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!

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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.

 

 

Jubilant in Jeju Part 1; exploring the gem of a volcanic island south of South Korea.

To the south of South Korea lies Jeju Island; this volcanic island is one of the nine provinces that makes up SK and is an extremely popular tourist destination for inhabitants of both South Korea and China.

Jeju Island first appeared on our radar when my Korean friend Anna suggested it as somewhere to visit alongside Seoul and Daegu. I had not heard of it before but a quick Google search enlightened me about how Jeju was renowned for its famous lava tubes and general relaxed ambience. As we thought it would make a more rural contrast to the other major cities we were doing in South Korea, we touched down there for a few days after Seoul and before Daegu.

We were staying at the Hotel W Shinjeju in Jeju-Do which was in an excellent location, just a couple of minutes from a large number of restaurants, cafes and shops.

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Following on from my vegetarian issues in Japan (see “the struggle is real: attempting to survive as a Vegetarian in Japan”), my first port of call was to hit up Happy Cow. Here, we found a gem in the form of the Oasis bar and restaurant, which we liked so much we visited there twice over our few days in Jeju; the menu is very Western (you’ll find pastas, pizzas, salads and toasties amongst other things) but the staff have no issues with removing or changing ingredients to suit any dietary requirements you may have. As a self-confessed carbohydrate junky, I found the creamy mushroom spaghetti to be delicious- just enough to feel satiated without feeling like you have overloaded on rich stodgy food. The restaurant was also the location of a chip eating contest between myself and my travel companion (yes, I think that speaks volumes about the sort of travellers we are) and victory has never tasted sweeter (or so potato-ey- he will never live it down).

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Onto the attractions- with such a short amount of time in Jeju, we knew we had to pick and choose what to do. We considered NANTA theatre (50,000 KRW per person/ £30 per person) and Hamdeok Beach (but a beach is still just a beach) before we stumbled across Manjangul Cave, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which had the Geographer in me weeping with joy. The bus route to get to the Cave is simple enough from a central Jeju bus station but be warned- drivers expect tourists to know how payment for tickets works and are not particularly considerate to those who are unaware. Also, since very few bus drivers speak any English, the best thing to do is to speak to the tourist information staff at any of the central bus stations in order to ensure you know what to pay and how the system works. Our bus driver was probably one of the rudest people I encountered in my travels, and passengers were confronted with the most fearsome of situations- bus doors that closed without any warning whatsoever. It was almost hypnotic, watching passengers sprint onto and off of the bus in an attempt to avoid sustaining any form of injury. About an hour and 10 minutes later, my very relieved travel companion and I disembarked from the bus and found ourselves confronted with a dusty but scenic landscape, silent aside from the occasional whoosh of a car speeding past.

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Never has “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” felt more apt.

We felt like gods walking down the road overlooking such views whilst singing this.

We decided to walk to Manjangul Cave, which was about 2.5km away from the bus stop. Note that if you don’t wish to walk, there are plenty of taxis that will slow down upon spotting a person and offer to drive you there but we reasoned that the weather was nice and we both had a fair amount of energy so walking was a perfectly acceptable option.

During the walk, we passed Yongcheondonggul Lava Tube, considered one of the most valuable lava tubes in the world. The tube was only discovered by accident in 2005 when an electric pole was replaced and should you wish to visit the tube, you can observe a variety of carbonate speleothem such as soda straw, stalactite, stalagmite and cave pearl. You can also detour on foot to take a look at Kimnyoung Lava Tube. During our walk, we found Kimnyoung Maze Park. We were intrigued, and had more than a brief glance at the attraction but at that point, I honestly thought we would not end up in the maze. I was wrong, and we had an absolute blast reconnecting with our childish sides (which, to be honest, we’ve never really been that out of touch with). But more on the maze park in “Jubilant in Jeju Part 2” still to come.

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Sorry about the gum (wish it wasn’t there)                     The view along our walk

The Manjangul Lava Tube is part of the Geomunoreum Lava Tube system and has been awarded a UNESCO Triple Crown as well as being one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature. On the day we visited, the tube was open from 8.40am until 5.40pm. For those craving something educational, Manjangul fits the bill perfectly. At the entrance, there is an information centre where the evolution of lava tubes are explained (skip the next mini paragraph if you just wish to read about what walking around the cave was like and look at the photos).

The process starts with the cooling and hardening of lava on the cave surface, forming lava crusts on the surface of the flows. Next comes the deepening of the cave as more lava flows then melts the existing bedrock, deepening the floor. After this, whilst lava flow stays at a consistent level, the formation of new lava crust within the tube becoming the roof of lower level tubes occurs. This forms a multi-layer lava tube. The last lava to flow through the tubes sticks and remains on the floor and walls of the caves before, over time, the ceiling of lava caves collapse, creating new windows or enlarging existing ones. Weaker parts of the inner cave partially collapse and block the passage.

On site is a convenience store, Korean Restaurant and toilets; despite the fact that food is available if you absolutely need it, having the foresight to bring a packed lunch is a very good idea. I believe the Korean Restaurant was shut when we went to the site (if not, it was just very deserted) and the convenience shop does charge a fair amount for even basic refreshments. The walk to the lava tube entrance is about another 1km, and the walking part of the cave open to the public is about the same distance.

The cave itself in full is 7.4km long, one of the largest in the world, and is exceptionally well-preserved despite being so old. Upon descending some steps, you reach the uneven and damp rock which lines the floor of the cave. Trainers and walking boots are a must here, and some people were even wearing jackets whilst exploring the cave. There are three entrances to the cave due to the collapse of the ceiling, with tourists using the second entrance. The main passage (which you walk through) has a width of up to 18m and a height of up to 23m.

Although the cave is unbelievable beautiful because of its natural charm, there are a couple of coloured lights here and there. However, by and large, the only lighting in the cave is natural and colourless- there for safety and guidance rather than turning something natural into an entirely new artificial entity.

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Underneath the various volcanic phenomenons, such as lava flowlines, lava stalacites and stalagmites, lava benches and lava rafts, is a description so that you can connect the visual image with knowledge about how the formations and decorations came to be.

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We spent a while in the cave before climbing up to the surface again. Although I felt like this:

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The day was not over yet. Next, we got to experience Kimnyoung Maze Park, an absolutely unexpected treat! If you want, I’d love for you to read on to Part 2 (which I’m posting over the next few days) for more about Jeju Island.

Thanks for reading 🙂

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.

Gyeongbokgung Palace (경복궁) , a traditional Korean tea and exploring the “most international area in Seoul”- Iteawon.

Many Asian countries have their own identity; though this may be subjective depending on whether you are native or foreign, we found Japan to be traditional and China to be an intriguing mix, a country which sometimes lives up to its first world international persona and other times is languishing behind with marked (but often internationally hidden) third world dimensions.

South Korea, however, is a delightful borrower. It shows off aspects of Japanese and Chinese heritage, yet is influenced by another country as well- the United States.

And as testimony to that influence, we started our day that morning at Dunkin Donuts for breakfast. Having never been fortunate enough (or indeed, able to afford) to go the United States, this was my first introduction to the popular American brand. And I enjoyed it- my travel companion and I sat with long onion and garlic bagels and lattes, and Anna had a doughnut and a coffee. Having finished breakfast at this nearby train station (we could have also gone to a nearby Starbucks or Baskin & Robbins if we so wished), we hopped onto the metro to where Gyeongbokgung Palace was located.

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At the nearby train station, the Pullomen langors.

Legend has it that if you walk through the stone arch, you will never grow old.

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Guess who wants eternal youth!!!

Gyeongbokgung had a few surprises in store for us; for one thing, the Changing of the Guards (typically reminiscent of Buckingham Palace) also exists here. And watching the procession was amazing!

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The Korean Guards during the Changing of the Guards

There are some very interesting things to note about Gyeongbokgung. For one thing, it was built in 1395 but it burnt down by fire in 1592 after a Japanese invasion. The Palace was restored in 1867, and whilst there were initially 500 buildings, only 125 now remain (I paid attention to our tour guide on the English group tour).

Also, it is useful to note that if you are a young Korean student, you can get into Gyeongbokgung palace for free provided you have proof of age.

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The gates of Gyongbokgung

The palace was beautiful- adorned with a lake, gardens and buildings made up of colourful materials, most commonly a dusty cinnamon colour.

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We were allowed to walk around the King’s chamber (though, as expected, the furnishings and paintings were behind a rope barrier) but the Queen’s chamber was more closed off to the public.

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Note, the palace also gets a lot of educational visits. Above, a primary school tour group gets shown around

As obedient tourists as we are, we eventually tired of the tour and so crept off to the gardens. Like the palace, these were lovely- made lovelier by the riot of colours that met the eye:

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After we finished exploring Gyeongbokgung palace (경복궁), we moved on to Insa-dong (인사동) to find something to eat.

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Anna had done prior research on a vegan restaurant, called Ohseagyehyang (오세계향) in the area. We headed through the lanes of souvenir shops, including those selling your typical tourist items to those whose windows were filled with marvellous homemade ceramics, paintings and jewellery. As we reached our destination, it transpired that the vegan restaurant was shutting for a little while whilst staff went on a break. We were all very hungry, and a bit unsure as to what to do in the meantime; however, it turned out that we needn’t have worried! Nearby lay a cute, traditional Korean tea shop. We walked around the side and removed our shoes (as is customary when entering a home and some restaurants in Seoul) and climbed some stairs until we entered the tea area.

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In the top right-hand corner, the tea place we went to

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The interior of the restaurant

Here, people were sat on cushions, separated by only a low wooden table. Anna ordered for us and we ended up with, amongst other things:

Sujeongwa/cinnamon punch (cold)- which was lovely!

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Patbingsu (red bean ice dessert)- which I wasn’t keen on but Anna and my friend (who comes from Hong Kong) enjoyed. Perhaps it is just less suited to a Western palate.

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Schizandra berry tea- very different

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AND

A sweet set- full of light rice cookie-esque treats- this was my favourite- so yummy!

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After we had finished tea and let food digest a little, we went on to Ohseagyehyang (오세계향) for a late lunch/early dinner.

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Picture of the exterior of the vegan restaurant.

Note that it says “vegetarian” because it used to serve dairy and eggs before it became vegan.

The three of us had mixed opinions regarding the food but I really loved my dishes, which consisted of a spicy Chinese-style noodle dish and vegetable dumplings. Anna also ordered this really lovely mushroom filled batter dish, served in a moreish sweet and sour sauce.

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The lovely mushroom batter filled dish

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Our table of food! Front right- my beloved noodles

We walked around the many shops and little shopping precincts in the area. In the precinct below, on the top floor, was a poo café. I felt this symbolised a substantial cultural difference. As a Brit, I don’t find poo to be especially cute but clearly some people in Korea view the substance very differently 🙂

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Picture of a shopping precinct

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Pic of poo café exterior

Finally, we headed to Iteawon, somewhere that Anna described to us as being “the most international area” in Seoul, and somewhere with a large variety of nightlife. We headed out with the intention of grabbing some drinks, and after heading into a very international nightclub full of (I hate to say it) creepy Western guys staring at any young female, we made a sharpish exit. We stumbled across a little French restaurant and bar called Un Deux Trois. Since the cocktail menu was impressive here and the restaurant had a lovely, sophisticated ambience, we sat down for drinks and Anna and I shared a gorgeous cheese board (I always have a lot of love for Goats cheese). I also ordered a wonderful blueberry cocktail- whilst I can’t remember exactly what ingredients it consisted of, it was more like a dessert since alongside liquor, it consisted of vanilla ice cream and was topped with chocolate shavings.

Eventually we decided to head back to our hotel and just have a few drinks, chat and chill.

Tomorrow was our final day in Seoul, and we were determined to make it a memorable one.

A little sample of Seoul: the N-Tower, eating vegan and exploring Myeong-dong

*before I start the post itself, a big thank you/kamsahamnida to Anna for giving me Korean names and reminders of where we went in Seoul- it was a hectic few days and I struggled to keep track of the names of everything at times*

It was time for us to move on to the next country on our itinerary; we reached the airport in good time and had a fairly efficient flight with Air Seoul. My friend Anna, who comes from South Korea, was meeting us at the airport and spending a few days with us in Seoul. Since it had been a few months since I saw her (during our graduation ceremony), I started to feel how a little child might feel on the build up to Christmas as we circled over Incheon International airport.

We waited for a little bit and then hugs were exchanged as two became three. I knew that having another person would change the dynamic, and I guess I was slightly nervous since my travel companion and Anna did not know each other really well prior to this part of the journey. But spirits were high, and Anna and I picked up a quick cold drink before we all took the airport express to a central Seoul station, which cost 8000 won (£3-4).

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The view from the airport express as we headed towards the train station

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The central Seoul station

Getting to the hotel was up for discussion; in the end, we went for the metro system, assuming that it would be fairly direct and pain free. And in terms of expense, it was- a T-money card (the Korean equivalent of London’s Oyster card, Hong Kong’s Octopus card or Australia’s Myki card) cost 3000 won and was available for purchase in a nearby newsagent. We paid 10000 won, keeping an extra 7000 on the card for subsequent travel. Unfortunately my travel companion, who was recovering from a shoulder injury, ended up having to put more strain on his shoulder than any of us would have initially thought since all the stations had a lot of steps and each of us had a heavy load to carry so we couldn’t share lifting. I felt bad at this point- I had suggested a taxi but maybe should have been more assertive about my want for us to get a cab because of the worry that his injury would worsen. Nonetheless, having disembarked at Cheongryangri station (청량리역) and feeling quite tired, we did get a taxi for the final short stint to where we were staying- the Blessing Hotel in Seoul.

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On the Seoul metro

Our room was simple and clean but sparse, and had a halls of residence like feel to it. However, a huge bonus of where we were staying was an incredibly advanced security system, whereby you had to swipe your key to get through to the lift, and swipe magnetically to enter your room. We met in reception (since Anna had a room two floors below ours) and headed to a Vegan restaurant nearby.

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The interior of Gongjon restaurant

This Vegan restaurant was located in DongDaemun-gu- it was called Gongjon (공존), which means ‘Coexistence’ in Korean. It was a light and friendly café with wood tables and seats and very few other diners, located down a road where nearby, groups of people were drinking in bars or eating in other restaurants. You go up to the counter to order and the food received a mixed review from our group; I enjoyed the tomato and burdock pasta (though it was probably the spiciest pasta I’ve ever had and I struggled at times) but my friend wasn’t mad about his fried rice. Anna went for a gorgeous onion-y mock steak, which she really enjoyed, and we drank a Raspberry squash drink.

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The tomato and burdock pasta

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The fried rice

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The onion-y mock steak meal

Post-dinner, we got a cab to the N-Tower. The N-Tower stands for Namsan (South Mountain) tower and is probably a good place for couples to go- if you visit the website, you will see this caption “where your love comes true, now have a happy date at N SEOUL TOWER”. So after declaring my undying love for Anna (hahaha) and being far too ambivalent about the walls/gates on which you can attach a lock- representing the romance you share with your perfect partner and reminiscent of Paris’ famous lock bridge- we headed to the tower itself. The tower was full of restaurants, some shops and a bar area. Though there is a charge to get right to the top of the tower, you get a good view of Seoul simply by climbing some stairs and standing on a viewing platform. It was lovely, but if we are adding comparison into the mix, less impressive than Tokyo Skytree or the Peak in Hong Kong, which provide a similar kind of experience.

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The N-Tower from a distance       The N-Tower up close

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The view from the N-Tower

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Hey Anna!

Finally we hopped onto the Seoul metro system to Myeong-dong; this was my godsend, because like the foolish individual I am, I had packed more in anticipation for Australia than the very cool (yet familiar) climate in South Korea, and had not brought enough jumpers with me (I had one jumper). So we weaved in between familiar high street giants (like H&M and Uniqlo, which were unfortunately shut when we got to Myeong-dong to shop) and located independently owned clothing stores which were still open. I managed to pick up two sweaters fairly cheap with the help of my fashion advisors (a.k.a my travel companion and Anna) and found a great leather-style jacket in a boutique, which was not too expensive but also sold out in my size (c’est la vie).

A little note about Seoul before I sign off of this blog entry; never, in my entire life, have I seen so many skincare/cosmetic shops and coffee shops within such a small surface area. So people who need their daily dose of caffeine, or get excited by some new tea tree/collagen/snail formula whatever skin product- you should get excited for Seoul.

We wrapped up the day exhausted but glad to have had a little taste of what Seoul has to offer. For us, this was the start of a very busy three days in the capital of South Korea.

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South Korea at night      

Amazing Arashiyama: the day that put a permanent smile on my face

Located on the Western outskirts of Kyoto, Arashiyama is a beautiful scenic area, with some cute and inviting shops and restaurants, the magnificent Bamboo Groves and the ornate Path of Kimonos. Apparently there is also a romantic train, but needless to say my best friend and I were not particularly interested in that! From what is written on paper, Arashiyama seems like the perfect tourist destination but what really elevates it from just another attraction to something really charming is the ambience; amongst the sea of tourists are a good number of locals with ready smiles on their faces. School children weave in between us at the end of their day, queuing for street food and chatting animatedly. And any right turn from the main stretch leads to the more residential areas lined with houses (some of which have the most beautiful front gardens- there is a sense of pride in the way the owners are treating where they live).

But Arashiyama doesn’t deserve a brief description, or a rough bullet pointed list of what makes the place a good attraction to visit, so I’m now going to go into more depth about what we did, and why we enjoyed it. After lunch at Apprivoiser again (with it only 3 minutes’ walk away from our hotel, it was too convenient and the food was too tasty for us not to make a return visit), we walked to Kawaramachi Station (in downtown Kyoto) and got the Hankyu Kyoto Line towards Umeda, disembarking at Katsura station. I’m pretty sure the station name has some anime reference, since my travel companion stopped to snapchat the station name, but I unfortunately have no idea what it is 🙂

We then got the Hankyu Arashiyama line to Arashiyama itself (note that there are multiple ways to get here, you can also take the a line to a different Arashiyama station, nearer to the Bamboo Path). Where we disembarked, we were only 5 minutes walk from the park and we greeted by bright sunshine and blue skies. So after removing the thick jacket and the thinner jacket I’d worn after a cold start that morning, we trundled merrily towards the park (I’ve no idea why I’ve used the word trundled, I think I just like how it rolls off the tongue).

Walking through the park was a joy; the Oi River glistened from afar, many people were out and about, basking in the sunshine and Mount Arash was standing dominant in the background.

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The River Oi and Mountainous backdrop

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Near the entrance of the park

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Another photo of the park from a different angle

We crossed a bridge (allowing for both cars and pedestrians) to reach the other side of the river, where the main Arashiyama café/shop promenade was present. We found the Bamboo Path very quickly, owing to my friend recognising the Mandarin character for Bamboo (apparently the same or similar to the Japanese one) and following the relevant signs. Though busy (as was to be expected) the bamboos were abundant and spectacular. Walking through the path, with the light peeping through the tall stalks and emerald leaves, was beautiful.

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Note that everything in Arashiyama shuts down by 4.30/5pm. I felt it prudent to mention this at this point because we planned to return to the Bamboo Path later on, when it had quietened down, but when we returned, it was pitch black and the central Arashiyama area was virtually empty. We therefore decided to head back to the train station instead.

But I digress, back to the path- we passed a temple called the Tenryu-ji temple (which translates to the Sky Dragon temple) and my friend said that this sounded promising. So once we completed the Bamboo Path (and came across a beautiful and largely ignored landscape a bit further down from the path) we doubled back on ourselves and entered the temple gardens.

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The largely ignored landscape at the end of the path

The gardens were pretty- full of a variety of trees (all with Wooden name plaques informing the visitor of breed) but did pale into comparison when thinking about Zenrin-ji Temple (see the Finding #Zen-rinji blog post for more information).

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An example of a wooden plaque giving information about the trees

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Some of the trees in the Tenryu-ji Temple Gardens

Nonetheless, we found a very charming wishing pond full of coins and decorated with stone frogs, and right by the temple building, a large lake landscape which was gorgeous (and provided absolute justification as to why Tenryu-ji gardens are a world heritage site).

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The wishing pond                                               A temple building

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The lake at the end of the gardens

There are two slightly cheeky things about the attraction to note; Firstly, it costs 500 yen to enter the gardens and an extra 100 yen for the temple (which you have to pay separately). You can see into the temple from when you are viewing the lake, and since the temple itself wasn’t world heritage (just the gardens were) we decided against this (being the budget travellers that we are). Secondly, this was the only place I found that was charging 100 yen for toilet roll (that’s why tissues in a rucksack/handbag are such an important tool). With the amount of tourism the temple was getting, I felt this charge was a bit unnecessary.

Next we went to Arashiyama station (different to the Arashiyama Hankyu JR station we disembarked at) which was a tourist attraction in its own right. This was the prettiest train station I’ve ever seen, with a walkway called the Path of Kimonos next to it, which consisted of kimono patterned pillars in red, pink, purple and orange lining the pathway. At the end of the Pathway was the Pond of Dragon, whereby:

“Wishes are granted if the dragon that landed in Arashiyama is prayed to. If you immerse your hands in the water springing from Atago, your heart will be filled with peace and you will be lead to happiness”.

So I did (being the superstitious type that I am, but also because I thought the sentiment of the water feature was nice) while my friend amusedly abstained.

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The train station                                                  The Path of Kimonos

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Holding water in the Pond of Dragon

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The descriptive sign next to the pond

We got hungry so I hunted for something to eat and… I failed (as was the norm in Japan at times). But my friend had a meat filled steamed bun, which he enjoyed, and I was in too good spirits to let the lack of vegetarian food get my mood down.

We browsed some shops, where I picked up a larger travel sized purse and we collectively looked at some souvenirs made from bamboo wood (nice, but a tad overpriced). We ate at an Italian restaurant called Akamanma that evening (just a bit further down from the main promenade of shops and cafes). The pasta was okay, but note that there are only two vegetarian options from a vast menu and the food is overpriced for a) what it is and b) the portion size. Nonetheless it filled us up. Walking back across Arashiyama, most of the district had been plunged into darkness bar a few lights, twinkling in the distance. It is definitely a place for the day as it sleeps by early evening but we didn’t mind- we’d covered a lot of ground that day. I found the place to be amazing, somewhere that set a very high benchmark for subsequent day trips we did from that point onwards. If you ever find yourself in Kyoto, hop on a train there. I don’t think you’ll regret it 🙂