Friday, October 1, 2010

Transmongolian part 2

Due to a bit of a cold snap, I didn't go to Terelj National Park overnight (I later learned that it was snowing that night, so I counted it as a good decision - the gers were really drafty). Instead, I spent another day wandering in Ulaanbaatar.

The next day I woke up early for a day trip to the park. The ger camp was quite small, and besides horseback riding, organized activities were few and far between. I spent most of the day hiking up the hills and taking pictures. It was a beautiful place with rocky hills and valleys.

Leaving Mongolia that night I finally met my travel companions - a post-grad student from Canada, and another Canadian who just finished two years teaching in Korea. Luckily we got along well, and I spent most of the time with them. They have a good idea of what to do in each city, which was nice since I didn't have the time to do research myself.

A day and a half later we arrived in Irkutsk. We got a transfer to a small town on Lake Baikal. The first day we were there it was beautiful, so we hiked (and took a ski lift) to a lookout point, and walked the entire length of the town. It was good that we got so much done the first day, because the next day was rainy, so we hung around the guesthouse.

We then spent a day and a half in Irkutsk, once known as the "Paris of Siberia." As in all of Siberia, they have lovely wood houses, and we spent a lot of the chilly days wandering the streets and taking pictures. We even got to see a bit of Siberian snow falling.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Transmongolian part 1

My second experience in Beijing was much better than the first, but then again most things are better than standing on a train for 13 hours.

This time it was cold and rainy the whole time, and the tour I had planned to take was canceled. Instead I decided to use the day to prepare for the train trip - go to the tour company and pick up the information and tickets, and go last-minute shopping. It also turned out that a friend from Spanish camp was in the city, visiting family, so I got to meet up with her.

Transportation is always the biggest issue in Beijing, and this time it was taxis. Much of my day in the city was waiting for taxis and being told that, for whatever reason (it's too far, it's in the opposite direction that I am driving right now), they could not take me where I wanted to go.

Despite missing my alarm clock at 5:45, I was able to make it to the train station in time for the 7:45 train. I was supposed to meet my co-traveler there, but as I later found out, she missed the train. Instead I shared a room with a nice Mongolian girl who studies Chinese in Beijing. She was really friendly and helpful.

It took about five hours to fully cross the border between China and Mongolia, between immigration and customs on both sides, and the changing of the wheels on all of the cars (Chinese train tracks/wheels are more narrow than they are in Mongolia and Russia). The only real hassle about this was that bathrooms are locked just before, just after, and during stops.

Because I slept late, I missed most of the Gobi desert this morning. Instead, I got to see the countryside, which is very nice.

After arriving at 2:00, I've been wandering around Ulaanbaatar and doing a bit of shopping. Tomorrow I plan to go to Terelj National Park for the night, then back to the city for a quick shower before I have to get on the train again.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Thailand re-cap

Thailand was a nice ending to the first leg of my trip.

We spent almost a week in Ko Lanta, an island in the southwest near Phuket and Phi Phi. Because we went during low/rainy season, a lot of the activities on the island were not in business, so we spent a lot of time relaxing on the beach or by the pool at the resort. Unfortunately, we weren't able to visit Phi Phi, but near the end of our time there we were able to do a boat trip to four nearby islands. This was probably the highlight of Thailand - we swam through extremely choppy water through a pitch-black cave to a pretty cove, went snorkeling on two of the islands, and ended on a really pretty beach.

I was not expecting much from Bangkok, because most of what I had heard was very negative (dirty, smelly, loud, etc.). In fact, I thought Bangkok was an average big city in Asia. We only had one day to explore, so we went to Wat Pho to see the enormous reclining Buddha, then went to the river to see Wat Arun (though we decided we weren't up for the ferry ride across to the temple). After that was a quick trip to the Royal Palace, then a walk around Khao San Road (the main tourist area).

Now I've said goodbye to Jackie and am on my own again (at least for a day or two). My tour in Beijing was cancelled and it's raining today, so I'll probably spend most of the day preparing for my trip - picking up all of my documents and vouchers, doing a little shopping, arranging my luggage and logistics. And by total luck, one of my friends from Spanish camp happens to be in the city as well, so hopefully I'll get to meet up with her later today.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Cambodia re-cap

It seems like we've spent ages in Cambodia, when it's really only been about four or five days.

We started our Cambodian adventure in Siem Reap. The first full day we got up at 4 a.m. to try to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat. It's an interesting experience arriving at that time of day, but unfortunately the clouds made for a kind of disappointing sunrise. The rest of the day we spent touring some of the many ancient temples in the area.

Because we were able to see so much the first day (it's amazing how much you can get done when you wake up so early!), we spent the first half of the second day relaxing. We should have
taken advantage of the nice weather, because the rest of the day was rainy. Still, we braved the weather and took a small boat cruise of the river.

Siem Reap is an amazingly touristy town. It's impossible to go anywhere without encountering people trying to sell you something. It's also interesting that a lot of people in Cambodia refuse their own currency - they list prices and accept payment only in U.S. dollars (they do not, however, accept coins, even when they list prices that include "cents").

Yesterday was a travel day, so we didn't see much. This morning we got up early and were able to see the National Museum, Royal Palace, Killing Fields and S-21 prison (the last two from the genocide of the 70s). The Royal Palace was a bit difficult to see because, although it is beautiful, it's incredible that just outside there is such poverty. The Killing Fields and the S-21 Genocide Museum were also very sobering experiences. Even though it happened so few years ago, most Americans (including myself) have no concept of what happened here.

It is the middle of the rainy season, so the weather has been a bit uncooperative. Mornings are usually sunny (again, one of the hottest suns I've ever felt), and afternoons and evenings are rainy.

Cambodia has been a lot more difficult than Vietnam in many ways. It will be interesting to compare it to Thailand. Tomorrow afternoon we have another travel day, and by 11 p.m. we should be in Phuket, ready for another early morning and a transfer to the island of Ko Lanta.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Vietnam re-cap

We've been on the road for almost a week now, apparently just in time to miss the typhoons hitting South Korea. I wish that I could include pictures, but I won't be able to upload those for a while.

The first five days of the trip we were in Vietnam. Since we had so little time to work with, we spent a day and a half in Hanoi, then headed out to Ha Long.

Hanoi is a really interesting, fun city. There are so many people and so much traffic (crossing the street was an adventure in itself), but it's nice because there are so few people who bother you. There is a lot of interesting architecture, too. The day that we left was actually the beginning of the 1000-year anniversary of the city and the 65th anniversary of Ho Chi Minh coming into power, so the city was decorated and there were a ton of events going on.

The highlight of Vietnam was definitely Ha Long Bay. We went on a three-day, two-night boat tour of the bay, and it was even more beautiful than it looks in pictures. The first day we went into one of the many caves, then went kayaking. We went swimming and watched the sunset over the islands.

On the second day, we went to Cat Ba Island. We did an unexpectedly demanding trek to the top of a mountain - it was muddy and steep, and kind of dangerous in places because there were more people than should have been allowed. After slipping a number of times and falling (hard) once, I had a nice afternoon on the beach at Monkey Island.

I was really surprised how much I enjoyed Vietnam. It is accessible and easy to navigate by tourists, but it's not overly touristic. I kind of wish I had more time to explore central and southern Vietnam, but we're in a time crunch so we had to move on to Cambodia.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

China, day 5

Saturday we took the overnight train back to Beijing. Although we only had seats (as opposed to beds), considering our journey to Xi'an they were the best seats ever.

We met our taxi driver John, who we hired for the whole day, when we got to the station. First, we went to the Summer Palace - it was very pretty, and full of tourists.

These water lilies were as big as my head!

The covered walkways

The boat made of stone - so useful!

After the Summer Palace, we went to the Great Wall. Most people go to Badaling, which is the closest site to Beijing. John took us out to Mutianyu, which is farther away and therefore has fewer tourists. Plus, since we went in the afternoon, most of the people had already left, which meant there were times when I had the whole thing to myself.

Our last day was definitely the highlight. Before we left, everyone talked about how wonderful Beijing was. Until that last day, I had no idea how it was possible for people to enjoy the city.

Anyway, now there's fewer than three weeks remaining, and I'm deep into planning for my upcoming trips. Very exciting!

Friday, August 6, 2010

China, days 3 and 4

Day three (which really felt like day two) was the day we set aside for seeing pandas. Pandas were one of the main reasons my friend decided to go to China with me, so this was an important activity.

Needless to say, just like everything else we did in China, this trip did not go as planned. It was so hot outside that the pandas were hiding inside in the shade. We did get to see a few, but my friend though she would get to touch one (no such luck). Additionally, the treatment of animals isn't exactly to the same standards as it in the U.S.

That afternoon we went to the Muslim Quarter of Xi'an. It was busy (like everywhere else), but it was a really interesting area.

On our last day in Xi'an, we went to see the Terra Cotta Warriors. Even though it was boiling outside, it was a really interesting trip. We went to the three different pits that were open to the public (the recently discovered fourth isn't open to visitors). All of the pits are oriented toward the east, to face the rising sun. The emperor who commissioned the army is buried to the west, protected by the warriors.

The second pit is still mostly untouched, so there isn't much for visitors to see. It does have great examples of the four classes of warriors.

The third pit is almost completely finished, but it's the smallest. This is considered the "command center."

Our guide took us to the first pit at the end of the tour in order to save the best for last. Pit one is the largest and most recognizable.

Only one more day to cover, but it was a big one - the last day in Beijing!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

China, days 1 and 2

China was a very... different vacation. First off, it wasn't particulary vacation-like. We got very little rest or relaxation. Secondly, I have never been anywhere quite like it. It's huge and busy, there's a huge air pollution problem, it's just hectic and crazy.

We started the trip on just a couple hours of sleep, and upon arriving in Beijing we went directly to the bus station. Before we left, we tried to get train tickets but it always fell through and I thought that we would still be okay. It turns out that buying in advance is really important, and we ended up with standing only tickets (much more on this later).

Of course, this put a terrible damper on the mood, but we decided to forge ahead and we went to Tiananmen Square. Tiananmen is HUGE, and wasn't really what I had been expecting. I knew it would be big, but I though that it would be an open area. Instead, there are streets and buildings scattered around. It also didn't help that it was 100* outside, and the air was filled with smog.

Afterwards, we headed back to the train station to wait for the train. A lot was going on while we waited, but long story short, we ended up not being able to seats. We spent the twelve-hour overnight trip to Xi'an standing up. It was one of the most horrible trips I've ever had, made even worse by how excruciatingly slow the time passed.By the time we got to Xi'an, we were exhausted.

In the middle of the night, the standing room passengers try to sleep in squatting positions. There was absolutely no empty floor space in the entire train.

The first thing we tried to do was get train tickets for the trip back to Beijing. We did eventually get seats through the hostel, but that day was still tough to get through. I was barely able to walk and I my equilibrium was totally thrown off for the rest of the day.

After a short rest, we realized that we could do a bit of sightseeing in Xi'an because we had one more day than planned in the city. First we went to the bell tower in the center of the city.

We finished the day walking along the wall that surrounds the city. It was very nice, though it might have been nicer if the air wasn't so polluted.

Next up, days three and four in China!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

One more month to go!

I've been so busy with classes - reports, testing, the start of intensives - and travel planning the last few weeks that I've neglected the updates, even though quite a bit has been going on.

Two weekends my friend in Seoul (the one I lived with in Argentina) came to Chuncheon for her last visit. It was really rainy, so we spent Saturday at two of the biggest museums in the city - the National Museum and the Museum of Animation. I wasn't expecting much, since Chuncheon isn't Seoul, but it was all pretty interesting.

Rainy day view from the Animation Museum

That Sunday, we went to what is considered by most people to be the "prettiest place in Chuncheon" - Nami Island. Though it takes a train out of town, followed by a taxi and a ferry boat, Nami is pretty. It's kind of like a folk village, with less "folk" and more nature. It was the setting for the one television drama that Chuncheon is known for, Winter Sonata.

Last weekend, the first of the Chuncheon goodbyes began. Chuncheon sees the biggest turnover of teachers in August, so when I arrived a lot of other people were also in the process of doing the same thing. It was really nice because we were all starting something strange together, but now it means that this month will be full of going-away parties.

In a few hours I'm off to China. The trip is very loosely planned, so we're hoping for a bit of luck. We plan on spending a few days in Beijing and two in Xi'an (where the terra cotta soldiers and a panda rescue are). I probably won't be able to access email most of the time, so it's a bit scary, but I'm really looking forward to the trip.

Friday, July 9, 2010

So far, July has been filled with preparations.

The most pressing upcoming event is my summer break in Beijing. There is a definite plan, but we encountered our first roadblock when we found out that the visa application for China had changed. For two days there was panic as we tried to sort out a way to get around the new rules. As it stands, we think it's taken care of, even if it's not the most honest thing I've ever done.

There's also the issue of the final day of work. We still don't know when the last day of work is, so we haven't been able to make any plans for the Southeast Asia trip (which is, in itself another huge obstacle to work through).

I've spent most of the last month consumed with the World Cup. For a while it was fun because all of the kids were so excited about it, but since Korea was eliminated the WC is no longer spoken of. I'm excited because Spain is still in. Spain is the only reason I care about soccer, since it was forced on me while I lived there. This weekend will be very exciting, though I will not miss going to bed at 5:30 in the morning when the games end!

Only about a month and a half left!

Friday, June 25, 2010


This has been a bit of a hectic last few days, as I took my last few vacation days to visit Jeju Island. Jeju is the southern-most part of Korea, and is known as a sort of tropical paradise. However, for me, the combination of weather and the work I had to do to get around, it was more like normal Korea + volcanic rock and a few palm trees.

While it was nice to be away from classes, the weather for most of the time was cloudy. I didn't even get to see the largest mountain in Korea, the volcano Hallasan, because it was so overcast most of the time. Anyway, here's a bit of a recap :

I arrived Saturday afternoon, and after checking in to the hotel in Jeju city, I went to Samseonghyeol shrine. This shrine is where the legendary brothers who founded the island were "born" when they emerged from three holes in the ground.

There is a bit of a dip in the ground, and the three holes are here.

After that I went to the Folklore and Natural History Museum next to the shrine.

The next day I went to the eastern part of the island, to the Manjanggul lava-tube cave. Manjanggul is supposedly the longest lava-tube cave in the world. It was pretty interesting, and a nice reprieve from the heat. Unfortunately most of my pictures didn't turn out because of the darkness, but here's the highlight of the cave - a 7 m. tall lava pillar :

Monday morning, I went to the southern coast, to the city of Seogwipo. Seogwipo is more laid back than the typically Korean Jeju-si. First I went to Jeongbang waterfall, which is supposed to be the only waterfall in Asia that falls directly into the sea.

After that I made a trip to see Oedolgae, which is basically just a large rock off the shore that has a legend attached.

My next stop was Jungmun city, which was probably the highlight of the trip. The sun finally came out, so I went to Cheonjeyeon waterfall. Cheonjeyeon is a three-tiered waterfall where (quoting my LP guide) "the seven nymphs of who served the Emperor of Heaven used to slide down moonbeams to bathe every night." It's all beautiful, and there's even a huge bridge crossing it all which allows you to see for miles.

Then I was off to Jusangjeolli. Jusangjeolli is like a miniature version of Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland. When the hot lava reached the sea, the rapid cooling and contraction created distinct formations along the coast.

Tuesday morning I went back to Jeju-si. I did some roaming around the city before finding a motel to drop off my backpack, then took a bus along the east coast to Seongsan Ilchulbong (Sunrise Peak). Seongsan is another extinct volcano, and one of the most popular hikes aside from Halla mountain. While it looks huge, it only took twenty minutes to get to the top where there are some pretty great views (when it isn't foggy) and a big grass-filled crater.

I'm glad I got to Jeju, since it is supposed to be one of the not-to-be-missed highlights of Korea. I guess I was just assuming I'd be doing more relaxing and less hiking up and down stairs!