Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Challenge of the Great Wall

View from afar:


The views were sublime.

Inside of one of the guard towers:

Yikes, some parts were steep!

Staring down the zip line:

I'd seen it many times in pictures, film and television. Nothing prepared me for it, especially hiking it (and wondering on some of the 50+ degree slopes that required 2 free hands, 'What was I thinking???')

The sun came out of cloud and haze only this one day of my 3 in Beijing. Because I desired the remotest section of the wall (and therefore the most challenging, excepting those sections that are not maintained at all), I went to the Simatai section of the Wall, about 3 hours outside of Beijing.

Thinking I would hike all the way up and back, at the last minute I decided to take the cable car up to Tower 8. Well, that was a very good decision. From the cable car to Tower 8 was a steep ascent, and it just got steeper. Seeing parts of it made me want to get down to lower ground immediately, but this is the stuff that tests my mettle, so I went for it (coaxing myself each time!)

I got all the way to the place where the wall was no longer maintained, some of it missing thus requiring some light rock-climbing -- Tower 11. Then, I turned around and walked all the way down. With those encountered along the way, nervous laughs, comments and discussion of strategy were exchanged (walk in the middle of the wall! I keep my head down like tunnel vision! down is harder than up! I want to call my mother (one guy's comment to me)!)

And if that was not enough, I took a zip line over a river for the last part of the descent to the parking lot.

It was truly breath-taking, being up there in sun and wind, climbing, gasping (at the angles, height and sublime views!), trudging on, pushing / coaxing / cajoling myself and doing it. At the end, I was covered in sweat.

I felt every-cell alive.

p.s. Pictures are not uploading. I promise to add them -- very soon!


China is immense, enormous, gargantuan, mammoth, behemoth, colossal -- now multiply all those words together, and this will not give you a sense of the size and density of the space, city and people in China, particularly of Beijing. Its enormity is spectacular, breath-taking. I believe it's impossible to fathom without witnessing it yourself. Nonetheless, I offer you these pictures as a small token of explanation.

Tian'anmen Square, a pedestrian-only public space covering almost 100 acres (!!), seen from the ground:

The Monument to the Heroes and the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall (mausoleum):

Tian'anmen Square from atop the "Gate of Heavenly Peace," entrance to the Forbidden City:

The Forbidden City or Gugong (Imperial Palace) -- some of its structures dating back to Kublai Khan, but the grand plan of it wholly of the Ming and Qing Dynasties; a labyrinthine structure of over 800 buildings -- viewed from the outside. For five centuries, ordinary Chinese were not allowed to even approach the Forbidden City:

Forbidden City "Gate of Heavenly Peace," on the exterrior, adorned by a very large portrait of Mao (not pictured here for obvious reasons)

Friday, August 25, 2006


It's Saturday morning in Beijing.

As of last Thursday, Pluto is no longer a planet. With Pluto's expulsion, we now have not 9 but 8 planets in our solar system. Basic facts like those printed in text books are changing everyday. Century-old mathematics problems regarding the shape of the universe are solved and new mysteries abound (why is Perelman rejecting the Fields Medal?)

Academia evolves our understanding of life everyday. That is why learning and the pursuit of knowledge is meaningful and important in of itself.

In astrology (big shift), Pluto signifies transformation, particularly the dark underbelly of it, the death aspect without which it would not be, as without death there is no life. For me, Pluto is in my 9th house based upon my birth chart, or the position of planets and constellations in the sky at the time and relative to the place I was born. The 9th house is the travel over great distances/large bodies of water, so for me, travel is transformation.

Regarding astrology, I used to think along the lines of the following: as the moon moves the ocean into high and low tides, etc., certainly it affects me, but human beings don't understand. Then I had a birth chart read, by a stranger who was a well-regarded astrologer. Well, my jaw was on the ground, how much could be known about me based on my birth chart.

I believe these are metaphors for my life, some keenly useful, some less so. My trip is my time to step back and look and think more deeply about my life, about metaphors, about about.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

On Tibet

Once in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, while I'll certainly see Lhasa and other places of note, the main plan is to kora the Kailash. That's Mt. Kailash. A kora is a holy journey and spiritual cleansing, achieved by circumambulating a holy site (for most Buddhists, in a clockwise manner). Mt. Kailash is one of the most important holy sites for Hindus and Buddhists alike and is located near the (disputed) border of China-Tibet and India.

Devout pilgrams prostrate themselves (full-body bow begun standing and touching the forehead to the ground) -- every third step. Alas, I'm sure the high altitude along with the freezing cold nights will make it difficult enough for me!

Guesthouses can be found along the way, and hiking it without the prostrations generally takes 2 - 3 days. As mentioned, Mt. Kailash is located at the far west border, so to reach Mt. Kailash, one must obtain a number of police permits for different areas (though in recent days and with the increased tourism due to the train, this is changing) and hire a jeep through a travel agent, generally done with other travelers to reduce per person costs. Otherwise, there is no legal public transportation for non-residents.

I read an astounding blog of someone who undertook the journey without the correct paperwork -- replete with bribing truck drivers, hiding under heavy blankets to get past security checkpoints and upon discovery outrunning the PSB! Generally people do this if they don't have sufficient funds for the cost of the jeep. Believe me, I have neither need nor desire to do this illegally! (Well, maybe a tiny bit of desire, but not enough to outweigh the risk!)

(Anyone who wants to read that blog, email me, and I'll try to dig up the link.)

Aside from the spiritual and the personal challenge aspects of the journey, I have heard the beauty of this mountain is unparalleled, and upon seeing a picture I immediately knew, "I must see this with my own eyes."

In addition, we'll visit the Everest Base Camp (from the China side) and several other places along the way. If we can squeeze it in, we will go to the ruins of the Guge Kingdom -- which is a bit further west of Kailash, but may be dubious due to lack of time!


I'm on my way to Beijing via Hong Kong. Now I leave the familiar and go to the unknown...it's exhilarating!

Here's the general plan (though I am sure this will develop/unfold / metamorph). Three days in Beijing. Board overnight train to Xi'an, spend the day sight-seeing, then train to Chengdu. After about 10 days, train to Lhasa. Spend 3 weeks or more in Lhasa. Return to Chengdu, train to Vietnam via Nanning.

While I will be touring the sites (Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square, Great Wall), Beijing is also a bureaucratic stop -- to procure my visa for Vietnam as well as tickets for the train from Chengdu to Lhasa and the Tibet Travel Permit.

Yes, I will attempt to get a ticket for the new train to Lhasa, leaving from Chengdu. It's a difficult ticket to get. For a train 50+ years in the making that had its inaugural journey on July 1 of this year, demand is high! Controversy is rife!

Some people caught re-selling tickets with an extremely high commissions to foreigners who wanted to ride the train at any cost, double the price or more, were jailed. Some auger the wholesale destruction of Tibetan culture due to high tourism traffic. Others say the real Tibet is not in the TAR (Tibetan Autonomous Region) which is already overrun by Han Chinese influence, but in other Tibetan provinces around adjacent, such as Qinghai. The price of the ticket -- less than one-half the cost of flying, really does make it affordable to visit Tibet.

When the train was initially conceived, the technology did not exist to build a railway on permafrost, so it is an amazing feat of engineering. Some recent reports of mechanical problems (specifically with the railroad tracks adhering to the melting permafrost) made their way into the Herald Tribune (the international newspaper which is mainly a feed of the New York Times and the Washington Post). The elevation requires an oxygen supply for passengers, in case of emergency/high altitude sickness, included in the cost of the ticket.

Also, China is on the defensive because the Dalai Lama is speaking in Mongolia this week!

All in all, if I manage to get the ticket, it will be an amazing, historic journey!

The reason for Chengdu is, many places that pique my interest are in the vacinity, including Emeishan (which will entail climbing many, many stairs on a mountainside with monasteries/guesthouses along the way -- a 2.5-3 day journey). Wolong is also closeby, and I want to see the Panda Reserve there, possibly camp overnight (as opposed to the more highly trafficked Chengdu Panda Reserve, which is a day-trip). Jiuzhaighou, an incredible and expansive national park, is also close to Chengdu. I have mixed feelings, it's very crowded these days, so going would necessitate employment of strategies of crowd evasion (entering very early in the morning, possibly camping there, heading into to the more remote areas of the park rather than those heavily peopled by tour bus companies, etc.) Chengdu is also the most obvious departure area for the Tibet Autonomous Regions -- with planes, train and automobiles close at hand for the journey. If I had more time, I would go to Qinghai for travel in the areas which are (sparsely) populated by a handful of Tibetan minorities (including Amdo, for example.)

More on Tibet in my next entry!

Monday, August 21, 2006

Duk-boki, toilet-fountains and a few observations about Korean life

Roof beam detail from a traditional fortress structure built during the Joseon dynasty.

Seoul at night:

Last night, I had the best duk-boki I've eaten in my life, and that's no exaggeration. Made by an aujuma ("elder, un-related woman") at a food cart on the street near the EWHA campus. Wow it was so good...

Soft, swollen-finger sized, steamed rice cakes, stewed in fermented red pepper paste (koche jang) with the occassional sesame leaf for perfume and fishcake for counter-balance. The rice cakes are very, very slightly sweet (as is the essence of Korean rice), and the koche jang is pungent and somewhat eye-watering.


It's the epitome of street food and comfort food. One can commandeer a generous portion for about $2USD in any neighborhood where there is pedestrian traffic and therefore food carts at night. (Allistar, you would have loved it!)

(I think this is turning into a food blog hee hee.)

Some observations about Korea:

1. Koreans love order and harmony. Upon exiting the subway platform for the escalator during crowded, rush hour conditions, spontaneously commuters form a single line and everyone boards the escalator on the right side (leaving the left open for those who wished to walk ahead of those on the right who chose to ride without exertion) with exactly 1 step between each person. I looked ahead and behind me and for all the people I could see on this long escalator, and could see no one in violatation of this unspoken 1-step-in-between "rule". It's uncanny.

And it's not a politeness or personal space issue either, as I have been shoved, elbowed and unceremoniously bumped with no acknowledgement or apology on crowded streets, in stores and in subway cars.

2. Korean customer service is like none-other. Attentive and not overbearing, as soon as you walk into any establishment of any type, you are greeted, often with a smiling bow and a hello. When you enter a parking lot, people are stationed next to the ticket-generating machine to bow, hand you your ticket, and say hello and welcome (on a microphone, the wireless kind performers wear when they dance and sing on stage). Further into the parking lot, attendents are stationed to point with hand and body gestures the next closest/available space. I believe their moves are choreographed. (I can't help think these people must be miserable in an exhaust-filled garage wearing formal uniforms, hotel-bellhop-type garb complete with cap, on a hot/humid day made all the worse by the heat of the car engines.)

3. The Korean Metro subway system is world-class. It is far-superior to the New York City subway system (or Chicago or any U.S. city for that matter): it's convenient, cheap & clean! It must be one of the best in the world. It's extensive in distance and yet dense, so that you can get to the far suburbs quite easily (as an extension of the Seoul subway) as well as conveniently move around Seoul. The trains to these further destinations run more frequently than our equivalent (Metro North or NJ Transit) and are a lot less expensive ($1.50 USD to go the equivalent distance of Long Island).

The subways are clean, not only the interiors of the cars but the stations themselves. The underground stations have enclosed train tracks with sliding doors for going onto or off of the train to the platform (so no disgusting subway odor). The subway cars are much wider with overhead luggage racks, and you can select your preferred environmental conditions based on selecting the car you enter -- full airconditioning or lightly airconditioned or lightly heated, etc., you pick. Stations passageways and platforms are airconditioned too! There are electronic signs and correct-volume modulated announcements in each car and at each station (in Korean and English). There is not one piece of trash in any subway car, and people occasionally leave newspapers on the overhead racks for the next person (but as below, no one reads them anyway).

One major caveat: the subways in Seoul do not operate between 12:00am - 6:00am. What were they thinking??!?

4. In addition to a world-class subway, Korea has world-class public toilets. I'm not kidding. They are western-style, and they are spotless. They are sufficient in number (never a worry of finding one). But that's not all the amenities -- for example, the ones in the Chulwon post office (further north, close to the DMZ), had heating for the seats (should you find yourself on a cold day with a cold butt). Some have sound-generators for modesty (classical music, the sound of a stream of water, etc.), so you can do your business without others hearing your bodily noises nor you hearing others' noises for that matter.

I ran into a little problem the other day. In a restaurant bathroom stall, I found myself faced with so many electronic buttons on the toilet console and no clue which was the correct one for flushing the toilet. Well, I pushed the one that looked most obvious to me (larger in size, red in color, located toward the top of the set of buttons), and the next thing I know, a stream of water from a separate nozzle starts shooting outward. I had to cower into the corner of the stall to avoid that impromptu shower and fumble to figure out how to stop the clean water supply. As I was with esteemed family members, people in front of whom I did not want to embarrass myself nor cause attention to my gaffe, I dried my shirt as best I could and maneuvered myself back to the table in hopes no one would take notice. (If they did notice, no one said anything -- phew!)

5. Korea is one of the safest countries on the planet. Korea has little violent personal crime and very low rates of property crime. As with many countries, strict gun and weapons control laws mean guns are rare to non-existent among the citizenry with no major industries profiting from the proliferation of weapons. And Korea has nothing like the neanderthal, oppressive customs that are still widespread in some other countries (even with strict gun control laws) -- those that lead to stonings of unmarried lovers or dowry-murders, or physical or sexual violence toward female family members of criminals or vigilante violence, etc. I'm not saying there is no violent crime here in Korea, but it is practically nil.

It's so refreshing to read the newspaper and not be bombarded with the stories about this attack, that rape and the other murder...instead most of the crime-related stories are about white collar crime and corruption.

Even property crime (widespread in other countries where it is relatively safe, such as across Western Europe) rates are very low in Korea. It's not unusual for people to leave a briefcase or purse unattended for a minute or two on a subway or in a crowded restaurant. One morning in Gyeongju, I walked into a souvenir shop -- doors were unlocked and I thought this meant it was open. Then I noticed the lights were out and no one came when I called. Though no phenomenal customer service can be had when people are still asleep (wink!), clearly no one was concerned that the souvenirs would walk away on their own accord.

It's not unusual when I travel that I feel safer than when I am in the U.S. (due to many other countries having low rates of violent crime or personal crime compared to the U.S.) but this is an extreme -- one to which I am trying to avoid becoming accustomed as I know I face varied conditions elsewhere.

6. The food in Korea is higher quality and much less expensive -- in Seoul, half to one-third the cost compared to NYC and fresh and varied.

That being said, America chain restaurants are ubiqitous in Seoul (but not necessarily outnumbering Korean establishments) -- not only McDonalds, Burger King and KFC, but Starbucks, Krispy Kreme, Dunkin' Donuts, Outback...and many more. [[And I've only been to Starbucks 3 times in 3 weeks! As for the rest of that stuff, I take a pass!]]

7. Koreans are relatively religious -- mostly Protestant. The Methodist is the largest denomination followed by Lutheran. At the same time, Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism are respected and play an important role in daily life. Korea is unlike other cultures for which choosing one religion (often) mandates the proactive rejection of all other religions and systems of belief.

Protestantism in Korea has the historical roots in Korean resistance of the Japanese occupation -- which is one of the reasons why Christianity is more predominant in Korea than in any other Asian country. To quash the resistance, the Japanese forbade public gatherings, but Koreans in organized religious gatherings were able to skirt around this rule and thus meet for dual purposes. (Unfortunately, eventually the Japanese caught on, so some of the infamous massacres during the occupation were of people attending church services.) So, that is one of the culturo-political reasons why religion in so important in Korea.

8. Koreans are very, very chaste. Passion and sex are not that important in life. There are many couples of all ages (not necessarily married), but coupling seems to be more about companionship. I'm sure there is a dark side here (as elsewhere, everywhere) and exceptions, but for example, one of my cousins (a middle cousin like me, who is female and close in age to myself) gets embarrassed by very "romantic" wording in American pop songs of the 80's. (which of course doesn't compare in that regard to "music" these days!) This is one of the culture shocks (or perhaps re-adjustment) compared to the over-sexualization of everything commercial/American.

9. Koreans are crazy-in-love with their cell phones (or as they call them here in transliteration: "han-de-pone"). For example on the subway, among a set of seats of 12 people, 10 or 11 of them (of varied ages) will be talking on it (yes, they work in the subway system!), texting, playing games on it or just gazing at it. I too am a geek for electronic goods, but here it seems overboard. Rarely do I see anyone on the subway reading (which is the norm in NYC).

That being said, when people speak on their hand phone, it's not disturbingly loud and overbearing, the way I'm sure it would be if cell phones worked on the NYC subway.


I hope everyone is enjoying the last few lazy weeks before autumn and that infectious energy and buoyant drive which characterizes that time of year (and makes me miss New York City!)

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Full to the brim


Greetings, all.

My time in Korea is quickly coming to a close -- much too quickly! I had a very full past few days.

On Friday, I went to Paju city, a town about an hour away from Seoul by car, adjacent to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that divides South and North Korea. I visited the Reunification Observation Tower from which one can see North Korea across the Han River. The lack of populous in the village in view fails to belie the fact that it is not a living village but is, in fact, a demonstration village.

(View within the Reunification Observatory: South Korea to the left side, North Korea to the right side.)

(Close-up of a demonstration village across the river -- it looks like a ghost town.)

Most of the world does not know the bottomless misery, ferocious poverty and savage oppression under which most North Koreans live (if you can call it living, under those circumstances). Famine has claimed tens of thousands of lives due to the reprehensible "economic" policies of the North Korean government. Entire villages perished. And no one will ever know exactly how many people died, their names or the particular circumstances, because of the maniacal secrecy and barbaric subjugation of the people by the regime of Kim Jong Il.

Here's a link that is one example of this deplorable situation:http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-6951629397402742053&q=%22North+Korea+-+Children+of+the+Secret+State%22

Overall, the division of Korea remains a grief-stricken state of affairs that pre-occupies the daily thoughts of this South Korean nation for which there is no solace until Korea becomes whole.


On Saturday, I climbed Mt. An! Well, the elevation was not much (but it was 6:30am, and I hadn't had any caffeine at that point...) The views of Seoul were superb. About half-way up the mountain, exercise equipment (like weight machines and so forth) were to my avail. On the way down, I saw a Buddhist enclave with a very old and beautiful temple, parts of which were built during the Silla dynasty.

Also on Saturday, with my cousin I (re-)visited the Korea National Museum (a phenomenal place, truly a world-class museum), ate bibimbop in Myeongdong (thanks, brarthar, for the reminder info!), and saw a little more of the Seoul nightlife around one of the well-known thorough-fares, Jungno, which can be compared to Fifth Avenue. My cousin and I always have very in-depth conversations all along the way, and the better I get to know him, I know he is family through and through. He shares that sensibility for the arts (the belief the arts are of intrinsic value) and deep thoughtfulness about life. He also shares my zest for exploration and travel (although I am probably a bit more adventurous than he!)

(A national treasure from the Silla dynasty period.)

A luminescent sky upon leaving the museum:

On Sunday, I went to a family-related memorial service, which had many levels of meaning for me -- most especially as my father's daughter and as a Korean for whom honoring family is a part of the Confucian tradition, one of the axioms for leading a harmonious life.

So, I am full to the brim.

p.s. more pictures to come

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Why is my luggage is so bulky?


When one is traveling, one spends an inordinate amount of time planning the daily basics (shelter and food) -- it's humbling.

I had a "brilliant" idea.

You see, I don't like Chinese food. (Yes, I am Korean, and I don't like Chinese food.) The very smell of Peking duck wafting over from another table is enough to make me double over with nausea (sorry to anyone who likes Peking duck, but it's true, my physiology can't tolerate any trace of it).

What mostly informs my opinion is American Chinese food (greasy, salty, heavy and meaty). And given I detest it, I was worried about what I would eat in general in China. While I am not vegetarian, I generally don't eat a lot of meat nor pork, and am eating less chicken which I began a few years ago when I realized how much chicken I was eating not by choice but by default. I will probably avoid it altogether when I'm outside the U.S. due to the avian influenza virus. When I flew China Airlines from the U.S. to Korea in April (family trip with mom and sibs), I deliberately ordered vegetarian (because I assumed the food would be predominantly pork-related, and I dislike pork except in Cubanos, a type of Cuban sandwich that are a favorite late night snack after dancing salsa into the wee hours, but that is another story). Anyway, when I opened my "breakfast" -- I nearly got sick right then and there just by the sight and smell. Well, maybe that is an unfair yardstick, as this happened as well with Western airplane food.

...And I heard about the train food in China. Noodles with hot water available, whenever any one I've known has tried anything else from a vendor they ended up sick. Well, noodles are not very nutritious (bleached flour and water). And in Tibet, the lack of vegetables has me concerned. So my brilliant idea is to bring dry (cut) seaweed from Korea and eat that instead of noodles. There is a really delicious seaweed soup in Korean cuisine (mi yuk guk). Anyone who has had it knows how delicious and satisfying it is (and so very healthy). While my train version won't be as good as that, it will be better than noodles (for me). So, I'll be bringing dry seaweed to China. Happily dry seaweed is light and fairly compact and rehydrates easily! Hoorah! I'm trying not to go crazy and bring enough for Africa (I'm worried I'll be craving veggies there, too.)

One of my elder cousins, Juho (closest in age to me of my elder cousins) -- who has visited China several times -- counsels me to bring a jar of kochu jang. That is Korean fermented red pepper paste -- yum, and I tell you the concentration and fermentation of the red pepper boost my energy-level and mood when I eat it! He and I both had the good fortune of growing up with culinarily-talented mothers (like their own mother, my maternal grandmother) who elevated the status of cooking and eating well from quotidian to artisanal. Well, maybe I won't bring kochu jang (I'm sure I can find some acceptable red pepper product in China!)

All of that being said, I hope to find out that I was completely misinformed regarding Chinese food, and I hope to find myself in foodie-heaven.


I have 1 more week in Korea. The time is flying. I feel very comfortable here, so this was an easy start to some anticipated rough-going (China, Africa, etc.).

Spending time with my cousins has been really joyful -- it's fun to be a part of the familiar and familial banter and at the same time the feeling is profound when I look into their faces and see reflections of myself. (This may be ordinary to those who grew up around a large extended family but because only my immediate family was in the U.S. and all my extended family in Korea, this is new for me, and I so relish it.)

Silla dynasty epicenter: Gyeongju

Seoul City Hall dressed in taeguki -- the Korean national flag -- for National Day.

(Note: I apologize profusely for the quality of these uploaded photos. I am unsure why my 8-megapixel camera which produces photos in the file size of 2-4Mb upload to such poor quality. I'll work on this and hope to improve this over time. If anyone has any suggestions/experience with Blogger.com in this regard, please let me know!)

Over the long holiday weekend...

(August 15th is Korea's National Day -- the day commemorating the freedom of Korea from Japanese occupation which began in 1910 and ended with Japanese surrender and the end of WWII. This day brings me pause because my father's father was killed for his involvement in the resistance movement.),

I visited Gyeongju, the historical capital of the Silla dynasty (pronounced /shil-la/) which contains many artifacts, tombs, temples and pagodas of united Silla dynasty (668-918 A.D.). Prior to the united Silla dynasty era was the Three Kingdoms era; the Silla dynasty united the peninsula and ushered in 250 years of peace and prosperity. During this period of history, Korean culture, creativity and the arts flourished, and Buddhism became prominent in Korea.

Gyeongju looks like this: a multitude of mountains strewn across expansive valleys reaching the East Sea. Due to the moisture of the recent monsoons, the fields are of brightest-colored wild flowers and the forests are new-growth green and fertile. And yet the sky remains tentative, almost brooding, with the remnants and memories of the monsoons.

Monuments and sites of historical interest can be reached by foot or bicycle, and so I did a lot of walking. Various kings, generals and public figures are enshrined across Gyeongju in massive tumuli, some high as 30 feet or more and or more than 60 feet in diameter! I found these places to be serene and in consonance with the nature (immitating the shape and form of the mountains and surroundings of Gyeongju). I felt very rewarded to find these places and have some of them virtually to myself on a hot, humid Sunday afternoon.

On Monday, I took a tour bus to go to some of the places I could not reach by foot, bicycle or public transport. One highlight was a giant buddha, a carving in a rock wall, gazing upon me. Also, I went to the coast to view the only known sea tomb, elaborately described in the will of the deceased and constructed for 30 years. From another direction, I loved the way the clouds were touching down upon the water only a short distance away from me, as if I could walk there. I didn't even try to take a picture, I knew no camera could capture it.

While I am glad I went for what I saw on the second day, this greatly reminded me that I am not a tour-taking type (Alas, I don't like to be shuffled like chattel through historical sites among some 50-odd people.)

On my last day, I meandered about Gyeongju National Park replete with forest, pond, tumuli and other historical sites.

Here is a link that I found to some of the historical sites, since my pictures and experience could not possibly capture all there is in Gyeongju:


I think peace and creativity hand-in-hand is a lesson for all time.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

A few more (April) snaps

Hey, that picture below looks like it could have been taken anywhere, right??? Well, let me apologize for that and give you a few more pictures (again, from my April collection) which give you a bit of a sense of Korea.

A little commentary... I included the first one, so you could get a sense of the skyline, mountains everywhere. I love the way traditional Korean monuments are everywhere, nestled in the bustling city. We caught the 'changing of the guard' at Gyeongbuk-gung Palace. This house is a national monument, built by my mother's grandfather for his cousin poet (the famous) Lee Tae Jeun and where my mother's family lived after the war. The kim chee pots at the house -- this is my favorite picture of the bunch, and I'll probably frame this for my kitchen upon my return.

School haze


It's fiendishly hot, hazy and so, so very humid that the earthworms are jumping on the asphalt, I kid you not. I think they think it's raining. Wait, worms can't think, they lack brains, right??

(This recalls a highschool freshman Honors Biology project for which I attempted to train earthworms to follow a maze for food. The worms were intractable, and I received an F on that project...)

Well, at least I missed the monsoons, by a close shave, by only one week! Last week it was raining buckets, I'm told (so much so that major damage to roads and rails leading to Soraksan, a notable national park, will prevent me from visiting it -- on this trip.)

So far I've been taking Korean class and bumming around the EWHA/Yonsei University area of Seoul and seeing my cousins a bit.

The school, EWHA, is situated on a very hilly part of Seoul. The hills are as steep or worse than the most treacherous parts of San Francisco (!) I don't yet know the alternate walkways which avoid the hills which I know must exist as I rarely see people walking on the roads as myself, drenched in sweat, close to sun stroke (not really, but you get the picture). My little cousin Mi Hyun promises to show me those secrety byways -- she finished her undergraduate degree at this one of the most prestigious schools in Korea, and she will begin her graduate studies in Social Work here in the autumn.

The campus is lush and well-maintained.

I know you want pictures, but at this point I've been too hot while outside to think about anything else other than getting up or down that damn mountain (dorm room is at the top of the hill, class is at the bottom). So this might be a little disconcerting but, I'm including a picture that I took in April when I visited with my family (taken on a relatively flat road):

UPDATED PICS HERE! The campus has a mix of modern buildings...

and traditional structures:

The residence of the university president:

This is the final hill of 4 major ones to the dorm:

At least the Korean cuisine is equipped for the summer heat and discomfort! There is nothing better (and nothing else one can stand to eat on a day so hot and humid one can barely breathe) -- than nang myun, which is cold, buckwheat noodle soup. Sour and sweet, cold and chewy, sharp and fruity, it is the perfect Asian food (variegated due to its trimmings -- like kim chee and asian pear-- and balanced in colors and flavors). Slurping is allowed and encouraged. Did I mention its health aspects -- it's buckwheat after all!

(Yes, that's ice in the broth!)

Korean class is mostly Japanese students. I have to say, it is already coming in handy. On my first day upon contacting one of my elder cousins, I couldn't even tell her my phone number. That next day in class, I learned the numbers, called her back with no problem communicating, so she could then disseminate the number to my other cousins.

On the other hand, it is not without certain frustrations and hilarities. For a homework assignment, I was looking up words in my (academic, most reputable) Korean-English dictionary, basic words I later learned upon a 911 call to my mother for help with my homework (geez I felt like a kid)...which confirmed that I could not find words like bird and chair (and yes I know the dictionary order of the Korean alphabet!)... oh, but I did find the words for "penis of a giant sea bear" and "doll bride" -- very important words I suppose...

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

A bad dress rehearsal

(Before I begin: Thanks for the posts and comments, everyone!! This will keep me accompanied on my journey and I am appreciative. When I have a bit more time than I have today, on departure day, I may move the postings to comments to keep the main posts authored by myself. Please do continue to comment -- in comments!)

Due to my particular brand of optimism, energy and masochism (heh heh), I tend to over-extend myself / over-schedule with the self-belief that I can do what I set out to do, sometimes forgetting the failings of quotidian life, the subway / bus / traffic that just isn't running the moment one is in a hurry, the fact that getting from point A to point B in New York takes a different amount of time each and every time you do it due to variable circumstances and sometimes just plain bad luck.

My recent bad luck was this: I got locked out the night before departure day. Let me explain.

After a harried few days leaving work, putting things into storage, surrendering the apartment to sublettors, and finally packing for the trip (I habitually pack light, but how is this possible for 9+ months?!?) -- with the aid and aptitude and heroics of true friends (thanks Allistar! thanks Daniela! thanks Charles! you probably didn't realize what you were getting yourself into at the start, but we laughed throughout despite it all! Really, thanks a million and I couldn't have done it in the timeframe that I set for myself without you!!) -- for a sleep deprived few days, and after spending Monday running final errands and getting my visa for China and seeing friends and Bow Tie for the last time in a while. I returned to the place of my gracious 2-night host (and co-conspiritor) -- to find she had as habitual dead-bolted the door and I had only the ineffectual bottom key.

Believe me, I got over the politeness thing pretty quickly, and I tried waking her up -- ringing her doorbell and calling her non-stop for over an hour...until I collapsed on the hallway outside her door (in her nicely maintained co-op, doorman building -- not to worry Mom, it was not unsafe). In the meantime, Daniela helped by continuing to call my slumbering / comatose hostess while I slept for about an hour. I awoke to a heated debate of neighbors behind closed doors regarding the repetitious calls and whether something could be really wrong -- of course and to my relief, this being New York, no one actually opened the door to investigage. So, I went to a diner downtown and began to write about this.

My sweet friend called me at about 3am to usher me back to her place with profuse apologies. As soon as I saw her number on my cell phone, I felt only relief. And the dear that she is she apologized much more than was necessary because I was not mad, not in the least. After all, this is life. Life is not smooth, accidents happen. And if that is the extent of the bumps (for now), I'm okay.

Well, you know what they say about bad dress rehearsals.