Tourist at Home in The 6

Long before former Mayor Rob Ford made Toronto the darling of late night comedians, or Drake bathed it in an aura of international cool, Toronto was Toronto the Good. The biggest city in Canada, The6 (nicknamed for the last digit in the Toronto area code 416), is one of the safest, most livable cities in the world with a vibrant downtown core and one of the most multi-cultural populations on the planet.  Every language on the planet can be overheard on the subway, every esoteric food delicacy can be procured at a corner market or found on the menu of a hidden gem restaurant.


Yonge Street, known as the longest street in the world, bisects Toronto into east and west and is the spine of the subway line. Bloor Street is the major east-west route of the subway line and divides the city into its north and south sections. Things are either north of Bloor or south of Bloor, west of Yonge or east of Yonge.

The subway is just one part of the TTC (Toronto Transit System) that includes multiple bus and streetcar routes to get Torontonians from one end of the city to the other. Compared to public transit systems in other major metropolitan areas, the TTC is slow, somewhat inefficient and relatively expensive. One ride will currently set you back $3.25, payable either by token (which can be purchased directly from the TTC at booths or at various corner stores) or by exact change — streetcar and bus drivers do not make change, so don’t try to pay with a $5 bill and expect money in return. On the upside, it’s safe and clean and will (eventually) get you where you need to go.


So what are you going to do with all your subway tokens and a few days in the 6?

The Icon

If Toronto brings to mind only one thing, it’s probably the CN Tower. Once the tallest freestanding building in the world at  553.3 m or 1,815 ft, it has been recently eclipsed by the Burj Khalifa. One of the modern seven wonders of the world, the CN Tower attracts millions of visitors every year.


And they were all there the day we visited. Before stepping into the glass elevator that would, in 58 seconds take us up to the panoramic glass lookout 346m / 1,136 feet above the ground, we endured a 2-hour wait, with very little entertainment and no food or water to be had. Experience suggests purchasing a timed ticket rather than a general admission. Nevertheless, it’s a spectacular view from the top. Feeling brave? Step on the glass floor and see the Toronto Aquarium below or look into the open roof of the Rogers Centre (aka The Skydome).


Feeling flush? Take the Edgewalk around the edge of the skypod. You’ll need to be harnessed in, but for $225 (plus 13% tax), you can dangle off he edge of the world (or at least the Tower).

The weird thing is that because the CN Tower is such an iconic part of the Toronto city skyline, when you are looking out from the Tower on to the city, it’s actually hard to tell what city you’re looking at!


The Castle

Wait, what? Toronto has a castle? Casa Loma, perched at the top of  Spadina Road, this gothic revival style castle was build by Sir Henry Pellet over the course of three years (1911-1914), with the labour of 300 men  and at a cost of $3.5 million, or about $8.4 million today. Complete with a secret passageway and an underground tunnel spanning about a kilometre, Casa Loma is worth a few hours’ distraction and transport to a bygone era.


From the ‘hood

Little Italy. Greektown. The Junction. Roncesvalles Village. Little India. The Annex. Bloor West Village. Chinatown. The Entertainment District. Parkdale. Cabbagetown. The Distillery District.

Toronto is a city of neighbourhoods, each with its own distinct flair and reason to visit. Unlike many cities, there are no areas that are “off limits”. Take some time to discover what makes various areas of the city unique. And don’t forget to eat something while you’re there!


On the Waterfront

Not just a 1950s movie starring Marlon Brando… Toronto hugs the shoreline of Lake Ontario (one of the five great lakes, and the 13th largest lake in the world) and should definitely be viewed from its waters.


There are a number of boat cruises to choose from, we took a 2 hour sail on the Tall Ship Kajama. Discounted tickets cost $18 each. — take a jacket, as it gets nippy on the water.


You can also get really, really close to the jets landing at the Toronto Island Airport. In fact, it looks like one might just land on the ship’s deck.


Brews in the City

Patios and rooftop bars make Toronto an excellent place to try out the myrid of craft beers that are on offer. When Toronto finally shrugs off its collective parka, the streets and sidewalks come alive with cafes and bars. Hearty folk, Torontonians don’t venture back inside until late in the fall, thanks to patio heaters and a desire to eek every bit of street gazing and people watching out of the season.


Of course, this is just the tip of the proverbial ice burg. There are as many things to do in the city as there are people who live in it. From festivals and events, to galleries and restaurants, there are things to do for all ages, persuasions and pursuits.

You’ll find more things to do and see than you ever have time or money for.



Tourist at Home: Falling for the Falls

I’m probably not alone in thinking other countries are far more exciting and exotic travel destinations than my own.

And then Lonely Planet goes and names Canada “The Best Country to Visit in 2017”.

Canada day. Welcome to Canada

Apparently LOTS of people think Canada is an interesting, dynamic and beautiful country to visit. And big. Let’s not forget big. Second biggest country in the world big.

From coast to coast, the distance across my home and native land is the same as the distance from London, England to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Most Canadians haven’t traveled coast to coast, or all the way south to north, so if you’re considering a visit, plan accordingly. This isn’t a county you can see all in one go. Unless you have unlimited time and unlimited funds, you’ll have to pick one or two destinations.

So when I had the opportunity to see my country through the eyes of a first time visitor, I jumped at the chance to plan an All Canadian Experience.

Choosing a destination

I’m from Ontario, which is the province that is home to both the capital Ottawa, and the largest city, Toronto. Taking my own advice, I planned visits to Niagara Falls, Toronto, Collingwood, and Haliburton, in what call “cottage country”. All of these are do-able within a 2 week trip.  A car rental is a necessity — I ended up driving about 1,000 km. Public transportation between these destinations is theoretically possible using the Greyhound bus system or via organized tour, but it either slow or expensive or both.

Choosing a time of year

Canada is a four season country, but for me the best season is summer. In Ontario summer days can reach 30 degrees Celsius and be quite humid. No parkas or toques necessary! Plan for the occasional rainy day and bring a light jacket or hoodie as the evenings can get cool, especially in “cottage country” near the water. A pair of jeans is a great idea, both for a little extra warmth and to keep the mosquitoes at bay.

Niagara Falls

It’s an iconic destination, one of the first places many people imagine when they think Canada. Straddling the border between Canada and the United States, the view from the Canadian side is far superior.

There are three falls that make up Niagara Falls — the Canadian Horseshoe Falls, the American Falls and the Bridal Veil Falls. Although the American Falls are taller, no daredevil ever tried to go over them in a barrel…and neither should you! It’s not only stupid and dangerous, but actually illegal to try to go over the Falls.

You can see the Falls from a boat, from a viewing platform beside the Falls, from behind the Falls or suspended over the Falls.



Buy purchasing a Niagara Parks pass you can see the Falls from just about every vantage point. You will get wet, but you will also be provided with disposable rain ponchos at every attraction. Try to collect the set!

P1010774 (2)[9422]


Every night during the summer there is a fireworks show beginning at 10pm over the Falls. Catch them either from the walkway beside the Falls or with a glass of wine from one of the tallest bars in the city,  Myst Lounge in the Hilton Hotel overlooking the Falls.


Wine Country – Niagara on the Lake

You may be surprised to discover Ontario has a thriving (and largely internationally unappreciated) wine growing industry. Looking around you can be forgiven if you think you’ve suddenly landed in Tuscany or at a French chateau.


Take a day to discover hidden vineyard gems along the Niagara Wine Trail, or go outside the Niagara-on-the-Lake region to surrounding areas such as The Bench or towns like Lincoln and Vineland. Wineries are well marked and signed, and will be happy to recommend other wineries to try in the area. There are lots of deals on the internet that will make your wine tasting and or tour free of charge. Also, if you purchase a bottle, the tasting will be free. My favourite winery is Konzelmann.


Tours can be done independently (although you’ll need a sober driver!), as a bicycle tour or an organized driving tour. Sadly, the only way to see some of the smaller, more boutique wineries is on your own, but please, don’t drink and drive.

P1010822If you’ve never tried icewine, now’s the time to do it! Icewine is made from grapes that have been allowed to freeze on the vine. Each grape produces only a drop of wine, making icewine some of the most expensive wine to try! These glasses are icewine from bottles priced at just less that C$100. Try with some dark chocolate and thank me later!



Next Up: Three Days in The6.




Spring Time in Soweto

Soweto… short for Southwestern Townships… is the second largest township in South Africa and home to 1.3 million people, or 1/3 of the population of Johannesburg, who live in an area of 200 sq km. Created as an offshoot of the apartheid system, blacks were forcibly moved to townships surrounding Johannesburg proper in order to separate the races.


Soweto has a long and complex history of political resistance and was home to not one but two Nobel Prize recipients – Nelson Mandela (his former wife Winnie maintains a home there) and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Freedom Square


Once an area that was both off limits to outsiders and incredibly dangerous, since the early 1990s, Soweto has undergone (and continues to undergo) a renaissance and revitalization with neighborhoods that range from affluent to middle class to traditional match box style houses (4 rooms, very square and small) to public housing to barely held-together tin shanties.


The township is also embracing cultural, historical and adventure tourism and encouraging travelers to get the Soweto experience. I mean, you know some invisible barrier has been crossed when a former coal generation plant is now a popular bungee jumping attraction.


We hired a private guide, once a resident himself of Soweto, to take us through the township and give us the Insider’s viewpoint of life in this densely populated, evolving neighborhood. In the presence of our guide, we were able to wander the streets, markets and squares of Soweto and dive into the history of the place. I’m fairly certain, however that it’s still not a place where independent travel is encouraged.



Johannesburg itself is a city of about 4 million, and after just two days there, I know for sure it’s not one I need to return to. It’s not particularly beautiful, the architecture isn’t compelling or very interesting and it’s gritty reputation for petty, and not so petty crime and violence well deserved.

Home of the FIFA 2010 World Cup

Downtown, or at least the City Centre/Financial District we stayed in, is not a place for wandering freely. And I hate that in a city. I want to be able to get out and explore, not feel hemmed in by fear and threat of safety. Throughout our time in Johannesburg we are warned to keep our valuables in the room safe, we are given a guide to go three blocks to nearby Gandhi Square when all we want to do is find a corner store and purchase waters and cokes. Walking anywhere at night is out of the question. When we go out we hire an Uber or ask the establishment to call a taxi for us. This of course makes Johannesburg an unnecessarily expensive city.

Jo’ burg skyline

Also, in fair warning, Johannesburg in August is cold. Toronto is currently 35 degrees, Johannesburg is 13 degrees and windy. Central heating is non-existent. People where their outerwear everywhere — in restaurants and in bars –and layering is a necessity. I am more than a little grateful for my pashmina scarf.

On the upside, the water in the city is completely safe to drink. In fact, Johannesburg prides itself on the quality and cleanliness of its water.

Overall, Johannesburg is a good place to start an African adventure, but there is little reason to stay.




Z is for Zebra

Swaziland is a tiny Kingdom surrounded on all sides by South Africa. Ostensibly independent from South Africa, it relies heavily on its neighbor for tourism, interchangeably uses the Rand as its currency and, last week when it ran out of money (after the King purchased himself a new airplane of course), government loans. Last week’s cash infusion from South Africa totaled $21,000,000 Rand

The Kingdom is ruled by absolute authority by the King, depicted in art and sculpture as the Lion, and his Mother, depicted as the Elephant. The current King of Swaziland has 8 wives, all of whom have their own royal residences, so it makes perfect sense that rather than having to choose between 8 wives, he rules with his mother. The ultimate mama’s boy, really. Think Cersi from Game of Thrones.

We only spend one night in Swaziland, and spend it at the Mlilwane Wildlife Reserve. The first reserve to be established in the county (there are now several), we are led on a bird and wildlife walk by Sonnyboy. Yes, that’s his name and not a mistake.

Our Swazi Accommodations

Turns out birding is not my thing. Especially difficult without binoculars or a camera with a zoom lens, Sonnyboy spots birds at every turn, encouraging us to identify the colours of their heads, backs, throat and eyes (!), as well as the shape of the beak or tail until he identifies them by name and then shows us the photo in his well-worn ornithology book. The first 30 minutes of the walk covers less than 400 meters. I begin to think this will be a very long 3 hours indeed.

Male Waver bird preparing his nest. Building to impress his future mate.

It shortly becomes clear to Sonnyboy that our group is not made up of keen birders – he just doesn’t get the enthusiasm from us that he’s expecting – and he begins to veer off into identifying trees and large animals.


Clearly we’re all here for the zebras because when we finally spot a harem of zebra, we begin to show the enthusiasm Sonnyboy has been searching for all along. Our group of 3 Brits, 2 Germans, 2 New Zealanders and we 2 Canadians take about a million photographs between us.


Crocodiles lazing in the sun, impala (identifiable by the “M” shaped markings on their bottoms – Lion McDonalds, says Sonnyboy and laughs), springboks, and warthogs are amazingly all around us. In fact, a family of warthogs joins us later by the fire and bury in close to the glowing embers. This is no typical Canadian campsite where the biggest invader is a chipmunk. Chipmunks steal your snacks but they rarely sink a tusk into your leg…

DSCN1723Termite mound. 1/3 of the mound is above ground, 2/3 of the mound is below.

As a result of the warthog invasion, the evening’s entertainment is moved to a spot farther away from the fire. It’s a traditional dance of some sort, but the performers don’t really seem into it…perhaps it’s because their costumes are sparse (one poor guy has only a springbok hide around his waist) and it’s really, really cold. We watch politely for a while, but when it becomes obvious they basically have one signature move – a clap behind a raised, outstretched leg, we drift away from the dancing and back to the fire and the sleeping warthog family, who are infinitely more interesting. It’s not a terribly good review of the performance.

All the fresh air and walking has made us tired so we return to our accommodations and turn in for the night. Because there are no windows in our hut, it is surprisingly, and welcomingly warm inside.


And although we don’t actually see them from our cozy Swazi hut, we fall asleep to the sounds of hippos snuffling outside our door.

Come Sail Away with Me

As I drift off to sleep under the million stars on Rendezvous Caye, I realize no one who knows me in the world knows where I am right now.


Twenty-two passengers and four crew set sail from Caye Caulker, Belize for a three day adventure with Raggamuffin Tours that would take us about 300 km down the Belizean coastline to Placencia. Our boat – the Raggamuffin Empress – an elegant white catamaran with plenty of space on board to lay out and a net over the water on which to chill, cut through turquoise waters on all sides so clear the bottom was almost always visible.

For three days our motley crew unplugged from the outside world, our only companions the others on board. We didn’t wear shoes…a major concern for the oldest passenger and a source of ongoing amusement for the rest of us… basked in the sun, snorkeled up to four times a day on deserted reefs, and let our stomachs guide us as to the time of day, all to a background reggae beat. If heaven exists, I hope it looks a lot like this (if I’m invited, of course…).

Captain Ish, crew members Shawn (a budding reggae artist and all around good time guy), Marvin (filet master of all catches of the day), and Linton (chef and on-board medic who tended to the giant blister on my foot by pouring hydrogen peroxide on it and, when I winced, telling me not to be such a baby…he was right of course) took us on an adventure that ranks among the top highlights of my travelling life.

Day One
Flip flops confiscated, we boarded the Raggamuffin Empress with only our day packs containing everything we might need for the next three days. Turns out, it isn’t much. Since there won’t even be showers until we reach our second night accommodation, all pretense is immediately thrown out to sea and we find ourselves content with the most basic of necessities.

We sailed for a few hours, absorbing the warmth of the sun and for me, setting the stage for the deepest tan of my life…healthy, not likely…amazing, totally…until we came to the first of four snorkeling stops. The crew dove into the water with spear guns in hand, divided us into three groups and lead us on an underwater guided tour with stops for spearfishing for our dinner.


After stop one, barracuda was definitely on the menu for the evening. As we pulled up anchor, Marvin got out a giant knife and a hammer to fillet our dinner as we all watched (barracuda has a thick spine that can’t be severed without the force of a hammer on the knife). Brutal but very satisfying…and ultimately tasty…work.

Midway through the first afternoon, one of the passengers we nicknamed “The General” felt a strong tug on his fishing line and Captain Ish relinquished the wheel to help reel it in. Much to everyone’s surprise, including the crew’s, The General snagged a mah-mahi! A round of cheering took over the boat…Ish said in the 9 years he’s been doing the tour it was the first mahi-mahi ever caught.

The rum punch flowed freely, but only after the day’s activities were through. This was the kind of adventure that could easily turn into a dreaded booze cruise, but the vibe was chill and relaxed and even after we landed on Rendezvous Caye for the evening, no one overindulged.

Rendezvous Caye…what can I say…a beautiful white sand, totally deserted (except for one caretaker) beach. We erected our tents on the soft, white sand, pausing to watch the sun go down, and tucked into the most fantastically fresh and satisfying meal of my life. The sea air, the fresh fish, the miracles that came out of Linton’s tiny onboard kitchen…unbelievable.

Day Two
We set sail early to avoid a cruise ship excursion that would soon take over our tiny private island. Three hundred people were expected to descend on our paradise…I can’t even begin to imagine what the might look like…

Much as the previous day, we lazed on deck, snorkeled often, watched the crew spearfish, ate pringles and cookies at ridiculous hours of the morning and afternoon and let the digital detox truly set in.




On the second night we set up camp on Tobacco Caye, a much more populated island with an island bar and a couple of tiny “resorts”. Not nearly as pristine as Rendezvous Caye and occupied by others, it didn’t have the same magical appeal as the previous Caye, but sleeping on a beach under the stars really never gets old.


Day Three
I was keen to leave Tobacco Caye the next morning (it was sort of run down and had kind of a lot of ocean and island trash laying around) but sad to know it was our last day and that our group, who despite our varied ages, nationalities and backgrounds, got along so easily and with the kind of familiarity that comes with being slightly grimy and very laid back, would be soon torn apart.

Just as I was beginning to feel slightly maudlin, a cheer once again rose, this time from the front of the boat…a dolphin had come to play in our wake! For the next 20 minutes, we were transfixed, watching it breech and dive, totally putting on a show for us. I don’t think I will ever get tired of seeing that.

We arrived in Placencia at about 5 pm and Pandora from the Anda di Hows hostel (say it out loud…it’s patois) was at the dock to meet me. She had several available beds in her lovely 10 bed hostel, so three of us made our way there. Having two of my travelling companions with me made the transition from the laid back vibe of Caye Caulker and the Raggamuffin to the hustle of Placencia less abrupt.

Belize was never high on my travel list. I came to Belize because I wanted to get my scuba and I could get a decently priced flight from Toronto. It’s also one of the more expensive countries in Central America, but as I boarded the Tropic Air flight home, there’s one thing I know for sure…the people I met, the adventures I had…Belize will forever hold a special place in my travel heart.


The only person on the flight!
The only person on the flight!


You’d Better Belize It

Taking a tiny plane…one where I can literally reach out and touch the pilot…across a body of water teeming with sharks (okay, nurse sharks, but still…SHARKS) and manatees and rays and who knows what else, wasn’t actually as terrifying as I’d imagined.

When the Tropic Air gate attendant asked me to follow him on to the tarmac, I realized I was the only passenger boarding the Cessna in Belize City. Wow, I thought…they sent an airplane just for me! The fantasy of being the only passenger on a plane was totally destroyed when I realized there were already other passengers onboard from various other destinations. Ah well….


I’ve never been on a 10 seater plane before. I’ve never before been on a flight where I could reach out and touch the pilot…I mean, not that I did…it’s probably against the law….I’ve never flown so low over a body of water that I could see the sea life below. I was totally transfixed for the entire 5 minute flight…after which I was the only passenger to get off in Caye Caulker, an 8 km long island that is to be my home for the next week.



Caye Caulker is a small island off the coast of Belize. There are 3 main roads and a few side streets. Population about 1,000 full time residents. The only motorized transportation is via golf cart, otherwise residents get from place to place on foot or by bike.DSCN0002


This is DEFINITELY a place where everybody knows everybody’s business.

The main attraction of this small…ok, tiny… island is the Belize Barrier Reef. The Belize Barrier Reef is the second largest in the world, after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and is one of the healthiest reef systems in the world. The Great Blue Hole is part of this system, a site made famous by Jacques Cousteau who called it one of the top ten scuba diving sites in the world.

While I won’t be exploring the Great Blue Hole as it’s only for experienced divers, the plan for my Belize adventure is to get my open water scuba certification. I signed up with Frenchie’s, one of the oldest diving establishments in Caye Caulker and, much to my delight, was my dive master Dominick’s only student. Patient and very calm, Dominick took me through 3 days of scuba lessons in 2 days.

By the end of the first day it was all I could do to get myself back to my hostel room and pass out on my super soft, back-destroying bed. I had no idea breathing could take so much out of me. I consider myself fit, so I’m not sure how anyone who is out of shape can do this.

Hot and humid the first day, so much so the short wet suit was a burden to wear in the sun, the second day was the complete opposite…I needed a long sleeved wet suit and huddled in the boat as soon as I surfaced from my lesson.

But what an incredible experience! We saw rays and sharks, stone fish, groupers and fish I can’t even describe, lobsters and crabs, eels and sea urchins. No pictures…I’m not good enough yet to both breathe under water and take photographs. That’s totally next level….

Best of all…now I can dive anywhere in the world!



Lost in Translation

One of the great things about travel is the ability to see what is different both different and the same around the world. But what is most fun is to explore what is different…and why it makes us laugh.

Some things are just quintessentially Chinese…

Nothing says snack time like Roasted Squid flavoured Lays…




Proof that McDonald’s menus reflect regional tastes…

McPork..gray buns, pork, bacon. Because bacon makes everything taste better. Even pork.
McPork..gray buns, pork, bacon. Because bacon makes everything taste better. Even pork.

And now for a selection entitled, “Maybe run that sign by someone who speaks English before going to print.”

Paddling? My canoe?
Especially in Beijing traffic. No one needs to add drunkenness to that chaos! Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.
Especially in Beijing traffic. No one needs to add drunkenness to that chaos!
Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.
Um what??!! This is from the state-sanctioned silk shop in Beijing. There were plenty more of these curious and confusing instructions describing the processing of silk. Clearly no one who's first language is English was consulted in the making of these signs. Makes me wonder if the Chinese is any more clear. Anyone know? Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.
Um what??!! This is from the state-sanctioned silk factory in Beijing. There were plenty more of these curious and confusing instructions describing the processing of silk. Clearly no one whose first language is English was consulted in the making of these signs. Makes me wonder if the Chinese is any more clear. Anyone know?
Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.
Will do. Who is this Slippery, though?
But it's made of concrete!
But it’s made of concrete!
It’s hard to argue with the sentiment…
Inspiring confidence in the boat.
Think about it first.
Indeed. One must think about it first.
...nor rolling, one imagines. Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.
…nor rolling, one imagines.
Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.
Cottage? We are at a temple. Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.

Up the Yangtze without a Paddle

Cruising down the Yangtze river is all about the journey rather than the destination. The Yangtze is …wait for it…China’s longest (there it is again) and most scenic waterway, and the world’s third longest river.

It is also a very welcome escape from the endless marathon bus rides and multiple plane journeys (by the end of the 12 day trip, I will have amassed 7 plane trips).

The Sinorama Diamond river cruise ship will depart from Jingzhou and for the next 5 days drift toward Chongqing, a city of approximately 32 million people (just a shade fewer than the population of Canada), and a city I have never heard of. I find it astonishing that China is populated with innumerable cities of multi-millions, the names of which most of us have never heard. How is this possible? It speaks of the relative insularity and somewhat impenetrability of this country, that’s for certain.

Along the way, we’ll pass through the Three Gorges and their locks, visit the White Emperor Town, a half submerged village, now operating more like a Disneyland than a working village, and visit the massive Three Gorges Dam project, the world’s largest artificial generator of electric power from a renewable source (are you still keeping track of the longest, biggest, more awesome-est references here? How many have we amassed, dear reader, and we’ve only journeyed through a mere fraction of this country?)

It is also the rainy season along the Yangtze…we are in a place that sees 280 days of rain each year. In a word, it’s moist.

What has intrigued and impressed me most about the tourist highlights I’ve seen is the number of Chinese tourists in their own country. They are as curious about these places as we, the big noses (their charming nickname for us), are. They take as many photos as we do, and ask as many questions…well I assume they’re asking questions…

And so, as pictures are worth a thousand words, I give to you…pictures along the Yangtze River…

My sincere thanks to Sameer Kamal, who I met on this trip and who takes the most astonishing photographs. If you are impressed by any of these photos, it is likely he took them.

Three Gorges Dam project in miniature. Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.
Yangtze River Bridge (I think…one loses track sometimes) Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.
Lock, stock, and three smoking ships (diesel, that is). Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.
Wow! Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.
Wow! Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.


Car manufacturing is huge in Chongqing and so flotillas of cars drift up and down the river. Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.

Between amazing vistas, cities of millions suddenly emerge. Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.
White Emperor City. Courtship ritual — he (in blue) sings to her (in red) to capture her attention and woo her into wedded bliss.
Water Village Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.
Water Village
Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.

Because who doesn't love monkeys?? Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.

Because who doesn’t love monkeys??
Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.

Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.
Shibaozhai, a 12-storey, 56m-high wooden pagoda built on a huge, river-water-encircled rock bluff, Qing Dynasty (1662-1722) Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.
Shibaozhai, a 12-storey, 56m-high wooden pagoda built on a huge, river-water-encircled rock bluff, Qing Dynasty (1662-1722)
Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.

Surrounding the Shibaozhai pagoda is the Hello Market where one can purchase any number of souvenirs and items to eat. It was here that I considered, and then decided against, purchasing a bag of peanuts from a very old woman. This, despite her showing me her gnarled, arthritic wrists, presumably indicating my purchase stood between her and certain poverty. She was asking too much for the nuts, and I declined. Walking away I suddenly heard her behind me (she was quick for someone so disabled by chronic pain, I thought idly), and then felt her both grab my wrist and thrust a shopping bag of peanuts into my other hand. Politely I demurred her request. Then she got mad. I don’t know what she said, but I could tell Grandma was quite irritated. I couldn’t loosen myself from her grip…I put the bag on the ground and twisted my arm. Those arthritic fingers held tight (so much for them being an impediment to her life)…and I’m thinking “I don’t want to knock an old lady to the ground, but geez how do I get free of her vice-like grip??“. It took both my writhing and Sameer, a fully-grown man, to wrestle her off me. Next time I’ll just buy the damn peanuts.

Crossing the Bridge of Heaven. One must do it in odd-numbered steps, 3 being the most advantageous. Those of us with shorter legs find it awkward, but not impossible. Not unlike getting into heaven, one imagines.  Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.
Crossing the Bridge of Heaven. One must do it in odd-numbered steps, 3 being the most advantageous. Those of us with shorter legs find it awkward, but not impossible. Not unlike getting into heaven, one imagines.
Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.
Allan, our enthusiastic Cruise Ship Director (like Julie from The Love Boat), who will encourage us in all things fun onboard the Sinorama Diamond. Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.
Allan, our enthusiastic Cruise Ship Director (like Julie from The Love Boat), who will encourage us in all things fun onboard the Sinorama Diamond.
Photo courtesy of Sameer Kamal.

And finally, the Passenger Talent Show…aka Bus #3 Got Talent (all photos courtesy of Sameer Kamal).

0R3A9369 0R3A9354 0R3A9339

Terracotta Barbie

To call Emperor Qin Shi Huang (260–210 BC) a megalomaniac would not be an understatement. Considered the first Emperor of China, once in power at the ripe age of 13, he immediately began preparing for his death by enlisting thousands of his subjects to build an army which would protect him in his afterlife.

Not a man to do things by half measures, his public works projects included the unification of diverse state walls into a single Great Wall of China and a massive new national road system, as well as the city-sized mausoleum guarded by the life-sized Terracotta Army. He ruled China with an iron fist until his death in 210 BC after a futile search for an elixir of immortality…although by building this staggering monument, one might argue he found his elixir….

Love a man in uniform, but this one looks a little stoned...
Love a man in uniform, but this one looks a little stoned…

Accidentally discovered by 4 farmers digging a well, archaeologists have uncovered only a fraction of the Terracotta Army. Smashed into pieces, reconstructing the soldiers and horses is painstakingly slow work, hindered by the fact that while the soldiers are brightly painted, the paint fades almost immediately.

Giant jigsaw puzzle
Giant jigsaw puzzle

The Chinese have yet to figure out how to slow down or stop the oxidation process so to that end, they don’t want to uncover too many before they can truly preserve them all. To date, they have unearthed about 7,000 statues in 3 pits and have yet to find two who look the same. In addition to soldiers, there are 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, and non-military figures including officials, acrobats, strongmen and musicians.

Chariots of Fire(d terracotta)
Chariots of Fire(d terracotta)

Each has a distinct face and features, which likely reflect the faces of the men who created them.

Terracotta Barbie...a most unusual example
Terracotta Barbie…a most unusual example

Walking into Pit One, the most excavated site in the vast territory, is awestruck. We are faced with thousands of stony faces, each intent on protecting their Emperor in the afterlife. It is almost incomprehensible the extent of this project, the labour that must have been involved in its creation, and the ego that initiated it all.



Another Great Wall…this one slightly smaller but no less impressive

Because I am a rule breaker, I leave the tour once again. Despite it having been a long day of Terra Cotta warrior-ing, I am keen to see one of the most ancient cities in China (Xi’an) up close. I mean really, don’t tell me you’re taking me to one of the oldest places in China, one that it still surrounded by its original wall, and then don’t give me time to explore! That’s just waving the red flag of challenge in front of me.

Ancient Xi’an is alive and thriving. Behind the Bell Tower, an iconic building in the dead centre of the walled portion of the city, is a bright and shiny mall. Capitalism and consumerism are both very much alive and well in modern China.

Bell Tower (with mall behind), Xi’an China
Go fly a kite in the night sky. It must be a kilometre long. Held by the woman in the white sweater.
Go fly a kite in the night sky. It must be a kilometre long. Held by the woman in the white sweater.

The night market in the Muslim Quarter of the city is a hive of activity, even on a Tuesday evening. I am bombarded with a sensory overload of interesting and sometimes incomprehensible food on a stick, trinkets for purchase, loud music, people yelling, and scooters whizzing by. Chaotic and fascinating, I immerse myself in the tastes and sounds of the night market, stopping only to pamper my now tired feet with a fish pedicure.

Here fishy fishy...
Here fishy fishy…
It's a little startling at first.
It’s a little startling at first.

At $4 a shot I would totally get one every week (okay, I’ll admit, having tiny fish nibble at the dead skin on my feet did take some getting used to…) even though polish isn’t included.

Ancient Chinese Secret

While modern China is all high rises and multi-lane highways, traditional Beijing is made up of hutongs, neighbourhoods of homes built around courtyards on winding lanes with communal living areas…a place where everyone knows your name (and your business…no secrets here). Following the founding of modern China is 1949 (there’s that pesky Cultural Revolution again), many of the hutongs were destroyed to make way for new building and to try to erase a traditional way of living. Finally recognizing the historical significance of these unique living areas, many have now been protected from further development and some have developed a thriving tourist trade.


Hutong...where everyone knows your name...and our business
Hutong…where everyone knows your name…and your business

We climb into rickshaws for our tour of the hutong, and it’s a bit like the Amazing Race, with one rickshaw driver attempting to out maneuver and pass another through the winding, narrow lanes, showing off their mad peddling skills for us tourists who have paid about $2 each for the privilege, until we reach a hutong home where we will have lunch.

Rickshaw Babes
Rickshaw Babes
Our rickshaw driver
Our rickshaw driver
Whizzing through the hutong
Whizzing through the hutong

There are 31 of us in the group, so we are separated into 3 small rooms of the house, my group situated around a round table in what I imagine is otherwise the living room. From the hutong kitchen, which is no larger than the interior of a medium sized car, comes 8 or 10 dishes per table of traditional and delicious hot and cold food. It is clearly an amazing feat of organization and must have been the morning’s work of several women to prepare, cook, present and clean up after so many strangers. I am truly touched to have been invited into the interior of someone’s life so graciously. There are many massive wonders of the world and UNESCO designated heritage sites in China, but I memory I’ll most cherish is the invitation into a very personal and very small part of real Chinese life.