Wednesday, March 30, 2011

And I thought Widener Library was cool

I like libraries.  I made my decision to attend Harvard after a tour of Widener Library’s underground stacks and I regretted going to Stanford Law School when I saw that Yale’s library still had its original card catalogs.  Yes, I absolutely understand what this says about me.

Anyway…obviously I was up for a trip to Haein-sa Temple when I read that it has one of the largest Buddhist libraries of woodblock scriptures.  It took 16 years for monks to inscribe the Tripitaka Koreana, one of the most sacred Buddhist texts, onto more than 81,000 beautifully carved wooden blocks.  The workmanship is flawless – almost giving them the appearance of being machine made – and they line the walls of a 15th century hall, equally impressive for its sophisticated storage techniques.  Back in the 70s, the South Korean president had a modern, purpose-built facility constructed to house the scriptures but the project was abandoned when test woodblocks started growing mildew.  Turns out all those technological advances we’ve made can’t surpass in sophistication a simple building with different-sized windows meant to minimize variations in humidity and charcoal placed beneath the clay floor.  A bit humbling when you think about it.

The scriptures were the main event, but it didn’t hurt that the librarian was almost as cute (in an old, wrinkled way) as a librarian I knew at Widener and that the temple itself is stunning.  More roof artistry, a fresh-water brook running into a drinking fountain and lotus lanterns you attach prayers to.  If only they would have issued me a library card…

Sunday, March 27, 2011

I’ll see your week and raise you another week

In our experience, capital cities rarely warrant more than a few days of any travel schedule so we were surprised when LP recommended a visit of 5-7 days in Seoul.  Well, after our original 3-night stay turned into 6, we’ll even go one step further and say that Seoul is a city you could easily get lost in for a couple of weeks.

We climbed old fortress walls to the top of Mt Bugaksan where we were rewarded with stunning views of the city and made a new Korean friend who acted as our tour guide for the rest of the day (pointing out the nearby presidential palace, the bullet holes in a nearby tree and more).  In return, I promised to give his daughter advice on going to U.S. law school.  Little does he know that I’ll likely persuade her that law school is a waste of time and his dreams of a comfortable retirement will be crushed.

We stared in awe at the timbered roofs painted with brightly-colored, delicate patterns in the 15th century Changdeokgung Palace.  The side trip to the “Secret Garden” was a lot less rewarding and with an additional entrance fee of 5000 won ($5) a piece mere highway robbery  (okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration but it certainly wasn’t worth the hype in negative 2 degree weather without an English-speaking guide).

We went to a performance of JUMP, a non-verbal show with Marx Brothers-like slapstick interwoven with unbelievably impressive martial arts, wandered through the Ssamzie-gil art gallery where I only bought one pair of earrings despite wanting 50 and admired the tokens of love that teenage Koreans leave at Seoul Tower in the form of wall tiles and locks with love notes attached.

We’ve also fallen in love with heated floors, hand sanitizers in the subway, dumplings made by Korean grandmothers and getting lost in small alleyways full of hidden treasures.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The closest we’ll ever come to active landmines

If you ever feel you need a healthy dose of reality to believe that the world is not always a warm and fuzzy place then the Korean DMZ (De-Militarized Zone) should be first on your list of places to visit.  You may vaguely remember hearing a lot about the end of the Cold War when you were 10, but here its vestiges are alive and well.  Our USO tour bus left Seoul early and took us as far as the American-South Korean base and from there we switched to a military bus to take us through to the Joint Security Area (JSA).  Crossing a seemingly innocuous bridge our army host told us that the concrete walls were anti-tank pylons, the fields next to us were land-mined, and the barbed wire fence right after it was electrified.  I nearly choked on my Hello Kitty lollipop.

As he went on, we were surprised to learn that there were villages in the DMZ, one belonging to the South Koreans and the other to the North.  In the South, villagers plant rice fields and, aside from enduring very strict curfews, lead what sounds like a normal life (albeit with the constant threat of war breaking out around them).  In the North, Propaganda Village actually remains empty although the official position of the North Korean government is that it is a thriving 200-person collective farm.  Until 2004, loudspeakers in the empty village blared communist ideology with the aim of convincing South Koreans to defect to the North – thus the nickname. 

The JSA, however, was certainly the most unsettling place.  The area is divided up into buildings that belong to both North and South Koreans with shared conference rooms in the center.*  From the South Korean side, soldiers remain at a ready in a modified taekwondo stance, fists clenched and partially concealed behind buildings making them more difficult targets for sudden gunfire.  On the opposite side, two North Koreans march from behind pillars and frequently take out binoculars to examine each and every face in your tour group.  It’s hard not to imagine a huge wall inside that now has our pictures on it.

The tour finished at the Third Tunnel.  As North Koreans defected to the South, some of them carried information pertaining to the location of huge tunnels that the North had built under the DMZ with Seoul as the final target.  Unlike the miniature Cύ Chi tunnels built by the Vietnamese, these are proper tunnels (midgets like Tia don’t even need to duck).   Some of the rocks still have the black paint applied by the North Koreans to corroborate their claim that the tunnels were just old coal mines if ever accidentally discovered.  Four tunnels have currently been found but the South Koreans suspect that there might be many more.  It’s like living in a 1950s spy novel!

In stark contrast to the palpable tension is the comical game of one-upmanship.  South Korea constructs a building meant to host reuniting families and North Korea puts up another building just opposite that’s taller.  South Korea raises a 100 ft. flagpole and North Korea erects one that’s twice as tall (with a 600 lb. flag flying!).  If there are people who believe that modern nation states don’t do their fair share of primitive penis waving this should dispel that illusion. 

Saddest part: the perfectly new, fully functional railroad station at Dorasan with train times appearing on the electronic board but whose track ends just before the DMZ.   Families wait in the lobby praying to be reunited with their families stuck in the North.  Absolutely heartbreaking.

* - In the past, the buildings were scattered around the entire compound but that didn’t end so well (ref. axe murder incident).

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Polite people + PETA pleasures = paradise

Holy crap, we didn't think it was possible to be blown away by any place anymore, but Seoul knocked our socks off. From the first moment we arrived in the city by airport bus, freezing cold and lost, a kindly businessman out on a date stopped and asked, in perfect English, whether we needed help finding our way. Call me cynical but the last time a friendly couple offered to "help" it was to charge me to fix a 3-inch spike they themselves put in the tire of my sister's car. Evidently, this guy had nothing up his sleeve because his directions got us to our guesthouse in no time. And this continued to happen every time we paused to gain our bearings, with one gentleman looking so genuinely concerned for us that we started to walk decisively just to alleviate the guilt we felt for worrying him so much. At one point all of Starbucks stopped working to look up directions to Changuimun for us on their mobile devices and a girl volunteered to walk us five minutes down the street (in her apron) to the actual bus station! Unbelievable.
Another old man approached us idling in a park and, upon finding out we were from the States, told us how thankful (pronounced tank-ful) he was for the Americans who came to help South Korea in the 1950s when they were starving. I didn't think anyone liked America anymore!*

Wandering through Insadong back alleys, we came across a number of appealing restaurants and found ourselves trying to match Korean characters on Lonely Planet with the signs in front of us (with little success). Choosing Yetchatjip, a traditional tea house, we ascended rickety wooden steps and slipped off our shoes before seating ourselves on floor mats. The chrysanthemum tea was divine, the double harmony tea more like sweetened motor oil. But the ambience couldn't be beaten: songbirds chirped above our heads and flitted freely from perch to perch in the tea house. We don't know how they kept them from crapping in the teacups but somehow it worked.

Our next stop brought us to Sanchon, a restaurant whose menu is based on food Buddhist monks would eat: a vegetarian's paradise, like much of Seoul. Twenty courses of mostly unidentifiable greens, including traditional kimchi (pickled cabbage), radishes, porridge, soybean stew, wild roots, fried kelp, and something I like to call mushroom twizzlers. All of it may have turned me on to vegetarianism (and simultaneously turned Tia off).

Also, everyone here speaks basic English and many speak well. Those who can only manage a few words, apologize (in English) and make us feel like real asses for not doing a better job of learning their language. It's surprising that few other Americans have discovered this place.

* - to be fair, he said the older generation was thankful but that the younger generation didn't feel the same way.

Friday, March 18, 2011

How did we end up in Vegas?

Before we started this trip, Juan spent an afternoon creating a complicated Excel spreadsheet containing a list of every country in the world and a column for each of us showing how many we had both visited, how many we would visit together on this trip, and so on.  Obviously, my trip with Danielle gives me a serious numerical advantage and Juan is quick to complain when we go visit a country he’s been to already but I haven’t.

So, in the spirit of love and compromise, I agreed to take a day-trip to Macau with Juan.  I visited Macau on my boondoggle trip to Hong Kong in 2005 and really enjoyed the old Portuguese squares, free almond biscuit samples, and my daring jump off the Macau tower.  I’d been warned how much it had changed but I still wasn’t prepared to arrive in Vegas. 

Apparently, Macau overtook Vegas in terms of gambling revenue back in 2007.  All the big name casinos line what looks like a miniature version of the Vegas strip.  They have the weird water shows with accompanying opera music that the Bellagio popularized, free shuttle buses from the ferries to facilitate easy access to their casinos and overpriced food.  The only thing they don’t quite have yet, is girls walking around in scantily clad outfits bringing you drinks.  Probably because the Chinese take their gambling seriously.  This is a place to win money – not to drink free drinks, ogle women and party at nightclubs.   I didn’t see a single Chinese gambler having an alcoholic drink.  They order a limeade and hunker down to focus on the game in front of them.  Does this mean that Macau now does Vegas better than Vegas?

To be fair, some of the beautiful Portuguese architecture still exists – the ruins of St. Paul’s cathedral are still well-preserved and the mosaic streets are in great condition.  Most importantly, almond biscuits are still free.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Off with the rose-colored glasses!

In Tia’s attempt to adhere to self-imposed, journalistic deadlines, she’s neglected to mention a couple important things in Hong Kong.

See the door in this picture? Tia didn’t either. Caitlin and David’s building came complete with a gym that, aside from having an indoor pool where a smiling, old Chinese man with a whistle watches you do laps (I was assured he was a lifeguard), was enclosed by immaculate glass walls. So clean, in fact, that Tia made a full velocity attempt to disbelieve their existence and now has a walnut-sized nugget on her forehead to show for it.
Eschewing said gym, I went for a run on the 4K loop Caitlin suggested that skirted a neighboring mountain. Trees rose from both sides of the trail and construction workers gently carved perfect Chinese characters into bamboo stalks for some unknown purpose. Only signs every 100m punctured this tranquility by warning of some deranged individual leaving piles of poisoned bbq pork for unsuspecting dogs.* Weird. Before I knew it, I was in central Hong Kong and realized that the track wasn’t going around the mountain. Two hours later and many failed attempts to find my starting point, I hobbled back to the apartment where Tia informed me that Caitlin never said it was a loop. They have both since adopted the phrase “10 mile run” as code meaning that David or I haven’t been listening to anything they’ve just said (apparently, this is a common occurrence).

* - a quick Google search reveals that a serial dog killer has been on the loose since 1989!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Hong Kong has wooed me once again

Back when Herbert Smith (a law firm, not a boy) was wooing me, I took an incredibly pricey trip to Hong Kong.  I stayed in the Mandarin Oriental, ate at all the fanciest restaurants, took trips to both Shenzhen and Macau, and generally lived the high life without having to spend a penny.  Not an easy trip to top, yet somehow we managed it…

It might have something to do with the fact that Caitlin, one of my best friends from law school, lives in Hong Kong with her husband and knows ALL the best places to go.  Or that I got to catch up with Jake Turner, the man who made my original Hong Kong trip such a success, and I still adore him as much as I did six years ago.  Or that I can fit into Caitlin’s clothes and opening her closets is sort of what I imagine heaven might look like.  But, whatever it was, Hong Kong could not have been a bigger success.

We had some amazing meals:  succulent Italian at 208, decadent fusion French at Joel Robuchon, fresh seafood in Sai Kung (we actually picked our food out of big tanks in front of the restaurant), Shanghai dumplings at Dragon-i and delicious Italian tapas at Enoteca.  Thank God for Caitlin’s clothes in most of these instances or I likely would have face-controlled the whole group at the door.

We also packed in a hike on Dragon’s Back (who knew Hong Kong had so much green space!)...

...stared in wonder at some of the crazy things being sold on the streets... on some horses at the Wednesday night races (Champagne Days and Gilded Flight let us down, unfortunately)...

...had Juan fitted for a proper suit...

...and generally got lost in the wonders of this vibrant city.

Hong Kong is officially on my list of places I’m willing to live in next.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

I’m pretty sure there’s a Jessica Alba flick about this…

Where do we always find ourselves ending up on our way to somewhere else?  Yep, you guessed it:  London.  This time, though, we came to have Tia’s eye checked out.  Ever since Colombia she tells it to look one direction and it takes a little while to get there.  Trying to explain this in Spanish or French has only yielded a prescription for allergy medicine. 

Of course, there’s plenty to do in this little hamlet, too.  We kicked it at Sadler’s Wells, one of our favorite theatres, and watched a work based on Japanese butoh (a.k.a. “dance of darkness”) where sand fell in streams from the rafters and a man underwent a very slow transformation into a centaur.  And, despite having live horses on stage that were better actors than Keira Knightley, Tia fell asleep.  So much for high culture…

Tom and Kiki, our lovely friends, let us crash at their place in Shoreditch and we did everything possible to tear Tom away from his computer to drink more wine with us (he’s become terribly adult in recent years).  Kiki, on the other hand, has no such predilections and joined us for dim sum at Shanghai Blues and introduced us to a fantastic brunch at the very hard-to-find Rochelle’s Canteen. 

Little by little, I will gain back that weight I lost in Africa.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

On a totally unrelated note...

I am completely obsessed with this commercial.  I've been practicing on annoying people (the force as mute button would be awesome), getting public transportation to arrive faster and basically ordering Juan around the house.  No luck yet but practice makes perfect, right?

Saturday, March 5, 2011

This is serious research

We know a lot more about Bordeaux wines that we did a month ago...

but our livers are probably glad to be leaving Bordeaux.