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.

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.

cave connection sagada

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.

cave connection sagada

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.

cave connection sagada cave connection sagada

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.

cave connection sagada

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!

Ode to Magical Iceland

About one year ago, we spent our honeymoon in Iceland, traveling around with a tent, a car and two very dear friends. We left directly from the city hall, after some rounds of photos and quick bites of colorful macarons. I remember I kept finding rice grains in my hair, during the flight and even the next day, scattered all around the hotel room.

It was June and everybody was ready for the summer, the sea, the breeze, the lazy afternoons in the sun…except for us. We packed the warmest clothes we could find, as highest temperatures in Iceland at the beginning of summer were about 14°C. And during the night, the undaunted presence of a cool air made it really hard to believe it was summer time.

But I completely fell in love with Iceland. It’s truly a land of wonder, with dramatic scenery. No matter where you look, there is a form of pure beauty.

I loved the isolation you sometimes felt when driving through endless lava fields.

I loved the greatness of nature. The otherwordly light that was sometimes scattered on the ground. The whimsical contrasts of brightness and shadows made by the sunlight. The mighty waterfalls, the glaciers, the streams and rainbows, the black beaches and milky skies.

I loved the adventure. From hiking, caving, whale watching, glacier tours, getting wet under the waterfalls, crossing rivers with no other bridge than a timber, I enjoyed everything like a kid who discovered something for the first time.

I loved camping. Iceland is one of the safest country for camping. It’s very organized and when you don’t find a camp nearby, you can basically place your tent anywhere, as long as you don’t harm the vegetation. While we were heading nort-west, to the fjords we stopped at some point because we were tired and we camped on some unbuilt land. In the morning we woke up surrounded by cute, fluffy sheep, curious to see us there.

I loved feeling magical. Because everything is so serene out there. Because of the absence of people. And simply because Iceland is a magic place.

Thank you, Iceland, for these beautiful dream-like memories. We wish to come back soon. Magic IcelandMagic Iceland Magic Iceland Magic IcelandMagic Iceland Magic IcelandMagic Iceland Magic Iceland Magic IcelandMagic IcelandMagic Iceland Magic Iceland Magic IcelandMagic Iceland Magic Iceland Magic IcelandMagic IcelandMagic IcelandMagical Iceland

What to see in Tokyo in 3 Days

Last week we decided to take a long weekend off and visit Tokyo for 3 days. At first, I panicked a bit. Knowing that we will only have  3 days to explore one of the biggest cities in the world (35 million people), I wasn’t sure if I’d get to see much of it.  But it turns out that we did plenty of stuff in 3 days, in fact I would say that this is the ideal time-frame for getting the most out of the city. That is if you travel at a more alert pace, like we did, hopping from one place to another.

Tokyo is one of the most exciting and lively cities I’ve visited so far.  Like Hong Kong, Tokyo is a paradox of modern, hi-tech lifestyle and quite unexpected, old-fashioned living. It feels like there are different cities packed in this one city. While utterly crowded in some places, a few streets away it can get so quiet that you  feel like whispering instead of talking. You get out of the small, homey restaurant where you’ve just finished eating your udon standing up, only to find yourself surrounded by skyscrapers and huge neon signs.

But I found Tokyo just a tiny bit disappointing. Having read so many articles about its eccentricity and having seen Lost in Translation some years ago, I expected to feel…well, lost like Bob, in a city that is constantly moving. Not being able to understand the language, expecting to see a lot of weirdos on the street or bizarrely clad women walking around. But it wasn’t like that. There were some strange and funny things I noticed, like slot machine emporia spreading out on several floors, fully packed with people at almost any hour of the day (strange), the flying sushi restaurants where your food gets zipped around on conveyor belts (both strange and funny) or the people who nap on trains in unusual poses (funny). All in all, Tokyo is as easy to enjoy and feel part of it as New York or Hong Kong are.

So what did we actually do and see in those 3 days?

Tokyo Tower

I think of it as a more funky Tour Eiffel. Located not far from Roppongi Hills, standing at 333 meters, the tower offers a nice view of Tokyo.  And it gets even more interesting at night, when the lights are on and the tower lights up the landscape in bright, electric orange.

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Roppongi

It’s an elegant district with its landmark Roppongi Hills, an immense real estate complex that includes several shops, restaurants and an art museum. It was worth passing by on our way to the Tokyo Tower. You can take a look at the famous Spider sculpture called Maman by Louise  Bourgeoise and spot some funky fashion characters.

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Tokyo in 3 days, visit Tokyo, what to do in Tokyo, attractions Tokyo, must see Tokyo, living in Japan, travel Japan, sightseeing Tokyo

Oh, and if you’re lucky, you can happen upon cute little schoolgirls, wearing the same uniform, quickly filling up the streets on their way home.

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Tsukiji Fish Market

It’s the world’s largest fish market and it’s not to be missed. They say you can find anything that swims in the sea. One show in itself is the tuna auction that starts early in the morning at 5 a.m. There are only 120 spots available  for spectators and the queue starts to form at around 4 am or even earlier. Some of the tuna here is sold for about $10k (the exquisite  maguro, or Bluefin tuna). We missed the auction, but we enjoyed a walk in the market, taking a long look at all kinds of strange sea creatures. I couldn’t name half of them even if I tried.

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Tokyo in 3 days, visit Tokyo, what to do in Tokyo, attractions Tokyo, must see Tokyo, living in Japan, travel Japan, sightseeing Tokyo, fish market

Hama-rikyu Onshi-teien garden

I loved this garden because of the unique mixture between the peaceful atmosphere inside and the tall, modern skyscrapers outside. Usually, gardens in Japan are located in more secluded parts of town, clearly separating the tranquility from the noise of the city. But mixing them together creates a surprising,  enjoyable feeling.

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Strolling through Shibuya district

Shibuya is one of the most famous parts of Tokyo because of its nightlife, great shops and crazy kids. It’s also famous for its uber crowded crossing, featured in almost any movie set in Tokyo. They say that as many as 1000 people cross here at every green light, though we sat in the Starbucks outside for half an hour, and never counted more than 500.

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Image credit: Christopher Thompson

Meiji Shrine and Harajuku

Once you’ve had enough of Shibuya madness, you can just walk for a few minutes and end up in a wonderful forest that shelters the Meiji Shrine. Once you get to the shrine, you can buy a small wooden tablet (ema), write a wish and hang it under the great tree in the middle of the courtyard. The monks will mention it in their morning prayers. I wrote a nice message to my parents and emailed them the picture. They loved it! :)

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Just a few minutes outside the shrine you step into Harajuku, the center of hip Japanese street fashion. This is where I expected to see the craziest outfits, the young Lolitas wearing manga clothes, the mad hairstyles. But sadly, beside a couple of eccentric outfits, I didn’t see anything I hadn’t seen before in NY. Maybe I wasn’t that lucky that day. Nevertheless, Harajuku remains a nice place to walk around and enjoy the small boutiques and cafes spread all over. It’s also the crepe capital of Tokyo, where you can sample such diet-busters as crepe filled with banana chocolate cheesecake and whipped cream on top.

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Image credit: Tokyo Fashion

Omotesando’s backstreet alleys

Perhaps my favorite part of Tokyo, Omotesando’s small streets form a minimalist area featuring cosy cafes, hair salons, bars and all kinds of colorful boutiques. Here we discovered the best espresso in Tokyo at Omotesando Koffee – a tiny coffee shop in a traditional Japanese house. The guy who makes the coffee wears a white coat (like a scientist in a lab :) and he really makes the best cappuccino I’ve had in Japan. They also have a lovely small garden just outside, where you can sip your coffee in peace. Perfect and quiet. 

 

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Shinjuku seen from the Government Building

An alternative way to see the business district, Shinjuku, is to go up to the 45th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. It’s free and the view is great, especially at night when you see all the buildings around lit up (the Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower is especially beautiful). And on a clear day, you can also spot Mt. Fuji.

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Tokyo in 3 days, visit Tokyo, what to do in Tokyo, attractions Tokyo, must see Tokyo, living in Japan, travel Japan, sightseeing Tokyo

Image credits: Karen Ng

Tokyo National Museum

And finally, if you still have energy left to get up, Tokyo National Museum is worth spending a couple of hours. You learn some  the interesting things about Japan’s art and history and as the exhibits are not overcrowded, you won’t get tired like in other Western museums. And if you want a break, you can walk to the garden behind the museum, and sip a cup of matcha.

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Happy Tokyo-ing!

Welcome to Hong Kong, the Tropical New York with Scrumptious Fluffy Buns

I knew I had to visit HK when my sister bluntly told me she was not that impressed with New York. It turned out her New York was actually Hong Kong, where she had worked as a French teacher.

At first, I thought HK was like a tropical version of New York. The same vibrant atmosphere, full of light, movement and with surprising details at every step. Like when we bumped into a flock of flamingos quietly relaxing in the middle of a park in Kowloon. Or when we stumbled upon run-down food stalls, selling the most delicious street goodies right next to shiny glass skyscrapers and shopping malls.

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Hong Kong, perfect food, travel in Hong Kong, ideas in Hong Kong, interesting stuff to do in Hong Kong, parks Hong Kong

Food is one of the greatest things in HK. It’s so delicious and cheap, and you never seem to get enough of it. All kinds of strange sea creatures (the only one we were able to identify was octopus), deep fried tofu and peppers, caramelized potatoes. I’d prefer thus stuff to a fancy restaurant any day.  Oh well, unless you’re talking about the delicious pork buns at Tim Ho Wan. This is one of the cheapest Michelin starred restaurant in the world, selling dim sum in the shopping mall at Central Station. The buns really are to die for. Crispy, yet fluffy, and they melt to perfection in your mouth. It’s like the Ferrari of all the pork buns in the Universe, except for the price tag.

Soon after our New York-esque experience, we arrived in a completely different milieu. We stayed at a very funny guesthouse (Peace Hostel) in a huge maze of a building, inhabited mostly by Indian immigrants. So ten feet away from the cosmopolitan Nathan Street, there we were, back in India. The same persistent smell of curry mixed with paan, peddlers offering you all kinds of unusual things (like tailored suits?!), bowls of palak paneer and sugar loaded sweets. So many memories and sensations from our trip to India came back like a boomerang.

A few things I loved most in Hong Kong:

  • Hiking through the forest to the Giant Buddha statue on Lantau Island

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Hong Kong, perfect food, travel in Hong Kong, ideas in Hong Kong, interesting stuff to do in Hong Kong, parks Hong Kong , Giant Buddha, hikes Hong Kong, dim-sum

  • Scrumptious bakeries everywhere. I am now a lifelong fan of green tea pastries and puffy sponge cakes. There was a bakery on Mody Road where people would queue up for hours before opening time. We never had the patience to stay in line, though.

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  • Wandering through the many open markets, bargaining for every trifle. We bought a few small kitschy Buddha carvings, and when I asked about what their various facial expressions meant, the lady kept pointing at them and shouting: ‘Happy’, ‘Lucky’, ‘Money’, ‘Happy’, ‘Lucky’…
  • Strolling through the lush parks ( Hong Kong park, Kowloon Walled City park, Botanical Garden)

Hong Kong, perfect food, travel in Hong Kong, ideas in Hong Kong, interesting stuff to do in Hong Kong, parks Hong Kong

Hong Kong, perfect food, travel in Hong Kong, ideas in Hong Kong, interesting stuff to do in Hong Kong, delicious food Hong Kong, dim-sum, asian food

  • The magical Dundas & Temple Streets near Mong Kok, where just looking at the throngs of passers-by is a show in itself. Oh, and the Dai-Pai-Dong which is an open-air stall, serving delicious food. There are only 28 such stalls left in Hong Kong.

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Hong Kong, perfect food, travel in Hong Kong, ideas in Hong Kong, interesting stuff to do in Hong Kong, delicious food Hong Kong, dim-sum, asian food, not to miss in Hong Kong

  •  Going up through a misty cemetery and down to Big Wave Beach, the most peculiar hike I’ve done in a long time. It ends in a tranquil surfing village, so disconnected from the rest of HK.

Hong Kong, perfect food, travel in Hong Kong, ideas in Hong Kong, interesting stuff to do in Hong Kong, delicious food Hong Kong, not to miss in Hong Kong, hidden things Hong Kong, hikes Hong Kong

Hong Kong, perfect food, travel in Hong Kong, ideas in Hong Kong, interesting stuff to do in Hong Kong, delicious food Hong Kong, not to miss in Hong Kong, hidden things Hong Kong, hikes Hong Kong

  •  Of course, the view from Victoria Peak, which I guess is on every tourist’s to-do list

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And also, pies, buns, fluffy sponge cakes, mochi, bubble tea. I know I said this before, but the sweets are stronger than me­­.

Happy Hong Kong-ing!