to Paris. St. Pancras station felt very serious and modern. There’s a security station to scan luggage, but it was slightly less organized and I stumbled my way through queues. Same with the immigration lines.

Once through immigration, there’s a giant lobby where people wait for many different trains. Once one train was ready to board, half the lobby emptied and more people trickled in to wait for their trains. The actual train platform were one floor above the lobby, and people ascended multiple escalators to get to the platform.

Waiting for Paris train at St. Pancras International station.

There was a restaurant or two in the lobby with free Wi-Fi, along with a small newsstand store, which was where I bought stickers for my travel log. Near the newsstand store was a currency exchange booth where I converted all my remaining pounds to Euros.

On Eurostar train to Paris.

From My Travel Log

23 October 2014, 8:56pm, London YHA Oxford

  • London is like Hong Kong, New York, Macau. It’s real. It’s city life.
  • Walking on Westminster Bridge, I thought, I am f***ing here!
  • Big Ben, London Eye, larger than I thought.
  • London also smells a bit, maybe that’s how Europe’s gonna be.
  • Seeing Hank and Rhi made me not feel alone. But being in an English-speaking place helps as well.

Thanks

  • Hostel staff
  • Hank, Jin (my cousin and his wife)
  • Dave, Paul, Conor (Hostel roommates)
  • Chinese guy who didn’t speak English at all
  • Underground
  • Rhi (my former creative director)

Tips

  • If there are ladies walking around, especially in tourist areas, shoving a little flower wrapped in foil to you until you take it, then ask you for donation and say it’s for “Children’s Day”, and it’s not May, it’s a scam! The first time, I was on Westminster Bridge among a lot of tourists, and one scammer lady grabbed my arm to give me the flower, even when I leaned back to get away from her. She signaled me to come to her, almost angrily, but I kept walking. The second time, I was in Green Park, where there was less people, and a lady approached me more politely. I was in a nicer mood, and more naive. When she gave me the flower, I hesitated for a second. Once I took it, she asked for a donation, and I finally could tell something was fishy. While I was digging in my wallet, she feigned interest and asked me where I was from. For some reason, I felt that saying “Not here.” was appropriate both to express my acknowledgement of being gullible enough to fall for the scam and to withheld any more personal information about myself in case she wanted to further the scam, even though I was sure she could tell where I was from based on my accent. After giving the lady some money, I walked away feeling cheated. I looked at the flower, trying to make the best of it and debating whether I should keep it as a souvenir of a “funny story”. But looking at the flower again just reminded me of the scam I consciously witnessed happening to me, so I chucked the flower into the next trash can I passed by.

Links

For More

If you have questions about specific experiences of London, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer.

Part 2: Peru (Cuzco and Machu Picchu) — Little Big Trip 2014

Part 1: Albuquerque

Why Cuzco and Machu Picchu?

Short answer: Because it’s there.

Long answer: In the few years before the trip, I had heard so much about Machu Picchu, and the photos I’d seen were always so majestic. It’s always had this mystical feel to it, and watching The Motorcycle Diaries just made me more interested in it. Also, I wanted to have been six of seven continents by the end of the trip, and this was my South America stop.

Longer answer: After the trip, I shared with my relatives the places that I had been. Whenever I mentioned Machu Picchu, none of them had heard of it, which made me think it might be a Westerner fascination. That led me to wonder why I really wanted to visit it other than that other people say it’s a place to visit. And the answer is, “I don’t know.”

Itinerary

  • Monday, 6 Oct: Arrive at Lima at night
  • Tuesday, 7 Oct: Fly from Lima to Cuzco
  • Wednesday, 8 Oct: Inca Museum, Cuzco region tour
  • Thursday, 9 Oct: Machu Picchu
  • Friday, 10 Oct: Zip-lining in Sacred Valley
  • Saturday, 11 Oct: Fly from Cuzco to Lima
  • Sunday, 12 Oct: Fly out of Lima

My Impression

Cuzco is a lovely town, larger and more developed than I thought. While the people spoke limited English, English-speaking travelers can get by in the main (touristy) part of town.

Machu Picchu was majestic. I used that word before, but it’s the closest description I could think of. It was exciting to see it, mainly because I had heard and read so much about it, and I finally got to be there in person. Otherwise, it’s just an abandoned ancient city at the top of a hill with two taller hills as an iconic backdrop. I’m currently 50/50 on returning, and if I do go back, I am also 50/50 about doing the Inca Trail. But I’m probably 90% sure I want to climb up that iconic mountain Wayna Picchu once I get there.

Getting There

To get to Machu Picchu, most people start at the closest major town, which is Cuzco. And most people get to Cuzco by flying from Lima. I flew from Albuquerque to Lima with a connection in Houston.

I arrived at the Lima airport at night, and the flight from Lima to Cuzco was at six in the morning, as most flights with route were apparently, so I decided to spend the night at the airport. In my research, this is very common, and someone even outlined their experience with tips.

Lima airport food court

I bought a tour package for Machu Picchu via G Adventures, so when I got to the Cuzco airport, I had someone waiting for me with a sign that had my name. That was the first time it had happened to me, and I felt a little bit special.

Accommodations

The first three nights in Cuzco were part of the G Adventures tour, so I stayed in the Antawasi Hotel. The final night in Cuzco, I was on my own, so I booked a night at the Pariwana hostel. And when I got back to Lima, I stayed in the nearby Pay Purix Hostel for the night.

Antawasi Hotel (Cuzco)

Compared to the rest of the city, I would say it was a pretty nice hotel. A large part of that was how clean and well-kept the place was. One time, I came back to the hotel in the middle of the day, and I noticed at least three cleaning staff in the hallway, with face masks on, mopping floors, wiping surfaces, coming in and out of rooms with bags of trash. Every night I get back to the hotel, the bed was made with sheets tucked in squarely, the trash was emptied, and the bathroom counter was tidied up. I’m sure it’s the normal housekeeping stuff that American hotel cleaning staff do, but at this hotel, you actually noticed it.

The room

My room was small by American standard, but it was just me so it was quite sufficient. There’s a full or queen size bed, nightstands, built-in closet, a table and chair, a TV hanging high up, and a basic bathroom. For power source, the outlets were either behind the nightstand or on the far side of the wall, so charging my phone took a bit of effort. First world problems.

My room at Hotel Antawasi

The Toilet-Paper-Free Toilet

I noticed this at the Lima airport, but I thought it was just the airport. But it occurred to me at the hotel that most toilets in Peru, or at least in the area, can’t handle toilet paper, and one would need to put used toilet paper in a garbage bin next to the toilet to be emptied. This reminded me of the story when Olympians and visitors went to Sochi in Russia for the Winter Games and experienced the same culture shock. Now I know why the cleaning staff wore face masks. Sign in hotel bathroom.

The water

As I was doing medical preparation for the trip, I learned that visitors in Peru may want to avoid drinking the local water there and should drink bottled water instead. Not taking any chances in the bathroom, I got a jug of water and used it to brush and rinse my teeth. It was a bit of hassle transferring water to a glass then sipping it to rinse. I also trained myself to not aim my open mouth at the shower head when showering. At the beginning, I got water in my mouth in the shower and quickly spit it out, but I left Peru without any medical problems, so all of this was probably overkill.

Wifi

The Wifi Internet was basic, but slow by American standard. It’s available in the room and also at the lobby/reception. Checking emails and browsing sites are fine, and maybe streaming short videos. Uploading batches of photos may take more time.

Staff

The receptionist who was working for most my stay, whose name was Yolanda, was very helpful. She knew limited English, but she made up for it through the nonverbals like smiling after every sentence and being extra nice so I feel comfortable.  She helped me take care of issues with my tour arrangements by talking to my local contact at G Adventures on the cellphone in Spanish, and then relayed the important information to me. I was glad she was there.

Coca tea

When I arrived at the hotel, I was quickly greeted and asked if I wanted some coca tea. Yolanda quickly made a cup at a self-serve station and served it to me. I had heard about the use of coca tea in Cuzco to deal with the altitude, but I thought it was something you had to order at a restaurant, and here at the hotel there’s a giant bowl of dried coca tea leaves ready to be brewed. I also took medication for the altitude, but I actually stopped taking it while I was in Cuzco. So either the combination of the medication and the tea worked very well, or that I adjusted well with the altitude. Still, I continued to drink the tea just because I felt like it.

Coca tea

Food

The hotel offered free breakfast, but the selection was relatively basic. I noticed only about three or four pairs of guests when I was there, which was fine, because the quantity of food was sort of low, or at least the portions were small by American standard. There were hard boiled eggs the first day, which I was very excited about it. I took only two but I would’ve taken more if there were more to share in the tray. There were sausage links or smalls slices of ham, and the usual toast, fruit, butter, jam, granola/cereal, teas, and coffees. Again, by American standard, it’s quite basic. One would probably need to have a second breakfast after leaving the hotel to start the day.

Location

The hotel was relatively nicely located. It’s tucked in a quiet alley, but a few quick turns and you would get to one of the main streets, and then you’ll be five to ten minutes from the main town square. School near the hotel.

Personal note, around the corner of the hotel was a school, and there’s a large gate. That street very much reminded me of my school in Macau when I was young. Above is a picture of the street with the next to the school with the gate in Cuzco. Here is a Google Street View of my childhood school:

I know they don’t look exactly the same, but the mood of the alley triggered a memory. It’s one of those cases of strange faraway places evoking familiar feelings.

Pariwana Hostel (Cuzco)

With an extra day in Cuzco after the G Adventures Machu Picchu tour ended, I filled it with a zip-lining activity and came back to Cuzco and stayed at the Pariwana Hostel.

In my opinion, I see Pariwana as a tightly-run grown-up dorm. I think it’s because there are so many guests coming in and out every day that they had to implement an efficient system to keep things running smoothly. The staff communicated with guests and one another seriously and professionally like businesspeople. Everything was a task; when one staff asked another to do something, the command is received with a straight face, and the person proceeded to do what was asked. There were signs posted throughout the place for guests, like a noise curfew. People could still socialize after 11pm, but they had to do it in the bar room while the rest of the hostel was lights out and all quiet. All guests had a durable wristband attached when they checked in so they know who to charge meals and purchases, and I think to also prevent outside people from coming in.

Facilities

Despite the slightly repressing feeling, the hostel had a lot of fun things to offer. The night I was there, they were organizing a weekly barbecue and were asking if people were interested in joining. There’s a giant activity board for day trips as well as tour packages to go to Machu Picchu and other places. On site, there’s TV/movie room, a bar room, a cafeteria, an Internet room, and laundry service and bottled water for sale at reception, all surrounding an open courtyard of ping-pong tables and beanbag chairs. It’s definitely aimed towards the college crowd or younger twenty-somethings, but there were people around my age as well. If I were to come to Cuzco again, I would stay here and for longer than one night, and I would probably bring one or more people along.

The Room

I stayed in a six-person room. It was a narrow room with three bunk beds and a couple of lockers. I had the bottom bunk and there was only one light in the room, so I had trouble seeing clearly when I had my stuff on my bed. The only source of natural light was a small window above the metal door, which had a slight problem opening and closing.

Pariwana Hostel room.

Locker

The lockers were tall and had loops to place your lock through. It’s a bit noisy to open since it’s all metal. Inside, there’s an outlet that you can charge your phone with! However, there were no outlets next to the bed. My locker.

Wifi

Wifi Internet sort of works in the hallways and courtyard. It works best in the Internet room. Still slow by American standard.

Pariwana Internet room.

Bathrooms

There’s a bathroom area with several separate shower rooms and toilet rooms. The toilets again had trash cans next to them to place used toilet paper. The showers were basic with a rack to place toiletries. I accidentally left my travel-size shampoo bottle at night and the next day it was gone. I was hoping they were more lax about cleaning the bathrooms, or that they would have a lost-and-found, but neither of those things were true, it seemed. Oh well, It was far from the most valuable thing I lost on the trip anyway.

Towels

During the day, the balconies all had personal towels hanging off them to dry. With my room being so crowded and the only ventilation being by the door, I followed everyone else and tried to dry my towel in public as well. But it was already later in the evening so I only got to hang it for so long, so I took it back to my room and hung it at the foot of my bed.

Roommates

There were two couples in my dorm that night. One was in their early twenties and were from England, and they gave me tips and places to visit when I get to London and Paris. The other couple was heading out for their Inca Trail journey to Machu Picchu the next morning. I know because there was ruckus in the middle of the night as people were coming in and out and asking for one of them.

Food

The food at the cafeteria was good, probably because it’s paid food. I almost forgot that fact since everything was put on a tab to be closed at check out. In the evening, I ordered a chicken and rice dish. It was delicious but a bit of the medium portion size. In the morning, there was free breakfast, which was toast and other basic foods, but I ordered an “American” breakfast, which was eggs, sausage, etc. because I somehow needed a full breakfast for my travels back to Lima, and it would be hard to get full with just toast. The “American” breakfast was good but also on the smaller size, so the free breakfast items helped supplement that. Chicken dish at Pariwana Hostel

Check out

Check out was at 11am and I forgot that since the hostel had so many people, there would be a line to check out right before 11. Fortunately I made it, but there was a taxi waiting to get me to the airport, arranged by my G Adventures local contact (More on that later). Even with the rush, the hostel staff made me fill out a survey about my stay. So I more or less rated everything in a positive light, even though I would have rated differently had I been given more time. Also, I had to do it in front of the staff, which was sort of unfair and awkward.

Pay Purix Hostel (Peru)

I booked a night at the Pay Purix hostel near the airport because I wanted to avoid spending the night at the airport again, and my morning flight out departed a little later than my Cuzco flight, so I had a bit more time to sleep in a real bed. Aside from the fact that it was known as an overnight airport hostel for travelers, especially those on their way to or from Cuzco, from the reviews and photos of many websites, this hostel seemed to be a very happening place with many opportunities for socializing, so I was sort of curious to check it out.

Airport pickup

I arranged for an airport pickup since I read about the safety issues in the neighborhood around the Lima airport. Once again someone held a sign with my name on it (as well as another guest’s) at the airport lobby. Once both of us were picked up, we rode in the taxi to the hostel. The other guest was Swiss, I believe, and he just completed the Inca Trail or something.

I tried to Google Street View the exact location of the hostel before the trip, but I had trouble pinpointing the entrance, or the building for that matter. When we arrived, I thought the taxi driver was dropping off the other guest at his hostel because I didn’t see any sign that says “Pay Purix”. It turns out the entrance was a metal door on a giant metallic facade. Looking back, it was probably like that for security reasons.

Check in

Right after walking through the door was the tiny reception desk underneath the stairs. I paid for the night in cash and was directed to my room upstairs.

I booked a spot in a four-person room, but I was the only one there. In fact, the entire hostel was the opposite of what the pictures online were. Instead of a happening hostel full of people hanging out, there were probably only a handful of people staying there. Maybe it was slow season.

The room

Photo Slideshow:

Peru - Pay Purix Hostel - LBT 2014There was a double-bed in the middle of the room, and a bunk bed by the wall. I wanted to be considerate (to whom?!) so I took the bottom bunk. Also, the double bed felt too open in case someone else happened to be staying there as well. As I was settling in, one of the staff came in to the room without realizing I was in there. She made an apologetic face and backed out of the room. But since the rooms had windows near the ceiling that were opened to the hallway. I could hear her talk to another staff about what just happened, and after an exchange of words that I couldn’t understand, she laughed as if she made a joke. I assumed that she was laughing at how I took the bottom bunk when I had the chance to take the big open double bed. On each bed was a nicely folded towel with a small slice of unwrapped soap. That was nice, I thought, until I lifted the towel and a bug scurried out of the way. I decided then that I was going to use my travel sheet and my own towel. 

Bathroom

I took a shower and noticed the shower head had a interesting contraption to adjust the water temperature. There was also a sign next to the shower that said the water pressure needed to be lowered to get warm water. To this day, I still don’t know how that actually works, but I made it work and had some warm water for my shower. The provided soap pretty much washed out after my shower. I suppose they gave their guests just enough soap for one shower.

Lockers

The room had “lockers,” which are giant cupboards with metal loops for mini padlocks. I chose one that happened to have an outlet on the wall and charged my phone while I was hanging out in the common area.

Common Area and WiFi

There was a relatively good size common area, with a pool room, a WiFi/couch area, and a TV room with a bunch of VHS tapes on a shelf. The only problem was that only I was there, and for only a few minutes, so did the Swiss guy who I rode in with from the airport. Wifi only worked in the Wifi area, so I hung out there with my tablet and surf the web a little bit. The speed was very basic, just like in Cuzco. And the Wifi area also had no roof, so it was starting to get dark as the evening arrived and it got chilly, so I went back to the room.

(Lack of) Food

From the pictures of the hostel online, the ones where people were socializing and laughing with drinks in their hands, I thought I saw food as well, so I assume there was food I could order. I noticed a small kitchen next to the Wifi area, but it was fairly clean and empty with no signs of being used any time soon. I also heard it is possible ask the staff to order takeout from outside the hostel and have them bring it in. But that felt like too much hassle and I wouldn’t know what to order anyway. So I just ate whatever snacks I had in my luggage as my dinner and went to bed early, and hoped to get something at the airport the next day.

New guest

In the middle of the night, I got woken up by some people at the door stage-whispering. A guest had checked in, and I somehow felt obligated to chat with him a little bit. The guy was from Korea and just landed. We chatted for a few minutes, longer than I expected, though I forgot his story (he may be a student) and where he was going. As he was settling in and started using the bathroom, I just went back to sleep.

Check out and airport pickup

The next early morning, I woke up and quietly got ready. I was very aware of where my things were so I could almost navigate around my luggage in the dark and without waking my new roommate. Then I went downstairs to check out and ask about my ride to the airport, which I arranged the previous evening. But there was already a couple there with the boyfriend talking to the receptionist about how their ride was fifteen or so minutes late. At one point, the impatient guy went outside of the hostel on the curb to wait for his taxi, but the receptionist told the girlfriend to ask him to come back because it wasn’t safe. That made me glad I decided to get a ride to the airport instead of trying to be self-sufficient and make the ten-minute walk by myself before dawn. When a taxi came, the couple was very ready to get in. It was also around the time when my taxi was supposed to arrive, so I was hesitating, not sure if it was my ride, too, but the receptionist confirmed that I should get in that taxi as well. Thinking back, I had paid the same flat rate as the couple for the taxi, and we both shared the ride, which means the hostel made a profit that way by packing the guests, paying for one taxi, and keeping the rest of the money.

Getting Around (Cuzco)

As I mentioned, I was picked up by from the airport via the tour package that I got. There are tips online for how to find the right taxis to get you to the town center. Once I got to the main tourist area, it’s relatively walkable. Many of the streets and alleys were narrow, with an occasional open courtyard popping up, and they are all paved differently. There are minor hills, and the altitude may make them require a bit more effort to get up.

Climate/Clothing

Time of year: early October. The weather was generally mild, with a bit of humidity. A t-shirt or short sleeve is generally fine, especially if you’re walking around and up small slopes.
My body composition: 29 years old, 160-ish pounds, 6 feet tall, prefers high 70s/low 80s, primarily sweats during exercise only.

Spurts of Rain in Cuzco

One evening I was walking back to my hotel from dinner and I started feeling droplets of water on my head. It started with sprinkles but the droplets started getting bigger. By the time I got back to the hotel, it was pouring, and since the hotel had a central open atrium where all the rooms face out towards it, I could hear the roaring of the water just continuously dumping onto the courtyard on the ground floor until late in the night. So I guess it’s common to have these localized pockets of rain in Cuzco.

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is actually lower in elevation from Cuzco. The weather was partly sunny and the temperatures were cool down at the base at Aguas Calientes and warmer at the actual site. With all the hiking up and down the different parts of the site, I started working up a sweat. My tour guide also took out an umbrella to block the sun, which felt a bit excessive at first but was very helpful and necessary.

People

The people I encountered were nice for the most part, and they did what they can to help foreigners like me. I would say a third to a half of the people I’ve interacted with speak limited to basic English. If you don’t speak Spanish, most people still try to help you, or defer you to someone who spoke English. Since I stayed mostly in the tourist areas, there were plenty of workers with flyers or their portfolio in hands trying to sell your packages or paintings. For the most part, I just said “No, gracias.” and they would go on their way, though I was always afraid that if my eyes lingered just a bit longer at the paintings, they would be more persistent and I’d have to be more firm in getting them to stop following me.

Language

This was my first time in a Spanish-speaking country by myself. I had been to Nicaragua two years previous, but I was in a group with a few people who knew Spanish. As I said before, in Cuzco, about a third to a half of the people know limited English. Fortunately, with whatever English they knew, I was able to get by with basic requests. In preparation for this trip, I tried to learn/brush up five languages through immersion audio lessons. I started the Spanish lessons after I started Italian, so it was sort of confusing between the two, especially with numbers and some of the conjunctions and prepositions. While I didn’t learn enough to have a conversation. I had learned enough words to build common traveling phrases and use the right conjugations, gender, and tenses. My proudest moment was on my last day, at the Lima airport, where I already got rid of most of my Peruvian soles and I had to pay for some food in U.S. Dollars. After hearing Spanish and thinking about words in Spanish for the past few days, I asked the cashier, with good confidence in my conjugations and grammar, “Puedo pagar in dólares?” (Can I pay in dollars?) And the cashier replied normally, “Claro!” (Of course!)

Tours

G Adventures

This was the first time I used G Adventures. The site was relatively easy to use, with very detailed information about each tour. I would recommend it if you have little to no idea how to take the trip you want to take, like this Machu Picchu one.

City Tour

My first official day of the tour package was a free day, and the day before, I met with my local contact Wenny, and in addition to all the paperwork for the Machu Picchu trip, she gave me a list of optional activities to do on my first free day. She assured me I didn’t have to decide then, but when I have, I could let her know and she would arrange it.

Arrangement

I decided to do the half-day city/region tour of Cuzco. So that evening, I let Wenny know but she still said I didn’t have to decide then, so being polite, I took more time to think about it. The next day, I told her I still wanted to do the city tour, and she said she would arrange it, and that I should wait at the hotel at 1pm for pickup. So I waited at the lobby at 1pm and about fifteen to twenty minutes past, I asked Yolanda the receptionist to call Wenny to ask about the tour. After a long conversation between the two, I found out there was some sort of miscommunication, and Wenny asked Yolanda to call a taxi for me and get me to the tour group.

The Cathedral

I got dropped off in front of the cathedral next to the town square, got led to the front door by several ladies and one boy, paid for a ticket, was asked to remove my cap, and the boy brought me to the tour group I was supposed to be with. I thanked the boy but he lingered a little bit, unsure what to do. A few minutes later he finally left. Only afterwards did I realized he was probably expecting a tip, and that made me feel a little bad. The tour guide walked us through different parts of the cathedral, telling the history of the natives and how they interacted with European foreigners coming in and spreading the religion. It was interesting to see large paintings depicting the Europeans as the aggressive conquerors forcing their way into the land, whereas a few weeks later, my visit to museums in Europe would depict the sentiment of how the saintly Europeans were doing the good work of taming the people in distant lands.

Cuzco Walk

After the tour of the cathedral, we walked through certain parts of the town while Claudio the tour guide pointed things out and talked about the history, as tour guides do. This whole time, I kept wondering to whom I should pay the the twenty-dollar tour fee. In the rush to get to the tour group, no one from G Adventures asked me for the money, so I thought it was an pay-on-the-spot type of tour, if such a thing exists. So I asked Claudio whether I should pay him, and he just said yes.

Cuzco Ruins

After the tour of the city, we hopped on a bus and made our way up the hills to the ruins. There were four sites, and there are tickets for individual sites or all of them as a package. We gave Claudio the money and he bought the tickets for us. The first site was Saqsayhuamán, which sounded like “sexy woman” said in a funny way. Right after entering, I gave Claudio the twenty dollars for the tour, and I felt cleared that I didn’t owe anyone anything. We continue to check out the four sites and learned about the history. Near the end, I more or less got the gist of the story and was getting tired and a little bored. In front of Inca wall in Saqsayhuamán

Alpaca Store

On the bus ride back, the sun had gone down, and we were brought to an Alpaca wool store. We stood in front of a salesperson and was taught how to spot real baby alpaca wool from the fake, and they said that their store only sold the real stuff, so we should buy from them. I walked around the store once or twice and waited back at the bus, knowing that 1) I didn’t need any wool clothing, and 2) I didn’t have room in my one carry-on luggage, and I’d have to carry it with me throughout the trip. A while later, everyone from the tour finished their shopping and got back on the bus. The tour ended when we got dropped off in the city.

Machu Picchu

On my first day of arriving in Cuzco, I met with my G Adventures local contact Wenny at the hotel lobby and she gave me a big envelope of documents and explained how the Machu Picchu trip was going to work. It was all very detailed, which honestly went over my head. I reviewed the stuff later on to make sure everything was set.

Photo Slideshow:

Peru - Machu Picchu - LBT 2014

Taxi to Poroy Train Station

Early in the morning, I got picked up by a taxi at my hotel. Before I left the hotel, a different receptionist asked me to leave my key. I didn’t know why, but I figured it might be in case I don’t make it back, like if I fell down the side of Machu Picchu? I don’t know. It turns out I would be riding with two other people, who also bought the G Adventures tour and were staying at the hotel across from mine. They were a Chinese couple from Canada, Felix and Grace. We made small talk in the 25-30 minute ride to Poroy station, and the ride gave me a brief look at the conditions in the outskirts of Cuzco for the first time. When we got to the station, it was pretty packed. It turned out most of the people there were waiting for an earlier train. Once those people boarded, the station almost emptied. While waiting, I bought two overpriced croissants from the cafe counter, since it was going to be along train ride. I hung out with Felix and Grace some more and we talked about their travels.

Train Ride from Poroy to Aguas Calientes

The train was pretty nice. I sat at a four-seat table with Felix, Grace, and a French man who was in Lima for a conference. The tables were a bit tightly spaced so if people facing each other slouched a little bit, they would awkwardly touch knees. It’s definitely more uncomfortable for taller people like me. The train played “folksy” Peruvian music with flutes and things, then it got remix-y with some digital/house music spin to it, possibly as a way to wake people up. There were two main staff members in our car. And they were serving drinks and food at some point, and then became salespeople selling Machu Picchu souvenirs and DVDs. It was kind of weird. The train ride was about four hours, and I nodded off here and there. Other than looking out of the train at the farmlands and Peruvian landscape, which became repetitive after a few hours, there was very little to do.

Aguas Calientes

Once we arrived at Aguas Calientes, I was picked up by my tour guide Jose at the station. Felix and Grace had their own guide. He swiftly led me through a maze of vendors in Aguas Calientes, across a bridge, through more shops, and waited in line for the bus. We made obligatory small talk and talked about our jobs.

Bus Ride from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu

The bus ride up the mountain to the Machu Picchu site was surprisingly long. It was probably 20-25 minutes. It was basically a back-and-forth winding road along one side of the mountain gradually getting higher and higher. As the bus turned at a corner on one side of the mountain, I could get glimpses of Wayna Picchu, peeking out and more visible as we got higher. For some reason, I imagined it like a giant inanimate T-Rex’s head.

Machu Picchu

After getting off the bus, we walked straight to the entrance and the staff checked and stamped my ticket with pasport. We walked past a small table where people could stamp a Machu Picchu image on their passport. After a few more climbs, we got to the main site area, and around the corner appeared the iconic postcard image I had seen for years, right in front of my eyes. It was almost surreal. From the way it looked, I could tell I wasn’t at the “correct” spot like I’ve seen in photos, so I was ready to keep walking and continue the tour until I get to that “spot.” But Jose convinced the me to just get a picture with it, because he could tell I was somewhat excited, so I did. First photo at Machu Picchu.

I followed Jose through the route of the site, which surprised me that there was a route. I thought people just freely walked around. Apparently, you must go in the direction of the route. If you want to go back to a certain area, you’d have to continue the route back to the beginning and walk through it again.

Jose was very knowledgeable about the different sections of the site and their history, which made the place more fascinating and rich with meaning. The tour took about two hours to complete. When the tour ended, I thanked Jose, took a selfie with him, tipped him, and then he left. The itinerary allowed me to stay for another hour or so exploring until I had to head back to catch the bus and train.

My tour guide Jose and me.

So with just me at this point, I climbed up and down different elevations trying to find the “right” shot. I also recorded my daily video among other footage. I said to myself that I could stay there longer, but I felt that I reached my picture quota, I was a little tired, and while I wasn’t hungry, I could eat. I pretty much took in as much of the Machu Picchu as I could. So I made my way to the exit, got my passport stamped, and headed to the bus stop to get picked up. Machu Picchu stamp on my passport.Since I wanted to leave in the afternoon like almost everyone else, I waited about an hour in line. Near the beginning of the wait, I thought about going to the bathroom, but I felt that I could wait. Besides, the bathrooms charged money (a few coins). I also thought about getting food first but I felt that the wait for the bus probably wouldn’t be too long, so I forewent both. Luckily, I made it down to Aguas Calientes without any urgent need to use the restroom or to eat.

The Return

At Aguas Calientes, there was time left before the train arrived, so I tried to find something to eat and to buy couple of souvenirs for myself. I couldn’t decided which grab-and-go type of food I should get, since I wouldn’t have time to sit down at a restaurant for a meal. I ultimately choose an empanada, and it tasted decent. I rode the train back with Felix and Grace, but this time, everyone was more tired and napped more. After the three-to-four hour train ride, I felt I was so close to the hotel, but I remembered there was another 25 or so minutes of taxi ride from Poroy back to Cuzco, which felt unfairly long.

The taxi driver, with his limited English, was trying to talk to us and make jokes. It was sort of obvious he made an effort, so we agreed to give him a decent tip. We got dropped off at our hotels, Felix and Grace exchanged emails with me, and we ended the night.

Zip-lining

I decided a few weeks before the trip that on the free day I had in Cuzco after my Machu Picchu visit, I would squeeze in an item from my “Before 30” list and go zip-lining. I found a company (Natura Vive) that did it in Cuzco and made arrangement to go. One reason I went with this company was that they offered six zip-line rides instead of one or two like other companies, supposedly.

Another early morning, I got picked up again, this time in a van. I honestly did not know how far it was going to be, other than that it was in the Sacred Valley near Cuzco. In total, I think the ride took about two hours, including picking up other customers and stopping at the company “headquarters” to pick up the zip-lining gear. We finally got to the side of a mountain and set up our gear. Before we got to zip-line, we had to hike our way up to the first spot. I wasn’t aware of this, and neither did some of the other customers. But I was fine with it because I was in shape and could do some hiking and climbing. A few others, one in particular, took longer to make his way up. Less in shape, he was devastatingly surprised this zip-line tour involved hiking. At the midway point, we took a food break, which were sandwiches and a piece of fruit that they provided. They even had bottled water for us.

The first spot was probably two-thirds to half way up on the side of the mountain. From there we just let gravity lead our way down the mountain six times. With this being my first time, it took getting used to with the breaking mechanics. We had heavy duty gloves on but placing our hands on the zip-line while it’s moving just subconsciously trigger possible rope burns in my mind. But for the most part, it was neat. While the speed of the zip-line was fast, it felt less so being in such an open space surrounded by tall mountains.

I tried taking videos of one of the rides, but it mostly aimed at the sky and zip-line. I also passed my phone to the person ahead of me and asked him to record me, which was out of focus at the beginning but came into focus in the end. That one made it to my daily video. Good enough.

My attempt at POV shot.

Food

A note about my relationship with food: I am more of a “eat to live” type of guy. In my regular daily life, I try to eat very healthy, and I splurge a little bit once in a while. When I’m traveling, I loosen my restrictions a bit and eat what I can get, while still trying to select the healthiest choice. However, if there is a dish or a food that is well known where I’m traveling, and it’s within my taste preference and budget, I would put in extra effort to try it. And my weakness is desserts. Photo Slideshow: Peru - Food - LBT 2014

Other than ceviche and guinea pig (neither of which I ate while there), I knew very little about Peruvian cuisine. I went to the Agua y Manto restaurant the first night and had a fancy-looking chicken dish, but I wasn’t sure if it’s Peruvian. The chicken and rice dish from Pariwana Hostel was nice and delicious but again, I don’ know if it’s Peruvian. Other than that, I ate mostly snacks I got at the grocery store or American style foods.

Getting out

I got a taxi ride to the Cuzco airport that was arranged by my G Adventures local contact. I thought it was a nice gesture until a representative from G Adventures waited for me at the airport, helped me get my boarding pass, and then asked me to pay her the twenty dollars for the city tour that I signed up for, which I thought was paid for when I gave the tour guide the twenty dollars. He fooled me out of twenty dollars.

And I got a taxi ride to the Lima airport through the Pay Purix hostel.

From My Travel Log

6 October 2014, 11:41pm, LIM Airport Food Court

First time in South America! First night will be spent at an airport food court!

When I left Houston, I was terrified of coming to a country where I don’t speak the language. Hearing the bilingual flight attendants speak Jibberish made me really nervous. But after finishing review for Pimsleur Spanish for the third time, I felt slightly better, at least I know how to say “I don’t understand.”

As I prepare for my short long night at the airport (flight’s at 6:30 so I go through the scans at around 4:30/5am), I went and bought a giant bottle of water. As I went to pay, I think the lady was already speaking English, but she spoke so fast with her accent that I froze and immediately dug out “no entiendo” to place at the tip of my tongue. But when she repeated, I caught “plastic bag” and I took a few seconds to confirm and responded “No.” When the transaction was complete, she said “thank you” and I mumbled “gracias” to redeem myself in the most subtlest way possible.

Also on the flight, the flight attendants were passing out immigration and declaration forms. The immigration form had both Spanish and English, but I took a look at the declaration form and it was all Spanish. I went back and forth as I looked through the form “I can do this.” and “I don’t know what this mean.” and “I think that’s this.” I wasn’t sure if there was an English version, so I really tried to take a stab at it and used the Word Lens app to see if it can translate. It’s actually pretty good. I would give it a 65-75% helpful rating. But I still wouldn’t be able to fill this out with full understanding of what I just wrote. So I finally asked for an English version and sure enough, there was one. In hindsight, it was interesting that the flight attendant gave me the Spanish version.

8 October 2014, 11:55am, Jack’s Cafe, Cuzco

  • Impression of Cuzco
    • Out of breath: hills, thin air, exhaust
    • Interesting combo of old and new, similar but different than Hong Kong
    • Glad I learned about water and toilet beforehand.
    • “I’m really here!” after being in place where street view was.
    • Inca Museum – very comprehensive, lots of pots and vases artifacts. Still not understanding full history.
    • Lots of ATMs, almost obscene
    • Lots of water bottles for sale
    • Agua y Manto – hard to find entrance, but chicken really good. Banana blend really good
    • Very few speaking English really well. Some only words and phrases, some not at all.
    • Non main streets have different names at every block.
    • Really annoying to make change for S/100

9 October 2014, 2:17pm, Machu Picchu

It’s magnificent! In many ways, like the city itself, it’s perfect. The experience is perfect. I can see myself being back here again like NYC. Maybe next time, I will do the Inca Trail, but probably with somebody. And having the guide definitely helped me appreciate and understand the place more. It’s hard to find myself walk away and return to Aguas Calientes, but I must.

11 October 2014, 11:34pm, Cuzco Airport Gate 2

  • Cuzco – so much to explore
  • Next time: Inca Trail, Wayna Picchu
  • Cuzco, it’s a good town – NOT BAD
  • Almost like Macau, people come here for the main attraction (Machu Picchu/casinos) but it’s a hard working town with its perks and issues.
  • It doesn’t feel like I’m in Peru, whatever that means. I’m just in a place with different language, different customs and traditions, and different way of living, but not too different; we’re still all human, looking for the same things in life.
  • Cuzco Airport security – just bag and trinkets (wallet, phone, coins, etc.) – no shoes, liquids

Thanks

  • G Adventures airport pick up driver
  • Yolanda, the receptionist at Hotel Antawasi
  • Wenny, my G Adventures contact
  • Yolanda, the Tatoo Adventure Gear shop clerk who understood English and accepted my payment for the zip-line trip
  • Claudio, city tour guide (who fooled me out of twenty dollars)
  • Sergei, a fellow city tour customer
  • Felix and Grace, my fellow G Adventures Machu Picchu train mates who are from Canada
  • French man from Lyon on train to Aguas Calientes
  • Jose, my G Adventures Machu Picchu tour guide
  • Cynthia and Cesar, my zip-line operators
  • Jacob and Tammy, and Henry, my fellow zip-liners.
  • Jenny, the lady who showed me around Pariwana and my room
  • May and Bryson, my Pariwana dorm mates who gave me advice about London and Paris
  • Mariana, my Pariwana breakfast table-mate (from Brazil?)
  • Simon, my fellow Pay Purix guest and taxi buddy from the Lima airport
  • Jeremy and Angelina, my fellow Pay Purix guests and taxi buddies to the Lima airport
  • taxi and shuttle drivers

Tips

  • 100-Peruvian-sole bills are hard to break. When you get cash, get 50-sole bill as the largest denomination (though even then it’s hard to break), unless you are making large purchases.
  • If you’re exchanging currency, either ask to get 50-sole bills (or smaller) denominations, or exchange one 20-dollar bills at a time. I made the mistake of exchanging two 20-dollar bills at the same time and got a 100-sole bill and change. As soon as I uttered, “Can I…” to ask for smaller bills, the guy wagged his finger and shook his head. His rudeness took me aback and I felt too defeated to try to ask again.
  • If you’re unfamiliar with how to do Machu Picchu, I definitely recommend buying a tour like I did, because they took care the taxi ride from Cuzco to the Poroy train station about 30 minutes away, the train tickets from Poroy to Aguas Calientes, the bus tickets to get from AC to Machu Picchu, the entrance ticket to Machu Picchu, and the return trips. It would require me a lot more time and research to try to get all of that arranged.
  • Get your passport stamped with the Machu Picchu stamp right after you go through the entrance (if you’re coming in from Aguas Calientes). There should be a small table on the side with two pads of stamps.
  • If you are taking the bus back down from Machu Picchu to Aguas Calientes in the afternoon, expect to wait for about an hour in line to get on a bus. So go to the bathroom and eat something before getting in line.

Links

For More

If you have questions about specific experiences of Cuzco or Machu Picchu, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer.

Big Trip Weekly Status Update – Four Weeks Left

Lots of progress this weekend (and this week).

Packing

  • Still a lot of things I feel like I need to get, but my bag is practically full already. So I need to decide which will make the cut.
  • I did finally got the two pairs of shoes I’m bringing to the trip (one hike/walking and one nice/night out) that I have started breaking in.

Tours and Accommodations

These things kind of go hand-in-hand. I had to figure what I’m going to do at these destinations to figure out where I should stay. And some of these activities I’m purchasing tours for and they need to know where I’m staying so they can pick me up. I had already booked the Machu Picchu and safari trip, but they were multi-day and took care of accommodations.

So this weekend I’ve finally started looking at the three day trips that I needed to do: Get admission to the Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, going out to “chase” the Northern Lights and visiting the Great Wall. It’s also when I finally began relying on TripAdvisor, however confusing to navigate. After hours of shopping and agonizing over price and tour features, I’ve:

  • (Albuquerque) bought the tickets and confirmed an Airbnb request to stay near the event pickup/dropoff location
  • (Tromsø): booked a tour that should be a good deal and started looking at Airbnb spots near the pickup spot.
  • (Beijing): booked a tour for the Great Wall and reserved a spot at a hostel near city center and public transit.

If it wasn’t for my “Advanced To-Do List” I wouldn’t have been this organized to finally just suck it up and do it.

Flight Seats

I thought it was about time I select the seats on all my flights before all the good ones are taken. Well, the bad news is that because I made the reservation through the airline alliance and not individual airlines, I was only able to select seats for United and Lufthansa, which sort of heads the alliance. And also, I’m beginning to realize that more airlines are only allowing you to select your seats 1) if you pay extra, or 2) when you check-in. This is going to take more pre-planning and looking up Seatguru to make sure I get good enough seats for me to sleep on the longer flights. So for now, that’s almost everything I can do.

Next

This coming week, I have many things I need to tackle:

  • Apply for the China visa now I have an address for where I’m staying to put on the application
  • Really buy as much of the stuff I need as I can online so they arrive on time; otherwise, I’d have to go out and buy potentially inferior and unreviewed products in person.
  • Start looking at places I want to say for the rest of the places. I heard Europe has more options and can be done later but still.
  • Start figuring out how much money I need in each country and go get at least some of that money before my trip.

(25 days)

(I heard recently that Lufthansa’s worker’s having a strike.)

(Hodor and Bran won’t be in Season 5.)

Trip Planning Progress: Mid-June 2014

Flight and Travel Insurance

After booking my Round-the-World ticket (the first time), there was an issue with my credit card authorization process. I didn’t find out for about a week, and I had to do it again, calling the credit card company to make sure the previous reservation is not being paid for, and to let them know about a purchase that I was about to make.

But by the second time I made the reservation, the shorter set of flights from Lima to Johannesburg were sold out, and I had to take a longer route.

Soon after booking the trip the second time, I started shopping for travel insurance. The advice I got from the Internet for travel insurance is that everyone’s needs are different, so I should figure out my needs and prioritize based on that. In the end I decided to go with WorldNomads.

About a month after booking the trip, I was contacted by Star Alliance saying that I had duplicate bookings, and if I don’t cancel one of them, both would be canceled and I would be charged with cancellation fees. I was confused and a little upset that there are more problems with my reservation. In the end, the issue was resolved and I wasn’t charged any extra fees, but I still don’t understand the issue exactly, because I thought since my first reservation was not paid for, the transaction isn’t complete and therefore not a “duplicate” booking.

Moral of the story: If you want to book a round-the-world trip, call your credit card company that you’re about to make a big purchase and they should do everything they can to make it go through correctly. It’ll save a lot of headache.

Next tasks:
  • Book flights for the beginning and end of my trip (San Francisco to Albuquerque, Hawaii to San Francisco) because the round-the-world trip actually starts from Albuquerque and ends in Hawaii to keep me under the next distance/price tier.

Immunization, Visa

I looked up the CDC website and consolidated a list of shots I may need to get based on the places I’m going to. I think they’re pretty standard as far as traveling goes. I’m most concerned with malaria in South Africa, so I’m going to make sure to cover my bases there. And I’m going to make sure I have a good first-aid kit and medication if I get sick on the trip.

Regarding visas, I want to say the only place where I need a visa is China. There’s a lot of conflicting information regarding layovers in Brazil. I will be at the Sao Paulo airport for a few hours in the same terminal that houses the two airlines that I arrive in and depart from (I checked the airport map). I need to check with the airlines and the airport as it gets closer so I could have enough time to apply for a visa that I would only be using for a few hours.

Next tasks:
  • Make appointment to get immunizations two months before trip.
  • Contact airlines and airports regarding Brazil visa.

Accommodations

I looked into my options: hostels, AirBnB, couchsurfing, hotels. I looked into the whole couchsurfing culture and feel that it might be too limiting of an experience for me for this trip. I’m still open to AirBnB and hotels, and I think for China, since my visa will require me to submit the location of my stay, I’m going to be safe and book a hotel room. But for most of the trip, I think I’m going with hostels. I’ve never stayed at a hostel before, but I watched “A Map for Saturday” and realized the potential of staying at a hostel and meeting so many travelers.

Next tasks:
  • Make reservations for at least most of the 40+ nights that I’ll be spending.

Packing

About a month ago, I started looking up packing lists for traveling to my destinations. I logged the advice in a spreadsheet (as I have for so many other aspects of my trip), and consolidated them into one long list. Then I ranked them by necessity and whether I need to buy them. I’m still aiming to bring one carry on, and since I will be going to places of different weather, every item I put in my bag must be essential.

This is my current project. Specifically, I’m shopping for clothes. I realized that I pretty much can’t bring any of my cotton-based clothes. The advice is to wear lightweight, quick-drying, wrinkle-friendly, culturally blending clothes. So I’m looking at companies that make products for travel, like REI, Patagonia, and Icebreakers. The good news is that they have a lot of high-rated items that I like as well. The less good news is that they’re much higher than my price range for regular clothes. Nonetheless, I think they will be worth it.

Next tasks:
  • Shop and buy travel-optimized clothes
  • Shop and buy travel gear (day pack, security items, etc.)

Languages

I’ve been updating my progress on learning languages. Currently, I’m two-thirds way through first level of Spanish. Previously, I had done one level (30 half-hour lessons) of Italian and one level of Japanese. I review the previous languages once a week by going through one of the lessons, but I realize that I’m forgetting a good amount still. By the middle of each review, I could slowly pick up and remember some phrases, and speak at about the same pace as when I was learning it, but I wouldn’t be able to recall everything I learned.

Still, I think it is a really effective way for me to learn. I may not be able to carry on a full conversation with native speakers, but I believe I can put together basic phrases and short, simple sentences in common situations. I wish I had more time and learn more in each language so I could be more independent in my travels. But most travelers don’t learn the languages of the places they visit, and they survived, so I will too.

After my trip (meaning next year), I’d love to resume learning one of the languages, with the intent of returning to the country (or countries) that speak it, either to travel or to live for a short time. It’s a fantasy that I have right now, and I believe it’s very doable.

Next tasks:
  • Finish Spanish Level 1
  • Learn Norwegian Level 1
  • Learn/Brush up Mandarin Level 1
  • Review all languages

It is unbelievable that it’s already almost late June, and I have a little over three months (or 100 days!) before the trip. I had been busy at work, and I had been behind on planning this trip. I wanted to take care of the logistics of the trip early on (like by now) so I can spend the rest of the lead-up time to learn about places I could check out and the culture of my destinations. The things I have left to do are starting to create stress, though I am grateful that I still have this much time to prepare, and that it’s actually mostly fun planning and fantasizing as well, since I have a planner personality.

(103 days until start of trip)

(The World Cup is in full gear, England is eliminated yesterday, and the US’s fate is yet to be determined tomorrow when they play Portugal. Interesting that Germany and Ghana (who are in the same group as USA) tied)

(It’s the summer solstice!)