South Korea (2) – When it’s not Rainy in Daegu

When it stops raining, Daegu becomes quite charming. You can finally leave your hotel room and venture towards the mountains that surround the city and shelter many traditional temples.

One of the must-sees in Daegu is the Bullo Dong Ancient Tomb Park, in the northern part of the city, on the way to Mount Palgongsan. The park has about 200 traditional Korean tombs, dating from the 6th century and they are believed to be the tombs of those who ruled the area.

The bodies and items like pottery, iron weapons, gold ornaments were placed in stone crypts, then a large stone was placed on top, onto which dirt was piled, until they got their distinctive shape.

The site offers a nice and tranquil walk between the lush green ball-looking tombs and it’s also a perfect place for picnic.  I met a large Korean family who was having lunch and who generously offered me some potatoes :).

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After the tombs, Mount Palgongsan is a perfect place for some more serious hikes and temples watching. The mount has three peaks, Birobong and Dongbong which are the highest (1,155m) and Seobong. On the way up there are a number of Buddhist temples where you can stop anytime. I stopped at Donghwasa, which is one of the biggest and oldest, dating from the 9th century

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The hike to Dongbong which I took was lovely and not too difficult but it was very misty and raining by the time I reached the peak so I couldn’t see the view from the top (which I read that it’s a very picturesque one).

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I managed to get home in time, before the rain started again.

And on my way home I experienced a big dose of Korean hospitality: I was offered a delicious peach by an old lady who was selling them close to the trails, then a nice couple offered me a ride to the bus station and finally, an old lady in the bus gave me her coat as she saw me shivering from the freezing AC.

I accepted all three of them. I was very happy to meet such nice and warm people.

South Korea (1) – Rainy Days in Daegu

It’s the third day since we’ve been in Daegu and it’s been raining almost constantly, making it impossible to do any activities.

Not that Daegu has much to offer anyway. Apart from some hikes in the mountains that are close by but unreachable under the pouring rain, Daegu is the the city where nothing really happens. There are a couple of temples (but out of the city), some small museums whose explanations are only in Korean, some parks and a lot of restaurants, pubs and cafes. There’s even a street that’s called “Cafe Street” where coffee shops and Western-style restaurants line up.

But I did discover a fascinating place for spending these rainy days: the markets.

Seomun Market is one of them. One of Korea’s three largest markets, Seomun has been famous for its textile and sewn items (Daegu being known as the ‘Textile City” , though in the past years the textile industry shrank). But actually I’ve been more fascinated with the food you can find here.

The food stalls crammed in the narrow alleys display anything from seeds and colorful fruit and vegetables , delicious mochi sweets to more heavy things such as pork intestines or cooked silk worms (Beondegil).IMG_20140806_142112IMG_20140806_150418IMG_20140806_150509IMG_20140806_144929

The mochi sweets have various color in Korea, unlike Japan where they are usually white, brown or green. While also filled with red bean pasta, they are sweeter than in Japan and less soft.

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The cooked silk worms are a really popular snack in Korea (they are high in protein and low in fat :)). You can find them even at convenience stores or buy them live and prepare them yourself. I consider myself quite adventurous when it comes to trying new food but I admit that worms or other insects are a really big barrier. So far.

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But a delicious and safe thing is the ‘hotteok’ – a very popular street food. It is a deep-fried pancake filled with brown sugar, honey, cinnamon and nuts. It just tastes divine!

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We still have two more (and looong) days to spend in Daegu….with the rain and no attractions around I might be reconsidering trying the silk worms. At least it’s something exciting :).

A Second Trip to Tokyo

Last week we went to Tokyo for a second time.

The first time we were a bit in a rush to get the most out of the city, in three days.  The second time, however we had time to discover a  city where I’d love to live for a couple of years, full of happenings and events that I overlooked the first time I visited.   A city whose vibrant atmosphere, funky people, eclectic neighboorhoods and huge neon-lights make you want to come back again and again and again.

There are a couple of things that I loved this time in Tokyo:

1. Relaxing at Cafe Ki

I found out about Ki Cafe from an article in Bored Panda where the place was featured among the 20 of the world’s best restaurant and bar interior designs. Ki means ‘tree’ in Japanese and the design of the place is built around the idea of a forest. But a very abstract, minimalist one.

The table legs go up to look like tree trunks and branches. The whole space is painted in white, which makes a beautiful contrast against the blackness of the branches. Their coffee is really good, I had a hazelnut latte. So are the cakes….but I’ll let the pictures talk.

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2. Shimokitazawa neighbourhood

It is nicknamed ‘the younger cousin of Harajuku’ because of its equally funky atmosphere and small eclectic streets that you’d usually find in Harajuku. But if Harajuku has the popularity, Shimokita has the cool kids and the indie vibe. You can spend an entire afternoon here, wandering through the music shops that line the street, the popular eateries and vintage clothing stores.

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3. Walking on Rainbow Bridge

Tokyo’s Rainbow Bridge which spans Tokyo Bay offers a  great view of the city, especially at night, with the dozens of lighted sky-scrapers. The walk is not long, around 1km and there are two routes: the South and the North route. We took the North route, with views on Tokyo harbour and Tokyo Tower. The South side offers views of Tokyo Bay and, if you’re lucky and it’s daytime, Mount Fuji.

To get on the bridge the easiest and nicest way is to take the Yurikamome line, a driverless elevated train that has some great views on Tokyo bay.

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(Oh, and it seems that the rainbow colour lights are only during the Christmas period, and the bridge looks like that):

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Photo credits: Wikipedia

 4. A stop at the Toilet Exhibition in Miraikan Museum

It’s been everywhere in the news lately, and words like looney and weird would often describe it. So, I had to go and see for myself.

The exhibition is clearly targeted to kids , trying to teach them about the human waste and its impact on the environment. I found it creative and funny, mostly the part where you get flushed down a huge porcelain toilet, wearing …a poop hat :).

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In case you forgot the different shapes the human feces can have, here’s a reminder:):

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The exhibition features also different toilets around the globe and from the Japanese Edo period, as well as some innovative systems, like the pants that collect the urine:

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If you had enough of the scatological atmosphere, go on the 5th floor of the museum and have a chat with the lifelike robot Otonaroid or listen to the news read by Kodomoroid. It’s a bit spooky, but amazing in the same time!

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5. The Art Aquarium Exhibition by the artist Hidetomo Kimura

The Art Aquarium exhibition is a stunning form of art, combining about 5,000 goldfish in aquariums with colourful lightning, music, futuristic designs and traditional Japanese motifs (lanterns, folding screens, kimonos).

It’s really one of the most fantastic things I’ve seen so far, so anyone who’s in Tokyo shouldn’t miss it. The exhibition is open to public until 23 September 2014.

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The Philippines (2). Street Fiesta, the Joy of Local Food and the Mighty Pinatubo

After our adventure in Sagada, we headed to Mount Pinatubo, the active volcano that erupted in 1991 leaving behind a moon-like landscape.

We decided to stop on our way in Baguio, nicknamed “the summer capital of the Philippines”, at a halfway distance between Sagada and Santa Juliana, the last big village before the trek to the volcano.

Despite its promising nickname and being surrounded by mountains, Baguio is not what I‘d call a beautiful city. It’s busy and crowded, a sort of smaller Manila. I disliked it at the beginning, but then we discovered a nice place called the Garden in the Sky, in the Tam-awan Village. It is a small village of the original natives of Baguio, preserving a few of the Ifugao traditional houses. The huts are functional and can be rented out for the overnight stay.

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In the evening we took a walk through the city and we found by chance a street festival, a sort of popular fiesta with lots of people swarming by the narrow streets. We ate some delicious local dish at a food stall and had the loveliest dessert ever: puto bumbong, a purple-colored sticky rice cake shaped in banana leaf and flavored with sugar, fresh grated coconuts and butter. Mmm, so yummy!

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The next morning, we continued our way and after changing one bus and a crowded jeepney we arrived in Santa Juliana.  The village is the kick-off of the trek to the volcano’s crater. We spent the night at BS Farmhouse, a nice and cozy farm ran by a lovely family. It’s a bit difficult to find, you need to notice a faded board on the left side of the road, just at the entrance of Santa Juliana. We wouldn’t have spotted it ever if not for the people in the Tourism Office who were nice enough to show us the way.

The next day we got up at 5 a.m. and after a simple but delicious breakfast (mango’s, rice and eggs) we headed to the local Tourism Office to meet the jeep that would take us closer to Pinatubo’s crater.

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We skipped the local tours as we thought their offer was kind of expensive (about 3,400 php/person for a group of 2) and instead we booked the 4X4 jeep with the local Tourism Office.  We were lucky to find 3 more tourists willing to make the same trip and share the costs. We ended up paying about 1,500 php/person.

The trek to Pinatubo looks like a war zone. Driving through the Crow Valley, with its bumpy roads, ash fields, dead trees and rocky rivers is quite an experience. Everywhere you look, you can see the traces of the lava that came down to the valley and destroyed pretty everything on its way. Actually right after the eruption, the area was hit by a typhoon, which generated an enormous amount of a mudflow (water mixed with ash deposits and dust) that flooded through the valleys of the mountain. As a result, the mountains had some dramatic patterns, made by the merciless burning lava biting through the rock. Just like a pair of scissors cuts through the paper.

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The jeep takes you up to a certain point. From there, you need to walk up to the crater, under the scorching heat. On the way we stopped at an Aeta Village, inhabited by one of the oldest indigenous tribes in the Philippines. The Aetas had lived for hundreds of years in this area, but the eruption was devastating to them.

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The trek to the crater lake takes about 20 minutes and it’s pretty easy. Once you are there you get to enjoy a serene landscape, dominated by the blue waters of the lake. The complete silence and relaxing in the warm, clear waters make this experience unforgettable.

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The Philippines (1). Hanging Coffins, Cave Connection and Dreams of a Better Life

His name is  Novi. He greets us with a generous smile and welcomes us to this country. Sagada, The Philippines.

We had just arrived, after a whole night spent in a shabby bus driving us from Manila to Banaue. It was only our first day in the Philippines and we already started to feel the adventure, crammed in the back of an overloaded bus, among dozens of tourists and locals. In Banaue we took some time to admire the famous rice terraces in the crisp morning light. An almost otherworldly view.

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We arrived in Sagada after a two hour ride on the roof of a colorful jeepney, the whole journey trying to find a sweet spot between backpacks, building materials, sacks of rice and other adventurous tourists and locals.

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We meet Novi in front of the Tourism Office. He is our guide for what will soon be our greatest adventure in the Philippines: a 2,500 feet and three hour long underground journey between Lumiang and Sumaguing Caves.

At the cave entrance we linger for a while to look at the wooden coffins that are hanging on the walls. It is an ancient funeral custom seen in different parts of Southeast Asia. During this time, Novi gets ready for the descent, lighting the kerosene lamp that will guide us through the blackness.

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At the beginning it’s not that bad. We get used to the slippery rocks quite quickly and we advance with confidence. But very soon the whole picture changes completely: to go futher, we need to squeeze through narrow passages, us ropes to rappel downwards, slide on rock and even use Novi as a ladder in order to get down.

But our guide is calm and keeps joking. He makes sure that the light from his kerosene lamp always points towards us, making us feel a bit safer through the overwhelming darkness. Novi knows his way well and he is sure of every move he makes. He shows us the way down impossibly tiny passages, which we hardly believe we can squeeze through (but actually pull it off) and he double checks the rappel ropes.

By now we became less and less tense, we laugh more at Novi’s jokes and we start telling stories from back home. He lives in a small village near Sagada, but he comes here whenever the Tourism Office needs him as a guide. The money he gains is enough to cover his family’s basic needs, but he dreams of a better life. He asks us about Romania, he wants to know if he could get a job there. I’m a bit surprised by his question. I never considered my country to be a place where people come searching for a better life. Actually a lot of Romanians are leaving their country precisely for that reason. Novi says that in the Philippines there aren’t too many job opportunities, so he’ll go anywhere he can find better employment. He’s determined to try no matter what. Maybe going to Hong Kong or richer countries near the Philippines could be a better idea.

As we talk, we continue sliding further down into the cave and admiring the strange rock formation around us. Novi leads us to a small pool and asks us if we want to swim in it. He places the lamp in front of us, so that we can see the rocks surrounding the underground water. After a moment’s hesitation, we jump in and instanly feel the icy water trying to swallow us. It is not too deep but it’s freezing cold.

Surprisingly, when we get out of the water, we feel warm. We put our clothes on quickly and continue exploring.  Shortly after, we hear other voices and see more kerosene lights flickering up on the rocks. We just reached at the end of the cave, a more touristy part of the circuit. We look around to see the different formations Novi is pointing out to us: a stone frog, a chocolate cake, a queen and a king, lions, huge curtains.

As we climb out of the cave, we feel a bit sad that it’s over. What felt like a great adventure will now become only a memory. We are finally out and exchange a few more words with Novi, thanking him for this wonderful experience. He invites us to his village, 4 km away. But it’s a long way and we are tired. It’s been a tough day, but loads of fun and good memories.

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Not to miss in Sagada:

  • Eat dinner @ Salt&Pepper, they have a delicious food and cozy atmosphere
  • Grab a delicious pie @Lemon Pie, once you finished the exhausting cave connection; it’s a wonderful little coffee-shop ran by a family. We enjoyed mostly the egg pie, though the lemon one is pretty ok as well. When we got there, it seemed like all the family gathered together to serve us with a slice of their delicious pie :);
  • Start your morning with an amazing breakfast @ Yoghurt House, and try the fruit&yoghurt mix, it’s made with fresh seasonal fruit and the mango is a.m.a.z.i.n.g!