Seeing Xi’an part 2: the Muslim Quarter, trying not to get run over and eating too much at a Birthday dinner!

The Muslim Quarter…

Was the plan for late afternoon/early evening. After the gas canister exploding incident. To explain what happened in a bit more detail, a guy behind us was carrying a glass jar which contained the gas and I guess the pressure just became too high and then you have green gas and shards of glass coming towards you (part 1 of seeing Xi’an). As a stereotypical Brit, I decided I needed a cup of tea to return to a normal state of self. Our nearest coffee shop was a Starbucks and so we headed there on automation after washing our mouths out with water.

There is little I can say about Starbucks that you won’t already know but in this Starbucks in Xi’an, beggars walk through the door and actively badger customers for money. It was a strange thing to witness- we knew China had a huge divide between the rich and the poor, but had seen nothing like this in Hong Kong, South Korea or Japan. Staff asked the guy to leave, and soon later we followed.

We headed west of the Bell Tower (in the centre of Xi’an, which we had previously visited) and towards the Drum Tower. We walked around the Drum Tower and proceeded onwards until we reached a new scene- smoke dancing in the air, and a riot of colour; street food sizzling and people jostling around. We had reached the Muslim Quarter.

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The bell tower at night                                             Walking towards the drum tower

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The Muslim Quarter

We walked through a sheltered market part of the Quarter- here, a range of weird and wonderful items were being sold. From the beautiful (woven Chinese scrolls and silk scarves) to the light-hearted (touristy souvenirs), slightly distasteful (playing cards on Gaddafi and Bin Laden) to the intricate (wooden carved ornaments and delicate teapot and teacup sets).

The indoor part market formed a circle, and once we exited the other side, the air was filled with the sounds and scents of fresh food being prepared; meat dishes in abundance although there were also stalls selling stews, soups and noodle dishes.

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We walked past a stall where chefs were making fresh pasta, which gathered quite a crowd. Though undoubtedly heavy, the guys in question never hastened their vigorous kneading and movement of the dough.

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The chefs making pasta

Then we walked back past the drum tower, glowing gold, silver and red in the night-time darkness, before finding a bus to take us to where my travel companion’s birthday dinner had been booked that night.

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Trying not to get run over…

Was one of the biggest challenges in Xi’an (in fact, extend that to the whole of China). There is blatant disregard for a pedestrian; if a car or bus is moving- you better move or it’s the end of the road (literally). In a way, this attitude that everyone has almost gives you the feeling that life is cheap in China. There was one point where I was standing on an insubstantial little island in between two sides of an incredibly busy road and experienced something like panic. However, we made it onto a bus and clung onto the railings on the vehicle with all our strength as the bus lurched forward.

Eating too much at a birthday dinner…

Was a given. A lot had happened that day, from a mellow morning to an eventful afternoon and evening. But it was still my travel companion’s birthday. The final chance to show my appreciation to the long-suffering person who had agreed to spend a fair amount of time going round Asia with me.

Redford Indian Restaurant is located in Tang West Market in the Lianhu District and is number 1 on Trip Advisor. I had emailed the manager explaining the birthday situation and they were amazing- when we arrived, they had put balloons and a personalised “Happy Birthday” sign outside their restaurant.

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The restaurant exterior (and the sign and balloons on the right)

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The restaurant interior

The restaurant is beautiful and the staff are ridiculously friendly. We both went for Singha beers and then gorged on an Indian food feast that proved both of us have eyes far bigger than our stomachs.

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The onion naan they served was probably one of the best naan breads I’ve ever tasted. SO GOOD.

Then they brought out a cream, fruit and meringue birthday cake for the person in question, which meant I got to be the most embarrassing friend I could be and sing “Happy Birthday”.

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Happy Birthday Sugartastic!

Afterwards, feeling suitably stuffed, we meandered around DaTang West Market. We had very little time in Xi’an compared to our other destinations. Our final destination would be Guilin, what used to be a quiet little fishing town… however, as we soon discovered- things change.

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Some photos of the different parts of the market

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Seeing Xi’an part 1: the journey, the layout and the green gas explosion!

The journey…

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Was different. The station was Beijing West and it was full of people, jostling for space. In a tiny way, it conceptualised just how populated a country China is. Foreigners made up 0.1% of the station population. This was the local way of travelling, and a contrast to Beijing Airport.

The scramble…

To the train was substantial. But we made it.

The train travel…

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Was comfortable. Large red seats. We had paid a little more to be in a better carriage, toilets were still squatters as is standard in China, and manners remain consistent throughout the culture.

Then we arrived at Xi’an North station. We got a cab and prayed the driver would not crash because it was seatbelt-less and there were metal grills dividing the front and the back seat- this could lead to a fatal injury. We settled in initially because it was late in the day. The next day was my travel companion’s 22nd Birthday.

The layout…

For the birthday was simple enough to organise. We chilled in the morning, going to a Korean tea shop in a shopping centre near the Grand Metropark Hotel, where we were staying.

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I can personally recommend the latte and the white peach tea!

The morning was chilled… we visited a shop called Yishion (kind of like a Chinese version of H&M and New Look) where we both found jackets and my travel companion enjoyed a McDonald’s lunch (we are connoisseurs of fine food).

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Shop till you drop birthday style and fillet o fish anyone?

The afternoon is where we get cultural. We visit the Bell Tower of Xi’an, which resides as the central point of the city, a hub where four roads meet. To have a tourist attraction which was built around in order to provide the city structure is quite amazing.

It is beautiful; the outside is like overlooking a to-scale fully functioning model village. The inside is colourful and mesmerising, with a psychedelic roof and various ancient artefacts.

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It contains a number of bronze cast-iron bells, prevalent in the Tang Dynesty. Why the tower was created is unknown, although there are legends surrounding it’s formation.

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An hour later, we decided to move on from the tower. All was fine until…

A crash. Loud in my ear.

A gas cannister exploding- the green gas explosion…

unfurling through the air.

And worst of all- I froze.

I don’t think it did me any harm… but it certainly added an innovative experience to my travel companion’s birthday. What was terrifying was the shock. And being only metres away as shards of glass exploded towards me…

The most magical day of travel- visiting the Great Wall of China

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It is a rare occurrence, but sometimes in life you do and experience something amazing. The day we went to the Great Wall, someone was either looking down on us and smiling or we were randomly dealt an optimal set of circumstances. Either way, you know something is special when hours later, you are still smiling from ear to ear.

Our day started relatively uneventful. We ate a big breakfast (which in hindsight was a very good idea, but at the time felt over-indulgent). I devoured my way through frosted flakes, yoghurt, breakfast tea, white toast, mushrooms, hash browns and 2 lots of scrambled eggs whilst my friend had similar (except with bacon and sausage instead of the veggie alternatives). Before we could set off for the Great Wall, we had to sort our transport out for Xi’an, where we were headed the next day. We booked train tickets and waited for a taxi to take us the hour and a half distance to the Great Wall.

Our cab driver was awesome- despite speaking only in Mandarin and me not understanding a word (as was typical of our China travels, my travel companion was incredible in that he speaks and understands are fair amount of Mandarin), he was so friendly, smiley and helpful. The journey to the Great Wall took an hour and a half and we were very excited when we arrived! We were seeing the Great Wall from the Mutianyu Great Wall, located in the Huairou District of Beijing. Upon arrival, our eyes met a large wooden sign baring the name of that part of the Great Wall. We meandered through the shops, cafes and restaurants that line the way to the coach station. Once there, we travelled uphill in a bus (for about 5 minutes) before arriving at another point where we were due to get the cable car from. We clambered up hill, in positive spirits but already exerting a good amount of energy.

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The signs marking “The Great Wall Culture Exhibition Center” and “Mutianyu”.

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The walkway to the coach station

Having completed the steep climb to the cable car station, we stepped into the deep red capsule and we were hoisted uphill towards the great wall. I tried to make conversation with my travel companion (who was suffering from vertigo but had decided the best way to combat it was to frequently face heights- he’s cool like that) and got our first glimpse of the Great Wall, a beige stretch of stone extended along the hill top.

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Our first glimpses of the Great Wall

We arrived at the cable car terminal at the top and walked straight then left, climbing some stairs before we saw a viewing deck. From here, we climbed again and found a stone statue/plaque, marking the Great Wall.

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A sign pointing us in the right direction                 Getting closer to the Great Wall

Through a little arch, we reached the flat ground of the wall itself. And it was spectacular; to the left, we saw trees, hills and in the far distance, an urbanized area. The sun was shining bright against a bright blue sky and to the left, a natural untouched landscape drew the eye- abundant with more hills and gravelly floor.

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Our tourist moments…

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The sun and the moon… on opposing sides of the Great Wall

And we walked and walked, across flat land, slight inclines, steeper hills with steps. Through majestic viewing towers, dark inside but for the burst of natural right that tore through the archway and offered some beautiful views.

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The inside of one such viewing tower

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The wall in all it’s glory

Since we had arrived so late (at 15.30, and the Great Wall shuts at 17.30), we knew there would be a point where we had to turn around. We got to a very steep looking high point on the wall. My friend said “maybe we should climb it?”, and after the realisation that I’d probably only get to do this once in my life, I readily agreed.

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The little square in the lower-middle part of the picture was where we started our climb from

We started to climb the steps, high in volume (numerically) but narrow in width. About halfway up I felt my breath going in shorter bursts. My friend was starting to suffer from Vertigo again. The Great Wall had emptied because it was getting late. But we climbed onwards, reliant on each other for support. The sun had faded a bit now, sunset was approaching, leisurely creeping across the sky. We were confronted with some steeper steps that were shorter in width and so I took the lead at this point of the climb. And eventually we reached the platform we were aiming for, at the pinnacle of the steep ascension.

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WE MADE IT!!!                                                    The sign saying “no tourist section past this point”

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One of the climbers we met climbing back down

I don’t know if it was too much to call the moment euphoric. It felt close. We had reached a point which no tourists were allowed beyond. The wall was now silent aside from us and we met some qualified climbers (in jackets and climbing boots) who had descended from beyond the “no tourists allowed” point. They seemed really impressed that we had made it up to where we were, and were incredibly smiley. The ease with which they skipped back down the slope and onto the flatter parts of the wall was impressive.

Knowing that (at least amongst this expanse of wall) there were just the four of us, a stunning sky, the stonework of the masterpiece that is the Great Wall and the sun winding down on one side of the wall whilst the moon started to glow on the other, was unbelievable. We were just happy.

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Pictures of the Great Wall at sunset

On the climb back down. Happy. A smile stretched across our faces. When we almost got stuck in a cable car because it was 17.30 and the guy who operated the cars thought all the visitors would have left by now (thank goodness for shouting)- still happy.

Because you travel for moments like this. I couldn’t begin to imagine what I’d feel on the Great Wall. And what I did eventually feel was akin to something magical (corny yes, but true). This was a highlight of globe-trotting. This was what reaffirmed to me that getting out there for a few months instead of heading straight into work or doing a masters was worth it. We returned to where we were staying and ate a ridiculous amount of food. The next day we would be heading onto Xi’an in China, just in time to celebrate my travel companion’s 22nd birthday.

Discovering beauty in Beijing: the Forbidden City and Imperial Palace

North of Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City stands majestic, a dusty cinnamon red adorned with beautiful flower beds at the front and guards standing tall, stationed along the width of Tiananmen Gate.

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Guards positioned outside the front gates of the Forbidden City 

I wasn’t too sure what to expect from the Forbidden Palace; upon entry, we decided to pay a little extra to enter the Imperial Museum, which lies just before entry into the buildings which form the Forbidden Palace. This includes interesting historical facts and artefacts relating to rulers and their links to the royal structure. It’s well-worth a visit if you have time- beautifully maintained and laid out. Most information plaques are in both Mandarin and English although some information is just in Mandarin.

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Part of the Imperial Museum 

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The view of Tiananmen Square from the Imperial Palace Museum

On top of increased awareness of the history relating to the structure, you also get a very impressive view overlooking Tiananmen Square.

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An interior shot

There are some parts of the Imperial Palace in which photography isn’t allowed. Interestingly, it was some of the outdoor areas which were more heavily guarded than indoor. Security guards here wear civilian clothing (unlike those who stand at the gate) and are polite but firm when explaining that photos are forbidden (there are no signs, and note that in most areas this wasn’t an issue). We ventured onwards to buy tickets into the Forbidden City itself.

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The queues to buy tickets into the Forbidden Palace

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Some images as we approached the main square

And then you come across the main square- majestic and full of people. We ventured straight ahead, following the crowds. The sheer size of the buildings and courtyards are breathtaking to behold- it makes you understand why “Forbidden City” is a more fitting name for it than simply a castle or court.

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Onwards we walked to Tai He Dian (Hall of Supreme Peace). We also came across Ri Gui (a sundial) which was made of white marble and placed in front of the Hall of Supreme Harmony in order to represent the emperor having the highest power to grant time to all the people in the country.

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The sundial in question               Buildings surrounding the sundial

We also saw Bao He Dian (the hall of preserved harmony) and Qian Qing Gond (the palace of heavenly purity). Artefacts used from when the palace was inhabited are dotted around the Forbidden City. Below is a Copper Vat which was on display since Copper and Iron vats were used as fire-fighting equipment in the palace. The Palace Museum has a total of 308 copper and iron vats of various size.

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Finally we roamed around the Imperial Gardens before exiting the Forbidden City from a different entrance/exit to that which we arrived into (it felt like it were on the opposite side, but so vast is the infrastructure and so similar do all the buildings look that it’s hard to tell).

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Imperial Gardens

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Map of the layout of the Forbidden City

We had been inside the attraction for a good few hours and planned to have a substantial dinner so decided to look for somewhere to go for coffee. After turning right out of the Forbidden City and walking for about 10 minutes, we found a little cafe called the Oasis Cafe. We entered for a few reasons 1) the trip advisor sticker on the door which I’m ashamed to say I got really excited by 2) we had discovered somewhere lovely of the same name (a bar/restaurant place) on Jeju Island and 3) coffee is coffee- and we needed a sit down.

It is really friendly inside there. Unsurprisingly, there were a lot of European customers but also some locals too. And the pizza is really really good (it was just a snack, I promise).

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YUM

After the cafe, we decided to head to see Tiananmen Square at night. Just as a sidenote, we went to use some public toilets and despite the smell being pretty grim, we were amused by this sign that we found outside:

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Point 2 translates as “urinating into the pool… you are best…”

Onwards we went to see Tienanmen Square and Forbidden City lit up at night.

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The Square at night

And the City stands just as breathtaking as during the day, but without a flock of curious visitors transcending through the gates:

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As if to reaffirm the beauty of the place, lights give off a golden glow as they are scattered in lines behind the flower beds.

So that was our day at the Forbidden City- amazing, and well worth a visit!

Going around Gyeongju Part 2: a Vegan dinner, Anapji Pond twinkling in the darkness and saying goodbye to Anna

Dinner was at the ‘Healing Kitchen’, a farmhouse style restaurant with a garden area brandishing twinkling fairy lights and a wooden bench in front of a heart shaped stencil. A weird Vegan/Romantic coagulate vibe but once inside, the restaurant swung back to being instead quaint and pretty in pastel, as was reminiscent of the restaurants we visited in Seoul.

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The heart stencil in question    To quote: love is to receive a glimpse of heaven. Isn’t that chocolate?

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The pastel interior

Food was mixed. The mushroom starter was shared amongst us and I wasn’t crazy on it, but I very much enjoyed my spicy tomato pasta (though, like all Korean food, anticipate a strong kick of flavour).

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Mushroom starter                                             Tomato pasta

Our next stop was a return to Anapji Pond; Anna and her parents were keen to take us back but we weren’t initially to sure why.

And then we arrived to this:

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I know right- don’t you just want some club anthems? Disco lights illuminating the pond.

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And that wasn’t all:

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So Anna and I wanted to express how we felt… :

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Roaming away from the pond, coloured lights are still illuminating certain areas of vegetation:

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And then there was time for one last shadow photo:

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My travel companion, Anna and I

Gamsahamnida Anna!

Because the next morning, three would go back to two and my travel companion and I were about to experience the biggest culture shock to date (for me anyway, it’s unfair to second guess how he felt).

Bye bye Gyeonju, Daegu and South Korea. And hello Beijing, China!

Going around Gyeongju: Part 1- (partially) dawdling during the day

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Being only 57km (approximately 35 miles) from Daegu, today we decided to take a city tour around Gyeongju. Anna’s dad kindly dropped us off at the coach stop where our tour was heading out from, and we soon set off for our first stop- a traditional Korean tomb which was the burial site of King Taejong Muyeorwang (the 29th ruler of the Silla Kingdom). This was one of two tomb sites we visited around Gyeongju.

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The tomb where the king was buried- to put it into perspective, the circumference of the tomb’s mound was 114m and it’s height is 8.5m.

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A tortoise shaped pedestal near the tomb

I labelled this post as partially dawdling because it was at attraction 1 where my travel companion, Anna and I fell behind the rest of the tour group 🙂 we caught them up again, but sometimes you just have that desire to view an attraction without lots of background discussion and I think that’s how we felt earlier on in the day.

Next the coach took us to Tumuli in Hwangnam-ri, Gyeongju. These are a set of tombs scattered around the Hwangnam-dong area, some of which are believed to have been created during the early Silla period.

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The grounds surrounding the Silla tombs

The main tomb in the grounds was nicknamed Cheonmachong due to a flying horse painted on the pendant of a saddle excavated from the tomb. The inside of the tomb was full of history and other artefacts retrieved from the tomb but unfortunately, photography was prohibited in there (and to be fair, I felt weird about breaking the rules somewhere honouring a dead person).  So below is a picture of the entrance to the tomb instead:

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The next stop was my favourite, but one that really comes alive at night (you’ll see what I mean in part 2). Anapji Pond is an artificially constructed landscape that boasts natural beauty- kind of oxymoronic but somehow it works. Built during the 14th year of King Munmu, it was destroyed but excavated in 1974. With some of the original features remaining and historical records, the garden has been restored and is very picturesque:

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Next we went to see the Seokguram Grotto and the Bulguksa Temple.

The Grotto was constructed by prime minister Gim Dae-Seong in 751, the 10th year of the Silla King Gyeondeok.

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Climbing to the Grotto and a water feature you are meant to drink from for luck and longevity

The Seokguram Grotto consists of an antechamber and round main hall, in which sits a large Buddha carved in granite. Again, I was unable to take a photo here but it was tough to see the Buddha properly anyway since it was busy and the statue sits behind a glass wall.

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A prayer room and being able to write wishes to loved ones on slabs, which was a nice touch

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Building works slightly ruined the ambience of the place though

Our final stop was the Bulguksa Temple, which was surrounded by some beautiful lakes and vegetation:

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Above images of areas surrounding the temple and below, the temple itself

We ended the tour part of the day being dropped in an unfamiliar hotel. But as we later found out Gyeongju at night is incredibly different to Gyeongju during the day 🙂

Dog-walking and discovery in Daegu- the personal side of travel

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Why travel? Such a multitude of reasons exist. On a personal level, one reason ranked especially highly for me- I wanted to actually experience where my friends came from, a step up from only hearing about where they come from. With travel you are tangibly there; you can look and hear and feel your surroundings, which is amazing because everyone, to some extent, is shaped by their upbringing. And I was incredibly heartened by how warm and welcoming both my travel companion’s family and Anna’s family were (it definitely explains part of why both are such wonderful people).

And so onto Daegu… there will be two sides to this blog post. First, what we got up to on our incredibly relaxed first day in Daegu and then onto some of the Korean customs I learnt whilst having dinner with Anna’s family (I checked with her thoroughly so I haven’t made any silly errors).

Our first day in Daegu was perfect; we were tired but greeted by Anna and her father at the airport. We got to her apartment and met her mother and Anna’s two babies- her dogs Marron and Noir.

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Noir sensing the presence of visitors             Marron being adorable…

I’m very much an animal person so it was a treat to be able to play with the dogs. Anna suggested we take the dogs out for a walk to Gangjeongbo, a relatively new landmark in Daegu which is significant in its role serving as a meeting point for the Nakdonggang and Geumhogang Rivers.

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 Fun fact: the name “Gangjeong” is derived from the past belief that there was sperm on top of the river.

With Marron in a blue collar and Noir looking cute in pink, the three of us walked around the park and had a catch up.

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Later that night, we visited Dongseongro- a shopping area in Daegu, with Anna and her brother. Alongside browsing in a number of shops, my travel companion, Anna and her brother had famous Korean style fried chicken which I’m told was really nice (I can’t vouch for it personally as a vegetarian but I’ll take their word for it).

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 On night two in Daegu, Anna’s mum made a spectacular vegetarian meal consisting of Korean dishes including Kimchi (or kimchee), which are spicy fermented vegetables, a gorgeous noodle dish, mushrooms in a batter and sweet and sour style sauce and rice whereby you add vegetables and chilli-paste. My tolerance for spice is compared to everyone else at the table was low so I went easy on the chilli paste.

I didn’t take any photos because I didn’t want to seem intrusive at the meal. However, the food looked beautiful, an array of different colours decorating the table. Another thing I learnt about was some Korean customs that are upheld during meals. If you are younger than your companions, you clink your glass under half of where your companion is holding their glass (if I’ve articulated that clearly). In addition, if you are drinking with someone older than you, you face away from them and cover your mouth with your hand while you drink. Finally, an empty glass is perceived as insensitive so people continuously check each other’s glasses and fill them with drink. This is usually the responsibility of the youngest (which, at that dinner, would have been me). But I can’t actually remember if I poured or whether Anna’s family took pity on me and my former ignorance of customs and helped me out. Either way, it was incredibly interesting to learn that these were the traditions and norms which surrounded a typical meal in a South Korean household. It was a lovely start to our stint in Daegu, with more exploration still to come…