You know when you live somewhere and there are landmarks that everyone wants to see when they visit, and you live there, and you never go? Or you don’t go unless someone comes to visit, and you say you were saving it to visit with them, but really, you just never wanted to deal with the crowds and the parking?
That’s Diamond Head if you live in Honolulu.
Diamond Head is a mountain and a crater, I guess? There is a crater you can see when you go up. You’ll see it in pictures in a sec.
It’s also in the middle of Honolulu. It’s walking distance from Waikiki, and gives you great views of the southeast of Oahu. As you’ll see in my mediocre pictures, the views are quite beautiful.
Now, Diamond Head is a VERY popular hike. So you have to time it right to avoid crowds and find parking. In fact, most people just park at the bottom, walk, or take a bus/Uber. It’s also paved, so it’s very, very accessible, which makes it even more crowded. There is also no shade, so it’s not a hike everyone (ahem, Cam) can do at just any hour because it would be way too much sun exposure. Our firefighter friend told us it’s common to have to airlift people out of Diamond Head – people underestimate the risk of heat exhaustion often.
In between all that caution and hoping we could just do it when one of the throngs of visitors we would have living in Hawaii came, we had lived here for two years and still hadn’t gone up Diamond Head.
And then COVID happened.
As a result, parks, beaches, and trails in Oahu were closed on and off for the better part of 2020. This put a major damper on our hiking and general outdoor time. Not all of these outdoor spaces are managed the same way though – so even when the state reopened parks, trails, and beaches, Diamond Head stayed closed, because it’s a federally managed monument.
By the time Diamond Head opened again last month, it had been closed for almost nine months.
One Saturday, we decided we were just going to suck it up, and do it.
The first fun part: it was free because we’re Hawaii residents. Everyone else has to pay for entrance AND parking. So saving on that was fun.
Second fun part: already mentioned, but Diamond Head is all paved. Okay, not all paved. There are some sections of the trail that have rocks and gave us major Hallasan deja vu, but not terrible. So it’s a trail that is doable even if your gear isn’t great. We wore very worn down, old training shoes and it was fine.
Third fun part: there is a truck at the bottom that will sell Dole Whip, like what you get at Disneyland. Is it sad that the best part of the hike was finishing it and getting Dole Whip?
Fourth fun part: We actually finished it in about the time prescribed – approximately two hours round trip.
Is it a must if you come to Oahu? No. We think the Makapu’u viewpoint is MUCH better, and a less crowded hike, even for sunrise, which is it’s most popular time. If you go back on the blog, you’ll find our thoughts on it.
Is it worth the money? Also probably no, but we didn’t pay, so I can’t really judge that.
Are there worse things you could be doing on a weekend afternoon? Absolutely.
The views are nice, but again, not views you can’t see from other points in Oahu. Nevertheless, good views.
These were tricky to take without having a bunch of people in them. NOBODY WAS SOCIALLY DISTANCING IN THAT SUMMIT!
Coming up: We are finally going to spend a few days up north for spring break. I might bring the big guns and use our DSLR while we are there. I’m looking forward to pictures of turtles, sunrises, and sunsets. I’m an old geezer now that wakes up before the sun most days of her life, so the least I can do is picture the sunrise, right?
We’ll also be talking about some of our favorite places to eat in upcoming posts. Love to all,
One of the biggest changes for us since coming back to the US is traveling less than we used to when we lived in Asia. Also, we now live in Hawaii, which is far from EVERYTHING (look it up on a map. We are surrounded by ALL THE OCEAN!). The first year anywhere always involves adapting, and Hawaii is NOT like the rest of the USA (more on that in another post), which means we’ve traveled a lot less. We did make our one trip of last year count – we spent five days on the island of Hawai’i, aka the Big Island.
The Big Island is known for many things – among them, being the site of the original Ironman competition and the home of the tallest mountain in the world if you count from the bottom-of-the-ocean origin. It also became widely known a year and a half ago for the extended eruption of the Kilauea volcano. While there was no lava when we went, the effects of the eruption could still be felt, most notably in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
In this post, we’re going to focus on two things: what we did and how we went for cheap for a whole week. Let’s start with the money business, shall we?
We kept our costs down by using miles and points to pay for flights, hotels and car rental.
Inter-island flights for two adults came to about 15,000 miles through United. Flights are on partner Hawaiian Airlines. We paid somewhere between $20-$25 in taxes and fees. Inter-island flights are typically very inexpensive on their own, and they’re relatively short. From Honolulu to Kona, we were in the air for maybe 20 minutes, in reality. Thanks to the arrival of Southwest to the islands last fall, airlines are really making an effort to keep flights competitive. Southwest flies between Oahu, the Big Island, Maui and Kaua’i. If you have Southwest points, I can see how using them to either come to Hawaii and/or island-hop could be worth it.
We didn’t really feel the need to stay in Hilo, the more rural and rainforest-like side of the Big Island. We decided to stay in Kona (closer to the airport, better serviced and with better beaches) and play it by ear regarding Hilo. I’m glad we decided on that because it doesn’t really seem like it’d be worth staying in Hilo for very long but again, it depends on the vacation you want. Most excursions to go stargazing at Mauna Kea, for example, leave from Hilo.
Let’s establish something from the start. Hotels in the Hawaiian islands are at a level of expensive we have never. ever. seen. Accommodation is probably going to be the most expensive part of your trip if you come to Hawaii, which means two things: 1) If you know someone here, save the money and stay with them; 2) If you can use miles or hotel points to save money on accommodation, use them. The recent clampdown on vacation rentals in Oahu hasn’t helped the case either.
So we stayed in Kona for a week by using all of our Marriott Bonvoy points and the free anniversary night that came with our co-branded credit card. Thanks to that we saved about $1500 in the hotel.
The rest of Cam’s United Miles went to renting a car – very necessary if you want to actually go out and explore. Drives are not short and there isn’t a lot on the roads. I don’t recall ever seeing a bus.
Our plans were fairly simple and not that ambitious: the only thing we planned to go see as a must was Volcanoes National Park. At the time, there were still a lot of areas of the park that were closed to the public, and some that may never open again. It is still incredible to see the Earth so alive. There is steam coming out of the ground. Going when you know that there’s magma down there that could come up is weirdly striking.
You can go to Volcanoes for more than a day and camp. It is a significant drive from Kona and roads are mostly two-lane, so keep that in mind when you’re making your plans.
The rest of the time was primarily spent following the Vacation Trifecta of reading, napping and swimming…minus the swimming. The ocean on the Big Island is far too cold for my Caribbean sensitivities.
One of the highlights of our trip was going to Punalu’u beach, a black sand beach where turtles often come out to rest. In our afternoon there, we saw two! Turtles are not uncommon in Hawaiian beaches and people tend to be careful with them. However, not all tourists have that kind of education and can be rather aggressive when taking pictures. If you ever see an animal on a beach (like a turtle, or a seal) give them space. We are the ones visiting their home, and not the other way around.
Some things we want to return to the Big Island to see:
Visit Volcanoes National Park again – We only picked one trail to explore and there are at least six more if I’m remembering correctly. Since we went last March (yes, yes, I know how late this entry is!) some areas of the park have reopened too.
Hilo – while the town of Hilo doesn’t seem to be anything to write home about, the rainforest around it is worth exploring.
Mauna Loa and/or Mauna Kea – We would love to go up one of those two for stargazing/sunrise hiking. You have to go on a tour and they are quite pricey. But we intend to do that before we leave Hawaii, whenever that is.
Other travels we still have to share with you here:
Maui this past Thanksgiving: One of the most relaxing vacations we’ve had in a while. Short but sweet.
The Dominican Republic this past Christmas. Here we will mostly share some of our favorites, old and new, in terms of accommodation. Find great service and give them your business. Being a return client can make a huge difference in the service you get, especially in small hotels.
Enjoy the striking nature of the island of Hawai’i. And remember, Southwest flies here now! Hundred percent not sponsored, but their inter-island flights cannot be beat, seriously.
Since we live our lives in academic years, we are well underway on our second year in Hawaii. This year has been one of fairly unexpected changes and doing things a little bit differently.
The school where Cam worked last year closed after 94 years of service. It basically came down to the cold hard fact of businesses needing revenue, and nonprofits needing funding. If you’re spending more than you’re receiving, eventually, that’ll catch up with you. The early notice (the school announced the closure of their middle/high school division in the winter, and primary in the spring) meant that there was plenty of time to look for jobs for the following year (this year). Fortunately, he was able to stay in the private school system and has fewer students, more resources, and a teaching partner. He’s also teaching the oldest kids he’s ever taught – grade 6! It also came with a pay increase, which allows us to live fairly comfortably despite the need for careful budgeting in super-expensive Honolulu. He signed for his new job in the spring, so we went into this school year knowing that we would both have jobs. A big relief. I returned to the same position from last year but working with a different team of people. They’ve been at the school for longer and are fairly easygoing, so at least I’m spared of any in-team drama. Also a big relief.
The biggest curveball of this year was our unexpected move at the beginning of the summer. Around May, our owner let us know that she intended to sell the apartment we were living in, despite the fact that we were still had about two months in our lease. It was disappointing, because a) we weren’t really planning to move, b) it meant unexpected moving expenses, and c) we were going to have limited time to look for apartments and move because…
We had both signed up to do summer school. Which is roughly six weeks.
I did 4th grade English (it was a nice change of pace from sulky teenagers) and Cam did 3rd-grade Robotics. It was great, and it helped financially because it provided us with some additional income to take us through the time Cam wasn’t getting paid. It did mean that in between the end of the school year (fourth week of May) and the beginning of summer school we had 10 days off, which were largely spent moving and closing up at the old place. Then once summer school was over (third week of July) and the start of the new school year I had about 10 days off. Granted, teaching summer school is only half-day, but it was a good experience to understand that we do need and appreciate the time to not teach in the summer. Not doing that this summer!
Our big travel event last year was the Big Island over spring break. More on that later. In a nutshell, the Big Island is quite beautiful, very undeveloped, and very underpopulated compared to Oahu. In its defense, there is a massive National Park in it. And multiple volcanos that are anything but dormant.
Our lives in Oahu are fairly predictable: mostly work and home. We do live a mile walk away from Waikiki Beach, so we do go there for walks from time to time. We also live closer to a quieter part of the beach without too many people, and right by a park. The people-watching is quite good.
So I guess the point of this blog is just to tell you guys, we are alive and well. We’re mostly used to living in Hawaii. No, we will not retire here (Way too expensive and far from everything. Taxes are high and nobody knows where the money goes). We feel privileged to both be working in pretty stable private schools (no concern over whether the school will close tomorrow, lose funding because of test scores, or dip in enrollment or that kind of concern).
The most important thing I’d like to stress out here: WE LIVE IN FREAKING HAWAII AND HAVE A SPARE BEDROOM, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD COME TO VISIT. SOUTHWEST FLIES HERE NOW; NO EXCUSES!
We are always comforted and strengthened by the amount of love we know we can count on all over the world. The net of incredible friendships we’ve made in the last 10 years is truly amazing.
This review is coming long after we actually did this, but I didn’t want to pass the opportunity to go into some detail about our great experience getting some pictures with our friends at Wayfarer Studio Photography. Jen and Isaac Marshall, original Pacific Northwesterners, have taken their passion for telling stories in beautiful detail through pictures and turned it into their way of living. As “not Jen or Isaac”, I think what happened to them can be explained as “Through traveling the world, we’ve seen amazing places and met incredible people with powerful stories to tell and feelings to express. Our work is to shoot so others can see it more than once”. This is what I think might go through their heads when they take pictures.
I had been talking to Jen about having our pictures taken on our 5 year anniversary for a number of years by the time we actually did it. Nothing went according to plan, but as good teachers that understand flexibility, they made us feel incredibly comfortable, and somehow, I think captured perfectly what this team is about, and how we feel about each other.
The Marshalls don’t really do “posey” pictures, thank goodness. Your job during one of their shoots is just to have fun and enjoy yourselves. Sure, there might be some light direction because as experts they understand angles and work with the outside elements to get wonderful shots, but mostly, you’re just hanging out and they experiment a little. I can say their experiments, while a bit funny at the moment, are absolutely trustworthy. Jen and Isaac are experts at capturing nature and making it the star of your pictures, while still showing what you and your family are about at that time.
The most important, and touching, aspect of these pictures to me was how happy they managed to portray us in pictures. Sometimes, we know we are happy, and we feel happy, but we might not be sure how it might look to others (not that it matters exactly), but somehow I was very surprised to see how much I was laughing, how at ease I looked, and how comfortable we are with each other. One of the things the Marshalls highly encourage their clients to do is to print their pictures so they can look at them often (we really don’t do that as much in a time and age when we have the capacity to take so many pictures and have each of them turn out pretty great). I love looking at these pictures. These are pictures I am looking forward to revisiting for years to come – that time when two kids had their friends take their pictures in a place that makes them incredibly happy.
You can read the photographers’ chronicle of this session here.
What you need to know:
Jen and Isaac travel anywhere in the world – kids and everything (their kids are hilarious and super cool anyway – it’s a treat to have them around!). So if you live in Asia, or the Middle East, or Europe, or Latin America, or Australia, or anywhere, it doesn’t matter. They’ll go and take your pictures. Jen was seven (almost 8) months pregnant when they did our shoot. That kind of thing doesn’t stop them!
Super easygoing – again, if you want a photographer that will make you feel comfortable and not do the posey awkward family photos, these are your peeps. My husband and I are super introverts who don’t really like to have their picture taken, and we LOVE our pictures.
Easy, very high-quality print options – including possible decoration options and placement for your prints at your home the way it is now. Their frames are also very lightweight and easy to pack.
You’re not just an account number to the Marshalls. Again, this is quite literally a family business. Jen and Isaac are their own staff – the same people that take your pictures will do the editing and the design consulting and prepare the print delivery.
I’m not writing this for any type of gain. Sure, if our friends got a wedding or a family shoot out of this, that would be incredible. This is mainly out of a motivation to tell people about others who do great work and care about what they do. In a world of impersonal, obscenely large corporations, we should spread the love of wonderful small businesses when we find them.
You can see more of the Marshalls’ beautiful photography/storytelling at their Instagram @wayfarerstudio
The news of Anthony Bourdain’s death hit us while on the train to our hotel in Busan.
All I could say when I got the alert on my phone was: “Oh my God”, and show the headline to Cameron.
We became familiar with Mr. Bourdain’s style through different channels: a copy of Kitchen Confidential passed on by a friend (which we still have) and watching No Reservations on cable. Eventually, I read Kitchen Confidential, and we continued to watch No Reservations (Travel Channel) and Parts Unknown (CNN) sometimes. Eventually, more than a show, these became a reference. Through my years of watching and reading Bourdain’s work, I’ve learned a few things. I think we both have.
Food is an experience that can lead to other experiences – the most memorable passage in Kitchen Confidential (to me) is the part of the book when Bourdain is describing his culinary awakening as a young kid by having his first vichyssoise. As he explains in the book, vichyssoise is a difficult dish. Not only is it a fish soup, but it’s cold. Now, I’ve never had vichyssoise, but the way he describes in the book realizing through that cold soup that food was meant to be savored and discovered, and could be such a joyous part of our lives if only we allowed it to be was incredibly powerful. I’ve become more intentional in my cooking over the years, and I think part of it started when I read that description of what vichyssoise did for a young Bourdain and how it awoke his culinary curiosity. I should say, I’m not the most adventurous of eaters. However, over the years, I think I’ve made a better effort at paying attention to what my food tastes like, the spice palate it contains, and what goes into my food.
One of the most memorable travel experiences we’ve had (and if you’d been there, you could have definitely pictured Bourdain doing the same thing) was Cameron eating at a small fishing village in Leshan (China). There were barely any people around (it was December, not exactly peak travel season in China), but there was an old lady selling noodles from her home. It was definitely not the best noodle dish we’ve ever had (I had a few bites) but the experience of eating these noodles from this lady we will never see again in this tiny Chinese village was somehow so great. We were sitting on the floor, there were not many amenities, and again, the dish wasn’t anything special (or was it?). This anecdote leads me to my next takeaway:
Food helps us when we can’t understand other people (most of the time): food can be highly misunderstood and diluted to a point where it looks nothing like the original. On the other hand, it can make places seem less scary – I think this was a big part of what Bourdain tried to do with his shows. In a lot of ways, I think the way he approached eating in his shows made “less formal” eateries be more accessible to people that would normally not leave their comfort zone. There will be instances when the attempt will not be very successful (our first attempt at ordering at a Chinese restaurant upon arriving in Shanghai – I cried at the sight of so many unfamiliar mushrooms!). In other instances, they can be incredibly rewarding (all the Uighur food!).
To this day, we still follow what Cameron calls “the Bourdain rule of restaurants”. When in doubt, find the places with lots of locals. If there’s a line, even better. Can’t say it’s failed us. If it has, I can’t remember.
Bourdain made traveling and exploring seem attainable and normal and even expected. His shows became almost mandatory research when it came to going to a new place – you pick up a travel guide and take notes from the corresponding episode of No Reservations or Parts Unknown. There’s a reason why restaurant owners keep his picture on their walls – they know that a previous Bourdain visit is at this point maybe a better vouch that a place is good than a certificate of excellence from TripAdvisor (although the latter should not be taken lightly, given that TripAdvisor’s reputation lays on the reviews).
I could write all day here. I could write about going to hear Bourdain speak during his book tour for Medium Raw (dead-on funny and relatable, like listening to a friend you haven’t seen in a while – that friend you’re living vicariously through because they travel more than you) or expectantly waiting to watch an episode for a place I had visited (or the Dominican Republic episode for that matter) and seeing someone committed to demonstrating that we, as people, are more connected than we think, and that the world is full of beauty and we should go see all of it.
Incredibly sad as we both were to read about the news of his passing, to us at Nomadic Gregors, it was somewhat poetically beautiful that we got to read the news doing exactly what Bourdain, among others, inspire us to do as much as possible: travel and explore, not dismiss any places based on preconceptions, make the best of the bad situations, don’t try to plan everything – traveling or otherwise. As we are coming back to the United States for our next teaching stint, we can’t help think about how China and Korea were both places where we didn’t really plan on going. I had, in fact, told Cameron I was not moving to China under any circumstances when we first started considering moving abroad. Both were incredibly rewarding – we saw places we didn’t even know existed, made some of the best friends we have and learned a lot about ourselves. And while returning to the States was, as those places were back then, not our first option, we are ready for what’s coming. We’re ready for Hawaii and we’ll make the best of it, see as much as possible, smile, be respectful, and try as much of the food as we can manage. I think at the end of the day, what Bourdain tried to show through his books and his shows and his adventures was that we can feel at home anywhere, that the world doesn’t have to be scary and unknown. That going out there and exploring makes us better people.
I believe Mr. Bourdain leaves a legacy of teaching people to be open-minded and find ways to understand each other. Sometimes food is the only way we have and that’s okay. I’ll be sure to follow that wonderful message and look forward to trying vichyssoise someday.
Our first time in Busan was an accident – it was an overnight layover we were forced to spend outside the airport. As it turns out, this is the only stamp we have of Korea in our passports except for the one we got when we first started our teaching stint here.
That time, Busan looked a lot seedier than it really is. After a day of traveling, your ability to be flexible is a bit depleted, and we probably approached that overnight layover five years ago with a not-so-great attitude. After a quick weekend trip with the boys last year, Cameron got to see the cooler side of Busan, and was hooked. He was determined to make sure I got to go before we left Korea, so we found a weekend in June when we would not be either tied up at work or other commitments.
In some ways, it would be unfair to say we went to Busan. We went to Haeundae Beach and stayed there for the vast majority of the weekend. Haeundae Beach is incredibly entertaining, and beautiful in its own right. It was what we thought Qingdao could be if it were properly developed (maybe in a few years Qingdao will get there now that it’s becoming the Hollywood of China).
Haeundae Beach is an extensive stretch of coastline – it has beaches and some rocky cliffs, making the coastline rather diverse. The beach has golden sand, and despite strong winds, almost no waves. That doesn’t deter the locals from trying to catch some waves on their surfboards in the late afternoon, which makes for great people-watching. For a North Asian beach, Haeundae Beach is possibly the one that has seemed most inviting to actually go swimming in (when you are born and raised in the Caribbean you kind of become a beach snob). Haeundae has lots of beachfront hotels, restaurants and bars right across the water, so there is really no need to go very far. One other thing I loved about this beach is the facilities – coin-op showers, small pools and air pressured guns to remove the sand from your feet, bathrooms, and quite a few shady spots if you need a sun break.
Our favorite find at Haeundae beach was a walkway that takes you through the cliffs next to the beach. Among it, we found some interesting finds, including a stone carved in the 9th (?) century with the name Haeundae – this stone is what gives the beach its name.
Our time was mostly spent people-watching, playing darts at the Wolfhound (a local Irish pub) and trying some of the street food available around the Haeundae area (mostly fried chicken, because there is no such thing as bad Korean fried chicken).
Our one fail of the trip was attempting to go to a baseball game. Baseball games in Korea (as in Japan) are an event on the field and on the stands. Coordinated cheers, cheerleaders, bring your own food…all goes. Cameron went to a game last year and loved it, so naturally, knowing how fun games are in the Dominican Republic, and being well acquainted with my love for baseball, he wanted to take me to one. Based on what the stands looked like the day prior, and the fact that the local team (the Lotte Giants) was playing terribly, we figured getting a (cheap) ticket would be easy. Well, we were wrong.
Upon arriving at the stadium the following day, we found out the game was sold out. To our comfort, we weren’t the only ones.
Busan was a great weekend getaway to get a respite from Jeju. It might seem odd since Jeju is also beachy, but…the key here is beach plus amenities. A beach in a city you can easily navigate on the subway for very little money. And a beach that is seemingly popular with lots of other people (there were lots of Russians!) which makes for great people watching.
In summary, my old perceptions of Busan have been dispelled and I would definitely go back. Gotta catch that pending baseball game!
Next, we’ll take a page of our travel journal to pay our respects to one of our great inspirations in this nomadic life.
This spring we had the chance to return to what may possibly be one of our favorite places in Korea. Udo, a small island off the northeast coast of Jeju, was one of our first adventures when we arrived two years ago. In the early fall, it’s quite striking in its beauty. We had the same experience during our last visit in the springtime.
This time, we found a better route now that we know the island better, so we were at Seongsan port in about an hour, as opposed to the almost two last time took. Long story short: take the highway to Seogwipo and bypass the city proper. Follow signs to the Seongsan port. Don’t go to Udo on holidays, it’s impossibly busy.
We also had a friend with us! Our friend and colleague Nicole, who also teaches at a school in Jeju, joined us for the day trip (and drove us in her car, since we had sold ours by then).
You can only get to Udo by ferry. It’s maybe a 10-minute ride on the ferry. You can still take your car on the ferry and drive yourself around, but the provincial government wants to decrease the number of internal combustion vehicles on the island – the public buses are electric, most of the scooter rental options are electric, and truly, the island is not that big. Cars just create traffic that doesn’t help anyone.
It was a beautiful Saturday with sunny, breezy weather. Our day consisted primarily of driving around the island in our scooters and stopping for pictures in the most scenic places.
The highlight of our visit was definitely seeing the Haenyeo (women divers) in action. In a nutshell, these are women (some of which are quite old!) who dive without oxygen to harvest shellfish and seaweed. They are a revered part of Jeju’s cultural heritage, and even have statues erected in their honor all over the island. Seeing them carry their loads from the ocean was deeply humbling. You can see more about these incredible women here: Jeju Lady Divers
Udo is a place of striking nature. It’s a bit sad to see so many buildings taking over the farmland. It’s understandable, as it’s a very popular tourist destination, but we do hope its natural beauty is somewhat preserved.
Well, just when I thought I was out of the woods with spring allergies, BAM!
I was fine on Sunday, and it’s been an unusually rainy spring. I’ve also been taking allergy pills regularly. Then on Monday, allergies came back to bite me in the butt…which meant staying home and blowing my nose repeatedly in private.
Before we go into actually explaining how our visit to the Demilitarized Zone went, let me give you a little background.
We have tried to go to the DMZ and the Joint Security Area (the border with North Korea where the important meetings and negotiations happen) ever since we got here. If you haven’t been living under a rock, you’ll know that ever since we moved to South Korea almost two years ago, things have taken a turn to the tense. Due to the election of a rather…em, impulsive American president, the rhetoric has gotten a bit…uncomfortable. Needless to say, that means that the DMZ and the JSA have experienced last-minute closures and we’ve been kind of caught in the middle. Sadly, the tour companies that operate the DMZ routes cannot guarantee that these will be open, so last-minute cancellations happen. It’s also important to remember that the JSA is closed on part of the weekends and public holidays, so it’s not exactly easy to go when we have time off.
In total, we had attempted about 3 or 4 times to schedule a tour that would take us to the DMZ and the JSA. We were set for Saturday, May 12. Tickets to Seoul were booked. Instead of going for the weekend and adding the costs of feeding ourselves, booking a place to stay and having fun in Seoul, we decided to go for the day and come right back – quick turnaround, but it will allow us to keep the finances in order for the very busy months to come.
About 4 days before going, we received an email from the tour company saying that the JSA would be closed and we had the option of either canceling or just going to the DMZ. Given that our time in Korea is so short and we don’t really know when will we make it back, we decided to book the DMZ tour and make the best out of it.
Silver lining: in the midst of the JSA being closed, three Americans detained in North Korea were released and are back with their families. I’ll take it! You can read more about it here.
We scheduled a flight out of Jeju at 6:40 am. Checked in online with the Asiana app so we wouldn’t have to waste time at the airport. We had two small backpacks, so security was easy. We had to be at a certain train station at 8:30am. Our plane landed at 7:40am. Stress o’clock!!!!!! We didn’t know that apparently there’s an express train you can take to the city which would have taken less time. Lesson learned. The tour company called us twice, but…we made it to the train station in question and they were not there yet! Phewwww!!!!!! Within a few minutes, they arrived…a bus full of foreigners like us (mostly college kids on study-abroad programs, I suspect) who wanted to catch a glimpse of North Korea from the safety of the DMZ.
The day was rainy, cloudy and foggy. Our tour guide warned us that we might not be able to see much, but we would stop at different viewpoints. Getting to the DMZ takes about an hour by bus. Once you’re about halfway through the barbwire and the walls begin. We stopped at four different places:
The Freedom Bridge/Imjingak Park
The DMZ Museum/The 3rd Tunnel (more on that later)
The Dorasan train station
The Dora Observatory
It was surprisingly busy, given that the weather was really not conducive to being outside and walking around (we, of course, had decided to leave our umbrellas at home at the last minute!), but given that many of the past times we had tried to book a tour everything was full weeks in advance I guess it makes sense.
Normally, we stay away from prescribed tours and do things like these on our own, but we’re not sure that’s possible in this case so prescribed tour it was. In total, we spent about 20 minutes in each place.
The Freedom Bridge used to be an exchange point for prisoners of war during the conflict in the 50s. It does have a checkpoint, after which tourists are not allowed. Eventually, this bridge leads into North Korea. It’s not the only bridge in the area – we took some pictures of others. The other side from our point of view (when you cross the bridge and the river dividing the land) is North Korea. There are, of course, the ubiquitous peace message ribbons and South Korean flags along with historic landmarks. And of course, it wouldn’t be South Korea without a convenience store, a skincare store, and a coffee shop. All these three things are part of the Imjingak Park plaza – God forbid access to snacks, skincare and coffee would be compromised in this country! It’s so comical.
After the bridge we headed to the DMZ museum, where of course there are some models and timelines about the development of the Korean War, the division between the two countries, and the efforts for peace. I personally don’t have the most knowledge about the Korean War (tsk tsk – I’m supposed to be a history teacher!) so I found the exhibits pretty informative. I did find a bit contradictory that the exhibits in the museum give a less propagandistic version of how the conflict went down. The video we were shown about the tunnels made me a bit uncomfortable – it was just strange how they chose to not mention the outside powers that were meddling on something that was essentially none of their concern and turned a local issue into a satellite Cold War issue where people that didn’t need to be involved were. Rant over.
The 3rd Tunnel was sure interesting. We went down on a monorail and came back up on a monorail. It’s all solid rock so I can only imagine how hard it was to dig in the 1950s. According to South Koreans, this and three other tunnels were dug to prepare to invade Seoul from the north. When you walk to the end, you can see the Military Demarcation Line from underground. Sadly, no pictures are allowed.
We actually thought the Dorasan station was the coolest thing we saw. It’s the last train stop in South Korea before you connect to the North by rail. It’s not fully functional yet so there’s an air of “what it could be” when you’re there. You can buy tickets for KRW 1,000 (which we are keeping for our scrapbook) and get commemorative stamps for free in a postcard. Once you step onto the station, it’s really eerie – it’s empty and you’re not sure if you’re allowed to take pictures. You keep waiting for a train to show up. None did in the time we were there.
It is incredible to realize that in that station lies the possibility of completely connecting Europe and Asia by train. The hope and the dream is to connect the Inter-Korean rail to the Trans-Siberian rail in China and into Europe, which would just be amazing. When I shared that with a friend, he just said: “imagine the trade opportunities we’re missing out on”. Trade, travel…you name it. It would be amazing to see in our lifetimes.
Last stop of the day was the Dora Observatory. In good conditions, you are supposed to be able to see a lot, including a large North Korean flag and an even larger South Korean flag! As you can see, however, visibility was almost none that day so we could only see a few feet ahead of us.
On the way back, we stopped at a local restaurant for a bulgogi stew lunch, and then Cam and I went back to wander around Itaewon for a few hours before catching our flight.
And that was it! This was our experience peeking into the border with North Korea. If you want a good read into the experience we were hoping to have, click here: JSA Tour
Maybe one day. Or maybe miracles will happen and this will be no longer necessary.
We have some Shanghai friends coming at the end of the month, so we’ll be sure to show them some of the beauties of Jeju – we are hoping for U-do on a different season!
After monitoring the weather for, well, a year and a half (haha) and a failed attempt in the early fall, we hiked the tallest mountain in Korea a few weeks ago.
Mt. Halla is 1,950 meters tall. Based on the fact that our 5th graders climb it at the end of the school year, and a lot of our 5th graders are not exactly the athletic type, I think there was a part of me that figured it wouldn’t be as hard as people say.
Boy was I wrong.
Hallasan has a couple of trails – 4 or 5 – but only two of them summit. One of them happened to be closed due to some falling rocks on the days prior to our climb, so we decided to go for Gwamneusa, the steepest of all the trails.
We had a protein shake at home for some energy (no way we were having a heavy) breakfast at 5:30am, coffee on the road, and snacks. We settled on Korean Ritz crackers, Dr. You bars (our favorite little Korean energy bars), and hard-boiled eggs (maybe that one wasn’t such a great idea). We reached the trailhead at 7:00am and started the hike at around 7:11am. The last song we heard on the radio was “Benny and the Jets” by Elton John. It’s kind of been stuck in my head since then.
The hike started in a promising fashion: soft ground with some wooden paths and seeing a wild boar. Not a lot of people on the trail with us. So far, so good.
The trail is basically divided in four: what we ended up calling an okay part (about 20% of the trail), a “hard part” (about 60% of the trail – I kid you not), another easy part (maybe 5% of the trail and not that easy) and a rather hard climb up to the summit. And then, you’re there. Piece of cake.
Well, it turns out the trail is VERY rocky, and doing it in running shoes like we did will be a challenge to your ankles. There are no pictures of the climb because I was too busy catching my breath and trying not to cry in front of Cameron (I failed when we had about 20 minutes left on the descent – I didn’t cry for long but I did cry).
Considering how few people we found on our way up, we were surprised to see how busy the summit was! People from all over, Koreans and foreigners, who come to Hallasan in an almost pilgrim-like fashion to stand in the highest point in Korea.
This spring has been quite weird weather-wise, and that day was no exception. The previous day was very hazy, which meant leftover clouds and not great visibility from the summit.
I had become rather insistent on wanting to climb Halla. I’m glad we did it, but we would probably not do it again (at least not summit). It’s a 7 hour round trip endeavor, and the view from the summit is not going to change anytime soon. I also didn’t want to do it when the weather was hotter – it’s already quite humid albeit not as hot as it could be.
Overall, it was a very interesting challenge. Cameron always says I sound like I like hiking but then I go hiking and don’t really sound like I like it that much. I’m not very skilled at the “not giving up” mentality – it remains a work in progress for me, whereas thanks to his many years of playing sports he already has a trained mindset on not giving up and pushing through the physical pain or difficult circumstances.
Neither of us had climbed a point so high, so it was special to do it together. Another great adventure on the books!
Our time in Korea is quickly coming to an end. We’ll be here for exactly another 35 days, and then…off to Oahu we go!
Stay tuned! There will be more posts soon with some of the last sights we are seeing before we leave Korea!
It’s a bit sad that, in the travel world, Cambodia gets reduced to the Angkor temples as the sole thing to do and see in the country, which is absolutely not true. Yet like many others, we went on the beaten path and scheduled almost a whole week in Cambodia over last Christmas just to see the expansive crown jewel of the Khmer empire.
Do you really need that long? Probably not. Should you take your time seeing all the temples? It depends. I was kind of “templed out” by the end of day 3, and Cameron had been to the temples before. By then it was also surprisingly hot for December, and the temples were getting more crowded each day (hordes of Chinese tourists and their ubiquitous selfie sticks), at which point we decided we had seen the most important things, chilled at our hotel, and got massages #treatyoself.
We have separate folders with pictures of each temple we went to. I won’t put you through that. Instead, I will just leave you with a snippet of some of my favorites from Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm – which are possibly the top 3 temples people visit anyway, with reason.
Once again, I felt very grateful to be able to revisit a favorite of Cameron with him. I thoroughly enjoyed my time and would love to see more of Cambodia in the future. The Khmers are lovely and their food is delicious, I might add – think Thai food but without so many spices, and revolving around one or two flavors at a time.
There were a number of things I noticed on the architecture of the temples that was interesting:
Columns – pretty much all over the city of Angkor you’ll see that columns are part of the supporting structure of buildings. It’s interesting to me that the Khmer would have thought those necessary in buildings made of rocks, but they are there nonetheless. I think it’s possible those columns may be responsible for some of the temples standing to this day. If you look at some of the columns in the pictures, you’ll also see that they are not unlike columns found in Greek and Roman architecture or at least not as far apart as you’d think.
Wall carvings for storytelling – this reminded me of some of the Assyrian and Persian carvings that have been found in parts of the Middle East. The Khmer did essentially the same thing in the Angkor temples by carving some of their legends and the significance of their gods/goddesses on the walls of these temples, much like the Assyrians and the Persians used wall carvings to preserve the history of their civilization.
The triangular/pyramidal structure of the temples, and the way the rock has aged reminded me of some of the Mayan and Aztec pyramids, temples, and archeological sites in Mexico and Central America (specifically Guatemala). It makes me wonder just how much in common precolonial civilizations could have in common when they develop in rather different geographical location. You can see more of what I mean by looking at these pictures of the Tikal site in Guatemala: UNESCO gallery of Tikal. Notice the face carvings on top of the buildings (possibly built with the same Khmer purpose of guarding the city? I’m super curious!)
Please excuse some of the random people in some of the pictures, specifically in Ta Prohm – it’s Cameron’s favorite temple but we didn’t get to spend too much time there for two reasons: a) it was undergoing heavy renovations and a good portion of it was walled off, and b) there were SO.MANY.TOUR.GROUPS. Still incredible.
We highly recommend staying at the Pavillon d’Orient hotel in Siem Reap – it’s peaceful, quiet, and they take incredible care of their guests. You can read my review of Pavillion D’Orient on TripAdvisor here.
Our next post will bring it back to Korea in our attempt to complete some “must-do” items before we go. You can see more of that on my Instagram page @analinmcgregor.
Ahh! The first stint of our time abroad is almost coming to an end!