Bali mynahIn an effort to get back to South Korea at minimal cost to both my finances and the environment, I took a long flight to Hong Kong (香港) with the intention of subsequently catching the train up into mainland China and then the ferry service to Incheon (as the overland trip from Europe and flights to both mainland China and Korea were shockingly expensive). I arrived right in the middle of preparations for Chinese (Lunar) New Year, the chaos surrounding which stranded me for over a week (I had planned on staying only a few nights). This did give me a lot of time to explore, though, and I took advantage of the clement (if cloudy) weather to walk most of the area from Causeway Bay (銅鑼灣) in the east to Central (中環) in the west. The streets were far more crowded and chaotic than I remembered (from my last trip in 2002), which could have been New Year shoppers but might just be what the place is like. I was glad to escape into the comparatively deserted Hong Kong Park (香港公園), a planned oasis in the heat and bustle of the central business district.

Left: Bali mynah (Leucopsar rothschildi). Below, left to right: Greater green leafbird (Chloropsis sonnerati), blue-winged leafbird (Chloropsis cochinchinensis), emerald dove (Chalcophaps indica), the aviary.

Greater green leafbirdBlue-winged leafbird

Emerald dovesEdward Youde Aviary

Alexandrine parakeet (2)The main feature of the park (aside from the “Fighting SARS” monument, of course) is the Edward Youde Aviary, a giant walk-through cage containing all kinds of birds found in the Asian ecoregions. The public viewing area is an elevated walkway that winds through the tree canopy and thus prevents ground- and water feeders from being disturbed, though it does place some of the interesting specimens quite far away. Fruit-containing feeding stations are strategically placed along the route so that the canopy feeders come quite close to the visitors (but not so close as to invite touching or risk territory defence).

Left: Alexandrine parakeet (Psittacula eupatria). Below, left to right: Yellow-faced mynah (Mino dumontii), Alexandrine parakeet (Psittacula eupatria).

Yellow-faced mynahAlexandrine parakeet (1)


Charles DarwinWith the best part of a day in central London at my disposal (before moving on to Hong Kong), I had initially planned on basing myself in the South Kensington area and visiting both the Natural History Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum. As things turned out, the Natural History Museum was just too interesting and I spent several hours exploring it quite thoroughly. The place was overrun with school groups from the minute the doors opened in the morning, giving me valuable insight into what kids are interested in doing in museums (showing off to other kids, followed by finding gruesome or unusual exhibits, followed by whacking all buttons on an interactive display simultaneously).

Left: Charles Darwin. Below, left to right: Thomas Henry Huxley, Joseph Banks, Paracyclotosaurs davidi, giant ground sloth (Glossotherium robustum).

Thomas Henry HuxleySir Joseph Banks

Paracyclotosaurs davidiGiant ground sloth

Pickled beetleGiven lots of time to poke around the less-visited sections of the museum, I was rather hoping to find a forgotten door or access tunnel to a non-public area (cf. Dry Store Room No. 1). However, the staff have been quite vigilant and all forbidden areas are effectively labelled as such (though from the sheer volume of staff going in and out of them, tailgating would be sheer simplicity). Unfortunately, the main stuffed mammals gallery was closed for redevelopment (possibly for the mounting of the Thames Whale skeleton) but the rest of the animal kingdom compensated more than enough. The daily talk (kind of a “meet the scientist” series) was about human evolution in Africa’s Great Rift Valley, complete with pass-around replicas of the most important skulls and gorgeous pictures of Kenya.

Left: Long-horned beetle (Callipogon armilatum). Below, left to right: Sabre-toothed cat, giant golden mole (Chrysospalax trevelyani), leafcutter ants, monkey and giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum).

Sabre-toothed catGiant golden mole

Leafcutter antsMonkey see

Lesser spotted dogfish skeletonFinally, I took my third tour of the Darwin Centre‘s wet collections – thousands upon thousands of specimens preserved in spirits (ethanol, methanol or formaldehyde) used as a research resource. Only a few are on public display, the vast majority being sequestered behind fireproof doors in chilled rooms, but they are always impressive. Notable items include most of the samples collected on the second voyage of HMS Beagle (following which Darwin developed his theory of evolution by natural selection), a coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae; a species thought extinct until one was fished up in 1938) and a complete giant squid (Architeuthis spp.; there would also have been a colossal squid, Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni, but it broke apart during hauling-in and everything except the head was lost).

Left: Lesser spotted dogfish (Scyliorhinus canicula). Below, left to right: Red fox (Vulpes vulpes), Pencil-spine urchin (Cidaris cidaris), starfish (Astropecten aurautiacus).

Pickled foxPencil-spine urchinsPickled starfish

Redundant and oxymoronicFor only the second time ever, Japan Railways let me down and brought me to Hiroshima around 30 minutes late (a 2-minute change turned out to be just not feasible, putting tomorrow’s 1-minute change in doubt). With all accommodation unexpectedly booked up for the next few days, I hit the nearest manga/internet café, settled into a plush reclining chair with the usual array of free drinks and quickly discovered that: i) there was a dirty lino floor rather than a comfy mat; ii) the lights were not going to be dimmed overnight; and iii) people browsing the internet make a lot of noise. I therefore slept quite fitfully, but sufficiently to explore the city for the third time.

Unfortunately, it being a Monday, most of the non-atomic-bombing-related attractions were closed and I spent most of my time in the vicinity of the Peace Park. It turns out that there’s an abandoned baseball stadium just over the road from the A-Bomb Dome, which would also have been interesting had there not been far too many people around to make an entry feasible. The Peace Park, as expected, was largely unchanged save perhaps for a few more paper crane wreaths, but the Peace Memorial Museum had acquired a few new items from the time of the bombing. There were also a couple of temporary exhibits – themed artwork from survivors (highly disturbing) and the winners of an international children’s painting/poster competition (surprisingly Obama-heavy).

Memorial CenotaphChildren's Peace Monument

A-Bomb Dome (1)A-Bomb Dome (2)

With a little time to spare before presenting myself at a Wikitravel-recommended capsule hotel (in a part of the city ominously described by the tourist-office-approved map as “a bit of a dodgy area”), I hiked over to the hills on the northern edge of town where a large stupa had been erected as a memorial from the people of India and Mongolia. It reportedly contains some of the Buddha’s ashes, along with artefacts from the victims of the bombing.

Fountain of PeacePeace Pagoda

Sand BuddhaLast weekend, a bunch of us took the bus down to Busan to enjoy the almost-summer temperatures and check out the annual sand festival. Quite a few professional sculptors were reported to be there, though we only saw one actually making something, and the range of distractions on the beach itself were quickly exhausted. We then found out that there was a separate sand sculpture competition open to the public, and immediately set to with shovel and hose to pack the loose sand down into a mound that we could carve something out of. There had been some heated discussion earlier as to what we’d make, but we settled on a dragon given that we’d come from Yongin (the Yong, 용/龍, means “dragon”) – it acquired a soju bottle, clouds and a mugunghwa (무궁화; Hibiscus syriacus) somewhere in the construction process. As we toiled away, a steady stream of well-wishers came and admired our handiwork (including a few event photographers) – but we didn’t end up winning any of the prizes.

Drinking dragon (1)Drinking dragon (2)

Drinking dragon (3)Drinking dragon (4)

Drinking dragon (5)Sand turtles

Sand RohPeace man

Sand O-TotoroSand ape

Haeundae kitesWith no events on Sunday (unless we felt like building another sculpture), we ventured underground to the Busan Aquarium – home to countless sea creatures and host to countless scampering kids. It turned out to be extremely difficult to take reasonable photographs due to a combination of low light, moving fish, dirty glass, curved tanks and harsh reflections, but I managed a few. We were mesmerised by the mudskippers for quite a while, watching them hop about their beach and defend their territories against wanderers, and distressed by the tiny enclosures for the seals and Pacific giant octopus. We had to cut our time in the shark/ray area a little short due to transport timetabling, but left pretty much as enriched as one can be having just visited a bunch of animals.

Haeundae jellyfishAquarium fine art

Haeundae anacondaHaeundae otters

Haeundae depressed fishHaeundae lobster

Haeundae coloured jellyfishHaeundae eel

Haeundae grouperHaeundae sharks

Gansong BuddhaTwice a year, the Gansong Art Museum (간송미술관) in northern Seoul opens its doors to the public for a couple of weeks and allows a brief peek at some of Korea’s more reclusive national treasures. Tipped off by the Hub of Sparkle and inspired by Samedi, I hopped onto the subway after training (ever-thankful for not having classes on Wednesday mornings) and arived a few minutes before opening time.

I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, but I had assumed that the entire collection would be on display and was a little put out to discover that some of the more famous works (such as the Hunminjeongeum and Portrait of a Beauty) won’t be exhibited this year. The overall theme seemed to be nature and landscape, with plenty of looming mountains and abstract bamboo, and a few animal studies. Despite the crowds (the size of the museum means that more than ten people constitutes a crowd, and I’d managed to arrive at the same time as a guided tour and school group), I got a good look at some of Korea’s older art and felt suitably enriched for it.

Samilpo (삼일포; 三日浦)Gansong statue

Bourgeois spiders (1)Due to the ongoing travel photo upgrade and disaffiliation with hosting services less good than Ipernity, I didn’t go out specifically looking for things to photograph this weekend. However, we did happen to walk by the Samsung Leeum Art Museum (삼미술관) in Itaewon en route to Namsan (which turned into a multi-hour hike – first up the hill itself, and than all around the twisting streets of Haebangcheon hunting down a veggie burger) and saw a couple of Louise Bourgeois’ spiders (part of the Maman series) menacing the visitors.

Bourgeois spiders (3)Bourgeois spiders (2)

Dorsasan StationThe recent dismantling of all North Korea – South Korea agreements by the North (quite possibly in order to gain leverage with the incoming Obama administration and thus get concessions for agreeing to do what they were doing anyway) provided a suitable backdrop of Cold War tensions for a visit to the quite-militarised-actually demilitarised zone (DMZ, 한반도의 군사 분계선), a mere hour’s drive north of Seoul. As it was Dan’s last (really this time) weekend in Korea before swapping a high-pay high-benefits job for WWOOFing in New Zealand, we wanted to do something a little memorable and booked ourselves on a tour of some of the sites of interest along the easily-accessible parts of the border.

We were on the road for barely long enough to get a decent snooze when we pulled up outside Dorasan (도라산) station, last stop on the South Korean side before the border region and hive of inactivity due to nobody living anywhere near the place. The train line goes over to Kaesong on the North Korean side, but only carefully-checked freight gets through and the station has therefore gained cult status as one of the symbols of the divide between the two countries. George W. Bush visited in 2002, and there is a large photograph of him along with a signed concrete railway tie – for some reason, he’s holding the pen upside down and we really could not figure out how a) nobody realised, as the tie is definitely signed and b) why they would use that photo out of the many they must have taken.

Tracks to the NorthDora observatory

Watching for movementThere’s an observatory conveniently just up the road from the station, but the only stars the telescopes are aimed at are on North Korean flags. We weren’t allowed to take photographs closer than a few metres to the wall (though there were viewing binoculars), but could peer over the expanse of scrub and trees to the Propaganda Village of Gijeong-dong (기정동, North Koreans call this the Peace Village) and, a couple of kilometres away, the South Korean equivalent (Daeseong-dong, the Friendship Village). Both have massive flagpoles proudly flying the appropriate national flag – in a typical display of one-upmanship, the North casually enquired as to how tall the Southern flagpole was going to be and then made theirs around 50 % taller (though our guide later reminded us that the South Korean one is wider).

MAC roomDMZ mascot

Bridge to the NorthOur final stop before going into the restricted area was Imjingak (임진각), a park near the city of Paju where the Bridge of Freedom is. This is where prisoners of war were exchanged after formal hostilities ended, and currently features many memorials and a shrine where Korean families with ancestral tombs on the wrong side of the border can come and perform rites.

Shortly after driving over the Imjin River, having our passports checked and going under one of the many tank traps (a short concrete tunnel designed to be blown up to block the road) we arrived at the Third Tunnel. Since the war was put on hold, North Korea has made several attempts to dig tunnels into the South for nefarious purposes – four have been discovered (the most recent in 1990), and there are believed to be several more. The Third Tunnel was only found after a defector reported the digging efforts, and was quite a worry at the time as it is only around 40 km from Seoul. It was quickly sealed with concrete, but not before the North claimed that the South had dug it and (this being clearly ridiculous) that it was in fact an old coal mine (they had painted the walls with a coal dust mixture before vacating it). We ventured into the damp space thankful for our hard hats (no photography was allowed, but it was around 2 m high and 2 m wide) and received a small scare when the spotlights pointed at the blockade wall went out.

Northern immigrationReady stance

The way to the North (2)The way to the North (1)

Gijeong-dongFinally, after more passport checks and a liability waiver, we were allowed to pass through Camp Bonifas and into the JSA (Joint Security Area, 공동경비구역) at Panmunjeom (판문점), where North and South Korean guards face each other off and officials conduct occasional talks. The region is controlled jointly, but tourist movement is restricted to a few sites on the Southern side and nobody is allowed to cross the border. There were strict rules on what we could and couldn’t do – no photography except in permitted places, walk in two lines only, no pointing or gesturing, absolutely no talking to anyone from the North (we only saw one guard at a distance anyway), break the rules at risk of getting shot etc. – but surprising freedom to see things. We took the only permitted walk over the official border in the MAC (Military Armistice Commission) conference room and marvelled at all the South Korean soldiers permanently in the “ready stance” (kind of like an action figure) should hostilities break out again (incidentally, we were told that North Korean mandatory military service is ten years for men and seven for women, but other sources indicate it may be as low as four for both). At the viewpoints, we could see clear over the boundary lines and Bridge of No Return (돌아올 수 없는 다리) to the bare mountains beyond (kept deliberately tree-free to deter sneaking) and felt no small wonder at what it must be like to live in a divided country.

Official boundaryBridge of No Return

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