Going around Guilin: the Elephant Trunk Hill (Xiangbishan).

For me, Guilin was a first. For my travel companion, he had visited 10 years previously. He remembered this part of China as possessing great natural beauty, a rural kind of charm. This kind of beauty remains in fragments:

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But as with anything, development is a double-edged sword- and as we ventured away from the Reed Flute Cave back to our van, the same machines creating for Guilin were also marring the landscape of what used to be an untouched fishing village.

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See the crane- top right hand corner

But all was not lost, because the Elephant Trunk Hill (Xiangbishan) provided us with a scenic snapshot to enjoy. Better still- whatever age you are- you’re never too old to enjoy a park (well that’s my theory).

The Elephant Trunk Hill gets it’s name from the shape the rocks form, resembling an elephant drinking from the River Li. Entrance cost CNY 75 and you pay more if you wish to climb the hill.

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Apparently, there are carvings in the rocks which provide information on the attraction, but you need someone with local knowledge to give more information about this. We decided not to climb the hill due to budgeting restrictions.

However, we did enter the “lovers park” (not awkward because, more than anything else, it was all humorously bewildering to my friend and I).

The park area is full of steel framed statues and larking around is a must:

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Minnie and Mickey being all cute      And the Garden of Eden- weird statue styleSecond batch of 13 November photos 232  Second batch of 13 November photos 229

So basically quite unlike parks in the UK. Kids look away now. 

Though we didn’t know this at the time, parts of the park can be lit up at night- we figured this out upon seeing a tree with lights hanging down from the branches. So as a tip, perhaps this would be the best time to visit the Elephant Trunk Hill Park. However, entrance into the park at night is more expensive, so do take this into consideration.

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From the park, you also get views of the river:

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By now, we had completed both the Reed Flute Cave and the Elephant Trunk Hill and we were feeling incredibly hungry. We consulted a park map and located a restaurant on the edge of the park, overlooking the River Lijang. The Homa Cafe is a hidden delight- waiting staff are friendly, and on a cold day- food is incredibly warming.

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My friend tucked into a noodle dish whilst I enjoyed tofu, rice and stir fried vegetables. After swapping drinks (he wasn’t fond of his citrus, orangey tea but I enjoyed it), we returned to the area around our hotel in Guilin and explored the town during the late afternoon.

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Our late lunch at Homa Cafe. 

Our time in China was drawing to a close. But I still had a bit more time in Hong Kong before I approached the other part of my journey and settled down in Melbourne, Australia for a couple of months. And despite thinking I’d seen it all in Hong Kong during my first stint there (see the categories sidebar for my earlier blog posts on Hong Kong), it just so happens I was very wrong. The commercial capital of Asia still had far more to offer…

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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…

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…

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