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The Road to Shangri La

Perhaps the essence of travel is discovering if your dreams are real. We conjure images of far-off locales based on what we read, hear or desire and spend a lot of time and effort searching to discover if the vision we see in our head can be matched by any form of reality. While most don’t see past a warm sea, gentle breeze, swaying hammock and slightly bronzed skin, a few have more vivid visions of their own personal paradise. Some travelers have more advanced imaginations and maybe their travel palettes have a few more additional colors than the average housewife visiting Hawaii has.
Throughout history, some of these ‘destinations’ have become legendary. Whether they actually existed or not, their descriptions have driven many an intrepid soul to follow their calling, no matter the cost or hardship that may have had to be endured.


Wu Mansion- Lijiang


Countless conquistadors spent their lives searching for El Dorado, the city of gold and untold riches, some undoubtedly meeting perilous fates during their journey. Although it may have been just myth, the explorer Ponce de Leon will always be associated with the search for the eternal life provided by the Fountain of Youth. Whether just in fictional accounts or not, the Holy Grail and it’s promise of eternal abundance led many Arthurian knights on fruitless journeys. While probably based only on legend, many an ancient mariner must have spent their nights on watch keeping one eye out for the utopian paradise of Atlantis.

A more modern destination that may only exist in the writer’s imagination is the Tibetan city of Shangri La. Described by British author James Hilton in his 1933 book “Lost Horizons’ as a mystical valley high in the isolated mountains of the Himalayas and populated by a harmonious people who lived happy and nearly immortal lives. The name has now become synonymous with any utopian paradise where people might find eternal satisfaction. The novel was such a success that many areas have claimed to be the inspiration for the book’s location. China even officially renamed the city of Zhongdian in 1997 to take advantage of the book’s notoriety.


Songzanlin Monastery- Shangri La



This Chinese Shangri La is located at nearly 11,000 feet in the northern mountains of Yunnan Province. With towering mountains surrounding a valley, friendly people and an ancient lamasery high atop a nearby peak, this version of Shangri La seemed to be a good destination for the second 3 weeks of our tour of China. We would head north from Kunming stopping in several ancient towns, gradually gaining altitude until we reached our final destination high in the mountains. Could we find the promised paradise? We were destined to try…

Backpacker Days…

The bad weather of Zhangjiajie had delayed our departure flight for a couple of days. After a couple of days hanging around the hotel and enjoying the cultural treasure that only the local McDonalds could bring, we were finally able to depart for our next destination of Kunming. We were leaving late in the day, which meant a long wait in the airport before departure but the airport was nice and we strangely had it almost to ourselves for the whole time we waited.


City Gates- Dali


Kunming was just a brief overnight stay before we found our onward travel. Arriving after dark, the city gave off an odd vibe as so many of the buildings were brightly lit up. Even hospitals had displays that were more reminiscent of Las Vegas than the large modern city Kunming looked like the next morning. We would again be traveling by buses which are cheap and frequent in China making for easy scheduling. Just show up and buy a ticket on the next bus and off you go.

The bus journey was a long 6 hours. The views were nice as we climbed upwards towards our first destination of Dali. Small farms were visible in tight valleys along the way. Many tunnels and bridges made up the route. We were the only tourists on the bus and the locals seemed more interested in sleep than scenery, so most closed curtains so we could not see as much as we would have liked. We stopped along the way in a nice rest area and made friends with the local dog and stocked up on cookies for our ride.

Historically speaking Dali is an ancient city with a long past. Once it was a kingdom of its own, separate from the rest of China. Modern Dali is made up of two cities, the old and new. The new section where the bus station is does not give off much of the history that we were seeking for this trip. Upon arrival, we caught a taxi and made our way to the old section of town.


Chinese Palace


Located in a wonderful location between a huge lake to the east and snow covered mountains to the west the old city holds a perfect position to spend several days. After China opened up to tourists, Dali became a popular backpacker destination. With friendly locals and cheap prices, many came for brief stays and ended up hanging around for longer periods of time.

In deference to Dali’s backpacker past, we chose to stay at a wonderful hostel just outside the western gate of the walled old town. We joined an excellent collection of travelers, all with different goals for the city. Some were there to tour the villages that surround the lake, some were here to hike the canyons in the nearby mountains and some seemed to have made a home of the hostel and mostly wanted to take advantage of the cool air, blue skies and cheap beer.

There was a camaraderie between the mixed group that we found enjoyable. Spirited conversations took place around the nightly fire, pool table and bar area. Food and drinks flowed each night of the 6 nights we stayed. Fresh-faced gap year students mixed with salty travelers who gave off auras of many nights spent in shady foreign nightspots. Certainly, future books would be written about adventures had in this area.

We spent our days wandering the streets of old town. Cafes and small restaurants filled our afternoons. Dali does not offer much in terms of ‘must see’ places, but the town is perfect for wandering and just enjoying the blue skies and springlike weather that are so uncommon in China.


Ornate Dali Church


We seemed to be the only Westerners in town as we rarely met foreigners during our days. We continued to be a curiosity to locals and many stopped us to take pictures with us. It was rare that we set on a bench enjoying the warm afternoons without people pointing and sneaking a photo of us. A tour group of 50 spent 20 minutes of their city tour posing with us, in groups and singles until every possible combination of pose had been captured. If there is a Chinese Facebook, we must be famous somewhere.

Nights were spent sitting in the restaurant, listening and participating in conversations with young people just getting started with their travel stories and grizzled travel veterans who probably didn’t desire us to know their “best” adventures.

Soon enough we were off again, climbing higher into the mountains to our next stop of Lijiang.

Into Thin Air…

A three-hour bus ride brought us higher into mountains. Old lungs, age and overweight American bodies began to betray us as we made our way up the hill to our next hotel. Excellent views over the ancient city rewarded our effort as we met the family who runs the small inn. We drew pictures with the young girl while Grandma cooked our breakfast. We quickly made friends and through sign language, smiling and “Ni Hao” greetings we felt at home.


Wu Palace- Lijiang


Lijiang was nearly destroyed in 1996 by a terrible earthquake that left more than 300,000 people homeless. The Chinese government completely rebuilt the old city which now is a World Heritage Site. Winding lanes along tiny streams with ornate bridges and gorgeous ancient architecture greet the visitor as cool afternoons are spent meandering the stunning city. Historic inns, picturesque squares and intricately carved woodwork are all to be discovered on breathtaking walks during the clear sky winter days.

To some, it may seem a bit Disneyfied, but we found it to be spectacular as we visited Wu Mansion, Black Dragon Pool and any number of courtyard houses. Sacred and snow-covered Yulong Mountain dominates in the distance from most points of the old city. 5 days were spent watching Naxi dancers in the square, Tai Chi practicing locals and enjoying delicious meals of mysterious meats and vegetables we had no idea existed.


Yulong Mountain- Lijiang


Almost no English is spoken in the town, which made conversation difficult. All of the stores along the narrow walkways have translated signs but even these did not always help us determine what was for sale. We still do not know what is sold in the “Copper is Petrified Pork” market.

In the Mist…

The air grew thinner as we ascended further north into the even greater heights towards Shangri La. Our bus drove along dizzyingly narrow roads of the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge area. Tiny mountain mining towns along the winding river, populated by more sheep, pigs and yaks than people lined the narrow passages.


Shangri La Old Town


Eventually, we made our way out of the narrows and into an area of large plateaus filled with tiny farms. Prayer flags and stupas marked the road as the air grew thinner and the architecture became more Tibetan in style. Thousands of pigs ran wild and the clothing of the people took on a homemade quality that we had not seen in other areas of China. More influenced by Lhasa than Beijing the area displayed a very different atmosphere than we had seen before.

We were a little shocked our first visions of Shangri La. Ultramodern buildings and unique architecture of a combination of Tibetan and Chinese style lined the wide boulevards of the city. Skies were crystal blue and the air was frigid with a constant breeze. While we had expected a tiny village dominated by a huge monastery, we were surprised by construction everywhere that reminded us of a ski vacation village in the high mountains.


Shangri La Mist


Nearly the entire old town section of Shangri La was burned in 2014. The government has again nearly rebuilt the entire area maintaining it’s unique architecture of wooden buildings and narrow streets. We found our hotel along the narrow pedestrian-only streets and liked it immediately.

The hotel was small and decorated in a style representative of an Indian/Tibetan lodge. A warm fire in the common area greeted us as we enjoyed our ginger tea served by the gracious hosts. It helped compensate for the lack of oxygen and warmed us from the chill.

We spent our 4 days walking the streets of both the old town and more modern surroundings of the new city. We have never visited such an odd place in all of our travels. It is difficult to describe without seeing. We made our way by city bus to the Songzalin Lamasery that lies along a mountain range just north of the city. It was spectacular. Smaller than the Potala Palace in Lhasa but still grand, we spent hours walking through the buildings that are occupied by some 600 monks. The interior of the buildings featured painting covered walls telling the story of Buddha. Huge carved statues of Buddha soared high in the towering interiors. Gold covered urns and statuary surrounded the giant icons and beautiful tapestries hung everywhere. The smell of incense and candles filled the air and created a magical ambiance. Despite the grand appearance, the entire complex gave off a feeling of simpleness and peace. It was the highlight of our 3-week visit to Yunnan province.


Songzanlin Monastery- Shangri La


We followed our dreams and imagination to the heights of the Himalayas much as described by James Hilton in his book many years before. I don’t know if we found our Shangri La, but we thoroughly enjoyed our journey to the heights of Yunnan. We saw places we had never seen before and enjoyed strange food and music that we did not conjure in our imaginations. We enjoyed unique cultures and interacted with strangers that eventually felt like friends. While we did not find eternal life, rich abundance or a magic land of incredible wealth I suppose we did, in fact, find everything we were looking for. Maybe it was the journey to Shangri La that was exactly what we had dreamt of.


Travelling in Styles

Any traveller who has taken more than a few trips will develop a travel style. A typical pattern of behavior that leads to the greatest enjoyment of the area around them. Some will find the companionship and easy planning of group tours best suit their tastes. Some may find the adventure and self-sufficiency of independent travel more to their liking. Solo travels to exotic locations fit the desires of a few intrepid souls. The frugal life of a backpacker surrounded by thatched walls may be the calling of for some. Life on a luxury cruise ship or in ritzy hotels may make up another voyagers dreams.


Fenghuang, China


As happens in all areas of one’s life, other people are going to judge you. You will be ranked according to the travel choices you make and the way they are perceived by others. Those who follow a microphoned guides flag on a well-worn route in some old school European capital will not be thought of in the same light as those who huddle around a faraway pot of spicy broth shared with exotically dressed locals. Those who road trip through the amusement park filled countryside of a palm-fringed beach paradise will not rank well against the intrepid soul who sails independently around the gale wracked cape of a storm-ravaged no man’s land.

However, if there is one thing we have discovered, it is this. If you are having fun and are content with what you are doing, it doesn’t matter what others think. In the last 6 1/2 years, we have tried many different travel styles. From road trips on bumpy Central American highways to backpacking through the sweaty backroads of Southeast Asia to cushy long-term stays in slick seaside bungalows in toney European dream cities, we have probably tried all the different varieties of travel.


Li River


Over time, we have found our style. Renting apartments for a month or so in comfortable locations has become our norm. Places with access to well-stocked markets where we can shop for local ingredients that make up the majority of the meals we prepare ourselves. Locations that offer good transportation infrastructure that allows us to move easily around the area we live. Good access to communications so we can stay in touch and easily access the information we need to stay on the road continuously. Places that are easy on the eye and, if they are off the beaten track, not so far that we couldn’t get back pretty quickly if we needed to.

For sure, we do not occupy the highest rungs of the most intrepid travelers. But we have had a lot of fun and, although at a snail’s pace, managed to see some pretty far reaches of the globe. Although we have surpassed our travel dreams, there are still a couple of countries that are high on the list that we have hesitated to take on. As best as we can guess, they require quicker moves and less normality than we are used to in our chosen travel style. These countries provide less access to the easy pace, routine, communication and normalness that makes up our travel life. They are both vast countries that may possess the most diverse landscapes anywhere on earth. They need to be seen. We have visited them both in years past, but never on our own or without someone else’s help. One of them is India and, to be honest, we are still not up to that challenge. The other is China….and we are going.


Temple of the Sun and Moon- Guilin, China


Hello, Bamboo…
We left our tiny Hong Kong apartment in the early morning before the subway rush began. We struggled to get our overstuffed suitcases through the turnstiles and down the rapidly moving escalators. After a couple of quick line changes, we reached the East Rail Line that would take us to the border at Shenzen, China. It was only a one hour ride but our excitement was intense. We easily acquired our 10-year Chinese visas during our stay in Hong Kong, so we had everything prepared for our crossing. Entry was smooth. We cashed our Hong Kong dollars and got Chinese Yuan from the ATM. We were in.

A pleasant ride on the Shenzen subway took us to the massive Shenzen North train station. Towering ceilings, high-speed trains, McDonalds and KFC greeted us in the futuristic station. Our first glimpse of ancient China was anything but old. We boarded our shining new train for our rapid ride to Guangzhou. We have ridden high-speed trains in France and Japan, but this train seemed smoother and faster. Passing 300 kilometers per hour got us to Guangzhou quickly. We only had a brief stay in this massive terminal before we caught our second high-speed train onward to our final destination.


Cormorant Fisherman


A couple of hours later we arrived in Xingping, a tiny town on the Li River halfway between larger Guilin and Yangshuo. This area of the Guangxi Province is most famous for its beautiful and unique limestone karsts that populate the entire area. Guilin was the hub for this area’s tourism until Yangshuo developed enough to support the many tourists. Among the major interests of the area are river rides on rafts, hiking in the hills or riding country roads on some form of two-wheeled conveyance. The most beautiful scenery in the area may be along the river in the small town of Xingping which is said to resemble Yangshuo before it was developed.

After our initial impression of fast-moving trains and gleaming engineering, Xingping presented more of the picture of China we expected. The potholed roads and bad or nonexistant sidewalks looked even worse in the light rain that was falling when we arrived. The town is very small but no one seemed to have a clue when we asked them directions to our hostel. In fact, they did little more than stare at us and point in different directions. We have become used to at least someone speaking English but China was going to be different. Sign language was going to have to work.


Li River


Luckily we spotted a homemade sign for the hostel and arrived after a wet walk. The night was arriving just as we were. The hostel was old but attractive in a rough way and as we met some of our fellow travelers we felt we had started our Chinese adventure on the right foot.

We passed our 3 days in Xingping simply. We walked along the river and took a ferry to a nearby village. The rain kept us from hiking the spectacular mountains that rose high above the river but the weather was still warm enough that we weren’t kept inside much. Everyone was friendly towards us and seemed to greet us with the phrase “Hello, Babu”. We eventually figured out that they were saying “bamboo” and were referring to the bamboo boats that give rides down the river. Much of the tourist trade is selling boat rides and they were just making us an offer. It was a question rather than a statement. We enjoyed walking the cobbled ancient street that ran through the town. We toured an ancient Chinese theater that has been in operation for an eternity.


Li River Sunset


In the days of old, many fishermen in the area traditionally used cormorants to fish the waters of the river. They tie the bird’s necks so they cannot swallow and light lanterns to attract the fish to the boats. They let the birds do the work unless they are using nets. The fishermen are mostly gone now, but a few still demonstrate their skill on the river. We were able to locate one of the old gentlemen and enjoyed spending some time with him on the river as the sun set on our last evening.

The next day we made the short move to Yangshuo. If mass tourism hasn’t quite found Xingping, it has definitely discovered Yangshou. We stayed nearby the famous West Street area of town. West Street runs from the main access road into town down towards the river. It is lined with every type of tourist attraction you could think of. Wax museums, underground ice skating, loud discos, themed restaurants and hawkers loudly trying to attract attention to whatever they might be selling. It is loud, brash, garish and was quite a shock after the quiet streets of Xingping.


Yangshuo, China


Luckily our hotel was quiet. We spent our three days in Yangshuo enjoyably. We hiked up one of the nearby karsts. The view was incredible from the top and well deserved after the breath-stealing climb up the thousands of muscle destroying steps. We walked the pleasant streets of the small town that was much quieter in the mornings.

Most daringly we even rented scooters for a whole day. Riding in the traffic of town was frightening even though the scooters were pretty easy to ride. Helmetless and with no warmup we thrust ourselves into the busy streets and hoped for the best. Once we arrived in the countryside the traffic subsided and we began to enjoy the freedom of making our own way through the unique mountains and farms that made up the scenery. We enjoyed lunch in a local restaurant in a tiny town with chickens, ducks and cows wandering just outside the open air setting near the river.


Temple of the Sun and Moon



We spent one night in Guilin to make onward transportation easier. The town was modern and seemed huge compared to the first two towns we had visited. We did get out to visit the colorfully lit Sun and Moon temples on a lake in the center of town. It made a fitting end to a busy first week in China.

Brad and Angelina…
Our second week began with another bus ride. Heading north this time, we got our first experience with the Chinese highway system. 6 hours of some of the most amazingly engineered road we have ever travelled on.


Fenghuang, China

The freeway to Fenghuang had more tunnels and bridges than we had ever seen. It was almost as if the designers were attempting to make a statement. At times, it seemed we were continuously either in a tunnel or on an elevated bridge. The tunnels, some more than a mile long were cut through the rough mountainside. The bridges spanned the valleys in between the mountains where small villages and farms lay along the rare level ground. Sweepers in orange suits patrolled the roadsides every mile or so, sweeping the roads to apparently keep a nice shine on the engineering achievement.

Fenghuang, China

Our next destination was the ancient Chinese river town of Fenghuang. Popular with Chinese tourists but less known by the western world, this city lies along the Tuoliang River and was founded more than 1400 years ago. The ancient center has been well preserved and offers the visitor a chance to witness how China must have appeared to visitors many years ago.



Fenghuang, China


Stone city walls, stilt raised houses and narrow streets that lead to bridges of many designs greet the visitor in the central area. Open only to pedestrians, life in the old city comes with all the smells, noise, dampness and congestion one might expect in an ancient city. Wooden guesthouses line the cobbled streets and vendors pull carts laden with goods down alleyways filled with open restaurants and vendor shops. Having noodle soup from a steaming pot in an open-air food stall on a misty morning as the town awakened on a winter morning fulfilled our dreams of China from the olden times.


Fenghuang, China


Spending late mornings and early afternoons wandering routes along the river and across the many bridges or down the many alleys and up the winding streets of the city made for interesting days. We never saw another Western tourist for our entire stay. Chinese tourists and locals seemed to find us quite interesting and we always attracted a crowd wherever we went. Everyone, especially children, seemed to be tickled when they would say “hello” and we would answer back. So many brave locals asked for pictures with us that at times we felt like celebrities. At first flattering, but a little irritating after a week, we had our first taste of what it might be like to be famous. We could understand why many celebrities might become testy.


Fenghuang, China

If the daytime beauty of the city was unique in our travels, the nights were even more so. The entire town along the river is lit just after dark. Not a few buildings or select streets. Everything, literally everything is aggressively lit. Multi-colored lights make the bridges, temples, houses and ancient dwellings glow like a Chinese version of Disneyland’s Main Street, USA. Every version of music from classical Chinese to bongo drums to Karaoke to thumping disco is piped at full volume over the riverside. The peaceful surroundings of the morning become a strange nightclub that continues loudly until 11:30 PM when the cacophony thankfully stops. Nowhere we have travelled has such a dramatic personality change from morning to night.



Farther north in Hunan Province, we reached our next destination. A three-hour bus ride brought us to the small town of Wulingyuan. Located just outside of the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, the town gives off a bit of a ski area vibe. Winter finally caught up with us and the weather turned colder and a chilly haze hung in the skies.




Zhangjiajie is most famous for its towering mountain peaks that rise abruptly above the valley floor below. When viewed from the surrounding mountains these peaks rise through the nearly constant mist and create a unique vision that has inspired artists for centuries. Most recently it is said that much of the inspiration for the settings in the movie Avatar were taken from this classic Chinese wonderland.
We found our nice guest house a short distance from the bus station. The park was located a short walk from the park. We purchased our 4-day pass and made plans to visit the park over the next few days. We were told that the heavy clouds might hamper our view from the upper peaks so we decided to hike the lower portions of the park to start our tour.




Much of the town was shut down because we were so offseason. We had our guesthouse to ourselves and made good friends with the owner and his family during our stay. Mostly only small local restaurants were open and we were welcomed and remembered in each place we stopped to eat. The restaurants generally did not have menus and the fact that they remembered us and our orders made communication on our second visit much easier. Many seemed surprised that we returned more than one day and we quickly felt like regulars.




The park has free buses which transport you everywhere within the park. We used them to take us to several nice trails that we enjoyed leisurely strolls on. Many Chinese tour groups were visiting but we saw very few independent tourists.
On our second day, rain kept us from the park. However, the longest cave in China is located a few kilometers from Zhangjiajie. The perfect place to stay dry on a rainy day! Upon entering the cave we took a half mile boat ride to the end of the cave and then made our way back to the entrance over the next few hours. The cave was warm and with all the stairs and hills, we eventually were in short sleeves and felt much warmer than the winter day we had left outside the cave. The cave was spectacular and for some reason free when we visited, which was nice for our tight budget. Like in Fenghuang, the Chinese decided to garishly light the cave with multicolored lights. It made the cave interesting to look at but in some ways we felt it diminished the natural beauty of this scenic wonder.




Finally, we got a clear sunny day and we had our best day in the park. We rode the 1000 ft outdoor elevator to the top levels of the park and hiked trails to get views over the scenic peaks below. The tallest peaks were over 1000 meters and when viewed from the lofty trails above were among the most incredible natural views we have ever witnessed on our journeys. We returned to the valley floor after a full day by taking the skytram lift. It carried us down through towering peaks and gave an incredible birdseye view of one of the great natural wonderlands anywhere on earth.

We felt lucky to have been granted at least one sunny day to view the park. The next day the weather turned cold again and sleet and snow forced the airport and lifts into the park to close. Our flight was canceled and we had to extend our visit while we waited for onward transportation.




It proved to be our only hitch during our 3-week visit to China. We are glad that we decided to try a different style of travel. The change of pace has been challenging at times and forced us to do things that we normally would not. We have gotten out of our comfort zones and taken on challenges that we weren’t sure we could do without help. Perhaps we will be inspired to reevaluate our travel style in the future and add a little more risk.

For now, we are on our way to the next 3 weeks of our visit to China. Hopefully, it goes as well as the first 3.





Size Doesn’t Really Matter

For the second time in a month, we found ourselves in Shanghai’s massive Pudong airport. Last time we were headed back to the U.S. and booked a nearby hotel to spend our long layover in. Stretching out for a few hours in a comfortable bed and having a relaxed meal is a rare luxury that we enjoyed when we had the chance.


Victoria Harbor from Victoria Peak 

This time we were going in the opposite direction and had already spent a long day of travel from San Francisco. Our stopover this time was 3 hours. Long enough to be uncomfortable but not long enough to leave the airport. We still had a couple of hours more to fly and we really missed the opportunity to relax in the comfort of a hotel. The excitement of getting to our destination didn’t deter us from napping on the next leg of our flight. Already being awake for more than 24 hours has that effect.
We landed in Hong Kong a little after midnight. It is always odd finding your way in a new city when arriving after dark. Landmarks are harder to pick out and not all services are working as usual. We were lucky that our new apartment was directly next to a bus stop for the night bus into town. We found the bus easily and 1 hour and 22 stops later we arrived at our new apartment.


Hong Kong Central 

If Hong Kong is noted for only two things, which of course it isn’t, they would probably be expense and population density. This means two things for budget travellers. One, you’re probably not going to stay in the nicest parts of town and two, you are going to get a tiny apartment. Not really a problem for us generally but Hong Kong is in the extreme. On Hong Kong Island 500 square foot apartments can easily be US $1,000,000 dollars to buy and we heard tales of some penthouses in tonier buildings that can push 50 million.
We were lucky to find an apartment in the Sham Shui Po area of Kowloon for a price that fit our tiny budget but we would have to make a sacrifice in terms of space. Our smallest apartment ever was in Paris and it was 140 square feet. It was hard to imagine we were going even smaller here. This time we were only going to have 80 square feet! Luckily we would be on the 12th floor and would have a nice view over the city. We hoped that skyline views would make the apartment feel bigger than it was. If only we could get our old and tired bodies up the rickety wooden ladder to the elevated bed each night, perhaps a month in our tiny home would be tolerable.


Temple Street Market



Sham Shui Po does not put on the most attractive face that Hong Kong has to offer, especially to our jetlagged eyes at 1 AM in the morning. The buildings are pretty worn and the streets are very narrow. Everyone lives in buildings from 10 to 40 stories, with the taller ones generally being the newest. Busy storefronts line the sidewalks and many of the streets are pedestrian only, so temporary stalls have opened in the streets also. Clothes are hung to dry outside of every window and traffic is in endless movement. We made our way up the tiny elevator and through the crowded hallways to our room. It looked even smaller than the pictures, but the skyline view lit up as it was, was quite beautiful and made us excited to start our visit, after a hot shower and a nice long sleep.
We spent our first few days getting the house organized and seeing the main sights of the town. We learned the metro system and found groceries. Markets were close by and a metro stop was literally outside our building.


Hong Kong Apartments



The metro is one of the best in the world and can take you virtually anywhere in town within 30 minutes. Despite being swarmed at all hours it was easy to navigate. We bought convenient Octopus cards which make ticketing a breeze. The cars were clean and safe. Signage was available in English, although we found that very few people speak English. We were generally the only non-Chinese riders in our area of town and found many young children stared at us when we were riding. We understood that being a foot taller and 70 pounds heavier than everyone else would be quite startling to young eyes. With a wave and a smile, we could easily make friends with them and this generally got other people smiling and entertained us for our ride.


Star Ferry

We started our visit by making our way around Kowloon and the main areas of Hong Kong Island. Our first look at Victoria Harbor was from the famous Star Ferry. For nearly 100 years the tiny boats have provided service between Hong Kong Central and Tsim Sha Tsui on the Kowloon side. For a fare of around 30 cents, they carry you on the 9-minute ride across the harbor. The skyline, when viewed from sea level is breathtaking. The 10th highest building in the world is here and several others are over 1000 feet. It is said that Hong Kong has more buildings over 14 stories than New York City.


Victoria Harbor

Walking through the streets on the island side of the harbor was amazing. Like man-made canyons, the streets cut a narrow path through the towering buildings that lie beside them. Not much of the past has been preserved here as every bit of the tiny amount of buildable land has been used to its maximum potential. Very few of the colonial British buildings have been saved. We had just watched “The World of Suzie Wong” a couple of days earlier and the classic stone buildings and easy access waterfront shown in the movie have all been replaced by glass and steel. Suzie definitely doesn’t live here anymore!


Hong Kong Convention Center

The hills rise quickly from the Central district towards Victoria Peak. The steepness could be intimidating if not for the Mid-level escalators. This series of moving stairs, the longest in the world, whisk you easily upwards until you are well above the shining harbor below. From the top you can slowly wind your way back down the narrow streets and alleys, being sure to stop in one of the trendy bars or restaurants found in these upscale neighborhoods. Art galleries and antique shops abound and we always made sure to stop in one of the many tasty bakeries along the way.


Hong Kong Trams

Back down the hill, we found the easiest way to make our way was by tram. Referred to locally as “ding ding’s” the double-decker electric trams are the easiest and cheapest way to get through the city. Packed with tourists and locals alike, it takes a few minutes to get a seat. Once you do, if you have as much time as we do, relax and enjoy the ride for the entire route. From the west end of town all the way to the Happy Valley racetrack, the slowly moving trams provide the perfect speed and vantage points to take in the most interesting sites of the city. Central, Wan Chai and Causeway Bay neighborhoods pass by, each unique and interesting in its own way.
Of course, the highlight of anyone’s visit is to take in the spectacular view from the top of Victoria Peak. Views of the skyline and harbor are jaw-dropping in the daytime and even more so at night. It is even possible to see off the back side of the peak to the other side of the island. These views probably give a better idea of what visitors saw many years ago.


Nan Lian Gardens

Touring all through the madness of the city can be exhausting after a few days but that proved to not be a problem. We spent days visiting the many urban parks around the area. Kowloon Park and Nan Lian Park were favorites and gorgeous but the best still had to be Hong Kong Park on the island. A teacup museum in a colonial building, an arboretum and a beautiful aviary surround a lake and waterfall that seemed miles from the city but, in fact, were right in the center.
We also found that most of the museums in town were free. What an excellent idea! We found the Dr. Sun Yat-sen Museum interesting and in an excellent building. The heritage museum in Kowloon Park explained the architecture of the town. The hands-down best museum was the Hong Kong Museum of History. It explained Hong Kong’s history from prehistoric times all the way to the turnover to China. Entire temples, Chinese opera stages and colonial-era towns were built inside. Histories of the different ethnic cultures and examples of their villages were built. Full-size boats and displays of the Japanese occupation were outstanding. We expected to stay for an hour but ended up spending an entire day. A highlight of the city that shouldn’t be missed.


Tai O Fishing Village

Eventually, we had to get out of the city for a while. We set off first for another island called Lantau. On the far side of the island is a small fishing village called Tai O. A metro and long bus ride seemingly took us back in time to a more simpler time when Hong Kong was just a fishing town. Boats instead of roads carried people to their houses built on stilts. It was a weekend and jammed with tourists, but we still enjoyed visiting temples, food stalls and restaurants all on elevated walkways and bridges. We even took a 30-minute boat ride to see dolphins. We didn’t see dolphins but the inexpensive price of the tour still justified the chance to see the town and coastline from the water.


Tai O Sunset

Our longest adventure was by hydrofoil to the former Portuguese settlement of Macau. The hour-long ride at speeds up to 50 knots was fun and was just about 1 hour. Macau is packed with tourists from China who come to visit the massive casinos located there. We were more interested in seeing some of the historic Old Town. The style and architecture of the buildings definitely reminded us of Lisbon. The route from Senado Square to the ruins of St. Paul’s Church was packed with shoppers but we still were able to enjoy some of the old world style that seems to have been erased in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, we had to leave much too soon and perhaps would like to return sometime for a longer visit. Standing on top of the ancient Monte Fort gave us commanding views over the town and made us realize how much we didn’t have a chance to see.


Hong Kong Laser Show

As our stay continued we actually stayed around our own Sham Shui Po area more and more. Each street seemed to feature a different specialty. One had toys, one had electronics, another had food. We visited streets filled with flower shops and another that sold everything to do with birds. We especially enjoyed watching the old men who take their caged birds with them for a “walk” and socialize with each other along the way. Another street is called goldfish street and is lined with aquarium and pet stores. Another street morphed into the biggest display of Christmas items we had ever seen. Each alley and street provided a unique experience.


Ruins of St. Paul’s Church- Macau

Maybe our favorite times were in the evenings in our tiny apartment. With the curtains open and the lights of the city on full display, we spent what seemed like hours just looking out over the city. Nightly laser shows over the harbor were visible from our viewpoint and watching the endlessly bustling crowds on the streets below will be memories we won’t soon forget.

Into the Trees

I don’t believe that there is an ancient lava field flowing beneath the ground. I don’t think it causes an electric current that draws people from all over the earth to its center. I don’t think that the electric current has curative powers or even gives people extrasensory powers. I don’t think restorative energy flows upward from the ground and can be felt if you believe in it hard enough. The well-dressed lady in the art gallery does. In fact, she is convinced of it. She told me about it at length after I had complimented her on her ceramic work and had only known her for a few minutes. She described it in detail, with eyes twinkling and voice whispering. I think she was speaking from a place in her heart and was being totally serious. She truly believed…but I didn’t. I wish I did…but I don’t.


Joshua Tree National Park

I do however believe that there are places where magic might sometimes be real. Places where people from different backgrounds and with different ideas come together to share dreams and create energy that can be felt. I usually find these places a little ways off the normal path. In places that are a little uncomfortable or difficult to live in without seeking out the assistance of others. Somewhere beyond the first line of mountains, or in the thick of a forest. Up a long valley just past where the last bridge crosses the river. Maybe in a desert full of strange trees and giant granite boulders that rise up out of the ground in odd ways and with shapes that require you to name them. Places so high and so dry that most people without enough time would write them off as a wasteland. Places with immense beauty that might not be apparent at first glance.


Joshua Tree Sunset

These places are usually populated by people that see things a little differently. Artists, writers and creative types abound. Maybe a few outcasts are mixed in. Hippies, bikers, free thinkers and people that found life in the normal places just wasn’t for them. Maybe people that are looking for a new beginning or at least an opportunity to live with a few less rules. Conformity is generally not necessary but acceptance of others is.


Arch Rock

I think when we eventually decide to stop traveling we would like to settle in one of these places. We have discovered a few of them along our way. After being exposed to so many different cultures, cuisines and ways of life for the last few years, it seems it might be difficult to return to what we used to call normal. Regular life just feels uncomfortable.


Joshua Tree Boulders

We can feel the end of the journey calling. It is still only a light viewed faintly in the distance, but with each passing month, it grows brighter. It feels as though we should begin planning an exit strategy. For the first time in our lives, we will be choosing a place to live based on what our interests are and not just what we are forced into by school, jobs or convenience. It is a more difficult choice than we expected.


Joshua Tree Sunrise

We haven’t retraced our path often over the last 7 years. 3 years ago we spent a month in the high desert of Southern California. We thought it had some of the magic we might be looking for. The Mojave Desert town of Joshua Tree just felt right then and we wanted to see if it could be a permanent stop some day. It might be worth taking a second look.


Joshua Tree Sunset

Joshua Tree is a small town of only 4,000 or so people. An eclectic mix of citizens populates the town. Artists, hippies, retirees, free spirits and ex-military are common. Rock climbers, musicians, bikers, tourists and temporary residents fill out the mix. The town anchors one of 3 entrances to Joshua Tree National Park and, for us, provides the easiest access to the most attractive parts of the park. It has one bar, one coffee shop and a cool vibe that we like.



Roy’s Motel and Café- Amboy, California

We arrived during the two-week arts festival. Resident artists open their homes and studios to visitors and it provides a unique window into that segment of the population. It is an excellent time to make your way around the area meeting artists. The houses are spread out and visiting a couple dozen takes you along many dirt roads and into many areas you might have missed otherwise. The artists are all friendly and seem glad you made the effort to find them.


Along Route 66

We bought a yearly pass to the park and put it to good use. We visited almost daily during our stay. We hiked desert trails, climbed boulders and saw lots of animals. Bighorn sheep, coyotes, rabbits and even a bobcat made appearances during our stay. We found the best time for sightings was during the weekdays around sunset when we mostly had the park to ourselves. After record rainfalls last winter the animals are plentiful and look heavier than we had seen in the past. We even pulled over to watch many tarantulas cross a section of road one evening just after the sun went down.


Cholla Cactus Garden

Of course, sunset and sunrise are the most beautiful times to visit the park. If the skies are filled with the right amount of clouds there is a good chance for incredible sunsets. The vivid colors are amazing, sometimes so bright it appears the entire sky has caught fire. Cloudless days can be just as amazing if you visit the park after dark. The Mojave Desert has some of the darkest skies anywhere in America and on moonless nights the stars can be incredible. We brought snacks and chairs and made our way a short distance into the desert and waited for the light show to begin. The Milky Way was incredibly bright and the stars shined so intensely that I don’t remember ever seeing so many. The desert was so dark and quiet, it seemed we were alone in the world.


Joshua Tree Star Trails

We enjoyed our afternoons relaxing around the town. Whether discussing authors in the local bookstore, having a chat with the librarian or enjoying a perfectly brewed cup of coffee under a shade tree on a patio, most days were spent relaxing in the perfect weather. While the rest of the country has taken a turn toward winter, we enjoyed warm afternoons and pleasantly cool nights for our entire visit.


Barker Dam

We were surprised at how easy it was to make friends with people we met. We enjoyed their stories and they seemed impressed with our travel stories from recent years. We had an opportunity to look at a few houses during our stay. The town has become increasingly popular with people from the Los Angeles area. Good because they have brought with them great style and have made many improvements to some of the local housing. Unfortunately, with the new popularity comes increased prices and less availability of housing.


Route 66 Sunset and Moonrise

I don’t know what the future will bring for us once we decide to settle down more permanently. We may find a home here in the high desert or we may not. If we do, I think we will find an incredibly beautiful place with lots of friendly and interesting people. If we don’t then we at least got a second look at a place that has a little magic and a lot of beauty amongst the boulders and crazy trees that we found during our stay.


Joshua Tree Trails


Things as They Ought to Be

It’s noticeable as soon as you disembark the train from Tokyo. Things just look a little different. Everyone’s shirt is not fully tucked in. People are a little rounder and some are a few weeks past due for a haircut. There is litter on the street. Not a lot, but after the scrubbed streets of Kyoto and Tokyo, it is visible. A couple of older guys stand under the “No Smoking” signs, sharing a story and puffing away. Both have on baseball hats and looked like they didn’t spend a lot of time choosing their wardrobe today. The smell of fried food drifts from somewhere nearby. People tend to wander, or maybe just walk with a little less purpose here. Voices are a little louder and everyone doesn’t stay in line. It’s immediately clear you have arrived in a different part of Japan. Welcome to Osaka.




Osaka Castle



We struggled to choose a 3rd city for our visit to Japan. Kyoto had been an obvious choice. History, culture and sophistication. Tokyo was an easy decision. Modern, stylish and fast paced. We thought about something to the north or in the green countryside. Maybe something in the southern islands. Our budget is pretty tight and we were feeling pinched after rent, food and transportation. We really needed to find a place that had a lot to do, good transportation and wouldn’t require too many moves.




We had begun our travels in Japan at Osaka’s huge Kansai Airport a couple of months earlier. Normally we are one way travelers, but this time had chosen a round trip from San Francisco. So eventually we were going back to Osaka. Perhaps we could locate ourselves in Osaka and save some time and money on connections later in the month. Could we find enough to keep us occupied for a whole month?

Osaka is known for two things in Japan. Business and food. A common greeting in Osaka is “Have you made any money today”?. Even in a country as obsessed with food as Japan, Osaka stands out as being a mecca for foodies. It is said that while a person from Tokyo will spend his last dollar on fashion, a person from Osaka will always opt for food. One restaurants motto is “Eat until you are bankrupt!”. Maybe this explained the slightly expanded beltlines that we noticed upon arrival.



Osaka Castle

Our apartment was once again very small, but well located in the Namba area. Close to transportation and with a nice view from the 11th floor balcony, the apartment offered everything we needed, although without many luxuries. It was bright and clean and the simple furnishings had been recently upgraded. It was perfect and proved to be everything we needed for a comfortable stay.

Best of all, we were just a few minutes walk from the famous tourist area of Dotonbori and visited it often during our stay. Dotonbori is a neighborhood that stretches for about 8 blocks along the Dotonbori Canal in the Minami area of town. People have come here for hundreds of years and the area is so famous throughout Japan that it has produced some iconic images. During the day it is packed by shoppers and tourists buying souvenirs and eating any variety of foods, many cooked right on the street. At night the area really comes alive after the sun goes down and the lights come up.





Filled with huge neon billboards, music, smells of fried food and blinking lights the area is reminiscent of a beachside boardwalk tourist area that provides anything to amuse a visitor. Wall dragons, giant moving crabs, huge illuminated puffer fish and a famous mechanical drumming clown called Kuidaore Taro have become iconic symbols of the city. Kuidaore was a mascot for a popular restaurant and generations of Japanese built family memories posing for photos in front of the clown. The restaurant is no longer open but Kuidaore has a special place in the center of the strip where all visitors must continue traditions and pause for a group photo.



Kuidaore Taro

Probably the most favorite street food here is called Takoyaki. Basically a golf ball sized pancake made from batter formed in a special rounded pan, this theatrically cooked street food is enjoyed by nearly everyone and is hard to pass by without sampling more than once. Tako (octopus) and tempura bits are added to the ball as it is being cooked. Once golden and rounded, a special sauce and mayonnaise are drizzled over the top and dried bonito is sprinkled on top to give a nice crunch. By description they may not appeal,, but they are actually delicious, cheap and very addictive.
The entire area was completely destroyed during World War II but has returned bigger and brighter than ever. Perhaps our favorite area to stroll were among the tiny alleys just south of the main street of Dotonbori. The alleys are lined with tiny restaurants and bars that provide a glimpse of the area when it was a theatre district long ago. The tiniest alley of all has a street museum which uniquely gives a feeling of what life was like here before the bright lights of modern times. A small shrine is hidden amongst the alleys and provides a moment of solitude amongst the commotion not far away. Visitors throw water over a statue at the shrine so often that it is now covered with moss and is quite beautiful.




A few blocks from our house was perhaps the best street market in Osaka. Kuromon Market is a seafood lovers paradise. If it is found in the ocean and can be eaten, you can find it here. Scallops, shrimp, sea urchins, eel and every type of fish imaginable can be had. Many shops will grill your selections to order over charcoal fires or in a sizzling wok. While the seafood markets are king, beautiful cuts of Kobe (Wagyu) beef can be had along with some of the most spectacular fruits and vegetables imaginable. While visitors can be found, patrons are mostly local and give the market an authentic feel that was fun to share during our nearly daily visits. The market runs many blocks and with a more robust budget we probably would never had eaten anywhere else in town.

Osaka’s malls are not to be outdone on the food front either. Unless someone was starving, I don’t think I would ever recommend eating in a mall food court. Not so in Osaka. Every major department store has a basement food areas that are must see attractions for any visitor. Prepared foods are wonderfully displayed in glass cases. Both savory and sweet flavors are equally catered to,, but deserts perhaps draw the most attention. Beautifully prepared and packaged, the sweets are designed to appeal as much visually as they are to a persons sweet tooth. Every shiny color in the rainbow is found in the assortments of gorgeous preparations. A massive gourmet food market will usually be found on the lowest basement floor of each store. Here is where you will find the best of Japan’s bountiful ingredients. We always made time to gawk at the perfect melons, peaches and grapes that have to be the finest examples of agricultural goodness anywhere. The perfectly formed produce has incredible prices that precluded us from sampling with anything but our eyes. I don’t know who would pay 50 dollars US for a cantaloupe or 25 dollars for a bunch of grapes or a set of 3 peaches but just the thought of sampling some of these always left our mouth watering.



Namba Parks Mall

The convenient transportation connections near our house made it very easy to make our way around town. We visited the waterfront area of Osaka’s massive harbor. We found giant Ferris wheels, more malls and a world renowned aquarium. The area was especially gorgeous at sunset.





Todai-ji Temple- Nara



Nara Deer



We also had easy access by train to enjoy areas outside of town. We made an easy day trip to Japan’s first capital of Nara less than an hour away. Known for its World Heritage site temples and free ranging deer, Nara could have easily filled more than the one day we had to visit. We even had an opportunity to see a unique dragon boat festival on a lantern decorated lake that entertained thousands of attendees with costumes, music, food and intricately designed boats floating slowly on a mist covered lake.




Back in Osaka, a last area that we enjoyed was called Shinsekai. Shinsekai means New World in Japanese and was an area that was designed in the early 1900’s to represent the new modern world that Japan and Osaka were to become. Designed to be resemble parts of New York combined with parts of Paris, the neighborhood spreads around the massive central Tsutenkaku Tower and is adjacent to the city zoo and the large Tennoji park.

The area presents a slightly run down carnival like atmosphere of glitzy and gaudy signage. Rickshaw runners provide visitors with tours of the streets that are filled with restaurants, gaming parlors and brightly lit amusements. While here we learned the story of Billiken, the golden colored mascot of the area. Billiken was originally found outside an amusement park that was located in the area. While the park only lasted for 11 years, Billiken has remained as a symbol of the area and perhaps has been adopted by the whole city.




Billiken is large, golden and has a impish smile on his baby like face. His likeness is found throughout town and quite noticeable everywhere. Around the base of his statue is the motto “The God of Life as it Ought to Be”. He has a look of someone who enjoys life and knows that life is meant to be lived with enthusiasm, enjoyment and perhaps a little less conformity.




Osaka Streets

We thought that Billiken was the perfect symbol to represent our visit to Osaka. We found a city where hard work has built a modern economic powerhouse where everything once was a ruin. However, it appears that while Osakans believe in focused labor and aggressively chase a rich industrial future, they have not forgotten that life is meant to be enjoyed. Fun, food and a little less formality are obvious everywhere and made this unique city a perfect place to conclude our travels throughout Japan.


Osaka Mechanical Crab


A Trip to the Future

I have seen the future. It is filled with tall buildings, bright lights, endless noise and millions of people. Excitement, entertainment and enjoyment take place above your head, below your feet and in your face. The future goes non-stop and doesn’t conform to any normal positions of the clock. It’s bigger and more bright than I ever imagined.


Shinjuku Nights

The future is reached by a train that speeds across the countryside at 200 miles per hour. The train passes volcanic mountains, verdant rice fields and miles of well tended farmland. It arrives on schedule, to the minute, in a massive station filled with well dressed people moving at a pace that immediately demands your full attention. Like a choreographed dance, the pedestrians move fluidly and efficiently through the maze of underground passageways, all the while multitasking with the latest smartphone that everyone interacts with continuously.

A taxi provides transport to an apartment in Ikebukuro, a somewhat distant neighborhood of Futureworld. Typical here, the apartment is tiny and equipped with everything needed, but nothing extra. A slight lean to the right yields a skyline view of Shinjuku that shines brightly at night from our tiny balcony. A busy 4 lane freeway runs very close outside the window 24 hours a day. That doesn’t seem unusual except our apartment is on the seventh floor. Highways in the sky in this land of tomorrow.


Tokyo Tower


As a tourist, where do you start?

Need to find a restaurant? Been to cities where there is one on every corner? In the future they have one, or more, on every floor of multiple multistory buildings for multiple blocks in a row. It is estimated there are 100,000 restaurants here. Plastic food recreations display the menu in brightly lit windows. Every variety of food is available in every kind of restaurant. From glimmering penthouse view restaurants with the latest fusion cuisine to three seat open grills with meat on a stick and charcoal fires. If you want it, you can find it.


Tokyo Station


Want to share lunch with the animal kingdom? There are cat cafes, dog cafes, owl cafes and rabbit cafes where, for a fee, you can be accompanied by a pampered furry friend. You can dine with a penguin (or two). You can watch a robot show or be entertained by a host of animated characters of any number of types. A full on disco, decorated with neon colored fish tanks is available, if you need one.

You may ask where the nearest old town area is. A place where things slow down to a quieter pace. A place where a tourist can relax and stroll slowly through some historical old world culture center from days gone by. It doesn’t exist in the future. There are some ancient, ornate temples here or there. But look up above the ancient structure and try not to notice the second tallest structure in the world flashing its lights in the clouds above.


Ginza Sunday


Wherever you go, you will probably go by train. Metros below the ground. A driverless elevated trains passes through and above the futuristic building in the harbor . Monorails speed passengers to the airport. A last tiny tram rumbles roughly through the valley of skyscrapers that have grown around its rickety rails. You may ride all of them in a single journey to some trendy corner of Futureworld.

The metro is not just a form of transportation. It is an amazing engineering feat that is a destination in itself. More than 120 miles of track. 179 stations. 6 billion passengers a year. Grocery stores, restaurants, clothing stores, bakeries and souvenirs are all located underground. Virtually an entire city underground. With the right combination of elevators, escalators, and subways, you can leave the front door of your 40th floor apartment and travel 20 miles to your office in a distant skyscraper office building . Return home in the evening, stopping at a gourmet market and picking up your dry cleaning, all without seeing the sky. No need for an umbrella in Futureworld.


Godzilla in Kabukicho


Shopping is an art form here and everyone seems well practiced. Teenagers start young in the eclectic streets of Harajuku. Schoolgirls in uniform crowd Takeshita Street looking for the latest outlandish styles. Boybands with cotton candy colored hair make an appearance outside a trendy bistro, swarmed by giggling fans with smartphone cameras. The styles are beyond anything I have seen and reflect a life in a city that changes trends by the minute instead of by the year.


Rainbow Bridge and Tokyo Tower


In Futureworld, malls are destinations and are always full. Our local mall is called Sunshine City. Appropriate as we have spent many a rainy summer afternoon there. Also fitting because it is more of a city than a mall. It has two indoor amusement parks, a museum, a performing arts center, an aquarium, an international food area that must have 40 full scale restaurants. It has an virtual reality attraction called Sky Circus which is located on the 60th floor of the attached office building. That’s correct, 60th floor! It has a center atrium where some performance is usually taking place. Perhaps a meet and greet with the latest J-Pop idol or any number of Pokemon or anime characters. Not the normal local mall.

As shoppers become more sophistacated they eventually migrate toward the Ginza. Every big city has designer stores, but not like this. The streets are blocked to vehicles on Sunday. It is the perfect time to make your way down the cavernous main shopping street. If big budget shopping has a mecca, Ginza is it. Every famous designer, jeweler or electronic manufacturer of any note has a multistory complex dedicated to their wares. The stores are packed with shoppers and judging by the stylish customers, sales must be good.


Sumida River with the Skytree and Asahi Building


You may think that a megacity of 30 million people would be reminiscent of some grungy futurisitic movie where grime and despair have invaded every portion of existence. I haven’t seen it. No graffiti. No litter. No homeless people. People are orderly and wait in lines. Women leave Gucci purses on chairs to save their place while waiting in coffee shop lines. No one takes their chairs or more importantly their purses. Everyone bows and seems polite. Shopkeepers seem genuinely glad that you have chosen to do business with them. Mothers encourage youngsters in strollers to wave back to old strangers visiting from far away. There is no tipping in Futureworld.


Harajuku Shopping Center

This has not really been a normal tourist month spent in a faraway destination. There really is not a defining example of what it is like to live here. It is too big, too complicated and too diverse to define. It is too intense to get to know intimately. There are too many crazy things at the end of too many tiny alleys in too many districts to ever see in a lifetime, much less the time I spent here.

I was wowed by the great cities of Rome, Paris and Los Angeles. They are wonderful and each stands by itself as a great world treasure. Tokyo is different. I’m not really wowed, I’m dumbfounded. At times I have come around a corner and been stunned by what I have seen. My jaw has literally dropped. It doesn’t seem fair to compare other cities to this metropolis. It is my new standard for bigger and better. Everything past this point will be compared to what I have seen here. If this is the future, I can’t wait to get there.


Imperial Palace


Complaints about Permanent Vacation

Vacations, like sunsets, were designed to be temporary. A continuously lit neon sky, filled with rainbow colors from end to end, certainly creates emotions too intense for endless consumption. While no gourmand refuses a piece of rich, creamy chocolate at the end of a delicious meal, even the most dedicated sweet lover would assuredly tire of an endless diet of cocoa flavored goodness.


Arashiyama Bamboo Forest

Like a spoiled debutante complaining about not having enough closet space for her shoe collection or an overindulged teen bemoaning his sore fingers after playing video games all day, there is an obvious danger in complaining about being on endless vacation. No one really wants to hear your lament. If only we all had such troubles.

However, I have to admit that as we begin our 7th year of continous travel, we do catch ourselves complaining once in a while. We have now lived in 85 cities in 40 countries. If this trip were a cat, it would surely have exhausted seven or eight of its 9 lives. While hardly a day goes by when something doesn’t happen to make us pinch ourselves to make sure we aren’t dreaming, we do find ourselves, at times, questioning the sanity of living a life of constant change.


Kinkaku-ji Temple

After 18 months of circling Europe and the Mediterranean fringes of Africa and Asia, we needed a little break. It was time to go home. Time to see relatives face to face and perhaps ask a doctor for a professional opinion about our actual state of health. After a steady diet of buses, trams, subways and taxis, we thought it a good idea to spend a little time behind the wheel of our own car. Maybe a month without rice or pasta. Time to have a few french fries with our meal.

It was wonderful to see everyone. Some looked a little older and some looked a lot thinner. We had full blown conversations with babies who we used to just laugh with. We remembered how good gravy tastes on mashed potatoes. We excitedly met future family members and saw people we shouldn’t have been away from this long. It was good to be home. We had been gone so long we forgot how much we had missed.


Kiyomizu-dera Temple

Despite what we see on the nightly news, America seemed pretty much the same. Maybe a little fatter than I remembered it. Gas was cheaper and the supermarkets had more choices. Houses were bigger than I remembered and the traffic was a little worse. Televisions now look more like movie screens, but cars are as big as ever. The ability to drive came back to us quicker than we thought it would. The guy in my new drivers license picture definitely looked older. The doctor said we didn’t seem too much worse for all the wear. It was odd to understand every conversation around us.

It wasn’t long and we were on our way again. The month passed much too quickly. We loved Europe and are sure we will go back soon. But this time we wanted to try a different direction. Somewhere with a unique culture and a way of life that, while similar, is so much different. Time to cross a different ocean. A little less pasta and a lot more rice. It was time to take on Japan.


We arrived in Kyoto late in the night. The cab driver had white gloves and a dapper hat. He bowed when we paid him. He didn’t want a tip. Is this a real place? Our apartment is small. We only have one burner to cook with. The shower room is designed for water to spray outside the tub. The washing machine and air conditioner have no buttons in English. I hit my head every time I walk through a doorway. We love it.

The weather is insane, jungle, center of the sun hot. The thermometer says 95, but it feels like 105. You sweat through your shirt walking to the bus that takes you everywhere. The city is huge and everything of interest seems to be spread out to the farthest reaches of town. Beautiful green hills surround the town and some of the most beautiful temples and shrines are located in them.


The streets are unbelievably clean. No litter is found anywhere. No one smokes on the street. People wait in line and are polite. Bus drivers bow to the passengers when they have shift changes. Old people do not stand on buses when young people are sitting down. People keep their conversations quiet. It is remarkable.

Kyoto is said to be the cultural capital of Japan, but it is much more. More than 1600 shrines are located here and the old style wooden houses, called Machiya, can be found in many areas, especially around the Gion neighborhood in the center. However, the train station and some of the department stores in downtown are as modern as any we have seen. The shopping area has any designer brand you could desire. Many Japanese tourists dress in beautiful kimonos and pose in front of the must see sites, but others are dressed stylishly in the most modern fashions. The past seems perfectly preserved within the very modern present.


We have spent our days touring the city from one end to the other. Temples, markets, shrines and bamboo forests have all been destinations. Walks along beautiful rivers during the day and through narrow, lantern-lit alleys in the nights will be long remembered. The hours spent huddled in an 800 year old temple during a blinding afternoon rainstorm when it didn’t seem possible the air could hold that much water, will be with us for a while.

We were hypnotised by the deafening sound of hundreds of cicadas as we sat alone in an ancient Buddhist cemetery outside a stunning mountainside temple that we surprisingly had all to our selves one afternoon. We found ourselves stunned by the beauty of our first sighting of a Geisha as we sat alongside a tiny stream that runs past ancient wooden houses. Her tiny steps and flowing kimono made her appear to float as she made her way quickly and silently across a tiny ornate bridge nearby.


We made our way to Arashiyama bamboo forest early one morning to avoid the crush of tourists that descend every afternoon. Our effort was rewarded as we listened to the early morning wind pass through the giant shoots that towered 100 feet above us. We loved the taste of the shaved ice we enjoyed in the shade of the tiny alleyway outside an ornate Shinto shrine. The ice cream and sweet bean paste additions were unexpected but delicious.



We loved our time at home. It was wonderful to visit loved ones. It is them that makes home what is. We didn’t miss America as much as we thought we would. It will always be home, but as we start our 7th year of our journey, we realize how much we enjoy our time discovering new places. We still have not cured our wanderlust. As always, we have found a few things to complain about. But nobody wants to hear about that.



Kinkaku-ji Temple



There is a place…

There is a place along the waterfront where people gather during the day. In the small park with the palm trees, near the fishing boats, the old men spend cool mornings to discuss politics, sports, share gossip or tell stories of the days gone by. They talk passionately, voices raising and lowering like the tide, using their hands to emphasize important points. Sometimes during the heat of the afternoon, when shade takes on a premium, the benches fill with small groups of men enjoying tall bottles of cool beer. If it is a weekend, someone may produce a guitar and impromptu singalongs occur. Everyone participates, their voices harmonizing perfectly as they resonate through the trees and out over the beautiful harbor.

Split Sunset


In the evenings, when the sun is preparing to retire behind Marjan Hill, people, mostly young, begin to fill the nearby pier. They gather in pairs or small groups to watch the marble buildings of the historic old city turn orange as the sun retreats. They sit among the fisherman’s nets as the sky changes colors and the buildings begin to reflect in the calm water of the turquoise harbor. Lights come on along the promenade that hugs the harbor in front of the ancient Roman palace that makes up a large part of the old town area. The sound of laughing voices, clinking bottles and lapping waves mix with the bustle of nightlife coming from the promenade to create the perfect mood as day turns into night. There is a place along the waterfront in Split, and everyone should see it.

There is a place in a tiny square near a church that has been used for an untold eternity. The square is perfectly aligned to take maximum advantage of the shade of the stone buildings that surround the square and the gentle cooling breezes that make their way from the nearby sea. A quiet café with tiny tables occupies a prominent portion of the square. The chairs are arranged side by side on one side of the table, in the Parisian way, to give the best opportunity to watch the well-dressed passersby. Perfectly chilled mugs of frosty local lager are served. The smell of grilled seafood comes from nearby. A view of the towering fortress that dominates the center of the tiny town is perfectly framed above the square. The frosty lager helps build the courage to attempt, or celebrate the success of, a climb of the ancient ramparts.

Omis, Croatia


The fortress, used by pirates in ancient times, presents a sweaty challenge for those who attempt the climb. The narrow trail twists steeply upwards from the tightly woven alleys of the red roofed town below. Signs warn of hazards the steep stairs may present to the old or out of shape. You pass through an arch and begin your ascent, tightly gripping the poorly spaced rails that must be used to pull yourself up the steep marble steps. A difficult ladder completes the challenge for those who desire to see the commanding view from the top of the narrow parapet. The effort is rewarded for those who accept the challenge. Breathtaking views over the town, sea and nearby beaches are unforgettable. The deeply blue River Cetina splits the town in two as it flows between the hard rock mountain canyons that lead from inland towards the immense sea. There is a place in the town of Omis, just south of Split and everyone should see it.

Krka National Park


There is a place along the raised wooden walkway above the wetlands where nature’s beauty will overtake you. It will happen after the crowds of bus tourists thin and you find yourself alone, staring across the crystalline water, fish swimming in small groups below you. They fight for position in a calm area between the flowing grasses of the countless streams. The bubbling water flows from an unseen place between the trees that thickly surround the area. A tiny, multicolored finch chirps loudly and melodically from a branch above, attempting to be heard above the white noise gurgle of the flowing water. The sound of mighty flowing water comes from somewhere beyond the trees and drowns the outside world making you feel alone in this Eden like setting.

Krka National Park


Further along the path you find tiny lookouts through the trees which give brief previews of the grander visions to come. Descending steep stairways, waterfalls surrounding on both sides, you pass the swimming area that attracts so many bathers on these hot early summer days. A wonderful waterfall provides a superb backdrop for the bronzed swimmers. It is the last of several successive falls that cascade down the mountainside. Leaving the swim area you begin your ascent up the steep mountains steps on the opposite bank. You will be rewarded with successively superb views as you take advantage of the convenient overlooks along the way. The most impressive stop of all was created for a long dead emperor, the cement extension giving perhaps the ultimate view of the falls. There is a place along the boardwalk in Krka National Park and everyone should see it.

Split Streets


There is a place that takes ones breath away, not only from the effort necessary to reach it, but also from the astounding view which presents itself to those who make the effort. It is reached after an early morning ferry ride in the calm waters of the Dalmatian coastline. Split’s towering bell tower slowly drifts into the distance as the ferry threads its way through the islands to your destination. Perhaps you choose to enjoy the sunshine on outside decks or stay below to enjoy a cool drink. Docking in Stari Grad, you hurry to catch a waiting bus. Past the vineyards, olive trees and rows of fragrant lavender the winding road offers jaw dropping vistas along the stunning Adriatic coastline. The harbor appears like a postcard vision as you descend toward it. Stunning sailboats rock gently in the crystal harbor as sun kissed crew busily address morning chores.

Hvar Town


Enjoy a refreshing drink along the promenade or perhaps a perfectly prepared seafood snack of only the freshest ingredients. Approach the stairs of the hill slowly, as there are many. Pass through the arched gates of the walled fortress and begin the ascent. More stairs await so keep your pace. Follow the switchback through the pine trees and herb garden enjoying increasingly incredible views. When you reach the fortress head straight for the flag that waves briskly at the top. Step to the edge and be amazed. The harbor spreads below, perfectly framed on three sides by gorgeous red tile roofs. In the distance a chain of islands leads outwards, each with sandy coves and dark green trees. Boats anchor in crystal waters or create V shaped wakes as they weave their way through the waters.  In the distance, the mountainous island of Vis sits in a cloud bank seemingly floating above the ocean below. There is place at the top of the fortress in Hvar and everyone should see it.

Hvar Harbor


We have been travelling for in Europe, Asia and Africa for 18 straight months. 2 ½ months of that time has been spent in Croatia. When we share our stories with people we meet along the way, invariably one of the first questions we are asked is what our favorite place has been that we have visited. It is really not a question that is answerable, but we usually mention France or Italy or Thailand. I truly believe that after our excellent month in Split, we may have to begin our answer by saying, “There is a place called Croatia and everyone should see it.”

Life Inside the Snow Globe

Sometime during your childhood, probably on a family trip to a not too far from home beach destination, you saw your first one. You had finished your day at the beach. You had finished your ice cream cone or cotton candy. Someone mentioned the need to purchase something to bring home as a remembrance of your time spent together. You searched out a curio shop whose window had “souvenir” written in 4 languages. You entered through the shell strands that hung in the doorway. You made your way past the postcards, magnets and T-shirts. Along the back wall, alongside the polished rocks, nautical themed statuettes and aprons with silly puns, you found your first one.



You hesitated to pick it up because it looked so fragile. It was round and made from thick glass. Inside was a tiny town surrounded by water. The town had colorful houses with red tiled roofs. Towering church steeples and castle towers with colorful flags waving from the ramparts were interspersed between the houses. A wall surrounded the city and a large square was located in the center.

Maybe your mother noticed your fascination. She picked up the object and put it in your hand. It was heavy, almost like a crystal ball. You held it with two hands as she motioned for you to make a soft shaking motion. The tiny flakes took flight inside the dome and instantly created a magical, winter wonderland where snow endlessly swirls around the buildings and never seems to actually touch the ground.

Medieval Streets of Tallinn



Perhaps for a moment, you pictured in your mind what life inside the tiny town was like. Maybe you envisioned medieval shops selling hot chocolate and perfectly warmed pastries. Fashionable boutiques with glass storefronts displaying hand knit sweaters and hats made from only the softest types of wool. Smiling children bouncing along cobbled pedestrian streets on a tiny toy train that plies the narrow streets daily. Restaurants with friendly waiters standing in the doorways beckoning visitors to enter warm dining rooms that smell of grilled meat and delicious stews. Townspeople dressed in festive costumes entertaining onlookers in the town square underneath the large clock on the perfectly preserved town hall. Everyone bundled warmly against the chill and happily enjoying a sunny, yet freezing world apart from others outside their tiny wonderland.

Is there such a place as this tiny town of your imagination? Could your imaginary world inside the snow globe actually exist? Is there a place where it is always winter, even when the rest of the world is warm? There is such a place, and we lived there for a month and it is Tallinn.

Tallinn Sunset


We arrived in Tallinn after midnight on a foggy and freezing night. The short flight from Helsinki was less than an hour. Exiting onto the tarmac the air was shockingly cold, enough to make you lose your breath. We were happy to arrive after a long day of travel from Edinburgh. It was a short taxi ride to our new apartment. Entering the walled Old Town was like entering a different world. Cobblestoned, uneven roads led through the arched entrance in the towering city walls. Medieval towers loomed above us in the misty night air. Church spires pointed upward like giant rockets ready to shoot skyward. We found our apartment easy enough. The owners kindly left the heat on and the house was pleasant. The warmth was greatly appreciated on the cold night.

We envisioned our stay in Tallinn as a bit of a break from aggressive travel. We were looking for a classic European beauty where we could spend some time resting and planning our future travels. Tallinn is located on the edge of the Baltic Sea. South of Helsinki, east of Stockholm and west of St. Petersburg, Tallinn sits at a natural crossroads between its much larger neighbors. Estonia is a tiny country with a population of just 1.3 million people of which 400,000 live in the capital. The old town shows influences from many of the countries that have ruled over the country at different periods of history. German, Danish, Russian and Finnish architecture and features are evident everywhere. It seemed a nice place to settle in for a month.

Town Hall Square


We chose our apartment to be purposely close to the Russian Embassy. Our plan was to obtain a visa and visit St. Petersburg and perhaps Moscow after our stay in Tallinn. We visited the embassy early on our first morning after stocking the refrigerator with tasty treats from the nice market nearby. After some translation difficulties they recommended we visit the visa office located just outside of the old town area. It was difficult to find and when we did, we did not get good news. We were basically told that if we weren’t on a tour, cruise ship or staying at a major international hotel, the likelihood of getting a visa was very small. It was a little disappointing but we were glad we hadn’t booked an apartment or forward transportation prior to getting the visa.

Nevsky Cathedral


Winters in America are generally thought of as being unpleasant times of year. We think of winter as a time of rain, cold, mud, slush, moisture and just general uncomfortableness. We do not have “proper” winters. Proper winters as described to us are limited to the far northern or southern areas of the globe. A proper winter is a time of cold and possibly some snow. The cold is dry and if it does snow, it does not melt into a quagmire of mess. The skies are usually blue and if you stay in the sun and dress warmly, it is generally quite comfortable and pleasant.

Tallinn has proper winters. Despite the freezing temperatures, we found we had very few days when we couldn’t spend some time outside. We enjoyed walking tours of the town with friendly guides who explained the troubled past and bright present histories of this tiny country. On the walled hill above town called Toompea, where government offices and many embassies are located, we often found visiting groups enjoying the beautiful views over the old town area and onward over the sea towards Helsinki. Tallinn has beautiful squares surrounded by colorful medieval buildings that have been perfectly restored. We made a trail of benches that had the best sunshine and least wind and frequented them daily on our walks through the town.

Tallinn Nights


There is no lack of shops filled with wonderful handmade items in the city. I don’t think we have been in any city that had a better developed handicraft industry. Intricately knitted items of hand spun wool were abundant. Fine linens, wood items, pottery and art were plentiful and of high quality. Unique antique stores with items from different periods of Estonia’s past can fill endless hours of browsing.

The chilly air did not curtail the café crowd from enjoying outdoor dining and drinking opportunities. The afternoon sunshine and lack of wind in the main town hall square always drew large crowds to the tables that fill it. The direct sun as well the heat that was reflected off the walls and paving stones had diners removing heavy topcoats on many days. Coffee shops, bars, breweries, museums and chocolate shops are everywhere and provided plenty of warmth on days that were best spent indoors.



Many houses in Estonia have adopted the nearby Finns obsession with Sauna culture. Our apartment had a wonderful sauna inside. A first for us during our travels, we enjoyed many evenings thawing chilled bones after long days spent in the chilly weather. The trees were beginning to sprout leaves and grass was growing thicker as we were getting ready to end our brief visit. Posters were seen everywhere advertising upcoming festivals and outdoor events. Spring was definitely in the air and the citizens of the city seemed excited about the possibility of partaking in summertime activities. We were a little sad that we would not be around to share in the excitement. However we will always remember our nice month spent inside our perfect little snow globe by the sea.

Waiting for Spring

A biting chill rides the frozen wind that crosses the esplanade in front of the castle. Visitors tuck closer behind the ancient ramparts hoping to find a protective lee, a moment of relief from the sand-like frozen mist. It proves fruitless as the gusts swirl and twist as though they originate from every direction. The ancient castle is perched high on its volcanic outcrop and looms mightily above the city below. When viewed from the streets of the lower city on stormy days like this, the castle appears to be floating in the clouds, sometimes visible and sometimes not.

The sound of a lone bagpipe carries strongly upward from the streets of the New Town far below. Its distinctive sound, so engrained in the culture of this part of the world, can fill the heart with longing and melancholy. Yet, on days like this, the sound penetrates the weather, and provides the hopefulness and inspiration to make the best of what the day might bring. Muted streetlights cast shadows on Princes Street, the wide boulevard below. Double-decker buses carry late commuters along the moist streets. Pedestrians stride briskly along the broad sidewalks, past ornate Edwardian storefronts, wasting no time getting to their destinations. It’s late March and winter still hangs heavy over the city.

Victoria Street



If gray is a color, then no city has cornered the market better than this. Starting from the sky and looking down toward the cobbled street stones on this stormy day, the shades seem uncountable. Common vocabulary terms of light gray or dark gray don’t do justice to describe the lack of color. You often find yourself reaching for less used descriptors. Ash, platinum, gunmetal, charcoal, nickel, gray-green, blue-gray, asphalt and battleship become common terms. You may discover yourself reaching for more, perhaps taupe or puce uncomfortably roll across your tongue.

The architectural history of the city is easily traceable as you walk downhill from the castle along the high street toward the royal palace. In medieval times nearly the entire town was located along the wide street now called the Royal Mile. Only small parcels of land were available next to the road running along the natural volcanic rock spine that flows downhill from the castle. In ancient times these small plots were massively developed with some of the tallest and most densely populated buildings anywhere in the world at the time. Impressive stone facades line the street. Built to stand up to the elements and impress, they spread their broad shoulders high above the street.

Edinburgh Castle


On cloudy days, the gothic spires of the many ancient churches along the mile literally reach skyward into the clouds. St. Giles is the most famous. It provides a welcome break from the weather on a stormy day. Towering arches rise high above the pews, softly but colorfully lit by the immense stain glass windows that fill the church. Although fairly modern by this church’s standards, the ornately carved Thistle Chapel inside conjures images of Knights and Kings in times past.

Numerous tiny alleyways called ‘closes’ are located along the entire length of the Royal Mile. They lead to tiny courtyards surrounded by large buildings that provided crowded housing for the early citizens. Rich and poor mixed together in these tenements. When passing through these arched passageways on a stormy night or gray windy day, it is easy to see where favorite Edinburgh authors Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson and J.K. Rowling found inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or some of the darker passages of the Harry Potter books. The cold drafts, dark shadows and foggy mists can inspire a chill in anyone’s dreams.

Edinburgh from Calton Hill


The stormy days and chill filled nights may force the visitor indoors. This is not necessarily a problem as Edinburghians have created a wealth of indoor activities to chase away the gray of winter. A host of world class museums, as nice as any in Europe, seem to be around every corner. The National Museum of Scotland is amazing and requires multiple visits. Visits to the National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Museum on the Mound and National Gallery of Modern Art can easily fill a day. The Writers Museum and displays at the National Library are interesting and provide excellent afternoons indoors. All are outstanding and all are free.

Cafes, Pubs and Bars are always filled with friendly people who are willing to have a chat. Stylish, well informed citizens are proud of their country and heritage. Coffee, Tea, Gin, Beer and of course Whiskey each have loyal devotees who are willing to share their knowledge with the less informed.



Time passes and the gloomy skies eventually give way and spots of blue sporadically appear. Almost magically a few yellow daffodils are noticed as you pass the towering Scott Monument along Princes Street. The next day you notice a few pink or white flowers in the budding trees. Recently turned flower beds begin to fill with colorful flowers in the abundant parks of the city. Window boxes are hung out on windowsills of palatial Edwardian townhouses adding a welcome softness to normally stern facades.

It is time to head up the hill to Queens Park, the undulating grass covered hilly area behind Holyrood Palace. Take an easy hike around Salisbury Crags or perhaps follow the young and fit to the top of Arthur’s Seat for commanding views over the entire city and all the way to the sea. The cities different periods of development are noticeable, roads growing wider as your eyes travel from the dense inner city outward to the surrounding countryside.

Dean Village- Edinburgh


Another sunny afternoon can be spent viewing monuments on Calton Hill which towers over the inner city and provides the best views if you are lucky enough to catch a sunset. The nearby seaside town of Leith is an easy bus ride away. The once gritty town depicted in Trainspotters is slowly (and perhaps grudgingly) giving way to gentrification. Perhaps a tour of the retired HMS Britannia, the former Royal Yacht of Queen Elizabeth on a sunny day will give you an idea of the excitement surrounding a royal visit.

Sunny days also bring opportunities to purchase an inexpensive day pass on public buses for trips outward into the beautiful green countryside that is found north of Edinburgh. After crossing the choppy water of the Firth of Forth, narrow two lane roads lead the way through wooded farmlands and lush pastures. Horses, ponies, cows and of course sheep with heavy fleece ready for shearing after a long winter are everywhere. Recently tilled fields, separated by tall hedges, appear ready for planting soon.

Salisbury Crags and Edinburgh Castle


A visit to Saint Andrews, the legendary home to golf, is enchanting for day trippers as well as golfers. Classic architecture of the historic city center filled with restaurants, cafes, and shops draw visitors for sunny afternoon strolling. A long sandy beach and stunning coastal walkway leads along the gray-green sea and past the ruins of an ancient castle and cathedral.



Edinburgh is known as Festival City. It is known worldwide for its almost never ending outdoor party that runs non-stop for most of the summer. Unfortunately we were not here to visit in the best part of the year. Nevertheless, once we adjusted to the hour to hour weather extremes that make up Edinburgh’s early spring, we found the city to be one of our favorites. Any challenges or frustrations encountered with the weather were easily overcome with an extra layer of clothing or an interesting conversation with one of the warm hearted citizens. Most assuredly we will return one day. This is a four season area of the world and surely each is worth seeing.