I don’t know how many of you guys follow international news, but Vietnam is going through our worst COVID outbreak yet. We’ve been in lockdown for nearly 2 months (and it looks like it’s going to be extended). Last year, the pandemic barely brushed us by, but now it’s all too real, and I’m beginning to feel its impact. I start to dread waking up every day only to see that the numbers of cases are still climbing and there seems to be no end in sight.
The thing is, I’m so much luckier than most people, those who are struggling with their livelihoods or even their own lives. But it’s hard to remember that sometimes, so there’s a reminder for myself of a few things I’m grateful for:
– My family and I are still in good health (*knocks on wood*) and most of us have received at least one dose of vaccine. Our country’s vaccination rollout is a little slow (that’s what happens when you’re a third-world country having to depend on others for your vaccines) but we’re getting there.
– Our house is surrounded by a large garden, so there is no feeling of being cooped up inside during the lockdown. Nature is always just outside the window. Plus we’re all homebodies anyway.
– Said garden provides us with plenty of fresh fruits and veggies, which reduce the need to go grocery shopping and the risk of exposure.
– I can work from home with relative ease, and I’m used to working from home (with my freelance job) anyway, so I didn’t have to adjust much.
So yes, I’m taking a leaf out of the Monty Python’s book and look on the bright side of life. And on that note, let’s take a look at some photos from the garden to take our minds off things, shall we?
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 bazaar was good for souvenir shopping – I was especially impressed by the silver and copper shops!
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.)
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 aunt and other elderly ladies of our tour group (I guess I’m an old lady at heart!) and enjoying the Halloween decorations.
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.
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.
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!