6 Days Down Under – [Sydney & Melbourne, Australia]

Budget
Flight: $1000 USD [Beijing, CN → Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia(15 hr daytime layover = mini-vaca) → Sydney, AUS; Melbourne, AUS → Beijing, CN]
*Our flights cost a little more since we flew during China’s National Holiday week
Hotels: $300 USD
Hotels shared with friends, but for solo travel, backpacker hostels will be the best option.
Daily Activities & Food: $600 [100/day]
Most meals will run about $10 – 40 per at average restaurants.

Sydney, Days 1-3

Aborigines Making Music from Jall on Vimeo.

Must-see: Sydney Opera House, Taronga Zoo, Darling Harbour, The Rocks District and
Hotel recommendations (low – high): Central Station YHA Hostel, Central Station Hotel & Sir Stamford at Circular Quay.

Capital of New South Wales.

Sydney Siders, as they’re called, will exalt the stunning beauty of this city, but simultaneously lament about the early evening closings of many city businesses outside of the tourist areas such as The Rocks District.Not exactly a city for the elderly, but certainly not exactly Australia’s “Big Apple”. As relaxing as the atmosphere is, 3 days in Sydney was a little stressful because there are a lot more landmarks to try to visit in such limited time. Of these, the Sydney Opera House, is the number-one attraction to see. Unfortunately, October is the end of winter in Australia, so it wasn’t yet opera season. Fortunately, the House offers a smorgasbord of events, tours and shows year round, as well as a discount for being under 30, so we opted for a romantic comedy, George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and The Man.

Reminiscent of Beijing’s own markets, Paddy’s Mart (open Wednesday – Saturday), provides a shopping opportunity for low-priced souvenirs and quirky personal effects probably brought directly from China. I was able to purchase very nice key chains, magnets, boomerangs, etc for about $1-2 AUD each. Mainstream shopping at the malls was comparably more expensive. In a shoe store of extremely low quality, think “Traffic” in America, most shoes were about 30 – 80 AUD. Shoes that you’d buy at Traffic for 10 – 40 USD. Aside from Uggs, Australia isn’t known for clothing or shoe brands, so the prices of these items were much higher than you’d find in America, but comparable to foreign brands in China.

5 free things to do in Sydney:
1. Have a picnic in Royal Botanical Gardens, where you can also get picturesque view of the Sydney Opera House at “Mrs. Macquarie’s chair”.
2. Make music with the Aborigines [between Quay Station & Cahill Walk]
3. Visit the Customs House & its library on the 2nd floor \
4. Take photos in Hyde park
5. Museum of Contemporary Art (featuring mostly Australian artists)

Need-to-know Logistics

Public transport:
Train: Can buy a ticket for each individual ride at kiosks, no card needed. Train to airpot is 17 AUD.
Free CBD shuttle: Route 555, every 10 minutes
Ferry: Hop-on-hop-off passes are available for purchase, but in my experience seemed to be a waste unless you plan to spend a whole week in Sydney and dedicate a full day to stopping at each wharf’s attractions. We only needed the ferry two times: (a) see the Sydney Opera House & Darling Harbor Bridge from the waterside (b) go to the Taronga Zoo

Melbourne, Days 4-6

Must-see: Immigration Museum, Eureka Tower, Flinders Street Station, National Gallery of Victoria in South Bank, Chinatown, 1000 steps & Federation Square. [If you have an extra full day, book a tour to see the Great Ocean Road, located about 2 hours out of Melbourne]
Hotel recommendations (low – high): Melbourne Central YHA & Melbourne Parkview Hotel.

Capital of Victoria.

Melbournites, however, are definitely more lively in the day & night. On my way to take a photo at the Eureka 88 skydeck, I accidentally knocked over a local businessman outside of the Southbank Exit stairs. Conversation ensued, and I was invited to crash a local social group’s gathering honoring Oktoberfest 2015. Following the event, some of us segued to an underground lounge/art gallery. The artists featured aren’t featured in mainstream galleries, so part of the establishment’s proceeds are donated to the artists whose art is posted on the lounge’s walls. Kabobs are the equivalent to pizza as a subsidence for late-night munchies, and post-lounge, I had to participate in tradition at a Pakistani Kabob joint near Flinders Street train station. Nightlife in downtown Melbourne is whimsical, and certainly caters to anyone from their teens to the more seasoned. Wine is affordable, and water costs about a third, so a balancing act for the night is wallet-friendly.

Referred to as the “international city” of Australia, Melbourne is certainly a capital you cannot afford to skip. The comparison between Sydney and Melbourne is akin to Beijing versus Shanghai, with the latter being more hip and culturally diverse. Australia reminded me of America in terms of immigration patterns, but on the surface, Australia’s general population is more mixed whereas America has different pockets in which each ethnic group prefers to exist. As an “African American” I was viewed as a more positive presence than “Africans”, as graciously hinted by security guards at the National Gallery of Victoria. Despite this, the Africans I spoke to, mostly South Sudanese, said it’s a great place to live and raise families. Out of curiosity, I decided to travel to Footscray, aka Footscrazy, which is a heavily Arab-African-Asian, working-class neighborhood known for a slightly elevated crime rate. During my time there, I found a litany of delicious Ethiopian restaurants, intriguing graffiti, and a few brushes with light violence. Unlike America, guns aren’t so much an issue outside of mobs, so I felt quite safe traveling alone.

Free things to do: Continue reading 6 Days Down Under – [Sydney & Melbourne, Australia]

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She’s got so much Seoul…! South Korea during Chinese National Day

Since this was a first trip since moving to China, I’ve reposted this entry from my former blog site, chopsticksandcurls.

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Rather than stay in Beijing for China National Day (more on this holiday later), I decided to book an impromptu vacation with my coworker to Seoul, South Korea. Of course, this decision was made without any knowledge of South Korea aside from textbook history, yet it was an amazing experience!

During my undergraduate years, many people asked, “Why is your major Chinese?”. It actually wasn’t… my real major was “East Asian Languages & Cultures”, with a focus on Chinese language study (this is what my degree says)#GoGators. Within the Western world, when someone says “Asian”, the term is automatically associated with being related to the Chinese or the Japanese. I think many people forget there are other countries in Asia, and furthermore couldn’t even begin to distinguish between any of them besides their geographical locations. Moving to China to refine my oral Mandarin skills was important, but even more so, traveling around East Asia and familiarizing myself with the differences between countries, and the nuances within each of their social infrastructures.

While traveling, I think it is  important to delay making comparisons between the social constructs of different countries, but immediately upon arrival it was difficult not to. China versus South Korea, which country is better? I don’t intend to answer that question, but South Korea is definitely more foreigner-friendly which made my experience much less ardurous than when I first moved to Beijing.

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Let’s begin. Since I had less than one week, I only traveled within Seoul, and to a small city directly outside of Seoul called Yongin. Seoul being the capital city of South Korea, and the headquarter location for Samsung (yes, the massive smartphone company) seemed to be a whole new world… yet vaguely familiar. While China is still battling the influence of Western influence, South Korea made me feel as if I was back in America except without the larger-sized shoes & dark-colored makeup, of course.

The only word I know in Korean is 감사합니다 [“gamsahabnida”(romanticized as “kamsahamnida”], which means “thank you”, and to my surprise, I didn’t even need to know that. Granted I came during “Welcome to South Korea week” (geared towards tourists, mostly Chinese ones), but it seems that a higher percentage of South Koreans speak a fair amount of English than in China (even in a global city such as Beijing, I struggle to find English-speakers). Most signs, product labels, menus, speaker announcements and maps were in either Korean, Chinese & English, or just Korean & English.

The prevalence of English made navigation super easy, so I spent a lot of time perusing in the underground tunnel markets, and riding the subway all around the city. One thing I noticed was the numbers of women who have undergone plastic surgery in South Korea… and have no intention of hiding it. Every trip I made around the city I could be expected to see at least two or three bandaged, puffy faces from a recent surgery. South Koreans place a lot more emphasis on personal hygiene, appearance & aesthetics than I’ve ever seen in China (although some Chinese women do travel to S. Korea for plastic surgery,  the numbers aren’t as high). Rather than making me feel ugly & awkward, the obsession with beauty in S. Korea was really comforting. Coming from South-Central Florida, seeing exquisitely-dressed people smelling of arousing aromas was familiar. Familiar is nice. Very nice. I almost forgot I was halfway around the world.

[Link: Article about plastic surgery in S. Korea http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2610231/Plastic-surgery-South-Korea-good-people-travelling-home-surgery-need-CERTIFICATES-prove-are.html]

I want a Gangnam style face:

Know what I missed most about America? Google. In the wake of China’s crackdown on internet freedom, many websites that I used to use daily are blocked by the Great Firewall of China (including my blog website). Even though VPNs are a way around the firewall, they’re not always reliable, and can be disconnected at anytime (imagine a smartphone that keeps freezing while you’re texting, and you have to constantly restart it just to finish a conversation). I’d almost forgotten that “Google it” is now a colloquial verb-phrase, but South Korea soon brought me back to remembrance. I was only a 1.5 hour flight away from my apartment, but I finally felt like I was once again part of the free world. Being able to freely read the NYTimes, post on Instagram & Twitter was sweeter than a glazed Krispy Kreme donut (Seoul has Krispy Kreme!!).

Note: VPNs cause your internet to run very slowly, hence the significance of this experience. Fast internet… I have missed you so much.

This was one of the most hassle-free vacations I’ve had since moving. Thank you, South Korea.

Photos:

1. View from our hotel (Acacia Hotel–located between Myeong-dong & Dongdaeum cultural park):

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I’ve missed hygiene standards–this sign on our hotel toilet nearly made me weep tears of joy:

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2. Visit to Deoksugung Palace (one of the smaller palaces):

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Pond outside palace:

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Musical procession when changing guards at 3pm

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Gwangmyeongmun Gate (once the south gate of Deoksugung Palace) [Buddhist Bell & Borugak Jagyeongnu Water Clock]:

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Seokjojeon Area (same site as the palace):

1. Map 2. National Museum of Art (couldn’t take photos inside) 3. Seokjojeon (closed for renovations)

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3. Visit to Insadong area:

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Found this dessert-making stand. They sing, dance, and wrap your sesame seed, peanut or almond dessert in hair-like sugary strands.

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More dessert… you can buy ice cream stuffed into double-sided phallic tubes:

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Lot’s of market stands! I definitely bought lots socks because I couldn’t resist the price. Stopping at a street vendor’s table to shop is like going into a Wal Mart or a Dollar Tree. You go in to buy ONE specific thing… walk out with a bag/cart full of odds-and-ends (in my case, a flat screen, once).

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Also bought some gifts for my parents from the markets:

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4. Seoul/Namsan Tower

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Before going to the top of the tower, there is a level of the mountain that has a gate where people buy locks, write messages on them & attach them to the fence:

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“I wish you were here”. I didn’t write this one (didn’t have cash for a lock), but the message is still the same.

View of the city at this level of the mountain:

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5. Shopping/Eating in the Myeong-dong, area:

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This photo chair was located right in front of the Lotte department store:

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Street food. Tentacles, anyone?

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Bulgogi:

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One of the best dishes I’ve ever had in my life. I would move to S. Korea for this. My friend has been living in S.Korea for a year & never tried it. If you’re in the area, and haven’t tried it… you’re doing yourself a disservice.

Here’s the map to the place we found–it’s a speciality bulgogi restaurant:

Not sure of the English translation, but the Korean name is written on the yellow post-it. The restaurant is located behind about 2 streets behind the “Hello APM” mall. When coming down the road between Goodmorning City center & Hello APM, the restaurant will be on the absolute last street you reach right before the National Medical Center Euljiro-6ga. Street looked a tiny bit sketchy at night (there was a random fence at the end of the road). Once you’ve reached the end of the road, turn right and you’ll find the restaurant a few doors down.

**The star on the map was where we departed from, not the destination.

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Crazy icecream shop:

I’ve inherited my father & grandfather’s sweet tooth, so of course  I had to try (despite my lactose intolerance). Cup is full of vanilla ice cream, layered with honeycomb chips (not visible), and topped with “storm” cotton candy. Yumm.

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6. Itaewon (foreigner’s district):

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We didn’t go to HO bar, but the place we did go kept serving us these complimentary fried (and lightly salted) spaghetti sticks. Soooo good!IMG_3627

Korean BBQ:

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7. Miscellaneous

Shopping in the underground Dongdaeum tunnel markets:

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Rain water drainage system/artwork (there’s a frog statue at the end):

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If you’re brave enough to slink down an alley with an opening so tight you have to walk sideways through, you may luck up and find a few coffee/juice shops, as well as some odd and wildly inappropriate statues (not posted):IMG_3514

I mentioned that I traveled to Yongin… that was to go to the theme park, Everland! I’d definitely recommend hopping on a city bus early in the morning (think 7:30am), and riding about an hour and a half to this place. Certainly not as fancy as Disney World or Universal Studios, but there was a great selection of rides and STRONG, FREE WiFi everywhere in the park. The only downside is that the food options were very basic, and the day I went had lots of children since it was “tourist week” in Seoul, as well as the fact that many Chinese citizens were vacationing there during the government holiday.

My mantra for theme parks no matter where I go: ride my top 3 rides immediately, no matter how long the lines are. Even if it rains the rest of the day, I still got my top 3 thrills.

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Clash of Clans!! (subway tunnel advertisement)

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Random pieces of artwork everywhere… this one is in front of an office building (I think a bank):

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Hot, black buns. 😉

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Riding past the water on the airport shuttle bus:

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Reflections:

After returning to China and checking my bank account, I realized just how easy it is to spend $1000 in one week — luckily that included airfare. The South Korea won had about a 1000:1 ratio to USD so pricing purchases in my head was relatively easily, but before I knew it, I’d spent hundreds of dollars. Do I regret it? Not necessarily. I wish I’d planned a little bit more, but the experience I had & the financial lessons learned are both valued.

Florida Gator taking over the world.