Friday, 30 September 2011

South Korea

In September 2011, I was very lucky to go to a conference in Seoul, South Korea. With the majority of my trips happening around Europe and/or Western countries, this was one I was really looking forward.

I spent over three weeks in Korea: a first week at the CIG conference, presenting my work, followed by a two week stay in Seoul National University, working as an invited researcher. Finally, I got a few days off at the end of my stay, and went to Busan (and then onwards to Japan - which I will report in a separate post).

It was a long way to get there; a Dublin-Amsterdam flight, followed by a 10h Amsterdam-Seoul. I finally got to fly in a 747, and it was a cool experience - what a massive plane!
The conference and then the stay at the University kept me pretty busy, and I didn't do half the travelling and exploring as I'd usually do. But I still got to explore quite a few interesting areas.

One of the top tourist spots in Seoul is the Insadong area, and it is well worth a visit. A pedestrian street, with many tiny side streets, stuffed with art galleries, vintage and souvenir shops, and traditional tea and coffee shops. I returned there quite a few times, just to wander around, buying a few souvenirs. Right next to it is Tapgol park, a lovely quiet place, with a 500 year old pagoda in a glass protective case.

While attending the conference, I stayed in a hotel, and got the chance to try the famous washlets, a combination of a toilet and a bidet, originally from Japan. These things are unreal: heated seat, automatic behind washing, water massage and drying, alternate positions for women's anatomy, and a thorough washing of the whole apparatus once you're finished. There's a whole range of programs and customisations to choose from. Sounds weird? Feels even weirder - but nice!

The final day of the conference offered us a chance to go to The Korea House, for the typical conference banquet (a wonderful dinner of traditional Korean food); that was followed by a traditional performance of light, music, and dance. It was a really enjoyable show.

Speaking of food, that was probably my biggest discovery in Korea. I wasn't quite fond of it at the start; practically every dish is spicy, and always comes accompanied with gimchi (fermented cabagge) and a whole range of other unidentifiable side dishes. But being five times cheaper than western food, I had little choice but to get used to it.

After a week with an upset stomach, I began enjoying it more and more. In fact, sometimes I had little choice but to adventure into unknown dishes; arriving into restaurants with no English menus nor pictures, I simply pointed at something someone else was eating. Interesting facts about Korean table sets: cuttlery is almost always metal (chopsticks and a long spoon), water is free and served in a reusable plastic bottle, and the glasses are always sterilised. Almost every restaurant has buzzers in the tables; ring it, and immediately 3/4 waiters acknowledge it and will come to you in less than a minute.
Towards the end of my stay, I had become really used to the majority of dishes; my favourite was the Korean bbq.

Most evenings I would take the metro downtown, to go discover yet another mysterious dish in an unknown restaurant. The metro is clean and quiet, hardly anyone speaks with each other (mostly people just watch TV in their mobile phones); in every station, there's gas masks, a reminder of the tensions with their Northern neighbours! After eating, I usually would wander around on foot, to enjoy the neon spectacle that most streets offer.

Considering the northern neighbours, no trip to South Korea is complete without an excursion to the DMZ (Korean Demilitarised Zone). It's a very touristy thing to do, and you can only go there with an excursion, complete with a guide, who tries (and fails) to make jokes. But it's still a site full of interesting spots, such as the Bell of Peace, the secret invasion tunnels, the bullet-riddled train, and the closed roads leading to the North.

You get to actually look into the North, courtesy of an observation deck, from which it is forbidden to take photos; behind the "no-photo" zone, people pile up trying to snap a shot. Far more interesting (if spooky) was the visit to Dorasan station. Located on the South-North train line, it has a whole area reserved for passenger trains to Pyeongyang, which is kept immaculately clean - yet was never used.

Back in the city, the Dongdaemun gate is one of only three original city gates still standing:

Next to it, is the equally famous Dongdaemun market. It is massive, with stalls in small and large streets sprawling in a huge city area. It is also open until 5am. Crazy motorcycle riders pile up merchandise on the back of their bikes, and speed through stalls and pedestrians at insane speeds.

Equally interesting is the Cheonggyecheon area. Once occupied by an elevated motorway which crossed the city, it was renovated into a pedestrian area, and it is a real pleasure to just walk along the small stream, hidden from the craziness of the world around it.

The University had great facilities, and I spent a good deal of time there, working with my wonderful host, Bob McKay. The location is impressive, in a hill on the south of the city.

Bob was fantastic. He took me for meals quite often, including an excursion to the fish market, where we ate some great fresh sushimi. On one of the days, I went with him and his wife to Ganghwa Island, on the Northwestern part of the country. We visited old temples, ate grilled octopus, and explored the beaches nearby.

That about sums it up for Seoul. Of less interest was the famous Yongsan electronics market (half the shops were closed, and the quality was far from great). Equally uninteresting was the Itaewon area: also known as "Western Town", I almost felt like I was back in a Western city, given the amount of western shops and restaurants, and foreigners on the street (it is particularly popular with U.S. Military personnel). It is apparently one of the few places where you can buy "U.S. sized" clothes:

I did save one of the best spots for last, however: on the last day, I visited the Gyeongbok Palace. It is a massive complex of several palaces, museums and pavilions, and you can easily spend a whole day exploring it. Be prepared to elbow your way through hordes of tourists (both national and foreign).


My last 2 days in Korea were spent in Busan, on the Southeast part of the country. The second largest city of Korea, it is quite touristy as well, especially being on the sea shore, but it is in no way as massive as Seoul, and does feel a lot more welcoming. I took a high-speed train (French TGVs!) to get there.

I stayed in a wonderful little peace of heaven: a small hostel named after the owner, "Chan's House". Chan is obsessed with India, having travelled and lived there several times, and the home décor reflects that - all the way to a sitar in the living room, and mantras in the toilet sound system! (yes I brought some copies)
I went out that night, to explore the nightlife by the waterfront.

The next day was mostly spent in markets. I started with the Jagalchi Fish Market, wandering amongst the hundreds of stalls selling live, dead and cooked fish, from easily recognisable varieties such as sole, sea bass, shark, octopus, to strange, unknown creatures of the sea, including spoon worms. These are meant to be a real delicacy, served still wriggling on your plate. They are sometimes known as the penis fish. Go figure why.

I wasn't that brave, but I did have a baby tiger shark in sashimi for lunch, after finding a fisherman that could speak English, and having a lovely chat with him. The way it was killed, two hard blows to the head, followed by chopping and straight to my plate, felt somewhat cruel. Not nearly as cruel as the fate of eels: skinned alive, they are left twitching in agony and pain, before being chopped alive. Not for the faint of heart.

I spent the whole afternoon lost in the tiny shopping streets of the Gukje and surrounding markets. I found it even more interesting than the Seoul markets; tiny little streets where you just get lost (I did, several times), exploring all the merchandise, from cheap clothing to unknown dishes.

My last evening in Korea was spent on Yongdusan Park, one of the highest points of the city. I didn't bother climbing the Busan Tower, and instead just wandered around the park, and sat admiring a group of ukulele players, trying as hard as possible to play together and sing Western songs.

That was it. The next day I took the ferry to Osaka, Japan, which I will tell about in a different post. Sometimes surprising, sometimes a bit hard, my glimpse at life in Korea was very pleasant.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Moscow, St. Petersburg, and the Golden Ring

When, in 2010, I finally went to Russia, some choices had to be made - it being the largest country in the world, and me crossing the whole of it. I decided to spend most of my time in Siberia and further east, as that was probably the only time I made it that far. That meant I spent only two days in Moscow - and skipped St. Petersburg altogether. So in the summer of 2011, I was back in the USSR back in Russia!

The trip can easily be divided into two parts: Moscow (and a tiny part of the Golden Ring) and St. Petersburg. I flew to St. Petersburg, spent a quick day there, and then went to Moscow.

Chapter 1: Moscow

To get to Moscow, I took the night train connecting Russia's two largest cities. It felt strangely familiar, being back in a Russian train, in a coupé compartment. A sort of a home coming!

One of the places that definitely deserved a return to was the famous Red Square, right in the centre of Moscow. This time I was better organised, and visited most of the places I wanted, taking 2 days to see it all. Be warned - it's a ridiculously touristy place, and it will take some queueing and pushing around to see the things you want (especially in summer).

The Lenin Mausoleum was certainly the case. Even though Communism is long gone, Lenin still gets to sleep in the middle of the square, in a specially built mausoleum.  You have to queue for ages, to leave your bag, camera, phone, etc in a cloakroom. Do leave it there - if you go through the metal detector and something is found, you're back queueing for ages. The amount of people jumping the queue was appalling. The mausoleum itself is sort of interesting - it's not everyday you get to see a petrified body with almost 100 years. Be a fast observer, however - you get less than a minute to have a look.

Another place I visited was St. Basil's Cathedral. It's a beauty to perceive, both at day and (especially) at night. Legend has it that Ivan the Terrible, after having it built, blinded the architect that designed it, so that he could not design a more beautiful building.
After being mesmerised by its majestic exterior, the inside is somewhat disappointing - very crammed, with 10 small chapels connected by narrow corridors and galleries. Still, it was quite interesting to see.

Then there's of course the actual Kremlin:

The Assumption Cathedral
An even harder place to visit, with very specific visiting days and hours. Worse still - individual foreign tourists are not allowed to visit (this might have changed in the meantime): you need to buy a ticket with a tour. Russian individuals are, however; thankfully, one of my Muscovite pen-pals came to the rescue, and bought me a ticket! So this time round I did make it there, but with only a few hours to spare, I limited my visit to the main cathedrals and churches, and the outside courtyards, and had to skip the Armoury.

The interiors were really lavish and extremely rich, but as with many places around Russia, you can't take photos (certainly not inside). The outside of most buildings is also quite impressive as well, however.

The Cathedral of the Archangel
Amongst all the cathedrals and churches, the massive inside courtyards have two curious objects. One is the Emperor Cannon, built to protect the Saviour's Gate on the Red Square - it weights over 40 tons, and is the largest in the world still in existence. Each cannonball weights one ton. And it was never fired.
Its weight is nothing, compared to the 210 tons of the Emperor's Bell. During the fire of 1737, water was thrown to it, and an 11.5 ton fragment (really!) fell off it. It's the biggest bell in the world. And it was also never played.
Right next to the Kremlin, expect to see dozens of Muscovites bathing in the fountains (it gets very hot during the summer in Moscow!):

Monastery of the Sign
Separated from the Kremlin by the Red Square, is the Kitay-Gorod region - a mix of beautiful old churches, massive Soviet buildings, and modern capitalist variants. The churches around here are beautiful, and well worth a good walk around. Some are easy to find, standing proud amongst other smaller buildings, convents, old houses; others however are fairly hard to find, surrounded by big blocks of concrete.

Church of the Holy Trinity in Nikitniki

Moving further North, along a massive 9 lane, one way avenue (even its name hints at its size - it's called a square: Новая Площадь), I reached one of my favourite museums in Moscow, the Polytechnical Museum. It's a massive complex of halls and expositions, and in typical Russian fashion, it is a huge mix of just about everything. I spent the best part of a day exploring it, including halls with cinema, musical instruments, weapons (including a replica of the first Soviet atomic bomb), the first Russian computers, space exploration, and massive tools expositions.

An 18th century automata

Next to the museum is the enormous Lubyanka Building, the old KGB headquarters. A really imposing building, which even nowadays still houses the Border Guard Services of Russia.

If you have the opportunity, don't miss out on a night drive along the Moskva river. The lit banks are really nice, and you'll get to see some of the "Seven Sisters" (seven gothic-Stalinist style skyscrapers built between 1947 and 1953) in all their glory, along with other beautiful buildings.

Apart from the very centre (Kremlin, Red Square and Kitay-Gorod), Moscow is not a good city to explore on foot. Yet I'm stubborn and that's exactly what I set to do a few days, despite the excellent metro (which I urge you to take, even if just to be mesmerised by the luxurious stations). My walks took me along the Moskva river, to see the infamous Peter the Great statue, built in 1997: at 98m, it's the tallest statue in Russia (and one of the tallest in the world), and by many deemed to be one of the ugliest. Taste aside, it is monumental, and served as a good beacon to locate myself.

Another recently built monument is the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Destroyed in 1931 to give way for the Palace of the Soviets (never built), its foundation became the largest open air swimming pool in the world, until it was finally rebuilt in the 1990s.

Another interesting place for a (long) stroll is Gorky Park, a huge leisure park, perfect for a nice long walk. It achieved world fame with the Scorpions lyrics:

I followed the Moskva,
down to Gorky Park,
listening to the wind of change...

One of the best walks I had was in the Moscow State University. It's a lovely campus, dotted with impressive statues and buildings, including yet another member of the seven sisters (arguably the prettiest sister).

The old Telegraph building
It's a wonderfully peaceful place (at least during summer, almost deserted). Back in the centre, it's a totally different story: mad traffic, roads so large you can't cross on foot (have to pace up and down several blocks to find the underground passageways), etc. Don't expect to see many old Ladas or Volgas here; this is the place where Hummers, BMWs and Mercedes congregate. Still, a very colourful and interesting place.
Pushkin dwarfed by visual (and air) pollution
And of course, no visit to Moscow city centre is complete without going to the Arbat district. Famous for its pedestrian street, full of charming old buildings in between cheesy tourist shops and street performers (and babushkas begging), I found it mildly entertaining, and was far more impressed by the Lenin library nearby. Still, it was impressive to see how quickly the street was emptied under a massive summer storm!

My favourite day in Moscow however was in the VDNKh area. This huge area comprises a park commemorating the Soviet Space achievements, and the actual VDNKh (the All-Russia Exhibition Centre). The former is nothing short of spectacular; the Monument to the Conquerors of Space, located in the middle, is a 110m tall representation of a rocket and its plume as it leaves Earth, and is coated in titanium. In front of it, the Cosmonauts Alley has statues and stone memorials remembering the important figures of the Soviet Space Program. A truly impressive sight.

The Cosmos Hotel
Most of the streets and parks nearby bear space-themed names. The massive Cosmos hotel in particular is famous for the statue of Charles de Gaulle standing by its entrance. And underneath the monument, is the (recently restored) Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics. Originally only focused in the Soviet Space Program, it now has sections for all major space programs worldwide. I spent many hours there.

Tram and monorail by the VDNKh
There's much more to this area, however. Around the entrance of the VDNKh, stands the iconic statue Worker and the Kolkhoz Woman, holding together a hammer and sickle, thus forming the Communist symbol. It was first unveiled at the 1937 World Fair in Paris, where it was pitted against the Nazi pavilion, with the Eiffel tower watching.

The actual VDNKh is a huge park crammed with 82 pavilions, representing Soviet Republics, and particular industries. The gate features the iconic male and female farmers statue, which appears at the beginning of many Soviet movies. It also features an amusement park, and many food stalls, which you should really avoid (instead go for the kvass stalls, delicious in a late summer afternoon).

Many of the pavilions are very degraded, and either closed or transformed into shopping malls crammed with cheap electronics and tourist souvenirs (in stark contrast with the grandiose interiors). They're still very interesting, and make a strong statement of the Soviet legacy. The walk also takes you along fountains, with the amazing Friendship of Nations of the Soviet Union standing proudly in the centre.

1.1 The Golden Ring

This is where my plan failed. The objective was to visit most of the main cities of the famous Golden Ring - a ring of ancient cities around Moscow, with Kremlins, Churches and Monasteries, amongst the prettiest in Russia. But with all there is to see and do in Moscow, and given the distance to these cities (not possible to do on a day trip from Moscow), I had to drop that plan. With one exception: Sergiyev Posad. A couple of Muscovite friends offered to drive me there, and we spent the day visiting the place.

It's a lovely little town, with the big Trinity Lavra (monastery) being the main attraction. After a tasty lunch, we spent most of the day there, enjoying the sights and people watching, and browsing the craft and souvernir fairs. Finally, we also had a quick look to the nearby Toy Museum, and returned to Moscow.

Chapter 2. Saint Petersburg

To get back to St. Petersburg, I took a night train again. This time I had great company in my kupe: Nastya, Olga and Tanya, three very chatty and nice young women. We stay up late, chatting away, and it really reminded me of all the nice people I met while travelling across Russia.

Moskovskij train station, in St. Petersburg

Moscow and St. Petersburg are so different, one wonders if they're part of the same country. In fact, Piter (as it is know by the locals) resembles beautiful central European cities such as Viena, which served as inspiration when Peter the Great built the city. Unlike Moscow, it is slightly more pedestrian friendly; the main thoroughfare, Nevsky Prospect, takes one along the main cathedrals, crossing the lovely canals, before reaching the Hermitage and opening up to the Neva.

One of the main activities in St. Petersburg is thus to wander around; one of my favourite walks took me along the canals, and led me to three large gardens (Mikhaylovsky Sad, Summer Garden, and the Field of Mars). And if Moscow is famous for St. Basil's Cathedral, the largely unknown (in the West) Church of the Saviour on Blood is equally beautiful.

Across the Neva river, is another famous attraction, the Peter and Paul Fortress. It's a place full of history - Peter's own son was tortured and killed here (after plotting against his father), and so were some of the Decembrists. Even Gorky was imprisoned here. Apart from prisons and barracks, the main attraction is St. Peter and Paul's Cathedral, with its 122m spire; Peter the Great is buried here (along with more than 30 czars and princes).

Nearby, at the tip of Vasilyevsky Island, is a collection of imposing 18th century buildings. I visited the Central Naval Museum, another "mix-a-bit-of-everything" museum, including hundreds of replicas of boats and submarines (including many K-class replicas, but funnily enough not the K-19). The views across the Neva towards the Eastern bank are very enjoyable.

Palace Square
When going to Piter, visiting the Hermitage is a must. Located in the monumental Palace Square, it is one of the biggest museums in the world, and one of the best as well. Be ready to queue for a long time, in order to get a ticket: foreigners queue at a different place, and pay inflated prices to get in.

Inside there's halls after halls of all sorts of art pieces; it reminded me of the Louvre, for the inability of see it all in one go. And each room is in itself a work of art. A reminder of the luxury of nobility during the Czar times, and what (some of the) Bolsheviks fought against. Thankfully, and unlike many places in Russia, one can actually take photographs. I spent a whole day there.

The city is equally beautiful at night, when most of the monuments are lit. In fact, with so many restaurants, cafes and bars open 24/7, the city never really goes to sleep. And another must-do is to head over to the Neva, when all the bridges open up during the night, stranding unaware drivers in the wrong side of the river.

Thanks to couchsurfing, I was able to interact with some of the locals. The lovely Olga and Masha showed me the city at night, and in the following day took me with many of their friends for a picnic by the Gulf of Finland, where some of us even went for a swim. Finally, the remainder of my time was spent visiting beautiful churches and cathedrals.

Smolny Monastery

That's all. On the final day, I still had time to go check the impressive House of the Soviets, and then took the bus back to the airport, and flew back home. A thoroughly enjoyable experience once again; Russia is a really interesting country, and I'll be back there for sure!