Monthly Archives: June 2016

Trans-Mongolian: Into Siberia

Back on the train to Lake Baikal, we lucked out and had the cabin to ourselves for 2 nights, eventually making it the party cabin. No dining car though. (Note: all Russian trains run on Moscow time. Something to keep in mind when you’re traveling through several time zones.)

Siberia looked every bit as what people expect – derelict and remote. It’s really a wonder how this railroad was completed given the harsh climate and areas of swamp and permafrost.

Every time we were approaching a station, the bathrooms would get locked about 15 minutes beforehand since they were long drop toilets and nobody wanted that shit (pun) splattered on the station’s tracks. So, as we were crossing into Russian territory, I made sure to do my long duration sitting business about 30-45 minutes before. I was about done when the train lady (the provodnitsa) knocked vigorously on the door. I shouted, “I’M ALMOST DONE!” She didn’t care though. She unlocked the door and wagged her finger at me, like a mother scolding a child – “DON’T FLUSH!” We were still a good distance away from the station, though, so I flushed anyway. Sorry but, not sorry, Russia. I didn’t know it back then but, that’s what you get for liking them tiny hands.

At the Naushki border control, the security searched through each of our cabins for any forbidden unmentionables and found something in Jeff & Diana’s cabin. Jeff & Diana, probably the most proper couple you’d ever meet, were the only ones who cleaned their cabin, took their suitcases down from the top shelf and had them open and ready for inspection. The rest of us just did the bare minimum (well, we hid our liquor since it’s technically not allowed).

So, what did they find? Deer horns, tucked away in some nook at the back of the top shelf. No one had any idea how it got there. They were then escorted out to the police station where they had to fill out a report. This is Russia.

We had a couple of hours to kill while all of this was going on, so Nikka took us on a walk into the countryside. After crossing a wooden rickety bridge, though, we ran into a bunch of soldiers heading towards us. They turned us right back around. Nikka explained that we were just going for a walk to an area still visible at this distance. Nope, access denied.

Listvyanka, Russia

We arrived in Lake Baikal and went out for lunch at a restaurant that did not give a shit about time. The people who ordered first ended up getting their food last, and the waitress completely forgot about my order of chicken wings.

Me: “Excuse me, we ordered the chicken wings…?”

She oh’ed her mouth, obviously having forgotten about them. She walked into the kitchen and walked straight back out, unapologetically saying, “No.”

Me: “Oh, um, okay.”

Nikka then took us to a street market selling all sorts of souvenirs, smoked fish and an assortment of skewered meat with rice. Um, why didn’t she just take us here for lunch? It was cheap and delicious and, still feeling hungry, I had my second meal. We walked it all off later with a hike around a part of the lake, the part that involved walking along a beach covered in flies. And, I mean covered like the plague. I made the mistake of laughing with my mouth open.

We later plunged into that lake, the deepest and largest freshwater lake by volume (it contains 20% of the Earth’s unfrozen freshwater!). I talked big of doing the Arctic plunge. And, I came back out whimpering about numbness.

Back at the homestay (super duper cozy place), a bunch of us went with the banya option, which involved sauna-ing, getting whacked with a leafy branch by Nikolai (a Russian man in a speedo and Keebler hat), jumping into a cold pool, then going for round 2. At the end, Nikolai scrubbed us down before dumping a bucket of hot water and then ice cold water on our heads. The noises coming out of the participants may have been the best part of the experience. The result? Redness. And mixed feelings of cleaniliness and violation.


Before heading back to the train the next day, we did a minibus tour of Irkutsk. If you plan on visiting churches in Russia, make sure to bring a headscarf (if you’re female). They provide them, too, but it’s just nicer having your own.

Fun fact: Prior to 1904, the tracks would stop at opposite sides of Lake Baikal due to tough conditions around the lake, thus requiring the ferrying of the wagons across the lake. In winter, horses and manpower were used to pull the wagons across the ice. But, in 1904, both sides, one of the most difficult train lines, were finally connected.

Back on the train, we had a roommate, an older Russian man with a genteel exterior named Mikhael. Through Nikka, we were able to offer some of our snacks, all of which he turned down. I guess I wouldn’t want chips and cookies when I had my own home-cooked meals packed away in Tupperware. He was en route to Moscow (4 nights on the train) to go see his family. Amtrak Mikhael.

The dining car came back and it was manned (or wo-manned) by a babushka with a sweet grill who totally had the hots for Dean. We ordered dinner from the menu only to have the scowling chef come out and say “We have beef with rice.” The menu was whatever he had or felt like making. Fair enough. It was the only air-conditioned car on the train, and they kicked out anyone trying to stay for free. The chef/babushka duo took a liking to us, though, after our non-stop orders of beers. Then when the dining car closed, we brought out the Baikal vodka. Far better than rice wine.

Day 2 on the train involved more reading, more philosophical conversations and more clickety clack technology. With 10-15 min stops at Mariinsk, Novosibirsk and Barabinsk, we managed to squeeze in a platform picnic with a bread roll, a package of salami and cheese and a cream cheese chive dip. A nice change from the high sodium content of bowl noodles. We closed out the dining car again later that night not only with beers but also with talks of reforming New Zealand’s stance on a capital gains tax. Important conversations happen on 2nd class trains…just as important thoughts happen in showers. Am I right or, am I right?

I had trouble opening a sesame seed snack since Beijing. I swear that thing was quadrupled-wrapped in plastic made to survive nuclear warfare. Lucky for me, H was able to document the moment I managed to open the damn thing and take one bite before realizing that I didn’t want it anymore.


Glorious showers and decent cappuccinos later, we were on a mission to find delicious pierogis and pelmeni (Russian dumplings). Our tour guide, Natasha, recommended a place but could only tell us approximately where it was. The street she led us to had maybe 2 restaurants on the block so, we walked into one that looked a bit too fancy for dumplings.

Me: “Menu?”

The waiter hands over a menu completely in Russian.

Me: “Pierogi?”
Waiter: [Scoff] “No.”

The other place on the block had a gated outdoor garden which we almost missed in a second passing. This place looked promising and it totally delivered. We ordered a jar (yes, a jar) of beer and most definitely an order of dumplings among other assorted Russian dishes. Soon after, these 3 Russians sat at the table adjacent to ours and one of them was clearly drunk. It didn’t take him long to realize we were foreigners and, after asking us the basic questions, he went into his love of trance (check out his Space t-shirt) and listed out his favorite DJ’s. He then handed me a bouquet of peonies and asked if I was Russian. Dean and H made sure to get a kick out of that. By now, I’ve become a heavily misunderstood person.

The waitress then walked over, not with our food, but with a vase for my newly acquired flowers. I immediately felt my awkwardness intensify. I mean, just look at my face.

We did a walking tour of the city (Russia’s 4th largest city) the next morning with Natasha, the never-ending Twilight Zone babbler of information. She claimed that it was rare to see a Lenin statue anywhere, particularly in Moscow. Then, we bumped into one.

Then, we visited a church for ants.

The highlight was definitely the Church on Blood / Church of All Saints, built at the site of Ipatiev House (demolished in 1977) where Nicholas II, the last emperor of Russia, and his family were exiled then executed by the Bolsheviks.

The Yekaterinburg War Memorial, also known as the Black Tulip War Memorial, depicts a soldier sitting in defeat by the powerlessness of war, in the midst of the pillars of names of soldiers who died in Afghanistan and Chechnya during the 9+ year Soviet-Afghan War.

War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.

Europe/Asia Border

On the way to the Euro-Asian border, we stopped at 2 other memorials/cemeteries, one of which housed the bodies of mafia members of one of the 2 gangs (the Shirokorechenskoe Cemetery). It was tucked away by a memorial for the fallen soldiers of the Great Patriotic War. It’s easy to tell that it was a mafia cemetery given the tombstones containing life-size laser etchings of the guys buried there, sometimes next to an etching of a car or holding the keys to a Mercedes. Because all of that matters after death.


We got creative at the border, courtesy of H. Not only did we jump over the line, we also segregated ourselves into one Asian and two Europeans. My pose, on the other hand, was a knee jerk reaction to my photo being taken without having a pose in mind. Natasha then made us do some good luck ritual that involved touching the European side, then the Asian side, then while straddling the border, opening a bottle of sparkling wine and splitting a bar of chocolate. I was pretty sure she was making us do this for shits and giggles but, then, we walked over to a fence/wall full of empty wine bottles where we then placed ours. Perhaps this was a ritual after all. Then again, this area was also a known popular newlywed destination where right after the ceremony, they come here to make the husband climb this one big tree to tie a love ribbon. The area was full of them. True love was, truly, all around us. I suppose this was better structurally than love locks on a Parisian bridge.

While here, we ran into 2 newlywed couples and began shouting “Gorka! Gorka!” at Natasha’s encouragement, leading them to kiss. We later found out that this word meant “acid” or “something sour” and the kiss was supposed to make it sweet. Aw, with one “w.”

By the time we left this city, I was full-on addicted to sour cream and borscht.

Fun/scary fact: There was a nuclear plant disaster in 1957 about 150km from this city.

Trans-Mongolian: Beijing to Ulaanbaatar

And, thus, began the long-awaited epic railroad adventure from Beijing to St. Petersburg via the Trans-Mongolian & Trans-Siberian Railways. Whoot whoot.

Beijing, China

We left around 6:30am to get to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall by opening time. I’m not sure if it was due to it being a Monday, super early in the morning (before cable cars were running), torrential raining or, a combination of some or all but, it was completely empty when we arrived. So, our plan of attack was to take the free option (climbing up the endless stairs) to around Tower 8, trek up to Tower 20, then head back toward Tower 1 to sneak onto the OG wall and take the toboggan down.

It stopped raining on phase 1 of our plan, drizzled during phase 2, then downpoured after that. I was in a constant state of condensation both inside and outside my unventilated single-use plastic poncho and, sadly, the rain closed down the toboggan. To get to the original section of the wall, we had to climb and ninja our way through an open window next to a bricked up one leading directly to the path. The abandonment and disrepair of the OG wall made us feel like rebels…for about 5 minutes. I’m also pretty sure we were being watched on CCTV by a guard who said “hell no” to the rain. Overall, we finished the wall in just over 2 hours.

We ditched the G group and met up with Davy and his wife for the tastiest and juiciest Peking duck dinner and to catch the Euros afterwards at a sports bar (sans Davy and his wife). Lucky for us, we managed to find a nearby bar in a city whose bars seem to only be concentrated in two areas. But, unlucky for us, nobody spoke English and all the waiters couldn’t comprehend why I wasn’t communicating in Chinese. Pointing at the menu wasn’t helping for whatever reason and neither was Google Translate. Finally, we pointed at another table with a pitcher of beer. We completely forgot that Davy had actually taught us how to say “cold beer.” Bing pidyo.

The next morning, we walked through Tiananmen Square toward the Forbidden City. It was faux pas to openly discuss the 1989 protests and so our guide, Lee, briefly whispered about it while keeping a side eye before speaking out loud about how excited he was when he first saw the city. In the past, many families were too poor to make it here and it had been the childhood dream of many to do so. Now with more disposable income, Chinese citizens make up the largest percentage of tourists. Because of the long line at the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, we skipped it in the interest of time.

The Forbidden City, in the midst of the city’s smog, was pretty much forbidden to all non-royalty. And, I got to visit it for less than $10. Lee led us around while holding a stick with a stuffed green ram hanging off of it for easy identification. The green ram, named Steve, had a stupid look on its face and, so, I punched it. Lee was a good sport about it and maintained a normal smile.

Then Dean asked Lee if he could teach him some Kung Fu moves. It was a goal of his to “fight” someone in all 3 countries. So, Lee gave him 3 basic moves – watermelon, teeth, ear – and demonstrated the moves with his tour guide stick, Steve still attached. Dean practiced with his selfie stick. I guess those things really do come in handy (no pun intended).

I don’t remember what people were taking a photo of as I was clearly distracted by the sheer amount of people in the mosh pit.

And, whatever dignity and personal space we had left was lost when a peddler approached Pete, one of the older guys in the group, rubbed his stomach in a circular motion and shouted, “Baby!”

National Center for the Performing Arts or, a huge architectural rendition of a steamed bun.

All morning, we had been lugging around umbrellas only to be met with clouds of the non-ominous kind. So, we dropped them off at the hotel, then hit up the night markets in time for a torrential downpour. Pride had us getting soaked enough to finally cave in and pay 10 RMB (peanuts) for shitty plastic ponchos, perfect outfits for trying out miscellaneous grilled creatures on skewers. Dean and H sampled a worm, snake and lamb testicles and, I, mysterious fried mangoes (being sarcastic here). Then, it was off to actual dinner at Alice’s Tea House, a supposed 3 subway stops and a 5 min walk away. Nikka, our G CEO, failed to mention that there were 2 subway transfers within those 3 stops that involved trekking through a labyrinth of hallways and then a 20 min walk after that. I was so hangry by then that I almost ditched the group for KFC. But, I chanted “I’m one with the force and the force is with me” and made it to the authentically cooked local food.

The night ended with a tea demonstration of green, black, white and pu-erh teas, all of which require almost no brewing time (especially whole leaf teas) and could generally be used for multiple brews. As a side tip, yellow tea is known to be so expensive that if a teahouse sold it, it would likely be fake. And, never ask an Asian if they add milk to their tea.

We headed for the Beijing Railway Station to catch our train to Ulaanbaatar around 11:22am. The trains were nicer and more comfortable than I had expected, not that we were in first class suites or anything. I just expected something along the lines of what I experienced in India (less privacy, no sheets, and toilets that made me pray for dehydration and constipation). The constant beat of the wheels on the tracks became a natural rhythm of life that Dean deemed as the “clickety clack technology.” Soon enough, it had me zoned out against the passing scenery.

For lunch, dinner and the next morning’s breakfast, we were told to hit up the supermarket beforehand and bring our own supply. But, we were surprised with free meal vouchers (not something that happens all the time). So, after stuffing ourselves with steamed buns and bowl noodles (there was a hot water boiler), we still cashed in our vouchers for plates of steamed cabbage and mysterious meat that was supposedly chicken. Then, began our night of debauchery with a bottle of rice wine (never again) and dining car beers. We became friendly with the cabin next to ours – a bunch of Americans from Seattle and Portland who seemed like trust fund babies in their early 20’s, clearly high on whatever gasoline they carried in their 5L bottle. They kept losing one of their guys, the one most trashed, who would reappear somehow and disappear again throughout the night. We invited them into our cabin to continue our drunken night only to have one guy eventually realize that they had been swigging water instead of alcohol for the past hour and essentially admit that they had been exhibiting the Rusty Miller Zima effect (MADtv reference).

By midnight, we were stopped at border control at Erenhot/Zamyn-Üüd for about 4 hours while they checked our passports and changed the wheels to accommodate the Mongolian rails.

The passing landscape was at first beige as we were going along the edge of the Gobi Desert then eventually green as we reached Ulaanbaatar around 2:45pm. Our adjective contest to describe the view resulted in the following words: dry, arid, vast, expansive, lonely, dirt-y and flat. The smog also rolled in. It turns out that Ulaanbaatar is in the Top 50 list of most polluted cities in the world. That’s comforting.

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

We stopped at the hotel for some glorious showers before heading out to a cultural show, Tumen Ekh, that featured a throat singing guy and a contortionist who supported her entire body weight with her jaw. It was one of those things that made you cringe yet refuse to take your eyes away from at the same time.

Gandantegchinlen Monastery. Try saying that even once (unless you’re a Mongolian speaker). Outside this temple, there were two men “loitering” around with the intent to pickpocket groups of tourists. Our guide, Nemo, set up a code word in case any of them loitered too close. GORILLA. (Though not shouted so obviously.)

Trains! And, Stalin’s profile.

The Winter Palace of the Bogd Khan, containing the possessions of the old emperor and a scary amount of taxidermy.

The Zaisan Memorial was built to commemorate the friendship between the Soviet Union and Mongolia, depicting scenes of Soviet soldiers fighting against the Japanese and Nazi Germany and supporting Mongolia’s independence.

I get a little bit Genghis Khan [Equestrian Statue].

Standing at 40m tall, Genghis Khan (statue version) also oversaw a music festival featuring a dance competition and tents selling cheap cans of beer. With almost nothing in the vicinity except vast space, this made for a perfect venue for loud bass and drunk millennials.

Gorkhi-Terelj National Park

On the way to a ger camp in Terelj National Park, we stopped at a shaman mound which we walked around with a rock in hand until the universe compelled us to throw it into the pile. After throwing the rock, we then walked around the mound another 3 times, during which I think you were supposed to make a wish. But, I still haven’t seen my vault of gold bars and now that I mentioned what my wish was, it will never come true. Thanks.

We stayed in the coziest ger for 2 nights and became one with nature. H found a Gandalf staff (above right) during our morning hike, which ended at the Aryapala Meditation & Initiation Center. Apparently, there was a way to cut through the woods to avoid paying the entrance fee but, it was cheap anyway. Past the entrance, though, was a really long walkway lined with signs printed with Buddhist teachings that for some reason made us feel like we’ve been living life in horrible sin. I’m going to blame it on the English translations. Yea.

Then, we went horseback riding with some, uh, wild horses. All of them seemed to jerk their heads sporadically in random spasms and, for whatever reason, the one assigned to me had one crazy eye.

Nemo: “I told the guy that you’re the only one who hasn’t ridden a horse before. So, don’t worry about it!”

Well, naturally, I fell behind everyone else and, while everyone else was being led by a guy walking ahead and holding onto the horse’s reins, my guy let go of mine and walked away. Um, what? In order to keep my fear at bay, I started talking to the horse who I affectionately nicknamed Horsey. I felt myself calm a bit down once I got the hang of it and the horse and I bonded as outcasts of the group. But, then, Horsey led me into a low-lying branch of a tree which whacked me in the face before I limboed my way out if it, holding onto the horse’s reins for dear life.

Nemo (after hearing what happened): “I specifically told that guy to watch you!!”

But, I kicked ass at archery. My ego remained intact.

After rounds of football (and snooker where Nemo’s wife kicked ass), Dean checked off country #2 in which to have a “fight.” Nemo gathered some locals for a wrestling match. Mongolian construction workers vs. New Zealand tourists. Not too much success for Oceania, unfortunately. But we did end the night with Haribo marshmallows toasted in our ger’s furnace.

Back in Ulaanbaatar, we checked out the National Museum of Mongolia before stocking up at the supermarket for the next leg of our railroad journey. This time, we banned rice wine and went for red wine, instead. Classy. We also made sure to have an extravagant dinner before falling back into bowl noodle meals on the train. Our choice cuisine? Korean. Dean and H watched through grinning teeth as I awkwardly communicated our order in Korean to a waiter I was sure was Mongolian. Thanks, guys. Truly.

Pictured above is our G group: Lucy, Ann, Ilona, Nikka (our G CEO), Diana, Jeff, Carmen, Claudia, Pete, Sarah, David, Dom, H, Dean and me.

June 12 – July 2, 2016: Trans-Mongolian Express

Temples, temples, temples

Beijing, China

Yonghegong Lama Temple, also known as the Palace of Peace and Harmony. By this point, I was templed out but my OCD and FOMO had me ticking off Tripadvisor’s “Top Things to Do in Beijing” list. No regrets though. It was worth checking out despite my fatigue.

Try to get here early though. It was packed with people and they didn’t care for respecting personal space as long as their selfie sticks needed it.

This temple is known for housing the world’s largest Maitreya Buddha statue to be carved from a single white sandalwood tree. 26m high. I could just picture the carver/artist sweating in anxiety for fear that he’d twitch and mess up a detail.

Temple of Confucius, across the street from the Yonghegong Lama Temple. It is the second largest after the Confucian temple in his hometown of Qufu.

“Confucius was a famous thinker and educator in ancient China who was…revered as ‘The Sage,’ ‘Great and holy Wenxuan Wang (Man with Great Success and Highest Moral Accomplishment),’ and ‘The Teacher for All Ages.’ He was also on the list of ‘Ten Cultural Celebrities’ granted by the UNESCO. As an educator, his instructions covered politics, literature, history, art and so on.”

To this day, I’m still not sure what his teachings are exactly. I just know that Confucius say that if one wants peace on the premises, one must not sleep in and arrive after a classroom of kids on a school trip.

Later on, H and I decided to head towards Jingshan Park from where you could see awesome views of the Forbidden City. But then it thunderstormed. And, it became so windy that my umbrella only managed to keep my hair dry. Then it began to hail, at which point we began to huddle by a tree. By the time we decided to turn back, the sidewalks had become rivers.

The day after the thunderstorm was beautifully sunny and breezy. I started early at the Temple of Heaven and was determined to get all 5 sites hole-punched on my ticket. I entered through the East Gate since that’s where I exited the subway but, I recommend starting at the southern end with the long marbled path. Instead, I walked through the Long Corridor where hordes of grandpas were sitting on the ledge, playing mahjong and cards.

Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the largest building in the complex. The Temple of Heaven was constructed in the early 15th century by the same emperor responsible for constructing the Forbidden City.

As seen close up…

And faraway…

The Vermilion Steps Bridge, a 360m long raised walkway, leads to the Hall of Prayer from the South Gate.

The view of the Hall of Prayer and Imperial Vault of Heaven from the Heavenly Center Stone, where my heavenly body was standing.

It was the perfect day to spend time in the surrounding park. The locals take their physical activities pretty seriously, from playing hacky sack to tai chi to ballroom dancing. Every corner of the park had some sort of activity.

…even gossiping gazebo grannies.

Afterwards, I met up with H and his friends Davy & Olivia to check out the 798 Art Zone. After answering “no” to “do you care what’s in it,” I ended up with a roadside crepe in my hands, piping hot with egg, scallions and some mysterious crunchy things that remained crunchy all throughout its life cycle. Then we set off to find a life-size model train near which there was a cafe owned by Davy’s friend that served awesome flat whites. Note that it had been a really long time since Davy had been there and we were going off memory. Several sidetracks later, we found ourselves finally there, except the cafe was now a roastery and a learning center. But, nearby, we found the quite literally named Cafe Flatwhite. Cha ching.

The 798 Art Zone reminded me of Dumbo, an industrial area made hipster except much less yuppie and a lot more artistic. Since China allows it, we grabbed some ice cold beers at a corner market and drank it publicly while wandering along the sidewalks and alleyways, admiring the galleries and street art. One cafe had a Line Friends promotion where a very large stuffed Brown (the bear) was sitting alone and looking defeated at a table. Naturally, I punched it.

Then, we were off to a sports bar to catch an All Blacks game, after which we gorged on outdoor kebabs/dumplings and a communal bottle of rice wine, then went to another bar to catch the Euros (where Olivia and I fell asleep on the benches), and finally ended the night at a local joint selling bowls of offal with mysterious organs and bottles of orange Beijing soda. In my tired drunkenness, unfortunately, I struggled with picking up a small organ piece with my chopsticks, then challenged H to a chopstick contest after he called me out on my disgrace as an Asian. I graciously let him win, though.

Dean arrived the next day and we became a trio. Before meeting up with the next G Adventures group, we went to the Summer Palace, a wide expanse of gardens, lakes and palaces that you’ll need some energy bars to cover. You’ll also need extra energy to maneuver yourself through the throngs of tourists.

The Summer Palace was built around the 1100’s but was later set on fire by the British at the end of the Second Opium War in 1860. It was later repaired only to be damaged again by the Eight-Nation Alliance toward the end of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. But it dusted itself off and tried again and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998.

The Tower of Buddhist Incense on top of Longevity Hill, near the Realm of Multitudinous Fragrance,…magnanimous forestry, grandiose auras of emperors past, and adjectives of majestic vibrance.

Just some old buddies gone fishin’.

Shanghai Noon (& Morning/Night)

Shanghai, China

After landing, going through immigration was chaotic because no one seemed to care to make an orderly line. The same goes for the metro. No one cared to move out of the way for people entering and exiting. It was always an every man for himself scenario. And, apparently it’s a thing for men to just randomly spit on the metro floor.

Travel tip: Before going on a flight to China, make sure to pack away your spare lithium and rechargeable batteries into your checked luggage. Hong Kong Airlines reminded me beforehand in their emails, as well as the signs posted at the airport before going through security. You will also be given arrival and departure cards to fill out. Make sure you hold onto the departure card. Lastly, look up metro deals before you’re at the ticket booth. I took the Maglev train from the airport into the city, where I then took the metro, paying for each separately. I didn’t realize until afterwards that there was a Maglev + day pass metro deal for 55 CNY (about $8). I paid 50 CNY for the individual Maglev ticket, then 4 for each metro ride in the day. A separate day metro pass is 18 CNY. You do the math.

After dropping my stuff off at the hostel, I headed out to see the Shanghai Tower. But, by then, the clouds had rolled in and visibility was nada. I also found out that there was no admittance at the time to the 118th floor anyway and that you could only pay to go to the basement to check out exhibits and videos regarding the building (50 CNY). No thanks.

So, I decided to walk toward the Huangpu River, to the Riverside Promenade (above) and then The Bund on the opposite side. Google maps was telling me to go to some tunnel to get to the other side of the river and, at first, I pictured a normal pedestrian walking tunnel. Then I found myself at the entrance to the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel, not too far from the Oriental Pearl TV Tower. It looked like the entrance to some creepy, outdated amusement park ride.

And, I paid 50 CNY to ride through a tacky laser show. I guess the important thing is that I made it to The Bund on the other side.

It was worth it for the view. The skyscrapers were completely lost in the fog, though.

I went to bed around midnight and fell into a slumber with my left arm hanging off the bed. I eventually woke up to a tingle and burning feeling on that arm. Then the itchiness settled in. Goddamn mosquito had bitten me 5 times. Despite the lack of A/C, I made it my life’s goal to keep myself fully covered by the thick duvet, leaving only my head exposed on the pillow. Then I felt my forehead start to burn and itch and, sure enough, it had bitten me there 3 times.

The next 3 hours, the mosquito intermittently buzzed around my ears. Buzz buzz. Buzz buzz. All in its high-pitched glory. Like a turtle, I would retreat my head into my duvet shelter until I couldn’t take the heat anymore. In a mixed dorm room of 6 people, why only me? Yea, I’m a lovely bag of blood.

Finally, the mosquito had completed its feast and retreated for the night. I fell back asleep around 5am, itchy as hell, only to be awoken by the 7am school bell nearby.

I gave up on trying to sleep and started my day earlier than planned.

First stop: Yu Garden, located in the Old City.

The surrounding Old City is a bit of a tourist trap, geared towards people who just really want to buy souvenirs. The garden is worth visiting, though, if you get there early around 9-10am. If you get there late, you’ll end up waiting in a line only to go inside and dodge selfie sticks and wait for people to finish posing for the 100th shot. They got 99 problems, and one more that looks the same.

The gardens and old architecture.

Travel tip: I recommend the flat white at Café del Volcán. The area around there also has a lot of cute/trendy cafes, bars and restaurants. For major shopping, go to the Nanjing Road area.

Second stop: People’s Square and Shanghai Museum.

I’ve read reviews where people became bored in this museum (which is free, by the way). Just a lot of pottery with barely any descriptions to explain them. This is probably a ploy to get you to rent an audioguide. I decided to skip the audioguide and while some exhibits weren’t the most exciting, I really liked the ones that displayed the calligraphy, old artwork, costumes and the history of currency in China. At one point, they used sword-shaped coins. Imagine putting those in your pocket.

If anything, the museum also made for a nice A/C and bathroom break. Notice the people above – a guy taking a photo of his posing wife, and a selfie stick-wielding woman. Accurate.

Third stop: Shanghai World Financial Center (SWFC).

I looked up at the sky before going in. The clouds were beginning to clear.


Later that night, the mosquito remembered me and I had another shitty night of sleep. But, before it attacked me again, it went for the fleshy guy now occupying the bottom bunk next to mine. I woke up to the sound of him slapping himself and scratching furiously. He got up with an extremely irritated sigh and flailed his arms in a sad attempt to kill it. I shook in silent laughter.

Travel tip: If you’re planning on taking the train to another city (e.g. Beijing for me), book your tickets online in advance. Just make sure to pick up your tickets up to a day before. There could be huge lines, a holiday when it’s closed (e.g. Dragon Boat Festival) or, if you’re taking an early train, later opening times. I picked mine up at the Shanghai Hongqiao station the afternoon before my 8am train. I just followed the signs to “Tickets/Ticket Sales” or “Ticket Office.” The actual area wasn’t well-labeled in English but, given the lines of people at the booth, I could tell that this was it.

Tropical cyclone warning

Well, the instant noodles from our last night in Kathmandu was a mistake. H insisted that tap water only needed to reach boiling point for it to be purified. Water actually needs to be boiling for a full minute and, depending on altitude, up to 3 minutes for it to be purified. I wished I had Googled this before I had used the hotel room’s tea kettle. I was lucky to have a layover in Kuala Lumpur en route to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong

Upon arrival in Hong Kong, we took a train to our hotel in Causeway Bay and immediately executed Operation: Chinese, Russian & Mongolian Visas. Hong Kong, having separate rules from the rest of China, allowed us in for up to 90 days without one. So, we dropped off our bags, ran down the block to get passport photos taken (2 sizes – 35x45mm for Russia; 40x50mm for China), ran back to the hotel’s business center, filled out the applications and printed out all necessary documents, then rushed off to a travel agency that also handled visas. Our original plan was to go do it ourselves at the respective consulates but, given our time limitations and other people’s advice, it seemed way more reliable to go through an agency. They speak the language, have contacts at the consulates and know all the little nuances that they can be picky about (e.g. they don’t accept handwritten applications).

For some reason, I, as a U.S. citizen applying through Hong Kong, could only apply for a 10 yr multi-entry visa for China, not a standard single entry. On top of that, I needed it expedited. All I could hear from the agency’s mouth was the sound of a cash register and a WTF going through my head. Now, I fully intend on getting my money’s worth out of this visa within the next 9 or so years. (Side note: Chinese consulates in other locations may have different rules.) The Russian visa was standard (and also expedited) but, it did cost me even more than the Chinese one.

Travel tip/Visa: We were so glad to have booked a hotel instead of an Airbnb because we had easy access to a printer. For the documents necessary for the Chinese visa, we based it off the listing on their website – passport, copy of passport data page, visa app & photo, LOI’s (letter of invitation from G Adventures whom we were going to travel with), flights to/from China, hotels where we were staying and trip itinerary. But, since we were going through the agency, C.I.S. Tour, we just needed the visa app, photo and the permission slip to enter HK (a little square piece of paper given to you at the airport). The Russian visa required a visa app, photo and LOI (including details of arrival/departure, hotels and length of stays in cities). U.S. citizens don’t need visas for Mongolia. We also needed to pay everything in cash (there were ATM’s on the lower floor if you use this agency). Beware that not all foreigners can apply for visas in HK. Without an HKID (identity/residency) card, it could be difficult so, double check that before you go. They were more amenable to U.S./UK citizens.

Due to visas, we extended our stay in Hong Kong to about 2 weeks. So, we decided on trying a new flat white and doing 1 touristy thing per day. Today’s flat white: 18 Grams. Today’s tourist attraction: Man Mo Temple, which like a cathedral in NYC, was wedged in between tall buildings on a random street.

“The Man Mo Temple Compound…was built between 1847 and 1862 by wealthy Chinese merchants. Man Mo Temple was built mainly for the worship of Man Cheong (God of Literature) and Mo Tai (God of Martial Arts).”

The temple offered 3 free incense sticks per person but, I only took 1 to save the supply. After seeing that everyone else took 3, I began to wonder if the number had a significance. I then tried to burn the stick at the wrong end several times before finally using the correct side and having it fail to ignite. Embarrassed, I just shoved the stick in the pot of other people’s glowing incense, mouthed “sorry,” then quickly walked away.

Travel tip: If you plan on staying in HK for a bit and using the subway system, you should definitely get an Octopus card. It’s 150 HKD (around $20) at the counter – 50 deposit which you get back when you return the card and 100 to use (refillable at the machines). I ended up getting my 50 HKD refund + any remaining balance at the MTR desk right outside the subway at the airport station. It’s located right before you enter the terminal/checkin area. They do take out a 9 HKD fee though.

Next day’s flat white: Cupping Room. Next day’s tourist attraction: Tian Tan Buddha.

For some reason, I thought it’d be a relatively quick visit to the Tian Tan Buddha on Lantau Island. Then again, it was listed on Lonely Planet’s Travelist and it was the weekend. We ended up waiting an hour to get on the cable car up to Ngong Ping Village.

The village was full of places to eat and little shops selling undeniably cute things. They even had stuffed cable cars with facial expressions on them. I ultimately had to talk myself out of buying one. The fog had set in though, and it was hard to even see the people walking in front of you. We then reached the 268 steps to be climbed to get a close-up of the Buddha. It was so foggy, we couldn’t even see a faraway view from the cable car.

268 steps led us to a silhouette.

And, “The Offering of the Six Devas” offering gifts to the Buddha. They represent generosity, morality, patience, zeal, meditation and wisdom. The necessities of achieving enlightenment.

Luckily, we lingered around the village long enough for the clouds to momentarily clear and reveal the Buddha. We rushed back to the steps, only to look up and see that the clouds had settled back in. This time, they looked ominous.

Travel tip: For places to eat, I recommend The Butchers Club and Beef & Liberty for burgers, Sen-ryo for upscale conveyor belt sushi, Tai Cheong Bakery for egg tarts, Tim Ho Wan for dim sum and Brew Note Coffee Roaster for their Mantaiko pasta. All other meals, we just ate instant noodles bought from a 7-Eleven because we needed to be budget-reasonable. Ha. ha.

Flat white: Common Ground. Tourist Attraction: Victoria Harbour.

We took the Star Ferry across for a nighttime city skyline view of Hong Kong Island along Victoria Harbour and the promenade. It was 9pm when we found out that there was a light show at 8pm. Oh wells.

Next day’s cappuccino (no flat white available): Agnès b. Café LPG. Tourist Attraction: Hong Kong Museum of History. The museum, at first, seemed boring. It went into the history of Neanderthals, stone pots and the general beginnings. Things became much more interesting when we reached the Hong Kong-specific history – the British occupation, the Opium Wars (during which 10 million Chinese became addicted to Indian-grown opium), the Japanese occupation and, finally, Hong Kong’s freedom. The exhibits were also interactive where you could walk into a rendition of a teahouse, grocery store or a train car.

We later picked up our passports with the glorious Chinese visas attached, something I marveled at for a few seconds before we had to hand the passports back in to now start the Russian visa process. Our celebratory dinner was at KFC, where we ate our unnatural but delicious fried chicken by a window across from a gym full of people working out and staring back at us licking our greasy fingers.

Flat white: Cafe Corridor. Tourist Attraction: Hong Kong Park.

Flat white: N1 Coffee & Co. Tourist Attraction: Nan Lian Garden and…

…the Chi Lin Nunnery, conveniently located adjacent to the garden.

Both of us also had gotten our passports back, now with Russian visas. It was a truly exciting moment and we had already planned to celebrate with dim sum at Tim Ho Wan. We ordered the baked bun with BBQ pork, shrimp shumai, pork shumai with shrimp, pan-fried green peppers with mixed fish and pork, and steamed rice roll stuffed with BBQ pork. This was also a truly exciting moment because I had been looking forward to dim sum for a really long time. And, so, I wasted no time in stuffing my face. Too bad that I ended up scalding my mouth with 3rd degree burns. H busted out laughing as I struggled between cooling my mouth and not spitting the food back out onto the plate. Now that I think about it, that probably would’ve been the smart thing to do.

I hadn’t felt 100% since the noodles in Kathmandu but, for some reason, this day was particularly bad. Every 10 min or so, I would get sharp pains in my stomach. But, it was actually a sunny day and I wanted to take advantage of it. We were going to hike Dragon’s Back.

Travel tip: Take the blue Island Line towards Chai Wan, get off at Shau Kei Wan and take exits A3 where you’ll see a bus terminus/station. Look for and take bus 9 to Shek O and get off at stop 12 “To Tei Wan.” There was a screen inside the bus showing the upcoming stop. You’ll also likely see a bunch of people getting off here, wearing sun hats and sneakers. This stop is the beginning of the trail. There’s also another smaller public bus (think church minivan) that is slightly more expensive (10 HKD, less than $2) that goes from a parking garage near the Shau Kei Wan stop directly to the trail entrance and ultimately Big Wave Bay Beach. Make sure to bring sufficient water and snacks. There are no vendors along the way.

The trail itself wasn’t so bad – moderate uphills and decently groomed paths. Views were amazing.

The official tourist website allotted 4 hr and we did it in 2.5 hr even with my stomach pains. The heat and humidity were unreal though. It was a whopping 35°C (95°F) and I don’t think I’ve ever sweat that much in my life. I went through a liter of water within the first 1/3 of the hike. With humidity + dehydration + stomach pains, H legit thought that I was going to faint and insisted that we turn back. But, we were already part of the way there and I desperately just wanted to get to the beach.

And, we made it. We quickly switched from sneakers to flip flops, Mr. Rogers style, dumped our shit by the trees, hung our shirts on the branches to dry (yup, THAT much sweat) and went straight for the water. The water temperature was perfect and with the long stretch of shallowness, all I was missing was an inflatable pizza to chill on.

After a shower and a nap, we checked out Hong Kong Observatory’s webcam for Victoria’s Peak. It had been so cloudy for the past 2 weeks that the webcam would usually show nothing but dense fog. We finally lucked out with this bangin’ view.

Getting there was no joke though. The line at the tram had gotten crazily long by the time we arrived at 6pm. Wait time? About 2 hr. As we waited in line and debated, H found a review on Tripadvisor saying that a cab up was only about 50 HKD (the tram was 28 HKD one way). The cab was metered but it came out to exactly that by the time he dropped us off at The Peak Galleria mall. Also, instead of paying to go up to the Sky Terrace (about 48 HKD; there are tram/terrace deals), we took the free “Hong Kong Trail” starting at Lugard Road.

Travel tip: Don’t go up Lugard Road. Go to the right of it, a flat path in the park. About a 10-15 min walk in, the trees by the railing will start to clear, revealing awesome views of the city.

Around 6:40pm, the sun began to slowly set, becoming more colorful after 7pm.

By 7:30pm, views looked like this. A tall building in the distance began scrolling an advertisement about an ICC/Facebook light show to happen in the next few minutes. Nothing happened.

It was awesome seeing the city view go from day to night and the buildings turning on at different times, all within an hour’s time.

On the way back, we debated on taking the tram but, the line going back was already an hour wait. So, we tried to catch a cab again.

H: “We’d like to go to the Admiralty station.”
Cab driver: “Admiralty? That’ll be three hun…uh, three hundred fifty HKD.”
H: “What?!”
Cab driver: “Come on! It’s nighttime and there’s a line for the tram.”

Oh yea? Screw you. We decided to walk to the official taxi rank to find a metered cab. Lo and behold, we saw that there was a public bus going directly to the subway station, only 10.20 HKD per person.

Travel tip: You should also try the flat whites at NOT Specialty Coffee and Winston’s Coffee.