Here’s how to wing it for a 10-day trip in Italy

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If you’ve been following my posts on Facebook and Instagram, you would have seen all the photos of my recent Italy trip I’ve been spamming. (Apologies for that – there’s just too much to share about Italy!)

To say that the trip was good would be an understatement. It was my first free-and-easy holiday with my girlfriends and, all things considered, it actually went pretty smoothly and we had a grand old time in Pasta-land.

We traipsed around Rome for the first three days before taking a train down to Venice for another three (hitting up Verona for a day), and finally completed the loop with the last two days back in Rome.

In case you missed those posts and want to see the daily recap, here they are:

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4

Day 5

Day 6

Day 7

Day 8

Day 9

Yes, that does seem like quite a packed itinerary. We broke our record on Day 2, when we visited SEVEN places: the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, Capitoline Museum, the Trevi Fountain, Via del Corso and Via dei Condotti. Our calves and thighs were aching by the end of the day, but hey, we accomplished all that we set out to do!

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Those are grimaces, not grins

The rest of the days were no less tiring, but we still felt that we could have visited more places. We didn’t get to visit Murano, an island off Venice that manufactures exquisite glassware, and Burano, another island off Venice recognisable by its rows of colourful houses and is also known for its lace-making.

I’ve just about exhausted myself (and everyone) gushing about Italy, especially Venice. But I’M GOING TO KEEP TALKING ANYWAY.

Venice is so incredibly lovely, from its beautiful artwork to its rich, vibrant culture, to the cold, foggy weather, to the seagulls and the sound of water lapping against the shore, to the maze of alleys that present an interesting shop at every corner, to the lazy chug of water buses to the astounding architecture. Especially at dusk, before the fog creeps in (and even after that), Venice looks like something out of a fairytale.

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See why I can’t get enough of Venice? The Republic may not be a trading superpower anymore but it still retains its past glory like a dignified old dame.

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Rialto Bridge at night – The Rialto Bridge is the intersection where many merchants and traders gathered to unload their goods back in Venice’s heyday. These days, it’s a hotbed of fine dining restaurants, pubs, and shops.

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Outside Doge’s Palace

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Inside Doge’s Palace – the Venetians were not one to be defeated when it came to interior design! This is the Council Chamber, where the Pien Collegio (Full Council) met to organise and coordinate the work of the Senate.

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The Grand Canal at night

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A typical morning in Venice, where you’re woken up by the sound of seagulls and water boats chugging lazily down the canal

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Awe-inspiring architecture in Doge’s Palace. The doge (derived from Latin as “military leader”), was the chief magistrate and leader of Venice for over 1,100 years (697 – 1797). He was elected for life by the city-states aristocracy (the Council of Ten).

Anyway, I’m running off course.

Depending on what you plan to do on your trip, or the kind of trip you want to have (relaxed or action-packed), here are some tips on how to make the most out of your holiday:

1. Ignore the effects of jet lag

If we had given in to our weariness after a 13-hour flight (with a four-hour transit in between), we wouldn’t have been able to see the Colosseum and the Roman Forum in the day or the Pantheon at night. Why would you want to sleep off your first day on holiday anyway? Shake off the tiredness and hit the streets! There’s so much to do and see!

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And boy, was the view worth it!

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The Roman Forum at dusk

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The remarkable street art that we would have missed if we had caved in to jet lag!

 

2. Visit the places of interest closest to you first

Our hotel, Duca D’Alba, was just a two- to five-minute walk away from the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill, so of course we covered those first.

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Also, Vatican City was just a few train stops away from Rome, so we got up bright and early to visit it.

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After the tour of the Vatican (which took up the most part of the day itself because it is that huge and chock-full of magnificent things to ogle at), we made our way down to Saint Peter’s Basilica, which was only about a 10- to 15-minute walk away.

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It was dusk by the time we managed to beat the queue and enter the cathedral grounds

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But we got in a little too late, at half an hour to closing time (6pm), so we were being hurried out before we could venture deeper

 

3. Find convenient means to get around the city (or your vicinity)

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Image from the official Rome Tourism Site

Most big cities like Rome should have a transport pass for visitors. We got our 72-hour Roma passes for €38.5 each at the airport, and it allowed us: 1) to take any bus or train for an unlimited number of times, 2) two free admissions to any national and city museums in Rome, and 3) discounts to other sites after using up our two free entries. Pretty good deal, I’d say. It also saved us the hassle of buying tickets every time we wanted to take the train.

 

4. Plan a day trip to somewhere nearby

Given that Verona is just an hour’s train ride from Venice,  we decided to take a day trip down to visit the home of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. And it turned out that there was a Christmas market going on! This just goes to show that you need to venture out a little more around your area. You might just be surprised at what you’ll find!

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Charming ole Verona

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The Bard

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Love locks outside Juliet’s house

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Christmas cookies for sale!

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Verona was certainly all ready for Christmas!

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Dusk falls over Verona

 

5. Check out all the shops you want to…

… the first time round. Because you might not be able to find it again and you’ll waste time retracing your steps! Don’t bookmark the shops you want to explore later – just enter when you see them.

Be it Venetian masks

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Sweet treats

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Specialty lace from Burano

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Special edition books

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Fair warning: these cost upward of 50 euros each

Pretty stationery

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Candy (with the Pope’s face on it)

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Gelato

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More sweet treats that are packaged too delectably to eat

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Or gorgeous artwork on magnets and postcards

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Look at all the pretty art! I wanted to get one of each!!

Whatever it is you’re itching to get the first time round, GET IT. You’re likely not going to be back for a while, and you don’t want to go home regretting not having bought what you wanted when you first saw it (just like I’m regretting not buying those postcards now).

 

6. Allow ample time to catch your transport

We very nearly missed our 2.30pm train back from Venice to Rome, because we had lunch at 12.30pm at the highly-recommended La Zucca

After visiting the Libreria Alta Acqua (High Water Bookstore) in the morning

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The shop front is so nondescript you’d have to know what you were looking for or you’d miss it!

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Yes, they have an “erotic corner”

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Book nerds will rule the world one day … after we finish the next chapter!

So it was a mad dash from our Airbnb apartment (which was GORGEOUS, by the way)

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Spazzing over the decor

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To the Santa Lucia train station by water bus

We made it FIVE MINUTES before the train pulled away from the station. In our carriage, we panted and laughed like lunatics. Good times.

 

7. Squeeze in some time for shopping

While my travel companions were very much into the commercial brands offered in Rome, I was more fascinated with the novelty stores in Venice.

But whether or not you’re a fan of shopping, whether you prefer international commercial brands or indie one-of-a-kind novelty stores,  you’ll be glad you got some sort of memento for yourself or souvenir for your loved ones to remind yourself of your time in the place you visited.

 

8. But also make sure you get your culture fix!

One of the main reasons why I travel is so that I can immerse in the different cultures all around the world. Italy is not only rich in history (the Roman Kingdom was founded way back in 753 BC, and Venice was part of the once-mighty Byzantine Empire before it usurped its position as an economic force to be reckoned with), it is also fiercely proud of its culture, which it has for the most part retained over the centuries. So it’s perfect for culture and history buffs seeking inspiration and wonder.

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A bird’s eye view of the Roman Forum

 

9. Stop and smell the roses (so to speak)

Buskers, street art, ancient architecture, the people … There’s just so much to take in about Italy. While you’re busy Instagramming the moments (guilty), do take time to glance up and admire the sunsets, the street art, inhale the scent of olive oil and clementines, and keep your ears peeled for the strains of a street busker playing his saxophone or violin.

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Sometimes, I feel sad that talent like this goes unnoticed. But you are not invisible to me, sir!

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One thing I love about these Italian street buskers is that they seem to be having such a good time just playing music for the crowd without expecting much in return!

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This guy was so genuinely grateful for the appreciation passers-by showered him with. It’s like he didn’t expect his music to resonate with so many people!

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10. Be flexible with your itinerary

There are times when things don’t go as planned. We wanted to see Murano and Burano, but we didn’t have enough time. We wanted to see the Pantheon before the sun set, but the bus came late. The girls wanted to shop more, but we had to catch our flight home.

If you’re going to grind your teeth over every little thing that doesn’t go your way, then you’re going to make this trip miserable for yourself. If you get lost, explore. If the place of interest you planned to go is closed, go somewhere else. Problem solved!

 

11. Don’t get distracted by cute babies (or dogs)

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This cutie was so amazed by the plastic taffy being sold everywhere on the streets in Rome!

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While this little guy kept “roaring” at us and toddling around chasing pigeons in the square!

Okay, I understand if this is impossible. Because Italy is teeming with cuteness like the above. It’s like everywhere we went, there’s a basset hound or Golden Retriever or shih-tzu sniffing around. And they’re all so well-behaved!

And the tots! They were all so precious I just wanted to squish them!!

 

12. Lastly, always keep your GPS on

Google Maps was our saviour for the entire trip. It also helps that we had Liz, who is actually good at map-reading, to save us all.

 

So, where to next? Any recommendations? I’m thinking Sicily, Florence, and Naples. Or maybe Versailles. Or Positano. Or Santorini. Or Wales! Sigh. So many places, so little time (and so little money).

Oh and if you have any travel tips, do share them in the Comments section below too! Off to dream about the next holiday now. Thanks for reading and have a great week ahead! :0)

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Travel Review: 20 Things About Beijing (Plus Pic Spam!)

How did the last week fly by so quickly?! Feels like I was just busy packing my luggage yesterday and now I’m back to reality. Beijing already feels like a lovely dream I’ve woken up from all too soon.

I had high hopes for the trip, mostly because I finally get to immerse in all the rich culture of my ancestors, witness something authentic and steeped in tradition, and collect research materials for the new novel I’m planning that is meant to be inspired by ancient China. Oh, and also enjoy some chilly fall weather away from the humidity and heat of Singapore.

And boy, did Beijing live up to those expectations. This is going to be a long post, so if you have the patience and interest to read all the way to the end, I applaud you in advance. Suffice to say, the trip was rewarding in terms of food, accommodation and itinerary, and we went at a comfortable pace.

Here are some of the highlights (because no trip to Beijing is complete without a visit to those tourist hotspots and historical and cultural landmarks):

Day 2: Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and Shichahai (什刹海) 

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Tiananmen Square is a heavily guarded and monitored area

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Entering the Forbidden City

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The Forbidden City is closed on Mondays, which explains the Sunday crowd

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Such ornate furnishing! Such detailed embellishments! *__*

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The court in which the emperor welcomed his visitors is out of bounds to the public, so we could only jostle for a glimpse (and an unobscured shot, if you’re lucky) of his majesty’s seat

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Palace grounds

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Strolling down the streets of the historic, scenic Shichahai

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The food street!

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There was a mini railway track for the city tram to pass through!

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This ice-cream stall saw long queues even in fall, so my dad had to give it a try. It sells green tea and strawberry soft-serves!

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Boat rides around the Houhai (Back Lake) shopping and happy hour district

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We took one of these trishaws around the area – little did we know we were in for the ride of our lives! Seriously, what are those trishaw-pullers’ thighs made of? I call it three-wheeled Formula 1

Day 3: the Great Wall and Ming Tombs

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This Chinese guy made his son take a picture with these three American triplets, who were quite the star of the show as everyone cooed over them as they climbed. Their parents were incredibly gracious and amiable even though they didn’t understand what the locals were saying half the time. They remind me a lot of the Obamas in terms of disposition and mannerisms.

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We came, we climbed, we conquered!

Day 4: the Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven

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Entrance to the emperor’s summer villa

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And my stone lion obsession continues

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This old guy was dancing to a Chinese pop song and totally played it up for his bemused audience who were filming him. The tourists LOVED him.

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This old street artist is so incredibly talented. Keep scrolling down.

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How can someone be this talented and unrecognised?

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The portrait of an artist

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This guy’s still going strong.

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MIND. BLOWN.
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The qilin (麒麟) is a mythical chimerical creature with oxen hooves and the head of a dragon. It represents prosperity or serenity.dsc_0636

 

 

 

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The Temple of Heaven

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Magpies! I’d never seen one before. They were hopping all over the palace garden.

Day 5: Day Trip to Tianjin

The bullet train down to Tianjin took only half an hour. Tianjin, being a coastal city slightly south of Beijing, was understandably more blustery. But we were too cold to walk about very much and stayed near the riverside to take pictures.

Tianjin is a lot calmer than Beijing, without all the crazy neon lights at night and roads roaring with waves of traffic. It’s got beautiful European-style architecture because it contains several concession territories ceded by the Qing dynasty to European countries, the U.S. and Japan. These self-contained concessions were each complete with schools, prisons, hospitals, and barracks.

The pace of life seems slower there too, and our tour guide told us that Tianjin is like the Canada of China, where its people have a laidback, easygoing vibe and a sense of levity and humour for most things, vastly different from the severe, businesslike Beijing-er.

Day 6: Day Trip to Chengde

Up north, the town of Chengde is a four-hour drive away from Beijing. Temperatures are notably lower, and it sees snowfall weeks earlier than Beijing. When we got there, it was already experiencing single-digit temperatures (Celsius), and the rain didn’t help.

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Our agenda for being in Chengde was to see the replica of the Tibetan Potala Palace. But the place was half-closed for renovations and the local tour guide couldn’t wait to make our money, forcing us to pose for a group photo as soon as we arrived at the foot of the palace and then taking us halfway up before telling us the rest of the place is closed for renovations. I can take the rain, the cold, and the slippery ascend. But we were the only souls there, and the tour guide was kinda pushy. She offered no information or background about the place.

Nonetheless, the structure was majestic and we managed to get some good shots, even though we were freezing our butts off. But really, the cold is lovely once you’ve gotten used to it. And the rain made everything more beautiful. The top of the palace was laced in mist, and tree leaves lay slick and gleaming around our feet.

Mercenary locals, though. This was one blemish in an otherwise perfect trip.

Day 7: Back to Beijing

Shopping day! As mentioned, the standard of living in Beijing has gone up rapidly over the years, so don’t expect to go crazy in the shops. I spent mostly on snacks (girl’s gotta have her fruits) and souvenirs, which I regret not buying more of.

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Real-life scorpions wriggling on sticks before they are fried to a crisp!

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Selfie time!

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Well, hello handsome. How could I resist?!

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I don’t know these children. Why are they staring at my foot?

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My personal loot … looking too pink as usual

Our tour guide, Yoko, is a petite lady who was born and bred in Beijing. She’s been in the tourism line for over a decade – she became a tour guide right out of college – and you can tell how seasoned she is through her efficiency and practised manoeuvring at ticket counters, through crowds, and with the schedule. She is unfailingly polite, professional, and amiable. Plus, she’s well-versed in the history and sociocultural and political landscape of China (although some of her opinions are entirely her own), which makes her a very captivating story-teller and us a very rapt audience.

Here’s some trivia she shared with us along the way:

Ancient China

1. Emperor Qianlong is the longest-ruling emperor in Chinese history. He ruled for 60 years before passing away at 87.

2. The Temple of Heaven is where the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties went to pray each year for good harvest. The Taoist temple is painted an unconventional blue (instead of the typical gold and red) to mimic the sky.

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3. Empress Cixi is a major female ruler of the late Qing dynasty. (The other is Empress Wu Zetian, who ruled China during the Tang Dynasty.) She started out as an imperial concubine who later ousted a group of regents and installed her nephew as emperor before rising to power herself. Despite her ruthless ascent, Cixi was an effective ruler. She was in power for 47 years from 1861 until her death in 1908.

4. Majority of the thirteen Ming dynasty emperors’ tombs are buried in a cluster near Beijing. The place was first set up by Emperor Yongle (the third Ming emperor), who selected his own burial site and created his own mausoleum.

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5. The Summer Palace consists of a man-made lake, Kunming Lake, and hill (the earth dug up for the lake was piled at the back), Longevity Hill. This is because the emperor believed in the fengshui of being fronted by water (to receive prosperity) and backed by mountains (to have support in hard times).

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6. The third Ming dynasty emperor, Zhu Di, reigned from 1402 to 1424, after he rose in rebellion against his predecessor, his nephew Zhu Yunwen. He named himself Emperor Yongle (永乐), which means “eternal happiness”. I don’t think his nephew got to experience eternal happiness.

7. The Forbidden City has over 1,000 rooms that the emperor would select at random to stay each night. This made it hard for assassins to try and kill him in his sleep.

8. The Forbidden City is called Zijin Cheng (紫禁城) in Chinese, which means “Purple Forbidden City.” This refers not to the colour of the city’s walls but to the night sky.

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9. The concubines who have fallen out of the emperor’s favour are banished to the  “cold” palace (冷宫), which is not cold in temperature. Rather, it’s similar to the English expression “to give one the cold shoulder”. The “cold” palace is relegated to the outskirts of the Forbidden City, far away from where the emperor usually roams, so the emperor can go up to months without sparing the shunned concubine a glance.

10. The oldest parts of the 8,851km-long Great Wall date back to as early as the 7th century B.C. That was when Chinese rulers first erected border fortifications to keep the northern armies at bay.

Contemporary China

1. Beijing is the political central of China, so most people there try to keep themselves up-to-date and well-informed about global current events.

2. China classifies its cities according to tiers. Tier 1 (一线城市) includes well-developed cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzen and Guangzhou. Tier 2 (二线城市) includes Tianjin (below), Chengdu, Wuhan, Nanjing, etc. These are the more modernised cities with dependable infrastructure.

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3. The standard of living in Tier 1 cities has shot up rapidly over the past few years thanks to the skyrocketing property prices and an economy that’s growing faster than the people can keep up with.

4. The stereotypical Beijing-er is someone who is straight-talking, no-nonsense, all-business and methodical in his/her work.

The stereotypical Shanghainese (according to our Beijing tour guide) is one who believes herself to be in the centre of the world, and constantly in touch with all the contemporary trends in fashion, art and lifestyle. (They didn’t dub Shanghai the Paris of the East for nothing.)

Shanghainese typically find Beijing-ers old-fashioned, conventional and crass in their manner of speech, while Beijing-ers find Shanghainese proud and loquacious.

5. Beijing is the city with the highest concentration of top-ranking officials.

6. Methods of governance that work on cities like Beijing don’t work on other provinces like Yunnan or Macau. That’s because those places are mostly made up of minority groups that are less likely to abide by the hard-nosed policies set by the Communist Party of China (CPC) and more likely to revolt if they’re being beaten into shape (so to speak). Macau, being a sovereign state of China, even gets special privileges like NO taxes. Yes, the people don’t have to pay taxes to the central government.

7. Beijing speaks the official putonghua (普通话), Mandarin Chinese, that the rest of China speaks, so everyone can understand them. However, they may not understand everyone else because each province has its own dialect and accent.

8. Beijing-ers love their tea. It’s cheaper than water, and they also believe it clears their breathing passage and keeps them hydrated during the cold and dry winters and smoggy summers.

9. Chairman Mao Zedong is a revered figure in China – his painting on the wall of Tiananmen Square is renewed every year on China’s National Day, 1 Oct.

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However, there were dissidents like the artists and intellectuals who were beaten down during the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976). One of them, Lao She, was persecuted, denounced, and publicly humiliated. Devastated by his fall from grace, he took his own life by drowning himself in Taiping Lake. But these intellectuals made up a very small percentage of the people; the majority of the populace worshipped Mao. After the Cultural Revolution ended, though, Lao She was posthumously “rehabilitated” – his works were republished and several of his stories were made into films.

10. Beijing is home to major top universities like Beijing University and Qinghua University. Because priority is given to those living in Beijing, many parents moved to Beijing for a higher chances of getting their children accepted to the schools. (So you can imagine what that does to property prices in the area.)

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Congratulations, you made it to the end! You are either incredibly patient or have a deep fascination with Chinese culture. Either way, thanks for reading! I can’t express in words everything I’ve experienced and learned on this trip, but I hope what I managed to share is evocative and insightful enough so you didn’t just waste your time reading this post.

Beijing is a beautiful, vibrant city with a dynamic mix of the old and the new, the traditional and the contemporary. There is so much to take in when you’re there. Regardless of whether you’re a fan of Chinese culture, I absolutely recommend a trip there.

I’d love to hear YOUR stories if you’ve ever been to Beijing! Which other parts of China do you recommend as well? I’m thinking of Hangzhou (the pictures look GORGEOUS, and I’ve heard lots of rave reviews of the place) or Shanghai next. Share your thoughts in the Comments below!

Joyce xx

Adventures in Sushi-land: Days 6 and 7

I can’t be alone in feeling more and more bummed when a good holiday comes to an end. But Days 6 and 7 dawned upon us anyway, and we intended to make the most of our last days in Japan. By then, I was getting a little antsy. There were still souvenirs I needed to buy, on top of the bags of Japanese snacks I had already gotten. Good thing we managed to squeeze in some shopping time these last two days.

We still had Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe to cover, and anyone would tell you two days is definitely not enough. Which explained why we set out at the crack of dawn:

Day 6: Kyoto and Osaka

View out the hotel room

Our first stop of the day: Kiyomizu Temple, another UNESCO World Heritage site located in eastern Kyoto.

You need tickets to enter the temple grounds. To be honest, I don’t know how I feel about this. Temples to me are supposed to be tranquil, serene places for reflection. But the Kiyomizu Temple has become so commercialised and over-run with tourists and visitors, and everything from amulets to love stones are being sold. It’s a lovely compound – I just wish it were more … private.

Kiyomizu Temple also attracts loads of young singles in search of their love fortunes. The Jishu Shrine, one of the many shrines in the temple, is dedicated to Ōkuninushi, the god of love and fortuitous matches.

Like a scene right out of ancient Japan.
And this is how a new temple wing is erected.
The market in front of the temple was so crowded we had to squeeze through the throngs of people. But I managed to grab some souvenirs home!
Dammit, I should have grabbed a few of these fans. But they come at at upwards of 10SGD each, if I remember correctly.

We hadn’t seen enough of Kyoto before having to rush to catch the train to Osaka, our next pit stop.

Osaka-bound!

We arrived at Shinsaibashi, the teeming shopping district of Osaka, around late afternoon. This 600m long stretch contains indie and international boutiques including H&M, Uniqlo, and ZARA, as well as department stores like Daimaru. But really, who wants to visit chain stores when you can go nuts over the local ones that sell one-of-a-kind designs that will always remind you of Japan?

All raring to start shopping!
The decor for a shopping mall. As they say, go big or go home.

Pleased with some of my loot … although this is hardly enough shopping!! Next time, I WILL bring a bigger luggage.
Neon lights and busy streets – everything you’d expect of Osaka at night.
Yes, this is how crowded it was.

Day 7: Kobe

Our last day in Japan! *insert sobbing emoticon* Can we not go back to reality yet?? But Day 7 proved to be the kicker in the entire trip with beautiful weather and scenery, starting with this:

Akashi Kaikyō, the world’s longest suspension bridge, links Kobe to Awaji Island.

Don’t be fooled by the glaring sun and jewel-blue waters. The sea breeze was nothing to sneeze at (pun intended)!

Harborland, a waterfront shopping district along Kobe’s port, is a slice of heaven on earth. My dad and I just stood at the end of the jetty and turned our faces to the sun, taking in the crisp salty air as the wind flayed us.

Perfect – PERFECT – day for hitting the boardwalk.
Some outdoor activity that involved bicycle stunts drew a sizeable crowd on a Sunday morning. And the best part is, the weather was heavenly, with fresh sea breeze and warm sun.

Yes, I took a sneaky shot of a baby again. But look at those cheeks!!

Stopping for some popcorn while sight-seeing
My dad turned into a fanboy and asked for this photo when he saw this semi-replica of Ultraman in one of the shops.

We grudgingly left Harborland to hit the shops at Sannomiya after lunch.

This is how Kobe’s streets are decorated.
Sannomiya shopping belt

Osaka was right in the mood for Halloween!

As the day got chillier, we headed up Mount Rokko to take in a scenic view of Kobe. TOTALLY worth the cold.

  

Our last stop for the trip, Rinku Premium Outlets, where my dad got excited at all the discounts offered by the likes of Banana Republic, GAP, Adidas, and more. I was more interested in standing out in the delicious cold (15-degree weather + wind = ) and checking out the Halloween decorations.

And with that, we were off to Kansai International Airport in time for our 11.30pm flight. Thanks for the lovely memories, Japan! Thank you for your graciousness and stunning visual treats, your beautiful weather and eye-opening culture. I will be back.

Adventures in Sushi-land: Days 4 and 5

Days 4 and 5 of this Japan trip took us out of the bustling cities and into the rustic outskirts, where a snow-capped mountain perched and flowers grew wild in the breeze.

Day 4: Mount Fuji and Matsumoto 

What’s a trip to Tokyo without visiting Mount Fuji? So on Day 4, we got up at the crack of dawn, threw on our coats, and paid her a visit. We were in luck that day, as the weather gods blessed us with clear royal-blue skies and crisp, cold winds. There were other visitors before us who had to contend with heavy fog or rain and didn’t manage to capture shots like these:

The sign in the Ladies. Mount Fuji does not need your trash, people.

#nofilter The colours are literally that vivid.

The place where we lunched halfway down the mountain overlooked this beautiful lake.
Hotpot lunch for a chilly day!
The view out the window

After lunch, it was a long coach ride to Matsumoto to view the Matsumoto Castle.

Matsumoto Castle, one of Japan’s most historic castles, is also known as Crow Castle due to its black exterior.

Couldn’t resist taking a picture under the lush autumn foliage.
Traditional Japanese dinner at our onsen (hot spring) inn was an elaborate affair.
And we got to sleep on tatami mattresses that night!

Day 5: Takayama, Shirakawa-go, and Kanazawa

The view outside our onsen inn the next morning

With our lovely host, who made sure we had the best experience at her inn, from the food to the sleeping arrangements. Despite the language barrier, she made the effort to interact with every one of us, and was, as most Japanese are, unfailingly polite and gracious.
Who needs burgundies and dove-greys? The fall palette should be all about ochre and maple-red.
Any random snapshot out the window put stars in our eyes.

Like a scene right out of Lord of the Rings. Rivendell! 

After our morning hike, we hit the Miyagawa market, which is best known for its dried and pickled foods, as well as home-made rice crackers. You could smell the warm scent of soy sauce and rice brewing in the air as you strolled down the market along the river.

Next stop after lunch was the Ogimachi Gassho village, the largest village in Shirakawa-go. It was declared in 1995 to be a UNESCO world heritage site, with its well-preserved farmhouses that are as old as 250 years old and counting!

Our last stop of the day was the Kanazawa Castle, where the wildest number of crows came to roost in the evening (do crows roost??). Crows are considered sacred in Japanese culture as messenger from the gods, but while they have long been regarded as a symbol of power in Japanese mythology, these days they are also seen as a public nuisance.

Still, Kanazawa Castle is a beautiful place for an evening stroll in autumn.
Such a spread at our second onsen inn!

After the bustle of Tokyo and the excitement of Disneyland, Days 4 and 5 came as a welcome respite as we wound our way down narrow mountainous roads and took in the rustic beauty of the Japanese countryside.

Come Days 6 and 7, though, it’s back to the cities for this bunch of urban walkers. Next stop, Kyoto and Osaka!

Adventures in Sushi-land: Days 2 and 3

Japaaaaaaaaaaaan! I simply cannot get enough of it. Seven days is way too short to visit all of Tokyo, Osaka, Kobe, and Kyoto. Already, I miss Japan’s weather (15-degree heaven), its cleanliness and tidiness, the graciousness of its people, its vintage architecture (because the land is mostly owned by the people so the government can’t do much upgrading works) juxtaposed with its bustling subway stations and streets.

Growing up, I was fed a regular diet of Japanese drama and music (J-pop was huge in the late 90s! And who can resist the likes of Takuya Kimura and Takeshi Kaneshiro?), and the allure of Japan had never quite faded.

And being there at last, I wasn’t disappointed in the least. Everywhere you go, everything is in order. It’s like an OCD’s safe haven. And every shot looks like something out of a postcard. Want proof?

Day 2: Yokohama and Tokyo

Right from touchdown at Haneda Airport
To Odaiba Park in Tokyo
The Rainbow Bridge
Where a mini statue of liberty stood

And then later at Asakusa Kannon Temple in Tokyo

Elementary school students all wear caps as part of their uniform, be it blue or yellow. Too adorable!

Citizens are staunchly law abiding. Japanese hate to be an inconvenience to others, which explains why they never litter and always clean up after themselves. You can hardly find a filthy washroom or litter on the streets. Everything is as neat and well-groomed as the people themselves, who always take the effort to dress up.
Yamashita Park in Yokohama
The Hikawa Maru ship
Back at our hotel, where our room had this cosy little area partitioned from the sleeping area.
Dinner in a random diner in a shopping mall.

Day 3: Tokyo Disneyland!

The hotel we stayed in, Art Hotels Omori, was all decked out and ready for Halloween.

Tickets to Disneyland!

Japanese babies are unbelievably adorable. I couldn’t resist snapping a few sneaky pics of them, especially this curious little tot who sat next to me on the Wild Safari ride.

Carousals! Majestic castles! Happy children with candy floss and hotdogs! I know it’s commercialised fun, but there’s just something about amusement parks that get me excited like a child on her first voyage to Neverland.
The lovely Belle and her adoring fans
This little girl didn’t want to let go of Belle! She hugged her for the longest time and had the happiest smile you’ve ever seen.
Yep, still holding on.

Peterrrrrrr! Those who know me also know of my strange obsession with Peter Pan. (I didn’t write a whole novel inspired by the character for nothing.) Alas, we didn’t manage to go on the Peter Pan ride because it was closed for renovation. I did, however, spot this cute little fan  roaming the park grounds.
This Donald had major swag going on.
Settling for a quick dinner before leaving Disneyland.
Our flight was a night flight so Day 1 was pretty much gone. But Days 2 and 3 definitely left a great impression.
Up next, Mount Fuji and Matsumoto Castle! :0)

Highlights of the Bali Trip!

Touched down late afternoon on Sunday after a four-day trip to Bali, and as promised – pictures!

Day 1

 

We hit our villa straight after arrival. The Bali International Airport is only five months new after renovation!

Our villa (which cost only S$125 a night, and is owned by a Russian couple who currently live in Bali) in Seminyak was a rather touristy area that’s like a mini town with shops and cafes and restaurants packed close to each other and is only a stone’s throw away from the sea.

This is where I spent my early mornings

Bali was crazy hot, so it was a relief to step into this quaint cafe named Corner House for TWO glasses of freshly-squeezed watermelon juice:

The nicest, most street-savvy girls I have ever been on tour with

 

 

Followed by some shopping (yes, in that heat):

Local handicraft – look how cute!

And, of course, the beach

Then dinner at this hip Italian restaurant called Ultimo, where we got drunk on music, laughter, wine, and food.

Day Two

We brunched at this adorable diner called Sea Circus:

Sea Circus is well-known for its brunch menu

And then hit Karma Beach, where you have to pay about S$10 for a magnificent view:

 

We took a cable car down to the beach

On the cable car ride back up
The hotel room there costs 800SGD a night, apparently

Lastly, we went to this temple in Uluwatu called the Water Temple to view the sunset:

The temple was on a cliff overlooking the sea

It was like monkey kingdom there, and our guide told us to hold on tightly to our belongings or the monkeys will snatch them away! Our sunset viewing was punctuated by periodic screams of tourists who got their hats or cameras or scarves snitched by frisky monkeys.

 

We concluded the day with dinner at a seaside restaurant, where we had a seafood spread at Jimbaran Beach.

Day 3

We had a light breakfast at our villa before heading on a two-hour drive to Ubud to see the padi fields, lunch at a famous barbequed ribs place, and do some shopping at the local market. Our driver for the day got a little too enthusiastic and drove like a fiend. We swerved in and out of traffic and sped towards Ubud, and by lunchtime the girls and I were feeling too queasy to stomach much of our lunch (although the ribs at Naughty Nuri’s were good).

Shopping and padi field sightseeing made us feel slightly better, though.

By the end of day 3, the effects of too much sun and food kicked in. One of the girls had a bad case of food poisoning, while I was dehydrated and had a sunstroke. So we headed back to our villa and completely crashed.

In the evening, Huimei’s food poisoning got worse – she was throwing up every few minutes – and we had to take her to the BIMC Hospital in Kuta.

Thank goodness we all felt better by the next morning so the trip didn’t end on an entirely bad note.

Plus, I managed to get some writing done on the plane.

Still, it’s good to be home. See you again, Bali! Thanks for having us.

Bali Bound! (and struck by quarter-life crisis)

bali I’m off to Bali this Thursday! And given that it’s my first time there, as well as my insane love for the sea, you can be sure I’ll be flooding this spot with pictures after I get back.

This is a much-needed break from the routine I’ve gotten so used to. Working, writing, sleeping, swimming. I know I have the luxury to swim every morning, and time after work to write, something a lot of my peers don’t because they are so consumed with work. But I just feel like I’m … grazing. Going about my same old routine in the safety of my comfort zone. And lately I just feel trapped, going stir-crazy in the same spot, still not going anywhere two years after graduation. But then the thought of stepping out of what I know paralyses me with fear.

I know I’m not the only twenty-something who feels this way. Do you feel like there’s just so much you want to do, places to go, people to meet, but there are so many factors holding you back? Money, family, the conventional way to live. I’m supposed to get a job straight after graduation, get promoted within a few years, meet someone along the way, get married by 30, have two kids – all because that’s the “right” way to live. What if there are other options? I wouldn’t know what other options are out there because I haven’t really stepped out and LIVED.

A lot of people – especially those older than us – think that quarter-life crisis is laughable. The thought that we should suffer from that debilitating sense of aimlessness is ridiculous, because we’re only just starting out in the real world. But I think this is the point in our lives where we start panicking because we feel like we should have done so many things already, but haven’t achieved anything much. I’m nowhere near my goals, relationship or career wise, while people around me are getting married, having babies, and making the news.

What do you think, is this just me being greedy, wanting everything without daring to take the first step? Maybe this is the “loneliness loop” people talk about:

… it’s possible for us introverts to get stuck in a cycle of loneliness. This “loneliness loop” can happen because staying home alone is often our default. We might find it hard to muster up the energy to hang out with people, especially after a long day of work or classes.

Plus, we don’t like superficial socializing: “We desire and require deep connections and would rather be lonely alone than in a crowd,” Dembling writes in a Psychology Today blog post. “But realistically, those deep connections are not easy to find, and if we get caught short and our only choice is superficial socializing or nothing, we can get lonely.”

Anyway, this post is getting too depressing. On to better news. I’m charging through the last 50 pages or so of No Room in Neverland. Here’s where the words pour out and sweep you towards the end. It’s the most exhilarating part, and also the most all-consuming. The part where you live, breathe, and dream about the story, where it creeps into your veins and you become it and vice versa. Full speed till the end!

On a not-so-upbeat note, I received another rejection letter for Until Morning:

Dear Joyce,

Thank you for the email and interest in The [name redacted] Literary Agency. I’ve carefully reviewed your query and submission of UNTIL MORNING.

You are a very skilled writer, and I find your overall premise of this story to be quite interesting. With that said, I’m wanting to feel more connected to the characters of the shifting points of view (Lexi and Sam). And while I don’t want to know every detail in the first couple chapters, I want to have a pretty good grasp of what the story is about, so that as a reader, I’m fully there.

With that said, possibly another agent or agency will feel differently, and I wish you well on your search for the perfect home for this story!

All my best, Vicki

But while it is a rejection letter, I’m strangely glad to receive it. Beats receiving NO reply at all, at any rate. I’m this close to giving up on Until Morning. This is what I mean by being trapped. You try and try and try and try and try. And try again. But you’re just not going anywhere.

it takes courage to grow up

Illustration by Kris Di Giacomo

So yes, Bali. Bali is much needed.

Have a crisis-free week!