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Autumn Hiking Adventures in Korea – Part 1 – Saryangdo Island

Once the heat and humidity of summer had passed I was keen to start hiking again. However, we don’t have long before the siberian winter draws over South Korea so we have tried to fit in our final must-do Korean hikes before the weather gets too cold.

October – Hiking in paradise on Saryangdo Island

Recently Ash, Keir, Emily and I went on a stunning overnight trip to an island called Saryangdo just of the south coast of Korea. I’d read that there was a brilliant ridge hike that was well known amongst Koreans but not as much amongst us waygookin foreigners. The pictures looked beautiful and the idea of doing a mountain hike on an tiny island had me sold on the idea.

We planned to travel to and arrive on the island on the Saturday and find somewhere to stay in the village at the start of the trail. Then we’d get up early the next day and hike the 6km ridge trail before heading home.

We caught the 7:30am bus to Tongyeong from Daegu Seobu (west) bus station on the Saturday morning, then another bus from the bus terminal to a quiet ferry terminal on the other side of Tongyeong. The terminal was packed with lots of ajummas (middle aged married women) and ajussi’s (middle aged married men) decked out in neon hiking gear so we knew we were in the right place.

The ferry took about 45 minutes and the views along the way were beautiful.Image

Once there, we found a map and worked out that we needed to stay in the village on the opposite end of the island in order to hike back over the ridge trail to the harbour the next day. The sun was shining, we were all feeling pretty energised and the low key atmosphere of the island made us certain we wouldn’t be rushed off our feet with activities when we got to our destination, so we decided to walk the 6 or so kilometres around the island.

About 10 minutes in to the walk a big group of men and women started shouting us to join them. Because we had a fair way to walk we couldn’t stop but Ash went to investigate and came back with a bag of freshly cooked crabs. He was in heaven but the rest of us weren’t really up for walking and eating crab at the same time, especially after looking at the crab guts all over Ash’s hands as he ate the first one! Therefore Ash ate ALL of the crabs himself in quick succession.

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The island was beautiful and the scenery surrounding us was breathtaking. Dotted all over the ocean were tiny islands. It was exactly how I had imagined coastlines in east Asia before I moved here.

It took us about an hour and a half to walk around to the village. I say village, but it was more like a hamlet because it was so small. It was very picturesque and was nestled in a cove beneath the mighty ridged mountains we would be climbing the next day. There were only a handful of minbaks (guesthouses), one restaurant and a few convenience stores/people’s houses. and it took us about 10 minutes to walk around the whole place!IMG_5516

We went to the only restaurant to get lunch and thought it was closed. However a very old woman started shouting and calling to her friend who owned it! She came with a big basket of cabbage (she’d obviously been off doing other things because no one hardly goes there!) opened up, suggested we have some doenjang jjigae (fermented soybean stew) and began cooking for us in the tiny empty restaurant.

We spent the rest of the day playing cards in our shared room and took a quick early evening stroll. We didn’t really mind having a quiet day and an early night because we planned to get up early the following morning to begin our hike.IMG_5524

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Four of us shared this room sleeping on the floor Korean style.

We were up at the crack of dawn the next morning, quite literally, and were sat up on the side of the mountain by 7:30 eating breakfast and enjoying the tranquil quiet atmosphere and breathtaking scenery.

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We knew the crowds of hikers would turn up soon as we’d seen lots of people on the ferry the day before and sure enough as we headed up to the first peak we heard lots of jovial shouting and were soon surrounded by extremely agile ajummas and ajussi’s chattering away as they charged ahead! At one point it was ridiculous how busy the hike became! This picture just about does it justice.

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The walk took us 6 hours and there were some rather hairy sections for someone like myself with leg trembling vertigo issues, but it was really exciting! We had to pull our bodies up over rocks, flatten ourselves and slide along precarious looking edges and watch our feet. There were also some bridges connecting peaks and ropes to guide climbers down sheer rock faces. The sun was shining the whole time and the view just got more and more impressive.IMG_5558 IMG_5555 IMG_5564

When we finished we had to wait a little while for the ferry so went to a sea front restaurant for lunch. We were all totally shattered on the way back so lay down on the back of the ferry and snoozed in the shade.IMG_5566

I actually think this was the most breathtaking and challenging hike that I’ve done in Korea. I’m so glad that I got the chance to experience Saryangdo before leaving Korea as it is truly a hidden gem!

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Haeinsa temple and Jinju lantern festival in one day!

I’ve been really busy at school and have been doing lots of volunteering so updating this blog has become less of a priority. However I’m determined to pull my socks up and document my last 4 and a bit months in Korea before our next adventure begins! I also plan to do lots of stuff in the next month or so now that the sweltering summer heat has gone and before the bitter winter arrives!

Ash’s parents came to visit a couple of weeks ago. The first weekend we met them in Gyeongju but I didn’t take many pictures then as we’ve been before. Their second weekend in Korea we all went to Haeinsa Temple and to the Jinju lantern festival, so it was a weekend of firsts for me (Ash had been to Haeinsa).

Haeinsa Temple

We caught an 8:30am bus to Haeinsa on the Saturday morning and it took approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes to get there from Seobu Bus Station in West Daegu. The complex is really big and stretches across the hills for a few miles, but we had limited time there so just visited the main complex.

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Entrance to Haeinsa

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The monks were mean drummers!

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The red bags on the floor were part of an art installation. People were asked to fill the bags with rocks to symbolise how much pain was in their lives. Depressing but pretty

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This would have been nice if it wasnt for that horrible plastic sheeting in the background! Screw you temple maintenance!

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Prayer time

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Gorgeous view of the courtyard and the surrounding mountains

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Haeinsa is famous for housing the Tripitaka Koreana, a collection of Buddhist scriptures carved onto 81,258 wooden printing blocks in the 13th century. It is the world’s most comprehensive and oldest intact version of Buddhist scripture in Hanja (chinese) script. Unfortunately to protect it the blocks are kept stored in buildings at the back of the temple. It’s possible to view at the rooms they are in and get a glimpse of them from outside but you can’t reach out and touch them (obviously). Still, the sheer number of scriptures was pretty impressive!

On the way out of the temple we decided to share this stuffed squid between us. Ash’s parents and Ash loved it but I wasn’t so keen on the filling.

IMG_5382When planning the trip we had worried that we’d need to get the bus back to Daegu and out to Jinju again but as luck would have it we were able to get a bus to Jinju from right outside the temple! We thought this was quite weird as there were only two bus services available, one to Daegu and one to Jinju. We bought our ticket and then settled in for another 2 hour bus journey. The route from Haeinsa to Jinju is really beautiful so it was an enjoyable ride and the time passed quickly!

Jinju Lantern Festival

We arrived in to Jinju at about 3pm and Ash’s parents dropped their luggage at their hotel. We hadn’t booked anything ourselves and just planned to stay in a jimjilbang (public bath house with sleeping area) or a guesthouse.

It was still light when we arrived but we could see the river full of different styles of lanterns and were excited at how busy the festival promised to be. The river was also overlooked by the scenic Jinju fortress and a pretty park which had also been set up for the lantern festival.

We watched some traditional Korean music performances and then followed the steps down to the river where we paid 1000won to walk on a very strange bridge made out of bobbing plastic blocks across the river. As the sun went down the lanterns began glowing and looked beautiful. They were dotted all over the water and there were lots of different types!

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We ate an expensive but tasty pork BBQ next to the river, wandered around for a while longer and then walked Ash’s parents to their hotel. We managed to find a very reasonable guesthouse for 40,000 around the corner and was also showing British football which pleased Ash no end!

All in all it was a very pleasant weekend and I’m surprised how much we actually managed to fit in to one day!

Japan 2013 – Osaka, Nara and Kyoto

In Korea your school’s birthday is a big deal and all students and teachers have a day off to celebrate (if it falls on a week day). My friend Claire and I were lucky enough to have the same school birthday and this year it fell the day before the Korean thanksgiving holiday of Chuseok. A few friends and I had decided to visit Osaka during the holiday this year, so we decided to go out a day earlier together. We caught the train to Seoul on Monday evening and stayed at my favourite place ever – Siloam jimjilbang. We were up very early the next morning to catch the airport railroad to Incheon airport.

Our plane arrived in Japan mid-morning and we mistakenly got on the slowest train ever from Kansai airport to Osaka. Luckily about 40 minutes in to our journey at one of the millions of stations our train stopped at, one of the station conductors told us to get on a faster train and we got there in quick flash time.Image

Upon arrival our first task was to find our accommodation for that night.  We caught the subway (which was really retro and I loved it – apart from the price) to Shinsaibashi train station and then walked around the streets. On the first night we were staying in a capsule hotel, something I have always wanted to do so was pretty blooming excited about!Image

For the rest of the day we wandered around Amerikamura, an area with a lot of independent and vintage shops and a very relaxed feel. We also had a little walk around Namba which was close by and found lots of interesting streets and shops, saw a shrine down a tiny back alley with a moss covered Buddha and walked down tiny traditional streets.  It felt quite unnerving to not be able to understand any Japanese writing as I’m so used to at least being able to phonetically read Korean even if I don’t always know the meaning! With this in mind we went in to the first restaurant with a picture menu and ate there. In the evening we sat in the main square in Amerikamura for a while chatting before heading back for a night in our capsules.Image

1236669_10151886515543633_51023041_nIMG_5475IMG_5486 IMG_5488The capsule hotel wasn’t actually that far removed from a jimjilbang in that there was a shared locker room, changing room, toilets and sauna area for all the women. I found out afterwards that these actually usually just cater to business men and it can be difficult to find women’s capsules. Our actual sleeping areas were compartments with a pull down blind. I thought they were pretty comfortable although I did feel like I was in a space ship.IMG_5481

The next morning we were up and out early for a western breakfast (this doesn’t really happen in Korea much!) and to find our hostel where the others would be joining us later. We then caught the JR line (which is like an overland loop train) to Tennoji and visited Shitennoji temple. It was really beautiful and because it was a weekday was fairly quiet.  There was a lovely view across the graveyard of the skyline and Osaka’s famous Hitachi tower.IMG_5472

Next we headed back to Namba to meet my UK friend Mitch who now lives in Matsumoto and had come to catch up for a day or two. The three of us then went to Osaka castle, which is very pretty on the outside but not that thrilling inside. Afterwards we went back to our hostel to meet everyone, get changed, have a quick beer in the bonsai garden on the roof and then went out to meet Mitch in Namba again. He wanted to show us around Ebisu bridge and Dotombori, two of Osaka’s most famous sights.

The neon lights on Ebisu bridge were pretty amazing! The area was jam-packed and the streets behind the river featured lots of animatronic animals hanging above restaurants in the area. We were starving so decided on a restaurant and ordered lots of delicious Okonomiyaki, delicious pancakes with lots of fillings and cheese. We spent the rest of the night drinking beer in a tiny corridor bar and a rather strange shisha bar before heading home in the wee hours.IMG_5489

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Wonderful Nara

We had a bit of a lie in the next day as we were feeling a little delicate and had already decided to spend a chilled out day in Nara, about an hour away by train. Nara used to be a historic capital in Japan so features lots of famous sights. It is also famous for the tame deer that wander around the park and temple areas of the city.

The first sight we encountered as we entered the historic area was a picturesque pond with lots of turtles swimming in it. There was to be a lake-side festival taking place that evening so lanterns were being set up on the water. We saw our first of many deer here! She came over and nabbed Emily’s (unwanted) sandwich out of its wrapper and wandered off whilst we all squealed (and Keir WWOOOOOYYYEEEDD) and tried to stroke her.1378606_10153297698590343_359487124_n

The next hour or so was spent buying special biscuits and feeding them to lots of quite brazen deer as we walked through Nara Park.1379730_10153297697700343_297928006_n1255171_10153297697040343_1188406670_n 1375762_10153297696800343_59536414_nWe visited a couple more shrines, had coffee and then headed off for one of the main sights. Todaji temple holds claim to being the world’s biggest wooden building and oh my goodness it was absolutely enormous! The pictures unfortunately don’t do it justice. It took my breath away. What’s even crazier is that this temple had to be rebuilt after a fire and is apparently 1/3 smaller than the original! Inside the building is an enormous gorgeous bronze Buddha.IMG_41

After staring at the Buddha (mouth open in awe) for a while, we followed Keir on his mission to find a geocache. Up a hill nestled amongst the trees behind Todaji temple we found another hillside temple with stunning views of the sunset. There was hardly anyone around so the atmosphere was lovely and serene.

We were pretty tired after sightseeing but we wanted to see the lantern festival by the water so went and sat on the grass for a little while as it was really beautiful. After maybe half an hour nothing happened so we went in search of dinner.IMG_47 IMG_48 IMG_49We decided upon a restaurant which served a traditional set meal. Lots of small courses were delivered after each other. We weren’t entirely sure how we were supposed to eat it but an old couple opposite us had the same set so we copied them. It was yummy and included raw fish, miso soup, variations of tofu dishes and rice.

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Full of food and worn out, we headed back to Osaka on an evening train and chilled out in the hostel.

Kyoto – a glance in to the past

We woke up early the next morning to catch a train to Kyoto for another busy day. Not far from the train station we found a bike rental shop and decided to travel around by bike all day. Our first destination was Kiyomizudera temple. We had to walk our bikes up a really steep alleyway to get to the temple. There were beautiful women walking around the temple grounds in gorgeous kimonos and the temple itself which was stunning, was situated up on the hill amongst trees and overlooked the city.

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Next we cycled down to Gion, in the vague hope of finding a geisha. However it was blisteringly hot and we didn’t go to a teahouse, so we were obviously unsuccessful. We didn’t mind though because this area was very pretty, traditional and filled with kimono and souvenir shops. The buildings were all really narrow and made of dark wood.  We decided to splurge and eat a traditional lunch in this area. This time the food was served up almost like a bento box but inside a beautifully intricate bowl. Cue all of us taking pictures of our food!ImageImage

After lunch we cycled around a little and visited a few more vibrant red shrines and temples on our travels. We cycled up the philosophers’ path, a pretty cherry tree lined path and found a really cute café so sat with coffee and cakes soaking up the nice relaxed atmosphere. We were heading for another temple but by the time we had cycled there it was unfortunately closed. We started making our way back to the station, riding our pretty bikes along the riverside looking at all the attractive riverside restaurants and bars. I felt like I never wanted to leave Kyoto but it was getting dark, all the temples were closed and we were staying in Osaka so caught the train back.1382208_10153297691915343_1108613416_n

Once in Osaka we tried to decide where to spend the next few hours before bed and randomly ended up getting off the JR at Kyobashi, a random stop, because everyone thought it looked ‘fun’! The streets around the station were full of neon lights and it was pretty busy (it was Friday evening). There were row upon row of tiny bar/restaurants known as Izakaya, full to the brim with suited and booted Japanese businessmen letting their hair down. We chose a bar and ordered LOADS of side dishes. I can safely say that every single thing they put down in front of us (apart from the mushrooms because I don’t like them) was mouth-wateringly delicious! There were 5 of us and usually the plate had 6 pieces of whatever dish we’d ordered on it. We all loved them so much that we had to pay ‘rock, scissors, paper’ to choose who got the extra piece. I never won!

A day in Osaka

Our final day was spent in Osaka so we took our time having breakfast. Claire had read about a bakery which apparently sold British style cakes only one JR stop away so we decided to walk and follow the train line because it was a lovely day.IMG_5468This wander gave us a chance to see everyday Osaka life. We saw lots of very nice bikes, a variety of different shops, people’s houses (most of which were decorated with plant pots outside) and more ornate looking food and drink establishments. The area leading up to and around Tsuruhashi station was really interesting and full of exciting looking alleyways. The bakery was in an upmarket area and the owner was from Leicester. He’d designed it with a mod theme which we weren’t too sure about. We weren’t too sure about the cakes either, apart from an amazing apple pie.IMG_5487

Afterwards we caught the subway to Namba AGAIN as Keir had read about a craft beer festival being held in the area, which we quite frankly couldn’t resist (apart from poor Claire who doesn’t drink any beer whatsoever)!

After a lot of searching we found the festival being held by the river and boy were there lots of tasty beer selections from all over the world, including the UK.  I thought my holiday couldn’t get any better when Ash noticed someone eating blue cheese! After a short search we discovered a stall selling LOTS of cheese so bought some brie and some stilton with crackers and sat nomming them and drinking tasty ale with grins on our faces.

We split up for dinner that day because Ash, Emily and I wanted sushi, Keir wanted Octopus balls and to find a geocache and Claire wanted a bento box. Emily and I had seen a sushi restaurant nearby earlier in the day so went there. It was reasonably priced and we got to watch the sushi chef make our masterpiece of a dinner. The fish melted in our mouths and we all sat pulling faces and making noises of joy whilst eating.IMG_5294 1376535_10153297690160343_73898469_n

We went back to the hostel and Keir, Emily, Ash and I decided to pay one of the local tiny cupboard bars a visit for a final drink in Osaka. We had a lovely evening with a very hospitable barman before returning to our hostel to get some sleep in preparation for our flights home to Korea the next day.

Needless to say, this trip to Japan further cemented my love for this amazing and vibrant country.  So much so that Ash and I are now looking for employment in Japan when we leave Korea at the end of February. Fingers crossed eh!?

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Becky and Scott do Korea part 2 – Seoul

The following Friday was Buddha’s birthday weekend and a national holiday so we had a 3 day weekend. What better way to spend it than living it up in South Korea’s capital and my favourite place in the country, Seoul.

We caught the long train to Seoul on Thursday evening and waited around in the station for Ash who had to catch a later train because of dropping Betty at the pet sitter’s again! We met at about midnight. We were going to stay at Siloam jimjilbang again! I think Becky and Scott may have been a little anxious about getting sleep because we had lots planned for the next day and we hadn’t got much rest in a jimjilbang the week before! Luckily, Siloam is in a league of its own when it comes to sleeping areas. It’s definitely the best jimjilbang I’ve stayed in so far. There are separate quiet dark rooms with little individual bunks which allow for a perfect sleep! Well rested, we woke up the next morning to meet Claire who was staying in a hostel for the weekend.

Friday – Palaces, teahouses and Seoul cityscape views

Friday was a day jam-packed full of sights! First on the agenda was Gyeongbukgung palace, the most famous in Seoul. Because most people had the day off it was absolutely rammed and roasting hot (we are so English!), so it was pretty tiring walking around the grounds because it was huge. The really nice thing about the palace was the number of different sections to it. We would walk around a corner expecting a narrow passageway of traditional Korean architecture to find a lake and a gorgeous enormous building. I would say this is definitely a must-see sight in Seoul.

Gyeongbukgong palace entrance

Gyeongbukgong palace entrance

A very lovely and very very blue pool in the palace grounds

A very lovely and very very blue pool in the palace grounds

Brits abroad! Wandering through the palace grounds579347_10100507271566122_1415820917_n

The palace is very close to two other spots on the sightseeing map, Bukchon and Insadong so it made sense to take Botty (Claire’s nickname for Scott and Becky) there. Bukchon is a hanok (traditional Korean house) village with lots of pretty buildings and shops. It was quite impressive to stand at the top of one of the many sloping streets and watch old Korea meet new, with traditional houses nestled tightly together in front of giant modern sky scrapers.

Old Seoul meets new Seoul

Old Seoul meets new Seoul

It was mid-afternoon by now and we were all feeling weary, but Insadong was close by and is an area famous for old style teahouses and Korean arts and crafts so we didn’t want to miss it. We walked for a short time and then found, hidden away down a back street (obviously I asked tourist Information for a map!) a wonderfully cool and cosy teahouse, where we all ordered different types of fruit teas. Ash’s was by far the tastiest! Slightly rejuvenated, Claire was heading off to her hostel for a rest but we had other plans.

The lovely traditional teahouse in Insadong

The lovely traditional teahouse in Insadong

Becky njoying her persimmon and cinnamon tea

Becky enjoying her persimmon and cinnamon tea

Although we were really tired I felt that a trip to Seoul wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Namsan tower to watch the sun set over the city skyline. I obviously had some kind of romanticised image of what this would be like, because in reality it was CHAOS. We realised that we needed to hurry if we were going to make it before sunset, so we caught the subway and then walked at a fast pace to where we would catch the cable car and found the BIGGEST QUEUE EVER!!!!!! My heart sank. Ash and I had walked up the hill before (it’s quite an easy walk usually) and figured we could all make it if we hurried. Now I say that it’s an easy walk, but that is only if you go at a leisurely pace! It is still a blooming big hill! With time running out we had to run up the hill with no water. I’m sure Triathalon man Scott and naturally fit Ash were fine, but Becky and myself (Becky is much fitter than me!) were not happy! We got to the top and I was a sweaty, dehydrated, panting mess. To top it off at the top there were HUGE CROWDS EVERYWHERE! It was hardly the relaxing experience I’d had in mind, or experienced before! But nevertheless Becky, got some lovely photos of the skyline and we had a beer and some Oreos whilst watching a music and light show projected on to the tower.Seoul at sunset Seoul by night

Next we had to find a love motel to drop our luggage off. We went to Sincheon, which is close to Hongdae and has streets full of love motels. These motels are usually rented by the hour or the night for romantic liaisons, so it was difficult and expensive finding one that would put us up for two nights. Our rooms were lovely though! Ours had a bath in the corner and Scott and Becky’s had a tree in it! We were exhausted by the time our rooms were sorted, so quickly ate and then went to bed ready for an early start on Saturday.

The Demilitarised Zone

A few weeks previously we had booked places on a full DMZ tour and had to be at USO Camp Kim by 8am. We were feeling really excited and nervous about the tour because North Korea had been in the world media a lot and tensions between South and North had increased. The tour was split in to four sections:

The third tunnel – The 3rd tunnel is a tunnel 52km from Seoul that was built by North Korea and discovered on October 17, 1978. Other similar tunnels have been found along the border. Approximately 10,000 soldiers can move through this tunnel in 1 hour. When the tunnel was discovered, North Koreans insisted that it was made by South Koreans to invade North Korea! It was really cold and damp as we walked in to the tunnel. After maybe 100m it was sealed off, but we could feel how claustrophobic the space was. We had laughed about wearing construction helmets to go in but most of us banged our heads at least once!

We totally think we're in a band.

We totally think we’re in a band.

Mt. Dora Observation platform – This is close to the 3rd tunnel. Tour groups all hustled around telescopes to get a glimpse of the North Korean propaganda village and Gaesong business complex. It felt strange looking through the eye of the telescope and seeing this place that is so alien to South Korea yet so close.

Dorasan Station – Located 30 meters from the South Korean boundary fence, Dora Mountain Train Station is the northernmost train station in South Korea. Obviously, apart from coach tours the station doesn’t deal with too many arrivals. We bought a ticket to go on to the platform and had our photos taken underneath the sign and with the solitary South Korean soldier on guard there.photo(2) photo(1)

JSA (Joint Security Area) – This was the highlight of the tour and is the most famous part of the DMZ. The Joint Security Area is the only area where the North and South Korean military stand face to face and was the most nervewrecking part of the tour. Before entering the JSA we were given a presentation by the US army, there they warned us not to wave or point or use sudden movements when we got to the main area. You could cut the atmosphere with a knife as we walked out on to the steps in front of the borderline. Because tensions were high at that time we weren’t allowed to go in to the bunker which sat across the borderline, but were able to take pictures.

Tense times

Tense times

What you lookin at?

What you lookin at?

On the steps on the North Korean side of the border there was a soldier stood looking at us through binoculars which was really intimidating. At one point someone in our group made a sudden arm movement and some soldiers came over and warned them to stop! Finally something happened that helped to ease the tension. Bizarrely, a bright yellow steam roller began driving forwards and backwards across the top of the steps on the North Korean side, which was pretty funny!

A nice sunny yellow steam roller came along to lighten the mood.

A nice sunny yellow steam roller came along to lighten the mood.

After this we were taken on the coach to another viewing platform where we could see the North Korean propaganda village more clearly. Most of the tower blocks looked like shells and there are never lights at night, apparently not unusual in NK but our tour guide told us that they don’t think it’s properly inhabited. People do work on the farms there though, we could see people in the fields and even someone cycling along the road!

We got a glimpse of the peace/propaganda village in to North Korea.

We got a glimpse of the peace/propaganda village in to North Korea.

Once the DMZ tour was over the coach took us back to central Seoul and we went to the Bauhaus dog café in Hapjeong. Dog cafes are a very unique part of Korean culture. You arrive, buy a drink and some dog treats and then pet LOADS of dogs! We had a beer there and played with the dogs for a little while before going back to our motel to change and get ready for the evening’s festivities.

Mans best friend, as long as you're feeding them treats.

Man’s best friend, as long as you’re feeding them treats.

This is one of the funniest things I've ever seen! I think he looks like an old man!

This is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen! I think he looks like an old man!

Av’in it large in Hongdae

It decided to start torrential raining just as we left our motel to meet Claire and our other friends Keir and Emily (who were in Seoul for a gig) for dinner. We were also meeting Seulgi and Julia, Becky’s Korean friends who had homestayed with her parents. After dinner we went to a macheolli bar, drank lots of rice wine and then walked around for ages until we found another bar. After a while Keir, Emily and Claire went back to their hostels but the rest of us stayed out. The next stop was a luxury noraebang where we made boozy slushes with soju in them. After that we were pretty pissed and in the mood for silly dancing so went to a club called I love KPOP and got even more drunk, danced around like crazy and had a great time! Not sure I would ever be able to find it again thought which is a shame!

Started out fairly civilised

Started out fairly civilised

Then started getting a littttllleee biiittt drrrunnkk

Then started getting a littttllleee biiittt drrrunnkk

and ended up like this!

and ended up like this!

When we left the club it was daybreak and in true Korean style we went to a 24 hour Gamjatang restaurant and ate delicious pork spine soup before returning to our motel for about 4 hours sleep.

We had to check out of the motel at midday and although feeling pretty rough and tired we managed to get back to Hongdae to look around, get some funny photos taken and eat before saying our farewells to Becky and Scott. They still had four days of travelling around but we wouldn’t be seeing them again. I’d not thought about this fact until the last minute and as they sped away in their taxi I felt really sad. We had the BEST time with them visiting! I hope that when we’re teaching in South East Asia we can do it all over again!

Thanks again for some of the pics guys!

Diary of an English woman’s holiday in England

So I haven’t actually posted properly for AGES and part of the reason is because I went home to England in February.

I was finally going to have the chance to experience what it’s like to holiday in your home country. I’d lived in South Korea for almost a year and it was time for me to come home on a 3 week holibob.

I’d spent 5 months getting really excited about seeing my family and friends. The only downside to this trip was that Ash and I had been given different holiday dates from our separate schools, which meant he’d been back from his 3 week holiday for 4 days and then I left for 3 weeks!

I left our apartment early and caught the KTX faster train to Seoul. Met my NZ friends at Seoul station to say goodbye as they were leaving Korea and then got the train to Incheon airport.

I had to catch two flights. The first was 11.5 hours. I got off in Amsterdam shattered and waited a few hours for my connecting flight to Birmingham,  England. After a one hour flight I was back in England. It was very surreal understanding everything I was reading, not being shoved around with my suitcase by brightly coloured ajummas or having children gasping at me.

Anyway I’ve tried to summarise my activities in to a little diary. So, here’s what I got up to:

Wednesday 30th January – Arrived home, met by my sister Liz and niece Brogan and driven from Birmingham to Coventry. Got very excited when they gave me a packet of Salt and Vinegar Walkers and a bottle of Lucozade. My parents were still on holiday so was met by my other sister Sharon who showered me in late Christmas gifts and more Lucozade. Ate my first crisp sandwich in a year and went to bed (tried unsuccessfully to sleep through due to jetlag).

Thursday 31st January – Chilled at my parent’s and saw both of my brothers (Desmond and Kevin). Went for my first pub dinner, at The Greyhound in Coventry with lifelong friends Lisa and Jennifer and their husbands and another lifelong friend Annie. Ate Steak and Ale pie with mash potato and drank a proper yummy cider!

Friday 1st February My lovely friend Craig came from Manchester to Coventry en route to his holiday. Took him sightseeing in Coventry, had lunch and laughs and sent him on his way. Went out for dinner with my brothers, sister and their (grown up) children in the evening but was so jet lagged I couldn’t even drink alcohol!

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Craig came to Cov

Wirh one of my sisters Liz and three of my nieces Charlotte, Tayla and Brogan looking extremely jetlagged.

Wirh one of my sisters Liz and three of my nieces Charlotte, Tayla and Brogan looking extremely jetlagged.

Saturday 2nd February – Caught an early coach up to Manchester for big friend’s reunion and party time! First I went to Laura and Steve’s for lunch and played with their gorgeous toddler Amber. Then to Alan and Nailah’s little girl Poppy’s first birthday party. Then to the apartment building where a few of my friends live and my wife Julesy made me dinner.

Later in the evening we went to The Kings Arm pub in Salford,  one of my faves in Manchester. There a big group of us had drinks, caught up and had fun. Afterwards we went to Bohemian Grove, a club night at Islington Mill, where I got extremely drunk and emotional!

Sunday 3rd February – Licked my hangover wounds and then went to meet some friends I met through Ash: Ant, Annie, Katy, Dave, Meg, Joe, Ian and Lorna, for a smashing Sunday lunch at Gorilla (owned by Trof for those in the Mancunian know). Collapsed in the evening and ate lots of cheese.

Monday 4th February – Went for lunch with my old workmates. My parents were staying at my aunts near Manchester after flying back from their holiday, so I caught the tram over and had a reunion with them! They drove back to Coventry with me in the back later that evening.

Tuesday 5th February – Stayed in Coventry with some friends and family.

Wednesday 6th FebruaryMet  my old school friend Krysy for lunch and a catch up.

Thursday 7th February Once again caught the train to Manchester. Met my friend Jess for lunch and had dinner with some buddies before staying at Jules’ house, ready to go on our weekend country getaway the next morning.

I love Manchester

I love Manchester

Friday 8th February – Woke up unbelievably excited. Jules and I went to meet Tracey at the train station. We were going to a mansion in the countryside just outside of Chesterfield to meet up with about 20 other lovely friends for a weekend of fun and frolics together. Arrived and the house was AMAZING! Met the owner who was a bit weird but nice.  photo(2)

Anna and Jules made us all a mean chilli that evening and we ate it around a very grand dining table in the dining room. After that we all got very drunk, danced around to 90s music, frolicked in the hot tub, investigated all the rooms in the house and whoops, got told off for having a sub woofer speaker on too loud :/ It was a late one!

Very civilised dinner

Very civilised dinner

Grooving in the lounge before being told off by the owner

Grooving in the lounge before being told off by the owner

It got a bit wild!

It got a bit wild!

Saturday 9th February – Pretty much everyone was feeling hungover and rough so most of the day was spent lying down and groaning. Anna, girl Rowan and I decided to investigate the local village and pub but made a wrong turn (the house is between two villages) and ended up in a weird area being stared at!

We finally walked to the right village and met some of the others for hair of the dog in a local pub before going back to the house.

Saturday night was the main event of the weekend and we had a fancy dress party after dinner. I have never laughed so much as when we were all sat in the front room watching ‘Take me out’ in fancy dress. The theme was circus/freak show and everyone got in to the spirit. Click on the gallery and take a look at our costume pictures, there are some right corkers. I love my friends but they are a bunch of weirdos. Thanks to the amazing photography by Rowan Williams. Copyright Rowan Williams.

My BFF Jules led an amazing spoof exercise class to 90’s music and we danced around with Clarky’s bike light used as a make shift disco light! It was so much fun! To top off an already amazing night, my friend Tim, had told me he couldn’t come. However at 11pm on the Saturday I got a brilliant surprise when he turned up, having caught a late train all the way from London!

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Sunday 10th February – Said some hungover sad goodbyes and spent the whole day snoozing and feeling rough!

Monday 11th February – Cleaned the house and left. Went to collect a Geocache with Jules, Tim and Tracey, then said our goodbyes at the train station and went back to Coventry. Got to spend a bit of time with my parents that night but nowhere near enough.

Tuesday 12th February – Caught yet another train, this time at lunchtime to Brighton via London. I went to visit Ant and Annie who had not long moved down from Manchester. In the evening we went to watch Brighton Hove Albion vs Blackburn and got a bit tiddly!

Wednesday 13th February – Walked in to Brighton centre with Annie. God I love Brighton, with its cool little shops, beautiful architecture and vast choice of delicious restaurants. We waited for Ant to finish work at lunch time and went to an amazing cheese shop/restaurant in Hove. Stuffed ourselves absolutely silly with cheese and wine, ate some delicious cheese in truffle oil and also some absolutely disgusting Stinking Bishop. We were lucky that the table next to us were having a lesson about cheese so we could listen in on the experts who knew literally everything.photo

Afterwards we walked along the sea front, played games in the amusement arcade on Brighton Pier, ate delicious ginger biscuit flavoured ice cream, went for a Fish and Chips dinner and then went to see Robin Ince do stand up. He was excellent but we were so tired Ant and I kept nearly falling asleep!photo(1)

Thursday 14th February – Ant walked me to station and I caught the train back to London to meet Gemma. Went to a really good light exhibition at The Hayward Gallery with her, Laura and girl Rowan and then for a mooch and tea and scones at The Tate Modern.

We met Tim later for a very romantic (not!) Valentine’s dinner at a little Italian restaurant, before spending the evening in the pub and then back at Tim and boy Rowan’s (who we woke up!) drinking and dancing- on a school night too. I think Tim and Gemma might have hated me the next day. Rowan definitely did! Sorry ginger brother from another mother!285391_10151248058010766_1606513148_n

Friday 15th February – Spent about a million hours trying to get back to Coventry where my dad picked me up over half an hour late. Chilled with my parents and sister at home and my nephew Kyle bought my beautiful great niece (I know right! I’m too young to be a great aunt!) Lola, who is three round and I played shop with her for ages. So cute!

Saturday 16th FebruaryDid a bit of shopping with Liz and my brother in law Fred, before meeting my niece and her boyfriend. Most of my extended family went out for curry and some drinks that night. My brother Kev wasn’t there though and that’s why I think it ended up being a tame one 😉

Sunday 17th February – Spent the day catching up with my family.

Monday 18th February – Went shopping for souvenirs and emergency supplies like HP sauce with my sister, then took my parents out for a farewell lunch. Managed to have a quick natter with my mate Jen who lives up the road in the evening too!

Tuesday 19th February – I’m probably a bit silly for doing this but on Tuesday I caught another train up to Manchester and spent three hours in agony getting a tattoo on my leg. I love it though! Shame I can’t flash it too much in Korea. I managed to quickly meet Craig and Jules before getting my train home for goodbye hugs. Then spent the evening with my parents and getting visits from my brother’s family.

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Wednesday 20th February – Up at the crack of dawn to get my flight back to Korea for my second year teaching.

It’s crazy how quickly those three weeks went. I had an amazing time but as you will have read above it was crazy hectic. I’d have liked an extra week to spend more time at home but cest la vie! I think I pretty much managed to do everything one would want to on a trip to England. Spent time in the Midlands, went to The North, experienced cool cities, stayed in a mansion in the country, went to see a football match, spent a lot of time in pubs, went to the seaside and played in amusement arcades, visited London, went to art galleries and walked across tower bridge. I even rode a red London bus!

Thanks to everyone who made this trip perfect. It’s made me value my family and friends even more  (I wasn’t sure that was possible) and has made me realise that it doesn’t matter if I live on the other side of the world they will always be there for me!

Big Love

An Indian Adventure 4 – Kochi, Nilgiri hill station and Goa

Kochi and Fort Cochin

We had a mosquito plagued night of restless sleep in Ernakulum, got up and had Biryani for breakfast. We took a short ferry journey to an island called Kochi. Kochi and Fort Cochin were under control from the Portuguese, then the Dutch and then the British from the 1500s until 1947 when India was liberated. It therefore has a colonial and European feel to it, due to the mixture of these countries different style of architecture.  The fort was built to protect the rulers various commercial interest and also features Chinese fishing nets which are thought to date back to Chinese traders. We walked through the streets and stood by the nets watching mesmerised as men winched up nets of fish out of the sea.

We’d read about a restaurant on Kochi with a very good reputation called Dal Roti so went there for lunch. Its reputation was well deserved and it didn’t disappoint. The owner was very welcoming and the food was out of this world! If anyone visits Kochi they should go there.  After a pleasant afternoon’s wanderings we caught the ferry back. It is possible to stay on Kochi but lodgings we found in Ernakulum were much cheaper.

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That evening we were catching a train to Metupalaiyam, but first we had to go to Coimbatore to transfer. We had a two hour wait in the middle of the night but had researched and found that we could rent a pretty grubby sleeping room (for the cost of a hostel) in the train station. By now anyone reading will understand that I do not deal well without sleep so was willing to pay that price. We woke at four and caught the next leg of our journey.

When we arrived at Metupalaiyam we were going to catch the Nilgiri toy train, a miniature steam train which is a very popular way for tourists to travel to our next stop. The Nilgiri hill station town of Ooty. We queued for an hour feeling nervous. If we didn’t make this train (there were more people in the queue than seats available on the train) our journey from Ernakulum would be a waste of precious time because there was only one train a day! Luckily we managed to get a seat; unfortunately it was on the side of the train that had the poorer views.

It took the train 5 hours (with a couple of stops for refreshments and toilet breaks) to chug through the green hills. Along the way we saw hill after hill of tea plantations and hillside villages with houses positioned haphazardly up the slopes. The low of the journey was realising we were sat next to an unbelievably ignorant guy from London who kept shouting and being a general idiot. The highlight was when a group of men at the back of the train started singing and clapping and having a right old jolly!ImageImageImageImage

We were surprised when we got off the train at Ooty and felt a cool breeze! At one point I had to put a cardigan on. The climate in the hills differs greatly from other areas of South India. We were trying to find a specific guesthouse which was supposed to be cheap and scenic and were almost lost until a teenager on a bike offered his help. It’s bad to say this but up until this point we’d experienced so many people trying to make money off us for the simplest thing that we were a bit suspicious of his motives. This turned out to be total unjustified, as the pleasant teenager led us to the door chatting away and then cycled off without asking for anything. That taught us not to pre-judge people, even if that can be difficult sometimes. We found a man-made lake and relaxed there for a while, watching Indian families playing on peddle boats in the water. Ash still wasn’t feeling 100% and the guesthouse was on a quiet road away from the centre so we didn’t stay out too late that night. We were catching a bus early in the morning to start our journey to Goa.

We got to the bus station early the next morning. We’d been unable to buy tickets in advance so had to make sure we got there super early to avoid being stranded. Yep Indian transport can be a bit chaotic! Everything went smoothly and we sat at the back of the bus next to an open door surrounded by little children catching the bus to get to school. I really love travelling by train and bus; you get to see so much more. We were heading down to Kozhikode to get the train to Goa. Before getting there though, the bus weaved down tiny roads and took 15 terrifying but also exciting hairpin turns, sometimes with enormous drops on one side. My nerves were slightly on edge by the time we got off!

Going to Goa

A few hours later we caught the train to Madgoan in southern Goa. We’d done so much rushing around that we were looking forward to a few days unwinding before flying home. We arrived in the middle of the night and saw the most westerners we’d seen since Hampi at the station. After an hour of deliberating and a good five cups of ginger chai (nom) we walked a little away from the station (good advice if you’re not alone I think because the prices might be cheaper) and caught a rickshaw to the bus station. We waited for the first bus to Palolem, ate street snacks and people watched. It might sound scary waiting around in bus stations at 4 in the morning and I probably wouldn’t advise it if you’re alone and female, but there was lots of activity with people in the same situation as us and market traders setting up shop for the day.  The journey was only 40 minutes or so and the driver shouted when it was time for us to hop off.

 If taking the same route as us and catching the bus, please don’t be fooled by the bunch of rickshaws waiting by the bus stop like we did. We hopped in and out again in the space of five minutes! It’s definitely walkable. The accommodation on Palolem beach consists of beach shacks of varying levels of luxury. We looked for the cheapest shabbiest looking ones we could find and asked for a price. Ash’s infamous bargaining skills got us four nights at a very reasonable price. We spent the next four days on the beach with the cows, snoozing, swimming, souvenir buying, getting my hands henna’d, drinking beer and eating lots of food.  Basically it was just a really chilled end to a crazy holiday.

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Feeling a lot more rested but with a still poorly Ash in toe, I caught a 12 hour day train to Mumbai. I felt pretty sad that the trip was coming to an end. We were meant to have a layover on our flight in Istanbul for 12 hours, but I was concerned as Ash still wasn’t well.Image

Once at the airport we waited for a few hours before a customer services lady came over. She apologised profusely and told us our flight was overbooked. Would we consider staying in a 5 star hotel and receiving $500 in flight vouchers whilst they sorted us another flight? Hhhhmm let us think about that (for literally ten seconds!). We couldn’t really turn down an opportunity like this, especially with sick boy’s condition, so ended up at the Mumbai Hyatt Regency for over 24 hours. We had an enormous room with the comfiest bed ever and a bathroom with two showers, all you could eat buffets three times a day and a swimming pool! Ash had time to recover and we both had time to chill before flying back to reality.

I fell totally in love with India during that trip. Sure, there were times when being a westerner was a disadvantage and we were stressed when being hassled or ripped off, but we saw the funny side to all of these things! It’s an amazingly vibrant, stunning and really diverse country. It gave me crazy wanderlust and helped motivate me to get my arse in to gear for moving to Korea. I can’t wait to go travelling in 2014 and travel down from Nepal to North India and have another adventure, this time for longer.

An Indian Adventure Part 3 Kanyakumari and Kollam

Kanyakumari – The edge of India

We arrived in the early evening after  a 22 hour train journey and a few hours of standing at open train doors taking in the breath-taking scenery of lush paddie fields, streams, enormous lakes and dense forests. We needed to find somewhere to stay and although Kanyakumari is a really small seaside town, it’s really popular with pilgrims, so there are a fair few hotels. We found a cheap hotel, dropped off our stuff and went to find some food. The sleepy town was even more sleepy at night but we found somewhere to eat and then had an early night.

We woke up early the next morning so we could get down to the ocean so Ash could get some pictures. As we walked down towards the sea we saw lots of beautifully coloured houses and fishermen bringing their really bright and vibrant boats in. The view was unbelievable.  There was a lively fish market taking place in the small harbour too and in the ocean a short distance from the shore there was a giant statue of the hindu goddess Kanyakumari and a temple. Already, lots of pilgrims were taking the ferry to visit the shrine. Ash got some really good pictures here which do a better job of demonstrating the beauty of that morning than I can.

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We grabbed a tasty breakfast of thali with buttery roti bread and then headed to Baywatch, a water park which also boasted to being India’s first waxwork museum. We arrived, paid at the ticket booth and were led through a door into a small building and found ourselves in the museum. In three tiny rooms there were various waxworks which one could be forgiven for not recognizing. There were of course some famous Indian stars but also Charlie Chaplin and a scary looking Michael Jackson amongst others. We were led around by an old guy who would stop us in front of each waxwork and tell us their name, it was really entertaining.

Next we went in to the swimming park. Obviously as we were in India I had to go in to the pools totally dressed. The wave pool had a rope cordoning off male and female and it felt really strange not being allowed to stand near Ash! Some little girls came in on my side and were staring at me as they gradually paddled closer. All of a sudden they all started splashing loads of water at me haha. Little madams! We spent a couple more hours on the water slides and watching a group of boys dancing Bollywood style in some fountains, until I felt my alabaster skin could take no more of the intense midday sun.Image

We walked around the main centre, did some gift shopping and took some more pictures. At sunset lots of people, including colourfully dressed women went down to the shore and paddled in the water. A group of boys sat on rocks and got repeatedly pounded by waves whilst screaming and laughing and a woman walked through the crowd with her very beautiful little shaved headed girl sat on a ceremonial pony. They were all great sights to see in this great place. Kanyakumari is the place where the Arabian sea and the Bay of Bengal meet the Indian Octhree seas meet and was a really special place to visit. It felt quite off the beaten western traveller trail. ImageImageImageImage

We boarded a train the next day for a four hour trip north to Kollam in Kerala. I never tired of these train journeys as they gave us a glimpse of the fertile Keralan countryside, its culture and its people.

One night of luxury in Kollam

We arrived in to Kollam about midday. We’d spent most of our time up until then sleeping on trains (or platforms), or budget (but nice) accommodation. However, in Kollam we planned to rent a houseboat for one night and live the high life. After wandering around for ages with our big heavy backpacks we found the boat area and Ash bartered with some agents to get us a deal. With a deal struck we were led to our boat. It had a balcony, a lovely bedroom, and an open sided living room/ dining area. There was also a chef and a driver. Usually we wouldn’t do something like this as I don’t like the thought of servants but we felt this was different. These were all small local companies who made a living and who would have been out of pocket had we not booked a boat that day.Image

ImageWe sailed out into the peaceful Kerala backwaters and watched expert river fishermen using nets and swimming in the water, families going about their daily business on the river banks and lots of beautiful birds. As the sun went down that night we sat on our porch/dining room and listened to the sound of the backwaters whilst eating the most amazing dinner. We couldn’t stay up too late that night due to having to turn the lights off a ten and were so full of food we put our heads down early.

I woke next morning to a very poorly Ash. He had started feeling a little bit rough the night before but we both presumed it would pass. He had barely slept and I felt partly responsible for his condition. You are warned not to drink the water in India but we had totally forgotten that the street stall fruit juices were made with ice cubes which could be bad for us. Before we got on the boat we’d both ordered a fruit juice but in the end Ash drank both of them. I think this might have tipped him over the edge – sorry Ash!

I tried to tell the cook that he wouldn’t want breakfast but when we went to the dining room there was a gigantic meal laid out.  Ash, who is usually a human bin couldn’t touch it and although I stuffed myself silly I barely made a dent.Image

In the morning the backwaters really came alive. There were people bathing their cows, more fishermen and little children running alongside the river. As part of the boat trip we were going to be taken out on a tiny row boat by a local fisherman on a trip through the small canals to see more of what life is like there. We passed lots of tiny houses, someone climbed up a tree and sold us a freshly picked coconut each and our guide pulled a water lily up from the river as a gift to me.

When we got back they had prepared lunch. Although it was only for me (they realised Ash was sick and gave him tea) it was still too much. They dropped us back in Kollam and we caught a train to Ernakeuleum a little further up the coast and arrived exhausted in the early evening.

That night we planned the next leg of our journey. Because we weren’t doing any more sleeper trains we could book more easily with less advanced notice.

We had come to Ernakeulum for a specific reason, to visit Fort Cochin…

Indian Adventure part 2 Hyderabad, Hampi and Bangalore

Hyderabad

After a good night’s sleep our train arrived at Hyderabad at 9am the next day. We tried to find a taxi straight away and ended up in a dispute with the rickshaw drivers who were all trying to rip us off. Ash, calm as always found a policeman who was stood nearby and asked him if there were any rules with regards to taxis. The policemen informed us that in each area there are set tariffs, really drivers should put their meters on, but most of them refuse to do this for westerners and charge a higher rate. To combat this drivers are given a tariff sheet which indicates the highest amount they can charge. Even with the policeman there asking them to pay the agreed rate loads of them said no and drove off. After a while he managed to get one who was willing to do it. I don’t mind paying set prices or meters but being ripped off when on a strict budget is frustrating.

Riding the rickshaw

Riding the rickshaw taxi.

We got dropped at a hotel we’d read good reviews for. It was nice and clean, reasonably priced and had a balcony but I cant remember its name! There was a really old guy working there who was responsible for room service who was a right character. We felt like chilling and watching Indian TV for a few hours,so ordered lunch and a lassi in the hotel. I don’t know what he’d thought we’d said but what he gave us definitely wasn’t a lassi haha it was some kind of icecream dessert. We obviously didn’t mind as he was a lovely guy and was really trying to please us.

We spent two days in Hyderabad. On the day we arrived we just walked around the area and went to see a Buddha which was in the middle of a lake nearby. It was very pretty and I got so distracted by it when walking that I completely stacked it and had a nasty fall, cutting my knee and hurting my back, which halted our walking plans that day. We went back to the hotel and ate at a delicious restaurant nearby called Kamat Andhra Meals, where I had my first experience of eating food off a plantain leaf. Whenever our plates were empty a waiter came rushing over to give us more scrumptious food, it was great!

Buddha in the lake

Buddha in the lake

The next day we wanted to see as much as possible so set out early, caught a bus and then walked to Hyderabad bazaar, a bustling and noisy area of the city.From there we could see a really impressive looking mosque so decided to take a look. We entered, paid and had a quick look around the courtyard as we weren’t actually allowed inside.

Hyderabad bazaar

Hyderabad bazaar

After a while some of the other visitors noticed us and I was set upon by more families wanting their picture taken with me. They also thrust their child on to me for a photo. Ash managed to catch the moment, and my disgruntled expression on camera!

FAMOUS

FAMOUS

DISGRUNTLED

DISGRUNTLED

The staff at the mosque were not happy about this and told us to leave! This was after we paid to enter and it wasn’t our fault!  We continued walking through different districts for what felt like ages until at about 4pm we arrived at Zoo Park. I don’t know what we expected, but yeah it was just a zoo park and I don’t really like zoos as I always feel sorry for the animals. We saw a leopard in quite a small cage and also saw a white tiger. Some parts of the park, like the deer enclosure, were really big and it was nice to walk around those areas. Because we’d arrived late we didn’t get to see everything before the park closed and we had to leave. Tired out after lots of walking, we caught a rickshaw to go for dinner at a swish restaurant in the exclusive part of Hyderabad. Surprisingly there was a McDonalds in that area and it had been marketed as an upmarket restaurant! The posh dinner was to be honest just ok, we’d had much nicer and cheaper food the night before. On the way to get a rickshaw back Ash made friends with a traffic policeman who wanted a picture with him. He was really friendly but looked like he couldn’t hurt a fly if he tried!

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Next day we went for another stroll before heading back to the train station to catch our next train to Hospet. This was another disjointed sleeper train experience where we had to get off at 3am and wait until 4am at a random station for the connection. When we were on the second train we realised that we had no bed, so huddled together right next to the open train door and tried unsuccessfully to snooze for the remaining two hours of the journey. As anyone who knows me will verify, I am not a morning person. I’m especially not a morning person when I’ve had a night of interrupted sleep, so poor Ash was in for a treat of a morning in my company – NOT. We got off the train at Hospet with me in a tired grump, quickly grabbed some food and got in to a rickshaw. Hospet is just a gateway town so we weren’t staying. We were actually going to Hampi.

Exploring ancient ruins – Hampi

Hampi is actually a village located within the ancient ruins of Vijavanagara, the ancient capital of the Vijayanagara Empire in the region of Karnataka. There are still many ruins standing in this sacred area as well as a functioning temple. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.

As the rickshaw sped through the countryside I couldn’t believe how much the scenery had changed! The scenery around Ellora had been hills and fields but here was much more barren and there were ginormous hills made completely of giant boulders. It looked like they’d been dropped from the sky in to neat little piles. Again I was gobsmacked at how beautiful it was and forgot about my tiredness. After half an hour or so we arrived at Hampi Bazaar, which was filled with tourist cafes and small hostels. As soon as we got out of the rickshaw, a guy approached us with a cheap hotel deal. Totally shattered again, we accepted the offer and followed him. The room was very small and basic with a tiny dark bathroom full of spiders but it would do us. We slept for a few hours under the big mosquito net, showered and headed out in the afternoon for lunch and to explore. The people living there quite obviously depend on Hampi as a tourist destination for their livelihoods and we saw many more westerners here as it’s a really popular site. It was cool though, nice little shops dotted around and relaxing restaurants. We had lunch (western style and more expensive than we’d been used to) and then wandered over to the closest area of ruins. The  stones scorched our feet as we had to take our shoes off before entering because the first place we visited was the temple. There was also an elephant there that gave blessings (put its trunk on your head) for a small fee.  This was only a small area and at that time of day was full of tourists, so we left and found the river. We sat for a while taking in the gorgeous view, women washing clothes in the water and cows munching on giant leaves, all in front of a dramatic landscape. After a while we went for dinner at The Mango Tree, a really nice outdoor restaurant on the edge of the village close to the river. The food was cheap and tasty and the atmosphere was lovely.

Hampi

Hampi

Women washing clothes in the River

Women washing clothes in the River. In the background you can see the huge boulder hills.

On our second day we wanted to see the main ruins and go for a walk. We were up quite early and followed the path out of the village to the first set of ruins. They were really intricate and because it was early it was nice and quiet as we walked around. We sat by an old pool, dipped our feet and watched what we thought were terrapins swimming around. Then we followed the undulating landscape and Ash took pictures of goats, lizards, butterflies and a random dude who wanted his photo taken, it was lovely. In the afternoon we came to a rushing river next to a temple. A few people were sat around dipping their feet so we did the same. I saw a sign that said the river was crocodile infested and the next thing I knew Ash was lying down in the water! We could see round straw rafts in the distance which were rented to people to cross the river, but we didn’t have time. We headed back to Hampi and I had a pair of Indian trousers made whilst we went back to The Mango Tree for dinner. Then we hailed a rickshaw back to Hospet so we could catch our overnight train to Bangalore.

Click on the below gallery to see more Hampi pictures.

We thought we had plenty of time to get to the train station, until we saw a huge traffic jam on the road back in to Hospet. If we missed our train we would be stuck because we’d booked it months in advance! It wouldn’t be a simple task to get another ticket at such a small train station. The driver sensed that we were panicking and gave us an option – go off road. We agreed and the next 10 minutes were absolutely crazy, with only the headlights guiding us, the rickshaw bounced across the rocky countryside. Ash was in stitches at my panic stricken face, which lightened my mood a bit until at one point the rickshaw nearly toppled over! Then we saw three men stood on the edge of a quarry which was weird in the darkness. True to his word though, the driver got us back out on the road ahead of the traffic jam. We arrived at the train station with plenty of time to spare and he got a nice tip for a job well done.

Bleuuurrh Bangalore

We caught the train to Bangalore, but from there we hadn’t booked any more trains. We needed to get another sleeper train to our next destination in Kanyakumari at the very bottom of the country. Booking bunks on a sleeper train can be hard and we’d booked our previous trains two months in advance. We arrived at Bangalore train station the next morning, had breakfast and spent a couple of hours working out how to book the ticket. We found out that as a foreigner we could go to a specific window in the station and book the train, Ash queued up, witnessed two old guys fighting and finally managed to get our tickets. We hurried to find a hotel as we’d made some specific plans that day to visit a whisky distillery (Ash the whisky man’s idea!) and a driver was coming to collect us. The driver picked us up with our guide Vikas who was a senior employee and took us to the distillery. Not much to write about the distillery as I hate whisky but Ash was in his element. As the tour came to an end I started to feel a bit queasy. We sat and had tea and biscuits with the distillery owners and I felt more and more sick so discreetly went to the toilet. Thankfully it was time to leave, but the drive back to the hotel was going to take at least an hour! I was feeling worse by the minute so whispered my situation to Ash and just hoped for the best. After fifteen minutes in the car I felt terrible and that I was going to be sick at any moment. I tapped Ash and signalled that we urgently needed to stop. We stopped just in time for me to fling open the door and projectile vomit in to the street and up the side of the card door before whimpering  “I’m sorry Vikas”. What makes it worse is that on the way to the distillery Vikas had asked if we’d been ill in India yet and confidently I said no. How embarrassing. Needless to say I did have a bad dose of Delhi belly so had to spend the next two days puking up and  being waited on by Ash. I managed to get out on the last day but hardly saw any of Bangalore!

We’d reserved a train so on the third day we left Bangalore to go to our next destination, Kanyakumari.

An Indian Adventure part 1 – Mumbai, Aurangabad and the Ellora temple caves

Mumbai
In 2011 I went to India for three and half weeks and totally fell in love with it. To keep my memories fresh and because I have no lessons at the moment due to end of year exams, I thought I’d write some blog entries about that trip.
In February of 2011 I flew to south India. Ash had managed to get an extra two weeks off work so he left before me and travelled around a bit in the north. After a long flight, I arrived at Mumbai airport at 3am. The airport was still rammed and it took a while to get through immigration. Once formalities were sorted, I was released in to the warm night air and experienced immediate sensory overload! At the entrance there was a big circle of people waiting for relatives, shouting, bustling around and staring at me. I then saw Ash, dressed from head to toe in traditional Indian menswear with a sign saying ‘Miss Natalie’ and a flower necklace which he gave to me. What a good start to a trip I’d been dreaming about for years!

He ushered me to a taxi, but along the way we were approached by tout after tout trying to help us find a taxi for an additional fee. When we were inside the car some little children came to the window begging for money, which was heartbreaking. Talk about a baptism of fire in to the realities of travelling in India. It took about half an hour to get to our guesthouse. Along the way I could see people sleeping in the streets and setting up market stalls ready for a day’s trading. Even at night Mumbai was a hive of activity.

The next morning we were up and out early as we were only in Mumbai for two days. First though, it was breakfast and time for my first authentic Indian meal. I ordered a tasty dosa and sat feeling really hot and sweaty, but excited as anything whilst eating it. It was delicious! Whilst in this tiny restaurant eating, we were approached by a man who asked us if we wanted to be in a Bollywood movie. Erm yes please!!! We both got really excited at the thought of being dressed up in Indian clothes and make up, and dancing around on set with other actors. Unfortunately though, we had to commit to two evenings working from midnight until 6am, but we’d booked our train months ago (no mean feat) to leave Mumbai the following evening. I was GUTTED. Next time I go back I hope I get asked again, it’s apparently quite common in that area for movie casters to go looking for foreigners to be extras, so fingers crossed!

The next two days whirled by as we visited markets, museums and the impressive but hectic Victoria terminus train station, drank lots of lassi’s and generally got lost in the bustling streets. We walked through both the poorer looking districts with streets full of market stalls dodging debris from what looked like manic construction work, and also the more sanitised wealthy area of Marine drive. Even here signs of poverty were visible with families living on Chow Patty beach. Another highlight of Mumbai was walking through a park where hundreds of people were simultaneously playing hundreds of games of cricket! I don’t even understand how it was possible, it must have been hard to keep track of the balls.

Mumbai Gallery

Chai, chai, chai, coffee, coffee, coffee -my first time on a sleeper train

We were departing from Victoria terminus so we lugged our bags there and boarded the train to Aurangabad. We were absolutely shattered but as it was my first ever night on a sleeper train I wanted to stay up for a while.
The upper seats fold up and everyone sits on the bottom level until it’s time for bed. If anyone reading wants to book on to a sleeper train I would advise you tobook the top bunk, that’s the only one that is down all the time that you can sleep on. Vendors hop on and off the train at different stations selling their wares, and shouting about them. You will often hear someone coming up the carriage shouting CHAI CHAI CHAI, or COFFEE, COFFEE, COFFEE! We ordered a tasty egg biryani not long after we got on and sat watching the sun go down as the train chugged through the countryside. I think travelling by train through India is such a great experience, you get to see the scenery, its super cheap and pretty exciting. We had decided to save as much money as possible and stay in non-aircon sleeping class, which was fine apart from when it was really hot in the night and Indian families sleeping below us, who were of course used to the heat, got cold and turned the fans off! One other negative thing is the smell of the toilet, it’s never going to be pretty when hundreds of people are on a train for 24 hours!

Our home for 7 nights

Aurangabad and Ellora temple caves
We arrived at Aurangabad station at about 5.30am. The tricky thing with Indian trains is it’s difficult to know when to get off.  We set our alarms and luckily woke up just in time. The platform was dark but there were quite a few people who seemed to live there and were sleeping on the platform. We found a snack bar open outside the station and passed some time eating. Then we went back to the platform. After finding a free bench, we watched stray dogs running across the tracks and waited for the sun to rise. I have a vivid memory from Aurangabad station and that is of a family who lived there waking up. I lay on the bench watching them as they went about their normal morning ritual, the mum cleaning and feeding the baby and the baby going for a poop off the edge of the platform and then going back and sitting cuddling its dad.

We knew the general direction of the city bus station so decided to try to walk there at about 7am. A few minutes later we walked past an incredible scene. A group of people were sat next to a fire, next to a petrol station! So dangerous but no one was blinking an eye. It was then we noticed the level of pollution in this city. Our feet were already filthy from walking it was crazy. We got on a bus because we were worried that the walk was further than we’d anticipated, paid the fare and three minutes later were there! Along the way we saw what looked like a ‘walking track’, where loads of women dressed in beautiful colourful clothes were power walking. We didn’t have to wait long for the bus to Ellora and after a few miles the air cleared and we were able to appreciate the gorgeous early morning countryside.

The Ellora temple caves are a UNESCO World Heritage site. They consist of 34 caves which were excavated from the surrounding hills. The Buddhist, Jain and Hindu temple caves were built during different periods between the 5th and 10th century and are truly awe inspiring. When we arrived it was quite quiet and we looked at the Hindu caves first without realising these were the most recent. Ellora was more than just caves though, there are lots and lots of intricate religious sculptures carved in to the rock and each religion has its own style. It was breath taking and felt like I was in another world. On the way to the caves we came across a stray dog who waited outside each cave for us and showed us round for a while, bit strange but cute.

As the morning went on, more and more people arrived. They were mostly families but also a few buses of tiny school children. We walked past a class full of children with their teachers having their photos taken and they asked us to join in, so we did!

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As more people arrivedwere there we found ourselves becoming the centre of attention, which was crazy considering where we were. I’ve lost count of the amount of photos that we had taken that day, usually wedged between some family members. At one point some little girls literally chased and cornered me to stroke my arm and call me a white princess! After a couple more hours the constant photo posing, combined with tiredness and the heat became too much. I’m not exaggerating when I say everyone wanted a picture taken either. In one area some guy was up on the next level whilst we were in a kind of courtyard and he shouted down to us and then bought all his friends down to see us. We decided to leave, eat and get the bus back to Aurangabad not long after this.

Ellora Gallery

We somehow managed to get ourselves on to an extremely rammed bus on the way back to Aurangabad and I found myself wedged between Ash and the bus door, but still got to appreciate the scenery. We went to an internet café and wasted some time there before going to the train station to wait. It was busy now because it was the evening and people were waiting on the platform for the train. I was totally knackered by this point and was not prepared when a little boy came begging. It sounds heartless but I don’t give money to people begging, it actually makes me feel heartless too at times (like now when I’m writing this) but I have reasons. Over population and poverty is a big issue in India, so begging is also a big problem. As a foreigner it is very hard to not be upset when witnessing the level of poverty on a daily basis whilst travelling round, especially when it’s little children asking for money. However, after discussions with Ash I read up on this a bit before coming away and found article after article offering good reasons for not giving money to beggars, all of which I agreed with. You don’t know where your money goes, does it go to the children and their families or are those children being manipulated by people who want to make money out of begging. I just feel that by giving money to people on the street I’m contributing to the problem, even if it is upsetting to experience. I’d rather donate money to an organisation that can use it to help people.

At the train station I had a little boy tapping my knee, some dude sat next to me and Ash talking about I don’t know what and wanting money, another guy asking for money and then a guy in a wheelchair with a horn came over begging as well. It was quite intense for a while until we moved away down the platform.

The train was really late but Ash made friends with a really friendly guy called Richard who was going back to school in Hyderabad and told us about some good places to visit at our next destination. When the train did arrive, he escorted us to our bunks in the carriage. What a nice young man – I know I sound old but he was!

Finally we could rest. We wouldn’t arrive in Hyderabad until the next morning and that night I slept like a log.