A layover tour in Istanbul

I am currently on my fourth trip paid uniquely with American Express card points thanks to a partnership with Zuji. Basically, you could book trips to various locations around the world for 30,000 Amex points (+ taxes!). My previous trips were to Kaohsiung and to Korea. This time, it is a trip to Barcelona (of which you can already have some idea on my instagram feed). The interesting part (or not so interesting!) is that you are obliged to travel with the airline they select, in this case Turkish Airlines. It was my first time flying with this airline. The best part is probably the fact that Turkish Airlines offers you a free layover tour of Istanbul, provided you have at least six hours on your layover.

The TK flight

As usual with flights from Hong Kong to Europe, the TK flight departed at 23.15. The plane was quite packed, but although climbing onboard was a bit chaotic, the remainder of the flight and arrival was quite peaceful, with passengers being courteous enough to unload and give me my camera bag from two rows away.

Food on board was pretty good even in economy. The choices of food were limited to fish, as by the time they served our row, they ran out of chicken, but that was my first choice.

Dinner on TK
The dinner on the TK flight

Sorry if the picture above does not do justice to the meal, but I had a very cramped space to operate.

Sleeping on economy class for 10 hours is an ordeal instead. Last time I had to do an intercontinental flight was in business class, so quite a difference this time. I woke up sore, but still rested.

In the morning, breakfast was as good as the evening dinner.

Breakfast on Tk flight
Breakfast in the morning

Istanbul Airport and its lounges

For a first visit to Istanbul, the airport was infuriating as could be. It was easy enough for us to find the lounge. Thanks to our Priority Pass card, we managed to get into the Prime Lounge, after passing through security.

The lounge itself had showers of which we took advantage after the long night sleeping. However, you had to wait for the staff to have cleaned first the toilets then the showers… Anyway, the shower was a welcome relaxation.

The food at the lounge was mainly Turkish-oriented, so it was the occasion for me to experience some “Turkish delights”.

A delicious meal at the Prime Lounge
Yogurt soup, cheese and black bread

After our meal and our refreshment, we took off to find the tour, and that’s where the airport gets properly infuriating. There is no clear sign on how to get out of the airport. If you ask staff, they just don’t answer you and tell you to go to the information desk. Eventually, we got some succinct information on how to get out and managed to find our way out of the airport after clearing immigration.

The Turkish layover tour

 

Obviously, once outside, signs are again lacking, and there is a wealth of tour agencies around, so I suspect many tourists might get snared by the tour agents when searching for the TK tour. Actually, you must turn right and walk all the way to the TK tour counter. TK also offers free hotel in Istanbul if your layover is long enough to warrant it. Anyway, when we got to the counter, we originally were refused by the lady at the counter… Then nevertheless added to the 8.30 tour by the supervisor. The tour lasts from 8.30 (Turkish time, so that means 8.45) to 11 (surprisingly they are punctual with that part). As our flight to Barcelona departed at 12.35, that meant we could do the tour and not be stressed.

Turkish Airline layover tour
8.45 and we are en route for Istanbul!

Sultan Ahmet mosque

The layover tour focuses on the old city of Istanbul (by far the most interesting). It also helps that the major attractions such as the “Blue Mosque”, also called “Sultan Ahmet mosque” and Saint Sophia (“Hagia Sophia”) are both within a short walking distance of each other. On the way from the airport, there are several sunrise spots (and we saw some “angel lights”, but the bus’ windows were too dirty to make anything out of it.

The Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque as seen from outside.

The Blue mosque, inside is even more beautiful than from outside. A lovely marvel of architecture and art.

The Blue Mosque of Istanbul
The inside dome of the Blue Mosque of Istanbul
Mitchy before the blue mosque of Istanbul
Mitchy before the blue mosque of Istanbul

Mitch, herself, took a pic of me before the mosque:

 

Myself before the blue mosque of
myself before the Blue mosque of Istanbul

Saint Sophia

Immediately outside Sultan Ahmet mosque, you come across the famous Saint Sophia. Originally an Orthodox church, it got converted into a mosque by the Turks then finally now is nothing more than a museum. It is sad that the tour being concerned about time, Saint Sophia was not available to be visited. I managed nevertheless to capture a shot.

Saint Sophia
Saint Sophia in Istanbul

It was then time to go back to the airport, but not before our guide managed to drag us into the bazaar.

 

Flight to Barcelona

Although the subject of the tour was mainly to talk about our layover tour in Istanbul, I cannot skip the part of our flight to Barcelona. Mainly because Turkish airlines provided us with… a chef on board! We were flying on a Boeing B-737-800, with a new and pretty modern upholstery and entertainment system.

Interior decoration
Interior of B737-800

Later on, the service was ensured not only by the flight attendants, but also by the chef himself!

Chef on board
A chef in a plane.

Finally, while flying above Greece, I shot the lovely perspective of the plane’s wing… one interesting perspective on flying.

View on the wing
A lovely view on the wing of the B737-800

If you are flying Turkish Airlines and your layover is at least 6 hours, then you definitely want to grab the chance for this tour. You can find more about it here.

A drone flight and a barefoot hike around Ma On Shan park

Weeks go ahead, and I try to go regularly out for a barefoot hike. Lately, I acquired a Mavic Pro drone, and while still learning to function with it, I combined a drone flight and a barefoot hike around Ma On Shan park.

 

Barefoot hike around Kowloon Peak

My barefoot hiking started originally around Kowloon peak, so it is logical that I went back there as this is very near to my house. As previously mentioned, this is a pretty easy hike, as the terrain is completely flat with cemented roads all the way. It gets however treacherous in some parts but not because of unstable terrain. You have rather to deal with very fine gravel spread out on the road, and those can be pesky to walk upon. I tried to film my gait to show that it is pretty easy to hike barefoot on flat terrain.

Overall, nothing unusual, except much less abrasion on my feet, as I was not running this time around. There is a little mountain on the side of Kowloon peak, which is a moderate and pretty easy climb. Many people go up there and  fly rc planes or gliders. I stopped midway, as I wished to fly my Mavic Pro.


Drone views over Ma On Shan Park

The view by drone is absolutely gorgeous from above.

Drone shot Sai Kung
Drone shot with Sai Kung in the distance

On the left, you can see the mountain on which people climb to have a magnificent view over Sai Kung.

Turn more to your left and you can see the new town of Shatin in the distance.

Shatin
A view from Ma On Shan park on Shatin.

And of course, there is a video with the complete view of the area.

This is the first of my drone videos, and they will be featuring more regularly now, as I may explore new areas and their views. Of course, it would not have been complete without a “dronie”.

Dronie
A “dronie” as I am barefoot in Ma On Shan park

I was not really “minimalist”, as I carried some gear, but still I did complete the whole 7 kms barefoot in about 2 hrs (including the time flying the drone).

I am looking forward to carrying on with more drone flights and barefoot hikes. While in Lantau, sunset peak and Nong Ping are very interesting hikes, unfortunately, Lantau peak, for one, is way too close to the airport and it is illegal to fly a drone within 5 kms of the airport of Hong Kong. Nong Ping seems within a reasonable distance.

 

A stark warning for Suicide Cliff

Today, as I was passing on Fei Ngo Shan road, I found a new message affixed at the bottom of the stairs leading to Kowloon Peak. This is a stark warning for suicide cliff, a hike that has seen recently at least one death and several rescues every month.

Stark warning for suicide cliff
The Government warns hikers to turn back on the path to suicide cliff

A useless warning?

This warning has not dissuaded visitors in the least as can be seen on this picture. Furthermore, hikers deliberately disregard the warning. In other web sites, some hikers post pictures of very dangerous attitudes, such as hanging by the hands from a rock. As a lawyer, I guess this is a way to exclude the liability of the government should someone else fall to his death on this hike.

The fame of suicide cliff has attracted a motley crowd, often composed of foreigners and newcomers who desire to visit this place, without knowing the route at all. On busy days, you just follow the crowd. On less busy days, the potential for an accident is quickly come. You should thus document yourself on the route, and more particularly, to take it slow.

Hiking safely

Even though web sites and blogs such as this one do celebrate the beauty of the place, I must repeat the need for caution. I hiked to that place with a group for the first time. I covered that hike several times, in group and without group, before doing the hike barefoot. This hike can be dangerous if covered without the appropriate precautions or too fast. It is also important to recognize the terrain beforehand. You must also be aware that this hike cannot be covered in less than three hours and this is from the most well-trodden route.

Finally, it is better to climb to suicide cliff, and not to go down. The potential for slipping and falling is 100x bigger when going down a steep wall, rather than climbing it and going down the stairs. Shortcuts do not exist without dangers in mountain. Similarly, do always pack a light in your luggage if starting the hike in the afternoon. It is better to carry a little more and be safe.

 

Avoid Jat’s incline route

And again, a reminder that I often do on this blog: avoid Jat’s incline route at all costs. That route is dangerous, challenging and deadly. The beauty of suicide cliff can be seen in so many ways, that it is absolutely useless to endanger yourself beyond reason. Hike safely and hope that the stupidity of some does not oblige the authorities to close this marvelous place to the public.

Train to Busan

 

“Train to Busan” always evokes a famous Korean zombie movie, which also is a sort of satire, criticism of social inequalities in Korean society. But such was not my purpose in this post, which is mainly to recount my train travel from Seoul to Busan, and my first impressions of this Southern city.

There is high speed train and there is slow train

Of course, “train to Busan” was a movie featuring the high-speed “KTX” train, which uses Alstom machines. But there are also other, cheaper and more lengthy manners to get to Busan. I mean here the Mugungwha (super-slow omnibus) and the ITX-Saemaul (express train). Sometimes, the pleasure is in the journey and not just zipping from one place to another.



KTX is reputed for being tight and a bit a sort of “Concorde” of trains in second class. I prefered taking the ITX-Saemaul, partly because I was on vacation, partly because I wanted also to experience the pleasure of traveling by train. Sometimes, the pleasure is in the journey!

But taking the time does not necessarily mean renouncing to modernity, so I availed of the possibilty to reserve my tickets online via the Korail website. Prices as of January 2018 were, for a one-way ticket to Busan, of 42,600 KRW for the ITX Saemaul. As a comparison, the same ticket in second class on the KTX would cost 59,800 KRW. Savings is not really the main focus for taking this train thus, comfort and being relaxed was.

Train to busan
I could not resist to the temptation of taking a selfie before the “train to Busan”.

The train itself is pretty comfortable and well-arranged, with larger space for your legs than on a KTX. Stations are announced in Korean and in English, so you cannot miss your station, unless you are sleeping.

Inside the train to Busan
The inside of the ITX saemaul

The trip itself was uneventful if lengthy. But with a good book, time passes quickly!

The train did arrive in Busan

In “Train for Busan”, the KTX train never makes it to Busan, overcome as it is as much by dissensions between passengers as by the zombies. My ITX did arrive in Busan, where I had some slight issues finding the metro. Thankfully, a gentleman went out of his way to help me find the entrance of the metro, even trying to help me to buy a ticket (but I had my cash card from Seoul).

I checked in at my hotel, in a pretty animated area of Busan, near the metro Seomyeon. The hotel I chose was the “Home Hotel”. Pretty newly built, the hotel offers the comfort of modern hotels and the welcome of a family pension. Staff are always very kind, and breakfast, although not very varied, is pretty good. The room does not have much of a view, but when you are in Busan, the last thing you want to do is stay locked in your hotel.

Someyeon
Seomyeon is a very animated area with a huge number of restaurants. A nice place to stay for the vibe.

 

Busan’s bridge

I arrived too late in Busan to enjoy the sunset, so I set out to go and see the famous Busan bridge which extends across the Busan beach. That night, it was in the low negatives (0° to -3° C), which is not a big deal per se. However, where it became though was that on the Busan beach, there was a strong wind blowing in from the sea that got me all but frozen while shooting pics.

That night however, luck was with me, as I managed to capture the Busan bridge with the full moon in background.

 

Busan main bridge
Busan’s main bridge under the moon and by -3° C

Of course, at night and in that cold, people were basically deserting the beach for cafes and bars. Nevertheless, in the distance (and I didn’t make it until there, I am afraid), I managed to see some of the lights and animation of the festive beachfront.

Busan bridge
The bridge and the apartment complex before which it passes in the distance

Once I froze myself completely shooting these pictures, I rushed to the nearest Starbucks to grab a hot choco and try to warm myself. And, being ready to explore Busan the next day, I headed back to the hotel while the night was still young.

 

 

Japan: Shibuya crossing

Shibuya crossing
The crossing as the crowd launches for the famed crossing…

A major place to visit upon any visit to Japan is the Shibuya crossing. Popularized and made iconic by countless photographers and/or instagram posts, the Shibuya crossing is famous for the sheer amount of people crossing the streets at any time during the day.

Hachiko

Shibuya crossing is also near to the famous Hachiko statue. Hachiko is that akita dog that waited for its master every day at this station, even for ten years after his master died. Japanese were so touched by this faithfulness of a dog to his master, that they immortalized it under the form of a statue that now waits everyday outside the station.

I will confess not having shot that picture, as there were too many tourists queuing and competing to have their picture take besides the statue.

Shibuya train station

Shibuya train station is a very vibrant place, being a real hub and a reputed meeting place. Among the numerous animations, got the surprise of seeing some young Japanese girls offering “free hugs” in Tokyo! In this case, Rino and Makiko, the two girls on this picture.

 

Rino and Makiko offer free hugs.
Rino and Makiko offer free hugs to people outside Shibuya train station

Around the station, you can also see various other scenes of animation or a bit eccentric characters. When shooting street photography and individuals, you may want to take advantage of the subway station and its natural reflection of sunlight. It allows to get a perfectly lit subject, as on this picture.

 

Shibuya crossing
The subway windows offer a natural reflectors for shots of people at certain times of the year (winter).

The crossing

The crossing can be shot from different angles, but the most known is probably from the Starbucks coffee shop that overlooks the crossing. The drama of the popularity of this place is that every day, you will have dozens of tourists occupying the seats and taking countless hours to record or shoot the scene.

Bike on Shibuya crossing
A bike takes off as people start crossing Shibuya

Here is an idea of what the crossing looks like in video:

Side scenes: Mario Kart

Being in Shibuya, it means also that it is one of the places visited by the Mario Kart drivers (an encounter by chance, actually). There is a Mario Kart attraction, whereby you can drive karts in the streets of Tokyo (only if you have a valid international driving permit).

Mario Kart in Shibuya
The Mario Kart participants at a red light in Shibuya

The interesting part of shooting these carts is to try and get a panned shot. This allows to suggest speed and gives a pretty dynamic picture. In this case, the driver was wearing a striped costume which aligned with the stripes of the zebra crossing.

Mario Kart at Shibuya Crossing
A mario kart rider roars off at Shibuya crossing

When walking a bit further on one of the alleys going away from Shibuya, I managed to capture an Autumn scene. While not as iconic as Shibuya crossing this shot still translates the bustle of the capital and the winter feeling.

Tokyo crossing
A crossing, not far from Shibuya illuminated by the warm winter light.

The key in travel photography is not to limit yourself to icons. Looking further away, you may find hidden gems even if unnoticeable at first sight.

Seoul: a walk through Bukchon Hanok and Gyeongbok

When in Seoul, an obligatory part of your visit as a first-timer, should be the traditional village of Bukchon Hanok and Gyeongbok, the old Korean Royal Palace. With the majestic background of the Bukhansan mountain, this palace is in a magnificent position. The Blue House, the presidential palace is also located in the same area, in what is considered as “auspicious” grounds. The position of the palaces is also favorable in Feng Shui terms (back to the mountain). Bukchon Hanok, by contrast is an area of Seoul which retained its traditional architecture houses and hence offers a glimpse into traditional Korea.

Bukchon Hanok, a place for selfies

With its traditional buildings still inhabited by locals and by local businesses, Bukchon Hanok is a perfect location for selfies. Inhabitants are kind, welcoming and gentle and take a great care of their environment.

Bukchon Hanok and flowers
A side street of Bukchon Hanok with lovely flowers

In fact, the area itself is absolutely lovely and can be the object of nice pictures across the board.

Bike in Bukchon Hanok
A bike rests against a wall in Bukchon Hanok

Riding the wave, a number of businesses rent out the Hanbok, the traditional Korean dress for tourists.

Obviously, it is only Asian tourists who give into this mania, Westerners would be far less credible… But still, some pretty Japanese girls love to dress up, a bit like foreigners do in Japan with kimonos.

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With its quiet areas and lovely settings, Bukchon Hanok is an ideal place for intemporal pictures. Some details betray the girls trying to play the game, though, like the shoes… Or posing next to a very modern plastic radish!

The Blue House

On one end, Gyeongbok heads towards a gigantic avenue of Seoul, Saejong-daero where is located the US embassy. On the other end, it faces the Korean presidential palace, the famous “Blue House”. With its back to the Bukhasan mountain, the setting is quite majestic and throws back to the former royal palace built on the same area.

Blue House in Seoul
The Korean “Blue House”, the presidential palace of the South Korean president.

Of course, security is tight in that area, as back in 1968, North Korean agents had attempted to kill the Korean President by infiltrating commandos at the Blue House. However, the touristic nature of the area and the sheer beauty of the surroundings is absolutely not comparable to the tension that can be felt in France, for example.

A rebuilt palace

Gyeongbok was built originally in 1395, under the Joseon dynasty. Abandoned a first time in the 1500s, after a fire, it was rebuilt in the XIXth century. On that occasion, it drew its inspiration from the traditional Korean architecture used in the original palace.

In the beginning of the XXth century, when the Japanese invaded Korea, they undertook the destruction of Gyeongbok, as it was a symbol of the independence of Korea.

As a consequence, the current Gyeongbok is a reconstruction of the original palace from its ruins. Despite this sad fact, the reconstruction did a good job of showcasing the traditional Korean architecture that you can already glimpse in the Bukchon Hanok area.

Hyojagak building
A building called “Hyojagak” and its gate, erected to protect a special stone for a son of a Korean King

The gardens are very peaceful, despite the huge number of tourists.

To the right, you can see the main 5-level pagoda before which many tourists have their picture taken.

Main pagoda
The main pagoda of Gyeongbok

A very complex and photogenic palace

As you delve into the various alleys of the palace, you realize that the sprawling complex was almost a small city in its own. A whole area is devoted to the royal harem (and the paradox is that many female tourists love to have their picture taken there).

Picture in the concubine area
A young Asian tourist in Hanbok has her picture taken in the concubine area.

The most interesting was to see the food storage area. Apparently, the builders of the palace used a natural slope to  move food from the jars in the storage area to the palace itself. This complexity and the intricacy of the development give you a small hint of how developed the Koreans were in their golden age.

Central throne hall
The central throne hall of Gyeongbok

A fusion of history and modernity

The view around Gyeongbok is mostly free, especially towards the mountain. When you turn towards Saejong-daero, however, the nature of the view changes. It is a moment where you realize that Korea is also a place where history and modernity are intimately linked. The modern buildings towering above the gates of Gyeongbok announce a return to the bustle of Seoul before you even set your foot outside.

Gyeongbok history and modernity
Gyeongbok gate seen on the side facing Saejong-daero

Another interesting shot on that side are the guards standing watch at the gate. However, the difficult part is managing to snap a shot without tourists standing by their side.

Guard Gyeongbok
The guards of Gyeongbok are a must shoot with their traditional costume, if you manage to catch a moment without tourist by their side.

When returning to modernity, I came across a memorial for the victims of the Saewol disaster, but I will talk about it in another post.

How to get there

When visiting the area Bukchon Hanok and Gyeongbok are easily combined. Most people start their tour through Gyeongbok as it is on the main Saejong-Daero avenue. My choice was rather to start walking through Bukchon Hanok, then moving to Gyeongbok. It is a lovely transition, especially if you go there in the morning. Indeed, I was fortunate enough to capture girls in Hanbok and relatively empty streets. It is difficult to give instructions on how to get there, but there is no train station or bus stop within Bukchon Hanok, so it will always involve a short walk to get there.

 

Happy New Year: ending 2017 with a barefoot hike on Dragon’s Back!

Ending the year with a barefoot hike on Dragon’s Back

Originally, before starting on my barefoot hike on suicide cliff, I had planned on starting barefoot hiking by a first barefoot hike on Dragon’s Back. The reason being that the Dragon’s back is fairly easy and straightforward and has none of the habitual dangers associated with hiking in a mountain. Things turned differently, and I started the harder exercise before the easiest. The Dragon’s back is one of the most populated hikes in Hong Kong. So, to celebrate the year end, I decided to go on the Dragon’s Back in the evening to enjoy the last sunset of the year and the absence of people.  I even spotted a guy with Vibrams walking on this trail!

An ideal terrain for learning barefoot hiking

While not cemented, the Dragon’s Back is one of the easiest trail available in Hong Kong. In fact, most of the terrain is sandy with a few rocky passages. Given the absence of gravel, it provides a lovely terrain for learning to hike barefoot if you are not yet familiar with the exercise.

Initial path of the Dragon's back trail
The initial two to three kilometers of the Dragon’s back are stony but very walkable.

Although the terrain is stony and filled with roots, as long as you are paying attention to where you place your feet, this is walkable at a brisk hiking speed and is even a pleasurable terrain to walk upon. In terms of feeling, this does not compare even remotely with the painfulness of some parts of the Shoushan national park hike.

There is however one delicate passage, which is a rocky embankment which might be complicated with shoes and more without because of its jaded nature. However, I managed to cross it without problems.

Jaded rock embankment
A jaded rock embankment a bit difficult to cross

The Dragon’s back ridge

Before getting to the Dragon’s back ridge, there is a rocky climb, which is pretty slippery with shoes and very easy  to climb barefooted. It is where you start recognizing the sandy nature of the trail.

Rocky climb to Dragon's Back ridge
Rocky climb to the Dragon’s Back ridge

I managed to climb the ridge with no issues and even took a video for you to see how easy it is.

Climb on Dragon’s Back ridge

The view at the top

The view from the top of the Dragon’s Back ridge is truly marvelous. Even more so, when you fly a drone.

Drone view of the Dragon's back ridge
Drone view of the Dragon’s back ridge

Of course, I did fly my drone around to take some shots of the environment. This gives you an idea of the marvelous views on this very easy hike (even five-year old kids can complete it).

Drone's view from Dragon's back
Drone’s view from Dragon’s Back

Finally, I took a “dronie”, that is a drone selfie.

Dronie on Dragon's Back trail
A “dronie” shot on the Dragon’s back trail…

At that point, I was still very much near the head of the ridge’s trail, and it was getting dark very quickly.

Fortunately, as you always should, I had taken my headlamp with me, allowing me to see the trail at night. In fact, the Dragon’s back trail, while totally easy, can become dangerous. If you don’t see where you are setting your feet, especially when you are hiking barefoot, you might slip and hurt yourself. So if you are hiking in the late afternoon, always pack a torch or a headlamp.

The end of the trail

The Dragon’s Back trail typically ends at its highest point, marked by a placard. It is where I chose to take my last picture of the trail: illuminating my feet with the green light of the lamp while using the background light of the Big Waves beach. Sorry for the poor quality, but it was pitch dark by then.

Barefoot hike on Dragon's Back
Last picture of the Barefoot hike on Dragon’s Back

I also used my camera on long exposure, but without tripod (hence had to leave the diaphragm wide open). The result is still lovely, as it captures the blue hour perfectly from the top of the Dragon’s Back trail.

Dragon's Back at night
A view from the Dragon’s Back at night.

After that, the remainder of the trail was pretty straightforward. I just had to get back down to To Kwa Wan, which is the end of the trail near Shek O village. Nevertheless, of course, a headlamp was a requirement as the moon did not shine over the trail.

How to get there?

Getting there is pretty easy. You take the MTR to the station Shau Kei Wan (or Chai Wan, but it involves climbing through the Sai Wan cemetery). At Shau Kei Wan, you take the bus number 9 direction Shek O beach. You must alight at Tai Tam gap correctional institution and there starts the hike. Upon arriving to the end of the trail you will be at the To Tei Wan bus stop. From there you can catch the number 9 direction either Shek O (to enjoy the beach) or direction Shau Kei Wan. On week-ends, in general, the bus is already full at Shek O, and gets even fuller at To Tei Wan, so a better option might be to take the number 9 to Shek O and grab a minibus to Shau Kei Wan.