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Kiana in Korea – Visiting Busan and Haedong Yonggungsa

Last weekend Kiana came to visit Nicole and I in Seoul. Over the past week she traveled around Korea visiting the Boseong Tea Fields, Gwangju, and hanging out with us in Gwangyang. This weekend, we visited Busan to see the Haedong Yonggungsa temple and Haeundae beach.

Kiana and I

Kiana and I

Traveling to Busan

Kiana, Nicole, and I got up early and walked down to the Donggwanyang bus terminal. We’d booked our tickets earlier in the week so all we had to do was hop on the bus and head out. The trip took us about 2 hours. Nicole napped and Kiana and I caught up on news from back home.

When we arrived in Busan we took the subway the 24 stops across town to Haeundae Beach, one of Nicole and my favorite spots in the city. We dropped our bags off at the hostel and spent the afternoon at the beach. Visiting the beach is one of the things I miss about Florida while I’m in Gwangyang so its nice to visit a beach in Korea every now and again.

Visiting Yonggungsa Temple

After our trip to the beach that afternoon, we took a local city bus to Yonggungsa temple. Its a beautiful Buddhist temple just East of Busan. Nicole and I had visited before with my Korean friend. However, I don’t think I ever wrote about it.

The temple includes a series of buildings, shrines, and statues. Koreans visit the temple primarily to wish for a male child or for students to get good grades. The three of us just went for the view.

 

To get into the temple you walk down a little alleyway selling all manner of snacks before you come to a narrow stairway that leads to a series of bridges. Off the left side of the bridges is the coast. On the right side of the bridges are a series of cascading fountains with basins inside. People throw coins into the basins for good luck. None of the three of us made our coins into the basin. Although, one Korean did while we were there and there was a good bit of applause.

Busan Night and Day

That night we returned from the temple to the Hauendae beach area. We visited a local market so Kiana could sample some traditional Korean street snacks and so she could see all the weirder snacks that she didn’t feel like eating. I don’t blame her. I’ve been here almost a year and a half and I haven’t had all the snacks available yet.

After the market, we bought some fireworks and went down to the beach to set them off. Every time we visit Busan we buy fireworks and set them off. Its become our traditional end to the night. This visit was no different, and this time we got to share to tradition with my sister, Kiana.

The next day we visited the beach again and walked to Gwangalli beach. Its another beach a few stops away on the subway or a 30 minute walk from Hauendae beach. The three of us had lunch together before Nicole and I headed back to Gwangyang so we could teach the next day. Kiana headed out the following day to Hong Kong.

 

Kiana in Korea – Visiting Seoul and the DMZ

My sister, Kiana, came to visit Nicole and I in Korea. It’s the first part of her multi-week Asia adventure. She flew into Incheon and took the bus to Seoul arriving Thursday. Nicole and I took a bus up after work Friday and met her in Itaewon for some weekend shenanigans. Our first night we walked around Itaewon and got some drinks. We didn’t do too much since we arrived around 11 and we had big plans tomorrow…to visit the DMZ!!

Visiting the DMZ

The three of us woke up early at our hostel in Itaewon and hailed a cab to Camp Kim, the US military base in Seoul where the DMZ tour leaves from. We arrived at the base a few minutes early and were directed to sit in the waiting room. There were several corpulent Americans as well as so regularly sized Americans and some foreigners all sitting on large leather recliners. The group next to us brought a bunch of Krispy Kreme donuts. I was jealous. After a few minutes of waiting and small talk, our tour leader arrived and led us to the bus. We boarded and drove the hour north to the Dora Observatory. Leaving Seoul and heading north, Korea really starts to empty out. Most trips around Korea, especially city to city, you see little farm towns or rice patties. However, its very unusual to see nothing at all. There’s always something on the horizon. The closer we got to the DMZ the more sparse the landscape became until eventually we were just driving through forest.

After an hour we reached the Dora Observatory. Its an observatory in South Korea that looks out over North Korea. We could see a small propaganda village, built by North Korea to look something like a Korean version of Pleasantville. It was meant to attract South Koreans and make North Korea look like a worker’s paradise. South Korea erected a flag pole near their side of the border so North Korea erected an even larger flag pole on their side of the border in their propaganda village.

The Third Infiltration Tunnel

From the observatory we took the tour bus over to the Third Infiltration Tunnel. North Korea built literally dozens of tunnels into South Korea in a plan to one day invade. South Korea routinely finds these. This was the third tunnel they found and, I’m assuming, the most impressive. South Korea found this tunnel and North Korea claimed they were only mining for coal….under the DMZ. It’s not a very good excuse.

The tunnel was pretty far down into the Earth, 74m to be exact. We walked down the sloping path built by South Korea to reach the tunnel. Once we reached the North Korean tunnel, the space got a lot smaller. I had to walk hunched over to avoid hitting my head on the ceiling.

Dorasan Train Station

Our next stop was at Dorasan Train Station where we got to see the train, an extension of the Seoul subway, that leads to North Korea. I was surprised that there was an actual train running directly between North and South Korea. However, it is not currently running across the border, only from Seoul to Dorasan and back. We got a few pictures inside the station. It was really nice and clean. If the train route was completed and ran from South Korea, through North Korea, into China, it would be the longest train route in the world. It would be possible to ride the train from Busan, South Korea, all the way to Lisbon, Portugal, more than halfway around the world. Perhaps one day this will become a reality.

Lunch

We visited a random building, with a Korean restaurant in it where we ate delicious bibimbap. The building had a bunch of Korean hikers in it drinking Soju as well as a bunch of South Korean soldiers. Aside from that, the building was virtually empty. I found out later it was the Department of Korean Transportation.

Camp Bonifas

Our last stop on the DMZ tour was at Camp BONIFAS. Camp BONIFAS is a United Nations Command post just 400m south of the DMZ. We had a briefing once we arrived on the camp and its history. We also signed a waver saying something along the lines of if we are taken by the North Koreans we’re probably not coming back. After signing our lived away we boarded another bus and drove to the JSA or Joint Security Area. The JSA is basically the border between North and South Korea. It includes several UN buildings in light blue and several North Korean buildings in metallic silver. Inside the JSA, one half of the room is North Korea and one half is South Korea. Two South Korean soldiers are stationed in the building at all times.

Returning to Seoul

After our tour of the DMZ, and some ice cream for Kiana and Nicole, we boarded the bus and returned to Seoul. Back in Seoul, we took Kiana out to Hongdae to see the sights and meet up with some friends of ours. We ate some traditional Korea BBQ in Hongdae since she had never eaten Samgyupsal. She loved it. After dinner we walked over to Praha Castle a bar that looks like a giant Czech castle.

BB Guns

After some drinks, we decided to fire off some guns, bb guns that is. A few stops up the road we found a little bb gun shooting range. They’re all over Korea and a favorite past time for many of Korea’s younger population.

Brunch and Palace

The next day, we had brunch at Craftworks in Itaewon and took an Uber car to Gyeongbokgung Palace. Nicole and I visited the palace last year, but it’s a great place to take visitors to Seoul. Kiana loved it and we spent the afternoon there. We happened upon a big festival weekend in Seoul so the palace had several activities for tourists to do. Kiana, Nicole, and Nicole’s friend Nikki, and I all tried on some traditional Korean palace guard costumes and took a few pictures. We also happened to be at the main gate for the changing of the guard ceremony.

Lunch and Leaving

After the palace, Nikki took a subway back to her apartment in one of Seoul’s suburbs. Nicole, Kiana, and I took the subway back to the hostel and packed. We ate some Mexican food and bought a few foreign groceries, such as hummus and sour cream, then took a bus back to Gwangyang, or so we tried. All of the buses to Gwangyang, all two of them, were sold out, so Nicole and I had to take a bus to Suncheon then a cab back to Gwangyang. Lesson learned: always book a bus home early.

Day 4 in Taiwan – Movies, Ferris Wheels, and Night Markets

This was our last full day in Taipei, Taiwan. We had a blast traveling around the city and making a few day trips to the outskirts. If you missed the first few posts, you can read about them here.

Our Last Full Day in Taiwan

Nicole and I got up and headed to the Starbucks down the street from our hostel. We each had a coffee and some snacks to tide us over for the day. Since the two of us had been running around having so many adventures over the past few days, we decided to take it easy today and just do random fun things around town.

Starbucks breakfast of champions

Starbucks breakfast of champions

Wu Fen Pu Garment Wholesale Area

Our first stop, after Starbucks was to a wholesale clothing market. Nicole and I took the subway out there and walked through dark and narrow stalls filled with discount clothing, shoes and accessories. For a weekday, it was surprisingly empty. There were a few other shoppers walking around the streets stopping into shops here and there, but it was far from crowded. Many of the stalls weren’t even open yet. Mind you it was around 11am when we walked through. It was surprising to see. I imagine the market must get going later in the day.

Miramar Entertainment Park

After the clothing market, we took the subway to Miramar Entertainment Park. We walked around the mall for a bit and watched “As Above, So Below”. It’s a great horror movie if you’re into that genre. After the movie we rode on Taiwan’s second tallest ferris wheel. It had breathtaking views of the city and like the gondola, it had a glass floor to look down and see the ground far below.

Beer and Pretzels

After the ferris wheel ride it started to rain, and thunder, and lightning really hard. We took the subway back into central Taipei and happened to spot a Paulaner Brauhaus. We’d visited one in Munich this past summer and really enjoyed it so we had to stop in and visit while we were in Taiwan. We had authentic German beer and inauthentic Taiwanese pretzels. Nicole also ordered some steamed dumplings, so it was a vaguely cultural experience. Overall, it was quite the combo.

Night Market

After our lunch of beer and pretzels and dumplings, we took the train out to the Shilin Night Market. Of all the night markets we visited while we were in Taipei, Shilin was the biggest. Streets lined with stalls and carts spread out in all directions. The night market had everything from clothing to food to even a carnival right inside the market. There was a temple at the center of the market playing a Taiwanese movie on a projector screen free for everyone in the community. Nicole and I got some chicken skewers and fresh fruit and walked through the market.

 

After our stroll through the night market, it was getting quite late. We headed back to our hostel and packed our things.

Leaving Taipei

The next morning we left the hostel and took a cab to the downtown airport. From there we transferred to Taipei’s international airport outside of town, the same one we used when we arrived. I had a great time in Taipei. There were tons of sights to check our and the people were incredibly kind and friendly. I would encourage anyone who is thinking about visiting Taipei to do so. However, I think you only need a few days in Taipei. I would couple a trip to Taipei with a few day trips outside of the city or even to different cities in Taiwan.

 

 

Day 3 in Taiwan – Spanish Forts, Taiwanese Beaches, and British Consulates

We woke promptly at sometime, probably 9, that sounds about right, and embarked for Bai Sha Wan beach. The beach was about two hours travel north, outside of Taipei and along the coast. It was a beautiful beach and for the life of us we could not properly pronounce it. I asked several people and no one had heard of it. Finally we called the Taiwanese tourist helpline, and I asked. She said “Bai Sha Wan Beach? I do not know about it, but you can visit Bai Sha Wan beach. It is really beautiful.” It sounded the exact same as how I had been pronouncing it.

Getting to Bai Sha Wan Beach

Getting to Bai Sha Wan Beach

Bai Sha Wan Beach aka Bai Sha Wan Beach

So began our trip. We took a subway to the end of the red line then transferred to a city bus and took it 45 stops into the middle of nowhere. Finally we arrived and strolled down to the beach. We rented a small bamboo lean-to/cabana and set up the provided tatami mat. The swimming area was designated by little ropes and buoys with life guards surrounding the swim area stationed about every 30 feet. Clearly Taiwan takes ocean safety very seriously.

Exploring Tamsui, Taiwan

After the beach we took the bus back into Tamsui, the stop at the end of the red line where we got off. We walked around downtown and checked out some of the markets. Up until now, Nicole and I hadn’t been the best at eating traditional Taiwanese food, so we decided to make up for it, in spades, in Tamsui. We tried all kinds of delicacies.

We walked along the city’s little boardwalk enjoying our amazing street food and people watching. There were little booths where you could play carnival games, like popping balloons with darts for a prize, massage places, fortune tellers, and gift shops. At the end of the boardwalk we came to a small beach with a man painting giant pictures rapidly one after the other. He would paint what looked like a random image until at the very end he would turn the picture over and you would realize it was Mozart, or perhaps a castle or mountainside.

Fort Santo Domingo

Not far from the boardwalk area is an old Spanish fort called Fort Santo Domingo. The fort was built in 1629 and during its several hundreds of years of existence, it was burned, demolished, and razed. Originally it was a Spanish fort, then a Dutch fort, then a Chinese fort, then a British consulate. The British turned the fort into a consulate in the late 1800s and later built a consular residence next to it. Nicole and I walked around the grounds and used the building to escape the heat. Both the fort and the consulate were relatively empty with only a few other tourists milling about.

After the fort and the consulate we were pretty beat. It had been a long day and we’d traveled a great distance. Nicole and I took the subway back to our hostel and called it a day. Stay tuned for tomorrow’s adventure of movies, ferris wheels, and more night markets!

 

Day 2 in Taiwan – massages, night markets, and toilet restaurants Part Two

This is a continuation of the very long second day in Taiwan. Part one is about Zhinan temple and pandas. Read it first.

Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall

From the Zhinan temple, Nicole and I took the gondola back down the mountain and transferred to the MRT. We rode it all the way back into central Taipei and visited the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall, National Theater, and the National Concert Hall. The three of them form a beautiful plaza in central Taipei and are definitely worth a visit while you are in Taiwan. Chiang Kai Shek was a military leader closely allied with Sun Yat Sen and was an influential member of the Chinese national party. We arrived on the hour so we were just in time to see the changing of the guard. It was a big production and took close to 15 minutes.

Renting Bikes

From just outside the plaza, we rented bikes for only about 30 cents and rode through town like a band of hoodlums recruiting members into our underground bike gang. Just kidding. We rode to Xiemending, Taipei’s hip downtown area home to massages and toilet restaurants. That’s right, restaurants themed like toilets.

Modern Toilet

We returned our bikes in central Xiemending and wandered around for a bit before our reservation at Modern toilet. We got massages, I played around with some vintage lenses at an outdoor market, and we soaked up the downtown atmosphere. It’s interesting, based on my  limited experiences in Japan, China, and Thailand, I feel like Taiwan is a perfect mashup of all three. It has China’s commerce and availability of products. It’s still somewhat conservative and bizarre in unexpected ways like Korea and Japan, and its a bit tropical like Thailand.

Now to the part that you’ve all been waiting for, Modern Toilet. If you visit one toilet themed restaurant, I encourage you to visit this one. It’s apparently part of a chain and there are several around Asia so you’ll have a few opportunities. The restaurant is off the beaten path and up on the second story off the main road. You really have to search for it to find it.

Inside you’re greeted at a small counter and led to your table. All the tables are bathtubs filled with plastic balls (think McDonalds ball pit) and covered with a sheet of glass. The seats are toilets, with the lid closed. They are not to be used as real toilets. The food is pretty good. Not fantastic, just good, but then again, you’re not going for the food. I ordered the chicken curry, Nicole ordered something else. Both entrees came in small ceramic toilets. Dessert was chocolate ice cream, of course. It was served in a traditional squat toilet.

Modern Toilet

Modern Toilet

Longshan Temple Night Market

After diner we visited some shops in the Longshan Temple Night Market. We bought some incense and an incense holder which I am convinced is actually a back scratcher but we are using it as an incense holder anyways.

It was an amazing, yet incredibly tiring day. We saw pandas and rode gondolas. We ate at toilet restaurants and rented bikes. We did everything.