Annie Bananie en Europe

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26 days in China, part 7 – Kunming

We’re nearing the end of the “26 days in China” series with two more posts to go. One destination that was a spontaneous addition to the itinerary was Kunming, the capital city of Yunnan province. As I travelled to different cities along the east coast of China in search of friends whom I have met either in Bordeaux or Glasgow, I felt a bit regretful that I wouldn’t be able to also see XQ, who was living in Kunming, as Kunming was in the southwest and kind of out of the way. Then one day I thought: I’m in CHINA, which doesn’t happen often – it would be foolish to not make a trip to see XQ in her hometown. Who knows…I might not get another opportunity. I had around 12 days to spend in Guangzhou anyway, so what the heck, why not. There and then I decided that it’d be worth it to take two days and head to Kunming to see my dear friend as the flight was only 2.5 hours one way and was rather affordable. Alas, a new destination was added, and I couldn’t wait to see the “Colourful Clouds of the South”, a beautiful name for Yunnan (which itself directly translates to “Cloud South”).

With limited time, I was only able to get a condensed tour of the city of Kunming, guided by my friend XQ who had returned to Kunming from Glasgow just a few months earlier. We first headed to Cui Hu Park (literally “Green Lake Park”) in central Kunming for a relaxing stroll around the area. “Leisure” would be the word that I’d use to describe Kunming as everywhere I went gave off a relaxing vibe. There was no rush like in the big cities, everyone went about their business at their own pace, and it just felt…nice.

A curious sight that could only be experienced during the winter is the migration of the red-beaked seagulls at Green Lake. Apparently these birds come to the south in December because of Kunming’s warm climate, and flocks and flocks of them dwell around Green Lake, so many that they’ve become a tourist attraction themselves. People have taken advantage of this migration and started businesses of selling bird food around the lake, and a common activity was indeed feeding these seagulls either with the special bird food or just with white bread. Throw a piece of food and a bird would target it and catch it mid-air as if it was a trained expert. They almost never miss!

Never would I imagine that seagulls would be of any interest to me, especially since they’re usually a nuisance, but I have to admit that I was quite awed at seeing perhaps THOUSANDS of these seagulls all swimming on the lake. Now, here’s one that landed quite close to me…hi there!

Scattered around Green Lake Park were pavilions and public areas where people assembled in small groups to sing, play music, or just hang out. In fact, outside the perimeter of the park, there was a series of what I called “free outdoor concerts” where groups of different musical styles performed for people passing by. Soft rock, 60s Chinese jazz, classical, opera…you name it. Many of the performers sounded quite professional, and I was rather impressed. I particularly liked this small group of musicians consisting of a vocalist, a flutist (I play the flute myself), and an elderly gentleman who was just…observing the flutist?

Aside from music, there were also other forms of artistic activities taking place. My favourite would have to be the man with the gigantic calligraphy brush writing on the pavement with water, as if the road was an open ancient scroll. This was right up my alley because I have developed a keen interest in Chinese calligraphy and even took lessons several years ago. Every stroke was laid down so firmly and aesthetically, and every character was constructed with so much precision. What gorgeous penmanship, even when magnified!

Moving away from Green Lake, XQ took me to another landmark of Kunming – Dian Chi, or Dian Lake. This wasn’t a city lake like Green Lake, but one on a rather large scale, stretching onward for tens of kilometres beyond the city limits. To experience Dian Chi to the fullest, we had to head southwest from Kunming to Xi Shan, or the West Mountains. It was said that “If you don’t visit the West Mountains, then you haven’t REALLY been to Kunming”. Not sure if that’s an old saying or a slogan for publicity’s sake, but that matters not. Upon arrival, a cable car took us to the top. The view of Dian Chi was amazing especially as we were moving up slowly and could take our time to enjoy the moment.

Of course, the second part of the above “saying” is, “If you don’t go to the Dragon Gate when visiting the West Mountains, then you’ve pretty much visited in vain”. Uh huh. In fact, the cable car took us all the way to the Dragon Gate, which was a series of temples, caves, tunnels, and stone steps along the cliffs of the West Mountains. At the peak of the mountain stood THE Dragon Gate, as written on the stone tablet above the gate in front of a temple. Having travelled up to the top via cable car, we were glad that the part of the journey that was on foot was DOWNHILL as we passed by people walking up in the opposite direction, sweating and panting as they charged onward. Normally I’d be up for the hike but on that particular day, I preferred to just take it easy with XQ ^_^

Time for food! As a host, XQ certainly kept me very well fed during my stay in Kunming. In addition to introducing me to some local eats, XQ took me to a special restaurant that serves Dai-style food. Dai is one of the many ethnic minority groups of Yunnan province and I am perfectly happy to admit that I’ve never heard of more than half of the things that were on the menu – still quite excited to try them! During dinner I found out that another friend from Glasgow, Mrs. Cai, was also in Kunming and was joining us for the meal. Selfie time with the food before our chopsticks touched the plates!

If I were to choose, I would say that Kunming gave me the best new dining experience during the entire China trip. I only chose five dishes to represent the whole experience but trust me, there were a whole lot more. Top left: Dai-style dish, stir-fried bajiao (banana?) flower. This is one of those things that I was hearing about and trying for the first time, and though it may look like chicken, it was meat-free, colourful, crunchy, and delicious! Bottom right: Dai-style dish, pork belly and cheek platter, so greasy yet sooooooo sinfully tasty. Top left: Breakfast food item, er si (no idea how to translate this) with soft shredded pork. It was like a bowl of really good noodles with a slightly different texture soaked in excellent broth, except they were…not exactly noodles. Sliced flour? Rice cake shreds? Middle right: Miao-style sour daikon and beef slices. Surprisingly the daikon complemented the beef extremely well, and the whole thing was made perfect with a bowl of rice. Bottom right: Definitely not leaving Kunming without trying the “Over-the-bridge” rice noodles, an iconic favourite of Yunnan province. The noodles were soaked in steaming broth with an assortment of side items including pork slices, crispy pork rind, scallions, and leafy greens. THE BOWL WAS SO HUGE it might as well have been a wash basin…

Two days was not nearly enough time to experience all that Kunming has to offer, not to mention the other more well-known places in Yunnan province – Dali, Lijiang, Shangri-La, and Xishuangbanna, just to name a few. I hope that the “Colourful Clouds of the South” will await my next visit and hopefully my good friend XQ will still be there to show me around!

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26 days in China, part 3 – Suzhou and Hangzhou

There’s a saying in Chinese that goes, “Paradise above; Suzhou and Hangzhou on Earth”, describing the beauty and elegance of the two cities in southeast China (the Jiangnan region). The convenient locations of Suzhou and Hangzhou made them the perfect day trips from Shanghai and Huzhou (I was going to write the Huzhou post first, but decided to save it for the next chapter), and with some time on our hands, my mom and I were off to explore paradise on Earth ^_^

First up: Suzhou, located in Jiangsu province. Suzhou is famous for its many elegant classical Chinese gardens and canals and is known as “Venice of the East” (though, why can’t Venice be “Suzhou of the West”?) Upon entering the city, we were greeted by tranquil rivers and old bridges, a picturesque scene reminiscent of a painting. All of a sudden we felt like we stepped into the set of a historical TV drama taking place in ancient China. Bring on the costumes!

Perhaps the most famous of Suzhou’s gardens is the Humble Administrator’s Garden (Zhuo Zheng Lin). The garden was said to be named as such because its original owner, a former government official, decided to build a garden and live a simple, quiet life after retirement, planting trees and growing vegetables for leisure. Hence, the name of the garden referred to the life of its owner, a humble man. From the outside, the garden isn’t all that impressive, but you’d be surprised how HUGE it is inside! Lakes, pavilions, bridges, stone sculptures, hills, bamboo forests, bonsai gardens, courtyards, artistic corridors and windows…I was told that every layout and every element was intricately and delicately designed to display an ultimate sense of aesthetics!

The other garden (we only visited two out of the tens of them) that my mom and I visited was the Lion Grove Garden (Shi Zi Lin), named so for the (too) many lion-shaped rocks scattered around the garden. I actually liked this one more than the Humble Administrator’s Garden, precisely because of the rocks that formed a complex maze throughout the garden. Going through the interconnected tunnels formed by the rocks and going up and down the steps made us lose track of orientation multiple times, and it is not an exaggeration to say that it took us 20 minutes to finally find the exit. Lots of fun, actually, if you have time and patience to play hide-and-seek with a bunch of friends…!

You may have noticed the appearance of willow trees in the previous images and that was one of my favourite things about any of the Jiangnan cities. I had always compared willow trees to a classy lady dancing in the wind with graceful movements, and in Suzhou, these ubiquitous trees complemented the classic beauty of the gardens so well. Of course, the most beautiful one was my mom, who wore the perfect bright red coat that day (with her red-dyed hair!) to contrast the colour of the willows. Too lovely!

After Suzhou we went to the other paradise on Earth, Hangzhou. I had been here in 2010 during the summer and upon seeing the lotus ponds 6 years ago I had to gasp, “What beauty that makes me faint!” It was then that I made it my bucket list item to come to Hangzhou at lease once during every season, and this trip fulfilled the “winter” part of that goal. Although there was no snow as I had wished, the West Lake, which is the defining feature of Hangzhou, was still as beautiful as ever.

Selfie time at the West Lake! So happy to be travelling with this wonderful lady in red AKA my mom! It was also probably only one of the two days during my entire 26 days in China where the temperature was below 10 degrees Celsius – rather windy too!

And here are the rest of my companions – MC, the lady in red; YX, MC’s son; and YH, my host from the nearby city of Huzhou (next post) whom I haven’t seen in four years! In fact I met all of these great people in my Bordeaux fellowship, so it was a mini but precious reunion in China!

At sunset the West Lake was getting ready for rest as the sun began its descent behind the smoky clouds. And of course the willow trees were ubiquitous here, just as they were in Suzhou. We didn’t see much of Hangzhou aside from the West Lake this time but for a first-timer like my mom, that was sufficient as the highlight. As for me, you know I’ll be back – spring and autumn!

A final look at the West Lake before it got completely dark. The layering mountains in the background made this look almost like a traditional Chinese landscape ink painting and even in the dark, the West Lake still hasn’t lost its unique charm. So will you say that you agree with the saying that Suzhou and Hangzhou are like paradise on Earth? 😉

This is one of the few posts in the “26 days in China” series that does not include any food, since Suzhou and Hangzhou were done as day trips and we mostly packed just snacks and simple foods. Rest assure though that food will be aplenty in the upcoming posts 😉 Next up: arguably the most anticipated city, Huzhou! (Yes it will be Huzhou for real this time!)

Cottage time in Barry’s Bay and Algonquin Park

October is a magical time in Toronto because the fall season brings with it the art of transforming foliage, which covers the city and surrounding areas with vibrant colours. I’ve known this for almost the past two decades, but only began to truly appreciate the beauty of Canadian autumns last year. I thought it would be the perfect time to take a trip back to Toronto during mid-October this year, right in time for the Thanksgiving long weekend, and head north to Barry’s Bay in the Algonquin Park area with my family for a short cottage trip.

In the 19 years since I’ve immigrated to Canada, I had never been to Algonquin Provincial Park, which is a 3.5-hour drive from Toronto. It might have been past the summer cottaging season, but mid-October was definitely a popular time for Canadians to enjoy a final cottage break before winter kicks in, especially in the north where the autumn foliage colours were already in bloom. I won’t include too many words for this post – the photos speak for themselves.

Aside from canoeing on Carson Lake, exploring Algonquin Park, and relaxing at the cottage in Barry’s Bay, the trip included a hike in Madawaska Valley, a beautiful surprise and a rare time when all family members hiked together (mainly because I insisted). The colours of the autumn foliage were at their best in mid-October, which was exactly why I went back to Canada and headed up north with my family. The vivid orange and red leaves are lovely complements to my even more lovely parents and sister, aren’t they 😉

Incredible Iceland #1 – Reykjavik, the capital

Iceland is my most favourite place so far in Europe. There, I said it.

To me that’s a pretty bold statement and I had to contemplate a bit but yes, I decided to make the proclamation that Iceland has replaced Switzerland as my favourite European travel destination.

For a long time I couldn’t bring myself to blog about Iceland because I worry that no amount of elaborate descriptions or breathtaking photographs can ever do Iceland justice. It also pains me to remember my trip because it reminds me that such a dream-like place exists on earth, and I’ve been there. Yet I’m not there now, and if that place I’m talking about is Iceland, that thought is enough to make me slightly depressed.

Truth is, if there was one European country I wouldn’t hesitate visiting again, it’d be Iceland. Maybe it’s the friendly people. Maybe it’s the breathtaking scenery. Maybe it’s the smell of sulphur and the mystery of the hakarl…okay not really. Maybe it’s the serenity of even the largest city, Reykjavik. Every breath I took, I fell in love with this place more and more.

First impression of Iceland from the plane: barren. Cold, barren, deserted. From the aircraft window, the landscape already attracted my wandering spirit and I couldn’t wait to see what this country had to offer. I took Icelandair in 2010 when I first stepped onto European soil, and it is the same airline that takes me away from Europe and back to North America. This trip was planned as part of a correspondence on my way back home from France to Toronto, where I thought I’d take a 3-day stopover in Reykjavik, the capital city of Iceland. After a very mild mid-winter in mainland Europe, I finally arrived to some real cold…if -1 degrees Celsius is even cold at all.

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The “in-yo-face” kind of Hallstatt

I had never heard of Hallstatt, a town in (sort of) central Austria, until my friend, knowing that I was going to Vienna, told me, “You HAVE to go to Hallstatt”. And that was all it took to convince me, if that was any convincing at all. Yes, it would take me 3.5 hours to get there from Vienna (and of course 3.5 hours for the return trip), but I had the time. Plus, 3.5 hours in a train sounded SUPERB especially if I was promised window-side scenes like the ones I saw around Interlaken. For this, even a 7:30am departure could fill me with anticipation.

The only way to get to Hallstatt without a car is by ferry, which takes you from the Hallstatt train station across the lake to the village itself. On this day, there were approximately 10 passengers aboard the small ferry that brought us across Lake Hallstatt in 10 minutes. I guess not many visitors come during the winter, even a mild one. The reason why the title of this post says “in-yo-face” is obvious – Hallstatt looks like a place that emerged right out of the mountains. It was as if someone thought that mountains and lakes were too monotonous and just decided to carve a town in the midst of it all. The mountains were so close, so…”in-yo-face” and that was the best expression I could think of to describe them. Really though, you wouldn’t expect the massive mountains to be hiding such a pretty gem. Well-played, Hallstatt.

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