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!

China Explored, Part I: Travel By Groupon

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!

An Icelandic Adventure: Part II

An Icelandic Adventure: Part II

Our third full day in Iceland would be a long one. We woke up early to head out for a tour of the Golden Circle, a route that travels approximately 190 miles in southern Iceland, covering some of the country’s most scenic natural landmarks and attractions. But first, breakfast!

Our hotel offered complimentary breakfast every morning and I have to admit it was one of the best free breakfast spreads I’ve ever seen. My plate was a little boring but there was fresh fruit, fish, meats and cheeses, yogurt, cereal, pastries, eggs, bread, cereal, and a waffle bar. Everything was very fresh and paired with coffee, provided the fuel we needed to start the day.

First stop: Friðheimar grehouse.

The first stop on our tour was Friðheimar, a geothermal greenhouse where organic tomatoes are grown year-round. Agriculture can be tricky in Iceland because of the climate and shortened daylight hours during fall and winter. From May through August, Iceland’s sun doesn’t sleep and daylight persists for 24 hours a day. However, for the remainder of the year Iceland is under much darker skies with only 3-5 hours of light each day.

Visitors can dine on all things tomato right inside the greenhouse.

At Friðheimar, plants are grown using geothermal water and light is sufficiently provided through green electricity produced by hydro and geothermal power plants. A restaurant is also onsite serving up a variety of tomato dishes, drinks, and even desserts. We weren’t feeling very hungry since we had just eaten at the hotel, but looking back I really wish I would have tried the homemade tomato ice cream à la Friðheimar or maybe a tomato beer. Next time!

Friðheimar also specializes in breeding Icelandic show and riding horses. We were able to meet a few of these beautiful animals who didn’t seem bothered by the snow or cold one bit.

Next we were off to the Haukadalur valley, an area with a lot of geothermal activity. Here we saw Geysir, Iceland’s most famous, though mostly dormant geyser. Although she’s been inactive for several years, Geysir is truly the mother of all geysers as she was the first ever to be recorded in earth’s history and all other geysers discovered after her have carried her name. 

These days the crowds tend to form around Strokkur, one of Iceland’s most popular and reliable natural geysers. Strokkur erupts every 5-10 minutes blasting its boiling water upwards of 49–66 ft on average.

Thar she blows!

The Haukadalur valley has over 40 more geothermal features including smaller pots of boiling mud, hot springs, and steam vents. The landscape in the area is also stunningly scenic, rich with colorful grasses and algae.

You might recognize this photo of Haukadalur from my last post. It’s one of my favorites from the trip.

I had purchased ice cleats for our trip just in case we needed them and was glad to have them when I started sliding around on the slippery walkways. Once I had the cleats on my boots I felt very confident trotting along through the ice and snow. After exploring the valley for a bit longer we ventured into the nearby visitor center where we had lunch- nice hot soup and cold Icelandic white ale.

I was really excited to visit our next stop on the tour, Gullfoss or golden falls.  This massive and powerful waterfall sits on the Hvítá river and is fed by the Langjökull glacier, Iceland’s second largest. It was so windy we had a hard time walking and an even harder time trying to hold the camera still for a picture. Nevertheless, I managed to snap a few without getting blown away by the wind or sacrificing my phone to the falls.

View from the upper observation deck.

Before Gullfoss became a nature reserve, the land belonged to a sheep farmer. Over the years foreign investors sought to use the waterfall for generating electricity.  The farmer’s daughter, Sigríður Tómasdóttir fought to preserve the falls, hiring an attorney and even making the journey to Reykjavik barefooted for court proceedings. Though the court did not rule in her favor, plans to exploit the falls ultimately fell through and Sigríður’s efforts helped bring awareness to the importance of preserving Iceland’s natural beauty.

View from the lower observation deck.

The last stop on our tour of the Golden Circle was Þingvellir National Park, a site that is truly one-of-a-kind. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet, runs through the park. This is the only location on earth where visitors can snorkel or dive between two tectonic plates. I’m definitely adding that activity to my list for our next visit! It’s also the only location where the ridge sits above sea level, allowing visitors to walk along the crest on land.

The rift valley from above.

In addition to the beauty and geological significance of this site, it’s also culturally and historically rich as the birthplace of the Althing, Iceland’s national parliament and the oldest parliament in the world. Þingvellir was also Iceland’s first national park, founded in 1930, and was designated as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations in 2004. Any Game of Thrones fans out there? The park was used as a filming location in season 4 and you may recognize the rugged terrain from the iconic battle between Brienne of Tarth and The Hound.

I made an eerie discovery about Þingvellir after we returned home. I took some photographs of what I thought was just a pretty pond with a small waterfall. I did a little research to see if such a beautiful feature in the park had a name. I learned the site is known as the Drowning Pool and it’s where at least 18 women were legally drowned by Vikings for behavior considered immoral, such as adultery. I also learned that a small memorial plaque listing the names of the women is posted somewhere near the site, but I didn’t see it during my visit. And, although you won’t find any informational signs revealing the grim details, there are several more historical execution sites which exist in the park. As tourists, I think it’s easy to get caught up in the beauty of a place, and in some cases, fail to fully understand its history.

Drowning Pool.

Back to our adventure…after a long day out on the Golden Circle we were feeling pretty famished and decided we needed to head back to Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur for some of those amazing hot dogs we had on the food walk tour. How could we not? We started off modestly ordering one each but then went back for seconds not feeling any shame.

Still dreaming of those hot dogs…

We also went back to Apotek for dessert and tried their Christmas special- spice crumble topped with a scoop of vanilla sorbet, a caramelized white chocolate mousse with apple filling atop a gingerbread cookie, dulce de leche sauce, raspberry and lime gel, fresh fruit, chocolate pearls. It was divine! They had a case full of adorable little pastries that they use for their desserts and I wanted to take them all home with me.

I’ll have one of each, please!

Since it was our last night in Iceland we decided to spend it exploring more of downtown Reykjavik, which was within walking distance of our hotel. One thing we absolutely loved about Iceland was the abundance of art. Art was literally everywhere and we probably looked a little silly taking photographs of beautiful, artful things that are probably just normal sights to Icelanders.

Another delightful and artful sight in downtown Reykjavik is the Harpa concert hall. The design for this contemporary, steel-frame building that sits on the atlantic ocean was inspired by the basalt landscapes of Iceland. Harpa’s walls are adorned with geometrical glass panels, which after dark, are illuminated by led lighting and dance in every color imaginable.

Water feature in front of Harpa.

Everything also felt extra magical because of the Christmas season. The Christmas holiday is very important in Iceland and nearly every business and home we saw was decorated in some way. Our local guide explained that Icelanders enjoy having the extra light and cheer during December when the days are shorter. Even tombstones in cemeteries are often lit up with christmas lights in remembrance of lost loved ones.

There was no shortage of beautiful lights or Santas. The Icelandic Santas of folklore are known as the Yule Lads and there are thirteen of them. They’re also technically trolls and a bit mischievous, playing pranks on children, then leaving gifts for those who have been good and rotting potatoes for those who have misbehaved. We spotted a few of the Yule Lads hanging around on buildings while we were strolling downtown.

I wish we would have had more time to wander along the charming streets in search of the other Yule Lads. I wish we would have made it back to Cafe Loki one more time for another helping of that delicious rye bread ice cream.

I definitely wouldn’t have minded another visit to the Blue Lagoon or a trip to some of Iceland’s more remote hot springs. But, unfortunately our Icelandic adventure was coming to an end. The next morning as we begrudgingly headed off to the airport we saw the snow that had enchanted us over the past few days had melted away. It was almost reminiscent of when the clock struck midnight and Cinderella watched as the magic disappeared. Sigh. Overall it was a lovely trip and we left already planning for our return. For now, it’s back to California to celebrate Christmas and ring in the New Year. As always, thanks for reading and may your holidays be blessed!

Hitched Up: Taos, New Mexico

After a hot two weeks in Palo Duro Canyon we were excited to hitch up and head over to Taos, New Mexico for cooler temperatures. We drove through some heavy crosswinds on our way out of Texas but our Tundra handled the drive with ease. Once over the border, we traveled via the incredibly scenic NM-518 through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and got a good taste of what it’s like to tow our RV on steep grades. Using lower gears and minding the speed limit is a must. The heavy wind and mountain passes definitely had an impact on our fuel economy as we dropped from an average of 11 mpg to only 9.5 for this trip. 

Rio Grande Gorge Bridge:img_16231.jpg

Fun fact, the bridge over the Rio Grande Gorge ranks somewhere between fifth and seventh (depending on the source) for the highest bridge in the United States. I made sure not to mention this to my heights-loathing husband until after our visit.

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When our navigation indicated the destination was just a quarter mile ahead, I was sure we had been led to the wrong place. I’m not sure what I was expecting but as we traveled down the flat road, the massive gorge and bridge pretty much came out of nowhere.

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Visitors headed from Taos can drive over the bridge, park in the lot, and use the sidewalk that crosses the bridge for spectacular views of the gorge. I expected there to be more parking and I imagine finding a spot can be difficult on a busy day. Along the bridge there are several suicide prevention phones that call out to a crisis hotline with the push of a button. It was sort of a sobering moment to see the phones and remember that not everyone visits the bridge for the same reason. I learned the phones were installed a few years ago in an effort to end suicides at the bridge. For anyone who is thinking of suicide, please know there is help. You can confidentially chat online with someone at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call 1-800-273-8255.

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We visited the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge a second time to hit up the West Rim Trail on our mountain bikes. As the name implies, the trail runs along the west rim of the gorge offering dramatic views of the scenery.

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The trail is mostly flat with large rocks making it the perfect challenge for beginners, like us. We visited on Memorial Day and surprisingly there wasn’t a lot of traffic on the trail. We ran across fewer than 10 hikers and bikers during our trek. There’s no shade along the trail, so visitors should come prepared with water and sun protection.

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Adding to the magic of the area, we came across a rock garden with prayer flags and an encouraging note that said, “Don’t quit your daydream.” I couldn’t agree more!

Accessibility Notes: Accessible parking and restrooms are available in the parking area for the bridge. Paved pathways allow access to restrooms, covered picnic tables, and a few scenic overlooks with benches that run above the rim of the gorge.

At the time of our visit there was not an accessible sidewalk or path from the parking area to the paved sidewalk that crosses the bridge. In others words, I saw no safe way for someone in a wheelchair or scooter to get to the sidewalk and cross the bridge without entering the roadway. To access the bridge’s sidewalk from the parking area, visitors must cross a dirt and brush field and step over a steel road barricade.

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There was an open area that could possibly provide an accessible route to the bridge’s sidewalk but it was barricaded off during our visit, possibly for construction.

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Taos Pueblo:

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Designated as a World Heritage Site and National Historic Landmark by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the Taos Pueblo has been inhabited for over 1000 years.img_1636.jpgWe arrived at the Pueblo just in time to participate in the free guided tour (gratuity appreciated). As we were led through the Pueblo, our knowledgeable guide shared the history of the Pueblo Indians and talked about how they live and thrive today.

Made entirely from adobe bricks and plaster, the Pueblo walls are several feet thick and well-insulated, providing warm winters and cool summers. The Pueblo consists of many homes, arranged similar to apartments with adjoining walls. Each home in the Pueblo is owned and maintained by a family. IMG_1648.jpgMany residents operate curio shops in their homes, selling artwork, jewelry, crafts, and traditional foods to Pueblo visitors. Being the bread-lovers we are, we purchased a some fresh frybread, baked over a cedar fire in a dome-shaped adobe oven known as a Horno. It was absolutely delicious!

We learned from our guide that the Pueblo has no electricity or plumbing. All water for cooking, drinking, and bathing is supplied by the pristine Red Willow Creek. The water is so clean and pure, no filtration is needed.

Accessibility Notes: With its flat and solid terrain and wide pathways, the Taos Pueblo is accessible and can be enjoyed by visitors of all abilities. Some homes with curio shops have shallow steps (1-3 inches) and may be a tight squeeze for larger wheelchairs or scooters. I did not see any reserved accessible parking, however there were staff available to help direct visitors to parking areas.

Black Rock Hot Springs:

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When I learned there were a few hot springs along the Rio Grande I had to check it out. Out of Taos, a quick drive up Highway 522 North then a left turn down County Road B007 will take you to Black Rock Hot Springs. County Road B007 is gravel with some rather large potholes but you couldn’t ask for a more scenic drive as you head down into the gorge. Pass over a few one-lane bridges and you arrive at the Rio Grande with easy access to the water.

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Accessibility Notes: Unfortunately not much has been done to make the hot springs accessible. The trail that leads down the gorge to the hot springs is steep, narrow, and requires maneuvering over large boulders. However, there’s a road on the left just before crossing the John Dunn Bridge that leads to a parking area that sits directly on the bank of the river. The bank is mostly flat and visitors using wheelchairs or scooters who don’t mind a little dirt and sand could possibly access the water from here. There is no reserved accessible parking, however there is a fair amount of parking along the road, and the riverbank, and in the parking areas. On a busy day, parking could be challenging. That being said, we visited on Memorial Day weekend just after lunch when it was probably as busy as it gets, and we were able to park our big truck with no problem.

Thanks for reading!