The State of Free Jam and Cheese

During my February break, I spent a few days up in Windsor, Vermont at my friend Helena’s house. I’m very grateful she and her family opened up their home to me and our friend Emma. It was my first time up in Vermont and I absolutely loved my time there.

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The trip from Boston to Lebanon, NH via Dartmouth Coach Lines took about 2.5 hours. I mostly napped through it. Helena’s mom graciously picked us up from the stop and drove us home. We took the scenic route which led us over Cornish-Windsor Covered Bridge, which connects New Hampshire and Vermont. It was the longest covered bridge until the Smolen-Gulf Bridge was built in Ohio, but I believe the Cornish-Windsor one is still the longest wooden-covered bridge.

The first day in Vermont was pretty chill. We just ended up snacking and trying to figure out a 1000-piece puzzle of dogs Helena’s mom had on the dining table before going out to pick up some groceries.

Originally, we had planned to go try on skiing gear, but the weather wasn’t cooperating. The day we came up to Vermont ended up being close to 70 degrees (in February in New England), which dashed our hopes of skiing that week. During the rest of the time we were there, it periodically rained and snowed with 30-40 degree weather for the next few days.

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You can’t go to Vermont for the first time without going to the Ben and Jerry’s Factory, so it was our first stop of the day. Located in Waterbury, you can take a 30 minute guided tour to learn the ins and outs of the company’s ice cream making process and company values. It was super cool to get a peek into the factory and learn how it’s all done. The best part of the tour is probably the ice cream sample you get at the end. I was stoked the flavor of the day was Milk & Cookies, my favorite. We also popped on over to the flavor graveyard, which was covered in a good few inches of ice. It was definitely my favorite part of the visit.

After that, we drove up to Burlington for lunch at Skinny Pancake. They make sweet and savory crepes. I opted for the Johnny crepe, which had pulled pork, Cabot cheddar, BBQ sauce, and a side of slaw. Pretty filling. We walked to Church Street afterward to poke our heads into some shops, including Vermont Flannel Company and a local bookstore. We also saw the big mural with famous people who have some tie to Vermont. We went to a small bakery called My Little Cupcake for a break from the cold. I also needed some place quiet, but permitted cellphone, use to call an author that planned to speak at Brandeis.

From there, we went to Citizen Cider, a Vermont-based cider company that was founded in 2010. Unfortunately, they don’t do tours, but their Tasting Room is still a cool place to grab a bite to eat and try what’s on tap. We weren’t super hungry from all the eating and snacking we had been doing all afternoon, so we decided to split a flight of five drinks. For $7, I think it’s a pretty good deal, whether it’s for yourself or to share. You get to try so many different kinds of cider without having to select just one.

Following Citizen Cider, we hopped on over to Lake Champlain Chocolates Factory to check out the self-guided factory tour, which is basically an informational video and looking into the baking area. Production had stopped for the day at 3pm, so there wasn’t much to see. We picked up some chocolate to munch on and as souvenirs.

We decided to call it an early night after stopping by the nearby Trader Joe’s to pick up some last things to make dinner. We planned to cook shrimp scampi to thank Helena’s parents for their hospitality, and it turned out pretty well. We learned that Trader Joe’s carries $3 pinot grigio, which was both great for cooking and drinking.

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On day three, I was in for a surprise that I was not ready for. We kicked off our morning by driving over to Hanover, NH for brunch at Lou’s Restaurant and Bakery. Here is where I found my IDEAL brunch meal: the big green. Two pieces of their signature cruller french toast with eggs your style, sausage, bacon, home fries, and side of toast/English muffin. Perfect combination of sweet and savory. Never knew I needed cruller french toast in my life, but honestly, what more do you need?

We went to see Dartmouth College briefly since it was right there. Popped into two of their libraries and walked around some of their more residential streets and reflected on our college process a little bit. We talked about where we might have ended up if we chose to apply to or attend different schools. What if?

From there, we drove to the Vermont Country Store in Weston. Talk about again being unprepared for what I was about to experience. Emma and Helena were talking this place up and I was pretty floored. Wide-eyed like a child in a candy store. It’s a kind of large-scale general store with a nostalgic feel, selling various foods and goods. I loved checking out all their free samples of jams, seasoned dips, cheeses, syrup, and more. They sell clothes, toys, knick knacks, kitchenware, soaps, and so much more.

After that snacking, we headed home for a quick break before the tour and dinner at Harpoon Brewery. It was started in 1986 in Boston and since 2014 has been an employee-owned company. Pretty neat! At their Windsor location, they do tours on select days and times, and we just managed to catch them on Friday.

The tours are $5 per person, which is an amazing deal because the tour was high quality. On Fridays, tours start at 5pm, but since no one else was present, we got to start ours shortly after we arrived around 5:15pm. It was basically a private tour with two awesome and engaging guides. We got to sample their signature IPA at the beginning and taste the grain they use in their beer. They talked through the brewing process and we got to actually walk through their facilities, even into their refrigerated warehouse. We also sampled an unfiltered version of their signature IPA. But at the end of the tour, we got to select whatever we wanted to try from about a dozen different taps. We tried their spring apricot beer, Fresh Tracks, their cider, and a dark beer. So amazing.

Helena’s parents joined us for dinner at the restaurant. It was a really family-friendly place. Lots of people brought their children along to eat food and drink beer. Good vibes. I made the mistake of ordering a sandwich that had horseradish in it. If I ignored the horseradish, my sandwich was pretty good. While I didn’t get any beer with my food, it was pretty awesome that they had recommended drinks next to every menu item. Saves people from the agony of choosing if they need a pointer.

Also, bonus: Helena’s dog Mirly:

Overall, my first trip to Vermont was defined by lots of great food (some free) and brewery experiences. We watched the Winter Olympics every night and there were some wild moments with some sports like halfpipe skiing, ice dancing, and cross country skiing. All in all, what’s not to like? Hopefully next winter season I’ll be back for some skiing.

The State of Free Jam and Cheese

A Suite Weekend in Portland

Over Rosh Hashanah weekend, my suitemates and I drove up to Portland, ME for some bonding and girl time. We wanted to go somewhere close by because Hanna is the only one legally permitted to drive, and Lily had never been to Maine.

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Day 1

Our first stop on the way up to Portland was Crescent Beach State Park near Cape Elizabeth, ME. It was definitely past beach season, as there were no other cars or attendants receiving cash to enter, but the weather was still warm and sunny. There were a few families and people on the beach. We weren’t the most prepared since none of us had flip flops with us, but we didn’t let that deter us from taking off our socks and sneakers anyway and walking up and down the length of the beach. The water was so cold but so refreshing at the same time. It was so peaceful and we were really enjoying the last vestiges of summer.

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After our stop, we drove into Portland for an early dinner at the Green Elephant. We arrived a bit before it opened for dinner, so we browsed a nearby antique shop and Yes Bookstore for secondhand books. Green Elephant serves vegan/vegetarian Thai food, which we found specifically for Hanna. Pretty good food, service, and decor.

After dinner, we headed to our Airbnb in Falmouth, ME. We accidentally drove by it, as it was kind of hard to spot as the sun set, but found it in the end. It was a very lovely farmhouse dating back to the 1850s.

Day 2

Our host graciously served some french bread, jams, and fresh strawberries for breakfast alongside espresso and tea. She talked about sourcing it from the local town store down the road.

We started off the day wandering downtown and popping by the Holy Donut. Great place to get donuts in the city. Many of their donuts are made from a potato-flour base. We then got lunch at Duckfat, another one of my favorite restaurants in town. Their signature is probably the belgian fries, which are fried in duck fat.

After lunch, we took a brief break before buying ferry tickets to Peaks Island, which is an island neighborhood part of Portland. It’s a very popular summertime destination, both for vacations and day trips, and has a little over 800 year-round residents. I think it’s really cool that many people travel by golf cart on the island. One of my favorite ways to get around is renting a bike from Brad’s.

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We got them for an hour and cruised around the island. I made the mistake of picking a pretty bike again, instead of a mountain bike so I struggled a little on the steeper hills. Biking on Peaks Island is so lovely- there’s so many beautiful houses to look at, and I enjoy the coast a lot.

While we waited for our ferry back, the neighborhood cat (named Sushi) sauntered up to us and actually really took a liking to Hanna. She just plopped down Hanna’s lap. It was so funny and amazing.

Lily picked Becky’s Diner for dinner. There was a bit of a wait, but it seemed to be a local favorite and family-run, so that was cool. I just really wanted a lobster roll, but wasn’t really that impressed by it. The place had good vibes though, and I listened in on a conversation between an older gentleman and the guy next to me, who was traveling around the states for a few months.

Day 3

We went for a late morning walk down the road to the town store that our host talked about. It was a really cute country store that had lots of fresh baked goods, some grocery items, and whatnot. I picked up a t-shirt with a drawing of the store on it and a pack of Maine Root blueberry soda.

For lunch, we stopped at Gilbert’s Chowder House, which is a no-frills kind of restaurant serving up some fast seafood. Also not the best lobster roll I’ve had. And for dessert, we went to Gorgeous Gelato, where I got some pistachio and coconut gelato. Really good and creamy.

From there, we swung by Bug Light, which is a tiny decommissioned lighthouse at the northern tip of the city. We found it on TripAdvisor and thought it might be fun to see. The park is a great place for kiteflying and picnics, which we saw some people doing.

Our last stop, as we headed south back to school, was the Portland Head Light, an iconic tourist stop. It was completed in 1791 and is the oldest lighthouse in the state.

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A Suite Weekend in Portland

Four Days in Philly

At the end of June, John and I spent a few days together in Philadelphia, PA. We were looking for somewhere that was easy to travel to and neither of us had been to Philly in a long time, so it was an easy choice.

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Day 1

The first day was really just a day spent traveling. J took the bus down from Boston and we met up for a quick lunch at Totto Ramen before taking another bus down to Philly. It was a breezy two hour bus ride. We picked up two banh mi’s at Banh Mi Cali before retiring to our Airbnb for an early night.

Day 2

On our first full day, we started off at Philadelphia Zoo, which is the first true zoo in the U.S. and opened in 1874. It’s home to over 1300 animals, many rare and endangered. There are tubular netted enclosures that crisscross parts of the zoo, which allows for some small primates to run freely during their designated hours. We got to see some of them out and running overhead. One highlight was seeing a baby peacock with its parent. It was so small that you really had to be looking to see it.

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After the zoo, we headed over to Reading Terminal Market, which is probably my favorite place in Philly. It’s one of the oldest and largest public markets in the country. There are dozens of merchants selling different hot foods and groceries. We got donuts from Beiler’s Donuts, a shrimp po’boy at Beck’s Cajun Cafe, and duck noodle soup from Sang Kee Peking Duck. Amazing food.


Then we walked to Rodin Museum, which houses a beautiful collection of sculptures spanning Auguste Rodin’s career. Admission is pay what you wish. I really enjoyed seeing some of his sculptures and were quite captivated by the ones with hands. The copy of The Kiss (1929) is also stunning and captures so much emotion. It’s a beautiful museum with a wonderful garden as well. Really evokes the feeling of being in Paris.

After the museum, we grabbed dessert at Sweet Charlie’s, a small chain serving up Thai inspired ice cream rolls. I got the Love Park, which has chocolate, pretzel, and peanut butter mixed in, and I topped it off with strawberries and donut bites. Toppings are free, so that was amazing. We sat at the nearby Washington Park to eat our ice cream, chat, and people watch (also dog watch. So many dogs!).


For dinner, it was John’s choice at Han Dynasty. It’s a Sichuan chain found in neighborhoods of New York and Philadelphia. The decor struck me as very imperial, and it was very intimate inside. They rank their spice level from 1-10, which is marked next to their spicy foods and you can tailor it to your tastes. We got dumplings in chili oil (4), dan dan noodles (6), and an entree. The dan dan noodles destroyed me that night. My tongue hurt and lips were on fire, and I drank so much water. John was very concerned. The ironic thing was that the entree was less spicy than the noodles, despite having a higher spice marker. Not sure what happened there. The noodles were very good though, super authentic. Ultimately, I didn’t eat much because I was having a hard time with the spiciness.


The next day we slept in a little and popped on over to Pat’s King of Steaks and Geno’s Steaks to check out the battle for the “best” Philly cheesesteak. It’s very intimidating ordering at both places- rather gruff service and long lines. They pretty much require you to know what you want before you get to the window and order correctly. I think we both thought Geno’s tasted better. But from talking to our Lyft drivers, neither is usually a local’s favorite for cheesesteak.

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After eating a lot of cheesesteak, we walked it off and found our way to Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens. It’s an art installation created by Isaiah Zagar from nontraditional materials, including statues, found objects, bike wheels, glass bottles, mirrors, and more. It’s a gorgeous and colorful mosaic space, borne at derelict buildings and empty lots, as part of a revitalization project. There were legal battles involved, but it’s now preserved for the public.


I’ve wanted to visit the place for a while after seeing it pop up on my social media, and it’s honestly so stunning. There are so many unique components that you could really spend hours carefully examining each nook and cranny. However, we were dismayed that for a large portion of our time there, the place was overrun with students from a middle school summer camp. Not the most fun experience with children running and screaming all around you. And it was hot.

After that, we headed to Elfreth’s Alley, often referred to the nation’s oldest residential street. It dates back to 1702 and the houses on the street were built between 1728 and 1836. It’s a rare preservation of homes from that era- so beautiful and colorful.


For dinner, we found ourselves back at Han Dynasty because John loved it so much. We again got dan dan noodles (might have downgraded the spice to a 4 or maybe kept it the same, I don’t remember), along with two entrees. I actually survived the meal this time and was able to appreciate all the flavors.


For dessert, we went to Franklin Fountain for ice cream. It’s styled like an old-school ice cream parlor and the employees even dress the part. I got a cone with a scoop each of peach and coconut ice cream because I couldn’t just pick one flavor. It was a lot of ice cream, too.

Day 4

Since our bus back to New York was at 1pm, we decided to spend our morning until then at Reading Terminal Market. We just ate for two hours from various stands. We got a cookie from Famous 4th Street Cookie, a roast beef sandwich from DiNic’s, fresh squeezed orange juice pressed at the Lancaster County Dairy, alligator gumbo from Beck’s, and ice cream from Bassett’s. What a time.


Overall, Philly makes for a great, short trip. Lots of great food to eat and cool places to see. For transportation, we called Lyft/Uber between our Airbnb and downtown and chatted with many interesting drivers. When we were in the city, we mostly walked between locations. Highly recommend.


Four Days in Philly

june in guangzhou

I never finished writing about my three weeks in China, so here’s the last installment about Guangzhou. I saved it for last because it is special: the city where my parents grew up and where many members of my extended family still call home. I haven’t been to visit in nearly a decade, and it’s stunning to see how much has changed.

It was hot, humid, and just a tad smoggy on the day we arrived at Baiyun International Airport. June in Guangzhou is not the most pleasant, but definitely not as bad as July through September when it gets really brutal with the heat and humidity. Whenever I traveled overseas, I often can’t help but notice how other airports put U.S. ones to shame. Baiyun is beautiful, sleek, and relatively new and still continuing to expand. It’s even connected to the subway system despite how far out it’s located.

Where my grandma lives with my aunts, uncles, and cousins is still very much the same. It feels familiar, although I don’t really have recollections of much. Their neighborhood is part of the older city compared to where my paternal grandpa’s sister and her husband lives, which is much more modern, filled with sleek skyscrapers and newer apartment complexes.

I saw Canton Tower on a few occasions: the first time in daylight while walking through the plaza, the second via a river tour at night, and the third we actually went to the top. Canton Tower was briefly one of the tallest buildings in the world and didn’t exist the first two times I was in Guangzhou. At the top of the tower, there’s actually the world’s tallest horizontal ferris wheel. We came so close to riding it, literally within minutes, but it started raining and they had to shut it down for the night.

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I took the bus often while in Guangzhou. Right downstairs from the apartment complex, there are nearly two dozen different bus lines. One of them takes us right to Baiyun Mountain. It was gray and rainy the day we went, but since I was running low on time to spend in the city, my aunts and uncle decided to take me and my cousin anyway. When we arrived at the base of the park, the trams were actually suspended due to the rain, so we were held up for a little while.

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Ultimately, we made it to the top and enjoyed the view very briefly before the sky decided to open up and pour. It was one of those moments that we were actually able to see the wall of rain approach but were still a tad too slow to react. We, along with a couple dozen other people, took refuge under a covered seating area until the rain died down. We then leisurely made our way down the mountain by foot. On our path, we encountered a bungee jumping locale. Just watching people jump made me dizzy.

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Two other cool spots worth visiting were the Guangzhou Library and Guangdong Museum, which are located very close to one another. The library is multi-level and gorgeous. It reminds me a bit of the Royal Library in Denmark but with much more glass. The Guangdong Museum was cool for looking at some art and historical exhibitions. There were sections about the history, locales, and interesting things about the province, including natural resources, places to visit, and archaeological findings (dinosaur eggs!).

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While in Guangzhou, I had a lot of dim sum (obviously) and geese. With my mom’s closest friends, we went to a few different restaurants located within hotels and building complexes. Getting a table is always an ordeal because so many people go out for dim sum during a very specific set of hours. It helps to reserve a table (or know employees).

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My time in Guangzhou was split between family and my mom’s friends. These are just some of the highlights of my weeks there. One of my greatest disappointments was not getting a chance to go to a McDonalds. All in all, I definitely wanted to see and do more, but hopefully I’ll find time to go back again soon.

june in guangzhou

two days in hong kong

Back in June, while I was still vacationing in China, my mom and I decided to spontaneously go to Hong Kong for two days. During our last week, Typhoon Merbok was wreaking a bit of havoc and brought a lot of rain to the region. That ruined our original plans of visiting another nearby city, and since my mom’s two best friends were free, we decided to go ahead with taking the train to Hong Kong.

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My mom’s friend picked up the three of us from the train station and naturally, after checking in my mom and her friend into their hotel, we headed off to get dim sum at Pak Loh Chiu Chow, a rather upscale restaurant. We got a little tour of Central as we were driving around, trying to navigate the narrow and crowded streets.

After lunch, we went to visit her friend’s new (to us) luxury apartment near Repulse Bay and rest a little. Seeing the place was my mom’s primary reason for coming into the city. It was gorgeous, of course, and had a beautiful view of the bay, marina, and mountains. A super pleasant surprise was when their miniature poodle, Bobby, came running out. He’s about three years old and is absolutely adorable. The crazy thing is that he looks so similar to my friend Candace’s dog, Bagel.

We drove back out for dinner and took a little walking tour of Central and the International Financial Center (IFC) mall. I was able to convince my mom and her friends to let me eat dinner with a friend for a change, so I met Candace for dinner in the mall and we went to a ramen place, Gogyo. The ramen was amazing and we got a side of truffle fries to share. It was pretty exciting having a couple of hours of pure English conversation, and I was telling her about things I found jarring about China/Hong Kong, like the fact that they also use the dollar in HK so it’s a little confusing.

After dinner, I met everyone back at the supermarket downstairs and we drove to the harbour. I convinced Kathy, my mom’s friend’s daughter, to ride the Hong Kong Observation Wheel with my mom and I. Not the tallest or most exciting ferris wheel, but it was pretty cool to see part of the city at night. The ride lasts for 15-20 minutes and costs HK 100.

I stayed over at the apartment since the hotel room was smaller than expected with two slightly larger than twin sized beds. I wasn’t complaining since that meant I got to play with Bobby some more and got the nicest view I’ll likely ever have from any room.


Our plan for the day was to visit Victoria Peak. We took a taxi to the bus stop, just shortly before it started pouring rain. We waited a while for the next bus and by the time it came, the rain had stopped. It was my first time riding a double decker bus in my memory. I can’t believe they let double deckers drive up the hill to Victoria Peak. One time a corner of the bus smacked into some branches which scared the beejesus out of this one guy. Fun and scenic ride, though.


We went to the observation decks, but the fog that day was so intense. We should have expected it after the rain and periodic drizzling. While waiting, I had a green tea egg waffle with some green tea ice cream, and the waffle was pretty darn good. We also took a stroll along Peak Circle Walk, which was super humid and actually gave me rainforest vibes, but there are a few lookouts on the trail over the harbour and city. It’s pretty remarkable how the trails were built on the side of the mountain back in the early 1900s, given how steep it is. My two favorite things were Lugard Falls, a waterfall on the mountain, and these really amazing trees with a lot of aerial roots. I think they could have been Indian banyan trees.

After coming back down from the mountain, we got a late lunch at Penang Prawn Noodle Shop in Central. I had some ho fun with seafood in their spicy prawn soup base. I love noodles, especially the flat ones.

We then walked off our food and checked out some of the street markets and supermarkets. We picked up some fresh lychee and durian to eat back at the apartment before taking the last express train out at 8pm. That was the end of our very short excursion to Hong Kong.

two days in hong kong

climbing the great wall and other challenges

Funnily enough, I never realized that prior going to Beijing, the only pictures I’ve ever seen of the city were always of Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Great Wall, or iconic Olympic buildings like the Bird’s Nest. I just imagined that the city beyond these iconic destinations would be like the many Chinese cities that have blossomed over the last two decades, characterized by towering skyscrapers and flashy shopping streets. However, what I saw of Beijing made me realize that Imperial China and old Chinese streets are still very much part of the present-day city fabric.

My mom and I traveled with a tour group again, but this time it was with a domestic agency GZL, which is located in Guangzhou with partner agencies in other highly visited Chinese cities. It was a smooth fun-only tour as opposed to the Shanghai tour. We were the only two American citizens in the group of 12, which provided a stark contrast to traveling with Chinese emigrates the week earlier.

DAY ONE (kind of)

We arrived at Baiyun Airport at 4:30pm to check in with our tour group at 5pm, well in advance of our 7:30pm flight with Air China, only to later discover that the flight was delayed for “weather-related reasons”. With no posted departure time for hours, we essentially were just left waiting indefinitely after checking in with our tour group and going through security. It didn’t even start raining until much later (around 9:30pm), which only served to frustrate travelers who felt like they were being lied to and unnecessarily inconvenienced.

We were finally allowed to board closer to 10:30pm (which was really closer to our initial arrival time in Beijing) and promptly prepared for taxi and takeoff around 11:10pm, so we didn’t arrive until 2:30am and didn’t get to the hotel until closer to 4am.


We convinced our tour guide 小安 or Little An to give us an 8:30am start to the day, considering we got to the hotel at 4am. He was trying to get us to start at 6am, which none of us were having. Our guide was a surprisingly dorky 22 year old, not much older than I am, who just started working as a guide for 4-5 months.

Our first stop of the day was Tiananmen Square and getting to the place was surprisingly tricky, as the area is heavily guarded with security and contains many different above- and underground pathways. Surprisingly, tour groups get expedited access while other visitors have to wait on a much longer line and normally have to show identification and declare their reasons for visiting.



The Square contains some notable monuments and buildings: the Monument to the People’s Heroes, The Great Hall of the People, the National Museum of China, and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong. Furthermore, Mao declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 in the Square, but Tiananmen Square is also more recently remembered as the site of the 1989 protests.

Standing in Tiananmen Square was kind of a weird experience and it was a pretty smoggy morning. I felt uncomfortable being in such a large open and flat space even though there were so many tourists streaming everywhere. I understood I was standing in a place with so much history, especially visiting just two days after the anniversary of the 1989 protests, yet I was ignorant to most of it. My mom told me what each of the structures stood for, but that was only scratching the surface of all that’s happened in the Square over the couple decades.

After taking ample photos, mostly of Tiananmen, we headed for the National Centre for the Performing Arts, which is colloquially described as a giant egg. The structure is a mix of glass and titanium, making it a rather beautiful structure to behold, in my opinion. There were ample galleries showcasing exhibits on pottery and the Centre’s own shows’ costumes, miniature set designs, and photos.



We then headed back to the Forbidden City, which served as the Chinese imperial palace from 1420 to 1912 and now houses the Palace Museum. The size of the palace grounds (over 180 acres) and number of buildings (980) are absolutely massive. We ate lunch inside the Forbidden City before our guide took us on a 4-hour exploration of the complex.

Coming off a 2am flight, a 4-hour trek was the last thing I wanted to do. Somewhere between hour two and three, under the beating sun, I was already giving up on taking photos and really hating being there. The buildings were starting to look the same to me, and I was understanding none of the facts or stories Little An was telling and my mom was too preoccupied to constantly translate for me.


For a pre-dinner snack, we stopped by Wangfujing, a very popular shopping area with many local brands and foods. We had about 30-40 minutes to explore the area and we toured the little snack street, eating takoyaki, dragon’s beard candy, and little baos. There were lots of seafood, like various squid dishes, and lots of fried scorpions and meat kebabs.

Little An had planned for us to watch a show, but with everyone complaining about how tired we were, he was able to postpone it and dropped us all off at the hotel at 6pm. We had independent dinner and evening time. After a bit of resting, my mom and I headed over to the street diagonally across the way with all the restaurants. We settled on a noodle shop where most bowls of noodles fell around 15 RMB (less than $2!). Probably the best meal I’ve had in while, just because I love spicy noodles.



Highlight of the day (and really the whole trip): The Great Wall of China!

Thank goodness for the early night the day before because we got going at 6am at our guide’s advice that it is best to get to the Great Wall as early as possible, mostly to avoid traffic and large amounts of tourists. Even though we arrived a little before 8am, I was still shocked at the amount of tourists already there and climbing the wall.

We visited the north section of Badaling, the most visited and best preserved section of the Great Wall. On site, we had the option of paying an extra 100 RMB per person for the sliding cars, which would take you straight to tower 4 and save you the climb from towers 1-4. With only two hours on the Wall, my mom paid for the ride, which I was later thankful for, so we could immediately get to the best views.



It got harder to climb the closer we reached towers 7 and 8 because of the number of people and a little due to fatigue. It’s amazing how the steps become so deformed with millions of people walking on them each year. But the view and fresh mountain air were absolutely amazing.

Seriously, get to the wall as early as possible (as soon as it opens), because it starts filling up with people fast and doesn’t make the structure any easier to climb when you’re getting jostled on steep stairs and have to wait for people to pass on narrow pathways. It is also easier before the midday sun and heat hit.


After meeting up with the rest of the group (albeit a half hour late), the guide took us to have an early lunch and got a scenic tour of the small villages at the base of the mountains while driving. We had lunch at a restaurant with food cooked “home-style” by local villagers. We then went cherry picking in what this woman called “her backyard.” There were dozens of cherry trees, planted in about 5 to 6 rows, and they were mostly picked clean already. Most of the remaining cherries sat at the very tops of the trees. Even though the cherries were overpriced at 30 RMB per kg, we picked some and bought them for the experience and to support local farmers.

We then returned to the city and went to see the Summer Palace, a collection of gardens and palaces within the landscape of Longevity Hill and Kunming Lake. It is recognized by UNESCO as “a masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design” and I appreciated the various trees that dates back hundreds of years, as well as the lakefront views especially from the Long Corridor.

Later we visited Guozijian (国子监), which translates to School for the Sons of the State, and is also known as Imperial Academy or Imperial College. It dates back to 1306. During the ancient Chinese dynasties, Guozijians across the country served as the highest institutions of learning. The street on which is located also includes the second largest Confucian temple in China (we didn’t visit it). Guozijian Street, in its old Beijing alley style, is also designated as a historical site and is the only street to retain its archways.


By the time we were done with everything, it was rapidly approaching 6pm, and we were all hungry. However, our guide said that citing delays in the day, we had to watch a theatrical performance before we would be able to get to our restaurant for dinner. The show was Chunyi: The Legend of Kungfu, which claims to have been in production for over a dozen years with thousands of performances. It tells the story of a young monk overcoming his ego to be a great kungfu master. The stunts were impressive and the show was overall entertaining, but I wouldn’t recommend it or declare it as a must-see. It was very much targeted for English-speaking viewers, as the whole show was narrated in English.

We finally got to eat at 9pm at a hot pot restaurant just a short drive away. Hot pot in the summer was just bizarre to me (given the fact that it’s hot), but it was happening. The specialty meat was lamb and there was an assortment of fish balls, veggies, and other sides. We gobbled up the food really quickly and I was even annoyed at the woman next to me who ended up hogging most of the choy for herself. I didn’t understand how everyone else felt satisfied while I was still hungry, but that was just something I was going to have to deal with until breakfast.


The next day was an independent travel day but with an option to pay for a guided tour of Tianjin, a nearby coastal city and the fourth biggest urban area in the country. The majority elected to go on this tour while a few others decided to explore Beijing on their own. We picked up a local guide called Little Yan and we immediately took a liking to her for her sweet voice, good humor, and expertise.

She explained some basic language customs of the city and its history, talking about its European influence which can be seen in some churches and neighborhoods. I really liked the look of the city center, especially with the Hai River cutting through. Little Yan took us to Tianjin’s Italian Style Town which dates back to early 1900s and further talked about the Italian influence and other facets of European history.



Then we went to a mahua (麻花) specialty store, which sells fried dough twists that has been fried in peanut oil. It can be topped with various flavors, like cocoa, peanuts, and black sesame. Mahua is a classic Tianjin snack, so it was fun to see how they’re made and take some for the road.

We then walked to Guwenhua Jie or Tianjin’s Ancient Culture Street, whose architectural style dates back to the Qing dynasty, for a bit of browsing and shopping before lunch at another hot pot place.

After lunch we stopped by Memorial Hall to Zhou Enlai and Deng Yingchao, the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China for nearly 30 years and his wife, also a respected political figure within the Communist Party, respectively. As someone who doesn’t know much of China’s history, this short 30-minute visit was a little bizarre for me. It was definitely interesting to learn about the public reverence this man received in life and after death, for dedicating his life to his country and its politics. I find that it is rare for a political figure to be nearly so unanimously revered by the people.

From there, Little Yan took us on a driving tour through a historic residential district as she talked about its history and pointing out notable houses and residents. Many homes were under the protection of Chinese historical societies.

After we left Tianjin, we headed for dinner at a branch of the famous Quan Ju De (全聚德), which was established in 1864 and is known for its trademark peking roast duck. They paid to obtain the imperial recipe which they then used to sell roast duck to the masses. Unfortunately, I wasn’t too impressed with the duck or the food I had at the restaurant.


On our last day in the city, we left the hotel bright and early at 6:30am to visit the Temple to Heaven, an imperial complex of religious buildings. The emperors during the Ming and Qing dynasties would visit the Hall of Prayers to pray for good harvests. The Circular Mound Altar was where emperors prayed for favorable weather and its circular shape contributes to its ability to echo, which was believed to enhance communication with the heavens. The park around the outside is very calming and because it’s free for seniors, very popular with the older crowd for morning walks and exercises.




We then went to Gongwangfu (恭王府) or Prince Gong’s Mansion. It consists of siheyuan-style mansions and gardens which date back to 1777. We were passed off to a museum tour guide who had to direct 80 people throughout the grounds. I thought it was awful since half the time you could not hear what she was saying and she told off people for taking photos while she was speaking. She also brought us to various shops and took especially long at one that was selling prints of the character 福, meaning fortune. At Gongwangfu, there is a glass-encased stele of the character 福 which is based off of the Kangxi Emperor’s calligraphy. People can rub this (technically the glass exterior) for good luck.


We then took a boat ride as a break for all the walking. It was much needed because next up were the Bell and Drum Towers, which date back to 1272 and were used for telling time and keeping people on schedule during the Han dynasty. We only ascended the Drum Tower, which was possible via a straight staircase with very steep and tall steps and left many people winded. In ancient times, there were 24 drums but only one remains, and it sits encased in glass with very tattered ox hide. We caught the 2:30pm drum performance before leaving. We then got a pedicab tour of the area and took in the old alleyways where many people still live.




For lunch, we went to this secluded dumpling house located on what seemed to be a random alleyway. Before arriving, my mom was asking why our tour guide was taking us down such “sketchy streets” for lunch and on the side, judging him for never having been there. I was actually the one to spot it, as it had a shiny plaque on top of the doorway and looked more intriguing that most buildings we had passed. The inside of the restaurant was beautiful and cozy, like a little indoor garden paradise, and everyone else instantly felt at ease that we were not being lead somewhere dirty and cramped. We feasted on four platters of over 80 hand-wrapped dumplings and some side dishes.

After our bellies were satisfied from having such a late lunch, we made our way back out to the main road. We then drove on to Olympic Green, where the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games was held. Another local guide affiliate took us on a walking tour and explained the recent history of the Olympic area. He was the one to tell us about Beijing’s north-south or Central axis, on which many of the old city’s most notable structures are built on, because it extends to the Olympic park. We were able to see all the way across the city to the Bell and Drum Towers that we visited earlier in the day.

At the Olympic park, we took photos in front of the National Stadium or more commonly known as “Bird’s Nest” and Beijing National Aquatics Center or “Water Cube”. I thought the area could use more trees as the wide open space lets a lot of wind through and isn’t very pleasant for walking.


We also took a brief museum tour about children who were sent to the countryside to work in the 1960s and 70s, which detailed conditions of daily life and tragedies. I didn’t understand much of it since there were zero English translations, although my mom explained her oldest brother was sent away for some years and conceptualized it for me in basic terms. The others also didn’t really understand why we were going on this look into history even though they remembered it as part of their families’ and country’s history.

Wrapping up our trip with Olympic park, we then headed to the airport for our flight back to Guangzhou, but en route, we found out it was canceled from one of the tourists’ drivers scheduled to pick her up later that night. When we got to the airport, our guide managed to reschedule the flights for the next morning at 7:35am, but neither the airline nor agency would be providing overnight accommodations. This last announcement created five hours of arguing and bad moods, culminating in an agreement on everyone paying out-of-pocket for a 170 RMB stay at a nearby hotel, which was rather gross but survivable.

My mom and I went out for dinner with two other people on our tour at 11pm. In the commotion, no one had the time to stop to think about food. We managed to find something to eat at a nearby strip of restaurants: some choy, dumplings, and noodles to hold us over until the next morning.

At 4am, we got out of bed to prepare to leave for the airport at 5am, when we heard lots of loud yelling in Cantonese out in the hall. It turned out to be our guide’s next group of tourists, who also had a delayed arrival like we did and were furious at their shitty hotel accommodation for the next four days. They apparently bought a lower-ended package (around 2000-2500 RMB) without realizing, I guess, what exactly they were paying for. My tour’s package was priced at 3800 RMB, although we paid 3200 RMB. I felt bad for our guide, who had to deal with two angry groups consecutively, especially with very little experience.

All in all, Beijing was an okay experience. I would return again for the friends I didn’t get to see and perhaps to see what the day-to-day life is really like there instead of just a tour of the imperial history and typical landmarks.

climbing the great wall and other challenges

that time i (sort of) went to shanghai


I was halfway through writing a recap about my trip to Shanghai and nearby Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces before I truly discovered and realized the dark reality of the kind of shopping-centric tour my mom and I joined. I don’t look back on this trip fondly and instead it fills me with disappointment and absolute rage as I remember our naïveté. My only solace is that there are others like us on the tour and in the past and that our feelings can be shared with each other and with the world through writing and exposure.

Here is a recap of the mix of cultural and shopping related destinations on our week long tour with Tian Bao Travel and why I ultimately would advise against paying money for this bullshit.


Our first night in Shanghai was our only independent travel time, so my mom scheduled a meet-up with an old friend currently working in the city to take us around for a few hours. We explored Yuyuan Bazaar or Chenghuangmiao, which is the commercial area surrounding the City Temple of Shanghai. Of course, I had to get eat some xiao long bao (soup dumplings) and shengjian mantou (pan-fried baozi) while I was in Shanghai.

After eating a light dinner, we walked over to see the Bund at night, which is the classic tourist thing to do. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve seen it so many times over my friends’ Instagram accounts but I was a little underwhelmed. The thing that I noticed the most was the sheer number of people out and about Shanghai’s downtown at night. It’s seriously suffocating and Shanghai really takes the term crowded to a whole new level for me.

One of my favorite things to do in new cities is take their metro system, so I was happy we got to take the train to a stop closest to the hotel and then a taxi back. Watching the hundreds of people pay for tickets, enter and exit the station, and walking to and from was a whole new experience. People are ruthless when it comes to getting on and off trains. In the few days I’ve been in China, I’ve learned to enter and exit trains with purpose and speed or else you’ll just get shoved aside.

The next morning we met up with our tour group in the lobby and then the 38 of us set out to the city. We ended up visiting Yuyuan Bazaar and the Bund again, neither of which is as exciting in the daylight in my opinion. We only had about half an hour at each location, so we were both glad we went the night before on our own time and being able to thoroughly enjoy them.


After lunch in Shanghai, we headed to a latex foam mattress showplace and factory for Sealy and with their own products labeled Artiflam. We witnessed the salesperson test the elasticity of a cheaper Costco brand and their brand’s using eggs and dropping a weight on them. The egg broke between the Costco brand, but not for their brand. We even went as far as having a tourist volunteer to put their arm in between two of their pillows and have a weight drop on it (naturally, his arm was fine). Then we as a group spent two and a half hours testing and buying mattresses and pillows, as well as talking to the multiple salespeople in the room.


From there, we got to Hangzhou and picked up our local tour guide, who would be spending the next day showing us around the city and explaining the culture. Our cultural destination for the day was City God’s Pavilion. We got to the top just a little after sunset and from the third floor, we had a sweeping view of the mountains and West Lake.

On the morning of our third day, our first destination was a teahouse. We learned about what kinds of health benefits longjing tea provides and what conditions produce high quality tea leaves. I was told tea leaves picked in March produce the highest quality tea, while April tea leaves produces the next best quality and is often most common. They cautioned against tea leaves picked in May and anytime after.

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A popular thing to for many people to do in China is infuse bottled water or boiled tap water with tea leaves and other ingredients to make the water taste better. The saleslady showed us that supposedly you can tell what tea leaves are organic by spinning your water bottle and see if the bubbles produced will defuse quickly or not. If the bubbles stay, that means there were pesticides added and therefore not organically grown. I don’t know if there’s any truth to her words.

I was disappointed we didn’t get to tour the tea fields, even though I wasn’t expecting us to. The teahouse was set in the middle of terraced hills cultivated to grow tea leaves. The rolling countryside looked so beautiful. After we ate lunch and dropped off our local guide in the city, we drove on to Wuxi.


WUXI (无锡)

After lunch, we visited this CCTV period drama filming set and amusement park-type place, where we took a 20-minute boat excursion on Lake Taihu and then watched a 15-minute imperial period military performance.

The next morning, our first stop was a pearl jewelry corporation. I learned that it’s possible for humans to raise clams to produce pearls, although they are valued much less than pearls produced in the wild. I even got to see what it’s like to harvest pearls from a clam, as one of the sales associates cracked a clam open as part of the demonstration.


While in Wuxi, we also visited Shuaiyuan Redware Museum, which is dedicated to the local craftsmanship of yixing clay teapots, but is also a commercial demonstration store. Yixing clay is also known as zi sha and has been in use since as early as the Song dynasty (10th century). Teapots made from this clay have very special characteristics, including its porous nature and mineral content which enable them to retain the taste of the specific tea variety used with them after a long period of time. Such teapots can range from a few dozen yuan to hundreds of thousands of yuan, and its value depends on the type of clay, artist, and style among other factors.

Fine craftsmanship of a zi sha teapot is demonstrated how the water flows out of the pot and its proportions. Is the water a continuous stream? Can the flow be stopped by plugging a small hole? Does the lid fit perfectly? It was pretty exciting to see the demonstrations and to read about the history of yixing clay and pottery.


We had a long drive to Nanjing after the morning shopping spree and lunch and picked up our local tour guide for the day and a half. Late in the afternoon we arrived at Purple Mountain or Zhongshan Mountain National Park, which contains four famous scenic areas and is known for being enveloped by purple clouds during dawn and dusk. We visited Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s Mausoleum where Sun Yat-sen, who is considered the founder of the Republic of China, is buried. It’s located on the second peak of Purple Mountain and it takes 394 steps to get up there, but the view is stunning and there is so much cultural significance in the whole park. Unfortunately we only had 30 minutes to walk there and back to the meeting point, so I didn’t get to enjoy the view for too long.

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After dinner, we went to see the nightlife in the city near Nanjing Fuzimiao, which literally means Confucian Temple, and is located on the banks of the Qinhuai River. We had about half an hour to explore the dining and shopping streets. I opted to get a large xiao long bao with crab meat because it came with a straw and looked fun.

The next morning our first shopping stop was a jade store called Tian Fu Jewelry. We learned about different types of jade and some signs for distinguishing real from fake, including the way it sounds and how it scratches glass. Like all the other shopping destinations, we spent about 2-3 hours in this shop.

We also went to “reverse glass painting” or “inner painting” artwork showcase, which was being hosted in one of the towers of Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge. Inner painting is a complex Chinese art form which involves elaborate pieces of art being painted inside glass bottles. Due to the strain on the eyes, given the fine brush marks and small viewing hole, many masters retire as early as the age of 50. Chang Feng‘s art was on display and his pieces went from 300 RMB to a few thousand. The artist was also in residence working periodically on a small flask-shaped bottle during the duration of our visit.


In Suzhou, we had another local tour guide who took us on a boat tour when we arrived, as the city is famous for its canals, stone bridges, and pagodas. Afterward we went to see the city skyline on the bank of Jinji Lake. One of the most famous buildings is Gate to the East, which was just recently completed in 2016, and can be seen to the left of the picture below. We were also able to see the sunset and that had everyone oo-ing and ah-ing. Two people were even getting their wedding photos done on the lakeside.


The next morning we visited a silk store where we were advertised silk blankets and bedding, as well as scarves and other articles of clothing. It was so hectic since our tour guide kept rushing shoppers and only bringing out limited numbers of products for people to choose from. She really made it seem like people had to buy them now or regret it later.


We returned to Shanghai for lunch and then set off for our second jade stop of the week, called Tian Mai Jewelry. I wrote a separate more detailed post about the exploitation of foreign shoppers that happens within this store. This stop ultimately ruined the trip for me, as I am still reeling at how complicit so many people can be (our tour guide, the sales associates, the “CEO”) in misleading shoppers and grossly marking up prices.

We also made a stop at a place specializing in Chinese medicine, where we also received foot baths and massages. Eastern medicine doctors gave interested people consultations about their health and then made recommendations for medicinal packages, which turned out to be another low-key scam situation. My mom talked about how sometimes she gets bruising and swelling on her legs (due to insufficient exercise and other issues) and the doctor recommended medicine that would cost 900 RMB a month for an unspecified length of time. Thankfully my mom didn’t take the bait on this one, knowing how the effects of medicine must be evaluated over a long period of time and requires constant consultation and conversation with the doctor.

After dinner, we made our final stop of the trip by seeing an acrobatic show and “multimedia spectacular” called ERA: Intersection of Time. Acts included a man balancing on a board on top of a rolling cylinder while flipping bowls onto his head, women doing tricks on bicycles, a man throwing a large porcelain vase and being able to catch it on top of his head, men doing tricks on a spinning giant wheel with three smaller wheels attached, and motorcyclists within a gated sphere. I fell asleep multiple times during the second portion after intermission, mostly because it was bedtime (9pm lol) and less because of a lack of interest.


I did feel like I gained some cultural exposure on this trip by learning about tea, yixing clay, and inner painting, as well as visiting Sun Yat-sen’s Mausoleum. There were things that I would not have experienced on any other kind of tour or even of my own discovery, like seeing the inside of a pearl-producing clam. For a $50 USD base fee, we did a lot, ate a lot, and slept well (usually at least 4 star hotels but one night was pretty awful).

However, the fact that it was a shopping-centric tour really kills it for me. Despite being told we were getting special deals and great discounts, we were often paying market price and more for products. Furthermore, we would be stuck at locations for 2-3 hours until people bought enough to satisfy the corporations. In contrast, we would spend about a half hour at scenic destinations. Of course, I didn’t know what I was going to be in for since my mom made the travel arrangements. I don’t even know if her travel agent or friends who advised her “see but not buy” understand how fucked up the sales strategies and set-ups are.

For people looking to save a few hundred bucks on airfare to China, this kind of tour is usually a recommended remedy. I say just pay the few hundred bucks and save yourself from shopping-induced heartache and not being fulfilled on a trip. Join a real tour that will take you on the fun destinations and let you spend more than 30 minutes there. You usually get what you pay for, so at least make sure your hard earned money is going to reputable sources and supporting the right organizations and people.

I look forward to going back to Shanghai in the future and actually seeing the city by traveling independently. I want to enjoy the recommendations my friend kindly sent to me from her time abroad and more importantly, visit Disneyland.

that time i (sort of) went to shanghai