Top 10 Travel Experiences of 2013

by Sasha Savinov

It’s the end of the year, and while some people loathe Top 10 lists, we think they’re awesome. As such, here’s our Top 10 list of our 2013 travel experiences. Drum roll please…

10. Changbai Mountain

The Heavenly Lake at Changbai Mountain.

The Heavenly Lake at Changbai Mountain.

For our last trip in China before bidding farewell for a few months, we decided to take the long train ride up to Changbai Mountain in Jilin province. On the ride there, Rachel said, “Cheers!” to a group of shirtless Chinese men, and things just got crazy. Once at the mountain, we enjoyed the beautiful views of the Heavenly Lake and the (relative) peace and quiet of the nature trails. Thanks to a great online deal, we also got to spend a night in the Horizon Spa & Resort. It was a nice change of pace from the hostels we had been staying in, and it was a great short trip away from Beijing to restore our sanity for the home stretch before it was time to pre-tire. -Sasha

9. Las Vegas

Us and Pooperman in Vegas.

Us and Pooperman in Vegas.

Back in 2004, I traveled to Sin City to see the Phish play a three-night run during my senior year spring break back in high school. I had never been back to Vegas as a legal adult, and Rachel had never been there at all. As huge fans of “Fear & Loathing,” of course we had to include it on our three-month trip around the US. We bounced around the massive casinos (checking out the outrageous displays but not gambling), saw both Cirque du Soleil and the Blue Man Group, pigged out at a buffet, rode the New York New York roller coaster, and took the thrill rides atop the Stratosphere. It was one helluva weekend, and we will definitely return to Sin City in the future. -Sasha

8. Zion National Park

Incredible Zion national park.

Incredible Zion national park.

This is one of the most amazing places I’ve been to in America. We enjoyed a delicious meal at the Bit and Spur in Springdale, as well as at our own campfire. The campground inside the park had the best views as it was surrounded by tall limestone cliffs on either side. Hiking the Narrows and the Watchman Trail was exciting and everything I learned about the early settlers and visitors was so interesting. The sandstone in the east side of the park is incredibly stunning. Out of the eight national parks we visited, this one was our favorite. -Rachel

7. Great Wall Camp

Not a bad view from our campsite on the wall.

Not a bad view from our campsite on the wall.

At the end of May we camped on an unrestored section of the Great Wall. It took three hours to get there by public transport and since we arrived late in the afternoon, we practically had it all to ourselves! We hiked around a bit before setting up and watching an amazing sunset. At that point it was the coolest thing I’d ever done. Being on the Wall gives me an incredible feeling when I think about how long ago it was constructed and because of its remoteness and length. We slept in one of the watch towers and I couldn’t stop daydreaming about what it was like hundreds of years ago when people lived in the watchtower constantly on the look out for enemies on the horizon (Goddamn Mongolians try to tear down my shitty wall!). Waking up at sunrise and seeing the stunningly beautiful undeveloped land all around reminds me that China is a wild and spectacular place and that I’m lucky to call it my second home. Being up there alone in the pitch blackness is both eerie and exciting. -Rachel

6. Kep/Kampot, Cambodia

Sunset on the Kampot River.

Sunset on the Kampot River.

These were our first two stops in Cambodia and I think they’re the perfect places to start. They’re both very calm and quiet – the local pastime seems to be sitting in a hammock. Kep is a small coastal town where we had amazing views from our bungalow on the hill top. We also went on a fun hike around the National Park, which was just a 5-minute walk from our hotel. It has an eerie feeling because of the crumbling villas overlooking the sea that were once luxury vacation homes. The pepper grown in the area is a scrumptious addition to the dishes, especially the crab. Kampot is a small riverside town where we rode bikes to a mountain we hiked called Phnom Sor. We stayed at a nice little guesthouse in the country side near the river where we ate the most delicious food in Cambodia and experienced the most beautiful sunset cruise. -Rachel

5. East Coast Trip

I'm not a Red Sox fan, but it was cool to see a game at Fenway.

I’m not a Red Sox fan, but it was cool to see a game at Fenway.

After finding out about City Bisco, we knew that we had to make it to Philadelphia. Unfortunately, with no car and an ever-dwindling travel budget, we were forced to use lackluster American public transport. Thankfully, we found out about the Megabus, which has fares as low as $1 if you book early enough. With these cheap prices, we decided to make it a big east coast road trip. First, we had to stay up all night in Pittsburgh with beers and Primanti Brothers’ sandwiches. Then we hit the City of Brotherly Love for two nights of the Biscuits, the art museum, South Street, cheesesteaks, and more. Next up was the Big Apple, where we stayed with my awesome aunt and uncle, explored Chelsea, did all of the touristy crap, and even caught the Book of Mormon on Broadway. Finally, we hit Boston for the first time where we got to see a Sox playoff game, watch the Wings play the Bruins, walk along the Freedom Trail, and of course eat chowda and try to park our car in the Harvard Yard. It was an expensive trip, but thanks to gracious hosts and cheap bus tickets, we were able to pull it off. -Sasha

4. The Philippines

The amazing Reggae guesthouse on Bohol.

The amazing Reggae guesthouse on Bohol.

In February we headed to the Philippines to celebrate Chinese New Year.  In Cebu we had a crazy motorbike ride to Tops – a mountain that overlooks the city – where we took in the view and went zip lining. Over on Alona Beach, Bohol we stayed at a cool guest house called the Reggae House. We spent our time sitting on the beach, exploring the island on motorbikes, and taking the plunge at Danao Adventure Park. It was more like a family trip as Pip, Sean, and Alex joined us. It was nice having a group rather than just the two of us. I loved the food! The Adobo was so delicious and the people were so friendly. It’s heartbreaking what happened to this amazing country this year, and we hope to go back and help out in the recovery on our trip. -Rachel

3. Denver, CO

Raging a Rockies game with friends.

Raging a Rockies game with friends.

We have many friends living in Denver, so we spent nine days there at the end of August. Not only did we see lots of friends, but my family came to join the fun for Labor Day, as did Sasha’s brothers Paul and Pip. We got our fair share of the Rockies, as went to the Rocky Mountain National Park and a Rockies baseball game. Since Denver is known for its craft beer, we joined a craft beer tour around the downtown area and tasted so many delicious beers and even got a free one at the end. We ate so much delicious food during our stay there, including some of the best hot dogs ever and a taco full of fried chicken and waffles. The trip ended like every good trip should – with an awesome 3-night Phish run. -Rachel

And raging a Phish show with family.

And raging a Phish show with family.

2. Easy Riders Tour, Vietnam

Yes, I know... I'm a badass.

Yes, I know… I’m a badass.

Before traveling to Vietnam, I had always dreamed of riding a motorbike around the country; not necessarily across it, like many travelers do, but around it. We got that chance by joining an Easy Rider guide, Mr. Chin, on a 4-day trip around the Central Highlands. On the trip, we got to see some of the most stunning scenery in the country, visit minority villages, cross terrifying bridges, and learn a lot about the history and culture of Vietnam. It was without a doubt the highlight of our one-month trip across the country, and it’ll always stand out amongst our travel experiences. -Sasha

1. Moab, Utah

Beautiful scenery abounds in Moab.

Beautiful scenery abounds in Moab.

Before planning our west coast trip, I had honestly never heard of Moab, Utah. It caught my attention thanks to its two national parks – Arches and Canyonlands – and sold me when I found out about the skydiving. We both wanted to jump out of a plane for the first time, and it seemed like the perfect place to do it. Words can’t really express how awesome skydiving is, but pictures can…

Skydiving is fun!

Skydiving is fun!

In addition to skydiving, we also did a half-day trip full of hiking, canyoneering, and rafting. We checked out both of the national parks, as well as Dead Horse Point state park. After full days of outdoor excitement, we got to enjoy delicious food and craft beers at the Moab brewery, catch local bands rocking out in a cool bar, and then head home to our rustic cabin at the Lazy Lizard. It hadn’t been on our travel itinerary at all for our trip back home, but it ended up stealing the show.

 

Best of the Best

Over the year, we’ve stayed in many hotels, eaten out in many restaurants, tipped back many a pint glass, and had many incredible experiences. Here are our end of the year awards for the best of the best:

Hotel: Brickyard Eco-Retreat, Beijing

Chairman's Suite at the Brickyard.

Chairman’s Suite at the Brickyard.

This guesthouse near the Mutianyu Great Wall is without a doubt one of the best places you can stay in Beijing. It has great views of the wall and the surrounding mountains, delicious food, a spa, and best of all, peace and quiet. On our stay (which was our second), we even got a free upgrade to the Chairman’s Suite, as it was our anniversary. They probably thought it was our wedding anniversary, but who cares?

Hangout: 4corners, Beijing

Our favorite spot to hang in Beijing.

Our favorite spot to hang in Beijing.

We’ve always said it would be cool if our friends had a bar, and that finally happened in Beijing. Our friends Tavey and Jun have done an amazing job with their place since it opened in 2012, and it was our go-to hangout this year. From the tasty Vietnamese food, to the spicy cocktails, to the all-night jam sessions, we always had a good time there.

Meal: Bavette’s Bar and Boeuf, Chicago

Mmmmm.... pig face.

Mmmmm…. pig face.

On our last night in America, our good friend and buddy Wags took us out to the fancy restaurant where he works for one of the most epic meals ever. Chilled seafood, whitefish Caesar salad, corn, bacon, mashed potatoes, a lamb chop, bone-in ribeye, pig face, and dessert. Oh yeah, and two bottles of wine. It was fat and excessive – the perfect goodbye to America.

Cocktails: Flamme, Beijing

Happy Hour Heros.

Happy Hour Heros.

Having Tuesday and Wednesday off might irk some people, but we loved it. Thanks to having a weekend during the week, we were able to take advantage of awesome deals in Beijing, the best of which had to be the buy one get one steaks plus 1/2 price cocktails at Flamme. Many a Tuesday evening started early here and ended up going very late.

Beer: Denver Microbrewery Tour

All smiles on this pub crawl.

All smiles on this pub crawl.

We had many a fine ale this year, but the best beer award is going to have to go to the Denver microbrewery crawl. Since we visited five different places and tried probably 15 beers, it’s hard to say which one was the best specifically, but the experience itself is what stands out. We had family with us, we were getting ready for another three nights of Phish, and we were just having a good ole’ time.

Concert:  Phish – 8/3/2013 – Bill Graham Civic Center – San Francisco, CA

The Phish from Vermont!

The Phish from Vermont!

It had been over a year since our last Phish show and it was the beginning of our year-long trip. Needless to say, we were pumped. Jetlag had us struggling on the first night of the 3-night stand in San Fran, but by night two we were firing on all cylinders. Running into a bunch of old friends and watching our favorite band play a show full of our favorite songs was enough to bring me to tears.

Show: Book of Mormon

A side-splitting night of comedy.

A side-splitting night of comedy.

In NYC, we had no intention of going to see a Broadway show; it was just too far out of our meager budget. However, once we found out about the lottery and standing room tickets for Book of Mormon, we had to give it a try. We managed to score $28 tickets to stand in the back, and we laughed hysterically for two hours at this absolutely ridiculous show. It far exceeded our expectations, and we wouldn’t hesitate to see it again.

Sporting Event: Detroit Tigers vs. Oakland A’s – Game 3, ALDS

Walking into Comerica for a playoff game - what a great feeling!

Walking into Comerica for a playoff game – what a great feeling!

It was awesome to be back in the D and have the Tigers in the playoffs. It was even better to take my brother to one of the games, which was also my first Tiggies playoff game. Although the game started out slow, it turned out to be one of the most exciting sporting events I’ve ever seen. And to think I used to say baseball was boring.

 Experience: Skydiving in Moab

Jumping out of a plane above Moab.

Jumping out of a plane above Moab.

Jumping out of a plane at 10,000 feet and soaring above two national parks is an experience we’ll never forget. It was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time, and we’d recommend everyone try it at least once.

And there you have it, folks. Yet another year is coming to a close. It’s been a great one for us, and we hope it’s been good for you, too. We’re starting 2014 off in Cambodia, where we still have about two weeks left. From there, it’s on to Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, and who knows? Keep checking the blog for more posts on our SE Asia adventures, and have a Happy New Year! -The Grateful Gypsies

 

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