Posts Tagged With: Travel

One Month to Go

We have officially hit the “One Month Left” mark on our round the world trip. It is amazing how fast the whole thing has gone! It seems like we only just began except that we have seen and experienced so much. It is hard to believe we have a whole month more left to see and do. Now that we have been on the road for a while, whenever we meet people or even talk to friends and family back home, we get many of the same questions. We thought we’d address some of those here for all of you. Here are some of our Frequently Asked Questions:

Lovely Wellington

1. What has been your favorite place?

This is a toughy. Favorite for what reason? The people? The food? Favorite as a place I’d like to visit again or as in a place I could see myself living? If you have been reading lately, then you know that Dubrovnik, Croatia certainly gets top billing when it comes to scenery. And if you’ve spoken to us, you know that Hanoi, Vietnam is a strong contender due to its vibrant nature and the ways it is vastly different from our own lives back home. However, if we had to choose and overall favorite, a place where we could see ourselves living, that has delicious food and beer, a place with friendly locals: Copenhagen, Denmark (with Wellington, New Zealand a close second). A surprise, right? It is an all around cool city and we wish we could have spent a little more time there. (I could go for one of those delicious hotdogs right now!) Although after a few days in Munich, it could easily fit the same bill. The truth is, there are just so many great places out there, it is hard to choose!

2. Have you been able to stick to your budget?

Absolutely. And not at all. It really depends on the region and the day. When we began our trip, we sat down and created a budget for each region we would be visiting. We have a daily budget and a separate one for nightly accommodations and transportation. We spent a lot of time on this, but really it was all a best guess. We came in under budget for our time in New Zealand and slightly over budget for our time in Japan. Not too bad. We were basically right on budget for Southeast Asia and the Cruise. Then we got to Europe. We found in Europe we easily stayed on budget with accommodations (we allowed $65/night), but our daily budget ($70/day) often was not enough and we found ourselves going over our allotted budget each day (I know this sounds like a lot, but keep in mind it is for 2 people and includes everything from museum tickets to pay toilets). This was especially true when we were with our friends both in Budapest and Dubrovnik. For them, they are on short vacation and they have a different mentality towards spending. Looking back, we should have budgeted more for these sections and thought of them more like a vacation from our trip. We allowed ourselves more for the UK ($90/night, $120/day) and hope we might be able to make some of the overage back while we’re here. The most important thing is that we are very conscious of our spending. I write down everything we purchase in my phone and then transfer it into a notebook where we can tally up the totals. This consciousness is very helpful and much advised for anyone on a trip like this because it is amazing how fast the spending adds up.

Brooke in Hong Kong

3. Are you still having fun or are you ready to go home?

We are definitely still having fun and enjoying every single day. However, now that we are one month away from going home, we have started thinking about real life just a little bit more. Not too much, just a bit. There is a lot we miss about home like cooking for ourselves each night and having access to all of our things–clothes, pillows, my hair straightener. We also look forward to being in one place for longer than three days. And oh, a guaranteed good bed and shower each day! But man, there is so much to see and do everywhere we go, how could we not have fun? Each day brings new surprises and we are looking forward to savoring every bit of the last month. But when we get on that plane to head back to the States in November, we’ll be ready.

Hanging out in Belgrade

4. Have you gotten sick of one another?

Before leaving, my dad kept joking that he only hoped Phil and I would come back married. Of course, he was exaggerating, but not too much. Another friend wondered if we were worried about spending so much time together to the point where we might get sick of each other. Because so many people voiced similar concerns, we planned on having one day a week where we spent the day apart. We are happy to be travelling around the world, but it certainly isn’t worth risking our relationship. Surprisingly (or maybe not), we haven’t really needed these planned days apart. We haven’t gotten sick of each other yet. Sure, there are times of frustration and we take 20 minutes to go our own way and meet back up. But generally, that is enough. We really like hanging out with each other and are interested in a lot of the same things. We are so happy with how it has worked out and think it definitely bodes well for our future.

The doors are quite big in Kyoto, Japan

5. What else do you have left?

After sharing all the things we have done already, people always want to know what is left to do. So, we are currently in Glasgow, Scotland where we will be for a few days. After this, we head to Edinburgh then a tour of the Highlands. We will say goodbye to this part of the world and fly south to our final destination: Argentina. Arriving in Buenos Aires, we will spend almost 3 weeks travelling around Argentina and perhaps even make a visit to Chile. Then, on November 14 we arrive back in Cincinnati, Ohio to the warm hugs and kisses of family and friends.

Hopefully, this has answered some questions you may have been having, or at least given you some interesting insight into how we feel about the trip. If there are any other questions, just ask. We are more than happy to share. Now, I must go explore Glasgow! Perhaps a dram of whiskey to get me started!

–Brooke

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Categories: Budget, Doccuments, Exploring, Family, Finances, Homesick, Random Thoughts, Reflections, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Delightful Dubrovnik

Croatian BeautyHello from Dubrovnik, Croatia! Our traveling crew has temporarily expanded to four once again. Brooke and I were joined by our good friend Jack from NYC and his buddy Jon. Both have been traveling in Turkey for the last 10 days and we had planned in advance a rendezvous in Croatia. And now we find ourselves soaking up Dubrovnik. This seaside town is packed so full of amazing beauties that I’m really at a loss of where to begin today. From walking over the ancient city walls to enjoying beers at a bar directly on the Adriatic to watching the sunset from the top of Mt. Srd, this gem of a place is simply sensational. In the short time we’ve been here so far, we’ve chalked up a number of incredible experiences. I know that this may sound like I’m being glib or just plain lazy, but words and photos can’t really do this place justice. To say that we have been swept off our feet by this city is an understatement.

After visiting a variety of European capitals from Bucharest to Budapest over the last few weeks, Dubrovnik was a departure for the size and scene of the town alone. But we didn’t fully know what we were getting into before arriving. I’ve never quite seen a place like Dubrovnik before in the sense that you have a small range of tall mountains which just roll almost right down into the sea. Along the way, the sloping hills are dotted with houses and roads. And at the bottom of these hills, beaches and harbors spit out directly into a bay dotted with islands. This area has geography that is unique and striking.

Delightful DubrovnikBut the real highlight is the historic, walled old city that sits directly between the foot of the mountains and the coast of the sea. We’re not talking some random, partial ruins of walls from an era past. No, this is a compact city of hundreds of building surrounded by a massive intact wall. The impact of it all is amazing. The old city makes for the perfect setting for a slow amble through the pedestrian only, marble streets allowing us to gawk and stare at each new storefront, set of stairs or building entrance. It would also make the perfect setting for the ultimate game of hide and seek, capture the flag or even paintball (if you don’t mind ruining the beautiful, clean walls). More accurately, the low roofs, sloping tiles and endless stairs are the perfect playground for cats. Which neatly explains the number of stray cats at every turn. We’re pretty sure that one cat made its way to Zagreb years ago and started saying to other feline friends, “Dude, you have got to check out this place down the coast.” Hey, better stray cats than stray dogs.

Old City, and the rest of the area, is apparently an incredibly popular vacation destination although it seems to be off the radar for many Americans like Brooke and me. The town does tend to get swallowed by cruise ship passengers during the mid-morning and afternoons. A waiter told us that a couple of years ago, Dubrovnik had a day in which nine cruise ships were docked at once. Apparently, the increasing number of visitors has caused some issues, but there seems to be plenty of bars, restaurants,shops, museums and room enough for all. However, given the sometime geriatric nature of cruise passengers, the endless steps scattered throughout the city could pose a challenge for anyone who can’t hang with hiking up 100-200 steps in a given afternoon.

Walking along the best part of DubrovnikAmong the “can’t miss” activities is forking over a few Croatian kuna to walk the entire circumference of the outside city wall that towers above the rest of the city center. It took the four of us a couple of hours to walk all the way around as we made sure to check out every nook and cranny along the way. The one-way walk around the wall, turrets and towers easily makes our list of one of the most beautiful sights on the trip so far. Talk about meeting and exceeding all expectations. Each new turn or set of stairs gave us another view and another angle to snap some photos (our cameras have gotten a lot of work over the last couple of days). Parts of the walls were built as far back as the 15th century but more recently the walls took a pounding during the Croatian War for Independence in the early 90’s. What’s even more remarkable is that while the old city endured three months of bombing virtually all of the damage has been replaced or repaired. In fact, our visit coincided with Croatia’s Independence Day (the same day as America’s Columbus Day), but aside from the sound of a distant marching band and some closed shops, you really would not have known today was a national holiday.

Sign found in the Old City leading us to the perfect barI’m not one for hyperbole or exaggeration, and maybe it’s the insanely perfect weather or full days, but I’m pretty sure that Dubrovnik is a strong contender for  being the most scenic, beautiful and awe-inspiring place  I’ve ever visited. Brooke would agree. Today was an excellent reminder of why we took this trip in the first place. Sometimes it’s all about trying your best to do what you want to be doing with your life. Who knows? You might find yourself at the perfect back drinking on the Adriatic.

-Phil

This is Happiness

Sights like this are common! Easy to spend hours just meandering and getting lost in old city.

Phil hanging out in Old City

Hands down, a bar with one of the most beautiful views in the world

The narrow streets behind the walls of Old City

Categories: Bars, City Visits, Croatia, Europe, Friends, Self Guided Tours, Surprises, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Belgrade, Serbia–A Wonderful Surprise!

When planning our trip, we did not know exactly which cities we’d be visiting.  We had our flights and a basic plan, but we did not map out specifics in order to allow ourselves flexibility.  If you had asked us before we started whether or not we would visit Serbia, our answer would have been, “You never know, but probably not.”  Now, here we are, thrilled to be in the heart of Serbia: Belgrade.

Belgrade has a lot to offer, so we decided to start our day at the Nicola Tesla Museum.  Going into this, Phil knew a lot more about Tesla than I did.  In fact, if you had asked me who Tesla was, I might have made vague reference to a crappy band who covered the song “Signs.”  As it turns out, Nicola Tesla’s inventions changed the course of human history and we all use his technology daily.  In case you are like me and don’t know who he is, Tesla is best known for inventing the alternating current (AC) electrical system.  You may have heard of the Tesla Coil, his most well known invention which is integral to the AC system.  Nicola Tesla was born in Serbia, and here in Belgrade they have a museum dedicated to celebrating his work and his contributions to human history.

The Tesla Museum was a fun, interactive and incredibly informative experience.  We were given a tour by a young woman who just graduated with a degree in electrical engineering.  Her passion and knowledge for the topic shone through in her presentation of the material. The one floor museum situated in a beautiful old 19th century home was as much about Tesla as it was about his inventions. We learned that Tesla was a legitimate genius level inventor who could never be accused of thinking small. His inventions ranged from Hydroelectricity to a theorhetical global communications array that was never completed. Especially cool was the interactive exhibits like the giant Tesla Coil and a reproduction of the world’s first remote control toy boat that was showcased in Central Park in the early 1900’s. What really helped make the museum, or any museum for that matter, is that the guides were certified experts on the subject matter and sincerely passionate about all things Tesla. After our visit, our head was swimming with fascinating facts and information about Tesla. It is truly a sensational museum!

The light bulbs are being lit by the magnetic field created around the Tesla coil. Phil’s body is the conductor. Don’t get too close or you’ll get a shock!

After the Tesla Museum, we slowly wandered through the city toward the Belgrade Fortress.  Our eyes were filled with wonder at seeing bombed out buildings, still in crumbling ruins, adjacent to beautiful, historic structures.  The NATO bombings of Serbia, which took place over the course of almost 3 months in 1999, have left evidence almost everywhere you look in Belgrade.  At the same time, this city already feels more forward thinking, cosmopolitan and progressive than either Bucharest or Sofia.  We were expecting a sort of sadness…or at least the feeling that they were still trying to get back on their feet.  Not only are they standing on their own two legs, Belgrade is thriving.  There are cafes, corner stores and markets everywhere.  The streets are bustling with people and the nightlife here draws visitors from all over Europe.  There is a pulse and vitality that we haven’t felt in other Eastern European cities.  However, wages are still quite low and the younger population is dwindling as they leave to find jobs in other countries which are unavailable here.  The city seems to be growing, but it is not happening at a fast enough pace for to meet the demand of people in need of jobs.

We continued to walk along Knez Mihailova, a pedestrian only street which leads toward the fortress.  We happened upon a robotics exhibition and also discovered that Serbians love their popcorn like Romanians love their pretzels.  Finally, we made it to Kalamegdan Park, a huge park created on a plateau in front of the Belgrade Fortress.  Filled with people, the park is the best place to watch the sunset at the spot where the Danube and Sava Rivers converge.  It also houses several public art pieces, including a series of photographs of depicting gorgeous landscapes from each state in America.  We got a little misty at both the photograph of the Roebling Suspension Bridge in Cincinnati, Ohio and the view of the city from New York’s Central Park.  As we gazed out over the river, talking about all things past, present and future, we realized we are missing some small things about America.  This was punctuated by our discovery of several Buckeye Trees.  The characteristic seeds lay all over the ground, and I picked them up, dreaming of home and just wishing they were made of chocolate and peanut butter (a popular treat for Ohioans).

We finally found the fortress at the top of the park.  Originally built in the 1st Century A.D., it (of course) has been destroyed several times over the years.  This is somewhat surprising because the location is the highest spot around and one could easily see the advancing enemy coming in by river.  The current fortress has been turned largely into parkland, but also houses the Military Museum, an Entomology Museum and an Observatory.  Hunger spoke louder than our desire to see these exhibits, so we plan to head back there tomorrow.  As we strolled back through the park toward the tram, we realized that we have had yet another day of perfect weather.  With the exception of Brasov, Romania, Eastern Europe has been a meteorological utopia.

It had been such a lovely day, and we were excited to experience our first real Serbian meal.  After a recommendation from our Air B ‘n B host, we went to Orasac.  Our stomachs growled on the short walk to the restaurant, so we were psyched when we spotted the sign.  The man who greeted us warned that they were busy and it might take a while for the food.  We decided to stick it out since we were already there and didn’t really have a back-up plan.  In retrospect, we should have left when we had the chance.  Annoyed that we didn’t speak Serbian, the waiter was brash and rude.  We ordered “light domestic draft”, which is how the beer was described on the menu.  No brand.  No other option.  We think it was Lav, but we aren’t completely sure.  After being told the first 3 items we asked for were unavailable with a brusque “Ney,” we hastily ordered our meals.  Willing to overlook the bad service, dirty tablecloth and crumbs at the bottom of our beer glasses, we finally drew the line.  Phil cut into his chicken skewers and they were completely uncooked on the inside.  Bright pink.  Raw.  After the experience we had thus far, we decided it wasn’t worth it to try to explain or argue.  Instead we just showed it to the waiter and asked for the check.  The message was clear and we soon left unsatisfied.  We’ve had some really amazing meals in the last week, so I suppose we were due for a stinker.

Dinner aside, today was really wonderful.  We have such a positive impression of Belgrade and we are excited to explore it further tomorrow.  We are planning to explore the Military Museum, plus partake in a bike tour which sounds awesome.  We’ll let you know how it goes!

–Brooke

Wishing these Buckeyes were the sweet treats I love so much!

The fortress offers beautiful views of the Danube and the entire city of Belgrade.

 

Categories: City Visits, Diversions, Eastern Europe, Europe, Exploring, Homesick, Landmarks, Museums, Serbia, Surprises, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Brief Run in Singapore

The 2012 Singapore Skyline!Greetings from Singapore! Brooke and I are only in this small nation for two days as we close out the Pacific/Asia leg of our RTW trip. Our initial impression of Singapore? This is the one place so far that has most reminded us of an American city. In fact, and to be oddly specific, its kinda like Chicago. Add in the tropical foliage and location near the equator and Singapore has reminded us of Tampa at times as well. English serves as the official and primary language (thanks to 140 years of British imperial rule), and the city has an udeniably western vibe emitting from familiar looking shopping malls, big name hotels and modern skyscrapers. In short, Singapore has also been our easiest stop in a while.

Singapore is unique in that it manages to be a few different things all at once: a relatively small island geographically, a relatively big city socially and a sovereign nation politically. All wrapped into one happy enchilada. The country is made up of a hodge podge of people represented by four ethnic populations: Chinese, Malay, Indian and, um, Other. Yeah, apparently, that last few percent just gets kinda grouped together. Like many other cities we’ve seen, the city itself is heavily populated, but not as densely jam packed or teeming with bodies. Singapore has worked to keep the city full of open spaces, manicured landscapes that include a world famous botanical garden and even a few cricket fields downtown. In fact, urban Singapore has managed to become one of the world’s biggest exporter of orchids. Who knew?

A Singapore Landmark - Raffles hotel goes way back to the 1800'sAnd how do you get such a lovely, nice, town? By making it gut-churningly expensive. In fact, to encourage a cleaner, less congested city, there are measures in place to make it prohibitively expensive to even own a car. And Brooke and I are relatively certain that Singapore’s national pastime is going to a mall. There were lots of malls. Tons of malls. Endless malls. Many of them on the high end of the spectrum. If I had really wanted to buy Brooke an Omega watch, I had about a dozen opportunities. Cost was a factor when we skipped out on a classic visitor stop: ordering a Singapore Sling from it’s birthplace at the long bar inside the historic Raffle Hotel. At $23 a sling, that one was out of our budget. But the most amazing example of a city that works to control it’s environment through cost measures? The casinos: If you’re a resident of a Singapore and want to visit one of the stunning, new casinos in town, you are required to fork over a hundred dollars just to enter the gaming floors! I’ve never heard of such a thing – essentially an admission price to a casino that only locals have to pay.

In true Kollineiser traveling style though, we’ve managed to keep our visit on the cheap. We dropped a few bucks to grab a set on an open-air double-decker tour bus. Slipped on some sunglasses, sat back and took a guided-tour for a few hours around town. These buses are becoming our preferred method of sight-seeing when we only have a short time to pack in information. The tours can be a little lacking in personality, but are certainly an easy going and quick way to get a crash course on a new town. We stumbled upon Din Tai Fung – a phenomenal, busy Dim Sum restaurant where a team of cooks create dumplings and pork buns right on the spot. This might be a western city, but you can see the influence of the neighboring Asian countries all around. Particularly in the majority of dining options. Last evening, we even took some time to go see a movie. Another little international difference: upon purchasing tickets for “The Campaign” at the box office, we found that we had assigned seats in the theater!

That is a crazy buildingIf there is one gleaming landmark worth calling out, it would be the newly built Marina Bay Sands Towers: three fifty-five story hotel buildings linked at the top by a massive cruise-ship looking Sands Sky Park. From every angle, it looks like the brainchild of a demented I.M. Pei prodigy, but it works. The city really has a sharp set of grand architecture scattered throughout. Clearly, thoughtful efforts have been made to preserve the past by repurposing beautiful old buildings and build intelligently for the future with such provisions as limiting skyscraper heights. Singapore looks at times like one giant playground. We know that’s probably not an accurate representation, but alas. The number of endless water parks that are open year round (since there is just one season around here) doesn’t exactly help that impression. And they too have a giant Ferris wheel downtown – we’re seeing them everywhere.

But one of the best things that we did in Singapore was to take some time to sleep in. Our quality Air B ‘n B stay and comfortable bed allowed us to stay in bed as long as we wanted. After running at a breakneck speed through Vietnam and Hong Kong, we now feel rested and ready for Copenhagen! Overall, we enjoyed our short stint in Singapore. And since we didn’t embark on a major shopping spree or happen into some serious money to blow, two days worked out to be a good amount of time in town. Onward!

One last note: we discovered a piece of boarding genius at the dazzling Singapore airport. Passengers only have to go through a security screening once they arrive at their departure gate. Each gate has its own little security. Brilliant! Are you taking notes on this, America? Also, not one other country has made us take our shoes off while going through security. Just throwing that out there.

-Phil

Enjoying delicious Dumplings and steamed rolls in Singapore!

One last opportunity to buy high end goods in Singapore. This was the hundreth Swarovski store we saw…this one at the airport.

On the clean, cheap and modern MRT (subway) we kept hearing anouncements and seeing signs to Alight. I’ve never done so much alighting in my life.

Categories: Casino, City Visits, Diversions, Flights, Louisville | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Hanoi, Vietnam and 2 Million Motorcycles

Shrine to turtles in the middle of the lake in Old QuarterHello from Hanoi! After a quick and easy flight on Vietnam Airways departing from the modern, giant Hong Kong Airport, we quickly made it to Hanoi. Departing Hong Kong was easy- having the flexibility to fly on a Wednesday afternoon paid off in cost and ease. We’re becoming quite excellent at navigating airports. And we haven’t had to pay any of the infamous departure taxes when leaving a country. So far, our airports have included Dayton, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Auckland, Guangzhou, Tokyo, Hong Kong and now Hanoi. All in just under one month. Whew.

After landing and clearing immigration with ease (we really haven’t had a single question in any country yet), we leaped into a taxi which we had set up in advance and was waiting for us. This was a nice bonus because we have already repeatedly been warned of shady taxi services throughout Hanoi. While Vietnam is, by and large, a very safe country, there seems to be no shortage of scams and hustles by opportunistic taxi drivers, “tour guides” and others. We’ve seen drivers everywhere clamoring for business, but with a little wherewithal, a list of reputable companies and our preference for walking, it hasn’t been a problem. Brooke and I made a quick journey from the airport to the heart of Hanoi in the Old Quarter. Along the way into town, we saw what we think were buffalo just lazily hanging close to the side of the road.

Endless Motorcycles!One of our first impressions of Vietnam? Motorcycles. I know that may sound odd, but I’ve never seen so many mopeds, scooters, and motorcycles in my life. I’m talking by a factor of ten. These two-wheeled vehicles are the preferred method of transport around Hanoi. Cars, bicycles and public buses all come in a distant second. It is kind of insane. Drivers take a liberal interpretation of traditional road rules and stop lights are few and far between. The constant sound of tiny horns dot the environment. Some scooters carry up to a family of four wedged on to the bikes – with young children in precarious positions conspicuously lacking helmets. With all this endless motorcycle traffic, being a pedestrian is an art form. Brooke and I have had to re-learn how to simply cross the street while negotiating an endless sea of bikes. The trick is to walk slowly and with confidence. And to take a leap of  faith that the helmet-clad drivers (who mostly seem to be paying good attention) are not going to run smack into you. It’s kind of thrilling. Still, we’re not quite ready to navigate the major intersections just yet.

National Day is right around the cornerOur hotel is smack dab in the middle of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. A section of Vietnam’s capital that is packed with people, shops and more motorcycles on streets that zig and zag in each direction. So far, some of the best sight-seeing has just been walking these streets. Short, bright blue and plastic stools filled with residents dining on simple, makeshift meals prepared on the street. Tiny storefronts that open up to the sidewalk and range across all sorts of businesses from sewing machine repair to T-shirt sales. These small two-story store fronts sometimes also double as people’s homes. Initially, we also thought we saw store owners and residents burning paper garbage on the sidewalk in small homemade fires, but later learned that this is actually part of Yu Lan – a religious ritual offering that happens over the course of this month. Vietnam truly feels more different from any place we’ve been yet – light years from Hong Kong. Hanoi feels raw and rugged, but cheerful and busy. A developing nation that’s driven to keep developing. I’m pretty sure that this is one of the most exotic places I’ve visited. And it’s an exhilarating place that we already kind of love.

On top of all that, we’ve arrived just before National Day on September 2nd – Vietnam’s Independence Day. The town is dressed and decorated with banners, lights and more. It looks like it’s going to be a great holiday that we’re missing by one day.

Brooke, motorcycles and humidity!As you might imagine, it is friggin’ humid here. Our heat wave continues. A 20 minute walk earns you a healthy glow of sweat almost pouring from your body. Add the heat from the exhaust of a parade of motorcycles (Hanoi certainly isn’t going to win the award for cleanest award or most environmentally friendly city) and street fires, and everything just gets that much hotter. It feels like we could use another three showers a day. Fret not: we’ve built in lots of breaks at cafes and restaurants throughout the day. It’s amazing how much beer you find yourself drinking when you can’t drink any of the local water. Refreshing and inexpensive. Our preference has been for the local Beer Ha Noi. The other commonly found beer, Tiger from Singapore, tastes like a poor man’s Bud Light.

We continue to blow through Southeast Asia taking in as much as we can each day.  We’re not alone – tourists are larger in number here, but most of the Western faces we’ve seen tend towards the younger side. A million discoveries await us in Vietnam. Hanoi brings food, culture, beer, history, coffee, baguette and more. Ready to open our eyes, clear our mind, expand our horizons and see something new. I can’t wait to explore Hanoi tomorrow.

-Phil

First Meal in Hanoi

Our “Welcome to Hanoi” Dinner at the wonderful local New Day restaurant. Two big beers will help knock the heat off!

The Old Quarter At Night

The Old Quarter At Night- Check out all of the endless bikes in the background! Click enlarge and the photo looks even more vivid! 

Categories: City Visits, Reflections, Self Guided Tours, Transportation, Uncategorized, Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Impressions from Hong Kong

Nightly Laser Show in HKThere are no two ways about it: Brooke and I have really enjoyed our time in Hong Kong. We really dig it here. We’ve been in town just long enough to get a taste for this unique city. Three days has been enough time to allow us to get a sampling that left us with a quality impression of Hong Kong. This is a city that manages to be both part of China, but not much at all like the rest of China.

As with every destination so far, we had some miscues upon first arriving. After rolling into town, we were quickly misled by signs indicating a “subway.” Turns out that a Subway here refers to subterranean passageways underground cross walk and complicated network of pedestrian tunnels scattered throughout the city. These help with the flow of streets and are far more often seen than traditional cross walks. The subways also have an added bonus of being a fantastic way to dodge the summer heat. Of course, we had misinterpreted the “subway” signs for an subterrain train (which is in fact commonly called the MTR).

Food at the Night MarketSpeaking of the heat, we have been knee deep in it. The sights of Hong Kong during the day have been plagued by some tenacious haze, but I suppose that’s what you get for visiting Southeast Asia in the middle of August. As unlikely as it sounds, it somehow keeps getting hotter and hotter as the day progresses into night. We’re pretty sure that by 8:00 PM it was hotter than it was at 2:00 PM! Baffling. As we head even further south into Vietnam and Singapore, we’re thankful that (so far) we’ve had no trouble finding places to stay that have functional, soothing Air Conditioning.

View from the 55th Floor of the IFC Tower!

Brooke and the View from the free 55th Floor gallery of the IFC Tower!

Over the course of several bus tours and self guided tours, we’ve taken in a pretty good chunk of the city. One of the great things about this trip has been being able to make connections. We were surprised to see that the “Occupy Wall Street” movement is apparently alive and well beneath the HSBC Bank building in central Hong Kong. There is a public space beneath the bank’s giant tower, reputed to be Hong Kong’s best architectural example of feng shui, that apparently has been bereft of campers and protestors since October. A movement is underway to kick them out, but it is kinda cool to see what was happening all over America also in play in the middle of Hong Kong.

Speaking of banking, we’ve also found that Hong Kong hasn’t been the most inexpensive city, but it hasn’t been as costly as we expected a giant metropolis to be either. We’ve stumbled across some meals that are full of flavor, quick, cheap and no frills just the way we like it. But the (large) beers continually run us about seven dollars a pop. The only exception is during evening Happy Hours and in the outdoor markets where there are an abundance of deals to be found. In this weather, it is hard to resist a nice, cold beer in the middle of sight seeing during a hot day. We’ll keep looking for the perfect dive bar!

The famed Peninsula Hotel!Cost is all relative, I suppose, and flashy businessmen can be seen everywhere.The central neighborhood on Hong Kong Island is a spectacular mesh of glass and steel buildings banking, commerce, company headquarters and high quality hotels. It’s remarkable. There appears to be no end to the number of five star hotels. NEXT time, we will book a room at The Peninsula or the Ritz Carlton…or the Intercontinental! But that’s just one section of town. The culture here is a brilliant blend of 150 years of British colonial rule mixed with with an old Chinese City. The result is a mixed ethnicity, langauge and amusing juxtaposition like a Baptist church next to a market with fresh duck hanging in the window. One of our favorite common sites is buildings under construction with workers climbing on scaffolding…made of bamboo!

Bamboo Scaffolding could be found on buildings everywhere!

Bamboo Scaffolding could be found on buildings everywhere!

Hong Kong as seen from central with the HK's tallest building in the backgroundBeyond Hong Kong, as we continue to expand our world view, it’s been good to see that some things are universal. A bride in Cincinnati looks pretty identical to a bride in Guangzhou, there are lines at the post office no matter where we go, drunk 19 year-olds at a Hotel bar in Hong Kong act a lot like drunk 19 year olds in the states. My personal favorite is that the tired businessman who kept leaning on me while falling asleep on the subway in Tokyo reminded me a lot of the tired businessman who kept leaning on me while falling asleep in NYC.

And there are some shops we’ve found that are ubiquitous in any city. No matter where we’ve gone so far, we can count on seeing plenty of 7-11s (which have come in quite handy), Starbucks and McDonalds. Our one regret? We might have bought our souvenir set of Chopsticks too soon. Every other shop is selling an interesting set of chopsticks. It’s funny because when you are in the states, you never see stores falling over themselves to sell forks. I can’t wait to see what new experiences Vietnam brings. Onward!

–Phil

One of our favorite buildings- The twin Lippo Centre which are said to look like

One of our favorite buildings- The twin Lippo Centre which are said to look like Koala Bears climbing the building!

Brooke trying very hard to just get a dang spoon from the counter person at 7-11

Phil getting some food from the 7-11 – A surprisingly great place to get a quick bite

Categories: China, City Visits, Destinations, Differences, Discounts, Random Thoughts, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Climbing Mt. Fuji

“Why Climb Mt. Everest? Because it‘s there!” -Explorer George Mallory

“Why Climb Mt. Fuji? Because we’re in Japan!” -Phil

The Summit of Mt. Fuji!We did it! Brooke and I conquered and vanquished Mt. Fuji. We managed to climb all the way up and all the way back down Japan’s tallest peak/largest mountain/giant dormant volcano. There are no two ways about it: it was a hard climb. Leg muscles churning, cardio flowing as we hiked from 2,700 meters to the summit at a whopping 3,776 meters  We figured that this was a can’t miss excursion –especially since we were lucky to be here during the brief Fuji climbing season of July 1st– August 31st.  Check that one off the list. The day has been hard on the feet. And the calves. And the shoulders. Brooke said it was the most strenuous hike she’s ever done and it was the biggest climb I’ve done in many years. We’re tired, sore and a bit exhausted, but thrilled we were able to complete the climb.What a way to end our visit to Japan!

Fuji from a distanceWe set off early in the morning to make our way from Sagamihara  to the Mt. Fuji area which involved four trains, a bus and an angry station agent who yelled at us in Japanese. On the long ride out, we watched the landscape change from big city to scenic, hilly countryside. We had a glimpse of Fuji from the train window; our first chance to size up what we’re going to be up climbing in the hours ahead. We rode the bus up to the fifth station which, at an elevation of about 7,800 feet, is where most hikers begin their climb. It was packed with some people just completing a sunrise climb, to others getting started to even more who were just hanging out. But to be fair, it seems to be packed with people just about everywhere in Japan. Onward! We began our mountain climb with a walk down the trail to the lower section of Fuji. Brooke and I both managed to dodge any symptoms of altitude sickness of which we had been warned. And the weather, which can change on a dime, held up wonderfully during our entire time on the mountain.

Since Fuji-San sticks out alone, we were quickly up higher than anything within sight. The mountain truly does tower over the country side. There are huts and stations at different altitudes up the mountain. For 200 Yen (about $2.50), each hut will “stamp” your walking stick (a simple wood stick purchased before starting the hike) with a custom wood burn. In lieu of views on the way up due to some morning clouds, we have stamped walking sticks to commemorate our experience. The further you go, you find that the climb becomes steeper and the bottled water becomes more expensive. We certainly passed people who were headed back down after giving up on reaching the summit.  By the time we even reached the 7th Station, that felt like an accomplishment in itself. One of the most surprising thing we saw were a number of people enjoying a cigarette during their climbing breaks. Come on, people! Fresh mountain air! Lung capacity!

So far below!When the clouds did clear, we could see back down on how far we’d already climbed. Whew! It became a little bit harder to catch our breath at 9,000 feet and breaks became more frequent, but we were not to be defeated! At about 1.5 km away, we could SEE the top. We found ourselves even more determined to reach the summit when we saw 7-year old children and grandmothers on the climb. Ego tends to click in when you start thinking there is no way that they’re going to climb the mountain and I’m not!

Eventually and with much rejoicing, Brooke and I reached the summit in about six hours – which is an about average time but it felt like a huge win. A true accomplishment! Going up station by station. Bit by bit. Man, we can’t emphasise enough how difficult those last 400 meters were. They saved the toughest climb for the end – that ascent from the 9th station is just a killer. Lots of breaks. Lots of slow going. But you start getting in the mentality of just putting one foot in front of the other to make it to the top (as inspired by here).

Amazing Views from Mt. FujiAfter a bit of resting and examining the top, we began our descent. On the way down, we met Yon and Sean – travelers out of Santa Barbara, California also visiting Japan. We were treated to some extraordinary views below as the sky cleared. Visibility for miles meant that we even spotted Tokyo’s Sky Tree Tower way in the distance. Contrary to what people had told us, coming down was NOT harder than climbing up. We were able to chat leisurely the whole way down while half-walking, half-sliding on loose rock (with many near falls) and curving, switch back trails. All in all, it made for a comparatively quick walk. Looking back up at the summit, I determined that hell would be being told to turn around and climb back up.

Going up at nightWe made the descent in three hours. Also not bad! We broke out the flashlights for the final kilometers as the sun set. Along the way, we passed large groups of people with headlamps who were just starting a night climb – which seems a bit miserable to us, but to each their own. Upon reaching our original starting point, we were exhausted but had made some new friends. Yon, Sean, Brooke and I ended our ten hours at Mt. Fuji sitting on a curb, toasting Kirin Beer fresh from a vending machine. That was one beer that went down easy. While waiting on the bus, Brooke gave me the best gift she has even given me: half of her cold, delicious beer.

Toasting with a beer!Riding the bus away from Fuji, we traded notes with some other Americans who made the climb. Wherever we go, we keep finding lots of well-traveled westerners to converse with which is kinda fun. Overall, today was a fantastic day that ended with us feeling tired but accomplished. And now we can say that we’ve climbed to the top of Japan’s tallest mountain. We climbed Mt. Fuji!And that’s pretty cool.

-Phil

PS- I had this catchy, funny, odd number from the video mash-up group Fall On Your Sword in my head the whole time I was climbing, so I thought I would share.

Brooke in the clouds

Brooke in the clouds high above!

Signs pointing our way to the top!

Burning the stamp into our stick at station 7

Categories: Hiking, Japan, Landmarks, Tokyo, Trains, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

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