Thursday, January 02, 2014

Thank you 2013! Where in the world was I last year?

Machu Picchu, Peru
It's fantastic thinking how much of the planet we've covered in the past twelve months. I've actually decided to slow it down a bit this year. But to welcome the New Year, here are highlights from international destinations I visited in 16 countries in 2013. It was quite difficult to remember every city I visited. But thanks to Instagram @ivanhenares, it's all there!

Hanoi, Vietnam: Huc Bridge, Ngoc Son Temple & Hoan Kiem Lake
In January, I led a tour group to Hanoi, Halong Bay and Tam Coc, Vietnam in pleasantly cool weather. Don't we all love that boat ride through the limestone karst formations of Halong Bay?

February saw me back in Thailand with my UP AIT students. We explored Bangkok and visited the ancient city of Ayutthaya.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC
I visited a new continent in the Summer of 2013 ― South America! My trip started in the US; stayed in Washington, DC for a week and visited a classmate in Baltimore, MD. Then I was off to Rio de Janeiro with tokayo Ivan Man Dy for our five-week South American adventure.

View of Sugarloaf Mountain & Rio de Janeiro from Cristo Redentor
Rio is a charming city! We made sure to visit its famed urban beaches such as Copacabana and Ipanema, and took a tram ride up Cristo Redentor where we were afforded a spectacular view of the city, Sugarloaf Mountain and Guanabara Bay.

Plaza Independencia in Montevideo, Uruguay
From Rio de Janeiro, we took a bus to São Paolo and then to Porto Alegre before crossing the border to Uruguay. Yes, it's the country famous for legalizing marijuana this year! In Uruguay, we walked the charming streets of Montevideo with its fantastic architecture, ate a sumptuous steak at the local market, and then visited old Colonia del Sacramento before taking a ferry to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Argentine tango in Barrio San Telmo, Buenos Aires
Of course, like every visitor to Buenos Aires, we payed our respects to Evita at the Recoleta Cemetery and enjoyed the street tango at San Telmo.

Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesús in Córdoba, Argentina
Estancia de Santa Catalina, Cordoba, Argentina
The next day, we took an overnight bus and visited the Jesuit Block of Cordoba and the estancias of Alta Gracia, Jesús María and Santa Catalina. We found out that Alta Gracia is where Che Guevara grew up. His family house has been converted into a museum.

Cerro Concepción, Valparaíso, Chile
From Cordoba, we took a bus to Mendoza, and from there took another bus that crossed the Andes and the border, and finally to Santiago, Chile. After spending a night in Santiago, we moved to neighboring Valparaiso and spent two nights there before taking a 24-hour bus to San Pedro de Atacama to experience nature at its finest.

Salar de Atacama, Antofagasta, Chile
We visited the altiplano of the Antofagasta Region at the heart of the Atacama Desert and its sites such as Los Flamencos National Reserve, Laguna Miscanti, Laguna Miñiques, Salar de Atacama, Valle de la Luna, Valle de la Muerte and the Géisers de Tatio.

Plaza de Armas, Arequipa, Peru
After exploring the driest place on the planet, we hopped on another long bus ride to Arica, the border town of Chile, crossed the border by taxi to Tacna, Peru's border town, and took a bus to Arequipa from there.

Cuzco's Plaza de Armas from the Iglesia de San Cristobal
We had a few hours in charming Arequipa before taking off on another long bus ride to Cuzco. We spent several days there, highlighted by our visit to Machu Picchu. Cuzco is such a historic city with a colorful local culture.

Machu Picchiu, Peru
Casa de Pizarro, Palacio de Gobierno del Perú, Lima
So many long-distance bus rides in Peru! And we weren't done yet! From Cuzco, we traveled by bus for a day to the capital Lima. It's Plaza Mayor is stunning! Lest we forget, Lima was the capital of the Viceroyalty of Peru, which for a time covered most of South America. We also got to watch the changing of the guard at the Government Palace of Peru.

Uros Floating Islands in Puno, Peru
We then took a bus back to Arequipa (yes, another long bus ride) where we hopped on another bus to Puno, the gateway to Lake Titicaca.

Fraternidades Folklóricas de Copacabana in Copacabana, Bolivia to honor of the Señor de la Santa Cruz de Colquepata
From Puno, we crossed the border into Bolivia and stopped by Copacabana where we were lucky to witness the festivities of the Señor de la Santa Cruz de Colquepata. It wasn't easy finding a place to stay though because of the fiesta, and it wasn't cheap! But it was well worth it. We explored Lake Titicaca again the next day.

Palacio de Gobierno / Palacio Quemado in La Paz, Bolivia
Potosí, Bolivia
From Copacabana, we went to La Paz, explored the highest capital city in the world and shopped at the Witches Market before visiting Sucre and Potosi. We made an exciting border crossing into Argentina, a story we'll keep a secret!

Iguazu / Iguaçu Falls in Argentina & Brazil
In Argentina, we visited Salta and from there took a long-distance bus to Iguazu Falls, more than a day if I remember it right. It was raining really hard, but we got to ride a speed boat that took us under one of the falls. We crossed over to the Brazilian side where the better views are, before rushing back to Rio de Janeiro to catch our flight back to the US. I spent the next few days recuperating in DC, except for a one-day visit to the wineries around Aldie, Virginia where I got to enjoy basted pork ribs slow-grilled over hickory wood at a roadside grill. Yum!

Preah Vihear Temple, Cambodia
May ended with a tour to Siem Reap, Cambodia to visit the famed temples of Angkor. When the group left, I hired a car and visited Preah Vihear, a spectacular temple built on top of a mountain. Visit it while you can and before the crowds discover it!

Jatiluwih Rice Terraces, Bali, Indonesia
In June, I was back in Bali leading a tour group. We visited its famed temples and experienced its colorful culture. After the tour, I visited the Jatiluwih Rice terraces.

Paragliding in Pokhara, Nepal
Boudhanath Stupa, Kathmandu, Nepal
In August, we had another tour group, this time to Nepal. We stopped over at KL before flying to Kathmandu. We visited Nagarkot, Pokhara and Kathmandu Valley. Pokhara was an exciting destination with many activities. I went paragliding for the first time.

Durbar Square, Bhaktapur, Nepal
Aside from Kathmandu, I also got to visit Bhaktapur and Patan. Bhaktapur is my favorite!

Taj Mahal, Agra, India
The month ended with a trip to India hosted by Jet Airways. The group visited New Delhi, Agra and flew to Kashmir. Our itinerary included Srinagar, Gulmarg and Sonamarg. Indeed the place is Heaven on Earth!

Dal Lake, Srinagar, Kashmir, India
Sonamarg, Kashmir, India
I definitely enjoyed the pony ride to the Himalayan glaciers of Kashmir Valley, the great food and the colorful culture of the region. We also got to stay in the luxurious houseboats of Dal Lake.

Khoo Kongsi, Penang, Malaysia
In September, I led UP AIT students and staff to a food and heritage experience in Penang and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Everyone was still talking about the food when we got back!

Wat Phra Singh in Chiang Mai, Thailand
We attended the 2013 Annual Meeting of the ICOMOS International Cultural Tourism Committee in Sukhothai and Chiang Mai, Thailand in October. As part of a workshop to help Sukhothai with its tourism master plan, I biked thirty kilometers through rural areas, to the Si Satchanalai Historical Park. I haven't biked in a long while, but I survived that one!

Luang Prabang, Laos
After the meeting, we explored Chiang Rai, crossed the river border at Chiang Kong, Thailand to Houai Xai. Laos. And from there, it was a grueling overnight bus to Luang Prabang, the old royal capital. Luang Prabang is still as charming as every with its colorful temples, colonial architecture and delicious street food!

Pha That Luang, Vientiane, Laos
I got explore Vientiane, met up with my SSEAYP friends and explored the city's temples, before going by land to Udon Thani for my flight back to Bangkok.

Sanam Chandra Palace, Nakhon Pathom, Thailand
I could not believe it, but I was back in Bangkok, and stranded for a week in November, experiencing my first flight cancelation ever! So I spent my time working (and eating). My only out of town trip was a visit to Nakhon Pathom's Phra Pathom Chedi and Sanam Chandra Palace.

Cishou Pagoda, Jinshan Temple, Zhenjiang, China
My last international trip for the year was to China to attend the Asia 21 Young Leaders Summit in Zhenjiang. But because of the smog problem in Shanghai, I had to deal with two flight cancelations (I was on a roll), rerouting to Xiamen were I took a flight to Shanghai, and a bullet train to Zhenjiang before arriving at the summit.

The Bund, Shanghai, China
I went around Shanghai for a day (I was planning to see Suzhou but the smog was bad) before flying back to Manila.

So there! That was 2013! Happy New Year to all! Here are more photos from my 2013 trips. Next up is my post for Philippine destinations.

Do you want to see last year's? Now where in the world was I in 2012?

Monday, December 16, 2013

China: Shanghai in day

Nanjing Road Shanghai China
Nihao, Shanghai! Now if you've only got a day to explore the city, what should you do? Hop-on hop-off tourist buses are usually very convenient when you have less than twenty four hours to explore a city, especially since they stop right at the doorsteps of major attractions. Shanghai is one of those cities with hop-on hop-off buses.

Since the bus was recommended by expats in Shanghai, I decided to try it out. I paid RMB100 (US$16.50) for a 24-hour pass (but that's only good for 8 hours of operation) on three routes. I took the bus from the Shanghai People's Square (Exit 7). There were over twenty available stops, including a route that takes you around Pudong. But I decided to narrow down my choices due to lack of time.

The Bund, Shanghai's historical waterfront along the banks of the Huangpu River, was the first stop on my list. It should be! The one-mile stretch is a showcase of architecture from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of the buildings are in the Art Deco style.

The Bund Shanghai China
That morning I went around Shanghai was extra foggy (or should I say smoggy). Visibility was very low. But that did not stop me from enjoying the grand architecture of the Bund.

Pudong Shanghai China
Unfortunately, I could not see much across the Huangpu River. When I visited seven years ago, bright blue skies were the backdrop of Pudong's skyline. Much has changed since 2006. But it was obvious I could not make a before and after shot with all that smog!

In downtown Shanghai is a well-preserved traditional Chinese garden with over 400 years of history known as Yu Garden. Despite its modernity, this cosmopolitan city has been able to preserve small pockets of its past.

Xiao Long Bao Shanghai China Yu Garden
Before reaching the garden is one of Shanghai's popular tourist shopping areas known as the Yu Bazaar. This is where you can find most of the local souvenirs a tourist tends to take home. But it's also a place to find local cuisine. Yes, people line up for Xiao Long Bao here! Just find the long line and you'll know you're in the right place.

I actually spent quite some time walking around Yu Bazaar. Waiting for the Xiao Long Bao can take between 25 to 45 minutes. I spent RMB25 for a serving of these popular steamed buns (they're considered buns and not dumplings because of how they are pinched). Plus I made sure to walk around to find the best prices for souvenirs (fridge magnets are sold at RMB5, but other shops will try to sell them to you for RMB20 each).

Yu Garden Shanghai China
After looking for the right route, I finally entered the gate of the garden. There's an entrance fee of RMB30, but worth it. Yu Garden is tranquil and serene, beautifully landscaped with plants, trees, rocks and ponds filled with koi, highlighted by traditional pavilions and towers.

Xintiandi Shanghai China
On the way back to People's Square, the bus stopped at Xintiandi, a pedestrianized area of traditional shikumen or stonegate houses. It's a fantastic example of adaptive reuse and how one can preserve the character of a city by keeping its heritage intact in a modern environment. I walked around and actually had quite a number of drinks the night before in one of the popular bars of Xintiandi, so I stayed on the bus. But if you haven't seen it, better get off and walk around.

Jing'an Temple Shanghai China
Jing'an Temple Shanghai China
I changed buses at People's Square to explore another route which would take me to Jing'an Temple and the Jade Buddha Temple. Jing'an Temple, a very popular Shanghai landmark, was built even before Shanghai as a city existed. But constant restoration (plus so much gold) makes it seem the temple was built yesterday. Entrance fee was RMB50 which I felt was a bit pricey.

Jing'an Temple Shanghai China
Nanjing Road Shanghai China
The Jade Buddha Temple unfortunately closes by 4:30 p.m. And they don't let people in by 4 p.m. I was told. So there was no more time to visit which I regret much. I spent the rest of the afternoon sitting through Shanghai traffic as the bus made its way back to People's Square. I took some photos in Nanjing Road before rushing back to the hotel to get my things and catch my evening flight out.

Nanjing Road Shanghai China
Smog stories
Getting to Shanghai, China last weekend was a really big challenge. My trip primarily was to attend the Asia 21 Young Leaders Summit 2013 in Zhenjiang. I had to deal with two flight cancellations due to Shanghai's smog problem forcing me to miss the first day. On the first day, we had already left the gate only to return and deplane after they canceled our flight. On the second night, I had already checked in when they announced the cancelation. I made a spur of the moment decision to catch the flight to Xiamen; and bought a ticket from Xiamen to Shanghai hoping to arrive in the morning.

Xiamen Airport was another story. I was hoping to stay in the terminal and wait for my morning flight. But at 3 a.m., I was surprised they were kicking people out of the terminal. It turns out, they close the airport for two hours and you have to wait outside until it opens. I started to laugh when they turned off the lights of the driveway area where I was seated. Good thing it wasn't too cold and the free WiFi was still running.

They boarded on time, but we didn't take off until and hour and a half later due to the same smog problem. I arrived in Shanghai right before lunch and took a bullet train for the 237km journey from Shanghai Hongquiao to Zhenjiang. But to make the long story short, I made it to the Asia 21 Young Leaders Summit.

Back in Shanghai, I had a pleasant stay at the Hua Ting Hotel and Towers which was conveniently located in front of the Shanghai Indoor Stadium Station (Line 1 and 4).

Thursday, November 21, 2013

China: Applying for a Chinese visa in the Philippines

Applying for a Chinese visa in the Philippines is very straightforward. It's a matter of completing all the requirements and submitting them to the Chinese Embassy Consular Section (2/F The World Center with entrances along Buendia/Gil Puyat Avenue or H.V. dela Costa). Here are things you need to prepare before proceeding to the embassy:

1. Passport that is valid for at least six (6) months with at least one blank visa page. Note that you will need to photocopy both the front and back pages of your passport, meaning the passport's information or photo page and emergency contact page which you can find at the back. Make sure the blanks of the emergency contact information is filled out before you photocopy.
2. Visa Application Form which you can download here. Note that you should not leave any field blank and write "N/A" if the question does not apply to you.
3. One (1) colored Passport Photo (48mm x 33mm) affixed to the Visa Application Form (note that it has to be glued; photos that are stapled, taped, clipped, detached, etc. will not be accepted). The photo should be recent, front view, white background, without head covering.
4. Travel itinerary
5. Round-trip airline ticket
6. Hotel reservation
7. Invitation letters from China (if applicable). Invitation letters must contain the full name, gender, date of birth and passport number of applicant; purpose of visit, arrival and departure dates, place(s) to be visited, relations between the applicant and the inviting entity or individual, financial source for expenditures; and name, contact telephone number, address, official stamp, signature of the legal representative of inviting entity or the inviting individual. The invitation letter may be in the form of fax, photocopy or computer printout, but the consular officer may require the applicant to submit the original of the invitation letter.
8. If you have been previously issued a visa, photocopies of the issued visas, and old passport(s) if the visa(s) are in your old passport(s).

For first time visa applicants, you will also need to submit the following:
9. Bank certificate of deposit balance
10. Bank statement showing the past 6 months history of your bank account (at least Php100,000 average daily balance)
11. Receipt for payment for the certificates (issued by the bank)
12. BIR-stamped income tax return form
13. Letter from your employer detailing your salary and the length of your employment (for employees)
14. Business registration certificate (for business owners)
15. Professional ID (for professionals)
16. Certificate of enrollment (for students)
17. A letter of explanation if you could not provide the above-mentioned documents

If you are visiting Tibet, you will need a special permit. Submit a letter from an Authorized Travel Agency in China (which you can get from your local travel agent if they have a partner in China) if you plan to join a tour. But if you are going on your own, you will need to contact the Tourism Administration of the Tibet Autonomous Region (Telephone No. +86 891-6834313; Fax No. +86 891-6834632) in advance and provide a Visa Notification issued by them.

How to submit visa applications
Once you complete all your requirements, proceed to the Consular Section of the Chinese Embassy (location map of The World Center here) anytime between 9 to 11 a.m. from Monday to Friday. No appointment is required. You may ask another person or a travel agency to submit on your behalf, but with an authorization letter. Messengers should have an authorization letter on company letterhead. Note that you may be required to go to the Consular Section for an interview if necessary. Address of the Consular Section is 2/F The World Center, 330 Sen. Gil J. Puyat Avenue, Makati City.

Visa fee is Php1,400 for a single entry visa, Php2,100 for double entry, Php2,800 for six months multiple entry and Php4,200 one (1) year multiple entry. The regular processing time is four (4) working days. But visas may be expedited with extra fees: Php1,100 pesos for three (3) working days and Php1,700 for two (2) working days. Visa fees are paid (cash only) when you claim your passport.

For information on requirements for other visa types, visit the Chinese Embassy website.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

India: Exploring Dal Lake in Srinagar, Kashmir

Shikara around Dal Lake, Srinagar, Kashmir
At the heart of Srinagar, Kashmir's capital, is Dal Lake, which many call the jewel in the crown of Kashmir. Srinagar was built around it. And today, it's bustling with life with its floating communities and many houseboats with the tourism economy they create.

Shikara around Dal Lake, Srinagar, Kashmir
Shikara around Dal Lake, Srinagar, Kashmir
Hiring a shikara (traditional boat) and exploring Dal Lake should be in your bucketlist when visiting Srinagar. It's best to do it in the morning or late in the afternoon. The lake is quite big so you won't be able to explore all of it. Our shikara ride took us around the vicinity of our houseboat.

Shikara around Dal Lake, Srinagar, Kashmir
Shikara around Dal Lake, Srinagar, Kashmir
It's quite interesting observing the daily life in Dal Lake as locals make their way around on their boats, going about their business, meeting with friends or selling souvenirs to tourists. Yes, some persistent merchants pursue tourist boats and try to sell you everything under the sun from flowers, seeds and spices (such as saffron) to shawls, clothing and jewelry.

Shikara around Dal Lake, Srinagar, Kashmir
Shikara around Dal Lake, Srinagar, Kashmir
There are also shops which sell necessities such as a medicine, food (dried fruits and nuts are quite popular here) and things you'd see in a regular market. And of course, there are also shops for tourists.

Shikara around Dal Lake, Srinagar, Kashmir
Shikara around Dal Lake, Srinagar, Kashmir
You'll see families with children on their way to school on the mainland or locals boating to the port to proceed to work.

Birds around Dal Lake, Srinagar, Kashmir
But it's just not people which make life on Dal Lake interesting. There are many species of birds and other wildlife and interesting flora.

Shikara around Dal Lake, Srinagar, Kashmir
A visit to Kashmir would not be complete without noticing military and police presence. It may be scary at first. But you realize they keep the area stable and safe. I actually felt secure while I was in Kashmir, seeing them all over the place.

Shikara around Dal Lake, Srinagar, Kashmir
After our shikara ride, we were off to the airport to catch our Jet Airways flight back to Delhi. Goodbye Kashmir! It was a pleasant and interesting visit indeed!

Jet Airways flies daily to Srinagar!
Jet Airways has twice daily flights from Delhi (DEL) to Srinagar (SXR). Jet Airways also connects to Delhi from Manila via Bangkok, Singapore or Hong Kong at least twice daily!
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