A City with Seoul

While out at dinner with Yun Jin Lee, a lovely South Korean girl who I’d met that evening through a friend, I asked her: which three words would you use to describe South Korean culture and its people? She thought about it and replied, ‘competition, education, and appearance.’ I could definitely see this in the capital I had been exploring, Seoul. There is a huge onus put on education. From schooldays, children work hard, starting as early as 7am, and attending after school cramming sessions that can drag on well into the night. Parents can fuel the competition, hoping for their children to secure a place among the few top-tier universities in what’s been dubbed as an ‘education arms race’ as it will dictate their perceived success in society.

EWHA Women’s University Campus

The emphasis on education is not all bad news, as it is also what transformed South Korea from a war torn country into a leading economy. There are reminders of its past all over the city. For example, statues of comfort women (women forced to work as prostitutes for the Japanese) can be found around the city to commemorate them. You can also visit the Seodaemun Prison which was used by both the Korean government (to suppress uprisings) and the Japanese during the Japanese-Korean Wars.

A statue of a comfort woman
Seodaemun Prison

With South Korea being the plastic surgery capital of the world, it’s no wonder the other key word was appearance. It’s so common, that an operation is often a high-school graduation gift. No wonder then, that the shopping districts (Insadong and Myeongdong were my favourite) overflow with shops specialising in face masks and skin care. The make-up and skin care products are phenomenal and a must buy while you’re in the city. A personal favourite purchase was a face mask that bubbles. If you want to take pampering to the next level, then you can drop into a jjimjilbang (a Korean bath house/spa.) Alongside the multiple indoor & outdoor pools, saunas, cedar baths, and beauty treatments, they have cinemas, game rooms, restaurants and chill out/meditation areas. They are open 24 hours a day and you can even stay there overnight. Dragon Hill is a very good one.

Myeongdong
Insadong
An assortment of face masks, make up removers, face wash, hand cream, a blackhead clearing kit and hair masks

I briefly mentioned in a previous blog post how my trip to Seoul culminated in me missing my flight. Despite this, I think Seoul may just be my favourite city in Asia so far. I know that’s a big claim, but it really blew me away. South Korea seems to be massively underrated, but it has a fascinating history and culture. The food is also unreal. While it’s largely meat-based and famous for its BBQs, it is possible to still thoroughly enjoy it (being a temporary pescatarian definitely helped!) Since being back in the UK, Korean food is actually one of the few Asian cuisines I’ve been hugely craving rather than being sick of the sight of it. I have a long list of London based Korean restaurants I need to attend.

So why should you go to South Korea (or officially, the Republic of Korea, ROK for short) and Seoul in particular? To be honest, if I’d had more time to spare I wouldn’t have limited myself to just Seoul. I would’ve headed out to spend time in the countryside, or gone out to the book village which caught my eye while perusing my guidebook. The good thing about Seoul though, is that it is a good introduction to ROK and a good base from which to start exploring the rest of the country. If you don’t have time to do the latter, you’ll still come away feeling satisfied. You need at least four days in Seoul. I spent five nights and I barely scratched the surface, so I’d recommend a solid week to get through all the main attractions.

THE BASICS

Currency: South Korean Won
Language: Korean
Time Zone: UTC +8
Visa: Not needed (for UK passport holders)

Gyeongbokgung Palace
PALACES & OTHER FOCUSES OF TRADITIONAL KOREAN CULTURE

There are five grand palaces in Seoul which were built in the Joseon dynasty, but we only had time to go to one. We chose Gyeongbokgung, which is the biggest and oldest one. It is a huge complex with museums and a daily changing of the guards ceremony at 10am and 2pm in front of Gwanghwamun (the main gate). It is open Wednesday-Monday whereas most other palaces close on Mondays so this is something to bear in mind when constructing your schedule. The other palaces are: Deoksugung, Changdeokgung (a world heritage site which requires you to join a guided tour), Changgyeonggung (this one has a secret garden) and Gyeonghuigung.

Changing of the Guards ceremony at Gyeongbokgung
Gwanghwamun Gate

Seoul also has an abundance of hanoks (traditional Korean houses). The most popular collection of these in Bukchon Hanok Village which has around 900.

A couple dressed in traditional Korean attire
ARTS AND ARCHITECTURE

Seoul has some beautiful art and architecture. There are tons of galleries and museums, but with limited times and funds we had to be very selective. There are lots of free galleries though, like the ones that are dotted around in Insadong and an abundance of street art.
There is stunning architecture all over the city. Cheonggyecheon, for example, is a man-made river that was installed to bring a natural space into the city and is now a hub of life. The City Hall is also a sight to behold.

Seoul City Hall

There is also a section of Seoul called Mullae-dong or Mullae arts village, which is in a district that is mainly dedicated to steel production. The inhabitants wanted to make it look more aesthetically pleasing and it has since been transformed, with art murals dotted throughout the streets.

FOOD & DRINK

While nightlife in Japan can feel slightly seedy, and China a bit uptight, ROK (or Seoul, at least) seems to strike the perfect balance. Soju (a clear liquor, similar to vodka) is very popular to drink. Don’t underestimate it, with strengths of up to 53%, it’s lethal. I thought I’d be fine. A few hours later and I’m speaking Mandarin to a poor taxi driver and wondering why he’s refusing to take me to my university dorms (which are in Shanghai.) Sounds like too much? Korean beer is pretty good and how can you resist when some are endorsed by K-popstars. Girls Generation have actually outsold Spice Girls (85.10M vs 85M.) GIVE K-POP A CHANCE.

The food is very diverse, with only one certainty – kimchee will be served with everything you order. Kimchee is basically a collection of mini side dishes such as pickled vegetables. This isn’t restricted to just Korean food, I went to an Italian restaurant in the Mullae arts village and the spaghetti still came with kimchee!

Other foods to try:

Yachae Jook (Vegetable porridge which tastes A LOT nicer than it sounds.)

Yachaejeon (The vegetable pancake pictured in the left hand side of the image)

Odeng (fish cakes)

Tteokbokki (Rice cakes in a spicy red sauce)

Melona ice pops (Just a personal fave)

Street food is also very popular, with a very good (if little on the pricey side) selection in Myeongdong

*Special shout out to Abby for making my time in Seoul even better. I met this little ray of sunshine on my first night at the hostel I was staying at as a further testament to the perks of solo travel! We subsequently spent most of our trip together, and then met up in Hong Kong and Shanghai. See you in Utrecht!*

How To: Do Tokyo on a Budget

 It’s no secret that Tokyo is a particularly expensive city. The fourth most expensive in the world to be exact. Tell someone that you’re planning to visit Tokyo (or Japan in general) and the first thing they’ll warn you of is that prices are extortionate. However, I was recently in a rather tricky situation in which I was forced to be on a strict budget. Basically, my card had been swallowed by the ATM in my student dormitory, again. This is something which will most likely happen to you if you move to China from the UK. The ATMs here eject your cash first and only produce your card upon prompting (whereas in England both are ejected automatically). If you don’t manually eject it, wave goodbye to your card. Luckily, people come to empty the machine every few days and you can retrieve your card from them. Not so luckily, I was departing for Tokyo the next morning, so I had no choice but to go with the cash I had on me and take my chances, then pick my card up when I returned to Shanghai.

Now, those of you who may know me are probably well-aware that my travels don’t always go smoothly. During my last two trips (to Hong Kong and Seoul), one involved me ending up in hospital after cracking my head open and needing stitches, and the other one culminated in a missed flight (sorry dad, I’ve learnt my lesson ok.) Safe to say, without my bank card in either of these situations, I would’ve been screwed. So it probably wasn’t the best risk to take to travel sans a safety net, but I had spent too much on my flight and thought probability wise, things can’t get much worse than they already have been. I had about £200 on me to see me through five nights, including accommodation, so how did I manage? The article will be split into two parts, with us firstly looking at accommodation and transport.

the basics

Currency: Japanese Yen
Language: Japanese
Time Zone: UTC +9
Visa: Not needed (for UK passport holders)

ACCOMODATION

Pick a time of year that’s low-season. I visited in late May, after the rush of Golden Week and before the summer holidays. This mean I missed the height of cherry blossom season, but beggars can’t be choosers. Consequently, my overall experience (and especially my hostel) was more affordable – in Tokyo terms. I paid around £13 a night for a basic six bed dormitory in Hotel Graphy Nezu which turned out to be one of the best hostels that I’ve ever stayed in. The facilities were luxurious for a hostel. It had two common rooms, a cafe, terrace, living room with books & a large screen TV, a beautiful kitchen, clean rooms, powerful showers and A BATH

Living in a student dorm, long gone are the days when I could take a bath on a whim, and so I spent every evening in the bath trying to make the most of it. It was like a budget version of an Onsen. They also have fancy hair and body wash which most hostels scrimp on (if they provide it at all.) So while it was more expensive than I’m accustomed to paying for a hostel, I had no qualms about coughing up the cash. It’s admittedly out of the way of the centre, but only a 5-min walk from a metro station and in an area that deserves to be explored in its own right (next to Ueno Park with the National Museum, shrines and other galleries.) After paying for this, I worked out that I had around ¥3,000/£20 I could spend a day.

Image courtesy of Hotel Graphy
Image courtesy of Hotel Graphy
Image courtesy of Hotel Graphy
TRANSPORT & GETTING AROUND

Transport is notoriously expensive in Japan. First and foremost, never take taxis. Even the metro is expensive, so you can imagine the taxi prices. Also, from Tokyo Narita International Airport, rather than taking the sky train into the city, I just took the cheapest option which was the Keisei line. This cost around ¥1,000. **Disclaimer** the £200 I had for my budget in Tokyo does NOT include the flights. The round trip from Shanghai was ridiculously expensive, I paid £420 for mine. I’d been looking at flights since last autumn and waiting to pounce on a cheaper option, but one never came. 

The only way to get it cheaper would be to go on the flights that arrive/leave at ridiculous times in the morning, but then you’d still have to pay to taxi from the airport to Tokyo which would cost you what you’ve saved anyway. I suspect they do it on purpose because either the Chinese government don’t want people going to Japan, or the Japanese government want to make it inaccessible. A girl that I’d met had paid LESS for her round trip from LONDON (she went via Hong Kong). So if you have the choice, don’t fly from China.

Schoolgirls on the metro in Tokyo

During my stay in Tokyo, I walked to my destinations as much as possible. If you’re on a tighter schedule this might not be as possible, but as I had four full days (not inc. Friday evening or Wednesday morning), I essentially dedicated each day to exploring a 1-3 neighbourhoods on foot. On the handy Lonely Planet Guide Travel App that I swear by, they split Tokyo into 11 districts:

1) Shibuya & Shimo-Kitazawa
2) Ginza & Tsukiji
3) Harajuku & Aoyama
4) Ueno, Yanesen & Komagome
5) Marunouchi & Nihombashi
6) Ebisu, Meouro & Around
7) Asakusa & Sumida River
8) Shinjuku & NW Tokyo
9) West Tokyo
10) Akihabara, Kagurazaka & Korakuen
11) Odaiba & Tokyo Bay
12) Roppongi, Akasaka & Around
 Obviously walking may not be physically possible for everyone, but if you can do so, then I would definitely recommend it. I’ve stumbled on many interesting and beautiful sights through walking most places. Then, at the end of the day, I’d usually buy a single ticket on the metro back to my hostel (single tickets are about ¥200-¥300.)

On my last full day in Tokyo, I thought I’d treat myself and buy a 24-hour metro pass and use it as much as possible. It wasn’t until after purchasing it that I realized a lot of the central essential stations were actually on the Toei Line rather than the Tokyo Metro Line. In London, if you buy a (admittedly expensive) day pass for the underground, it is all inclusive, even for the DLR. Can’t Tokyo just make it more simple and have them all under one ticket? Anyway, this could also be a frugal option, but unless you plan to use the metro more than twice a day, then I don’t think it’s worth it. Also, bear in mind that the metro closes around 11pm. If you want to go out at night and are on a budget, then your best bet is to stay out until public transport opens again at 5am.

In Part Two we’ll be looking at cheap things to do and places to eat. In the meantime you can start planning your trip by checking out flights here, Hotel Graphy’s website here, or more hostel options here.

Happy Planning!

Under the Radar: Laos


Laos is often used as a stopover between Thailand and Vietnam. The majority of the travellers that I met whilst there confessed that they were merely there for visa purposes for one of the adjoining countries and didn’t particularly have much admiration for it. Contrary to popular opinion, we loved Laos! I thought it was an amazing country in its own right, and definitely deserving more than stop over status. However, it is enchanting in more subtle ways and doesn’t have the WOW factor that other Asian countries might have so it’s easy to see why it goes under appreciated.

THE BASICS

Currency: Lao Kip
Language: Lao
Time Zone: UTC +7
Visa: Purchase on arrival (for U.K. passport holders)

For Debauchery..

VANG VIENG

As a seasoned backpackers haunt, Vang Vieng is arguably the place in Laos that needs the least advertisement. We met several travellers who headed straight for Vang Vieng and neglected anything else that Laos could offer. This is because it is party central. While it is definitely not as wild as it used to be, it is still a hedonistic escape. It became infamous when in 2011, there was a record number of 27 tourists who died mostly due to drowning or colliding with rocks. This was caused by the phenomenon of tubing: an activity where you float down the river in a rubber tube and are pulled in to various bars by ropes. The combination of excessive drugs, alcohol and tubing was often fatal. With my complete lack of coordination, I found it hard enough to go tubing sober, let alone wasted. The currents are deceivingly strong, there are rocks everywhere and there is no one to supervise you or intervene if anything goes wrong. After the chaos, many of the bars on the river were shut down, but there are still a few that live on, albeit more chill. With conditions improved, it remains a huge tourist pasttime, especially as the river is coupled with the beautiful scenery of the karst formations.

Games in a bar on the tubing course

TUBING TOP TIPS
1) Don’t take any valuables with you. There’s nowhere to put them and people always ended up losing cameras or other precious things.
2) Make sure you are aware of the time. Going around the whole course takes at least a couple of hours and you need to return the tubes back by a certain time to get your deposit back. Tubing in the dark also isn’t fun (not to mention, dangerous), which we discovered after we spending too long at the bar!
3) Try to stick together as much as possible! Tie your tubes together or something. Make sure no-one is left to find their way back alone.
4) Take clothes in a waterproof bag. It is disrespectful to wear swimwear with nothing else in public and annoys locals for cultural and religious reasons.

Other than tubing, Vang Vieng offers many options for outdoors activities. You can go caving, swim in the lagoons or ride in a hot air balloon (we never got to do this, but apparently it’s among one of the cheapest places to do it, so I wish we had). If you are going simply for the party side of things, there is a main ‘strip’ type thing in town which contains the main bars. They rotate happy hours, so you can if you like whisky then you can drink for free. If you hate whisky, try a whisky & pineapple and you’ll be surprised by how much it tastes like juice! We spent around five days here, but you could make the most of it within three.

It’s super cheap, but be wary of being ripped off when you’re drunk. One night I was buying a sandwich and gave the vendor a large bill and he didn’t give me my change. He probably thought I was a typical drunk western girl who wouldn’t notice (which to be fair, usually I am), and when I demanded it, he ended up coming at me with a chair. Luckily the situation was diffused quickly, but safe to say, I didn’t get my change.

The Blue Lagoon

For a UNESCO world heritage town..

LUANG PRABANG

We never made it to Luang Prabang as we were on a tight schedule, but I feel that I’d be doing it a disservice if I didn’t include it here. The city has the status of a UNESCO world heritage site (there are two in total in Laos, the other is Vat Phou, a ruined Khmer Hindu temple complex in the south). It looks stunning. It is home to the Royal Palace museum and gorgeous waterfalls, with temples at every turn. It seems the perfect place to retreat and detox after losing sense of time in Vang Vieng.

Another place that I really wanted to visit in Laos is the Plain of Jars, an ancient historical site containing mysterious giant stone jars of unknown origin in Phonsavan. This is why I’d advice anyone to spend at least a week in Laos rather than the few days that it is usually allotted! It has so much to offer, I will definitely be making a trip back here when I get the chance.

For History & Culture..

VIENTIANE

Pha That Luang

Vientiane is the capital city, but one of the more sparse capitals that I’ve visited. It is a very calm, tranquil city, yet still full of temples, night markets and some cute bars. It’s great if you’re getting fed up of overwhelming cities like Hong Kong and Bangkok. People sometimes complain that there isn’t a lot to do, but there is. There’s not a huge checklist of tourist attractions to run through, but it provides access to Laotian culture and history. COPE Visitor Centre should be number one on your list. COPE stands for Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise and they provide most of the artificial limbs, wheelchairs and walking aids in Laos.


It’s free to enter the exhibit which will teach you about the issues in Laos surrounding undetonated ordnance. Between 1964-1973, more than 2 million tons of ordnance was dropped on Laos. This is more than was dropped in Europe during WWII and has earned Laos the titled of the most bombed country per capita in history. 30% of them have yet to explode, and civilians are still dying or becoming seriously injured from encountering them.

The Lao National Museum is located in Vientiane and Pha That Luang is one of the best temples to go to see. If you can handle a trip to the outskirts of the city then the Buddha Park is fascinating. The sculpture park was established in 1958 and contains over 200 statues from Hindu and Buddhist tradition. Tuk tuks are extremely cheap, so just barter for a good price with one who will take you there, wait for you while you look around and then take you back. You can see pretty much everything here in 2-3 days.

Rosie enjoying the Tuk Tuk
Buddha Park

**SOMETHING TO BE AWARE OF IF GOING ON TO VIETNAM**

If you are a UK passport holder, then you are allowed into the country for up to 14 days without pre-purchasing a visa. We were wrongly advised by our hostel and told that we needed one, and subsequently wasted a lot of money. Don’t make the same mistake!

Happy Planning!

Essential China: Everything You Need to Know

One of the best things about studying in Shanghai is the easy access it gives you to the rest of China. China is so well-connected, and a great jumping off point for going further afield and exploring Asia. Obviously, it’s huge, but the transport network ensures that you can get to anywhere in the country in a few hours. This series, ‘Essential China’ will focus on the how to travel around China and places to add to your itinerary. We will cover places such as Shanghai, Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu, Taiwan, Hangzhou, Hong Kong, Suzhou and Nanjing.

Panda in Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding

So, why should you go to China? More importantly, why wouldn’t you? As the fourth biggest country in the world, it is diverse. No matter what kind of traveler you are, China has something to offer you. It has one of the most interesting histories on Earth, is brimming with natural beauty, is famous for its unique food, and is rapidly changing and developing all the time. It has the second most UNESCO world heritage sites in the world (34),  surpassed only by Italy. China is both massively underrated and misunderstood. It often gets such a bad press in foreign media that people subconsciously dismiss it or harbour negative conceptions about it.

Street food in Suzhou
East Nanjing Road, Shanghai

Go to a hostel in Asian countries like Thailand, Indonesia, Japan or Vietnam, and you’re bound to be surrounded by foreigners. China, not so much. Perhaps it’s because getting a visa is more difficult, or that it’s not perceived to be as affordable as other Asian countries. People that I’ve spoken to, just don’t seem to be that interested in China, or if they are, they think that a few days in Beijing and/or Shanghai will suffice. It won’t. If you neglect China, you are missing out big time.

View of Qinianmen from the Temple of Heaven, Beijing

THE BASICS

Getting there
Fly direct from London to Shanghai in roughly 11 hours or from London to Beijing in around 10.

Currency
¥ (RMB/CNY)

Time Difference
+7

Language
The official language of the country is Mandarin, but each province has its own dialect. Even Shanghai has its own dialect: Shanghainese. China is divided into 34 areas. The dialects spoken in them can vary as much as from English to Dutch, but the standard script of the written language remains the same. Due to its pictorial language, China is one of very few places where you can speak the language but also be illiterate.

The art of calligraphy in Chengdu
Tea City, Shanghai

Visa
You will definitely need a visa, unless you are planning on just visiting Hong Kong/Macau. Don’t let this put you off though, the process is simple and quick! Depending on whether you are simply traveling, studying or planning to work here, your visa will differ. All information regarding the process including step-by-step guidelines can be found here. Remember that if you’re planning to go to autonomous regions like Tibet, you’ll need to get a separate visa. Due to the political situation there, foreigners aren’t permitted to travel there solo and must go with a tour group which can be expensive. The best offer I’ve found is here.

Map of China. Image credit: Travel China Guide

Getting around
Something that I’ve found, is that there are many people traveling around China with tour companies. This is so unnecessary. Granted, China is more difficult for the average traveler, but if anything, this ensures that it’s more of an adventure. Do it alone. I believe in you. If you want to attempt to explore the entire country, it may be necessary for you to occasionally take internal flights between your destinations. However, the train network is also huge and continually expanding and developing. There are bullet trains connecting most major cities, for example, you can get from Shanghai to Beijing in less than five hours.

If you’re not in a rush and you wish to save money, you could also opt for the sleeper trains. They have four different types of accommodation: hard seats, soft seats, hard sleeper and soft sleeper which vary in price. By western standards, they are very inexpensive. I’ve taken the sleeper train from Xi’an to Chengdu in winter and it was not uncomfortable in the slightest. There are four beds in each room (two bunk beds). Most cities have efficient metro networks and pretty much everywhere has buses.

Hectic subway scenes in Shanghai
Soft sleeper bed from Xi’an – Chengdu

Political Situation
China is run by the CPC (Communist Party of China). It’s not quite a communist country, they adhere to ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics.’ In the past thirty years, there has been an unprecedented amount of rapid development and privatisation leading to China emerging as one of the global economic superpowers. As the focus has arguably been on economic development rather than social, censorship still plays a role in keeping the peace. Therefore, you will need to download a VPN if you wish to use your phone/laptop to access most social media in China (whatsapp, youtube, facebook, snapchat, gmail, Instagram, skype, BBC news, etc). There are many free options but the best ones are constantly changing, so do some research closer to the time of your trip.

Resources for before you go
If you’re planning to spend a prolonged amount of time there, or if you’re just simply interested in getting to know the culture more, then I’d highly recommend having a look at the following resources. Many are books/films that I’ve studied in my Chinese culture and history classes over the course of my year at STA, and others are simply things I’ve found interesting. This is by no means an exhaustive list, just an introduction. If you want any more, then feel free to ask!

Books: The Rape of Nanking, China: A Modern History, China in Ten Words, Factory Girls: Voices From The Heart of Modern China, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, The Art of War, The Peony Pavilion
Films: Raise the Red Lantern, Farewell My Concubine, To Live
Ted Talks: Behind the Great Firewall of China; Are China and the US doomed to conflict; Learn to Read Chinese With Ease; Understanding the Rise of China

The Great Wall of China

Under the Radar: Mexico

As my step-mum is from Mexico, I’ve been lucky enough to spend many summer and winter holidays there. Mexico is one of the most eclectic places I’ve ever visited. While most people travel there for its beaches (and for good reason), it has a far more diverse landscape than most people realize. It is also home to jungles, volcanoes, deserts, mountains, lagoons, colonial towns and ancient ruins. Here are three places in Mexico that I think are vastly underrated…

For Beach Vibes:

PUERTO ESCONDIDO

While most flock to Cancun to sample the nightlife that Mexico has to offer, if you prefer less tourists and more chilled out vibes, then Puerto Escondido is the place for you. Literally translating to ‘hidden port’, it is definitely something of an underrated, hidden gem. Long appreciated by backpackers, and dubbed a ‘surfers paradise’, it’s time that it received the universal recognition it deserves.

We visited here last December and could not have come at a better time. Spending NYE here was charming. It wasn’t too party oriented, but there were definitely places to have a good time. Among my favourites was the cute bar and live music venue located along Zicatela: Casa Babylon. It’s an ideal spot to recover during the day – it even has an array of books available for free via an exchange system. Alternatively, you can head down there when it comes alive at night with live music, dancing and cheap cocktails.

IMG_6366
IMG_6355

For a City Escape:

PUEBLA CITY

The city of Puebla is the capital of the state of the same name and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s one of the five most important Spanish colonial cities in Mexico and boasts a myriad of baroque, renaissance and classical architecture. One of the most notable examples of its architecture is The Cathedral of Puebla, which is one of the largest in Mexico.

While you’re here, be sure to check out the Amparo museum. It’s easy to see everything in a couple of hours, and it seamlessly incorporates technology to keep you engaged. Not only does it have an impressive collection of pre-Hispanic artefacts, but it also has wonderful contemporary exhibitions. Bonus points for the roof top terrace with views over the city.

IMG_6436
thumb_img_6189_1024
thumb_img_6224_1024
IMG_6180

For History Buffs:

CHOLULA

A quaint, colourful town only a short taxi ride from Puebla (so, it’s very convenient to combine the two in one trip). This Mesoamerican site is home to the Great Pyramid of Cholula: Tlachihualtepetl. While little of the structure remains, and it resembles more of a hill (due to the mud bricks which have resulted in an entirely buried structure), it is in fact the largest pyramid in the world. Yep, although it doesn’t look like it, it is in fact bigger than the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt (in terms of volume, not height). Not just that, it’s also the largest monument built on Earth so far. Ever. Which is interesting considering that archaeologists weren’t aware of its existence until the early 1900s.

Climb the ascent to find the church of Nuestra Señora de los Remedies sanctuary which was built by the Spaniards atop of the complex and is perfect for enjoying a panoramic view of the town. Then, wander around the colourful, bustling markets for traditional food and handmade garments.

thumb_img_6198_1024
IMG_6438
IMG_6440
thumb_img_6208_1024

Preparing To Study Abroad: 3-6 Months Before Departure

I can’t believe that I’ve finally begun my study abroad placement, for which I’ll be at Shanghai Theatre Academy for one academic year. It doesn’t feel that long ago that I was trying to get myself organized. My university was extremely supportive, and I’m sure the staff in the humanities study abroad office were sick of me by the end of the year, but the list of things to do seemed exhaustive, especially when it came to dealing with student finance. I have to admit that if I didn’t have a dad who was so organized, I would’ve inevitably left my preparations to the last minute. The following advice is assuming that you’ve already undertaken the necessary research into the culture of the locations that you want to go to and have narrowed down your options (if you haven’t done this, then Pinterest and ThirdYearAbroad.com are your new best friends). Although this is concerning my preparations for China, many of them can be applicable to most destinations..

thumb_IMG_3662_1024
Home for the next 11 months


THINGS TO THINK ABOUT 3-6 MONTHS PRE-DEPARTURE

FINANCIAL ASPECTS
Make sure you budget before you go and consider all of the different costs that you’ll incur over the course of the year. In terms of support, you should still receive your usual maintenance loans/grants/bursaries. If you’re going to Europe, Erasmus practically pays you to study abroad, although due to Brexit this probably won’t be on offer for much longer! Although it’s not highly publicized, Student Finance England does offer travel grants. They’re a bit of a mystery and have various stipulations, but if you meet the criteria, then you could be eligible to have the following reimbursed: vaccines, visas, the medical aspect of your insurance (usually 40%), up to three return flights from your university and hometown, and the transport between your campus and university.

They’ve also brought out the mysterious concept of qualifying quarters which, depending on which member of their staff you speak to, shape-shifts. To my understanding, it basically states that you have to be in attendance for at least half of the qualifying quarter that you are applying for remuneration for. You would think they would separate the year into four equal quarters, but the ‘quarters’ seem somewhat random, so make sure you double-check before you book flights etc on certain dates or you could risk not being reimbursed.  SFE should automatically assess your eligibility for a travel grant and then send you a course abroad form to complete, but don’t expect them to do that and ask them if you think it’s taking too long. You need to get this course abroad form signed by your university so don’t leave to go home at the end of term without doing this! As soon as you have informed them of your year abroad and your loans have been approved, make sure you are regularly chasing them up about the status of your grant. Or else like me, you could end up booking your flights only for them to say that they haven’t actually assessed you yet so they’re unsure of your eligibility. Reimbursements usually take a couple of weeks to process, and their status can be checked on your student portal.

ACCOMODATION
Luckily enough, I was able to stay in the student dormitory which is a few minutes away from my classes. However, I know other students at various universities in China (and elsewhere) that automatically assumed the university would take care of the accommodation only to realize last minute that it was actually up to them. Some try to find a place before they arrive, but more commonly students stay in hostels when they arrive while they look for somewhere to live. The most important thing is to know what your options are, and to have a plan for when you arrive.

VISAS
You’ll have to complete the application form, along with other documents, and drop these with off along with your passport. Make sure the expiry date of your passport is at least six months after your departure date from your study abroad placement. They usually keep your documents for around one week before returning them. Once you arrive in China you’ll then need to take this TEMPORARY visa to the embassy within 30 days to retrieve an official resident permit.
A Link to the Chinese Embassy website can be found here.
(Other useful links for different countries: USA, Japan, Canada, Australia, New Zealand)

MEDICAL ASPECTS
Get your travel insurance sorted in good time. Luckily for me, my university offers an insurance package which averages about 67p per day for China. If you’re also at Exeter, then the link for that can be found here. Remember that most travel insurance policies only provide access to emergency medical care and do not include regular check ups or prescription access. You can pay around £90 once you arrive in China for a local insurance policy that allows you to access these facilities, but it’s better to sort any medication out before you go to be on the safe side. The NHS provides up to a three month supply of prescriptions and then you can access the rest privately at various pharmacies (I found ASDA to be the cheapest).

Happy planning!

Croatia Countdown: Top Ten Destinations

Lately, everyone has become obsessed with Croatia. During the first half of this year alone, the Croatian tourist board has reported a 36% increase in overnight stays from British travellers. When considering a trip to Croatia, the myriad of destinations can seem overwhelming to say the least, so I’ve decided to compile a handy list of brief summaries of my favourite places…

10. TROGIR
SUMMARY: Big things come in small packages, and there’s a reason why tiny Trogir has been granted UNESCO status.
TOP TIP: You only really need half a day here. Go in the afternoon, appreciate the cathedral and then come nightfall visit some of the many bars and restaurants strewn along the harbour.
EAT: Konoba Trs, for a traditional restaurant located in a 13th Century house.
UNESCO:

thumb_IMG_8442_1024
thumb_IMG_8445_1024
thumb_IMG_8462_1024
9. PULA
SUMMARY:
Home to a host of impressive roman ruins, most notably Augustine’s Temple and the Colosseum’s little sister: the Pula Arena.
TOP TIP: It was very quiet when we visited in April. Instead, go in the summer and combine it with attending Outlook Festival, which is based nearby at an abandoned Roman fort in Stinjan, Croatia
EAT: Jupiter for some of the best pizza in Croatia. Be warned though, the portions are huge.
UNESCO:
IMG_1538
IMG_1552
IMG_1555
IMG_1563
IMG_1559
8. SIBENIK
SUMMARY: A small, coastal city located where the Krka river flows into the sea. Full of meandering stone alleyways, fortresses and tranquil squares.
TOP TIP: Visit the nearby Krka National Park.
EAT: Head to top-rated Pelegrini for the ambience and the friendly staff who go to great length to explain the menu and local ingredients to you.
UNESCO: ✔ (The Cathedral of St James)

IMG_1682
IMG_1685
IMG_1718
7. SPLIT
SUMMARY: Though some may say it is overrated, no trip to Croatia would be completed without at least a day in Split. Mosey around Diocletian’s Palace and climb the bell tower to get a breathtaking view of the whitewashed stonewalls and orange rooftops.
TOP TIP: Split is perfectly located for island hopping. Take a trip across to Brač to relax on Zlatni Rat, one of Croatia’s best loved (and sandy!) beaches.
EAT: Ostarija u Vidjakovi for comfort food sourced locally
UNESCO: ✔ (The Historical Complex)
thumb_IMG_0206_1024
IMG_8438
thumb_IMG_0211_1024

6. HVAR
SUMMARY: Pag is often dubbed the Ibiza of Croatia, but I’d say Hvar is more deserving of the title whereas Pag is more comparable to Magaluf. Hvar oozes sophistication, has a beautiful little cathedral and many healthy eateries for foodies. However, it errs on the expensive side compared to the rest of Croatia.
TOP TIP: Carpe Diem, a club on its own island complete with swimming pools, a private beach, several bars, top DJs and the sea. You can get there by a small boat which departs regularly from the island.
EAT: Since you’re in Hvar, splash out on food at Macondo before heading for drinks at Hula Hula.
UNESCO: ✔ (the Stari Grad Plain in Hvar)

thumb_IMG_0128_1024
thumb_IMG_0117_1024
thumb_IMG_0111_1024
thumb_IMG_0109_1024
To be continued…

The Importance of Staycations Part Two: Edinburgh and Canterbury

Part Two

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND

Duration of trip:
Two nights, which was a good amount of time to cover the main bases but nowhere near enough. Then again, I’m probably biased as I wish I could spend my entire summer in Edinburgh especially with the Fringe Festival occurring in August!!

Attractions:
Edinburgh Castle, Scottish Parliament, Holyrood Palace, The Scottish National Gallery and the Scott Monument. We also went on the Hop on Hop off bus (so cheesy, but I love to do this in every city just to get a feel for the layout and also because it provides you with free transportation around a place for 24-48 hours)

IMG_1518

IMG_1554
Scott Monument
IMG_1525
Edinburgh Castle

Luckily, Faye lives right next to Carlton Hill, so on our second day we were able to have access to an amazing panoramic view over Edinburgh and observe Arthur’s Seat without having to physically climb it in our fragile and hungover state. It also contains the National Monument of Scotland, which makes it easy to see why Edinburgh is often dubbed the Athens of the North.

thumb_IMG_1684_1024
View of Arthur’s Seat
IMG_1707
View from Carlton Hill
IMG_1721
My way of appreciating the National Scottish Monument while hungover


Food & Drink:

We mostly ate at home, but we did have an amazing fondue at the Chocolate Lounge in Harvey Nicholls.

The mixed fondue from the Chocolate Lounge
The mixed fondue from the Chocolate Lounge
IMG_1741
Cocktail menu at Bramble

We also had some delicious drinks at a cute underground cocktail bar called Bramble which had an intimate ambience and a great DJ.


CANTERBURY, ENGLAND

Duration of trip:
We used my house in Kent as a base, and visited just for the day. For tourists, I’d say two nights is sufficient enough.

Attractions:
Canterbury Cathedral, St Augustine’s Abbey, Eastbridge Hospital. If you have time, the historic river tour is charming, especially during the summer. Not only had I never visited the aforementioned attractions, despite living 20 minutes away, I’d barely noticed them at all. I’d walked past them on several occasions, blissfully ignorant and engrossed in shopping or on night out. Of course, I’d appreciate the architecture but never more than briefly acknowledging it in a blasé fashion before moving swiftly on. I had no idea that Canterbury was host to a UNESCO world heritage site.

IMG_2018
St Augustine’s Abbey
IMG_1974
Canterbury Cathedral
IMG_2002
My little history buff Alisa in her element
IMG_1985
The sky looking like a painting

There was an especially poignant sculpture in Canterbury Cathedral adeptly located hanging above the original crypt of Thomas Becket. ‘Transport’ by Antony Gormley takes the shape of an outline of a body and is made from iron nails that were taken from the repaired roof of the Cathedral itself.

“The body is less a thing than a place. A location where things happen. Thought, feeling, memory and anticipation filter through it sometimes sticking but mostly passing on, like us in this great Cathedral with its centuries of building, adaption, extension and all the thoughts, feeling and prayers that have had and transmitted here…We are all the temporary inhabitants of a body, it is our house, instrument and medium. Through it all come impressions of a wider world and all other bodies in space, palpable, perceivable and imaginable.” – Gormley

The comparison of the body to a location, and in particular a house, reminded me of part of Warsan Shire’s* poem, ‘The House’:

‘Mother says there are locked rooms inside all women,
kitchen of lust, bedroom of grief, bathroom of apathy.
Sometimes the men they come with keys,
and sometimes the men they come with hammers.’

Transport by Antony Gormley. Image Credit: Gareth Fuller/PR Wire

Food & Drink:
We went to GBK for something quick and easy. Other restaurants that I’ve visited before that I’d definitely recommend include: Cafe de Amis, The Pound, Club Burrito and Cafe du Soleil. We didn’t have time for drinks, but good places to go out are The Cuban, Chemistry, The Ballroom and of course, the Spoons.

Loving life in Spoons
Loving life in Spoons

*If you don’t know who Warsan Shire is, then you are missing out. It’s her poetry that is featured in Beyoncé’s Lemonade and she is quite simply a goddess. Look her up immediately. You’re welcome.

The Importance of Staycations: Bath and Glasgow

While I have been lucky enough to travel abroad from a young age, I haven’t spent much time exploring my own country. I didn’t appreciate England because it was home terrain. I was much more interested in going to exotic, far-flung destinations. A few years ago, my dad invited me along on a trip to the Lake District and I rejected, assuming it would be boring. I definitely regretted that when I realized just how picturesque it is. Due to my parents separation, I’ve grown up splitting my time between London and Kent. The best of both worlds: a seaside town during the week and the city on the weekend. Like a stereotypical ignorant Londoner, I presumed that this was everything I needed and there was not much else to see in the rest of the country. However, in the past couple of years I have completely altered my attitude. It was when I was forced to visit other cities for university open days that I realized what the rest of the UK had to offer and how much I’d been missing out. I am so lucky to have not only England, but also Scotland, Wales and Ireland right on my doorstep. In wake of moving to Shanghai at the end of August for a year abroad and the possible break-up of the UK post-Brexit, I have decided to try to spend as much of my spare time as I can this summer sampling various cities around the UK.

I took the first of these trips last week and traveled to Bath, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Bath and Edinburgh are both UNESCO world heritage sites and I am so lucky that two of my close friends live in two of the most beautiful cities in the UK, and were kind enough to host me and act as my tour guides. I’ve always thought that I want to eventually settle in London, but this trip has definitely changed my mind and made me consider other possibilities. I was also able to host one of my friends when she came to visit me in Kent (although I’m embarrassed to admit that most tourist excursions we embarked on were also new to me). 

BATH, ENGLAND

Duration of trip:
I spent four nights here, and thought that this was definitely enough to cover all of the main attractions. However, due to the large number of museums and other things to do in Bath, you could easily spend a week here.

Attractions:
Bath Abbey, The CircusThe Roman Baths (go in the evening to beat the queues and crowds, when the Baths are also lit up), Pulteney Bridge, the Jane Austen Centre, 1 Royal Crescent and Royal Victoria Park.

IMG_1172
Bath Abbey
IMG_1183
Bath Abbey
IMG_1238
Roman Baths with view of the Abbey in the background
IMG_1377
Learning the language of fans in the Jane Austen Centre
IMG_1763
Entertaining Tasha in exchange for being a great tour guide at 1 Royal Crescent

Food and Drink: 
We had Afternoon Tea at The Regency Tea Room which can be found above the Jane Austen Centre.

IMG_1402
We had dinner one evening at Hall & Woodhouse which also has a beautiful rooftop bar and grabbed some ice cream from the Real Italian Ice Cream Company.

IMG_1200
We had relaxed drinks at Turtle Bay (go for 2for1 cocktails during happy hours 6-7 or 9-10pm) or alternatively, some great nightclubs include The Second Bridge, Zero Zero and Po Na Na.


GLASGOW, SCOTLAND

Duration of trip:
One night which definitely was not enough, I’d say at least another night was needed, if not two.

Attractions:
I only had time to go to The Gallery of Modern Art, George Square, and the Glasgow Cathedral. Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum is meant to be amazing and is definitely at the top of my list for my next trip.

IMG_1487
Gallery of Modern Art

IMG_1488

Food & Drink:
Went to Ashton Lane in the West End, which is strewn with quirky bars. 
Dinner was at Ubiquitous Chip which was delightful. Being in Scotland, I thought it was only right to try the vegetarian haggis to start, followed by the charred asparagus.

IMG_1516
IMG_1509
IMG_1510
Afterwards, we had some drinks at Vodka Wodka opposite the restaurant, and were really impressed with the quality of the cocktails and how reasonably priced they were.

To be continued…

Rome, Remains and Ruins

thumb_IMG_0725_1024
The Forum

When I first visited Rome with my family, I was impressed by a number of things, but the Forum wasn’t one of them. I was indifferent. I loved most of the scenery, but when presented with ruins, I quickly tired of them. Last summer however, back in Rome, I felt what can only be adequately described as ruinenlust. Ruinenlust is a German word for the pleasure that ruins evoke, although they use ‘lust’ in a different sense to us, with the definition more akin to joy. When it comes to ruins, Diderot put it best;

‘The ideas ruins evoke in me are grand. Everything comes to nothing, everything perishes, everything passes, only the world remains, only time endures…Wherever I cast my glance, the objects surrounding me announce death and compel my resignation to what awaits me’

Always a sucker for brooding over time running out, perhaps my newly acquired fascination was due to the opportunity I was afforded to indulge in reflecting upon the tragic human condition and bemoan my own eventual demise, all in the name of history! Ruins are strange in the sense that they make you feel insignificant in the grand scheme of things but also simultaneously, acutely self-aware. This was especially poignant for me while visiting the Museum of the Imperial Fora and Trajan’s Markets. At the time of visiting (August 2015) it hosted a temporary exhibition, L’eleganza del cibo: Tales of food and fashion which explored the link between two of Italy’s greatest staples. It was here that I came across one of my now favourite quotes, ‘Food nourishes the body. Fashion feeds the mind’. The location of the exhibition meant that it transcended its confines to take on an additional meaning. The location of the modern art alongside the museum’s permanent ruins of a bygone age was visually and emotionally potent. The juxtaposition emphasized the contrasts between the two subjects but also highlighted the universality and timelessness of culture.

IMG_1324
L’eleganza del cibo: Tales of food and fashion
thumb_IMG_1314_1024
L’eleganza del cibo: Tales of food and fashion
thumb_IMG_1307_1024
Head portrait, reworked as Constantine
thumb_IMG_1319_1024
L’eleganza del cibo: Tales of food and fashion
thumb_IMG_1308_1024
L’eleganza del cibo: Tales of food and fashion

Rome lends itself well to philosophical reflection because of the extent of the remains within its walls. It doesn’t have just one centre piece, but is often described as a ‘living museum’. It’s called the Eternal City for a reason. There is such an unbelievable amount of history in one place. A place which was the seat of one of the biggest empires in history, and its legacy is scattered across the city. It’s hard to process this. It’s odd to stand there and look at ruins, and imagine them through the ages. To think of what they represent and the people who originally built them, millions of lifetimes ago. To think that they too had their own hopes, fears and dreams. It is pretty incomprehensible. While walking around Castle St Angelo, I was having a similar conversation with one of my best friends. She said that sometimes she forgets that history actually happened. Great battles and events seem like stories, so that when she comes face to face with the ruins, it’s hard to take them in.

IMG_1401
Castle St Angelo
IMG_1416
View of the Vatican from Castle St Angelo
thumb_IMG_1417_1024
View from Castle St Angelo ft our seagull friend

There is an expression that goes, when the Colosseum falls, Rome will fall and when Rome falls, so will the rest of the world. Perhaps then, it is apt that a great deal of Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is set against the grand backdrop of Rome. My favourite part of the poem is when standing in the Colosseum, he calls himself a ‘ruin among ruins’ (and my friends call me a drama queen?!). He also talks a lot about the cyclical nature of life, especially in these famous lines:

’There is the moral of all human tales;
‘Tis but the same rehearsal of the past.
First freedom and then Glory – when that fails,
Wealth, vice, corruption – barbarism at last
And History with all her volumes vast,
Hath but one page.’ – Canto IV

Whilst this thought can be depressing, it can also carry a message of optimism. He realizes that even the greatest empires do not last, and that cruel ambition is foolish as it never ends well. Ruins are captivating in the same way that horror movies are. Death is all too often ignored in our society, it’s something that particularly people in the West try to avoid discussion of. Surely the more comfortable we are with recognizing death, the more we adequately we will be able to deal with it. We’re all desperate to leave a legacy, yet it is likely that one day there will be no evidence that we ever existed. There is a saying that people die two deaths: one when their heart stops beating and the other when their name is said for the last time.

Perhaps then, it is comforting to look at ruins, and imagine something of our own civilization being appreciated, future generations analyzing and imagining our lives. It’s not all doom and gloom though. When you realize that one day no matter what you achieve you will just be dust, it’s a lot easier to care less about trivialities. So go and see the Forum, the Colosseum, the Baths, the Olympic Stadium, the Catacombs, the Castles and the ruins. They will make you more introspective at best, and may trigger an existential crisis at worse, but not to worry as by the time you’re downing glasses of white wine at Campo Di Fiori, you will feel so immortal that you will have forgotten all about it.

thumb_547879_10151456484772529_1009493340_n_1024
The Colosseum