France

I think it goes without saying that when people think of France they think of its beauty, conquering armies and exploration. I experienced the beauty and history of France first hand when I backpacked through France in 2010.eurostar       I took the Chunnel from London to get to France and then took the train to Paris. All along the way, I saw beautiful small towns and medieval chapels littering the mountainside. I would recommend anyone who goes to France to get out and see the countryside and not just the glamour of the main cities.screen-shot-2016-11-11-at-6-54-04-pmfrench-countrysideI arrived at Paris in the evening time, so there weren’t too many landmarks open. So I went to my hostel and then went out for some dinner while I planned my tourist route of all the things I wanted to see in Paris. I was staying right around the corner from the Moulin Rouge where there is plenty of restaurants and nightlife located nearby. They call Paris the city of lights, and it definitely lives up to that reputation. The bridges, Eiffel Tower as well as many fountains and national landmarks are illuminated. Paris really is a sight to see at nighttime. I had a lovely dinner at a café located around the corner and then turned it in for the night because I only had one full day to see as many landmarks as possible.moulin-rouge-paris-night_106381-1440x900bridges_2the-many-beautiful-romantic-scenes-of-paris-at-night-time-23The first stop on my Tour de Paris was the Jardin des Tuileries (Garden of Tuileries). The Jardin des Tuileries is Paris’ oldest and largest public garden. It is a formal garden with graveled paths and perfectly trimmed lawns, and it has unparalleled views of the Place de la Concorde and the Arc de Triomphe. The same architect who designed the gardens at Versailles designed this garden, which was declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991.dscf0092dscf0094dscf0093From the garden, I headed to the Place Charles de Gaulle to marvel at one of my favorite landmarks in Paris, The Arc de Triomphe. The Arc de Triomphe honors those who fought and died for France in the French Revolutionary and the Napoleonic Wars. It has the names of all French victories and generals inscribed on its inner and outer surfaces. Beneath its vault lies the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I. I was lucky enough to be there when the soldiers were performing a ceremony. I then decided that if I was going to see the Louvre that I had better see it in the morning because I didn’t want to have to rush through, and I hoped to beat the massive crowds of tourists and school kids.img_0970img_0987dscf0100The Louvre is unlike any museum that I have ever been to in the entire world. It is a treasure trove so big that houses enormous Egyptian monuments in its basement. No wonder it is the world’s largest museum. Nearly 35,000 objects from prehistory to the 21st century are exhibited over an area of 60,600 square meters or 652,300 square feet. The Louvre is the world’s second-most visited museum after the Palace Museum in China. I had just finished studying fine art in college and could really appreciate the works of Da Vinci, Bosch, Jacques-Louis David, Caravaggio, Bernini, Vermeer, and so many, many more.

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I was also stunned to see Egyptian artifacts that had been dated to 3,000 years before Christ.

I even saw the Code of Hammurabi, which is a well-preserved Babylonian law code of ancient Mesopotamia, dating back to about 1754 BC. It is one of the oldest deciphered writings of significant length in the world.

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I could have walked around the entire museum twice and it still wouldn’t have been enough, but there were many more sights to see, and I was off to Notre Dame de Paris.gohistoric_2435_zdscf0181The Notre-Dame de Paris (or simply known as Notre-Dame) is a medieval Catholic cathedral located on the Île de la Cité (one of the last two natural islands in Paris and it is the center of Paris where the medieval city was refounded). The cathedral is widely considered to be one of the finest examples of French gothic architecture, and it is among the largest and most well known church buildings in the world. The naturalism of its sculptures and stained glass are in contrast with earlier Romanesque architecture. Truly a must visit when you come to Paris. The next stop on my tour was the Hôtel national des Invalides.dscf0184

Les Invalides, or more commonly known as Hôtel national des Invalides (The National Residence of the Invalids), is a complex of buildings containing museums and monuments (all relating to the military history of France), a hospital, and a retirement home for war veterans (the building’s original purpose). The buildings house the Musée de l’Armée (the military museum of the Army of France) and the Dôme des Invalides, a large church with the burial site for some of France’s war heroes, most notably the famous Napoleon Bonaparte.img_0821img_0841img_0837img_0848When I visited, I found it hard to believe that such a big coffin was made for such a small guy. It’s even more ironic that Napoleon’s wish was to be cremated, and the French people disagreed and built a huge tomb dedicated to him. I paid my respects to one of the greatest generals the world has ever known and then I was off to the Musée de l’Armée or Army Museum. img_0955

img_0938The Army Museum contains collections that span the period from antiquity through the 20th century. The Musée de l’Armée has 24 symbolic “treasures,” which are all closely linked to French military history from the late Middle Ages through World War II as well as countless of other pieces from around the world. This collection includes weapons, armor, works of arts and technology.

img_0898img_0906The Army Museum was like a bloody trip through French history. I could have stayed all day, but the day was getting late, and I had one last stop to make before the sun went down —the Eiffel Tower.img_0957Obviously, no trip Paris would be respectable without a trip to the Eiffel Tower. For those of you who didn’t know, it is a wrought-iron lattice tower on the Champ de Mars in Paris. It is named after the engineer Gustave Eiffel, whose company designed and built the tower. The Eiffel Tower is the most-visited paid monument in the world and is 324 meters (1,063 feet) tall. At about the same height as an 81-story building, it is the tallest structure in Paris.img_0969I did not have enough time to go to the top, but from what I saw from the ground, it was jaw dropping. After a jam-packed day of French culture and history, I had some wine with a nice French dinner before I headed to bed so I could catch a train to Brussels in the morning. Paris is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever been in, and the only two regrets I have are not going to the top of the Eiffel Tower and not visiting The Palace of Versailles, but those are two very good reasons to come back.palace-of-versailles-insidemedwt2071-753x320A few weeks later, I was back in France, but this time for the races in Monaco and I was staying in the neighboring city of Nice. Nice is a beautiful city located on the French Riviera. Their beach is not made of sand but rather large, smooth stones. They have a beautiful waterfront boardwalk and a completely different laid-back lifestyle than the Parisians. I came into Nice from Rome late in the evening. On the train, I met a couple of guys from the states who were backpacking as well. They said they didn’t have a room and were going to try to figure it out when we got there. Little did we know that most of the city shuts down late night, so they followed me to my hostel and were lucky that they had availability. We checked in and then headed down to the boardwalk where the nightclubs stay open later than the rest of the town.img_1526Walking up to the boardwalk, we came upon a huge checkerboard courtyard that was full of light posts with color changing lit-up men sitting on each one. There were musicians spread out, and for some reason there was belly dancers.We bar hopped along the beach for a while and then turned it in for the night because we were headed to Monte Carlo for the following day.place_massena_nice_conversations_jaume_plensa

I had a wonderful time all throughout France and enjoyed its influential culture and world-renowned heritage. It is important to remember that northern France and southern France are completely different. Paris is one of the greatest cities in the entire world, but the Parisians can sometimes be rude. So if you get a cold reception from Parisians, just remember it’s not that attitude throughout the rest of France. Au Revoir!

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Beijing, China

B,(As a traveler, I have always wanted to see historic man-made landmarks all around the world like the Pyramids of Giza, Angkor Wat, Christ the Redeemer, and especially the Great Wall of China, which is why I traveled to Beijing in 2012.asian-invasion-088I remember my first experience in Beijing very well because I was interrogated for three hours at the airport because someone at the airline didn’t send over my visa paperwork. Once my paperwork was cleared and after I received a crash course in Mandarin, I was told my visa was good for 72 hours and NOT to leave Beijing. This created a bit of a problem because technically you have to leave Beijing to get to the Wall, but I would figure that out later. I nodded, took my passport, grabbed my pack, and left.asian-invasion-087When I got outside, I realized that the temperature was drastically different from Hong Kong, which is where I had just come from. It was snowing profusely, and I was wearing shorts and flip-flops. After I did a quick outfit change, I caught the proper bus route to my hostel via their instructions. I arrived at my hostel in the middle of the night, and there wasn’t a single soul on the streets. I couldn’t believe that I was standing in such a huge metropolis and almost everyone was asleep. It may have been because it was a weeknight or because I was staying near The Forbidden City. I saw plenty of operating factories from the bus and some cars on the interstate, but when I stepped off the bus, I didn’t see anybody until I checked into my hostel.

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The hostel I was staying at was unlike anything I had ever seen. The front lobby and Internet area resembled a typical hostel, but once you walked beyond the front lobby, it opened up to a courtyard with two stories of surrounding rooms. Until that moment, I had only seen places like this in Kung Fu flicks. It was very cool because it was very authentic.dsc01140beijing_hutongs_vibrant_hutong_lifereal-hutongUpon dropping my bags off in my room, I headed out into the hutongs to grab some late-night dinner. Hutongs are a type of narrow streets or alleys, commonly associated with northern Chinese cities, most prominently Beijing. In Beijing, hutongs are alleys formed by lines of siheyuan, traditional courtyard residences. Many neighborhoods were formed by joining one siheyuan to another to form a hutong, and then joining one hutong to another. The word hutong is also used to refer to such neighborhoods. I walked for about three blocks before I came across a small restaurant. I walked in, and the first thing I noticed was the row of ducks that lined the fireplace in the back.2ta-2-600x399

What I failed to notice was that the entire restaurant had stopped mid-bite to see the Gweilo (outsider) that just came in. I gave everyone a warm smile and followed the hostess to my seat. The entire menu was in Mandarin, but thank God for picture menus. A lot of stuff looked good and a lot looked strange, but the only thing I had on my mind was eating some Peking duck. I pointed to the picture on the menu and away went my server. When she came back, she had an entire cooked duck laying on a wood slab. She sat the duck down and then proceeded to whack her hatchet into it four or five times before pushing it towards me with a smile. As I looked into the duck’s eyes while I was consuming him, I realized that this was the best duck I had ever tasted. After filling up on duck and some neon-green juice to wash it down, I headed back to my hostel for the night.dsc01107dsc01104dsc01105The next day was the start of my real Chinese cultural experience. The hostel I was staying at was only about two or three streets from Tiananmen Square. Tiananmen Square is a large city square in the center of Beijing, China, named after the Tiananmen (“Gate of Heavenly Peace”) located to its north, separating it from the Forbidden City. The next day when I headed out for breakfast, the streets were anything but quiet. The sidewalks were filled with people and lined with military and police personnel.

This was the first time in all my travels that I realized that if something goes bad here, there is no US cavalry over the next hill to save my ass. With that in mind, I headed to the front gates located near the huge picture of Mao Zedong to purchase my tickets to enter The Forbidden City.dsc01113The Forbidden City was the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming dynasty to the end of the Qing dynasty—the years 1420 to 1912. It is located in the center of Beijing, China, and now houses the Palace Museum. It served as the home of emperors and their households as well as the ceremonial and political center of Chinese government for almost 500 years.dsc01118 As I walked through the courtyard, I tried to imagine thousands of military personnel in rows awaiting orders from their great emperor. Not one detail was left out of the design and execution of construction of this palace. The Forbidden City becomes even more amazing when you realize that it was all built by hand and covers 180 acres or 720,000 square meters. Inside, there are five halls, 17 palaces, and numerous other buildings. The Forbidden City is alleged to have a total of 9,999.5 rooms. The half room apparently houses nothing more than a staircase.dsc01134dsc01133forbidden-city-map I took in the sights of the sights of The Gate of Supreme Harmony and The Hall of Supreme Harmony and exited through the Gate of Heavenly Purity to arrive on the backside of the palace and back among the hutongs.dsc01137The next stop on my sight-seeing trek was to find one of the last few entrances that lead into Mao’s secret underground city. The Underground City is a Cold War era bomb shelter consisting of a network of tunnels located beneath Beijing, China. It has also been referred to as the Underground Great Wall since it was built for the purpose of military defense. The complex was constructed from 1969 to 1979 in anticipation of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. The Underground City was built to house 40% of Beijing’s population. The Underground City is so big that it has its own stores, restaurants, clinics, schools, theatres, reading rooms, factories, cultivation farms, and even a rollerskating rink.

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As I was leaving, I asked someone for directions, but he didn’t speak English. Then a well-dressed Chinese woman came up to me and asked if I needed help and if she could practice her English with me. She pointed me in the direction I was asking for, and I let her tag along to practice her English. As we walked, I asked if she wanted to stop off for tea, and she agreed. We went inside a traditional Chinese tea parlor and got our own room with table. When waitress came in, she only spoke Mandarin to the lady I was with. We ordered a pot of tea with some pretzels and peanuts. Over a cup of tea, my companion asked me if I’d like to get a bottle of wine, and I thought that would be great. The lady then ordered a bottle of red in Mandarin from the waitress who then promptly grabbed our bottle. After a couple of glasses of wine, I asked for the check. When the check came, it read $735!! I asked the lady with me what the hell this was and she said it was a traditional Chinese lunch. Bullshit! I had seen enough of Beijing by this point to realize that not all 1.4 billion Chinese people are having $700+ lunches consisting of tea, wine, and Chex Mix. I told the lady I was with that there must be some mistake and I can’t afford that. She said she has money and that she would pay for 2/3 of it. I still thought that was outrageous, but I didn’t want to cause a scene and get thrown in communist, Chinese jail. So I paid my part of the bill and then said goodbye to my companion because I had already spent my budget for the day. I then went in search of the entrance to the Underground City only to discover that the government had closed down a lot of the entrances and the remaining few were closed for construction. When it rains, it pours. On the way back to my hostel, I managed to take some pictures of the Temple to Heaven, but I was not in the mood to take the tour.templeofheaven252812529On the way back to my hostel, I stopped off in a liquor store to find the answers as to what just happened at lunch. I quickly discovered that alcohol in Beijing is stupid cheap. A 100ml bottle of Chinese moonshine is only $0.85!gallery-7 So I grabbed a couple bottles and headed back to the hostel. In the social area, I sat down at a table and started drinking while I tried to wrap my head around how I just got bamboozled at lunch. After an hour or so of deep thoughts and a spotted liver, an Aussie couple came and sat down at the table. Their names were Rob and Ruth, and they were backpacking around the world together non-stop for two years! They asked me what I was celebrating, and I said nihilism. I then explained to them the situation I just encountered, and they felt so bad that they started drinking with me.

A little later on, the manager of the hostel came in and sat down with us. I explained to him what happened, and he said that was an old Chinese trick. He said that my companion told the waitress to dramatically inflate the price and then she would come back for her refund of the money and her cut of the profits. He said if you’re ever in that situation again, get the police involved. He said most tourists are afraid to get the police involved, but in reality the police there aren’t corrupt and will have your back. The government takes care of the police well enough and out of principle they won’t risk pulling a scandal on you and getting caught. Good to know, but that info came too late. We then headed out for some dinner and few more drinks. Along the way, I noticed that little children in China pee and poop out in public. Either the parent catches the shit with a paper towel as their kid defecates, or kids will unzip and stand over a grate and pea with pin-point accuracy. After dinner, we returned home. It had been an exhausting day, so I hit the sheets because I had to be up in the morning to catch my bus from Beijing to The Great Wall. I know I wasn’t supposed to leave Beijing, but I wasn’t about to come all that way not to see it.dsc01173

I awoke the next morning, ate breakfast, and then caught my tour bus out of the city. I don’t remember the ride to the wall because I slept the entire way, but I do remember getting out of the bus at the bottom of a hill and looking up and seeing the biggest man-made object in the world. It was grand in its vertical scale, but when you looked left and right you saw that the wall stretched as far as the eye could see in both directions. I know it sounds cliché to say, but I was pretty great!dsc01151dsc01159dsc01165dsc01169More than a million people died building The Great Wall (some called it The Great Cemetery), and their efforts clearly still shine today. The longer you stare at The Great Wall, it becomes harder for you to grasp that a structure so big that it stretches for longer than 5,000 miles. I took many pictures, ate a huge lunch provided by the tour, and then headed back for my last night in Beijing.asian invasion 084.JPGimage13Along the way back, we dropped off other members of the tour and I got to see many outdoor food markets that were selling everything from fresh giant starfishes and eels to tarantulas and lizards. I would have never imagined people eating starfish. Once I got back to the hostel, I met Rob and Ruth in the social area, and we headed out for dinner at Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAasian-invasion-085Quanjude’s is a world-famous Peking duck restaurant chain in Beijing and apparently have the best duck. I do not know because there was a three- to four-hour wait. We were already starving, so we hopped into another no-name restaurant down one of the hutongs. beijings-qianmen-area20161103_222237After a delicious dinner, we picked up some souvenirs and more moonshine, walked around bar-hopping, and then headed back the hostel so I wouldn’t miss my ride to the airport in the morning.My time in Beijing was short—but nothing short of fulfilling. I saw a lot of strange and fascinating things in Beijing, but it was definitely worth going just to see The Great Wall of China.DSC01154.JPGdsc01146screen-shot-2016-11-03-at-10-10-14-pmdsc01101dsc01143dsc01136dsc01135