Month Ten: Leg Two Revealed

Before jumping in, I’ll just note that Hong Kong is a great city and we had SO MANY good meals there. Too bad it’s so expensive! We’ll fill you in on more details (and recommend some great restaurants) in the coming weeks.

[ptcPhoto filename=”DuckDuck.jpg” title=”Empire City Duck” caption=”DUCK-DUCK-DROOL” position=”center”]

On to the big news: Leg One is over! A couple months ago we decided that we needed a travel break. Asia has been incredible but we needed a change of scenery and our homesickness really only had one cure. We’ll go back to Asia to visit Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos at the end of the next leg.

We kept our visit home (mostly) a secret and flew 8,165 miles to arrive in the USA on Thanksgiving morning. It was more fun that way, and besides, how often do people get real surprises anymore? My mom and sister were shocked and very happy to see us. After recovering from jetlag in Denver for a few days we flew to New York to visit family and friends. Now we’re in the Chicago area with Eric’s family, planning for the next leg and putting some pounds back on with home-cooked comfort food.

[ptcPhoto filename=”NYTree.jpg” title=”Christmas in NYC” caption=”The Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center” position=”center”]

So, how did this happen? Eric was up to his usual mischief with frequent flier miles and found a very good deal for us to fly round-trip from Hong Kong to Denver with a stop in Portugal on the way back, all in business class. Getting a good deal was somewhat complicated this time, but it involved earning 100% bonus miles for sharing them with each other in addition to a 30,000-mile discount. Turns out this visit home really is a trip around the world comprised of nine flights and more than 26,000 miles. Curious what that looks like?

circle

In reserving all of these flights we made a tiny oversight and booked our ticket back to Asia on March 4th instead of February 4th, giving us seven weeks in Europe instead of our intended three. So, ok – twist my arm, I guess we’ll go to Spain too. A month in Spain should cost less than the change fee, right…? Right!

After all that was worked out, we went ahead and booked flights through the summer. Here is the route we’re flying (also in business class!) for a mere $400 and a total of 100,000 frequent flyer miles.

[ptcPhoto filename=”flights2.gif” title=”Leg Two” caption=”Oceania and Asia…so much for overland travel.” position=”center”]

Long story short, our plan for Leg Two is pretty-much set. After Portugal and Spain we’ll head back to Hong Kong for a few days and rest up before moving on to Australia for five weeks. Come April we’ll go to New Zealand for a month and then take a little vacay in Fuji. Then, finally, in June we’ll start exploring Southeast Asia.

Anyone want to visit? Unlike with Leg One, we have some pretty exact dates. It’ll be a change to stay on schedule (and in the countries we actually planned on visiting). But if the last year is any indication, we need to exercise some restraint!

So for now we’re enjoying catching up with family in the States and exploring some sights closer to home. We went to Niagara (my first-ever visit to Canada!), which was freezing but gorgeous and basically deserted.

[ptcPhoto filename=”NiagaraIce.jpg” title=”Ice” caption=”Ice near the Falls” position=”center”]

Hope all of you are having a great holiday season!

Month Nine

Cool cover image, right? Those are the Longsheng Rice Terraces near Guilin, China – also known as the “Dragon’s Backbone”.

It’s been a fun-filled six weeks since our last trip update. Ishigaki, a tropical island off the south coast of Japan, was very relaxing and a great place to celebrate our one year anniversary. Unfortunately typhoons in the area cost us our scuba diving opportunity (the main reason we had gone there), but it was still a wonderful place to spend a couple weeks.

On our way back to China we made the most of an evening layover in Seoul and had a tasty BBQ dinner (and too much soju – that stuff is dangerous!). Once we got back we went to see the Himalayas from the Chinese side and traveled across the Tibetan Plateau.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Plateau.jpg” title=”Plateau” caption=”The Tibet-Sichuan Highway was VERY bumpy, and freezing cold!” position=”center”]

Another neat sight was the Baishutai Limestone Terraces. They’re in the middle of nowhere, but the tiny villages in the area are unlike anything else we’ve seen.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Baishutai.jpg” title=”Baishutai” caption=”A rarity in China: We were the only people there.” position=”center”]

We also found that Southwestern China is home to many of the “World’s Biggest” things, including the world’s largest Buddha, prayer wheel, Mao statue, and, of course, giant pandas!

[ptcPhoto filename=”LegoPanda.jpg” title=”Pandas” caption=”We promise that panda isn’t dead.” position=”center”]

In an effort to experience real Chinese culture Eric underwent some painful spa treatments in Chengdu. He was paired with a particularly aggressive masseuse who missed the memo on “soothing massage” and left him with a limp and a bruised face. Then he volunteered for an invasive ear cleaning from a man wielding some sort of medieval torture device. Thankfully he walked away relatively unscathed (and without any signs of infection).

[ptcPhoto filename=”EarCleaning.jpg” title=”Don’t move…” caption=”What was he thinking?” position=”center”]

As for Sam, she’s been working diligently on writing website posts with the hope that one day we’ll actually be up to date (or at least within a month of the things we’re talking about). We’ve also been spending a lot of time trying to figure out our upcoming travel schedule. Let’s just say we’re getting further and further away from our original plan…

We’re off to Hong Kong soon and have lots of surprises in store. Stay tuned!

Month Seven Point Five

Our trip keeps growing, there’s still so much to do!

Let’s see. Last time we wrote an update we were loving Japan and anticipating our second visitor. Jelmini joined us in Tokyo and we all climbed Mt. Fuji – a very challenging hike up in the dark and then down through a never-ending track of volcanic rock.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiClouds.jpg” title=”Descending Fuji” caption=”Hiking down through the clouds” position=”center”]

From there we went to Beijing and saw the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and the Great Wall of China. Moving right on down our bucket list, we continued on to the Terracotta Warriors before renting an apartment in the “Hawaii of China”, a resort town called Sanya. We found Lay’s BBQ chips there! And cooked actual meals! Ah, the luxuries of living like normal human beings.

[ptcPhoto filename=”LaysBBQ.jpg” title=”BBQ” caption=”It’s the little things.” position=”center”]

Like a kick-ass mileage ninja, Eric found a way for us to fly from China to Taiwan, on to a remote Japanese island, and back to China with a long layover in Korea – for $60 and 20,000 frequent flyer miles each (less miles than it would take to fly round-trip anywhere in the US). With all the layovers that came to nine flights. Curious what that route looks like?

[ptcPhoto filename=”route.gif” title=”Flight pattern” caption=” We won’t be winning a “green travel” award any time soon.” position=”center”]

We hadn’t planned to travel to Taiwan, but after hearing some ringing recommendations we had to check it out. Turns out it’s one of our favorite places so far – great food, clean streets, a good mix of city and country, and some very kind people. Feeling adventurous, we tried Taiwan’s infamous “stinky tofu” – it’s VERY stinky. We ran into an old friend of Eric’s in Taipei and he treated us to an array of snake products. Upon leaving we found ourselves on a Hello Kitty themed airplane. We’ll put together a picture essay for this one, but as a teaser: They had Hello Kitty-inspired foie gras and toilet paper. Very strange.

More recently we celebrated our first wedding anniversary with new friends in Ishigaki, Japan. These last few days have been spent snorkeling and hanging out with hermit crabs, which always make Sam happy. One more week and it’s back to China for a couple of months.

[ptcPhoto filename=”crabCrossing.jpg” title=”Crab crossing” caption=”Hermit crabs!” position=”center”]

So things have been good even though we’re homesick. Like, really homesick. Sam started knitting again and Eric’s been working on a new series on how to best use frequent flier miles. Eric has also revamped the gallery section of the website, it has a more modern look now and should work correctly on phones and tablets. Our Taiwan photos are up, check them out here. We sent out a call for visitors and had some replies, so we hope to see more of our people soon!

Six Months In: Gear Update

Two hundred days in, and how did we do?

Here was our packing list when we embarked, broken down by “sub-bags”. We’ve added italicized notes throughout and updates at the bottom of some sections. At the end there’s a list of items that have been especially helpful throughout the trip.

Clothing

Sam’s clothes:

  • 4 dresses
  • 2 skirts (1 long, 1 short)
  • 10 shirts (1 cardigan, 1 long-sleeve tee, 2 short-sleeve tees, 6 tank tops)
  • 1 pair of shorts
  • 1 pair of pants
  • 2 jackets (1 hoodie, 1 rain jacket)
  • 2 swimsuits (1 bikini, 1 tankini)
  • Undergarments (3 bras, 7 pairs of underwear, 4 pairs of socks)
  • 3 pairs of shoes (running shoes, flip-flops, flats)
  • 3 scarves
  • 1 belt

Eric brought the following:

  • 2 jackets (1 wool jacket, 1 rain jacket)
  • 7 shirts (1 long-sleeved shirt, 1 button-down long-sleeved shirt, 2 button-down short-sleeved shirts, 3 tee shirts)
  • 2 pairs of shorts
  • Undergarments (6 pairs of boxers, 4 pairs of socks)
  • 1 pair of swim trunks
  • 1 pair of pants
  • 3 pairs of shoes (running shoes, flip-flops, walking shoes) – We both replaced our hiking shoes with running shoes, and Eric added a pair of walking shoes as well.

Six Month Update: Despite all of my efforts to bring the perfect travel wardrobe, I’ve found that it’s probably better to bring a few versatile, high-quality pieces and complement them with clothes that you don’t mind replacing at some point. It’s nice to pick up new clothes that fit in more with the local trends without feeling guilty for setting aside an expensive item that you don’t like anymore. The merino wool clothing we brought has been a worthwhile investment since it’s awesome in all weather. My only complaint would be that it tends to be more prone to small holes and tears than cotton.

After five months all of our shoes needed to be replaced. Large-footed people be warned, finding shoes in Asia is a challenge!

We also purchased hats and gloves for trekking in Nepal and climbing Mt. Fuji, but after China we shouldn’t need them anymore.

First Aid Kit

  • Bandages
  • Gauze
  • Medical tape
  • Alcohol swabs
  • Burt’s Bees Res-Q Ointment for bruises, cuts, and bug bites
  • Ibuprofen
  • Decongestants
  • UTI Medications
  • Rehydration salts
  • Immodium
  • A year’s supply of doxycycline (malaria medication)
  • 6 regimens of Azithromycin for infections
  • Pepto pills
  • TUMS
  • Motion sickness meds
  • Candied ginger (also for motion sickness)
  • Sleeping/anti-anxiety pills
  • Neosporin
  • Allergy medication
  • Oxycodone in case of serious pain emergencies
  • Muscle relaxers
  • Cold medicine
  • Tea tree oil for use as an anti-fungal, antiseptic, for earaches and bug bites
  • Blister cushions
  • Moleskin
  • Hydrocortisone cream for rashes and itches
  • Tissue
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Aloe

Six Month Update: Between blisters, cuts and a few stomach bugs (probably food poisoning), our first aid kit has gotten a lot of use. We added an ace bandage for sprains and found that Tang is great for covering up the taste of oral rehydration salts.

Technology

  • Dive watches
  • Headlamps – We would NOT recommend Black Diamond’s Ion model. It’s extremely compact but doesn’t hold up to extended use, has a weak output, and takes a battery size that we haven’t seen outside the US.
  • SteriPen Freedom for sterilizing water
  • iPod and charger
  • Samsung Nexus phone
  • Cables to charge the Kindle, phone, cameras and SteriPen (all micro USB)
  • Chargers for laptops – We sent one home since they’re so bulky, but haven’t had a problem getting by with one.
  • Hard drives/cables
  • Universal power adapters – We’re finding that the smaller one-country adapters work better in that they don’t fall out of the wall so easily, and they can fit into smaller spaces.
  • External battery for emergency charging
  • Kindles – Between the two of us, we’ve had five Kindles on this trip. They may be too fragile for long-term travel.
  • Cameras (with spare batteries, wall charger, lenses, and filters)
  • SD card readers
  • Laptops
  • Tripod – We replaced our expandable tripod with a GorillaPod, which takes up less space and works surprisingly well though it’s very limited in height.
  • Cleaning cloths
  • Extra memory cards
  • Camera remote
  • Ethernet cable
  • Power strip and USB wall adapters
  • Tiny flash drive for storing important documents and transferring data
  • Headphones
  • Headphone splitter for watching movies together
  • USB to Ethernet adapter
  • Eric’s watch

Six Month Update: Our 11” Macbook Air computers and Sony NEX-6 cameras have been great so far, but we’ve had bad luck with our Kindles and one of the hard drives. We purchased a new macro lens for the cameras so we can photograph food, flowers and other small items in more detail.

Liquids Bags

  • Toothpaste
  • Leave-in conditioner spray
  • Face lotion
  • Insect repellent
  • Sunblock
  • Shampoo and conditioner
  • Hair gel
  • Eyedrops
  • Red nail polish
  • Hairspray
  • Deodorant

Toiletries

  • Toothbrushes
  • Floss
  • Dry shampoo, which also works as a talc powder
  • Sam’s makeup (foundation, mascara, blush, bronzer, brush, eyebrow pencil/sharpener, eyelash curler)
  • Glass nail file
  • Travel brush
  • Comb
  • Bobby pins
  • Hair ties
  • Lip balm
  • Razors with spare blades
  • Cotton swabs
  • Nail clippers
  • Tweezers
  • Bar soap
  • Jewelry – 2 necklaces, 3 pairs of earrings

Sundries

  • Plotting the Course business cards
  • Mini Cards Against Humanity – Sent home.
  • Duct tape
  • Compass
  • Black marker
  • Pens
  • Gaffers tape
  • Sewing kit (needles, thread, safety scissors, safety pins, rubber bands, small measuring tape)
  • Corkscrew
  • Combination lighter and bottle opener
  • Emergency whistle
  • Zip ties
  • Extra plastic bags – all sizes
  • Laundry kit (bar soap, sink plug, small brush for cleaning clothes, clothesline)
  • Sleep sheets
  • Travel towels
  • Collapsible water bottle – We wouldn’t recommend the Nalgene wide-mouth canteen from REI – it began leaking after a couple of months of only moderate use.
  • Bandana/Buffs
  • Wallets
  • Collapsible cup
  • Money belt – Sent home
  • Sunglasses
  • Current guidebook
  • Packable day bags
  • Small purse
  • Rain covers
  • Point-It Book – Very useful in China, where there’s a serious language barrier.
  • Combination locks
  • S-Clips
  • Looped metal cable for securing bags on overnight trains – Discarded after a few months.
  • Notebooks for recording expenses and journaling
  • 2 Lego people with accessories

Six Month Update: We’ve added a few things to this category, including a scrub brush for laundry, packing tape, comfort shoe inserts, bowls, spoons, chopsticks, and a ukulele.

Documents

  • Copies of passports
  • Passports – Sam’s was full, so we had more pages added at the Shanghai consulate.
  • Money
  • Credit and debit cards- Our Charles Schwab card has been great for withdrawing local currency since all ATM fees are waived with the account. Also, the Chase Sapphire card is perfect for international travel since they don’t charge foreign transaction fees, and if you need to call them you get a real person right away.
  • Vaccine records
  • International driver’s licenses
  • PADI certification cards
  • Extra passport photos
  • Dive Logs

And the Most Valuable Gear (MVG) Awards Go To:

Cocoon Mesh Bags

We use these mesh bags to keep everything in our packs organized, from clothing to electronics. They’ve made living out of two backpacks much easier, and the bags themselves are remarkably strong considering how lightweight they are. We’ve not had one tear even though we stuff things in until it looks like they’ll burst.

Our Packs

The same is true for our backpacks, the Gregory Jade 38 and Arc’Teryx Axios 35. Our only complaint with these is that maybe we should have brought slightly larger bags so that everything isn’t so crammed in all the time. But then, if the packs were bigger we’d just fill them with more stuff. So it’s probably good that we went with the smallest size that would fit the essentials.

External Battery

When international converters, outlets in hotel rooms, and time are all limited, it can be hard to keep all of our electronics charged. This small battery pack really comes in handy since it will charge our smartphone, cameras, e-books and water filter on the go. The caveat with this is that if we don’t remember to charge the battery itself, it’s just dead weight.

SteriPen Freedom

Our SteriPen water purifier has gotten a lot of use given the countries we’ve visited so far. It only takes a minute to sterilize tap water, and it saves us money and countless plastic bottles. At first we were hesitant to use it because there’s no way to really be sure that the water is clean. But we haven’t gotten sick from water once when we’ve purified it with the SteriPen.

Samsung Nexus phone

With a local SIM card this phone is capable of providing internet and phone service. But even if you don’t have internet outside of your hotel room, a smartphone really comes in handy when you’re traveling because you can load maps, hotel emails, and directions before heading out. It’s indispensable on travel days for these reasons, and also for games, music and audiobooks on long train rides. This little thing can multitask more than any other piece of gear we brought.

And so, overall I don’t think we did too badly with our packing. Did we miss anything? What’s your favorite piece of travel gear?

RTW Basics: Getting a Haircut Overseas

There are so many things we take for granted when we live in one place, like buying liquids in quantities larger than three ounces, being able to wield sharp objects, and finding authentic nacho cheese. Another one is going to the same salon every eight weeks for a haircut and knowing with some certainty that you won’t walk out looking like Garth from Wayne’s World. (Unless, of course, that’s what you’re going for. Party on.)

Having more courage and less hair than I, Eric jumped in to overseas haircuts a little sooner. At a barbershop without electricity in Nepal, he got a cut the old-fashioned way. The barber had a pair of very long, very sharp scissors and a straight razor, and that was all. Toward the end of the beard trim and haircut, the guy was down to cutting individual hairs to make it all even.

On the other side of the spectrum, he also had a haircut in Japan where he had to pay a vending machine and was vacuumed clean afterwards. To draw another example from a classic, it was a little like this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_b4Z5Kg08PY

Ok, so it wasn’t that traumatic. Actually I had to stifle giggles when I heard the familiar whoosh of the vacuum cleaner and saw the barber skimming it over Eric’s head and shoulders like he was a sofa cushion.

But I was hesitant to see a hairdresser for fear that I wouldn’t be able to communicate what I needed. I can just see it: I say, “Please just take a tiny bit off – a trim,” and they hear, “I’d like a pixie. The shorter the better”. I know it’s irrational, but thinking of how wrong this could go makes me wince.

I feared so much that my hair would be lost in translation that I tried several times to trim it on my own. This meant standing in front of a tiny hotel room mirror under dim yellow lighting and contorting my arms to hack away at my mane with a comb and a pair of those safety scissors you use in kindergarten. It wasn’t pretty. So it had been over eight months since I had a proper haircut.

Then one day in China I decide that enough is enough. I find the shiniest, busiest salon nearby and go in, determined to gesticulate clearly even if I don’t speak Mandarin. Most communication is nonverbal anyways, right?

Upon entering the salon, the ten people who work there all take notice. Six of them stand near the doors welcoming me as a young man tucks my purse away in a locker and walks me to a back room to start with a wash. Instead of the torture chamber chair/sink combo at my old salon in the States, this washing basin has a long elevated cushion attached so I can basically lay down with my head in the sink.

Some hot water and shampoo, and I’m all sudsy getting a scalp massage. It’s intermittently relaxing but the experience is disrupted as my washer guy occasionally stops, picks up chunks of wet hair and shows them to the people congregating behind me. They chat about it and snicker for a minute before he resumes that blissful mini-massage, moving down to draw circles on my temples. Helpless, all I can do is crane my neck to see what they’re doing and grin back at them. Are they inquiring as to why my hair is so wispy and thin, or noting its auburn hue? Am I host to a colony of well-behaved head lice? I guess I’ll never know.

Twenty minutes later and they put me up front with the stylist, a young Chinese woman wearing a bleached denim mini skirt and long, sparkling fingernails. Here’s the big moment. I take a small lock of hair, hold just the very ends out and make a cutting motion. Then I motion to the rest of the length and shake my hand, open palm towards her, saying, “No – I don’t want the rest cut”. She steps back and studies my reflection in the mirror, points to my hair and makes a motion down her body like she’s saying, “Looong hair”. Yes, I nod. I want it to stay long.

Aside from some rough combing she turns out to be a really good and thorough stylist, going through my whole head of hair three times over to fix all the damage I’ve done with my DIY haircuts. To my relief it all goes off without a hitch, and that shouldn’t be surprising – people here get haircuts too.

With my locks properly tamed, I emerge from the salon with a spring in my step. A massage and a great haircut for $11? I feel silly for having waited so long.