Sliding down the Great Wall

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Did you know you can SLIDE down the GREAT WALL of CHINA?!? I didn’t either…And it was AWESOME!

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Conquering Chinese Chaos

Today, I felt like nothing was impossible and I could accomplish anything in life. I have had many such AHA moments while living abroad– running through the tangled woods of London’s Hampstead Heath, biking into Paris from a city 1 hour away with no directions, making it through SE Asia without having my shiz stolen– but none of these moments, NONE, compare to my feats in bizarre, confusing China! Today for example, I solely survived my bike ride home.

I have a blog soon to be published about the peculiar nature of China and the Chinese, but this entry is dedicated to the streets of China. When it comes to laws of the road, there are none. Every Chinese person thinks he or she owns it.

*Speed limits?–Well if they do exist nobody knows it.

*Driving in an orderly fashion?–Yeah right. There are several car lanes and a large (usually separated) bike lane on each side of the road. To a Westerner, it would be clear that the car lanes are for motorists (and bikes if necessary) and the bike lanes are solely for bicyclists and scooters. But a Chinese person sees all lanes as fair game and a driver is not afraid to zoom on through that bike lane if it’s free.

It gets better. Not only are they driving in the wrong lanes, but they are usually driving in the wrong direction as well. And this goes for the car lanes as well. Forget the broken yellow lines law– if Chinese drivers wants to pass, they will pass. Doesn’t matter if they are 2 meters away from an oncoming semi or about to hit a red light.

*Wait, red lights?– O yeah, those barely exist too. Put all of the above together and you’ve got yourself a Chinese driver driving in the wrong lane to pass all the cars stopped at the red light that he so nonchalantly and briskly flies through–never mind that it happened at the university’s  intersection. True story.

***BUT– I do quite enjoy watching the scooters go by. Who knew that such a tiny two-seater could have the abilities of a pick up truck or a family vehicle. It’s not surprising to see someone cruisin’ on through with bamboo stalks the length of two trucks resting between the driver’s thighs.  The best is when the scooter magically transforms from a two-seater into a four with daddy driving, mommy holding the baby in one arm and daddy’s shoulder with the other, and the husky prominently sitting on the 2x2ft of floor space between daddy’s feet.

Just your typical scooter cargo…

So back to my AHA moment. My biggest irrational fear is to get hit by a car–so put a girl like me on streets like China and there’s a good chance of panic attack. After several freak out moments during the first few weeks of my arrival, I decided today was my day to conquer Chinese chaos! I hopped onto my cheap Chinese bike (that only took one week to break down) and started on my 20 minute straight shot journey home.

In the next 20 minutes I crossed over 4 lanes of oncoming traffic, dodged cars, scooters and bikes coming at me from every direction as I rode through a roundabout where yielding is rubbish, nearly had a head-on collision with a bike taxi, and broke my bike pedal. I did all of this while riding in the opposite bike lane and in the near dark 😉 And the best part– I made everyone stop for me! Yep, if I can survive that, I can survive ANYTHING!

BEWARE of bike taxis!

And now I have been properly initiated into China. It feels good–strange, but good. My biggest concern is that I will return home with the Chinese mentality that I own the road and it will reflect in the amount of speeding tickets and accident dents. Let’s hope this is not the case.

Many of you may think my bike ride home was a pretty dangerous scenario, but in actuality, that’s just China.

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Trekking Through Chiang Mai, Thailand

Bartering on Khoasan Road in Bangkok; hopping one Thai island to the next; trekking through the jungle on the back of an elephant–There is so much to see and do in Thailand from the north all the way to the south, but my top recommendation for things to do in Thailand is a trip to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand and a 2 or 3 day trek through the surrounding mountains.

Friends and I opted for the 3 day experience. For only 1300 baht ($42), we had our accommodation, meals, and entertainment covered for the next 3 days. The excursion included a guided hike through the mountains, a swim or two in the waterfalls, a 15 minute elephant ride (believe me, 15 minutes was plenty), bamboo and river rating, and an overnight stay in a tribal village one night and the jungle the next.

We started off our 3 day Chiang Mai jungle adventures with an elephant trek through the surrounding mountains 3 hours from the city.

Snack time for the elephants before the trek through the jungles of Chiang Mai.

The elephants trekked through mud and up and down narrow mountain paths like it was nothing.

The universal scratching rock used by all elephants on this trek. My advice–don’t sit on the rocks.

We hiked for miles– The fist day from elephant camp to a waterfall and ended our hike at the local village tribe where we camped out for the night. The second day from the tribe to another gorgeous waterfall to the jungle huts where we spent our second night. The third (and final) day from our hut to the river and bamboo rafting adventure and back to the base.

The local village tribe where we spent night one of our three day trek. We lived liked the locals with no electricity or communication with the outside world.

This Thai man took good care of us preparing for nighttime and bringing some light into our dark hut.

We shared this bathroom with the local occupants—SPIDERS!

For sleeping on the floor, our beds were quite comfy and rather stylish with the colorful mosquito nets protecting us from unwanted bites!

Homemade Thai food for the candlelight dinner with our group!

Live entertainment provided by the locals in English and Thai! This talented musician moved to the village tribe after marrying his wife 10 years ago and now lives a happy and simple life in the mountains outside of Chiang Mai.

The musician also taught us how the Thai get married—Guess I got married in Thailand…

Our guides taught us the fascinating secrets of nature. For example, when opened correctly, this plant can be used to blow bubbles! I like to call it the Bubble Plant!

Gorgeous waterfalls lay in the depths of the jungle. The cool waters made for refreshing pitstop during our long and sweaty hikes!

We really enjoyed our unique experience in Chiang Mai, Thailand with a very diverse and one-of-a-kind group.

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Off to the Real Chinatown

My travels in Asia were supposed to come to an end in mid-August; however, certain events occurred during the 2 month travel period that led to my decision to remain in Asia until the holidays thus turning my year abroad into a year and a half. After 3 months of working and traveling Taiwan, Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia, it’s off to China for the last chapter of my travel novel.

Just as I expected, Asia has been the culture shock of the year. Using chopsticks, eating fish while its beady eyes still stared at mine, language barriers causing humorous confusions— the character building challenges are never ending .

Yet the ultimate culture shock is still to come in China. To be honest my expectations are quite low for the Middle Kingdom so I’m hoping to be pleasantly surprised. From what I’ve heard from several sources, this is what I expect to find…

1) Grey skies and humidity with a side of polluted lungs.
2) CHEAP EVERYTHING! $3/day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
3) Pandas, pandas, pandas!
4) Flem hawked onto my shoes around every corner.
5) Dogs– Either a) spray painted ridiculous colors or made out to look like a different species or b) served as my entree.
6) Beautiful nature outside of the overcrowded cities.
7) People EVERYWHERE…and most likely super slow walkers causing me to break out the Disney shoes.
8) Live chickens being turned into dinner right before my eyes in the middle of the street.
9) Major language barriers because apparently no one speaks English.
10) Authentic Chinese take-out.
11) Pushy people knocking me down to get a spot on the subway.
12) Parents with no more than one child.
13) Cameras flashing in my direction because I’m white.
14) Some of the craziest architecture, clothing, and tangible items I’ve ever seen in my life
15) A break from Facebook.
***16) Overall the most POW experience of my travels yet and the most BAM way to end my year and a half abroad!***

Keep up with my crazy adventures in China from 09/17-10/12 to find out what turns out to be true!

My lifestyle and China’s are as different as night and day. If the Yin-Yang theory proves accurate, I’ll find a very strong balance of harmony in China.

Peace Signs from Asia

Categories: All Blog Postings, Asia, China | 2 Comments

Travel Babble #2– Surviving Overnight Buses

Saturday, September 8 travel tipSurviving Overnight Buses in Thailand
Overnight buses are the cheapest way to travel to and from Thai destinations; however, with a long journey time and the potential of a sleepless night, they can be quite exhausting too. Here are some tips on how to survive the overnights:
1) Hide yo shit and lock it up!!!— Overnight buses are relatively “safe” to take, but don’t be surprised if ya wake up the next morning to find your iPhone and laptop stolen from your bag, your clothes rearranged, and your lock magically still in tact. Overnight buses are notorious for being raided in the middle of the night by locals hiding in the luggage storage. As most the bags are thrown off before you’ve descended and the bus seems to magically disappear soon after you have, be wary that there is potential for personal belongings to go MIA. Make sure to take EVERYTHING you love onto the bus with you (even if you look like Santa Claus on Christmas morning as I did).
2) Stock up on snacks— Typically departing at 6pm and arriving at 6am the next day, the bus ride is bound to be a long one (especially if you don’t sleep) without food. Grab a 40 baht ($1.25) Pad Thai, and some chocolates and water from the 7-11 on your way out.
3) Get cozy— That 12 hour journey is already a pain in the butt (literally after sitting for that long) so get as comfy as possible with sweats, some extra blankets, ear plugs, an eye mask, and anything that makes you happy!
4) Choose seats wisely— DON’T sit next to the bathroom unless you want a whiff of fresh toilet all night. DO sit in the front of the bus…with sweet reclining seats that go almost as far down as a bed, sitting in the front will give ya the extra foot room with no ones head in your space.
5) Beware of the onboard movie— Sounds like a sweet addition…until gay porn pops on the telly.
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Travel Babble #1– Two Girls and One Soup

Welcome to the first posting of Travel Babble— My daily/weekly travel tips and tricks for your reading pleasure. Many of these babbles are based on true stories of my travel adventures.

Friday, September 7 travel tip: In a foreign country, if you’ve ordered take away and then decide to dine in, make sure to be clear you’re not going anywhere. 

Two Girls and One Soup

Language barriers can present very frustrating yet humorous moments. At an outdoor Malaysian restaurant, I ordered soup to go. My friend who was not initially hungry changed her mind when the idea of soup sounded quite nice. With both of us now eating, we decided to dine in. She ordered herself a soup and we eagerly awaited the deliciousness in store.

Ten minutes later, one bowl of soup was placed on the table. We asked for the other bowl of soup and instead were given a tea cup to pour some of the soup into. Assuming they had just misunderstood our order for two soups, we happily shared the one.

When finished, we went to pay for the shared soup and were handed the original “soup-to-go” tied up in a plastic bag. We nicely declined the soup explaining our confusion (because we were quite full from sharing). They were very sweet about it and continued a friendly chat with us about our lives.

Stay tuned…

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Taiwan: An Island of Smiles

When I tell people I worked and traveled throughout Taiwan for a month, their first reaction is typically, “Why??”. The humble island full of sunshine and smiles is sadly underrated and overlooked by most foreigners. There is a benefit to their misfortune however. As a rare  foreigner in Taiwan, I was taken under the wings of locals and immersed into their culture 24/7.

Night Market Food Junkies

The Taiwanese are hands down the nicest and most generous people I’ve ever met. Everyone holds such a strong pride for their country and they are thrilled to show foreigners the beauty of it. They will be your city guide by day and your night market guide by night all the while sharing in a cultural exchange.

Night Market tours with Vivian and Tiger!

My favorite experience occurred in Yingge, Taiwan’s old pottery town. As I snapped away at artsy pottery shops, two Taiwanese men in their 40-50s stopped my friend and I and invited us into their shop for tea. (As we could not pronounce their Chinese names, for simplicity’s sake we named them Charlie and Johnny). Using handcrafted ceramic pots and cups from his shop, Charlie poured us freshly brewed tea. Johnny did not want the shaved ice and red bean dessert offered to him by Johnny, so he made us a bowl to go with our tea.

‘Charlie’ (left) and ‘Johnny’ (right) playing air ping pong with ‘Jonny’s’ handcrafted fans.

‘Charlie’ pouring a cup of tea into his handcrafted creation.

With the minimum English known by the men and the broken Chinese on our end, we had a 30 minute gesture-filled ChinGlish conversation about Charlie’s pottery shop and family life and Johnny’s handmade fan business. Johnny disappeared for a few minutes to his car and returned holding two of his creations which he then gave to us as a gift for having a friendly chat with them. After purchasing the subtly decorated pottery cup I enjoyed my tea from and taking many photos with our new friends, we thanked them for their generosity and continued on.

Tea time with ‘Johnny’ and ‘Charlie’.

Other friendly encounters and experiences include locals helping us tourists read a Chinese menu, a man ditching his chance to cross the busy street and taking 5 minutes out of his day to make sure I hopped on the right bus, and a lady literally stopping me in the street and shaking my hand for a good minute while continuously saying “Hi, Hello” with the biggest toothless grin.

A friendly Taiwanese lady helping us order from a Chinese menu.

With ancient temples flooding the upbeat cities, remarkable national parks, and mountains of nature lining the breathtaking seaside, Taiwan offers so much for any tourist. But even if it was a grungy country with nothing more than a few 7-11s, I’d still visit Taiwan just to be embraced by some of the loveliest people and the most welcoming culture I’ve ever encountered in my travels.

Friendly Taiwanese owners of a Chopstix stand.

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Taipei By Night

From intricately decorated temples to gorgeous seaside sunsets, Taipei, Taiwan offers a plethora of tourist attractions. But it’s when the sun goes down that Taipei comes to life. With the blazing hot and humid climate, the 7pm sunset makes the heat a bit more bearable thus creating the perfect environment for Night Markets found all over the city.

Trying Stinky Tofu at the Taoyuan Night Market

A happy oyster omelette from Taoyuan Night Market

Traditional Taiwanese foods such as steamed buns, shaved ice with fruits, and the infamous pig’s blood cake and stinky tofu (yes, it’s as smelly as it sounds) are sold from stall carts lining the streets of the market along with clothing items, jewelry, and colorful knick knacks. (Note**– Those wishing to buy clothing from the night markets are required to be hipless and bootyless).

Our fabulous tour guides and friends showing us around the Taoyuan Night Market

If you have the opportunity to go with locals, do it! They will show you the Night Market experience done right! Around every corner, a new mysterious food was purchased and placed into our hands. We tried foods such as an oyster omelette, soup dumplings, and of course the stinky tofu. We never would have thought to purchase these fine delicacies on our own and we are more cultured because of it! The Taiwanese love to meet and entertain foreigners in their city and show them the true Taiwan so don’t hesitate to make friends. They will love you!

New friends Tiger and Vivian showing us around the Tong Hua Street Night Market

The most popular yet overly crowded night market is the Shilin Night Market. Though it is a must visit for all tourists, test out others on different nights for a more local and relaxed experience. Great locations include Tong Hua Street and the Shida Night Market. The Danshui Night Market in New Taipei City and the Taoyuan Night Market located just outside Taipei are great local spots as well.

Daringly trying Pig’s Blood Cake (just a bite) at the Shilin Night Market.

Sunset along the coast of the Danshui Night Market– New Taipei City

Categories: All Blog Postings, Asia, Free Things to Do Abroad, Taiwan, Travel Babble | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Harrods and Eataly of Paris

Looking to splurge on top brands in both the fashion and food industry all at once? You’ll be in heaven at Le Bon Marché and La Grande Épicerie.

Le Bon Marché

Established in the 1800’s and constructed by Louis Charles Boileau and  Mr. Eiffel himself, Le Bon Marché serves as the oldest department store of Paris. Though not quite the enormity of Harrods, Le Bon Marché bears a close resemblance to one of the oldest (and most expensive) department stores in London. ‘The Good Market’ hosts floor after floor of high fashion names including Louis Vuitton, Jimmy Choo, and Marc Jacobs among other big name brands. Also on display are items from the Le Bon Marché brand, furniture, and pricy toys for the kiddies. Don’t forget your credit card!

View of Rue du Bac from the connecting bridge.

Connected by a bridge overlooking Rue du Bac in the 7th arrondisement, La Grande Épicerie remains the largest (and fanciest) grocery store in the city. La Grande Épicerie serves a similar purpose as New York City’s Eataly by creating an interaction between customers, their food, and those who make it.

La Grande Épicerie

Well-known and rare brands alike flood the shelves with bountiful selections of spices, ingredients, fruits, meats, and anything your heart desires. Looking for that jar of American peanut butter or marshmallow Fluff you’ve been craving in Europe? Or what about that special tomato sauce you can only find in Italy? Among imported goods, one can find fresh food from all cultures ready to eat or take home for some good cooking. And best of all, Saturday and Sunday are sample days! Goût (taste) fresh seafood, sweet pastries, wine and champagne, and fresh juice made before your eyes (with a €300 juicer).

Sample Time! Fresh Salmon!

Le Bon Marché and La Grande Épicerie are a must see in Paris on any day, but especially a rainy one (and chances are when you are visiting there will be at least one…so plan accordingly!)

Address:

Le Bon Marché

22 rue de Sèvres, 75007

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A French Book Sale and a Free Panorama of Paris

Ever wondered what it would be like to read a book at the tallest point of Paris? Each year, Tour Montparnesse holds the 2-day Paris se Livres book sale on its 56th floor. Normally a €13 ticket to access this floor and the roof terrace for the magnificent 360* panorama of Paris, Paris se Livre is a FREE event that gives you automatic access to this beautiful sight. Every readers dream!

Paris se Livre event on the 56th floor of Tour Montparnesse, June 22-23, 2012

In addition to the variety of French books on sale, a select group of authors are also present for book signings and a friendly chat about their work. Present at the 2012 event held on June 22-23 were authors such as Gilles Thomas and Xavier Ramette, writers of Inscriptions des catacombs de Paris, and Matthieu Jung with his work, Vous êtes nés à la bonne époque.

Authors Gilles Thomas, Xavier Ramette, Matthieu Jung, and others gather for a book signing at Paris se Livre.

Towering Paris at 210 meters high, Tour Montparnesse is the tallest skyscraper in the city, and it’s also the only one. The 56-level dark building sticks out like a sore thumb next to the city’s authentic  white architecture averaging 7-stories high. If searching for the best panoramic view of Paris, climb Tour Montparnesse. You’ll have the opportunity to see every significant structure of Paris without the blocked view typically caused by Tour Montparnesse!

Tour Montparnesse

And during your visit, take some time to chill out on the roof terrace with a new read from Paris se Livre and an astonishing view of the city!

The roof terrace of Tour Montparnesse

Categories: All Blog Postings, Free Things to Do Abroad, Paris | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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