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Travel Guide: Busan and Around

I didn’t know what to expect when we decided to travel to Korea for October break. Many of my colleagues started their overseas teaching careers in Korea and everyone spoke highly of it, but visiting a place is obviously different from living there. The only thing I knew for sure was that it would be fall. I hadn’t seen leaves change in a long time and I was really looking forward to it.

We organised our trip based on where we could get direct flights; from Singapore, we could fly directly to Busan and from Seoul. The opposite option, interestingly, did not exist.

We landed in Busan first thing in the morning and the fact that I lost all of my photos from the first day of our trip (no joke, I managed to recover none at all) is actually fitting considering how discombobulated I felt that day. We revived ourselves a bit with coffee before heading to Haedong Yonggungsa, a Buddhist temple famous because it’s built on cliffs overlooking the sea. I loved hearing and smelling the sea, exploring the stone cracks and crevices, and looking at the food stalls on the path leading to the temple.

Busan is located on the southeastern coast of the Korean peninsula and that means it has a beach! Several, in fact. We spent some time that afternoon walking along Gwangalli Beach and enjoyed how quiet it was. October isn’t beach weather and this was a Monday afternoon, but there were lovely art installations and displays of children’s art. It felt really good to walk along the sand and even touch the water, which was about the same temperature as the air. Pleasant enough but jeans and a jacket were required. And again, we smelled the sea. It smelled alive in a way that I forget exists when living in the middle of a city.

Everyone we spoke to promised that public transportation in Korea was cheap and easy to use, a promise that we tested on our first bus ride from the beach to the hotel. Not only are stops listed in English most of the time, but you can pay in cash on all buses and the metro. Alternatively, you can use a Tcard and reload it with money at any metro station. Easy indeed!

Korea has a lot of parks and nature and before dinner we walked over to Yongdusan Park, the home of Busan Tower. The real attraction, however, was getting there. We took a series of themed escalators from street level up a hill and at the top was the park! Each level of escalator was a different colour or played music or was decorated with lights and moving images, which was highly entertaining.

We also spent some time that evening wandering through Gukje Market and BIFF Square. The market was a lot of fun because it backed right into high-end restaurants and designer shops, and the food sections of the market existed on the same roads as non-food shops. Picture pancakes frying in the middle of the street in front of a shop selling scarves and then imagine the smells of oil and wool. Put a smile on your face and that’s where I was. BIFF Square, built for the Busan International Film Festival, had its own collection of food and souvenir vendors and even fortune tellers!

The next day we headed out of Busan to Gyeongju, the capital of the former Silla dynasty. The bus ride was really pretty and took us past rolling hills and small cities. We were there to see the burial mounds of Silla kings, most of which are contained in one park area but some are dotted through the town. (And now I have photos, yay!)

Turns out there’s a method to keeping the grass level, too!

I was also really taken by the fruit trees.

We were able to go inside Cheonmachong, an excavated mound named for the white horse motif painted on the outside. The mounds are built initially as platforms and then hollowed out at the top, which is a pretty cool feat of engineering.

The town of Gyeongju itself was pretty, too, with restaurants, cafés, and lots of little shops. This is also the first place we encountered the emphasis on Instagram – cafés were literally designed for this purpose and advertised as such!

The other reason to visit Gyeongju was to get to Bulguksa Temple, which meant another bus ride through a landscape of hills, trees, and flowers. Korea is home to birds I’ve never seen before, either, and it was a really nice to experience so much of the land around us. Bulguksa was built in the eighth century and, like most of Korea, was destroyed during the wars and has since been restored. The colours were remarkable and we got very lucky with the blue sky, late afternoon sun, and autumn leaves beginning to change.

We returned to Gyongju for dinner and found more street art, which is always a highlight for me.

We spent our last full day in Busan at Gamcheon Cultural Village, which I’d really been looking forward to. We spent hours wandering through the twisty alleys and streets, browsing souvenirs and handcrafts, and pointing out the large variety of snacks available for purchase.

Gamcheon Cultural Village is still home to many artists and other residents and I really couldn’t shake the feeling that we were dancing on people’s heads the whole time we were there. It was first built in the 1920s and 30s and the restoration and community building that is still prevalent there was really impressive.

There was art everywhere and we were completely immersed in it.

On the walls . . .

. . . and on the stairs . . .

. . . and installations everywhere you looked.

I particularly loved the book staircase . . .

. . . and the Peace Museum. A man came by with markers for us to add messages, so of course we did so.

Gamcheon also had a local market because, as I said, people live there! The market was one of our last stops so it was mostly closed for the day but I was delighted to be there.

Since we visited a beach on our first day in Busan, we thought it fitting to also visit a beach on our last day. We took a really nice bus ride to Haeundae Beach, which, I learned, has the record for the most umbrellas on a beach at one time. (Note: This fact came from my travel friend and has not been independently verified.) We reached the beach at sunset and watched the sky change.

It was a rather poetic way to conclude the first chapter of our trip to Korea and left me with bright thoughts for chapter two: Seoul! Stay tuned!

Travel Guide: Yunnan Province x2

I’ve been very privileged to be able to travel abroad to wonderful places with students. Just like last year in Yunnan and the previous year in Battambang, Cambodia, my school worked with the JUMP! Foundation who develop, design, and manage our programs. As trip lead for the past three years, I have a close relationship with JUMP! – and in all honesty, they make me question my career choices every time. It is an honour to work with them.

Yunnan is in Southwestern China. It borders Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam.

For many students, this was their first time playing backpacker. We took an overnight train, three bus rides, and a short train throughout our trip. There’s a lot to see and do in Yunnan and we were all over the place in our six days of travel.

Our first stop was the town of Baisha. We arrived there after flying from Singapore to Kunming and taking a nine-hour night train from Kunming to Lijiang. This was my third experience on a night train and I slept surprisingly soundly. The earplugs probably helped, as perhaps did having the lower bunk. From Lijiang, Baisha is only about thirty minutes away by bus.

Like most of where we go on these trips, Baisha is a small rural community and it’s beautiful.

I was particularly fascinated with how buildings are constructed and how space is used.

Our primary reason for being in Yunnan was to engage with the environment around us and the minority groups that live there. Our first real activity was a hike up to Fuguo Monastery, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery that has been around since 1601. The hike was beautiful and we really enjoyed the cool air. We don’t get air like that in Singapore.

I’ve been to many temples and monasteries and I really enjoy them. I enjoy their beauty, their quiet, and their overwhelming sense of peace. I do sometimes wonder if that comes from shutting out the outside world and its problems, but that did not seem to be the case here, such as when the monks utterly defeated our students in our annual basketball game.

Our exploration of the landscape continued the following day. We hiked up to a reservoir located just outside of town towards the monastery and then down to a village located alongside Wenhai Lake. The terrain was steep and damp from the previous night’s rain and it changed as we walked. Once again, the air tasted different from the air that we have in Singapore and the wind came from a different direction. There were times during our walk when I lost myself in the forest and in the sensations of being somewhere foreign yet completely familiar.

It is a true pleasure to feel like I’m somewhere new and to look around at a completely different sky. Singapore is dense and full of tall buildings; our time in Yunnan gave me some much-needed solace and an escape from a world that I often feel is moving too quickly.

From our forest walk, we visited the Baisha Naxi Embroidery Institute where we learned traditional Naxi Dongba calligraphy. The symbols are pictographs that can be combined in a variety of ways to create many different messages. It was a lot of fun to use the calligraphy brush! We also learned traditional embroidery, which the kids really enjoyed and which reminded me of the sewing I used to do in elementary school.

We did not stay still in Yunnan, however. After two nights in Baisha we took a three-hour bus ride to Laojunshan. If I’m going to return to any part of Yunnan on my own, Laojunshan is it. I didn’t know it before I arrived, but the area is China’s traditional climbing heaven and as soon as we got there, I understood why.

The buildings are beautiful, too, and fit so completely into the red sandstone that was everywhere.

Many people from the Lisu minority community live in the area around Laojunshan and are known for their music and dance. We visited the home of famous Lisu musicians who have performed as far away as France. We spent an afternoon with them to make bamboo flutes and learn traditional Lisu dances. A week later, my flute still tastes and smells like wood and smoke, which I love.

Later that evening we had the opportunity to put our Lisu dance steps into practice, which was great fun. Laojunshan is basically one long street and the nightly entertainment is dancing! We gathered with the community after dark in a large courtyard with lights, tables, and benches and followed along as best we could. The Lisu women had beautiful costumes and many men were involved in the dance, too.

When we left the dancing, I looked up at the stars. It was so dark and there were so many stars. We don’t see that in Singapore.

Another thing we don’t see in Singapore is mountains. The following day we climbed Thousand Turtle Mountain, which was astonishingly beautiful. The views are glorious and the day was fresh and new from rain the night before. I loved watching the light and the mountains appear from the mist. I took some time to write and to sit and breathe the air; there aren’t many occasions when the world feels right to me but this was certainly one of those, for which I am grateful.

Thousand Turtle Mountain feels like a different world from anywhere but it was starkly different to Lijiang, our final destination that afternoon. Lijiang is about three hours by bus from Laojunshan and the home of the closest airport to where we were. At just over a million people, one of my Chinese colleagues pronounced it tiny. Considering we’d spent the week in towns so small that you could count the number of streets, Lijiang felt huge.

Rather than spend any time in the city, though, we headed straight to Lijiang Old Town, which used to be the market district. It maintains that character and flavour through winding, twisting, narrow streets full of shops but the shops today are for tourists. They sell souvenirs, food, and beverages of every kind. I do enjoy a market in any form and it was fun to wander around and see what there was to see. I really did like the architecture, too. Most buildings in the parts of Yunnan I have visited have exteriors far grander than I would have expected and it always catches me by pleasant surprise.

Throughout our time in Yunnan, I photographed flowers. We have lots of flora in Singapore but I love exploring the beauty of the places that I visit. It’s all so different! And there were so many purple ones!

The following day, we were back at the train station for a high speed train to Kunming to catch the flight that would take us to Singapore. We spent six days in a different world and I am grateful for each one of them, and for the people I spent time with along the way. It is experiences like this that make me feel right in the world and this one came at a good time.

Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt. – John Muir

Travel Guide: Yunnan Province

I recently had the privilege to lead a group of grade 11 students on a week-long journey through Yunnan Province in southwestern China. As on the trip to Battambang, Cambodia that I led for this group as grade 10 students, we worked with the JUMP! Foundation, who continue to be my favorite people. They develop, design, and manage the program along with their partner schools and it’s an honor to work with them each year.

This trip was the first time many of our students experienced what it’s like to be a backpacker. We traveled with packs and on overnight trains, moving to multiple locations throughout the trip. There’s a lot of travel in one week because we spend the first and last days transitioning between planes, trains, and buses but it was a phenomenal experience. 

After a series of opening activities (JUMP! programs involve lots of running around and games, which are really fun, as well as group reflections that are valuable) and another bus ride, we arrived in our first base, Jianchuan.  The town itself is quite small and there was no restaurant in town large enough for all 63 of us so one of the restaurant families opened their courtyard and invited local chefs to cook the three meals we’d be eating there. The food we had all week was truly extraordinary and a major highlight for some of the students and even the staff.

JUMP! had told us about Bai, the minority group that we’d be spending much of our time with on the trip. China doesn’t have the best history in its treatment of minorities, but Bai language, culture, and style of dress remain vibrant and distinct. Learning about and from the Bai people began almost immediately. After some food and our first shower in 36 hours, we headed to a traditional pottery workshop and learned about the ancient art of black pottery that is famous in this region. Interestingly, it’s the use of pine wood in the kiln at the comparatively low temperature of 500°C that makes the pottery black. 

Walking through Jianchuan the next day was like going back in time. The main road of the ancient town was part of Tea Horse Caravan Road that connected to the Silk Road and although no longer a merchant spot, it’s still a functioning street.

Our morning activity was a scavenger hunt following a hand-drawn map through Jianchuan Old Town. We began at the central town square . . .

. . . with the goal of investigating the local economy . . . 

. . . a beautiful shrine . . .

. . . and a local park with pagodas.

From Jianchuan we headed to Shaxi where we’d spend the next three nights. Shaxi is a very small town and a bit like a fairytale. Like Jianchuan, it’s part of the Tea Horse Caravan Road, which is really cool. I even did some shopping there!

We had time to wander through town during our stay and it was so serene and beautiful. 

The countryside was equally beautiful and we went on a bike ride through the fields across the river.

In keeping with the connection to nature, we hiked Shi Bao Mountain the following day. It’s a beautiful pine forest with grottos, temples, and views of Shaxi and the fields beyond. My stereotypes of China had been fading since our arrival and I voiced that for the first time with my students up on the mountain. I wasn’t the only one thinking that way. 

At the summit, we had a picnic linch of the rice rolls and rice balls that we’d made that morning, which had been really fun.

Then we spent the rest of the day in a tiny Bai village, Bao Xiang Si-Shi Long. “Bai” means “white” and many of the homes and buildings were painted white and then decorated, which was quite charming.

Much of the afternoon was spent learning a song in the Bai language. Bai bears no similarity to Mandarin, so it was a challenge for everyone. Our hosts also taught us a traditional dance and performed it for us in full traditional dress at a bonfire later that evening. Two singers performed the song that we’d painstakingly learned after transliterating the Mandarin characters and then we tried to show them what we’d learned of their dance. Try is the key word here, but the Bai people have only recently started teaching their language to outsiders so it was an honor to be included.

A major endeavor during our time in Shaxi was a fascinating anthropology research project that had students learning about local concerns as a result of migration, modernization, and the mixing of immigrants to Shaxi and the Bai locals. Students then followed a hand-drawn map around town to conduct interviews, mostly in Mandarin, to ask a series of questions they’d devised to learn more about the problems. Then, they were tasked with coming up with viable solutions, which prompted excellent group discussions about the appropriateness of walking into a culture and trying to be of help. On the last day of the trip, students presented their proposals to each other and the group voted for three of the ten presentations to give to some of the locals they’d interviewed. I certainly learned a lot and I know the students did, too. And as always, food was a highlight.

The end of our interview day was one of my favorite experiences of the trip, probably because it was so simple. We went stargazing! We don’t see stars that often in Singapore because of light pollution and cloud cover, but the sky in Yunnan was clear and bright. It was cold, too, winter cold, but we headed to the rooftop of our hostel after dark to lie there and simply look up. We gazed in silence for a while and then played a game of “I Wonder”. At the end of the day, I wonder how we all happened to be there.

Our final activity the next afternoon was a really nice follow-up to the stargazing, meeting people, and group reflections that we’d done throughout the week. My group’s leader and I also taught a few meditation techniques that our students enjoyed. So when it came time to hike an hour through the rice fields for half an hour of silence and solitude, our students were ready and looking forward to reconnecting with themselves and how they’d changed during the week.

And all too soon, we were back on buses, the overnight train, and the plane home. As a staff, we high-fived at the happy faces and safe return. As an educator, I delighted in seeing my students grow and mature over the week, developing new friendships and connections with others. And as a person, I was happy with the crisp air, bright sunshine, learning, and laughter that made up every day.

In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks. -John Muir