The hobbit’s journey to Middle Earth

1 07 2017

Growing up reading JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Ring, my childhood fantasy was to act as a hobbit and roaming through my make-belief middle earth (aka my house) carrying the burden of the ring (yes my toy ring became “the ring” lol). When I grew older and the replica of the ring became available in the market all thanks to the great success of the LOR movie, of course I did not fail to get one. So since I have already made my way to the south island, I made it a point to squeeze into my plan a trip to the north to visit my “hometown” Hobbiton. 

The flight from Queenstown to Auckland is no less spectacular. Flying over Mt Cook and the majestic snow mountains, once the plane flew across the sea separating the north and south islands, the whole landscape changed. Unlike the South Island with magnificent mountains, the north island’s green rolling hills are indeed a sharp contrast. 


Known as “the city of sails”, Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city with its iconic waterfront, the Harbour bridge and skyline is often regarded as one of the best places in the world to live. It’s not hard to see why. The beautiful city will satisfy the needs of a “city person” with ample nice restaurants, shopping and other “city life” while a short drive out will take one to the scenic sights. 



From Auckland, it was a 2 hours drive up north to Hobbiton. No words can describe how excited I was to finally stepped foot in The Shire and into my hobbit hole. During the tour around Hobbiton, the guide explained how relativity is used cleverly to give viewers the fallacy that the wizard is much taller than the small hobbit. I was hopping around from one hobbit hole to the other, snapping pictures non-stop as if I was a little hobbit (and I did carry the ring with me lol). Towards the end of the tour, we ended at Green Dragon Inn and have the hobbit’s favourite ginger beer 🙂


From Hobbiton, we drove up to Rotorua, a Volcanic zone famous for its dramatic geothermal character. Te Puia is a must see in Rotorua with the iconic Pohutu Geyser which erupts up to 20 times a day. You can smell the faint scent of sulphur as you approach. I love the colourful Wai-O-Tapu with its beautiful Artist’s Palette and Champagne Pool. Do say hi to Lady Knox Geyser which erupts (though induced) numerous times a day. 


For those who want to witness the destructive power of the volcanoes, head to The Buried Village of Te Wairoa where you can see the houses buried by a volcanic eruption. The volcanic soil is so fertile that vegetation is now growing on the soil, making the area looks really green and hard to visualise that the whole excavated site was buried by the 1886 Mount Tarawera eruption. If you fancy a mud bath, head to Hell’s Gate which has the largest hot waterfall in the Southern Hemisphere and the only geothermal mud baths in New Zealand.

Rotorua is also the place where you can experience the Maori culture so do drop by the Maori Village to learn more.


An eventful (or actually scary) incident happened while we were in Rotorua. As the weather was very cooling, our hotel decided to open all the windows in our room to air the room. However being city girls, it never occurred to us that we should not leave the lights on with the windows opened before we go out for dinner. So when we came back, our room was filled with insects all over the floor, ceiling and bathroom. It took quite a while for the hotel to clean up the mess. Super embarrassing….

Though it was a short trip to the north island, it was well worth it and I am surely planning another trip back to visit the rest of this beautiful country.

Tips:

– Tour of Hobbiton is by guided tour only. To avoid having to wait hours for the tour, it is advisable to book your ticket beforehand.

– Head to Auckland’s Harbour Bridge for one of the best view of the city’s skyline.

– Unlike the South Island, the North Island landscape is more of rolling hills and hence the roads are mostly straight roads. However, travelling from one destination to another will still take time given the distance and not forgetting that there will be nice scenery along the way that you will want to stop along the way. This is New Zealand after all so do give yourself ample of time.

– Why not explore the South Island as well? See my blog South Island

Food:

Auckland:

– The Crab Shack: This will make crab lovers happy. Before the meal, why not had a drink at its bar?

– Ortolana: I love this restaurant. Had a wonderful brunch here. Food quality is good with good coffee.



Rotorua:

– Ambrosia: Nice restaurant in Rotorua to have a relaxing dinner.

– Fat Dog cafe: A vibrant cafe for a nice brunch or lunch.

– Wai-O-Tapu Cafe: Nothing fancy but good place for a simple lunch.





Saying Kimchi in Seoul!

5 04 2014

As a huge fan of Korean dramas, Seoul has always been one of my favourite cities. It will be cool if I can ice skate at Namsam park like what was shown in Boys over Flowers, sit at the doorsteps of the old house in Personal Taste just like the lead actor and actress, stroll in Gyeongbogung to see the famous lake where the crown princess drowned in Rooftop Prince, etc. Indeed, with the popularity of the Korean dramas worldwide, many fans like me have embarked on some form of “pilgrimage” to Korea. I made my first trip to kimchi-land 4 years ago back in spring of 2010 and was extremely excited when I had the opportunity to be back again in Seoul 4 years later, this time during winter.

There are tons of stuff to see, do, shop and eat in Seoul and so I am going to share some recommendations on the top things to do to maximise your limited time in Seoul (I realized that I was always racing against time in this city).

 

1) Gyeongbokgung palace and surroundings

Gyeongbokgung

This is the main palace in Seoul and it’s also where “Rooftop Prince” was filmed. Ticket costs KRW 3,000. There’s some changing of guards ceremony I think 3 times a day at 11am, 2pm and 4pm at the main gate. For those who like to take nice photos or would like to enjoy some peace away from the tour group crowds, I will recommend that you visit at 4pm to view the changing of guards (it is at the main gate so no tickets needed) and then proceed to visit the palace grounds. The palace closes at 5pm during November to February, 5pm from March to May and 6.30pm from June to October. Typically, there will be few visitors by close to the closing time and you can be able to enjoy the serenity of the palace and take nice photos without other tourists in them 🙂

Just opposite the Gyeonbokgung main gate is the Gyeonghwamum square which has the statutes of King Sejong the Great and Admiral Yi Sun-shin. A walk further down Cheonggye Plaza which is where Cheonggyecheon (aka the Cheonggye steam) starts. I would suggest visiting this area after seeing Gyeongbokgung and you could spend your evening strolling along the Cheonggyecheon.

Subway: Gyeongbokgung train station, exit 5

 

2) Changdeokgung palace, Bukchon Hannok Korean Village and Insa-dong

Cheonggokgung

Also known as the Eastern Palace, Changdeokgung is just a subway stop away from Gyeongbokgung. This palace is an UNESCO world culture heritage site, famous for its perfect harmony between nature and artificiality. There are numerous online discussions on whether to visit Gyeongbokgung or Changdeokgung. If you have the time, it will be great to visit both. However, make sure that you add on the Secret Garden tour (you are not allowed inside unless you join the tour) when you visit Changdeokgung. If you only have limited time, I would suggest Gyeongbokgung for most of the year unless you are there during autumn where Changdeokgung ‘s secret garden would be beautiful.

Just beside Changdeokgung is Seoul’s last few traditional Korean houses where members of the royal family and noblemen loved during the Joseon period. It is now often used for filming Korean dramas and movies and you can attempt to find the famous old house where Lee Min Ho was staying with Son Ye-Jin in the Korean drama “Personal Taste” 🙂

Hongbok

There are also 8 scenic sights in this area where you can get nice photos such as the view of Changdeokgung, the upward alley, the downward alley, etc. I really love this area and would highly recommend a visit even though you may decide to give Changdeokgung a miss. As this area is also a residential areas and the numberings of the houses may not be in sequence, I would suggest that you go to the information counter to get a map and ask specifically for directions of how to get to each sights including the Personal Taste old house.

Insadong

After taking in so much traditional sights, I find that the perfect way to come “back to the future” is to take a short walk to Insa-dong which has nice shops, eateries and galleries.

Subway: Anguk. This is a big area so I think the easiest route is to start with Bukchon Hanok Village (unless you know the area and do not need to take the map from the information counter else you may have to walk back-and-forth). Take Exit 2 and just follow the road into the Hanok village and you will be able to find the information counter for the Bukchon Hanok Village. You can then see the scenic sights 4 to 8, followed by 3, 2 and 1. After seeing scenic sight 1 (which is the paranomic view of Changbokgung), you can just follow the road along the palace towards the main street and you will reach the ticket counter for the palace. Do take note of Secret Garden tour timing (think the English tours are at 11.30am, 1.30pm and 3.30pm) and it takes around 90 minutes for the tour. Insa-dong is at Exit 6.

 

3) Namsam park and Seoul Tower

Seoul tower

I don’t think I need to say much about Namsam Park and Seoul Tower. If you are a Korean drama fan, you will realised that most dramas will show the lead actor and actress dating here. Yes, this is a really famous place for couples to date so if you are visiting with your boyfriend or girlfriend, you should set aside one evening to have a romantic kpop style date here 🙂

Namsam 1

By the way, during spring, you will get beautiful cherry blossom blooiming so make sure you go during the day to see. You can also catch nice view of Seoul from the park as it is up the hill. In winter, there is an ice-skating rink just outside Grand Hyatt hotel at Namsam Park and is a popular “dating activity” for the evening/night so you may want to try it. This is also where the lead actor and actress in Boys Over Flowers went on a double date.

Subway: Hoehyeon (exit 1). I suggest catching a taxi up to Namsam cable car station and you can then take the cable car up to Seoul Tower.

 

4) Gangnam area

Ok, you must have by now seen or heard the “Gangnam style” so how can you not go to Gangnam area? To be frank, there is nothing much except shops, business offices and the U street with many media poles but somehow after all the craze of Gangnam style, you just have to go here.

Subway: Gangnam

 

5) Apujeong-dong and Cheongdam-dong

I am not sure if you have watched the Korean drama Cheongdam-dong Alice. After watching that, I just tell myself I have to see this “atas” (Singlish way of saying posh) district. This is where all you can find Galleria, posh salons and all the luxury brands and designer shops. Unless you have an extremely deep pocket (which I obviously don’t), treat this as “sightseeing” rather than shopping.

Subway: Apujeongrodeo

 

6) Lotte World

Lotte

The theme park has separate outdoor and indoor sections, offering rides for both young children as well those seeking a little excitement. I love the Lotte World Hotel which is conveniently located beside the Lotte World theme park and would recommend that you stay one night here so that you can visit the outdoor theme park during the day and the indoor one when the sun sets.

Subway: Jamil exit 3

 

 

Transport:

1) Getting to/from airport and city centre: The easiest way of course is by taxi which costs around KRW 55,000 to 60,000 including tolls for normal taxi. Note that there are 2 types of taxi, the normal ones (in yellow) and premium ones (in black). Premium cabs will cost around KRW 75,000 for the same trip. If you are travelling on a budget, the cheapest way is to take the Airport Railroad Express (AREX) and transfer to the subway. Journey time is around 1.5 hours but it costs around KRW 4,000. Alternative, the airport limousine bus is the faster and not too expensive option to get into Seoul city (KRW 15,000, travelling time around 40 minutes).You can refer to https://www.airport.kr/iiacms/pageWork.iia?_scode=C1203050000 for more details.

2) The subway in Seoul provides an effective and efficient mode of transport around the city. The ticket vending machine has English instructions so it should be easy. Single trip ticket costs KRW 1,650 including KRW 500 deposit which you can get back after your trip by inserting the card into the refund machine. You may be intimidated by the complex train system initially but don’t worry, the Seoul train system is not that complex. As a usual rule of thumb, first take note of the station that you are at and the station that you want to get to. Then map out which train route(s) numbers you need to take including the direction of travel.

3) Taxis in Seoul is also pretty reasonably price (or could be cheap compared to the European countries, US, Australia and even neighbouring Japan). So if you have 3 or more people, it may be worthwhile just to take the taxi versus the subway.

 

Food:

– Pricing of food in Seoul is pretty reasonable. You should be able to get a decent Korean meal in a normal restaurant between US$10 to US$20 depending on what you order. Korean restaurants also serve Korean small dishes such as kimchi, glass noodles, etc for free when you order a main course and these small dishes are usually refillable.

– I believe most of you would be quite familar with Korean food and what to order. But for those who need a little help, I have put up some photos of my few favourite dishes. Unlike some other of my blogs, I am not putting names of restaurants here as most of the time I just pop into any one based on the type of food/craving that I was having and typically they are good (you can’t really go very wrong with Korean food if you like BBQ, Kimchi and soupy stuff). Must try food include the famous Korean BBQ and the Korean Gingseng Chicken Soup (we heard so much about it and so how can we not eat them)?

BBQ

– Another dish that I like is the Korean fried rice (which you will fry it yourself in 3 easy steps) and Bibimbap and sulphur duck

Korean fried rice

Sulphur duck

– There are more “formal” Korean lunch/dinner that are still pretty affordable (between US$20 to US$50) where you get a main course with more variety of side dishes and dessert. Of course, similar to any other cities, the further you are away from the tourist spots, the less likely you will fall into any tourist traps and get better and cheaper food.

Korea lunch YS

Korea dinner

 

 

 

Shopping:

Shopaholics will love Seoul. You can literally shop till you drop with certain shopping markets open 24 hours. Below is the list of my favourite shopping places:

1) Dongdaemum area: This is THE PLACE that you should go if you want to look for trendy clothes and shoes. There are various wholesale markets here so you would be able to get better deals versus the normal retail shops around the city (which would have gotten their stocks from here). I particularly love Nuzzon and Migliore. Take subway to Dongdaemum to see the nice Dongdaemum gate. This is a short walk to Migliore. Alternatively take to Dongdaemum History & Culture Park station which is nearer to the shopping.

2) Namdaemum area: If you are looking for much cheaper stuff versus Dongdaemum, Namdaemum market is a good place to go. However, I do find that Dongdaemum’s stuff is trendier although slightly more expensive. Take subway to Hoehyeon.

3) Other nice shopping areas include Myeong-don (subway: Myeong-don), Sinchon and Ewha university area (subway: Sinchon or Ewha), Itaewon (subway: Itaewon).

4) You may have heard from friends and colleagues who have been to Korea that they bought tons of cosmetics. Indeed, with majority of the Koreans being so obsessed with looks (it is common for Koreans to undergo some form of cosmetics surgery), you can trust Koreans to come up with good facial and makeup products. Popular brands include Face Shop, Étude House and Innisfree and it’s also much cheaper to buy them in Korea versus overseas.

 

Other tips:

1) If you are taking Singapore Airlines and have lounge access, there is a relaxing 15 minutes free facial massage in the lounge. No pre-appointment is needed and at the end of the facial, you will also be given a trial pack of facial products.

 

2) Side trips:

(a) Everland

Everland

If you love theme parks and Lotte World is insufficient to satisfy your adrenaline rush, head over to Everland which I would say is one of my favourite theme park. I love the beautiful garden which the theme will change every season (the one that I saw in April was beautiful tulip gardens with “Europe theme”). The theme park is not too far out from Seoul and can be easily accessible via public transport. You can refer to https://www.everland.com/web/multi/english/everland/everland_guide/transportation/Transportation01.html for more details.

 

(b) Jeju Island

Jeju

There are other popular areas (eg Busan, the ski resorts, etc) which are accessible either by train or long distance bus or flights. One of the most popular destination, also known as the honeymoon destination for Koreans, is Jeju Island located off the southern shore of Korea. It is easily reached by flight from Seoul and I will highly recommend this beautiful island. Famous sights include the Seongsan Sunrise Peak (a volcanic crater hill offering a splendid view by the coast), the mysterious “Mysterious Road” (where things go uphill), the Seongup Folk Village (which is the traditional Jeju island houses seen in the olden times), the Yongduam Dragon Rock (a nice lava formation by the sea shaped as a dragon), etc. For Korean drama fans, there are many places on the island such a the Teddy Bear Museum where Princess Hour was filmed, the “All-in” church and so on that you will just screamed in joy while busying snapping photos lol

 





The Carefree Traveller’s Book of ABC ~ D is for Datong

8 04 2012

The city of Datong in the Shanxi province in China is just a couple of hours drive from Beijing, the capital of China. The historical city of Datong was the capital of Northern Wei Dyanasty and the “support capital” of Liao and Jin. Being situated at the northern part of China at the bolders of Inner Mongolia, this city used to be the political and military centre of ancient China. The “importance” of Datong can be seen by its numerous historical and cultural relics such as the famous Hanging Temple and Yungang Grottes.

To read more on Datong and the other interesting cities/towns in the Shanxi Province, visit https://thecarefreetraveller.wordpress.com/2007/10/14/shanxi-in-search-of-duke-of-mt-deer/.