Four Days in Beijing

The past weekend Justin and I spent in Beijing, hitting most of the tourist spots as well as spending a fair amount of time with Emily shopping, eating, drinking and dancing. Okay, I did the dancing with Emily. Justin danced a minimal amount. We went with our friend Kyle, a teacher from our same school, also a friend of Emily's.
Justin and I decided to take the package tour of Beijing as it was cheaper. Also, the monuments are pretty far away from each other, so having a driver was in our best interest. It turned out, we had our own personal driver, Mr. Choi and tour guide, Annie. We stayed in a four star hotel, although that turned out to definitely be a relative term in China. Our days started early, meeting Annie at 8:30am in the lobby.
After landing and checking into our hotel the first day, we toured the Temple of Heaven. It's a huge temple complex used by the emperors to pray for good harvest during the solstice and celebrate a good harvest during the equinox. The structures were enormous and beautiful, all positioned along a meridian, a wide long road with ancient gates. The gates had three doors, the middle one only reserved for the gods. In the temple complex we visited a local art institute's gallery. The students showed us around a bit, explaining in close to perfect English the symbolic nature of traditional Chinese art. I bought two small oil paintings that we done by one of the professors. They are very abstract images of Buddha, with very thickly applied paint in various shades of orange. One is painted on a dark red background and one on a blue/grey background, symbolizing heaven and earth / yin and young.
That night we met Kyle at the 'Acrobatic Macrocosm' circus show our tour included. The circus show was impressive, especially the young acrobats and contortionists. Every act included a symbolic element meant to represent the Chinese culture and tradition in some way. The next night we saw an equally impressive show about the history and culture of Kung-Fu, called "The Legend of Kung-Fu". It was not part of the tour, but Kyle, Justin, Emily and I opted for this rather than the Chinese Opera, which some akined to 'the sound dying cats',even our Chinese tour guide! The Kung-Fu show was a bit over the top in the onstage visual effects, but nevertheless was impressive as the cast was full of talent.
The next morning we made our way to the Great Wall of China. We climbed the Badaling section of the wall, the most complete portion of the wall and by far the most touristy! But that doesn't mean it was the easiest to climb. The first part of the wall Justin and I were climbing the steep stairs with throngs of German, Italian, Russian and Spanish tourists (suprisingly not many English speakers). After the first 15 minutes of climbing, the crowds thinned out significantly for water breaks at the various towers along the way. Then we got to climb the rest of the steep wall more privately. Some of the stairs were as tall as my knees and significantly worn down. I think it was the most amazing part of the trip, as the views were incredible. Despite the hazy air, the surrounding mountians were still very visible and neverending.
That day we also visited the Ming Tombs, which are situated in a deep valley surrounded by three mountian ranges. The tombs are arranged along a north-south meridian, with huge incredible gates at each site. The tomb of the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty is actually in a hill behind an incredible temple. One property of the Chinese ancient art of feng shui is that a house should be with its back to a hill or mountian. This is why they enclosed the last emperor in a man made hill behind one of the temples.
Our next stop before dinner was a Chinese tea house. We got a private tea cermony lesson from a woman in one of various rooms which can be rented to groups. Justin and I drilled the woman on the various teas, to which she seemed a bit suprised. We bought some lychee tea leaves from her. Later on the trip I bought a beautiful black tea pot from one of the Chinese markets Emily took us to. I tested the quality of it by dertermining the tightness of the lid, a tip I learned from Phil. (It was tight)
That night after our wonderful Beijing (Peking) duck dinner, where a man carved the roasted duck in front of us, Justin and I met up with Emily and Kyle again. We went to a very modern bar near the bar street area, which was full of expatriates. It was '80s night so we ended up staying out dancing and drinking cheap drinks until 3:30am. Eventually we all left, and Justin and I got into a taxi, showing the driver the address of our hotel in Chinese. He decided to take us, despite not knowing where it was. As we flew by the Beijing Railway Station, we knew we were headed in the wrong direction. So with a variety of hand movements, swerving all over the road and 'yes' or 'no' vocal grunts (as we didn't even know these words in Chinese!) we finally were able to end up near our hotel at 4am.
The alarm clock at 7am was a shock and we made our way to Tian'amen Square, which was actually closed to the public due to the Taiwanese Leader's official visit the same day. After being shuffled through the massive crowds, we reached the entrance to the Forbidden City. It's the world's largest temple complex and was the imperial palace during the Ming and Qing dynasties. The complex contains over 9,999 buildings surrounded by a six meter moat and a ten meter high wall. It took us over three hours to view the complex, stopping breifly at the various gates. One of the many magnificent temple buildings was built specifically for the emperor's wedding night and never used again.
Our last day in Beijing we spent with Emily, who took us on a pwer shopping trip to the three different markets. Justin bought a huge cloth painting of Mao and had to do some hefty bargaining to get it. I bought some (really cheap!) clothes, a coral necklace and my beautiful tea pot. The bargainers in China are really quite difficult as you have to invest a good amount of time bargaining and talking to them, a change from the Thai shopkeepers who drop the price in an instant. The Chinese shopkeepers also really try and play the 'friend card', saying things like "Oh, pretty hair. Beautiful! For you, my friend, I give you 120 yuan. For everyone else, 380 yuan!"
But of course, no Chinese buyer would take 120 yuan. They'd actually pay about 50.
Our four days in Beijing was really a testament to the rising economic power China is proving itself to be. Although it is technically a communist country, the spirit of consumerism and capitalism invades everything and everyone. Many businesses (gas stations, department stores, grocery stores) are still owned by the government, I think privately-run businesses are becoming a bit more prevalent. I do wish we could have visited Shanghai, the center of China's real economic rising, or some of the more rural parts of China, which of course show the other, neglected side of communist China. As for visiting the largest country in the world, I don't think four days was sufficient but we did our best and certainly saw and did the most we could.


A Thai Christmas

Our last day of classes in December fell on Christmas Eve last year. Since our last class ended at 7:50pm and no international flight leaves out of Seoul past 8 o'clock at night, all of us were stuck in the city for the night before Christmas. That night Justin and I had a Christmas Eve Party of drinks and dessert at our apartment.
The next day we left for the airport to fly to Bangkok with our three friends Claire, Tracy (from New Zealand) and Tanya (from Canada). We doned linen Thai pants and t-shirts in six degree (C) weather and hustled to the bus stop with our backpacks to catch the airport bus.
We landed in Bangkok at mignight local time. Walking outside to the transportation platform, we were hit by the musty, hazy, polluted air of the city. Instantly I felt my throat effected by the horrible air. We spent the night in a big backpackers hostel off Ko San Road in the middle of Bangkok.
The next morning we flew an hour to Surat Thani, a port city in the south of Thailand. We took a bus and eventually a ferry (with tons of fellow backpackers) to the island of Ko Samui, one of Thailand's most popular islands known for its gorgeous beaches and the infamous Full Moon Parties on the nearby island of Ko Pha Nan.
We stayed on Big Buddha beach on the north side of island, appropriately named for the enormous Buddha statue at a temple off Big Buddha Pier. We rented small (airconditioned!) bungalows fifteen meters from the beach in a quiet, not so touristy area of the island. The night of the first day was the Full Moon Party, so after some great curry at a nearby restaurant, we hopped on a speed boat, destined specifically for the party on Ko Pha Nan. The drivers of the boat, not Thai nor Westerners, are sure to be making a huge profit, since they cram as many party-goers as possible onto this high powered boat. There were three boats driving back and forth from the island all night. Our boat tickets were on a string (I'm assuming so we wouldn't loose themm in the coming chaos), reminding us of us in bold print the times we were to catch the boat back to Ko Samui when we'd had enough of the party. The earliest time was 3AM and the last at 11AM.
Arriving onto the island of Ko Pha Nan, we made out way through the small town of clothing shops, 7-11s and curry bars, until we reached the huge beach on the north end of the island. I couldn't believe the masses, as we stepped out onto the sand. There were people pouring out of the beach front bars with buckets of liquor, dancing on large platforms on the beach, surrounding bonfires and firedancing performers and the occasional party-goer releiving himself in the ocean. Men and women, to be exact... The party was fun, a long night of dancing and drinking cocktails out of buckets. Then it started to rain so we headed back to the pier and tried to get a spot on the next boat back to Samui.
The next morning we rented motorbikes, one of the biggest highlights of the trip by far. Justin and I enjoyed them so much, we're looking into getting one here in Seoul. Although even driving through the busier beaches I was a bit nervewracked trying to keep up with the madman Justin. Also, getting used to driving on the left side of the road was a bit hard for us North Americans, but no sweat for the Kiwis among us. At one point we were heading back to our bungalows via motorbikes from the other side of the island, and of course Claire and Justin were leading (racing, actually). Only the slower 'ajimmas' (as Tracy and I called ourselves) didn't fail to see the huge blue sign to turn right to head towards Big Buddha beach. Tracy and I ended up spending two hours drinking a couple Chang Beers outside the little shop across the street from our bungalows with a couple of German guys, waiting for them. Two hours and one full tank of gas later, they rolled in. They ended up circling the whole damn island before ending up at the spot that took us twenty minutes to get to.
Of our four days on the island we spent a lot of time shopping at Chaweng Beach and Big Buddha Pier. We got quite good at bartering as well. I admit I was a bit hesitant to push such a low price on the shop owner, but eventually I got real into it. Although each shop owner differed in how much they would budge, most of the time if you follow a simple formula you'll get the lower price. The formula is this: always cut the price by half and then debate from there. Once you get just over half, start really pushing your price. If you really think they're bluffing, say no and walk away. Most of the time, they fold and agree to a price. Many shop owners pause when you ask the price and look you up and down (probably trying to figure out if you have the money to pay double) before offering a price. The bartering is really expected on their side and look stunned when a foreigner agrees to the first price they shout out. It's a real game, and so many of the shop owners are really good at it. Although some have a few selling speeches in common, such as "Good for me, good for you." or "Give me more. Give me more."
We spent our last three days in Bangkok. We took the ferry to Surat Thani and then an overnight train to Bangkok. Both our ferry and train rides we spent with three French men, traveling the same route. One seemed like he belonged in the 1980s, sporting a portable radio blasting American rap. On the ferry ride, which was packed with travelers, he tried to start a dance party right there on the deck! In the morning on the train, he set his radio above the communal sink and danced to the rap as brushed his teeth! We should know, as our beds on the train were right in between the sink area and their beds. In any case, they were good fun.
In Bangkok, we met up with Justin's friend Matt who had been living in Thailand since he came to see us in Korea. We stayed at a great hostel/bungalow style motel near KoSahn road. We shopped along KoSahn road almost every day, but did get out of the touristy area to see the Gold Mountian Temple and Grand Palace, among some other places. We hired two Tuk Tuks for the day, as they charged only 30 baht per Tuk Tuk. The Thai government tries to increase tourism, by giving Tuk Tuk drivers gas coupons, if they bring tourists to diamond shops and tailors, in between taking them to various monuments around the city. The first tailor we went to, we didn't stay long enough and act interested, so our driver didn't get his gas coupon. So we agreed to stay at least fifteen minutes in the diamond shop and act as if we could afford the diamond jewelery. I made the most of it, trying on a $37,000 diamond ring! I actually didn't want to take it off and that frightened Justin a bit. We all tried on the most expensive rings, necklaces, bracelets we could find, with the exception of Justin and Matt.
Another great thing we did in Bangkok was take a long boat ride along the canals in the city, where we could see more of Bangkok that wasn't in Lonely Planet. The ride took us through mainly residential areas in Bangkok and then along the river that flows through the city. Our driver paused at one point where we bought bread from a little stand on the bank ofa small canal and fed an enormous school of really fat catfish. Their heads were about the size of baseballs! The driver even encouraged us to try and pet them. Justin did, of course. We witnessed some other interesting sites along the way, such as a man opening a window of a rickty wooden house, leaning out and puking into the canal! And a short distance further, a little Thai boy bathing in the canal.
On our last day before we flew back to Seoul, we took a bus from Bangkok to the famous floating markets, which were two hours outside of the city. At first we thought the ride was much shorter and were worried we'd miss all the market action. But we were lucky and made it there with plenty of time. We hired another long boat, although this one was much lower in the water than the one in Bangkok. Our driver, a young Thai man, took us through a small, somewhat abandoned canal and then turned a corner which revealed a large explosion of the colors, action and liveliness of the floating market. As we slowly drove into all the action, vendors in boats wold approach us selling things from sliced mango and pieces of coconut, to small wooden dishes and other Thai souveniers. The banks of the narrow canals were packed with vendors squating amongst their goods, waving people over to dock their boats and take a look. A couple times we pulled up to the side of the canals and admired the hand carved furniture, or handmade traditional Thai hats. But most of the time I was snapping pictures of the vendors in their boats. There is absolutely no space wasted in the floating market, as with every inch you move there's another vendor, boat or possible sale in your face. Our driver kept warning us to kkeep our hands inside the boat, as we often collided with other boats. We got out of the main canal to one of the smaller areas of the market, which was mainly a food market. My favorite vendor was an old woman selling huge raw pieces of red meat which were layed all over her wooden boat, covered in flies. Tanya, the vegetarian in the group, especially enjoyed that one. We tried to buy some pad thai from a woman who was stirring some up on a wooden boat/kitchen, but she said she was "sold out", as she was making it for the enormous group of male vendors all pulled up beside her. Our driver ended up taking up to a small stand near the bus terminal, after the ride was finished for some amazing pad thai. The floating market was definitely the best thing we saw in Thailand, not only because of the dizzying array of colorful smells and sights but because we got to see a part of Thailand that isn't aiming to please tourists, where tourism isn't their main industry.
Bangkok is a great city, as it doesn't seem as dense as other major cities, in terms of population. But it certainly is dirty. Walking down the streets, you can see dark stripes of dirt on the formerly white facades of the older buildings. Of course, the enormous portraits of the Thai King framed in gold at every intersection does distract one from the dirtiness. One portrait, on the exterior of the BMW dealership, is over two stories tall! Thai people I thought were very friendly, always offering helpful advice in English. But of course, a fairly disturbing part of the Thai society are the young Thai women on the arms of older western men. It's hard to ignore it, as they were everywhere we went, from Ko Samui to Bangkok.
And of course, as most people will tell you, the best part of Thailand, despite it's friendly people, golden temples, gorgeous beaches or great shopping, is the food! By far, I think the best pad thai or red curries we had were the ones that cost the equivalent to a US$1 that we bought on the street in Bangkok. We watched most of them cook it right in front of us, in stands about the size of phone booths. Everywhere we went, we ate amazing food, right down to the ferry terminals!
After our contract is finished in Korea, Justin and I are going to travel for the month of July to Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia. Because, of course, no one in their right mind can resist seeing Thailand twice in one year.


Udo Diving Women

Originally uploaded by katevsnow.
The next day we set out from our little yogwan at Seongsan to the small island of Udo. It's known as 'Cow Island' because of the shape of it on the horizon looks like the back of a buffalo emerging from the water. The island is very relaxing and rural, with a total population of only 1750.
On Udo there is a small community of haenyeo, Jeju-do's famous diving women who collect shellfish from the depths of the south sea. There have been several generations of these women on the island, whom often work until they reach the age of seventy. They use no scuba gear (only wetsuit, face mask, net, gloves and a basket) and are able to hold their breath for over two minutes and dive to depths of over 65 feet.
Justin and I rented bicycles for three hours to peddle the flat neatly paved road which circled the island. The beaches of Udo were starkly white, ranging from rough coral to smooth sand.
We caught up a group of haenyeo taking a lunch break near the lighthouse on the north side of the island. They were friendly and let me take their picture, as I'm sure many other tourists had before.
The east side of the island is the'head of the buffalo', the highest point of the island, and is thus very un-bikeable. So, after a couple hours of biking, we thought we shold be able to cross the island to head back to the starting point of the ferry dock. We chose an inland road and biked uphill for aways through small housing complexes with four foot walls built by black volcanic rocks. We paused up top to take in the view and suddenly saw a small Korean man appear from one of the houses. The small dog near his side started barking ferociously at Justin on his bike, while I stood behind them and took a great picture of the rabid little beast. The man did nothing to try and control his pooch and all but started laughing as we quickly rode away.

Manjanggul Lava Caves

Originally uploaded by katevsnow.
After getting more than we could handle of pig parts and dead animals walking, we took a taxi to the center of Jeju-si, where we took a bus to the Manjanggul Lava Caves. The caves are a huge tourist attraction, but we thought we'd give them a shot since they were claimed as the world's longest system of lava caves, at over 13km long with a height and width varying from 3m to 20m. The caves were wet and cold, as expected and packed with Korean locals and tourists. I struggled to get a good shot of Justin without bypassers and managed to take this green tinted photo near the end of the cave.

Jeju-si Oiljang (Five Day Market)

Originally uploaded by katevsnow.
After a long first term here, Justin and I decided to take a trip to see the Korea that lives outside of Seoul. We took a four day trip to the southern most part of Korea, the island of Jeju-do. They call it 'the honeymoon island' because it's where most young Korean couples go after, of course, getting married and because it's the closest thing to a tropical vacation. There are palm trees scattered throughout the island, and although some say they're imported, I doubt it.
The first thing we did was go to the five day market in the city of Jeju-si. The market is only held on calendar days ending with a 'two' or 'seven'. Since we arrived on the 27th we thought we must go. It is the largest open-air market I think I've ever seen and I don't think we even saw half. There you can find anything from kimchi pots, plants and clothes to fish, beans and live animals.
We were just walking into the meat and seafood section of the market when I heard a loud squaking. I turned and saw two ajimmas carrying two big live geese in canvas bags. It was then that I noticed we weren't just at a meat and seafood market, we at a butcher's shop as well. Ajimmas (and strangly only the ajimmas, not the Korean men ajashis) were casually hacking apart cow and pig carcasses with huge rusty clevers at their wooden booths and tossing the parts into seemingly organized piles of flesh. We didn't stay very long in the area, but long enough to see large 3 feet long sections of shark meat with no heads or tails, lying on a wooden table surrounded by tons of small silver fish. Suprisingly, my little fear of sharks does not go away even when their meat is for sale at the market!


Muuido Wharf

Originally uploaded by katevsnow.
On the way back to Jamsildo from Muuido we had to wait a couple hours for the tide to rise, because the ferry was moored half way between the islands. So we enjoyed tuna and crackers for lunch, sitting on a concrete wall watching
stranded families collect clams and snails from the beach.
On our way through Yeongjongdo we stopped at the Haesupia Spa, a luxury seawater hot spa. We didn't know it was separated into men and women, nor that it was nude, but I suppose we could have guessed. In any case, it was really relaxing after two days of hiking from island to island. I enjoyed the oriental medicinal bath outside for awhile. It felt like I was soaking in a pool of Green Tea, and looked that way too. Other baths included the Deep Seawater Massage, Fresh Water Hot Baths, Deep Seawater Cold Baths and very hot saunas.
It was the first time I had been out of the enormous city of Seoul and it felt good. Although Seoul is where a quarter of the population of South Koreans live, sometimes it dosen't feel like Asia at all. It just feels like another big city that happens to be half way around the world from the States. Being on the islands made me eagar to explore other more rural parts of Korea and Asia.
So, Justin and I have planned a trip to Jejudo, the island off the south coast of Korea, for next week. Our first term ends on Tuesday and we fly out on Wednesday morning.

Muuido to Silmido

Originally uploaded by katevsnow.
The next morning we took a bus to the entrance to Jamsil Island, where we
walked around a small bend and then through a small fishing village. From there we reached a long concrete stretch of road linking the two islands, barely wide enough for two cars, much less pedestrians. So we waited for a break in traffic and walked briskly to the other side.
From the other side of Jamsildo we took a 20 minute ferry ride to Muui Island, where we walked through another small fishing village and up a very steep road to find the beach and camping area on the other side. From that beach we walked across this man made bridge of huge boulders and slimy rope, only possible in low tide.
At the other end was Simsildo, a small uninhabited island where we did another small hike to the other side to a beach where they filmed a popular Korean movie 'Simsildo'. From that beach you could look out onto the West Sea and see a few small islands in the distance. The tide was so low at that point in the day you could spot many ajimmas and ajashis digging for clams and snails on the mudflats.


Eulwagni Beach

Originally uploaded by katevsnow.
The rest of the night we sat on the beach, drank some rice wine and
lit off fireworks with the masses of Korean couples and families doing exactly the same. You had to be careful walking down the beach, there were fireworks (big ones) flying everywhere. One small Korean boy, about four years old, kept running up to us and trying to kick our fireworks over (lit or unlit)! I chased him while he ran and laughed loudly back to his family down the beach.


Jamjindo Sunset

Originally uploaded by katevsnow.
From the Wharf at Yeongjong we took a small, very packed bus on rocky narrow roads through small villages. We told the bus driver, a very nice round man, we were going to Jamjindo but on the bus we had decided to just go further on the island to Eulwangni Beach to spend the night. He stopped and suddenly started talking loudly in Korean, motioning for us to get off and wait for another bus. We couldn't tell him that we didn't in fact want to go there, but instead to the beach town and he was so insistent, we just got off the bus. Dumb move. We had to walk a ways and then catch basically the same bus (not the same driver) the rest of the way to the beach. But I did manage to get this shot of Jamjindo at sunset.
We found a small yogwan to spend the night, put down our stuff and strolled down the waterfront road, full of fresh seafood restaurants and mini mart/fireworks stores. We ran into a man who spoke a little English. He was trying to get us to eat at his wife's fish restaurant but we said we couldn't afford it (it was really expensive).
After a bit of bargaining and pointing to the live fish in the tanks outside, Justin and the man came to an agreement; we were to have two of the black striped fish (?) for W30,000. The wife eagarly ran out to the tank, caught the fish with a net, went around this small brick wall in the restaurant, and dumped the fish on the ground. She then picked up a blunt wooden mallet and beat it down twice hard, making a really loud sound. Then she came back with a clever.
The three of us enjoyed the fish with some soju, wasabi, rice, clam soup and (what else?) kimchi.


Wolmido Ferry

Originally uploaded by katevsnow.
The last weekend Matt was here visiting, we decided to take a trip out to the Incheon Islands in the West Sea. Saturday we took the subway an hour and a half to Incheon. From there we took a bus to the Wolmido Port, which is a promenade strangely similar to the Santa Cruz boardwalk, with carnival rides, candy vendors, etc.
From Wolmido, we took a ferry to Yeongjongdo (the large island where the airport is). While waiting for the ferry we noticed most of the families buying big bags of shrimp chips. As we got onto the ferry we noticed low flying seagulls. Children and their parents began throwing the shrimp chips up in the air, while a seagull caught about one in every large handfull. Needless to say, with the force of the wind and with the ferry moving, there were shrimp chips flying all over the deck. Justin began holding up a single chip, letting the seagulls hover awhile and then quickly take it out of his hand. The people around us were thrilled and began doing the same. The ajashi in the photo was holding up his daughter while she shreaked everytime a seagull got near.