November – our annual pilgrimage to see the parents. Since mom and dad had decided that they would no longer be flying to the US to see us due to the long, tiring flights (more on that later) 2 years ago, we had been making the trip out to Taiwan every Thanksgiving to spend time with them. Personally, if it were not for them, I don’t think I would ever visit Taiwan. It is grey, small, and there isn’t really much to see. One saving grace was the food, until this trip to China.
I never thought much about Chinese food, because what you get in the US is really ‘bastardized’ Chinese food – it never appealed to me. So I always fell back on Taiwanese comfort food. Luckily in Southern California you have your pick of decent Taiwanese food, especially my favorite Taiwanese beef noodle soup. However, after our trip to China, my opinion of Taiwanese and Chinese food has drastically changed. The worst food in China is better than any food in Taiwan! Beef noodle soup? Go to Lanzhou! That’s where you get good beef noodle soup. The broth is clear, yet heavenly tasty, and the noodle has a bite to it – not al dente. It’s O-M-G! They even hand make their own noodles in the airport noodle shop.
I don’t even want Taiwanese beef noodle soup anymore. Just thinking about how I can possibly get my hands on Lanzhou beef noodle soup without flying to China is depressing!
Every province in China has its own specialty. Sichuan is of course known for spicy food and their hot pot. Chongqing is spicy savory, and Chengdu is spicy numb (literally, your mouth goes numb). Spicy numb is not really my cup of tea, but the rest of the food was awesome. For a Chinese, I’m an anomaly. I don’t particularly care for rice. When we go out to eat I’ll only eat a spoonful of rice if at all. However, when we were in Chengdu I actually had 2 servings of rice per meal because the dishes were so good.
I personally polished off half of this sugared pumpkin dish.
All the dishes were made out of very simple ingredients, but the taste was off the charts.
Not only was the food good, it was cheap!
For 5 people, this fish-based hot pot dinner cost a total of $30 US. In the US, it would run $15 or more per person. They gave you unlimited free ingredients to add to the stock, but by the time we were done with the fish inside the pot, we really had no more room for anything else.
In Xian, food was much more tame in comparison. But the variety of food was eye popping. Walking through the Muslim Quarter was a feast for the eyes.
The lamb kebab was my favorite, and they have their own wide “biang biang” noodles they’ve even made up a character for.
When people used to tell me that Chinese food is the best in the world, I never believed them until now. I never thought I’d ever say this, but I would go back to visit China just for the food, and I would definitely make a side trip to Lanzhou for the beef noodle soup. Yum!
I get the daily NYT news alert featuring “California Today” – features and stories that matter to Californians. This past Friday’s “California Today” featured Borrego Springs, a Dark Sky community that draws stargazers thanks to the low light pollution levels. It’s also known for it’s quirky metal sculptures, the work of Ricardo Breceda, scattered around town. Since it’s a couple hour drive from where we are, I decided last minute that we would take a day trip out there this weekend.
Ideally, we should have left first thing in the morning so that we could spend most of the day there. However, we had to get our regular exercise in – one hour with our personal trainer, and another 45-minute run for me, and an hour of BJJ for Joe. This meant, we didn’t get to leave until 2PM.
The drive ended up being 2.5 hours given the usual traffic on the 5. By the time we got to town, it was 4:30PM. We had about an hour and a half of daylight left to check out the sculptures.
First stop was the Mammoth. This was the only spot where we got sunlight.
Next up were the dinosaurs. The sun had already dipped behind the mountains.
We hit the Scorpion and the Grasshopper next.
For the star of the show – The Serpent.
Unfortunately, there were a whole bunch more sculptures we had to bypass as we were short on time.
Since we didn’t have to wait long for night fall, we stuck around for some stargazing. We had never seen so many stars in our lives. When we lived in NYC, the only celestial object we could see was the moon. Tucson opened up our eyes to starry nights, and I routinely got the chance to trace out the big dipper and Orion’s Belt, but we never could make out the Milky Way.
Borrego Springs is on a whole other level. The sky is FULL of stars, and we got to see the Milky Way for the first time in our lives!
Of course I had to attempt shooting the stars.
Here’s a screen grab of the NYT photo of the Milky Way in Borrega Springs…
Here’s my shot of the Milky Way…
EPIC FAIL! Talk about ‘photo does not do justice’.
I could not for the life of me figure out how to sharpen the image, other than shortening the shutter speed, but then I wouldn’t get enough light. Increasing the ISO only made the image too grainy. The specs for this epically bad photo was ISO 6400, 10mm, shutter speed of 30 secs. Using the ‘500 rule’ (500/focal length, which in this case is 10mm), my shutter speed should have been set @ 50 secs, but my camera ‘does not go there’. Later I realized that my settings should have been ISO 3200, 24mm, shutter speed of 20 secs.
Joe and I were debating which season is our favorite. Being in SoCal, we really don’t get 4 seasons, or at least it’s not as apparent as it is in the Northeast. However, after having lived here for 7 years we’ve picked up on the subtleties of changes in seasons – we do in fact have 4 seasons, albeit a change in a few degrees, humidity, colors of the surroundings, and crowds in town. Yes, we do get cold when it hits 60, and the cashmere sweater does make its appearance in 50-degree weather. I don’t really care for temps under 60 these days. Call me soft. Call me a wimp. But ideal temp for me is 68-78 degrees. And when you live in paradise, that’s what you get.
Being fall, I decided to change up the décor in the living room. I switched out the orange pillows with white and grey to welcome the fall/winter season.
Our lovely neighbor just gave us a white orchid this evening, and it matched perfectly with the white pillows.
We opted to sign up for the free luggage valet program offered by the port of Seattle. Our bags were directly transferred from the ship to our Alaska Airline flight, which meant we would not see our luggage (after being left outside the stateroom the night before debarkation) until we arrived in LAX. This program is to encourage tourists to go into town (and spend some money) as opposed to waiting in the airport.
With no packs to carry, we were free to roam the Pike Place public market for a couple of hours.
Wall street has the bull, Pike Market has the pig…
Check out that line out the door of the original Starbucks…
Day 7 was conference in the morning, and Victoria in the evening. Victoria was a stop to satisfy the Passenger Vessel Services Acts of 1886, which prohibits foreign vessels (as are all cruise lines) from transporting passengers from one US port to another. So by stopping at a foreign port the cruise becomes compliant with the law. The purpose of this outdated act is to protect US registered vessels. Not really sure what this achieves this day in age.
Since we’ve been to Victoria a few years ago, we just walked around to stretch out the sea legs.
This is one of the only 3 photos I took of Victoria, and it was not staged. I was standing in that spot trying to capture the parliament without all the motor vehicles, and when I snapped this photo, the horse carriage had just entered into the frame.
Skagway, famous for the Klondike gold rush and the building of the White Pass train to the Yukon. Naturally, the excursion to do was to ride the train and watch the beautiful scenery pass by. That’s not what we did. We chose the helicopter dog sled tour. We booked the 2-hour tour directly through Temsco, and the only available time was 11:15AM. This was quite unfortunate timing, because basically the tour was sandwiched between two 3-hour slots, which wasn’t enough time to do anything else (most of the interesting tours were 4-6 hours long). So we took our time in the morning and walked through town on our way to the Temsco office.
Temsco runs a brisk business. They offer glacier landing as well as the dog sledding trips. Even while at breakfast on board the ship, we would see 5 helicopters take off one right after the other.
After safety briefing we were fitted into our snow boots.
All passengers were assigned seats based on weight. It appears to me that they put the lighter folks up front with the pilot, because Joe and I got a front row seat to the spectacular views.
Finally, the dog camp atop Denver glacier.
So the dogs are relocated atop the glacier for summer training, and everything you see in camp (including the dogs) is transported by Temsco. They told us it takes 85 helicopter trips to transport everything. At the end of the summer season, they have to pack up and bring everything back down – including pet waste and dog hair. Nothing is left atop the glacier.
Stars of the show in various states of repose…
and in action…
Our musher Dre races in Norway, but comes to Alaska during the summer to work with these dogs. She told us that the Alaskan huskies are like marathon runners – lean with high endurance. All the dogs want to do is run.
You can see how excited the dogs are right before their run, and as soon as they get into the run, all is quiet.
There were 4 people to a sled and we got to switch places so that we could all experience mushing and staring at the dogs’ behinds.
There are usually 12 dogs to a team. The two up front are the brains – they are the ones listening to the musher’s instructions and leading the team. The two (brothers) in the back are the brawn – they are the strongest and are carrying the brunt of the weight to get the sled going. The rest of the dogs in the middle are cruising, and just enjoying the run.
Phoenix’s daughter learning alongside mom.
Phoenix is 11 and she’s the leader of the team.
Here’s another use of a wide angle lens – distortion of objects close up.
Of course no dog sled trip would be complete without puppies! This little guy is 8 weeks old…
Dogs are bred based on lineage and racing abilities, and all the puppies in a litter are named according to ‘theme’. This helps the musher keep track of siblings so they don’t accidentally breed brothers with sisters.
It was really interesting to learn about the dog sledding culture, and wished we could have stayed longer, but our helicopter arrived to pick us up.
Helicopter take off from the Denver glacier.
View of the ships from the helicopter – Solstice is on the right.
The town of Skagway is small, so there really wasn’t much else to see. On our way back to the ship, we stumbled across Pullen Creek where tons of salmon were swimming upstream.
While back on board, we ate our way up to the top since we had missed lunch.
Started with dessert at Al Bacio…
Burgers and fries at the Mast Grill…
and ice cream at Ocean View Café…
The sun finally came out, giving us a beautiful view of town…
We sailed through Endicott arm in the AM to look at the Dawes Glacier. The cruise advertises sailing through Tracy Arm Fjord, but it didn’t seem like any of the trips during the season made it to that arm. The captain will often choose not to sail through a particular fjord due to ice congestion, but I read somewhere that it’s really up to the harbor seals. If there are harbor seal pups on ice, the ship will be directed by the National Park ranger to turn around, which I think is reasonable. I’m OK with not seeing/experiencing something as long as wild life is preserved.
To view the glacier, the best place to be is in the bow of the ship. There are several good viewing spot on the ship. Most people were in the warmth of the Sky Lounge, but I decided I wanted to be in the element – rain and wind. I chose to be out on the deck right outside the gym because being out in the element would be more memorable for me – whipped around in the wind while struggling to wipe away the rain drops off the camera lens. If I’m ensconced in a comfy chair with a warm coffee in hand I’d be bored. See, I’m a glutton for punishment.
Plus the window in the Sky Lounge is tinted, so whatever photo you take of the glacier is affected. So for those of you who want to experience the element, go up to deck 12 where the gym is, and go out onto the deck. Some folks stayed inside the gym (e.g., Joe), and later came out when we got closer. They probably thought I was crazy silly, but I enjoyed it.
Clear blue ice alongside the ship…
Ice chunks everywhere…
Some people chose to view the glacier from the helipad, but why fight the crowd? Deck 12 is a secret spot – only a few people knew about it.
Look at the size of the catamaran compared to the glacier…
A few more photos of Dawes Glacier…
View along the way…
The captain made a few 180s before heading back out the arm and onward to Juneau. It was going to be another 4 hours before arriving in Juneau, and some time between Endicott Fjord and Juneau was when I realized I was getting bored. OK, that didn’t take long. So to all you active travelers out there (you know who you are) – you’ve been warned.
We arrived in Juneau sometime before 1:30PM. We were scheduled to meet up with our tour guide from Above and Beyond Alaska (ABAK) at 2:30PM at the ‘C’ sign in downtown Juneau. Our ship was docked at the AJ dock – the furthest one from town, and you could take the shuttle, which would get you in town in 5 minutes, or walk 20 minutes into town. We of course chose the latter.
Tracy’s King Crab Shack. This is where we saw all of Joe’s people – the Cantonese. They all made a bee line to the Crab Shack. We don’t get it – too much work for such little return in crab meat, but I guess it’s in the Cantonese genes.
Since we had time, we wanted to check out the rest of the town, but we were met by a down pour – always expect rain in Alaska. So we just headed back to the ‘C’ sign to wait for our driver.
A guy from ABAK drove us to the warehouse to get outfitted. On the way there, he pointed out the lone McDonald’s in all of Juneau. It must be a big deal. Our tour guide Emma later told us when they first opened, there was a run on McD’s and then they had to wait 2 weeks for the next shipment to come in.
I had wanted to sign up for the canoe paddle and glacier trek, but it had already sold out by then, so ended up booking through Juneau Shore Tours for a private 6-hour kayak and glacier trek with ABAK. I thought it would be better to kayak vs. doing the canoe paddle, but Emma told us that kayak is harder since there are more people paddling in the canoe. No worries, I had been working on my back and arms for the last couple of months just for this excursion.
After being outfitted, Emma drove the 2 of us to the kayaks. On the way there, we got to talking to Emma, and interestingly, she’s originally from southern California and moved to Juneau 4 years ago for an outdoors studies program offered by the University of Alaska Southeast. Where was this program when I was going to school? One of the things she had to do for class was to hike the entire Mendenhall glacier, yes, that’s 13 miles of glacier trekking. Again, where was this program when I was going to school?!?!
But I digress…
Kayaking was exciting for the first 10-15 minutes, but then I realized that it was going to be an hour of kayaking to the glacier. I just had to put my head down and paddle.
We finally reached shore, along with everyone else…
A snack before the trek…
ABAK had prepared a snack bag for us. In it were candy bars, gummy fruit chews, baby carrots, humus, string cheese. Oh, after 1 hour of kayaking everything tasted like heaven.
I was ready to go, but we waited for everyone else to clear out first – hence private tour. FYI, the canoe paddle & trek is under $300 per person, the private kayak & trek is $550 per person – so if you want to do this tour, sign up early!
My main objective of this tour was to see an ice cave. On our way there, Emma explained that the glacier has been retreating faster than it is advancing. Caves that they visited last week had already melted. This information was quite disturbing, and I realized the irony of us traveling to Alaska contributes to all this warming trend and the melting of the ice. Something to chew on…
But since I was already there, I had to check out the cave…
Here’s glacial water flowing out the end of a moulin…
I had lugged my tripod (yes, I was able to fit it into my pack) with me to capture the flowing water through the cave. Here’s a situation where wide angle lenses would be useful.
This beats whale watching, an extremely popular excursion in Juneau, for me. Although I would have liked to have had the option of staying in Juneau for another day so that I could do both. Again, this is when cruising takes that control out of my hands.
The benefit of a private tour is that you can stay in the cave taking pictures for as long as you want, but alas, I had to put away the tripod and put on crampons for some glacier trekking.
Another argument for wide angle lenses…
And another one…
The blue flowing glacial water draining into a moulin…
Interesting tidbit per Emma – moulins are formed by something heating up the surface of the glacier. It can be anything from a leaf to a pebble/rock. All these objects absorb heat from the sun, and start melting the glacial surface. Water then starts burrowing and forming a tunnel. Very dangerous to fall into one of these things as you never know where you’ll end up at – spit out into a cave if you’re lucky, or trapped in the glacier if you’re not. Fun stuff! I would have wanted to rappel down a moulin if my ship didn’t have to leave in a few hours…
On our way back, Emma brought us back through the ice cave and allowed me to set up my tripod again – maybe it was a good idea to book that private tour after all.
I just can’t get enough of this…
Finally, she brought us to a spot to finish the rest of our snack. What snack? I had already gobbled up 90% of my snack earlier, so I just checked out the scenery.
Paddlers already heading back…
We were one of the last ones left, and I was so not looking forward to the kayak trip back. I told Joe, as we were en route, that I’m OK never having to get into a kayak ever again for the rest of my life.
As the sun was starting to set, I was getting a little anxious about making it back to shore before losing any daylight since there were apparently no lights on shore to guide us back. Imagine getting lost on a lake at night? Luckily we had the ever calm Emma, and we did make it.
On our way back to the ship, we finally saw our first adult bald eagle – sorry, no photos. They are apparently so omnipresent that Emma refers to them as pigeons.
By the time we got back to the ship, it was 8:30PM.
Since it was too late for dinner in the main dining room, we went to the Ocean View Café to grab dinner before it closed at 9:30PM.