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Nov. 17th, 2013

Day 2 Hong Kong

Started the trip on Friday morning. Got to the BART station and realized I forgot my passport (I know, shp). Dad had a doctor's appointment after dropping us off at the station, so no help could be expected there (both he and mom are horrible about having their cellphones with them and turned on. Thus, I had to spend $15 for a taxi to pop back home. Bleh. Silver lining - at least I didn't find out about it after we arrived at the airport; that would've probably caused a missed flight.

Long boring flight; the most surprising thing was that they gave us ice cream for one of the snack breaks, which was cool. This was an older model plane, so no personal TV screen. I didn't bother and just read on my nook. Finished Blindsight and a few other short stories I'd downloaded before the trip.

Got to HK at night. When we arrived at the hotel, it turned out there was an issue where the tour group had not cleared out when they should have, leaving no rooms in that building. We got shuffled off to the last remaining room in another building off in some dark iffy-looking alley. The room was a dinky thing that was maybe the size of the walk in closet in my parents' bedroom, with only 1 bed. Ugh. Not much we could do but make do.

At least to make up for it, this morning, they moved us to a much nicer 3 person (2 bed) room in the main building. No extra charge, which is better.

The downside of having gotten up so early this morning (whether due to jetlag or due to the accommodations), though, seems to be the problem that Hong Kong is not a morning place. Almost *nothing* was open before like 10/11 AM - museums, restaurants (I saw no breakfast places anywhere, seriously WTH), special bus routes to tour areas, etc. So we took a slow walk to the Star Ferry pier near the Cultural Center, then another meandering walk from Pier 7 to the Peak Tram.

We took some pics of some skyscrapers and interesting looking buildings, as well as several gardens/parks. And I noticed something else - everything is really really small here. Their parks for the most part are smaller than my high school PE grounds. The tram only had one car and one track. Even the sky terrace building seems smaller than the 101 building in Taiwan. We ended up leaving a lot earlier instead of waiting for the night view simply cuz there was nothing there to do for who knows how many hours.

So here we are taking a rest back at the hotel, in the nice new room. We'll probably hit the shopping districts tonight and if those turn out to be better than the tourist spots. I want to buy some lighter clothing, cuz I brought clothes expecting cold weather (for Nanjing) but HK is like 10 degrees hotter than back home in CA so I've been sweltering. Bleh.

Tomorrow we will know better and stay in until like 10. :p

EDIT: This evening we had a simple dinner and then took a brief stroll through Temple St. It was... typical of Chinese street markets, I thought. I didn't end up buying anything except another USB adapter for my Zen Mosaic, which for some reason refused to charge.

(Thought, turns out the new adapter didn't make any difference. When I connect it to my laptop, the charge light/icon don't come up on the Zen (actually it flashes once and then goes dark again), and my computer does not detect a new device. I tested the adapters on my camera as well since they use the same type of port, and I'm not able to pick up the camera either. I am able to pick up my nook and smart phone which uses a different time of adapter tough, which makes it seem unlikely to be a problem with the computer. I can't tell if there is some issue with both adapters, or with my zen and camera... Ugh.)

At 8 PM we went by the shore again to watch the symphony of lights show. It was pretty nice. I'll bring the camera and record some of it tomorrow.

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Nov. 12th, 2013

Airline baggage notes (for self)

Purse or backpack, purse or backback... hrm...

Dragon Air (HK - PRC)

http://www.dragonair.com/ka/en_HK/travel-information/baggage/carry-on-baggage.html

For all classes, each passenger (except an infant) can bring a free baggage allowance of one cabin bag not exceeding 56x36x23cm (22x14x9 in) in size and 5kg (11lbs) in weight. These dimensions include wheels, handles and side pockets.

In addition to the standard cabin baggage allowance, you may carry onboard one of the following items free:

a small handbag or a small backpack or a briefcase or a laptop bag

Note: Duty-free items are included in your cabin baggage allowance

UA (US - China)

http://www.united.com/CMS/en-US/travel/Pages/BaggageCarry-On.aspx

United Airlines will permit one bag plus one personal item (see below), per customer to be carried on the aircraft.

The maximum combined linear measurement (length + width + height) of carry-on bags must not exceed 14 inches x 9 inches x 22 inches (23 x 35 x 56 cm) or 45 linear inches (114 cm).

In addition to one carry-on item, you may bring one personal item, such as a shoulder bag, backpack, laptop bag or other small item (no larger than 9 inches x 10 inches x 17 inches, or 36 linear inches).

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Oct. 14th, 2012

In Summary: Home Sweet Home?

...In a general sense, I guess - in that after this trip around Europe, home is still the best place to live. Everything is cheaper in the US, and that's just comparing tag prices and before converting between USD & Euro/Pound/Franks. It's fairly safe, at least where I live, unlike Paris/Italy, without being all Big Brother-y like London. And the food is everything I love and need...OMG the food (definitely prefer American Italian to "authentic" Italian; and "authentic" French food prices are just forget it). Also, great weather here in Cali all year around.

Of course, in a less general sense, homecoming was spoiled by the fact that my dad managed to turn the house into a bachelor pad in the week and a half we were gone. The kitchen is three kinds of disgusting and I think we need to replace/redo the sink cuz it's leaking and won't stop. Ugh.
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Oct. 13th, 2012

The cities of Europe

I was going to write something long... but looking back on my previous posts I decided to do something short and to the point for once. So, here are some thoughts about the various cities I visited on this trip:

Safety:

The two cities that I felt the safest was in Lucerne and London. This is despite the fact that there's often not a bobby in sight (not counting the guards in the funny hats which are more of a tourist attraction than crime deterrent in London). Now, London, this was explained away by our tour guide as due to the fact that every inch of the city is covered in security cameras (due to former issues with IRA bombings) such that you can't sneeze without being caught on tape, much less commit a crime. Lucerne...I have no idea why you can feel safe in a city that goes pretty much lights out at 7 PM even if you are alone walking the streets after dark.

Paris and Italy, despite often having armed troops in public locations (seriously, are you under martial law or something?) gives me the jeebies if I'm ever not with the group. These are also the two places that multiple tour guides warn us about. Paris is apparently a city where you need to be careful of being mugged. Italy is just a nation of pickpockets and swindlers. Given that several tour members fell prey to the swindling, and almost fell prey to "pro" pickpocketing... it is kinda scary.

Bathrooms:

Lucerne had the best bathrooms hands down. Of course, that's probably cuz it had the least population, including tourism. Paris and London are okay when it comes to cleanliness, but the restrooms are often either require or "encourage" mandatory donations. >.>

Italy is the worst, especially Milan and Rome. Many of the toilets in the public restrooms there don't even have the bench part of the toilet, just the underlying bowl. That's just... ugh. I'd take even the squat toilets of China from 10 years ago over some of those.

Ambience/Architecture:

Personal opinion time...but I think pretty much all the post-renaissance stuff is overly gilded and tacky. That just leaves Lucerne and the older parts of Rome. The Roman ruins are fun from a historical perspective. But personally I like the quaint calmness of Lucerne

General Annoyances:

* Breakfasts in European hotels suck; don't hold any expectations unless you're paying exorbitant prices for the gourmet experience.

* Every freaking country has a different outlet format. Apparently if you buy a set of international adapters, you get like 7 different ones for Europe. This makes no sense to me - why would you unify your monetary system but not the electrical things bought with said money? Wouldn't this make it hell to buy any kind of equipment/appliance that comes with a plug from a different European country? WTF.

* Hot water is an alien concept unheard of in many European shops. Including the ones that serve tea.

* There's nothing all that special about 99% of the ice cream shops (gellateria) in Italy. You just need to find that one store which offers unlimited number of tiny scoops of every flavor in the shop on a single cone for an affordable price. That is, I've heard of such a thing. Never seen it with my own eyes though.

* Beware the pickpockets and guard your purse carefully. Do not make any form of eye contact of do anything to acknowledge random street vendors coming up to you and try to shake your hand/take your picture/stuff things in your hand. If you do, expect to pay or have a escape route/scapegoat handy.

* Prices are horrendous all around, and that's even before you convert to USD. I try not to think too much on it in order not to spoil what's supposed to be a fun vacation.
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Day 10 Rome & Vatican City

It looks like I still have some time for net access, so here's a quick summary of today...

Our first stop was the Coliseum, where we met our local tour guide for the day. We were able to go inside the arena and take photos, but the best views were of course from the top...of the first floor. My god the stairs were absolutely killer, each and every step being slippery and steep. It's easy to see how the Ancient Romans could have used it to control the crowds on the upper floors.

Then we headed over to the Roman forums and Basilica. Or at least the ruins thereof.

After that, we stopped outside of the Vatican for lunch. Which really was more expensive than it would have been across the street. Word to the wise - if a tour guide introduces you to a shop of any kind, first look around at the other shops in the same area. Chances are you're at the most expensive one and the tour guide gets a cut if you shop there.

Then, the Vatican Museum, which eventually leads into the Sistine Chapel. My god that was a long walk of over three miles. A very pretty and gilded long walk, but still incredibly long. Supposedly, you're not supposed to take any photos in the chapel itself; but no one apparently cared and there was no way to police all the people squeezed into that room, so I did take photos and video. :P Oh yeah, and to add - the place was absolutely packed, in the kind of tightly packed environment that you'd only find in popular Chinese tourist attractions. Also, it's one of the few places where it's not the Asians that are dominating the crowd. I guess there are a lot of devout Catholics out there?

Also, at this point, I need to stop and complain about our local tour guide for today. I have not had a single complaint about any of our tour guides, local and non, at any point before this. But today's lady was horrible. Her accent is thick, and she doesn't slow down, try to make things clear. She also does infodumps over her mike instead of anecdotes like all the other tour guides. This is horrible public speaking practice for the trade that she is in, because all of this information to anyone who cares too look online, and is absolutely useless at gaining the attention of her audience. Our guide yesterday was Italian with an accent too, but he was able to make the tour fun with anecdotes and facial expressions and a raw joy in the subject that is contagious. Also, whenever something goes wrong and a person on the tour doesn't do as she asks (like using the radio headphones or keeping up with the party), it's never *her* fault, but theirs. I can tell you right now that this is horrible customer service of any kind.

Anyway, the upshot of the rant above is that when we came out of the Sistine Chapel, she pointed out where the restrooms (toilettes) were for the group. Then she said something like the people who want to go should wait at the door for her to join them in 10 mins or so. So, naturally, some of us went. It wasn't until after a few of the party that didn't go to the restrooms rejoined us that we found out that she'd led the rest of the group onwards into the St. Peter cathedral, AND that once you got to the exit area with the restrooms, you are not allowed to go back. The guide insisted that she mentioned this caveat, and maybe she might have tried after we'd already left, but considering that 9 people out of 28 "misunderstood" her, that's her problem with not communicating clearly, not ours.

Anyway, the rest of us went back into line for just the cathedral, because that was one scenic spot that we should not be missing. Then afterwards, we all trundled back to the bus, only to find that we were missing one family (4 people) which held an elderly man in a wheelchair. So both our tour guides (our long term guide and our local one from today) spent the next hour looking for them while we spent that hour waiting, before deciding to move on.

Of course, that's when they finally called in to tell us that they'd already headed onto the next scenic spot on the tour a long time ago cuz they thought our group had already left while they were in the restroom. *sigh*

Anyways, better late than lost I guess. We met back up with our lost lambs at the wishing fountain place (formal name escapes me at the moment). Paused for wishes and photos. Then stopped by the Spanish Steps (I think it was called?) for a group photo. What was funny was that there was a group Finnish (Polish?) college kids at the place, who decided to invade our group photo. This lead up to a free for all of mixed group photos of mass hilarity.

Finally, we headed back for dinner, which was provided by the tour. This one was much better than the French cuisine one. It even had musical accompaniment with a nice lady who serenaded us several times throughout the meal. She also teased several of the male members of our party. Since the average age of our tour group was somewhere in the fifties (most are married with kids or even grandkids off to college), this was kinda hilarious.

Finally, we came back to the hotel, and tomorrow we say goodbye to Europe.

EDIT: OMG two more power outtages tonight. When calling in to the front desk, they're blaming it on someone using the wrong voltage plugs. No you idiots, if someone crashes their own room's outlet using the wrong plug, that's their fault. If a bunch of other unrelated customers are affected, that's YOUR fault, and YOUR responsibility. This is basic common sense in the service industry. What is wrong with you? In conclusion: do not book Holiday Inn.
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Oct. 12th, 2012

Chinese is the new international language

I figure since I might not get net time tomorrow night, I might as well write down some of the thoughts that have been swirling around my brain these last few days.

China is a rising power and a rising economy, everyone knows that. This of course means that a greater and greater number of the population are able and can afford to travel abroad. Given China's population, this means that even not accounting for ethnic Chinese but non Chinese citizens like me, there are large numbers of Chinese-origin people pouring out into the world into all the tourism hot spots.

So it's not too much of a surprise, even though it's hilarious, to turn around on the plaza of the Arc d' Triumph and see a sea of black hair and Asian features. Or to be walking along the streets of Venice and hear someone yelling Mandarin behind you, and then get overruntaken by yet another huge mob of mainland Chinese tourists and their very loud tour guide.

It's the little things, however, that really surprise me. The fluent chinese that are being spouted everywhere I go, for example. One of our tour guides in Paris is a fluent Chinese speaker. I also heard it from a waiter at the Moulin Rouge, who admits to have picked up all his vocab from just serving Chinese customers - no extra classes needed. Ok, these are pros, you might think... Of course, then you hear the mother tongue from the gondola rowers in Venice, and the ice cream shop vendors in Florence... the freaking street vendors and gypsies throughout Italy speak functional Chinese well enough to freaking haggle prices and flatter marks.

They also speak it with a more natural/correct mandarin accent than my ABC cousins, who have been taking Chinese classes for a few years now. That's kinda sad, actually.

Now - food for thought: If you go to any caucasian-run store in, say, Golden Gate park, you probably won't get far (I think, I could be wrong nowadays). And while London had a Chinatown, I didn't encounter any vendors who spoke Chinese. English is already the foremost international language. And it's the French (who are supposedly culturally adamant about not going English) and the Italians that are picking up Chinese "liek whoa". Could there be a deeper meaning or correlation there? Is the world going to end up being English versus Chinese for official international tongue in a few decades? In terms of population, I like our chances.

European Tour - Hotel Comparison

I figure I've seen all I need to see of all the hotels we've been staying at on this tour to give a ranking of them. Unless there's something really abnormal at breakfast tomorrow, there's not likely to be anything that will change my mind. Now, given that I haven't been noting down the names of the various hotels we stayed in, other than noting that all except the current/last one were local brand names and not international chains, I'm going to reference them by the city instead. I guess they can serve as a starting point in the city comparison that I'll do later.

So here they are, from best to worst.

1. Paris - Had everything, including complementary slippers, which no other place had. Also had the most fluffiest bedding/pillows.

2. London - Best breakfast of all the hotels, with the most choices and omelettes!

3. (just outside of) Florence - Only downside was that the water pressure was a little weak but that seems to be true of all of Europe. The keys were heavy brass keys instead of normal keycards, but I'm not sure if that's supposed to be on purpose as a flavor thing. WIFI was a wee bit fidgety but not too bad, and the service was really good/responsive. There was no cable TV, but I don't watch TV so it doesn't affect me.

4. Lucerne - Only downside was that the WIFI was only available in the lobby and seventh floor. However, since the room we got was on the ground floor right next to the lobby, I could still get online from the room. :)

5. Milan - Main complaint here was that the staff was pretty unresponsive and took forever to get around to servicing you even when you're the only person at the counter.

6. (just outside of) Venice - Only place where there was no flatscreen TV in the room but the old style TV. The front desk could not provide any adapters for US style plugs into Italian style outlets. There were stuff that was broken in the bathroom such as the step-button thing to open the trash can lid. Also, breakfast only had one warm dish and that was eggs.

7. Rome - This was the only US brand hotel - Holiday Inn. Also no adapters available at the front desk. Only hotel that didn't have a safe either (wtf!). WIFI is 14 Euros per 24 hours so I may or may not even be able to post something tomorrow. Also, the power went out for like 5-10 minutes while I was in the shower just now, which was awwkwaaard... EDIT: Also, the walls are paper thin and it's hard to sleep while listening to your neighbors talking and watching TV.

Some general notes...

Breakfast in general in Europe seems to suck a lot. There appears to be no attempt at all to make it "international". In London we started with warm dishes at breakfast including eggs, sausages, ham (bacon-like), potatoes, omelette station. Then in Paris it was just eggs, bacon, sausages, but at least they had some yummy croissants that are a specialty of the French. In pretty much everywhere in Italy there was just eggs and bacon. In the hotel outside Venice in particular there was just eggs, and that was it for the warm dishes.

I can't believe a lot of these hotels which are in tourist hot spots can't go the one small step further and offer something like pancakes or waffles (for US tastes) or something Asian-y to cater to the burgeoning Chinese tourist population. It seems to be very backwards to me. Or perhaps ethnocentric? Or maybe they just don't care about food as much as the Chinese do (going by any international breakfast offered by a Chinese hotel in a major city...)
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Day 9 Pisa & Florence

It was raining this morning when we got to Pisa, pretty hard too, which made taking photos a miserable pain. We got a tilted shot glass from a souvenir shop and then scuttled back to the tour bus.

Then we actually circled back to Florence. The city pretty much still uses the old stone roads from the medieval era so there's no room for any of the large buses to get into the city. This meant we had to park outside the city and then walk aaaallll the way inside. It was a long walk. Then, we got to the extremely overly-gilded Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral/duomo (yeah I googled the name) of Florence (made of white, green, and pink marble!) and were handed over to a local tour guide.

We then went to the Galleria dell' Accademia (more google) to gawk at the works of Michaelangelo, including the famous statue of David. No photos allowed, unfortunately.

After that we went to another chapel place supposedly interring Dante's wife & favorite mistress. And then swung by the city center/offices which are housed in the old Medicci palace. Then the Basilica of Santa Croce cathedral (yay google again) which is supposedly more famous for the people interred there - Machiavelli, Galileo, some other dudes I forget, and Michaelangelo (whose body was stolen back from Rome).

After that we took a long drive to Rome, where our hotel for the last day is going to be. Tomorrow we will tour Rome, and then the day after we will be departing for the US.
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Oct. 11th, 2012

Day 8 Venice

Our hotel last night was actually just outside Venice. This morning we took the boat onto the island itself. Our bus paid a hefty 400+ Euros to get into the city, and that's apparently twice what the price had been two years ago. But given the large number of people on the islands, it doesn't seem like the raised prices has deterred anyone. I guess the money goes to upkeeping, since the water is surprisingly clear of any debris or trash at all, even in the nooks and crannies.

The trip itself to Venice was on a motor boat. From the top, the view was ok and there's less chance of sea sickness with the cold morning wind blowing at you.

Our first stop in Venice was the Murano glass factory, where we got a short demo on glassmaking and then were ushered into the official gift shop. Lots of very pretty stuff there, and the local guide explained the contents and quirks of specialties like Venetian red or the pink-turned-blue-under-lighting glass and the baroque versus Venetian styles and etc. I admit we were a little overly dazzled by the shinies everywhere and ended up buying quite a bit of stuff there, that on later retrospection, would have cost less than half of what we paid for in the shops outside of that factory. *sigh* I should stop thinking about that before I ruin my vacation.

Then we passed by the San Marco plaza and took a short boat ride on the gondola. One of our tour group members paid for a singer, so the entire tour (including the boats before/after that one) got to also enjoy the signature serenade on the gondola. That was kinda neat, and is probably the best part of Italy so far. :p

After the gondola ride, we had about 2 hours of free time to scour the shops. The less said about the prices there versus the prices we'd paid earlier the better. We were also supposed to get lunch. But after tasting a bite of the fast food type things my mom and one of our tour members bought, I decided to skip. My god how much salt do the Italians put in their food? The pasta last night was very salty too. It's incredibly sad that I think the pasta from Giovanni's in Berkeley is better than the actual pasta from Italy. Bleh.

After the motor boat ride back to the mainland, we drove onwards past Florence to our hotel... which I guess is just outside Florence (something about Tuscani?). Tomorrow we're to visit the leaning tower of Pisa and then circle back to do Florence.

Our hotel is a rather quaint one, with actual heavy brass keys instead of the usual key cards so far. I'm not sure if they're just that old or if that's supposed to be on purpose for regional flavor. They also provided dinner, which was a fair bit better than the stuff we've had outside so far, in that it was only a little too salty. Ah well.
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Oct. 10th, 2012

Day 7 Milan & Verona

This morning we visited the Duormo (Dvormo?) in Milan. My mom had a scare where she got forced into a handshake with a street performer, who then expected her to pay for the photo that her companion took. I was keeping our money, so all she had was her camera. The performer wasn't very impressed by that. Another party was force given some corn to feed the pidgeons everywhere on the plaza. The men then wouldn't let them leave without paying. In the end, our tour guide paid for them and warned all of us to ignore all the hawkers and performers on the streets of Italy unless we are going to pay. It's a life lesson learned I guess.

Near the Duormo is Napoleon Street, where supposedly all the latest famous brands put out their newest stuff - the kind that show up on expos and shows and only make it over to the states in a few years time. Of course I'm the kind of person who don't wear anything leather and don't usually carry a purse either, famous brand or not. So that's kinda wasted on me. We did try some Italian ice cream and pizza, but I think the food at the plaza are mainly aimed for tourists (they were pretty cheap) and not the authentic type that people tend to rave about.

Then there was a two hour or so drive to Verona, the home of Romeo and Juliet, or, if we want to stick to real life, the home of Dante. The rest stop just before Verona, however, was a small Asian-run tourist trap. They were demoing some wines there, and to my surprise I've finally found one wine that doesn't make me want to spit and stick to water. A brand called Muscato, IIRC. Hopefully it's around in the US too.

Anyway, in Verona, we took some shots of the supposed place where Juliette's balcony was. Lots of couple-y people there. (Also made one candid camera shot of two guys who were dancing in the park nearby.) Took some shots of Dante's place - not all that impressive, really. Ate some bleh Itallian cuisine (too salty by half). And took some photos of the Arena there. I'm sure there's some grand history to that particular site, but there are zero pamphlets available in any language but Italian. Come to think of it, it's been like that through-out Italy. We don't even have a local tour guide. Are the Italians just that bad at the tourism business? Or just so super-confident that people will still come for the famous romantic hotspots that they can get away with not putting any effort into the tourism bits? Or do they just not care about the Roman Empire part of their history? I can't tell.

In other news, the toothache hasn't been acting up much at all today. Not sure if it's cuz of the warmer climes or if it's cuz I switched back to western pills instead of Chinese. Still, I've got a dentist appointment lined up for when I get back. I'm glad I'd scheduled my PTO for two extra days after the trip.
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Oct. 9th, 2012

Day 6 Luzern & Milan

Today was actually the Lucerne (Luzern in German) tour. We started early in the morning with a tram ride up Mt. Pilatus. Unfortunately, the normal cable cars that we were scheduled to take had been taken offline the whole day due to windy weather. It was also actually raining (as opposed to drizzling) for once in the morning, which didn't help either. All this resulted in the fact that once we got to the observatory at the top, there was nothing to see outside except fog and more fog. The only bright side was that on the way down, there were a few spots of less fog/rain which allowed some decent photos to be taken. I doubt it's as good as they would've been from the top though.

After Pilatus we took a boat tour of the Lucerne Lake. Lunch was served on the boat but it was kinda meh (way to salty). The scenery was pretty nice though, with the rain having stopped and the sun almost starting to come out.

After that we had about two hours of shopping before moving onto Milan. There were a lot of watch shops, as you'd expect. But I don't use watches, and I think they're being slowly replaced by cellphones anyway. We did end up buying a bunch of Swiss chocolates of various brands/types. Mostly for gifting of course. I'm certainly not going to be able to enjoy it while my tooth is still acting up.

(And yes, it is still aching. I'm starting to think that it's a problem with the fillings that had been renewed a few months ago. It seems to be centered around just one tooth and I really am not picking up any issue with the gums... Oh, and we also found a pharmacy in Lucerne where I was able to buy some more Aleve pills.)

Our bus later reached Milan in the evening. We stopped by a Chinese restaurant for dinner - fare was pretty meh. And then to the hotel. Tomorrow the schedule is to visit some place(s?) in Milan, and then a short stopover in Verona, before arriving in Venice.
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Oct. 8th, 2012

Day 5 To Lucerne

I think that's how you spell the name of the Swiss city we're staying at tonight, anyway...

We started to the drive to Switzerland at 8 AM in Paris and arrive somewhere around 6 PM. Accounting for about an hour or two worth of stopovers, that's still a lot of time spent on the road. Worse still was that for the first part of the drive, the driver was trying to take "shortcuts" via country routes rather than the main highway. This meant a lot of twists, turns... motion sickness in other words. When we stopped for lunch at around 2, I ended up losing everything left in my stomach from breakfast. Ugh. Well, this is supposed to be the longest drive on this trip so I hope the subsequent drive to Italy won't be as bad.

Lucerne itself is a nice quite town. A river and some pretty straw-type bridges... very pastoral. I found the settings more intimate than the Seine on Paris. Probably because it hasn't been overly commercialized. That and I find a lot of Parisian "style" gaudy for my tastes, and also there's always this sense of danger there like in a lot of mixed cities (Oakland comes to mind as a good comparison) - there are warnings everywhere in Paris about beware of pickpockets or beware of being alone after dark etc. Switzerland, on the other hand, has an excellent record for saftely and it doesn't actually feel like it's dangerous to be out on the streets here after dark. Boring maybe, cuz it looks like stores close fairly early here, but not dangerous.

I packed away my camera this morning so wasn't able to get any shots of the town. Not sure if there will be time tomorrow morning. That's a shame, cuz this is my favorite place so far.

In other news. Tooth still aching. Someone suggested salt water. I think that's only made it hurt more. Owwwwww...
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Oct. 7th, 2012

Day 4 Paris

This morning we made a stop near the Eiffel Tower for photos. Then, we hit the Cathedral of Notre Dame. There was a mass going on at the time (surrounded by tourists though as it was), with the organ music and the Latin. It was pretty cool. I had a heck of a time getting photos of the indoors though, due to the chandelier lights playing havok with my camera's auto-zoom. I ended up taking a lot of shots of the stained glass windows, of which there were many and all very pretty.

After that we went by the Arc d' Triumph. I have to amend yesterday's post at that... the arc at the Louvre was just a miniature version of the real Arc. The real one is much large and at the center of 12 streets radiating outwards from it. Unfortunately the line was way too long for us to have the time to get on top of it; ah well.

Afternoon was all spent at the Palace of Versailles. Very...lavish place. Not a piece of silver in the place aside from the recreation of the breakfast setting (which came from elsewhere) - it'd been all melted down way back when to pay for the military. Most of the rooms were full of paintings and frescos. And everywhere was all gilded gold, giving the very nicely designed architecture an extra layer of tacky. (Reminds me a lot of all the late Ming and Qing dynasty imperial buildings at that, what with the mix of art and gaudiness). I'll have to say the hall of mirrors is pretty impressive. But you can also tell why the mob lynched Louis XVI.

Dinner was arranged for us to have supposedly authentic French meal at some restaurant. I think we should've known better when the price for it wasn't something to give anyone heart attacks. As it turned out, what they actually served was the Chinese version of French cuisine. I couldn't even finish the main course cuz the meat was too tough and...ugh.

(I will have to note though, that you can tell who the up and coming power is on the international arena just by looking around the tourist spots. The vast majority of tourists I've been seeing are Asian...Chinese. The Arc d' Triumph was awash in a sea of black hair and you'd think it was a Chinese structure if it weren't for the fact that we were in Paris. The dinner place was packed with multiple Chinese tour groups by the time we were leaving. I guess it's the place most tours book with to hoodwink the tourists with promise of fancy foreign cuisine.)

Finally, the evening was a show at the Moulin Rouge. I got carded in the manner that both the waiter and the tour guide assumed I couldn't drink yet and offered fruit juice. Of course the drinking age in Paris is 18, which means they thought I was still in high school XD. As for the show itself, I have to say I was pretty underwhelmed there. I was sort of nodding off in my seat halfway through. You could say that's because I lack culture, but I wasn't the only one, and many of the other people who went in our group were saying that it was much less impressive than the shows at Las Vegas, so... Yeah, aside from the fact that the girls were dancing topless, there's not much going for it.

Tomorrow, the long road to Switzerland.
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Oct. 6th, 2012

Day 3 Paris

Got up early in the morning to catch the Eurostar from London to Paris. And then the train ended up stalling for like an hour in the middle of the trip due to...I'm not sure what cuz I couldn't understand the conductor's French accent. Wow and I thought BART could be bad.

It was drizzling the entire afternoon/evening when we got to Paris, but was still warmer than England. Higher humidity, mostly.

Immediately after we got to Paris, we were rushed off to the Louvre tour. This is apparently because tomorrow, or the first Sunday of every month, admission to the Louvre is free and open to all (except for groups...apparently tour groups aren't allowed then). So today was basically all the tour groups scrambling to get that done before tomorrow. Our bus had to circle the tour bus parking lot twice before finding a spot.

The Louvre itself is very packed, almost as much as the big museums in China. There's a lot of stuff there and since we only had 2 hours, our tour guides pretty much rushed us through and only hit some of highlights. We saw the three main attractions - the Venus de Milo, the Winged Victory, and the Mona Lisa. I was not able to get any photos of the last one, not because they didn't allow photography (strangely enough this is the only museum that allowed people to take flash photos of everything, even the paintings), but because there was a veritable sea of people in front of her and I could not get close enough. This is a museum you most likely need to dedicate at least a week to seeing if you really want to get everything out of it. At the end, we also braved the drizzle and got some pics of the Arc d' Triumph at the entrance.

After the Louvre, some of the people on the tour requested to drop by the shopping district to look at all the famous brand bags or whatever. I stayed on the bus on that and dozed. Honestly, I don't see the point of shelling out a lot of money for a real Prada or whatever... or even window shopping for it if you don't plan to shell out said money.

Then, we went to a Chinese place for dinner. I don't know if it's cuz I was hungry as I skipped lunch on the train, or if it's just that the French are good cooks, but the food was pretty good. I'm not sure if it was authentic anything, but everyone agreed that it was very tasty. I'm probably leaning towards the idea that the French are just snobs at cooking and thus put more effort into making even westernized Chinese food than anywhere else.

Finally, the last event of the day was a boat ride down the Seine. It was still drizzling, but still barely bearable. However, I was fairly underwhelmed by the promised supposedly dazzling scenic sights of the river. I think anyone who's been to Shanghai / Huangpu in the evening would have to agree. The only lights that were really worth looking at was the ones on the Eiffel Tower. The only advantage that the Seine has is that the water is much cleaner and not polluted (much like the Thames in London). Oh and also there were a lot of barges lining the edge of the river. Some were restaurants and stuff but there were also quite a few that appeared to be personal lodging types. And of course every time I saw one of those, I was reminded of Duncan MacLeod and his barge on the Seine. XD

In other news... toothache still persisting. I think it's just my imagination but I feel like one of the back teeth on my lower left side is a teeny kinda wobbly at the root. I really hope that's just my imagination. And I really need to see the dentist ASAP when I get back to the US.
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Oct. 5th, 2012

Day 2 London

Went up to the Tower of London this morning. It was not as tall as I'd have thought for a "tower", more like a large castle-y thing. We got to see all the shinies...crown jewels and all that. But I think the best part was the raven (female named Merlin) that mugged for our tour group. Lots of photos.

We took a quick bus tour of the city. I didn't have the window seat so no photos of that. Then we stopped at Westminster Abbey. Didn't go inside though, since apparently you have to pay if you're not going in for actual worship.

Last stop before was at Buckingham. Didn't go in there either; apparently the tickets have been sold out for weeks (really?).

Lunch was at the Chinatown in London. My toothache thing started acting up just before then, so I wasn't really able to eat much. Did pop 2 pills of Aleve which kicked in later. Ugh I don't even know what's wrong. It doesn't hurt if I poke anywhere around my teeth or my gums with a toothpick. But it hurt like heck when I took a single sip of hot tea at lunch. Ice water surprisingly didn't hurt and actually (numbed?) lowered the pain. But it just came back worse than before afterwards. And yet I don't think/see anything swollen. *shrug* Eventually the two pain pills I took during lunch kicked in and the rest of the day was fine. Really need to see the dentist when I get home.

Anyway, for the afternoon the tour group pretty much split up. The tour guide offered to take whoever wanted to go to Cambridge, though there'd be an extra charge for that. The rest of the group were going to head off to the British Museum in the city, which was free admission. We went to the museum group. (A good choice in retrospect since it started raining later in the afternoon - we'd been lucky not to have caught any rain before then.) The museum had some really nice exhibits on Ancient Egypt and Greece. Got to see the actual Rosetta Stone. There was a small exhibit on China which really didn't hold much to speak of.

Our group headed back to Chinatown for dinner. And we took a taxi back to the hotel. Tomorrow we head for France, by chunnel. :)
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Oct. 4th, 2012

Day 1 London

So the flight was first 5 hours to Philedelphia and then 6 hours to London. I seem to have developed a toothache (gum-ache?) in my left cheek which kept me from being able to sleep the entire flight. Needless to say I was pretty out of it the entire time after getting to the UK.

We only hit one scenic spot today, and that was Windsor Castle. It's a nice place; lots of history...and recent not-so-history. It was also pretty cold since we were still sorta dressed for Cali weather. Took some pictures, but not sure I got any good ones of the guards with the funny bear-fur hats. Oh well, Buckingham is on tomorrow's itinerary so will probably have a better shot there.

Had a really early dinner since the tour guide was aware that we were all tired and jetlagged. I plan on just taking a bath and then going to bed early. Might take a pain reliever pill if the tooth ache starts again (it seems to come and go).
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Oct. 16th, 2011

Photos...

Ugh, why is my internet connection so slow... Took forever to upload just two albums onto Facebook, and that's just the stuff from Taipei. >_< Plus, the flash version of the uploader up and quit on me. Bleh.

Anyway... some pics that I'm not going to post to FB.

(Excerpts from the menu of the gourmet Italian restaurant known as PizzaHut in China)

Oct. 6th, 2011

I'm back!!

*is ded*

10 hour flight, stupid different baggage rules for US flights, then 1 hour BART...I managed to lose track of the bag of duty free food gift items stuff we bought at the Nanjing and Taipei airports, so Mom's not happy with me. T_T

Ugh. Only bright spot is I didn't get sick this time, the first time ever for a trip to China. Gonna crash.

China 2011 Index

Taiwan (Journal Index):
Day 0-1
Day 2 Morning | Noon | Night
Day 3
Day 4
Day 5-6
Day 6-7

Taiwan (Photos):
Day 1 - Day 2 Morning/Noon
Day 2 Evening
Day 3-6

Mainland China:
Day 9-10
Day 11-12
Day 13-14
Day 15
Day 16
Day 17
Day 18 (Photos for PizzaHut)
Day 19-20

China 2011: Day 19-20

Nothing happened yesterday. Today we head back to the U.S. Unfortunately, there is a 9 hour layover in Taiwan. So I'm wasting some time at the transfer station.

On the ride over from Nanjing on the Airbus, I got a chance to watch "Green Lantern." Yeah, it was about as underwhelming as expected. For a character that is basically billed as a "space-cop", there is precious little scenes that are space related or heavy sci-fi. Pretty much all of the scenes of Oa were covered in the trailers, and "Iron Man” had more high-tech than this movie.

My complaints of DC's incompetence at characterization still stands. I'd hate to think that the average movie-verse DCU earthling is so bad that the likes of movie-Hal would be the best choice for courage for the GL ring. Then again, none of the other DC movies have exactly turned out any paragons of virtue either. Give me Marvel, at least when it comes to the movies, I guess.

Oct. 4th, 2011

China 2011: Day 18

Went with my dad to the Nanjing Museum this morning - the province level museum, actually, despite the name. It's supposed to have the better stuff. Unfortunately, most of the place had been blocked off for renovations/construction, and of the sole building that was still open only maybe half the exhibits were open. It's also slated to be fully closed on the 8th, and wont open again until sometime In 2014, presumably completely rebuilt and expanded.

Of the still available exhibitions, we saw the full jade exhibit - which was cool the ceramic exhibit which only encompassed the Ming to Qing dynasties, a special exhibition on the Duke of Jiangdu (江都王), and another misc special treasures exhibition.

Despite the small selection of halls, there was still a decent amount of stuff to look at, and thus also photos of them. I'm especially proud of my jade exhibit pics, since the ones I took last year at the Shanghai Museum were kinda bad due to not being familiar with the camera, and the ones from the Xi'an Museum were few due to running out of time.

Afterward, we went to the shopping center I saw the Pizza Hut shop last time so I can experience the Chinese pizza experience. We did not predict the huge line outside the place, and the expected hour wait for service. According to the waitress managing the queue, there were 2 other Pizza Hut stores nearby. The next one we found "only" had a half hour line, so we ended up eating there. Also, price-wise, this place is possibly more expensive than pizza places in the U.S., and maybe even slightly more than the gourmet Italian places in the States, even. Very odd, especially considering the much lower prices at the nearby KFC or McDonald's; not to mention the lack of lines. I took photos of the menu. Hee.

Sep. 24th, 2011

China 2011: Day 7-8

The last day of the Taiwan tour took us through some canyon and cave-y places. Kinda cool; took some pictures. Period started, which was not so cool.

Stayed at the same hotel as the first day in Taipei. Got a wake up call at an ungodly early 5 AM the next day.

Then it's to the airport and a flight by Airbus to Nanjing. Pretty much the same amenities on the flight. Each seat got it's TV screen, with a decent selection of movies (I think there was the same selection as Air China). Unfortunately, the flight wasn't really long enough to actually watch a full movie (counting all the pauses due to announcements). Also noted you can play games on it too. Also, there was an usb port on the thing.

After arriving at Nanjing's airport, we took the airport bus into the city and then a taxi to my grandparents' place. And then it's nod and smile while I get interrogated on the minutae of my personal life. *cry*

Overall impression of Taiwan:

- Five star service all around, both within the service industries (cab drivers, various uniformed people, even janitors)... Very obvious contrast once we got to China and nobody gives you the time of day.

- Very close relationship, culturally speaking, to Japan. There doesn't seem to be any resentment as from other Asian countries that had been occupied in WWII. I guess the Japanese occupation in Taiwan hadn't been that bad for the locals.

- Much sparser population. Nowhere near like any of the major Chinese cities. Reminds me more of Chinatown in the States.

- Much cleaner place. Both in the air, in and outside of the buildings, on the sidewalks, etc. Probably can chalk that up to the slower rate of progress over a longer period of time rather than the short burst of modernization on the mainland.

- Food is...weird. And I say this as a Chinese. :P Definitely distinct from most Chinese food varieties I'm familiar with. Large amounts of various forms of seafood. Also seems to be a encompassing love of stinky tofu, which is NOT one of my likes.

- Very very green. Even in the cities, the plants are everywhere, lush and green. Most of that could be put down to being in the sub/tropics, where conditions are great for plants. Also, most of the eastern regions of Taiwan are still sparsely developed, so there's pretty well preserved areas of wilderness that are marred by little than the occassional rest station.

Sep. 22nd, 2011

China 2011: Day 5-6

Continuing onward the trip...

Yesterday we rounded the southern tip of Taiwan, visiting some various capes, was made to climb another hill & tower, and then went through a small cave (in the claustrophobic sense). Unfortunately, I didn't bring my camera to two of the sites (including the cave), but oh well.

Today was spent heading back up along the eastern side of Taiwan, beachfront roads pretty much the entire way, and stopping at various points of interest.

All in all, nothing too spectacular.

Hotels these two days were ok, but not as good as the first couple.

Tomorrow will take us back to Taipei by the evening. And the day after that, our flight to the mainland is scheduled for 8:30 (meaning getting up at a godawful 5:30 AM).

Sep. 20th, 2011

China 2011: Day 4 Night

Another day spent jetting around southern Taiwan. All the stops and sights have started to blur together. I might as well wait for when I have the inclination to download and go through my photos to remind myself of where we visited. On the whole though, there was not much to be impressed about. *meh*

Current hotel is again free internet. Missing some of the other amenities that we've enjoyed elsewhere though.

For dinner, we went out to a pedestrian street. Choices where kinda meh on the whole. I far prefer the stuff in Beijing's pedestrian street. Saw a lot of Falun Gong demonstrators near the area. Am even more underwhelmed.

Sigh. Another day going back up the eastern side of Taiwan on our way back to Taipei.

*stares at sky*

Sep. 19th, 2011

China 2011: Day 3 Night

Checked out early in the morning, and the tour started the way to 日月潭 (Sun Moon Lake?), stopping at several sites on the way.

I have to admit I spent almost the entire driving time listening to my Zen player over those wonderful noiseless earbuds. It's not cuz I know what the tour guide is saying. It's just... let's just say our current tour guide really needs English lessons. And dictation lessons. It's not that he's not understandable, but it's apparent he's not quick with the vocabulary and takes forever to choke out a word. The way he talks just makes me cringe, constantly. And no, his Chinese is not any better, for the exact same reasons, even though I think his a native speaker (I certainly *hope* he's a native speaker). So for the sake of my sanity, I tuned him out. Besides, it's not like I couldn't wiki the stuff he was talking about if I really needed to know anyway. The spots we visited were... eh, underwhelming, I guess. (Let us all cut Taiwan some slack for not having the sheer history and size of the mainland and thus just aren't able to compete either in natural nor man-made wonders.)

The first non-rest stop we made was a small market-town for lunch. I feel sorry for many of the non-Asians on our tour, cuz the only recognizable western chow there was a 7-Eleven store. As an aside, I noticed that Taiwan doesn't have the same brand permeations that the mainland does. Sure, I see McDonalds and KFC around, but not one on every block, and no more than I see places like Burger King, Starbucks, or Pizzahut. On the other hand, the most common western brand that I do see every few blocks is 7-Eleven. Huh. Also, I noticed that unlike the mainland counterparts, the western brands don't translate their store/brand names. McDonald's is just “McDonalds”, not “麦当劳”, etc. Anyway, back to the tour... I didn't see anything really palatable, and wasn't really that hungry, so I ate two sticks of barbequed wild pig meat, and an ice cream cone (it was muggy hot and we were heading into the tropic zone...damn Tropic of Cancer).

Second main stop was at this temple to Xuan Zhang (Tripitaka). We had to hike up to the pagoda. In the muggy heat. Ugh. I refused to climb the steps of the pagoda after that. I'm sure there's nice scenery from the topic, but I've never been nature-girl.

Third stop was this Peacock Park. Why called that? Cuz they keep peacocks there, apparently. Unfortunately, none of them spread their tails for my camera, what with it not being mating season. There were also pens with some other colorful birds, peasants and others that I have no ideat what of. Did take some pics for those bird watchers out there...

Fourth and last stop was another temple, this one to Confucious and Guan Yu. Odd couple. Took a few pics, but honestly, it's nothing that I haven't seen before, and IMO doesn't even compare to the temple to Confucius in Pinyao, which is like out in the boonies.

Finally, we ended up at our hotel. Fleur de Chine is the name (huh, familiar theme?), a five star place, very much in the Japanese style what with the robes that are provided, the wooden stool and bucket thing in the shower, and a frickin' onsen in each room. Apparently, the place taps the lake and an underground hot spring for the onsen. Neat. Also, apparently internet is free here. Awesome. Need to catch up on all my internet needs...

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