Over Chuseok break this year, Nicole and I visited beautiful Taipei, Taiwan. It was quite an adventure getting there. First we took a bus from Gwangyang to Busan which was about 2.5 hours. We stayed the night in Busan and visited a little Hamburger joint down by Haeundae beach. The next morning we flew out of Busan and into Taipei, Taiwan.
The Adventure Begins
Nicole and I landed a little after 1pm and by 3pm we arrived at our hostel. We dropped off our bags and started our busy day of sightseeing. Our first stop was at the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall. Sun Yat Sen was a doctor, one of China’s founding fathers, and also its first president. Nicole and I walked through the exhibit hall inside and even got to vote in a mock voting booth.
From the memorial hall, Nicole and I walked through town the main business district of Taipei and stopped for a bit to eat. Our original plan had been to find a delicious Taiwanese restaurant, but everywhere we went we found international food. It would be like going to Times Square and trying to have a genuine American home-cooked meal. Eventually our hunger got the better of us and we had some italian pizza and Japanese Takoyaki with a Taiwanese beer.
Taipei 101: A sight of seconds!
After our dinner, Nicole and I traveled to Taipei 101, the second tallest building in the world. It’s also home to the second fastest elevator and the second most delicious thing I ate in Thailand that day: mango ice cream in beer! Taipei 101 is really cool though. There is a giant tuned mass dampener that’s several hundred tons. It’s a giant ball attached to the building by cables. It’s towards the top of the building and it helps the building to sway less during an earthquake. Another neat bit of trivia is that the actual 101st floor is called Summit 101 and it’s a VIP club. There is little to no information on it. Some people suspect it’s for foreign dignitaries or big spenders from the mall downstairs. Scratch that, I googled it. Here’s some info on Summit 101.
The trip up to the top was neat, the first 5 floors of Taipei 101 make up the fanciest mall I have ever been to. Seriously, the number of luxury/high end stores was absurd. There were tons of stores there I’d never even heard of. I felt really out of place in my Red Bull t-shirt.
Taipei Night Market
After walking through the luxurious Taipei 101 mall, we went for something in the completely opposite direction, a night market! There were cheap items galore. I bought some sushi, and a small notebook. Nicole bought a Totoro phone case. Mostly we just looked at the different stalls on either side.
It was a great first day in Taiwan and we were excited for the next day’s adventures!
On our last day in Berlin, we headed over to Museum Island, Berlin’s island …of museums. We got passes and walked through a few of the museums including a painting gallery, a sculpture gallery, and a history museum. Just like the Deutsch Museum in Munich, they were really informative. The history museum even went into the history of the museum itself. Apparently a bunch of artifacts were taken to Moscow by the soviets during their occupation of East Germany and Russia still has them. There were several exhibits that brought that fact up. I found it ironic considering the Germans were holding literally hundreds of Egyptian artifacts, but they never mentioned that in the museum.
Pizza and Packing
After an afternoon of hanging out in the museums, Nicole and I got a pizza to share and headed back to the AirBnB to pack. We loaded up our bags and took a tram to a bus to the airport. The whole trip took about an hour and reached the airport right at the 2 hour mark for our international flight. Nicole got us some food while I waited in line to check us in.
Flying to Iceland
The flight to Iceland was no problem. We took off on time and arrived a few hours later in Iceland. I actually slept most of the way. The new travel Austin was finally becoming accustomed to sleeping on long flights. It made the time go by much faster, but at the expense of missing airplane snacks. I made up for it by eating the rest of Nicole’s airplane sandwich when she fell asleep. [divider_flat]
Landing in Keflavik
Landing in Keflavik, Iceland’s largest airport, was a breeze, even at 1am. There was absolutely no security or anything, we just picked up our bags from the luggage carousel and walked out. No customs, no declaration forms, Iceland was just happy to have us. I loaded up my trusty yellow backpack into a tiny shopping cart and headed over to the car rental place. The guy I chatted with was really nice. He ended up giving us a free audio CD of the Golden Circle (more on that later) and another CD of Icelandic Folktales. [divider_flat]
Finding our AirBnB
We got our keys and hopped into our rental car. I used the airport wifi to look up directions to our residence and then we departed. The trip was supposed to take only 45 minutes, but we ended up getting lost in Reykjavik. The trip took about twice as long and involved us stopping at a random house at 2am and almost knocking on the door before we realized we were in the wrong place. Luckily we figured it out and didn’t scare a random Icelandic couple with out late night intrusion. Eventually we found our AirBnB and our room inside the AirBnB. We got inside and brought our bags up to our room before passing out from an exceedingly long day.
This past weekend Nicole and I went back to Wondo for a weekend of beach camping. Our first weekend in Korea Nicole and I went to Wondo with my foreign coworkers for some R and R. When we went the first time, the water was freezing and the beach was practically empty. This time the beach was packed with Koreans in conservative bathing suits and little beach tents and the water was still freezing. I preferred the cold water to the far too warm water of our last beach adventure the day of the Sunflower Festival.
Nicole and I inadvertently bought a beach tent several weeks ago at Emart. We were trying to buy a regular tent, and found one for a great price…too great of a price in fact. Nicole didn’t find out until her East Coast Trip that the tent only had two sides to it. You read that correctly, our tent that was 50% off was missing 50% of its walls. The two missing walls were completely mesh with no way to cover it, just open to the elements and any Koreans that may want to look in.
Nicole and I packed my giant hiking backpack with the tent, sleeping bag, and plenty of other goodies before we hit the road. I’ll spare you the details of the Gwangju bus terminal although it is an interesting read if you’re new to my blog.
The bus let us off in Wondo and Nicole and I took a cab ($10) out to the beach for the weekend. We stocked up on some ice, fireworks, and chips at the convenience store in front of the beach and walked down to the water. Since Nicole and I would be camping on the beach we pitched the tent a little ways back from the shore and set up out campsite. One of the great things about Korea is that you can camp anywhere….anywhere. Just set up your tent and you’re good to go. No pesky permits or campsites, just lots of fun.
Nicole rented a tube from one of the shops along the boardwalk and floated around while I waded into the water. Nicole has been too afraid to go into the water more than knee deep in Korea on account of the cold. The one exception she made was at the hot beach from a few weekends ago.
After an afternoon of floating around and napping in our sweet beach tent, we got some dinner at one of the boardwalk restaurants. Nicole and I got a squid pizza. It was delicious. There are two basic kinds of pizza in Korea. There’s western pizza, which Koreans interpret loosely, and there’s traditional Korean pizza, which is probably called something else, but foreigners call it pizza because its round, flat, and vaguely breadlike. The pizza we got was kind of a doughy bread with various vegetable toppings and of course squid. There’s no tomato sauce or cheese, so calling it pizza maybe entirely misleading. My apologies for not posting a picture, it was too delicious to stop and photograph. In addition to our pizza, we got a glass of beer between the two of us to share as “service”.
I wrote about service briefly towards the end of the Oedaldo Island trip and the day I bought the whale shirt, but I’ll explain it again in short again. If you go to a bar, you’ll get chips or some sort of rice snack “for service”. This means basically because you bought something and you’re at this particular establishment, you’ll get something for your patronage. This happens all the time for little things, like bar snacks, but its scalable. The more you spend the more you get in “service”. It also helps to be friendly and a foreigner. The day I bought the whale shirt, I got a free shirt for “service”, partly because it was kind of expensive and partly because it was a ridiculous shirt that they never expected to sell. For spending a lot of money at the restaurant in Oedaldo, we got a free room at the minbok, hotel, next door.
Fireworks and Beach Yoga
Earlier in the day we bought fireworks from the convenience store to set off. The sign said (in Korean) cash only. I’m not sure why, possibly because the store was not supposed to be selling them or maybe they were illegal and the store didn’t want a paper trail. Either way, everyone along the beach was setting off fireworks and no one seemed concerned. The store only sold small and large roman candles so Nicole and I bought a handful of each for the beach and set them off over the water.
Nicole recently started teaching Yoga in Gwangju at the Gwangju International Center (GIC). As part of her class prep, she creates yoga routines, and I usually end up as the guinea pig in these yoga experiments. After the fireworks, we spent a few minutes on the beach doing some yoga. It felt really peaceful to do yoga with fireworks going off over the water and the lights from the boardwalk behind us. The sand was really comfortable for yoga as well. It was better than yoga on a thin mat on a wooden floor.
After dinner, Nicole and I walked along the beach when we were invited into a beach side Karaoke bar to sing karaoke with a bunch of random Koreans. The Korean who beckoned us inside, named DJ, we had met earlier that day. He was working the jetski rental place further up the shore and offered us a ride on the jetskis the next morning. He told us that he was from Gwangju, the same town as us and that he’d recognized us from seeing us downtown a few times. His English was impeccable, later he told me he’d studied in Philadelphia for 8 months and occasionally tutored English on the side. DJ waved us into the bar. I use the term “bar” loosely, like everything else along the boardwalk, the building meant lots of plastic tables and chairs and a few umbrellas or an aluminum shed with less than 4 walls, like our tent.
“Inside” we meant a bunch of very drunk older Korean gentlemen who offered us beer and Soju and chanted things like “one shot” meaning down your drink in one swig. Nicole and I obliged them…once. DJ explained to us that we didn’t need to go nuts with them and that they were “super creepy”. Aside from being drunk, they didn’t seem too bad. DJ also told us one of the guys was a gangster and pointed to a gentlemen covered in tattoos. The claim seemed believable considering the fact that almost no one in Korea has tattoos. I have yet to see a single tattoo on a Korean. DJ explained that everyone there worked at the beach for the season and this was there last night before they closed up shop for Fall. We danced to some absurd Korean Karaoke with DJ for a bit, then politely returned to our tent on the beach to call it a night.
Last weekend, Nicole and I went to Seoul with some friends. Kayla, Nicole, and I took a cab to the Gwangju bus terminal downtown around 7am and caught the 7:20am bus to Seoul but not before stopping at Dunkin Donuts for munchkins. In Korea you pick out what you want with a pair of tongs and then place them on a tray, then the cashier picks them up off the tray and puts them in a bag for you. Not the most efficient process, but the munchkins were great.
The ride took about 3.5 hours and dropped us off at the Central Seoul bus terminal in Gangnam (yes, the same one as that Psy song). At the bus terminal I got a feel for how international Seoul was. There were shops and fast food places from all over the world. Nicole got her potato fix at Irish Potato and we added yet another meal of Western food to our day.
The Seoul bus terminal is connected to the subway station. The subway in Seoul will take you pretty much anywhere and its one of the cleaner subways I’ve been on. The individual subway cars are very clean, well air conditioned, and they have really wide aisles. We traveled on the weekend so they weren’t too packed, but I hear on weekdays they get pretty slammed.
Nicole and I were staying in Itaewon, the foreigner neighborhood in Seoul. The neighborhood has a lot of American fast food places, custom suit shops, and various clothing stores. I noticed the people in Seoul, at least in Itaewon, are very very well dressed and seem much more fashion conscious than the people in Gwangju.
After Nicole and I put out stuff down, we wandered around the antique market near our hostel and I got a few neat photos out of the experience. If I had room to bring them back, or enough money to afford them, I might have bought something.
Since Nicole and I have been in Korea neither one of us has had a craftbeer, so we decided to get yet another Western meal and enjoy a good beer at a nearby restaurant called Craftworks. If you’re noticing a pattern here with all this Western food, Nicole and I made it nearly a month before missing Western food and spending a day eating loads of it as well as staying in the foreign section of town.
After lunch, Nicole and I took the subway over to Insadong to check out its famous market and try to do something Korean in Korea for a change. Insadong was really cool. There were little shops selling antiques, street vendors selling socks that looked like animals, and all manner of various street food.
Not too far from Insadong is the Gyeongbokgung palace. This is palace is the largest of the 5 Grand Palaces built by the Joseon dynasty. The palace was built in 1395, burned down, abandoned, rebuilt, destroyed by Japan, and finally rebuilt, well about half of it at this point. Nicole and I spend the afternoon wandering around the beautiful palatial grounds. We saw the library, the pavilion on the water, the throne hall, banquet hall, a storage building for various fermented pastes. Most of the signs were nonexistent, or in Korean so I had to look a bunch of this information up afterwards. In the moment, I just observed how beautiful everything was and made a note to figure out what I was looking at later.
After the palace, we took the subway back to the hostel for a quick nap before dinner. To complete our all western food day, Nicole and I had delicious italian pizza with basil and mozzarella and no corn. That night, Nicole and I met up with my friend Ryan from high school and we went to Hongdae, a university neighborhood about 15 minutes by cab. In a random little park there was a sort of outdoor rave set up complete with strobing hula hoops, a DJ, and various neon lights.
Ryan and his co-teachers made their way into the middle of the crowd to dance. It was pretty fantastic. Within minutes there was a group of cheering Koreans surrounding the western dancers as they tore it up.
Following the impromtu dance party, Ryan took us on a Hongdae pubcrawl where we had Korean beer, bag drinks (think alcoholic Capri Sun), and soju. Overall, it was an awesome night.