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Freedom Trails in Boston

Back in Beantown, my first day included a must see for any Boston tourist – the Freedom Trail. This 2.5 mile course leads you through 16 historical landmarks ranging from churches to burial grounds. This isn’t my first rodeo in Boston. I trounced around the city with my dad right after graduating high school in a 2007 northeastern tour of NYC and Boston. We opted to walk the trail solo and just read the placards. We both thoroughly enjoyed the walk taking our time at each landmark, but after experiencing the tour with a trained guide overflowing with interesting tidbits, no comparison. I decided to join a tour group, while my friend that lives in Boston was working away. Our group of around ten people was headed by a local college history teacher dressed in a period Redcoat costume. Our guide not only delivered the facts but witty remarks that spiced up the two hour tour. Continue reading

Lesson Learned: Triple Check the Date!

It’s been a little while since my last post, but no fears for I’m working as we speak on posts for Ireland, Iceland, and Road Trip ‘Merica 2012. In the meantime, here’s a gem of a story from abroad. One of the best lessons I learned traveling was always check the details. I know, it seems obvious, but after so many trains, planes, and buses, details can be glazed over… Continue reading

An End to Asia

During my time in Beijing, my Letter of Invitation (LOI) arrived from GeoVisions. A LOI alerts the Russian government that a citizen within the country officially supports your visa request, or as I like to think of it, one extra hurdle constructed by the Russia to ensure you REALLY want to enter the country as an American. I’m no expert on visa reciprocity, but it’s a hypothesis I’m sticking with. When I swung by the Russian Embassy in Beijing, how about even with the LOI, the timeframe to process a visa application for a non-Chinese resident at best would be two weeks? Seriously, two weeks. Continue reading

Eighth Wonder of the World – Xi’an

My first stop after Japan turned out to be an airport in China. What I thought was supposed to be a few hours layover ended up as an overnight stay in a random Chinese airport “guest room” – not recommended for those that don’t enjoy sharing your room with a critter or two. At 7:30AM the next morning, I boarded another plane and arrived in Xi’an also known as the home of the Terracotta Warriors – Eighth Wonder of the World. My first day of escapades included a saunter around the drum and bell towers. The bell tower marks the heart of town with east, west, north, and south roads running straight out from the traffic circle. Once I returned to the hostel, I joined in “snack night” where two Chinese guys tried to teach me how to count to ten in Chinese. Wow, tones are quite the mystery. Depending on how you say a word based on your tone the meaning can change from mother into a curse word. Supposedly, someone not familiar with the Chinese language should expect to invest five years into learning the language, and that’s just Mandarin. There are multiple languages within the country that vary in number of tones and meanings of Chinese characters. Continue reading

Tokyo and Yokobayashi

Welcome to Yokobayashi, which I nicknamed the “man cave,” home of eight dudes in one share house with each turning out to be uniquely interesting, funny, and motivated? I swear friends, no myth just my couch surfing digs in Tokyo. Continue reading

Snow Festivities

What a way to start off my Japan jainky backpacking stint! Walking off the plane from Shanghai, I could already tell and feel in my fingertips this wasn’t the Georgia-esque climate of southern China with little to no snow and temperatures well about freezing. Sapporo basically exists as Japan’s Alaska with their own version of northern people well-suited to the icy conditions named the Ainu and the Hokkaido territory remaining the last independent portion of Japan until the late 1800s. My first clue in the “I think I may have taken the wrong flight not headed to the beaches of Thailand” mystery – the heated toilet seats. After that little shocker, I found my second clue – trains run in any conditions. The airport train rumbled past almost 4 feet of snow on either side of the tracks before arriving to the Sapporo Station! I’m definitely not in Georgia anymore. Luckily, the first four nights I couch surfed at a residence in the suburbs of Sapporo with a girl named Anna. She recently graduated from a smaller, private university in Virginia and decided to pack up all her personals and teach English in the JET program – organization run by the Japanese government that seeks out native English speakers from all around the globe to teach in Japan. Continue reading

What a Night View

When someone does an act completely beyond the expected kind and considerate, do you think, “wow, what a warm-hearted and giving individual” or do you second guess their motives? As a 22 year-old American female, I hate to admit that traveling alone for the past 6 months has pushed my judgment on underlying motives to the latter. Hakodate changed this.

Cable Car in Hakodate

After almost 5 hours on a bus from Sapporo to Hakodate, I arrived at the JR bus terminal and tried to figure out how to maneuver from the station to my next couch surfing locale in the boonies. My major issue lies in almost no one speaking English. Fair enough, I am in Japan. After struggling with the bus attendant, this adorable woman in her mid-40s grabbed my arm and dragged me onto the bus. Quite an achievement considering my 70-liter backpack, purse, and daypack probably weighed as much as her.

Tree decorated outside of the old British Consulate Office

She mapped out the course we need based on my couch surfers address on her phone all in Japanese. She didn’t speak more than five words of English but somehow you get creative with communication. After about 20 minutes on the bus, she sort of charades that this bus forks off in a different direction. Oh no. We hop off the bus and waited in almost 5 feet of snow for a taxi. Side note – this winter marks one of the worst in Hakodate with more snow than the town has witnessed in quite a while. Why did I come here again in February?

That's why... Look at that day time view which only gets better at night

No taxi showed, so we found another bus. Would you believe she then paid for my bus fare? From the bus stop, she guided me to the 7-11 where I planned to meet my couch surfing host two hours later. At the “convini,” we both sort of waved our arms around and said simple words like coffee, Internet, and 10PM (the meeting time) to figure out if an Internet café or even a shop was open past 9PM. No luck at first. A man in his 50s runs over from shoveling snow and marches us to the local Italian restaurant. They “thought” a café stayed open until 10 – false. Instead, the three of us turned around after a few hundred meters. The woman waved goodbye and headed off after ushering me from place to place for over two hours beginning with the bus stop. What a true doll! Then, the man convinces me to come upstairs to the Italian restaurant and sit. The situation gets more comical from there. The man turns out to be the owner of 7-11, decided to recoup from shoveling snow by eating a hearty pasta dinner and drinking a few cups of coffee, and finally convinces the owner to allow me to stay 30 minutes beyond closing time. He left around 9 ordering me to put my stuff in the back of the convini around 9:30 while I wait for my “friend” (sort of hard to explain couch surfing in Japanese when the only words I know mean cute and delicious… Irony to the fullest). Did I mention by the way he paid for dinner and handed me his business card should any emergency pop up? I can’t even make this up – total pay it forward move.

More beautiful harbor views

I waited at the 7-11 from 9:30PM on with the owner constantly checking on me. By 11PM, I truly debated finding a manga café, which is a comic book store usually open 24/7 that rents rooms you can read, sleep, or do whatever your heart desires for the number of hours you front the Yen for. Then, my couch surfing host showed up. Hallelujah! My first boy host, Yuya, studies Computer Science at the local university working towards his Master’s where after graduation he plans to move to Tokyo to work for a gaming company. His one bedroom turned out to be quite comfortable and warm – a point you appreciate after hours in below zero conditions!

 

American pride... In Hakodate?

The next day, I toured around the Northern Peoples Museum, gawked at some of the amazing architectural structures built around the time Hakodate transitioned into one of the three first international Japanese shipping ports, and poked around in a few of the older historic churches. After sunset, I hiked over to the cable car for Hakodate’s most famous attraction apart from the seafood – Night View. One rides the cable car up the mountain for just 5 minutes and enters a building perched on the side of the tallest mountain in Hakodate. From there, you can take in all the grandeur of the night lights on land and sea which borders Hakodate from both sides. What a view! Funny point – that night coincidentally happened to be February 14th, so the mountain was brimming with couples. I already stick out in Japan as the tallest and blondest person but also one of the only single people “ohing” and “awing” at the night view spectacle.

Bottom Terminal for Night View

After Night View, I headed back to the suburbs for dinner with Yuya, which turned out to be sake and sashimi. One of the dishes he “encouraged” me to try combined raw horsemeat with an uncooked egg on top and a garnish of green onions. Interesting and a delicacy in Japan. That’s one dish that will need to grow on me but when in Japan, right?

 

Final day in Hakodate

The next day, Yuya and I said our goodbyes after I forced him to wake up in time for his final presentation. Did I mention this boy graduates with his Master’s in less than two weeks? Congratulations, sir. Would you believe he didn’t even fain being nervous? From his apartment, I was back on the bus and onto a ferry bound for Aomori and my first encounter with small town life in Japan.

Hakodate from the ferry

If I can't read the rules, does that mean that I still am obligated? Since I didn't want to fall overboard, you win this round ferry.

Peace out ferry of bumps and motion sickness - land ahoy in Aomori!

Who’s the Buddha’s cell provider? I need that long distance plan.

What a week in Hong Kong…

 

2012 Version of a Higher Calling

After thinking I reached the “peak” of Hong Kong (cheesy but you know you love it after my previous post accompanied with photos on the Peak), then comes the tallest sitting Copper Buddha in the world. And it’s only a cable car ride away. To get to the Po Lin Monastery, you take the train past Disney to Tung Chung. After a quick walk to the cable cars, you have the option of either the “Crystal Cabin” (glass floor) or just a regular car. I chose the latter – (1) don’t love heights and (2) save $ where you can traveling while still getting the full experience. On the cable car ride, you see some amazing views – aerial of the airport, gorgeous mountains accompanied with rolling fog, and the giant copper Buddha.

 

Crystal Cabins

Cabins right above the sea before disappearing into the mountains

 

City view from the cable car

Hong Kong Airport

After the 25-minute ride thru the mountains, you arrive at super tourist junction that even has a Starbucks. Monastery with Starbucks – I can’t even make this stuff up. From the Starbucks, you wander to a rotunda filled with flags where you have the option of walking up many a flight of stairs to the Buddha, strolling to the monastery, or hiking up the path to the (garden of enlightenment). I decided to give the Buddha first priority. Would you believe my legs still burn from Kilimanjaro? Ridiculous. After reaching the giant copper monument, I toured the monastery and caught the above monk on a cell phone. I guess even monks need a cell to get that 911 higher calling from the Buddha?

 

Largest outdoor copper Buddha in the world

One of many smaller statues surrounding the giant Buddha

Outside the monastery

Inside the smaller temple

Main Buddha inside the larger temple

Adorning the prayer area of the larger temple

Stone garden

After eventually walking the path up to the stone garden, I popped back on the cable car for the last ride back to town. After no planning, I decided to just walk around Hong Kong, and this is what I found on the Avenue of Stars (Hong Kong’s version of Hollywood Boulevard):

Lights from the Avenue of Stars

Hong Kong city central

Right before the Symphony of Lights

Lights, Camera, Honk Kong

Incredible, no? Trust me, the symphony of lights amazes more in person. Wayne compared it to the lazer light show. I’m going to give more credit to the city of Hong Kong and all the Fortune 500 company buildings. Not only was the music lively and engaging but the few buildings I zoomed in on had coordination skills better than N’Sync in their prime. Bye, bye, bye, that Hong Kong.

 

Everybody was Kung Fu fighting, Those kicks were fast as lightning!

People were actually measuring their hands next to the imprints

The next day, Leonard reunion! Wayne and I went to a Cantonese restaurant for dim sum (think dumplings only much more delicious). At lunch, Wayne talked about all his adventures in banking. Would you believe this kid went to Sierra Lione to determine the quality of coal/ore in the mines? Upon arrival, he flew in a helicopter to reach the mines and then spent the day assessing the value of the mines. Again, I can’t even make this stuff up. What an amazing lunch! Post dim sum, I tagged along with Wayne to pick up some must-haves for Chinese New Year that he planned to tote back to Beijing. He also explained the festivities and how fireworks on the New Year symbolize people wanting to scare away all the monsters and evil spirits. Another revelation, the celebration period actually lasts 15 days, and each family has their own individual way of ringing in the New Year. Happy year of the Dragon!

Leonard Reunion 2012 - Livin' the coin from abroad

Leaving a little room for those missing - Dr. G, Dr. C, Courtney, and Tracie to name just a few!

 

Flower Market

Place settings made from lemons

The entire market was packed for Chinese New Year preparations

After wishing Wayne all the best, I began the hunt for the Beast Part 2. My Osprey officially died or in medical terms broke its backbone while awaiting my return in Tanzania from climbing. I attempted to repair my baby – no luck. Now, I decided that Hong Kong would probably be the crème de la crème of cities in the next few months to find an inexpensive solution that didn’t skimp on quality. Score! I found a French brand that operates from Vietnam with an outlet in Hong Kong. Did you get all of that? Basically, I found a 70-liter replacement for my 85-liter Beast. With the math, I had to somehow reduce my load 15 liters. Sorry, I’m no Harry Potter, so I ended up sending 5kgs of random nonessentials back to Memphis.

Random artwork in the bus station that's made entirely from bike parts

My final day in Hong Kong, I booked my ticket to Shanghai and decided to visit Lamma Island – seafood and hippie paradise. This smaller island only requires a 30-minute boat ride from Central Harbor. On arrival to Lamma, you are met with the cutest bay and more bikes than Tour de France has ever seen. I’m pretty sure there are more bikes than people on Lamma. After walking down the main street, I tramped to the beach and back to the town for a beer at the local pub – Irish style. Given more time and better weather, Lamma Island would be a weekend stop for some relaxation and sea grub.

Welcome to Lamma Island - paradise for hippies and those escaping Hong Kong

More bikes than people?

One of the few vehicles on Lamma... Besides bikes

Not a bad crowd for winter on the beach

Now, I’m just getting my stride in Shanghai and sending my farewells to Facebook – banned in mainland China. The weather prediction for the next week says rainy and cold, which is another first since I left the States. Almost every locale I’ve visited has been warm with almost no rain. Must say, overall extremely lucky with the weather. The best part about Shanghai so far is the hostel! The room is adorably decorated and extremely clean – something you appreciate immensely after dodgy accommodations.

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PC Disclaimer:
Jessica Craven works as an Individual and Organizational Development Volunteer in the Republic of Georgia. The contents of this Peace Corps blog are the intellectual property of Jessica Craven and do not reflect the position, opinion, or views of the U.S. Government or the Peace Corps.