Road Trip Dreaming: Minnesota to Beijing

As I have written on this blog before, I love a good road trip. I have road-tripped my way around the US and Canada, Europe, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and taken a few trips around China.

One dream I have always had is driving from Minnesota to Beijing (I’m getting sick of that flight).


So you can imagine my excitement when I read on a site called (yes, such a site exists) that the president of Russian Railways has proposed building a superhighway that would link New York and London, and run right through the Twin Cities.

The proposed route doesn’t actually enter China, but I’m sure that there will be a junction with a highway heading south.

I wonder if it’s too early to start packing the car….

Related Posts:

Scenes from a Western Road Trip

Road Trip: St. Paul to Skagway

An Impromptu Road Trip

A Western Road Trip

A Ningxia Road Trip


Book Review: China Road

Image Credit:

Happy Birthday, Alaska Highway

On this day 50 years ago, the Alaska Highway was officially opened to military traffic, only 8 months after work began. Here’s how Wired reports on the anniversary:

Until the early 1940s, Alaska was a neglected U.S. territory. The Klondike gold rush of the 1880s and ’90s was a distant memory, and oil had not yet been discovered. There were a bunch of trees and rivers and snow, but nothing really worth exploiting, so the vast wilderness was pretty much left to the bears and the hardy few who lived on the frontier.

Although proposals had existed since the 1920s for building a highway through western Canada into Alaska, the Canadian government wasn’t very keen, and the plans were shelved.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, coupled with their military incursions into the Aleutian Islands, changed things in an instant. Suddenly, Alaska became a potential Japanese invasion route to Canada and the Lower 48, so both governments agreed that the road would now be built.

Military necessity dictated the route. It was a far cry from the original highway-commission blueprints and their more topographically friendly, meandering roadways. The Alaska Highway — like the Burma Road for moving Allied supplies from northern Burma to China — would take little account of mountains, wilderness, water or elevation.

The U.S. Army assumed control of the project, and the Corps of Engineers — augmented by thousands of civilian contractors — began construction through the northern wilderness. By any measuring stick, it was grueling, backbreaking work.

In the end, the 1,500-mile highway, stretching from Dawson Creek in British Columbia to Fairbanks, Alaska, was completed in an astounding eight months. In many places, it was a “highway” in name only, instead resembling a glorified footpath with stretches of unpaved road, murderous switchbacks and no guard rails or shoulders. Vehicles had a tough time negotiating the road, and traffic didn’t really pick up until 1943.

After the war, major improvements were made to the highway, and it opened to general traffic in 1947 when wartime travel restrictions were lifted.

To commemorate the anniversary, here are some photos our drive up the Alaska Highway in 2013. Happy Birthday, Alaska Highway, and thanks for the memories!


Mile Zero in Dawson Creek, B.C.

After leaving Dawson Creek, one of the first historical sites along the highway is a memorial to soldiers who lost their lives in a ferry disaster on Charlie Lake.

Charlie Lake, BC

Memorial to Ferry Disaster on Charlie Lake, BC

One of the most famous sites along the Alaska Highway is the Sign Post Forest in Watson Lake (Mile Post 635), home to  more than 100,000 signs. I’m guessing that the homesick soldier who started it in 1942 never imagined what it would grow into!

Sign Post Forest

Sign Post Forest, Watson Lake, Yukon

And a few shots along the highway….

Alaska Highway





Related Posts:

Road Trip: St. Paul to Skagway, AK

Mile Zero

A Ribbon of Highway

Wrecker Ahead

We Made It!

Land of the Midnight Sun

A Tale of Two Shrines

Alaska Cruising

Canadian Food

Alaska Wildlife

No GPS, Thank You Very Much

A Conversation at the Border

The Photographer and Her Drive

Scenes from a Western Road Trip

After attending a reunion in Colorado Springs last weekend, my mom, sister, brother-in-law and I set out in Big Red for a western road trip. Our original plan had been to do a return drive to Alaska, but since my niece and her husband moved back to Minnesota in the spring, that was out.

In planning this trip, we wanted to go somewhere that none of us had been before, and since we are a traveling family, identifying such a spot was not a particularly easy feat.

As we scanned the map of the western United States, we realized that while we had all done the major national parks in the west, had all been to Seattle, and three of us had been to the Oregon Coast, none of us had been to the Olympic Peninsula in NW Washington, a place that we had heard was magnificent.

So that’s where we headed, stopping off to see a couple of national parks and visit cousins in Washington along the way. Once on the peninsula, we spent four days exploring Olympic National Park, which includes a stunning mountain range, a rain forest, and miles of stunningly beautiful coastline.

While not being surprised by the beauty of it all, we have been surprised by the weather. We thought it would be cold and raining, but it has been 75 and sunny every single day. The locals swear this is normal for this time of year.

We’re in Victoria BC this weekend, and tomorrow begin the trek back to the land of flat.

Here are a few scenes from the road trip:

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado


Arches National Park, Utah


Mt. Hood, Oregon (the view from my cousins’ living room!)


Cannon Beach, Oregon (from Ecola State Park)


Ruby Beach, Olympic National Park, Washington


Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park, Washington


Hoh Rain Forest, Olympic National Park, Washington


Rialto Beach, Olympic National Park, Washington


Cape Flattery, Neah Bay, Washington (the northwestern-most point in the Lower 48)


Cadets on Parade, Victoria, BC, Canada


If you’re looking for a great place to vacation (in the summer), get thee to the Olympic Peninsula!



southern Utah

I’ve discovered something in the past few days. When you tell someone that you are going to Utah for a week, you get some very funny looks!

Never mind….that’s where I’m heading tomorrow, to explore the national parks across the southern half of the state with a friend and her just-graduated-from-high-school son.

Stay tuned….

Related Post:

Journey to the West


Cruising the Yangtze

yangtze river ferry

The website A Luxury Travel Blog recently posted a list of the 4 best cruise ships on the Yangtze River. 

At almost four thousand miles long, the Yangtze is Asia’s longest river and the third longest in the world. Historically it divides the North and South of China providing a natural barrier against invaders and more significantly today, a waterway for transport, commerce, and leisure cruising. China’s coming of age as a true world power was signaled by the colossal feat of engineering, the Three Gorges Dam, a highlight of most cruises. While literally dozens of ships ply the waters, only a mere handful come close to the Western definition of luxury.

I am very disappointed to see that the ‘Three-star Tourist Boat’ Noel and I took during our Esther Expedition in 2012 did not make the list.


Noel and Joann’s Excellent Adventure

A Tale of Two Tickets — The Ferry 

Sailing the Mountaintops 

A Three-Star Tourist Boat



Getting Out and About — Beijing and Las Vegas

A few weeks back travel expert Kendra Thornton contacted me about doing a joint post on our favorite places to visit. It sounded like a fun collaboration, and this post is the result. I write about a few fun things to see and do in Beijing, and Kendra writes about one of her favorite destinations, Las Vegas. Given the fact that I live in Minnesota, ground zero of the “polar vortex,” reading her suggestions makes me want to jump on a plane right now!

Joann: Getting Out and Enjoying Beijing

It’s kind of strange for me to think of Beijing as one of my favorite places “to visit,” given the fact that I lived there for 15 years! Prior to moving there in 1998 I lived in other (less developed) parts of China, so it definitely was my favorite destination in China, not because of the history or culture, but because it had western food! During my time living in Beijing I had the opportunity to host tons of friends (old and new) and I came to absolutely love showing folks around my adopted hometown. Here are my suggestions on a few things to see and do in Beijing.


1.  “The Big Three” – Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven.

These are arguably Beijing’s most famous historical/cultural sites. Built in 1959 to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Tiananmen Square is the closest thing that a secular state has to a ‘sacred’ space. Situated in the direct center of the city, Tiananmen Square is home to the Chairman Mao Mausoleum and the Monument to the Martyrs. It’s also a favorite spot for Chinese tourists who are not accustomed to seeing ‘foreigners’ so don’t be surprised if people ask you to pose in their photos with them. Just smile and agree; it will make their day.

The Forbidden City is on the north end of the Square, on the other side of the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen), from which the Square derives its name. The Forbidden City, as its name implies, is a vast complex of ceremonial and residential buildings that used to be the home of the emperor and his courtesans. Rent the wireless audio tour and give yourself several hours; otherwise the red buildings with yellow roofs will start to run together in your mind.

The Temple of Heaven, in the southern part of the old city, is where the emperor went once a year to offer prayers for a good harvest. In addition to the gorgeous Ming buildings, you’ll see local senior citizens playing cards, singing, dancing, and just hanging out. Much less crowded than the Forbidden City, it is one of my favorite parks in Beijing.


2. The “Hutongs”

Another fun activity in Beijing is touring the old section of town, often referred to as the “hutongs” (lanes). Even though it is a bit touristy, it’s a nice break from the oversized buildings and highways that make up Beijing. The pace in the hutongs is much more relaxed and will give you a bit of a feel for what Beijing used to be like. Stroll around the two lakes or take a rickshaw tour. And be sure to visit the ancient drum and bell towers nearby.


3. The Great Wall of China

No trip to Beijing would be complete without a visit to The Great Wall of China, which runs through the mountains to the north of the city. The two most famous tourist spots for visiting the Wall are Badaling (northwest of town) and Mutianyu (northeast of town). I prefer Mutianyu because it tends to be MUCH less crowded. Don’t forget to take the alpine slide down off the Wall; it’s great fun! The best way to get to Mutianyu is hire a car and driver to take you from your hotel. Go early and give yourself plenty of time to hike to the top.


4. Wangfujing “Snack Street”

A fun evening activity is visiting the Wangfujing “Snack Street” where you can sample everything from starfish to scorpions on a stick! Even if you’re not brave enough to sample the food, it’s fun to see what’s available and watch OTHER people eat.


5. Chuandixia Ming Village

It’s always fun to get out of the city and see a bit of the countryside. I would recommend hiring a car and driver to take to the ancient Ming village of Chuandixia, in the mountains to the west of town. Built and settled in the Ming Dynasty (1300-1600’s), Chuandixia has somehow survived relatively intact. Very few people live there permanently now, but it has been preserved as an example of traditional life and culture. Be sure to take your hiking boots, because there are lots of trails in the mountains surrounding the village.

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6. Beijing Duck

Finally, no one can visit Beijing without eating its most famous food, Beijing Duck (Peking Duck). The dish is served in most restaurants, but it’s good to go to a place that specializes in duck. The most famous (and oldest) Beijing Duck restaurant is Quanjude. However, its fame means it’s the most expensive. I would suggest Da Dong Beijing Duck.

A word about transportation: In the past ten years, Beijing has built a very extensive subway system, making it very easy to get around the city. And thanks to the Olympics, all of the signage is in English!

Kendra: Getting Out and Enjoying Las Vegas

If you think of casinos and nothing more when you hear the name “Las Vegas,” it’s time for you to learn more about Sin City. This is one of my all-time favorite travel destinations. The amazing desert oasis features things for grownups to enjoy as well as activities that the kids can enjoy too.

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1. Eat, Drink and Be Merry

There’s no lack of food and drink in Las Vegas. I love trying new things to drink and fresh cuisine. My favorite pairing is a beautiful steak with a choice red wine. Selections at places like SW Steakhouse, Tom Colucchio’s Craftsteak and Fiamma Trattoria are difficult to rival. Wine lovers will find award-winning selections, and those who prefer hard liquor will find plenty quality beverages to savor as well.

2. Catch an Aerial View

You don’t have to be 21 to enjoy an aerial view of the Las Vegas Strip. Maverick Helicopters gives guests an unparalleled experience. Their professional pilots narrate each flight. Every guest gets the opportunity to participate in the interactive tour via headsets. This activity features a show where every seat has an amazing view.

3. Relax at a Spa

If you need some serious “R and R”, head to one of the city’s spas. My favorite is the spa at Aria Las Vegas. As an escape from the bitter cold of a Chicago winter, I enjoy relaxing on the warm Ganbanyoku beds. Massage options here include Thai Poultive massage and Ashiatsu massage. Regardless of the reason for your trip, time at a spa should make it onto your agenda.

4. Bum on the Beach

In Las Vegas, you can experience the desert heat while riding the waves. Personally, I enjoy just relaxing on the sandy beach at Mandalay Bay. They have plenty of activities for everyone to enjoy here. The kids love the wave pool. Cocktails and the lazy river are more my speed.

Don’t get locked into thinking that blackjack and poker are the only activities to enjoy in Las Vegas. Whether you spend your time on the strip or choose to experience other parts of the city and the surrounding area, you can take your pick of activities here. This city truly has something for everyone and certainly is not short on hotels. With so many useful sites including those like Gogobot allowing you to read user reviews, you will be a step a head of the game in knowing what to expect when you visit.

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Related Posts:

100 Fun Things to See and Do in Beijing

An Afternoon in the Square

A Nation Mourns

Temple of Heaven

Marxist Mama!

Duck Number 100560



Mildred Cable: An Early Traveler in Northwest China

One of my favorite websites is the Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity, which posts short biographical sketches of famous Chinese Christians throughout history. Even though it focuses on Chinese Christians, they also include biographies of notable Western Christians.


They recently posted a biographical sketch of Mildred Cable, an OMF missionary who travelled extensively in western and northwestern China in the 1920’s:

“When the Trio asked themselves what China needed next, they felt led to leave their settled mission station for areas which were more remote and unevangelized. They were inspired by a report they heard on the absence of Christian witness for 1,000 miles along the Silk Road from Gansu province to Xinjiang province. On June 11, 1923, the Trio set out for Gansu. When they arrived in Zhangye, their first destination, they had been traveling for nine months and had covered 800 miles.”

Mildred was a prolific writer, chronicling not just her missionary work, but her travels as well.  A number of her books (co-authored by her colleague Fransesca French) are considered ‘classics’  because of their descriptions of life in western and northwestern China in the first half to the twentieth century.

These include the following:

The Gobi Desert – The adventures of three women travelling across the Gobi Desert in the 1920s

The Gobi Desert - The adventures of three women travelling across the Gobi Desert in the 1920s

Through Jade gate and Central Asia;: An account of journeys in Knsu, Tukestan and the Gobi Desert

Through Jade gate and Central Asia;: An account of journeys in Knsu, Tukestan and the Gobi Desert

For anyone interested in northwest China, both of these books are ‘must-reads.’

Image source: Scotwise

Chungking Mansions – a Global Village

Anyone who’s been to Hong Kong is probably familiar with Chungking Mansions, the building that towers over the lower end of Nathan Road and is home to  shops, restaurants, apartments and hostels.


In the 90’s I travelled to Hong Kong at least twice a year, and without fail my colleagues and I would enter the Chungking Mansions and stand in long lines to board the elevator that would take us up to The Delhi Club, a fantastic little Indian eatery on the 3rd floor. Upon entering the building I always felt a bit like I was back in Pakistan since most of the shopkeepers hailed from the sub-continent.

The Chungking Mansions is a unique place in Hong Kong and the BBC recently did a story on the place, calling it Hong Kong’s “favourite ghetto.” 

Eyesore, ghetto, jungle, goldmine, little United Nations. These are all words that have been used to describe Chungking Mansions, a building complex that is seen as both a foreign island in Hong Kong and an important part of the Chinese city’s identity.


From the outside, Chungking Mansions looks like a single, imposing concrete block – 15 identical residential floors on top of a neon-lit, two-storey mall.


Past the front, it is like a maze – there are in fact five separate blocks, 10 lifts and multiple old, twisting stairwells filled with swathes of electrical cable, crumbling concrete and graffiti in multiple languages.


The complex began life as an upmarket residential estate in the 1960s, but has since become a hub for traders from developing countries, backpackers and asylum seekers in Hong Kong.


More than 10,000 people are estimated to enter or exit the building every day, and African and South Asian faces often outnumber Chinese faces – something remarkable in a city where 94% of residents are ethnic Chinese.


The building complex has a somewhat notorious reputation among locals and, until recently, many in Hong Kong were wary of stepping inside.


However, the building has a buzz that most Hong Kong Chinese would also recognise – nearly everyone is there to make money.

Click here to read the entire article and see a great slide show.

I’ve also got this book  queued up on my Kindle: Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong, by Gordon Matthews.

Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong

So, dear readers….do you have any fun memories or stories of The Chungking Mansions?

Photo source: BBC