My Panoramic Pictures from Around the World


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.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

R&R in Costa Rica

Julie and the kids traveled ahead of me and visited friends and family in USA for a few weeks. This year I joined them in Tampa, after a long trip across the world just long enough to shake off the jet lag and seeing some friends.

Finally we made it to San Jose. As always, it is great to see family and friends and catch-up on what changes have happened in Costa Rica since my last visit.

Each time we go back to Costa Rica, we try to visit some tourist places we may not have seen in the past. It is amazing how much tourism has developed over the last couple of decades.

ZooAve Animal Rescue

I had never visited this place, although it sounds like they've been there for several years. It is mostly a bird sanctuary although they also have a mix of other local animals and even some non-local ones.

We enjoyed the place and it was a great couple of hours that we combined with a trip to Delicias del Maiz Restaurant. There you can get delicious typical Costa Rican foods, mostly based in corn. My favorite always is "chorreadas con Natilla", which are basically corn pancakes with homemade sour cream on top.

El Castillo Country Club

We had a family outing to wonderful country club. This is a nostalgic place for me, since I have visited it off/on since I was a kid. This is a large country club up in the mountains of Heredia. The main attraction is the old-fashion castle that is used as a haunted castle with workers scaring kids while they walk in the dark dungeons. The club has excellent facilities including pool, picnic areas, game rooms, tennis and the only ice skating rink in Costa Rica.  We had a fun cookout with the family.

Trip to Montezuma Beach

Each time we try to visit a different beach. Despite Costa Rica being a small country, it has many beautiful beaches and I have yet to visit every single one! This time I made reservations to go to Montezuma, which is in the Peninsula of Nicoya on the pacific coast. To get there, it is best to first drive to Puntarenas and catch the ferry, which takes about 1.5 hours to get to the other side of the gulf. It was a hot day, but the views were nice. From there it is another one hour drive to Montezuma.

Montezuma has a very bohemian feel to it. It is a small town, full of mostly foreigners. Even many of the hotel and store owners are foreigners. The hotel owner was German, the ice cream place run by Italians and the nice restaurant we had Mediterranean food owned by some Americans.

I had done some research and reserved a cabin at Hotel Amor de Mar. It received very good ratings from tripadvisor and we were not disappointed. The hotel is what I would considered a small boutique hotel with traditional setting but it has two large cabins for families. We stayed at the larger Luna Suite: a two story house made of local woods and decorated in a beautiful rustic manner.The first floor had 3 rooms and a full kitchen and the second floor a full size bed and a single bed, as well as a oceanfront balcony. It just couldn't get any better than that!

The beach at the Hotel Amor de Mar is mostly rocky, so swimming was mostly sitting on the tide pool that forms depending on the time of day. If you want to swim on a sandy beach, you can walk about 10 minutes to Montezuma. We had some beautiful views from our hotel balcony and many of the nearby beaches had stunning views as well.

Trip to Tortuga Island

While in Montezuma, we arranged a day trip by boat to Tortuga Island. It takes a little less than an hour by boat. Price was not bad, about $45 per person which included round trip, guide, snorkeling and even a nice lunch.  We had lots of fun snorkeling and saw many beautiful fish of various sizes.
The Island of Tortuga is not developed (it is mostly a National Park), so it has a virgin look to it.  This was a great day trip and I highly recommend it if you are in the area.

Montezuma Falls

Just across the street from Hotel Amor de Mar was the entrance to start a 20 min hike up the river to the Montezuma Waterfalls. The kids had lots of fund and nobody fell in the river while wading rocks. The falls are cool and were very refreshing after a hot day.

Every vacation comes to an end. This was a short visit to see family but we had a great time. The long trip back was tough, but we were happy to be back in Korea, back home.