Wednesday, August 27, 2014

China Visa And Travel Options

Today we stopped by the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco to drop off our visa applications.  We arrived around 11 am and were done by 12:30 pm.  Not too bad.  After all the stress over the new visa regulations we didn't have any issues with our visa application packages.  Even if we had filled out our application incorrectly it seemed like the person at the counter was taking her time to go over any mistakes with each applicant, so kudos to the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco for that.

Ever since the new visa regulations kicked in September of last year, I've dreaded getting a visa to China, not only is the visa now $140 for Americans regardless of duration and number of entries (it was $45 the first time I remember getting a visa to China), but there are so many more requirements.  Rather than a catch all L visa for tourist and short term visitors, there are now a larger number of visa options.  We stopped by a travel agency and they recommended my parents and I apply for a Q2 visa, short term for visiting family in China.  The requirements are a little more relaxed, we just needed an invitation letter from a family member in China on top of the basic documents (visa application, one 2x2 photos, copy of the information page of our passport, and passport).  I'm still a little weary of the new requirements, but as far as dropping off our application, everything seemed in order. We'll find out on Tuesday if our visa request for multiple entries in a 2 year period is approved or not.  The last time we were in LA my uncle pointed out to us that it is possible to write in 2 year multiple entry visa on our application IF we've received a multiple entry visa to China before, which we all have.

Once Daniele has approval from work to take a vacation I'll work on his tourist L visa.  His should be easy with minimal complications.  Since the L visa requires either a signed letter from a tour company OR photo copies of his flight and hotel confirmations, we'll just book our hotels under his name and buy trip insurance for his flight on the off chance he is denied.  His visa is also so much cheaper than ours.  As an Italian (and for many other nationalities other than Americans) he has the following options:

Number of Entry
U.S. Citizens
Citizens of Third Countries
Single Entry
$140
$30
Double Entries
$140
$45
Multiple Entries for 6 Months
$140
$60
Multiple Entries for 12 Months or more
$140
$90


Notice Americans only get the one price option.

Once this trip was confirmed, of course I couldn't keep myself from starting to plan.  If there is one thing I absolutely adore doing, it's trip planning.  Such a shame travel agents are no longer a viable career option.

Daniele really wants to see the usual tourist trail (Shanghai, Beijing, Xi'an), which I've done to death, but I don't mind.  I'm going to skip the Forbidden Palace since it's not the same since they closed the Starbucks that was inside (just kidding), but I don't mind heading to the Great Wall again (potentially a new section that I haven't been to yet) and the Terracotta Warriors again, after all, that was one of the first sights to take my breath away.  In an effort to go somewhere new for me, we're going to skip Chengdu and all the sights around Szechuan and that left us with two options that caught our attention.

The first option involved the Li River and a bamboo raft

Biking and hiking in Yangshuo


Longji for the rice patties

The scenery is gorgeous, but to fit in Xi'an we figured it would be better to stay around the Shaanxi/Shanxi/Shanghai/Henan/Hebei region.


Daniele and my tentative itinerary is looking something like this for the time after my parents return to California, some of the places we found limited information about, while others are part of the well worn tourist trail. 


Shanghai - Not much in terms of sights, but I once briefly called this city home.  The best thing to do here is eat, eat, and eat - both Chinese food and overindulgent western food.

Xi'an - Terracotta Warriors, the city wall, Muslim quarter.  

Pingyao - A bit touristy, but that's alright.  I figured Daniele would really enjoy staying in an ancient walled city.  Pingyao has been named a UNESCO world heritage sight and is a favorite stop for many tourist.  This would be a quick rest for us, a little relaxation before climbing a second mountain (the first is Huangshan, not mentioned here since we'll be doing that with my parents).

Mianshan - For some reason most overseas tourist don't know Mianshan exists, only half an hour from Pingyao, yet it's rarely mentioned on most tourists' itinerary from Pingyao.  We were looking at Longtan Valley as well, yet another location not big on the foreign tourist trail, but we opted to go with Mianshan due to the gorgeous photos and the great reviews we read from the few people who have gone.  The lack of overseas tourist might mean English will be limited, but we should be alright with my dormant Chinese language abilities.

Ningwu Ice Cave - Another location where information is limited, but it's on the way between Pingyao and Datong, and it's so different from everything else in the region and our itinerary.  If we don't have enough time for everything this will probably be the first thing cut from our list.

Datong - Back on the tourist trail.  Not far from the city is Yungang Grottoes, and just over an hour away from the city in the opposite direction is the hanging monastery.  

Beijing - What itinerary to China can be complete without a stop in Beijing.  First time visitors love all the historic sights, repeat travelers go back for the nightlife and food.  I'm dreaming of that Beijing duck, roujiamuo, zajian mein, and this amazing sour glass noodle soup that I can't remember the name of.


Budget List

My home reconstructing feels like it is forever ongoing, but I know it's really only been almost a month.  This past week we were given a budget list for choices we needed to make for things like the hardwood flooring, stove top, dish washer, etc...  It was a surprise how low the budgets were for some of the items, even taking the cheapest choice was below the budget.  I knew contractors take off a premium for things like this, but it was a bit of a shock.  Luckily we like to do things the Chinese way and headed to the Chinese manufacturers around the area for the hardwood floor, marble, and tile, which meant we were able to go over budget for just about everything else with the savings we made by skipping Home Depot for the above mentioned items.   That means we have enough budget to add in two new tubular skylights, one in our uber dark stairwell and one for the hallway by the front door.  Now there are no dark spots in our home!  That makes me really excited.  

The tubular skylight we found actually is flat, which makes me happy, I never liked the look of the dome most tubular skylights have.

We Found One Similar To This
The Result Will Look Similar To This
I know I can't hope for the areas to be super bright from this type of skylight, but since the majority of our house is pretty bright already, this helps us chase away the last dark corners. 

An Example Of What A Difference A Tubular Skylight Makes

The rest of our selections should look quite good, it makes me excited to see what the finished project will look like.  In a lot of ways it'll be like a brand new home, but we are also keeping most elements of our home the same as before, just brighter and more welcoming. :)

Friday, August 15, 2014

How To Visit Venice And Actually Enjoy Your Trip


Every year there is always someone writing about the overcrowded mess that Venice turns into during the summer, and every time I roll my eyes because it's unfathomable to think that this day in age with the countless resources available online that the people didn't do a little research beforehand to avoid the suffocating crowds.  I've been to Venice twice and I've managed to have the best time while avoiding crowds even in the middle of the high season.  Venice is probably one of my favorite places to visit in Italy and the crowds are more than avoidable.

Here's a few tips I've learned to make for a much more enjoyable trip:

1. Stay for at least one night, I can't stress this enough.  I know it's an expensive city, but if you've dreamed about visiting Venice, do yourself the favor and stay overnight.  Why take the time to go to Venice and only do a day trip, this only ends in heartbreak and yet another pseudo travel expert lamenting about the terrible experience of Venice.
Early Morning
I've helped numerous friends plan trips to Italy including time in Venice and I always tell them the same thing, Venice will be their most expensive hotel experience in Italy, but it won't necessarily be the nicest hotel you stay in.  Know that from the beginning and you can plan how to split your budget accordingly.  A 2 or 3 star hotel will cost about the same as a 4 or 5 star hotel elsewhere. If you are going as a solo traveler or a couple, I recommend staying at a hotel, but if you are going as a family you'll find much more value staying at an apartment rental.  The last time I was there I went with my family, we stayed overnight at a rental I found and our train didn't leave until 6 pm the next day, we lucked out when the owner let us stay as long as we wanted on the day of check out.  This worked out well since my parents like to rest in the afternoon and take a nap.  Essentially we were able to rent the apartment for two days for the price of one, or about $125 per day for a family of 4.  Even if we didn't get the extra day $250 for one night for a family of four is still a steal.  

If you really are on a tight budget and can't afford a hotel, then schedule a train departure for as late as possible.  This isn't ideal since by the later part of the day you'll be wishing you had somewhere to go to get off your feet and take a quick break, but if you have more energy than money, it's worth considering.

2.  The Vaporetto is your friend.  Yes, the best way to explore Venice is on foot.  No question about that, but after many twists and turns feet get tired fast.  This is a guarantee especially for those who only want to spend a day in Venice and still see as much as possible.  The Vaporetto seems expensive when you don't plan on taking it only to break down when you realize you're too exhausted to walk from the Rialto Bridge to St. Mark's Square and just want to ride the Vaporetto once.  7 euro for one ride is expensive, but if you plan your day out knowing you'll take the Vaporetto you'll find it's well worth paying for a 12 hour, 24 hour, or longer pass.  18 euro for 12 hours, 20 euro for 24 hours, 25 euro for 36 hours, etc... are great deals.  Keep in mind, unlike some parts of Italy where a day pass expires at midnight the day of validation, the passes for the Vaporetto go by hour, which means if you buy a 24 hour pass and start using it at noon, you can use the pass until just before noon the next day.  
A Ride On A Gondola Is Up To You, But Not Great For Actual Transportation

My parents loved the Vaporetto.  We arrived in Venice at 10 AM, walked around and explored all the side streets we could stand before taking a rest in the afternoon to avoid the day trippers.  By 5 pm we bought and validated our 24 hour Vaporetto tickets and were able to travel comfortably all over Venice for the evening and the next day even fit in trips to Murano and Burano because we had extra time since we planned against the crowds.  Our 24 hour pass didn't expire until 5 pm, which gave us plenty of time to go back to the apartment rental via Vaporetto, rest for a quick moment, then walk to the train station.
A Trip To Burano Made Possible By Avoiding Crowds In Venice


3.  In every tourist destination there are certain places that everyone flocks to, in Venice this includes St. Mark's Square, Bridge of Sighs, and Rialto Bridge. This means you have to put up with crowds at some point while in Venice if you want to see these sights, right?  Wrong.  My next tip is to stay away from St. Mark's Square.  I don't mean never go to St. Mark's Square, it's really too beautiful to miss, but don't book a hotel there and do not visit in the afternoon.  The shops and restaurants around St. Mark's Square are the most expensive and usually the most mediocre on the island, which means if you choose a hotel in the area not only will you have to deal with crowds, but you'll deal with mediocrity even when the crowds disappear for the day.  Choose instead any of the countless places along the Grand Canal and near a Vaporetto stop for line 2.  I can't recommend Cannaregio enough.  I have an absolute favorite apartment rental right next to the Guglie Bridge that will always be my apartment of choice whenever I visit.  There are some sites that suggest the Cannaregio neighborhood is too far, but I really wonder if those writing that have monetary motives for suggesting tourist stay in and around St. Mark's Square.  The reality is Cannaregio is far enough from the maddening crowds, but an easy 15 minute walk to St. Mark's Square.  Factor in the fact that it is also walkable to and from the train station, this means not having to drag around luggage traveling in and out of Venice.
Passing By Rialto Bridge

By The Doge's Palace

4.  Plan your visit differently than a day tripper would.  If you've been taking my suggestions to heart so far you'll be staying at least one night in Venice in a less touristic neighborhood while planning on a 24 hour Vaporetto pass.  That means you're not limited to the time constraints of a day tripper, so why would you go the same route as one? If you're staying somewhere less touristic spend your time exploring by foot your neighborhood or a neighborhood that really catches your interest.  This is the absolute best part of visiting Venice and most day trippers don't have the time to enjoy what makes Venice really special.  Most day trippers are gone by 5 pm and do not show up until after 10 am, which means heading to the main tourist sights between 10 am and 5 pm equals feeling like a sardine.  The day you arrive in Venice will probably be after 10 am, if you plan on exploring different neighborhoods and taking a siesta before 5 pm, by the time you head to St. Mark's Square or the Rialto Bridge you'll have each location practically to yourself.  Keep in mind photography is the best during these hours as well, worst in the afternoon.  The next morning you can decide how to use your time, either going back to St. Mark's Square or use the time to go to another island.  Just remember, avoid the route a day tripper would plan their day and you have most places either practically empty or with more manageable crowds.  By the time the crowds start forming you'll be ready to go explore a few more nooks and crannies before needing to head to the train station.  
Just After Sunset At St Mark's Square, Virtually Empty And Magical

5.  Restaurants are expensive in Venice.  Decide if the specialties in Venice are things you are interested in trying.  If they aren't, you may well end up at a restaurant ordering overpriced carbonara and wondering why its not as good as carbonara from Rome  or ordering pizza and wondering why it's not as good as pizza from Napoli.  Liver, squid ink pasta, fried seafood, and other seafood dishes are what Venice does really well.  If you aren't interested in these things then rethink how you dine in Venice.  If you are on a budget consider heading to the markets.  Restaurants are more expensive in Venice, but I've found the food in supermarkets are some of the best priced in the major cities of Italy.  Take full advantage of what makes Italy great, in other words, Italy is known for fresh and tasty produce and access to tasty high quality meat (the type of food us Americans pay a premium for at specialty shops).  Cook your own food if you have access to a kitchen, otherwise try out the deli or precooked food in the markets.  We were surprised how cheap it was to buy steak, pork chops, beer, wine, etc... in the markets in Venice and ended up eating a much tastier home cooked meal than the food we had at a restaurant the next day.  We had some really good food in Italy, but my parents still rave about how great the quality of meat we found in Venice was.  We kept it simple, letting the flavors of the quality steak and pork chops shine through.  Going to the market, cooking lunch, and hanging out in our neighborhood while the day trippers squished together at St. Mark's Square gave us a much more enjoyable experience while still making it to all the major sights during off peak hours. 

There are no hard and fast rules on how to enjoy Venice, but as with any tourist destination, the key is to avoid doing what the tour groups/cruise ships/day trippers are doing at the times they are doing it.  I used this same principle visiting the Vatican Museum and ended up having the museum almost to myself.  Large tour groups are the bane of my travel existence, but so many people insist on taking them and will continue to do so unless they stop being profitable (not likely) or they are banned (even less likely).  They are a fact of travel, but they don't have to ruin your trip.  Take a little time before your trip to figure out when peak hours are and plan your time avoiding places where huge crowds make a place actually feel over crowded.  You'll have a better time, still see all the sights you want to see, and have extra time for places you may not have considered before. Only then does the magic of places like Venice really shine through. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Bob, We Meet Again

After almost a year of growing out my hair I figured it was time to get some layers to give it more movement.  I've had the pleasure and displeasure of having very thick hair all my life, and this causes my hair to be weighed down whenever my hair is left to grow wild.  I've been pushing myself to see how long I can grow my hair out, but alas long hair is not in my immediate future.  I decided to try a salon I used to go to with good results, but this time around I was given a mullet.  With my thick Asian hair I am limited regarding where I can go to get a hair cut, for most western salons they leave my hair too thick, most Asian salons are hit or miss, the downside usually comes in the form of over thinning my hair. Unfortunately for me asking to keep the length and add layers equaled an Asian mullet similar to the below:

I went back the next day and my stylist wasn't there, I was told to go back the next day.  I'm impatient.  I've gotten a lot better over the years, but I think I speak for most women when I say patience doesn't exist when it comes to wanting to fix a bad hair cut.  So I decided in the spirit of DIY I'd see if there were tutorials online about cutting my own hair.  Low and behold there are endless videos for every kind of method and hairstyle all a click away.  Feeling brave I decided to go for it and cut the mullet into a bob.  
Not bad for my first time cutting hair.  Looking at the photo I could probably thin out the weight line and add more of an angle in the back to give my hair even more movement, but I spent a good amount of time today thinning out my hair, which gave my ultra thick hair so much more swing to it.  I didn't have a lot to work with considering the shorter layers already existed from the mullet, but I'm overall happy with my first attempt.  

Friday, August 1, 2014

Back on Track

Today we met with our project manager for rebuilding our home and it restored our faith in Wingard.  Earlier this week we received the countersigned agreement and today we received a rough estimate of their timeline.   They are looking at a projected finish at the end of December.  Not bad.  We reconfirmed the the types of windows we want, which will add a lot of light to the parts of the house that were darker than we liked.  We were also given options for our roof and we're pretty set on this one:

Since we're going to repaint the whole exterior we've decided to go with a classic pale yellow with white trim, so the dark charcoal colored roof would go oh so well with it.  I'm also loving the idea of a colored door, here's one prospect:


It's a bit of a dark raspberry color, not too bright like a true red, but it adds enough character so as not to be boring since we're going with very classic colors, similar to the below:


I still standby the fact that this fire sucks, but at least now we can try to make something positive come from it all.  

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Reconstructing


It's almost a week shy of one month since the fire to my home and finally things are starting to roll.  My house is two levels, with the main level on the second floor, and basically the whole second floor was damaged and will be redone, including the entire roof.  The backyard deck burned down and we're now replacing it with a concrete patio, more out of paranoia since that's where the outside firecracker landed and started the fire.

We've since decided to use the contractor our insurance recommended, but not before checking out their details, gathering a few outside estimates of our own, and insuring any changes to the structure of the house will be accommodated.  The first time we mentioned the small changes we wanted made, the contractor, Wingard Construction out of Concord, made it sound like we'd owe more money on top of what was covered, but it's not my first time taking apart a plan and searching line by line item to get things done the way I want.  My advice to anyone who gets a detailed estimate from a contractor, be it for reconstruction due to damages or for general work on your house, take the time to go through each line item and get estimates from multiple contractors.  All contractors will pad their estimates and it's up to the home owner to catch it.  For us, we don't care if the contractor increases margins for themselves, this fire to our home sucks and we're not trying to make money off of the damages, but we're also not willing to pay extra for what we want done if the cost is already covered.

Wingard Construction specializes in home restoration, they've worked extensively with insurance claims and have a good reputation, which is why we decided to go with them.  At first meeting they were very personable, constant communication before we signed the contract, but since we signed last Thursday, we've had to be more persistent in the pursuit of communication.  That's not my natural style, but after years of spending my adult career working in Account Management, I expect good client services.  I've been asking for our countersigned contract, but the request hasn't even been acknowledged.  Let's hope this isn't an indication of problems to come.  I've also asked for a rough estimate regarding timelines, our project manager, Shane, let us know he'd have a better idea later this week and will send us a timeline.  Let's see if that materializes.

On my end, I've been holding off on a few business trips since I've been spending my time trying to get my home back to livable, and it looks like I may have to hold off a little while longer if communication stays stagnant.  I'll update as this adventure into having my home restored continues.  Hopefully this will help any readers make informed decisions when it comes to hiring a contractor.

Monday, July 28, 2014

China in October

Things are looking good for an October trip to China, my first time back in China since 2008.  I wonder if I know anyone still in Shanghai?  Actually, it's my first time back in East Asia since 2008.  Hmm, I couldn't find an old photo in Shanghai, but I did happen upon these photos from Hong Kong, Angkor, and Kuala Lumpur.  Excited!  I've missed Asia.