I have never gone on a trip without packing pants.
The weather forecast for Beijing promised to not get below the 80's, and I believed it. People warned me about going in the summer heat, but I shrugged them off. My vacation was for the end of July, and I had to go somewhere! Whether I stayed in Korea or went to Japan or China, it would be miserably hot. But I really had to fight my Washingtonian sensibilities for packing. Even in summer, I would always pack pants, a warm top layer, a rain jacket, socks, and tennis shoes if I was going overnight somewhere. This time, my backpack was barely half-full with tank tops, shorts, and sandals.
I spent a week in Beijing, and Facebook was blocked as well as blogspot! I wanted to write at the time, but now that I'm back in Korea, I don't know where to start. Overall it was a good trip, but definitely hot and humid, conditions which were compounded by the pollution. Here's some highs and lows...
GREAT WALL OF CHINA: I avoided the most touristy spots and did a hiking tour from Simatai to Jinshanling. This was probably my favorite day of all. I got to the meeting spot a little before 6am and had a breakfast of watermelon and fresh steamed dumplings with a French couple on the tea house porch. By the time we got the rest of our group and drove out to the wall, it was nearly 10:30. There were many Europeans and also some Americans; tourists as well as business students and English teachers. It was about a 30 minute hike up continual stairs just to get up to the wall. Once on the Wall, it was pretty spectacular. It stretches and snakes away from you, dotted with watchtowers in various states of decay. Unfortunately, the visibility was not very good, and I couldn't see super far, and my camera could see even less. We walked 7 kilometers on the wall, passing maybe a few dozen other hikers coming from the other direction. It was pretty rough terrain between the uneven stone, steep crumbling staircases, and blazing sun. We descended to have lunch and followed by a content and sleepy ride back to Beijing. SUMMER PALACE: This royal summer dwelling is more than a palace; it's a whole complex of buildings with temples, gardens, walkways, and a huge lake. I preferred it to the Forbidden City, which although impressive and beautiful, is very linear and manicured. (In the Forbidden City, you pretty much have to walk straight through and see things in a certain order, and it was extremely crowded. There is a Hall of Supreme Harmony, but it was so packed I couldn't get close enough to even see inside the hall without getting pushed and elbowed. Hah, not very harmonious. But it is beautiful with impressive architecture, you can see below.) Anyway, I liked the wildness of the Summer Palace; the rocks to scramble on; the meandering pathways; the shade; the boats floating about; the dispersed crowds of people. But again, as you can see from the pictures, the visibility was not great. One guide referred to the "glistening lake", which I'm sure would be accurate when you can see it. Yeah, that's the lake through the gate in this picture. Yeah, all that white. BIKE RIDING: I don't think I would have been as confident about riding a bicycle around Beijing if I hadn't already been riding a bike in Korea. I've had time to get used to the craziness. And actually, I was pleasantly surprised by how easy and logical 2-wheeled navigation was in this mega-city. Many people are on bicycles and scooters, and most major streets had huge separate bike lanes, as well as bike crossing lights. And when in doubt, I just crossed the street following closely behind Chinese cyclists. Wedged between the big 8-lane roads, there are still traditional alleys called hutongs, so I spent a day riding around hutongs, sort of following a route and sort of getting lost and found again. FOOD: I ate some freakin delicious food. First of all there is the street food, which I'm a big fan of. Gastrointestinally risky, but so good and varied. I really liked these little yogurts, which they sell in reusable heavy ceramic cups, so you have to drink them at the shop you buy them at. And dumplings... And all sorts of meat-on-sticks... Including fried sea horses... Then there was the night market. I love night markets in general- that people are out and walking around in a safe public space. It feels like Europe. It feels vibrant. The smells are strong and new and distinct. There were scorpions and all sort of unusual foods, but I stuck to tamer fare, like bean sprout burrito thing, and noodles and gyros and pear juice. I had some really nice sit down meals too. The first night I met two French guys at my hostel and we went to this nearby hole in the wall and had a feast. Beef and onions, chicken, pork with peppers and mushrooms, dumplings, rice and beer all for about $5 each. Then of course I had to eat Peking Duck, which I did on my last night with my British friend, and was not disappointed. The very best part was that they make a stock of the leftover duck and bring it to you at the end of the meal. It was really simple, just duck and cabbage and I don't know what else, but it was AMAZING. Maybe in the top 5 most perfect-tasting soups of my life, and I can't remember the other 4. NEW FRIENDS: I have friends in Korea of course, but while traveling in a different country, I was exposed to a wider variety of foreigners. It was just nice to have that change of pace. There were a lot of French staying at my hostel, and in all of Beijing in general. There were a handful of Spaniards and Argentinians as well, so I got to practice plenty of Spanish. I met 5 other Americans who were teaching English in Korea and just on a short vacation like me.
INGRISH: I am amused to no end by the funny English translations in Asia. Most of these are from menus. Lowlights:
NO XIAN: The biggest let-down was that I didn't get to go to Xian, the city with the Terracotta Soldiers. It's an overnight train ride from Beijing, and I booked my train tickets as soon as I got to China, and was barely able to find room. Usually you need train reservations about a week in advance. I was looking forward to going to a smaller city and seeing this infamous army. My mom has a set of small terracotta soldiers of different ranks in different positions, and those men and I have been staring each other down for about 15 years from their place on the shelf. I took my first bus in Beijing to get to the train station with no problem. It was PACKED. You have to elbow your way just to get through the front door, and then go through security and push people to get your bag on the X-ray belt. Everything takes longer in crowds, but I had arrived an hour early which I thought was plenty of time. I asked at the Station Master's desk (after lots of waiting and then some elbowing) which platform I boarded on, and she just looked at my ticket and shook her head. "Ticket office downstairs" she said. I didn't know why. I got the ticket through my hostel, but maybe it wasn't the final version of the ticket?
Downstairs there were about a million ticket windows, each with a line of 20 people, and no help desk. So I waited in line, only to get to the front to be told "Window 17". So then I waited in that line, and suddenly my hour early didn't seem like so much time. They told me, "Ticket refund window, downstairs." I asked why, but the clerk just said, "refund window" while meanwhile 3 people are pushing me aside. I just wanted to know what was wrong with the ticket before I missed the train, which was looking likely. I started asking people if they spoke English, but no one did. I was so frustrated. One man I asked looked at me contemptuously, "English? No. China! CHHHIIIIINAAA!" On the verge of tears, I got in the long refund window line. I was holding my cursed ticket. Men were perusing the refund line waiters, trying to buy tickets off people before they got their official refund. "I don't want to sell you my ticket! I want to get on this train! But I don't know what the problem is!" I shouted at the man trying to grab my ticket. The woman in front of me turned around and looked. "Xian?" she asked. "Yes!" She showed me her ticket, also for Xian. "Uh, roon". I thought she meant there was no room, maybe the train was overbooked. "No," she said, "rooning cats and dogs!" Oh, raining! I finally figured out that massive summer rains and flooding had damaged parts of the track, and the train was cancelled. I got my refund, and the lady said most likely the train would be cancelled the next day too, and then I would be out of time.
LACK OF VISIBILITY: I've already mentioned this several times. But it was bad. One night coming back from the market I got off the subway at the Tiananmen West stop, but came out a different exit than I had entered. I was close to my hostel but literally had no orientation to where I was. I was one block from the massive Tiananmen Square, the biggest public square in the WORLD, and couldn't see what direction it was because visibility was so bad! No one was around to ask, so finally I had to take a rickshaw the 4 blocks home.
PRICES: Bargaining was sort of a joke. I just wasn't into it. My reference for comparison is Latin America, where at most markets they might quote about double of what they want you to pay for something. Then you bargain for a few minutes, find a middle ground that is reasonable to both parties, and you're happy. But in Beijing, most vendors would tell you a price that was literally 10-15 times what you wanted to pay... 10-15 times what you would pay in the U.S. for the same thing, AFTER it had been imported and marked up by the retailer. So then you haggle for 10 minutes just to get a somewhat expensive price, and finally 3 hours later you pay something cheapish, and wander away wondering if you even wanted that thing to begin with. It was just too exhausting for me.
INTERNET BLOCK: Also known as "The Great Firewall of China". There are many websites that are blocked from public view including Facebook, blogs, and information related to negative aspects of Chinese history, police brutality, free speech, the Taiwanese government, pornography, criminal activities, the Dalai Lama/Free Tibet movement, and some foreign news. Apparently there are ways around this, but in general you can expect a lot of censorship.
Right now it's summer break for Korean students. Most teachers have a few weeks of summer camp to teach, but still are left with at least a few weeks of no classes. Instead of having any extra time off, most teachers just have to sit in the office and "desk warm". Most of my last week has been in my office chair, catching up on email, watching Glee, studying Korean, and working in my school garden. I came across this video which is ridiculously spot-on to what foreign English teachers experience with desk warming.
Hmm, but I don't know how to make this video fit the screen, sorry. To watch an un-cropped version, here is the YouTube link to the same video.
The Boryeong Mud Festival is probably the festival in Korea that attracts the most international visitors. For one week during the summer, thousands and thousands of people (foreign and Korean) come to Daechon Beach on the west coast of the country for this mud extravaganza. The festival was first started because of the therapuetic properties of the mud, with the high mineral content said to be good for the skin and used in local cosmetics. Now in its 13th year, it is a festival of not only cosmetics, but mud wrestling, mud slides, mud massages, mud painting, traditional competitions (in mud), parades, outdoor concerts, and dance perfomances. For more info, they have a festival homepage in English. I went this past weekend, which was the festival's opening. My friend Tonya had booked a guesthouse for 15 of us one block from the beach. Saturday morning I got a ride there with a Korean friend, driving through the pouring rain. Not exactly good beach weather, but I suppose of all festivals, a mud festival is an okay time for rain. I was pleasantly surprised at how well layed out the grounds were- many games, booths, information kiosks, food and beer tents, free lockers, changing areas, and all literally steps from the beach. It was a bit hard to find friends between the crowd of people and our lack of carrying cell phones. Despite the rain, there was still a huge turn out, and it was warm and humid enough for bathing suits. The mud area shuts down between 6 and 7pm, forcing revelers to go home, clean up, and recharge for the night. There are numerous seafood restaurants in this coastal town, and we went out for the largest clam feed I have ever had. Like most large Korean meals, you cook your own meat on a grill at your table. We had several kinds of shellfish, seaweed soup, corn, and cold beer in the warm night air. Luckily it had stopped raining, and in the evening there was music and dancing along the beach as well as at a huge stage venue on the festival grounds. I thought the event had the potential of feeling too much like Spring Break in Cancun or something. Too many drunk, bikini-clad foreigners reeking havoc on the local community. But it did not feel that way. There was drinking, but I didn't see anything out of control. There were many foreigners, but many Koreans too, including families and Korean women in bikinis, which is rare. The local business-owners and festival staff seemed like they were genuinely enjoying the atmosphere, and not at all jaded by chaos. There were many types of festival-goers and a good variety of activities, and I think this diversity really contributed to a fun, sincere environment.
The only real downside of the weekend was on the beach when I walked away from my purse for about 15 minutes. All day, people had been leaving sandals, sunglasses, bags, etc. sitting around, and it felt like a very safe place. But my purse got stolen, and unfortunately a couple friends had put wallets and cell phones in it too. I happened to have my camera, phone, and cash in my pockets so all I lost was my waterbottle, umbrella, and a pair of earrings. I feel really bad for my friends, and that we had to be blatantly reminded to not be too complacent about safety. Of course the main thing is that no one got hurt, and what was lost are things that can be replaced.
Sunday morning dawned bright and sunny. I have hardly seen blue skies in Korea this summer. It is typically hot, but overcast and humid. Like an international hobbit, I first had a Korean breakfast of ramyeon and kimchee, then a second breakfast of home-cooked potatos, cheesy eggs, and bacon. Then I was fully ready for day two of mud and beach! I can't describe how wonderful swimming in the ocean was. It was my first time REALLY swimming this year, not counting a brief, chilly plunge in April. There aren't really public lakes or ocean beaches in Gunsan. Here in Daechon, the water was refreshingly cool but not cold, clearer than most Yellow Sea waters, and with big waves perfect for wave jumping and body surfing. I felt so at home just hanging out in the water. By afternoon we were feeling the heat, probably all a little tired, sunburned, and dehydrated. There were 6 left in the group, and we decided to take the train back. The city buses that went past the train station were all packed. We asked where we could catch a taxi, and the event staff guy said we had to walk about 15 minutes out of the festival area. Then he told us to wait. A couple minutes later, a fancy tour bus pulled up, and he told us it would take us to the train station. We got into this huge bus with a/c, empty except for us. I have no idea how that happened, but it was really nice, and testament to personal and caring organizers amidst so many people.
A friend recently sent a message on Facebook asking many people what gratitude meant to us. And today one of the blogs I follow, "Lessons from the Monk I Married", did a post about being grateful. If you haven't checked out this blog, I highly recommend it- daily "lessons" written by a woman who was an ESL teacher in Korea for many years and ended up meeting her husband, a former Buddhist monk. They now live in Seattle together. Following her lead, I'm doing a post on what I'm grateful for in my life.
1. My Job- I really knew almost nothing about this job when I came halfway around the world for it, and I totally lucked out. I really like my school, coworkers, and students. It's fun teaching kids every day and seeing them get excited about language learning. They can even joke in English and make puns- some students last week called me 'Amberger', which shocked me because my family used to call me that when I was little.
2. Teachers- The more I teach, the more grateful I become for the amazing teachers I have had in my life.
3. My Health- I could probably exercise more, stretch more, eat less refined sugar, and drink less Hite, but overall my body feels great. I ride my bike every day and can go run 5 or 6 miles around Eunpa Lake for fun. My sleep has been a little weird in Korea with all the construction noise near my apartment, but recently I haven't been hearing it at 6am, and am actually sleeping more than 6 hours straight.
4. Learning a New Language- My Korean is still pathetic, err limited, but I'm still having a great time wading though it. I can read Korean, even though I don't know what it means unless it's Konglish. But studying a non-Roman alphabet is exciting, like learning a secret language! A secret language only shared by me and 75 million other people.
5. Gardens- As I've mentioned before, there are small gardens in every nook and cranny of this city. It makes me absolutely gleeful to watch plants grow every week; see people cultivating the land; riding my bike past onions drying in the sun; marvel at how high vines have already climbed. And that's just on my way to work!
6. My friends back home- From skype to Facebook to real letters in the mail, and even friends I haven't been in touch with, I am so so lucky to have the wonderful friends that I do. Like really. I don't even know how to express my love for all the beautiful, kind, thoughtful people in my life.
7. My community in Gunsan- It's a somewhat different group of people than I usually hang out with back home, but fun, vibrant, and awesome nonetheless. I'm thankful to find a well-rounded group- friends to play music, have dinner parties, volunteer in schools, go hiking, trade garden starts, study Korean, get teaching tips, and sample the local mekju of course. I have rarely had a lonely moment in Korea.
8. My Family- I wouldn't say I have always been close to my family, and I am very different from them in many ways. But over the years it seems we have met each other in the middle somewhere, appreciating each other more than ever. Now I consider my family one of the most important parts of my life, and I can no longer picture living abroad indefinitely like I dreamed about when I was younger. I just want to be close to my family. I'm grateful for my grandmas, aunts, uncles, and older cousins who have been role models to me; for my younger cousins who have recently finished high school and are making their way in the world responsibly and creatively; for my brothers and sisters who are dear friends and kind, fun people; for my nieces and nephews who couldn't be any sweeter or more adorable; for my dad and step-dad, who have been great fathers in different ways (variety is the spice of life!); and for my mom, who is one of the most loving, awesome women on the planet.
Happy 234th Birthday America! I don't consider myself a particularly patriotic person, but for some reason I REALLY wanted to have a proper 4th of July celebration in Gunsan. So my friend Jen who has a BBQ and a large apartment agreed to host a potluck with me. All I really wanted was to be with friends, grill meat, drink some beer, eat watermelon, and make an American flag cake. What says USA more than that? It was a muggy, humid day, but we stayed cool with fans and homemade soju lemonade. People brought meat, shrimp, pasta salads, fruit, guacamole, salsa, deviled eggs, bruschetta, and tabbouleh. There were Koreans, foreigners, babies, cats, dogs, civilians, GI's, young, and old. It was a wonderful, eclectic afternoon. There is an agricultural adage in the U.S. that says for your corn to be on schedule for the season, it should be "knee high by the 4th of July". Well, here in Korea, I think the growing season is about 6-8 weeks ahead of NW Washington. The corn shot up recently, and most of it is as tall as I am (5 feet). Here they trellis their cucumbers (a space-saving measure that is not surprising from people who are used to high-density living) and the vines are also over 5 feet tall. I saw a 6-inch eggplant growing this weekend, and a 4-inch pepper. My cucumber grew about a foot in 2 days. There is not always a lot of sun here, but it is quite warm and wet, and the gardens are absolutely lush. I've mentioned before that there are a lot of guerilla gardens in the city- mostly older Koreans who will dig up any unused land and plant vegetables, on the side of the road, near ditches, on the side of a building. They have no way to irrigate this land, but luckily summer is the rainy season, so nature does most of the work. I LOVE this aspect of living here- it's like being in one big community pea-patch garden with no fences. I can check on what's happening in the garden anywhere I go.
I've heard that it has been a really cool and cloudy summer so far in Seattle. It seems like often summer doesn't reliably start until the 5th of July. I hope the sun comes out soon and that your corn is somewhere near your knees.
I'm a writer and editor in Seattle. I started this blog in 2008 to chronicle my travels in Latin America, and continued writing through jaunts in Europe and Asia.
Now I'm back where I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, and can't stop hiking to fire lookouts in the Cascade Mountains.