Yunnan

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With the most ethnic groups among all of China, this southern part of China started to fascinate me when I was researching on Guilin a decade ago. And Yunnan had been on my mind ever since.

Sharing external borders with Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam. Internally, it has as neighbors Guangxi, Guizhou, Sichuan, and Tibet. With its location, it is not surprising that Yunnan is diverse in its culture and people.

Across-the-Bridge-Noodle-SoupA specialty of the Yunnan Province, guoqiao mixian, which translate to “Across the Bridge Noodles”.  The name made popular by a lady who used to bring noodles to her husband across the bridge.  Full Story here.
snow-capped-mountainImpression Lijiang a Zhang Yimou show with the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain as its backdrop.

Its landscape ranges from snow-capped mountains to dense jungles to sensational terraces.

Amazing land it surely is and I have been charmed, captivated. Join me in the next few months as I reminisce about my journey into dramatic landscapes, breathtaking views, fascinating cultures and magnificent cuisine.

Kunming

kunming-at-night

The hub and the capital of Yunnan served as our jump off point. Surrounded by temples, lakes and limestone hills, the city has its own allure, but we didn’t spend a lot of time in the city. Unfortunately.

Green Lake

boating-in-the-lake

I chose to stay near the lake precisely because we didn’t have that much time for exploration. The lake is in the heart of the city’s business, food and culture.

Lao-Fang-ZhiA few steps from our hostel is Lao Fang Zhi, a house of over 100 years turned restaurant that serves awesome hot Yunnan dishes. 

A beautiful park designed and created way back in the 17th century. Surrounded by willow trees and dotted with vibrant lotuses, the park has become a favorite among nature lovers.

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A stroll around the lake is a pleasant way to watch how the locals spend their time.

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A lot was going on. In one part of the lake, music filled the air, and people were dancing.

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In another, aunties sit around chatting and doing some embroidery while some are contented just to admire the lake and soak up the atmosphere.

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At night, the lights come alive and radiate a different ambiance.

green-lake-at-night

And with this, we start our journey into an endearing province of China that seemed to have been left alone. Stay tuned.

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Rainy Days in Seoul: Staying at the Hongdae District

main-road-mapo-gu

Blame it on K-drama and a thwarted meeting last June, we found ourselves walking the streets of Mapo-Gu, backpacks in tow, looking for our guesthouse on a cold and rainy day in November. We don’t want to waste that visa and ticket, yes?

We got off the subway, followed the instructions provided by the guesthouse complete with photos. Easy to find, on a quiet street not far from the main road sits a charming brick building housing a photography studio and an office on the ground floor.

Lee-Kang-Ga

Lee Kang Ga will be our home for a few days while we explore Seoul (some of it, that is). The cozy guesthouse is on the top floor with residential units in between.

wall-artI chose to stay in the Hongdae district for its urban street arts and indie music culture. Brimming with mostly young people wandering about, the vibrant streets (especially at night) are alive with music and a lot of cheering. You’ll see dance performances, musicians singing or playing their instruments in all sorts of genre.

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Filled with independent stores and boutiques, it is also a fantastic place to shop if edgy fashion is your thing. It is clearly a place for the young and the young at heart.

As it is a university belt, restaurants and coffee shops abound. Although a phenomenon in all of Korea, the area boasts of exciting themed cafes.

hongdae

Every night was a different discovery of the local taste. One night we devoured on (fried) chicken and beer.

chicken-and-beerIf you don’t know this combination, then you are not watching enough K-dramas.

“Have you tried makgeolli?” Andy, from our guesthouse and (must add) the kindest staff I’ve encountered so far, asked. Apparently also superb with chicken, he ran down to the nearest convenience store, bought us a few bottles of Korean rice wine. He ordered a box of fried chicken to go with it.

Mageolli

Pronounced Mak-a-lee, this milky alcoholic beverage is fizzy and refreshing, slightly sweet and tangy and easy to drink.

Every night, we gather at the rooftop kitchen and dining area to exchange stories and share a few bottles of beer, soju, makgeolli or wine with other guests and staff.

hanging-out

It was a lovely vibe of different cultures and age groups. And till today, I still fond memories of those nights.

In the heart of Hongdae, Andy pointed us to one of his favorite “grilled beef” restaurants. It didn’t have an English sign so he sent us a photo of the sign in Korean and instructions on how to find it.

Korean-beef

Found on the 3rd floor atop a 7Eleven store, it was packed with students and young professionals. And on a corner table, we indulged in excellent Korean beef. What made it really special outside of its quality and reasonable price is the array of flavoured salt that one dredges on the meat.salt-variety

Equally as important to Koreans are pork bellies. Samgyupsal or pork belly wraps could possibly outshine any beef dish in Korea. Koreans are in love with pork bellies and so are we. On our way to the Nanta Theater in Hongdae, we spotted “The Ginger Pork” and instantly knew where dinner will be after the show.

Ginger-Pork

Thick fatty slices of pork bellies grilled on a grill plate, eaten together with garlic, green onion salad and some ssamjang wrapped in fresh lettuce leaf.  It was a glorious way to cap  a fantastically energetic show.

nanta

And speaking of Nanta, do find time to watch this impressive non-verbal comedy show that is entirely about cooking/food. It’s a lot of fun. In Hongdae, the theatre is housed in the beautiful Yellow Stone Building.

Yellow-Stone-Building

There are more to explore in the Hongdae district and 4 nights is simply not enough. In fact, we only scratched the surface and definitely calls for another visit. More of Seoul in my next posts. Stay tuned.

Ubud

I’ll drop everything and hop on a flight with you just at the mention of the word. Ubud is one of the places I go to recharge (read my old post on Ubud here). The cultural heartland of Bali, surrounded by rice fields and lush greenery, is my place of rest and inspiration.

lush-greeneriesIt’s a town about 300 meters above sea level so it is comfortably cooler than the rest of the island. The main reason Ubud appeals so much to me is because it feed my needs. In Ubud, I get to relax, be artistically inspired by its art and culture, enjoy the good (but not necessarily expensive) food and be in the midst of nature.

architectureThis town in the middle of Bali has been known for over a century as an artist village, a cultural center that draws those who seek crafted treasures and/or architectural inspiration. The cultural and traditional art in Ubud were preserved because when it became a Dutch Protectorate in the 1900s, the colonialists didn’t interfere much.

art-sceneIt was only in the 1930s when the Royal family encouraged foreign artists to Ubud did the modern era began in Ubud, eventually creating a dynamic art scene. Consequently, a treasure trove of museums and galleries now call Ubud home.

retail-therapyUbud is a haven for shoppers, truth to tell. Monkey Forest Road, Jalan Raya and Hanoman Streets are strips of retail therapy treats – from beautiful arts and crafts, local designer clothes and jewelry to unique housewares and antiques.

warungIt is also home to restaurants, cafes and warungs (local eateries), and a foodie’s haven. The whole island, in fact, has an exciting culinary scene and Ubud is right up there.

gastronomic-delight-At first glance, Ubud seemingly may consist of local eateries but it has its fair share of creative restaurants featuring a fusion of different cuisines. Every visit, I discover new jaunts but try to revisit one or two favourites.  More on Ubud Eats here.

rice-fieldsNature lovers will love the countryside feel of Ubud. Cafes and lodgings surrounded by rice fields abound.

resortThe view of the rice field from our resort, Munari Resort and Spa.

While birds and animal lovers will enjoy an afternoon in either the Monkey Forest or head out to Putulu Village for some white heron (kokokan) sightings.

Monkey-ForestThese herons, thousands of them, have inhabited the trees of Putulu since 1965.

white-heronsThey return to rest at around 6 pm every night so it is best to go an hour or so earlier, find yourself a warung and enjoy a few drinks of cold beer while you wait.

The one lure that calls out the loudest and the one I truly look forward to is the pampering. You can’t walk more than a few meters without passing a spa.

massageGetting a daily massage is a norm in an area swarming with spas – a traditional Balinese massage one day, a Javanese Lulur Scrub another and what about a four-hand massage or coffee scrub for that special treat before going home?

Ahh… just writing this post had me yearning for another de-stressing visit to Ubud. Sigh…

Bullfighting

arena

One April evening, enthusiast and curious tourists from around the world enter the massive arena of Las Ventas to witness a bullfight. I was there too, sitting in the Sombra (shaded) section, quite close to the action.

bullfighting

Bullfighting or a corrida is an ancient tradition that goes back four millennia, practiced by many different cultures. Three toreros (matadors) fighting six bulls, each with 6 assistants: two picadors (lancers) mounted on horseback, three banderilleros (flagmen) and a mozo de Espada (sword servant). Together, they form a cuadrillo or an entourage.

opening-parade

The trumpet sounds and in flamboyant bullfighter costumes, the entourage parades into the arena. The corrida starts with the first bull entering the field from the Puerta de las Toriles, where it waited.

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The picadors mounted on heavily padded horses follow. Bull attacks the horse, the picador stabs its neck, the bull weakens.

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Then three banderilleros enters as the picadors leave, plants spiked flag sticks into the bull’s shoulder.

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When the bull is deemed weak enough, the torero appears and works the bull with several runs at the cape. The whole spectacle comes to an end with the torero killing the bull with his sword. This was repeated six times.

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Did I enjoy it? Many times I cringed, especially when the puncture wasn’t clean. No, I will not watch it again. Just once, I told myself.   Hard as it may be to watch, I could not deny that it was a cultural experience hard to forget.

The Trek to the Underground River

Underground-RiverCredits: Papers by Plum Dumpling Designs, Pri Rocha, The Design Girl, Trixie Scap Design; Ribbon by Design by Tater, Red string with flowers by Graham Like the Cracker, and String wrap by Haynay Designs. 

Elusive in the past, I became disinterested and eventually gave up the idea of visiting Palawan’s famous Underground River. Then they re-opened the Jungle Trail.

Initially slated for December but due to unforeseen reasons, we moved our Puerto Princesa trip to January.  We planned to simply chill out, visit our favorite jaunts and catch up with friends. Then, the grand idea— “why not go to Sabang for the day so you can finally see the Underground River?” Anton to me.  Me to him,  “Ok, but we will trek to the cave.”

Sabang-Pier

The Sabang Pier is the main jump off point to the Underground River or The Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, once also called the St. Paul Subterranean River. Yes, it has many names. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999, the cave was provisionally chosen (through votes—and you know how we Filipinos can vote) as one of the 7 New Wonders of Nature in 2011.

Entrance-from-the-shoreEntrance from the shore

The usual way to get there is to take a 15-20 minute boat ride (I estimate) from the pier.

There are two trails to the cave, The Monkey Trail, and the Jungle Trail. The former has been closed for a time now and the latter re-opened only last year. Having heard of the Monkey trail from friends who did it some 10 years back, I knew that I’d do it at some point. Well, the jungle trail, I reckon, is good enough.

crossingThe trek starts by crossing the mangrove.

A recommended option for the active, the jungle trail meanders through a beautiful lush forest.

dwarfed-by-trees

It lets you hike through ancient trees, well crafted wooden staircases, bridges and benches made from confiscated wood that adds character to the trail

wooden-walkways

one-among-many-bridges

and at one point, limestone formations becomes backdrop behind the foliage.

limestone-backdrop

Not only does the pleasant 2-hour hike enhance the experience but it also gives jobs to the 20 or so Tagbanua indigenous community members.

guide

reminder-before-the-trek

As “Park Wardens” they serve as guides and caretakers of the jungle.

path-to-the-riverthe path from the trail

The Underground River itself was not a let down at all. Having heard of so many mixed reviews, expectations were low.

paddle-boatsWaiting in line to enter the cave.

But to my surprise, the chambers especially the one called “the cathedral,” towering some 800 meters high, impressed me.

inside-the-cave

Truth to tell though, I fell asleep some part of the way, perhaps due to exhaustion and the fact that the only thing lighting the way was a flashlight held by the person in front. Our guide was adept and quite engaging in providing intelligent albeit elementary information about what a cave system is.

lush-forest-2

My take on this experience: to go there just for the Underground River may not be worth the effort (it’s still a 2-hour ride to Sabang). The hikes makes the difference.  Having seen Sabang, I wish I had stayed a few nights to explore the quiet town.

How Time Flies…

Has it been a year already?  According to WordPress, I made 23 new posts this year.  Really?  Only 23?  That’s about 2 posts a month, and half of what I posted in 2012.  Not good at all.  I can’t say if I will do better than last year, but I can at least promise to strive for it.

2013 was pretty good to me—in both the travel and work scene.  In the travel category, it has been a cultural feast near and far with Morocco, most definitely, topping the list, followed by Spain and Portugal.  But not to be outdone are some of the places close to me.  Here’s a glimpse of how I spent my 2013, many of which I still owe a post so please stay tune.

2013And with this, I wish you all a year of greater adventures and good health.  Cheers!!

The Train Station and The Ramen

steel-and-glass

It is a feast of steel and glass with a concave shape interior that opens to the sky, massive with a 60-mile long atrium and 171 steps of stairs.

171-steps

With a hotel, a shopping mall, a movie theater, a department store, a food court and 2 tourist information centers in one roof, the Kyoto Train Station is a splendid example of modern architecture and somewhat controversial when it was built in the mid ‘90s.

hub

It is, nevertheless, a chic way to enter or leave Kyoto.

platform

It has an old fashion charm to it, but I am partial to traveling by train because not only is it easier on the budget, it is also less of a hassle and more flexible in terms of schedule.  However, purchasing train tickets and finding your way around stations can be confusing if English is not spoken fluently.  We believe that being there a day before to get the tickets and familiarize ourselves with the place makes it less stressful on the day itself.

modern-art

And spending the morning at the incredible Kyoto Train Station was enjoyable.  With the essentials done and over with, we explored the building.

view-from-the-top

stairs

The Cube is a shopping mall that starts at the basement and goes all the way up to the 11th floor.  Kyoto Ramen Koji is on the 10th.  It is a “ramen alley” with seven different ramen shops and a coffee and dessert station.  Choosing a place was a daunting task – never thought ramen could be so complicated.  So we decided to choose the one with the longest line – the popular one, we thought.  The problem was we needed to order through a vending machine, which was all in Japanese.  The restaurant staffs do not speak English and therefore, could not explain the process.  We finally chose Hakata Ikkousha because:

a) girl at the door knew some English.

vending-machine

b) they had the 2nd longest line

waiting-in-lineIt was a long line… really!

c) it also has an English name and it promises to make people happy with their dish.

ikkousha

No way of comparing, we decided that the ramen we had was fantastic, though I could go without the rice with fish roe, which came as a set for  ¥1,000.

ramen

The pork literally melts in the mouth; the broth flavorful and the noodles are al dente.  It could be, by far, our cheapest meal in Kyoto.

chasen

display

On our way out of ramen alley, I could hear the desserts at the corner ever so softly but persistently calling my name.

green-tea-ice-cream-with-mochi

Thank you Chasen, for calling out to me.  You did not disappoint.  The mochi was exceptional.

Useful Info

Kyoto Train Station
901, Higashi-Shiokojicho (JR west)
1-3, Higashi-Shikoji Takakura0cho (JR central)