Five Days in Cleveland

When making plans for summer trips, Cleveland, Ohio isn’t usually the first place most people have in mind. Telling people I had plans to visit Cleveland was often met with furrowed eyebrows, but I think many people underestimate Cleveland. It’s certainly not a flashy city, but it still has many good things going for it that makes it worth visiting. For me, one of those good things is one of my best friends, Mandy.

Mandy and I have been learning to master the art of long distance friendships since the start of collegemaybe even since high school when we went to different schools after middle school. It’s been a long time. I’m grateful that we don’t have to talk every day or even for weeks at a time, yet when we get together, it’s like there’s been no time apart.

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Since we both wouldn’t be in New York at the same time at the end of the summer, I decided to visit her now before my other travel plans and moving to work abroad. The day I flew in was the same day she was moving into her new apartment, so it was a little chaotic, but still manageable. I’m absolutely obsessed with her new place; it’s a beautiful and spacious 2-bedroom apartment, with walls painted a soft pinky beige and has ample sunlight streaming in at all hours. It makes me so jealous what $1300 can get you in Cleveland compared to Boston or New York.

The first day was spent helping Mandy move in and buying immediate apartment necessities with the assistance of her boyfriend, Yoon. We picked up shower curtains, cabinet liners, The rest of the week was spent waiting for some other essential furniture pieces, like mattress, bed frame, chairs, and work desk. We had something new to assemble almost every day. Aside from apartment-oriented activities, we ate out a lot and went to some cool places.

Normally for my travel diaries, I do day by day breakdowns, but since this trip wasn’t very jam-packed with activities and pictures, I’m going to do broader summaries and highlight what’s worth talking about.

CLEVELAND MUSTS

Mitchell’s
I am a big fan of ice cream and if you are too, Mitchell’s is the place to go. Their ice cream is handcrafted in their Ohio City kitchen, which is open for public viewing, and the company is focused on sustainability and contributing to Northeast Ohio communities. I was super excited to visit their Ohio City location and to get more of the banana cream pie flavor that I loved so much last time.

West Side Market
Mandy and I tried coming here on Tuesday without realizing that it was closed, so tip to visitors: make sure you check the operating hours. West Side Market is located in a beautiful concourse and boasts hundreds of vendors selling meats, sweets, fresh produce, and more. We picked up some desserts, our favorite beef jerky sticks (smokeys), and fresh fruit.

SOME PLACES WE ATE AT

LJ Shanghai
This is one of Mandy and Yoon’s go-to places to eat. For dinner one night, we each got a bowl of the Chongqing spicy beef noodle soup, as well as an order of soup dumplings to share. The noodle soup was fantastic and really hit the spot, although it could have been spicier and had even more noodles.

TownHall
TownHall was probably my favorite restaurant of the whole trip. The restaurant has one side that has wait service and the other, you order at the counter, but they both serve the same food. We couldn’t get seats immediately at the wait service side, so we just opted for the cafe. We each got the grassfed burger, which comes with a side of truffle oil and Parmesan fries. Absolutely delicious.

Map of Thailand
While Cleveland, I also met up with my friend Danielle who is from here. She took me to her favorite Thai restaurant and she was boggled by how full it was during lunch, since she only goes at odd hours. It was really great being able to catch up with her and talk to her about post-grad life.

Morton’s The Steakhouse
I’ve never been to a steakhouse before, but dang, they are expensive. We went to the Tower City location for dinner before seeing a play. The waiter recommended the prime cajun ribeye, so that’s what I got. It was cooked to a perfect medium, in my opinion. You couldn’t really taste any cajun spice, but it makes for a nice rub on the meat and adds a smokey flavor. Yoon and Mandy both got the prime ribeye (Mandy added some truffle), and we got matchstick fries and spinach and mushrooms to share. Not sure if eating 16oz of meat in one sitting is really my thing, but it was a neat experience even if I’m not eager to repeat it anytime soon.

THINGS WE DID

SPACES
When we found out West Side Market was closed on Tuesday, we scrambled to find an alternate plan, and Mandy found this art gallery. At the time, she didn’t give me any extra information, nor did I ask for any details, yet I was on the fence about going. However, since there wasn’t anything else to do, we decided to go anyway and I’m so thankful we did because it was really cool.

There was one exhibit about the Seattle campaign for safer drug consumption sites, which was a remarkable example of health communication and public health promotion through digital print and stories. I spent my last semester lobbying for the implementation of such sites in Massachusetts, so it was really amazing to see the exhibit in Ohio. Another piece that stuck out to me was Roopa Vasudevan’s Editor’s Notes, which showcases edits to the Constitution with written print or spoken words from the Trump administration. It is a powerful statement criticizing the values (or lack thereof) of the current presidency.

Tabletop Board Game Cafe
One of my favorite places! Super cozy and casual, perfect place to hang out with a few friends. Mandy and I spent three hours playing a variety of games, including my favorites Organ Attack, Scrabble, and Pandemic, at this board game cafe. There’s a $5 cover charge, so we had to get our money’s worth by staying there for a bit.

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin at Allen Theatre, Playhouse Square
Mandy asked me if I wanted to see a play after she found tickets on Groupon. I knew nothing about who Hershey Felder or Irving Berlin were beyond the short description of the performance, but decided to do it because exposing yourself to new experiences is the only way to broaden your knowledge. Yoon, Mandy, and I were by far the youngest people in attendance, which I didn’t really notice until we were into the play. It made sense once I realized that Irving Berlin was a famous composer and performer from the early 19th century. By famous, I mean a literal American icon who produced popular songs like “God Bless America”, “Blue Skies”, and “White Christmas”.

After the show, Hershey Felder held a question and answer session with the audience, which I really appreciated. He gave us insight into his craft and characters, and I really admire his talent, intelligence, and abilities. Each character takes him years to develop, and Felder writes and performs all by himself. I think he’s a truly brilliant storyteller.

Incredibles 2
I was adamant about watching Incredibles 2 on the day it came out, so we went to the local cinema to catch it. Matinee tickets were just $7! We were both buzzing with excitement, and the movie didn’t disappoint, even after 14 years of waiting. Jack Jack and the racoon were the real stars of the show.

With all Pixar movies, there is a preceding short film. Bao confused me, particularly when I first saw the trailer, but upon seeing the whole short film, I realize it’s about a story about a mom coming to terms with her son to grow up and leave home. Most importantly, it’s situated in Chinese culture and there are so many details that resonate with me. It’s such a beautiful, wordless film and I think it really tugs at the heartstrings. I love this LA Times interview with the director, which provides more artistic insight to the short. I love that Pixar is diversifying their storytelling, and props to Domee Shi for being the first woman to direct a Pixar short and surrounding herself with people who helped bring her vision to life.

Overall, I had a lovely week in Cleveland and can already think of things I want to do next time.

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Five Days in Cleveland

That Time We Went to Budapest & Vienna

After coming home from abroad, I took a break from blogging because I didn’t feel like I had much to write about. During that time, I celebrated my one year anniversary with John and coincidentally we spent it on a week-long trip to Budapest and Vienna (that was when our February break was). Since then, we’ve celebrated our two year anniversary and my twenty-second birthday, but I still want to share some moments from our 2017 trip.

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Day 1

We flew out of Boston Logan International Airport to Budapest in the evening on Air France with one layover in the early morning in Paris. We had the most legroom ever in coach for no additional cost on this flight as we magically snagged seats in the first aisle of our section. It was glorious.

I was pretty excited we could take the train from the airport to the city center. Transportation in so many European cities is seriously top-notch; it’s so easy to get around.

For an early dinner, John found a recommendation for Lucky 7 Burgers and More on Reddit. We were unashamed to have flown a couple thousand miles just to eat some burgers. They were pretty dang good burgers, too. It’s nice to have a little taste of home before getting on with more traditional and local fare.

We went to bed early our first night to adjust to the time difference and get enough sleep to power us through the next day. We stayed in a pretty central Airbnb in the Inner City, which was in walking distance of metro stops and many cool and historical sites, including the Dohány Street Synagogue (the largest synagogue in Europe).

Day 2

We stumbled upon the Miniverseum when we were out exploring the city and walked by it at first, but then doubled back to go inside. The museum showcases intricate, 1:100-scale models of Hungarian, Austrian & German landmarks and is one of the largest miniverseums in the world.

We got a chimney cake rolled in cinnamon sugar from a street vendor as we continued on our walk. It was tasty and perfect for snacking.

I believe afterward we went to see House of Terror, a museum documenting the effects of the Nazi and Soviet regimes in Hungary and serving as memorial to victims. It was definitely an intense experience, but very eye-opening to the history of the region.

As the sun was setting, we went to see the Danube and the Hungarian Parliament Building. We crossed a bridge somewhere to get a better view of the building in its entirety.

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For dinner, we scoured TripAdvisor and discovered Bors GazstroBar, which ended up being a short walk from our stay. It offers super cheap and delicious soups and sandwiches made with baguettes. It’s got charm and quirky decor, notably Darth Vader brandishing a baguette. Not much sitting space, just a place where you wait, order, and take your food to go. We got an amazing cup of cheesy potato and bacon soup and two sandwiches. I don’t remember which ones, but it was quality street food.

Day 3

We spent our third day in Budapest continuing to explore some of its famous landmarks. One of our favorite things about the city is how manageable it is to walk from one side of the city to the other. We first went to see the Citadella, which is a fortress located on top of Gellért Hill. Both were sites we could view from our Airbnb on a clear day. It was fun climbing to the top and the views of the entire city is absolutely breathtaking.

We continued on to see Buda Castle, Matthias Church, and Fisherman’s Bastion, all icons in Buda’s Castle District. Buda Castle is the historical castle and palace complex of the Hungarian kings. If we had more time in Budapest, I would have loved to tour the inside. We went on to see Matthias Church, also from the outside. John didn’t have any interest of going in (there’s also a small fee), so we observed the exterior architecture. I thought the colors of the roof were stunning. We attempted to get some Instgram-worthy shots at Fisherman’s Bastion, but the light and shadows were just not in our favor on the cloudy day.

We made our way down and across Széchenyi Chain Bridge, the iconic suspension bridge between Buda and Pest, just as the sun was setting.

For dinner, we ate at Sir Lancelot Lovagi Étterem, or Sir Lancelot’s Knights Restaurant, which is a medieval themed restaurant that reminded me of other medieval-themed experiences I had as a kid. It’s a super lively and entertaining environment with staff in character. The restaurant has a wonderful selection of roast meat and platters- you definitely don’t leave hungry.

We were unfortunately in kind of a rush through dinner (not a quick affair) so that we could make our escape the room reservation. John really wanted to try an escape the room quest and found one at Gozdu Mission, again relatively close to where we were staying. We were playing the role of prisoners trying to break out in under an hour and actually succeeded with about a minute or two to spare! Mostly thanks to John’s math skills at the end.

Day 4

The next day, we left early for Vienna via the train at Budpest-Keleti Railway Terminal. I find that there’s always some magic about train terminals, probably due to train culture from the 1900s. It was about a 2.5-3 hour train ride through the eastern European countryside. We figured out how to take three different metro lines to our Airbnb and dropped off our stuff before heading out for the afternoon.

Our first stop in Vienna was Tiergarten Schönbrunn, or the zoo. It’s the oldest operating zoo in the world, dating back to its days as an imperial menagerie in 1752, and one of the few in the world to house giant pandas. I was really excited to see a koala and some other animals they had at the zoo.

After spending a few hours there, we walked over to see Schönbrunn Palace, a former imperial summer residence. We didn’t go inside, but the grounds themselves were grand, even in the winter.

For dinner, John insisted on finding some Asian fare, so we went to eat at Gu, a well rated Chinese restaurant in the city. I think the owners were very intrigued by us being two Chinese American tourists. It’s a small family business, operated by a husband (chef) and wife (host/waitress) duo and their son (also a chef/assistant). John ended up conversing with them in Mandarin, and we learned that they intended to move to Paris but ended up settling in Vienna instead. The chef also came out to meet us and even took a picture of us eating their food, almost made us feel like celebrities (the chef did say John had some resemblance to pianist Lang Lang).

But the real highlight of the meal was trying Almdudler, Austria’s iconic carbonated drink, for the first time at the recommendation of my friend Helena. It’s akin to ginger ale, but not quite. Very tasty.

Day 5

We kicked off our second day in Vienna by visiting the Naschmarkt, the city’s best known market with about 120 stands selling produce and products from dozens of different origins. We also had lunch nearby at Ra’Mien, for more Asian-inspired cuisine. John picked it because he knew I love noodles, and it was pretty good (doesn’t compare to American Chinese food though).

After lunch, we walked around the old city center and picked up some Manner brand wafers at a shop. I was taken aback by the size of Stephansdom, or St. Stephen’s Cathedral. It’s the mother church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vienna and is a ginormous structure in the middle of much smaller buildings. They’re in the middle of cleaning the exterior, so some parts of it are whiter and more restored than others.

We also saw Hofburg Palace, which used to be the principle imperial palace and seat of the Habsburg rulers. With some backtracking and dedicated searching, we also went to see the State Hall of the Austrian National Library. It’s a breathtaking library dating back to the 18th century- just absolutely stunning.

Day 6

John wasn’t really all that interested in Vienna and insisted on spending some time studying for the MCAT, so I headed out alone for some independent adventuring. My first stop was the Palace of Justice, the seat of the Austrian Supreme Court. One of the most stunning sights is the staircase located within. Visitors are allowed to enter; you just have to go through security, which can be a little intimidating. But the grand staircase is worth it, and not many people come through to view it.

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Afterward, I head back toward the city to grab a quick bite to eat at Bitzinger’s Sausage Stand, which is just outside the Albertina, an art museum best known for its print collection but also boasts many other paintings. I got to see some pieces from my favorite post-Impressionist artists. Bitzinger’s a foodie’s must-eat locale when in Vienna, or so I was told by TripAdvisor. Top-notch sausage and I got a bottle of Almdudler to drink alongside it. It was a peak Austrian moment.

I met John for dinner at Brezlgwölb, a restaurant that Helena recommended to us for traditional Austrian fare. It was a super cozy place and had some pretty good food. We got the schnitzel, of course, and another entrée.

Day 7

We both were looking forward to heading back to Budapest to round out our trip. After dropping off our stuff at a different Airbnb location, we checked out Central Market Hall, which is the largest and oldest indoor market in the city. It’s housed inside a gorgeous building, and there are a mixture of hot food, produce, and souvenir stands inside. We got things to eat at multiple stands and picked up some souvenirs along the way.

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We went back to see Fisherman’s Bastion again to try to get some more photos and enjoy the sights one last time.

For dinner, we picked a place off the street for some Hungarian fare. I really wanted to try goulash and chicken paprikash. At the place we went to, both dishes were good but didn’t blow me away. In hindsight, I should have done more research about best places to eat. We grabbed some gelato for dessert and wrapped up our week in Budapest and Vienna.

The next day, we flew out from Budapest with a layover in Paris again. Budapest was definitely my favorite of the two cities, but they both really enticed me to the slower charm of Eastern Europe. There’s still so much more to do and eat that we didn’t get around to, most notably the thermal baths. John forgot to bring swim trunks, and we just didn’t make it a priority to go, so next time, that’s first on my list.

That Time We Went to Budapest & Vienna

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.

DAY 3

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

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.

DAY TWO

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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DAY THREE

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

DAY FOUR

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.

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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.

DAY FIVE

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

SHANGHAI (上海)

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.

HANGZHOU (杭州)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

NANJING (南京)

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.

SUZHOU (苏州)

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.

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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.

SHANGHAI AGAIN

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.

THE VERDICT

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

a weekend in cleveland

Cheap flights are both a blessing and a curse because while I get to travel for very low prices, I also find myself agreeing to wake up at ungodly hours (or sometimes, not going to sleep at all) and that makes me feel pretty shitty physically. This past week, I found myself hopping on a 6:35am flight to visit one of my oldest and best friends, Mandy, in Cleveland, Ohio.

THURSDAY

On my first day, many of Mandy’s friends asked me why I was in Cleveland. It’s not exactly the destination most people have in mind when they make travel plans for spring break, so the confusion was understandable. The irony was also not lost on them as I joked about leaving my school just to attend another school. With a cup of mocha iced coffee in hand, I even dutifully followed Mandy to two of her three classes. That was also where I was introduced to two of her mentors and professors, Tony Jack and Insoo Hyun, who specialize in neuroscience and philosophy and bioethics and stem cell research ethics, respectively.

Professor Hyun’s lecture of the day was on human biomaterials procurement, discussing the principles of procurement and payment models. I learned that only two states in the U.S. provide compensation (getting paid in addition to reimbursements) for women who voluntarily donate eggs to research. That’s pretty shocking to me, considering the time and physical burdens that women have to undertake to do this. The lecture was phenomenal, simply because he made everything really easy to understand and I was just really interested in the topic.

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Afterward, we ate lunch at a restaurant on campus called Michelson and Morley and the name is a homage to the 1887 experiment that occurred on campus. It lead to physicist Albert Michelson winning the Nobel Prize and laid the groundwork for Einstein’s theory of relativity. The more you know.

The food at Michelson and Morley is locally sourced and has rotating seasonal menus. Don’t be fooled by the fancy interior because the food is relatively affordable. We shared the flat bread with duck confit, fontina, picked red onion, roasted pear glaze, and arugula. Not going to lie, I drooled a little while eating. For our main dishes, I had the burger (with pimiento cheese, bread and butter pickles, and lettuce on a brioche bun) while Mandy ordered the chicken Milanese (topped with fried egg, arugula, sundried tomato aioli, and pancetta on an onion roll). The herb fries on the side were amazing, as was everything else, and surprisingly I demolished my whole plate.

After that, we walked off our food babies by taking a tour through campus and killed a bit of time until the Food Week keynote lecture on “The New American Food System” by Warren Taylor, founder of Snowville Creamery. As per the event description, it focused on the differences between “extractive” and “restorative” forms of agriculture and how consumers, animals, and the environment can stand to benefit from a return to sustainable production. Taylor was quite the interesting character and I gained a bit of insight into what a sustainable form of dairy farming could look like.

Later in the night for dessert, Mandy took me to Mitchell’s Ice Cream, which sources their ingredients from local family farms and uses local grass-fed dairy. I picked their banana cream pie which includes fresh banana ice cream, homemade marshmallow ribbon, and homemade shortbread crust. Very low-key banana flavor and I think the shortbread is the real winner. She had the fresh strawberry. I can definitely see how Mitchell’s is a must when visiting Cleveland.

FRIDAY

We kicked off the late morning (really noontime) by heading over to Cleveland Museum of Art, which is internationally renowned for its diverse art collection and is amazingly at the doorstep of Case’s campus. The museum’s motto is, “For the benefit of all people, forever.” True to its words, the museum’s main exhibitions are free to all visitors (!!!). One of my favorite collections was their Egyptian wing. I spent a bit of time admiring the art on the sarcophagus. CMA also has quite a bit of post-Impressionist art, even their own Monet Water Lillies, as well as contemporary art, such as Picasso and Warhol.

CMA also currently has a photography exhibition called Black in America: Louis Draper and Leonard Freed, which I found really both stunning and powerful. It was definitely one of the exhibits I spent the most time in. Both photographers showcased the life and challenges of being black in America, especially throughout the Civil Rights era, through portraiture and street photography. From the CMA website: “Both artists were incredibly talented formalists who put that skill at the service of expression. They also shared a goal: to create dignified depictions of African Americans that portrayed them not as victims or heroes but as individuals.”

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Then we met up with Mandy’s friend, Garretson, to take the bus into downtown for lunch. The HealthLine is a free public bus service that runs along Euclid Avenue, the main street, for 6.8 miles in the city. They took me to Barrio, a taco restaurant, where you get to build your own tacos. Mandy described it as “Chipotle but for tacos”, but that does not encapsulate the experience at all. You get to pencil in your selections on a paper menu and the tacos start as cheap as $3 a pop. And they are not tiny whatsoever! I’m used to tacos that can fit in the palm of my hand, but Barrio tacos are no joke. I only wish I took more appetizing photos of my meal. I’m still thinking about the queso and the double soft and hard shell tacos. Sigh.

We then stopped into the Arcade, a Victorian-era structure from 1890. It is one of the earliest indoor shopping malls in the U.S. Some of the upper floors today function as part of the Hyatt Regency Hotel while the lower ones remain commercial and open to the public.

SATURDAY

Getting out of bed Saturday morning was a struggle because Mandy’s sorority formal was the night before and we went to sleep pretty late. The first thing on the agenda was the West Side Market, the oldest publicly owned market in Cleveland. There’s fresh produce, meats, cheeses, sweets, and many other things for sale in the bustling hub.

One place that caught my eye was Euro Sweets because they had the most stunning array of European treats. I got the dobos torte (so good!) and a selection of their macarons (get the earl grey). The unexpected discovery was Czuchraj Meats, which sells homemade smoked meats and has pretty famous beef jerky. One of the employees was super friendly and engaged us in conversation after seeing us try to take a picture in front of the stall. He gave us some beef jerky samples and enticed us enough to buy some jerky and smokeys (akin to Slim Jims). I highly recommend the jalapeno smokey (which actually drew the attention of TSA officers when I went through security the next day).

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Garretson picked us up from the Market and drove us down to see Free Stamp, an outdoor sculpture located in Willard Park. Thanks to Garretson for lending a knee to help me get up onto the sculpture. Mandy and I spent an embarrassingly long amount of time just sitting on the grass contemplating how to get on it while he went to find parking. As such, Mandy wouldn’t let us leave until I got on the sculpture and took some photos.

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For dinner, we headed off to Boiling Seafood Crawfish. Who knew you could find a Cajun-Creole place that sells seafood by the bag in Cleveland? We went for the Ultimate Experience, which included a pound of crawfish, a pound of shrimp, andouille sausages, half a pound of clams, half pound of snow crab, two corns, two potatoes, and a side of calamari. We went with the cajun sauce and a mild spicy level. So good and just the right amount of spice.

There’s definitely something fun and social about coming together over a bag of seafood. I’ve never cracked open crawfish before- definitely interesting to see what’s inside (it’s like a mini lobster). It was a really mouthwatering meal and I can’t wait to do it again.

After dinner, we drove over to Wade Lagoon, which is one of Garretson’s favorite spots near campus. We caught a little bit of light just before the sun fully set and had some fun shooting photos through the cherry blossom trees.

We finished off the night with Belgian waffles and ice cream at Garretson’s apartment with good vibes and good conversations. I napped on and off until I had to leave at 4am for my flight (brutal).

Thanks for a great time, Cleveland. You were a pleasant surprise and delight.

a weekend in cleveland