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.

Sorry to everyone! New posts are on their way!

Well.. there’s not much I can do to apologize to all of you for such a huge delay in updating my blog (it’s been about 4 months). Here’s what I’ve been busy with:

  • Getting my “Club Coach” certification from the Canadian Freestyle Association. I coached entry-level (Jumps and Bumps) freestyle this season, and it was probably the most fun I’ve had as a ski coach so far!
  • Deciding what to do with my life (i.e. applying to jobs and grad school, interviews, rejecting offers, etc.)
  • Being EngSci Club Chair (leading the Graditude Campaign, organizing Iron Ring, running a ski trip, etc.)
  • Receiving awards (Cressy Student Leadership Award, Spirit of EngSci Award)
  • Designing an airport.
  • Designing a highway bridge.
  • Designing Finite Element Analysis Software and modelling the Skydome.
  • Writing a public policy paper on the Ethanol Fuel in the United States.

My point is… I’ve been pretty busy, and that’s why I’ve been absent for a while. Look for some future posts related to my recent experiences, future plans, and other random tidbits that will appear once in awhile when I am so inspired!

I’m a Featured Student!

Recently, the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering at the University of Toronto decided to feature some of its current students to give the program a little more exposure. I am greatly honoured to be one of those students and I hope that my story highlights the incredible experience and formation that can be received by attending a world class University and Faculty.

Check out my story and the stories of others on the Faculty’s website!

What’s Next?

I, along with many other graduating students, am in a difficult phase of life, full of uncertainty, hope, and disappointment. Entering engineering right after high school was an easy choice that was quite natural for me. After 3 years of education and a year-long internship in Spain, I am a very different person than I once was and now I am dealing with the question of “What’s next?”. I can envision what I want my life to be in the future, but don’t know which path I should take to get myself there. Ultimately, I want to live a happy life. I want to love and be loved. I want kids, and I want to be with them at every moment as they grow up. I want to be someone important; not for the fame or for my ego, but simply because I want to put my incredible skills and talents to their best possible use; settling for anything less would be a waste of my potential. I want to die smiling, without fear and without regrets.

Enjoying a dinner with Joe Meyer and his wife, Julie, some years ago.

I was recently inspired by the story of the passing of my dear adopted grandfather, Joe Meyer. In the last years of his life, he battled cancer and defied the expectations of his doctors by making it to birthday after birthday, all the while loved and cared for by his family, friends, and dear wife. When the day finally came for him to pass on last Spring, he knew and so did his wife. She told him that he could go and that he didn’t have to fight anymore. She nodded to the attending nurse who removed his breathing mask and began to sing him love songs reminiscent of the joyful time they spent together in their early years. Joe Meyer hung on for another hour without life support, although I was told it seemed like an eternity. All the while, he smiled peacefully, without ceasing to gaze upon his wife, the love of his life and his companion for over 50 years. I see so many people living lives complicated with unnecessary anger, bitterness, and regrets, and wish that more people could live happy and die peacefully like Joe Meyer did.

So what about my future? I seem to have a pretty unique combination of skills and talents and am looking for a way in which I can fully apply myself and continue to grow (“like a tree through the ages”). I am currently open to any path that will take me where I want to go, whether it be through grad school, an early career opportunity, or perhaps something else entirely. I have enjoyed my research experiences so far, and certainly believe that I possess the attributes to become a Master’s student in Engineering, so assuming a professor will sponsor me, it is certainly one path I could see myself excelling in. The big question, of course, is where and what do I study? Should I continue in Civil Engineering or consider other alternatives as well? I have also been contemplating employment as a way to get a head start on life, but have been overwhelmed with the possibilities! Most of the “1-to-2-year-rotational-leadership-development” programs are quite intriguing, but seem to be more directed at computer engineering, commerce, and business graduates (and therefore it is a little hard for me to compete for those spots). Furthermore, a lot of structural engineering jobs require more than just an undergraduate degree. More than just “what”, another big question is “where?”. Do I want to stay in Toronto long-term? (Probably not) If not, where? The States, out West? Europe?

One intriguing possibility, quite different from any other option, is to train for the 2014 winter olympic games, likely in a skiing event. Why? Simply because I’m a great skier, and I doubt many other Maltese citizens can say the same. One option I’m considering is putting two and two together and finding a job out west so I can work, gain engineering experience, and train all at the same time.

While the questions and the uncertainty are a slight burden on my shoulders, it also provides me with a fantastic opportunity to create a life for myself, however I so choose. I really want to do something unique, something that will set me apart from the rest of the thousands of graduates in Canada this year, and I challenge each and every one of you who are also in the same position and reading this post to do the same! We are all in a position where we have great potential and now is the time to do something special, something crazy! If we don’t follow our dreams today, tomorrow we will wake up and discover it’s already too late.

My Acting Career

Well, I can’t actually call it a career, perhaps hobby is a more suitable title (sorry for the misleading title :P).

Here are two short films that I’ve acted in, and are both about engineering. So if you like the Big Bang Theory, you’ll love these films about life in Canada’s most challenging undergraduate engineering program.

Annual Engineering Science Dinner Dance Movie (2006):

Annual Engineering Science Dinner Dance Movie (2007):