If you’ve got several hours to spend in Beijing, I propose that you take a walk. Here’s a suggestion for a leisurely stroll of fancy, or a walk that will test your endurance but satisfy your craving for adventure.
A quick walk of amusement will welcome you to Olympic Park, home of the sensational 2008 Summer Games. As with most of Beijing, the complex hosts a grand collection of architectural marvels, all of them in the modern style, all of them with the most fanciful names. The most popular one, the swimming venue, fondly called The Water Cube, has been converted into a water amusement park, so you can dip in and use the facilities yourself.
The centrepiece of the Games is the Herzog and de Meuron-designed Olympic stadium, or more popularly known as the Bird’s Nest. It’s normally closed to the public, but take a walk around it to capture the magnitude of the celebrations in 2008.
The other option is to take a hike outside the city. Despite not being in Olympic Park, the next walk will make you feel like a true champion when you finish it. Allot 4-6 hours to take the hike from Jinshanling to Simatai and enjoy some of the most wondrous views of the desolate scenery surrounding the Great Wall. Wear appropriate hiking/trekking shoes, bring just enough water, some packed food, and dress appropriately (whether it’s cold or hot).
The fourteen-kilometre journey starts out in Jinshaling (for more details on how to put together the logisitics, visit Great Wall Forum at http://bitly.com/RpfMkv) and ends up in SImatai with a cable car ride. If you want to avoid souvenir wielding touts, and droves of tourists, I would suggest to take this walk. I went on an organised trip with Couchsurfers in 2009, and it was a life-changing achievement that we’ve kept in touch with the people we travelled with.
What’s in store – supreme isolated views of the Great Wall, and supreme sense of achievement after the hike, and a pretty good workout (so remember to stretch – the steps can be almost three-quarters of a meter high).
Seoul is a fairly safe city that buzzes alive at night from all the neon lights wrapping the city. Here is a recommended route to stroll around the city, from the city center stream to the shopping district.
Start the walk from Jongno 5-ga station and head a couple of block south to reach Cheonggyecheon – Seoul’s testament to enervate the city by going ‘green’. Also used by Seoul’s former mayor Lee Myung-Bak as a vehicle to capture the interest of Korean initiative to push forward the country’s environmental agenda and urban renewal – they demolished an elevated motorway in the middle of the city to give precedence to restoring the stream. Lee received much criticism then, but was lauded afterwards for such brave efforts. It is now one of Seoul’s major landmarks and highlights.
After reaching point B on the map, walk slightly north to view Dongdaemun gate, one of the remaining fortress-gates to ancient Seoul that is fully intact (Namdaemun in the west was damaged in a fire last 2008 and is currently being restored).
Just south of the gate is a massive construction site for Zaha Hadid’s Dongdaemun Design Plaza and Park. It was meant to be completed in early 2010 in line with Seoul being awarded as World Design Capital. Instead, the park is not set for completion by end 2011. It may look like an inverted shoe, or an alien embryo (not that I know what an alien embryo should look like), but I think it’s pretty funky the way the park will turn out. My only photo is from the construction site, so click on this link to get a better visual of the architect’s vision.
Finally, you’ll be spoiled for choice at Dongdaemun’s Fashion district, with floors and malls of shopping area. There are many arcades and stalls selling mostly clothes at the shops, so what a better way to end the evening stroll. My personal suggestion will still be jumping into Dragonhill Spa, a jimjilbang (truly an authentic Korean experience! try sleeping on a block of wood as a pillow!) to reward yourself with a walking tour well done.
Portugal was never on the travel list had I not met great people on my Japan trip in 2010. So taking up the invite to visit the country, I used the long weekend to pop in Portugal and see what the country had to offer.
Taking its cues from Europe’s great capitals, getting lost in Lisbon’s Alfama district is never boring. Hiding behind the winding cobblestone streets is a magnificent facade of apartments in pastel-washed colours, romantic balconies decorated by blue-hued tiles (called azulejos), and wafts of their custard-sweet pastries. The streets alone are a reason to visit this amazing capital.
Be warned though, Lisbon is the city of 7 hills, and trekking up these streets can get steep and tiring. There are funiculars around the area (reminiscent of the tram heading to Victoria Peak in Hong Kong); alternatively, you can take the trams that follow these winding streets and start your journey walking down.
Start with Castelo do Sao Jorge, a medieval fortress on top of the hills, to take hold of your bearings – you can see the Praca do Comercio below and the adjacent riverside walk of the Rio Tejo. There are plenty of churches scattered along the walk, I really don’t remember all of them – but watch out for the distinct Manueline architecture of the monuments, statues, and plazas around (more on this later).
There are two bridges connect the two flanks of the Rio Tejo – each having their own merits. Vasco do Gama bridge, on the eastern part of town, is the longest bridge in Europe, while the 19 de Abril bridge, with its red colour is designed by the same guy who did San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.
The city is not filled with the world’s most familiar landmarks, but make no mistake – the experience of walking around Lisbon does not need blockbuster sights to put it on your must travel lists.
What’s a trip to Sydney without heading over to the beach? The classic Sydney itinerary would point you to Manly beach or Bondi. I’d recommend turning that trip to Bondi Beach into a walking tour – starting from Coogee beach.
Coogee lies south east of the city center and public buses are frequent. Once you get to Coogee Beach, instead of lazing on a shore lapping up the sun, take a bit of walking first – marvelous rocky cliffs, hillside communities and seaside houses from the more affluent side of Sydney. The walk takes about an hour and a half, but you hardly notice with the stunning views around you.
If you get the timing right, you get to see some quirky and amazing art installations from Sculpture by the Sea (held every November) along the way. You can also check out the seaside hotel on the way, with its pool. But with a free beach right at your feet, why bother?
Don’t forget the Australian adage going for Slip Slop Slap! I got a pretty intense sunburn on a cloudy day. Bring a book if you’re keen on beach bumming and working on that tan, but if you want to go surfing, there are rentals for lockers and surf gear scattered along Bondi beach so that you don’t miss out on any of the summer fun the city has on deck. Also at the northern edge of Bondi, you can see cleverly put together mosaics at the children’s pool.
Berlin, as they say, has something for everyone. There will be grand museums, quaint neighbourhoods, a sizzling nightlife, a zoo at the heart of the city, and even a raunchy yet accessible underbelly. As with most my visits, I try to take in the diversity of architecture that the city had to offer. The contrasting views of nouveau architecture sitting side by side with well-aged residences and stately apartments are a marvel on their own. Lord Norman Foster added his usual steel-and-glass touches at the top of the reconstructed Reichstag, home of the German Parliament. Admission is free, but the lines were terrible so I had to settle for the grounds around it. To make the most out of my visit, I went to see the annex buildings around it, including Marie Elisabeth Luders Haus, pictured above.
Totally missing where the Holocaust Memorial was, I made a beeline for the Daniel Libeskind creation at the northern part of the city. The Jewish Museum Berlin is a testament to the man’s signature angles and jagged silhouettes, the whole 4 storey museum is shaped like a lightning bolt itself.
The theme of the museum is an emotional one, and is reflected into physical discomfort by the sloping floors that simulate movement up a ramp and uneven surfaces. The museum itself is fairly extensive and could easily take up 3 hours, so try to be selective in what you want to experience. Don’t forget to visit the slanting courtyard outdoors.
If you’re looking for a wee bit more traditional fare, try visiting the Berlin Cathedral – it will greet you to Museum Island and spend a whole day roaming the complex alone. If you’re just here to visit iconic Berlin, walk along the Unter der Linden (translated as under the linden trees) towards Pariser Platz and see the much loved Brandenburg Gate. Have a photo taken with a bear (the city mascot as seen in its coat of arms), or with an imposing military guy. I had mine taken with Darth Vader. And the Holocaust Museum I missed? It was just around the corner from the Brandenburg Gate so don’t make the same mistake I did.
It’s possible to do all of these in a day, but you may have to rush some things. My suggestion is to take walk around Bundestag, then Brandenburg Gate is adjacent to it, and spend the rest of the day at Museum Island. The Jewish Museum closes late, so you can do that at the early evenings. Enjoy Berlin!
After all the China posts, we move on – this post is about a different wall. In commemoration of the Berlin Wall’s 50th year, Two Vacations A Year drops in the German capital to provide mini-itineraries and things to do on a short trip. I was in Berlin for a weekend only, and was fully aware that the city is one of the most electric parts of Europe that I will not be able to give it justice if I try to fit in everything on a short trip. Top 3 priorities for my Berlin visit: avant-garde architecture, all-night parties, and a trip to the Berlin Wall.
Whilst pieces of the wall remain scattered around the city, I’d recommend heading over to east side Berlin to view a 1.3 km remnant of the wall that was transformed into one of the world’s largest open-air art gallery. The East Side Gallery features a collection of murals from over 100 artists painted on the wall. They represent a varied set of perspective to reflect the sentiments from the Berlin Wall era, from construction, to operation, and finally its dismantling.
Not only wall-related graffiti can be seen, but other political themes during the 60s are on display as well. Including the popular Bruderkruss, from the popular photograph communist leaders Brezhnev and Honecker kissing to celebrate the 30 years of the German Democratic Republic.
The people of Berlin have requested to respect the murals, its 2009 restoration was not only to renew the artworks from damage caused by the elements, but also from rampant vandalism.
End your trip by heading out to Karl Marx Allee, a couple of blocks east of Muhlenstrasse to see what the proletariat buildings from Communist Germany look like. Wide avenues, with quiet traffic, and a more tempered atmosphere for Berlin. More blast from the past? Take a ride at their subway, its architecture and detailing mirror the styles of the buildings that surround it.
For this blog’s first destination, I sneaked out this summer with a trip to China. This little venture would be manageable for a 3-day visit, packing in all the important sights, and a quick hop to the Terracotta Army. Will talk about the that on the next article. Instead, this post is all about Xian and the city center.
My other previous trips to China were limited to the major cities and their nearby places; this was the first time I was heading into the “main” mainland. So, after 12 hours on a hard seat on the train to Shaanxi province, I was in Xian. To be honest, it wasn’t that bad – the hard seat wasn’t a plank of wood, my two other seatmates weren’t bobbing their heads sideways while drooling. Looks like I set my expectations too low. If you’re taking the plane to Xian Xianyang airport (airport code XIY), get ready for a long drive into town.
As you exit Xian train station, you will be greeted by the city center’s main draw – its walls. The train tracks run along the northern wall and offer a glimpse of what activities you can do in town. Not to be missed is to bike along the walls. The whole loop will take about an hour and a half – but surely you can have it a more leisurely pace. If you time the visit to the walls properly, you can get to see the changing of the guards in elaborate costumes – just like watching the terracotta army in real life.
Xian is also the eastern terminus of the famous Silk Road and serves as the intersection of Chinese and Muslim culture. The Great Mosque isn’t all that great to be honest, but take time out to marvel at how the minarets were blended with the pagodas in this very distinct architecture. As with most fusion results – the proof is in the pudding, or food. Take a walk around the Muslim Quarter and have the finest skewers of lamb, goat and beef wonderfully peppered with cumin to go along with your flat bread. Yum!
Now I’m hungry – looks like I have to continue this post on Xian on the next article.