Showing posts with label travel. Show all posts
Showing posts with label travel. Show all posts

December 21, 2013

Chronicles of Korea

As my time in Korea comes to an end, I compiled a thorough list of the different places I visited around the country during my stay. The natural and historical sites had much more variety and charm than the inhabitants. Although it pales in comparison to my Chinese adventures, there was still a lot to see and explore in this small but densely populated nation. 


Wherever you go, go with all your heart. ~ Confucius

December 14, 2013


Amidst years spent in the high-octane economies of Asia full of aspirational youth and rapidly growing businesses, I made a visit to the Old World where a completely different attitude prevails. Mired in a depression with no end in site, Greece struggles to regain even a portion of its former glory.

The birthplace of democracy, the home of brilliant philosophers and mathematicians, and the training grounds for legions of brave warriors boasts the remnants of its past as its main drawing card in these austere times. Many stores in central Athens were shuttered, with unemployed members of society and walls sprayed with graffiti as prevalent as plastic surgery clinics and mismatched couples in South Korea.

The food was good, but not substantially better than the dishes found in Greek restaurants elsewhere. In some ways it was worse, as all vegetable portions had somehow become replaced with french fries in almost every dish I ordered (perhaps as a cost cutting measure).

The summer weather was hot and dry, with greenery nowhere to be found in the arid landscape. The English was decent although some people had the habit of using the words ‘stairs’ and ‘escalators” interchangeably, leading to some unexpected surprises for elderly travelers.

I had about 8-9 days in hand for my Greek odyssey. My journey in Hellas began with a night in the port town of Piraeus, followed by three days on the mystical isle of Santorini, and then a return to the mainland to see the historical sites of Meteora, Delphi, Corinth, and Athens.  


There are some people who live in a dream world, and some who face reality; and then there are those who turn one into the other. ~ Douglas Everett

December 02, 2013

The Bridge of Life

On the surface, Seoul is the most perfect place I have lived in. The benefits of living in the Korean megapolis are aplenty:
  • All manner of commercial establishments stay open day and night
  • An extensive public transit system augmented with moderately priced cabs 
  • Safe and clean environs with an honest and hygienic populace
  • High speed trains and express buses which allow me to easily explore the rest of the country on weekends
  • Blazing fast broadband and wireless internet speeds 
  • Main courses at restaurants that come with a healthy assortment of side dishes, which are refilled for free
  • Public restrooms are easily available so I do not have to improvise during emergencies
  • New shipments of K-girls roll out of the beauty factories of Sinsa and Apgujeong at regularly scheduled intervals
  • Heated floors
  • Toilets can wash and dry nether regions at the push of a button (if pressed in the correct order)

Once you peel away the layers of benefits afforded by the 24/7 conveniences of Korean life, the rotten core is revealed. A society catapulted from subsistence to modernity in a handful of decades always leaves some behind. Alcoholism, prostitution, domestic abuse, plastic surgery, video game addiction, chronic mistreatment of international heartthrobs, and long hours at the office are commonplace.

Most struggle day to day to keep up appearances and conform to societal norms, to show their friends and neighbours that they are just as successful as them (or slightly more so), and to push themselves and their offspring into continuing the loop of never-ending education and work required to accumulate additional wealth and status.

It comes as no surprise that South Korea is annually number one in the world suicide rankings. Samsung tried to convert the suicide hotspot of Mapo Bridge into a place where such deadly actions could be averted. Portions of the railings on the interactive Bridge of Life light up with message beacons as one walks by. 

A string of hopeful phrases written in Korean bring about anticipation of a better future or elicit recollections of happy times - “A loved one waiting for you at home.”, “The best is yet to come.”, and so on. Unfortunately suicides actually went up after the conversion of the bridge, as the publicity it created drew more members of society to its edge. 


"We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope." ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

November 21, 2013


Three old friends from my Beijing days and I reunited after a few years for a weeklong trip to Myanmar (previously known as Burma). The people of Myanmar were friendly, helpful, and full of warmth. Even though they did not possess abundant quantities of material wealth, most people we encountered were clever enough. While the masses of smartphone wielding drones in Korean sport a vacant look around the clock, the Myanmarians had that distinct sharpness in their eyes that belies a certain awareness of their surroundings. They also did not appear to be made from plastic

On the topic of plastic, access to cash using internationally issued credit or debit cards is now a viable alternative to carrying large wads of US dollars as ATM’s made their way to Myanmar a year or two before I did. The nation was generally closed off to the West for the greater part of the past few decades, only opening up recently as it slowly transitions from military rule to democracy. American brands are not readily visible, although signs of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean investment into the gold rush of economic development that awaits Myanmar were apparent.  

The Myanmarians still use their traditional forms of dress and makeup in day to day life. This meant full length body hugging outfits for the women, their faces coated with a paste that functions as both sunscreen and beauty product, and loose sarongs for the men. The English level was decent everywhere we went, so there was little problem in communication. Of course after being in Korea, my standards for judging English competency have slipped as low as K-girls’ standards in selecting their mates.

The infrastructure was much better than nearby Laos and Cambodia, but Myanmar dwarfs these nations with a population exceeding 60 million inhabitants. Even with an established transportation system, moving about was still a hair-raising experience. We took all forms of transit available to us - trains, taxis, buses, bicycles, backs of trucks with the open tailgate functioning as the platform for more passengers to stand upon, and horse carts to name a few - to make our way from Yangon to Mandalay, with stops in Bagan and Inle in between.

November 17, 2013


Harsh, empty, and beautiful are words that could describe either K-girls or the Mongolian landscape. Add natural to that list of adjectives, and the land of Genghis Khan remains the only viable option among the two. I had previously visited Inner Mongolia, the part of the once great empire now absorbed by China, to explore the ghost city of Ordos and perform a Bollywood-style dance in the singing sands of the Gobi desert. This gave me a vague idea of the type of environment I was to expect in Mongolia, but did not prepare me for the vast open spaces, hearty lifestyle, hospitable people, and charming desolation that I would experience during my trip. 

Last Chuseok mostly fell on a weekend, so I spent my limited days on the island paradise of Jeju as I could not venture very far from the peninsula. The Korean thanksgiving holiday fortuitously fell on three consecutive weekdays this year, so I took a couple of extra days off work to convert it into a nine day sojourn of Mongolia.

The least densely populated country on Earth, Mongolia is about 15 times the size of South Korea but has less than 3 million inhabitants compared to the 50 million denizens of Daehanminguk. The capital city of Ulaanbaatar was utilized primarily as a base for entry and exit into Mongolia, as most of the days were spent on the road exploring sand dunes and national parks. A sturdy but aged Russian vehicle was used for transportation and circular tents (called gers) were the primary type of accommodation.


The open road is a beckoning, a strangeness, a place where a man can lose himself. ~ William Least Heat-Moon

October 14, 2013

Medusa and the Sunken Palace

A stone's throw away from the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul is the entrance to the Basilica Cistern. The so-called Sunken Palace is an impressive underground complex that features a pair of Medusa heads. Medusa was the infamous Gorgon whose gaze was able to turn her victims into stone, similar to how a wayward glance from the surgically altered eyes of a K-girl has the ability to turn my knees into jelly.

First constructed 1500 years ago under the rule of the Roman emperor Constantine, the chamber remained in operation for a thousand years until the Ottoman era. The largest cistern in all Constantinople with a capacity to hold 80,000 cubic meters of water, the engineering marvel is a rather large facility and still in solid condition.

7000 slaves toiled away for several years to build the waterproof facility. The beads of sweat dropping from their forehead  were among the first liquid donations to the cistern, which was designed to hold rainwater for future use.

Many of the marble and granite columns that support the structure were reused from even more ancient ruins or were surplus from other construction projects, so they sport a variety of styles from Ionic to Doric. The two Medusa heads arrived from parts unknown, ending up upside down or sideways to fit into the general architecture without additional modification and also to avoid her direct gaze.

October 12, 2013

Jinju Namgang Lantern Festival

A four hour bus ride southward from Seoul's Nambu Bus Terminal saw me arrive in Jinju. I strolled to the riverside, arriving just in time for the start of the day's lantern festivities. The Jinju Namgang Yudeong Festival is held annually on the river that cuts a swathe through the town of 350,000. Several battles took place between the Koreans and the Japanese during the Imjin War in the 1500s in the region. The 70,000 Korean lives lost in the defence of the nation are commemorated by releasing the floating lamps into the Nam river every year.

The most noticeable landmark in town is Jinjuseong, a large fortress straddling the southern side of the Namgang. With spectacular river views and live performances it was the place to be on a happening Saturday night. After enjoying the festivities late into the evening, I went in search of food and accommodation.

I followed the masses to the eMart supermarket - a bastion of hope for a hungry man. A young lady at the food court took my order and giggled surreptitiously at the same time. Exceedingly handsome men are a rare sight in Jinju. I hurriedly completed my meal, worried that no rooms would be available and that I would have to spend another night wide awake at a 24 hour Korean sauna.

Due to the fact that many Korean males live with their parents into their thirties and also have a penchant for infidelity, both single and married men have a need for seedy love motels to carry out their amorous activities. They can also be used for wholesome purposes such as catching some simple shut eye. I wandered the streets and enquired for the availability of rooms at each such love motel I happened to pass by. On my fifth attempt, I found a motel with one room remaining.

After showing me my room, the motel manager invited me for a nightcap and regaled me with his life story. Thirty years ago he had studied English in university. On this day he finally had the opportunity to use it. As English vocabulary from bygone days drifted to the tip of his tongue, he told me his life story in disjointed sentence fragments. I would guess what he was trying to say and he would confirm whether my interpretation was the correct one.

The manager told me of how as schoolchildren decades ago, he and his classmates would release a few lanterns into the river. Nowadays, he explained, the lantern festival had exploded into a well-organized but tacky extravaganza which lacked the simplicity and charm of bygone days.

While we were conversing two beauties approached the counter. They inquired as to if a room was available and he turned them away. "You very lucky." he said earnestly, "If you come 30 minutes after, then you find two ladies in your room". I agreed that that would have been an entirely unfortunate turn of events.

September 25, 2013

Night Fishing in Jeju

After jointly devouring a large hamburger that shared the same dimensions as a medium sized pizza somewhere in the middle of Jeju, my two travel companions and I rushed towards the coastline of Korea's favourite island. We squeezed in a visit to see the perfectly hexagonal basalt formations formed by the cooling of liquid lava at Jungmun Beach, before continuing onwards in our rented car at a breakneck pace to a dock where a boat awaited to take us night fishing.

I was traveling with a Korean woman and an American man. The lady was the only one with a valid driving license so she had rented a car. The American and I could only hope for the best as we burned rubber across Jeju. We arrived at the secluded dock with minutes to spare before the launch took off. Prior to stepping onto the deck of our fishing vessel, we loaded up on some supplies to get us through the night - bait, fishing gloves, and some snacks. Several Korean vacationers also joined us on board.

As the sun set and darkness embraced us we sailed out into the open ocean along with a few other fishing vessels. We dropped anchor after we were an adequate distance out into open water and well spaced apart from the other potential night fishermen and women. The floodlights were turned on, illuminating the vessel and a small region around us. Luckily, no one on our boat felt sea sick so we could stay out longer than the other vessels.

A crew member showed me how to take the shrimp we were using as bait and attach it to the fish hook. It was a bit like threading a needle. On my first attempt I hooked my glove instead of the bait, and battled the fishing rod for a while until the crew member prevented me from becoming the first fisherman to catch himself with his own fishing rod. I soon became adept at the process and in no time was catching mackerel like there was no tomorrow. The fish would be yanked on to the ship, disengaged from the hook, and tossed into a bucket.

Mackerels are known for swimming near the surface and for easily being tricked into taking the bait. Their limited intellect makes them the ideal candidate for novice fishermen such as myself. My Korean friend caught the most fish, with the equally inexperienced American and I lagging far behind. The crew kindly cut and cleaned the fish for dinner. They even brought out a portable stove for us foreigners, as they were worried we would not be able to handle raw fish. I tried both the cooked and uncooked varieties, but preferred the raw one.


The charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive but attainable, a perpetual series of occasions for hope. ~ John Buchan

September 08, 2013

The Alhambra

Quite possibly the premiere tourist attraction in Spain, the Alhambra is a millennium old citadel perched on the hills of Granada. Dramatically layered in between the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountain range and the city of Granada, it is sometimes hard to distinguish a photo of the Alhambra from a painting.

Built in the 9th century as a fort and later converted into a a royal palace by the Sultan of Granada, the complex was crafted according to Arab-Islamic architectural styles. Beautiful Arabesque decorations are inscribed on the walls of the palace, similar to those found etched on the Taj Mahal and other Mughal masterpieces in India.

The Muslim rulers tried to recreate paradise on Earth, with Moorish poets describing the Alhambra as a "pearl set in emeralds". Forests, gardens, mountains, and streams sublimely coexist with the man made structure. My princely figure blended in seamlessly with the environs. When Christians came to power in the Andalusian region of Spain, the fort was augmented with more European style buildings. These take a back seat to the impressive Islamic stylistic elements that dominate the design of the Alhambra grounds.

Heavily damaged over the centuries by man and nature alike, the Alhambra has been restored in modern times. After an uphill climb through the Alhambra Park at dawn, I entered the main square through the Gate of Judgment. Only a limited number of visitors are allowed in each day, with a specific time printed on the ticket specifying when the royal palace can be entered. The extensive Generalife gardens can be enjoyed at leisure afterwards.


Don’t tell me how educated you are, tell me how much you traveled. ~ Mohammed

August 17, 2013

The Moses Miracle - Jindo Sea Parting

Jindo is an island located off the south coast of the Korean peninsula. Connected by a bridge to the mainland, the island is a quiet unheralded place for most of the year until almost a half a million vibrantly attired elderly Korean, youthful Westerners pretending to be English teachers, and tourists descend upon on it to attend the annual Jindo Sea Parting Festival. The sea parting phenomena gained international fame in the mid-1970's after the then French ambassador proclaimed it Korea's version of the Biblical 'Moses Miracle'.

Some of the teachers donned faux Moses beards and carried a staff to complete the scene as they trudged across the 2.8 kilometre stretch of land that emerged from the sea, connecting Jindo to the even smaller island of Modo. A lot of people did not bother to walk across the whole way, preferring to stop and collect the seaweed, abalone, and starfish that surfaced once the sea floor was revealed.

The path only lasts for about an hour each day during the four days of the festival before the sea level rises to cover it up again, so there is heavy foot traffic that makes it a tough distance to cover in such a short time. As the clock ticked down, the waves rushed back in quickly with tremendous force. That is why many don vividly coloured knee high plastic boots to keep dry as they walk across the sea bed.

Although science has washed away the mysteries behind the magical sea parting, the tale behind the tidal harmonics remains enchanting. In the ancient days, many tigers were said to roam Jindo and feast on the delicious locals. Frightened villages fled to Modo for safety reasons, but an old grandmother was inadvertently left behind.

The old lady prayed to the mythical dragon king of the sea to be reunited with her family, who informed her a rainbow over the sea would connect her with her loved ones. Sure enough, her prayers were answered when the waters parted to reveal a rainbow-shaped pathway from Jindo to Modo. She rushed to her family. They met midway, with the exhausted but happy grannie breathing her last in the arms of her beloved family.

Apart from the sea parting phenomena, Jindo is also famous in Korea for its namesake breed of dogs. The Jindo dogs are heralded for their loyalty, intelligence, and courage. Protected under the auspices of Cultural Properties Protection Act and declared a national treasure, this particular breed of dog does not appear on Korean dinner tables. As I strolled through the back alleys of a Jindo neighbourhood, many yards had the dogs caged or tied up within them. They roamed about freely on the grounds of a Buddhist temple though, the look in their eye more wolfish than domesticated. I returned their gaze before continuing on my journey up a hill to get a panoramic view of Jindo.


A sojourner have I become in a foreign land. ~ Moses