Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Rex Cinema, Little India

At the stop of the city of Singapore, crossing over another land on its way to Little India, lays the 63 years old building Rex Cinema at Mackenzie Road.

Cornered by a parking lot on its left and a Hawker Center on its right, the now movie hall has reemerged once again from its ashes.

All day long, the three screens are blabbering all the Singapore official languages (English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil) with an inclination for the South Indian's, 3-hours, dance & song features.

The building has reinvented itself many times over the years, going through many transformations, from a skating rink, to a church and lately a nightclub, but went back to its original movie passion what it was designed for in the first place.

The cinema's 70s look enlights the whole area, echoing the coloring that the Little India of Singapore vibrates with so vividly.

Like a guarding tower on the side of an entrance, the building is not here to prevent you from crossing over the next land, but rather warn you about the colors you will see along the way.

Inside the experience is far away from the one at any village. People seat on chairs, eat Chinese food, and drink American pop. You have been warned to not eat betel nut and or spit leaf on the floor.

But as soon as the lights fade away, the drama movie takes you to mother land India where movie are watched outdoor with an entire village to help you laugh and cry.

It is said that Mr. Narayanasamy Muthu the owner of the local film distributor Mega Movies was helped by Mr. Murugan Suppurayan, who runs a film distributing company in Malaysia, to reopen the Rex Cinema.

Some saying that they put together more than S$1.5 million in the building in renovation.

Sure thing that it clicks and splashs in the night.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Work In Progress Shanghai

Don't go to Shanghai … at least for another six months.

The city is the biggest construction site in the world, preparing itself for the 2010 World Expo, from May 1 to Oct 31 to be precise. The "Better City, Better Life" slogan used for the expo has twisted itself into "Better Building, Better Lift". Every single block has some sort of 24/7 construction going on. The city is simply a larger-than-life muddy, watery and sandy huge construction site.

French Concession Photo-shoot

Now if you decide anyway to visit Shanghai (better put your construction hat and your security boots on!) you would contemplate before your eyes one of the most dynamic city in Asia. On par with most of the cosmopolitan cities, the place is at least as modern as, and at most more contemporary, than any top city in the world. The place is so different from any Chinese city but so vividly identical than any global cosmopolitan capital that you could easily imagine being somewhere else. Still at a tip of a corner turn, you could face a street back alley that will transport you back to pictorial Shanghai 30's. Shanghai is not China and China is not Shanghai. Never has been, and never will be.

Old Lady Playing Card in an Shikumen

With a GDP per capita of U$10,529 in 2008, Shanghai is above the World average (U$10,433), and is the number one city in mainland china when it comes to total GDP with U$ 233bn. Shanghai weight economically more than Madrid or Singapore. Some, including myself, will argues that like smelly seafood at the end of the market, numbers in Asia are easy to get but difficult to trust, these indicators try to illustrate the degree to which China (with Shanghai at the forefront and its giant lab), is transforming itself into a fast growing centralized yet capitalist economic engine in a not so distant future, some sort of "red-capitalist"

[[Bar Rouge at Night]]

The 16 millions registered people (add an extra 4 for the migrant) city proposes many different playgrounds to have fun. One might prefer the vibrant and Shinny Shanghai, with the Bund as a great place to be seen and eat. Over looking the Huangpu river, two art-déco buildings, the Nissin Building (No. 5), and the Union Building (No. 3) are housing today one of the finest culinary experience in Asia. Where can you find a staircase away from each others, gourmet experiences like Jean-George, Laris, or M on the Bund? Few yards away, Bar Rouge offers a splendid view from the Bund, of the world famous Oriental Pearl Tower and the new Pudong financial district, concurrent only to the VUE Bar atop the Hyatt on the Bund.

Financial District in Pudong

One might prefer instead the Wealthy Shanghai, with the enthusiastic new renovated Shikumen (traditional Shanghainese house) lanes in Xintiandi, now an aggregate of high-end restaurants, closing the shopping district with luxury shops only seen in Dubai (not for long anymore?) and other wealthy places in the world (Plaza 66).

Shanghai World Trade Center

One might prefer the Cozy Shanghai of the French Concession with its small housing and long alley of French Plane giving a refreshing human dimension in an ever growing city. The European-like district is turning into a trendy place to shop, eat, drink and party all night long. No need to plan where to go, follow the crowd and jump to the next party train.

View from the The Bund at Night

And in one year from now, one might prefer the Modern Shanghai with its World Expo heritage. The five square kilometers is of course the biggest Universal Exposition ever, and the expo expecting over 70 millions visitor in the 6 months period. The U$4.5bn. investment has already involved 20,000 migrant workers and transformed the south side of the city into an urban lab for the future [smell stinky seafood again!]. But whatever you do during your stay in Shanghai, you have to stumble into the World Expo, it's unfortunately everywhere.

Kathleen's' 5 at Night

Since Beijing had its Olympic, Shanghai had to have its World Expo. Few months apart from each other, the world is discovering China, again, but this time a very much different version of it, with a growing life and hope to a prosperous future. The contrast of the two cities is stunning yet fascinating. If Beijing is contemplating the past, Shanghai is looking to the future. If Beijing was a circle then Shanghai would be an arrow. The two cities are the two sides of the same Yen: Beijing ruling and Shanghai growing.

60 Years Anniversary

China has had a very unique story over the past 60 years. The first 30 years (1949-1979) of the Red Revolution were a great leap backward, and the following 30 years (1979-2009) were a giant internal economical growth. I am sure that the next 30 years will be even more interesting for China.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Shanghai Addresses

  • New Harbour Service Apartments
    - 88 Yongshou Road, Huangpu - Tel: 021 6355 1889
    Service apartment building, just a stone's throw away from the Dashijie subway station (line 8), 10 minutes walk from People's Square, Xintiandi and the Bund. Average service and great location, clean and convenient. Internet access & breakfasts are add-on's.

  • Laris Restaurant
    - 6/F Three on the Bund, 3 Zhongshan Dong Yi Lu (by Guangdong Lu), Tel: 021 6321 9922
    If there was one to choose from... this would be the one. Along the Bund on the 6th floor of one of the most trendy buildings in Shanghai, Laris is a fantastic place mixing gold and marble with live classical music as ambiance. The lunch/brunch offers 4-course delicacies with great mix of taste and comfort. From all the amazing dishes that come your way, make some room for the dessert in which Laris excels.

  • M-On-The-Bund
    - 7/F No. 5 on the Bund, 20 Guangdong Lu, by Zhongshan Dong Yi Lu, Tel: 021 6350 9988
    Next building to Laris exists another sweet place for lunch. This time at an outside terrace where great 3 courses come and go, competing with the great view over the Bund. A definite place to go at least once in your Shanghai trip.

  • Jean-Georges Restaurant
    - 4/F Three on the Bund, 3 Zhongshan Dong Yi Lu (by Guangdong Lu), Tel: 021 6321 7733
    The sister restaurant from NYC is a trendy place to be seen while eating and enjoying yourself. Same building as Laris.

  • Xin Ji Shi Restaurant
    - No 9 Xintiandi North Block, Lane 181 Tai Cang Lu (near Madang Lu), Tel: 021 6439 2656
    The Grandmother's Pork is a must-have, slowly cooked, tender, Shanghai tasty in a raised clay pot with handles.

  • South Beauty 881
    - 881 Yan’An Road, by Shaanxi Road (opposite Shanghai Exhibition Centre)
    South Beauty is a large chain of restaurants, and South Beauty 881 is in an old house setting with renovated old-style architecture. Most of the dishes are very spicy cuisine from Sichuan. The cuisine at South Beauty 881 is slightly above average, as is the service, but in trendy settings.

  • Din Tai Fung
    - Shop 11A, Building 6, Xintiandi South Block, 2/F of a large mall
    Although part of a large Taiwanese chain, Din Tai Fung Shanghai makes Shanghai’s best xiao long bao, soupy pork nuggets, wonton soup, braised bamboo shoots and sweet-smokey fried fish. Don't forget to ask for the Shanghai's signature dish, the Hairy Crab when in season (late September - November).

  • Tsui Wah Restaurant
    - No. 291 Fumin Lu (near Donghu Lu), French Concession, Tel: 021 6170 1282
    The first restaurant of the Hong Kong Tsui Wah chain to land in Shanghai has decided to settle into the French Concession. Tsui Wah is known to specialize in "Cantonese café cuisine", including dishes like fried crispy egg noodles, thick toast with condensed milk and yeung chow fried rice. Average food with average price in a trendy neighborhood.

  • Element Fresh
    - 1/F Shanghai Center, 1376 Nanjing Xi Lu (near Xikang Lu), Tel: 021 6279 8682
    Large chain in a modern food category for time-sensitive business people. Open kitchen, healthy sandwiches and salads.

  • T8 Restaurant & Bar
    - No. 8 Xintiandi North Block, Lane 181 Tai Cang Lu (near Madang Lu), Tel: 021 6355 8999
    Contemporary dishes with Asian twists at Western prices, only if you have money to spare.

  • The Kitchen Salvatore Cuomo
    - 2967 Bin Jiang Da Dao (near Fenghe Lu) on the Pudong riverfront, Tel: 021 5054 1265
    Celebrity chef's Italian food by the river in Pudong, beneath the Pearl Tower.

  • Bali Laguna
    - 189 Huashan Lu, inside Jing'an Park (near Yanan Lu), Tel:
    021 6248 6970
    Indonesian food inside a neighborhood park
  • Paul
    - 6 Dongping Lu (near Hengshan Lu), French Concession, Tel: 021 5465 9131
    The French boulangerie, now a global chain, has seven Shanghai shops at the time of this web-print. A French croissant in the French Concession could only be a good morning start.

  • Mesa & Manifesto
    - 748 Julu Lu (near Fumin Lu), French Concession, Tel: 021 6289 9108
    Listed as one of Shanghai’s finest restaurants, native Australian executive chef Steve Baker proposes a Western Island in an Asian Ocean. Nice deck for when it's sunny.

  • Stellas' Cafe
    - N 17, 248 Lane, Taikang Lu, Luwan
    Artsy brunch in an Artsy location for late Sunday.

  • Room 28 (Roomtwentyeight)
    - URBN Hotel, 183 Jiao Zhou Lu (near Beijing Lu)
    Roomtwentyeight is a restaurant located in the lobby level of URBN hotel, serving international cuisine with an emphasis on "home-style" favorites.
  • Kathleen's 5
    - inside People's Square
    Wonderful setting in a colonial clock tower building overlooking People's Square and Nanjing Lu.

  • Barbarossa
    - inside People's Square
    Great middle eastern ambiance in a close and quiet place in Shanghai People's Square busy center. A nice place to rest before or after a new step in crazy Shanghai.

  • No 88 Bar
    - 701 Yongjia Lu, French Concession
    The place to go right now and better to go before midnight, otherwise you will stay outside... because it's packed especially during the weekend.

  • Bar Rouge
    - 7/F Bund 18, 18 Zhongshan Dong Yi Lu
    The place to see the skyscrapers of Pudong across the river at night, directly across the river from the Pearl Tower.

  • 3.Top
    - 47 Xinle Lu (near Xiangyang Lu), French Concession
    This small, low-lit rectangular bar is one of the well-kept secrets of the city for a cosy lunch

  • "Cloud 9", Grand Hyatt Shanghai
    - 86/F Jin Mao Tower, 88 Century Boulevard (a.k.a. Shi Ji Da Dao), Pudong
    Highest view over the city. Expensive watered down cocktail for an expensive view of Pudong and the city.

  • Vue Bar, Hyatt on the Bund Shanghai
    - 32-33/F Hyatt on the Bund, 199 Huangpu Lu
    Located on the 32nd and 33rd floors of the hotel’s West Tower, Vue Bar has the best view of the city (both Pudong skyscrapers and the Bund), with day beds, comfy tables and a jacuzzi on the terrace. If you don't have a bathing suit, you can always buy one from the menu.
  • Source
    - 158 Xin Le Lu, French Concession
    One of the hundreds of design shop in the French Concession to spend some time in on a rainy Saturday afternoon.

  • Shanghai Tang
    - 15 Xintiandi North Block
    A flashy, colorful Chinese clothing and accessories retail, with retro and modern cuts. The Shanghai from the 40's movies can be seen. Must spend some time to be inspired from it all, even if you can't afford it.
  • The Bund
  • Shanghai Urbanism Museum
  • Yu Yuan Garden
  • French Concession
  • Shanghai World Trade Center
  • Pearl Tower
  • Tai Kang Lu
  • Shikumen Alleys
  • Maglev Fast Train to/from Pudong Airport
  • Nanjing Shopping Street
  • Xintiandi Night Dinner/Drinks
  • People's Square
[[Web References]]
[[Web Hotel References]]
[[Recommended Hotels]]
  • The Metropole
    - No.180 Jiangxi Middle Road, Huangpu District

  • The Phoenix in Shanghai
    - 17 Yunnan (South) road, Shanghai

  • Mingtown Etour International Youth Hostel
    - No.55, Jiangyin Road, Huangpu District, 200003, Shanghai
[[Boutique Hotels]]
[[Heritage Hotels]]
[[Chinese Hotels]]

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Olympics Beijing

Size matter, especially when it's huge.

[View from the Forbidden City]

I had the privilege to see in my life very large architecture in many different places in the world, but only in Communist countries can you experience HUGE human-built constructions that make you experience being a lost dot in an ocean of human. And the first feeling of hugeness in China is felt as soon as you land at the international airport. A year after the Olympics I was like an athlete on a finale with the crowd out there to sheer my run. So many people around, so many avenues to take, so many controls to jump through that I don't even remember the number of hours I spent in the transitional warehouse.

[Guard standing in front of the entrance of Forbidden City ]

I had spent enough time with architects to know that there is no random effect in architecture and every design is well thought out to make you feel and therefore behave in a certain way. I have no doubt that the first emotion that I experienced at the Beijing Capital ("Freudian slip") International Airport was the one that Chinese officials wanted to give to everyone coming to the new promised Olympian land: "We are as good as you, but only bigger in size". Imagine arriving in an airport the size of a city. Terminal 3 is the second largest airport terminal in the world after Dubai International Airport, and it is growing. You can probably spend an entire day in it without finding your way out. Luckily I did.

[Group of Red Hatted Tourist]

But hugeness was not only at the landing, it was also during the whole city experience. One bus and one taxi after the arrival (count three hours), I finally dropped my backpack at the hotel, enthusiastic about exploring the endless possibilities of the newly promised territory, I decided that a giant dinner at Made in China and a well-deserved and long-lasting night sleep on a hard bed would be my two allies in my next-day endeavor.

[Summer Palace from Atop]

The next morning armed with a camera attached to one hand and a map in the other, I was determined to take care of the Imperial Palace site in a heart beat. Located in the middle of Beijing, the huge Forbidden City construction is a pilgrimage for all Chinese on a trip to the capital city. Tens of thousands of people a day are visiting the close to 1,000 buildings, covering 720,000 m2 (the equivalent of 200 soccer fields). Every man for himself is the only rule that prevails in China, and the free flow of humans, constantly refueling the surrounding landscape, is a great reminder of self imposing yourself to defend your ever-shrinking personal space.

[Old Man Laughing]

Constantly bumping into one person after another, a short head above the massive ocean of dark heads, the visit of the 1,000 meters long and 750 meters wide of the Imperial Palace only took me the entire morning, just in time to move to a more modern type of architecture, but nonetheless impressive one. Tiananmen Square is only on the other side of the 12-lanes highway, and you can cross it by using one of the two underground huge paths to resurface in a massive empty space, one of the largest public squares in the world, originally designed and built in 1651 but later enlarged in 1958.

[ Playing Card in the Hutong]

China celebrated the 60th anniversary of PRC on Oct 1st, 2009 (video), and wanted by this means to wash away the bloody memories that happened two decades ago during a student protest at the square. Like during the Olympics, size or money was never a concern to display how strong and well-organized the red republic of China is. Four large, full screens at the bottom of the square, remaining from the anniversary parade, were constantly broadcasting eloquent and unequivocal images of the new Chinese dream: strong & modern.

Where is the limit between Public Relation and Propaganda?

[ The Future of China]

I certainly keep in mind the feeling of being lost and uneasy in all of the bigger-than-normal constructions. I felt oppressed during my walks in the square and at the palaces, rescuing myself only by taking pictures and trying to fit the landscape in a small view finder in order to try to comprehend the size. The lasting sentiments after few days of rest is uncomfortable at least and frightening at most, to have contemplated another scale, a factor hundred times in dimensions, a new mental level in my memory bank. Never in my life had I physically experienced the discomfort in front of a human-built construction than those days in Tiananmen Square. I discovered that something new existed between me as a human being and the universe: a social order, a societal organization, an aggregation of human processes that could be self existing without its members and had for sole purpose, to preserve itself against everything.

[ Dressing Up to Visit Beijing]

If strength, power and order were the tastes in my mouth when I was walking in the HUGE square, fragile, weak and chaos were the adjectives that I could qualify the back alleys in Beijing where people's live. This is a huge contrast that can only logically exist in the country of Yin and Yang.

[ Sitting Boy]

Hutongs are all the narrow streets, formed by lines of traditional courtyard residences joined together to form a neighborhood. Hutongs in Beijing are disappearing replaced by giant tower of condominium. Some districts have been recently protected in an attempt to preserve this aspect of Chinese cultural history but rebuilt into a brand new with shops and modern empty habitat.

[Chinese Summary :
Red Flag in one hand and Food on a stick in the other]

The intricate webs of side streets snaking among the delimited squarish blocks that divide equally the city of Beijing is the last place where people live (a difficult life), breathe (a polluted air) and survive (the challenges of the existence). As soon as the sun is setting behind the smoky horizon, streets change themselves into a highway of stories going in so many directions. So many images: a hairdresser giving out a cigarette butt to his client; a butcher sharing its front door with the Maj Jong communal space; a restaurant cook using the middle of the alley to prepare the vegetables of the night; and kids doing their homework on a broken chair sitting on the floor watched over by a raw of grandmas.

[ Grandma in a Wet Market at Night]

The mix of the Yang's government with the Ying's people, make a great combination to master the next big Chinese challenge: growth with social stability. The traditional Chinese life has long deserted the capital city of Beijing for sure, and the last Olympics were the beginning of the next chapter. China has come out to the world with its strength, power and order but also with fragile, weak and chaotic human side.

Don't get fooled, China is a HUGE giant standing proudly on fragile feet.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Great Wall

I was sleeping very well, lingering my snores in a blanket of cozy dreams when the phone rang at 6:30 in the morning. On the other side of the line Michael (our day-tour guide) wanted to make sure we were joining to the excursion that morning. It was weird since [1] we confirmed few hours prior with his company, and [2] the pickup time was only two hours later at the lobby, some 33 meters away from the bed I was lying down on at the time of the call.

[[Ming Tomb Sacred Way Entrance Door]]

Anyway, upon verifications confirmed with lengthy and convoluted early morning "hums", it was time to dive back to bed in the wait for the official wake up call to do its assigned job a whole extra hour later, which came only 20 minutes later. No doubt that the Great Wall was calling me to passion and unforgiveness and since you only have one opportunity to watch anything for the first time, I decided that was time to stand up in front of my destiny, heading courageously to a new whole day of exploration, with a tiny detour to the shower and the breakfast table juts in case.

[[Mutianyu's Cable Car to the Great Wall]]

The minibus was waiting for us in the parking lot in front of the hotel when we reached out late (vengeance is a cold dish) the meeting point, and we climbed in the last seat available for our journey to the stony architectural construction. I should have realized right away that something was wrong, and my senses should have beeped all the way up to my neuron that I sometime use as a brain, but the too-early-morning fog that enveloped me did interfered with any signals.

[[Mutianyu's Great Wall Throw a Door]]

The entire back of the minibus was over occupied by a group of eight, late-twenty-early-thirty, more than average American boys and girls, even thought it was obvious they were part of the visible Desy minority. Reflecting on it now, it wasn't the laugh per se but its volume that ripped me out of my sleepy seat. It is hard to describe but it was closed to the intensity of a car accident involving multiple vehicles, two trains and an old airplane all at once. Must have been my polite (read passive instead) behavior that make me stayed put and retained myself from commenting openly about the painful experience that was proposed to me (and the rest of the bus) for an entire day.

[[Mutianyu's Great Wall View Up]]

Group dynamic is interesting at least, and most certainly puzzling, but I (over-positively) suspected that her early-morning excitement would quickly fade away with the mechanical waves of a Chinese bus trip, and therefore decided to refrained my irritation. It was the opposite, and during the two hours of drive that separate the group from our first stop, the bus learned that the newly-mum had some recurrent flatulence due to most certainly air transport, that the two brothers did not like taking a shower on a hang-over morning, that one of the soon to be bridesmaid did hurt her small toe while dancing at a prior weeding and skipped surgery and amputation only by chance, that all Chinese who attempt to speak American have a snoozy accent and that Häagen-Dazs was a German company that makes some sort of traditional dish mixed of strawberry and beef (certainly why it will never take off in the USA).

[[Mutianyu's Great Wall View Down]]

The first stop before the Great Wall was at the government owned Jade factory where each and every tourist bus of the planet Beijing has to stop on their way to see the Wall. For the first time in a long time I was relieved to be part of another hundred of thousand people, as long as distance was empirically created between the entire planet and them. Therefore I was happy to jump from one store to another, listening to eloquent explanation about Jade categorization and contemplating the surgerical stone carving of the size of a Ming guard statue.

[[ Mutianyu's Great Wall View Throw another Door ]]

It should not have come to a surprise to me when the Group arrive back not only late but also with their arms in the air, complaining about how "fuzzy" and "scamy" China was. While trying on one of the Jade bracelet, SHE, the mad-laughter let it drop and broke it. Refusing to pay the merely US$50 the discussion was on and for sometime, until a financial compromise was reached between the Jade seller, the mini-bus company and the group. Fortunately my internal laugh was too loud to be contained and my gourmand smile changed itself into an openly content satisfaction shared by the entire bus. After all there is some group behavioral justice in this world.

The rest of the trip became quieter with less offending comments and more blanks in conversation.

[[ Luge Down Video]]

The Great Wall is a fantastic one-day trip activity. Mutianyu or Jiankou are most recommended over Badaling (the closest one from Beijing and therefore more crowded), although I heard that Simatai or Jinshanling are the favorite of adventurers. On a clear and sunny day, this unique construction, sometime called the Longest Chinese Cemetery is an astonishing construction. Only few parts of the original wall are renovated today but that makes it even more fascinating to walk on. A must do in a one of a life-time experience.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Beijing Addresses

  • Days Inn Forbidden City
    - 1 Nanwanzi Bystreet Nanheyan Street, Dongcheng District - Tel (86) 10 6512 7788
    Mid-range hotel, part of the global chain, clean and really close to the Forbidden City and Wangfujing shopping street (10-min walk), with Western buffet breakfast. A good value for money in the Beijing center.


  • DaDong Roast Duck Beijing Restaurant
    - 22 Dongsishitiao, Dongcheng District (Original branch)
    - 3 Tuanjiehu Beikou, Chaoyong District
    - 5th floor Jinbaohui Shopping Center, 88 Jinbao Street, Dongcheng District
    If there was only one restaurant to visit in Beijing, this will be the one. The 40-minute plus waiting time in front the duck ovens, watching cooks cooking the famous DaDong Peking Duck is easily forgotten as soon as you open the menu. The must is of course the Peking Duck, which is eaten with over 11 small side dishes wrapped into a flat chapati-like bread, similar to dumpling skin. Then the rest of the night is your choice with a large choice of fantastic tastes: Fresh Fried Prawn, Tender Green Pea, Fried Scallop, Sauteed Duck, Cod Fish in Black Sauce cooked in Pumpkin ... A must-do in the city.

  • Made In China
    - Grand Hyatt Beijing, 1 East Chang An Avenue, Beijing
    One of three restaurants at The Grand Hyatt in Beijing is located on the main floor behind the lobby counter. In a long corridor with different rooms, Made in China offers privacy to talk and intimacy to watch cooks behind the glass wall. The Asian food is fantastic with a touch of creativity and surprising combination of tastes. A must-try in your wanderings in Beijing.

  • Quan Ju De Restaurant
    - 14, Qianmen West Street, Beijing
    Famous for its trademark Peking Roast Duck and its longstanding culinary heritage since its establishment in 1864 in Beijing, China, the restaurant is packed everyday of the week anytime of the day.

  • Wangfujing Night Food Market
    - Donghuamen Street, near top of Wangfujing Street
    If you want to eat snakes, crickets, scorpions, starfish, and other worms, that would be the place.

  • Forbidden City
  • Tiananmen Square
  • Summer Palace (start from North Entrance for best hill-top views)
  • Temple of Heaven
  • Great Wall (Mutianyu Site, 2-hrs drive from Beijing, for moderate hiking)
  • DaDong Restaurant
  • Hutong Visits [Lidai Diwang & Huguo Si, Liulichang & Da Zhalan, Yandai Xiejie)
  • JinDing Silver Ingot Bridge (between Houhai Lake and Qianhai Lake) next to the shopping street
  • ...

Monday, October 05, 2009

Seoul Searching

If the best travel places are the ones to be lost, then Seoul is one of the best place to travel to in Asia. Surely you will be lost, possibly all the time, most certainly for all the good reasons.

Gyeongbok Palace entrance

Imagine a place in which a palace from ten centuries ago is in the middle of the city, at the knee of a mountain and a token subway away for you to enjoy the magnificence of the scale at first sight. Now don't think it could be easy for us to grasp the crisp symbolic alliteration of the architecture or the grandiloquent design of the South Gate. We will miss them, plain and flat, but nevertheless the share size, the magnificent surroundings and the English speaking guide will articulate to us an easy introduction to Korean palaces history.

Changdeok Palace's Secret Garden

Keep imagining, that another succulent and hefty royal palace walls, a stone throw away from the previous ones, are also guarding the North part of the city. And after meandering some time across the Changdeok Palace you opportunistically plunge quietly into the Secret Garden where thousand years prior you foot steps, the King family mastered poetry, archery and painting at a shadow of centuries old pine trees, your breathing quiet down and your eyes open large. The landscape of the Secret Garden is so peaceful that we, tourists are staying out of the beautiful painting afraid to disturb the magical balance, leaving plenty of room for people-free photos.

Bukchon Hanok Village's traditional house

Now suppose for another minute that in between the two palaces lay down two mysteriously idle large blocks of traditional houses in which new art galleries and old restaurants competing for the same front doors to the happiness of urban trekker. Bukchon - Hanok Village has been recently restored to the memory of the city and displays some interesting wooden traditional grounded house on top of ballooned hills, and has nothing to be shy of when compare to the most tourist, next door, yet well preserved, streets in tha' block: Insadong, the Antique Shop Alley as refered to by all brochures. Only busy tourists or frighten explorers would miss the tea-drinking in an alcove, people-watching at a terrace and batteries recharging from street food vendor on the back alleys of the main Insadong road, although easily missable if you not watching with your stomack.

Shaman praying atop the mountain

Korea is apparently the most Confucian nation in Asia, but Buddhism, Christianity and Shamanism are the other religions practice. From the Dongnimmun subway stop, you can hike yourself to the wooded Ingwangsan hill, used and venerated by masters and apprentices Shamans. It's not rare to observe on the way up not only a beautiful view of the city, but also priests chanting to the natural elements lodged in well rounded mountain cracks. An estimated of 40,000 mudang (female shaman) still practicing the ancient offering rituals to attract the good spirits, in exchange of few won. No matters how hard you will look for them, they will hide from you, and will appeared at the corner of the rocks without notice.

Daepo's fishing market

Seoul with 23 millions of soul is the second most populated urban land in the world after Tokyo, compacting 50% of the Korean population at a subway away from Myendong for shopping. Now, that leaves 50% of the whole population in the country side, and on the beautiful shore of the quiet seas. If you have the chance to get lost outside the Seoul center, make your way to one the fishing villages along the coast for a fresh shashimi rest and a lure of soju to easy the chili paste, although easily missable if you not watching with your mouth open.

Mont Seorak view's to the shore

Make also sure to schedule a day trip from Seoul to Mont Seorak national park, designated as a Biosphere Preservation by UNESCO in 1982. Plenty fool of English speaking excursions gather few foreign lost soul to the distant land. The rocky chain is a delight for hikers and mountain lovers. Only in my childhood paintings I would have drawn mountains so perfectly picked, forest so green and rivers so blue. The Buddhist temple at the bottom of the road makes the place even more spiritual for the doubter of perfection on earth.

North Korean guard behind the window at the JSA

Korea was one before some egomaniac conspiracy from a recent history book decided that the 38 parallel was the line to divide a nation in a South and a North portion with a neutral zone in between. The (not so) De-Militarized Zone or DMZ (watch for the mines) was for me an impressive visit; not so much for the place itself (a bridge, a door, a statue, a rusty train, and a tunnel numbered three), but much more a destination to meet with history. Even today 20 years after a wall was stone down in Berlin by million of dreams I still remember the overwhelming feeling of hope that submerged Europe at the time. I wish to witness the same in my lifetime for the two Korea and I will be delighted to walked back to Joint Security Area and see the south blue camp facing the northern grey building from the other side this time.

Seoul Tower at night

Seoul has a tower planted on top of the most central hill of the city covered by a communication antenna at over 200 meters high, difficult to miss in reality. To hide its trace and lose the cheerful tourist, the Namsam Tower (known as it by grand-parents) or Seoul Tower (known as it by parents) was renamed to N Seoul Tower (known as it by kids) but recently officially baptized CJ Seoul Tower after the CJ Corporation (known as it by officials). With four names and one finger to point at my touristic chances to go to the tower on my first attempt are thankfully slim, giving me an opportunity to visit others part of the town not mentioned in any taxi driver GPS. Like a famous Pirate from the Caribbean said once "all roads lead to Rum, and therefore alcoholism", don't give up the night show and second elevator to contemplate the 360 degree lighting experience, the man washroom atop is a delighted reward.

Palm reader booth at night

My explanation for why Seoul is not easy to navigate into is only because Seoul is shy with strangers. That is certainly why you have thousand professional palm readers at each corner, for you to ask direction in your personal life, in your career, but also if you simply lost in the city. In few minutes and for some retribution, the science of hand lines' reading, numbers' combination, and letters' associations are offered to guide you and you beloved ones across the shade of the city.

Myendong neon signs

Don't even think that you could in your night rambles guide yourself with the neon signs which keep calling somebody's name in every part of the city, they won't help you. They are just here to confuse your senses, make you dizzy and force you to look away from them. The intensity of the neon-signs and the overwhelming feeling that derives from them are only strengthen by the absence of public lights, forcing you to put your head down and finally look at your personal space and nearer surrounding. There are not there to appeal to your visual sense but repeal from it instead and compel you to use all the others senses. And that especially why Seoul is a wonderful place to travel to. Seoul makes you use all your senses but your sight.

Street food

Seoul makes you dizzy, spin your head around, converse when you don't expect and stays shy when you need an answer. No need to be frustrated about it. Seoul creates space around you in a place of 23 millions people; what a generous gift to receive from a large megalopolis.

Seoul, Addresses

  • Vabien Suite I or II
    25-10 Uijuro 1-ga, Jung-gu, Seoul, Korea 100-141
    Phone 82.2.6399.0113~4

    This Serviced Apartment is more for long stay than short one, with a sort of kitchen on the side and large space. This is a bit outside the walkable downtown area. If you want to visit the place better to have a more central location. Nice as a backup.

  • Metro Hotel
    199-33,2-ga,Eulji-ro,Jung-gu,Seoul, 100-845,Korea

    E-mail: reservation@metrohotel.co.kr

    Very central (in Myeng-dong) and very spacious. The place to go to for convenience, even though it's on the pricy side.

  • www.agoda.com
    An English friendly user interface website, originally from UK, that compiles available hotels, an online booking engine and an very useful interactive map.

Where to start ??

First you have to try out all the street food all day long, spicy slice patatoes chip on a stick, rice spicy noodle, black sausages, spicy sausages, fried ... everything. But if you want to sit down and relax, here are some good ones:
  • Myeongdong Gyoja
    25-2, 2-ka Myoung-dong, Chung-gu, Seoul, South Korea; Phone: 02-776-5348, but there is another restaurant as well in Myeong-Dong district.

    When you enter you have an sign in English saying "Best Restaurant in Seoul", and the only thing I have to complain about is the fact that they have only four items on their menu. But don't be foolish and order the spicy cold noodle, the hot noodle soup and the dumpling all together, you wont be able to finish. Now if you want to have the cold summer noodle dish you better be there before 4PM (and in the summer time) otherwise you will have to come back the next day. If there were only one ... that would be it.

  • Sinsun Seolnongtang Restaurants
    Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea. Phone: (02) 538 5533

    This restaurant is famous for its seolleongtang (beef and vegie soup). But it also serves geranjjim, steamed egg with a spring onion and seafood garnish. One restaurant could be found in Myeong-Dong.

  • Bulgogi Brother
    [For Traditional Korean BBQ]
    2F, Taeheung B/D, 7-1 Myeong-dong 1ga, Jung-gu. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekends. 82-2-319-3351.

    This chain of 12 restaurant is a smoke free BBQ and have a very nice atmosphere. Usually setup for Business dine out but could be used as well for enjoyable casual lunch.

  • Hwa-ro-yeon
    [For Charcoal Korean BBQ]
    Address: Seoul-shi, Jung-gu, Myeong-dong 1-ga
    Phone: (02) 755-8592

    Great meat selections cooked at the table (smoke-inhaling tubes hang from the ceiling) and with lots of fresh vegetables and side dishes. Get out of "Euljiro 1-ga" subway station, exit #5, walk two blocks straight and turn right towards the main Euljiro entrance street (there is a Starbucks near the corner). Walk down this Euljiro entrance street for 2 blocks, which will split. Take the left lane for 10 meters and you'll see to your left a Chinese and Korean sign with lots of photos of meat dishes, and diners BBQ-ing through the big window.

  • Sam-chung-dong Su-je-bi
    [For Sujebi = Pulled dough soup made with potato, onion, squash, etc.]
    Hours: 11:30am-09:00pm - Phone: (02) 735-2965 - Address: Seoul-shi, Jong-ro-gu, Sam-chung-dong 102 (in Sam-chung-dong neighborhood, which is just east of Gyeongbok Palace, but a bit more north)

    Famous sujebi restaurant that most taxi drivers will know. It is on the main street of Sam-chung-dong neighborhood (appropriately called Sam-chung-dong Gil) with many restaurants, shops, art galleries and cafes.

  • Bong-chu Jjim-dak
    [For spicy chicken platter -- a.k.a. Andong Jjimdak -- and soju]
    Phone: (02) 3676-6981 - Address: Seoul-shi, Jong-ro-gu, Dong-soong-dong 1-96, 1 Floor (in Dae-hak-ro/Daehangno neighborhood, near Marronier Park, "Hyehwa" subway station).

    There are many locations for this chain restaurant specializing in a large platter of very spicy broiled chicken with vegetables. One dish is enough to fill 2 starving tourists. Get out of "Hyehwa" subway station, and walk south on Daehangno road for 1 block. Turn left into Marronier area's one of the main streets with restaurants, bars and cafes. Walk straight for 3 minutes until the street ends and you will see the restaurant on the right corner.


  • Old Tea Shop (Yet-chat-jip)
    [For traditional tea with birds]
    Phone: (02) 722-5019
    Address: Seoul-shi, Jong-ro-gu, 2-2 Kwan-hun-dong, 2 Floor

    Halfway down the main street in Insadong (called Insadong Gil), turn left into an alley (approximately the midpoint of the main street) with a small white sign with a bird. At the end of the alley, on the 2nd floor is a small tea shop for refreshments in traditional settings with little birds flying inside the shop.

  • Stone House Engraver
    Mixing Korean tradition with Modern design, interesting pieces

  • Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art
    If there were only one Museum to visit, that will be the one to go to. 3 Museums in one place with master architects for shelter-builder. The Traditional Museum (Mario Botta), next to the Modern Art (Jean Nouvel), and the Child Education & Cultural Center (Rem Koolhaas) propose an afternoon of wanders in art-wonderland.

  • Seoul Style
    Very interesting and resourceful website for foreigner who wish to visit Seoul

  • Daily Tour
    Hotel Pickup and Drop-off for discovery English tours. Highly recommended if you do not speak the languages and want to understand the stories behind. As a side not they propose a Drama Tour for those who wants to see the Winter Sonata shooting locations.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Seoul Recommendations

This recomendation compilation list is based on M., S. and P.'s extensive knowledge of Seoul in particular and South Korea in general.


The capital and largest city of South Korea, officially named Seoul Special City, but simply known as Seoul, is divided by the Han River in two unequal parts. The North side represents the more traditional side of the city and hosts the financial and government offices, the South is consider more modern and converges most of the new constructions and innovations.

  1. The historic area has several palaces to visit all day long: Kyungbok palace (경복궁), Changdeok (창덕궁) and Changgyung (창경궁) are the most known. The Changdeok palace is highly recommend with a special note to the “secret garden” hidden at the end of the tour. Once a day an English tour is proposed in the middle of the afternoon. The best way to reach the historic area would be to stop at the Kyungbok palace subway station.
  2. Insa-dong (인사동) has outgrown its own reputation to become a tourist wondering area to find the best souvenir and traditional goods to bring back home as gift for the family and friends. Next to the palaces, it could be reach from the same subway station as the previous recommendation.
  3. Samchung-dong (삼청동) is a newest area that turns its charm full on, with nice walks and cafes at every corner. The back alleys offer warmed beverages, overpriced restaurants, and tiny specialized shops. It would be better to go during week days since it is usually packed during the weekend. There's a famous (칼국수집) which is highly recommended. Also close to those palaces area, easily reach from the same subway stop mentioned before.
  4. Yonsei (연세대), Ehwa (이화대), Hong-ik University (홍익대) area are among the best to chill out and see the night life of Seoul. This is the place to eat cheaply, drink as much as you can, and dance till you drop (lot's of clubs and 노래방)
  5. Shin-chon (신촌동) is located between three of the most prestigious universities in Korea (Yonsei, Ewha Woman's, And Sogang), explaining why it is always filled with youngster at any time of the day or the night. Shin-chon is a place to also party late at night, eat as much as you can and compete if you dare with local expert in bar competitions.
  6. Myung-dong (명동) is the commercial center of the planet Seoul, and often compare to Ginza of Seoul. All the brands you can think of and the one that you don’t know about are in this district.
  7. Itaewon (이태원) is the place foreigners town in Seoul. To satisfy its small foreign population, the dong proposes a ton exotic restaurant, and overseas bars, for some fun and music have a pick at JJ bar and club at Hyatt Hotel.
  8. The Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, (747-18, Hannam-dong, Yongsan-gu, next to Itaewon) is composed of three buildings each designed by a different architect: Rem Koolhaas, Jean Nouvel and Mario Botta. Based on drastically different designs, the ensemble reinforces each building in its uniqueness. A must see for Art lovers and Architecture fans.
  9. Nam-san (남산) best experienced at night, offers some hiking, recreation and views of downtown Seoul's skyline.

  1. Garosu-Gil (가로수길) is a newly nice walking area. Similar to 삼청동 in North, but fancier, the place offers brunches, cafes and restaurants for the Southerners. Try School Food (스쿨푸드) restaurant for yummy 떡뽁이, 김밥, and restaurant Bucella (부첼라) for tasty sandwiches.
  2. Chungdam-dong (청담동) & Apgujeong-dong (압구정동) are the new hip profiles of the South with tons of restaurant, bars, fancy shops. A place highly recommended for brunch or cocktail is “CAFÉ 74” (Tel: 02 542 7412 Address: 83-20 Chungdam-dong, Kangnam-Gu - opposite the entrance to Rodeo Drive up the hill on the left oppposite the Gaucho Grill). You can also go Dosan park (도산공원) for cafes and short walk
  3. Gangnam-Station (강남역 부근) is a new place for youngsters to hang around among office space. The area surrounding the busiest subway station in the whole Seoul Metropolitan Subway system, with approximately 123,000 daily passengers using it on average, is an important commercial and entertainment district
Outside Seoul
  1. Walk along the Han River around Banpo Area (반포지역 한강시민공원) around sunset
  2. Guacheon (과천 현대미술관) and its Contemporary Art Museum, is an interesting walk outside of Seoul. Easy access by subway line 4 (대공원역). There is also a large amusement park and zoo if you like at the same subway station. It's pretty nice area and walk when weather is nice.
  3. Dongdaemoon (동대문) has a large night market at line 4 (동대문운동장역)
  4. DMZ proposes an intriguing day trip for any visitor going to South Korea. This unique place, sometime only accessible by foreigner for obvious security reason, is famous around the world and could only be accessible by tour (ask your hotel, they will probably refer to a large collection of flyer and other brochure).
  5. Bookhan Mountain (북한산) offers day trekking just a stone throw from Seoul. Small restaurants around the entrance offers yummy 김치전, 파전, 막걸리, for long and hardship walks. Can be access by subway.
  6. For some more short hiking, you may go to mountains near Seoul, such as Dobong-san, or Soyo-san, all of them can be reached by subway easily
  7. Seol-Ak and Kyungpodae (on the East Coast of South Korea) are the best hiking place to go to on a longer trip to South Korea, only if time
  8. Namsangol Hanok Village (남산골한옥마을) is a typical Korean village where traditional houses have been restored and local festivities are famously organized for tourist
  9. Jeonju Hanok Village is located in the city of Jeonju and overlaps Pungnam-dong and Gyo-dong. There are over 800 traditional Korean 'hanok' houses. While the rest of city has been industrialized, Hanok Maeul retains its historical charms and traditions
  10. Namisum is a beautiful island, created as a result of the construction of the Cheongpyoung Dam. Although, the island is a green island, with many kinds of trees, including chestnut and poplars, it is also a multipurpose resort equipped with botanical gardens, a zoo and amusement attractions.
  11. Odae-San National Park is located on the Taebaek Mountains, the longest mountain range in South Korea, and proposes a large variety of historical sites, and convenient facilities for you to make it a smart base for latter exploration.
  12. Jeju-do (제주도/濟州島) is probably the best place to enjoy beautiful mountains, seashores, food and two Natural World Heritage Site: the Jeju Volcanic Island and Lava Tubes. If there were only one place to visit outside Seoul, that would be the one.

Where to Eat

Friday, June 05, 2009

Go Home

When asked where I come from, I always have few seconds of hesitation, but today I have none.

With my two decades of travels, filling my two useable passports and vacating several residences along the ways, I take my time to answer the second most famous question: Where are you from? (The first one could be debated later on in another blog entry sometime else). Depending on who asks, I give a different answer. I propose my country of birth, my second nationality or sometime my place of residence.

This is much more based on my own experienced confusion rather than on an experiment to cultivate my exoticism. On one hand I don’t want to be insincere and give the interrogator a Paris Syndrome answer, and on the other hand I don’t want to give a lengthy overhead presentation about one of the simplest question. After all what would you think of a first time encounter to whom you ask his name, to which he answer “it depends”?

Blaming dialectic efficiency, my origin varied.

Occasionally I answer my inconvenient truth: “I am from planet Earth” rising at least eyebrows and at most a sarcastic smile on people faces. I do understand that it is not what people expect to hear when enquiring my origin, but this is what I truly believe deep down in my soul and heart. The more I travel, the less I am from and the more I am toward.

I am still shy to stand still facing judgments and therefore criticisms about my multiple origins and nourishments. So you can imagine my surprise when I watched Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s talk at the TED conference last Feb 2009. He mentioned that his three years project movie was named HOME. That is my answer ... and he did put it in one movie.

Today June 5th 2009 is the worldwide movie release. This copyleft three years adventure has been conceived to deliver an urgent message of mobilization out to every human being to change the way we live, avert the depletion of natural resources and the catastrophic evolution of the Earth's climate.

This mind blowing graphical movie by creating motion around his already talkative pictures, will certainly raise attention to the unique place where we all come from.

I am from planet earth, and today it’s my home town celebration.

Watch this movie, it's where I am toward.