As 2013 draws to a close, I want to take a look back at some of my favorite moments, both big and small. I am always so busy planning for the next adventure that sometimes I lose sight of the incredible things I’ve already done! The year began with a bang in Shanghai, China (literally thanks to the Chinese love of fireworks) and is ending with a slow southern drawl in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. In between, I visited five countries and moved from one continent to another halfway around the world. I took my first solo international trip, a defining moment that allowed me to tap my strength and resourcefulness. Now, I am spending the holidays with my family for the first time in two years. While I didn’t have as many animal adventures as last year, 2013 was still quite special.
1. Visiting the Temples of Angkor
The highlight of the year was undoubtedly our visit to Cambodia’s UNESCO-listed Angkor Archaeological Park, more commonly known as Angkor Wat. The ruins of the ancient Khmer Empire are breathtaking in their scope and beauty, and top many travelers’ must-see lists for good reason. I particularly enjoyed the atmospheric temples of Beng Mealea and Ta Prohm, which are slowly being reclaimed by the jungle and brought my Tomb Raider fantasies to life.
2. Glimpsing Tibetan culture in Shangri-la
Living in Shanghai, it was easy to forget that there is more to China than shiny skyscrapers and high-speed trains. Yunnan Province, in the far southwest of the country, is home to blue skies, verdant hills and sizable populations of some of China’s 56 ethnic minority groups, including Tibetans. The picturesque town of Shangri-la is the site of Sumtseling Monastery, one of the most important outside Tibet. The gold-crowned prayer halls were a riot of color and candles, with jewel-encrusted Buddhas atop the altar and prayer flags strung from the ceiling. Amazingly, I had the space nearly all to myself, a rare moment in a country of 1.35 billion.
3. “Entering” North Korea at the DMZ
Did you know that North Korea still considers itself to be at war with South Korea, even though hostilities were officially suspended in 1953, and that the “Demilitarized Zone” between the two nations is actually one of the world’s most heavily militarized borders? During our tour of the DMZ, we learned about the ongoing conflict and stood in the conference room where negotiations take place. Half the room technically resides in North Korea so, under the protective watch of ROK and US soldiers, we “crossed the border” into the Hermit Kingdom for a few thrilling minutes.
4. Hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge
One of the most stunning landscapes I saw in China was the towering cliffs of Tiger Leaping Gorge. A smooth-as-glass river runs through the 15-kilometer-long canyon and blue skies soar overhead. Though we technically walked along a paved path, our trek through this pristine place was one of my favorite moments during our entire stay in China.
5. Relaxing in Luang Prabang
The sleepy hamlet of Luang Prabang, Laos, is a very special place. Though perhaps most famous for the daily alms procession made by saffron-robed monks, we most enjoyed the slow pace of life and the quiet cafes perched along the riverbank. The town’s architecture is a beautiful mix of traditional Lao and 19th century European styles, with a modern royal palace nestled among the golden stupas. The view from atop Luang Prabang’s highest hill is well worth the climb, especially at sunrise. I need to watch more sunrises.
6. Eating all the food in Budapest
Our summer took an unexpected turn when we had the chance to go to Europe, a continent I hadn’t seen in over two years. We spent one glorious week in Budapest, eating all the Hungarian treats we could find: Paprika chicken, boar stew, roast goose, potato pancakes, cherry strudel … just looking back at the photos makes me drool!
7. Exploring a Hong Kong fishing village
Many people venture to Hong Kong’s Lantau Island to see the big Buddha statue perched atop a hill, but for me the island’s biggest draw is a small fishing village called Tai O. While it attracts many tourists, it still manages to offer a fascinating glimpse of local life. Freshly caught fish and seafood are sold in shops while more fish are left to dry in the sun. Houses back against the water, many standing on stilts, with wooden walkways connecting the neighborhood to land. Quaint food and shopping options abound making Tai O the perfect place to while away a sunny afternoon away from the hustle and bustle of central Hong Kong.
8. Going for a wild ride in the Cambodian countryside
Cambodia made an indelible impression on me. Ravaged by genocide and civil war, the poverty there remains acute, and yet the people we encountered were generous and kind. Our tuk-tuk driver showed up wearing the same clothes every day and still he brought us cold bottles of water and face masks to protect us from the choking red dust of the roads. He had a grin that lit up everything around him and talked about the importance of forgiveness and his Buddhist faith. On our last day with him, we drove for several hours through the countryside and surrounding jungle, past villages with no electricity or running water. It was a side of Cambodia not many tourists get to see and an experience I’ll not soon forget.
9. Drinking bull’s blood wine in Eger, Hungary
With a full week in Budapest, we had plenty of time to see a little more of Hungary. One day we took the train to Eger, a medieval town famous for its wine. Though the region is best suited to making white wines, we traveled there expressly to taste a red variety known as “Bull’s Blood,” or Egri Bikavér. When the Turks attacked Eger in the 16th century, they were met with a stout defense and were unable to take the town. As the story goes, the Turks believed the defenders had drank the blood of bulls to gain unnatural strength. We didn’t come away any stronger, but the wine sure was delicious!
10. Meeting a Chinese medicine doctor
While in China’s ethnically diverse Yunnan Province, we ventured into Baisha, a tiny Naxi village a few kilometers from Lijiang. Baisha’s most famous resident is Dr. Ho Shixiu, a spry 93-year-old expert in Chinese herbal medicine. Dr. Ho’s philosophy is simple and he repeated it to us several times: “Optimism is the best medicine.” He also told us that we looked very healthy so no herbal prescriptions for us!
11. Exploring Shanghai’s modern art scene
50 Moganshan Lu, or M50 for short, is the nucleus of Shanghai’s burgeoning art scene. It was surreal to walk around abandoned-factories-cum-art-galleries in a country known more for making consumer goods than modern art. The graffiti-riddled walls and provocative paintings made this neighborhood a quick favorite.
12. Horseback riding in Yunnan
We spent two weeks in Yunnan, soaking up the fresh air and marveling at the untouched landscapes. When the opportunity to take a horseback ride presented itself, we jumped at the chance! Our trusty steeds took us up through the mountains, past crumbling villages and high-altitude lakes supposedly left over from the last ice age. It was a wonderful respite from the noise and pollution of Shanghai!
13. Eating traditional dim sum in Hong Kong
A friend and Hong Kong native took me for a traditional brunch where dim sum is still served from pushcarts. As women wheeled carts laden with steamer baskets and small plates past our table, we signaled when we wanted something, and soon our table was overflowing with dishes. The high points included delicate shrimp dumplings, fluffy barbecue pork buns and deep-fried yams stuffed with roast pork. The experience was so much more enjoyable than simply ordering off a menu!
14. Discovering the National Arboretum in Washington, DC
Despite having lived over half my life near Washington, DC, I was sadly unfamiliar with the U.S. National Arboretum. Eager to see the autumn leaves in peak color, we set off to explore the 446-acre park with nearly 10 miles of pathways winding through woods and gardens. Special features of the arboretum include a field of sandstone columns originally part of the U.S. Capitol Building and an expansive bonsai garden filled with centuries-old trees.
15. Touring Hungarian Parliament
Budapest’s most iconic landmark is the gleaming white Parliament Building gracing the bank of the Danube. The interior resembles an opulent royal palace, with nearly 40 kilos of gold used in the ornamentation! We toured three rooms of the impressive structure, including the former meeting hall of the House of Lords and the chamber containing the Crown of St. Stephen, Hungary’s national treasure.
16. Visiting the 9/11 Memorial in NYC
When I moved to New York City twelve years ago, the World Trade Center was smoldering rubble. Today the 16-acre site is a lovely park filled with trees and tourists. Waterfalls pour into the footprints of the twin towers, where reflecting pools are meant to wash away the horrors of death and destruction. Visiting the site is an emotional experience, but one I encourage everyone to make.
17. Having afternoon tea in Hong Kong
The tradition of afternoon tea began in 1865 at the Langham hotel in London and I couldn’t resist indulging myself at the sister property in Hong Kong. My Disney-themed Beauty and the Beast tea set provided the perfect combination of luxurious savory snacks and rich chocolaty desserts. I felt like a princess all afternoon!
18. Learning to play mahjong
I couldn’t live in China for two years and not attempt to learn the national game! While I certainly didn’t become an expert, it was fun to play a few non-competitive rounds of mahjong with my neighbors and learn a little something of the history of this complex tile game.
19. French dining on the Bund
There is no better place to be in Shanghai on a beautiful blue sky day than the Bund, the gorgeous promenade stretching along the banks of the busy Huangpu River. The ultra-modern skyscrapers of Pudong create a picture-perfect backdrop across the river, while the grand buildings of the former British Concession form a stately rear guard. Many of the old banks and offices have been converted into high-end dining establishments offering some of the best food in the city. One such restaurant is Jean Georges, where we enjoyed a truly exceptional meal.
20. A Night of a Thousand Candles
To help celebrate my first Christmas home in two years, my mom and I walked through Brookgreen Gardens, a sculpture garden on the site of a former rice plantation. For the Christmas event known as A Night of a Thousand Candles, the already lovely park is transformed into South Carolina’s version of a winter wonderland. Candles line the walkways and float gracefully across ponds, while electric lights adorn the trees. The effect is magical and made my holiday feel even more special.
Happy New Year! Where will you be celebrating? What were the special moments of your year?