What is it that keeps us from falling in love? Is it just our initial judgment of looks? Maybe just a needed haircut or a couple fewer tattoos would have made a difference. Is it just a bad first impression? Perhaps it’s just a little too loud or the crowds of people that seem to always be hanging around. Was it just too soon after a previous affair that you weren’t quite over? Maybe you just couldn’t stop comparing to that recent favored love. Was it just the season? Were you so burnt by the summer heat that you just couldn’t motivate yourself to see beyond the obvious exterior characteristics?
Perhaps it is was just bad timing. You just weren’t ready to start a new relationship. Perhaps it is actually something within your own self. You find yourself in a bad mood and look for something to blame it on. Perhaps you are just being unfair. If you aren’t willing to put in the effort, how can love ever develop?
It’s difficult to understand why, but I never developed a love connection with Athens. Judging by the number of people in the full-to-the-brim cafes in the Plaka neighborhood or the excited crowds of people shopping in the famous flea market or the endless tour groups making their way up Acropolis Hill to see the wonders of the Parthenon, I am willing to accept that it had more to do with my sad mood after having just left Paris.
Judging from the way the people gather at the top of Mt. Lycabettus to watch the city light up as the sun sinks into the not too distant sea or the excitement showed by the tourists that gather to watch the changing of the guard in Syntagma Square or the happy faces of the young backpackers who gather every night on Areopagus Hill to watch the Parthenon brightly bathed in light until it appears to hover over the city, I am willing to accept that maybe my lack of love was due to my weariness that comes with traveling too much.
Judging from the way the music flows from the cafes and bars every evening in the Psyrri neighborhood or the smiles on the faces of the young people who gather in Monastiraki Square to watch the commotion or the enjoyment of the couples in the romantic cafes along the alleys just down the hill from Anafiotika, I’m willing to accept that it was probably just me.
We had a nice apartment, top floor of a 10 story building, with a balcony and great view over the northern part of the city. We only had a couple of block walk to the great metro system that takes you anywhere you want to go quickly and efficiently. We had the convenience, as seemingly everyone in Athens does, of great bakeries that sell all fashion of delectable goodness on every corner in the city. Prices of all manner of items were definitely fair and smiles were abundant everywhere we went.
We did have good days. We climbed the famous hills around the city, always looking for the best spot to enjoy the view of the green hills and bright white buildings below. We enjoyed ourselves touring the Olympic stadium area in the north of the city. We walked along the sea in the port city of Piraeus and loved the rooftop views from the beautiful National Library. The museums we went to were good and the remnants of great civilizations that are visible around every corner and under every step kept us interested daily.
Probably the heat was a major problem. Blazing late summer temperatures made walking unpleasant. Probably the end of season crowds diminished our enjoyment of areas that with a few less tourists would have been better. At times it seemed like all of Europe must be roaming the narrow streets of the historic downtown area. Probably our tiny budget made it impossible to escape the heat and commotion of the city. If we could have managed to board a ferry out to some of the beautiful islands Greece is so famous for, I’m certain our mood would have brightened.
Whatever the reason, Athens won’t be remembered as my favorite place I have visited. The Acropolis alone makes this a must-see destination for every serious traveler, so I doubt the city needs or cares about my opinion. As I observed, too many other people come here every year and have a great time. The city has 3 millennia of history waiting to be discovered and Athens will continue to draw crowds to see its wonders no matter what I thought for the relatively short time I visited.
In July of 2011, we made the decision to leave our comfortable jobs in Northern California to see the world. We had always enjoyed travel and for years had dreamed of traveling full time. Careers, family and other commitments took precedence over adventure and we could never really find the right time to make our move. Our youngest son had recently left for college and had made the decision to stay at school for the summer. Our house felt empty and we realized our lives had become routine. We really wanted an adventure. We wondered if now was the time.
We weren’t old enough for traditional retirement. We had been good savers for several years and had a decent amount of savings. We both had a small pension from previous jobs. We definitely weren’t rich but if we could live modestly and watch our money, we felt we could manage. We exchanged luxuries for experiences and made our decision to take on the world.
We would travel slowly, staying in cities and towns for longer periods than most tourists have time for. Hopefully, it would give us an opportunity to observe local life in a unique way. We would live in small apartments and cook the majority of our meals at home. We would live like residents instead of visitors.
Within a fast-paced two weeks, we had rented our house, sold or given away most of our things and put a few collected treasures in storage. Our children thought we were crazy, although growing up as travelers themselves, probably understood. We packed our car with the minimum amount of things we thought we needed and headed south to Mexico, our first destination.
It was challenging in ways we never expected. Languages, customs and traditions were different. We found we needed to rely on each other more than we ever had in our lives. Every day was different from the last. Food, weather and lifestyle were radically different. We did not have the large budget that most tourists use to overcome challenges. With patience, we began to discover that most everyone in the world has more commonalities than differences. Our map skills got better and our world expanded. Eventually, we went further south, crossing into Guatemala and the rest of Central America. We spent almost two years traveling over 30,000 miles of some of the roughest roads in North America. Stopped only by the end of the road in Panama, we saw the biggest towns and smallest villages and learned a new language and a new lifestyle. We learned to live for experiences and not possessions.
We did miss our children. They enjoyed coming to visit as often as they could. We found inexpensive flights are plentiful these days. Because we had rented apartments and cooked at home it was not that expensive to have them spend time with us wherever we were. Video calls and Facebook allowed us to stay connected better than we ever expected.
Eventually, we realized that our new lifestyle could take us nearly anywhere we wanted to go. With the use of websites like Airbnb, we found affordable apartments easily accessible everywhere in the world. Discount airfares were plentiful with minimal shopping. Our world suddenly was greatly expanded. We put our car in storage and left for Asia. We learned to use public transportation and frankly walked the shoes off our feet. We literally learned to live with what we could carry. If we couldn’t fit it into our backpacks, we didn’t need it.
Europe seemed unattainable because of costs. We found that by choosing small apartments and taking advantage of excellent public transportation we could get by even on our small budget. Of course, we loved seeing France, Italy and Spain but the surprises came when we saw less touristed but equally interesting countries like Poland, Czech Republic, Croatia, Romania and Ukraine. Even exotic locations of Turkey, Morocco and Israel were possible for us.
Photographs became our main souvenir of the places we visited. While we still enjoyed perusing the many markets we encountered, our vagabond lifestyle did not permit us to buy as often as we would have liked. We enjoyed looking at photographs of the most beautiful places on earth and figuring out ways that we could capture the images for ourselves. Rather than countries leading us to photographs, we found the photographs leading us to countries. We spend many an evening on a pristine hill overlooking unbelievable cityscapes transformed as sunsets illuminate our newly discovered surroundings.
We have just begun our 8th consecutive year of travel. Despite our glacial pace, we have now traveled to 47 countries on 5 continents and have no intention of stopping. We have returned home for major occasions such as weddings, graduations and a few celebrations and even had an opportunity to see some of our own country. The farther we travel the more we realize there is to see. The world is an incredible place and our life would not have been complete without sampling a good chunk of it. Our lives have forever been changed for the better. We appreciate what we have seen and look forward to each new place with great anticipation. Isn’t that how life is meant to be lived?
There seem to be two types of people in the world. Ones that enjoy the comfort and security of an established routine and those that desire difference and change and are always seeking something unique. When choosing a restaurant, the former will always know a great restaurant with a favorite dish that they enjoy immensely every time they have it. The latter will always seek a different flavor or preparation from what they have chosen before. When picking a radio station, the former probably have their favorites set in memory. The latter pushes the seek button and only stops when they hear something that suits their current mood.
I imagine these two types of people probably also pick travel destinations in the same way. Some love their tried and true spots and return as often as they can. The convenience and familiarity of a previously visited hotel with a friendly and well-known staff provides the comfort of knowing what they will get. Others desire to shake things up and usually opt for different or unknown paths on their journeys. They seek the new smells, tastes and views that offer the excitement of the unknown and the unpredictability that comes with it.
A big part of our travel experience has been discovering new places. Seeing something new and exciting adds to the sense of adventure and increases the intrigue that any destination offers. I guess this is why we have generally not returned to many places in our travels. However, at times our love of a special place (and probably a really, really cheap ticket) has changed our normal behavior. Such it was that we decided to take a second try at Paris.
Four and a half years ago we visited Paris for our first time. We absolutely loved it. We are often asked to name our favorite place we have traveled to and while our answer often changes, Paris remains constantly high on the list. Evening walks by the river, mornings sipping coffee in a classic sidewalk cafe and afternoons visiting the well known and world famous monuments of the city are well cherished, often remembered and frequently discussed. Paris would have lived in our memory for years to come without ever visiting again. But the opportunity to purchase a 225 dollar ticket from Oakland to Paris changed our minds. We wanted to head back to Europe and we just couldn’t resist the crazy low price.
We again chose to stay in the Montmartre area of town. When we envision Paris in our mind, the images of tiny winding alleys, tree-lined streets, quaint houses and the incredible city views of Montmartre are what we see. Yes, it is over-touristed and probably doesn’t represent the best of Paris discovery but we find that if you squint your eyes just right you can almost see Renoir, Monet or Degas painting a windmill or beautiful Parisian girl in a flowering garden. We again stayed in a tiny, rooftop apartment under a zinc roof in a typical 1880’s 7 story Paris apartment building just down the steep stairs from Place Tertre, the historical center of the area.
Almost daily we took walks to hillside parks or braved the breath-stealing stairs to access the commanding views from Sacre Coeur which towers above the cities highest hill. In the cool of the morning before the tourists arrive or in the evening as the sun is sinking and the lights come on were our favorite times to visit. We had time to discover the leafy parks and hidden pathways rarely frequented by visitors. We made a mental list of the benches that provide the best shade and breezes to enjoy the homemade snacks we usually prepared for our daily journeys.
Our apartment was tiny and without fans or air conditioning and the scorching summer sun made being inside uncomfortable during the day. Even at night, we were forced to leave open the windows. At first uncomfortable, we learned to appreciate the sounds of our neighborhood. We heard crying babies in the mornings, children playing in the courtyard during the afternoon, early evening cafe conversations and the sounds of lovers throughout the night. We were soon able to identify what our neighbors were having for dinner by the wonderful smells of food being prepared nearby. The heatwave finally ended with a massive 30-minute blast of marble sized hailstones that sounded like the end of the world on our thin-skinned metal roof. Even after the cooler temperatures returned, we kept our windows open to stay tuned in to our surroundings.
Quick access to the incredible Paris Metro is the secret to fully experiencing the city. Despite the crowded cars, lack of air conditioning, frequently smelly passengers and the apparent use of every hidden corner as a urinal, we love the Paris Metro. Nothing brings you closer to the real Paris than the Metro. It is convenient, quick and takes you anywhere you want to go for a very appealing price. Even when it at it’s worst and seems unbearable, someone playing a violin or accordion will enter the car and make all the bad evaporate instantly. Returning to street level amidst the grandeur of the Parisian boulevards from the Metro never gets old. The combination of fresh air, classic architecture and stylish commotion is always a satisfying start to any days journey.
We are thankful to have stayed for a month on both this visit and our last. We consider ourselves lucky to have the time to see the city at a more relaxed pace. Paris has a lot to offer and it takes time to appreciate it correctly. While even a couple of days here can be enjoyable, we often feel for the families that are rushing through all the big name sites too quickly, especially on a scorching summer afternoon. Red faces, crying kids and spent adults with stressed faces doesn’t create the best picture of people enjoying their days. While someday they may look back with a romantic vision, it doesn’t seem like they are having the time of their lives.
I think most people think of Paris as being an expensive city. We find it to be quite affordable. By selecting a small apartment, preparing most meals at home and taking advantage of inexpensive public transportation we have no trouble staying on our tight budget. Staying longer also has benefits of taking advantage of the many free days offered by Parisian museums and major sites. Enjoying the breathtaking art at the Musee D’Orsay on a free day was incredible. We arrived first at the museum and made our way directly to the impressionist area. Standing face to face with a Van Gogh self-portrait, Monet cafe scene or Renoir portrait before the crowds arrived was something we will never forget.
A second visit also gave us an opportunity to see things we missed the first time. We enjoyed walking along the abandoned railway that has been turned in to a beautifully landscaped elevated walkway called Promenade Plantee (or Coulee Verte). Strolling through Le Village Saint-Paul in the Le Marais area gave us an untouristy view of what Paris looked like centuries ago. Shopping the busy open-air market area of Place d’Aligre gave us a chance to sample the best of Parisian craft foods for non-touristy prices.
We enjoyed a long journey to the La Defense area of Paris that most visitors don’t get a chance to see. Hypermodern skyscrapers and futuristic art-filled parks create an atmosphere most would not associate with Paris. On the hottest of days, we also came to appreciate the elevated terraces that provided some breezy relief along with their incredible views. The terrace at the Galleries Lafayette department store gives incredible views of the Paris Opera, La Madeleine and other attractions of the 2nd arrondissement. The 9th-floor observation deck of the Institut du Monde Arabe showed unprecedented views over the River Seine and Notre Dame Cathedral.
Of course, just wandering the streets of this historic city provides the true Parisian experience. The streetside cafe next to the park in front of the grand Saint Sulpice church, the epicurean delights viewed through the windows on Rue Mouffetard or having lunch on the shaded steps of the Pantheon are memories that will always be reflected upon.
We will always seek out new and exciting destinations in our travels. We will always find fascination with new places. Discovering something for the first time will always be the highlight of our best journeys. However, as we found with our 2nd trip to Paris, some destinations are worth taking a second look at.
Hidden between the fog of the Pacific Ocean and a vast swath of towering coastal redwood trees lies a magical landscape along the California coastline. A place where the bark of sea lions or bellow of fog horns is only muffled by the crash of waves against the majestic cliffs that jut violently from the crystal blue sea. A place of extraordinary beauty reached after following the twisted byway that winds west from a scorching inland summer through dreamlike vineyards, colossal forests and oak-covered canyons towards the sea.
While most of the country bakes in the humid blister of a summer heatwave this coastal dreamscape remains immersed in endless spring. Even on sun-filled afternoons of cloudless blue the cooling breezes of the vast sea drift inland to cool the headlands and tiny hamlets that dot the coast. On most days the morning fog holds the town in a cooling embrace just long enough to ensure comfort as the day awakens.
The town was settled by fortune seeking entrepreneurs who, upon witnessing the seemingly endless bounty of over 2 million acres of ancient redwoods that lined the coast, built sawmills and other infrastructure designed to take down as many of them as they could in the shortest amount of time possible. Within 50 years they had accomplished 97 percent of their task. What took 2000 years to develop was gone in, to these trees, a blink of an eye.
With their task completed the mills began to close. Almost entirely cut off from any access besides the sea, the town languished by the edge of the continent. The Victorian era houses built strong by the mostly New Englanders that worked in the area remained but by the mid-1900’s the population of the area was in significant decline.
Artists eventually were drawn to the rugged beauty of the coast and many set up residences in the 1950’s. The incredibly engineered route of the Pacific Coast Highway gave access to travelers willing to brave the never ending twists and bends to reach the area. Old Victorian mansions became charming inns and many of the houses of the town were transformed to restaurants and shops designed to entertain these visitors. The counterculture kids who flocked to San Francisco in the late ’60’s and ’70’s made their way north to set up communes and find the utopian paradise they envisioned creating.
While nature’s forces have kept this an isolated land in the past, today’s attentive visitor will soon get the feeling that the remoteness is now by choice. The 800 citizens of this town seem to prize the uniqueness that blossoms with distance from more urban locales. A feeling of hip funkiness is pervasive along the waterfront main street. Colorful characters mix easily with more gentrified visitors who make the winding trip north from the Bay Area for long weekends.
Mendocino’s remoteness should not in any way be confused with detachment from the rest of the world. The rambunctious and rebelliousness of the towns Fourth of July Independence celebrations displayed the citizen’s passionate patriotism while still making clear their non-support of current Washington politics. The parade along Main Street has become rightfully famous and was so hugely attended that the population of the town easily tripled for the day. A massive tent was set up in town for 2 weeks to host an incredible music festival with a full opera as well as orchestra, jazz, folk and pop concerts nightly.
We found ourselves embraced by the redwoods in a tiny cabin just inland from the main area of town. We spent our mornings and evenings sitting on the deck overlooking a rough garden full of late spring beauty. We had daily visitors to our garden including deer with new babies, foxes, hummingbirds and even a pair of playful skunks. The towering trees often had fog blowing through them in the mornings and evenings.
Our afternoons were spent wandering the streets of the town or sitting in one of the town’s coffee shops watching people pass. We planned car trips to some of the tiny towns that hang precariously a the cliffs of the coastline. The towns of Elk, Albion and Point Arena were afternoon destinations. With populations of less than 200, these enclaves still provide plenty of rewards for slowly paced visits. Nearby secret inlets and tiny beach lined coves provide picturesque picnic spots. Jagged headlands push precariously into the ever pounding waves of the sea. Winding paths through late spring tall grass provide unparalleled views over the often raging waters below. Wildflowers of abundant colors defy the wind and harsh conditions to add color to every nook and cranny they can get into.
Other days we made our way on tiny roads through thick redwood forests by small streams. A profound quiet exists in these forests that can be found nowhere else. All sound seems to disappear into the thick trunks and the spongy forest floor masks even the sound of one’s own footsteps.
Abundant vineyards lie just inland in beautiful valleys. The wines produced here compare favorably with any from the more famous vineyard areas of California. The small towns of Philo and Boonville provide perfect stops to find local products for picnics or just window shop for an afternoon.
We celebrated the completion of our 7th year of continuous travel in an area that is as close to home as we have been in a long time. Our last of 3 stops in our home state has made us realize how much we are missing by being gone for such a long time. While sitting on our porch in the redwoods our thoughts drifted to when we may settle down to a more conventional lifestyle permanently. Seeing relatives that we too seldom visit made us realize that we might soon feel our trip is complete. Seeing this beautiful area located so close to home made us think that we might eventually be content to stay closer to home sometime in our near future.
When it comes to feelings about the desert, there really is no indecision. You are either in or out. There is no in-between. Some see it as a wasteland, hot, arid and forbidding. Sand, sky and scrub. Certainly not worth visiting, much less living in. Others see it as everything they have ever dreamed of. A perfectly blank canvas where they can create any story their imagination can render. A vast landscape of endless opportunity whose only limit is one’s own vision. The latter are the people who made Palm Springs.
Utilizing what they had, the first visionaries took advantage of the hot dry air and natural thermal baths. Imagining cures for a host of conditions amongst the cactus, smoke trees and palms they built curative spas designed to give sufferers hope. People came from all over the country to spend time resting and rehabilitating in the shadows of the towering San Jacinto mountains that tower over the surrounding area.
The 1930’s were a time when America’s Wild West was long gone but Hollywood westerns were all the rage. Enterprising Palm Springs entrepreneurs found ways to cater to the desires of city slickers who wanted to experience an era they had missed. They founded ranches where visitors could come and spend time riding horses, working with cattle or just eating hearty food around a roaring campfire. Singing songs by a chuck wagon fulfilled the romantic dreams of these “dudes” who wanted to spend days riding the range and nights camping under the brilliant stars that are still visible today.
Hollywood made many of these western movies in the rugged canyons nearby Palm Springs. The stars took a liking to the laid-back lifestyle and word got around quickly that life in the desert provided an opportunity to let loose without the prying eyes of the Hollywood gossip machine. The Tennis and Racquet Clubs were popular and massive pools provided the perfect landscape for a decadent cocktail culture. Glamour was king as large Spanish Revival mansions began to sprout in the downtown area. The Movie Colony, Las Palmas and Mesa neighborhoods roster of residents began to read like a whos-who of popular celebrities of the time.
The celebrities wanted entertainment and enterprising impresarios provided it. Bars, restaurants and nightclubs opened in the downtown area. Ritzy hotels provided luxurious surroundings for those who wanted to reside temporarily. Casinos, technically illegal, opened in the nearby deserts. The mafia made inroads. Bands played, liquor flowed and people danced late into the night to big band sounds. Visitors commonly reported VIP sightings. Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby were just a few of the luminaries frequently seen around the town.
The post World War II era was a time of prosperity and change for Americans. Many found financial opportunities that hadn’t existed in their life previously. They wanted to live the good life. Relax, live a little and enjoy a bit of luxury that hadn’t been available for the masses for a long time. Freeways were built throughout the country that made travel easier. The space race made people dream a little bigger. Palm Springs was advertised as easy to reach luxury for the common man. Hotels were built with massive pools heated by endless sunshine and shaded by towering palms. People arrived in masses. Fashionable stores opened along wide boulevards to cater to their desires. A casual style was popular. Tiki bars, Hawaiian shirts, dark sunglasses and cocktails in the evening with friends.
Many people who sampled what Palm Springs offered wanted more. They were easily enticed to establish at least a part-time residence. These new jet-setters weren’t interested in old styles. A new style of architecture that matched the era was needed. A modern style of flat roofs, large pools and glass-walled opulence that broke down the barrier between outdoor and indoor living became all the rage. Large tracts of affordable houses with high designs were built by competing architects and builders. Maybe no place in America better displayed what the “future” might be like. Abundant enthusiasm was everywhere.
In the surrounding area vast palm lined golf courses, a dizzying 120 for a population of just 500,000, were built. The neighboring desert communities of Rancho Mirage, Indian Wells, Palm Desert and La Quinta were expanded and developed. Gated communities lined the wide roads named after celebrities. Houses were built along the fairways, designed for affordable luxury and a relaxed country club lifestyle that seemed possible even for common people. A place to celebrate their hard earned success after a life of work. The deserts lack of water seemed distant as 1 pool was built for every 4 people and air conditioning helped combat the afternoon heat. Year-long tans were possible. Long imagined dreams were coming true. A comfortable retirement could be had that was filled with entertainment, activity and companionship.
Somewhere Palm Springs lost a bit of its way. Boxed between these newer communities and the towering mountains the city began to be seen as a retirement community. Palm Springs didn’t have the room to expand to meet this new market and perhaps it suffered a little. With the jet age, many of the celebrities drifted to further, more cosmopolitan locales. Palm Springs had always sold a dream and perhaps it lost a bit of its imagination. Perhaps it’s Golden Age had passed. It sat, preserved in the desert heat waiting for a new set of dreamers.
But the desert always welcomes people with visions. Artists rediscovered the area. Members of the LGBT community, sometimes disenfranchised elsewhere, found acceptance. Creative people, often outpriced in other areas of expensive California, found that the low prices of the desert offered opportunities. A new generation of Southern California creatives tricked up the existing hotels, revitalizing them with style reminiscent of their storied past. Stylishly hip young people Instagrammed fun-filled weekends to the world. The popularity of mid-century modern architecture and style drove many to rediscover and restore the vast reservoir of stylish houses found in most neighborhoods. Small motor courts were turned in to exciting hidden enclaves favored by young celebrities and the stylish wealthy. Modern hotels and spas were built, all with a style that tipped it’s hat to the past.
This new Palm Springs is what we found on our month long visit to the desert. We caught the end of the season (anytime avoiding the summer heat). We rented a cool mid-century modern styled apartment in the Racquet Club Estates area near the wonderfully revitalized Riviera Hotel. We found stylish shops to visit along the twin boulevards of Indian Canyon and Palm Canyon Drives. We spent scorching afternoons at happy hours in old-school cocktail bars reminiscent of Rat Pack days or re-imagined Tiki Bars that perfectly capture the colorful past. We visited the coolest retro hotels where we found stylish SoCal hipsters enjoying themselves in football field size pools. We toured uniquely styled houses that have been restored so well that they probably exceed their past glories. People were friendly and welcoming and we enjoyed many conversations in the cool cafes in the stylish downtown area.
Our favorite memory will be the tour of a house for sale next door to Frank Sinatra’s famed Twin Palms estate. Once owned by his lawyer, the layout suggested late-night cocktail parties attended by celebrities partying around the gorgeous pool surrounded by luscious palms. Closing our eyes for just a minute, we felt we could almost hear Dean, Frank and the rest of the Rat Pack cavorting next door late into the night. We saw a lot of things during our month in Palm Springs that they would certainly recognize and definitely would approve of. We felt the original founders would be proud of the current crop of dreamers that seem to be once again imagining Palm Springs future.
I imagine travel for most people as a well-planned endeavor. Getting the most out of your cherished two weeks off from the daily drudgery is probably some of the most well thought out plans a person makes during the year. Weeks spent searching websites trying to find the perfect hotel, flight and entertainment usually follow months of reading dreamy destination brochures filled with glossy pictures of a glamorous life somewhere on a distant side of the globe. Some seek advice from a travel expert, often a lady behind a desk covered by brochures who seems to have been everywhere and tasted the buffets of every gleaming cruise ship that plies the seven seas. Some attempt to make life simpler by booking a prearranged trip that meets most or all of your travel dreams. Spending more time dreaming and less time studying the details is compelling to those whose busy lives don’t allow much opportunity for the work it takes to plan the perfect trip.
Being on the road continuously means we are nearly always busy learning about and exploring the area where we currently reside. Figuring out public transportation and taking care of our daily needs occupies a large portion of our time. We have become very efficient at fulfilling the necessities and because we normally stay in one area for extended periods we normally have plenty of time to focus on exploration and enough time to plan further travels.
Over the last few months, we have picked up our pace. Our travels through China, Vietnam and Cambodia didn’t allow a lot of time to plan onward travel. In one 4 day period we changed hotels daily. Planning transportation, hotels, meals and things to do started to become less well thought out. Combined with the increasing summer heat our schedule was wearing us out. We increasingly wanted to find a cooler place to stay for a month to rest up and get ready for a planned trip home to California to attend a wedding.
In the last 7 years, we have already surpassed most of our dreams and visited most of the places we ever imagined we would get to experience. We have visited nearly every country in Asia that interested us. Looking at the map, we had thoughts of seeing the Philippines but checking the weather report found it was already hot. Singapore looked fun but we thought it might be small for a whole month. We had never thought of visiting South Korea. It wasn’t that we didn’t want to go, we just hadn’t considered it. Like most Americans, I don’t think we knew much about the country. We knew of the war almost 70 years ago. We knew we liked kimchi and we didn’t like the Gangnam song. A weather check said that it was still quite cool. The flight from Phnom Penh to Seoul was inexpensive (as long as we didn’t mind a long delay in Kuala Lumpur). A cheap flight was available for our return to the U.S. We made a quick and virtually uninformed choice and booked an apartment and flights to Seoul.
After the heat of Cambodia, the morning air at Incheon Airport felt positively brisk. We nodded in and out of sleep after boarding the hour-long commuter train to Seoul. We passed along the coastline on the clean and modern train. Our destination was Seoul Station where we would catch a taxi to our apartment. After a no sleep night in Kuala Lumpur we were anxious to get to our new home. We were staying in the Gangnam area which until now was just a song title. We now knew that “Gang” means river and “nam” means south in Korean, so we were staying just south of the Han River in a nice suburban area.
We managed to hang on until after filling the house with groceries and getting unpacked before taking well-deserved naps. When we awoke the next morning we were ready to begin our visit. We found Seoul to be a huge city of 10 million inside an even larger metropolitan area that hosts 25 million people which is about half of the total population of South Korea.
Seoul is an ancient city but has not always been known by its current name. We decided to make the massive National Museum of Korea one of our first visits. The museum showed us the history of Korea and displayed an excellent collection of art and artifacts from ancient to modern times. We also spent most of a day at the excellent Seoul Museum of History which focused solely on the interesting history of this ancient city. Different rooms had displays that followed the life of the citizens from times past until modern days. Both museums were excellent and free and easily reached by Seoul’s huge subway system that transports its citizens virtually anywhere they want to go in the city.
The city began to warm as spring temperatures and bright skies brought people out to enjoy the changing seasons. Seemingly overnight trees blossomed all over the city. The excitement was contagious as we walked along the river or through some of the many vast parks as everyone seemed to be out enjoying the sunshine. The most popular of the blossoms were the beautiful cherry trees that lined many streets. Many people dressed in brightly colored traditional costumes called Hanbok were out and posing with the trees strategically placed in the background.
Korea had a difficult 20th century. Japan occupied the country from the early part of the century until after World War II. After the war, the country was divided by the superpowers and soon after the devastating war destroyed much of their country and killed millions. We visited the War Memorial which gave us an excellent understanding of the war and the conditions that lead up to it. With much of the world’s attention focused on this area now our visit to the War Memorial gave us unique insights into current events.
Many of Seoul’s historic buildings were damaged or destroyed during the 1900’s. South Korea has made great efforts to preserve what is left and reconstruct many of the most important buildings. Our visit to Gyeongbokgung Palace was a perfect example. The main royal palace of the Joseon Dynasty, the palace once had 7700 rooms and 500 buildings. Mostly destroyed during the Japanese occupation and left in ruins after the war, many of the buildings have been beautifully rebuilt using traditional means.
When we visited, South Korea had just hosted the Winter Olympic in Pyeongchang. In 1988 Seoul hosted the Summer Olympics and many of the parks and stadiums are open to visit or attend a game in. We visited Olympic Park and enjoyed walking amongst many of the stadiums that were built for the games. The Olympic museum is located in the park and told the entire story of the games. Later we visited the Sports Complex area where the main Olympic Stadiums were built. The two professional baseball teams in town were having their rivalry games at the big stadium and we had fun in the atmosphere the fans created for the game. Baseball is very popular in South Korea and the fans are famous for their boisterous enthusiasm.
Seoul is very modern and a shoppers paradise. We visited several huge malls during our stay. The Lotte World Mall area that surrounds the Lotte Tower was worth a visit. The tower is the 5th tallest building in the world and when viewed at night when it is lit is quite the sight. Another building we visited was the Dongdaemun Design Plaza located in downtown that hosts an art museum and features some of the most modern architecture anywhere we have been.
We enjoyed our stay in Seoul. We found it very modern with a great appreciation for their past. The city is extremely clean and organized. Transportation is easy by subways or buses. We found the people reserved but very helpful when we interacted with them. We didn’t get as much chance to enjoy the food as we would have liked. Seoul wasn’t the cheapest place we have visited but it was mostly affordable with plenty of things to do for free.
We were happy we picked South Korea. With as little effort as we made to research our choice, we felt we could not have picked a better last stop in our Asian travels.
We arrived on the tarmac at Siem Reap airport just after dark on a warm, humid night much as we had 14 years before. It had been a quick flight from Hanoi. After 6 weeks in frozen China and a month in the pleasant temperatures of Vietnam the heat shocked us. We and our fellow passengers quickly stripped off sweaters and coats that most had brought on the plane.
While our arrival was much the same, it was quickly apparent that not much else was. Cambodia was not on most people’s travel radar in 2004. The immigration area of the terminal was much smaller at the time. We vividly remembered the row of baggy suited officers sitting in a row with grim faces who scrutinized our passports and begrudgingly passed them to the next equally rumpled staffer for approval. None ever made eye contact and all seemed imposing.
Now replaced by a modern chaotic facility filled with foreign faces packing the roped queues, the officials seemed more interested in collecting the visa on arrival fee of US 30 dollars each than scrutinizing passports. No dollars in your wallet? No problem, the convenient ATM spits out crisp 100 dollar bills right at the counter.
Just as we had bee 14 years before, we were met by a tuk-tuk and quickly transported down the bumpy road toward town. Other than the tuk-tuk, nothing else was the same. What was once a backwater town of mostly dirt roads is now a bustling city of bright lights, paved roads and every kind of diversion a tourist could think of. Massive hotels line the airport road, interspersed by restaurants, bars, nightclubs and massage parlors all doing brisk business to large crowds of westerners and Chinese tourist groups. Everything was still rough around the edges but nothing was as we remembered.
Of course everyone who visits Siem Reap is probably interested in visiting the amazing Angkor temples. Single and multi-day passes are available but are quite expensive. Where once we were limited by time, money is our current limiter and so we selected the mid-priced 3 day pass. We limited our visit this time to specific temples and were primarily interested in photographing them.
The weather was so shockingly hot we had trouble leaving the air conditioner in our modern hotel. So much so that it took 7 days to use our 3 day pass. We thought that by visiting in the late afternoons we could avoid the crowds and have better light to photograph the temples. Not so. Where Angkor was once off the beaten track for normal tourists it is now firmly on the mass tourism circuit. Angkor Wat is the most spectacular of the sites and we chose it as our first stop. The crowds were huge, all groups and wilted single travelers. Everyone seemed sweated through and most were in various stages of fatigue. Everything from slightly slowed down to those who had given up and were just sitting in any shade they could find. The site was still amazing, but it was so overwhelmed that it was difficult to really enjoy. Even photography was challenging as every view was swarmed by selfie taking singles or group posers in front of anything attractive.
Over the days we also visited the Bayon at Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm and a few of the smaller temples near Ta Prohm. The smallest of the temples were the most fun as they were the only ones where we could beat the crowds and have any type of feeling that the original explorers must have felt.
On the days not spent at the temples we made our way around town. On our earlier visit we had trouble finding much to do. The famous backpacker watering hole “Angkor What?” was once located on a dirt road with nothing around it. It is now surrounded by hundreds of brightly lit restaurants and bars on the so called “Pub Street”. Any type of food from Mexican to Italian to Japanese can now be found in the ceiling fan cooled patio restaurants along the streets. Bars, from tiny local joints to laser lit discos, fill up the rest of the area. Three night markets surround the area and plenty of street vendors take up any other space not used. We found a few less obtrusive places to enjoy a few beers, but mostly found cheap and delicious food in other areas of town nearer to our hotel. We did get a chance to visit the classic Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor which was the original hotel in town and enjoyed a beer from the veranda overlooking the river at the Foriegn Correspondents Club.
After a little more than a week we decided to move on. Prior to arriving in Cambodia, we hadn’t made any specific plans past Angkor and didn’t really know where to go. Some people we met seemed to enjoy Battambang and so we decided to catch a bus there. We were told it was less touristy than Siem Reap and we looked forward to the opportunity to ditch the tourist crowds and perhaps get to see some of the “real” Cambodia.
Battambang was surprisingly larger than Siem Reap. To be honest we didn’t find much to do. At one time their was the so called “bamboo train” that was popular to ride. The railway has been repaired for real trains and it no longer runs. A bat cave looked interesting but proved to be quite distant and we decided not to visit. The bat cave has millions of bats that leave the cave at sunset and might have been fun. Most tours combine it with the nearby “Killing Caves” from the Khmer Rouge time and we really did not want to visit any of these grim reminders of the past.
It didn’t really leave much to see. The heat increased but we still managed to spend some time walking around town and along the river in the cooler evenings. We were surprised to find lots of excellent bargain priced restaurants and spent many morning, afternoons and evenings in the quiet cafes enjoying delicious Khmer food along with many western choices. A few art galleries in town were interesting and we spent some time visiting.
Our last stop in Cambodia was Phnom Penh. After another long bus ride through the countryside we arrived to this modern Metropolis of about 7 million. Hotels were popping up everywhere and the city gave off a look of a combination of Bangkok and Hanoi. We stayed outside of the tourist area around the river and very close to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
Our room was on the 9th floor so we had excellent views over the city from our balcony. Because Tuol Sleng is a popular stop with visitors many restaurants have opened in the area and it was convenient to get out to restaurants during the day.
In the interest of truth in travel, we didn’t do much in Phnom Penh and probably wasted an opportunity. After 12 weeks of backpacking around China, Vietnam and Cambodia we were spent. Every time we got motivated to go anywhere the heat deterred us from anything but going out to eat. We found a nice expat bar close to the hotel where many of the young westerners in town for work gather in the evenings for beer and we spent some time hanging out there. We found long lunches and dinners in the local cafes to be relaxing and to be enough time spent out of the hotel during the hot days and evenings.
Even though we were 1 block from the Tuol Sleng (S21) Genocide Museum and could literally see it from our balcony, we chose not to visit. Cambodia seems to be moving quickly away from it’s tragic past and we thought perhaps we wanted to remember the country for what we saw during our visit and not for what it was in the late 1970’s.
Unfortunately, I feel we may look back on Cambodia as a missed opportunity. Of all the countries we have visited in the last 7 years this is the one we learned the least about. It is partly because of the way we have been travelling for the last few months. Living in hotels and eating in restaurants is not our preferred way of travel. Especially in countries like Cambodia we felt as if we were always surrounded by other tourists and were confined to see things designed for them. Angkor was still impressive but we found it overrun. Everyone seemed to speak English and Cambodians seem very friendly and good natured so we should have been able to have some good conversations. But we didn’t. I don’t know why. Maybe it was the heat or travel burnout or just a general lack of ambition.
Cambodia has changed a lot in the 14 years since we first visited. I seems like a country moving in the right direction. The people seem happy, but to be honest I leave the country not really knowing for sure. We have one more country to visit on this Asian leg of our endless journey. It will be cooler and perhaps we will find our enthusiasm again. I hope so.
There are places we know we will return to. Like unfinished love affairs, they live in the corners of our mind, waiting to be rekindled. Over time the images move through our dreams, usually altered by time and further experiences. As we add distance the colors may become brighter, the smells more intense and the tastes more vibrant. We find these places returning to our conscience thought when we discuss travels or tell stories of our earlier life. We recall them with smiles on our faces and excitement in our voices. We realize we would like to have another opportunity to see if our memories match reality. Could actuality match the misty recollections we visualize in our thoughts?
We traveled to Vietnam in 2004. We were younger and far less experienced travelers then. We moved faster, collecting places and countries with a rapidity that didn’t always allow for much introspection. Occasionally a place would resonate louder than others but lack of time, family needs and work commitments didn’t allow us the opportunity to fully see the destinations we had traveled to. The deep greens of the rice paddies, the colors of the rivers, the warmth of the humid air and the smiles of the people stayed in our thoughts. We wanted to return but other places called more aggressively for our attention. It took us 14 years to have the time and opportunity to return. As we sat in the chilly winter mountains of China’s Yunnan Province, we realized the time had come to see if our dreams were true.
We caught a flight from Kunming, China to Hoi An, Vietnam…. Honest smiles…
Sitting on our balcony early on our first day we already felt it. The warmth of the cloudy morning felt wonderful. For the first time in 2 months, our skin was not covered by extra layers for warmth. Watching the town wake up was instantly enchanting, Motorscooters filled the morning, busily taking adults, children, packages and even pets to destinations unseen from our sidestreet perch. We felt a contagious energy that caused us to immediately take notice.
Hoi An seemed the perfect place to begin our exploration of Vietnam. Perhaps a calm before the busyness began. We spent 6 days wandering the streets enjoying the cool of the mornings and evenings and happily welcoming the warmth of the afternoon sunshine.
We wandered through the riverside market, enjoyed relaxed coffee filled afternoons in cafes hidden down quiet alleyways, and evening strolls along the river or food cart lined backstreets. The warm golden glow from the yellow buildings of the French inspired old town was gorgeous and cast a wonderful light on sunset walks through the narrow streets. The food was excellent. Watching the tourist boats at sunset from the bridge that crosses the tiny river was captivating. Thousands of tiny candles flickered amongst the boats on the water as the lantern-lit buildings reflected in the water.
Unlike our earlier visit, the town has grown and has definitely been discovered by the tourist hoards that overfill the most popular shopping areas. We found that, with a little effort, it was easy enough to still find the honest smiles of the local people we so fondly remembered from our dreams. We felt there was a distinct possibility of this city being overrun by poor development and mass tourism. Still, whether we were in our hotel, walking on the back streets or just watching the local population from a cafe on a tree-lined street, we sensed a happy people who were satisfied with their situation. When we smiled, people smiled back. When we talked to people they warmly responded with good words and thoughts. We found Hoi An to be the perfect start for our journey.
Well developed streets are common in any city in the world. You may find a market, a butcher shop, a 30 seat restaurant or a motorcycle repair shop. Some may have a poultry farm, barber shop, a daycare and a construction company. A rare few may even have a seafood company. I found all of these on our street outside our hotel in Hanoi. The street was actually a 40-meter alleyway and none of these enterprises had a permanent storefront or office. They existed in and on the alley and all did a bustling business.
As we made our way around the city, we realized our alleyway was not at all uncommon. The wide sidewalks of the Old Quarter of Hanoi are filled with makeshift entrepreneurs. Motorcycles are parked by attendants on every available space. The trees that line the streets provide shade to portable plastic seat restaurants turning out tasty treats of every kind from single charcoal grills tended by the most efficient cooks anywhere we have traveled.
The traffic is overwhelming and not mastered without effort. With time, what appears like madness becomes manageable. The motorcycles are like droplets in a neverending flow of a great river. The occasional car or bus is interspersed in the tide. Bicycles, trishaws and cart vendors fill in any available space that might remain.
On first attempt, crossing this rushing river feels more like running with the bulls than crossing a street. It doesn’t seem even Moses could part this sea. You learn that to cross, you must become your own droplet and carefully migrate your way in small increments.Being aware overcomes being scared. Newcomers are easy to spot by their inability to manage. When mastered you feel as a bullfighter must when he is in the ring. He must trust his ability and manage his fear. Once mastered, you can begin to enjoy this city of constant movement. It is unique and beautiful and over the 10 days we stayed here on 3 different occasions during our travels in the north and it became our favorite. We learned to love the city for what it is, an energy-filled city as fascinating and exciting as any.
We arrived by bus to the first destination we had not previously visited. A three-hour bus ride took us through first the outskirts of Hanoi and eventually rice fields in the process of being planted. We had planned a homestay in the countryside near the city of Ninh Binh. The bus driver said he knew the area and would drop us off near our home for the next few days. We eventually passed an area of beautiful limestone karst that jutted abruptly from rice fields. Workers with conical hats maneuvered buffalo pulled plows in some fields while large groups of others hand planted each new rice sprout. It was gorgeous and was the perfect picture of Vietnam we had been seeking.
The driver spotted a sign that listed our homestay at a crossroads. The sign said 0 kilometers and he indicated this was the place. All we saw was an ancient graveyard surrounded by towering palm trees in the middle of flooded rice fields. Before we had time to gather our thoughts that something must be wrong, our bags were unloaded from the bus and the bus drove on towards its destination.
We walked through the arched entrance to the graveyard and didn’t know what to do. We have stayed in some crazy places in our time, but we saw nothing that looked like the pictures we had seen on the internet. Luckily a man on a scooter came along and using sign language indicated this was indeed not the place and pointed us down the road. It seemed a long way to walk and luckily a passing motorist stopped and asked if we needed help. He knew of our homestay and thankfully said he would take us there. He drove us down several dusty roads into a small enclave of recently built cement block houses. We were thankful we didn’t have to walk.
Our host met us and after a refreshing freshly squeezed welcome drink he took us farther into his property. We passed a wonderful garden filled with fresh vegetables of every imaginable type and lush foliage including papaya and banana trees. He had built several brick cottages with verandas that held hammocks and beautiful flowers. The interior was equally as nice with wooden floors, a dining table and comfortable beds. It was perfect.
We spent our days riding bicycles in the surrounding area. A peaceful ride on a cool afternoon took us to the spectacular Trang An area. A boatsman rowed us through scenic waterways that meandered through the lush green karsts. The waterway led through 3 caves, each leading into a more scenic area. Temples were built on flatlands and islands and multicolored birds frolicked in the reeds. It was seriously one of the most incredible natural areas we have ever been.
Another day we went to Mua Caves and climbed the seemingly endless steps to the top of a mountain that gave commanding views over the entire area. The back side of the mountain provided a perfect view of the Tam Coc river area in the distance. On our third day, we braved renting a motor scooter to take us on a more distant journey. The nearly deserted roads made for easy riding and the cool day was perfect for visiting the spectacular Bai Dinh temple. Judging from the massive parking area we were lucky to be one of the few visitors on this nearly deserted day. Later we even had time to visit the backpacker haven of Tam Coc.
We woke early on our last morning and waited for our onward bus at the end of our dirt road. We were slightly shocked that the building next to where we were waiting proved to be the village slaughterhouse. The sounds were slightly frightening as many goats lost their lives as we waited in the still dark morning for our bus. It seemed amazing that a visit that started in a graveyard and ended outside of a slaughterhouse would still be remembered by us as a scenic wonderland that we will not soon forget.
Halong Bay may be the best known and most visited destination in Vietnam. Whether a backpacker or luxury traveler, most itineraries include a visit. When we visited in 2004 the town of Halong Bay was small with a couple of recently built modest luxury hotels and several junk style boats that took visitors on day-long tours of the spectacular natural area.
That is not what we found in 2018. Halong Bay is a quickly developed sprawling city of large hotels, restaurants, amusement parks, malls and a huge bridge. The small amount of junks that once plied the bay have been replaced by a massive fleet of hundreds of medium size cruise ships carrying huge amounts of package tourist groups on multiple night excursions around the congested bay.
The skies were cloudy and we felt we wanted to wait for a photogenic day to take our cruise. We checked into a medium size, brand new hotel some distance from the main central area. The price was cheap and many small local oriented restaurants were nearby. The forecast showed a weather change in the next few days and we decided to see what the town offered.
The Lunar New Year (Tet) was rapidly approaching the following week. Houses and business were decorated with banners, flags and flowering trees. Small businesses were closing shop and it was obvious people were thinking of vacations rather than business. Most residents of Halong Bay are not originally from the local area and normally return to home villages for the holidays. We checked on buses and were told it would be a tough ticket if we waited too long.
Finally, the weather broke and we booked our overnight cruise. A medium priced boat offered good food, karaoke, cooking classes and lots of drinking. We visited the same basic things we had seen in the past, a cave and a beach area, only now they were completely overrun by rude, drunken tour groups that frankly spoiled any natural beauty we may have seen.
Another night in the hotel and we booked the last bus back to Hanoi before Tet began. I came away with a disappointed feeling of the entire experience which was reminiscent of any number of once pristine natural locations (Cancun, Cabo San Lucas, Waikiki, and part of Bali) that, in my opinion, have overdeveloped and seem to cater to the worst elements of tourism. The bay is still spectacular but seemed diminished by poor planning.
To the hills….
We celebrated Tet in Hanoi. The town was basically shut down and was in full celebration mode. Mixed generation families strolled Hoan Kiem lake enjoying ice cream and the cool weather. Roads were closed to traffic and musicians entertained the smiling population. Everyone seemed to be dressed in their best clothes and all were involved in a happy conversation. Sitting by the lake, we were greeted by adults and children with smiles and kind words. The mood was contagious and while we were anxious to move on with our trip, our 3-day delay was some of the most enjoyable we spent on our trip.
Eventually, buses were again available and we made our plans to visit the northwestern hills of Vietnam. Sapa would be our base for several days. Sapa is famous for its rice terraces, traditional villages and cool weather. Unfortunately, the terraces were just recovering from a wet and snowy winter and the temperatures would be cold rather than cool. We knew it was not the optimum time to visit but felt we would be missing an opportunity to visit an area we had not seen before.
A grueling 6-hour bus ride brought us to Sapa. While Hanoi was back to business, Sapa was still in full Tet celebration. People from surrounding villages were gathered in Sapa to enjoy their time off from their normal lives. The town was filled with villagers in wonderful traditional clothing, all gathered in groups in the lakeside park or central area of the small town.
Most visitors do some kind of trekking in the hills to visit outlying villages. We had planned to participate ourselves, but actually found we could have an “authentic” experience just staying in Sapa town. We spent our days sitting in the many restaurants, cafes and parks and just observing the environment of happy citizens enjoying their last few days of holiday.
We were able to visit a nearby village and we found it enjoyable but touristy in a good way. The rice terraces were indeed incredible even if not at their most beautiful. The roads and town were a bit rough around the edges but we enjoyed our stay immensely. We had conversations with Hmong villagers in the park and posed for many photos with the families. The easy pace and cool weather made our stay comfortable, relaxing and very interesting.
We again had an amazing visit to a unique and beautiful country. It was not the country we had visualized over the years in our dreams. Like everywhere else in the world, time and progress have changed the country. We saw things we had seen before and we saw others that were new to us. No doubt while some of our future dreams will be altered from the past, they will not be diminished. I can’t say what the future will bring to Vietnam.
In our last few days in Vietnam, we spent a lot of time enjoying the peaceful area around Hoan Kiem Lake in the Old Quarter. Sitting on a bench and enjoying the city as day turned to night was a great end to our trip. We sipped coffee by the cathedral and ate delicious food in the infinite amount of cafes.
We had the pleasure of sharing a seat at the lake for an hour with a young woman who worked nearby. We spoke of our travels and her life. She grew up in a traditional village and had attended university in Hanoi. Afterward, she had stayed to pursue a career. She talked at length about her own battles of traditional family ties vs. a desire to move into the future. She had just visited her home for Tet and had experienced pressure to marry and start a family and perhaps even move back to help her family. She also felt a pressure from modern expectations of job, possessions and making the most of her hard earned degree. She seemed the perfect representation of the crossroads we witnessed Vietnam being at. Traditional culture vs. a modern future. I wished her luck with her journey and encouraged her to follow her heart. She smiled the smile I had so often seen so often on the faces of so many Vietnamese. An honest smile even in times of trouble or stress. I hope she, and Vietnam, will find the correct path forward. I want my dreams and hers to become reality.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.