A peek into Emirati culture: The Qasr al Hosn Festival

I frequently forget that I’m living in the Middle East. I’m surrounded by familiar brands and foods, with all the comforts of Western living. Of the 2.33 million people living in Abu Dhabi, only 475,000 are Emiratis; the rest are workers from all around Asia, and a large Western expat community.

It’s events like the Qasr al Hosn Festival that remind me of where I am. There aren’t many times where you can see so many locals together in one place; the Emiratis are really supportive of their culture. It’s also a rare opportunity to freely take pictures of the locals; usually you have to get express permission, especially of their women.

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“Qasr al Hosn represents the foundation of the nation’s capital and symbolizes more than two and a half centuries of Emirati heritage and cultural development.”

A lot of the outdoor events here are held later in the afternoon and close way later than we’d be used to, to make sure that no one is getting cooked under the sun. The Qasr al Hosn Festival opens at 4pm and ends at 11pm; even the kids stay up late! One thing I didn’t understand was the 10 dhs ($2.70) entrance fee. It’s too little to cover any sort of expense such an extravagant affair, and they definitely weren’t looking to make any money.

The Qasr al Hosn area is closed off the rest of year, so although it was in a location I’m familiar with, I had no idea there was such a big fort there. There’s a guided tour every 10 minutes, but we decided to skip it as there were so many other things to see!

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Qasr al Hosn Fort

The workshop and activities area was split into three sections, desert, oasis and marine. They actually created a mini desert in the middle of the city; in fact, there was so much sand I had to stop every minute or so to empty the sand from my shoes. In the desert section were a variety of indigenous animals. They really went out of their way to get visitors to interact with the animals.

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Getting chummy with a camel!

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The saluki, a common Emirati hunting dog.

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The Emiratis love falcons, which is also the national bird of the UAE.

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Baaaaaa!

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Awwwwww…

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I’m not sure what this bird is called, but my man called it a desert chicken”

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Probably not an Arabian horse, but still a beauty.

The marine section featured a mini manmade marina and showcased traditional skills like shipbuilding, fishnet making and pearl diving…with some modern touches of course.

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Only in the UAE can you find a manmade marina built just for a festival…

Pearl-diving was a major industry in Abu Dhabi before oil. After the Japanese started cultivating pearls, the pearl industry took a nosedive and never recovered. However, they’re now into the business of pearl cultivation in collaboration with (ironically) the Japanese. It takes two years for a pearl to form after inserting foreign tissue, and they have an 80% success rate.

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Tools of the trade

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Net worn around the neck while pearl diving

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Mr. Hamada hard at work cutting tissue out from a donor oyster.

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Transferring tissue with surgical precision to oysters that will be producing the pearl.

The festival offers workshops for adults and children, including traditional cooking, henna, making your own unique fragrance, making fishnets and more. You could literally spend all day there and still have things to do. It was also interesting to see the way things were done, and are still done in some of the emirates, before all that oil and money.

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Women working on embroidery.

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Man working on fishnets.

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Emirati men dancing. I hear that on National Day, you could get randomly pulled into one of these dancing circles. Not if you’re a woman, of course.

 

 

 

 

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Emirati soldiers.

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Traditional market, or souk, selling local arts and crafts

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Tim and an old school Land Rover. Someone important probably drove that car, because the license plate only has 3 numbers! These days, 3-digit licence plates can go for up to a million AED, or about $270,000!

Because we were too busy looking around, I only signed up for the henna workshop. Having done henna once before, I was interested in what goes into the process.

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This is the henna tree. The leaves are laid out to dry in the sun before it can be used.

 

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Next, you ground the leaves into smaller pieces.

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Then you rub the leaves through a fine cloth stretched over a bowl, resulting in a fine, green powder that kind of looks like matcha. After mixing the powder with dry lemon rinds for that brown color, it creates a dark brownish green paste.

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The paste is then applied to the skin. Traditionally it’s applied to the fingers and hands, and around the ankles for special occasions.

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The paste takes about half an hour to dry. After it’s dry, you just rub it off with a tissue and then rinse with water. Because I didn’t hold my palm flat the entire time (it’s hard!) round part kind of smeared into the rays, so it ended up looking like a spider. It’s already starting to fade, so I assume it doesn’t last as long as the new henna formulas.

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The henna I had done at the Central souk was from a tube, and was much darker in color. There are also black ones, but I’ve been told that it can burn skin and may contain carcinogens.

I really enjoyed the exhbition at the Festival, showcasing the oral history of Qasr al Hosn as well as the “Lest We Forget” project. This project brought together private photographs of people living in Abu Dhabi from 1958-1999. The pictures really brought home the fact that just 50 years ago, Abu Dhabi was no different than any other desert. The discovery of oil turned everything upside down and changed the lives of all Emiratis.

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Lest we forget

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I couldn’t resist taking a picture of this insanely cool baby!

We were also asked to take part in the project by taking a picture to put up on the wall of the exhibition. It was a little awkward because we weren’t allowed to do the usual poses like putting our arms around each other; remember, PDA is a big no-no!

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Tim & Emily, Feb. 28, 2014

Last but not least, food! We only nibbled because we went after dinner; I admit, I was worried that they were going to make me eat things with my hands again.

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This is called “khameeh”, a type of Emirati bread with honey. The bread was warm and the honey good.

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Wish it was earlier so I could’ve had some qahwa!

Notice that the mineral water is only 2 AED ($0.54), even though this is one of those places where they could easily mark it up. Local water is 2 AED everywhere, even restaurants and movie theaters. We theorize this could be an actual law to prevent dehydration; this is, after all, the desert.

The Qasr al Hosn Festival ended today, but it’ll be back next year. This year we skipped the Cavalia horse show, and we didn’t get to see it during the day. I’m looking forward to doing more workshops next year and looking around that fort!

 

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

You know how if you live in a certain place, you never get around to seeing the famous sights in the area? I know people who have lived in Beijing for their entire lives and never went around to see the Great Wall, and Californians who decided they don’t need to go to Disneyland. The Grand Mosque is kind of like that for me. I visited it as a tourist and was so enthralled that I vowed I would come see it again once I moved here. Didn’t happen. So far it’s been almost a year, and I pass by all the time, all the time promising myself that next time I’ll go see it.

The Grand Mosque, also known as the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, was a vision of the late founder and of the UAE, and completed after his passing. Like most everything in the UAE, money was no object when it comes to making this beautiful piece of architecture; it cost 2 billion AED, or 545 million USD to build the Grand Mosque. Materials and designers were brought all over the world to help with the project.

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The Grand Mosque under the hot desert sun.

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The Grand Mosque at dusk.

Some people like to compare the Grand Mosque to the age-old ones in Turkey, and dismiss it for lacking history. I think the Grand Mosque is just as beautiful, with just as much care and reverence put into it as any of the older ones.

If you’re going to the Grand Mosque, don’t bother trying to cover every inch of your skin. If you’re a woman, they’re going to make you wear an abaya (traditional clothing for Emirati women) no matter what. For men, as long as you’re wearing long pants and shirts with sleeves, you don’t have to borrow a dish-dasha (traditional clothing for Emirati men). Ho strict is their dress code? Before you put on an abaya, they won’t even let you take a picture with the mosque.

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Remember when Rihanna ruffled some feathers because she took some “provacative” pictures in the Grand Mosque?

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I wasn’t thrilled about having to wear an article of clothing that dozens of people have worn before me, but I do love how slimming it is!

We were assigned an Emirati tour guide who spoke perfect English to show us around the Grand Mosque. He gave us a lot of interesting information about the symbolism and designs of the mosque, as well as about their religion. I learned that the call to prayer plays five times a day, at different times every day depending on when the sun sets. I’ve since gotten so used to it that I barely hear it anymore, but at the time I was woken up every morning at around 4am by the morning call. Even malls play it on their loudspeakers, and provide prayer rooms for shoppers to stop by. Don’t be surprised to find men and women washing their hands and feet in a public bathroom; they’re required to clean both before praying.

There are endless details that I could go on about, but my favorite are the domes. There are 82 domes in the mosque, each more intricate than the last.

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One day, I’m going to go back and take a picture of each and every one of those domes…

The inside of the mosque is awe-inspiring. Big enough to accommodate 40,000 worshippers at once

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Flowers are featured everyone inside and outside the mosque.

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The carpet inside the Grand Mosque is the largest in the world, and took 1,200 weavers 21 months to make. You’d definitely understand why they insist you take your shoes off before walking on it!

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The 98 names of Allah, one in each 5-petaled flower. If you look closely though, you’ll notice a blank one. The guide informed us that as humans we can’t possibly presume to know all the ways of Allah, and so one flower is left blank.

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Another world record, the biggest chandelier in the world!

For everyone visiting the UAE, the Grand Mosque is definitely a must-see! Not only are the guided tours informative and interesting, it really gives you a glimpse into Emirati culture. Just going shopping at the various malls can’t give you that.

That’s it for the Grand Mosque! I’m going to the Qasr al Hosn Festival tomorrow, so hopefully I’ll have more to share soon!

The Dubai Mall

Yup, I’m gonna do an entire post on a mall! And what a mall it is; the Dubai Mall is currently the biggest mall in the world, with 1200 shops and still expanding! It’s the mall to end all malls, selling everything from solid gold iPhones to sleepy stuffed camels to Japanese linens. Almost everytime I go to Dubai I end up here, much to my boyfriend’s chagrin.

As part of our Valentine’s Day celebrations, we made our way up to Dubai to have a good meal and do some shopping. Just a heads up, some of the pictures are from different trips, so don’t be surprised if I’m wearing different outfits (no, I’m not one of those people who bring different outfits for pictures).

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Did I mention that the Dubai Mall is connected to the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world?

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There’s no shortage of froufrou things at the Dubai Mall!

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Always check out the cars parked in front…they’re a sight in themselves!

Before we get to eating and shopping though, some ground rules:

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Keep your hands and lips to yourself!

A lot of people ignore the “respectful clothing” rule, and you’ll see short shorts and cleavage everywhere. Keep in mind that a lot of the locals to equate revealing clothing with whores (for women), so if you want to avoid uncomfortable comments and stares, it’s still best to keep to the conservative side.

ABSOLUTELY NO KISSING IALLOWED! Dubai is much more liberal than the rest of the emirates, but this is still an big no-no. As in you could be jailed for doing it. If you’re not married, refrain from holding hands, as a well-placed complaint could get you in trouble. Men should be careful to avoid physical contact with local women; simple gestures that we use to express friendliness could be interpreted very differently here.

We got to Dubai around 1pm, and we were famished. There are so many food options in the mall, ranging from the usual range of fast foods to five star restaurants. We settled on California Pizza Kitchen, as we had a great meal there in Hawaii.

It was very, very disappointing. The thing about eating out here is that familiar brands often end up very different than back home, and not in a good way. Nothing we ordered tasted good, never mind resembling the great dishes at the other CPK’s I’ve been to.

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CPK Meat Craver pizza in North America. Not my picture, but I can attest that it does look like that.

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CPK Meat Craver pizza in Dubai. Ugh.Just look at all that congealed cheese and burnt meatballs!

Thankfully our dinner was much better, as we picked an old favorite: Shake Shack. For those of you who know Shake Shack, it started out in New York and blew up there. They make the most amazing (and greasy) cheeseburgers, as well as amazing custards and milkshakes. If you ever come across one of these, definitely stop by!

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Probably the fanciest Shake Shack in the world.

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Red Velvet Custard…just looking at this picture makes me drool.

The Dubai Mall is also home to another New York cult favorite, Magnolia Bakery. I stopped going to the one at the Dubai Mall because one opened up in Abu Dhabi, but anyone’s who’s not had one should stop by Bloomingdale’s for a taste. The cupcakes are to die for, with fluffy sugary icing that’s somehow not too sweet, and the banana pudding is thick and creamy without being too rich. Some people say the one in New York is better, but I can’t see how!

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Vanilla cupcake with vanilla icing. It really is a wonder I don’t weigh 500 pounds!

Another good place to eat is the Social House, which is a Western and Eastern cusine fusion. There’s a good variety of food and drinks (non-alcoholic of course), and a great view of the Dubai fountain, the largest in the world. The fountain turns on every half hour; it really is quite a spectacular show, much better than the one in Vegas.

Photo Apr 27, 1 45 59 PM Photo Apr 27, 2 29 12 PMThe Hainanese chicken at the Social House is pretty close to the quality in China.

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The Dubai Fountain is really something else.Be prepared to fight with all the tourists around you if you want to film it though!

The Burj Khalifa is right next to the Dubai Fountain, but it’s only accessible to tourists from the lower ground floor of the Dubai Mall. You should make an appointment to visit the Burj Khalifa well in advance of your trip, as it’s the difference between 125 AED ($34) and 400 AED ($109) for immediate entry (click here for more information). It’s worth it if you have a great camera and want to get some pictures of Dubai. I’m personally a sucker for panoramic city views, and I’m planning to go up there in April to check out the sunrise.

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The tallest building in the world, and the best place to get a full view of Dubai!

If you have children, there’s also tons of things for them to do. The UAE is children-friendly in general, with a great focus on family and kids. The Dubai Mall has a huge indoor aquarium, one of the world’s largest suspended ones (yet another record broken), offering cage snorkeling, glass bottom boats, and other interactive activities.

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I really need a better camera to capture the aquarium’s beauty. This picture doesn’t do it justice.

Right across from the aquarium is the Cheesecake Factory, and a huge candy store guaranteed to make any kid (and me) scream. Everything in the store is over the top: giant swirly lollipops, the world’s largest chocolate bar and wall to wall to wall of different colored m&ms.

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Just looking at it will give you a sugar rush…

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There’s the Asian eyes again…

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The Waterfall is yet another extravagant water feature in the Dubai Mall, expanding all four floors of the mall and is known for it’s beauty. It was designed to be a meeting point for visitors, and has a variety of coffee shops surrounding it.

Now on to my favorite part, shopping! We visited the Dubai Mall at the end of the Spring Festival in China, and there were still many promotions and advertisements geared towards Chinese tourists. It’s a sign of how much their revenue depends on Chinese visitors, that every single store accepts UnionPay (the Chinese version of Visa and Mastercard), and all high-end brands have at least one sales assistant who speaks Chinese.

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A sign that Chinese tourists are taking over the world…

If you’re looking for souvenirs to bring home, the Dubai Mall even has a souk, a traditional Arabic market. It’s definitely not the best place for deals and heavy bargaining, but it has everything you’ll find in a souk elsewhere.

 

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The Souk

The Dubai Mall is also home to one of my favorite bookstores, Kinokuniya. I have a Kindle Paperwhite, but it doesn’t diminish my love for actual paper. It’s not that easy to find a good selection of books in the UAE, and Kinokuniya is one of the few bookstores that sell more books than stationary. Other than English books, they also have books in a variety of languages.

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There are Kinokuniyas all over the world, but this is the biggest I’ve seen.

For all the fashionistas and beauty junkies out there, this place is heaven. There’s a shoe garden of stores devoted to shoes, a gigantic Sephora, hard to find brands from all over the world. If only I had the money…

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The Shoe Garden…and a giant flower chair I found in the middle of it!

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Not as big as the one in New York, but you’ll definitely find some products unique to the Middle East!

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Repetto is pretty hard to find in the US. If only I had a spare $300 to spend on a pair of ballet flats…

 

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You can find Laduree macaroons outside of France here in Dubai!

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Souvenir from al Gallery…LMAO

That’s it for the Dubai Mall. I’ll post more on the Middle East soon, so keep coming back!

 

 

 

World Hopping 2013: A year in pictures

It’s 2014, and I’m looking forward to some downtime before traveling again. New places and new experiences are great, but there’s nothing like sleeping in your own bed!

While going over some pictures, I saw just how amazing 2013 was for me. Last year, I traveled to nine different countries on three different continents. I got to see my mother in Vancouver, celebrated my grandmother’s 80th birthday in Shanghai, and moved to the Middle East to be with the love of my life. I turned 26 in Hong Kong, spent Christmas in Thailand and rang in the new year in Bali with friends. Life was good. Life IS good.

20 different airports later, and it’s 2014. I will always remember this year as the year I realized that I am a traveler. I love traveling. I want to travel, and I will always keep traveling. Hope you’lll all be around to share with!

January 2014

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 Counting down in DC!

February 2013

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Spending Chinese New Year (and freezing my ass off!) with my grandmother in Suzhou

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Meeting the newest member of the family, Doudou in Shanghai(豆豆,meaning “little bean” in Chinese)

March 2013

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Grandma’s 80th birthday in Shanghai! This is called a birthday peach (寿桃, shoutao), and symbolizes longevity

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Inside is 99 little peaches; 9 in Chinese sounds like “long” and symbolizes long life.

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Scaling the Great Wall after a snowstorm…not the greatest idea.

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My good-bye party. Byebye Beijing!

April 2013

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Celebrating Easter with my bunny in Abu Dhabi!

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 Adjusting to pink limos and the forbidden pork…

May 2013

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Fell in love with Istanbul

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 Enjoying the thermal pools at Pammukkale

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Taking a dip in Cleopatra’s Pool

June 2013

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Amazing meal at Armani Ristorante in Dubai

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 On top of the world at the Burj Khalifa in Dubai

July 2013

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First henna experience at the Central Souk in Abu Dhabi

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July 2013: Visiting my mom in Vancouver, my hometown.

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Isn’t Vancouver beautiful?

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Visiting Capilano Suspension Bridge with Tim!

August 2013

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Taking a walk on Lanikai Beach in Hawaii

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View from Pali Lookout in Oahu.

September 2013

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Ok, I admit, the most exciting thing that happened to me this month was that Magnolia Bakery opened in my city

October 2013

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Throughly enjoying my first foray into Europe, Prague!

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Beautiful view of the Charles Bridge

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Posing in a panda hat that somehow makes Czech women look sexy, and me look immature…

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Learning about Princess Sisi in Vienna

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Ferris wheel that survived WWII

November 2013

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Celebrating our two year anniversary in Abu Dhabi

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Celebrating my birthday by myself (*sniff) in Hong Kong…but don’t feel too sorry for me, my birthday dinner was at the most amazing Cantonese restaurant!

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The Water Cube in Beijing. Remember Michael Phelps in 2008?

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I lived in Beijing for three years, and this is the first time I’ve ever visited the Bird’s Nest

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Wonder if it’s been full since the Olympics?

December 2013

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Celebrating my little sister’s eight birthday in Shanghai

 

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Staying at a beautiful hotel on the bund…too bad it was too smoggy to actually see the bund…

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Starbucks, Chinese-style!

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Taking a walk by the Shanghai bund

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Pigeon Slangin’ in Chengdu

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Celebrating Paris’ 27th at ABC cooking studio in Beijing

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I made this!

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Petting tigers at Tiger Kingdom in Phuket

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Feeding elephants in Phuket

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Posing with men prettier than me…

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Standing in the aquamarine waters of Ko Phi Phi

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Celebrating Christmas in Bangkok…stuffed Christmas tree anyone?

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Chasing sunsets in Bali

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Welcoming the new year with friends in Bali!

And that was my year! Fingers-crossed that this year will be better than the last ^_^