Snapshot of the Week: Catching Up (Part II: Korea)

Korea was a story of friends and foes for us. We started out in Seoul and popping up to see the friendly neighbours to the North, then headed South and South again to visit some friends from University, now all teachers in Daejeon and Busan.

First though, the North. We decided to take a tour of the Demilitarised Zone (The DMZ, pronounced “zee” thanks to its American administration) and of the Joint Security Area, where soldiers of the two nations meet face to face. On the way, we visited the northernmost station in South Korea, constructed in the early 2000s in the hope that trains between the two countries could start running between the two and starting the extremely long slog towards unification. This happened with some success for a few years until North Korean soldiers shot dead a southern visitor when she strayed off her permitted path. After this incident, the border was slammed shut again. With this anecdote fresh in our minds, it was onto the frontier.

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The train station.

Before embarking on a bus to the border itself, we were asked to sign a disclaimer which explained that the United Nations were not responsible for your death in the event of an unexpected act of aggression from the North. It was one of many stark reminders that the two Koreas are still technically at war, having only signed an armistice – never a peace treaty – after the war in the 1950s which left millions dead in its wake. We were allowed into the conference room which straddles the border where the armistice was signed, meaning we technically strolled into North Korea by about 4 yards (still counts). We saw North Korean soldiers standing stoically staring at us, but we were under orders not to wave. This was very tempting for reasons I can’t entirely explain, but I was keen not to spark a diplomatic incident. Speaking of which, only 2 days after our visit, a North Korean soldier defected to the South across the JSA, getting shot 40 times in the process. Miraculously, at the time of writing, he is still alive. Another reminder, if we needed it, that these two nations are at an incredibly tense moment in their already tragic histories. We can count ourselves lucky that we have such stable world leaders at this time.

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South Korean soldiers facing North. They do this 24/7.
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The border. We are technically in North Korea taking this photo.

We left Seoul the following day to reunite with Anna and Sean, who were kindly putting us up in Daejeon, two hours south of Seoul. We spent our first night getting stupendously drunk and doing Korean karaoke, which is like normal karaoke but you have a room to yourselves. Shitfaced as we were, it was hilarious, but we certainly paid for it the next day, especially Anna. A takeaway McDonalds (the shame) and a crisp, country walk later and we were back in the game, ready for Korean fried chicken, which is utterly filthy fayre. Our last day as a four was spent in Jeong-Ju, a traditional small town packed with tourists, where Sadie got to fulfil a childhood dream of being a princess, for an hour at least. The town was beautiful and in the throes of autumn, again to Sadie’s delight. It was a great end to a really fun few days, and we were really sad to leave.

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Country strolling the hangover away. Note the water, and lack of a (bedridden) Anna.
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Boom, autumn.
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Princess Sadie in Korean traditional dress.

Next stop, Busan, Korea’s second city where Alice was next up to host us. She promptly took us for Korean BBQ and beers, so we felt straight at home there. Busan is a really cool little city (well there’s nearly 4 million people there so it isn’t exactly little…), full of character and charm. It is one of the very few Korean cities that wasn’t almost entirely decimated in the war, as the Northern forces didn’t quite make it into the city during their eventually failed invasion. There is everything from stunning temples to hillside villages to gleaming metropolitan skylines – it really had everything. The only downside was Alice contracting full blown man-flu while we were visiting, which I am pretty sure we were responsible for. Still, she was the most obliging host.

We are so lucky to have such great friends dotted all over the globe who are happy to offer us their beds and sofas (although admittedly we sometimes don’t give them much choice). If it wasn’t for them, our travels would be so much less of a rewarding experience and from time to time we have to remind ourselves of that. If any of you kind folks are reading this – thank you for putting up with us.

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Busan old…
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… and new.

After Busan we headed back to Seoul for a few days to have a little explore, then flew on to Tokyo, where I’m writing this. Japan will have to wait for next time, whenever we get round to it.  Let’s face it, it will be more than a week.

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Seoul’s answer to Beijing’s Forbidden City: Gyeongbok Palace.
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Snapshot of the Week: Catching Up (Part I: Hong Kong)

Why I even use the word “week” in the titles of these blogs any more I simply don’t know. The fact is we are either too busy or too lazy to write them that frequently and, let’s be honest here, we aren’t actually that interesting. That said, our last blog was three weeks ago and we haven’t bloody stopped since then, so here’s one half of what we’ve done in the meantime.

Our parting note from the last blog was our excitement about entering Hong Kong. We’d had useless and restricted internet for three weeks in China, and we were a little tired of being not far off completely unable to communicate due to the language barrier. Due to Hong Kong’s recent British past, neither of these would present much of an issue once we had left the mainland. Firstly though, we had to get there, which proved more stressful than it should have done thanks to China’s notoriously punctual bullet train network losing its notorious punctuality for a few hours. Still, late at night we pulled into the Pearl of the Orient, dishevelled but relieved. Incidentally, I’m pretty sure nobody calls it the Pearl of the Orient any more.

Our first impressions of HK (I’m a lazy typist) were, frankly, not good. Our Airbnb was in a gritty (read: shite) area of Kowloon and the stairwell up to our apartment was straight outta Trainspotting. Our room had no window. We were paying a small fortune for the privilege of this, which was a serious shock to the system after cheapo-China. It’s safe to say we weren’t exactly enamoured.

The next day we had earmarked to go and visit Jen, a schoolfriend of Sadie’s on Lamma Island. Lamma is not what you think of when you hear the name Hong Kong. Instead of glittering skyscrapers there are one- and two-storey buildings. Where you imagine eight-lane superhighways there are narrow streets with no cars (save the adorably tiny emergency service vehicles). Rather than the vast, busy harbour, there are white, sandy beaches. HK is in the tropics, after all. We spent a lovely afternoon catching up, drinking coffee and making sushi, and once Jen’s hangover had disappeared, cracked open the wine. On the ferry home, HK was enamouring itself to us somewhat more.

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The view from The Peak.
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We ruin the view.
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HK looks better at night.

It continued the next day. We explored HK’s crazy markets and visited the famous Victoria Peak (just “The Peak” now they’ve thrown off the shackles of colonialism, the ungrateful swines). We met a lovely Canadian lecturer called Deb on the way and, despite getting somewhat lost, spent an evening taking a million photos of HK’s incredible skyline. We rounded off the evening walking back home with my school and uni friend Matt, now a HK resident, drinking convenience store beers and eating dim sum. The weather and smog tried their damndest to spoil our last day, but we saw Jen again at the harbour at what has to be one of the finest night-time drinking spots in the entire world. We left the following morning, sad to be saying goodbye but with Jen’s insistence that we return and stay with her still ringing in our ears. We plan on honouring our promise.

Find Part II here.

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Smoggy Mc Smog Face
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But when it clears… wow.

 

Snapshot of the Week: China

As a child, I was obsessed with China. I adored everything about it – the elegant women with their powdered faces, the beautiful countryside and it’s pointy-hatted farmers, the palaces and temples, the legends of warriors and dragons, the emperor’s with cracking beards. Basically, I loved the simplistic, imperial China I’d seen in the Disney classic Mulan. Wear silk gowns all day and have a pet talking dragon? Yes please.

Then, in February 2014 I finally visited my land of dreams…and didn’t particularly like it.

Mark and I had spent one way-too-brief week in Suzhou and Shanghai visiting a good friend who was teaching for the British council. Despite a happy reunion, some great food and our hosts ever-impressive tour guiding talents, our impressions weren’t glowing.  It was grey. And noisy. Everyone smoked, everywhere. There were too many people and too much rubbish. People dropped food on the floor in restaurants, and shouted at each other constantly, Cars wouldn’t stop beeping, and the biggie: thanks to the overwhelming pollution, you couldn’t even see the sky. Coming from the idyllic beaches of the Philippines to Shanghai was like getting slapped in the face with a dirty towel. For someone who is slowly sliding down the OCD scale and at the time worked for a book publishers who specialised in sustainability, China outright upset me.

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Look how young we were… and how awful the quality of that photo is.

 

I wasn’t alone, Mark didn’t rate it much either. Which is why, when I suggested about a year ago that I wanted to give China a good and proper chance, he balked. But a few convincing arguments about the merits of not judging a very large book on one tiny page, and a couple of photos of the Great Wall and some nice National Parks, and he was in too.

After spending the last 3 weeks in China, I can honestly say, thank fuck we did come back. Because, China – messy, dirty, frustrating, noisy, capitalistic and communist (baffling, really) China – was worth it. I can’t pretend I’m on board with everything (for one, their smoke-filled trains are full-on disgusting) and I certainly couldn’t live here, but we’ve had a cracking time, and, thanks to our insanely overpriced 2 year multi-entry visa* we’re definitely coming back again.

Now, I’m sure if you’ve bothered opening my self-indulgent prattle you probably want to know what we’ve actually done here. So as a very brief overview, here goes:

 
Beijing
We did: Hung out and got drunk with Mark’s brilliant old school chum, James. Visited the Summer Palace, Forbidden City, The Bird’s Nest, Great Wall of China, Jingshan Park. Walked a ton and ate a lot of great cheap grub.

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A wall, that is great, found in China.

We thought: Really enjoyed our 6 days in Beijing, hated our overpriced and somewhat damp Airbnb. James was a cracking host and we had a couple of days of perfect weather to see the Forbidden City and the Great Wall – the latter of which was very deserving of it’s bucket list status. Found Beijing very affordable and accessible, though our first introduction to trying to order off a Chinese menu was borderline traumatic. (Luckily it was all super tasty and didn’t resemble dog one bit). When we were there the Communist Party Conference was in full swing, which was both positive (a lot of factories were closed for the week so pollution was much lower than usual) and negative (crazy amounts of security – we couldn’t even get in to Tiananmen square, and all the bars had been closed for the week). Coming from an – at least allegedly – very liberal country like the UK, into prime Commy stomping ground was a little bit of a shock though.

 

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Beijing can be surprisingly pretty.
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When in Rome…

Chengdu
We did: Visited Quinchengshan Mountain and the famous Panda Sanctuary. Walked a lot and killed our stomachs with spicy Sichuan food.

We thought: We really, really liked Chengdu. For a city that makes basically every Chinese holiday itinerary, it was surprisingly unspoilt by tourists. Our hostel was almost half the price of our Beijing Airbnb and absolutely beautiful, the food here was the best and cheapest we’ve found, and the Panda Sanctuary and day trip we made to Quinchengshan Mountain were both super affordable and great fun. We could barely deal with the cuteness of the baby pandas. Smaller and much easier to navigate than Beijing, Chengdu felt very liveable.

 

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The baby panda cuteness broke Sadie.
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Alright, mate?

Xi’an
We did: Only spent 2 days here and came solely for the Terracotta Army and the history of this ancient city.

We thought: Honestly, the Terracotta Army was a little overrated and a lot overpriced. Coming from lovely cheap Chengdu to a city getting its teeth well into exploiting the millions of tourists who visit every year was an unpleasant shock to the system. Everything in Xi’an cost more than anywhere else. A pagoda in the middle of a busy roundabout called the Bell Tower – nice but really nothing amazing – cost more than the Forbidden City in Beijing. The Terracotta Army, very overcrowded and slightly underwhelming, cost more than the Forbidden City, the Great Wall and the Panda Sanctuary combined. Essentially, our two days in Xi’an were very expensive, but we would have felt something amiss if we didn’t see the famous Warriors on our tour of China.

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Standing in line to / See the show tonight/ And there’s a light on / Heavy glow…

 

Yangshuo
We did: River cruising, partying, motorbiking, swimming and enjoying the ludicrously beautiful countryside.

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Bamboo boating on the Yulong river.

We thought: One of our favourite places we’ve been to on our entire trip, but one we most likely will never return to again. Yangshuo is becoming unbelievably popular, largely with Chinese tourists, and is on the tipping point or being ruined by it’s own success. If we thought Xi’an was expensive, Yangshuo is a bit of a piss-take. If we’d visited even two years ago, prices were literally ten-fold cheaper, according to blog posts from the time.

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‘Sup.

 

In spite of all of this though, Yangshuo has captured our hearts. It is breathtakingly pretty and in the Autumn it harbour a near-perfect climate. A bamboo boat cruise down the Yulong river was a highlight, and a motorbike adventure to the mountains through the weirdly Mediterranean-looking countryside was stunning, if a little scary to contend with Chinese driving. If you’re planning a Chinese adventure, get your arse there now, or better yet, get it there five years ago.

 

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Li River, the money shot.

We’re leaving for Hong Kong on Saturday. Part China, part independent and a weird cross between British and Cantonese, not to mention unrestricted internet access! We cannot wait.

 

*Be warned – Brits can now only choose this £180 option. Thanks China, you big meanies.

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