Sunday, March 29, 2015

On the road again: Beijing Part 1 (Arriving in Beijing and the Great Wall)

I had only been back in Korea for about two weeks before I was packing my backpack for another trip.  This time I was headed to Beijing during our Lunar New Year holiday with my friend Jen.  Jen and I also traveled together to Japan, and after the wonderful time we had together there, I was super excited to travel with her again.

We started our day with a 6 AM bus ride to Seoul, then we had to take another bus to the airport, where we caught our flight around 1:00.  The flight to Beijing luckily wan't too long, and once we arrived we took a train, then the subway to get to our hostel.
Here we go again!

We immediately noticed how quiet it was in the city. Since it was the Lunar New Year holiday everyone goes to their hometowns to celebrate with their families, which means the cities empty out a bit.  We were lucky that we were staying at a really nice hostel and even had a private room.

An actual shower!

Our very own room! So much budget traveling that we're not used to this!

When we checked in the people working at the main desk told us that at 6:00 we could come make dumplings, so obviously we said yes and joined in for the fun.  Following the dumpling making, they provided us with an AWESOME dinner--all for free.  They kept bringing out more and more dumplings until we were all completely stuffed.  After staying around for a bit to talk to the other people in the hostel, we decided to book a tour to the Great Wall for the next morning.  We had an early night because we were exhausted from traveling and we had to be ready by 6 AM for our tour the next morning.

Making dumplings

Awesome dinner!

The bowls we used during dinner were from the Beijing Olympics in 2008

Fireworks were going of ALL night long for the new year, so I didn't sleep well at all during my first night in Beijing. Nonetheless, we woke up the next morning bright and early to prepare for our trip to the Great Wall.  There are a bunch of different parts of the Great Wall that you can visit, but we booked the tour to Jinshanling because the people at our hostel told us it is the most beautiful part.

We got picked up at the hostel around 6 AM, and to our surprise we had a very friendly and talkative driver.  He was incredibly confused by the fact that Jen is American, even though she looks Chinese (she's actually Chinese American), and insisted that she's not really American, but obviously I am because of my big nose.  He also told us through his broken language and gestures that we have to get married before 30 because after 30 we will be completely out of luck.  Gotta love how Asians are always so concerned about the relationship status of complete strangers.
Our van driver.  What a hysterical way to start the morning...probably the friendliest Chinese person we met. 

Our van driver brought us to meet a bigger bus, where we got on before hitting the road to get to the Great Wall.  The bus we were on was super uncomfortable because the window I was sitting right next to wouldn't close all the way.  As a result, it was freezing the entire ride there, which was nearly three hours long.

Once we arrived our guide told us that since it was the Lunar New Year, we had to eat lunch first so that the people who work there could get home to their families.  It was about 9 AM at that point, so we weren't really in the mood for lunch yet, but what can you do? Lunch left a lot to be desired, but I tried to eat as much as possible because I knew it would be a long time before we got to eat again.

Around 10:00 we made our way to the Great Wall.  At this point they pretty much just let us roam free for a few hours.  We had a small walk to the top, then we had an amazing view of mountains and the Great Wall, which extended as far as we could see on both sides.

We walked along the wall for a while, taking in the view and of course taking tons of pictures. It was freezing, but it was hard to care because the views were so beautiful.  The most amazing part of the day was the fact that we essentially had the entire place to ourselves.  Since it was the actual day of the Lunar New Year, all of the Chinese people were home with their families.  We had about 15 people that were on our bus with us, but once we all spread out, Jen and I were really all by ourselves.
Still cannot believe I was actually here!

So lucky to have this amazing experience with such a great friend.

The size of the Great Wall is something that you can read about, but seeing it in person leaves a unique impression on you. It's only when you see it that you really understand how amazing it is that it was built so long ago, before the modern technology we have today.  I can't imagine how they even managed to get all of the materials through all of the rugged and remote mountains, never mind how they went about the actual construction.

The only downside to our visit was that it was absolutely freezing outside. When Jen and I first planned on going to China for the Lunar New Year, we of course knew it would be cold.  However, before we went we kept checking the weather and every report said that it was going to be about 50 degrees while we were there.  This turned out to be completely false, and as a result we were seriously under-prepared for the frigid temperatures we experienced.

Once we got to the point where we couldn't stand the cold anymore, we made our way back to the bus, where we endured another freezing bus ride back to our hostel.  We finally got back around 4:00, at which point we stood in front of our heater until we were finally warm again.

We finally got brave enough to go back our for dinner, before stopping at a corner store to buy some snacks for our room for the night.We were exhausted from a long, cold, and busy day, so it was an early night for us that included sitting in bed and eating cookies--not so bad if you ask me.

Final thoughts on my time solo traveling

After three weeks of traveling, I finally made it back to Korea around 5 AM.  I know I've said it before, but I truly never realize how much Korea feels like home until I return after being away for a bit.  After weeks of relying on maps and random wireless connections to get me from place to place, I finally knew where I was going again.  The cold air was a bit of a shock to the system, but I was happy to be home and I was lucky enough to have an absolutely beautiful sunrise to greet me.

When I came back to Korea it was Sunday and I returned to work the next morning.  It was a whirlwind, and it's only been with more time that I've been able to gain some more perspective on my time traveling.  I had so many experiences over this trip, but in general, here are some of the main takeaways from my time traveling to Laos, Cambodia, and Hong Kong.

1) Solo traveling isn't really scary at all.  This was my first time traveling by myself.  The decision to travel solo wasn't really one I was necessarily excited about at first, but it was in reality just made out of necessity.  

I spend a lot of my time these days reading travel blogs or travel articles and they all at some point or another talk about the benefits of solo traveling.  According to people who have done it, it's a great experience and  a unique way to travel, so in the back of my mind I always knew I wanted to give it a shot at some point.  However, I thought it would be something I did during a short trip--say maybe during a five day break.  I definitely never thought my first solo trip would be three weeks long.

When it came time to plan my winter vacation I knew just where I wanted to go.  Since this was the last long break I had while I was in Asia, I knew I had to go to the "big" places like the temples of Angkor while I had the chance.  However, most of my friends in Korea have been here much longer than I have and have already checked these things off of their lists.  Add in the different dates everyone gets for vacation, and I knew if I really wanted to go to these places I had to go by myself or else I was going to miss it.  Finally, one day after a particularly aggravating day at school and tedious teacher's dinner, I came home and decided to bite the bullet and book my tickets to Laos. 

Before I left I read just about everything about solo traveling, researched just about every step of the trip, bought travel insurance, and decided to put my faith in God for everything else.  When I arrived in Laos I was reassured that everything would be OK due to the fact that 1) there were TONS of solo travelers in the hostels and 2) even for a pretty reserved person like myself, it was immediately super easy to meet other people.  

The wonderful thing about traveling solo is that you can do exactly what you want to do--you don't have to do anything you don't want to or miss something that you want to see.  Traveling with a friend removes so much of the pressure and anxiety that comes with traveling, but there are also problems that can come along with it--you can get incredibly sick of the person, you sometimes want to do different things, and since you're together you sometimes don't spend the time to talk to the other travelers all around you.  When you're by yourself you can do exactly what you want to do, and you meet far more people from around the world.  If I hadn't been by myself I never would have spent my days in Laos with a girl from Germany, had dinner with two guys from the Netherlands, visited the temples of Angkor with a guy from Denmark, explored the countryside of Cambodia with girls from California and Canada, had dinner in a Burmese restaurant in Phnom Penh with two girls from Germany on my last night in Cambodia, or met many of my other roommates along the way from Australia, China, France, Canada, and Brazil.  I may never see many of these people again, but that's not the point.  The point is that because I did meet them I had some sort of unique experience and learned not only about the countries I was visiting at the time, but also about the lives of these people, their countries, and their experiences traveling.

When I got back to Korea, I couldn't help but think wow, I really did it. I often say that the hardest part of coming to Korea was just being brave enough to come here in the first place.  Everything else since then has been easy in comparison to just making the decision to get on the plane and come.  I feel solo traveling is pretty much the same--the thought of doing it is a lot scarier than actually doing it. Now that I know I can do it, I know I don't need to sit around and wait for someone else to come travel with me--I am fully capable of doing the things I want to do by myself.

2)  Materialism (I have a lot of stuff!)-- I finally got back to my place in Jeomchon around 9:30 AM, at which point I entered my apartment for the first time in three weeks.  When I walked inside my apartment felt SO BIG and immediately I felt like I had a crazy amount of stuff.  I guess after staying in hostels and living out of my backpack I forgot just how much stuff I actually own. 

This feeling was also probably impacted by the fact that I had spent time in countries where so many people have so little.  Cambodia especially left an impression on me due to the fact that no matter where you go around Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, there are kids running up to you asking you to buy things from them.  It's not just the kids either--it's the beggers who are missing limbs from landmines (which are still a big problem to this day despite the fact that wars have been over for decades), the children who walk such long distances to school, the kids you see running around without shoes or clothes, the small and broken down houses, and the stories of people who work from morning until night just to survive.  The culmination of these things really impacted the way I see all of my "stuff." Since this trip I've continued to think about the stuff I own, the things I spend my money on, and being more charitable.  

3) The difference between living abroad and traveling.  I'm pretty sure I mentioned this after traveling to Thailand last year, but this is something that just hit me even more this time around now that I've been living in Korea for a year and a half versus the six months I was at when I went to Thailand.  

When you travel in SE Asia you're essentially in backpacking territory.  Backpackers are EVERYWHERE and tourism is a huge industry in many of the SE Asian countries. Obviously there is a huge amount you can learn by traveling to these places, but what I've realized more than anything else is that by spending a short amount of time in a country you really only hit the surface.  Don't get me wrong, you can still learn a lot from the surface. You see new and interesting things, which without doubt provokes a great deal of thought or incites a new interest or passion.  You of course also learn basic things about culture and history and you eat lots of new foods that you've never had before.  You see and meet so many people who have been sharing this planet with you this whole time, yet you never knew existed.  These are amazing things, but living abroad is a totally different experience.

When you live in another country it becomes your home. You learn deeper things about the culture and history.  You learn how to do everyday tasks like banking and grocery shopping.  You build friendships with the locals that last more than a few days or weeks.  You learn all the modes of transportation and eventually you rarely need to ask for help anymore.  

Although I met so many travelers during my tip, I only met two other people who had been to East Asia.  One was also an English teacher in Korea and the other was studying in China.  When I met people and told them I live in Korea I was often given responses of "Wow, Korea?! Why are you living there?"  I guess I've been in Korea for so long that it seems strange to me now that so many people know so little about it (but then I remind myself that two years ago I didn't know much of anything either!)  

I found it interesting that so many people go to SE Asia to experience new cultures, but in reality so many of these places are now catered towards tourists.  There are so many people who speak English and there are tons of western options for foods.  Although most people would never think of coming to Korea, I can easily say that I experience more Asian culture in Korea, where few people speak English, I get stared at as I walk down the street, and western food is pretty much limited to the major cities, than I did in SE Asia. Of course, as I said there are so many reasons to travel to these places, even if they cater towards tourists because you can still learn so much from visiting them.  However, after living in Korea I can really say that I'll never feel like I really know a country until I've lived there, and even then it takes some time to see the depths of a country. During my trip I often wondered what I would learn about these places if I had more time to spend there or lived there for a bit--I was super aware of how much I still didn't know.  I'm not sure I would even think to wonder this if I didn't know how much I've learned by living in Korea.  

This is the last post I'm going to write about my time traveling in January.  It certainly took me some time to catch up, but thanks to everyone who read along.  I still have an entire trip to China to catch up on, but luckily that one will be much shorter because I was only there for a few days!

I'm immensely thankful for the opportunities I've had to travel, and even more thankful for the opportunity I've had to live in Korea for this year and a half.  Sometimes I still can't believe life has brought me here, but I'm certainly glad that it has.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Exploring Hong Kong: Part 2

During my second day in Hong Kong I decided to indulge my inner history nerd and make a visit to the Hong Kong Museum of History.  This is a HUGE museum and covers the entire history of Hong Kong from how the land itself was formed up to the present day.  I honestly didn't know much about Hong Kong's history at all, so I learned a lot during this visit.

After I finished at the museum, I grabbed a quick bite, then made my way to Victoria's Peak. The Peak gives an amazing view of the city, and my original plan was to get to the top around sunset.  Of course, when I arrived at the tram station, there was yet another HUGE line.  I had to wait at least an hour to buy my ticket to get on the tram.

At the top of Victoria's Peak there were TONS of people, but the view was beautiful.  Although it was a bit hazy, I still got a pretty good view of Hong Kong's lights.

To get to the top of the Peak I had to go to the top of this building that had tons of shops and restaurants, so after I finished taking in the view I stopped for dinner before getting in yet another super long line to take the tram back down.  I waited about an hour again to go back down, but this time I was standing next to an Italian guy who had just finished living in Shanghai, so at least I had some interesting conversation to keep me entertained while I waited.

Right by my hotel was a night market, so I decided to check it out on my way back before calling it a night.

The next morning I woke up and checked out of my hotel.  Luckily, my hotel held my back for me for the day, so I was free to do a bit more exploring.

There wasn't much I still wanted to do in the city, so I decided to check out Wong Tai Sin Temple.  This temple is located in the heart of the city and is surrounded by tons of huge buildings.  It was also packed with people, many of whom were burning incense and praying.

I'm guessing that these bows were decorations for the approaching Lunar New Year

After I finished looking around the temple, I decided to head back to the harbor to get a glimpse of the skyline during the day. Unfortunately, it was pretty cloudy so the view wasn't as great as it would have otherwise been, but it was still nice to hang out by the water for a bit.

 Next I decided to make my way to the Lady's Market, one of the famous markets in Hong Kong.  However, as soon as I got off the subway there were so many people everywhere that everything was moving VERY slowly.  I thought Seoul had crazy population density, but Hong Kong is in an entirely different category.  I didn't stay long at the market because I was going crazy being in such a huge crowd.

In the subway...see that huge crowd of people just ahead?


At the market

I walked around for a little while longer, hoping to find a cafe to sit at for a while.  I have to say, I've never missed Korea's millions of coffee shops so much as I did when I was in Hong Kong.  There was a Starbucks, but it was super crowded, and besides that I didn't see any other coffee shops anywhere.

By this point in the day I was exhausted, tired of being around so many people, and had a huge headache.  Since I had already checked out of my room and I couldn't find any place to just chill out for a while, I decided to go back to my hotel and get my bag and head to the airport, even though my flight wasn't until much later.

Originally I had planned to take a red eye flight back to Korea because I was supposed to be hanging out with my friend.  However, she never made it back to Hong Kong in time, so I ended up being by myself for this part of the trip as well.  Although I'm glad I saw Hong Kong, I think I was never quite able to shake the disappointment of not being able to see Jackie.  Laos and Cambodia were great places to solo travel, but I hadn't planned on being by myself in Hong Kong, so my experience there was just not at all what I had expected it to be.

Nevertheless, I'm glad I saw Hong Kong, but I was very happy to finally get to the airport, where I finally found a nice cafe to sit at and relax.  When I was trying to describe Hong Kong to my friends, I said it's the "citiest" city I've been too.  Everywhere you go, there are tons of people, SUPER tall buildings, and huge signs reaching out into the streets.  There's obviously a lot I didn't see there, but being in a city that busy made me exhausted.  However, I should say, the city is extremely modern, easy to navigate, and the people there speak really good English.  Hong Kong is a great city, I'm just not much of a city person.

It was crazy to be back at the airport, knowing I was only one flight away from the trip being officially over.  In three weeks I went to three different countries, met people from around the world, and saw places many people only dream of.  Those three weeks were some of the best of my life, but it certainly did feel good to know that I would soon be back in Jeomchon, reuniting with my friends and sleeping in my own bed.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Exploring Hong Kong: Part 1

After enjoying a very restful night's sleep during my first night in Hong Kong, I took my time in the morning before making my way to see the famous Tian Tan Buddha.

This Buddha is located on the outskirts of the city, which meant that I had to take the subway to get to another station to take a cable car to the island that the Buddha is located on.  I was really impressed with how simple it was to use Hong Kong's subway.  Not only was it easy to navigate, but it was also fast and clean--all around a good way to travel around the city.

Once I got to the station for the cable car, I was shocked to see how long the line was.  I stood in line for nearly two hours just to buy my ticket.  Luckily, there was WiFi, so I was able to talk to friends while I waited, which definitely made it go by much quicker.

Once I finally got to buy my ticket, I was able to get on a cable car for the approximately 20 minute ride to the island.  Although cable cars are always slightly scary to me (I seriously don't understand how they work), the view was absolutely beautiful.  The water around Hong Kong is a beautiful light blue color, and there are lots of mountains all around.

To get to the Buddha you first have to climb up tons of stairs.  At the top you can walk around the Buddha, which made of bronze and is quite large.  Honestly, I wasn't all that impressed by the Buddha itself because after a year and a half in Asia I've seen more than my share of Buddhas. Yes, this one was especially big, but I wasn't really blown away. However, what was really nice about this trip was the view of the mountains and water.  It was an absolutely beautiful day too--not too hot, but not cool either and a perfect blue sky.

There was also a beautiful temple that was located on the island, which in my opinion was more impressive than the Buddha.  One of the halls had 10,000 Buddhas, and the lighting inside was stunning.  Unfortunately, we weren't allowed to take pictures, so you'll just have to take my word for it.

Once I finished walking around, I got back on the cable car and made my way back down.  This time I had the pleasure of sharing a cable car with a teenage couple, who literally took selfies the ENTIRE way down the mountain.  Lucky me.

Once I got back to the city, I took a little break then figured out where to go to get a glimpse of Hong Kong's famous skyline, which turned out to be by the harbor at the TST Promenade and Avenue of Stars.

Hong Kong's skyline is consistently ranked among the best (and sometimes THE best) in the world.  As I walked towards the harbor and it came into view, it was easy to see why.  The lights seemed to go on and on, and they reflected beautifully into the water.  This skyline is just one of those things that is difficult to capture in pictures. Of course, I did take pictures, but take my word that it's far more impressive in person.

Even though I got to the harbor a little before the light show began at 8:00, there were already tons of people.  Naturally I ended up next to a group of Koreans, who had no idea I could understand bits and pieces of what they were saying (and some of it definitely wasn't nice).  I just couldn't seem to escape the Koreans throughout this trip--funny how that happens.

After the light show finished, I walked around for quite a while trying to find a place to eat.  Traveling solo in Hong Kong was really different from traveling in Laos in Cambodia, where places really cater to tourists.  When you're in Hong Kong there are definitely tourists around, but the city isn't necessarily catering to them--you're surrounded by way more locals than fellow tourists, which isn't really the case in the major tourist places in Cambodia and Laos.  The streets were so crowded and hectic, and without knowing where I was going or what any of the food was exactly, it was hard to make a decision about where to eat.  I finally found a place though, and after that it was definitely time to call it a night--I had had enough city for one day!