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Monthly Archives: March 2012

I had to sneak in one last Seoul joke.  I had a choice between a quick flight to Beijing or two train rides and a ferry.  Guess which one I chose!  I’ve taken a sleeper bus and a sleeper train.  It’s time for the sleeper ferry.  In America, ferries are small boats that take about 50 people from a short distance to another.  Nope, this was closer to a cruise ship with multiple restaurants, karaoke room, theater showing Closer (really?), and convenience store.

Like the Carnival cruise I went on once, this ferry had gaudy statues. Unlike that cruise, this was in the middle of the ship and not in the "Beauties" club and was surrounded by Asians taking pictures.

I love sailing but I don’t do so often because I suffer from awful seasickness.  Luckily this was a huge boat and I felt great the entire time.  I got into a room with 50+ bunks with curtains to give you privacy and electronic outlets.  This is way superior to the 15 or so Tatami mat rooms where everyone sleeps like sardines.  Compared to the buses and trains, this was the best sleeper option yet with the most room, but also the most expensive.  I settled in for some sea gazing in the strong cloudy wind and for lots of book reading and instant ramen.  I recommend bringing instant ramen, fruit, tea and a thermos to hold hot water for travel in sleeper trains and ferries in China.  Boiling hot water seems to be available at most bus and train stations and on most trains and ferries.

I was told as a kid to never take candy from a stranger.  We’re taught a lot of things as kids to protect us.  While on the ferry, I was across the bunk from an old Korean guy in a big old tour group.  He approached me while I was reading in my bunk and said something in Korean.  Of note, only two people the entire trip tried to talk to me in Korean, unlike everyone who thought I was Korean in Laos.  My bunk mate returned a short while later and said “I buy you ice cream!”  I politely told him no multiple times.  He sat down on his bunk, and a while later offered me what I assume was candy.  I declined this as well.  An hour or so later he came to my bunk waving two popsicles.  When I declined again, he just threw one on my stomach and walked away.  It was a wrapped Lotte brand popsicle.  I stared at it for a bit wondering what the heck to do.  Finally, my refusal to waste perfectly good ice cream won and I happily ate it.  I never saw my bunk mate face to face again as we landed the next morning, but I am thankful.  Awful things do happen but I am constantly wonderfully surprised by the random acts of kindness I receive from strangers all over the world.

Good bye Seoul, you were lovely. On the flip side, I'm on a boat!

From one cold foggy big city I landed in another, Qingdao.  My first sight was the cranes arching over rising high rise buildings, the beacon of modern China.  Imagine my surprise when I arrived at the train station at a huge magnificent European style train station.  Qingdao was occupied by Germans for a lot of the 1900s (even pre world wars) and therefore has colonial architecture and is the home of the famous Tsingtao beer.  Sadly, I did not realize Tsingtao is the best or at least representative of the quality of Chinese beer.  Sorry China, Laos has you way beat.  I don’t think I could’ve captured the charm of the city with its beaches, colonial architecture and Sea World rip off.

I only stayed a few hours before catching a high speed train to Beijing.  Although there are multiple trains a day, all the soon to leave ones were sold out of economy seats.  Given the choice between five hours in business class or seatless, I would have to say a seat sounds way  better.  The train was surprisingly non-smoking, courteous and quick.  I would recommend it.  I had originally chosen the ferry route to get some downtime to myself and it was supposed to be half as expensive.  Due to rising costs (138,000 KRW) and the unexpected train ticket addition, it ended up being the same price as the flight.  Still totally worth it and I would do it the same way all over again.

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Luckily my stay in Seoul is short enough that I have not run out of bad “Seoul ____” jokes.  I love Korean food.  I grew up around a bunch of Korean people, getting used to the smell of a house full of kimchi.  I lived in Miracle Mile in Los Angeles, within a stones throw to the delicious mecca of Koreatown’s culinary delights.  I knew  that what food I know of would barely scratch the surface of what I would find in Seoul.  Deliciously, I was correct.

Our first evening in my soon to be married friend Linda took us out for dakkalbi at Yoogane in Myeongdong district.  This is a spicy chicken dish that cooks on a giant flat wok on the table.  I think you are supposed to cook it yourself but they took pity on us as foreigners and did it for us.  Neighboring tables had theirs with cheese and ramen while we only added rice.  Linda informed me that Koreans keep on eating after the meal, often stopping at three or more locations.  We took this to heart and stopped for popcorn and drinks, ice cream, hot chocolates while passing on a few street foods that we were too full for.  I did go back on another day to try the potato chip like spiral cut fried potato but was never hungry enough to eat the corn dog covered in french fries.  I would continue carrying out the spirit of Korean eating the rest of my trip, like I always do.

Delicious jokbal: soy and spice flavored pig's feet that you wrap up in lettuce leaves.

The next day I headed for Naedaemun market.  Markets are generally good places to find some cheap eats and this one did not disappoint.  The fried gluttinous rice hatteok (filled patty) and steamed buns were delicious.  There are numerous cheap and delicious noodle vendors all plastered with pictures of their appearances on the local news channel.  I’m convinced the local news must only be food based on how many restaurants use pictures of the local news as their sign.  There is also an entire row of women selling jokbal, roasted pig’s feet to be tucked into lettuce leaves with many types of banchan almost like a Korean taco.  The next night my friends took us out for bossam, a steamed pork with a layer of fat that is also eaten in similar fashion.  Both are delicious but I think I prefer jokbal.

The subways in Seoul are pretty comprehensive and a great way to get around cheaply. It almost makes me feel bad about making Seoul train jokes.  The other benefit of the extensive subway system is the chain Deli Manjoo who are in many popular transit points between lines.  You can tell by the sweet egg based cake smell as soon as you step off a train.  They sell custard filled egg breads shaped like corn and walnut shaped walnut flavored bread filled with red bean and whole walnuts.  These are those perfect street food that you get coming hot off the cast iron press and scream as you eat it the gooey center when it’s too hot, but then eat too quickly trying to finish them before they get cold.

Claypot sujebi hiding in an alley in an alley in an alley.

We found a delicious claypot sujebi restaurant that my friend recommended hidden deep within many alleys.  Sujebi is the ultimate poor man’s food as it’s just a meat or seafood broth with dough flakes, thin randomly shaped pieces of noodle dough.  They also had a surprisingly refreshing conch noodle salad laden with the freshest chiles we’d taste this trip.  One was hot and the other cold, perfect comfort foods for different types of weather.  Both were delicious in the chilling 40 degree weather here.

I am not a fan of Asian desserts but I do always love ice cream. Baskin Robbins fondue set.

Standard American and western chains seem to be way fancier when I find them in Asia.  The ice cream was no different as Baskin Robbins is a prime date locations packed to the gills with couples and young groups.  The ice cream ball/cake/fruit fondue was rather fun but their honey toast not only took forever but was an awful cake that looked like toast.

You wear what you eat.

Saying good food is in the markets in Seoul is a useless statement.  There are so many shopping areas that everything might as well be in them. I do not, however, expect to see my food all over my shopping.  These ramen socks were next to Starbucks branded socks.  I guess they really love their food out here.

The last hurrah is an old favorite: Korean BBQ! The copper pipe above the grill is a wonderful idea.

The last night we decided to see if Korean BBQ in Korea is different from what we’ve had in the states.  Indeed it is.  The pork belly tastes better than any of the chewy nonsense I’ve eaten back home.  Cass also appears to be the best beer in the area, as everything else is way too watery for my tastes.  Beer is only had with food in this country, but luckily bar food here is delicious.  In our five days we ventured out for fried chicken twice.  Korean fried chicken (they make all sorts of KFC jokes) is usually a spicy and sweet affair that leaves your fingers covered in sticky sauce as you chug light beer.

My sister’s question about Korea was whether kimchi is everywhere.  I saw it at just about every meal in a spread of banchan (tiny cold plates).  Fried chicken and beer was the one time we never saw it as it usually just gets a simple pickled white daikon radish instead of a spread of red kimchi or spicily dressed vegetables.

Thanks for a delicious visit Seoul, I’ll be back to try all the other stuff I didn’t get around to.  I feel like I didn’t even get to half the things I wanted to eat.  Here’s my google map of delicious Seoul eats (I have a map like this for most major cities I’m in long enough): Seoul Eats Map.

 

 

The onslaught of beautifully designed modern Seoul peeking behind a rare historical neighborhood.

I came to Seoul for a wedding and just did not know what to expect.  From a rural village wedding in China to what I was told is a fashion show extravaganza in Seoul.  All I knew is that Seoul is a big city.  It has certainly proven to be that.  What I’m surprised by is how well public planning was done or how many buildings and spaces I just stand staring at awe and appreciation of.  Their endless sprawl of buildings is cut by a man made river landscaped with rocks, small waterfalls, well lit waterways and lots of plants.  The river is bordered by interstates, but under those are bike and walking paths with parks, sacred trees, and replanted areas.  The national museum is in a former US park with a gorgeous building and has excellent curation and layout.  It is not until we got to one of the royal palaces that the history of war ravage destruction is more obvious.  Korea has charged forward with  modernization that is certainly more aesthetically appealing and pleasant than anything I experience in China.  There is a dark underside though, as Koreans now work ridiculously long hours and have one of the highest suicide rates in the world (even above Japan’s!)  The hard work turns into some long nights as there is definitely a strong alcohol culture here as well.

The wedding itself was as advertised by my high school friend: fast and like a fashion show.  It was like an American drive thru wedding without a car.  The altar was surrounded by spirals of LED lights, the walkways leading up to it covered in color changing lights and fog machines.  Grooms seem to almost run up he walkway to speed up the process.  At one point, the couple is led to an area where they are in sequence to watch a color changing LED self filling fountain of champagne glasses as they quickly link arms to down a sip of champagne before being handed a knife to cut a slice from a cake a foot away.  It is both impressively and terrifyingly efficient.  The entire ceremony lasted all of 20 minutes as people in the hallway and even in the back talked super loudly.  After the ceremony you are led into a buffet area that may as well be a war zone.  I watched one old Asian lady almost bowl me over carrying two heavily laden plates.  The highlight of this was seeing my lovely friend in a traditional hanbok and watching the next two speed weddings on the televisions spread throughout the eating area.

The view from the hill Seoul Tower is on. The bottom right corner is all the locks that lovers place on the fence before chucking the key over the mountain to hit unsuspecting hikers.

On my last day I tried to go to the Leeum Samsung Museum.  It looked like an interesting mix of modern art and traditional art in a spiffy building.  Alas, I have the worst museum luck and it was closed on Mondays.  Slightly defeated, I dragged my friend up a random path that said “playground” for a kilometer straight up.  We ended up on an large empty road surrounded by police completely confused.  Two seconds later, a giant motorcade of black American cars with American flags drove by.  We can only assume we saw President Obama’s motorcade drive by for the ongoing nuclear summit.  Apparently I will get the closest to the president thousands of miles from either of our homes.  We continued onward and upward, stumbling upon a botanical garden and then the path up to Seoul Tower.  From there, I could see the endless sprawl of the city pocked with random hills of nature.  I came not knowing what to expect but I have ended each day impressed by such a seemingly forward thinking and design-centric city.

Overlooking a lush tea mountain jungle.

Shortly after the wedding (all of one day) my tour guide friends got back to work.  We went on a tea tour adventure into the tea mountains of the Pu’er area.  Pu’er tea is a protected area famous for an earthy dry fermented tea that gets better as it ages.

We were rather delayed out first day and barely got out by night to the town we needed to be in.  At dinner we met a young guide who offered to take us to his tea village the next day.  We met him at 8 am the next day and should’ve realized something was wrong when he showed up drunk because he was drinking til 5.  He took us to some mediocre tea before telling us he was going to take us on motorbikes out to a remote are.  That damned drunk kid only got half the bikes necessary and stranded a few of us in the village.  When we finally got bikes to get out there, we realized it was just base camp and we had no idea which mountain he went up.  Luckily some villagers were there and we foraged some greens and enjoyed a lunch of squirrel or tree rodent with them.  I wish I was kidding, they argued about whether it was a tree rodent or squirrel for a while.  A villager came back later with a musket-like gun you need to load from the front.

Picking tea on a bamboo stilt ladder on the hill.

The upside, besides the beautiful lush hill, was getting to see some old tea trees.  They  may not look big but these trees are hundreds of years old.  The motorbike ride was rather adventurous as they were mountain bike style single track trails.  The bikes are generally old in this region as well so I honestly felt like I was on the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland as we slipped all over the place.  At one point my tour guide friends even said “I think we’re out of luck.  Go one without us!”

Luckily the next few days were the more peaceful tea mountain experience I was looking for.  We stopped back in the big town for a night to head in a different direction.  Next stop: minority villages who made different types of tea.

Bulang minority women singing while picking tea leaves on a hill overloooking the village.

The singing was beautiful and I imagine the hills were alive with the sound of music.  The Bulang and the Aini/Akha people we visited both had wonderful singing voices.  I’m not sure if I could get used to the bitter Bulang style tea though.

They carry the tea leaves in big baskets on their back or small ones at their side. The Aini/Akha people carry heavy things with a huge strap on the head.

The thing to remember is that even though they are in rural villages, many of the younger kids are growing up with modern times and leaving to bigger and better places.

You still use cell phones even in traditional garb. The costumes are mostly used for holidays and festivals now.

Processing the tea takes three steps.  It appears different regions grow different types of tea that require different processes to bring out their flavors.

Step one, cut a hole in your giant wood fired stove box. Put a giant wok into the hole, then fry up some tea leaves to dry them out a little. Not too much because Pu'er tea ferments.

Step two, roll the hot steamy leaves in a circular fashion until they get all rolled up into compact twists.

Step three, dry the leaves on giant baskets under the sun.

So why do I call this trip posh?

No one around me understood the irony of this statement on such a crappy bike.

I’ve returned to China to visit my friend’s wedding in her rural village.  I met her weeks ago in my last trip to Xishuangbanna and promised to return when I heard a pig was being fattened for the feast.  Although most of China is Han Chinese (what you’re probably used to seeing), there are 56 minority groups living in the country.  My friend is Jinuo and her fiancé is Yi.  We got to enjoy the drinking customs and dances of both.  I’ll let the photos show the rest of the two days we attended.  It was quite the feast and party.

I’m currently in the midst of a wedding in a minority area of China and learning how to say “Cheers” in so many languages.  Here are the ones I’ve learned or used in the last week:

Chinese: Gan bai (dry cup, meaning finish the darned thing)

Dai (the language used in Xishuangbanna/this wedding): Swae, usually said in 2 or 6.  So we’ve been saying “Swae, swae, swae swae swae, SWAE!”

Aini: Suh (used liked the Dai Swae)

Bulang: Lai

Jinou: Chee bue duh (in Chinese, it sounds like “I don’t remember)

Lao: Nyeok.  My Lao friend says it is often said as “Nyeok Nyeok”, which is some sort of Lao innuendo sound.

Thai (northern?): Lewm

It's a fuzzy picture, but that seems right for an alcohol fueled wedding.

I’m not just learning drinking words either.  My favorite language quirk I’ve learned this week is what people say to get camera targets to smile.  In America we tell people to say “Cheese!”  We tried this in Brazil but no one knew what we were talking about.  In this area of China, they say “eggplant” to get people to smile.  That’s not nearly as amusing as my new Thai friends who told me they tell people to say “Pepsi”.  Pepsi cola has no idea that they’re missing out on the best marketing campaign full of smiling Thai people.

Laos has been a country of two wheeled adventures for me.  Ever since I figured out in Luang Namtha that I could get an automatic motorbike for 6 bucks, I was set.  This is the best way to see the sights in this country.  It helps that I run into some awesome people doing so as well.  There were the two Central Asian guys that are biking from Laos to London in time for the olympics.  That’s a mere few months from now, I hope they make it!  Then I ran into the Chinese foursome of retired folk biking from Kunming, China through Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.  One of the old ladies is doing it on a commuter bike with 21 gears.  More power to you, old folk powering by me on the road!

My first adventure was with a motorbike that went awry as I ran out of gas halfway on the 60 km drive to the scenic village I was heading to.  Luckily, it was the drive that was the most beautiful part with national protected area lined curvy roads.  The real mishap was in my rush to find gas, I slid the bike and have a weird shoulder scar now from it.  I didn’t make it to the next village but I’m now hooked on two wheel adventures.

The beautiful Kuang Si waterfalls. It was a series of many falls and you could go wading in a few of them. There’s a cave behind the biggest, highest fall.

The next two wheeled adventure went better.  I had planned to leave Luang Prabang, but as these things often go, I was easily persuaded to stay another day for a bike ride to the falls.  I thought about it the day earlier but correctly figured out I couldn’t bike 32 km (about 20 miles) to the falls and back in one afternoon.  I’m glad I had someone to bike that with, the last 10 km were all uphill.  It was not an easy ride for me, I haven’t exercised that much since my capoeira month.  We passed by the military training in the fields with their automatic guns.  Many kids we saw tried to give us hellos and high fives as we passed.  One even tried to give me a high five while we were both on bikes, it seemed like a good way to clothesline a small girl to me.  The tuk tuk drivers who kept zooming by us full of backpackers and tourists saw us when we arrived, all tired and sweaty.  They zoned in and asked if we needed a ride back.  Opportunistic jerks.  We stayed a while, but I still can’t get used to the conservative dress here (no shoulders or knees for the ladies, or at least no bikini tops or bare chests) nor the many tourists flaunting the rules. Luckily for me, the ride back was way easier, with the big hill going down from the waterfall.  The next day one of the tuk tuk drivers in town was badgering us to go for a waterfall ride, and when we mentioned we went already, he laughed!  “I know you, you bike yesterday!”  That’s one way to get those pesky tuk tuk drivers to stop bugging you. I think this 40+ mile ride was the longest I’ve ever done.

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The bike ride was so fun, new friend Bruce and I decided to go to the Plain of Jars together.  While a magnificent site, I hadn’t planned on going because it’s a bit out of the way and a whole day of bus riding away.  I’m really glad I did.  Taking a motorbike to the completely devoid of tourist sites 2 and 3 was wonderful.  The large site 1 where everyone was hanging out was a site to behold.  I always thought the Plain of Jars was one plain, not 52 different sites.  It was amazing to be in a region that reminds me of Montana complete with cowboys and ranches.  It’s also incredibly sad because this beautiful region is one of the most bombed regions in the most bombed country in the world.  The US’s secret war against the communists in the 60s and 70s means this country is pocked with bomb craters and unexploded bombs that continue to haunt Laotians to this day.  It is a shame to see such a grand historical mystery be partially destroyed by a secret war.  Trenches and bomb craters sit side by side with the huge jars.  The town of Phonsavan is the nearest town and isn’t very developed but has enough for the one day everyone seems to stay.  I’m really glad I got to see such an awe inspiring sight.  What could these ancient people have made these for and why so many?