A Travellerspoint blog

Winding down in Zanzibar

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Though we've now finally reached the end of the trip, we didn't want to leave off our last stop - 5 laid-back days in Zanzibar off the coast of Tanzania.

After nearly 48 hours of door-to-door travel from Japan, Zanzibar turned out to be a wonderful end to the trip. We stayed at the 16-room Pongwe Beach Hotel on the east side of the island and didn't leave the place once during the time we were there. The resort may have been a bit basic (no a/c and only salt-water), but the staff were friendly, food excellent and setting amazing (so much so that we coined the new adjective "paradyllic" (a combination of paradise and idyllic) to describe it.

We really didn't do much save just enjoying the place, so there isn't too much to write about. Instead, as they say, pictures are worth 1000 words.

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Finally, it was quite an experience just getting to the island. It's only a 20 minute flight from Dar es Salaam, and, for the most part, only small 16-seater planes ply the route. On the way out, Nicole and I were the last to board, so I ended up in the co-pilot's seat. I'd had the chance before, but still pretty cool this time around.

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If you'd like to see more of Zanzibar or of any other part of our trip, all our photos are now up on MobileMe.

Posted by jkirsch 17:10 Archived in Tanzania Comments (1)

Goodness gracious, great balls of octopus!

Osaka, Japan

semi-overcast 75 °F

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View of Osaka Castle, which we visited on our last day in Osaka.

We're back on the beach (in Zanzibar), in the final days of our trip. Before this - and right after Bali - we spent three days exploring Japan's second-largest city, Osaka.

This wasn't our first time in Japan; we first visited Tokyo and Kyoto in the summer of 2004, and had left with mixed opinions. Tokyo seemed overwhelming, expensive and generally disappointing -- though in retrospect our negative opinion was likely due in part to the fact that it was our last stop on a month-long trip around Asia and we were ready to get back to the States. On the other hand, we really enjoyed Kyoto, and wanted to give Japan another shot on this trip.

We're glad we did, as we both found Osaka to be a perfect mix of "traditional" and "modern" Japan. Plus, the food was great! (Osaka is apparently the food capital of Japan, which is one of the main reasons we wanted to visit.)

We spent the bulk of our first day exploring the Dotonbori section of the city, which is known for having good shopping and great food stalls dishing out Osakan street food specialties like takoyaki, which are little balls of fried dough with octopus inside (hence the title of this post). The stalls were everywhere, although the one pictured below seemed particularly popular. And for good reason - the takoyaki were delicious, if a little overloaded with toppings (an odd combination of mayo, barbeque sauce, and fish flakes).

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Dotonbori got especially vibrant as sunset approached. Crowds of young Japanese people dressed in all kinds of crazy get-ups were walking around and checking each other out, which was lots of fun to watch. My favorite were the guys sporting what I could only describe as a kind of cleaned-up Russell Brand look...tight black jeans; tight, unbuttoned shirts; longish, styled-to-look-messy hair; and lots of eye makeup. Unfortunately, it wasn't possible to surreptitiously snap a photo.

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The neon lights of Dotonbori at night

On the other end of the fashion spectrum, we also walked through the America Mura district of Osaka and got an interesting perspective on how the Japanese view urban, American styling. This mainly consisted of graphic tees with all kinds of odd English phrases, baggy jeans and lots of New York Yankees caps. It was weird and funny at the same time. The photo below almost captures it:

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We spent the bulk of our second day visiting the Osaka aquarium, which housed the largest fish tank we've ever seen! (It had whale sharks in it!) We also made a brief stop in one of Osaka's numerous "food theme parks". We had read about another one in Dotonbori, but had been disappointed to find it closed the night before. After wandering around for a bit, we found a stall that specialized in okonomiyaki, another Osakan treat we had read about and wanted to try. Okonomiyaki is sometimes called a Japanese pizza - supposedly because it looks a little like a pizza. I didn't really see the resemblance...in appearance or in taste. It's more like a pancake made with cabbage, shrimp, fish, and other veggies, topped with barbeque sauce (the universal condiment here!), fish flakes, and green onions. We both liked it, but probably won't try to recreate it at home:

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We finished the day with a visit to the Shin-Umeda Sky Building, located in the northern part of the city. The building was a sight in itself, and the views from the top were really something:

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We ended our time in Osaka with a quick visit to Osaka Castle (pictured above), and then headed back to the airport to go to Tanzania, the last stop on our trip! More on that in the next post...

Posted by jkirsch 05:06 Archived in Japan Comments (1)

Four days, three massages, two places, one island...

and a whole lot of monkeys!

semi-overcast 85 °F

We arrived in Osaka yesterday morning from three and a half very relaxing days in Bali. We spent our first two days in Ubud - a town in the middle of the island set amongst rice paddies and forests - and the last day and a half on the beach in Nusa Dua.

In Ubud, we stayed at the Alam Jiwa, a charming little hotel on the outskirts of the town. Not only was it a really great deal (in an area where everything was pretty cheap), but also boasted incredibly friendly staff (though pretty much everyone we met was friendly and outgoing). We took much advantage of their affiliated spa and each had a massage (only $15/hour!) every day we were there.
While not enjoying the spa, we wandered around the town, taking in some of the scenery. Though it rained (hard!) every day we were there, it was only for a little while and actually added to the atmosphere. There was water absolutely everywhere - even little channels running through our hotel - and the sound was actually pretty relaxing.
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Rice Paddies in Ubud

We also made two visits to the monkey forest where you can get up close with long-tailed macaques (we had to go back as feeding monkeys turns out to be a great way to spend part of your birthday). There were literally hundreds of monkeys in the sanctuary and they were all crazy for the mini-bananas that you can buy from women at the entrance. Its captivating to watch them peel and eat bananas with their little hands and I think we probably would've gone back a third time if we had spent longer in Ubud. Photos don't really do them justice, so I've also included two videos below.
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Monkeying around on my birthday

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Monkey and Mom

Initially we had planned to only stay in Ubud, but after seeing a report on the new St. Regis Resort in Nusa Dua, we decided it would be an excellent way to spend the night of my birthday and became Nicole's present to me (for anyone considering a trip, there's also some great deals to be had right now). We were certainly glad we decided to split our time as Nusa Dua was a really different. but equally wonderful, part of Bali and the hotel was fantastic too (they were nice enough to let us stay until we had to leave for our 1AM flight). We made sure to take full advantage of the beach and pool and probably spent at least half of our time there just lounging outside and also enjoyed a birthday dinner on the beach. Most of the time, we felt like it was just us, which was probably helped by the small size of the resort, but also by the fact that they're only 50% full right now (maybe that AIG-effect in action?).
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Beach at Nusa Dua

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Lounging by the Pool

All-in-all a great and laid-back few days!

Posted by jkirsch 06:41 Archived in Indonesia Comments (2)

Better City, Better Life!*

Shanghai, China

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View Round the World on nhilde's travel map.

We're a few days late in getting this posted -- primarily because we've succumbed to total relaxation here in Bali. We just got back from hour-long massages (US$15 each) and are lounging in our beautifully-decorated hotel room overlooking a rice paddy field, listening to crickets and the running water of the canals. But more on that in the next post...

  • **

Although it was far from relaxing, Jake and I had a great time in Shanghai. The city is very modern and international - it reminded us of Hong Kong and Singapore more so than Beijing - and with the massive construction projects underway in preparation for the 2010 World Expo (which is to be held in Shanghai), even more amazing architecture and innovative city planning schemes are yet to come.

We got a great overview of the city and its continued development at the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall, a museum we visited on our first day in the city. The museum had several impressive scale models of Shanghai, but the one shown below really blew us away.

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The photo is looking down on the model from the floor above. The model's square footage was larger than than our apartment in San Francisco!

The museum also had some great photos of notable buildings and developments around the city. My favorite was Thames Town, a residential complex modeled after an English manor, complete with a huge grounds decorated with numerous life-size statues of notable Englishmen (Shakespeare, Winston Churchill, Harry Potter...).

We didn't get a chance to visit Thames Town, but we did make it over to Yu Gardens, a picturesque Ming dynasty garden in the Old Town area of Shanghai:

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The area surrounding the gardens was also fun to wander around, although it was almost as crowded as the Summer Palace (see our Beijing post)!

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Apart from cultural attractions, we spent a considerable amount of time (window) shopping, including at the world's FIRST Barbie flagship store! Jake was kind enough to listen to me reminisce about my own Barbie collection, and even said we could consider allowing our future daughter have a Barbie birthday party like this one:

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Although he said no to the idea of building a staircase like this one in our future home:

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A stairwell of Barbies...what a sight!

We also made a quick stop at Taikang Road, a complex of little alleyways with boutiques, cafes, and restaurants.

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And we made several trips to XinTianDi, an upscale shopping complex that looks like it's straight out of Southern California. It even had a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. (Sorry, we didn't take any photos.)

The most impressive part of Shanghai is the skyline of Pudong, the business district of the city. We had a great view of it from our hotel room, and on our last day we ventured across the river for a closer look. Unfortunately, it started raining as soon as we arrived, but we managed to get a little bit of a tour in the taxi ride back.

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View of two of the tallest buildings in Pudong, taken from our taxi.

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View of Pudong at night, from our hotel room.

We ended our time in Shanghai with a quick visit with some of Jake's former co-workers (from Gap San Francisco) who are now living in Shanghai. Mike and Sandy have been ex-pats in Shanghai for a few years now, and it was great to hear their stories about living and working in China, especially since it's something we'd like to do someday. We also got a chance to visit the clothing store they just opened. It was amazing to hear that they had gone from concept to completion in about six weeks!

That's about it for Shanghai...stay tuned for Jake's post on our sublime time in Bali!

  • **
  • The title of this post was inspired by the motto for the 2010 World Expo, "Better city, better life". The World Expo is a big deal for Shanghai. There are posters everywhere, and even a few statues of the Expo's mascot:

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This Gumby-like little guy is in the shape of the Chinese character for "people" (pronounced "ren" in Chinese).

Posted by nhilde 07:17 Archived in China Comments (0)

Lovely Lijiang

And other musings on China

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View Round the World on nhilde's travel map.

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Jake and I have been in China for about a week now, and we are still loving it - although we're getting a little tired of Chinese food! We've spent the past few days in Lijiang, a town located in the Yunnan province in the South West, near Tibet. The old town of Lijiang is incredibly charming, replete with canals, narrow cobbled lanes, traditional Chinese architecture and...costumed local people (the Naxi) singing and dancing all day long. Okay, so it's basically a cultural theme park, catering entirely to tourists (mostly Chinese, although we've spotted a few Westerners here and there), but it works. We've had a great time here and would highly recommend it to anyone interested in catching a glimpse of life in China away from the major cities (and impervious to kitschy souvenir shops and massive crowds of Chinese tourists).

The main attraction in Lijiang is the old city itself. When its not jam-packed with tour groups, it is a beautiful and peaceful town, and we had a great time wandering around and taking it all in. The nearby Black Dragon Pool park was also a delight, with scenic views of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and some beautiful stone bridges arching over the lake.
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Lijiang during the day

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Me and Jake at Black Dragon Pool

Today, we ventured outside of the city and visited the mountain itself, taking the cable car up to Spruce Meadow. Our guide book had said that the meadow provides stunning views of the Jade Dragon glacier, but we couldn't see anything (either due to the clouds our mis-information in Lonely Planet, we're not sure!). The hike around the meadow was still very pretty, if a little bit overpriced.
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After Spruce Meadow, we made a brief stop at the Jade Peak Monastery - which boasts the amazing camellia tree pictured below. The best part of the monastery was that it was completely empty, a first for us given that most sights are overflowing with Chinese tourists!
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Overall, our time in Lijiang has been wonderful. For me, the highlights have been our beautiful hotel, the Zen Garden; walking around the city in the morning before the busloads of tour groups arrive; and our dinner the first night at the Sakura Cafe on Bar Street. We feasted on delicious Korean food amidst disco lights while listening to American rap music - think Eminem and Dr Dre - that got progressively louder as the night wore on (we think that Sakura Cafe and the restaurant across the canal were battling for who could be the loudest).
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Chillin' out at the Sakura Cafe (this photo is for you, D!)

  • **

A few other random thoughts on China:

We are celebrities here!

Well, not really, but a surprisingly large number of Chinese people have asked to take pictures with us. We also get a lot of "Hellos" from passersby, who seem to be fascinated by the fact of seeing Westerners in the flesh. It's a little weird - certainly these people have seen Westerners before, right? - but also sort of funny. I particularly like how they tend to link arms with us or put their arms around our shoulders in the photos, as if we are old friends. You have to wonder how they explain these photos to their friends back home...

We know a celebrity!

Again, not really, but almost. Jake's friend and former co-worker at Gap, Jason, did some stock photography photos awhile back (which can be used by advertisers for whatever purpose). We've seen his photo used in ads in San Francisco, and always got a kick out of it. When we arrived in China, Jake joked that we should look out for photos of Jason on ads here...and low and behold, we found one in Lijiang of all places! What a small world, huh?
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Jason's daughter Lilly was the flower girl in our wedding!

Wo men hui shuo Zhongwen!
(We can speak Chinese!)

We cannot believe how far we've gotten with our Chinese during our time here. We can pick out words on billboards and store signs, we can order food in restaurants, and we can almost understand people when they try to speak to us (as long as they speak slowly and use the vocabulary of a five-year old). We've been pulling out our Chinese language book to review almost every day, and its all coming together quite well. A lot of Chinese people laugh at us when we speak, but at least they understand us, right? :)

Posted by nhilde 05:59 Archived in China Comments (1)

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