We booked another tour with Far & Away Cycling, this time to Albania. As it turns out, Turkish Airlines had a massive fare sale for our dates, and the cost to fly from Houston to Tirana to Istanbul back to Houston was only $800! I normally hate flying from Houston (or Dallas), but this fare saved us over $400 per person, so I agreed to make the drive.
The drive to Houston took forever. It rained the whole way. There was a lot of traffic. Ugh. Aside from the drive to Houston, it was a fairly uneventful flight, and I sat next to a young couple on their first trip to Europe.
We took a long bus transit out of Tirana and started near the border with Macedonia. Since the previous dictator was paranoid, bunkers littered the mountainside. We cross the border into Macedonia and had lunch on Lake Ohrid. When we rode around the lake, I got dropped at the climbs and took some photos. I met up with the group again by the split to the monastery and did a short tour with them.
We crossed the border back into Albania and stayed at a hotel on the lake.
Day 2: Korce
We took an easy ride out of Korce and saw gorgeous farmlands. Just as the tempo picked up, it started to rain and hail. We ducked into the gas station to wait out the storm. As soon as we got started again, another hail storm rolled in. We skipped lunch and did the bonus miles to the monastery in Vostepoje. The roads were rough on the way to the climb and the climbs were steep. I was so glad to get to the top. Since the monastery was closed, we rode back down in the lightening and rain. I loved the disc brakes on the bike.
Day 3: Trout Farm
Of course, there was a long climb out of Korce. After a long downhill to a coffee stop, we did some fast riding to lunch. Being a roadie, I crashed on some bumps going out of town. I cleaned out the rocks while my adrenaline was flowing and got back on the bike. We went up more climbs with rocky descents and then did a really long climb to the trout farm. I lost my mojo after the crash, so the descents were just brutal. The trout farm was relaxing. It was isolated and quiet, and we had amazing trout for dinner.
Day 4: Benje
As the pattern goes, we climbed out of the trout farm. We saw Armand’s (the ride leader’s) land and then descended through the gorge. It was a crazy bumpy downhill on torn up roads. The scenery was gorgeous, but without my mojo, the descent was hell.
We did the extra mileage to go to the Greek border and time trialed to catch up with the other folks. We did sprint attacks on the way back. At the much needed coffee stop, we chatted with some Belgians. They were quite surprised Americans were biking around Albania. We climbed more hills with rough roads to Benje. There, we had an amazing lunch with roasted lamb.
That afternoon, we biked to the hot springs with more rough road. Instead of getting into warm water, I hiked through river bed and soaked my legs in cold water.
Day 5: Girocaster
The group started the day riding together until our coffee stop at Permet. After coffee, the pace picked up, and I learned to downshift on rough roads to add some power and smooth out the ride. We rode through a gorgeous valley and picked up honey at the lunch stop. The ride to Girocaster was rainy with dreadful headwinds. I tucked into a pace-line until the steep climb into Girocaster. After cleaning up, we toured an old house and castle and sat at the city corner for “happy hour.” The dinner was incredible with melted cheese and sweet pumpkin byrek.
Day 6: Sirande (coastal town)
Of course, the group did the extra mileage to the start with a flat, tailwind assisted ride to the climb. The climb was long, yet doable. I caught up to Janice, and found out her competitive nature. The descent was winding, but fun.
We took a short ferry to Butrint, and toured the grounds. After lunch, we had a long, undulating climb and descent. I pulled my companions into Sarande and promptly got lost. We finally found hotel. I felt a bit of overtraining at dinner and went to bed.
Day 7: Hiram
I took the first climb out of Sirande a bit hard. At the coffee stop in the mountains, a sweet old lady patted my head and talked to me. I clearly had no idea what she was saying. After the stop, we took it really easy. Roman left his camera on the side of the road and had to go back for it at lunch. After Roman found his camera on the side of the road (!), we toured the Venetian fortress.
When we finally arrived in Haram, it was hot. I quickly changed into bathing suit and headed to the beach. The beach was a bit rocky, but the water was nice and cold.
Day 8: Vlore
We climbed out of Himare and then started a steep climb. I caught up with Janice, and we stopped at the gorgeous overlook coffee shop. We climbed through the town and wondered when the climb of the day started. When we rounded the corner, we saw the climb above us. We climbed, climbed, and climbed. It started sprinkling on us, and I got cold. At the top, I took as selfie with Janice. Armand arrived and took us through the cold descent. At lunch, I could barely warm up, and I seriously thought about jumping into the car for the rest of the day. I soldiered on. When Janice decided to stop to put up her hood, I went on and ended up riding the rest of the way into Vlore by myself. The hotel was isolated resort on the water with nice beach chairs. I spent the afternoon in the sun relaxing
Day 9: back to Tirana
We took a brutal bus transport back to Tirana and hung out at the hotel. I had Merlut (small fish) for dinner and went to the Brauhaus with Adriene, Bob and Roman to close out the trip.
We saw the touristy sights in Istanbul: Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Grand Bazaar, Spice Bazaar, and Bosphorus cruise. My favorite memories were eating: breakfasts in a dive joint and fresh sour cherry and pistachio Turkish delight.
My friend Kathleen and I were in Singapore at the same time, so it somehow made sense for both of us to do an open water swim event. She swam the full 4K while I opted for an 800m swim.
At the end of the trip, my colleague Judith and I opted to take the bullet train from Shanghai to Beijing. We spent most of our time shopping, but we did manage to squeeze in a trip to the Badaling Great Wall and the Ming Tombs.
The goal of the trip was to meet folks work in Asia, build a personal connection and collaborate on several projects. I can’t stress enough the importance of meeting folks in person – so much is lost over a phone conversation.
After oversleeping my alarm for a flight earlier this year, I try to avoid early morning flights. It didn’t happen, so I ended up on the first flight from Austin to San Francisco. I uncharacteristically took a window seat and managed to get some sunrise shots over the wing.
The flight over was uneventful, and I tried melatonin for the first time. I’m not sure why I took so long to do so — it worked like a charm. Since I arrived early Sunday, I made arrangements to rent a road bike from the Bike Butler and rode with the Anza cycling team around part of the country. They’re a friendly group of fast expats. I rode with the group on a freeway, AND I saw the border with Malaysia!
After a couple days of great meetings in Singapore, we left for Tokyo. Since I was jet lagged, I woke up way before work the day after Halloween in search of food. I saw tons of folks heading home after a night of drinking in full costume. Glad to see Halloween is a universal holiday.
I spent the weekend in Tokyo and met up with Regan and his wife Sharon at the Park Hyatt. It’s a gorgeous hotel. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to swim in the pool due to their strict no tattoo rules. On the other hand, we were there for Tokyo Design Week.
After Tokyo, I headed onto Shanghai. We got to stay at the can opener, which was the highest building in the city at the time. They were building something even taller nearby. The office in Shanghai is just gorgeous – I felt so energized yet relaxed in the office.
Originally, my friends and I had plans to head to Tokyo and check out the Ghibli Museum. However, they were flying standby and didn’t catch their flights. Instead of criss-crossing back and forth between Kyoto and Tokyo, I went straight to Kyoto. I spent the next two days going from shrine to temple to shrine. My favorite memories:
Kyoto has an awesome bus system that got me everywhere I needed to go. There are a couple of tourist lines for major attractions and then city buses to take you through the heart of the city.
Shimogamo Shrine is one of the quieter ones, away from the tourist buzz. It has great grounds for meandering.
Ginkaku-ji is cool, but not my favorite.
Kiyomizu-dera. The whole area is cool. You can actually walk from the shrine through a shopping district filled with shops to Kiyomiza-dera. I wandered onto it by mistake and kept following things to see. Shrines and temples everywhere.
Gion walking tour. I saw a Geiko (Geisha) and Maiko (apprentice Geisha) walking about. I tried to go to the Nishiki Market for dinner afterwards, but it was closed.
I started early the next day at Fushimi Inari. It was one of my favorites. Garlands of thousand-paper-cranes as well as stacks of torii (Japanese gates) made for a visually striking shrine. I walked up to the summit and passed through thousands of torii on my way.
On my way up to the summit, I met a couple from Perth that I walked with a while. They mentioned a monthly flea market at a shrine, and it sounded interesting enough. I headed to the Kitana Tenman-gu Shrine and took a look around. It’s mostly stuff (souvenirs and housewares), but I also picked up some food. I’ve eaten a lot of street food on this trip.
The bullet train to Tokyo was fast, clean, and spacious. They had plugs for charging my devices and the mobile broadband works!
On the third day, I headed to my hotel in Tokyo. Shibuya. The weather was cold and rainy, so I didn’t venture outside. However, I did spend plenty of time in Tokyo Hands before dropping by the office.
As soon as I got off the airport bus, the heat and humidity hit me like a wall. It took the will out of me. I didn’t want to do anything or leave the cooling AC. I had plans to see sights (or at least the National Palace with all the historic Chinese treasures), but I didn’t want to walk outside.
I stayed with my friend Rick and his roommates. They have a 4 bedroom apartment with a Japanese room (commonly used to play mahjong) as a guest room. Since I didn’t see many sights, I spent my time eating and hanging out with folks I haven’t seen in a while (Regan and his bride Sharon, the out of town folks, etc). We went to Din Tai Fung which still blew me away after all these years. We also had a 10 course omakase lunch at a Japanese restaurant. This cemented my opinion that Taiwan is a great foodie destination.
The wedding was at a restaurant on the 86th floor of Taipei 101. Breathtaking views, and a beautiful wedding.
Even though we stayed out late at the wedding after party, I still woke up early due to jet lag. Rick’s roommate was up and preparing for a 10K with her friend. So, I hydrated and did part of the Nike women’s run. I had a hard time in the heat, so we cut off back to Rick’s place after 4 miles or so. Good way to say goodbye to Taiwan.
My high school friend [and college roommate] Regan has been an expat in Taiwan for several years and got married in June. Several of his friends traveled to Taiwan to celebrate his wedding.
My first stop was Korea where I met up with Regan and Do for Ultra Music Festival. I went to Ultra with Do and the Lambda’s eleven or twelve years ago in Miami, and it’s always been a fond memory. UMF Korea took it up a notch.
The only things we did other than going out was eat (my favorite meal was a traditional Korean meal with a table full of kim chee), sleep and sit in traffic.
After Korea, I headed to Singapore. It was my first time traveling outside the US by myself, and it was the perfect place to do so (except I ordered food for only one). As Malaysia’s neighbor, it’s very similar with its mix of cultures. As a financial hub, there are more expats and wealth. With tight government control, it has less crime. Many of the tourist t-shirts refer to it as a “Fine City” due to fines levied for small offenses like jaywalking. It wasn’t always this way. My cabbie to the airport described Singapore as dirty and mafia-run about 50-60 years ago. As the government cleared out the shanty towns and replaced them housing projects, the criminals had nowhere to hide. He mentioned that gangsters could be thrown in jail without trial.
Since the land area is so small, the government can provide great infrastructure for very low taxes. The low taxes and rule of law then attract multinationals. The subways and buses constantly run, so there’s little need to own a car. Even during rush hour, there was little traffic compared to Seoul.
Fires in Indonesia caused a massive haze while I was there, so I didn’t ride around the island as originally planned. I still walked about quite a bit and got in several good meals.
Since I was still jet lagged and sleeping odd hours, I made it a point to find an early breakfast place. I had an amazing eggs benedict at Toby’s Estate (sometimes, you just want a “normal” breakfast). I then headed to the Gardens by Marina Bay and the Cloud Forest exhibit. Aside from the much needed cool air, I loved how the exhibit took me from the “top” of the cloud forest to the bottom with different plants in each section. I made my way to Burgis Junction for a quick lunch in the AC (the random soup at Soup Spoon was flavorful and satisfying) and decided to have a look around. The Burgis Market was tightly packed with hundreds of stalls selling clothes, electronics, accessories and food. I grabbed a mango juice from one of the stalls, and I spent the rest of the time in Singapore looking for a similar juice. So refreshing and tasty.
I made it back to the hotel, and set my alarm so I’d make it out for dinner. After reading online reviews, I decided on the Chinatown hawker stands (as the Newton and Maxwell ones were too touristy). Following the instructions from this website, I chose the Mixed Claypot Rice and was not disappointed. The chicken was juicy, the Chinese sausage salty and fatty, and the rice was properly burnt at the bottom. As a future note, the seafood market in Chinatown seems like a good spot for seafood — the patrons were all happily eating (opposed to some very glum folks I saw at Jumbo’s on the riverfront)
The next morning, I headed into the office to say hello to some folks I’m working with. It’s always nice to meet folks and to put a face to a name. At the office, I learned that school lessons were taught in English and that there weren’t many Chinese writers anymore (different from Malaysia). Tired from running around the previous day (and from the heat), I made my last tourist stop the botanical gardens. It was amazing to see such a massive lush garden in the middle of the city (right by the Orchard Road shopping district). The Orchid Garden was top notch, and I took several photos there.
The food was amazing. I ate every time I was hungry at random food stalls, mall courts, markets. I never had any issues – all the vendors have a “cleanliness” grade displayed prominently by their signage. I randomly had an amazing red bean pancake and a lychee pop drink from Mr Bean. I ate at a fluorescent lit shack by the hotel (just around the corner from new developments). The only downside is that Singapore seems much more like a running town than a cycling one.
I didn’t pay attention to some of the itinerary changes to my flights, so I ended up with a 7 hour layover in Narita. When I called American Airlines to change it, the agent couldn’t change the flights due to capacity. She did recommend a tour of the Narita Temple to pass the time. I sent a few emails to Narita Rainbow Tours and arranged the tour. (If you have a 4-5 hour layover, you can still do the tour.)
The Narita temple is one of the most popular Buddhist temples in Japan, and many Japanese continue to visit the temple today.
With a 10 hour layover in Austin, I went from Dublin to Korea (DUB-LHR-DFW-AUS-DFW-NRT-ICN). I had a bit of time at London Heathrow, so my coworkers came to the airport for breakfast and pod riding.
The crazy flights weren’t intentional. When my high school/college friend Do called and asked me to attend his wedding in Seoul, the only possible answer was, “Of course.” In the end, it was a small high school and college reunion with folks I haven’t seen in a while.
I never adjusted to the Korean time zone, so my trip consisted of going out, crashing during the day, attending the wedding and going out some more. We made it out sightseeing for just one day.
The complete photos of the China trip are here. I really should go back and reprocess some of the pictures using a bigger monitor. That never happens – I’m not a fan of post-processing so I try to do it during the trip.