Ireland Day 4: Driving to Northern Ireland, Croagh Patrick, and Yeats Grave

If you missed the day before…. Ireland Day 3: Biking the Aran Islands and Having the Craic in Galway

After our time in Dublin and Galway, it was time to head north to Northern Ireland with the other tour group. I knew close to nothing about this country and was both interested and nervous to visit. Mostly I was looking forward to spending an entire day on the bus, catching up on sleep after such a late night out. The sky was overcast as we pulled out of Galway as if Ireland had finally decided to demonstrate its true climate after burning us to a crisp on Inis Mor.

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Our first stop of the day was a picturesque cafe nestled in a stunning fjord for the best Irish coffees in all of Ireland, or so we were told. In the early morning, the fjord was shrouded in mist like straight out of a Viking myth. Carina and I ordered regular coffees in the dark wooden pub, not quite ready for whiskey before 10am. Bleh.

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Warmed by the hot coffee, we boarded the bus and settled in with our headphones for the long haul to our next stop. I closed my eyes, grateful to finally sleep, when the bus started bouncing around on the uneven road. “Well this sucks” I thought, assuming the road would smooth out eventually. It did not. We bounced around violently for a couple of hours with my seatbelt on to stop from tumbling out of my seat. Let’s just say there wasn’t much sleeping going on.

As soon as we arrived in County Mayo, I was grateful to get off the bus and back on solid ground. We were at the National Famine Memorial which marks the 150th anniversary of the Irish Famine. A haunting sculpture of a coffin ship rigged with human skeletons stands in memory of the people who perished at sea while fleeing the Irish Famine.

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We observed this stark memorial in silence before crossing the street for a short hike up Croagh Patrick, the holiest mountain in Ireland. We hiked a short distance to the statue of Saint Patrick before turning around to admire the view of Clew Bay. Millions of people have climbed this mountain which has been an important site of both pagan and Christian pilgrimage.  It was at the summit of this mountain that Saint Patrick fasted for 40 days in the fifth century AD.

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Every year, thousands of people make the pilgrimage up this mountain, sometimes even in bare feet! Can you imagine walking up these boulders without shoes?? Ouch…

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I barely made it up the hill… with shoes on too.

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Sunburnt but happy! We slathered more sunscreen on our poor burnt faces just in case.

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We hiked back down the mountain and drove to the town of Westport for some lunch. Most of our group went to a small cafe where we ate something green for the first time in a week. Although it took forever to get our meals, it felt so good to eat vegetables. Before leaving, we also exchanged our Euros into British pounds for the few days in Northern Ireland.

Properly monetized, we boarded the bus with just one more stop before arriving in Derry, our destination for the night. As we drove further north, the morning mist burned off to reveal the magnificent Benbulben mountain in the distance.

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At the base of this mountain is Drumcliffe Graveyard, where W.B. Yeats is buried. We had unknowingly arrived on Yeats’ 149th birthday and stumbled upon a small celebration in honor of one of Ireland’s most famous poets. Carina and I even ran into a reincarnation of Yeats in a small and charming young actor dressed in period clothing who recited a poem for us in the most dramatic fashion. It was absurd and endearing at the same time. The Irish sure do take their poets seriously.

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By early evening we unceremoniously drove across the Ireland/Northern Ireland border and into the town of Derry. After dropping off our bags at the Travelodge (so many doors…), we headed outside into the dreary streets for some dinner. We ate quietly at a local Japanese restaurant before meeting our group at the club below the hotel. Still exhausted from the bus ride, we called it an early night and passed out in our wonderfully spacious private room.

It was going to be a long and emotional couple of days in Northern Ireland. Hopefully we would make it.

Ireland Day 3: Biking the Aran Islands and Having the Craic in Galway

Here it is! My absolutely favorite day in Ireland which was consequently my favorite country visited during our Eurotrip 2014. So basically this was the best day ever. Let’s catch up though!

Ireland Day 1: Somewhere over the rainbow in Dublin

Ireland Day 2: Shamrocker Irish Adventures from Dublin to County Clare

Ireland Day 2 Continued: On the Edge at the Cliffs of Moher, the Burren, and a Night in Galway

Biking Inis Mor, the Aran Islands 

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We woke up early to catch a bus from our hostel in Galway to the ferry that would be taking us to Inis Mor, the largest of the Aran Islands. Thankfully we had opted out of the pub crawl the night before and were well rested for the long day ahead. Our Australian tour mates were not so lucky and looked absolutely miserable. I felt kind of bad but was excited to rent bikes and explore the island with our group. Biking is my favorite way to explore any destination! But you know this already.

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I slept for the entire bus ride and ferry ride (wow I am now a pro at public transport sleeping) and once we docked on the island we followed our group and the other Shamrockers group to the bike shop. We picked up some snazzy bikes (mine had a basket!) and rode the short distance to the local grocery store. It was time to pick up picnic supplies!

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At the store we picked up some deli meat, cheese, apples, chocolate and water, only the necessities of course. We also deemed it entirely necessary to order a couple espressos from the coffees shop next door. We needed CAFFEINE. Best decision ever.

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Once everybody had their bikes stuffed awkwardly with food, we set off down the road after our Shamrocker guides, Dave and Rachel. We had just met Rachel and her tour group which we would be joining the next day while Dave took most of our group back to Dublin.

Our mismatched group of about 30 people comically pedaled along a coastal road, wobbling around while adjusting our bikes and exasperating many local drivers as they tried to pass us. It was a disaster just waiting to happen. Ten minutes later, Dave veered off the main road and began pedaling frantically up a steep hill. The pavement soon disappeared, becoming a path of loose gravel and dirt. Everybody struggled to stay upright as we maneuvered the uneven ground and gradual incline. The skinny tires of my road bike slipped over the rugged surface made the climb even more challenging. But I was enjoying myself. A lot! Towards the top of the hill, we gave up and walked the rest of the way, sweating under the increasingly hot sun.

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At the top of the hill, we breathed a sigh of relief as the ground evened out and the road came to an end.

Peeling off layers of clothing, we stacked our bikes along a stone wall and grabbed our bags of food before walking towards the edge of the island. We were on yet another Burren landscape, a flat limestone terrain with crisscrossing cracks that stretched on for miles before abruptly dropping off into the sea as dramatically as the Cliffs of Moher.

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Of course we took a path right along the cliff, making me nervous all over again. Why do people like to tempt fate? Yes it is a thrill but I prefer not falling into nothingness thank you very much.

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From our vantage point, we could see the landscape covered in an endless patchwork of ancient stone walls. In the past, these walls were constructed along limestone fault lines to create small chunks of farmable land. People cleared the land of stone and built walls from the excess. They filled any cracks in the land with crushed stone before layering everything with sand and seaweed. Imported topsoil was then spread on top of the limestone to create land suitable for crops or grazing. Today, these intricate stone walls are protected as the cultural heritage of the Aran Islands and are reminder of its past .

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Look who I found creeping around the stones!

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After maneuvering around endless walls, Dave and Rachel finally stopped at a stunning spot overlooking a lagoon of sorts for our picnic. I was busy taking photographs and almost had a heart attack when I turned around and saw Carina sitting on the edge. Eyes wild with fear, I walked forward, determined to drag her away from her impending fall till I noticed that her feet were actually resting safely on a lower ledge. She turned around and laughed at me, knowing that I would freak out at this optical illusion.
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Thankfully fear works up quite an appetite so I joined her on the ledge to enjoy our picnic. Snacking on our apples and cheese rolled with deli meat, we watched the waves crash into the cliffs and the seagulls ride the wind.

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Look mom no hands!

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When we were done eating, we continued our walk along the cliff after Dave who was leading part of our group towards an ancient stone fort. We had stopped sweating from our intense bike ride and were now chilled from the cool sea breeze. It was time to start moving. Maybe even run? I almost ran in the wrong direction and off the side of the cliff but came to my senses just in time. Phew.

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Passing by more stone walls, we came upon an impossibly large wall at the end of a cliff. Rounding the corner, we discovered the rest of our group lounging inside the ancient fortress before a stunning view of the coastline. Shielded by the thick stones, we sat in the coarse grass and soaked up the sunshine. It was wonderful.

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Friends! Carina with Mizuki, Annie, and Andrew. We had a great time with these guys.

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The Aran Islands are magical. Guinness grows here.

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Sadly it was time to leave this magical place and head back to town. We said our goodbyes to the cliffs and made walked back over the rugged landscape to our bikes. This time we walked down the slippery gravel path, only mounting our bikes once we reached the paved road. Remember that first big hill from the ride up? Well this time Carina and I were coming down the hill behind a group of girls descending at an incredibly slow pace. Suddenly, Carina took off, speeding down the hill and past the girls in a blur! The girls gasped in surprise and I started laughing uncontrollably as I watched Carina speed away along the coast. Her impatience and unexpected descent was absolutely hilarious. As a matter of fact, I’m crying from laugher as I type this.

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Oh dear. Moving on.

We met up with everyone in front of a pub to relax (and grab a few pints of course). Some of our group decided to stay at the pub while the rest of us continued biking along the other coast. This is when I almost died coming down a steep turn and was this close to crashing headfirst into a fence. Somehow I maintained control and braked at the last moment, silently thanking my grandpas for looking out for me. That was a close one!

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We pedaled along the relatively flat and smooth road as the landscape opened up before us, revealing miles of farmland and few lazy sheep. A few times we stopped to hang out by the ocean where we saw seals popping their heads out of the water! They kept a safe distance from shore but incessant bobbing was hilarious to watch.

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Most of the time our group pedaled in pleasant silence, stopping every once in a while to take a few pictures of cows and farmhouses. The grass was so green and the sun felt so good on our faces. Almost too good. At this point it was pretty warm and I could feel my face starting to burn. Uhoh. Did we put on any sunscreen? Nope. This is Ireland after all, the land of perpetual rain (famous last words).

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After pedaling around for a few hours, we were bummed when we had to turn around to catch the last ferry off the island. Back on the ferry, we hung out on the upper deck, not wanting to miss a thing. We were exhausted but happy. It had been an amazing and unforgettable day.

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Having the Craic in Galway

Back in Galway after a hilarious bus ride (don’t ask), we tore up our hostel getting ready for a group dinner in only half and hour. Our room of 6 people only had one shower and one mirror and everybody was dirty and badly sunburnt. Getting ready was a crazy circus act but we managed to make it downstairs in time. My hair was dirty and my face was beet red from the sun but nobody else seemed to fare any better.

We had our group dinner at an awkwardly long table and afterwards most people went back to the hostel to rest. But I was determined to hear more Irish music in Galway! Dave kept his promise and took our little group of friends to a pub with a banjo player, guitarist and fiddler rocking out with complex harmonies and fingers flying. My mind was blown! BOOM.

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We were pretty reserved for most of the show until the last song when we all ended up dancing in a frenzy of limbs. Of course that’s when the music ended so we walked to another pub, sitting in the corner and ordering more pints. Funniest part of the night was when Dave read our palms and a couple of Irish guys came over to ask what we were doing. I responded,”We’re doing the Safety Dance” which had the men confused and Carina laughing hysterically. I guess the Irish don’t know that song too well (“Everybody look at your hands…”). Get it?

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It was an epic night out in Galway and we definitely had the Craic, maybe even a Craic 90. But not a Craic 91. There was no funny business going on, just some amazing Irish music, a lot of pints and some good laughs.

Best day ever. I love Ireland.

Ireland Day 2 Continued: On the Edge at the Cliffs of Moher, the Burren, and a Night in Galway

It seems cruel to blog about Ireland when I am stuck in the humid hotbox that is Shanghai right now. But maybe this will help me get through this heatwave for now… Let’s get back to Eurotrip 2014 shall we?

Ireland Day 1: Somewhere over the rainbow in Dublin

Ireland Day 2: Shamrocker Irish Adventures from Dublin to County Clare

Cliffs of Moher

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After we left Bridget’s Well, we were finally headed to the Cliffs of Moher! Pictures of these stunning cliffs had been pinned to my Pinterest travel board for quite some time and I was so excited to visit them in person. However my dreams of isolated cliffs dropping off into the sea were ruined once we pulled into the busy parking lot. The tourism center and walkways to the Cliffs were absolutely swarming with people. Well that was not quite the isolated experience of natural beauty in Ireland that I had envisioned. But it would have to do.

 


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As we veered off towards the right, I was determined to accept the experience for what it was and enjoy it despite the crowds. And the Cliffs of Moher really are a spectacular sight to behold. As we climbed the steps safely enclosed by a stone wall, we could see the the opposite wall of the cliffs and the people, appearing like marching ants, walking dangerously close to the edge. It was a bizarre feeling as if what you are seeing is oddly small and yet larger than life at the same time. My brain just had no way to conceptualize the scale of the view before me.

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As we walked up towards O’Brien’s Tower, we veered off to the right and towards the unofficial path along the absolute edge of the world. Leaving the marked tourist area, we joined other brave souls through the fence and along private farmland full of grazing sheep and cattle. We were entering uncharted territory and I was equally thrilled and terrified, not a huge fan of heights myself.

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We found ourselves on packed dirt path through the grass with a fence (and sheep) to our right, and a straight drop down into nothingness to our left. I could feel my throat constricting and my heart beating furiously as we danced along the edge, pushed forward by the people behind us. Every time we encountered people walking in the opposite direction, I would step to the side away from the edge, my palms sweating and face scrunched in concentration. Why was nobody fazed??

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Carina did not share my fears and would take off down the side of the cliff to gaze out over the edge at small lookout points along the way. More often than not I found myself calling out “Be careful!” and “oh my god” while she just smiled serenely, perched on the edge like a watchful bird. This is why we are friends.

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Eventually she persuaded me to come closer, resulting in this photo of me obviously standing several feet away from the edge. Believe me, this was close enough!

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We spent a lot of time just sitting in the grass, admiring the cliffs and the delightfully clear green water below. A few times we pointed out some truly idiotic people SITTING WITH THEIR FEET DANGLING OFF THE EDGE. ARE YOU INSANE. They probably were, seeing as these are also the Cliffs of Insanity, yes those same cliffs from The Princess Bride. Cool yeah?? As you wish.

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Oh hey we look so happy. I am smiling because we are standing very far away from the edge at my request. Thanks Carina!

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Did I mention that there were sheep? Like a lot of sheep. We were pretty excited. I mean, we don’t really see a lot of sheep in Florida. We also knew that we would probably see a lot of sheep over our next few days in Ireland but the first few sightings are always the most exciting right? So yeah. Here we are with some sheep. Cool.

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After an hour or so we left the unofficial Cliffs of Moher walk along the edge of the world and walked back to the bus. And that was that! I guess I can cross the Cliffs of Moher off my Pinterest board. It was not really what I was expecting but I enjoyed the experience anyways. The Cliffs really are spectacular. cliffsmoher38

The Burren- or lunar landscape

Once we left the Cliffs of Moher, it was time to drive to Galway for the night. But first we had to make a quick stop at the Burren, a karst landscape of limestone known for its geological and ecological diversity. It is also thought to resemble a lunar landscape.

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We looked around for about 10 minutes, observing the rock formations with interest before plopping down to rest. It had been a long day.

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But we were excited! Why?? Because we were headed to Galway, home to the best traditional Irish music and musicians in Ireland! I was ecstatic! Bring on the music!

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Night out in Galway

When we arrived in Galway we settle into the Kilarney Hostel and headed to Kinsghead for dinner with our roommates. By the time we left dinner around 10pm it was STILL LIGHT OUTSIDE. It was absolutely amazing. We walked to the river, apparently the fastest and shortest river in Ireland, and then walked back to the pub street in search of live music.

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We ended up back at Kingshead and had a few pints while watching an amazing performance by a group of four lads. They were absolutely incredible musicians and I was mesmerized for hours. They played mostly traditional Irish tunes except for this amazing rendition of a few U2 songs and “Rock Me Mama”. Oh god I love that song (typical). I also loved the musician second on the left who was playing this tiny little accordion. He barely moved his body while his hands and fingers moved insanely fast to play the harmony with the actual accordion. It was fantastic. I had a permanent smile on my face and could not stop my feet from moving to the beat. I love this music!

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Oh and they had Irish dancers too. Riverdance I guess you could call it. It was epic.

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Wow, what a day!

But the best was yet to come. Tomorrow would end up being my favorite day in Ireland and another amazing night out in Galway. Stay tuned.

A random weekend in Zhoushang… Welcome back to China

I arrived in Shanghai a week and a half ago. And it is hot. Like really hot. Shanghai has been miserable this week with temperatures in the 90s and such high humidity that it actually feels like 100+ degrees. This afternoon it is 97 degrees outside, but feels like 112 degrees. What is this madness!! 

Good news is that there has been a nice steady breeze that sweeps out the pollution meaning hello blue(ish) skies! Also, I found a way to stay cool(ish) and blend in around our very Chinese neighborhood! I have begun carrying around an umbrella like most women do here in the summer! It shields me from the unforgiving sun and unwelcome stares. Some people notice me anyways since I am ungodly tall for a woman, but mostly I am overlooked. It is brilliant.

Today I thought I’d share our trip to Zhoushang last weekend. This seems to be a thing that only days after my arrival in Shanghai, I am on a bus bound to random cities in China with Peter’s coworkers. Remember Suzhou three years ago? Yup I had just arrived in Shanghai for my first visit EVER and the very next day I was on a bus for a weekend trip to a Chinese water park. Here I am with Wade’s wife, who was also on the trip this year! Wow we were babies (and now she has a baby of her own! crazy!).

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I knew that this team building trip to Zhoushang would be equally random, so I came prepared for anything and everything. And let me tell you, my expectations completely missed the mark… again. And it was awesome.

Friday at noon, I met Peter at his company and boarded a bus with the rest of his team and their families. Of course, Peter and I were the only non-Chinese people and I was the only person who can’t speak Chinese. Naturally. At 1 o’clock we began the 4 hour drive south. As we left the city, I leaned back in my seat, excited to relax for the next several hours. Except as time passed the road became bumpier and bumpier, even after crossing the longest bridge in the history of the world. Seriously, we were on this bridge for at least half an hour. It was amazing! By the time we approached Zhoushang, Peter and I were giggling hysterically as we were thrown around like rag dolls, while I was flung up and down with each drop because of course my seat lacked the ability to lock.

It was the longest 4 hours of my life.

By the time we arrived in Zhaoushang, I was relieved and yet bewildered when we checked into our weirdly sparse hotel that looked like it had been constructed the night before. Our receptionist was a plump teenager playing League of Legends on a desktop still wrapped in plastic and the air-conditioning unit in our small room seemed to pump out only warm air. Did I mention it was about 97 degrees and humid as heck outside? I was in hysterics over the lack of cold air until we figured out how set the unit to COLD air. Thank the lord… I cried happy tears at this discovery.

Soon we left for dinner and enjoyed a table full of seafood dishes that we shared family style, using chopsticks to grab bites from each plate on the turntable and quickly stuff them into our mouths or into our bowls of rice. I have to say, I am a fan of the Chinese style of eating which is all about speed and quantity. It is quite fun.

After dinner we boarded the bus to attend a show by one of the most famous directors in China. Whatever that means.

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We walked through the gates and down a long pathway to an open amphitheater. Taking our seats, we waited for the show to begin in the sticky heat. Soon, the lights dimmed and actors began to walk towards the audience. Suddenly the stage was being enclosed by big walls projected by lights depicting a silk screen. The show began. All in Chinese of course. I gathered that the actors were praying to god, which would be the theme for the rest of the show.

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And suddenly, we began to move. By which I mean that the entire audience and stage began to rotate as if we were on one big turntable. Once we stopped, the walls opened again and there was a collective gasp from the audience. The mountainside was lit up in a spectacular scene with an image of Buddha projected on a rock wall and dancers with spotlights moving up and down a staircase towards a temple. What happened over the next hour was nothing short of a miracle, with the stage rotating and opening to various scenes displayed across the mountain and illuminated in a spectacular light show.

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At one point dancers dressed in orange monk robes alternated jumping on individual rocks to the beat of the music. Only when the dancers were airborne were they illuminated in a flash of light, their flailing orange robes resembling a jumping flame. I wish I could better explain this spectacular imagery, because it was breathtaking. Over the next hour we were spellbound by the story of a man who becomes monk as dancers moved their way through the shadows, manipulating light and our imagination with their bodies. Although I didn’t understand the words of the show, I was deeply moved and definitely shed a few tears over the beauty of it all. It was magical.

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I realized that this must be a production by Zhang Yimou, the director of the opening ceremony at the Beijing Olympics. He is truly the best. If you are ever in China, make sure you check out his performances which take place in different cities around the country. GO PLEASE.

We slept hard in our ice cold room and were up by 7:30am for an early breakfast of rice porridge, rolls, eggs and other random items at the same restaurant as the night before. By 8:30am we were hiking up stone steps behind a jabbering tour-guide up some mountain. I honestly have no idea what this mountain is called or why it is important. All I know is that it had a lot of small rock crevices we had to crawl through and some great views from the top. It was terribly hot and humid, even in the early morning, but we enjoyed the scenery anyways.

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Yeah, we fit through that. I really don’t know how.

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We climbed a lot of steep ass stairs while being jostled by impatient tourists from all directions. This is China.

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But check out the view! The breeze was really nice too.

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Smiling and sweaty.

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After a solid hour and a half exploring the mountain, we walked back down to the bus where a random goat was waiting. I don’t know.

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We then drove to a pebble beach and took a free boat tour around the harbor for about 1 second. It was totally unnecessary. But the big stones were cool. I mean hot.

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With time to kill, we found the place where people were selling everything from ice cream to grilled seafood, fresh from the sea. I devoured an ice cream and hesitantly accepted a grilled squid from our friend Wade. I usually hate squid but OMG THIS WAS DELICIOUS. The squid was grilled in some spicy and savory sauce and cooked to perfection. Add that to my list of weird things consumed in China (horse ankle from Xiamen still ranks at #1).

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YUMMY.

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We then walked down to a water pit by the beach to watch our friends attempt to complete various obstacle courses. Most people fell in the water quite spectacularly and we had quite the laugh watching.

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After the pebble beach area we enjoyed a delicious lunch at a new place. The seafood was amazing and I was so happy to learn that we would be returning there for dinner that evening. Score.

We had 2 hours of relaxation at the hotel (thank god), before we left for yet ANOTHER beach, this time in an area right next to our hotel. However, these beaches are not just open access to the public. You must pay a ticket and walk down an absurdly long entrance walkway through various stalls and buildings before actually arriving at the beach. This makes sense in China because it filters the massive amount of people visiting and spreads them out to reduce a cluster-you-know-what.

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Our group set up a few pop-up tents (which is an awesome idea by the way) and split up into various groups. Most of the ladies kept their clothes on and hid under tents and umbrellas to protect their skin from the sun while some of the men stripped down to their tight swimming trunks for a game of football. Peter and I immediately stripped down to our bathing suits and slathered on sunscreen before walking to the water with a few other people. And yes, I was the only woman in a bikini. THE ONLY ONE. Cue staring.

Swimming was allowed in a small roped off section that was absolutely packed with people and lifeguards. There were four lifeguards on each chair and they would blow their whistles at random intervals for unknown reasons. The current was crazy strong and there were huge waves rolling in from the sea. It was a little scary but the water was deliciously cold. MHMMMMMM. Peter and I swum out  a little bit to tread water which removed us from most people who were stuck standing and rolling around in the surf. Haha.

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We alternated swimming in the cold water and lounging on the beach eating endless amounts of sliced watermelon. After a couple of hours we were all totally exhausted by the sun and ready to leave.

But the day was far from over.

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After the speediest shower in the history of the world (my second shower that day), we returned to the same restaurant for dinner and had a feast. We enjoyed steaming plates of clams, crab, lobster, noodles, cabbage and countless other dishes. Oh, and don’t forget the beer and rice wine which was consumed in exuberance as various people came over to cheers and drink shots with us. Oh dear.

After dinner I was so ready for bed…. except we were whisked away for yet another activity. Gahhhhh.

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We arrived at what looked like a giant beach party with groups of people crowded around tents and personal grills, enjoying enormous picnics in the dark. Weird. Our group clustered around a pile of wood which a man soon lit up with a propane tank and hose. Standard procedure of course. With the bonfire blazing, we began an epic karaoke session with our very own microphones and lyric screen set up on the beach. Different people stood up to sing Chinese songs and even Peter sang a song which was… terrible. Haha sorry babe.

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After a few horrible renditions of different songs, our friend Kevin led everybody in a funny game that had people clambering to form groups with certain number of people or else be eliminated. I just sat and watched, mostly because I was exhausted and also because I couldn’t understand what numbers he was saying in Chinese! Fail.

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After a very long couple of hours sweating in front of the fire and laughing at people tackling each other in massive hugs, our group set off a pack of fireworks and released lanterns into the night sky. It took at least 30 minutes for people to get the lanterns up and going and it was terribly annoying to watch (mostly because I had to go to the bathroom so bad!). Let’s just say I was so glad for this night to be over. I was exhausted and needed yet another shower before bed.

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Thankfully we were allowed to sleep in till 8:30am and were off again for more breakfast and another morning tour. To be honest I was ready to go home! It was hot and I didn’t think I could handle another Chinese tour I couldn’t understand. We drove around the coast and boarded another tour bus that I guess explained the island. Or something. The view was stunning nevertheless.

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Then we had an hour to kill at another beach so we just hid in the shade and enjoyed ice cream and cold sodas. It was a marvelous choice. I was so over the beach. And really, it was like 100 degrees.

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FINALLY, we boarded the bus and stopped for a quick lunch before heading back to Shanghai. It was another bumpy 4 hour drive home but I was not bothered in the slightest. Just let me get home and take another shower!!! (my 10th shower of the weekend just about).

Of course Shanghai was hit with a massive thunderstorm as soon as we arrived with epic black clouds spewing rain and lightning over the city. I have never seen that before here! And of course it started to POUR as soon as we stepped outside to get to the subway station. But whatever, even though we were wet and sweaty (per usual), we were back!

Zongshang.. you were interesting. There is nothing like a good old fashioned Chinese bus tour to welcome me back to China. 

Ireland Day 2: Shamrocker Irish Adventures from Dublin to County Clare

Hello all! I am in China, slowly melting in the sweltering city heat but having a lot of fun already. We traveled  to southern China this weekend for a work trip and packed a lot into just a couple of days. It was exhausting and hot as you know what but an interesting experience. I will be updating in a couple of days, but for now let’s return to Ireland! Oh Ireland… so cool and green…

Shamrocker Irish Adventures- Giant’s Rocker 5 Day Tour

After an exciting first day in Dublin, we were excited to begin our tour of Ireland! At 8am sharp, we grabbed our enormous backpacks and dragged ourselves out of our hostel in search of the tour office. We quickly found the Shamrocker Irish Adventures office around the corner and hustled down the street in search of breakfast. I needed something more than the sad, dry toast available in the hostel kitchen. No thank you. Breakfast sandwich in hand, we walked back to the office to check in. Nervous and slightly sleep deprived, I fumbled with my passport and money, too anxious to grasp things properly with my fingers. It was going to be an interesting morning.

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Sitting on a curb outside, we waited for the other tour members to show up while slyly checking them out. To our dismay, we saw that we were the youngest people there by far. Oh no, would this be a boring bus ride from sight to sight while being herded by loudmouthed guide waving a flag with tourists in short shorts and fanny packs (aka China)? We sure hoped not. But we feared the worst.

Once everybody arrived, our guide locked up the office and lead us all to the bus. To our relief we noticed a few pairs of people our age walking with the group. Ok, maybe this was going to be fun after all! After a few hiccups in departure, including me running to the bathroom at the last minute and sitting in the hottest and most uncomfortable seat, we were on our way! We would be spending out morning driving west across Ireland from Dublin to County Clare on other coast. ireland1

As the bus left the city center, our tour guide Dave introduced himself and began talking about the history of Dublin as a Viking town. Soon the buildings began to thin out until we were on the open road, surrounded by rolling green hills. And it is true, Ireland is just so GREEN. Like greener than green, if that makes sense. Although it was easy to be mesmerized by the overabundance of GREEN, I dozed off until Dave’s voice jolted me out of my slumber.

We were at a small stone church at the peak of a hill in a sea of green as far as the eye could see. Stepping into the cool air, we walked up the steep steps to this stark structure, reduced to mere walls over time.

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Dave solemnly told us about the Great Famine and the devastating effects this time period had on the entire population. He explained that there are hundreds of bodies buried around the church because there were too many at that time for proper burials. The good news from this terrible time is that about 1 million people emigrated from Ireland which is why people with Irish heritage are so prevalent around the world. My own family most likely emigrated from Ireland to New York City either before or during the famine. Hearing about the famine in Ireland was a sobering and deeply personal moment, one that I will never forget.

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Dave also pointed out a few features that make this church unique including a double cross on the main wall. Local folklore says that this cross signifies a location of a piece of the cross from the crucifixion of Jesus. It is hard to say whether or not this is true. There are also pagan female and male figures on the walls with their…. bits on display. The myth is that if you are able to jump up and touch the figurines, you will become fertile. However the male figure’s member was missing which is probably not a good sign.

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After leaving the church, we continued our drive through County Clare towards the Cliffs of Moher, stopping for lunch in a small town on the way. Somehow Carina and I became the unofficial leaders of our little group of the quiet but cool Americans. How does this always happen to us? All I know is that people definitely congregate according to their nationality which is interesting but not surprising as I travel the world. People long for the familiar in an unfamiliar place. Plus, Americans are just awesome (but I may be biased).

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Before reaching the Cliffs, we visited a small and sacred well dedicated to St. Bridget, one of the patron saints of Ireland. We walked through a small stone corridor covered in memorabilia and photos of dead loved ones to a pool of fresh water bubbling up from the bottom of a stone basin. The water is said to have special healing properties so I made sure to say a prayer and dab some water on my face just in case. After spending time at the well, we each made a wish and tied a ribbon around the branches of a bush growing along the water. It is said that when the ribbon falls off, your wish will come true.

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Once we were sufficiently healed, we boarded the bus to continue through the beautiful landscape of County Clare. Next stop… the Cliffs of Moher!

The tour was about to get good. Really good. Shamrockers know how to have fun.

** A big thank you to my travel partner in crime, Carina, for her wonderful company and for her amazing photos which will be gracing this blog to help round out the stories! Thank you :-)

Fourth of July in Utah

I love America. Living in Asia for so many years has turned me into a patriotic fool, one who will never miss an opportunity to sing the national anthem loudly and wave our flag with glee. So when I had the opportunity to fly out to Utah with my family for the 4th of July, I booked my ticket as soon as I returned from Europe. Don’t worry, Europe photos are coming soon!

Oh Utah, you are lovely. We always ski in Utah, but for the last few years we have also spent the summer enjoying the dry desert air and beautiful scenery. Here’s what we did the long holiday weekend:

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1. Fly Fishing!

The morning after I arrived, we spent 4 hours fly fishing with a couple of guides. At first I was bored out my mind but eventually began to enjoy the steady flow of the river and the warm sun on my back. My family caught a lot of fish… and I caught none. But I took a picture holding a fish so it looked like I accomplished something.

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2. Park City 4th of July Parade

You gotta love small town America parades. Park City has an adorable parade with plenty of small children waving flags and marching bands playing Top 40 chart toppers. I loved it all, especially stopping for a few beers at a local brewery after the parade. Yum.

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Family photo opp!! Together at last :-).

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Sister sister!

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3. 4th of July BBQ and Fireworks

After eating lots of food at our friend’s house, we went to the top of a mountain to watch several firework shows in the area. The dark and foreboding sky was lit up by small bursts of light in the distance. It was magical and definitely memorable. I was decked out for the occasion of course…

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4. Mountain Biking

I absolutely love mountain biking (remember Cambodia?). It is so challenging but I love the adventure! Those uphill climbs suck but the downhill paths through the trees and across beautiful meadows make it worth the effort. This time I managed to run into a fence and slam my bike into my leg, giving me some pretty hardcore bruises, but it is all part of the thrill. I am itching to go again.. maybe in New Zealand?

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5. Rodeo

Do you rodeo?? It is honestly the weirdest event ever. We sat around watching men risk their lives on enormous bucking animals and gasping when they were chucked off like rag dolls. So bizarre. But it was fun? At least the weather was beautiful.

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6. Hiking

We did some normal hiking which is an easy and relaxing trek through the trees. You enjoy the scenery and feel energized afterwards which is lovely.

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7. “For Real” Hiking, also known as mountain climbing

Then there is “for real” hiking, also known as mountain climbing or “omg this is so difficult I am going to die” hiking. On our last day in Utah, we were feeling pretty ambitious and decided to find a more challenging hike. So we parked our car at the top of a mountain and then climbed straight uphill to the peak, gasping for breath in the thin air… and that was just the beginning! We looped around past several lakes, aka mosquito breeding grounds, that had us scrambling over boulders away from the evil swarms. I wrapped a shirt around my head to keep the bugs at bay and was more then ready to return to the car… 3 hours later. It was really tough but oddly satisfying and the views were spectacular. A win in my book, despite the bug bites.

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8. Surprise summer concert with The Punch Brothers

By chance one of Morgan’s and my favorite bands were playing an outdoor concert down the street! Gahh!!! The night of the concert we packed an enormous picnic and arrived a couple hours early to claim our spot on the grass. The Punch Brothers were absolutely phenomenal and such a joy to watch live.  I never thought I’d say this… but I love bluegrass music. It is actually a lot like Irish traditional music… which is awesome! Such a great night!

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Overall it was a short but sweet trip to the mountains. Now it is time to prep for China once again. Oh dear…

Happy Independence Day everybody! Yay America!

Ireland Day 1: Somewhere over the rainbow in Dublin

Dublin. The emerald city.

Well, I don’t know if it is actually called the emerald city but it has a nice ring to it yes? And that is exactly how Dublin was, a shining green star at the beginning of our journey and a wonderful place to start our Eurotrip 2014.

We arrived in the morning, thoroughly exhausted from our overseas flight but unable to check into our hostel for a few hours. So we did what any weary travelers do and headed out for some bleary-eyed sightseeing. This would be our only day in Dublin after all as we were driving to Galway early the next morning with our tour group. So we picked a tentative route to St. Stephen’s Square and set off down the cobbled streets, clutching our scarves in an attempt to shield our necks against the chilly air. It felt good.

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About 5 minutes later, we reached the park, confirming our suspicions that Dublin is in fact the smallest and most walkable (and amazing) city in the world. This was further confirmed when the clouds opened up to reveal the sun, warming our faces and elevating the grass to a whole new level of green. We took our time in the park, sitting in the sunshine among fellow Dubliners, closing our eyes in contentment. We were finally in Ireland!!

Once it was time to check into our hostel, we quickly unloaded our backpacks in our room and rushed back outside into the softening light of the day. We walked in the opposite direction and soon found ourselves at a castle in the middle of the city. No big deal.

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It turned out to be Dublin Castle (well duh), situated next to a beautiful garden with an assortment of flowers and of course, greenery. We walked around in wonder, thrilled to have this beautiful place all to ourselves.

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We continued on our walk and literally ran into St. Patrick’s Cathedral, dramatically lit in the slowly dwindling light. Although it was closing in on 8 o’clock, it was still so light out! We sat on a bench and just contemplated the beauty around us (oh and the Free Wifi available everywhere in Dublin).

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Realizing how late it actually was, we decided that it would be a good idea to find some food. We walked back towards the Temple Bar area, crossing the River Liffy as a light dusting of rain began to coat our hair and shoulders. We turned our faces to the sky and saw an arching prism of color framing the buildings across the river. It was a rainbow, teasing us with the promise of leprechauns and pot of gold at the end of its colorful trail. But we had already found our gold in the cheerful streets of Dublin so we continued on our quest for food and first pint of Guinness. This was Ireland after all.

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We eventually found a great little pub serving delicious Irish food and I devoured a steaming dish of corned beef, mashed potatoes and creamed carrots. Man, it was good. Finally ready for our first drink of the trip, we walked to the famous Temple Bar and ordered two pints of Guinness. Hasty in my need to taste the local delicacy, I grabbed the beer and took a long pull. I was quickly snapped out of my reverie by the bartender reprimanding me for drinking before he had topped it off! Whoops. I definitely learned my lesson that patience is rewarded with Guinness and did not make that mistake again! There were many times to perfect it after all.

The beer was so delicious, like a tall glass of water on hot summers day and it quenched my thirst immediately. I licked the foam from my lips, smiling in trepidation of the days to come. Group tours have the potential to go horribly wrong and I worried that we wouldn’t be able to experience Ireland on our own terms.

But if our first day in Dublin was any indication, Ireland was going to be an unforgettable experience.

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We would just have to wait and see.