#3 Qufu, China – The hometown of Confusius

The third place on my list goes to the town of Qufu, in Shandong region in China. It is the home town of famous Confusius (Kǒngfūzǐ or K’ung fu-tze.) Before falling in love with Qufu, my experiences of China were a lot more grey and foggy.

I visited China in June 2008. My primary destinations in that huge country were the Shandong region and Beijing area up north. First we stayed several days in Chengyang, near Qingdao. About Chengyang I don’t have much more to say. But it was a grey, foggy town, with a little awkward athmosphere towards us young western women and a place, where you had to run for your life to cross the street. All the local men were trying to get our attention to them in numerous ways. It wasn’t the nicest experience on my travels. The close-by city of Qingdao with some Imperial German influences was much more intresting, and more used to foreigners than its smaller neighbour, but we only made a day trip there. Later that year they organized the summer Olympics’ sailing competitions there, and in early June we saw the workers cleaning up the sea shores from seaweed near the Zhan Bridge. By the way, the official beer of Qingdao, Tsingtao, is also found in the western supermarkets.

Even though I suppose China wasn’t so much ment for me and my mentality with love for freedom of speach, it is such a huge country worth giving a new change or even several. I will definately go back some day! I’m intrested in exploring some natural attractions in China, but also Shanghai and Hong Kong are on the list. In Shandong I missed the legendary Mountains of Laoshan and Mount Tai with their long ’steps to heaven’, and several famous buddhist temples. That’s something for the next time then!

Road trip to Qufu – an adventure in the Shandongese countryside

Can’t say that the historical Beijing wasn’t intresting aswell, but it didn’t end up as high on my list as the pittoresque Qufu where one could really sense the Ancient China without getting exhausted of the size of the place!

We headed for Qufu for a weekend trip with some Chinese friends. We drove there over 350 km to the west from Qingdao. It was supposed to be 5 hour ride with a car plus some pitstops on the way, but it turned into atleast 12 hours… well… So to say, the distances in China are enormous and you really can’t trust the conditions of the roads outside the road-tax-funded highways. We had a few pit-stops on the way, like the Yiyuan Rong Limestone Caves and a smaller buddhist temple somewhere on the way, but because of the Chinese writing I’ve unfortunately forgot the name of the buddhist temple and couldn’t find familiar looking one from the internet either.

What an adventure it was! On our way to Qufu we got happily lost in the Chinese countryside, and saw some really sad places on the way when trying to take a shortcut along some smaller roads. 😦 Eventually, despite the GPS, we ended up to several roads leading nowhere and even some roads litterally breaking down to death ends. We had to give up and head back to the new and shiny highways bordered with hundred-kilometres long flower plantings. The controversity compared to the misery and poverty we saw in the countryside around was really distracting. But well, the disturbing things about China is a subject for a completely different post.

Well, finally in the middle of the night, several hours after our planned schedule, we arrived to Qufu. We stayed the night in the first hotel we found, which was a big and relatively communist styled hotel outside of downtown. In the morning we headed to the old town for breakfast. Here in the downtown of Qufu, especially inside the city walls, you can see also the traditional chinese wooden architecture, you know, like houses with beautiful sweeping rooftops.

Maybe because of the beautiful historical setting around, the breakfast was one of the really memorable ones in my life this far. We had some dumblings in a casual chinese bar. As a sidenote, I have to mention the delicious NORTHERN Chinese Cuisine, which is something totally different from the deep-fried-everything of the Kantonese kitchen, which is, in my opinnion, way too well-represented in Western countries. I really miss the variety of the spicy flavours and less oily and greasy options of the northern chinese kitchen. We had some awesome and very social meals in China, ordering loads of different kind of stews and sauces, fish etc to the round, rotary table, to share with the whole dinner crew. Lovely tradition! But about dumblings, compared to other not-so ’breakfasty’ breakfasts we had in China, I really liked these light, boiled or steamed jiaozi dumblings with different fillings. I remember trying also some egg dumplings.

After the breakfast we explored this town of 60 000 habitants. Qufu is the hometown of the famous Confucius. It also served as the capital of the State of Lu during the Spring and Autumn Period, in approximately from 771 to 476 BC. The town, as well as some of its surroundings were surrounded by a town wall, which mostly still remains.

Confusius was a famous Chinese moral philosopher, politician, law scholar, editor and teacher who lived during in 551–479 BC. He is traditionally believed to have been born at nearby Mount Ni. His descendants used to rule Qufu for centuries.

The city contains numerous historic palaces, temples and cemeteries. The most famous of which is San Kong, a complex of three attractions forming a UNESCO World Heritage Site (since 1994). It contains the Temple of Confusius, The Cemetery of Confusius and the Kong Family Mansion. In the big temple area there are also other temples like the temple of Confusious’ favourite student Yan Hui.

In the Cemetery of Confusius you can find the tombstones of Confusius and 70 generations of his descendants from the Kong family. The cemetary forest is filled with tombstones and animal-shaped grave statues from Ming and Qing Dynasties! The quietness of this forest is really something you thought you couldn’t come across while travelling in the crowded China. Or atleast, so it felt like when we happened to visit Qufu. In June,  it was already warm and agreeable, but despite the other (Chinese) tourists, I didn’t feel it was too crowded at all. There might be more touristic times later in the summer though, when it’s not as agreeable to tour in the area.

The historical Qufu was an intresting place, where, once again one can feel being in the middle of the History itself! The Chinese modernisation hasn’t yet ruined the city. You propably will be one of the only few non-Chinese tourists there. Might end up as a destination of several touristical photos yourself, too, like we did… Don’t forget to try the rickshaw ride if you happen to visit Qufu. Here, by being part of the ugly white trash pulled by another human being, you can still help people to earn their living.

Mainokset

#2 RIO DE JANEIRO

Second place on my list goes to this Cidade Maravilhosa!  Rio de Janeiro’s location at the mouth of gulf Baía de Guanabara is either exceptionally perfect, or then the whole coastline of Brasil is a pure paradise! I don’t know which one, maybe both! My visit to Rio was only short stay of 10 days or so and we didn’t travel elsewhere. There is plenty to see in this huge city itself. We had some plans heading to beautiful green island of Ilha Grande quite closeby , but then we decided to focus on the city. Must see it some day!

Beaches

Rio de Janeiro is a city where you want to travel again and again. There the main touristic attractions which really are worth visiting! First of all, the great beaches. Of the most celebrated beaches Praia Ipanema and Copacabana I found Ipanema more beautiful and somehow more agreeable. The view southwards is amazing! But there was nothing wrong with Copacabana either. There are still several more beaches in Rio de Janeiro, like Praia do Botafogo and Praia do Flamingo. We heard lots of good things about the beaches in the direction of Barra da Tijuca. Smaller ones, more quiet ones and also some that are almoust in natural condition. But we decided to stay with the crowd, since it was very far and it was hard and slow to go there with public transport.

Stay cautious!

Favelas could be visited, but it’s recommendable to do it only with a guide, not alone. You never know how the situation there is. Our trip to one of these favelas was cancelled, because of a riot there.

It is very good to be cautious in Rio, though. Some American girls were robbed with knives closeby our hostel. They had taken a wrong street up from Lapa to Santa Tereza, and were robbed in a full daylight, close to the famous stairs of Santa Tereza! The same day, we also had been walking down the same street higher up on the hill, and though afterwards, that if we had missed the chairs the other day, it could have been us that had been robbed, too…

In Rio, it’s better to take a cab, metro, bus or a van whenever you have to go further, not to walk too far alone and keep an eye on people and the neighbourhood around you. I don’t know if we were lucky or what but nothing happened and we felt even a little funny being so carefull. For example we left our drinks away from our hands immediately after one suspicious moment at a parade we attended. On the other hand we still managed to break almoust all the cautiosness rules from the guidebooks what not to do.

Mountain hills of Rio

Rio is full of  hills and verdant mountains and the city has grown on the mountainslopes. The view high up from the hills is amazing!  We went up to Corcovado Mountain, where the famous statue Christ Redeemer is situated and had to take some touristic photos there with the statue of course! But the view was incredible! You think you could really see how big the city is, and still it’s too big to see it all!

We went up to Corcovado with a cabletrain from Cosme Velho. Corcovado is part of Tijuca National Park, an artificial rainforest planted there in the 18th century. One could take different kind of hikes or tours in Tijuca.

We decided to skip the other famous mountain view from Pão de Acúcar, Sugarloaf Mountain, because, we figurred out it’s just another mountain in Rio, and Rio is all about them. Maybe we didn’t need to see them all.

Santa Tereza, Lapa and the blocos all around the city

Even our hostel Terra Brasilis was situated in the hills of Santa Tereza and had incredible views over the city! The neighbourhood of Santa Tereza was filled with beautiful buildings, nice boutiques, restaurants and at the time, just before the annual Samba Carnevals, there were block parties all around the city, also here!

We went to couple of blocos in Santa Tereza district. Other one more like an north brasilian ethnic cortege and the other one an ouside party for the whole neighbourhood of Santa Tereza, with live bands etc. For both of these blocos we met some of my old brasilian friends from my exchange student times in France. It was great to meet all those lovely persons again, after so many years (7) and everything was just like it was then except our lives of course!

Except those blocos in Santa Tereza, we also attended some blocos in the Centro, Lapa and Ipanema. The one in Centro was sort of a hippie party in my eyes. We attended it on our last day invited by some people from the hostel and after dancing we headed to Ipanema for the big Hippie Fare to buy some souvenirs. To Lapa I actually went with some people from the hostel, and we ended up dancing in a salsa bar. I found Lapa a bit scary place. It was well known fact that after the bars closed, people leave fast and you shouldn’t stay in the empty neighbourhoods, if you don’t want to get mugged. There were loads of party people, drunken men fighting, whores, anything… It wasn’t my place really, even though dancing was really fun! Lapa seemed to be a 7-days-a-week party district assuming from the sound of hulabaloo carried all the way up from Lapa to Santa Tereza every night.

We also attended the Banda Ipanema, which was a sort of a practise parade for the big ones with the costumes. We danced and sang along with the crowd proceeding the streets of Ipanema already on our first day there! So much fun! The first Banda Ipanema was enough for us, we also saw the next Banda Ipanema, even some samba costumes there then, but it felt that already then, there was a little too much people for my taste and  one couldn’t see a thing. And the real parades were even not yet there….

Culinary part?

Aside all this, we of course went shoping (some Hawaianas etc…) and ate well. The brasilian culinary culture didn’t fully open up to us on this visit, the food we got to try was pretty mainstream and european-like and we didn’t end up to any very great restaurants. Meat was good, the locals recommended us the traditional black eyed peas and french fries made of manioc, we also tried yams and tapioca.  I also tried some African influenced street food in Ipanema.

But the fresh fruits were something amazing. We had a nice small breakfast every morning at the hostel terasse. When ever you come to Brasil, the breakfast is usually served also in hostels. At least pick one that does! At our place, someone complained that the breakfast wasn’t too special compared to other places, but after my travels I would say it was very nice for a hostel: fresh fruits, toast with butter and ham or jam, sugar cake or some other pastry, fresh squashed juice, tea and good coffee. No complaints especially since we were on a budget trip!

Wildlife in the city and a theatre play

We also went to see the Rio Zoo and Jardim Botânico. I’m not a fan of zoos in general, but we got to see loads of animals I haven’t seen before. Jardim Botânico was great, one has to visit it when in Rio, especially if you don’t get a change to go to the rainforests. One of the coolest things was to notice that that even in the middle of this huge metropol, there was loads of wild animals and birds. We saw monkeys all over, also on the hills next to our hostel! And, we saw some hummingbirds (or that’s what we think, because what other bird moves it’s wings so fast you can’t really see them?). Pretty cool huh?! There should have been also parrots and pelicans in the parks, but I didn’t get to see any.

My brasilian friends took us to see a theatre that was one of the best theatre plays I’ve ever seen. We hesitated at first, since we didn’t know any portuguese at all… but no worries! The play was totally mimic, amazing physical theatre based on movements and some universal voices only! The play was Irmãos de Sangue, Blood Brothers, by this French theatre assembly, Dos à deux. Just amazing, hope to get this assembly to perform in Finland some day!

Best moments come outside of the guide book

Last but definately not least, I want to share you this important fact: best moments on travels don’t often come from the guidebooks. You know, they come suddenly, when you take the opportunit to do stuff you didn’t plan. Aside many cool surprising things we did and saw during our trip, maybe the most inspirational moment of my visit in Rio was this little poolparty we attended somewhere high up in the hills of Santa Tereza. We ended up there with a group of lovely travel mates after a bloco in Santa Tereza invited by some local people we had met earlier. Imagine the feeling while listening to an awesome liveband playing bossa nova etc…, accompanied by cascades/ grasshoppers in the warm and dark night,  discussing about life with your old and newly found friends, while diping your dancing sore feet in the nice cool pool water, siping your incredibly strong but delicious caipirinha, staring at the stars and and the city lights below us. ❤ It was just, wow!

That is truly something to remember. Any photo couldn’t have captured the moment, not that I had carried a camera or a phone when attending bloco, anyways (even my money was in my bras 😉 ). So, it’s only in my head and heart.

Até mais, Cidade Maravilhosa!

#1 LEBANON

Normally the top-lists start from the end of the list, but I just couldn’t wait and turn this list around. I just had to start from this one! It wasn’t hard to pick my favourite destination country this far, but it was hard to pick only one destination from the A-M-A-Z-I-N-G Lebanon! So here is Lebanon, in a relatively large nutshell!

It is said that Lebanese wine, mentioned in the Bible, is an ancient allegory to outer and inner beauty in general, which is almoust like from a divine origin and acchievable only, if you reach to God.

977207_10151468013549639_626223825_oWell, however, it’s not hard to imagine where the allegory comes from. The whole of Lebanon is awesome, full of controversies, beautiful landscapes, historical temples and other monuments and it’s small enough to see very thoroughly in a couple of weeks. Lebanon in my eyes was full of mystique and history, not to mention it’s natural wonders.

It’s a land both verdant and drought. Amazingly beautiful and verdant mountains and hills, the only natural cedar tree groves in the world, waterfalls and then on the contrary, dry, desert like wasteland in the south especially.

Beit ed-Dine Palace

I was in Lebanon in May 2013 with my choir, that was invited to visit Lebanon by the Finnish Institute in Middle East. We were touring Lebanon for around 10 days or so. I would say that our visit was full of different and unforgettable experiences, which made the visit so unique in every way!

In addition to our three concerts there, our contacts in the country wanted us to see practically everything you could imagine worth seeing in Lebanon: The cities of Beirut, Tripoli and Sidon, the ancient Temples of Baalbeck and the Ksara Winery in Beqaa Valley,  the magical oriental palace of Beit ed-Dine (from 18th century), the huge complex of limestone caves of Jeita Grotto, Al-Chouf Cedar Reserve, waterfalls, UNIFIL IrishFinn Battalion in the South near Israelian border. We also got to perform infront of the Lebanese ’Cream’ in Beirut. After our concert we attended to a fancy cocktail event with tons of different cocktail treats to taste while discussing (mostly in french) with all these intresting people. Not bad at all!

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View to Israel

We stayed in Beirut, charming capital of Lebanon, in the bohemian district of Hamra. Beirut seemed like an intresting city and definately a place I want to get known better! Beirut is a charming mix of east and west, where you can find French style beach boulevards, pulsating western style bar districts full of young, internationally-oriented people, Haussmann style houses (like in Paris) and churches, but also mosques, souks (bazars), and lively arabic style street life.

Beirut Mosque
Beirut Mosque

This was also an ultimate culinary journey, since the famous Lebanese cuisine has  absolutely deserved its reputation. I couldn’t get enough of the delicious mezzes with fresh vegetables, tabbouleh salad, hummus, baba ghanoush, kebbeh, sambusac, stuffed grape leaves, fresh fish or roasted lamb! And… you don’t really get a change having a huge delicious lebanese lunch next to a beautiful waterfall everyday, do you. We also got to taste the Lebanese wine literally, since the owner of the Ksara Winery, was also one of our visit’s hosts (as an Honorary Council of Finland in Middle East) and invited us to visit his world famous winery.

Cedar groves, though rare and loged near to extinction, are luckily nowadays quite well-protected in their own reservational areas on the Lebanese mountains. They are undoubtedly the most inspirational thing which I have seen on my travels!

When we visited the amazingly beautiful Al-Chouf Cedar Reserve I felt like I had gone back in the time for thousands of years into a time when mankind was still living in more undetected way than today, in a symbiosis with the nature, as a part of it and not tragically trying to controll it in every way possible, like today we do. There in the middle of these centuries old , huge cedar trees, propably knowing that I was in an environment where the cultures have flourished for milleniums, the experience of being part of something historical was more tence than anywhere else before!

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Still, aside of the wonderfull mountain meadows, magical cedar groves with giant trees in Al Chouf almoust as unforgettable travel experience was visiting the historical old town of Sidon or Saïda in southern Lebanon. Here you could sence the old town’s ancient-like athmosphere despite bundles of funny-looking electric wires hanging around! ; ) It was like ancient time meets modern time in a tacky way!

Saïda Crusader Fortress in the Port of Saïda

My visit in Sidon, or Saïda was made special not because visiting the ruins of a medieval crusader fortress in the harbour but because of the people I met in the old town: Little kids, who eagerly seek contact with me and one friend of mine while others from our group were just walking straoght through the old town feeling hungover. Propably the kids somehow saw me as easy to take contact, since I’m used to it working as a teacher, but we also had a common language, French, with some of them at least. We met this young girl called Rhoda, who had already been studying some French at school. Younger kids didn’t speak French but still had loads of stuff to tell me. I wonder what it was!

I also ended up having mint tea with a group of elderly Arab men sitting outside of a teahouse smoking their shishas. I didn’t dare to share shisha with them, even though it was offered, but we had an intresting conversation together while siping our mint teas. One of them had even visited Finland!

Because of its location, the situation in Lebanon has always been versatile and fragile. So it is today too. We were privileged to visit there in a stable phase, even though especially in the south you had to pay more attention and keep your camera out of sight. After passing Sidon, we had to travel in a UN convoy (not one of my every-day experiences either!) to guarantee the safety! Soon after our visit the situation in Tripoli for example got much more dangerous. The  Syrian civil war nextdoor is affecting Lebanon alot. The streets of Beirut were already then, in 2013, full of Syrian refugee as homeless beggers and we could see some refugee camps from the bus windows, when traveling around, too. Can’t even imagine how things are now! Also the neighbour country Syria is full of wonders and incredibly ancient cities. Hopefully the terrible war will be soon over and also the ancient wonders will restain for generations to come!

My Most Inspired Travel Destinations This Far

One day last week I was chating with my colleague about travelling. She had just returned from a holiday trip to Berlin and had also seen my post about the city here in my blog. She asked me which new places I’d like to recommend for her next destination. Ex-tempore I named San Sebastian in Northern Spain, but after a moment of reflection, I started to hesitate, cause hey, there are lots more! So I decided to make a serie of posts of my all-time favourite destinations I’ve been to (this far). It’s nice to go back to old travel memories, and maybe inspire you others to visit these amazing places!

I realized, my favourite destinations have somehow been inspirational to me. It doesn’t need to be well-known and celebrated destination to affect me emotionally, but of course, there is a reason, why many amazing places on Earth are not secrets to others either! ; ) The visual experiment and the athmosphere count alot for me. So thats how I chose these places on my list.

It wasn’t too easy to put totally different places in the order. Some really cool places are missing from my list, because I just had to draw the line somewhere, even though I’m not that much travelled person at all. So, other very cool destinations missing, because I haven’t yet visited them! I’m only on my way to get there! : ) Neverthless, I’d recommend these destinations on my list to anyone, anytime!

I start the list from my favourite destination this far. For last two spots I named my favourite destinations here in Finland, that I’d like to recommend both for Finns and foreigners. Their meaning as inspirational places for me might be a little different from the rest of the list, but they’re really worth checking out!

I’d love to hear your own suggestions for such inspirational places to visit, too!

Let’s open the door and start this

inspirational journey around the world!

Charming door in a little village in Northern Spain. 6/2011.
Charming door in a little village in Northern Spain. Camino de Santiego, 6/2011.