The Mongolian Steppes

Erdene Zuu Monastery.
First lunch together.
View from the edge of an extinct volcano.
Time for a dip?
Sheep being hung. Seeing how efficiently the sheep was killed and cleaned was fascinating and every part really was used.
Archery practice.
Horses. Note the unusual saddles.
I could ride forever and not get bored of the scenery.
Some cabins we visited.
Lots of yak and cow hybrids to be found with their shaggy coats.
Getting ready to go.
Rascal, the horse I was riding.
Our guide, wranglers and drivers.
There were so many different kinds of grasshopper.
Sunset
Another sunset since there were so many beautiful ones.
Bare back riding. That isn’t a smile, it is a grimace of pain due to Rascal’s boney back.
Looking at where we had been.
Nothing like a campfire while watching the sun go down.
We met this gorgeous bundle of fluffiness.

Riding the Mongolian Steppes

I got to ride a camel on our drive out to Zavkhan province.

The past two weeks have been some of the best in my life. I can think of only a few other occasions that have been so full of laughs, 360° scenery and adventure for such an extended period of time. Ever since hearing my grandmother’s description of Mongolia, I knew I would eventually find my way to the Steppes and this summer seemed like the perfect time to go. Rather than a quick foray into the wilds before returning to Ulan Bator in a matter of days, I booked a seventeen day horse riding tour in the Zavkhan Province. Not all of this was riding, the first and last were more bookend days in Ulan Bator with welcome and goodbye meals and we also had a number of days of driving in the ubiquitous UAZ vans.

The music performance.

On the long drive out to Tosontsengel in Zavkhan Province-this took several days-we stopped at the Erdene Zuu Monastery which contains what is probably the oldest Buddhist temple in Mongolia. This was really interesting because-since it belongs to a sect of Tibetan Buddhism-there was a lot of influence from other religions, notably shamanism. In particular the demon statues and paintings were simultaneously mildly terrifying and very cool. The presence of a rainbow and mountainous hills (when does a hill become a mountain?) stretching up beyond the plains further excited me and all I could think was I can’t wait to be riding through this.

The is a contest here every year where if one throws a rock to the other side of the rive they win a horse.

The first couple of nights before we met up with the horses and cook tent we stayed in tourist ger camps and enjoyed the last showers we would be experiencing for a while. The first one held a traditional Mongolian music performance by local students in the evening, which was enjoyable and I am still amazed over the throat singing and the sounds it produced. The second camp was next to an extinct volcanic crater, the rim of which we climbed up to and were rewarded with yet more spectacular views.

Base camp.

The next day was when we finally got to meet and ride some of the horses in what I will refer to as speed dating for riders. This was so Haldi-our trip leader-could assess our riding ability and confidence so he could pair everyone off with suitable horses. I was surprised that one of our group had never so much as sat on a horse before and as the trip progressed, was increasingly impressed with how well they took to riding at all speeds. Trying an ex-race horse was a fun experience as he was very quick to canter which I will confess to letting him do, although I have a sneaking suspicion we weren’t supposed to be going any faster than a trot. Whoops. A couple of other horses amused me with their ability to go in only one direction: towards camp. I mean it is not as if we were going in a fifty metre circle anyway.

Horses! The red saddle is a Mogolian saddle. According to the owner of Zavkhan Trekking, it is to be used by only Mongolians and masochists.

As the sun rose, waking up everyone along with it (black out tents should be a thing), we devoured our porridge and finally got to find out which horse we would be riding. My horse was one of the ones that hadn’t been ridden the previous day and as I managed to haul my vertically challenged self into the saddle from the ground (lets ignore that I had the shortest horse and that Mongolia horses are short as it is), I was informed he was “fast”. As we started off a a short walk to become acquainted with our horses, he certainly lived up to this, pulling towards the front of the group. Other than this, everything was fine until we spotted some wild horses on the opposite side of the valley.

Album cover.

I could tell relatively quickly that he was getting excited about something as we kept pulling ahead. My plan of attack was circle back into the group and tuck in behind someone else. Unfortunately for me the soon to be christened Demon Horse had other ideas and we cantered off. Here Haldi’s advice of steer uphill came in handy and we eventually drew to a halt. From this point on I spent the ride trying not to ride off in a cloud of dust. Even if Demon Horse was slightly better behaved after our snack break, possibly we were headed down a steep incline, I knew he was just biding his time… waiting.

The toilet.

And indeed he was as I found out as I tried to mount after lunch. This took multiple attempts as with my less than tall nature and the awkward cushion saddle, I struggled to get on quickly and he kept trying to run off when I was halfway on. I felt a small amount of vindication when even the wrangler had the same issue but after he had proved it was possible to get on Demon Horse I was hoisted into the saddle and we set off. The gentle ride quickly devolved into a battle of wills. With me arguing that staying in the group and walking was a good idea and Demon Horse of the alternate view that a nice trot or canter would be far more preferable. I began to suspect that Haldi and I had a different definition of “a little challenging” (I’ll admit to not miding his definition), despite reassurances that Demon Horse would calm down in a couple of days. That said I was enjoying myself immensely. Not only was the scenery delightfully stunning to ride through but Dagii’s food was absolutely delicious and everyone was blown away by how much she could cook on the wood stove-later on in our trip she made bread on it!

Pretty

The next day we set out from our base camp and began our actual trek out into the Mongolian wilderness. Demon Horse was very well behaved and by the time we returned to our new camp from the short afternoon ride-cantering and galloping across sand dunes-he had been downgraded to Rascal which remained his name for the rest of the trip.

Camp. This one had tons of flying ants that congregated on our tents.

From then on we changed camp location each day with a long morning ride and took shorter afternoon rides to explore our surrounds. Along the way we experienced the warm hearted hospitality of a number of local families, sharing food and drinking (lots of) vodka. From the Mongolian “quick lunch” to cream and dried yoghurt we were plied with food and sampled multiple batches of home made milk vodka. Something the student stereotype in me was excited to discover was the tradition that a bottle must be finished once it has been opened instead of being dipped into now and again.

This was a hot spring we visited on our rest day.

In the evenings we tried a variety of games and activities, including archery (I suddenly understood why all the female archers at my club used to wear chest guards) and knuckles which Dagii beat us at thoroughly. Playing white bone one night was amusing as it is also played in Scandinavia (by a different name) and since we had one Swede and two Norwegians, I was left with the distinct impression it is the Monopoly of lawn games, with no one quite agreeing on the rules. There was also cake on a couple of nights as we celebrated two birthdays, a most unusual occurrence according to Haldi as apparently there are normally only a couple every season. The only downside was having eaten so much of Dagii’s food we barely had room for it.

Dagii’s magical wood stove.

All the support team were wonderfull. I’ve mentioned Dagii’s cooking, I still can’t decide if her noodles or fried bread was best. The drivers transported the camp in the UAZ vans each day, having it set up by the time we arrived. A couple of days off roading at the end of our trip to reach the airport, proved their driving prowess and care for the cars. One of our wranglers was nicknamed the man, the myth, the legend and later on part time wrangler, full time badass for the way he would lounge on the floor of the gers we visited and during snack breaks when he would immediately light up. His brown deel was complemented with a trilby and tinted sunglasses. I am fairly certain he and Haldi had an unspoken contest to lounge in the coolest way and spot at each snack break. Halfway through, the wrangler disappeared from the group in a cloud of mystery and while we found out it was due to an argument, this didn’t stop us inventing stories of his adventures.

Some gers we visited.

After lasting most the trip unharmed, we had something of a massive pile up during a long canter. Fortunately, aside from some nasty bruises and a little shock, there was no lasting damage. This did however, signal for everyone else to start injuring themselves in minor ways and were lucky to have a trainee nurse with us, who really should be given a discount since they patched us up so well. I almost came off in the pile up but managed to cling on. It was only later as we were mounting back up that I came off because my saddle had broken, the cushion partially coming off, and Rascal was feeling flighty so took off before I had got my leg over his back.

Even the UAZ van appreciated the amazing sunsets.

We wrapped up the trip with some bare back riding (extremely painful on a skinny horse) and trying to pick things up off the ground from horseback. Picking things up was unsurprisingly hard and we all practised on Pumba who was the oldest and most steady of the horses. I was amazed to later see in the Mongolian music videos (playing at the front of the UAZ van) people picking things up at a canter. #lifegoals me thinks.

Snack break.

My words are insufficient to explain the magic of crossing open plains, hills looming ahead as birds wheel in a pristine sky. I can not articulate the emotion of standing atop a mountain and gazing across rolling hills of verdant green and realising the only sign of humanity is those who stand with you. Through valleys and over mountains, climbing rocks and ducking tree branches nothing can compare to the uplifting freedom I felt and the knowledge of belonging on this little blue dot to explore and appreciate its beathstealing beauty. Mongolia is truly an amazing place to visit and seeing it from horseback a humbling experience everyone should seek.

Some of the horse as they left us on our last day.

The Great Wall

In a way it serves me right, I should have known better than to talk of having good weather. However I do think it a tad unfair that the bad weather has pursued me so doggedly since Xi’an. As it was, I rocked up to my two day Great Wall trip with a slight drizzle accompanying me. After everyone had arrived, a German family, two Americans and two other Brits, we loaded into the bus and set off towards a wilder section of the wall.

Arriving at the wall around midday, we had lunch at a farmhouse before setting off. Our guide said flat. This is not a comment I can agree with. Admittedly he did eventually add the caveat that there was an up bit at the start and a down bit at the end but even then the stretch is the middle was, to my eye, by no means flat. This isn’t really a complaint in true form as I suspect walking along a completely flat stretch of wall would get boring very quickly. With the gentleish rolling of the hills along which the wall is built it meant we had a constantly changing view of the wall as it stretched out in front and behind us.

The visibility was not amazing due to the weather but the real downside was that while for most out hike it had been only cloudy, with a storm predicted for the night, we could not camp at the wall and instead had to stay in a farmhouse. This meant that we didn’t get the chance to see a sunset or sunrise (I do acknowledge neither would have been any good with all the cloud) or do any hiking on the second day, instead eating breakfast before returning to Beijing.

As previously mentioned the view was somewhat limited by fog but this did not detract from the walk all that much as we, unlike our cameras, could still see a fair ways into the distance as watch towers slowly became nothing more than silhouettes on the horizon. This section of the wall hadn’t been rebuilt like some of the more popular sections, rather the opposite, as in the 1960’s the Chinese government encouraged farmers to take bricks from the wall to build their homes. Furthermore, our guide tells us that in world war two there was a lot of fighting in the vicinity of the wall so bombs had damaged other sections. Fortunately it was still possible to walk along the top of the wall for the entire way, although there were a few don’t look down moments.

All in all it was and enjoyable trip with the only real downside being the lack of hiking on the second day. For those interested, I went on China Hiking’s Gubeikou to Jinshanling Great Wall two day camping trip.

Karsts, Caves and Valleys

Rocking up to the Easy Tiger Hostel just in time for happy hour, I unloaded my kit, grabbed a free beer and booked onto a tour for the next day. Beer finished and having reached a good stopping point in my book, I turned in for the night, determined to catch up on some sleep as rising with the sun (however unwillingly) is only maintainable for so long.

Rising early (at least for a backpacker) just after 0600 I tucked into breakfast and continued reading my book until the start of the tour. None of the times for the tour agreed, ranging for 0815 to 0845 so it was a case of sit in a conspicuous spot in the lobby and hope someone tells you when to get onto a bus. Around 0830 the minibus turned up and we all piled in before whizzing off to the 8 Ladies Cave. Bombing through the towering karsts, I could see why motorbike is the recommended mode of travel around the national park. As it was, I spent a large amount of time with my face smushed against the window, craning my head back in a vain attempt to see the tops of the looming monoliths.

The Martyrs’ Memorial Shrine.

The 8 Ladies Cave and Martyrs’ Memorial lie on Road 20 or Victory Road and are two shrines combined with memorial spots that remember the people who travelled up and down the road during the Vietnam war as part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. With half our group draped in royal blue skirts and capes to ensure modesty, we walked up the final stretch of road to look at them. There wasn’t much to see but we did receive an interesting explanation about the use of the road in the war and how eight people had been trapped in the cave by US bombing and eventually died after rescue attempts failed.

Not so itsy bitsy spider.

The next stop was Paradise Cave, one of the biggest dry caves in the world. This cave is probably the location that put the rural Phong Nha on the tourist map. As such it was absolutely teeming with tourists, most notably busloads of Chinese tour groups that appeared only at caves with easy access and nowhere else in Phong Nha. To reach the cave, we had to hike up an horribly large number of steps, using several huge spiders as excuses to stop and take photos while catching our breath. Upon reaching the top we were blessed with a heavenly breeze swirling out of the cave mouth. According to our guide, this is the origin of the Paradise Cave name. Here our guide left us to explore the cave individually. Walking down so many steps after having to climb all the way up was extremely frustrating but the deeper into the cave we descended, the further my complaints drifted from my mind.

Paradise Cave

The cave was absolutely huge and crowded with hundreds of stalactites and stalagmites. We walked along the plank walkway, stopping regularly to take photos and dodging tour groups as they clustered around their microphone wielding guides. The cave was very well lit which allowed for some excellent photos (at least in comparison to most of the cave photos I’ve taken in the past). Having taking so many photos as we walked in one direction, it was easy to relax and merely enjoy the fantastic cavescape on the way up out of the cave.

Paradise Cave

Having descended the stairs, passing a small snake that captured our attention for a good while, we moved on to the Dark Cave for lunch. In all honesty the lunch was something of a disappointment. It had clearly been prepared hours in advance, the sticky rice having become a rather solid block. Furthermore there was more bone, cartilage and fat than actual meat on offer. While not inedible in terms of taste, it was probably one of the worst meals I’ve had in a long time, especially compared to some of the superb local dishes I’ve sampled and I would have rather stopped at a smaller lunch spot with freshly prepared food, even if it would have meant a longer wait.

Back row bunch.

The Dark Cave, while something of a blatant tourist trap, was a huge amount of fun. We started by ziplining down to near the cave entrance before swimming the last stretch. There was some disagreement on whether the water could be classified as cold (it couldn’t) but otherwise we made it to the cave safely. From there we scrambled through the cave, head torches shining, until we made it to the mud bath. Slathered from tip to toe in mud the most reluctant of us had to be practically dragged from the cave, it was just too much fun. This did mean we got a little left behind and there was one fork where we ended up just guessing on the correct direction.

Watching the sun set from Momma D’s.

Making it out of the cave, still rather coated in mud to the amusement of some, we played around on some inflatable kayaks, which proved very hard to steer with only half oars, and rode ziplines into the water before making the most of our lifejackets and just floating around (I told you the water wasn’t cold). A couple of bottles of Vietnamese rum later and we were on our way back to the hostel in time for drinks, pizza and sunset at Momma D’s bar.

The next day saw me getting all the dits for Phong Nha at the Easy Tiger’s 0900 talk on the area. This popular hour long talk is packed with excellent advice and is open to everyone, not just hostel guests. Attending helped me plan out the perfect day trip and what has so far been the best day of my journey.

Tapioca and chillies at Moi Moi’s.

I paired up with a young lady who had been on the tour with me the day prior. We borrowed two bicycles from the hostel and set out towards Bong Lai Valley. At the recommendation of the hostel, we followed the river away from the centre instead of the main road. While this had the added advantage of cycling along a quieter back road rather than dodging cars, busses and lorries, the best part was the view over the tranquil river and the boats that slowly moved up and down it.

Moi Moi’s restaurant.

We saw the Pepperhouse Homestay several minutes before we reached it, its distinctive mustard yellow paintwork standing out against the backdrop of greenery. Home to a lively Australian and his Vietnamese wife, the homestay was a welcome respite from the heat and we both enjoyed a coke while sitting by the pool and chatting to the other guests. While I didn’t hear this story from the man himself and so can’t attest to its truth, David, the owner, goes by the name Multi among many of the locals due to filling in his residence permit application wrong, writing his visa type in the name slot. This led to a residence card for one Mr “Multi Entry Visa” and an amusing anecdote.

Tapioca dumplings stuffed with meat and peanuts.

We departed the Pepperhouse for Moi Moi’s a small homestead come restaurant. At this point we hit a hill so were not surprised when everyone from the Pepperhouse whizzed passed us, perched precariously on the back of their guides’ motorbikes. Dismounting to push our bikes down the gravel hill, we emerged to see an open side dining area, complete with hammocks and a vast tapioca field stretching out behind it. Parking our bikes in the shade of some trees and next to a couple of cows, I could see chillies and a variety of herbs being grown along the field’s edge.

The bamboo pork served at Moi Moi’s.

Originally we had planned to eat bamboo pork and spring rolls on the advice of the Easy Tiger staff but upon seeing some tapioca dumplings being carefully wrapped in banana leaves, we quickly switched to the sticky treats instead of spring rolls. This was not a decision we regretted and we tucked into the dumplings with great gusto. The bamboo pork came with rice and was such a big serving that we shared a single ome between us. Served with a plate of rice, the dish is made by stuffing a large piece of bamboo with pork and vegetables before cooking it over a fire. This results in delightfully juicy pork flavoured with caramelised onions, mushrooms and carrots. We washed all this down with sugary lemon juice. Extremely popular here in Vietnam, the drink is made differently at every restaurant and I have to say that Moi Moi’s version was particularly good.

View on the way to the Wild Boar Eco Farm.

Pleasantly stuffed we continued cycling along to the Wild Boar Eco Farm. Fortunately, before we left Moi Moi’s David had told us to look out for and cross a large metal bridge otherwise I suspect we would have ended up rather lost. With food comas threatening and the sun beating down this stretch of our route felt rather tiring but perseverance won out and we were rewarded with some spectacular views and getting to feed some wild boar and pigs. Conscious of time constraints, we had a sunset to catch, we only stayed at the Eco Farm long enough to appreciate the view and cool down a little.

Wild boar.

The imaginatively named Pub With Cold Beer was our next stop. Until 2005 they didn’t have electricity and it was only much more recently that they got a fridge to chill the beer. The story goes that an Australian had rather cheekily stopped at the house and asked for some food. He was so blown away by the taste, he persuaded them to set up a restaurant and begun sending all his hostel guests their way. The only issue was that the beer was always warm. The initial attempt to bring huge bags of ice back to the pub from Phong Nha were unsuccessful given the minor issue that ice tends to melt. Finally someone asked why they didn’t just get a fridge and it was only at this point that it emerged they had no idea what a fridge was. Since then the beer has been consistently cold and sometimes frozen.

Baby pigs.

The beer was indeed excellently chilled when we went and the recently installed tarpaulin water slide was brilliant fun. My only regret was that I was still too full from Moi Moi’s to try what is widely claimed to be the best peanut sauce in Vietnam if not the world. We also gave the catch, kill and eat a chicken part of the Pub With Cold Beer experience a miss with too little time left in the day and the notorious Duck Stop to visit.

The stunning view at the Boar Farm.

Forget some of the largest and most beautiful caves in the world, when it comes to Phong Nha the Duck Stop is now number one on Trip Advisor. What’s better than being the duck leader, feeding ducks and getting a duck foot massage, not to mention getting to chuck a duck for luck? We were kitted out in conical hats and plastic sandals before entering the duck pen. Almost immediately the ducks ran up out of the pond to greet us. Rattling the tin of food we took it in turns to let the extremely enthusiastic ducks gobble food from our hands before letting them chase us around. Never have I felt more powerful than when my duck minions spread before me awaiting their food. Next was the mildly terrifying but utterly hilarious foot massage. Sitting down we made little bowls of our feet which were filled with feed and promptly attacked. The sensation was extremely ticklish and weird, certainly not something I had ever experienced before.

Duck stop outfits.

The final part of out visit to the Duck Stop was the duck chuck. Done for luck, this is exactly what it sounds like, we each grasped a placid duck and threw them into the air above a large pond. By all accounts the further one’s duck goes the more luck will be forthcoming. Hopefully this is not the case as my duck plopped rather rapidly into the water. Hands and feet rinsed of mud and duck, we leapt back on our bicycles and began a mad dash for the Phong Nha Farmstay, determined to make it in time for the sunset.

The duck minions and their glorious leader.

Just as the sky began to turn pink, we pulled up to the Farmstay and enjoyed the two for one on gin and tonics while watching one of the most spectacular sunsets I have seen in a while. Rice paddies with water buffalo plodding through them stretched into the distance until the mountainous karsts suddenly leapt up on the horizon, reaching to hide the flaming disc of the sun from view. What was even better was that we could leave our bikes at the Farmstay and catch the after sunset shuttle back to the Easy Tiger instead of cycling back in the dark.

Sunset at Phong Nha Farmstay.

My final day in Phong Nha was spent relaxing and planning a little more of my route out. Looking back I think the best thing about Phong Nha was the determination of all the hostel and restaurent owners to support each other and the local businesses. From the locally made pizza Momma D ordered for us to all the recommendations and advice on where to stop in Bong Lai Valley, it was definitely the people as much as the scenery that made Phong Nha so special.

Meet the Province

Originally I had intended to stay only one full day in Phnom Penh as it has such a bad reputation for thieves and aside from the Killing Fields and S-21 museum there isn’t a whole lot that can been seen. However, I had visited the genocide sights the day before with a couple of young women who were staying an additional day to do a tour called Meet the Province. Reading the leaflet, it sounded like a lot of fun and when they invited me along I eagerly accepted and extended my stay for another night.

Jiurua picked us up the next morning, and the three of us piled into her brother’s tuk tuk with her. We drove through Phnom Penh, passed the Palace which was covered in scaffolding and very gold, so just as well I had not bothered to visit. On the way we tried some fruit that looked very similar to lychees and is apparently nicknamed mens balls in Cambodian. Our first stop was a beautifully illustrated temple where Jiurua told us the story of the Buddha and about the temple and some of the festivals and events the happen around the year. She also showed us a tree, the flower of which is drank as a tea infusion by women in their fifth month of pregnancy to ensure a smooth birth.

From there we took a small ferry across the river, trying grilled banana wrapped in sticky rice and palm leaves while sitting in the small top area. On the other side of the river (or possible in the middle of it) we went to look around a small island where local women were making silk scarves and skirts. As always when it comes to anything related to sewing and fabric making I was very excited by this, especially when we got to try spinning the first thread from the silk cocoons. I the end I caved and bought a beautiful purple scarf, barely resisting getting a magnificent red one as well.

After seeing how the patterns were weaved into the skirts on the loom, something I hadn’t been able to figure at the Thai Silk Village, we headed to Jiurua’s plot of land where her sister made us a delicious lunch from a collection of home grown and local products. I am not sure which was my favourite but it was either the sliced lotus roots or the fish. Jiurua’s brother had caught the fish the night before so it was very fresh and marinated in a scrumptious sauce. I will confess that I still find fish with heads and tails attached a little disconcerting but I am definitely getting more used to them.

A short trip saw Jiurua collecting lotus flowers and fruits (also delicious and tasting like broad beans) from a large pond before we returned to her place and were shown how to fold out the lotus buds into flowers, a very therapeutic process. As we were waiting for a storm to pass (it did not rain on us but the wind meant the ferry would not be running), we all became fascinated with pulling the silky threads from the ends of the lotus stalks. Jiurua also gave us a very handsome gift of some lemongrass cuttings to try and grow when we return to our respective homes. Hopefully mine will survive long enough.

The procurement of some fresh ginger at a small local market marked the end of the tour and we were dropped off at the hostel with full stomachs and happy faces.

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.

Hitting the Ground Walking in Seoul

My first impression of Seoul is cold. Cold enough to wake me up from my midnight flight state of foggy sleep deprivation. After making it through immigration and retrieving my bag, I’m quick to pull out warm coat, hat, gloves and scarves (yes, plural scarves) before continuing any further. Clearly my body has forgotten what it is like to be in a cold climate after being spoilt by the year round high temperatures and humidity of Singapore. Especially when the cold temperatures in question are hovering below zero and hardened snow still lines the roads.

Land-side, I immediately run into the roadblock of none of the ATMs working for me. This is an issue I occasionally run into with some banks overseas, particularly when the exchange rates differ by a number of decimal places. Normally the quick and easy solution is to go to the next ATM along and, provided it belongs to a different bank, one is in with a fighting chance of managing to take out some cash. If not, rinse and repeat until one encounters success. At most airports there is a whole line up of ATMs, so it is just a case of trial and error to find a bank that works. Unfortunately for me, every ATM in Incheon Airport belongs to the same bank and it did not like my account. Hence I was forced to convert my leftover Sing Dollar at the currency exchange, most frustrating.

This inconvenience over, I purchased my travel card and made my way to my hostel. On the subway I had a lovely chat with a game designer about this, that and the other. It was a nice pick me up after the trauma of my ATM adventure. Parting ways, I took shelter in the subway station while I waited for the hostel reception to open. Backpack safely stowed, I ventured back into the subway armoured with some coffee and a target destination.

I started off by heading to Changdeokgung Palace just in time for the 1130 English speaking tour around the Secret Garden. This section of the palace can only be seen by tour as they are trying to preserve this UNESCO World Heritage Site, so I was pleased that my timings lined up perfectly. The dusting of snow that lingered on some rooftops added a beautiful picturesque feel to the whole day. Iced over ponds complimented the wintery feel and after I had finished looking around, I was relieved to take shelter in a café to warm up and eat a late lunch.

After defrosting slightly, I made my to Unhyeongong Palace. This was much smaller, but had a few rooms laid out and mannequins in traditional dress performing various tasks. I was particularly excited to get a closer look at the chimneys and firebox systems called ondols that were used in a historic version of underfloor heating.

Taking a break from palaces and with the weather a few degrees not as cold, I wandered through the traditional Hanok Village of Bukchon. As I tried to outpace various tour groups and hambok wearing tourists, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the residents that have to listen to our racket all day. If I had had a little more time to plan, I may have stayed to try some of the traditional artwork workshops offered in some of the hanoks.

Back on my palace tour and I headed over to the Gyeongbokgung palace. This was very different to the previous two, with a more rigid layout that didn’t flow with the natural landscape in the same way that Changdeokgung palace does. The majority of it has also had to have been rebuilt in recent years due to its past relocations to Japan and various fires. To use a concept from The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, I felt these building lacked historicity. The replicas do not hold the same soul as their originals. Of course this may be because perfectly straight edges in a historical building are practically unheard of, with time wearing smooth all things and fading paint so that we forget that these haunts were also new once upon a time.

I wrapped up my tour with roasted chestnuts from a street vendor and returned to the thawing warmth of the hostel to spend a pleasant evening with the other guests. Overall today has left me extremely impressed with the South Korean government who are making a consertive effort to restore, rebuild and rejuvenate the history and culture of Korea, both with the palaces and the hanoks. Too often today, people are all too eager to leave the past behind, forgetting that the Old can hold just as much beauty, intrigue and life as the New.

Off Again

To say the last month has been stressful is an understatement. When I haven’t been studying for a slew of end of semester tests and exams, I have been arranging my Christmas travels in more detail. While some of this planning was no more complicated than logging on to Hostel World and choosing the perfect balance between cost, location and amenities, other sections have proven to be more challenging. Fortunately, the worst of it is over and I can now enjoy my holiday.

I’ve started the Christmas holidays off with a stop in Hong Kong and have certainly enjoyed my first day here, though my feet are glad to be resting. I started the day off by teaming up with another girl from my hostel and going on a walking tour of the central area. Rather than focusing on traditional sights the tour provided an insight into the history of Hong Kong and its politics. The tour guide was wonderfully cheerful and well informed, including telling us where to get the best wanton noodles for lunch after the tour was over.

My favourite piece of history was about a feng shui war between the Bank of China and HSBC headquarters, as well as seeing the two lions, Stephen and Stitt outside the HSBC headquarters.

With full stomachs we rushed back over to Kowloon on MTR and headed up to Mong Kok and Prince Edwards for another tour, this one focusing on some of the social challenges faced by locals. In particular we learnt about the astoundingly high property prices and rents and how the local economy is so dependant on the maintenance of these high costs. For me, I found the existence on coffin houses where people live in cages or bunk boxes stacked upon one another and little bigger than a dog crate particularly shocking. Especially when the rent is between HK$1800 and HK$2500 a month.

After this rather gloomy though important tour a group of us headed off to sample the delights of a dim sum restaurant. I felt the Michelin Star of Tim Ho Wan was well deserved as the food was absolutely delicious and I won’t need to eat for a few years. A lovely pair of Canadian sisters knew all the best things to try and the conversation proved lively and stimulating so it was a shame to part ways.

We concluded the day with a trip on the Star Ferry and watched a somewhat anticlimactic “A Symphony of Lights” over Victoria Harbour.

Lan Ha Bay and Ha Long Bay

From the moment I decided I was going to Hanoi, I knew that I had to cram in a day trip to Ha Long Bay with its rocky karsts that rise imperiously from the water.  Rather than booking onto a tour in advance, I decided to wait until I arrived in Hanoi.  Hence, after my walking tour I found myself sitting in the common area of the hostel, surrounded by cigarette smoke and scrolling though internet page after internet page about the best way to visit Ha Long Bay.

Recurring themes began to appear:  you have to go, lots of tourist boats, and be careful of super budget tours as safety isn’t always a priority.  The first point I already knew, the second I was a tad worried about but knew it was the off-season, and, as a sea-faring soul, the third concerned me deeply.  Eventually I stumbled across a blog post by Budget Travel Talk that sung of the advantages of visiting Lan Ha Bay instead. It is the same karst rock formation but falls under the jurisdiction of a different province and is not nearly as crammed with tourist boats. At that moment, in the way that coincidences often happen (may the spirits of chance forever look favourably upon me), I looked up just as the hostel’s propaganda information screen showed off their cocktail cruise to, you guessed it, Lan Ha Bay.

Well who am I to ignore signs.  The hostel trip was cheaper than most two day one night tours to Ha Long Bay because it stayed on the tour provider’s island, Cát Ȏng, rather than sleeping on board and it was focused in Lan Ha Bay so didn’t have the same tourist saturation to drive up prices.  Futhermore, even with low price there would still be the opportunity to hike on Cát Bà island, swim in the sea and kayak among the karsts so I saw no reason not to sign on to the next day’s tour.

The tour bus picked everyone up from their hostels the next day, thankfully at a late enough hour that I had a chance to make the most of the hostel’s free breakfast.  On a side note, I am never going to get used to English watermelon and pineapple after the deliciously ripe versions of the fruits I eat on a regular basis here in Singapore.  The bus journey provided a nice opportunity to catch up on sleep and see a little of the Vietnamese countryside (rice paddies and roadworks).  Suddenly, over the flat horizon the tall rocky hills of Ha Long City rise up.  However, it was not to them that we headed.  Instead we drove to Cát Hẚi Island, part of Hai Phong City.  From where we set out on our six hour cruise among the thousands of islands of Lan Ha Bay and Ha Long Bay.

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The lovely smog and dust cloud over mainland Vietnam.  Fortunately it disappeared as we got in among the rocky karsts.

We were extremely fortunate that the rain of the previous day had cleared up and we were left with beautiful blue skies as we ventured through the karsts.  Something everyone on the cruise really appreciated was the lack of other boats.   I think this was mainly because we were in the less visited Lan Ha Bay for most of the cruise but I expect visiting in the off season also helped.

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A typical Vietnamese lunch was provided on the middle deck about an hour into the cruise.  Our guide seemed confused when we asked for more of the tasty chili sauce, checking several times we wanted more of the chili sauce before getting it.

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We moored at this floating pontoon to go kayaking.  I don’t trust myself with anything electronic in close proximity to water so don’t have any photos of this part of the cruise but can assure you, my dear reader, that it was a huge amount of fun.  We went through a couple of cave tunnels where stalactites reached down to the water and bats screeched up in the shadows before stopping in a little lagoon to try and see the white headed langur monkeys.  Unfortunately, even our guide’s hand whistling couldn’t tempt them to appear.  However, the break did give my arms a chance to recover slightly so I can’t complain.

The only downside to the kayaking was that we were close enough to the karsts to see just how much rubbish had washed ashore.  Over the duration of the cruise, I found the amount of rubbish we saw floating around, most noticeably in the Ha Long Bay section, really saddening.  I knew that this would be the case before we set out however it was still a shock to see.

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We had a huge amount of fun leaping from the roof of the boat into the blue depths below by this little island.  No one swam to the beach but it was lovely to be swimming in the sea again and cheering for everyone to jump in.

As previously mentioned, we spent the night on Cát Ȏng island.  We all stayed together in one of the dorms rather than in the little cottages.  All the food was included in the trip, and there was certainly a lot of it, particularly at the evening meal.  The “starter” buffet table alone had enough for everyone to eat their fill.

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Nothing beats a full stomach and midnight campfire after a blissful day at sea.

The next day, we paid an extra $10 to take a little boat over to Cát Bà island and climb hike through Cát Bà National Park to Ngu Lam Peak.  The hike wasn’t too strenuous in  and of itself, it was just the heat at the jungle floor that had us wishing for the end.  However, the view we had once we reached the top was definitely worth it and was made all the sweeter by the effort we had put in.  Oh woe is me *dramatically faints at the thought of exerting oneself*

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Having scaled the mountain *strikes dramatic pose of victory* and while waiting for our bus, I took the opportunity to try drinking straight from a coconut, a beverage that every man and his dog had been trying to sell to me since I arrived in Cambodia at the beginning of the week.  While it was nice enough, I think I will continue with water unless someone starts spiking the coconuts with rum.   Eventually our bus returned and we were driven to our final lunch before getting the ferry and bus back to Hanoi.

All in all, a very fun cocktail cruise and tour around Lan Ha Bay and Ha Long Bay where ironically everyone’s least favourite part was the cocktails.

Hanoi

Arriving at Hanoi Rocks Hostel in Hanoi, Vietnam, I am immediately taken by the music themed interior and sold when I meet the hostel’s resident cats.  With little planned for the next day, I signed on to the free walking around Hanoi’s Old Quarter tour the hostel offered.

We started off by walking to Hoan Kiem Lake.  This roughly translates as lake of the returned sword and is said to be where the Emperor Lê Lơi returned the magic sword, Heaven’s Will, to the Golden Turtle God, Kim Qui.  I have to say with this story and the Lady of the Lake in Arthurian legend I begin to detect an interesting premise for conspiracy.

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We had a look and the Hanoi Opera House but then the skies opened so we went and ate ice cream and looked around a fancy mall until it stopped raining.

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Our next stop was St Joseph Cathedral.  Despite the infusion of French influence throughout the Old Quarter, the cathedral still seemed very severe and out of place next to cheerfully painted façades and balconies overflowing with plants.

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There is something so refreshing about cities filled with the vibrant green of nature.

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With the tour over, we sat down on the pavement to enjoy lunch.  This proved to be an interesting mix of chopsticks and fingers.  I would love to see an English food inspector’s face at these delightful open fronted cafes and restaurants.