Beauty in the land – Guilin, China (SAS)

When reality set In that I was going to be heading to China with Semester at Sea, I honestly wasn’t so sure what I would be doing in China. It was never a place I’d see myself going to – but here I was on my way! I wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle, the pollution I have heard so much about, and while I wanted to see the Great Wall, I felt I wanted an experience a little more diverse, something I could relate to…something I would fall in love with. As such, I set my heart on going to Guilin, China way up in the mountains. Why? Well, initially I was simply interested in seeing the great wonders of Guilin: Reed Flute Cave and Elephant Trunk Hill. I am a nature junky, I love caves, I love to climb and hike, so I felt this would be the best choice for me. Little did I know, Guilin held something so much more precious, something I know will stick with me forever.

We did visit the caves and the hill I mentioned, and I loved every second of it. While extremely touristy, I tried to see past that as I placed the palm of my hands inside Reed Flute Cave and tried to absorb the 180 million year old phenomenon it is. The cave was decked out in colorful lights, and although I would have preferred to see it in its natural state, the colors did give its amazing structure charm. This cave has seen so much – I wish it could speak because I’d have so many questions.

cave

Elephant Trunk Hill was just pretty to look at. A natural formation that resembles the trunk of an elephant, locals liked to dress up and take pictures in front of it. I wanted to touch it. No matter Guilin was freezing, I wanted to cross the river and climb it.
hill
Eventually it was time to get on the bus, up the mountain, to board a second buss which continued up the mountain via a winding (and terrifying) road, and finally we excited to see countless stairs going up. It was hiking time! Through the freezing fog, we headed up the mountain. I saw tribes and villages, small schools, markets, woman selling taro roots cooked over an open fire. So many fire places everywhere! To keep warm I often bought these taros and munched on them – much like a potato, but somehow so much more satisfying.
taro

Completely engrossed with what I saw as I passed by locals, I didn’t even notice the view that was slowly becoming. Eventually, I looked up and I thought I’d fall off the mountain in pure shock. We were so high, in the fog, and in the distance I could see the amazing beauty Guilin brought. The mountains and land formations were other worldly – it was something I only ever saw in the movie Avatar, yet here I was, on planet earth, seeing what just didn’t look real. Any and all of life’s problems became so pointless staring into its vastness.
stairs
Eventually lunch was served in a cabin like building. Inside, it was still freezing but a lovely fire place warmed the enclosure as we all gathered in, and we were served soups and fish. Places and meals like this I only ever saw playing Skyrim or watching Game of Thrones. I remember often thinking “ it would be quaint to be exploring long, freezing distances to take cover in a cabin with a fire place where a fresh meal is served” yes, I am weird, and when I was here I realized that I was experiencing something too pleasantly similar. The small things please me so well.\
fireplaceinrest

It was even greater the next day to board a river cruise on the Lijang River from Guilin to a small area known for its popular water show and, again, its surrounding hill and mountain formations. On the cruise we passed by mini floating markets where men on bamboo rafts sold fruits and fish on the water.
floatingstall

viewriver

Alongside these men were their trustworthy companions: Cormorant birds! Beautiful creatures that are a part of the local farmer’s family, one can simply not go fishing without them!
manbirds

Eventually we made it to our destination: Yangshuo! Our hotel was in the heart of what the locals called “The largest market in the world” and that night we headed to something that left a print on me forever: The water show of Yangshou! You can only see such beauty here, and only here. You go to a place where there is a small clearing to see the river, and behind it are the amazing mountains and hills I keep mentioning. At night you head here, and the lights are all off: and then it begins. Women come out dressed in lights while floating on rafts, sing their heart out to tell a story of their tribes and love for the land. Huge spot lights turn on and brighten the beautiful hills and mountains, so it is all you see. I wish I could describe to you such a sight to see, but you can only experience it if you go for yourself! So please do, Head to Guilin, China – you will love the culture and history, and coupled with the sights to see it is impossible not to fall in love with. Go when it’s warm, although the freezing temperatures had a special charm.

Advertisements

SAS – Japan

So here it is: my first blog post from my first country! I have come to realize that due to time constraints I will likely only do one, long (good) post per country. For Japan, yea, I went to Tokyo and did all the pop-culture anime-nerd stuff, and yes, I freckin LOVED every second of it! Akihabara, Shibuya, Harajuku, Karaoke…Tokyo is just a magical place!
Anime

But for this blog post, I want to concentrate on Japan’s temples, food, and more historic cultural aspects. For more pictures and posts on the anime-aspect of Japan, please head over to my Instagram!

After Tokyo, I realized the group I was initially traveling with wasn’t the best(for me) – so to maximize my experience in Japan I decided to head back to the ship for free food and a free place to sleep while it traveled from Yokohama (near Tokyo) to Kobe (Osaka, Kyoto area) Most people travel over-land, but for those who travel with the ship you get special privileges. For example, they showed movies in the theatre room (“union”) and offered free fine dining for dinner.

I awoke the morning as the ship ported into Kobe, and another rush of excitement took over me. When we had first arrived in Yokohama, It took all I had not to cry happy tears. “I did it! Finally! I’m in JAPAN!” It didn’t take long before I was looking for every excuse possible to use my poor, hilarious Japanese language “skills”. My Japanese is horrible, folks, but it’s just enough to get me around and have small conversations. I loved every second of it, and although lost-in-translations happened many-a-time, it was still exciting and I did pick up more Japanese. – I wasn’t in Japan 10 minutes and I vowed to return. And if I may point out, Japanese people are so hospitable…I was a foreigner, clearly, but I didn’t *feel* like one. As much as I loved Korea and Morocco, I always felt like a foreigner because I was treated differently. It’s not that way in Japan. It made me feel guilty for not knowing more of the language.

I met up with an amazing group of SASERS (Semester at Sea Students) and we headed Kyoto way, with absolutely no plan (minus some ideas and basic directions to some possible hot spots) One girl we were with really did her research, in a sense she was the leader of the pack during this trip, and she did an outstanding job. There was never a rush, it was laid back, relaxing, and adventurous. Our first stop was the Inari Temple in inner Kyoto. My heart kinda stopped here. FOXES. SACRED FOXES. EVERYWHERE. I REALLY love foxes, so I was in fox heaven. Wolves too. The temple was beautiful, huge, red, and had many amazing attractions. From food stands, to little shops, to a beautiful walk-way within the temple itself, I was just in awe.
Inari
inariwalkway
Okami
It was crowded with locals and tourists alike – photos and clicks at every turn. I gave in and bought a magnet (plan to buy at least one magnet per country) and also got a fox plushie….I think I have about 10 foxes now…
foodstand

After Inari temple we headed to a crowded market place. It was a thin, extremely long strip of food stands and little shops. I sampled everything that was offered to me. From Mochi (rice candy), dango (kinda sorta like mochi), fish heads, octopus, I was overwhelmed and after bits of sampling I was growing more and more hungry for a meal. Starving and graving sushi, a SASER and I asked if we could have a sushi stop. You can go to the best Sushi joint in the U.S, I don’t care, it won’t compare to Japanese sushi. Looks the same, but the flavors are richer, stronger and just over all tastier. Expensive though…worth. Every. Penny. I mean, yen.

Squid
Sushi

And then I asked “So where are we sleeping tonight?” and we headed to our hostel. I was excited! I was with a group of 6, so I felt very safe, a mixture of guys and girls, and I would have my first hostel experience. I prepared myself for dirty, dangerous conditions….and then we got there. The bunk beds were clean (and sooo comfy!), the bathrooms offered towels and soaps, the lobby offered free drinks and treats and our one roommate was a backpacker traveling Asia from Israel – and he was awesome. Okay, what was I thinking? This is Japan. One of the cleanest, safest countries in the world. Can I just move here? That night our Israeli friend took us to a little noodle place for dinner. Between 2 and 4 dollars (depending on if you got meat or not) you tell her what you want, she slides the bowl to you, and you eat quickly standing up. After eating, karoke and drinks around! And I spent like 10 bucks trying to get a Pokemon plushie at a nearby arcade. I didn’t get it….Japanese arcades are evil. So many cute prizes that I just cannot win.

The following morning was a final breathe taking adventure – to Kinkaku-ji temple (Sorry for bad spelling) – a temple that looks as if it floats on the water. I can’t even get words to describe this, it was just so beautiful, and I got some of the best photos that I have ever taken at this place. The temple and its surrounding nature made it a hotspot for photographers. When you pass the temple you go up some stairs and at the top there are candles, Buddha and god statues, and a place to put the candles and watch them burn. But these candles were special, they read in Japanese things such as “Heart’s Desire” “Pray for cancer” “Hope for love”, you burn this candle to represent your hearts deepest wishes, and you ask Buddha to hear your desire, and hope for it to be granted. Can you imagine the emotion here? You are surrounded by so many people who are burning these candles with heavy hearts. As soon as I recognized where I was at and what people were doing, I was filled with tears. It’s beyond words.
kinkaku
candles

I headed back to the ship that night exhausted (my group stayed behind for some more nightlife, but I was pooped so I headed back via subway) the next morning I found myself with no plans on the last day. I found the Semester at Sea field coordinator, and she pointed me to one program that may have spots open: Hot Springs and Lunch. And sure enough, I found a student who was selling his ticket for half the price. That day I relaxed at a public hot springs. I soaked in water heated by volcanoes, and ate a tradition lunch of tempura, miso, sashimi, steak and pork (didn’t eat the pork. – quick side note, on a couple occasions I could not avoid pork in Japan. If I wanted to eat, at times I didn’t have a choice. Pork in Japan is tastier, but my stomach hated me for about 3 hours…for those who don’t know, I really don’t like pork. )

sashimi

And that ends it, I held back my tears as Japan faded into the distance. In the other direction awaits China, and through the fog – Vietnam.