Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Korea ah ah

I’m back in Seattle now and the cherry blossoms are already out. We’ve
had amazingly gorgeous weather for a few days, which has been a nice
welcome to the start of my settled life here. After 52 days, seven
countries, fourteen cities, 24,000 miles, and 18 flights, I have to
admit that it’s nice to have my own bed and not to live out of a
backpack any more. Before I get too carried away with life at home,
though, I’d like to finish up this blog with accounts of my time in
Korea – ending in Seoul – or as they call it: “The Soul of Asia.”

After our speedy (whale encounter free) ferry ride, we ended up in
Busan, Korea. From there we found our way to a subway, and then a bus
and about two hours later to the Gyeong Ju bus station. We wandered
around with our heavy stuff for far too long and eventually convinced
a reluctant cab driver to take us to our hostel. SaRang Chae was
described in the book as “the best hostel in the country.” At this
point we’ve realized that the meaning of “best” can be highly
subjective when it comes to hostels, and Gyeong Ju is pretty small, so
we weren’t really sure what to expect. This hostel is nestled between
a lot of narrow little alleyways and a massive park of hill shaped
tombs. It’s made up of a bunch of traditional style rooms all facing
in towards a courtyard where a couple of big dogs are constantly
napping. Our room was pretty large, but instead of beds, we were
given two sets of thin pads, blankets and pillows to unfold and sleep
on. The bathroom had a western style toilet and a showerhead attached
to the wall, but no sink. It was very clean, just much sparser than we
expected. The ambiance was great though and the couple that runs it is
very sweet and helpful. Also, surprisingly for the time of year, it
was pretty full of guests –from America, Canada, and Britain. The
first night we spent there, we discovered that the floors are
mysteriously heated. Our book said that it’s the traditional way of
heating using fire under the buildings. It sounds pretty dangerous,
but it definitely made it more comfortable. The hostel also puts out
bread, eggs, and jam in the morning so that you can fix your own
breakfast for free. It was kind of nice and homey to be able to make
food for ourselves for the first time in a few weeks.

When we woke up the next morning, it was grey and drizzling, but we
were only there for one day so we borrowed umbrellas and set off to
see the sights anyway. First on the list was Bulguksa, an ancient
temple complex from the Silla dynasty. It was about half an hour bus
ride outside of town, and consisted of a raised, walled-in area with
Buddhist temple buildings and Silla style pillars. There was also a
very pretty drum on a turtle. After that we came back to our hostel
area to the Tilimum Park where a lot of the Silla kings are buried and
went into the only tomb open to the public – the Changma tomb. A very
friendly free English-speaking tour guide met us outside and took us
through, explaining everything. All of the artifacts displayed in the
tomb are actually fake versions, replicas, but you get to see the
traditional layout and what the inside of all the hills are filled
with. There’s a wooden chamber at the center – at ground level, which
is covered by a huge mound of rocks (to prevent burglary), and then a
layer of clay around the rocks covered with dirt and grass. The tour
guide said that this king’s name is unknown, but that a painting found
in the tomb of a horse inspired the naming of the tomb as the
“Heavenly Horse Tomb.” Apparently this king was the first to decide
not to have a group burial, which consists of a number of people being
buried alive with the king’s coffin. How sweet of him. The Silla
dynasty ran for about 1000 years uninterrupted and had three queens
who ruled.

After that we trekked to the National Museum, which is very nice and
large and has free admission. Unfortunately, by the time we got there
we were soaking wet, so it wasn’t as enjoyable as it should have been.
All the real original artifacts unearthed from the tomb we had seen
were there, including a very impressive gold crown with little jade
“commas” hanging from it. Our tour guide had told us that they
represent embryos and therefore fertility. After seeing a famously
large and melodious bell and some other artifacts, and being mistaken
for a Korean by some people from our hostel, we headed back to change
and rest for a while.

The food we had in Gyeong Ju was traditional Korean style, where each
person gets a small bowl of fish, meat, or tofu with a bowl of rice,
and then there are a lot of little shared veggie dishes including
kimchi. Carly didn’t really like not knowing what everything was, so
we also found a place called Paris Baguette, which had amazing French
style pastries and little baguette pizzas.

During our time in Korea, the 2010 winter Olympics in Vancouver were
going on, and the star both locally and abroad was the charming
19-year-old ice skater, Kim Yuna. After she won the gold, all the
Koreans called her “Queen Yuna” and her pictures were all over the
place. They also played her long program skate on repeat during our
whole 5 hour bus ride to Seoul the next day. Yuna seems very humble
and sweet and it’s hard not to be instantly in love with her. We were
definitely rooting for her. I probably have her routine memorized at
this point, and never really need to see it again.

Our Seoul hostel was highly recommended by my book, and the book
provided a map and very clear instructions of how to get there.
Everything went really smoothly, until we came to the location that it
was supposed to be – and it was nowhere to be found. After we wandered
around and got very sore backs from lugging our stuff everywhere, a
young Korean man approached us. He asked us in very good English if we
were looking for a backpacker’s hostel. Relieved, we told him we were,
and showed him the map and the name and number of the place. He
called them up, and then told us that it was very far – probably a
15-minute drive from where we were. I was a bit skeptical. We had
followed the directions exactly and our location exactly matched up
with the map. I figured we had just not seen it down one of the
alleyways. After looking around more and deciding it definitely wasn’t
there, our new friend jumped in a cab with us and took us to the real
location. He said he had a test in accounting the next day but not to
feel sorry for him because he had given up studying anyway and didn’t
want us to get ripped off by a cab driver. It turns out, the hostel
had moved two years ago, right after my book was published. We were so
grateful when we found the place that we took him to dinner at a
nearby fast food Korean place (classy, I know). His name is Ilnam and
he studied abroad in Alabama for about 10 months last year and is
still mourning the end of his relationship with an American girl,
which is why he hasn’t studied much for his exam. He was very sweet
and brought us little Korean pouches as presents later in the night to
thank us for dinner. He used “ya’ll” when he wrote on our facebook
walls later too, which we found very entertaining.

That night, at Ilnam’s suggestion, we went to see the Seoul Tower. We
were kind of towered out at this point, but it was definitely the most
exciting tower we saw on the trip because you take a cable car to get
there. The tower sits on the top of a big hill in the middle of the
city, so it has a 360-degree amazing view. It’s apparently the most
romantic place in Seoul.

The next day was our last full day of the trip, so we started off
earlier than usual and went to the GyeongbukGung palace. It’s the most
popular of the 5 palaces in the city and has been restored a lot since
the Japanese destroyed it during the war. All of the old buildings in
Korea are very similar to ancient Chinese architecture, with some
differences in color schemes and patterns. The characters on the
buildings are all Chinese though, because apparently the Koreans used
the Chinese writing system until the 1940s or so. After the palace we
went to the Namdeomung market, which happened to be right by our
hostel. Since it was our last day, we decided that we were allowed to
shop and we bought a few fun knock off socks and scarves and the like.
I got a sweatshirt that says “Proud to be a bunny hugger” that I love.
The vendors in the market quoted us really high prices that were all
the same and didn’t seem to budge when we tried to bargain. I got the
feeling that the prices they told the locals were much lower, but I
guess that’s what I get for not being able to speak Korean.

Our last Korean dinner was delicious Korean BBQ, and then that night
we met up with a friend from Seattle named Liz. She’s teaching English
in Seoul for a year and took us out to Hongdae (the big bar scene)
with her other expat and teacher friends. It was really fun to see her
and get a sense of the international scene in Seoul.

I didn’t expect to dislike Korea, but I was definitely pleasantly
surprised by it. It’s very easy to travel there – especially in Seoul
there are a lot of English speakers and everything is well labeled and
easy to figure out. It’s a bit more expensive than China, but cheaper
than Japan. Seoul is very cosmopolitan and has a youthful and fun
vibe. I was really glad that we got to see Gyeong Ju too, though. It’s
a much smaller city where everything is within walking distance and it
doesn’t seem very permeated by Western influence and travelers. Gyeong
Ju and Seoul complimented each other nicely – giving us a broad, but
quick, introduction to Korea. I definitely want to go back sometime
and explore more.

Well, it’s really been a crazy and amazing adventure. I think the best
but also most frustrating part of traveling is how much it makes you
want to see more of the world. For now I’m happy to be settling in to
Seattle and excited for my next big adventure – joining the real
working world. We’ll see how long that excitement lasts. ☺ So, it is
with bitter sweetness that I must declare this story officially over…
Expect to see more of me, world! I’m not through with you yet.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Kickin it in Kyoto

This morning we woke up at 4 am and took a train to another train to a taxi to meet our hydrofoil boat at 10 am. Now we’re sitting on the Beetle – a high speed boat that goes between Hakata, Japan and Busan, Korea – heading towards the last leg of our journey. Despite the many health issues we had throughout our time in Japan, it was still sad to leave it so soon.

Kyoto is a fairly big city, but is much calmer and more slowly paced than Tokyo. People are okay with riding the escalators all the way up instead of briskly walking up them, and oldsters stroll on the sidewalks with their tiny dogs. Aside from a few taller office buildings, the city seems to be mostly filled with one or two story shops and houses. Also, surprisingly we found that we had slightly fewer communication problems there, and the “I don’t eat pork or shellfish” napkin only had to make a couple appearances (which is good because it’s pretty abused looking at this point). The public transportation in both Tokyo and Kyoto was easy to use and didn’t cause us too much stress. In Tokyo we rode the subways around and in Kyoto we used the busses. Overall this is the country where we’ve used the most public transport – partly because the cabs are so expensive, but also because everything is nicely labeled and there always seems to be a line that will take you exactly where you want to go.

Kyoto is an ancient capital of Japan (after Nara I think?). It doesn’t seem like the city relies on tourism, but there are amazing parks and extremely old temples scattered throughout the city – it seems like almost anywhere you are, you’re within walking distance of something historically significant.

A few days before we got to Kyoto, I found out that my friend Brett from high school, who is in the Marines, is stationed in Japan. Although his base is kind of out of the way, he said he’d never been to Kyoto and decided to come out and meet us there on his day off. I was a little worried that we’d have trouble finding him at the train station, but the fact that he’s about twice as tall as most Japanese people made it pretty easy. Interestingly enough, the Kyoto train station is one of the flashiest sights in Kyoto, so we started out there with a nice Italian lunch. The station has an open air center with stairs and escalators that go up about 11 floors straight in succession. The building is an odd shape that is mostly covered with glass and juts in and out at weird angles. After that we walked over to the To-ji temple to check out a market that only happens on the 21st on every month. Unfortunately, the temple itself was closed, but we saw the outside and walked through the market, picking up some delicious dried mango and some red bean pancakes.

Across from the train station is the Kyoto Tower, which looks like a slightly more cartoonish version of the space needle and comes out of a large office building. We went up to the round observation deck to catch the sunset over the mountains and see the whole city light up in the orange tinted evening light. After the tower, Brett headed back to his base and job building jet engines. It’s crazy to have found so many familiar faces on this side of the world. It was really great to see him - hopefully having some American female company was worth hanging out with two diseased people for an afternoon.

The next morning my eye was still very red, so we decided it was time to go to an eye clinic. I got checked out and given some eye drops and we were about to leave, when Carly wanted to quickly ask the doctor if her eyes looked okay – just in case. What should have been a two minute conversation turned into ten, white clad Japanese nurses giving us a “deer in the headlights” stare, and some very awkward English attempts at telling us not to share eye drops. Finally the doctor took a look at her and declared that she was fine and we were on our way. We bought a day pass for the busses and Carly skillfully navigated our way around the city to the three most popular sights – the Kinkaku-ji, the Ginkaku-ji, and Kiyomizu-dera.

The Kinkaku-ji, or Golden Pavillion, is a stunning, gold encased building that sits on a small picturesque pond, surrounded by trees and peaceful walkways. The Ginkaku-ji, or Silver Pavillion, was supposed to be covered in silver, but according to our brochure that plan was never realized. It’s currently under construction, and the ponds around it were drained, but there were some cool sand sculptures and designs in the garden around it. It also sits in front of a small hill, which you can climb up and get a nice view of the city. The Kiyomizu-dera was a much larger complex with a number of old wooden Japanese temple buildings scattered on the side of a hill. It seems like a lot of people still go there to worship or make formal visits at least because there were a number of men and women in traditional Japanese dress. After our sightseeing, we went to a famous shopping area called Gion and found a delicious Indian restaurant for dinner. There are tons of sights in Kyoto that we missed, but I think we hit the important ones and we were pretty satisfied with the flavor we got.

The next morning we woke up and took an hour train ride to spend the day in Nara. Nara was the first capital of Japan and now seems to be a small and sleepy city next to its main historical attraction – Nara Park. Nara Park is a large grass and tree covered area full of ancient wooden buildings, gardens, pagodas, shrines and ponds. Also, since deer were considered messengers to the gods, they are now considered national treasures and the park is full of literally thousands of tame deer, who just wander around and get fed and petted by tourists. We were really excited when we walked by Kofuku-ji and saw the deer everywhere, and immediately went up and posed for some pictures with a nice buck. Since we didn’t have any of the little vendor sold deer food pancakes for him, he was not really interested in entertaining us. We thought the deer were very endearing until, as we posed for a picture with the five level pagoda, a national treasure came up and ate our nicely marked map of the park. He literally ripped it out of Carly’s hand, played tug of war with her for a while, and then proceeded to chomp up and swallow the whole thing. After that we tended to avoid the deer and keep our Lonely Planet and other loose items away from them.

The most famous attraction in Nara is the Todai-ji, which houses a very large Buddha. I think we were a bit jaded by the Bronze Buddha in Hong Kong, so it didn’t seem as impressive, but I think it’s a lot older and therefore probably a greater artistic feat for its time. After taking some pictures of the Buddha and some of the angry looking figures who share the temple with him, we headed over to Nigatsu-do for a view of the park from above, and then to the Kasuga Taisha Shrine. They were all very beautiful, decorated with intricate lanterns and surrounded by huge, twisty trees that sometimes were supported by wooden props because they had spread so far from their trunks. The whole park was very peaceful and the weather was gorgeous which made the walk around the park and up the twisty pathways very pleasant. Our guide book had warned us against being “those” tourists who buy the deer food pancakes and eat them by accident, so when we bought a red bean pancake as a snack, we inspected it thoroughly and found it hard to convince ourselves that it was people food. The fact that Carly hasn’t been able to taste her food for a few days made it a little more challenging. Regardless, it tasted pretty good to me so I think it was okay.

After our long day of sightseeing, we headed back to Kyoto and tried to find a restaurant that was recommended in my guidebook because it has an English menu. After walking around in circles and deciding that it must have been plowed down and turned into a parking lot, we stopped at a different place. They had a smaller English menu but the descriptions were not very clear so it was still difficult to order. After a long session of pointing and making the “X” sign or the “OK” sign with our hands back and forth with the waitress, we had four dishes picked out. We tried, then, to ask her if that was enough for two people using simple English and hand signals. I said – “four dishes, two people, okay??” pointing from myself to Carly and holding up two fingers. The waitress looked confused for a minute, and then held her stomach and pointed to Carly nodding. Figuring she was getting the fact that we wanted to be “full” I started nodding and then realized she had started making pregnant belly hand motions out from her stomach. Anyway, we ordered another dish, and decided that at least the fact that we were starving and gobbled down the food would be justified to them because they probably thought one or both of us was pregnant. I’d love to hear their interpretation of that conversation. Saying we were vegetarian and then ordering chicken probably didn’t help much either. Crazy Americans.

Our hostel – called K’s Kyoto House – was very nice and clean and our room was much bigger than in Tokyo. It seemed like it was kind of a social place, but we were feeling a bit too tired and diseased to go out and meet people. At least we got to see all the major sights in the short amount of time we had there. I think Japan will definitely have to go on my “revisit in the future list.”

Apparently a few years ago one of these Beetle hydrofoils hit a whale and had to be towed to Busan. Luckily we haven’t hit any whales yet, and should be in Korea soon. We’re getting a little worn out from the constant flow of tourist sights, but I think that after our day in Gyeong Ju, we’ll be able to just enjoy Seoul more as a city than a succession of sights. I can’t believe this trip is coming to an end, and we’re about to go through our last immigration process before going home. There’s never a dull moment though, so I’m anticipating an action packed, exciting last few days.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Tokyo Rush

We are now sitting in our hostel in Kyoto. Time seems to be flying by so quickly – I can’t believe we have only about a week left! There aren’t many opportunities for me to write now since this last part is kind of crammed into ten days or so, but I’ll try to quickly recall as much as I can about Tokyo.

I just walked past someone in our hostel with a British accent saying “I think this is the most civilized place I’ve ever seen!” I guess it’s hard to define “civilized” after a point, but I think by most definitions it is the most “civilized” place in the world. Everything is very clean, efficient, and orderly around here. From what I’ve seen – a very telling sign about a country’s civilization level is usually the state of the public bathrooms. Well good luck trying to beat Japan in that category. Most of the bathrooms here are outfitted with high tech toilets that have seat warmers, butt sprayers, fake flushing noises, and “Strong Deodorizers.” There is a sink that runs over the tank, so that the water that you wash your hands with can be reused to flush the tank the next time the toilet is used. What more could you ever want from a toilet? Also, as you walk down the street, every five steps or so there is a vending machine with a selection of drinks, instant noodles, coffee, and cigarettes. Even in the quietest of side streets, you can pretty much instantly satisfy any sort of craving as long as you have a few 100 yen coins. Despite their reputation for being overly polite, uptight, workaholics, the Japanese people are freakishly nice. When we first emerged from the (wrong) subway exit trying to find our hostel, we only had to stand on the sidewalk looking hopelessly lost for a few minutes before someone stopped and cheerfully pointed us in the right direction (pass the POOOlice! Bam Bam! You know? POOlice!). At one point, I accidentally dropped a 100 yen coin (about 1 US dollar) and it rolled under a parked car. I didn’t even have time to bend down before a man dove under the car to retrieve it for me. The one main disorienting thing is that not many of the people seem to speak English here. I thought that would be a problem in Cambodia, or Indonesia, and it never was – but here in the most “civilized” place in the world, it is hard to come by a menu with English writing. (Gasp! You mean a place can be civilized without English?) I guess it makes sense since they’re beyond having to impress anyone. Anyway, I have a little phrasebook which has been extremely handy, and the people sit through my broken Japanese phrase attempts very patiently and manage not to laugh in my face. My main complaint (which is completely unreasonable, of course) is that the prices for things here are pretty much the same as in America. China will spoil you that way.

On our first night in Tokyo, we stumbled into a Ramen restaurant and had our first communication difficulty encounter. Let’s just say it ended well, but took a lot of sign language and me fishing through the phrasebook to write “I do not eat pork or shellfish” in Japanese on a napkin for Carly to show to the waiter. She has since used it at literally every restaurant we’ve eaten at. After dinner, we decided to explore the Japan Rail (JR) system with our handy dandy JR Pass. We took it to the “Tokyo” stop from our Bakurocho station. That was all easy enough, but then once we were in the Tokyo station, we literally could not find our way out. We followed exit signs through corridor after corridor, ended up in an underground mall, and finally emerged onto a street that didn’t seem to have anything except a minimart. The minimart did have delicious tiny round cookies on sale though, and ever since then I’ve gotten a roll every time we find them. We also found a Golden Spoon – Carly’s favorite Frozen Yogurt store from home – in the subway which was very exciting even though the portions are much smaller in Japan. When we got back to our hostel, which was a very cute, clean little place called Khaosan Tokyo Ninja, we wandered downstairs and met a bunch of other people who were working or staying there. Apparently, they’ll let you stay there for free if you clean for 3 hours a day, so some of the people were just living there for two months or so, cleaning from 11-2, and then hanging out the rest of the day in Tokyo. It’s a rough life.

We made a friend who said he wanted to go to the famous Tsukiji Fish Market the next day at 4 am, so we decided to have an early night and wake up early to go with him. A really nice local guy working at the hostel said he’d go with us to show us around. Three hours later we rolled out of bed and went downstairs to meet up with the group. We were joined by a girl from Germany who had just arrived to work at the hostel for a few weeks, and together we set off to see the famed fish. The Tsukiji market is a place where super large, frozen tuna are brought in from all over the world and auctioned off every morning for thousands of dollars. We took one of Tokyo’s expensive, but pleasant and doily covered cabs and got there around 5 am to watch them set up. Market workers dragged the massive frozen tuna across the floor and lined them up on wooden planks. Each fish had a section of its tail sliced off and buyers and sellers walked down the rows, carefully inspecting the meat and hacking at the fish with large hooks. Then each fish was labeled with red paint. At about 6 the auction started. A man would stand up on a bench in front of a section of fish, ring a large bell for a while, and then proceed to yell and make noises while the buyers silently signaled their bids. If this description doesn’t really do it for you, then check out the video (hopefully) posted below. After a while, Carly was feeling faint, and our German friend felt nauseous, so we headed home and proceeded to sleep away most of the day.

When we woke up, we relaxed a bit and did some laundry, and then headed downstairs and spent the night hanging out with the people at the hostel. Our new friend, Leo, stayed up till all hours of the night with us as we chatted with people who came in and out. We met people from Japan, Australia, Canada, Korea, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, and America, all staying there for different reasons and with different experiences with Japan and with Asia. Our Korean friend, (who says he’ll meet up with us in Seoul!) told us how talking with people from all different countries in English had been a dream of his. We joked with our Japanese phrasebooks, showed each other photos and you tube videos, snacked and talked for hours. It is pretty amazing to be able to meet so many random, interesting people in one place.

The next day we had to make up for lost time sightseeing so we decided to start strong by waking up early. That plan failed, and we woke up around 11. We started out the day by checking out Yoyogi park, which is a large park with a Shinto temple dedicated to the Meiji emperor and his empress. It’s also known as a hotspot for teenage girls who do “cosplay” (costume play – they dress up in weird random costumes and go hang out), boys who like to dress up as Elvis, dancers, musicians, and any other sort of (softcore) social deviant imaginable. When we got to the park and past a group of little bow peeps, we were approached by a Japanese lady who told us she was a free tour guide and wanted to take us around the park. The smart immediate reaction to this situation is to look down and walk away. In Japan, however, the government hires people to go around and be free tour guides. We had read about this in our guidebook, so we accepted her offer, and she took us around the park, telling us about how they had planted all the trees in the forest there in the early 1900s, and teaching us how to pray to the soul of the emperor in the traditional Shinto style. We found out that she used to be the editor for the official Hello Kitty magazine, and had gotten to travel to America several times for work. She was very sweet and just asked us to fill out a quick survey at the end that was it. See? Freakishly nice.

After Yoyogi, we tried to check out the gardens at the Imperial Palace, but they had just closed so we headed to the Ginza. The Ginza is the main shopping street in Tokyo with designer shopping and famous Japanese style busy crosswalks and neon signs. Our first stop was the Sony Showroom/Store which is a multilevel center for selling the latest and greatest Sony products and also for displaying unreleased future merchandise. The big things they are showing these days are large, flat-screen 3D TVs and tiny super high definition video cameras. It’s pretty crazy. It also successfully made me want everything in the store. Luckily my backpack is too small for that. After the Sony shop we ate dinner and walked around some more, picking up amazing red bean mochi balls, each with a full strawberry in the center. Tokyo is very fast paced but has an exciting vibe. It’s a lot more fun and energetic than other cities I’ve seen and is exceptionally good for people watching. You’re as likely to see women in kimonos or girls dressed up like gothic anime characters as people in business suits. Most of the people are very stylish and made us feel a bit like sloppy Americans.

After the Ginza we went to Shibuya to see the famous crossing that Tokyo is so well known for. Of course, there’s a Starbucks there, so we got a cookie and crossed the street a few times as part of the lively mob. Later we headed to the Mori building in Roppongi, which is the main bar district. We went up to the 54th floor and admired the view of the Tokyo Tower and beautiful lit up city from above. It was about then that my eyeball started aching, so we went back to the hostel. That night we pretty much had to give in to the fact that we are walking disasters. My eye turned bright red and puffy and Carly still doesn’t have her voice back from the China cold. Together we make for what amounts to the worst asian horror scene possible. I bet they’re happy they wear those SARS masks now. They’re probably telling their kids.. “See Sally? That’s what happens to the bad children who don't wear their masks.” Once those kids see my eye, they’ll probably go back and ask for the full body suit. But that’s neither here nor there. We’ll deal with the result of this situation in the Kyoto blog.

The only thing I’ve not mentioned yet that I think is notable is that there are many people who live in boxes in the subway stops. They make long, cardboard box cells and sleep in them with their shoes propped neatly on top and a little rolley suitcase next to the end of the box. In Singapore a news report said that the unemployment rates are soaring here and that many Japanese men get kicked out by their wives if they fail to bring home a good salary. I wonder if they’re now living in boxes. It’s pretty sad. I guess not everything in Japan is perfect.

So far Kyoto is very nice. More to come. Hope everything is well state side! Email me or comment!

Friday, February 19, 2010


Oh dear, I’ve fallen behind. We’re sitting in our hostel in Tokyo now and have already had a few adventures here, but you’ll have to stay tuned for that. For now let’s talk about Shanghai.

Remember our friend in Xi’an who we shook hands with for good luck? Well he sure must have saved us from some sort of disaster because we each got out with just a cold. Unfortunately it’s been kind of a lingering recovery process so rather than describing all our time in Shanghai – which was mostly filled with long naps and huge meals – I’ll try to just cover the highlights.

Shanghai is a very large, business oriented city with a lot of western influence. It’s another one of those port cities like Hong Kong and Singapore that were pretty much little fishing villages until the West came in and declared that it was a good spot for trade. I feel like all of my texts in school that talked about the Opium wars described the after effect as the western powers carving out “slices” of China like a pie.. (or pizza? Something baked anyway..) and I think Shanghai shows a pretty good example of that. We stayed in a part of it called the French Concession, where the architecture, clubs, restaurants, and even the large amounts of expats in the area make it pretty obvious that it isn’t exactly traditional Chinese. There’s also a big high-rise, downtown, business district called Pudong that boasts what has now been demoted to the 3rd tallest building in the world, along with some other impressive office space. Across the river from Pudong is the bund, which has a lot of the old European style buildings and hotels and an impressive view of the cityscape.

(fireworks leftovers outside our hotel)

So let’s see... The day we got to Shanghai was Chinese New Year Eve. Chinese New Year is the most important holiday in China. Pretty much everyone gets a two week break from school or work to go home and spend time with family, or to travel. From what I can tell, the people who stay behind, along with the explosive happy expats spend most of their time setting off boxes and boxes of fireworks and firecrackers on every street corner, at all hours of the night. Most things were closed that day (and the next) but we did end up finding a great New Years Eve party a block away from our hotel at a place called No. 88 Bar. We just stumbled upon it but it turns out it’s one of the most popular ones in Shanghai, so we got to experience some interesting live singers and dancers and get blasted with confetti after the midnight countdown. The singers had a selection of American pop songs that they serenaded us with throughout the night, but they clearly were having trouble with the English words – saying things like “I saw your face, in a shrowded place.. and I donno whattenn dooo..” Later on that night our friend Tal - fellow WashU DG and freshmen floor buddy – came out and met up with us. It’s a small world after all.
One of the most impressive sights we saw was the Shanghai Museum, which has four floors of just about everything Chinese you can think of including: jade, bronzes, traditional costumes of the ethnic minorities, currency, painting etc – much of it dating back hundreds to thousands of years. Apparently the day we chose to go was also the day everyone else in Shanghai went, because we had to wait outside in the rain for over an hour just to get in the door. All the bronzes that were left from thousands of years ago were wine vessels, food vessels, and musical instruments - looks like they knew how to live.

Another afternoon we stopped by the Jewish Refugee Ohel Moishe Synagogue that had been built for the 30,000 Jews who fled from Europe and Russia during the Russian Revolution and also WWII. Neither of us had any idea that there had been that many in China. Apparently during WWII all the other countries made immigration almost impossible, but Shanghai was relatively easy to get to and kept them safe. The building is now a museum and was actually closed for the whole New Year holiday, but after seeing our forlorn faces staring through the bars of the front gate, a nice Chinese man came out and let us walk around for free. I told him that Carly is Jewish and he excitedly said “Shana tova!!” and “Shalom!” He was not Jewish himself, but seemed very proud of his Hebrew. We walked through the Synagogue, which is three stories, but pretty small, with brick on the outside and dark wood on the inside, and then through a very high tech little museum building that they have in the back courtyard. The museum had videos, pictures, and descriptions of some of the refugees. It seems like most of them left Shanghai within 10 years or so of coming, either for Europe or other Asian cities like Hong Kong. I don’t think there are very many who stayed. Anyway, it was a very interesting side of Shanghai that I’ve never seen before.

Later on, we went to check out the Bund. Sadly, it’s currently a massive construction site that will someday be a very pleasant walkway with impressive buildings and a stunning view of the city. We did manage to get lost in an underground tunnel that lead to massive crowd of people milling around with random arcade games. I’m still not really sure what that was. I guess it’s just one of those moments lost in translation.

One of the days we went to a place called Cheng Huang Miao, which is supposed to have amazing Shanghai style dumplings and buns and some nice souvenir shops. Instead, it ended up being a lesson on why most Chinese people support the “one child policy.” If there is such thing as an ocean of people, we found it. You literally could not move on your own accord once you were in the area – basically you were smashed against the person in front of you, and constantly being pushed by the person behind you until you desperately flung yourself towards an exit. The poor children who were being dragged along with their parents must have gotten pretty trampled – I think we each tripped over a few very small, unsuspecting victims. At least we got an authentic Chinese crowd experience before leaving.

The last of the big sites that we saw was the Jinmao tower – literally meaning “Gold Trade” tower. It was the tallest building in Shanghai until the World Financial Center came along and cast a pretty large shadow on it. Fortunately, unlike the WFC, you can still go pretty far up the Jinmao tower for free. The 54th floor is the beginning of a large hotel, which has a 50+ storey atrium of open space going up from a little café to the top of the building. It’s pretty stunning and looks kind of like a seashell. We got up to the 87th floor to take some pictures of the buildings stretching as far as the eye can see, and then passed up the expensive coffee shop for our new favorite slice of home – Starbucks.

I can’t express how nice it is to see a familiar face every now and then when you’re abroad - and we got really lucky in Shanghai because Tal happened to be there, living not too far from our hotel. She’s been in Shanghai since November working for an Architecture firm. She told us they’re designing a new club, and that since everything is so cheap in China, it’s been moving very quickly and is currently under construction – due to be finished in April. As part of their design research, their client took them out to a bunch of clubs to show them what he liked and disliked about them. It sounded like a pretty amazing job. She introduced us to some of her co workers – from France and Switzerland – which was really fun and gave us a taste of the diverse expat community in Shanghai. Despite her busy work schedule, we got to have dinner with her a few times. On the last night, I went out with her to a little Jazz club, that seemed reminiscent of the pre war Shanghai days. It’s pretty crazy to think of the glitz and glamour that was in Shanghai and how westernized it was even over 50 years ago.

The last thing I have to say about Shanghai, is that we gave the “best red bean buns of the century” award to the buns we had at the DingTaiFeng in XinTianDi. Ding Tai Feng is the soup dumpling restaurant that I mentioned back in Singapore, and although it’s actually from Taiwan, the food it serves is supposed to be classic Shanghainese food. After some amazing dumplings, we had double servings of these magical buns. Life will never be the same.

Okay, well we’ve officially spent too much time in our room in Tokyo now and have to get out and explore a bit. Look forward to some fishy stories for next time. Zai Jian (goodbye)!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Gel Together in Xi'an

Hello again! I’m back with updates about our latest adventure in Xi’an. (pronounced “She-ahn”) We kept it short and sweet with this city, which is probably a good thing given that in the winter it is extremely cold and dry. Xi’an is the site of the ancient Chinese capital called “Chang’an” and thus is home to many extremely old and important pieces of Chinese history. It has established itself as a popular tourist destination mainly because of the terra cotta warriors, but it also has numerous tombs and is itself a sort of antique. The city is not very big (compared to Beijing and Shanghai) but is fairly developed and clean. Every now and then the more fun and local mannerisms come out because it wasn’t prepped and polished quite as completely as the other big tourist cities before the Olympics. The old city wall, built during the Ming dynasty, still stands surrounding the center part of town, but Xi’an has since overflowed these walls and developed far beyond them. Still though, the wall is kept as a tourist attraction and offers scenic strolls and tandem bike rides along its broad “Great Wall style” walkway. At the center of the walled city is the old bell tower, and slightly offset is the drum tower, both built with traditional Chinese wooden architecture and used in ancient times to tell time or to give warning signals. Because of the cold weather and short amount of time, we didn’t get to go up on the city wall, but our hostel was very close to its beautiful south gate so we saw it pretty often.

We stayed at a place called Ancient Street hostel, which is very close to the south gate and Calligraphy Street and about a 10 to 15 minute walk into the center of town. When we first got there I was feeling a bit suspicious and defensive because of our last hostel experience, but the staff there was so sweet and accommodating that I kind of felt bad afterwards. The room was a bit chilly and only had one large bed, but it was much larger than our last few rooms and had a functional bathroom and lots of large blankets so we were pretty happy with it. After checking in and dropping our stuff, we walked down to the drum tower and then explored the Muslim street. Xi’an is home to a group of the Chinese Muslim minorities and the Muslim street is the center of their area, where most of the restaurants and other vendors are owned by and/or cater to them. They have very distinctive types of street food, including red bean and sesame sticky rice, spiced meat kabobs, and lots of sweet, dried fruit. After browsing a bit, we stopped for dinner and tried their most popular soup dish, which has shredded pieces of condensed bread, some green veggies, and beef in beef broth.
The next morning we woke up and met up with a tour we had signed up for the night before. Our tour guide was not quite as exciting as Eric, but her English was pretty good and she smiled a lot. She always seemed to be in a rush, though, which was kind of annoying. There were nine people on our tour: two from Ireland, two from Germany, two from Canada, and one from Texas. Carly tried her best to befriend the Germans in hopes of scoring a place to stay when she travels in Europe this summer. It didn’t quite work out, but they were very friendly and they gave her some good tips about where to go.
Our first stop was the Banpo Museum, which was the first “on site” museum in Xi’an. I had never heard of it before, but it was actually really cool. The Banpo people were the inhabitants of this area around 6000 years ago. They lived in a matriarchal society and the museum shows the excavated areas where they lived, fired pottery, and buried their dead. They had uncovered a few graves, where you can see the skeletons of the people and also the pots they were buried with. Since males were so inferior to females, they were buried separately. One grave showed a group of four females buried together. I guess it’s the ultimate form of the “going to the bathroom in groups” phenomenon. From the different burial patterns it is thought that the people were buried either facing upwards if they were “good,” downwards if they were “bad” and sideways if they were killed by an animal or in a fight. Each person is buried with a pot for water and a pot for food.

The pots were very well formed, probably made from coiled clay and then fired. It’s pretty crazy to think that people were living in such organized societies 6000 years ago, with the technology to fire pottery. Carly and I were wondering what people would think of our societies if they found remains in 6000 years. Maybe we should start burying people with computers and stuff so they’ll have something to go off of.
After that we were taken to a large, government sponsored store where they make fake terra cotta soldiers in the “same way” they were made 2200 years ago and try to sell them to you. I guess they didn’t figure out that you’re supposed to put the gift shop at the end of the tourist site.
Our lunch was pretty mediocre, but still a Chinese family style feast. According to proper form, we all filled our bowls and began shoveling food into our faces as fast as possible. As this was going on, a man from the large table of Chinese tourists next to us stood up, completely flabbergasted, and shouted as loud as possible while pointing to Carly: “OHH!?? THE FOREIGNER CAN USE CHOPSTICKS!!!!!” Slightly embarrassed, I tried to explain to him that in America, a lot of people can use chopsticks. He was still unable to hold back his excitement and continued to make all of the people at his table stand up and take a look at how she was using her chopsticks “just like a Chinese person!” Sigh. I guess we taught her well at least.

Finally, we arrived at the site of the terra cotta warriors. The warriors were made about 2200 years ago as a supplement to the tomb of the emperor of the first unified Chinese dynasty: the Qin. There is a full army of them, including generals, cavalry men, infantry men, standing archers, kneeling archers, horses, carriages, etc. They are all life size, made of clay, and were once intricately carved and painted such that each one has a unique face. They were placed in battle formation into underground corridors that had brick floors and wooden panel siding. The corridors were then covered with strong wooden beams, a thick layer of woven mats, and then soil. The soldiers are buried a few kilometers away from the mound that houses the emperor’s tomb. The ancient belief was that the dead person could take what was buried with him to the next world. I guess that emperor anticipated a lot of armed conflict. I sure hope he was wrong. Anyway, there is no written record of any of this happening, which seems odd because it clearly took a lot of people and a lot of time to make hundreds of soldiers. The rumor is that all the artists and people who knew about it were killed when it was completed. So then in 1970, some farmers were digging a well to set up an irrigation system for their crops and came across some angry looking life-size clay people. Unfortunately, most of the soldiers were broken into little pieces, possibly because of tomb raiders shortly after the emperor’s death. Archeologists came, studied the area and reassembled many of them, but there are still many that are not yet uncovered. The emperor’s tomb (which we visited after the soldiers) has also not been uncovered or opened. The hope is that soon we will have technology that will allow us to excavate ancient sites like this and not expose them to oxygen, which damages them. Our tour guide said to come back in 15 years and that should be good.
The soldiers are still mostly standing in their rows in the uncovered corridors, which are covered now by large tent-like buildings and surrounded by walkways so that you can look down and see them. The size of the largest group is about the same as two football fields.
It’s pretty insane to see, but probably more impressive to know the story and how old they are. Only one of the farmers who found the site is still alive, but he is thought to have very good luck, so he now sits in the museum all day and will shake your hand or sign a book for you if you’d like to have good luck too. We shook his hand, but are skeptical because we still haven’t won the lottery on the Chinese receipts.

After the soldiers, we visited the emperor’s tomb, which pretty much just looks like a large hill now, although apparently when it was built it was a trapezoid. The story is that the emperor had automatic weapons buried in the ground around his tomb, so that if any tomb raiders tried to dig in the area with shovels they would be shot. This made the tomb raiders believe that it was guarded by evil spirits and so supposedly it remains intact. I guess we’ll have to wait 15 years to find out. At the very least we know that emperor had some serious issues with paranoia.
Since the New Year was so close most of the stores and restaurants were closed when we got back. We did, however, find a nice Pizza Hut and Starbucks to get our Western food cravings satisfied. I am ashamed to say that this is my second Pizza Hut adventure in Asia. On the bright side, you can’t get beef and kimchi pizza at Pizza Hut in the States. Later on, we checked out the bar whose music blasted very clearly into our room and listened to a live Chinese rock band. We had noticed the bar before and thought that it was called “Gel Together Club.” We thought this was very clever and were impressed by the club owners’ command of the English language until we realized from the business card that it’s actually called “Get together club” … or maybe “Get Together Elub”... Either way it was disappointing.
This morning we got up and made our way back to the airport to fly to Shanghai. It’s Chinese New Year’s Eve, which is the beginning of the most important holiday here so almost everything is closed, but firecrackers and fireworks are popping, crackling, and lighting up the sky. We have five days to explore Shanghai and then we’re off to Japan. More updates to come.
Xin Nian Kuai Le!!! (Happy New Year!!!) 新年快樂!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

I love Beijing more than ever

I bought a T shirt from the Great Wall that says: “I *heart* Beijing” and then below that: “I love Beijing more than ever!” I thought it was pretty funny at the time, but ever since then I’ve realized that it very appropriately sums up my feelings over the past few days. I do love Hong Kong, but I think that Beijing will always be my Chinese home.

Our hotel in Beijing is called Joy Inn and it did, indeed, bring us much joy after our Hong Kong hostel adventure. After excitedly checking out the real, glass walled shower and flushing toilet, we headed out to the school where I studied abroad in fall of 2007 and went to my favorite restaurant (dong bei yi er san) for some delicious egg plant, chicken, and veggie dishes. The road outside had been completely fixed up and redone, and some of my favorite hole-in-the-wall, street food places were gone, but it looked much cleaner. After that we hit up my favorite shopping destination – the Silk Street market – for some bargaining practice. Carly and Tara loved the jewelry floor so we spent most of our time there picking up pretty beaded necklaces. Later that night I took them to our old weekend night scene area called San Li Tun and showed them some of my favorite bars like Bar Blu and Smugglers. It was pretty crazy to be back, and so nice to feel comfortable and know where to go and what to expect. Everything seems much cleaner and more organized since the Olympics, but luckily the people are still so sweet and fun and not hardened big city style. You can make friends with almost anyone you start a conversation with and people are very rarely creepy or aggressive.
The next day we jumped on the subway and headed into the heart of town to see Tiananmen Square. It had snowed the day before, so we were pretty bundled up and still freezing. As we walked through the square, I explained what I knew about the Tiananmen Square incident, and some other things about China. We saw a couple walking near us holding a very chubby baby, bundled with so many clothes that its whole body was literally a sphere. As I started saying how some parents don’t put diapers on their babies, but dress them in pants with large slits down the butt instead, we noticed that two very pink butt cheeks were quickly approaching us. The parents of the spherical child came up timidly and asked if we could take a picture. I reached for the camera, ready to take a nice family photo for them, but instead received the large baby. Carly, Tara and I were arranged in a line with the baby, and stood there (rather confused) as the father took tons of pictures and the mother chirped happily at the baby to look at the camera. Someday that poor child will wonder why he has 50 pictures of himself with three random foreign girls. Luckily we got our own copy of the photo, so at least we can appreciate it.

After Tiananmen, we went over to the Forbidden City, which was home to the emperors of the last two dynasties (Ming and Qing). It’s a huge complex with all sorts of beautiful Chinese wooden architecture. Unfortunately, the fact that it seems to go on forever is not as awe-inspiring when it’s below freezing outside, and we spent most of the last half hour on a search for the legendary Starbucks that had been so protested against. We didn’t find it, but we did find some awesome hot chocolate. For dinner we met up with my friend Sammy who worked at the gym I used to go to, and his new wife. They took us to an amazing Beijing duck feast. It was really fun to see them, and (as always) the duck was to die for. Sammy went to intense Chinese athletic school since elementary school and ended up being the national wrestling champion multiple years in a row. It’s crazy how different the school systems are here.

On the third day we had signed up for a tour of some Ming dynasty tombs and the Great Wall. We were picked up by a small bus with an English-speaking tour guide named Eric (Yuan Ming) and an Argentinian couple. Eric was extremely enthusiastic and explained China’s whole history to us on the way to the Ming tombs. He was also pretty excited that I could speak Chinese, and called me Mei Mei (which means little sister) and announced to every Chinese person we encountered that my father is Chinese and I am mixed blood. He spoke a lot of Chinese to me, telling me his views about Google and Obama and Americans in general, which made the Argentinians kind of frustrated. At the Ming tombs, we were looking at the jade that had been excavated and Eric tried to explain about how jade bracelets were passed down as Heirlooms by taking Tara’s hand and saying: “The mother-in-law will take the daughter- in-law’s hand like this.. and then say ‘SOON!.... I will be died.’ And then she will move the bracelet over to the daughter.” - after which he dramatically acted out his death and almost completely fell over a banister.
After the Ming Tombs we went to a jade factory, where we watched the whole process of carving jade and then were shown a huge store with every jade thing imaginable (very strategically place gift shop..). Finally, after a very nice lunch, we got to the Ba Da Ling section of the Great Wall. Eric talked us into taking the Gondolas up since it was so icy and cold. The sky was kind of cloudy, so you couldn’t see as far as you usually can, but it was very pretty to see it in the snow. The Great Wall is really shockingly impressive no matter how you see it.

After that we headed back into town and made a last stop at a silk factory. They showed us the whole cycle of silk production in great detail, from the bugs, to the worms, to the cocoons, to the silk threads. What a surprise! - that tour ended in a large store also. It was really cool to see, though. Each worm creates a silk thread that’s about one kilometer long, and then it must be killed inside the cocoon in order to preserve the thread with no breaks. Each silk garment takes thousands and thousands of threads. Next time you wear silk, think about how many worms died for you. Poor worms.

We had Eric drop us off at the Lao Shi Cha Guan (Lao Shi Tea House) where we drank tea and watched short performances of Beijing Opera, Sound imitation, Chinese Comedy, Martial Arts, and some other fun Chinese-style stunts.

Afterwards, we walked down the new Front Gate Ancient Street, which is supposed to be modeled on a traditional-style Beijing street, but looks a lot more like a Chinese-style modern shopping street. Most of the stores were closed already, though, so it was pretty quiet and relaxing.
On the fourth day, we started out at my favorite Western-style breakfast place. It seems silly, but it was comfort food for when I missed home in China and therefore worth revisiting. This place is called Grandma’s Kitchen and has amazing skillets. It also happens to be very close to where I lived in the summer of 2008, so I took Carly and Tara over to see one of the most interesting Beijing sites I’ve discovered: Walmart. Walmart in China is hilariously different from America, with cases of Chinese buns, men hacking meat with cleavers, hanging dried fish and roasted ducks, live turtles for sale to be cooked, and so much more. That particular Walmart is 4 stories of that sort of magic. They may be the Evil Empire, but at least we know they’re good at regionalizing. After Walmart we headed over to my old apartment building to visit the couple who work in the little store on the first floor. They have a beautiful fluffy dog named Hei Mei (Black Beauty). They remembered me and gave me two bottles of water and let us play with Hei Mei for a while. They’re so sweet. I’m really glad I got to see them again.
Next we went to the Summer Palace, which is also much harder to get through in the freezing cold even though it is very beautiful. It covers a large hill and a lake with beautiful architecture and pretty little bridges and long covered walkways. The whole lake was frozen over and people had jumped the fences to go walk on it. The site itself is amazing, but we apparently added bonus scenery because hordes of school children swarmed Carly, eager to see the foreigner and practice their English: “Hello! What is your name? Goodbye!”

That night we went to probably my (real) favorite undiscovered attraction in Beijing – a Tibetan Restaurant near the Silk Market that Sammy showed me. It has delicious authentic food, warm and inviting Tibetan décor, and best of all, a free Tibetan song and dance show every night around 8. The Tibetan boys who were singing made us all get up and do the last dance with them around the restaurant and left us giggling like school girls. Carly claimed a very dashing Tibetan singer with a cool faux-hawk as her next boyfriend. I think the feeling was mutual and he probably would have come back to America with us, except we decided he wouldn’t be as cute if he didn’t keep his Tibetan garb on all the time. It’s amazing that they do the same thing every night - they always seem to enjoy it so much. It’s nice to see a performance that feels like it’s more about sharing culture than making money.

After dinner we went to meet up with my roommate from study abroad, Wendy. She’s been studying Chinese in Beijing at a university for a year now. We met her and two of her friends at a little bar in Hou Hai, which is a bar and restaurant district around a beautiful man-made lake. It was really fun to see her and catch up.
The next morning, our beloved Tara left us for home. She will be dearly missed. Carly and I slept in that morning, and then headed over to see the last big Beijing site: the Temple of Heaven. It was very cold, but we got some good pictures. While we were there, a Chinese man came up to Carly and did some very odd sign language. I thought at first that he might not be able to hear, so I wasn’t sure whether or not I should try to speak Chinese to him. After far too many minutes of this going on, however, we established that he could speak Chinese and just wanted to have a picture taken with her. I have no idea what message he thought he was getting across before. Carly will now be in the long-term memories and photo albums of many Chinese tourists.

Next we headed over to 798, which is the art district, and met up with Wendy and my friend from home, Alisa. Alisa is teaching English in Kunming, but happened to be visiting and overlap with our time in Beijing. Most of the galleries and museums were closed already for the holidays (Chinese New Year), but Alisa came along with us to check out the Silk Market again and have dinner. The Silk Market was kind of crowded and stressful, but we got in our last-minute cheap souvenir shopping and then went to one of my favorite restaurants – Bellagio. Bellagio is kind of a stylish Chinese restaurant, with most of the normal dishes, but presented much more artistically. All of the waitresses are forced to have extremely short, boy haircuts. What makes it my favorite, though, is that it boasts a huge, separate dessert menu, with something called the “Mango Supreme.” This amazing concoction is composed of a scoop of coconut ice cream, a scoop of mango ice cream, some mango pudding, and mango chunks, all swimming in mango shaved ice. I dream about that dessert. It’s unreal. The food was good, and so was the company. It was really nice to catch up with Alisa. We grew up spending our breaks together, but sadly I haven’t seen her much for the last few years. She said she’s biking down to Vietnam with some friends after she leaves Beijing. Awesome. I’m jealous.

Well that just about brings us up to date! We’re actually in Xi’an now. I’ve been running a bit behind on these but it’s harder now that blogger’s blocked in China. Facebook, too. Blast. Hope there are still people reading! Haha. Anyway, we’ll only be in Xi’an for two days so the next one will for sure be shorter. Talk soon!