South Korea – The First 24 Hours in Andong

Andong, South Korea, April 2017:  My accommodation should only be a 10 minute walk from the station according to the Air bnb listing and after the 3 hour train ride from Seoul, a good walk is what I need right now. Conveniently located on the forecourt here is a tourist office but looking around the place there is a distinct lack of tourists – just me! All smiles from the 2 girls inside with their traditional Korean greetings. I get handed an A4 map of the town and a list of the local buses that will at some point pass the towns attractions – and what might they be, I don’t know yet, lets just see how this story unfolds!

Air bnb Shock: I’m shocked to find my accommodation is not as listed, completely the opposite in fact. So, instead of “1 private room with 1 single bed” turns out its a dormitory room with no beds. Yes, visitors here are expected to sleep on the floor on what I can only describe as a padded cloth about 2 inches thick. Having registered my utmost displeasure at the situation, the host found me a couple more of those 2 inch padded cloths and with the thick duvet on top of that, well, I actually couldn’t feel the ground. With promises of limiting any other visitors to the room, i might actually get a nights sleep!

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Temple Art and Free Food:  Having bitterly cursed the host, not out loud of course, I did actually have a good nights sleep on the pile of thin mattresses. They also provided cereal for breakfast with was welcome, saving me a small fortune on the food bill. Time now though to take an exploratory stomp around the area, get to feel for the place and figure out what I’m going to do with the next few days.

Compared to Seoul, the streets around here are quiet, deadly quiet with just the occasional pensioner stumbling around and the odd car whizzing through. The local temple is here too. These places are always good for a 10 minute nose around, pretending to be the cautious tourist which often ends up being invited in, a free local cup of tea and free reign to look the place over. This time however, if I come back at 12, they’ll give me a free lunch – an offer I just can’t refuse.

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I’m not particularly into art and all things artisan, but this has to be admired here at the temple. Wall art decorates pretty much every corner of this multistory’d building. Scenes and expressions clearly hand crafted!

And the lunch, well it’s tasty enough. Rice, seaweed and the invariable concoction of spicy vegetable mixes along with noodles and soup. How hospitable the Koreans are. I would never expect this in London.

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South Korea – Deoksugung Palace, Seoul

Seoul, South Korea, April 2017: The Koreans have the foresight to preserve their ancient heritage and there’s plenty of it! This is the third such ancient Palace I’ve come across since arriving in Seoul with the attraction here being a re-enactment of the changing of the guard. I don’t usually go for this kind of attraction but since its in the middle of downtown, only costs about 85p entrance fee and with the guards routine should make for some unique cultural photography. The place is located next to City Hall so its a pretty easy ride from Mokdong.

Looks like the Changing Guards ceremony isn’t taking place today, presumably because of the big demonstrations outside City Hall – read it here. Nevertheless, an hour spent strolling around the grounds of the Deoksugung Palace reveals some well preserved architecture from around the 1500’s, amidst the last of the spring blossoms.

Here’s a bunch some pretty and unique photos.

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South Korea – The Mountain Again

Seoul, South Korea, April 2017: Yes, the mountain again – the place where one can feel completely free from the hustle and bustle of the city,s thronging crowds,  relentless traffic and those giant steel skyscrapers. Sometimes on a trip there are places worthy of a second visit and the Namsan Park is definitely one of them. This time I’m hoping to catch the sunset and grab a few night views as the city traverses day to dusk to night.

From City Hall station and following Google Maps, its about 20 minutes to the base of the mountain before the upward stomp starts in earnest. Locals can be seen enjoying the late afternoon sunshine while tourists are poking around in the bushes – ha, I mean taking a look at the nice springtime display of flowers and blossoms.

So, here we are just about to begin the climb up, but first enjoying the spring flowers…

So as the sun sinks ever lower, I’d better get a move on and join the thousands all stomping upwards towards the summit and the N Seoul Tower in order to catch the legendary Seoul City Sunset. About 20 minutes to reach the top, dodging the selfie obsessed locals trying to catch that perfect vanity photo under the falling blossoms. Dodging the locals dragging their poodles up the hill, and down as there are just as many heading away as there are up!

And so as the sun sinks the city changes colour, but the awesomeness remains just the same.

And as darkness falls across the city, its teenagers begin their smooching lips locked, with one arm extended holding a mobile phone – yes, like I said, a nation obsessed with selfies. The sunset, rather disappointing since a layer of cloud on the distant horizon blocks what might have been a spectacle, oh well, never mind. As the queues for tickets to ride up the Seoul Tower grow ever longer, I’m looking for some alternative spots to grabs those night views. Actually, quite difficult at times, having to barge in on some smooching to claim prize position!

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That was a pretty nice hour after dark. didn’t get any smooching but never mind, there’s always next time! Now though, its a stomp back down the mountain, across to Seoul station and back to base in Mokdong.

South Korea – Oh The Little Streets of Seoul

Seoul, South Korea, April 2017:  Seoul, a massive urban jungle, but its not all skyscrapers and housing blocks that one might find in Singapore or Taipei for example. Here in Seoul one can easily loose themselves for a few hours, days or even months (if google maps stops working) somewhere in the maze of little streets and alleys that covers the bulk of this city.  While shopping malls and skyscrapers might hold my attention for 5 or so minutes, its the little streets where the real character and charm of the city is to be found.

Here is once such little street in the district of Mapo (Google Map). Just North of the Han river, behind the plethora of high rise is a community of low-rise. Little shops of mosaic tiled exterior walls overflowing with goods out into the street. Its the low rise communities like this that so nicely dilutes the Americanisation that so often accompanies the modernisation of a city, Seoul being no exception. No Starbucks around here, just family owned independent business’s which ever way one looks.

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Good, Honest food – this bowl of Spicy noodles from a small street cafe in Mapo.

There is are eateries just about every few yards here in Mapo, and everywhere else I’ve been so far. While the high end fancy creations can be eaten on main streets between the skyscrapers or in the tourist neighbourhoods, here on the little streets, food is a bit more down to earth. While the menus might not overwhelm ones taste-buds, I’d say food around here is more for the everyday Korean.

Despite the rise and rise of hyper markets (E-Mart, Home Plus) across the city there’s still a place for traditional markets where one can see everything from escaping octopus to various part of a pigs anatomy! Whilst strolling around the Mokdong neighbourhood I came across the Nambu Market – a little street, covered for about 1/2 a mile lined either side with produce, fish, meats and all manner of strange stuff that would make  the average British visitor look away!

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Ha, here I timed this just right to see an Octopus escaping from the blade of a knife!

Eels are quite popular around here, as are various kinds of root vegetables.

So, to find the character and charm of Korean life go and explore local neighbourhoods where that Starbucks, or Mcdonalds will fade from your memory, for a few hours at least!

South Korea – Weddings, Making Babies and Blossom

Seoul, South Korea, April 2017:  An interesting facet to Korean culture is the widespread promotion of love, marriage and all that comes afterwards – and I don’t mean the divorce! The heralding of spring with arrays of blossoms all over the place is undoubtedly the time when couples work up the courage to proceed forward with their lives. All I can say is the hospitals are going to be busy in 9 months time! And with a degree of cynicism its actually little more than a huge sales event! But what better excuse do the young folk need to embark upon the creation of another life.

Termed the official ‘Blossom Festival weekend’ its a 2 mile long line of trees between a busy road and another of Seoul’s city parks – a park filled with tents against a backdrop of skyscrapers looming in the mist across the Han river. And tens just big enough for two and quite cozy on this cool spring day. Perhaps some baby making activity is planned for later! So, amongst the spring time festivities one can find a plethora of street food, vendors selling blossom rosaries and thousands of couples taking selfies under the cherry blossom trees.

Street food, mostly frozen and then deep-fried consisting in the main of processed and compressed meats. Also on offer, octopus and squid pieces sizzling slowly on charcoals. Oh, and those lovely crab sticks with all the tasty preservatives and colourings one could wish for!

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So, here’s a look at how Koreans are spending a cool Saturday morning under the spring blossoms…

And its all happening here at Hangang Park beside the river Han. Even the Korean TV are keeping a watchful eye from above… The wedding show part of it, for those interested, is at the far end. about 2 miles away.

Getting There: Yeouinaru station on Seoul Subway Purple Line 5, Exit 2 or 3

Cost: Free

Eat and drink: Greasy processed foods, 1 coffee stand. Average pricing, about £1 – 1.50 per Item. Coffee expensive.

South Korea – N. Seoul Tower to Seoul Station by Walking

Seoul, South Korea, April 2017:  Having spent a few hours taking in the vistas of Seoul city atop the mountain that is Namsan Park, its time now to head on down with a plan to walk and end up at the nearest subway station. Looking at Google maps, it’s actually not that far and a couple of stations could be within a reasonable walking distance  – Seoul Station probably being the most convenient for connections back to Mokdong. So, with a little bit of guess work AKA follow the crowd, its a walk down towards the city. A gentle slop as crowds make their way down under a tunnel of blossom trees. Yes, a couple of warm days has enabled full bloom creating quite a unique floral display above. The lazy option of course is to take the bus down again, but then one would miss this natural wonder.

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Walk down under the blossoms or…

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Take the bus down

Under the spring blossoms, Namsan Park, Seoul.

Well, that was an easy 15 minute stomp from the top of a mountain, on the same road used by the down buses arriving at the parks vehicle exit. Now though I need to use google maps to get me to Seoul station – easy! First its an elevator down into a neighbourhood and then a series of small roads and streets headed in the general direction of Seoul station. A quaint little neighbourhood – lanes with plenty of character, streets oozing colour. A neighbourhood market area with some street food, and not a single tourist to be seen – I guess they all took the bus!

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So, total walking time from the Namsan tower to Seoul station was around 35 minutes at at slowish pace once in the neighbourhood. A nice doable trip, even for grandma and grandpa.

South Korea – Oriental Charm in Seoul

Seoul, South Korea, April 2017: Dull, overcast with drizzle in the breeze this past few days. Today however a warm sunny morning inspires some serious street pounding. Bukchon is a village situated North of the city centre and has escaped the wrath of developers bulldozers and modernity. As such. here is preserved a small area of oriental charm within a metropolis of high rise and skyscrapers. Quiet, quaint and charming its a neighbourhood of tradition. Traditional Korean houses, many of which are doubling up as business’s. Restaurants, cafes, galleries and wine, not to mention a coffee shop every few yards. Nonetheless, despite its upmarket efforts there’s still a feel of old world charm here. So, far a calming hour or so, take a wander around Bukchon Hanbok Village and try to immerse in times past. According to Google, wandering the streets of Bukchon is at the top of the @to do in Seoul’ list, and fair to say there are quite a few tourists around the place.

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Main Street of Bukchon

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Come to Bukchon for quaint and qurky coffee houses

Getting to Bukchon: Seoul Subway is the easiest method for tourists. Head for Anguk Station on line 3, the Red Line. (Google Map)

Cost: Subway $1.40 – $1.65. Free to Wander around the neighbourhood.

Eat: A lunch counter on the main street has steamed veg dumplings – 3000 KRW for 10. (Google Map)

Drink: Gigantic Coffee has a huge Americano for 2000 KRW, on the left before Starbucks. (Google Map)

South Korea – Expensive, Seoul.

Seoul, South Korea, April 2016: According to US media Seoul ranks 6th in the top 10 most expensive cities ‘cost of living’ index for 2017. I didn’t find that out of course until I had been here a few days and its a report that I can quite well believe, not that the American media are in the habit of making these things up of course.

Here’s a quick rundown of how prices around here are stacking up so far….

My first korean meal, 7000 KRW, £5 for this tray of food served up in a cafe nearby. The menu was entirely in Korean and the staff were unable to speak any English so the only option was to point at a customers table. Essentially it’s an Omelet rapped around some rice, with sweet soy based sauce and then ketchup over the top. Quite tasty actually, although I don’t eat sausage and the veggies were way to spicy! Coming from Malaysia or Thailand, this is expensive. Tourists arriving from Scandinavia or the US will probably find this pretty good value while visitors from the UK would see this as costing similar.

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Since Eating out every meal is going to be expensive I’d better take a trip to the local supermarket where I can at least buy some milk and cereal for breakfast!

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£6.50 for a small box of muesli, £4.60 for a box of special K, well at that price it must be pretty special stuff! But since the lodgings will have cooked rice prepared already, I’ll skip the cereal and grab some fruit instead.

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Fruit is equally expensive, especially for those of us arriving from tropical regions where the fruit comes from in the first place. But even for European nationals, this is pretty expensive stuff. £4 for a kilo of apples, similar for Bananas but a giant pot of strawberries will only cost £3.20. To help ease the shock of this pricing I need some coffee.

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Koreans like their coffee! yes, there’s a coffee shop every few yards on the high street, a few more lurking along the back and side streets. And yes, you’ve guessed it – coffees not cheap either. Typically, Koreans are paying £3.20 for an Americano, more for their latte, in a local sit down joint. I paid £2.50 for this Dunkin D’s coffee served with love, in a paper cup! Starbucks is not even on the radar here in Seoul.

So, quite justifiably, Seoul’s position as 6th most expensive city in the world is not unfounded. Of course one expects to be paying more in a developed land, but this is a lot more than I ever expected.

South Korea – First Impressions, Seoul.

Seoul, South Korea, April 2017:  “Cheaper to take train”, says the rather nice lady at the tourist information desk. She hands me the Seoul subway and metro map, circles the stationI need to change at and I’m on my way to the basement – Incheon Airport Station. First though I need an ATM. The ATM’s here are very different to those in the UK. No buttons to press, its all digital, on screen and very easy for foreigners needing a credit card cash advance to use. Unlike Taipei airport where I couldn’t find any ATM to work, here the first one I come to works flawlessly. Tickets only on the subway, via a ticket machine. Just tap on the digital map the final destination and hey ho, 1 ticket at 4000 Won, about £3.50.

Some first impressions then as the electric train rolls across the causeway towards Seoul city. First the climate – Cool, fresh and sweet smelling air, reminds me of a British spring day. Looking north along the coast towards North Korea and there is a yellow haze, perhaps industrial emissions. The surrounding environment, peppered with housing blocks and towers, is very dark. The hills are shadows, the trees bare and dark green pines line the tracks. Nothing yet that inspires me to grab the camera. Then its all underground again as the train approaches Gimpo, my transfer station to line 5 and final destination, Mokdong.

Better pay attention to the transfer line signs because somehow I’ve made a mistake. I’ve ended up having to pay again. But no matter since its only £1.10 for another ticket and the rest of the ride to Mokdong.

Finally, after 9 hours, I’m on the streets of Seoul albeit in a suburb just to the southwest of the central city area. (Google Map). Another first impression – its rather quiet, not the mayhem I endured in Taipei. There seems a lot more space around here, no sense of claustrophobia as one can experience in such cities as Hong Kong and Taipei. So, I’d better get settled into my Air-BnB room and look for some food….

 

Nepal – Dhanpush in a Day Pt.2

Pokhara, Nepal, February, 2017:

Going up

So, here we are at the very start of the famous Annapurna Base Camp trek – a journey that can last around 7 days, perhaps more if like me your not the mountain goat you once might have been! At least the path up is pretty straight forward – no crumbling cliff edges to negotiate or branches to crawl under or giant boulders to scramble over, at ;east not yet. But the incline is steep and soon I’m out of breath as the air begins to thin after just 10 minutes into the escapade. Time to rest, look back and say to myself “awesome” as the misty valley lends itself to some breathtaking scenery.

Here, the views after around 10 minutes of hiking on the path to Dhanpush.

As the path zigzags up the forested hillside, Its another 50 minutes before the incline levels into something a little easier to manage. Good news because the race is on the beat the mid morning cloud formation from spoiling the much promised views. At this point then I’m feeling a little more optimistic and suddenly find a burst of energy. Just below, there’s a road of sorts – a track for the bus I suspect and if i’m really lucky my current path will eventually intersect and a bus will come along!

After the initial climb the place then levels enough for a few dwellings and some farmsteads as these photos depict.

well, after having a sudden burst of energy a little while ago, time to tackle the next incline! yes, up again as that bus track gets smaller and smaller! Actually this isn’t neally as difficult as the initial section and even a brief glimpse of a white mountain peak tells me that perhaps at last i’m nearing the village. Oh, the official path ends and with no onward directions – not unusual for Nepal. Good news is the path has finished up on a track, wide enough for a bus or jeep at least and that means an easy route to the village. 10 minutes on the track and then straight ahead, a mountain, snowy and glistening in the bright morning sunshine – can’t be far to Dhanpush, surely. No its not, as just around the corner there it is, the village at last.

Next…in part 3, those magnificent mountain views and a look at the village of Dhanpush