The Artificial Lights (a visual walkthrough). Reed Flute Cave, Guilin, China

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We walked past Guilin’s mountains…                               And reached the entrance of Reed Flute Cave

And then we saw this (note, no filter or editing has been used on any of these photos)…

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So what you’d typically expect to see in a cave 🙂

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

The journey…

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

The scramble…

To the train was substantial. But we made it.

The train travel…

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

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

The layout…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A crash. Loud in my ear.

A gas cannister exploding- the green gas explosion…

unfurling through the air.

And worst of all- I froze.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The walkway to the coach station

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

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Our first glimpses of the Great Wall

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

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

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

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Our tourist moments…

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

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

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The inside of one such viewing tower

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The wall in all it’s glory

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

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

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

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

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One of the climbers we met climbing back down

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

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

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Pictures of the Great Wall at sunset

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

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

Discovering beauty in Beijing: the Forbidden City and Imperial Palace

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

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Guards positioned outside the front gates of the Forbidden City 

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

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Part of the Imperial Museum 

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The view of Tiananmen Square from the Imperial Palace Museum

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

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An interior shot

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

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The queues to buy tickets into the Forbidden Palace

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Some images as we approached the main square

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

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

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The sundial in question               Buildings surrounding the sundial

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

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

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Imperial Gardens

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Map of the layout of the Forbidden City

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

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

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YUM

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

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

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

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The Square at night

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

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

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

10 day hiatus because the Great Firewall of China is real… I’m so sorry!

Hi guys,

Tomorrow I’m flying from Daegu to Beijing which I’m really excited about! I have had the best time in South Korea but I am behind with blog post uploads because travel is so fast-paced right now. Expect upcoming posts to be linked to Kyoto, Osaka, Seoul, Jeju Island and Daegu. I planned to be writing and then uploading immediately (as I normally do) whilst in Beijing, Xi’an and Guilin.

BUT THERE’S ONE SMALL (ACTUALLY KIND OF BIG) PROBLEM…

I can’t access WordPress from China. It’s blocked.

Alongside Facebook, Google, BBC News etc… okayyyy.

So what I plan to do is write as many blog entries (and save them onto my laptop) as possible and then when I touchdown in Hong Kong around the 10th November, upload said backlog of entries.

Sorry about this-I tend to prefer staggering what I write but please bare with me 🙂

I am so incredibly touched and grateful for your support and readership.

See you in November!

Livi

Tokyo time part 1: Senso-ji Temple and Tokyo Skytree.

My second day in Tokyo (after a very pleasant flight from Hong Kong but a stressful first day of settling) allowed me to have my first insight into ancient Japanese spiritualism and religion via a temple visit (which I hope to experience more of in Kyoto) and gave me the chance to see 360 degree views of Tokyo, lit up and twinkling at night from an almost bird’s eye viewpoint (350m high).

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My friend and I awoke on day 2 in Tokyo with the intention of having an early start but in reality, we didn’t venture out into Ikebukuro (where we are staying) until late morning.

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Ikebukuro at night- this commercial area of Tokyo encompasses the “work hard, play hard” philosophy.

Here you can see it lit up at night.

Our primary form of transport that day would be the train network; we had brought a JR pass in advance (for up to 7 days, standard price of £165.50, free trains on the JR network and some buses). This was also an important purchase for us since we knew it would cover the cost of our train travel to Kyoto (our second destination in Japan). The first port of call was Asakusa, and to get here, we took the Yamanote line to Ueno station and then had to buy tickets to travel on the Ginza line (since this is part of the subway system, not the JR network).

*note, if you do have a JR pass, you can get a shuttle bus to and from Tokyo Skytree in Asakusa to Ueno station, which eliminates the cost of buying a metro ticket- we discovered this whilst in Asakusa*.

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Ikebukuro JR station                                                                                  Asakusa Metro Station

But enough on trains, we had a short straight walk from the station to get to the Senso-ji temple. The temple itself is Tokyo’s oldest temple, known to the people of Japan as the Asakusa Kannon and attracting over 30 million visitors per year.

Walking through the arch, you experience a riot of colour and noise as market stalls selling items as diverse as rice-crackers wrapped in seaweed, toys pertaining to superheroes and childhood and traditional Japanese-style fans and tea sets line the streets.

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The top of the arch which you walk through        At first sight: the shopping area leading up to the temple

The shopping area forms a kind of crossroads, whereby taking the north fork (if you are coming from around Asakusa station way), leads you directly to the temple. The weather that day was fairly warm, and my friend spotted a street vendor selling Japanese soda. To get the taste, the vendor drops a ball of flavour through a closed bottle top, which then lodges itself into the bottle as a result of the bottle shape and, according to my friend, it then “effervesces… or something”. He also asked me to write that, in his in own words, “he is not a scientist” 🙂

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Japanese soda pop!

Upon approach to the temple; shop stalls become slightly more tourist-focused. If you look up, you can see decorations which seem to resemble tree or tree branches (maybe they are real, I’m not too sure), resplendent in shades of peach, fuchsia, lemon and crimson. Prior  to entering the temple, you walk through another arch (red and gold) and soon come across an urn, with incense smoke rising urgently and weirdly, almost elegantly, and the opportunity to buy incense sticks from a stall to the right.

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The burning of the incense in the urn                                      The temple from afar

The purpose of the incense (reputedly) is to be a method of purifying the surroundings, bringing forth an assembly of buddhas, bodhisattvas, gods, demons, and the like. Entering the temple, you can throw money into a ridged box and say a prayer. It is also possible to light a candle. Since photos are allowed, below is a snapshot from inside of the temple.

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The shrine at which people throw money (into the box below) and then pray

The temple gardens were also beautiful, and my friend developed a new obsession (see below).

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The temple gardens                                                                  The obsession- a loved fish  nicknamed “Diem”.

After the senso-ji shrine, we decided to try and get back to Ueno, where a number of museums are. However, by the time we arrived at quarter to five, everyone was shutting up shop (so to speak). We made the impulsive decision to hop on a shuttle bus which had just arrived outside where were standing in Ueno (near Ueno zoo and the shuttle was free as a result of our JR pass). The final stop- Tokyo Skytree

By the time we reached the attraction, the city had crept towards darkness and my hunger levels were at an all time high (being vegetarian in Japan is not all that easy- a blog post about that might be coming soon amongst other things). So we decided to have a look around to find a place that I was able to eat at. Eventually, we found a fusion café in Tokyo Skytree town (my friend had eaten fried chicken in Asakusa earlier) and since the staff were so polite and obliging (this seems ingrained in Japanese culture), I was able to eat spaghetti with soy sauce and seaweed. Skytree itself exists within a shopping village, and shops there are either cute, quirky and full of anime references or high-end/high street clothing and accessories brands. There are also food courts and restaurants. It spans over roughly 8 floors, with an east and west wing and a centre point.

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An anime shop                                                                              What caught my eye 🙂

Post-food, we went to the fourth floor to access the Skytree tower. The lift elevated to us to 350m high ridiculously quick, so much so that my friend (who’s not crazy about sudden changes in height) did not experience any inertia.

The views from behind the glass windows were like nothing I’ve ever seen before; Tokyo became a toy city, with flashes of gold light from buildings and darkness only arising from rivers, fields or the sky itself. Below are a couple of my favourite pictures from the observation deck:

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I’m also seriously proud of my friend (who suffers from vertigo) for standing on a sheer glass floor (with the drop from that height visible beneath it).

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The glass floor in question                                                       Having a little sit down in the most comfortable place

In the end, he may have left Skytree feeling tired, and I may have felt energized, but both of us thought Skytree was an incredibly worthwhile thing to do. At 2060 yen, it may have been more expensive than Tokyo tower (which is where we initially planned to go and is located in Minato, Tokyo) but in my mind, it is well worth the cost. The views are mesmerising, staff are so sweet and cheerful and it was a lovely way to end a really good day in Tokyo.

Welcome to my blog!

SO WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH YOUR LIFE?

That’s the question the majority of us confused graduates get asked when we finish our studies. For the minority that know, I am in awe of your focus and ability to discover what you want out of life. For the rest of us, we’re faced with a number of options… post-graduate study… job… graduate training schemes… volunteering… or…

Travel?

Yep, I didn’t think that would be my immediate decision either 🙂 But since it is, I’ve decided to write this blog in order to articulate my musings, share a photo or two, get ridiculously excited about food (I am besotted, thankfully so is my travel companion) and just generally describe where I am and what I’m doing.

So to the introductions- I’m Olivia and I’m a 21 year old British student who has just graduated from university.

YAY UNIVERSITY!!!

During my time at this glorious place, I was fortunate enough to meet a multitude of people who were both entertaining and inspiring (slushy but true). I stress this point because honestly, had you asked me a few years ago, never would I have considered taking some time out of education or the world of work to travel. But things change and having completed my degree, I decided that now was the right time to spread my wings a little and immerse myself in some different cultures. Since two of my close friends come from different parts of Asia (Hong Kong and South Korea respectively), I decided that travelling to learn more about where they’re from and other nearby countries could be a lot of fun!!!!

For the first part of my journey around Asia, I am travelling with a friend (soon to be long-suffering travel companion) and am going to Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea and China before returning to Hong Kong. After these 6 weeks, I have decided to go it alone and settle in Melbourne for a while… in spite of having absolutely nothing set in stone there. Which could represent foolishness or become a mark of successful spontaneity (hopefully the latter). I’ll keep you guys updated on that front.

Feel free to comment on any of my posts (all feedback would be hugely appreciated) since this is the first time I’ve ever blogged and if there is something I could be doing to make it better (from the reader’s perspective), I would really love to be able to make those improvements!

Hope you enjoy my blog!!!