A great way to spend a weekend in Korea is to visit and explore the beautiful valley of Boseong County, located on the southwest coast of the peninsula. The region, established in 1957, is home to rolling hills that reach heights of 350m and green tea fields as far as the eye can see. The temperate climate of this region is ideal for green tea cultivation and, today, Boseong accounts 40 percent of Korea’s total green tea production and some of the southern area's most beautiful scenery. We started our journey from Daegu early in the morning, arriving at the tea fields five hours and two busses later. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon and the place was like an emerald green blanket cascading over the hillsides, and we immediately felt calm and at peace - not always an easy transition to make in such a densely populated and sometimes bustling country.
Years before I even thought about heading east to the biggest country in the world, my language tutor had me read a text in Russian. The text was about a large wooden church built on an island called Kizhi somewhere in the north of the country. According to the text, a builder constructed this church, looked at his finished result and threw his hammer into the lake saying that his days as a builder were over since he would never again build anything as beautiful. Although the text was quite difficult for my level at the time, I understood enough to be intrigued and interested in finding out more about the place. Kizhi wasn't on any world map, nor was it on any of the more detailed maps of Russia that I checked. It wasn't until I actually decided to go there that I found out exactly where it is.
Sonny, our driver, was halfway over the boat’s wooden side, pointing at shadows. "Look below you," he said. The five of us leaned expectantly towards his finger. The sea below was so clear I could count starfish on the bottom. “What do you see?” he asked, as his finger moved slowly along the vessel’s prow. What looked like two charcoal-colored atolls were actually the broad backs of a mother humpback whale and her calf, drifting towards us. The mother exhaled, close enough to shower us with her salty breath.
The Kingdom of Tonga sprawls across the Pacific migration route of these giant beasts and, between June and November, adult females stop here to mate and give birth. From the shores of any one of the country’s 170 islands, you can witness them spouting, flipping and playing with their young. But for the more curious - or crazy, according to some locals - Tonga is one of only two places in the world where travelers can also arrange to meet the whales in the water.
You’ll hear it time and time again from local expats: “I came for a year, and I’m going on three”. Or five, or ten. Like so many, I touched base on Ilha Formosa with the idea of staying for a short six months to teach English, save some hard-earned cash and quickly jump on the backpacker scene. That was some time ago; I’ve been here over three years with no clear plan of departure. With so much to see and do in this great country, it's most definitely a great place in which to live and travel.
Once friends and family back home realize that I'm in Taiwan and not Thailand - which is what they think they hear when I first tell them - they almost immediately offer up a dazed and confused look and want to know why. Sometimes it's hard to say, particularly because I hadn't planned on Taiwan. Back in the spring of 2007, I was just itching to leave home after graduating university. I couldn’t have been more excited to start the Asian chapter of my adventures abroad, so I did like any other broke, newly graduated 20-something: I hopped on the Korean Seoul Train, and disembarked in the southern city of Busan. After a year of Cass beers, way too many soju games and overdosing on kimchi, I realized I was far from finished my Asian adventure. I did what most ESLers did with their piggy banks full of Korean won: I blew it all backpacking through Southeast Asia. So why did I end up in Taiwan? Honestly, I heard that’s where the money was.
Fancy a lazy river? Try the party river. Laos’ party mecca Vang Vieng is the hub for travellers in Southeast Asia looking to unwind and have a good time. There is no shortage of good food, cheap accommodations and raging bars, but most travellers come for one reason: the tubing. Set amidst the rugged mountains of northern Laos in the breathtaking forests of Vientiane Province, you embark onto the Nam Song River by inner tube to leisurely float downstream at your own pace. Sounds relaxing, right? Well, now add about a dozen riverside bars and you’ve got a whole new experience like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Each bar is brimming with lively music, bikinis and drinks, oh, the drinks. Keeping in tradition with the low-cost nature of Southeast Asia, it’s no surprise that drinks flow cheaply here and are, sometimes, even free.
We left one of the biggest and most progressive cities in the world behind in exchange for small town life in a developing country, and the transition was not an easy one to make by any means. Once we got used to the endless stream of shouts from people around us, however - the never ending queries of our names and destinations, the declarations of love from strangers and the endless cries of "Hey Jo!" and "Americano!" (despite our being British) - things began to feel normal. In almost no time at all, this world of rice, sweat, chick foetus delicacies, palm trees and pedicabs soon became our much loved home.
Not a lot of westerners know much about the Philippines. Most people don't know that the country is home to more than 7,000 islands, and many people are never really sure even how to spell it (that's one L and three Ps, by the way). In fact, when we mentioned our plan to our friends back home, few knew where it was exactly, with one even thinking that we were off to Africa! As a result of its anonymity, the Philippines is not your typical South Asian mass tourist holiday destination. One of the greatest things about this incredible country is that once you scratch the surface, you are rewarded with a magical land where only the intrepid and brave spend the time and make the effort to explore.
A Peace Corps volunteer in Kazakhstan once told me, "Most people grow out of playing with Lego; Nazarbayev hasn't." This is an accurate portrayal of President Nazarbayev's attitude toward his shiny new capital in the heart of the country. Before the turn of the century, in the late 1990s, Nazarbayev decided to move the capital city of his country from the vibrant, bustling city of Almaty to the once sleepy little town of Akmola. This was quite a bold and ambitious move considering the old capital was situated in the foothills of the magnificent and picturesque Tien Shen Mountains, while the new one - renamed Astana - is located in the middle of the inhospitable Kazakh steppe, where the annual average temperature doesn't even reach double digits. The great migration from one capital to the other hasn't been as quick as Nazarbayev probably would have liked. But after all, who can blame people for not wanting to live out in the middle of nowhere? Even the president himself spends a great majority of his time in Almaty. Still, Astana is steadily growing, especially with the increasing infrastructure, including the shiny new Nazarbayev University, the sports arenas built to host the 2011 Asian winter games and better transport between the two capitals.
Made up of over 1000 islands in the heart of the Indian Ocean, an experience in the Maldives really depends on where you choose to stay. Without a lot of effort you are more or less resort-bound, so do your research before you leave home so then you can just relax and enjoy it when you get there. Arriving is nothing short of spectacular. Not much more than a runway juts out of the ocean, so you might find yourself reaching under your seat to check for your life jacket! The international flight is just the beginning, however. Once you land safely and step into the tropical warmth of the airport, you transfer to the domestic terminal to catch your water plan to your final destination.
Before the 1970s, not many people in the western world had heard of the ancient Chinese city of Xi'an. That all changed in 1974, when a local farmer and a few of his friends were digging a well and stumbled upon one of the most extraordinary finds of recent times: the now famed Terracotta Warriors. Today, Xi'an is a world-renowned city that attracts million of tourists annually, including both domestic Chinese and international visitors. And while it's true that people come for the warriors, they also find that there is so much more to this city. After all, the warriors were placed here because over 2,000 years ago the Emperor Qin Shihuang made Xi'an his capital of Qin Dynasty China. His reason for doing so? Apparently Xi'an has the perfect combination of Feng Shui, the right level of wind and water balanced with the surrounding hills and rivers.