Cory & Elly

Romania

Salina Turda

SalinaTurda-6

While looking up weird and interesting things to do in Romania I stumbled upon this one. We stayed in Cluj-Napoca and took a daytrip to the city of Turda to visit the largest salt mine museum in the world. Salt was first mined here during antiquity and continued until 1932. During World War II the mine was reopened to be used as a bomb shelter. After the war ended, part of the mine was used to store cheese. Finally, since 1992 the mine has been open to tourists to visit.

Nowadays the depths of the mines look like an amusement park with bowling alleys, mini-golf, table tennis and even a giant Ferris wheel. At the bottom of the largest pit there is an underground lake where we hopped into a rowboat and paddled around. It was really cool to wander through and go into the depths. With all the funky architecture coupled with the lighting it almost looked like something from a sci-fi movie. We were both a bit sick when we went so the other plus was that breathing in all the salt was supposed to help with our respiration. Whether or not it did is up for debate, but it was still a cool experience. 

Eastern EuropeRomania

Sibiu

Sibiu-1

Our next stop in Romania was probably our favorite place we visited there. Located in southern Transylvania, Sibiu is one of Romania (and Europe’s) cultural capitals. Divided into an upper and lower half, the Old Town is home to loads of charming buildings. Many of the houses in the center have a common feature, small attic windows in the rooftops that look like a set of eyes watching you. People claim that the windows were purposefully made long ago to instill fear into the townsfolk and to reign in bad behavior. Just knowing that a set of judging eyes seemed to be watching you was enough that people reigned in any bad behavior. This must have felt especially disturbing when Ceausescu was in power, with people knowing that the government was in fact keeping close tabs on them.

One of our days here we headed south to drive on the famous Transfagarasan road. Connecting Transylvania with Wallachia, the road was built in the early 1970’s by Ceausescu as a strategic military route through the Fagaras Mountains. Despite there already being several routes through the mountains, he wanted to ensure a quick getaway route that would be hard to block in case of a Soviet invasion. Now also known as “Ceausescu’s Folly” the road had a huge financial and human cost. Now it is more famous due to being hailed by Top Gear as “the best road in the world.” It’s a winding road that climbs to about 6,700 ft and is filled with hairpin turns, S-curves, and steep descents. At the top of the road is Balea Lake, a beautiful glacier lake. There were plenty of hiking opportunities there as well.

From there we visited an 800-year-old Cistercian Abbey. Built by the Cistercian monks, the abbey is one of the oldest examples of Gothic architecture in Romania. The monks living at the abbey led lives of manual labor and self-sufficiency, supporting themselves through agriculture and brewing ales. Legend has it that the abbey is haunted, with the ghosts of the monks who once lived there. It was really neat to visit and was a quiet place just to relax. Today the abbey is used as an evangelical church, with the priest living right next door.

Our last day in Sibiu we took the bus to ASTRA National Museum, Europe’s largest open-air ethnographic museum. We spent the afternoon wandering through the traditional homes, churches, and windmills, just enjoying the atmosphere and imagining what it was like to live hundreds of years ago. Overall, we just loved being in Sibiu and would definitely return. In the city itself there were loads of great restaurants and cool bars with awesome local beers (Hop Hooligans makes some good ones).

Eastern EuropeRomania

Romanian Castles

RomanianCastles-1

We took a daytrip from the medieval city of Brasov to visit some of the castles in the region. Our first stop was Peles Castle, nestled in the Bucegi Mountains in the town of Sinaia. This was the summer home of King Carol I. Finished in 1883, the castle was built with the notion that it would later become a museum for others to enjoy. This was evident walking through it; each room was lavishly decorated and overall really cool to see. There were tons of details throughout all of the rooms that made it interesting to walk through.

Our next stop was the infamous “Dracula’s” castle. Surrounded by and air of mystery and perched upon a high rock, the castle is an imposing sight. The character of Dracula is thought to have drawn inspiration from Vlad Tepes, ruler of Wallachia and otherwise known as “Vlad the Impaler.” Vlad was most known for his brutal nature and is famous for impaling the bodies of his enemies, the Ottomans, on large spikes and lining roads with them to scare off anyone else thinking to attack him. Although there are many rumors and myths that Bran Castle was the home of Vlad the Impaler, and therefore “Dracula”, historians now seem to agree that Vlad never actually set foot in the castle. Despite this, Romania capitalized on the stories and marketed the castle as connected to Vlad and Dracula to draw in tourists. This worked, with tons of people visiting now every year, and the castle grounds were filled with stores selling kitschy Dracula-themed souvenirs. While the outside of the castle was striking, the inside was much barer as it was primarily used for fortification and protection rather than being the home of royalty.

The last place we visited was Rasnov Fortress. Located 650 ft up in the Carpathian Mountains, this was different from the other places we visited as it was more of a fortified village. From 1331, the fortress was built by Teutonic Knights for protection from invading Tartar armies. The place was later enlarged by local Saxons and used as a place of refuge for extended periods of time. Inside the walls were many houses, a school, a chapel, and other buildings typical of villages during that time.

Romania

Bucharest

Bucharest-6

After a great week in Italy with Kevin and Jess, we flew back to Eastern Europe to visit Romania, one of the countries we were most looking forward to. We started off in the capital, Bucharest, and made our way north from there. Bucharest is a busy city compared to the rest of Romania but nothing too crazy. While there we took a couple of free walking tours and learned of the city’s history as well as some general Romanian history.

Nicolae Ceausescu was the Communist leader of Romania from 1965 to 1989. His government was severely totalitarian and was considered the most repressive in Eastern Europe at the time. There were many shortages which led to rationing of food, water, electricity, heat, and other basic necessities. Under his rule relationships with foreign countries, including the Soviet Union, deteriorated. In December of 1989, anti-government protests in Timisoara were met with lethal force per Ceausescu’s command. When word spread of this, massive demonstrations erupted countrywide in what’s now known as the Romanian Revolution. After a botched public speech by Ceausescu, him and his wife fled the city by helicopter. During this time the Romanian military turned on them and they were summarily captured, put on trial, charged with genocide, damage to the national economy, and abuse of power, and were sentenced to death. The trial and subsequent execution (though the actual moment of execution was cut) were broadcast live to the Romanian public on Christmas Day.

In the late 70’s, Ceausescu ordered a reconstruction of downtown Bucharest that was inspired by Pyongyang, North Korea. To do this, much of the old city center was demolished and over 40,000 people were relocated. Due to this, the ‘old’ section of the city is now much more modern than other cities in Romania that weren’t destroyed. As part of the reconstruction, he wanted a colossal palace (below) for himself and Parliament. It is elaborately ornate inside and is the 2nd largest administrative building in the world (after the Pentagon). Ceausescu never lived to see it finished.

Since the fall of Ceausescu and Communism, Romania has made progress towards integrating with the West. It became a member of NATO and the European Union in 2004 and 2007 respectively. However, there is still progress to be made, as only this August there were protests in Bucharest and across the country demanding the resignation of the government and an end to corruption and embezzlement. While in the capital, we heard all about this from some of the tours we did. One of our tour guides told us that he took part in the demonstration and was actually teargassed when police broke up the crowds. He described it as his “whole body was crying.” We weren’t there while any protests were going on, as they have calmed down for the moment. It will be interesting to see where it heads though and we hope for the best.

Bosnia & HerzegovinaEastern Europe

Mostar

Mostar-10

From Dubrovnik we headed into Bosnia & Herzegovina to visit the historic city of Mostar. Straddling the Neretva River, Mostar is most known for the iconic Stari Most (Old Bridge), a beautifully reconstructed medieval bridge from 1566. The city suffered extensive damage during the Bosnian War following the breakup of Yugoslavia and a few sections of town are still abandoned and dilapidated. Walking from the bus station to our hotel, we saw many buildings with crumbling walls, bullet holes, and bomb damage. Walking further, we got to the area of Stari Most and saw a much more rebuilt version of Mostar, with loads of people wandering through the many cafes, shops, and restaurants. Most of this area is a blend of Ottoman, Mediterranean, and western European style architecture. The view from our hotel gave us a great view of all the styles. It was really cool to see the many mosques dotting the cityscape with their tall minarets poking out above the rooftops. Several times a day the Islamic call to prayer reverberated through the valley from the many loudspeakers perched atop the minarets. We instantly felt welcome in the city, with our hotel treating us to baklava and making us feel at home after sweating our butts off walking there. They even set up a free taxi for us back to the bus stop when we left.

After regrouping, we wandered through the center, dipping in and out of the many shops. Stari Most is the focal point of the city, rebuilt in 2004 after being destroyed in the war. It has come to represent reconciliation between the many diverse ethnic, cultural, and religious communities in the area. An old tradition involves young men diving from the top of the bridge and there’s now even a Red Bull sponsored diving event every year.

Overall, Mostar was a really interesting city and we would love to return and spend time exploring more of Bosnia & Herzegovina. Moving on from there, we headed back to Croatia to visit the capital, Zagreb. It was a nice city for a quick stop but nothing too special. We wandered the Old Town and visited some museums, including the quirky Museum of Broken Relationships. Afterwards, we went north to Slovenia and stayed in Ljubljana, the rather quiet and charming capital. We took a daytrip to Lake Bled from here as well to see more of Slovenia’s beautiful landscapes. We had a great time in Slovenia, and here we said goodbye to Chelsey as she flew home. For us, it was onwards to a tour of Italy with our friends Kevin and Jess.

CroatiaEastern Europe

Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik-11

After our flight from Istanbul, we arrived in Croatia and spent a couple days in Cavtat to catch up on sleep before we went to Dubrovnik to meet our friend, Chelsey. Our apartment in Dubrovnik was up a hill overlooking the Old Town, so while the views were great, climbing the stairs up the hill was always rough! The city was already popular with tourists but nowadays since Game of Thrones has filmed there, it’s even more popular. Lots of GoT related things everywhere! The main thing to do in Dubrovnik is walk the old City Walls. We did this towards sunset to get the best views out over the Adriatic Sea, and it was pretty great. Another day, we took a ferry ride over to Lokrum Island to enjoy a less crowded side of the area and hang out in the salt pools. We spent the rest of our time exploring the city, kayaking, and testing out all the different gelato shops. Overall a great introduction to the Europe leg of our trip.

Middle EastTurkey

Istanbul

Istanbul-7

From Indonesia our next stop was Croatia to meet up with our friend Chelsey. We chose to brave a 37-hour flight with layovers in both Malaysia and Turkey. Since we flew Turkish Airlines and our layover in Istanbul was more than 6 hours, we were able to do a free tour of the city! Jetlagged and groggy since neither of us slept on the overnight leg from Malaysia, we crammed onto a tour bus and set off into the city. We had a quick breakfast of cheese, bread, a hard-boiled egg, and some veggies, and then went to visit The Blue Mosque. It was impressive to see but we were a little bummed out since a lot of it was under construction. After walking through, we went past the Hagia Sofia, another of Turkey’s most famous buildings and one of the seven wonders of the medieval world. Built in 532, the Hagia Sofia was first a Christian cathedral then later converted to a mosque in 1453 and is now a museum. We didn’t get the chance to venture inside, but instead went onward to Topkapi Palace. We went through various areas, marveling at the architecture all around us. We ended with a traditional lunch nearby, with a view overlooking the Bosporus strait. Istanbul is the only city on earth that spans two continents; we stayed on the European side and had views of the Asian side. Even though we only spent a few hours in Istanbul, we really liked the city and our free tour definitely did its job, as we would love to return one day.

IndonesiaSoutheast Asia

Bali

Bali-2

After saying goodbye to Elly’s parents in Vietnam, we headed south to Indonesia. We spent almost a month hanging out on the island of Bali, heading to a few different places on the island. We stayed in Kuta first, which is basically Cancun for Australians. Most of our days were spent relaxing on the beach and hanging out with our new friend, Bejo.

From Kuta, we went north into the jungles and settled down in Ubud for a bit. Ubud has a much more relaxed vibe than Kuta and we had some of our best meals here as well. There was a fantastic sushi place we went back to almost every other night… From here we also took a tour of the surrounding area to see some temples and other sights.

Not all was fun and games in Ubud though… Our hotel was a little outside the center and when we were walking down to dinner on our first night we ran into some trouble. Walking past an open gateway, an angry dog leapt out and bit Elly on the leg before running off. Not wanting to take our chances with Indonesian street dogs, we went to the clinic for them to check it out. She ended up having to get a course of 4(!) rabies shots. Thankfully, we were in Bali long enough to be able to get all 4 at the local clinics. Not a fun way to spend our time though.

Elly:

Last, we stayed in Legian, which is also right on the beach. Cory hung around here while I went off to get scuba certified! I had always wanted to get scuba certified and figured why not here since Bali has some amazing diving and we had the time for it. I had to complete an online learning course before starting the 3-day training program. The first day was training in the pool. I had to learn how to put all the equipment together and get comfortable in the water. I had to practice all sorts of scenarios such as taking my equipment off underwater and putting it back on again. The second day we visited a shipwreck and went diving! It was a warship from WWII that sank in 1942. It was pretty incredible swimming around it and seeing all the fish life nearby. The last day was diving at another spot that had tons of really neat coral and fish. I even saw 2 green turtles!

We had another scare in Bali while we were in Legian. We were out to dinner when suddenly we started to feel a little dizzy while eating. We then looked up and saw some the lights on the ceiling were shaking slightly, and then EVERYTHING started shaking. People were looking around very confused, and then some of the staff started running out of the restaurant into the street. We followed suit and waited for the earthquake to settle down. It only lasted 15-20 seconds, but that was bad enough. It turned out the nearby island of Lombok was hit by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake. We were on the island next door so the effect wasn’t nearly as bad but it was still scary. Throughout the rest of the week we continued to feel aftershocks every now and then. Sadly, Lombok was devastated by the quake with 80% of buildings damaged or destroyed, and hundreds dead or injured.

Despite some troubling moments, Indonesia was a great spot to chill for a bit before heading off to start the European leg of our trip. Next up would be a 37-hr travel day heading to Croatia; with a quick stop on the way to explore Istanbul, Turkey!

CambodiaSoutheast Asia

Cambodia

AngkorWat-24

Our first stop in Cambodia was the capital, Phnom Penh. During our drive to our hotel from the airport we were actually surprised at how western the city was; we saw big car dealerships we recognized, and lots of chain restaurants. Our hotel was so cool, the lobby had detailed wood carvings all around it and we had a rooftop pool and restaurant. Our first day we went to explore the Royal Palace, which is one of the few buildings that survived the Khmer Rouge era. It was built in the 1860’s and now continues to be the residence of the King. It reminded us a bit of the Grand Palace in Thailand and was interesting to learn about. Our first day in Phnom Penh was also Cory’s birthday! We decided to do a food tour at night – the same company that we did a food tour with in China. This was so much fun! It was just us and one other guy from the states, Pierce, who fit right in with us. We drank local beer the whole time while riding around town in a tuk tuk going to local spots to try to the food. Everything we tried was delicious. The last stop was a small BBQ place that served us a grilled chicken – the entire chicken, body, head, feet, etc. I also emailed ahead, and they brought out cupcakes with candles in it and we sang happy birthday to Cory.

Our second day we took a tuk tuk around town to see a couple more of the sites which was fun. We went to a huge market that was selling everything you could think of. In addition to the local currency they also use US currency in Cambodia so we were able to get lots of souvenirs for just $1.

While there, we also visited the Choeung Ek Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. It’s really hard to try and fathom the events that occurred in these places, but we thought it was important to go see them. Led by Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia in 1975. His regime looked to turn Cambodia into a socialist agrarian republic (not unlike what Mao attempted in China) by emptying the cities and forcing citizens into rural labor camps. This led to malnutrition, diseases, abuse, and mass executions of millions of Cambodians from 1975 to 1979. Pol Pot took to executing any of his perceived political opponents, as well as most of Cambodia’s educated class due to the regime’s extreme paranoia of anyone that could oppose them. Choeung Ek is a mass grave and the most known site of the so called “Killing Fields” where the Khmer Rouge carried out their executions. Almost 9,000 bodies were found at Choeung Ek and there are thousands of other mass graves scattered throughout the country. Today the site is marked by a Buddhist stupa filled with thousands of human skulls and bones that were found there. It was sobering to visit and hear horror stories of what happened there. Many of the murder weapons were also on display; they often used objects such as pickaxes in order to save bullets.

Around 20,000 people passed through Tuol Sleng Centre, which was then known as Security Prison S-21. The prison cells had barely enough room to move, and the people contained there were tortured in numerous ways before being shipped off to places like Choeung Ek. Of everyone who entered, only seven adults survived. Two of the remaining survivors were actually there selling their stories about what happened to them. We learned of their stories and couldn’t imagine being in such a position and the choices they had to make. Seeing the Killing Fields and visiting the Genocide Museum was an intense experience that won’t soon be forgotten.

Our 2nd and last destination in Cambodia was Siem Reap. We crammed in a van and drove five or so hours from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. We got to see a little more of the country side, and it was definitely a huge contrast to the city, driving through some really small villages. Our hotel was right near the center of town and just a short walk to the main street, Pub Street, which is lined with restaurants and bars and blasting music. Siem Reap is another backpacker haven, and Pub Street is the main hangout. They have multiple 50 cent beer and $2 cocktail deals which we had to take advantage of. Our first night there was actually the World Cup final so that was pretty fun to watch in one of the bars. It seemed like more people were rooting for France so I’m sure there were loads of celebrations that night.



The main reason people go to Siem Reap is to go see Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is just the name of the most famous temple in the Angkor Archeological Park, and there are tons more of all different shapes and sizes. Since it’s such a huge area we hired a tuk tuk driver to take us around and we spent two days exploring it. It was all pretty amazing to see in person, and really crazy to think that it’s over 1000 years old. All of the sites we saw were huge and completely different and unique from each other. Angkor Wat itself is the largest religious monument in the world and also the best-preserved temple in the park. We enjoyed wandering through all the sections of it and seeing it from all different angles. Bayon is another of the famous temples and has lots of huge Buddha heads carved in the stone decorating the temple. The faces were all over and some were all tall as we were. Ta Prohm is also famous because of being the most recognizable temple featured in Tomb Raider with Angelina Jolie. The trees growing out of the ruins, coupled with the surrounding jungle leads this temple to being super photogenic and was one of our favorites.

Our last day in Siem Reap we just spent exploring the town a little, trying different restaurants, shopping, and even getting a $5 foot massage (not sure if that’ll become a new thing for us). Overall, we really enjoyed Cambodia! It was actually not as hot there as it was in Vietnam which we were surprised about. But the food was cheap and delicious, and there’s so many interesting sites to see and so much history to learn about.

Vietnam

Vietnam

HoiAn-11

Leaving China, we took a short flight over to Vietnam. After meeting Cory’s parents in Japan, now it was time to meet mine. We started up north in Hanoi and made our way south through the country, stopping over for a week in Cambodia as well (coming up in the next post). Hanoi was a good intro to Vietnam. We stayed at a resort a little out of town, and it was nice to feel like we were on vacation for a couple days. We did go into town and take a walking tour through the center, so we were able to see local life going on. Some of the markets were interesting to walk through; most animals being sold were alive and they would get them ready for you right there. We were also able to see some of the city’s attractions, such as the Ho Chi Minh museum and his mausoleum which was also nearby.

Next, we took a cruise to the famous Ha Long Bay, which is known for its clear waters and many limestone karsts and isles. This was amazing! We just spent one night on the boat, but we were able to fit so much in. We kayaked, explored a huge cave, learned how to make Vietnamese spring rolls, and had dinner in traditional clothing. The views around us the whole time were incredible also.

From the bay we went to the airport and flew to Hue, the Imperial capital of Vietnam. My dad managed to bump us up to first class for the 1-hour flight, and we had a lot of fun taking advantage of the exclusive lounge. We were only in there a couple hours, but we managed to eat all food offered and drink multiple beers. Hue seemed to have a lot more backpackers there, so we had fun walking around and checking out the nightlife and trying out some different restaurants. The first full day in Hue we took a dragon boat down the Perfume River to see Thien Mu Pagoda and the old Imperial City. The pagoda and its surrounding temple complex was pretty cool to see, and it is regarded as the unofficial symbol of the city.

Construction began on the Imperial City in 1804 and it was the seat of power for Vietnam until the French obtained control of northern Vietnam in the Sino-French War in the late 19th century. Later, the city of Hue would become the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting of the Vietnam War, which destroyed large swathes of the city. Right near the Imperial City is the outdoor War Museum, with several tanks, aircraft, and artillery pieces on display.

On our second day we explored some of the famous tombs from past kings. These were interesting to see after learning about the kings in the Imperial City. We visited three and they were all huge and extravagant. Vietnam was going through a heat wave while we were there (highs of 110 F) so every day we were drenched in sweat when we got back to the hotel. To combat this, we of course went straight to the air-conditioned bar for happy hour.

We drove from Hue to Hoi An, going through the Hai Van Pass which was really cool to see. Hoi An ended up being our favorite stop in Vietnam. It is a former port city and as such it is a melting pot of cultures, as evidenced in its architecture. There is a blend of eras and styles mixing together Chinese, French, Vietnamese, and Japanese. The town was so cute to walk through and had a lot of restaurants along the river. The food in general in Vietnam was great and everywhere we went we enjoyed it. Almost every other shop in Hoi An is a tailor shop so of course we had to get some clothes made, and they all came out really good! We also rented bikes one day and rode them down to the beach. We saw some water buffalo along the way which made my mom happy. The ride to the beach was fine, but shortly after getting there it started raining. We still hung out under some cover for a bit and tried to time our ride back when it slowed down. Riding back the traffic was pretty heavy and it was an experience biking through it. It reminded us why we did not do this trip on bicycles! Overall, Hoi An was a very walkable town and was really relaxed so we just enjoyed being there. We also found the cheapest beer of our trip so far here – 13 cents!

Our last stop in Vietnam was Ho Chi Minh City. This was definitely more of a big city feel compared to the rest of Vietnam. We did some sightseeing here, including seeing Independence Palace, which was the home of the South Vietnam President during the Vietnam War. We also visited the Vietnam War Remnants Museum which was obviously presented from the Vietnam point of view but was still interesting to walk through. The war was known as the American War of Aggression there. The museums depiction of it was hardly objective, and a lot of it landed in propaganda territory. That being said, the war still had severe consequences for civilians in Vietnam, including the terrible legacy of Agent Orange and the fact that unexploded ordnances are still a threat today. It was quite an experience to visit and see the war from the other sides point of view. The rest of our time in Ho Chi Minh City we spent relaxing and getting ready for our next stop. We couldn’t believe that the 3 weeks with my parents were over. We had so much fun with them! Overall, we really liked Vietnam (even with the crazy heat). We all loved the food and everyone we met was great.