UK and Berlin, part 3b

Our second full day in London we had a few things we needed to check off our list – Westminister Abbey, Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and at least a walk-by of the Natural History museum. Since our hotel was so close to the Natural History Museum, we walked by it and admired its architecture and size while keeping an eye out for a possible breakfast place. We soon found Le Pain Quotidien, where Stephen got porridge and I had a soft-boiled egg with bread. I have never had a soft-boiled egg before, and didn’t quite know where to start, but I managed to enjoy it without making too much of a mess or getting bits of shell everywhere. Stephen thinks I’m silly because I have told him I don’t really like eggs, but then I persist in ordering them, or eat them when he fries a couple on Saturday mornings. I would have rather had a scone with berries and cream, but knew that the protein in an egg would stick with me longer than the sugar and carbs of a scone. And really, I just don’t like scrambled eggs. Once again, not super speedy (ie. American) service, but there was really no rush, and it was nice to just sip our coffee and take in the dreary London morning.

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From Le Pain Quotidien we hopped on the Tube at South Kensington station and off again at Westminster. This time we went straight to the Abbey, where there was already a line queue to get in. It was outrageously expensive at £18 each, and you weren’t allowed to take pictures inside. Westminster is significant architecturally, but the real draw for some visitors (not us) are all the famous people buried or memorialized there. It is more shrine than sanctuary. Don’t get me wrong, it is pretty neat to be able to say we saw where numerous former monarchs (including my ancestor Mary, Queen of Scots) are buried, and notables such as Charles Darwin (ironic), Geoffrey Chaucer and Charles Dickens. But Stephen and I both agreed that the hundreds of memorials and plaques marking burials took away from the sanctity of the place.



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After spending a couple hours at Westminster, we walked along St. James’s Park to Buckingham Palace. On our way, I was stopped by a middle-aged Indian man with a camera. I thought he was going to ask me to take a picture of him and his mother. No, he wanted to take a picture of me with his mother. I have no idea why but now some family in India has a picture of me with their grandmother. Perhaps he thought I was a typical English girl, but I was very much playing the tourist though, with my big fancy camera around my neck, so I didn’t think I looked like a local…

Buckingham Palace was a quick stop, as tours of the Palace were not available. There is only a short time when you can actually go in Buckingham Palace, in August and September, when the Queen is out of town. Snapped a couple pictures, and continued on our way. At this point in time we were on the look-out for a late lunch, which is pretty much how all our lunches went this trip. Popped into the gift shop at the Royal Mews for some royalty-themed paraphernalia, and just past that found Bag O Nails. It had food, which was good enough for us. We aimed for a light lunch as we were planning on dinner with a friend later. I had their fish finger and mayo sandwich, which is exactly what it sounds like, and just ok. The chips that came with it made up for the so-so sandwich.

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After eating we wanted to get on the Tube to make our way back to South Kensington to see the Palace there. Such a simple goal was made difficult by the fact that there was major construction going on around Victoria Station, and we had to take a rather circuitous route to get to an entrance. We made it though, passing Westminster Cathedral on the way. We got off at High Street Kensington, a short walk from Kensington Palace and Gardens. The Gardens were pretty in February, so I can only imagine how lush and beautiful they are in the spring and summer. Kensington Palace itself was a little anti-climatic. Really, it just looks like a huge brick house that lots of history just happened to occur inside. Queen Victoria grew up there, which is the main reason I was interested in it. William, Katherine, and baby George live there now, but we did not see them. After checking out ticket prices (£16) and calculating how much time we had before needed to get ready for dinner, we decided against actually touring the museum portion of Kensington, and settled for just peeking in the few rooms we could without actually paying anything.

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On our way back to the hotel we walked though Kensington Gardens and past the Albert Memorial, Queen Victoria’s tribute to her beloved husband, Prince Albert. I told Stephen when he died I would try to do something similar for him. We also swung into the Victoria and Albert Museum, home to a vast collection of decorative arts from around the world. It is huge, but also free, so we didn’t feel about walking quickly though just a couple exhibits. You could easily spend 2 days seeing everything in the V&A.

 

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Our plans for dinner were to meet up with my college roommate, Molly. She actually lives in Harrogate, which is very close to Leeds. Unfortunately, she was traveling when we were up there, but was back and house sitting for her parents in the south while we were in London. It was close enough that she was willing to come into London to meet us. Sadly, our plans were thwarted by the flooding affecting the south at the time, and she couldn’t make it. I already know we will be visiting England again (there is still so much to see!), so until next time, Molly! Stephen and I decided to continue our tour of London pubs and went to the Princess Louise, another place Rick Steves-approved. It is a Victorian-era pub with a bar downstairs and informal dining room upstairs. It looked much like someone’s living room, with a fireplace, couches and coffee tables, and smaller tables for eating at. Very cozy. The service there was excellent. There was one waitress manning the small bar and room. We told her we wanted to eat dinner, and she encouraged us to grab a seat at a coffee table until an actual table was ready for us. The food was good English comfort food, and we lingered for a bit, enjoying the local atmosphere and our last night in London.

 

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UK and Berlin, part 3a

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The Grange Strathmore Hotel. The only indication it is a hotel are those brass plates on the columns with the name. South Kensington is very posh.

We arrived at the Grange Strathmore hotel around 6pm on Saturday, Feb. 15. I picked the hotel because it had a good location (South Kensington) and a neat back story – it used to be the Earl of Strathmore’s London home (maternal grandfather to the present Queen). We checked in and rested a bit before breaking out Rick Steve’s England guidebook to find a place to eat dinner. Did I mention that he became my best friend during this trip? Stephen would often ask me how I knew something and I would reply, “Oh, Rick told me.” It didn’t take long to pick out a Rick-recommended pub (The Angelsea Arms) that we thought was fairly close to where we were staying. However, it was dark when we arrived and we knew the general area where we were, but not exactly how to get to the pub. Since we hadn’t paid for internet yet we couldn’t just look it up online to make sure we knew where we were going. (First world problems). But that is what the hotel concierge is for, right? Well, kinda. We went downstairs and the concierge was not at his desk. We went to ask the front desk lady what the cross streets were, so we could orient ourselves on the map in the guidebook. She looked at us blankly, and indicated we should ask the concierge, who had just walked up. So we asked him what the cross streets were, and he also looked at us like he had no idea what we were talking about. It was fairly obvious that English was not his first language. I was trying to figure out a different way to phrase the question – does the term “cross street” not translate in the Queen’s English? Stephen asked him what the main streets were. Finally the concierge pulled out a map and marked the hotel on it for us, which was perfect and really all we needed.

It was only a 10 minute walk to the Angelsea Arms. It was obvious that is was a very popular neighborhood pub. It was very crowded and it seemed like we would never find a table. Luckily Rick had told me there was a dining room in the back corner, so we headed straight for that and were seated right away! Stephen had their fish and chips and I had some other grilled fish with couscous, I don’t really remember, but it was very good!

After dinner we just headed back to the hotel to relax and figure out our game plan for the next couple days.

As you can see, our hotel was quite close to the Natural History Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum, and Kensington Gardens.

Sunday morning we walked to the closest Tube station – Gloucester – to get a day travel pass and hopefully spot a place to get breakfast. There were a variety of restaurants across from the Tube station, including a Burger King. We did not eat at Burger King. But because the goal is always to prevent a hangry Tori (that goal was not met that afternoon) we stepped into The Patisserie for coffee and protein to fuel our morning, before navigating the Tube station. Now, in the US we are all about customer service. Speedy service, attentive service, the customer is always right. Not so in the UK. It is important to learn this before dining in the UK, or else you will be sitting around for a very long time waiting for your server to come check on you. Because they won’t. One of Stephen’s colleagues, originally from Liverpool, explained this to us, and it is a good thing he did, or we would have never eaten breakfast. There were a few waiters at The Patisserie, and it seemed that they would stand in the middle of the room, just observing, until you called them over. The only reason our waiter ever approached our table was because I caught his eye and gave him a little smile and nod. Stephen did not realize I had been doing this, and commented on the slow service later. I told him the only reason our waiter came over at all was because I caught his eye.

We bought two day passes and traveled by Tube the entire time we were in London. The rest of that morning and part of the afternoon was spent at the Tower of London, until I was starting to get VERY hangry (sorry Stephen). We practically ran into the first likely restaurant (The Minories) we saw for a late lunch around 2pm. It turned out to be a neat place, made up of brick tunnels tucked under a train bridge. Every so often the whole place would rumble with the sound of a train going overhead. And it wasn’t too expensive either!

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After lunch we made for the Churchill War Rooms, which were very neat. It is so incredible to think that those rooms were just sealed up as-is after the war, until the past decade or so. There was sooo much information, not just in the War Rooms, but in the included museum chronicling what seemed like every single year of Churchill’s life.

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The sun was setting as we emerged from the War Rooms. At 5:45 every Sunday evening there is an organ concert at Westminster Abbey. It was just starting by the time we got there, so we ended up having to sit on the floor. It didn’t matter though, as it was simply awe-inspiring to listen to the organ music soar through the vaults of the church. After the short concert, we were not that hungry yet (remember our very late lunch?) so we found another Rick-recommended pub (The Blackfriar) for a pre-dinner drink. For dinner we tried a Chinese place in Chinatown. I think it was our only disappointing meal the entire trip. It was just average. After eating Chinese food in China (I guess it’s just food there), nothing else can compare.

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We are not real big night-life people, so after dinner we once again headed back to our tiny London hotel room to rest and plan our last full in London.

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UK and Berlin, part 2

The morning after my little trip to York, Stephen and coworkers had some stuff to finish up before we left to head back to Manchester, and then on to the rest of our trip. Wonder of wonders, the sun was out! I took the camera and wandered around the golf course that is part of Hollins Hall country club. It was closed for the winter, so no danger of being hit by a golf ball.

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I had lunch at the hotel restaurant, and by the time I was done the guys had returned from work and we headed back to Manchester. I just took a nap during that car ride, because my head and stomach still didn’t agree with the driving.

We were all staying in the same hotel in Manchester that night (Thursday) before heading our separate ways. We were going on to Bath, Stephen’s manager was flying to Berlin, and other coworkers were either going home or on to Germany. For dinner we all went to an Indian restaurant that they had discovered on one of their previous trips, and now make a point to visit every time they travel through Manchester. A leisurely three hours after sitting down, we were all stuffed. The night was finished off with a “night cap” at the hotel bar. We did this every night traveling with the Siemens guys.

The next morning we took a taxi to Manchester Piccadilly train station and caught the train to Bath. We just stayed one night in Bath, at the Holiday Inn Express. Because Stephen is a Priority Club member, we got free wi-fi! Woot woot! Internet is generally NOT included at hotels in Europe. We spent the rainy afternoon in Bath seeing the Roman Baths and Bath Abbey.

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The next morning we checked out, left our luggage with the front desk (so nice that they let us do that) and took a bus down to Wells. Wells is a tiny English town with a beautiful Cathedral. That was the only reason I wanted to go there. In my architectural history textbook, there is a picture of the stairs leading to the Chapter House of Wells Cathedral. The stone steps are worn with the footfalls of hundreds of people over hundreds of years. Part of the steps branched off halfway up, leading to some place not visible from the angle of the picture. I loved that picture so much, I told myself that I would go there whenever I traveled to England. And so I did.

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After returning to Bath and picking up our luggage, we bought train tickets to London Paddington. We rode in a London taxi to our hotel for the next three nights, Grange Strathmore in South Kensington.

A China Christmas, Part 5: Beijing (2 of 2)

On New Year’s Eve we went to check out Olympic Park, site of the 2008 Summer Olympics. Highlights were the Bird’s Nest Stadium (currently playing host to a winter-wonderland) and the natatorium, which I refer to as the Bubble, but they like to call the Water Cube. We were unable to actually go inside any of the buildings. Meredith was beyond excited to be there, she LOVES the Olympics.

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Then it was on to the Lama Temple, the largest Buddhist temple outside of the city of Dali, I believe. It also has the largest statue carved from a single tree – a Buddha 26 meters tall carved from a single white sandalwood tree. The air was scented with incense burned by people offering prayers to Buddha.

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After the temple we headed back towards our hutong, stopping for a late lunch at one of the many restaurants there. After nap time, Mere and Dad wanted to head back out to find the night food market again. I was not keen to leave my warm bed unless I knew exactly where we were going. Since they were pretty sure they knew now how to get there, but not 100% sure, I passed on the excursion, as did Mom, Kelsey and Stephen. We four eventually rolled out of bed around 6pm to go to WuMart for the rest of our NYE supplies. While we were out, we ate dinner at…McDonalds! It was a nice break from all the Chinese food.  Meredith and dad eventually returned after finding the night food market. So everyone was happy. Let’s just say we had no problems polishing off that bottle of rum.

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After our little NYE party, we all slept in until around 9:30am. Breakfast was toast and instant coffee in the common room and then it was off to view Mao. We younger folks weren’t too interested in seeing a dead Chinese dictator’s body, but Mom and Dad thought it was important for the historical aspect. Well, in the end no one got to see him because his tomb was closed for the holiday. So, it was on to the silk market, very similar to an American mall, but the stores are much smaller and there are tons of them all selling the exact same thing. We ate lunch in the food court, but made the mistake of not asking for the price before hand. 6 noodle bowls were 220 kuai, which was a total rip-off. For comparison, the Beijing BBQ place we ate at and loved was only 98 kuai. Meredith is sure they gave us the “foreigner’s price” at the food court. While we were shopping, some girls ran by us, pushing through the crowds, their arms loaded with bags and purses. Looking around, we saw a couple police officers walking down the row of shops. It was surmised that the bags they were running off with were counterfeit and they were running from the cops! After shopping we decided to see if the Summer Palace was open. Apparently the only way to do that was to actually go there, and it was a 45 min subway ride away. Luckily it was open, or else there would have been a few cranky members in our group, including me. However, it was totally worth the 45 min subway ride. It is a large complex made up of multiple buildings built on and into the side and top of a mountain. Even though it was so cold, it was so beautiful. The view from the top was amazing, and the buildings themselves were fascinating.

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We made our way back to the hostel where Stephen and I hung out in the common room while everyone else napped and rested. Then we bundled up again and headed out into the ever-colder night. Our destination was the night food market that Meredith and dad had finally found the night before. Once there, you could purchase almost anything on a stick – spiders, snake, starfish, lizard, scorpions, squid, centipedes… We stuck with some yummy chicken, hot pear tea, and sugar-glazed strawberries. Those strawberries were one of the best things we ate all trip. By the time we had walked up and down the row of stalls once, the temperature had dropped from the high of 28 to around 20. It was steadily getting colder, so we practically ran home. The high the next day was 23, so I was glad we were home-bound that afternoon! We spent our last morning packing up, doing a tea tasting, and then making our way to the airport. We did have to take two cabs, but since this time we knew where we were going, it was ok!

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A China Christmas, Part 4: Beijing (1 of 2)

Meredith procured a large van to drive us and our massive amounts of luggage from the train station to the hostel that would be our home for the next few days. The hostel, Fly by Knight, was located in a hutong, a narrow street in a neighborhood of traditional courtyard-style homes. Our van driver more than earned his fare by venturing down the hutong, asking for directions (we had the address, but it was still hard to find), and even getting out of his warm van to make sure we were headed the right way (did I mention that it had snowed that night?). Breakfast and a warm room were waiting for us at Fly by Knight, which is one of those previously mentioned courtyard-style houses turned hostel. We took it easy that morning and ventured out into the hutong for lunch. There were several restaurants at the end of the hutong where it intersected a larger road, so we picked one at random. It turned out to be one of our favorite meals. The sign said “Beijing Barbeque”. We did not realize that meant the food was cooked on a little grill on your table! We had pork dumplings, rice, and then beef and sweet potatoes grilled at the table. It was all really good.

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One of the reasons we picked the hostel we did was its proximity to a subway station. After lunch we headed that way and took the subway to Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City (officially known as the Imperial Palace). It was so cold and windy, and the Palace just seemed to go on and on and on. It was so much larger than I had initially thought. We got to the end, but wanted to go back out the front gate because that was where the subway stop was. So we haul it back to the front, heads down, noses wrapped in scarves, being careful not to slip on the compacted snow. Only to find that you cannot go out the front entrance, as there was some military drill going on. We had to go out the side, all the way around the Palace walls on the outside, and then make our way down a random street to get back to the subway station. Once we made it back to the hostel, we all collapsed into bed.

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But just for a nap, because then it was time for Peking duck with Wilson Hailey! Wilson is an old family friend who has lived in Beijing for 6 years now. His family used to go to our church and we all swam on our city’s summer swim team together. The duck was amazing; my favorite part (and most of my family’s) was the way you eat the skin – by dipping it in sugar! Yum! After dinner we went back to the hostel, where we took hot showers, only to have to emerge into a freezing, unheated bathroom. Brr. Our 6-bunk room was heated, though.  Stephen and I headed to the common room to make use of the wireless internet and check the weather. The high was going to be around 28 the rest of the time we were there. We were kept company by the two 6-month old puppies that live at Fly By Knight. One had a Chinese name that I never got, but the black one was called…Obama. Hilarious.

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The next day was Great Wall day. We were up at 7am, had a Western breakfast (provided by the hostel), and loaded up the cars at 8. The hostel had two cars going, so it was our family and two solo travelers, David and Hannah. David was from Singapore and Hannah from Sydney. They were very nice and happy to be able to split the cost of the cars with us. It took about an hour to get to the portion of the Wall we were going to, called Mutianyu. Once there, our drivers recommended we take the cable car up and down from the mountain ridge, as it was very cold. We lucked out and it was not windy at all. In fact, in the sun it was quite pleasant! The cable car was a good choice because not only was it cold, it was still snowy and icy from two nights ago, so the trail up and down would have been dangerous. Once at the top, the view was amazing. It was so clear; we were able to trace the Wall over the mountain ridges for some distance. I think all us girls were imagining the opening scene from Mulan when they light the signal fires from the guard towers. It was pretty much exactly like that. Haha. We walked perhaps half a mile each way before deeming it too steep and icy to continue safely.  We took the cable car back down and met our drivers at a coffee shop, where we warmed up with a cup and what was perhaps the best Snickers bar I have ever had. (pics) That evening we set out to find the night market with the crazy food we had heard about from a few different people. We thought we knew the general area we were going, but after walking and walking and not finding it, even after asking for directions, we were all cold and I was hangry. We headed back towards our hutong without accomplishing much of anything, except becoming cold and hungry. Dinner was in a hutong near ours, because if I had to wait any longer to eat I would probably have stabbed someone. A bonus was that we did pass a convenience store with some imported goods, so we picked up some Bacardi for NYE festivities, and I got another Snickers. Because I was still recovering from almost starving to death.

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A China Christmas, Part 3: Xi’an

The only reason we went to Xi’an was to see the terracotta warriors. Other than that, Xi’an didn’t hold much for us. There are these really old Bell and Drum Towers, but they were closed for renovations. So it was perfectly fine that we only spent one night there.

We flew out of Kunming early on Thursday, the 27th, landing in Xi’an around 8:45am. It was foggy and the air looked really dirty, much like you would expect in China, but we had yet to experience that. We hoped it would burn off as the sun came up, but no such luck. It remained smoggy and gross the two days we were there. It did not bode well for our time in Beijing. The temperature was a big change from beautiful Kunming as well, hovering around 32F. We checked into our hotel, which had been recommended by Lonely Planet. We dumped our bags, layered on more clothes, and went to explore the little market area across from the Melody Hotel, where we were staying. It was noodles and hot tea for lunch and then a short walk to buy our train tickets to Beijing. That’s right, we were going to take an overnight sleeper train to Beijing! We managed to get 8 bunks in 2 berths right next to each other. But more about the train later.

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We spent the rest of the afternoon cozy in our hotel rooms. I took the most amazing shower of the entire trip. The water was steaming hot and I didn’t feel like I was going to fall in like at Meredith’s. (Did I mention that her tub had a crack that turned into a large hole while we were there? We had to be very careful not to step near it while showering.) That shower was probably the best thing about that hotel. There was Hong Kong-style restaurant attached to the hotel, so we just ate there for dinner. The food was just ok.  But hey, it was warm in there and we were not about to venture out to find something better.

The reason the Melody Hotel was on Lonely Planet has to be because of the location. It is right in the middle of old center city Xi’an. While the location of the hotel was excellent, the placement of our rooms within the hotel was less than ideal for sleeping. We faced the main street and had a good view, but there was a TON of street noise. Bring your earplugs, people. Drivers in China like to use their horns. A lot. At 2am. And while we had gotten used to the hard Chinese mattresses, none of us slept very well.

Breakfast the next morning was at…McDonald’s. It was right across the street. And they had real coffee, not the instant stuff we had been drinking. After that little taste of Americana, we caught a bus for the hour-long ride out of town to see the terracotta warriors. They were quite impressive. It was neat to see something in person that you have read and learned about in history class. It also gave me a chance to appreciate our new camera’s ability to take good pictures in low light with no flash, because that was not allowed. None of the buildings were heated, and by the end of the day I declared myself “miserable.” It was so cold. Scrambling back on the warm bus was bliss. I took a nap on the ride back into town.

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Once back, we picked up a couple of warrior replicas, packed up, and headed to the train station. It was a little bit of an ordeal to actually get 2 taxis to take us to the station, because all the drivers wanted to go to the airport, and wouldn’t take us to the train station. The drivers who finally agreed to take us were not happy about it. Once we got on the train, we were very glad we bought the two extra tickets, as there would have been no room for our luggage otherwise. As it was, the train ride was kinda fun. We left Xi’an around 8pm and arrived in Beijing at 7am the next morning. We bought some instant noodle bowls for dinner, played some Phase 10, and went to sleep. When we woke up, we were at our destination!

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A China Christmas, Part 2: Kunming

Meredith lives in Kunming, the capital and largest city of the Yunnan province in Southwestern China. Kunming is known as the city of eternal spring, and we were definitely blessed with that weather while we were there. It was sunny, the bougainvilleas were blooming, and it all seemed so green after dreary North Carolina and Texas.

As we arrived at Mere’s apartment, we were all huffing and puffing while climbing up to the fourth floor. We thought we were all just really out of shape, but then Mere informed us that Kunming has an elevation over 6000 feet above sea level. We felt much better after that, considering we are all used to living at around 600-800 feet. Meredith has a 2 bedroom apartment. Mom and dad were in her room, Stephen and I were in the extra bedroom, and Kelsey was on the couch. Meredith slept on the floor in the living room, but after experiencing a Chinese mattress, I can tell you there is not much difference between that and the floor. Oh, and because I know you were wondering, Meredith has a western toilet. There are virtually no single-family homes in the cities, due to the density of the population. Buildings go up, rather than out. Also the government owns everything. You can buy the lease for as long as 70 or 99 years, but after that, it reverts back to the government. Pretty crazy.

Walking to Meredith's apt.

Walking to Meredith’s apt.

The courtyard of M's apt complex, her building is on the left.

The courtyard of M’s apt complex, her building is on the left.

After our late night/early morning just finding our way to Mere’s place, we were happy to sleep in on Saturday morning. When we did arise, we raided her kitchen for instant coffee and toast with peanut butter. Because we came “a day early” she had not yet had a chance to stock up on groceries. Sorry Mere! We spent the day exploring the minority park, also known as the Yunnan Nationalities Village. It is a beautiful park complex on the edge of a lake showcasing the architecture, food, clothing, and cultural traditions of each of the ethnic groups found in Yunnan.

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Sunday, the 23rd we went to church at the apartment of one of the church members. They rotate whose place they meet at each week. It was great to meet and fellowship with some of the people we have heard Meredith talk about! Lunch with some of those same people (it is cheaper to eat out than cook at home, Mere has found), and we all worked on improving our chopstick skills. Kelsey’s technique and grip was terrible, but she was doing the best out of all of us. So maybe her technique was actually perfect? For dinner we had hot-pot with Mere’s co-workers, which is similar to the main course at a fondue restaurant. There was a large pot divided into three sections, each with different broth. Then all the food was dumped into the broth to cook! Pretty neat, but not my favorite meal of the trip. I burned my hand on the steam and I had trouble breathing there. Maybe it was all the steam and fumes from the pots, (maybe it was all the men smoking at the table next to us) but it kinda turned me off hot-pot.

Monday (Christmas Eve) was spent exploring the Bird and Flower Market, which used to be mainly for animals and plants, but has expanded to include all sorts of items. After some bargaining tips from Mere, Kelsey went off on her own (gasp!) to do some Christmas shopping. For a blonde foreigner with zero Chinese language skills, she did quite well. Side note, because we were foreigners, we were stared at wherever we went. Kelsey was even more of a stand-out because of her blonde hair, and because she would stare back, smile, and wave… And then wonder why people were staring at her. We had an early dinner at a house-turned restaurant that was over 400 years old. The buildings that make up the Bird and Flower Market are some of the oldest in Kunming, at over 500 years, which is pretty amazing, considering they are mostly wood.

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Our Christmas celebrations consisted of an informal service followed by Christmas goodies at the apartment of one of the leaders of Meredith’s home church. A count was taken (much like the census that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem) and there were 28 adults and 19 kids! Christmas Day involved sleeping in, watching The Sound of Music while opening the presents we had brought from the States, and eating bacon that smelled suspicious while cooking but turned to be really good. We had dinner at the same family’s apartment the service was at the day before.

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On the way home we stopped to explore Walmart. It was very similar to a U.S. Walmart, but there were multiple floors (up not out) and their seafood selection was way more extensive than any Wally World I have seen here. Dad was particularly taken by the fish heads on ice. We passed on the fish heads but did pick up some baijiu. Baijiu, which translates to “white liquor” is used often for toasting, and is the worst thing you will ever taste. You might as well drink rubbing alcohol. We all tried it though. Stephen said it wasn’t that bad, but he is better at taking shots than I am and probably didn’t even get any on his tongue.

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The 26th was our last day in Kunming. We went to the Yunnan Safari Park with Meredith’s friend Denise. Denise if pretty much exactly like Meredith, just a few years older. They sound the same, act the same, and even kinda look alike. Who would have thought Mere would find her doppelganger in China? The safari park was pretty neat; we were able to get really close to the animals. So close, in fact, that we were able to let a tiger sniff our hands, and when he was done, he turned around, lifted his tail, and sprayed us! Yes, we were marked by a tiger. We took advantage of the opportunity to go fishing for tigers as well.  Visitors could purchase a hunk of meat on a string, dangle it into the enclosure, and feed the tigers and lions. Live chickens were also for sale with the intention that you would then chuck it into the lion’s den, but we didn’t do that.

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