My plan was to visit a place called 60 Shih Shan (60 Stone Mountain) in Hualien County, Taiwan. I was gonna take the train to a small village, then take a bus up to the mountain. When I got off the train, though, there weren’t any buses … or literally anything else. No buses, no taxis, nothing. Just me, two old dudes, and a rice field.
As I was checking my phone to figure out my options, two chicks showed up and somehow saw that I needed help (I think I just have a really confused-looking face idk). When I told them where I was trying to go, they told me the buses didn’t run there this time of year. Before I could figure out a backup plan, though, they offered to drive me up in their car cuz “we have nothing better to do.” They drove me up, told me all about the mountain, then drove me to another train station so I could get home. And they took real good pictures of me too.
These girls were so nice and they reaffirmed what I already knew: Taiwanese people love me so much.
Traveling in Taiwan is the best. People not only want to help, but are excited to help. It’s really given me a pay-it-forward attitude. Now I look for opportunities to help others too. Thanks, Taiwan.
Here are some pictures of 60 Shih Shan. Apparently, it’s best to visit during summer, but I think winter is an alright time too.
I’ve been wanting Mexican food ever since I flew into Taiwan. In fact, the last meal I ate before flying to Taiwan was a burrito, chips, and salsa.
So, this weekend, after TWO MONTHS of not having Mexican food (two months and four days to be exact), I found a place called Macho Tacos in Taipei.
I was skeptical of how tasty the food would be and whether it’d be worth my money (you can get a decent meal here for 2 bucks but a burrito at this place was 5ish), but the pictures and menu online looked authentic, so I was optimistic.
Because the menu and pics online looked so authentic, I expected to see Latinos behind the counter when I walked in (Taipei is pretty international, so I wouldn’t have been surprised), but there were just the usual Taiwanese people. That made me less optimistic, but I figured I’d give it an honest shot anyway. I ordered a macho-sized (large-ish) burrito with taco meat.
Mis amigos, I was not disappointed. The lettuce inside the burrito was crispy and fresh, the tortilla held together well and tasted normal, the ground beef was perfectly seasoned, the cilantro-lime rice tasted just like Cafe Rio, and the salsa had all the right juices and flavors. It was muy delicioso, but could have benefited from some sour cream, guacamole, and a side of chips (which you can order separately and I’ll definitely do that next time).
While I was eating, I felt a connection with the burrito. It felt like I was eating my people’s food, a piece of home.
I remembered working with other missionaries in Russia to make Mexican food: cooking and seasoning ground beef and chili, making homemade tortillas, chopping and mixing vegetables to make salsa (which we’d eat with crackers since tortilla chips aren’t a thing in Russia).
Why do so many Americans love Mexican food? Why did we work so hard to make it on my mission?
Americans eat lots of pizza, hot dogs, and hamburgers too, which you can also buy at restaurants here, but I think Mexican food is different. Mexican food has a homemade quality and feel that other “American” foods don’t match. Homemade pizza doesn’t taste the same and to make hamburgers or hot dogs at home, you basically just buy packaged meat and buns. But you can make all the parts of a Mexican meal at home without thinking twice about it (except tortillas — homemade tortillas are a pain).
I understand that Mexicans and Americans eat different kinds of Mexican food: Americans mainly stick with tacos and burritos, along with some of our own spin-offs like nachos and chili, while Mexicans have A LOT more than that. But what we call “Mexican” is actually American to me.
So thank you, Mexicans, for giving us your best.
And not to get political but I’m going to: America is such a great country. Sure I get annoyed that the bread and chocolate aren’t as good as they are in Europe and that Americans like to whine a lot on Facebook (“MY freedoms say I can do this!” “Well MY freedoms say you can’t!”), but comparing it to other places I’ve visited (like Russia and Mexico and even Italy), it’s SO clean, SO safe, and there’s SO much less corruption that it’s selfish and unchristian that immigrating into the US is SO difficult.
I have friends from other countries who have college degrees or have even married US citizens (legitimately) yet struggle to maintain a visa or get a green card. They’ve had difficult lives and worked hard to come to America, leaving behind family and culture in exchange for the American dream, but in America they’re getting even more difficulty and harder work with little reward. If their native governments can’t recognize them for their hard work, then ours should. They can help America out just as much as burritos can.
Anyway, Macho Tacos in Taipei is very tasty and authentic. I saw some Latinos and other Americans there too, so I’m not the only one who thinks so. Walking out of the restaurant, I had to remind myself that I was still in Taiwan, my burrito having temporarily transported me home.
Taiwanese people are the nicest. According to my Taiwan boss lady, Taiwan is the second safest country in the world (rumor has it that Norway is #1, but we’ll let Google be the judge of that). Of all the countries I’ve visited, this one is the only one that hasn’t had random nasty teenagers wandering around the streets (except for Norway). They’re all too busy doing school.
Seriously, these poor kids go to normal school, then they go to “cram school” so they can study to get accepted to high school, where they’ll only study hard so they can go to a good university. 🙁
That’s not the only rough part of Taiwanese life. Taiwan is an island the size of Delaware and Maryland combined (I don’t actually know how big that is, I just know it’s SMALL). A lot of these people have never left the island. Can you imagine spending your whole life in a area that small????
On top of that, they eat the same thing for every meal: rice. Rice with cabbage, rice with sausage, rice with noodles, rice, rice, rice, rice, rice. What the fetch? How about mixing things up from meal to meal? Maybe some pancakes for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, and a whole pizza to eat by yourself for dinner while you think about how all your old roommates and friends are married now? Butt rice is life for them. Bummer for them all.
Anyway, I feel very safe in this country. I wake up every morning, run to the park, and do some intense muscle pumping. I feel completely fine wandering around alone any time of the day. I know I stand out like a man in bra shop because I’m white and don’t know any Mandarin Chinese, but they’re all very welcoming. A lot will wave and say, “Hello!” in English. My first morning when I was looking for a 7-11, a little dude handed me a badminton racket and wanted me to play. (I took a swing at it, but ran away when I missed my own serve.)
I’m been staying in a city outside of Taipei called Taoyuan. I went to Taipei on Saturday and it was very cool. I haven’t gotten out of the city to see some plants and stuff yet (which is a big bummer for me), but I hopefully will be able to next week!
Stuff I seen I want you to see:
Detail of a temple roof in Taoyuan.
Street art in Taoyuan.
Welcome to my cave of wonders.
Taipei 101 (a VERY tall building in Taipei)
Breakfast+Lunch+Dinner. NOT COMPLAINING
LDS temple in Taipei.
A neat building in Taoyuan.
View from up top. (Taiwan boss lady’s apt.)
Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei.
This dude just sits in the CKS Memorial Hall all day. I call him Asiabraham Lincoln.
I got Blogger to turn back into English. Thank heaven. It involved several lucky clicks, turning the language to Russian, then turning it back to English.
I mean, I’m still logged into my Google account, so why does it change the language based on my geographic location? YOU KNOW MY WHOLE LIFE, GOOGLE. LET’S JUST KEEP EVERYTHING ENGLISH, OK???
When I found out I was going to Taiwan this July, I told a friend who had served her mission in Taiwan. She said (of course), “You’ll love it!!” But also, “It’s the hottest time of the year. It’s super hot and humid.”
Butt I didn’t really know what “humid” meant.
I’d never visited a tropical climate before and I’ve only lived in California, Utah, and Russia, so saying that something was”humid” didn’t really have any meaning for me.
Well, when I stepped out of the airport in Taipei and really experienced humidity for the first time, there are no words to express what I felt. The closest I can come to explaining it is waving my hands in front of my face with my tongue out. It’s like being in a badly ventilated male dorm room. It’s not a good feeling at first. Or ever.
But you can get used to it.
At first, all I could do was shake my hands and stick my tongue out to deal with the humidity (it didn’t help), but over these past couple days, I’ve grown accustomed to it. Thankfully, God invented houses and those sacred edifices keep that stale air outside away. Also, air conditioning is a big plus. But your body just gets used to to it. At least my skin’s not dry!! (#Utah)
The humidity isn’t the only new thing.
Since I’m in a tropical climate and it’s July, that means a bunch of typhoons are headed this direction. A typhoon is a hurricane except Asian (but NOT in a racist way). Again, being from California/Utah, hurricanes/typhoons aren’t really a thing I know about. The only time I hear about hurricanes or typhoons is when they’ve flooded entire cities or have sharks flying around in them,
So when, on my first day here, my Taiwan boss lady announced, “Today is typhoon day!” like it’s just laundry day or time to clean the fridge, I’m like, “So I SHOULDN’T be wearing a life jacket just in case?”
Typhoons are just very rainy and windy storms (duh), but as long as you’re away from the ocean, you should be able to avoid any sharknadoes or flooding. For this last typhoon, we were in a sweet spot where we only got a lot of rain and a little wind. So I guess that typhoons can be fun even if they aren’t deadly.
So Taiwan’s fun! Lots of new stuff, but none of it has killed me. So now what?
Google automatically translated Blogger into Mandarin Chinese for me. Thank heaven or I’d I have a real struggle reading anything right now* (*I’m having a real struggle reading anything right now).
My flight to Taiwan was supposed to take off Tuesday at 1 am, BUTT the travel gods had something different in store because right after my boarding pass got printed out, the computer system crashed and the airplane’s engines stopped working and the pilot spontaneously died. I don’t actually know what went wrong, I just know that the flight was delayed until 12 pm on Tuesday, which means I got put up in swanky hotel for the night (LAX Hilton, baaaaaaby!). After being shuttled back to the airport the next morning, I hopped on an airplane bound for Shanghai, China!
Why am I going to Taiwan, you ask? 12 other American lucky ducks and I will be spending the next three weeks practicing conversational English with Taiwanese high schoolers in the greater Taipei area. Our compensation is free travel (including the flight to and from Taiwan), housing, food, and sightseeing while we’re here. So it’s a sweet dill pickle!!!!
Anyway, the thirteen-hour flight was pretty great. I LOVE movies, so 13 hours of just me and a screen is pretty great!!! I watched four and a half movies, two of them rated R (so edgy!!) because they’re edited (most the time) on airplanes (cuz I’m that Mormon). (The King’s Speech made me think-cry. Twelve Years a Slave was just depressing and made me want to punch Michael Fassbender.)
Right before landing in Shanghai, we were shown an instructional video of how to perform in-seat tai chi to return regular blood circulation to the body. (Basically, it’s just Deb from Napoleon Dynamite telling you to imagine you’re in the middle of the ocean surrounded by tiny little seahorses but it’s an Asian and he’s a man.) After 13 hours of sitting, the tai chi legit did make me feel really good!!! I recommend it for everyday people!
The Shanghai airport was a nifty place. Some people are so small they can fit in their own suitcases, you get a little emotional realizing that this is where Mulan saved the world, and I couldn’t help but feel a sense of awe that basically everything I own was originally from China. Such a great place!!
After getting Shanghai’ed (lol!), we jumped onto the three-hour flight to Taipei. That was cool because most the members of my group got bumped up to first class since we’d missed our original flight. It was an experience like no other: chairs that recline to a horizontal position, complimentary dragon fruit, enough leg room to do real tai chi, and coasters. First class is lyyyyfe!!
We landed in Taiwan at 10 pm-ish. I smelled so bad and was so tired. Thankfully, I had a nice hotel room bed to sleep in (with my main man Bruce Mangelson #LoveWins).
Now we’re getting ready for English camp next week and (apparently) a typhoon. I probably should have brought more socks.
JK. BUTT I did moon someone (aka my sister) over Snapchat last week. That’s what it’s for, right?
So my broth Stanley came to Utah (he NEVER comes to Utah) because his cool wife’s family was up in Cache Valley for a family reunion. WELL, since I live in Utah and my sister lives in Utah and my other sister always come to Utah for 4th of July week, we all decided it’d be cool to crash their reunion because he’s our brother and he’s way legit.
So we all drove up to Bear Lake (“Bear” not “Bare” lol) to play in the water and have a good family time.
Bear Lake is on the Utah-Idaho border, so I was expecting to be be horrible because 1) Idaho 2) I googled pictures and there were no trees 3) It’s WAY north = FREEZING water 4) Family time jkjkjkjkjkjkjk
We hopped in the car at 11-ish and got to Bear Lake at 2-ish, but the drive is pretty pritt (because Cache Valley is pretty pritt) so the three hours weren’t too bad. I just sat in the back of my sister’s minivan and read Harry Potter while my nephew told me how lame I am (but it’s okay because he’s SIX and I’m TWENTY-FIVE so I can handle it).
We stopped at a shake place by the lake (there’s about fifty, so just choose one) and got raspberry milkshakes because (apparently) raspberries are THE THING here. It was really good and I liked it. ~Mmmm. So creamy. Mmmmm.~
Random child crawled onto me begging for a milkshake.
After that, we headed to the north shore because that’s where brother said to go.
AND IT WAS PERFECT.
Yes, it WAS Idaho, but there were SOME trees (so it was pretty) and the water was WARM.
The water was crystal blue and SUPER shallow for about 100-feetish out, so it was SUPER warm. I could just sit and pee anywhere and no one would notice because the water was already warm. We literally just sat in the foot-deep water for four hours, throwing mud at each other and trying to move as little as possible. No children drowned because the water was so shallow AND nobody got sunburnt (too much) because we applied sunscreen every hour (SO IMPORTANT).
Me and the sibs having a good time.
It was a great time I would do it again if someone drove me (but it’d be nice to sit next to a nice six-year-old this time).
Honest truth about Italy: lots of pros, lots of cons.
Let’s start with the cons.
Cons: Tourists up your wazoo, creepy hobos, don’t Couchsurf here, you have to pay to get into almost everything, and train stations are crazy confusing.
Italy is a pain. Of all the places I visited, I felt the most unsafe in Italy.
First, you’re constantly surrounded by people. I visited MILAN (not even Rome, which I’m sure is crazier) in the middle of freaking JANUARY (it was 40ºF) and there were tourists EVERYWHERE. It was frustrating because I like to avoid the crowds and experience the country as untouristy as possible, but I don’t think that’s possible in Italy. The crowds are huge and people are everywhere. Summer must be straight CRAY. (BUTT: I was able to escape the crowds in smaller towns like Verona and Lazise.)
Verona at twilight.
Second, you’d think you’re safe because of all the crowds, but the hobos aren’t afraid to single anyone out. I was walking with my host in Milan and I had hobos shove birdseed in my hands, try to tie a bracelet to my wrist, and try to “help” me buy a ticket at a train station. After doing stuff like this, hobos try to get you to pay for whatever they’ve forced on you (“Ten euro for the birdseed!” “You stole that bracelet! Pay me for it!” “You owe me this much for helping you buy your ticket!”). You have to be very assertive and just be like, “No, I don’t want it, I’m not gonna pay for that.”
In general, I tried to share my money and food with the homeless I saw in other countries, but these guys were so obnoxious I didn’t want to give them anything just in case they tried to pull something on me.
Thanks to this hobo, I got this sweet picture of me being attacked by birds. Also, he tried to take 10 euro from me.
Also, the Couchsurfing options in Italy are iffy. Half the profiles I read while looking for a place to stay either said they were nudists or nudist-friendly, which isn’t inherently bad, but can turn bad real easy (especially since you don’t know these people IRL). So, unless you feel REALLY comfortable with naked strangers, stay in a hostel or hotel.
Another downside of the country is that the economy is based mainly on tourism (which makes sense –> see four paragraphs above), so it costs money to get into EVERYTHING. Take pictures in the Duomo? Three euro. Go to the roof of the Duomo? Six euro. Go into almost any cathedral and you’ll get charged an entrance fee (UNLESS you’re with a local — then it’s free). So be ready with a lot of pocket change to get into what you want to see.
On the roof of the Milan Duomo. That’s my host up front with the hair.
Also, Italian train stations are worse than American DMV’s. Get in line to get a number, get a number, wait for your number to be called (in Italian), then get your train ticket without any platform number or departure time printed on it (it’s basically just a blank piece of paper). It’s silly. I’d recommend getting a local to help if you can (but NOT a hobo — remember).
So that’s what sucks about Italy, but let’s end on a positive note.
Pros: Everything is super old, there’s lots of history; it’s a very small country, so you can land in any airport and be in another part of the country in a couple of hours; and the food is fantastic!
A Roman arch in Verona.
Italy has had a huge influence on the world since before Christ was born. For over 2,000 years, this small country has influenced the ENTIRE world’s art, government, food, education, architecture, and religion. That’s crazy! Because of this, it’s worth taking a little looksie at Italy if you’re planning a trip to Europe.
Because people have lived in Italy for forever, there are cities built on cities built on cites and cathedrals built on cathedrals built on cathedrals. In some areas, you can see an older city’s foundation under the streets of the current city. In Chiesa di San Fermo in Verona, one cathedrals sits on top of an older cathedral underground (that you can go down and look at), which is on top of another older cathedral! It’s like a Catholic sandwich! (But old and made of stone, so don’t eat.)
The foundation of an older city under the streets of Verona, Italy.
There are multiple cathedrals in every city you’ll visit, and at least one of them is bound to take your breath away. The most amazing churches I saw were the Milan Duomo and the Cathedral of St. Anastasia in Verona.
The Duomo is legitly hugenormous outside and covered in intricate carvings and statues (you could spend hours looking at the outside walls of the Milan Duomo), but you don’t completely appreciate how big and beautiful it is until you go inside. It’s dark and cavernous, gives you Mines-of-Moria-esque feelings, and amazes the living butt off of you.
The Cathedral of St. Anastasia is also huge, but I mainly loved its architecture and paintings inside. The inside is full of arches and the ceiling is painted with a real cool floral pattern.
Inside St. Anastasia’s.
**NOTE: I’m not usually an artsy person who appreciates things like architecture and culture, but Italy (one of the birthplaces of western art and architecture) straight-up knocked my socks off and made me notice things I’d never appreciated before.
Also, real Italian pizza makes a day in the country worth it. It tastes nothing like American pizza: the crust is thin and bubbly, the sauce is tangy, the cheese isn’t greasy, and the toppings are completely fresh. (If you want a taste of authentic Italian pizza, visit Terra Mia in Orem).
It’s really Italian and really pizza.
Overall, I’d say that Italy is worth a two-to-three-day stopover. One day to see a big city and get annoyed by tourists/freaked out by hobos, and one day to see a small town and appreciate the slightly less-touristy part of Italy.
When I first met Nils Andersen, I was living in Izhevsk, Russia, with Zhenya Kazakov. I asked Nils where he was from and he said, “Oslo,” and I said, “Where’s that?” Then he and Kazakov laughed at me for being a stupid American who didn’t know anything about geography and told me that OSLO is the capital of NORWAY. (P.S. I accidentally called it NORWEGIA half the time after that anyway, so jokes on them.)
Highlights from my mission aside, Oslo is the capital of NORWAY which is in EUROPE which is where I went in January. I decided to visit this beautiful country after seeing Internet pictures and watching “Frozen” a lot. Also, I think Nils is pretty cool and he invited me to visit.
So, after England, I snuck over to Oslo for a three-day visit. It was snowy, icey, and rainy, and my feet STILL hadn’t dried from England, but I loved it. The snow, ice, and rain made for some beauti-freakin-beautiful scenery and some GREAT pictures (my favorite pics from my trip are from England and Norway).
Plus, the language is no big because everyone here speaks English. So cool!!!
I honestly think Norway would be better to visit after March, but that’s only because tours of the Royal Palace and boat tours of Oslofjord were closed and wouldn’t open until mid-March, so now I know.
BUTT I did see some pretty sick stuff and here’s what it was:
Oslo City Hall
I accidentally stumbled onto this building. The outside looks really soviet (gray and depressing), BUT there is a cool clock and wood carvings outside. Anyway, I went inside and my jaw DROPPED like the bass at your mama’s birthday. There’s a MASSIVE great hall (HP lingo because europe) and every wall is covered in murals. Also, each bathroom stall has its own sink. It was WAY fancy and nice and one of my top 3 buildings in Europe (don’t ask what the other two are).
Norway still has a monarchy and just like England, I’m not sure what it does. Anyway, like I said, the palace was closed when I was visiting, so be sure to stop by and tell me about it if you’re here after March!
Vigeland Sculpture Park AKA Naked Park in Oslo
Pro tip about Norway: there are a lot of naked statues and murals everywhere. To the Norwegians, it’s not weird. So the fact that there’s a park full of nude statues of men and women doing weird things (like juggling babies) doesn’t really throw off anyone here. And asking why the statues are all naked doesn’t really get an answer. And apparently, this place is the #1 tourist attraction in Oslo. So don’t miss it. But be prepared. FOR NAKED.
Kulturkirken (pronounced “kultur-heer-kin”)
This building is so amaze-balls inside and out. Look at the intricate carvings on the outside door, then look at the ceiling inside and listen to the organ. Usually, I HATE the organ, but the whole building feels to special and great. And there’s an altar where you can write a prayer and the priests will pray for you. …… ….
Oslo Opera House
Again, another thing that’s cooler after winter. The opera house’s roof slants down so you can walk from the ground level to the top, BUTT in winter, it’s too icey. So. Also fancy bathrooms.
Eat the seafood
This guy’s selling shrimp out of his FISHING BOAT. I don’t even LIKE seafood, but even smelling it raw made me want to try this stuff because it’s so fresh! (I didn’t, cuz I forgot to eat half the time on this trip. I was TOO BUSY DOING THINGS.)
Skiing was basically invented in Norway, SO I HAD to go skiing. Pro tip: spend the first two hours falling over, then spend the last hour actually having fun! That’s what I did! I rode the metro up to Frognerseteren and skied. I made lots of mistakes, but I have videos about how to do it WITHOUT making mistakes. And I should post those.
Explore Oslofjord and take sick pix!
PRO TIP: Oslofjord isn’t a real fjord. It doesn’t have hills on either side with water in between: it’s basically just a bay with no hills around it. But it’s still beauty-ful. Even though the tourist tours were closed, I jumped on a random ferry to a random peninsula in Oslofjord and took lots of pictures. It was a good time. But I did get hungry.
Go shopping at Underground
I lost my beanie on the bus from the Rygge Airport, so I got on google and found a close-by thrift store, hence I came toUnderground (UFF). It’s actually a vintage shop, which means they don’t take anything newer than 1980. There were sweet sweaters, reindeer bags, sealskin boots, and all sorts of other things that would make PETA mad. I bought a sweet hat and wanted to buy everything else.
Eat the weird crap Nils gives you.
Norway has a weird cuisine. Aside from the seafood smelling good, they also like to eat liver, jam on meatballs, lots of frozen pizza, and bacon in a tube. The pic above is “brown cheese” with jam on bread. It tasted like old-ish cheese with jam on it. The combo of cheese + jam made it a little creamy, but still weird. So take your taste buds on an adventure!
Find this random statue of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Norway was a blast and a half! I want to give a big shout-out to Nils and his awesome wife Natali for letting me crash on their couch for three days and helping me find and do all the cool things to do in Oslo! And honestly, Nils is lucky to have scored a girl as sweet as Natali. It was so great to stay with you guys! Until next time!
Ever since I was a young Gordy, I’ve wanted to go to England. I love Narnia, am a big fan of the queen (J.K. Rowling currently), and have spoken the English language almost fluently for most of my life.
And I’m not the only one who loves England. I’ve talked to lots of others who would love to skip rocks on the other side of the pond.
So what’s it like to be in England? What is there 2 doo? WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO MAKE YOUR DREAMS COME TRUE? Well, I’m about to let you kno.
My first three nights, I stayed on the beautiful London Temple apartments (or FLATS lol). The temple is 30 miles (or KILOMETERS lol) from London proper, but it’s still a pretty rural area.
My face and the London temple!
View of the London Temple from a footpath.
I stayed here Saturday and Sunday and literally just walked around looking at how old, rural, and green (LUSH) everything is. I visited the nearby villages and pubs within walking distance of the temple.
The oldest buildings in East Grinstead, a village close to the temple.
England has a super nifty thing called “footpaths.” They’re just public trails that go through forests and fields, across pub decks and people’s yards. Even though people have lived on this small island for thousands of years, the government has gone to great lengths to preserve its natural beauty, so there’s plenty of trees and greenery to love. It’s like being in a Beatrix Potter story. Just look for a “footpath” sign and follow.
A cool thing I saw on a footpath!
I went to London on Monday. I don’t love big cities, so I only stopped by for a day visit. I rode into Victoria Station at noon-ish and walked to King’s Cross Station by the end of the day. Walking is the absolute best way to see EVERYTHING — touristy and otherwise. Along the way, I saw Westminster Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery, ate at an Indian restaurant, and went to Platform 9 3/4.
Westminster Abbey lol
It so big.
Me and one of them Trafalgar Square lions.
Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio in the National Gallery (J.K. Rowling’s fave painting).
Indian food! It was very good.
It’s straight magic, promise.
From King’s Cross, I took the Tube to Paddington Station, then rode a train up to Oxford to visit C.S. Lewis’s home.
Oxford was one of the most amazing parts of my trip. The university is almost literally Hogwarts. It’s hundreds of years old, but it’s still going strong and its ancient buildings are still in use.
A library at Oxford University.
Just like Hogwarts.
C.S. Lewis’s home was great. I toured it and learned a lot about his life. A nature reserve dedicated to Lewis is right next to his home. These woods are said to be inspiration for Narnia. I definitely uglycried walking through them as I thought, “I’M IN NARNIA!!!”
Me in front of C.S. Lewis’s home.
C.S. Lewis Nature Reserve.
I also visited the Eagle and Child, the pub where Lewis used to bash around story and philosophical ideas with his mates, including J.R.R. Tolkien.
A great place to get drunk. jkjkjkjkjkjk!!!
In general, Oxford is such a cool city. It’s very old and there’s just such a cool feeling there.
England was everything I’d dreamed it would be and more. It was like stepping into my favorite books and stories I had as a kid (and still have). It rained at least twice a day, my feet weren’t dry for a week, and I absolutely loved it. DREAMS COME FREAKING TRUE.
So I love Russia and I hate Russia. On my mission, I loved the food and church members and little differences between Russian and American culture (like Russian Christmas and Baptism Day). Since coming home, I’ve loved telling people what Russia’s REALLY like instead of them only knowing what they see in American propaganda.
But as soon as I’d bought tickets to go to Moscow in January, I remembered that Russia isn’t a SUPER safe place. Flashbacks of being chased by drunks, dodging flying beer bottles, and being followed by teenagers came back to me. The last month of my mission, it really felt like I had SURVIVED, rather than served, a mission. And now, for some reason, I was going back and would have to SURVIVE another couple days!! Plus, I’d be ALONE this time, no mission companion to provide “safety in numbers.” I WAS GOING TO DIE.
Also (and this is important), I’d forgotten that the Russian government requires Americans to obtain a visa in order to enter their country, even if it’s just for three days, and the cheapest option for a visa cost more than $200. (Before you get too mad at Russia, just remember that we require the same inconvenience of Russians AND that Russians are poorer than us AND I’m pretty sure we deny them visas more often than they deny us visas, but I don’t know for sure.)
I tried for over a month to switch my flight from Moscow to somewhere else: Helsinki, Oslo, Athens, Frankfurt — anywhere but Russia again. Unfortunately, there was no alternative that would cost less than $400, so buying a visa and going to Russia turned out to be most economical option, even if it didn’t feel like the safest.
However, going back to Russia turned out to be one of the best parts of my whole trip. I’m so glad I went and I wish I had enough money to go every year.
UGH RUSSIA The week before going to Russia (and to Europe in general) I was literally dreading it. I would probably get mugged, kidnapped, raped, and killed. But, since all that was most likely to happen in Russia, I told myself that if I could make it past three days in Russia, the rest of my trip (into four other countries and across three weeks) would be CAKE.
I landed in Russia with a dying phone and congested head. My ears wouldn’t pop and none of the outlets in the Domodedovo Airport would work. I had barely been able to sleep in the 15ish hours since I’d left San Diego. Fortunately, I was able to keep my head and not get stressed (which is something I learned about myself on this trip — I don’t get stressed easy).
I walked up to the first Russian I could and asked where I could find an “ay-tee-emm.” They were like, “What the freak are you talking about?” and I was like,”The thing that gives you money,” and they were like, “Over there, you loser American.” (They were a lot nicer than that, I’m just writing what they SHOULD have said.) Literally two steps after walking away from them, though, the Russian word for “ATM” popped into my head — “bankomat.” And I was like, “Yes! I got this!”
I found an ATM and withdrew 3,000 rubles ($50ish). After that, a representative from my favorite Russian phone company (МТС) was standing right outside the gate. I popped out my AT&T SIM card, gave them 1,000 rubles, and they popped in an МТС “seem kartichka” with 12 gigs of data on it. (I only used, like, 3 or 4 gigs in my three days, so that was a bit overkill, but it was nice not to worry about running out of data.)
The Domodedovo Airport is about 30 miles from Moscow, but since Europe is so much better about public transportation, I knew there must be a cheap shuttle to the city somewhere. The train that takes you to Moscow is called Aeroexpress (Аэроэкспресс). It costs 450 rubles and takes about an hour.
After buying some water, I jumped on the train and sat next to a really sweet girl from St. Petersburg who was going into Moscow to visit a friend. She reminded me of how normal and nice Russians are (By “normal,” I mean they’re literally just like Americans. STILL trying to convince people of that.).
I hopped off the tram when it reached its one and only stop: MOSCOW.
Since I served in the Samara Mission, I didn’t really know anyone I could stay with in Moscow. I ended up connecting with a random Russian couple over Couchsurfing who said I could stay with them. We’d agreed to meet in front St. Basil’s on Red Square at 10 pm.
I got off the train and, since I had no idea what I was doing or where I was, I picked a random person and followed him. I figured that he knew where he was going, so I’d follow him until he got there. He went into a big building and down some stairs into the metro. I made a mental note, found a cafe upstairs, charged my phone for a couple hours, then jumped on the metro to Red Square.
An escalator going down into the Moscow Metro.
I’d never been on a real subway before and I’d heard of how confusing the Moscow Metro is, so my only hope of finding Red Square was talking to people. Of course, like I said, Russians are beyond helpful and nice. I asked a babushka and she told me which train to get on and a student told me which stop to get off at. I got out on the street and asked a couple which way Red Square was and another lady corrected me when I took a wrong turn. I found Red Square, took a selfie in front of St. Basil’s, and met up with my hosts Katya and Slava.
GLORY TO KATYA AND SLAVA I was so relieved to meet Katya and Slava. I’d been ALONE travelling for a day and a half and now I had friends! They were so nice and Katya spoke English very well. They gave me a whole apartment to myself (cuz they have two) and let me babysit their cat! They were the best hosts and they were definitely one the best parts of my trip to Moscow. They showed me around the best parts of Moscow the next day, found a nice banya for me to visit, made me homemade pelmeni (like Russian ravioli), and drove me to the airport on Friday. They’re the literal best!
Landing in Russia WAS the hardest part of my trip. I didn’t know what I was doing and I didn’t know how things would ultimately work out. I had to figure out how to get money, set my phone up, get transportation, navigate the streets of a foreign city, and find a place to sleep. But figuring all that out was really satisfying and making more Russian friends was the best! Despite my initial regrets and misgivings, Russia was one of the best places I visited my whole trip.
IF YOU’RE GOING TO RUSSIA/MOSCOW Here are some cool things I did while visiting Moscow that I think you should do (plus some tips!):
1) Learn the Cyrillic alphabet or bring someone who knows it. A lot of the signs are transliterated from Cyrillic into English, BUTT unless you’re used to reading and pronouncing words like “Preobrajendkaya” (Преображенская), the English transliteration won’t do you a lot of good. 2) Drink peach juice and Chudo (Чудо) drinkable yogurt and eat chocolate, especially Super Snickers. Why don’t we have more juice and yogurt in America?!! Also, my Norwegian friend tells me that the Snickers in Russia are the best in the world (better than American and Norwegian, at least), and I would have to agree. Ughhhh. AMERICA PLEASE MAKE BETTER FOOOOOOD
3) Eat at a restaurant on Old Arbat Street. Old Arbat is one of the oldest parts of Moscow and has a lot of touristy things to do and see, plus it’s not too far from …
4) RED SQUARE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! There are a couple things at Red Square you should see. 1) St. Basil’s: It’s not an operating church anymore, just a museum. It’s 250 rubles ($5ish) to get in, but it’s very worth it, especially if you wait for the choir upstairs to start singing! 2) Lenin’s tomb: It was closed when I went, but you should see it! 3) The Kremlin: It didn’t even occur to me that you can go inside while I was there, but I hear you need to plan in advance to get tickets to go in. I’m sure it’s way great! 4) GUM:It’s a big shopping center. Go inside and see what it’s like.
5) The Catheral of Christ the Savior: It’s the main cathedral in Moscow and it’s way pretty! It’s also not far from Red Square.
6) Banya it up: The idea of being surrounded by dozens of naked people (if you go in a gender-specific one), getting boiling hot, then drenching yourself with ice cold water (Ice Bucket Challenge eat your heart out) sounds awful to most sane people, but it’s a very Russian thing to do and I loved it. Just know you’ll be SUPER tired after. The one I visited in Moscow was called Sanduny (Сандуны) and I really recommend it. (I’ll post a vid of how-to lates.)
7) Spend time with the people and learn for yourself that they’re not cray cray.
My new friends Slava and Katya. They thought I was cool cuz I’m from California lol.
Back in October, I decided that I was a winner and to congratulate myself on being such a winner, I bought open-jaw plane tickets to and from Europe for $900 flying into Moscow and out through Dublin.
HOWEVER, I’m a cheapskate and I forgot that Russia requires you to get a visa (an EXPENSIVE visa too) and an official invitation in order to enter the country, so I tried to reroute my flight for almost a month, but it’s almost impossible to economically change your flight once you’ve purchased airline tickets. LESSON LEARNED.
I finally decided to buy a visa to go back to Russia almost six weeks before my flight to Moscow. I contacted BYU’s Kennedy Center because I heard you can get free help getting a visa (and I was still a student at the time). They directed me to a company called Travel Broker that basically does all the paperwork for you. You pay them $100, they take care of the finer details of the visa application AND get you an invitation into the country. So, no free help, but I think it was the best option for me at that time. The visa itself cost about $250, so the entire visa process cost me about $350. 🙁 But whatever.
Travel Broker sent me to the Russian visa website. They told me to fill in the visa application, then print it out and take it to them.
A couple things about the visa application:
It asks you to list every country you’ve visited for the past couple (five or something) years. I just wrote in every country that’s stamped my passport in the past five (or something) years.
It asks you to write the address of every place you’ll be staying in Russia. Travel Broker told me that I could just write any address in the city where I was visiting (Moscow) because the government doesn’t follow up once you get there. So, I just googled a random hotel in Moscow and wrote its address. (And no, I didn’t stay at that hotel and no it wasn’t a problem.)
It asks you to write in every city you’ll be visiting and how you plan to travel in between cities. I was only going to be in Moscow, so I didn’t have to worry about that part, but I assume you can just write in whatever you want here too because they most likely won’t be following up on you.
It also asks you to write in the dates of every other Russian visa you’ve ever had. If you’ve had multiple Russian visas in multiple passports, you only have to write in the visas that are in your CURRENT (active) passport.
Remember that when you’re visiting Russia, if you stay in any city/location for more than three days, you have to register, so it’s easier to plan to be in the city for three days or less.
So that’s basically the tricky part of the visa application.
I filled out all the paperwork, brought it to Travel Broker (they have an office in south Salt Lake), and I had a Russian visa within 2 1/2 weeks.
Next post: what to do/how to survive in Russia. IT WILL BE A FUN POST, I PROMISE.
Almost five years ago today, I got my mission call to serve in Russia. When I first realized I would be serving in Russia, I was like, “Crap. Russia.” I didn’t want to go to Russia. The language seemed super hard, the culture and history didn’t seem very interesting, the people never smiled, and I knew it would be a challenge living in a country that didn’t even have cars or indoor plumbing.
When I got there in November 2009, I started learning what Russia was actually like.
No technology First, there ARE cars and indoor plumbing. Before I went to Russia, I thought horses were still the main mode of transportation (the only things I knew about Russia, I’d learned from Fiddler on the Roof and Anastasia, so can you blame me????), but after being in Russia for a day I quickly realized that cars, indoor plumbing, and even light bulbs are just as common in Russia as they are in America. In fact, the biggest cities and tallest buildings I’ve ever seen are in Russia, so it is definitely just as modern and developed as America.
Unfriendly people Everyone in America told me that Russians never smiled and were a pretty tough people to befriend. HOWEVER, some of the FIRST THINGS I saw in Russia were couples walking outside holding hands and SMILING, friends walking around together and SMILING, and people just looking like normal people, not like the communist robots I’d heard about. I realized that most of the Americans who’d told me about Russia had never actually been there, so how would they know what Russians are actually like?
Climate Russia is effing cold. I had heard the word “cold” before my mission, but never actually knew what it meant. I’d lived in California basically my whole life, so the coldest I’d ever felt was, like, 32°F. When I got to Russia, winter was just starting, so it was 32ish°, which I thought was the coldest it could ever be. I was so cold, I wore two scarves: one for my neck and the other for my face. People told me I looked like a Muslim woman.
They’d laugh and say, “You know it’s going to get colder, right?” and I’d laugh and say, “That’s not even possible, right?” But it did get colder. The coldest I ever felt was -40° (which is where Fahrenheit and Celsius meet), but that wasn’t typical. -5°F to -15°F was pretty normal. Cold, but livable. I learned to enjoy the cold, so much so that when I went back to Russia after my mission, I made sure to go during the winter. To me, Russia isn’t Russia if your nose hairs don’t freeze. Hard language Yeah, Russian’s hard, at least for me, no getting around that. The alphabet only takes, like, two weeks to learn, but actually speaking the language sucks butt. However, I think being able to understand is much more important than being able to express yourself. Listening for the few words I understood and paying attention to context went a long way in helping me understand what people were saying to me. And, since I had a mission companion, I could rely on him to say what needed to be said. So the language is daunting, but it isn’t everything.
Uninteresting history and culture So Russians may not be the cold-hearted people that Americans make them out to be, but they certainly have a colorful history. They’ve existed as a people for nearly 1,000 years, so of course they’ve had some super interesting stuff happen. They were invaded by Huns, they drove the Huns out, they had fake tsars the people elected, they had real tsars the people killed, they had fake tsars they elected then decided to kill, they have beautiful literature and art, they had communism, they sent the first man into space, they had Stalin, they have Putin, and BORIS NEMTSOV WAS SHOT FIVE DAYS AGO OH MY GOSH WHERE IS THE TRUTH AT? So, interesting stuff.
Of course, I didn’t know a lot of this while I was actually living in Russia since I was busy doing the WORK OF THE LORD, but I learned it in college after and it explained a lot of what I’d seen on my mission. So definitely take a Russian history course if you get the chance, especially if you’ve been to Russia before and you’re wondering “What the eff???” So I ended up having a blast in Russia. I finished my mission three and a half years ago, but I really wanted to go back, so that brings us to the next part of this story ….