Or so it seems.
I was in DPRK for a week and it is hard for me to believe that it’s been almost a week since my return. Was it an eye opener – definitely, and in some ways, I think I have also changed though calling the trip life changing would be a gross exaggeration. It is not easy to articulate coherently my thoughts and feelings but here’re some bits and pieces off the top of my head.
Everybody has their preconceptions about the hermit kingdom. For me, I thought everything I saw would be an elaborate show for my viewing pleasure. I don’t deny some of what I saw was probably staged though for the most part, I believe what I witnessed was real. It may not be true of living conditions in DPRK, but it was likely representative of the life of the privileged few in Pyongyang. Life in Pyongyang isn’t that different from life in any city. We rode on the metro, took the tram, shopped (without supervision) at a supermarket, played a game of bowling, watched the circus and orchestra, drank coffee (one of which ranks amongst the best I’ve ever had) at cafes that would not seem out of place in Singapore (the irony in that I knew I wasn’t in Singapore because they had Singapore Sling on the menu), and even went to a pub with draft beer.
Which brings me to my next point – I had rather low expectations of my meals from books about the famine in the 90s. Yet I also knew they would attempt to present their best to us because it’s all about keeping up with appearances. I was pleasantly surprised by the quantity and quality of food that we had throughout the trip – naengmyeon, duck bulgogi, traditional royal pangsanggi, craft beers, samgyetang…I was stuffed more often than not. It sure wasn’t a gourmet tour but I did eat way more than I should.
Many people called me brave when they heard about the trip. I disagree. Sure, I was nervous before setting off but I knew from Iran, that perception and reality can be vastly different. I also knew I could count on Koryo Tours – if they said it was safe to go, then I had little to fear. In DPRK, I never had cause to worry for my safety. Perhaps it was the lack of information, perhaps it was simply rhetoric. Regardless, I’ve been to places where I felt my safety was more at risk.
And the key takeaway – that we are more alike than different (yes Ed, you said it best). We have the same aspirations, people we love…our core values are fundamentally the same. Yet we are set apart because of politics and war. The world needs more peace and empathy in this world. I hope the happy moments I shared with my friends in DPRK will not be the last memories I have of them.
Thank you to all my friends for your well wishes which make me feel exceptional and loved. I’ve always thought that a birthday is a special affair and a day to remember how I’m wonderfully loved and beautifully made. It’s a day to give thanks for the life I’ve been blessed with – my imperfect but irreplaceable family, my friends who accommodate my flaws though they have no need to, God who loves me perfectly and unconditionally.
There is no perfect life but there have been many perfect moments in mine. Thank you all for accompanying me on this journey, and most importantly, thank you mom for suffering through the pain many years ago to bring me to life!
My Friday nights have been occupied by 我是歌手 4 in recent weeks. The main draw for me would be the appearance of my favourite singers like Lala Hsu and Jeff Chang, though their song selection usually befuddles me. It’s also a good opportunity to learn of lesser known singers who may be equally talented.
苏运莹 is one of those who caught my attention this season. She’s rather quirky or perhaps eccentric, and I’m on the fence about how I feel towards her. Here’s the song she sang on the show, but performed duet-style with Hebe. What do you think – aye or nay?
Chinese New Year (CNY) is undoubtedly one of my favourite holidays because it is a time where friends and family get together.
In Singapore, the Chinese would celebrate the occasion by
- Spring cleaning the house before CNY arrives – out with the old! It is considered bad luck to clean the house after the first day of CNY because it is believed that you would be sweeping all the luck out of your home.
- Having reunion dinner with their family – this would consist of a meal with all family members (immediate or extended) present. For me, it would mean a piping hot steamboat (or some call it hotpot) dinner with my parents and my brother, and we only have steamboat during CNY.
- Visiting family members and friends with mandarin oranges in tow. It’s customary to bring 2 oranges along to exchange with the people you meet while visiting, speaking words of blessings at the same time like 步步高升 (may you be promoted)，身体健康 (may you enjoy good health)，财源广进 (may you prosper!)……
- Gifting ang baos (red packets) to children and singletons – in Singapore, if you’re married, you would usually have to give out these red packets filled with money. This can get a little awkward when you’re single at 40, and receiving red packets from a married 20-something couple but it’s tradition! :D
- FEASTing on CNY goodies – there are so many kinds of delicious tidbits that are sold during CNY such as love letters, pineapple tarts, kueh bangkit…they may be sold all year round these days but CNY is the official period when you can feast on them non-stop.
- LOHEI! Said to be created by 4 chefs in Singapore back in the 60s, a variety of ingredients chosen for their auspicious meaning (commonly white radish, carrots, oranges, capsicum, pickles, pomelo, ginger, cinnamon, pepper, sesame, peanuts, plum sauce, oil, raw fish, crispy crackers…) are tossed while shouting out auspicious sayings for the year. It is believed, the higher you toss the salad, the better your luck will be for the coming year. It is uniquely found in Singapore, and some parts of Malaysia. Not only is it fun to assemble and toss, it’s delicious as well!
Although there are only 2 official days of vacation in Singapore, CNY celebrations typically stretch for 15 days – 15 fun-filled days of feasting, kinship and friendship. HUAT AH!
We spent 3 nights in El Calafate at Hotel La Cantera. The hotel had a cozy forest lodge vibe, and a lovely view of Lago Argentino, the largest freshwater lake in Argentina.
Over these short 3 days, we spent our time
- Exploring Perito Moreno glacier at Los Glaciares National Park, a UNESCO site. The glacier is the 3rd largest in the national park, and part of the Southern Patagonian ice field which is the 3rd largest in the world after Antarctica and Greenland. It was such a spectacular sight, breathtakingly blue and massive, stretching for miles to no end. The ice that forms the front of the glacier is supposedly hundreds of years old. What was even more awesome was that we got to see the glacier up close as we took a ferry, AND got to walk ON the glacier as part of an ice trekking tour.
We were given crampons, metal brackets with spikes, to tie to our shoes. Then we were off! It was a little scary in the beginning as I was afraid I would slip on the ice. It was also more physically tiring than I expected, perspiring under my jacket after 2 hours of exertion. We got a taste of glacier water at 2 degrees celsius (though it felt warmer), and at the end of the trek, whiskey with glacier. How cool is that? :D
- Learning about the flora and fauna of Patagonia on a safari tour in a Land Rover. We learnt that land was given out freely in the late 1800s to attract people to settle in Patagonia. This is why so many estancias can be found here. By their definition, a big farm has a size of 85000 hectares and a medium farm is about 35000 hectares in area. These farms used to rear sheep as a primary source of income, but it resulted in erosion of the landscape. At the same time, price of wool decreased. Now, most farms either rear cattle for beef, or go after the tourist pie.
It was an experience on the 4WD as it was muddy, and our vehicle would get stuck. Sometimes, we had to turn back because there was no way of getting across. Lunch was prepared by our driver guides at La Seccion, a house in the middle of what seemed like nowhere – nowhere that entails a panoramic view of mountains and guanacos roaming freely! Though it was windy and drizzling while hiking at the back of the house, the novelty of it all made for a very enjoyable experience.
- Celebrating New Year’s Eve at Estancia 25 de Mayo. We visited the farm for a sheep shearing demonstration. The sheep in Patagonia can only live up to 8 years of age as their teeth get worn out and are unable to feed. We had dinner at the restaurant of the estancia, a spread which included asado where meats are cooked on a grill. Dinner also included an Argentinean folk show of flamenco dancing and a somewhat random clown performance. With the estancia being settled away from the city and the lack of light pollution, we got to see a gorgeous night sky dotted with stars. We could also see some fireworks. Coupled with a bon fire and champagne, it made for an enchanting new year’s countdown.
- Strolling around Laguna Nimez, a bird watching sanctuary. It was unfortunate I know nothing about birds because we saw so many types, of which I only recognised the flamingoes. :D The park was very peaceful and made for a perfect morning stroll. I even had a companion in the form of a dog that followed us somewhere along the way to Laguna Nimez, and accompanied us throughout the 2 hour walk. I really miss it. :( .
Food in El Calafate was delicious, like all other meals we had in Argentina.
- La Lechuza – We had their grilled salmon risotto, pumpkin ricotta with seafood and vegetarian cannoli. All were equally delectable while the apple crumble with ice cream also scored a hit with us.
- Casimiro – Serving huge portions, everything was superb, More importantly, complimentary wifi at fast speeds were available. Such a rarity in Patagonia.
In Argentina, it is recommended that you exchange your money at the shops instead of the banks because the black market rate is way better. Officially, it was 1 USD to 8.5 Argentine pesos but in the shops, we could get 1 USD to 11.2 pesos. At El Calafate, Casimiro had the better rate out of the shops we visited. The best rate was at a travel agency (unfortunately, I don’t remember the name) which offered 12 pesos!
More related photos on Flickr and Instagram.
The Fullerton Hotel was gazetted last year as Singapore’s 71st national monument. As part of the Celebrate Monuments series organised by the Preservation of Sites and Monuments (PSM), there is now a 1 hour tour of the Fullerton building meant to introduce the architectural highlights and share people’s memories of this historic structure. Priced at $20, it comes with a fully redeemable voucher that can be used at any of the food and beverage outlets located within the Fullerton.
I went for the tour last week with A and Y. It was enjoyable and provided valuable insight into the history of this beautiful monument. We even got to visit the presidential suite of the hotel!
Did you know the Fullerton building
- Was named after Robert Fullerton, the first governor of the Straits Settlement.
- Possessed a 300 feet postal counter, the longest in Southeast Asia at that time. That is the distance from the Post Bar to the Jade Restaurant. It’s a pity there is no remnant of the counter.
- Used to be home to the General Post Office (GPO), what we now know as SingPost. Besides GPO, it was home to the Exchange, Ministry of Finance, IRAS, EDB and even an exclusive private club – the Singapore Club.
- Had an underground tunnel that connected the basement of the building to the pier and mail was moved around by conveyor. This was removed during the war.
- Boasts a rooftop bar called The Lighthouse which was the site of an actual lighthouse, and is free for the public to visit.
- Could have remained as a stock exchange if then minister for National Development Mr Lim Hng Kiang did not suggest that it should be converted into a hotel.
- Has a bulletproof facade at the balcony of the presidential suite. How much for a night? $6,880!
The tour ends February 7. If you can’t spare the time, watch this short video. I find the photographs of the GPO particularly fascinating.
After a glorious 7 days in Chile, it was time to commence on a new adventure in Argentina. Our first stop was El Chalten, 6 and a half hours away from Torres del Paine by coach, with a transfer in El Calafate. It was a picturesque ride from Calafate – scenes of rich blue skies, fluffy white clouds, lofty looking mountains…sit on the left side of the coach for a first class view.
We stayed at Destino Sur which reminded me of a ski lodge. They very kindly assigned us a double storey room with beds for 5, though there were only 3 of us. :D The staff of Destino Sur were generally very helpful with our numerous requests and made good recommendations on places to visit and things to do since we didn’t make prior plans for any tours in Chalten. Be warned that wireless speeds are almost non-existent though. The unfortunate thing was that we had foggy rainy weather for most of the time we were in Chalten, which meant that we didn’t have an opportunity to capture Fitz Roy in all its glory. :(
Nonetheless, we tried to make the best out of it and did a variety of activities.
- Excursion to Lago del Desierto to view glaciers up close. The weather was sunny while we were on the cruise thankfully!
- Trekking to Mirador Cascada Margarita to check out Cerro Torres. The area looked so untouched by humans, like a scene out of Land Before Time. It was perfect for some quiet time with God.
- Horseriding at El Relincho. It was drizzling on and off but put me on a horse and most things become tolerable. :) Even if my horse slipped while trotting and gave me a scare. ;) I had my first taste of mate during a rest stop – a type of tea drunk with friends and family usually.
- Visiting Estancia La Quinta, one of the pioneer ranches in Chalten. The ranch rears sheep and there were a few baby calves wandering around, looking impossibly adorable and I got to feed one of them which is such a thrill for a city girl. We also experienced a proper mate ceremony and the mate cake was one of the best cakes I have ever eaten, reminiscent of matcha.
Mate is a kind of tea, supposedly with anti-oxidant benefits, and a taste that reminds me of Japanese green tea. The mate is steeped in a gourd, which comes with a metal straw. The gourd and straw are then passed around, with everyone drinking from the SAME straw. This screams major hygiene problems to me but as a way of life in Argentina, it was an interesting insight into local culture. To Argentineans, mate is not simply tea drinking. It is also a time of bonding amongst friends and family, promoting social cohesion.
Food at Chalten left a deep impression because EVERYTHING was scrumptious.
- Estapa Resto & Bar – Recommended by Destino Sur, the beef was tender and flavourful, the trout fresh with nary a fishy smell and a surprisingly appetising bean stew with looks that belies its taste. We also had a soft spot for the cream cheese made of sweet beets.
- La Wafleria – Try the choriwafle, a waffle served with sausages, tomatoes and chirrichurri sauce.
- La Tapera – Yet another ace recommendation by the hotel, be warned that portions are HUGE. The pork was unbelievably luscious – juicy and moist, even I was won over when I’m not usually a fan of pork. The restaurant is also very warm and inviting so it’s perfect when you need a cozy hangout.
- Ahonikenk – Perfect for pub grub, we had a mouthwatering pizza with gooey melted cheese and palm hearts, and a lip smacking chicken schnitzel. The portions were big and these were good to share for 3!
If you like trekking and natural sights, I think El Chalten will make an ideal vacation. I will be back to catch a proper glimpse of Fitz Roy.
More related photos on Flickr and Instagram.