Even if I die a hundred times so my bones become thick muddy soil, no matter. My spirit still exists, my heart toward my love will never go away.
-Korean poet, ㅋㅋ
Kudzu is native to Korea. The scourge of the South, as we call it in America (not to be confused with General Sherman). Here they infuse an alcoholic drink with the roots. And it’s not bad.
It was introduced to the US from Japan and used in the South, supposedly, to fight soil erosion. The theory was that the fast growing vine would spread lots of roots into the soil, thus keeping it from washing away in the frequent heavy storms. Of course the problem is that it lays down only one root, meaning soil erosion still happens. But the vine grows over everything in sight, including cars, homes, telephone poles and trees. So that’s kind of a problem.
But I digress. Here is the recipe.
- Harvest in late spring. April or may.
- Chop the root.
- Fill the container about 1/3 of the way with the chopped root and soju for the rest.
- Age for 100 days before filtering.
Supposedly if you take the kudzu that comes from that process and repeat, but age it for 5 years it is more delicious.
Jazz is an art form that, by all rights, should be forbidden to Korean artists. It’s expression of a spontaneous idea that cannot be either right or wrong. That’s the point. there is nothing off limits or teachable or expected. It’s pure creativity and expression. It’s the kind of thing most Koreans publicly disdain. But within the confines of jazz music…well as long as there are some confines I suppose it’s alright with society.
High school girls in Korea have a uniform. Not just a dress code they have a uniform way of standing, acting, cutting their hair. For a decade and a half they’ve been molded into a one-size-fits-all model of the female gender. So what did this one bring to the quintet of free expression, release from expectation and formality?
Sticklike other than the staccato nodding and hand movements, when came her turn to let loose she did so with abandon. (Relative abandon. This is Korea, after all.) Her foot stamped out the beat and stomped on the pedals; her knees bent and rocked back and forth, she took up a stance to play; her head banged as her hands belted out soulful and technical notes, working the bridge like weaving a loom.
The keyboardist, too, had a story. After the first duel against the drummer, he himself took up the sticks and drummed. While the main drummer was like a cat with a mouse – expertly toying with the thing, sure of his limits and its – the keyboardist was a kitten – unsure of his power and skill or the moves of the mouse, but pouncing around the way exuberant youth can.
This is Club Evans (map to location, because it’s hard to locate in English), probably the best known jazz bar in Seoul. You’d never know its nestled above a 7-11 in an unassuming little space. If it weren’t for the windows you’d mistake it for a basement in Brooklyn or someplace. Well maybe the clientele and artists would give it away too. This is Seoul, after all.
“I’ve been one poor correspondent
I’ve been too too hard to find
But that doesn’t mean you ain’t been on my mind”
-America, Sister Golden Hair
I’ve been both busy and lazy but it’s no excuse for not writing more.
While I was in London everything was a bit too boring, normal and well-explored. And so was I. It wasn’t worth writing, let alone reading.
I’ve been living in Seoul, South Korea for a couple of months and that’s definitely worth writing about. From a Miguk (American) perspective there’s a lot of hilarity to be had resulting from expectation gaps and cultural differences. I’ve got some notes on that and, well, we’ll see how it goes with getting those hammered into reasonable posts.
And for the month of May I’m living and working in Mexico City. And this is what has got me back on the keyboard clackity-clacking out some new posts. A combination with some time on my hands alone and lots of things I want to capture have gotten the juices flowing again and that means new posts. Which is good.
Talk at you soon!
Today I subjected myself to my first haircut since arriving in Armenia. I survived and am actually pretty impressed with the craftsmanship and sense of purpose the barber showed. And I like the result, though it’s not my typical style.
I’ve been in need of a cut for quite some time now. As far as I can tell, the only place to get your hair cut is in a place marked Beauty Parlor or Beauty Salon. They serve both men and women – for men the going rate for places I’ve seen is 1,000-2,000 Dram, or about $3-5 USD. There are lots of these shops all over the city and there happens to be a place across the street from the apartment. That’s convenient. I went in and in broken English and broken Russian we mostly understood each other. Hair cut. Normalnaya? Da. Ok – Sit.
First wet and comb. Comb. Part. Comb. Part. Repart. The barber was meticulous, though I rarely my fingers through it much less a comb. He got the part straight as an incision. My hair lay open to his scalpel.
He started cutting by thinning first. Usually that’s saved for last. I was hoping he’d cut it shorter than it was at some point. Soon hair rained down Pools of hair form on the blue apron like dark rain on a tarp. After a while of this, it was indeed shorter. Just through attrition of the thinning shears eventually every hair was shortened to some degree.
Then he sets down the thinning shears and with a snap grabs clippers. Moves on to scissors again with a snap. A dozen or so changes, a dozen or so snaps. A couple of times he left it out.
Always with the look of grim determination of a sculptor. Assessing, analyzing, adjusting. Every once in a while a look of surprise, then his lower lip would extend with a smidgen of pride. He labored over my hair with the intensity of one go has thrown himself into the task at hand. Every minute or so the comb would reappear to redefine the part and to straighten and push my uncooperative hair into shape.
The last step was a 15 minute comb solo, shaping, wetting, combing, blow drying, more wetting, a snip here and there for perfection. Finally, he proudly stepped back and with a pat on my shoulder silently announced that he was finished with me. A stylish Russian haircut.
What do you think of the result?
I just finished reading a book called Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer, by Chuck Thompson. I devoured it with almost the passion of Kerouac writing On the Road, in just a couple of days. In the book I found support for just about every crackpot theory and harebrained idea I’ve had about travel. All the conversations I’ve had in broken English – some of it mine – at 4am in some back street alley in China or random Baltic cafe or even just my neighbor’s basement. It was amazing (not to mention somewhat gratifying and a bit of a relief to know I’m at least not the only kook) to see my words and thoughts in his typewriting. I’m not going to review the whole book, but I at least wanted to recap some of the things that struck me as I read through it.
- Latin American police “corruption” is just a more efficient way of accomplishing the same thing. Cut out the lawyers, judges, court clerks, paperwork and everything and just pay the cop a nominal fee. Typically travelers will be confronted for doing something like speeding or not having the right documentation. The officer will, in a roundabout way, imply that there’s a small fee that can be paid on the spot which will allow the traveler to continue. And the American traveler will become indignant. You got caught doing something you knew you weren’t supposed to; pay the man. It’s a small price to pay to be back on your way and you can feel good that you helped the local constabulary put food on their table.
- Most of the time the Americans are the most polite travelers. I’ve met more jackasses among the supposedly more civilized Europeans than anyone else. And that doesn’t count the numerous other of the English-speaking countries’ citizens that usually lead the pack in being idiots (I’m looking at you, New Zealand and South Africa). Note that this doesn’t apply to Americans in Tijuana and Cancun. I once watched a friend of mine scream in a hotel that he was the only reason anyone there had a job and he should be treated like a king. This despite the staff politely assigning him another room after he smashed his window and the glass fell into a playground. Even after his tirade they didn’t kick him out, though I was about to.
- Travel is good for the soul and coming home is usually a bigger culture shock. After being somewhere else for a while you really start to see your homeland from an outsider’s eyes. For better or worse.
- Horror stories are better than pleasant ones. There’s nothing quite as funny as hearing the near-slapstick comedy stories of misunderstanding and woe on the road. There’s nothing so compelling as hearing about a harrowing escape while getting shaken down by the Russian mafia. And there’s nothing more heartwarming than hearing of a travel angel who saved your bacon each time.
- Things are never as bad or as dangerous as you hear. Yes, there’s corruption and danger and squalor out there in the rest of the world. But there is wherever you’re from, too. You just don’t think of it that way. Some of the happiest and most generous people live on less than a dollar a day. Some of the friendliest are in places people tell you are too dangerous. Some of the most honest and helpful are in the places supposedly most corrupt. When someone says “don’t go there” I usually put it on my to-do list.
But there were a couple of topics I rant about that I didn’t see in the book. Though he came close to these topics, the difference is enough that I feel like I have room to expound my ideas without stepping on the author’s toes.
The first crackpot theory I didn’t read about is that the worst words you can learn in a foreign language are “Do you speak English”. If they can, they’ll understand you in English. If they can’t, they won’t. But worse, it more often than not gives them the idea that you probably speak their language passably and so they won’t take the bait. But if you just go up and start talking to them, asking whatever question you had to begin with, they’ll usually reply back well enough or point you to someone who can. It wasn’t trial-and-error of an American lout that taught me that, but by observation of many a fellow traveler – also foreign but never American – who bristle indigently if the English is not good enough or the reply not polite enough. One of the funniest conversations I can say I have witnessed, though it’s only really funny in hindsight, is a Korean yelling at a Russian militia officer in his precinct and implying that it had been his colleagues who had stolen her DSLR along with her travel itinerary across Eastern Europe and the Middle East; each butchering my native tongue more the angrier they got. And neither pausing to apologize for not speaking the other’s language or suggesting such a dumb thing.
The second harebrained idea left unaddressed by the book is that I can never respect an American abroad who pretend to be Canadian. I don’t begrudge the Canadians at all, I’ve had great times with many of them. Nor do I resent Americans who are sometimes ashamed of their “home and native land.” No, it’s that these people tend to simply want to hide in the citizenship of the Great White North because they find it tiring to stand up to Eurotrash bullies whose only view of Americans has come through sitcoms and stereotypes. What’s the point of traveling thousands of miles to simply swim downstream because it’s easier? Why not go hang out at the Gap at the corner of Haight and Ashbury and complain about the fascist capitalist pigs while downing another granola bar you pretend wasn’t made by a billion dollar conglomerate, sourced by organic corporate farming (not that I’m against corporations or corporate food – I happen to enjoy quite a lot of it – I’m just against the hypocrisy of the delusional pseudo-hippies who are exactly the kind who follow the Lonely Planet guides’ every recommendation and consider themselves better than those on a package tour even though the effect is the same…but I’m off topic). One of the biggest rewards of traveling is experiencing different viewpoints, perspectives and ways of life. And a part of the responsibility attached to that is to be a good ambassador of your homeland. I absolutely revel in helping a fellow traveler see my country through my eyes, and they usually come away from the experience with an increased respect for Americans and the country. Several of these folks had been sworn enemies of Americans and their bible-thumping, two-Bush-electing, Big-Mac-eating (a German in Australia once asked how Americans could survive with only one McDonald’s around, and it being on the other side of the city), science-hating, racist (I’ve never met so many racists living in the South all my life as I have in my limited travels through Europe and Asia) dimwitted Ugly American ways.
There’s a follow-up book called To Hellholes and Back: Bribes, Lies, and the Art of Extreme Tourism that just arrived and I’m getting ready to dig into it.
I’m sure you’ve heard of the building in Shanghai that collapsed, as well as a bridge that partially collapsed. Today on the radio they said that the building developer’s license had been expired since 2004. This obviously does nothing to bolster the peoples’ confidence after last year’s Sichuan earthquakes where several schools collapsed (while other buildings still stood) and thousands of children were killed. This tragedy was linked to corruption in the construction and approval processes.
Also from the recent news, the Chinese government wanted special censorship software installed on all computers in their country. Called Green Dam-Youth Escort, the government eventually backed down after its citizens and PC manufacturers protested and after several vulnerabilities were discovered. But it turns out that the company hired by the government the software stole much of the code from a US software developer’s freeware version. Now that US developer is being attacked with custom written malicious code and phishing attacks, tenuously linked to Chinese sources.
When we were in China, Brian and I joked that “Chinese engineering will save us!” But that’s clearly not the case as this past week has shown us. No doubt that these are exceptions to the rule, but they are very public embarrassments for a government which tries to avoid them at all costs.
It’s been quite a while since I wrote the original pieces on Beijing, so my memory has faded a good bit. But I’ll hit the highlights and try to give you a general feel of the city.
I went to my first clown-themed party while I was in Beijing. Some of Elyse‘s friends were throwing a party for their other friend and she invited me to tag along. I didn’t have any clowny gear, so instead I just puffed up my hair as best I could and put some lipstick on my nose. I didn’t look much like a clown, but it worked well enough. That crowd wasn’t too picky about the outfit, they just wanted to have fun.
The party is hosted at a bar so there is a lot of room. Some of this is taken up by contests and booths set up, in keeping with the carnival like atmosphere. There is an “Adult Kissing Booth” for taking some pictures of the guest of honor with his friends in compromising positions. There are also some setups for the games we’ll be playing, like “Pin the Penis on the Donkey,” “Sexual Position Balloon Pop,” and “Lipstick Kissing Contest” where you cover each others’ bodies with lipstick kisses. We are all in teams of 3-4 for this, which really helped me get to know people quickly. We all fought hard and gave it our best effort, but our team didn’t win. On some controversial calls, we came in second.
The party ended and Elyse and I went off to get some food with one of her friends. We ate at a place named for a Scandinavian Table Tennis champion, if I recall correctly. The food was pretty good. Then we headed off to this cool bar in the penthouse of a hotel down the street. It reminded me of a Western style bar and felt very trendy and European. Lots of funky colors, just a bit retro, and top notch drinks. We spent an hour or so there, and I met some really interesting people: journalists, actors, etc. All expats living in Beijing.
The trip to the Great Wall was pretty nutty. Brian and I had heard all sorts of things about fake wall ruins close to or inside the city that tourists would get shuttled to, so we stuck to just what the LP said. We decided to go to one of the least traveled spots (Simatai) which turned out to be very complicated and hard to figure out. Getting there and back involved buses, minibuses, taxis, and walking. In the end we spent about 6 hours getting there and away and only about 3-4 hours on the wall. But it was certainly worth it.
We woke up fairly early, around 8am, and got our breakfast in the Pub connected to the hostel. It was good and filling. Then we went to the long distance bus station about a mile away. No one spoke English, so we pointed in our book at the Mandarin characters and eventually someone understood what we wanted. We located the bus, bought a ticket outside, and got on board. Only a few minutes after the scheduled departure time, we left.
As we rode out of the city, the bus made a few stops to pick up those who were standing at the side of the road and waving. There didn’t appear to be any regular bus stops, as we sometimes stopped twice in 50 yards to pick up people standing and waving, rather than running towards a spot. Just before we left Beijing, we were ushered off the bus with only a few people, and put onto one with quite a few more.
There were several seats in the middle of the aisle that folded down and we were put on those. Inevitably by the time we were full, people were riding on each others laps and on the floor by the door. It was not until no other bodies could fit into the vehicle that the driver refused to accept payment and let people board. We rode in this cramped position for about three hours and were encouraged to get off the bus in seemingly the middle of nowhere. However, thanks to the Lonely Planet, we’d expected this. A minibus was waiting for wall climbers to save them the 15km trek — for a fee, of course.
The area at the starting point of the hike to the wall looked like it would have been nice in Summer. In Winter, however, it seemed to fade into the background of gray. There was a dam across the small river there so there was a moderately sized lake alongside the switchbacking trail running up the hill to the part of the wall we were going to climb.
We collected some friends as we ascended the trail: two Chinese women who wanted to sell us some books or postcards or something. We told them “wo bu shu yao” (which means “I don’t want it” in a respectful tone), but they continued to follow us. When we reached the wall, they began to tell us things about its history when we stopped to take pictures. They were great climbers, having done this probably several times a day for many years. We ran into very few others climbing the wall, including a group of three Canadians who were traveling at roughly our speed. They were fairly critical of the Chinese women, scolding them for following us and telling us to watch out for ourselves, that we’d be hustled for money at some point. But we’d dealt with our fair share of hustles by then. At one point, one of the Canadians started speaking in Mandarin to the Chinese women and shooed them away. It was probably better for the Chinese women to not waste their time on us, but we didn’t mind them talking to us and it seemed pretty rude.
There were parts of the wall that were too dilapidated to cross or that were under construction, so there were trails heading down the side. Many of the old lookout towers, lived in by guards, were crumbling with little attempt to repair them. It was apparent which stones were old and which had been put in more recently to fill a gap. This is the way the wall had been built and maintained over the centuries since it was originally built. At first it was several separate walls guarding different cities, then it was joined to keep out the Mongols to the North. It didn’t succeed. And now the wall has become a reason to come to China, spurring tourism. This was an irony not lost on us. As a barrier to entry, the Great Wall of China has to be the most spectacular failure in mankind’s history, actually doing the opposite of its intent on a grand scale.
The farthest traversable point for the section of wall we decided to climb was high up on a hill, called Watching Beijing Tower. This spot has a tremendous viewpoint for seeing Inner Mongolia to the North and all the way to Beijing, 120km to the South. However, due to the smoggy conditions, we were only able to see a kilometer or two into the distance. It was still a gorgeous view and we rested for a while there.
We were able to head down much faster than we’d gone up, but it was also more dangerous. Some parts of the wall were nearly vertical for a few dozen yards, so traversing these sections was especially difficult. When we finally made it to the base of the wall and to the concrete trail where we’d begun, our legs felt like jelly. Brian decided that it would be easier to take a zip-line down to the base of the trail, across the dam from where we’d originated. Meanwhile, I decided that I would rather take photographs and videos in case the Chinese engineering didn’t save him.
When we both reached the parking lot, we had a couple of taxis to choose from. So they did what taxi drivers do in that situation, they fought over us. We finally negotiated a price for a ride back to the spot where the bus would pick us up. The cabbie spoke pretty good English, so we were able to speak with him a bit. We ended up making it back with only about 15 minutes to wait before the next transport back to Beijing, so the driver waited with us and we sat in his cab. When the bus finally came, he flagged it down and spoke with the bus driver — something we couldn’t have managed as well. However, the bus was obviously full. The bus driver wanted us to get on board, so he kicked someone back to a further back seat and offered something filthy for us to sit on. The cab driver, however, siezed the opportunity to offer us nearly the same price for transport to a different bus station which had traditional motor coaches instead of requisitioned minibuses. We happily paid and he delivered us with some more conversation.
It was nice to have the chance to spend a half hour or more speaking with a local and we used the time to find out about his life. He was getting ready to head back home when we’d come down the trail and had already called his wife to tell her he’d be on his way home. He lived about a half hour in the other direction, so he’d have some explaining to do when he got home. It apparently wasn’t worth the price of another phone call home. He seemed to be very happy to be doing what he was with his life, which was nice to hear, and his demeanor suggested he was telling the truth. But you can’t always tell when Chinese people say something like that because you don’t know what kind of pressure they’re under to appear happy whether they are or not. This can be both political and social pressure in their culture.
When we got to the other bus station, the driver pointed out the correct bus to us and we were overjoyed to see that it looked like something a High School might have chartered to take a long field trip! We thanked the taxi driver and wished him well on his trip home and in the future. We paid our fare to get on the bus, sat down, and napped most of the way back into the city.
Buying a ticket to embark on the Trans-Mongolian Express was an adventure in itself. The timetables we had were not quite right and the schedules had changed a bit. That’s not a small thing in this case, as it meant we might have to wait as much as a week before heading to Mongolia or take a series of buses to the border where we’d find a fairly regular train into Ulan Bator.