Saward Abroad

"I shall always be haunted by thoughts of a sundrenched elsewhere." Isabelle Eberhardt

Tag: travel (page 1 of 2)

Trouble in Toronto

We’re barrelling down the I-95 North to catch a flight to Toronto when I feel the car swerve under us. Half an hour until check in closes, 45 minutes driving left and the back right tire is gone. Max, my host in Rhode Island is frantically making phone calls and I’m left in the passenger seat wondering why my father, a mechanic in the British Army for over 30 years, never taught me to change a tire. I’m pretty sure a jack and a tire iron are involved somehow? I can rewire a plug, skin a rabbit and gut a fish but weirdly tires have me stumped. Triple A tell us that they can’t get anyone to us in time for me to make the flight so we sit, in a parking lot somewhere in Providence and watch the minutes tick past.

“There’s no way we would have made it anyway.”

Max scowls at me. He’s feeling guilty that he made me miss my flight.

“I mean really it’s my fault because I got the time wrong.”

A disgruntled huff from the driver’s seat.

“I mean, I do have number dyslexia so honestly, I shouldn’t be trusted to read numbers unsupervised.”

That at least gets a laugh out of him. Thankfully my phone data plan works in the US and within a few minutes I’ve got myself on a later flight to Toronto covered by my travel insurance (pro tip guys: invest in decent insurance). It takes hours for the tire to get fixed. We have to wait for Triple A to come and switch out the busted one for the spare, then carefully drive to a garage and wait for someone to put a new one on. I’m tempted to ring my Dad and ask him to walk me through changing a tire over FaceTime but given the time difference, I’d doubt he’d appreciate it.

Skip forward 8 hours and I’m in another car, trying to explain where my Air BnB is to an overworked Indian taxi driver who doesn’t understand my accent. We spend a solid 20 minutes driving the wrong way up Dundas St West because he misheard what number I said. Once again numbers screw me over. He’s very sweet about the whole thing and gets very excited when he finds out I’m an ESL teacher back home. We have a good discussion about the difference between British, Canadian and Indian English. He tells me that he’s been in Canada for 10 years and he still finds the accent hard to understand. Everyone here talks too fast. He misses home. He misses his brothers and sisters and is sad that his daughters don’t want to go back and visit more. Our taxi drive turns into quite the heart to heart. When we finally find my Air BnB he looks dubious. I don’t think he believes that the dark warehouse is a good place to drop a young woman off by herself. He waits until my hosts answer the door and he’s had a good look at them before getting back in his cab.

I am not good at being alone. Even now, when I’m trying to get job applications and blogs and the next chapter of my novel done, I’m sat at my SO’s, just for the company. I’m the kind of person that needs another human around most of the time, just for the reassuring presence. I don’t need to talk to them, or interact other than sporadically. It’s why I travel so much alone. I’m very much of the face your fears persuasion. Afraid of flying? Go to Australia alone. Afraid of driving long distances in case your car spontaneously blows up? Drive to Cornwall single handedly. Afraid of being alone? Visit new, exciting places, make new friends, discover new distractions. And usually it works like a dream.

In Toronto, however, I feel awful. I don’t know what it was. But something about the city, where I’m staying, the weather makes me tip over into a depression fog. I can’t tell you much about where I stayed or what I got up to. I can’t remember much of it. I’m staying on Dundas Street West and the AirBnB is lovely, a tiny basement studio with an ensuite. I don’t have to talk to anyone. I spend my first morning curled in bed reading Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig. It’s reassuring, to know I’m not alone in feeling crap. Come the afternoon though I have somewhere to be. I have to get on a bus to Niagara Falls.

The subway isn’t difficult in Toronto. There’s 3 lines and one of them is on the end of another. But somehow I manage to cock up buying a ticket, end up on the wrong platform and go to the wrong place. I end up wandering around a shopping mall trying to find the bus station. It is not in the shopping mall. I miss my bus and have to wait 2 hours for the next one. This is one of the things I never expected about depression. It fogs your brain and makes you so exhausted that simple things become almost impossible. People tell you this. But until it actually happens, it doesn’t really sink in. Me writing this now, it might not explain to you just how jarring this is. If you’ve read my other blogs, I’m fairly competent usually. I managed to get around Seoul alone, where I couldn’t even guess the alphabet but now I’m lost in Toronto.

The bus to Niagara Falls is one of my favourite parts of my trip. It’s peaceful, driving around Lake Ontario, watching the city get further and further north of us. It looks beautiful across the water, skyscrapers reflected in the lake. The skyscrapers still throw me. Nothing in England is like this. Seoul was similar but there were old buildings too, palaces and houses and museums cutting through the modernity. Toronto is my first big city, on a northern American scale. Seeing it from this distance makes the buildings even more awe inspiring. The CN Tower, which until last night I’d only seen on the cover of a Drake album, is colossal. I’m twisted in my seat, watching it disappear behind us as we travel further along Lake Ontario.

Niagara Falls is not like Toronto. There’s very few skyscrapers here. When we pull into the bus station it’s jarringly empty. Easter isn’t peak tourist time I feel. There’s a few backpackers loitering and we mill around, trying to figure out how to get down to the waterfalls. A small bus arrives and it’s completely packed. That’s where all the tourists are apparently. There’s no space for me on it so a guy who works for the Niagara Falls Parks Service gives me a lift in his minibus. He buys me a coffee too. So far Canadians seem to be living up to national stereotypes of being friendly. The coffee’s not great, slightly burnt and bitter but it’s warm and Canada has surprised me with its April climate. We talk about the UK and Canada and the weather because that’s what British people do when stuck in small talk. Apparently it’s quite warm for this time of year. Snuggling into my jumper and coat, I don’t really believe him.

We get to downtown Niagara and I can hear the falls before I leave the mini bus. It’s a world famous sound and can be infuriating for the locals. In fact, Robert Land who was one of the first Europeans to settle in the region, fled after 3 years because of the noise. I like it though. It’s loud enough to block out the city and makes me feel weirdly isolated while walking down the street, even though there’s hundreds of tourists here jostling against me. I’ve got a boat tour booked, which means finding yet another form of transport. I manage it this time and get a gorgeous red poncho ready for my ride under the falls.

I realise quickly, there’s a time and a place for wearing a full face of make-up. Going on a boat near where four million cubic feet of water falls is not it. We go past the American Falls and the combination of the noise and the water pounding into my face gets into my head. I’m here. Still foggy but I don’t feel like I’m behind a weird screen anymore. It’s gorgeous. The writer in me is left speechless because how in hell do you describe something as incredible as this. If a friend were here with me, I’d just be screaming, ‘Nature is so fucking cool’ at them over and over. So that’s what you’re going to get here. Nature is so fucking cool guys. We may have built bridges and boats and hydroelectric dams and power stations and zip wires around the Falls but at the heart of it, the draw of Niagara Falls is the sheer power of all that water.

The boat takes us right up close to all three falls, the American, Horseshoe and Bridal Veil. The Horseshoe Falls are possibly the most famous, mainly because of the amount of people who’ve tried to go over them and survive. Annie Edson Taylor became the first person in 1901 to go over the Falls in a barrel and survive. She was 63 at the time. 63 years old and she decided to go over a huge waterfall in a wooden barrel. At the bottom when she was fished out all she had is a few cuts. No such luck for Bobby Leach in 1911 who broke both knee caps and his jaw. People are still throwing themselves off the top of Niagara, both those who hope to survive it and those who don’t. In April 2017 Kirk Jones became the latest victim to the Falls, attempting to go over them in an inflatable ball. His body was recovered almost a month later.

I’m looking up at all that water. No matter how bad I get, or how reckless I feel, I’m never going to think that going down it in a barrel is a good idea. Salmon regularly make it down alive and one guy a few years back got hit in the face by one as it was flung out of the Bridal Veil. I don’t like my chances though.

Back in Toronto that evening I make plans to meet up with a Tinder date who drags me out and says that I can’t spend an evening inside in a new city. He drives me around for hours, showing me the different districts and we talk about what it is that draws people to travelling. Is it the discovery, meeting new people, running away from your problems back home? It gets me thinking. I think I travel to confront myself. Back home it’s all too easy to surround myself with friends, keep myself busy, always find a new distraction. But when you’re somewhere alone, you have to keep yourself company. You can’t just ring someone to come and pull you out of yourself. Even this situation, meeting a guy off Tinder, that requires a lot of putting yourself out there. Travel makes me push right up against my comfort zones and find out what and where they are. Which is pretty cool. If an expensive way to do it. And kind of pretentious.

I grew up on an army base where there were dozens of kids my age. I then moved to a boarding school where you’re with your friends constantly. Then university halls, where locking yourself in your room is frowned on – I was in a shared room there as well so it wasn’t like I had that option. Student housing for another two years. Come graduating and taking a job at a boarding school I realised that I was alone for probably the first time in my life. And it sucked. I cried a lot. And that’s when I started travelling solo.

It’s not a revelation really that we need to learn to be alone. As a product of the Internet Age, when we have friends and services and instant connection at our finger tips, millennials are used to having whoever and whatever we want, when we want it. Which isn’t really how the world works. It’s one of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn. I’m still not there. I still find myself staring at my phone screen or pacing my kitchen waiting for someone to distract me from my thoughts. But I’m getting better. And Toronto helped with that.

 

This is the latest in a series about mental health and travelling. For other pieces, look at ‘Catch flights not feelings‘ and ‘Milkshakes in the Ocean State‘. 

Milkshakes in the Ocean State

Cabinets taste pretty good

What does the word cabinet put you in mind of? Wooden cupboards, fancy carving, dusty bottles of forgotten spirits that your parents got for Christmas 15 years ago? Milkshakes? Yeah, me neither. In Rhode Island, however, that’s what milkshakes are called. Apparently. This might all be a big joke on me. Maybe the folks in the Ocean State got together and decided to pull an epic prank on me. Whether it’s true or not, cabinets were a revelation to me, a flavour sensation. I tried my first one in Brickley’s Ice Cream on Boston Neck Road in Narragansett. It was so thick I couldn’t drink it through a straw and had to scoop it out of the Styrofoam cup drop by delicious peppermint drop. I’d expected it to be green, taste like cheap mint choc chip ice cream, all synthetic flavours and food colouring. Brickley’s have got cabinets right though. Their peppermint stick one is more like the inside of an after eight – slightly grainy, creamy and refreshing.

The basis for a good cabinet seems to be homemade ice cream. Rhode Island has a thing for this. In my week there, we drove past dozens of creameries, all selling their own versions of cabinets, milkshakes, thick shakes and a whole heap of other names. There’s Brickley’s, Nana’s, Moo Moos – and that’s just in Narragansett. Head out of town and you’ll find the Newport Creamery, home of the Awful Awful, so named because they’re awfully awfully good. With a promise like that, they were just begging to be compared to Brickley’s cabinets. For fairness, I went with another peppermint one. Awfully sweet and awfully good, it was impossible to choose between the two.

Awfully good milkshakes, awfully bad lighting

Why am I waxing lyrical about milkshakes? Is it the weird names which appeal so much to the English scholar in me? Or is it that I’m getting free ice cream for life in return for reviewing them? Neither (though free ice cream would be pretty rad). When I think back to my trip to Rhode Island, it’s the milkshakes that stick in my mind.

I’d ended up here after a chance meeting in a kebab shop in Berlin last summer. The friend I was travelling with at the time was ordering doner kebabs for us, a staple for any visit to Berlin, and offered to help the baffled looking American standing next to us in line. We weren’t in a particularly touristy area and the guy running the shop was insistent that we all practised our German with him. Not an issue for my friend and I but when you speak absolutely none of the language, it can sound quite intimidating. After successfully ordering for him, we discovered that we were all staying in the same hostel down the street. It was one of those friendships that only really happen when you’re travelling – a chance meeting with someone who you end up schlepping from hostel to hostel with for the foreseeable future. Max was 19, long haired, tattooed and at the end of his first year of college. He’d never left the US before and had just arrived in Berlin with no plan other than when he had to be on a plane home. That evening in the hostel over a few beers we compared tattoos, crazy stories about tattoos (he easily beats my nerd ones with the symbol for the rap group he and his friends formed while frying clam cakes) and managed to cram our life stories into a few hours. By the end of the night, we’d persuaded him to abandon his plans to go to Frankfurt and come to Prague with us the next day.

Another day, another beverage, yet another selfie

Fast forward to December 2016 and my depression and SAD reaching a new low. Max and I had continued talking after parting ways in Prague and he offered for me to come and stay with him to get away from work. The idea of travelling to destress isn’t revolutionary. People travel for various reasons: escape, adventure, romance. When I’m at my lowest, I book trips to keep me alive. Knowing that I’ve got a tangible, concrete event coming up, where I can get away from things, one where I have made a significant financial and temporal commitment that I can’t flake out of, that’s what keeps me going.

Rhode Island had never been on the top of destinations list. To be perfectly honest before I left I knew next to nothing about it. The limit of my knowledge was the one of the characters in Miss Congeniality was representing RI. When I arrived though, I instantly fell in love. I’m a water baby. I love any kind of water. Fountains, buckets, the ocean, rivers, puddles, anything wet, you name it, as a kid my parents had to pull me out of it. But we have oceans and beaches here. We’re an island. Go far enough in any direction and you’ll end up soggy. The difference is that the beaches in Rhode Island are gorgeous. There’s a distinct lack of rocks, pebbles, used condoms, hypodermic needles or used car parts. I mean, I’m sure that Rhode Island has its own delightful beach flora and fauna. But, not for nothing is Rhode Island called the Ocean State. 14% of its total area is made up of bays and inlets. That’s a lot of beach for this water baby to explore.

I’d picked totally the wrong time of year to visit, just when it’s sunny enough for the water to look inviting but nowhere near warm enough to swim. Max took me to Narragansett Beach, Point Judith and its lighthouse, Matunuck Beach and Hazard Rock. Every morning we’d head to Coffee Connection, local haunt of URI students, grab bagels and coffee and head off to drive along the coast.

I’m not a visual person. I struggle to remember people’s faces, places I’ve been to, clothes I own. It’s why I take so many photos, to help me out. Travelling for me, therefore, centres heavily around food – you just have to look at previous blog posts to know that. It’s what I remember most clearly. The first time I ate Dutch pannenkoeken was on a boat in Amsterdam. Now when I’m on a boat I can taste the apples that were baked into the pancakes, the cinnamon mixed into the batter, smell the burnt coffee of that trip. On this trip, it was a lot simpler. Milkshakes, coffee and bagels. The bitterness of filter coffee, the elastic chewiness of a good bagel with whatever the weirdest cream cheese I could see on the menu that morning, the sickly sweet cabinet or awful awful. Those are the taste of Rhode Island to me. Not a clam cake or bowl of chowder in sight.

The trip itself was a chance to pull my brain together, bring myself out of the fog that depression lays thick and dark over everything. Sometimes that requires a big adventure, like my trip to Australia and New Zealand in 2016. And sometimes all it takes is a little sunshine, some salt air and a cabinet or two.

This is the second in a series about mental health and travelling. For other pieces, look at ‘Catch flights not feelings‘ and ‘Trouble in Toronto‘. 

Catch flights, not feelings: Is that really the way to go?

People often ask me how I can afford to travel. It’s a common question, I think, for anyone who takes more than the occasional holiday. Usually I pass it off with a shrug and a ludicrous reason (bank robbing and black market organ donations being my favourites). But somehow, as I’m sat here flying over the Atlantic coast of Canada and the US, it feels disingenuous. I’m incredibly privileged. This time last year I was staring in awe at the red dirt of Australia, trying to follow the traceries of roads and rivers. Now I’m watching snow and craggy coast lines pass under us and wondering how the hell anyone made it over this landscape before cars and planes. Being able to travel is a luxury that I never have, and hope never will, taken for granted.

Time to be honest though. I am not a bank robber. As far as I know I still have all my organs. I don’t have to scrimp and save for my trips. All this travelling, as with so many things in my life (learning to drive, my 1st car, my postgraduate studies) are all thanks to my mother.

Louise Dorothy Adams was a complicated woman. My mother, a sister, an aunt, a daughter, she had a wicked sense of humour and was well known for laughing so hard she’d collapse on the floor. She used to buy me pomegranates and make me eat it with a darning needle to make it last longer. When I was a baby she would put Marmite on my dummy to keep me quiet. If she couldn’t sleep she’d watch horror movies because they made her realise everything could be a lot worse. When she was doing good, she was a riot, wickedly funny, smart and sarcastic.

But bi-polar is a bitch. It sneaks up on you and grabs you by the ankles and pulls, knocking you on your arse. Coupled with alcoholism, the lows get lower until you’re trapped inside your own head. Mum would disappear into herself for days and weeks until eventually she didn’t come back. She killed herself in 2013, just as I’d finished my first year of university. The bottom of my world dropped out. I could go through the cliches here but I think Lemony Snicket says it best with: “If you have ever lost someone very important to you, then you already know how it feels; and if you haven’t, you cannot possibly imagine it.”

A few months after she died, we discovered she’d some money saved. Not a lot but enough that with some careful investment and a lot of advice from my family I was able to start travelling. But why am I talking about this now? I guess it’s because I’ve been struggling so much with my own mental health for the past year or so. I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety in 2012, with PTSD added along the way. When my mum died, however, I decided to do the British thing and pretend everything was fine. It got me through my degree with a damn good grade too.

After graduation though, I started to unravel. During a particularly low dip, I did what anyone with social anxiety coupled with a helpful fear of being alone would do: book a solo trip to Australia and New Zealand. I bought into the whole ‘catch flights not feelings’ deal. And if it works for you, great. Do what you got to do. But as I was crying my eyes out eight hours into a flight to Malaysia and questioning what the fuck I was doing, it wasn’t working for me. The whole first week of that trip, I learnt a hard and very important lesson. Being alone is difficult.

Don’t get me wrong. Travelling alone gave me such a tremendous sense of self-assurance and power. I’d managed to get myself to the other side of the world without a hitch. Sydney was a wonderful first place to visit on a solo trip. I felt safe getting around on public transport, didn’t feel weird eating alone and I could wander around by myself comfortably. It wasn’t the city. It was me. I’d booked this trip hoping that by leaving the UK I’d magically leave my depression behind. Turns out it had a passport too. There’s one afternoon that sticks out, sitting on the edge of Sydney Harbour for hours, chain smoking and feeling that horrifying, paralysing numbness. Here I was, on the other side of the world, in sunshine, by the water and I couldn’t think of anything. My brain was just fogged out and gone.

I started this talking about how I afford all this travel. Truth is, I kind of wanted to address the whole travel solving all your problems attitude that’s floating around at the moment. I wanted to be honest about my mental health. I love being in new places, getting myself lost in new cities and people and cultures. The prospect of a new trip is sometimes all that keeps me going back home. But mental health is complicated. My mother proved that. I’m proving it right now. I’m in Rhode Island, Ocean State having spent the last few days at the beach. And I feel like crap. Numbed out as I am back home, with a whole new heaping of guilt because why am I not enjoying this fantastic, amazing chance that I’m having.

This has been somewhat rambling. I guess what I’m trying to say is, it is okay to not be on fantastic form when you’re travelling. What with Instagram and other social media platforms, it’s so easy to get caught up in chasing that perfect trip. Let yourself be down. Roll with it. Know your own limitations. Don’t feel that it’s wrong to need friends and travel buddies. Solo travel is great for some of us. Big groups are great for some of us. And sometimes you need to curl up in bed for a few hours. And that’s okay too.

This is the first in a series about mental health and travelling. For other pieces, look at ‘Milkshakes in the Ocean State‘ and ‘Trouble in Toronto’.

Pancakes in Amsterdam – Interrail Stop 1

Interrailing has almost become a rite of passage for young middle class Europeans. As far as travelling goes it’s a relatively cheap way of making your way around Europe and has the potential to be as free as you want it to be. No rushing to get prebooked flights or feeling like you’ve missed out by having to leave a city on a certain date. If you’re willing to take the risk of not getting a seat on your train, you can fill out the pass on the platform while you’re waiting for it to arrive. I met a lot of people this summer who were totally winging it, deciding on their next destinations dependant on recommendations from fellow travellers. I’m not that chilled out about travelling and so we’d made an itinerary before heading off. Our first stop would be Amsterdam. I’d been there before, on a day trip when I’d stayed in Rotterdam, and wanted to have a chance to explore this infamous city.

Sloterdjik Station

Sloterdjik Station

Neither my travel buddy nor I are massive partiers so we avoided the central hostels and stayed in a Meinenger (a hostel/hotel chain) in Sloterdjik. We got a decent discount as Interrailers and were right next to the local train station. From here it was less than 5 minutes to Centraal and the centre of Amsterdam. As you may have guessed by my previous posts, food is an essential part of travelling for me. So we jumped right in and tried Ossenworst which is ox sausage. It was a lot like salami but richer and meatier – sort of like salami and black pudding had a delicious baby.

Kicking things off

We kicked off our first day by doing a city tour with New Sandeman’s tour company. Our guide was Axel, who was actually from Amsterdam (something of a rarity with tour guides given that they’re usually travellers who never left). Before this started I had to try some Dutch pastry seeing as there’s so many different kinds. I tucked into an Appelflappen (apple flap: sweet pastry folded over and stuffed with apples and cinnamon, covered in sugar) as we headed off to lean about Amsterdam’s history. You don’t need me to tell you that it’s a beautiful city. The little streets, narrow houses and the famous canal network come together to make what you’d imagine from a European capital. I’m from Oxford, a famously medieval city full of old buildings and architecture. I honestly feel a little disorientated in newer cities. Rotterdam (which was almost entirely destroyed in WW2) made me feel like this. But I felt right at home in Amsterdam. Our tour guide was incredibly knowledgeable about the city, as you’d expect from a nature, while also having the worst Dad jokes I’d heard from someone his age.

more-canals

A personal favourite story that we learnt was about Napoleon’s annexation of the Netherlands. Before this, family names were not common in Holland, with Dutch people instead using patronymic names (ie a boy called Pieter whose father was called Jan would be Peiter Janszoon). Napoleon and his fancy French ways meant people had to register one family name and stick to it, passing this down to their children. The story goes that outraged by this the Dutch registered protest names that were rude or complete nonsense. Zondervan meaning ‘without surname’ is a favourite. Unfortunately when France lost control of Holland, turned out people thought this whole given name system was a good ‘un. And so some families were stuck with their protest names, even to this day. How true this is, I don’t know but it’s a great story.

We finished our tour in the neighbourhood of Jordaan where we had lunch at Café Sonneveld (Egelantiersgracht 72-74) as recommended by Axel. I had a traditional Dutch dish, stamppot with sausage. Stamppot is (like all good Northern European dishes) based on potatoes and is solid and warming. Not great food for the end of July but still delicious!

Bloemenmarkt and Pannenkoekenboot

The next morning my friend and I woke up early to head to Amsterdam’s Flower Market, the Bloemenmarkt. The friend I was travelling with is a biochemist whose special interest is plant genetics so he was in his element. There was a beautiful assortment of flowers in colour combinations I’d never seen before. Tulips were obviously a big feature but you could also buy all different kinds of bulbs and seeds. I think if we’d been at the end of our trip rather than the beginning our bags would have been full! You weren’t allowed to take photos of the actual flowers but there was a gorgeous selection of wooden tulips to choose from.

Wooden tulips at The Bloemenmarkt

Wooden tulips at The Bloemenmarkt

The Amsterdam Museum

The Amsterdam Museum

From here we wandered over to the Amsterdam Museum. We’d been meaning to go to the Rijksmuseum but we’d heard it was super crowded during the summer months. I’m really glad we went to the smaller one. It focused on the history of the city as a whole, tracing its origins as a small fishing village, through its history at the centre of a trading superpower, to the vibrant city it is today. The curation was excellent, leading you chronologically through Amsterdam’s timeline. Each room had a short video explaining the section of time that was the room’s focus. There was also a running side exhibition throughout the museum detailing the LGBT history of Amsterdam. I’d definitely recommend checking it out next time you’re in the city.

For me, however, the highlight of the trip was the Pannenkoekenboot. Yup, that’s right: the Pancake Boat. You pay €17 and get an hour and a half on a boat out in the port to eat as many pancakes as you can manage. They had three kinds: plain, apple and bacon. You could also ask for gluten free ones. Then there was a massive buffet full of toppings. We’re talking chocolate sprinkles, cheese, peaches, strawberries, a huge choice. I managed a respectable five. My father would have been proud.

Bacon and banana, a classic combination

Bacon and banana, a classic combination

That afternoon, full of pancakes, we headed into the Red Light District to explore. There’s a museum in a former brothel called Red Light Secrets that tells you a little about the history of prostitution in the city. It’s in an old narrow house and so can get a little crowded at busy times. But it’s an interesting set up and you learn a lot about the lives of the girls in Amsterdam’s famous windows. We also found a street with my name – a small victory for someone with an unusual spelling of ‘Bethanie’.

It's the little things

It’s the little things

We finished up the day with some beer tasting while the rain absolutely hammered it down outside. Our time in Amsterdam had come to an end. Coming back to a city I’d already been to proved to be a good choice. I felt I’d had more chance to explore and still had a lot left to discover. But regardless we were off to Berlin. And it was a whole different kind of adventure to get there.

No British stereotypes here

No British stereotypes here

 

Seoul: Gyeongbokgung and Gogigui

I headed out alone to visit Gyeongbokgung Palace, one of Seoul’s Five Grand Palaces. Gyeongbokgung was the first royal palace to be built by the Joseon Dynasty in 1395. It’s currently undergoing restoration after the Japanese occupation of Korea at the beginning of the 20th century when much of it was systematically destroyed. Until 1996 the Japanese Governor General Building stood on the site, having been built there during occupation in order to stop the Palace being a symbol of an independent Korea.

Walk up to palace

 

Before going anywhere in Seoul, check to make sure that it’s open as a lot of places are closed Monday or Tuesday – I guess this is so they can stay open over the weekend. Entering Gyeongbokgung Palace you go through a huge gate called Gwanghwamun. It’s a jarring experience, walking from the busy, crowded streets of Seoul, surrounded by skyscrapers through a gate and into a quiet, distinctly historical building complex. There were the traditional green and reds on the buildings, with gold detailing and huge sweeping curves to the roofs. Behind Gyeongbokgung is Bugaksan mountain, following the principle of baesanimsu (learn more about this in my Jeonju post).

I decided to take an English guided tour of the Palace, hoping to learn a little about the history of Gyeongbokgung rather than doing my usual wandering aimlessly and trying to translate Korean signposts. Our tour guide was an enthusiastic Korean woman and there was a relatively large group, mainly made up of Americans, a lot of whom had just moved to Seoul to start teaching English. They all seemed surprised that I’d come over for 10 days (admittedly I still can’t quite believe how far I went for such a short trip!). Gyeongbokgung was very similar to the shrine that I visited in Jeonju but on a much grander scale. The ongoing restoration project means that you can see up to 40% of the Palace complex as it was before Japanese occupation. It’s stunning, often said to be the grandest and most beautiful of the palaces within Seoul – I’ll get back to you on that when I do another trip to Korea! The gardens were incredibly peaceful, with my favourite spot being a little temple on an island in the middle of a lake. Korean Palaces are so unlike English castles and palaces. While we do have formal gardens, there’s nowhere near the same emphasis on outdoor spaces. Our climate isn’t exactly conducive to outdoor living!

Lily pond palace original

Gyeongbokgung Palace’s gardens

Gogigui

Korean BBQ

Every meal should look like this

After a day exploring Gyeongbokgung I headed back to Yongsan for another essentially Korean culinary experience: Korean barbecue (Gogigui in Korean). I’ve never had Korean barbeque before, despite it being one of the more popular foods that have made it over to the UK. If you’ve never had it, find the nearest place to you and go. Because there’s nothing more exciting than cooking your own food at your table. The place we went to was in the local market and was tiny, the kind of place that would be a super hipster pop-up joint if it was in London. Each table had a little coal pit that heated up a metal plate above, where you cooked the food. There was also a brass chimney that winched down over each hot plate to draw the smoke off. We were clearly not trusted to do it by ourselves as the woman who ran the place took one look at us and started cooking for us. One of my favourite things about meals in Korea is that you order your main dishes and then you automatically get kimchee and vegetables with it. We had pork, with onions and whole cloves of garlic and it was delicious.

After this we headed to the local bingsu place for some dessert. Patbingsu literally means red beans with ice and is finely shaved ice that is traditionally topped with, you guessed it, my old friend red bean paste! I steadfastly refused to be fooled against by red bean paste and we got one with fresh fruit on top. Unfortunately it was too tasty for me to take any photos as it was eaten inabout five minutes flat!

National Museum National museum atrium

My final day in Korea was spent in the National Museum of Korea. It’s recently moved to Yongsan, on land that used to be part of the US Garrison nearby (fun fact, construction was delayed for years as Seoul’s municipal government and the US Army apparently fought over the location of a helipad) and opened its new doors in 2005. The building itself is spectacular, light and airy, constructed around a central atrium with clever curation that leads you in a logical route around the entire museum in chronological order. Unless, like my friend when he visited, you manage to turn the wrong way at the entrance and so experience Korean history backwards. Apparently it was a unique way to learn about the country! I opted to start in Bronze Age Korea and work my way round to modern Korea. There’s various cafes and tea rooms dotted around on each floor and it took me about three hours to make my way round the main exhibitions – take into account here that I like reading all Iron Buddhathe signs on artefacts! There were also two temporary exhibitions, one on Afghan gold and one on Joseon period printing presses. I’m slightly obsessed with typography and old fashioned printing technology so I spent a good 45 minutes looking at all the printing blocks! One thing that really stood out to me were the iron Buddhas. I’ve not been anywhere in Asia before so I don’t know if this is a uniquely Korean style of devotional art or not but regardless the detail was astonishing.

Mandu

By far and away my favourite food of the trip was mandu (dumplings). I mean, what’s not to love? Tasty filings, boiled or fried dough, food you can eat with your hands? Obviously my last meal in Korea had to be mandu. We hit a local stall in the market for a mystery selection (I’m 99% sure my friend knew what he was ordering) and headed down to the Han to eat. 10 days was not enough time to spend in Korea. There’s so much I still want to see, so much more to learn about the culture and so much food I’ve yet to eat! This trip was a good introduction, dipping my toes into South Korea if you will. Expect more posts in the future when I make another trip. South Korea, I’m not finished with you yet!

Seoul: Disney Castles and Fried Chicken

I’ll be the first to admit, I had no idea what to expect when arriving in Seoul. I’ve become way more chilled out about travelling over the past year and didn’t really do much research about Korea before my trip. So arriving into Seoul and realising how huge a city it was came as a slight surprise. It really shouldn’t, it’s one of the biggest cities in the world, coming in the top 5 in terms of population and metropolitan area. What I wasn’t expecting was how green it was. South Korea in general is a beautifully green country, and it’s something that had surprised me before but I wasn’t expecting it in a huge sprawling city. I’m from England where our cities (think London, Birmingham, Manchester) are beautiful and vibrant and I love them but you could never describe them as natural wonders. They’re all thoroughly industrialised and built up with a few parks dotted throughout. The view from my friend’s apartment in Yongsan was kind of mind-blowing. I know it may seem that I’m overreacting but seriously, check it out. Being right next to the river was awesome and the fact that there’s no buildings along the Han was baffling. Again, think about English cities – you can’t even walk along the Thames for more than half an hour in central London without having to divert around buildings.

View over the Han original

Totally didn’t lean out of 23rd floor window for this shot 

After a super lazy start to the day recovering from Boryeong Mud Festival and eating traditional Parisian patisserie from Gontran Cherrier (who knew, fancy pastries are super popular in Korea) we headed out into Seoul. We were hoping to hit up a beer festival but turns out we’d missed it by a day. One thing I will say about South Korea. It might be one of the most connected places in the world in terms of wifi connectivity but the use of websites to give information about upcoming events is appalling – trying to find out when and where things are happening is a nightmare! We’d headed over to Sinchon, an area known for its nightlife and student population. So obviously we’d gone on a Sunday afternoon. Perfect time to check out some bars.

western-desserts

That classic and well loved advertising duo, Uncle Sam and Mary Poppins 

 

My Korean friend had insisted that while I was in Seoul I had to try Chimaek, Korean fried chicken. It’s one of those brilliant words created by smushing two other words together. You’re supposed to eat it with a beer and so the name is a fusion of ‘chicken’ and ‘maekju’ (Korean for beer). Isn’t language cool? As you’d expect, it’s a perfect combination, slightly
greasy fried chicken and beer being the basis of so many late night purchases around the world. I’m trying to find somewhere that does it back here in the UK (any suggestions welcomed) because it was delicious. As you can probably tell, the food was one of the highlights of Korea for me!

Lotte World

This essential Korean experience ticked off my list, it was time to visit Lotte World. This is a huge complex, made up of the world’s largest indoor amusement park, an outdoor theme park, huge shopping mall, Korean folk museum and hotel amongst other things. The indoor park is open late all year round and what better way to spend a Sunday evening than on teeny tiny rollercoasters?

None of the pictures I took fully convey just how huge it is. You walk in and I actually had to stop to try and take it all in. It is colossal. In the entrance hall you’re greeted by a fully sized ice rink under an atrium style glass ceiling that has a monorail and full sized hot-air balloon ride running around the edge of it. And that’s just the entrance. You go into the park itself and there’s a maze of levels, corridors and stairs to find your way around. There were a lot of couples in matching outfits there, taking adorable (and slightly awkward on the guys part) selfies with their matching totally not Mickey and Minnie mouse ears on. I’d kind of got used to sticking out like a sore thumb with my short red hair and piercings but I felt really out of place in the super cute atmosphere of Lotte World.

It was surreal how much merchandise there was ripped straight from Disney. Maybe Lotte has a franchise deal going but there was everything from Marvel toys, Minnie mouse costumes and even the famous castle from the various Disney Worlds (though no idea if there’s a cryogenically frozen Korean Walt Disney underneath it). A personal favourite was the inside of the castle complete with walls lined with shields and swords as well as a replica war horse and knight, both in full armour.

See why it's called Korean Disney World?

See why it’s called Korean Disney World?

Even though we went later on in the day, the queues to get on the most popular rides were 45 minutes long at their shortest. We really wanted to go on The French Revolution, mainly because of the name to be honest. Who doesn’t want to say they survived that?! Unfortunately the queue for that was surprisingly huge – guess everyone wanted a shot at liberté, égalité and fraternité. We also couldn’t get on the hot-air balloon ride which looked amazing. You got in a basket underneath a giant plastic balloon and were then lifted up to the ceiling of Lotte World before making your way along a track that ran around the entire roof. Obviously the queue for this was over an hour and a half long and I have the attention span of an amnesiac goldfish so wasn’t prepared to wait that long. We did manage to go on an Indiana Jones themed water ride with a Korean family and a very excited small kid. I may have over-played my reaction to the drops and spins of the track somewhat for their benefit.

Lotte world balloonsThe highlight of Lotte World, however, had to be the Haunted House. After wrestling with the ticket machine (the problem when two waegukin go out without a Korean speaking chaperone) we headed in. It was… Disappointing. Not scary. Not dark. We were kind of hurrying through when we heard some loud screaming coming from up ahead. Not a pre-recorded tinny scream but a proper terrified, real-life human scream. Maybe it got scarier the further in you got? Around the next corner we found two Korean girls on the floor, almost crying in terror, hugging each other for support. Standing over them was a guy in a black robe with a pretty unconvincing skull mask on. He was trying to lean down and offer them a hand up but every time he moved, the girls started screaming again. My friend and I were by this point clutching the walls in laughter, watching as he tried again and again to help them. After a good few minutes he gave up and went back into his little cubbyhole in the wall. The girls practically crawled out of the house and the guy came back out with his mask off, shrugging at us. We were still cracking up with laughter, having to hold each other up at this point. Who knew Haunted Houses could be such a source of hilarity?

Banpo Bridge

I talked at the beginning of this post about how green Seoul is and we spent the evening wandering down to Banpo Bridge in the park that runs along the Han River. There was so many people out, cycling, drinking, eating, listening to music. My friend had told me I needed to see Banpo Bridge and had only told me that it was a ‘dancing rainbow fountain bridge’. Now, I’m a creative writer but even I couldn’t quite picture what exactly that meant. Turns out a ‘dancing rainbow fountain bridge’ is a bridge that has horizontal jets set all along its sides, with rainbow coloured LEDs and speakers. The jets move and fire off in time to the music, with a light show going simultaneously. Koreans really love their dancing fountains. Yet another surreal musical experience to add to the list!

fountain-bridge-seoul

Boryeong Mud Festival

Of all the slightly bonkers things I did in South Korea, Boryeong Mud Festival has to be the most surreal. What is a mud festival? It’s exactly what it sounds like. Think Glastonbury but warmer and without the music. The aim is to get as covered in mud as physically possible. I was an outdoorsy kid – growing up on army bases means you always have amazing woods to get lost in. But I was never allowed to wear white. I was a pretty clumsy tree climber and mud and blood make for a lot of laundry. Naturally when I found out we were heading to Mudfest I picked out my whitest, cleanest outfit. I’m a responsible adult now and I’m going to use that power to get as dirty as physically possible.

I expected Mudfest to have some ancient and spiritual history stretching back to before records began. Boryeong Mud Festival has actually, however, only been going since the late 90s. As you’d expect for a country famed for its make-up and cosmetics industry, the festival started out as a marketing vehicle for Boryeong mud cosmetics. Apparently the mud itself has been famous for years for being good for your skin (mine did feel lovely and soft after a day being covered in it!) and for Mudfest they collect huge vats of it from nearby mud flats. These are then transported to the beach where the festival itself takes place.

Our day started out super early in Seoul. Turns out Boryeong is pretty much halfway between Seoul and Mokpo so I was retracing my steps from the week before (check out my adventures in the south of the Korean Peninsula here). On the way we drove over the Seohae Bridge which is over 7000m long. I’m slightly obsessed with bridges and tunnels, I think it comes from being an engineer’s daughter. We also tried these snacks called walnut balls that were walnut shaped cakes filled with red bean paste. I have a love hate relationship with red bean paste. If you’re expecting red bean paste, it’s a quite tasty addition to sweet dishes. If you’re a tired, blurry-eyed European who thinks what they’re eating is Nutella – not so nice. I made this mistake a surprising number of times during my trip.

MudFest 2k16

We arrived in Boryeong at lunch time. The Mud Festival has two breaks a day where they close for people to eat. We took the time to grab some drinks because another grand and venerable tradition of Mudfest is maintaining a steady level of drunkenness. Luckily the weather was kind of perfect – warm but overcast without ever raining. I’d have got supremely sunburn if it’d been better weather as mud isn’t the best sunscreen. We spent the lunch break sat on the beach with a few beers. Soon as Mudfest reopened, we headed in, ready to get mucky.

The first place we found was a big pool where you could go and splash mud at each other but it was disappointingly watery. It only stained rather than destroyed our clothes. Not good enough. After a bit of hunting I found a trough full of good, thick mud. And started a mud fight by throwing a load right in my friend’s face. Pro tip guys – if you wear contacts, come prepared with swim goggles so they don’t get messed up when you inevitably get a face full. Pretty quickly we were all filthy and my childhood dream of ruining a white shirt had been fulfilled. My mother would have been so proud.

 

Mud fest Johnny and I

Good thing someone remembered his GoPro!

 

There were various stalls around the edge of the mud zone (personal favourite was the Foreign Interpretation Assistance Unit – like SWAT for lost, drunk waegukin) and one was doing face painting with coloured mud. After queueing for about 45 minutes we realised we need numbers in order to actually get painted when we reached the front so one of our group dived into another queue while we waited in line. Then when we eventually made it to the front, my friend and I (the guy from the zorbing incident in New Zealand) were told we were too dirty to have mud painted on our faces. Another good idea that I should share here – have someone in your group that actually speaks Korean. Then when you’re frustrated and have no idea why someone won’t paint your face, you don’t have to just rely on increasingly abstract hand signals. Having to clean up meant another queue to wash the mud off our faces. This proved a bit much even for my British love of queueing but eventually we made it to the face painting station. Between the 3 of us there was a cat, an advert for Korea and a superhero. Being a comic book nerd, I was more than happy with this.

being-painted

 

Boryeong

After some ramen and a few more beers we wandered a bit further along the beach and heard some chanting. When we checked it out there was a man climbing a ladder of knives. Yep. You read that right. There was an old man climbing a ladder (more of a staircase really) of knives in time to chanting and drum beats. Then some women dressed all in white carried white globes down to the sea where they floated them away. We couldn’t work out what was going on beyond it being some form of ancestor worship and I still haven’t really got any idea. Any suggestions would be welcomed!

The weather was starting to turn at this point so we headed for showers before we got rained on. In England, unlike the rest of Europe, we’re not really big on communal, public nudity. If you go to a swimming pool in the UK, chances are everyone will keep their swimsuits on to shower afterwards. Go figure, we’re a famously repressed nation. Not in Korea. There was no swimsuits in the showers at Boryeong. Luckily the water was so freezing that it distracted me from my innate British awkwardness.

 

Mud fest colours

One thoroughly destroyed white shirt? Check

 

There was still a while to wait before the main event in the evening so we camped out in a coffee shop. In there with us were some girls who were taking selfies, showing them to their friends and then touching up their make-up to take more selfies. Apparently this is a popular past time in Korea. It was something that struck me while in Korea, and I’m definitely not the first to say it, how image conscious the whole country is. Even at Mudfest there were a lot of girls with full faces of make-up trying to not get dirty.

K-Pop in Korea

Finally it was time for the evening’s entertainment to kick off. What could possibly be better than spending a day throwing mud at your friends? PSY. That’s right, the K-pop star that smashed YouTube records with Gangnam Style back in 2012 and then seemingly disappeared in the UK music scene. He’s still massive in Korea and I had an awesome time listening to some of his big hits. It was one of those moments in life where you just look around you and think “Is this really happening right now?”. Dancing on a South Korean beach to Gangnam Style live just about topped listening to it with Mokpo’s dancing fountain (it’s a close run thing let me tell you).

 

PSY

 

Boryeong Mud Festival was utterly bonkers. I have told everyone who’s asked me about Korea about it. It seems such a uniquely Korean event, even down to its creation coming from the cosmetics industry. If you’re in the Peninsula at the beginning of July, or even anywhere near Korea, definitely check it out. It’s an experience that will stick with you. Even if you have to throw out the clothes you wore. 

Jeonju: Exploring traditional Korea

Jeonju is a city just over 2 hours drive away from Mokpo (check out what I got up to in Mokpo here). It’s famous for its Hanok Village, an area of the city designed to show off traditional Korean culture. Jeonju is also famous for 2 important Korean foods: bibimbap and hangover soup (Kongnamul Gukbap to give it its proper name). My time here was so interesting I’m just going to focus on that for this post.

Hanoks

We stayed at Dukmanjae, a traditional hanok just outside of the Hanok Village. When building a hanok, the position of the house in relation to its surroundings is considered as well as the impact the seasons will have on it. As you’d expect with this much care being taken about where the house is, the inside is also carefully planned, following the principles of baesanimsu. This literally means that ideally a house is built with a mountain in the back and a river in the front. Hanok also have wide front porches for keeping the house cool in the hot and humid Korean summers. Ours had sliding panel doors but some have ones you lift up and hook onto the ceiling of the porch.

Dukmanjae Hanok

 

Haejungguk

After dropping our bags off we headed out into Jeonju to find hangover soup, despite not being remotely hungover. It was a real hot afternoon and it turned out my friend was not the most reliable map reader in the world but eventually we made it to Sambaekjib, home of Kongnamul Gukbap in Jeonju. Kongnamul Gukbap is a hot bean sprout soup with rice and there’s a whole ritual to eating it. You’re given the soup with a fried egg and seaweed on the side which you have to add in a specific order. You can also top up any ingredients you feel you’re running low on, adding rice or vegetables as you need. It’s packed full of carbs, veggies and protein: you can see why it’s a hangover cure!

Hangover soup

Hanok Village

ChurchWe returned to start our sightseeing, heading first to the Jeondong Cathedral (also known as the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus). I’d known that Christianity was a major religion in Korea but I had been surprised at just how many churches there were everywhere. It was even more surreal seeing a European style cathedral in amongst the hanoks and distinctly Korean buildings. The cathedral was built between 1908 and 1914 to honour Roman Catholic martyrs who had lost their lives during the Joseon period. This was when the Joseon Dynasty ruled Korea, from 1392 until 1897. In October 1897, this kingdom was renamed the Korean Empire (which was made up of what we’d now see as North and South Korea). Joseon Korea was a Confucianist state which led to the persecution and martyring of Catholics in the 19th century. Unfortunately we couldn’t go inside as a service was taking place. Nevertheless, it was still an interesting angle of Korean culture to look at.

Gyeonggijeon Shrine

Our next stop was much more traditionally Korean: Gyeonggijeon Shrine. It was beautiful – my photos don’t really do it justice! I love the colour schemes used on temples and palaces in Korea, the reds and greens with the gold accents on the really important carvings. From a massively nerdy point, I’d been looking forward to seeing palaces and shrines since I’d arrived in Korea. I’m a huge fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender and the Earth Kingdom in the show has some distinctly Korean influences in its design. So getting to see some Joseon period buildings in real life was pretty spectacular.

Archives

It was here that the hanbok craze was clearest. There is a big trend at the moment in Korea for renting hanbok, which are traditional outfits usually reserved for events like New Year. Despite how hot it was, most of the people we saw in Jeonju, both men and women, were wearing hanbok. The women were wearing a mixture of the more traditional silk, full-skirted styles and a modern knee length version in pastel shades with a lot of lacework. Some men were wearing gat (traditional hats) while some women wore ornamental hair pieces. Hanbok simply means ‘Korean clothing’ but has come to mean specifically Joseon period style clothing. There were foreign influences on Hanbok but it was only Mongolian princesses marrying into the Korean royal family after a peace treaty with the Mongol Empire in the 13th century that had any lasting impact.

Given all this historical context, I loved watching people using selfie sticks to take photos of themselves in their Hanbok. This mix of old and new, traditional and technology and the pride in their culture was pretty cool to watch. No way would you get British teenagers putting on Tudor ruffs and doublets to visit the Tower of London! Getting particular attention for selfies were the guys dressed as guards at the palace gates. One was wearing an awful lot of fur for July in Korea and the other had a magnificent hat with huge feathers. We got to watch the guards change over which involved a lot of shouting and ceremonial handing over of swords. Once the excitement of this had died down we headed further into the shrine complex to explore.

One of the things I reaHanbok galorelly liked about Korean architecture was the focus on outdoor space. If you think of traditional English buildings (castles, cathedrals, stately homes) they’re all about the whacking huge construction projects. Korean architecture tends towards a lot of smaller buildings with plenty of peaceful outdoor space. Gyeonggijeon Shrine was built in 1410 to house the portrait King Tae-jo who founded the Joseon Dynasty. This was housed in its own building and there was a separate small museum dedicated to other royal portraits. One of the most interesting pieces for me was a replica of a portrait that is currently in North Korea. As an English tourist, I think it was easy to forget that it’s only recently that these two countries separated. There’s such a huge amount of shared history and culture for what we now see as such disparate places.

Hanbok

My friend decided that the best thing we could do to immerse me in Korean culture was to get me in a Hanbok. But not just any Hanbok: a royal Hanbok. Complete with a collosal hairpiece. The Hanbok was beautiful, red silk with a lot of embroidery. It was also incredibly hot. The hairpiece was extremely heavy and I’m not sure my gingery curly hair really matched it! While I definitely felt very regal, I couldn’t move much at all. I guess if you’re a queen you have people to move for you and you just need to sit, trying not to show that you’re melting.

The Hanbok was enough of a success that my hosts wanted me to try on old fashioned Korean school uniforms, the kind that their parents would have worn when they were younger. This was fairly simple, consisting of a black skirt and a jacket with a white shirt. The issue came with me trying it on. Turns out being average height in the UK translates to being super tall in South Korean sizing. There was also the matter of the armband. While in the UK having a position of responsibility at school usually means getting a tie or a pin, in Korea it’s an armband to be worn over your school jacket. I don’t think it has the same fascist overtones over there as it does here!

 

Bibimbap

Bibimbap

That evening we went to try Jeonju’s most famous food: bibimbap. This is a dish of rice, meat and vegetable with egg, covering all the important food groups. Other than the name, the most fun part of bibimbap is that some versions are served in a hot stone bowl and you mix it really fast to finish cooking it at your table. This was the food I’d been looking forward to eating since I’d arrived and to actually be able to eat it in the place where it came from was awesome.

We followed it up with some grapefruit beer. Now I’m from the UK. We’re pretty serious about beer over here. It’s kind of our thing. So I was expecting some kind of fancy craft beer. Sadly it was just lager with grapefruit syrup in it. And head out of a slushie machine. I’ve drunk enough beer in my life to know that there’s an art to pouring with the minimum amount of head. Otherwise you’re wasting precious space in your pint glass. Not in Korea. Here beer comes in a domed iced coffee cup to make extra space for all that delicious foam. Bonkers.

Dumplings

Our night in the hanok was very peaceful. Again, I’d definitely recommend Dukmanjae as a hanok stay, it was super quiet and the owner was lovely and friendly. We wandered around the market for a bit, and I had fun trying to find a sports bra in my size (top tip – if you think you’ll need sports underwear and you’re more than a C cup in the UK, take it with you!). We went to a dumpling place for lunch that had had a queue out the door the night before. I got to try the heavenly combination of fried dumplings filled with dangmyeon) sweet potato noodles. Seriously, they were what my food dreams are made of.

Dumplings original

These delicious dumplings marked the end of my time in Jeonju and with my South Korean hosts. They’d done an amazing job showing me as much Korean culture as they could in the five days I spent with them. I ate so much delicious food, probably more sea food than I’d eaten in my entire life until that point and to be honest, I’m still not completely sure what everything I ate was!

I fulfilled a long-held wish to eat proper Korean bibimbap and visit a bamboo forest. Now it was time to hop on a train back to Seoul – I caught a slower train this time which took 3 1/2 hours from Jeonju to Seoul but was slightly cheaper at 17,600₩. After some adventures involving failed wifi and Ichon subway station’s 6 exits (seriously, get a Korean phone sim if you’re visiting, it’s so worth it) I managed to meet up with my friend in Seoul. This is where I’ll end this week as the next item on my itinerary was Boryeong Mud Festival. And a day that crazy deserves a whole post to itself.

Mokpo, Damyang and the start of South Korean adventures

South Korea has been on my travel list for so long it was in danger of becoming a permanent fixture. I had a South Korean friend at school who has been trying to get me to visit her every summer since we left. Finally, this year, I got my arse in gear and flew over to the Korean Peninsula. I arrived in Seoul super late on the night of the 10th and crashed with another friend who’s based in the city before heading down to Mokpo on the 11th.

Mokpo is a port city way down in the south-west of South Korea. If you’re in Korea for a longer trip, I’d definitely recommend taking the time to head out of Seoul and explore the rest of the country. By getting the train down to Mokpo, I got to see how amazingly green a place it is (this coming from a girl who grew up in England’s green and pleasant land!) with the landscape being 70% mountains. It’s easy to see why hiking is such a big deal here. I caught an express train which took 2 and a half hours and cost 52700W (around £35 as of July 2016). This train also had free wifi. I mean, what else would you expect from a country that’s a world leader in internet connectivity?

Meditation - Rising Islandby Kim-Hyung-Joon

Meditation – Rising Island by Kim-Hyung-Joon

Once I arrived in Mokpo I was met at the station by my friend and her mum who instantly whisked me off to see Yudalsan, the resident mountain. There are hiking trails up it but we decided to visit the sculpture park instead as it was raining on and off. A quick aside – I have a track record for booking holidays during the worst weather a place had to offer. I didn’t disappoint with South Korea, arriving during monsoon season. But back to the sculpture park! It has a mixture of sculptures from Korean and international artists and was the first sculpture park in Korea. Behind it is a beautiful Buddhist temple. You also get some good views over Mokpo from this part of the mountain.

After this we headed back to my friend’s house for dinner, going via the hospital where her dad works as an osteopath after I’d mentioned that my ankles were sore (Korean hospitality extends to free x-rays I guess?) My hosts were determined that I get a taste of real Korean food and so we had japchae (sweet potato noodles called dangmyeon with beef and squid), galbijjim (steamed beef rib), kkaennip-kimchi (sesame kimchi) and mooli. Dangmyeon would out to be my new favourite food ever and I’m going to miss those little noodles so much!

I could honestly write several posts devoted solely to the food I’ve had on this trip. It’s my first time to Asia at all, and while you can get Korean, Thai, Vietnamese and pretty much anything you could want to eat back home in the UK, nothing prepares you for the food culture out there. In my whole 10 day trip I don’t think I ate a single bad meal. I ate plenty where I had no idea what I was eating (more on that later) but I never left a table hungry.

Shinan shipwreck

Shinan shipwreck

My second day in Mokpo was fairly laidback as I was still trying to sort out my sleep pattern. In the afternoon we visited the National Maritime Museum, which showcases Korea’s shipping history and has a dramatically curated exhibition on the Shinan shipwreck. This was discovered in the 1970s and kick started Korean underwater archaeology. They also had a completely bizarre animation explaining this to kids. I thought it was just because there was no English translation for me to follow but my friend said it was bonkers even if you understood Korean!

That night I was taken out for hanjungsik which is a Korean banquet of deliciousness. It’s a traditional meal with lots of courses, each of which is in turn made up of lots of smaller dishes. I can’t list everything we ate because then I’d be straying into listicle territory (50 tastiest things you should eat in Mokpo!) but some highlights were: octopus, abalone (which my friend translated appetisingly as sea ear just as I’d put it in my mouth), some very angry fish, more japchae and yakbap which is sweet sticky rice with chestnuts and honey.

Angry fish

Angry fish

After dinner we walked along the seafront. One of the landmarks of Mokpo is Gatbawi or as I insisted on calling it, Hat Rock. It’s supposed to look like a man wearing a traditional Korean hat called a Gat. I couldn’t really see it but perhaps that’s just me! I’ll let you be the judge. It was a beautiful place to watch the sunset over the Yellow Sea.

Damyang

On my third day in Mokpo we headed further inland to do a tour of Damyang and its surrounding area. We took a bus to Gwangju. This was somewhere I wanted to spend more time in as it’s a pivotal place in modern Korean history – it was here at pro-democracy protests in May 1980 that 165 students and protestors were killed by the military. If you’re interested in finding out more Human Acts by Han Kang is a heartbreaking exploration of what happened. We didn’t spend long in Gwangju but if I return to South Korea it’s somewhere I want to explore.

This time, we got on a tour bus heading out to Damyang. It was run by Kumho buslines and it ended up just being the 3 of us! The tour was in Korean but our driver made sure that I had information about everywhere we were going in English. Our tour guide talked A LOT but as it was all in Korean, I was able to zone out when she was lecturing my friends! My poor friend tried to translate at first but she simply couldn’t keep up.

Our first stop was Soswaewon Garden, which is a typical Korean garden from the middle Joseon Dynasty (it was built between 1520 and 1530). It’s very different to an English formal garden. If you look at our famous examples (Chatsworth, Kew) they’re all about the landscaping, how humans can assert their control and regimented order over nature. Don’t get me wrong, they’re still incredibly beautiful. But Soswaewon felt a lot more organic, as if the buildings had been built to fit the landscape rather the other way around. There was a moment here that captured my experience of Korea as a country. While we were looking around there was a woman sat in one of the hanoks, a traditional Korean building, using her smartphone. For me, this kind of perfectly summed up the respect and pride for traditional culture as well as an intense rate of innovation that I’d noticed since arriving in Korea. It’s a place where you can get free wifi pretty much anywhere (if you have a Korean phone contract) and where the latest craze is for wearing hanbok, traditional clothing, to take selfies of yourself visiting historical sites – more on this in my post about Jeonju.Korea

Next we went on to Sigyeongjeong Pavilion. This was another traditional hanok and apparently it’s been a place of inspiration for many famous Korean poets. Unfortunately our guide talked non-stop for around half an hour and wouldn’t let my friend translate at all for me! So I can’t give much more information than that.

So much food, so little time

So much food, so little time

Juknokwon Bamboo Forest was next on our agenda but first it was time for lunch. Damyang is famous for tteokgalbi which are beef patties (think burgers but without the bun) and for rice steamed inside a piece of bamboo. You get to take the bamboo with you afterwards which was a nice moment of this particular meal. Needless to say it was all delicious! The day had started to heat up and so we headed into the bamboo forest itself to get some shade. Now, I don’t know how accurate this is (any biologists reading this, please feel free to correct me) but apparently the reason it’s cooler around bamboo is because of how efficient it is at photosynthesis. Whatever the reason, it was a great place to hide from the sun. Being a complete newbie to Asia, I had no idea bamboo grew so tall! We spent a relaxing hour wandering around and trying out all the bamboo furniture that was dotted around in various clearings.

Juknokwon Bamboo Forest

Juknokwon Bamboo Forest

There were more trees to follow for us as we headed next to Metasequoia Road which has been officially designated one of South Korea’s most beautiful roads by the Korea Forest Service. The trees were planted in the 70s when the Ministry of Internal Affairs declared the road a boulevard. Again, it was another cool place (in both senses of the word) to spend some time.

Here’s where our day took a decidedly more surreal turn. We were dropped off at Old Gokseong Station and Railway Village. This turned out to be an almost entirely empty theme park. Once we’d got through the ticket office we didn’t see any staff. Most of the attractions were open but no one seemed to be in charge of them. There was your stereotypical creepy carousel and ferris wheel, turning with no one on them or running them. There was a completely empty children’s train museum where we tried on tiny train costumes and could run around a fake track. My personal favourite, however, was the goblin themed optical illusion building. No one else was in there apart from me and my friends. I think we were a little over the target age by at least a decade and a half but we had a blast!

The entrance to the theme park

The entrance to the theme park

The bizarre end to our trip would continue when we got back to Mokpo. We went out for kalguksu which is soup (in this case manila calm soup) and dumplings. I love dumplings. When I went to Poland I pretty much lived off pierogi for five days. I’d do a dumpling tour of the world if I could afford it. So safe to say I was satisfied with this dinner. The evening turned bizarre though when we went for another walk by the sea. I was introduced to Mokpo’s dancing fountain. This is a bit out from the shore and happens every night. There’s a fountain and lasers all of which is timed to fit with music. When we saw it, the song playing was Gangnam Style. Never did I think I would be standing in a city in South Korea watching an ocean light show to K-Pop’s biggest western hit.

A Mokpo sunset

A Mokpo sunset

This seems like a good place to stop for this week. I couldn’t possibly fit my whole trip into a single post, not without making it into an essay. Next up I’ll be talking about my stay in Jeonju Hanok Village which was awesome and surreal in a very different way to the first few days of my trip. And of course, there’ll be even more about the food I ate!

The Edinburgh of the South: Dunedin, New Zealand

My second week in New Zealand was spent down in Dunedin. This is a city in the south of New Zealand’s South Island. It’s pronounced DONE-E-DEN rather than the rather more Tolkienesque DOON-E-DINE that I was expecting. I was staying with a friend who was on an exchange to the University of Otago which is apparently infamous throughout the country as the party uni. All the Kiwis I met told me to watch out for couch burning when I was down there – apparently this is a frequent occurrence during the street parties on the main student road, Castle Street. Once I’d wrapped my head around the fact that it would be getting colder the further south I went, I bundled myself up and got on a plane.

View of Dunedin from Signal Hill

View of Dunedin from Signal Hill

History of Dunedin

Dunedin was the largest New Zealand city in terms of territorial land area until Auckland overtook it at the end of 2010. It was also the largest by population until 1990. Tertiary (so university level) education is one of its most important economic activities and, like Norwich where I went to university, it is a UNESCO City of Literature. Pretty awesome, huh! There’s archeological evidence showing that the Maori occupation of Dunedin dates to around the same time New Zealand as a whole was settled by them between 1250-1300 AD. Settlement went in cycles, with evidence showing that there were Maori settled in what is now central Dunedin as late as 1785.

European settlement was kickstarted by sealers in 1810 but there was a long running conflict between them and the local Maori (known as the Sealers’ War). Permanent European occupation of the area began in 1831 when a whaling station was set up on the Otago Harbour. In a story that has become distressingly familiar, epidemics ravaged the Maori population. Yay European settlement…

Dunedin itself was founded at the head of Otago Harbour in 1848 by The Lay Association of the Free Church of Scotland. It’s name in fact comes from Dùn Èideann, the Gaelic name for Edinburgh. It’s not known as the Edinburgh of the South for nothing! I have family in Scotland and it was slightly surreal driving around Dunedin and seeing signs for Invercargill, Balclutha and other incredibly Scottish sounding places. Almost as odd as being able to catch a train to Liverpool from Sydney!

The Catlins

Nugget Point Lighthouse

Nugget Point Lighthouse

For my first day in Dunedin we actually headed even further south to Nugget Point in the Catlins. This is an area, sometimes known as the Catlins Coast, in the south east of the Island and it is stunning. It’s pretty sparsely populated these days and is known for its scenery and coastal walks. We visited Nugget Point and its famous lighthouse. It was here that I hit over 19,000km (nearly 12,000 miles) away from home. I did have to text my parents about that one! The Catlins has been notoriously dangerous for shipping and Nugget Point Lighthouse was first constructed in 1870 to attempt to reduce the number of shipwrecks in the area. It’s been fully automated since 1989 and is now controlled from a room in Wellington nearly 700km away. I can’t imagine what it must have been like living up there when there was a lighthouse keeper. In 1901 Walter Hutton Champion and his wife Alice had this job. You’d have to hope you got along with the one person you were out there with!

After Nugget Point, which is a beautiful area of coastline, we headed inland to Purakaunui Falls. These are an iconic image of the Catlins, a three tiered cascade waterfall that once featured on a New Zealand postage stamp back in the 1970s. That evening my friend drove us up Signal Hill to watch the sunset over Dunedin. There’s a big monument up there to the first European settlers, very Scottish with their tartan shawls and stoic faces. All Victorian Europeans had suitably stoic faces for statues.

Street Art Trail

First Church of Otago

First Church of Otago

Something else that Dunedin is famous for is its street art. It was one of the first places in New Zealand to have a public art gallery and its artistic history has been continued with the Street Art trail (you can find more info about it here). I spent a happy day traipsing around the city trying to find all of the pieces on the list: I think I got about 11 of them which wasn’t bad going for one mornings effort. I had lunch in Vogel St Kitchen (a name which made me think of the Vogons and their terrible poetry in Hitchhikers) where they had an awesome array of tasty treats and, for an English girl abroad this was heaven, a great selection of teas. In the afternoon I went to check out the First Church of Otago. This was opened in 1873, only 25 years after the founding of Dunedin. The land that the church is built on was cleared by convicts, who had to lower the hill it stands on by 40 feet using just picks and shovels. That evening we went to Jizo Japanese Cafe and Bar. The place was rammed, which is always a good sign for a restaurant as far as I’m concerned! I had a very tasty chicken katsu but their sushi also looked gorgeous.

I can’t make much more in the way of recommendations for Dunedin as I was only there for four days in total but some of my friends who spent a year studying there have suggested a few places. In terms of eateries, Plato is apparently a great fish restaurant. As for things to do in the city, the Saturday farmer’s markets are usually great, with musicians scattered about amongst the stalls. If music or poetry is your thing, Dog with Two Tails is the place to be. And the historic Dunedin Public Art Gallery always has something interesting going on.

Beaches

Tunnel Beach

Tunnel Beach

Dunedin also has a tonne of beaches to check out. I made it to Tunnel Beach and St Kilda’s in my four days. Tunnel Beach is accessed by, you guessed it, a tunnel which was apparently built by a father so that his daughter could get down to the beach more easily. She apparently drowned soon afterwards. On a more cheerful note, St Kilda’s is gorgeous, even if the evening we went it was incredibly windy. My friend also recommends Sandfly Bay and Aramoana.

St Kilda Beach (photo credits Imogen Simmonds)

St Kilda Beach (photo credits Imogen Simmonds)

St Kilda’s was the last place I visited before my epic 50 journey back to the UK. I came back via Wellington, Sydney and Dubai and landed back at Heathrow more than a little exhausted! New Zealand is a beautiful country. I discovered a love for the outdoors over there that has driven me to go exploring around Oxford. There’s something about travelling as far away as it is possible to be that makes you appreciate your own city.

 

Beth Saward

 

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