Iran Diary #4: Isfahan & Varzaneh Desert

After my transfer tour from Kashan, I arrived in Isfahan (or Esfahan) early in the afternoon. Despite being a big tourist destination, the city has no affordable hotel/hostel within walking distance of the center. However, the hostel I stayed at, Ragrug, offers free transport to the center, so it’s perfect.

As usual, after checking in, I immediately headed out to see the sights. My destination was the Naqsh-e Jahan Square, one of the biggest squares in the world, and its surrounding buildings – the Shah Mosque, the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, and the Grand Bazaar (there is also the Ali Qapu Palace, which I didn’t check out.) The scales and the details of the mosques are just stupendous – I must’ve developed a crick in my neck because I couldn’t stop gawping up at their domes. It was like looking up at heaven.

The square

Courtyard of the Shah Mosque


The Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, outside and in

Dome of the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque

The bazaar was good for souvenir shopping – I was especially impressed by the silver and copper shops!

A “spice mountain” in the bazaar


A silversmith at work and a fruit/snack stand in the bazaar

Unfortunately, I arrived just a day before a big national holiday, so everywhere was insanely crowded. I wanted to stay until nightfall to see the square lit up, but the crowd became too much for me, so I pushed on to the Si-o-Se Pol Bridge, one of the 11 historical bridges in Isfahan. The walk took me through a pedestrian street lined with shops and hipster food and coffee trucks parked in the middle – I had dinner on the go from one of these trucks. The crowd was pretty thick here, too, but at least I could keep moving and people-watch.

Eventually, I emerged into a square thronged with traffic overlooking the Zayanderud River. Somehow, I managed to reach the bridge, which was super crowded as well. Though the bridge was lit up beautifully and I was happy to see water in the river – most of the recent photos of the bridge showed the river dried up – the crowd was stressing me out. So after snapping a few photos, I went back to the hostel and called it a night.


Under the bridge

The next day, per the suggestion of the hostel staff, I avoided returning to the city center because a) it was going to be even more crowded, and b) everything was closed anyway. I briefly considered going to the Armenian Quarter to see the Vank Cathedral (Iran isn’t all about the mosques, you know), but after Tehran and Kashan, I was feeling a bit burned out on architecture, so I decided to have a “nature” day instead.

In the morning, I went for a walk on Sofeh, a mountain about 10 km outside the city (I wouldn’t call it hiking, because the paths up the mountain are paved). Although it was drizzling, it was great to get out of the city and away from the crowd.

View of the city from the mountain

Then, in the afternoon, I went on a desert tour organized by the hostel (15 euros/person). The sky was clear when we headed out, but as we approached the town of Varzaneh, it started pouring. Ironic, isn’t it? Here we were, hoping to see a scorching desert, and it rained!

We decided to press on anyway, and it turned out to be a really nice outing. We had some interesting discussion with our guide about life in Iran, about their frustrations in the present and their hopes for the future. It was a great way to get to know the country better.

And the scenery was pretty awesome too. First, we went to a salt lake – it must be really striking in the summer with all the salt crystals coming up, but even in the rain, it still looked impressive, in an alien kind of way.

You can still see the salt crystals

Our tour guide and the two guards working at the salt mine (they offered us tea!)

After that, we headed to the sand dunes. The vastness and emptiness of the landscape is astounding and really makes you feel insignificant (in a good way).

Looks like a set for Mad Max: Fury Road, doesn’t it?

On the way back, we stopped to see a “cow well”, which is a well where the water is drawn up by, you guess it, a cow (actually, it’s a bull), to irrigate the nearby fields. The really fun thing is that the trainer sings to the cow to get it to move – how sweet is that?

Our last stop was a roadside restaurant where we enjoyed some fresh fish – and I mean super fresh, as we watched the cook catch them from the pond where the fish were raised.

Best fish I’ve ever tasted!

And that wrapped up a really fun day and also my time in Isfahan. There are still a lot of places I didn’t get to see in the city – it’s not called “half the world” for nothing! – but I hope to return one day.


South Korea Diary #2: Seoraksan

Part 1 can be found here.


After 2 days in Seoul, our South Korea tour took us to Seoraksan, a mountain in the east of the country. Most of the tour packages I’ve found only take you to the usual places like Seoul, Busan, and Jeju Island, but as this is a “fall foliage” tour, it’s natural that we got to visit one of the places with the best and earliest fall colors in South Korea – they reach their peak in mid-October, just in time for our visit.

Our first destination is the Seoraksan National Park, with its entrance in a beautiful valley surrounded by brilliantly red and yellow forests, made all the more vivid by the craggy rocks and dark green pines scattered amongst the peaks. The valley also houses a Buddhist temple, Sinheungsa, and a large bronze statue of the Buddha.

Entrance to the National Park

Sinheungsa Temple

Next, we took the cable car up the slopes of Seoraksan. My fear of heights didn’t let me enjoy the views as much as I would like, but despite that, I could still see how gorgeous it was. From the cable car station, it is a 15-minute climb to the mountain peak, but in truth, it took me nearly an hour because I was stopping so often to take photos of all the foliage. I’ve had my share of fall colors when I lived in LA, but that was just little pockets here and there. I’ve never seen such a concentration of fall colors before, and it was truly too spectacular for words. It was difficult to pick which photos to feature in this post, because they all look good!

My scarf matches the background perfectly

Fall is also the season for cosmos flowers in Korea, and on the way back to the hotel, I managed to snap some photos of a blooming field. More gorgeousness!

Before heading to the airport, our last stop is Ojukheon (House of the Black Bamboo), a historical site and museum. It was the house of Shin Saimdang, a 16th-century Korean artist and poet, and her son, Yi I, a Confucian scholar (their images are on the 50,000 and 5,000 won notes, respectively, which show you how prominent they were.) The museum and the house are just okay (though the display of Shin Saimdang’s paintings and calligraphy is quite nice), but the main appeal – for me at least – is the surrounding garden, full of persimmon trees ladden with fruits and golden ginkgo trees.

And that concludes my trip to South Korea. Despite the time constraints of a tour, it has given me a good taste of the country. Hopefully some day I can come back and explore it at my own pace!


South Korea Diary #1: Seoul & Nami Island

Last month, I just went on a 4-day trip to South Korea with my aunt. It was an organized tour, which is my least favorite form of travel, but my aunt asked me to accompany her, and I never turn down the chance to travel to a new country, so of course, I accepted.

We started out in Seoul, with a tour of the Gyeongbokgung Palace and the Blue House, the presidential residence. The Blue House we only got a glimpse from afar, but the Palace is beautiful, with traditional buildings surrounding spacious grounds, dotted here and there with trees full of fall foliage or stately evergreens. We also got a short visit to the National Folk Museum, which is located within the premises, and learned about the traditions of Korea.

The Blue House


Entrance to Gyeongbokgung and a corridor inside the Palace

A pavillion on the grounds

Another fun thing about the Palace is that you can see a lot of people wearing hanbok (traditional Korean dress), both tourists and locals. You don’t have to worry about cultural appropriation here – apparently, you can visit the palace for free if you wear a hanbok! (The tour also included a package for hanbok rental, though I didn’t wear one; I much prefer taking pictures of others.)

The maine square of the Palace


Traditional meets modern

Later in the day, we went to Everland theme park, South Korea’s version of Disneyland. You need at least an entire day here, and besides, I’m too much of a wuss for some of the rides (it has the fourth steepest roller coaster in the world. Just hearing the screams was traumatic enough). I ended up wandering around the flower gardens of the European Village with my aunts and other elderly ladies of our tour group (I guess I’m an old lady at heart!) and enjoying the Halloween decorations.

Main street of Everland

The Cottage Garden of the European Village

Everland at night

The next day, we got to see more of Seoul in the form of the Dongdaemun shopping district. Shopping is actually a huge part of the tour – most of the women in the tour group came back ladden with Korean beauty products – but I’m not much of a shopper, so I used that time to wander the nearby streets and people-watch. Later, we headed to the Namsan Tower, where you can have some magnificent views of the city.

The National Assembly Building

Seoul City Hall

A temple on the street of Seoul

Dongdaemun Design Plaza, where you can see a lot of street style photo shoots


The road to Namsan Tower, and the Tower itself

The famous “love locks” of Namsan Tower

Panoramic view of Seoul from Namsan Tower

Finally, to round out our Seoul trip, we went to Nami Island. It is not an actual island but just a river islet about an hour from Seoul, which gained popularity for being the filming location of “Winter Sonata”, a famous K-drama. I don’t watch K-dramas, but the island itself is very beautiful, with tree-lined walks and glimpses of the river through the branches. It was full of tourists, of course, but if you venture down to the river bank, you can find a lot of quiet pockets to relax in, after the hubbub of Seoul.


A little rice paddy by the river and the famous ginkgo-lined avenue of Nami Island

The squirrels and chipmunks of the island are so used to people that I could go right up to this guy and he even posed for me!

My only complaint is that we went there a tad early, so the leaves haven’t changed colors yet. But that would soon be rectified, because our next stop would be a national park in the mountains. Stay tuned!


From The Garden

It’s been a while since I share photos from our garden, but after seeing Kezzie’s post of her own garden, I was inspired to do the same. My dad is a pretty avid gardener, and I’ve been keeping sort of a photographic record of our garden for him, so it’s always fun to look back to see how our plants were doing each year.


Our amaryllis collection (the salmon-colored one is from a bulb I brought back from Amsterdam)


Orchid and Heliconia


Banana blossom (which makes a very good salad) and mulberries (which make very good jam)


Singapore Diary #4: Nature And Street Scenes

Singapore is known as the “Garden City”, so I thought it would be fun to have a post on the contrast between the modern, even futuristic-looking architecture and the pockets of nature in the city (no wonder they shot a sci-fi film there.) During my 3 weeks there, I revisited the Botanic Garden (and the National Orchid Gallery, of course) and did some short hikes/walks around Mount Faber Park and Sungei Buloh, a wetland reserve near the Malaysian border. As fun as the city is, it’s great to get out once in a while and just lose yourself in nature.

The Helix bridge

The Henderson Waves bridge

It was raining heavily while I was at Mount Faber, but it was super relaxing to simply sit (there is always a covered rest area along the way) and listen to the rain or enjoy the incredibly sweet and refreshing smell of the trees. If my shoes weren’t soaked through, I would’ve stayed longer.

View of the Singapore River toward downtown

Mangrove forest at Sungei Buloh

Some of the flora and fauna of Sungei Buloh

We didn’t see any crocs though – just these signs

The ION Orchard, one of the most famous shopping malls along Orchard Road

Orchid arches at the Botanic Garden

Colorful houses along Clarke Quay

Colorful orchids at the National Orchid Gallery

A mother hen and her chick at the Botanic Garden

There is still one more Singapore post left, so stay tuned!


Life On Film III

Got some more film photography here. I couldn’t find any store that still sells the film I used last time (Efiniti UXi Super 200), so I got a roll of Kodak Colorplus 200 instead and took some test photos first, just to see what it’s like. It’s a bit yellowish, and doesn’t have as much contrast as I like, though I’m not sure if it’s because of the film or because I made some mistake in guessing the f stop. But it’s not bad overall, and it’s the most readily available/popular (i.e. cheapest) film for amateur photographers, so I guess I’m going to shoot with it from now on.

Bonus – this night time photo, which turns out much better than I expected:


Life On Film II

It’s been a while (two and a half years, in fact), since I posted my first attempts at film photography. I haven’t shot much film since – mostly because I was too busy, but also because it was a bit of a hassle to get processed. I finished two rolls about a year ago (it’s surprising how long it takes me to get the full 36 shots per roll), and didn’t get around to processing them until now, after I’ve discovered a lab close to the place where I teach my weekend film making workshop. Thankfully the films are still OK, and the photos turned out way better than I hoped:

Looking at these, I was reminded why I got into film photography in the first place. Now that I’ve found a processing lab, I will try to shoot film more regularly.  I know I sound like a total hipster saying this, but it’s so much more… rewarding than digital somehow.