2018-packingpurse10

Packing for an Overnight in my Tom Bihn Co-Pilot

This weekend, I set off for a quick overnight jaunt, and I’m pretty proud of my packing job: usually I think I’m traveling light if I manage to fit everything I need in a backpack, but this time, the only thing I brought was my Tom Bihn Co-Pilot. Measuring 12″x10″x5″ and holding 10 liters in volume, this bag has been my primary everyday purse for over a year now.

My dad and I were flying Spirit, which restricts you to a single personal item if you don’t want to pay baggage fees, and we were heading straight from the airport to my sister’s performance of Beauty and Bach with Avant Chamber Ballet, so packing light was a priority. My Co-Pilot turned out to be the perfect fit for my first-ever one-night plane trip, and this ended up being the lightest I’ve ever packed for any travel anywhere.

The main trick? In the decade and a half that I’ve owned laptops, I’ve never before traveled without my computer. This time, though, there truly was no point. We went straight from the airport to the show to a late dinner. By the time we finally checked into our hotel, it was past midnight, and I only managed to catch a few hours of sleep before we boarded our shuttle back to the airport for our early morning flight home. As I predicted, my phone and Kindle were ample to keep me entertained and connected.

Computer aside, I was also careful to eliminate other things I typically bring when I travel. Among the things I cut from my usual packing list: a change of clothes (apart from extra underwear); flip flops to wear in the hotel (although they would have fit); soap, shampoo, conditioner; cotton pads and facial toner; makeup; my travel pillow; an eye mask; ear plugs; and a more comprehensive first aid kit.

Here’s everything I did bring and how I packed it all:


In the first side pocket, I had my toiletry bag and a Clif Bar. The toiletry bag contained my toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, face wash, moisturizers with and without SPF, deodorant, hand sanitizer, lavender and peppermint essential oil rollers, nail clippers, and a tiny baggie with two cotton swabs in it.


The front center pocket held a small reusable water bottle. I packed it empty and filled it in the airport once we passed the security checkpoint.


In the second side pocket, I packed a pouch containing the aforementioned extra underwear and an emergency menstrual pad, a spare battery to recharge my electronics, my Tangle Teezer, my ChicoBag Vita (which I used once we landed in Texas to carry the winter jackets we needed in New York), and my electronics bag. The electronics bag held a 2-port USB wall charger, a Micro-USB cable for my Kindle and spare battery, a Lightning cable for my phone, the pair of earbud headphones that came with my phone, and a small lens cleaning cloth.


In the main pocket of the Co-Pilot, I carried my phone, my Kindle, my passport, my boarding passes, a pouch for my glasses, and my Tom Bihn Sidekick. The Sidekick contained tissues, assorted wipes (stain removal, antibacterial, insect repellent, lens cleaning, oil absorbing), a couple of pens, my mini first aid kit (a container of assorted pills and a baggie of assorted bandages), a coin purse, my Filofax (which doubles as a wallet and a planner), my keys, my standard safety kit (a mini flashlight, a whistle, and a compass), and extra hair ties.

And that’s it! It felt almost criminally indulgent to walk through airports carrying so little weight: I kept thinking that I was forgetting something. But I had everything I needed for my overnight trip, and it all fit in my purse with room to spare. I could get used to traveling this minimally.

2018-packingpurse10

First Favorites: Dallas, Texas

In a matter of days, we’ll be jetting off to Texas for this year’s holiday celebrations with my family. We’ll be spending most of our time in San Antonio, hopefully with a day trip or two to Austin, but we’re ending our trip with a couple of days in Dallas. I last visited Dallas about 14 months ago, and it’s pretty unusual for me to return to the same place twice in two years. Especially because this will be Lawrence’s first time there, I’m finding myself thinking about what my favorite places were from my own first visit and which locations I’d like to return to this time.

Here are my top five attractions (and an honorable mention) from my Fall 2016 visit to Dallas:

Old Red Museum

Especially during a first visit, I love learning about the history of where I am, and the Old Red Museum in downtown Dallas provided a charming, accessible, and detailed look at the origin and development of Dallas, from prehistory through its early growth as a railway crossroads to its commercial and cultural maturation in the 20th century. Split over four time periods, each section of the museum featured artifacts, interactive exhibits, and a short film. The building itself, formerly the Dallas County Courthouse, was also lovely. For anyone interested in history, I’d be hard-pressed to recommend a better introduction to Dallas than Old Red.

That X on the ground marks the spot where JFK was shot.

Dallas Heritage Village

I love examining the layouts and interiors of houses, so I often find myself gravitating toward historic homes and buildings. Dallas Heritage Village was home to not just one but a whole array of them, originating from a variety of times and places and collected together in a single park. During our visit, my mother and I meandered from pioneer cabin to stately Victorian home, from chapel to general store, from farmhouse to schoolhouse. We learned about horseshoes from a blacksmith, befriended a goat who followed me around a building and across a field, and were even on hand to witness the celebratory arrival of the park’s new donkeys.

These were the old donkeys. They were tired.

Katy Trail

As a small town girl turned New York City transplant, I’m constantly looking for the green spaces in metropolitan areas. The Katy Trail was Dallas’s incarnation of the urban hiking trail, and it felt like a vibrant oasis in a concrete desert. While we didn’t cover its entire distance, my mother, sister, and I enjoyed several miles of invigorating walking starting and ending at Reverchon Park. The two attractions above helped me to connect Dallas’s past with its present, but the Katy Trail gave me a sense of the way its sprawling neighborhoods connected with one another. It was the type of place I’d frequent if I lived there.

This is the path in Reverchon Park we took to access the Katy Trail.

Dallas Museum of Art

I’m usually tepid when it comes to art museums, but I found myself unexpectedly enchanted by the free Dallas Museum of Art. Its expansive interior space complemented its similarly expansive global collection, and moving through it felt like the sort of exploration in which you could get lost and then found again. As someone who’s perpetually drawn to period rooms (see: Dallas Heritage Village, above), it’s no surprise that my favorite exhibit was the recreated Mediterranean home of Wendy and Emery Reves, Villa La Pausa, in the namesame Wendy and Emery Reves Collection.

This long hallway in the Dallas Museum of Art almost felt like an optical illusion.

Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden

I freely admit that the Dallas Arboretum enjoyed the advantage of my first visit falling in October, but I fell head over heels for this botanical garden during its annual pumpkin extravaganza. Nearly a hundred thousand pumpkins lined its every path and filled its breathtaking centerpiece, the Pumpkin Village. It was a pumpkin patch crossed with a fairy tale. There were so many pumpkins. Pumpkins everywhere. Endless pumpkins. How could anywhere else in Dallas compete?

Pumpkins!

Honorable Mention: Sixth Floor Museum

The Sixth Floor Museum, located in the former Texas School Book Depository, is the site from which the fatal bullet was fired that killed President John F. Kennedy. Now, an audio tour leads visitors through a meticulous reconstruction of the final days and moments of Kennedy’s life and places his assassination in its cultural, political, and spatial context. The experience was of excellent quality, informative, and somber. Within our deeply divided political climate, a memorial that educates us about our country’s terrible history of political assassination is unquestionably important. But unlike every other place on this list, I can’t say that I enjoyed the Sixth Floor Museum, and I wouldn’t choose to visit it twice in two years.

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2018-packingpurse10

A Day Summiting Mount Emei

The morning after we saw the buddhas of Leshan, we checked out of our hotel after breakfast and drove the short distance to Mount Emei, one of the sacred mountains of Buddhism and home to some of the first Buddhist temples in China. I had been there once before, in 2003, as part of a tour group. My memories of that earlier visit are foggy (no pun or foreshadowing intended!), but I know that we stayed in the lower regions of the mountain. I remember hiking down stairs in the shade of a forest and pressing through crowds to pose with Mount Emei’s famous monkeys.

This time, I wanted to see the Golden Summit. With only one day to spare, we didn’t have time to hike up ourselves; the distance is upwards of 30 kilometers, and most visitors allocate at least two days for the climb. Still sore from hiking Mount Qingcheng three days prior and exhausted by long days of touristing since then, we decided to take the fastest and least-strenuous path to the peak of Mount Emei.

Even this was a multi-step journey, however. From the entrance near Baoguo Temple, we drove the narrow, twisty roads that wind up Mount Emei for about an hour, as far as we were allowed. Then we parked the car and squeezed onto a shuttle bus that took us up even narrower and tighter switchbacks for another hour. At some point, the rhythmic curves of the road lulled me to sleep. When I opened my eyes again, we were about to disembark at Leidongping, the highest point on Mount Emei accessible by bus.

We stepped off the bus into dense fog. The air was thin and wet; the landscape, painted with an impenetrable, otherworldly mist. Without being able to see more than a few steps in front of us, we hiked up a path of stairs for about a mile, to Jieyindian.

There, we crowded onto a tightly-packed cable car and clutched the handholds as it lifted us through the fog, past snowy hillsides, and above the cloud line. The dozens of passengers on board let out a collective gasp as we emerged, suddenly and startlingly, into the clear light of day.

Bright sun and cloudless blue skies greeted us as we stepped outside the cable car station. We were only a short walk from our destination now.

Soon, we were treated to this view of Mount Gongga. Gongga, also known as Minya Konka, has an elevation of 7556 meters (24790 feet) and is the tallest mountain in Sichuan, the 41st tallest mountain in the world, the easternmost 7000-meter peak in the world, and the third tallest mountain outside the Himalaya/Karakoram range.

We turned and, still adjusting to the elevation, slowly ascended a set of stairs lined by sculptures of elephants. At the top, this 48 meter (157 feet) tall statue of Samantabhadra, a bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism, greeted us at the Golden Summit of Mount Emei.

Smaller stone elephants surrounded its base. I thought they were adorable and snapped this photo of Lawrence leading the elephant parade.

We spent a while wandering around the summit, marveling at the breathtaking views. At an elevation of 3099 meters (10167 feet), this was the highest place we visited in China. The mountainside plunged into an ocean of clouds and the fathomless depths beneath. Below us were patches of snow, fog as dense as curtains, monkeys eager for food, cable cars, stone steps, twisting mountain roads, shuttle buses and cars and hotels. Overhead, the sun shone fiercely enough to burn our skin.

Once we had enjoyed our fill, we retraced our path back down the mountain: walking back to the cable car; descending back down into the blinding fog, which felt twice as surreal in contrast. Hiking down the mile of stairs to the shuttle bus at Leidongping, we even glimpsed some monkeys, looking cinematic in the mist.


We made a wrong turn after climbing off the shuttle bus and back into my uncle’s car; instead of heading directly for the highway, we spent an hour or more following narrow, winding roads past rice paddies and ramshackle buildings, giving us this trip’s nearest glimpse of rural China. We shared the lane with children and cyclists and dogs, and though the air was humid enough to be wet, window after window held clothes hung out to dry. Soon, though, we left all of that behind, and a few hours later, we were back at my uncle’s home in Chengdu, where my aunt had dinner waiting for us on the table.

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2018-packingpurse10

The Great Honeymoon Decision

After months of deliberation, we’ve finally committed to our honeymoon destination!

Hint: it’s one of the places we saw in miniature this past weekend at Times Square’s newest attraction, Gulliver’s Gate.

I think the most surprising part of the decision was how much of an impact our three-week jaunt across China had on our honeymoon plans. In China, we enjoyed full and exhausting days one after the next, walking for miles on a city wall one afternoon, and climbing up and down a mountain the next morning. By the end, we were too worn out to take full advantage of our last days in Beijing and Chengdu.

Coming home and getting back to planning our wedding and honeymoon turned out to be the travel version of shopping for groceries while you’re stuffed instead of starving. It’s not in our nature to travel too slowly, but we agreed that for our honeymoon, it would make sense to slow down at least a little.

So although I’ll probably always fantasize about it just a little, we aren’t taking that big backpacking trip from one end of the continent to the other. Instead, our first of what we hope will be many future European adventures will focus on a single region — the British Isles — with stops in six cities in England, Scotland, and Ireland.

Here’s a little of what we’re looking forward to this fall:

London, England

We’ll be jetting off for London the day after our wedding! Unfortunately, our first choice Brixton AirBnB fell through, so we’re still trying to iron out where to stay, but we’re looking forward to walking for miles among London’s famous landmarks, getting lost in some of its many free museums, and sampling diverse ethnic cuisines. We’ll also take a day trip to Stonehenge, possibly in combination with Avebury.

York, England

After the bustle of London, we’ll spend a couple of days relaxing in York, where we expect to be charmed by the historic architecture, the specialized museums, and the city wall. (After spending time in Québec and Xi’an recently, York will be our third walled city on three continents in 15 months.) Maybe we’ll even get out to the moors for a day.

Edinburgh, Scotland

From York, we’ll head up to Scotland, where we’ll spend a few days in Edinburgh, possibly the city I’m most excited to visit. From Edinburgh Castle to Arthur’s Seat, we can’t wait to experience Edinburgh’s picturesque landscapes and rich cultural history. There are also day trips in every direction, should we wish to take them: from St. Andrews to the borders to Stirling to Inverness.

Glasgow, Scotland

After Edinburgh, we’ll head to Glasgow for a couple of days. We’ll use Glasgow as a springboard for a day trip to the Scottish highlands, but we’re also looking forward to getting a taste of its distinct flavor. Plus, our AirBnB here might be my favorite of the whole honeymoon: it’s a private garden studio overhanging the River Kelvin.

Galway, Ireland

From Glasgow, we’ll fly over to Ireland and head west to Galway. We chose Galway for how well-situated it is as a base for day trips ranging from Connemara to the Cliffs of Moher, but we also hear that it has a great music scene, and we’re looking forward to walking along the coast.

Dublin, Ireland

We’ll wrap up our honeymoon with a couple of days in Dublin before flying home. Dublin is actually the second most populated city we’ll be visiting (after London), but we expect it to be pretty laid-back for its size, which will be a good fit at that point in our trip. I expect we’ll mix the usual sightseeing with some local music and maybe a day trip to Newgrange.

It’s still months away, but I’m already looking forward to starting off married life by sharing this grand adventure.

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My Favorite Apps for Travel in China

The last time I went to China, five years before our recent trip, I left my phone in airplane mode for the entire two weeks. Back then, I didn’t have a data plan that worked outside of the United States. None of my grandparents had internet service in their homes. Even when we stayed with my aunt and uncle, who did have wifi, the connection was slow and unreliable. For one of those weeks, I was offline entirely. On the flip side, the Chinese internet was much less censored in 2012. When I was able to get online at all, I could access Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, and all the rest without issue.

Over the course of those five years, the Chinese government erected the Great Firewall of China, and all of my grandparents got online. During this visit, when my 84-year-old grandfather gave us a tour of their new apartment, he made a point of showing us the wireless router. When I arrived in China last month, I was armed with an international data plan from T-Mobile (which, we were pleased to discover, bypassed the Great Firewall), a VPN service, and a folder of apps that I had downloaded onto my phone in advance to help us with communication, translation, and navigation.

Being able to access these tools and connect with our family and friends back home in real time made the experience of traveling halfway around the world immeasurably easier. They gave us a measure of independence and forestalled the feelings of isolation that had always wafted at the edges of my previous visits. I’m so grateful for technology, which has made the world smaller and the barriers between us easier to transcend. And I’m grateful for these apps, which made our days easier while we were traveling in China.

ExpressVPN

Before we left for China, I wanted to figure out which VPN service was currently the most reliable for use in China. In March 2017, ExpressVPN was the clear winner, highly recommended by almost every source I found. I paid $12.95 for a one-month subscription, which I could use on up to three devices. (If you’re interested, this referral link will give you 30 days free.) While we were in China, I did experience intermittent problems with ExpressVPN, which seemed largely location-based; it struggled in our AirBnB in Xi’an but worked beautifully in our hotel in Beijing. On the whole, though, it worked well enough for my needs, and the success rates improved substantially once I discovered the strategy of trying to connect to different locations. If load times were too slow when I connected to Los Angeles or New York, they often improved if I tried Taiwan or Japan. I would absolutely pay the $12.95 again for a month of being able to access Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Google Maps, and the rest of the uncensored internet from China.

Pleco

iOS | Android

Pleco was the best Chinese-English dictionary app I found, and it turned out that Lawrence’s Chinese teacher had also recommended it to him independently. We sprung for some of the advanced features, and if I were staying for longer in China, I would have happily paid for some of the more advanced dictionaries too. I found the optical character recognizer a bit disappointing, but the handwriting input let me translate words from signs or menus that I couldn’t read, say, or type. Many times, by using Pleco to help fill in the gaps in my limited Chinese vocabulary, I was able to string together a passable attempt at communicating.

Google Translate

iOS | Android

While I preferred Pleco as a dictionary and for English-to-Chinese translations, Google Translate was more useful in situations where I wanted to translate entire sentences rather than individual words from Chinese to English. Especially if someone had sent me a text message in Chinese, I appreciated being able to copy and paste the entire message and cobble together an approximate understanding of its meaning.

WeChat

iOS | Android

WeChat is China’s most ubiquitous social network, and there’s no parallel in the U.S. for the way the Chinese have integrated it into their everyday lives. From my parents, I already knew about WeChat as a platform for sending text, image, and voice messages to individuals, groups, and networks, as well as for making phone calls, but I was astonished when I arrived in China and saw its use extend far beyond communication and into the way people navigated and conducted business on a daily basis. While we were in China, we witnessed people using WeChat to pay for the majority of their everyday financial transactions (from restaurants to grocery stores, the most popular way to pay seemed to be scanning a WeChat QR code), buy bus and train tickets, and send each other their locations on a map when trying to meet. I personally find the app’s interface clunky, but that’s hardly relevant: there is no alternative for the pervasive role WeChat plays in modern China. Even my grandparents, in their 80s, use it daily.

Metro China Subway

iOS | Android

As we hopped from place to place, it was handy to have subway maps for all of China’s major cities in a single, English-language app. Metro China Subway will even recommend routes between stations and display the fare for your trip (which, in Beijing, varies based on distance traveled).

Google Maps

iOS | Android

If you’re literate in Chinese, Baidu Maps comes highly recommended by my uncle, who used it for turn-by-turn GPS directions and traffic information to avoid areas of congestion every time he drove, as well as for walking and transit directions when we were without a car. However, when we were on our own, we were limited to English-language options, and Google Maps came through for us when we were in a pinch in Beijing. We had taken the subway to Tiananmen Square and, from there, entered the Forbidden City through its main gate, to the south. It was only hours later, as we tiredly followed the closing-time shuffle out the distant north gate, that we realized we were miles away from our earlier subway station and hadn’t thought to look up directions back to our hotel. Crowds swarmed around us, and lines of buses to destinations unknown boarded continuously and then took off. With only the roughest of directions from a single, undetailed map we found posted on a placard — and Google Maps, which finally loaded on our T-Mobile data plans after several excruciating minutes — we managed to walk to the nearest subway station, half an hour away, without having to backtrack a single step.

Airpocalypse

iOS | Android

Airpocalypse takes China’s notoriously poor air quality in stride by letting us know just how bad it was, on a scale of “no mask needed” to “only in China is this considered normal.” As a bonus, it gave us the weather forecast in Fahrenheit, saving us from having to make daily conversions from Celsius.

Bonus (For Chinese Speakers): Didi Chuxing

iOS

I’ve never taken an Uber or a Lyft, but we did use Didi, the most popular ride-sharing service in China (and, consequently, in the world), a number of times when we were with my uncle. He told us that he preferred Didi to hailing a taxi because the price is set in advance, the fares are cheaper, the drivers (knowing you’re about to rate them on a five-star scale) tend to be friendlier, and you can enter your destination into the app instead of having to verbally explain where you’re going. Using Didi, we got rides around Xi’an for the equivalent of $2-3 USD. In Beijing, we quickly found drivers who took us the hour and a half from our hotel to the Great Wall at Mutianyu and back again for under 200¥ each way. That’s about $30 USD to drive four people almost 50 miles away.

And that’s it!

On one of our first days in China, I realized that I had no idea how to say “app” in Chinese. It was a word that I had never before needed in my Chinese vocabulary. It turns out, most Chinese people call an app an APP, pronounced letter by letter. A-P-P.

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A Day of Buddhas in Leshan

After a leisurely breakfast and some last-minute packing, we set off on our overnight trip to Leshan and Emeishan. It was the day after Qingming Jie (Tomb-Sweeping Day, a national holiday); most people were back at work, and the roads were uncrowded. It took us about two hours to drive from Chengdu to Leshan, including a fairly lengthy break at a rest stop decorated with large sculptures of teapots. We found a restaurant near the ticket booth for the Leshan Giant Buddha and sat down for lunch before entering the park. As a bonus, the restaurant waived our parking fee for the afternoon in exchange for our patronage.

After we ate, we bought our tickets, brushing off half a dozen tour guides eagerly hawking their services. We made our way into the park and up a shallow but steady set of steps. Along the path, we found diversions such as this statue of a tiger…

this emerging view of the confluence of the Minjiang and Dadu rivers and the town of Leshan…

and a number of sandstone buddhas, many of which had disintegrated into little more than bumps on the cliffside.

At the end of the climb, we stepped through a doorway into a courtyard, from which we could spot the top of the Giant Buddha’s head.

After clambering for the obligatory pictures, we proceeded down a series of steep steps that had been carved into the cliff beside the Buddha.

Alongside these stairs, the cliff was decorated with alcoves, some fenced off, containing more carved buddhas.


It was slow going, with quite a bit of crowding on the way down and bottlenecks as the path narrowed to single file and as visitors stopped for photos. (I, too, was guilty of holding up traffic here; the stairs down are the only vantage point for seeing and capturing the Giant Buddha from certain angles.) At the bottom, a small area by the Buddha’s feet provided more photo opportunities.

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Once we finished posing for photos with the Giant Buddha’s toes, the only way to go was up. We made our way through a small cave, emerging on the other side of the cliff (out of sight of the Buddha) to a series of stairs the same height again that took us back up to the Buddha’s head. We powered our way up these, only pausing once for photos; there were few spots to rest along the climb, and those we passed were so crowded with smokers that we would have caught only lungfuls of smoke rather than our breaths.

Back at the top, we found several forks in the path, leading to the rest of the park. Although we consulted the posted signs, we followed these paths pretty haphazardly. It was more or less by chance, then, that we stumbled across a gated entryway, beside which was posted a sign with pictures of several other giant buddhas. At first, we thought that the sign was merely telling us about other giant buddhas around the world, but a woman nearby informed us that, no, all of these other giant buddhas were right here, in an adjacent but separate park called Oriental Buddha Capital. Admission was 80¥ per person, and she promised we wouldn’t be disappointed.

We exchanged glances, a bit befuddled. Three of the four of us had previously visited the Leshan Giant Buddha, but none of us had ever heard of Oriental Buddha Capital, even though it had supposedly been here during our previous visits. It hardly seemed possible that there could be several more giant buddhas so nearby without any of us ever having heard mention of them. Was it a scam? Was it worth checking out? Lawrence’s enthusiasm decided the matter, and we paid the entrance fee and entered.

Once inside, we made our way along a winding, hilly path and down many flights of stairs, which (I noted) we would inevitably need to climb back up later. Finally, after walking for 10 or 15 minutes, we spotted the mouth of a giant cave and made our way over to it. This was the view that greeted us when we stepped inside.

Known as the Pharmacist Buddha, it’s a bit shorter and much newer than the Giant Buddha. Yet, between the dramatic perspective of the cave, the echoing stillness of having this enormous chamber to ourselves, and the unexpected nature of the whole venture, its impact felt even more striking.


From behind the Pharmacist Buddha’s feet, we entered Ten Thousand Buddhas Cave, an astonishing and almost otherworldly experience. From one cavernous room to the next, the walls were covered with carvings and statues of buddhas, tiny, huge, and every size in between. I audibly gasped when I turned a corner and spotted this buddha at the bottom of a tunnel of stairs.

From there, there were more caves and more open spaces. The landscape was a lush, vivid green, decorated with buddhas of every variety.

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The largest of them, the Long Giant Lying Buddha, was 170m (558ft) long and slept across the span of a mountainside.

I felt as though we had been transported to a place outside of time, a panorama of mighty artifacts with hardly a soul around to witness them. Toward the end, when we came upon this intimidating-looking staircase, steadily ascending each step felt like a pilgrimage.

And the view from the top was pretty spectacular.

From Oriental Buddha Capital, we made our way back to the Leshan Giant Buddha, around its head and back down the stairs we’d climbed at the start of the day. We piled into the car and drove to Emeishan, where we had dinner and sorted out a hotel snafu and settled in for some well-earned rest. New adventures awaited us in the morning. But much later, when our trip was coming to a close, Lawrence would tell me that seeing the many buddhas of Leshan was his favorite experience in China. For me, it lingered as a reminder to approach even familiar places with fresh eyes. After all, it only takes one act of serendipity for an old haunt to open into a new world.

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Gratitude, China Edition

We’re home! We got back late last night after about 25.5 hours of travel from door-to-door. It’s a 12-hour time zone change, and my body feels confused and disoriented. (What time is it? And also, what is time?) Nevertheless, I’m immensely grateful for having been able to take this trip, and I’m also so grateful to be back in my familiar, comfortable American life. I wasn’t able to keep up with this blog while I was away as much as I’d hoped (to say nothing of my poor, neglected travel journal), but I will share more about our travels in China soon. For now, though, it feels good to start with gratitude.

Things I’m grateful for from our three weeks in China:

  • the privilege of having the time, resources, and opportunity to travel internationally for three consecutive weeks
  • the technology of flight: it still astonishes me every time that I can sit in a metal capsule 40000 feet in the air, plunging through space at 600mph for more than 13 hours, and land safely on the other side of the world
  • the experience of having an extended family nearby, full of interconnections, rather than only my small, isolated nuclear family
  • the opportunity to introduce Lawrence to my extended family, including all four of my grandparents, and to important landmarks from my early childhood
  • being able to meet my cousin’s infant daughter, born while we were in China, before she was a week old
  • that the presents I had painstakingly selected for everyone were well-received
  • having a partner with me with whom I could share the experience of this trip
  • having enough language skills to manage basic communication and translation
  • people and translation apps to help with the rest
  • a body that held up through exhausting back-to-back-to-back-to-back days and managed to resist catching my mom’s cold despite extended close contact with her
  • my aunt and uncle being willing to host us for so long, and my uncle being willing to drive us all over Sichuan and accompany us to Xi’an and Beijing
  • discovering surprising new experiences even in places I’d previously visited
  • mountains
  • cable cars
  • pandas and the delightful, endearingly awkward way they wriggle around
  • an AirBnB only a few minutes’ walk away from Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter, where we ate dinner every night
  • high speed trains
  • huge breakfast buffets even at mid-range chain hotels
  • cheap and yummy groceries near our hotel in Beijing
  • cheap Didi rides
  • an international data plan and a VPN that allowed us to bypass the Great Firewall of China
  • well-labeled, bilingual subway systems
  • liquid yogurt in pouches
  • three weeks of not having to cook for myself
  • the sense of being surrounded by history everywhere I go, thousands of years of heritage as the same spaces have been used and reused in so many ways by so many generations

Things I’m grateful for about being back home:

  • clean drinking water straight from the faucet
  • cold drinking water that is actually cold rather than lukewarm
  • fresh, clean air to breathe
  • I can just hold my breath for a few seconds when walking past smokers on the streets without this strategy leading to asphyxiation
  • people actually refraining from smoking in places where smoking is not allowed
  • being able to read
  • being able to understand pretty much everything that’s being said to or around me
  • having the vocabulary to communicate my ideas
  • public restrooms that don’t involve squatting toilets
  • public restrooms that provide toilet paper
  • uncensored internet
  • fast internet
  • not having to aggressively push myself through crowds or to the fronts of lines
  • enough room on the subway that finding a seat feels normal rather than miraculous
  • the animals at petting zoos generally seem happy instead of sad
  • being able to talk about politics and social justice
  • not having to go through security every time I enter a subway station
  • not having to get a pat down every time I enter a train station
  • being able to breeze through customs with Global Entry and airport security with TSA Pre-Check
  • undeveloped land
  • my big, soft, comfortable bed
  • smoothies
  • bathtubs
  • easy access to cuisine from a wide range of cultures
  • being able to have introvert time again
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A Day Hiking Mount Qingcheng

What a week it’s been!

We landed in Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport a week ago last night after a journey that took nearly 27 hours door-to-door, including about 20 hours of flying. We spent our first few days in China with my family, introducing Lawrence to all four of my grandparents, as well as all of my aunts and uncles, some cousins, and several more distant relatives. We also celebrated my maternal grandfather’s 80th birthday.

After that, we’ve spent the rest of the past week touring Sichuan, the province where I was born and where most of my family still lives. We started with two days in Dujiangyan and then went to Leshan/Emeishan for two days. Today, we’re back in Chengdu to see Sichuan’s famous pandas and prepare for the next part of our trip, which begins tomorrow. We’ll be flying to Xi’an first thing in the morning and spending a few days there before boarding a high speed train to Beijing, where we’ll spend several more days before flying back to Chengdu.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Today, I want to launch this blog’s new “A Day” series, where I share in detail how I spent a single day (a possible day, if you will), by telling you about the first of those two days in Dujiangyan. We spent the day hiking Mount Qingcheng from base to summit.

Mount Qingcheng is one of the four sacred mountains of Taoism, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a place I wanted to take Lawrence because I had fond memories of it from my last visit, 14 years ago. There are two main paths up the mountain; since I had previously visited the back mountain (hou shan), this time we chose to visit the more popular front mountain (qian shan), which is sprinkled with Taoist temples.

The experience of hiking up a mountain in China is pretty different from what you might be used to in the U.S. For one thing, it’s stairs all the way up, at least on the more popular, developed mountains. China’s mountains, although they do offer scenery and nature, have generally seen millennia of development, and you will find uneven stone steps, elaborate temples, and vendors all along your path. For another, Chinese mountains can get very crowded, especially if, like we did, you go on a national holiday (in our case, Qingming Jie, or Tomb-Sweeping Day, the Chinese equivalent to Memorial Day).

I wanted to take you up Mount Qingcheng with us and show you firsthand what the experience was like, so I took over 50 video clips over the course of our day and put them together into my very first vlog. Since I’ve never edited video before and didn’t have very much time to learn, you get to witness all of the shakiness and heavy breathing of me recording footage while climbing an endless series of stairs. You don’t get to witness the steep, winding, crowded staircases toward the end of the hike, because I was too exhausted by then to focus on filming and my own balance at the same time.

Still, I hope you’ll come along with me and enjoy the stunning views from the top and the cable car ride down.

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Packing for China: Clothes

We leave for China tomorrow, which means that today I get to play with one of my favorite things: packing cubes! I have to admit, I’m slightly obsessed with how such a simple tool can make such a big difference in keeping my luggage compact and organized. For this trip, we managed to pack clothes for three weeks in three cities in one packing cube each.

Of course, before we pack our clothes, we first have to decide which clothes to pack. I try to think about these three factors when making my selections:

  1. what kind of activities we’ll be doing — in this case, we’ll be visiting family, attending a party, touring big cities, and hiking up mountains.
  2. what the weather forecast looks like — for our springtime trip to Chengdu, Xi’an, and Beijing, we expect temperatures ranging from the mid-40s to the mid-80s Fahrenheit.
  3. when we’ll be able to do laundry — my aunt and uncle in Chengdu have a washer, as does our AirBnB in Xi’an, but laundry might be less convenient at our hotel in Beijing.

Once we make sure we’ve chosen clothes that match our activities, weather, and laundry situation, it’s time to start packing. On this trip, we’ll each be using a Clean Dirty Cube from Eagle Creek’s Pack-It Specter line. They’re double-sided, lightweight, and one side is water-resistant, and they’re my favorite packing cube. I own the smaller half-cube version too, which is great for summer travel, but for this trip, we’ll be using the larger full-size cubes.

My Clothes

Packing Cube, Side 1

  • 1 sports bra
  • 2 tank tops
  • 4 t-shirts
  • 1 long sleeve shirt
  • 1 skirt
  • 3 pairs of pants
Packing Cube, Side 2

  • 3 bras
  • 1 cardigan
  • 5 pairs of underwear
  • 3 pairs of socks
Extras

On the plane I’ll be wearing:

  • 1 bra
  • 1 tank top
  • 1 cardigan
  • 1 down jacket
  • 1 pair of underwear
  • 1 pair of pants
  • 1 pair of socks
  • 1 pair of sneakers

Outside of the packing cube, I’ll also have:

  • 1 rain jacket
  • 1 pair of flip flops
  • 1 pair of sandals
  • 1 Buff (a tube of fabric that can be worn as a hat, scarf, bandana, and more)
  • 1 peshtemal (a Turkish towel that can be used as a scarf, towel, or small blanket)

His Clothes

Packing Cube, Side 1

  • 4 t-shirts
  • 1 dress shirt
  • 4 pairs of socks
Packing Cube, Side 2

  • 4 pairs of underwear
  • 1 pair of shorts
  • 3 pairs of pants
Extras

On the plane he’ll be wearing:

  • 1 t-shirt
  • 1 hoodie
  • 1 down jacket
  • 1 pair of underwear
  • 1 pair of pants
  • 1 pair of socks
  • 1 pair of shoes

Outside of the packing cube, he’ll also have:

  • 1 rain jacket
  • 1 pair of flip flops
  • 1 Buff
  • 1 peshtemal

And that’s it!

Here they are, all zipped up and ready to go into our backpacks.

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The Great Honeymoon Debate

Lawrence and I are getting married six months from today! How’s wedding planning going, you ask? That’s a great question. Instead, let’s talk about my favorite escape from wedding planning: exhaustively researching improbable honeymoon itineraries. Honeymoon planning, if you want it to sound nice.

Where We’ve Been

When I turned 25, I set a goal of traveling to 30 U.S. states before my 30th birthday. States I’d visited before age 25 counted toward the total, but my goal still involved spending the night in 14 new states. Accordingly, Lawrence and I spent the next five years criss-crossing America, from southern California to the deep south, from the Smoky Mountains to the Grand Canyon. We rolled into state number 30, Louisiana, on a Greyhound bus a month and a half before my 30th birthday.

Because of this, we’ve traveled quite a bit, but almost entirely domestically. Lawrence went to Romania once as a teenager, with a layover in Germany. I’ve been to China a few times (including the first four years of my life), with layovers in Japan. But outside of those two exceptions and Canada, up until just over a year ago, neither of us had really traveled internationally, and never with each other. We took our first trip abroad together to celebrate my 30th birthday in Mexico. Six months later, we got engaged in Canada.

Fantasy Honeymoons

When the question first came up of where to go for our honeymoon, I took it as an opportunity to indulge some of my travel fantasies. My very first idea (I kid you not) was a three-month overland expedition along the Silk Road, from Istanbul to Xi’an. There are a few companies out there offering treks in converted trucks, and the itineraries cover such exotic destinations as Tashkent, Samarkand, and Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan. It was during this period of research that I learned that Turkmenistan, far from being simply “one of the ‘stans,” is actually one of the most repressive countries in the world, and its capital, Ashgabat, is a white marble city full of new age architecture and statues of its late president. Who knew?

Anyway, we decided that maybe it wasn’t the best idea to spend our honeymoon roughing it through Central Asia with a converted truckful of our new best friends, so I set about hatching my next idea: a three-month round-the-world trip. We could start in Europe, I told Lawrence, and spend a month making our way from Edinburgh to Istanbul. From there, we could pop over to China to see my family before heading to southeast Asia. I figured we’d take another month to wend our way from Thailand to Indonesia, from which it would be an easy enough hop over to Australia and New Zealand for month three. And surely a stopover in Hawaii would be the only sensible way home.

It turns out that seeing three continents in three months is not a very practical itinerary even for the most ambitious of honeymooners. (You don’t say!) Taking three months away wasn’t feasible anyway, so we made the very grown-up decision to visit only one continent. Since we had by this point planned a separate trip to China to introduce him to my family (next week, for those playing along at home), Europe was the obvious choice for our honeymoon. We didn’t fancy two transpacific trips in six months, and it’ll make for a nice parity that, this year, we’ll each visit the only continent the other has been to outside of North America.

Weighing the Options

Naturally, my initial inclination for a European honeymoon was to follow the first month of that round-the-world itinerary, from Edinburgh to Istanbul. For reference, that plan, if you can call it that, included stops in 19 cities. But Lawrence was worried about instability in Turkey and interested in seeing Ireland, so I started researching. Before long, I realized that even a week and a half in Ireland alone might feel rushed, if we stayed a few days each in Dublin, Killarney, and Galway. Meanwhile, I also started looking into Scotland, since our hypothetical trip started in Edinburgh, and soon became obsessed with the dramatic landscape of the Scottish Highlands, particularly Glencoe. And that’s not to even mention England, which we’re both very keen on visiting! We could easily fill a month without ever leaving the British Isles and still have to make plenty of tradeoffs about where we spend our time.

At the same time, we’re still very much enchanted by the idea of backpacking across Europe for a month. It makes sense for my first trip to be a survey trip, I find myself rationalizing; we can go to one region at a time when we return in the future and travel more slowly then. And every time I research a new place, I find myself pining to go there: from Paris to Prague, from Gimmelwald to Hallstatt. I’ve already trimmed that initial 19-city list down to a more reasonable 10. It would like an incredible adventure. But it’s hard to guess whether we would be too exhausted by the end to be able to enjoy any of it and each other.

I’m sure we’ll decide soon, one way or the other. In the meantime, it’s been revelatory to observe my nascent interest in mindfulness battling against my ingrained urge to see as much as I possibly can whenever I travel. Even if travel were free, which of course it isn’t, I will never have enough years in my life to see all of the beautiful diversity of planet Earth, from cultures to landscapes. No amount of minimizing has yet managed to make me feel that anything less than squeezing every destination possible into every trip possible would be taking full advantage of these opportunities I’m so grateful to have: the opportunity to be alive and the opportunity to see the world I live in.