Traveling and Learning

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Bus Selfie!

I really love traveling, and recently I’ve been reflecting on why exactly I feel so strongly about it. Is it the break from daily life? A chance to meet new people? Why does anyone choose to travel? I think Tucker enjoys it so much because he loves to try anything new, and going to new places is the perfect way to do that. But I’m not as fond of new things (especially new foods) as he is; I have a different motivation. I like to travel because, ultimately, I like to learn. Originally I thought I’d be a lifelong student because of my love of learning; however, that turned out to be pretty uneconomical. Fortunately, just after graduation (only a few months after we got married) Tucker and I took our first trip overseas, and I found it: a new way to continue learning – through exploring the world around me.

During our subsequent travels I have been amazed at what we’ve ended up learning: geography, history, culture, psychology, self-awareness, the list goes on and on. So this is the force driving my not-so-easily-sated addiction, but thankfully, I’ve also been given ample opportunities to get my fix. Here are the places we’ve traveled and some of the things we’ve learned during my two years as an English Language Fellow (August 2017-July 2019):

Beijing

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Hefei

Hefei, Anhui [where we learned about HOME]

Through traveling, I think one of the things we’ve learned the most about is the concept of “home”. We’ve learned that a home can really be made anywhere, and that connections with neighbors and friends are absolutely necessary for a place to truly feel like home. In fact, we have often felt closer to the friends we’ve made during our brief stints abroad because these shared experiences bond people together in an incredible way. We become instant family with other expats, and our Chinese friends are literally our lifelines! It’s such an interesting dynamic that definitely opened up our views of family and home. Another interesting aspect of our new perspective on “home” is how well we actually know it. Going into our last two new homes we haven’t known anything about them. Nothing about the neighborhoods we’d be in or even anything past what Wikipedia says about the cities/regions they’re in. This has given us a new outlook on what it means to truly know where you live. We’ve had an amazing time learning more about the places we’ve called home, and it’s made me curious about the places we used to call home and how well we actually knew them.

Nanjing, Jiangsu

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Mongolia

Mongolia (Ulaanbaatar & Gorkhi-Terelj)

Shanghai

Wuhan, Hubei

Huangshan & Hongcun, Anhui

Xi’an & Lintong, Sha’anxi

Harbin, Heilongjiang

Thailand (Chiang Mai & Bangkok)

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Cambodia

Cambodia (Siem Reap & Phnom Penh) [where we learned about CONFLICT]

In addition to learning about our home (and our views of it), traveling to difference places has allowed us to take a closer look at how others view the same places and how they view their own homes. This has lead to a better understanding of conflicts and global perspectives, which I am endlessly interested in. When we visited Cambodia, for example, I was immediately struck by their relationship with Thailand. We took a bus from Thailand to Cambodia, and walked across the border through immigration, where the welcome was, well, not so welcome. Cambodia has had a rough history, with its neighbors and with many foreign nations, and that has left an impression on the population. And it’s hard to deny their feelings, especially when one of the other most noticeable features of Cambodia was the number of missing limbs, mostly caused by landmines still implanted within their borders decades after the end of the conflict in Vietnam. The US has its perspective on our many conflicts, but every country, and every person has their own views, which are extremely important to learn in order to really begin understanding each other.

Hong Kong

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Guangzhou

Shenzhen & Guangzhou, Guangdong

Hangzhou, Zhejiang

Sanhe, Anhui

Badaling, Beijing [where we learned about PERCEPTION]

On the topic of perception, I’d be amiss if I didn’t mention the fact that traveling has broken pretty much every stereotype I’ve ever had about a place or group of people. When we traveled with my family in China, it was amazing to watch those stereotypes break for someone other than myself. My parents realized pretty quickly that China was nothing like they had imagined, and Tucker and I have done the same thing in every place we’ve visited. Our perspectives are shaped through all sorts of things (the news, education, movies, etc.), but they’re always seen through our own individual filters as well as through the filters of the sources of information. This has lead to many different perspectives on many different things, but seeing and experiencing something for yourself gives you the best insight you could ask for. One of my favorite travel quotes comes from Aldous Huxley: “to travel is to learn that everyone was wrong about other countries.” Even when comparing your experiences with someone else who has been to the same place, a difference in perspective is almost guaranteed, but that’s what makes it so interesting!

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Badaling

Suzhou, Jiangsu

Kunming & Mile, Yunnan

Australia (Sydney, Port Macquarie, Brisbane, Airlie Beach, Cairns)

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Australia

Haikou, Hainan

Qingdao, Shandong

Guilin, Xingping, & Longjin, Guangxi [where we learned about FAMILY]

Traveling with family has taught us a lot as well. First, it taught me to be thankful for our family members who are willing and able to travel with us. There have been many expats we’ve met whose family members have never visited them or even want to see the places their loved ones call home. It truly makes me thankful for the open-minded and adventurous spirits of my and Tucker’s families. I have also learned a lot about taking care of other people’s needs. In China, independence really only comes with time because with no alphabet and very little English, trying to do things on your own can take a lot of effort and patience. Luckily for Tucker’s mom and aunt (and my parents), we were there to help them answer any questions and provide whatever they needed. Through these trips, I learned a lot about what is required to be responsible for someone other than myself 24/7, and it has left no question in my mind as to why we haven’t had any kids. Haha!

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Fanchang

Jinshanling, Hebei

Wuhu & Fanchang, Anhui 

Changsha, Hunan

Zhangjiajie, Hunan

Chaohu, Anhui [where we learned about the PAST]

Another set of lessons we have undoubtedly received through our travels has been in regards to history. Coming from the New World, our “history” typically refers to the seventeenth century and onward, but traveling to other parts of the world, we’ve realized just how recent that actually is. Europe showed us their history through maps and architecture; Asia has shown us through traditions and languages. Visiting the outskirts of Chaohu and other cities and villages of Anhui is a bit like stepping back in time. There are farmers whose ancestors have farmed the same land for hundreds of years. Ancient artifacts seem to be dug up every day in this part of China, cooking vessels and jewelry from thousands of years ago. In history classes I was never really good at linking what was happening in ancient Rome with the rest of the world, but after traveling and seeing some of the history for myself, it has gotten much easier, as has the ability to connect what has happened in the past with what is happening in the present.

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Chaohu

Chengdu, Sichuan

Siguniangshan, Sichuan

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Chongqing

Chongqing

Zhuhai, Guangdong

Macau

Lantau Island, HK

The Philippines (Cebu & Manila) [where we learned about INEQUALITY]

Traveling truly brings to light things I never would have given second thought to in other situations. Throughout our travels we’ve met many people in many different circumstances. And sadly, we’ve seen that people are almost never treated equally. We, in the US, tend to think of race, gender, and sexual orientation, but there are also issues of class, religion, ethnic background, age, and countless others. Inequality seems to be a shared human-trait, but it’s also something we’re all growing increasingly aware of. Sometimes seeing it manifest in a different way, as it often does in different contexts, helps show how ridiculously common, yet unnecessary it really is. Tucker and I were in the Philippines earlier this year, where we saw first hand some of the inequalities experienced by the people who live there versus the people who vacation there. It’s something that allows us to think about the impact we have when we unintentionally aid inequality, not only when traveling but in all aspects of our lives.

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The Philippines

Singapore

Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur)

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Jiufen

Taiwan (Taipei, Jiufen, & Tamsui)

Anqing, Anhui

Jiuhuashan & Chizhou, Anhui

Xining, Qinghai [where we learned about KINDNESS]

Finally, I think the biggest lesson of all has been the kindness strangers are capable of showing for each other, which we found well on display on our recent trip to Qinghai. It has been a common thread throughout every place we’ve traveled; the help we’ve received from people we had never met before continues to inspire us. Whether it is someone giving directions in multiple languages or simply sharing information about their culture so that we can leave with a more complete understanding, we’ve made friends with people around the world. This is what allows me to not get bogged down in politics or negative stories that are passed around because I have experienced the kindness of humans in every country I’ve been to. I’ve seen our similarities and they far outweigh any differences. Mark Twain wrote “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness”, and I believe our ability to travel more freely now than ever before has played a big part in the acceptance and compassion people are showing each other around the globe. I want to continue to spread the kindness I’ve received, and I hope that we all continue to do that whether we’re traveling or not.

Chaka & Erlangjian, Qinghai

Japan [Upcoming!]

There you have it: 10 different countries, 20ish provinces/regions of China, over 60 cities, and an immeasurable amount of knowledge, experiences, and memories. It’s fun to keep track and even more fun to share, but don’t just take it from me. As the Asian proverb goes, “better to see something once than to hear about it a thousand times.” Hope to see you on our next trip!

Map

Asian Island Adventures

51236081_10218703184719061_8876367206510755840_nThe second New Year (also known as the Chinese New Year or the Lunar New Year) has come and gone, and with it, possibly our last long winter break off together. Just like last year, the Chinese university semester break coincides with the holiday giving us several weeks off, which, of course, we put to good use! My program had its mid-year meeting and conference in the Philippines this year, and somehow, Tucker and I managed to squeeze in three (and a half) other destinations on our island hopping itinerary. You might have seen the hundreds of photos on Facebook, but I’d also like to share a few words about our time traveling in South Asia. To be honest, it’s a little surreal to be writing this as I watch the snow fall outside, but here we go!

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Macau/HK

50416214_10218648248945701_250725072455598080_nOur first stop was Macau, a “special administrative region” of China. It gets this rather long name due to it being somewhere between a province and another country entirely. It’s a part of China, but it’s also not China, which is actually one of the reasons we wanted to visit. We wanted to see if there were any noticeable differences. We also wanted to visit because we were eager for another taste of Portugal. Macau used to be a Portuguese colony and has retained quite a bit of the Portuguese flair in architecture, food, and language. It was an incredible mix of the two cultures: tons of Chinese New Year decorations along the beautiful mosaic walkways, pork dumplings could be ordered with a side of garlic bread and red wine, and all the signs were in both Chinese and Portuguese, which was very exciting for this language nerd. The weather was beautiful while we were there, so we were able to walk almost the entire city by foot. Macau is made up of a small peninsula and island on the southern coast of China. The peninsula is where the Old Town is with its ruins, churches, and forts, and the casino-filled island gives Macau the nickname “The Vegas of the East”. We had an amazing time exploring both: taking selfies, eating all the street food, and even trying our hand at gambling again (much to my chagrin).

50679451_10218668969583704_4242597479859617792_nAfter a few days of strolling around Macau’s narrow alleyways, we took a massive speed boat (TurboJet) to our next destination just across the water: Hong Kong. This was actually our second trip to Hong Kong, but last time we didn’t quite get to everything on our list – this short stopover on the way to Midyear was our second chance. We had less than 24 hours in the city, but we managed to make it out to Lantou Island to see the incredible Buddha and cableway there, we took the bus to the top of Victoria Peak to watch the sunset over the city, and we went to Tim Ho Wan for the world’s cheapest Michelin Star eats. While I definitely preferred Macau’s laid back, European vibes, it’s hard to not like Hong Kong as well. Macau and Hong Kong are a couple of tiny islands (and respective peninsulas) that I highly recommend everyone to visit! No visas needed for US citizens! 🙂

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The Philippines

51544827_10218758613504746_7490417853212917760_nAll too soon it was time to fly to the Philippines and get to work. When we first landed in the Philippines it was chaos! Passengers getting up and grabbing their bags before the plane had stopped moving; people sitting on seemingly every inch of the floor in the airport; signs for flight changes being moved by hand from gate to gate; loud cover songs of 2000’s hits playing in every corner of the terminal, etc. All I could think was “Well, we’re definitely not in China anymore.” As we sat waiting for our flight though, the newness wore off, and it was easy to see that the Philippines are just plain fun! In fact, their national slogan is “It’s more fun in the Philippines”, and I totally got it. Smiles were everywhere! The flight attendants wore bright yellow polos and hummed songs as we boarded. Fellow passengers sang along with the music they heard on the plane. The joy was contagious!

51090853_10218728310947201_775519455542247424_nThe first week we were in the Philippines I had to “work”. I attended meetings with the other Fellows, we planned and executed various group activities, and generally bonded and reconnected after our last five months apart in our various host cities/countries. For this part of Midyear, we were put up in a resort on Mactan Island, which was incredibly fancy and not the sort of place Tucker and I usually go for (I’ve never heard so many “yes ma’ams” and “hello sirs” in my life). It was beyond beautiful though, and luckily Tucker was able to take full advantage of the beach, the snorkeling, the infinity pool, etc. However, after a few days completely devoid of local culture, I was definitely ready to get to our next location: Cebu City. It was here that we attended and presented at a local teacher training conference held at the University San Jose Recoletos. Easily my favorite part of Midyear, I was able to meet and interact with many local Filipina/o teachers and get a much better feel for what life in the Philippines is really like.

 

51300721_10218758619504896_748782893282623488_nOnce the conference and Midyear were officially over, Tucker and I hadn’t quite had our fill of the Philippines, so we headed to Manila for some good old-fashioned touristing. Manila is an incredible city with some of the best food I’ve had in a long while. Their specialty seemed to be fusion restaurants. We had super interesting and delicious food at Loco Manuk (Filipino, Peruvian, and Chinese) and El Chupacabra (Filipino and Mexican), and saw a Japanese-French Cafe that looked amazing as well! In addition to the incredible food, we also had a great time walking around Manila Bay, grabbing a drink in Intramuros (the Old Town), and watching the Super Bowl at a local expat bar. The Philippines boasts an amazing mix of languages and cultures, and it was so fun for us to be able to use English (commonly spoken there) to ask about a million questions of our taxi drivers, servers, and any other local we could find. We learned about the strong influence of Catholicism in the Philippines, the new-ish movement towards environmental clean up, and most of all we learned how welcoming and friendly the people are.

Singapore

52466008_10218786674966265_1366061700507238400_nAt this point we were over the halfway mark of our trip, and my body had had enough. I left Manila with a fever and several other ailments (not so fun to describe), but I was still super excited to see Singapore! We watched Crazy Rich Asians on another leg of this trip in preparation, but the movie doesn’t do the city justice. It is by far the cleanest city I’ve ever seen, and has represented its multicultural population incredibly well! Singapore is made up of large groups of ethnic Chinese, Malays, and Indians, and each has a dedicated area of the city where you can find their respective religious buildings, restaurants, and specialized grocery stores. Even with the diverse neighborhoods in place, the city as a whole really seems to cater to each group in so many ways. Colorful, artistic, and clearly very well-off, there are so many lovely parks and public spaces in this city, where we saw families wearing everything from tank tops and sundresses to saris and hijabs. I often talk about places where there is a mix of cultures, but its usually a watered down mix, where clearly one culture has dominated, but in Singapore they were all there loud and proud. It was amazing!

However, after a few days in Singapore I definitely had another “this is clearly not China moment”. Everything was so quiet, there weren’t many people around, and the “no spitting” signs actually seemed to work, as we saw absolutely no spitting while we were there! Signs like these were everywhere, covering the basics like “no littering $1000” and the bizarre like “no chewing gum $500”, ultimately giving the city a punny nickname: Singapore, a “fine” city. Tucker really loved Singapore – so many interesting foods to try, lots of activities to partake in (the Trick Eye Museum, Universal Studios, and beer tastings to name a few), but I was a little hesitant. It was almost a little too clean and a little too “nice” for me. I guess I like my cities a little more rough around the edges, but as far as a place to vacation and experience as many authentic Asian cultures and foods as possible, it has got to be number one on my list!

Malaysia

The last stop on this epic journey was Kuala Lumpur (usually called KL), Malyasia. We ended up taking a Transtar bus from Singapore to Malaysia because it was only about a 6 hour drive and the price was right. Little did I know that $30 was going to buy me the best bus ride of my life! We had recliners, tea service, lunch, personal TVs, and gorgeous views of the Malaysian jungles. If you’re ever in this area, take this bus ride! Upon our arrival in KL, I couldn’t help feeling a little like Goldilocks. The Philippines was maybe a little too outgoing for me, and Singapore was a little too uppity, was Malaysia going to be just right?

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51885758_10218802010149635_1122751154648776704_nIt turns out KL was full of surprises for us. The majority of people living in Malaysia are Muslim, so it was much more conservative than I was expecting. Most everyone wore long sleeves and pants despite the high temperatures, and the presence of beautiful and delicious “mocktails” was at an all time high for me. KL is actually not on an island, and to us, it seemed like we lost that friendly, carefree island-vibe as soon as we arrived. Interactions were a bit more abrupt and businesslike – like they usually are, I suppose. Another surprise was the color we saw all around us – both the Philippines and Singapore were incredibly colorful cities, but I think any city would be hard pressed to match the vibrancy of KL. Brightly colored murals everywhere, some of the lushest, greenest trees I’ve ever seen against the bluest of skies, and the insanely colorful Batu Caves just outside the city made for some incredible scenes (and photos).

There’s no possible way for me to share everything we saw and learned on this trip, but I hope you enjoyed reading a few of the details! After reflecting on any of our travels, it never ceases to amaze me how little I actually know about the world I live in, and taking trips like this only intensifies the curiosity I have for all the places I haven’t yet been to! I hope no matter where Tucker and I end up next, we can continue these adventures because this experience, like so many before it, was truly remarkable.

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Our Packing Process

37500336_10217149019145893_5591727216695181312_nYou might have noticed that Tucker and I like to go on trips. A lot of trips. 🙂 And since we typically try to travel as cheaply as possible, we usually end up with long bus/train rides, fairly small accommodations (usually hostels), and ultimately a lot of walking. All of these factors (in addition to my scrawny arms and general aversion towards planning) have turned me into somewhat of an expert packer. For anything from 4 days to 40 days, I pack everything Tucker and I need in 2 regular-sized backpacks and 1 duffle bag, and it usually takes me about 20 minutes. I have whittled down my packing process and have come close to perfecting it (at least for our needs), and I’m happy to share what I’ve learned with other trip-takers!

About Bags: I prefer to use regular backpacks, not backpacking backpacks, for several reasons. First, those huge ones that make you look like you’re about to hike the Himalayas are super expensive. I’m also a bit rough on my luggage (not to mention how the airlines treat them), so I just go with cheap back-to-school type bags. I like ones with only two pockets (one large and one small), and Tucker likes ALL THE POCKETS! Regular backpacks afford us a lot of variety, and they don’t break the bank when we need to replace them. In addition to cost is the versatility of a smaller bag. Often when we’re traveling we like to take day trips. It’s nice to have a smaller bag available for day-use as well. However, I will say that on occasion we have packed both backpacks a little too full and had to empty a bag onto the hotel bed before taking one of said day trips! You live and learn, I guess.

IMG_0672We also always bring a duffle bag as opposed to a rolling bag. The nice thing about a duffle is that it allows us to keep our hands free. One of us will sling it over our shoulder and happily traverse any sort of terrain (hundreds of stairs, cobble stones, dirt paths, etc.) all while holding a map, a phone, a water bottle, or anything else we might need. It’s also much easier to travel on a bus/train with a duffle than it is with a rolling bag. Our bag can be thrown in the overhead compartments, squashed under our feet, or stacked with other luggage in a separate area. We’ve also had zero issues with a duffle bag breaking (knock on wood!), and even if we did, they’re fairly easy to fix or replace. We have, however, broken wheels off of rolling bags, and that was not easily fixed. Instead it was dragged along behind us…rather loudly.

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Huge bummer

Toiletries: For our toiletries I typically pack two small pouches. I pretty much always have them prepped and ready to go with things like travel shampoo, body wash, q-tips, etc. Sometimes I separate our items into a sort of his-and-her situation, especially if we aren’t sharing a bathroom. Sometimes I’ll have them separated by stuff used in the shower/bathroom and other, non-wet things (like medicine, tissues, etc.). I also like to use Ziploc bags to keep things separate and leak-free. When you’re flying, you generally need them anyway, but even with ground travel, the Ziplocs have been lifesavers! We usually use them until they’re falling apart, so hopefully the environment will forgive me this use of plastic.

Clothes: This is probably where Tucker and I differ from most packers. We are rewear-ers. I’ll rewear most pants and shirts at least twice on a trip, which allows me to really cut down on the weight and bulk of our bags. For longer trips, we also rely on laundry facilities. We’ve done laundry in countless hotels/hostels, local laundromats, and yes, even in the sink (à la Rick Steves). The only thing we don’t skimp on is underwear and socks. There is nothing as bad as running out of clean underwear or socks! Another essential packing item for us is a trash bag. We use a trash bag to differentiate between the clothes we can still wear and the ones that must be washed before they touch our bodies again. This is really helpful because when rewearing clothes (especially in tropical locations) they can get a little ripe after awhile. Using a trash bag keeps that dirty laundry smell to a minimum.

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Other: Other things we pack include our collection of electronics: cellphone chargers, laptop, laptop charger, power bank, and adapters. I wish I had a nice tip for packing these things, but honestly we just shove them into an outer pocket. I will say that when traveling internationally, the smaller your adapter is, the better. We have some that fall out of the outlets because the adapter plus the weight of the plug/cord is just too much for the outlet to handle. We also always make sure to pack what we call “bag food”. It’s our supply of emergency snacks like granola bars, nuts, etc. Sometimes our transportation takes place in the wee hours, and as Tucker will attest, I can get pretty hangry. We try not to dip into the bag food too often, I mean, part of the reason we travel is to try all the local foods, but I will say that we have been extremely thankful for that Belvita on more than one occasion.

IMG_0670Souvenirs: Finally I’ve heard several people mention that they have had to buy additional suitcases for the souvenirs they bought while traveling (this may or may not have happened to us on occasion as well!). Typically I try to focus on collecting photos (and the occasional, functional item) for myself, but we often want to bring back souvenirs for friends and family as well. When looking for things to bring back, we typically aim for flat, sturdy items (wall art, bookmarks, games, etc.). They pack the best, whether for short or long-term storage/travel. I also really like to send postcards in lieu of gifts. If you travel a lot or live abroad giving gifts becomes expensive and exceedingly difficult to do in a timely manner, so instead I like to show I’m thinking of someone by sending a postcard from wherever I happen to be. I absolutely love getting mail, and I think most people would agree!

So that’s how we do it! It’s nothing special or groundbreaking; just taking the experiences/lessons as they come and adjusting as we go. There’s really no wrong way to pack though, and as we always remind ourselves when we’re walking out the door: all you really need is your ID, a form of payment, and a sense of adventure! 🙂

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Totally worth any packing hassle or mishap!

A Tale of Two Cities

Lodz, Poland and Hefei, China are two cities that 1) not many people have heard of and 2) don’t really seem like they’d share many similarities, but I feel it’s my job as a former resident of one, and a current resident of the other to share some interesting information about these two beautiful places, perhaps increasing their notoriety and proving that two very different cities can actually have quite a lot in common.

Maps
Putting Lodz and Hefei on the map so to say

Similarities: For me (and Tucker, as I’ve enlisted his help with the following comparisons), the most prominent similarities lie in the locations, reputations, and inhabitants of the two cities.

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Train travel in China

Location: Both Lodz and Hefei are somewhat centrally located within their respective countries. They are cities that are not known for their tourist attractions, but are instead used as transportation hubs. All the train routes and major highways, for example, seem to connect through these large, regional capitals. We have absolutely loved this feature in both locations because it has made our travels around Poland and China significantly easier (and cheaper). We have also found that both cities are surrounded by farmland. Unlike the US, which seems to be the land of never-ending suburbs, both Lodz and Hefei have a very clear line between city and countryside. This clear division never fails to amaze me as we ride a train out of the city, and I look down for a moment only to look up and see fields and tractors rather than high-rises. While, we knew both cities were geographically in the middle of their nations, the ease and plethora of transportation options and the stark city to farm transitions were not something we anticipated finding in one, let alone both cities.

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Cityscape in Lodz

Reputation: Another similarity we’ve run into is what the two cities are most known for. Lodz was described to us as the Detroit of Europe (or the Manchester of the Continent), a place where industry was king. In Hefei, it is and has always been about business as well; whether the tea or other Anhui specialties from the past or the engineered or technological goods of today, Hefei is also place where industry has thrived. Both cities are also well off-the-beaten track as far as travelers are concerned. Many people travel to Poland and to China, but far fewer have made it to Lodz or Hefei. For that reason, I think the two cities share a sense of undisturbed cultural “essence” that places like Kracow and Shanghai can’t quite advertise. We often joke that we live in “real” China as opposed to places like Beijing or Hong Kong, which have many international residents and conveniences that might not feel that different from any other large city. Lodz also felt like a part of “real” Poland, and no matter which country we’re in, Tucker and I have definitely preferred being one with the locals.

Inhabitants: A third similarity that has appeared in so many ways is in regards to the people. Both Lodz and Hefei, possibly as a result of their lack of tourism, are fairly homogeneous cities. I remember in Lodz feeling like I was missing out on the diversity that, to me, made a city like Atlanta something special. Hefei is similar in that the vast majority of people fit a very similar mold. Even the names fit very specific standardizations in both locations. In one of my classes in Poland I had six students named Marta, four Michals, etc. In China it’s the same but with the last names, I have seven students in one class with the surname Zhang, five with Liu, etc. We’ve also found hospitality to be very highly valued by the inhabitants of both Lodz and Hefei. People in both cities have been extremely welcoming towards us whether we have a connection (via friends or work) or not. From snack offerings and dinner invitations to personal tour guides and assistance with even the most mundane tasks, strangers, acquaintances, and friends alike went out of their way in both cities to be friendly and hospitable to us, the newbies on the block.

The last similarity that I want to mention, which may even be the reason I’m writing this post, is that people from Lodz (Lodzites, as we call them) and people from Hefei (Hefeians) both regard their cities as “nothing special”. When people asked me what my favorite city in Poland was, truly my answer was Lodz, and they didn’t believe me! Now when I talk about all the things I like about Hefei, I’m met with suggestions for other cities to visit in China. Maybe this can be boiled down to the “grass is always greener” adage, or maybe some form of modesty, but really I think both Lodz and Hefei are great places to visit or to live.

Honorable mentions for similarities: Some other things that stick out as oddly similar between the two cities include:

The prevalence of shopping malls, the of ubiquity of uneven pavements (it’s unclear as of yet whether I’ve tripped more often in Poland or in China), the common appearance of cars on these uneven pavements (i.e. sidewalks, store fronts, etc.), and the the popularity of duck (as opposed to other poultry).

Differences: I don’t think my information about the cities would be entirely complete if I didn’t at least briefly outline some of the differences we’ve encountered as well. When thinking about the ways the two cities are not alike, interestingly, I still come to the features of location, reputation, and inhabitants.

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Skyline in Hefei

Location: The size of the two cities is quite different. Lodz has a population of about 100,000, while Hefei has between 6-8 million. With the population difference, of course, comes a difference of area. Lodz was fairly walkable; usually we chose to take buses or trams, but if it got too late, we could walk home if we needed to. We were also able to walk to the grocery store, a nearby mall, several parks, etc. In Hefei there is no way to get around solely by walking. It takes us over an hour to get to the other side of the city in the best of circumstances, several hours by bus. In Hefei we end up taking taxis a lot more than we ever have before (cheap, reliable, and fast – can’t be it!). Another locational difference is the fact that Poland is surrounded quite close on all sides by different cultures. Europe, in general, has been mixing the cuisines, festivals, etc. of its various nations for quite a while. China, while also surrounded by other countries/cultures, is much larger and only newly “open” for mixing. The difference these facts have made on the cities is quite evident. In Lodz we could go to an Italian, French, Turkish, German, Chinese, or any other restaurant we might want on any given night, while in Hefei, it’s pretty much Chinese all around. There is variety to be had (Sichuanese, Canton, Beijing-style, etc.), but ultimately to me, it’s still all Chinese.

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Skyline in Lodz

 

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Church in Lodz

Reputation: Another difference would have to be the government systems, and perhaps even more than that are the views towards the government systems. In Lodz, I talked about politics more than I ever had previously in my life. We talked about Poland’s history, laws, elections, etc. all the time. I learned that Poland had the world’s second democracy, I heard the word “solidarity” more often than I would have thought possible, and of course, I observed all the negativity surrounding the ideals of communism (which is really no wonder given Poland and Russia’s history). However, now that I’m in Hefei, politics are pretty well avoided. Solidarity has perhaps been replaced with “CPC”, and communism is viewed completely differently, which makes sense, as it is completely different than the former Russian system we’ve all read about. Another large difference in regards to reputation is the presence of religion in Lodz and the almost complete absence of it in Hefei. I took hundreds of photos of churches during my time in Poland, and I think I’ve seen maybe four over the past seven months in China. It’s also interesting to note that in Poland many people loved arguing over the influence the church had/has on the government, but in China that’s just not even possible.

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Temple in Hefei
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Polish offerings

Inhabitants: Finally, there are definitely some differences among the people of Lodz and Hefei. While I mentioned both populations were incredible hospitable, their ways of showing it are completely different. In Poland people had a motherly way of treating guest: Did we want something to drink? Something to eat? Are we cold? Etc. We were asked over to people’s houses for the holidays, and we had no trouble connecting to people on a casual, friend level. In China, we’re treated more like honored guests. We are given the best seats in the house, gifts, toasts, red-carpet treatment (sometimes literally). While hospitable, occasionally we feel a little isolated by this guest-treatment, which has taken a bit of time to overcome and finally allow us to reach the friendzone. Another obvious difference would be lifestyles. In Lodz it seemed like a quiet life was desired. Most people in the city kept to themselves and enjoyed quiet activities like reading or silently playing mobile games while making it through the day (the great exception to this being when a Polish sports team was on TV). In Hefei, however, I’m not sure there’s ever a truly quiet moment. Cars and buses blast their horns around the clock, people listen to surprisingly loud audio messages wherever they are, and with the singing street sweepers and an abundance salespeople armed with loudspeakers, it’s safe to say people here aren’t concerned with the quiet life.

Honorable mentions for differences: Some other notable differences include:

The amount and importance placed on alcohol as a form of socializing, the ability to regulate indoor temperatures (in Lodz we couldn’t cool down our apartment, and in Hefei we can’t heat it), the emphasis placed on the quality of food, and last but not least, the language (there’s way too much to say about the differences in this aspect, so I’ll save it for a later post).

I’m not sure if anyone really wanted quite that much information about Lodz and Hefei, but when I start talking (or writing) about these two places I always find that I have so much to say! Ultimately though no matter the similarities or differences we’ve found, the most remarkable things we’ve taken away form our time in both Lodz and Hefei are the things we’ve learned, the memories we’ve made, and the people we’ve met. And personally, I can’t wait to find out which city we’ll be adding to the comparison list next!

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I ❤ Lodz & Hefei

Southeast Asia and Chinese New Year

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Riding in a songthaew

There are so many things to love about being a teacher, but one that always stands out (even to non-teachers) are the breaks we often get. For me, as a university teacher in China, I was lucky enough to have a little over six weeks off in between semesters this year! Unfortunately, that’s not the norm (it just so happened that Chinese New Year fell quite late this year), but however it happened, I’m so glad it did because Tucker and I were able to take one incredible trip last month! In fact, this was our most involved trip to date, as it linked together several professional events in addition to the typical, touristy ones and ultimately involved us being away from home for 30 days. The planning was…interesting, as neither of us had ever been to Southeast Asia before, I had to be prepared for several work events throughout the trip, and it happened to take place over the biggest holiday of the region. Basically, we had no idea how it would turn out, but we were excited to find out!

Thailand

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View from Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

Our first stop was in Chiang Mai, Thailand, which was the location for the East Asia/Pacific Fellows Midyear Meeting. I’m actually a little ashamed to say that I had never heard of Chiang Mai before finding out that was where the midyear would be because it is a city that should definitely be on any travel-nerd’s radar! It’s located in Northern Thailand, not too far from the Myanmar border and is a fairly popular location for backpackers. Being solidly in Southeast Asia, and inland no less, it was quite warm even in January. About 85 degrees Fahrenheit (30C) when we flew in, which was quite a shock when the week before we were in Harbin, China chilling out at -15F (-25C), but the overall atmosphere of Chiang Mai was anything but stifling. I read a bit about Thailand and Thai culture before we left, and one of the things that stuck out while we were there was the peacefulness and serenity of the people. Due to a largely Buddhist population, the people of Thailand try to conduct their lives with as little conflict as possible. Surprisingly, this was something that was easily felt and observed even in our few short weeks in the country.

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Sharing some yummy treats

Honestly, there are so many things I could share about our time in Chiang Mai! Other than getting to meet up with all the EAP Fellows again, bond through the sharing of meals, drinks, and stories, and attend/present at the exceptional Thai TESOL conference, we were able to fit in some of the most incredible cultural experiences as well! We took a Thai cooking class, something that was extremely out of my comfort zone (although I think I held my own! My Pad Thai was delicious, and I didn’t catch anything on fire!), we visited two elephant sanctuaries and learned more about the history and treatment of elephants in the region, and we walked in and around countess wats picking up phrases and gestures that we’ll likely use for quite awhile (even if they’re a little out of place in China). Ultimately, it was a busy, but extraordinarily rewarding week.

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Floating market

After the meeting and conference were checked off our list, we headed down to Bangkok via an overnight train. I don’t know about you, but I absolutely love overnight trains! This is the sixth we’ve been on, and I have yet to be disappointed! Such a great experience, very affordable, and the stories are fantastic! I should write a “Stories from Overnight Trains” post at some point, but for now, I’ll focus on Bangkok. Most people already know about this Thai city; it’s the capital and a jumping off point for many destinations in SE Asia. I’ll admit that at first, I thought it was just another big city: similar to Beijing, New York, etc. However, the longer we were there, the more I came to like it. There is truly something for everyone – in fact, almost too much of everything! We had a great time with the vast array of transportation options, took in some sights (unique skyscrapers, centuries-old wats, and even a lunar eclipse), and, of course, we also ate a lot of delicious food! That is, until Tucker had some cashew apples from a street vendor – that wasn’t a pleasant 24 hours for him!

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Incredible detail!

Cambodia

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Sunrise over Angkor Wat

From Bangkok, we took a 6 hour bus ride to Siem Reap, Cambodia. Siem Reap is the nearest city to the famous Angkor Wat complex. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen Angkor Wat mentioned in English language textbooks (usually in the chapter on “travel”), and quite possibly because of this, it has long been a place on my must-see list. Now that I have finally seen the breathtaking Angkor Wat in person, I can honestly say that the pictures do not even come close to doing it justice. When we were in Europe I was always so impressed with how old things were. For Americans, 300 years old seems crazy – in Europe it’s normal, in Asia, it’s downright modern. The temples and statues in the complex were built over 900 years ago, a time that is difficult for me to fully imagine outside of the strings of dates and events I studied for university exams. Seeing it in person, and actually being allowed to walk on it, touch it, and understand the amount of effort it must have taken to build, was all truly amazing.

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The place to be in Siem Reap

The city of Siem Reap was really awesome as well although very different from temples of Angkor Wat. Instead of pushy monkeys, we encountered pushy tuk-tuk drivers (touristy areas definitely have their drawbacks). However, there’s a really fun Pub Street at the center of town, where we tried local Cambodian dishes like Amok (a delicious coconut and lime curry dish) and Lok Lak (a peppery beef salad) and drank 50 cent draft beers several nights during our stay. Siem Reap is actually where we found ourselves for the Super Bowl this year, and luckily Tucker quickly sleuthed out, a nearby, American-owned bar that was hosting a party…at 6am (which is when the game began for us). So, of course, we had unlimited pizza, wings, and beer (maybe a little too much) for breakfast, and made some new American, Canadian, and German friends while watching the Eagles pull out a win. Unfortunately the owner was from Boston, so it was a bit of a hard loss for him. I’m just thankful it wasn’t as doom and gloom as last year’s gathering in Atlanta. Still hurts Tucker a bit to talk about it.

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Mekong sunrise

After Siem Reap, we took another bus down to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city. My intention for visiting Phnom Penh was to attend and present at the Cam TESOL conference that was being held there, which was a fantastic experience, but we definitely enjoyed more than just the conference and further Fellow company. We took many breezy walks along the Mekong River, had hour long Khmer massages for $8, and again, ate some of the best food I’ve had in a long time! France actually has a long history with Cambodia, and it seems like their culinary flare has definitely rubbed off on the Cambodian population. One restaurant we stumbled upon, La Provence, was a bit off the well-beaten tourist track, but the food we had there was absolutely incredible! There were no menus (we ordered off a chalkboard) and everything was in French, but it was easily my favorite meal of the trip. It’s been a few weeks now, and we’re still regularly talking about it.

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Wat Phnom

Hong Kong

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Aviary friend

Now that my professional duties were officially over and the holidays (Valentine’s Day and Chinese New Year) were upon us, we headed to our next location: Hong Kong. We flew into Hong Kong and immediately felt the Britishness of it. Not only were we back on the left side of the road (Thailand also drives on the left), but we took a double-decker bus from the airport to our hostel. I’d like to say that I refrained from speaking in a British accent, but that would totally be a lie – I immediately went into Harry Potter mode when I saw the buses…Tucker looked a little ashamed. But in addition to the British influence, we also felt like we were getting closer to home as we listened to any and all announcements in Cantonese, English, and Mandarin. HK was one of the places Tucker was looking forward to the most, so he lead the way as we wound our way around the hilly island. Hong Kong Park with its jungle-y feel, beautiful water features, and unexpected aviary was a highlight for us. As was the double-decker tram that ran the length of the city. We had lots of plans for our time in Hong Kong. Many of them were successful (like eating and drinking all the HK specialties, taking the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbor, and visiting Hong Kong Disneyland), but as to be expected, some things didn’t quite go as planned.

Chinese New Year

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Victoria Harbor

We really didn’t give much thought to Chinese New Year as we were planning our trip because, honestly, we didn’t really know what it would be like either way, so we figured we’d just wing it. However, perhaps we should have thought a little more about it…something about hindsight, right? Chinese New Year is the biggest holiday in China (including Hong Kong), and unlike our New Year, it’s not really a one day event. Rather, the whole country prepares for days (by shopping, cooking, cleaning, etc.) and then takes several days off – all together, all 1.3 billion of them (okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration), but really, a lot of people were “on vacation” just like we were. Because of the larger-than-usual number of people on holiday in Hong Kong, there were a few things on our list that we opted to forego (rather than spending way too much time or money). This included riding the tram up to Victoria Peak and taking a trip over to the island of Macau for some Portuguese architecture and maybe a casino or two. I guess we’ll just have to take another trip down to Hong Kong soon!

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Hong Kong street market

Other than the crowds of happy, holiday-enjoying people, we saw many Chinese New Year markets pop-up. These markets sold all sorts of festival treats like candied Hawthorne, roasted corn, and cotton candy. They also had booths set up where students (presumably for an economics class) sold different New Year novelty items (stuffed animals, pinwheels, t-shirts, etc,). We were surprised to see that about a fourth of each market was filled with various plants and flowers, which we now know are common gifts to bring to a New Year’s Eve dinner/reunion. Not only the markets, but the entire city was decorated for the New Year – red lanterns were everywhere along with traditional paper cuttings, dog statues (we’ve transitioned from the Year of the Rooster to the Year of the Dog, by the way), and many signs wishing everyone a happy and prosperous New Year. It was very much like the lead up to Christmas, including a parade! On New Year’s Eve we were lucky enough to catch a parade on the Kowloon side of HK. There were some differences to be sure, but more similarities, I think: large balloon animals, floats with glitter and bright lights, marching bands, etc. We even saw the dancing Chinese dragons! It was really awesome to be so immersed in the festivities – I had thought it would be a little boring for us, as the holiday is said to be very family-oriented (and mostly celebrated at home), but being in Hong Kong and hearing all the “Gong Xi Fa Cai”s, I felt like we were in the middle of everything!

Guangzhou

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Adorable dim sum

The last stop on our itinerary was a little further up the Pearl River Delta, in the city of Guangzhou. Guangzhou used to be called Canton and is China’s third largest city. It’s known for it delicious food, including dim sum (a plethora of bite-sized foods like dumplings and steamed buns often served with all you can drink tea). Now that the holiday was over, we naively thought things would return to normal. We were quickly proven wrong when we arrived at our pre-booked hostel and were told that they didn’t have a room for us because they oversold our room for the holiday. Fortunately, we had something similar happen in Ukraine and totally didn’t panic. We used their WiFi (they were really kind and happily celebrating the New Year, giving us cherry tomatoes and candies to snack on while we figured this out), and we were able to secure a hotel room not too far away. Although many stores and restaurants were closed for the holiday (it’s actually still pretty unclear what sorts of things remained open and when the others would do so – we’re now a week into the New Year and still many things are closed by us!), we were able visit a beautiful orchid garden, treat ourselves to some amazing dim sum, and watch the light show on the skyscrapers from a bridge over the Pearl River. We had a lovely, albeit short, time in Guangzhou, but luckily it’s only a train ride away!

So after 30 days, almost 5000 miles traversed, and innumerable memories made, we made it back to Hefei in one piece. I truly can’t say it enough: I am so grateful for the opportunities Tucker and I have been afforded these past few years. I’m so appreciative of the time we’ve been able to spend together, the people we’ve been able to meet, and the information and perspective we are continually gaining through these experiences. Now it’s time to start the next semester, and I can’t wait to hear what all my students did during their six week break!

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Best travel partner ever!

Holiday Season in Hefei, China!

25551909_10215409724504614_4922483156100992958_n (1)Happy holidays from Hefei! Tucker and I are now into our fifth month of living in China and have just made it through our first holiday season in the Far East. China is the first country we’ve lived in that doesn’t celebrate Christmas as a national holiday, so we were pretty curious to see what it would be like over here. I’ve collected about a month’s worth of holiday observations to share with everyone, so let’s get to it!

25442748_10215324111684347_2436088416400639503_n (1)The Lead Up: Holiday decorations were everywhere! Early in December we started noticing Christmas decorations around the city: large, lighted trees, festive window stickers, red bows, etc. Our local supermarkets put up displays and seasonal aisles that sold everything from ornaments and stuffed Rudolphs to full-sized Santa animatronics (only mildly creepy). I had a great time buying a new set of Christmas décor (we now have a set on three separate continents) for our apartment here: stockings, lights, Santa hats, a small tree, etc. We were also able to find some seasonal treats like Andes candies, hot cocoa, and Ferrero Rochers as well. The malls were probably the biggest Christmas perpetrators with decorations on just about every store front, staircase, and atrium. People were often lined up to get their pictures with Santa or to enter the “Secret Wonderland”, which to us looked like a small, dark room with tons of white Christmas lights on the ceiling. Of course, many American chains like Starbucks and Dairy Queen also had their usual holiday specials advertised in the usual places, and Christmas music (particularly Jingle Bells) could be heard in most stores and restaurants throughout the month.

Christmas Eve: The word for Christmas Eve in Chinese is “Ping’an Ye”, which sort of sounds like “pingguo” (apple), so on Christmas Eve many Chinese people give apples as gifts to their friends and neighbors. The stores sell brightly wrapped apples just for this occasion, and if you tell a Chinese person that we, in fact, don’t have this tradition (despite the fact that it stems entirely from a play on Chinese words), they will be extremely surprised. Other than the apples, many Chinese Christians also go to church on Christmas Eve. In fact, since Christmas Eve fell on a Sunday this year, it was more popular for local church services than Christmas Day. However, the religious facet of Christmas is not as well-known as some of the more commercial aspects. For example, when I asked the students in the English Corner what American Christmas traditions they knew, they stuck to things like presents, Santa Claus, and holiday movies. It was really surprising to us which things they had heard of and which things are just not associated with Christmas for them. Leaving Santa cookies, for example, was something they had not heard of, but during Chinese New Year they have a similar tradition, which I can’t wait to be a part of!

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Christmas Day: Christmas Day is not a national holiday in China; therefore, people (regardless of religion, nationality, etc.) do not get the day off. I was lucky to not have classes that day, but I still got many work-related emails and had to go pick up my paycheck (on Christmas Day!!). When I told my colleagues and students what I planned to do on Christmas, which was to spend the whole day in my pajamas watching the Yule Log on YouTube, they were very surprised. In China, Christmas is the biggest shopping day of the year. Many people (especially the younger generations) spend the day going to the movies or out to eat, and then out shopping for gifts for each other or for their significant others. Christmas Day for the majority of Chinese people is more like another Valentine’s Day, only with slightly different characters. I took no part in the holiday shopping as I can only imagine what the crowds were like, but I did enjoy my fair share of Christmas gifts/messages. On WeChat, a Chinese social media app, I received over a hundred holiday messages from students, coworkers, and friends I’ve met over the last few months. I read “Merry Christmas” and “Sheng Dan Kuai Le” many times over the holiday and was blown away by the effort so many people put into making my Christmas Day a little more cheerful.

 

New Year’s Eve: New Year’s Eve, as we know it, refers to midnight on January 1st, but in China that’s only a minor New Year. Their longest holiday and biggest celebration is for the Lunar New Year, which will be in February this year (more on this later, I imagine). For our piddly little New Year, there was a bit less going on in Hefei than in other Chinese cities. We have signs and decorations wishing everyone a “Happy 2018” and from what I could tell, there were many parties downtown as well, but the large celebrations are reserved for China’s mega cities: Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, etc. We ended up watching a live stream from Hong Kong and were surprised that the only fireworks we heard were coming from the laptop. I suppose since we live on a university campus and China, in general, is really strict about air pollution, local fireworks seem to be rare on New Year’s Eve. I have a feeling this might not hold true for Lunar New Year though. Can’t wait to find out! Happy 2018!

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Top 8 Underrated Travel Destinations

New York City, Rome, and Bangkok are amazing places to travel. There is so much to see and do in these cities, and all sorts of information available for planning a trip there (and many other cities on the same scale), but sometimes we want to try something new, go somewhere equally interesting, but perhaps not as well-known. I’m a big fan of this type of travel, the less expected places where I usually learn more from the locals themselves than any possible book or website. If you also like exploring lesser-known destinations or just want to try something new, here is my list of 8 underrated travel destinations that I think everyone would fall in love with.

#8 Milwaukee, WI

20479485_10214176655838668_1628109147533371960_n (1)Okay, I realize Milwaukee is not the most glamorous or exotic city on anyone’s list, but hear me out. This smallish city, famous for its breweries and cheese, is only about an hour north of Chicago. Perhaps because of this, it can sometimes be overshadowed by the fame of its neighbor; however, in addition to the flavorful brews and delicious cheese curds, the city also lies along Lake Michigan with a river running straight through its center (sound familiar?). It also has a very strong European influence, which can be seen in the architecture and abundance of towering cathedrals. It might be less than half the size of Chicago (and about half as expensive!), but this city has been modernizing in a way that would make any European enthusiast proud. Many historical neighborhoods have been beautifully restored, the additions of a city Riverwalk and a new park have livened up the outdoor scene, and if you’re brave enough to endure the temperatures, the city is absolutely breathtaking in the winter.

Things to see/do: walk along the Milwaukee Riverwalk, test out some local beers at one of the many breweries (I recommend Lakefront), eat the squeaky cheese curds (available everywhere!), and if you’re there in winter, head to a bar for tailgating and transportation to one of the state’s football games.

 

#7 Kiev, Ukraine

13775957_10210260440975744_9077903166833460651_n (1)The capital city of Ukraine has had a bit of a bumpy ride over the past few decades, but that isn’t so evident when traipsing around the city as an excited tourist. Although Ukraine is not in the EU yet, you’ll find many of the same European conveniences backpackers and travelers alike have come to expect: wonderful public transportation, many downtown hostels and hotels, and a slough of monuments, churches, and parks to wander around. The city is known for its monasteries and domed, Orthodox churches, but I remember it most for it’s extremely cheap and delicious food! Most signs are in Cyrillic (like the Russian alphabet), which I think adds greatly to the city’s charm, but if you’re worried about language skills, the English spoken is quite common and understandable, especially by the younger generation.

Things to do/see: visit the caves and monastery at Pechersk-Lavra, have some Chicken Kiev and varenyky (a local dumpling), marvel at the ornate metro stations, and make the climb to Sky Park, where you can zip line across the river.

 

#6 Huangshan, China

23658757_10215123462988255_8497914411745216999_n (1)“Huang-what?”, you might be asking yourself. Huangshan or Yellow Mountain is not particularly well-known outside of China, except perhaps by avid hikers or mountaineers. However, this city and the mountain it takes its name from are spectacular places for anyone to visit. Lying about 4 hours west of Shanghai (by train), Huangshan is a destination that really has it all: beautiful nature, historical sites, and modern shopping. It might not be one of the largest cities in China (or even close), but it’s still pretty large from my perspective, with a population of 1.5 million. Just outside the city, accessible by bus are the mountains (to the north) and the preserved ancient towns of Hongcun and Xidi (to the northwest). All are worth a visit, and will remind people why China is often referred to as a traveler’s dream.

Things to do/see: wander around Hongcun and Xidi marveling at the bizarre street foods, hike Huangshan itself (or take a cable car up and hike down), shop for souvenirs and local teas on Tunxi Old Street, and eat some local Huizhou dishes, including the famous noodles.

 

#5 Skopje, Macedonia

13438928_10210125980614319_195783375429514471_n (1)Known officially as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), Macedonia is a small country in southern Europe that most people wouldn’t be able to pick out on a map. The capital city of Skopje, lies in the north of the country and is completely surrounded by mountains, giving it spectacular views from every angle. The city was heavily influenced by ancient Greece, which you can easily see in the large stone bridges and plethora of white columns, but it uses the Cyrillic alphabet (like Russia) and also claims one of the largest numbers of mosques in Europe: talk about a melting pot! The culture there is a unique mix all seeming to revolve around food, the incredibly refreshing šopska salad and potent rakija (locally produced alcohol) for example. While winter brings heavy snowfall to this mountain city, the summers can also be pretty steamy. If you’d like to split your time in the city with time in-touch with nature, a city bus can take you about an hour outside of town to the beautiful canyons around the Vardar river.

Things to do/see: take a ride to Matka canyon, spend an evening in Macedonian Square watching the fountain lights, try the šopska salad, and walk up to the Kale Fortress for panoramic views of the city and mountains.

 

#4 Bergen, Norway

1240561_10208510062337372_7927716375680727965_n (1)Ah, Norway! Land of trolls, fjords, and the midnight sun. When I hear people planning a trip to Norway, usually Oslo and other cities in the southern part of the country are the first to be mentioned. However, I would much rather choose Bergen, a little further north, nestled into the fjords on the country’s west coast. This city in winter or summer is a great jumping off point for further exploration of the fjords, but it has enough to do in town that you might not even want to leave! From town squares and colorful row houses to funiculars and downhill sledding, Bergen has a lot to offer for those who prefer to spend their time on activities that don’t break the bank. However, when the time comes to spend a little cash, a great way to do it is on the food! There is a wide variety available here from traditional Scandinavian specialties to a TGIFridays; the choice is really up to you!

Things to do/see: take a fjord tour (I’m usually not a “tour person”, but these are worth it), ride the funicular up Mount Fløyen and sled down, sample extremely fresh seafood at the Fisketorget market, and walk around the quaint Bryggen Wharf.

 

#3 Savannah, GA

17904108_10212977098970496_5512127965221632585_n (1)Another destination from my homeland (home state even) is Savannah, GA. This seaside city is always equated with the “old south”: plantation houses, buttery foods, and a slower pace of life come to mind. However, this city is a lot more than that. It can cater to a younger crowd nowadays with its bar streets and beaches, but there are also tree lined avenues, old cemeteries, and little antique shops that are great for the traveler with varied interests. Savannah is not as famous as perhaps New Orleans or Charleston, but maybe for that reason, I found it to be less affected by outside influences. It is a city that it uniquely itself: beautiful and eclectic, much like many Georgians I know.

Things to do/see: have brunch at any of the restaurants along River Street (I recommend Huey’s), have a drink or two at one of the bars on Broughton Street, amble under the large oak trees at any one of the numerous parks, head over to Tybee Island for the lighthouse and beautiful beaches.

 

#2 Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

22448427_10214825952870688_7496229601924814073_n (1)One of my more recent discoveries, Ulaanbaatar is an unexpected gem of the travel world. A unique combination of different cultures set in a landscape like no other I’ve seen. The city itself has plenty of sights and traditional Mongolian activities and foods, but just outside the city is a completely different side of life in one of the largest landlocked countries in the world. A nearby national park gives breathtaking views of the mountains and vast plains of Mongolia, while wild horses and yak stand on the side of the road grazing in the fields or drinking from the winding rivers. It’s a bit more rugged outside the city, but no less friendly. Ulaanbaatar is consistently ranked highly by travelers who are lucky enough to go there. The lamb dumplings alone are worth the journey!

Things to do/see: walk around the ger district, view a temple or two at Gandantegchinlen Monestary, watch the wedding parties taking pictures in Sükhbaatar Square, try a modern twist on Mongolian food at Modern Nomad, and make the trek out to Terelj National Park.

 

#1 Tricity, Poland

13417619_10209884679581944_5470284272553681414_n (1)This destination (and the whole country really) is near and dear to my heart. I spent a year living in Poland and made it my job to explore every corner of the country. What I found was a series of destinations that many people gloss over in favor or Warsaw or Krakow, the more international locales. However, when I think of places to visit in Poland, my mind first goes to its Baltic Coast. Just across the Baltic sea from Sweden, Poland’s “Tricity” of Gdansk, Sopot, and Gdynia sits about four hours north of Warsaw (by car). These cities have an incredibly interesting history, which has allowed them to retain their distinct and varied atmospheres. Gdansk, formally German, has an industrious feel, an international airport, and an impressive city center. Sopot is a resort town with Europe’s longest wooden boardwalk and many fancy shops and hotels. And finally Gdynia, the most Polish of the three, boasts beautiful beaches, several hilly parks, and a ferry to Hel and back. Who wouldn’t want to to see all of that?!

Things to do/see: take the ferry to Hel for the seal sanctuary or the beaches, walk the pier in Gydina to see sailboats alongside pirate ships, watch local artists working in Gdansk’s Long Market, and in winter, enjoy a cup of grzane piwo (mulled beer) at any one of the pop-up Christmas markets.

The Land of Chinggis and Cheese

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Sunset in Ulaanbaatar

Where exactly is the land of Chinggis and cheese, you ask? Mongolia, of course! Although truth be told it should really be “dairy” as opposed to “cheese”, but then the alliteration is completely lost. The Chinggis part (which refers to the Mongolian spelling/pronunciation of Genghis, as in Genghis Khan) is extremely accurate though. Between all the statues, pictures on the currency, and the multiple beer and vodka brands that bare his name, he is well-known in his native land. Catchy titles aside, last week Tucker and I were lucky enough to spend six days in Mongolia, and I could not have been more impressed! Again (this is becoming too common for me!), I failed to think about my expectations before heading off to the “Land of Eternal Blue Skies”, but I know that what we experienced far exceeded whatever I had thought the trip would be. Even with almost zero planning on our part, each thing we decided to try in Mongolia turned out better than we could have imagined, and Tucker and I came away from Mongolia with so many unique memories and experiences that will truly last a lifetime.

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     I promise I was working.

I should start this post by saying that my time in Mongolia was first and foremost work-related. I was able to travel to Mongolia in order to give a teacher-training workshop at the University of Finance and Economics as well as to attend and present at the local TESOL conference in Ulaanbaatar. However, to say that work things were my ONLY motive would be completely false. I really wanted to tourist around Mongolia – and I did! Apart from the professional experiences, which were phenomenal by the way (I met such great people and had a wonderful time exchanging ideas with fellow English teachers, not to mention an epic mini-reunion of Fellows), I was able to carve out some time for exploring the city of Ulaanbaatar, trying some of Mongolia’s traditional dishes, and even taking a road trip out of the city. To choose a favorite moment, or even activity, from our trip would be impossible, but here are a few things that stuck out:

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Flight into Mongolia

Our Arrival: Tucker, who is not easily impressed, is still talking about our flight into Ulaanbaatar. The city itself lies in a valley and is full of colorful buildings that range from small circular gers (the traditional round houses also known as yurts) to sleek and shiny, new skyscrapers. Around the city are snow-covered mountains, which with very little vegetation give a stark and geometric feel to the land. Beyond the mountains are the desserts, orange sand stretches as far as you can see from the window of a plane. It really was a beautiful sight, and something I haven’t seen on any other flight. Another thing we noticed upon our arrival was the thorough mixing of cultures. There was text in traditional Mongolian script as well as both the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets. We saw Italian and Mexican restaurants (MexiKhan might be the best pun-based name out there!), German brewpubs, and plenty of American brands/chains as well. After time in China or even the US, where authentic, foreign brands are sometimes hard to come by, it was a pleasant experience to see such a mix. We also noticed the strangeness that came with using Facebook and Instagram to connect with people again, as opposed to WeChat. China has pretty successfully occupied all my thoughts in the last two months, and stepping into Mongolia was almost like stepping back into something a little more familiar.

 

All the New Knowledge: Although, Mongolia wasn’t quite that familiar as it turns out. On our first day in the country I had to give a presentation during which I had placed my backpack on the floor. Oops – mistake! I was quickly told that’s a bit of a faux pas in Mongolia, and that the other teachers definitely noticed. Another fact we soon learned was that to bump someone’s shoe is a sign of disrespect, and even if it’s done accidentally, you should offer to shake that person’s hand as a sort of truce. Other facts I learned about Mongolia include that their entire country has less inhabitants than the city I live in in China, the language sounds a little more like Arabic than Chinese or Russian, and that lamb/mutton is the most commonly consumed meat. In addition to lamb, Mongolians seem to have an affinity for dumplings, as there were many different types to choose from: the fried kuushuur and boiled buuz, for example.

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Mongolian dumplings

Many had a slightly Chinese flair to them, but the addition of cheese was completely new to me. Another Chinese favorite, milk tea, turns out to be a bit different there as well: it’s salty instead of sweet. And then there’s the bone game. On our tables at several restaurants we found small, felt boxes with four ankle bones inside. The bones are rolled like dice, and the results are read from a list, which can predict your future. We saw fortunes like “will be happy and content” and also ones like “no hope”. Haha!

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Road Trip!

The Nature and Climate: I mentioned what it was like to fly into Ulaanbaatar, but the most beautiful scenery we came across lay outside the city. On our second full day in Mongolia, we went against several people’s advice and rented/drove a car outside the city. While I was extremely nervous for Tucker to drive in a place with a slightly different driving situation (most roads are not paved, steering wheels can be on the right or the left side of the car, and lines on the road are completely meaningless), I’m so happy we braved it and drove to Terelj National Park. The park and the landscapes on the way there and back were absolutely breathtaking. Flat sandy plains (complete with yaks), rocky mountain formations, a few sparkling rivers, and the snowy mountains in Terelj were all beautiful.

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Terelj National Park

Also, they are not kidding about the blue skies thing; they were by far the bluest skies I’ve ever seen (and yes, I’ve been to Montana). I was also incredibly happy to be in a colder climate again! Hefei, Orlando, and Atlanta – the last three cities in which I’ve lived are way too hot and humid for my taste. Mongolia was simply cold, and I loved it! We saw several flurries during our time there, and I relished my time in big, fluffy jackets, scarves, and gloves.

 

 

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Pretty epic, no?

Overall it was an incredible place to visit, even for just a short time. The people we met in Mongolia, including the hostel staff, the car renter, the teachers I encountered at the conference, and even the strangers who approached us in the street (looking to practice their English, of course), were all incredibly friendly and helpful, and we’d like to offer them our sincerest “bayarlalaa” (thanks). I highly recommend traveling to Mongolia if you ever get the chance! It’s very high on my list to re-visit, and I hope that happens sooner rather than later!

 

 

Golden Week Musings

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Evidence of the festival feel of Golden Week in China

This week is Golden Week in China! Don’t know what that means? Neither did we. But we enjoyed the time off regardless! After several questioning sessions and a quick google (yes, I still exclusively use Google thanks to my trusty VPN), I found out that there are actually two Golden Weeks in China. One following National Day, which is every October 1st, and another following the Chinese Lunar New Year (usually in January or February). These weeks are supposed to be a time when everyone in China can take a full seven days off to visit family, do some traveling, or just relax. The universities were certainly closed (and pretty empty), so Tucker and I were definitely able to do these things. However, buses and trains still ran as usual and most restaurants and stores were still open, so clearly not everyone in China enjoyed a week-long vacation. I’m starting to think Golden Week is a bit like a long Thanksgiving: good for the majority, bad for retail/travel workers.

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What would a festival be without snacks?

So how does one celebrate Golden Week? Well, first of all, it’s actually two holidays that are being celebrated: National Day and Mid-Autumn Festival. National Day is pretty easy to explain. It celebrates the day the People’s Republic of China was founded (1949), and looks a bit like the 4th of July in the US (although maybe slightly scaled down). We saw lots of decorations and flags all over the city, and there were more fireworks than usual. Apparently there are larger events in the big cities, but in Hefei we didn’t see or hear much about National Day. Mid-Autumn Festival, on the other hand, doesn’t really have an equivalent in popular US culture. Its date is set by the lunar calendar; thus, it doesn’t always fall on the same day. It coincides with the full moon in the 8th lunar month and is supposed to be a time for gathering, thanking, and moon-watching. As we’re not in with a Chinese family (yet!), I’m not exactly sure how much of this is actually done, but I do know that everyone buys and eats mooncakes during the festival.

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Green tea flavored mooncake

Mooncakes are dense and doughy little cakes with a design pressed into the top that are given to family members as a sign of unity and respect (we gave some to our building supervisor, and he seemed really pleased!). These treats started popping up in grocery stores weeks ago and run the gamut from extremely cheap (and rather dry and boring) to the outrageously expensive, ornate, boxed variety packs. Friends gave us some mooncakes early on in the week, and Tucker has bought several others to try as since then. However, I have to say, they’re just not one of my favorites. They’re very pretty, but, honestly, don’t have such a great mouthfeel.

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Waiting to have our tickets checked

Another piece of the Golden Week puzzle is travel. Golden Week is seen as a great time for families to travel long distances for reunions in hometowns or for sightseeing somewhere new, which makes perfect sense since everyone has the time off to do it! However, with a country of 1.3 billion people, things can quickly become rather crowded. We were warned by many people not to travel during Golden Week, so, of course, we booked train tickets right away. I had to see it for myself! And honestly, in retrospect, I didn’t think it was that bad. We chose to go to Nanjing (China’s old capital), which is only about an hour away by high-speed train. At the train station, it’s true, there were a lot of people, but that should be expected for a large and busy train station on a holiday. On the train itself, every seat was filled, but there were no crowds (or even standers) there. In Nanjing, a pretty touristy place, there were some crowds, but no more than you would expect at a festival. Overall, I was underwhelmed by the crowds on Golden Week. It could be that people are starting to stay home instead of fighting the crowds or maybe China’s facilities are just well-equipped for handling these numbers or maybe we just got really lucky. Regardless, we weren’t scared off and are planning to travel during the next Golden Week as well!

First(ish) Impressions of China and Its People

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Garden at Anhui University

A couple of years ago I was writing a very similar post about a very different country, but now that we’re in a new city (in a new country and even on a new continent), I think it’s time for another sharing of our first impressions. Honestly, it can be really hard to write about these impressions! They come all at once (immediately upon arrival) and are quickly forgotten as we try our best to assimilate and adapt to our new lives; however, some things are definitely sticking out as we grow more familiar with China. My plan is to share everything I can about our time in Hefei, China, such as our impressions, experiences, and reflections, mostly because everyone seems to have a lot of questions about China (including the Chinese themselves – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve already been asked how the Chinese are viewed in the US). Of course, China is a massive country (much like the US) and as such, no one person can truly sum up what it’s like to live here, but I’d like to add to our collective knowledge by sharing a few things (in no particular order) that have stood out to us during our first month living in the Middle Kingdom.

 

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Lunch of crispy rice with sauce, garlic broccoli, and lotus root

Variety in Everything: As I mentioned, China is a vast country with a very long history, and for these (and likely other reasons), there is just SO MUCH. I’ll start with the food. Every menu has about a thousand options (not really an exaggeration), and the typical ordering style for a table is to get a few dishes and share everything. Basically the options are limitless! We find ourselves asking a lot of questions about the different dishes because really there are just so many, and, of course, Tucker wants to try them all! However, our Chinese experts (i.e. local friends) don’t seem to focus on the dishes themselves, but rather on the styles. They’ve explained that China has “four cuisines” based on different regions of the country: the spicy Sichuan, salty Shandong, fresh Huaiyang, and light Guangdong, which brings me to the next point: geography. Coming from the US, I know what living in a big country is like. I thought I knew what living in a geographically diverse country was like, but China knows the extremes. The world’s tallest mountain and a good portion of the Himalayas reside partially in southwest corner of the country. China also has the fifth largest desert in the world (the Gobi), Hainan Island (the Hawaii of the East), two of the world’s top ten longest rivers (the Yellow and the Yangtze), and a mainland that stretches into both tropic and subarctic climates! But variety can be heard as well as seen throughout China. It’s a little harder for us to observe, however, since we know very little Chinese (so far!), but we have noticed that communication can be difficult even for two natives. For example, on a bus an older woman asked a question about us to one of our Chinese friends, and our friend was unable to answer her. We asked what the woman had said, but our friend didn’t know. She said the woman spoke in the Hefei dialect that she couldn’t understand. But we’re in Hefei! Who can understand her if not other Hefeians?! This doesn’t bode well for our communication prospects.

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Bamboo broom

Mix of Old and New: Another interesting observance is the incredible mix of old and new that we see on a daily basis. China has been rapidly developing over the past twenty years, and I think it’s evident in this phenomenon. Walking around the city, it’s pretty common to see people sweeping the street with handmade bamboo brooms, while talking on their iPhone 7. We can also watch high speed trains whiz by us on one side, not making a sound, and on the other side a massively overloaded wooden cart delivering materials through puffs of smoke. To me it seems like a country that can have whatever modernity it wants, but maybe feels like, what’s the point if this way has been working for the past hundred years. Another example of an odd mix of old and new comes in the forms of payment used, and is actually a challenge we’ve experienced before. When paying for things like groceries, bus tickets, food, etc. you can either go old school or very new school, but nothing in between (which, coincidentally, is where the US lies on this front). In Poland you pay by either cash or tap cards, and in China, it’s either cash or phone app. What happened to paying with credit cards? Who knew that was such an American thing?!

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We spent over 8 hours in this room.

Organizational Differences: I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least touch upon the different organizational style of China. Again, it’s early on for me to try and explain what is actually happening behind the scenes, but I can notice how at my level things seem to be done very differently. There are small things like the absence of lining up and taking turns, which honestly, has helped us out in a few time-sensitive situations (apparently cutting should be for those in need). However, it also makes it pretty obvious who the foreigners are (of course, that’s already pretty obvious in our case). In addition to queuing vs. crowding, I have noticed that people stand MUCH closer to me than I would prefer. Granted, I know I enjoy a pretty big personal bubble even by American standards, but I have honestly been a little freaked out by the face proximity of some of my students asking questions after class. Another difference we’ve encountered quite a bit this first month is the concept of collective hierarchies. Generally in the US, at institutes and companies each person has their own authority over something, be it small things like paperwork or large things like hiring/firing people. In China, it seems very few people (perhaps no one) has authority alone. There are almost always several offices and multiple employees involved in everything; even a seemingly simple classroom change request required six stamps, four separate offices, and three signatures. China really has a complicated system of checks and balances, which when coupled with a lack of Chinese, can be a tad frustrating to wade through.

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A colleague and me touring the old campus

Helpfulness of the People: Finally, the most evident impression I have of China is that this is a land of helpful people. To say that we’ve needed a lot of help in getting set up here in Hefei would be a drastic understatement! From bank accounts to medical exams to renting shared bikes, with very little English around us (and Chinese being impossible to read as a beginner), we’ve had to rely on many people that we’ve only just met. And they have absolutely addressed every need/wish we could have possibly imagined. We’ve had colleagues, friends, and random graduate students at the university accompany us on so many long, mundane tasks. On their days off they offer to sit in the bank with us for hours (multiple times), take extremely long bus rides to the train station in order to register us (which we still haven’t been able to accomplish), walk with us through our first trips to the grocery store while we argue about which sheet set we want, and so much more. I honestly don’t know why they keep offering their help!

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Three tired friends after a long day of errands

We’ve surely put them through some terrible experiences, and at the very least sheer boredom! But they do come back; they want to help; they want us to enjoy ourselves in China no matter how much time and energy it might cost them. Even strangers have been helpful in whatever ways they can. We’ve had people help us order food, show us the way when we’re lost, and even just listen to our terrible Chinese, trying harder than most to really understand us. It can sometimes feel isolating, not being able to talk to people, but so far, we’ve felt pretty well-connected, regardless of language barriers.

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Living the life!

And so the record of our first impressions of China is complete. Overall we’ve had an amazing first month (albeit confusing at times), but truly, even after contemplating my expectations beforehand and reflecting on our last trip to China, our impressions still differ from what we thought. The feelings we have are just different somehow. Maybe it’s because now we’re not just thinking of the country, but also the people and connections we’re making. Of course, sometimes we do get frustrated and the ambiguity we endure could probably stretch the length of the Great Wall, but it honestly doesn’t feel that different from living in the US or in Poland. People are people, and some things are just always frustrating (paperwork, for example).