Saturday, October 22, 2016

Eastern Sierra 2016

My parents needed a mini vacation and wanted to see some local fall colors, so I planned a last minute weekend trip to the Eastern Sierras. It is only half a days drive away from where we are in East LA County. We left on Thursday morning and came back Sunday evening.

DAY 1/// Bishop/South Lake Road/Rock Creek Road/Mammoth

We took windy CA-15 and the, at times boring first stretch, I-395. We left around 7:30 and got to Bishop right about lunch time. First, we stopped by the Bishop Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center for local maps and confirmation of areas with fall colors sightings. The gentleman at the visitor center was super helpful and very patient, especially with everyone coming in to ask the same thing this time of year.

We then grabbed lunch at Holy Smoke Texas Style BBQ just across the street from the visitor center. The place had a nice laid back atmosphere and a good meaty menu. Schat's Bakkery (also across the street) is a good choice too. It is a famous bakery with very heavy lunch-hour foot traffic.
Mom and I shared a Texan taco. We chose brisket and it came with coleslaw on cornbread. We also ordered a side of mac n' cheese.
After lunch, we headed towards CA-168 a few blocks back south off I-395. CA-168 runs along Bishop Creek and leads to Lake Sabrina. Before reaching Lake Sabrina, there is a turn-off called South Lake Road that takes you to South Lake (On Instagram, I see this road geotagged as the south fork of Bishop Creek). We heard the leaves around Lake Sabrina were after peak so we only drove down South Lake Road.

Along South Lake Road (October 6, 2016).
After driving back to Bishop and gasing up, we got back on I-395 but turned on to Rock Creek Road in search of more fall colors.

Somewhere on Upper Creek Road (October 6, 2016)
Then we headed toward Mammoth. We stopped at the visitor center there to get a local map to find our way to our resort, since phone data was spotty in the mountains. We also asked about the shuttle service to the Devil's Postpile/Rainbow Falls trailhead. The rep at the center told us that we can drive directly to the trailhead as the shuttle season is over. I gathered after awhile that the whole Sierra region prepares for winter at the end of September: shuttles/gondolas stop, ranger stations and sites close, weather equipments are checked and repaired. Snow might come any time and smaller roads would not get immediately cleared.

We checked in to Juniper Springs Resort which we booked through Groupon. Accommodation in the Eastern Sierras isn't cheap. There are daily resort fees and sometimes separate parking fees. The consolation is that most hotel-type accommodations have kitchens and ours came stocked with all the utensils and cookware we may need.

That evening, we had our hearts set on ramen. But when we found Ramenya, a sign on the door said it was closed for the month! We ended up eating at Good Life Cafe. This restaurant is not very eye-catching, sitting in the corner of a sleepy strip mall. The menu had a good variety. The food wasn't fancy, was very homey but exceeded expectations. My mom and I shared the Shrimp Scampi pasta and it was the best non-red sauce pasta that I ever had. I usually do not like non-red sauce pastas but I really enjoyed this one. We also loved the local Golden Trout Pilsner.

DAY 2/// Devils Postpile/Rainbow Falls/Mono Lake South Tufa/June Lake Scenic Loop/Mammoth

We headed over to the trailhead around 7:30. I thought I did my research but the drive to the trailhead was longer than I expected. When we turned off the main road, the kiosk at the entrance was closed with a sign that said we can pay on our way out. Beyond that point, it was a drive down a one lane dirt road for what seemed like forever before we got to the parking lot at the trailhead. There was no one else there save three men working on weather equipment. I confirmed with one of these men that I could park there and asked another one what to do if I saw bears. He assured me it was unlikely I would.

The walk to the Devil's Postpile monument was a easy 0.4 miles from the parking lot, as all the hiking sites and the provided trail map attest to.  The walk to the falls is an additional 2.1 miles. It was really cool to see Devil's Postpile. I had to write a report on it in the 4th grade and rememberi having a hard time finding info on it pre-internet. To see it in real life was like meeting a friend I had only ever corresponded with.

Devil's Postpile Monument
The rest of the trail felt longish. There were lots of chipmunks and bluejays along the way. Thankfully there were no bears, just a fat coyote. We took lots of pictures as we do wherever we travel and got to Rainbow Falls around 10. Rainbow Falls has two platforms from which to view it or you can take the steps down to the bottom of the falls. We were there for no more than 10 minutes when other hikers started to appear. We slowly made our way back to our car, overtaken by many better hikers. We even saw a fully geared hunter looking for bucks but only seeing does.

A fat coyote along the trail. Definitely not a wolf.
A chipmunk with something in its cheeks.
Some sights along the trail (October 7, 2016).
Rainbow Falls From second view point.
My mom towards the end of our hike.
We got back to the hotel, and after a quick lunch of instant noodles we headed out again. We drove to the Mono Lake Visitor Center. This is a large forest service center with educational displays and a gift shop inside. You can pick up your National Parks pass here so my dad got his senior pass! After talking to the ranger, we headed towards South Tufa back down off I-395. The 2-lane road turns onto a gravel road before ending in the parking lot. It was a short walk to the edge of Mono Lake and the other-worldly calcium carbonate formations in that part of the lake.

Landscape around South Tufa.
Mono Lake South Tufa and the calcium carbonate formations due to underground springs.
After the visit to South Tufa, we drove the June Lake Scenic Loop which passes by 4 lakes: Grant Lake, Silver Lake, Gull Lake, and June Lake. We also drove the Mammoth scenic road back to Mammoth.

Somewhere on June Lake Loop (October 7, 2016).
For dinner, we were originally going to drive further to the Restaurant at Convict Lake but ended up staying in Mammoth. We ate at Campo, an Italian restaurant. Dad got the daily pork plate but he didn't love it. Mom and I shared a beet salad and the Prosciugula Pizza. The beet salad was too strong in goat cheese flavor but the pizza was amazing. The arugula on the pizza was heated and salted. The flavors were interesting and paired really well together.

The beet salad at Campo.
Prosciuga Pizza at Campo.
DAY 3/// Route 89//Lake Tahoe River Cruise//Overnight in Tahoe

The next morning was all about getting to South Lake Tahoe in time for our Lake Cruise but hopefully also seeing some sights along our drive. Instead of taking I-395 all the way to Tahoe, we turned onto CA-89 right before reaching Lake Topaz. This was my favorite part of the drive. It felt like we turned into a corner of the world that was unoccupied where there were hidden heights and meadows. Then soon after, the landscape drastically changed to a winding river-side road inside a canyon in perpetual shadow.

A vista towards the southern part Route 89, above Lake Topaz.

A meadow along Route 89 (October 8, 2016).
Once we reached the outskirts of South Lake Tahoe, we stopped by Getaway Cafe for some take-out lunch. We ordered a Beef Dip and a BLT.  Once we got our food, we got back on the road towards the MS Dixie II Lake Cruise. This tour had sold out fast. When I was hesitating about which time slot to book, the morning/afternoon tours sold out. Only the noon and dinner cruises were left. I decided on the noon tour but had to rush a little to get to there on time. The parking area was a little hard to find as the company tells you to board at the Zephyr Cove Marina. If you're looking on google maps, turn in at the Zephyr Cove Resort.

Though we booked online, we still had to check in half an hour before at the kiosk to exchange for real tickets. We parked at 11:20 and gulped down our lunch (which was very good, by the way) before getting in line. The boat ended up quite crowded with all sit-able places taken. It's no wonder it felt so crowded when it has a capacity of 599!

The cruise took us straight to Emerald Bay where we circle around Fannette Island and saw the cove with Vikingsholm. Other than that, the ride felt too long. Everyone was restless on the way back.

Fannette Island in Emerald Bay
Vikingsholm as seen from the cruise boat.
After our cruise, we checked into the Coachman Hotel. This is a glorified motel that opened earlier this year. It is similar to The Basecamp Hotel nearby. There are no elevators to the second floor, no telephones inside the rooms, and one person at the bar who doubles as the barista, the receptionist, and room service. Mom described this hotel as "for young people." The hotel itself is located two blocks from the busiest stretch of South Lake Tahoe right by the State Line. It is also two blocks away from the private Lakeside Beach. I think the room was overpriced for what we got, but then every hotel/motel in the area is expensive as the occupancy rates are high.
Kids soaking their feet in the frigid water of Lakeside Beach.
For dinner we went to Himmel Haus. It is a German themed restaurant with lots of beers, but unfortunately none local. It is right off a ski lift and would be great in the winter after time on the slopes. The decor inside is of a German drinking hall. We got a salad and the sausage platter to share.
The sausage platter Himmel Haus.
DAY 4/// Sacramento/E. LA County

We had breakfast at Ernie's Coffee Shop before heading home. I chose it because it opens very early. It seems to be very popular with locals and the waiter knew many by name. The food wasn't extraordinary, but it was hearty classic breakfast food. We had the choice of driving back via the same I-395, or CA99 or I-5. These routes are comparable in distance and time so I chose CA-99. I had to take CA-50 to Sacramento first so we stopped by the capitol building for some pictures. It was my first time being in the capitol city of my state. The mature tree lined streets made Sacramento feel real capitol-like!

Coffee at Ernie's Coffee Shop.
Capital Building in Sacramento.
We stopped at Bravo Farms for lunch and a bathroom break at Patch Fruit Stand before changing onto the I-5. Both places were bleh in my opinion. If I could have a do-over, I would stop at the Sun-Maid Market instead. We got back home around 5 or so. It was a nice 4-day getaway to see our beautiful state and to enjoy the season. 

Friday, July 8, 2016


VISITED ON: June 18, 2016
Segovia is a small town 60m/100km northwest of Madrid known for its well-preserved Roman aqueduct and a perfect day-trip location from the city. It is only an hour's drive away and an even shorter 30 minute train ride.

To get to Segovia from Madrid, you must depart from the Charmatín Station in Madrid. If you did not already purchase your ticket, you can buy it from the ticketing office there.  There are Intercity trains that take longer getting there. Make sure you buy the 30 minute AVANT tickets unless you want to take 2 hours getting there. The platform is announced about 10 minutes before departure so don't panic if your train platform doesn't come up until then.

Once you arrive at the Segovia station, you will see bus #11 and #12 waiting outside the exit. The buses are timed to the train arrivals so everything is easy peasy. Bus #11 will take you on a 10 minute drive along empty non-agricultural fields with a few random buildings before getting to the more populated area of town. It will drop you off at the foot the aqueduct at the edge of the historic part of town.
The train station at Segovia.
Bus #11 outside the train station.
Maps of Segovia will show that the old city is in the shape of an oval with a northwesterly and southeasterly orientation. Defining Segovia on the right-hand southeastern side is the aqueduct and on the left-hand northwestern side is the Alcazar (castle) built over a defensible valley all around it. The tourist information is on the other side of the aqueduct from where the bus drops you off. A main thoroughfare runs fairly straight through the city from the Aqueduct to the Alcazar with the Cathedral and Plaza Mayor situated approximately in the middle.

Roman Aqueduct- This is a very impressive three tiered aqueduct built by the Romans. I have seen a few aqueducts (Caesarea, Pont du Gard, Aspendos) before but the unobstructed height and width of this one was striking. You can walk up to either side to see the aqueduct from the height of the top tier.
The Aqueduct.
Along the main thoroughfare to the town square, it's happy wandering. Besides other churches and structures, there are innumerable windows lined with flower baskets, colorful old doors andframes, and other architectural details here and there. The walk to the cathedral or alcazar isn't long or hard, but you can definitely spend a lot of time admiring the town before getting there.
Casa de Los Picos, or the Diamond Top House
Steps in between the San Martin Church and the Royal Jailhouse.
Random storefront.
Random Door
The Segovia Cathedral is a Gothic cathedral and it is quite striking from the outside. It looks very big and bright, though sitting snugly in the corner of the main square. The flying buttresses are not very outstanding, but the many pinnacles made the cathedral look very fancy. It was only €3,00 to visit inside and definitely worth it. The inside did not feel as large as the exterior suggests. It was not gloomy or glamorous inside as some cathedrals can feel, but was light and pretty.
The exterior of the Cathedral seen from the center of the main town square.
The interior of the cathedral: looking towards the center crossing from the nave.
Capilla Mayor, or Main Chapel
Capilla de la Concepción, one of the chapels along the nave.
Another small chapel along the nave.
The Ambulatory 
The Alcazar is the castle and fortification on the edge of the city overlooking the valley. Two kinds of tickets are available: one for the towers and one for everything but the towers.  I got the tickets that did not include the towers for €5,50. The entry took us through rooms with elaborate doors and ceilings, many of which opened up to beautiful views of the valley below. Other rooms were filled with Medieval armors, weaponry and furniture.  
The alcazar as seen from the entrance.
The Monarch's Room inside the alcazar.
The view from one of the room windows.
More armors and this curious cutie.
Cochinillo Asado, or roasted suckling pig is the famous must-eat dish in the region, but especially in Segovia and especially at Meson de Cándido which is listed in every tour guide. This restaurant is right beside the aqueduct and a reservation is necessary to get a nice view from an inside second floor table. As it was only my mom and myself that day, we could not order a whole suckling pig to see the servers do the "chopping up the crispy pig with the rim of the dishes" thing. We settled for an order of suckling pig and an order of duck. The dishes were good and I am glad I had them, but they were too rich in its meaty flavors for my taste.
Meson de Cándido and the aqueduct on the left.
Mom waiting for our food to arrive.
An order of cochinillo asado, or roasted sucking pig.
I don't know what is good to buy here as I did not spend much time shopping. But I regret not buying a woven basket from a shop across from the cathedral when I had the chance. 

Friday, July 1, 2016


The Madrid symbol of a bear eating fruits from a strawberry tree.
This symbol originated from its coat of arms from the Middle Ages.
This statue is on the western side of Puerta del Sol.
Madrid is the capital of Spain and composes its own community. It is pretty much right smack in the middle of the Iberian Peninsula with the communities of La Mancha and Andalusia to the south and Catalonia to the northeast by the French border. It felt like any other European old city with its large park-like islands in the middle of wide tree-lined streets  and smaller shop-lined streets that lead from one plaza to another. There were many palaces, gardens, and churches to visit, and interesting neighborhoods or important main streets to walk down.

I bought the Paseo del Arte tickets which includes the tickets to all three of Madrid's main art museums (El Prado, The Thyssen, and Reina-Sofia). You usually specify which day you want to visit one of the museums when you buy your ticket through the museum website, and you can enter the other two museums within a year of purchase date. You can buy this type of ticket through whichever of the three museums, but you must go to the museum you bought the online tickets off of first to exchange for a physical voucher that will get you into the other two museums. 

Most of the museums in Spain do not allow photos inside. This I found to be surprisingly refreshing in this selfie-taking age. Here I could not visit the museums simply as a means of boasting my seeing certain masterpieces. Instead, I had to enjoy the pieces of art for their own sake.

All the museums were hard to navigate because they were usually in large impressive buildings of yester years; this meant if the rooms were on a 3 by 3 grid or 4 by 6 grid, they were all connected. This makes for circumnavigating each room and visiting every room without back-tracking difficult.

The Prado from Phillip V Street side.
El Prado, or The Prado is formally called the Museo Nacional del Prado. It houses a ton of master paintings. I went to see one of its most prized paintings "The Garden of Earthly Delights" by Bosch which they moved to a special timed exhibit as part of the 5th Centenary of Bosch's passing. There ended up being 53 pieces in the exhibit, some by his followers and his workshop; but there were many ink drawings and large triptychs by him! His colors are amazingly luminesce and the rendering sharp, that they feel very modern. 

I was also there to see my favorite artist, Pieter Breughel the Elder who has two (out of only 45 authenticated) paintings there. The problem with the Prado is that there are way too many masterpieces there. There are Raphaels, Goyas, Velázquezs, El Grecos, Titians, Tiepolos, Rubens', and more! Can you imagine?! It was an ecstatic experience walking through the museum and even recounting the paintings I saw leaves me breathless. I can't believe how lucky I am! It is hard to choose favorites, but I loved Goya's "black paintings" which made me like him all the more. There is something very emotionally honest about that series of dark paintings.

Museo Reina Sofia and Lichtenstein's Brushstrokes. 
Museo Reina Sofia and its other entrance.
Museo Reina Sofia is the one that houses more modern and contemporary art. I was too tired to see the entire collection so I tried to go straight towards Picasso's Guernica. I don't think it is Picasso's best work, but it certainly was striking in its size and subject. Though seeing that painting was the goal, I couldn't exit the museum without inadvertently passing by Dalí, Miro, and Serra. The ability to renovate buildings and add interesting new structures to impressive old ones is a skill that excels here. Every building has its own character.

The Thyssen
The Thyssen, or El Museo de arte Thyssen-Bornemisza is the museum I almost skipped. Since I already had the ticket, I decided to make it a few days later. As I walked through the collection, I kept saying to myself "JUST STOP IT ALREADY!" There was Hopper, Hall, Braques, Picassos, Degas, Balthus, Chagall, Delacroix, Magritte, and more. What was enlightening are early works by Picasso, Gaugin, Monet and their contemporaries that show the development of their content and style. The Thyssen did allow photos to be taken of the paintings inside, but oddly not the galleries themselves.

Puerta del Sol
Puerta del Sol- This is only one of many large plazas around Madrid. With Palacio Real demarcating the western edge of the city and the Prado on the eastern edge, this plaza marks the city center with many streets fanning out from it. 

Plaza Mayor
Plaza Mayor is a large square plaza a few blocks southwest of Puerta del Sol. There are many other popular plazas like Plaza de España or Plaza de Oriente as well as innumerable smaller ones on corners of multi-street intersections.
Santiago Bernabéu as viewed from Zen Restaurant 
Santiago Bernabéu is where the ever popular fútbol happens! I didn't really visit the stadium; instead I was inside the fancy Chinese restaurant called Zen Restaurant that is actually inside the stadium. There are tours that will take you inside, or even better, go see an actual game! The Chinese food at the restaurant was good but over-priced for not being the fanciest Chinese food one can get.
Temple of Debod
Temple of Debod is a legit Egyptian temple that was gifted to Spain. It is set up in the middle of a park that isn't right beside any other points of interest. 

There are only two other places in and around Madrid that I would try to visit that I haven't already. One is Palacio Real which is the official residence of the Spanish royal family and the Escorial which is also a royal family retreat/monastery. The Escorial is hard to get to but looks amazing in pictures. Large tour groups to Madrid often only stop at the Prado and the Escorial.

The interior of the  Casa Hernanz Alpargateria with woven grass soles lining the wall. 
The line outside Casa Hernanz Alpargateria by the time we left.

Espadrilles are traditional Spanish shoes worn in the summer, but bought now by tourists rather than locals. We went to Casa Hernanz Alpargateria around 16:20 and it wasn't to open until 16:30. We sat in a nearby cafe for a drink and saw from far away that a few people were gathering. The shop seemed to open a few minutes early and once we walked to the front door, we were already the 6th or 7th in line. It took half an hour for our turn and an hour before we had our purchase. By the time we got out of the store, a very long line had formed. It isn't a wonder why people would buy espadrilles as they are well-made, comfortable, and cheap. But I noticed almost all shoes made in Spain highlights comfort. I guess in a culture where walking is a necessity, comfort is non-negotiable.

The view of Mercado San Miguel as you exit the southwest side of Plaza Mayor.
Fried seafood mix, assorted olives, and sangria at Mercado San Miguel.
Mercado San Miguel is a covered market that is a great for grabbing a bunch of different things to eat. You can buy tapas, seafood, olives, sweets, and everything you need for a satisfying meal. It may be hard to find seats during lunchtime, but having to stand at the corner of a table with others contribute to the atmosphere.

Acorn-fed Iberian ham.
Jamón Museums are everywhere and sell cuts of cured ham in paper cones. But the best of the best is supposed to be acorn-fed Iberian ham. Don't judge jamón by its hotel breakfast cousin.

Tapas for newbies.
Tapas seemed like an abstract concept until actually facing it on every street corner. I realized that tapas aren't any specific or set dishes, but is small-portion-eating very much like Chinese Dim Sum. They can be anything really and can be innovative in newer restaurant, but traditional tapas dishes are fried seafood, various potato creations, olives, or hors d'oeuvre-looking stuff-on-open-faced-bread.

Sangrias are a must. But I ended up questioning whether sangrias are popular with locals and therefore tourists drink it, or because tourists think it is popular with the locals, drink it and therefore it is popular. You can find it on every menu, individual-sized or as a pitcher to share.

Churros con Chocolate is something you can buy in many cafes and breakfast places. It is basically a cup of hot chocolate with a small stack of churros. Except these churros are not the straight, cinnamon-sugared things in the U.S. Churros in Spain are also fried star-tubed dough but looped and unflavored. You are supposed to take the churros and dip it in the hot chocolate before taking a bite. Dipping really makes a difference!

This is front door of the Atocha Station.
 This entrance is not accessible except by foot and far from the platforms.
An inside view of Atocha from the second floor.
There are two main stations in Madrid: Atocha and Charmatín. When traveling to Barcelona, we left from the Atocha main station; We departed from the smaller Charmatín station for Segovia. Google Maps App is usually good for all my transportation needs, and it was so for the metro and bus in Spain; but for all the trains and times (AVE, AVANT) available to smaller side cities, download the Renfe App. 

Metro and Bus are €1,50 for each ride but you can buy a Metro-Bus pass for 12,50/10 rides to share. It's really easy to buy on the machines at any metro station and at newsstands. I used google to tell me what lines to take and what stops to get off. I was more certain of where I was going than even some locals are. 

Taxis are very affordable in Spain and makes a lot of sense if there are 3 or 4 of you. It is a set price of 30 for the 30 minute ride to the airport. Within the city, it is usually within 10 to get anywhere you want to get to.