Shenzhen, the Most Important City You’ve Never Heard Of

Shenzhen is a city in Guangdong province, China, about 45 minutes from Guangzhou on the high speed train and about 14 (yes, 14 whole minutes!) from Hong Kong. I spent a year living in this city, far away from my hometown and my home country. Everything, and I mean everything, was different in every way. The signs were in a language I couldn’t speak at the time, let alone comprehend how to read, the people were plentiful and few spoke English at all, and the culture was so different it felt as though I had gone to another world entirely. And yet Shenzhen as a city is incredibly important, both politically and economically, for China and, in many ways, for the world.

You see, when people think of massive Chinese cities they think of Beijing, Shanghai, or Hong Kong, the big three. I hadn’t even heard about Shenzhen before I ended up on a plane shipping out to live there. I had no idea what to expect, no idea if I’d even like it. But Shenzhen is a beautiful, dynamic city unlike anything I’d ever seen. And with Hong Kong 14 minutes away it’s an ideal place for expats to live and get a taste of China. Most of the computer parts that go in to the laptop this is being written on or even the phones we all carry around in our pockets come from Shenzhen. Shenzhen is also one of the leading manufacturers in robotics. Technology is what Shenzhen does best, but its not the only thing it does well.

I won’t got bogged down in the political and economic importance of the city and bore you all half to death, but Shenzhen is a rapidly growing city with a population of over 12 million people. Another note of importance, the city itself just celebrated its 40th birthday this year (2019). In 40 years, Shenzhen went from being a small fishing village to a massive metropolis that dwarfs cities like Toronto, Boston, and Montreal. The city’s founding lines up with the opening up of China during the Cold War and the Economic Miracle China has since been going through. Shenzhen is, in many ways, the economic port of China and a cultural hub for Southern China. Because of its economic importance, people from all over Southern China flock to the city, from local Guangdong people to Hunnan and even as far as Sichuan and Yunnan. And with Hong Kong so close, Western luxuries and social networking is easily accessible to both expats and locals alike.

Nearly every local in Shenzhen has access to a VPN which allows them in many ways to bypass the Great Firewall and access websites and apps like Google, Youtube, and Instagram. Many young people in Shenzhen have Instagram, Facebook, and (if they can read English) access and frequently read Western news. It’s a very different place then Chengdu or Beijing. Access to Western medicine (something that the rest of China seems to lack) is easy to get by just jumping on the train and buying some in Hong Kong. Expats frequently make day trips to Hong Kong to buy what they need and eat familiar food but live in Shenzhen because of the massive price difference in rent.

Shenzhen, then, is the ideal Expat locale. The food, both western and local, is excellent and the options are plentiful. You have easy access to the apps and programs that make living in China so convenient (thank goodness for Meituan, Didi, and Wechat) but because it’s so easy to not only get a VPN but also just spend a day or a weekend in Hong Kong you never have to go too long without checking the Insta feed or snapping your friends and family back home. It’s a very affordable city with a booming economy, a huge expat community, and easy access to Hong Kong, Macau, and the rest of Mainland China through high speed rail and local airlines.

While not an old city by any means, Shenzhen still has a lot to do. The Shenzhen museum is completely free and has a rotating exhibit that changed at least four times while I was there (one month they had a Mayan artifact exhibit, the next it was early Chinese bronze ware). The expat areas like Shekou and Sea World (not the one you’re thinking of, Sea World here is an artificial lake with a massive boat in it that they’ve transformed into a bar) are pricey for China but comparable to home. Coco Park is the clubbing district and it gets wild at night. Oh, and the clubs are all free to get in if that’s your vibe. There’s also a great bar nearby called Helen’s that a great place to grab beers with friends before heading to the clubs or just after work before heading home. If hiking is more your thing, Wutong Mountain, Maluan Mountain, and Nanshan are all great places to hike and have varying difficulty levels.

And not to mention that Shenzhen is hot so it never gets snow. The coldest it got while I was there was 12 Celsius, but in summer it got really hot. Some days it was like walking through soup.

Regardless, the city has stuff for everyone! The sights are stunning, the light shows at night are breathtaking (my American friend cried during one of them), and its very affordable. If you’ve ever considered going to China to visit, to work, or even to live in, Shenzhen is definitely the best place to start. Just make sure your visa is okay before you go.

Horribly Lost, and then Terribly Confused: A Hike Gone Awry

The easiest part about any hike, long or short, is getting to the trail head. You show up at a time, likely early, and begin the climb up. Easy. What could go wrong?

Apparently a lot if you don’t speak Mandarin.

8 am, I roll out of bed. Time until we were meant to leave: 10 minutes. Sure, I’m running a tad behind. Shower, brush teeth, apply sunscreen to avoid the inevitability of burned skin from the near tropical weather in Shenzhen. I’m five minutes behind. Shrug it off, check on the others. Surely it’ll be okay, I thought.

Oh it was more than okay. They were both still asleep. Somehow I should’ve expected that. I’ll practice my Chinese, at least I’ll be productive while I wait. Thirty minutes go by, still asleep. Around 9 am do I finally hear the vibration of my cellphone in my dead silent apartment. We leave in 20, the text message says.

9:30 am, we are waiting for a bus to come pick us up and drop us off close to the mountain. Not at the mountain, no that would be too simple, too easy, too unlike me. Close to the mountain, the kind of close where you can see the mountain looming imposingly in the distance but far enough away that everything can go horribly wrong before you make it there. The fun kind of close.

10:30 am, we step off the bus into an area that looks like its teetering on the edge of collapse. There is very likely not a single person here who speaks any English, and despite my best efforts my Mandarin is horrendous at best. The bus zooms off, leaving a trail of dust in its wake. The three of us stand there like fools on the side of the road, looking at the megalithic hill of green just out of reach. We map out how to get there, down a road through the forest and up a few smaller mountains. A hike to get to the hike, we joked. It was funny at the time.

We find the road and realize that something isn’t quite right. The trees are being chopped down and the dirt road appears to have been widened. There are three large, blue dump trucks pulled over on the side of the road. Typhoon clean up, we hypothesize? Shrugs all around, we make our way up the hill. Five minutes down the road we’re stopped by a Chinese security guard overseeing what appeared to be a pump station. He says something in Mandarin, to which I replied by pulling out my translator app. After teaching the guy how to type to us, we soon learned that there was nothing here, that the mountain we were looking for wasn’t here, and that we had to go around. I nod, thank the man politely in Mandarin, and then walk back down the road a few dozen meters to climb the steps up a small mountain off to one side of the road.

Up the small mountain we went. Some two hundred odd steps and a small river crossing later we made it to the top. Lo and behold, the steps up the mountain we needed to climb were mere meters away from the security guard. I see them snaking their way up the mountain, a grey tendril of civilization winding its way through the greenery to the top and disappearing over the summit. Upset at our failure to reach the mountain that way, we decide to find another way across. Google Maps tells us its just across a river a kilometer away. We decide to go for it.

11 am, we descend the first mountain via what feels like another two hundred steps, only to be confronted by another mountain with more steps. Sighs all around. Before us lies a few hundred steps, behind us is an equally large number of steps. No going backwards, I chant as I wander up the uneven stone stairs to the top. Dragonflies whiz past our heads, darting from bush to bush in search of food or mates. Some small creature rustles the grass nearby, but I never got the chance to see it. Finally, the top. I look down the other side and see a putrid looking, algae infested pond. The steps disappear into the brush.

Defeated momentarily, I sit down on the stone walkway and look out over the city. It’s actually quite pretty, all things considered. One swig of water from my massive bottle and I lead the charge down the steps. We follow the bend in the path and duck under low hanging branches. Something moves in the pond and I joke that it’s an alligator. No one laughs but me. We press on.

Rounding the pond we’re met by three stray dogs. The boys behind me tense up, probably the smart thing to do, but I shrug and take a wide berth. The dogs leave us alone and we head up yet another mountain. More steps, more huffing and puffing from everyone. At long last, the top of mountain three is reached. We look out expecting to see a river, hopefully with a bridge, and our way up the the larger mountain in our way. Instead we find an abandoned free way, half built and desolate. The stone path leading through the jungle is gone.

We discuss options about moving forwards. Did we want to turn back and find a way there, or go forwards and see if there was a way through? The obvious, and safest option, would have been to go back the way we had come. But where’s the fun in that? We took our first step on the dusty brown ground underneath the shade of the abandoned concrete overpass and scramble up a hill of loose dirt to the top. From that height we could see… nothing. The three of us walk along the dusty track, slowly and carefully, with aspirations of seeing a path up the mountain. Lo and behold, no such path was ever found, let alone seen.

In the end, we had to turn around and call a cab to take us to the mountain we had decided we would climb at 10 am. I checked my watch and sighed. The time was already 12 pm, and we had yet to even set foot on the trail.

12:30, we arrive at the mountain in an area known as OCT (Overseas China Town) East. Nestled in a valley between several large mountains and a reservoir of cool blue water, OCT surely is a sight to see. Each building is designed in a way that makes it markedly not Chinese. Steep roofs, brick walls, I felt as if I was walking through a quaint European village and not Shenzhen, half way across the world.

We step hastily out of the cab and cast eager glaces upwards at a massive golden statue enclosed in an ornate metal structure. Was that what we wanted to climb? No, we were still a ways out from that mountain I would later discover. But we decided we’d go see the golden statue anyway because it was getting later in the day and we had other things to do.

Ascending up a steep paved road with cars and those insufferable scooters whizzing past us, we finally managed to locate the steps leading up to Huaxiang Temple. Haggard glaces all around as we cast our gaze up those several hundred steps to the distant glint of sun reflecting on a golden head. We take the first of many steps, walking alongside dozens of Chinese people (including a determined woman in high heels, whom has still to this day impressed me with her choice of climbing shoes) to get to the top.

We were met by a wall of white topped with brown roofing tiles. Huge gilded Chinese characters were etched into the barrier before us. I lead the troops around the bend in the wall and we enter the temple proper. Flanking either side of the entryway are huge statues depicting muscular men prepared to fight any evil that tired to enter. Directly across the first courtyard facing the entryway is a smaller golden statue. Incense sticks are being burned in vases in front of her while praying people are bent over on three small stones. Not knowing the proper steps to pray, the three of us respectfully leave the supplicants to their worship. Our sights are set on the gilded behemoth at the top.

At the top of a small flight of steps was a corridor of shops and other tourist traps, but behind them were functioning monastic rooms. Huaxing Temple is still a functioning Buddhist monastery. We made out way through the throngs of tourists, ourselves sticking out like sore thumbs, and are faced with a water garden and a massive central building. Behind it, the gleaming object of our fascination up another endless flight of steps. Sighs all around as we begin the ascent again.

At the top the view was worth it all. You could see most of OCT East from up there (the place is huge) and a bit of Longgang District through the breaks in the mountains. The reservoir shimmering brilliantly in mid-afternoon sun was stunning with the rice paddies situated around it. That small town was nestled up cozily to its shoreline. We stood up there for a long time, soaking it all in, before climbing all the way back down the mountain and finding another cab. A final watch check, 3 pm.

We never did find the mountain we were meant to climb, but it still ended up being a day filled with adventure. Perhaps some day I’ll find the mountain and climb it, but like crows drawn to a shiny object we flocked to the golden statue of Guan Yin overlooking the valley far below.

Apartment Hunting in Shenzhen

Longang District is far out. Not the kind of far out people say about aliens, conspiracy theories, and other socio-cultural phenomena, no no. Longang is LITERALLY far out. You hop on the metro for 45 minutes and you’re still in Longang. And that’s one district of Shenzhen. It takes nearly two hours to get from my flat in Longang to Nanshan on the other end of the city. Two glorious hours of sweat, crowds, and standing up praying someone leaves their seat for a split second and you’re the first to take it. Fun fact about that one, you never are.

So that’s where I live right now. Far away from the action, but closer to the mountains. There’s not much English up here, and with my lacking Mandarin and my incapacity to comprehend, let alone read, more than three Chinese characters I can already tell it’s going to be a fun year. But hey, maybe I come out of this knowing a lot more Mandarin. That’s the goal anyway.

But enough about Longang. As the locals say, nothing happens up here. On to the more exciting stories about my on-boarding crew I met here in Shenzhen. We had two weeks to search for apartments, and a lot went awry in two weeks. Typhoons may not stop the locals but it sure does stop expats. We quickly fell behind in our mad dash to find a place to live and the next thing we knew our hotel stay was coming to a rapid end. Naturally, I left my place to the last minute, moving in less than 24 hours before I was supposed to leave the hotel, but many others managed to do just fine after a lot of bad apartments, dirty streets, and bargaining.

As a foreigner in China, getting an apartment can be difficult. You don’t speak the language, you don’t know the business, you basically are helpless. There are a million and one steps to do in a certain order or things can go awry. Step one, find an agent. How do you do that? WeChat. That app does literally everything. You have an agent? Awesome. Do they speak English? No? Back to step one. If yes, then you tell them the district (Bao’an, Longang, Nanshan, etc.) and you’re price range. Prices vary a lot by district. A bachelor apartment in Nanshan can cost you 6500 RMB (Yuan/Kuai) a month, whereas my 3 Bedroom with a Western Style bathroom runs 3900 RMB a month.

With that in mind, our budgets as English Teachers isn’t great. At most we can swing maybe 5500 RMB a month, so people are living in apartments with showers over their toilets and beds that feel like their filled with rocks (mine is, sadly, like that). Nonetheless, off we all went, optimistic, if not slightly overwhelmed, to find a place. I went with two sets of people on two different days.

We went from beautiful streets where palm trees sheltered the pavement from the sun’s rays to dirty ones where folded tables had been set up selling fruits, meat, and other food. Not that I wouldn’t trust a foldout table fruit stand, fruit is fruit after all, but man do durians smell. That alone put me, and a lot of the others, off. Off down the street we’d go, passing the stalls of fruit and having acrid cigarette smoke blown our way from lounging Chinese people until we found apartments we could afford. They were nice, though not what most Westerners are accustomed to living in. In China, apartments are small, even a three bedroom one like mine. The kitchens, if they have one, are usually just a single counter against a wall. No stove top, you have to buy a hotplate, and definitely no oven.

I, personally, wouldn’t have minded the absence of a functioning kitchen. It’s cheap to eat out ever meal if you go to the right spots and honestly that’s what I’m here for. How can I experience China if I’m eating pasta, or potatoes with chicken? I can just go get dumplings or chicken fried with chilies for 15 RMB, which is like 2 USD.

The hard thing to get through a foreigner’s mind is that the areas outside the apartment are very likely not great looking. We’re used to walking down brightly lit streets into our apartments/homes. In China there aren’t many street lights, and near apartment complexes there likely aren’t any. Once it gets dark it’s dark. We had a lot of people panic about getting hurt in these back streets with no lights. So if you’re an expat looking for a place in China, be sure to tell your agent not to set you up on a street like that. The interior is more important, but you’ll have to walk there in the dark at some point. That being said, all of us have never once felt in danger the entire time we’ve been here, girls included. Shenzhen is very safe, but I can’t say the same about Beijing, Shanghai, or other big cities.

If you want to see pictures of Shenzhen, China, and the places I’m going to, follow this blog’s Instagram handle @nomaddic_blog! What do you guys think about apartment hunting here?

China, Week One: Expats, Culture Shock, and Typhoons

Shenzhen, China is hot. Really hot. A balmy 37 Celsius with humidity, the climate is not at all like Canada with its cold winters, early fall frosts, and changing leaves. Palm trees line the streets like you would expect of downtown Los Angeles, but the immensity of the place is astounding, even after a week of learning the area. There’s a few big differences between here and the West. Well, more than a few. But let’s go over what it’s like living here, even though I’ve only been here a week so far.

Before leaving Canada I thought Toronto was big. Sure, it’s big with its ~6.5 million residents in the metropolitan area, but Shenzhen is immense. 20 million people, and the city never stops. I’ve driven through mountains and I haven’t even left the city since I’ve arrived! A hiking trip is in the works so I’ll be sure to get a better grasp on its size once I reach the peak of one of them. But to give a quick overview it takes over two hours to travel the length of the city on the high speed metro. Two hours! Maybe that’s just my mindset from living in such a “small” city the past four years, and an even smaller town in rural Ontario most of my life. But the great thing about Shenzhen is the greenery and the clean air. There are so many trees (less now after the recent typhoon) that it feels like you aren’t confined to a narrow, winding maze of steel and glass, jostling against the millions (literally) of people trying to go about their day. The city feels alive.

I was in Shenzhen for three days before the typhoon hit. Hong Kong took the brunt of the storm but we were buffeted by strong winds and torrential rain. My hotel sign flew away. One second it was there, swaying in the wind, and the next it had ripped off and fallen twenty stories down to crash into the ground. We stayed inside after that. The next day we all went out to inspect the carnage. The damage was immense. The trees that once lined the city streets were gone, fallen onto the road or sidewalks to block the way. Branches and leaves were scattered everywhere. Bikes lay discarded in fountains, twisted and mangled. But the city never sleeps. Two days later everything was cleared and life returned to normal, just with a little less trees.

We get storms at home, sure, but nothing compared to what I witnessed that day. Videos of cranes falling down in Hong Kong blew up our phones, windows across the street were shattered by flying trash cans, and glass was whizzing around like deadly frisbees. And yet when you looked out the window at the chaos and destruction, you could still see the locals riding their electric scooters through the storm for who knows what. Hopefully they all managed to get home safely that day. As for the expats in the hotel, we watched in fascination over beers and card games.

We had a week of working after the typhoon and a chance to find apartments. With the Mid-Autumn festival tomorrow we’re all hopefully going on a quest to find moon cakes, a traditional delicacy very popular around this time of year. So far we’ve all had a few and they’ve been okay, but rumour is abound of a Matcha Green Tea flavoured one and I, personally, am on a mission to find it. Sometimes it’s the more trivial tasks that end up being the best story.

The twelve expats I arrived with are all great people from various different places. Four of us are living together in the Longang district of Shenzhen, so I’m sure lots of good stories will come out of that. We all teach English here so my time to write is going to be limited sadly, but I’m gonna make time to keep updating this weekly, maybe bi-weekly once things get settled. Next post will be about the tirade for apartments in Shenzhen, with stories from all my expat friends here. It was… quite the fiasco to say the least. I’ll probably update again in a few days about the moon festival as well, so stay tuned! Oh, and follow the Instagram page to get regular picture updates: nomaddic_blog.

A Week in Crete: Warm Water, Friendly People, and Cats

Crete, once the birthplace of Greek civilization and culture, now a tourist destination in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, is filled with friendly locals, amazing food, and cats. So many cats. I could probably write an entire post on just the sheer amount of stray cats wandering the streets of Hersonissos, waiting by the restaurants along the water for people to give them table scraps. Luckily for them, and much to my own amazement, some kind person had gone around the town and placed bowls of cat food and water for them.

Jet lagged, but dying to get out and adventure through the town, my mum and I went out as the sun was setting and wandered along the waterfront, past beach side patios serving sea food, saganaki, and other Greek delicacies. We made a note to return later. At the end of the beach was a small, arid hill. Naturally, we found the steps leading to the top and expected a view of the Mediterranean from the top. What we got instead was a small Greek Orthodox church built inside the hill set in a cavern they had dug out. The ceiling was solid rock with a chandelier hanging acting as the only light source for this tiny chapel. On the front wall behind the small altar was a gilded fresco of Jesus flanked by other figures I couldn’t quite make out. I admit, my knowledge of Greek Orthodoxy is limited at best.

We left the chapel and resigned ourselves to our jet lag, sleeping that first night for nearly fourteen hours. I don’t sleep well on planes so I was awake the entire flight from Toronto to Athens, the three hour layover in Athens, and then the hour flight from Athens to Heraklion. Needless to say, I was exhausted.

The next day was fairly laid back. Still slightly jet lagged, my brothers, mum, and I decided to relax by the pool and on the beach for the day. Not much happened on day two that was worth writing about, besides the abundance of cats. My camera roll during the trip was filled with a file I labeled “Cats of Crete”. Here’s a few examples:

Stray Cats EX 1
Stray Cats Waiting For Food (Sorry for the bad quality. I was pretty far away for this one.)
Stray Cats EX 2
More Strays
Stray Cats EX 3
A Bold One Walking Into the Restaurant

Here I am writing a piece on stray cats even though I said I wouldn’t. Honestly, they were one of the most stark contrasts between Canada and Crete. I guess there aren’t a lot of animal shelters in Crete so they just roam around. And the cats were really friendly, much like the locals of Hersonissos. They let you pet them, something my brother did frequently, and they didn’t run off when you came close. A mother cat even let us approach her two kittens and didn’t try to fight us.

Day three was much like day two. Come to think of it, most of the week was pretty relaxing. Lots of sun, even more sunscreen, and incredible food. Even the local Greek beer, Mythos, was pretty solid. My mother and I even brought a few cans home with us. They didn’t last more than two days. On day three we did go find a jewelry store. My mum wanted something to bring back and I wanted to find something for my partner at the time. We walked down the waterfront and stumbled upon a small jewelry store behind an old, now decommissioned, fountain that looked like it had been there since the 1300s.

We entered the jewelry store and were met by two kind ladies who spoke impeccable English. My Greek was, and still is, horrid, so this was a great thing. We actually became good friends with these people over the course of our stay in Crete and they gave us great prices for what we got. I also learned that it was them who put out the cat food for all the strays. I learned a lot about the local area from them too. Apparently Hersonissos is a hot spot of politicians on vacation. The town was small, charming, and the water was lovely. It makes a lot of sense why politicians would want to go here.

Day four we went to Santorini, which I’ll write about later because a lot happened that one day on such a tiny island. Shockingly, it was absent of stray cats. I was beginning to think that stray cats were a local Cretan phenomenon.

Day five we took shots of raki, the local alcohol of choice, with our waiter paired with calamari and tzatziki, as well fresh bread and some of the best olive oil I have ever had. Raki, called ‘Jet Fuel’ by our server, goes down fast but burns the whole way there. It was strong but delicious. We had a lot of raki that day. Our server offered to give us raki on the house because we were Canadian, a common theme in Crete actually, and came back with five shots. There were four of us at the table. He puts them all down, realizes there is an extra, and goes “Oh those fools in the kitchen, always with the miscounting,” and downs the shot with us.

We also met a British family that day and I became good friends with them. They offered me a place to stay should I ever go to Britian, something I might take them up on in the future. I spent many hours in the lobby messaging my partner (it was the only place that had WiFi in the building) and chatting with the two Brits over drinks. I have fond memories of those lazy evenings before dinner drinking with those two lovely people. A lot of people say that the most memorable thing you will experience when you’re travelling is the people and after visiting Crete I 100% agree with that saying.

Day six and seven were much of the same. In the morning we had coffee and espresso at the jewelry store with the owners, then we went to the beach and the pool, evening talking to the Brits over drinks in the lobby, and then once the sun set we would venture into town for frozen yogurt, gelato, or whatever sweet we decided to have that night.

I left Crete nearly three years ago now, but I think about my brief time there a lot. My mother and I invent crazy schemes to buy a small cottage there, close to Hersonissos, and go back every year. Sadly, that is just a distant dream. I’m just a recently graduated university student trying to get a well paying job, so my aspirations to travel for a living are, currently, just dreams.

I’ll close by saying this. I’ve met a lot of people in my 21 years on Earth but I have never met people as friendly and cheerful as the one’s I met in Crete. I loved every moment I spent there and would 100% go back in an instant.

 

A Rainy Day Paddle

Saturday, Victoria Day Weekend. The sky is grey and overcast. The water is still and wave-less as I make my way through the dark water. Standing precariously upright on a plastic paddle board, I slowly push myself along towards the distant shape of my companion in a kayak. He sees me and waves his paddle back and forth in the air like a flag. I return the salute and nearly capsize the board. Desperate to not fall into the frigid water, I regain balance by putting more weight onto the other side. It levels out and I let out a sigh of relief.

Both the water and the air is cold, too cold to willingly be out shirtless and in shorts. And yet there I am, shivering as I go along, because I’ll be damned if I don’t get out on the water at least once a day. The wind begins to pick up and I mutter to myself about how dumb I must look to the observers on the docks along the edge of the lake.

I continue on resolutely. Cold as I may be, I have to go further. The lake is too calm to not venture out a little more. My friend pulls up alongside, fully clothed I might add, and comments on my questionable attire. Would I get sick? Yes. Was this a bad call? Not a chance.

He turned his boat around and we kept going. A lone loon sat atop the water gazing straight ahead at something neither of us could see. She dove underneath the water and reappeared unnaturally far ahead of us after ten seconds. It was a truly beautiful moment watching such a magnificent creature from so close. Dead silent, it dove again and was gone.

We pressed on.

Pine trees rose triumphantly from the shoreline and clung to the stony cliffs that lined much of the lake. The wind rustled their branches and made tiny waves on the water, disturbing the tranquil way before us. The world was silent except for our paddles dipping into the water and leaving it, casting droplets behind us as we went.

The rain broke through as we rounded the bend in the lake. Ahead of us, through the drizzle, we saw a fine mist swirling through the tree tops on the top of the hill. We stopped and just sat there in the rain on a dark, cold, lake and watched the world. Neither of us spoke. We just looked and admired the beauty of the world, a beauty many people seem to miss.

I’m not sure how long we sat there but eventually we did turn around and paddle back to the cabin we had rented for the weekend through the rain. No sight of the loon, no bird songs, nothing but the pitter patter of rain hitting the water and our paddles methodically pushing us to our destination.

Six Amazing Places to go in Montreal

Montreal is a beautiful city in Quebec, Canada. Predominantly French speaking, Montreal actually has a surprising amount of English accessibility if your French is sub-par, like mine. Even after living in the city for four months last summer, my French is still not great and I’ve lost most of it now. But you can survive, and thrive, in Montreal using English alone.

That aside, here are a few of my all time favourite spots to go in Montreal. Some are pretty touristy, others are local treasures.

1: St. Ambroise Terrace

St. Ambroise is one of my favourite breweries. I’m an avid beer drinker but I’m also really picky with what beer I like and drink. St. Ambroise has been a favourite of mine since my friends who live in Montreal took me there last summer.

The easiest, and prettiest, way to get there is to rent a bike from one of the many Bixie stations along the canal, around Old Port (Old Montreal) would be easiest though. They take credit card and it’s super easy to use. Then you just bike along the canal away from Old Port on the bike path. The terrace is located on the bike path and you get a great view of the city skyline as you go along.

Adjacent to a rusting and abandoned factory sits a squat brewery and the delightful smell of hops. There’s a small terrace where you can order beer flights, pints, and pitchers that they make in their attached brewery. All of it is great. There’s also simple food, like hot-dogs and pizza so you can eat while you drink and enjoy the sunshine with your friends.

It’s kind of off the beaten track for most visitors to the city, but St. Ambroise terrace is one of my all time favourite places to visit.

2: Old Port

If you’re as obsessed with old buildings as I am, Old Port is the place to be. It is one of the only places in North America where it feels like you’ve entered an old French village. Complete with cobblestone roads, Montreal’s Old Port is great for walking around, shopping for local art, and dining in rather pricey restaurants.

I don’t know how many times I’ve been to Old Port, but it’s easily dozens and I still discover something new every time I go. The atmosphere is relaxing and bustling at the same time and you can sit on terraces and enjoy a pint of beer or a glass of wine. The multitude of ice cream parlours means that even in the searing Montreal heat you can stay a little cool.

3: Mont Royal’s Scenic Overlook

I made it a goal of mine to hike up Mont Royal every week for four months. While I did manage to make the trek most weeks, sometimes multiple times a week, the view from the top never ceased to amaze me.

Next to a beautiful lodge is a large viewing area, complete with a communal piano (Seriously). You can take in the views of the city from the height of Mont Royal or simply lounge in the sun listening to some rather talented pianists who make the hike to the top to serenade the viewers. I’ve heard some absolutely stunning players during my trips to the top, and some mediocre (myself included), but the trip to the top is definitely worth it.

There are a few paths to the top of varying difficulty. The most direct way is up the wooden staircase at the end of Rue Peel, right past McGill University. Alternatively, you could walk up the winding path the goes around the mountain, or take some of the trails to climb up the path faster.

Just a word of advice, don’t go off the path. Some of the ways seem like paths but are generally marked off by fences and signs. People have fallen off the mountain before and gotten pretty hurt so best to be safe about it.

4: Big in Japan

I honestly don’t know how we found this spot but through a small black door with the simple sign “BAR” in small letters lead my friends and I into one of the most gorgeous bars we’d ever laid eyes upon. A winding bar lit only by candles weaved its way through the small room. We were under-dressed when we showed up, but there is not dress code.

It was on the rather expensive side so I don’t recommend it for a budget trip unless you intend to only get one drink. I’d recommend their sake selection, it was some of the best sake I’ve ever had. That being said, the place is not Japanese themed at all and serve a variety of other alcoholic beverages, although not any food. I just happen to like sake.

5: Kinoya Inzakaya

Not to be confused with another izakaya called Kinka Izakaya, Kinoya Izakaya in located on St. Denis in the Plateau. The interior is beautiful, covered in wooden boards, Japanese letters, and a comical squid painting, Kinoya was one of my favourite places to eat during the final stretch of my time living there.

It’s in the medium price range and the food is great, if you like Japanese food. Their plum wine was delicious, as was their Avo Tuna. There are also a few vegetarian options, my one friend is vegetarian so we had to be sure before we went. Getting there isn’t too complicated, the metro system in Montreal is great, but it does require a slight walk. Luckily, Montreal’s weather is normally pretty tame in the summer, although it is hot as all hell. Kinoya is actually pretty close to Big in Japan so you could hit both in one night, if you so chose. We did. It was great! Maybe a tad bit too much was drunk that night, though….

6: La Diperie

We always called in La Dip, but this place is an awesome ice cream parlour. They only do soft serve, but you get to chose one of many dipping options, from chocolate (including different % of cocoa) to coffee, to lavender, La Dip has a flavour for eveyone.

And if that wasn’t enough, you get to chose a topping as well! Wanna go Oreo crazy? Get the Oreo dip with crumbled Oreos on top. Sure, it was really sweet, but it was great. I totally didn’t get that two… or three more times.

Considering how hot Montreal can get, having a fantastic ice cream place was the first thing on my list of places to go to once I arrived. There are many locations throughout the city, but my all time favourite one was in the Village. The street gets decorated in colourful balls that hang over the pedestrian roadway. It makes for a great walk while you eat your ice cream, and there’s another communal piano in that area too so you can sit and enjoy some great music if you so chose.

 

And there you have it! These are six of my favourite spots to go in Montreal. Again, don’t worry if you don’t speak much (or any) French, the city is pretty English accessible. I never had any issue using only English, though I tried to use as much French as possible for full immersion. If you go, throw yourself into the culture of French Canada, grab a poutine (there are hundreds of options although there’s a great place in Old Port for it) bike along the canal to grab some great beer.

Montreal is a treasure, go enjoy it.

My Friends and I Stumbled Into a Haunted Forest

As a preface to this, my friends and I all just graduated from university, separate universities far away from each other. We don’t see each other much. Practically never, actually. So when we do meet up things can get a little… hectic.

What started as a general hang out, coffee and chat session turned into a full fledged adventure full of crazy fog, creepy atmosphere, and a looming sense of dread.

The story began in a coffee shop in Toronto, the city I live in (for now). The three of us were all drinking expensive lattes and rejoicing over our long awaited completion of university. Understandably, we were ecstatic to be done. No longer would we stay awake until ungodly hours writing papers, reading books, and preparing notes. Now we have the delightful task of paying back student loans and searching for employment! Why were we spending ten dollars on a coffee if we were broke? Good question, but not important to the tale at hand.

One of us gets the great idea to just got back to Matteo’s house for a night of relaxing beers and conversation. His house is a good hour’s drive away, so naturally we all decided it was a genius idea. We trekked through the rain in nothing but thin summer clothes in spite of the chill in the air to the parked car and zipped out of the my university campus to the highway home.

So far so good.

It started to get a little crazy closer to home. Suddenly the rain stopped, the window wipers were turned off, and we talked about our lives post-post-secondary. This went on for some time until we noticed the wall of fog before us as we descended the hill. A literal wall of gray creeping out from behind the trees and stretching across the road. We slowed down and looked at each other.

The high beams went off and we slowed the car down to a crawl. On one side of the road was a huge drop down a ravine, on the other was a steep incline covered in trees. Our talk strayed into a discussion on whether we had stumbled into a horror movie. General consensus: definitely.

Jackson pointed out that the tree branches looked like ‘thin, skeletal monsters’ in the fog watching our vehicle drive slowly past them. The whole scene was eerie, especially concerning the time of night. We were dangerously close to the infamous ‘Witching Hour’, that thin stretch of time between midnight and 3am when supernatural occurrences were known to happen. Did we buy into that whole idea? No. But what if?

That sense of the unknown crept into our minds frequently throughout the night. Trees became ogres, branches become Lovecraftian horrors. The fog persisted, swallowing light and blocking out the stars.

Finally, we arrived home. The scene there was just as ominous. Amidst a forest of budding trees wreathed in thick fog sat a house illuminated by a single light. The forest was dead silent, the only sound the tires crunching the gravel on the driveway. We parked, got out, and took a look at the surroundings.

Now, any normal people would have gone inside and stayed there.

We are not normal people.

To us, the only sensible idea would be to go for a hike through a forest so wrapped in fog you couldn’t see three meters in front of you. We stashed our stuff in the house, forgot to grab flashlights, and ventured out into the darkness with nothing but our knowledge of the forest and the dim lights from our nearly dead phones.

If we thought it was creepy looking at the branches from the safety of our moving car, being in the middle of the foggy forest was enough to make all of us shudder. We were constantly waving our phone lights around us as we trekked through the woods. Was that branch some animal staring at us from afar? Was the stump a man watching our every move? More importantly, what was lurking in the fog, out of sight, waiting for us to stray to far from home?

Soon the light from the house dissipated and we were left in crushing darkness. The sound of the distant river, overflowing from the recent rainfall, echoed through the fog. We kept walking. Where were we going? No one had any idea. We just kept going until the light from the road appeared.

We stumbled out into the middle of the dirt road and looked around. Never had the world been more quiet, more dark, more other-worldly. We walked back up the drive and locked the doors behind us.