The Pan-American Highway: The ultimate roadtrip

The Pan-American Highway is considered the world’s longest “motorable road” (save for the 90 mile Darién gap between South America and Central America, which you can bypass by putting your vehicle on a cargo ship). It’s not actually one road either–there are only some official sections and other sections where multiple routes are possible, but still considered to be part of the overall network. If you follow the most widely accepted route, from the road’s terminus in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Patagonia (the southern tip of South America), you’re looking at 19,000 miles one-way (30,000 kilometers)–and unless you plan to sell/dump your car in Alaska or Argentina (and selling a foreign vehicle in Argentina is illegal) then you need to do essentially double the whole route in a return journey as well; so the total trip is approximately 40,000 miles.

Yukon Territory, Canada by Kalen Emsley

It’s also not 40,000 miles of paved, “safe” roads. The Pan-American Highway passes through many diverse countries and climates, from dense jungles, to arid deserts, some of which are passable only during the dry season, and in many regions where driving is occasionally hazardous. The Dalton Highway (or “haul road”) from Fairbanks, AK to Prudhoe Bay, has been made infamous by the show “Ice Road Truckers” for being exceptionally dangerous during winter months, which is why I’m traversing it during the only two months of the year that it’s guaranteed to be ice-free.

The Pan-American Highway is a system so vast, so incomplete, and so incomprehensible it is not so much a road as it is the idea of Pan-Americanism itself. – Jake Silverstein

I don’t remember exactly when or how I found out that it was extremely do-able to drive from the arctic circle almost all the way to the antarctic circle, through almost every climate and ecosystem on earth, but I knew the instant I learned of its possibility that I was going to do it one day. That was at least 8 years ago. Over the years I’ve tweaked the plans for the trip in a my journal, changing the potential date 10 times or more–always a year or two out, because the base requirements for the trip are so difficult to accrue: 1) An off-road 4wd vehicle in good shape 2) thousands of dollars in the bank for gas and expenses 3) at least 1 companion willing to come on the most remote and risky parts of the trip and share expenses 4) 10 months set aside for the full journey, etc etc. It always felt like an impossible task that I may never fulfill, until earlier this year my desire to go eclipsed my desire to be fully prepared, and I devised a plan to do the full highway that is way cheaper and easier than my previous plan. I’m going to split the originally planned 10 month trip into 3 separate trips; doing the 2 easier sections this year and saving the hardest section for next year. This also gives me time to regroup and save for the third section, and allows me to better prepare using the experience from the first 2 sections.

The first 2/3 of the Pan-American Highway, through North and Central America, aren’t nearly as challenging or problematic as the 3rd section through South America, and can be done in my existing vehicle with minimal savings and preparation. Basically all I need is 2 spare tires, a roadside emergency kit, camping gear, a few good companions, and enough money for gas, which thanks to my Prius is not very much!

So without further ado, here are my plans to traverse 2/3 of the Pan-American Highway this year:

Part I, North America

June 13th – July 17th

Los Angeles, CA <-> Prudhoe Bay, AK

7,562 mi

 

Part II, Central America

Approx. September 10 – October 20

Los Angeles, CA <-> Panama City, Panama

8,000 mi

 

I think it goes without saying I’ll be posting photos and videos on my Instagram and blogging the entire journey, but I’ll be doing a few new things on this trip that I’ve never done before. I’ll be posting video blogs on my YouTube channel, and offering rides on my travel app Hchhkr to anyone who wants to grab a seat in my car for part of the trip! As an added cherry on top, this trip will take me to my 50th state (Alaska) and my 47th country when I arrive in Panama!

The Motherland (Ireland)

northern ireland coastline tourist attractions carrick-a-rede

Ok, so I’m not Irish (sadly), but my great-grandparents on my mother’s side were born in Belfast and emigrated to America when they were adults, around the early 1900s. My grandpa was extremely proud of his Irish roots, so much so that he and his brother made sure to pass on to their kids all the information about our remaining family in Northern Ireland (some who have since moved to Scotland, which I’ll get to in another post!), so visiting Ireland, to me, was pretty special.

I wanted to see as much of the island as possible, but I hate how restrictive bus tours are. So there was only one other option: renting a car. To make the rental as cheap as possible, I’d have to drive a stick. Automatic vehicles are not only rare in the UK, they come at a premium. My brilliant plan to get around the extra cost was to have a friend teach me how to drive a stick right before my trip. It was not pretty. I went ahead with my stupid plan anyway, and rented a manual car to drive 600km (on the wrong side of the road and vehicle, with left hand operated gear shifting and different driving laws). I’ll lift the suspense: yes, car and driver survived! (I may have stalled approximately 40 times in 2 days however, including at multiple roundabouts in the middle of the road, you know…) all of this was witnessed by a new friend who tagged along with me, who definitely prevented me from having a meltdown whenever I felt like I was going to kill us both!

Trinity College Library

Before my rental car adventure began, I was in Dublin for a few days. I had trouble finding a couchsurfing host in the city, so the first night I stayed well outside the city in a charming cottage/house that was over 100 years old in the Irish countryside with a host who rescued me last-minute from having to pay crazy hostel/hotel prices in central Dublin. My first day in Dublin I visited the Trinity College Library, which might be my new favorite place on earth. I think it’s where books want to go when they die.

St. Stephen's Green Dublin

I then walked around St. Stephen’s Green, catching Pokémon (the app hadn’t been released on the European app store yet, so I looked crazy). I wandered all over the city and riverfront, visiting the famed “Temple Bar” and neighborhood, which if you love pubs is great… not a huge pub fan myself and I can’t drink Guinness (not gluten free), although I did have a sip of one just for kicks and I must say, it really is better right at the original source!

The following day my rental car adventure began. My new German friend and I visited 4 main attractions: The Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, the Dark Hedges, The Giant’s Causeway, and the city of Belfast.

the dark hedges northern ireland

The “dark hedges” (a long tree-lined street famous for its creepiness) was our first stop– extremely magical, but I feel as though it was the wrong time of year, and the wrong time of day, for them to really shine. Since they are so spooky in certain light, it was far too sunny and happy looking while we were there! And the parking area made me want to cry with my manual car. Parallel parking on a hill with a 3-point turn over a narrow bridge *shudders and cries*.

Next up was Carrick-a-rede, which was quite a hike! I had no idea! I thought it would just be hopping out of the car and crossing a rope bridge! Nope. It was a gorgeous 2km hike along a coastal cliff to the bridge, then the very underwhelming bridge crossing (it boggles my mind how some people find this bridge scary) and then you get to explore the big ‘ol rock the bridge dumps you off on, a hilly little seabird sanctuary that plummets down on all sides to the deceptively turquoise blue waters below, which look almost tropical, but are no doubt frigid. I’m glad we were there in the summer because even on a sunny summer day there is a chill in the strong winds.

carrick a rede rope bridge northern ireland

Carrick-a-rede

Carrick-a-rede

Carrick-a-rede

We hung out there for a while taking photos and then headed back to the car. The next stop was to get lunch at a place I’d researched weeks in advance in a nearby town. With my gluten allergy, I’ve learned the hard way to find a place before setting off to an unknown town in an unknown country. As fate would have it, the place I planned to eat didn’t open until 5pm, and it was 3:30 or so–we were far too hungry to wait, so we meandered down the street and found a hole-in-the-wall shop that had baked potatoes. A baked potato in Ireland sounded like a splendid idea! It was a fairly good potato and extremely cheap, and the place seemed shocked to be serving tourists. Northern Ireland in general seemed a bit down-trodden. Everywhere I ate was like that, mostly empty, surprised to be serving foreigners even when we weren’t far off the beaten path.

Our last stop of the day before returning to Belfast was The Giant’s Causeway. I don’t remember when I first learned of this place, but I knew the moment I did I needed to see it in person. I couldn’t believe it wasn’t man-made, and I still can’t. The rock formations–the way they all fit together and are flat on top and hexagonal on the sides–makes it look like they were intricately chiseled and placed together by human–or giant!–hands, which is exactly why the place is named after a legend that the whole thing WAS built by giants. There is a beautiful museum here and audio guide meant to explain to you how a volcano formed this geological marvel millions of years ago, but honestly, it makes no sense. Aliens are clearly responsible.

giant's causeway

Giant's Causeway Northern Ireland

Giant's Causeway Northern Ireland

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Giant's Causeway Northern Ireland

I’m ashamed to admit by the time I returned to Belfast I was too tired to do anything in the city my great-grandparents were born and lived in. I wish I had been able to spend more time there. I did meander down the street at 11:30pm once I’d awoken from a nap at my hostel starving and managed to find a pizza place that was open AND had gluten-free pizza! Thank you, Opera Pizza!

The next day it was back to Dublin, to continue my quest to find Domhnall Gleeson and marry him. I was staying with a couchsurfing host in Swords who very smartly suggested we go to the town of Howth on the coast and eat at the market and hike atop the Howth hills afterwards. It was a brisk and beautiful coastal trail overlooking the sea and the city, covered with wildflowers!

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2016-07-16-12-01-37

My couchsurfing host also persuaded me to visit Malahide Castle, and do a Riverdance-esque show, which was fabulous but felt ridiculously touristy due to an enormous group of very overwhelmed and excited asian tourists next to us. Sometimes you just gotta do the touristy stuff though!

Malahide Castle offered an excellent tour that included ghost stories and the fascinating history of the Talbot family who continually owned and controlled the estate for more than 800 years, except for a brief period when the home was forcibly taken away from them (bastards!).

Malahide Castle

Malahide Castle

Malahide Castle

Malahide Castle

Malahide Castle

Ireland, you were magical and I can’t wait to return!

 

Carry-on Only Luggage Packing for Long Trips

what to pack carry on for long trips

When I fly, I don’t check a bag. No matter how long the trip is. There are two reasons for this: I love flying budget airlines, where the checked bag fees are usually more than the flight itself; and I love the peace of mind that the airline can’t lose my bag. There are a lot of secondary bonuses too, like not having to go to baggage claim, having less bags to watch/deal with when moving from city to city and up and down stairs and in and out of trains and taxis. I find the less I pack, the happier I am.

A lot of people have asked me “how do you travel for months with only 2 small bags?” A combination of experience, creativity and a little sacrifice. As a photographer who works while traveling, I also bring with me tons of gear. If you don’t have to do that, you have even more room to work with! Without further ado, here are my bags, every item in them, and descriptions of/links to each item. I am not paid to endorse anything here, it’s all based on years of buying stuff and finding the best items that work for me.

travel bags for experienced travelers carry on luggage long trips

 

The Best Carry-On Luggage

I’ve been through about 10 bags in my travels over the past 15 years. Not because they wore out (although some of them did) but because most bags aren’t great. My Jeep and JanSport duffle bags only lasted about 2 trips each. My most expensive camera bag got stolen, because it looked like an expensive camera bag. My prettiest/nicest looking bag was the least functional. My favorite camera backpack is too big to take on RyanAir (budget European Airline) as a “personal item” even though it counts as one with most US-based airlines. So here are the bags I think are perfect for my upcoming trip (2 months in Europe). They are both carry-ons under the strictest airline rules*, so I don’t have to worry about checking either one.

TravelPro Maxlite

This bag is amazing. It still looks almost brand new after at least 10 trips taken. The wheels have been through the wringer and are still in great shape. Without anything in it the bag is only 7lbs, which is very important when considering carry-on weight restrictions. This seems to be about the average for light carry-on size luggage. I’ve been very happy with this bag.

Everki Studio Slim Laptop Backpack

Prior to this trip I was able to get away with bringing a behemoth camera backpack on as my “personal item” on all flights, even though it barely fit under the seat in front of me. Now that I’m looking forward to 5 flights on RyanAir on my upcoming trip, I knew I couldn’t bring “the beast” (Lowepro ProTactic 450) with me and had to find a tiny little backpack as my personal item, since RyanAir has extremely tight restrictions for carry-on luggage. *Even though this bag is still slightly larger than their allowed personal item size, it’s scrunchable and it’s the smallest laptop-carrying backpack I could find. So here’s to hoping this tiny backpack is small enough for RyanAir’s specifications. I haven’t done a proper field test with it yet – but so far, so good. It comfortably fits all my essentials and feels very light on my back, and has tons of fun compartments including a great hiding spot for cash and passports. It has the capability to attach to a roller bag, which is an excellent feature to take strain off your back/shoulders occasionally. It also looks really nice, but the plain black doesn’t make it stand out and makes it a target for theft, so I made sure to put a few pretty ribbons on it 🙂

everyki studio slim laptop bag review

Another thing I like about this bag is it’s interior clip. On it I’ve clipped a PacSafe slash-proof strap that I’ve attached to my wallet, to prevent pickpocketing and grab-and-run wallet theft.

Herschel Wallet

Even though it’s not a bag, I have to give a special shout out to my awesome Herschel wallet which I absolutely love. They make a lot of great travel accessories.

herschel wallet review

 

What’s in my backpack?

backpack contents packing traveling long trips

  1. Ray-Ban case, Target shades. Target shades don’t come with a nice case. Luckily, at one point I was the owner of a lovely pair of Ray-Bans that I no longer have, so my $14 Target sunglasses have a nice home.
  2. Apple MacBook Pro charger. Sans the longer extension portion. The extender is only for a US-based plug, so I leave it home when traveling abroad and bring the Apple plug adaptors that snap right into it.
  3. Apple MacBook Pro 2012. Love this thing. It’s needed a lot of care and love but she’s still hanging in there!
  4. Canon 5D Mark II. Still an incredible camera. I’m not seeing better images come out of anything that’s come out recently. Still waiting for a camera that’s actually a vast improvement, but this thing never disappoints.
  5. Lexar CF card reader. Bulky but necessary to read those obnoxiously big CF cards.
  6. Canon 24-105mm 4.0. My go-to for 90% of my photos. Extremely versatile lens. Only drawback is the aperture, which is why I carry around a second lens…
  7. Canon 50mm 1.4. My lens for when the 24-105 doesn’t cut it light wise and depth-of-field wise. Much better in low light, for portraits, for small and close-up subjects, and to get a very shallow depth of field or bokeh effect.
  8. One extra Canon battery. A bulky battery pack is totally unnecessary when traveling. I find one battery lasts 2-4 days, and this is my backup in case I forget to charge the main one.
  9. Canon remote. Just in case I decide to do long-exposure shots, which is rare but I do love doing them!
  10. SanDisk CF card pouch with 4 high capacity CF cards.
  11. Canon battery charger.
  12. Felt pouch with 2 Western Digital Passport external hard drives inside + cables. Both are 2TB capacity and have pretty much every file I’ve created over the past 3 years on them. I have them backed up with drives at home and in the cloud via the amazing service Backblaze.
  13. Targus laptop lap desk. I’m always tempted to leave this home, but when I do I regret it. I do so much work sitting in hotel beds, and my laptop gets so hot when editing photos and videos I can’t even touch the bottom, so this is essential.
  14. Apple headphones. On prior trips I’ve brought my favorite headphones (Grado SR60e) but they are big and bulky and just not travel friendly at all as they are designed to be studio headphones (please, Grado, make better travel headphones). I typically hate earbud style phones, but until someone can make an extremely compact over-ear headphone that sounds incredible and is super comfortable, I’m just sticking to these even though I don’t like them.
  15. Lens and screen cleaning wipes. I am obsessed with keeping all my gear clean while traveling.
  16. Cleaning cloth. A must.
  17. Travel size screen cleaning spray, for when the wipes aren’t enough… ok… I may have a problem?
  18. Oyster card holder, to keep my Oyster card in (duh!) plus it’s handy for storing train tickets for other cities too. The Oyster card is London’s underground card and buying a new one costs $ on top of the fare cost, so I always hold on to mine for future trips, since I visit London a lot.
  19. PacSafe theft-proof strap/leash for wallet. This came with a PacSafe bag that I’m not using on this trip, but I took this off to use because I love it. You attach it to the inside of a bag and clip the other end to your wallet to make it virtually impossible for a pickpocket to steal it or for a thief to grab it out of your hand and run.
  20. Passport. Pretty important. This is my third, lets hope I hang on to this one for a while!
  21. Herschel Wallet. Already raved about this above.
  22. Third Man Records pen. Gotta have a cool pen. Pens come in handy, you’ll always need one at some point.
  23. Four combination TSA approved locks. One has a cable to wrap around a bag to secure it. I haven’t field tested any of these, but they are well-researched replacements for other locks that sucked, so here’s to hoping they are better!
  24. All my different adaptors! I need three different kinds for all the countries I’m going to. Two are Apple adaptors, and the rest are for my camera charger and my straightener which needs a heavy-duty grounded adaptor. In some countries I will need to rig it so I have two adaptors on one device. No idea if that’s safe, but I’ve done it with success many times! I never use the big power converter adaptors though, the last one I had almost caught fire. The only device I have that would need that would be my straightener, as the apple chargers have built-in power conversion. My work around with the straightener was to buy one from the UK, and that’s what I use in Europe. It’s already set to the European voltage so it doesn’t need a converter! Voila!
  25. Hand sanitizer, chapstick, Advil. Necessary evils.

 

What’s in my carry-on luggage?

carry on luggage only packing for long trips

From left to right, top to bottom: 

  1. Toiletry bag. I’ve found it’s great to use something with straps in hostels, that can hold everything including your dry clothing. A lot of hostel bathrooms don’t have a good place to put stuff down as every surface is typically wet or dirty, so it’s best to find something to hang your bag off of. A little draw-string bag is perfect.
  2. Havaianas Flip-flops. A must in hot countries, like Morocco and Greece.
  3. Tiny causal but semi-formal looking purse, that could be used with any outfit if need be.
  4. Bathing suit (Target)
  5. White blazer. It makes any outfit look fancier and is super comfy and the material is very soft and folds down very compact.
  6. 6 pairs of socks, 6 pairs of undies
  7. Baseball cap
  8. 5 night shirts
  9. Billabong jacket. This is my go-to for when it’s chilly out but not cold. It’s just right for summer nights and pairs well with a light grey hooded sweater I’m also bringing (not pictured) for when more layers are needed (I am going to the Scottish Highlands).
  10. My European Straightener! I have crazy hair when it’s not straightened. It’s a thick poofy mane that won’t stay out of my face so this is a must for me. I can’t use my US one in Europe because it’s a different voltage and likes to catch fire, so I bought this one and it works like a dream over there.
  11. Scrunchie and belt. Scrunchies are the best. Hair ties can suck it.
  12. 7 day/night shirts. Some of these shirts are super comfy and can double as night shirts on days where I don’t really need to change for bed, prolonging the laundry cycle.
  13. Long sleeve light shirt (to limit sun exposure in Morocco and Greece). I love wearing super light long-sleeve shirts in hot places, the right one can actually keep you cooler and protect you from the sun and having to reapply sunscreen every couple hours.
  14. Cropped jeans/shorts. These cropped jeans are actually a pair of old jeans I cut off above the knee myself, and I love them. They are my go-to shorts. I used to have a fancy pair of light-weight travel capris, and I hate them and went back to wearing these. Sure, they don’t dry very fast, but I love them anyway.
  15. 2 Pajama pants! Because I can’t live without pajama pants.
  16. 2 tank tops. One is a plain grey tank top for casual days, one is a super fancy one from AllSaints that’s good for dressier occasions, especially ones outdoors in the heat!
  17. 2 Nice jean pants/jeggings (from H&M). These brownish-colored pants go with everything and are super comfy and can also pass for being semi-dressy if I wear a nice top, since they don’t really look like jeans but give off more of a proper pants vibe. I have another pair I’m also bringing that is dark brown, almost black. They also breathe very well, so they are still comfortable even if it’s a bit hot out.

Toiletries

toiletries packing long trips

Left to right, top to bottom:

  1. Little canvas bag for the makeup, in case it breaks so it won’t spill all over everything else.
  2. Shampoo & Conditioner packets, in case I run out and need a little extra until I buy more
  3. Tom’s toothpaste. This size is actually too big, they may not let it through security, but I can’t find a travel size for Tom’s…
  4. Allergy/congestion medicine. After a midnight trip to a pharmacy once to get this in Prague, I realized I should keep a little on hand in case of emergency.
  5. Extra razor cartridge
  6. Headband
  7. Little blunt-edge scissors
  8. Tissues
  9. Flamingo bag (Target)
  10. Gillette Fusion ProGlide Razor
  11. Folding travel toothbrush
  12. Shampoo, conditioner and body wash in squeezy travel bottles (Target)
  13. Bhodi Basics natural deodorant
  14. Dry shampoo
  15. Natural shade eyeshadow
  16. Travel size sunscreen
  17. Wet wipe (I need more of these!)
  18. Breathe-right strips for when I’m in hostels so I don’t snore
  19. Eyelash curler
  20. Blue mascara
  21. Earplugs, for hostels
  22. Perfume
  23. Washy gloves
  24. Covergirl foundation powder
  25. Harmonica necklace (the only jewelry I bring as it costs $5 and looks good with anything). Wearing any fancy jewelry at all makes you a target for thieves and increases risk of loss.
  26. Tweezers, nail clippers
  27. A few flossing sachets
  28. A few bandaids

Not pictured:

  1. 2 Bras, because that would be awkward. Victoria’s Secret all the way.
  2. Women’s products. Also a little too awkward to include in photo. I usually bring 2-3 weeks worth and then re-stock.
  3. Allergen blocking pillow case. This thing is awesome for allergy sufferers like me, plus has the awesome bonus feature of making sure your head is resting on a clean surface every night, which can be questionable if you couchsurf and hostel hop like me.
  4. Small linen travel towel. Linen is apparently the way to go since it dries fast and is more odor-resistant than microfiber and cotton.
  5. Tiny travel umbrella. Ireland. Scotland. England. I’m looking at you and all your rain. It’s because of you that I need this.
  6. Tiny poncho. To cover my body and my backpack if caught in an unexpected downpour, which I’m sure will happen somewhere in the UK.
  7. Dress and dress shoes (flats).
  8. Running shoes. These don’t fit in my bags, so I always have to wear them on the plane.
  9. Vitamins. I bring about a 3 week supply of multivitamins, and try to restock with a small bottle when I can.

 

How is that possible?

Some of you might read this and be all “wait, what?” confused about the lack of certain items, the inclusion of others, and the amounts of certain items (only 7 day shirts for 2 months, etc). And some of you have already figured it out. But for those of you who are still confused, I’ll break it down for you:

  1. Laundry services. Laundry services are abundant in most countries. You can easily find a place to either do your laundry yourself or have someone do it for you. And it’s usually pretty cheap too. I’ve found that a week is a perfect amount of time to go without needing to do laundry.
  2. Whatever you don’t have, you can buy there! Missed laundry day and need a shirt? Go find a clothing store and buy a shirt. Wow, that was hard. Got a boo-boo and need some first aid stuff? Go to a pharmacy, buy a little kit. Donate it to another traveler or a hostel or hotel when you’re done with it.
  3. You don’t need everything you use frequently at home. A common impulse when traveling is to assume you need to bring everything you frequently use at home, thinking you cannot possibly adjust to life without it on the road. Your full makeup kit, at least 4 pairs of shoes, a wider variance and array of clothing, a full first aid kit, journals and books, etc… you’ll be amazed at how quickly you can adjust to less stuff. And if you find you really can’t live without something after giving it a week or two, buy it on the road and dump it before the end of the trip, or ship it home.

A question I get asked sometimes is why I don’t use a “backpacking” pack. I’m very susceptible to back pain, and it gets much worse when I carry heavy loads (backpacks) on my back. Very few are made small enough to be a carry-on, and then they are usually too small. I greatly prefer the combo of a roller bag and a small backpack. Obviously this has its shortcomings when you must hike with your bags. I’ve only had to do that twice with this combo (Costa Rica and Thailand) and that was only for short distances. If I ever go on a backpacking adventure that includes lots of hiking, I would use a pack. If you’re mostly staying in cities with sidewalks and streets, I think a roller bag is 100% the way to go.

 

Hong Kong

Hong Kong Waterfront

When I arrived in Hong Kong, I had been traveling for 40 hours. I had a 5 hour flight to San Francisco, then a 19 hour delay (thanks US Airways) in which I would have slept on the airport floor had I not been lucky enough to have family in San Francisco who rescued me. After that, a 14 hour flight brought me to Hong Kong. I took the train to the city center, much of which was along the waterfront, which was surprisingly devoid of boats. I didn’t see any private boats or watercraft, nor did I see any marinas. Weird.

Hong Kong Hostel

After I got to my hostel in the Causeway Bay area of HK Island, I crashed. I slept until midnight. I intended to take a 2 hour nap and wake up around 7pm for dinner. Nope. I of course woke up feeling as though it was morning (jetlag FTW) and I was starving. Nothing to do but hope I was in a safe neighborhood and walk down the street to find food. The hostel front desk was closed, and I couldn’t connect to the wifi either. Yes! This was going well. I meandered down the empty streets for about a mile, before hitting my first open restaurant: McDonalds. Yep. I got fries and milkshake, still determined to try and uphold my gluten-free diet (that didn’t last long). I talked to my family on Skype, much to the annoyance of the Chinese teenagers next to me. Then I wandered further down the street, and found a dirty little hole-in-the-wall Chinese diner, where I ordered noodles and veggies (I think). They were delicious! The free tea tasted like garbage runoff.

hong kong causeway bay

The following day I visited the Tian Tan Buddha or “Giant Buddha” on Lantau Island, which was beautiful. The hill he sits on is almost constantly shrouded in fog. The site is inside a monastery and you can have lunch there (vegetarian, of course) and it’s huge. My adorable waitress just kept bringing me non-stop rice, soup, veggies, vegetable rolls and tea until I just couldn’t eat anymore. The scenery on the way up the mountain was quite beautiful too. I couldn’t take the cable car because it wasn’t running, so I got to take the bus which is much slower, but a fun and very scenic experience.

hong kong

hong kong

monastery

Hong Kong beach

Later that day I randomly found the Man Mo Temple and a wonderful outdoor street market while I was searching for a gluten free restaurant. In the Man Mo temple, there are many little statues and shrines that actually looked Christmas-y, and there were two women at one of them wrapping little presents with red and green paper and bows. There was a lovely smell of incense in the air, as in most Buddhist temples.

man mo temple hong kong

Hong Kong street market

There is a lot to do in Hong Kong – great nightlife, sightseeing and food. What really stands out to me though (and maybe it’s just because I love architecture) are the buildings and the stunning skyline of the city.

Hong Kong

I love the game Sim City, and the first skyscraper I would always put in my skyline when I could afford it was the Bank of China tower. I think it has a wonderfully fun geometric look to it. I’ve heard it upset many locals when it was built because it it was the first building in the Hong Kong skyline to not follow the design principles of Feng Shui.

Bank of China tower

All together, the skyline of Hong Kong is probably the prettiest in the world, especially from the perfect vantage point of Victoria Peak, which is well worth the trek.

Hong Kong Victoria Peak

TIP: If you do the peak, be sure to find the free shopping mall observation deck once you get off the train at the top, and don’t pay for the overpriced visitor center one. Exit the building with the train and walk across the plaza to the shopping mall, and follow the escalators up. The view is almost identical to the one you have to pay for.

In Hong Kong I also visited a Zaha Hadid building. She’s my favorite architect — and the Jockey Club Innovation Tower is one of her coolest buildings. It was quite a trek using public transportation, and the entrance is hard to find because it’s on a college campus. There was construction going on in front of the building when I went, but I was still able to get a few shots.

Zaha Hadid Jockey Club Innovation Tower

After that I took the ferry back to HK island, and took a few shots of the skyline from the water.

Hong Kong

I saw a lot of Hong Kong… and I didn’t see any houses. Not a single one. I did, however, see more apartment high rises than I’ve ever seen in my life. Including the biggest ones I’ve ever seen… buildings that were at least as wide across as a football stadium and also 40+ stories tall. There are also high-end retailers almost everywhere you look and walk. Cartier, Rolex, Tiffany, Louis Vuitton, Gucci… I’ve never seen so many high-end shops. I suspect the ability for middle and upper class Hong Kong citizens to support the prevalence of these shops has a lot to do with the fact that they all live in apartments and probably don’t have cars, or a lot of children, due to the 1 child policy in China.

gucci hong kong

Hong Kong is a fascinating city. An incredible blend of east and west.