Sunday, December 25, 2011

South Africa, China, and Korea

This is a long overdue entry and covers several trips. First is a trip to South Africa and later a short trip to China and Korea.

We left for Johannesburg on a direct flight from NYC via South African Airways (SAA). Although the flight was excellent there was a 20hr delay before takeoff. As I made the booking only a few days before departure I was not able to select my seat for all the flights but 73D or exit row seats are the economy class seats on SAA that are most desirable according to and verified by me because there are no seats in front of them.

Johannesburg like many others is a city of contrasts. We started a city tour by visiting the Houghton neighborhood, which has many beautiful villas hidden behind tall stone fences adorned with electrical security wire at the top. Most of the signs in the neighborhood advertised pool and tennis court repair, which gave us an idea of the demographic and its needs. Just a little while later we visited Hillsborough, where we were scared to get out of the car. Later on we visited the Apartheid museum and were reminded about how recent were the atrocities took place in South Africa.

Next stop is Cape Town, which is the ultimate tourist destination in South Africa with great sightseeing and great entertainment. We stayed at which is in Century City and 10 minutes away from downtown but the huge discount more than compensated for the taxi back and forth. We took the cable car to the top of Table Mountain and also visited Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point. Everything is very scenic and restaurants are top notch. Not too far away is beautiful wine country with many enormous vineyards and restaurants with some of the best chefs in the world - One restaurant that we really enjoyed here is Le Quartier Francais in Franschhoek - It is currently rated #36 in the world and #1 in Africa and the Middle East and the food stands up to the test.

A very special place is Salt Restaurant -, where Sara and I decided to celebrate our birthdays. We were there with our families and my classmates from the Global EMBA program. Special occasion is not only our 30th birthdays but also our engagement. I got down on one knee and after 10 years asked Sara to be my wife to which she agreed.

We went on to rent a car and drive to Kruger National Park for a relaxing safari. It should be noted that the driving is done on “other side” of the road in South Africa. It took about 6 or so hours to get to the park from Johannesburg and we had to enter through one of the official gates. We stayed inside the park for about a week an alternated between different camping sites. Camping sites have different accommodation from tents to townhouses and are much less expensive than if you were to stay outside of the park in a lodge. For comparison we paid about $100/night for a room and did our own sightseeing in our rented car while a comparable organized tour with accommodations in a lodge outside of the park would cost $1,000+/night and would require a long time to get inside the park everyday as the park speed limit is very low. All information is available on the official park website - and all tours should be booked directly with the park.

Everyone embarks on an African safari to see the big 5 animals, which are Leopard, Lion, Elephant, Rhino, and Buffalo. The big 5 are not categorized based on size but on aggressiveness. Different parts of the park are populated with different animals so I recommend that you visit different parts to see more animals. The best time to see animals is in the morning when they come to drink water so be ready to wake up at 4am. One night drive is also recommended just to get an idea of what’s it’s like. These can only be done by official park rangers and need to be booked at the campsite.

China and Korea

I was in Beijing as part of my school required international assignment. This was not my first time but Beijing has changed tremendously and I felt that it deserved a note.

The number of cars has doubled in the last few years and what used to be a Chinese dream is now a nightmare as there is chronic traffic almost everywhere in Beijing and simple drive just a few miles away can easily take an hour.

Apartments in Beijing, and many other large cities in China, are more expensive than in NYC. There are actually advertisements that say if you have $250,000 to spend for an apartment come to the US to buy 5 homes, if you have $500,000 learn about how to get official residency in the USA.

We stayed at the Grand Hyatt -, which has an amazing pool and Jacuzzi and a super convenient location near Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City. We visited the wall and the other attractions, including 798 Art Zone, which is an artistic community among decommissioned military factory buildings often compared to Soho in NYC.

After China we took a short trip to South Korea, where we spent one night and had just enough time to try Korean BBQ, which is awesome and much less expensive in Korea than it is in NYC. Something that stood out was that a lot more people knew English in Korea than in China, which for some reason was a surprise to me.