Freejack

Editors' review

April 26, 2019

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Highlights: Sun Moon lake and the surrounding area, Taroko gorge, Alishan mountain range, the whole of the East coast is a delight with amazing mountain and coastal scenery as well as interesting aboriginal areas. Hospitable and friendly locals. Loads of superb food both Chinese & Western style. Some good, though quite expensive nightlife in Taipei. Some good beaches in the Southern part of the island, although not on a par with other parts of Asia such as Thailand or the Philippines.

Lowlights: To get the most out of a trip to Taiwan you really need your own transport. Lack of budget accommodation outside major areas. Limited spoken English can create issues. Not much of a scene outside of Taipei for those who like to party.

Add Many thanks to Alex Schofield for writing this summary and sharing his knowledge.

Japan with a little cash, care and a rail pass is truly one of the highlights of Asia and world travel and very easy to include on many round-the-world tickets or as aside trip (by ferry) from China or S. Korea. Capitalism meets Zen master. Japan is intriguing, confusing and always fascinating - few destinations in the world will have such a lasting impression on you.

Highlights: Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, Mt Fuji, Himeji castle, the public baths, iconic views of Mount Fuji, the learning experience of a visit to Hiroshima and Nagasaki plus lots of great places off the tourist trail. In general however the real highlight is just being there and day-to-day experiences.

Lowlights: Japan's history is full of earthquakes, fires (and arsons) and wars... few things remain from old times; most castles are reconstructed in ferro-concrete. Choose carefully the sights to visit in Kyoto as entry fees are around 500-900Y. Most of them are wonderful but some temples are not worth the entry fee and crowds plus temple 'over-load' soon take effect. Plus climbing Fuji.

Temple and guard in SeoulMisty forgotten archipelagos and volcanic islands linger off the coast while pine-clad national parks dot the mainland. Before Japanese occupation in 1910, three dynasties ruled, dating back to 57 BC. Korea, which is as nationally proud as you would expect from this long lineage and its position surrounded by three super-powers - not to mention being a country split in half-  was isolated from the west for thousands of years and retains a culture and customs that will continually surprise and entertain.

We all know sake and sushi, but little of soju, gimchi, or perhaps the world's most fun to eat dish: Galbi. Food is amazingly spicy and distinctive, eating seems to always involve plenty of people and alcohol and is for many visiting one of the main highlights.

Between China and Japan few travellers find room for Korea and even fewer any real time outside of Seoul (inc. a trip to the DMZ). It is worth not being one of them as Korea will almost certainly astonish.

Few destinations hold as much traveller kudos as North Korea. Pyongyang, despite reputably being the least visited capital on earth and North Korea's stance as the ultimate 'hermit state' firmly intact, it is however far from difficult to visit and tour. The catch is quite simply it is expensive to do so and you won't be allowed to leave the official government tour. What's more, apart from the kudos, the Mass Games (if you can see them) and the bizarreness of the place, it is actually quite dull.

Almost all travellers start their trip from Beijing where you can travel by train or air (most groups fly in and train out). It is also likely to be with a travel agent based in Beijing that will do all the lengthy and tricky permitting and visa issuance work behind the scenes. A surprising number of agencies offer tours (Koyro being the most popular), but all visit the same core sights and group tours are the cheapest (anything up to 40 people, depending on the cost). Being in a big group is however not too bad as you won't feel quite as shepherded and watched, plus have plenty of company in the evening when you are effectively locked in your hotel. Freedom is close to zero, you'll most likely spend every night in Pyongyang and all your accommodation, guide, transport (tour bus - although there is a metro system you get to ride on as part of your tour - the deepest in the world no less - all public transport is off-limits) and food will be pre-paid and provided for you.

You will get state-run TV in your hotel room and will see/hear all the state propaganda you might expect on the TV and in all forms of media you come across. The 'real' city and around is best gauged from the tour bus window or train window (if entering/leaving the country by train) - this is the North Korea you expect, not all of which can be beautified for foreign visitors and signs of distinct poverty are obvious.

There is a lot that can be written on North Korea, all is interesting simply since it is North Korea, but at the same time there is very little to say that is interesting if it was not the hermit state it is. In fact many of the myths that make it seem so fascinating are false.

Costs vary depending on the agency and the size or group and tour itinerary/length, so it is hard to be exact. However for a ball-park figure think between EU€1000-2000 with the cheaper figure being for a four day tour and the latter being seven, say with slightly more upmarket lodgings at a peak time in a smaller group. For other tours such as individual tours you could double those figures. Although there is a state run company based in Beijing that might take you for half that price if you can manage to deal with their bureaucracy .

For those that think the sort of money you need to spend to get to the North is better spent in the South it is still possible to get inside North Korea (although only a few meters!) from South Korea on a DMZ (De-Militarised Zone)/JSA tour. Although somewhat of a tourist circus and the most obvious attraction near to Seoul, the DMZ and learning about how it came into being is a worthwhile part of any trip.

There are essentially two ways you can see the DMZ. The first is travel to one of many observation points along the border and look over. There are also several tunnels would-be invading North Koreans mined that you can go down in. You find an observation point and tunnel just North of Seoul.

DMZ JSAThe second option which is not open to Koreans and some other nationalities is to actually go into the DMZ to where you see the actual border and could literary throw a stone into North Korea. This is called Panmunjeom or the Joint Security Area (JSA), which is inside the DMZ, and to visit here you will need to be on a tour with an official military escort as effectively you enter a war zone.

There are many companies offering JSA tours, all starting and finishing in Seoul. Many tours don't go to the JSA itself, so it is worth checking and those that do often include a trip to an observation point and tunnel. JSA tours are way cheaper than actually going to North Korea, but in a country of such reasonable transportation costs, could be considered a little pricey. You can check current prices and make reservations with these three popular operators: Panmunjeom Travel, Young Il Tours and USO (the recreational arm of the US army and probably the most popular outfit). Tours can get busy and don't go every day, so making a reservation makes sense if you have only a short time.

A JSA tour starts fairly early and drives via a coach to a US army base where you get a military style briefing, sign a disclaimer and then get taken to the actual border where you can look over at the North Korea personnel and buildings, fifty meters or so ahead. You can sometimes also enter the buildings that straddle the border where negotiations take place (i.e. one end of the room is in South Korea, the other end in North Korea). Then it is back on the bus, lunch (probably not included in the price), an observation post (which are popular with South Koreans and Chinese as they cannot enter the JSA itself). Next stop an underground tunnel (known as the third tunnel of Aggression - catchy name) which as impressive as it is often quite crowded and those with poor fitness will suffer. Then back. Some tours offer other add-on or extras like North Korean defectors as guides, but the flavour is generally the same and it is hard to visit South Korea without making such a trip.

Billy Hanley for supplying this summary and sharing his knowledge.

Add 'Highlights for me: horse trekking around Lake Hovsgol is a wonderful experience, though you have to be ready to rough it a bit. The scenery is fantastic and you meet great people. Guides can be hired from near the lake. I don't remember the details, but it certainly wasn't expensive to hire a guide and horses – in the order of US$10 per day for the horses and maybe another US$10 for the guide. The people along the way are wonderful and very hospitable. Staying in a yurt is a great experience.'
 
'In Ulan Bator the things I enjoyed most were visiting the markets, especially the larger outdoor ones on the edge of town. Native Mongolian music is great, especially the 'tonal' singing. Also, it has some funky nightclubs and a great German restaurant. I wasn't in Gobi but heard lots of good things about it.'
 
'While it may seem contradictory, I enjoyed the epic 24 hour journeys on bumpy dirt tracks to get to wherever the next destination was. The scenery was outstanding and the roadside cafes where the buses stop are always colourful and interesting. It is a really massive country with very little construction. Most people live in tents. Travelling by bus, you get a good impression of this.' - Billy Hanley

"Life is something that happens to you while you're making other plans"

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