For the past three months, I have been taking a mini-retirement in Asia. I spent most of that time in China visiting with my grandparents.  I’m very lucky that all four of them, though already in their 80’s, are all alive and in relatively good health, but they are getting old so I try to make the effort to see them as much as possible.  This also conveniently allowed me to use Shanghai as a base to explore more of Asia.

This is Zhujiajiao, Shanghai’s version of Venice.

At the end of October, I took the bullet train from Shanghai to Beijing, and saw the capital for the first time.  The city truly had some of China’s most amazing treasures.  The Great Wall and the Forbidden City were awe-inspiring.  On the flip side, the smog was also a force to be reckoned with.  It did, however, make for some very artsy photos.

I also visited Nanjing with my mother, and climbed the many steps up Zhong Shanlin (Sun Yat-sen’s Mausoleum) for a gorgeous view from the top.

And then we spent two days in the small city of Yixin, and saw the house in the countryside where my great grandmother had lived.  My mother spent many summers here as well, and it was wonderful to finally put images to the stories she told me of her childhood.

Over the Thanksgiving holidays, a few close friends and I met up for two weeks in Japan and South Korea.  Our first stop was Tokyo, and I must say, Japan is one of those rare countries that far exceeded my expectations.  The most surprising aspect being the orderliness and politeness of the locals.  Arriving from Shanghai, this was culture shock.  There was utter silence on the subways and trains, there was no trash to be found on the streets despite the seeming lack of trash cans, and every single person we asked directions from was overwhelmingly helpful (two of whom walked us to our destination).  Japan is also one of the most beautifully designed countries I’ve ever seen, everything from its food to its temples and gardens appear to be meticulously crafted down to the last detail.  However, as much as I loved this place, I do have to say that Tokyo was one of the most difficult cities I’ve ever tried to navigate, as (1) the are multiple subway and rail systems stacked on top of each other with different ticketing booths and (2) the city planners apparently didn’t think much of actually labeling streets.

This is a food stall outside of the Asakusa, the main part of old Tokyo.

A wish hung at the Meiji Shrine in Yoyogi Park that made me smile.

To see the famous tuna auction at Tsukiji Fish Market, we woke up at the ridiculous hour of 3:30 am.  Only 60 or so people were allowed in every day at the crack of dawn so we wanted to make sure we got spots, but we were clearly too enthusiastic because there were only two people in front of us as we stood in the cold dark alley by the entrance.

Afterwards, we crammed into a tiny restaurant in the market called Sushi Dai for the freshest sushi I’ve ever tasted.  The tuna belly melted in my mouth, the uni was sweet, and the clam was still wiggling.

We lucked out and arrived in Kyoto just in time to see the leaves turn scarlet.  Normally, this would have happened earlier in the year, but thanks to climate change, it was an unusually warm fall and early winter, the colors came a bit late.

I felt like I was transported back in time walking through the wooden houses in the geisha district of Gion.

For our first dinner in Kyoto, one of my friend’s uncle (who also hosted us) treated us to a Japanese BBQ dinner that still makes my mouth water when I think about it.  It was a feast for both the tastebuds and the eyes and came complete with a mini bio of the cow that contributed to this bountiful meal.

My favorite place in Kyoto was the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, with its bright orange and red torii gates that led all the way up the mountain.  My friends and I spent so much time photowhoring here that we didn’t actually make it that far up the mountain before it got dark, but hey, we got some amazing shots.

Next up was Seoul, with its beautiful palaces that serves as backdrops for a continuous stream of Korean dramas.  Guilty pleasure #1.

I also spent many hours sitting in various Paris Baguettes with a green tea latte and other buttery pastries they’ve cooked up (they make tapioca donuts that’s to die for).  Guilty pleasure #2.

The most educational part of this trip was probably our visit to the DMZ.  This was definitely a place full of contradictions.  While we were warned of the mines and the trigger happy North Korean soldiers staring back at us, the bus after bus full of tourists and the colored lights filled ride into the Third Tunnel made the whole experience mildly comical.   Of course, a few weeks after our visit, Kim Jung-il’s death and the regime’s power transition hit the airwaves, confirming the tension that still exists in this place.

The border.

I concluded South Korea with a few days in the old capital of Gyeongju and the seaside city of Busan.

Over the Christmas holidays, another group of friends, including my roommates from New York, and I decided to explore Vietnam and Laos.  Our first stop was the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi.  When I first arrived to the city, I was in for quite a rude awakening.  The air here was dreadful, quite possibly worse than Beijing’s if it was at all possible.  Furthermore, it was crowded with motorbikes that made every crossing of the streets seem like a matter of life or death.  I found out from one of the locals that the motorbike population is the same as the human population in Hanoi, and they ride based on instinct, “don’t need traffic signs or rules, yeah!”  My strategy for the first day was to wait for a local to cross the street with me, making sure s/he walked on the side of oncoming traffic to create a buffer zone, just in case.  I had to keep telling myself that this was not how I die.  However, eventually I figured that these bike riders were better at what they do than I was at being a pedestrian so I just crossed the street paying them cursory attention.  A bit reckless perhaps, but my theory held true.  Hanoi did eventually grow on me, it just had so much energy, and dare I say, charm — the fruit vendors that went around with their conical hats, the old ladies selling the lightest french baguettes you’ll ever taste, and the banh mi chefs who made the most delightful roasted pork donar kebab sandwiches.

To balance out the bustling city scene, we headed over to the coast for a 2 day cruise in Halong Bay.  The limestone karsts jutted out of the water to create a landscape many travel books describe as “unearthly” (however, it bore a striking resemblance to other earthly places such as Guilin, China and Phang Nga National Park, Thailand).  All jests aside, it was a lovely two days that even included some kayaking and cave exploring.

It’s the Michigan rock, shaped like a mitten!

Last up on this grand Asia circuit was Laos.  If I were to give Laos a superlative (and I love superlatives), it would be the most colorful.  I swear the even the sky was bluer in this country.  The temples were white and gold, flanked by purple and magenta bougainvillea blossoms, with monks in saffron robes wandering in and out.

Sunset over the Mekong River

The main attraction in Luang Prabang was the alms ceremony that takes place every morning.  I think I woke up three different times to go outside and check to see if it started as we didn’t actually know their schedule.  While it was a unique sight to see, in some ways, it was also a sad reminder of what tourism and money can do to a country’s culture.  People here are devoutly Buddhist, handing out food to the monks is a sacred act, but because so many tourists come to see this, and bring with them their money, the entrepreneurial minded have started selling food for the tourists to hand out to the monks.  Not all of this food is good to eat so monks have been known to get sick as a result, and we were advised to prepare our own food if we wanted to participate.  We ended up leaving the alms giving to the locals.

This is the first time I went down to the main road to check, sun wasn’t up yet, so I went back to sleep (also, roosters in Laos crow throughout the night and well into the day, not just when the sun comes out, sneaky birds).

Finally, I’ll leave you with one last photo from my travels.  I think it’s a good reminder that no matter where we go, who we meet, how different we appear to be, we’re all more alike than we think.