Singapore stopover

The last country we visited on our 2012 five month world tour was Singapore (5-9 December). Singapore makes an excellent stopover for anyone heading in or out of Australia: not only is Changi the best airport I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting, Singapore has just enough great attractions for you to comfortably see in about four days. We spent a few days in Singapore on our way out of Australia in 2010 and were keen to come back on the return journey. Visiting at the start and end made Singapore feel like neat bookends to the stories of our 2.5 years away from home.

ArtScience Museum

Accommodation

The budget traveller will find accommodation frightfully expensive in Singapore. Anything under SGD$150 is likely to land you in a dodgy budget hotel and the decent ones only start at around SGD$200. There are quite a few hostels with funky modern interiors which look nice and are cheaper than hotels but they seem to specialise in enormous dorms of 20+ beds (our personal limit is 6).

My current favourite source of accommodation, Airbnb, provided us with the perfect solution for Singapore. Sarah’s apartment is located right above the Chinatown MRT stop and has three rooms available to travellers. The facilities are excellent, the price is reasonable and Sarah is a very accommodating host. And check out the view!

Chinatown

Top 10 things to do in Singapore

  1. Singapore Zoo and Night Safari. If you want to get there by public transport take the MRT to a nearby station then a bus. When you exit the MRT touts will try to get you to take one of their private minivans, but you’ll save money (and feel triumphant) if you can find the local bus.
  2. Singapore Botanic Gardens. Free to visit (except for the orchid section) and a beautiful place to spend some time over a picnic lunch or with a good book.
  3. Chinese and Japanese Gardens. These two themed gardens are right next to each other and also very nice to explore, although they are a bit more exposed than the Botanic Gardens so try to avoid them at the hottest part of the day. You can also visit The Live Turtle and Tortoise Museum in the of the Chinese Gardens.
  4. ArtScience Museum. An excellent new museum that features an interesting program of exhibitions fusing elements of art, science and design. While you’re in the area you can also walk across the distinctive Helix Bridge which offers excellent views of the museum as well as the famous Marina Bay Sands building.
  5. Marina Bay Sands SkyPark Observation Deck. The view from the top of this famous building is impressive but pricey at SGD$20 per person. I felt it was only worth doing if the weather was really nice, which unfortunately it wasn’t when we were there. Visit the website for info about ArtScience Museum combo tickets and the free guided tours available.
  6. Vivo City. Singapore has many mega malls but Vivo City is the biggest. You could happily while away an afternoon here if you need some relief from the heat.
  7. Sentosa Island. From Vivo City you can take the to Sentosa Island. It features a whole host of attractions but you don’t have to spend a lot of money if you don’t want to. There’s plenty to see just wandering around and it also has the closest thing Singapore has to a beach (well, it is a beach, but it’s man-made).
  8. Little India. Take a stroll around the streets to witness lots of local character with colourful sights and sounds. You can also visit Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple and the big 24 hour Mustafa shopping centre.
  9. Cycling tour. Bike Mike told us about the tours he was planning to start in Singapore when we met in him in Copenhagen earlier this year. Unfortunately the tours hadn’t started by the time we got to Singapore but they seem to be running now. The price is rather steep but I think it would be a great way to see the city, and Mike is quite a character.
  10. Clarke Quay. Worth a wander in the evening for some people-watching and night photography, but avoid the multitude of bars and restaurants which are touristy and expensive.

ArtScience Museum

Good eats

Singapore is more expensive than Malaysia but food can still cheap by most European, and certainly Australian, standards. For the most authentic experience immerse yourself in its hawker-style food courts.

  • The one at the base of the People’s Park Centre in Chinatown was the cheapest and least busy one we visited (make sure you go inside the sheltered area, not just around the outside which can get quite crowded).
  • There’s a popular one near Bugis which gets pretty packed (be prepared to swoop on and defend a seat) but if you don’t mind the crowd the food is good and the stalls offer a little bit of everything.
  • Lau Pa Sat is nice but costs a little bit more than the two above.
  • The food court at Newton Circus is well known but quite touristy and touty as a result.

Make sure you try chicken rice, any combination of pork and/or duck meat with rice (my favourite ♥), char kway teow and a good laksa.

Also, Ananda Bhavan in Little India (I believe they have other locations too) is a superb vegetarian restaurant where you can sample south Indian cuisine as well as the more well-known northern dishes. Try going there for a hearty Indian breakfast that will keep you going for most of the day!

Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, Little India

[more photos 2010 / more photos 2012]

Advertisements

A week in Sri Lanka

The main reason we went to Sri Lanka (28 Nov – 5 Dec) was to visit Alex’s cousin Matt and his family. It was great to see Matt again and wonderful to meet his wife and absolutely adorable son. Then as luck would have it we also got to meet their brand new daughter who arrived three weeks early! We spent most of our time in the country relaxing and hanging out at Matt’s place in Colombo but we also did some sightseeing around town and spent a few days down south to see more of the country.

Statue and carving at Gangaramaya Temple

Things to do in Colombo

  • Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple. Entry is 125 rupees, shoes off, and your knees and shoulders needs to be covered to enter but it’s a fascinating place to visit. It’s a fully functioning temple with people at prayer but the sprawling complex feels more like a museum, chock full of random items that have been donated including statues, ivory, old cars, piles of coins and rusted locks, old bank notes, old radios, old printing presses… even a live baby elephant.
  • Simamalaka shrine. Also part of the Gangaramaya complex but situated nearby on an island in Beira Lake. It’s particularly picturesque lit up at night.
  • Viharamahadevi Park. We didn’t get a chance to visit this park but Matt recommended it and it’s near the temple and shrine mentioned above.
  • The park is also just north of the National Museum, National Museum of Natural History and National Art Gallery. We didn’t make it to these either but the National Museum is supposed to be very good and I believe the National Art Gallery is free.
  • Barefoot. A big, lovely shop full of great gift ideas including tea, clothes, books, beauty products, homewares and handmade linen toys. They also have a nice cafe out the back.
  • Gallery Cafe. A beautiful restaurant housed in the former offices of the late Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa. You walk through a small gallery to reach the main restaurant area and a nice gift shop is attached as well.
  • Geoffrey Bawa’s Colombo residence itself is also open to the public and available for tours. I’m afraid this is another lovely thing that we didn’t get around to doing in Colombo but you shouldn’t miss out if you’re there!
  • Go for a walk along Galle Face Green. It’s lined with old cannons, food stalls and locals taking a stroll along this seaside promenade.
  • Galle Face Hotel. Even if you’re not staying at this illustrious establishment at the southern end of Galle Face Green you can visit the very pleasant outdoor bar out the back by the water for a drink. It’s an oasis of calm and has received praise from endless famous international visitors… but at the same time it’s a little bit unreal. You won’t find any locals here.

Food stalls on Galle Face Green

Hikkaduwa

On Matt’s suggestion we took a couple of days off to visit Hikkaduwa in the south. We stayed at Hikkaduwa Nature Resort which is tucked away in a mangrove swamp on the edge of a lake and very peaceful. It’s a great place just to sit and do nothing but read, drink from king coconuts and watch monitor lizards swim by.

We stayed in one of the three water bungalows. The staff went out of their way to make sure we had a good time but there were a couple of aspects about the room pricing that were not quite right. When we booked the options were for BB, HB or FB (bed & breakfast, half or full board) and my advice would be just to book BB. It’s significantly more expensive to book additional board and you end up choosing the included meals from a menu that plainly shows it would have been cheaper just to buy them. Also, they recently added air conditioning to the biggest bungalow but it’s noisy, you can’t control the temperature and you can’t really use it at night because it shorts out the site’s power supply, so it’s not worth paying extra for (request one of the two smaller bungalows).

There’s a beach a short tuktuk ride away that looked like it would have been a wonderful place to snorkel, but it’s a bit difficult to relax with a stream of people coming up to you trying to sell clothes or an overpriced boat trip or invite you to a nightclub.

Hikkaduwa is couple of hours by train from Colombo (the ride being a fun experience in itself!) and if you have the time while you’re down there you could also visit Galle which is nearby.

Hikkaduwa Nature Resort

A few pieces of advice

It’s a familiar story: the tuktuks have fare meters but not all drivers like to use them. Before you get in, point to the meter and ask “meter?” If the driver is going to use it they’ll just switch it on straight away without a word and you can hop right in. If they start saying anything else you’re not going to be able to convince them to use it – you’ll either have to negotiate a fare or find another tuktuk (of which there are plenty).

To get to and from the airport it’s much better to book a private taxi transfer through an official company. The prices are set depending on what part of Colombo you’re travelling to but vary between different companies.

Exchange your rupees before leaving the country as few currency exchanges will touch them outside of Sri Lanka. Your last chance to do this is at the airport before you proceed to the check-in area (there are several options). If you think you may want to buy anything at the shops and eateries after this point, exchange your rupees for US dollars which are accepted by the airport shops and easily exchanged anywhere in the world. (The only place we’ve come across that will exchange SL rupees outside of SL so far is the Low Cost Carrier Terminal in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.)

Tuktuk ride, Colombo

[more photos]

Malaysia: food, glorious food

Next up after Japan came Malaysia (19-27 November). This started off in planning as a stop over on the way from Japan to Sri Lanka, where we would be visiting Alex’s cousin and his family. But the more we read about Malaysia the longer we wanted to spend there, and in the end we spent more time on the Malaysian “stop over” than we did at the Sri Lankan destination!

Petronas Twin Towers

Kuala Lumpur

We started our 9 day visit to Malaysia with 3 days in KL. We stayed at BackHome, a hostel with a very cool and modern interior design. We booked a private double room with aircon and it was spacious, comfortable and incredibly cheap. They have a partner cafe next door called LOKL Coffee which has a similar interior style and some pretty tasty food on offer, and you get a 10% discount if you’re staying at the hostel.

Most of what I read about KL wrote it off as a shopping destination, and while we did spend a reasonable amount of time in malls recovering from the oppressive humidity outside there are other things to do in KL apart from shop:

  • Malaysia Heritage walking tour. If we’d been a bit more organised we would have arranged to go on this tour but it requires booking in advance by at least one day. It sounds like a great overview of the city but make sure you take plenty of water!
  • Kuala Lumpur Bird Park. “The world’s largest free-flight walk-in aviary” is a great place to spend half a day and put your camera’s fancy zoom lens through its paces. Don’t miss the highly entertaining bird show!
  • Petronas Twin Towers. One of KL’s iconic landmarks. We didn’t go up to the viewpoint (pricey) but there’s quite a good mall at the base with a Kinokuniya and a cinema showing the latest blockbusters (and some Asian films) for 14 ringgit a ticket (~AU$4).
  • Berjaya Times Square. Another huge shopping mall – so big that it contains an indoor theme park complete with roller coasters! Incidentally, this is also a great place to get a bargain haircut (around 40 ringgit – less than AU$13), no appointment necessary.

Flamingos, KL Bird Park

Kuala Lumpur eats

You have to try a little harder in KL to hunt down tasty cheap eats than you do in Penang. Our top three spots would be:

  1. Kak Som, Kampung Baru. Kampung Baru is apparently one of the last remaining Malay pockets left in KL. It’s quite central so it’s incredibly valuable real estate but the original occupants don’t want to sell out. Visit Kak Som and order nasi kerabu (blue rice), then pick and choose your own toppings such as fried chicken and fish. Depending on what you add you can feed two people (two mains and two juices) for less than 20 ringgit (~AU$6).
  2. Soong Kee’s Beef Ball Noodles. A quick and tasty meal for 5-6 ringgit per person (less than AU$2).
  3. Little India.  You can get some tasty thosai, roti canai or any other number of Indian dishes in KL’s Little India. There are also some Chinese-style hawker stalls nearby on Jalan Thambipillay.

In Little India

Penang

When I was researching how much time to spend in Penang the results consistently replied, “Well, how many meals do you want to eat?” Since one of our greatest travel joys is enjoying local food, reading about the food haven that is Penang was terribly exciting. And it did not disappoint!

Food is definitely the number one reason to visit Penang but there are also lots of interesting things to see while you’re digesting in between meals:

  • George Town. The core of Penang’s capital is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s filled with historic buildings such as the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion (otherwise known as The Blue Mansion) and Chinese clanhouses such as Khoo Kongsi. Along the water’s edge some are the famous Clan Jetties.
  • Penang Hill. Ride the funicular railway to the top on a clear day for a panoramic view of George Town.
  • Kek Lok Si temple (white pagoda) and Wat Chayamangkalaram temple (reclining Buddha). Unfortunately we didn’t have time to visit either of these temples but if you do they look spectacular.
  • Batu Ferringhi. Hit the beach across the road from the Hydro Hotel (less touristy) during the day and central BF in the evening to soak up the atmosphere of the night market. On the opposite side of the road from the market there’s a plethora of cheap massage parlours – we enjoyed (powerful!) 60 minute massages for 50 ringgit each (less than AU$16).
  • Teluk Bahang National Park. Entry is free but you need to register how far you intend to trek before you go in. You’ll probably see monkeys near the entrance and if you’re lucky you might see monitor lizards and turtles inside. The walk does get pretty heavy going after the second bridge though, especially in the heat.

(All of these are easily accessible by public bus but the buses only pass by every 20-30 minutes so it’s not as convenient to pop back and forth all over the place, especially if you’re staying  outside of George Town and need to make all your connections at KOMTAR. As with the Greek islands or Malta, try to avoid doing too much in one day.)

The beach, Batu Ferringhi

Penang eats

Right. Well. First off, head to the tourist information centre to pick up the latest copy of their Food Trail brochure. This lists recommended restaurants and hawkers stalls, but more importantly it lists all the specialty dishes that make Penang famous. We basically used ours as a “to do” list and tried to tick off as many of the dishes listed as we could.

Penang food hunter tips! The dishes are usually not overly big, which is great because it leaves more room to try more dishes. If you’re travelling with a friend or partner, order different dishes and go halves with each other so you get to sample more. When you visit a food court you don’t have to order all your dishes from the one stall – feel free to order as many as you have room for from as many different stalls that tempt you!

You can’t really go wrong with where you eat on Penang, but our three top recommendations are:

  1. Gurney Drive. A huge, super cheap open air hawker’s food court. A great place to tick lots of dishes off your “to eat” list! There are several stalls doing yummy fresh juices too for only ~2 ringgit / AU$0.70.
  2. Line Clear Nasi Kandar, George Town. Nasi kandar is one of Penang’s most famous dishes and Line Clear is one of its most famous restaurants. Join the line and when it’s your turn you can ask for “kari campur” (mixed curry) then choose any meats or veg to be added on top (I recommend the fried chicken). Wash it all down with a refreshing glass of “teh o ais limau” (iced lemon tea without milk).
  3. Seafood restaurant, Teluk Bahang. I’m not even sure what it’s called but you’ll come across it within about a 5 minute walk after leaving the national park. We went there to eat crab. The price depends on the market but when we were there we enjoyed two whole crabs for 26 ringgit each (~AU$8).

Gurney Drive open air food court

Malaysia in a nutshell: cheap, delicious and highly recommended!

[more photos]

Highlights from a second visit to Japan

From Busan in South Korea we took another overnight ferry – the final one on this trip! – to Shimonoseki in Japan. This was my second visit to Japan and Alex’s third. The last time we visited was in 2007 and it was the first time I’d ever travelled outside of Australia. It’s a wonderful country to travel in: efficient transport, great food, clean, safe, and the people are honest, helpful and kind. The only downside is it is a bit on the expensive side, but you can minimise costs by staying in hostels (which are some of the cleanest in the world) and enjoying cup noodles and supermarket sushi (both quite decent in Japan) for some meals.

Lanterns, Kyoto

We spent significantly longer in Japan than any other country on this trip – a little over three weeks (27 Oct – 18 Nov). Three weeks is a good amount because it ties in nicely with the longest Japan Rail pass you can get, but even so it still didn’t feel like enough time. All up we visited Hiroshima, Miyajima Island, Okayama, Naoshima Island, Kyoto, Osaka, Shibu Onsen, Nagano, Sapporo, Sendai and Tokyo. I’ve already mentioned some of these places in a previous post so I thought I’d just highlight some of the new ones this time round which really stood out.

Miyajima Island

Miyajima is an easy day trip from Hiroshima and famous for the “floating” red torii marking the entrance to Itsukushima Shrine. It’s the most famous of the three most beautiful views in Japan. It’s worth staying to observe the torii at both high and low tide: at high tide you get the floating effect and at low tide you can walk right up to it across the sand. Other things you can also do while visiting the island are to hike or take the cable car up to the top of Mount Misen, eat local delicacies (including grilled oysters), and befriend the wild deer that roam around freely.

Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima

Naoshima Island

Naoshima is a cool and arty place. You can visit as a day trip, which is what we did, but it would be even better to stay at least one night to give yourself more time to explore everything it has to offer. We hired bikes to get around and visited the bizarre 007 Museum as well as the modern art museum section of Benesse House. There’s a cute cafe near the entrance to Benesse House which serves delicious and somewhat unique Japanese food and is run by a nice girl who took orders, cooked and served all by herself. If we’d had more time we could have checked out the Art House Project, Chichu Art Museum and Lee Ufan Museum. We almost visited the surreal I Love Yu bath house but hadn’t brought soap and towels with us and we didn’t want to pay extra for new ones.

Yellow pumpkin, Naoshima Island

Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen museum, Osaka

This museum gets a special mention all of its own just because it was so much fun! Maybe it’s not for everyone, but if you’re as much a fan of authentic Japanese Nissin Cup Noodles as we are this is a must visit. For those that don’t know the humble Nissin Cup Noodle, is is quite simply, the best cup noodle you will ever eat. But! Only the Japanese ones are worthy of this qualification. You can get Nissin Cup Noodles in other parts of Asia, even in Australia, but they’re not nearly as amazing as the original Japanese ones. Truly.

Momofuku Ando was the inventor of instant ramen (ie 2 minute noodles) and part of the team that later perfected the cup variety. The museum is on the outskirts of Osaka and dedicated to the development of these products but the best part is the My Cup Noodle Factory. Here you get to create your very own one of a kind cup noodle, from designing the cup itself to choosing which ingredients are added. The museum is free but it’s ¥300 to participate in My Cup Noodle Factory. (Well worth it in my opinion!) The factory section is very popular so head there first to make sure you get to do it before the museum closes.

My Cup Noodle Factory

(Credit goes to our friend Hamish for mentioning this place to us. Catching up with Hamish was a another highlight of our brief time in Osaka!)

Shibu Onsen and the Jigokudani Monkey Park

We knew we wanted to visit the famous monkey park and picked Shibu Onsen as a base because it is the nearest town. Staying in Shibu Onsen turned out to be even better than the park we’d come to visit and is quite simply one of the loveliest experiences we’ve ever had in Japan! It’s a small hot spring town with 9 public baths which are free to use if you’re staying in local accommodation. It’s perfectly acceptable, in fact actively encouraged, to walk around Shibu Onsen wearing your yukata – you can even wear it to visit the local restaurants in between baths. Our favourite of those restaurants was the soba house Yariya where the food was delicious and staff lovely – they even gave us a small piece of art as a gift. We stayed at Senshinkan Matsuya and it’s quite possibly the nicest ryokan we’ve ever been to: super nice owners, beautiful room, excellent breakfast, right in the centre of town, free lifts – and it was actually the cheapest option we could find! Amazing, and highly recommended.

The monkey park was great fun too. It’s better to visit when the weather is cooler as the monkeys are more likely to be bathing in their personal hot spring: winter would be a particularly enchanting time to go. But even when they’re not bathing they’re great fun to observe. There are so many of them and they have lots of character!

Jigokudani Monkey Park

Sapporo

The last time we visited Japan we went south to Okinawa, this time we went north to visit Hokkaido. We based ourselves in Sapporo at Jimmyz Backpackers, a great little hostel run by one super cool dude. We wandered around town and visited some of its unusually western buildings, admired the stunning autumn leaves at Nakajimakoen, devoured super tasty soup curry, and maybe tested a little bit too much beer at the Sapporo Beer Museum. Nothing particularly fancy, but we had a really enjoyable time because Sapporo is just a really nice and laid back town. (The people seem to have particularly cool fashion sense too.) I’d like to go back to Hokkaido one day and spend some time exploring the rest of what it has to offer as it feels quite unique and distinct from the rest of Japan.

Nakajima Park, Sapporo

[more photos]

Discovering South Korea

We didn’t know quite what to expect from South Korea but we really rather enjoyed it! It has the cleanliness and modernity of Japan at a fraction of the price and the people are super friendly, to the point where randoms would occasionally strike up short conversations with us on the subway or (outside of Seoul) call out hello from the other side of the street. And after Beijing it was so orderly and quiet (not to mention the significant improvement in air quality).

We only had a little over a week (18-26 October) and spent most of it in Seoul, with a couple of days in Daejeon and Busan on our way down to catch an overnight ferry to Japan. We could have happily spent longer! It would have been great to get out to Jeju Island, to see more of the country’s many national parks, or just delved deeper into Seoul and Busan.

Cheonggye Stream, Seoul

10 great things to do in Seoul:

  1. Explore cool areas such as Myeong-dong, Hongdae and Insa-Dong. Myeong-dong is full of restaurants, bars and shops and is particularly lively at night. Hongdae is the area around Hongik University and good for cheap eats and a youthful studenty vibe. Insa-Dong is probably the busiest area we went to and full of interesting street food snacks, shops and stalls selling handicrafts, and occasionally live street performers.
  2. Namsan Tower. You can take a cable car up to the base of the tower and pay again to ride up the tower itself, but if you’re feeling energetic you can save money by walking up to the base where you’ll get a pretty decent view without even having to fork out for the tower.
  3. Five Grand Palaces. If you’re short on time try to visit the Secret Garden at Changdeokgung Palace. You can only enter as part of a guided tour and there are a limited number in English so it would be best to go in the morning to secure a place. (We missed out!)
  4. Museums and architecture. There are some fascinating examples of modern architecture in Seoul but you can combine it with some meatier culture by visiting one of its many museums, some of which are worth visiting just to marvel at the architecture alone.
  5. Gwangjang Market. A huge traditional Korean market full of food stalls on the ground floor and silk and satin goods on the second floor.
  6. Dongdaemun shopping area. If you’re in the mood for some clothes shopping you could easily spend a whole day exploring the floors of the multiple shopping centres on Jangchungdan-ro near the Dongdaemun History & Culture Park metro. (It’s unbranded stuff, but that’s the only kind I’m interested in.)
  7. Dolsot bibimbap. The best kind, served in a hot stone bowl so raw egg cooks when you stir everything together and the rice goes crispy towards the end.
  8. Korean BBQ. They’re everywhere in Seoul but there are some all-you-can-eat ones (the best kind!) around Hongik University where you can eat as much barbequed meat, seafood and vegetables as you like for around ₩12000 per person.
  9. Unusual street food. Different areas offer different types of stalls – if you spot something you’d like to try grab it while you can because you might not come across it again. Some of the more interesting ones we saw were hotdogs plastered in crinkle cut chips, spiral crisps and pastries filled with soft serve icecream.
  10. Demilitarised Zone half day trip. A variety of companies offer tours to the DMZ, we just picked one at the tourist information office. It’s quite a sobering experience. It’s actually very touristy and the whole idea that people are profiting from visitors going to see it is quite surreal, but I definitely recommend it. Some companies offer full day trips that also include a visit to the Joint Security Area on the actual border at Panmunjom but you’ll need to book one of those at least four days in advance and submit a copy of your passport – there’s also a very strict dress code.

Seoul tip: some of the metro subway stop names are very similar, make sure you’re heading towards the right one!

Seoul skyline at night

Daejeon

We chose to stay in Daejeon because it was close to Songnisan National Park and a nice halfway point between Seoul and Busan. The park was particularly beautiful when we visited as the autumn leaves were out in full colour. There are different hiking routes available and they are pretty serious hikes – I may have scoffed at the people with hiking poles when we started out but I’m sure they were laughing at us later on when it got tougher. Just inside the park entrance you can also visit a 7th century Buddhist temple complex called Beopjusa. Its features include an impressive 33 metre tall golden plated bronze statue of Buddha and Palsangjeon, one of the only two wooden pagodas left in South Korea.

Little stone cairns at Songnisan

Busan

With not even a full day in Busan we barely scratched the surface of what there is to do and see. The main thing we did manage to fit in was to visit Jagalchi Fish Market, which I highly recommend. There are three different fish markets in the area: dried, fresh and live. The live fish section is on the first floor of a multi story building and is as fascinating as (if not even more so) than an actual aquarium. We have no idea what half the things in there were! They had mussels ten times the size of normal mussels, strange fat worm like-like things, tanks stuffed full of octopus, striped fish, flat fish, squid that would have jumped out of their containers onto the floor if there wasn’t a clear lid keeping them in, and more besides. You can eat many of these things as super fresh sashimi on the second floor (even the strange fat worms).

Jagalchi Fish Market, Busan

[more photos]

Arrival in Asia: 5 days in Beijing

Leaving the safety of our final Trans-Mongolian train and stepping out into the big wide world again seemed almost daunting at first but we acclimatised quickly enough. The first thing we were struck by on our arrival in Beijing was the sheer number of people, but at least Ulaanbaatar had prepared us in part for dealing with the crazy traffic.

Beijing Railway Station

Beijing wasn’s quite what we were expecting for a city in a communist country. It’s like any other bustling modern metropolis with advertising and shops galore. Food and public transport are super cheap and admission to attractions is usually very reasonable. Public transport is especially great in Beijing! The subway is very easy to navigate, clean, airconditioned and only 20p for a one way trip. Buses are another great option once you figure out the most useful routes and they cost half the price of the subway.

Our lovely London friend Danni grew up in Beijing and armed us with loads of excellent recommendations for things to do and, most importantly, places to eat. The guy running the guesthouse we stayed at was also very helpful. As a result of all these suggestions we had a great time in Beijing, although we only really scratched the surface. And I have to admit, the crowds and the traffic did get a little exhausting by the end of the five days we had there (12-17 October).

Forbidden City seen from Jingshan Park

Places to visit in Beijing:

  • Tiananmen Square. Rich in history, surrounded by museums and offers your first glimpse of the iconic Forbidden City entrance. You can also visit Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum.
  • Forbidden City. It’s no wonder it’s called a city, it’s huge. We thought we explored half of it on our first day and later realised we hadn’t even made it through the ticket entrance! (There’s a fair walk after the famous gate with Mao’s picture on it before you reach the real heart of the city.) The audio guide is worth getting to make sense of the almost endless halls and palaces.
  • Jingshan Park. Directly north of the Forbidden City, the central of five pavilions sitting atop the large artificial hill offers a spectacular view of the Forbidden City and the greater Beijing skyline.
  • Beihai Park. West of Jingshan Park, Beihai is another beautiful oasis in the middle of the city. It features a large lake that you can go boating on, Buddhist temples and even caves.
  • Tiandi Theatre. Here you can watch a jaw-dropping performance by the China National Acrobatic Troupe. Absolutely spectacular and a really fun night!
  • Wangfujing Snack Street. Super touristy but it has an enjoyable night time atmosphere. Worth a wander just to gawp at the creepy crawly snacks on sticks such as scorpions, seahorses and starfish. Other food is available too but it’s pricey for what you get.
  • Beijing Zoo. The pandas are definitely the star attraction here. Unfortunately some of the other animals’ enclosures aren’t quite the same standard as the zoo’s main drawcard.
  • Water Cube. This place looks super cool but we didn’t have enough time to visit. Apparently the entry fee is a little steep but it sounds preeetty fun!

Panda, Beijing Zoo

Places to eat:

  • Sha Guo Ju (砂锅居), 60 Xisi South Street, Xicheng. Established in 1741 and famous for their claypots but they do lots of other dishes too. (English menu available.)
  • Hai Di Lao (海底捞火锅). Various locations, but we went to the one on the 7th floor of the Xi Dan New Wedding Center, 109 Xidan North Street, Xicheng. A super popular hot pot/steamboat restaurant. Plan for an early dinner – as in, 5pm early. Otherwise you may have to wait a very long time for a table: when we left at 6pm there must have been 50 or more people waiting! Tip: you can order half portions of the dishes which is great if you want to try lots of different things.
  • Li Li Restaurant (力力餐厅), Xianyukou Street, Qianmen. Established in 1954 and specialises in SiChuan cuisine. There’s no English but we just followed Danni’s recommendation and ordered the super cheap and tasty Dan Dan Noodle.
  • Huatian Emei Restaurant (峨嵋酒家), 58 Bei Li Shi Lu, Xi Cheng Qu. Another restaurant specialising in SiChuan cuisine. The menu doesn’t have any English but look out for 宫保鸡丁 (Kungpao Chicken) and 麻婆豆腐 (Ma Po Tofu), both of which are mindblowingly delicious!
  • There’s also a good selection of places to eat inside the giant shopping centre on Wangfujing Street. We enjoyed Chef Hung’s Taiwanese Beef Noodles and Danni also recommended a traditional hotpot restaurant called Donglaishun (东来顺).

We actually didn’t get around to having proper Peking duck in Beijing which is a bit of a shame, but I kind of got the impression it was something you might have had to order in advance… either way, we definitely ate our fair share of delicious meals in Beijing.

Qianmen restaurant

The Great Wall of China

Several sections of the Great Wall of China are accessible as a day trip from Beijing. The nearest section, Badaling, is about a 1 hour drive and the furthest section, Jinshaling, takes 3 hours. Badaling is touristy and over-restored but possible to reach by public transport. Our accommodation arranged a private driver to take us out to the Jinshaling section and while it was one of the priciest day trips we’ve taken it was worth it. It cost 1100 CNY for the car and driver but we didn’t get dragged through any tourist shops, just 3 hours drive to the wall, 3 hours to explore the wall at our own pace, then 3 hours back to Beijing. We left Beijing at 5:30am and were the first people on the cable car – we practically had the place to ourselves.

Great Wall of China, Jinshanling section

[more photos]

Goodbye London, hello open road

Alex and I have just under a month left in the UK before my Youth Mobility visa expires and we have to leave the country. This isn’t such a bad thing: in fact it’s an excellent thing. It’s only been 1.5 years but I’m quite tired of living in a city the size of London: the pedestrian and public transport congestion and the passive aggressiveness that comes with it is enough to make me long for the comparative simplicity of life in Melbourne. (I dread to think what it will be like when the Olympics are in full swing.) It’s been a fantastic experience living here and it’s provided us with many wonderful opportunities but I just don’t think I’m cut out to live long-term in such a big city.

But the best part will be the bit that comes between leaving London and returning to Melbourne: being back on the road again for 5 months of vagabonding across the globe. This is how our itinerary is shaping up:

FROM 24 JULY

Croatia: Split and Zadar

AUGUST

Slovenia: Ljubljana and Piran
Italy: Trieste
Slovenia: Bled
Austria: Salzburg and Halstatt
Germany: Munich, Mainz and Bremen
Denmark: Copenhagen and one other place (any recommendations?)
Norway: Oslo and wherever else our friends Mae and Tulpesh take us!

SEPTEMBER

Sweden: Stockholm and one other place (any recommendations?)
Latvia: Riga
Estonia: Talinn
Finland: Helsinki and one other place (any recommendations?)
Russia: St Petersburg and Moscow

OCTOBER

Trans-Mongolian rail trip across Siberia and Mongolia, stopping off along the way
China: Beijing
South Korea: Seoul and one or two other places (any recommendations?)

NOVEMBER

Japan: Fukuoka, Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Osaka, Sapporo, Tokyo
Malaysia: Kuala Lumpur and Penang
Sri Lanka: Wherever Alex’s cousin Matthew takes us!

DECEMBER

Singapore
Australia: Brisbane and a roadtrip down the east coast until shortly before Christmas

The plan is to travel from Croatia to Japan by land using trains, buses and ferries. Do let us know if you have any recommendations of things to and see in any of these places!