Seoul didn’t leave a great first impression on me. I was still sick on our first day there, so I just spent the day reading and sleeping in our hostel. When we finally did emerge, we found a huge, confusing city. (And one of the most densely populated cities in the world.) The subway goes everywhere, but it’s not the easiest to use (especially when compared to Hong Kong’s beautiful transportation system). We did make it to Gyeongbok-gung, a palace that was originally built in the 1500′s, but destroyed by the Japanese and later rebuilt in the 1800′s. Compared to the other palaces and temples we’ve seen on this trip, I thought it was unimpressive and a little boring.
But after the first day, we started to have a great time in Seoul. We found lots of yummy snacks in Insadong. Then we went up to the North Seoul Tower to see the compulsory “view from the top.” We visited a war monument park that had many planes and tanks on display. At night we enjoyed the bars and restaurants in Hongdae.
One of the highlights was our day touring the DMZ. The war never officially ended and things are still pretty tense around the border. I didn’t know this, but apparently there’s a skirmish with North Korea practically every year. Our tour began at the Third Tunnel, where North Korea was trying to dig into South Korea to launch a surprise attack on Seoul. It reminded me of the Vinh Moc tunnels of Vietnam, except this one was much larger. After that we went to the Dora Observatory that looks out on the North, but it was foggy and we didn’t see much. Then we visited the closest train station to the North. The track goes all the way to Pyongyang, but the trains stop at Dora Station. It’s crazy to think that if trains could go through North Korea, you could go all the way from London to Seoul by train.
Finally we went to the Joint Security Area, or JSA, where things really got intense. Before we entered, we had to sign waivers saying that we were entering a hostile territory and that neither the military nor USO would be held responsible if we were injured in an attack. Then our “security officer,” an American soldier, gave us a military-style briefing about the DMZ and JSA. We were given very strict rules, like we couldn’t take off our jackets or interact with the North Korean guards in any way (including making eye contact with them). As we rode “up north” in a special military bus, our security officer explained the defense systems we were passing, including antitank devices and landmines. At the border we had to walk in single file lines straight from the bus and into the meeting room. The meeting room is right on the border, so we technically entered North Korea when we were on the other side of the table.
South Korean soldiers guarded us the entire time. The guards at the JSA are the best of the best and being selected is a very high honor. They have to be fluent in two languages, pass certain tests, and be experts in two forms of martial arts. While they guard the area, they stand in a modified Taekwondo stance with sunglasses on, so they don’t show any emotion towards the North and also so they don’t get into staring contests with the North Korean guards. You definitely don’t want to mess with these guys. We only saw one North Korean guard. He was standing outside of their building, watching us with binoculars.
Our other highlight was going to a baseball game. It was by far the most entertaining baseball game I’ve ever been to! We were in the main cheering section, and they do different chants and cheers the entire time the home team is up to bat. The rules are the same as at home. ??There are a lot more fielding errors here and stolen bases, though, and we think the relief pitchers were terrible, because the Twins (the home team) were winning like 6 to 0 going into the 8th, but ended up losing. ??And we were on the kiss cam! ??Right when they started doing the kiss cam I kind of figured they would show us, because of course we were the only westerners in the entire section, so we stuck out like a sore thumb. ??Sure enough, the camera goes to us, and it was kind of stupid, I was trying to be funny and make a silly face like, “You want me to kiss him?!”, but Brad was trying to stand up for this big, romantic kiss, and we ended up just awkwardly meeting in the middle. ??So much for our moment of fame in Korea! ??But then the guy sitting next to me told me to go down to the cheerleaders to get our gift. ??They gave us a gift card, but we didn’t know what it was until we got home and showed it to the owner of our hostel. ??Apparently it’s a gift card for $50, so we actually made money at the game!
We did a few other things in Seoul, but nothing as exciting as the DMZ or the ballgame. You can look at pictures of those other things here. All in all, I can’t believe how much fun we had in Seoul! There’s still more to see and I wasn’t ready to leave, but, like always, we have to move on to the next place.
Hong Kong truly is a world class city and I absolutely loved it. It reminded me of New York, except maybe cleaner and easier to get around. The public transport system there is amazing. It’s fast, clean, efficient, and easy to understand. I really think it’s the best public transport system in the world. (Well, maybe London’s is on par.)
It’s also a shopper’s paradise. We didn’t do any shopping, of course, but we did spend most of a stormy afternoon wandering around malls. In the central area, many of the buildings are connected by bridges or tunnels, so you can go all over the place without getting rained on. We were able to stock up on all our supplies and see The Hunger Games without ever going outside. (For the record: I thought The Hunger Games was a great movie.)
The food there is also among the best in the world, with the added bonus that you can find any cuisine you can imagine. Of course, you have to pay for it, but I think Hong Kong is more affordable than the other major cities of the world. (For example, we could easily find beers for around $6, or $4 during happy hours.) We ate burgers, falafel, hummus, noodles, steamed buns, and Hong Kong style French toast with kaya jam or peanut butter in the middle.
Our best meal, though, was with Sid and his wife Rad. Sid knows my Aunt Diane’s friend Barb, so he kindly agreed to have dinner with us one night. They took us to an awesome Thai restaurant in “Rat Alley” (just its nickname, I don’t think there’s actually rats there) and ordered dish after dish of delicious food. Everything they picked out was really good, but the fish we had for the main course was definitely the best. (Actually, maybe the mango and sticky rice dessert was the best. Too close to call.) But the company was even better than the food and I’m so glad we were able to meet up with them.
Then the good times came to an abrupt end and I got sick the day we left. Actually, I was already sick the day before, but it got really bad during our travel day. I’m still not sure if I had the flu or food poisoning. Regardless of what it was, it was not fun to have on two plane rides! At least I had been healthy for about two months. That’s probably a new personal record!
Macau is a very unique place. It’s just a tiny peninsula and one island, so we were able to circumnavigate the whole thing in one day. The Portuguese settled there in the 1500′s, although it didn’t officially become a Portuguese territory until after the Opium War in the 1840′s. Macau was transferred back to China in 1999 and, like Hong Kong, is currently a “Special Administration Region.” China now controls its defense and foreign affairs, but it has its own government, currency, immigration, customs control, and police force.
442 years of Portuguese influence definitely left their mark on Macau. The remaining colonial buildings (which are now World Heritage Sites) look just like the historical areas in Lisbon. Signs and announcements are in both Chinese and Portuguese, even though less than 1% of the population speaks Portuguese today. (And Portuguese is no longer taught in the schools.) The food, though, is really interesting and delicious. It’s a mix of Chinese and Portuguese, but also uses spices from all over the world. We went to Fernando’s, one of the most well-known Portuguese restaurants in Macau, and had a great lunch of roast suckling pig and Portuguese chorizo. We also made a special trip to Lord Stow’s Bakery, famous for its egg tarts.
Of course, today Macau is known as “the Vegas of the East.” Its gambling revenue in 2011 was $33.5 billion, over five times that of Vegas. Five of the ten largest casinos in the world are in Macau. The biggest, the Venetian Macau, is an incredible 546,000 square feet. (The MGM Grand in Las Vegas is 170,000 square feet.) Baccarat is by far the most popular game in Macau. It seems like most of the floor space is devoted to baccarat tables with minimum bets of about $25. (The $25 minimum bet tables are rare, actually. The majority have a minimum of about $65.) We spent most of our time just looking around in the casinos. In typical Asian style, many of them are incredibly cheesy and covered in flashing LED lights. The Wynn in Macau has a fountain show similar to the Bellagio’s in Vegas, but this one includes colored lights and fire.
We only spent one night there and it was raining, but I think we still got to see a fair amount. Here’s what we thought about our time there.
China’s a big place. Even though we covered a lot of ground, we only saw a small fraction of southern China. But it was quite an experience. The rugged scenery of Yunnan and Guangxi is simply stunning. The food was great as well.
It did feel like just a short time in the country, but we will be coming back to China in the near future. After South Korea and Japan, we’ll see the north of the country from Shanghai to Beijing. That makes this recap the first of two for China. We’re also excluding Macau and Hong Kong from this recap, but don’t worry, those will be coming in separate posts.
Top three experiences?
- Hiking in the Tiger Leaping Gorge. Just breathtaking.
- Seeing the town of Yangshuo and its beautiful surroundings.
- Meeting fun backpackers in Dali.
- Tiger Leaping Gorge. It was such an amazing hike.
- Yangshuo and surroundings. The town has a good feel despite the number of tourists, and the scenery is out of this world.
- Dali. I wish we would have stayed here longer.
Bottom three experiences?
- Zhuhai. I’m glad we were only there for the night before we crossed into Macau. I had read some good things about it, like it’s China’s cleanest and greenest city. The little bit I saw didn’t seem clean or green.
- Lijiang. The buildings were cool, but the whole place just felt like Disneyland to me.
- Dealing with the language barrier, especially when trying to find something or order food. We had to do a lot of comparing Chinese characters as well. “Do you think this box with two lines is the same as on that sign?”
- Lijiang. Besides being impossible to find anything, it was overrun with tourists, and the fact that most of the buildings aren’t authentic took away from the feel of the place.
- Language barrier. Unlike Southeast Asia, there’s really not much English spoken here. However, armed with our massive two phrase vocabulary (hello and thank you) and some Internet resources (Wikitravel, Seat 61, oMaps) we got by.
- Crummy weather in Guilin, Yangshuo, and Zhuhai.
Nikki: Many great meals, but the best were the family-style dinners at Mama Naxi’s Guesthouse in Lijiang. Plate after plate of stir-fried meats and veggies. It’s worth going to Lijiang just for those dinners, really.
Brad: Mama Naxi’s dinners! Especially the spicy beef, chicken, and broccoli dishes.
Nikki: The mysterious claypot dish I ate in Zhuhai. I thought it was meat and potatoes, but it ended up having a strange, jello-like consistency. I’m hoping it was just bad tofu, but it was probably cow stomach or boiled pig fat or something. Really, I don’t ever want to know what it actually was.
Brad: The first dinner when we arrived in Kunming. We ate at some respectable-looking 24 hour shop, but the soup had an extremely strong taste I can’t describe, and not in a good way.
Favorite person we met?
Nikki: Julie in Dali. She was so fun, I didn’t even mind when her bike tire explosion stopped us in our tracks.
Brad: Julie in Dali. We had a great day biking!
Nikki: Not getting to the Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces. We could have gone, but with the rain and poor visibility, we decided it wouldn’t be worth our time and money. Too bad, because they’re supposed to be incredible.
Brad: Not getting to see the Dragon’s Backbone rice terraces because of the crummy weather.
Favorite place we stayed?
Nikki: The Jade Emu in Dali. It didn’t have the very best facilities, but it had a great atmosphere and was a good place to meet people.
Brad: The Jade Emu in Dali had a great atmosphere and lots of really nice extras, which made this an awesome place to stay. The Nicest Facilities award would go to the Secret Garden in Kunming though.
Worst place we stayed?
Nikki: The No Kidd Inn in Yangshuo. It probably would have been fine if other people had been around. As it was, it was always damp, dark, and empty.
Brad: I wasn’t a fan of Ming Palace International Guesthouse in Guilin, mostly because of the staff. They were pretty disorganized.
Best thing we didn’t blog about?
Nikki: Our bike ride in Yangshou. Sure, we ended up lost in the middle of some farmer’s field, but it was still a beautiful ride.
Brad: Our tandem bike tour through the countryside in Yangshuo. We hiked up Moon Hill, ate a great lunch at the Giggling Tree, and saw the Yulong River and amazing countryside. The roads were really bad and we got lost, but that didn’t stop us from having a great day.
Nikki: It’s funny, China is such a strange place, yet I can’t think of just one thing that stands out. The bottom three feet of most trees are painted white. I guess that’s a little strange. And the bathroom stalls with no doors are also weird.
Brad: Especially in Dali, we ourselves were a Chinese tourist attraction. We were just sitting at a restaurant eating outside, and the Chinese tour groups passing by took photos of us eating and drinking. “And to the left, you’ll see two Westerners in their traditional costume, conversing and attempting to use chopsticks. You can take photos, and don’t worry, these two appear friendly so it’s safe to get close.”
Statistics for China
- Days in the country: 22
- Places we stayed: 9
- Rainy days: 5
- Blog posts: 3
- UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 3
- Photos taken: 1,092
- Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 240, 22% of all photos taken
- Geocaches found: 4
- Hours on bus and train: 71
- Overnight trains: 2
- Distance travelled on train: 2,666 kilometers, or 1,657 miles
Statistics for the Trip
- Countries visited: 9
- Days on the road: 229
- Places we stayed: 105
- Rainy days: 37
- UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 15
- Photos taken: 8,650
- Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 2,006, 23% of all photos taken
- Geocaches found: 12
- Hours on bus, train, or ferry: 324
- Overnight buses, trains, ferries, and planes: 9
We had two very long train rides out of Lijiang and into the Guangxi Region. I was picturing a cramped car filled with smoking and spitting Chinese men, but fortunately the trains here are really nice and comfortable. They are clean, modern, and even have a few decorative touches like rugs and lacy curtains. Even in the hard sleeper class I felt like I had plenty of room and I slept much better than I did in Vietnam’s trains. If you have more time than money, I definitely recommend traveling by train in China.
The landscape in Guangxi is just as beautiful as it was in Yunnan. Tree-covered limestone karsts jut up from the earth all over the place here, making it yet another World Heritage Area. It’s very similar to what we saw in Thailand’s Phang Nga Bay and what we would have seen in Halong Bay if the weather had cooperated. What’s neat here is that we’re inland, so these huge peaks randomly stud the cities and countryside. They also line the Li River, making boat and raft cruises very popular.
That scenery is what makes Guilin fun to visit. It seemed like a huge city to me, but I guess the population is only 1.3 million, which is kind of small for China. The city itself isn’t that interesting, but it’s built around all the karsts. We climbed up a couple of them and saw some pretty cool views of the surrounding area. And, for five yuan, we got our picture taken with peacocks in Seven Star Park!
Yangshuo is about an hour south of Guilin and is much smaller and prettier. It’s also much more touristy. But since all the tourists are on West Street (the pedestrian-only area with most of the bars, restaurants, and??souvenir??shops), they’re pretty easy to avoid. We found some really yummy dumplings and an awesome, cheap claypot place that we’ve been eating dinner at every night. The weather has been gray and rainy, again, but we did go for a nice walk along the Li River between the villages of Yangdi and Xingping. This area is quite famous and is even featured on the back of the twenty yuan bills. There’s a big rock climbing scene in Yangshuo as well. We’ve heard there are good climbs for beginners, but I think we had enough heights in the Tiger Leaping Gorge.
Pretty soon we’ll be leaving China. Our time here has gone by very quickly! I’m going to miss this stunning scenery and delicious food. We are coming back to China in May, but the areas we’re planning on visiting will be very different than anything we’ve seen in the south. This country is so big and diverse, I think you would need a year to??thoroughly??explore it all. It really is a fascinating place that I like a lot more than I thought I would.