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

442

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.

247  248

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

249

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.

272  277

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.

278   285

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.

305  318

Our tourist moments…

334  363

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.

295

The inside of one such viewing tower

326   365

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.

435

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.

450  445

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

451

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.

459  470

468

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.

Advertisements

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.

056

044

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.

064

Part of the Imperial Museum 

070

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.

082

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.

106

The queues to buy tickets into the Forbidden Palace

110  124

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.

131

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.

143   153

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.

155

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).

202  200 

Imperial Gardens

196

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).

210

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:

211

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.

215

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:

232 

   213   

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

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

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

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

536 546

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

547

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).

548 552

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:

574 575

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

579

And that wasn’t all:

603

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

628

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

643

647 648

And then there was time for one last shadow photo:

652

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

388

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.

381

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.

386

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.

393 394

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:

396

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:

423   420

411 410

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.

460 455

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.

465  471 (2)

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

459

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:

479  500

506 505

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 🙂

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.

218   215 (2)

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.

222

244

243

216

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.

230   235

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.

010

009

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).

251  250

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.

 015   032

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.

027  029

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.

178    192

189    171

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.

095   094

121   120

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

209

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 🙂