Category Archives: Asia

India Part 3: Pelling, Sikkim and Darjeeling

View from our hotel in Pelling, Sikkim

View from our hotel in Pelling, Sikkim

When we visited Darjeeling six years ago, people constantly told us, “Oh you love it here? You have to visit Sikkim.”

Pelling, Sikkim

Pelling, Sikkim

Sikkim is a part of that weird region of India between Bangladesh, Nepal, and Tibet that looks like it shouldn’t be India. Resting in the shadows of the world’s highest mountains, this region of the Himalayas is culturally more Nepali than Indian (which it joined only 40 years ago). The Lonely Planet listed Sikkim as the #1 region to visit in 2014, and with good reason. It offers a tranquil respite to a the rest of India which tends to be hot, hectic and (sadly) polluted.

And if those clouds were to get out of the way, you'd see Kanchenjunga, the 3rd highest peak in the world

And if those clouds were to get out of the way, you’d see Kanchenjunga, the 3rd highest peak in the world

Breathtaking views everywhere. But it's the Himalayas... what'd you expect?

Breathtaking views everywhere. But it’s the Himalayas… what’d you expect?

Corny as it sounds, there's an almost magical feeling in the air here

Corny as it sounds, there’s an almost magical feeling in the air here

Getting to Sikkim proved to be an adventure in itself. We flew into Bagdogra Airport. From there we caught a taxi to Siliguri bus station for 350 rupees. Unfortunately, the bus to Pelling (our destination in Sikkim) only leaves once a day at 10:30. The tourist office recommended we hire a jeep. A kind older man at the jeep lot helped us figure out that we were at the wrong jeep lot and put us in bike rickshaws to the right jeep lot.

If an old Indian man tells you to get on the bike and go to god know’s where, you do it without question.

The bus station to Sikkim

The bus station to Sikkim

The shady man who ran the next jeep lot (and clearly trafficked drugs on the side) told us that the next jeep to Pelling left at 2:30, so we hunkered down for a few games of Rummy. We instantly became the primary entertainment for everyone else waiting for a jeep. 2:30 came and went. Around 3:30 they began loading up our jeep … with bushels of fish that were leaking blood everywhere. Let me tell you, nothing improves a 5-hour drive along dangerously narrow Himalayan roads like the overwhelming reek of dead fish. We finally rolled out around 4:30. The driver was kind enough to stop half-way in Jorethang, offering Sara and I some much-needed relief for our Delhi-belly. By then it was dark out, limiting our ability to see much of our surroundings–and considering the way the driver was ripping around the hairpin turns, I’m not sure that was much of a bad thing. Nevertheless, we made it to Pelling safe and relatively sound.

Playing cards and entertaining the locals

Playing cards and entertaining the locals

The next morning we awoke to a view of Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world. After breakfast we went out looking for something to do. We noticed a Sikkimese man sitting outside of one of the tour booths. We approached him and asked him to take us to the Changey Waterfall. After some hesitation (which confused us) he offered to drive us there for 300 rupees. We negotiated him down to 200, to which he reluctantly agreed. We hopped in the jeep and sped off.

IMG_1985

Changey Waterfall

Sara enjoying the refreshingly cool, clean water

Sara enjoying the refreshingly cool, clean water

IMG_2012

What’s the only thing that can improve an impressive waterfall? Duh. Beer.

When we got to the waterfall, he went into a nearby shack and emerged a few minutes later with two bottles of HIT, a surprisingly-delicious Sikkimese beer. He handed the bottles to us and shooed us off towards the waterfall. We spent some time playing around in the water, taking pictures, and sipping the beer he gave us. We eventually figured out that today was Sunday, meaning that it was probably our driver’s only day off. Feeling guilty, we decided to find him and head back. When we entered the shack we found him at a table with four of his friends and three more bottles of HIT. They invited us to sit down, poured us cups of beer, and started talking to us. When we were about finished, a woman appeared from the back with four more beers.

It would have been rude to refuse.

Our newfound friends

Our newfound friends

A dozen-ish beers later our guide stood up and announced that we were going to the river. We piled back into the jeep and zipped off down the road again. For the most part everyone was enjoying themselves. However one of our guide’s friends was clearly displeased that these three random foreigners were crashing their party on his day off. He was polite enough but clearly disinterested in us. When we got to the river, we timidly waded in. Standing knee deep in the river, I plunged my hands in and splashed the clean, icy water on my face. A minute later, Mr. Not-Jazzed-About-The-Foreigners splashed a handful of water on my face as well. I returned the favor. The ensuing water fight broke the ice between us and him. We spent the next several hours laughing, swimming and soaking in the sun. It was the first time I had felt clean, cold and refreshed since arriving in India.

Nothing breaks the ice like a splash of icy-cold water to the face

Nothing breaks the ice like a splash of icy-cold water to the face

Playing in the river

Playing in the river

IMG_2029

River romp

IMG_2042

Dentam River

This spontaneous experience was the highlight of the trip for me. I usually feel obligated to partake in the significant historical and cultural experiences that a destination has to offer (Taj Mahal, Eiffel Tower, Times Square). However, my favorite experiences are always the ones where we make real connections with the local culture and have little to do with anything marketed to tourists.

IMG_2041


Sara, getting some much needed solitude on a rickety, wooden bridge

We were a little disappointed when we woke up the next day to clouds and scattered showers blocking our view of the mountains. The town of Pelling offers amazing views and incredible hiking, but on a rainy day there’s not much to do. After putzing around for a few hours, we decided to head to Darjeeling a day earlier.

This was the right decision.

Saying goodbye to Pelling

Saying goodbye to Pelling

We found out later that the clouds and scattered showers were actually the precursor for the first monsoon of the season–a whole month earlier than anyone anticipated. (Monsoon season usually starts mid-June). The drive from Pelling to Darjeeling was already tricky enough. There were several times when our jeep required two or three attempts to make it up a hill, as the red dirt had turned to slick mud from the rain. One time we actually started sliding backwards down the hill, a startling prospect considering the 150-foot drop to our left. However, had we waited until the next morning to leave Pelling like we had originally planned, the rains would have certainly made the trip impossible. We would have been stranded and missed our flight home.

Leaving Sikkim

Leaving Sikkim

"Wait, we're going to drive across that? I can feel the bridge moving under us. Are you sure this is safe?

“Wait, we’re going to drive across that? I can feel the bridge moving under us. Are you sure this is safe?

We made it to Darjeeling only to meet another challenge. With the scorching temperatures across the rest of India (108°F in Kolkata, 114°F in Jaipur), May is high-tourist season in the comfortably mild Darjeeling. Our driver Roman ended up driving us all over the city looking for a hotel with a vacant room. We went down one street, then another, then another, looking anywhere for a spare room. As we turned on the last street, high above the city center, he turned to me and said, “Last chance. I have wife and son. If no hotel, you stay with me.” Thankfully, the second-to-last hotel on the last street had a room. We checked in, relieved to have a place to sleep.

Roman, our awesome driver who offered to let us stay at his house if we didn't find a hotel

Roman, our awesome driver who offered to let us stay at his house if we didn’t find a hotel

The next couple days were lazy and restful. We did some shopping and tried (unsuccessfully) to stay out of the rain. At one point we got stranded in a cafe that was a 20 minute walk from our hotel. After hours of waiting for the rain to stop, we gave up and asked an employee for three trash bags. The entire shop watched with astonishment and amusement at us as we made our grand exit.

Thukpa hits the spot on a rainy day

Thukpa hits the spot on a rainy day

Eating momos and avoiding the rain

Eating momos and avoiding the rain

One final memory from Darjeeling. We went back to our favorite momo restaurant, located just off the city center where the jeeps leave in the morning for Tiger Hill. It’s hands down the best food in the city. After much anticipation and a little trepidation, I finally mustered up the courage to try the regional specialty: butter tea (or Tibetan tea). Made from salted, fermented yak butter, this beverage is essentially like sipping on a thick, rich cup of gorgonzola cheese. I realized that salted beverages are rare in western cuisine. In that sense, this drink takes a bit of mental preparation. However, I actually found it to be pretty tasty. Unlike other weird foods I’ve had (century eggs, baluts), I would voluntarily have this one again. It’s milder than your average blue cheese, so if you like strong cheese, be brave and try this drink.

Getting more momos and thukpa at our favorite restaurant. Notice the butter tea which I am about to partake in

Getting more momos and thukpa at our favorite restaurant. Notice the butter tea which I am about to partake in

After Darjeeling we headed back to the Bagdogra Airport and began our harrowing 36-hour journey back to Chicago. (We accidentally got stuck in one room in the Delhi airport for 8 hours. They wouldn’t let us leave. Sigh… you win again, Delhi. Every. Time.) It was unfortunate that we happened to be in Darjeeling and Sikkim for the unexpected monsoon. However the day we spent drinking and swimming in the Dentam River made the entire experience worthwhile. It’s certainly one that Sara and I will be telling stories about for years to come.

IMG_2069

On the side of the road in Pelling

Visiting Sikkim:

Sikkim is considered a protected region. In order to visit there, you need to obtain a Restricted Area and Inner Line Permit. You’ll need a photocopy of your passport and a passport-sized photo when filling out the form. You can complete the paperwork at any Indian embassy, in several major cities in India, and in Siliguri, Bagdogra and Darjeeling. Visit the Sikkim Tourism website for more information.

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

India Part 2: Kolkata and the Missionaries of Charity

May 2006 was my first trip to Kolkata, India. I went with my now alma mater, Anderson University. I did not have a clue what I was walking into when I signed up for the trip, but it was love at first sight for Kolkata and me. I worked with the Sisters of Charity, founded by Mother Theresa, in a home called Shanti Dan meaning “to give peace” in English. Working with mentally challenged older adult women was a huge stretch for me at my 19 years of age, but those two weeks of my life served the catalyst for a revolution in my world view. I came back an entirely changed person and my family witnessed my less than graceful transformation in an up close and personal way. I begged my family to return with me, but the only person who was crazy enough to entertain this idea was my youngest sister Sidney, who was 11 at the time.

Catching the bus to Shanti Dan

Sidney catching the bus to Shanti Dan

During my senior year of college (2009), I returned to Kolkata with a group of near and dear friends and my—at the time—fiancé Davo. I had the pleasure of bringing 4 of my closest friends with me and experienced the city and Shanti Dan for the second time through my wiser, more-traveled eyes. My love for the city and Shanti Dan only grew, and I knew that I would never grow tired of returning. Kolkata would be a lifelong home for me.

IMG_1953

Still fresh off the plane and jet lagged, I am writing about my third experience. As I have grown and developed in the past 4-and-a-half years, so too has Kolkata. This was apparent upon arrival at the airport. The airport has been remodeled since 2009, and what was once an extremely hot, un-air-conditioned, crowded and outdated mess of a space is now orderly, cool, and modern. Before arriving, I instructed my sister to run from the airport to the taxi without engaging with any of the mass quantities of beggars. I realized these instructions were laughable when we exited the airport. No chaos, no hordes of people, no beggars. We arrived at Hotel Circular to find it newly painted hot pink and purple (although much to my relief the lobby was still eerily dark, damp and green.) I slept well in great anticipation of being able to return to Shanti Dan the next morning.

IMG_1952

Saying the Morning Prayer with my sister and husband at the Mother House before volunteering gave me an incredible sense of peace and belonging. In some ways it felt like a homecoming. Upon arrival at Shanti Dan that morning, I immediately had goose bumps. It was all so familiar but different at the same time. Some of the women were the same; many were different, but love and light radiated from the place the same as I remember. I was overjoyed to be back.

IMG_1957

One woman whose face and spirit was most etched in my mind heart was still there. I named her “granny” because until this trip I did not know how to ask her name in Bengali. Although smaller, older and slightly more frail, her face lit up when she saw me. She immediately greeted me with the same greeting I remember so well: one “Namaste,” one kiss on the hand, one kiss on each of my cheeks, and a back rub. It is up for debate whether or not she remembered me among the endless cycle of volunteer faces; however my sister swears—and I agree—that she did interact differently with me. I relished the time I got to spend with her over the week and received one incredibly soft back rub from her tiny frail hands each day.

IMG_1951

This extraordinary women and her back rubs are a small story that parallels the larger narrative when working in the homes. Thousands of volunteers flood in every year with great hopes of “serving” and bringing Jesus’ light and love to these people. Yet every time I am reminded that Jesus is in fact already very present, and the light and love is already there. While at Shanti Dan I receive a level of joy unmatched by any other experience. Even though I am the person who makes beds, does laundry and feeds people lunch, the women at Shanti Dan serve me. With the women I am able to be fully present, engaged, joyful, and at peace. When I am at Shanti Dan, I am receiving a back rub and am refreshed by the beautifully simple things in life like doing laundry by hand. I am the one who receives and for that I am humbled and eternally grateful.

IMG_1961

The city of Kolkata appeared to be modernizing at a rapid pace. What was once a city thick with children and adults begging around every corner, people sleeping on every surface imaginable, and obtrusive grinding poverty is now a much more orderly and manageable city. I was shocked to find Park Street has many air-conditioned fancy restaurants and even an Au Bon Pain cafe. I am hopeful that this is positive development and that there has been social change for the better, however in the back of my mind, I am fearful that the streets have merely been swept and the poor are hidden away somewhere or maybe incarcerated.

Fine dining at Peter Cat

Overall our time in Kolkata was incredibly meaningful. It was a shorter trip, which was difficult, however we all know we will be back. This is what makes leaving bearable. Shanti Dan is not going anywhere, life will continue on at its rapid pace, but I can always return for refreshment. I eagerly anticipate the growth that will occur between now and my next visit. Each time I visit there are new lessons to be learned and each time I am further molded by the “City of God.”

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

India Part 1: Delhi, Agra and the Taj Mahal Blitz

The adventures began even before landing in the Delhi airport. As we were beginning our approach, the pilot came over the intercom and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I just wanted to inform you that the preliminary results from the elections are in, and it looks like Modi will be the winner.” Like a rookie, I was ignorant of the fact that elections were underway. It made me nervous. How did the Indian people feel about these results? What if they disliked them? Would there be protests, demonstrations, unrest, or riots? I was especially nervous about the situation in West Bengal, where Kolkata is… a primarily communist state.

Upon leaving the airport, we were able to more accurately gauge the reaction to the election. The streets were mayhem… in a good way. We quickly learned any anxiety we had in this regard was baseless. Modi had won the election with 80% of the popular vote. Celebratory parades wound through the local thoroughfares. A random man on the street bought us gulab jamuns (honey-soaked donut balls). Flowers and fireworks abounded. (I feel like my ears are still ringing from a near-miss with a firework). Music blasted from every corner, and the streets were painted in orange, white and green.

Monkeys on the rooftop in Agra

Monkeys on the rooftop in Agra

This was my second trip to India, Sara’s third. This time we brought Sara’s sister Sidney with us, who has wanted to go to India since Sara first visited there 8 years ago. Our first night in Delhi we stayed near the New Delhi Station since we were taking a train the next morning to Agra. We spent the afternoon window-shopping, eating, and trying to avoid jet lag and being blown up by fireworks.

IMG_1883

I wish the doors in my house looked like this.

The next morning we made our way to the train station. During the train ride we were befriended by an English teacher who wanted help with honing his American pronunciation. After meticulously picking through the finer details of every phonetic sound in the English language, we pumped him for recommendations about traveling in India. A local opinion will always trump the travel book, in my opinion. He told us more about his hometown and language (Malayalam).

At the train station

At the train station

View from our hostel in Agra

View from our hostel in Agra

We arrived in Agra late morning and caught an auto-rickshaw to our hostel, which had a stunning view of the Taj Mahal from the rooftop. After dropping our bags, we headed to Agra Fort. Overlooking the Yamuna River and the Taj Mahal, this millennium-old for was briefly a luxurious prison to the creator of the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan, after he was deposed by his son. The fort’s beautiful architecture is a mix of red sandstone and the same white marble used to construct the Taj Mahal.

IMG_1870

Red sandstone from Rajastan at Agra Fort

IMG_1872

Soft light filtered by white marble in Agra Fort

IMG_1882

Some much-appreciated shade at Agra Fort

IMG_1869

If I’m ever imprisoned, I want to my view to look like this.

Next, we made our way to the Taj Mahal. I’ll admit: I had high expectations of the Taj Mahal. But even with the punishing heat of the afternoon sun, the building did not disappoint. I can’t decide what is more impressive: that the entire mausoleum is constructed of white marble, or that it was constructed in the 1640s. The central dome is estimated to weight over 13,000 tons. All of the walls (inside and out) are inlaid with precious stones, a process demonstrated for us by a nearby shop owner. Craftspeople would cut the precious stone into the desired shape and trace the outline on a piece of marble. Then they would hand-chisel an indentation barely 1/8″ deep into the marble before cementing the stone onto the marble. It’s no wonder the structure took over a decade to complete.

IMG_1888

Taj Mahal

IMG_1908

Minaret

IMG_1905

Intricate, hand-chiseled inlays in the marble

IMG_1901

Beautiful designs on the interior

IMG_1898

Door to the central tomb area

IMG_1897

Mandatory shoe covers to keep the white marble pretty

IMG_1889

Obligatory group picture

IMG_1918

My tomb probably won’t look like this

There was one unpleasant aspect of visiting the Taj Mahal: everyone taking pictures. The odd thing was they didn’t want to take pictures of the Taj Mahal. They wanted to take their pictures with us. At first it was funny and endearing. But after the 250th person asked to take our picture, it got a little old. Apparently, it’s good luck to take a picture with a tourist. Still, we felt compelled to point out that, while we may be worthy subjects for a photo on an average day, behind us is one of the greatest buildings ever constructed. Sidney suggested we start charging 5 rupees a piece. We could’ve probably funded our entire trip that way.

Excuse me, may I take your picture?

Excuse me, may I take your picture?

After a long, hot (104°F) day, we headed back to the hostel for some rest. The next morning we took the train back to Delhi. After getting a little lost during a frantic search for anywhere that had AC, we settled into a Nepali restaurant and killed time before our evening flight to Kolkata. Our time in Delhi and Agra was short. I would have enjoyed spending another day or two exploring each city. However, we were all anxious to get to Kolkata.

Ahhh. Relief! Air conditioning and frapaccinos

Ahhh. Relief! Air conditioning and frapaccinos

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Goodbye Asia: Beijing solo adventure

When I arrived in Beijing I was terrified.  Could I figure out how to get to my hostel? What if I got lost?  What if something happened with my money?  What if someone took me away to a Chinese brothel and sold me?  Ok so obviously some of these fears were a bit irrational.  But I came to China terrified.

When I arrived in Beijing, a Chinese university student immediately befriended me.  He had never traveled before, and I knew no Chinese so we were a perfect match.  I helped him with things like what line to stand in for passports and where to go next, and he helped me with things like what subway to get on where and where I should store my bags.  I was off to a good start and feeling more confident.

When I stepped out of the airport armed with the new knowledge and maps my friend had given me, I was immediately hit with the insane heat and smoggy air.  Similar to in Kolkata, I could not see the sun and a grey haze was consuming the sky.  The heat was overwhelming.  I got to my hostel with the unsolicited help from a British man who lived in the area.  Upon arriving at the hostel, I met two Americans who had just left a year of teaching in Korea as well, and I made plans to take the bus to see the Great Wall with them in the morning.  That evening I explored the area around the hostel, got dinner, and did some wrong things and got yelled at, you know the usual.

The next morning we went to the Mutianyu portion of the Great Wall. After a 3-hour, sweaty, air-conditioning-less bus ride where my legs were buried in the seat in front of me because they were too long, we arrived at our destination.  Ever since my Chinese history class at AU, I had wanted to visit the Great Wall, and it was pretty unfathomable to me that I was actually there.  We climbed up the mountain, climbed the wall, and I imagined what it would be like to be a solider at my post, guarding China from its enemies.  It really is remarkable that the wall is still there and bears so much history.  I also think I have never been so sweaty in my entire life.

Sweatiest I have ever been in my life.

Sweatiest I have ever been in my life.

IMG_1665

Great wall and lost of fog.

IMG_1658

There are lots of steps to climb a the great wall.

IMG_1679

Tower on the wall.

After the 3-hour, sweaty, air-conditioning-less bus ride home with my knees buried in the seat in front of me, I was pretty well exhausted, but I knew I only had a precious few days in Beijing.  So, I rested up, went to dinner and then headed to the night market.  Where I saw all these interesting ObaMao things. Weird.

ObaMao

ObaMao

Night market.

Night market.

The next day I set off to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square.  The thing that sticks out most in my mind about the Forbidden City is that it was incredibly ornate and massive.  (Sorry Gyungbukgung and Korea, but you are just not as cool as the Forbidden City.) I moseyed around for hours, took a lot of pictures, listened to my automated guide, which sometimes worked, and tried to dodge all the people who wanted to take pictures with me.

IMG_1712 IMG_1717IMG_1732IMG_1750IMG_1707IMG_1734

By the time I was finished with the Forbidden City, I was exhausted and again possibly the hottest I have ever been in my life, so that did not leave a lot of room for walking around Tiananmen.  Luckily there is not a whole lot to do at Tiananmen but just be there.  The one thing I did notice was how much security was there. When you walk in every Chinese citizen has to give some form of ID to the security guards. For those of you that do not know, you will never seen the famous man standing in front of the tank picture, because it is illegal to publish in China.  If you Google Tiananmen Square anywhere but in China you will be flooded with scenes from the 1989 protests in the square.  But if you Google this in China, nothing comes up but pictures of tourists walking around and other pleasantries.  Just like China blocks Facebook from its citizens, it also blocks some of its history.

IMG_1767IMG_1770IMG_1772

After Tiananmen I went to the wrong temple.  I thought I was going to the Temple of Heaven, which looked interesting to me because it looked a little different than the dozens of other temples I had seen in Asia.  But I was actually at the Lama temple.  So rather than be disappointed about my mistake, I sat for a long time taking in the scenery and trying to absorb the fact that this was my last day in Asia.  This is where it somewhat hit me, and I was tossed into an emotional whirlwind for the rest of the evening.

IMG_1785 IMG_1782 IMG_1777

My last evening in Asia was spent eating dinner with an American on his way to North Korea and drinking terrible Chinese liquor on the side of the road with some meat on a stick.  The people I met that evening helped me though the emotions of my last night in Asia and my grand adventure coming to a close.  It is funny how awesome people can be that you have met only hours before.  I woke up the next morning at 5am with some help from a friend and went to the airport.  And that, my friends, was the end of my Asian adventure.

I did not eat these but crazy, hu?

I did not eat these but crazy, hu?

DMZ

This post is coming a few weeks late, but life and preparing to leave has kept us rather busy! We are both now in Prague for a few days, and the pace has slowed considerably!

On our third-to-last weekend in Ulsan, Sara and I headed up to Seoul to join the USO tour of Panmunjeom (the Joint Security Area) and the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. The tour was bizarre mix of history and propaganda regarding an even more bizarre historical and geo-political situation.

I read a story one time about this Japanese soldier who had been stationed at a lonely outpost in the Philippines in WWII. Things happened, and he lost contact with his command. He finally surrendered in 1974. He had no idea that WWII had been over for several decades. That’s kind of how this tour felt. The entire thing seemed like stepping back in time 30 or 40 years.  It’s like the Cold War ended, but no one bothered to inform North Korea.

The Korean War is technically still ongoing today. However, a ceasefire was reached in 1954, and a demilitarized zone (DMZ) was created. The 4-km wide 250-km long border between the divided Koreas remains the most militarized region in the entire world. A series of white fenceposts placed every 10 meters demarcates the border. The DMZ extends out for 2 km on either side. Lining the edge of the DMZ are anti-tank walls and signs warning of land mines.

IMG_1559

Fortifications along the river that flows from the North to the South… to keep spies from crossing.

As we took the bus up from Seoul, we drove up a river which flows from the North into the South. The river is lined solid with fences and spotted with manned guard towers at regular intervals. After a short drive, we arrived at Panmunjeom. The Joint Security Area (JSA) is the UN-run, official location for talks between the two Koreas. There’s a line of concrete slabs running through the center of the JSA, which runs through and cuts several buildings in half. North and South Korean soldiers face off against each other every day, staring at each other from across the line. The central building is the one used for talks, and even here the line of demarcation is clear.

IMG_1567

Staring contest

IMG_1572

Sara and I technically standing in North Korea. (That’s a South Korean soldier, though. Inside this room, they’re allowed either side).

The border between North and South. I'm slightly on the North side.

The border between North and South. I’m slightly on the North side.

Perhaps the most bizarre part of the tour happened on the bus as we were leaving the JSA and headed to our next destination. Our tour guide explained that there are two villages located inside the DMZ. One is operated by the North and the other by the South. These villages are meant to be signs of good faith between the two countries. “The names of these villages,” our tour guide told us, “are ‘Freedom Village’ and ‘Propaganda Village.'” I immediately glanced around the bus to see if anyone caught the irony.

It turns out the irony didn’t stop there. Residents of the so-called “Freedom Village” live under a perpetual state of martial law. They are required to back in the village by 6pm and be inside with the lights out by 9pm. If a resident spends too many days away, they can be ejected permanently from the village. Life in “Freedom Village” sounds pretty great, especially compared to “Propaganda Village”! The entire thing just blew my mind. I still can’t wrap my mind around the blatant contradictions, and the seemingly complete obliviousness of our tour guide.

From there we visited the last train station in South Korea before the tracks head into the North. The tracks exist and the infrastructure is there, but North Korea does not allow trains from South Korea to cross into it. South Korea seems open and willing to allow train travel, but the North disallows it. It was actually kind of sad.  Although Korea is a peninsula, South Korea remains an island, essentially cut off from the mainland by its neighbors to the north. Instead of being able to connect to the rest of the continent and the Trans-Siberian Railway, travel to South Korea is restricted to sea or air.

To Pyeongyang

To Pyeongyang

Next we visited the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel. North Korea dug four (known) tunnels into South Korea. This tunnel is 350m below ground and over a mile long. It is apparently big enough for North Korean soldiers to march two by two through, however in most places it was too short for me to stand up straight. I was thankful for the hardhat, as I bumped my head on the ceiling a good, several dozen times.

Sara and the line of demarcation. On the other side of the blast door is North Korea.

Sara and the line of demarcation. On the other side of the blast door is North Korea.

Our last stop of the day was to the Dora observatory. From here you could get a sweeping view into the North. For 50 cents, you could look through telescopes and see more clearly the goings-on in the North. I didn’t really notice until Sara mentioned it later, but neither of us remember seeing any cars driving around on the roads. We also got a decent view of the world’s 3rd-tallest flagpole, touting a 600-pound North Korean flag.

IMG_1590

The monster flag

Despite all the blatant propaganda, one cool thing about the tour was the strong focus on reunification. While they had little positive to say about the government of North Korea, they refrained from alienating the people of North Korea. After all, many families were torn apart when Korea split. Every South Korean I’ve talked to hopes that they will one day be reunified.

Children's art depicting their hopes for reconciliation and reunification.

Children’s art depicting their hopes for reconciliation and reunification.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Good-bye Korea

This is my final goodbye to Korea.  I am sitting in the Busan airport about to board my flight to Beijing, and I am strangely unemotional.  This morning was emotional saying goodbye to Davo for 3 days (I know I am a wuss), but I was not emotional about leaving Korea.  It is possible though that my brain just cannot process what is happening.  I don’t feel like I am leaving.  I feel like I will be back here after China, but I won’t.

This weekend we said goodbye to all our friends, our favorite restaurants, our coffee shops and our bars.  Saying goodbye to friends was emotional.  We have met many cool people here and their company has helped us throughout the year to forget the massive heartache of missing friends and family back home.  We now have friends all over the world and it makes the world feel a bit smaller and more homey.

Korea has been a huge growing experience.  I have learned a lot about myself and the way that I connect with people.  I have learned to just roll with things.  I have learned that I am more adaptable than I once thought.  I hope that these experiences will resonate with me and stay with me.   I am capable of more than I thought.  And now I am about to embark on a journey that is wildly out of my comfort zone.  Traveling solo.  No friends, no family, and no Davo.

I know I am capable of navigating China alone.  But it is still scary.  Luckily, I have an incredibly supportive partner who encouraged me to clear this hurdle that I have always wanted to clear.  The solo female traveler.   During our time aboard I have met many amazing women who have come to Korea on their own and traveled all over the world on their own.  I always wanted to see if I could do it, too.  Three days in Bejing hardly begins to touch the experience of moving to Korea on your own, but it is a start.  I love  my partner more than anything, but I can do things without him, and I am looking forward to learning more about myself during this experience.

After Beijing I will meet Davo and his family in Prague.  It only seems right that this year-long journey began in Prague, and it will end in Prague.  Soon I will be making grilled pizzas with my family and partner, and I can take comfort in that as I am navigating an Asian sprawling metropolitan giant all-alone.

I can do this! Bring it, China! I am sure there will be a blog about China shortly upon my arrival in Prague.  Stay tuned.

Go to Geojedo

Last weekend to celebrated our 4th wedding anniversary, Sara and I headed two hours south to Geojedo. Geojedo is a little island paradise at the very tip of the Korean peninsula, known for it’s seafood and natural beauty. We spent two days exploring a sleepy seaside town and the surrounding area.

After dropping off our bags at a cute hotel overlooking the seashore, we headed into town and explored a bit. After wadding into the icy water at the black pebble beach, we stopped in a little restaurant for some fresh seafood.

IMG_1418

This was actually a historic moment for the two of us. It was the first time in our 10 months in Korea that we voluntarily ordered fish at a restaurant. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love Korean food, and I love seafood. However, most Korean seafood isn’t quite to my taste. As I explained to my coteachers (and blew their minds in the process), most Americans like fish; we just don’t like our fish to taste like fish. Not so here in Korea. Needless to say, Sara and I were nervous about trying fish, but it was actually pretty good!

IMG_1421

After dinner we headed back to the hotel and watched the sun set. There was even a rainbow! We befriended the hotel owner and his daughter (who spoke excellent English). They helped us plan our activities for the next day, and we ended up chatting with them for over an hour.

IMG_1426

The next morning we headed to the other side of the bay (under the rainbow in the picture above). We spent the first half of the afternoon exploring the purply-red, rocky shore.

IMG_1432IMG_1433 IMG_1435

We then boarded a ferry which took us around Haegeumgang. These towering stones jutting out of the ocean have been named the #2 scenic site in all of Korea. They are fascinating to observe from afar. You can even see a cave that the ocean has carved out of a fissure in the stone.

IMG_1441

We quickly found out that you get to see the cave from closer than afar. The captain piloted the boat in until we had less than a foot of clearance on either side. It was a little scary, but pretty cool at the same time.

IMG_1444

From there the ferry headed over to Oedo. The entire island has been converted into a garden. We spent the rest of the afternoon strolling the winding, immaculately manicured, Dr. Seuss-esque paths.

IMG_1462 IMG_1455

It was a wonderfully relaxing weekend. Our only regret is that we didn’t know about this place sooner! It’s hard to believe that such a beautiful place exists just two hours away.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Tokyo

The thing that sticks out most it my mind about Tokyo is just how immaculate it is.  According to Wikipedia Tokyo is the world’s largest “urban area” in the world and I am telling you there is no trash on its street.  Not one piece of gum, cigarette butt, loose straw, nothing.  I almost wanted to throw something on the ground just to see what would happen.  I imagined if I did someone would pop out of the wall slap me with a $300 fine and make me pick up my trash.  Or maybe I would just be stoned by the locals, who knows.  But I tell you this there is no trash in Tokyo.  And this very fact also is symbolic of the way Tokyo felt in general.  Tokyo was clean, polite, polished, and orderly.  As much as I loved it, it made me a little nervous and helped me further appreciate Japan’s more unruly and less organized neighbor, Korea.

IMG_0995

Wonderful use of space.

Wonderful use of space.

Our journey began when we arrived in Asakusa, Tokyo, and many locals went completely out of their way to help us navigate the small roads to find our hostel.   Our hostel [Retrometro Backpacker] was small, quaint and just what we needed.  The woman who ran the hostel was very polite, helpful, and soft spoken.  She recommended the wonderful “standing sushi” place that we ate at twice [no idea the name, but here it is on Google Maps] and showed us how to get to all the places we wanted to go on the map.  That night we set off exploring our area and were not disappointed.

Our cute little hostel.

Our cute little hostel.

Asakusa temple.

Asakusa temple.

The next morning we got up early to start sightseeing.  I mean, we only had two days so we needed to get a jump start! Davo and I went for a run, ate some breakfast, and we were off.  First we went to the Tokyo government municipal building so that we could get a great view of the city and see Mt. Fuji.  It was a little hazy so our view of Mt. Fuji was not exceptional but as Davo said, “we got to see ALL the city for free!”  And we did, it was beautiful and a great way to start out our trip.  Turns out Tokyo is pretty big!

View from the Tokyo government municipal building.

View from the Tokyo government municipal building.

After that we headed to Tokyo’s Harajuku area to check out some of the strange new fashion trends and the shrine to the Emperor.  Davo and I sat and ate some street food on a bench to take in the very high heels, bright colors, pastel colors, spiky black leather, piercings and whatever other fashions we saw.  After which we went to the shrine and had the pleasure to observe some Japanese religious practices, which actually looked much different than Korean practices.

Harajuku fashion.  Oh, my!

Harajuku fashion. Oh, my!

Shrine to the Emperor.

Shrine to the Emperor.

The rest of our evening consisted of hanging out in the area near our hostel, experiencing some authentic Japanese tempura. And drinking real beer! (Japan is known for being one of the only places in East Asia with decent beer.  Davo was very happy. )

The next day we regrettably did not go to the famous Tsukiji fish market, because it was closed for the Lunar New Year. Instead we got up and went out for sushi again, got some green tea ice cream and moseyed around our neighborhood.

Standing sushi place.  SO delicious.

Standing sushi place. SO delicious.

Fatty tuna and the holy of holies sushi wise.

Fatty tuna and the holy of holies sushi wise.

Later, we set off on a quest to find a “maido” café.  This experience was quite possibly one of the most interesting I have had in a long time.  At “maido” cafes (or maid cafes) young, attractive Japanese women dress up as maids and serve their “madams” and “masters” cute food.  You can pay to play games with them, take pictures with them, and they even draw your animal of choice with syrup on top of your coffee or drink.  What exactly is “cute” food?  You can see the pictures below.  We were not allowed to take pictures of the servers but this is the best I can do to show you what was going on here.

Maids at the Maido Cafe.

Maids at the Maido Cafe.

Cute food.

Cute food.

More cute food and a frog drawing.

More cute food and a frog drawing.

Needless to say knowing me, I was fascinated.  I love a good social situation to analyze especially one that was as foreign to me as this one.  And for those of you thinking this is some strange sexual fetish, I am sure you are partially correct. However there were also families there, and it did not feel inappropriate.   The boys were good sports about my quest to experience this fascinating social phenomenon.

That evening we saw a few more temples and said goodbye to Tokyo.  We slept at the airport because it was the only way to catch our early morning flight and not pay $300 for a cab.  And as we were leaving Tokyo we had a small mourning session.  Japan is the last new country Davo and I will visit for quite some time.  It is somewhat an end of an era for us, but now it is time to rock out our last five-and-a-half months in Korea! Stay tuned.

IMG_1044IMG_0987

Thailand: The Best Place on Earth.

I have no idea where to begin in describing our trip to Thailand.  Let me first start by saying that I love everywhere.  No really, I do.  I have never been to a place I wouldn’t go back to, and there is no country I don’t want to visit.  Some countries are higher on the list than others, but hey I’ll go anywhere.

Some of you know that when asked my favorite place in the world, my answer is always India.  However, this is a difficult thing to describe.  My reasons for loving India have a lot to do with the country itself, but also what it had to offer me at the times I have visited.  So, my love of India is not just solely about India.  Iceland is definitely top on my list, but this has more to do with raw beauty, landscape, and solitude.  Iceland quite frankly just needs a category of its own.  This brings me to Thailand.   If I were going to move anywhere in the world right now I would move to Thailand.  In fact Davo and I have decided we will move there sometime in our lives; it is just a matter of when.

So why is Thailand the greatest place on Earth?  We will start with this.  The first day we were in Bangkok Davo inquired about the book “Eat, Pray, Love.”  Neither of us have read the book, however Davo said, “doesn’t she eat in Italy, Pray in India and Love in Thailand?”  I said “I think so yea.”  To which Davo replied, “Now, my question is why wasn’t Thailand the eating place?”  I know what you are thinking right now, “No way the food is better than Italy.” I will go on record and say that I have been to Italy, and the food is not only better it is also cheaper and healthier.  GASP!!!!

The first few days that we were in Thailand we explored Bangkok.  We met some Thai people who recommended two restaurants to us, one in Bangkok and one in Chiang Mai.  The restaurant in Bangkok was a tiny little hole in the wall across from a park.  We were instructed to order “fried catfish salad” and “green eggplant salad.”  Figuring that these people knew what they were talking about, we set out on our quest to find the restaurant.  This is where our love affair with Thai salads began. Until this experience we did not know that when we had previously eaten Thai food, we were making a fatal mistake in skipping over the salad section of the menu in favor of the curries and pad thai.  Both of these salad dishes were fantastic and completely unlike anything I have ever eaten. After this experience we were on a hunt for the best food experiences possible and Thailand did not disappoint.

Deliciousness.

Deliciousness.

fried catfish salad and green eggplant salad.

Fried catfish salad and green eggplant salad.

Bangkok

Bangkok

Our eating quest continued in Chaing Mai where we continued to eat salads, pad thai, and curries galore! The second recommendation from the Thai friends came in Chaing Mai.  This restaurant was located in a temple and was quite possibly the best food we have ever had in our lives.  Again, it was the salads! This time we got avocado salad, pomelo salad, and fried banana flower salad.  I am salivating typing this right now.  And this is where we actually considered throwing up in order to make room for more eating.  I kid you not, it was THAT good. People probably thought I was crazy, but I felt it was my duty to tell every foreigner I saw to go eat there.  Ok, so you get it the food is fantastic here are more pictures.

Avacado salad that we forgot to take a picture of until we had already eaten it.

Avocado salad that we forgot to take a picture of until we had already eaten it.

Fried banana flower salad.

Fried banana flower salad.

Pomelo salad.

Pomelo salad.

The temple that the restaurant was also beautiful.

The temple at the restaurant was also beautiful.

So why else is Thailand the greatest place on earth?  For one, in order for me to love a place it has to have a certain balance of grunge and charm.  Thailand toes this balance beautifully.  It is rough enough around the edges for me to love it but also has temples that glow (literally), elephants to play with, mountains, markets to explore, and best of all style.  It is hard for me to explain what I mean by “style” but think of it this way – I want to put everything in Thailand in my house.  While we were at the market I essentially wanted to buy everything.  We haggled almost every night in our local market for different gems and have quite a few nice things to add to our home when we get home.  A little grunge and a little charm!

Style.

Style.

They love to hand lights in Chiang Mai.

They love to hang lights in Chiang Mai.

I have discussed a lot of charm now lets talk grunge.  When we decided Chaing Mai was the place we wanted to go after Bangkok, I did a little research on how we should get to this northern mountain paradise.  After internet readings and a few discussions with friends, we decided we would train to Chaing Mai in a sleeper car.  We were told we could book this the day we wanted to go, but just to be safe we went to the train station early in the morning to book tickets for our 10pm train.  When we got to the ticket counter and told the women what we wanted she told us that sleepers were all booked until next Thursday.  We asked her what she did have, and she said “sitting up with fan.”  To which I replied ok, how long is the train? The women typed into her calculator 17 and showed it to me.  It is moments like these that I am so glad I travel with Davo.  We are no-nonsense, no whining, take what you can get and be happy travelers.  So, we said sure to the “sitting up with fan” car for 17 hours, and decided to be glad that we would get to see so much of the country on our way.  We met some pretty weird travelers and might have been drinking rum and coke still at 9am the next morning on the train.

17 hours "sitting with fan."

17 hours “sitting with fan.”

A little grunge.

A little grunge.

We went to an Elephant Nature park that was an overload of joy.  Being with creatures that massive is a total rush (and we all know I like thrills).  We fed them, bathed them, and just hung out with them.  It was a place with a lot of love and a great story.  Check it out if you like 🙂  http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/

Well hello there friends!

Well hello there friends!

I know you all are jealous!

I know you all are jealous!

Overall, Thailand seemed to have it all and more.  Three dollar massages that we got almost every day, fantastic food, beautiful scenery, and beautiful people.  Every foreigner we talked to that lived there raved about being there.  I can’t help but think it is the Mecca of Asia.  Hopefully one day we will be able to visit Thailand again or maybe even live there.  But for now, I guess pictures and memories will suffice.

Wat Pho.

Wat Pho.

Gigantic reclining Buddha in  Wat Pho temple in Bangkok.

Gigantic reclining Buddha in Wat Pho temple in Bangkok.

Temple made in 700 ad.

Temple made in 700 AD.

Flower festival parade in Chiang Mai.

Flower festival parade in Chiang Mai.

Stay tuned for the Tokyo blog coming up! Maybe we should rename the blog to Davo and Sara running around the world instead of in Korea….

Shanghai

Last week was Chuseok, a Korean holiday that’s roughly equivalent to Thanksgiving. Sara and I both had thee days off school (plus a weekend, equaling five total days). What do we do with five days off? Why, Shanghai, of course!

Skyline from the Bund

We stayed in a fun little hostel called The Phoenix, located right in the city center. We were a block away from People’s Square (not the infamous Tienanmen; that’s in Beijing), and a 15 minute walk from several famous architectural or historical districts. We were surrounded by giant, modern-looking sky scrapers (including the 4th and 13th tallest in the world). We were a short walk from the Bund, a popular river walk where one can catch impressive views of the Shanghai skyline. We were also not far from the French Concession, an quaint historical district.

Yunnan Temple area

Shanghai is also… freakin’ huge. It’s the largest in the world by population in the city proper, the size of New York City and Mexico City combined. It’s also the most developed city in China.

Despite being located in the highly-developed, exorbitantly wealthy, flashy, glittery city center, the 10×10 block area around our hostel had a much more of a old-school China feel to it. There were open air markets, corner shops, and street vendors plying all sorts of bizarre goods and foods. Across from our hostel, one of the fish markets was selling shrimp the size of a hot dog bun.

Seafood shop

On our first day, we spent most of the day walking around. We tour the Yunnan Gardens and Temple, a Taoist temple not far from our hostel. The detail of the artwork in the temple was amazingly intricate. The old school Chinese architecture was fascinating. They all have the tiered roofs with the flared corners, just like in the movies. After exploring the temple, we walked to the Bund and took in the Shanghai skyline.

The score…

Hyndses: 1
Shanghai: 0

Yunnan Temple ceiling

Yunnan Temple area

It also happened to be Chinese National Day while we visited there. Like Chuseok in Korea, it’s the major holiday for the year in China. The throngs of people were overwhelming. In fact, they got so thick that the army actually began to commandeer various intersections just to direct traffic. Crazy! Oh, speaking of weird things that would never happen in the States, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are illegal in China. After talking to someone at our hostel, she informed us that you could access a mirror site for Facebook at f2.prx.com, but this only worked for the first two days before it was shut down.

The army directing traffic

Later that evening we found a street with tons of street food vendors on it. We met a group of Mexican tourists who had just purchased some fried snake. The shop owner killed, cleaned and cooked the snake right in front of us. The group shared it with us. The snake was a little tough and very bony  but tasted fine. Then again, I’m pretty sure anything tastes good when you batter and deep fry it.

Hyndses: 2
Shanghai: 0

Fortunately, these weren’t on our plane. Neither was Samuel L. Jackson.

Sara eating snake with our Mexican friends.

We spent the next few days exploring more temples, strolling through parks, and eating more street food. We attempted to go to a water town, which is a traditional Chinese village that’s over 1500 years old. When we got to the train station, however, the ticket vendor informed us we needed our passport to purchase a ticket. Oops. So we explored elsewhere instead. We checked out the Jing’an Temple and the Jade Buddhist Temple. Both were amazing. I was fascinated by the beautiful wood and the woodwork in each of them.

Hyndses: 2
Shanghai: 1

Jing’an Temple

Jade Buddhist Temple

We also found an incredible kebab stand at the end of our block. The guys who owned it were Middle Eastern. You could buy lamb kebabs and flatbread. The line stretched around the corner. We went and saw a Chinese acrobat show, too. Sara can share more, but I’ll just mention that I never knew people could be so bendy! It was pretty crazy.

Hyndses: 3
Shanghai: 1

Can’t believe that I’m sharing a kebab with the most beautiful girl in the room.

On our last day, we tried preserved egg. It’s a food that I’ve wanted to try since I first learned about it. Preserved eggs, or century eggs, are made buy burying an egg in a mixture of clay, ash, lime, salt, and rice hulls for several months. The severe alkalinity of this mixture makes the yolk turn grey, and the white turn a translucent, mottled brown. The outsides are often etched with crystalline patterns that resemble frost or snowflakes. They taste like… eggs… at first. Then they slowly begin to taste more and more like rotty fart. Yeah, I think I prefer snake to this. But hey, I’ve always wanted to try one. Now I have. No need to do that again!

Hyndses: 4
Shanghai: 1

Preserved egg

In a comedy of terrible mistakes, we missed our flight home by 5 minutes. I’m not going to go into the details too much, but basically, I misread the departure time, and we (being so used to European travel) arrived only 1 hour early instead of 2, and got a little lost in the airport. We ended up catching a flight to Seoul and taking the KTX (high speed train) back to Ulsan. We finally crashed into bed around 2:30. I had to wake up and teach the next morning. Yech. Fortunately, the airline should refund us for the flight we missed, so that’s something at least.

Hyndses: 4
Shanghai: 3 (one point for each of us)

So, overall, we had a good time. Saw some crazy stuff and ate some crazy food. We had a few misadventures, but those were outweighed by the adventures. We enjoyed Shanghai, but really want to do Beijing soon.

Om-noming some street food.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Advertisements