Author Archives: saratreetravels

About saratreetravels

On August 13, 2006, two crazy kids from the Camp Nutimik drama team got lost on their way to a staff retreat. While driving all over the city, they discovered that they both loved The Cranberries and U2, and decided they should probably become friends...

Whatsapp? A Tale Of Two Sleeper Cars

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June 05, 2018
Euro Night Schlafwagen Sleeper Car, somewhere between Venice and Vienna.

[06-05, 10:55 PM] Sara M.: Oh man oh man oh man, my love!!!!!! I am currently on the Schlafwagen – yes, you read that awesome German right – the night train to Vienna! I don’t have wifi but I am actually SO PUMPED I just had to Whatsapp you anyways and it’ll send when it sends …. this sleeper coach is freaking FANTASTIC! My mom and I are totally balling out here! Slippers, a teeny tiny sink, a crazy rope swing to keep me in my ludicrously high top bunk as the train rocks, free sparkling wine (it was on our bed and my mom being a …

[06-05, 10:55 PM] Sara M.: HOLD THE PHONE. THIS BROADCAST INTERRUPTED TO INFORM YOU THAT MY MOM JUST DISCOVERED THERE’S A SHOWER IN OUR CAR. A SHOWER. I JUST SHOWERED ON THE TRAIN. No wonders of Europe can ever – EVER – compare with that.

[06-05, 10:55 PM] Sara M.: (Continuing on with our saga)

[06-05, 10:56 PM] Sara M.: … shameless uke and asking the porter (who btw, came to ask our BREAKFAST ORDERS), “Is the wine complimentary??” And him replying, “But of course. We just want you to enjoy your evening.”

[06-05, 10:57 PM] Sara M.: Holy crap. This is what happens when josh and not sara books the overnight train 😛

[06-05, 10:57 PM] Sara M.: (I said that to my mom and she replied, “I like josh.”)

June 06, 2018
Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

[06-06, 2:17 PM] Joshua: Hahahahaha WOW this was an epic text-barrage to wake up to!

[06-06, 2:18 PM] Joshua: Lol I’d forgotten that I had bought that ticket! Well, you’re welcome, you’re welcome (said in my Maui voice, of course)

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June 09-10, 2018
Polrail… Sleeper car? Maybe. Definitely not Car 431 (since that was on our ticket and that would thus make too much sense). Somewhere between Budapest and Záhony.

[06-09, 11:19 PM] Sara M.: I don’t know if 2 sleeper cars could be more different than Polrail vs. The Schlafwagen.

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[06-09, 11:20 PM] Sara M.: To begin, Lviv wasn’t listed as a destination on any of the trains, and there were literally zero train employees anywhere in the station to ask. A cleaning lady told me this was the right train, but our car # was not to be found (we were car 431, and the train only had up to 405). So I’m running up and down the train and finally just heave mom and the suitcases onto a car and find some seat numbers that kind of match ours. There’s only one other lady seated in the whole car and we have a very confusing conversation in English / Hungarian, during which she just repeated “Chop? Chop!” And I repeated “Seats 11 and 15!!!”

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[06-09, 11:24 PM] Sara M.: My mom saves the day at this point by discovering lady is Ukrainian , so they immediately start chatting in Ukrainian about grandchildren, which is adorable, whilst I try to puzzle out where the heck we may be off to. FINALLY an employee comes along! I show her our tickets and she goes huffily, “Sleeper car. Dat way.” I’m trying to gesture and figure out where we’re going, when she snaps, “Or stay here, up to you, I don’t care!!”

She then descends on our lovely new friend and informs her, “Your ticket second class. Out. ”

Our lady obviously can’t understand English, so employee raises her voice and goes, “Idiot. Second class! Two!! Dva!” Then she turns back to us, “Sleeper car! Go!!”

[06-09, 11:28 PM] Sara M.: Ay yi. We go through what looks like an engine room and so I had assumed was off limits but nope, apparently just the way to first-class (Obviously. Maybe I am also an idiot). We find our berth. We’re so amazed and relieved there are actual beds (and not the non-reclining chairs we had thought were our “Sleeper car” seats!)

Suddenly, this balding unshaven man in dirty jeans and a beer t-shirt comes out and gets in our room, and is gesturing at the beds and grabbing at our sheets, and waving his finger at us. Both mom and I are both thinking the same thing, namely, “Holy #@$% is this guy sharing our berth????!”

I’m telling him that we have tickets and saying the berth number over and over again, and he then grabs our tickets and says, “I take these, give back in Lviv.”

[06-09, 11:30 PM] Sara M.: Wtf um, NO. So I try to grab them back and he’s getting all pissy and finally yells, “Yura!!!!!”

And Yura, this kindly older gentleman dressed in – imagine that! – a train uniform with an ID badge, comes in, and says yes, we’re in the right place and he’ll take our tickets now and give them back in Lviv. And then he brings Mom coffee in a beautiful silver salvar and leaves.

[06-09, 11:32 PM] Sara M.: Mom and I just couldn’t stop laughing and calling yelling man every bad Ukrainian name we could think of (“Snot-nosed whiney idiot flower pot!!” …it loses something in the translation). Who the heck WAS he???

[06-09, 11:32 PM] Sara M.: Needless to say, there was no breakfast menu or sparkling wine, so good thing we still had a bottle of prosecco from the Schlafwagen — we definitely needed it!!!

[06-09, 11:33 PM] Sara M.: Just spent a lovely few hours sitting and knitting with mom, and now it’s almost bedtime. When I wake up … I’ll be in my country!!!!

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[06-10, 12:44 AM] Sara M.: Oh jeepers. Woken up by literal banging on the door at midnight — welcome to Ukraine! Border guards on-board to examine everyone’s passports!

[06-10, 1:25 AM] Sara M.: Dear goodness. Ever since crossing the border, the train has been grinding deafeningly. It actually sounds like it doesn’t fit the tracks. Eff. Looks like there will be no sleeping in this sleeper car 😑😢😩

[06-10, 1:46 AM] Sara M.: Psych! That was actually just the Hungarian exit crossing! NOW it’s Ukraine entry time! 😣 Bwahahahaha Mom definitely found her Ukrainian sassy vibe and when there was more banging on the door, she yelled, “Що ти хочеш!?? Що ви робите?!!!?” (“What!!? What do you want???!”) in Ukrainian. Safely hiding in my top bunk, pretending I didn’t understand anything, I let her deal with the border guards!

[06-10, 1:47 AM] Sara M.: Got my passport stamps!!! Ay yi, onward ho?

[06-10, 3:05 AM] Sara M.: Update – 3AM and still no ho.

[06-10, 7:15 AM] Sara M.: Aha. So apparently a giant crane came sometime after 3AM and fixed something on our train before we could start moving again.

Even the toilet paper knows we’re in Ukraine. It is literally a roll of crepe paper streamers, the colour of every good Slavic birthday party: grey.
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First glimpse of the Motherland!!
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[06-10, 9:14 PM] Sara M.: Still more hiccups upon arrival, where seminary people [random family contact in the Ukrainian Baptist community who were graciously allowing us to stay with them during our time in Lviv] were supposed to meet us but no one was at the station and we were kind of peeved and there was no Internet and no phone number to get ahold of them… but we ended up talking to a lovely cabbie who informed us there was the UKRAINA RUN marathon today (but of course!) And so no cab could even get through to the seminary. We were about to brave public transit but stopped for some breakfast first and GOT PEROGIES and suddenly we weren’t peeved at all anymore 😊😊😊😄😄😄

[06-10, 9:15 PM] Sara M.: And then perogy place had wifi and we got the mobile # for the seminary guy who was apparently wandering the station looking for us! He (and everyone at the seminary) are so exceptionally lovely and our rooms are freaking ginormous! Except we each have our own and it’s actually really sad to be separated down the hallway!

June 10, 2018
And again, back at the ranch…

[06-10, 5:56 PM] Joshua: Wowwwwww you basically just composed a complete blog entry just through these whatsapps! That sounds absolutely crazy! Glad you guys look happy (in a just-teetering-on-insane kind of way 😝)

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Gradtirement begins!

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My maternal side of the family is incredibly close knit, and I grew up surrounded by cousins who were as close as siblings. We are also incredibly Ukrainian, clinging fiercely and proudly to a culture that first Russians and then Germans attempted to wrench away from us. It wasn’t until Grade 2 that I realized “goomkah” wasn’t the English word for “elastic band,” and that other kids didn’t spend most holidays hanging out at their Ukrainian church until midnight.

I am literally “first generation and a half” Canadian, with a mom who was born in Canada but whose older siblings were born in German camps during the war. We knew the stories of the family in Ukraine and Belarus who had been lost during the war, and the miraculous reconnection thanks to the tireless work of the Red Cross with aunties and cousins presumed dead, but until the dawning of the age of easy internet access, we never dreamed of actually connecting with these faraway loved ones on a regular basis. But eventually connect we did, and now with an epic celebratory trip looming in need of a destination, I couldn’t imagine a more amazing destination than going ‘home’ with my mom.

However, there was no need to hurry straight there! While I have had the privilege of roaming throughout Europe before, my mom has never traveled in Europe outside Ukraine. So, while sitting in my apartment in China, I took the plunge and booked us flights arriving in Rome and leaving from Lviv three weeks later. Now we just had to plan all the fun things in between!

When you travel with the same someone as often as saratree tends to do, you inadvertently develop roles to expedite the planning process. I have definitely become the “things to do and eat” person, while Joshua is the “accommodations and public transit” expert. Realizing that I would need to step into the role of all of the above on this trip was, to put it mildly, freaking terrifying.

While I did have more travel experience than my mom, I felt woefully inadequate in the role of navigator (Josh seems to think my philosophy of “I always get to where I need to go…. eventually!” is amusing rather than functional, and let’s just say that my mother’s sense of direction is even more… ethereal than my own). Moreover, my mom was struggling with a chronic ankle injury that limited her mobility and caused her fairly constant pain. Was a cross-European backpacking trek really the smartest idea?

Maybe not smartest, but definitely most awesome.

A word about my mom. My mom is, as I alluded to above, a first generation refugee who grew up in the culturally and geographically challenging rural North of Canada. Her family didn’t speak English and she had never seen a city or running water until she was 14. She has faced unimaginable hardships in both her personal and extended family life, and worked for decades as a nurse where she was expected to cope with other people’s grief and pain on a daily basis. As a child, she suffered numerous health problems, including damaged veins in her legs that left her with constant and painful swelling in her left leg, and a ruptured eardrum that left her half deaf, caused by a drunken doctor attempting an ear exam.

I confess that because I’ve grown up with these things, I have taken them for granted for most of my life. Mom’s leg that was a different colour, or the fact that she wouldn’t hear you when you talked to her on a certain side, well… those were just normal parts of her, like her collection of matryoshka dolls or her hazel eyes. But living in very close quarters with her during this trip (and planning daily activities that pushed the physical limits of her normal relaxed retired life!), I saw the extent to which she is affected on an hourly basis by these things: whether it’s in the ankle swelling that causes sandal straps to not fit properly, or the careful selection of seats to ensure she can hear the waiter, or even something as simple yet tiringly constant as the quick glances towards and away from her “rainbow leg.”

And yet in spite of (or because of?) all this, my mom is the most gracious, compassionate, generous, and life-loving individual I have ever met. She has instilled me with a sense of joy in the everyday occurrences of life, as well as a sense of healthy respect towards suffering: it happens, it’s hard, so we need to support each other and learn from it.

Also, did I mention that she’s just super fun?

My mom seemed thrilled to have the chance to visit Italy (apparently she has been captivated by the idea of Pompeii since high school, of which I had no idea!), and I was equally thrilled to have the chance to play host in one of my favourite countries, despite all my worries about her well-being. I knew that if anything happened to her, not only would I feel horrible, but I would face the wrath of my three older siblings. It was one thing for ME to go irresponsibly gallivanting across the globe, but to drag along my respectable mother who was supposed to be relaxing in her much deserved retirement??

As it so often turns out, my fears were groundless. Every day, my mom astounded me with her strength, humour, and resilience. She was wonderfully encouraging to me in my newfound travel agent role, offering generous amounts of much appreciated reassurance and excitement. She appeared charmed by the vast assortment of accommodations I found for us, embracing the shared bathrooms and hostel breakfasts with aplomb. She bravely tackled Rome’s metro guarded by machine gun-toting militia, the scorching heat of the Foro Romano, the endless staircases of Venice. Most notably, she never complained. She would request to sit for a minute, or accept my offer to lug her suitcase for awhile, but she would never complain.

Our charming conglomeration of accommodations. I was VERY pleasantly surprised (read: relieved!) at how lovely they all turned out to be… I chose them mainly for price and location, and was keeping my fingers crossed for all the rest!

Our biggest hurdle… the infinite bridges & staircases of Venice (aka the city where my respect for my mom’s chutzpah quadrupled)
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Planes, trains, automobiles… and vaporettos

Life is hard. Challenges get thrown our way (sometimes more due to our choosing than other times!) But how different could our experience of challenges be if we simply stated what we needed, or what could be helpful, rather than resorting to ineffectual kvetching.

Wait, what’s that we spy from our front door? Could it be… ??!!

El Foro Romano: never fails to be utterly awe-inspiring

Hey Joshua… “[El Foro] is a good place to find a thumb.”
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My perennial favourite of the Foro – the Temple of Romulus (AD 307), with the original bronze door and the lock that STILL WORKS
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Mom taking her role as traveller-tourist seriously and not missing a thing!
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Exploring the ancient mysteries of Pompei

All life lessons aside, it was also just pure fun to play tour guide to my mom in bella Italia, a country I have now had the privilege of visiting for the third time and that still leaves so much to be discovered each time I arrive!

Amazing new discoveries with Mom, such as our blissful Santa Marinella beach day

First time in the Pacific!!!
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More firsts: Venezia gondola ride
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Visiting Burano, home of the famous Museo del Merletto (Lace Museum), is a completely different experience when you’re with a master craftswoman

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Late night strolls down to our favourite neighbourhood landmark
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And then, with coins thrown into Trevi to guarantee yet another return (it’s only had proven success thus far for me!), it was ciao! to the Romantics and hallo! to the Germanics as we boarded our Schlafwagen to Vienna.

(To be continued!)

Wall to Ourselves

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Wall to Ourselves

Sara and I have been fortunate to learn, time and time again, that if you do some serious planning and take the extra time, you can always get away from the crowds and find yourself in truly breathtaking situations (and you can read about them here, here, and here). But in China, a country where the crowds themselves are breathtaking, we weren’t sure if that feeling of solo exploration would be possible.

Spoiler alert: it is. But I’d be lying if I said we never doubted ourselves.

Being 6,000 miles long, there are many points from which to access the Great Wall, each with different amenities: some are fully infrastructured, with restaurants and shops on the wall itself, while one section features a toboggan slide (which is something that I would totally do on a return visit!), but also, of course, major crowds. However, far along the eastern end of the wall, where the Chaohe River flows in from what was once Mongol territory, is a little town called Gubeikou (‘old north gate’). It has a very weird internet presence in that many travel sites mention it, but few offer any concrete details about how to get there or what to expect. The two stretches of wall on either side of the river are called ‘Crouching Tiger’ and, you guessed it, ‘Hidden Dragon’ (okay, technically it’s actually ‘Coiled Dragon’, but why else would a dragon be coiling unless it was hiding??). All of these seemed like good enough reasons to give it a try.

Finding our way to the bus through Beijing’s massive Dongzhimen station was technically uneventful, though it felt like an adventure because it was our first time being completely on our own in China, having to memorize the characters for our destination and then search for them on literally thousands of buses. One perk of being in the most populous country in the world is that the buses leave every 10 minutes, but even then we found ourselves sardined in the far back between our backpacks and the collection of shiny new kitchen appliances that someone had bought in the big city and was taking back home with them.

After three hours we arrived at the city of Miyun, at which point Sara used some very impressive bartering to get us a spot on a van that was going to Gubeikou. The van was filled with Chinese tourists, and knowing that Gubeikou was not a large place, we figured we were all going to the same hostel.

Forty minutes later, however, the driver pulled over, shouted ‘Gubeikou!’ and we found ourselves on the side of an empty highway, alone with our backpacks. To our right, there was a town that did vaguely resemble a photo I’d seen (a decorated arch, an ornate stone building, and beautiful winding canal), but that photo had clearly been taken before some kind of zombie apocalypse that had evidently occured since. The ornate stone building now had padlocks on the doors and boards over the windows, and the canal was literally clogged with logs and branches. Worst of all, there was not a Great Wall in sight.

I got the sinking feeling one gets when one finds themselves in a Chinese ghost town without internet or a vehicle and it’s getting dark and there isn’t even an unlocked building where one might spend a chilly, disappointed night. We wandered up the cobblestone road, only to find more of the same, when suddenly a single taxi came trundling out of the shadows. We stood shamelessly in the middle of the road, hellbent on getting into it and going ANYWHERE.

The driver (who already had a passenger, but seemed pretty chill) didn’t seem to recognize anything on the map we showed him, but kindly let us in and drove us a couple minutes out of the ghost town to what seemed like a sleepy but inhabited town and stopped outside of a building that said, in English, ‘Teachers residence’. Very appropriate, but no luck at actually finding someone inside willing to take us in for the night.

It was pitch black by now, and we had lost all sense of direction as the cab meandered through an uphill labyrinth. We stopped by some sort of field, and suddenly the driver was talking to an older gentleman who had come running from the void. From their facial expressions (which we are apparently terrible at reading), we thought that they were both equally confused. Suddenly, however, the driver let us out and the other man led us to a low building, opened the gigantic square iron door (classic China!), and welcomed us to our hostel.

The man turned out to be the hostel-owner’s father, whom she referred to in text messages as Master Ho, which of course only added to his mystique. As a gesture of good will, he made sure to procure several chives from the darkness outside for us to add to our instant noodles. He and Sara had a long conversation that was completely unintelligible to either of them, but she thinks it may have been about my height.

I woke up the next morning still hesitant about where we’d ended up. But when I set out to find some eggs for breakfast, breathing in the relatively smog-free air, my doubts were immediately assuaged.

The spine of the Crouching TIger…

At this point, we had to choose which section of the wall we were going to attempt. ‘Coiled Dragon’ was lower, gentler, and marked on a detailed GPS map. ‘Crouching Tiger’, meanwhile, was steep, winding, and accompanied by the following instructions: cross the bridge and look for some steps on the right.

We deliberated for a moment…then set off towards the bridge. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

That’s tiny me at the bottom of the roller coaster.

The scrubby landscape sloping up the steep flank of the Crouching Tiger’s spine makes it easy to imagine (or actually see, if it’s the year 1200) Mongol hordes invading from the north.

The Trans-Siberian Railway trundling under our feet, straight from Moscow.

We had hoped to get away from the crowds…we never dreamed we’d manage to get away from all of humanity entirely. I alternated between feeling so incredibly connected to history and feeling like a kid on the world’s biggest play structure. Even though the modern Mongolian border was hundreds of miles away, the sense of being on the very frontier of something ancient was palpable. Awe is usually a momentary state, but this lasted the entire six hours we were on that wall.

 

Now and then the path veered away from the wall, into fields of pink blossoms and unearthly white rock.

The view from below

The view from above

Gubeikou, you had us worried for a moment, but you were truly unforgettable.

The Ol’ Spring-Break-in-Beijing Classic!

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The Ol’ Spring-Break-in-Beijing Classic!

Whaa?? Where am I? Oh, hello!

(*dusts himself off and looks around to get his bearings*)

Returning to this blog feels (I can only assume) like falling through a hole in space-time, like Lucy discovering Narnia, or Jack Skellington finding himself in Christmastown. But maybe this Twilight Zone-esque bewilderment is an appropriate metaphor for a Western traveller whose first foray into Asia was a week-long sortie into one of its busiest, most ancient metropolises (metropoli?).

Though going to China for a single week seems preposterous, the planetary alignment in this case (Sara having an actual Spring Break due to a clerical error the previous year / that Spring Break coinciding with mine / both the aforementioned Spring Breaks coinciding with the end of her medical exchange in China) was too good to pass up. We decided that the best way to immerse ourselves in this wildly different world was to spend the entire week in the bustling city of Beijing.

 

The sprawling 3,000-year-old Imperial palace, ominously known as the Forbidden City, is practically synonymous with Beijing. Standing in its first plaza, vast and paved enough to put an IKEA parking lot to shame, one gets the impression that the sole intent of this place was to intimidate visitors, to suggest the size of the army that could be assembled in such a gathering place. And then, after crossing that infinite expanse of concrete, one passes through the extravagant arch on the other side and enters…ANOTHER INFINITE EXPANSE OF CONCRETE! AND ANOTHER! These plazas repeat themselves almost to the point of absurdity, with decadent names such as Hall of Eternal Happiness and the Hall of Infinite Prosperity, finally culminating in the Imperial Garden, a refreshing Eden of exotic trees that feels like the organic nerve centre of this massive geometric body. The effect is staggering.

Breathing the fresh air of the Imperial Garden.

 

Sara making herself at home in the Hall of Literary Brilliance.

 

The next day we took the metro (which, incidentally, is a great crash course in Mandarin characters, since all the stops are just some combination of the words for north, east, south, west, gate, bridge, lake, and river) to the Temple of Heaven Park: equally majestic, but with the intimidation factor replaced by lush tranquility. Here we saw the mellow side of the otherwise frenetic Beijing lifestyle: people dancing, elderly folks doing gravity-defying tae chi, and parents playing with their kids.

 

I insisted we take a fairly lengthy metro detour to see one of my favourite architectural wonders (/anomalies): the CCTV Headquarters, aka THE PANTS!

If you are ever in Beijing, you absolutely must visit the Wangfujing Snack Street. Yes, it’s touristy, but it’s also delicious and completely unique. Where else can you find live scorpion kebabs, heaps of tentacles, or whatever donkey wallow is?

Our final major destination was the Yongzhe Lama Temple, Beijing’s largest Buddhist establishment. If the Forbidden City was formidable and the Temple of Heaven tranquil, then the Lama Temple was, in a word, reverent. A ubiquitous blanket of fragrant smoke keeps each individual alone with their thoughts, free to explore the sacred maze. I was fascinated by the worshippers, recognizing the looks on their faces but not the bells, flags, wheels, and statues that held such meaning for them.  Being an outsider in a place so intimate made me think of the old parable of the blind men who each touch a different part of an elephant and thus think they are touching something different entirely. What I was witnessing was indeed a very new and different part of the same proverbial elephant than I’d grown up with.

 

Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Beijing’s hottest travel destination, and although you won’t find him in Lonely Planet, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind being referred to as such. My friend and fellow teacher, Travis, played the role of perfect host throughout this trip, letting us stay in his apartment, keeping me up til 3:00am on the night of my arrival to break me of any potential jetlag (watching him play hockey in a freezing cold arena for two hours helped, as did the copious amounts of beer and jianbing at the local expat bar afterwards!), helping us with everything from buying a metro pass to asking for less slippery chopsticks in restaurants (the wooden ones make it a LOT easier, okay!!), inviting us to hang out at the Canadian embassy after a ball-hockey game to partake in the finest hoser beverages in all of China, driving us to and from the airport, and finding the best spots for Peking duck (thanks Han!), hotpot, and malatong. T-Rav, I can’t believe we ACTUALLY got to take you up on your invitations to see you in your natural habitat. Xiexie for a fantastic time!

Sara and Travis greet me at the airport with a sign taped to a hockey stick using a band-aid.

 

A first and unforgettable experience of Peking duck.

 

A toast to Canada’s finest spirits, hockey team, and expats!

Shant-outings*

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*Thanks to Joshua for the oh-so-punny title

As mentioned previously, Shantou is tucked into the coastline of the South China Sea, making it the perfect jumping off point for day trips to the numerous surrounding islands. On our first weekend in China, myself and the other Canadian exchange students took the ferry for 1 yuan (~20 cents) across the Shantou Harbour and landed on the idyllic shores of Queshi island. We were greeted by a woman expertly dissecting pineapples with a machete and neatly skewering the slices onto long skewers. An entire pineapple for 7¥ ($1.5) seemed a reasonable price to pay for a snack as we walked along the island’s meandering paths.

View of Queshi from the Shantou side of the sea

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Our goal was the pagoda we had seen every morning we walked along our side of the harbour. On our way up the mountain, we explored a series of naturally formed granite caverns with such enchanting names as “Rainbow Lying Cave,” “Happy Fate Cave,” “God’s Shoe,” “The Platform for Watching Sight of Flame Mount,” and “Three-Tier Cave Toilet” (on second thought, maybe that last one was 2 separate stops…)

View of Shantou from the Queshi side of the sea! 

Terrifyingly steep steps into the caves!

Lovely lunchtime stop
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Giant Buddha (only after an entire photo sesh with G.B. did we realise we had been sitting in front of a sign that read, in Chinese, that pictures cost 2¥ each… and consequently a terrifying encounter with the giant security guard ensued)

After eating lunch in the pagoda at the mountain peak and paying our respects to giant Buddha back down on the ground, we headed back to the ferry. Before we had even landed back on mainland, we were already receiving WeChats from our host students, inviting us out for an evening of quintessential Chinese cultural fun: KTV.

KTV (aka karaoke) is more than just a past time in China… it’s practically an art form. Whole streets are lined with massive KTV buildings, each hosting a multitude of private rooms where groups can order food & drinks and custom-create a karaoke setlist of K-Pop and the newest Swifty singles. At KTV, the most stoic and shy of students suddenly comes into their own and discovers their latent pop stardom, belting out sexy ballads with no restraint or reserve whatsoever!

Post-KTV, we were up bright and early to board the bus taking us to a village about 2 hours from Shantou. Interestingly enough for a self-declared Communist country, healthcare is not publicly funded in China, and therefore many citizens cannot afford basic medications or even a simple doctor’s visit. Thanks to Guangdong-born Hong Kong billionaire philanthropist, the Li Ka-Shing foundation has instituted numerous charitable works to address health inequities across the country, including the one we were participating in that morning – Medical Aid for the Poor (MAP). Once a month, MAP physicians set up free clinics in villages near Shantou, providing free medications, blood pressure readings, and specialist consults. They also provide home visits for any rural citizens unable to transport themselves to the clinic.

My lunch at MAP won the honour of being the most interesting food I have ever eaten to date: I was so proud of myself initially for trying what I was convinced was liver, since I had never had that before. But when I checked in with my Chinese friend, she blithely corrected me: “Oh no, those are blood clots. Maybe pig? Probably dog.”

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Home visits & tour of the village temple

Since we were spending so much time in “small town” China (remember that Shantou’s population is a mere 5 million), we thought we should grab the chance to see big city China at its most iconic: Hong Kong.

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For being so close to Shantou, it was a headache and a half to actually make our way to HKSAR. A chartered car, a bullet train, a subway, a walk through two sets of customs, and another subway later, we were finally in our Hong Kong home for the weekend – an itty bitty hostel room on the 14th floor. The rule was that some part of each person had to be touching their bunk at all times, otherwise there was not enough space for us all in the room!

Hong Kong had some noteworthy features: milk tea, pork floss toast, the mind-blowing bus ride up to Victoria Peak (call me small town, but I have never seen buildings rising up higher than the surrounding mountains!!), and the hilarious experience of finding our way up to the “Highest Bar in the World” and negotiating with the hostesses and fellow patrons for rented pants so our male compatriots could actually enter the bar (because apparently, while shorts are incredibly offensive and inappropriate, ankle-skimming polyester gems passed around to 3 different gentleman in 1 hour are far, far more acceptable). However, in general, I do not feel the need to go back to HKSAR. I feel so privileged to have spent the majority of my time in “small town” China that actually felt unique, and not simply like a crowded version of any forgettable kitschy American town.

Buildings, buildings everywhere…

The day after arriving back in Shantou from HKSAR, we were again packed into a bus, this time to trek several hours to Nan’ao island, where we spent a lazy day hiking up to yet more pagodas, watching our bus driver carve roast chicken with his bare hands, and getting yelled at by locals for daring to swim in the ocean (apparently, that’s just not done).

All in all, our Shant”outings” made an already memorable exchange even more extraordinary. And after three weeks of this, I still had a week of true holidays left…
(To be continued!)

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Barefoot to White Coat

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Having returned from my three months of out-of-province electives, I settled back into the swing of things at home… at least for the next two months 😉 I was at home just long enough to do some CaRMS interviews for my upcoming residency specialty training, complete my final undergraduate OSCE (a lengthy clinical exam with actors pretending to be patients suffering from a variety of weird and wonderful ailments), and spend an incredible month working with the Program of Assertive Community Treatment (aka PACT), a service provided at home to individuals with severe and persistent mental illness, helping them stay out of hospital and maintain their independence in the community.

March 1 was Match Day, the day where medical students all across the country are informed which specialty program they have been accepted into; or in other words, the day we find out what type of medicine we will be practicing for the rest of our careers. I was beyond thrilled to match to my first choice of Family Medicine – Northern-Remote stream, a specialized Family Med program designed to address inequities in access and quality of healthcare for Canadians living in rural and remote areas, particularly those of Indigenous descent. While every Family Med program across Canada offers excellent medical training, I was drawn to the Northern-Remote stream for its unique decolonizing vision and immense scope of practice. And now, as of July 1, I will be a member of its team!!

“Plan B” theme party on Match Day Eve – Joshua and I showed up as WWOOFers, to nobody’s surprise!

Match Day!!

Even after some epic Match Day celebrations, the adventures were not over! Two days after the Match, I boarded a plane along with three other med students, and two days after that, we landed in Shantou, China, a “small town” of only 5 million people in the Guangdong province, nestled on the coast of the South China Sea.

Our apartment complex and view from my window

Seven minute walk from my apartment to the harbour!

The four of us had the immense privilege of being chosen to participate in an international medical exchange with one of our sister universities. Every day for three weeks, we toured two different hospital wards, ranging from Neonatology to Hepatobiliary to Orthopedic surgery. An English-speaking physician was assigned to us on each ward and would accompany us on bedside rounds of their patients.

The brain tumour research hospital… appropriately shaped.

Shantou “Hospital #1”

Bedside rounds & teaching


There were a number of striking differences in the Shantou hospital wards compared to our Canadian wards, but the most notable by far was the organization of care. In North America, family physicians (known in the past as “GPs”) are the first stop for the vast majority of patients. Sore throats, earaches, slipped discs, period problems, prostate problems, depression, pregnancy… most health concerns can be treated directly by a family doc, but if need be, the patient is then referred to the appropriate specialist for more unusual and complicated health conditions.

This type of healthcare organization, aka with a “primary care” focus, is rare in China, and the vast majority of individuals in China bypass primary care physicians and attempt to access specialists directly for all healthcare concerns. In other words, if you have a headache, you try to see a neurologist. A cough and sore throat? You hope to somehow snag an appointment with a respirologist. Partly this is due to cost: with China’s three-tiered system, individuals are required to pay for most services out of pocket, so patients do not want to risk having to pay a family physician and subsequently pay another fee to a specialist. Furthermore, there is a strong historical component that has cultivated a sense of mistrust towards the idea of primary care.

Several decades ago, the concept of “primary care” referred to farmers in rural areas who received a mere 3 months of training by urban medical professionals, in an attempt to address healthcare access issues for the enormous rural Chinese population (which represented 80% of the total Chinese population during the 1970s and 1980s). While these “barefoot doctors,” as they came to be known, provided some relief to the healthcare crisis, their training and medical expertise was understandably unequal to that provided in tertiary care centres staffed by fully trained physicians. The barefoot doctor system eventually collapsed under economic policies introduced during the Cultural Revolution.

Family Medicine was only introduced as an official specialty in Chinese medical schools in 1999. In 2009, new health reforms were put in place in response to rising public frustrations over difficulties in accessing professional medical care, as well as the steep prices associated with healthcare. The Chinese government instituted a goal of training 300 000 family physicians by 2020; even this impressive number, however, would still only provide 0.2 family doctors for every 1000 citizens (in comparison, consider that there are 1.17 family docs per 1000 Canadians – ~6x more than in China – and that is still woefully inadequate!!)

Some may think that China’s approach to healthcare is actually more effective; after all, cutting out the middle step of a family physician should likely result in faster and better service, right? On the contrary. Since 2009, primary care use in China has decreased, while visits to hospitals and specialist services have increased significantly. And sadly, death from all causes, money spent on healthcare, and inequity between rural and urban health measures have also increased in China. Multiple studies have shown that regular primary care improves health outcomes and reduces time spent in hospital. But unfortunately, in China, people with multiple different health concerns tend to use specialist and hospitalist care over regularly seeing a family physician. Moreover, people with lower incomes tend to have poorer access to primary care services, and therefore are at a higher risk for poorer health outcomes in general.

The partnership between our university and Shantou has been an exciting adjunct in addressing the primary care gap in China. While in Shantou, Canadian Family Medicine faculty and residents were very involved in giving lectures to and leading discussion groups with Shantou medical students and residents.

It was fascinating to discuss both the differences in clinical approaches between China and Canada, but also realize just how many similarities existed between our sites. As one preceptor stated, “We are all just trying to provide the best care possible to our patients.”

Piqhiqpaa? Piqhinngittuq.

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ᐱᖅᓯᖅᐹ? (Blizzard; Is there a … ?)
ᐱᖅᓯᙱᑦᑐᖅ. (Blizzarding; It is not .)

When one kind of accidentally realizes they’re going to be away from home for 3 months, the option of trying to see one’s spouse occasionally comes to mind. Josh and I tossed around endless possibilities, trying to find what made most sense: Should he come to Toronto, about the halfway point of my travels, which would also give him the chance to see his cousins? Should he come to Ottawa, getting to stay with my family and one of his best buddies, but then would that be silly if I was going to be in Winnipeg (albeit very briefly) the next weekend? At the back of our minds in all these discussions was the dream of him visiting me in Rankin, but it remained firmly in dreamland. While I knew his intrigue for Nunavut was at least equal to my own, we also knew that flights to the Territories are prohibitively expensive at the best of times, let alone for a brief weekend visit.

Air miles, on the other hand? Apparently cheaper to get to Rankin than Ottawa.

And suddenly our complicated decision-making got a whole lot simpler!

His flight blew in Thursday night, just hours ahead of a blizzard that would shut down the town the next morning, leaving us with an open day to explore Rankin in the daylight. With sunset sweeping the skies by 2:30PM, extra daylight hours are not something to take for granted!

11:30AM

2:30PM

Josh’s welcome feast of leftover birthday kwak and maqtaq… I assured my host he most definitely would NOT mind leftovers, particularly of this variety!

Josh trying his hand at the ulu, under Aanak’s watchful eye

Aanak’s expert ulu wielding

Sadly leaving Josh at home, I blindly made my way to clinic through the gusting snow on Friday morning, only to be informed an hour later that we were now shut down. Apparently there’s an Environment Canada gnome who sits on high and makes the call of Blizzard or Non… and apparently he slept in on Friday. Gnome needs to get his act together!

As I struggled back home and was swept in through the door by the winds, I was greeted by my host and her friend having coffee. “Pshh” they scoffed. “This isn’t even a real blizzard. You can still see the car in the driveway.”
…I’d love to know what Toronto would think of this system.

Josh’s visit fortuitously fell on a Flea Market weekend, where the whole hamlet gathers at the arena to hawk traditional felted banners, sealskin gloves, hand-sewn parkas, and spring rolls from the Filipino family in town. We continued our shopping expedition by combing through every inch of the tiny but packed craft store Ivalu, stocked by artisans throughout Nunavut.

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We then holed up at The Matchbox Gallery for a few hours, hearing the fascinating history of the ceramics studio from the artist-teacher gallery owner Susan Shirley. After the original nickel mine closed in the 1960s, Matchbox was first opened as a government-run program to train ex-miners in a new craft: sculpting and ceramics. When government funding ran out, Jim and Sue Shirley took over the gallery and continued coordinating art classes and studio space for local artists, “preserv[ing] the reputation of Rankin as the only community producing Inuit fine-arts ceramics in the world.” You can find Rankin work at the National Gallery of Canada, the Winnipeg Art Gallery, and throughout Europe and the USA.



Sunday however, was my favourite day, when we finally did what I’ve been wanting to do since I first arrived: Venture out of town and onto the land.

Perfect weather for an adventure!

Sea ice waves still struggling to surge in the tide of Hudson Bay

Dabbing at Char River … inevitable when one of your hosts is 9 years old

Photos could not begin to capture the ethereal beauty of this deep port bay

Classic Canadian method of warming up frozen toes and fingers

This time, it was only a weekend. But we will continue to seek out those beautiful and wild places we may one day call home together!

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For anyone who read to the end of this most momentous post, congratulations!!! Thank you for sharing in saratreetravel’s ONE HUNDREDTH POST!!! The first person to post a comment containing a limerick or haiku about their favourite travel adventure will be contacted personally by saratree and receive a Northern prize (that may or may not be fermented walrus, depending on the rest of Calm Air’s passengers feel about that… but I have a feeling they’d be down).

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