Jeju

If you look on a map of Korea, you will find a small speck of an island to the southwest of the peninsula.  This island is known as Jeju-do and it is commonly known as the “Hawaii of Korea.” After going to the island myself I can say that it is no small island as you would expect from the map.  It takes around 6 hours to drive a car around the circumference of the island and upon arriving, I found out that the island is about three times larger than Seoul! Covered in mountains, volcanic craters, and beautiful beaches, there is no shortage of things to do in Jeju.  Surprisingly, it was impossible to do everything on my to-do list in three days, but I managed to check off most of the top site-seeing destinations.

Before my planned return home this coming August, Jeju was the last place that I wanted to visit.  Having a long weekend plus the fact that my mom was coming to visit me for the second time gave me a perfect opportunity to go.

May is probably the best time to visit Jeju.  Although you can’t necessarily swim at the beaches, the weather is the perfect temperature and it is at the start of peak season so it’s much less crowded.  I chose to stay in a small guesthouse in the southern part of the island called Seogwipo.  This area is filled with the most luxurious hotels including the Grand Hyatt, but it’s also not too far away from a small and charming guesthouse called Tae Gong Gak Guesthouse.  As oppose to spending $300-$400 per night at one of the high end hotels I only paid around $80 per night for my mom and me.  The guesthouse is in walking distance from the two gorgeous waterfalls, Jeongbang and Cheonjiyeon and a short bus ride to Jungmun beach area, which includes famous rock formations that are the result of past volcanic activity on the island.

View from the rooftop of Tae Gong Gak Guesthouse

With three short days on the island we jam-packed our days with site-seeing.  This was no relaxing weekend on the beach~ Sorry Mom! On the first day we got familiar with the southern part of the island.  We started our day in Jeju with a traditional lunch of pork and fried fish along with some makgoli (rice wine).

Traditional Jeju Meal

After eating a nice meal upon arriving on the island we went for a short walk to the Jeongbang waterfall.  The sun was strong that day and the temperature was close to 80 degrees so it was nice to feel the spray from the waterfall.

Jeongbang Waterfall

Then we set out to the central area of Seogwipo near the International convention center. We followed the coastline and walked for almost two hours through beautiful parks along the coast.  While walking we were able to see the famous rock formations.

Walking through the parks along the coast of Seogwipo

Eventually we made it to Jungmun beach, which is a popular beach along the southern coast.

Jungmun Beach

We ended up having dinner at a seafood buffet.  It wasn’t cheap, but after getting our fill of king crab, sushi, raw fish, along with many other varieties of food, I think we got our money’s worth.

On the second day we were up early and on a bus to the eastern part of the island to see Seongsong Ilchulbong (Sunrise Peak).  Of course we didn’t wake up before sunrise to go, which is supposed to be quite spectacular.  We had beautiful weather to hike up to the top and see a great view of Jeju island, the coast, and the top of the crater.

Seongsan Ilchulbong (Sunrise Peak)

View from Sunrise Peak

Top of Sunrise Peak overlooking the Crater

Speed boat ride around Sunrise Peak

Women of the Sea

After descending from the peak we ate some snacks and enjoyed a short speed boat ride around the other side of the crater.  We were lucky enough to catch the “women of the sea” diving show.  Jeju is famous for its old Korean women who dive into the ocean and hold their breath for up to ten minutes without any oxygen tanks.  The tradition comes from the time when fishing was dependent on these women divers.  To this day there are still divers who continue to practice this skill.

The second half of the day was spent at Udo, a small island about a ten minute ferry from the northeastern part of Jeju.  This island is mostly famous for its coral sand beach.  The white color of the beach makes for a nice contrast against the black volcanic rocks next to the teal blue water.  Although uncomfortable to walk barefoot on, it is a beautiful beach.  We ended up riding bikes around the island for a short time.  You can ride a bike around the whole island within one hour.  There is also the option of renting ATVs and motor bikes.

Coral Sand Beach ~ Udo

After getting to the hotel after a long day I was ready for bed, but when the guesthouse owner told us about the night view of the Cheonjiyeon waterfall we realized our day wasn’t over yet.  The Cheonjiyeon waterfall is open until 10 at night.  We arrived just in time to get a nice view of the waterfall all lit up.  It was worth the 10 minute walk, but that 10 minute walk home seemed like a strenuous hike after our full day of walking.

Cheonjiyeon Waterfall

The last day in Jeju was the hardest because we had to pick one or two more things to do before heading to the airport.  We had a full day since the flight wasn’t until after nine at night, but there were so many choices of things to do it was so hard to choose! In the end we had to settle on doing what was most convenient.  I really wanted to hike a bit around Hallasan (Korea’s highest mountain) or see one of the beautiful beaches on the west coast.  Instead, since the best option was to leave our luggage at the airport while siteseeing, we decided to visit the Manjanggul Caves.  They were fairly close to the airport.  so after dropping our stuff off at the airport we took a bus to the cave entrance.  At the bus stop we had to walk an unanticipated 20 minutes to get to the caves.  By the time we got there we were hungry for lunch.  We ate at a beautiful park outside the caves.  The walk in and out of the caves took almost an hour.  I was surprised at the temperature difference once inside the cave.  Unprepared as we were wearing sandals that day, we were lucky enough to run into one of the workers who helped get us some fashionable rubber shoes to help us walk through the rocky and wet terrain of the cave.

On our way back to the airport we stopped at Samyang Black Sand Beach.  This beach is interesting because the sand is very fine and soft and as the name suggests, black.  One of the cool things about Jeju is that each beach is so different in terms of the sand.  I’m sure in the summer these beaches are packed with people, but in May they are quite calm and peaceful.

Samyang Black Sand Beach

Our last stop was at the Jeju traditional 5 day market.  There are several of these around Jeju and they only happen every 5 days.  Fortunately the market right next to the airport was open on our last day.  We walked around to take in the feel of an authentic Korean market.  Surrounded by people selling everything from oranges and kimchi to socks and shoes it can be a bit overwhelming.  We snacked on some traditional treats and finally were able to sample the infamous Jeju orange.  I ended up buying a whole crate of Hallabongs (orange and mandarin mix) to be shipped right to my apartment.  I thought it would be cool to buy some real Jeju oranges to bring back to Seoul and share them with my co-workers and friends.

5 Day Market

I was sad to leave the island, but happy to come back with memories of the island and spending time with my mom.  Three days was not enough.  If I ever have another opportunity, I won’t hesitate to go back to Jeju.

Day 2: Conquering the Great Wall

Mutianyu section of The Great Wall

The Great Wall of China.   One of the great wonders of the world or just a really long, boring, pointless wall? Whatever your take is on The Great Wall, having seen it with my own eyes I can say that it is truly a magnificent sight and there is a reason it is named one of the great wonders of the world.   Since I was young, I imagined China as an exotic and faraway place.  To me, it was a place I would never have the chance to see; it only existed in movies and pictures in the textbooks.  Traveling to China was a faraway dream for me, but after coming to Korea I knew my dream of going to China was closer to becoming a reality.  Although I have traveled to many exotic and beautiful countries in Asia, China had remained number one on my list of places to go.  My last chance to go was this past February.  I never imagined that I would make it to Beijing, nonetheless be traveling alone, and in the winter, but knowing that another chance might not come for a while, I made it happen.  Finally making it to the Great Wall was symbolic of me achieving a lifelong goal.  Two years ago I would have never in my wildest dreams predicted that I would have made it this far in the world and in my own life.  The traveling I have done has helped me gain confidence and it has changed my outlook on life.  Making it to the Great Wall was the paramount point in my journey to Asia where everything came full circle for me.  Standing on the Great Wall, I felt like I had overcome many fears and insecurities in my life in order to make my dreams a reality.

On the second day of my trip to Beijing I booked a tour through my hostel to see the Mutianyu section of the Wall.  I chose this section for a couple reasons.  First, this section is not the most touristy, but it’s also not the most rugged section either.  It’s a nice balance between touristy and authentic. The location is very far from anything commercialized (although strangely enough there is a Subway sandwich shop at the base of the entrance), which makes it inconvenient for tour groups to bring many visitors.  There are no “tourist traps” along the way.  The part that makes it the most touristy are the chair lifts, cable car, and toboggan slide. On this section there are 22 watchtowers.  I opted to ride the 5 minute chairlift from watch towers 1-6.  Then I walked for about 2 hours to get to watchtower # 22 and it took me an hour to walk back to the chair lifts where I took a 5 minute toboggan slide down.  There is also an option to take a cable car further, but either way you are doing a lot of walking.  At the end of the section you have to walk up an extremely steep set of stairs.  Although the weather was freezing I kept nice and warm from all of the walking up and down the hilly terrain of the Wall. The Great Wall was everything I had hoped it would be and more.  Because of the proximity of the Wall to Beijing City (about 2 hours) plus the ridiculous traffic (add another hour), you need an entire day to see the Wall.  My day began at 7:30 a.m. and ended at 6:00 p.m. After that I was ready to call it a day. If I ever have another chance to go again in the future I would love to see it in the spring.  The Wall in the winter was very peaceful.  Most times I heard nothing else but the sound of the wind.  It was such a good feeling to be standing on something built hundreds of years ago and to go back in time to picture what it must have been like to build such a Great Wall.

Chair lift and first view of the Wall

Chair lift and first view of the Wall

Great Wall Toboggan Slide

Great Wall Tobaggan Slide

Winter in Beijing

Three days in Beijing.  Alone.  In 30 degree weather. Definitely not words that describe the ideal getaway and I can say for sure that my time in Beijing was anything but a vacation.  However, my number one goal: to get to the Great Wall was what I planned to accomplish and anything else I could get done in 3 days would be a bonus.  Needing at least 6 months left on your Korean visa to get a Chinese tourist visa plus the fact that I had vacation time in February was what forced me to head to Beijing in the middle of winter.  Although I have to say if you want to “beat the crowds” winter is the time to go.  Since Beijing is one of the highest populated cities in the world you can never “beat the crowds.” But if you want to see the sights and take good pictures on the Wall then winter is the best.  My advice for you is to prepare for the cold and dress in layers.

My two first impressions of Beijing were, “Wow.  I have never seen such smoggy air in my life,” and “Holy crap! I have never seen so many people in my life.” And that’s coming from someone who has lived in a smoggy city with 9 million people in it for the past year and a half. After a three hour flight from Hong Kong, I landed in Peking International Airport and took a convenient and cheap airport express train to the center of Beijing.  Zooming out of the airport I noticed the dry and barren landscape of China combined with air so thick that it had a yellow tinge to it.  I had a subway map, Lonely planet, and directions to my hostel in hand and ready to find my way through the city.  I found the subway to be very convenient and a Godsend, since it is literally the only thing where English is written and spoken in all of Beijing.  However, lugging a suitcase through a couple transfers in the subway was not fun.  Escalators in the subways were hard to come by.  Unfortunately, my heavy winter clothes couldn’t fit in a backpack so I was stuck with a suitcase.  My advice, unless you want to spend 4x the price (which is still cheap) and taxi it, try to fit everything into a backpack so you can easily move through the subway.

I made it to Happy Dragon Hostel safely.  There were a couple seconds where I thought I might have a panic attack since the directions to the hostel were missing one turn. After walking up and down the same street two times and asking two people for directions (pointless) I took a deep breath, decided to turn down a few side streets and eventually found it. I originally booked a dorm style room (equivalent of $5 USD per night) but at the last minute upgraded to the private ($25 USD per night).  It was worth it.  I had my own bathroom and TV (no English stations though), heater, and of course, privacy.  I took a two hour nap and decided that despite the cold I better get out of my room and explore a bit because my time was very limited.  The first night I managed to walk to two famous night markets. About a 15 minute walk from my hostel I found the famous Donghuamen night market and the Wangfujing snack market.  These markets  are where you can sample anything from chicken on a stick to centipedes on a stick.  You can take a look at some of the pictures I took and see for yourself.

I can’t say I was daring enough to try these foods. I wish I was more adventurous.  One of the reasons why traveling alone in Beijing wasn’t that much fun was that I didn’t have anyone to try any of these crazy foods with.  With a tour of the Great Wall scheduled for the next day I wasn’t about to risk eating anything too crazy and be sick with food poisoning. The chicken, fruit, and dumplings were good enough for me.

What You Can Do With 5 Days in Hong Kong

Hong Kong was not originally on my top 5 places to see in the world, but after spending five days there, I wouldn’t hesitate to put it on my top 5 favorite cities in the world. The geography of Hong Kong is separated into two main parts: a mainland peninsula off of China and Hong Kong Island, but it also consists of about 200 smaller islands including the most popular islands of Lantau  and Cheung Chau.  Because of its compact size and the convenience of its transportation system, you could see pretty much everything you want and more in just five days.

Stepping off the plane at Hong Kong airport in late afternoon, I took a double decker bus into the central area of the city to find my hostel.  I was already surprised at how easily I had found the right bus and how everything was clearly labeled in English.  As I arrived into the city, the sun went down and my senses were stimulated from the bright lights surrounding me and the hustle and bustle of the masses of people on the street.  Getting off of the bus I tried to take in the atmosphere and get my bearings.  Although the weather wasn’t too warm, it was nice to be able to walk outside without a winter coat.

The first two nights I stayed in a popular guesthouse for budget travelers called Hong Kong Hostel on Hong Kong Island. It was located right in the central area, which made it very easy to get to the subway station and the major nightlife attractions.  On Hong Kong Island I think the top must-sees are the view from Victoria Peak, Hong Kong park as well as some other parks, and the nightlife of Soho and and Lan Kwai Fong.  If you have time, the southern coast of Hong Kong Island is also quite beautiful.

The first night on the island I went over to Lan Kwai Fong area and walked around to check out the nightlife. Lonely Planet book in hand, I tried to find a good place to eat.  Most of the restaurants in central area are really pricey and fancy so I settled on a more low-end, but still recommended restaurant for a fried noodles dish. The nightlife atmosphere of this area was really exciting.  There were bars and restaurants lined up on most streets and most people were standing outside mingling and drinking with each other on outdoor patios before heading onto the next spot.  One of the major attractions to this area is the mid-levels escalator. This escalator is actually the longest covered escalator in the world.  Since the streets are so hilly the escalator is really helpful. There are entrances and exits to the escalator on each street that it passes.  Be prepared to walk back down though because from 10:30 a.m. until midnight the escalator only goes up.

Day 2 on Hong Kong Island was packed with site seeing.  I started at the south of the island and checked out Repulse Bay and Aberdeen Harbor.  Repulse Bay is a small, but picturesque beach. Having gone in the off-season of February I was able to see a quiet and empty beach, but I’m sure in high season it is packed with people.

Repulse Bay

Aberdeen Harbor is interesting because you can see the locals who are living on houseboats and selling things out of their boats.  I was there early in the day so I missed the action of the floating markets.  Try to go in the afternoon or late evening.

Aberdeen Harbor

During the afternoon I walked to all of the main parks including Hong Kong Park and Hong Kong botanical gardens. Right before sunset I took the tram up to Victoria Peak to catch a daytime and nighttime view of the city.  That was probably the highlight of the island.  After that day I was pretty much exhausted and couldn’t wait to relax.

View from Victoria Peak

The tram up to Victoria Peak

On Day 3 I said goodbye to HK Island and headed over to Lantau Island.  I planned on spending one night on the island.  Not exactly sure of the location of my hotel, I took the subway to Lantau, which I found out meant I had to take a 45 min. bus to my hotel from the station.  Then, arriving at my hotel I realized I was right next to the ferry dock which has 30 minute ferries to HK island.  You live and you learn. Luckily I was able to take the ferry over to the Kowloon peninsula the following day. My hotel was right on the beach and because it was off-season I was able to get a cheap room. It was nice to have one night away from the craziness of the city.

Beach outside my hotel

The main attraction on Lantau Island is the giant Buddha statue. I had a nice vegetarian meal at the Po Lin Monastery at the base of the Giant Buddha and then I spent some time walking around the trails around the area.  Lantau Island is very mountainous so bring your hiking boots because there are some really nice hiking spots!

After a nice relaxing time on the island I took the ferry to the Kowloon Peninsula for my last leg of travels in Kowloon.  I stayed at an up-scale hostel here called Hop Inn.  It was very clean and I had my own private room. I spent a little more money but after staying in dorms and sharing bathrooms sometimes it’s nice to have your own space at the end of the day. I spent the day walking up the main street, Nathan Road.  On this street you can find interesting parks and traditional markets.  There is a jade market, a flower market, and even a bird market! The bird market was the most unusual thing I saw.  Many older Chinese people walk around with small birds in cages and often seem to enjoy watching birds.  The bird market is a street lined with cages of thousands of birds. It was definitely unlike anything I had seen before.

Bird Market

Kowloon Park

I came back to my hostel for a nap before heading to the harbor to see the famous laser light show.  The laser light show is at 8 p.m. every night on the Avenue of the Stars.  From Kowloon you can see the cityscape of HK island.  They choreograph the lights on the building to music and incorporate laser lights coming from the tops of the buildings to create a performance.  It’s not the most spectacular thing you could ever see, but I would say it’s a must-see in HK.

The last thing on my agenda was the Temple Street night market.  This night market is good for buying souvenirs and sampling some Chinese cuisine. After another non-stop walking and site-seeing I was exhausted.

On my last day in HK I decided to take the hour ferry over to Macau.  Macau is an island mostly known for its casinos, but it also has some interesting Portuguese architecture because until recently this island belonged to Portugal.  I don’t gamble so I didn’t step foot into any of the casinos; however, I spent a few hours walking around and taking pictures of the Ruins of St. Paul’s and the Guia Fortress. Macau isn’t somewhere I would ever go back, but at least I can check it off of my list.

Ruins of St. Paul's

The diversity of the people in HK, the beauty of its mountains and harbors, and the excitement of the nightlife are what make Hong Kong a great place to visit. Although it is a small place, there are more than enough things to do there.  A week is a perfect amount of time to see HK. It’s enough time to see everything and also just enough to leave you wanting more. I hope to have the chance to go back someday.