China (2 nights)

The main goal in China was to visit the Great Wall. Kate had visited the Badaling section during her previous trip to Asia, but I’d never been, so we scheduled a few days in Beijing. Originally we planned to see other sights like the Forbidden City, but that changed when we cut a day to stay longer in Kyrgyzstan. Ultimately the only thing we did was visit the Wall, but it was interesting enough to be worth it.


All kinds of vehicles on Beijing highways

We visited the Mutianyu part of the wall. This section has been restored recently, but that didn’t detract from the incredible views and majesty of the site. This is still a giant brick wall built on top of a mountain, and it’s impossible to see it without imagining the massive effort that originally put it there almost 1500 years ago. If you get bored thinking about that, you can look both directions and imagine that the 2.2 kilometers you see is 0.03% of the 6000 kilometers of wall, and that’s enough to make any mind boggle.


Mutianyu facing west

When we arrived at the wall, I headed west to the unrestored Jiankou section, while Kate and Ruby stayed in the Mutianyu area.

I was able to walk unhindered until watchtower 23, where the path is bricked up and any further progress must be made “of one’s own will” (according to the nearby vendor’s translation app). Continue reading →

Mongolia (5 nights)

Visiting Mongolia felt like a homecoming for Kate. She spent 2 weeks there in 2004 and had been itching to return ever since. Ruby and I were excited to relive those memories with her and create our own. Since we only had 5 days, we couldn’t visit some of the more remote places like Karakorum or the Gobi desert, but we made the most of our time by visiting two very different areas near capital city Ulaanbaatar.


Mini Gobi

After a day in Ulaanbaatar to adjust to the new time zone, we drove west to Khogno Tarna National Park, locally referred to as “mini-Gobi” since it includes a small sand dune separate from the actual Gobi desert. The dune is right off the main highway so it’s a popular tourist destination for foreigners and Mongolians.


A young Mongolian rushes to herd his flock near the highway

Upon arrival we relaxed for a bit in the ger of local camel herders, sampling their airag (fermented mare’s milk) and aaruul (rock-hard camel cheese). I found the Mongolian airag smoother and less strong than the Kyrgyz version (kumus). It has a unique taste, like fizzy yogurt or yogurt beer.


Relaxing in the ger

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Indonesia (12 days)

Indonesia was a special destination for us because we were joined by Steve and Sarah, Ruby’s father and stepmother. We had a great time traveling together. Sarah had lived in Indonesia several years ago and was still conversational in the language, which proved very helpful.

Gili Air

Our first destination was Gili Air (literally “Water Island”), one of three small islands northwest of Lombok. Circumnavigating Gili Air on foot takes about an hour, and no motorized vehicles are allowed, only horse carts and electric scooters.

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Bhutan (7 days)

After leaving Myanmar, our next destination was Paro, Bhutan. There are only a couple flights into Bhutan per day from select locations, so we had a pretty long journey to get there: we hopped from Lake Inle to Yangon, then onto Bangkok, staying there overnight (actually two nights because we missed one flight to Bhutan) before flying on to Paro International Airport the next morning with a stop in Guwahati along the way.


Hiking to Tiger’s Nest Monastery

Bhutan, unique among the countries we’re visiting, requires arrangements with a tour company before issuing a visa. The government sets a minimum price per day per person which pays for a guide and driver, 3-star accommodations, and all meals. Also included in the per-day price is a $65 tariff that supports the country’s free healthcare, free public schools, and road maintenance.


Pun-filled warning signs were omnipresent on the mountain roads

Due to this unusual setup, we felt very well taken care of, and also very busy. There’s a lot to take in, and the default was to show us as much as possible. After a few days we were feeling pretty exhausted and requested a more relaxed pace. Later our guide told us he felt guilty about dropping us off at the hotel so early (usually around 3pm) but we assured him it was exactly what we wanted.


All our hotels had amazing views

Just about all the culture a tourist might encounter in Bhutan is related to Buddhism, the monarchs, or both. As explained to us, the country’s history essentially starts at the introduction of Buddhism to the area in the 7th century by Guru Rimpoche then jumps to The Great Unifier in the 17th. He subdued the tribal leaders of his time and is revered almost as much as Buddha himself. When he died, the tribal leaders took over again until the establishment of the current monarchy, the Wangchucks, in 1907. The currently living kings (referred to as K4 and K5) are also revered as demigods, especially K4, who abdicated in 2008 after transitioning the government to a representative democracy.


Largest seated Buddha in the world


Celestial beings on the second level for scale


(Second?) Buddha carved into a rock

But even more impressive than the rich culture is the scenery. Bhutan is all steep valleys with high-flying mountain passes between them. The roads are stunningly beautiful (and scary – we were fortunate to have a professionally trained driver). A monastery crowns every ridge and is usually reachable only on foot.


Chelela pass, the highest road in Bhutan at 13084 feet

Due to the tourism arrangement, it was slightly difficult to escape the tourist bubble. Fortunately our Seattle-resident travel agent Jill and her family were in Bhutan at the same time, and invited us to their house one evening. Ruby spent the night with her daughters and we borrowed a gho and kira (Bhutan’s mandated national dress) for a night on the town.

Later we attended a picnic with Jill and our guide Kinley’s families. Everyone was excited to teach us the local dances and we felt very welcomed. For our part, we got the Bhutanese playing Frisbee.

If you’re even a bit interested in traveling to Bhutan, I highly recommend contacting Jill at Cypress Himalaya Tours. When we missed our flight to Paro, she rebooked and rearranged everything in one day, which was a lifesaver for us.

Our guide Kinley was also excellent. We often had people from other groups drift over to soak up his boundless knowledge. His English was nearly flawless, and did you know he plays in a rock band?


Kinley hiking to Tiger’s Nest

Kinley and our driver Tshering were our constant companions for over 7 days. Sometimes the server-served relationship was a bit uncomfortable for me (“Can I grab my bags before Tshering does?”), and sometimes I could feel myself slipping into complacency (“No worries, they’ll take care of our bags and close the van door and check us in”). By the end I started to feel some relaxed friendship brewing between us, which was great but bittersweet because it was the end. It was tough to say goodbye, but hopefully we’ll see them again on our next visit to Bhutan.


Saying goodbye at the airport

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Kate’s book recommendation: I like to read books set in the places I visit for additional context, history, and color. For Bhutan, I recommend Beyond the Sky and the Earth by Jamie Zeppa.

Hong Kong (6 days)

Hong Kong was a great first destination for us. Ruby said it was like the tutorial level of the trip, which I think is very accurate. Every sign was in both Chinese and English, most people understood English, and the city services were top notch. Kate says it’s the best bus system she’s ever experienced. We all had an excellent time.

We arrived at our hostel (YesInn at Causeway Bay) late at night after more than 25 hours of being awake, a record for Ruby. The first few days we were pooped by late afternoon but still managed to have some fun.


Our first destination was Victoria Peak, a breathtaking viewpoint overlooking the city. While there we stopped at the Trick Eye Museum, a series of forced perspective murals that made for excellent photographs (you can read more about it in this post by Ruby). The Hong Kong Science Museum was also great with lots of interactive exhibits and a pleasantly perplexing mirror maze. Continue reading →


We started working on the packing list in earnest in April. After finding inspiration from a few sources (Lonely PlanetOne Bag, Wirecutter) we came up with a spreadsheet. We have one column for each person plus a daypack, shared items, and a few other lists like toiletries and first aid.

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One of the earliest choices to make was luggage. Suitcases are great in airports and cities, but we were planning to visit some pretty rural areas, places where wheels wouldn’t work. Backpacks seemed to make more sense. After some test fits at REI, we all independently selected Osprey Farpoint packs as our favorites. Kate got the Farpoint 55 with attached daypack and Ruby chose the Farpoint 40, which fits her surprisingly well.

I initially got the Farpoint 70, but after a packing test (with towels standing in for things I didn’t have yet) concluded it was just too big. You don’t really need much stuff! Three outfits and a toothbrush. In the old days books were a heavy burden, but now we have Kindles. So I ended up with the Farpoint 55 too.


Kate, Ruby, and Grant’s packs being tested for the correct volume

Of course we’re carrying more than the bare minimum. After many reviews read, packing lists brainstormed, Amazon boxes opened, and REI shopping bags filled, here’s all the stuff we decided we couldn’t live without for 3 months:

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