All-China Tour: Jinan

All-China Tour: Jinan

One thing you must know about me is I’m an INTJ. I like to have plans. My friend Rachael would say that I’m no good at planning trips and stuff, but the plans are comforting to me nonetheless.

After 5 days in smoggy Beijing, I was ready to get out and see other cities. For my two days in Jinan, I had a few things to do. At this point in the trip, I did not yet have a firm grasp on what was doable yet while still fitting in travel between cities and hostel check-ins. That being said, I had planned to go to legendary hiking mountain Tai Shan one day, followed by philosopher Confucius’s hometown of Qufu on the next. I had already missed a day because of my Beijing mistake, and was determined to buy my tickets to the next city right away. I didn’t have time for hiking, but figured I could maybe visit the “Thousand-Buddha Mountain” that was nearby to Jinan in my day there.

Jinan was one of the few cities where I couldn’t find a hostel on hostelworld. This should have been a clue, but the site does at least a little bit of vetting before letting a place list on their site, and no hostels existed in Jinan. The hostel I found on another site had a cute lobby, sure, but it was my first experience with a hostel where absolutely nobody spoke English. Google translator helped. The bathroom was just a squat toilet, fine by itself, but it also smelled like a port-o-potty, absolutely nauseating, and we paid to use this toilet as part of the hostel. The rooms weren’t great, either. Before I even slept the night, I was glad to stay there only one night. Seeing the hostel really underscored my need to get out of there at the earliest possible moment. Luckily, the train station was not far away, so I got my next day’s ticket quickly, and followed that up with a lunch of the absolute worst beef noodles in my life.

The goal was to find the bus to Thousand Buddha Mountain. I don’t like buses in foreign countries in general (even in Korea, I’m too afraid I won’t hear the announcement for the stop and miss it. It happened once after a trip to Everland and added 2 hours to my trip home). I kept walking down this road and never ended up finding the stop. Truthfully, I was just looking for a large enough mall or a Starbucks in which to find a western-style toilet, but they were laughably hard to come by. After hours of walking, it seemed, I found my way to this big plaza. There’s a huge mall and conference centers there, and it finally felt like I was back in civilization after the horrors that my hostel presented.

As a disclaimer: Jinan might be a nice place to go for a business conference, if you’re staying at the nice hotel and having a catered event and hang out at the nice mall. The rest of the city, there aren’t as many low-budget options and is really hard to navigate around if you don’t speak Chinese.

I saw the Baotu Spring Park nearby, which was probably the highlight of the day. It was a lovely manicured Chinese garden with natural springs to see (not bathe in), and randomly a pond with seals (the animal) swimming around in it? Jinan was wild, y’all. The big plaza outside had a lot of kite fliers, and I finally found a bathroom in the mall beside it. I walked through the Yanhuchi Jie night market and got some kind of flat samosa-like pastry for dinner, just as it was starting to rain.

I finally got Starbucks at the end of the night. I hadn’t brought anything to read, so it was depressing looking at all the missed opportunities in my guidebook while I sipped my coffee. Once more, I considered just high-tailing it back to Beijing and the airport and calling it quits. It seemed that China wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Back at the hostel, it was only 9pm or so, and all the girls in my dorm were there, full lights on, in bed just scrolling through their smartphones. Not a word exchanged. At least we could have turned the lights off and scrolled in the dark? It was weird.

You know a hotel isn’t up to my germaphobe dad’s standards when he doesn’t even take his socks off when he goes to bed. I felt like that in this hostel. I slept in all my clothes because I was so ready to be gone from there at first light. The front-desk guys sleep on a bed in the little bar-area next to the front desk. I ended up waking them up in order to check out. It wasn’t that early, by my standards, but it’s still pretty shit to have to be sleeping but on-call whenever you’re on duty. I felt better with some baozi and drinks in my bag and checked in for my new train journey. I was even more excited to be out of Jinan than I was to be out of Beijing. I hoped the next city would be an improvement, for once, as I headed down the coast making my way to Shanghai.

Beijing << All-China Tour 2018 >>

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All-China Tour: Beijing 1

All-China Tour: Beijing 1

Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing (we’ll get back to Shanghai later). These cities are always mentioned in the same breath as being the largest and most important cities in eastern Asia. Beijing didn’t give me a great impression at first, but I think that’s mainly due to the insane crowding, worrying amount of police and security, and the not-so-happening neighborhood where my hostel was.

The day I was supposed to leave, after breakfast of “boiled egg and soldiers” with my friend Rachael, whose house I was staying at, I packed up and took a taxi to Ilsan to meet my friend and former co-teacher, Tiffany. Embarrassingly, I had only just discovered the wonders of the Kakao Taxi service the week before. I had waited this long to close out my bank account because my last paycheck hadn’t arrived until the day before. I didn’t want to close the account until I had all the money in one place, and I couldn’t have done all the complex bank manipulations by myself. This involved withdrawing the Chinese yuan for the trip and calling home to find the “swift code” for our bank, certainly upsetting my parents right before bedtime.

Afterward, I closed out my phone plan. I wanted to get a new SIM card for my phone once I got to China, and I’d already gotten the VPN so that I could access American websites and apps from across the Great Firewall of China.

It was hard saying goodbye to Miss Tiffany, since we formed such a strong bond while working together and stayed friends even after we both left the school. But, in a way, it felt like we had come full circle. My time in Korea started and ended with Miss Tiffany.

After a nearly-tearful departure from Tiffany’s house, I headed for Gimpo Airport. I made sure to arrive almost 4 hours early for the evening flight, but I couldn’t find sign of my flight anywhere. The reason, I learned after talking to the airline service desk, was that my flight had left at 8 in the morning and not in the evening. An expensive mistake, I had to pay for a new ticket the next day. For not the first time, I considered just staying in Korea for another week (despite not having a bank account or phone with service) or going directly home instead. However, I wanted to follow through on the trip more.

As some self-penance, I took the subway back to Rachael’s for one additional night. I still had no cell service to notify her of my coming, so I couldn’t tell her until I was back in Holly’s Coffee wifi later, after a sad McDonald’s dinner and a nap. I was quite dejected, but it was really nice to be at the house of a friend rather than staying in a lonely hotel room.

At times like these, I can’t turn my brain off or stop thinking about what I could have done differently. In hindsight, the problem started when I wrote down the flight times incorrectly. It was silly to assume that the “8:40” readout meant PM and not AM, but that’s what I wrote. However, that extra day in Bucheon reduced my time in a sub-par hostel, so it wasn’t all bad.

The next day I woke up stupid-early at 4 or 5 AM. There was no way I was missing this flight. Rachael graciously called the taxi for me and then went right back to sleep. Gimpo Airport has a lot less going for it than Incheon, so I had a seriously mediocre breakfast and a lot of time to kill before my flight left. Before you leave the country for the last time, they take your ARC (Alien Registration Card) away for good. The Beijing airport was a lot of walking but at least I had no problems with immigration this time, unlike the last time I slept over in Nanjing.

After a long train ride and a while being lost in the area of my hostel, I finally found it. Lots of things are in back alleys (hutongs) in Beijing, while big official buildings line the major streets. I was super unimpressed by this hostel, despite its cute courtyard. The bathrooms were gross, and the rooms were always cold and a little damp. I wonder if my opinion on the hostel would have been different in the summer, whether I could have better appreciated the cute rooftop patio in nicer weather. At the hostel, I got a nap, some tea (the one thing my hostel did well was keeping you filled with nice hot tea), and some wifi, I made the plan for the rest of the day.

The most doable thing for the rest of the day was to head to the Temple of Heaven (which is, apparently, not actually a temple). The original purpose of the buildings was for the emperors to offer gifts to the gods for healthy harvests and good weather. There were different temple buildings for each offering, but the most majestic was the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the biggest building up on a marble dais, looking out over the rest of the grounds. Even as late in the day as I went, there were still lots of tour groups going around, and apparently the done thing in China is for your tour group to wear matching hats?

After the temple, I headed to a Pacific Coffee (apparently they exist outside Hong Kong and Taiwan), where I had super trouble ordering an iced americano.  I explored some malls and found a decent food court, where I got jiaozi dumplings, some kind of tomato-fish stew, and bubble tea. It seems that my tastes have become completely Koreanized with craving soup all the time and iced americanos. Dinner over, I returned home to the hostel for social media and sleep.

The next day was a packed-full day by my plan. I woke up early, drank more tea, and the hostel front desk girl helped me to get tickets for the Forbidden City online. You have to get somebody with a Chinese phone number to buy them in advance and then you can just show the proof that you bought them on your phone with a screenshot or picture. When I got to Tiananmen Square, I got super worried waiting in the long security line. The whole 2 hours standing in line, I barely saw any other foreigner tourists, there was no signage to guide us one way or the other, and I couldn’t figure out which documents I would need to show to get through the security. My time in Beijing was a little unsettling because you needed to submit bags for the x-ray scan each time you went into a subway station, train station, or museum, there were armed guards watching each entrance of the subway station, and there were volunteer guards with red armbands on every corner. You definitely felt like you were under surveillance at all times. In Tiananmen Square, you’re also under the watchful eyes of Mao himself, where his portrait stares seemingly-benevolently down from the high walls.

Before I even entered the Forbidden City, I was approached by some nice English-speaking Chinese ladies. However, I had read about this exact situation in this exact spot. They start by talking to you, complimenting you, and asking about your travels. Then they offer to take you around for a tour, and then for some tea. It’s your first day in Beijing, what better than to follow your trip to the Forbidden City with a nice pot of traditional Chinese tea? That’s the scam. The teahouse has no prices on anything, so they just politely advise you as to the best tea, and then markup the prices crazy-high. Luckily, I bowed out of the scam and continued on my merry way.

I don’t have much to say about the Forbidden City, honestly. It was a larger version of the same kind of palaces that you’d find in Korea and Japan. It was more ornate, and the tilework of the roofs and railings was stunning. The palace itself was a sight, but I enjoyed exploring the grounds around back a lot more, where the buildings and gardens are closer together and form interesting little pathways to wander through. The palace itself is a lot of just high walls and open space, no doubt just to hold huge crowds of people. Nonetheless, it would have been utter folly not to have gone.

Afterwards, I hopped right back on the subway for more sightseeing at the Drum Tower and Bell Tower, both in the same plaza. In every Chinese city were this pair of towers (that doesn’t look much like the typical picture of a “tower” at all, more like a big box-like building) to announce the time, the news, or any emergencies. The ones in Beijing were not necessarily the most magnificent specimens I saw, but it was a cool little detour. Since the towers weren’t all that tall, I didn’t see the use in paying to go up to the top when there wouldn’t be much view to speak of.

On the way to the next sightseeing, I stopped at a cool little coffee bar, called Hainan, I think. I got lunch at a place that had caught my eye in the guidebook, Punk Rock Noodle. Everything about this place makes you feel good. The cool music and décor, the good food, etc. Apparently it was begun by a punk-rocker, its staff all punk musicians, and after some time became something of a cult favorite, in addition to being popular with students. I should have gotten the Panda Brew (Beijing craft beer) there, since that was on my to-do list for the day, but I never ended up having that beer or visiting the brewery that day.

I had intended to go to both the Confucius Temple and the Lama Temple. They are right next to each other on the street, but I miscalculated how much time I had, so I only got to go to the Confucius Temple (again, less of a temple than a Confucian academy). I chose the lesser of the two, and should have gone to the resplendent Lama Temple. That’s apparently the temple you should go to if you don’t have time to make it to Tibet. Next time, I guess. On the way back, I stopped in some of the small little drink stalls on our street and bought some pastries. The pastry stand was one of the only good things about this location in Beijing. After a nap and a long wander around the neighborhood (there is seriously nothing in that whole area), I found some kind of fast-food-looking place, where I got some sort of noodle soup meal with donuts (youtian) and eggs. It was a very strange meal, but it kept me from starving to death, so I was satisfied with that.

On the second full day in Beijing, there was only one thing on the plan: The Great Wall. I had read up on recommendations about where to go on the wall, when to go, how to get there. About camping and hiking and restored versus “wild” sections of the wall. Over breakfast of leftover pastries and Emergen-C (fearing I was getting sick, my hostel roommate hooked me up), I decided to play it safe and go to the Badaling section of the wall. It’s the most heavily restored and crowded, but also the closest and easiest to get to. At the hostel, the front desk girls offered little help planning and scheduling the trips, so I tried to do this one on my own…

The guidebook listed the Beijing North Railway Station as a straight shot to this section of the wall. I knew that if I left too late, I would miss the last train there, so it was earlier. After getting off at the nearest subway station, I had to walk under an overpass and across a huge thoroughfare (luckily Chinese are not shy about walking on seemingly non-pedestrian-friendly roads so it wasn’t all that strange) to get to the station. Once there, it seemed that there weren’t any signs on how to get there. One sign would lead you one way and then the trail would die 15 meters later. Finally I got on a good path and discovered the north railway station, which seemed to have been defunct for at least several years. You would think you’d be able to take a train to get to the most popular section of the Great Wall, that would be common sense, right?

I regrouped in a café near the shut-down old station. Coffee is considerably harder to come by in mainland China than in Hong Kong or Taiwan. I found a bus that would take me there, so I got back on the subway and headed to the new stop. I’d memorized the characters for basically “Badaling Great Wall,” so I was following signs to get to the shuttle bus from there. The last bus is supposed to leave at 12 or 1, so I was solidly within that timeframe. All throughout the walk, scammer taximen were trying to get us to take a super-expensive taxi to the wall. After a while, it became apparent that the group of Arabic-speaking girls behind me were also going the same way, and we teamed up. They were headed in the same way as me. It’s gratifying to know you’re not alone sometimes. Further along, we were also following a group of Chinese tourists, so all together it was not a small group. Once at the bus stop, we found out that the scammer taximen weren’t completely wrong. The buses to the wall really were done for the day. It was solidly 12:50 at this point. At the slightest sign of discomfort, I was ready to just go to a museum or something and give up, but together the team was tenacious.

With three different phones working on a wifi hotspot, Google translate, and one of the girls speaking a bit of Chinese, we managed to work together to secure taxis for the group to get to the wall. It ended up being only 150 yuan each, which sounds like a lot but is actually a steal for what we got, which was driving nearly one hour there, waiting for us to come down from the wall, and taking us back to where we started. Split between two taxis, the girls and one Chinese tourist got in one car and I and the rest of the Chinese group got in the other. “I’m gonna die, this is how I die today,” I kept chanting because this is, of course, how people get murdered all the time. Logically, though, that’s a whole lot of work with all the translating for the very little payoff of murdering little old me.

In the car on the way there, I was just consoling myself, but every few minutes one of the Chinese tourists would use the Chinese version of Google translate, assure me I was perfectly safe, and tell me the taximan’s plan for picking us up again. Since it was much later in the day than most people normally go to the wall (most people go in the morning), it was almost completely devoid of any tourists or souvenir-hawkers. The view was amazing and just so peaceful. It ended up being a great time of day to go. The steps were wicked steep! I can’t imagine being a soldier in full armor trying to hurry up those steps to get to your post. After I got back to the hostel, I found some kind of baozi steamed bun place for dinner and collected some snacks like taro ice cream and tomato Pringles.

The next day I was slated to leave Beijing for Jinan. I wanted to do something (like visit the Summer Palace or the National Museum) in the morning, perhaps stop in Tianjin on the way to see that epic library, and then end in Jinan in the evening. I was definitely ready to be out of Beijing by this point, maybe escape the oppressive smog and scary police at every corner.

After packing up, I went to the National Museum. I had had to wait in that insane long security line again in Tiananmen square to get in, but at least the museum was free. My favorite exhibits were the collection of gifts that Chinese leaders had received from foreign dignitaries and the display of Chinese money from throughout history.

The next phase represented one of the darkest chapters of my time in China. I returned to the hostel to get my bags and eat some pastries for lunch, and then took the subway with all my bags to Beijing South station. I waited in this line forever to get a ticket, any ticket to Jinan. Here, I had made several miscalculations. In Korea, you can take a train or bus from Seoul, same day, with very little trouble, as long as you don’t care about when you leave. I also overestimated how many trains would go there each day. Jinan is not that important a city. No trains to Jinan would leave that day, but they sold me a ticket for the next morning.

Dejected, I pouted awhile at Starbucks in the station. Without a Chinese phone number, I couldn’t use the wifi there. Again, I thought how easy it’d be to go to the airport, buy a ticket home (forget the cost), and surprise my family. In the guidebook, I found some hostel in the Drum Tower neighborhood, and after standing in an interminable taxi rank for what felt like ages, I finally got a taxi. That hostel was full and I couldn’t find the hostel they directed me to. I was sore and angry after standing in so many lines with my heavy bags, so eventually I checked into a James Joyce Coffetel. It was super expensive, like 10 times as expensive as a single night in any of the hostels I booked in the rest of my time there, but James Joyce + coffee was a hard proposition for me to turn down. It was a way-too-nice-for-me hotel, with cute little single-serve pour-over coffees included in the room. After a bit more pouting, I went out and ate some amazing mouth-numbing spicy noodles and had a few beers at a taphouse called The Beer Guys, watching some Chinese drama on the TV. I was still salty to have wasted more money, but the food, beer, wifi, and a call to my mom helped immensely.

The next morning I headed out to Jinan, which would prove to be my least favorite city in China.

All-China Tour 2018 >> Jinan

“It’s not that late!”: All-China Tour 2018

“It’s not that late!”: All-China Tour 2018

In the two months now since I got back from my literally life-changing trip to China, it’s taken about that long to organize my thoughts into a post on the subject.

… Just kidding.

A single post on the trip could easily be 40,000 words long. Ain’t nobody got time for that! So instead, I decided to divide it up into more readable chunks. At first I thought it would be by week, but then I thought it would be more convenient to divide it by city. In this first instalment, I’ll just talk about the process by which I made the plan and acquired the visa.

The planning began months before departure. I spent lots of time researching Lonely Planet’s substantial volume on China, collecting articles and inspiration on Facebook and Instagram, and trying to weed out things that were doable within a reasonable amount of time from the impossible. I quickly found that I couldn’t see all the things I wanted to see in a single week. Why not a month? Why not a grand tour of China over the course of a month? Even though I had a month, I still couldn’t do it all. I never got to see the 2008 Summer Olympics venues in Beijing, despite being there for four days; although there were tons of awesome things to see and do in the southern city of Guangzhou, I couldn’t justify the long detour; the same go for a “little jaunt” over to Tibet or Mongolia, where visa processes add time and complexity to the already-fraught application process.

The schedule I originally settled on was this: beginning with 4 days in Beijing, tracing my way down the coast with 2 days in Jinan, 2 days in Qingdao, a 1-day upshot to coastal beach town of Yantai, one night in Nanjing to reprise my attempt to stay there on the way back from Taiwan, 3 days in Shanghai, starting the journey west with 1 day in Hangzhou, 1 day in Zhangjiajie, 2 days each in Chongqing and Chengdu, 3 days in Lanzhou, 2 days each in Xi’an and Datong, and finally landing back in Beijing for a final night before taking off for the United States the next day.

Once deciding on the time-frame and buying the tickets, you can’t just apply for a visa as easily as in Vietnam. You must have a very detailed plan before you even set out to get the visa (once you schedule the appointment, you can get your visa in as soon as the same day or next day, depending on how much you’re willing to pay), so the hardest part is doing all that planning before you ever have the visa. You must have proof of all your hotel reservations (I found hostels on Hostelworld and Agoda), where you’re going each day, what you plan to do, and how you plan to travel between cities. When I got to the visa office, I had a plan but certainly not all the information. I had addresses for all the hotels but I needed phone numbers, too. I needed to re-print all of the proofs of reservation so that they specifically showed my name and not just confirmation number. It felt very scary, like they would be checking up on you at every hostel and you’d get in trouble if you changed your plans.

Once you fill out the forms and submit all the paperwork and payment, it’s actually quite fast to receive your visa. Just return to the office in 1-3 business days. It’s really expensive for US citizens to get a Chinese visa, more than USD $200, but luckily the visa is multiple-entry and lasts for 10 years. Unlike in Vietnam and other places, too, they truly do check your passport and visa every time you go into a subway, train station, or museum. (They, of course, confiscated my ARC at Gimpo Airport when I left the country, so my last remaining official ID was my passport.)

Before leaving, it was a constant jumble of offloading my stuff onto anyone who would take it, moving out, and sending my stuff home. (One of my boxes still has yet to arrive, after 3 full months at sea). I couldn’t send my laptop home, so I had to take it in the pack with me. I thought I could keep the contents of my pack in the big bag and have the small pack rolled up outside, but after just one or two cities I lost all sense of shame and started carrying one pack on my back and one on front, “like a proper backpacker.”

As with all trips, the plans never pan out. The real roster of places I visited was more pared-down, as I quickly discovered that it’s no fun to spend less than 24 hours in a city and then move on, so minimizing the amounts of one-day stays:

Beijing,

Jinan,

Qingdao,

Nanjing,

Shanghai,

Zhangjiajie,

Chongqing,

Chengdu,

Lanzhou,

Xi’an,

and Beijing again.

The accounts of each city will be linked above as they are written. There’s still a lot of work to do. However, this will have been my last big trip abroad for a long time, truly a once-in-a-lifetime journey, so I want to do it justice.

“How was your trip to China?” they ask me.

“Well, I vastly underestimated the amount of planning I needed to do, and vastly overestimated how much English people would know.”

“Oh.”

“In other words, it was an awesome trip for me but I would never wish it on anyone else.”

trap city Pyeongchang

trap city Pyeongchang

It’s not just Americans who are obsessed with the Olympics. Olympic fervor had been heating up in Korea since at least the beginning of fall 2017, so by solar new year the advertisements and merch, including full-on curling-themed wraps covering the entire inside of subway carriages in line 2 trains, were in full swing.

That being said, I’m not a Winter Olympics person. All the sports I love, swimming, water polo, volleyball, track and field, are all summer sports. I’m living during summer Olympics time when, for a few short weeks, everybody pretends to care about swimming for a hot minute before it fades into obscurity again. (I’m sure that professional curlers feel the same way about the winter Olympics.)  Basically, I was salty it was a winter Olympics in Korea and not a summer one.

I didn’t plan to buy tickets, but a few things changed my mind: first, my dad politely ridiculed me for thinking of not going, saying that it’ll never be this “easy” to go again, nor will the Games be this close to my backyard. Second, one of the friends in the squad acquired an insane amount of tickets and offered to sell them off to us. Finally, when Aidan came to visit he was also hell-bent on going to see the Games. In this way, I somehow ended up with tickets to events on two subsequent weekends.

My dad wasn’t wrong. The tickets for Pyeongchang were chronically undersold, so it was not difficult to get into any event you wanted as long as it wasn’t figure skating. The trouble, it turned out, was getting transport to the games. After spending billions of dollars on the venues and infrastructure leading up to the Games, there should be more ways than just the KTX to get to the events. Instead, the KTX trains to the Pyeongchang mountains in the east and Gangneung on the coast were booked up for months and months. I’d thought it would be okay to just buy bus tickets there. After all, we had taken the bus to Gangneung and Sokcho last year with no hitches, so I figured it’d be okay.

Haha… nope.

I still followed the proceedings on social media eagerly. There seemed to be lots of controversy beforehand over the expense and extra trouble of the two Koreas going to the Games under one flag. Lots of South Korean athletes were angry about their places on the team being given to, in their opinion, less-accomplished North Korean athletes. In hindsight, that may have started us off on the road to peace that we’re currently navigating.

The first week, I had tickets to go see snowboarding slopestyle. As the event started at 10 or 11, and it was functionally impossible to get tickets to stay in Gangneung or Pyeongchang on short notice, that meant taking the first subway to get the first bus out of the city. I took squadmate Rachael, who was an unexpected boon in my stressed planning of this event. Her eternal calm, positive unflappability, and good humor helped when we were late to the bus station, running across the street, and arriving to be the last ones on the bus.

It’s not any great leap of logic to assume that a bus to Pyeongchang would take you to Pyeongchang, right? And that you’d be able to see the Olympic venues from there? Instead, we disembarked in a still-asleep town in front of the bus station, where there was no sign of the Olympics being held there other than an advertising standee telling about the shuttles to the events. We ended up taking a 50-minute taxi to another town, Jangpyeong; from there we would be able to take a shuttle to the slopes. I was salty AF but Rachael managed to talk me down.

The shuttle was easy, and as we already had the tickets, it was easy to get through the lines and climb up to the slopes. It was wicked cold, but at least the huge crowd standing helped to block the biting winds a bit. At snowboarding slopestyle, the spectator area is at the bottom, after the last jump, so most of the event is watched on a Jumbotron screen. Being short, I struggled to be able to see both the screen and the jump, but the energy of being at the games was infectious. We were a bit annoyed with the overly loud and enthusiastic Americans in the crowd, so we were cheering for the Canadians, saying who we thought would win. It turns out that Canadian Mark McMorris’s parents were next to us, so our cheering for him was a nice coincidence. Luckily, I didn’t miss Red Gerard’s legendary last run, despite being so short I had to stand on my toes the whole time.

We returned to Jangpyeong, and knowing that I’d be starving to death if we waited all the way until back in Seoul to eat, we found a beef BBQ place which was super delicious. It was a sit-on-the-floor kind of place with nice windows that had views of the mountains. After lunch, we were able to buy tickets and walk directly onto the bus back. It turned out later that the tickets were also good for women’s slopestyle, but because of the cold weather, that event was postponed anyway. So, no harm done in leaving early.

The next weekend with Aidan went similarly. We had tickets to men’s hockey and skeleton luge. Planning-wise I was already nervous that at the end of the skeleton event, it would be nearly midnight, and we might not be able to get back to Seoul. Once we got off in Gangneung, it was easy enough to follow the crowds of people going to the hockey match. The match was Canada versus Czech Republic, and nearly everyone assembled was cheering for Canada, with the exception of the little boy next to us, who kept yelling in Korean “Czech! Czech!” (It sounded more like “재거!재거!” Mine! Mine!) I never stopped telling Aidan about how nice it was to sit down, to not be freezing our butts off in the wind, to be able to see everything. I sounded like an old lady, but never overlook the nice privilege of having your own seat at a sporting event. Canada was pretty soundly beaten, and after we searched for food.

There’s a big events tent near the venues where you’re supposed to get food (a.k.a food-court-style dining in a big, white, noisy tent), but we bypassed that in favor of something better. Keep in mind that this was also Seollal, Lunar New Year, weekend, so many actual restaurants were closed. But after walking around for a while we managed to find a good spot, ordering up some budaejjigae and watching Yuzuru Hanyu’s stunning gold-medal figure skating performance on TV. A Korean boy, Cha Junhwan, had also skated that day, but his routine didn’t go off as hoped and he didn’t medal. His performance played over and over in the background wherever we went. Near the end of the meal, we managed to help out an Aussie family, perhaps one of the athletes’ family, with their ordering in Korean. Over coffee and bingsu afterward, we somehow both agreed that we didn’t want to have to stay for skeleton and  stand outside in the cold, so we left after that, taking a taxi and a bus back to Seoul.

The takeaways, of course, were that I was glad I went to the Olympics, winter or otherwise. I just wish they had been more user-friendly. It certainly gives perspective to all future Olympic Games that I’ll watch on TV, and of course I’ll still hope to watch a Summer Games in person one day. I’ll forever refer to Pyeongchang as a “trap city,” as will Aidan.

“Ragrets,” “Regerts,” and Rolodexes

“Ragrets,” “Regerts,” and Rolodexes

So you’re homeless sort of…  if we hadn’t raised you so we’ll I would be more nervous for you. But I’m not. I know you’re going to do just fine, and you’ll also be fine flying by the seat of your pants, much like you did when the Korean Army gave you a lift home.

Currently, I’m sitting in one of my favorite cafes in the city, which I call “Fern Café” (on account of all the ferns), reminiscing and looking ahead. This is perhaps my last time in this café and I’m thinking it’s been a long time since I’ve written a blog post. I had a lot of stuff to say before my family came to visit before Christmas, and then it became insanely busy in the last few months preparing for my China tour and moving out of my house.  While applying for my China visa, I hit an unexpected snag: when I was filling out the form, it asked for “home address.” What is my home now? I expect I’ll be answering that question for many years to come, but it never caused me such consternation. Were they looking for my home here in Korea, which (at the time) I was going to be quickly leaving, or my “permanent address” in the United States, which I haven’t been to in more than two years? Which feels more like home?

The months of January and February, during my time in Korea and before, have always been a mad clusterfuck to figure things out, whether they be future jobs, housing arrangements, visas, or travel plans. Naturally, there’s not much time for major trips, but I did manage to sneak in two separate trips to the Olympics (more on that in a separate post) and two major visits from friends and family, in addition to steadfastly checking things off the “to-do list.”

I’d intended to write up a whole thing about my parents’ visit and hyung Aidan’s visit in February, but I think it’s more useful to put them together and contrast the two different travel styles and two different trips. My parents came to visit during some of the coldest days of the winter. They also came from knowing absolutely nothing about South Korea and Seoul, the food, and the culture, so it was pretty much Korea 101 for them. They don’t normally use public transportation and are never in a place where they would not know the language. The best way to travel, according to my parents (which I don’t think is wrong, just different from my own), is to book a long, guided bus tour through a travel agency. Everything is taken care of and carefully planned for you, and all you have to do is pack your bag and get on a plane.

For this trip, I was essentially my parents’ and younger brother’s tour guide. I tried my best to prepare them before they arrived, as well as guide them through the food, cafes, and most important sites, despite having to work some of the days and many of the places being closed due to holidays. In addition, my brother and dad were at different times really sick due to stomach bugs (I think, not due to food poisoning), so we had to navigate that as well. Nonetheless, we squeezed in a trip to the DMZ in the rain, two cooking classes, a city and palaces tour, a visit to the Arario Museum, jjimjilbang, noraebang, and some shopping. My life here revolves around walking a lot and taking the subway, but my parents were more than content to take a taxi whenever it got dark. (My brother was more daring, but only a little). The experience was pretty extraordinary for me because my parents encouraged me to think of things I normally couldn’t afford/ wouldn’t splurge on, and we would do those. In this way, we had a wonderful salmon and yukhoe (raw beef) dinner near my house that we had been meaning to try. My mom loved all the things that were cooked right at our table, watching the do-it-yourself aspect very closely. My dad seemed to enjoy the historical and economical aspects. My brother, who is just months from turning 21 in the States, was just excited to drink a beer with every meal. In a way, it’s probably fortunate for him that he didn’t come by himself because we both would have drunk ourselves to death.

In comparison, Aidan had already been to South Korea once before, on that ill-fated trip when I had first arrived here. Getting all of the big palace-things out of the way, and him crashing in my house, enabled us to have a more relaxing and chilled-out hang session. His guidelines were nothing more than “just do whatever is still on your list that you haven’t checked off yet.” As such, I took him to that huge library at the COEX mall, the StyleNanda Pink Pool Café, the Coffee Prince Café, on a hike in Cheonggyesan, and to Insadong. Somehow we also squeezed in a trip to the Olympics. This visit was much more gritty and grungy than my parents’, but I think it was more representative of how I actually live here. Aidan was perfectly content to just wander around and get lost all day in Hongdae while I worked, and if I told him to meet me somewhere at a subway station, he followed the instructions well enough to actually get there.

That being said, of the two travelling styles, while there might be one that I prefer over the other, they’re both good. The other day, I was talking with my friends Matt and Steph when we were talking about “rating” your travel style. Let’s say, 1 is the poshest most luxurious kind of traveler, who needs all of their hotels, meals, and activities planned for them before they go. 1 is the person who would book the cruise or bus tour that has all the activities planned for you. In contrast, 10 is the most grungy, low-maintenance, “let’s wing it” kind of traveler. Our friend Zach is like this, just arrive in a place and figure it out as he goes. My rating? Somewhere around 6 or 7. I like to have, say, my sleeping accommodations sorted, so I know which city I’ll be in each day, but everything else can be figured out along the way. 8-hour bus ride from town to town? I don’t mind that. Asking the hotel for recommendations or bookings? That’s good too. Memorizing the Chinese characters for that day’s destinations and getting by with minimal Chinese language skills? I can do that too. I’ve grown tremendously both as a traveler and a human while I’ve been here.

It’s been a good run. I’ve learnt and grown so much I feel like I might be nearly unrecognizable when I return. In some ways, I’m ready to leave. I love teaching in some ways, but I don’t love the Korean education system. The focus on memorization over understanding is something that I will never appreciate or like, and I don’t think it’s a great way to learn a language. I’ve never been much of a disciplinarian, except in swim coaching, where even the punishment of pushups, wall-sits, or squats still makes you stronger. You can’t do that in school, and in this last year’s school nothing seemed to motivate the kids to want to do anything. I don’t think teaching is really my calling, so the end of this contract came at a good time. In addition, I never truly intended to stay forever. It would have been hard to leave whether I’d been here for only 4 months’ study abroad or whether I’d been here for 3, or 5, or 10 years. I expected to have some breaking-point moment where I would be like “Fuck this! I can’t take it anymore! I have to leave Korea immediately!” but it never came. No going out with a bang. In the same way, I feel like I’ve done so much, that there’s really not anything I will regret not having done. I’ve “seen it all,” pretty much.

I do have some regrets, though. None of them are about things to see or do, all of them are about leaving friends behind. Once you leave your parents’ house the first time, most of your waking hours revolve around your “chosen family,” your friends. I put down so many ties here without realizing it that I will be really sad to miss all of them when I go. That’s the thing about being an expat, and why a lot of expats report that it’s really hard to make friends here in South Korea (and abroad in general, despite it being otherwise really rewarding); you need those friends to help you make it through your time here, but you will always, always have to leave them or they will have to leave you. Nobody is going to be with you forever, despite how many promises you make to visit them in Cape Town or Derry or Seattle.

My nana was well-known for being so adept at keeping in touch with her friends from high school and beyond. For decades and decades, she steadfastly exchanged letters and emails and phone numbers, updating the Rolodex each time a friend changed their address or got married or eventually passed away. I want to channel some of that ability. It’s easier than ever now with social media and internet, there’s almost no excuse. When asked about my regrets, it’s leaving behind my Geoje squad, my Canadian “parents” Matt and Steph, old coworker Jenn, brunch buddy Kevin, old man friend Gwan, and my old co-teacher Miss Tiffany. After I leave, my memory of them will be retained like a snapshot frozen in place, but in reality, many of them will quickly be scattered to the four winds. Like friends from college, you yearn for that time when everyone is still together, easily accessible, when really it was only a short time that everybody was all in one place. People leave and people change, but it’s up to the friends to keep that contact alive and keep talking. Anyway. I’m kind of a mess of emotion right now, but I would be basically nowhere without my chosen family.

 

A toast, to the families who get you through the week.

how wonderful it is, well, everywhere

how wonderful it is, well, everywhere

But in the age of the iPhone, we don’t really know how it feels to truly eat alone any more. Thanks to Twitter, Facebook, e-readers and Instagram, most of us will be eating lunch, holding in our hot, mayonnaise-y fingers access to more reading matter than the entire Library of Congress and more people than the UN General Assembly. It’s become an act of discipline to sit and observe your food and the people around you rather than slipping back into the comforting company of constantly scrolling avatars and news sites updating in real time. But like most things involving a modicum of willpower, it’s probably one worth savoring.

Pretty much ever since I was born (maybe a little bit after), I’ve always wanted to go to China. I had books about China as a kid; Mulan is one of my favorite Disney movies. I’ve already planned to go to China when my contract here is up, but I reasoned that it has to be for a long time to justify the hassle and cost of getting the visa, and in order to see everything. I’d been hearing lots of good things about Taiwan, and I had a Taiwanese friend in my Korean class at Yonsei this summer. For Chuseok vacation, a historically long vacation in early October, I decided to go to Taiwan. (The only other place that remains on my list for this continent is Thailand, but I promised to go there with my younger brother when he graduates from uni.)

I had a very ambitious plan for getting there, attempting to knock out two of my goal-trips in one fell swoop. The plan was to take the bus down to Wando, on the southern coast, to visit a café whose owner followed me on Instagram all the way back when I was in America and I’d always intended to visit. From there, I would take the ferry to Jeju Island, check into a hostel, find a beach to chill on and dinner. The next morning, I would climb Hallasan, shower, ship out, and somehow fly out of Busan Airport the next morning at 8am. Busan and Wando are not close. Busan does not have a ferry to Jeju. There are already flaws in this plan, as you can see.

There was a second plan to try to salvage this weekend. I would take an early morning bus (or midnight bus) to Seoraksan so that I could reattempt the mountain, and then bus home that very day.

Neither of these plans were followed out. In actuality, the weekend was filled by Netflix and getting my house cleaned before leaving. I also started Inktober, which is a illustration challenge where the goal is to draw one new ink drawing each day for the month of October. I’d done it for the previous two years, and it just so happened that the first week of this Inktober fell during the time when I was in Taiwan. That night at 10pm, I headed for the Dong Seoul bus terminal. I had to bus still to Busan, because the plane ticket was booked from Busan. From the midnight bus, I hopped right into a taxi because it was pouring buckets. It was an expensive-ass taxi. The airport wasn’t even open yet, so a relatively big crowd of people were waiting outside for the airport to open up at 5am. The check-in counters opened a half-hour later, and soon after that I was sitting in a Holly’s coffee listening to One Direction (a good omen) and charging my phone. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to non-American airlines actually treating you right on a flight; even if it’s only a few hours, they feed you a full meal and have the option to watch movies.

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I landed in Taipei Monday, October 2nd and procured my transportation card to get into town with relative ease. On the way, I saw an advert of Kris Wu that kind of derailed my whole day, but continued on. I dropped my stuff at the hostel and took a wander around my “neighborhood” Ximen. I was starving, so I stopped in at the first café that caught my interest, a bear café which had those 3D lattes. I didn’t succeed in ordering one of those lattes, but I did get a Gudetama lemon tart and some milk tea. It didn’t do much to keep me from starving to death, though, so I kept wandering, eventually stumbling on a cool café in an old wheelhouse, Belle Epoch (it reminded me of a café in Sydney called The Grounds of Alexandria), where I had eggs benedict and a rose latte. I saw lots of street art, perhaps from the yearly Pow-Wow Taiwan street art festival. I wandered through cinema street too, gawking at the huge standalone cinemas (movie theaters in Korea are often located in shopping malls).

The nearby historical district Bopilao was closed that day, so I eventually found myself at Longshan Temple, one of the most famous Buddhist temples in the area. Temples in Taiwan (and I’m sure, by extension, China) are much more ornate than in Korea. Whereas most of the decorations in Korea are rough-hewn from wood, perhaps constructed more quickly, the temples in Taiwan are extremely detailed, finely carved and painted elements on every possible surface. Longshan Temple is huge and I’m sure I could have spent ages there. As it is, I always get nervous taking photos near temples (the same goes for churches, by the way) and never know what is acceptable to buy or offer for gifts to the altar, especially not being able to speak Chinese at all.

I trekked back, still trying to orient myself within my neighborhood and the city at large. After I checked in and napped, I had intended to go roughly north to a night market for dinner; however, I accidentally went south, thinking it was north, ending up right back down next to Longshan again, in the night market on Guangzhou street instead. Nothing looked appetizing, it was darker and scarier than the night markets in Hong Kong, and I was sick with a cold and also really lonely, full of despair and regret for taking the trip by myself. In defeat, I finally settled on a banh mi, picked up some toiletries at a Daiso-like store, and walked home to eat dinner. It was so spicy that in my sick state I could barely eat half of it. I was not optimistic for this trip, seeing as it had such a disappointing start.

I was partially able to be more optimistic about Tuesday, October 3rd, the next day, because I planned to fill it by going to the National Palace Museum. I ate the other half of the banh mi for breakfast, heading to Shilin station. At Shilin, I dallied in Starbucks while I pondered the bus situation to get to the museum. From the bus, we waited in a huge block-like formation of a line to get tickets. This is what confused me the most about Taiwan: there are so many things which require lines, and there are never the rope dividers. Everyone somehow wraps themselves into orderly folding lines and somehow there is minimal line-cutting. If that were in Korea or the United States, utter chaos would ensue. It was heartwarming to hear Korean people in that line who were somehow following that system without starting any fistfights.

Once in the museum, touted artwork to see was a small jade cabbage. We had to wait for even longer to get into the room to see it and other jade masterpieces. I concluded that the cabbage isn’t the most impressive thing in the museum, or even the most impressive jade work in that gallery; but I did my time so that I could see it. It was cool and everything, but me being 5’2”, I can’t see much when there’s a huge crowd around this tiny detailed object. So, no pictures were taken by me of the jade cabbage.

Other exhibits proved infinitely more interesting: a gallery detailing the history of ceramics, especially the different glazes and firing techniques favored in different eras, an exhibit showing not only the different Chinese scripts but also the evolution of the Chinese characters from their ancient pictograms to modern characters, landscape paintings, bronzes, and even two full living room/study furniture sets from one of the kings of ancient times. I was hoping for a museum least rivaling the size of the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, but it was not nearly as big. Perhaps the other buildings of the complex might have added more, but overall it was not a massive museum. It was disproportionately crowded, though, and I had to force myself to calm down when people took ages to take fingerprint-covered-glass pictures of the artworks instead of, you know, buying the museum collection book. (No picture you take will be better than the museum’s own photos of the artwork.)

After finishing the indoor collection, I strolled through the museum garden, one of those well-manicured gardens with ponds, trees, and pavilions. The pavilions were important because it was threatening to rain the whole time I was in the garden. There were the most remarkable solid-wood stools and chairs; I could picture them in Korea with a bunch of old ahjusshis sat around and sharing makgeolli.

The museum café was on the way out, but when I went in to investigate everything I asked after they had run out of for the day. Beef noodles? Sold out. Coffee bubble tea? Sold out? Iced Americano? (Literally if you have water and espresso beans you can make this drink) Sold out. I headed back to Shilin with my stomach grumbling but generally satisfied with my museum adventure. I was well and truly starving by this time, and I found a pork wonton noodles place where I got a huge bowl of noodles which saved my life. (Not that I was able to read that, but rather I saw somebody with them through the window and it looked delicious). I also got some lotus seed paste mooncakes for dessert, a matcha coffee (this drink combination will always speak to my soul, it seems), and headed back to the hostel, feeling a little too smug.

Opening up my prize in the hostel kitchen/lounge area, I discovered that the mooncakes were not lotus seed paste after all (these ones, in my experience, are usually marked with sesame seeds on top), but pork floss instead. Abominable. I was pondering my dilemma (not wanting to eat the dreadful salty cakes anymore), when some lady began loudly chewing on something or other, making the decision crystal-clear for me. I went back into Ximending and found a bubble tea place. The Korean beauty products store next door was playing EXO and I remarked that this second day was infinitely better than the first. What changed? Maybe more planning, more sleep, and a better attitude going into it.

I woke up late on Wednesday, October 4th. I had scouted some places the night before in Ximending, and I found a rather popular noodle place (it’s apparently very famous among Hong Kong tourists) where you slurp up the noodles right there on the street. They were hot, salty, and delightful. Next door was a very aesthetically-pleasing ombre juice place. I never managed to get a good picture of the juice, but it was still satisfying to see and drink it.

I walked up Dihua Street, which was a traditional shopping street for lots of traditional medicine and crafts, and while it retains the air of the traditional markets, there are also lots of cool little single-product shops, (like one store solely dedicated to rice harvested in Taiwan??), new cafes, and boutiques. I was particularly taken by the basket and wood kitchenware shops. I thought about buying a mooncake mold, but I thought it would be far too heavy and too silly to buy it now. I’d rather buy something practical which I can use immediately, like some wooden plates, cups, or bowls. I thought about buying those little unfurling flower teas for my brother, but chickened out that day. I bought taro pastries and pineapple cakes for my co-teacher and stopped in a café called “Mimosa” (very on-brand for me) for a brown sugar latte and an “American cookie” (that’s a chocolate chip cookie, apparently). I’d read that coffee is a big deal in Taiwan, and that there were many cool little cafes to visit. While I thought it unlikely that there were more cool cafes than in Korea, I still dutifully went in any café that caught my fancy while in Taipei.

Also on Dihua Street was a museum called the Ama Museum, after the colloquial Chinese name for “mother.” I only went into the building because the entrance was through a café, and the café looked really cool. I “came for the coffee, stayed for the museum.” It was a museum dedicated to finding justice for Taiwanese women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army during World War II. It was a soberingly thought-provoking place, but remarkably well-done. According to the museum, the Japanese still have not apologized to the survivors of these atrocities, even though all of them constantly carry the heavy weight of what they were forced to endure. This also happened to many Korean women at that time; Japan hasn’t apologized to them, either.

From Dihua street, I headed to Dadaocheng Wharf, which was promised to be a scenic place. There were no inspiring vistas to be found, honestly not a beautiful river (I’m perhaps very biased by our own Han River), but I also did not have the benefit of visiting on a sunny day. Perhaps, in the right sun, it could be a nice place to take a run through and enjoy the breeze.

I stopped at a tiny shrine temple to draw some flowers and then walked on, eventually crossing a giant overpass to get to the other side of the wall. I found the Confucius temple and the Baoan temple, a buddhist temple, two neighboring temples with vastly different purposes. The Confucius temple was an auspicious place to visit at certain life events, like before starting a new job or graduations, but not necessarily a place of religion. Traditionally, it was more like a philosophical school. The Baoan Temple was a beautiful complex, with hundreds of offerings placed on the red tables, people burning prayers and incense, and praying to huge illuminated pillars studded with name placards that looked like dragon scales. After the temples, I took a breather in a café called Norma Café and got a delightful panini and an iced coffee and waited out the rain.

I ventured over to the Expo Park, which was first made for the Taipei International Flora Exposition. I didn’t know that at the time, of course, but there was a nice food court and some boutiques, and it seemed like a good place for music festivals these days.

I headed down the line to Daan Park, which ultimately turned out not to be a wonderful place to visit on a rainy night. However, it was peaceful, so I wasn’t resentful that there wasn’t much to see. Nearby was the Taipei 101 Tower. As I entered the basement to investigate going to the observatory, the crush of people immediately overwhelmed me. Walking through the overly swanky mall, I mused that for NT$50 I could get 5 coffees or bowls of noodles instead, and that I’d rather get a view of the tower than from the tower. I decided against staying in the food court and shipped back to Ximen where it was less crowded and I knew the area better. I planned my Thursday adventures on the train back. I finally got the promised beef noodles, as well as chowing down on the taro cakes and bubble tea back at the hostel. These taro pastries were what I was hoping for from the horrific pork floss mooncakes the day before. In the small illuminated cube of my hostel bed, I listened to youtube and caught up on social media as I let sleep hit me.

On Thursday, October 5th, I woke up early because one of the roommates in the hostel had an annoying case of the sniffles and seemed to refuse to blow his nose under any circumstances. I ate some taro cakes for breakfast and proceeded to look for coffee. For whatever reason, all that I found was Starbucks because I’m an incorrigible American.

I took the train to Jiantan station and then proceeded to wait ages for a bus. The plan was to go to hike to the top of a mountain for a nice view and then go to the Yangmingshan hot springs, which were apparently free to whoever was willing to trek up there. Taiwan is also apparently famous for hot springs. I met two girls, an American and a German, Fiona and Susanna, on the bus, and we all somehow convinced each other that we should get off too early by mistake. We waited for the next bus, and from there took another shuttle up the mountain. From the shuttle bus, it’s still a bit of a walk to actually get to the hot springs. It’s always nice to have somebody to talk to. The craziest thing was that both of the friends had also come from Korea. Fiona, from Los Angeles, was not much of a hiker, so she continued straight onto the hot springs, while Susanna and I got a bit turned around but made it to the small waterfall that we wanted to see. I stopped for a water and ice cream (the Taiwanese strawberry shortcake ice cream is better than American, and that’s saying a lot).

After the hike, we felt like we really “earned” going to the hot springs. I had expected the hot springs to be similar to Japan (I didn’t go to any hot springs in Japan, but I’ve seen plenty of pictures), big ponds with pearly mineral water and mists floating all around. In reality, they were just very small indoor nude baths with coppery-colored water. It wasn’t even worth getting undressed for. Disappointed, I resolved to go to the famed hot spring area Beitou a few days later.

After another series of busses, we found ourselves back in Shilin, where there is apparently the most famous night market in Taipei. I finally got my xiaolongbao soup dumplings, along with lots of other food, like lamb skewers which Fiona swore by, a mysterious (but apparently famous) “cake within a cake”, popsicles, and iced tea. I intended to get the iconic Taiwanese roll ice cream, but none of the stands were open when I passed by. I took a snack run back at the hostel after my shower. The Doritos were so salty, but welcome after eating a year’s worth of Korea’s sweet Doritos. I was pleasantly surprised by those and the green tea yogurt drink that I picked up. Good snacks all around.

The next day, Friday, October 6th, I woke up much later because Sniffles had checked out. Getting ready quickly, I headed to that Ximen noodle place, got another rose latte, and met with Susanna from the day before. We had planned to meet and go to Maokong, where there were apparently lots of tea houses in the area. Fiona was uninterested and had a very dogmatic list of aesthetic cafes and food-blogger-recommended restaurants she needed to check off. I personally find that kind of travel exhausting.

We took the train to the Taipei Zoo area, then the gondola from there. I was expecting the kind of soul-crushing long lines that we found at the Hong Kong gondola, so being able to get on the gondola within even a half hour of arriving was an unexpected blessing. I was expecting it to be far harder than it was.

Halfway up, there’s the impressive Zhinan Temple, so we stopped there. I “bought” a wish that you can write on a little gold tag with a red tassle. You’re supposed to hang it on one of the trees or bushes around the temple. I stopped to sketch a particularly scenic pavilion and take a rubbing (Taiwan has old-school kinds of souvenirs), then got back on the gondola. There was this delightful ubiquitous black tea and green tea ice cream swirl, and finally my curiosity got the better of me and I bought it. It was delicious! Susanna got a grass jelly tea, which doesn’t taste terrible, but would never be something I would select from a menu.

The goal was to find a cool teahouse with a good view. It was hard to find one that had both a decent view but wasn’t backbreakingly expensive. I could tell Susanna was getting frustrated with me, but I wasn’t looking to spend $300 on a hot tea ceremony on a hot day. Finally we found a place that seemed to be kind of famous and had a great view, but more importantly had iced tea and dishes that didn’t cost an arm and a leg. We got tea fried rice, tea fried egg, something called “nest fern” salad, and iced tea. I made the mistake of assuming that Susanna was with me for the day, but when I wanted to stop at some little shed of a café on the way back, she continued back to Taipei without me. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, but she had no reason to stick with me after that.

I returned to the hostel for a nap, Doritos, and more tea, briefly emerged for beef noodles and bubble tea, then went back to do laundry and read. It’s worth noting that, while the caffeine in tea usually doesn’t have any effect on me, on that day I drank enough tea to keep me up and buzzing late into the night.

Saturday, October 7th was my last full day in Taiwan. I had those HK-famous noodles and juice mix for breakfast and got the train to Xinbeitou. The Beitou area is warm and misty, as if the ground itself is beckoning you into the hot springs. The trees themselves bend and sway down to the ground like melted candles and the water in the stream seems to have an otherworldly color. My goal was the Longnaitang hot springs, which were the cheapest but also the oldest. Many hot springs are in more upscale hotels located in the area, but I was going for authenticity. Longnaitan hotsprings were actually so inconspicuous that I initially walked right past them. It was a nude bath and I forgot to bring soap to wash up before, and I spent all the time in the “cold” (45C) tub, never actually succeeding in getting into the hotter tub. It was relaxing, but not all that exciting. The tubs weren’t very big, and there’s not much place to go, unlike in the Korean jjimjilbang, where you can wander among the rooms for hours.

I had Taiwanese McDonald’s for lunch, too starving to find any place else, then headed back to the city proper. I “hiked” up Xiangshan, “Elephant Mountain,” to get a good view of the city and the nearby Taipei 101 Tower. I was glad I expended a little sweat for the much better view from there. The walk was only about 20 minutes straight up a series of stairs.

I finally visited Bopilao district after that. At one point it was a school, and the better part of the building seemed to tell about the history of Taiwan’s school system. It was a really cool area architecturally and aesthetically speaking, which is why I’d wanted to go inside originally. I went a little “stamp crazy” on this day. stopped at a café called Dante Café on the way back. I took a nap in the hostel and then went to that café that I’d been intending to go to all week, which turned out to be called “Now Coffee.” (The name of the café on the outside was only written in Chinese, but it looked like some hipster aesthetic kind of café that would serve a good coffee. I was not wrong). I got beef noodle-flavored ramen from the corner store, read, and chilled. The awesome ramen just further underscored how shitty ramen is in the United States and how wonderful it is, well, everywhere else.

Sunday, October 8th was my last day in Taiwan. There was apparently a beef noodles and jaozi dumplings place directly under my hostel, that I never went to for one reason or another, so I went there for breakfast. I got too ambitious and ordered too much, but it was all delicious. At the end, I told the ahjumma running the store 감사합니다, or thank you in Korean, as if that was my brain trying to tell me, “It’s time to go home.” I walked back up to Dihua Street for gifts, buying wooden cups, dried mango, tea accoutrements, and Gudetama mooncakes. I returned to my hostel for the last time to rearrange myself and then headed to the airport.

Lots of bad things happened on my way out of the Taipei airport: I went to the wrong terminal. I didn’t pay attention to which airline was at which terminal, so I had to take the long route to the other, costing me precious minutes when I was on a tight enough schedule to begin with. At check-in, they demanded to see my full itinerary, so even though I had everything written down nicely: flight numbers, airlines, times, and all—and they should’ve be able to look this up with my passport—they demanded to see the actual email, which was buried deep under months of other emails. I couldn’t get my phone to connect to the airport wifi no matter what I tried, and nearly had a crying breakdown over it, finally resulting in my opening up my data in order to download the email so I could show them. I believe that 5 or so minutes on data from another country might have cost me up to $40 USD but I’m not sure. It was not pretty, and not worth it.

I ran to the gate, thinking I had less than 10 minutes to get there until the gate closed. I arrived to a long line which didn’t move for more than 30 minutes. I needn’t have run, and standing in the line was exhausting. At least they fed us on this flight, because I didn’t eat at all in Nanjing.

The third shitty part of this returning-home saga was at Nanjing. I had originally planned to stay in the city, even booked a hostel if I could manage it. My layover was 12 hours, so it was technically possible. But I was warned by my friend that the hassle in procuring the visa and using the transport would make even getting in and out of the airport not worth it. That being said, since I didn’t ever leave the confines of the airport, logic dictates that the “visa” process should be easy, right? Nope. I was shuttled to various desks by scary-looking Chinese TSA/police-like guys for about half an hour, just to receive a scary-looking giant stamp in my passport saying that I was indeed allowed to stay the night in the airport. But hey, at least this visa was free.

I stayed up reading, first just on the floor next to a wall outlet so that I could charge my phone (until the lights turned off), and then in the seeming waiting-area as more and more of the airport shut down. At around 2am, new flights stopped arriving, so at that point it became clear that everyone there at that time was there until morning. At around 3am, I got too sleepy to keep my eyes open, and curled up in a massage chair to catch some Zs. This was hard with the angry little massage fixtures digging into my spine and every 15 minutes the chair yelling at the sleeping people in Chinese to put more money into the chair if they wanted to operate it. It wasn’t a comfortable night, but I felt very backpacker-y. Maybe it was foreshadowing to my China trip this year. That night, I finished reading Slaughterhouse 5 and also counted, inaccurately, how many times Vonnegut uses the words “so it goes” in that story.

The airport opened up again a few hours later, Monday, October 9th, maybe around 5 or 6. It was strange that on this trip I witnessed two different instances of closed airports starting up for the day in two different countries. I may be happy if I never have to again, but as they say, “It was a moment.”

 

I think I benefited so much from that trip. I learned to be more okay spending time on my own, more okay to look like an idiot, and became even better at asking help when I need it or following others’ leads. I also learned how to read small phrases in Chinese so that I wouldn’t starve to death, things like “noodles,” “meat,” “coffee,” or “dumplings.” Knowing those, as well as memorizing the Chinese characters for my destinations each day proved to be invaluable. I think it was good preparation for the China trip, which I’m starting to prepare for now that we’ve reached the new year. It’s scary to think that this trip I’ve been looking forward to for almost my whole life is approaching in only a few months. I hope I can make the most of it, as RuPaul says, “and don’t fuck it up.”

 

fireflies, kiln firing, and friends who break up the lonely stretches

fireflies, kiln firing, and friends who break up the lonely stretches

Lonely is good sometimes, but not all the time. I do a lot of travelling by myself these days, many of the books I’ve read in my more recent years are about solo travels e.g, Sailing Alone Around the World, On the Road, etc.) However, when you travel with someone, your experience takes on a different flavor. Instead of keeping your observations to yourself, you blurt them out to the other person. The learning curve in a new city is shorter. Two heads truly are better than one (sometimes), when travelling.

I might have never paid the Muju Firefly Festival a second glance, but my friend Stephanie found it and asked me to go. After a disappointing try at teaching in Shanghai, she came back to Korea after a few weeks and ended up moving into my same apartment building. As such, we have a very college dorm-like setup, where we pop up or down to ask for favors and often have dinner or go out for coffee together.

That morning we got up early and grabbed coffee, nearly dying from lack of bathroom breaks due to so many late people at the various pickup points between Seoul and Muju city.

Before arriving at the festival grounds, we took a winery tour outside the city, venturing through a “wine cave” to get to the special wine tasting room at the back. At this point, there was supposed to be a wine footbath experience, but I didn’t have much faith in either my ability to get through that experience with any kind of speed or my ability to tolerate people touching my feet, so I opted out of that one. When we finally got to the front of the wine-tasting line, the sommelier gave Steph an extra portion of wine because she said she was pretty. Good marketing, so we bought a bottle of wine, naturally. It was sweet and very easy to drink. I could see people having weddings or cool parties in the wine tasting room of the cave; it was very secretive and atmospheric down there.

After the wine tasting experience, we were let loose on the fairgrounds. There was supposed to be a water gun fight, but as it was September, the time for comfortably walking around outside soaking wet had passed several weeks before. Neither of us were particularly sad about missing it. We wandered up the hill to see the traditional kiln-firing ceremony, which we found by following the sound of traditional dancers who were performing while they set up the kiln.

Slowly, more and more people gathered while the pottery studio people set up the food and artifacts in front of the kiln. Somehow, we had acquired front-row places to watch the ceremony. They set up fish, fruits, makgeolli, a pig’s head, and other offerings on a white-clothed table in front of the terraced kiln. It was explained to me that they have the different levels of the kiln so that different potters can use different sections of the kiln at once, rather than having to light the entire kiln every time they want to fire a batch of pottery. A white-robed priest came down the steps into the pit, sat in front of the kiln, and beat a drum while chanting a prayer. The prayer was written on several sheets of paper, which he then lit on fire and used it to light the kiln. The best part was the mayor (or some other high-ranking city official) in a bolero tie came up to greet us, and I got to greet him back in Korean. (To my chagrin, I used the less-polite form of the phrase, which still haunts me to this day).

The kiln-firing ceremony was a lot of standing, so we headed back down the hill to find somewhere to sit and some coffee. We found a little coffee outfit amongst the craft stalls and sat down on some beanbag chairs. The beanbag chairs? Ideal. Being assaulted by ants? Less-than-ideal. We relocated to a pavilion with lots of chairs, and as it turned out we happened to catch the warm-ups for the b-boy dance competition.

Heading down to the river, we witnessed a traditional Korean wedding ceremony performance as they walked across a very precarious bridge.  Then out came the jesters who contrasted the dignity of the ceremony with raucous dancing.

One or two coffees is not nearly enough for me, so we got another and ate some peanut pastries (ddang-kong gwaja, 땅콩과자),and made friends with the café’s cute dog. We got some dinner in one of the huge pavilions near the river. Since it was almost the end of the festival, there wasn’t much choice as to what to eat. It was becoming dark, so we headed back to the bus for the firefly sighting.

My home state, Pennsylvania, is renowned for fireflies, so far as to name the insect as our state bug. Nothing compares to a night around the Fourth of July when you can see all the fireflies in your backyard. We used to catch them in jars as kids, the lids perforated so that the bugs didn’t immediately die (our parents would let them out after we went to sleep). It was cold and cloudy in some farmer’s field, and we thought we might not see any fireflies at all, but we did get to see a few. The moon was full and the mood was pensive. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have never seen a firefly before. They and ladybugs are the only bugs I’m not afraid of touching with my own two hands.

We headed back to the hotel to check in. Our other roommate decided to go right to bed rather than go out again, which is a shame, because what followed was arguably the best part of the weekend. We put on more layers and headed back to the riverside to watch traditional Korean fireworks, kind of like sparking candlewicks tied to long ropes spanning the river. They resemble the ubiquitous “snow” lights that hang from in many Korean buildings, but these are way cooler. They are calming and less dramatic than the fireworks we know, but still retain the same spirit.

The best part was getting to write our wishes for the new year on big lanterns, lighting the base on fire, and watching them fly into the sky slowly. The sight of all those lanterns, all those wishes, floating slowly was incredibly inspiring and calming. We, of course, know the lanterns from the Disney movie Tangled, but people have been releasing lanterns like this in this part of the world for hundreds of years.

I slept terribly that night, but in the morning we had a beaut buffet breakfast of mixed Korean food and Western food (the western food mostly being toast and coffee). We got to see a masterful taekwondo performance. It’s cool to see these athletes who are at the top of their game do all the perfectly-timed kicks, flips, and aerials. Some boards were 10 full feet off the ground and filled with confetti that exploded into the air when broken, flying into the crowd with the force of their kicks.

There were less people on the way back from Seoul. I got two seats to myself and got a good rest. We had fried chicken and ddeok rice cakes at the rest stop, and when we arrived back to Hongdae we went to a café we’d had our eyes on a long time and got some galaxy lattes, galaxy cake, and pink tiramisu.

Overall, it’s good to have somebody to travel with sometimes. The festival would have been painfully awkward and lonely with just me, so I was really glad to have Steph there to make me do stuff. Many weekends it’s like that, one or the other of us pushing to go do something. Since then, I haven’t taken any major trips in Korea, and after Chuseok in October it got cold really fast. It’s also always fun to contrast the more traditional elements of Korean life with our life in the fast-paced capital city. Coming soon to a blog near you is my account of my Taiwan trip, and coming soon to Korea is my family (7 days!).

 

A toast, to friends who break up the lonely stretches.