Taroko Gorge

Today proceeded in a relaxed manner. Unlike one of my fellow hostel guests, who veritably sprinted out the door to go to Taroko Gorge, I had a relax, slightly singed breakfast before teaming up with a Swiss couple from the hostel. After a large amount of hemming and hawing and the consulting of timetables, we opted to rent a couple of scooters on which to drive along Taroko Gorge.

Scooters rented for the next 24 hours, we set off out of Hualien towards Taroko National Park, only getting lost twice while trying to leave the city behind us. In light of our first few misadventures, I was tasked with giving directions because I was riding pillion. As someone who could probably get lost on a straight road I was a little reluctant to assume this role. However, once we were out of Hualien City, it was smooth travelling up highway 9 and straight into the gorge.

The Taroko gorge was absolutely beautiful to drive along. I frequently found myself wondering why I had decided not to study geology at university (the answer being that I would have had to suffer through two years of A-level chemistry first). The “partly cloudy” weather forecast was one word too long with clouds shrouding all the surrounding peaks. By the time we reached the top of the gorge, it was considerably colder than it had been when we set out. This was odd as I barely noticed an incline and can only assume that we entered the cloud base for such a dramatic temperature change.

We headed all the way to the top of the gorge and after looking around Xiangde Temple, intended to stop at a number of short trails on the way down. We knew in advance that a number of the trails were closed due to rockfalls or ongoing efforts to stabilise the cliff faces. Sadly the other trails we tried also seemed to be closed, most likely due to all the recent rain. For instance, we could only view the Changchun Shrine from the road. Nonetheless, the drive was still stunning, with sheer cliffs eroded away over the course of eons and places where the road curves, allowing views down long stretches of the gorge.

The sun setting, we left Taroko behind and drove a little further up the coast to Qingshui Cliffs. Here the mountains drop into the turquoise ocean which stretches out to the horizon and beyond. With sheer cliffs behind and only ocean ahead, one feels like they are standing at the edge of the world and that maybe anything is possible.

Darkening skies saw us heading back to Hualien and the Dongdamen Night Market. This was very different to most night markets I have seen. For starters the stalls were much more spaced out and permanent. The stalls were also different in terms of what they offered. While there was a wide rage of food as one would expect, there were very few stalls selling goods and instead a large number of old fashioned arcade games where one has to pop balloons or some other variation. All the same, it was an enjoyable end to a delightful day.

Taipei, First Impressions

My first though on seeing Taipei through the train window is “grey”. This was mostly likely because of the rain and a severe lack of sleep. Walking to my hostel to drop of my luggage, I was once again struck by the lateness that everywhere opens at in East Asia. Despite it being almost nine, the only open cafe I passed was a Starbucks and so my breakfast consisted on a cinnamon roll and the largest feasible sugar and caffeine monstrosity. After recovering from some minor brain freeze and dropping of my luggage I made my way to Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.

The huge square in front of it was almost deserted, the early morning and light drizzle deterring most tourists. An amusing observation was seeing so many people in winter coats even though it was somewhere around 18 degrees, practically shorts and T-shirt weather after the biting temperatures and wind of Japan. I dread having to readapt to Singapore’s humidity in just over a weeks time. The art exhibition halls within the memorial building were very nice, I particularly liked the information they had about other museums and memorials that remember the darker events of the 20th century.

The little I could see of the changing of the guard (aren’t tall people annoying?) was very impressive, almost perfect synchrony without a word spoken and lots of guns twirling. There were also a couple of pieces of snazzy footwork where I could hear the K-pop music playing.

I next had a look around the 2/28 Memorial Museum. This gave a really good explanation of the events that took place in 1947 between the people of Taiwan and Mainland Chinese. The English signage was limited but the museum provides a free audio guide so it is still worth going. The only downside was the length of each audio clip meant one was left awkwardly hovering around waiting to move on.

After the museum I wondered around a little more of Taipei, visiting a couple of temples, notably Longshan Temple with appropriately cool dragons on its roof, and looking around the historical Bopiliao block and Dihua Street with its huge bags of dried mushrooms, fabric shops and a few souvenirs. I also visited the red house which showcases a number of local artisan stall ranging from melted bottles and leather work to jewellery, clothes and homemade soaps. It was very stylishly put together and would be a could place to by something for an alternative souvenir.

Christmas in Kyoto

Christmas doesn’t exist in Japan. The few churches might hold a service and every now and then one might see a bit of tinsel, but Christmas isn’t celebrated in Japan. There is no public holiday, no discordant carolling and no celebration. It is, perhaps, for the best. I think that had my first Christmas away from home been full of reminders for what I was missing, I would have ended up curling up in a ball and crying to myself all day. As it was, I had a very enjoyable day and since there was no public holiday, I could continue with my sightseeing.

This does not mean I made no concessions for Christmas. I started the day by heading to St. Anges Anglican International Church of Kyoto for a lovely little service followed by tea and coffee across the road. It was an interesting and though provoking sermon about how we are all bearers of God and the hymn selection bought a lovely bit of Christmas cheer to my day. As everyone headed off to work after tea and coffee, I crossed the road to meander through the gardens surrounding the Imperial Palace.

The Palace itself is closed on Mondays so the gardens were very quite. They weren’t the amazingly landscaped gardens that Japan is famous for however there were a few small shrines and walled off gardens which were very pretty and peaceful. Checking my map, I walked over to Nijo-jo Castle, glancing nervously at the sky as it carefully targeted my glasses with rain. Eventually I was forced to give in and get my Umbrella out as I approached the castle.

Nijo-jo Castle is a lasting symbol of the power on the Japanese Shogunate during the Edo Period of Japan and it really lived up to this impressive caption. Many on the interior wall paintings had backgrounds of gold dust and the attention to detail on the brass ceiling bracket was astounding. One thing I would be curious to know is how they kept warm though as I began to feel the chill walking through the gardens. Unlike the more park like layout of the Imperial Palace, the gardens surrounding the castle were painstakingly crafted with exquisite rock and water formations that photos cannot do justice to.

After some tasty matcha noodles, I caught the train to Inari station to see the famous Fushimi Inari-Taisha shrine. The photos of hundreds, if not thousands of torii gates leading up the mountain are almost synonymous with Japan. The tunnels of these vermilion arches wind upwards towards the summit and as I ascend, the heaving crowds begin to subside.

My family has something of a tradition of taking photos of wearing Santa hats every Christmas and I had been tasked with getting a photo of myself in one today, despite being on the opposite side of the world. Fortunately, I had found a nice hat in Seoul and so spent the day taking selfies of myself in said hat. It was as I was taking one of these selfies in front of a torii gate tunnel, that someone asked me to take a few photos of them. After returning the favour, we began walking up the mountain together. I couldn’t help but smile at the exclamation of wow my new companion made every time we reach a new flight of stairs.

It was on one such flight close to the summit that we merged with a group of Australians. After a slew of photos in front of the main summit shrine and a good natured argument about who was the best photographer and iPhone versus Android, we all descended together to go our separate ways. Even though I was with a talkative group, above the more tourist saturated areas, the tranquil otherness of the surrounding forest was palpable and I couldn’t help but think that the trees were watching.

After a tasty 7-Eleven meal, freshly heated in the microwave, I concluded the day with a Christmas video call back home.

The Chaos of Kyoto

My Kyoto adventure began with a five minute walk to Kodaiji Temple where I walked around the scenic gardens before continuing on to Kiyomizu Temple. The walk to the temple was along several traditional streets. These beautiful old buildings housed a variety of shops selling souvenirs, food or offering kimono rentals. The whole street was packed with people and I was carried up the hill at a suffocatingly slow speed with the rest of the masses, unable to overtake for fear of colliding with someone coming in the opposite direction.

Kiyomiza Temple is currently being renovated to stop the lower level collapsing and having a new roof put on so was wrapped up in scaffolding. It did offer me the opportunity to read about how the bark of Japanese Cypress trees is collected and used for roofing which was very interesting. I particularly liked the mock up cross sections of the roof that were used to illustrate the interior structure.

Having passed through the temple, I strolled down the path through the gardens before making my way past kimono clothed couples and groups to get to the bus stop. My next stop was Kinkakuji Temple, or as most might know it, the Golden Pavilion. I’m more of a silver person myself but as a tourist, I felt duty bound to visit it. It was undeniably impressive and I would be curious to learn about how the gold plating was added. However, that crowds boarded on being overwhelming as everyone jostled to get first a photo, then a selfie, and then have someone take their photo. I even had my someone use my head like a tripod. I mean I know I’m short but they could have waited for me to move rather than just resting their arms on my head.

Escaping the chaos, I walked along to Ryoanji Temple this was mercifully quieter and I really enjoyed strolling through the beautiful gardens. I was most notably taken with the famous zen garden. While the pictures I have seen of it in the past were pleasant, it was only seeing it in person that I felt that I could comprehend its many layers and true tranquillity.

Carrying this lasting peace with me, I walked through the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. With the sun beginning to set and looming rain clouds it wasn’t too crowded and proved to be a pleasant way to end the day before I retreated to my hostel out of the rain.

Shrines and Cable Cars in the Snow

The first thing I realised this morning is that everywhere closes on Monday. And I mean everywhere. Or at least everywhere that I wanted to visit. Hence, Deoksugung Palace, the Seodaemun Prison History Hall and Changyeonggung Palace have all been delegated to the future. After over an hour of trawling guide book, map and internet to figure out what was open I set out, revelling in the falling snow.

I walked to Jogyesa Temple via the Bosingak Belfry. The Belfry houses a bell that used to be rung 33 times in the morning to signal the opening of the city gates and then 24 times in the evening to signal their closing. I could not see the bell but there was a wall in the nearby station that explains its full history. The Jogyesa Temple is the centre of Buddhism in South Korea, and was a beautiful splash of colour in the snow. It was extremely restful to walk around and warm myself by the outdoor heaters as I listened to the melodic chants of worship.

I wound my way through snow clad streets, admiring the many hanok style buildings as I left the busiest roads behind on my walk to the Jongmyo Shrine. Arriving at the gates, I was alarmed to see a large number of people milling outside the gate but no one entering. Had perhaps the opening times online been wrong? Or was it closed because of the snow? Heart sinking, I walked closer until I saw a board bearing a list of languages, and a separate time for each. Somehow in all my reading I had missed that entrance to the Shrine was by tour only. This is done to preserve the UNESCO world heritage site. By some wondrous miracle, the next English tour was only two minutes away and within no time I had entered the breath taking shrine. I expect that it is normally picturesque, but the snow laden trees and rooftops were straight from a wintery postcard, if not better.

The shrine was built to house the spirit tablets of the Joseon kings, their queens and some of their most devoted government officials. The central stone path to the main shrine, Jeongjeon, is comprised of three lanes, the two outer lanes are for the king and crown prince, while the centre one is for the spirits to make their way along. The shrines are undoubtedly impressive and just a little imposing but I must confess it is the surrounding woodland that captivates me the most. In Guernsey the world stops at the sight of a single snowflake, but here in Seoul life continues as normal, it is only among this forest that the snow lies untouched and winter reigns.

The bark of the juniper tree is used to make an aromatic incense used in the ancestor summoning rituals held at the shrine every year. The circular island represents heaven while the square pond is Earth.

With the tour over I head to Namsan Park and take the cable car up to Seoul Tower. This is a pleasant way to spend some of the afternoon, just meandering the various attractions, although there were a lot of “coming soon” signs. I particularly liked the Ssentoy Museum which had a large selection of Marvel figurines, models and dioramas. The view from the observation deck of the tower was rather limited but I did get a lovely aerial view of some of Namsan Park and the section of the old city wall that runs through it.

Deciding the to relax for the remainder of the afternoon I head back the to hostel, stopping at an underground shopping centre to browse a some pretty shoes and handbags.

The DMZ

I was the first to board the bus and it was another 40 minutes before we picked up anyone else. I passed the time by admiring Seoul as it began to awaken. Having picked up another five people, we switched to a larger tour bus and made our way towards the boarder.

Outside the entry point to the military controlled area, we looked at the Freedom Bridge, Peace Bell and an old locomotive engine from the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). The Freedom Bridge is where North and South Korean POW were exchanged after the war while the Peace Bell and a number of other pieces express the Korean people’s deep desire for their country to be reunited. Unification is a major theme of our tour as our guide points out Unification Village, Unification Bridge and so on.

After having our passports checked, our first stop in the DMZ was the Third Infiltration Tunnel, built by the North Koreans into South Korea. After descending the steep access tunnel, we were able to walk along the main tunnel until we reach the third barrier wall that blocks the tunnel on the South Korean side. At this point I stood only 160m from the boarder and it was most likely the closest I will ever be to North Korea. Here pictures were not allowed so just picture a cold and rough hewn granite tunnel (though warmer than the surface) with a concrete wall blocking it. In the wall is a small window and a rusted door.

Managing not to bash my head on the low ceiling, I retreated to the surface and the tour moved on to the observation tower. It felt weird sitting on a tour bus and being driven everywhere after so long being my own tour guide or only taking part in the occasional free walking tour. Fortunately it seems my poor visibility curse remained in Hong Kong and the observation tower offered amazing views of North Korea. Our guide pointed out the various details, from real and fake villages to two flag poles on opposite sides of the boarder which use to compete to be the tallest until the South gave up.

Out final stop in the DMZ was Dorasan Station. This train station sits on a line that runs through the entire Korean peninsula, eventually connecting to China. While trains do not currently run between the North and South, the rest of the line is in use and it was once again apparent just how much the South wishes to be reunited with the North.

Our final stop was at a ginseng information centre where we were enthusiastically told about the growing process and the various medical benefits of the six year old ginseng, as opposed to less mature ginseng, which can only be purchased in South Korea.

Tian Tan Buddha and Po Lin Monastery

Today saw my last day in Hong Kong and I am sad to be leaving so soon. As I would have to carry my luggage around for the duration of the day, I chose a low impact ride in the cable car up to Ngong Ping Village and the Tian Tan Buddha on Lantau Island. This was also convenient in terms of transport as the Airport is built next to Lantau Island on reclaimed land and so only a short bus ride away.

After checking out and a quick visit to the post office, I got the MTR to Tung Chung. Fortunately my book was easily accessible as, despite the looming clouds, every man and his dog seemed to arrive at the same time as me and I had to wait in line for over an hour. This wasn’t so bad with the adventures of Frodo, Merry, Pippin and Sam in the Barrow Downs to keep me company. However, I was a relief to take my backpack off when I finally made it to the cable car.

I think I may have been jinxed in terms of ever seeing a good view, with either smog or night blocking the way whenever I ascend to a viewing point. Today was no different, though this time the culprit was slightly different in the form of looming clouds that threatened to open at any moment. Fortunately, the rain held off until I made it to the airport, where I can here it now tapping away a merry tune on the roof.

Despite the mountain mist, the views down valleys and at least a little way out to sea were impressive. My favourite point of the cable car ride was a young boy exclaiming that a cloud wreathed mountain was a volcano about erupt. Disembarking from the cable car, I made my way through Ngong Ping Village, the section of which I saw having a decidedly Disneyland feel to it. Much to my amusement I passed several cows wandering around the main square on my way to the steep climb up to the Big Buddha.

The statue was undeniably impressive, as it should be as the second largest outdoor sitting Buddha. The amount of effort and craftsmanship that went in to casting the 250 metric tons of bronze is astounding. After descending from the statue I enjoyed a vegetarian meal at the Po Lin Monastery and viewed the dazzling hall of ten thousand Buddhas before finally making my way to the airport where I now sit writing this.

Next stop: Seoul.

Hong Kong from on High

If yesterday was all about the less talked of side of Hong Kong, today was all about seeing it from the heights. Another girl from the hostel and I started the day off by visiting the Sky City Church, 75 floors up at Central Plaza. From there we rushed over to St Joseph’s Cathedral to meet up with a skip the queue tour on the tram up to Victoria Peak. This was definitely a wise decision as people can wait for over two hours in line to get on the tram otherwise, whereas we waited the five it took for the tram to arrive.

Victoria peak offered impressive views over Hong Kong. We took pleasant stroll around the peak, giving us a chance to appreciate a little of the nature that Hong Kong has to offer. After the compulsory photos up on the Sky Terrace we got the tram back down and rushed across the water and Kowloon to hike up to Lions Rock.

Lion Rock was enthusiastically touted by our guide as a better version of Victoria peak looking down on Kowloon. We had hoped to reach it in time for sunset as this is supposed to be particularly spectacular view, however the best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley and so it was for us. We watched the light fade from the sky as we doggedly continued upwards.

Eventually we were force to resort to torches but still we climbed, and it was most definitely worth it. The view out over a field of city lights was breath-taking (though this could also be attributed to the final upwards stretch). While we may not have been able to see the Lion Rock itself in the dark, the illumination of the city made this my favourite part of the day.

To finish off we climbed back down and got the MTR back to Nathan Road from where we enjoyed a gentle stroll from the Ladies Market down to Temple Street and the Jade Market. This provided a nice opportunity for us to fill out stomachs with a few skewers of dumplings and meat, although I confess to not being adventurous enough to try the pig’s liver or intestine.

So all in all a marvellous day, the only real drawbacks being the view-impeding smog that seems to sit over Hong Kong like a blanket and my very tired feet.

The Botanic Gardens

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Sometimes I remember to look at the bigger picture, not just the flowers.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that I have a major weakness.  The moment I see a flash of colour nestled in greenery or a particularly satisfying petal shape, I absolutely must take a photo of the entrancing fungus or flower in question.  Hence, when I go on walks or visit gardens, I prefer to go alone.  This means that no one else need be subjected to my irregular pace.

On my recent visit to the Singapore Botanical Gardens this meandering approach was further compounded by the presence of signs about both the plants and history of the UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Even greater than my photo taking habit is the desire to read every sign and poster ever written; a desire no doubt borne of a constant thirst for new and unique information.  If only my physics notes were so compelling.  Of particular amusement to me was the different minds behind the descriptive plaques for some of the gardens’ plants.  While some authors took the scientific approach, describing in detail the size and shape of a leaf, others preferred a more poetic angle, unable to resist the tempting lure of an well placed adjective.

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The impressive root systems bought back memories of building “fairy houses” in the Le Guet as a child.

Though three hours in the Singaporean heat almost had me persuaded of leaving the Orchid Gardens for another day’s adventure, in the end I was unable to resist the thought of more flowers to photograph peruse.  In this secluded corner of the botanic gardens I was not alone in my over-enthusiastic photography.  Indeed, while my knowledge of orchids is limited, I do believe that every flower of the species projects a sense of serenity far beyond what one would expect, driving people to capture them for time immemorial.

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The start of the Evolution Garden. It always amazes me how trees cling to rocky cliff faces.

I would have happily wondered in peaceful tranquillity down the secluded paths and under the blossoming arches forever.  However, I was still interested in seeing the evolution garden so was forced to drag myself away.  The evolution garden – despite being walked in reverse – presented an informative history of life on earth with the landscape designed to show the descendants of each age’s plant life.  Sadly, with evening beginning to loom, it was at this point I took a mosquito to the leg.  While it is the only bite I have sustained so far and nothing beyond the capabilities of a little tiger balm, I decided it was time to begin heading home.  Naturally it took me another hour to return to the MRT station as there was no way I could miss the Herb and Spice Garden, and it would have be downright foolish of me not to see the Eco Lake.

All in all it was a very pleasant, if somewhat hot, afternoon out.  Now without further ado allow me to present you with a mere selection of the flower photos I took: