Walking on history lane: Our trip to the Great Wall of China

When I was a kid, I’ve dreamed of standing on the “only man-made structure visible from space” (that was what the books said, anyway). Even though this claim has long been proven to have no truth to it, I was still glad to visit (and walk on) one of history’s most famous structures: the Great Wall.

Last winter found us in China, because it’s the cheapest flight deal we could find on the internet. Nobody else was crazy enough to escape Japanese winter by visiting below-freezing Beijing. This worked to our advantage in the end, because there were no crowds!

Surprisingly not crowded!

The Great Wall during our visit: Surprisingly not crowded!

M and I stayed in Beijing Downtown Backpackers Hostel, where we also booked the Great Wall tour. After extensive googling a few weeks prior, I decided they offered the best deal and least worry out of all the deals offered. Our original plan was to hike the 6-km unspoilt portions of the Great Wall, but we backed down the night before when the weather forecast reported below freezing temperatures (-6 degrees Celsius) and  a chance of rain. We were already reeling from the cold in Beijing and figured we wouldn’t fare better in the mountains, so we chose the “fun” option, which was to visit the Mutianyu portion of the wall. The tour package cost us 280 RMB including transportation, entrance fees, and lunch.

Some information on Mutianyu (in case you care to read about it)

Some information on Mutianyu (in case you care to read about it)

At 8:30 the next morning, we departed for Mutianyu. Our guide Lulu gave a brief explanation on the origin and history of the Great Wall during the trip. We arrived at Mutianyu after two hours, and Lulu told us to be back by 1 pm for lunch.

Our guide explaining the plan

Our guide explaining the plan for that day on the map by the entrance

Going up the ticket booth, there were shops on both sides of the path selling an assortment of souvenirs.IMG_9254 We did not buy anything because there were no price tags on the items and I don’t think I can out-haggle the Chinese merchants.

After Lulu handed out our tickets, we entered and immediately started climbing the concrete stairs.

It's a long way up!

It’s a long way up!

There was an option to go up by cableway and go down by toboggan (80 RMB for both), but we preferred to climb.

Cableway and toboggan

Cableway and toboggan

It took us about 15 minutes of stair-climbing before we reached the wall, and boy was it worth the whole trip!IMG_9303

Seeing the length of the wall on either side was overwhelming. I can only imagine the amount of effort, time, and people’s lives that were sacrificed in order to build just that one section of the Wall. Building 6,000 kilometers of that structure to protect historical China’s northern border is just beyond my imagination.IMG_9277

The view of the mountains on either side is also something else entirely. It must be super exciting to study the geology of the area (I saw semi-metamorphosed granite boulders on the way up).

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View of the mountains from the Wall

One thing I realized was that a great part of the Wall was made of stairs. When I imagined it from photos, I thought it was all road-like structures where chariots (or whatever transportation they used back then) could be used. Apparently, a large chunk of the wall is made up of steep stairs.

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The introductory signs said Mutianyu has one of the steepest portions of the Wall, so I guess that’s the reason for all the stairs. Some of the tourists were too afraid to go down the stairs without using their butts, which made for a lot of teasing among their friends. I also had to hold on to the railings going down, I didn’t trust my steps on those steep stairs.

Also interesting were the fortresses. It seemed like it would be fun to play tag or hide-and-seek in them with the small passageways, stairs, and windows.

Inside one of the fortresses

Inside one of the fortresses

I’d be too scared to run around though, it’s a long fall from the windows. The view from the fortress was also very nice, both looking up and staring down!

Bright blue sky (still cold, though)

Bright blue sky (still very cold, though)

View from the window

View from the window

One thing to watch out for though are the vendors. Some will just leave you alone, but others are strategically located to bar your passage.

Vendors in the Great Wall

Vendors in the Great Wall

We felt cheated when a merchant in soldier’s uniform wouldn’t let us pass and pressured us into buying his overpriced snacks. We bought a Snickers bar (it seemed to be the cheapest) so he would leave us alone. Classic tourist trap! He was smart wearing that soldier uniform, I give him that.

We tried to walk as much of the wall as we can, but we only covered one-third of the Mutianyu Great Wall, about 8 fortresses out of 22. We eventually felt cold and hungry after 12:30 pm, so we made our way down to the restaurant for the free lunch.

Burp!

Burp! (In my hunger I forgot to take photos before eating)

The food was tasty and they served generous helpings of rice, but the catch was that there were no free drinks (even house water, maybe the water source was limited or not safe?). Good thing we brought our own water as the prices were unsurprisingly inflated. After lunch (about 2pm), we left the Mutianyu Great Wall to go back to Beijing.

Bonus: Olympic Bird’s Nest Stadium

The tour included a bonus stop at the Olympic Stadium. There was no entry fee and we just had to submit to the security inspection to enter. If there were few people on the Great Wall, there were hardly anyone outside the Bird’s Nest. There were just one family who were on skiing chairs(?) enjoying the frozen lake and one other group of foreign tourists walking around the Bird’s Nest. The rest were vendors on their stalls.

Skiing on chairs? It's the first time I've seen anything like it.

Skiing on chairs? It’s the first time I’ve seen anything like it.

There was a frozen lake by the entrance, and we walked on it, jumped on it, and took photos atop it.

It was my first time to stand on a frozen lake!

It was my first time to stand on a frozen lake!

We were only able to see the exterior of it since we didn’t have much time, but it was really an architectural marvel from the outside. I can only wonder what it looks like on the inside (and if they were able to preserve its interior grandeur).

The Olympic Stadium

The Olympic Stadium

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The details of the exterior

After gawking at the steel exterior, we made our way to the nearby Water Cube with its blue “bubble” outer wall. I personally think the Water Cube is way cooler, it looks more alive to me somehow (maybe because of the color? or the “bubbles”?).

The Water Cube

The Water Cube

The Cube had a lot more people outside. There were locals walking around, selling souvenirs, painting, and flying (selling?) kites.IMG_9353 After evading a few of the vendors convincing us to buy this and that, we headed back to our vehicle and went back to the hostel.

At the end of the day, it felt good to finally visit an iconic structure that I only used to see in history textbooks. I felt really privileged to finally visit the Great Wall, to stand on it and gaze at the extensive structure that snakes onto the Chinese mountains farther than my eyes could reach, and to realize how many more marvels mankind is capable of building.IMG_9316

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Bath in summer: day trip to the World Heritage city

Last summer, I spent two weeks in Bristol for a UK-Japan researcher workshop (RENKEI, which I have to write about soon!) and on our free weekend I visited the nearby city of Bath. The city is a World Heritage Site most famous for its… you guessed it, baths!

World Heritage City

World Heritage City

Let me elaborate. The city has a natural hot spring, which became historically important when it was established as a public bath during the Roman occupation of Britain in the first century.

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“In area, in grandeur, in completeness, the baths of Aquae Sulis were unequaled”

Today, Bath is a famous tourist destination not only for the Roman Baths, but for a number of other sights and activities as well.

From Bristol to Bath is an easy 10 minutes by train, so I did not encounter any transportation problems. The city was not so large and easily walkable.

Walkable city, but how I wish I had a bike that day... The weather was perfect for it!

Walkable city, but how I wish I had a bike that day… The weather was perfect for it!

The first site I gravitated towards was the Roman Baths, but not before I took notice of the nearby majestic Bath Abbey.

Bath Abbey

Bath Abbey

A brush with history at the Roman Baths

The Roman Baths is the main attraction of the city, so there was no way I was going to miss it; never mind the 13.50 GBP entrance fee and the long line of tourists.

The line to enter the Roman Baths

The line to enter the Roman Baths

I borrowed an audio guide at the entrance and proceeded to follow the arrows pointing me to the different sites. The first stop was the terrace, which provided a view of the Great Bath from the second level.

View from the terrace

View from the terrace

There were statues in the terrace that apparently depicts Roman governors and emperors with connections to Britain.07

After that, the arrows led me indoors into a museum depicting the Roman way of life in Aquae Sulis (lit. the waters of the goddess Sulis Minerva), the old name of Bath. An important part of the exhibit was the temple pediment, supposedly taken from the old temple dedicated to Minerva.

Remains of the temple pediment, with a projected image of what it used to look like

Remains of the temple pediment, with a projected image of what it used to look like

Animated video reconstruction of the old temple

Animated video reconstruction of the old temple

Another part of the Roman Baths showcased the preserved ruins of the temple altar, the courtyard, and even the head of the Minerva statue. It felt a little surreal walking along the temple ruins that belonged to the first century.

The remains of the temple

The remains of the temple

Another highlight of the complex is the sacred spring. The site is where hot water bubbles to the surface, which they thought was miraculous in Roman times (it’s actually a geothermal manifestation… alright, I’ll stop the geology lecture here).

Bubbles!

Bubbles!

Many items were “offered” to the sacred spring, and some of them are exhibited in the complex. Most common are the coins and gemstones, but most interesting are the rolled up lead sheets with curses written on them wishing for bad luck upon their enemies (is this the same everywhere? Because this sounds like the Filipino kulam to me).

Offerings to the sacred spring

Offerings to the sacred spring

After the hot spring area, I finally reached the Great Bath, which is the open air swimming bath that I have been seeing from the start of the tour.

The Great Bath

The Great Bath

There were costumed characters playing the role of a Roman official and a Roman lady.

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The costumed lady asked me to smell some of her bath perfumes, so I sat by the pool to check out her basket of bath goodies.

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The area around the Great Bath pool had some of the original structures exhibited, like the original roof spine and floor from the Roman times. It was pretty cool that they got to keep some of the old building parts.

Different layers of the floor (like rock layers! hihi)

Different layers of the floor (like rock layers! hihi)

At one end of the Great Bath, there is a circular pool asking for “offerings”. The money you throw in would be collected after a year(?) and used for preserving the Roman Baths archeological collection.

Pool for donations to preserve the Roman Baths

Pool for donations to preserve the Roman Baths

Before exiting the Roman Baths complex, there was a drinking faucet that offers a taste of Bath’s spring waters. The waters are believed to have healing properties by ancient people.

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I got a glassful, but I only finished a quarter of it as it tasted weird. It was slightly salty and feels alkaline; until now I could still remember the taste in my mouth so I guess it’s quite remarkable (I’m not sure if in a good way).

Getting my nerd on at the Jane Austen Centre

After the tour of the Roman Baths, I met up with my RENKEI friends for lunch at a restaurant in one of the side streets of Bath. After lunch, I left them to explore the Roman Baths while I explore the next interesting Bath attraction for me: The Jane Austen Centre. The centre is a permanent exhibition located in the same street where she lived and features Jane Austen’s time in Bath.

Walking up the street, I knew I was in the right place when I was greeted by a bearded man in a top hat and coat from the 19th century.23 Personally, I was a little bit concerned that he was feeling too hot, as it was the peak of summer and he was sweating in his coat. Anyway, I just left him outside and I entered the house. It was really just an old (>250 years old!) house that they transformed into an exhibit.

The >250 years old staircase

The >250 years old staircase

I took a deep breath of acceptance before reluctantly handing out 8 pounds for the entry fee and the guide pamphlet (it was expensive by my standards!).

Jane Austen

Jane Austen

In the end though, what matters is I enjoyed the short lecture, the guided tour, and dressing up Regency style!

Tea set and free cookies at the exhibit

Tea set and free cookies at the exhibit

Flirting, Regency style! "A Fan... expresses the caprices of the heart, nay even sometimes speaks"

Flirting, Regency style! “A Fan… expresses the caprices of the heart, nay even sometimes speaks”

This may be the only time I get to wear a bonnet.

This may be the only time I get to wear a bonnet.

Afterwards, I walked around Bath with the map from the Jane Austen Centre as my guide.Bath-004 I visited several lovely and quiet gardens, but I equally enjoyed the lively streets in the city center where buskers and small shops abound.Bath

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Bath is a quaint little city that is perfect for a day trip, and I especially enjoyed exploring it on that bright and sunny summer day.

Marsupials and more at the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary

I was fortunate enough to visit Brisbane because of a conference, and one of the first things I did was to meet Australia’s famous mammals: the koala and the kangaroo! Of course they had nothing to do with the geological convention, but I wouldn’t miss out on the opportunity, would I?  I’m really happy my friend brought me to the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, where I got to meet the famous marsupials and a lot more animal species (some of them I haven’t even heard of before I came to Australia).

Clingy koala!

Clingy koala!

When I arrived early morning in Brisbane, my friend picked me up at the airport and wasted no time touring me around. Never mind that I flew from Fukuoka to Singapore to Brisbane from the day before and throughout the night. Sleep and shower can wait, the kangaroos were waiting for me! After a nice breakfast-with-a-view at the Mt. Coot-tha Lookout, we proceeded to the sanctuary with my luggage still in the trunk of the car.

The view from Mt. Coot-tha Lookout

The view of Brisbane from Mt. Coot-tha Lookout

The Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary is the world’s largest koala sanctuary, according to their advertisement (to be honest though, I don’t know how many koala sanctuaries there are in the world). Anyway, after paying the 33 AUD entrance fee, we started our tour by going around the fenced enclosures of different Australian animals. It was my first time to learn that Tazmanian devils don’t just exist in cartoons, and that dingoes are actually very handsome wild dogs.

Tazmanian devil

Tazmanian devil

Dingo

Dingo

I also enjoyed watching the adorable wombat eat from its pail of food.

Wombat

Wombat

It was my first time to see a platypus, although it was very hard to take photos of them since they were always moving about in their aquarium.

The elusive platypus, so I took its photo outside the aquarium ;)

The elusive platypus, so I took its photo outside the aquarium 😉

There were also interesting reptiles in the sanctuary, but I kept my distance as I get creeped out with some of their skin/scales.

A few of the numerous reptiles at the sanctuary

A few of the numerous reptiles there

The birds were also featured everywhere in the sanctuary, from the small colorful parrots and cockatoos in their cages to the big flightless emu and cassowary roaming about their large enclosures.

Some of the birds at the sanctuary

Some of the birds featured at the sanctuary

The cassowary (left) and the emu (right)

The cassowary (left) and the emu (right)

And of course there are the koalas. I saw mommy koalas with joeys in their pouches, ‘kindergarten’ koalas, ‘retired koalas’… well, you get the picture. They are the cutest! I spent a good amount of time just observing and taking photos of them.

Find the hidden joey!

They’re very good climbers!

But they stay still most of the time…

Needless to say, I wouldn’t forget the kangaroos. There was a huge space for them to run around and interact with the visitors. The sanctuary’s area is really big, and a lot of the animals can move around freely.

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I learned that there were different types of kangaroos, and there’s also the similar-looking and usually smaller wallabies.

The joey inside the pouch, but with the feet sticking out...

The joey inside the pouch, but with the feet sticking out…

A wallaby feeding her joey

A wallaby feeding her joey

I took my time observing the fascinating marsupials. I also enjoyed watching the kids feed and play with the kangaroos.

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Aside from endemic species, they also have domesticated animals like the miniature horse (not a pony, apparently).

Miniature horses

Miniature horses

I also got to see, along with some gradeschoolers on a fieldtrip, how a sheep’s fleece was sheared.

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Afterwards they let us to touch the wool. I fell in line and waited for my turn with the students, but I didn’t mind feeling like a kid once in a while.IMG_2269

Our last stop was the Bird of Prey show, but it was definitely not the least of the attractions in the sanctuary. They showed how raptor birds catch their food.

Barn owl

Barn owl

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Barking owl

There was a large area for the birds to freely fly around before they swoop down on their food set in front of the crowd. It was fascinating and exciting seeing the owls and the kites fly past our heads and grab their food.

Poor mouse...

Poor mouse…

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After the bird show we had to go home because I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore! The long flight finally caugh up with me, but I was really glad that I got to visit Lone Pine. The place was a nice start to my Australia visit. I got to meet the famous marsupials, and I was introduced to other interesting animal species.

"The Earth is not only for humans"

“The Earth is not only for humans”

World Heritage Island in a day: our Yakushima adventure

Have you seen the animated film “Princess Mononoke“? It’s one of the coolest animated films ever. For me, the best part about the film was the enchanted forest setting, where the magical forest creatures come alive. My Japanese friends told me that the forest in Princess Mononoke was inspired by Yakushima island. The island was declared a World Heritage Site because of their century-old cedar trees and rich flora and fauna. Since then, it has been my dream to go to Yakushima.

Preview ;)

(Preview)

M and I have been planning our Yakushima trip for more than a year. I have already prepared a detailed itinerary for a 4-day trip, complete with bus schedules, hostel rates and food budget (Yes, I’m crazy like that). Unfortunately, work, classes, and other trips got in the way and we never had that 4-day opportunity. However, when our friend visited Kyushu we just had to make the trip happen, four days or no. After all that planning, we ended up with just one day in Yakushima (less than 24 hours in fact), but it was to be one of the most memorable days ever.

Getting there is half the battle

Yakushima is an island at the southernmost part of Kyushu Island, which is southernmost of Japan’s four main islands. In short, it’s far and pretty hard to get to. From Hakata station in Fukuoka, we took the Nishitetsu highway bus to Kagoshima-chuo Station (15,000 JPY for a 4-ticket bus discount; that’s only 3,750 JPY for a 4 hour-15 minute bus ride, as opposed to the 9,660 JPY for the 95-minute shinkansen ride).

From Kagoshima, we originally planned to take the overnight Hibiscus ferry to Yakushima. The Hibiscus ferry was the cheapest option, not to mention we get to save on accommodations. *Check the Yakumonkey website for transportation options, and a lot of other Yakushima travel tips* One catch of the cheap ferry is that its embarkation point, Taniyama Port, is not located at Kagoshima city center like the other ferry services, but an hour’s drive farther southwest. Due to a series of unforeseen circumstances (weekend classes, horrible weather, and bad traffic), we were not able to catch the ferry in time. Lesson learned: bus schedules are not as reliable as the train’s. Also, weekend classes are real spoilers!

Kagoshima

Kagoshima, our gateway to Yakushima Island

So we had no choice but to stay the night in Kagoshima. We searched online for the most convenient hostel and found Green Guest House, which is right across the Kagoshima Port going to Yakushima. That night, there was a mini concert by Guitar Panda (yes, he plays the guitar in a Panda costume, obviously!) so we hung out in the lobby for a while and tried the Kagoshima-exclusive Sakurajima Magma Soda. It was essentially a carbonated drink with chili; it’s non-alcoholic, but drink moderately still! I heard some passing warning about stomach aches…

Magma Soda!

Magma Soda!

Anyway, the next day we made sure we were at the Kagoshima port early to buy our tickets for the first trip of the toppy jetfoil to Yakushima. *We didn’t need to reserve in advance since it was the  lean season, but for peak seasons make sure you book ahead of time.*

Early morning at the Kagoshima port, with the view of Sakurajima volcano

It was strange having to strap ourselves in our seats the whole trip (safety requirement), but it was a quick and smooth-sailing two hours.

Trek around Shiratani Unsuikyo: the Mononoke Forest experience

Finally, we arrived in Yakushima! We walked to  Miyanoura Port Youth Hostel, which was really near the port. After checking in, we met with our two friends (Yuta and Jas) already staying at the hostel and rented a car for the group (We asked the hostel front desk for assistance with the car rental, which cost 4,500 JPY for the whole day).

The ride up to Shiratani Unsuikyo was all twists and turns on the narrow road, but the view was breathtaking!

We had to stop for photos, of course.

We had to stop for photos, of course.

We finally reached the entrance of Shiratani Unsuikyo Forest Ravine by noon, and we parked our car and paid the 300 JPY entrance fee. In turn, we received a pamphlet with a rough map of the area.

Entrance to the Shiratani Unsuikyo

Entrance to the Shiratani Unsuikyo

Given the time constraints, we decided to stick to the Genseirin Primeval Forest Hiking Trail, so we can have a feel of the Mononoke Forest, and pass by several cedar trees along the way.

Look Ma, I can fit under the roots!

Look Ma, I can fit under the roots!

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And feel it we did, although I’m quite stumped trying to translate the feeling into words.

As we treaded along the path that was full of roots and fallen leaves, we passed by these big and proud cedar trees that are ancient beyond belief, standing tall in silent dignity.

Be careful where you tread...

Be careful where you tread…

Inside a hollow cedar tree

Inside a hollow cedar tree

Giant cedar trees

They’re really tall!

And then there’s the ubiquitous moss that blankets the landscape, covering the tree trunks and the big boulders.

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The different shades of green give off a tranquil vibe, especially when combined with the pristine river water and the calming sound of the stream.

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I guess all of that gives the forest its enchanted feeling (and my suddenly poetic descriptions!).IMG_9197

We also enjoyed observing the deer walking about without a care for us human intruders.

One of the many deer in the forest

One of the many deer in the forest, calmly chewing his food while having a stare-off with us.

 We had a late lunch at the Shiratani hut, where there’s a water source and some benches for sitting. We heated water for some hot tea and ate our rice balls, but pretty soon the cold winter temperature was catching up with us so we headed back after a while.

Heating water for tea (photo by Jasmine Black)

Heating water for tea (photo by Jasmine)

We left Shiratani Unsuikyo at about 3:00 pm, still in awe of the cedar trees and the Mononoke forest, and quite happy with our little trek.IMG_9206

As an added bonus, we met the Yakushima monkeys on the road!IMG_9226

 

Seaside hotspring means getting naked with the ojiichans

We drove for about two hours to the southern end of the island to take a dip at their seaside onsen (hot spring). After the cold hike, we were really looking forward to a nice dip at the natural hot spring, and by the sea no less! The hot spring is open to all: men and women, young and old. I haven’t really experienced an onsen overlooking the sea, much less an onsen for both genders. I was not sure what to expect.

Hirauchi Seaside Onsen (if you look closely, you'll see the bathers)

Hirauchi Seaside Onsen (if you look closely, you’ll see the bathers) (photo by Jasmine, because I left my camera in the car)

When we arrived there, everybody was just… naked. We also took off our clothes and left it by the rocks, but in the end I wasn’t that brave. Jas and I brought towels and after much deliberation, we didn’t take it off when we went in the water. Getting naked with your friends of the opposite gender was awkward for us girls; but the guys didn’t mind, they seem to be enjoying it, even! I guess I was weirded out by the old Japanese men (casually called ojiichan in Japanese, which literally means Grandpa) casually lounging by the onsen pools and offhandedly looking about. I’m sure they meant no malice, but for somebody not used to stripping in front of other people it was just too uncomfortable with the ojiichans watching.

However, awkwardness notwithstanding, the seaside onsen was heavenly! The hot spring water relaxed our tired muscles. Watching the sunset while lounging in the seaside bath was an unexpected bonus as well. The place and the experience is definitely memorable!

(photo by Jasmine)

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(photo by Jasmine)

Barbeque time!

We rushed back to Miyanoura to return our rented car before the shop closed at 6:00 pm. Our friend Yuta really did a fine job getting back into town in less than an hour (don’t tell the Yakushima traffic police!). Afterwards the rental car staff brought us back to our hostel, where we finished the day with a barbeque party. Good times!IMG_9232

 

‘Til next time, Yakushima!

Early the next day, M and I ourselves out of bed to catch the Hibiscus Ferry back to Kagoshima. Our time in Yakushima was really short and sweet. For sure, we’ll be back to scale the island’s highest peak, and use that 4-day itinerary I’ve been planning since forever. See you again, Yakushima!Yakushima

 

P.S. Somebody asked me to post my original four-day itinerary, and I’m posting it here so other people can look at it as well. Below is the itinerary with expense calculation (all figures in Japanese yen). Note that trekking times are estimated for our speed (you might be faster or slower), so take caution in following the trek schedule. Bus times are based on the 2013 bus schedule. Train times are for weekday schedules.

Day 1 FUKUOKA to KAGOSHIMA
07:00 Bus from Hakata Bus Center (3750 JPY w/4-ticket discount)
11:54 Arrival in Kagoshima-chuo station, lunch (500-1000)
12:30 Tram to Sakurajima ferry terminal (160)
12:45 Ferry to Sakurajima (150); Go around Sakurajima
15:00 Ferry to Kagoshima (150); Tram to Kagoshimachuo (160)
15:37/16:01 Train from Kagochimachuo to Sakanoue station (280)
15:57/16:21 Arrival in Sakanoue station; Taxi or walk to Taniyama port (should be at the port before 5pm, so better be early; taxis are not very frequent) (if taking taxi: 1500 JPY)
17:00 buy tickets for Hibiscus ferry (3500)
18:00 Ferry departure (overnight)

Day 2 YAKUSHIMA TREK
07:00 Arrival at Miyanoura port; breakfast (500-1000)
08:00/08:26 Bus from Miyanoura to Shiratani Unsuikyo (530)
08:30/08:56 Arrival at Shiratani Unsuikyo (300 entrance fee)
09:00 Start trek
10:30 Shiratani Hut
12:00 Kusugawa Junction
13:10 Okabu Trailhead; Lunch
13:30 Resume trek
14:10 Wilson stump
15:20 Jomon sugi
16:45 Shin-takatsuka hut, stay overnight

Day 3 SUMMIT and DESCENT
05:00 Breakfast (500-1000)
06:00 Start trek
09:00 Nagatadake junction
09:30 Miyanoura dake summit
11:45 Hana no ego; lunch
12:15 Resume trek
13:20 Yodogawa hut
14:45 Kigensugi
14:58/15:53/16:21 Bus from Kigensugi (940)
15:08/17:20/17:22 Gochomae arrival; onsen at Green Hotel (1000)
17:37/17:52/18:21 Bus from Gochomae to Miyanoura (780)
Stay at Kairakuen camping place mini-bungalow (1200)
(http://www.e-yakushima.jp/location.html)

Day 4 YAKUSHIMA to FUKUOKA
06:30 Breakfast
07:00 Taxi to Miyanoura port (3 km away, ask owner for transport options) (1500 or less by taxi)
07:20 Buy ticket for Hibiscus ferry (3200)
14:40 Arrival at Taniyama port; walk to Sakanoue station (usually no taxis unless you call for one)
15:29/16:05 Train from Sakanoue to Kagoshima-chuo station (280)
15:49/16:27 Arrival at Kagoshima-chuo Station
16:40/17:10/17:40 Bus from Kagoshima-chuo (3750 JPY w/4-ticket discount)
20:46/21:16/21:46 Arrival at Hakata Station

What the hell(s): the Beppu Jigoku tour

The town of Beppu in Oita Prefecture, Japan is blessed with piping hot geothermal waters. Beppu is frequented by tourists not only for its hot springs (onsen) but also for its “hells” (jigoku). Hot spring resorts/public baths abound all over Japan, but the jigoku is unique to Beppu. All eight hells could be toured in half a day, but we stayed overnight so we could also try Beppu’s famous onsens.

Getting there

Beppu can be accessed by train or bus from Fukuoka, which is the nearest major airport. You can also get a train from Tokyo or Kyoto, but chances are you would also have to stop by Hakata station in Fukuoka.

In our case, we chose to travel using the Nishitetsu Bus, since it’s the cheapest way to get to Beppu from Fukuoka. We used the Toyonokuni Kippu, which is a discounted set of four tickets for a certain route. A one-way bus ticket normally costs 3,100 JPY but with the toyonokuni, one ticket is only 2,000 JPY each (provided you have a companion). The travel time takes 2 hrs 40 mins, as opposed to the bullet train’s 1 hr 40 mins (but costs 5,600 JPY). We bought tickets at the Hakata Bus Terminal a few minutes before departure (no reservations for this route) and got off at the Beppu Kitahama bus stop. We then walked for about 10 minutes to the Beppu train station.

Beppu Station

Beppu Station

Touring the hells

At the train station, we proceeded to the Tourist Information Center where we got the following: One-day bus pass (900 JPY), Jigoku tour information sheet, bus timetable, and discount coupon for the hells and other Beppu tourist attractions. The nice lady at the counter explained everything that we needed to know about visiting the hells.

Armed with our sheets of paper, we waited for the next scheduled bus departure for the Kannawa area, where the first six hells are located. Buses depart every 15-30 minutes. We decided to buy the ticket booklet for all eight hells, since it felt like a bargain. We only paid 1,800 JPY for the booklet (original price was 2,000 JPY but we got the discount coupon from the information office) as opposed to 400 JPY entrance fee for each hell. We came for a tour of the hells, so we might as well just visit all of them, right? Here I’ll briefly describe all eight hells and give my verdict at the end whether all eight were visit-worthy.

They gave out free fans with Beppu Jigoku mascots

They were giving out free fans with Beppu Jigoku mascots outside the hells.

Umi Jigoku (Sea Hell)

We were greeted by nice lotus flowers on the entrance, then we had to pass by the big souvenir shop to get to the pond. This hell was named as the Sea Hell because of the blue color of the water (which is of course not its natural color). There was a small shrine at one side of the pond, and a manicured garden on the opposite end.

Lotus and dragonflies greeted us just after the entrance

Lotus and dragonflies greeted us just after the entrance

The Sea Hell

The Sea Hell

Boiling eggs at the pond

Cooking boiled eggs at the pond

The large compound also includes a greenhouse that gets it heat from the hot spring. I felt a little disoriented at first, seeing banana trees and wild orchids in Japan, or maybe it was just the unbearable heat of the summer plus the heat inside the greenhouse that got to me, but after a while I got to appreciate the novelty of growing tropical plants by utilizing the hot spring.

Go figure.

Sign for the greenhouse. Go figure.

Inside the greenhouse

Inside the greenhouse

Lotus inside the greenhouse

Lotus inside the greenhouse

Just outside the Umi Jigoku entrance, there were several stores selling pudding that was cooked from the hot spring steam. Of course we tried this specialty product, but we were a little disappointed by the bitter aftertaste of the caramelized sugar. Maybe we just chose the wrong store and got unlucky.

Pudding steamed using the hotspring

Pudding steamed using the hot spring

Oniishibozu Jigoku (Monk’s Shaved Head Hell)

The bubbling mud pools were interesting, and a bit hypnotizing if you stare too long at the perfectly round bubbles coming up the surface. I was trying to imagine monks being borne headfirst from the bubbles as the name suggests, but my scientific mind could only conjure the image of the upper half of Saturn complete with rings. There were several pools showcasing these bubbles, but the real reward was the foot bath near the entrance.

Monk's Shaved Head Hell

The Monk’s Shaved Head Hell

Yama Jigoku (Mountain Hell)

It’s so named because there was supposedly a mountain of mud here, but all I can see were a smoking pile of rocks. There were some animals that supposedly added to the attraction, but they didn’t look too happy to be there.

The Mountain Hell

The Mountain Hell

hippo

The hippo’s mouth appears to be permanently open, just waiting for the tourists to throw carrots into it.

Kamado Jigoku (Cooking Pot Hell)

This hell features a pond that looks like the Sea Hell (although not quite as well-designed), a foot bath (which we skipped because the water looked murky plus it was packed with tourists), and a demon figure that is standing in a cooking pot (hence the name). One interesting point for me was that they tried to explain the geologic origin of silica sinter (yeah yeah, I know this is not interesting for most of you).

The pond in the Cooking Pot Hell

The pond in the Cooking Pot Hell

The foot bath full of tourists

The foot bath full of tourists

The demon standing in the "cooking pot"

The demon standing in the “cooking pot”

Display explaining the origin of silica sinter

Display explaining the origin of silica sinter

Oniyama Jigoku (Demon Mountain Hell)

One word: crocodile. There were a lot of Malaysian crocodiles enjoying the warm waters of this hell (according to the information on the billboard). Aside from the crocs, the pond in this place is spurting water due to the strong steam.

One of the many crocodiles in the Demon Mountain Hell

One of the many crocodiles in the Demon Mountain Hell

Shiraike Jigoku (White Pond Hell)

This hell is named after the creamy white color of the water, but we were first directed to some aquariums with piranhas and other exotic fishes. I can’t say I enjoyed looking at the fishes in the water tanks, but at least I can say I’ve seen a lot of piranhas at one time.  The pond itself is milky green in color, with white hot steam coming out.

Piranhas in the aquarium

Piranhas in the aquarium

The White Pond Hell

Chinoike Jigoku (Blood Pond Hell)

To get to this place we had to take the bus (about 10 minutes), since it’s in a different area than the first six hells. Before we got to the pond, we had to pass by the big souvenir shop that serves as the entrance. To me, the pond’s color is not really blood-red but orange-brown. The color comes from the clayey mud, which is being sold there as treatment for the skin.

The Blood Pond Hell

The Blood Pond Hell

Tatsumaki Jigoku (Spout Hell)

This last attraction is just beside the Blood Pond Hell. It’s a geyser that erupts every 40 minutes (which they are very proud of, since it’s one of the few geysers in the world that erupt hourly). One of the staff will tell you upon entering what time the next eruption will be, so that you can decide to visit the Blood Pond Hell first if the geyser just erupted. I haven’t seen a geyser erupt before so it was a new experience for me. Sadly (at least for me), they put up a stone ceiling above the geyser to prevent it from reaching its full height so that they can build the souvenir shop just beside it and so that people can go as near as they can to the Spout Hell.

The Spout Hell

The Spout Hell

So there you have them, all eight hells of Beppu. If you want to ask me if all eight hells were visit-worthy, I would say I would only pick the Sea Hell, the Monk’s Shaved Head Hell, and the Spout Hell if I was pressed for time and budget. Also, because we visited during the height of summer, we didn’t really appreciate the warmth of the foot baths and hot springs because of the terrible heat and humidity. But I must say I did not regret visiting all of them, since I had had the complete “hell” experience, both the good and not so nice.

It was actually fun completing the stamp rally (putting a stamp on each of the hells) which supposedly will give us some souvenir as reward if we submit the completed sheet of paper with our address, although I have yet to receive the prize. If you also want to visit all of them, there’s no stopping you from completing all those stamps!

Completing the stamps from all eight hells

Completing the stamps from all eight hells

Sidetrip: Taking a bath at the onsen

Aside from the hells, Beppu is not Beppu if not for the onsen (hot spring baths). Even though it was the peak of summer, we couldn’t resist taking a dip in the popular baths of Beppu. We tried two of the most popular onsen, which could not have been more different from each other: the large and modern Aqua Garden and Tanayu Bath at the Suginoi Hotel, and the small and traditional Takegawara Onsen.

Suginoi Hotel

This hotel is one of the biggest in Beppu, and the Aqua Garden and Tanayu hot spring bath is open to non-guests for an entrance fee of 1,500 yen. The entrance fee included toiletries, including large fluffy towels. They also have a free shuttle service from the Beppu train station, so going all the way up to this hotel on the hill was not a problem. The Aqua Garden is not gender-restricted and requires swimming attire that I did not bring, so I had to rent a swim suit for 400 yen. The water in the pool was warm and comfortable. There was a lights and sound show that makes use of a projector, a water fountain and a smoke machine, which made for a unique show. After watching the show, we had an enjoyable dip at the gender-separated Tanayu open air hot bath.  It was relaxing to dip in the hot infinity pools whilst enjoying the view of the city (obviously, photos are not allowed inside the bath ).

One of the pools at the Aqua Garden

One of the pools at the Aqua Garden

Lights and Sound Show

Lights and Sound Show

Takegawara Onsen

This bathing facility is said to be the oldest in Beppu. It only cost 100 yen to enter. The bathing area itself is really basic in stark contrast to that of Suginoi Hotel, with just one pool that I couldn’t dip in because it was extremely hot (a few centigrades hotter then the regular onsen). There were some  wash basins and stools but not much else, so the visitor should bring his/her own toiletries. I didn’t stay long because the water was too hot, but the old regulars seem to enjoy the bath. I had a little headache after that, but I was still glad that I got to experience the ‘authentic’ Japanese public bath.

Takegawara Onsen

Takegawara Onsen

 

I’m sure I would love Beppu even more if I visited during any other season except summer. I can enjoy and appreciate the hells and the hot spring baths properly when I’m not sweating like crazy from the humidity. I’d definitely go back to Beppu in winter!

Testing the hand bath in front of Beppu station

Testing the hand bath in front of Beppu station

Whaleshark lovin’ and more at Donsol, Sorsogon

Donsol in Sorsogon was once a sleepy fishing town that was transformed into a prime tourist spot, all thanks to the whale sharks (butanding in the local tongue) that frequent Donsol’s waters every December to May. They were able to create an effective eco-tourism strategy that promotes whale shark interaction, but with minimal impact to the gentle giants.

We were lucky to have the opportunity to swim with these impressive creatures in early 2010 during our trip to Bicol to visit a friend.

Getting to Donsol

From the Legazpi Airport, take a tricycle to the Public Terminal in Legazpi. Look for the public vans going to Donsol and wait for the seats to be filled (Fare is about Php 100 per person). From Donsol city proper, take a tricycle to Dancalan Beach.

For our trip, our host had a car so we drove to Donsol with no problems. We were even able to have fresh coconut juice when we saw some fresh buko being sold along the road.

Dancalan Beach

We arrived in Dancalan and quickly proceeded to the Municipal Tourism Office to register and pay for the whale shark interaction tour.Donsol Municipal Tourism Office

We paid for the boat rental (Php 3,500 for 7 passengers maximum), which we divided among the five of us, registration fee (php 100/person) and snorkel rental (Php 300). At the time, there were only about two or three other groups lined up for the tour so we did not have long to wait before we were ushered in to their office. We watched a video introduction about whale sharks and some general instructions on how to best interact with them. The main point was that we were not supposed to go too near the whale sharks to avoid any accidents and also to avoid disturbing them.

Whale Shark Interaction

After this, we were introduced to our Butanding Interaction Officer (BIO). He told us that he would be our guide during the interaction and led us to our boat. The boat crew included a spotter, whose task is to look for the whale sharks so our boat can go near them.

Our boat for swimming with the whale sharks

Our boat for the day

Our BIO instructed us to stay by the side of the boat with  our snorkels already in place, and wait for his signal to jump off the boat when the whale shark is within distance.

Waiting for the whale sharks

Waiting for the whale sharks

We didn’t have long to wait, and at his signal, we jumped into the water excitedly. When I put my head in the water, my initial reaction was fear. The whale shark was huge, as big as a bus!

The whale shark's mouth

Whale shark!

Whale shark!

Then I reminded myself that they were harmless creatures who are only interested in plankton,  so I just marveled at their large size and spotted skin while they calmly glided past us.

Spotted

Spots

The whaleshark’s fins up close

We jumped into the water several times more to see the gentle giants, and I still felt awe every time I see them. Our BIO was very helpful (and very strong) as he dragged the girls (my friend and myself) to keep up with the whale sharks. He also volunteered to take underwater photos of the sharks for us, since we were too slow to get a lot of good shots.

Commensal fish attached to the whale shark

Commensal fishes attached to the whale shark

We hardly noticed the time, and just like that the allotted three hours for our interaction was over. We headed back to Dancalan Beach, tired but overwhelmed from the experience.

View of Mayon Volcano from our boat

View of Mayon Volcano from our boat

Enjoying the sunset

We got back to Dancalan Beach in the mid-afternoon. Our next activity, firefly watching, wouldn’t start until after dark, so we went around Donsol town to look for a place to eat then returned to Dancalan Beach before dark. We still had a few  hours to spare so we decided to hang out at the beach resort beside the Tourism Office. We whiled away the time by enjoying the view of the majestic sunset.

Sunset at Dancalan Beach (photo by Princess Que)

Sunset at Dancalan Beach (photo by Princess Que)

Dancalan Beach (photo credits to Rolly Peoro)

Dancalan Beach (photo by Rolly Peoro)

Sunset at Dancalan Beach

Sunset at Dancalan Beach

Firefly Watching

At about 6 pm, we went to the designated area for booking the Firefly Watching tour. We paid Php 1,250 for the boat (maximum of 7 persons in a boat), which included a guide.

Our guide led us to the bank of the Ugod river where our boatman was waiting for us. The moon was almost full and there were few clouds in the sky so the night was a bit bright, but we were still able to see the trees along the river bank alight with hundreds of fireflies. The view was calming and pleasant to the senses (sans the good photographs since it was dark and the boat was rocking).

Sidetrip: Cagsawa Ruins

Since the access to Donsol includes passing by Albay (Legazpi Airport), we made sure to slip in a visit to the famed  Cagsawa Ruins Park. The area was devastated by Mt. Mayon’s explosive eruption in the 19th century. What remained of the previous Cagsawa town and nearby areas was the belfry of the Cagsawa Church, which is now postcard-famous for its picturesque view of Mt. Mayon as the backdrop.

We took a jeepney from Legazpi town proper then a tricycle to the ruins. We were lucky to have visited on a bright sunny day, our view of Mayon Volcano was perfect!

Cagsawa Ruins

Cagsawa Ruins

There were kids offering to take our photos for us, and it was a good thing we relented despite our initial hesitation. They seemed they know their way around cameras, so we happily obeyed their instructions to pose this way and that. The photos looked great and we enjoyed our photoshoot. We decided to give the kid Php 50, although he didn’t really say how much he wanted.

The giant in Cagsawa (one of the many shots our young photographer took)

The giant in Cagsawa (one of the many shots our young photographer took)

Our Donsol adventure was really worth the trip. Seeing the majestic creatures up close was really a treat. Watching the fireflies and seeing the perfect cone of Mayon Volcano was an added visual bonus. This trip will remain one of my most memorable experiences.

Transit in Hong Kong: my 6-hour stopover tour

Hong Kong is an important air hub connecting Asia and the rest of the world. I used Hong Kong airport for transit several times but only for short periods.

Asia's World City

Asia’s World City

So when I last booked a flight with Cathay Pacific, I planned a 6-hour stopover to explore Hong Kong for a short time. I was very glad to learn that there were great incentives for transit travelers: 1. the 120 HKD (15.50 USD) departure tax is waived for passengers arriving and departing within the day; and 2. the Airport Express train offers a free return journey for passengers traveling in the same day (100 HKD instead of 200 HKD for the two-way journey to Hong Kong Station). I had no reason not to go out of the airport!

Hong Kong from the plane

View of Hong Kong from the plane

Airport Express Train to Hong Kong Station

My flight to Hong Kong arrived at around 3 pm and my flight out was at 21:30 pm, so I had about 5 hours to spare (excluding time I have to spend at immigration). After about 30 minutes at the airport (I already have an onward boarding pass to my next destination and immigration procedures were very fast and efficient), I went out and bought same day return tickets for the Airport Express train to Hong Kong Station.

Same day return tickets for the Airport Express essentially gives you a free return trip!

Same day return tickets for the Airport Express essentially gives you a free return trip! (100 HKD instead of 200 HKD for a two-way trip)

Trains depart every 10 minutes and the ride from the airport to Hong Kong Station is only 24 minutes — comfy and fast!

Inside the Airport Express

Inside the Airport Express Train

Ferry from Central Pier to Hong Kong Station

When I arrived at Hong Kong station a little before 4 pm, I deposited my bags at the left luggage counter (check available station services at this link). It set me back 55 HKD, but at least I didn’t have to carry my heavy luggage around. After that, I walked around the connecting shopping mall for a bit… hmmm alright alright I didn’t know which way to go! But I eventually found the signs pointing me to the Central Pier. I followed the sign to Pier 7, where I rode the ferry to Tsim Sha Tsui (ferries depart every 10 minutes and the trip across is about 10 minutes long).

Hong Kong's Central Pier

Hong Kong’s Central Pier

The ferry ride only costs 2.50 HKD, and I happily inserted my coins into their automated machine to get a token and wait for the ferry.

The ferry that took me across Victoria Harbour

The ferry that took me across Victoria Harbour

"Beware of moving gangplank"

“Beware of moving gangplank,” when entering.

Inside the ferry

Inside the ferry

The view from the ferry

The view during the trip across the harbour

Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade and Avenue of Stars

I arrived at Tsim Sha Tsui Pier at around 4:15 pm, and walked the length of the Promenade. I passed by and took photos of the Clock Tower, the HK Cultural Center, the HK Museum of Art and other interesting statues before I arrived at the Avenue of Stars, where I found most of the crowds.

The Clock Tower and surrounding area

The Clock Tower and surrounding area

The Clock Tower is a declared monument, protected under the Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance. It was part of the Kowloon-Canton Railway Terminus.

The Clock Tower is a Declared Monument, protected under the Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance. It was part of the Kowloon-Canton Railway Terminus.

Hong Kong Museum of Art

Hong Kong Museum of Art

Look up!

Look up!

Commemorative Sculpture of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Torch

Commemorative Sculpture of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Torch

The Avenue of Stars

The Avenue of Stars

I leisurely walked along the Avenue of Stars and enjoyed seeing my fellow tourists gaily posing with the random statues lining the walk and snappily taking photos of each other.

A lot of statue lovin' at the Avenue of Stars...

A lot of statue lovin’ at the Avenue of Stars…

Tourists enjoying their photo session spree

Tourists enjoying their photo session spree

Guess what they’re taking a picture of?

They're taking a photo of Bruce Lee! This statue is the highlight of the Avenue of Stars

The Bruce Lee statue! This statue is the highlight of the Avenue of Stars.

My favorite part of the Promenade, however, was the view of Victoria Harbour and Hong Kong skyline. It was really impressive, although the weather was really gloomy (not so good for picture taking with my not so good camera).

Victoria Harbour

Victoria Harbour

Fishing at the harbour

Fishing at the harbour

Mong Kok Ladies Night Market and Sneakers Street

After an hour, I left the Avenue of Stars and walked towards Tsim Sha Tsui Station and rode the MTR to Mong Kok using the Tsuen Wan Line (7 minutes, 5 HKD). I arrived at Mong Kok around 5:30 pm, and was greeted by lots and lots of merchandise. The street was filled with an assortment of clothes, bags, toys, souvenirs and other oddments, most of which are intended for tourists.

The Mong Kok Ladies Market is not as crowded in the early weekday evening

The Mong Kok Ladies Market is not as crowded in the early evening.

I window shopped while walking the streets of Mong Kok, until I came upon Sneakers Street. Unlike Mong Kok that sells its wares on the street, Sneakers Street have large sports shops that sells, well, lots and lots of shoes. I was really planning to buy trekking shoes as my old pair was ready to retire, so I thought the Sneakers Street was a good place as any to look for a replacement. It took me a good while walking back and forth the shops before I finally decided on a pair that I really liked. So after 45 minutes, I left Sneakers Street wearing a new pair of shoes 🙂

New shoes from Sneakers Street

New shoes from Sneakers Street

Central Station and (supposedly) The Peak

From Mong Kok, I took the MTR Tsuen Wan Line to Central Station (12 minutes, 11.50 HKD) and made my way to the J2 exit of the station to ride the tram at the Peak Tram Lower Terminus. I initially planned to go to The Peak for its nice night view of Hong Kong, but it was very cloudy when I stepped out of the station. The Peak had been covered in clouds all day, so I figured I wouldn’t see the stunning view that I was expecting, and there would be no point in going if I’ll be standing in a cloud. So I just walked idly around Central’s tall buildings before deciding to return to the airport.

Hong Kong's Central area is full of these tall buildings

Hong Kong’s Central area is full of these tall buildings

I followed the signs from Central Station so I could get back to Hong Kong Station to take the the Airport Express. I got back to the airport at around 8 pm, plenty of time for dinner before my 9:30 pm flight.

So that was my very short Hong Kong tour. Too bad I couldn’t visit The Peak because of the weather, but I don’t mind. I have that, and a lot more places, to visit when I go back to Hong Kong for another stopover… or maybe a proper trip next time 🙂

Expenses summary:

Airport express (round trip) – 100 HKD

Left luggage fee – 55 HKD

Star ferry from Central Pier to Tsim Sha Tsui – 2.50 HKD

MTR Tsim Sha Tsui to Mong Kok – 5 HKD

MTR Mong Kok to Central – 11.50 HKD)

[The Peak Tram (round trip tickets – 40 HKD]

*Total expenses (without left luggage fee) would have been around 159 HKD (20.50 USD) if I went to The Peak.