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How Not To Do India in 3 Days

9 Jun

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India is one of those countries where you either love it or you hate it. We had a hard time adjusting to the culture and finding the charm in India, and we were happy to be in and out in less than half a week.

Due to flight scheduling, we only had 3 days in India and thus decided to make seeing the Taj Mahal our one and only goal. We achieved it but it certainly was a whirlwind.

Night #1
Arriving in New Delhi, our senses were overloaded with 110 degree heat at 10pm, crazy traffic, not-faint-for-the-heart driving, people and animals everywhere, homeless beggars lying around in the street, and in general, chaos. We even saw a dead body in the street a hundred yards down from our hotel. My initial thoughts were: this country is a disaster. It was quite a shock coming from the cleanliness and civility of Thailand.

On top of that, I’ve never felt so unwelcome in a country due to the staring. Everyone stares at you, and especially Jeannie as a female. You get the impression that the general population has never seen an Asian person, even though India is supposedly part of Asia! It’s an extremely uncomfortable feeling and something that we almost never experienced having grown up in California. The last time Jeannie was stared at was during a cross country road trip going through Indiana. Even then it was just a curious stare from some kids. In India, it felt much more intense and very invasive.

Day #1 in New Delhi
To get to the Taj, we had to first get train tickets to Agra. There’s no way to buy train tickets in advance online, so we gambled and decided to try our luck once we landed in New Delhi. All of the hotel staff and travel agencies said that there would be no way to find next-day tickets to Agra, and we would have to hire a private driver ($100) for the 120-mile trip to Agra (which takes at least 5-7 hours driving due to inadequate roads). I refused to believe that, so the next morning we headed out to the New Delhi Railway Station via subway. Surprisingly, the subway is clean, efficient, and modern, with AC. Once we got to the railway station after 2 stops, we crossed over to platform 1 to find the International Tourist Bureau, where we scored same-day tickets in AC3 class using the foreign tourist quota. Most people don’t know that a small percentage of seats in all trains (usually 2 per train) is reserved for foreign tourists, but it takes a lot of effort to book these seats. In addition, we were able to buy next-day return tickets on the 8pm Shadabati express (takes about 2.5 hrs), all for $30 for the two of us.

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One of the subway entrances was ghetto as heck, but inside it was decent.

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The train station was chaos and just plain ghetto. There is limited seating so people will just lie on the ground everywhere throughout the station. Kids will pee on the train tracks. No surprises, trash everywhere as well.
AC3 is a mid-class sleeper car, with 6 people per compartment section. During the day, the bottom berths fold into seats. It was a fairly decent 3.5 hour ride (we had non-annoying neighbors), and we found our way to the prepaid taxi stand for our ride to the Radisson, which is walking distance to the Taj. We’d definitely recommend the Radisson for the convenience factor. For the Taj Mahal being the bread and butter of Agra, no, India!, you’d think Agra itself wouldn’t be so run down and crappy. But it was, and we definitely were glad we didn’t stay in town. In fact we didn’t even go into town once and took all our meals at the hotel.

Day #2, now in Agra
The next morning, we started walking to the Taj at 6am in order to beat the crowds, heat, and street peddlers, and to capture the building and grounds in the early morning sun. It was definitely worth it. If you go any later you’ll be bombarded with locals trying to lure you into buying overpriced souvenirs, food, and rides via animal/wheels. It’s extremely overwhelming and sometimes even dangerous. Not every tourist knows this, but your ticket (which you buy away from the gate) allows you a free ride via golf cart to the gate itself. You just have to queue outside for a moment. However, locals will try to trick you into going into their trucks, and pretty much pretend that it’s free. Of course the unsuspecting tourist will accept the ride, and have to pay later. We really, really, detest this kind of scamming, and it seems that the government turns a blind eye when it comes to scammers.

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The Taj Mahal is a beautiful mausoleum situated in a large garden overlooking the river. The inside is a relatively simple crypt–it’s the outside where the beauty lies. Once the sun started heating up and the tourists started coming en masse, it was time to go…at 9:30am. Yep, we made it back in time for the hotel breakfast!

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We were able to score a late check out from our hotel and squatted in the lobby until 7pm. Then began our most ridiculous plan to date: 8pm train from Agra to New Delhi Railway Station, 11pm next-to-last-subway train of the night from the railway station to the airport, cumulating in our hotel picking us up at 11:30pm (our hotel offers free airport pick-up, and no one said you had to fly in to redeem it!). We really were ballsy in formulating this plan, I don’t know what we were thinking. Anything could have gone wrong and we would have been SOL. Our train could have been really really late (it actually was only 20 min late). The website could have lied about the last airport express subway train from the railway station to the airport (website said 11:30pm, our hotel in Agra told us it was 11pm). Our hotel could have forgotten to pick us up and we would have been stranded at midnight. However, luck was on our side, and we made all the connections smoothly, just 15 minutes later than we planned. We did end up catching the next to last airport express, whew! We felt like we were in an episode of The Amazing Race.

Day #3, originally supposed to explore New Delhi, but we opted to late check out and squat at our hotel with the free AC all day and all night…until 2:30AM. Because yes folks, we had a 6am flight to Jordan. Add that to the list of “what were Jerry and Jeannie thinking.”
So we’d probably not recommend to do what we did in terms of cutting things so close. We were successful, but boy were we stressed out for a little while. But we truly did not want to spend a second more than necessary in New Delhi or Agra. We just aren’t the kind of travelers that find fascination in the poverty, chaos and lack-of-infrastructure that seems to dominate New Delhi/Agra. Maybe other parts of India are totally different and actually civil, but we aren’t eager to find out anytime soon, if ever.

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Especially when it’s 113 degrees.

Koh Tao, Thailand

6 Jun

What’s Thailand without its world famous beaches?

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On our RTW, we happened to be in Thailand during the buffer season which is mid-May. At this time, the winds pick up on the west side (Phuket side) and the snorkeling becomes rougher and the Surin and Similian islands close down for tourists. So we decided to visit Koh Tao (aka Turtle Island), a smaller island on the eastern side of Thailand. We flew a 2 hour plane ride from Chiang Mai to Koh Samui, which for some reason has a large number of tattooed smoking white guys. Not exactly our type of company. Then we took a 1h45m boat ride over very choppy waters to Koh Tao (we had to close our eyes the whole time, it was that bad!), where we were picked up by our resort and then proceeded for another half hour over some 4wd terrain just to get to the resort. Whew!

You really can’t go wrong with any island in Thailand (there are so many to choose from!). It really just depends on your taste and what you’d like to do. However, a word of caution, if you’re prone to seasickness, you might want to stay at an island that you can directly fly into, such as Phuket. Phuket is quite overrun with tourists, which is why we didn’t choose to stay there, but at least you won’t have to endure that terrible boat ride!

We stayed at Jamahkiri resort, which is a high class resort and has a nice view of Shark’s Bay in southern Koh Tao. We also specifically picked it because you can go snorkeling directly from the resort, versus needing to book a separate snorkeling trip.

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The snorkeling was fantastic (as long as you stay away from shore, as it’s a little shallow over the coral at this time of the year) and we were able to find some low-cost food at a backpackers type place called Rockys next door, which was a pleasant surprise. The food at our resort was a little too fancy schmancy our tastes and wallets. We did the very same thing on our honeymoon in Fiji- stayed at a resort with nice amenities, dined at a backpackers cafe. Jeannie was also able to get a nice full body massage, wrap, and facial.

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Our little find.

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Red fleshed dragon fruit!

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Best thing about SE Asia, all the fresh fruit.

We had pretty much typical hot beach weather the entire time. It started to get stormy on our last night and because all rooms at the resort have ocean views, we were treated to a fantastic and lengthy lightning show from the comforts and safety of our room. Gotta love the simple and free entertainment.

All in all, it was nice to be in a place for a couple of days where there’s not much to do. There’s infinitely more stuff going on in big cities, but with that comes pressure to try to squeeze in a lot. We’re glad we included a nice relaxing mini island vacation in the middle of our whirlwind trip!

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Chiang Mai, Thailand

5 Jun

Note: Heavy photo post! But the elephants and tigers are so cute!

Chiang Mai is the second-largest city in Thailand. It’s a destination city that is known for hosting many of the outdoor and wildlife activities that Thailand has to offer. In addition, all of the activities are child-friendly and the Elephant Nature Park is particularly enlightening.

In our 3 days in Chiang Mai, we were able to walk the old city and visit the huge Sunday Walking street market, hike a 10-level waterfall, play with live tigers, go to a Thai cooking school, and visit an elephant nature park where injured, sick, and orphaned elephants are given a good home for the rest of their lives.

But first, we had to get there. We booked a private first-class cabin on a sleeper train, and it turned out to be a pretty rough experience. Train travel on the Internet is a little romanticized, with the main positive points being transportation and sleep accommodations all rolled into one. The reality is that it’s small, cramped, and uncomfortable, with dirty bathrooms and bad overpriced food. We had our own cabin with private sink and two fold-down beds, but the western toilet/shower combo did neither function well. 15 hours later, we arrived at 9:30am, an hour and a half late. Neither of us were well rested and we looked forward to taking a nap before visiting the Sunday Walking night market.

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The train station in Bangkok. It was a little ghetto to be honest. FYI if you order your ticket online, they won’t give you a hard copy at the counter. Instead they’ll direct you to an Internet cafe. We solved this problem by taking the train to our hotel, explaining that we were going to check in the following week, and asking if they could print for us. Cost us 50 cents, but cheaper than an hour at the Internet cafe! Thanks Holiday Inn Express!

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Different modes of transportation in Thailand- modern subway and elevated “sky” trains, rickety old school trains, and trucks converted into passenger bench taxis.

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The Sunday Walking night market sells a collection of handmade goods and excellent food, all for a buck or so. This was one of the better markets in the world that we’ve been to, and easily surpasses Mongkok, Temple Street, and Saigon Ben Thanh in terms of variety, quality, and price. Instead of tacky fake goods, there tended to be well crafted handmade wares. Similar to Unique LA, without the hipster factor.

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Bugs anyone? Crunchy!

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Flowers are huge in the Thai culture

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What’s nice about the market is that the paths take you to some wats along the way, sightseeing and shopping all in one.

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Fresh donuts/street side foot massages

Refreshing Thai iced tea, super cheap and strong at a cafe.

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On day 2, we hired a private driver to take us to the Maesa waterfall and Tiger Kingdom. Maesa was nice but the 100 degree heat and high humidity quickly drained our energy. And after having been to Iguazu Falls, sadly other waterfalls aren’t the same to us.

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Afterwards, we hopped back into the car and 5 minutes later were at the Tiger Kingdom. At TK, they breed and raise the tigers from birth, and socialize the tigers with humans every day in order to make them somewhat domesticated. This allows them to make money by giving visitors a chance to get up close and personal with the tigers. They have 4 sizes of tigers to “play” with: small (2 months), medium (6 months to a year), medium-large (1 year), and large (18 months). There is a huge difference between the ages, even though all of them can be considered juveniles. We chose to visit 3 cages: medium, large, and small.

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The medium tigers were our first cage. We were a little apprehensive at first because we’ve never been close to a tiger and these medium tigers could easily kill you without much effort. The trainers were nice and showed us various poses to with the tigers and even how to lay down on them. General rules for approaching tigers: approach from the rear, pet with a heavy hand, and do not touch the head, face, or front paws. After visiting the medium tigers, we played with the large tiger and small baby tigers in their respective cages. Though the biggest and smallest tigers made for the best pictures, we found that we enjoyed the medium tigers the best. They were more interactive and playful. The big ones are lazy, sleepy, and lethargic, and the little ones were a bit ADD. The mediums were the most fun to watch! PS, did you know tigers sleep 16-18 hours a day??

The Tiger Kingdom is certainly for tourists, and if you’re a PETA activist this place isn’t for you. But for those who want to do something crazy? stupid? fun? this place fits the bill.

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The next day we made an all day trip to the Elephant Nature Park. Here, they don’t offer elephant rides and the elephants don’t do tricks. It’s a nature conservatory where abused, orphaned, and handicapped elephants are brought to give them a sanctuary for the rest of their lives. Most people don’t know that domestic elephants are accorded the same rights in Thailand as livestock. Its sad to see that they are beaten, abused, and overworked to the point where they break down. One elephant was blinded by its former owner, who shot out its eyes to try to get the elephant to carry lumber faster. Another elephant had stepped on a land mine and lost a foot. It’s sobering to see these elephants, but good to know that they have a good home at the park. We were able to feed them, pet them, and play in the river with the elephants. It was a wonderful experience and something that will be remembered for a long time.

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Finally, we also took a Thai cooking class. I’d say that equally attractions in Chiang Mai are a third animal related, a third massage/spa, and a third cooking schools. We chose Basil cooking school because of great reviews and also because the kitchen is more modern. Tip: choose the evening cooking class, the weather is cooler, and the food doubles as dinner.

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Chiang Mai is a great place to visit, both kid and adult friendly! We highly recommend it.

Tips for Visiting Ha Long Bay

1 Jun

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If you’ve got a week or so in Hanoi, you might consider Ha Long Bay as a side trip. Another option is Sapa, which our friends really enjoyed as well. For this particular trip, we opted to check out Ha Long Bay. Here’s some tips!

The pictures you see advertised aren’t really representative of the actual boat itself. That’s okay. If you choose Galaxy Cruise, you’ll find the accommodations to be pretty decent. AC only turns on after 6pm though. But otherwise, not so shabby. Though it’s overpriced, you do get what you pay for. We saw some of the cheaper junk boats out at sea and they looked pretty old and sorry.

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Consider going on a 3D/2N cruise even though it’s pricier. A day trip is definitely not worth it, it takes 3 hours to get from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay each way, which leaves very little time to enjoy the bay to the fullest. A 2D/1N cruise will save you a bit of money, but for a bit more of your time/money, you’ll get to explore the quieter parts of the bay.

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On day one we had to kayak in a high traffic area with everyone and their mom, and on day 2, our semi-private guide (we only had to share him with this Russian couple on their honeymoon, who had been married only five days prior!) took us through a sea cave which opened up to our own little private bay. It was super nice!

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Bring your own bottled water. We’d totally understand if soda/alcohol costs extra, but we thought water should have been included! Technically they even charge you a fee for bringing your own water, but umm..just don’t tell them! Easy!

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Inside the dining area of our boat. Food was fairly decent.

If you swim in the bay, beware of jellyfish stings! I got stung very lightly, but the sting marks remained for over a month. However I think this happens more in the shallow areas? We swam in deeper water the day prior and were okay. PS, Jerry did not pee on my leg. Instead the tour guide gave me some lemon to squeeze on the affected area.

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Bring your bathing suit! One of the girls on our boat got in the water in her regular clothing. A sure way to drown it to wear clothing that gets heavy and weighed down when wet.

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As with any tour, there are obligatory shopping excursions. We got taken to an embroidery factory during the 3 hour drive to and from Hanoi/Ha Long Bay, and a pearl factory inside the world wonder. We hate these side trips, but it’s pretty unavoidable!

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You’ll be taken to an underground cave with cheesy lighting and cool limestone formations. After you’re done, wait for your group inside the cave, as it’s super hot and crowded outside. Jerry and I tend to breeze through these things, but being in a tour group, we have to wait for the very last person.

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Definitely deserving of its natural world wonder title! It’s a very beautiful place.

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North Korea, Part 2: A Hint of Color

1 May

Because of the 100th birthday celebrations, no hotel rooms were available for our tour group on the evening of April 15. Thus, we were relegated to an even crappier hotel in Pyongsung, an hour north of the city. Hard beds, no elevator, no hot water, and uneven stairs. Interestingly, the two hotels we stayed at both had heated floors.

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Day 2: Our hotel in Pyongsung.

As we spent more time in North Korea, we began to interact with some of the locals and got to see a small glimpse of what life is like in Pyongyang during the biggest national celebration in decades.

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Two young girls at an open-air festival.

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Band performers.

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We attended a children’s performance which was fantastic. All the children were supremely talented and performed singing, dance, music, twirling, hula hooping, etc. These children were well on their way to their 10,000 hours of expertise.

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After lunch, we got lucky in that our tour guide allowed us to see the military parade. This was the largest parade in decades and everyone in the city came out to celebrate and cheer the soldiers. Both soldiers and citizens looked genuinely happy on this day.

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The soldiers rolled by in a neverending convoy of hundreds and hundreds of trucks, cheered on by schoolchildren in this stretch of the street.

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Each truck had a couple dozen military soldiers. Unfortunately the tanks and rocket launchers didn’t go the full parade route so we couldn’t see them. Supposedly on this day they debuted a super huge rocket launcher, but western experts had no idea if it was really functional or just a prop.

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Schoolchildren intrigued by us foreigners.

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Traffic signalers in their blue uniforms. Because there are very few stoplights, these traffic signalers control the traffic. Of course, on most days there are few cars and at many intersections there’s not a whole lot of work to do.

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People lining up to buy some sort of food from the shack.

One of the more interesting museums in the world that we’ve ever been to was the Korean War museum in Pyongyang. In this museum, the history of Korean resistance against the Japanese in the early part of the 19th century and the history and “successful defense of the homeland against imperialist US aggressors in the Korean War” is taught. Some of the language and history is so skewed I almost burst out laughing. One video said that the “US invaded South Korea and turned it into hell on earth.” Exact quote, I’m not kidding. Another video showed images of the great depression and stated that after US involvement in the Korean War, the great depression occurred. Kinda off by 20 years, but who’s counting?

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This is the entry hallway to the Korean War museum. The mural is painted such that no matter what angle you stand at, Dear Leader is always facing his front square towards you.

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Being taught a history lesson from the other perspective.

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The museum also has a collection of captured/abandoned American military equipment.

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Inside the world’s deepest subway. The escalator ride is probably at least a minute to get down to the bottom. Everyone suspects that this subway system doubles as a bomb shelter, but who really knows why it was built so deep. Inside each station is some beautiful communist tile art. Interestingly, the NK subway has quite a bit of graffiti keyed into the windows, even though I’m sure the punishment for that in North Korea is much worse than graffiti on BART.

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We also got a chance to visit a real fun fair aka amusement park. This one is right in the heart of Pyongyang by the Arch of Triumph and includes working rides made by an Italian company. Once again the entrance line was extremely long, but as foreigners we could walk right up and take the next ride.

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Jeannie and I rode this one. Pretty fun.

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Those small dots are people sitting around a ring which swings and revolves at the same time.

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Fireworks over the Taedong river on April 15th.

 

Here is a video shot by another member on the same tour with us.

 

Coming up in Part 3: North Korean Pride.

 

North Korea, Part 1: First Impressions

29 Apr

It’s possible to travel to North Korea as an American citizen and make it out alive. We’re living proof of it.

We booked a 4 day tour to North Korea through Koryo tours, and it was definitely the trip of a lifetime. We purposely decided to travel to Pyongyang during the April 15th celebration of Kim Il Sung’s 100th birthday (he is long deceased). It ended up being the biggest national celebration in decades and included a full-on military parade (complete with tanks and rocket launchers), a failed “satellite” launch, and Kim Jong Un’s first public speech ever.

After an unsettling ride in a Russian-made Air Koryo aircraft, we arrived in Pyongyang not knowing what to expect. The airport “terminal” is basically a large warehouse where you go through the standard passport checks and customs clearance. Interestingly, the airplane also carried goods from China — I saw flat screen tv’s, bicycles, and other random cargo being unloaded as well. Our tour then broke up into three buses and in the late afternoon we were on our way to Pyongyang, about 10 miles to the south. First impression: there are no cars on the road. I’ve seen those pictures on the internet of those really wide, deserted streets, but it’s a little weird to see it in person. Second impression: there are people walking everywhere on the side of the road. They’re all going somewhere obviously, but where? There’s nothing but dirt and trees lining the road all the way into Pyongyang. They don’t seem to be carrying anything either. No backpacks, purses, nothing. Third impression: the military is everywhere. They control vehicular access to main streets, and they just seem to be walking or standing around everywhere. After a while, you get used to it and realize that although North Korea’s military is over a million people strong, they’re not exactly a professional fighting force and more like random people with uniforms. None of the random military people carry guns, radios, or any type of equipment.

As we drove through the streets of Pyongyang to get to our hotel, Jeannie and I felt some of the same feelings which we talked about later in the hotel that night. North Korea is a drab place. The people seem emotionally restrained, the colors outside are bare concrete and dirt, everything is kind of a shoddy construction, and even the trees are bare wooden sticks in the ground. The only hint of color in the city is from the communist ad at every main intersection — and even those are drawn in the basic 16-color palette reminiscent of Commodore 64 computers from the early 1980’s.

The hotel room was on par (or a little worse) than Motel 6. The bed was extremely thin and hard as a rock. There was an old ghetto transistor radio which didn’t work, and a tube tv with 8 channels, all of which showed a single channel of government-produced tv. Looking out into the evening skyline from our hotel room, you see enough lights to barely make out some of the larger buildings. It looks as if a major metropolitan city is in the middle of an evening power blackout, except that in North Korea this happens every night.

Our tour was similar to a Chinese bus tour, with a few more restrictions which make it slighly different than the typical group tour. In North Korea, you are at the hands of whatever your NK tour guide wants to do. He decides where you go, where and what time you eat, and whether or not you do certain activities or see specific sights during your time there. You’re not allowed to leave your hotel at night, and if for some reason he doesn’t like you, he can simply send you home. However, you won’t get sent to prison unless you do something really ill-advised like attempt to spread democracy or Christianity.

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Air Koryo: not exactly a world-class airline, but we got there in one piece.

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The road to Pyongyang: smooth, clear, and empty. People are walking on the side of the road, but obviously not getting to their destination anytime soon.

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Ryaangong hotel and lobby.

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That’s our room at the end of the hallway. Inside, a sparse room with shoddy construction and few amenities. The old tv shows nothing but government programming.

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Single powerplant in Pyongyang which spews quite a bit of pollution.

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Ryugyong Hotel. Originally started in 1987, this incomplete monstrosity dominates the skyline. Word has it that the shoddy construction resulted in crooked elevator shafts, which made the building unusable and essentially relegates it to a shell of a structure. Our tour guide had nothing much to say about the hotel, and we weren’t allowed to visit inside the lobby.

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Lunch, duck Korean BBQ.

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Communist art everywhere.

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Kim Il Sung Square

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We visited a “fun park,” which was essentially an old theme park with broken down rides. None of the rides were functioning that day, and didn’t appear to be ready to function anytime in the near future either.

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More communist art. For the record, the communist art does not include the guy in the white t- shirt on the right.

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This new statue on the right is of the late Kim Jong Il and was unveiled 2 days before we got there. As tourists, we were able to walk right up to the statue. However, the local people had to wait in an all-day-queue in order to pay their respects to the new statue. Certain protocol exists when approaching the statues of “Dear Leader” and “The General.” As you approach, one person in your group is supposed to lay some flowers and then the whole group stands in a line to bow before the statues (see background of picture). Being the Americans we are, there’s no way Jeannie and I would ever bow to enemy communist leaders, so we simply stood there while everyone else in our group bowed. I also noticed a NK camera crew doing some taping of our group, so they’ll have some editing to do if they want to show groups of tourists submitting and paying respects to their leaders.

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Thousands of people patiently waiting to see the statue.

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The military is everywhere.

Coming up in Part 2: A (slightly) more colorful side of North Korea.

Kyoto

28 Apr

After a 2.5 hour ride on the Shinkansen train, we arrived right in Kyoto station and then met up with our friend Kent, who flew in from SFO to join us.

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View from the train

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We then checked into our hotel, the Capsule Ryokan where we waited for our friend Kent to arrive from SFO. Our room was a mix of traditional Japanese elements and western conveniences. We slept on tatami mats but had a space age capsule shower with body jets and rain shower head. All in all, a good place to stay and I’d recommend it.

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Kyoto is the old capital of Japan, and because of its historical significance was spared from allied bombing in World War II. Thus intermixed with modern buildings and shopping arcades, you’ll find old temples and shrines everywhere. There are over 1500 temples in Kyoto, so the average traveler is only able to visit a few of the most popular ones.

We visited the gold temple, Kinkaku-ji.

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We visited the silver temple, Ginkaku-ji.

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Maruyama Park- the place for hanami parties (cherry blossom viewing) in Kyoto. People brave the cold and rain in order to stake out spots where they can hang out with their friends and family!

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More shrines and temples.

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We also took a trip south via JRail to the Fushimi Inari shrine, which is famous for its thousands of orange torii gates.

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We tried the town’s namesake, inari, for lunch. We’ve had many versions of inari ranging from expensive restaurants to takeaway, and this was my favorite version, as expected!

On another day, we hopped on the JRail to Arashiyama, a lovely town.
Bamboo forest

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One of the main attractions here is the Monkey Park, where you can feed monkeys. It was fun!

The monkey park is situated up the mountain, so we were greeted with this view up top.

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We has an amazing tofu set lunch, tofu prepared different ways. As a tofu fan, I very much enjoyed this.

Kyoto and the nearby town of Uji are known for green tea/matcha flavored products. We were all over that!

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We all agreed: best green tea cookie ever, and probably in the top 3 of best cookie EVER.

Nearly every shrine or public market type place in Kyoto had samples of mochi and yatsuhashi (also known as hijiri).

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More ramen via a machine. We discovered an area at Kyoto Station that had a concentration of 8 or so different ramen vendors, and we just picked the vendor with the biggest line.

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Nishiki Market- Kyoto has many shopping arcades, mostly covered. You can find anything in these markets. Nishiki specifically is food related.

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Inside a knife shop at Nishiki

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Our Ghetto Apartment in a Fab Location

25 Mar

A few months before the trip started, we had difficulty finding reasonable housing in Rio. All of the hotels in Copacabana and Ipanema are extremely expensive (upwards of $300/night), and the hostels are dirty and somewhat unsafe. We decided to give Airbnb a shot. There seemed to be a few reasonable options in some prime areas, and we booked a place that was in a great location for $78/night.

It turns out that this place sucks and you get what you pay for! The reviews were all glowing…up until about a week before we checked in. We got nervous but told ourselves it was okay, because maybe the recent disgruntled reviews came from high maintenance folks or something, and that it couldn’t be that bad. So the verdict?

The studio apartment itself is clean, wifi is consistent and fast, there’s a washing machine, and the bed is decently comfortable, but it goes downhill from there. The refrigerator door is falling off its hinges. The bathroom is a small, damp, and dirty place. The toilet seat is pretty scratched up and is painful to sit on for more than a few minutes. The washing machine dumps the dirty water back into the shower to drain! And the gas in the kitchen leaks badly, forcing me to turn off the main gas at all times except when Jeannie showers (it’s so hot here in Rio that I shower cold). We wouldn’t dare try cooking here with this gas leak. We have to be careful to not leave food out because of ants (they are tiny here though). While our host was showing us around, we saw a huge cockroach. Luckily after our host got rid of it, we haven’t seen any since, although we have seen cockroaches in markets, restaurants, and on the street. We can hear our neighbors at all hours of the day and night. (They seem to like 90s Top 40 music!)

Despite the misgivings, it has been very convenient to do laundry with a machine. The last time our clothes were laundered by a machine was 2.5 weeks ago in Easter Island, and it cost us $22. That sounds like a long time, but we’ve been alternating between cold and hot weather clothing all month, so it’s been manageable to go this long. It will be great to start off the Asia leg with a backpack of completely clean clothes though!

There is an AC unit that is fully functional, definitely a luxury that we have been taking advantage of! Though the fridge door is wonky, it is glorious and convenient to access our store-bought water, juices, and fruit immediately.

Also, this location can’t be beat. Our studio is located in a cul de sac with all high rise apartment buildings and a subway stop steps from our door. The front entrance of our building is locked during most of the day and you need to be buzzed in. The neighborhood feels pretty safe, there are lots of people with their children and dogs bustling about. Within a 2-3 block radius of us, there are numerous bus lines (the subway is limited), fully stocked supermarkets, restaurants, banks, and both Ipanema and Copacabana beaches.

However, we can’t wait to leave this place tomorrow. Onward to Tokyo, one of the cleanest cities in the world!

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Reflecting Back on South America

24 Mar

Our time in South America has come to an end after spending one month and two days here. It’s been a great experience and we’ve already gone through so much. We’ve struggled together through rain and difficult terrain on the Inca trail but were rewarded with Machu Picchu and one of the best experiences of our lives. We’ve seen Easter Island moai, trekked on a glacier, got drenched by Iguazu falls from both sides, and was guided through a favela. We’ve met new friends and found that we’re not the only ones in this world with this crazy idea of doing a RTW trip. We’ve interacted with locals and have seen true generosity from many of them even through our language barrier. We’ve stayed in nice hotels (Buenos Aires) and total dumps with leaking gas and ants and cockroaches (Rio de Janeiro). We haven’t had a single delay in our flights or any lost hotel reservations (knock on wood!). Most importantly, we’ve stayed safe and healthy through it all. I can only hope for this luck to continue as we move onto Asia.

South America by the numbers:
11 airplane flights
10 different airports
4 countries (Peru, Chile, Argentina, Brazil)
11 cities (Lima, Cusco, Hanga Roa, Santiago, Valparaiso, Buenos Aires, El Calafate, El Chalten, Puerto Iguazu, Foz de Iguasu, and Rio de Janeiro.
3 wonders of the world visited

Now Asia bound!

Leaving Our Mark at the Ekeko Hostel, Lima

6 Mar

Our hostel in Lima had a nice backyard/patio area, especially since the days were so warm.

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There was a wall where travelers could leave a little national pride.

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Oh the British humor.

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How cute is that koala!!

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But something was missing so we decided to add our own artwork.

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First, a draft.

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Yes we screwed up. No worries we fixed it.

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Yes there were exactly 50 stars! Count ’em all!

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Then we tackled the other wall and came up with this. Not as cute as the koala but we didn’t want to attempt to draw a California bear, so instead we went with our alma maters.

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All done!

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