Sightseeing Central Europe, Part II: Auschwitz-Birkenau

Sightseeing Central Europe, Part II: Auschwitz-Birkenau

***Content Warning— this post contains sensitive content that may be disturbing and unsettling to some readers.***

Though we had only visited two of its cities, it was clear that these days Poland has a lot to offer visitors; beautiful streets with shops and cafes, friendly people, royal palaces, extravagant churches, peaceful green parks, and museums aplenty. This experience provides an astonishing contrast to the atrocities that occurred throughout the country during the Holocaust. During that dark stain on humanity’s not-so-distant history, the Nazi regime killed over 17 million people, including 6 million Jews and 11 million others who were Soviets, Poles, Serbs, and Romani. Also targeted and killed were people with disabilities and people who were gay or lesbian. It’s estimated that at least 1.1 million people were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of the six concentration camps that was established in Poland after the Nazis occupied the country and began their mass extermination of Polish Jews.

Auschwitz I

Auschwitz-Birkenau is a somber place and visiting can be an emotionally challenging experience. You will not smile, you will not take any beautiful photographs, you will not leave with happy feelings. But, I believe if you have the opportunity to visit Poland and to wallow in its splendor, then visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau is a way to honor the memory of those who were senselessly murdered and to acknowledge a critical chapter in the country’s incredible story. 

We participated in a tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau led by a local guide whose family members were victims of the Holocaust. The site, now a museum and memorial, has two sections; Auschwitz I, which was initially used as a detention center for political prisoners, and Auschwitz II- Birkenau, which was added later as an extermination camp where mass murders took place. 

The gate at Auschwitz I reads “Arbeit macht frei” which translates to “work will set you free.”

In 1939 when Nazis came to power in Germany, they invaded Poland and began to segregate Jews, forcing them into crammed ghettos where many died from starvation and disease. You can read about my visit to Warsaw and the site of the Warsaw Ghetto, by clicking here. “Life” in the ghettos was abysmal but being deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau was a death sentence, sold as new opportunity. Families were brought in from the ghettos by train, crammed into cattle cars. 

Though word eventually spread that deportation out of the ghettos meant death, to avoid mass hysteria, deportees were promised work, better conditions, and perhaps a chance at living. They were told to pack all their valuables in a single suitcase.

Upon arrival, victims would line up for the selection process; young and healthy men and some women were shuffled to one side, deemed fit for work. The other side consisted of women, children, people who were sick, and the elderly. This group was informed they would be sent to take “showers” then housing would be assigned. Stripped of their clothing and belongings, they were herded by the masses into dark, enclosed rooms where shower heads lined the walls. Once inside, the doors were sealed behind them, but instead of being bathed the room was pumped with poisonous Zyklon B gas. It was an agonizing, inhumane death that lasted from 20 minutes up to an hour. 

Empty canisters of Zyklon B used in the gas chambers. 

If you can imagine further horror, after the victims’ bodies were lifeless, they were literally looted. Gold teeth were pulled from their mouths so they could be melted down to make bars of gold. The hair was stolen from their heads. Then their corpses were burned like trash and their ashes buried or used as fertilizer.

Learning about the cruel fate the victims faced was beyond disturbing. An overwhelming feeling of sadness and disgust took over as I walked through the buildings and saw rooms full of the victims’ belongings on display. Shoes, eyeglasses, and prosthetic limbs, piled up like a collection of trophies. How could this have happened? 

The most heart-shattering and painful sight was the room containing 4,000 lbs of decaying human hair, piled floor-to-ceiling behind a glass wall. Reality hits like a ton of bricks as you look upon this mountain of frail braids, wavy locks, curly ringlets, and ponytails that once belonged to women and children who were murdered in the gas chamber. Their lives rendered useless and their only redeeming quality was the hair on their heads, which the Nazis harvested to make socks, rope, and textiles. It’s chilling. A lump builds in your throat. Your heart sinks. The faint smell of mothballs lingers and your stomach turns. You look away in repulsion, anger, and disbelief. There are no words. Photographing this exhibit was strictly forbidden, out of respect for the victims.

Many times entire trainloads of Jews would be sent directly to the gas chambers, bypassing the selection process. Those who went through the selection process and were deemed fit for work, would still likely end up in the gas chambers. Forced into hard labor, their lives were prolonged for a few agonizing months, or however long their bodies and spirits could endure.

Housing in Auschwitz-Birkenau was provided in either brick barracks or wooden stables. Neither had sufficient heating during the cold winters. Inside, rows of three-tier bunk beds were built to sleep between 12 to 15 people. 

Many men, women, and children were spared from hard labor and the gas chambers but tortured and used as human guinea pigs for bizarre and brutal medical experiments instead. If the procedures did not cause death, victims were either killed after the study ended or were left with permanent disfigurements and disabilities. Surviving children were almost always killed; their bodies and lives no longer held any value.

There was truly no escaping the evil of Auschwitz alive, although 802 people tried. Unfortunately only 144 were successful while the others ended up being caught and murdered. “Life” in Auschwitz was so unbearable that it was common for victims to throw themselves onto the electric barbed wire fences that surrounded the camp, as a way to end their suffering and to have some sort of control over their own lives.

In January of 1945 as the war was coming to an end, the Nazis began evacuating the camps, destroying evidence of their crimes, and relocating the victims they held captive through “death marches.” Approximately 56,000 victims were forced to walk over 30 miles to other camps, in the frigid cold without food, water, or rest. The Nazis shot anyone who fell behind. An estimated 15,000 people died in the death march out of Auschwitz-Birkenau. When the camp was finally liberated by Soviet forces on January 27, 1945, only 7,000 living victims remained.

This is just a tiny glimpse of Auschwitz-Birkenau based on what I saw and learned during the guided tour. If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading. It’s not an easy subject to digest but I encourage everyone to learn more about this unfathomable tragedy by researching the topic (references listed below), or reading stories told by survivors (Night by Elie Wiesel is on the top of my list). 

Time moves on, but we will remember. 

Sightseeing Central Europe: Part I, Poland

Sightseeing Central Europe: Part I, Poland

It’s been years since I’ve been on a vacation with my mom, so I was thrilled when she asked if I wanted to go see the capital cities of Central Europe with her using a tour group she’s traveled with before. I am new to taking guided tours, and while I actually love trip-planning and love the idea of an open itinerary or “traveling where the wind takes us,” I have to admit I also love not having to make (or even think about) any arrangements such as hotels, transportation, admission to attractions, etc. Guided tours really take the stress out of traveling and allow you to just enjoy the moment, carefree. Some may say being part of a flock of tourists is uncool, but I say it’s a more environmentally-friendly way to travel and of course, a great way to meet new people and make new friends.

Rolling in a Mercedes bus.

Over ten days we visited five amazing countries: Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Austria, and Czech Republic (technically renamed Czechia in 2006). Over my next few posts I’ll be covering our Central European excursion and first up is Poland!

Ahh…I have always wanted to see Poland and was super excited to learn that we would be spending two nights in Warsaw and another two nights in Kraków. After landing in the capital city of Warsaw, we met up with the rest of our tour group, which consisted of 34 other travelers. Next we were treated to a traditional Polish welcome dinner hosted by our local Polish guide.

We started the next morning bright and early with a city tour of Warsaw, Poland’s busy business hub. Most of Warsaw was completely demolished and reduced to rubble during World War II when it was relentlessly bombed by Nazi Germany, and therefore just about everything seen there today is new, post-war construction. Ever resilient, Warsaw, like the Phoenix rising from the ashes, is now a thriving city with 1.7 million citizens.

Warsaw’s been home to quite a few famous residents. One of my favorites is virtuoso pianist and composer, Frédéric Chopin, who was born in a nearby Polish village but grew up Warsaw. A beautiful park with a fountain and statue is dedicated in his honor. The statue features Chopin seated under a willow tree that is blowing in the wind, symbolic for Chopin’s inspiration from nature.

Chopin’s time was cut short due to tuberculosis and although he had left Poland for Paris, throughout his life he was always very proud of his Polish roots. When he became terminally ill, he requested that following his death, his heart be removed from his body and returned to Poland, where it remains to this day.

One of the downsides to traveling in the off-season is that fountains are often drained and foliage is not yet in full-bloom, but I think the cooler temperatures and lower crowd levels make up for it.

Another famous Pole who is honored in Warsaw is Nicolaus Copernicus, the astronomer and mathematician who proposed that the sun was the center of the universe, rather than the earth. A bronze statue of Copernicus sits in front of the Polish Academy of Sciences.

Though we didn’t visit any of the monuments dedicated to her, Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the only woman to hold two Nobel Prizes, was born in Warsaw and lived in the city until she moved to Paris at age 24.

Today, Warsaw’s Old Town Square could be described as colorful and charming. However, the Old Town area was completely demolished in the war and buildings here were rebuilt to look like the originals using bricks and decorative items that were recovered from the ruins. Established in the 13th century, the Old Town is one of Poland’s 15 UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

In the center of its square is one of Warsaw’s mermaids, fiercely holding a sword and shield. According to Polish folklore, a mermaid made her home along the shore near the Old Town and became the protector of the city and its people.

After exploring the city all day, mom and I met some others from our tour group and walked to Zapiecek for traditional Polish boiled dumplings. I ordered the most amazing potato pancake with mushroom sauce and parsley.

They say a trip to Warsaw would not be complete without visiting Wilanów Palace, one of the few structures that was damaged but not demolished during the war. This grand baroque style palace was built for king John III Sobieski and later became one of the first public museums in Poland.

The grand interior is filled with tapestries, vases, sculptures, and paintings. Many of the paintings are accompanied by a three-dimensional version which allows people who have visual impairments a way to experience the art by touch.

We also visited the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes which was built on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto. After Nazi Germany’s Invasion of Poland in 1939, Jews were imprisoned and impoverished, forced into overpopulated housing districts known as ghettos. Jews were provided with a meager 200 calories of food per day and as a result many died of starvation. Disease was deadly and widespread due to poor living conditions and lack of access to basic necessities.

Non-Jewish Poles, Catholics, and Christians of other faiths were also forced to live in the ghetto, being racially classified as Jewish by the Nazis. “Shoot to kill” was the order for anyone who was caught trying to escape the ghetto, which was surrounded by a tall barbwire fence and shut off to the outside world. The only escape from the ghetto was deportation to the Nazi concentration and extermination camps where death was all but guaranteed.

A memorial sculpture depicting Mordechai Anielewicz and other resistance fighters.

However, the ghetto also had many brave heroes who fought back by planning and leading an uprising, even though they knew that they would not likely survive. One of these heroes was Mordechai Anielewicz, who died fighting in opposition of Nazi Germany’s attempt to deport the Warsaw Ghetto’s remaining prisoners to extermination camps where they would be murdered.

There were also heroes who worked from outside the Ghetto walls. Irena Sendler, for example, was a Polish social worker who courageously smuggled 2,500 children out of the Warsaw Ghetto, saving their lives.

Our next stop was the city of Kraków. On the way we stopped at the Jasna Góra Monastery to see the famed painting known as the Black Madonna of Częstochowa.

Can you see her in there?

She’s four-feet-tall, over 600 years old, wooden, bejeweled, and receives an average of 14,000 visitors each day. People have been making walking pilgrimages to see her at the monastery since the Middle Ages. She’s pretty spectacular as a survivor of 12 wars and has even been attributed with miraculous powers.

During our visit a special ceremony was being conducted were monks were taking their vows. Visitors were not able to enter the shrine or get too close to the painting but we felt lucky to admire her from afar.

Later we toured the Wieliczka Salt Mine, another of Poland’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Good old table salt was mined in Wieliczka from the 13th century until 2007. It is one of the largest and oldest salt mines in the world.

Literally everything here is made from salt, even the floor tiles. Throughout the mine, the artistic endeavours of old miners can be seen in the form of life-size sculptures made from rock salt. There are also massive relief sculptures carved into the cold, salty walls.

If you didn’t believe me when I said it’s one of the largest salt mines in the world, just check out this humongous cathedral that was built down in the mine, adorned with crystal chandeliers.

Or this modern meeting room…

Or this eerie pool of brine…

And then we saw Kraków, which ended up being one of my favorite stops on our tour. Dating back to the seventh century and the original capital of Poland, Kraków has that beautiful old world charm that Europe is famous for.

We visited the former site of the Kraków Ghetto and Kazimierz, the former Jewish district. While in Kraków we also visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, the former Nazi concentration and extermination camp. I felt that Auschwitz-Birkenau needed its own post, so I’ll be covering it in my next update.

I fell in love with Kraków’s incredible architecture. Some of my favorite was in Wawel, the historic centre of the city and yet another of Poland’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Tadeusz Kościuszko Statue at Wawel Royal Castle.
Wawel Hill.

Wawel Cathedral was particularly impressive with its beautiful chapel domes and dramatic towers. Photography is not allowed inside, but the grand interior of the 900-year-old cathedral contains the sarcophagi and tombs of Polish monarchs.

Wawel Cathedral.

As we walked through Kraków it seemed like there was something interesting and photo-worthy around every corner.

Entering the Main Square.
Kraków Cloth Hall in the Main Square.

Also worth a photograph and a taste (or two) are the traditional Polish Pączki. These fluffy pastries are essentially medieval donuts, stuffed with a variety of yummy fillings and then fried to sweet, buttery perfection. I tried one with mixed berry filling. And another with Nutella that I bought for my husband and ate on his behalf. They were amazing.

Historically, the recipe for these treats was created as a way to use up all of the sugar, eggs, and fruit in the house prior to the Lenten season, when eating these foods was forbidden. So smart! Poles devour Pączki and other indulgences on Fat Thursday, their celebratory feast held the last Thursday before Lent, although Pączki can be found all over Poland year round.

Kraków is also known as the “City of Churches.” There are over 120 churches in the city, most of them Roman Catholic. Among the most famous is the Baroque-style Saints Peter and Paul Church, built in 1597.

Saints Peter and Paul Church.

On our way out of Poland towards Hungary, we stopped to see one last, unique church nestled in the southern hills. Constructed in 1650, the Parish Church of St. John the Baptist is one of Poland’s historic wooden churches and is currently being considered for designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The church was built using larch timber in a horizontal log construction, a common building technique during the Middle Ages. The church’s ornate interior is filled with rich, colorful paintings.

Poland was amazing and definitely a place I’d love to return to someday. I left the country with great memories, beautiful photographs, and deep admiration for a nation that has overcome unimaginable challenges. Next our group was headed to Hungary where we stayed for two nights in Budapest. Stay tuned for more. Thanks for reading!

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Hitched Up: Southern Utah and Northern Arizona

Hitched Up: Southern Utah and Northern Arizona

I just returned from a wonderful tour of Central Europe with my mom and have already started writing about our experience. But, before I share all about that adventure I figure I should catch up on an older one- the quick trip to southern Utah and northern Arizona Mitchell, Gaius, and I made in March. Since our journey out west took us north from Texas to Canada, then across to the Pacific coast, we didn’t have an opportunity to explore much of Utah or Arizona before winter hit. With spring on the horizon we decided to head out and see as much as we could before I jetted off to Europe at the end of the month with my mom.

Snow Canyon State Park, St. George, Utah.

We planned a quick trip from California with stops in Las Vegas, Nevada, St. George and Kanab, Utah, and Page and Sedona, Arizona. Of course the week we chose to travel to Las Vegas they had their first snowstorm in 11 years and the highway we needed to take was closed. Luckily the storm only lasted one day, the roads were reopened quickly, and we were able to travel through safely.

I-15 From CA to Las Vegas, NV.

We only stayed in Vegas for two nights and the first was spent setting up camp then trying Sushi Twister, an all-you-can-eat Japanese restaurant off the strip. Our RV park was also off the strip but conveniently offered a free shuttle service that we used to get around.

We spent the day walking along the strip and stopped for lunch at Guy Fieri’s Vegas Kitchen & Bar. We ordered “Trash Can Nachos” which were stacked and baked in a tin can before being inverted and poured onto the plate at our table. We also ordered a hawaiian chicken sandwich and a mac-n-cheese burger. It was all terribly unhealthy but super delicious.

Our main objective in Vegas was to see the Cirque du Soleil show “Ka.” We love catching the touring Cirque shows and had just seen “Volta” with my mom in San Jose, CA. We saw “O” with family when we were in Sin City for our wedding and were excited to see another performance on one of the big stages. We attempted to walk off some our lunch then headed over to the show, which turned out to be a disappointing experience due to the person seated next to me using a bright cell phone to scroll social media and text for nearly the entire show. They didn’t even silence their phone so in addition to the brightness, noisy alerts and notifications sounded every few minutes.The person got mad and became even more rude when I politely asked if they could put their phone away or step out of the theater, and with no staff in sight to help, the rest of the show was quite uncomfortable.

After that incident we were so ready to escape the crowds and head out into nature again. After a short drive we arrived at Snow Canyon State Park near St. George, Utah. Though its name suggests wintery weather conditions, Snow Canyon is actually named after an explorer and only sees about an inch of snow on average each year. However, we arrived just in time to see the aftermath of the largest snowstorm the area has experienced in over 20 years…

…Not enough snow to pull out the skis but temperatures did drop down below 30 for the first few nights of our stay and we had to take precautions to keep the pipes and tanks in our RV from freezing. During the days, we had clear skies and bright sun with a cool breeze. Hiking conditions were fantastic. We hiked over massive petrified sand dunes, through a cool slot canyon, and along the nice paved, ADA accessible trail.

The park has two great accessible trails. One is paved and runs along the main park road while the other is an old dirt and gravel service road that travels through the park and has stunning views of the canyon. These are the only trails within the main park that dogs are permitted to use. Dogs are permitted on all trails that are part of the separate Paradise Canyon trail system which is accessed from a road outside of the main park. We didn’t see the Paradise Canyon trails this visit but I’d love to check them out with Gaius next time.

Our next stop was to the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, where we volunteered working with dogs, pigs, bunnies, and parrots. To read about our volunteering experience, click here. After volunteering in Kanab we traveled to Page, Arizona and stayed at Lake Powell’s Wahweap campground.

Lake Powell is a manmade reservoir and although I’ve learned that reservoirs are not among my favorite destinations, during our off-season visit things were quiet and peaceful. We enjoyed walking along the huge accessible trail that travels through the campground loops, to the picnic areas, and down to the lake. Lake Powell also has accessible parking spaces for RVs and vehicles with boat trailers.

During our visit in Page I was most excited to see Horseshoe Bend and Antelope Canyon. Both sites have become extremely popular, largely due to social media, and stay busy pretty much year-round. But, what else would you expect from a place that looks like this?

Horseshoe Bend.

We woke up early hoping to see Horseshoe Bend before the crowds arrived and to avoid using the shuttle service that is mandatory between 9:00 am to 4:00 pm, due to construction. I learned the construction project includes adding an ADA accessible trail (yay!), visitor center, and larger parking lot. During daily construction hours the parking lot is only open to shuttles. The shuttle is accessed just down the road from the trailhead and the fee is $5 per person.

The early morning trip was well worth it and although the small parking lot was half full by 6:30 am, we had no trouble finding a spot. The view at sunrise was spectacular and we even caught a really cool rainbow on our walk down the short trail to the bend. Visiting Horseshoe Bend is free but to see the equally stunning Antelope Canyon, one must book a tour.

Heart-shaped lighting on the canyon wall in upper Antelope Canyon

Also worth it! I had seen many amazing pictures on social media depicting a seemingly empty, peaceful, and colorful canyon. Though the canyon is truly magnificent, those pictures are somewhat misleading in terms of what to expect out of the typical Antelope Canyon experience. The canyon is fully-packed with tour groups and photo ops are basically staged by the tour guides who move visitors along through the canyon ensuring that everyone is able to take pictures without any photobombers.

Our guide was very eager to point out the most interesting features to photograph and served as a personal photographer, taking pictures of each party with their phones. The experience can be somewhat overwhelming if crowds aren’t your thing, but if you want to enjoy the beauty of the canyon up close then this is the only way to do it. The canyon has an upper and lower section with tours offered for both.

We chose the upper canyon because it is supposed to have better lighting during the winter and spring when the canyon is typically not as well-lit. The upper canyon is more accessible with a level walking trail. The lower canyon requires guests to climb a few short ladders. Both are reported to be equally as stunning. We thoroughly enjoyed visiting the upper canyon but I’d love to try the lower canyon on our next visit.

Next we headed to Cottonwood, Arizona and stayed a few nights at Dead Horse Ranch State Park located on the Verde River Greenway. The area is very popular for bird watching and mountain biking though I’ll admit we didn’t do much of either.

We did attend a chuckwagon supper and western show at the Blazin’ M Ranch adjacent to the park. Neither of us had ever been to such an attraction and thought, “well why not?”

The ranch is set up like an old western town with shops selling local goods and a saloon that makes surprisingly strong drinks. I had the most amazing prickly pear margarita.

Guests of the ranch can also enjoy the shooting range, farm animals, museum, western portrait studio, and tractor-pulled wagon ride before heading into the dining hall for the barbeque supper and dinner show. Everything was very good and although it could be considered a bit hokey, it was a nice family-friendly way to spend an evening.

Our next stop in Arizona was Sedona. I had heard so many great things about this little desert town but I was not expecting it to be so beautiful. And we weren’t the only ones with an itch to visit- it was packed! Crowds were possibly a little higher than usual due to spring break season but we still had a nice time on the trails and exploring town.

We met up with two other couples that I follow on Instagram who happened to be traveling through the area at the same time. One couple we met for drinks and a fun hike to Bell Rock, and the other we met for a nice dinner. It’s always great making new friends and meeting other travelers on the road.

We had a great time hiking with our new pals (and their fur babies) at Bell Rock, one of Sedona’s vortex sites, believed to radiate soothing and healing energy that can be felt and harnessed by visitors. Maybe it was all in our imaginations but we agreed that we definitely felt a little extra chill and peaceful near the vortex.

Just down the interstate in Camp Verde is Montezuma Castle, one of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in the country. Ninety feet up into a limestone mountain sits this impressive, 5-story dwelling that was built and inhabited by the Southern Sinagua people, who were indigenous to the southwestern United States. Early American settlers erroneously credited the masterful engineering of the Southern Sinagua to the Aztecs, naming the site Montezuma Castle, after the famous Aztec emperor. Doh!

A short, paved, accessible nature trail leads visitors to the best view of the castle.

Nearby Montezuma Well was used for farming and has a few additional dwellings. Though the water in the well is carbonated and contains arsenic, it’s home to several unique species of leeches, water scorpions, and freshwater snails that are found nowhere else on earth. Southern Sinagua farmers made their homes in the limestone cliff along the well and built canals for irrigation.

We did some hiking out in the Red Rock Secret Mountain Wilderness, away from the trails most popular with tourists. The hiking here was just as beautiful and offered the more peaceful, quiet experience we prefer. We also felt comfortable bringing Gaius along, who isn’t a fan of loud noises and does better in smaller (or no) crowds.

After hiking all morning we dined at the Hideaway House restaurant where we had an awesome lunch, complete with drinks and a view of the red rocks. Their patio is dog-friendly so Gaius was able to join us for the meal too.

The week in Sedona seemed to fly by, and though it was beautiful, it was also a bit expensive. We visited the farmers market and a few craft markets during our visit but didn’t end up buying much because things were too pricey.

Next we stopped in Needles on the California-Arizona border for a bit more exploring. By night we had amazing cotton candy sunsets and by day we hunted for bright, delicate wildflowers.

We made a quick trip to Lake Havasu City to see the London Bridge, which was little more than a tourist trap. The bridge formerly spanned the River Thames in London, England but now sits over a canal on Lake Havasu in Arizona. The City of London dismantled the original London Bridge and put it up for sale when they realized a bigger and sturdier bridge was needed. It sold to the founder of Lake Havasu City, who hoped it would bring people and new development to the area. It worked!

From there we headed back to my mom’s house. I packed my bags for Europe, kissed my dog and husband goodbye, and off we went! Stay tuned for the first country of our tour: Poland! Thanks for reading!
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Volunteering: Best Friends Animal Sanctuary

Volunteering: Best Friends Animal Sanctuary

Out in southern Utah, nestled in a serene desert canyon exists a vast and magical safe haven for animals big, small, healthy, or unwell. Literally described by some as “heaven on earth,” Best Friends Animal Sanctuary provides care to over 1,600 abandoned and rescued animals with the help of their animal-loving staff and eager volunteers. The sanctuary has a “no-kill” policy, meaning animals stay as long as it takes until they are adopted and move on to their forever homes.

I first learned of this amazing non-profit when I was talking with a coworker about our plans to travel the country in an RV and to do volunteer work. She immediately recommended Best Friends Animal Sanctuary and shared her experience as a volunteer. She insisted that if our RV travels brought us anywhere near Utah, we simply had to make the trip.

The sanctuary makes registering to volunteer a breeze. Those interested can visit their website, create a volunteer account, watch a short orientation video, and schedule when and where they would like to volunteer. Animal areas that accept volunteers include Dogtown, Cat World, Horse Haven, Marshall’s Piggy Paradise, Bunny House, Parrot Garden, and Wild Friends. If working directly with the animals is not your thing, volunteers are also needed to help out in the sanctuary store, at the Angels Rest pet cemetery and memorial, and with landscaping projects around the property.

There are two volunteer shifts each day from 8:15-11:30 a.m. and 1:15-4:00 p.m. We spent two days at the sanctuary and volunteered both shifts each day. We also enjoyed delicious lunches at the sanctuary’s cafe. More on that later.

On our first day, we attended a brief 15-minute registration meeting at the Welcome Center then headed off for our first shift at DogTown. The residents and caregivers from DogTown were featured in a television documentary series carrying the same name and produced by National Geographic. Our work in DogTown consisted of walking juvenile dogs out on the beautiful snowy trail. We were also able to sit in on an agility training session and a clicker training demonstration. The information was great and we learned training skills that we were able to take back and use with our own pup.

…And then it was time for that lunch I mentioned earlier. An all-you-can-eat buffet lunch is available onsite for a mere five bucks. Aligning with the sanctuary’s commitment to show kindness to all animals, the lunch is also completely vegan. I have to say how impressed we were with the quality and taste of the food, along with the ambiance of the dining room. In addition to the daily entree items, there was a full salad bar, fresh fruit, and yummy baked treats.

Since the lunch period is from 11:30 am – 1:15 pm, we had plenty of time to enjoy our meal and drive back to the RV in town to check on our little dog and take him for a quick walk. For our second shift that day we worked in Marshall’s Piggy Paradise. Working here with the piggies and their awesome caregiver turned out to be our favorite experience. We started off by scooping pig poop. That’s right, volunteers aren’t just there to pet pigs, there’s real work to be done and the job can get pretty dirty.

Scooping aside, there were many, many opportunities to pet and socialize with the pigs. One of my favorites was Papa, a very shy pig with a strong love for naps, almonds, and Fig Newtons (my spirit animal, perhaps). Papa usually shys away from people, but came out of his shell for us and even let me pet him while he got his snack on.

We also helped keep the pigs calm and distracted while their caregiver trimmed their hooves, then we helped feed the pigs their dinner. These piggies loved peas, corn, carrots, and lettuce.

Day 1 was an absolute success and we were excited to spend another day at the sanctuary. The next morning we started off in the Bunny House where we scooped poop, mopped floors, changed out soiled linens, poured fresh water for the bunnies, and reassembled their indoor living quarters.

Each bunny dorm houses two or more bunnies and must be cleaned daily. These adorable furballs poop approximately 300 times per day and their urine contains ammonia, which can be dangerous to their sensitive respiratory system and soft coat. Bunnies also love nibbling on egg cartons and wooden toys which can leave quite a mess. After we finished housekeeping duties, we switched over to room service and delivered lettuce snacks to each bunny suite.

Something I noticed right away was that everything at the sanctuary is kept very clean. All of the animal cages, play pens, and outdoor areas were well-maintained and I was happy we played a part in the upkeep. It was also clear that the sanctuary staff really want volunteers to enjoy their experience and to have fun. Volunteers should always check with the animal caregiver before pulling out a camera during a shift, but taking photographs is allowed in most animal areas and even encouraged, under safe conditions of course.

After another fantastic lunch we checked in at the Parrot Garden for our last shift of our visit. We started off by giving the indoor atrium a good ole deep cleaning. We swept, mopped, scrubbed the walls, and wiped down all surfaces in the atrium. The atrium is used heavily in the winter when the cold weather limits visits to the outdoors cages.

We also played chauffeur, carefully loading big beautiful birds onto our forearms and walking them over to spend time in the freshly-cleaned atrium. I carried LaQuita, the blue and gold, male macaw pictured below while Mitch carried his red, lady friend, Kaimi. Can you believe LaQuita is older than I am? He’s fabulous at 40-years-old!

Kaimi (red, female) and LaQuita (blue, male).

We also spent some time with the rainforest birds where we did a bit more cleaning then showered the birds with a faux rainstorm. As soon as the hose was pointed into the cage, the birds would squawk and quickly climb their way over to the sides of the cage putting themselves directly in front of the stream. It reminded me of kids laughing and playing in the sprinklers.

Next we were tasked with preparing a large batch of bird food by following a special recipe that blends various seeds. Our kitchen duties were supervised by a sweet little birdie who recently lost his friend and has been feeling lonely. We learned that parrots bond in pairs, forming a deep connection with either another bird (like Kaimi and LaQuita) or a human caretaker. When a parrot loses or is separated from their bonded pair it can be devastating and the bird can become depressed or self-destructive. For this reason, the sanctuary tries to keep bonded pairs together while they live at the sanctuary and when they move on to their forever homes.

After our final shift we drove over to Angels Rest, the sanctuary’s animal cemetery and memorial site. Each month the sanctuary holds a special service to honor and remember the animals placed in Angels Rest. Here there are hundreds, if not thousands, of windchimes that have been dedicated to lost pets and animal lovers. When the wind blows, they play a soft, enchanting melody that fills the canyon with peace. It was beautiful and the perfect place to reflect on our visit.

We plan on volunteering again (and again) and I highly recommend the experience to others too. The sanctuary offers free, guided tours daily and their are a few options for lodging onsite, including cottages, cabins, and two full-hookup RV sites. Though onsite accommodations can fill up quickly, the town of Kanab has several hotels, RV parks, and restaurants. Groups and families are welcome to volunteer together- I can’t think of a better team bonding activity for coworkers or a cooler way to get kids involved in volunteering. Volunteers as young as 6-years-old can work in Cat World or the Bunny House when accompanied by an adult. The other animal areas have minimum age requirement for volunteers beginning at 8 years. During summer months, the sanctuary also hosts a day camp for children ages 6-9. For more information about becoming a volunteer visit https://bestfriends.org/sanctuary/volunteer. If traveling to the sanctuary in Kanab is not in the cards, there are still many other ways to help out, including sponsoring an animal, purchasing a memorial wind chime, sending an honorary or remembrance gift, or making a donation. For more information visit https://bestfriends.org/donate.

Thanks for reading!
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China Explored, Part III: Lakes, Lanterns, and the Lights of Shanghai

I woke up for day 7 of our adventure in China feeling pretty crummy. The air pollution got to me and it hit hard. You probably noticed that in many of our photos from the first 6 days we are wearing face masks. Reason being, China has some of the most polluted air in the world and the masks are specially designed for lung protection.

The air quality index (AQI) used by the Environmental Protection Agency provides a measurement for how polluted and safe or unsafe the air is, as shown in the chart below.

I used the weather app on my phone to check the AQI values daily while we were in China. The scores can vary greatly from hour to hour, day to day, and between cities. For example, the first day in Beijing the value was over 160, the next day in Beijing the value was only 100, and when we arrived in Shanghai the value was 205. Since I tend to develop a sore throat from inhaling second-hand cigarette smoke or chemical fumes from cleaning products, I made sure to wear a mask most of the time we were out. The problem with wearing the mask in cold weather is that condensation and moisture build up pretty quickly, especially when walking, and things can start to feel uncomfortable. I made the mistake of not wearing my mask as often when we were in areas where the value was under 150.

Pollution over Lake Lihu 

So, here I was, far away from home with a fever, aches, chills, and a hacking cough that wouldn’t quit. Mitch went for breakfast alone while I stayed in the room and slept. He talked with the guides about the possibility of seeking medical attention and brought me some fresh fruit and hot tea. Since we never get sick and don’t even own any medicine, we were terribly unprepared for this sudden change in health. Thankfully, the new friends we made from California and Texas kindly hooked me up with an assortment of cough drops, cold and flu medicine, and decongestants from their stashes. I popped a few pills, hoped for the best, and off we headed to a wetland park for a morning walk.

Although I wasn’t feeling my best, the Wuxi Lihu Lake National Wetland Park, part of the larger Lake Taihu, did not disappoint. The energy was very calm and even in the cold of winter, many of the trees and shrubs were lush and green. Scenic and peaceful, the park appeared to be a popular spot for practicing tai chi and strolling the trails around the lake with a cup of coffee or tea.

This beautiful wetland is also a place of mystery and romance. According to Chinese legend, the famous businessman and philanthropist Fan Li, gave away all of his fortune and possessions then disappeared to live a life of seclusion with his lover Xi Shi, one of the Four Beauties of Ancient China. The iconic couple retired to Lake Taihu, making their home on fishing boat and never to be seen again. Our guide prompted couples in the group to cross the bridge hand-in-hand if they wished to spend 5 lifetimes together like Fan Li and Xi Shi.

Our next stop was to a freshwater pearl market in Wuxi. I’m no pearl expert but others in our group said the prices here were very reasonable. There was a variety of pearl jewelry available in every color and setting from rings to bracelets, necklaces, and earrings. I didn’t purchase any but I will admit it was all very beautiful.

After pearl shopping we had lunch then settled into the bus for a nice, long 3-hour drive to Hangzhou. We purchased tickets for the optional excursion that evening which included a trip to the Songcheng theme park, also knowns as the Song Dynasty Town, to see the show, Romance of the Song Dynasty ($65/person). I have always loved performing arts and was glad that we had the opportunity to experience a variety of performances on our tour.

Just inside the gates of the Song Dynasty Town theme park.

The park was much bigger than I expected and heavily decorated with lanterns, lights, colorful paintings, and garland. The theme park is meant to tell the story of the song dynasty in ancient China and includes three components: high-tech facilities, performances, and cultural activities. Throughout the park there were lots of little shops and an abundance of snack stands.

Lanterns galore!

We had about an hour and a half of free time to explore the park before the show. By this time I was feeling awful and not very interested in walking around or checking out the exhibits in the park. I decided to take some Nyquil, which made me feel better but, as expected, super drowsy. After walking around for about 30 minutes, I plopped myself down on a bench for some people-watching. I soon realized that being some of the only western folk in the park meant we would be the ones who were people-watched. I felt as rare as a unicorn sitting there in my Nyquil haze being photographed and videoed by people passing by.

Needless to say, we didn’t see much of the theme park nor did I remember to take many pictures. We met back up with the group and headed to the theater. The show, which has been seen by over 60 million people, was completely sold out.

The performers all wore beautiful costumes and there were many set changes. At one point during the performance we were spritzed with water during a rain simulation. The show told the story of the Song Dynasty, and although it was very entertaining, the dark lights and pleasant music had me nodding off to sleep a few times. Hopefully no one noticed.

I hardly remember walking to the bus or the ride home. It’s possible that I sleep-walked my way back. The next morning I was feeling somewhat better as we headed off to West Lake in Hangzhou for Day 8 of our tour. Once the capital of the Song dynasty, Hangzhou was described by explorer Marco Polo as the “finest and most splendid city in the world.”

Situated in the center of Hangzhou, West Lake is another of China’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and credited as the source of inspiration for Chinese, Japanese, and Korean gardens for several centuries. We declined the optional boat ride on the lake ($35/person) and opted to enjoy its beauty by land instead. But first, a short walk for some coffee…

Walking along the street searching for coffee in Hangzhou.

We had about an hour of free time and decided to walk to a nearby Starbucks. There were many small shops and restaurants along the way and the streets here were very clean. I ordered a caramel macchiato and was pleasantly surprised to find that my drink was only a tad sweet, unlike the super sugary version served in the U.S.. I also loved the assortment of cute cups and different prepared foods. With our caffeine-fix met we headed back to walk along the picturesque lake.

Zooming in on the bridge.

Next we were off to the Dragon Well Tea Plantation in the mountains above Hangzhou. Also known as Longjing, Dragon Well tea is known for its high-quality and longstanding status as the most famous variety of green tea in China.

Garden at the entry.

If there was one thing I wanted to buy in China it was some good green tea, so I was thrilled about the opportunity to visit the country’s most famous plantation.

Rows of tea bushes.

We sampled brewed tea and dry roasted tea leaves while learning about tea production from plantation staff. Usually we think of tea as something we drink, but in China they say “eat your tea” because the flavorful leaves can be eaten with each sip or saved to be eaten after brewing several cups.

Eat your tea!

Even in China this famous tea isn’t cheap. We ended up purchasing two packed canisters of tea leaves and were given a bonus mini canister for free. For 300 grams of tea, approximately 126 servings, we paid about $85 USD, or 67 cents per cup. However, the leaves are so potent they can be re-steeped up to five times, assuming you don’t eat them all while enjoying your first cup.

We had lunch at a local restaurant near the tea plantation then drove to Shanghai, our final destination on the tour. We purchased the optional excursion for the evening that included a trip to Daning: The Life Hub followed with the acrobatic circus performance ERA: Intersection of Time ($60/person).

The Life Hub is an open-space multi-use center with restaurants, trendy shops, apartments, coffeehouses, hotels, and landscaped green areas with benches and walking trails. We had free time to wander about or grab dinner in the Life Hub before the show and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to eat pizza in China. We ate at Pizza Marzano, an upscale pizza chain with restaurants scattered over the United Kingdom, Europe, China, and India. It was delicious and a welcome change since we’d been eating noodle and rice dishes all week.

After dinner we strolled the Life Hub, admiring the bright lights and Chinese New Year decorations.

The Cirque du Soleil-esque, ERA: Intersection of Time was wonderful and featured many talented performers. While we didn’t think the storytelling was quite on par with Cirque, we still enjoyed the show very much. The most jaw-dropping act featured six performers on motorcycles riding around the inside of a metal globe.

Our last full day in China would be spent exploring Shanghai. Day 9 started with a visit to the Bund, a waterfront area showcasing the tall skyscrapers that make up Shanghai’s iconic skyline. These modern buildings lining the Huangpu River are known as China’s Wall Street. The view was beautiful though the air was heavily polluted. Masks on!

The other side of the river features buildings of many different styles and is sometimes referred to as China’s museum of international architecture. We enjoyed a bit of free time walking around the Bund area before heading to an art gallery featuring painted and woven silk.

After lunch we visited the City God Temple Bazaar. The streets in this area are filled with all sorts of shops selling artwork, clothing, souvenirs, and more. It’s also a foodie’s dreamland with teahouses on every corner and countless restaurants and stands selling local street food.

Perhaps the most coveted foodie item from the bazaar is the Xiaolongbao, a Shanghai-style dumpling invented by a street vendor in 1900 and still wildly popular today. Not your typical bao, these soft, delectable buns are filled with crab meat and hot, savory broth. Delicious.

Three’s company.

We also went on a hunt for the giant scallion pancake vendor after seeing dozens of happy people walking around with the jumbo-sized treat in-hand. The line was long but the pancakes were totally worth the wait. The best way I can describe the taste is to imagine a big, freshly-fried potato chip.

We expected to see more western tourists in Shanghai given that the city is known as China’s international hub, but seeing none, we definitely stood out among other visitors. One man asked if we would pose for a quick picture and was surprised when we asked him to hop in the photo with us.

We finished the evening with a cruise on the Huangpu River to see the Shanghai skyline all lit up at night, which was offered as the final optional excursion of the tour ($50/person). The architecture and colors have an otherworldly look like something out of a sci-fi flick.

Day 10 involved an early flight to Beijing, a long layover, and an even longer flight back to California. We felt lucky that our new pals were booked on the same flight so the fun time we were having together could continue for a bit longer. Overall it was a wonderful trip. We visited a ton of historical places, saw ancient relics and exhilarating performances, learned a lot about Chinese culture, and made great new friends all in just 10 short days. Until next time, China! Thanks for reading.

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China Explored, Part II: Great Wall, Gorgeous Garden, and Grand Buddha

China Explored, Part II: Great Wall, Gorgeous Garden, and Grand Buddha

I was pretty excited about day 4 of our itinerary when we would visit the Great Wall of China. Unlike the optional excursion we booked on our free day in Beijing that took us to the Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square, and the Forbidden City, the activities on day 4 were included as part of the guided tour package and participation was mandatory. If a guest chooses to bail on any component of the guided tour, Rewards Travel China reserves the right to cancel the remainder of the guest’s itinerary, including hotel and flight reservations. However, we learned that it is possible to opt out of certain days of the guided tour for a fee by making arrangements with the tour company. We made friends with another couple on the tour who opted out of day 4 so that they could visit a few families they knew in China. We stuck with the guided tour itinerary and off we went to the Great Wall…after a visit to a jade workshop and showroom, that is.

Another group of tourists from Rewards Travel China leaving the showroom as we arrived.

Here we had our first taste of those government sponsored shopping spiels I mentioned in my previous post. Our bus pulled up to a huge building where we were given a brief introduction on the history of jade, tips on how to spot the difference between fake and authentic jade, and information about the importance of jade in Chinese culture.

Afterwards we were given free time to shop (almost a full hour), or in our case, walk around the showroom attempting to avoid salespeople. The jade we saw was all very beautiful and many people from our tour group bought pieces to take home. We considered buying a few pieces and thought of giving some as gifts to friends and family, but after we converted the prices into U.S. dollars we realized it was a bit out of our budget. The salesperson who helped us followed us around trying to show us other things we might be interested in purchasing. Even though we explained we didn’t have enough money she still stuck to us like a shadow until another browsing couple caught her eye and we made a quick getaway for the exit. It all felt a bit uncomfortable though those who were interested in shopping seemed to enjoy the experience.

At last, we were off to the Great Wall and feeling excited to get outdoors and do some climbing. We visited the Juyongguan, or Juyong Pass, section of the Great Wall, which is a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site and known as one of the most popular mountain passes along the wall.

Juyong Pass is also known as one of the more steep and challenging sections of the wall. While a few sections of stairs were nice and uniform, most had steps that varied from one to the next in both depth and height, making it somewhat of a difficult climb.

There weren’t a ton of people visiting this time of year, so it was easier to find quiet, peaceful moments and to snap pictures of the wall unobstructed by hordes of tourists. The downside of visiting during winter is that it was windy and absolutely frigid. It was hard to hold on to the handrails because they were ice cold. The other downside is that much of the surrounding foliage is brown or grey, closely matching the color of the stone and making it more difficult to see how the massive wall travels for miles upon miles into the horizon. Still, the Great Wall was a beautiful sight and so much fun to climb.

Using a selfie as an opportunity to stop and rest.

Spanning just over 13,000 miles, the Great Wall of China is the longest manmade structure on earth. It is also sometimes regarded as the longest cemetery on earth because an estimated one million people perished building the wall, and in many situations it was not possible for their remains to be recovered.

We were given about two hours of free time to do as we pleased. We wanted to see as much of the wall as possible so we split our time in order to hike up both the eastern and western ends of the pass.

Next on our itinerary for the day was lunch followed by a trip to the Chinese Herbal Institute. A few of the provided lunches we had were hosted in typical Chinese restaurants where we ate among local patrons. However, most lunches were hosted in the government-sponsored facilities where we ate among other tourists from the Rewards Travel China group. Though the group we were assigned to was smaller, with around 25 people, Rewards Travel China had three buses of tourists that roughly followed the same itinerary and lunch schedule, each with their own local, English-speaking guide. I think it would have been nice to eat in typical Chinese restaurants more often for the typical experience of dining in China, but I completely understand how these private, catered meals are easier to manage with such a large group and probably save quite a bit of money. None of the dinners were included in the tour package, so it was still possible to visit a few typical Chinese restaurants on our own during our trip.

At the Chinese Herbal Institute we entered into a large room with big, cozy chairs, sat down, and were asked to remove our shoes and socks. Next we were given buckets of warm water for a relaxing herbal foot soak. After a few minutes of soaking, in came a troop of staff members who sat on a stool opposite of each guest and provided a 15 minute foot rub. It was pleasant overall, especially after our morning climb, although there were some awkward moments of silence and we sensed that rubbing the sweaty feet of tourists might not be a top career choice.

During the foot rub, we were given a quick but informative introduction to the principles of Chinese medicine and a few guests were treated to fire cupping therapy, a practice beneficial to reducing stagnation and improving one’s qi. Qi is the name for the life force believed to exist in each person’s body. Chinese medicine practitioners liken having balanced qi to having something similar to a super power that results in a healthier, happier, and longer life. Think of it almost like “the force” used by jedis in Star Wars.

While our feet were being rubbed, several Chinese doctors went around the room and met with guests to provide a quick health assessment, discuss any health concerns, and offer treatment. The doctors appeared to start with and focus on the older folks in our group and we were never visited. We noticed that the doctors were recommending expensive creams and health supplements to those they met with, and not wanting to deal with more sales pressure for the day, kind of felt glad we were overlooked.

For our last stop of the evening we visited the Beijing 2008 Olympic Center. This was a highlight for some of the sports fans in our group. While I enjoy the Olympics, personally I’m not a big sports fan and admit this wasn’t my favorite stop on the tour. Still, I enjoyed the free time we had to walk around the huge complex.

On day 5 we had the morning to ourselves. We were pretty tired after two packed days of sightseeing so we passed on the optional 1/2 day Beijing city tour excursion ($79/person) and took the opportunity to sleep in, grab breakfast and coffee at a leisurely pace, and enjoy a little nap before heading off to the airport for our flight to Shanghai. Food served on the Chinese flight was pretty interesting and not bad for airplane grub. We were offered a shrimp cocktail appetizer and choice of entree.

Beef, rice, and veggie entree.

The flight to Shanghai was approximately 2.5 hours and after landing we met up with a local representative from Rewards Travel China who would be our guide for the remainder of the tour. Once we collected our baggage, we loaded into buses and drove another 90 minutes to our hotel in Suzhou. Our hotel in Suzhou was smaller than the one in Beijing but still very nice and had a great view of the sunrise in the morning. Breakfast was buffet style and delicious as always.

Day 6 was a jam-packed guided tour day. We started off with a trip to the lovely Lingering Garden, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Originally privately-owned, the 400-year-old garden is filled with beautiful stone walkways, ponds, temples, and pavilions covering approximately 6 acres.

We had a lot of fun walking around the garden, admiring the traditional Chinese landscaping and architecture, and of course, posing for many, many pictures with friends.

After some free time in the garden we headed over to a silk factory and showroom. Though mostly a stop for purchasing silk bedding and apparel, the factory did house a small museum with information about silk production. Here we heard a little bit about how silk is made and a lot about why we should buy silk. There was even spare luggage for sale and the showroom offered vacuum packing to ensure that travelers would have a way to take their new silk goodies home.

After lunch at the silk factory we visited the Suzhou Grand Canal, which is, you guessed it, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are actually 1,092 UNESCO World Heritage Sites worldwide with 52 being in China, a huge number when compared to the U.S. where there are only 23. These special sites have been recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as treasures to all of humanity for their cultural, historical, or scientific significance. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting a few in the U.S. (the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico and Grand Canyon, Hawaii Volcanoes, Yosemite, Olympic, Yellowstone, Waterton-Lakes, and Redwood national parks) and was thrilled that I was able to see so many more through this tour.

We declined the optional boat ride down the canal ($30/person) and instead were given a little over an hour of free time to walk along the waters. This area is touted as the “Venice of China” but since I’ve never seen Italy myself, I have nothing to compare and may need to plan a trip. For research purposes.

The area where we walked along the canal was probably the most “real” and depressed bit of China we’d seen yet. Humble homes line the waterways and residents could be seen doing laundry in the canal. Clothing and bedding was strung up on a line to dry between trees, occasionally accompanied by pieces of fish and curious cuts of meat. Open, grassy spaces in between homes were covered in mounds of rubbish. No matter how intriguing, shocking, or different a neighborhood may look, I don’t think it’s respectful to blatantly photograph someone’s home as if it were a spectacle for someone else’s entertainment. Therefore, I saved my photo ops for shots of the canal, empty alleyways, and a cute local pup. Oh, and this one public squat toilet we used that had a beautiful window but no doors.

After our stroll we hopped back onto the bus and headed off to our next city, Wuxi. After about a two-hour drive we arrived in the late afternoon at the Mt. Lingshan Grand Buddha Scenic Area.

The park covers over 70 acres and includes several stunning sculptures, gardens, fountains, and temples. Though China is technically an atheist country, it is home to the largest population of Buddhists in the world, making the park a very popular attraction.


We were given two spurts of free time, with the first being in the lower section of the park to view the musical fountain show known as, Nine Dragons Bathing Shakyamuni, or baby Buddha.

The Nine Dragons Bathing Shakyamuni fountain plays a musical water show 5x daily.
The fountain rotates, giving everyone in the crowd a great view.

After watching the fountain performance, we hopped onto trams and headed to the base of the Lingshan Grand Buddha statue where we were given more free time to explore and climb to the top.

The drive through the park was absolutely gorgeous and I could see spending hours walking the property and taking in all the beautiful sights. The enormous Grand Buddha statue was naturally the star of the show, especially later in the afternoon when the sun began to set.

At an incredible 289-feet-tall, it’s the largest bronze Buddha statue in the world. There are 216 stairs to reach the statue, representing 108 troubles and 108 wishes. The panoramic view from the top was nice, though a bit of smog filled the air.

Candles.

An impressive museum spread over 3 stories is located in the pedestal of the statue, though unfortunately we were not afforded enough time to read through all of the exhibits. For those who want an even closer look at the big bronze Buddha, an elevator from the museum takes visitors to an upper terrace where it’s possible to touch the Buddha’s feet for good luck.

Our sightseeing for the day was over and we headed off to our hotel in Wuxi. This ended up being our favorite hotel from the trip. I was so happy to have a room with a large bathtub and a great city view.

We met some of our new friends for dinner at a Japanese restaurant located within the hotel then scurried back to our rooms and drifted off to sleep. And with that, day 6 of our adventure in China was done. Stay tuned for my final post covering days 7-10 where we caught some of China’s most famous performances, visited a green tea plantation, and experienced the beauty of Shanghai on a cruise after dark. Thanks for reading!

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China Explored, Part I: Travel By Groupon

I’ve always dreamed about visiting China and seeing the Great Wall someday but it seemed like a bucket list destination that was just too far out of reach. That all changed when I saw an amazing travel deal on Groupon offering a 10-day guided tour of China for $649. If you’re not familiar with Groupon, it’s essentially an online marketplace where you buy vouchers to redeem for activities, goods, and services. Groupon vouchers are usually available at a fraction of the usual cost for the purchase, making the service a great way to try new things. For example, when we lived in Texas I purchased a Groupon voucher for a beekeeping course for two with a local farm. The voucher was $79 and had to be used within 90 days of purchase, but had I bought the course without the voucher I would have paid $200.

From our 3-hour beekeeping course in November of 2016.

Since I use Groupon pretty frequently to try things I wouldn’t normally jump to spend money on, I didn’t think the fact that I booked this trip using Groupon was even worth mentioning. That is, until I started mentioning it to people who seemed surprised and eager to hear more. I also learned about a little thing I can only describe as “Groupon shame.” Our trip to Iceland back in December was also made possible through a Groupon deal and now that I’ve got two trips under my belt I’ve had several questions about how to book travel through Groupon. I’m working on a follow-up post that includes everything you need to know and how you can travel cheaply using Groupon that I will share later. For now, I want to tell you that there is nothing shameful or inauthentic about booking a discounted vacation package through Groupon (so long as you read and understand the fine print), and I hope to show you this as I guide you through our 10-day itinerary.

High rise homes in Beijing viewed from the airplane.

Our Groupon travel package was for a 10-Day guided tour of China with stops in Beijing, Suzhou, Wuxi, Hangzhou, and Shanghai, including hotels and roundtrip nonstop flights. The package was offered by the company Rewards Travel China and also included transportation, 13 meals, and several day tours. The price was a bargain at only $649 per person, especially considering that the airfare and transportation between cities alone is over $600 when priced separately. So what’s the catch? A series of mandatory visits to government-owned showrooms featuring popular Chinese exports where visitors sit through tours and heavy sales pitches. That may be a dealbreaker for some but we considered the value and opportunity to visit a place we never thought we’d have the chance to see and decided to book our tickets.

Government owned jade factory and showroom. More on day 4.

So off we went! Day 1 and 2 were essentially travel days. We had a direct flight that left San Jose, CA at 1:30 pm and arrived in Beijing just under 13 hours later, which would be around 6:00 pm on the following evening, China time. We quickly spotted our guide with Rewards Travel China after we landed and he helped us through the security checkpoints and assisted with obtaining our travel visa. Prior to departure, Rewards Travel China applied for a group visa on our behalf- all we had to do was scan a copy of our passports and fill out a simple form. We waited for more travelers from the tour group to arrive, then loaded up into one of those giant charter buses that seat about 60 people and headed off to the hotel.

Checking in at the Great Wall Sheraton Hotel in Beijing.

I’ll admit I always thought traveling with a huge group of tourists in those big charter buses seemed kind of lame but it’s actually quite practical. You get to meet other travelers (we made some great new friends in our group), there’s always someone nearby who won’t mind taking your picture, and the massive carpooling is definitely better for the environment- especially in China where the air pollution is so terrible (I’ve been home for over a week and am still coughing from exposure to air pollution as I type this). They also sold water and Chinese beer on these buses for super cheap- so that’s also a plus!

Bus beer.

Our hotel in Beijing was very nice, 5-stars to be exact, and offered a massive breakfast buffet spread across 3 large dining rooms every morning. Not a bad place to call home for the next three nights.

View from our room in the morning.
Part of the buffet.

Our first real chance to explore Beijing came on what was technically day 3 of our itinerary. This was a free day but we decided to purchase the optional full-day excursion ($65/person) that included a trip to the Summer Palace, Forbidden City, and Tiananmen Square with a provided lunch. These are all popular attractions in Beijing and places I would want to visit on our free day anyway, so booking the excursion was the most convenient option.

Our hotel.

Our first stop was to the Summer Palace. We saw an interesting snack shack on our walk to the gates from the bus. In addition to honey covered fruit kabobs there was a variety of dried, fried, and barbequed critters, including scorpions, starfish, spiders, snakes, and beetles. Though our guide pointed out that finding critters on a stick is pretty common in Beijing, it seemed more like a novelty and less like an everyday food so we decided not to try any.

Outside the Summer Palace.

The Summer Palace was stunningly beautiful, even in the winter, and rich with history. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this lavish royal retreat is filled with grand pavilions, colorfully painted halls, decorative statues, vast lakes and gardens, and an iconic bridge with 17 arches.

Frozen Kunming Lake below the Tower of Buddhist Incense.

During winter, Kunming Lake freezes over and people take to the ice on skates and sleds. I’ve visited several indoor and outdoor rinks but ice skating on a frozen natural body of water is one of my bucket list items, so I was tempted to head back to Kunming and give it a try.

The gardens in the Summer Palace are a popular meeting space for singing and dancing. We were treated to the sounds and sights of locals practicing Tai Chi and singing traditional songs.

Singing group.

Something I noticed on our first day out was the lack of foreign tourists. Since we were visiting popular tourist attractions in Beijing, I expected to see many tour groups filled with Americans and foreigners from other countries. Surprisingly, all of the people and tourists we saw were Chinese. In fact, I did not see any Americans or foreign-looking folks outside of our own tour group for the entire trip. Not a single one. This probably explains why many of the Chinese people we encountered tended to stare when we walked by and many whipped out phones to take pictures of us. On several occasions, we were asked to pose for pictures with Chinese people who admitted they had never seen Americans in person before.

We stopped for a quick lunch with rice, veggies, noodles, soup, tea, and beer before heading off for more sightseeing. All of our meals were served family style where dishes were placed on a large lazy susan at the center of the table.

Our next stop was Tiananmen Square, one of the largest city squares in the world and a place of deep cultural and political significance. I couldn’t help but feel a bit solemn as we walked through the area, knowing its dark history. In 1989, students who protested in support of democracy, were met in Tiananmen Square with gunfire and massacred by the Chinese Army.

Tiananmen Square.

The official death toll from the tragic incident is unknown. Following the attack, the Chinese government suppressed media coverage, discussion, and investigation efforts, ultimately reporting the casualties ranged from 100-200 civilians. However, files that were more recently declassified from the U.S. and British governments revealed an estimated death toll of over 10,000 people. There are no memorials to be found in Tiananmen Square, and in fact, those who appear to be mourning publicly without government approval can be arrested.

Bridge from Tiananmen Square to Tiananmen.

Next we moved on to Tiananmen, also known as the Gate of Heavenly Peace, which marks the entrance to the Forbidden City. The gate with it’s imperial-style architecture is featured on the National Emblem of the People’s Republic of China.

At the Gate of Heavenly Peace.

The Forbidden City was our final stop and had much more upbeat vibes. For nearly 500 years, this huge complex sitting on over 180 acres served as the home of China’s emperors and was the center for political proceedings.

The Imperial Garden of the Forbidden City.

Worthy of its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Forbidden City holds the worldwide record for the most ancient, preserved wooden structures. Building rooftops are covered with intricate patterns while their interiors and exteriors are adorned with bright, detailed paintings.

During our tour I learned that the Forbidden City took 14 years to build and it required the hard work of approximately 1 million laborers. The entire complex is surrounded by a moat and 32-foot wall. As the largest imperial palace in the world, it attracts between 14 million and 16 million visitors every year.

Frozen moat around the Forbidden City walls.
Rocks in the Imperial Garden.

Another new experience was using a public squat toilet. All of the hotels had regular old toilet bowls and it was business as usual. However, most public restrooms in China have squat style toilets and are strictly BYOTP (bring your own toilet paper). I kept a small baggie of TP in my pocket (except one day when I made the mistake of leaving it on the bus and had to borrow from a friend) and antibacterial wipes for hand-washing afterwards. The plumbing systems aren’t equipped to handle wads of toilet paper, thus a small trash bin is provided. Most of the public restrooms we visited had multiple squat toilets and usually one or more western-style toilet bowls. Typically the western toilet stalls had a line, so I ended up using the squatters. If the stalls are occupied, the protocol is to line up outside of whichever individual stall you want, vs. forming one single line and taking the stall that opens up first. If you stand back and wait, you’ll definitely miss your turn.

It had been a long day of sightseeing and new experiences but we still weren’t done. We went back to the hotel for a quick dinner on our own, then hit the town again to go see a Shaolin kung fu performance. We walked to a restaurant across from our hotel and managed to order by pointing at the items we wanted on the menu. A little embarrassment but ultimately a success!

The food at dinner was really good, though it didn’t seem too different from American Chinese food in my humble opinion. Of course there was no “General Tso’s chicken” but most places we visited served a variety of rice, noodle, and steamed bun options.

Kung fu performance.

The show was pretty spectacular and featured insanely talented artists who told the story of Chun Yi, a boy who went to a monastery to become a buddhist monk and faced many challenges before becoming a kung fu master and reaching enlightenment. My jaw dropped at the sight of children who did front and backflips landing directly on their bare heads. After landing the flip they balanced for a moment then continued to flip from feet to head over and over again, hands never touching the floor. I should have grabbed my phone to take a picture but I think I was in too much shock.

That’s a wrap on days 1-3. Initially I was concerned that since we were participating in a guided tour, we would have little time to do things on our own. However, at each place we visited we were allowed a specified amount of free time (usually between 45 mins and 2 hours) to explore and roam around independently. For me this was a pretty good compromise.

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed reading along so far and I hope you’ll stay tuned for my next post detailing days 3-6 when we climbed the Great Wall of China, walked in the beautiful Lingering Garden, sat through a sales spiel in a silk factory, and fell awestruck by the giant Lingshan Grand Buddha. Thanks for reading!

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