5 steps to learn a new language in under a year

untitled%2520%25281%2520of%25201%2529-410 (Small)

As we travel around the world, Christine and I regularly have encounters that illustrate the opportunities that are unlocked by speaking more than one language. In Turkey, Christine wrote about an encounter with a restaurant owner that turned a simple meal into a wonderful evening of singing and learning about the lives of people in Cappadocia once we discovered he could speak German. A similar thing happened in Mongolia with the manager of a Ger camp we stayed in who similarly could speak German but not English.

I think most of us appreciate how powerful it is to speak more than one language. And yet, so few of us do (more than 75% of Australians and Americans only speak one language [1]). Why is this? My guess is that many of us believe that learning a new language is hard and takes years to achieve. I know that’s how I felt a year ago when I started to learn German. But now I know that this is not the case. In under a year, I’ve been able to get to a level of proficiency where I can watch many German TV shows, have conversations with my mother-in-law and spend 80% of my time with my wife speaking only German.

I firmly believe anyone can get proficient in a language in under a year and it only requires around 30 minutes of practice a day along with some creative ways to incorporate your new language into your day-to-day life. Here are 5 tips that were most useful for me in learning a new language. I’ve had the opportunity to test and refine these concepts with many multi-lingual travelers that we’ve met. Fortunately, each of these concepts resonated and they seem to be broadly applicable, regardless of background or language being learned.

1. Start with Duolingo:

Duolingo (www.duolingo.com) was the primary tool I used to learn German. And it is AWESOME. Most days I spent 30 minutes practicing (or perhaps maybe a more apt verb would be “playing”) with it. Almost every multi-lingual traveler I’ve met not only uses it, but like me, cannot help but sing its praises. To summarize why Duolingo is so great: a) there is a ton of science in the learning method. For example, it draws on research that learning sentences rather than words is more effective; it uses repetition at variably spaced intervals, which is also widely recognized as effective in learning; and it comprehensively covers reading, listening, writing and speaking; b) it’s personalized, identifying areas of weakness to provide greater content in those areas; c) it’s gamified and social which makes learning fun and motivating. ; d) it has a great mobile app which is one of the primary devices in which I used Duolingo (e.g. on the train to work); e) it’s entirely FREE thanks to one of the most ingenius business models.

2. Speak from day 1:

I remember in the early days of learning German that I didn’t feel like I was ready to speak. For example, when my fiancé and I spoke with her parents on Skype I spoke very little, embarrassed that I only knew a few words and afraid I would get things wrong. I had to push myself to get over this. Knowing words and phrases in your new language is great, but speaking them in real world situations is a whole other skill. It requires a level of quick recall and muscle memory that you can only develop by practicing to speak the language.

There are a range of ways you can find opportunities to practice speaking. You can find language meetups in your local town, sign up to websites (e.g. italki.com) that pair people learning new languages, or even just go out in public and spark up conversation with strangers who speak your language like these guys.

However, the best way to practice speaking is to…

3. …find a “Language Parent”:

Have you ever listened to how a parent speaks to their infant while she is learning to speak? What you hear is the parent speaking in simple phrases on a variety of topics, carefully listening when the child speaks, interpreting from broken phrases what the child means and often repeating back what they’ve heard in complete and correct sentences. The child feels completely safe to say whatever they want and to take risks in using their new language. This is probably the best environment possible to learn a language. And that is what your language parent will help you do.

A “language parent” is a term I heard coined in a TED talk by Chris LonsdaleIt refers to someone who is fluent in the language you are learning, who you feel very comfortable around to make mistakes, and who is obviously willing to be patient with you. In my case, my language parent is my wonderful and very patient wife. As soon as I began to learn, we started speaking German together and I was amazed at how quickly we were able to get to a place where the majority of our conversations were in German.

While not everyone may have a significant other to be their language parent, there are other ways to find one. In Turkey I met a woman who intentionally found a roommate that could speak English in order to practice her English. No doubt you’ll be able to find a friend (or befriend) someone fluent in your new language. See if you can make them your language parent!

4. Hammer through the grammar:

A couple of months into learning German, primarily using Duolingo, my language learning hit a brick wall. I was finding that no matter how much I practiced that I wasn’t really learning effectively or understanding the rules and constructs of German sentences. I ended up engaging a tutor for an hour a week for 10-weeks to intensively learn grammar. My time with the tutor essentially consisted of getting a grammar textbook and laboriously going through each exercise until we had gone through the book. It made the world of difference. While for some languages there aren’t as many new rules to learn, for most languages there are some grammatical differences you’ll need to get your head around so I encourage you to bite the bullet, buy a grammar textbook and hammer your way through it. I’d be interested to hear if other people have better (or more fun) ways to learn grammar, but this method worked well for me.

5. Immerse yourself:

One of the most impactful things I did in learning German was using my 3-weeks annual leave to go to Vienna and immerse myself, speaking only German with Christine’s parents and going to German classes each day. I highly recommend this type of experience. That said, even if this isn’t workable in your life there are other ways for you to immerse yourself in your new language. Read children’s books in your new language (and for European languages you may be able to find the CEFR level of the book to assist in matching the book to your level). Watch movies and TV shows (tip: turn on the subtitles for the language you are learning. Often having the words both spoken and written will help you understand what’s going on). Listen to songs and learn the lyrics. Read the world news in your new language. Change your phone settings to be in your new language (warning: there will no doubt be times where this decision will frustrate you, but it’s worth it). These are just a few ways to incorporate your new language into your day-to-day life, and there are surely many others. You just need to get creative.

I’d love to hear from others and their experiences in language learning. I hope these concepts resonate, or better still, are helpful in your current language learning. For those of you who are considering learning a new language, I hope that this encourages you to give it a go!


[1] Quote from US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan in 2010 and 2011 Australian Census


A day at the ancient market in Shaxi

It was bustling with people. Old and young, equipped with soon-to-be-filled wooden baskets on their backs, made their way through the narrow streets. Street vendors everywhere. Lined up one after the other on either side of the street or scattered throughout the middle. The air was filled with a variety of scents. Some of them quite good, tempting us to explore their origins, others less so. Christian and I found ourselves at the weekly Friday market in a town called Shaxi.
Shaxi, which is located in the Yunnan province only about a 2 hours drive away from Lijiang, started as a trading point for tea and horses during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). It’s said to be the most intact horse caravan town on the ancient tea route leading from Burma to Tibet. We were struck by Shaxi’s authenticity. Lijiang (known as the main attraction in the region), Shuhe Old Town (where we stayed at a lovely B&B called “The Bivou”) or Baisha (where we met Dr. Ho) were all beautiful but also felt somewhat gentrified and quite touristy. Shaxi, in contrast, felt more untouched, had more local shops and just in general seemed to go about its daily business instead of catering to tourists. It was beautiful and incredibly refreshing. At times Christian and I seemed to be the main attraction in town, getting curious looks from locals ourselves. Wandering the streets, we made some interesting observations.
Besides a very rich local produce offering, teas, staples, clothing and household items, people also stocked up on livestock (or alive animals that would meet the dinner table soon). A small “chicken market” offered a variety of alive chickens in the age range you desired. You just picked the chickens you liked, packed them in a cardboard box and tied the box to your wooden shopping basket.
Then there was the “fish market”, an accumulation of low, square plastic basins with all sorts of fish. You could get them gutted or alive (in a plastic bag).
That said, the most unexpected offering were dental and ear doctor services. Imagine the dentist’s office as a simple plastic chair next to a table with some accessories on the side of the road. The dental offering seemed to consist of cleaning services, teeth removal and also prosthetics. For the latter, one could choose from a few used (yes, used!) dental implants. Some of them were missing teeth. Others were decaying already. I guess better than nothing if options are limited. ‘Unfortunately’, no one seemed in need of (or was willing to undergo) any procedures while we were there.
The ear doctor, however, seemed in higher demand. He was examining the left ear of a middle-aged man. A crowd of onlookers had gathered in a close circle around the patient’s chair. I almost squirmed when the ear doctor, quite a young man, took his silver instrument and ‘dug’ into the patients ear. He moved the long tweezers forcefully from one side to the other. The patient grimaced out of pain. This was not pretty to watch. Suddenly, a dark brown piece (the size of a fingernail) materialized itself. The ear doctor dropped it in a little yellow metal jar on the table. That’s when I realized that the jar already contained dozens of others brown pieces. All of the pieces were earwax! Earwax that probably accumulated over many, many years. The patient played around with his ear, testing his hearing abilities. He seemed pleased with the results. With that ‘fluff’ removed his hearing ability must have just jumped 10x! I was, however, still questioning the doctor’s method. Couldn’t the patients ear get hurt in the process? The doctor, for sure, had attracted some more attention and would probably make good business that day.
Having worked up an appetite, Christian and I hit a few food stalls, eating our way through a selection of noodles and desserts. We didn’t really have an idea what exactly was offered but with an adventurous spirit we tried various dishes. The first dish was a mix of cold rice noodles with different spices, cilantro and a type of soy sauce. Then I saw some kids taste an interesting drink. It was of brownish color with some sort of solid, gelatinous balls inside. Upon tasting it I found it a bit too sweet but good nonetheless. And then we tried this dish that we had seen several times throughout the day. Grayish looking thick, solid custard that was mixed with noodles, spring onion, peanuts and a variety of sauces. Even to this day I still don’t know exactly what we ate. Christian thinks it was lard, I keep telling myself it was some gelatinous, rice-based substance.
With both of our stomachs and curiosity satiated, we made our way back to Shuhe Old Town with a quick stop over at Mount Shibao, renowned for its grottoes with Buddhist sculpture carvings. The day had been a highlight of our stay in the Yunnan region, truly transporting us back to another time.

Meeting the Famous Dr. Ho


We had first learned about Dr. Ho from our Lonely Planet. Apparently he was a “world famous” Taoist doctor and herbalist, who was said to have cured illnesses from patients around the world. Curious to learn more and somewhat skeptical if this was one of those tourist attractions, we set out to find Dr. Ho in Baisha, a small town about 10km from Lijiang in the Yunnan province in Southwest China.

Upon finding Dr. Ho’s ‘clinic’ we were hit by a wall of Chinese and international newspaper articles. The articles were framed in glass and plastered all over the outside wall of the house. Somewhat more convinced that there might be something to this story we ventured into the building.

We found ourselves in a dark room with glass cabinets and sales counters that were covered in yet more newspaper clippings. Most of them were faded and yellowish but still readable. A middle-aged man called Ho Shu-Long, who introduced himself as Dr. Ho’s son, greeted us immediately and gestured us to sit down on a wooden bench. His English was fairly good and he could even speak a few words of German. His father had learned some German from Joseph Rock, an Austrian-born botanist who spent about 30 years in the Naxi region to study plants and herbs. Barely having sat down, Ho Shu-Long brought us yet more newspaper articles, in both English and German, neatly arranged in plastic covers.

An old woman, that has been sweeping the outside area of the house when we arrived, slowly walked into the room. We were told that this was Dr. Ho’s wife, who was a respectable 91 years of age. She seemed unfazed by our presence, going about her daily business. We asked if we could meet Ho Shu-Long’s father but he said that wasn’t possible. I felt disappointed. Having found the clinic I had gotten curious to learn more. Two minutes later however an old men slowly walked in from the backdoor. It was Dr. Ho! He looked exactly like one would imagine a wise old Chinese man with his white wispy beard, a grey, head-hugging hat, and a white somewhat dirty doctor’s coat. He moved around with slow but intentional movements. For his 92 years he looked in great shape! We introduced ourselves and he seemed excited that I’m Austrian, probably evoking old memories from his friendship with Joseph Rock. Similarly, he was excited about Christian’s Australian origins as his doings had been covered by Australian TV and radio shows as well. He pointed us to books by Bruce Chatwin, an English travel writer. It was Chatwin’s 1986 New York Times article “In the little-known Kingdom of Joseph Rock” that shot Dr. Ho to fame. Many journalists and camera crews followed thereafter.

Dr. Ho investigated if we had any problems after he had positively remarked that we seemed to be in good shape (many of his patients seem to have weight problems). Well, that was a good start! Christian told him about his high cholesterol levels. That’s where it got interesting. The two set down at the corner of one of the sales counters. The consultation started. It was surprisingly short. Dr. Ho basically just asked Christian a few simple questions before taking off into the adjacent room. The room was overflowing with plastic jars and containers of all sizes. He took a brownish looking powdery mix out of a couple of containers and went outside to the back terrace where he mixed the dusty combination together. Back in the consultation room the instructions followed: drink the powder three times a day (for one month) mixed with hot water and some honey. Seems almost too easy. I was somewhat skeptical that this tea blend would mysteriously lower Christian’s cholesterol levels. But I was too quick to judge.

Dr. Ho gave us another flyer (this one in German) laying out his holistic philosophy for a happy and healthy life. While his medicine will help, he tells his patients that “Optimism is the best medicine” and urges them to: “Live a simple life. Eat simple. Don’t smoke or drink.” He also advocates that both Western and Chinese medicine in the right combination can have a very positive impact. That seemed very open-minded. His son elaborated on their philosophy: “Live with compassion as for a loving heart will be happy. Live your life in balance. It’s good to experience all emotions but not to the extreme”.

He continued: “My mother (remember she is 91) is completely self-sufficient. To this date she washes her own clothes, prepares and cooks food and cleans the house.” Truly stunning! “While some people would call me a bad son, my philosophy is that those chores give my mother’s life meaning and make her more happy.” He believes that for the same reasons his 92-year old father still runs the clinic

Besides getting Christian’s cholesterol-curing tea (we’ll report back on its effectiveness), this turned out to be a very inspirational visit. Good food for thought on what really matters to live a happy life.



China: From ancient dynasties to modern republic

I’ve always been fascinated by China, its rich history and multifaceted culture. Despite history class in school, reading Chinese literature, and seeing movies from the ‘Last Emperor’ to ‘Jackie Chan’, I was never quite able to stitch together a completely coherent picture of the various dynasties and political influences over the years. After having spent three weeks in this fascinating country, we learned a ton about the history. So much so that we wanted to give it a separate blog post. Here is what we’ve learned.


China’s Dynasties: Rivaling kingdoms, unification and foreign rule (6000 BC – 1911)
  • China is one of the longest lasting civilizations on earth, its roots reaching back to 6000 BC. The Song Dynasty (1766 BC) is considered to be the first “dynasty” even though it only controlled a very small part of the country. There was a lot of fighting going on during this period between neighboring kingdoms. Despite this turmoil, the land was intellectually fertile and Confucianism was able to take hold around 500 BC spreading thoughts on ethical behavior and hierarchical structures – a system that underpins China’s culture to this date.
  • The Qin dynasty (221-206 BC) was the first to unite the broader country. They unified measurements, the currency and the written language, thereby laying the ground work for a cohesive state. The first emperor Qin Shin Huang was the one who ordered the construction of a mausoleum in which he wished to be buried one day together with his “army”, the Terracotta Warriors. The Qin were also the ones that established the Great Wall from the various sections that had been built by separate independent states before.
  • Next up was the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). This dynasty was so important that the name “Han” still refers to ethnic Chinese today. During this period China was also a major trading partner on the Silk Road, showcasing its importance as an Eurasian power. Eventually economic struggles and social unrest led to the downfall of the Han, followed by centuries of rivaling kingdoms.
  • The Sui Dynasty (581-618) reunited the rivaling country and built the “Grand Canal” which up until the 19th century remained one of the most important communication routes between North and South China. The Sui lost power due to disastrous military setbacks it incurred trying to invade Korea.
  • The following Tang Dynasty (618-906) is seen as the cultural zenith of China due to its openness to ‘Western’ influence (e.g., intermarriages with Central Asia, fashion from India). Chinatowns around the world are still called Tangrenjie (Tang People Streets) to this day. Another noteworthy fact is that China’s only female emperor was part of the Tang lineage. Increasing provincial power eventually brought the dynasty to a downfall.
  • The disunity lasted until the Song Dynasty took over (960 – 1126). The economy flourished through increased scientific and intellectual advances across many disciplines and the emergence of a truly China-wide market.
  • External threats were growing, however, and Genghis Khan expanded his Mongol empire eventually taking over all of China and establishing the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). The Mongols eventually proved less able at governance than warfare and had to hand over the reign.
  • The following Ming dynasty (1368-1644), despite trying to impose strict traditional social norms on the population, saw commercial growth and social change continue. The construction of the Forbidden City in Beijing as well as the reconstruction of the Great Wall happened during this time. Traders from Europe started to arrive, bringing with them new crops and increased commercial activity. They were quickly followed by missionaries trying to spread Christian beliefs. Internal power struggles, however, eventually gave the opportunity for another foreign power to take over: the Manchu.
  • The Manchu, a nomadic war-like people from the North, ruled China as the Qing Dynasty from 1644 to 1911, creating much of the map of China as we know it today. During the 19th century several factors contributed to their downfall: the opium wars in the 1840s (resulting in British rule over Hong Kong and the opening of ports to foreign trade), the anti-Qing Taiping rebellion (1850-64) driven by a pro-Christian movement, broader foreign imperialist incursions nibbling away on China’s coastline (e.g., Macau) and the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95). The Chinese people called for reform and were in favor of a republic.

The first Republic (1912-1949)

  • The first republic lasted less than 40 years. Some describe this time as China’s darkest period, marked by external imperialist pressures and domestic political tensions. Sun Yatsen, the leader of the counter-dynasty movement, served as the first president but was soon overthrown by a military leader, followed by years of provincial in-fighting.
  • At the end of WWI, a time of intellectual turmoil and discontent with politics, the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) was founded. Among the founding group was Mao Zedong, a library assistant from Peking university. Sun Yatsen (back from exile) formed the ‘bourgeois’ Kuomintang party. The following years were marked by an alliance of the parties together with the newly formed Soviet Union. The goal was to reunite China. Much of China was “reunited” through military pressure over the following years, the alliance however came to an end when the Kuomintang themselves seized power in 1928 under Chiang Kaishek (a military leader who had taken over after Sun Yatsen’s death). What followed was a war waged against the CCP. The ‘Long March’ forced CCP members to flee 6400km across the country. Only a fraction survived.
  • The approach of WWII saved the CCP. Both the Kuomintang and the CCP played an important role in defending the country against Japan over the next seven years. The CCP emerged as the ultimate ‘winner’ after a 3-year civil war with the Kuomintang, having increased its troops size and party membership across the country thanks to its guerrilla role during WWII. As the head of the CCP, Mao Zedong declared the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.

Mao’s China (1949-1976)

  • Mao’s ideology was based on finding a role for every citizen in the new politics and society. The break-up of traditional structures (e.g., landlord and tenants) was liberating for many but a time of terror for others. The CCP focused on socialist economics to boost production. One of the most ambitious plans, the ‘Great Leap Forward’, promising to increase productivity across industry sectors turned out to be a disaster. The agricultural output from collectivization drastically fell short of expectations, causing famines responsible for more than 20 million deaths (some say the losses were even higher). The hardships continued despite a return to a somewhat more market-driven economy.
  • Concerned that China was growing too satisfied with the rising standard of living, Mao launched a massive campaign of ideological renewal, the ‘Cultural Revolution’. Self-promotion and propaganda helped Mao achieve cult status. His followers became known as the Red Guards. Critics of his direction (including CCP party members) disappeared. It was an era of violence that brought creative thinking and academic research to a standstill. Eventually, the police forced the Red Guards off the streets. In the early 1970s, China threatened by the now-hostile USSR started to engage in diplomatic talks with the US and the Cultural Revolution slowly died down. Many people responsible for crimes during the cultural revolution got away without any charges. Still today, the CCP discourages the open debate of this period.
Reform Era and China Today (1976-2014)
  • With Mao’s death in 1976, the CCP (mainly under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping) set out to modernize the economy. This included breaking down the collective farms, encouraging small enterprise, and establishing four Special Economic Zones (SEZ) to promote entrepreneurship and encourage foreign investment. Politics was kept on a much shorter reign.
  • The urban middle class, however, had appetite for more freedoms. This sentiment culminated in the 1989 demonstrations on Tiannamen Square. At their peak in June 1989, the internationally embarrassed CCP imposed Martial law, violently removing people from the square. The death rate is estimated to be in the hundreds.
  • After three years of a political freeze, the CCP engaged in further economic development, trying to address the growing regional inequality and rural poverty. Over the years, the question of political reform found itself shelved, partly because the economic growth was bringing prosperity to many (albeit in unequal fashion). In 2011, China became the 2nd largest economy in the world, overtaking Japan. Today, China’s economy, despite its high growth rates, remains imbalanced and is mainly skewed to the export industry and high-investment projects.

Snapshots of China



Having been to Beijing before during the frenetic times of the Beijing 2008 Olympics, I was curious to return to see what the city looked like when it was “business as usual.” Somewhat surprisingly, it almost felt like the city was even more frenetic this time round. Traffic was heavier. Air pollution was thicker (smog prevented us from seeing the sun during the 4 days we were there). And it even felt like security checks were more intense (for example, you now go through security checks for the metro and many popular public monuments). But after spending 3-weeks in almost isolation in Mongolia, Christine and I were ready to take on a big city.

We hit the key tourist sites like Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. We also did a tour of Peking University after I presented to the MBA class there on careers post business school and why they should be using LinkedIn (yep, months after leaving my job at LinkedIn I’m still cheerleading for them. Go LinkedIn.). And we searched around for the best food Beijing has to offer from Peking Duck to Cantonese specialties (stuff I grew up with) to Hot Pot.

Great Wall of China

Visiting the Great Wall was just breathtaking, even second time around. When I did it the first time back in 2008, we went to the more “popular” (read: touristy) section of Badaling. Luckily, this time my wonderful friend and China expert, Nat Gray, encouraged us to go to the more secluded section of Jinshanling. We followed her advice and are so grateful we did.

We visited on a Sunday morning. There was kind of an eery feeling we arrived, in part due to the dense mist in the air, but mainly due to the fact that there was no one else around. Here we were, visiting one of the world’s most popular tourist attractions on a weekend and we were the only people in sight! It took us almost an hour before we saw other people on the Wall, and even then, we probably only saw about 20 or so other people during the four hours we traveled along the Wall. It was an incredible experience.

While driving to and from the Great Wall we did a bit of reading up on the history. Many of us know it was built to help defend China from its aggressive neighbours like the Mongols. What we didn’t previously know is that sections of the Wall were originally built even before China was a unified kingdom by the separate independent states. It wasn’t until the Qin dynasty (221-207 BC) when China was unified as a single kingdom did the project begin to make it a Wall for a unified China, and hence the moniker the “Great” Wall. Interesting, no?

Xi’an and the Terracotta Warriors

We put a 2-day stop in Xi’an on our itinerary largely to see the Terracotta Warriors. We were pleasantly surprised that Xi’an is a wonderful city in its own right. It also has a rich history, being the original capital of the unified China up until the Tang dynasty ended around 907. Some of the top things to do in Xi’an are to visit the old town (particularly the Muslim Quarter where you get to taste some incredible street food) as well as marvel (or better still, bike ride around) the 14km city wall.

Nonetheless, seeing the Terracotta Warriors was the highlight of our trip to Xi’an. The quick history on the Terracotta Warriors is that they were built by the first emperor of the unified China, Qin Shi Huang back around 210 BC. The purpose was for the army to ensure he would be as powerful in his afterlife as he was during his time in the real world. It is said he kicked off the project when he was 13 years old, and had 600,000 people work on it until his death at age 50. But the project was never officially documented so it wasn’t until some peasant farmers in 1976 accidentally stumbled upon it when trying to get water from a well that the incredible work was discovered.

The museum is incredibly well done. It is built on the actual site that the Terracotta Warriors were found and excavated, leaving each of the pieces in their original places. Being there makes you feel like you are part of an archaeological excavation. But what blew me away was that while there are tens of thousands of these life-size warriors, each of their faces is distinct. Incredible.

Jiuzhaigou and Huanglong

One of China’s not-so-secret natural treasures is Jiuzhaigou National Park. I say “not-so-secret” because even though most people outside of China have probably never heard of this park, most people in China do know about it. And when we visited, it felt like EVERYONE in China was there visiting with us. While admittedly the crowds did detract somewhat from the experience, the park itself was nothing short of breathtaking. I truly have never seen lakes with such vibrant colours before. If I didn’t know better, I would have said they looked artificial because they were that spectacular. The blues, greens, turquoises, milky whites of them were really incredible. My words, and even our photos, don’t do it justice.

Huanglong is a couple of hours drive away from Jiuzhaigou. Although it’s a fair bit smaller, it is no less breathtaking and fortunately doesn’t attract the same drones of people as Jiuzhaigou. It ended up making for an even better experience.

We spent a full day at each of the parks. A full day was enough for Huanglong but you could probably do 2-days at Jiuzhaigou if you had the time.


Shanghai was the highlight of our time in mainland China. Partly because it is a great city. But mostly because we spent the time there with one of my closest friends, Nat Gray. As her wedding present to us, Nat organised our whole Shanghai itinerary and shouted us for everything. It was incredibly generous of her (thank you again, Nat!). First night we went out for a dinner with her and her friends at a great Sichuan restaurant followed by drinks and karaoke into the wee hours of the morning (we only could manage to stay out to 3am after getting up earlier that day at 5:30am to make our flight, but we heard others in the group sang until 5am!). Next day we were all a bit hazy but still managed to pull ourselves out of bed to have dim sum with Christine’s HBS sectionmate, Sandra Weng, and her beautiful daughter, Serena.

During our 4-nights in Shanghai, Nat organised a wonderful itinerary walking through the best parts of town; drinking with the best views of Shanghai’s famous “Bund”; and eating at incredible restaurants including a food walking tour (if you’re interested, we highly recommend “Untour” and their food tour of Shanghai). Nat also bought us tickets to take the high speed train to Nanjing (1hr 15 mins from Shanghai) so we could see the Memorial Museum to the Nanjing Massacre. Was very interesting to learn about the atrocities committed by the Japanese in China during World War II. A very moving experience.

After four incredible days in Shanghai with Nat, we got a good appreciation for life in Shanghai and felt sad to leave.

Lijiang, Shuhe and Shaxi

Lijiang was the last stop of our travels around mainland China. Again, it was a recommendation of Nat Gray (and her friend, Amanda). Funnily enough, we had several people we randomly met in China during our travels who also all recommended (unprompted) that we check out Lijiang. The charm of the place is the old town, with its old style buildings and cobble stone streets that really takes you back in time.

We had been warned that Lijiang Old Town can be a little overrun by tourists, and while it was busy, we didn’t think it was all that crowded compared to what we’d seen earlier on our trip in places like Beijing, Shanghai and Jiuzhaigou. Our accommodation was at a wonderful boutique hotel, The Bivou, which was in another old town called Shuhe, 4km from Lijiang Old Town. One of the charms of staying in Shuhe was that it was smaller and less crowded that Lijiang, while having all the same charm.

During our stay we rented bikes and rode around to other old towns in the area, including Baisha and Yuhu. The highlight of our excursion was meeting a famous doctor and herbalist, Dr Ho. Christine is going to write about this in a separate post soon.

On another day we hired a driver to take us to Shaxi (about a 2hr drive away). We had heard about the famous Friday markets in Shaxi, which have been happening since the days of trading along the Tea-Horse Road (similar to the Silk Road). It was a very special experience, and once again Christine will write a separate post on it.

There are actually so many other activities we could have done in the surrounding areas of Lijiang if we had more time. It’s funny, that even though we’re traveling the world for a year that we still sometimes feel rushed for time. But there’s just so many things to do and places to see!

Hong Kong

We had not initially planned a stop in Hong Kong. However when we found out that one Christine’s closest friends (who also acted as one of our marriage celebrants), Shilpa, had relocated there, we made sure it was a stop on our journey.

It was so nice to reconnect with Shilpa. Although I was out of action for a couple of days (recovering from a cold I caught on our last day in Lijiang), the girls explored the city together, bringing their hula hoops along for good measure. We also got to catch up with Greg, an Australian gut we met in Cappadocia, for dinner. He recently moved there with his fiancee to teach English at a local school. We learned from Greg that Hong Kong has a number of fantastic hiking trails and beaches, which he had just started exploring. They sound pretty amazing. We didn’t get around to doing any on this trip (my illness and a typhoon warning kept us mainly indoors) but now are keen to return to Hong Kong to check them out.


Hula Hoops and Smiles in Mongolia 

IMG_3979 (Small)

People stare at me and my luggage when I walk through an airport. Their attention is drawn to what looks like a big shiny neon yellow and orange ring that is hanging over the handle of my pink carry on bag. My hula hoop.

Teeba, one of my good friends and a passionate hooper, suggested I try hooping as well. We both love to dance and besides being a great workout, hooping is a form of self expression and, if done to music, a form of dance. Her wedding present for me: a collapsible hoop that I could take with me on our world tour! I love it.

One of my goals on our journey is to get better at hooping (but more on that at a later point as I’m still in the beginner’s stage). However, so far the hoop also had another, unexpected effect on our journey. It helped us connect with people around us, bridging any cultural or language barriers. This shiny toy attracts attention. It sparks curiosity. From little kids to older people, without us prompting, they come over, pick up the hoop and just play. It’s as if the hoop brings out their inner child.

Here are a few impressions from Mongolia. The hula hoop helping us meet new people and creating lots of smiles.


Discovering new kinds of dairy in Mongolia


IMG_4330 (Small)

Mongolian cuisine is very much defined by the limitations of nomadic living. As a nomad, you can only really eat things that can travel easily with you. Think cows, yaks, sheep, goats and horses. You have a limited ability to grow crops as a nomad, and not a lot of space in your Ger (tent) or on your carriage to be lugging around elaborate spice racks. So what’s left is diet rich in meat and dairy, without a lot of fresh veggies, and generally quite basic flavour profiles. That said, within these limitations the Mongolians have devised a very creative diet, particularly when it comes to dairy. Our guide, Ashley, told us that Mongolians have very white teeth because they eat so much dairy. Although I’m yet to verify this causal relationship, it is true that Mongolians do seem to have white teeth and they definitely love their dairy.

Our closest encounters to traditional Mongolian cuisine, and the omnipresence of dairy, came on the few occasions when Christine and I had a chance to visit nomad families inside their Gers. On arrival, we were met with an almost identical ritual each time: milk tea was poured out of a tall furnace into small ceramic bowls; homemade bread was pulled out of a tin and cut into slices; and from underneath a table came out a very large bowl of whipped butter cream and a basket of curd chips. All of these were gently offered to us, and following Mongolian custom, we accepted each item graciously.

The milk tea seemed to be simply milk infused with a tiny bit of black tea and it tasted quite good. The whipped butter cream, which is meant to go with the homemade bread, tasted like the stuff I’ve made when I accidentally whipped cream for too long and it became butter-like. So in this case, the taste was quite familiar. That said, I was taken aback when I saw how much butter they typically spread on: “You like a bit of bread with your butter?” However, the curd chips tasted like nothing I’ve ever had before. I was told that they are made from skimming the curd off the top of yogurt, and leaving it out to dry out in the sun. The chips come in a range of shapes and sizes. Some are round with a small hole in the middle, kind of like a big button. Some look like big potato chips. Others are small, odd shaped pieces that kind of look like popcorn. Despite the variation in appearances, they all kind of have the same funky, sour taste of “off yogurt”. The first one I was offered, I obligingly ate it all. In the next Ger camp when I was offered it, my stomach could only manage to eat half of it before I quietly placed the remainder in my pocket. The times after that, I politely accepted the chip, pretended to take a bite and then subtlety placed the whole chip in my pocket.

Yet these were the tamer side of our dairy discoveries in Mongolia. On the more exotic side was fermented horse milk (airag), which is popular in Mongolia and believed to have medicinal properties. The thought of drinking the milk of a horse initially sounded off putting, although Christine and I were pleasantly surprised that it didn’t taste too bad.

IMG_4422 (Small)

However, the prize for our most interesting dairy discovery goes to yogurt vodka. Yes, that’s right. Vodka made from distilling yogurt. Once upon a time I liked tequila until I had a really big night on it when I was 18-years old, and ever since then the smell of it or the tiniest sip will make me squirm. That’s pretty much the immediate reaction I had when I tasted yogurt vodka.

While I won’t be rushing to my local supermarket to seek out any of these new “delights”, I have a huge appreciation and admiration for the Mongolian people in their adaptation of foods to their environment. Mongolians have created a truly unique food culture.

Oh, and on the topic of food in Mongolia, here’s a video of me swallowing a live fish we caught in a river: