Trip report: Asian Variations

July 15th 2018, 01:13 | Written by Konstantin Koll

It's a quiet Sunday afternoon in July, and I'm in my favorite German (or Greek, for that matter) beer garden—the perfect time to finally write a report on my first trip to Asia back in February and March.

I have always wanted to go to HKG, even when I was a kid, but never found the opportunity. One of my friends I went to the U.S. with in 2008 also likes Asia, so we planned our Asian adventure together. We agreed to visit South Korea and Hong Kong, and when my buddy came over for a visit we booked our flights.

A mix of several airlines turned out to be the cheapest itinerary: DTM-MUC-ICN on Lufthansa and HKG-ZRH-DUS on Swiss. We booked a separate ticket for the direct ICN-HKG flight with Asiana Airlines. This itinerary has a couple of premiers: my first departure from DTM in a long time, my first ride with Asiana Airlines (on an A330) and my first flight on a Boeing 777 (with Swiss).

DTM-MUC-ICN

There are two daily flights from DTM to MUC: one in the early morning, and one in the evening. We had to take the morning flight to MUC, with some 5 hours to make our connection, as the evening flight would arrive too late. I met my friend at Dortmund's central railway station, then we took a shuttle bus to the airport which is located some 15km from the city center. DTM is a really tiny regional airport with little accommodation. We had to wait an hour for the checkin counter to open, dropped our bags and passed the security checkpoint. Eurowings, carrier on the DTM-MUC leg, has also issued boarding passes for the connecting flight to ICN, with our bags checked through.

It has been a while since I've connected in MUC. The airport has expanded to a new mid-field terminal, connected by an underground railway. We had some fantastic chicken curry (setting the theme for days to come), and explored the new satellite terminal. There were hardly any flights departing from there, so it was a great opportunity for a nap. We also discovered several gates that were already outfitted in the new Lufthansa corporate design which was revealed just two weeks prior.

Soon it was time to head back to the main terminal. We found our departing gate, stocked up on the free newspaper and magazines and queued for boarding. Today's ride to South Korea was an Airbus A340-600, and maybe this was my last flight on my favorite longhaul aircraft. Unfortunately, my friend and me could not sit next to each other. Lufthansa had assigned a window seat at the front of the economy cabin for me, and a seat at the rear to my buddy—this happens I suppose. I was happy to snatch a picture of the great sunset flying east, and after a delicious dinner I started to write my blog post on the new Lufthansa corporate design on my iPad Pro. I found the 12.9" model a bit too large for economy seats, though I need that size for photo editing; maybe I'll do a blog post on my travel setup next?

I woke up to breakfast somewhere near PEK. I eagerly followed our flight path on the inflight map over the Bohai Sea and the Yellow Sea into ICN. After arrival, I snatched a last photo of our trusty Airbus A340-600. Immigration was rather quick, and we followed the signs to the airport railway station. There are a lot of options for ground transportation from ICN. Rail services are offered by the Incheon Airport Maglev to Yongyu Station and express trains to various destinations including Seoul Station. We opted for an express train to Seoul Station, followed by a ride on the subway—we considered that the sweet spot of price, speed and simplicity to get to our hotel in Yeongdeungpo-gu.

Seoul

After having lunch at the hotel restaurant while waiting for our room, we had a quick shower and spent the rest of the day exploring. Seoul is a thriving metropolis, but getting around by subway is very easy—thanks to English translations everywhere. We went back to Seoul Station to see the Namdaemun Gate, part of the old city wall and designated Korea's National Treasure 1 in 1962.

The next morning was snowy and chill in Seoul. After breakfast in a coffee shop just outside our hotel, we took the cable car up Namsan Mountain. You have a marvelous view over Seoul from there, and you'll find another part of the old city wall that you can walk. The souvenir shop offers postcards and tacky items in all shapes and colors. Among them are cheap plastic love locks in neon colors, which seem to be a fad among young Korean couples judging from the thousands of locks all over. Though I always buy lots gifts on my travels, I left with just a single postcard and waited for a more tasteful opportunity. Later that day we visited the Unhyeongung Palace, had some traditional soup and dumplings for lunch in Insa-dong, and discovered an opportunity to purchase far more tasteful at an Osulloc tea shop across the street. They offer a wide variety of tea blends, all of which are great were very well received (my favorites are “Moon Walk”, “Cherry Blossom” and “Red Papaya”). On our way back home to the hotel we stopped by a large Buddhist temple.

The next day we explored the neighborhood of Gangnam-gu. Gangnam (literally “south of the river”) is very modern and the heart of K-Pop culture—famously mocked by Psy's “Gangnam Style” song. The architecture nerd in me was thrilled by all the high-rise office buildings layed out in a grid. Don't forget to pose for “Gangnam Style” at the subway station. You should bring some wide-angle lens for that.

We continued to the 1988 Olympic Park and the Lotte World Tower. Opened in 2017, it is the highest skyscraper in South Korea and the fifth-highest in Asia at the time of writing. It features a vast underground shopping mall where you can get lost, and an observatory with a spectecular view over Seoul. The ticket cost quite a lot, just like for The Shard in London, but was worth each and every Won! My buddy is afraid of heights, but we spent some two hours up there around nightfall regardless.

On our third day, we visited the Gwangjang Market after our usual coffee shop breakfast. Gwangjang Market is a traditional large indoor market with food stalls and stands offering cheap household items and souvenirs. Such markets are plenty in Seoul, and definately both an experience and a great photo opportunity. We walked along the Cheonggyecheon canal to Dongdaemun Park, where the other remaining city wall gate is (Dongdaemun means “Great Eastern gate”). You'll also find the City Wall Museum nearby, which offers free admittance and is well worth visiting.

After some great bibimbap for lunch (a traditional Korean rice bowl) in nearby Jongno-gu we made our way to Itaweon-go—a very different neighborhood, mostly frequented by expats and thus very American. My buddy was appalled by the international shopping brands and fastfood outlets, but we found a great Vietnamese restaurant that we picked for lunch the next day. It was very sunny outside, so we called it a day on the rooftop of a coffee house.

We saved one of Korea's greated cultural sites for our last day: the Gyeongbokgung Palace, or Northern Palace. It was the first of five great palaces built during the Joseon dynasty in 1395. Reconstruction began only in 1990, and is still going on to date. After touring the entire area, we went back to Itaewon for our delicious Vietnamese lunch, and concluded our visit to Seoul at a cat cafe in Myeong-dong (that is, a cafe where cats are roaming freely and are eager to be petted by the patrons).

I was a bit worried that four days in Seoul were too long compared to only three days in HKG, but South Korea's capital city is so diverse that the time was very well spent. I don't see myself returning there for vacation, though, but should the opportunity for a business trip arise I'll be the first one to hop on a plane!

ICN-HKG

All good things come to an end, but the best was yet to come: three days in Hong Kong! We got up very early on our last morning in Seoul and took a cab to ICN to catch our flight to HKG on Asiana Airlines. ICN-HKG is a very popular route, so Asiana runs Airbus A330 widebody service. Queues at ICN were quite large (probably because of the Winter Olympics which just ended), but they were handled efficiently. Our waiting time at checkin was about 10 minutes, with an additional 20 minutes at security. ICN is a very modern and spacious airport, and offers somewhat great spots for shooting photos of the ramp. It was easy to navigate the area, and we were at our gate with ample time before boarding.

Our flight departed on time, and after some short taxiing we took off from ICN. Soon after, inflight service began with a first round of drinks and a small bag of salty snacks. Today's inflight meal offered the highly praised Asiana bibimbap and a Western choice of chicken, vegetables and rice. My friend chose the bibimap, and I opted for the Western lunch. Both were delicious, and I'll add that it was the best airline meal I had in quite some time.

We arrived at HKG on time, and I enjoyed a great approach over the city—though nothing in comparison to the old checkerboard approach into Kai Tak airport (but more on that later). We had to queue for quite some time at immigration, and after collecting our bags we headed straight for ground transportation. We took a cab to our hotel, and I really enjoyed my first views of Hong Kong while driving along the coast and over various bridges from Lan Tau (where the new Chep Lap Kok airport was built on a landfill) to Hong Kong Island. Compared to our hotel in Seoul, our room was much smaller but sufficient. It was much warmer in Hong Kong than in Korea, so we had a shower, changed clothes, and went exploring.

Hong Kong

First on our list for Hong Kong was a special treat for anyone into photography: the Yik Cheong, or “Monster Building”. Real estate is a very scarce commodity in Hong Kong, so almost all buildings are high-rises. Many were built in a haste during the 1950s to accomodate an influx of Chinese refugees during the civil war. They begin to show their age today. A very iconic example is the Yik Cheong complex, with multiple building wings layed out around courtyards. The Yik Cheong is an Instagram famous, and can be seen in many blockbuster movies such as Ghost in the Shell. Although photography is officially prohibited, we took the subway to Quarry Bay and tried our luck. The courtyard was full of other people taking photos, even with very bulky equipment like huge tripods, so I worried in vain. We didn't want to outstay our welcome, though, so I took the photos I wanted and we left. I've heard that the building is closed off permanently now—we were just lucky with our timing I guess.

On the next day, we rode the famous tramway (double decker street cars) and Star Ferry from Hong Kong to Kowloon. The Star Ferries were once essential in connecting Hong Kong to Kowloon, but nowadays there are several subway tunnels. The ferries remain little more than a tourist attraction, at least on that particular route. Kowloon offers the best views of the Hong Kong skyline, both during the day and at nightfall with the “Symphony of Lights” show.

One thing you absolutely must do in Hong Kong is taking the Peak Tram up to Victoria Peak. The ride is as steep as a roller coaster, and the Peak offers the best views over Hong Kong and Kowloon. Be prepared for long queues, though, as the tram's capacity is very limited.

Kai Tak airport

We also went to the site of the old Kai Tak airport. The whole area is redeveloped now with new condos, though the old runway it still recognizable and partly a recreation park. We called it a day in Soho, where we had some great pizza (not kidding).

HKG-ZRH-DUS

Our time in Hong Kong just flew by. The last day turned out to be a logistic problem: the Swiss flight back home would leave around midnight, but we had to give up our hotel room by noon. I wanted to take some more photos around town, and my friend had to pick up his tailored suit in Kowloon by 5pm. As it was 25°C and very humid, out of courtesy to my fellow travellers I also wanted to take a shower and change clothes before boarding the longhaul flight back to Europe.

This is how we did it: the Marriott hotel was kind enough to store our luggage for the day. We both left the hotel in the morning, and I returned alone back in the afternoon. The courtesy shuttle bus took me and all our bags to Central in the evening, where I met my friend who just left his tailor. We took the airport train to HKG, where I had pre-booked the shower facilities in the Plaza arrival lounge. All other lounges with showers are located in the sterile area, so we wouldn't have access to our bags with fresh clothes. We arrived early, but were escorted to our bathrooms immediately. Boy did it feel luxurious to shower after a day in hot Hong Kong! Afterwards we had our last meal in Asia (some duck with rice and soy sauce for me) before checking in for our HKG-ZRH-DUS run.

Checkin was a breeze, and we quickly made it past security. The gate area at HKG is vast, as the airport is mostly catered by widebody aircraft. I bought a magazine and some snacks with my last currency. Unfortunately I could hardly take any good pictures of the ramp as it was already dark outside.

Boarding was on time, and I was about to experience my first ride on a Boeing 777! The aircraft was all new and in impeccable condition. We soon departed the gate and were on our way back home. It was dark during most of the flight, and there was little to see outside. I watched a movie and fell asleep rather quickly, waking up briefly somewhere over Siberia. Breakfast was served over Poland, about 90 minutes before our landing in cold and snowy ZRH. I always like the long and low approach over the mountains near the airport.

When booking the flights I made sure we'd have plenty of time for making our connection at ZRH. Our flight arrived at the satellite E terminal, and most people head to the main terminal right away. It's always a relief to stretch your legs, though, and pay a visit to the ceramics department after a longhaul flight..

Immigration to the EU was a breeze, and we quickly found our way to the gate of our next flight to DUS. The connecting flight left with a slight delay due to a late arrival, and I was just happy to settle in my seat and fall asleep for another hour. To conclude, Swiss did a great job again to get us home. Grüezi, and see you next time!

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