Annie Bananie en Europe

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Short travel reflection: Hillwalking in Scotland

Scotland is a walker’s paradise – I ought to know that, now that I’ve lived here for almost three years. Though I can’t say that I fell in love with hiking and hillwalking only after coming to Scotland (it was way back in Tobermory when I started to like hiking), being in a country surrounded by hills and mountains gave me plenty of opportunities to explore the countless trails, woodlands, parks, and natural reserves that it had to offer. Hillwalking has become a weekend hobby, especially during the past year or so. Sometimes I’d wake up at 5am on a Saturday just to catch the earliest train to the bottom of a hill and start walking – and if you know me, waking up early is TORTURE to me. Alas, only the hills have the power to make me WILLINGLY get up this early ON A WEEKEND.

Although I have yet to climb a real mountain, I’ve certainly conquered a fair number of small hills (200-700 m in altitude/ascent) – Conic Hill, Tinto Hill, Deuchary Hill, Callander Crags, East Lomond Hill, to name a few. Unfortunately, without a car, most of the time I am only able to climb hills that are reachable via public transport (and sometimes it takes up to 3 hours one way), and so the choices are rather limited. My list of “hills to climb” continuously grows as I find more and more interesting spots, yet it’ll take me years and years to check them off one by one…if I stay in Scotland AND get a car!

While I do like hillwalking, every hill is still a challenge to overcome. As I walk up the steep and slippery slopes, straining my leg muscles and sweating on every inch of my body, I curse and scream aloud words like “WHY AM I DOING THIS!” Getting to the top is tough work! Every step brings me closer to the destination but also gets heavier and heavier, until I reach the summit and embrace victory – often in very strong winds! And when the vastness and magnificence of the views below strike me, all of the effort (sometimes hours!) is rewarded, and I could say, “It was all worth it.”

A cairn marking the summit of the Broughton Heights circuit, reached on March 11, 2017.

My go-to resource for hillwalking information is, without a doubt, the WalkHighlands web site, without which none of my walks would have been possible. While the instructions are usually straightforward and easy to follow, there were a few instances where I did get lost because of vague descriptions and unmarked/unclear paths. In hindsight, however, I have done some pretty stupid things during my hillwalks that were completely my own responsibility, such as not bringing water, not following clear trails, and underestimating the time it takes to walk a trail. I’ve gotten stuck in thick mud several times (thank God for my super sturdy shoes) and almost injured myself from going down the back of Conic Hill via an extremely rocky and slippery path. It’s a miracle that I made it unscathed! If I do continue to take on hillwalking more seriously, I’m going to have to be much more prepared and informed (especially when I walk alone, which is quite often) if I want to conquer the hills instead of letting them conquer me…

(Feel free to check out my “The hills are alive…” series, where I wrote about various individual walks that I’ve taken within the past few years. Perhaps the “Food & the Hills” photo gallery, which showcases each walk (not necessary hills) accompanied by snacks that I brought along, would also be of interest to you 😉 )

Short travel reflection: Window vs. aisle seat

If asked whether I’d prefer a window seat or aisle on a flight (or ride on any other form of transportation), I would almost always reply “window seat” for the amazing window views offered from the sky. City lights, mountains, coastlines and islands, oddly shaped clouds…you name it. One exception is if I had to run out of the aircraft as soon as possible after landing to catch a connecting flight. In rare situations, I may also find it to be in the best interest for me and my seatmates if I took an aisle seat, and this is when I have to access the lavatory frequently for whatever reason over a long-haul flight.

I found myself in such situation in January when I had to choose my seat on a 10.5-hour flight from Hong Kong to Amsterdam. I was on my period and knew that I’d want to use the lavatory several times during the flight. Not wanting to inconvenience those sitting in my row, I reluctantly gave up a window seat and took an aisle seat, which is still better than the middle seat.

Now, not too long before we were scheduled to land, the captain made an in-flight announcement notifying us that we were flying over Copenhagen and that the bridge connecting Copenhagen to Malmo is now visible to passengers on the left side – MY side. If you have any idea how impressive that bridge looks even in photos, you’d understand my excitement that we could see it from the air! With anticipation I turned to my side, hoping to at least get a quick glimpse even though I wasn’t right by the window. What do you know…the window shade in my row was CLOSED. WHAT. I had hoped that the lady who had the window seat would want to open the window shade to see the bridge after hearing the announcement, but she was reading a book or sleeping or something, anything but intending to open the window shade. It was at this frustrating moment that I regretted the loss of a potentially spectacular view and understood that perhaps ignorance truly is bliss. If only the captain hadn’t made that announcement…!

Soon it was time to land and I usually look out the window to observe the entire landing process and know when the wheels touch the ground. At this point, however, the window shade was still closed…! I couldn’t seen how close the aircraft was to the ground even if I wanted to. Being used to window seats, this “unknownness” was quite new to me (though not the first time), so all I could do was anticipate the instant of aircraft-ground contact and hope that it would be a smooth landing. And thankfully, it was. Safe and sound in Amsterdam!

All I can say is…hopefully my menstrual cycle won’t coincide with future long-haul flights ever again!!

A view of the Pyrénées at the border of France and Spain, seen on a flight from Lisbon to Brussels, April 2013. Such magnificent views were only made possible by choosing a window seat!

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!

26 days in China, part 6.2 – Guangzhou (continued)

Though I planned my China trip so that I’d spend most of my time in my hometown, “most of” still only meant ten days, which was rather short. The happiest part of my segment in Guangzhou was spending time with family and friends, hearing the soothing sound of Cantonese, and feeling like I was part of the city again!

In the last post there was a group photo of my relatives on my mom’s side of the family, and this time it’s one of my dad’s side, only without my dad being present. Some of them came all the way from Hong Kong to be with us for Christmas!

In Guangzhou I also got to meet up with my very good friend, LS. It’s a shame that we don’t get to see each other often but I love this girl so much and am still indebted to all that she’s done for me in France. Here we are at Shamian Island (again for me) as I got to be the guide of my own city ^_^

Of course we had to meet up with the Lam family again before we went our separate ways, so it was like another mini Bordeaux fellowship reunion after the one we had in Hangzhou and Huzhou. It’s amazing how the friends I met in France all those years ago are now scattered all over the world, yet we still have these rare opportunities to meet and reconnect, all by the grace of God. Take care, my friends – I will see you again in Zhuhai or Xi’an or Lanzhou or Malaysia or…wherever you guys happen to be next time I decide to find you guys!

One phenomenon that has been very widespread in China in recent years is that of “square dancing”. Nope, not the western-style square dancing. “Square” here refers to any public open space where people could gather and dance to very catchy music with a good beat. Apparently this is especially popular with middle-aged women, and it’s more like a form of socializing or physical exercise. I gotta say…I almost couldn’t resist joining because it looked like so much fun! Watching the people dance and enjoying the music has become my guilty pleasure and it is my secret wish to join them one day…if it is still popular when I’m 40?!

On a perfect sunny day, I revisited Sun Yat-Sen (known to use as Sun Zhongshan) Memorial Hall, a tourist attraction in Guangzhou. I wanted to go back to Sun Yat-Sen’s statue because I remember a foolish thing I did as a child. Pointing to the statue, I ignorantly asked my aunt, “WHAT is this thing?” The funny thing was that I didn’t even ask “who” it was…I literally asked “WHAT” it is, as if Mr. Sun was a “thing”. My aunt didn’t know whether she should laugh or cry, and when I told LS this story, she jokingly said that I’ve committed the crime of disrespect to our “Father of the Nation”. I’m sorry, Mr. Sun…please forgive my stupidity as a child!

Guangzhou’s subway tends to get quite crowded, and Chinese people will know what I mean when I say “people mountain people sea” (a literal translation of the Chinese expression meaning “extremely crowded”). Squashed into a corner on a subway, I saw a woman carrying this bag with the words “Jesus Loves You” in English and Chinese. I didn’t manage to visit any churches in Guangzhou this time around, but I’ll make it a goal to do that next time I go home 🙂

Here I am with two of my favourite people in the entire world – my beautiful mom and my aunt Yaya, who was almost like my nanny/caretaker for many years when I was young. Every time I go back to Guangzhou, Yaya is the one I look forward the most to seeing. As for my mom, spending 26 days with her (more like 20 because actually some of the days were without her) was a luxury especially now that I’m living away from home again. Back in Glasgow all by myself, I’m missing her all over again 😦

I also miss some good ol’ shrimp dumplings (ha gow) that are arguably the most classic Cantonese dim sum. These are sexy, irresistible ha gows right there – large and translucent with the perfect shrimp-to-skin balance. The shrimp was bouncy and the texture of the skin was on point!! One of the most beautiful creations of mankind ever… ❤

And I end the Guangzhou posts…with tea. Ah yes, good tea with good conversation – that’s livin’ the Cantonese lifestyle. Another cup is always welcome!

Side note: My Welsh pastor once asked me, “Are you Canadian, Chinese, or a strange mix of the two?” I had to smile and commend him because there’s really no better way to describe me than “a strange mix of the two”. This trip back to Guangzhou, though, made me feel slightly more Chinese. Perhaps nostalgia kicked in harder than it ever did before when I went back, and perhaps the familial ties, which are such an important Chinese value, are also pulling my ever so subtly. You know…if I were to return to this city of my roots, I think I could get used to living here, but still, the notion that I’m considered a “foreigner” instills in me so much uncertainty…

26 days in China, part 2 – Shanghai

Shanghai was the only city that I visited without a local friend to act as a guide, but the up side was that I was meeting my mom in Shanghai and we would be travel companions from here on! Yep, my mom arrived from Toronto just in time to meet me in Shanghai so that we would continue our trip together, all the way to the south.

In Shanghai, my mom and I met with a close cousin of mine whom I last saw 6 years ago. He’s worked in Shanghai for a while, but in my mind he is still not a true local, ha! Most of our time in the largest city in China was spent wandering on our own, but as I had been to Shanghai briefly in 2010, I had a slight idea of the most interesting places to go for a first-time visitor to Shanghai. So in a sense…I acted as my mom’s “guide”, though barely qualifying as one. No matter, we were off to have fun!

We start with the dazzling skyline of Shanghai at night, as seen from the Bund. If I were to be completely honest, as a typical large city, perhaps the only thing REALLY worth seeing in Shanghai was this, its impressive skyline by night. I had said in 2010, when I saw this skyline for the first time, that it was my favourite out of the skylines I’ve seen. It’s a tough choice between Shanghai and Hong Kong, but though shorter than that of Hong Kong, Shanghai’s skyline exhibits an extra sense of dimension and beauty, mainly with the presence of the Oriental Pearl Tower. In the centre slightly to the right, you see the Shanghai World Financial Center – AKA the world’s largest beer bottle opener 😛

Upon seeing the Bund, my mom said that she felt that all of the images of Shanghai that she’s seen on TV jumped out at her, as she never thought that the night scene would be THAT impressive in reality. It was my mom’s first time in Shanghai and we were the most stereotypical tourists that we could be. Obviously one does not go to the Bund without taking a selfie with it so…let’s rejoice at our reunion and just say cheese!

Even though I had been a city girl all my life, stepping into Shanghai (and Beijing too) made me feel like a country girl seeing the “outside world” for the first time. If you compare Shanghai to Glasgow, the contrast is clear – the third largest city in the UK, Glasgow, is almost like a small village! While wandering in the Lujiazui financial district, where all the tallest skyscrapers dwelt, we saw the full moon perched above the man-made structures and outshining all of the artificial lights so effortlessly, making me think once again of some Chinese lyrics that I loved: “The moon illuminates the dreams in the city.” Perhaps Shanghai, such a world-class, international metropolis, is a place that hides the dreams of many…

Aside from meeting my mom in Shanghai, I met briefly with one of the GU girls, RX, who now works in Shanghai. We chatted over coffee and a portion of stinky tofu (which became way too spicy because I underestimated the chili sauce…) and caught up on our lives and careers. We only had two hours to spend with each other but the brevity was treasured. Until next time, my dear friend!

I did mention my close cousin Tony earlier and after seeing RX, my mom and I went for dinner with Tony and his family, including my aunt and uncle and Tony’s wife Mindy (my cousin-in-law?) whom I was meeting for the first time. Tony and I were inseparable when we were children, but we grew quite distant ever since I moved to Canada. Still it was good to reconnect over some excellent food and some chat time. Obligatory group photo before we said goodbye!

The next day was spent exploring the Chenghuangmiao (City God Temple) area of Shanghai, which is really just a super commercialized area that caters to the interest of tourists. Still, we enjoyed just wandering around the streets and looking at all the interesting shops that lined them.

Local preparing food at their little shop, showing what everyday life is like for the people of this city. One part of travelling that I still enjoy very much is people-watching. Away from all the sightseeing and the hustle and bustle, ordinary life is happening without too much glamour and excitement.

McDonald’s was offering Super Mario figurines as toys for the Happy Meal and…I couldn’t resist. The first one I got was Toad (I got Boo and Yoshi after…) and he happily reminded me again how lovely Shanghai is at night.

As the final photo I present to you…food in Shanghai! On the left we have a Shanghainese specialty, glutinous rice balls cooked in sweet rice wine. The rice balls were so soft, and I loved the smell and taste of the rice wine – perfect combination! On the top right, we have “Grandma’s Beef Slices” from a chain called “Grandma’s House”, specializing in the cuisine of Shanghai and surrounding areas. This went so well with a bowl of rice – I couldn’t get enough of it! Finally on the bottom right we’ve got the stinky tofu that I had with RX, as I mentioned earlier. This was sold at a food cart outside my hotel, and I added loads of garlic, sweet sauce, and chili sauce…way too much chilli sauce that even my mom, who usually handles spicy food really well, thought it was overkill. Psh, piece of cake. The aroma of the tofu oozed out of its crispy exterior, and the taste and texture complemented each other so well. I love street food!

This concludes the Shanghai portion of the trip, although my mom and I did go on a day trip to Suzhou from Shanghai, which I will write about in a future post. For now, let’s anticipate the next stop: Huzhou in Zhejiang province 😀

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