A Love Letter to Travel

Watching my entire industry be torn to pieces by the COVID-19 outbreak has been absolutely devastating. This pandemic is wreaking havoc throughout the world, of course, but all I can speak to is my own experience. I’ve been trying to figure out how to express all of my emotions, but it’s all tangled up. I work in travel, travel is my greatest passion, all my hobbies revolve around travel. It’s completely wrapped up with my identity, and the grounding of flights, closing of borders, worldwide travel warnings – that identity has been pretty much torn away. I am SO lucky that I still have a job, I still have my income, my health, my family, my friends, my boyfriend. While my heart breaks for the people who aren’t as lucky, I’m still upset about how it has affected my life and I just needed to get my feelings out on ‘paper’ so to speak.

A few times, before I left on a trip, family or friends asked, “What’s the rush? The world will still be there in a few years.”

I never felt like I agreed with that – you never know what is going to happen. If you don’t go to that country you really want to see, who knows what could happen – a war could start, a pandemic could spread, a border could close. And look who was right!!!

In all seriousness, though, I am so lucky to have been able to travel to 57 countries, and see some of the most beautiful places in the world. That makes it a bit easier to put this all on pause, so I know that I made the right choice to follow my dreams right away. Because you really just never know.

My hope for the next few months are that we beat this quickly – that the world gets back to normal, people get well, borders open, industries come back to life. It’s bigger than me, but selfishly I can’t WAIT to get on that next plane. I’ve been thinking a lot about who I would be if I hadn’t found my passion of travelling. Certain countries have taught me specific lessons, certain journeys have shown me different ways to look at the world, and the essence of it all is that travel is one of the best things to ever happen to me.

China taught me that the whole wide world could be mine, if I was brave enough.

I grew up travelling with my family, but at 18 I still hadn’t really connected the dots that if I wanted to keep travelling, I just could. I kind of waited for trips to fall into my lap courtesy of my parents. Then, I spent a summer working at an accounting firm, which I thought was going to be my job for the rest of my life. I was mind-numbingly bored, and had LOTS of time to browse the internet. I discovered a world of girls not too much older than me, travelling the world alone and making it happen for themselves.

With that I booked a ticket to China, and I flew to the other side of the world. It’s so normal to me to get on a plane myself now, but then, it was scary and exhilarating. The whole trip showed me that if I wanted to see somewhere, there may be obstacles and it may be hard (see this article), but I can do it all by myself.

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Little baby Bethany in China

Morocco taught me that I could be whoever I wanted to be, and it was all up to me. 

After China, I didn’t stop. Several short trips later and I was off for 4 months on the road. The first few weeks were pretty comfortable, either with my sister, or a friend. Then, I got on a ferry all by myself to Africa. I had no idea what I was doing, nothing booked, and when I got off the ferry to my first experience of touts hassling me and realized I didn’t have any directions, I almost broke down and left. Then I realized – it was all up to me. Nobody knew me, or anything about me. I could spend this month being exactly who I wanted to be. I didn’t have to be scared to be alone, or shy around strangers. I could be the girl who lit up a room, who picked up new languages, who lived spontaneously.

So I was. It wasn’t perfect, and I still cried a lot (wouldn’t be Bethany without some tears), and sometimes I still felt frustrated by my own limitations. But I was only 19, and I realized something that would serve me so well for the rest of my life: you are in charge of your own self. If I want to live my dreams, the only person who is going to make that happen is me. If I want to be kinder, be more fun, be happier, I know exactly what I need to do to get there – it’s just a matter of doing it.

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As I wandered across Morocco with my new friends, I stopped looking at mirrors to pick apart my appearance. I stopped toning myself down to make friends, just being exactly who I was. And I never let that go, even at home.

Zanzibar taught me that I can conquer the things that scare me most, even if I’m alone across the world.

A year later, I took off again for a post-graduation trip. I was thrilled to be getting back on the road but nervous about what awaited me in ‘real life’. I had a lot of fears about the future, so I decided why not get over some of my lifelong fears to prove that I could.

I used to be afraid of everything, and some of those things still terrify me – birds and snakes, mostly. And yes, I sometimes still sprint to my bedroom from the bathroom in the middle of the night because I’m scared of the dark, but I’ve basically gotten past that one.

But even when I was afraid of everything, water was the worst. I never really learned to properly swim because deep water freaked me out so much, and the panic I felt every time I snorkelled was second to none. I still went on snorkelling trips, and swam at the lake in the summer with my friends, but the whole time I had to choke back this all-encompassing fear of the unknown at the bottom of the water.

On Zanzibar, a blissful week of sleeping steps from the Indian Ocean finally taught me how to fall in love with the water. Even swimming alone in the daytime was scary for me at first, because what if something grabbed me and my dad wasn’t there to pull me back?

But I built up my confidence, and one day gave myself the ultimate test by scuba diving. I learned that the only frightening thing about the bottom of the ocean was how beautiful it was, and that freed me from my panic. The rest of the trip, I barely left the water, from pre-breakfast morning swims to sprinting into the ocean with new friends,  This was one of the best weeks of my life, and my memories of it will always be entwined with the feeling of salt on my skin, tangles in my hair, and a smile on my face.

I went home feeling ready to conquer whatever the world threw at me – and this gave me the confidence to quit that shitty corporate job 10 months later, for a life of travel and living my dreams.

Turkey taught me that home is people and attitude, not about where you are.

Many trips and many tumultous life changes later, I headed on another odyssey, this time for a literal round the world trip. I headed back to Turkey for the third time, this time with my best friend Haley. Walking back into Cheers Hostel, somewhere I had visited with my sister at age 19, genuinely felt like coming home. The golden retriever was as cute as ever, the surroundings were familiar down to the intonation of the call to prayer, and the owners recognized me and made me feel so welcome.We headed up to the bar for one drink after an overnight train ride, and ended up meeting a group of friends who we spent the next few days with. We found a local restaurant where we felt like regulars, we basically made the top floor bar our home, and everything just fell into place. I have never wanted to leave a place less – I was heading to some huge bucket list destinations in the Middle East but all I wanted was to stay in this little bubble of home, friendship, and ‘family’.

The way you look at a place really influences how your time there is. I went into Istanbul excited to return somewhere I knew and loved, and this turned the entire experience into pure joy. And of course, we really lucked out with some cool roommates.

It’s fitting that this was the last country I decided to write about, because this lesson was the most important thing I brought home with me. I had several trips coming up that will likely be cancelled, and about 50% of the time I feel absolutely panicked about the fact that I am ‘stuck’ here at home for the foreseeable future. But the other 50% of the time, I remind myself of what I learned in Istanbul. My attitude is what matters, and I am using this time to write blog posts, learn languages, read books, do puzzles, learn to cook, and spend time with my boyfriend. And as for people, I am so grateful that if I’m gonna be inside for weeks on end, I am stuck inside with my amazing boyfriend who is the OTHER greatest thing that has ever happened to me.

Learning to be at home is hard, but being at home with someone I love is making that easier. Watching my industry collapse is hard, but working for a company who values us and is doing everything they can to help us is making that easier. Living with uncertainty is hard, but getting all my feelings out in this mammoth blog post is making that easier.

The Ten Places I Most Want to Live

Sometimes I visit a city and absolutely adore it, but would never want to live there. Examples that come to mind are Goreme in Cappadocia (too small and remote), Dar es Salaam (too bustling, although I’d probably give it a shot), and Florence (too touristy for its size). On the other hand, there are the places that I visit, completely fall in love with, and immediately develop a burning desire to settle down and stay a while. There are so many places I haven’t been, and I bet there are hundreds of other cities that would give me this feeling, but so far here are the places topping my list for a sojourn. Realistic or not, these places are constantly in my dreams and wishes! Without further ado, here is an excessively long article detailing the ten places I most want to live.

BUDAPEST

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When I wrote about Budapest previously, I described my total lack of expectations and how quickly me and my sister realized that this was a special place. We still talk about Budapest an annoying amount, sometimes just texting each other ‘ugh I miss Budapest’ and spending a few minutes reminiscing. A girl who went to my high school also interned there for a summer, and I stalked her Instagram excessively to see her incredible photos of Budapest living. The cost of living is unbelievably cheap, the history and sights are amazing, and compared to some other places on this list its hardly touristy at all. If I ever settle in Europe, it just might be here!

VIENNA

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The instant I walked outside in Vienna I decided it was the most livable place I’d ever been. I still don’t really know what made me think this – maybe it’s just the combination of everything that makes Vienna great. It’s a little more modern than places like Budapest or Prague, but almost just as cheap. It’s one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever seen, with my favourite architectural cities sprinkled everywhere. There’s also amazing access to the outdoors (by that I mean vineyards) when you’re basically still in the city. There are so many cultural events and a famous orchestra to indulge in, it’s got amazing transport connections, and I speak a little bit of German. It’d be much easier to learn and communicate in German than it would in something like Hungarian or Czech!!

PARIS

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So typical. Every time I think about living in Paris, I imagine myself sipping a cappuccino in a cafe while writing a book, speaking French to handsome waiters and taking evening strolls along  the Seine. I know that Parisian life is less romantic than we all make it out to be, but it’s undeniably more romantic than a lot of places. I wouldn’t want to be in Paris long-term because it has its issues too, but I think for anything under a year I would love pretending to be a Parisian. And maybe I could finally become 100% fluent in French! Honestly I don’t even feel the need to tell you the other reasons I want to live in Paris because who doesn’t have the same dream?

SHANGHAI

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Ah, Shanghai. My solo trip to China was full of firsts so I look back on the whole thing as an amazing memory and experience in my life. Shanghai is my fondest memory, though – despite the rain and my total exhaustion while I was there. Beijing was too smoggy, Datong too….everything, Xian too touristy, but Shanghai was just perfect. I obviously love big cities, and this is one of the biggest, but it’s so easy to get that small town feel in areas like the French Concession. There’s access to every amenity you could want, but you also get the feeling of being somewhere so exotic and cool. It’s VERY high up my list to learn Mandarin, and what better place? The airport can get you anywhere, the public transit system is practically flawless, the food is one of my favorite cuisines, and I really just want to walk along the Bund and see that skyline again.

BRISBANE

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This one is kind of cheating because I have already lived there. To be fair, I was 3. I have always felt a connection to Brisbane despite my foggy memories of the city; my desire to go back and revisit my childhood stomping grounds has only gotten stronger as I’ve understood more about travel. A working holiday visa for Australia is definitely on the cards for me; it’s a place full of places for me to see again and places for me to visit anew: Sydney, Melbourne, Tasmania, Adelaide, Perth…the list goes on. Now it would be great if flights to Australia would stop costing like $6000. (Just kidding, you can find way better deals than that. Promise!)

BUCHAREST

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I literally stayed in Bucharest for a night solely because I had a flight out of the city the next day. I did absolutely zero research, had seen absolutely no pictures, and basically had no idea what I was getting myself into. I arrived at my randomly chosen hostel, befriended an Australian girl, went up to the rooftop bar and basically had a heart attack because it was so beautiful. On some streets, I could have sworn I was in Paris. Bucharest hosts a very unusual combination of rundown, post-Communism buildings and absolutely architecturally stunning buildings. Walking around was a treat, and the nightlife was some of the best I’ve ever seen. The area I stayed in was buzzing and I could have stayed a week. I also knew absolutely nothing about Romanian history, and my free walking tour (with a very cute guide, which is always nice) was very illuminating and really taught me a lot about the hardships this country has gone through. Our guide was probably in his 20’s, and he still had stories to share about not having electricity and free access to media – absolutely unbelievable. It’s cheap, it’s got a language I could learn (Romanian is very similar to Italian!), it’s historical and it’s beautiful. It’s got it all.

NEW YORK CITY

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And yet another very typical response. I’ve been to New York four times now, and each time I remember why I love it so much. The hustle and bustle of this city makes you feel like anything is possible and it’s got the same reasoning behind it as Paris – it’s just so easy to imagine myself living that stereotypical 20-something life here, albeit with much less money than anyone I’ve wanted to emulate on Gossip Girl or Sex and the City. Even if it’s just for a month, I’d love to see what New York living is really like – I don’t think I could afford any longer than a month!!

TRIESTE

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This is also cheating. However, I only lived in Trieste for about a month and a half, and I’d like to experience actually living in my own apartment rather than feeling constantly uncomfortable in my au pair house and dreading the next day of work. Side note, I can’t believe I still haven’t written about au pairing! I’ve just added it to my to do list. My friend Pam, who blogs in Italian and English, lives in a gorgeous apartment in downtown Trieste and her life is basically what I would want to do next time. But about Trieste itself – what a shock this city was to me. When my au pair family said they were moving there I googled the location, thought, “Oh! Near Slovenia and Croatia! Ok cool!”, said yes, and then proceeded to move there. Trieste deftly combines Italian, Slovenian and Croatian influences into one melting pot of incredible coffee, a gorgeous main square, and the nicest people in Italy. This is where I learned Italian and the base I used to explore Venice, Verona, Ljubljana and more. Best of all – there’s only ever a fraction of the tourists that crowd the rest of Italy!

PRAGUE

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I have just noticed an interesting trend…four of these destinations (Prague, Vienna, Budapest and Bucharest are in Eastern Europe, or maybe Central depending on where you draw the line. I’d also consider Trieste pretty Eastern European. I had no idea I had even been to that many places in Central/Eastern Europe, much less that I wanted to live there!! Anyway, so Prague. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you may remember the numerous disasters that befell me on my January 2015 trip to Prague. It still shocks me that I’m able to look back on Prague so fondly, considering that I felt like I was going to die, but I guess that really says something about the city. Honestly, my main reason for wanting to live in Prague is pretty stupid. There’s the cheap cost of living, great transit, same good connections as Vienna, beautiful architecture….but what I’m really interested in is the fact that it’s a winter wonderland. I may complain about winter every single day that I’m cold, but as a Canadian I’ll take shivering in my parka over sweating in my shorts any day. It sadly didn’t snow when I was in Prague, but it was still magical, and I’d love to spend the winter revelling in the magical feeling of Prague in winter. (Told you it was dumb).

ZANZIBAR

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Ah, Zanzibar. I spent 2 days in Stone Town and 3 days in Kendwa at the end of my recent trip to Tanzania. When I was little, I thought that Zanzibar was a made-up place because the name was so exotic and it sounded so cool (maybe also because I was stupid). However, Zanzibar is absolutely real and absolutely perfect. Kendwa was legitimately paradise. There are not enough positive words in the English language to describe how perfect the water is. I swam, lay on the beach, went to a full moon party, tried scuba diving, watched sunsets, and basically died over how great life was. I am too high-strung to live on an island paradise for long, but I can’t imagine anything better than settling down on Zanzibar (maybe even in Kendwa?) for a few months. I would get so tan and so happy. To quote my Instagram caption from the following photo, “Messy hair, messy heart, messy life, but it’s okay cause I’m in paradise.” I can’t think of anything that better sums up how I felt on this incredible island with so much culture to offer alongside its beauty.

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Travelling in China is Really Hard

I just finished reading Undress me in the Temple of Heaven and I’m not sure if I have the words to describe what it meant to me. Traveling is the most amazing thing in the entire world but sometimes it’s just so hard, and travelling in China is really hard. Gilman put into words exactly what I felt in China – even peeing was an ordeal and the simplest task was made so inexplicably difficult. it was simultaneously frustrating and absolutely invigorating. I felt alive in China, wandering the back streets of a huge foreign city, completely alone. I felt so free. I didn’t know I wanted to go back to China, but now I wish I had my guidebook with me so I could look up all the places I missed. There’s so much more to see and I want to see it ALL.

Longsheng Rice Terrace via Yangshuo Countryside Hotel

Hong Kong skyline via Film Festival Tourism

Zhangjiajie Mountains via Trip China Guide

Tibet via China Yak

The constant stench, the tears, the overarching DIFFICULTY of every day is what makes traveling in China so unbelievably rewarding. You never know what you’re capable of until you throw yourself off the edge. I threw myself off the edge by going to China solo and it was the best thing I’ve ever done. I genuinely believe that I can overcome an difficulty, and I can’t describe the amazing feeling that having that kind of confidence gives you.

Every day in China brought me new challenges, some reducing me to tears. Everybody was always staring at me, seemingly fascinated by the whiteness of my skin. I felt uncomfortable almost all the time, not used to being looked at so much. Going out the door in the morning, I’d wonder what was going to go wrong that day – how many times would I get lost? How long would it take me to find lunch?

But then I’d walk into a temple or catch my first glimpse of the Bund or a child would run up to me and say ‘hello!’ and it would all go away. I’d remember why I was there and why travelling is everything to me. China was a sea of endless highs and lows and I was riding the waves.
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If you’re reading this because you’re thinking about going to China (alone? even better!) let the message of this article be that you 100% should go. Nothing compares to exploring such an ancient civilization and seeing just how difficult independent travel can be in some places. If you don’t really want to go to China, but you’re nervous about going somewhere else, please know that you CAN do it. I chased my dreams all the way to China – chase yours wherever they might take you.

What I Love About Shanghai

Although it’s a tough contest, I think Shanghai may have overtaken New York City in my heart. While I’ll always love NYC, my very brief visit to Shanghai completely captivated me. I’ve already been plotting how to get back – maybe to live there? I was recently asked by Accor Hotels to participate in a contest around the theme of “Three things I love about my favourite city”; they’re giving away a 9-night European getaway, so I couldn’t resist entering! If you’re a blogger, check out more info about the contest here.

I could go on and on about everything I love about Shanghai, even though I was there for such a brief time. There is so much more exploration I need to do here, but here are my top three favourite things about Shanghai:

It’s the biggest city in the world

Now for some, this would be a huge turnoff. However, I’ve always been a city girl (living in a town of 4,000 for school is killing me). I love New York City because it’s so big. Then I got to Shanghai, which has almost twice the population of New York. Excuse me!? I loved it. The intoxicating feeling of being alone in such a massive metropolis makes you feel simultaneously insignificant and like you’re a part of the biggest thing in the world.

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There’s a constant cacophony of Mandarin, car and bike horns, and just the noise that comes from packing almost 25 million people into one city. People handed me promotional posters written entirely in Mandarin despite my clear lack of understanding, sometimes even throwing them in my face on the subway. On East Nanjing Road, people demonstrated weird electronic toys by divebombing small electric helicopters toward unsuspecting passersby. People stood outside of restaurants shouting about their wares, trying to encourage me to go to their restaurant instead of the other twenty places on the same block.

It has an incredible mix of old and new

Shanghai’s status as ancient city and business hub makes it a unique place. Walking along the Bund, on your right you see historic European buildings and on your left you see futuristic skyscrapers. A couple subway stops away is Yuyuan Gardens, full of traditional Chinese buildings. Beijing was more modern than I expected, but Shanghai is leaps and bounds ahead in terms of technological advancement. In my opinion, Shanghai provides the perfect taste of China by giving you all the authentic Chinese aspects you’re looking for, but also that incredible big-city feel that embodies the future of China.

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It has world-class cuisine

I mean, I wrote a whole post about the food. It was just so good! Kind of like in the previous point, you can find amazing Chinese (and specifically Shanghainese) food here, but since it’s such a modern city you can honestly find any world cuisine that you could ever want. I could have stayed in Shanghai for weeks and eaten at a different restaurant for every meal, although I probably would have had egg tarts for breakfast every day! I still rave about Songyelou (an amazing vegetarian restaurant) to anyone who will listen, and I’m desperate to find some xiaolongbao anywhere in Nova Scotia.

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What’s your favourite city in the entire world? I’d love to hear why you love it! 

2014 in Review: Beginning a Life of Travel

I’ve always travelled a fair amount with my parents, but 2014 was the year I really got inspired to make travel a bigger part of my life. This year I took family trips, a girls’ trip, a business trip and, most importantly: my very first solo trip. I also started this blog in June, which was an amazing decision! Although the end of the year was definitely more travel-heavy, I have tons of exciting plans for 2015 and I can’t wait to share all of my adventures with you. For now, here’s a post wrapping up my year: 2014 in review!

Saskatoon, Winnipeg & Calgary

I flew to Calgary for an Enactus event, which is an organization I’m involved with at my school. Naturally, I took the chance to visit my long-distance best friend in Saskatoon! I also checked something off my bucket list with a convenient layover in Winnipeg: I’ve officially been to all ten provinces, although there’s still a ton more exploring to do. I was a really bad traveler for most of this trip and did more friend-seeing than sight-seeing, but I’d been to Calgary and Saskatoon before! I extended my stay in Calgary because Sunjita and I got the chance to compete in a Westjet contest. It was really cool to come up with a marketing campaign for a major Canadian airline, and we were so excited to be declared the winners!

Winning the Westjet case competition!

Winning the Westjet case competition!

A night out in Saskatoon

A night out in Saskatoon

New York City

Anybody who knows me is aware of my undying love for New York City. I finally made it there for the first time in April for a quick mother-daughter trip that was just as amazing as I hoped it would be! We stayed on the Upper West Side and as soon as I left, I wanted to go back. Highlights included a day spent shopping on the Upper East Side, walking across the Brooklyn Bridge and the highlight of my year: seeing Mamma Mia on Broadway.

Posts

New York City’s Top Ten Attractions

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Chicago

Due to a major travel mishap on the way to China, I finagled a free night in Chicago which was my first time in the city! I had to explore without doing any research at all, which is very unlike me, but I fell in love and can’t wait to go back for more than an evening.

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Turning Travel Problems into Travel Opportunities in Chicago

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China

This trip was a game-changer. I had genuinely never even considered solo travel; I didn’t even know it really existed. When I started reading travel blogs, I was so inspired and knew I had to made solo travel part of my life. There was an event going on in Beijing that I really wanted to attend, and nobody could come with me – so I went myself. Originally I was booked to see Beijing and Hong Kong, but I changed my flights after the protest and explored Beijing, Datong, Xian and Shanghai. I had a ton of mishaps and the trip totally changed my life! I’d love to get back to Shanghai as soon as possible.

Favourite Posts

Beijing Trip: Solo Doesn’t Mean Alone

How to Avoid Getting Lost and Crying in a Cab

Twelve Hours in Xi’an

Arriving in My New Favourite City: Shanghai

Taking the Train in China

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New York City

My best friend and I were supposed to reunite in Croatia in September, which I’m still really upset didn’t happen. We really wanted to see eachother, so we planned a long weekend trip to New York City! I got a great deal on flights, which turned it from a long weekend to missing a week of school….whatever right?!  It was a bit ironic to celebrate my 19th birthday (legal drinking age in most of Canada) in a place where the age is 21, but we had a blast exploring familiar and new neighborhoods from our Airbnb base.

Favourite Posts

My Favourite Food in New York City

The Number One Thing to do in New York City

Walking Across the Brooklyn Bridge

Antigua & Barbuda

I just got back from yesterday from a great trip to close out the year: Christmas on my favourite tropical island! My family spent the holidays in Antigua two years ago, and this year we ended up returning because we loved it so much. I can’t wait to share more about this island that tends to fly under the radar. Highlights included a tour with Adventure Antigua and standup paddleboarding!

All in all, my year may not seem that impressive, but for an 18/19 year old student I’m pretty proud of the places I’ve managed to go this year. I know 2015 is going to be an incredible year for travel: I have a trip to Toronto and Montreal booked in February and I could not be more excited about my summer in Italy!

Taking the Train in China

I took three trains on my China trip, and it was definitely a very interesting experience. If you are planning to visit multiple cities in China and can’t afford relatively expensive domestic flights, taking the train might just be for you! While the rides can be long, one of the smartest choices I made was to take sleeper trains. This saved me a ton of money on accommodation, because a train served as my bed for the night. I also didn’t have to waste very many daylight hours. The list of benefits goes on: I got to interact with some cool locals, and train stations are quite central! Finally, prices were awesome compared to flights. For reference, this was what I paid for each of my tickets:

1. Shanghai to Beijing (had to cancel), 15 hours: $62.00

2. Beijing to Datong, 6 hours: $14.00

3. Datong to Xian, 16.5 hours: $45.00

4. Xian to Shanghai, 14.5 hours: $63.00

My biggest problem with trains in China was the lack of outlets. I knew this going in, and so should you: there is nowhere to charge ANY devices on most trains. My e-reader and phone died on every journey, and I was left with my Lonely Planet China guide for hours and hours of boredom – I think I read that thing four times. If you’re on a long train ride and get bored easily, you’ve been warned!

I did a ton of research on the train system in China, so hopefully I can impart some of what I learned – here are my tips for taking the train in China.

Booking

This was one of the hardest parts for me. From what I’ve found out, you have a few options for booking trains in China:

  • Booking direct online. This would be the best option, but you have to have a Chinese credit card and the website is in Mandarin, making this impossible for most.
  • Booking at the train station. If you were in China for a long time, this would work well: my time was tight, though. Lots of sites warned  that popular routes sold out well in advance, and I’m a compulsive planner so I wanted everything set in stone early!
  • Booking online through an agent. Unless you speak Mandarin or are on an open-ended trip, this is what I would recommend.

I used Travel China Guide, which worked great for me. The Man in Seat 61 also has a few other agencies listed, and I don’t think you can go wrong. You can tell the agency what classes/routes you want as far in advance as you want, and they’ll book them for you the moment they become available. I was extremely happy with Travel China Guide: they emailed me before making any changes, and I was notified as soon as my  tickets were booked. They give you very detailed instructions for actually taking the train, which is very helpful. Travel China Guide charges you a ‘service fee’, which was 30RMB ($6) for my shortest ride and 50RMB  ($10) for the other three. While normally I’d balk at paying anyone to book a ticket for me, in this case it’s really quite necessary: and the great service made up for it. They even refunded me half of the cost of my Shanghai to Beijing ticket when a flight fiasco prevented me from using it.

At the Train Station

What do I do once I get to the train station?

Travel China Guide (and all other agencies) will give you a sheet that you can bring to the train station to pick up your tickets. It has English and Mandarin on it, and the Mandarin tells the train station attendants exactly what you want. I printed these out at home and promptly lost them in the Chicago airport, but I was able to screenshot the page on my phone and show the staff that way. It worked perfectly, and I never had any problems picking up my tickets. My one issue was figuring out what desk to go to: I waited in a few lines where they just rolled their eyes at me and pointed me in a different direction. You can show your ticket to anyone walking around and they should be able to tell you where to go. You’ll then be given a paper ticket that has just enough pinyin (Chinese words written in letters that we can ‘read’) for you to understand what it’s for.

How early should I get there?

Arrive early, just like you would for a flight! It’s even more important because you’ll likely get lost and have to ask for help a few times. The biggest thing I learned about China? Take the time you think it’ll take to do something and double it. It’s pretty clear once you get inside where to wait for your train, but if not you can show any staff member your ticket and they’ll direct you.

On the Train

What kind of ticket should you book?

Based on what ticket you booked, your train experience will be completely different. There are four kinds of tickets, going from least expensive to most expensive: hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper, soft sleeper. I booked a hard seat from Datong to Beijing because it was so short, which I fully regret. Luckily my train was quite empty, so I curled up on my seat and got maybe 2 hours of sleep. However, the only other people in my car were middle-aged men fascinated by the Western girl travelling alone, so I kept waking up to men staring at me. While I certainly never felt unsafe, it was a bit weird! The train ride was fine, but for 9 dollars more I could have gotten a bed. I simply wanted to experience what a hard seat was like, but I’m not glad I did!

The rest of my train trips were on hard sleepers, which was a much more pleasant experience! These cars consist of dozens of compartments, each with 6 beds. Your ticket will specify whether you have the top, middle or bottom bunk, but only in Mandarin so I always just asked someone! By asking, I mean that I pointed at my ticket and then pointed at the beds with a questioning look on my face: worked like a charm. The pillows and blankets are changed after every train trip, which means that if you don’t get on the train at the very beginning of its trip you might be sleeping in someone else’s used bed. Luckily, this didn’t happen to me! My biggest problem with hard sleepers was the lack of privacy, but you can get that if you’re willing to pay astronomically for a soft sleeper.

I slept shockingly well on both of my hard sleeper train rides. I had a bottom bunk both times, which I didn’t really like: I would probably go for a top bunk just for privacy’s sake. I avoided using the revolting squat toilets that were the only facilities on board, so I was just huddled in my bed most of the time anyway. A top bunk, or even middle, would be much more private.

Can I get food on the train?

As I read before my trip, food carts come by every half hour or so, but I never got anything. The servers didn’t speak any English and I couldn’t tell what anything was or how to eat it, so I panicked and stayed hungry. I would recommend bringing food on board if you are picky or have any dietary restrictions!

How do you know when to get off?

At the stop before you have to get off, an attendant will come by and take your paper ticket, exchanging it for a plastic card-size thing that’s only in Mandarin. This means you will be getting off at the next stop! Most of the attendants spoke just enough English for me to ask what time we’d be at my stop. I was really pleased with this, since knowing when to get off was one of my biggest concerns! Rest assured they’ll let you know.

(Note: Excuse the low quality pictures – I didn’t feel comfortable getting out my camera to take pictures of my trains)

Incredible Food in Shanghai

One of my biggest goals for my trip to China was to get out of my picky eater comfort zone and try scary new foods. Almost everyone who goes raves about the diverse and unique cuisine, but I was worried about being able to order food without red meat in a country where English was rare. And of course, I threw out the possibility of accommodating my various picky preferences. With that said, a breath of fresh air brought some incredible food in Shanghai after a rougher time in Beijing, Datong and Xian.

You can still find fabulously authentic food in Shanghai, but the best part is that so many more people speak English. It was easy to find what I wanted, and here I delved into street food for the first time. My biggest regret from the trip is being too nervous to go into local joints for food, so I tried to make up for it a little bit in Shanghai.

Egg Tarts

The greatest success? EGG TARTS.

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These are SO GOOD. Just look at that flakey goodness. I actually snapped this picture randomly on my cell phone without looking, and ended up loving that I captured the skyscrapers in the background! I went back to an egg tart street stall at least 3 times. The woman didn’t speak English, but it was easy enough to just indicate how many I wanted! These cost around 50 cents each…amazing.

Songyuelou

If you’re a vegetarian, make sure you hit up Songyuelou – it will blow your mind! The menu consists of things like ‘pig liver’, ‘chicken feet’ and all the things you’d see on a normal Chinese menu, but you can eat it all. The second floor is geared to tourists with English menus, so make sure you head up there. I got sweet and sour pork that was made from tofu, and it was seriously amazing: I have never had such crunchy, flavourful, delectable tofu before.

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Xiaolongbao

According to everyone (which includes me) you can’t leave Shanghai without trying xiaolongbao, the local specialty! These are small dumplings that generally have pork fillings (I found chicken, and you can get shrimp and veggie as well), but the twist is that they’re also filled with searing hot soup. I went to the popular Din Tai Fung, which is, ironically, a Taiwanese chain. It was on the mall-like floor of the Shanghai World Financial Centre and crowded with locals, which is always a good sign! I burned myself multiple times sucking the soup out, and I didn’t even care – the sign of a great meal.

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Apparently I Went to China to Eat Food I can Get at Home

Sometimes I question my sanity. I mean really – I’m in Shanghai and I chose to get Haagen Dasz ice cream four times? Apparently so. I cover up my shame by saying that it was late in the trip, I was tired, Western chains were so much easier…but really, if you’re going to China – it doesn’t matter how much easier it is, you will regret spending like $32 on ice-cream within two days!

As for these waffles, though…no regrets. I needed to kill some time before my visit to the Shanghai World Financial Centre, and I spotted a place called Cafe Lugo with some promising looking signs. These were the best waffles I’ve ever had, and I don’t remember how much they cost, but it was definitely worth it.

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With a heavy heart, I had one more egg tart before heading off to the airport to get myself home for that thing I had forgotten about – school. Watch out for a few info posts coming up about China: I’ll impart my advice for Chinese trains on Wednesday! Spoiler alert: use the bathroom before you get on.

Foggy Views from the Shanghai World Financial Centre

I felt like a VIP on my way to see the views from the Shanghai World Financial Centre. At least 10 employees greeted me with flawless English, giving me the tour although I seemed to be the only tourist there. I got to stand front and centre for a video on the tower, shown on an enormous curved screen that assaulted the senses in the best way possible.

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Getting to the tower was relatively easy. I got off the subway at Lijiazui, and grabbed some gourmet waffles before navigating across countless bridges and through a few malls to find a way to the SWFC without getting run over. Pudong is a completely different place from Puxi, across the river: it’s so new and industrialized that almost everyone you see is a corporate worker wearing Louboutins.

I paid an exorbitant 180RMB ($36) entrance fee to see all three of the observatory’s floors; if I had remembered my student ID it would have been 120RMB ($24). It hurt handing over that much money, but I love going up towers so I couldn’t resist. (See Chicago and New York) I was also warned that I wouldn’t be able to see much because of the crazy fog in the city that day. I did consider foregoing the experience, but I was already in Puxi and I wouldn’t have time to come back before I left!

As it turned out, two of the observation decks were entirely ensconced in fog and I couldn’t really see anything. However, the top floor was high enough (100 stories!) that whenever the fog shifted I was afforded an atypical view of Shanghai’s most famous skyscrapers. You can usually see the river and the Bund from up here, but I was just glad to see something. 

 

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While I’m not sure the views I got were worth $36, I’m still glad I went up to the Shanghai World Financial Centre Observatory! If you’re planning a trip to Shanghai, I would definitely head up the tower on a relatively clear day. And as usual, my favourite tower tip: go a little bit before sunset so you can experience a) views in daylight, b) the sunset and c) nighttime views! Seeing a range of views makes the money more worth it, but I think this is a can’t-miss attraction in Shanghai.

Arriving in My New Favourite City: Shanghai

By the end of my trip to China, I was exhausted and a bit overwhelmed. However, that didn’t mean I wasn’t infinitely excited about visiting the biggest city IN THE WORLD. We all know I love New York because it’s so huge, and I was expecting to love Shanghai just as much. I certainly did – in fact, Shanghai might just be my new favourite city.

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I think it will surprise nobody when I say that my time in Shanghai started with several mishaps (see previous tales from Beijing, Datong & Xian). First, I spent 20 minutes idiotically staring at the subway map, before I figured out which one to take. I got on and immediately realized I had gotten on the entirely wrong line. I got off at the next stop, only to look at a map and realize I had actually done the exact right thing – so somehow, my messup saved me! Only a few stops later I arrived at the stop for the hostel that I thought I had booked, exhausted and sweaty and SO ready for a shower and a bed. I found the entrance thanks to my meticulously typed directions, and attempted to check in…only to be told that I had booked at the wrong hostel. I thought I had booked the Blue Mountain Bund Youth Hostel, but I had booked another Blue Mountain Hostel. On the verge of tears, I asked if there was any beds available that night; I probably would have paid an exorbitant amount just to be allowed to get settled in. Luckily, they had something for me!! It was only guaranteed for my first night, but they said something might become available for my second and final night in the city as well.

I would highly recommend this hostel; the location honestly could not be better. You’re far enough from East Nanjing Road (a massive pedestrian shopping street) to be quiet, but close enough that you can walk there in minutes. Even the walk to the subway stop (which is on East Nanjing Road) is fascinating – walking by dozens of street food stalls and tiny stores gives you a lovely little snippet into local life.

Shanghai is very different from Beijing in that it’s not really about attractions: a visit to Shanghai is just about experiencing the city. Watch out for a post on the Shanghai World Financial Centre and one on the amazing food I had here; but for now enjoy these pictures from my wanderings around the city:

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Twelve Hours in Xi’an

I only had twelve hours in Xi’an, and I certainly didn’t make the most of them. My train from Datong arrived at 8:56AM and my first task was to get myself to the iconic Terracotta Warriors.

If one thing about China was consistent, it was the fact that I got lost. ALL THE TIME. I came to expect it, and gave myself three times as long to get everywhere. Surprise, surprise – I got lost in X’ian! After about half an hour of wandering in the rain trying to find the bus that Lonely Planet promised would take me there for about $3, I momentarily lost hope and wondered why I had ever thought I was capable of travelling solo.

The next thing I knew, a lovely local who spoke some English came and offered to show me the bus (she brilliantly deduced that I wanted the Terracotta Warriors out of the kindness of her heart! Okay, okay, I had to pay her – but it was worth every penny for her to walk me about 30 seconds across the street.

I accidentally fell asleep on the bus ride (moving vehicles + me = dead to the world) and woke up in a panic, hoping I hadn’t missed my stop. Luckily I hadn’t – next thing I knew I was on my way to the Terracotta Warriors!

After paying an exorbitant $30 (don’t forget your student ID like I did), I walked into the complex, gazing in awe at all the other Westerners. It had literally been three days since I had seen a white person, and I was beginning to understand why  everyone stared at me so much.

Once I found the actual warriors (the buildings are poorly labeled), all thoughts of staring were forgotten. Although it’s a bit hard to grasp what you’re seeing, the warriors are still a fantastic archaeological site that shouldn’t be missed.

Every blog I read pre-trip said to go from Pit 3 to Pit 2 to Pit 1, but I accidentally did the opposite. Pit 1 is the most impressive by far, so 2 and 3 were a bit underwhelming after walking into this:
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On the way back, it was much easier to find the bus -and I even knew where to get off! However, every single one of my electronic devices were dying and if I didn’t have access to my phone, my parents would kill me the moment I got home. With that in mind, I found an internet cafe. Now the thing about the internet in China is that there’s nothing to do. I couldn’t get on social media, Bloglovin, WordPress, or Gmail. In addition, in order for anything to charge in the computer I had to hold the USB in a very specific position. I could only hold out until my phone was at 30%, and then I left to wander the streets some more.

I tried to find some cool Muslim street food (I had heard there was lots) but the rain and general confusion of where anything was meant I ended up at McDonalds. Yes, the only food I ate in Xi’an was from McDonalds. I hate myself too.

My favourite moment in Xian came in the train station. I’ve heard its one of the most chaotic stations in the country, and I believe it – the lines were unbelievable. Once I finally found a seat, I pulled out my Game of Thrones book and waited for my departure. Then a young Chinese woman came over and asked me something – I was about to brush her off, but I’m so glad I didn’t. It turned out she was an English teacher in Anhui Province, and her English was marvellous. We probably talked for an hour: she wanted to see Canadian money, hear whether I thought Chinese people were pretty, and learn about life in Canada. It was one of those amazing cultural experiences that you hear other people talk about, and I’m so glad I didn’t just assume she was trying to sell me something.

With that positive experience to end a mediocre day, I was off to what would be my favourite destination of the trip (and possibly ever): Shanghai.