Turkish Delights including tips for travelling with elderly

28 10 2019

Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “if the world was a country, Istanbul would be its capital”. The capital of Turkey, Istanbul is the only city in the world that sits on two continents. The ancient, culturally rich city has a rather unique “traditional eastern feel” coupled with a “modern western vibe”. It is hard to describe unless you experience it yourself.

Being a fan of Dan Brown’s novels, I was fascinated by Istanbul after watching the Inferno movie many years back but held back on the trip due to safety concerns after the Istanbul bombing. After so many years, I have finally mustered the courage to venture into this amazing country and I can say that I am blown away by the hospitality and friendliness of the Turkish. I have met wonderful locals including taxi drivers who despite language barriers, helped me navigate around the country and even gave me free rides when I am lost. So net, if you follow the typical “street smart rules” as you normally would in any country, you will quickly see that safety is a non-issue.

Unlike most of my travels, this trip has been more challenging as I was bring my elderly parents who may have some mobility challenges with me. Most on the information online on Turkey seems to cater to the younger (and physical active) travellers. As I can’t seem to find many information for travels with elderly who have mobility challenges, I will share some tips in this blog.

 

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Istanbul

The historic sites are all located in the Sultanahmet neighbourhood within easy walking distance (most sights can be reached within 5-10 minutes from each other). The Hagia Sophia is one of the most beautiful and historical monuments that catered to both the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. To me, this place is a symbol of religious harmony, with both symbols of Christianity and Islam show on the wall due to its history as an Orthodox Cathedral which was later converted into a mosque.

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Opposite to the Hagia Sophia is the Blue Mosque, one of the most photogenic building and an important site in the Muslim world. The mosque is lined with over 20,000 blue iznik ceramic tiles and thus its name.

The Istanbul Hippodrome with the famous Egyptian obelisk sits between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

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For fans of Inferno, you will remember the sunken palace of Basilica Cistern where the bomb was hidden. This is located 5 minutes away from the Hippodrome. Maybe because of the movie, I find the sunken palace quite interesting. Do look out for the Medusa face at the end of the palace, but be warn, you may be turned into stone if you looked into her eyes lol.

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Topkapi Palace where many Ottoman Sultans resided for over 400 years is also not far away and a must-see.

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The Egyptian Market and the Grand Bazaar are interesting markets to visit to buy some local food and souvenirs. Do note that the Grand Bazaar is closed on Sundays.

I will also strongly recommend taking the Bosphorus Ferry that sails along the Bosphorus which connects the Sea of Maramara to the Black Sea, separating Europe and Asia.

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Cappadocia

Many people will say that Cappadocia is on their bucket list and it is not hard to see why once I landed in Cappadocia. Though I have been to a modest number of countries with varying landscape and cultures, I have never seen a place with similar landscape like Cappadocia. Known for the whimsical fairy chimneys and peculiar rock formations, I feel as if I am on another planet.

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My hotel overlooks the Uchisar Castle which sits on the highest point in Cappadocia, offering great panoramic view.

Goreme is just around 10 minutes drive away from Uchisar. The Goreme Open Air Museum is a must see with churches carved into the caves.

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It is good to stop by the Love Valley, Pigeon Valley, Monks Valley for awesome views. If you love hiking, you can also go for a little hike in your of the valleys. The Imagination Valley (or Devrent Valley) is also quite interesting with rock formation taking the shapes of camels, lions, etc.

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I have read mixed reviews on underground cities, with many saying that there is nothing much to see in there. However, I really enjoyed my visit to Kaymakli underground city. I am always interested in history and love to see how people live in the challenging old times. So it is really fascinating to see people back in ancient times with no modern technology can build such an amazing underground city. As I roamed the underground city, crawling at various points through the tight tunnels and alleys, my imagination ran wild on how Christians in the early centuries were staying in such to hide from the Roman Empire and the Arabs. A word of caution though – this place is not for those who have mobility challenges as you may need to bend (and possibly crawl a little at some tight spots depending on how tall you are). There is also another popular underground city, Derinkuyu so you can pick either one.

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If you do get a chance to visit Cappadocia, I will strongly recommend taking the hot air balloon ride. The price is totally worth it and you will take with you an unforgettable experience. I am pretty lucky that I managed to ride on my first day in Cappadocia and got a really great hot air balloon pilot who managed to “chase the wind” and give us wonderful views of this amazing land with beautiful sunrise. Do note that you will need to climb into the basket of the hot air balloon which may be challenging for those who may have mobility challenges. If that’s the case, an alternative to hot air balloon is to view the balloons from the cave hotels in Uchisar or Groeme which also offer very nice views.

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As I only had a week in Turkey, I only managed to visit Istanbul and Cappadocia. There are many other nice places in Turkey such as Ephesus with its well-preserved ancient Greek city and Pamukkale’s Cotton Castle which you can consider visiting if you have enough time.

 

Tips:

  1. For international arrival/flight: The immigration at Istanbul Airport typically has a long queue (line) and takes around an hour or more to clear. If you are travelling on business class or have star alliance gold status, you can take the “fast track” to avoid the long queue. Your airlines will typically give you a fast track pass or it will be printed on your boarding pass.
  2. For domestic flight out from Istanbul Airport: Check-in for business class and star alliance gold is in the domestic VIP lounge and not at the counter. From the lounge, there will be special bus to take you to the boarding gate. However, do note that star alliance gold member can only bring one guest and the other guests will need to pay. So if you are travelling in a group and do not want me to pay for that lounge access for the “extra guest”, you may want to consider whether to just check-in at the economy counter. I am not sure if this would change with the new airport (I only flew out on an international flight from the new airport).
  3. Dress code: Even though the majority of Turkish are muslims, there is no need to wear a hijab or cover up except when you visit the mosque. However, for ladies particularly solo female travellers, it best to dress more conservatively to avoid unwanted attention. If you find the local men overly too friendly, just ignore them and they will soon leave you alone.
  4. Travelling around Istanbul: If you stay in the old town area, all the sights are within walking distance. If you are lazy to walk, taxis are readily available and are not expensive. Alternatively, you can take the metro and buses. Despite all the online comments on the safety of the taxis, I would say that I had very good experience with all the taxis that I took and it is safe. Make sure that they start the meter (you will be able to see the meter in the rear mirror) and you will be fine. Language may be an issue so what I did is to show the driver the name and address of the destination that you want to go. Price wise, taxi is not expensive in Istanbul so if you have 2 or more people, it may be more comfortable and efficient to just take a cab. Also, if you are travelling with the elderly, I will suggest taking a taxi to Hagia Sophia (which is on slightly higher grounds) and then walking from there to the other sites (either flat or downslope).
  5. Getting to Cappadocia: The most efficient way is to fly. It is a short flight from Istanbul to Cappadocia versus a 10 hours bus ride. Most flights go to Kayseri airport which is an hour plus from Cappadocia. Nevsehir airport is slightly nearer (around 40 minutes). I will recommend that you book the hotel transfer as it can be challenging to get a taxi.
  6. Getting around Cappadocia: I will recommend booking a car with driver who can then drive you to all the places that you will like to visit and you can customise your itinerary and the time that you will like to spend at each site. If you have 3 or more people, the cost is about the same as joining the group day tour. If you are travelling with elderly, this is also the best way to move around Cappadocia as the tours have fixed itineraries, some of which require trekking/hiking which may not be suitable for elder folks.

 

Place to stay:

  1. Istanbul: I have broken up my stay in 2 parts – one in the old town Sultanahmet (Double Tree) and the other in the new town near to Taksim Square (Grand Hyatt). This gives me easy access to sights around the region.
  2. Cappadocia: I will recommend a stay in the cave hotel or the fairy chimney. Most visitors choose to stay in Goreme given that it has almost everything. However, if you prefer a place that is a little quieter, I will recommend Uchisar which offers great view given that it is on top of the hill. I stayed at Hermes Cave Hotel that overlooks the Uchisar Castle and I must say that though the room is simple (but comfortable), the view is amazing!

 

Food:

There are a lot of online blogs and also on trip advisor on the recommended restaurants so I will not share the details here. I will just like to highlight some of the interesting food that you should try (and watch-out).

a) In Istanbul, you need to try the fish sandwich (Balik Ekmek) on the fish boat. There are 3 fish boats parked side by side bordering Golden Horn and Bosphorous (along the water front near to the Egyptian Market). The 3 boats served the same type of sandwich. I tried the first boat (picture below) though I see more people at the middle boat. The taste is good. One watch-out though is that the fish has lots of bones so be careful when you eat it (it can get a little messy).

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b) In Cappadocia, you need to try the pottery kebab. Though you can find this in other parts of Turkey, the best is made in Cappadocia. Restaurants that serve authentic pottery kebabs require at least 4 hours notice before you arrive so it’s best to call in advance to make your reservation. My cave hotel recommended Dibek which is a restaurant in a cave in Goreme city center. Apparently, the cave building is 475 year old and you seat on the floor (Turkish style) to dine. Lovely experience and the food is yummy!

 

c) Throughout Turkey, do try the kebab (mainly either chicken or beef). They are cheap and good.

 





Happiness is a Place and it is Bhutan

1 01 2019

Guzusangpola!! This is a common Bhutanese greetings for hello, good morning, good afternoon, good evening. Bhutan, the land of the Dragon, is lauded by many as the “happiest country in the world”. Well, the slogan of its national carrier Druk Air (also known as Royal Bhutan Airlines) is “happiness is a place” and of course, the place is Bhutan. It is not difficult to understand why. Bhutan is one of the rare country where the focus is on Gross National Happiness (GNH) instead of GDP. I have watched many travel shows featuring Bhutan with many hosts swearing that they can sense positive energy in this Himalayan country, exclaiming how they found peace and how much they love this country. As a city girl who feel more energized in the bustling cities like London, Paris, Tokyo, New York and Vegas, it puzzled me on why anyone would fall in love with a “county-side country”. But given the big hype in recent years on Bhutan and with family and friends who have travelled there ranting on how much they love this country, I decided to make a visit. Well, this would surely add to my list of countries travelled isn’t it?

 

For those that have read my previous blogs, you will realized that there are a couple of places that I mentioned I have fell in love with. But I must admit that none of those places are able to compare with Bhutan. Bhutan is indeed magical. From day 1 that I landed in this magical country, I have a special feeling – a warming feeling of peace and happiness, not the usual type but something from within which I find hard to describe. The country feels like a power house of magic, I swear it is more magical than Hogwarts.

 

The only airlines that can fly into Bhutan is Druk Air. The Paro International Airport, the sole international airport in Bhutan, lies in a deep valley on the bank of Paro River with surrounding peaks as high as 5,500m. It is one of the world’s most challenging airports to land and only 12 pilots have the honor to do so. If so many places that I have flew to, I would say that this is one of the most spectacular landing offering magnificent view of the Himalayas range.

 

 

Thimphu

The capital of Bhutan is Thimphu which is around an hour plus drive from Paro. Being the capital, you can sense that it is much busier compared to the other cities in Bhutan. One of the key sights is The Tashiccho Dzong houses the throne of the King of Bhutan and one can see the Royal Palace and the Parliament Building nearby the Dzong. Each city in Bhutan will have its own Dzong. The word dzong evolved from phodrang, which refers to the abode of deities in the Buddhist Canon and is a castle-fortress where part of it is a Buddhist temple and the other part is a Government Office.

 

 

Another must-see in Thimphu is the Kurnselphodrang Nature Park with the 169-foot tall bronze Buddha Dordenma Statue offers a panoramic view of the Thimphu Valley.

 

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The National Memorial Chorten is a stupa built by the empress dowager to honour the late 3rd king of Bhutan. It was a great coincidence that I visited when they were having some prayers ceremonies and it was a sight to see tons of Bhutanese and lamas (the monks) were there circling the stupa while chanting and many locals sitting on the around the stupa to get their free meal.

 

 

 

Punakha

Punakha, about 2.5 hours drive from Thimphu, was the old capital of Bhutan till 1955. Located at a lower elevation of 1,200m, it is much warmer compared to Thimphu and Paro. Here, 2 rivers Pho Chu and Mo Chu meet, which makes the Punakha Dzong the most beautiful Dzong amongst those that I have seen.

 

 

Another interesting temple to visit is Chimi Lhakang. This is a temple dedicated to what the Bhutanese called as “The Mad Monk” (which is equivalent to the Chinese “Ji Gong” monk). Legend has it that this monk roamed around Bhutan and performed many miracles including his urine turning into gold! The magical weapon of this monk is called the “Flying Dragon” which looks like the male reproductive organ with a sword. So it is not surprising that this is a pilgrimage site for childless couple and there has been many success stories of couples (including foreigners) getting pregnant after visiting to the temple.

 

 

Mid-way through the drive between Thimphu and Paro, you will reach one of the most beautiful pass – the Dochula Pass with the 108 Druk Wangyal Chortens. The chortens was commissioned by the eldest Queen Mother as a memorial in memorial of the soldiers who were killed in December 2003 in the battle between Bhutan and Assamese insurgents from India. From here, one can see the snow-capped Himalayas mountains on a clear day, which my guide said I was extremely lucky to be able to see the whole range so clearly!

 

 

 

Paro

Unlike Thimphu, Paro emits a more tranquil and resort-like vibe. As you drive from the city to the airport, you will see the Rinpung Dzong with its beautiful cantilever bridge along Paro River with a seven-stories watchtower fortress (Ta Dzong) which is now the National Museum of Bhutan sitting above the Rinpung Dzong.

 

Another temple not to miss is the Kyichu Lhakhang, the oldest monastery in Bhutan built in the 7th century. This temple is believed to have been built in 659 by King Songtsen Gampo of Tibet to pin down the left foot of a devil.

 

The key highlight of the Bhutan trip is the hike up the Tiger’s Nest takes around 2.5 to 3.5 hours (for those with average fitness), with the first 1 to 1.5 hours from the foot to the tea house and the remaining 1.5 to 2 hours from the tea house to the monastery. When asked why the Bhutan Government do not install cable car up the monastery, my guide explained that it is to preserve the environment and also this is a holy site for pilgrimage and the tough journey up signifies that the road to enlightenment is not an easy one and one has to overcome many hardships and obstacles to reach it. It is heartening to see all the visitors trying to encourage one another on the hike up and the guides helping out anyone in need. I find the first part of the hike up to the tea house not too tough, with the biggest challenge being to avoid the horse shit lol. The second part of the hike from the tea house to the start of the stairs where you can see the monastery just on the opposite side of the mountain has a steeper incline though still pretty manageable. The last part is the steps down and then up to the monastery which is the most challenging especially if in rainy or snowy condition. My guide was saying that I was really lucky as it snowed 2 days before my visit and the temple was closed off as it was dangerous to even attempt the flight of stairs. Thankfully the sunny weather has melted away the snow and the monastery re-open to visitors though the last few steps of stairs just before reaching the monastery has a little ice. Regardless of whether you are a Buddhist or a non-believer, the feeling when you finally reach the monastery is magical and if you ask anyone who visited Bhutan, they will surely say that the visit to the Tiger’s Nest monastery is the highlight of their Bhutan trip. The monastery is quite big but make sure you see at least the 3 key sites – (a) the cave in which Guru Rinpoche (also known as Padmasambhava) meditate, (b) the temple with the statute of Guru Rinpoche which survived the fire, and (c) the temple with the relics of Guru Rinpoche’s disciple.

 

This breathtaking land-locked Himalayan country offers plentiful means to be happy and content. As I catch the last glimpse of this Happy-land, I prayed that I will have a chance to visit this mystical land again in the future.

 

Tips:

  1. For non-Indian passport holders, you will need a Visa to enter into Bhutan and will have to book a tour (though it can be a private one) with a tour agency. If you are used to free-and-easy travel, I will recommend that you book a private tour through a local Bhutanese tour agency where you can customize the itinerary. You will get a driver and tour guide throughout the trip. There is a minimum spending of US$250 a day (lesser for off-season) and this amount includes hotel, transport, guide, driver and meals so it isn’t as expensive as it seems. For 1-2 travelers, there will be additional surcharge so it is best to travel with at least 3 pax.
  2. Before landing at Paro Airport, you will be able to see the magnificent clear and unobstructed panoramic view of the entire Himalayan range. Do ask for window seats on the left of the plane when flying into Bhutan for the best view.
  3. April and May is the prettiest time of the year to visit Bhutan where the mountains will be blooming with flowers. November and December are also good too as the days are usually dry and sunny offering clear views.
  4. To visit the Chimi Lhaksang, it is possible to get the car to drive down to the valley at the foot of the temple (there’s a small car park) and from there it is a less than 5 minutes walk up to the temple. Alternatively, many guides will recommend to stop at the top of the valley and you will then walk down the valley through the padi fields and Sopsokha Village, pass the car park and then up to the temple. This walk will take you around 20 minutes but involve some downhill and uphill walk. The walk is not difficult at all and is a good way to see the village.
  5. For the hike up Tiger’s Nest, it is possible to take a horse ride up to the tea house but you will still have to walk the rest of the journey up and all the way down. I will strongly recommend that you walk the whole way as it can be quite dangerous riding the horse. There have been accidents and I have witness an accident where the horse fell and threw off the rider, thankfully the rider was not injured. Also, the locals believe that if you take the horse up, you will give half the merit that you will obtain from hiking to the monastery to the horse and you will find your guide trying to advice you against the horse ride.
  6. No photos are allowed inside any of the monastery. Particularly for the Tiger’s Nest, you will have to leave your bag including your mobile phones outside the monastery (but you can bring your wallet with you). For most of us, leaving our possessions unguarded will make us uneasy but rest assured that your belongings are safe. Theft is very rare as the Bhutanese being Buddhist are strong believer of karma (that you reap what you sow) and will not take what is not theirs.
  7. The Haa Valley and Chele La Pass which is the highest pass in Bhutan and offers view of both there Paro and Haa Valley is also a spectacular place to visit. It’s a pity that I don’t have the time to do so. A good reason to return to Bhutan 🙂
  8. Bhutanese believe that displaying “the 4 friends” at home will create a harmonious home. So you may like to get a painting, or keychain or magnet of “the 4 friends”. Do note that you are allowed to bargain and it may be wise to look around in a few stores before you buy.

 

 

Accommodation:

Paro: I stayed at Le Meredien Paro and love this hotel. Situated by the river, this beautiful 5 star hotel is outside the city area and thus offer a quiet night (without dogs barking).

 

Thimphu: Though it does not have the resort feel of Le Meredien Paro, Le Meredien Thimphu is still a nice 5 star hotel in Thimphu for a good night rest.

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Punakha: I choose to do a day trip to Punakha from Thimphu which is around 2 hours drive away. Punakha has a more country-side vibe compared to Thimphu and Paro. If you decide to stay in Punakha so that you have time to see more of this old capital, do note that the accommodation is more basic compared to those in Paro and Thimphu.

 

 

Food:
Bhutanese food is known for its chili and cheese. For a Bhutanese, a typical meal is rice with chili cheese. Given that Bhutan is not as developed as the major cities in many countries, do bring your expectation for food down (though I must say that the meals in Bhutan are quite ok but don’t expect Michelin-star standard). Don’t worry if you don’t fancy spicy food as you will be able to find Chinese and Indian cuisine as well as cafes which offer sandwiches and cakes. Do note that most restaurants serve food in buffet style so you may want to have your meals early otherwise you may only get the leftovers.

The DrukAir flight meals are ok and you have 2 options – vegetarian and non-vegetarian. The breakfast menu from Singapore to Paro (scrambled eggs) is yummy but the dinner on the return flight from Paro (Indian cuisine) can’t compare to even an average Indian restaurant.

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Chengdu – The land of the kungfu panda

9 01 2018

What is the first thing that come to your mind when someone mentions China? To me, it is the “real” homeland of Kungfu Panda. Indeed, Sichuan province in China with its bamboo forests is the famously known as the land of the Pandas.

So of course, I can’t miss a visit to the Panda center to see these cute black and white animals. There are a couple of Panda centers, the most convenient one is located in downtown Chengdu. For those traveling to Dujiangyan, the Dujiangyan Panda Base is a good alternative (which is the one that I went). One tip though – the pandas do take afternoon nap so avoid going around noon to early afternoon as they will be sleeping. But it is kind of cute to see them cuddle up and snoring away in their sweet dreams (yes they do snore and pretty loudly lol).

Dujiangyan irrigation system is a must-see if you visit Chengdu. Just around an hour plus drive outside Chengdu, this is one of the UNESCO world heritage site. It is amazing to see how an irrigation system with no dam can be so cleverly built 2,000 years ago and how this still remains in use today.

A short drive from Dujiangyan will bring you to Mt Qingcheng. This mountain is divided into the front side of the mountain and back side of the mountain with the front side famous for the Taoist temples and is the origin site of Taoism, a religion originating from China. The back side of the mountain is famous for its scenic spots and trekking though many drivers are reluctant to drive to the back mountain which is another 2 hours drive from the front mountain.

For those who love Chinese poetry, a visit to the thatched cottage of Du Fu, a famous poet during the Tang Dynasty, is a must see. Du Fu spent three and a half years living in this cottage.

Not far from the cottage is the Jinli Street, which used to one of the busiest commercial streets during the Shu Kingdom some 2000 years ago. The nearby “wide and narrow alley” got its name with its wide alleys and narrow alleys. Now it is lined with many bars. Why not get your ears clean too (if you dare)?

If you have read the famous novel “Three Kingdom”, you will be familiar with Zhu Geliang, the famous wise advisor and Prime Minister to Liu Bei of the Shu Kingdom during the Three Kingdoms period. The Wuhou Temple which is a memorial temple for the famous Zhu Geliang.

Once done with the sightseeing, why not head to Chunxi Road for some shopping? 🙂

Tips:

– It is very cheap and convenient to travel around Chengdu by taxi or the subway. However, most taxi drivers cannot speak English so if you can’t speak mandarin, get your hotel to write instructions for the taxi driver.

– There is free transport between Wuhou Shrine and Dufu Thatched Cottage. You just need to buy the entrance ticket for the other sight and look for the free transport sign at the entrance.

– The taxis boot have limited space due to the gas tank in the book. You can only put one 29 inch luggage, one 25 inch luggage and a backpack. So you may want to pack light if you are travelling with a group of four.

– Pandas usually take a nap in the afternoon so if you want to see them playing, go in the morning or late afternoon.

– There are a lot of ancient towns around Chengdu such as Huanglongxi ancient town, Pingle ancient town and Luodai ancient town so if you are interested, head to one of them.

Trips from Chengdu:

– Leshan Big Buddha and Ermeishan are just a short train ride from Chengdu (via fast train). Please see my link here.

– Many tours of Jiuzhaigou and Huanglong start from Chengdu so you can plan them into your itinerary too. Note that these places have high attitude so you may want to consult your doctor before going.

– Chongqing is just a few hours train ride away from Chengdu. If you are interested to see the Yangtze River or take the cruise, check out my blog here.

Food:

– Sichuan food is well known for its spices (more of “mala” vs hot which makes your taste bud numb). If you cannot take spicy food, ask for mild spice (or no spice). There is one nice (and very cheap) local eatery opposite the Chengdu East Railway station though the waitress may not be able to speak English (the shop name is in the photo below). They do have photos so you can also point to the dish that you like.

– If you visit Dujiangyan and Mt Qingcheng, do try out at the restaurant called 小轩堂(Xiao Xuan Tang).

– You can’t say that you visited Sichuan if you had not taken the mala hotpot. Most hotpot has 2 soups, one spicy and one non-spicy. So for those who can’t take spicy food, you can still join your family/friends in the mala hotpot feast.





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/.