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.

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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…

Jubilant in Jeju Part 2; having an a-maze-ing time at Kimnyong Jeju Maze Park

65% ring the bell. 35% don’t ring the bell and leave the way they came out. 5% need the Rescue Squad…

We were determined; having just explored the Lava Tubes, we spontaneously decided to enter the Maze Park and prove that our internal navigation skills were strong enough for us to reach the centre. There is a cost for enter the park, but it is very cheap at only 3,300 won for an adult (only £2 each) and less for a child or elder, with under 7s going free.

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Upon entry into the maze, you see a water feature and well-maintained gardens (see first two pics below). There is also a brightly coloured café selling ice cream, coffee, juices and other refreshments. People with cat allergies should be warned- whilst the maze itself is absent of these furry friends, the area outside the souvenir shop at the start of the maze attraction (near the ticket office) is full of cats. So if you like cats- great, if not- having purchased the ticket, avoid this area.

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This was definitely a family attraction, but my travel companion and I are big kids a lot of the time anyway so it suited us just fine. I was allocated the task of plotting our route to the centre of the maze. I stood to the side with a pencil in hand, methodologically drawing out the route- from the central bell we needed to ring, to where we were standing. A 5 year old boy walking past gave us an odd look- clearly bemused by the lengths we were going to try and fall into the 65% that succeed in ringing the bell (actually, it was more our desperation to avoid falling into the 5% who need the rescue squad). My travel companion and I agreed this statistic may well be exaggerated because we thought it would be very difficult to not either reach the centre or leave the way you came in, but it is a fun fact nonetheless.

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The maze is no Hampton Court (a maze in England which is massive) but it is a lot of fun. The other tourists seem to be smiling all the way through and we acquired a small group who decided to follow us a few hedgerows from the bell when we had figured out how to get to the centre.

Upon completion of the maze, the route out is incredibly simple. It is a quick attraction, which could take anywhere from 10-15 minutes (if you were abnormally good at figuring it out) upwards. I would hazard a guess that most people would spend half an hour to 45 minutes there.

I’m not sure whether we would have gone there were it not for our visit to the Manjangul Lava Cave but if you find yourself around that way, swing by! For us- a large part of travel was the emotion associated with the attraction. And whilst other attractions we have done are undoubtedly more cultural, the sense of achievement and feelings of childlike happiness you leave with after visiting the Maze Park more than justify the visit to the place.

 

 

Why so over-jeju? My explanation to you.

Time is liquid, it ebbs and flows,

Plan for the future- sure- but who really knows?

You can anticipate, and this steers our imagination I suppose.

But the longer I go without writing,

the more my regret grows.

It’s been a while on the blog post front. I know this, and I spoke to my mum just now (trust her to feed me a strong dose of reality). She asked me when my next entry would be up, she told me my readers might lose interest because of the inconsistency of my blog entries- the fact that it has been a while since I’ve written a post which encapsulates the normal essence of my writing (my recent entry on Melbourne was an in the moment snapshot, an exception to my normal travel posts) is not great.

So I guess I am writing this for two reasons. 1. an explanation and 2. what you can expect from now on.

1. I’m in Melbourne. And I’m very happy right now. But it has not been without it’s challenges, and whilst trying to find a job, and somewhere to live, and adapting to a new dynamic (without my travel companion but with incredible friends and distant relatives) time has just disappeared ridiculously fast. When I travelled Asia, my companion disciplined me to write up my diary entries, put a post up, and gave me time to accommodate this. Here, self-discipline is key and I have so much more of my adventure to relay to you (whilst trying to monitor my current experiences and document them so that they can also go onto this blog) that I feel slightly overwhelmed. Nonetheless memory is a tricky customer, both friend and foe, and I realise as I read over old entries just how grateful I am to have posted about these experiences, to know that I can revisit them at leisure and lessen the risk of inaccurate recall.

2. You guys know I’m doing Asia and Australia. You might have read about my time in HK, Japan and part of South Korea. But as of yet, you don’t know the rest of South Korea or any of China or my second stint in Hong Kong or Melbourne. So here’s the new deal- I’ll be putting a post up weekly MINIMUM. Doesn’t matter if I’m in Melbourne, Hong Kong or London (that’s my next few months right there), I want to share with you and am so grateful for you if you’ve had the patience to wait for me, and continue to support me.

Travel is beautiful and I am fortunate to have experienced some really cool things. And what makes me so happy is knowing that you are reading an entry and in some cases, pressing that star. Because it makes me realise that although I can always improve, and some will dislike or disagree with what I have to say, there are others that have been undertaking this journey with me, and will hopefully continue to do so.

If you like, look out for my next post on Jeju Island over the next few days (hence the title- why so over-Jeju instead of why so overdue… sorry I couldn’t resist) .

And a very Happy New Year to you all  🙂

Calguksu (칼국수), hiking and staying up for shopping in Seoul (clearly all cities should have shopping until 5am)

Our stint in Seoul was coming to an end; after two days of running around, we were tired but still aiming to cram as much as possible into our final day in Korea’s capital.

Our first stop was lunch (we slept in a little that morning). As a result of the abundance of food we had ordered and/or were served in Ohseagyehyang (오세계향) (see the Gyeongokbung Palace blog post for more information), I decided that my lunch would be yesterday’s leftover dumplings and Sichuan spicy noodles, whilst Anna and my travel companion went on the hunt for food. We found a restaurant called Eunseong Calguksu for lunch, a traditional Korean eatery whereby my two companions ordered Calguksu. Calguksu is a noodle dish originating in Korea, which consists of noodles in a fish broth (or some other form of meat broth) with vegetables and long egg noodles.

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The area where the Calguksu restaurant was

After lunch, we grabbed a quick coffee before getting a bus from near the restaurant and heading towards Bukhansen National Park (which took about an hour and 15 minutes) to do some hiking. Because of our lack of climbing experience and the fact that we didn’t own a single cagoule between us (let alone three), we took an easier hiking route which meant that we missed a lot of the best views that exist further up the mountain. Unless you can climb that far up and are incredibly well kitted out (which we weren’t- climbing gear is not cheap), the views are not unbelievably impressive. However, the hiking route was very pleasant nonetheless, and a nice contrast to the urbanised and high-paced lifestyle we’d been living in Seoul until that point.

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The entrance to the walking route and map of the area

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A view whilst hiking and the leaves we stumbled across

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Interesting graffiti in the park

We found a cute little coffee shop near the park at the end of the hiking route. Here, we ordered some food and drink (a lovely onion bagel with Philadelphia and a peppermint mocha) and just relaxed and chatted. We were considering what to do that evening; a large part of me want to visit the Gangnam district (and I won’t lie, that infamous song by Psy definitely had something to do with it) but in the end we decided to head to the Dongdaemun area- reknowned for its late night shopping and upbeat ambience.

We returned to Gongjon restaurant (the Vegan restaurant we visited on the first evening- see the “A little sample of Seoul” blog post), located in the Dongdaemun-gu region. When we arrived at the café, it was crammed full of people- with lots of gorgeous dogs running around as well! We quickly deduced that this must have been an animal rights/lovers, vegetarian or vegan or pet-owners meet up (sorry guys, we weren’t detective enough to find out which, I think the former). Fortunately, the owners had enough space to squeeze us in so, like the carefree tourists we are, we gate-crashed the gathering. Dinner was good, but spicy was an understatement! Last time I ordered the tomato and burdock spaghetti- lovely, but with a definite kick of chilli. This time, under the recommendation of my travel companion who thought it would be less spicy, I ordered Aglio e Olio Pasta. After all, I thought, how spicy can a garlic and olive oil pasta be?

I was wrong.

One word, my friends. Jalapenos.

And yes, I ate it all.

And yes, the flavours were great but my mouth watered and tears were forming in my eyes and I got through my raspberry squash at a record pace.

What was bittersweet about this meal, though, was the fact that it was our Seoul goodbye to Anna (although we were seeing her in a few days in Daegu).

We gave her our gifts, a white patterned umbrella from Osaka and two hand-picked pearls from a stall in Cheung Chau (where we were also able to choose what silver pendant we wanted the pearls to be set in- see “Cheung Chau: sunshine, seafood and street stalls”).

After some shared sentimentality, we hailed a cab onto Dongdaemun. And wow- what an amazing vibe!

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Dongdaemun shops lit up at night

Lit up like a Christmas tree, with blue lights radiating outside one building, stairs lit up with black animated figures walking across them and the DDP (Dongdemun Design Plaza) festival in full swing, the shopping district managed to effortlessly encompass a clubbing and nightlife vibe, with bars and clubs being replaced by shops- both high-end and bargain priced. Music was being blasted out from a stage, where a band were performing and multiple people were crowded around. Street stalls were selling all sorts of foods- from twisty potatoes to sausages and doughnuts to waffles.

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Feeling so Avatar right now

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The animated stairs

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A sign leading towards the Art Hall                     The expensive shopping area

We first walked around the expensive shops and, despite finding some avant garde and genuinely gorgeous pieces, our wallets were not going to stretch that far. We walked down the street a bit to a building selling every kind of clothing imaginable alongside bags, shoes, souvenirs and accessories. The format was that of a market, spread out like a shopping centre; a range of stalls selling similar types of item existed on each floor yet each stall was manned by different people and stall owners. In spite of their unwillingness to smile, Anna managed to find herself some wonderful shoes for work and a very smart watch. The pricing was okay- not the cheapest but definitely affordable- think shops like New Look and H&M (with perhaps some clothing shops undercutting these prices slightly).

Although a big part of us wanted to stay out late (the 5am closing time hung over us- the huge temptation being staying out until that time purely to shop), we had to be sensible. An early flight out of Seoul to Jeju Island- combined with the fact that we hadn’t repacked our bags yet- meant that after a few hours, we returned back to the Blessing Hotel to pack. Spurred on by some excellent 90s hits (thank you Youtube) we packed whilst wondering why no boy band currently comes close to matching “Backstreet’s back- alright”. When we got to Britney, we realised that if our neighbours could hear us and didn’t grow up in the 90s, we were probably responsible for their suffering. So apologies if you’re reading this blog post 🙂

Stay tuned for Jeju Island, a hidden gem (at least to us Westerners, it is apparently a popular tourist destination to Koreans and Chinese people) which turned out to be rather enjoyable!

As always, thanks for taking the time to read this entry- I really appreciate your continued support.