Northern Ireland: Game of Thrones

Regardless of your feelings about the series finale, one cannot argue that Game of Thrones failed to leave a lasting mark on the collective TV viewing audience around the world. Even if you are not a Game of Thrones fan, I think you can still enjoy the photos and descriptions here since I’m telling my story, not JRR Martin’s. I enjoyed the books a lot (wish he’d finish!) and I like most of the TV show as well, even many parts that diverged greatly from the books. However, this is not a blog about a TV show, it is about Ireland: the museum exhibit in Belfast, and the outdoor landmarks which would are enjoyable on their own, minus the CGI and regardless of their attachment to the show.


Game of Thrones Touring Exhibition: Belfast

At the time I was in Ireland, the GoT Touring Exhibition was in the TEC in Belfast. I understand that it was in Belfast from April – September of 2019. I was told that there will be some part of the exhibit which will permanently stay in Belfast due to it size, but as I write this, there’s zero information on the TEC website because it’s all closed due to Covid-19. Additionally, the exhibition’s tour schedule is currently suspended for the same reason. I’d love to be able to tell you where to go to see it, but I can’t.

Warning: there are SPOILERS. If for some reason you are living under a rock and haven’t seen season 8 (or already had it spoiled for you) and still want to experience that… uh, experience, then maybe just look at the pictures or skip to the outdoor part of the GoT sightseeing.

I booked tickets well in advance because I was warned it might be sold out and we were on a bit of a schedule. There’s plenty of parking at the TEC and a place to get a cup of coffee and a snack in the lobby. It was such a relief to have an indoor activity on a rainy day. I got there before opening because I wanted to be in the door before the crowds arrived. There weren’t actually that many people there, but I’m still glad I went early because it was filling up by the time we left about 3 hours later.

The exhibit hall was enormous. It was divided into smaller rooms by theme and there was a suggested path to follow. There was a plethora of information about every item on display as well as knowledgeable staff everywhere, most of whom had worked on the show when it was being filmed and had personal on set anecdotes to share about the actors or scenes. Generally all of them were happy to have had the experience which made it nice to have the staff share fandom and enthusiasm.

Photos were allowed everywhere, but flash photography was forbidden and the lighting was very low, so most of my photos did not turn out terribly well, I’m afraid. Honestly, you can see wide shots of the costumes and props in the show, so the impressive part of the exhibit is being able to look at the close up details involved in the dresses, jewelry, weapons and other props that are never seen on screen, or shown for only fractions of a second. There are so many more things in the exhibit than I can show here, in part because no one wants to see that many photos and the rest because so many of my photos turned out blurry or dark or both.


The display starts by introducing the houses of Westeros and their relationships and fealty with a dazzling array of flowcharts accompanied by a variety of common or popular character costumes for the main houses.


It moves next into an area that replicates the Stark family crypt at Winterfell. I was told by the guide for this portion that these statues would not be moving on with the exhibition tour since they were too large and fragile. The room was dark and the statues lit moodily as though by torch light. It was a fun effect to walk through, but a frustrating one to photograph.


The third module gets into the further houses such as those of Dorne and the Iron Islands as well as Stannis Baratheon’s unholy union with Melisandre.

The fourth section is arguably the best. It’s a room full of dragon skulls, the very same ones Tyrion finds while under the palace in Kings Landing that belonged to the Targaryans of days past. I have rarely been so sad about low lighting, but it did make the skulls feel a little creepy and alive, and lived experience is always better than a photo. The skulls are seriously dinosaur sized. The smallest one could probably bite me in half, and the largest could swallow me whole. Standing up. Without opening it’s jaw all the way. So incredibly cool.


Following the dragon skulls were all things Mother of Dragons. Daenerys’ most iconic costumes and jewelry as well as models of the dragon eggs and baby dragons.


There’s an interactive display of the temple of the Faceless Men. Arya trained there, learning deep ancient secrets of how to assassinate people and then NEVER USED THEM. *sigh The display is still cool. You can pose for a photo and have your face digitally added to the wall of faces.


Next up is the Wall where John Snow joins the Night Watch to protect the realms against the coming of the Night King and his horde of walking dead that kill all the Dothraki and then… shatter?… when Arya stabs him, not using her Girl Has No Name skills in any way… ugh. Look at the shiny costumes!


The final display is the Iron Throne in King’s Landing with some of the later season costumes arrayed around it. In addition to all the beautiful set pieces and costumes, there are several interactive stations where you can pose with Arya’s sword Needle, John’s sword Longclaw, the Wall (a cute trick with mirrors to make it look like you’re holding on to a rope for dear life), and the Iron Throne itself. You can walk both forward and backward through the display, so I was able to double back and have a closer look at a few things. All in all, a lovely experience combining museum quality displays and fantastical world building.


On the way out, one of the staff told us to keep an eye out in the parking lot for the King’s Landing set. He implied that one day it might be open to the public as part of a permanent exhibit, but not yet. I tried to find any information about it online, but again, since tourism is closed, there’s no telling if or when the full size set that was used to film the burning of King’s Landing in season 8 will ever be a public attraction or not.
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The Film Locations

A large number of the stunning landscapes of the show are part of Northern Ireland. There are scads of websites dedicated to helping people find and enjoy GoT filming locations. Many of the locations are empty fields where this or that battle was filmed, while others had significant CGI added in post production. There are specialized tours where you can play dress up and act out scenes from the show. There’s even a very expensive opportunity to spend some time with the actual animals who played the Stark children’s direwolves.

*The photos that follow are a mix of screenshots from Game of Thrones and my own photos of the locations I visited for comparison and contrast.*

Dark Hedges

This was probably the shortest stop and yet the most beautiful. The Dark Hedges were a popular site in Northern Ireland even before the show. They also have the honor of being one of the only locations that was not CGI enhanced and are therefore quite recognizable as the King’s Road in seasons 1 and 2, as well as the place where Arya Stark escaped from King’s Landing.

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From the outside, the dark hedges just look like a little stand of trees in between two large fields. The short stretch of road runs through a private farm, and although the patient farmer has to put up with tourists on the public road, he also seems to have a good sense of humor about the situation. Busloads of tourists come through both on Game of Thrones themed tours and on regular tours of the area because it’s famous for more than just it’s show appearance. As a result, parking is scarce. There was supposedly a parking lot some distance away, but everyone simply parked on the side of the road that ran perpendicular to the hedges. There’s not supposed to be any cars on the hedge road itself, but of course there are always people who think the rules don’t apply to them.


It’s a short stop for most tours, so if photography is your goal, you might want to go on your own. I only spent about 30 minutes there and took a lot of photos which I was eventually able to parlay into a version that makes it look totally empty! Yay, photoshop? Otherwise, it’s very easy to see how true to life this set is between the show and the reality.

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Downhill Demesne & Mussenden Temple

Here is the filming location of Dragonstone in Season 2. Downhill Strand is the place where the seven gods of Westeros were sacrificed by Lady Melisandre. Dragonstone was the ancestral home of House Targaryen and current stronghold of the Stannis Baratheon. The scene in question is filmed at night on the beach below, so there’s no real way to see it in the show. Nonetheless, it seems that the tourism board has installed statues of the seven on the beach for eager fans to see. I didn’t make it down to the beach, but rather came through the Downhill Demesne gardens and grounds. If you want to see the beach, I think the A2 road goes there pretty directly.

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We entered via Bishop’s Gate and enjoyed the gardens with a variety of flowering bushes and trees, water features and stonework. Following the trail, we came upon an open area where the ruins of the old manor stood. Finally, walking all the way to the cliff edge, I found Mussenden Temple. Contrary to it’s name, it was never a temple, merely modeled after one. It was in fact a library. It is possible to enter the “temple” during the day, but by the time we arrived it was locked up for the night.

Dunluce (again)

I did not actually realize it at the time, since it didn’t show up on my initial searches for GoT locations, but Dunluce Castle was also Pyke Castle of House Grayjoy on the Iron Islands. I had to look it up and it turns out this is one of the locations that was extreme CGI. I would say more that Dunluce was the inspiration rather than the location, but hey, you gotta start somewhere. I wrote more about Dunluce in my description of the Causeway Route.

Castle Ward

This was one of the places I was most looking forward to seeing, and turned into the greatest disappointment. It’s advertised as “the real life Winterfell” and while it was technically the place where Winterfell was filmed… CGI.

In all fairness, one of the reasons I did not enjoy the stop was that we were experiencing some of the hardest and most vicious rain of the entire trip that day. Ireland kind of always rains. For some reason, I thought that was like Seattle rain which is really just heavy mist and no native Seattlite owns an umbrella (at least not for rain). I had a travel umbrella and I had rain booties to keep my shoes dry and I thought that would be enough. Mostly it was. There was one terrible soaking I got while on a ferry, but other than that, I’d been mostly dry or at least only merely damp.

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Not so this day. The rain was opaque. It was as though the sky was trying to be the sea. In addition, the signage for where to go and park in the sprawling acreage of Castle Ward is not clear. I followed the signs for Winterfell and wound up in a very small parking lot which in retrospect might have been staff parking, but we were so lost by then that I just gave up and parked anyway. (Now I know we should have parked at the Shore Parking Lot, but it was not obvious in any way when we drove in that day) It turned out to still be a long walk from the trail head to the actual “Winterfell” area, and on a beautiful day, or even a merely drizzly day it probably would have been a lovely walk through the National Trust. It’s still very pretty, but it was harder to appreciate while wet.

Another reason I think I was disappointed is that I’ve been to Hobbiton in New Zealand. There are plenty of LOTR locations you can visit there that are just unchanged landscape and like Northern Ireland, they are beautiful and worth seeing, just… not like the movies. Hobbiton, on the other hand, was purpose built (twice) for the LOTR and Hobbit movies. Although the farmer who owned the land originally didn’t want permanent structures, after seeing the huge influx of tourism money, he decided to keep them after all.

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Thus, walking around Hobbiton, you feel like you are THERE. I knew that most of the locations I visited for GoT were not altered for the show or for tourism, but Winterfell was so highly advertised as this great experience, like being in Winterfell, stepping into the show, that I imagined it would be at least a little like Hobbiton, and give me a sense of being at the Stark family home.

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When I finally arrived at “Winterfell” I felt very let down. It looked like a reconstructed historical village, the kind that kids take school field trips to see. I expect that it was meant to be a replica of the original Castle Ward. It wasn’t ugly or anything, it just wasn’t at all like Winterfell.

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There are a ton of pay to play style activities at the Winterfell center. You can take an archery class, an axe throwing class, rent a bicycle and tour the park while wearing a cape and a special GoT messenger bag that purportedly takes you to 20 different filming locations within the grounds, most of which are “this tree” or “that field”. I don’t want to diminish from anyone who enjoys this kind of experience. If that is your jam, rock on. For me, a place has to be cool for more than just being the canvas on which CGI was painted. In addition, I was traveling with an older person who simply wasn’t up for lots of hikes or bikes.

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I wanted to simply see the grounds and enjoy the castle. The thing is… it’s not really there. The closest you come is one short tower and part of a wall that kind of look like Winterfell if you squint. In the courtyard there were a dozen or so cars and a huge tent, which made getting decent photos of the type that are shown on the website nearly impossible. This is the closest angle of any building that I found to resemble the castle on the show (show: top, reality: bottom). The resemblance is there, but the feel was lacking.

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In addition to the experience selling shops, there was a small art gallery and a gift shop. I spent a long time hiding in the replica ruins of an old mill waiting for another torrent to pass long enough to walk again. The rain was so extensive that the ground was almost entirely underwater.

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It just goes to show that managing expectations is extremely important. I think I would have been able to overlook the disappointment of either the weather or the failure to be anything like Winterfell, but I wasn’t able to overcome them both and I left feeling profoundly damp in shoes and spirits.

Inch Abbey

Thankfully, that day I had one more GoT location to visit, and it was the ruins of an old abby, which it’s almost impossible for me to feel let down by. The scene is where Robb Stark’s bannermen rallied to their leader after taking victory (and Jaime Lannister prisoner) at the Battle of the Whispering Wood. While Winterfell had made the cut onto my list because of my (mistaken) belief that it would be a grand immersive experience, Inch Abbey made the list just for being old ruins.

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The first traces of a sacred building on this site go all the way back to 800 C.E., although it is thought that the monestary of Inis Cumhscraigh (as it was called at the time) was mainly earth and wood, so little of it remains today. The beautiful stonework remains that makes this site stand out were not built until 1180-88. It remained an active catholic monastery until 1542 when Henry the Eighth left the Catholic church because he wanted a divorce and then forced everyone under his rule to become Church of England.

The rain had eased back significantly, and one of the local tour bus drivers even offered us spare ponchos as his passengers were offloading. The tour group was rather amusing, and seemed to be having an absolute blast. They were equipped with cloaks and replica swords which appeared to be blunt steel, not plastic or wood. The tour guide, like many of those working on GoT tourist sites, had been an extra on the show and enjoyed telling stories from being on set.

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They all gathered together and, at the guide’s prompting, everyone bent the knee to one lady, swords aloft and shouted “the queen in the north!”, echoing the original scene in which Robb was named such for the first time, but with a nod to the fact that Sansa (at that time) had taken up her brother’s title. I didn’t reach the group in time to catch that pose, but I did happen to get another that shows off their costumes and props. Once the group photos were over, they had a few minutes to go and take individual poses around the ruins before being herded back onto the bus.

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At one point the guide expressed a thought that had not occured to me as a fan, and I want to share that as well. I think a lot of fans were disappointed by the final battle of Winterfell because it was SO DARK (among other things, so many other things). The guide for the group that was at Inch Abbey that day had been an extra in the final battle and talked about the extreme conditions that the cast and crew worked in: not sleeping, being wet and cold all the time, running up and down over and over again until they were just physically wrecked. It was something he put a lot of work into and it was really hard for him to turn around and face the criticism online.


I still think the shows writers, producers, and cinematographers FAILED in every way for that scene, but I now I also think about all the people who didn’t have any creative control, or any idea what the final product would look like who were just excited to work on such a popular and groundbreaking show. In addition, the tragedy that is season 8 has not stopped most fans from continuing to love the series, the characters, and the world of Westeros. We complain a lot online, but I think it’s important to use fan voices to say thanks as well. So, thanks to all the cast and crew who worked their asses off and had no control over what happened in the scripting and editing process.


The group didn’t stay long, and soon we had the ruins to ourselves and I was able to tramp around with impunity, my umbrella enough to keep the now light rain off. The ruins themselves are stunning, and I think that the rain brought out the beautiful contrast of the stones and the grass that would not have been as strong on a sunny day. The stones themselves are fascinating as you can see the remnants of interior structures long since crumbled and it was exactly the kind of film location I had been hoping to see combining real life beauty with my fandom.

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Inch Abbey was the final stop on both my Game of Thrones self-tour, and the Northern Ireland portion of the road trip. We tried to go to Newgrange on the way back to Dublin, but there was a series of unfortunate events involving Germans and cars (why is it always Germans I have car problems with?) that only Lemony Snicket could possibly narrate which prevented us from doing so. I did learn that you have to go there and put your name on the wait list in person. You can’t make reservations ahead of time and you can’t go without signing up… so. This seems like an event that it might be easier to do with a tour group than on your own. Maybe next time? Meanwhile, I hope you enjoyed my sojourn through Northern Ireland, and I hope you’ll continue to join me as the story takes me back into the south.

 

Myths & Tales from China 10: The End

This is the tenth and final entry in my Chinese Myths series. All the traditional tales were translated by me in the era before Google Translate from children’s books that I got while traveling in China. These are the stories that the Chinese know and love the way that Westerners know and love the Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Many are now movies, tv shows, comic books and adaptations that are well worth partaking in. I hope that by reading my short translations, you have some more interest in and framework for appreciating Chinese art and cinema.


The Cowherd and the Weaving Maid

In Heaven, there lived an immortal fairy maiden named Zhi Nu, the Weaving Maid. She could use a magical thread to weave layer upon layer of beautiful clouds. These clouds could also change color with the seasons. She and another immortal, Qian Niu Xing who is Altair the Cowherd Star had a lot in common and fell in love. However, the Immortals of Heaven were not allowed to love one another without permission. After the Heavenly Mother, Wang Mu found out, she banished Qian Niu Xing to the human world. Zhi Nu missed him very much. All day long her face was washed in tears, and her eyebrows were knotted in worry.

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One day, several of the fairy maidens begged Queen Mother Wang Mu to let them go to the human world to play at Jade Lotus Pond and help Zhi Nu drive away her cares. Wang Mu agreed.

It is said that after Qian Niu Xing was banished to the human world he was reborn into a peasant family and named Niu Lang, which means Cowherd. After Niu Lang’s parents passed away, his older brother and his sister-in-law bullied him in earnest, drove him out of the house and only gave him one old cow. After that, Niu Lang and the Cow were dependant on one another to live.

Niu Lang cultivated some land to farm and built a house. Several years passed, and at last he had a small homestead. However, aside from the old Cow, there was only Niu Lang in the family home, and the days passed cold and lonely. In reality, the old Cow was actually the Star of the Celestial Golden Bull, Taurus who originally carried messages for Qian Niu Xing and Zhi Nu and was also banished from the Heavenly Court.

One day, the old Cow suddenly opened its mouth and spoke to Niu Lang, “Oh, Niu Lang, today the immortal fairy maidens will come down into the world to bathe in Jade Lotus Pond. If you go and hide the red robe of immortality, then the fairy it belongs to will become your wife.” Niu Lang was amazed and wonderingly asked, “Brother Cow, you can talk! Is what you say really true?” the Cow nodded its head. Niu Lang happily hurried to Jade Lotus Pond, hid in a thicket of reeds by the bank of the pond and waited for the maidens to arrive.

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Before long the beautiful fairies arrived as expected, floating in the air. They undressed and jumped into the clear water of the pond, bathing and chatting Then Niu Lang came out of the reed bed and carried off the red cloak of immortality. The fairy maidens saw that a human had come and quickly got dressed and flew away. Only one fairy couldn’t find her red robe and was unable to escape. That fairy maiden was Zhi Nu. When Zhi Nu saw that her own cloak of immortality was in the hand of a young man, she became shy and nervous. As soon as Niu Lang saw Zhi Nu he was attracted by her, and felt like he recognized her from a long time ago. He stepped out and sincerely requested that Zhi Nu be his wife. Zhi Nu looked up and saw that Niu Lang was really her own Qian Niu Xing whom she had missed day and night, and was both surprised and happy, so she nodded her head, blushing and agreed.

Zhi Nu became Niu Lang’s wife, and the two of them loved each other and were kind to one another. Nine years passed. They had a pair of daughters and their days passed happily.

One day, Niu Lang hurried home from tilling the fields and spoke sadly to Zhi Nu, “The old Cow has died, but before he passed Death’s door, he told me to take his hide and if something ever happens to drape it over my shoulders and then I would be able to fly up to Heaven.” Zhi Nu heard this and thought it was strange, but still let Niu Lang keep the Cow’s hide and bury the old Cow properly.

Suddenly, the air was filled with a fierce wind, and many soldiers came down from the Heavens, and without a word, they grabbed Zhi Nu and flew straight back to Heaven. In fact, When Queen Mother Wang Mu found out that Zhi Nu went down to the mortal world to get married, she was enraged and sent the Celestial Soldiers to go and bring her back. Zhi Nu cried out anxiously, “Niu Lang, put on the Cow’s hide!”

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Niu Lang quickly put both his children in wicker baskets, carried them on a pole across his shoulders, put on the Cow’s hide and flew up to heaven after her. Niu Lang was about to overtake Zhi Nu when Wang Mu suddenly pulled out her golden hair pin and with it, drew a line between them. In a split second, there appeared a huge river surging between them, separating them completely.

Zhi Nu gazed toward the opposite bank with Niu Lang and their children and cried broken-hearted. Niu Lang and the children also wept bitterly as if they were dying. Queen Mother Wang Mu saw this scene and didn’t have the heart to go through with it. So she agreed to let Niu Lang and the children stay in Heaven, and allow them to be a whole family for the first week of the seventh month once every year.

Since then, Niu Lang and his daughters have lived in Heaven, gazing at Zhi Nu from across the great river through Heaven, the Milky Way, separating them. The first week of the seventh month every year thousands and thousands of black billed magpies fly in and make a bridge across the Milky Way allowing them to come together. It is said that if you listen quietly and carefully, you can still hear them endlessly speaking words of love to each other.

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Wang Di Becomes a Cuckoo

Very early in history, the people on the Western embankment of the Shu Kingdom mostly made their living by fishing. They arrived in the wind and departed in the waves; it was very dangerous. If there was a fierce wind or torrential rain, there was no way to go to sea, and many people would go hungry. Days passed in great difficulty.

One day, a strange man suddenly fell from the sky. He was called Du Yu and claimed to have the solution for dealing with the natural disasters. He taught people how to cultivate a wild area for farming and to plant grains and vegetables. Under Du Yu’s command, people were industrious and hardworking, until at last they made the desolate Shu lands become productive and abundant fertile lands. Everyone was completely grateful, and unanimously chose him to serve as the King of Shu, known as Wang Di, or Hope Emperor.

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However good times can’t last forever, one year the rains were especially large, and the river water overflowed. At that time, one person called Bieling requested an audience with Wang Di, and said that he could rule the water. So Wang Di sent him to manage the flood. Bieling led the common people to fight bravely for several years, and as expected they completely controlled the flooding. Because of his meritorious deeds controlling the waters, Wang Di let the title of King be given to him, and be known as Cong Di. He continued to lead the Shu people to excel at irrigation and waterworks, to open more land for farming, causing the Shu people to live happy lives.

But as time went on, Cong Di became prideful and arrogant, thus not concerned with the pain and suffering of the common people. After Wang Di found out, he was burning with anxiety, and decided to go into the palace to advice Cong Di. After the common people heard this, they followed one after another behind Wang Di, wanting to go into town together and see Cong Di. Cong Di saw this situation and was worried that Wang Di would take back the title of King, so he ordered the city gates to be shut.

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Wang Di had no way into the city, so he changed into a cuckoo bird, flew onto a large tree in the Shu Palace Imperial Gardens, and cried in a loud voice, “People are precious! People are precious!” Cong Di heard the cuckoo’s plaintive call, and made up his mind to improve. The cuckoo flew out to the fields, calling nonstop, “Cuckoo! Cuckoo!” urging people to master farming seasons, to work diligently plowing and planting. The common people knew that the Cuckoo was Wang Di Du Yu transformed, so they called it the Du Cuckoo. Du Cuckoo cried day and night, every cry shed a drop of blood, dropped on the ground and gave rise to a cluster of red flowers, people call this kind of flower the Du Cuckoo Flower, and we know it as a Rhododendron.


The Story of Ashima

Once upon a time, there was a place called A-Zhaodi, where the poverty stricken Gelu Reming family birthed a beautiful daughter. Father and Mother hoped that she would be a precious shining thing like gold, so they gave her the name Ashima, which means “gold”.

Ashima gradually grew up; her beauty was like that of the gorgeous meiyi flower. She could sing and was good at dancing; many young men were all fond of her. She fell in love with her childhood friend and sweetheart, the kind and loving orphan, A-Hei, and promised she would not fail to marry him. At the Torch Festival one year, she and clever brave A-Hei got engaged.

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One day, Ashima was hurrying down the street when A-Zhi, the son of the A-Zhaodi rich man, Rebubala, took a fancy to her. A-Zhi wanted to take Ashima for a wife, so he went back home to plead with his father to find a matchmaker in order to propose marriage. Rebubala requested the powerful and influential matchmaker Hai Re to go ahead to discuss marriage. The matchmaker first used sweet speech and honeyed words to persuade Ashima to wed A-Zhi, later on he used threats and bribes, but it was all to no avail, Ashima simply would not agree.

In no time at all, autumn arrived, the water grew cold and the grass dried up in A-Zhaodi, the sheep could no longer eat their fill, A-Hei had no choice but to bid farewell to Ashima, driving the flock of sheep to far away Dian Nan to graze. After A-Hei left, Rebubala dispatched a hired thug and his own household servant to capture Ashima and force her to get married. From beginning to end, Ashima did not comply; she refused to marry A-Zhi. Rebubala flew into a humiliated rage and ordered his servant to use the lash to flog Ashima ferociously. Finally he commanded her to be placed in a dark prison. Ashima suffered the worst hardships, but she believed without a doubt that A-Hei would certainly come to save her.

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One day, A-Hei was in the middle of grazing the sheep when a town crier from A-Zhaodi found him and told him the news that Ashima had been captured. A-Hei immediately spurred his horse into action, he traveled at full speed day and night, and hurriedly returned home to rescue Ashima. He arrived at the entrance of Rebubala’s home, A-Zhi, who had securely closed the main gate and would not let him in, suggested that he and A-Hei should sing a duet, and only if A-Hei beat him would he allow him to enter the gate. A-Zhi sat on the upstairs of the gate and A-Hei sat beneath a tree, both men faced off singing, they dueled for three days and three nights. A-Zhi lacked talent and had little knowledge, the more he sang the fewer lyrics he had, he quickly became red in the face and angry, his voice became more and more unpleasant to hear. However, the more that talented and knowledgeable A-Hei sang the more energetic he became, his face was suffused with a smile, his singing voice was strong and clear. A-Hei won at last, A-Zhi had no choice but to let him through the main gate. But A-Zhi wanted to make it hard in all respects, so he suggested to A-Hei that they compete at chopping trees, catching trees and planting seeds. How could A-Zhi have A-Hei’s skill at this workmanship. A-Hei excelled over A-Zhi in all these things. Rebubala flew into a humiliated rage, and had his servant release three tigers to pounce on A-Hei. A-Hei drew out his bow and arrows, and shot at the tigers, whoosh whoosh whoosh three arrows in a row, and shot three tigers dead, then rescued Ashima.

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Rebubala father and son watched anxiously as A-Hei led Ashima away. They refused to accept it and thought of a completely heartless evil plan. They knew that A-Hei and Ashima would have to pass by twelve cliff bases on their way home, so they collaborated with the cliff spirits to change the small river at the base of the cliffs into a large river. They hoped to drown A-Hei and Ashima.

Rebubala father and son brought along their servant; they overtook A-Hei and Ashima and arrived at the river before them. They pushed aside the stones for walking across the small river and let the water out. When A-Hei and Ashima got to the river a surging flood arrived as well. Ashima was swept up into a whirlpool, and soon no sign of her could be seen. A-Hei, struggling up the bank, looked everywhere for Ashima. He searched and searched, he searched until the big river became a small river, but he never found Ashima. He cried out in a loud voice, “Ashima! Ashima!” but he heard only the twelve cliff tops answering, “Ashima! Ashima!” 

Actually, a girl named Ying Shan’ge on the top of the twelve cliffs saw Ashima carried off by the flood, so she jumped into the whirlpool and rescued Ashima. And together, living under the cliffs, Ashima became the goddess Shou Pai Shen (the Echo goddess). From then on, whatever you shout to her, she answers back to you, her voice forever echoes in the Stone Forest. 

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Note: Ashima was made into a very famous film in 1964. It’s a little hard to watch because it’s a weird cross between a colorized silent film and a musical. Yeah, that makes no sense to me either, but see for yourself? The story is about the Sani ethnic minority, hence the distinctive clothing.


The Story of the Twelve Zodiac Animals

Legend has it that a long long time ago the Jade Emperor decided to choose a few animals to grant immortal status, to represent the Zodiac of the mortal world. All the animals could go to the Heavenly Temple to be chosen. They would be ranked according to the order in which they arrived. And what’s more, only the first twelve to arrive would be chosen.

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Back then, Mouse and Cat were great friends; they agreed to go to the Heavenly Temple together. However, when the appointed day arrived, Mouse didn’t go call on Cat, and instead hurried to the Heavenly Temple on his own.

On the road, Mouse ran into Cow. Cow took such large strides forward as he walked that Mouse ran along gasping for breath until he caught up with Cow. Mouse thought to himself: “The road is still far, and I already can’t run any faster, what should I do?” He rolled his eyes, thought of a plan, and said, “Brother Cow, how boring is this walk, I’ll come sing for you.” Cow said, “Alright.”

But after waiting a while, he still didn’t hear any singing, Cow asked, “Hey, how come you aren’t singing?” Mouse said, “I am singing, how come you can’t hear me? Oh, my voice is too soft. How about this, I’ll sit astride your neck and sing, then you’ll be able to hear.” Cow said, “Alright.” Mouse then climbed up Cow’s neck, and made Cow carry him. Now he could save his breath. He bobbed his head and began to sing in earnest.

As Cow listened to the singing he also let loose his legs and put all his effort into running. He ran until he saw the place to enroll/sign-up. The other animals had not yet arrived, then happily he cried, “Moo! I am number…” Cow hadn’t finished speaking when Mouse leapt down from atop Cow’s neck and got in front of Cow. As a result, Mouse came in first, and Cow came in second. Not long after, Tiger and Rabbit arrived one after the other.

Twelve kinds of animals quickly filled the line, they were: Mouse, Cow, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig.

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Cat waited at home a long time but Mouse never came to call on him. He had no choice but to go to the Heavenly Temple on his own. As soon as he hurried over, the twelve Zodiac limit was already filled. Cat got angry and when he saw Mouse, he pounced to bite him, and so it continues to this very day.

Notes: In some versions of this story, mouse meets cat and they both ride on cow until mouse pushes cat off into the water about halfway. Either way, cat gets betrayed by mouse and ends up eternally angry about it. Because of translation difficulties, the signs of mouse and cow are often seen in English as rat and ox, but it is the same thing in Chinese.

Appropriately, 2020 is the year of the rat (mouse) so it’s a great story to end on, showing how mouse became the first of the 12 zodiac animals.

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Northern Island: Natural Beauty

Northern Ireland is stunning. I was incredibly lucky to have very nice weather on the days we were exploring the country and the coast, but I can’t imagine it is any less stunning when it’s cloudy and ominous than when it’s sunny and blue and you can see Scotland from the cliffs. This isn’t only wild, untamed scenery. It includes some ruins which have begun to merge with the landscape and some cultivated gardens that show the lovely flowers to their best advantage. In the tradition of saving the best for last, you have to wait till the end to see the Giant’s Causeway.


In Between

There are places in Ireland that everyone wants to go to, me too, but driving from one of those to the next could mean endless hours of highways OR it could mean tiny back roads and mini stop offs to lesser known, but still beautiful sights. Guess which one I chose? Here are a few of the in between places that were added to the itinerary purely because we wanted somewhere to stop between points A and B.

Grianan of Aileach

I almost forgot about this stop. For shame. It was a bit of an afterthought on the day  we visited as well. On the road between the Belleek Pottery factory and the city of Derry, we drove up a little side road to find this ring fort. The view from the top is breathtaking, and it’s just my type of mountain top that you can drive up and park on top! There were not too many other people out, but there was a small cafe style food truck hoping to sell some refreshments. There’s no toilet facilities however, so we declined.

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The fort was built in the late 700s-early 800s, raided by Vikings in the early 900s, and finally destroyed around 1100. The restoration project started in 1870 and is protected and maintained by the Office of Public Works today. It’s one of many tiny little treasures that make driving a much more appealing option to bus tours. We only spent about 15 minutes at the fort, just long enough to gasp at the view and enjoy the archaeology.

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Glenarm & Glenarife

These two stops were along the west coast of Northern Ireland, after we finished the Causeway and before we arrived in Belfast. Glenarm is a beautiful castle estate (not a ruin) with cultivated walled gardens. Genarife is a beautiful forest hike with a waterfall.

Glenarm Castle is related to Dunluce Castle, a ruin located on the Causeway Coast which I’ll get to that later in the post. The story goes that in 1639 as the McDonnell family were waiting for dinner one evening at Dunluce, the kitchen – along with kitchen staff – fell into the sea. After that, the family commissioned a new castle to be built on their land at Glenarm which was finally completed some 80 years later. Viscount and Viscountess Dunluce and their family still live there today. Tours are offered of the public portions of the castle, usually between 12-4pm (although the website gives a lot of COVID closure warnings these days).

While I’m sure the inside of the castle is stunning, we were much more interested in the walled garden on our visit and so I can’t tell you anything else about the home. The garden is well worth the visit, however. It is one of Ireland’s oldest walled gardens and it is impeccably maintained. There are dozens and dozens of beautiful examples of flowers, fruits and vegetables, a lovely miniature maze, a small “mountain”, and multiple lovely statues placed throughout.

The afternoon we visited was quite gray and rainy. We were forced to wear our outer shoe rain booties and carry around umbrellas, but I personally think that raindrops on flowers make for beautiful scenery (and photos) so I wasn’t too upset.

Sidenote: We lost MS Video Maker, then YouTube Video Editor and now Google Photos has decided to make the photo slide shows vertical for some unholy reason, I had to go find a quick and dirty way to make a slideshow. I’m sorry that the quality is a little rough. If one of the hip people could clue me in on what we’re all using these days, I’d really appreciate it.

Glenarife was a bit of a back track for us on the road trip, but we had made the decision to go there second so we could have dinner at the restaurant inside the park. I plan to write a separate post about the food in Ireland, but I want to stress that planning meals on any vacation is really important, but especially on a road trip through the countryside. If you’re staying in a city, it can be easy to just head down any major street and walk into any restaurant that looks interesting. If you’re driving (or busing) around, then taking time to find where there are restaurants and WHEN THEY ARE OPEN can save you a lot of heartache and petrol station snack meals.

There is not a lot in the way of eateries on this particular stretch of the Irish coastline, so when I found the Laragh Lodge attached to a waterfall I was excited to get two birds with one parking lot, so to speak. We arrived at the Lodge around dinner time and were quite surprised to find the place very full. They had a wedding party in. Thankfully, there was a dining room off to the side for the general public, so we could still eat there. Because the day was drawing to a close, we decided to go on our waterfall walk before dinner. Same gray rainy day, still, but the raindrops had mostly stopped.

The trail leads a over a little creek which looked like it was made of Guinness, and up a slight hill. It’s a short walk from the parking lot to the falls. There are longer hikes around the enormous forest park for those who want to spend more time in the great outdoors. I personally was there for the waterfall and the food.

When you look up the Glenarife falls online or go to their website, you see pictures of a pretty little fall with usually 2-3 streams down the broad rock face. When I was there, it had been raining. A lot. No cute trickle of water, not even a stout fall, no — that day, the torrent could be used to power a whole hydroelectric station. Waterfalls release negative ions, which reduce depression and stimulate the brain and body. I know sounds kind of like pseudo-science bunk, but it’s been tested I swear! #waterfallinlove

One Day on the Causeway Coast

The Giant’s Causeway may be the most popular thing on the north coast, but it’s far from the only one. We spent an entire day from dawn to dusk travelling the Causeway Road, visiting both it’s famous and less well known attractions. Technically the Coastal Route extends from Derry to Belfast and would therefore include my stops at Downhill Demesne, Bushmills, and Glenarm, but I am focusing on those parts most immediately surrounding the Giant’s Causeway itself.

Carrick a Rede

The rope bride of Carrick a Rede is often included on a tour of the Giant’s Causeway. After my initial research about things like parking and ticket times, we decided that the best way to do the bridge was very first thing in the morning. There is a parking lot near (1km) from the bridge access, but it’s small and fills up fast. Alternate parking is, of course, farther away. In addition, you must buy tickets in advance and reserve a ticket time. If you miss your window, then you don’t get to go. The bridge can only accommodate so many people at once, so the staff on site work hard to make sure everyone can have a good and safe experience. Weather is also important. As you may have seen in my Aran Islands post, the Irish weather on the coast is extremely fickle, and tourists aren’t able to enter the bridge if the weather makes conditions unsafe.

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I was so happy that our weather was clear and blue. We showed up to the parking lot with plenty of time to walk. We had no trouble parking since we were in the first group. There was a little confusion at the ticket booth, a little bottle neck where we all clustered together waiting for them to let us in already! The other advantage to early morning tickets is that the tour buses almost never show up that early, so those of us who had made this effort really wanted to get the jump.

Finally, our e-tickets were scanned and we started the hike from the gate to the bridge. It’s not a hard hike, but there is an upward incline and many stairs. The great news is that the whole path walks along the cliffs and so you spend the hike up with the view to your left, and the hike down with the view to your right. Almost all the photos I took were on the way back down since we were in a hurry going up.

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The bridge was built by salmon fishermen way back in the day because the little volcanic island had much better fishing than the mainland. The bridge today is purely a tourist attraction, but you can see the remains of the small fishing “village” on the island after you cross. There is a gate at the point where the trail meets the bridge manned by park staff who ensure that the safety measures are followed and to help people who may be nervous. The narrow (one person wide) rope and plank bridge is 100 ft above the sea and sways and wobbles as you walk on it. It is recommended that you and your travel buddies take pictures with the camera holder on solid ground while the other poses on the bridge. There’s no time for perfect Instagram poses, though, because while the staff will let you take a couple snaps, they urge everyone to keep going. Being so narrow, the bridge cannot accommodate cross traffic, and so a small group goes to the island, then when the bridge is clear a small group returns.

I could have spent the whole day on the beautiful little island. It was just such perfect weather and the grass was soft and fresh. I took a small infinity of photos of the sea and the sky, as well as the little flowers and volcanic rocks. It was only with great reluctance that I finally left to get to the next stops on the day’s itinerary.

I found a slightly alternate route back that took me up a little farther and gave some spectacular views down onto the path and island, and I positively delighted in the tiny flowers and busy bees along the cliff-side path on the way back down.

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Dunseverick Castle & Falls

Along the Causeway Road are a large number of small sights. The rope bridge and the Giant’s Causeway are the main stops on every tourist bus tour, and in order to avoid those crowds, we decided to spend the prime tourism hours going to the smaller locales. The first one of these as we drove westward was Dunseverick Castle and Falls. What? Castle ruins and waterfalls? in one place? Twist my arm.

Dunseverick has been a seat of power in Ireland from the 400s! It was a ring fort for a bit, and supposedly visited by St. Patrick himself. Invaded by Vikings, and contested by clans, it was owned by the O’Cahan (anglicized as McCain or O’Kane) family until it was destroyed by CROMWELL (ugh, that guy again) in 1642. All that remains of the castle is the ruins of the gate lodge.

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There’s a long walking trail that also runs alongside the cliffs which some people choose to hike, and you can access the ruins this way. I was not particularly interested in the route from parking spot to ruin, but the falls looked decently close, so I hopped a stile and headed off through the nettles to find a waterfall. It’s not as bad as it sounds. Stiles are meant to be hopped, they’re just ways to step over fences that humans can do but animals can’t. Also, nettles only hurt you if you grab them (which I didn’t) or fall on them (which I did, ouch).

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Nonetheless, the day persisted in being superb and I found the low and wide falls amid the dark brown and black volcanic rock. I don’t think I’ve ever seen falls along the seaside, so while they were a bit short, they made up for that by being unique.

Bushfoot Beach

There are a few “beaches” along the coast as well, but not especially the kind you think of for sandcastles or bathing. We looked for Runkerry Beach, but I wasn’t able to figure out how to get the car there. Bushfoot Beach was adjacent to a golf club so we parked there and meandered down to have a look. It was small, and cute, with a nice bench to sit on and rest. Locals were out walking dogs along the path, and there was a river that came down and flowed into the sea right where we were. It wasn’t a highlight, but it was a beautiful and quiet place to have a little rest before the next stop.

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Dunluce Castle

Sound familiar? Yeah! This is the same Dunluce castle that dropped it’s kitchen and staff into the sea, prompting the McDonnells to move to Glenarm. The McDonnells are not actually Irish, they’re Scottish originally.

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In case it wasn’t abundantly clear by now, I am an absolute sucker for ruins. Literally, if I could take a vacation that was made of waterfalls and ruins with a few good restaurants, I would be in heaven. I try to look up the history and learn things about the ruins I visit. They often have fascinating secrets or at least interesting stories. In the case of Dunluce, the kitchen staff falling into the sea might be the most interesting thing that ever happened to it until it was used by Led Zeplin as album art.

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There were some very informative signs on site, showing artist renditions of what the house and grounds may have looked like when it was alive, and there’s a very dry Wikipedia article about the Earls and the invasions. I could recite that for you, but why? A far more amusing resource is this Belfast Telegraph article. Otherwise, please enjoy the photos!

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Giants Causeway

This is what we’re here for right? If you’ve come all the way to the tippy top of Northern Ireland you are here for THIS and everything else is pretty much frosting and sprinkles. Don’t get me wrong, everything else was wonderful, and I’m extremely grateful that I had the chance to drive myself around to the variety of stops. If you can’t rent a car or don’t want to drive on the left, there are tour buses that go to Carrick-a-Rede, Dunluce, and the Giant’s Causeway in a day, but after having done a driving tour and a bus tour (later) I have to say that driving in Ireland is (mostly) very easy and pleasant and having the freedom is well worth it.

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The Giant’s Causeway is a totally unique geographical formation of honeycomb-like stones reaching from the base of high grassy cliffs out into the sea. These formations are called basalt columns, and are made by lava cooling. As a not-geologist, I can’t really understand, let alone explain why some lava makes pumice, and some makes lava tubes, and some makes these cool hexagonal shapes, but I trust that there are geologists who can. The short and easy version is that something in the molecular makeup of basalt causes it to form cracks in these shapes when it cools rapidly. Probably why these formations are almost always found near water.

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Although the Giant’s Causeway is by far the most famous, there are many other examples of basalt columns around the world, so you can still see them even if you don’t make it here. I was most fascinated to see there’s one here in Korea, on Jeju Island, that looks like a tiny version of the one in Ireland. It’s not a popular tourist attraction yet, so my tour didn’t go there when I visited Jeju several years ago. I’ll look for it if I ever go back.

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Today we understand the science behind these fascinating formations, but when humans first came into the area, they incorporated the stones into the mythology of Ireland. I talked briefly about the pre-history mythology in my Two Irelands post. The beginning of Ireland was fraught with many races of monsters, giants, gods, and fairies, each one supplanted by the next. The 5th race was the Tuatha Dé Danann (from which almost all modern fairies seem to be descended), and the 6th and final were the humans. The stories of Finn McCool (Fionn mac Cumhaill) seem to be set toward the beginning of the humans arrival into Ireland since he fights with giants and at least one of the Tuatha Dé Danann.

The myth, like all myths, is tricky, and not every source agrees on the details. Most of us are more familiar with the Arthurian legends, and as anyone who has tried to sort out the details knows, it’s not possible. So, I’m presenting a vague and “best guess” version of Finn McCool here.

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He was born into if not actual royalty, then the next best thing. His father’s clan was said to be descendants of the Fir Bolg (the 4th race) and his mother was recorded as a granddaughter of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Finn himself became the leader of the Fianna, a kind of warrior band, and had all kinds of fantastic feats attributed to him. You can’t go anywhere in Ireland without finding some piece of local Finn legend. According to the most popular stories, he (like Arthur) is not dead, but merely sleeping in a secret cave and will return in Ireland’s greatest hour of need.

When it comes to the Giant’s Causeway, there are still a few versions of the tale, but the most common involves a Giant named Benadonner. Benadonner was a fierce Scottish warrior and a giant (one of the races previously driven from Ireland). One day Finn challenged him to a fight, but the giant didn’t want to cross from Scotland and made excuses about the sea as an obstacle.

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Finn then built a bridge between Ireland and Scotland. This is one of the closest points between Ireland and Scotland, only about 28 miles to the nearest Scottish peninsula. When the bridge was complete, Finn sent a message to Benadonner that he had no more excuses, so come along and fight me!

20190808_185238However, when Finn saw Benadonner crossing, he realized the giant was much bigger than he previously thought. He fled the coast, retreating into his home. His wife Sadhbh (omg Gaelic, amirite?, that’s probably pronounced “Saive”, maybe?) heard what he’d done and quickly dressed her husband up as a baby.

When Benadonner came to find him, he saw the disguised Finn alone in the house and thought to himself, “If this is the infant, what must the father be like?”, and quickly fled back to Scotland, tearing up the bridge in his haste, leaving only the remnants at either end: The Giant’s Causeway in Ireland, and Fingal’s Cave on the Scottish Isle of Staffa, named for Finn himself. (Although the nearest point is only  28 miles from the Causeway in Ireland, Fingal’s Cave is 82.5 miles as the giant flees).

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Whether you are drawn to the science or the more whimsical heroic tale, there’s no doubt that the natural beauty of the Causeway is breathtaking. We scheduled 4 hours for it and that was barely enough. It’s a hard choice to make as far as what to see in a single day. If I had it to do over, I might have scheduled one day for just the Causeway, and a second day for all the other stops. We planned to arrive around 3pm so that we would be walking in about the time that most of the tour buses were walking out.

I found some shuttle bus information online, but it turned out not to be as accurate as I’d hoped and in the end, we decided that paying for parking at the visitors center was going to be better for us convenience-wise than trying to take the shuttle bus from Bushmills, and honestly only slightly more expensive. If you happen to have a National Trust membership or possibly even a tourist pass, you can get steep discounts on things like the shuttles, the parking and the entry tickets (many are free included), and I also looked into buying that, but since only Northern Ireland is run by the UK National Trust, we just weren’t going to go to enough places to make pass worthwhile. If I were to plan a trip that included even one more day in the UK, I think it would have been.

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The parking lot is enormous and the walkways funnel tourists to the Visitor’s Center. You don’t have to go there. The outdoor parts of the park are FREE (after you pay for parking or the shuttle bus) and the visitor’s center is like 13£. I opted to spend my time and money seeing the sights in person, but I can see if you perhaps had bad weather, the visitor’s center might be appealing.

Another travel blogger advised me to take the red trail from the Visitor’s Center to the Causeway. There is a main road (paved wide road) that goes very directly. People who are in a hurry may use this, and there is another shuttle bus that runs between the Causeway and the Visitor’s center which I think is very nice for those with limited walking ability. However, the red trail leads up along the cliff tops before descending to the sea, and it has some really stunning views. It’s much easier to walk it going down than going up, so starting on the red trail and then using the wide seaside road to return seemed the way to go.

The main trail starts by going through a tunnel near the visitor’s center, while the red trail starts before the tunnel and off to one side. There are signs. It is marked as a more demanding route, but that is only in comparison to the smooth wide paved main path. It’s about a mile (UK, back to imperial not metric!) and there are maybe 100 stairs going down. I thought we could take the shuttle bus back up, but that stops running when the visitor’s center closes at 4pm, so if you are mobility limited, make sure you plan your visit earlier in the day that I did.

The red trail is not for those afraid of heights. It goes along the edge and has some harrowing narrow paths and steep steps on the climb down. I thoroughly enjoyed the walk which included yet more stunning cliff-side views, a million tiny flowers and the little bugs that live in them (one of my favorite subject for photography), and a chance to see the organ pipes formation and the giant’s boot on the way down (something those who take the main path would have to climb up to see).


It was charming to see the tourists delighting in hopping from rock to rock like a childhood game of hopscotch. I climbed as far out to the edge as I could, marveling at the geometrical patterns and the tiny lichens and barnacles living there.

Finally, as dusk loomed, we headed back up the road, enjoying the tide pools and sunset over the water. There’s no doubt in my mind that the Giant’s Causeway is the jewel in the crown of Northern Ireland’s natural beauty and I’m grateful that I was able to experience it on such a beautiful day.

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Myths and Legends of China 09: Mountains & Lakes

The three places in today’s stories are real live places in China (and Taiwan) that people visit as modern day tourist attractions. Although, no one is visiting them just now, thanks Covid, there are a plethora of photographs, Wikipedia articles, and travel blogs about all of them. I didn’t get the chance to go to any landmarks myself, but I still think it’s cool that these traditional folk tales were inspired by stunning natural landscapes that still exist today.


The Goddess of Mt. Wu

The Immortal Maiden Yao Ji was Queen Mother Wang Mu’s twenty-third daughter. Not only did she grow up to be beautiful, but also kind-hearted. Wang Mu loved her especially dearly. Yao Ji’s natural disposition was vivacious, and she was never able to remain idle. Every day she would sneak out to go and play. Wang Mu had no way to catch her.

One day, Queen Mother Wang Mu came out to relieve her boredom and saw that Yao Ji looking right into the mortal world. Angrily she said, “Even if Heaven has tasked you to play, what are you looking at the mortal world for, that place can corrupt your eyes!” Yao Ji didn’t believe it, she pointed to a red-crowned crane and said, “That crane is pure white like jade, how could that corrupt my eyes? I want to be like that, to fly everywhere and finally see what the mortal world is like.”

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Wang Mu hastily tried to talk her out of it, saying, “The mortal world is a sea of bitterness without end, and you are a royal princess, a golden branch with jade leaves, you simply must not go no matter what!” Yao Ji didn’t listen, she simply sat atop her cloud looking down. She saw many people’s houses were just thatched cottages, their food vegetable husks, and their clothes were damaged and rotten cloth. With a sigh she said, “Oh, truly bitter!” Wang Mu heard this and smiled to herself, then she said, “Still, Heaven is good, we have exotic food without end, and unlimited fine silks and lace to wear…”, but the more Wang Mu talked, the more disgusted Yao Ji became, she resolved to go to the mortal world for a time!  Queen Mother Wang Mu defied her, and sent her instead to the Dragon Palace of the Eastern Sea.

The Dragon King of the Eastern Sea had a plan for Yao Ji from an earlier time, only at that time she was still young. Now she came as a guest, the Dragon King received her with special attention. He poured the wine himself, and said happily, “Beautiful maiden, our social position and economic status are in harmony, we are a match made in Heaven!” Yao Ji heard this and her face splotched red. She left the palace in less than the space of one breath, and simply went straight to the human world.

On the road, Yao Ji encountered many people fleeing trouble, leaning on beggars sticks and carrying worn out baskets, pulling along the elderly, carrying the young on their backs, and weeping endlessly. Yao Ji saw this and felt extremely sad. She just wanted to rush forward and ask what happened, so she failed to see the black clouds gathering in the sky. A fierce wind whistled by; twelve evil dragons were in the process of stirring up trouble. Yao Ji hurriedly started steering her rosy clouds. She approached the evil dragons and used sweet words and gracious language to persuade them to not work any more evil deeds. But the evil dragons paid no heed, going so far as to make even more of a ruckus. Yao Ji couldn’t take it anymore. She pulled a jade hairpin from her head, and brandished it at the twelve evil dragons. A ribbon of golden light flashed past, and the evil dragons all dropped dead.

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When Queen Mother Wang Mu found out that Yao Ji had gone to the human world and killed twelve dragon princes she became angry and resentful, however when she heard she was staying in the wild mountains, she also felt the pain of love and ordered her other twenty-two daughters to find Yao Ji and bring her back.

The twenty-two Immortal Maidens went down to the human world where they encountered many setbacks and finally found Yao Ji. They said to her, “Little Sister, our mother misses you day and night, with no thought for tea or rice, come back to Heaven with us.” “It isn’t that I heartlessly do not go back. Elder Sisters look, the common people are suffering hardship, how can I not care about that?” Yao Ji said this and at the same time pointed into the distance. There on the mountainside was a wild tiger in the middle of chasing a person, it overtook the person while they watched.

b6f64566dcc44579bf44103f162e93d0Elder Sister Cui Ping hurriedly caught up some silt and cast it out. The silt became dozens of arrows that shot the tiger down. Before long, at the foot of the mountain an old grandmother was climbing up, her complexion was pale and wan, she was weak and looked like she had a serious illness. Elder Sister Chao Yun immediately plucked out several hairs from her head, and cast them in front of her. The hairs changed into the reishi mushroom that grants miraculous recovery and saved the old woman’s life. Then, everyone heard a burst of work chanting, and turned their heads to look. In the river, passing by, was a boat floating on the water. The backs of the barge haulers pulling the boat were all almost bent to the ground, but the boat’s progress was still quite slow. Elder Sister Song Luan faced west and blew out a breath, the blow started a favorable sailing wind that pushed the boat forward. The barge haulers straightened up their backs and smiled. Everyone had just heaved a sigh of relief when suddenly they saw in a far off field a patch of dried up yellow, a drought had caused this severe damage, how would the farmers earn their daily living? The Immortal sisters thought and thought; they felt sad and cried. Their tears turned into rain that began to fall with a sound like hua-la-la. Very soon, the field had become a lush green.

When they had finished these things, the Immortal sisters had a contradiction in their hearts: their mother needed to be taken care of, but the common people also should receive blessing and protection, what to do? Finally, everyone made a unanimous decision, one half would return to Heaven, and the other half would remain in the human world. The eleven elder sisters who stayed behind plus Yao Ji blessed and protected the ordinary people of the human world day and night. Later, they transformed into the twelve mystical and beautiful peaks of Mt. Wu. Included among these, closely overlooking the Yangtze River, reaching through the clouds is the transformed Yao Jin Xian Nu Peak.

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Split the Mountain to Rescue the Mother

At the very top of the Western Peak of Mt. Hua there is a giant stone a hundred feet high that has been cut neatly into three parts. In the side of this giant stone is a 7 foot high, 300 pound Crescent Moon Iron Ax. Legend has it that this is the historic place where Chen Xiang split the mountain to rescue his mother. That giant stone is called “Ax Splitting Rock” and the axe is called “Mountain Opening Ax”.

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It is said that one year a scholar by the name of Liu Yan Chang went to Chang’an (the ancient city of Xi’an) to take the Imperial examinations. When he passed through Tong Guan (a county in Wei nan, Shan’xi) he climbed Mt. Hua to go sightseeing. He had heard that the goddess San Sheng Mu of the West Peak Temple was absolutely accurate, so he went into the temple to request a Qian bamboo stick to have his fortune told. He wanted to ask about his future prospects. However, that day San Sheng Mu just happened to be away from home attending a feast, and the boy watching the door did not dare to casually grant a Qian fortune stick. Liu Yan Chang even drew three Qian, but they were all blank and he became very angry. He took up his brush and wrote a poem on the wall of the temple reproaching San Sheng Mu.

When San Sheng Mu returned home, she saw the inscribed poem and became ashamed and angry. She found Liu Yan Chang and saw that his appearance was stately and grand, and immediately came to feel admiration towards him. She transformed into a mortal woman and came to Liu Yan Chang’s side. Liu Yan Chang also liked the dignified and elegant San Sheng Mu. The pair of lovers soon became parents. Not long after, Liu Yan Chang passed his exam and became eligible for the highest imperial civil service. San Sheng Mu gave him a son called Chen Xiang, and the whole family lived on blessed and happy.

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Time flew by, in the blink of an eye Chen Xiang was six years old. One day San Shang Mu’s elder brother Er Lang Shen Yang Jian found out that San Sheng Mu was living a mortal life, even going so far as to bear a son. He was furious. He sent out his spirit eagle to capture little Chen Xiang. Then, in a rage, Yang Jian found San Sheng Mu and yelled at her for having no shame, for violating the law of Heaven, and forced her to hand over her jeweled lotus lantern. The Jeweled Lotus Lantern was her Mountain Guardian Treasure, but in order to save Chen Xiang, San Sheng Mu had no choice but to give it over to Yang Jian.. After Yang Jian took the lantern, he released Chen Xiang, however he pushed San Sheng Mu down under the giant stone at the top of the Western Peak of Mt. Hua.

After nine years Chen Xiang had gradually grown up into a thoughtful young man. One day, his father explained what had happened to his mother. Chen Xiang heard this and was filled with grief and indignation, but at the same time was determined to go to Mt. Hua and rescue his mother.

At that time, one of the Eight Immortals, Lu Dongbin clutched his finger in contemplation, realized that Chen Xiang was going to Mt. Hua to rescue his mother, wanted to help him. He turned into a Daoist Priest and went to the foot of Mt. Hua. When Chen Xiang came to the base of the mountain he ran across the Daoist priest, explained his reason for coming, and asked about the road up the mountain. Lu Dongbin said, “If you go up the mountain like this, you cannot succeed. It would be better to first train with me.”

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Chen Xian honored Lu Dongbin as a teacher. Every day he rose early and went to bed late, practicing martial arts, and quickly became proficient in all eighteen styles of martial art. Lu Dongbin saw this and was very pleased, saying, “Very good! Your martial arts training is already complete, you can go up the mountain. The key to open the mountain is at your Uncle Yang Jian’s place. He has a dog and an eagle; they are very fierce. I will give you two small pills, the round one can subdue the spirit dog, and the long one can tame the spirit eagle. I hope you and your mother can be reunited soon.”

Chen Xiang took leave of his master, and carried an iron pestle up the mountain to find Yang Jian. When he got to the Gate of Heaven, he saw a bunch of Celestial Generals escorting a haughty and pure god. Chen Xiang knew that must be Yang Jian, he went firmly up to him and saluted, only to hear Yang Jian  sneer and say, “Heh heh, you really came!” saying this he raised a three pointed two edged knife and struck at Chen Xiang’s head. Chen Xiang raised the iron pestle and did his best to resist, there was a sound – ka-cha, and the knife snapped into two pieces. Yang Jian was angry and surprised, he let out a bellow and called forth Xiao Tian Quan, the Barking Celestial Dog. Xiao Tian Quan opened his bloody mouth wide like a sacrificial bowl, rose into the air and pounced. Chen Xiang tossed the round pill, Xiao Tian Quan swallowed it in one bite, and suddenly his jaw was tightly shut, it lay down on the ground in pain and began rolling around. Yang Jian then called forth the spirit eagle. The spirit eagle spread both wings, hid the sky and covered the earth, it spread its talons like knives and pounced. Chen Xiang tossed the long pill, the spirit eagle ate it in one bite, both wings froze in midair. Er Lang Shen saw that the spirit dog and spirit eagle had been defeated, he had no choice but to order the Heavenly Generals to fetch the key to open the mountain — a glittering, shining, crescent moon ax.

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Chen Xiang took the crescent moon ax and went up Mt. Hua calling loudly as he went, “Mother! Mother!” Chen Xiang called from the North Peak to the East Peak, he called from the East Peak to the South Peak, but from beginning to end he could not find her in those places, worried he cried out loud. A mountain spirit was moved by this, and said to him, “Oh filial child, your mother is in the West Peak.” Chen Xiang heard this and stopped crying, climbed the Western Peak as if he were flying, soaring into the air with each jump, raised the crescent moon ax high, and did his best to split the peak. There was a loud, earth shattering noise, the peak was split open, San Sheng Mu slowly came out.  Mother and son saw one another at last, they embraced one another excitedly and cried bitterly together.

Chen Xiang welcomed his mother back home and the family of three at last resumed their happy and blessed life together.

Notes: I actually climbed Mt. Hua on my 2012 visit to China, but I climbed the Eastern Peak because we wanted to stay the night a the peak and watch the sunrise as is the custom. I say climbed because we did spend about 7-8 hours walking up the endless stairs (no switchbacks here), but only after we took the bus up to the gondola. People in better shape than me climb the whole thing! No matter which peak you visit, it’s a stunning experience and I highly recommend it if you’re going to be in the Xi’an area. This was one of my lovely views.IMG_3109


The Legend of Sun and Moon Lake

In the jewel island of Taiwan, there is a beautiful scenic lake called Sun and Moon Lake. Beside the lake are two towering mountains, one is called Mt. Da Jian, and one is called Mt. Shui She. This is the origin of these names and a beautiful story about them.

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A very long time ago, there lived in a large lake, two evil dragons, a male and a female. One day, at noon, when the sun arrived in the sky over the lake, male dragon suddenly leapt up and in one gulp he swallowed the sun into his belly. At night when the moon rose into the sky, the female dragon also flew up and swallowed the moon into her belly. This pair of evil dragons swam to and swam fro in the lake, sometimes swallowing the sun and moon down and sometimes spitting them back out, playing by batting them around. It was as if they were in the middle of a performance, a pair of dragons with trick pearls. They only pursued their own pleasure. They didn’t consider that because the human world had no sun or moon, everywhere was dark. The threes all wilted, birds in the branches no longer sang, nearly ripe sugar cane dried out, cows and sheep couldn’t find grass to eat and nearly all starved to death. Days became unbearable, and the people all cried out in a wailing sigh.

In the village there were a pair of clever and courageous young people – Elder Brother Da Jian and Elder Sister Shui She, they saw this state of affairs and their hearts were filled with worry. They pledged to seize and return the sun and moon. But how could they fight the evil dragons? Brother Da Jian and Sister Shui She arrived outside of the evil dragon’s cliff cave dwelling, and eavesdropped on the two dragons’ conversation. Actually the things that they were most afraid of were the golden ax and golden scissors buried at the foot of Mt. Ali

Having found a way to subdue the evil dragons, Brother Da Jian and Sister Shui She climbed mountains and waded rivers, and arrived at the base of Mt. Ali. With no thought for tiredness they dug and dug until they couldn’t tell how long they dug. A crack in the rock finally showed a ribbon of golden light, they dug again a bit more down, and sure enough they dug out the golden hatchet and golden scissors buried under the mountain.

Carrying these treasures and full of confidence they returned to the side of the big lake. The two evil dragons were in the middle of playing by swallowing and spitting up the sun and moon. Brother Da Jian dashed forward bravely with no personal concern and jumped down into the lake, brandishing the golden axe and chopping fiercely at the evil dragons. Suddenly he chopped the male dragon’s head right off. Sister Shui She saw a timely opportunity, raised the golden scissors in both hands and ka-cha, sheared off the female dragon’s head.

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Both dragons were dead; however, the sun and moon were immersed at the bottom of the lake. Brother Da Jian tore down the male dragon’s eyeball and swallowed it; Sister Shui She swallowed female dragon’s eye; and both people instantly turned into giants. Brother Da Jian dredged the sun up from the lake bed, and Sister Shui She pulled up a palm tree from the lakeside propping it upward, and pushed the sun back up to the sky. The sun was once again joyfully hanging high in the blue sky. All living things also glowed with vitality; the people cheered and frolicked with joy. After the sun set behind the mountain, Sister Shui She dredged up the moon from the lake bed, and Brother Da Jian used the palm tree again to push the moon back into the sky. The gentle radiance of the moon once more spilled fully across the earth. The people were extremely happy. They wanted to show their appreciation for Brother Da Jian and Sister Shui She, but it was discovered the two had already transformed into two majestic mountains.

The people arrived at the lakeside where the sun and moon were previously swallowed, they found that the island in the center of the lake had divided it into two halves: one half was like a round sun, and the other half was like a crescent moon, so they named the lake Sun and Moon Lake. In order to commemorate the selfless devotion of Elder Brother Da Jian and Elder Sister Shui She, they named the two mountains separately as Mt. Da Jian and Mr. Shui She.

Notes: I didn’t go to Sun Moon Lake on my 2019 visit to Taiwan. It is a very popular destination, but I was worried it was just going to be a crowded tour group and I also had limited time. I don’t regret my choices, but I may go to the lake if I ever get to go back to Taichung. I was curious about the shape and the mountains so I did some Google Mapping. I found the Shuishe mountain and the trailhead is quite near the lake, but I can’t pin down where Dajian Mountain is (the only one I found was much farther north near Taipei?). I’m not really sold on the idea that the lake looks like a sun and moon. The island is super tiny, I almost missed it because I didn’t zoom in enough on the map! This helpful satellite view from a Chinese source shows us where the sun (right) and moon (left) “shapes” of the lake are, with the line running through the small island of Lalu (拉魯島).

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Northern Ireland: Cultural Legacy

Going into Northern Ireland I was not really sure what to expect. When I was growing up, the North was known for it’s hard life and angry militant (terrorist?) political movements: The Troubles. There are three great reasons to visit the North: the stunning natural beauty, the unique and historical culture, and Game of Thrones. That last one seems a lot less important after the series finale aired disappointing literally every fan, but dragons are always cool. Today’s post focuses on the culture and more recent history. I wrote a much more detailed account of the two Irelands what seems like an eon ago (before the Plague), and while I prefer to focus on my experiences while traveling, sometimes those experiences include some painful history and deep thinking. 


Belleek Pottery

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The first stop on my road trip after crossing the unimposing border (marked mainly by the sudden change from Euros to Pounds at the petrol stations) was the Belleek Pottery factory. I didn’t know anything about Belleek Pottery. I know we had some in the house growing up, but I guess it went with my stepfather when he did.

Founded in 1857, it is the oldest pottery factory in Ireland (either of them), and was initially started because of the availability of special mineral ingredients locally. Eventually, it became more common to source materials from Cornwall or Norway, but the unique Belleek style has continued to make the pottery famous and sought after.

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The factory was in holiday mode during our tour so there were only a few employees on site. Perhaps this made for an emptier experience, but I thought it was nice to be able to focus on a single work table or look closely at the pottery without being rushed or in someone’s way. Our tour guide walked us through the process of making the beautiful and unique ceramics from the artistic conceptualization to the making of molds and refining of pieces. We had the chance to see workers attaching separate pieces and refining the details from the mold by hand. We were also offered the chance to break the rejects, since the factory will never allow “seconds” or flawed pieces out into the world.

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However lovely the molded pieces are, they are as nothing compared to the beautiful hand crafted flowers and lacy woven baskets that represent iconic Belleek. We had the chance to see some of the craftspeople at work on these fine details. The flowers and detailed add ons are simply stunning tiny craftsmanship, but the weaving was simply the most unique. The clay used for the basket strands is blended in such a way to make it slightly elastic and so less likely to break when manipulated over and over. Don’t try this with your regular clay in pottery class, kids.

The painting center was no less beautiful. Each finished piece is painted by hand to give a unique finish to every piece and to make sure that the little green shamrocks are just right. At the end of our tour we were let out into a small museum showcasing the evolution of Belleek styles over the years. The special pieces showed even more detail in the handmade flowers, but my absolute favorite was a pearl glaze that was only in fashion for a few brief years.

I doubt I would have chosen to tour Belleek on my own, but nonetheless, I did enjoy the trip. Non-solo trips can be a mix of “well, I wouldn’t have picked that myself, but cool”, and “yes, please!” kinds of stops. While Belleek was the former, Bushmills was definitely the later.

Bushmills

Bushmills has been in my family and house for as long as I can recall. It was my grandmother’s whisky of choice and hers was the immigrant family with some deep dies to the Irish diaspora culture in America. She passed when I was 17. It was a very sudden turn from being old and chronically ill, but lively – to hospitalized, comatose and gone. I know, morbid, but it was about a week of me sleeping on the hospital room floor and then it was over. Her children (my mom, aunt and uncles) and I shared out the remains of her last bottle of Bushmills while we told stories about our memories of her. Bushmills holds a place in my heart as well as my tastebuds.

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There is no photography allowed inside the distillery to protect their trade secrets, but we had a fun tour that took us from mash to cask. It was very interesting to me to do this after my lovely brewery tours in Belgium since the basic process to start both beer and whisky is very similar. The malting, mashing, and fermenting is more or less the same (a great deal more similar than to wine-making), the shiny and hot copper stills is where spirits take a hard (pun intended) left turn from beer.

The still room in Bushmills felt like walking into a sauna. The entire room was warmed and steamed as the low alcohol “wash” is heated and pressurized into boiling at about 78C (much less than the boiling point of water). This causes the alcohol to evaporate where it is caught in the tubes and condensed back into liquid form in a new reservoir while the water remains in liquid state below.

Amid the giant copper contraptions was a small and extremely climate controlled glass walled room where a further refinement process took place in small batches under intense supervision. Neither the large copper nor the smaller stills can be left unattended, so a highly trained employee has to spend hours a day in that hot and sweaty room just to make sure that the resultant distilled spirits are correctly balanced and purified.

The main method of distillation is well known and basic still kits can be assembled fairly easily (that’s where moonshine comes from after all), but each of the worlds best distilleries has a few proprietary methods and Bushmills is no exception. The tour guide did an excellent job answering all my questions about the science without giving away any trade secrets.

(The photo is an old copper still on display in the tasting room.)

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After the stills, it’s still not whiskey. The magic that turns white lighting into that dark amber ambrosia is cask ageing. This might be my favorite part of any alcohol tour (ok, except for the tasting) when we get to enter the cool and dark rooms filled floor to ceiling with dark barrels and simply redolent with the luxurious smells. Our guide explained the different types of casks used to flavor and age the whisky and showed us examples of the changes in color and volume over time. Not only does the wood of the cask color and flavor the alcohol, but the alcohol leaks out through the porous wood over the years. This loss is referred to as the Angel’s Share (I guess Irish Angels like a wee dram, too) and in areas like Ireland accounts to 2-3% loss per year. A 50 gallon barrel can be reduced to less than 15 gallons in a 25 year age! Those heavy price tags are not only taking into account the amount of time the whisky must be stored before sold, but also the sheer volume of alcohol lost to the angels.

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However, the longer it ages, the more the sharp and harsh flavors of the distilled moonshine soften and the more of the flavors of the wood become absorbed. Mostly 10-12 years is enough to get a good mellow flavor for the non-aficionado. Less if you’re planning to mix it with (shudder) coke. In addition, some of what evaporates is yet more water and the finished product of maturation can be between 115-150 proof. But wait, Kaine, I’ve had Bushmills and it’s only 80 proof, what gives? Well, the factory puts some lovely fresh Irish spring water (honestly I don’t know where the water comes from, but it sounds nice?) into the mix before bottling to create a consistent and ideal proofing. This is for two reasons: product consistency is super important to a brand, so they do need to be sure that all bottles are the same. Second, and to my mind more importantly, you simply cannot enjoy the taste of the whisky at 150 proof! Even 100 proof is pushing it.

The great debate about whether you should add water to your whisky is almost hilarious in this context, knowing that the distillery did it for you. However, 80 proof is simply their best guess where most people would be able to enjoy the flavors ideally, so if you wanna add a little water to enhance your own flavor experience, go for it. Bushmills itself served a small pitcher of water along side the whisky in the tasting room for just that purpose, so obviously they don’t mind.

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I really enjoyed the 12 year distillery reserve (lower right, sky blue label), a unique flavor profile and of course not sold anywhere but the distillery… literally, not even in the duty free shops. I heavily debated buying a bottle but there were no small sizes and I knew that without the duty free sealed bags, I’d have to try and lug it in the checked bag, not to mention lugging it around the rest of my Ireland trip (not even half over yet), and the fact that if you want to bring more than 1L of booze over borders you have to figure out how to pay them taxes (not a huge burden, but …). A smaller bottle would have meant easier packing or just enjoying it in Ireland, but alas. I did end up with a bottle of the fantastic Dingle Peninsula Gin from the duty free, which almost makes up for this loss.

Derry

Also known as Londonderry, it is the second largest city in Northern Ireland and home of The Troubles. I am going to have to get political/historical again because almost all of the major landmarks in Derry are related to the Troubles in some way or another.

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The first big one we came upon was the Peace Bridge: a beautiful bridge that eases pedestrian traffic and makes for a lovely riverside view. It’s easy to think of the clashes in Ireland as being in the distant past, but they are not.  The Peace Bridge was only built in 2011 and it’s construction was an attempt to ease communication and interaction between the unionists (stay in the UK) ‘Waterside’ on the east bank and the nationalists (join Southern Ireland) ‘Cityside’ on the west bank.

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Mere steps from the riverside is the Guildhall. This is an iconic work of architecture built originally in 1890 to be a ceremonial government house / town hall. It’s been destroyed a couple times in fires or bombings, but the restoration project of 2012 has been very successful. To be honest, I thought it was a restructured church given it’s beautiful stained glass windows and enormous pipe organ, but I’m told it’s intention has always been secular in nature. There were several memorials inside dedicated to those who fought (and died) during various stages of revolution against the British occupation. Since at the moment of writing this, the unionists still outnumber the nationalists, that occupation is ongoing, and while the conflict hardly ever results in whole historic buildings being bombed these days, it is far from over.

However, even if you aren’t interested in Irish history or politics, the Guildhall is worth a visit for the exquisite stained glass in every available window.

Bogside Murals

From the Guildhall, we headed over to the Bogside neighborhood to see the murals. Bogside is … perhaps more politically relevant in 2020 (as I write this) than it was when I visited a year ago. The global Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality have highlighted clashes between state sponsored police and citizens who are tired of being treated as less than.

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I gave my own detailed account of the IRA in the Two Irelands post before, and then as now, I ask people to remember that any comparisons between the Troubles in Ireland and the BLM protests in America should only be examined as “shitty police state problems” and NOT used as a way to compare white (Irish) struggles to black (African American) struggles. Just. Don’t.

For those less familiar with American culture, it is a common white supremacist tactic to argue that white Irish immigrants in America had it just as bad or worse than black slaves (lol). Lots of really well meaning white people get caught up in this because at first blush it sounds very reasonable. It isn’t. (You can find more details here,here, and here as a starting place.)

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In this case, the discriminated against minority were the Catholics who had all manner of extremely bigoted laws passed to keep them down including limiting their employment, education, marriage and property access. It was only marginally a religious issue, as the lines of unionist and nationalist were also generally drawn along church lines. The nationalist Catholics were understandably pissed about it. When protest marches were banned, some marched anyway and were brutally attacked by the police. This was in 1968 so the actions of the police were filmed and shown on television, prompting demonstrations of solidarity at the Guildhall and elsewhere.

As the civil unrest went on, off duty police officers in plain clothes attacked protesters who were involved in marches or demonstrations. Uniformed on duty officers refused to protect the protesters from the assault. By January of 1969, police were breaking into protesters homes to assault them and the residents of Bogside erected barricades to keep the police out, declaring a “Free Derry”.

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Enter “The Apprentice Boys”. I cannot make this stuff up. No, they aren’t an obviously white nationalist group like the Proud Boys, but… come on. They are a Protestant fraternal (men only -read: patriarchal) order, however, and at the time in 1969, they enjoyed keeping those dirty Catholics “in their place”. Something something shoe fits.

The annual Apprentice Boys parade in August 1969 came so close to Free Derry that a fight erupted. Guess which side the police took. The police effectively dismantled the barricades, letting the Apprentice Boys into the neighborhood and leading the Catholic residents of Bogside to include the police in their targets.

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A three day riot ensued. The neighborhood was flooded with tear gas and well over 1,000 residents were injured in some way. Police from neighboring areas were brought in, but due to a severe lack of training, they only made it worse. On the third day, the British Army came in and basically separated the three sides: Apprentice Boys (Protestant), Bogside residents (Catholic) and police (Protestant) — while allowing the Bogside residents to maintain their barricades (probably the only reason it worked).

Free Derry was maintained for three years by armed IRA soldiers patrolling to keep British soldiers and  Irish police out. This was not a time of peace, but of intensified armed conflict between the British state and the IRA. Free Derry was eventually dismantled after the massacre of Bloody Sunday where 14 people (13 outright and one later from injuries) were shot down by British soldiers during a protest march against the practice of imprisonment without trial. The soldiers were exonerated on the basis that they claimed to be shooting at armed targets.

If I took out the names and dates, these details could be from any number of American cities in 2020. I will not apologize for the comparison, or for getting political in my blog. We are repeating historical mistakes by continuing to find those among us to “other” and diminish based on pseudo-science and hate-fueled religious arguments. Derry may be a lovely place to have a holiday now, covered with boutique shopping and delectable cafe eateries and pubs, but 50 years ago it was a bloodbath as those who strove for equal rights were murdered by those who valued the status quo.

Do I like the bombings, the riots, the violence employed by the IRA? No… but I understand it – why it happened and why it was necessary to achieve equality under the law. What you would do if your country made it so you and your family always have less, are always be behind or under someone “preferred”, and allowed to be beaten or murdered without consequence after decades of peaceful protests and political marches were systematically ignored or criminalized?

I hope that America listens to BLM before it gets any worse because the result of these kinds of clashes are decades of pain and destruction. There is no question that the history being remembered here is one of state sponsored oppression and violence. You cannot visit and be unaffected by the striking contrast between the now peaceful streets and the murals dedicated to the fallen.

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History kept alive in the neighborhoods affected serves to remind us what we are capable of as a species, best and worst. If you travel the world and you skip the hard parts, you’re missing out on a magical opportunity to open your mind and grow your heart. Thanks for coming with me. Stay safe, wear a mask, wash your hands, destroy systemic forms of oppression and end police brutality.

The World is Temporarily Closed

Hi!

Welcome to July. We’re officially halfway through 2020 and wow it has been a trip! Like, the kind where your shoe gets stuck in a crack in the pavement and you end up taking a face-plant on the sidewalk… into a pile of dog poo.

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I know that I have readers from every corner of the planet and it never ceases to amaze me. I don’t think there are too many corners of the planet who are feeling unaffected by Covid-19. The last time I wrote, I was still trying to wrap my head around the crazy new world and the terrible drama of online classes. Most people still thought it would “be over soon” and “go back to normal” and I have to say I got a lot of stink-eye for saying it might last up to 2 years.

Now, every country that isn’t America has pretty much buckled in for the long haul. We’ve done a pretty good job of getting it under control, but we all know that any return to “normal” (defined here as pre-covid life) will see an instant uptick in cases. We know masks are required and we have fashionable ones. We know that bars and nightclubs are hotbeds of infection and we either close them, limit them, track everyone who goes or all three. Everyone (again, except the US) is talking about how to live life amid the restrictions of social distancing, and while it won’t be easy, it’s doable.

If you are not in America you are very lucky, but may also be unaware of just how insane it is there. The growing case numbers, the filling ICUs, the absurd hospital bills, the stunning array of symptoms and worst of all – the huge number of inconsiderate idiots who still think it’s a) just like the flu, b) a hoax, c) only going to kill people they don’t like, so that’s ok.

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On top of the horrific handling of Covid19, there’s also still an unacceptable level of state sponsored violence. As an American expat, I’m in the unenviable position of being personally safe (thank you South Korea) while worrying about almost every person that I love and watching my entire country change into a tire fire like that moment in an optical illusion when it changes from a duck to a horse, but instead it’s changing from a first world democracy into a failed totalitarian state. It’s stressful.

I have had a LOT of emotions this year so far. On a personal level, I decided to start my reading list for dealing with trauma (PTSD/CPTSD) which is a necessary step in my healing process, but it is painful af. My future went from having a reasonable plan for my financial stability and mental well-being to being … ok, I have to admit, I’m still financially stable as long as this University keeps us foreign teachers, but there’s a pile of stuff that makes long term teaching options almost impossible without being able to pursue my PhD or, you know, move countries. I am still worried that I may end up back in a country where healthcare = bankruptcy without any real retirement plan but that’s like 20 years in the future and who knows what the world will look like then, really?

Eventually, I figured out how to cobble together lesson plans that would work in my university’s limited online platform and cried to myself every time I read an article about innovative online teaching from universities that gave the professors more freedom in how to operate. I do actually understand why the Korean universities are being restrictive. There’s some politics and some history of corruption and no one wants Covid-19 to turn into the moment universities return to that corruption, so we all have to dot our i’s and cross our t’s or… however that works in Hangul (우리의 점을 찍고 우리의 점을 넘어?)

The spring was fraught with pits of despair and peaks of anxiety. I wanted to photograph beautiful spring flowers and maybe go to the beach or write in this blog, but no. My brain was on fire and all my executive function was absorbed in the herculean tasks of teaching my classes, brushing my teeth, washing my hair, doing laundry, and feeding myself something other than ice cream and red bean buns. Thankfully, Animal Crossing doesn’t require any executive brain functionality.

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What Did I Actually Do?

Once I got a grip on the online class format, and the basics of catching critters for Blathers, I did experience some restlessness. Lucky for me, Korea calmed way down by April and it was basically safe to go out (as long as you wear a mask, wash your hands a lot, and avoid crowds).

I went to a dog cafe in Busan, hoping that some fluffy puppers would cheer me up, but the ajuma “running” the dog room wouldn’t leave anyone alone and kept winding the dogs up to bark and do tricks and pose for photos. The doggos were pretty, but the acoustics were not good for borking and we had to leave well before our time was up.

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I also made it out to the Belated Buddha’s Birthday lantern festival at Samgwangsa, which I do enjoy. It was definitely the least crowded I’ve ever seen it, even though we were there on a Saturday night. Everyone was masked and trying to stay distant. In addition, it seemed the lanterns had been raised up quite a bit to be well out of reach and provide more air circulation in the covered areas.

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My uni also decorated for the holiday even though we couldn’t have any festivals. Westerners who were sad about Easter being “cancelled” because of Covid have a slight idea what Asia felt like loosing both the Lunar New Year celebrations and Buddha’s Birthday to it.

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In the absence of the ubiquitous spring festivals celebrating cherry blossoms, lanterns, and the general end of cold weather, I was able to participate in a couple virtual movements.K-pop fans brought a lot of attention to the BLM movement and Koreans got curious. There was a small but vibrant movement to join in the global protests and I was able to give my students some Korean language info as well as participate in the Instagram rally.

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For the first time ever, Seoul Pride was cancelled not because of angry, violent churchy types but because all large public gatherings were called off. There was a big scare surrounding Covid19 spreading in Seoul in particular at some gay clubs. There are no anti-discrimination laws here (yet) so contact tracing Covid19 leading to public outing (loss of family and job probably forever) was a huge issue. Although the government is looking at anti-discrimination legislation for the first time in 14 years now, they are still terrified of the loud minority of hate-mongers who are just convinced ANY laws against ANY kind of discrimination will lead to Korea turning 100% gay. The “good” news is that at least they made very solid efforts to protect people from being outed when coming in for Covid testing and provided a Bush-era AIDS testing policy of not asking where they thought they might be exposed. Anyway, the LGBTQIA organizers made a virtual Pride parade where everyone could create an avatar and “march” online. Cute.

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I shared my partial art project in my last check in, and sometime this spring I finished it. I’m very pleased with how that came out. It is made entirely of paper and glue. Tiny, tiny bits of paper glued in layers to create “scales” and patterns. There’s not a lot of wrapping paper here, which is what I’d really like to use for this style, so I use origami paper instead which severely limits the size, color, and pattern available. I would love to start a third piece in this style, but I’m having some creators block. Suggestions welcome.

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I also got the chance to make a cheap DIY pinhole viewer for the solar eclipse. Lucky for me, the afternoon sun comes right into my window so I didn’t even have to go outside for that one. Yes, I just poked pinholes in a sheet of paper in the shape of a heart.

What About The Summer?

For a while, I held out some false hope that I might be able to do some travel this summer, maybe go to Alaska (it’s America, they can’t actually ban me) to see some glaciers and forests. Maybe get my sister to bring the kids up (family reunion!). It seemed like it might just be doable. In May, people were sort of kind of like, let’s try to be sane. But that pipe dream fell apart as we realized that Alaska was requiring 2 week quarantines even for visitors from other states.

I still tried to tell myself it might be worth it to go there or someplace like New Zealand even if I had to stay in my hotel for the first two weeks because at least I’d get to do something and not be trapped in the sweltering humid heat of Korean summer, but alas. First my uni sent out letters advising faculty not to leave Korea except for emergency reasons. Then, the Immigration office sent out letters saying that multiple re-entry was cancelled, and anyone wanting to leave and re-enter Korea would have to apply for special permission AND get a health check from a designated health center within 48 hours of returning, and if it wasn’t good enough, might be denied re-entry upon arrival.

So, here I am. I’ll be spending my summer in Korea. All of it. No travel for the traveler.

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I’m still weaving in and out of a sort of ennui based depression, but it is much better than it was in March/April/May which was punctuated by random bouts of uncontrollable sobbing, catastrophizing anxiety, and ice cream for dinner.

I’ve started an intermittent fasting plan (16:8) in an attempt to NOT stress eat anymore. I think everyone practicing social distancing is struggling with diet and exercise in conjunction with a huge lifestyle change (not going out) and a huge dose of STRESS HORMONES. I myself gained about 4 kilos since my check up last December and would like to get rid of that before it gets any worse.

I am trying to grow plants, which I never do because I often leave my apartment for weeks at a time. I named the first two plants too soon. My mint plant had a near death experience after coming home with me, but pulled through and was rugged but making it. My balsam plant was grown from seed and was being a primadonna about sun/heat/water ratios for a while. I named them Brutus and Pixie: the rugged war scarred elder and the young naive cutie pie. It seemed right at the time. I think I may have killed Brutus for good. He caught something that turned all his leaves black. I washed and treated the roots, disinfected the pot and replanted with new dirt, but it’s not looking good. Pixie is flourishing and the little pink cup sprouted a single tiny lavender seed which is giving a very commendable if miniature effort.

I’m running a D&D campaign, which is astonishing. I was an avid gamer (tabletop and LARP, not console/PC) for 20-25 years of my life, but I haven’t played anything since 2014, and I haven’t played D&D since maybe high school and I have NEVER played with the new 5e rules so I’m really hoping I don’t accidentally kill the whole party with the first boss fight. It is good to have some real human socialization, though. Since our little town is pretty much Covid-free, we are meeting in person to have game sessions. Wild.

I might check myself into a fancy hotel on the beach for a couple days, just to feel like I’m on vacation. I hear the water parks are almost empty, too. I can’t do much in Korea due to the unbelievable heat which tries to melt my skin, cook my brain, and turn my joints into overfull sausages all at once. The beaches here are usually packed solid every summer (I have never even wanted to go) and now require reservations to enter the beach (no one is really sure how that’s going to go since there aren’t fences or gates…) in an attempt to keep the social distancing alive. I still don’t want to sit on the beach, but I think I could get behind a rooftop pool with an ocean view.

I’m going to attempt to resume writing. I still have a LOT of material from my travels in 2019 since I’ve done literally nothing with my Jordan/Egypt trips, or my Spain trip, and am less than halfway through the Ireland trip stories. Plus, I still have like 2 volumes of Chinese Fairy Tales that got dropped when my life turned upside-down.

I can’t guarantee a schedule or that I won’t sometimes interject with more of my own personal 2020 life struggles, but I’m hoping that maybe some new travel stories will help me to remember there are still great things out there and help you feel a little less cabin fever while you work on that self-isolation and social distancing.

Thank you everyone! Remember to wear your mask, wash your hands, smash the patriarchy, and support Black Lives Matter!

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Life a Little Upside-down

Hi everyone.

This is half letter, half rant, half diary entry. Yes, that’s 1.5 posts. I know. Don’t worry, it’s not THAT long.

All my posts through February and March were pre-written and scheduled in January. I haven’t written anything new since I found out there was such a thing as Covid-19.

All my great plans to be posting about Ireland and Spain while breezing through my Spring Semester classes that I’d worked SO HARD to prep into good shape last year specifically so they would be a breeze and leave me tons of free time to write and work on my PhD application are…. fucked.

As far as I can tell, everyone in the world is to a greater or lesser degree similarly fucked. I thought for a long time about what I could say here and every time I thought I knew, something changed.

Outside of China, it hit Korea hardest early on. When it started in Daegu I was still in Spain, and I figured I’d deal with it when my holidays were over. Then I got to the airport in Paris to discover that not only had my flight been cancelled but no one bothered to tell me or put me on a different flight. I had a pretty good idea that it was changed because Air France announced the cancelling of all flights through China, but when I checked the flight matrix, it looked like my flight was just changed to a direct flight – Paris to Seoul.

I thought about telling you about the 9 hour airport drama of getting on a new flight, but it seems trivial now that people are delayed days without news, or even completely blocked from returning home.

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Then I got here (Korea) and I stayed in my apartment for 14 days. Quarantine wasn’t mandatory yet, but my University asked us not to come to the campus for 14 days, and the weather was bitterly cold, no good for going out, plus all my plans to visit other cities seemed unwise as our case count climbed higher and higher every day. Public schools and universities were all delaying the start of the school year (normally March 1 in Korea).

I read constantly. Trying to understand this new and strange thing. I thought at first it might be like SARS or MERS and I held of on writing anything because I wanted to see what the resolution would be. By the time my 14 days was over, it was painfully obvious the resolution was a long long way off. However, I still couldn’t write here because by then I had permission to return to campus and the school had finally decided on an online class platform.

A week of total insanity where we all tried to figure out what this was, how to use it, being horribly frustrated with everything. The school trying to tell us all “it’s only for 2 weeks” and I kept trying to convince everyone it would be at least the whole spring semester and possibly longer.

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I thought about regaling you all with the horrors of teaching with a language barrier in a platform designed for meetings (not training sessions or classrooms) and totally inadequate technology, but by now there are hundreds of such tales from teachers of every level around the world. The Korean public k-12 schools will start their online classes this week and then there will be even more stories out there.

I got sick for about a week. It was only a little sick. I had a horrible non-stop headache and horrible sore throat that I thought were the result of the new online class format. I got a little cough, and a lot of fatigue, and I learned how to teach class from my bed in my pajamas. I don’t have a desk in my apartment. I’m feeling much better now. I don’t think it was Covid, but I didn’t ask to be tested, I just self quarantined until I was symptom free for over 72 hours. I tried to buy a thermometer, but I can’t get one, so I have no idea if I had a fever.

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And now I’m allowed back on campus. I have energy again. I am more informed. I feel like an amateur epidemiologist. I’ve done a 4 week intensive online crash course. I thought, “I should write something.”, but I still don’t know what say.

Korea is doing better, but in many ways only because so many Western countries are doing SO MUCH WORSE. I hate the way the President and PM and schools and everyone in charge has been handing out information one/two weeks at a time. The understanding from the WHO and top scientists that this is a long-term project, that a flat curve lasts longer than a tall curve, has been public for what feels like AGES and yet in Korea, they keep acting like it will all be over any minute now. Just another week …. maybe two. Then when the time is up, they say it again.

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While everyone in the West is still worried about mass graves seen from space or ice-rink morgues, I’m worried about idiots who can’t go one spring without looking at cherry blossoms ruining all the hard work we did in March and starting a second wave.

Actually, I’m worried about a lot of things. Mostly my family in America where it appears that life is well and truly fucked. My parents, my sister, and her two kids live over there. I’ve heard so many stories from drive up veterinarian offices (they don’t want people to come in, but still want to treat urgent pet health care issues) to race arguments about whether black people can catch it (spoiler, they can, but that’s not stopping people on Twitter spreading lies). It’s a patchwork mess, and everyone I know who is in a different county or city, let alone state, is experiencing something else. Schools are cancelling the remainder of the school year, so many people are out of work that the unemployment graph actually broke. Many of my friends are either part of that spike or stuck in “essential” jobs that put their health at risk every day, and since most of them also have underlying health conditions, I’m basically expecting people I love to die before this ends, and those who survive to be financially crippled for years if not forever.

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I am very full of emotions.

I distract myself with school and mindless TV as much as I can because if I think too hard about what is going on in the world, I cry.  Like, now.

I’m reassured by a multitude of therapists and psychiatrists that this is normal. That what we are experiencing is so big and so terrible that our poor little brains are just totally unequipped to handle it. The amygdala is in overdrive trying to decide what fear response to use for this unseen threat – fight? flight? freeze? WHAT? cycling us through an endless, relentless roller-coaster of emotions that we may not even recognize as related to the pandemic if we don’t listen carefully to ourselves. Grief is present. Grief for lost opportunities, lost jobs, futures… that’s a real thing. Anticipatory grief is a real thing too. Mostly people go through that when a loved one has a terminal illness. I’m grieving the loss of my life plan and I have some anticipatory grief because I am pretty sure I’ll loose someone I love and almost 100% sure I will lose someone I know. Then there’s depression, anxiety, dissociation, mania. There’s also a collective trauma being built that we will all own the aftereffects of for the rest of our lives. You don’t heal from grief and trauma, you just learn to let it take less space and cause less pain gradually over time, and we are nowhere near the part of this where we can even START to do that.

I’m trying hard to let myself feel my feelings, but also not to let them drown me, and not to forget to be grateful for good things, not forget to enjoy things even while I worry and fear and hurt. It’s hard.

My job is something I can focus on. I work to remake lesson plans into the ill-equipped web format I’ve been ordered to use. I read a lot of advice from other educators online. I spend a lot of time trying to remember my students are so young and so ill-equipped to handle what is happening in their lives right now that I have to be calm, and gracious, and forgiving and encouraging, but I feel like I’m not getting enough of that for myself.

I think my friends/family are trying, but we’re all so scared and unsure that no one can really be “the adult” who listens and supports and comforts. I don’t want a therapist for this (yet), I just want someone to listen to me rant and then tell me comforting things. It’s not easy. No one is unaffected by this. The ring theory does not work when everyone is in the same ring!

ringtheory1I also started an art project before my winter holidays, another paper sea creature. It’s incredibly intricate and I spend at least one day a week happily cutting tiny pieces of paper and checking colors and patterns until I’m happy with one. It’s coming along nicely. Some people paint, draw, or use coloring books. Some people are cooking, or making music, or writing, or making videos, or holding virtual karaoke rooms. Art helps.

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Another thing I can focus on is my hobby of travel and photography. I can’t travel right now, but I can dream about it and remember it. I started an Instagram challenge to post a landscape photo every day from a different place in alphabetical order. I call it the #alphabetlandscapechallenge and it’s really excessive, but I needed something complex and detailed to focus on.

I met a lady from Malaysia on Insta the other day and we talked about travel plans for like an hour. At the end she said she felt guilty for dreaming about travel while so many people in the world were worried about COVID, their health and employment.

Someone, somewhere is always suffering in the world. Even before COVID there were people in fear of their health, dying for want of medicine, unable to feed their children, unable to find a job or working for slave wages. I believe it is important never to forget these things, but also to not let them destroy us. I don’t usually go in for quoting religions of any kind, but even Jesus agrees with me on this one, guys.

Now more than ever we need beautiful, creative things. We need dreams of what will come after that are better than what came before. So, maybe that’s what I want to say.

If you take anything away from this rambling letter, then take these 3 things:

Everyone is in this together.
It’s ok to not be ok.
It’s important to keep dreaming.

Now, #staythefuckhome and #flattenthecurve.

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Myths & Tales from China 08

This episode is all about animal women: the spirits which are mostly animals, but sometimes turn into beautiful maidens that hapless mortals fall in love with. Lots of cultures love spirit animals that turn into women who marry worthy or clever men. China is no exception. Here’s three stories about a peacock (well, peahen), a snake, and a mollusk who bridged the gap between the spirit, animal, and human worlds.


Peacock Princess

A long time ago, beside the Lancang River was a beautiful Peacock Kingdom. The Emperor and Empress had seven daughters altogether. Each one grew up to be extremely beautiful, and moreover, as long as they wore their dazzling peacock feather robes, they were able to fly. Every day they flew far from home to Jinhu, the Golden Lake, to bathe.

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One day they went down to Golden Lake again, continuously playing until the sun set, and only then hurrying ashore to dress. But as for the youngest little sister, Nanmu Ruona, her peacock feather robe was nowhere to be seen! They searched all over the surrounding meadow, but simply couldn’t find it. Just then, a young lad carrying a feather robe walked up and went over to Nanmu Ruona. He very courteously apologized to her and said he was alone and meant no harm, merely to express his feelings of admiration. Actually, he was Prince Shao Shu Tun of the country Meng Ban Jia. While hunting, he was chasing a golden deer to the bank of Golden Lake where he saw the peacock princesses. He was immediately smitten with their beautiful figures and flower-like smiles, especially that of the youngest princess. Thus he took the feather robe of the seventh princess, Nanmu Ruona.

At that moment, the six elder sisters were all urging the youngest princess to quickly return home, but the young princess saw that the prince was handsome, tall and sturdy, and fell in love with him, so she lowered her head and said nothing. Thereupon, the eldest sister took charge and agreed to let the youngest sister stay behind at Shao Shu Tun’s side. Soon after the six elder sisters and younger sisters shed tears and said farewell, then flew back to the Peacock Kingdom.

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The grand wedding ceremony for Shao Shu Tun and the Peacock Princess Nanmu Ruona was barely finished when war broke out at the border lands. Shao Shu Tun had no choice but to bid farewell to his newly wedded bride and lead his troops to the front line to fight. In the beginning, news came in every day of Shao Shu Tun’s defeat in battle, and the King, Shao Meng Hai paced frantically in circles. Then, an evil wizard said to him, “Nanmu Ruona is a demon transformed, it is she that has brought about this disaster and misfortune, she must be killed at once.” Shao Meng Hai heard what the wizard had to say then ordered the Peacock Princess to be burned to death.

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Nanmu Ruona was carried down to the execution grounds. Her face was streaming with tears, and she begged Shao Meng Hai to let her dance one more time, and Shao Meng Hai agreed. Nanmu Ruona spread the brilliantly colored peacock feather robe over her shoulders and began to dance elegantly. She danced and danced, and then she flew up into the air.

Not much later, Prince Shao Shu Tun defeated the invading enemy and returned to the palace. After hearing the news that his wife had been falsely accused and had flown away he was completely brokenhearted. In order to comfort him, his father the King had all the most beautiful women in the kingdom go to the Shao Palace for him to choose among. But the Peacock Princess was the only one in Shao Shu Tun’s heart, and he resolved to find his wife and bring her back. Even if the Peacock Kingdom was as far as the horizon, he would go.

He walked and walked; he walked for ninty-nine days. He experienced countless trials and tribulations, and at last arrived at the Peacock Kingdom and found the Peacock Princess. The estranged couple were reunited. In that moment, a hundred flowers bloomed and a hundred birds sang, and all over the Peacock Kingdom the young men all cheered for their pure and sincere love, and the young women all danced for the reunion of husband and wife.

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Note: I think this story is very similar to our own stories of swan lake and the swan princess. It also might be the closest thing to a Disney-style princess idol because there are a lot of little girl peacock princess costumes on the Chinese internet. If you would like to watch the cartoon these images are from, please follow the link.


Lady White Snake

A long time ago, on top of Mt. Emei (in Sichuan), there was a white snake and a green snake, they had been practicing Daoist austerities for the last thousand years, and had both cultivated the ability to change into human shape. They very much yearned for a life in the human world. One year during the Tomb Sweeping Festival season (April), the two were unable to hold back their curiosity, and decided to take a tour of the human world. The white snake transformed into a beautiful and dignified lady and took the name Bai Suzhen, which means ‘pure white silk’. And the green snake transformed herself into a servant girl called Xiao Qing, which means ‘little green one’. And they both went down to Xihu (West Lake) to go sightseeing.

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On the Broken Bridge, they were in the middle of stopping to admire the view of West Lake when suddenly it started to rain. Bai Suzhen and Xiao Qing wanted to find some place to avoid the rain, and just then a scholar unfurled an umbrella for them to block out the rain. Bai Suzhen and the scholar fell in love at first sight. Xiao Qing saw it in their eyes and quickly said, “May I ask, oh noble son, what be thy august family name?” The scholar replied, “I am called Xu Xian, and I live beside the Broken Bridge.” From then on, they made arrangements to meet, and before long the two had married and become husband and wife. They opened up “Bao He Tang” pharmacy (which means ‘the Hall of Preservation of Harmony’) beside West Lake. Bai Suzhen used her magical powers to cure many people’s difficult and complicated illnesses. What’s more, for the poor, they would examine them and prescribe medicine and not charge a single cent, so the business was flourishing. The people affectionately nicknamed Bai Suzhen as “Bai Niangzi” or White Lady.

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However, Bao He Tang‘s prosperity offended one person – the Buddhist monk Fahai of Jinshan (Golden Mountain) Temple. Because everyone was getting cured at Bao He Tang, the number of people coming to Jinshan Temple to burn incense and pray to the Bodhisattvas was shrinking. One day, Fahai came to Bao He Tang’s main gate, he watched Bai Niangzi give one person a treatment, then attentively do a dozen more, a-ya! In truth, this White Lady isn’t an ordinary person, but rather a snake spirit! Therefore, Fahai found an opportunity to bring Xu Xian into the temple. He told Xu Xian that his wife was a transformed snake spirit and taught him a way to cause Bai Suzhen to appear in her original form. Xu Xian listened to this, half believing and half doubting.

In no time, the Dragon Boat Festival arrived (autumn), Xu Xian, in accordance with the method Fahai taught him, ceaselessly urged Bai Suzhen to drink Red Orpiment wine. Bai Niangzi was unable to put it off, and had no other option but to drink several glasses. The result was that she soon changed back to her original shape. Xu Xian saw the white snake and fainted dead away. After Bai Niangzi cleared her head, she revived  Xu Xian. Xu Xian knew that Bai Niangzi was truly his own beloved one, and no longer minded whether she was a human or a snake spirit, the two of them were even more in love.

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Fahai saw that his strategy failed, so he once more tricked Xu Xian into coming to Jinshan Temple, and pressured him to leave home and become a Buddhist Monk. Xu Xian was not willing, so Fahai locked him inside the temple. Inside Bao He Tang. When Lady White didn’t see Xu Xian return home, she burned with impatience. She asked about and heard that Xu Xian was being held by Monk Fahai at Jinshan Temple. She quickly took Xiao Qing along to Jinshan Temple, and begged Fahai to release Xu Xian. Fahai was indifferent, and Bai Niangzi was quite furious. In spite of the fact that she was pregnant, she drew her golden hairpin from atop her head, shook it into the wind, and summoned up a torrential surge to flood Jinshan Temple.

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Fahai promptly took off his kasaya robe and transformed it into a dam, blocking off the temple gate. If the flood waters rose a foot, the dam also grew a foot taller, so no matter how big the waves got, they could not go unrestrained. Bai Niangzi was pregnant, so she couldn’t really fight Fahai and had no choice but to flee under the protection of Xiao Qing. While they were fleeing to the Broken Bridge, they ran into Xu Xian by chance, also fleeing the Jinshan Temple.

Several months later, Bai Niangzi gave birth to a son. Many people came to congratulate them, and Fahai also came. He held in his hands a begging bowl of a Buddhist Monk, and worked an enchantment on Bai Niangzi. The alms bowl slowly rose into the air, and suddenly emitted ten thousand golden rays of light. Bai Niangzi was illuminated by the rays, and immediately became weak all over, she was powerless to resist, and was collected into the bowl. Fahai pushed her down under the Leifeng Pagoda beside West Lake.

Xiao Qing was no match for Fahai, and had no choice but to retreat to Mt. Emei, go back into the cave and return to practicing Daoist austerities. Twelve years later, she had finally completed the True Fire of Samadhi, and came to find Fahai for revenge. There was nowhere for Fahai to escape being burned by the True Fire of Samadhi, so in a great rush, he hid inside a crab shell. Leifang Pagoda collapsed, and Bai Niangzi was saved. From then on, she and Xu Xian, Xiao Qing, and their child all lived a blessed and happy life together.

These beautiful stills are from the newly released (fall 2019) feature film. 


The Shell Maiden

A long time ago, there was a young man in a village. From the time he was little he had no father or mother, and his family was also poor. At twenty years old he had still not taken a wife. He could only work and suffer hardships, and every day he worked hard manual labor in the fields. One day when he was working in the rice paddy, he accidentally picked up a large periwinkle mollusk. He thought that was very strange, so he took it back home and kept it in a water jar.

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Time passed quite quickly; in the blink of an eye three years had gone by. Then one day the young man finished work and returned home to discover that the table was spread with delicious and savory food. He looked left and right, but didn’t see anyone. He thought it was very strange, but was very hungry so regardless of the consequences, he sat down at the table and began to eat. The flavor of the food was really good. He thought while he ate, who could have cooked this delicious food? The even stranger thing was that from that day forth, every day he came home to see a table full of delicious rice and vegetables, and that the house had been put in order, neat and tidy without one speck of dirt.

The young man thought this was becoming increasingly strange. He thought to himself, “I can’t be sure it isn’t Mrs. Li from next door doing me a good turn.” Thus, the young man found Mrs. Li to thank her. The Mrs. Said, “It’s not me! I actually heard cooking noises from your kitchen and thought you had come home early!” This time the youth was even more confused, unable to make heads or tails of it. He was determined to figure it out.

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The next day, just like normal, he carried his hoe over his shoulder and went down to the field. A short time passed, and he stealthily ran back home, hid outside the door and peeked in. Soon it was midday, and from inside the water jar stepped out a goddess-like beautiful young maiden. She first adeptly cleaned the house, then went on to skillfully prepare a meal, at once stir-frying and deep frying, and delicious food quickly filled the table. When the food was finished, she laid out a bowl and chopsticks. When everything was properly arranged, she went to hide in the jar. The young man was baffled.

The next day at noon while the maiden was concentrating on preparing the food, the young man suddenly pushed open the door and rushed inside. The maiden saw him and was happily surprised. She wanted to hide in the water jar, but the young man rushed to step forward first and bar her way. He noticed that floating on the water in the jar was a periwinkle mollusk shell.

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Could it be that this maiden was the periwinkle mollusk transformed? The young man thought this as he pulled the empty mollusk shell out and threw it on the ground to break it. The maiden looked at the broken shell and immediately felt deeply hurt and began to cry, as she cried she told the young man the story of her life, “I am a periwinkle mollusk, many years ago I carelessly fell into an old fisherman’s net and was carried to the market to be sold. A small boy going past the market saw that big periwinkle mollusk drying out under the sun and took pity, so he bought me from the old fisherman, and returned me to the rice paddy. That small boy was a previous incarnation of you! We have been brought together by fate, this year we meet once more, you kept me in the water jar for three years, I did all this to pay a debt of gratitude… but now my mollusk shell has been broken, and I cannot change back into a periwinkle mollusk.”

The young man was deeply moved, and was profoundly attracted by her kindheartedness and beauty. He took the mollusk maiden’s hand, and sincerely requested that she stay and become his wife. The maiden blushed and nodded her head. Later on the two became parents; they had a pair of children, a boy and a girl. The more days passed, the happier they became.

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There are multiple books and animations of this, though no Disney-esque princess movie in the works that I could find. The cartoon I used is a much simplified (and possibly kinder) version of the story where the young man doesn’t break the shell. If you want to see the short animation, follow the link.

9 Days in Taiwan 2/2: City Scenes & Foodie Dreams

Taiwan part 2: In addition to beautiful natural scenery and a wide variety of temples, I meandered around some of the more famous urban settings such as the “old streets”, night markets, subway stations, urban parks, and street art. Winding through every Taiwanese experience is the food, unique and delicious. I often forget to eat while out doing tourist activities, but here the food IS the tourist activity, so come hungry!


City Scenes

Taipei

Shifen Old Street 十分老街
I went here as part of a day tour which also included the Geo-park, the waterfall, and the other famous old street, Jiufen. Old streets are very heavily curated quaint “old timey” feeling places that are actually tourist traps, but they’re fun tourist traps, with good food and excellent instagram photo-ops, so very worth going to. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying inauthentic-yet-fun attractions.

Shifen is famous for it’s train-tracks and the lanterns. It’s one of the only places you can send off a flying lantern, and probably the only place you can do it while standing on working railroad tracks. It’s a very small place, you won’t spend a day there, but it’s fun to walk around and see the small shops, specialty local foods, and of course, the lanterns.

Jiufen Old Street 九份老街
My views this day were severely inhibited by a very dense fog. This is advertised as the place that inspired the art of Spirited Away, but my guide told me that Miyazaki said he’s never been here. When I followed up later, what I found was this interview he gave (sorry, it is NOT in English) where he says he bases the scenes of his movies on his own surroundings in Japan, not in Taiwan.

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Jiufen does bear a striking resemblance to the city scenes in Spirited Away, but it is purely coincidence. I actually find it very sad that the Taiwanese tourism industry is promoting this untruth to attract visitors because Jiufen is amazing in it’s own right both because it is beautiful, and because of all the amazing food. People who go only because of it’s nonexistent connection to the movie come away disappointed instead of just enjoying Jiufen for what it is.

If you’re in Taipei, it’s certainly worth the visit. We took a city bus to the top of the road and walked back down to the tour bus parking lot. It’s about 200 stairs and only one way, so you won’t see different sites walking both up and down. I have a lot more to say about Jiufen in the “Foodie Dreams” section of this post below.

Taichung

Xinshe Castle 新社莊園古堡
This is a fantasy resort designed to look like a European fairy tale. It’s a little piece of Europe for those who can’t visit. When you think about it, it’s not that different from a Western country having an Oriental garden with little Tang Dynasty style buildings and pagoda gazebos. Sometimes you forget that other people are watching us while we’re watching them. I probably wouldn’t have gone on my own, but I was invited along with an ESL teacher who was also on holiday from Korea that I met in my hostel. She used to live in Taiwan and spoke quite highly of the garden and grounds. She was most excited about the swarms of fish in the pond that practically shove one another out of the water to get at the fish pellets tourists drop for them.

Most tourists go there to take pictures. Asian cultures really enjoy posing in photos, so much that there are often lines to stand next to famous landmarks or views. People will respect the line, but if you only want a photo of the view with no people it can be a real challenge. Since it was winter, there weren’t too many people in the park and I got a lot of photos, but I still had to wait strategically to get the best views free from posers.

Houli Forest Park 后里森林園區-天上掉下了一顆種子
After Xinshe we went to a flower garden which was less flowers and more interesting visuals including a really immersive video of pollen and a giant globe light show. I’m still not sure we went to the “right” place, because while everything on the internet says “go to the Houli Flower Farm”, what they actually mean (and show pictures of) is the Zhongshe Flower Market, which is in Houli, and probably very pretty, but reported as very small.

I on the other hand ended up in the Houli Forest Park which doesn’t turn up if you search in English (you can copy paste my Chinese above, or use the link). We had to park a ways out and there were shuttle buses into the park. If you take transit to the Houli Station, it’s less than 1km to walk from the station to the park.

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The Houli Forest Park is gigantic with displays of flowers and garden styles from around the world. It’s got a bit of United Nations through plants thing going on. There weren’t too many flowers because it was winter, but the garden displays were still fun and interesting. After dark, the large sphere puts on a lights and music show that is visually hypnotizing.

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Kaohsiung

Dome of Light 光之穹頂 at Formosa Boulevard Station 美麗島站
This is the world’s largest public art installation made from individual pieces of colored glass. It also just happens to be in a subway station in Kaohsiung. There’s no reason not to see this stunning work of art if you are in the city.

Pier2 Art Center 駁二藝術特區
I heard about the amazing street art of Pier2 and set aside a full afternoon to visit. I was pretty disappointed at first because, although I found what was clearly a very artsy area, it was much more artist work space than art on display. I enjoyed everything I saw, but I couldn’t understand where all the photos on Google Image search of Pier2 were hiding.

Only after a bubble tea break did I finally figure it out! All the signs point you to the right (if you’re facing the water). However, if you go left, away from all the “pier 2” signs and across the street and around the corner– there are all the warehouses filled with cute artist shops and restaurants!! Along with more murals, crazy street art, and giant art installations. The local street signs and maps of the area were very confusing, but it was worth it in the end.

Food

Before going to Taiwan, I asked people what they recommended I eat. I scoured the internet for recommendations of “must try” foods, and while I did find things that people ate, there wasn’t any kind of definitive “Taiwanese Food” list. Now that I’ve been, I realize that this is because you can go anywhere and eat anything and it’s going to be awesome. There are just too many wonderful variations and local/seasonal limited editions that it’s impossible to compose a full list, but if you are looking for some definitive items: bubble tea (boba), pineapple cake, beef noodles, pork rice, and dumplings. Here’s what I ate, and I can recommend all of it, but if you can’t find it, don’t worry because you can’t miss out on delicious dishes as long as you eat at any non-franchise place.

Taipei

Theif Chen Tea House 大盜陳茶飲 (the name is only in Chinese on Google Maps)
On the day I got my SIM card, I was just wandering around the neighborhood, and happened to spot a sign in the window for smoked oolong rose milk tea. Milk tea and boba (bubble tea) are absolute must haves in Taiwan, and there are lots of chances. The flavors are the fun part. This was made with smoked oolong and rose syrup and it was entirely dreamy! Smoky and dark, floral and sweet, creamy and cold.

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Lin’s Wagashi Confectionery 滋養製菓
Just down the street I spotted a confectionery shop with  fresh strawberry red bean rice cake. A traditional mochi style rice cake with sweet red bean paste, a combination I already love, with the added bonus of a fresh ripe strawberry. Heaven!

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Food Stalls near Taipei Station: not on a map
There are things like semi-permanent food trucks, but not all the way to “night market” status. Walk up, buy some food, walk away, zero seating. My Google Maps history says I got out at exit M5 and headed toward my hostel (We Come Hostel), so somewhere in that area there are amazing dumplings. I got pork and cabbage, good alone but awesome with the spicy sauce ($1.25), and the winner of savory food that day was the pork bun. I thought it was a little plain at first because my first bite was bun and juices, but the meat filling was amazing, tender, and a little lemongrass flavored (.50¢).

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Literally any convenience store:
It’s not only local food stands and tea houses that have food adventures. I got a ginger Twix at the corner store. It’s basically a Twix with a gingersnap core. I do enjoy trying local variants of global brands. If you pop in for a bottle of water, take a look around and see if there’s something unique on the shelves.

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Shifen Old Street
While reading about the Shifen Old Street, I discovered a recommended local delicacy of chicken wings stuffed with fried rice. There is one small shop which takes the bones out of chicken wings and stuffs them with fried rice. It’s absurd and delicious. Walk all the way up (it’s not far) and look for this cart.

Jiufen Old Street
This is a foodie bonanza. Other than the night markets, this was the greatest concentration of interesting foods in one place. I didn’t even have time to sample most of it because I couldn’t eat enough! Of what I did get to try, the winners were pineapple cake and peanut ice cream. Pineapple cake is another super famous Taiwan treat. I did not understand what the big deal about the pineapple cake was until I ate some. I had an idea of western style pineapple upside-down cake, which is a bit like a fruitcake and not a thing I’m very into. The Taiwanese pineapple cake is nothing like this. It looks like a very plain beige square, but holds a taste explosion. The middle is a perfect pineapple compote and the outside is a crumbly rich butter cookie.

The peanut ice cream (above) is actually pineapple and taro ice cream with shavings from a huge block of candied peanut wrapped burrito style. It’s a wonderful mix of sweet, salty, fruit, and creamy. I also tried an award winning nougat cookie. The coffee flavor was rich and well balanced with sweet, salty, and bitter. I understand why it won awards. The most interesting was a kind of thin pork jerky (paper thin) spiced with cinnamon and wrapped in seaweed. I would have never thought, but nori and cinnamon go well together. I mostly ate samples because a lot of the goodies were only sold in large gift boxes, but I’m glad I got to try so many things! Taiwan food is epic!

At the Underground Mall at Taipei Station
Somehow I was still hungry after all that food in Jiufen, so I got some beef noodles and onion pancake for dinner when we got back. The beef noodles are another famous item, and you can find them just about anywhere. It’s nothing different from what you’d expect, beef broth, noodles, beef and spices… it’s just… yummy.

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Taichung

Yizhong Street Night Market 一中街夜市
I chose a less famous and more local night market at the advice of my hostel, and ate so much food! I had fried squid for dinner and candied fruit for dessert. This type of candied fruit was something I first had in China and love love love. I was only sad they didn’t have the tart haw fruit version, but strawberries are a good substitute. While exploring, I kept seeing signs for black sugar bubble tea, turns out “black sugar” is basically molasses. The tapioca pearls are cooked in the molasses mixture and then mixed into the milk tea. SO GOOD!

Across the street from No. 65, Zhongxing Street, Dongshi District Taichung City
While I was hanging out with another ESL teacher and her local buddy, he drove us to a small hole in the wall restaurant. Google Maps doesn’t have the place I went, but in street view, I can see it’s across from No.65. Look for the teal awning, not the red sign. It’s a Kejia restaurant (Kejia are a local minority people) and I ate so many delicious vegetables.

The Uptowner  雙城美式餐廳
The ESL teacher I met on my trip invited me out to brunch at a local American influenced place. I got these beautiful Florentine Bennys, perfectly poached eggs, and delicious sauces with spinach and tomato added. I know it seems strange to go to Taiwan to eat American, but remember I don’t get this kind of food in Korea.

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Miyahara Ice Cream  宮原眼科
While I was looking online for famous food spots in Taichung, the Miyahara Ice Cream factory came up. It’s a top of the line gourmet ice cream and chocolate place that is in the old remains of a Japanese ophthalmologist’s building. Today it has a magical atmosphere that reminds visitors of Hogwarts. The building alone is worth a visit, but since you’re there, be sure to eat the ice cream too. They do sell single cones and cups out front (no seating), but if you come in, you can get one of the amazing 4 scoop sundaes as I decided to do in place of a normal dinner that night.

The 4 flavors I chose were 44% chocolate (light and creamy), 80% chocolate (dark and smokey), black tea and green tea. When they bring your ice cream to the table, they wheel out a toppings cart and you can choose 5. I went for cheesecake, pineapple cake, fruit candy, butterfly and bear cookies. While I was eating, the staff brought by a bonus raspberry flavor fluffy cheesecake dream to taste, so I ended up with 6 toppings. The ice cream was a bit gelato-like, very smooth, and dense, creamy not icy. The flavors were strong but balanced, and there was so much variety in my sundae I never got tired of combining different ice creams and toppings together. Taiwan really is foodie heaven!

Kaohsiung

Liuhe Night Market/Liuhe Tourist Night Market 六合夜市/六合觀光夜市
The night markets are the best place to get dinner if you’re willing to forgo seating (and it’s worth it to eat standing) At this one, I got baked scallop for an appetizer, Aboriginal style wild boar ribs for the main dish, and Chinese style candied sweet potato for dessert (also one of my favorites from China). It was so much fun to see all the foods on offer and to talk with the vendors. There’s less tourism in Kaohsiung, so they were more excited to have a visitor try their food.

Bonnie Sugar 駁二店 (at Pier2)
Another great example of serendipity. I was just feeling a little hungry after hours of walking and taking photos, so I popped into a cafe in the art area. I was rewarded with an amazing fresh fruit tart that the Parisians would be proud of and a carafe of fancy tea with fruit ice cubes. Too posh!

Near the FlyInn Hostel
Kaohsiung is much more industrial than either of the other two cities and there was very little to eat near my hostel, so I ended up with some strange food choices including whatever this chicken thing is and a random place where the old lady called her son out to help me because my dictionary won’t work on the menu. I really don’t know what it was… mystery dinner!

Just goes to show that no matter where you choose – the 5 star Yelp reviewed restaurant or the soup shop down the alley, you’re going to find Taiwan a gastronomic delight.


If you want to end your view of my Taiwan travel here on a high note, I certainly don’t blame you, but I continue to post stories of my physical/mental/emotional limitations during my travels because I want people with invisible limitations or chronic illnesses to know they aren’t alone and that your limits don’t have to stop you from seeing the world. 

Invisible Illness & Love of Travel

In Taipei, a day of temples and a full day tour wiped me out in the warm weather. Far from being “warm winter”, the unusually hot weather and high humidity (25c + 85% humidity is unseasonable) combined with hours of walking and hiking. By the third day I had to cancel additional sightseeing because the body said no. 

In Taichung, I met some fun people to spend the day with, another teacher who in lives Korea and her local friend. The local friend had a car and offered to drive us around and we had a lot of fun taking photos and being silly tourists together, but at some point I ran out of spoons and had no idea how to explain or adapt with these friendly strangers.

Trying to explain a few of my limitations and the accommodations I’ve made for myself (not expecting anyone to do for me, just the way I’ve come to manage my issues) I got a lot of push back from the girl who invited me along. Don’t get me wrong, it was 90% a good day but it was so hard to get her to understand why I was in pain and tired at the end and why I wasn’t going to be up for more the following day. She’s 13 years younger than me and basically said everything in the “you don’t look sick” playbook. I love meeting people and making new friends, I know I had more fun and more experiences with them than I would have alone, I just hate that I have to push myself beyond my limits just to be the slowest one in a group.

In Kaohsiung, going to Maolin and Foguang Shan on the same day was a lot. I got on the road at 7am, hiked all over a mountain for several hours, navigated the bus system on my own when Google turned out be a liar, hiked more at a mountain monastery (so. many. stairs.) and navigated back to town without relying on Google which is frankly crap about Taiwan public transit info. It was a 13+ hr day, and about 5-6 hrs spent hiking the hills and stairs.

By the end, I was tired, and my feet hurt like hell, but my legs were fine. It’s not a matter of being weak or out of shape because the parts of my body complaining (feet, ankles, lower back, hands) aren’t the muscles used to climb. I slept hard and long, and while not fully recovered the next day, I mentally/emotionally felt better than I did after the tour group day in Taipei or the day in Taichung with the other teacher and her friend.

It seems I just handle the challenges better when I’m on my own time table rather than trying to keep up with others. Being on my own still isn’t 100% guaranteed to be “at my pace” because sometimes I still have to hurry to catch a bus or something, but it definitely has less negative impact on my well-being. It makes me a little sad to think I’m just going to have to turn down invitations hang out with fellow travelers on the move, I love meeting people, and I get lonely quite often, but knowing I can achieve my travel goals if I’m patient with myself is something that can help me out while I’m on the road. 


That was my reflection at the end of the Taiwan trip a year ago. I still think it’s very much true. Even just walking to dinner with friends from the office, I struggle to keep up. In Ireland, I could see that some terrains I pulled ahead and in others my travel companion did. I had one good “hiking” day in Korea last fall, but mostly because we all agreed to go super slow and stop often for photos and the weather was awesome. Here in Spain as I write this I can tell that some days I have more or less brain fog, or that my ankles or knees are more or less able to handle the stairs. It’s not fun, but I can handle my body and brain most of the time, even the bad times. The hardest part is the isolation I feel when I get left behind because other people can’t. I ask if you have a friend or relative who is fine one day, but can’t do anything the next, don’t make a fuss. If they are a little bit slow, just slow down, too, but don’t say anything about it. It means more than you can imagine to be included without being made to feel like a burden.

Doolin & The Aran Islands

The Aran Islands are another quintessential Irish bucket list. There are three, and you can take a boat out to any of them. If you are travelling via tour bus, then the most likely path is from Galway through Rossaveal, but we had a car and decided to go out of Doolin. Doolin itself is spoken of with a kind of reverential awe by those who visit regularly and now I know why. If you are lucky enough to plan your trip to the islands from Doolin instead of Galway, make sure you plan time for some trad music in the evening.


Inis Oírr

We chose to go to Inis Oírr (pronounced roughly “inis sheer”), the closest and smallest of the islands. It seemed like a nice way to see them without being overloaded with tour groups which all go to Inis Mann or Inis Mor. When I was planning the day, I looked at a map of all the things to do and see, mostly ruins but you know I am a sucker for ruins, and I figured I could just rent a bike and ride around to see it all.

It’s also possible to get into the carriage and ride around, but I like to go at my own pace, and the island was neither large nor described as very hilly, so a bike seemed great. I was looking forward to seeing the ruins of the O’Brien castle, the sunken graveyard, and the wrecked battleship. In addition, I was planning to hunt down some Aran knitted wool products because, well, they’re famous. So much I did not know…

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On the day of our ferry tickets, we made it to the parking lot and drove aimlessly looking for a spot for longer than planned. It was with some relief that we made it with a few minutes to spare, or so I thought. I was informed at the ticket office that our ferry had already left! Of course, like every ticketed event, they advised us to arrive 10-15 minutes early and the parking dilemma set us back from that goal, but we were still at least 5 minutes early. I couldn’t believe that they would just leave!

I began to protest and ask about refunds since they left before the scheduled time, and they agreed to put us on another boat. The longer I watched the docks, the more it became obvious that there was almost no order to the ferries at all. It seems like a few boats make the trip, and a few companies sell tickets, but they are not connected. Both going out and returning, we were just put on whatever boat was most convenient and the staff collected a variety of colorful tickets. I suspect that they then use those to collect their passenger fees from the ticket selling companies later. It’s confusing and disorienting and more than a little frustrating, but I guess it works.

It was such a lovely day with clear skies and bright sunshine that my companion wanted to sit on the deck instead of in the covered portion of the boat. There is something to be said for this, as one is much less likely to get seasick on deck, however, one is also much less likely to stay dry. We were hardly out of the harbor when the wind picked up and the waves began to splash in, covering the floor.

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I pulled my shoes up to try and keep dry as the water swirled around. We were not allowed to move once the boat was in motion due to the extreme bouncing, so I was stuck. Then the waves began to come over the side. Small splashes at first, but soon large drenching waves. It began to rain. Sudden hard sheeting buckets of rain combined with waves splashing us in all directions. I did not have any waterproof clothing on whatsoever because the day was so lovely when we were on land. By the time we arrived to the island 30+ minutes later, I was entirely soaked: socks, underwear, everything.

This extreme damper on my mood was not tempered by the fact that the rain had once more evaporated as we pulled into the island harbor and beautiful sunny blue skies prevailed. If anything, it made me even more grumpy. If I’d just sat inside on the boat, I’d have gone from sunny dry land to sunny dry land. Instead I got soaked to the bone with no change of clothes ahead for hours. I declined the carriage and the bike rental shop and immediately set off in the opposite direction of all the other ferry passengers, hoping to find a quiet and empty place to soothe my emotional distress and dry my wet socks.

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I did find a quiet section of beach with no humans around and I traded out my layers of clothing, alternately wearing and sun/wind drying. I managed to go from totally soaking to slightly damp over the course of about an hour. I listened to some music and watched the ocean. I let go of my expectations and my plans, and was finally able/willing to head back toward the cluster of buildings and see what there was to see nearby. I didn’t really have the time or energy to bike around to all the sights, so I just walked. I got to see some of the homes, quaint little cottages all divided by stone walls. I found a sweater shop. I learned a lot more about Aran Knit.

The Aran knitting patterns are unique, especially when combined with a rougher, less treated (more waterproof) type of wool. They were made by fishermen’s wives to stave off the rain, seawater, and cold winds that I had gotten only a tiny taste of on my boat ride over. (I got drenched on a “sunny” day, imagine what it was like for the fishermen?) The tradition is maybe 100-150 years old, and the sheep aren’t from the Aran islands (anymore, not enough sheep). There’s a strong mythology about the types of stitch and patterns in the knit, but it’s mostly from a single source, which always makes me skeptical.

Whether or not the patterns link to certain clans or whether the original ladies who knitted them ascribed the mythological meaning to bring health, wealth and such to the wearer we can’t be sure. What is sure is that the distinctive patterns are unique and in high demand. Such high demand that there’s now factories churning out machine made versions of the traditional fisherman’s wear. You can order them online, you can buy them in any city in Ireland. I doubt any casual observer will know the difference. The machine made sweaters are lovely and affordable. I didn’t want one.

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I perused the shop’s offerings, observing tags and occasionally asking questions. The hand knitted sweaters were truly lovely, but they started around 100€ each. I thought a lot about how often I’d wear a really thick wool sweater in my life. It would be great for the 20 minutes I’m outside each day in the depths of winter, but then it would be too hot to wear inside. Plus, I’m already quite fluffy, and bulky clothes are not flattering on my figure. I looked longingly at the scarves, because I love scarves, but I also have too many already and am trying to figure out which ones to leave behind on my next major move. Finally, I settled on a hat. It is hard to keep my head warm in the cold winter winds and they’re meant to be taken off inside, plus don’t take up so much room in the luggage.

I chose a hand knitted hat in a lovely moss green with several different classic Aran stitches. The gentleman at the counter and I chatted for a while about the changes in Ireland and on the island specifically in his lifetime. He told me when he was younger, everyone went down to the lighthouse to watch the football (soccer) game on the only television on the whole island, and now they had stuff like WiFi! His wife was part of the group of ladies that knitted the in house goods, but he wasn’t sure if she had knitted the hat I chose or one of the other ladies had. The wool itself was from the Connemara area because there just weren’t enough sheep on the Aran Islands themselves to support the knitting, it being more a fishing (and lately tourism) economy than a sheep based one.

I actually wore the hat a lot during the rest of my trip in Ireland and it was a welcome addition to a wardrobe that was packed for a more summery climate than I ended up with.

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With my souvenir goal achieved, I continued to explore and came across a small meadow behind some abandoned buildings. Down among the grass and weeds was a zoo of tiny life. Little black winged and red spotted moths, fuzzy bumble bees, stripey caterpillars, and beautiful butterflies. I had a wonderful time crawling around on the ground and taking pictures.

The line for the ferries back was almost as chaotic as the ferries out, but I had more faith that we wouldn’t be left behind. The weather was getting squally again, and the ships captains were having chats about the best way to get back. They started out asking all the people subject to seasickness to get into certain boats which were less likely to be as impacted by the waves and which would take the most direct route back to Doolin. Our reservations included a trip past the Cliffs of Moher and would be about twice as long as the direct route.

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Sadly, by the time we all bundled onto the boats, the captains had decreed the weather was too bad to go to the cliffs. I made sure to get a seat inside for the ride back, turned on my music and had a little nap. I have been known to get seasick when I’m below decks, but this ship was fairly wide and had big picture windows. It was not a real question of being wet and cold vs being a little nauseous.

Once more, I learned that no matter what the weather looks like on land, it is not related to the weather even 5 minutes out to sea and that whatever plans you make in Ireland that involve the ocean are subject to drastic change and cancellation without warning. I think the boat trips were worth it, and I’m glad I went to the island, even if it meant getting soaked, but if you only have a couple days in Ireland, maybe stick to mainland activities to avoid disappointment.

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Doolin Cave

When putting together the day plan, we had a few hours in the late afternoon free and the cave looked like a good “all weather” option. I booked the tickets for pretty much everything we did ahead of time online because summer is the high season in Ireland and popular sites sell out fast. Even though I wasn’t feeling great after my very wet morning, it seemed like a waste not to use the tickets that were already paid for, so we headed to the cave.

20190805_162628The cave is famous because it has the longest freestanding (or free hanging I suppose) stalactite in Europe. It is quite impressive. Tours go down in groups with hard hats and a guide. There’s a LOT of stairs, a fairly short walk, and a very dramatic presentation where you walk into the main cavern in the dark (flashlights pointed at the ground) so that when the lights come on, you get a stunning view of the star stalactite. Originally, there was meant to be a garden walk involved in this as well, but the rainy weather which had prevented us from seeing the Cliffs had caught up to the mainland and it was positively pouring down. On top of that, the cafe was closed by the time we came back up. I think the stalactite was stunning, but overall, I wish we’d been able to enjoy the other things at the location.

Doolin Music House

Whatever hardships the day threw at us, the evening plans made up for it all. I was able to change into dry clothes, which helped a lot, and our nighttime plans were for some trad music in a local house. I’d reached out to Christy and Sheila via email and arranged for a space in their house show. Trad (traditional) Irish music is a big draw both for locals and tourists in Ireland and while a lot of it is available in pubs, those can be loud and crowded – a challenge to anyone who’s feeling overwhelmed at the end of a long, hard, rainy day of touristing.

The idea of sitting in a nice quiet living room and listening to music and stories was far more appealing than the pub. Sheila welcomed us in and invited us to sit by the fire which was burning local peat and smelled amazing. Peat is harvested from the bogs of Ireland. It’s dead and decaying organic matter that’s been pressed into turf. It’s dug up in chunks and dried in the sun, then used for fuel. Ireland doesn’t have a lot of trees, which is why so much is build of stone and why the people burn peat for fire. Even with new gas and electric heating systems being installed around the island, a lot of folks still use peat in their fireplaces and stoves. I also had the chance to see some of the harvesting and drying in process when we drove through peat bogs later on.

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When we first came in, we entered Sheila’s painting studio where she creates and displays her artwork. In the living room, however, the walls are covered with charcoal sketches of some of Ireland’s most influential trad musicians of yore. Sheila brought us some wine and other guests filtered in. It was mostly people over 50, I may have been the youngest in the room, but they were lively and talkative (I think the Irish might be the only people who talk as much as the Americans). We were served a light meal of local salmon and local cheeses with fresh bread and we just ate and chatted for a while. It was very relaxing, like a dinner party at a friend’s house.

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When we had all finished eating, Kristy and James came out with a fiddle and an armload of flutes. James stuck to his fiddle the whole night and only very rarely spoke. Kristy was every inch the Irish story spinner and played a variety of flutes and even the spoons at one point. Between songs, Kristy would tell us all stories about the music and about growing up in Ireland. Although he never said his age directly, I gather he must at least be in his 70s if not older. He’s been performing professionally for more than 40 years, but the stories he told about his childhood experiences lead me to believe he’s been playing much much longer. 

I did not have the kind of memory capacity in my phone to record all those wonderful stories, but I was charmed by tales of the older way of life that had still been common when he was a boy. How all the men worked hard physical labor jobs, and almost no one had any money, but it barely mattered because they could go round to each others homes at night and play music and dance. He told us the history of the instruments and how the music grew up as something more to accompany dancers than as it’s own art. Dancers were the percussion and the main entertainment. A musician who couldn’t follow the dancer’s beat wouldn’t soon be invited to play again.

Sheila and her friend came out to show a small demonstration of the dancing, so focused on the movement of the feet and the stillness of the body. The whole world has seen Riverdance by now, the famous show that came from this traditional dance style. It has been heavily adapted to appeal to a broader audience with more movement and flash, but the original style is very subtle and very challenging to master.

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We listened to music and stories totally captivated. It is one of my best memories of the entire trip. My Airbnb host, Marcella, lives just up the road, and of course has known Sheila for years and was stunned to find they were asking so “high” a price as 25€ per person for the experience. I found it to be totally reasonable for such a wonderful evening. No public show could have compared to the warmth and personal touches of being in their home, and yet they were impeccable hosts with regard to our comfort and keeping our wine glasses full. Plus, while they may just be the neighbors to Marcella, Kristy is a world renowned and award winning musician with a lifetime of amazing stories to share.

Every night is different because different musicians and dancers show up to accompany Kristy. Plus, although the night I was there, none of us were brave enough, Kristy did say he likes it to feel more like a group event than a performance, and anyone is welcome to sing, play or dance as they like.

The main website is very classy, and doesn’t properly give the impression of the impish charm that Christy exudes. I took a single video for my own memories and to share with you all, but if you want to see more, their Facebook Page has a much wider selection than the primary website.