lauantai 5. heinäkuuta 2014

2 weeks later - 2 viikkoa myöhemmin: Home (and still counting).

 We are back home. This is our second last post. We've had an adventure worth a million lifetimes, and yes, yes, yes, would do it again. Would we change anything? It is still probably too early to say, as it has only been a bit over two weeks since we got back. Did we learn anything? Yes, we learned how little one truly needs to be happy, and how much there is to see in the world. We learned one can speak a language just fine after studying it years ago for one semester in the community college or not having spoken it for years. We learned that every country has good people and some bad. We learned to trust each other, support each other and make compromises.

Are we happy to be back home? Uh, well, after two weeks of arranging bank stuff, work stuff, apartment stuff, social life stuff, we have had very little time to actually realize we're back. However, it's amazing how soon you forget how it felt to be free to come and go as you will, or how it feels to always have socks or passport or camera missing just because you've packed and unpacked your stuff a thousand times in the past week.

Almost home at Stockholm.

So, all in all, it wasn't exactly 180 days we spent on the road, but 173. Here are some vital numbers which may tell you something about our trip:

Stockholm is practically a Swedish speaking Helsinki.

We started planning and saving for it 2,5 years ago.

We took 26 flights and a train twice.

We stayed in 43 hotels, hostels, apartments, rooms and cabins.
Tallink-Silja cruise terminal, the night before arriving Finland.

We got a food poisoning once.

We spent 25 000 euros for the trip, including vaccinations, insurance and other expenses.

We visited 11-15 countries, depending on how you count.

We met a million Finns. At least!

We visited a doctor twice, and went to ER once.

We were robbed once (got everything back, too, except for the cash).

We have 1 comprehensive budget table with details how much each part of our trip cost (e.g. food, accommodation and transportation).

Our welcome back home was warm :)

We took nearly 2000 photos and 1,5 hours of video.

We wrote 20 blog posts... and the blog was viewed 3035 times.

Back home.
We have 0 regrets.

We have visited each others' parents since we got home, and will soon continue at work, buy gym cards, start living normal lives. And start with a couple of new projects ;)

P.S: As promised, sometime in the near future we will post a summary of what we think are the best tips we could give to other travelers. Feel free to ask us anything, if you're planning a similar trip!

P.P.S: Some reversed cultural shock and feelings of emptiness have been present since we got home. It is surprising how quickly you start needing things you never missed on the road. We miss the freedom and adventures, sun and mysterious new places. However,  knowing your shampoo and duct-tape are always in the same place, being able to drink tab water and having fixed prices (taxes included!) in every store is something we know cannot be taken for granted, but should be enjoyed and appreciated. Also, having your family and friends close is worth suffering through cold summers and freezing winters.

Little things in life, such as a new coffee machine, are what make a home.

sunnuntai 15. kesäkuuta 2014

Day 169 - 169. päivä: Just photos: Almost home

Due to a tragic loss of a password, it has been a while since the last post. However, since laziness played a part, too, there will once again be less text and more photos in this one. After New York, we headed to Reykjavik, Iceland; London, England and finally Berlin, Germany. These photos cover the last two and a half weeks: Geysers in Iceland, sightseeing in London and historic sites in Berlin.

Iceland gave us a much needed break from hectic city life. We rented and apartment from Airbnb, and booked a day tour to go see geysers, glacier, a geothermal power plant and amazing nature.

Near Reykjavik City Center. 

Cold, dark and beautiful.

Pretty much how Iceland looks, in one photo.

The beauty of nature as seen in Iceland.

Queen of the Hill.

We only had one day to spent in London, so much of the famous spots had to be left out of our self guided walking tour in the city. The subway system in London is great, and getting the Oyster card is totally recommended.

Street art in London.

How London looks like to a tourist.

Tower of London.

Almost home. Our final stop before Sweden and short trip back home is Berlin. Here we have been resting, enjoying the awesome weather, met more Finnish friends, (including my parents celebrating their 40th anniversary), and drank some über cheap beer. Some days have been spent visiting the historical sites and learning more about the tragic history of Germany and Europe, and the victims of Nazi governance. In short, this city rocks, and there is so much to do and see, that 11 days is not near enough to experience everything.

Memorial of the Murdered Jews of Europe.

Every city needs one of these.

German traffic signs are awesome!

Next, and final stop: Stockholm, Sweden. It is totally unbelievable we're almost home...

perjantai 30. toukokuuta 2014

Day 152 - 152. päivä: Fast food and Finns

We got to USA some three weeks ago. At the customs we were warmly welcomed by a nerve wrecking scary lady questioning our every answer, in the good old Gestapo style: “Why were you in China?  Why are you not staying in a hotel? What are you doing in Topeka? Visiting a relative? What is SHE doing in Topeka?!” The hundred or so questions were accompanied by an ice cold stare and “you guys are SO lying and even if you haven’t lied yet, you WILL lie, and I WILL catch you” oozing from her. 

This little hippie went to San Francisco

Our first stop was California, where we rented a car at the San Francisco airport. We stayed the first few days at a holiday rental with a very nice family in Pacifica. Although we have been favoring public transportation the whole time, we must admit, without a car it’d have been if not impossible, at least damn near to get around. My Nokia Lumia’s GPS turned out to be irreplaceable, as well. The country is absolutely not designed for pedestrians. San Francisco bay area favors bicycle riders, but other than that, getting anywhere by foot would be suicide. Or at least as scary as US customs.  

Our rental car took us to some pretty exiting places, like the Redwoods Big Basin park, Target and BART station.  Rental bicycles took us to the Golden Gate Bridge, and gave us a good day’s exercise for 30 km by the coast of San Francisco.

A vegan dog.
If there ever was an opposite of the hipster-hippie-vegan-nature lover-super slim and sport friendly California, that’s Topeka, KS. Nothing but fast food joints, cars and big, mean dogs everywhere. At least that’s the impression one gets before getting to know the people. The truth is, once again, that the majority of the people are smart, intelligent, fun and well-meaning. Especially the ones who invite you to their graduation party, and give you a ride home and help you out and have a magician in their party and give you food and let you use their broom and take you shooting and have made a certain little sister’s life super fun while in Topeka, are in our list of awesome new people we've met ;)

We in Europe are being drowned with American clichés in movies, TV shows and news. Sadly, lot of them are true. You cannot see overweight people driving their "little" electric vehicles around supermarket while shopping for soda, ice cream and pizza in Asia, or such irresponsible drug advertising in Europe. When a pacemaker ad is masked as news broadcast, or a prescription only antidepressant marketed by a funny cartoon character, something has gone wrong. The news here cover important topics such as what the baby sitter of a baby of a suspected victim of a horrible yet very private crime has to say about the case. Also, calling the European parliament elections as “European elections” is not only misleading, but sadly shows how ignorant even the media here is. Europe is not a country, like the US. European Union consists of several, independent countries. FYI...  

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

 And why, oh why is an entire nation force fed with humongous portions of absolutely nutrition-free, cheap, sodium and sugar loaded fa(s)t food? To sell more diabetes, blood pressure and weight loss drugs? 

Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos.

After binge eating (yes, the American diet got us) and soaking in beer for a week in Topeka, we headed to New York and our next stop, a Caribbean cruise; 8 nights of sailing and trying to avoid any activity that would actually cost something on Carnival Splendor. With a last minute discount deal Ari found online, that was still a cheaper option than the original idea of going to Mexico. Food and a lot of entertainment were luckily included and the free flow of pizza and ice cream was accompanied by a running track, big gym, and hours of ashore walking in San Juan, St. Thomas and Grand Turk. The other activities were took part in were watching stand up, sleeping at random hours and smuggling cheap vodka from ashore.

Times Square, NYC

Seeing how amazingly rudely the ship staff was treated by the passengers, we found it more than justified to leave our cleaner a tip every. Other than that, the American tipping system is quite ridiculous, inconsistent, makes no sense and is just as stupid as not including taxes in the price. How about paying people enough and being honest about the final price of a product or service and tipping only for remarkably good service? Another suggestion concerns the health care system. The country has all the resources to effectively take care of its citizens, yet still the system just does not work. The walk-in clinics, access to the most state of the art drugs and top health care professionals are not something every country could boast of having. How about making them available to everyone?

After the cruise we headed back to New York, where we had two tasks: see as many tourist attractions as possible in two days, and meet the Finnish guy we had ran into by accident in the subway day before the cruise. He helped us to get on the right train and we promised to get in touch after getting back. In the end, we found ourselves drinking coffee and talking about Finland and USA and everything between in a cafe in the Trump Tower. We also got to visit his office in Manhattan, as well as an introduction to life in New York from a Finnish point of view. Turns out it is a small world, there's a whole bunch of people with connections to Finland even in the place he works. 

"Dum-Dum" at the American Museum of Natural History

Sadly, all the good adventures must come to an end. It’s time to continue our journey back home, just three more weeks left. Next: Reykjavik, Iceland, and time to wear warm clothes again.

P.S: Spotting random Finns has now proceeded to getting bicycle fixing help in San Francisco and finding a personal guide to the subway system in New York. Nordic walkers spotted in India, China and US. 

keskiviikko 7. toukokuuta 2014

Day 130 - 130. päivä: Just photos: China edition

                                                    One month in China in pictures.

长城 The Great Wall of China.

A compilation of some of the best vegetarian foods in Beijing.

Ari and Edward at Madame Tussauds Hong Kong

Taking a break in Beijing.

包子 Baozi. 

Occasionally, you can find colors in China.

天安门广场 Tian'anmen Square, Beijing.

Bruce Lee, the Avenue of Stars, Hong Kong.

长城 The Great Wall of China.

长安城 The City Wall in Xi'an.

颐和园 The Summer Palace, Beijing.

Enjoying some luxury in the executive lounge of Double Tree by Hilton, Beijing.

What every hotel room needs: a gas mask.

Slowly but surely digging up and cleaning the Terracotta Army in Xi'an.

maanantai 5. toukokuuta 2014

Day 127 - 127. päivä: A letter to China

Dear China,

we've had our ups and downs. I have been gone for a long time, however every time I come back, there seems to be more of the former and less of the latter.

兵马俑 The Terracotta army

You did not make it easy to come back. We were stuck in Hong Kong for a week trying to get our visas, but in the end it gave us an awesome chance to explore the islands of Hong Kong and Kowloon. Unfortunately that forced us to spend a huge chunk of our budget we had been saving for USA and Europe, but we will worry about that when we actually run out cash. We also thought we could save some money in the mainland, but travelling and trying to catch as many tourist attractions as possible in one month is not cheap, even though you, China, are. I guess it was somehow lucky I got sick as soon we were about to leave Hong Kong, so in Shanghai we did not get to do any of the pricey touristy stuff we had planned. My hairdresser was a bit expensive, but worth it. I can warmly recommend Ashley at Franck Provost at 35 Shaanxi road in Shanghai. She did miracles with my falling, dry, brittle mess of a blonde hair.

Our communication has not always worked too well. For some strange reason it seems that the extent of my Chinese vocabulary does not correlate with how well I can get myself understood or things done. It seems that it is more a question of location (come on, Xi'an, why is my Chinese almost useless there when in Beijing I'm more often well understood than not?), and necessity: speak Chinese or stay hungry. Speak Chinese with the driver or walk. Speak Chinese or get a smoking room in a hotel. And oh dear how fast the language is getting back, in the past month I've regained most of my spoken Chinese skills. I think you like me better now, too, since we can communicate. At least that one taxi driver seemed to be having fun whilst we were discussing the differences between iPhone and Nokia Lumia GPS. The other one was happy forcing me to learn to pronounce the name of our hotel properly; he wouldn't let me out of the car before I got it right. Never underestimate the taxi drivers here when it comes to cruel but effective teaching methods.

长城 The Great Wall at Mutianyu

I would also like to discuss about your hygiene problem. There is a reason they call Beijing one of the most polluted cities in the world. Take a shower or something, it would be nice if the citizens and travelers could actually breath. But how, oh how, can it be even worse somewhere else? After Xi'an, the air quality in Beijing seems quite okay, actually. According to what I've heard, the internationally less famous cities are even worse. I like this country, but I am not sure if wearing a mouth mask most of the year would go too well with my hair style. My hair and skin are not very happy, either. I must add, though, that the past few days you have really tried your best, and we have seen the blue sky and sunshine and amazing sun sets. That's when you are at your most beautiful.

You have been very nice and understanding every time I have
introduced new people to you. I wasn't sure how you'd treat them, but at least a couple of Germans and one Finn seem to understand why I miss you so much. Of course, spending some good old Beijing nightlife for a few nights with karaoke, early morning food and beers and annoying the hell out of several taxi drivers and many, many people on subway can make anyone falling in love with you.

Victoria Peak in Hong Kong

You have a history which you are proud of, and partially for a very good reason. I have been to the Great Wall several times before, but it never seems less amazing. Thousands of kilometers of history in the middle of the most beautiful land you can offer located in Mutianyu, combined with a cable car ride up and a toboggan ride down are something I will always want to go back to. Tian'anmen Square, Forbidden City and Beihai in Beijing were a compulsory part of the tour I gave Ari, and they show the controversy of your past and the official history you talk about. The Teracotta army in Xi'an was new to me, and literally took my breath away for a moment. It is difficult to describe the feeling you get when you see thousands of armed clay warriors with horses and real armory, whose sole purpose of existence was to accompany an emperor in the afterlife. Talking about megalomania...

北海 Beihai

The public transportation in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing are wonderful, and even in Xi'an it works, as long as you can read the signs in Chinese. A whole morning's adventure can be based on a decision to get to the Terracotta Warriors by public buses. It is also cheap, and many cities have their own public transportation card you can use even in taxis and some stores. The food is awesome, although I'm sure in Shanghai they spend like half of the whole country's white sugar stash everyday. Anything with Sichuan pepper can make your face fall off, and tastes like heaven. It is a bit so and so to call myself a vegetarian when most times there is no way to be sure what I am eating, no matter how many times I ask since here chicken powder does not count as "having meet" in one's dish. Thus often the only "safe" way to eat vegetarian is to go one of the many vegetarian restaurants.

You always seem to have friends waiting for me here, and you have kept them the same. Your beer is cheap, good and available everywhere. Your weather is nice sometimes even for two months a year, when it's not too cold or windy or rainy or hot or sandy. You offer cheap services, and sometimes one gets lucky and finds some good quality, too. We got Ari a tailor made suit for a certain special day, and the three piece suit for 1800 yuan turned out really well at this small tailor shop hidden in a diplomatic compound in Beijing. I have used some big tailor shops before, but good quality fabrics are rare in them.

天安门广场 Tian'anmen Square

Dear China, we are going now, for our visas are expiring. But we will be back, okay? I am sure it won't be another two years this time.


P.S: Coming up: Just photos, China edition (get ready for more black, white and gray...)

P.P.S: Next stop: San Francisco, CA, USA

P.P.P.S: Coming up soon ish: Tips for the travelers based on real life experiments by Ari

tiistai 15. huhtikuuta 2014

Day 107 - 107. päivä: Surprises of all sorts and two very futuristic cities

Hong Kong at night from Victoria Peak

Surprise No. 1: So, yeah, you ever tried something you thought would be very easy and simple, but which turned out to be pretty much the most complicated and annoying process you have ever gone through, and later on you realize that you should have know it wouldn't be easy? We have; applying for a Chinese visa in Hong Kong. Our plan was to get the applications in on Wednesday, pay extra and get a rush service, collecting our passports on Thursday or maybe Friday, and take the T100 train to Shanghai on Friday afternoon. Yeah, right, as if...

Victoria Harbor next to Avenue of Stars

In short (we'll save you from all the painful details; there's plenty): We went to the embassy four times, on three separate dates. We had checked and double checked all we need on the governmental website, printed out and filled in the forms available on the said website, attached everything that was required, and went to the address given online (on the government website) on Wednesday morning. That address is wrong, here is the correct one! Once we got to the visa office, there was a short queue to get to the security check. On the 3rd floor of the building, after queuing in another line, we were told our forms were old, and given the new ones to fill in. Only after that were we given queuing numbers to the admission desks. There we were, of course, told that we were missing a whole bunch of attachments, and we were to go back to our hotel to get them. That's also when we were finally given the full list of things we'd actually need to attach. This all took about a whole morning to go through. Of course, our hotel was not in Hong Kong Island, but in Kowloon. So, on Wednesday afternoon, we were back with all the correct papers and queuing again. At this point we were told no rush service to get the visas was available (unlike told online), and it'd take until next Monday to get the visas. Naturally, our train to Shanghai would be leaving on Friday, in two days. So, since a ticket TO China and OUT of China are both required, and the travel dates would have to be AFTER your visa's issued, we were sent away once more, to cancel our reservations in Shanghai,  and get new tickets and hotel dates for after possibly getting the visas. So, next morning, on Thursday, we went back to the admission office, and once again queued, and presented all our new travel documents, and fresh visa forms (which we had once again filled, with new travel dates), and finally got a blue paper saying that we may collect our visas on next Tuesday. That's the story in short.

What the (apparently secret?) list given to us says you'll need when applying for a tourist visa to China in Hong Kong:

- Round-trip tickets to and from China
- Hotel booking confirmation in China (if not under your name, the person who booked the hotel needs to write and sign a paper saying you'll be staying with them, plus a copy of their passport)
- Copy of your passport and Hong Kong visa and a fresh passport photo
- The NEW visa form (collect it at the admission office) filled in (we only did it three times to get it right)
- 200 HKD upon pick up
- an address of a friend or a hotel in China
- Ability to resist the temptation to kick/hit someone or scream mindlessly when being sent to another line after a couple of hours of waiting
- Ability to understand that there WILL be waiting. The office is open from Monday to Friday 9-12 -AM and again 14-17 PM. The queue starts forming an hour before the doors open. Deal with it!

So, your neighborhood is crowded..? This is Hong Kong.
Surprise No. 2: Today's the Tuesday, and YES, we got the visas :D

Surprise No.3: It turns out there is quite a few Chinese, whose English is better, and Mandarin worse than mine... Not so common in the mainland, but apparently a default setting in Hong Kong.

Surprise No.4: We found a sauna! An actual, true, real, authentic Finnish sauna. It is located at the Mira hotel Hong Kong. The hotel is in any way a real nice one, but the Harvia sauna was what really made our extended stay in Hong Kong have an awesome kick start.

Surprise No.5: In the end, we really enjoyed our time in Hong Kong, even as much as to say that it was a good thing we didn't get our visas any earlier. Victoria Peak, the Symphony of lights show and just going around the city were really worth all the trouble we went through rescheduling such a big part of our trip. We got an 80% refund of our train tickets, and were able to cancel the hotel in Shanghai; in the end, we only lost a couple of hundred euros, and gained a ton of beautiful experiences. Also had time to drink a lot of Tsingtao...

Surprise No.6: Judging from a one-night layover in Singapore, the city is not bad. Well, I guess that's not a surprise to anyone who's ever been there. It's also a great place to meet a friend for a morning coffee :)


P.S: If you're staying in Hong Kong for more than 3 days, get the Octopus Card!

maanantai 7. huhtikuuta 2014

Day 98 - 98. päivä: Here and there and everywhere.

It has come the time to say goodbye to Indonesia. A short layover in Singapore today, and tomorrow we will enter Hong Kong. There our task will be to get our visas to mainland China. The next few days we'll also try and not lose all our money; Singapore is the most expensive city in the world, and Hong Kong is not far behind. So, goodbye to cheap luxury, too. We will, however, be enjoying China for a month after that. There there won't be a need to stretch one's yuan, since you can find pretty good stuff for pretty cheap there. If you know where to look, that is...

But until we actually get to China, we can still enjoy the easiness, cleanliness and hospitality of Bali for a few more hours. Ever since we started the trip, we have had a daily budget, which we routinely have gone under. It means that every day it has gone bigger. THAT means that we have once again been able to stay a couple of nights in a super fancy place with no worries of extra bugs or dirty towels. Conrad Bali can boast having the largest swimming pool in Bali, as well as their own beach. Morning runs are pretty awesome by the sea, running a nice, tidy prick road watching the sun rise and checking out other resorts' "backyards". Otherwise our accommodation has once again varied from budget in Kuta (super touristy, busy, noisy, lot of services and a beach available) , to cute resorts Ubud (touristy, small, nice, quiet, a vegetarian's paradise).

Speaking of mornings and sun rise, we climbed two hours on Mt. Batur to see the sunrise with a group of other tourists. Worth the climb (on all fours at some point), the view was spectacular. It was also incredible to feel the cold air in your lungs and on your skin the first time in months. Goose bumps have never felt so nice! The trip cost us 700 000 IDR per person, and we took off from Ubud at 2:30 in the morning, and were back already at 10:30.

Being known for extreme sports lovers' paradise, Bali offers a ton of other activities, as well. We tried some, but not nearly all of them. Most of the trips included food of a kind, and vegetarian food was always available, as long as we asked for it when booking the trip.

Mountain biking was well organised, and we got a chance to not only eat breakfast looking over Mt. Batur crater lake, but also visit a local coffee plantation and taste the rarest coffee in the world, Kopi Luwak. Being processed through a civet cat's digestive system before washing, drying and roasting, the end product of the coffee beans is also locally known as "cat-poo-chino". It tasted like coffee. In the end of the two-hour bicycle ride downhill, we had a chance to try and ride uphill for 8 kilometers. In the heat and humidity, it turned out to be a um... a bit challenging, unlike the very easy downhill part. An awesome lunch was provided afterwards. There were also huge spiders available. Also spider petting. Luckily that was not mandatory.

Rafting  was water, water, jungle, water, amazing nature, swimming in the Telaga Waja river, physically semi-challenging and pure awesomeness. 2,5 hour ride took us through such cool waters and scenery that the pretty high price didn't really bother us. Just remember to hold on, and wear clothes suitable was soaking ;) You can also bring your camera and other stuff to the boat, the guide will give you a waterproof bag for them.

Tandem paragliding  provided beautiful nature, a good way to beat your vertigo, gliding over the sea and an amazing way to experience a moment of tranquility. It was not physically challenging, although the winds and the "bag" you'll be sitting in do set their limit when it comes to weight. I got to do a whole 15 minutes, while Ari only got about 5 minutes, plus a beach landing. This applied to the rest of the group, as well, for the winds were not strong enough that day.

One of the less extreme activities we did was the organic vegetarian cooking class, in the middle of rice fields. We got to pick our own vegetables, and learn from the best how to make Balinese dishes. Or at least we got to participate, while the family women did most of the hard work. The one thing we learned was that no matter how much we'd like to make all those dishes at home, we just cannot find nor the ingredients or the equipment in Finland (e.g. the huge stone grinder used for grinding the peanuts for gado-gado, the sauce which tastes of pure heaven).

How did we book these trips? We simply walked into any of the many "travel agencies" i.e. wooden boxes laid by the streets, selling the trips. The service was reliable and smooth nearly every time. We were always picked and dropped off at the hotel, and all the tour guides spoke if not perfect, at least understandable English.

To balance things out, we got to experience the Balinese new year and the Quiet Day in Ubud. The locals celebrate the new year by building huge monsters, each village and district their own. These monsters would be then carried around the streets and apparently beaten up, as well, on their way to be burned. All this to get rid of evil and bad thoughts. Must admit, it was pretty creepy to see them on fire in a dark cemetery, where the Ubud monsters were burned. We were told that the scariest looking are saved though, apparently being saved by their coolness.

Next stop Singapore, then Hong Kong, then mainland China. Should be interesting!