Prague

Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, had been on mine and Rebecca’s hit list for quite some time.  So on Monday, June 26th, we set out for the City of a Hundred Spires.  We caught the S-bahn over to the Berlin Central Bus Station, jumped on our 10:00 am flixbus with coffees and picnic lunch, and headed south out of the city.  The four and a half hour journey passed through Dresden on the Elbe River before climbing into the Ore Mountains that have formed a natural border between Saxony and Bohemia for 800 years.  We arrived at the Praha Florenc Bus Station and caught the metro across the river to Malostranská.  We underestimated the distance (or more so the elevation gain) to our hotel which was located on Nerudova Street just below Prague Castle.  It was quite a hike with our carry-ons in tow!

After getting settled, we walked back down the hill and found a pub named Lokál U Bílé Kuželky that Bec had pre-scouted.  We enjoyed a fried cheese dish on a picnic bench with a woman from Peru traveling on her own.  With some food in our bellies, we crossed the iconic Charles Bridge to Old Town.  Following Bec’s advice, we found U Kunštátů, a cool beer spot in a 14th century palace.  We had a pint of Czech craft brew and checked out the medieval basement.  From there, we walked up to the main square, Staroměstské Náměstí, or Old Town Square.  We saw the famous 600 year old Prague Astronomical Clock and then chilled out and people-watched.  For dinner, we zeroed in on the original Lokál Dlouhááá.  Bec chose the traditional goulash and I went for the beef tartare with fried bread.

A craft brew at U Kunstatu

Prague Astronomical Clock

Old Town Square

Dan on the Vtlava

On Tuesday, we strolled south through Malá Strana taking us to the Monument of the Victims of Communism where there was a ceremony in progress.  We watched from the sidelines not fully understanding what we saw, but it reminded me of a Canadian Remembrance Day ceremony.  I led Bec up Petřín hill and we stopped on a park bench for a snack.  I somehow got a bee in my collar and he gave me a sting.  Bec, worried about my sting given my history with such insects, set a beeline out of the park passing by a section of the Hunger Wall.  With the sting subsiding, we found our way out of the park near the Strahov Monastery.  It was still early so I led Bec over to the Loreto where we did a self guided tour of the church.  We left the church and wandered down the charming area of Nový Svět which eventually led us to the gates of Prague Castle, but, we detoured and went back to the hotel to chill for a little while.

Monument to the Victims of Communism

Dan recovering from a bee sting beside the Hunger Wall

Bec outside the gates of Prague Castle

That night, Bec had a superfun evening planned for us.  The Taste of Prague Food Tour.  We visited 5 different restaurants and 2 bars which served delicious traditional and modern Czech food, beer and wine. We started with the Pilsner Urquell and a dark lager (Kozel) which happened to be where we had already dined the previous evening. We then tried some open-faced sandwich’s at Sisters Bistro and some different meat options at Nase Maso Butchers. Our main course was the roast duck with sauerkraut and potato dumplings at Next Door. We took a short break at the Bokovka wine bar to try some local varietals. We finished at an interesting restaurant called Eska with some modern dishes including burnt potato in ash with potato espuma and fermented red wheat with mushrooms. Needless to say we were well fed by the end of the tour however we decided to enjoy an after dinner cocktail at L’fleur before calling it an evening.

On Wednesday, we walked south along the Vtlava and eventually crossed into New Town.  We had another picnic lunch in the Franciscan Gardens with the locals before popping out into Wenceslas Square.  We strolled up and down the famous strip, but it was turning out to be a pretty hot day so we decided to pop into a few shops and I picked up a new pair of jeans shorts for the summer weather.  We crossed the river to the north and hiked up to the top of Letna Park.  We enjoyed a Czech brew in the beer gardens and wrote some postcards overlooking Old Town across the river.  The skies turned angry so we packed up and headed west.  The storm caught up with us at the Metronome and we bailed down the hillside and crossed the nearby bridge.  We thankfully missed the majority of the storm and headed back to U Kunštátů.  This time, we didn’t mess around and each ordered a beer tasting with some snacks.  The storm blew off and we made our way across Charles Bridge and back to Hotel Neruda.

Bec in front of the National Theatre

Dan on Wenceslas Square

Czech beer tasting flight

View from Charles Bridge

A look up at Prague Castle

Western gate of Charles Bridge

That night, we took our concierge up on a nearby dinner spot, but they seemed to have the doors shut while entertaining a private group.  We redoubled and found the Pilsner Urquell Malostanska Beseda opposite the St. Nicolas Church in our neighborhood.  Bec ordered the Svíčková, maybe the most popular of all Czech dishes, and I ordered the rabbit, much to our waiters distaste (he has pet rabbits).  Both were delicious.

Local rabbit

Svíčková

Our night didn’t end there though as Bec led us to the Vinograf near the river’s edge and we enjoyed some Czech wine al fresco.  The sun was setting and we knew by the reflected pinks on the buildings that it was a good one.  So we paid our bill and scrambled over to Charles Bridge for an amazing sunset. Halfway home and halfway to another spot on our list, we threw caution to the wind and headed to Hemingway Bar.  We were lucky to get the last couple of seats at the upstairs bar and enjoyed some very interesting cocktails.

Vinograf wine tasting

Sunset over Prague

We saved Prague Castle for our last day, but it was pouring rain that morning.  We tried to wait it out in the hotel, but it just would not let up.  So we braved it and headed up the last few stairs to the top.  There were a few other brave tourists at the gates.  We visited St. Vitus Cathedral and had a quick look at the grounds before hightailing it back to the hotel.  We caught the metro to the main train station and started back to Berlin at 2:3o pm.  The train followed the Vltava River north to the Elbe where we continued alongside the river through the scenic Ore Mountains.  Once past Dresden, the train was on a straight track and finally got up to its full speed.  The huge low pressure system over northern Germany was dumping buckets of rain down on Berlin and there was flooding going on in the city.  We made the quick dash from the Friedrichstrasse station to Bec’s place but we still got absolutely soaked.  The most rain recorded in over 100 years.  Needless to say, we hunkered down that evening and rented a movie, The Butcher of Prague.

On Friday, we had some errands to run for Bec’s German visa.  Following that, we swung through the Galleria in Alexanderplatz to do some shopping.  We sidetracked through a neat little neighborhood called Nikolaiviertel that neither of us had been to.  We walked all the way west along Unter den Linden and followed the river to a beer garden Bec had noticed on a river run.  Again, the rain found us so we finished our brew and headed back to the apartment to savour a home cooked meal.

Rainy beer along the Spree

My flight back to Abu Dhabi was at 5:00 pm on Saturday, but Bec still managed to find us somewhere to celebrate Canada Day.  We went to a brewery that she had been to before named BRLO.  They had teamed up with Steamworks Brewery from Vancouver for a Canada Day celebration.  We were the first to arrive at noon and things weren’t quite in full swing.  The band was still warming up and the poutine stand hadn’t received their French fry delivery yet.  We had a couple Canadian brews sitting proudly in our Team Canada jerseys then headed for home to grab my bags for my flight to Abu Dhabi via Dusseldorf.

Happy 150 Canada from Berlin!!!

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Eid Weekend in Berlin

The end of June also marked the end of Ramadan and a 3 day public holiday in the UAE. We decided this would be a great opportunity for Dan to spend some time in Berlin. He flew in via Düsseldorf on Friday, June 23 arriving at 6:00 pm. After meeting him at the airport and getting settled we went for a cocktail at Hackendahl, which is near my place and, funnily enough, where we went for cocktails with Jami and Tarina back in 2015.

On Saturday, I took Dan for lunch in Thai Park. He felt like soup so we both went for the pork noodle selection. We enjoyed the delicious soup and then went for a relax on the grass. It soon started to rain so we grabbed a couple of dumplings to go and were on our way. Our next stop was the Berlin Botanical Gardens for the Wein Sommer event. We explored the gardens and then found the wine tasting tents, grabbed a couple of glasses, and sat at a picnic table where a few locals chatted us up. We tried a few different varietals from the Peth-Wetz vineyard before setting off to explore the rose gardens. We ended up back at the Wein Sommer fest and grabbed another glass along with a meat and cheese platter. After filling our bellies and grabbing a few bottles to take back we set out. It was still early and a nice evening so we decided to grab a night cap at Newtown Bar before making our way home.

Dan exploring the Botanical Gardens

Wein Sommer

On Sunday, we pulled a bucket challenge and went for coffee and a light breaky at the Unicorn. From there, we slowly wandered over to Mauerpark and then decided to have lunch at The Bird, a recommended burger joint nearby. It started to rain as we were finishing up lunch so we headed for home.

Mauerpark spray paint wall

The Bird burger

That evening, we went to the Art of Banksy exhibition, featuring works from the famous British street artist. After finishing at the exhibition, the clouds were looking pretty ominous so we thought we had better duck inside a nearby restaurant where we ordered the beer meter tasting. Later on, we went to watch the film and light show at 10:15 pm at the riverbank next to the Reichstag building. It was raining so we brought a towel to sit on and our umbrellas. We hit the hay after that as we had a morning bus ride to catch to Prague.

The Art of Banksy

Beer meter tasting

Film and light show

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Shams No. 3

While Bec was being lashed by rain in the Rila Mountains, I was on a weekend mountain adventure of my own.  I headed into Oman on Thursday evening and arrived at the hotel around 8:30 pm.  The weather was much the opposite of Bulgaria that day being mid-June in the Hajar Mountains, but it is significantly cooler at higher elevation.  I was off again with the UAE Trekkers and made the summit of Jebel Shams for the 3rd time on Friday, June 16th.  We had a large group and everyone was super fit.  We made the summit in 2 groups with me, as a Trek Leader, guiding the slightly slower second group.  We arrived at the top around 11:30 am, had lunch while enjoying the views, and headed back down.  That night, we had a nice dinner at the hotel and had a fire on the terrace off the back of my room.  As usual, everyone was exhausted from the hike and our campfire didn’t last too long into the evening.  I’ve posted about Shams before so I’ll spare you too many further details about my last hike of the season.

On Saturday, I stopped at Al Hoota Cave, located at the foot of Jebel Shams.  A short train takes you inside the cave where you dismount and walk through on a guided tour.  The cave is home to blind fish and the cave floods every time it rains.  It had been on my list for a while and I’m glad I stopped in before heading back to AD.

Check out the link to their website for more interesting info:

http://www.alhootacave.com/the-cave/

Summit team

Yours truly

 

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Sofia, Bulgaria

When my friend Jen invited me to join her and Shazar for a girls weekend in Sofia, Bulgaria, I of course said yes. I am not sure how they selected it, but I do know Jen was looking to visit some new countries before she moves back to Canada. I took the 15:45 flight on Friday, June 16th arriving into Sofia at 18:55. I grabbed a taxi to the hotel and sat outside enjoying a glass of Bulgarian wine from the Thracian Valley while waiting for the girls to return from their walking tour. It was a beautiful evening so we just spent the night catching up, drinking wine and trying some local specialties including the shopska salad and meatballs with lyutenitsa, a thick relish of tomatoes and peppers.

The next morning, we were up bright and early to join our organized guided tour of the Rila mountains and seven Rila lakes. The weather had taken a turn for the worse overnight and was raining pretty hard. We arrived at the mountain at 10:00 am and it was pouring down hard by this point. I got my umbrella out and bought the first rain jacket I saw (as did Jen and many others). We set out on foot, up the gondola, to the top of the mountain. A few minutes in, 2 people turned back, and then a bit further, a few people more. The visibility was pretty low, wind was fierce, and the rain was blowing at us sideways. We made it to the first lake and decided we would turn back as well. The long rain jackets had kept us fairly dry but our feet were soaked and we didn’t think we really wanted to endure the next 4 hours in this kind of weather. So, a bit disappointed, we turned back and the others continued on. As we were coming around the ridge the rain stopped, the wind slowed, and the sun even started to peak out. We hurriedly grabbed some pictures and then made our way back to have some lunch at the mountainside café. Just as we were finishing up our lunch and finally drying off, the rain came back again. This time was even worse and we got soaked going back down the gondola to the bottom. We ran to the bus and the driver cranked the heat for us. After we finally warmed up, we cracked a Bulgarian beer while waiting for the others to return. They all arrived back safely, and, just as we were about to drive away, another storm blew in, this time with hail included.

Rila Lakes

Enjoying some reprieve from the rain

Once we got freshened up we set out into the city for dinner. We did a bit of shopping and then made our way to Manastirska Magernitsa. It was pretty busy, but they managed to squeeze us in. We started off with, in my view, one of the most delicious homemade breads I have ever had. They serve it with butter and a salt mixture for dipping and we each had our own baked dish. The night was still young so we decided to try and find a recommended cocktail bar nearby. We weren’t able to find it, but just as we were about to continue on we heard some music and decided to see where it was coming from. We followed the music trail and found a lovely outside bar where we stopped for a delicious cocktail. We stayed for one, but decided to continue on to Culture Beat Club and finished off with some R&B at Switch.

Bulgarian bread with salt mixture

White lady cocktail with thyme

The next morning we decided to enjoy the sauna and steam facilities at the hotel before heading to the airport to make our respective flights back to London and Berlin. Another great time meeting up with Jen and Shazar for the weekend!

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Seoul

We flew from Beijing into Incheon International Airport, often rated the world’s best, a little behind our ETA of 11:35 am on Tuesday, May 30th.  We caught the Express Train to Seoul Station and another 2 metro trains to finally arrive in the historic district of Bukchon Hanok Village.  Our hotel was a hanok, a traditional Korean house for which Bukchon is known.  The neighborhood is preserved to show how things looked 600 years ago during the Joseon Dynasty.  We picked up some beer and snacks from the local 7-eleven and enjoyed them on our great courtyard patio.  Later, we did an evening stroll through the traditional village well after the day-tripping tourists had all departed.  One of the most interesting things about Bukchon is spotting the many locals who rent traditional Korean garb and set off on a photo taking extravaganza.  Our walk brought us to our dinner venue, Maple Tree House, specializing in Korean BBQ.  We started off with the local Cass beer and salad while waiting for a table. We asked for some recommendations which included Korean black pork belly, marinated boneless short-ribs, and premium Korean aged beef striploin, which came along with numerous side dishes. We had our own grill on the table with matching hood vent to cook the meat and the servers made sure we were cooking it all to perfection.  It was a great way to celebrate my 5 year Abu Dhabi anniversary.

Bukchon traditional houses

Traditional Korean dresses

Korean BBQ

The next day, we planned to summit Mount Bukhansan.  We caught the metro north to Gupabal and found our bus with a little help from a kind local; however, the bus was packed with young soldiers.  I guess they use this bus to get to the training bases located near Bukhansan.  We squeezed in and were packed so tight that we could not see out and missed our stop.  We eventually realized our mistake and jumped out, crossed the road, and caught a bus going back the other way.  It was much easier spotting our stop without so much camouflage blocking our view!  We walked up the street filled with outfitting shops and entered the Bukhansan National Park.  Its proximity to such a huge city makes it the most visited national park in the world by square footage.  While we were putting on our boots, we were obscuring the view of the park sign as a fellow hiker tried to take a picture.  Realizing our social faux pas, we moved and offered to take a picture of him by the sign.  We said a few pleasantries and he was on his way.

We grabbed a coffee and set out.  The trail was initially pavement and we passed a few Buddhist temples and a fortress before crossing a river.  A little unsure of which way to go, our friend from the gate was there to show us the way.  He introduced himself as Charlie and we had a new hiking partner.  Charlie is an entrepreneur who loves hiking and spent some time in Silicon Valley over the course of his career where he honed his English skills.  We continued on, picking up another hiker, Dan, from the UK.  The trail got gradually steeper and steeper and we polished off our water bottles in the rising heat of the day.  I took a swig from my Camelbak and immediately spit it out…it tasted rotten!  I took another sip and said, “That tastes like alcohol!”  I stood there, mind racing, trying to figure out how I managed to get alcohol in my water supply.  Finally, we figured it out.  We stopped at a convenience store after the previous night’s dinner to pick up some snacks and bottled water for our hike.  Instead of water, we had bought soju, a traditional Korean distilled beverage and I remember saying to Bec how expensive the bottled water is in Seoul.  Looking back, we tried to buy a 7 L jug, but didn’t have enough money so we settled for a 2L.  Good thing! Short on water, but ripe with soju, we pressed on and the trail graduated to exposed, bare rock where there are a number of wire ropes bolted into the mountainside and some stairs to reduce the exposure risk.  It was definitely on the challenging side, but we soon made it to the top.  We reached the tallest of the 3 Bukhasan peaks, Baegundae at 836.5 meters.  It was a spectacular view in all directions giving a feel for Seoul’s true size.

Baegundae summit

Our foursome shared a picnic lunch of various Korean specialties including a celebratory pull off Dan’s Camelbak.  We headed down the opposite eastern slope and chatted with a few other locals.  Reaching civilization at the bottom, we downed a few bottles of water purchased from the shop.  One of the chaps we met on the way down, Don, insisted on giving us a ride to the nearest bus station which was still a significant ways down the mountain.  Charlie, in his natural kindness, also insisted we join him at the Gwangjang Market in the Jongno-gu district where he always rewards himself with his favorite street food after a Bukhansan summit.  We followed him into the chaotic market and sat down at a small stall.  The dish, bindae-tteok, is a fried mung bean patty with soy sauce for dipping.  We had both the vegetarian and meat options and washed it down with makgeolli, an interestingly milky rice wine beverage.  The 3 gentlemen beside us were great and one of them surprised us when he whipped out a selfie stick and grabbed a group shot.  Saying goodbye to Charlie in the metro, we headed for Bukchon.  All I can say about Charlie is, what a top notch guy, who always keeps a “positive mental attitude”.

Bindae-tteok

Selfie in Gwangjang market

That evening Bec had made us a reservation at Mingles, voted as one of the Worlds 100 best restaurants, on the south side of the Han River in Gangnam.  Arriving at 7:00 pm, we enjoyed the chef’s set course menu with wine pairings.  Another great meal in Seoul!

Dan enjoying the wine at Mingles

On Thursday, we caught the metro down to the Myeong-dong district.  We visited the Cathedral completed in 1898.  Interesting side note, the religious demographics in Korea are 43% Buddhist, 35% Protestant, and 21% Catholic.  We wandered the area’s famous shopping streets and found our restaurant, Gogung. We ordered the Korean specialty, bibimbap, a dish with many variations, but always a bowl of sautéed vegetables on top of rice.  We walked off our lunch by climbing to the top of the nearby Namsam Park.  At 262m, it also offers great views of the city.  We didn’t go up Seoul Tower, but opted to enjoy the views over a pint of beer.  Heading down the east side along the old city wall, we found a metro station and headed for home.

Bibimbap

Seoul Tower

Dan and the love locks

That night, we ticked another Korean culinary box, Korean fried chicken.  On a tip off from our hotel, we took a taxi not too far from our place and entered a street with the most neon signs I think I’ve ever seen in one place.  This national staple was a real winner.  After dinner, we found a cool basement bar and had a couple more local brews to end our evening.  This place had a neat feature.  We were given a button to push when we wanted the attention of our server. Genius!

KFC – Korean Fried Chicken

Neon lights of Insadong

Enjoying the local brews

We decided to keep it local on our last day in Seoul.  We walked south from Bukchon into the trendy art neighborhood of Insa-dong.  Again, my wife found her restaurant, Bukchon Son Mandu, specializing in the huge, fried mandu dumpling, and we opted for the combination platter.  Yum!  From there, we walked over to the Jongmyo Shrine, but learned that the mandatory guided tours were sold out for the day.  Oh well…let’s try the Changdeokgung Palace just a bit to the north.  This 15th century palace has been destroyed many times, but is beautiful today.  We toured the grounds on our own, but then met at the gates of the Secret Garden for our guided tour.  This garden was the leisure grounds of emperors and features many tranquil lakeside settings.

Bukchon Son Mandu

Changdeokgung Palace grounds

From there, it was back to our neighbourhood for a couple of craft beers at nearby Café Gondry. We then grabbed our bags and took a taxi up to the airport for our 1:00 am flight back to Abu Dhabi. We spent the day recovering from the late night flight and enjoyed some pool time. That afternoon, we headed over to Jenn and Spence’s for a BBQ. Our friend, Amanda, also joined us. We had a great time catching up. Bec kept busy on Sunday while I was at work. After work, we went for a nice massage at Talise before I was whipping up a new cocktail creation back at the apartment. We enjoyed rack of lamb for dinner along with a nice bottle of wine. The next morning I dropped Bec off at the airport for her flight back to Berlin.

Amanda and Bec enjoying some bubbly

Dan and Spence Bromance

Dan’s cocktail creation

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Beijing & The Great Wall

Bec arrived in Abu Dhabi at 6:05 am on Thursday, May 25th.  I was there to greet her at the airport before she dropped me off at work.  I know what you’re thinking…nice one Dan, but she had a full day of personal and social engagements.  That night, we met Nadia and Rene at Pool Bar for a catch-up bevy before heading off to the airport.  Destination…Beijing!

We arrived the next morning at 9:30 am and caught a taxi to our hotel.  The Hulu Hotel is a courtyard hotel, located in a hutong in the Dong Cheng District, and was a tranquil oasis from the nearby hustle and bustle of this megacity.  Our hotel recommended we try the nearby restaurant for lunch, serving food from the Yunnan region, while we waited for our room.  We ordered a few dishes, the most adventurous being the fried meal worms and chilies.  That afternoon, we walked over to the famous shopping street of Wangfujing and strolled along stopping for a green tea ice cream cone.  Next was Snack Street, an interesting collection of street food, but we held off our hunger.  We followed a recommended walking tour in our guide book that took us through Changpuhe Park, Duanku Hutong, and the Mahakala Temple.  Our tour ended at the gates of the Forbidden City, but those gates were closed for the day.  For dinner, we had done our homework so we knew we were headed to Siji Minfu, a long-standing restaurant specializing in Peking Duck.  We had to wait outside for about 45 minutes but it was worth the wait and the duck was delicious.  A rite of passage in Beijing.

Yunnan fried meal worms and chilies

Green tea ice cream on Wangfujing Street

Changpuhe Park

Western side of Forbidden City at sunset

Peking Duck

The next morning, we walked south from the hotel and found a bakery, claiming to be the best in Beijing.  We had an interesting pork floss bun for breakfast and continued on to Tiananmen Square.  It was great to stroll around this huge square so tied to China’s history.  We climbed up Zhengyang Gate on the south side of the square and enjoyed the views.  From there, it was back across the square to the Forbidden City.  The largest palace complex on Earth was completed in 1420 and served as the home of Chinese emperors and the political seat of power for almost 500 years.  The grounds were huge and the palaces numerous, but we had stashed away some pastel de nata tarts from the bakery to keep us going.  We made it back to our neighborhood and stopped for a bowl of soup at the Noodle Shack.  We found some cool Beijing beers to enjoy on the hotel terrace, Bec’s favorite, Panda Eyes Red Honey Ale, mine, Gao Baby Jasmine.

Zhengyang Gate

Dan and the Monument of People’s Heroes

Foo dog guarding the entrance to Forbidden City

9×9 studs…good luck numbers

The Palace of Heavenly Purity

Panda beers

Dan’s Baby Jasmine

That night, we set out for Ghost Street, the traditional route on which corpses were taken out of the city and, therefore, no one wanted to live.  Hence, it is filled with blocks and blocks of popular restaurants.  Again, we fought our hunger, although, this time, I’m not quite sure why!!  We jumped on the metro to the CBD and walked up the party street of Sanlitun.  First stop was Beer Mania, where Bec’s all time Belgian favorite, Tripel Karmeliet, was on tap.  From there, Bec led us to the Nali Patio, a cluster of former school buildings which has been turned into one of Sanlitun’s best spots for bars and dining.  We opted for the Spanish tapas at Migas before hitting the rooftop bar.  We tried to hike it home before giving in and negotiating with one of Beijing’s notoriously ruthless rickshaw drivers.

Selfie on Nali’s Patio

On Sunday, we hopped on the metro to the Houhai lake district.  We had an amazing lunch at Kong Yiji that consisted of stuffed lotus root, mung beans, drunken chicken, shrimp, and beef soup.  We continued our lakeside wander through the busy tourist street of Yandai Byway towards the Bell and Drum Towers, the northern extent of the old Beijing walled city.  We climbed up the Drum Tower and stayed for the ceremonial drumming.  Back on the lakes, we continued south to the more popular Bei Hai Lake and onto Qiongdao Island before catching the metro back to Hulu to enjoy some cocktail hour beers. We soon discovered that a branch of our favorite dim sum chain restaurant wasn’t too far from the hotel so we made our way to Din Tai Fung that evening.  After a fill of shumai, we stopped at a tea shop in hopes of replenishing our dwindling stocks of good Chinese tea back home…success.

Dan in hutong

Drum Tower

Bec on the confluence of Houhai

Monday might have been our clear winner.  We were picked up from our hotel after breakfast and started north for the Great Wall of China.  We arrived at Mutianyu and our driver helped us get the necessary tickets.  We caught the gondola up to the top and headed west along the wall.  The number of people was quite overwhelming, but the further away we got, the more and more peaceful it became.  We gained a fair bit of elevation to where the “park” area stopped, jumped the gate, and pressed on.  Most of the touristic wall sites have been renovated, but beyond this point the wall became more real.  We reached a point at which no upgrades had been made and we walked what the vast majority of the wall is today…a pile of ruins overgrown with vegetation.  Turning back, we climbed down and passed the point of our entry and continued east.  Yes, the tourist numbers were horrendous, but the scenery of it all was amazing.  I wouldn’t mind doing some serious trekking along the wall if I ever get the chance.  We had the option of taking a slide down the mountain, but we decided on the chair lift.  We demolished a Subway sub before meeting our driver and hightailing it back to Beijing.

Dan in his element

Bec chillin’ on the Wall

We made it back by 4:00 pm and followed our regular evening routine of spicy Sichuan peanuts with a couple of Panda and Baby Jasmine beers.  I may or may not have been sneaking in a quick resting of the eyes most afternoons.  That night, we honed in on a Beijing favorite, hotpot.  We walked over to the popular Haidilao Hot Pot and were told we would have to wait an hour for a table, but it was well worth it.  I don’t think I’ve ever had a non-exercise related sweat quite like that.  They call it Hot Pot for a reason and, looking back, perhaps we shouldn’t have ordered the spicy version.  The most interesting thing we threw in the pot was pork intestine and the coolest thing was having our noodles hand pulled at the table.  The weirdest thing was spotting a large group of middle aged, bare-chested men at a table on the way out.

Haidilao hand pulling spectacle

We were a bit awestruck by the shear size of the city constantly underestimating what we thought would be considered “walking distance” on our map.  Very, very cool city though!

Next stop…Seoul.

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Exploring Berlin in May

While Dan was driving the dunes and hiking the Hajars, Tarina and I were exploring Berlin during the first 3 weeks in May. Originally, we had planned to maybe do some weekends away but, due to unforeseen circumstances, like arranging my Chinese visa, we ended up staying put. Tarina kept busy during the week and we got to discover some new things together in the evenings and on the weekends.

The first weekend – Kopenick & Potsdam

Tarina pulled one of the Berlin bucket challenges and we were off to Keyser Soze Café for dinner on Friday night. We both went for the traditional German spätzle and then afterwards we went for drinks in this hidden spot Tarina had found in Hackescher Hofe, with the walls covered in amazing spray-painted murals. On Saturday morning, we were off to Treptower Park, which had been recommended by my colleagues. The tulips were in full bloom and we also noticed lots of people were out on the water enjoying the spring-ish weather. We walked through the park, past the eerie abandoned amusement Spreepark, and ended up in Planterwald Park before we hopped on the bus to Kopenick. Kopenick is a small little fishing village in the south of Berlin where we stopped for a late lunch. We wanted to try some more traditional German food so I went for the goose and Tarina went for the goulash. We made a quick stop in the Schloss Kopenick before heading back to central Berlin. On Sunday, we decided to head outside the city on a day trip to Potsdam. I had not been yet and was saving this trip for good weather and someone to enjoy it with. We grabbed our coffees and set out on the S-bahn. Upon arrival, we walked through the nearby park before heading over to Sancoussi Palace where we would spend much of the afternoon exploring the huge palace grounds. The sun finally began to pop out that afternoon and we decided that enjoying some Rose on one of the many street lined cafes would be a great way to end our weekend. We picked up some in-season spargel, otherwise known as white asparagus, on our way home from the market and cooked it up for dinner that evening.

Strolling in Treptower Park

Abandoned amusement park

Tarina in Potsdam

Sanssouci Palace

Patio Rose selfie

Our second weekend – Kreuzberg & Grunewald

Tarina spent the week in Berlin checking out the main sights. We met up for wine and shopping one evening at KaDeWe and for beers in Prater Garten, Berlin’s oldest beer garden, after work on Thursday. On Friday, we made our way down to the opening weekend of Bite Club, a bi-weekly food truck event in Kreuzberg. This event was also near Treptower Park so we returned there first to find the Soviet War Memorial that we had missed the prior weekend. 7000 Red Army soldiers are buried there along with a mausoleum on the hill topped by the statue of a Soviet soldier, carrying a child in one arm and resting his sword on a shattered swastika. We made it to the Bite Club event, grabbed a couple glasses of German wine, and enjoyed overlooking the festival before we stood in the long cue for the Jamaican jerk chicken. After dinner, we walked along the river and found a cool bar, Club Der Visionare (CDV), which we popped into for a drink and some music to end the night. The next morning, we explored the neighbourhood of Charlottenburg where we grabbed a delicious brunch at Die Stulle. We strolled down Ku-damn and then made our way to an outdoor food market where we picked up some German Ravioli, Maultaschen, for dinner that evening. On Sunday morning, we were once again hopping the train outside of the city but this time we were heading to do some hiking in the Grunewald forest. We got off the train at the Grunewald station and found the signs for Gleis 17. We had read that this closed platform had been turned into a memorial site for the victims of the war that had been sent to different concentration camps. The site included the date, how many Jews had been sent on the train and to which camp they had been sent. We then started our hike towards Teufelsberg, the abandoned communication site of the American’s during WWII. A site which was completely abandoned and vandalized but efforts are now being made to offer tours of the area, including inviting known spray paint artists to decorate the grey walls. We grabbed a pint of weiss bier at one of the many beer gardens at the forest exits before heading back into the city as it started to rain.

Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park

Bite Club food truck event

Kreuzberg bars at night

Platform 17 memorial

Teufelsberg former US listening station

Third weekend – Thai Park & Tastings

Tarina took the bus to Krakow on Monday morning and returned back on Friday night where we met up for a glass at nearby Café Bose and went out for dinner in the neighbourhood. Saturday’s adventure was to have lunch in Thai Park, or officially Preussen Park, in the West Berlin district of Wilmersdorf. As story has it, 20 years ago the Thai community started meeting in this park for family picnics and fellow park goers started asking if they could purchase the thai food being prepared. This evolved into what is now a full on commercial enterprise. Our visit here did not disappoint. We took some recommendations from a blogger to try to find the saku sai moo, tapioca dumplings filled with ground pork and peanuts, and the famous pork noodle soup lady. Both recommendations were delicious. We finished our late lunch in the park and were off to Charlottenburg Palace for a wine tasting festival. We enjoyed tasting some local German varietals and our last wine stop seemed to be our favourite so we grabbed a few bottles to take back to the apartment. That evening, we dined on some delicious macadamia nut sausage, garlic sausage, and cheese we picked up at the tasting. Sunday was a gorgeous day so we set out on foot to explore. Our first stop was for coffee at The Barn, then to the Prenzlauer Berg Water Tower and just after lunch time we hit our destination at Kultur Brauerie for the craft beer festival. We grabbed a couple of Bavarian brews and some Mexican tacos from the food trucks. We then tried the unique Pirate Brew Berlin and shared the truffle gnocchi and Korean spicy fried chicken. Our last stop of the day was another bucket challenge for some Woop Woop ice cream. As it was the first real nice warm day we had to do it. The freshest ice cream you will ever have as they make each batch using a mix master and then chill it using some pretty high-tech nitrogen equipment. A great way to enjoy the last bit of sunshine and the end of the weekend. Tarina left on Tuesday morning heading north to start her own Scandinavian adventure. It was great having a friend visit and to explore so much of Berlin with!  

Thai Park dumplings

Pork noodle soup

Wine tasting at Charlottenburg Palace

Prenzlauer Berg water tower

Woop woop ice cream

 

 

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