Hope to visit you again, Cuba

It has been a week since I returned from a wonderful trip to Cuba with Road Scholar. We started from Camagüey and visited several cities across the country by bus, all the way to Havana.

Cuba Map

I think about those precious 10 days often, and I felt really sad when I learned of the new ban a few days ago. To me, Cuba is no longer just a ‘communist country on an island not far from Florida’; it is all the people I met during this trip – artists, dancers, musicians, professors, farmers, doctors, business owners, pedicab drivers, street vendors, and children. They are talented, hard-working, friendly, optimistic; they try to make the best of their lives no matter how dire the situation is, and I was both touched and inspired by them.

Our trip was not a superficial one where people just hang out at tourist sites and ride a classic car in Havana. We used toilets where there was no seat or paper or flushing water; we visited local markets and a ‘ration’ store; we stayed in a small town where we lost power three times; our bus shared roads with horse carts and tractors avoiding water-filled pot holes. We experienced more of the ‘real’ Cuba, even though our food and accommodation were still far better than what most local people could afford.

We greatly enjoyed the many people-to-people interactions, when we talked to various artists, danced with professional dancers, asked business owners questions, learned to play dominoes, discussed with kids about environment protection, etc. We drank a few mojitos every day, made in different ways. I cherished the fun time spent with our group leaders and intelligent, curious, caring fellow travelers. The memories will stay with me forever.

 

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There are so many photos to share and so much to write about. It is a great pity that Americans could no longer visit Cuba to experience its rich culture and art. And Cuba people could not benefit from the gifts we bring in – school supplies, art supplies, powdered and canned food, hygiene products – daily things that we take for granted. I heard it mentioned more than once during this trip, that relationships and policies built on love will endure. I look forward to the day when I could visit Cuba again.

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Why We Travel

For people who are not passionate about exploring different places, we travelers are crazy. Why spend so much money and time, go through all sorts of challenges and stresses, to see a scenery that they can easily see on postcards, travel channels, YouTube, Google Earth, with all the comfort of home? Well, here are my reasons, and I am sure other travelers could add to the list.

  • The ‘wow’ moments – I look forward to those moments, when something magnificent suddenly appear in front of me, that I cannot help exclaiming ‘wow’ or ‘my God’! My eyes widen, my heart beats faster, and I feel like crying. As they say, “life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.” There have been many such moments in my life, and I want more.
  • Scale – no matter how good the photos and videos are, they can’t really show the scale of many things. You have to be close to truly appreciate their splendor. Sometimes this is the cause of the ‘wow’ moments. A few examples: Grand Canyon, Uluru, Perito Moreno Glacier, giant sequoias, Terracotta army.
  • Nature – different sunrises and sunsets, stars from both hemispheres, creek or lake water that you can drink directly from, waterfalls’ crashing sound and mist, glacier’s groaning, smells of the air, monkeys’ howling, birds’ chirping, absolute silence. You have to be there in person to experience for yourself.
  • People – Interactions with people and interesting travel stories stay the longest in memories. Fellow travelers on the same cruise, outstanding tour guides, and local people we happen to meet and chat with. Remember that interesting Japanese guy on the train? Or that old couple relaxing in front of their big RV? Observe people at different places – Scandinavians in suits ride bicycles to work; Londoners with big umbrellas; Japanese in beautiful kimonos.
  • Food and Drinks – Needless to say, tasting the authentic signature food and drinks from different places is another benefit of travel that you can’t really get at home. I could never forget the huge pig knuckle in Germany, the kangaroo and emu pizza in Australia, the beignets in New Orleans, the rakija in Serbia, and the mate tea in Argentina.

Finally, I drag my exhausted body and satisfied soul onto flights and into cars for the return journey. Lying on my own bed once again, I sigh out loud: ahhh, I enjoy traveling, and I love coming home.

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Photo by Artem Bali from Pexels

Beijing 798 Art Zone

While I was in Beijing this summer, my good friend Jingbo and I met up to spend a day together doing something fun, as was our tradition. She suggested two options and both sounded great, so the temporary plan was to do 798 Art Zone for half a day and then onto Blue Bay. Well, we were still at 798 when night fell. Talking about severe underestimation of how interesting the place was, especially given the fact that it was Monday and many galleries were not even open.

The Art Zone is a re-purposed abandoned factory complex in northeast Beijing. It was built in the 1950s involving both the Soviet Union and East Germany. For those who are interested in history, the Wiki page has many details on its construction, operation, and artistic rebirth.

We strolled on the streets and alleys in the zone and checked out galleries, studios, bookstores, cultural centers, museums, shops, cafes, sculptures, graffiti, and time just flew by. The combination of old industrial buildings and contemporary art forms, of childhood-era antiques and modern-day high-tech, made the whole experience a bit surreal, like time travel.

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Some walls still have slogans like ‘Long Live Mao’ from cultural revolution. Strange sculptures at street corners remind people of those days.

King Kong graffiti and artwork in a shop. Similar red brick buildings and walls were everywhere.

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I believe those display tables with rotating wheels and foot pedals were once sewing machines.

There were also plenty of weird stuff popping up here and there for us to marvel, to discuss, and to take loads of pictures.

By the time we left, we were reasonably certain that our footsteps covered all the streets in the zone and we saw all there was to see, except those galleries that were closed on Mondays. We also had a simple but good lunch and bought a few cute things. It was such a fun day and I wouldn’t mind going back for another visit.

If you are in Beijing and have already done all the “tourist highlights”, check out this odd but chic place. 🙂 Oh, did I mention that it is free?

 

Twenty Years in US

IMG_7296On this day twenty years ago, I came to the United States. My point of entry was Anchorage, Alaska. I still remember stepping off the plane, exhausted after an eight-hour flight from Shanghai (and a short flight from Beijing before that), yet excited from seeing the gorgeous snow mountains from the air, and the rows of private jets on the ground. As I stood in line at passport control, it suddenly struck me: I am in a different country and I will be on my own. My family and friends and everything I am familiar with are now thousands of miles away…

There was not much time to be sentimental. I boarded another plane and flew six more hours to JFK. As it approached, I watched the beautiful night view of New York City with all those bright lights and elegant bridges, and felt like I was in a dream. When the wheels touched the ground and passengers applauded, tears rolled down my face. At that moment, so many feelings went through my mind that it felt blank. A new chapter began.

So that was the first trip by air in my life. And it lasted over 20 hours. I was a rookie traveler then and thought even the churning baggage carousel was impressive. Today, I am quite experienced. I have been to 33 countries and 64 airports around the world. Still, that same excitement when the plane touches down in a brand new place never left me.

IMG_7298Many things have changed in twenty years. For example, I came here holding a Chinese passport with a US visa. Today, I have a US passport with a Chinese visa. Between the two countries, no matter which direction I fly now, I consider it ‘going home’.

BTW, here is a post that I published around the 18th anniversary. 🙂 Can’t believe it has been two years since then! Time flies. I wonder what I will be writing about five years from now, or ten, or another twenty…

Five Days in South Korea (Busan, Seoul)

Early this month we had a wonderful visit to South Korea, including 1.5 days in Busan and 3 days in Seoul. Hopefully our itinerary below would help people plan their trip to this great and interesting country. I found this site to be quite helpful when I did my planning.

Our day started at 3am US EDT. Due to delay we almost missed our connecting flight at San Francisco. Luckily we made it to the gate 4 minutes before it closed. We arrived at Incheon International Airport around 3pm the next afternoon. Then we got our Korail pass and boarded a KTX train to Busan. Because it was a holiday week the seats were sold out, but we managed to sit for 2.5 hours out of the 3.5-hour ride. Not bad. We arrived at Busan around 8pm – 28 hours after we left home. I promised myself never to make such crazy arrangements ever again.

Day 1. Busan Aquarium, Food Alley, Geumgang Park (with cable car). We made an attempt to go to the famous Beomeosa Temple but were too exhausted to walk the required distance.

Day 2. Jagalchi Fish Market, Gamcheon Culture Village. Afternoon train to Seoul.

Day 3. Half-day DMZ Tour.  Deoksugung Palace (changing guards).

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Day 4. Lotte World Aquarium, Lotte World Tower, Coex Aquarium, Namsan Tower.

Day 5. Changdeokgung Palace, Myongdong Shopping District.

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Except the DMZ Tour, all the other places are accessible via subway/bus. A must-have is a Cash-bee card. It can be used to pay for subway, bus, taxi, train, or even in convenient stores, and it is good in both Busan and Seoul. That said, we walked on average 15,000 steps a day even with the great public transportation!

The next day we departed Seoul heading to Beijing, China… To be continued.

 

Trip Brief – Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia

It has been a week since I returned from a wonderful 12-day trip in Europe:

Amsterdam, Netherlands -> Belgrade, Serbia -> Montenegro -> Dubrovnik, Croatia -> Frankfurt, Germany

The trip included five flight segments from four airlines, train, bus, ferry, and lots of walking (average 15,000 steps a day). It was a nice combination of city and nature. As usual, there are too many pictures to go through and too much fun to put into words – highlights for now and details in the future.

Amsterdam:

Belgrade:

(Reception at the Royal Palace – our small tour group with Crown Prince Alexander and Crown Princess Katherine of Serbia)

Montenegro (Kotor, Lovcen National Park, Sveti Stefan):

Dubrovnik (climbed the city walls):

Frankfurt:

In addition to enjoying the breath-taking views, we also appreciated Van Gogh’s masterpieces, drank Rakija and local beers, tasted wines, ate lots of meat (in Serbia) and fish (in Montenegro and Croatia), met wonderful people everywhere, and added precious moments to our memories… More details to come.

 

The Southernmost Place I Have Ever Visited

That would be the Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina that I visited in February 2014. It is still a few hundred miles north of Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, but it is already “more South” than the tip of South Africa and New Zealand.

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A detailed post with beautiful photos and more information about this amazing Glacier can be found here.

This is what I wrote right after returning from the trips two years ago… It was an exciting experience. How time flies! Looking forward to returning to South America in the near future.

[Daily Post – South]