Beijing in 11 Days

DAY 1: Tianamen Square, Snack Street, Wanfujing

A must see! I recommend eating Roast Duck in the large restaurant Quanjude in Wanfujing, and you really should venture down the snack street to see all the crazy food that is sold there. It’s probably one of the few places where you can see live scorpions squirming on a skewer waiting to be eaten. Other skewered oddities include moth cocoons, centipedes, a whole baby bird, and squid tentacles. I ate everything besides the scorpion and the centipede and lived to write this blog post.

DAY 2: Nanluoguxiang Hutong & Back Lakes

The Nanluiguxiang Hutong, Mandarin for “alley”, was absolutely beautiful! Not only was the streetfront view amazing, with an incredible assortment of boutique gift shops, cafes, bars, and restaurants, but it also provided a glimpse into Beijing’s past. Only a few hutongs remain, as the rest are demolished to make way for more skyscrapers. The back lakes are a pleasant break from the city, and are best enjoyed at night when the lake is lit up in colourful lights by the surrounding bars and restaurants. You can rent bikes to ride around the lake, or you can take a leisurely stroll around the lake stopping for snacks and drinks at the bars along the way!

DAY 3: Forbidden City, Opera, Market Shopping

The Forbidden City was another must see! We went up the mountain on the north side of the Forbidden City to first enjoy the view, and then walked through the city from North to South (most people enter from Tianamen Square and walk the other way). The central axis is quite crowded, but the east and west axes are less travelled and they also have some interesting sights. At the main gate, you can pay extra to climb up the gate for views of Tianamen Square, but the long wait discouraged us from doing so. Definitely stop by the controversial Opera House for some pictures.

DAY 4: Beijing Zoo, Markets, Olympic Park

You can pass on the Beijing Zoo, it wasn’t anything too special. The pandas, which were the main attraction, were quite lazy. Most of them were sleeping, and the one that was sent to the outdoor exhibit circled the perimeter and promptly started pawing at the door to be let back in.

If you’re feeling adventurous, venture into the underground labryinth of shops beside the zoo where, so I’m told, you’ll find the best deals in the city for clothing. I bought a few pairs of shorts for under $10 each, some good leather belts for around $5 each, and 10 surprisingly good “Calvin Klein” briefs for about $30.

The Olympic Park is definitely a must-see! You can take a nice stroll along the “Olmypic Green” and see the Bird’s Nest Stadium and the Water Cube. I didn’t go into any of them, although if you had to choose, the Olympic Stadium would be more fulfilling as the Water Cube simply holds a standard olympic-sized pool.

DAY 5: Lama Temple, Factory 798,  Da Dong Duck, Chaoyang Bar District

The Lama Temple was one of my favourite to visit in China. As you move through the temple you progress through a series of pagados, each of which houses a statue of Budha larger than the one before. When You arrive at the last station, you’re in for an incredible treat! Inside is a 26-metre tall statue of Buddha which has won a world record for being the largest statue of Buddha carved from a single piece of wood.

Factory 798 was a truly refreshing experience! Similar to London’s SOHO district, it is a refurbished industrial area that features some spectacular contemporary art galleries and stores for craft goods. It is also host to a good many cafes, restaurants, and on any given day, there will be future husbands and wives taking their wedding photos there.

The Da Dong Duck chain rivals the roast duck of Quanjude. In my opinion the overall dining experience at Da Dong was superior to that of Quanjude. Not only was it less crowded, but the presentation of the dishes was exquisite, the service was excellent, and it cost roughly the same (around 100 Yuan per person).

After enjoying duck, we headed to the Chaoyang Bar District, which is most popular amongst foreigners and open-minded locals. For not much at all, you can inebriate yourself and bar hop in this area that doesn’t sleep. Once you get the munchies, you can take a seat at a streetside vendor selling a variety of skewers, which are either boiled, fried, or barbecued.

DAY 6: Jinshanling Great Wall

The Great Wall of China is around 8000 km, which protected historic China and its Silk Road trading route from the Mongolians and other barbaric tribes. Close to Beijing, there are a number of nearby access points on which you can hike the wall, after which, according to a common Chinese belief, you become a hero. I’m not sure if that applies to obese tourists who take a cable car to the top, take pictures, and promptly slide down, but each person can certainly become a hero in his or her own rite. While the most popular section of the wall is Badaling, it is so crowded that you won’t really get a chance to enjoy the wall. For a more relaxed experience, go to the Mutianyu section, which is also beautiful, but much less crowded. For the most fulfilling experience, you can venture to a remote section of the “wild wall”. I chose the path less travelled and paid a little extra (about $40 in total) to take a tour to Jinshanling where I hiked about 6 km towards Simatai. Unfortunately, I couldn’t hike all the way to Simatai because they recently closed the last half of the hike for renovations. However, it was still a very fulfilling experience and I was able to enjoy some relief from the crowds in Beijing.

DAY 7: Ghost Street

The Ghost Street is a cool place to visit at night if you’ve got time. Lining the streets are a great many restaurants. Baby Lobster, served by the trayful, are the most popular dish here. Another popular dish is white fish served in a spicy soup, referred to as “Spicy Fish”. As is custom in Beijing, the fish you eat is first brought to your table alive so that you can approve of it, after which it is taken away to be prepared for your meal.

DAY 8: Temple of Heaven

The Temple of Heaven is not a Buddhist temple, but rather, one where the emperor worships the gods for a good harvest. It is an impressive site and definitely worth the visit. Aside from the main temple, you can also visit the Echo Wall, which supposedly lets you have a conversation with someone on the other side, but I wasn’t successful in doing so. Finally, there is another worshiping hill, at the centre of which is a special stone upon which your voice is amplified to allow you to pray to the gods, or so they say.

DAY 9: Day of Rest (Yugang)

After seeing most of Beijing, we needed a day to chill. Luckily for us, cheap DVD stores are rampant in China and for roughly $10 each, we walked home with our own library of movies to watch. Since both of us have been living in a cave for the past 8 months finishing our final year of engineering, there was a lot to catch up on!

DAY 10: Summer Palace

The summer palace was another one of my favourite places to visit! The park is truly spectacular. From the temple on top of the hill, you get an incredible view of Kunming Lake. At the base of the hill you can take a ferry to central island. When the weather permits, you can rent a boat for up to 6 people and explore the lake on your own. Of particular note are the magnificent arch bridges!

DAY 11: Geothermal Spa & Fly to Dalian

On our last day in Beijing, we headed to a local spa, where there are naturally heated pools. Each pool has a giant teabag in it that diffuses into the water. Some are for your skin, some are good for your soul, and others simply smell good. After the spa, I tried my hand at making Chinese Dumplings with Nicole’s family. My first attempt was an utter failure, but I eventually got the hang of it. A filling meal of said dumplings was enjoyed by the whole family along with various other dishes and washed down with homemade rice wine. Full and happy we headed to the airport ready for new adventures waiting for us in Dalian!

Check out my photos here!

First Impressions of China

As a graduation present to ourselves, Nicole and I spent the month of May travelling around China. Over the course of the month, I had the opportunity to experience a culture so vastly different from my upbringing and as such, have a great many stories to share with you. I wish that I could have posted these live, but it was difficult to access foreign websites in China, and so I will be gradually releasing my posts throughout the month of June. Enjoy and feel more than welcome to comment!

Raphael in the Forbidden City in Beijing, China.

After a long journey, almost 20 hours in total, our plane finally touched down on the runway of Beijing’s Capital Airport. Flying over the surrounding area revealed a great many installations, likely factories, clustered together throughout the rather plain landscape. The day we landed, there was a bit of a haze, which gave the impression of a rather smoggy place. We exited into Beijing’s new Terminal 3 building, which was completed several years ago to accommodate a great many travelers for the 2008 summer olympics. Needless to say, the terminal is a testament to China’s incredible growth in the past years. It is certainly an impressive structure providing a modern and open space to greet its visitors. We were met at the airport by Nicole’s cousin and Uncle, who had been anxiously awaiting our arrival. I was a point of fascination for Nicole’s younger cousin who was particularly amazed by the geometry of my nose and the shape of my head, as well as how big my eyes were.

As we drove through the city to the village where Nicole’s family lives, there were two things worth noticing. The first is that traffic in China is best defined as utter chaos. It is a miracle that I have never been in or seen an accident occur, because it is a common occurrence that cars will cut each other off and pass within inches of the other car. In China, the horn is used as a form of communication, rather than waking up a driver who fell asleep in front of a green light. The most common uses of the horn are to warn pedestrians that the car is not stopping for them and they should run out of the way, or to tell surrounding cars that they are merging into traffic whether they like it or not. Safety is certainly never a top priority in Chinese cities, and this is evidenced by the fact that nobody wears seat belts (in fact, taxis have seat belts, but no latch for you to insert the buckle). The second thing I noticed was the incredible development of Beijing. Imagine the central business district of a typical North American city (like Toronto or Chicago) and now multiply it by 10 or even 20! From end to end in Beijing, there are massive buildings! It provides a new meaning to the phrase urban sprawl, whereby Beijing sprawls into the sky as much as it sprawls over land.

At last our journey was at an end, and we settled down into a rather large restaurant in town where we were staying that night. Most big restaurants in china occupy multiple floors and have several dining areas. The fancier ones also have VIP rooms, which is where families and parties dine, as if it was their own home. Eating out is very affordable in China, and therefore it is more common for working-class people to dine out rather than eat at home, at least in the cities.

Next: Beijing in 11 days.

Yet Another Transatlantic Airline: Sunwing Airlines

You’ve probably heard the radio ads: Sunwing Airlines, traditionally a sunspot charter airline, will begin operating trans-atlantic flights from Canada to various locations in Europe this summer.

Sound familiar? Well.. there was Zoom Airlines, which went bust in August 2008, stranding thousands of passengers, and there was also Globepsan Airlines, which operated cheap flights from Hamilton to the UK, which was notorious for equipment-related delays and also went bust in December 2009 after acquiring Zoom.

Montreal-based Air Transat and UK-based Thomas Cook (which code-shares with Air Transat) are the only discount transatlantic airlines to have survived the test of time and continue to offer scheduled flights to Europe.

This year, a new player has entered the market: Sunwing Airlines. Do you have reason to hesitate when booking Sunwing?

Sunwing’s main selling point is their service. Whereas Air Transat is a no-frills airline, Sunwing boasts comfortable leather seats and a glass of champagne upon boarding the aircraft to start off your vacation. In terms of pricing, Air Transat appears to be matching all fares from Sunwing for their popular YYZ-LGW route. So, given that Air Transat and Sunwing offer the same price (and will likely continue to match each other when battling for ticket sales this summer), which should you book?

First off, Air Transat has a stable track record. It has been operating flights since 1987 and is Canada’s third-largest airline (after Air Canada and WestJet). Sunwing has been operating charter flights since 2005, and this is the first year they are operating transatlantic flights. It goes without saying that Air Transat services many more European destinations than Sunwing, which provides you with greater flexibility in booking your eurotrip.

In terms of equipment, Air Transat owns all of its 21 planes. It typically operates its Airbus A330-200 series aircraft to Europe, with an average equipment age of 8 years.

Air Transat Airbus A330-200 in Madrid.

Sunwing will be contracting Portugal-based EuroAtlantic to offer its flights, and will be making use of 2 of their Boeing 767-300ER aircraft, with an average equipment age of 18.6 years.

EuroAtlantic Boeing 767-300ER in Vienna.

In terms of cabin layout, Air Transat features a seat pitch of 31 inches for economy seating (Thomas Cook offers slightly more) with seating arranged 3/3/3 (and 2/3/2 near the rear of the aircraft). Sunwing’s aircraft features a seat pitch of 30 inches for general seating with seats arranged 2/3/2.

In terms of baggage, Air Transat permits ONE checked luggage weighing 20kg max, and ONE carry-on luggage weighing 5kg max. Air Transat is generally quite strict about this policy and will ask you to weigh all your items upon check-in. Sunwing offers a total combined allowance of 25kg (30kg for flights to Rome), including both checked and carry-on luggage.

In terms of service, Air Transat offers complimentary snacks, meals, wine (served with the meal), water,  soft drinks, tea, coffee and juice. Sunwing offers the same as Air Transat, plus a glass of bubbly and a comfort kit.

So, what’s the verdict?

Well, if you want to fly on newer, more spacious aircraft, with a well-established airline that services all major European destinations, then you should stick with good ole’ Air Transat. Let Sunwing establish itself a little more, and perhaps purchase some newer aircraft before choosing to fly with them. If the Champagne is still enticing, remember that 8 hours after leaving Toronto, you can enjoy real French Champagne in France (or Cava in Spain) served to you in a quaint, outdoor terrace, rather than cheap champagne served to you in plastic cups on a crowded aircraft.

World Cup Fever in Spain!

IMG_9241.JPG
Nicole and I cheering on "La Roja" in one of their early world cup games.

How lucky was I to have lived in Spain the one year they make it all the way to the finals and win the world cup? I suppose some would consider it unlucky, with all the swarms of loud fans, honking car horns, and traffic caused by the games, however as a foreigner from Canada, where nothing exciting like the world cup ever happens, I was thrilled to be a part of the action!

Even though I had never sat down and watched a soccer game from start to end (shocking, no?), I found myself watching every single Spanish world cup game and even dressed up and supported “la roja” like a true Spaniard. Alicante was a truly exciting place to watch the game, where everyone rushed to the bars an hour before the game started to secure seats in front of the many new HD big-screen TVs bought just in time for the games, and sat outside cheering, drinking beer, and having a good time.

For the final game, I wound up in Toledo. After a disappointing first period watching the game in an almost-empty bar, my family and I rushed to the “plaza de toros” (the bull-fighting ring) where the action was at. The plaza was completely filled with people, all sporting the colours of Spain. It was as if everyone in that arena was linked emotionally; we all cheered, boo-ed, shouted, and screamed at the same time as Spain fought their way to become world champions for the first time in the history of the world cup.

Here are some pictures and videos to give you a taste of what it means to be Spanish and support the national football team!

[zenphotopress album=17 sort=random number=12]

WordPress 3.0 Installed

WordPress 3.0 has finally been released, and is now installed on RaphSammut.ca. I’m not sure what happened, but the automatic update knocked out my website and I am now going through the painful process of restoring everything.

(Obvious) Lessons (re-)learned:

  • Always back-up your files!! It’s as easy as making a tar.gz archive of your wordpress directory and a simple backup of your MySQL database.
  • Remember to disable all your plug-ins first (this may have caused my crash).
  • Put your site into maintenance mode before updating.

I could not get anything to work properly, so I just ended up installing a fresh copy of wordpress and am now transferring all my files to the new installation.

Oh well, you live you learn..

The reason I updated WordPress was so that I can start attacking my back-log of unwritten posts! Here’s my checklist:

  • Trip to Florence, Pisa, Siena (May 28-30)
  • The Curious Incident of the Angry Algerian with Two Knives in the Night-Time (June 3)
  • Trip to Malta (June 11-12)
  • Trip to Rome  (June 18-20)
  • Las Hogueras de San Juan de Alicante (June 21-24)

What else is new?

  • A big welcome to the new Canadian interns, Lucy Yin and Kasper Woiceshyn who have started working at CYPE Ingenieros in Alicante, Spain and are sharing the flat with us.
  • I bid farewell to by far the nicest and most fun room mates I’ve had the pleasure of sharing a flat with: Conni & Sebastian! (You can check out their awesome blog here).
  • The amazing atmosphere we’ve had in Alicante these past few days due to the feast of St. John and the World Cup (Spain is still in the running!!)
  • My dear mother and brother are visiting a week from today. We’ll be two road-trips: Alicante-Granada/Motril/Trevelez-Toledo-Cuenca-Valencia AND Valencia-Barcelona-Madrid.
  • My Grandmother and cousin are visiting at the end of the month for a weekend.
  • I head to Malta for 10 days from August 7-17, followed by a visit to Finland from August 18-22 and Gothenburg City, Sweden from August 28-29.

Stay tuned for the promised posts! Now that I’m on half-day summer schedule I have time to catch up 😀

El Viaje Volcánico

2010-04-16 Germany 030.JPG

Cuando embarqué en el avión con destino a Altenburg, Alemania, el miércoles pasado para tomar unas vacaciones, nunca imaginé que el domingo siguiente, yo y otros miles no podríamos regresar a nuestras casas. En cuanto llegué a Alemania, empezó una de mis aventuras más curiosas en Europa.

El aeropuerto de Altenburg es pequeñísimo, tiene el tamaño aproximadamente de una estación de autobuses en vez de un aeropuerto internacional. Mientras estábamos saliendo de la terminal, un oficial de aduana nos eligió para una inspección de nuestras maletas, probablemente porque nosotros dos somos extranjeros. La habitación para las inspecciones era como un armario, con nosotros y los dos oficiales, casi no cabíamos dentro.  Como tenía unos paquetes de comprimidos vitamínicos, también comprobaron que no eran pequeñas cantidades de narcóticos. Poco después, salimos del aeropuerto y nos encontramos con nuestro amigo alemán Miguel.

El primer día de nuestro viaje, fuimos a la ciudad de Dresden, que al final de la segunda guerra mundial, fue completamente destruido. Ahora, es una ciudad muy bonita con grandes edificios y un río que cruza entre la mitad de la ciudad. Comimos comida típica de Alemania (Schnitzel, salchichas, y patatas) y bebimos mucha cerveza buena. Por la noche, salimos de fiesta con estudiantes de la universidad de Dresden.

Al día siguiente, condujimos a Praga (sólo dos horas en coche desde Dresden), la capital antigua de la República Checa. A pesar de un poco de mal tiempo, ¡disfrutamos mucha de la ciudad! Ya que sólo estaríamos medio día allí, contractamos una excursión guiada por los lugares de interés. La catedral, el palacio, y el puente de Carlos fueron los sitios más importantes. Estaba sorprendido porque mis esperanzas sobre Praga no eran muy altas, pero es una ciudad mágica y tiene muchas cosas para disfrutar.

2010-04-16 Germany 024.JPG

Nuestra siguiente parada fue Berlín, la capital de Alemania. A diferencia de Praga, estaba un poco decepcionado porque tenía mucha esperanza en ver la ciudad pero en realidad, no hay mucho para ver. Dado que mucho de la ciudad fue destruido en la guerra, es una ciudad muy moderna. Los edificios del gobierno y los edificios públicos eran impresionantes, pero el resto no fue muy especial. Como Alemania del Este fue comunista después de la guerra y antes de la caída del muro de Berlín, la arquitectura es muy sencilla. Pero, sólo por estar en un lugar donde hubo tantos eventos importantes en el siglo veinte, mereció la pena. Vimos los restos del muro de Berlín y el monumento construido en honor de los judíos que habían sido asesinados en la guerra, y sentí mucho respecto por ver todo lo que antes sólo había leído en libros.

La experiencia más potente en todo el viaje fue nuestra visita a un campo de concentración cerca de Weimar. No tengo palabras para explicar lo que sentí cuando vi los horrores del Holocausto directamente. Ahora el campo es un monumento. Era muy tranquilo y verde, reluciente debajo del sol y el cielo azul, pero la memoria de lo que pasó allí 60 años antes nunca lo olvidáremos.

Nos quedamos la noche en la pequeña ciudad de Weimar donde muchos músicos y poetas vivieron como Goethe, Schiller, y Bach. ¡Es una ciudad muy pintoresca! Fue un buen cambio de medio ambiente después de las ciudades grandes. Además, fue en Weimar donde descubrimos que a causa de la ceniza volcánica flotando sobre todo Europa, todos los vuelos (incluyendo nuestro) eran cancelados.

Por suerte, encontramos a un hombre que iba a conducir a Alicante desde Frankfurt la mañana siguiente en una página web para gente que quiere compartir sus coches con viajeros. El martes, al cabo de 28 horas en coche, llegamos a Alicante a las 7 de la mañana, nos duchamos, y fuimos a trabajar. Todavía hay muchos pasajeros que no pueden regresar a sus casas ya que los vuelos acaban de empezar, y todos los trenes y autobuses están llenos y súper-caros. ¡Que el próximo viaje sea más fácil!

Breakfast in Amsterdam, Lunch in France, Dinner in Switzerland

To enjoy a long weekend, I recently embarked on a trip to Amsterdam and Geneva from March 19-March 23. We flew Ryanair from Alicante to Madrid, and connected to an easyJet flight from Madrid to Amsterdam. Recently, I’ve noticed that Ryanair has become VERY strict regarding carry-on baggage. They now thoroughly inspect everyone’s hand luggage to make sure it fits the required dimensions (comfortably) and is not too heavy. We never had problems before, but this time we had to fight to take our bags on-board with us (they fit the dimensions fine, we just had to squish them a bit, although even this caused us trouble!).

The mood in the plane bound for Amsterdam was very energetic. Everyone, it seems, was excited to arrive and continue to fly high. The food of choice in Amsterdam is Steak (bistek) served with fresh fries and beer; all the restaurants offer this as their menu. We couldn’t enter a Coffeeshop our first night because someone forget their ID (although we later discovered that there are some that don’t check). The weather was unfortunately a bit rainy, but we still enjoyed the better part of the next day exploring the city, its canals and the famous Red Light District, which is just as active during the day as it is at night. Amstedam is of course world-famous for legalizing soft drugs and prostitution… it’s quite a different world. If you’re feeling adventurous and want to try some cake, from what I hear the one served at Goa is very strong, whereas many others are similar to what you’d find at your local bakery. We were lucky in seeing the tulips beginning to bloom, probably now, as I’m writing this, the city is much more colourful! Another curiosity about Amsterdam is that everyone gets around by bike or public transit. There was a three-storey structure near the central station stuffed with bikes belonging to commuters.

The next day, we woke up, ate breakfast, and left for the airport. A few hours later we landed in Geneva, rented a car, drove to France, and were skiing in the Jura Mountains by noon. After a satisfying day, we drove to Lausanne in Switzerland where I met up with a long-lost second cousin for dinner at his beautiful house. We later returned to Geneva where we were staying with a friend. The next morning we returned the car, only to receive a 280 CHF bill for a one-day rental! Apparently.. the antenna on our car was missing and since we didn’t think to check if the car came with an antenna when we picked it up, we were responsible to replace it. We also paid through the nose for insurance and a barrage of other fees. With gas considered, the one-day rental cost us 308 Swiss Francs (roughly equivalent to Canadian Dollars).

We spent the remainder of the day wondering around the city of Geneva. The downtown area was full of very professionally dressed people as it was a working day. We window-shopped at the many expensive boutiques there are, and had a very expensive, but filling, lunch.

The next morning, our flight back to Alicante was delayed one hour in departure due to the striking French Air Traffic Controllers, and was delayed another hour in landing because of bad visibility in Alicante. In fact, we ended up landing in Valencia instead and had to spend another three hours to get back to Alicante. All things considered, it was an enjoyable trip. I’d like to return to both places to see more of the country-side outside of the cities, but for now my appetite for travelling to Switzerland and Holland has been satisfied.