Hanoi, Mateys!

When we arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital city located in the north, locals couldn’t believe how long we were staying.  “Two weeks?  Why are you staying here for so long?”  It wasn’t that they hated living there.  It’s simply that Hanoi is not known for sightseeing.  More often than not, travelers backpack through the city on their way to Sa Pa or Ha Long Bay.  We spent one day out of the two weeks visiting Ha Long Bay (one of the New7Wonders of nature), which was supposed to be a three-day excursion but was cut short due to Continue reading

Real China: Our Review of the Yunnan Province

Beijing. Shanghai. Hong Kong. These are the cities that come to mind when many people think of China or envision a trip to the world’s most populated country. We did too, which is why we spent a week exploring Beijing. But did you know that almost half of China’s 1.4 billion people live in rural parts of the country where mountains outnumber skyscrapers and rice paddy fields stretch as far as the eye can see? We spent one month exploring rural China, what we are calling and consider to be “real China,” and encourage you to do the same if you’re planning a trip there in the future! We spent most of our time in Dali, with a weekend trip to Jianchuan, but the recap below can be applied to both cities. We also got to spend time with Karen’s sister and our brother-in-law, who met up with us at this point in our journey.

As we approach the halfway mark of our year abroad (side note: how is that even possible?!), there is one theme that pierces through all of our experiences thus far: expect the unexpected. I mean we’ve written a post specifically about just that here and have had some pretty unexpected moments, which we have written about here and here. Yet somehow, we continue to find ourselves being surprised! We encountered our fair share of unique surprises during a month in China’s southeastern Yunnan province. For one, we did not anticipate the beauty of this region with it’s pure air, beautiful lakes and 360-degree mountain views. Nor did we expect our bus driver to stop for a car wash mid route while we were locked inside, or for our cab to get a tire change on the way to the airport, while we sat inside the car (you can’t make this stuff up). But unexpected events lead to funny memories, interesting stories, and darn good video footage! So, let’s get down to business:

The Food

Though we both got food poisoning twice while in Yunnan (with one of those times occurring on our scheduled departure date), we did manage to try a lot of new things while learning about the traditional cuisine.

  • Shared dishes. It is customary in China to share dishes with everyone at the table. The rule of thumb is to order one dish per person along with white rice for the table.
  • All things pork. Seriously, they love pork and eat it in all forms. We saw everything from pork skin and uncooked pork fat cubes to blood curd soup.
  • Spicy! We found much of the food to be pretty spicy, often topped with a type of crushed red pepper (seeds and all). Of course, if you asked a local, they would say that it was not too spicy. But our sweat glands and tear ducts told us differently!
  • Always order soup. It is viewed as an essential dish at almost every meal. There are conflicting beliefs on when to drink the soup. Some Chinese believe that drinking the soup before the meal keeps you thin, while drinking it after makes you fat.
  • Yunnan rice noodles. A signature noodle only found in, you guessed it, Yunnan! The noodles are typically served up in a broth with seasoning, meat, vegetables and spice.

A traditional Bai meal.

A traditional Bai meal.

The Culture

We experienced our fair share of Chinese culture during our time in Yunnan and want to touch on a few noteworthy examples:

  • Minority groups. One of the main minority groups in Dali is the Bai people. Their influence can be seen throughout the city from the colors and designs of buildings and homes, to the local festivals and tourist attractions. In addition to the Bai people, there are influences from both the Yi and Han people, making for a diverse mix of language, cuisine, and traditions.
Dali Catholic Church with heavy Bai influence. Most beautiful and unique church we've seen thus far!

Dali Catholic Church with heavy Bai influence. Most beautiful and unique church we’ve seen thus far!

  • Spirits. It is common to see a small pile of food on the sidewalk in front of a home, which is believed to be consumed by spirits that visit in the night.  The people also honor the dead by burning incense and paper money in hopes that the spirits of the dead will protect and bring good luck to the family.
  • Squatties. You can’t write a post about China and not mention the squatty potties. If you don’t know what these are, I recommend a quick google search. Pro tip: bring your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer. It’s rare to find either in most public restrooms.

They even have porta squatties!

They even have porta squatties!

The Surprises

China is different than the States in a number of ways, but the most amusing difference to us is definitely the variations in social norms.

  • Bait & Switch. There were multiple occasions when we would order something and receive a similar, but not what we ordered, replacement. Rather than tell you when they are out of certain ingredients, servers at restaurants will take your order and then serve up something different. We experienced this multiple times (chicken parmesan instead of grilled chicken and mayonnaise and pickles in place of tartar sauce) and every time we acknowledged the mistakes they plainly replied that they didn’t have what we ordered so they brought us something different.
  • Meaningless seat numbers. Ever seen a 6’3″ man box out a group of Chinese people in order to claim his assigned bus seat? Well, it happened and it was glorious. Although we were the first people to purchase bus tickets from Jianchuan to Dali, and first in line to board, it didn’t really matter because the seat number printed on the ticket is meaningless for certain bus lines. This means it is first come first serve and people can be pushy, creating a crazy chaotic scene when boarding. But, when you’re the tallest person on the bus and only a few seats have any sort of leg room, you have to do what you have to do.
Front seat champions.

Front seat champions.

  • Public transit delays. Always leave extra time when using any sort of public transit in Yunnan. You never know when your bus will stop for a car wash, your cab will need a tire change, your bus driver will stop to pick up anyone who flags them down and will drop them off wherever they’d like for a few extra $$$, or your cab driver will surprise you by picking up someone else who called them for a ride and then ask you to wait while said person browses at a market. Seriously, these things can and most definitely do happen.

China was certainly one of those places where the lifestyle differences are palpable. You recognize just how far away from home you are, and you really get a chance to appreciate what life is like across the world! Check out our latest YouTube video below for a feel of what life is like in the Yunnan province, and be sure to follow us on instagram @kimblesinbits for daily updates!

Bratislava: Eastern Europe’s Hidden Gem

A lesson that we’ve learned quickly throughout the first four months of our travels is that flexibility in scheduling can lead to some unexpected and exciting adventures.  Before we began our short two weeks in Europe, we had planned to spend one week in Prague and another in Budapest.  The original plan was to fly to Prague, travel to Budapest by train and fly from there to Asia since we had our flight already booked.  It wasn’t until we met our friends Juan and Lenka in Rio, that we decided to throw a small wrinkle into that plan!  Lenka is from Slovakia, and she was telling us about many of the great things her home country had to offer.  Given the openness of the two weeks that we had, we thought it would be fun to spend a few days in Bratislava (Slovakian capital city) on our way to Budapest.  Little did we know that it was going to be some of the best days we spent in Europe!

Before we even arrived in Bratislava, we knew it was going to be an adventure. Karen and I had the opportunity to stay at the Marina Botel (not a spelling error) and felt obligated to take it.  If you haven’t already imagined what a “botel” is in your mind, let me describe it for you.  It’s a boat docked on the Danube River that serves as a hotel.  There are two floors with a number of rooms that are pretty limited with space, and from time to time a boat will drive past and create waves that make the botel rock.  Neither of us have ever been on a cruise, but this was a nice segway into what that experience would be like!

This is the entire bathroom from the Marina Botel.  See what I mean about space?

This is the entire bathroom from the Marina Botel. See what I mean about space?

Perhaps the best feature about the botel was the area in which it was located.  We once again found ourselves outside of the cental area of the city, which presented us with an opportunity to explore some territory we might not have otherwise.  Situated on the Danube River, we were close to Old Town, which is a really neat area of Bratislava.  There are lots of great restaurants and shops situated amongst cool architecture.  It’s definitely worth exploring!  Some of our highlights included a visit to Le Šenk Craft Beer Cafe, a great local establishment with good food and as many as eight craft beers on draft!  We also made multiple stops at the Slovak Pub, a restuarant serving traditional slovakian food and beer at great prices.  Don’t miss out on their potato pancakes! As for the sights to see in the area, there are several visually appealing places to visit.  The Bratislava Castle overlooks the city and has some absolutely stunning architecture and views of the city; the UFO bridge looks somewhat like the Space Needle in Seattle and is a fun way to cross the Danube; and the Church of St. Elizabeth is a bright blue church with a very interesting exterior.  All of them are worth your time.

The Church of St. Elizabeth.  Beautiful!

The Church of St. Elizabeth. Beautiful!

In spite of all these great sites, the most memorable part of Bratislava started with an exploratory run through a local park.  We were running through the park and looking for different running and biking paths, when we came upon a long stretch that didn’t seem to end!  Later that day we went into a bike shop called BikeBratislava.  If you end up in Bratislava and want to explore the area the right way, go check this place out!  Their staff is awesome and incredibly helpful.  Our new friend, Luka, told us that we could ride that entire bike trail, which is called the Bratislava-Devín-Schlosshof-Hainburg path.  It goes in and around both Slovakia and Austria!  Suprisingly, you simply cross the borders with ease and make your way around this approximately 43-mile loop trail.  At first we thought it was the first time we crossed an international border on foot (or bike), until we remembered that the Detroit Marathon course runs into Ontario.  Either way, we were so excited to unexpectedly add Austria to our agenda! So, we spent our final whole day in Bratislava biking that trail and taking in some unbelievable scenery.  Had we not been fortunate enough to find that trail, we likely never would have known what was hiding right underneath our noses.  It was definitely one of our top highlights in Europe and something we recommend to anyone and everyone who has the opportunity.

For a video look at our time in Bratislava, check out the link below or watch the video on our “Kimblesinbits” Youtube page!

 

Czech your Expectations at the Door

Generally speaking, there are two ways to gear up for a trip. The first often requires months of advance planning with the help of Lonely Planet books, Yelp reviews and Google searches (i.e “Top Things To See In “insert city here). You arrive at your destination with a detailed itinerary in one hand, a printed map in the other, and a head full of expectations on how each day will play out. The second technique, which is the method we used during our recent trip to the Czech Republic, allows the trip to plan itself. Simply pack your bags and…go!

Now don’t get us wrong, we often enjoy creating an agenda of things to see and do in a new place we’re visiting, but sometimes it’s just as fun to show up there with no set plans and an open slate. We didn’t do much ground work before landing in Prague but we knew that we could expect to see a city with rich history, beautiful bridges and magnificent castles.  Yet two of our favorite experiences in Prague came as a result of being in the right place at the right time, and having a flexible schedule to accommodate the unexpected!

You know those magazines that sit in the seat-back pocket of the airplane seat in front of you? Well, Karen’s decision to pick up and read one really paid dividends for us (what else is there to do when your husband is sleeping?).  During our flight to the Czech Republic, she read about the Český pivní festival.  What’s that you ask?  Why, it’s the Czech Republic’s largest beer festival of course, taking place from May 7-23!  For two people who enjoy a cold craft beer, this was a fortunate find.  The festival was full of great food, 150 varieties of Czech draft beer, and live music. We enjoyed the festival so much the first day that we came back two days later to fill up our steins (and bellies!) once more.

Adam's meal of pork, cabbage, potato dumplings and beer.

Adam’s meal of pork, cabbage, potato dumplings and beer.

Two happy customers!

Two happy customers!

The second unexpected experience came after noticing advertisements around town for the 2015 IIHF World Ice Hockey Championships.  It just so happened that from May 1-17, the games were being held in Prague and Ostrava (another city in the Czech Republic)!  On a whim, we looked for tickets online and decided to watch Latvia take on Switzerland at the O2 Arena in Prague.  The atmosphere was electric and it was really interesting to enjoy the game as “non-partisan” bystanders.  We had great seats pretty close to the glass, and we were fortunate enough to be surrounded by a group of Latvians, whose team came out victorious (2-1) in overtime!

Celebrating Latvia's victory over Switzerland outside of the O2 Arena.

Celebrating Latvia’s victory over Switzerland outside of the O2 Arena.

For us, cultural experiences are some of the most exciting and enriching moments when traveling. It’s why we are trying to travel slowly, spending a few weeks in each place whenever possible. Sure, cultural experiences can be planned by doing research and talking with others who have gone before you, but we’ve had the most success when we just let the trip happen and allow the unexpected to occur.

The only expectation we have as of late is this: expect the unexpected!

What’s your preferred method of planning a trip? Have you ever just showed up to a place with no real plan? Tell us about your experience in the comment section below!

 

 

 

The Kimbles’ Guide to January’s River (Rio de Janeiro)

We’ve been in Rio now for nearly two weeks and it has definitely exceeded our expectations.  The city is unique in that it seems to have split personalities.  On the outskirts, there are beautiful beaches everywhere; closer into the city, you can find mountainous areas to hike and explore.  It’s a great blend of some of our favorite things.  To give you an idea of what to expect when you visit Rio (2016 Olympics anyone?), below is a list of some of the things the second-biggest city in Brazil has to offer:

1. Açaí (ah-sah-ee)- whether you’re a fan of this purple Amazonian superfood or a newbie looking to try it out, you won’t be disappointed.  Try an açaí bowl with fresh-cut fruit, granola, and honey either blended together or placed on top. The açaí in the states pales in comparison to the quality available here!

Açaí and pão de queijo.  What else do you need?

Açaí and pão de queijo. What else do you need?

2. Beautiful beaches– we’re staying in the Copacabana region of Rio (still haven’t seen Lola), and the beaches are absolutely tremendous.  Both the Copacabana and Ipanema beaches are within walking distance of our Airbnb apartment and we highly recommend the area.  The water feels especially refreshing in the hot sun and the waves are enormous, which makes for a fun time if you like the water!

3. Charades– looking to hone your acting skills?  If you don’t speak Portuguese, this is the place for you!  We’ve had several encounters where we had no choice but to resort to gestures and pointing in order to communicate.  Karen had to simulate taking a shower to get Sofi a bath at the veterinarian, and two of our new friends from Ireland got to test their skills to purchase ear plugs at the pharmacy.  Whatever it takes to get the job done!

4. Fitness– Like many “beach cities,” this one is fully equipped with people who are passionate about fitness.  I always find it inspiring to go for a run and see hundreds of other people working out and running with me. There are even a few outdoor gyms (which are free to use!) for those of you looking to work on your pecs during your stay.

5. Pão de queijo (with catupiry cheese)- quite frankly, this is the most delicious food item we’ve eaten in all of South America.  Big statement, but it’s true.  I mean who doesn’t love soft, warm bread stuffed with oozing, warm cheese? The regular pão de queijo (baked cheese roll) is delicious on its own.  But bake it together with a Brazilian cream cheese known as catupiry?  Next level.

6.  Stellar views– with famous sites like Christ the Redeemer and Sugarloaf Mountain, you can take in breathtaking views which overlook large areas of the city.  If you enjoy a good sunset, head to the beach and grab a seat at “aproador,” a large rock formation jutting into the Atlantic which offers 180-degree views of the horizon. There are even vendors selling beverages to enhance the experience.

Karen and I taking in the view atop Sugarloaf Mountain.

Karen and I taking in the view atop Sugarloaf Mountain.

7. The “good stuff”– if you take a seat on the beach in Copacabana, within five minutes there will be a plethora of vendors coming through to sell you things.  They offer drinks, food, umbrellas and other souvenirs.  But trust us: nobody is ever actually selling umbrellas.  If you decline them once, they will ask if you want the “good stuff.”  Maybe my beard is attracting the wrong crowd?

Check out some of our highlights from Rio in the video below!