Sunday, July 16, 2017

Walls and Borders - Boundaries Past and Present



10 to 15 July, 2017 - Suwon, Seoul, DMZ, Panmunjom - (South Korea)

Kimchi. The first few times it was served, we ate most of it. The next few times, some. And towards the end of the trip, I have eaten a bit and Jo has hardly touched it. The taste of spicy pickled cabbage is certainly not growing on us, despite (or perhaps because) it being served up twice a day with every meal. Other than the kimchi, and one or two other accompaniaments, not a single dish we have had in Korea has disappointed.

Back near Seoul, in Suwon, weather affected us for the first time. Persistent rain meant we spent the afternoon wandering in markets and drinking coffees instead of visiting the walls. Next morning, sun shining, we walked the entire 6 kilometres or so of the Suwon city walls. Certainly a trip highlight.

Paldalmun, Suwon
Paldalmun, Suwon
Also known as Nammun, or South Gate. Part of the amazing walls of Suwon.


A Baby Raccoon
A Baby Raccoon
He looked too young to be on his own. Tentative and unsure, and not quite steady on his feet. But he found a nice spot in the sun, back against the city wall, and promptly went to sleep.


Tolling the Hyowon Bell
Tolling the Hyowon Bell
Not too much effort was required. Long after the initial "bong" rung out, it was still humming, a low vibration taking a minute or more to fully dissipate from the large bronze bell. We leant back against it and let the resonance ripple through our backs like a little massage.


Walls of Suwon
Walls of Suwon
A section of the impressive walls, snaking around and over the hills. We walked the entire length, nearly 6 kilometres.


The Watergate, Hwahongmon
The Watergate, Hwahongmon
As depicted on the Hyowon Bell!


Jeongjadong Cathedral, Suwon
Jeongjadong Cathedral, Suwon
The massive cathedral dwarfing everything around it, beyond the city walls of Suwon.


Back to Seoul for the last few nights of our holiday.

Highlights from a Seoul Menu
Highlights from a Seoul Menu
This menu had a number of gems. But these four particularly tickled our fancies. Not sure if any of it is not in public morals, but good anchovies over my body may be pushing the boundaries a bit.


Evening Inside Deoksugung
Evening Inside Deoksugung
We were on our way here, and were sidetracked by a concert in Seoul Plaza (note lights shining up in background of pic). The delay meant we arrived at the gates of Deoksugong ten minutes after last entry. The first guard was quick to indicate we were too late and would have to return another day, but another came over, smiled, waved us in, and told us to remember they close soon. We still had ample time to enjoy this wonderful palace as the lights came on.


Under an Eave in Deoksugung
Under an Eave in Deoksugung
During an evening visit to the palace of Deoksugung in Seoul.



N Seoul Tower, Seoul, South Korea
Click on photo to change focus and perspective.


View from N Seoul Tower
View from N Seoul Tower
The men's room, N Seoul Tower.


Those who know us understand that doing a tour of any sort is not our style. However, there are things that cannot be done without a tour. Visiting the Joint Security (JSA) is one of those things. This is the zone that straddles the border between North and South Korea, within the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Some familiar (from footage) blue buildings where the two sides come together, only very occasionally, to talk and accuse.

The first part of the day, the DMZ tour, was mixed. A visit to a North Korean infiltration tunnel ("tunnel number 3") had interest, but the South Korean propaganda video that we were forced to endure was equally humurous and unnecessary, and lacked any substance that could be called informative. The tunnel itself (quite a hike down, and of course afterwards, a tougher hike up) was good to see, but then we were not given time to see the museum on our own.

After this, stop two was a mountain lookout over the border. A sign showed us what we should see, and we could identify the very tall south, and even taller north, flagpoles. Haze prevented us from making out the giant statues of the Kims, and obscured details of the North Korean cities. The highlight of the stop was listening to the "hymn" to Kim Il Sung that was being blasted across the border from the other side. (The retaliation is apparently a good dose of K-Pop!)

Thirdly, described as a symbol of hope, the Dorasan railway station. However, as it is not fufilling its primary purpose, I felt it was a symbol of disappointment and non-fulfilment. It was built to be the station that connected the two Koreas, but it still only sees services south to Seoul. The signage indicates which platform trains to Pyongyang should depart from, but the service has never started.

Finally, for the morning, a pretty good lunch at the Peace Park. This park is the site of a number of monuments and memorials, including a bridge where POWs were exchanged in the 50's, and a shot up steam train from the war.

After lunch, a visit to the JSA, which was our main reason for doing the tour. A briefing by the U.S. and ROK soldiers, outlining protocols and behaviour, before being ushered on to a bus. This took us to the centre of the JSA, the eye of the storm. We had a couple of strictly controlled photo opportunities, outside and inside the buildings. Crossed to North Korea in the process. And then got "thrown out" when a lady broke the rule about crossing in front of the guard, twice. Once she crossed, and got told off by the guide, and so she crossed back again the way she had come. That seemed to be it, then, and we were wrapped up, formed our two lines, and walked back to the bus. The JSA portion is now only 2 spots - they used to include the site of a brutal axe-murder, and another, but due to security concerns, those others are now excluded.

Steam Engine Riddled with Bullet Holes
Steam Engine Riddled with Bullet Holes
Shot up and derailed during the Korean war, this locomotive sat rusting between the two Koreas for many decades. Recently, it was recovered and set up in Imjingak park.


Meeting Rooms Straddling the Line
Meeting Rooms Straddling the Line
There, over there, beyond the blue buildings, just there, that's North Korea. You can see the line. No fence, no gate, no wall. A line. Permanent tension and readiness pervades the entire Joint Security Area. Protocol, rules, regulations. Restrictions on clothing; restrictions on gestures. Both sides keep an eye on everything the visitors do.


A North Korean Soldier
A North Korean Soldier
We didn't see him when we were there, taking our pictures. Apparently, they tend to skulk in the shadows a bit when visitors come. Standing behind pillars or around corners. After leaving, and looking over our pictures, we found him there. Not particularly recognisable, I know.


Jo, Technically in North Korea
Jo, Technically in North Korea
Such a rebel, hey...


Richard, Technically in South Korea
Richard, Technically in South Korea
We were free to walk around inside the small room straddling the border. It was just a matter of which side of the guard you were standing that dictated which country you were in.


All in all, we have had a wonderful fortnight in South Korea, and it certainly warrants a return visit. (Keep reading below for week 1 of the trip.)

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Fanfares and Love Hotels - Week 1 in South Korea



2 to 9 July, 2017 - Seoul, Daegu, Haein-sa, Andong, Hahoe, Gyeongju - (South Korea)

It's always good to start with food photos, especially when you are visiting a place where dining is an anticipated highlight. What's more, it is an excellent sign when the first meal you come across happens, without searching, to be something that you were curious about and wanting to ensure you ate at least once on the trip.

First Meal
First Meal
Budae Jjigae. One translation called this "Army Stew". Typical vegetables and Kimchi, but with processed meats (spam and hotdogs) and baked beans.


Scallops!!
Scallops!!
Biggest scallops I've ever seen. We had them at a street market in Seoul. Opened and cooked fresh in front of us. Scallops in butter and cheese... Mmmm....


The most significant sights of Seoul are those relating to the Joseon Dynasty. Palaces. Walls. Gates. We considered it important to space visits to these out, to ensure we don't overdose and get jaded. Also important, start with the most significant.

Guard at Gyeongbokgung
Guard at Gyeongbokgung
There was a changing of the guard ceremony, and the most impressive thing was watching how they did not flinch or react when everyone just stood next to them for photos afterwards!


Guard with Flag
Guard with Flag
The flag sat listless for quite a while, over his face. But, I assume they are not supposed to move, no matter what. Eventually, a little breeze came through and lifted the fabric off his head.


Ceiling in Gyeongbokgung Palace
Ceiling in Gyeongbokgung Palace


Don't Take Your Photos at the Wrong Spot!
Don't Take Your Photos at the Wrong Spot!
Lucky there are signs to ensure everyone gets the perfect angle.


The following days were filled with amblings and random visits. Another palace, temples, and random areas to enjoy.

Hanok rooftops, Bukchon
Hanok rooftops, Bukchon
The Bukchon area of Seoul is full of period "Hanok" houses, generally tiled and decorated as in this photo.


Raccoons at Chandeokgung
Raccoons at Chandeokgung
These little guys watched on as we wandered about the palace of Chandeokgung.



We have been enjoying the Korean fanfares. The train is approaching, so we get a fanfare. The door is opening, with a little fanfare. Approaching a station - of course, a fanfare. Not just on public transport, though. At the hotel, when you use the electronic key, a matching electronic fanfare emanates from the lock. Announcements seem to be accompanied by fanfares, rather than a plain "bing bong". It just makes coming and going such an event.

We took the KTX high speed train (270 km/h) to get to Daegu, where we were picked up by Nick. We all got lost in the alleys of downtown looking for our dodgy hotel, before we went out to meet his family and have dinner. Given they are just settling in to a new apartment, we really do appreciate him taking the time to spend with us.

Dinner with Friends
Dinner with Friends
With Nick, Nina, and Elsa. We met Nick, almost twenty years ago, when we were in northern Vietnam. We think we met at Ha Long Bay, and he was travelling with Adam. It has only taken nineteen years for us to get in to gear and visit ;)


We travelled out and about and around through the centre of the country, visiting some cultural highlights.

750 Years Old - the Tripitaka Koreana
750 Years Old - the Tripitaka Koreana
There are over 80,000 carved wooden blocks. Each is effectively one page. They were carved around 1250, after a previous set was destroyed by Mongolian invaders. The treated birch blocks are housed in an ingenious ventilation structure which minimises variations in humidity, allowing visitors to gain glimpses of the incredible collection.


Wall and Gate in Hahoe Village
Wall and Gate in Hahoe Village
Hahoe Vilage, near Andong, is like a living museum. It is not a recreation of an old Korean town, for tourists. Rather, it is a village which is still occupied by descendants of those that built the magnificent houses there. Ranging in age over many centuries, it was wonderful to walk around, with photogenic houses, gates, and doors around every corner.


We Get By!
We Get By!
Even without speaking any Korean, and the extremely limited English coming back. When you sit down for dinner, they know you're there to eat. When you point at something on another table, they know that's something you would like. Make a drink gesture, and a beer arrives. Despite the language barrier, we will not go hungry in South Korea.

Sliced beef, octopus, scallops, and ALL the trimmings! Korean dining at its best.


Eventually, we made it to Gyeongju for a few days.


Hmm, Not Sure About This Translation
Hmm, Not Sure About This Translation
Another quirky sign spotted while out and about. When we see things like this, Jo and I just look at each and ask "Why wouldn't you just find a native speaker to proof read it before you made it permanent?"


A Frog we Found
A Frog we Found
Jo went to separate some stacked plastic chairs so we could sit, and there he was. Hiding between two chairs. Nervously, he just peered out at us, trying not to move. We let him be, and found another chair to sit on.


Kites, around 100
Kites, around 100
As we were walking around, I noticed a string of kites. About 50, at a quick estimate. A while later, I commented that it appeared to be more, maybe 70. Walking through the park, we found four men, letting them out, 1 at a time. By now, around 100. We enquired how many there were, and were told they had about 200 in total. As it was, it would have come down over a few blocks. Best to leave these sorts of things to the experts.


Bulguk-sa
Bulguk-sa
A magnificent Buddhist temple near Gyeongju.




Bulguk-sa, Gyeongju, South Korea
Click on photo to change focus and perspective.



Bulguk-sa, Gyeongju, South Korea
Click on photo to change focus and perspective.


Stone Bridge, Bulguk-sa
Stone Bridge, Bulguk-sa
A bridge on the approach to the temple.


Chipmunk
Chipmunk
A cheeky and playful fellow peers over a rock at us, playing hide and seek as we tried to get his photo. In between scurries, he would sit motionless for a few seconds to take everything in, and that was our chance to snap.


So, we have stayed in a couple of regular hotels, and in a couple of love hotels. The value for money of a love hotel is significantly better. Much bigger rooms and more facilities - we even got a spa bath in one - but generally a computer in the room, and cable tv with multitudes of channels. But, you do have to put up with some pretty atrocious decor. Also, a minority appear to be a little on the sleazy side. However, it should be stated that the majority advertise and openly accept regular travellers, even having rooms on normal hotel booking websites. It is also worth noting we are in a country where some extended families all live together, and these hotels often provide respite and escape for married couples with too many people living in their homes. So, you trudge in with your backpacks, and step in to a room of kitsch. Pink frills around the mirrors; baubelled chandeliers; tables with curling wands and hairdryers and beauty kits; double showers and spa baths; coloured sultry mood lighting which is useless for seeing anything; love hearts and kitten decorations. All good, though, and worth tolerating for a slice of cheap luxury.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Rocking Out in Palawan



19 to 25 January, 2017 - Puerto Princesa, El Nido, Sabang - (Philippines)

So, another trip comes to a close. We wrapped up in the western Philippine island of Palawan.

First, the beautiful rocky islands of Bacuit Bay, in the northern part. Based in El Nido, with its reasonable beach, the beauty of the archipelago was truly appreciated on a day trip island hopping. This also gave us our final snorkelling time with a small but highly concentrated coral garden featuring an abundance of gorgeous fish.

An Insect Friend
An Insect Friend
I just love how glossy this large horned beetle is. He looks pretty ferocious, too.


Sunrise at El Nido
Sunrise at El Nido
This was the view from our place in El Nido. Cadlao Island.


Entrance, Large Lagoon
Entrance, Large Lagoon
Coming in to the large lagoon on Miniloc Island in Bacuit Bay.


Rock Formations
Rock Formations
Inside the large lagoon, Miniloc Island.


More Rock Formations
More Rock Formations
As we exited the large lagoon, Miniloc Island.


Our final destination was Sabang, for the World Heritage Puerto Princesa Subterranean River, the world's longest cave navigable by boat.

Like Spiders
Like Spiders
The boats anchored off-shore at Sabang, looking sinister. They reminded me of spiders, or a fleet of drones.


Cave Formation
Cave Formation
One of the beautiful cave formations in the underground river of Puerto Princesa Subterranean River.


It's Sharon Stone
It's Sharon Stone
Can you see the curvaceous figure in the rock formation?


Monitor Lizard
Monitor Lizard
A large lizard shows us his wonderful forked tongue.


Cautious Monitoring of the Situation
Cautious Monitoring of the Situation
Jo and a none too shy monitor lizard.


Local Transport
Local Transport
Heading back to Puerto Princessa on a jeepney. I joined some local guys and rode on the roof.


Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Multitudes and Miniatures



11 to 19 January, 2017 - Larena-Siquijor, Tagbilaran-Bohol, Doljo Beach - (Philippines)

A blog about the multitudes at Siquijor, and the miniatures on Bohol.

Although we did do some fantastic snorkelling at Siquijor, the wonderful marine life that enthralled us for hours did not require us to do much more than wade in. At low tide, before even getting our feet wet, we watched battalions of soldier crabs rippling across the sand bar. From a distance, each wave was just a single dark mass, like a shadow, morphing into different shapes as it moved.

Further along the squishy sandbar, maintaining their own territory free of crabs, were the scores of sandy coloured sea stars. Sometimes, it was hard to identify if the star was a living creature, or just an impression left behind in the sand by one which had moved on.

And out in the water near the dark patches of spiny sea urchins, were the red, orange, and ochre sea stars, with their blackened knobbly spines.

An Army of Blue Soldier Crabs
An Army of Blue Soldier Crabs
For about half an hour, while the tide was at the its lowest point, thousands upon thousands of tiny crabs scuttled across the beach. Taking a step towards them, they would bury themselves in the sand, and in seconds, there was almost no evidence they had even been there.


Crab Individuals - Blue Soldier Crabs
Crab Individuals - Blue Soldier Crabs
If we stood still for a few minutes, the buried crabs would bravely emerge from their sandy hiding places. They just didn't notice us when we were not moving.


A Spotted Moon Crab
A Spotted Moon Crab
Claws and legs pulled in nice and tight, flattened so that all the toughest shell locks together to create a defensive armour. On the shore, Siquijor island.


Various Sea Stars on the Sand
Various Sea Stars on the Sand
Generally, they were just laying on the wet sand. At first, we thought they were dead. Every now and then, one or two decided to get moving, and they could muster quite a cracking pace, considering they were out of the water.


Sea Stars
Sea Stars
A fleeting encounter between two sea stars.


A Small Knobby Sea Star
A Small Knobby Sea Star
Going by a variety of names (see the next picture), we grew quite fond of these abundant echinoderms. Wonderfully colourful and abundant in knee to waist deep water, Siquijor.


Chocolate Chip Starfish
Chocolate Chip Starfish
Protoreaster Nodosus, Horned Sea Star, Knobby Sea Star, or Chocolate Chip Starfish.


After a few days enjoying the sun and water at Siquijor, we ferried to Bohol. Day one, take a motorbike out and about, visiting the miniature primates and the miniature mountains.

Philippine Tarsier
Philippine Tarsier
Say hello to one of the smallest primates. An impossibly cute nocturnal creature, rarely seen in the wild. The island of Bohol is one of the few places where it is almost guaranteed to see them, in the sanctuaries. This photo was taken in a well known and long established sanctuary near Corella.


The Chocolate Hills
The Chocolate Hills
Looking a little greener than we expected. The miniature mounds dot the landscape as far as we could see. The name comes from the colour during dry season, particularly at dawn or dusk. Not seeing them in their namesake colour did not take away from the experience.


After riding about, before returning to Tagbilaran, we decided to look for somewhere to spend the last couple of nights in Bohol, at the beach. Alona beach is where it is all happening, so we thought we would start there. Oh, it was awful. The crowds; the noise; the gringos; the general "holiday makers are here"; the overpriced accommodation. And the beach was not that wonderful. There was not going to be any possibility of getting something beachfront, without paying through the nose. So we spent some time looking at nearby beaches, getting disheartened, and finally, in the failing light, decided to give up and go back to Tagbilaran and "re=group" - assess our options and maybe hop on a bus to somewhere else entirely.

Returning to town, I missed a turn off. (I blamed the poor light, but the next day I realised there wasn't a sign, anyway, and I would have missed it regardless). After a while, we realised we had made a mistake and were not where we wanted to be and would have to double back. It was under these odd circumstances that we stumbled across the much less touristy Doljo Beach. Far quieter, and far better value. Sometimes, we feel so looked after.

The next day, it rained, and rained, and rained. Not torrential, but pretty consistent. And the wind (at the beach, at least), did not ever relax. The windsurfers and kite surfers were loving it, racing past us as we sheltered under the terrace. Occasional let ups meant we could escape and go for a walk for a (wonderful) seafood dinner (chilli crabs and sizzling calamari), but we were a little restricted in our range due to the fear of getting soaked.

The weather stayed somber, but the rain abated the following day. Not beach weather, but we motored around on a scooter for a while before deciding to ride to the Abatan River to do firefly watching. Both multitudal and miniature, it was beautiful to sit on a kayak in the still and quiet night, watching the blinking dots swarm over their selected trees. Just a tree here and there, with a few stray insects wandering to the neighbouring bushes, but the chosen trees receiving a lot of firefly attention. Sometimes, almost all of them would blink in near unison, creating a throbbing and pulsing impression like a firefly night club. Other times, the light would shimmer across the mass like a wave. And then there were times where every firefly seemed to be blinking to their own individual rhythm and style. No matter how, though, they always just looked like Christmas trees with living lights.

Dusk at the Abatan River
Dusk at the Abatan River
We were unable to capture the fireflies in photos. Sitting on a kayak in near total darkness taking pictures of hundreds of pinpoints of flashing lights is a near impossible task with good equipment, but since we were getting wet I was only willing to try photos with the phone in the waterproof sleeve. This turned near impossible to totally impossible. So, here is a "before setting out" picture to act as a memory jogger.