Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Magical Istanbul

The view of old town Istanbul from our balcony!

Istanbul, Turkey has always been some place I wanted to visit ever since my brother went there during his stent in the Peace Corps. After he raved about it, my interest has just grown the more I hear and see things about this city. With a population of roughly 15 million, it is the only city in the world that actually splits two continents; Europe and Asia!

We left for Istanbul at 12:30pm out of Seoul on August 25th. We then had two different stops in China, and after a kind of miserable 17 hour journey, we arrived to Istanbul at 2:00am. We found the cutest little Bed and Breakfast, Hotel Deniz Houses, located perfectly in Sultanahmet and within a short walking distance to all of Istanbul’s most famous sites and restaurants. It was a great ‘home base’ during our time in this majestic city.

Me outside the Blue Mosque
Andrew in the Mosque
August 26 Being 98% a Muslim nation, we were woken up earlier than expected at 5:00am, by the call to prayer from the mosques; something that is blasted over an intercom system all over the city. After going back to sleep, we woke again at about 8am and decided to get up and start our exploration. Our first stop was the famous Blue Mosque. Constructed between 1609 and 1616, this mosque is still is use today, but it is also one of Istanbul’s most visited sites by tourists.  It gets it’s name because the interior is made up of more than 20,000 handmade ceramic painted tiles that are predominately of different shades of blue. It is a gorgeous work of art. The tiles are stunning and what an amazing, historic place for worship! Being a mosque, when we entered, we had to remove our shoes and women had to cover their knees and heads with scarves., which is why I have one over my head. There were so many people in there trying to take photos that it got ridiculously hot! But it was gorgeous!

Some of the beautiful tile
Our next stop was the Topkapi Palace and Harem. The Topkapi Palace was built in 1478 and was the
 residence of the Sultans for 380 years. Can you even fathom?! It was built in 1478…so crazy to me! The line for tickets was a bit ridiculous, and we had to wait outside for about and hour and ten minutes before even getting in. The wait was worth it. I think I took about 150 pictures of tiles alone! Every quarter we went into the tiles were painted differently. The treasury was unbelievable! Of course pictures were not allowed, but the jewels they had on display were stunning! Emerald, rubies, sapphires, and diamond covered everything from crowns to drinking glasses. That is truly how the ‘other half’ lived.

We paid the extra money to see the Harem, which literally translates to “a place forbidden.” It was the area of the palace (300 rooms) where the Sultan and his family lived. Once again, more tile pictures! A camera cannot do the beauty justice. Andrew and I were truly in awe of the beauty in the detail.
Our last stop of the day was the Grand Bazaar. Consisting of more than 3,000 shops, it’s one of the largest and oldest covered shopping districts in the world. You can buy pretty much anything there. Items ranging from Turkish souvenirs, to clothing, spices, purses, handbags, shoes, and household goods. We weren’t really in the market for anything other than taking it all in! Much like the Silk Market we experienced in Beijing, but times about five!

Inside Hagia Sophia
 August 27: At 10am we ventured back out to Sultanahmet square to see the famous Hagia Sophia. Are you ready for this...wrap your mind around 537 AD. That was the year this magnificent church was built. 537 AD!!! From 537-1204, it was used as an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral. From 1204-1261, it was used as a Roman Catholic Cathedral. Again, from 1261-1453 it was used as an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral. And then from1453-1931 it was used as an Imperial Mosque. After 1931, it was turned into a museum. I’m sorry to say that I really can’t describe my experience in there. I have never seen anything like it, and I might not ever see anything like it again. The grandeur of this church/mosque is literally indescribable. Much like Egypt’s great pyramids, it’s mind blowing to try to figure out how it was constructed. The detail, the paintings, the pure enormity of this place was unreal. Andrew and I pretty much walked through the whole thing in silence. Truly one of the greatest archeological feats of all time.
At 2:00pm, we booked a half day tour. We were taken to the Rustem Pasha Mosque, and then aboarded a boat for an hour and a half cruise along the Bosphprus; the body of water that splits Istanbul between Europe and Asia. The boat ride was wonderful! Gave us a totally new perspective on Istanbul and the sites were beautiful! Andrew and I could not get over how beautiful and enormous some of the homes and private yachts were…..gorgeous! It was a cool feeling to be on a boat and the scenery on our right is Asia, and on our left was Europe!

After the boat ride, we spent about an hour waling around the Egyptian Spice Market. Similar, but on a smaller scale than the Grand Bazaar, we sampled some Turkish treats and just did some window shopping. The ride back to our B&B took longer than expected due to rush hour traffic, but I didn’t mind. I enjoyed seeing another, less touristy part of the
Cruising the Bosphorus
city. I can’t get over how clean and modern Istanbul is. The city is literally just built up around churches, castles, palaces, aqueducts
 and mosques that are thousands of years old!

August 28Our first stop of the day was the famous Basilica Cistern. An underground water system built from 527-565 AD. It is 9,800 square meters and has the capacity to hold 100,000 tons of water storage. You enter the Cistern through such a small little building on the site of a busy street. It’s so unassuming to think that just underneath a bustling modern city, there are 336 beautifully carved columns holding up the city streets!

After visiting the Cistern, we decided to do the super touristy double-decker, hop on-hop off, city tour bus! It was such a nice view of the city from the open air deck! We each had head phones so we could listen to the English audio tour guide which enabled us to get so much more out of it than just looking at the beautiful structures. We also got the chance to cross over the main bridge that transports the citizens from the Europe to Asia side! Being on two different continents in a matter of minutes was pretty cool.

We hopped off the bus in Taksim Square. This may sound familiar to you because it’s the area where
Connecting Europe to Asia!
all the Turkish riots were occurring just weeks ago. All has passed now, and it’s a lovely area with a beautiful park, loss of cafes and restaurants, and shopping. We ate lunch and just walked around enjoying the sites and sounds of a different area than where we were staying.

We had a wonderful three full days in Istanbul! The city is so rich with culture and history! It's incredibly clean and we felt very safe. The people were nice and always willing to strike up a conversation. Turkey is a place I would love to return to. There is so much to see here outside of the bustling city of Istanbul and I know we only scratched the surface! 
Inside the entry to Hagia Sophia

On the Bosphorus boat tour

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Farewell Korea

I write this reflection sitting at a hotel in Seoul the night before we officially leave Korea for our European adventure. The feeling is bittersweet.  Andrew and I feel that a piece of us will always be in Korea. Between the year we spent in Ulsan and the year in Pohang, we both did so much growing up. We learned about ourselves in ways that only traveling can teach you. The cultural situations we exposed ourselves to helped us to grow professionally, but more importantly, it helped us to grow as human beings and citizens of the world.

I had tears in my eyes as the taxi drove us away from our humble Pohang home, and we both couldn’t help but laugh when we thought about the first night we spent here back in August of 2012. We were literally dropped off to an apartment that had a single bed and nothing else. We had no food, water, toilet paper, bedding….nothing! We were so frustrated and then we were told, “School starts tomorrow, see you in the morning,” That first morning we woke up with kinked necks as we slept on sweatshirts as pillows; and to the sound of our first experience with a typhoon. Remember the whole shower cap thing? Ugh…that was our welcome to Pohang.

As the weeks went by, we grew to love this city and the people we were blessed to have met. We both made some really great friends from all different parts of the world making it that much harder to leave. It’s crazy to think that people from all walks of life are just PEOPLE! We all want the same things and strive for similar goals no matter our backgrounds.

We returned to Korea to live and work abroad again. The ultimate goal was not to come home with a larger savings account. It was to make the money we needed, to see more of the world. So we took those earnings and experienced amazing things in Korea, Hong Kong and the Philippines. We will continue to enjoy learning and immersing ourselves in this grand world as we spend the next seven-weeks traveling around Europe. Look for blog updates along the way. I will do my best to post a blog when we leave each great city. Our path is as follows: Istanbul, Turkey – Rome, Venice, Italy – Paris, France – Vienna, Salzburg, Austria – Augsburg, Munich, Germany – London, England, - Dundee, Edinburgh, Scotland – Dublin, Ireland.

“The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” –Proverbs 16:9

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Mehrmann's Meet Korea

*Disclaimer: Please excuse the sweaty nature of all of our pictures. 
Since the first time we moved to Korea, family members have been talking about visiting. But life gets in the way and unfortunately no one was able to visit us while we lived in Ulsan. Luckily we all got a second chance! Andrew’s mom, Becky, and step-dad Brian, made the trek across the pond and booked their tickets to Korea! Aside from forking over the funds and deciding what to pack for 11 days of hellacious heat, their jobs were done. Andrew and I took the liberty of working out all the logistics and creating an itinerary to maximize their visit.
On August 3rd, Andrew and I woke up and caught a bus from our apartment to the bus terminal. We then caught the 40 minute, 8:10am bus to the Gyeongju KTX station where we would take a two hour train to Seoul. Once we got to Seoul, we took the Subway to get to the hotel we were staying in. We wanted to drop off our bags before going to the airport to pick up the Mehrmann’s! We then  took another bus for about and hour and twenty minutes to Incheon airport where we anxiously awaited their arrival.
It seemed like we timed it out perfectly because we only had to stand at the arrival gate holding our embarrassingly large, neon-green “Welcome to Korea” sign for about twenty minutes. When they FINALLY walked off the plane we couldn’t have been more excited! All the talking and planning was over, it was time for Andrew and I to introduce Becky and Brian to two years of our lives and guide them around the beautiful country that is Korea!
Their exhaustion was replaced with excitement as we talked their ears off all the way to the hotel. We greeted them there with a ‘Korean Survival Pack’ filled with fun Korean gifts and snacks including but not limited to: socks, maps, cookies and of course dried octopus! We took them on their first Seoul subway ride to get some pizza before calling it an early night. We needed them well rested for their ten day adventure!
We spent August 3rd-6th hitting the main sites of Korea’s capital. Most of the things we took them to see Andrew and I have seen before and those experiences have already been blogged about from our perspective. So I would just like to include pictures that highlight their visit!
A list of the places and sites we visited included:
August 4th
  • Gyeongbokgung Palace
  • The Blue House (where the Korean President lives)
  • Changdeokgung Palace and Secret Garden (However, we missed the last English speaking tour by three minutes and they would not let us just join in…so frustrating!)
  • Korean Beef restaurant
  • Nanta Musical

August 5th
  • Outdoor Korean War Museum
  • Itaewon 
  • Shinsegae Department Store
  • Ate traditional Korean street food for dinner

August 6th
  • DMZ tour
  • Seoul Tower
  • Hongae area for dinner

Outside Gyeongbokgung Palace

Korean War Museum
Palace Gardens
Enjoying the Seoul Subway
Seoul Tower: Geological Center of Seoul
At the Demilitarized Zone

North Korea in the background
We left Seoul on August 7th to fly to Jeju Island. Jeju was a place that Andrew and I were very disappointed we didn’t get a chance to visit in our first go-around so we were pumped to get to share this new experience with his parents. Finding a place to stay was a bit tricky as August is the high season for tourists. We settled on the Easy Stay EJ Hotel which came highly recommended from a friend. This would be the first time Becky and Brian would experience a typical Korean style hotel. The location was good relative to the island’s downtown area and airport was it was a bit far from most of the sites.
A little chilly in the lava cave
With Jeju, it’s nearly impossible to get around without a car and since we don’t have an international drivers license we were unable to rent one. So we were at the mercy of taxi drivers. 
We arrived to Jeju about 10:30am after a short 60 minute flight and we left our bags at the hotel since we couldn’t check in until noon. Armed with a map of the island and a free guidebook from the airport, we headed to a coffee shop to map out our two-day game plan.
After checking in, we changed into our exploring clothes, waited on our “English-speaking-taxi-driver” and headed to our first stop which was the Manjanggul Cave. Jeju is much like Hawai’i in that it is the result of an erupted volcano. This cave is the world’s largest known lava cave created by volcanic activity. It was about a 1,000 meters long and SO COLD! The temperature change was welcomed and the first site we had seen on this entire trip where we weren’t just dripping with sweat! It was impressive when you think about how it was formed, but it was just really dark cave. We spent about thirty minutes down there before meeting our hired taxi driver to tell him our next destination.
Our driver spoke no English although advertised it. When I gave him the name of our next stop,
Green Tea Fields
Daheeyeon tea fields, he had no idea what I was talking about. Should have been a red flag. I pointed to it in the guide book, and on the map. He didn’t know. I asked him if he had a Korean map, because maybe he just didn’t recognize the word in English. He didn’t have one. He kept telling us that it would take an hour and twenty minutes to get there, but on the map it looked no more than twenty. I pointed to the map and in my limited Korean told him there was no way. He said my map was a “mistake, mistake.” I even wrote the word out in Korean hoping that it would spark something. Nothing. He then takes his map out. And guess what…. It’s on the same spot as my map!! I pointed to his map, where he said mine was a mistake, and in Korean, said “there, it’s the same!” Ugh….after 20 minutes of this back and forth, we were finally on our way.

Ok, in the guidebook, this tea field was described as “an organic tea park built inside a natural lava cave. They also had a tea museum and zip-lining “through the mountains with stunning views of mountains and sea.”
I take full blame for the tourist trap I led us to. No wonder the driver had never been there. WHAT A JOKE! We arrived and thought, this can’t be it. We paid our $5 each (which included a green-tea drink) and then walked around. The green tea field was, well, a small field of green-tea plants. The museum was entirely in Korean and consisted of about ten displays and the zip line was four platforms that formed a square barely high enough to maybe see some sea; but definitely didn’t go through any mountains.
Waiting on our tea in the cave
Well, we did pay for a drink so we went into their “Cave CafĂ©” which was literally a coffee shop in a cave and picked from a very small menu of all green tea concoctions.  You know when something is just so ridiculous you can’t help but just laugh. And the more inappropriate the location, the harder you have to laugh? Well, this was the case for all of us. We were laughing so hard, trying to drink our tea drinks while choking down some green-tea and broccoli cookies. Oh, the memories.
Jungmun Beach
That was it for our first day on the island. It might not seem like much, but it takes a long time to drive anywhere! We spent way too much time in the cabs. But that was ok with me, as they were air conditioned. I’m not sure I stressed how hot it was. Not just on Jeju, but our entire trip. I’m not sure we have ever sweated so much in our lives!
Day two on Jeju, we decided to check out the famous Jungmun Saekdal Beach and their famous
Jeongbang Waterfall.  We didn’t stay to relax at the beach, we just wanted to check out the views. I was entirely to hot to try to layout on the sand. Yikes! After we leaf the beach area we went to Jeongbang. This is the only waterfall in South Korea where the water falls straight into the sea. It was crowed with tourists but really beautiful. I mean, it’s not everyday you get to see waterfalls!

With the mascot of Jeju
We had worked up quite an appetite by now so we decided to walk the streets for something to eat. Literally, all there were were fish restaurants. Not being in the mood, we finally found a pork place. Long story short, we settled on entirely overpriced Jeju black pig barbeque that wasn’t even very good. So we left unsatisfied and heavy stomachs.
Our last stop of day two was Mt. Hallasan national park. Mt. Hallasan is that tallest mountain in all of Korea so I figured there would be stuff to see all around it since it’s a national park. Not the case. Our driver drove us to the hiker drop off point which was a 15-minute mountain windy mountain drive. For those of you who don’t know, I get incredibly motion sick, so I had my eyes closed the entire time.  Well, we weren’t about to hike the nine-hour round trip trail at 4:30pm, so we looked at the mountain, and left. Bummer.
On August 9th we left Jeju Island at 3:30pm for a 40 minute flight to Busan. Before the flight we decided to take it easy and head for some inside duty free shopping. Sadly, it wasn’t very big but we took advantage of the air-conditioning and looked at every store! The flight was quick and then it took about two hours to reach Pohang by bus. We checked the Mehrmann’s into the Galaxy Hotel which is only a seven minute walk from our apartment and right on the beach. We then went for a late dinner at one of our favorite Vietnamese-Korean fusion restaurants. 
August 10th was a breather day. We showed them our apartment for the first time, took them downtown for lunch, gave them their first Pohang city bus experience, toured the famous Jukdo fish market, got caught in the rain, took them to HomePlus to buy dinner for the night and then went back to our place. We decided that we had been eating out way to much and Andrew cooked us delicious fajitas.
Bulgulska Temple
August 11th we boarded the intercity bus heading to Gyeongju. The historic city which was the capital of the country during the Silla Dynasty. There is so much history packed into this little city. Our first stop was the famous and beautiful Bulgulska Temple. We spent a few hours just walking, sweating, and taking in the sites and sounds of a mountain temple. We then took a bus to the City Museum which Andrew and I had always wanted to visit. Unfortunately, we saw a scaled down version of the museum as it was under construction, but it was a good chance to see some ancient Korean artifacts. It’s hard to fathom things from 400 and 500AD! We made it back to Pohang just in time for a delicious green-tea marinated pork BBQ dinner. Yum, yum, yum! 
Delicious pork dinner
August 12th was of course another scorching hot day. We headed to Ulsan to show them our old stomping grounds. It wasn’t a very long trip but it was nice to show them our old apartment and both our schools. We did a little air-conditioned shopping in their new built downtown area and enjoyed yet another Korean city!
August 13th (my 27th birthday) we made it another Pohang day. We started the day with a sweaty walk along the beach. We then headed to our schools where we could take them inside and show them what our school lives were like so that was pretty cool.  After that we went downtown for a street food lunch the relaxed and got ready for my birthday dinner! I was excited that Belle and Juan-Hee were going to join us. It gave Becky and Brian the chance to meet some of our Korean friends and ask they questions about Korea. Belle even brought Becky a traditional Korean wind-chime…so sweet. We headed to Baskin Robins for some birthday ice cream before parting ways.
We woke up early on the 14th to meet them at their hotel. We wanted to ride with them to the bus station so they could catch their 8:20am bus to Incheon airport. A bus isn’t ideal, but it is the easiest way we could think of to get them to the airport hassle free. We said our goodbyes and waved as they pulled away. It was such a memorable trip filled with awe, fun, unforgettable experiences and so much laughter. The only thing I wish I could have changed was the weather. It was so hot!!! But I guess I’d take super hot days over really rainy.
We were so blessed to take them around and are so thankful they made the trip to see us. We wish we had the chance to take all of our friends and family around this beautiful country!