Back in the USSR? This time with a visa!

I am falling right behind on my goal of 1 blog post a week. In a desperate effort to get moving, I went and found the most complete draft on file, also the only one I wrote AFTER vacation instead of quick notes on a bus this summer. Maybe there’s a reason Dostoevsky and Tolstoy wrote such long novels. I was also inspired toward verbosity by my brief visit to mother Russia and I have had to split up the story into 2 parts. In part one: explore the bureaucracy of communism, the truth behind the soviet stereotypes, and an encounter at the Metropol Hotel.


Airports Are Ugly

I have flown through the Moscow SVO airport before. It’s not especially exciting, but their primary state run airline is dirt cheap so I find myself having layovers lasting on average 3-4 hours there. This time I had a 20 hour layover on the return flight. I can’t imagine many airports I would willingly spend 20 hours inside. As Douglas Adams once famously wrote, “There is a reason why no language on earth has ever produced the phrase ‘as pretty as an airport’.” Since the first time I read this I have had the singular experience to be in some of the best and worst airports in the world, and I can say with certainty that the Moscow International Airport is not a place to linger.

There are few places you can sleep inside the airport, like hourly rental sleeping pods, or even the airport’s very own hotel (the one Snowden hid out in). I looked into these and discovered that the prices are almost as much as the plane tickets. Even if you’re willing to camp out on the crowded and uncomfortable airport seats, there is no way to get WiFi unless you have a Russian phone number, so be prepared to be both uncomfortable and bored. In order to take advantage of any less expensive hotel (or WiFi) option, you have leave the airport, but unless you are from a very narrow list of close Russian allied countries, you can’t leave the airport without a visa. And you can’t get a visa at the door, you have to apply for and pay for that visa well in advance of your arrival.

You Need a Visa To Get In

Tourist visas to Russia require a letter of invitation. These are usually arranged by tour guides which seems like a giant scam, but that’s a whole other rant. Transit visas can bypass the letter requirement if you have proof of your ongoing flight. The transit visa can be used for up to 3 days if you’re flying and 10 if you are travelling by train.

Thus, my trip to Moscow actually started in June with the Russian Consulate in Busan, South Korea. Since they weren’t open on my day off, I got up very early in the morning on a Friday and bused into Busan to file my paperwork. I was able to fill out and download the application online and print it at my office, however the application took several hours to fill out because in addition to all the normal information, they wanted the exact dates of all my international travel for the last 10 years. They also wanted complete information on all my secondary education, and on my parents, and to know if I had any education whatsoever about nuclear weapons (I do!). I felt like I was filling out a background check for the CIA.

I nervously handed over the painstakingly researched application form and paid the 100$ fee, hoping that nothing would disqualify me from going and returned to my home to wait a week for the results. I shouldn’t have been worried. Communism loves bureaucracy and to make people jump the hoops and I have become an expert form filler. A week later I made the trek back to the consulate and my passport was returned to me with a shiny new 1 day visa inside. I booked a hostel and an airport shuttle and more or less forgot about it for 2 months.

Midnight Arrival

When I landed in Moscow, it was just after midnight and amid a flood of Chinese tourists, but it didn’t actually take all that long to go through customs and immigration. Since I was technically on a layover with a connecting flight, I had checked one bag through and was only carrying my day pack and a basic change of clothes with me. My visa was scrutinized intensely. This guy busted out a jeweler’s lens to stare at it in minute detail. Eventually, finding nothing wrong, they allowed me to pass out of the international terminal and onto Russian soil.

There is an oddity about the Moscow airport in that the WiFi requires you to give a phone number where they will send you a code to log on. It’s “free WiFi” but you can’t access it if you don’t have a Russian phone number. It’s frustrated me every time I’ve flown through, and I’ve never been able to get it to work. Really, it’s free if you’re Russian, but it’s a taunting WiFi dream to international travelers. Knowing this, while still in Norway, I had downloaded the offline version of the Moscow map in Google maps (which is a lie), and the Russian language on Google translate (which I never actually used) as well as information about my hostel, just in case.

I got some money changed to Rubles, and I found my driver. If my flight had landed during the day, I might have tried out the public transit, but at midnight thirty I was happy to see a man holding a sign with my name on it and ready to take me directly to the hostel, even if the ride did cost more than the room. It was a long and empty ride through Moscow. I’m not sure if it was just the late hour but the roads were empty. And they were huge! City roads, with business and sidewalks, not like highways, just roads that were 10 lanes across, 5 lanes in each direction. I stared at them wondering how people crossed the roads on foot and even more if these behemoths aided in the flow of traffic. Do enough people in Moscow own cars for this to be actually useful or is it just for show?

Hostile Hostel?

Checking into the hostel was another long rigmarole of paperwork: fill this out, sign this, make a copy of my passport and visa, etc. I chose a cheapish hostel thinking since I only was going to get maybe 6 hours of sleep, I didn’t need much but I also carefully selected one that was highly rated with plenty of good reviews and a location that would make it easy to get to Red Square in the morning.

One day… the lesson is going to stick. When travelling in less affluent countries: spend the money on a private room! The hostel bed was around 10$ and a private room would have been about 30$. It’s a big difference and at the time I was thinking about every little penny because I wanted to keep my budget down and Moscow was already costing me 100$ just for stepping out of the airport. I had spent a single night in Paris in a dorm and slept pretty well, but that was Paris.

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The hostel itself did not live up to my expectations based on ratings and photos. Looking back I can see those are real photos, but they were clearly taken when the interiors were brand new or at least recently deep cleaned. In reality the place was much more dark, dank, cramped and dirty than the photos represent. Even by the light of day. Now, I’m not saying it was a shithole… it did meet my minimum standards of clean and the staff were very polite in a cold sort of way, but I did not rest well.

Like many hostels in Europe, I was expected to make my own bed. The staff do not consider it their responsibility to put sheets on the bed, nor to remove them. I struggled with this as it was almost 1am and I had a top bunk and everyone else was asleep, so I couldn’t turn on the light. Also, the bedroom door seemed to have no lock at all. The bathrooms were very tiny and when you’re sharing a single bathroom with all the other women in a large hostel, that’s a challenge.  One of my roomies snored so loudly that it made my bed actually vibrate. I could feel her snores. I put in earplugs, headphones, and squashed pillows, blankets and towels around my ears to no avail. When I got up to get dressed, there was no place private to do so.

The hostel included WiFi, which did work well, yay, and a free “breakfast”. In the morning I discovered this meant a choice of two sugar cereals, luke-warm milk, watery coffee, and packets of what I really think were yogurt powder. I couldn’t read the Russian labels and I didn’t try to eat it, but they were packets filled with what felt like a powder with pictures of bowls of yogurt and fruit on the front. And somehow this breakfast is rated 7.7 on Booking.com. In fairness, that is the lowest internal rating and every other criteria is rated 8.4 or higher. I don’t know what your life has to be like for this to be a 7.7/10 breakfast, but I never want to live it.
Gallery image of this property

Just, please, if you see me talking about booking a hostel dorm in a developing country or a current/previous communist country STOP ME. I’m not trying to be a snob, but sleeping properly is so important to my well-being and my ability to enjoy waking activities and I just can’t sleep properly in those conditions. I envy the people who can.

Metro Mishaps

Despite these setbacks and the severe lack of sleep, I was still determined to make the most of my day in Moscow. I had a detailed and timed itinerary that I hoped would allow me to see everything I wanted to before it was time to go back to the airport. The first thing I discovered is that the Google Map of Moscow isn’t great, and the offline function doesn’t really do anything. Here’s a pretty building I found while searching for the metro.

20180821_091840It took me ages to find the Metro station that was meant to be a 5 minute walk from my hostel in part because Google, and in other part because the Metro stations in Moscow don’t have any helpful signs with pictures or symbols to identify them. Maybe they say the name of the station on the outside, but I was looking for a big “M” or an icon of a subway train which has been a constant in every other metro system I’ve used. This is actually the logo for the Moscow metro and it was not on any of the buildings or any signs nearby.Image result for moscow metro

When I finally realized that the big square beige building was the metro station, I had walked past it at least 7 times because I thought it was a government building like a post office or police station. It was much easier every other time because at least they all look the same. Of course I didn’t take a picture at the time, and now looking at stock photos of the building I see that it clearly has a big red M on top and a sign out front, so I can’t explain why it eluded me so. I blame sleep deprivation.

Once I found the entrance, I was happy to learn that the metro system itself is actually very easy to use, and cheap too. Rather than go through the hassle of buying a ticket for every trip, I just bought a 24hr pass for about 3$ US. That’s a whole day pass for less than the cost of a single trip in most EU countries, by the way, and goes a long way to explaining the powdered yogurt situation.

On top of its ease of use and affordability, the Moscow metro is famous for it’s unique and beautiful (on the inside) metro stations . At some point in the soviet era, it was a gift to the people to make each public transit station a work of public art. No one could visit them all in one day, but I tried to get some pictures inside the ones I did use. They are very very Soviet, but amazing works of art nonetheless.

Red Square Obscured

When I emerged from the station at Red Square I was instantly lost. I had expected the world’s largest public square to be visible from the metro station that shared it’s name, silly me. I adopted the time honored method of picking a direction and watching where my GPS dot went on the map. The first landmarks I ran across were actually the Metropol Hotel and the Statue of Marx. I recognized them from my plans as places I had intended to go later in the day, but it did help orient me to find Red Square and St. Basil’s Cathedral which was the top of my list for the day.

20180821_100129Sadly, I still don’t know what Red Square looks like, since there were about a million white tents set up and a large area blocked off and converted into a stadium for an upcoming festival. I walked slowly and perused the kiosks selling a narrow but colorful array of Russian souvenirs. I didn’t stop to buy, however because it looked mostly mass produced.

I also walked past the line to Lenin’s tomb, where he is preserved and laid out in a rather grotesque honorarium. Entrance to the monument is free, but there is no way to reserve an entry time, so people queue for hours for a chance to gawk at the dead body. I told myself it would be interesting if the line was short enough, but by the time I arrived around 10am, it was already all the way down the block and didn’t seem to be moving very fast.

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Tourist Stuff

St. Basil’s did not disappoint. It was crowded as heck, but it is a fun building. Everyone has seen at least one picture of the iconic colorful onion turrets and it was definitely a treat to see it in person. I wandered around trying to find the best angle for a photo, but since large swaths of the surrounding area were blocked off for the upcoming festival, it was a little challenging.

20180821_101349It’s possible to go inside for a fee, but online reviews all agreed that the cool part is on the outside. Bonus, there was a marching band practicing in the temporary stadium field nearby, so I got to watch a little bit of counter-marching through the fence and experience some serious cognitive dissonance as they played the 1812 Overture (for non-Americans, that’s because it’s a staple of our own Independence Day celebrations).

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Checking the clock, I realized it was time to head over to the gardens and try to find the entrance to the Kremlin. Only, because the entire breadth of Red Square was fenced off with a giant temporary stadium and lots of souvenir booths, I couldn’t follow my pre-planned route and Google maps was turning out to be f*ing useless. Once more I adopted the “pick a direction and walk” method, which resulted in me walking nearly all the way around the Kremlin, which is not a small building. In the middle of my walk, the sky went from a bit overcast to “wrath of Neptune”.

I always have my travel umbrella but it would not have withstood the torrential downpour that issued forth from the skies. Lucky me, at that precise moment, I happened to be passing under the only cover for several blocks in either direction, a bit of scaffolding along one corner of the Kremlin’s outer wall. Even standing under the scaffold with my back to the wall, I could feel the spray from the force of the rain around me. I sat there as other pedestrians scurried to the shelter and wondered if my plans to explore outdoors would be totally rained out, and what I could possibly do instead with no working internet. But before I could even really start to work it out, the rain slowed to a drizzle and I felt confident in resuming my walk armed with my little umbrella.

When I did reach the entrance, I found another huge line for the people who already had tickets, and I continued on through the gardens in search of the ticket office.

What’s With All These Lines?

I know there is a stereotype about lines in Russia. Or at least there was when I grew up in the cold war in America. We were told about how people had to just stand in long lines for hours to get bread, or sometimes not even knowing what was being passed out at the head of the line or if there would still be any by the time you got to the front of the line. They were communism horror stories told to show us how terrible the USSR was and how great America and capitalism were by contrast. I know it was propaganda, but I’m not sure it was untrue. I had already seen the huge line for Lenin’s tomb, but I knew that was a free event, and no way to buy tickets in advance.

Looking at the line to buy tickets to stand in the line to get in at the Kremiln was just insane. I freely admit that I ignored my note to myself in my calendar to book those tickets online in advance. Everything else in Europe I booked before I even left Korea, but Russia only takes reservations for the Kremlin 2 weeks in advance. While I was in Sweden. I made a note to do it, and I saw the note, and I ignored the note. My own fault. However, looking at the lines, I am not sure I would have made it through the “advance ticket line” even with enough time to really see anything.

I am a bit sad I didn’t get to see the Kremlin and especially the museum with the historical art and artifacts of pre-communist Russia. However, if I do make it back to Moscow, I will dedicate a whole day to the Kremiln alone, knowing what I know now.

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Fun With Costumes

Instead of sulking about it, I decided to move on and see what other fun things I could find. I was not disappointed. Shortly past the ticket office, the scenery livens up and I found some more public gardens, statues, fountains, and a quite charming pair of street entertainers dressed up in “historical” costumes and posing with tourists for tips. They made me smile and so I probably gave them more money than I should have, even though it was less than they asked for.

Continuing on I managed to find a slightly more accurate historical costume depiction where it seemed like a professional group was showing off the history of Russia and perhaps it’s trade partners with booths showing different herbs and spices, old astronomical tools and charts, paints and dyes, and other medieval type crafts and pursuits. It was all in Russian, though, so I wasn’t able to glean much from the informative talks the costumed historians were giving to the other folks in the park.

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Thwarted at Every Turn

After a quick gander at the statue of Karl Marx and the Bolshoi ballet because I was standing right there,

 
I headed up to the Metropol Hotel to see what I could find in the way of a fancy lunch. I had found a few places on line that seemed to indicate there was a high tea available, and while the website of the hotel still had it displayed in some places, the actual “high tea” page was not working. Still, I had seen the restaurant menu and knew it would be ok even if I just had lunch.

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The very first thing I saw was a bunch of construction and a sign saying the restaurant was CLOSED for repairs and upgrades. My optimism and adventurousness was wearing thin at the edges around now. So far, all of the things I’d set out to do with my very limited time in Moscow had either been harder than expected or totally impossible. I was also VERY hungry since the last meal I ate was a deli sandwich I got in Oslo the night before. I am not counting the bowl of sugar coated flakes at the hostel as a “meal”.

Clinging to the very last shreds of my “lets have a good time anyway” thoughts, I found the main entrance to the hotel to see if they were serving anything anywhere because I really didn’t know what else to do or where else I could go for a much needed lunch.

Although the staff at the hotel bar had no idea what tea ceremony I was talking about, (even though it’s on their website!) they were happy to seat me at a comfy chair in the lobby and bring me a menu. I ordered a “Stranger in Moscow” to drink, and salmon blinis for lunch.

The WiFi Is a Lie

When I went to explore the WiFi options, I discovered that the special nature of the Moscow airport WiFi was actually the rule of thumb for all Russian WiFi. I asked the staff if there was any way to log on, but without a room number or Russian phone number it was impossible. They didn’t even have a guest account available for customers of the bar or restaurant.

The more places I went, the more I realized this is just the way it works. Even Starbucks, a place famous for it’s free WiFi was inaccessible to anyone without a Russian phone number. So, if someone tells you not to bother with a SIM card because there’s plenty of free WiFi, well, they are both right and wrong. The WiFi is free, but you can’t use it without that SIM + Russian phone number. If I had known, I would have made the SIM a higher priority since it seems they are not too hard to find, but by the time I realized that WiFi was going to be impossible, I was more than halfway through my day and had no way to look up where to buy a SIM!

This obstacle was suddenly one straw too many in a morning full of them and I slowly began to leak from the eyes. I try really hard not to sink into despair or self pity when things don’t go my way on a trip, but everyone has a wall, and it gets closer with things like lack of sleep and low blood sugar, both of which I was suffering from at the time. It’s likely that I would have recovered after a some food and a rest, but that day I didn’t have to do it alone. A very kind fellow solo-female traveler sitting one chair over asked if I was ok and invited me to join her. She let me vent a little about my morning and then we quickly moved on to talking about our travels and experiences.

Lunch is Saved!

It did so much to lift my spirits and we chatted all through a leisurely lunch. The blinis were nice, a little sweeter than I was expecting for a seafood pairing, but not really much different from crepes.. maybe a little more oily? but not unpleasantly so. Out of curiosity I looked up the difference, and it’s yeast. Blinis have it, crepes don’t. The smoked salmon was delicious, and even though I had eaten lots of it in Sweden, I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it. Plus it was served with sour cream and salmon caviar so there was a nice blend of textures and flavors.20180821_122655

The Stranger in Moscow was a vodka drink made with Campari, ginger, and blackberry syrup. The presentation was stunning. The drink was quite different from the cocktails I have had before. It was more bitter than sweet which is usually a good thing for me and I attribute that to a healthy portion of the Campari, but there was a slight “cough syrup” aftertaste that I associate with Jagermeister or almost any cherry liquor. My best guess is that the type of blackberry syrup they used carried that flavor, which many people find appealing in drinks. It was also served with a tiny bowl of dark chocolate chips which made an excellent compliment to the drink. Quite a unique cocktail experience overall.

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My lunch companion told me about the book “Gentleman in Moscow” which is set in the Metropol Hotel and I am now on the wait list to check that out of the library. In case you’re curious, a standard room at the Metropol runs close to 150$ US/night, but my drink and lunch were a much more reasonable yet still high for Russia $27 US together. I still wish I could have found that tea ceremony, but I am happy with the experience I had, especially with company to make it better.


Here’s a little slideshow with more photos from the first half of my day in Moscow. Please pardon the lack of music. I’ve been using YouTube Editor, and recently it’s decided to delete everything good and useful from it’s online service and I haven’t found a replacement yet. Stay tuned for part 2 where I go “off the beaten path”.

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Sandcastles, Speakeasies & Queens

My summer is kicking off to a great start. There are still more festivals and events than any one person could ever hope to keep up with. The weather is heating up, but I’m learning some native tricks on how to keep cool (and avoid the sunburn!). In preparation for the out of town trip next weekend, I’ve been trying to take it a little easy, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t get to see and do amazing things. Last weekend, we went to the Sand Sculpture Festival at Haeundae Beach, and this weekend we found a visiting Drag Show and a secret speakeasy bar.


Sand Sculpture Festival

Haeundae Beach is one of the most famous beaches in Busan. It’s a little small compared to say… California beaches, but it’s beautiful and full of fun activities. For example, the Holi Hai Festival I went to in the spring was held there. In this case, it was a sand sculpture festival. Artists from around Korea came to the beach to build gigantic sand sculptures and people from around Busan came to admire the art, eat fun snacks, and have fun in the sand and surf.

20160528_160206As soon as we stepped off the subway, we were greeted by a parade. This is the second one I’ve seen at Haeundae and I’ve only gone down there a few times. I’m not sure if it was for the sand sculpture festival or the Port Festival, but it was fun to watch. There was a pirate ship, some movie characters, dragon dancers and plenty of people in random costumes.

20160528_164324When we arrived at the beach we were greeted with banners, flags, a crazy fish/car/bike, a giant cat bounce-house and some para-sailors with giant fan propellers. The first few sand sculptures were smaller, about the size of a car, and were clearly propaganda or advertising rather than part of the art display. Nonetheless, the skill involved in creating a sculpture from sand that had such precise shapes and lines was awe inspiring. I’ve worked with clay before, and it holds a shape well. It has tools that you can use to create super flat surfaces or precise curves and lines. But anyone who has tried to build a sandcastle knows that sand is treacherous, crumbly and not easy to shape.

I did a minimal Google search on the how-tos of sand sculpture and it’s a major undertaking to make any sand structure higher than about half a meter. These sculptures were easily 4-5 meters high. The first one we came across was a giant mound of sand carved(?) with a very simple design of a pillar decorated mansion. Even while marveling at the size of it, I wondered a little about why it was so simple. But later on in the night, it was functioning as a screen for a projector light show part of the festival.

As we continued to wend our way through the sculptures, I realized that each one was based on a nautical literary theme. The very first one was The Voyage of the Dawntreader from the Narnia series (my favorite book from that series, by the way). We could clearly see Aslan, the Dawntreader, Edmond, Lucy, Caspian and Eustace as a dragon. The only sad thing was that the whole wall was in the shade, making our pictures a little lackluster. The other side of the sand wall was a mural scene of Perseus holding the head of Medusa and facing the Kraken as it destroyed a ship.

There were some that may have been based in stories I don’t know, or were simply nautically themed. There was a smaller sculpture with a scuba diver, and another with a man who appeared to be alone on a small boat. But, we also recognized Moby DickGulliver’s Travels, The Little Mermaid, The Odyssey, and King Poseidon. There were a couple of pieces that looked more like they came from Asian literature or history, and I’m sad to say I didn’t recognize them, but the detail on many of the works was simply stunning.

I was particularly taken with the sculpture of Ariel and Ursula. On one side, was the mermaid art, but no average mermaid. The artist had managed to represent both the fin and the legs in the same pose. I knew it was a mermaid at once, even though the fin was not as prominent as it usually is in mermaid art, but it wasn’t until I got to the other side and saw the unmistakable visage of Ursula that I knew it had to be Ariel.

The Odyssey was possibly the most impressive sculpture. Rather than being two sided, it was more conical with images relating the the adventures of Odysseus all the way around it. It wasn’t so much a chronological mural of the tale as a mish-mash of imagery of all the monsters and events with the Cyclops dominating the mountaintop and the wrecked ship laid out below.

At the end of the roped off displays were some much smaller sculptures that were not quite as high quality and also covered in color. There were kids playing on and around them, so they were clearly not being protected or preserved. I guessed that there might have been a timed competition earlier in the day and these were the remains. Famous characters Spongebob and the cast of One-Piece were at least in keeping with the nautical theme. Ironman was there just because he’s the most popular superhero in Korea.

Someone had also built a fantastic hill of sand for the purpose of playing King of the Mountain and also for sand tobogganing. Kids were clambering up the man-made dune and sliding on plastic sleds back down to their parents waiting with cameras below. There was also a walk through sand maze, a dune buggy arena where people could drive rented 4-wheelers around a track marked out in sand, and a whole bunch of tents with activities and souvenirs. We found some artists throwing pottery, some face painting, and other kid-oriented crafts as well.

As the sun was getting low, it was getting time for a snack or even dinner, and just as we were thinking about heading across the street to one of the many international restaurants that line the beachfront, we stumbled into the festival’s own eatery. About a dozen tiny seafood stands had set up shop in a parking lot. This was no small feat, since each food stall had at it’s core a stack of aquariums holding the live sea creatures that would be cooked up fresh. There were many kinds of shellfish, lobsters, fish, and the strange looking “sea penis“. I’m not kidding. That’s really what it’s called. I haven’t been brave enough to eat one yet, but I see them at pretty much every waterfront festival.

20160528_180822We spotted some mussels, of which I am a big fan, but then right next to them I saw some beautiful spiral shelled mollusks that I’d never tried before. I was hopeful that they would be a similar taste experience to the mussels nearby, and I proposed that we split a plate of new experience instead of going for the safe bet. This was not a disappointing choice. I understand that for some, the concept of oysters, mussels, and other sea mollusks is not an appetizing one. For me, well, there’s a reason I loved eating in Japan so much. Most of the animals in the sea are flipping delicious. Especially fresh. These little morsels were no exception. The plate of shells was served with wooden picks for us to pull the flesh from the shell. The fascinating part was that the shape of the meat was the same as the spiral shape of the shell, maintaining it’s spring-like appearance even after it was removed. Instead of garlic butter, the Koreans enjoy their shellfish with a spicy yet piquant chili sauce. So yum. The shells were too beautiful to just trash, so I tucked one away in my bag and now it lives on my souvenir table.

We went for a more substantial meal at a magnificently decorated Indian restaurant with a beautiful view of the ocean. The meal was delicious, and felt so extravagant, but it was really quite reasonably priced. It’s not quite as cheap as the four-star meals I used to get in China, but it’s really nice to live in a place where you can get a high quality dining experience for an Applebee’s price range. Plus, as much as I enjoy Korean food, I get tired eating the same cuisine for too long (no matter what it is) and I love to be able to hop over for another cultural culinary experience so easily.

After dinner and watching the sunset from our table, we headed back out to the beach to see what the after dark part of the festival would be. I’ve learned well enough now that Koreans are a night loving people, and that every festival has a plan for darkness. In this case there were some bright halogens lighting up the sand sculptures with new and interesting shadows. Because the images were done in bass relief and not full 3D, the directionality and quality of the light made a big difference to the way the art appeared. Taking pictures was a little more challenging because the lights were all at human height and people kept walking in front of the lights casting huge shadows on the images, but with a little patience I managed to get a couple decent ones. Please check out the whole day’s photo album here.

As we made our way back toward the main entrance, we spotted a number of night time entertainers. Buskers and fire dancers were drawing small crowds, but the main event was a stage set up on the beach where a DJ was spinning some dance tunes. The greatest part about Korean festival culture is the total inclusiveness. Even after dark, with club music and flashing colored lights, the beach was still full of all ages. Little kids running around and playing in the sand, old grandparents bobbing along to the beat, young couples taking the opportunity to hold hands and dance close.

We couldn’t quite push our way up to the stage, but we plopped our bags down and danced barefoot in the sand to the club music while the Koreans around us giggled a little at the strange foreign behavior, and more than a couple took our abandon as an excuse to dance a little themselves.

When we were all worn out, we headed down to the sea and sat down just beyond the tide line with some beers to enjoy the night. People were setting off small fireworks all over. Despite the fact that the authorities tried more than once to announce that fireworks were not allowed on the beach, everyone around us brought armfuls of tubes to stick in the sand or hold on to and point over the water. The beach patrol came by more than once to stop it, but the Koreans just did not give up.

As the night wore on, people got more and more wild. The fireworks increased in number and in closeness to us. A couple times I was worried that the live sparks might just hit us, but we remained unburnt if slightly ashy. Young men started daring each other to run into the still cold seawater. Young ladies waded in and shrieked at the cold water around their ankles. Soon, all pretense was gone and men and women alike were chasing each other fully clothed into the water, splashing and dunking and having fun. I was tempted to join in, but I didn’t have a change of clothes and I was worried that we might not get a taxi to take us home if we were dripping wet. I think next time we go to the beach I’m going to have to pack a towel and a change or be extra careful to leave before the subway stops running.

When we finished our beer and needed to find the bathrooms, we decided that it was time to move off the beach. After some serious de-sanding, we made it back onto the main road and started trying to find a nice bar to settle into. Unfortunately, all the expat bars were crammed to the gills and our day had just been too relaxing to finish it off with a meat market, so we kept walking, looking halfheartedly at bars and keeping an eye out for empty taxis. Just as we were about to give up, I spotted a sign for The Back Room. It was up on the second floor and looked intriguing.

We couldn’t see a way in, so I thought maybe the stairs were inside the first floor restaurant. We went in to check it out, but when we asked about going upstairs, they directed us to a phone in the wall. I picked up the handset and pressed the white button. I was greeted in Korean, but responded in English, at which point the voice switched into a pleasant European accent of some kind and asked if we were wearing “slippers”. I was a little confused, but Koreans have a kind of shoe I tend to think of as a “sandal” that they wear mostly indoors or in bathrooms. They’re not all obviously plastic casual things, and I’d seen lots of people wearing them around the beach, or just down the street in the warmer weather, but I guess it’s like fancy restaurants not wanting people in flip-flops.

I thought my shoes were classy enough, being solid black with a little decal on the strap, but they didn’t pass muster and we had to move along, vowing to come back later with more appropriate footwear.

Queens of Seoul

During the week, I ran across an add on Facebook for a show featuring the Queens of Seoul here in Busan. The LGBTQ+ culture in Korea is still trying to find it’s feet and there aren’t a whole lot of drag queens in the country. I found Hurricane Kimchi online shortly after I arrived, and I made plans to go up to Pride in Seoul (next weekend) way back in March, but most of the info out there is either coming from expats trying to find each other or just news stories about how LGBTQ+ are being treated, protested against, and ruled against legally in Korea. So when I saw this ad for something fun and friendly, I was psyched to go.

13321697_641762209305825_1532993938787707124_nThe FB ad said the show started at 10pm, and that cover was free from 9-11pm, so we decided to head over to the bar in time to get in free and get a table before the show. In this endeavor we were wholly successful. The Yaman Joint turned out to be a Jamacian/Rastafarian themed bar with a small stage and tiny dance floor. We were shown to a table and left with a tablet menu. The drinks were a little more expensive than I was used to at our neighborhood dive bar, but not crazy. Plus, they had shisha on the menu. For those of you who don’t remember, I fell in love with the flavored tobacco served in hookahs while living in Saudi Arabia. (I know, smoking is bad. Don’t smoke kids.) It’s not something you find much outside the Middle East, and often it’s not very well made when it is. The Shisha here was a very reasonable price, so we ordered some double apple flavor and a couple of tri-colored frozen rum drinks and settled down to wait for the show in abject happiness.

20160604_222838Around 10pm, a young lady came out and started doing a little light jazz on a piano keyboard. Soon she was joined by a saxophonist and we were treated to a mellow improv performance. Next a tiny little Korean woman dressed in plain black slacks and a white blouse came on stage and channeled the soul of a pop diva. Just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, a big guy came out with a mike and started beatboxing. I’m not a huge fan of this activity unless it’s done well. This man was talented. Not only was he good, but he became the third “instrument” along with the piano and saxophone. If you’ve never heard anyone do a jazz/hip-hop improv with piano, sax and beatbox, I recommend you make that happen.

The performances went on, varying in style. The beatboxer and saxophonist did a duet of “Uptown Funk” that was truly funky, and he managed a solo dancetronic beat that got half the bar out of their seats and on the dance floor. I thought it was just an opener for the drag show, but once people were up and dancing, the DJ took over and began spinning tunes. It was fun for a while. We got up and danced, we ordered another round of drinks, we wandered out on to the porch to admire the view. As midnight came and went, however, I was starting to get anxious that we might have somehow wound up in the wrong place or that the show had been cancelled. On top of that, the fun dance music the DJ started with had morphed into some of my least favorite overly repetitive style of hip hop. Not the kind of stuff I enjoy listening to or dancing to. The glow was fading.

I managed to pull up the ad on my phone and ask the waiters when it was starting. We were informed 1am. Now, I am not a fainting flower, but I do wake up at 6:30 am on weekdays. I know that even if the ad had said the show started at 1am, I would have still gone because the chance to see a drag show here in Korea was too good to pass up. I’m also a little torn, because I might have missed the 10pm musical performances if I’d shown up any later. C’est la vie. We stuck it out anyway and shortly after 1am, we were rewarded for our efforts.

I have to admit, I didn’t even notice at first when the show started because there was no announcement, there was no break in the music and no one left the dance floor. I was trying to keep an eye on it, but the stage was totally blocked from my view by the dancers. My first clue was when I realized no one was actually dancing anymore, and everyone was watching the stage. I stood up on the chair to see over the crowd and spotted someone on the stage, but couldn’t really get any kind of view. Then I decided to take my chances and see if I could get closer.

I’m not a tall person. 5’4″ in shoes, maybe. The stage was barely elevated a few inches off the ground and it felt like nearly everyone in the bar (at least 50% gay men) was taller than me. I joined the shove of bodies and tried to work my way closer, holding my camera up in the air to see if I could get any shots. My first pictures were half the back of people’s heads, and all I could see was the face of the performer (and only then because she was taller than nearly everyone else in the bar).

A super drunk rude dude just started shoving his way up to the stage, leaving a wake of upset people behind him. He shoved me straight into the two Korean girls in front of me, who nodded in sympathy when I pointed at him as I apologized. The first number I caught was Charlotte Goodenough, who did a fun and silly combination of Lionel Ritchie’s Hello and Adele’s Hello (from the other side). She had a prop phone that would “ring” as she was singing, interrupting her performance with some line from yet another song, such as “It’s Brittney, bitch”. Drag queens are famously lip syncers, not singers. But it was a clever combination of songs that made this number so fun to watch.

As the show progressed, the two girls in front of me decided to head back to their table, and I was one step closer to the stage. Then, another expat friend of mine (tall, black man) came in behind me and helped clear the rest of the way. He could easily see over my head (tall) and I was so close to the catwalk part of the stage, I had to put my foot up on it to keep my balance.

After Charlotte’s opener, we got treated to another 4 numbers: 2 by Kuciia Diamant who sports a sort of industrial goth look and is sexy as hell, 1 by Cha Cha who came out in a super fringed dress and ‘sang’ Rollin on the River while shakin’ her fringe and hair all over the place, and another by Charlotte who treated us to a vintage army girl costume and a little burlesque strip tease.

The crowd was wild. Korean crowds are often subdued, offering polite applause. I was surprised by the number of Koreans at the club that night, and possibly even more surprised at how excited and loud everyone was in support. Expats and Koreans alike showered the Queens with cash tips and everyone screamed their cheers at the end of every number. There wasn’t an ounce of protest or negativity. I feel lucky to have had the chance to see something that, while common in my home country, is still rare and often misunderstood here. I’m glad these performers aren’t letting that slow them down. Please check out the links to their pages and see all the pictures from the show on my FB page.

The Back Room

So, remember that secret speakeasy we passed by on our way back from the beach? Well, we went back. Armed (or maybe footed?) with proper shoes, we knew this time to head straight for the secret phone and dial up. They asked how many we were and then a wooden panel in the wall slid aside and revealed a hidden staircase. The stairwell was decorated in homage to the prohibition speakeasies with shelves of empty liquor bottles and art representing the roaring 20s.

We were greeted at the top of the stairs by the handsome young man with the European accent and seated at an elegant little table. The bar itself, like so many, was dark, but each table had a tiny spotlight that created a concentric ring of light on the marble tabletop. The decor was classy and minimalist, the music was fun but not so loud as to inhibit conversation. The menu was full of craft cocktails and a scotch and cigar menu that made me want to cry. I’d just enjoyed some shisha the night before, so I decided scotch and cigars would have to wait until another night, but the cocktail menu was more than appealing.

Sometimes, people tell me they don’t like the taste of alcohol. I wonder if these people have only ever tasted low quality brands, because I can’t imagine not enjoying the smooth taste of good whisky. The best cocktails are designed not to conceal the taste of the alcohol, but to compliment it. Using fresh juices, herbs, spices and other high end infusions to create works of gastronomic art that play into the alcohol of choice. These are not cocktails to get drunk to, they are cocktails to savor.

20160605_220258My eye was drawn instantly to the Whisky Sour which included fresh lemon, sugar and egg whites. Sour mix is a sad abomination of citric acid and corn syrup that can only fool someone who has never tasted the real thing. Aside from the difference that fresh fruit juice can make, the egg white makes the whole beverage rich and a little creamy. I’ve had only a couple in my life, and I was never able to order a “regular” whisky sour again afterward.

When the drink arrived, it was everything I could have hoped for. The whisky was present, neither overwhelmed by the flavors, nor hidden by them. The lemon and sugar balance was spot on, not too sweet at all, and the egg white froth made the whole thing perfect. These were not by any means cheap drinks, but they were very reasonably priced for the quality.

20160605_231929We stepped out onto the balcony between rounds and were treated to a wonderful city view and the pleasant summer night air. For my second, I chose the TBR (the Back Room) Mule. A twist on the Moscow Mule, it was made with ginger syrup (not just ginger ale) and came with a sprig of fresh rosemary and a rough stick of cinnamon bark that was charred briefly to activate the oils. It was served iced in a copper mug and had a light smokey smell from the cinnamon that was deep and savory along with the copper tang and hint of rosemary.

The whole experience was steeped in class and elegance. It’s definitely not a party bar, but I hope to go back there several more times while I live in Busan to continue sampling the amazing menu. There was a selection of tapas as well that we didn’t even start to get into, and if their food is anything as well selected and prepared as the drinks, I know it won’t be a disappointment. Sadly, my camera does not do well in dim lighting, so I don’t have an album to share, but you can check out their website here.


I know these posts make my life in Busan seem a bit like a non-stop party, but I do work at school every day for 8 hours a day. Most of the time my weeks are full of little kid smiles, English lessons, and binge watching shows on Netflix. Five or six days a week, I live a very normal life. Maybe one day I’ll be able to write a bit about that, what it’s like at school or where I go for regular dinner. However, the reason I choose to live and work in another country is to see and experience as much as I can. I know that there are interesting things and cool places in the US, in Seattle, but for some reason it’s so much harder to motivate myself out of a routine to explore them at “home”. I find that’s true no matter where a person is from. My Korean co-workers are amazed at how much I do here in Busan because they’ve lived here all their lives and just don’t think about the city as an adventure any more than you probably think of your hometown as one. It just goes to show, adventure can be anywhere; we just have to take ourselves out of the daily grind in order to see it.