My Panoramic Pictures from Around the World


Monday, October 26, 2015

My recommendations for families visiting Beijing and Shanghai: Shanghai

We took the "bullet train" from Beijing to Shanghai. It travels at around 300 km/hr and it is a smooth 4 1/2 hrs trip. Along the way you mostly see some countryside and occasional factories. We arrived at the Hongqiao station from which you can connect to the subway system easily.

Again, we booked an apartment/hotel which was excellent being a 3 bedroom apartment with kitchen. These were called the New Harbour Service Apartments and their location was centrally located. Just like in Beijing, the kitchen was not supplied with cooking utensils unless you rented them from them.

Shanghai is a more compact city as compared to Beijing and roughly is divided into the "older" side where the Bund is located and the high-rise section across the river. You could probably walk or catch the subway for most locations, but here we decided to buy a 48 hr Sightseeing double deck bus that has three different routes and basically allows you to hop-on-hop-off at all the major locations in town. There's lots of good shopping and interesting places to visit while in Shanghai.

Shanghai was extremely busy when we were there as it coincided with a major national holiday. Still we got to see all major places we had in our list, and even went to a wonderful restaurant with the best dumplings in town.

Since the line for the Pearl Tower was two hours long, we decided to instead go to the top of the Jin Mao Tower. The line was almost non-existent and we still got a beautiful view.

All trips come to an end. However, we had one final trip to take on the Maglev train that goes up to 400 km/h to the airport. Wonderful way to finish a nice week in China.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

My recommendations for families visiting Beijing and Shanghai: second stop the Great wall of China

It is easy to visit some portions of the Great Wall of China while staying in Beijing as a day trip. After doing some research I found out that a larger percent of people go to the Badaling section because of being closer. However, the downside is that it tends to be more crowded. We found out a number of people recommended instead going to Mutianyu section which is a little further away but more preserved in nature and less crowded. It is still easily done during a day trip and can even have a few other stops.
There are many ways to arrange a day trip to the Great Wall. I decided to use, which is a company that I've used several times before for day tours in Thailand, Myanmar and India. They subcontract with reputable local tour companies and I've never been disappointed.

This particular day trip started us by taking us to a jade factory that had some outstanding pieces of art for sale. They have everything from large statues to jewelry. We bought a beautiful piece of spheres carved within spheres for a total of 5 layers, as a symbol for each member of the family. Very nice. Each piece can take up to one month to make because of the intricate work it takes.

We made it to the Great Wall. Unfortunately, this was one of the only days we had rain during our trip in China. We took the ski-lift to the top (you can walk if you want, but it is inexpensive) and we saved the energy for the other steps you still have to climb. It was not difficult and the views were amazing. Our tour guide kept reminding the group to please exit back on the same entry we came-in, since they day before some Italian man in his previous group had ended up on the wrong wide and took them 4 hours to locate. We did not loose anybody this time!

Anyway, the fog and the scenery gave the Great Wall a mysterious sensation as you can see in these pictures.

The one thing that we could not do due to the rain was take the tobbagon ride back. Our friends had done it and their kids had loved it, so we were a little sad the weather did not collaborate. So, instead we rode the ski-lift back down.

We started heading back, but made another stop at a pottery/textile factory and a tea house. We got some great teas there and got a pretty neat demonstration on traditional tea houses in China.

We really enjoyed this trip.Despite a rainy day, the experience of seeing the Great Wall of China was unique and another "bucket list" point filled.

Friday, October 9, 2015

My recommendations for families visiting Beijing and Shanghai: First Stop Beijing

As my youngest son told me recently, we were able to fill another item of our "bucket list" by recently visiting China during a long Holiday and coupling it with some vacation time. I had carefully planned this vacation months in advance, since I knew this time of year would be a heavy travel season both in Korea and China.

Our visit started in Beijing which is a short 1 hour and 45 min away from Seoul by air and spent 4 days there. I booked a reservation at the Beijing Guangyao Apartments/hotel via and was happy to see it was an excellent choice. It is in the heart of the city, near the Chaoyangmen subway station and their two-room apartments were perfect for our larger-than-average family with 3 kids. It had a full kitchen, although we were surprised to see it did not have utensils but rather you had either to bring them or rent them. Traveling during late September was perfect since the air quality was OK for Beijing.

We are pretty practical in our travels, and used the subway in Beijing by in large. It is efficient, safe and cheap, (yet crowded), and if you download any number of subway apps for Beijing, you can easily plan your travels. I also had an off-line map of Beijing. Instead of buying a ticket every time, I just bought an IC card at the teller with a live-person at the station (costs only 20 Yuan for the card, and a minimum of 30 Yuan for use in trips), which you can reuse and refill with money when running low. For offline maps, my favorite is CityMaps2Go, which I've used for many, many trips in Asia, Europe and Australia. For useful on-demand offline tourist information, I use Triposo app on my ipad, or just brown many different websites ahead of time and get off-line copies by using instapaper app.

First day we visited the Temple of Heaven or Tian Tan, a Daoist temple dating to the early 1400s. It is large and takes about 2 hours to see at a not-in-depth pace.

Restaurants are plentiful in Beijing and food is very tasty. We avoid street vendors as a rule to avoid ruining a vacation from a GI infection, but otherwise food was great. Service in the other hand was often difficult due to the lack of English-speaking waitresses. So, by pointing at pictures, we got by just fine. 

Second day was our visit to Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City is amazing. It is a large series of imperial buildings that truly give you an idea of the the lifestyle enjoyed by previous emperors. Living in Korea, it is reminiscent of some of the palaces here, but at a much larger scale. We did not go to the Mausoleum for Mao, since I read on many sites it would likely be a long line and not much to see other than the obvious preserved Mao. Tienanmen Square is mostly a large plaza but does have a lot of locals which gives you some insight into their own local tourism. At multiple times during our stay in China, random people asked to take pictures with our kids, and we obliged since it was done purely out of curiosity.

After entering Forbidden City, it takes a good 2-4 hours to see the complex. I suggest starting in the south gate and end at the north gate, so you can then go on to Jingshan Park.

As mentioned, after seeing this beautiful place, try to get a little extra energy to walk up the steps in Jingshan Park (it is only about a 10 minute walk up) to get a superb view of whole Forbidden City from this high point and some of Beijing as well.

Afterwards, we hired a tuk tuk to take us to do shopping in the Wangfujing Street area and got some delicious late lunch there as well.

The other trip we did inside the Beijing area was to the Summer Palace. It does take about 45 min to get there by subway, but it was an easy ride. This is even larger than the Forbidden City but has a very different flavor since it has many trees and lakes and has a more country feeling to it. Unfortunately, the day we visited it was a rainy one, but it was still a great place to visit. We saw many local school children visiting with their school as well. Despite the bad weather, it was a fun day.

We could not leave Beijing without trying their famous Peking Duck. We went to the famous DaDong Restaurant (they have apparently 3 locations) and were not dissapointed with this tasty crispy dish.

Finally, in Beijing we also visited the Olympic Village, with the famous "Eagle's Nest" Stadium and the Aquatic Center.

We found in general in Beijing (and also in Shanghai) that the attention to customer service, not only to the tourist but the customer at large, is not as good as in some other regional countries. This was evident not only at hotels, but also at restaurants and tourist attractions. I guess there is still some "growth" needed in this part. Regardless, we found the average person to be very friendly and willing to try their English if possible. Beijing was still a great place to visit given its many historical sites to visit and great food to taste.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Hiking Surisan near Seoul

We love exploring the mountains near Seoul. Seoul is surrounded by various mountains that have excellent hiking opportunities.

This time, we decided to do a lesser known one (at least to foreigners), called Surisan. It is in the southern area of Seoul. You can take the subway #4 and ride about 40 minutes out of Seoul and get off at the Surisan station. Since this time it was just Julie and I, we decided to do a longer trek, starting at the Surisan station and ending at the Sanbon station, while trekking up and down the mountain in between.

You can easily find the entrance to the trail by following the map above. If you just find apartment building #517  (clearly labeled on the wall of the apartment complex) which is next to an elementary school, the entrance is right next to it. Although the path is clearly labeled along the way, sometimes it was in English and Korean and sometimes only in Korean. However, it was easy to identify the Hangul characters of the direction form our map above. I would qualify this as an intermediate level trek. It took us about 4 hours to do it a a leisurely pace and with stops to rest and drink some water. Make sure you bring your own water bottles since we did not see any place to refill until the very end.

Along the way, there are some beautiful views of the larger Seoul metropolitan area. Seoul is such a large city, we could not really figure out which was the actual "downtown". 

The weather was perfect for a long walk. This seems to be a less discovered trek by other expats/foreigners and it was mostly locals doing the trek. I am always impressed how fit many elderly people are in Korea, often passing us by since they were going faster than us. Most of the path is tree-covered so there was a nice shade most of the way. It was still challenging since there were several steep spots.

At one point, near the highest peak, there is a rock that lends itself for a wonderful portrait.

Finally, we made it to the highest part of the trek, in which there is a Korean flag marking the spot.

Although the walk was long and had lots of ups and downs, it was very safe and did not require any special equipment along the way. We finally started our way down toward the city.

Thirsty and hungry, we made it to the end of the trail, back into the suburbs. The town at which you arrive is called Gunpo. We quickly found several small restaurants and although we could not really figure out the menu, we were able to get our message across to the nice lady attending us and got some delicious vegetable and beef bibimbap, with all the typical Korean delicious side dishes and the staple local beer. Great ending to a fun trek. I highly recommend it for those wanting to do a good long walk and getting some different views of Seoul.

Monday, August 24, 2015

A few sights around Seoul

Panoramic Picture near City Hall in Seoul (click on picture to enlarge)

We have been in Seoul now for a little over a year and truly have fallen in love with this city. It is amazingly efficient, modern and yet has elements that reflect its culture and history in every corner. Korean people are hospitable, polite and family-oriented.

Seoul Tower has a great view of the City

It is common to hear in the news back home about how connected and technologically savvy it is in Korea. It is another thing to be living in it and see how it relates to your every day life.

Let's start with internet. My internet connection usually clocks at above 80 mps download and upload. In previous homes we were lucky to reach 20 mps and often much lower. We are able to easily stream movies with HD quality without any hiccups. Koreans are truly connected everywhere whether on the subway, walking, or at home.

Then, there is transportation. The public transportation is ultra efficient and the city is easily blanketed with the subway and bus system. The subway is by far the best one we have seen with multiple lines covering most of the city. You can download a handy app on your phone and tell it where you are going and it will show you exactly which lines to take, where to transfer and what time the next train will arrive. Pretty cool.

Subway train station

Seoul is a very safe city. We feel safe letting our kids go on their own and our oldest one is now an expert on taking the subway to go with friends. Overall petty crime is very low and most expats feel very safe here.

There is much history to be discovered in Seoul. There are beautiful palaces to discover and many Buddhist temples to see. We have barely scratched the surface and continue discovering every day.

I love Korean food and could easily live on this diet the rest of my life. It is a perfect combination of spices and healthy taste. The emphasis is on moderate amounts of meat with many surrounding dishes to accompany the meal.

And finally, the people. As mentioned above, people in Seoul are friendly, polite and overall have been very accommodating despite our ignorance of their language and culture. We look forward to several years here at this great city.