The economic super-powers of Northern Asia are changing fast (China in particular). Cutting-edge modern and rural-tradition sit side-by-side. Bizarre culture. Amazing food. Safe, easy if sometimes a little expensive.
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A big thanks to Alex Schofield, Juan Diego Tinoco and Billy Hanley for their help with this page.
What follows are only basic snapshot summaries. If you have decided these are some of the countries you want to visit and need more planning information then you are strongly recommended to complement what you find here with a planning guide. Trust us it will make life much easier. If you are set on going and need a guidebook or reading material please see a list of recommended guides/books here (go on have a look!). Plus shopping through the site is a big thank you (if you have been helped out); to see why click here.
Get your bearings... show/hide map of the region
Intro: Arriving at Shanghai's Pu Dong airport the train link to
the city floats on magnets and whisks you along at 300kph. The Pu Dong skyline
viewed across the river from the European architecture of the Bund is equally
impressive. You can see why the Chinese are so proud of their recent growth,
economic success and wakening. There are similar stories in Beijing and
any of the many 'mega cities' that dot the country, most of which are almost
unknown outside of China. Neon-lights, ubiquitous cranes, high-rises, traffic
and a drive and determination in the Chinese unmatched globally... you'll
forgive yourself for feeling in the new centre of world.
Home to about 20% of the world's population (although it doesn't seem anywhere near as crowded as India), encapsulating much of the mystique of the East, China has a huge pull on anyone going to Asia. Despite some great attractions, China, being the third most visited country on the planet, is far from 'remote, mystical and isolated' and has relatively few must-see attractions. Many historic sites have long been destroyed have not been preserved well; residents can be less than helpful; you easily run into language problems and whatever the difficulties of Asian travel, [away from tourist hubs centres which are now well geared to and supportive of foreign visitors] in China they are magnified fivefold - simply buying a train ticket can be a major achievement. Coupled with vast distances China can be a let-down if you expect too much. Plan your trip carefully and make tough decisions about your itinerary - you won't see it all.
As with many of the destinations on this guide, being such a large country China is difficult to summarise accurately - although without a doubt the overriding theme of the nation is concrete, building sites and development. Those visiting the main urban and accessible hubs of Shanghai, Hong Kong, Beijing, Shenzhen, etc. will leave with a very different impression than those visiting lesser known mega cities such as Changsha, Ningbo, Qingdao or rural/Western destinations. Holistically, most observe that China is at heart an extraordinary beautiful place with lakes, forests and deserts of great tranquillity and remoteness, but you would be forgiven for thinking that whatever can be done to spoil its beauty is well underway - industry, concrete, building, litter and so much more in the way of soullessness and organisation (that's progress for you). This has always been the case, but in only in recent years with racing progress, it's got much worse (having said this Shanghai and Beijing became much more clean and organised for the Olympics and Expo).
Okay it's not that bad everywhere and you can't complain - it's all part of the 'China' experience and as much a part of its fascinating culture (old and new) as anything else. To be fair, as with Japan and India, what really gets you excited about China is before and after a trip - just seeing and being part of such a different culture (with all that's hard to understand about it) is the essence of a trip to China and the real highlight. Those with the time and patience to get out of the Eastern cities and even to the Western reaches, will discover some extraordinary sights and fully appreciate the economic giant in the making that is the PRC.
China is changing at an incredible pace (every time we return we are amazed at the progress); please double check all information, not only here, but in any guidebook.
Highlights: Area along the
Li River (head for
Hong Kong's and Shanghai's skylines, Tibet,
Lijiang, (North-west Yunnan), Urumqi (Heavenly
Lake) and Beijing. Less seen are
Xishuangbanna (Yunnan province) and
province. Actually Xishuangbanna is overrated, but the
Cangshan mountains around
Dali are not. Plus of course the Great Wall - see below.
to Southern Asia. And lastly outside of a few spots it's great
value for money.
Lowlights: Hong Kong's prices, the city of Xi'an's tourist circus (home of the terracotta army), the language barrier, sometimes unfriendly locals and getting around in a huge country. The Great Wall can be disappointing if you go to a major tourist spot. Take the tour to a less known section. China outside Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai still isn't geared for international tourists and it can be tough to understand how to get the best out of cities and attractions with much hidden behind the comprehension of non-Chinese speakers. 'Red' tourism.
'Yangshuo in China is one of the nicest, cheapest and friendliest places I have encountered in my travels. Its touristy as hell; but 1), you need a break from raw china, and 2), at the moment most backpackers that make it to China are much more tolerable then the ones you would find in the more mainstream Europe-to-Australia strip.' - Cheers, Trav.
Visa strategy: Not really difficult to get, just a hassle if not near an embassy and will need a few days to issue. Flying into Hong Kong visa free and picking one up in two days max is one good solution. Another, if passing through, is a free 72 transit visa which is offered to around 50 nationalities. A Tibetan visa is a Chinese visa. You cannot enter Tibet from Nepal as an independent traveller - you must be on a tour. You cannot extend your visa in Lhasa.
Typical tourist trail: Kathmandu to Lhasa or Hong Kong to Guilin (to Shanghai to Xi'an) to Beijing.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Will get very cold in the winter, humidity in the south can be unbearable during hot/rainy season.
Costs: Hong Kong is expensive, Shanghai is not cheap nor are quality class train tickets over the extreme distances China presents. US$30 a day will cover you in most of the rest of the country depending on how many train tickets you buy and your comfort level. Those spending most of their time in cities, taking tours, covering large distances and wanting even a little comfort can look at about US$40-50. For now at least the RMB is [artificially] semi-fixed/stable pegged to the USD at a competitive rate. Since the RMB has not [been allowed to] appreciate in the same way as other fast developing countries' currencies (such as the Brazilian Real or Indian Rupee) China is on the whole - despite rampant inflation - great value and if you are brave and know a little Chinese can be ultra-cheap.
Money: Use ATMs which are plentiful (not in Tibet, Kashgar or very minor cities) and take emergency travellers cheque's and/or USD/Euros.
What to take: Cold remedy and warm clothes if travelling during the winter. It also worth taking at least a basic knowledge of a few Chinese phrases and words - e.g. Duo Shao Qian? (how much?) or shui (pronounced shway) (water).
Excellent train system, buses in remote areas are poor despite okay roads. Huge distances mean internal flights should be considered if you wish to avoid long train/bus journeys that are quite pleasant only if you are paying for a good class of ticket. Ctrip.com is a great resource for finding and booking the massive array of daily flights. Many Chinese cities are now extremely well connected internationally. Great news is that China has dumped the two-tier pricing system which saw foreigners paying many times more for both train and air fares.
Trains: Trains are very useful in China, but take some getting used to. Here's some quick advice: prices vary according to the bed, the class and the type of train. For the same route, the price range depends on the speed, the age and the air-conditioning of the train. Some Chinese trains are now of a world beating standard rivalling Japanese bullet trains - but these versions are not cheap.
In general, 'Express' or 'Tourist Trains' are more expensive than Fast Trains. Tourist trains are not faster but more comfortable. 'Hard seats' are only recommended for short distances, in modern trains, if you have no other choice. Soft sleeper is the most comfortable class for travelling by rail but you will be locked in one compartment with 3 other people (four beds). 'Hard sleeper' (six beds) is cheaper, more colourful and less claustrophobic. The Chinese prefer the bottom bed as it comes equipped with a table and is the most expensive. The drawback is that everybody tends to sit on the bed during the day. The top bed is the cheapest and the most private but there is no window and no head-room - you lie just below the fan or air con and, if really unlucky, one of the three loudspeakers. The middle bed is therefore a good compromise.
Sleeper tickets are often tough to get - in some places, locals can now reserve up to one week in advance by simply calling the station. This means fewer tickets are available when you arrive to book. However many stations have special windows reserved for foreigners and a few tickets are usually reserved for last minute travel, but can be hard to get. Another option is to buy a hard seat ticket and try to upgrade it once on the train. Here also, you won't be the only one interested in travelling in relative comfort so you will need to get the attention of an official in one way or another. They might offer for you to wait in the restaurant car until a bed is available. Usually, foreigners receive better treatment than locals. It costs an additional small fee to upgrade or modify a ticket. Boiling water is provided in every carriage. Rice meals are also offered for around Y5, together with snacks or drinks. More choice is available at every station and most of the Chinese wait to buy there.
Buses: Where trains are impractical or you can't buy a ticket, sleeper buses are the next best option for long distances ( see image). However sleeper buses are best avoided during the day as the lying down or sitting on the edge of a bed is not an ideal position for enjoying the scenery! The bunks are in 2 rows with a narrow aisle running down the centre. There are upper and lower berths and each berth sleeps two people. Depending on the type of bus, beds are either flat or zigzag (raised at the head and knees). Quite often, only the bottom ones are flat and they sometimes come with a slight price increase. Whatever your reservation, you can usually change your bed by arriving a bit in advance and smiling at the driver. The Chinese do not usually like to share their berth with foreigners. As long as the bus is not full, you should therefore enjoy two spaces for the price of one, which really helps. Various stops may occur, including meals, breakdowns, petrol and washing of the bus just before entering the destination city.
There are public or pilgrim buses to the monasteries near Lhasa and even to Shigatse, but most long trips within Tibet are done in a 4WD. On all 4WD trips, bargain hard & check notice boards. Roads are not good and breakdowns are common. Here are some details of popular routes:
Golmud to Lhasa... the most popular route and much easier than in days gone by. You have bus and now train options. The road to Lhasa is amazingly good for how remote it is. Ride usually takes between 18 and 22 hours. The new train line called the Qinghai-Tibet railway (Golmud is in Qinghai, the province north of Tibet). It is the highest railway on earth, running at over 5000 meters in places.
Lhasa to Everest Base Camp (EBC)... first check the message boards at the popular guesthouses in Lhasa such as the Kirey, Pentoc, Snowlands, Banak Shol and Yak Hotel for postings 'seats available' to EBC. It is not uncommon to find a shared seat in a 4WD to EBC for around Y1000 or less. If you are in a group, it is easy to arrange a trip to EBC on your own. The travel agencies in the Banak Shol, Kirey and Snowlands Guesthouses are the best in my opinion. The can all quickly arrange an 8 day journey to EBC going through Yamdrok Lake, Nangartse, Gyantse, Shigatse and Sakya along the way and then returning to Lhasa. Expect Y3500-5000 per vehicle to go from Lhasa to EBC and back including all permits, entry fees, gasoline, driver's hotel and food, etc.
Lhasa to Nepal border... easy, cost should be around Y400-Y500 per person or Y2000 for a 4WD. This is to go straight to the border taking 2 days. Price won't include a stop at EBC or anywhere else along the way. Many guesthouses can arrange this trip.
Lhasa to Kailash and back to Lhasa... a great trip to make, again first check the message boards at the popular guesthouses. You can sometimes find a lift to Kailash and back for between Y3400 and Y4000 per person. Sometimes even lower. The standard trip to Kailash and back takes around 13-18 days. This includes stopping at Lake Manasarovar along the way. The cost of getting out to Kailash legally isn't cheap. Several agencies will quote Y15,000+ per vehicle, for a 15 day trip. Make sure that the 4WD is good (tyres, seats, engine, brakes, etc).
Kashgar to Lhasa... no buses, foreigners are not permitted to travel this route (unless part of a tour) - although of course many try to hitch (see traveller notice boards in John's Cafe etc in Kashgar), most get turned back at check points. Hitching is difficult and cold - take supplies, the road is extremely remote. Expect 5 to 15 days. Arrange a tour or join a private group with the right permits.
To Central Asia and South Asia (out of Kashgar):
For the Torugart and Irkeshtam Passes (overland route into Central Asia - see within the Kyrgyzstan summary). For the Karakoram Highway (overland route into South Asia see within the Pakistan summary)
To Siberia, Moscow and beyond:
For the Trans-Siberian/Mongolian railway see within the Russia summary), or look at the well-known man in seat 61.
Guide book: Many guides, Lonely Planet considered the best. Prices and information changes so fast most guides become out-of-date before being published.
Locals: Can be a little unwelcoming and in the worst case,
a little bit hostile to travellers, although this is a cultural thing
and not meant with any real malice. Moreover it is down to almost no
English spoken by most (although the younger educated generation is
speaking more and more to a level that can sometimes surprise). It takes a while to get used to very limited/no
English and, depending on the region you visit, you might also have
to get use to staring and other Chinese habits such as spitting. Having
said all this, China is modernising fast and locals are becoming much
more accustomed to foreigners and their behaviour than in previous years.
In addition, in a country the size of China, you will of course find a
variation in how you are treated between town, city, north, south, east
Be warned that in tourist hot spots those who do speak good English and are friendly in approaching you on the street, are looking to earn a little cash by taking you 'shopping' or to a 'tea ceremony' - all of which will cost you money.
Other travellers: Depending on where you are, you can, if off the beaten track, travel for a fair while without meeting other travellers (not fun alone), however at major sights and stops you will find the normal mix of Europeans, Australians and particularly North Americans.
Expect large numbers of domestic tourists and be well aware of when Chinese New Year (Spring Festival / Lunar New Year) is. Normally in February, the whole country almost stops for a week with millions of Chinese travelling home for the occasion. Thus accommodation and transport become booked solid and very expensive if available at all.
Tourist factor: At major attractions, that most travellers limit themselves to - 8/10
Accommodation: [at the budget end] Basic and not always easy to locate. Many of the new hotels aimed at travelling businessmen that have sprung up in cities are a good choice and better value than the standard travellers' haunts almost every town has. These can sometimes be a little hard to locate and have names like 'New Yield Fast Foreign Executive Centre' (and no we didn't make that up) and not always in English. Prices posted by reception or quoted are often many times higher than the real local going rate. As with most cheaper hotels don't expect much English so a few phrases to haggle with should bring the price tumbling down at a great rate for the type of rooms offered. The tip is to shop around a little outside of your guidebook recommendations and always look for a discount. If you want a better standard of hotel, outside Shanghai/HK/Beijing you can find some great bargains and as with flights and hotels on ctrip.com which is a great booking tool.
Hot water: Can be limited if on the cheap
Average cost: US$15-40
'Red' tourism: The Chinese love to travel and many of the most recent generation to retire are doing so with the cash to do so. For many that is not quite enough cash to head to Sydney, Paris or New York, but enough for the local region. Given that many Chinese travellers faced with onerous visa restrictions and language barriers simple stay and home and there is no bigger business than nostalgia in the Chinese travel industry. This translates to literary millions making a bee line for anything remotely linked to Mao and the China they grew up in. If this this can be coupled with a region of beauty even better! The government even actively supports it. The result is massive crowds, huge over development and underwhelming sights. As a foreigner the spectacle is fascinating at first and then annoying, then very annoying. Places to avoid: Gutian, Yan'an, Jinggangshan, Zunyi and Shaoshan (Mao birthplace). Hainan Island is work a visit, but is also an epicentre.
Books: Limited when in China outside Beijing/Shanghai. The lengthy novel 'Wild Swans' about life in China over several generations is an excellent read, but not when in China where it is banned.
TV: Limited, most 'business' aimed hotels in larger cities have TVs - CCTV 9 is in English but don't get too excited!
Food: Not as fantastic as you might have expected, but not bad. Food can be a struggle due to its strangeness and language barrier.
Vegetarians: Not a problem, make sure you know what you are ordering.
Hassle and annoyance factor: Smoking is a major annoyance if it bothers you. There is minor hassle in tourist hubs, from small time would be con-men/women, vendors and beggars, but all pretty tame to elsewhere in Asia.
Women alone: Okay
Local poisons for the body: Very cheap cigarettes. Foreign brands normally under the counter. Beer amazing value and normally quick light, severed in oversized bottles. The Chinese love drinking games (normally with dice) and are for some reason very proud of the national heart stopper (one of the most-consumed liquors on earth): Baijiu. A - to our pallets at least - almost undrinkable strong spirit which anyone who wants to do business in Chinese learns to 'get on with it!'
Intro: Perhaps more famous for technological innovation/output and an uneasy history with the mainland 'big brother' [China] than as a travel destination. Taiwan is rarely visited by anyone except mainland Chinese tourists and those with a business interest. This is a shame, since it is a gem. Compared to its mainland relative it is tiny (about the size of Holland), nonetheless Taiwan is diverse with an interesting history spanning aboriginal roots, Japanese occupation and - finally - its current incarnation as the Republic of China. Home to around 23 million people and one of the world's most densely populated countries, Taiwan can still seem quiet, serene and lonely in its spectacular central mountain ranges and eastern coastal regions.
It may not exactly be Dickens’ 'Tale of Two Cities' but Taiwan could certainly be described as a 'Tale of Two Coasts'. The western coast is highly developed and contains all of the major cities, namely Taipei in the north, Taichung and finally Kaohsiung in the south. There is a superb high speed rail network linking these areas and it is also home to the country's technological factories and Asian city staples that Taiwan is known for. Get over to the sparsely populated east coast and you'll find the highlights of Taiwan.
Spectacular scenery, friendly locals and interesting culture are abundant. There are good beaches in the Southern part of the island - although obviously not on par with peers in the likes of Thailand or the Philippines - and beautiful Yushu mountains in the Alishan range (containing the highest mountain in Asia).
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.
Many thanks to Alex Schofield for writing this summary and sharing his knowledge.
Getting In/Out: There are regular boats from Xiamen and Fuzhou on the mainland, other than that it is a fly in - fly out affair which unfortunately puts off many from visiting. Taipei airport is extremely well connected internationally.
Visa strategy: Taiwan, like Hong Kong and Macau it has a completely separate immigration system from Mainland China. Most western nations get a free 30 day stamp when arriving at Taipei Taoyuan airport which is almost always the travellers entry point into the country
Typical tourist trail: Many do a loop around the island starting in Taipei, taking in Sun Moon Lake and Alishan. Getting across the centre of Taiwan is not that easy so most go around the coasts.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: North is considerably wetter than the south. Winter isn't particularly cold, the Summer is hot, humid and typical of subtropical Asia. Shoulder seasons are probably best time to travel.
Costs: Very reasonable for a developed country, certainly cheaper than Japan or Hong Kong, but more expensive than most of Mainland China. Somewhere like Beijing would probably be quite a good comparison. Staying in budget accommodation, taking a few tours, renting a motorbike and eating in local restaurants would set you back around $40-50 a day. As with most of Asia, you could certainly spend less and you could certainly spend a lot more. Food is good value, especially if you eat a lot at the excellent night markets and local cafes. Transport costs are small as it is not a big Island. However, crazy nights out in Taipei and eating out in its western restaurants will set you back a small fortune.
Money: Use the ATM's which are everywhere, even in small towns. Visa, Mastercard & Unionpay all no problem. Be aware that moneychangers are very rare in Taiwan (except at the airport) and to change money legally you are supposed to go to a bank, where all major currencies can be changed.
What to take: Cold remedy and warm clothes if travelling during the winter. It also worth taking at least a basic knowledge of a few Chinese phrases and words - e.g. Duo Shao Qian? (how much?) or shui (pronounced shway) (water).
Taiwan has a superb train system ranging from the
super fast high speed line in the West of the island (top to bottom
of the island in 90minutes!) to the general trains that run round the
rest of the island. However, trains only really run around the coasts,
which means to get to the terrific mountainous areas in the centre you
either have to rely on the somewhat unreliable buses, rent a taxi for
a period of time or hire your own transport whether that be a car or
a scooter/motorbike. Public transport is much better in the west
than the east generally speaking.
To get from place to place using the public transport is fine, but to really explore Taiwan (e.g. Taroko gorge, east coast, etc.) the convenience of having your own transport cannot be beaten. As of July 2015 an eight hour hire of a Taxi was around $65, and renting a scooter for 24 hours was around $13. If wanting to get a little off the beaten track, having your own transport can mean the difference to having an average or a great trip in Taiwan. The bus service is certainly not bad, but most of the time they generally go to the same places the Trains do and the trains are a more efficient option.
Guide book: Both Rough Guide and LP have new guides out. The former is the personal preference. Footprint also has a guide out which has glowing recommendations.
Locals: On the whole very friendly and it has to be said friendlier than mainlanders. English is not widely spoken however so some basic Mandarin will go a long way. It is best not to discuss the political situation regarding their relationship with the PRC as many have very strong political opinions.
Other travellers: Taiwan is not heavily touristed, there is nothing like the banana pancake crowd here. Many are expats or working in other Asian countries like China, Korea or Japan. Generally speaking an older and well-travelled crowd, and others who want to get away from the crowds. You will see lots of Mainland Chinese tour groups as well as many independent traveller s from Hong Kong.
Tourist factor: 4/10 and very easy to go places where there are almost no tourists at all. This climbs to around 6/10 when hitting key attractions such as Taroko Gorge.
Accommodation: The ease of finding accommodation strictly depends on where in Taiwan you are. In major cities and towns it is not a problem at all, as there are very good hostels and hotels to suit every budget (even easier if you can speak some mandarin). However, if you get off the beaten track this becomes quite a difficult task as places to stay then sharply move upmarket and are not always easy to locate. For this reason most travellers will stay in the nearest jumping off point and will rent transport to go where they want, taking advantage of Taiwan's small size. This is a wise strategy.
Hot water: Never a problem
Average cost: Dorm bed in a hostel around US$15. Basic double around US$35-40 depending on location and season. Always bargain.
Communications: Plenty of Internet cafés and fast Wi-Fi everywhere. Unlike mainland China there are no restrictions on internet access. Good 3G coverage from mobile carriers as well. You can buy a local SIM card if you have 2 forms of ID, but some places are not used to selling them to non-residents or people without an ARC (Alien Resident Certificate) card that is issued to expats who work there. Best place to get one is the stand at Taipei airport.
Media: English books are only normally sold in specialist bookshops such as Page One (there is a branch in Taipei 101). Otherwise you will be relying on the book swaps in hostels. No counterfeit book market like in SE Asia. A couple of English TV channels, some places have American channels such as ESPN or HBO where you can watch sport and movies.
Food: Absolutely brilliant. Loads of excellent small corner cafes where you can buy Chinese & Western food such as sandwiches, omelettes, etc. The night markets are a real highlight selling every Chinese dish you can possibly imagine. Particularly recommended are the dumplings and crepes with savoury fillings. Very good range of Western restaurants that are not cheap but are good.
Vegetarians: Never a major issue.
Hassle and annoyance factor: Very low. No real organised tourist industry as in the SE Asia's and Beijing's of this world. The big cities are a little noisy but not too bad by Asian standards.
Women alone: No problem.
Local poisons for the body: Alcohol in bars is expensive, up there with Europe and North American prices. Many drink cheaply in restaurants or buy more cheaply in convenience stores. Usual Asian and foreign brands of cigarettes, around US$3 a pack in a 7 eleven store. Usual very strict Asian laws on drugs and they not widely encountered or used.
Rating: If mostly on the west coast and without own transport 5/10. If in central and eastern areas, especially with own transport 8/10.
Intro: Almost everyone who has eaten Sushi or owned something made by Sony thinks they know something about Japan and the Japanese. For this reason probably there are many myths about Japan, however few are true.
The most commonly held misconceptions that affect travel are firstly that travel is difficult and secondly that Japan is famous as being the most expensive country in the world. For the record travel is as easy as in any other developed country with free tourist literature, and English language signs/announcements certainly make it easier than in China, Russia and many destinations in Europe.
On the cost front, it is expensive to live in Japan, but it can be cheaper to travel in than many western European countries or Australia. It won't be a bargain, but can be affordable. With a significant drop in the value of the Yen to major currencies - there has never been a cheaper time to visit. However you will need some extra planning to save money as it still isn't quite on developing country standards. You do nevertheless get what you pay for with high standards. In Western Europe you get beautiful churches and galleries. In Japan you get beautiful temples and gardens with culture shock of the best possible kind as a supplement.
From beer or hot tea in cans from vending machines, love hotels, mega cities, bowing from the girl serving you in a fast food chain, harrowing history lessons, toilets with remote controls, passing Mount Fuji in a bullet train, skiing and tropical beaches, food to die for and high standards - Japan is not one to miss for the sake of a few hundred bucks saved.
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.
Visa strategy: Easy and free on arrival for most
Typical tourist trail: Tokyo, Nikko, Hiroshima, Kyoto and close-by Nara.
Dangers: Japan is pretty safe (well, maybe spending too much money).
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Hot and humid in summer, cold in winter. Best weather in spring or autumn (and most beautiful also). Cherry blossoms (Sakura), occur around about end March / beginning of April, but vary every year and by location - dates/info. The famous parks in big cities become a frenzied hub during this time with picnics, sightseers and every blossoming tree surrounded by photo-taking Japanese. The spectacle is fascinating and beautiful, but Cherry and Plum blossoms in Japan do however look the same as anywhere else in the world they bloom.
Costs: Thanks to Abenomics and the depreciation of the Japanese Yen, Japan just gets cheaper and cheaper. It is now on par with most of Western Europe and cheaper than some USA/Australian cities.
If you stay in hostels and cheap minshukus, and you are careful with your meals, you can survive easily with 7500JPY a day (which is a figure than can and does adjust in affordability as the Yen exchange rate moves). Add a train pass to this and you get to about 120USD (or just over) and this really is the minimum amount of money you need to visit Japan.
Since costs are the one thing that puts people off and worries so many it is useful to break-down here typical minimum costs: Accommodation: a capsule hotel or hostel bed runs at around 2,500JPY per person to about 3,000JPY per person for a double. Food is actually pretty good value if you avoid meat and too much fish, with loads of short-order restaurants/noodle bars. A ramen with soya or a little fish/meat can happily be found for less that 500JPY, fast food places are also plentiful with normal western prices and there are loads of supermarkets with most hostels having kitchens. Let's consider 3 x 500JPY per day for food (1,500JPY) - tea/water is given free when you eat. Transport - you will also need some transport and a day metro pass for somewhere like Tokyo is around 1,000JPY. Moving around the whole country the Japan Rail pass 'per day cost' varies depending on how long you buy it for (7, 14 or 21days) - if you consider 7 days (most expensive 'per day cost') then per day you will pay around 4,000JPY (a bargain to actual costs).
Add another 300JPY for a beer, entry fee and any other expense and you have a total of: 10,00JPY (inc. rail pass) or 6,000JPY (excl. rail pass). If you take the very rough rate of 100JPY to 1USD then you can see Japan is not too bad cost wise compared to travel in Western Europe, North America or [certainly] Australia. Buy a train pass for longer than 7 days and spend some days without one or using regional local trains and you can average daily costs further down still. Start staying in hotels, taking taxis, eating meat or Sushi in fancy restaurants and buying bullet train tickets without the rail pass and you might as well multiply a 100USD per day budget by 5-10 times.
Money: Japan is quite safe so don't fear about carrying too much cash. Japan is essentially a cash society and although you can use a credit card it is best to stick with cash.
Changing money (any hard currency cash or travellers cheques) is easy, but not really super convenient and is very difficult outside of banking hours. The best and easiest bet is to use any post office as in a bank you may end up spending some time trying, due to communication problems. Private exchange offices are not easy to find or common - again any post office is your best bet.
ATMs are common and yes they do have opening hours, which in most cases are similar to office hours and they tend to suddenly shut down at random times. Do note that although ATMs are plentiful, many do not work with overseas cards. Still with a little hunting in any major town you will find an international one and the place you will always find an international compatible ATM is at the main Post Office - always easily found on a map or by asking, even if you have no Japanese. Also as mentioned these are also perfect places for exchanging money, but do stick to regular hours and the ATM is inside so to use that ATM you have to visit within these normal business hours.
Guide book: Many good guides, all the main players have similar information and are about the same standard. It is worth noting that because Japan has had almost no inflation in the past 10 years, even older guides have fairly spot on prices. Also worth a mention are free maps and other excellent English language tourist information that are widely available. All major train stations have a tourist information office.
What to take: Very western country so standard gear. Plug adaptor and mosquito repellent may be handy, but are not really essential. Do however make sure you have clothing to suit the climates depending on the time of year you visit. It is worth noting that you will be required to remove your footwear frequently, in temples, homes, hostels, etc. and thus a good supply of socks and anything else you can do to avoid 'smelly feet syndrome' is worthwhile.
Japan has an incredible rail network; trains are fast, comfortable (some are amazing) and always on time. Shinkansen (bullet trains) fly at over 200kph on a few especially built lines. The only problem is they are pretty expensive, especially the super-fast bullet trains. As an example the 15min jolt from Osaka to Kyoto will set you back as much as 2,400JPY, however the regular (not bullet) train, which will take much longer will be much, much cheaper.
To cover every aspect of Japanese trains fully would take a website in itself (indeed they are out there), so you will excuse this broad and somewhat basic summary. To generalise you have roughly 6 types of train in Japan. Shinkansen bullet trains with lines all over the country connecting most major cities. These are really fun to ride and like travelling in business class. Zooming along and seeing Mount Fuji out the window is a real thrill, but on the whole these trains are really too fast to enjoy the scenery and looking out the window too long zipping through tunnels and embankments will give you a headache pretty fast. These tickets are also really expensive and best avoided if you don't have a rail pass and are on a budget. Then you have the Nozomi which is the fastest grade of bullet train, these only run on only a few special built lines and are really expensive. They are not covered by the rail pass.
A much cheaper option to the bullet trains are tokkyu, limited express services, but these still have a considerable supplement applied. They are less than half the speed of the bullet trains and more like trains you might be familiar with. They are however much faster than the snail-pace kyuko (express) and futsu (normal) services. These are the cheapest, slowest option and while painful in a way, they are best for taking in the scenery and the only option sometimes. The final type is trains not on the JR (Japan Rail) network and on private lines. This means if you have the rail pass you can't use them for free. On the whole you don't come across these lines too frequently, but every now and again (for example the trip to Mount Fuji five lakes) you have to change from the JR line to a private line for the last leg and then pay for a ticket even with a rail pass.
Hyperdia is a search engine that allows you to do specific point-to-point rail searches for travel in Japan and get an idea of times and cost. It is not the best, but a good start.
A JR (Japan Rail) pass is a must for anyone travelling in Japan. The cost of a one week pass is not far off the price of a return to Osaka and back on the bullet train and you can really get your money's worth. Plus your trip seems so much cheaper seeing as you have made a large upfront payment to get around. If really travelling Japan (i.e. not staying in one small area) you need the rail pass. They are available to cover the whole country for 7, 14 or 21 days. In a nutshell the most important information you need to know is the pass does not cover private (non-JR) lines, the Nozomi which is the fastest grade of bullet trains or sleeper trains, you need to buy it outside of Japan (or in Japan over the net and get it mailed to you) and it covers also JR buses/ferries. The pass is available in many varieties the traditional version that covers the whole country or versions that cover only certain regions - official website here. You can use the pass to some extent in big cities to get around (Tokyo or Osaka on the JR line that rings the cities), but you will not get the cost of having the pass for a day just using it in a city and really if landing or leaving in Tokyo or Osaka you are better to time your trip so you do not have the rail pass while you are there and activate it (which you do with ease in the airport or main train station) for the date of the day you leave and start your tour proper (you can decide this when you activate it).
There is loads of excellent information on: Japan Travel, which has details of all the pass types, tonnes of questions answered and will mail you a pass to Japan if you forget to buy it at home (or couldn't if on a really long trip). Your pass will always be checked on the train and it will have your name and passport number printed on it. However rail passes have no photos on them and the passport number and name printed on it is very rarely checked against another ID. If you find yourself without a JR pass or slow your pace of travel down where you are not taking travelling too much then avoid bullet trains.
Getting trains and buying tickets is very easy and information is found in English. With a JR pass just flash the pass at the station entrance and exit. There is no need to buy a ticket. For bullet trains you don't need to, but it makes sense to go to the ticket office to get a reserved seat. If they have no space, ask for smoking or the non-reserved carriage. Apart from super peak periods like Golden week, you always find some space on the train and departures are frequent, giving you great flexibility to travel with minimum planning. All train stations have luggage storage so you can tour a few cities and end up where you want to stay, storing your bag in each station before continuing.
Trains: See above.
Boats: Long distance ferries are good value if you have plenty of time and there are a number of useful overnight hops. There's no charge for sleeper berths in the bottom class (you sleep on a mat) and if you are lucky you can get a discount with an international student card. There are international ferries to South Korea, Russia and China. Your JR rail pass will also cover you on JR ferries (mainly short hops).
Buses: It should be noted that if you have a JR rail pass (see above), it is valid on the JR bus network. If you don't highway buses are cheaper than limited express trains and overnight services between major cities are comfortable and you make a good saving on the night's accommodation you don't need to pay for. Kyoto to Tokyo being the most frequently used overnight route by travellers.
Air: If you want to get airborne, JAL - Japan airlines and ANA airlines are the main players in the air travel industry in Japan. Many other smaller carriers are also competing with them along the most popular routes, such as Skymart and Air DO. Tokyo's Narita Airport welcomes a few domestic flights, but most domestic flights leave from Haneda (HND) to the south of the city. Similarly, while there are some domestic flights from Kansai International Airport, more use Itami (ITM) to the north of Osaka, and Kobe's airport also hosts some flights. Narita to Haneda or Kansai to Itami is quite a trek, so allow at least three and preferably four hours to transfer. Chubu, on the other hand, has many domestic flights and was built from the ground up for easy interchange.
Locals: Always nice and polite; many will do their best to help you even if they don't understand you or know what you are looking for. Although communication can be a problem, many Japanese have some knowledge of English but seem afraid to use it.
Other travellers: All kinds of japanophiles, not difficult to meet people if you stay in backpacker places. Typical travellers mid-30's compared to the mid-20's majority you find in much of the rest of Asia. The majority of travellers are North American and Australian. You will come across plenty of Chinese on shopping trips.
Tourist factor: 8/10 in Kyoto and Nara. However the big picture is in relative terms there are few foreign travellers (although as the Yen dropped in value, numbers have dramatically climbed - including Chinese visitors) and lots of Japanese tourists. Incredibly easy to get off the tourist track. Try to avoid the Japanese high season, particularly 'Golden Week' (first week of May). It is worth understanding that Japan is undergoing a huge tourist boom lasting many years. Visitor numbers have been going up and up significantly each year. All the more reason to get away from the main tourist hotspots.
Accommodation: There are many budget accommodation options: hostels, backpacker hotels, love hotels, business hotels and minshukus - all starting at 2000-6000Y (at the lower end). Rooms are normally very small but very clean. Most have hard beds (futon over tatami) with harder pillows, and shared bathrooms.
Many hostels around the country are on the Hostel International (HI) network where having a HI membership offers a worthwhile saving, but in major tourist destinations many private (more travellers friendly) options have sprung up, many with more than one location around the country (J-Hoppers being a good example). Such networks are great, offering English speaking young/friendly staff, good information and many facilities. The best hostels do get booked out quickly and Japan is not really somewhere when in a big city you want to be stuck with no where to stay. So book ahead if you can, a simple phone call is all that is needed. Be aware that many hostels have a lock out during the day (a time when cleaning takes place and you cannot enter, from around 1100 to 1500) as in Western Europe. Check-in times are also normally (and inconveniently) from 15-00 to around 2200.
If you do get stuck without a place to stay many small business hotels or minshukus are available, with prices, which though are expensive, won't kill if it is an emergency. Equally capsule hotels are another cheap fall back to hostels, but not really convenient and more of an experience than something practical. Most are men only, but some do take women (although segregated).
Hot water: No problem, you will have even a hot seat on your toilet!
Average cost: 3000Y per person with shared bathroom. In some places this will get you a nice double, in others, only just stretch to a massive impersonal dorm. Cost does bring standards, and dorms will all have AC.
Communications: Internet is easyish to find in big cities, priced okay and Japan is home to some of the most amazing internet cafes on the planet where you can hire your own den complete with free drinks, comic library and lightning fast PC for cheaper than the equivalent time in a hostel. Most hostels have (normally free) Wi-Fi network. Mobile phones, global roaming might not work in Japan. It's not uncommon to see travellers stuck as their phones had worked all over the world until then. Confusion between dual band and dual mode is worth checking here.
Health: No problems. Tap water is safe to drink.
Books: Hard to find (in English), even The Economist, Time and other English language magazines are rarely seen. Best to track down one of a few English language book stores.
TV: Some backpacker geared hostels may have dual TV (bilingual) available and DVD libraries, but generally speaking, forget about it.
Food: Food is great, a real highlight and there are lots of options for the budget traveller. You can have a basic meal from 400Y, a good meal for 500-1000Y, or 2500-3500Y in a good restaurant. If your budget is suffering, you can go with instant noodles for 100-150Y or use supermarkets and cook in your hostel. Finding, choosing and ordering food is incredibly easy as you will always see plastic models of what is on offer in the window or at least a picture of every item on the menu card you can simply point to. Meals almost always come with a free drink (water or tea) so no need to splash out more for something to drink.
Vegetarians: Difficult for strict vegetarians as most sauces and soups contain dashi (fish stock). No problem for those who don't care about these kind of details and/or eat fish.
Rating: 8.5/10 (less if you are unprepared for the cost or visit in mid-summer or winter).
Intro: Korea might be best described by its rather obvious position on the map - that of something in-between China and Japan. South Korea - which this summary mainly deals with - is effectively an island cut off to the North at the world's most heavily fortified border, however is well connected by ferry to China and Japan. Despite this and apart from those who come to teach English in their thousands or use Seoul as a stepping stone between Japan, China and Vladivostok (the last stop on the trans-Siberian railroad), Korea is clearly a third choice over its heavily populated and touristed neighbours.
The analogy of something between China and Japan goes further still. To cost, efficiency, feel and ease of travel. Although clearly due to its own version of the 'economic miracle' it is closer to Japan. Like Japan it has fast efficient trains (although far fewer than Japan), crazy food/nightlife, most signs translated in English and a feel of a population comprised of efficient 'worker bees' with occasional examples of overzealous and rather amazing stabs of individualism.
Westerners and tourists are far from uncommon in Korea, but are far, far less common than in the mass tourist/backpacker hubs of Kyoto or Beijing, probably due to the fact there are no attractions on those scales. On a smaller and less well-known scale, there is plenty. Gyeongju for example has more than just a passing resemblance to Kyoto/Nara and Seoul's many huge palaces to Beijing's own Forbidden City.
Misty 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.
Highlights: [South Korea] Korean food, drink and nightlife, an adventure in itself. Cycling around Gyeongju with its laid back atmosphere, and historic temples / burial mounds. Enormous Seoul, an urban massive by any standard with an amazing variety of districts. Jeju Island and getting well off the beaten track on any other of the country's hundreds of other islands. Getting out into the countryside with Andong province being the most obvious choice. Any of the country's nation-parks with (despite the crowds, Seoraksan, being the stand-out). And finally like Japan the simple bizarreness of so much you see and experience. [North Korea] The whole notion of just being there and seeing the Mass Games.
Lowlights: [South Korea] There is very little not to like about South Korea, but those coming from other (cheaper) parts of Asia will perhaps bemoan costs and the lack of obvious 'big' attractions compared to China. Equally those coming from Japan will find it quite similar and those coming from China, SE Asia or India will perhaps find it lacking excitement. [North Korea] The cost and having to be on a very dull tour with no interaction with locals or the actual country.
Visa strategy: Almost all Western country nationals get in visa free. Durations do vary, but most get at least three months. For a work visa you will need an employer to do all the leg-work. For North Korea you visa is arranged as part of your tour.
Typical tourist trail: Most visitors make it only to Seoul and the DMZ. There is no tourist trail as such, but the high-speed train to Busan is the most popular route in the country, with Busan being the departure point to Japan and with Gyeongju. Dispute having a great network of trains and buses, there is no other obvious route between 'must-see-sights'.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Anyone who grew up watching M*A*S*H will be well aware of the extreme temperature variations in Korea, which has four distinct seasons. Spring and autumn being (as with the rest of the countries on this section) the best time to visit - say April to early Nov. The summer is pretty muggy and half the country's annual rain falls in July and August. Winter is long cold and freezing, but travel is still easy and heating systems are good.
Guide book: Both Rough Guide and Lonely Planet have good options with the former being better written and less popular.
Money: ATMs are widespread (look in the ubiquitous convenience stores) and with none of the problems you find in Japan. In addition, almost everywhere will take a debit/credit card.
Costs: Costs, as with Japan, depend very much upon the fortunes of the national currency which has long been pretty good value, Although standards are high, day-to-day travel costs are below Western European, a good deal below North American and slightly below Japan. At the low-mid range end: food, drink accommodation and public transport are great value for the standard. Being a small country means transport costs will be low. There is a huge supply of hostels (in certain towns) plus cheap motels/love hotels (everywhere) which keep accommodation costs down. And lastly convenience stores can always provide a cheap (pot noodle) meal. US$35-40 per day is enough, you could probably get away with less and certainly spend much more.
Getting around: Getting around is easy. Although the train network does have restrictions, there is a great network of buses. It is also all great value for a developed country.
Trains: Trains are excellent, most being fast, sleek and cheap, but unlike Japan there fewer less lines than probably needed. Some cities are wonderfully connected (the Seoul/Busan KTX mainline, similar to the bullet trains), others (North East) require long trips on old tracks/trains where buses are faster.
Buying tickets is easy and apart from the super fast lines they are cheap. Like Japan, a rail pass is available (KR Pass). At first glance compared to Japanese versions it is excellent value and if you will be using the main KTX mainline between Seoul/Busan regularly in a short space of time it is. However if you are heading to the North East, Islands or national parks, it is tough to make it really pay. Like the JR pass (see Japan) it is only available to foreigners when purchased outside the country. There is a discount if you travel with 1 or more companions and you can book easily on the KR website.
Buses: Long distance buses are far more numerous than trains and at rush hour it can seem like one is leaving every five minutes. There are two basic types: express and intercity. One being faster than the other, but both often running the same direction/route, confusingly sometimes from different stations. Standards are excellent with breaks at service stations and sometimes a movie. With so many departures apart from at notable holidays (see below - Seollal and Chuseok) it is normally always easy to find one without booking in advance or waiting too long. Prices are cheaper than fast trains (but take longer) and about the same as the slower trains (but, are often faster depending on rail connections).
Air: There are numerous internal flights, but why anyone would need to take them apart from rush trips to some islands (most Koreans come to Jeju by plane) is a mystery.
Boats: With many thousands of islands off its coast there are many ferries and options. The main ferry centres are Incheon, Mokpo, Wando, Yeosu and Busan. Fares are cheap, but for popular islands (Jeju, Hongdo and others) prices do shoot up.
Despite being a island, international connections are easy:
To/from Russia, Zarubino (near Vladivostok, the last stop on the Trans-Siberian), there are twice-weekly ferries to Sokcho. It's around 18hours by boat and for this reason many take one of the regular flights.
To/from China there are many ferry routes from East coast cities all heading to Icheon (most popular are to/from Dalian, Dandong, Qingdao and Tanggu/Tianjin for Beijing.
To/from Japan, (to/from Busan) for Fukuoka and Shimoneseki is easy and you find both fast (jetfoil) and slower crafts.
Locals: Koreans are friendly enough, but very few have good English or the confidence to use what they know. It is also a fiercely traditional country outside of major cities.
Other travellers: You are unlikely the meet many 'typical' Asian backpackers, with the exception of those you meet transiting to/from Japan travelling from Europe via the trans-Siberian. Most westerners you see in Korea are there to work (that is teach English) or are older, more experienced travellers, on a short trip. Those working aside, it is unlikely you will come across any great concentration outside major cities, with most staying in Seoul/Busan rushing to Japan/Russia/China.
Accommodation: There is plenty of accommodation in South
Korea, across a wide range, but outside Seoul and a few other cities
the budget choices are somewhat strange. Within Seoul and a few
other destinations there are many excellent hostels,
but often heavily in demand and worth booking ahead. Around the
rest of the country in places like Gyeongju you can find basic
guesthouses friendly and perfect for travellers
on a budget and not wanting a dorm bed.
For the rest there are plenty of motels, defined as being a cheap basic hotel, these are normally found in mass around the bus or train station and are instantly recognisable for their strange, gaudy style (some have to be seen to be believed, turrets and all). They are normally excellent value although are almost always aimed at Korean couples being 'love hotels' - see image. As such at the extreme these can be rented by the hour, have a darkened doorway and screen between you and the receptionist, have a big board showing pictures of which rooms are free and which are 'otherwise occupied' and are pretty seedy. At the other end of the spectrum apart from the somewhat strange architecture these are the same as a motel in Europe or North America and are good value. The seedier ones are easy to spot and the better ones can be found with a guidebook and some time spent walking around.
In North Korea all hotels are of a pretty good (dull) western standard and are pre-booked as part of your tour - see box left.
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.
The 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.
Why Korea Split Into North and South Korea (video link)
There a few other ways to get sight of North Korea (views across the border). From Vladivostok in Russia you are (circa 300km) close with the A189 road running to Khasan where you can find a vantage point where you can see the Tumen River and North Korea beyond, however large parts near the border are technically off limits and you should not be there (we were stopped and [small] fined on the return). From China there are far more accessible and popular vantage points with - in typical Chinese style - huge attractions made of places you can look across a river at nothing. Dandong, which is easily accessible is the most popular of these places.
Tourist factor: Around Seoul and heading on DMZ tours you will see plenty of tourists, outside Seoul/Busan the numbers drop off to almost nothing apart from the odd tour group around Gyeongju. However Korean and Japanese tourists can crowd many attractions at peak times, especially national parks.
Notable Holidays: The two biggest holidays are Seollal (Normally early February, 3 day Lunar new year) and Chuseok (late September, early August, 3 day similar to Thanksgiving), during which time public transport gets very busy.
Communications: Most hostels or hotels have some form of free internet you can use and Wi-Fi is prevalent across the country in the numerous cafe joints. Actual internet cafes in the super modern Japanese style can be found in all cities, just look for 'PC-Bang' (Bang is a post-fix you will see frequently across Korea and means room (e.g. Norae-Bang - Norae meaning song, thus Karaoke/song-room). As with Japan, many western mobile phones will not work on Korean networks.
Food: The three most important things to know about Korean food are: Firstly, much is quite bizarre and you need to be a little brave. Secondly it is on the whole VERY spicy. And thirdly it is great! As mentioned in the introduction, Korean food is a major highlight and there are many, many great dishes to try. It is also pretty spicy. There are numerous western style fast-food joints and most convenience stores have hot water, microwaves and a place to sit down for a quick, cheap meal of cup noodle or similar. Korean restaurants can be a little intimidating as you probably won't find an English menu, better learn a word from a guidebook of a dish and/or meat/vegetable you want and take the plunge.
Vegetarians: All in all not a great destination for vegetarians. Eating fish/seafood makes life much easier, but for many the manner that it can be hauled, live out of a tank in front of you and killed on the spot, can be enough to put you off. Indeed many of the fish markets will cut you sushi from creatures killed in front of you. Overall the national cuisine is meat dominated, but as always vegetarians can get by, especially if not too fussy.
Intro: Mongolia - other than a name that conjures up the exotic, almost a term for remote - is a huge country, four times the size of the UK, but with a tiny population, just over 2 million, of which just under half live in the capital - Ulan Bator (commonly known as UB). The next biggest town probably isn't more than 100,000 in population. Mongolia could be seen as a 'buffer' state; it has extremely long borders with Russia to the North and China to the South. The majority of people are nomadic living in the iconic 'ger' or 'yurt', which is a white, round tent. Most people are ethnically Khalka Mongol and Buddhist. Mongolia has become a popular side trip from Beijing and is commonly transited on the hugely popular Trans Mongolian express (one route of the Trans-Siberian) which runs from Moscow to Beijing. It's hard work travelling in Mongolia; it can be far from welcoming and bleak in every form. The romanticism the name brings to mind is often gone before one leaves the train station.
Highlights: Fantastic people, especially in the countryside. Interesting landscapes & interesting culture. Gobi Desert and Hovsgol Lake stand out (note there are various different spellings of Hovsgol – LP calls it Khovsgol'). Traditional music performances in Ulan Bator also well worth seeing.
Lowlights: Transport is tiring and hard work. Food can be
monotonous and not ideal for vegetarians.
Visa strategy: As of mid-2014 visa free for many, but not all. Germans, Israelis, Canadians and Americans enter visa free. Australians, Kiwis, Brits and many others still need to follow a complicated and expensive process. We hope more countries will be added to the list - please check.
Typical tourist trail: Most travellers pass through the country by rail, stopping only in Ulan Bator. Main destinations apart from Ulan Bator are the Gobi Desert, Hovsgol Lake and Karakorum. Both the Gobi Desert and Hovsgol trips will require a week to cover, starting from Ulan Bator. Karakoram is closer to the capital city and can be covered in a shorter time. Here, Genghis Khan located the capital of his empire. The Buddhist monastery Erdene Zuu is located on the same site. Few visit the Muslim region in the west, inhabited by Kazakhs and Mongolians. It will take a few days to get there by road from Ulan Bator, but flights also are available. There are a few Buddhist monastic sights near Ulan Bator that can be visited as day trips. Another frequent excursion from Ulan Bator is to stay overnight in a traditional yurt, organised with ease though local tour companies.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Extremes of climate. The winter can go to –40C. You need to know what you're doing if you visit from October onwards. First snow-falls are late September, early October. Coldest month is January. The summer is pleasant and warm, although mosquitoes are a pain in May and June. A remarkably sunny country, enjoying 250 sunny days a year, often with clear cloudless skies. Some rain in July and August.
Costs: It's possible to live/travel for between US$15 and US$30 per day. Accommodation/food/transport are all quite cheap.
Money: Best to bring US$ cash or travellers cheques and change money in Ulan Bator. There are now ATMs in UB, but they only take Plus and Visa cards, not Cirrus as far as reported. You can find them in major hotels or banks and some supermarkets.
What to take: Sunscreen, warm clothes / thermals, tent and good sleeping bag if you want to really get off the beaten track.
Health: General health problems to watch out for include food poisoning, severe hangovers and catching a cold.
Getting around: Rail to Ulan Bator from Beijing (it's a lovely journey), which passes on north to Russia. There are one or two domestic rail lines out of Ulan Bator, such as to Bulgan. For most other journeys its bus with long distances involved. For example, to get from Ulan Bator to Moron (near Lake Hovsgol) takes 24 hours. Roads are mainly dirt tracks.
For longer distances, a number of provincial towns are connected to Ulan Bator by air. Especially to the far west, this may be worthwhile. Around Gobi the conventional mode of transport is the jeep. Around Lake Hovsgol, horse trekking is a great way to spend a few days or even a week. Locals are really hospitable.
Guide book: Lonely Planet has a reasonable guide book. Guide book is not an absolute necessity since there is not a huge range or choice of towns to visit. You can learn most by talking to other backpackers in Ulan Bator.
Tourist factor: There are backpackers in UB, but far from overrun. Quite a few NGOs / Peace Corps.
Billy Hanley for supplying this summary and sharing his knowledge.
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
Locals: Very decent and friendly, hospitable in both the countryside and Ulan Bator. I was invited for lunch a number of times. Very few in the countryside speak English. It's well worth learning a few words of Mongolian, like the types of food.
Other travellers: Generally speaking, people who visit Mongolia are keen travellers and are prepared for a bit of hardship. The only annoying ones are those that stop in Ulan Bator for a day on their journey between China and Russia, and this is only annoying because they really should stay longer. There are a lot of Israelis, and quite a few Japanese and Russians. A few Americans, but they are more often with NGOs than backpacking.
Accommodation: The architecture of Ulan Bator has a strong Soviet influence. There are plenty of big apartment blocks built in the 1950s. A number of local entrepreneurs own apartments that serve as youth hostels for backpackers. These can be found quite easily. There's a chap called Mr. Bold who runs a lot of backpacker accommodation - he owns several apartments. He is a good guy, by and large. There are a number of other smaller operators - Lonely Planet has all the details. Outside Ulan Bator there are lodgings in other major towns, but more likely you'll be in the countryside staying in a tent or yurt.
Hot water: Freely available in Ulan Bator, thanks to excellent waterworks put in place by the Russians years ago.
Average cost: Between $10 and $15, more or less. Can also pay per bed rather than room.
Communications: Internet and phone widely available in Ulan Bator.
Food: Food may not be to everyone's taste. There are a few really good restaurants in Ulan Bator catering to influx of expatiate workers. Ulan Bator actually has quite an international feel to it. The regular cafes there serve things like sausages, burgers, omelettes, chips. You can buy things like Bulgarian wine and Danish butter cookies that aren't available in China. In the countryside, staying in tents the diet is fairly limited. Lots of cheese, also lots of dried cheese which is sort of chalky and hard. There is a delicious dairy product eaten in the countryside, difficult to explain, but basically as follows – most rural people own yaks which are milked daily. The milk is left in a pail overnight and the cream at the top slightly curdles, producing a liquid butter that is served on bread. In general, very little fruit or veg, lots of bread, cheese, meat.
Vegetarians: Not great outside of Ulan Bator. Vegetables and fruit don't form a large part of the national diet. An apple would be a great rarity. Expect to eat lots of cheese, which in itself is nice enough.
Hassle and annoyance factor: Very few touts, lots of poverty in Ulan Bator and there are petty criminals at work so watch out for pick-pockets, especially in larger markets.
Women alone: Plenty of girls travelling alone and few reports of any problems.
Local poisons for the body: Mongolians are big into vodka and lots of beer. The smoke of cheap Russian cigarettes can fill the air as is not very pleasant. The local drink is fermented mare's milk.
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