Tuesday, December 21, 2010

I'm kind of famous

My blog was chosen as one of "50 blogs for those interested in teaching abroad." Seriously! Check it out!

Three of my friends are on there too: Alisa's Adventures in Korean, LaToya's A Sistuh's Soul, and Sarah's Mokdong Magpie. You should check them out too!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Great Wall

I awoke to chaos. "My alarm didn't go off. It's 8:20!" screamed a voice from somewhere in the distance. I opened my eyes to see J waving his arms wildly. I jumped out of bed and threw on some clothes. I couldn't quite remember what was going on at 8:40 but I knew it was something important. J did not wake me up that early for no reason.* I ran to the bathroom and while I was there, it came to me: the Great Wall. Our van was going to leave at 8:40 and we were supposed to be outside by 8:20. Shit. I hurried and ran to the common room to join J, but instead I saw him leisurely checking his email. "It's 7:30," he said, nonchalantly, "I guess I made a mistake." I was only slightly peeved because it meant I got to eat a big breakfast**.

The day before we'd stocked up on fruit, cereal bars, trail mix, and water bottles. We packed our backpacks and the van picked us up promptly at 8:40. We joined about 8 others, mainly young adults, decked out in hiking shoes and other outdoorsy paraphernalia. I looked down at the hipster sneakers I'd picked up the other day and wondered what I'd gotten myself into. Then I hoped that maybe the wall was closed that day. You know, for renovations.

Naturally, I slept in the van, and I think it was about a 2.5 hour drive (J would know, he can't sleep in moving vessels). The scenery was stunning as we approached the wall. For the first time since being in China (and one of the few times since being in Asia) I saw raw, untamed wilderness untouched by city life or pollution. I saw green. I think I might have even seen some birds that weren't pigeons.

Before arriving at the base, the van stopped at the side of a dirt road with a small shack-like structure with a cardboard sign saying "Toilets." Our guide told us that we should go now because we wouldn't get to again until after the hike. I wish I'd taken a picture of it because it looked like the worst place I could ever possibly relieve myself. It was so short, you could see the heads of guys while they were peeing and there was a very small divider separating the female toilet from the male one. I went inside, dreading what it would be like on the inside. It turned out not to be so bad and I was proud of myself for using it.

OK, enough toilet talk. No wait, one more thing. We got back in the van and drove about ten minutes to the actual base of the wall, where a large tourist building with real bathrooms awaited us.

We approached the trail (we couldn't see the wall yet, "Not a good sign," I thought to myself), and our guide handed us each a 1.5 liter bottle of water, a Snickers bar, and this map. "We'll meet you at the end in 3.5 hours."
It was actually to the right, not the left.

We had to take a number of stairs to get to the actual wall and once we got to the top, the view took my breath away. It only got better from there. And steeper. We actually had two guides, one stayed in front while another stayed behind to make sure no one got left behind.

It started off with fairly sturdy steps, but as went along they began to crumble. At parts, there was only rubble left. A few of the climbs from one watchtower to the next (22 in all) seemed almost insurmountable (I think one guy may have turned back). A few times I had to stop half-way up to catch my breath.
Started off pretty sturdy.

It was hot, but not Kyoto hot, and each watchtower provided cooling shade and a bit of breeze. We took frequent water and snack breaks.

Starting to look a little less sturdy.

There was a good number of people, just enough so that we didn't feel stranded, but few enough that I got plenty of pictures without anyone in them. I think our tour was the only one on that part of the wall. At each watchtower we'd meet up with the rest to commiserate.

Not the safest place ever to hang out.

Along the way we were followed by a small group of resilient merchants trying to sell us ice water, coca-cola or souvenirs. These elderly Chinese and supposedly Mongolian hikers apparently climbed the wall daily with large backpacks filled with beverages and other stuff. It was impressive. I was struggling with just a bottle of water and some snacks, and I'm in the prime of my life. There were also a few women with their kids. The girls put on a little dance routine. On the Great Wall.

As we were walking along, we wondered about the sheer audacity of those who built it. They must have lugged stones and mortar to the tops of those hills day after day, in the summer and winter. We wondered how many had died doing so.
This was when it got rough.


It seemed to go on forever.
The walk took less time than we'd expected, about 2 hours in total. At the 22nd watchtower we waited for everyone to catch up and get a break. We descended on a trail, followed by a stray dog. What was a stray dog doing on the Great Wall? Our vans awaited us at the bottom. The dog did not join us.

When we got to Beijing, J and I hungrily grabbed some McDonald's.

*I'm not a morning person.
**I think I got an omelet.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Temple of Heaven

Another easy day. J let me sleep in and after a leisurely breakfast, we took the subway to the Temple of Heaven. It's located in the middle of a huge park, hidden among groves of cypress trees. It was a nice change from the bustle of the city. The temple itself is beautiful and held together without any nails. Each part of it is symbolic: it has 4 pillars for the seasons, 12 columns for the months, and other stuff too but most of the explanations were in Chinese.

We found out that it was at the Temple that they would pray for good harvests. They did this by sacrificing a calf. We saw the sacrificial oven and various dining areas. There was also an echo wall - supposedly if one person was at the East Annex and another at the West, they could talk to each other. We weren't able to try it out because there were so many people there that it would have been impossible to hear each other. There was also a 3 claps stone, where you could clap once and 3 echoes would respond. Unfortunately we couldn't try that out either because so many people were clapping we'd never be able to tell whether the clapping we were hearing was an echo or just someone else clapping.

After we were done there, we went back to the hostel for quick break (and nap). When we awoke it was nearing sunset, so we thought we'd try to catch the lowering of the flag at Tiananmen Square. We got there just in time and could just make out the flag and soldiers as they left the square under Mao's infamous portrait.

J and I resolved to do some souvenir shopping. We went back to the hip hutong, where I got some fantastic kicks and J got some souvenirs for his friends and family. We also got the best damn mojitos I've ever had. While we were backing to the hostel, we passed a large parking lot in which dozens of couples were swing dancing. It was pretty fantastic to observe and a different side of Beijing than we'd seen. This was carefree, fun, a sort of rhythmic chaos. I tried taking pictures but it was dark and they didn't come out well. Something about seeing those dancers made me realize how small the world was and how similar we all are. I wanted to join then but my potential dancer refused.

Before the evening was done, J signed us up for a Great Wall tour. There were a few options, from the easy tourist-friendly one with a cable car ride, the intermediate one, and then the most rugged one. We'd decided to go with the one that had the smallest crowds and therefore picked the most rugged. The poster suggested bringing good shoes and a backpack to hold water and snacks for the 6km "climb." I was sufficiently intimidated. The van would leave at 8:40AM from our hostel, so we called it an early night.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

If I were a Chinese animal, I'd want to be a panda

We had just one thing on our itinerary: the Beijing Zoo. After a leisurely breakfast, we headed there via subway. It was oddly quiet on the subway that morning, which we assumed was because it was Sunday. After receiving the pink punishment on his neck and nose, J fortunately remembered to put on sun screen because it was another clear, hot day.

The line for the zoo was very long, but there was another line for special combination tickets that included the zoo, panda exhibit, and a boat tour*. There was no one in that line and we had wanted to see the pandas anyway, so we got one of those tickets and made our way inside.

The zoo was very large, but a little sad. Many of the enclosures looked like they had not been tended to in some time, and some of the animals looked malnourished and sickly. People had thrown (and were continuing to throw) garbage in the enclosures, including in the water where the hippos were swimming. Other were feeding the animals through the bars.
Sad ostrich butt.
The one animal that lived a life of luxury was the Giant Panda, which was when I realized I'd want to be a Giant Panda in Beijing if I were an animal. They had their own huge enclosures in a special, sectioned off area. There was a huge pile of bamboo just sitting there for their enjoyment. I guess they are their national emblem** and bring in a ton of tourist money for China, but I have to say, they're pretty uneventful animals. Mainly they just sat there. Once, one of them ate.

Despite the pandas, I think my favorite thing was a grove (I'm not sure if that's the right term) of flowers. They reminded me of the peonies in Tokyo.

*We never did find the boat tour.
**After the dragon, of course.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Chairman Mao, the Forbidden City, and a goose

At some point during the night the rain ceded, and we awoke to a faultless blue sky. After a breakfast at the hostel, J and I headed out to Tiananmen Square to visit Chairman Mao's tomb. His memorial was only open until noon so I think we got there at around 9:30 or 10, figuring we'd have plenty of time to see it. We were greeted by thousands of people, mostly Chinese, waiting in a seemingly unending line. It was absolute chaos. There was pushing, shoving, cutting, and yelling taking place between metal detectors and security checkpoints. In order to corral the crowds, there were line enforcers, outfitted in green and armed with large umbrellas, who yelled slicing threats in Mandarin while waving their plastic weapons. They were largely unsuccessful, however, as every time they turned their backs, about 5-10 Chinese people would run frantically from their place in line to a place farther up in line. The queue itself was deceptively long and wound its way around the square. The second half looked sort of like this:
When we were about halfway through the line, one of the line enforcers told us that we were supposed to check our bags at the bagcheck building. Where was that? Across the street. We left the line, went across the street to check in our bags, and then just cut in line at the point where we had been before. Hey, when in China...

A glimpse of the line.

Mao Memorial Building

One of the line enforcers.

Eventually, we got inside. His body lay within a glass room and there were hundreds, if not thousands, of bouquets of yellow flowers brought to him by mourners. He lay there, preserved, glowing brightly in an orange hue.

Next, we went to the Forbidden City whose entrance is just opposite Tiananmen Square. We waited in what felt like another endless line, except this time we also had to deal with umbrellas. No, it wasn't raining, but the clear blue day that brought the end of rain also brought cancer-causing UV rays and the locals were having none of it. The problem is that umbrellas have spikey parts and when you get thousands of them together, you get me worrying that my eyes will be poked out. I managed to keep them intact, although my hair didn't survive so well.

We bought our tickets and went inside the palace, which was a sprawling complex with ornate designs covering every square inch. There were even a few museums with exorbitantly rare jewels, such as a rare jade bowl inlaid with gold and rubies. Everything in the Forbidden City was extravagant, beautiful, elegant, and all manner of other adjectives. After an hour I was feeling de-sensitized to it all, and a little dehydrated (maybe there was something to the umbrellas after all).

Tiananmen Square


Outside the Forbidden City
We went back to the hostel for a nap and then went to meet up with a friend of my dad's. She's been teaching business English in Shenzhen and was out in Beijing with a few friends on vacation. They had wisely hired a tour guide who led them through all of the same things we'd done that morning, except in less time. They showed us a hip hutong (alleyway) with boutique shops and bars and for the first time we saw hipsters abound. The five of us did some souvenir shopping. The three women were masters at haggling and we got quite a show as they had their way with various Chinese merchants.

One thing that took me aback on this modern street was the relative irreverence with which the merchants treated the Communist party. Sure, China has come a long way since Mao, but stuffed toy pigs dressed in Communist ware, t-shirts with red stars, and any object imaginable imprinted with Mao's face were available for purchase. I guess sales trump culture.

As we were making our way down the hutong, a man walked by with a goose in tow. The goose had a sign around its neck with something written in Chinese, presumably asking for money. They were a big hit with the crowd and people were petting the goose. We stopped to watch and for some reason the man decided to pick up his goose and thrust him in J's arms. He then requested my camera to take a picture of us. We took some pictures and then J quickly gave the goose back.

At the end of the evening, we were hoping to snag ourselves a Peking, or Beijing, duck (the signature dish of the city) but most of the restaurants were closed by then. We settled on a restaurant that had a huge menu with pictures and English "translations."

Friday, November 12, 2010

Ni hao, Beijing

We spent about two days recuperating in Seoul, and after a few loads of laundry, some ojingodapbap (stir fried squid on rice), and re-packing with significantly less stuff this time around, we boarded a plane for the second leg of our journey: China.

The flight was delayed but it didn't take long to get to Beijing. The subway was incredibly easy to use (better than the prized Seoul subway? we'll see...) and we were able to find the hostel without any difficulty. The hostel itself was located down a hutong, or alleyway. It was like a hotel almost, and had a huge common living and dining room with comfy couches, flowers abounding, and an assortment of magazines and books written in various languages. Our room was great too. Since the rooms were so inexpensive, we splurged on a private one.

Unfortunately it had been raining all day so we didn't really see anything. But one thing you always gotta do is eat, and eat we did! If Japan was ultra-expensive, China was just as cheap. We went into a local Chinese restaurant (the first one we saw with pictures) and I pointed at something that looked like a roasted meat of some sort. The waitress then pointed at pictures of various soups so I picked one of them too. It was a lot of food. My soup was like chicken noodle soup with thick, starchy noodles. I was only able to finish about half of it. Afterward, excited by our thrift (and apparently not stopped by our gluttony), we stopped into a bakery and got some cake. It was cheap too, but not great.

We went back to the hostel and hoped and prayed that the weather would clear up while the rain thumped stubbornly against the roof all night.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Last Days in Japan

One thing that I forgot to mention earlier was that we visited a bamboo forest in Kyoto. I had been looking forward to this the entire trip and it was probably my favorite thing about the city, and possibly about Japan.

It took us a while to find because we had to take a local train outside the city. We passed by mountains and lakes (and also our stop the first time), and it looked like Yosemite or Santa Cruz in parts. We finally arrived in a residential area with nice houses and a downtown. It all felt familiar. Eventually we took a little path and found the bamboo forest.

It was cooler in the forest and a nice relief from the heat. The path actually went on for longer than expected, and forked in places. We kept walking without really paying attention as to where we were going, and eventually we were the only ones there. We came across a lake and a small temple.

"Tomorrow we are going to Osaka and Himeji. The day after we leave for Fukuoka, and after that we head back to South Korea for a couple days. I must admit I will miss Japan. It has had quite the effect on me. I am impressed by their etiquette,  their loyalty to tradition, and the sheer amount of history and culture they've managed to hold on to. I won't miss how expensive everything is, however."

We had read about the largest surviving castle in Japan, Himeji Castle, and looked foward to seeing it for a long time. It was built in the 17th century and survived World War II as well as a number of typhoons and earthquakes. Before going there, however, we first went to Osaka, Japan's third largest city. We'd read about the Osaka aquarium, apparently one of the world's largest, and were looking forward to relaxing and seeing something familiar. Smaller than Tokyo and seemingly less chaotic, Osaka was nice. The aquarium was near the harbor and seemed very quaint. Unfortunately, we didn't have enough time to see anything else in the city. The aquarium had some cool animals, like huge otters from the Aleutian Islands, a couple of enormous whale sharks, giant crabs, and an assortment of jellyfish (my favorites). Despite being a Tuesday, the place was jam-packed, which made it difficult and sort of annoying to get through. We only spent about an hour there and were eager to get away from the crowds.

Next we headed to the storied Himeji Castle, about 45 minutes outside Osaka. On the way there, we passed Kobe (home of the famed beef) which looked a lot like San Francisco (hills-and-harbor). Himeji was a smallish town, and from the train we could already see the majestic white castle, but unfortunately they were doing some sort of renovations on it and it was covered in scaffolding.  We got there right before closing and didn't have much time to look around, but we both agreed it was nonetheless worth the trip.

The castle was built high atop a large rock fortress with arrow holes to aid with defense against invaders. The walls surrounding it were curved slightly to foil climbers. 

The view from the top was lovely and while we were not able to go inside the main castle because of renovations, we could go in the princess' chambers.

The unscale-able walls

Even the bathrooms looked castle-y.

Just a good life lesson.

From inside the princess' chambers.

Apparently they used these holes to pour boiling hot water on invaders climbing up the castle walls.

There were gardens all around the castle, and the whole grounds were so quiet that we both really enjoyed this place. We vowed to return when the renovations were done.

We had to go to Fukuoka the next day, which is farther south, so that we could take a ferry to head home to South Korea. Since our train left from Kyoto in the afternoon, we decided to spend our last morning there (nothing against Nara, but there wasn't much to see).

Since we had to check out of our hostel, but didn't really want to lug our bags around with us, we left them in coin lockers at Kyoto station. We then went back to Kiyumizudera to do some last minute souvenir shopping*.

On our way back to the station, we decided to take a bus since it would be easier and cheaper than walking and taking the subway (I know it's winter now and hard to imagine sweltering, exhausting heat, but it was real and had a serious effect on where/how we traveled). We had about an hour to get back to the train station and since it had taken maybe 15 minutes to get there, we figured we had plenty of time to get back and grab some lunch. We found a bus with "Kyoto Station" written on it and hopped aboard, but didn't realize the bus was taking the scenic route to the station. We finally arrived at the station with 20 minutes to spare, so I hopped into the nearby post office to send off some post cards and then we grabbed quick lunch from a convenience store. Next we had to retrieve our luggage from the coin lockers, but unfortunately we couldn't remember which lockers we had left them in. I guess we hadn't anticipated how many different sets of lockers there were in the station. With only about 10 minutes left before our train was supposed to leave and with no idea where our luggage was (or, at that moment, where the train platform was), we ran to the information desk. I guess this must happen a lot since they just pulled out a binder, asked us the locker number and told us where it was. We sprinted to the correct locker, grabbed our luggage and found the platform with a few minutes to spare. Covered in sweat and hearts a-pounding, we settled into our seats and ate our lunch.

For reference:

We met our couchsurfing host at Fukuoka Station who took us back to her place so we could drop off our stuff. She had a cute place on the 15th floor of a nice high-rise. She'd gone to Cal (Go bears!) and told us all about the JET program, which sounded like the antithesis of our language academy. She loved it and had been promoted after her first year. That evening she took us to a Japanese bar/restaurant where we had some drinks and snacks.

Early the following morning, we went to Hakata Port to ride the ferry. It was a hydrofoil, which means that instead of resting on the water, it sat atop stilts. That way, it didn't have to deal with much water resistance and could go from Fukuoka to Busan in about 3 hours.

Before we were allowed to get our tickets for the Beetle, our boat, we were hit two last hidden charges: a tax of 500 yen and a gas surcharge of 800 yen. It did seem quite fitting that Japan would bid us adieu in this way.

The boat ride was pretty smooth and featured a movie in Japanese with Korean subtitles, so I slept the entire way. Exhausted from 10 days in Japan and after a few bad nights of sleep, we decided to skip Busan and head straight to Seoul after arriving in South Korea.

*Including a samurai sword squeaky toy for my dog.