New Zealand Vacation Time!

So, this will be the first post of many detailing my vacation to New Zealand, because there is simply too much to cram into one post.   First of all, New Zealand is a beautiful place with wonderful people, delicious food, awesome wine, and tons of gorgeous scenery.  I know it is hard to get to for a lot of people because of its location and the cost of airfare these days, but it’s still well worth traveling to at some point in your life.  I think there is something for everyone no matter what kind of vacationer you are.  For this first post, I am going to share some highlights and some insights!

Queenstown

Timing and Budget

There is so much from New Zealand that it is impossible to see everything, so you really have to pick your priorities, and base it on how much time and money you have to spend! My trip was about six days, and included the north and south islands.  Most online sites and guidebooks probably would have recommended two weeks for what I accomplished in my six days, but I still felt like it was well worth going, even if I skipped some stuff. As for lodging and transportation, there are of course different ranges, so if you want to backpack the whole thing, many people do that, while others opt for the full-on guided tours and hotels the whole way.  I picked the middle ground of staying in motels (that were still very nice!) and renting a car so that I could go wherever I wanted, and didn’t have to pay tour companies to show me around.

Nerdcation

(nerd alert!!) If you’re a Tolkien fan, or fan of any movies really, New Zealand is great for wandering around and looking at sites where the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies were filmed.  At one point, I stood in the forest of Lothlorien staring at the tree they modeled Treebeard after.

In a hobbit's house!

In a hobbit’s house!

My first day after arrival I headed to the Hobbiton movie set-  this is where they filmed the shire from the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit movies.  The sets for the Hobbit movies were made out of permanent materials so that they could remain there and be set up for tourism.  Although I am not a huge proponent of silly tourist traps, I am a big nerd and I admit this was absolutely awesome.  Tours are a few hours, starting from The Shire’s Rest cafe, and are guided, ending at the Green Dragon Pub for some nice brew (made on site).

Wine and Culinary Deliciousness

Do you like freshly prepared and amazing tasting food? Do you like wine? If you answered yes to either or both of those questions, you will enjoy eating and drinking in New Zealand.  There are several wine countries, and I visited wineries in Marlborough (top part of south island) and Otago (south island near Queenstown), but there are many different options for wine tasting and exploring.    And of course, any restaurant you go to has many local wines for you to enjoy with your meal. Sauvignon blanc for the win.

Wine at Dinner

Majesty of Nature

I was also blown away by the scenery I encountered throughout the whole trip.  There are so many interesting and unique geological wonders to discover, and there is a place for you whether you like beach or forest.  On my trip down the west coast of the south island, I saw glaciers, the very aptly named “pancake rocks” lovely beach sunsets, lots of farmland and sheep of course, lakes that stretched for miles, and mountain forests with mixes of trees I had never seen before.  Oftentimes when I was driving, I had to pull off the road (on the designated look out points of course), and just get out of the car and stand in awe at the beautiful views in front of me.  And then I snapped pictures of said views and immediately posted them to social media because I couldn’t help myself.

Pancake Rocks

Stay  tuned for more posts detailing a few of the cities I visited, and obligatory awesome photographs!

Shiretoko National Park: Hiking, Nature, and Wildlife in Northern Hokkaido

After touring around Akan, we traveled up through Hokkaido to Shiretoko National Park, which is on the northeastern tip of the island.  A part of it is an UNESCO World Heritage Site, because it is re-claimed natural marshlands.  The park is in an interesting location because it is mountainous forest right on the coast of the ocean!  Shiretoko town has some great seafood, and is a short drive to the park for some day hiking.  The few days I was there were full of hiking through mountains, and looking out for all the wildlife!  While there are many tour buses that go to the tourist sites, I preferred being able to drive a car and visit things on my own time.  Also, the curves through the mountain are really fun to drive on (as long as you keep an eye out for any animals that might be crossing the road!).   One afternoon after a hike, we saw so many deer grazing along the road we couldn’t stop to take pictures of all of them!

Deer in Shiretoko

 Also along the road, we sighted a few foxes that are fairly iconic for Hokkaido.  They were light brown and super cute!  Unfortunately I didn’t sneak any pictures of them, since they ran back into the foliage (cleverly :P).   Also, as we were driving over a bridge, we saw quite a few cars stopped, and figured we should see what was going on.  We looked down into the river, and there were two brown bears there fishing!

Brown Bears Fishing

The highlight of the park, for me, was the hike around the Shiretoko Five Lakes.  This hike takes about an hour and a half, and goes right through the brown bear habitat.   Because of this,  everyone who hikes it needs to pay and register, and also watch a safety video beforehand.  The ranger showed us a chart that recorded all the bear sightings, and there had been quite a few over the last week.  Obviously, the goal is to avoid the bears, if at all possible.  The video showed us how to lie down and play dead if confronted by a bear, and I really hoped I wouldn’t have to use that tactic!   There were no bear sightings for us that day, so it was just a nice leisurely hike through the forest.

Here’s the route.  There is a long and a short option:

Route for Shiretoko 5 Lakes Trail

If you’re totally unwilling to take the bear path, or want a free walk, you can also go to the left and take advantage of the raised walkway that goes through the marshland.  This is great for anyone who has mobility issues, too.  There are some great views and outlook points, and you can see the ocean on your left, and the forest on your right.  When we were there, there was also a school group who toured this part.  Here’s a view of the ocean behind the marshland (although it was taken on a slightly cloudy day):

Ocean Behind Shiretoko

The hike itself takes you to all the lakes, and had some gorgeous views:

Shiretoko Lake

Shiretoko ForestShiretoko Lake

Clouds over Shiretoko

Another option if you go to Shiretoko is to travel even further north and take a boat to see whales.  This is a trip that you probably don’t want to take in winter- We had to drive from Utoro to Rausu to catch the boat, and that pass is closed at the end of October. No wonder! It’s super windy, and even in the fall, the whole thing was encased with fog.  I don’t think it would be drive-able in the snow!  Still, it’s a great option if you’re there in the summer or fall!

On the boat ride, we could also see an island belonging to Russia (I can see Russia from my boat!!).  WE were also lucky to sight some sperm whales on our trip:

Sperm Whale Breath

Sperm Whale Swimming

Overall, Shiretoko was a definite highlight of the week, and was just  gorgeous to walk and drive through.  There was plenty of wildlife, so it’s one of my top recommendations for a trip to Hokkaido.

Timeout in Tokyo

This past weekend I took advantage of a long holiday to go to Tokyo, Japan for a much-needed few days of relaxation, time with fun friends, and of course some delicious food! It was my first trip to Japan, and all I can say is, I can’t wait to go back!

Tokyo is only a short four-hour plane ride from Beijing, which means it only takes about a half day to travel there. This is a nice change from the long flight from China back to the United States! When I arrived, I met up with my friend who was gracious enough to let me stay with her for my whole trip. It’s great having friends all over the world, isn’t it?  Once I got settled, she asked me if I wanted to go to a sake tasting! Of course I said yes. 🙂  The tasting was led by a sake specialist who concentrates on importing sake from the Akita region of Japan into the United States. She had even prepared food pairings for all the different sakes we tasted, and the whole experience was really eye-opening for me.  Although I’ve had sake before in a few Japanese restaurants, having all the different types explained and introduced to me in an educational way really helped me appreciate it for the taste and the thought that goes into each type of brew.  It was an excellent first night in Japan, and just the welcome I needed! You can read more about all the sakes I tasted on their website.

The next day I met with another friend Ai who was visiting Tokyo from Kobe. She and I ventured on the subway to head to Harajuku.  If you haven’t seen a Tokyo metro map, you will be blown away.  I’ve gotten a handle on Beijing’s subway system, but Tokyo’s lines opened up a whole new level of craziness, and I’m glad I had my friend to help me navigate the system at first.

Once at our stop, we headed to Meiji Shrine.  The whole area was gorgeous with lots of greenery.  We were even lucky enough to be there on a day when a wedding was taking place, and stopped our touring to view the procession of the wedding party from one gate to another.

MeijiWedding

At the shrine itself there is a section to make a prayer, and I think I did it correctly after watching a few other people.  I also left a written note in an area where people can hang their wishes on a wall.

After wandering around this peaceful place, it was time to go visit some more exciting parts of Tokyo, which led us to Takeshita street!  This whole area was full of shops and vendors.  It was really neat to see the variety of things to buy (and eat!).  I’ll tell you an anecdote to give you an idea:  As we were walking, I noticed a store with really small clothes and thought that they were really small, and seemed silly to buy for a baby because they’d be outgrown so quickly! My friend then had to point out that the shop was selling dog clothes, not baby clothes. Hehehehe.

The silliness continued when we walked into Kiddyland, and frankly I was a little too scared by all the crazy music and the idea that there was a whole floor devoted to Disney toys and the like. I took a quick picture before running away.

Harajuku

The next day my friend Sheila and I went out for a few more touristy adventures. I’m glad she indulged me, because after living in Tokyo for four years, she’s already done most of this! Tokyo Tower was amazing (even though it was a little tourist trappy and I was greeted by a life-sized Tokyo Tower mascot), and gave an excellent view of this enormous city.  There is now a tower that’s taller, but since it’s so new, the lines are three hours or more. I think I’ll stay content with the views from here though:

TokyoTowerView

Although my days were pretty filled, there is still a lot of Tokyo that I have yet to see. I had such an awesome time, and it was so easy to get to, that I will definitely be planning a trip back there some time soon.  Just the blue skies and slightly warmer temperatures made it a great respite from Beijing, and it was fascinating to see a radically different culture.  In addition to seeing the sites, I really enjoyed all the different culinary adventures in Japan. These are so unique that they merit their own post, so keep your eyes out for another Tokyo post in the future!

Peru’s Sand Dunes and Wine Country

I’ve had the opportunity to visit the Paracas/Ica area of Peru several times (it’s an easy four hour trip with something for everyone, so I find myself finding excuses to go there plenty), and thought I’d share my best travel practices for the area. Believe it or not, in my four trips there, I still haven’t seen everything! It’s a popular destination for backpackers and families alike. You’ll see as you read that there is something there for everyone, whether you want an adventurous or luxurious vacation in a sunny part of Peru. I’ve included a quick summary/fact sheet at the bottom of this post, so if you’re unfamiliar with the area it’s a nice jumping off point to get you started.

 Huacachinero Hotel
First off- getting there:
Those with their own vehicles can drive down the Panamerican Highway right to Paracas or Ica, which is around 4 hours each way. I prefer to take the amazingly dependable Cruz Del Sur bus instead. Their seats are comfy, the movies are passable, and there’s a lot less stress involved when I don’t have to see that much of the road.
Second- where to stay?
Here you can surround yourself with luxury, or embrace the backpacker life, and everything in between.
  • High end hotels- Hilton, DoubleTree, Hotel Paracas, and Las Dunas are among the favorites if you’re looking to stay in a resort with pool services and activities for adults and children.
  • Mid range- El Huacachinero. This hotel is literally feet from the sand dunes, and it’s my favorite stay, since it’s economical while still offering excellent service, a delicious restaurant, a pool, and convenient location to the sites.
  • Just looking for a cheap bed- there is an array of backpacker hostels throughout Ica and Huacachina perfect for those who just want a place to crash, but will be touring around outside the majority of their trip. Some restaurants even offer a work for lodging type of arrangement, so everyone will be able to find something no matter their budget.
 DSCN0096
Now, on to the fun stuff: What to do while you’re there?
1. My personal favorite past time is to ride around on the sand dunes. It’s difficult for me to accurately explain the dune buggy rides- they take a standard Ford engine bloc and put them in these crazy buggies that hold from 5-10 people. The drivers mostly grow up in the area, and have to be thirsty for adventure. They’ll make sure you’re strapped in to your seat (hold on to the handrail if you’re scared), and take you all over the dunes, zipping uphill fast, and hovering for a second just before big drops, so that you see just what you’re getting into…. It’s a great way to get your adrenaline pumping while looking out to the sand as far as you can see all around you.  Along the tour you will occasionally stop for some excellent views of the sand dunes, and to sled or board. The drivers bring along sand boards, and prep them with candle wax first for more speed. If you’re not a proficient snow boarder (like me), it’s best to lay on the board head first and sled down the dune on your stomach. Braver souls with more balance can stand on the board and fly down the dunes that way, too. My favorite time to go is around 4:30 pm, since the tour ends with a nice stop on top of the dunes to watch the sun set over the sand.
2. Wine tours!
What better way to relax in the desert climate than visit some gorgeous and historical wineries? The wines in this area are mostly sweet wines, so if you’re looking for vino tinto, you’re better off heading to Chile or Argentina to sample the Malbecs there. Still, the experience in Ica is worth it, and they do get quite creative with their wines there. The artisanal wineries offer great little tours to learn about the process, followed by tastings of their wines and piscos. Pisco is a clear alcohol made from grapes, and it’s usually between 40 and 45 % alcohol. It’s delicious mixed with ginger ale and fresh limes! Also, bottles of even the smoothest pisco are only about 35 soles (around 15 US dollars), so you can’t beat this for the price! After all the wine tastings, it’s a great idea to enjoy a nice meal at one of the restaurants along the Huacachina oasis. Also, it’s best to plan so you can see take the wine tours on days that aren’t Peruvian national holidays, as many of the wineries are closed for tours.
Pisco Winery
3. Islas Ballestas
If you’re staying in Paracas, you’re already set to go right out to the boat tours to visit the islands. If you’re staying in Ica, you can arrange transportation through your hotel or tour company to get you the hour to the coast.  Taking a boat tour around the islands will bring you in sight of sea lions, Humboldt penguins, and several species of birds. You’ll also see the curious trident shape in the sand, which has been around for hundreds of years (admittedly, my memory about this sand thing is a little foggy).
4. Nasca Lines
Confession: I haven’t actually seen these yet, but I’ll include it on the list still, because you’ll hear about them in any guide book on Peru. I recommend not taking a plane from Nasca to fly over the lines, as these planes are reputedly unsafe, and have resulted in deaths. If you wish to fly over and see these interesting crop circle-like shapes, I suggest flying from Lima, where the planes actually have to go through safety checks! As for me, I’ll take the pictures, thanks.
A Wrap-up:
I hope you’ve enjoyed my only slightly expert guide to the area. Ica and Paracas are relatively small towns, so they offer a nice escape from the hustle and bustle of Lima. Still, it’s worth throwing out a few words of caution. Huacachina, because of the bars and large amounts of backpackers, can be extremely noisy around the holidays, and few of the hotels have air conditioning. This won’t be the best place to stay if you’re looking for a completely restful respite. Also, Ica is still suffering damage from a large earthquake several years ago, so you will see some run-down buildings, stray dogs, and mototaxis galore. As a safety measure, it is always prudent to ask your hotel front desk to call you a cab, rather than catching one off the street. Most cab rides within the city will be from 5 to 10 soles.
With that said, Ica and Paracas are great places to visit with family and friends. I’ve found the best time of year to go is August, as it is sunny all-year round and offers a great break from the dreariness of the Lima winter.
Want to take these tips on the go? Take a look at my fact sheet summary of Ica and Paracas: IcaFactSheet

Slip Carefully: Adventures in Harbin, China

This past weekend I took a trip to Harbin, the northern-most provincial capital in China. Many warned me before I left that it would be extremely cold, and to pack more layers than I would ever think necessary. Why go if the average January temperature is negative 18 degrees C? Harbin is home to an international ice sculpture festival, is known as the Moscow of China, and even includes a Siberian Tiger Park. What better place to bring the first friend who has braved applying for a Chinese visa and coming to stay with me! Before she got here I bought us airfare tickets and a hotel stay. I had done a little research on this, given that Harbin is a popular tourist destination, and I had heard from many coworkers who had gone and visited. You might be thinking that since I had talked to other people who had traveled there and even gotten advice on hotel locations from locals, that everything would go smoothly. I also suffered from this delusion, thinking my minimal planning would be enough to compensate for the fact that we’d be touring on our own rather than in an organized group. I should have known better than to expect a seamless trip, especially considering all past vacations with my friend Carrie have always seemed to go slightly awry (like that time I dragged her to the rural amazon or when we tried to tour wineries on a day when alcohol vending was prohibited). Anyway, let’s review this current debacle and see how we still managed to enjoy the trip despite the many challenges.

First, let me just come out and admit that even though I live in Beijing, my mandarin skill is abysmal. I make it around OK here, but I wasn’t prepared for the lack of English spoken by anyone in Harbin, forcing me to depend so much on Google translate to come up with key words to throw out. I guess now I can look back on it and be glad gesturing and even a few words do go a long way in being able to communicate. I also know next time I venture out, I’ll join a tour rather than try to figure everything out for myself.

Aside from the language barrier, there were a lot of other aspects of the trip that made it a little strange and unexpected, and at least I can say not all of them were my fault:

  • The weather the day we flew out was bad, so our flight was delayed a few hours, supposedly due to frost on the runway or poor visibility.
  • We arrived at the hotel, and the staff had very little English. They also wanted 300 RMB at checking which was confusing because I had pre-paid. Turns out it was just a deposit they needed!
  • The room itself- Not bad, except there was no door on the bathroom, so that was pretty weird. It also had a sign that said “slip carefully,” which we assumed meant to to be the equivalent of “caution- wet floor.”
  • The hotel restaurant only had a Chinese menu with no pictures. We ordered beef dumplings because that was the only food word I knew how to say. They were delicious though, so I guess no harm there.
  • We had really bad luck with taxi drivers, and we had to point to our tourist brochures to show them which sites we wanted to go to.
  • One taxi driver called someone and pulled over, left us in his car while it was running, and went inside some building. If we had been in Peru, I would have assumed we were in an express kidnapping. It turns out he was stopping by his travel agency buddy’s place to sell us some tickets for the snow and ice world. After using my “phone a friend” to call a Chinese speaking friend of mine and making sure we were interpreting the situation correctly, we got our tickets and continued to our destination. Whew.

Don’t worry, though, the trip wasn’t a total disaster. There were some great highlights as well, making this trip worth it despite all the hassles:

The architecture of the city was fascinating.  It has a long history of Russian immigrants, so many buildings had a Byzantine look to them. Also, everything is lit up at night, so driving was really fun. All the large roundabouts had mini ice and snow sculptures, and lantern lights were hanging all along the streets.  Taxi rides can be somewhat stressful, but being able to look out the window at all of this made the traffic bearable.

On the second day we got a cab to drive us out to the Siberian tiger park, which is like a wildlife refuge for Siberian tigers. The entry ticket includes a bus tour where we drove through the area and got to see the tigers running around, and we even saw some enjoying a chicken snack. It was really neat to see them so up-close, and see their thick fur.

Siberian Tiger

All the walking around in the cold gave us quite the appetite, so once we  got back to our hotel we wandered around in search of lunch. The place we stumbled upon was the California Beef Noodle King restaurant. Even though we couldn’t read the menu, it had pictures, so we could order some noodle bowls. They turned out to be delicious, and provided Carrie with more chop stick practice.  After warming up with some delicious spicy soup, we went back to the hotel to layer up for a night at the Ice and Snow World.

A bar in a building made out of ice!

Now, aside from hearing that this place had ice sculptures and seeing a few pictures of it, we didn’t really know what we were getting ourselves into. This place was awesome! There were ice structures everywhere, and I even went down a few ice slides. They had mini restaurants inside in case you needed to warm up with some hot chocolate, there was music, an ice show, and even a KFC. Overall I was really impressed with the level of craftsmanship of the ice buildings and the attention to detail paid  to the ice structures.

An impressive snow sculpture of your favorite ice age characters

An impressive snow sculpture of your favorite ice age characters

You can view more photos of the trip here.

Even though this trip was a little frustrating at times, I am really glad I went. The ice sculptures and tigers were really rare experiences, and I’m glad I have a friend I can drag on these adventures with me. You can view her photos on her website. If you’re planning a trip to Harbin, though, I’d recommend going the easy route of signing up for an all inclusive tour through an agency, unless you’re prepared to navigate all the Chinese information yourself! In the mean time, I’ll go back to enjoying the (by comparison) warmer weather in Beijing.