seeing south america: salta + buenos aires

Having been forced to take a detour around Uyuni, I was now on a plane from La Paz to Salta, Argentina. Northwestern Argentina is known for being beautiful to drive through with its desert like landscapes. Unfortunately, I missed out on that by taking this flight to avoid being held at gunpoint in Uyuni, but I guess I wasn’t trying to make this trip more dangerous than it already was turning out to be.

Salta

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Salta is a small city in the northwestern part of Argentina that is a good stop when on a multi-stop roadtrip in the region. It has beautiful architecture, as seen in the cathedrals above, and is deeply traditional. If you want to see true small-town west Argentina, Salta is without  a doubt a good choice. mercado

As part of the whole traditional gig, it’s quite the visit to Mercado San Miguel, where there’s wholesale sales of coca leaves and various other spices. I’m pretty sure you can buy large quantities of coca leaves here, which makes me wonder what people use it for…. Aside from that, you get to see life in motion at this market, especially early in the morning when people come to grab breakfast within the market.hotdog

What really made Salta stick out for me was the rich variety of food options that are renowned to have come from West Argentina. The Pancho (hotdog) isn’t one of them, I think, but they’re an interesting street snack. You start out with a regular hot dog, maybe slightly longer, and then you go to a full on buffet bar of sauces and toppings, where you can pile anything from corn to salsa to ham bits onto your Pancho. This can be found in Buenos Aires too but I just found it a lot more common in Salta.empanadas

Of course, you can’t go to Salta and not have empanadas, the Argentian version of saltenas, which are smaller but for some reason, tastier. They say that Salta has the best empanadas in the country, so I went and sampled a few from different stores. These puffed pastries make great snacks and are just an explosion of flavors.

The city is walkable so you don’t really need to use cabs other than to get to the airport, but even then they have accessible buses. It’s also very safe, so you can go out at night to some of the best traditional bars with folk music for an unique experience.

Salta was a pretty decent one-day trip on the way between Bolivia and Buenos Aires, and it gives you a good small town contrast to the big giant of BA.

Buenos Aires

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Buenos Aires is a capital city, in every sense of the word. It has a metropolitan center, large busy roads, famous restaurants and lots of interesting districts. I definitely enjoyed my time in BA, as it’s affectionately called, but there’s not an immediate sense that you’re in Argentina or that you’re in South America. I quickly learnt through the city tour that a lot of this has to do with the fact that the first group of people were infatuated with the French to the point that they built most of their cities modeled around European cities. In fact, BA was a largely an immigrant city for most of its history. Of course, when you’re in BA, you’ll definitely spend some time walking or driving on the largest urban road in the world – Avenida 9 de Julio, which runs through the centre. It has 7 lanes in each direction, and it’s quite the sight when it’s busy.

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Of course, when you’re on the road, you’ll also come across the Obelisco, which is right in the centre. It’s quite the phallic sight, and commemorates the fourth centenary of the first stone laid in the city. I’m personally not a fan of obelisks, but I guess this is a pretty famous part of the city.

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I don’t know if it’s the fault of the walking tour company I was with (FreeWalks) but Buenos Aires’s early history wasn’t very captivating because it isn’t based on a lot of grand gestures or ideological shifts. It’s essentially a story of a rich establishment that had its way and its eventual erosion.  It’s modern history is a lot more interesting though, and speaks volumes of the kinds of people in Argentina and the issues they have to navigate. Stuff like the Falkland wars are the exciting blips in history that make you peer a bit closer. This clocktower was given by the British actually, and resembles the Big Ben. It’s called the Torre Monumental, and after the Falkland wars was vandalized and damaged by locals. Just goes to show how different signals can be sent the by same building as time changes.

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What’s really cool about BA is not really in the main squares however, and more in the districts. San Telmo is one of my favorite districts, where dockworkers and other industrialists used to work, making this the essential heart of local life. The district has a strong bohemian vibe and houses many excellent restaurants and bars. It is home to a lot of beautiful street art and is where you go for professional tango shows. San Telmo was like taking a walk though a photogenic neighborhood. I highly recommend a couple of hours to explore this area.

laboca

Another interesting neighborhood to explore is La Boca, which is all the way southeast, near the docks. La Boca is home to a lot of Italian influence, mainly because of the influx of immigrants from Genoa who stayed here. It’s known as the colorful part of the city, for good reason. It’s painted in bright exciting colors, and make for great pictures. La Boca is known for being mainly dangerous outside of Caminito where the tourist area is, so I’d advise being cautious if exploring out of the main streets or late in the day. I personally did both, but I was with another male so I didn’t feel as unsafe.

tango

One of the things to definitely try to catch is an outdoor Tango show that happens spontaneously in Caminito. Tango is known as originating from BA, and was thought of as a dirty, lower class dance. Now it’s seen as a cultural essential and people flock to watch the shows in the city. You can catch it for free here!

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Spend some time in the Recoleta Cemetery, which is in the rich upper-class part of the city. The whole of Recoleta is populated with beautiful rich buildings, and the cemetery was meant to provide the same level of comfort to the rich when they died. They’re mini mansions, and each “grave” costs millions. You’ll find mostly aristocrat graves here, but there’s also the famous grave of Evita who many Argentinians adore as a woman for the people. It serves a good reminder of the level of inequality in BA.

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Around Recoleta is also the Floralis Generica, a giant metal flower that was gifted by the famous architect Catalano. It opens up at dawn and closes at dusk, so definitely try to catch it at either time as it’s in motion.

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If you have time, make your way to El Ateneo as well, which is a bookstore that’s housed in an old theatre. It’s known as one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world, and once you walk in, you definitely get why. The cafe is also housed on the stage, so you can grab a coffee there.

fugguzza

Buenos Aires has a lot of good food, both as an international city and a place of good local cuisine. One thing that you get best from BA is its pizza, known even as Argentinian Pizza, because of its adaptation from the recipes of the Genoans who immigrated. Pizzeria Guerrin is my go to, and I wanted to go back for more slices. The interesting slice is the Fugguzza, which is basically an onion pizza on white sauce, but there are also versions with ham and cheese.

offal

Of course, what does it mean to go to Buenos Aires or Argentina and not eat a lot of meat? I had so many different cuts of steak and ribs and other things while here, and I never got sick of it. At Gran Parilla Del Plata, you can get amazing portions for good value, even though it’s also known as one of the best parillas (steakhouses) in the city by the locals. One of the things I’d definitely recommend trying is the offal platter, which comes with intestines, kidneys, blood sausages and even sweetbread (the thryoid gland). This was what the poorer communities ate in BA, because grilling was universal, but it’s so good when done well.

asado

I also ate regular cuts of meat, including these short ribs, known as asado. Across the board, meat in the city is incredibly affordable and so well done. I was spoilt from the get go.

After your meal, try getting ice cream, especially Dulce de Leche which is a local favorite.

Buenos Aires is a fun city, and at night, you can go out to both traditional clubs/bars as well as local tango bars. I was here on Christmas and got to see magnificent fireworks on midnight going into Christmas, launched not so much by the city but by random people. There’s two main groups that launch fireworks: local Argentians and the Chinese immigrant community, and they tend to have a competition which was really cool to watch.

For hostels, I stayed at Rayuela Hostel, which I cannot recommend enough. It’s conveniently accessible and the staff are very helpful. They host a weekly BBQ, and we had ours on Christmas Eve which sweet Argentian wine (a lot of it in fact).

For SIM Cards, I recommend getting one from Personal,  but as with most South American cities, go to their local HQ and get it set up there because it can get very tricky, especially if you don’t know Spanish like I do. Personal has good coverage across Argentina.

ATMs in BA charge hefty transaction fees for foreign cards, so exchange money before coming in or front-load your withdrawals. Aside from that, the blue dollar isn’t much of a thing anymore so don’t worry about the scares about inflation etc. that used to be valid.

Uber is convenient and available, but the costs add up. Public transportation though is very accessible and well connected so I’d encourage using it as much as you can. Most hostels have travel passes you can rent to use on public transport.

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I want to thank Linus, who was such a good friend and resource on this trip. He provided a lot of good recommendations and even gave me a starter’s pack to the history and context of BA. I’m glad I managed to catch up with this friend from Singapore and have some good conversations on topics back home. Thanks bro.

The trip goes on its last leg, as I make my way to Sao Paolo in Brazil. All my Spanish that I had picked up will become useless as I quickly realize Portugese is the language of use here…

hooah.

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seeing south america: lake titicaca + la paz

Peru had been an absolutely epic adventure, but it was time to move on and explore new territories. Taking a bus through the mountains, I was on a journey to Lake Titicaca and Bolivia. Whatever I thought I knew about South America was going to be challenged by what I was about to see across the border.

Puno

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In order to cross the border, I booked a seat on Bolivia Hop which is a really affordable bus service that takes you from Cusco to La Paz, with stops along Lake Titicaca. Most of the people on the bus are fellow travellers and backpackers, making it a worthwhile time to get to know people who are probably on similar trails and willing to explore with you.

The bus makes a stop at Puno early in the morning, which is a Peruvian town on Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable water body on the Earth. Altitude is still high, so expect to see mountains all around and still have shortness of breath. The lake is absolutely beautiful and supports so many people. What’s really interesting though is the Uros Floating Village, a village made on reeds that sits in the middle of the lake. The people were escaping from the Incans and formed a defensive settlement on the lake so they could move quickly.

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The islands are stable, housing ‘communities’ which are a couple of families pooling resources together to live on an ‘island’. The Uros start new islands normally when marrying out or wanting to start a new chapter of their lives, and the process takes a long time. The amount of reed needed is incredible, and the politics of it all is pretty interesting. The Peruvian government has committed to respecting indigenous populations and supports the Uros, even providing solar panels if you look closely enough, to ensure a basic standard of living. A lot of critics say that the Uros these days only live as such as a way to earn money from tourism, sharing that it’s kitschy. I don’t know how I feel about it, but I definitely found it interesting that such a way of life even existed and that there’s more to South America than just grand civilisations and beautiful landscapes. Indigenous people add to the flavour.

Copacabana

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From Puno, you’ll cross to Bolivia, which has quick border crossing process. People joke that it’s like stepping back in time, but honestly it’s not that bad. The visa process is a bit of a struggle, so I do recommend planning ahead for it, but Singaporeans get to go for free if you go to an Embassy or Consulate before crossing the border. To be honest, the only reason why I wanted to go to Bolivia was to see Uyuni, which ended up falling flat for reasons I’ll share later,  but I was about to discover some interesting sights. For one, Lake Titicaca is more beautiful on the Bolivian side, and Copacabana which is the city on the lake in Bolivia gives you access to more parts of the lake.

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One of the things you must do is to take a boat out to Isla de Sol, which is precious in Incan and Ayamara history as the birthplace of civilisation. It’s a small island and takes a hike to get around, which is difficult given the altitude. There are a couple of things to see on the island, including the famous but small Sun Temple, but the real prize are the views out from the island.

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One of the best views are of the Cordillera Real, a beautiful snow-capped mountain range that just takes your breath away. Seated in the foreground is Isla de Luna, the sister island to Isla de Sol.

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The Yumani village is situated on the island, and there are donkeys, alpacas and lots of hard labour. The woman are incredibly strong and visibly present carrying loads up and down the hills, while the men work on construction activities or are smoking outside. It’s quite the sight, seeing the villagers just live.

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Of course, while in Copacabana, you should try to get Trout which is caught from the lake. It’s fresh and delicious, and if you find the right local restaurant you can get the above meal for 2USD.

La Paz

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After Copacabana, I made my way to La Paz, which is the seat of government of Bolivia. It’s a chaotic city, with noise and confusion everywhere. Bolivia is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, which makes travelling around it slightly dangerous and sketchy. On the bus ride, we had to go through El Alto which is where most locals live (La Paz is more of an urban work area). The roads were horrible and you couldn’t help but get scared as you went through it, but I guess that’s why they tell you not to go there.

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One of the best things to do in La Paz is to take the cable cars, which is a form of public transport in the country and therefore only costs 3USD for a two way trip lasting 20 minutes. Locals actually use it to commute, but tourists are allowed as well. The views of the city are stunning and remind you of how many people actually live and work in La Paz, and how chaotic this sun-baked city is.

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Now La Paz has a lot of history. It was the heart of a lot of revolutions, especially with the Spanish. The Ayamara, which is the indigenous civilisation before the Spanish, still have a large presence. The city was divided between the rich Spanish and the simple Ayamara, making city tours a diverse walk through two concurrent histories. The picture above shows the typical garb of a cholita which is an Ayamaran woman. The bowler hats are quite the sight.

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Calle Jean is a neighbourhood in the Spanish side of the city that’s colourful and full of art galleries and shops. It’s said to be haunted at night, but there’s also alternate explanations that describe how secret conversations of revolt happened here, sparking some of the biggest moments in Bolivian history.

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Another good sight in La Paz is the Witches Market, that’s in the Ayamara side of the city. It could make you a bit queasy, with all the strange smells and sights including Alapaca carcases, but it’s an insightful look into local culture and traditions.

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A lot of what I loved about Bolivia was the food though. It was exceptionally cheap, simple but delicious. Sopa de Mani, or peanut soup, is a local favourite and is a slightly peppery concoction that fills you up well. Llajuita is a good chain restaurant that serves local dishes in a clean environment so go there.

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Silpanchos were one of my favourite meals, made up of rice and potatoes with a large thin piece of meat and egg over it. It’s really tasty, but very greasy. Silpich is where you want to go for this for a clean and cheap meal.

saltena

Of course, you can’t go to Bolivia without trying Saltenas. They were my favourite snack and I had so many. The chicken one comes with an egg in it, and while it’s similar dishes around the world, what makes a saltena stand out is its mix of spices and sauce that bring out so much flavour. The famous ones come from Pacena La Saltena and they’re really cheap and quick. Add some peppers for a strong kick.

Bolivia doesn’t use Uber so walking is probably your bet for getting around, although cabs so exist. I only used it to go to the airport, so I think you’ll be good with walking.

TIGO should be your choice of SIM Card, costing only 5-6USD for a comprehensive data plan for a whole week, and I’d recommend going straight to their HQ building to set up your phone.

Be careful of ATMs in Bolivia, because they have heavy transaction fees and also some of them run out of cash but don’t tell you until they return your card. Some have been heard to even deduct the amount from your card without giving you money so go to banks to get money from the ATM and make sure you can talk to someone in case things don’t work out.

Be prepared for unexpected changes in your plans to Bolivia though, as protests happen frequently and they mean business. My trip to Uyuni had to be cancelled as they shut down the town and had gun patrols blocking travellers going in or out. I met people who had to sneak out at 2am under the cover of darkness and walk for 20KM before reaching the nearest town to take a bus out. Don’t plan for more than the next day.

As for safety, practice regular safety habits and you should be fine. Go where there are a lot of people, and eat at places where there are lines. A great hostel to stay at is Loki Hostel, which is admittedly a party hostel but a great community. I have a lot of memories at their rooftop bar that has a beautiful view of the city and some of the craziest party animals.

Next post, I’ll share about my time in Salta and Buenos Aires, Argentina. Look forward to it!

hooah.

fall travel series – boston & delton

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8 years ago, when I was 15, I made my first trip to the U.S. The first city I ever saw was Boston. I had the privilege of being introduced to America through this charming community and remember good times. 8 years later, I realize I didn’t remember much about the city as much as I expected, mainly because I was trying to take in the overall vibe of the US. This time, I went back with a purpose. Let’s see the historic city and get some lobster while I’m at it.

Boston
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Boston is probably as historic as it gets with the US, alongside companions like Philadelphia.  One of the best ways to see how “New England”, which was essentially colonized America, broke away and became independent is to follow the Freedom Trail, a 1.5-3 hour walking trail that brings you through not only most of historical Boston, but also major food and cultural attractions as well. I learned so much about the US’s major independence leaders through this trail, starting at the Boston Commons.boston_union

One of my favorite stops was the Union Oyster House. Union is the oldest restaurant still running in the whole of the US and by extension is not only part of the Freedom Trail, it’s also a major US relic. The restaurant is still alive and well, and I had the pleasure of being their first customer of the day and getting a place at their historical Oyster Bar. I didn’t grab oysters this time, but apparently the shuckers here are in the Top 3 for Oyster Shucking nationwide annually.boston_quincy

Another one of my favorite stops on the trail was the Quincy market area. Sam Adams stands adjacent to the area, and invites you to partake in the delectable offerings of the market behind him. From fried oysters to Thai food, the market is quite the sight. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see street performances on the walkways, which are definitely worth stopping a while for.

Continue on the trail and you’ll reach North End, which is essentially the Italian Village in Boston. This was by far one of my favorite parts of Boston because of its rich heritage and affordable food. You feel like you’re immersing yourself in this new world when you pay close attention to people, architecture and mannerisms all around. boston_harbor

And of course, the harbor. Boston is famous for many things, but its port was what made it functional. The view is beautiful from the Waterfront and you feel the same calming vibe of Boston just pronounce itself clearly here.boston_samadams

If you have more time in Boston, there’s definitely neighborhoods you can visit too. Cambridge is a natural choice, and I explored it with my host pretty extensively. South Boston is also increasingly recommended as a site to go to, and if you want something laid back, Jamaica Plains is where you should look. I went to check out the Sam Adams Craft Brewery in JP and it was definitely one of my favorite Brewery tours I had been on. The tour guides are very entertaining and the tours provide  a lot of knowledge on one of the US’s oldest craft breweries.

Now, food. Boston has a lot of great food options. Seafood is definitely on the plate, but so is Italian, and a growing New American scene. It’s an exciting time in the culinary world for Boston.boston_lobsterroll

I was insistent on having one of the best Lobster Rolls in Boston. After all, I could get Lobster imported in Chicago, but if I was in Boston, I only wanted the best. I couldn’t go to Neptune Oyster, which apparently had the very best roll, but James Hook and Co wasn’t far off at all. This small shack by the Waterfront is unassuming and a really good value for money deal, given the amount of lobster meat they put in the roll. I was blissful after this meal.boston_mikes

Another place that was highly recommended was Mike’s Pastry. Mike’s is in North End and it sells a variety of Italian Baked Goods, but primarily Cannolis.boston_cannoli

There’s really not a lot I can say about this place other than that it definitely meets the hype. These are some of the best damn cannolis I’ve had in my life, aside from the ones I ate in Rome, and the variety of flavors really don’t make it easy pickings. I had to eat my one cannoli in two servings because it was well stuffed and full of flavor.boston_chowda

Clam Chowdah is a Bostonian classic, and the Union Oyster House serves bowls up at a regular rate. Creamy, chunky and delicious – I definitely enjoyed this mid-day slurp with my beer. You can probably order other seafood here too, but the chowder is a staple.boston_jplicks

For some reason, almost 70% of the recommendations I was given for Boston were dessert recommendations, so I had to check some of them out. JP Licks was my choice and I wasn’t disappointed by both the rich flavors and wholesome satisfaction of the ice cream. A lot of ice cream these days tend to be empty, but JP Licks definitely gives you your money’s worth.delton_aldenharlow

And finally, in my effort to discover more of New American cuisine, which focuses a lot on farm to table and locally sourced food, Alden & Harlow is in bougie Cambridge and does exactly that. The brunch here was such a delight with new twists on traditional breakfast items. Their famous burger (of which they only make 30 a day!) was the star though, with a unique beef blend and a soft potato bun. I really want to come back here.

Nightlife in Boston is actually pretty huge, mainly because Boston has the most amount of students per residents in the US and probably the world. It’s unique because a lot of the hot spots also happen to be old taverns that are attempting to rebrand, which provides a very unique proposition to your night plans. Irish bars are definitely worth visiting too, because Boston just has so many of them.boston_derrick

Derrick was my host in Boston and I loved just being able to spend all this time seeing my bro fall in love with his passion here at MIT, and see a part of his life here. Thank you for hosting me and making me so comfortable.

Thank you Boston, for never stopping to be special to me.

____

Delton, Michigan

For Thanksgiving, one of my best friends, Jacob invited me to visit his hometown and see a new part of the U.S. When he said that, I definitely wasn’t expecting what Delton was – rural and beautiful. I haven’t been to a lot of countryside towns in my life, and Delton isn’t necessarily one of them, but it certainly an adventure to get to.

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First of all, you must be prepared to drive through dirt tracks and forests to get to your friend’s or family’s place . Second of all, you must get used to the fact that hunting rifles and crossbows are common household appliances, and that it’s just a way of life here. I honestly wanted to participate in some mock hunting myself, but we couldn’t find the time. Lastly, you must love nature and the ability to create out of what you have in front of you. I always saw that in Jacob in college, but coming here, I definitely saw how that evolved.delton_trail

I think my time traveling has always been biased to cities, mainly because I love culture, history and good food and they tend to centralize there. But coming to Delton just blew my mind on what I had been missing out on if I don’t aspire to see more parts of the world outside my comfort zone and immediate peripheral vision. 15235397_10154127493854117_4056201537452086465_o

I must give so much thanks to Jacob and his family for taking me in and making me one of them. I got a lot of mom and grandma hugs, which can never makeup from embraces from my own folks, but definitely made me feel better after the tough quarter. I had good food, a great experience and a more nuanced perspective on the US and the world from this.

Thanks Delton.

hooah.

fall travel series – washington dc

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Looking back at Fall Quarter Senior Year, it was definitely the most academically tiring and difficult quarter I have had so far. I was taking classes mostly to fulfill requirements and I was on the tail end of most of my extracurricular responsibilities. I had committed this senior year to unabashed traveling,recognizing that I am probably not going have this much access to the American continents in a while to come. The past few months saw me visit some great parts of the US, out of which I feel like I have gained a deeper but still incomplete appreciation of a cross-section of this country.

Washington D.C.

D.C. was the number one recommended area to visit by all my friends. ‘You really haven’t seen the US till you see DC.’

I don’t think you can ever say you’ve seen the US till you’ve seen almost every major region given its diversity, but DC encapsulates most of the US’s history and political climate. Half my trip was visiting the major monuments and museums, and the other half was hanging out with friends and checking out Georgetown.
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Now I’ve been to many iconic sights in the world, including the Great Wall and the London Tower, but the White House has by far been one of the few attractions I actually have always wanted to see in person. It’s surreal how so many people get emotional knowing that whoever occupies the House has such a large effect on their lives. This is literally where the most powerful person in the world lives. Security doesn’t let you in unless you request a tour from your Congress representative (or in my case, from the Embassy) so I didn’t get to see the interior, but the moment of reflection outside the House was profound enough for me.

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I spent the rest of the day walking the National Mall, which is a strip of monuments starting at Capitol Hill and ending at the Lincoln Memorial. Right at the center is the Washington Monument. The Monument doesn’t waver in intimidating you as you approach it, which in some ways is pretty reflective of the US. It’s large and phallic and is meant to remember George Washington, the first US President. I had some divided feelings about it. I was initially excited to see the Monument, given how iconic it is. But the more I heard actual Americans’ views on it, I realized the Monument strikes different sentiments to different people. Ironically, it sits right next to the recently opened and critically acclaimed Museum of African American History, which has a distinctive style from the marble and granite look of old American monuments, and my Uber Driver told me how some of his White passengers had expressed their annoyance of how the new Museum disrupted the feel of the Monument. My immediate reaction was to remark how that was probably the intent and how it helps to provide a draw away from what traditional history has represented to many citizens and an alternative look at their celebrated history. Yep, I had all these thoughts just at this monument.dc_vietnam

The rest of the Mall has its moments. A lot of it is about War and a lot of it is about sacrifice. I cringed every time I saw someone taking a cheesy selfie next to any of these. Perhaps having served in the Army helped, but I felt troubled that so many people had to die for these grandiose monuments to be built. It would be sad if what people took away from this was that the architectural or aesthetic aspects of these monuments were photo-worthy rather than that people had died for their current way of life. That question haunts me to this day – will I die for Singapore? And it should, it’s not a question anyone should answer blindly. This grim memorial of the Korean War definitely reminded me of that.dc_freedom

I took a lot more pictures and they’re in my album but I really felt like I walked away from the Mall with a different feel than most tourists there. I came to get some good photos, but I left with a heavy heart and a reminder of the role I play in peace and war.dc_smithcastle

The eastern part of the Mall has most of the Smithsonian Museums which are amazing publicly accessible museums that celebrate one of the things I think the US does well – to search for knowledge and to discover. The architecture of most of these buildings by themselves are fascinating but the interiors are filled with boundless sources of information and exhibits.dc_natlhistory

I spent some time in the Museum of Natural History which was just a joy to walk around in and immerse myself in.dc_newseum

The Newseum isn’t a Smithsonian Museum but it definitely sits on my list of favorite museums in the world. (My favorite is the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.) This museum takes you on a journey of the history of the Press in the US and how the four Freedoms have played a huge role in shaping American history. I absolutely loved the variety of exhibits and the thoughtfulness that went into sharing how so many lives have been affected by the press. I guess that becomes even more relevant now with the rise of uncredible news sources and their impacts on how people see their worlds.

All in all, the Mall was definitely a day’s worth of exploring (possibly two if you want to visit multiple museums). I would encourage people to go with a reflective mood to really get the most out of it. A lot can be trivialized easily but I really took a lot away from the walk up and down the strip.

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20 minutes away from downtown D.C. is Georgetown.  Now Georgetown is beautiful. I honestly would want to retire here if I was to retire in the US (probably won’t happen). It’s a quaint neighborhood with a European charm and a good number of recreational options. As expected, Georgetown is heavily White. There’s a SoulCycle that’s packed and multiple high-brow brand stores on the central street, but it’s become almost fun watching this way of life being insulated from the rest of the world and even closer home, to D.C.  I would definitely recommend coming here for brunch and a walk down the Promenade.

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Georgetown University also sits nearby and its architecture is Neo-Medieval, with gargoyles and steeples. It was quite the delight walking around their main campus and seeing the building.

D.C. isn’t really known for its food, but as you probably know, I’m a big foodie and see food as a lens to understand culture and history. So here’s the food section.

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The only D.C. local specialty is the half-smoke. I find it kind of weird how such a distinctive city hadn’t formed its own local cuisine, but in some ways I get it too, because D.C. only recently became a livable city. Tons of young people live here now as a way to climb up the political ladder, and in another 20 years we may hear of DC local dishes, but for now only the half-smoke holds a spot. The half-smoke is essentially a chili-dog, except the dog is smoked instead of grilled/steamed which adds a spicy kick to the dog. I enjoyed it, but definitely think it’s not that much of a deal. Ben’s Chili Bowl is apparently where the original is made, and where Obama has gone to, so I went there for this.dc_ebbitt

Not so much of a local dish as much as it is a regional dish are the oysters. I went to the Old Ebbitt Grill which is the oldest restaurant in DC and where a lot of high brow political dinners happen apparently. I went for the famous Happy Hour Oyster special where everything is half off, and sat at the Oyster Bar and became friends with the bartender over an extended time. Greenspeake oysters join the choir of other regionally sourced oysters to provide a good range of options. I simply enjoyed pretending to be bougie for a while.dc_georgetown

Finally, going back to Georgetown, go for the cupcakes. I went to Georgetown Cupcakes and waited in line for an hour but honestly, there’s a decent number of other cupcake stores in town that are just as phenomenal. These were pretty great. If you don’t know, Georgetown Cupcakes is the store that had a whole TV Show made after them and became famous as a result.

On a side note, nightlife in DC is a thing. There are whole bar districts and club districts that are packed and I patronized a couple of them. Like I said previously, DC may be run by old people but the city is populated by youths and you see that clearly at night. I loved it.

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All in all, my short weekend in DC was an absolute blast. Elyssa, my dear friend, was such a blessing and hosted me for the weekend and I’m ever so grateful. I definitely think I can make one more weekend trip out of DC, to see some of the other museums (the African American History one especially), to check out more of the bars and to take a trip out to nearby Baltimore where I have more friends studying. DC, you were fun, and I’m glad I got this opportunity to walk down your streets.

hooah.

 

breath of the dragon – visiting east asia (part #4 – Hong Kong)

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The final stop of my adventure, Hong Kong was meant to be less of a ‘traditional’ adventure and more of an opportunity to meet friends and see the city as a young adult. But of course, this collection of islands and territories surprised me once again. this time with its history and evolution. Lan Kwai Fong will dominate as my best memory of the place, but behind all the raucous noise of the city, you can see a society accustomed to its place as a world market leader.

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My host, Jethro, and I were having a conversation. I said that unlike the regular tourist, the true traveler values engaging with sights and experiences first, and so we resist paying for needless frivolities like ‘taking photos at the top of a building’. He quickly retorted ‘Well, in Hong Kong, paying is engaging’. I guess that very well summarized the spirit of Hong Kong City. Malls span most places, and right at Causeway Bay where consumerism finds its home, you’ll be blown away by the pure diversity of products you could purchase. At Times Square (obviously named after New York) you’ll find tall and large digital billboards reminding you that the giants of Gucci and Prada still extend dominion even in Hong Kong. You’ll find many more examples of cultural appropriation here, such as at Hollywood Road and SoHo. It’s almost funny how we find issue with the West when they appropriate our cultures, but yet here we are appropriating theirs.

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Probably one of the things you could enjoy and yet escape paying for is the night skyline along Victoria Harbor. In my opinion, both sides of the Harbor are magnificent for the viewing, and one should take the time to admire not only the symphony of lights . Take time to reflect also on the development of a city that was given away ‘in perpetuity’ to the British and then taken back. It’s probably been liable to more political instability than most countries but yet it has stayed its course and arrived here. That’s really admirable in my opinion.

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The Star Ferry brings you across the harbor for a meager HKD 2.50, or USD 0.40 . Reaching Tsim Sha Tsui brings you to the supposed ‘better’ side of the harbor in terms of skyline viewing, and one can also witness colonial buildings that incite curiosity. They’re definitely worth spending the night exploring and admiring.

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Hong Kong’s markets are worth spending half a day exploring. From Bird Markets to Fish Markets to pure fake goods markets, there’s no shortage of products for you to expend a couple of dollars on. Go to Mong Kok or Prince Edward Station and simply walk south towards Jordan Station on the MTR and you’ll be wondering whether the value for money is too good to be true. It probably is, although if you don’t have expectations that are too high , you could enjoy a few good steals.

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Here’s where the trip gets slightly more interesting. Having been to Hong Kong twice before, I decided to take a risk and go into the New Territories. Although the ‘NT’ take up most of Hong Kong in landmass, most people only identify the City as the boundaries of their visit. I’d strongly recommend taking a quick MTR ride out and exploring the Territories, including this Walled Community located at Kam Tin. This is one of the last Walled Communities from the time of the Five Clans i.e. pre-British Hong Kong. Fun Fact : Everyone in the community is supposedly born with the last name ‘Tang’.

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Walk through the wall and you’ll find narrow alleys and people living in close unity. It reminded me of the ‘kampung’ settings in Singapore. What struck me the most was that it wasn’t just the elderly living here, as you’d intuitively expect. Whole families and even children populate this community and add some well appreciated life to this almost ancient and forgotten part of Hong Kong.

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Onto food! My favorite dishes from Hong Kong are Condensed Milk Toast and Milk Tea. It’s a sweet tea-time snack, and the crispy toast is well matched with the soggy texture of the condensed milk. Wash it down with the Milk Tea and you’ve tasted some of the best of Hong Kong. Tsui Wah, a popular chain selling regional dishes, is a great place to grab some of these.

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There’s a lot of dishes Hong Kong is famous for. Go to Mak’s Noodles for Wonton Noodles and Tai Hing for Roast Meat (especially their juicy Char Siew), but don’t leave Hong Kong without going to a Dai Bai Dong place, which is essentially a noodle place that adds ingredients as you ask for them. It’s an old penchant of Hong Kong street-fare and is not lost in the pursuit of great flavors. Chopsticks Kee on Wellington Street was the place I went to, and not only is the food absolutely lip-smacking good, the service staff are very friendly and homely, and the prices are very much value for money. It’s a quiet hole in the wall so you may have some difficulty finding it, although I’d recommend asking around. Most Hong Kong people have proven to be very kind in my adventure.

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And finally, how could we talk about Hong Kong without talking about Dim Sum. Traditionally a brunch meal, dim sum is famous for providing a huge diversity of small dishes that are savory, sweet and even herbal. Most are served in bamboo steamers, which allows the food to be freshly delivered as they’re cooked. We went to Lin Heung Tea House on Wellington Street. One of the strongest merits of this place is it’s traditional demeanor. Most Hong Kong Dim Sum places tend to be in fancy hotels and restaurants and therefore jacking up the prices. Here you’ll find regulars and families, people who value what this humble place has to offer. Don’t take it’s simple outlook as it is though; you will have to fight for your seat, and you will have to join the mad rush to get the dish you want. That’s part of the fun I suppose, and it made for some really fun photos. For a full look at this teahouse, check out ‘Hangry Nat’s’ blogpost here : https://hangrynat.wordpress.com/2015/08/31/forever-1926-lin-heung-tea-house/

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Although I don’t have pictures (for good reason), Lan Kwai Fong definitely ranks up as one of my most memorable watering holes. Accompanied with SoHo, the range of bars and clubs provide no end to your night. Although costly (even costlier than Singapore, who would imagine) , the experiences you will make at LKF probably will never leave you. Accompanied with the ups and downs of the slopes and the open drinking on the streets by expatriates and locals alike, you’ll always leave LKF a little more happier than when you came.

I’ve always compared Hong Kong as a more ‘Chinese’ Singapore, and in many ways its still true. East definitely meets West here as well, but where in Singapore we’ve integrated a lot more cultures, Hong Kong still remains predominantly a Chinese city. It faces the same struggles as Singapore – some search for meaning is going on in all the noise. But you’ll take away a sense of achievement here . People are proud to live in Hong Kong, they’re proud to have a stake in this city. That, to me, is magical.

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Here’s where I pen down my final epilogue on the whole ‘Breath of the Dragon’ adventure. I spent my summer trying very hard to heal the broken parts of myself. I gave myself that goal at the beginning of the year. I never identified as Indian, and always thought I was more Chinese than anything else. I was somewhere in between, almost stuck. These two major trips sought to reconcile these aspects of myself. I’m glad to admit I found the answer ; that while I find strong connections to both cultures, I am definitely neither one nor the other. It is perhaps in that respect, that I find myself indefinitely Singaporean and more so than before. By extension, I’m also an international citizen. The world is my domain and I’ve discovered the ability to empathise with a wide range of people.

Spending my last week home has let me corroborate my thoughts. Summer has been amazing, and I can’t wait to take on the rest of the year.

You’ll hear from me soon.

geronimo.

breath of the dragon – visiting east asia (part #3 – Taipei and Jiufen)

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You have been warned – this post has an unprecedented display of photos of food. Known as the only other place that can satisfy a Singaporean’s food cravings , Taiwan didn’t disappoint in any way. I spent a good 4 days in Taipei, and another day out in Jiufen , to get a more balanced exposure to what Taiwan has to offer and I’m glad to say that among all the cities I’ve visited, I’ve shortlisted Taipei (alongside Berlin) as my top cities to live in. There’s so much to see and do, and the proliferation of street food everywhere adds the cherry to the top. Let’s jump right in.

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I don’t really visit museums when traveling, unless it has an interesting exhibit I want to check out. The National Palace Museum in Taipei stands majestic with the hills in the background, and one wouldn’t guess it was a museum till they read the signs. The Museum is easily accessible by bus from Shilin , and once you enter it, you will be taken aback by the quality and diversity of Chinese art pieces. My favorite are the landscape paintings by Fan Kuan, that evoke so much subtlety while projecting magnificence. You’re not allowed to bring cameras into the museum and so in respect I didn’t take any photos – but take my word that the exhibits will make you want to spend your time’s worth there..  cks

You could probably knock out most of the tourist attractions in one day. Most of them are just sights that you can awe at – for example the Taipei 101 tower and the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall park in the title photo. Here you can see the courtyard for the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall. While the hall itself is grand and holds a bronze statue of the eponymous man, the courtyard struck me for its calming sense of balance. The courtyard also holds the National Theatre and the National Concert Hall. Take the time to visit the Concert Hall, and you’ll notice groups of youth practicing their Hip-Hop, which is a sight in itself. Youth culture in Taipei is exciting and its presence is felt all through the city.

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I don’t really visit temples during my travels, although I like to awe at the architectural styles they possess. I’ve always felt that architecture emotes the feelings of the time and the hopes of the society. Taipei has a strong collection of interesting temples, but the one I remembered the most was the Confucian temple. This collection of buildings and gates translate Confucius’ edicts into physical interactions that you can easily take away a lot from. In this case, the pool represents knowledge, and the fence is in the shape of bamboo thorns to represent the struggle necessary to attain true knowledge. Deep, right?taipei sausage

Now onto my favorite part of the trip. Night Markets. There are almost 8 night markets in Taipei itself, and unfortunately (or fortunately if you think about it differently) , each market actually serves its unique range of snacks and dishes. That means you can actually eat something new at each night market, and the inner explorer in me couldn’t bear that I wasn’t visiting them all. Perhaps it was coincidence or a blessing, but I lived literally adjacent to Shihlin Night Market – the most popular one in Taipei. There’s so much to try, but my top choices are the Sausage in Glutinous Rice buns (in picture) , Oyster Omelette, Pepper Pork Buns, Gua Bao, Scallion Pancakes and the bubble tea (of course). There’s so much more you can try, and I’d recommend shortlisting both Shilin and Shida for visits. Having friends to share snacks with can also be a huge boon.

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Beef Noodles are known around the world, but having it in Taipei definitely lets you feel the difference. You could compare it to Pho in Vietnam, but the Taiwanese beef noodles are special because they braise (or stew) the beef, giving it an extra kick in the soup. In fact, Taiwanese love braising everything, which you’ll come to discover as you walk the streets. My friend , Jacky, brought me to this out of sight beef noodle place that definitely knocked the rest of my experiences out of the water. Located near Ximending, on Yanping South Road (張家清真黃牛肉麵館) , the broth for this leaves you wanting more as you devour the dish. The noodles are slightly al dente, as most good soup noodles should be, and the beef melts in your mouth. I actually got myself hungry writing this, wow.

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You’d think this is a simple dish, but this is a Taiwanese staple – Lu Ruo Fan, or braised pork rice. It’s so simple, but the flavors are balanced and make the dish easy to be eaten by itself. If possible, I like to get a bowl of this to accompany side dishes, and am always satisfied at the end of the meal. If I’m not wrong, they’re making it into the Taiwanese national dish, and I’d support that all the way.taipeibreakfast

I’ve always felt Asians do breakfast the best. It’s more complex than just eggs and pancakes, but they set you off on the right food each day. Make the trip to Yonghe Dou Jiang Da Wang, on Fuxing South Road to be treated to aromas of eggs and soy milk. There are so many options, but try the freshly fried You Tiaos (dough sticks), and the Da Bing (in picture) which are thin egg pancakes that you can top with soy sauce for one of the most mouth-gasmic experiences. Wash it all down with a cold soy milk and you’re good for the day. shavedice

Let’s not forget about desserts. Mango Shaved Ice take over the streets of Taipei as the best possible dessert around. Similar to Ice Cream, except that there’s more Ice than Cream, this dish is sweet and its texture gives you the sensation you’ve always been looking for in a dessert. Most important to this dish are the fresh Taiwanese mangoes diced for you. I’ve always been in love with fresh fruit, and if you come to Taiwan and don’t try the mangoes fresh I’d feel sorry for you.The sweetness could bring you to another level.jf2

Taiwan’s notoriety isn’t just in its food. The land is filled with mountains and lakes that take your breath away and incite imagination. You’ll come to appreciate the stunning efficiency of Taiwanese public transportation. Buy a refundable EasyPass and use that to get you anywhere around Taipei, including the outskirts. An hour away from the city by bus, you’ll come to Jiufen, the mountain town that reminds you of an Asian Santorini. Climb the mountains to get magnificent views and burn off all those calories you gained from eating at night markets.goldmine2

In a nearby town, Jinguashi, you’ll see the gold mines that were the main reason for occupation here. There’s a lot of history in the place , including the Japanese and Chinese exploitation of the mines, and you’ll feel transported to a different time in this nicely preserved part of Taiwan. Entrance is free which makes the visit all the more worth it. There’s even the ‘largest gold bar’ ever which people queue up for. I’d avoid it, unless the photo is absolutely necessary. Imagine the germs on that one bar. goldmine

Among the numerous hiking paths, one of the ones that I’d recommend is the path to the Japanese Shinto Shrine, built high over the town of Jinguashi. You’ll notice many people drop out from fatigue, but persist and you’ll not only be treated to a stunning view, but a bit of history as well. You’ll be quiet once you reach the place, partially out of solemnity and partially because you’re too tired to say anything anyway.

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Another trek worth taking is the one to the Golden Falls. Named after the assumption that this waterfall was pouring liquid gold, you’ll notice quickly it’s the copper in the rocks that are providing this unique color to the waterfall. It’s right next to the Pacific Ocean as well, which in all honesty , is pretty darn cool to look at.taroballs

Head back to Jiufen in the evening to walk around the night market on Old Street. Once again, there are many unique dishes for you to try, but the Taro Balls Dessert are famous and for good reason. Chewy and fresh, these balls provide a cool counterbalance to the heat in the area. They’re handmade right in front of you, so you can trust it was made with love.ximending

Taipei ranks as one of my favorite cities for many reasons. Above all, it’s the strong vibrant culture that’s present, without the stress of regular city life. Visiting Shanghai and Hong Kong infects you with the ambition of their societies, but it also passes on the stressful hurry that’s apparent in everyone. In Taipei, that sense of hurry isn’t that common, and that gives you a pace of life you can appreciate. Want to experience nature? Just take a quick bus ride out. Want to eat good food? Just go find a night market. Clubs such as Lava and Elektro give you a good look at the youth culture in the city as well (Lava is by far one of my favorite clubs in my adventures)

I honestly see myself coming to Taiwan a lot more times. With friends and with company, there’s still so much to discover.

Shoutout to Emma, Jacky, Nicole, Kevin, Angela for showing me the haunts of Taipei I wouldn’t have known to go to by myself.

The adventure ends in Hong Kong in my last post.

Till then,

geronimo.

breath of the dragon – visiting east asia (part #2 – Shanghai)

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Shanghai – most people’s true gateway to China.  Most people think of Hong Kong as the best window into understanding the mainland, but in Shanghai only can one truly appreciate Chinese policy and influence with the familiar allure of a mega-city.  Shanghai’s main draw for the traveler aren’t just the pompous parties and beautiful skylines – there’s a story to be shared behind the draws of a city that was once divided and distributed to various international powers. To truly witness the struggle of a population with its own modernity, Shanghai unveils itself for you.

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Some history is probably necessary to understand Shanghai. After the First Opium War, which the Chinese lost, Shanghai was conceded (together with other ports such as Hong Kong) to the British. This led to the eventual formation of the International Settlement and the French Concession, a separate agreement made by the French because they probably thought they were special. The Bund then, is one of the most prominent remnants of the International Settlement, with old colonial style buildings lined up for all to awe at. Some of the buildings have interesting stories to them, especially ‘Big Ching’, based off ‘Big Ben’ in London, that you can see in the picture.

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What the Bund is more famous for though, is this amazing view of Pudong. It’s a lot better at night, but Pudong is essentially the Communist Government’s attempt at building a modern financial capital on the mainland away from Hong Kong. It’s been developed in the past 15 years only, causing massive changes in the environment and a very strong boast of the extent of Chinese willpower. Some buildings stand out for their gawkiness and some just stand absolutely majestic, but all in all Pudong from the Bund is a view worth catching.

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The French Concession is worth visiting too, it’s picturesque and its roads remind you of the alleys in Paris, with trees forming a shelter over the walkways. It’s filled with boutique fashion shops mostly, but take a trip to Tianzifang nearby and be overwhelmed by the transformation of the alleys to accommodate budding artists and craftsmen. It’s a supposed ‘hipster hangout’, although I’d dare say anyone can find something of interest here.

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Along the same lines of conservation and transformation, visit Xintiandi which is just north-east of Tianzifang. Although the eateries in this place are a bit more up-market, stroll around the neighborhood to witness how the old ‘shikumen’ houses (colonial facades with localised Asian interiors) are preserved. Cited as an exemplar of modern preservation methods, this neighborhood feels different from the rest of Shanghai and leaves you to imagine a different time. The site of the first congress of the Communist Party of China is here as well,  and with free entry you can gain insight into the rationale behind the formation of the Communist Party and the epic saga that ensued. Propaganda or not, it leaves you enlightened into the mantra spread across the mainland : The Communist Party is a necessary force for China’s freedom.

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Take a trip into Old Shanghai, by visiting YuYuan gardens, a beautiful enclosed neighborhood of old style buildings and rock gardens. One can spend a half day here just walking around and admiring the architectural beauty of the place. The Huxinting Teahouse (in picture) has witnessed many annals of history , most prominently being used a base in the Opium War and seeing Bill Clinton drink tea in its premises. You can witness many old Chinese crafts and trades in the Tourist mart, although I’d advise bargaining to around 20% of the price. I managed to knock down a bundle of items from 400 Yuan to 80 Yuan, and all I had to do was to stand my ground. After you’re done with the premises, walk around the extended neighborhood , in around a 50m radius to see more of Shanghai’s old architectural styles and take a whiff of how this city used to look like before Pudong became the standard.

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Shanghai cuisine is defined by sweet flavors and dumplings. I never knew how much I loved dumplings till I came to this city. Yang’s dumplings by far command a dominant place in my list of ‘Food I wish I could try again’ . Located in the food street of Huanghe Road, these dumplings are pan fried and hold together a mix of wholesome meat and delicious soup. They don’t skimp on any thing – quality nor quantity , but the best part is that your wallet hardly feels a pinch. You would be foolish to visit Shanghai and not try these.

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What is more famously known though, are the Shanghai soup dumplings. Sometimes called the xiaolongbao (although many would dispute it based on the thickness of the skin) , these soup dumplings spill out such rich and savory flavors that you could go for 5-8 at a time. There are many that are famous and there’s even a XLB index out there to help guide your choices although the XLBs near the City of God Temple are a good start. I’ve tried XLBs in Singapore and Taiwan, and the Shanghai ones are definitely royalty .

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Many people say Shanghai is just a great city to party and make money. That’s true – I had one of my better parties in Shanghai. Mint, the club I was brought to, had a shark tank in it. I’m not kidding.

But to the true traveler, Shanghai invites a discussion on a shotgun transformation from old city to new. To serve this demand of modernity, people influx from all over the region and what you face is this interesting misplacement of cultures and values in a city that probably requires something else. Notice the taxi driver I caught, stopping his car in the middle of the road and going to take a piss in the probably recently pruned garden.

The young people definitely don’t show any signs of being out of place. They’re raucous, ambitious and above all else, optimistic about the future. Shanghai is their playground, and they will dominate it.

Special thanks to George Mao (for hosting me), Isabelle (aka Rat-Slinger), Karin, Jing, Cooper, Jimmy Zhao, Justin, Alan, Cheryl, Clare and Jing, for the amazing time in Shanghai and taking me off the beaten path.  Next post is on Taiwan.

Till then,

geronimo.