A Travellerspoint blog

South Korea

Seoul and Busan

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It was apparent that we got back into the first world, when a friendly robot greeted us at Incheon airport. Our night on the plane from Bangkok has been short and so we retreated to our hotel to rest and make some plans for the next weeks of travel. In the evening, we met Sang Hyeon, Marta’s friend from her PhD studies, for dinner. We got a great first taste of the Korean cuisine as he invited us to a fantastic restaurant where we were able to taste about a dozen different dishes.


The next day we visited Gyeongbok palace, the residence of Korean emperors for many centuries. It was amusing to watch the change of the guards in front of the gate, despite the fact it is just an act for tourists nowadays. The palace was like a smaller but more pretty version of the Forbidden City in Beijing. It offered not only beautiful buildings, but also lots of trees in bright autumn colors. The traditional Korean houses differ from their Chinese counterparts most notably in the shape of their roofs, which curve up towards the edges. This palace is also the place where the Korean script was invented. Unlike the roofs of the buildings, the Korean characters are very geometrical, consisting mostly of straight lines, right angles and circles. Our tour guide explained, that a smart person can learn to pronounce every Korean character in a day, since the shape of a character is directly related to its pronunciation.


Upon leaving the palace, we witnessed a demonstration for peace on the Korean peninsula. Surprisingly, the event had similarities to a carnival, as many demonstrators wore costumes, danced and played instruments.


Just north of the city and easily accessible by public transport, Bukhansan National Park is the most popular getaway for Seoul’s nature-loving residents. We decided to hike to the park’s highest peak, Baegundae, to get the best city views. Hiking is very popular in South Korea, so despite the fact that it was a weekday, the park was full of fit Koreans of all ages. The well-marked path led us along rivers and through the forest in its most photogenic colors. For the last 15 minutes, the path became quite difficult. We had to use ropes to climb up the steep rock face to the top. The main part of the city was hardly visible unfortunately, but the hike was still worthwhile due to the beautiful colors of the forest.


In the evening, we went to see a “Nanta” show. The popular Korean production is probably best described as Blue Men Group in the kitchen. The actors use food and kitchen utensils to make music and do acrobatic stunts. However, the slapstick humor was a bit lost on us.

On our fourth and last day in Seoul, we visited Jogyesa Temple. There was a special festival happening and the area around the temple was filled with stunning flower displays in the shape of various animals and religious figures. Later, we visited a street with traditional Korean houses (Hanok Village) and the War Memorial of Korea. The latter is one of the best museums we have ever seen. Outdoors, it exhibits hundreds of real vehicles and devices used in the Korean wars, like airplanes, tanks, destroyers, missile launch systems and much more. Inside, there are many impressive video installations that show the difficult history of Korea in a very approachable way.


The Han river cruise we attended in the evening was a bit disappointing. Seoul is a huge city with no clear center so its skyline is not as impressive as for example Shanghai’s. Also, our boat was crowded with people which made it difficult to enjoy the cruise. We came to the conclusion that every attraction in Seoul that costs more than 5$ is not worth it. There is an abundance of great sights in this city that cost little or nothing and one should stick to them.


The next morning we took the train to Busan. South Korea’s second largest city is located at the seaside in the south-east of the country. After more than 3 months of travelling, we witnessed the first sunset over the sea at Dadaepo Beach in the south of the city.


We visited some Buddhist temples on our last day in South Korea. Beomeosa Temple was located on a hill amidst a colorful forest, whilst Yonggungsa Temple was directly at the seaside. In the evening we left Busan by ferry towards Fukuoka in Japan. Travelling by ferry proved to be much more comfortable than by airplane or by train. We had a reasonably sized room with two proper beds. A boat also moves much softer and quieter than trains and planes, so we were able to have a really good sleep on the way to Japan.


Posted by samandmarta 19:00 Archived in South Korea Comments (1)

Bhutan - Part 2

Trekking, Thimphu & Departure

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Our trekking in Bhutan involved four days of hiking between the two most populated valleys of the country, the Paro and the Thimphu valley. Paro is hosting Bhutan’s international airport, while Thimphu is its capital. Bhutan does not have the kind of infrastructure for trekkers that you would find in Nepal, so instead of staying in tea houses, we spent the three nights camping outdoors. Just for the two of us, our tour company put together an incredible amount of gear and a sizeable crew. Besides our guide, we were accompanied by a cook, a helper and a pony-man with seven mules and ponies to carry the gear.


The first day of our trek was a gradual climb through the forest out of the Paro valley. The cook and the pony-man went fast ahead to set up our camp before we got there, while the helper carried our lunch. Lunch was kept in thermally insulated pots so that we could enjoy a hot lunch along the way. Near a monastery on a hill, called Jele Dzong, we reached our ready-made campsite. Our campsite consisted of a sleeping tent, a kitchen tent, a dining tent and even a toilet tent. In the dining tent, we enjoyed our dinner consisting of fresh soup, rice and different mushroom and vegetable dishes. We did not know camping could be so luxurious. However, as we were at an elevation of around 3’400 meters, it got bitter cold at night and we had to wear all our layers inside the sleeping bag to stay warm.


The ground was covered in frost the next morning, bearing witness to the cold night. Luckily, it got warm again as the sun rose and we enjoyed our breakfast, consisting of scrambled eggs, toasts and pancakes, warming up in the sunlight. Throughout the day, we enjoyed views of Bhutan’s second highest peak, Jomolhari (7326m). We again spent most of the day hiking through a nice forest where the leaves were starting to show their autumn colors. Besides us, there were maybe 5 to 10 other hikers on this path (plus the usual crew and animals), a vastly different experience from Nepal.


On the third day, we reached our highest point, around 4’200 meters above sea level. For our last dinner, after the usual soup and 5 different hot dishes, our cook surprised us with a big cake with the inscription “happy to meet / sad to depart”. Our crew definitely went above and beyond to make us happy on this trip and the food was by far the best of any treks we have done. We spent the evening warming up around a bonfire, while gazing at the stars. From this secluded location, we were able to see more stars than ever before. Even the Milky Way was visible to the naked eye.


Bhutanese food is so overwhelmingly spicy, that no common Westerner could ever eat it. In Bhutan, chilies are used like we use potatoes, pasta or rice. They are not a spice, but the main part of a meal. For this reason, we were not usually served real Bhutanese food, but dishes more appropriate to our palate. Our guide never stopped pointing out how bland this food would be for him and that he could never eat it. The only real Bhutanese dish we were served was Ema Datshi, which is, essentially, chilies baked with flour and cheese. That way, we were able to add some more spiciness to our other dishes according to our taste.


The last day of our trek involved only two hours of descent down to the Thimphu valley. Upon arrival we were greeted by the director of our tour company with pastry, cakes and local beer. While the views along the trek were not quite as impressive as the ones we had in Nepal, we enjoyed this trek a lot because of the peaceful, quiet atmosphere it provided.


We only had the afternoon to explore Bhutan’s capital, so we were grateful to meet with Cheku, Marta’s friend from her PhD studies, who gave us a quick tour of Thimphu. Our favourite sight was the giant Buddha statue that was overlooking the valley. We have seen many, many Buddha in the past months, but this recently built 52-meter-tall statue was the most impressive. Another interesting sight was the Memorial Stupa in the center of the town, where many locals were praying while going around the stupa. Nowhere outside of Bhutan have we seen so many recently built temples and statues, which brings us to believe that Buddhism is alive in this country like nowhere else.


We bid farewell to Bhutan the next morning as our short stay came to an end. There are not many destinations you can fly to directly from Bhutan, so we had to go to Bangkok first on the way to our next destination, Seoul.


Posted by samandmarta 21:00 Archived in Bhutan Comments (0)

Bhutan - Part 1

Arrival & Paro

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In the morning of the 24th of October, we left Nepal towards Bhutan, the small kingdom in the Himalayas. The flight between Kathmandu and Paro, Bhutan’s international airport, is probably the world’s most scenic one. The plane flies just south of the Himalayas and you can see 4 of the world’s 5 highest peaks along the way: Everest, Lhotse, Makalu and on the border between Nepal and India, Kanchenjunga. On the day of our flight, the air was exceptionally clear. We could see all the peaks very clearly and even the Tibetan highlands were visible. Already this vista made the trip to Bhutan worthwhile.

There could be no better way to prepare you for Bhutan than the arrival at Paro airport. Unlike the usual glass and steel buildings, the airport in Paro consists of beautiful traditional wooden houses, each painted and decorated more like a temple than an airport. The arrival hall is perfectly clean and the friendly immigration officers greet you with a smile. There are no lines and the entire process is very efficient. That is Bhutan in a nutshell: traditional, clean, secluded, friendly and efficient.


Almost everything about this country is unique, like for example their concept for tourism. Everyone is welcome to visit Bhutan, but the government prescribes a minimal price that every tourist has to pay per night. For our budget, this price was very, very high, which is why we only stayed for 6 nights. This fee however, not only grants you a visa, but also includes a personal guide and driver, 3-star accommodation during your stay, all meals during your stay, entrance to every place you visit and all the necessary transportation within the country. In addition to that, it helps them finance free education and health care for all their citizens. Bhutan does not want mass tourism or backpackers, because they are afraid that this would hurt their culture and environment. The effect of this is that you can visit unique and beautiful places in peace and quiet without the common selfie-crazy Instagram hipsters.

After lunch, our guide brought us to Rinpung Dzong, a former fortress that now hosts the local government and a monastery. We were impressed with how well the old fortress was maintained, compared to similar places in Nepal and Tibet. Also, we were almost the only visitors there. Next, we visited an important Buddhist temple that was founded by the King’s grandmother. 100% of Bhutanese are Buddhists and our guide always made sure that we circled everything of significance in the clockwise directions to assure good fortune for our upcoming trek.


In the afternoon, we strolled through the center of Paro, where red chilies were hanging from the walls of the pretty houses to dry in the sun. It was very curious to see many shops selling penis sculptures between religious items. Apparently, these are revered as symbols of fertility and are popular items for decoration in Bhutanese households. In the evening, our accommodation surprised us with a delicious three-course meal. Soon we would learn, that this is the standard for tourists here.


We left early the next morning to hike to the most famous sight in Bhutan, the icon of the country and a place we were excited to see ever since we had the idea of visiting Bhutan: the Tiger’s Nest monastery. The monastery is built into a nearly vertical wall of rock, at the location were Guru Rinpoche is said to have meditated after flying there on the back of a Tigress.


After the hike, we asked our guide if we could visit a monastery that we have spotted near our accommodation. This spontaneous visit turned out to be the most authentic monastery experience we’ve had on our entire trip so far. This was not a tourist site, so we were the only visitors there and during our visit, a group of monks, probably aged between 6 and 18, entered to practice some prayers. They allowed us to stay and sit with them while they played various traditional instruments and recited their prayers under the supervision of two elder monks. The monastery, apparently sponsored by a rich businessman from Hong Kong, was just a few years old and decorated lavishly with gold and intricate paintings covering every millimeter of the building.


We enjoyed our two days in Paro immensely. While we did pay a lot of money for our stay in Bhutan, we did not expect that our visa fee would translate into such a great experience.

Posted by samandmarta 15:00 Archived in Bhutan Comments (0)

The magic of Kathmandu Valley

Kathmandu, Patan, Bhaktapur

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Kathmandu Valley is a place praised by many. Some love it for its temples, spiritual atmosphere and calm, others enjoy hiking, historical buildings sightseeing or shops. People from all around the world arrive to Kathmandu to enjoy healing powers of spa treatments, yoga and meditation. In total, we spent 11 days in Kathmandu and still we would be delighted to be back one day to this unique place. Apart from backpacker Disneyland of Thamel district, Kathmandu hosts plethorea of sights to see.

First we visited Swayambhunath Temple, also known as Monkey Temple. A mix between Buddhist and Hindu Temple on the hill overlooking Kathmandu Valley surprised us with its solemn and peaceful atmosphere. Despite political unrest, religion is never a subject of conflict in Nepal. Hindu and Buddhist coexist peacefully in the same territory for multiple hundreds of years. In the temple itself, one needs to be careful with monkeys which are ready to snap your water bottle or camera in an instant.


Another interesting place was Boudhanath Stupa, called Boudha by locals. This white enormous stupa is a place of pilgrimages and worship for Tibetan Buddhists. It is also a center of refugees from Tibet and monks. The sound of mantras and Buddhist incantations permeates the air. Believers circumnavigate Boudha clockwise, making a wish every time they turn the praying wheel. It is a place where everybody could achieve englightment thanks to bestowed merits and blessing, the poor and rich, the religious and non-religious, devoted or not.


In the evening, we visited the Hindu Pashupatinath Temple, a very important place for all Hindu living in Kathmandu. Its located at the banks of Bagmati River and dedicated to Lord Pashupatinath, the national deity of Nepal. The temple was extremely interesting and moving as it is a place where Hindu cremate their relatives and throw their ashes into the Bagmati River. In terms of significance, this temple is compared to Varanasi in India and is its local representation. Witnessing several funerals provides meaningful insight into the circle of life and death. After the body is wrapped in shroud, relatives pay the last goodbye and the ritual starts. The body is set on fire, with wood or straw intensifying the burn. Once only ashes are left, a temple boy swipes all ashes into the river.


We have also seen an interesting custom of floating small candles on lotus leaves down the river, which we assume was a way to remember about deceased relatives. One boy picked up this “boat” and started playing with it on the river bank.


Kathmandu Valley is full of ancient cities, towns, hills, villages and settlements. Out of many, we have decided to visit two: Patan and Bhaktapur. Patan is a sister city of Kathmandu, much less destroyed in the 2015 earthquake. We visited the beautiful Patan Durbar Square and also watched the photo exhibition dedicated to women who fought for democracy in Nepal.


Out of the three cities, Bhaktapur has the most preserved old town. Its center street and lanes are out of limits for motorized traffic and almost untouched by the 2015 earthquake. Bhaktapur’s most famous sights include the Golden Gate of the former palace, with fabulous wood carvings at the archway, and Nyataponla Temple. Its five-storied building is dedicated to the Hindu Goddess of female force and creativity – Siddhi Laxmi. Apart from beautiful historical buildings, strolling around Bhaktapur gave us insight into the daily life of its inhabitants. We have seen many women threshing rice and other grains after recent harvest.


Overall, we were very pleased with our stay in the Kathmandu Valley. Mild temperatures, wonderful variety of food and leisure activities made for a good relaxation after the two hikes we completed earlier.


Posted by samandmarta 19:30 Archived in Nepal Comments (0)

Everest Base Camp Trek - Part 3

To the top of the world and back again

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The day we have been waiting for started very early. We had our breakfast at 6 AM so we could make it to Everest Base Camp (EBC) before the clouds appear. Mornings were usually very clear, but clouds started creeping in most afternoons. This day we felt how fit we had become in the recent month, due to the high-altitude trekking we did in Tibet. On the way to Gorakshep we passed hundreds of trekkers that had started even earlier than us, but that were struggling with the thin air, while we were feeling very energized. In Gorakshep, at 5150 meters above sea level, we were supposed to spend the night, but not before making it to Everest Base Camp. We rested briefly at our guest house, drinking a few cups of tea.


The path to EBC was running parallel to the lower parts of the Khumbu glacier. This was technically the most difficult part of our journey, as many parts were going through fields of huge rocks deposited there by the glacier. The EBC trek is, in general, very busy. Around 400 trekkers start the path every day in October, so there was never a feeling of isolation or solitude during this trek. But this very last segment was surprisingly empty. It seemed like we have left most other trekkers behind and we were able to enjoy the views in peace and silence. Along the way, Mount Everest came back into view, now closer than ever, after being hidden from us for the past three days.


When we finally arrived at the Base Camp, around 10:30 AM, it felt somehow anticlimactic. Mount Everest is only climbed in spring, so in October there are no climbers and no tents there. Only an inscribed stone and some prayer flags remind visitors of what must have been a very interesting place in spring. Also, the views of Mount Everest are actually best half-way between Gorakshep and EBC. At the Base Camp you can hardly see the peak. Still, we were happy to have made it till the end of the trek and spent around an hour there, absorbing the energy of this place where so much history has been written. The entire time, there were never more than 20 other trekkers there and we could really enjoy our time. Only on the way back to Gorakshep the crowds started to come our way.


We were back in Gorakshep around 1 PM and there was nothing left on our itinerary for the day. The next day we were supposed to climb Kala Patthar, which is one of the best viewpoints for Mount Everest, but Sam felt like he had enough energy left to go there already for sunset. From the 5650 meter high peak, the views were amazing. Sunset was also a much better time for photos as the sun was illuminating the Everest peak.


The next day, we woke up at 4:30 AM to climb Kala Patthar again, this time together. From the top of the peak, we watched the sun rising from right behind Mount Everest.


Most people who trek to EBC would now start the descend back to Lukla. This involves three long days of climbing down. We chose to save us the effort and have booked our trekking with a helicopter ride back to Lukla. Neither of us has ever been in a helicopter so it was quite an interesting experience. However, the flight was almost too short. In only 15 minutes, we flew back the distance that took us nine long days of hiking.


After one night in Lukla, we were again very lucky to have a clear morning where our flight was able to depart roughly on time and bring us back safely to Kathmandu. In conclusion, trekking to the Everest Base Camp was a lifetime experience for us. Sam, at first, did not want to do this trip, because he prefers quiet places with less people. But while it is true that this trek is very busy and you even run into “traffic jams” from time to time, you don’t notice the crowds most of the time. The mountain panorama is so impressive, that the other people on the trek are easily forgotten. It is not just about seeing Mount Everest, but the entire area is astonishing. You can see three of the world’s five highest peaks and countless other amazing mountains. In the end, Sam was extremely happy that Marta convinced him to do this trek.

Posted by samandmarta 18:30 Archived in Nepal Comments (0)

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