The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk

This remains one of my favorite books for trauma recovery. I read it right after CPTSD: Surviving to Thriving, so close that they seemed like one big book. I finally had a chance to re-read it almost a year later. Those wait times at the public library are intense, but I guess I’m glad so many people are reading this kind of book, especially during COVID. This book currently lives in my top 5 list for therapy books, and I highly recommend reading them together like I did, as they are very complementary. This post is very long because this book is very full of important ideas. I hope you stick with it.

Bessel van der Kolk is a very accomplished and experienced psychiatrist and researcher in the area of trauma. He started working with Vietnam veterans in the 1970s (before PTSD was a known diagnosis) and has been instrumental in hundred of studies and research projects to better understand the impact of both single traumatic events and long term traumatic exposure. His work with war veterans led him to understand how childhood trauma was both similar and different from combat trauma, and he has been vital to the understanding of CPTSD. He is an expert the experts defer to. “The Body” was published in 2014, so it’s fairly up to date as far as technology and research techniques described.

This post is so much longer than other book reviews because the book itself covers so much. It tells the history of understanding and treatment of trauma. It explains the scientific studies used to advance that understanding and treatment. It addresses the social, political, and economic barriers to the study, understanding, and treatment. It shares case studies of individuals suffering from and recovering from trauma. It shares statistics of the staggering number of people who have been traumatized in one way or another in life. It addresses the critical link between “mind, brain, and body” in how trauma affects us and how we heal from it. And it looks into a range of treatment options, explaining how and why they work, or don’t. Yet somehow, Van der Kolk does all of this in a casual and personal narrative style that carries the reader through his life’s work in a compelling and interesting way.

Just My Highlights

There’s no way for me to even try to summarize everything that Van der Kolk talks about here. I won’t do it justice. I stress again how worthwhile a read this is for everyone. Understanding trauma and the historical, social, and political context of cycles of abuse is the only way we will ever make changes. There some standout points that I want to zero in on for my review, and some opinions I’m squeezing in because this might be my last therapy book review post.

The Historical Cycle of Trauma and Suppression

Hysteria and Sexual Abuse

In the mid-late 1800’s some ‘scientists’ named Jean-Martin Charcot and Pierre Janet were studying hysteria. Although a lot of the people diagnosed with hysteria were women, there were also cases of “hysterical blindness”, “hysterical paralysis”, memory loss, and a host of strange behaviors that occurred in people across the gender/age spectrum. At first, Charcot was looking for a physical cause, but when he was unable to find one, he turned to hypnosis, and came to the conclusion that all these problems were being caused by the repressed memory of traumatic events.

Freud came along and got really into finding out what those traumatic events were and got deep into talk therapy, actually listening to his clients (not something doctors had done before). He determined that the young women suffering in this way were all suffering as a result of sexual abuse at the hands of an older male relative. He thought he had a great breakthrough, until he realized that it would mean that a huge number of the well respected men in Vienna would be guilty of raping their daughters and nieces, including his own father. He thought that maybe the promiscuous FRENCH could be doing that, but he just couldn’t countenance that his own Viennese men could be doing the same. He backpedaled and changed his theory, placing the blame on the girls as “seducers” of their fathers and uncles.

World War I & Shell Shock

Then a few short years later, as WW1 came around, and there were British soldiers having weird symptoms after battle. The term “shell shock” was coined and some scant treatment began. However, as the tide of the war shifted against the British, the top brass decided that “shell shock” was just a coward’s excuse. That “real men” don’t break down from a little light war trauma, and they banned the use of the word in any documents. Some soldiers were arrested, imprisoned and even executed because they had trauma that no one in charge wanted to believe in.

There were plenty of doctors pleading to be allowed to study and treat it, but the gag order was politically expedient to win the war. Another generation was blamed for exhibiting symptoms of trauma that those in power had caused. In America, the WW1 vets had it a little better for a brief moment. They were temporarily greeted as heroes and awarded combat bonuses, the money to be given as a delayed payout. When the depression hit, the veterans rallied in DC to ask for their bonuses so they could afford housing and food. The police and army were sent in to scatter them and burn their camps. Congress voted to never give the vets their money, and they were left to fend for themselves as a new crop of young men were lined up for the slaughter of the next big war.

World War II, Vietnam & PTSD

WW2 of course went through just about the same thing. Suddenly “shell shock” was rediscovered to be real. It was even treated for a hot minute before being dismissed again when the reality of the extreme damage being done to a generation of people in the name of war turned out to be too big a price tag for the law-makers at home. Generals and politicians would much rather believe that men and women are faking it, or fragile, or damaged in some way that the leadership cannot be held accountable for. It wasn’t until the Vietnam veterans came back that we finally started to see a break the cycle of discover and repress. PTSD is now a well recognized condition, but the battle isn’t over. It’s currently recognized almost exclusively for combat veterans, with some exceptions for civilians in war, major catastrophes like the 9-11 building collapses, or devastating natural disasters.

Van der Kolk and his associates, however, found that trauma comes far more frequently and affects far more people than this commonly accepted understanding of PTSD can encompass. In addition, the results of ongoing or repeated trauma, of childhood trauma, or of sexual trauma may have many similarities to PTSD as described in the DSM, but it’s not 100% the same and more importantly, the treatments are not equally effective. These discoveries led doctors like Van der Kolk to advocate for a new diagnoses in the DSM:  Disorders of Extreme Stress Not Otherwise Specified (DESNOS) aka Complex-PTSD, or CPTSD for short.

The DSM is BROKEN

What is the DSM? Some of you may know it well, others may be totally confused. DSM stands for Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and it’s the big book of Mental Health. Doctors and insurance companies use the DSM for diagnosis and treatment, but in America anyway, more importantly MONEY. Insurance will not cover a diagnosis or treatment that is not listed in the DSM. This gets tangled up very quickly, because when health and money meet in a room, health loses every time. I can’t even scratch the surface of everything that is wrong with the American DSM model, but in regards to PTSD and CPTSD the main problem is that they are NOT the same.

Multiple studies have shown over and over that they are not the same, and that treatments for one do not work for the other (or may work, but less effectively). As a result of this, people who are suffering from prolonged traumatic exposure get diagnosed with: ADD, ADHD, GAD/anxiety, depression, bipolar, BPD/borderline personality, anorexia, bulimia, OCD, alcoholism, drug addiction, and a bunch of other acronyms because the doctor is trying to address their symptoms in a way that fits the DSM. The best case scenario is that they do this because they know the insurance won’t pay for it if it doesn’t match the book. The worst case is that they simply do not believe any diagnosis not in the book is real.

DSM 5 Defines Trauma

I did some extra reading about the DSM, since van der Kolk only mentions the failed attempt to get CPTSD into the DSM 4 in 1994, and we are currently on DSM 5. I wanted to know if any progress was made. The answer is unfortunately, not really… They did expand the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, and added a “children under 6” category, but it’s still not going to cover most people in the CPTSD range.

What is considered “trauma” by the DSM is extremely limited : “The person was exposed to: death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence”. It fails to reflect any of the studies of long term exposure to many other types of trauma, such as the ACE study, nor has any relation coercive control style abuse.

I discovered another diagnostic manual called the ICD-11 (International Classification of Diseases) has added a separate category for CPTSD. The bad news is that it is very limited in scope. It still focuses on exclusively horrific traumatic circumstances where escape is unlikely, like torture, genocide, slavery, etc. “Prolonged domestic violence” is there, but not well defined. There remains no reference to the coercive control or psychological control that prohibits escape, nor of issues like systemic racism or medical trauma. In addition, it requires flashbacks (intrusive memories & images) as a symptom, which are common in PTSD, but according to most experts, not in CPTSD where emotional flashbacks (which lack a visual component) are more common.

Treating a Symptom Instead of a Cause

Without the ability to get a correct diagnosis for the underlying cause, many CPTSD sufferers are limited to receiving treatment only for their symptoms, so while these people may experience relief of symptoms while under treatment, their suffering resumes as soon as that treatment stops. Not only is this a massive healthcare disservice, but it’s contributing to a huge waste of money. Traumatized individuals are unable to function in a healthy way, and often need government resources for chronic health issues, job loss, and criminal behavior. (if you need more proof of this, read the book)

Additionally, some of what are seen as “problems” might really be “solutions” within the context of trauma. An alcoholic is not merely physically addicted to alcohol; their drinking is a self prescribed treatment to forget some pain they are unprepared to deal with or in some cases even acknowledge. The same can be true for any addiction including gambling, drugs, sex or food. In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Maté is an excellent exploration into the traumatic roots of addiction including socially prized addictions like overworking.

Obesity is another great example of why we can’t just treat symptoms. It is a major health epidemic in modern America, but if people are overeating as a trauma response, a defense mechanism, or to self-sooth, then no diet/exercise program will ever be successful until the core wound is healed. Van der Kolk explains that many obese patients also have a history of sexual molestation, assault, or abuse. Others may have been bullied or beaten up when they were small, and may feel strong and powerful by being larger than anyone else in the room. They feel safe from future assault or abuse because of the extra weight.

Of course, most people suffering this are not consciously aware of this in the mind. They do not think “fat will protect me” as they have another scoop of ice cream. They just feel better when they eat, so they eat. When they go to a doctor for help, it should not only be about diet, exercise, or surgery, but should include a look for deeper mental health causes that lie at the root of addiction issues. The problem with that is, as long as the DSM and major health organizations refuse to recognize that systemic social problems and resultant trauma are causing all these health problems, patients will continue to be misdiagnosed, mistreated, and inevitably blamed and shamed when their incorrect treatment fails.

The Cycle Isn’t Broken

My takeaway from all of this, the history and the DSM, and stories in the book of how van der Kolk and his associates were thwarted from doing research or having that research recognized, is that we have not escaped the cycle of notice and repress. We are still as a society unwilling to recognize that parents, caretakers, leaders and other people who are supposed to love and protect us are the deep root cause of untold amounts of pain and suffering. Crime, violence, illness, and death are all linked to childhood and domestic trauma, yet we can’t even properly diagnose or treat it. We’re looking for ways to blame the victims, a faulty gene or just a lack of moral fiber, but heavens forfend we look hard at ourselves and see the damage that our blindness is causing.

So many of the books I’ve read on this journey talk about the fact that trauma is caused by what the brain perceives as a threat, not what is objectively a threat or agreed upon by society to be a threat. Limiting PTSD and CPTSD diagnoses and treatment to people who have experienced “bad enough” trauma by someone else’s standards is part of the denial and suppression cycle. Of COURSE genocide and sexual slavery are undeniably horrible. OF COURSE the people who experience that are traumatized. What Van der Kolk and many others are trying to show us is that trauma is neither rare nor limited to such obvious horrific sources — that in reality, trauma is widespread and pervasive in the world, and that it comes from places we don’t want to see.

Although the scientific and ethical advances of the last 40 years enable us to look back at the hysterical women or the shell shocked soldiers and finally recognize the injustice done to them, we are not immune to selective blindness and denial. Just like Freud could not admit his own father or other “respectable” men of the city were committing atrocities on their own daughters, just like the generals could not accept that the decision to send young men into war was dooming their minds as well as their bodies, modern society struggles to accept that parents, teachers, lovers, doctors, and bosses are responsible for traumatizing millions under their care. Being able to admit the reality should not be about blame or retribution, but rather about truth and reconciliation. Until we are willing to face the facts, millions of people will be barred from true healing, and inevitably pass their pain on by traumatizing others in continued generational cycles.

Mind, Brain, Body

The other main takeaway of this book is the way in which the brain and body interact. Van der Kolk refers to a triad of “mind, brain, and body”, which has some nice literary overtones, the rule of three is a popular way to go. It also, I think, helps people to bridge a previously unbridgeable gap between mind and body. Starting with Aristotle and made ‘accepted fact’ by Descartes, a lot of people for a large part of history have believed that the “mind” is a totally separate thing from the “body”. Despite the fact that Descartes was a philosopher and had no physical or medical evidence to support his theory, it was so pervasive in the minds of the educated men that when modern medicine made the scene, no one really thought to challenge this “accepted fact”. At most, doctors believed that while the mind may be able to exert some control over the body through conscious effort or willpower, that the feed was strictly one way. ‘Mind over matter”, right? Wrong.

Advances in Science Change Our Understanding

As the study of neurology really came into its own in the 1990s, we got to learn all kinds of amazing stuff about how the brain works. The brain is a physical organ that runs on chemical and electrical reactions and controls the body, more or less. But… it is also where the mind resides. We still haven’t found the “seat of consciousness” in the brain, because it turns out that what makes us “us” is a very complex system of electro-chemical reactions, only a very small amount of which we are aware of at any time.

Start by thinking of your “mind” as the part that does the thinking (your “self”, your autobiographical memory, your inner monologue, and such); and your “brain” as the gray stuff inside your skull that releases hormones and neurotransmitters, and handles the auto-pilot for all the organs you can’t be bothered to think about (what does a spleen actually do? Your mind doesn’t know, but your brain does); and then your body is everything else. Then you can start to see where van der Kolk is going with this triad, but it’s not really three separate things, it’s more like three concentric circles. The mind, after all, resides in the brain, and the brain resides in the body. They are connected intimately and they are inseparable, and the flow of information goes in all directions.

We think of our body as being under our mind’s control, yet, that’s barely true. You don’t control most of your organs. You can hold your breath for a bit, and control your toilet needs for a short time, but other than that, you can’t really interfere with the body’s functions. Moving my fingers along the keyboard is a conscious effort of my mind, but if there’s an unexpected loud noise while I’m working, I will flinch and look around well before I’m aware of doing so. My “mind” doesn’t make that decision, my brain and body get on about it without me.

In fact, there is a lot that happens in our bodies that affect our brains, and then in turn change the way we think. For one example, the vagus nerve is a large nerve road that leads up from the gut into the brain, but most of the information that travels along it is not sending instructions down from the brain, but instead is sending information up from the guts/abdomen/lungs/heart to the brain. Van der Kolk examines the way in which mental health issues manifest in the body, and even more cool, how engaging the body in therapeutic techniques can help to heal mental health.

The Body Manifests the Damage of the Mind

In addition to the long list of mental health issues that can result from unrecognized PTSD or CPSTD, there are a lot of body health issues that can crop up as well. We can all think of physical reactions to stress like an upset stomach, or a headache, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. As the trauma goes untreated and often suppressed or ignored, the body takes up the symptoms. Thus, the name of the book: The Body Keeps the Score. Things like asthma, chronic fatigue, chronic pain, epilepsy, obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer are all common body reactions to long standing traumatic suffering. The ACE study (Adverse Childhood Experiences) done with the CDC and Pfizer found that people with an ACE score of 4 or more had a much much higher incidence of all these physical health issues*. That means that the more types of trauma children suffer at home, the more likely they are to be sick as adults.

*NOTE: the ACE study is not a diagnostic tool. It was a study of trends over a population and should not be taken as an indication for any individual. Many contributing factors for trauma and recovery are not accounted for in ACE. Not all children who experience multiple ACEs will have poor outcomes, and not all children who experience no ACEs will avoid poor outcomes—a high ACEs score is simply an indicator of greater risk

I was personally struck by the chronic fatigue and pain issues because I struggled with both while I was still a teenager living in my mother’s house. In the end, I was told I had fibromyalgia: a diagnosis that is based on patient’s reported symptoms and a lack of evidence for any other clinical diagnosis. I had many other health problems while under the control of my parents that diminished as I gained independence and distance, only to return in other stressful times of my life.

It’s All In Your Mind, But Not The Way You’ve Been Told

“Psychosomatic” is a word that is far too often used as a synonym for “imaginary”, and yet, that’s not what it means. Psycho means “of the mind” and somatic “of the body” so, yes, it means that a bodily symptom is caused in the mind rather than from an outside agent like a virus, bacteria, tumor, etc. Chronic illness sufferers frequently have physical symptoms ignored, dismissed, and even been accused of making things up for attention. Far too many medical professionals are stuck in an outdated model of medicine in which the mind and body are separate, and must be treated separately, so that if no evidence of illness exists in the body, then they believe no illness exists. Have you ever told your doctor something hurts only to have them say, “well, it shouldn’t” or worse “no, it doesn’t”?

As I read this book, I began to see the connection between my original trauma, my trauma triggers, and my health issues, and I gained validation for my rejection of the idea that any of my physical issues are “all in my head” in the standard western medicine pejorative use of the phrase. I learned a new way of understanding what “in my head” really means. Van der Kolk and his associates have conducted a number of studies that demonstrate that the physical symptoms generated by traumatic stress are real, and they can be healed by addressing that trauma. It may be “in our mind”, but it’s also in our brain and in our body because those three concepts are not truly separate.

How To Heal Trauma

Professional Help

Most professionals in PTSD/CPTSD agree that it is necessary to access and integrate traumatic memories in order to heal. Up until very recently, the primary way to do this has been talk therapy: a specialist helping to guide a patient to talk about the traumatic experience and then guide them into placing it in the past. Exposure therapy and hypnosis have also been used with alternating success. Hypnosis got a bad rap for supposed “planted memories”, and that turned out to be mostly media hype, but the damage is done. Exposure therapy can work for some things, but a lot of trauma survivors end up being re-traumatized by exposure therapy, not healed. Talk therapy has the best track record, but it’s hard because you have to form a trust-based relationship with a trained therapist which takes a lot of time and money.

There are a few other therapies that need to be done by a professional that use the brain body connection. One of these is EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), it uses bicameral stimulation to help patients access traumatic memories and to integrate them into the proper context. EMDR is not hypnosis; it does not require a trusting relationship nor rely on the doctor to uncover or interpret anything, and it has a pretty good success rate with very low recidivism. It works better on PTSD than CPTSD, and better in adult onset trauma than for childhood trauma. No one really knows why the bicameral stimulation works this way. The leading theory is that it simulates a sleep state (REM) when the brain sorts memories out of the “now” bin (hippocampus) and into the “past” bin (neocortex). Memory integration is a normal function of sleep, but traumatic memories are often stuck in the “now” bin, which is why they still feel so urgent. I know the chances of it working for me are not great, but I would still like to try it if I ever get the opportunity.

Another method is neurofeedback. Using an EEG to measure brainwaves, doctors can show patients what various parts of their own brains are doing by translating the brainwaves into audio or video signals. Then the patient can learn to control certain types of brainwave activity through a kind of trial and error while getting easy to understand feedback from the music or video. Being able to hear/see our own brainwaves gives us a concrete goal to focus on and enables us to use the mind to control the brain.

The last one examined in the book is “psychodrama“, which sounds like what you go through with your crazy ex, but it’s actually a kind of theater therapy. Actors and doctors worked together to create a variety of programs to help trauma survivors process their feelings. It can give patients a way to roleplay out experiences in a safe environment, thus getting resolution to previous instances, or plan on how to handle future triggers. It can help patients find words they need to express their feelings, or it can even provide words when the patients cannot find their own. An episode of the medical drama New Amsterdam showed the hospital psychiatrist making vets with PTSD put on a performance of one of Sophocles’ plays about a soldier abandoned by the military after being wounded. It is not a medically accurate TV show, but it was cool to see psychodrama being used in pop media, and that particular play is actually used in psychodrama therapy in real life to help soldiers process feelings of loss and betrayal in therapy for PTSD.

Self-Help

The big message of this book is that our mind, brain, and body are inextricably interconnected. We can’t treat symptoms without treating the cause. In order to heal, we must heal all three together. The mind-body connection flows both ways. The mind can make the body sick, but the body can also heal the mind. If you can’t afford or even find a therapist who is knowledgeable in CPTSD or the techniques listed above, you can do body work on your own.

Body work, or somatic therapy, is a way that trauma survivors can learn to feel safe and present in our own bodies again. Things like massage, yoga, meditation, dance, or tai chi can all help a trauma survivor to re-establish a healthy mind-body connection and learn how to listen to the signals of the body again. It’s not necessary to do those activities with any particular focus on your trauma because the benefit comes from establishing a deep connection between your mind, brain, and body, and these activities on their own have been shown to reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, invasive thoughts, emotional dysregulation, and executive dysfunction when done regularly over time. 

It’s hard to believe that something so simple (and free) can have such a large impact on our mental and physical health, but if you’re struggling, then it can’t hurt to try. There are tons of free YouTube videos, apps and games for the phone, and even a few gaming systems that take all the guesswork out of what to do, just follow along for 10-20 minutes at a time. A quick Google search will turn up dozens, but here are the ones I use:

Yoga: I enjoy going through this 30 day challenge because it’s a little different every day, and I don’t get bored. It’s ok to skip activities that hurt or are too hard.

Grounding/Mindfulness app: PTSD Coach was designed for veterans and is sponsored by the VA, but you don’t have to be a vet to use it. Even though it’s aimed at combat PTSD, many of the free activities are good for anyone in need of more grounding and mindfulness.

The Tripp app on Oculus Quest: I know not everyone can afford a gaming system, but if you happen to already have one in your home, this is a stunning audio-visual experience that makes daily meditation and breathing exercises a real joy.

If you’re like me, and you want to see the science behind why this works, then there’s no better place to start than this book.

Memorial Day Weekend: Korea Edition

Yes I’ve been radio silent almost a year. Maybe I’ll write about why someday, but the important thing is, I’m ok and I’m slowly starting some new adventures. Thanks for being here always!

In Korea, Memorial Day (현충일) is June 6th, a week later than my American friends and family celebrate the memory of our soldiers with lavish summer backyard barbeques, overt displays of patriotism, and caring about disabled vets for a few days out of the year. I’ve never really noticed any block party style celebrations of Memorial Day in Korea, as it seems to be a more solemn day, but of course, everyone loves a three day weekend, so I expect there will be lots of people going out and enjoying the beautiful weather we are having. There are also official memorial ceremonies at military graveyards and Korean War Memorial sites. But why after 6+ years of living in Korea am I just now choosing to write a Memorial Day post?

(UN Memorial Cemetery in Busan, Gallivantrix 2016)

Connected to my last several posts and my year long absence from the blog, I have recently been digging into my own family history. I’ve always known that my paternal grandfather was an ace pilot, and that his general age range put him as “probably served in Korea?” but I never had any facts. My grandfather died when my father was only 10, and as a result, my father has shared fairly limited information about him with me. Since Korean Memorial Day is all about those who fought and died for the Republic of Korea, that means that the vast majority of the focus is on the Korean War (1950-53), so I’m going to tell you about my grandfather, Captain Kenneth D. Chandler.

My grandfather was actually born in Canada, which came as a surprise to me, in 1923. Then his family lived in Arizona and southern California, answering some questions about my father’s family diaspora. Even though they moved around with the military, and I know they were stationed in Hawaii in 1948, because my dad was born there, it seems my grandfather never stopped loving the American southwest. My grandmother lived in Arizona until she died and my dad took me on trips all over the southwest on our family vacations.

I knew that his family was Mormon (LDS) and that he had left the church because when I was driving across America with my father to move to Seattle, we stopped in Salt Lake and found his name in the big Mormon Book of Families (not actually what they call the book). I remember feeling that it was very strange, since he had chosen to leave, and yet the church insisted on praying him into heaven after his death. I suppose that’s kinder than praying his soul into hell, but still kind of creepy. On more than one occasion, the LDS Chandlers have sent me mail. They still track out family tree, but since I have no kids, and I’m my father’s only child, there’s really nothing left here for them to track.

On October 25, 1942, my grandparents were married. Kenneth was 19, and Rose was 16. I can only assume they rushed an early wedding so that Kenneth could could go to war and Rose would not be left with nothing if he died because my grandfather’s military career also began in 1942. I haven’t yet found details of his military record for WWII, but I do know that he was a fighter pilot and flew in Europe. When he returned alive, he and Rose had three children (1946 uncle B, 1948 dad, 1950 aunt M) two of whom I have never met. I’m told that he was a fairly distant father, which is a bit sad, but hardly surprising given that something in his childhood caused him to cut ties with the church and by implication the rest of his family, and that fact that he likely already suffered some form of PTSD by the time his first child was born, and definitely by the time he returned to his family after the Korean War. (I did say I was doing this research for generational trauma healing purposes, right?)

I had already known he was an ace pilot in the Air Force, because my father’s own air force career (not a pilot) was inspired by his father’s. The Air Force family way of life was a pretty big deal in both my homes growing up, as my step-father was also Air Force. I went to air shows, and military parades, and there’s really nothing quite like the 4th of July on a military base. I also had the benefit of travelling widely as a child, and getting early exposure to different cultures and value systems. Although I decided the military was not for me, I think it had a strong impact on who I am as a person, both in my globetrotting tendencies and in many of my morals and ethics. It’s hard to imagine nowadays, but I was instilled with the ideals as a kid, and that sort of thing stays with you.

I had further suspected that my grandfather fought in the Korean war, but had no details. The internet, however, provides a near endless resource of information and human connection. Koreanwar.org is a website that connects survivors, veterans, and civilian aides from the war. When I searched for my grandfather’s name, I found a message from 2006, practically next door to where I was living that year. Yun-Kuk (Ted) Kim wrote:

City and State: Edmunds WA
Service or Relationship: friend of a veteran
Comments: Captain Kenneth D. Chandler shot down a MIG-15 in North Korea in December 1951 over Cho-do area. His aircraft, however, was disabled by a MIG’s debree [sic] ingested into his F-86’s engine, knocking it out. He bailed out over the off-shore island of Cho-do. I was stationed there with a US Air Force combat intelligence unit as an interpreter. I happened to be on the beach that day, supervising unloading of a US Navy landing craft. When I saw a Sabre pilot bail out over the Cho-do Bay, I and another Korean airman rowed out into the bay in a row-boat and waited for him. When Capt. Chandler (probably) fell into the water, we grabbed him and pulled him into the boat. We rowed him to a waiting US Navey [sic] helicopter and delivered him to safety and home. I am looking for Capt. Chandler if he is the one I rescued and if he is still alive. (He should be between 85 to 90 years old now.) Appreciate any help. Ted Kim, Edmonds, WA.

Entry 57095 May 10, 2006
https://www.koreanwar.org

Fam, I was shook, and strangely involuntary tears came to my eyes as I read the words of this man who had pulled my grandfather from the sea. It’s not quite as time travellery as that my father would not be born without him, since my father was 3 years old when this happened. Nonetheless, to see that there was a Korean man who touched my family so closely had lived so near to me (I was in Seattle at the time, and regularly drove in and out of Edmonds which is a part of the greater metropolitan area), and that here I am now in Korea looking at his words. I wish I could visit Cho-do bay, but sadly it’s north of the 38. Also, sadly, there’s no email for Ted (김윤국), and I can’t extend to him my multigenerational thanks. Luckily(?) someone replied to Ted later that year to let him know about Captain Chandler’s death.

Thanks to the extra research of a friend after reading this post the first time, I now know that he flew alongside Colonel Dayton Ragland, the only African American to shoot down a MiG-15 in the Korean War. On November 18, just a few weeks before he was pulled from the sea, my grandfather and then Lieutenant Ragland strafed an airfield destroying at least 4 MiGs and damaging 4 more. Although at the time, the destroyed MiGs were all credited to Captain Chandler, I suspect that’s not entirely accurate. Ten days later Ragland shot down the MiG that earned him his only credited shot, and was himself shot down and taken prisoner. Ragland’s story is infinitely amazing, if you want to read more, check out this twitter thread by @hankenstein.

A handful of years ago, when I was visiting my father, he showed me a shadow box he had made of his and my grandfather’s side by side military careers and told me the story of when my grandfather won the Bendix Trophy race.

The Air and Space Museum in D.C. claims that they have the original trophy on display, but my dad says that’s not true, because during the year that it was in his house (1957), my age 9 dad-to-be broke it. One side of the propeller was broken off, and my grandmother had it brazed back together leaving a small bump.

When my then-adult dad had a chance to visit the museum, there was no trace of the damage and repair, so he reasoned it can’t really be the original. A few more tidbits about the race I learned later in my own research: He broke the race’s speed record that day, the previous record was 666 mph, and he flew 679 mph. He was also a wingman to Chuck Yeager in the movie “Jet Pilot” where he flew the plane of the plane of the Russian character Lieutenant Anna Marladovna (Janet Leigh). I don’t know if the two men were friends, but they certainly were colleagues and comrades in arms.

Captain Chandler and 1st Lieutenant Frank Latora, both of the 343d Fighter Group, were killed when their Lockheed T-33A Shooting Star jet trainer crashed 12 miles (19 kilometers) north east of Parker, Colorado, while on a ground-controlled approach to Lowry Air Force Base on the night of Friday, 28 March 1958. Captain Chandler’s remains are buried at Rose Hills Memorial Park, Whittier, California.

Bryan R. Swopes, 2018 http://www.thisdayinaviation.com

My grandmother held on to the Bendix trophy for the next 2 years. She refused to surrender it until there was another winner. There was no official race in 58, 59, or 60, and so no winner was named. I suppose it was a piece of her husband that she didn’t want to relinquish after his death, and she was so determined about it that the race authorities threatened both to remove Captain Chandler from the official record and to put my grandmother in jail before she finally gave up the trophy. Even though she turned it over, the trophy never lived with another family, as it was retired before the next official race in 1961.

My grandfather died tragically at the age of only 33. My dad says he never really got to know his father, who tended to show more interest in the eldest son. Perhaps if he had lived a little longer he would have shepherded his middle child into adulthood, or perhaps he would merely have contributed a different legacy to our family’s generational trauma, but regardless there is no denying that Captain Chandler would certainly have been proud of Colonel Chandler, and I hope of Professor Chandler as well.

This Memorial Day, I remember Captain Kenneth D. Chandler: WWII & Korean War veteran, ace pilot, Bendix Race winner & record setter, and my grandfather. May your memory be a blessing.

Captain Kenneth D. Chandler, with the Bendix Trophy. (Jet Pilot Overseas)

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 & Tales from China 07

My entire winter holiday is a zig zag of mental processes, and my random story hopping here is a great reflection of that! Ireland! Taiwan! Ancient Chinese Fairy Tales! It’s all humming around in my head with my real life plans, worries, hopes, and anxieties. Since writing this blog is really a kind of hobby/therapy for me, that means you get whatever topic I find most therapeutic at a given time. It’s a grab-bag. Today, more Dragon King myths, well Dragon King adjacent?


Gao Liang’s Race for Water

Legend has it that Beijing was once a part of the Bitter Sea, and not until later was there dry land. 

Many years ago Beijing was called Youzhou. It was part of the Bitter Sea and was held by the Dragon King. People could only live on the mountains of the western side and northern side. One day, Nezha came to the Bitter Sea Youzhou and began to fight the Dragon King. Finally, he captured the Dragon King and Queen, but he let the Dragon Prince escape. From that time on, the water the water receded and slowly the dry land was revealed.

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In the time following, this piece of dry land had households; villages and towns gradually took shape. Moreover, the escaped Dragon Prince had also changed and become Dragon Duke, and along with (his wife) Dragon Mother, (and their children) Dragon Son and Dragon Daughter, they hid in a lake at the foot of the western mountains, passing their days in total silence. One day, Dragon Duke heard some news: Youzhou would build Beijing City. He indignantly shouted out, “It goes without saying that our Dragon Palace gave people peace, and now they also want to build a city there. its just too much!” Later he also heard it said that Imperial Chancellor Liu Bowen and Yao Guangxiao drew the plans for Beijing Eight-Armed Nezha City and would build Eight-Armed Nezha City. This time he was even more angry, and said to Dragon Mother, “This is horrible. If they build Eight-Armed Nezha City then we have no hope of a change in our fortunes. We should take advantage while it is not yet built and reclaim all the water in the town, then they will die of thirst.”

imagesFirst thing in the morning the next day, the Dragon Duke disguised himself in the appearance of a rural person going into town to sell vegetables. He pushed a small cart; Dragon Mother pulled a small yoke; Dragon Son and Dragon Daughter followed some distance behind. In this way, the whole family snuck into the town. Inside the town, they walked in a circle. Dragon Son drank dry all the sweet water; Dragon Daughter drank up all the bitter water. Then they both transformed into fish-scaled water baskets, each laying down on one side of the small cart. Dragon Duke pushed the cart, and Dragon Mother pulled the small yoke. They exited Xizhimen (the main NW gate of Beijing) and abruptly turned to leave.

Just then, Liu Bowen was leading the artisans to build the Imperial Palace when suddenly someone ran up to report saying that all the water in the capitol city, large and small, had all dried up! Liu Bowen heard this and panicked, then  he thought about it: certainly it was that Eight-Armed Nezha City had invoked the Dragon Duke’s revenge. Quickly he dispatched individuals to go to each gate and make inquiries: had any strange people been seen entering or leaving the city that day. Not long after, a scout returned to report: a little while before, two people pulling water baskets had left at Xizhimen. Liu Bowen heard this and then all was clear.

He said, “That repulsive, evil dragon! I must dispatch some men to reclaim the stolen water and bring it back.” “How will it be reclaimed?”, everyone asked him. Liu Bowen said, “We send one person to overtake them; two spear jabs will break the water baskets, and the water will bubble forth and run back. No matter what happens behind him, he must not look back. Just enter Xizhimen then everything will be safe and sound. Which brave person will dare to go?” Upon hearing this, everyone shook their heads repeatedly. Liu Bowen anxiously stamped his foot, “If we wait until the foul dragon gets it to the Lake, we’ll never get it back!” At that moment, a young artisan named Gao Liang stood forward and said in a loud voice, “I will go!” Liu Bowen picked up a red-tassled spear, gave it to Gao Liang and said, “Be very careful!” Gao Liang accepted the red-tassled spear, turned around, mounted his horse and headed straight for Xizhimen.

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As soon as he left Xizhimen, Gao Liang hit a problem: should he go North or West? He figured the evil dragon would plan to put the water in the lake, but in this region, only Jade Spring Hill had a lake. Right! To the Northwest! Gao Liang spurred his horse on, pursuing them into the Northwest, pursuing straight up to Jade Spring Hill. He could see the Dragon Duke far off; the Dragon Mother had stopped for a rest to wipe away some sweat, and close by was the small cart loaded with fish-scaled water baskets.

Gao Liang dismounted and stealthily moved around the Dragon Duke, behind the Dragon Mother. He abruptly straightened up, lifted the spear, then jabbed. One jab broke one fish-scaled water basket and the water flowed out with a crashing sound. Gao Liang was just about to strike the second one when that basket turned into a strong-stomached young man. He giggled as he slipped away into the Jade Spring Hill’s lake. Dragon Mother quickly picked up the water basket that had been struck by the spear, leapt past the north side of the mountain top and straight into the Black Dragon Pool. Then the Dragon Duke shouted loudly, “Smelly boy! You think you can just walk away?” Gao Liang turned and ran. Behind him a huge wave like the surging of the tide chased after him. Gao Liang ran with urgency; he could just see Xishimen. His heart soared, and he could not help but turn and look behind, but as a result he was swept away at once by the giant wave.

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From then on, Beijing City’s wells once more had water, but it mostly bitter water. The sweet water was taken to the lake at Jade Spring Hill by the Dragon Son. Later, people built a bridge at the place where Gao Liang sacrificed himself and called it “Gao Liang Bridge”. Now it is known as “Gao Liang Qiao”.

Note: In the last blog where I talked about Nezha, I linked to the old animated video of his adventures. While finding fun photos for this one, I discovered a new high quality animated movie was released in 2019. You can see the trailer on IMDB. Plus, there appears to be a comic. These stories are a very vibrant part of modern Chinese pop culture.


Hunter Hai Libu

Long ago there was a hunter named Hai Libu. He was an extremely warmhearted person. Every time he returned from hunting, he would always share his game with everyone, only keeping a small portion for himself, so everyone loved and respected him a great deal.

One day Hai Libu went into the deep woods to hunt, when all of a sudden he heard from up in the air a cry of “save me”. He looked up and saw an eagle flying by with a small white snake which it had grasped by the head. He promptly loaded an arrow into his bow, took aim and fired at the eagle. The eagle was injured, and allowed the little white snake to escape.

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Hai Libu said to the little white snake, “Pitiable little thing, hurry and return home!” The little white snake said, “You are my benefactor who saved my life, I wish to repay you. I speak the truth to you: I am really the Dragon King’s daughter, return with me, my father will certainly thank you with a mighty gift. My father’s treasury holds many treasures, whatever you want you can have. If you don’t like anything there, you can ask my father for the small gem he keeps in his mouth. If only you have this gemstone, and keep it in your mouth, you can then understand the speech of all the animals of the world.”

Hai Libu thought to himself, “I don’t really care for treasure, but understanding the speech of animals, that could be very useful to a hunter.” He then asked, “There really is such a thing as this gemstone?” Little White Snake said, “There really is. But when an animal says something, only you can know. If you tell another person, you will change into a block of hard stone.”

Hai Libu followed Little White Snake back to the Dragon Palace. The Dragon King was entirely grateful that Hai Libu had saved Little White Snake and wanted to thank him with a great gift, so led him into the treasure hall and allowed him to chose a treasure, whatever he liked he could have. Hai Libu didn’t pick up any of the treasures, instead he said to the Dragon King, “If you truly wish to give me something to remember this by, then please give me the precious gem you keep in your mouth.” The Dragon King lowered his head a moment and thought, then he spat out the precious gem in his mouth and gave it to Hai Libu.

As Hai Libu was leaving, Little White Snake went out with him, and repeated to him over and over, “You must remember, whatever an animal says, you must not tell other people. If you tell them, you will instantly turn into stone, and can never again be brought back to life!” Hai Libu thanked Little White Snake and returned home.

With this gemstone, Hai Libu hunted very easily. He kept the gem in his mouth and could understand the language of the birds of the air and beasts of the field; he knew which mountains had which animals. From then on, every time he returned from hunting he shared even more game with everyone.

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Things went on this way for many years. One day while Hai Libu was hunting deep in the mountains, he suddenly heard a flock of birds discussing something. He leaned in to listen attentively. The first bird said, “We should quickly fly to somewhere else! Tonight this mountain will crumble and the ground will be submerged by a flood, who knows how many people will drown!”

Hai Libu heard this and was shocked. He hastily ran back home and said to his fellow villagers, “We should quickly move to somewhere else! This place isn’t habitable!” Everyone who heard this found it strange, it was a fine place to live, why should they move their homes? Despite the fact that Hai Libu anxiously urged everyone, no one believed him. Hai Libu shed worried tears and said, “Believe me, we must move quickly! Once night comes it will be too late!” An old man spoke up, “Hai Libu, we all know you would never lie, but you want us to move our homes. You need to explain clearly why this is. We have lived at the foot of this mountain for many generations, there are many old people and young children, moving would not be easy!”

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Hai Libu knew being worried was no use, he couldn’t give a reason for the move, and everyone was skeptical. If he wanted to rescue his fellow countrymen, he could only speak the actual truth! Arriving at this realization, he calmly said to everyone, “Tonight, this mountain will collapse, and a deluge will flood the ground.” He went on to explain how he had gotten the gemstone, and how he had overheard a flock of birds discussing taking refuge, as well as why he could not tell anyone else the information he heard, he told them the whole story. Just as Hai Libu finished speaking, he turned into a lump of hardened stone.

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Everyone was very remorseful, holding in tears, and remembering Hai Libu’s name, helping the elderly and leading the children, driving the livestock, they left for a far away place. While they were walking on the road, suddenly black clouds densely filled the sky, a fierce gale roared, and after that it rained a downpour. At midnight, there was a sound that shook heaven and earth, and the mountain had a landslide, and the rushing flood waters inundated the village where they lived. Hai Libu sacrificed himself in order to save his fellow villagers, and the people from generation to generation cherish his memory.

Once again, if you’d like to watch an animated short of this story, I have found a link! You can see it’s a different animation style than the pictures I chose, and that’s because there a a lot of different renditions of these famous stories.


The Eight Immortals Cross the Sea

Legend has it that a very long time ago there were eight Daoist Immortals. Separately, they are Tieguai Li, Han Zhongli, Zhang Guolao, Lan Caihe, Lu Dongbin, Han Xiangzi, He Xian’gu, and Cao Guojiu; together they are Ba Xian, the Eight Immortals. They behead goblins and drive out monsters; they eliminate evil and promote good; and they left behind many touching stories.

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Tieguai Li used to be called Li Xuan and he was a Daoist. Originally he was tall and sturdy, with a majestic appearance, he practiced Dao in the caves of Mt. Dang. One time, he sent his spirit out to go to Mt. Hua and visit the great teachers Laojun and Wanqiu, but when he returned to his body it was unexpectedly destroyed, and he had no choice but to use the body of a recently dead beggar brought back from the grave. He didn’t expect that the beggar would have an ugly face or a lame leg. He had to carry around an iron crutch and rest his leg on a cloud while travelling the four seas. He came to be called “Tieguai Li” or Iron-Crutch Li.

During the days of the Eight Immortals, Zhang Guolao would always ride around on a donkey. It is said that his donkey could walk thousands of miles in a day, and when they stopped, he could fold it up like paper. Han Zhongli was originally a general in the army, but since he lost in battle, he went into hiding deep in the mountains to practice austerity and become a Daoist Immortal. He always bares the the skin of his belly, waves a fan in his hand, and is smiling and laughing with an expression of good fortune. Pure Yang Master Lu Dongbin looks like a scholar and carries a double edged sword on his back. The sword gives off a bolt of divine light that can scare monsters away. 

He Xian’gu is the only female immortal among the Ba Xian. She carries a Lotus in her hand, and is slender and elegant. Lan Caihe often carries a flower basket which is overflowing with sweet smelling flowers in all seasons of the year. Han Xiangzi is the grand-nephew of the great Tang Dynasty poet laureate, Han Yu and carries a reed flute in his hand. Cao Guojiu’s device is a jade tablet. Legend has it that the sound of the jade tablet can make all things between Heaven and Earth peaceful and calm.

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Left to right: Tieguai Li, Han Zhongli, Cao Guojiu, Zhang Guolao, Han Xiangzi, Lan Caihe, Lu Dongbin, He Xian’gu

One day, the Eight Immortals were riding on the clouds to go to take part in an assembly of immortals across the Eastern Sea. Lu Dongbin said, “Riding clouds across the sea isn’t really considered a skill of the Immortal School, it would be better if we each used our own special abilities, tread the waves across the sea, and show off our magical power. Do you all agree?” The remaining Immortals voted in favor.

Iron Crutch Li was the first to cross the ocean. He simply threw the crutch in his hand into the Eastern Sea. The crutch resembled a small boat floating on the surface of the water and carried Tieguai Li safe and sound to the opposite bank. Next, Han Zhongli slapped the drum in his hands said, “Watch mine.”, then threw the drum into the sea. He crossed his legs and sat down on the drum and crossed nice and secure across the Eastern Sea.

Zhang Guolao grinned and said, “My move is the most brilliant”, then he took out a piece of paper and unfolded it into a donkey. Once its four hooves touched the ground it looked to the sky and let out a bray, then carrying the seated Zhang Guolao on its back, trotted across the waves. He Xian’gu threw her lotus flower into the water, stood patiently on its face and drifted along the waves across the sea. Soon after, Lu Dongbin, Cao Guojiu, Han Xiangzi, and Lan Caihe one by one tossed their treasures into the sea, and with the aid of those treasures they each showed off their special abilities and crossed the sea.

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Seven Immortals arrived on the opposite shore, to the left and to the right, there was no sign of Lan Caihe. As it turned out, when the Eight Immortals crossed the sea just then, it disturbed the crown prince, son of the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea. He dispatched the shrimp soldiers and crab generals out to sea to look around. Taking advantage of the Ba Xian being caught off guard, they captured Lan Caihe and took his flower basket.

Lu Dongbin couldn’t find Lan Caihe, he became worried and upset. He hollered in a loud voice toward the Eastern Sea, “Dragon King, listen up, hand over Lan Caihe right now or else you will feel my wrath!” The Dragon Prince heard this and became excited and angry and rushed up to the surface of the sea to let Lu Dongbin really have it. Lu Dongbin drew his double-edged sword and sliced the air. Afraid, the Dragon Prince sank back down to the sea bed.

Lu Dongbin was unwilling to let him go. He pulled his fire gourd from his pocket and burned the Eastern Sea into a sea of fire. After that, the seven immortals each made use of their powers, going forward to fight, cutting down two of the Dragon King’s sons. The shrimp soldiers and crab generals were unable to hold them off, and one by one were defeated and hid in the seabed. The Dragon King of the Eastern Sea saw his own sons die, flew into a rage, and called on the Dragon Kings of the South, North and West Seas to work together to overturn all of the water in the world into one huge tidal wave and crash it onto the Immortals.

At that critical moment, Cao Guojiu used his cherished Jade Tablet to open a path before them and the giant tidal wave went around them on both sides and receded. The other Immortals followed Cao Guojiu precisely and arrived unharmed. The Dragon Kings of the four seas quickly gathered their armies for war. They were about to launch a fight to the death. But just then, the Bodhisatva Guan Yin passed through the South Sea and yelled at both sides to stop. She then helped them to settle their differences. Before long, the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea released Lan Caihe and both sides stopped fighting and made peace. The Eight Immortals then bid farewell and went freely and leisurely on to the meeting of Immortals.

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Note: This is a great example of the syncretism in East Asian religious faiths. Guan Yin is a Buddhist figure, a Bodhisattva is one who came to the edge of true enlightenment, but instead of choosing Nirvana, they chose to stay in the world to help others. On the other hand, the Eight Immortals are Taoist figures. It’s common to see the characters from each religion interacting in stories, and for people to practice rituals and prayers from both.

9 Days in Taiwan 1/2: GeoParks, Butterflies & Temples

I have been told over and over by native Taiwanese and twitterpated Taiwanese tourists that I simply HAVE to go to Taiwan, that it is nothing like China, or possibly it was everything I love about China with none of the Communism. It’s so close to Korea, the flights are easy, but the weather is hard. In January 2019 I had a spare 2 weeks before I would meet my friend for our whirlwind Middle East tour. It seemed like a great chance to finally see the Ilha Formosa. The rest of the holiday that winter was so much, I forgot I didn’t write about Taiwan until my Facebook Memories started popping up this January. Faced with an unexpected rainy week on my holidays in “sunny” Spain, it seems like an opportunity to fix that.

I went to three main cities: Taipei, Taichung, and Kaohsiung. I ate more delicious food than I thought could exist on such a tiny island, and I enjoyed local sightseeing, temples, and natural wonders. In the first post, I’m going to give a little historical context and then talk about the natural beauty and the temples I visited. In the second post, I’ll share my more urban tourist experiences and saving the best for last, the food.


A Very Very Brief History

I used to live and work in mainland China (in Jinan, and later Yanjiao, a small town outside Beijing), plus I studied Chinese history, culture and language in university. I knew Taiwan was different, but I didn’t really understand how much.

Taiwan separated from China when the Kuo Min Tang fled there after Mao and the Communists took over mainland China in 1949. China under the KMT government was part of the Allies in WWII. We gave them money to fight the Japanese, but they ended up using it to fight the communists, and still lost. Most of the Western World didn’t recognize the communist government of China until the 1970’s. We were busily still supporting the Taiwanese government as the rightful government of all China.

A few countries at a time slowly came to realize that the communists weren’t going anywhere, and then Nixon had his famous visit to Beijing to stand on the fake Great Wall and show solidarity and that was pretty much it. Since then, China insists that Taiwan is a part of China and everyone just sort of humors them. We make separate treaties and trade agreements, plus Taiwan has a different language, flag, currency, government and legal system from mainland China…. but, ONE COUNTRY! (says China)… Taiwan is starting to disagree.

Of course Taiwan has a strong Chinese identity and history, but it diverges sharply at 1949. At the end of the Civil War, the KMT retreated to Taiwan and the Communist (Mao) government claimed the mainland. Mao’s government worked hard to erase a lot of history in order to position the Party at the top and center of all life in China. It was huge disaster and tens of millions of people died from persecution and starvation. Plus temples and relics were destroyed or stripped of decoration and re-purposed as Party business community halls. Some time in the 80s, the government went “oops” maybe we need history after all, and started rebuilding both physically and narratively. Therefore almost everything you see nowadays in China is a reconstruction, and the few practicing monks and nuns in the temples are there under very strict observation because someone told China that civilized countries don’t murder all their religious leaders. (most of the literature on this is academic research and NOT readily accessible in Wikipedia, you can take my word or you can go ask a Chinese Studies scholar). Although, now with Hu… who knows?

Taiwan, on the other hand, continued the Nationalist traditions that were started in the 1911 Xinhai Revolution that finally eliminated the monarchy and established a “people’s” government… although arguably back to the Boxer Rebellion because everyone was so fed up at those Royals supplanting Traditional Chinese Culture™ with Western European goods and values… and opium…The point is that the KMT were basically in favor of traditional Chinese culture, where the Communists were pretty opposed. So while mainland China went through this holocaust level cultural purge (The “Great Leap Forward” followed by what is still referred to as the “Cultural Revolution” which makes it sounds like hippies dropping acid and doing free love), Taiwan and other Chinese communities in Asia (Malaysia makes this super ovbs, too) were continuing to move forward with a more normal level of cultural changes influenced by post colonialism, globalization, and technology just like everyone else.

2000 years of shared history, followed by 60 very divergent years brings us to the ‘same but different’ cultures of mainland China and Taiwan. So while China firewalls out anything it doesn’t like and creates its own online reality, arrests anyone who dissents, and sends religious or sexual minorities to reeducation camps, prisons, or organ harvesting factories, Taiwan is a proud democracy that legalized same sex marriage last year. While that sounds a little behind to most westerners, its stunningly progressive for Asia. They were actually the first country to do it.

Lastly, a quick note on the spelling. Mainland China adopted a variety of romanization (“roman” letters, like the ones you are reading now) called “pinyin” while Taiwan used the older form Wade-Giles. Some brief examples (minus tone marker): Beijing /Peiking, Gaoxiong /Kaohsiung, Deng Xiaoping /Teng Hsiao-p’ing, Guomindang /Kuomintang. Although now-a-days a lot of things in Taiwan are romanized in Pinyin, those places which were internationally codified with Wade-Giles spelling still remain. Pronunciation remains a challenge for those who have not studied the language because neither system is intuitive for English speakers. (try typing the pinyin spelling into Google translate to listen).

Natural Wonders:

Taipei:

Yehliu Geopark 野柳地質公園

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This was part of a package bus tour I took, but honestly, if I ever go back to Taipei, I want to take the public bus out here and spend a whole day at this park. This website has some very nice English language explanations about the rock formations and erosion patters, if you’re curious.

I do love the science, but I have to say that I, like most of the visitors, was more enchanted by the fairy-tale like shapes that these rocks have come to embody. When I arrived, I got a little pamphlet showing the most famous formations. It was a little bit like a scavenger hunt trying to find them all, and I kept getting distracted by not at all famous, but still amazingly beautiful rock formations like joints and fossils all around.

The most famous rock is the Queen’s Head, which you may have seen on listicles of “cool things to visit”. The line to get a photo from the best angle was insane, and because I was in a tour group, I had to choose between standing in line for the famous rock, or going to see all the others. Still, I got a glimpse of Queens Head rock from the queen angle by wheedling past the line creatively (really the line is for people who want to pose with it, you are allowed to take a picture from anywhere). In case you can’t tell, it’s the one in the background that looks sort of like woman’s head with an updo or royal headdress.

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The park is well aware the Queen is their biggest draw, and that it is eroding a little more every year. It won’t be long before her neck erodes entirely and she becomes Marie Antoinette instead. To maintain tourism, the park has named a new “Cute Princess Rock” which is shaping up to become the main attraction when the old queen dies.

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Other rock formations I found include the Elephant Rock & The Pineapple Bread Rock. Pineapple bread is just cut to look like a pineapple.It doesn’t taste like and isn’t made with pineapple (unlike pineapple cake which is, but looks like tofu squares).

One little island turned out to contain at least 3 of the targets: the peanut rock (far left), the fairy shoe (about 3/4 on the upper right, kind of looks like a sandal) and the pearl, or globe (far right, the lower sphere, yeah, I know there’s like 4).

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Our tour guide challenged us to find a particular rock and take a photo of it that matched the angle in the brochure. The angles of these rock formations matters quite a bit. The queen doesn’t look like a queen from any other angle (see below). In this case it was a gorilla, and you had to walk all the way around to the side facing away from the path to see the illusion. Most people were taking photos through the hole in the rock without ever realizing they were at the gorilla! (I won the scavenger hunt).

Looking at the brochure and the website, it’s painfully obvious I saw only a tiny part of the park, and I had a very limited time to try and find and appreciate these unique formations. I’m glad I had the opportunity, but a full day return is on the top of my list for a second visit to Taipei (right behind the food).

Shifen Waterfall 十分大瀑布

This was a short stop on the same all day bus tour. To be honest, I’m not sure it would be easy to get here on public transit, so a tour to Shifen might be the only way if you aren’t renting a car. We were pretty rushed at this stop, and the waterfall itself is a medium length walk from the car park with lots of stairs and long bridge.

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I felt a little like I was playing tag with the scenery. I just about had time to get there take some pics, stare longingly at the cool water for a couple minutes and hike back to the bus. There is nothing “cold” about winter in Taipei. I saw pictures online of people in the snow, but I think it must be a real rarity. Locals did tell me the weather on my visit was unseasonably warm, but rushing around the geopark and speeding through the countryside to see the waterfall had me soaked in sweat.

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Nonetheless, it is a remarkable waterfall. No mere trickle through the rocks as far too many advertised waterfalls can turn out to be, this was a broad and strong roaring fall. If you are lucky enough to have more than 20 minutes here, there are also several restaurants and picnic tables where you can enjoy the waterfall over lunch.

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Kaohsiung:

I actually only included Kaohsiung in my travel plans after I read that one of the only sites of mass butterfly migration was near there and was going to be happening during January (when I was traveling). Like waterfalls, butterflies are an irresistible draw for me. I do enjoy a butterfly park, where many species are raised for ecological conservation or just because they’re pretty, and visitors can walk through a mesh enclosed garden to see them, but I also treasure butterflies in the wild. It always feels like a tiny little brush with magic when they pose for me.

Maolin Butterfly Trail 茂林賞蝶步道

Thus, when I read about the mass migration of the purple crow butterflies I was very excited. There are only two species in the world that overwinter en masse in a valley like this, and the other is the monarch. I’d seen beautiful footage of the monarch masses in Mexico (not open to tourists, btw, to protect the butterflies) and while the articles I read warned me not to expect anything so profuse, it is still the second largest natural gathering of butterflies in the world. I had to go.

I did a lot of research to prepare. Optimal butterfly viewing is 8-11am, but the buses don’t run that early. I actually emailed with the park about this. The best public transit option from Kaohsiung is to take Kaohsiung Bus E25 & E28 (Kaoqi Express) to Qishan and then change to H31 (Qishan-Maolin-Duona) (website link) The problem is the distance and time. The E25 takes just over 3 hours, and then you wait for one of the 6 daily buses to Maolin park entrance and ride another 45-60 minutes. Both E25&28 don’t run before 7am. Nothing gets you to Qishan early enough to reach the park entrance before noon. I also looked into hostel, b&bs or other options closer to the park, but even searching in Chinese with my not entirely terrible language skills, information was scarce. The few places I found online couldn’t take reservations online and were not on the shuttle bus route in any case.

To make matters even more complicated, there was an earthquake in 2005 which decimated a lot of that area, but there’s not a lot of information on what is or isn’t still functional post quake.

I could have just bused in and arrived at noon, and taken my chances the butterflies were not all having their afternoon nap, but I wanted masses of butterflies. I looked at videos as recently as two days before my arrival in Kaohsiung and saw them fluttering all over the roads. In some places, roads were even being shut down to protect the butterflies! So, I booked myself a car to drive me there at the very crack of dawn. I used a company called Tripool, and instead of a 4-5 hour bus trip for 5$, I had a 1 hour car ride for 35$. If it had worked as planned, I still say it would have been worth it.

I had been watching the weather forecast like a hawk, but it was barely reliable in the city and there was next to no data about the mountains. Several days of weather patterns led me to hope that a gray misty early morning would burn off into a sunny mid-morning, so I bundled myself in the car at 7am and headed to the Taiwanese countryside.

When I arrived, the weather was still terrible. The car I hired dropped me off here.

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I found what looked like the trail head which had lots of signs about trails and how to spot the butterflies, but they were old and dirty, like no one had used them in years. You don’t know how unsettling it is to be in this kind of fog filled emptiness and see signs that are obviously new (it has a QR code for heavens-sake) but look like they’re from some kind of post-apocalyptic survival film.

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It turns out the reason is that no one HAD used them in years. The original structures from before the earthquake had just been abandoned. Eventually, I found the actual visitors center, which made me feel a lot better. The people there said there wouldn’t be any butterfly activity that day, but the weather outlook for the rest of my time in Taiwan didn’t look any better. Plus, it was 4 hours until the next bus out of town.

I watched a movie about the butterflies with a group of school children on a school educational trip. I didn’t understand that much, but it was mostly fun to watch the kids react to the video (and to me). After that, I decided to hike the trail despite the weather.

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I climbed stairs for hours and saw zero signs of butterfly presence. My photos from the hike look like they should be eerily silent, but the music from the cafe could be heard pretty much all over the trail, and despite the terrible weather, there were a significant number of other tourists out here chattering away. 

Although I found no butterflies for most of my hiking time, I did find plenty of interesting things. There were adorable snails who thought the rainy atmosphere was perfect. There were beautiful tropical flowers, flourishing in the warm winter air. And,  there was an army of giant spiders. I experienced the summer spiders in mainland China, and to a lesser extent in Korea. These are monsters who build webs that are several meters across. I am not kidding or exaggerating. These suckers are like 5cm not counting legs.

Honestly, I rarely see them quite that big in Korea… at least in the cities, and they are really good about not ever coming inside houses, and about building their webs where people aren’t likely to walk. I don’t think they’re considerate, just that it’s a lot of effort to make an enormous web, and they don’t want us to smash it.

The spiders in Maolin think 5cm body length is scrawny. If I was not familiar with the species behavior, I would have totally freaked out. Luckily I know from experience, they are not interested in me. They don’t want to put a web across a path. They will not drop on you from above. That last one is really relevant since, to avoid the humans, a lot of them just built their webs about 10ft up. Where they can catch birds.

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To be honest, I was really surprised there were no butterfly corpses in these webs. And, however intimidating these spiders can look, the webs in the mist and rain were beautiful jeweled works of art.

After a couple hours of meandering, I finally found some butterflies. I saw maybe 20-30 the whole day, and only one close enough to photo. It was a far cry from the hundreds or thousands I had been hoping to see.

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It is awfully beautiful there, but I really wish I could have seen it in action. Just in case the Taiwanese government was exaggerating, I did check the live video feed and some Instagram filters from sunnier days, and it looks like it really is a little fairy land. Next time, I will have to watch the weather more carefully and be ready to rush to Kaohsiung at short notice. The good news is, it’s only a couple hours from Taipei to Kaohsiung, so I won’t have to stay there waiting (Taipei has better food, sorry Kaohsiung), but I will have to have a more flexible plan.

Temples

Taoism (pinyin: Daoism), Confucianism and Buddhism are considered the three main “religions” of China. Taoism is mainly a mix of local folk practices that consolidated after the introduction of Buddhism. It has a LOT of gods and spirits and ancestors and immortals and magic animals. The main goal of Taoism is immortality (although there is a split on whether that means corporeal or spiritual), but you can pray to any of the gods for help with more mundane stuff like health, marriage, or passing your driving test.

Buddhism, often heard of but rarely understood, is a spiritual practice without any gods. Buddhists search for Enlightenment and subsequent freedom from this world which is both an illusion and full of suffering. This takes a few hundred (thousand) lifetimes, so in the mean time a lot of people pray to the boddhisattvas (a little like saints?) for the same mundane stuff they ask the Taoist gods for.

Confucianism is more a total package social structure than a “religion” but it does incorporate a certain amount of ritual and spirit oriented behavior and a very clear “how to live” guide, though not a lot of praying for mundane stuff. To be even further removed from the Western traditions, a lot of people don’t choose just one, but rather go to whichever will serve an specific purpose at a time. They simply aren’t viewed as exclusive “truths”. Honestly, almost nothing we associate with “religion” in the western traditions applies to any of these, but until we have a better word, here we are.

Taipei:

Dadaocheng Cisheng Temple 大稻埕慈聖宮天上聖母 (Taoist) is dedicated to the Tianshang Shengmu (Heavenly Holy Mother), the guardian of sailors and also known as Mazu or Tianhou (Empress of Heaven). It is in the midst of an “eat street” and even has a dining area in the temple courtyard. Far from being serene and heavenly, it is quite lively and bustling.

Taipei Confucius Temple 臺北市孔廟 is more of an interactive educational experience than a holy place. It’s not surprising as Confucianism isn’t really a religion. The scholar Confucius (Kongfuzi 孔夫子) was more interested in the smooth running of things on the earthly plane than the spiritual one. Rituals were an important part of a social order for him, but he didn’t spend much time speculating on any gods or spirits.

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The entire compound is beautiful, but more that that, you get a wonderful English language detailed explanation of the meaning and purpose of each hall (which, under other circumstances I might have transcribed off the brochure, but I feel like you’ve had enough education for one post), a truly early-tech 3D film explaining the history of Confucianism and it’s modern interpretation (it was so campy it was fun) and interactive displays for the six Confucian Arts that Confucius considered vital for any civilized person in a civilized society: Calligraphy, Music, Archery, Charioteering, Computation (math), and Rites (religious, political, and social ceremonies).

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It was a big contrast to the Confucian temple I visited in Beijing which was a beautiful monument with little to no explanation as to it’s historical function. Plus, where Taiwan still teaches pieces of the 6 arts in schools and even holds some public Confucian rites today, the mainland has subsumed Confucian values into the Communist Party Line.

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Dalongdong Baoan Temple 大龍峒保安宮 (Taoist) is dedicated to Baosheng Dadi (Great Emperor Protecting Life). It claims to be the oldest temple in Taiwan, or at least the oldest Chinese temple. (Yes, there were indigenous people living in Taiwan before the Han ethnicity mainland Chinese people arrived many centuries ago). It’s been restored many times over the years and is now an important heritage site. There’s several stunningly decorated buildings, as well as beautiful gardens with statues of famous Taoist stories, and a dragon in the lake. I especially enjoyed the tile work of the roof dragons on these temples which is distinct in both color and style from the mainland.

Kaohsiung:

Fo Guang Shan Buddha Museum 佛光山佛陀紀念館 was disturbingly hard to get to, but thankfully I can read bus timetables in Chinese. It probably would have been easier if I’d been coming direct from the city, but I was coming on my way back from the Maolin Butterfly Park. I also missed the last buses returning to the city, but it was ok because I was able to share a car with some other travelers. I don’t think it’s necessary to do this with a tour company, but if you aren’t at least “survival” level in Mandarin, then perhaps plan better than I did.

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Fo Guang Shan is a global sect of Buddhism which started there in Taiwan at the largest monastery in Taiwan. It really is huge, and not only the enormous statue of the Buddha, but the sprawling grounds filled with gardens, exotic birds, and more beautiful statues than you can count.

The grounds are divided reflect the three treasures: sangha (community) where the monks and nuns live, study and work; dharma (teachings) where scriptures (sutras) are housed and ceremonies held; and the Buddha (the teacher) where the famously enormous statue rests at the end of the majestic walkway.

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I think most people come for the third part, and honestly, that’s why I was there. I just took a “wrong” turn at the entrance and found myself walking all the way over to the Sangha, and then meandering back through the Dharma, before finally getting to the Buddha in time to for most of the tourists to leave and for the lights to come on.

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Their website is everything you would expect elderly monks to have created, but if you want to learn more about Fo Guang you can visit. Also, the museum’s website reflects a more worldly involvement and may be more palatable to the modern internet consumer as well as more helpful to the hopeful visitor.


That’s all for part 1. Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed the historical and natural side of my Taiwan trip. Next time, I’ll write about the more modern aspects including the “old streets” for tourists, a medieval style castle made by an eccentric millionaire, flowers, light shows, street art, and of course what Taiwan is best known for: the food.

Ireland: The Ring of Kerry

If one is doing a road trip in Ireland, a couple of “must dos” are the Wild Atlantic Way, and the Ring of Kerry. The main point of the Ring of Kerry isn’t actually the many interesting stops along the way, but the beautiful views of the Atlantic Ocean from the road. However, since it is an extremely long drive, it’s nice to have places to stop and get out for a while. The main ring is the N70, which is a lovely wide (for Ireland) highway, but all the really good stuff is off the highway and down a series of narrow twisty side roads. Neither Valentia Island nor Skellig Ring are technically part of the Ring of Kerry, but it could be argued they are more interesting.


Car or Bus?

Driving in Ireland is not for the faint of heart, but if you are nervous, then you can also take a bus tour. The advantage of a bus tour is that you can spend the whole time looking out the window at the view. The disadvantage is that they only stop at a few very popular spots, and you have to contend with all the other tourists around your photos.

I personally enjoyed most of the drive, with the exception of a few moments of extremely heavy rain and one point where we managed to drive through a cloud. Low visibility on narrow steep roads is… challenging. Despite the white knuckle moments, I’m glad I drove myself because I got to pick and choose my own stops. There’s a nearly infinite list of things to see, and no way at all to do them in a single day drive of the Ring. The good news is, the Ring of Kerry is very affordable. I believe that some of the restoration houses and museums do charge a small fee to come inside, but as far as I know, all the outdoor attractions are free of charge.

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This is the route I traveled according to my Google Maps history. We spent 10 hours on (and off) the Ring of Kerry, starting in Killorglin (a smaller town than Killarny, so the Airbnb was cheaper) and ending in Killarney (although we continued to drive on to Dingle that evening). For reference, most bus tours are 6-8 hours and start and end in Killarney, so you can imagine they move faster and see less.

The Challenge of Skellig Michael

Possibly the most popular place to visit on the peninsula is Skellig Michael. It is a phenomenally beautiful island with a wonderful wildlife preserve and interesting ruins of an old monastery. To preserve the environment, only a limited number of people are allowed to set foot on the island per day. If you are lucky enough to get a spot, the boats may be cancelled due to bad weather, even if the weather on land seems ok. They don’t call it the “wild” Atlantic for nothing.

Skelig Michael Steps, Credit: IrishFireside via FlikrEven before 2017, it was a popular attraction that required lots of booking ahead. Then the Last Jedi came out, and suddenly the whole world knew about Skellig Michael as the beautiful and remote island where Rey finds the reclusive Jedi Master, Luke Skywalker. Those sweeping staircases and round stone huts weren’t inventions for the film, those are the actual ruins. Thanks to the Creative Commons I have photos to show you.

Reservations for boats that simply sail next to the island must be made up to a year in advance in the high season and I spoke to one couple that had been waiting for a spot on a boat that allowed people to walk on the island for more than 3 years.

As amazing as it would be to have the chance to go explore this beautiful place, I think that it would be something I’d have to plan a whole trip around, choosing a time of year that is just off enough to have availability without having your chances of bad weather above 80%, and then also being willing to stay nearby for several days/a week because when your boat does get cancelled, you are still around for the “make up” tour.

Skellig hivesThere are so many beautiful small islands along the west coast of Ireland, and while none are the same as Skellig Michael, I think for most people, they are going to be just as enjoyable while being much more accessible and far less expensive. I myself visited the Blasket Islands (from Dingle), the Aran Islands (from Doolin), and a teeny little place called Inishbofin (from Galway). And if you just HAVE to have that Skywalker connection, the Blasket islands are actually in the film as well.

Finally, there is the Skellig Experience Center, which is on Valentia Island. I gather it is a warm, dry, indoor experience involving models, miniatures, and a video. I ended up skipping this as well because it was a recommended 45 minute visit, and we simply ran out of time for everything we hoped to do that day.

What I Actually Did on the Ring

Cahergall Stone Fort

Stone forts or ring forts are ubiquitous in Ireland. There are more than 45,000 ring forts, some of earth, some of stone. Many are on private land, so you can’t necessarily just drive up to them, but lots and lots are open to the public and managed by a park service. This is not to say they are easy to find, or that they have any parking facilities, but if you are intrepid, you can do it.

There’s a very small parking area along a very narrow road with a little sign pointing to a sheep trail through a meadow, and if you follow this trail, avoiding the sheep poo, you will come up to the stunning sight of this majestic stone monument crowning the highest hill in the area. It’s not roped off, and you can freely touch, climb, enter and explore which is great. Because we were not with a tour group, we only ran into one or two others while at the fort, and it was easy to take lots of beautiful, if somewhat gray, photos.

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I feel like the term “fort” is a bit misleading. I originally thought that these were military installments placed on high hills for visibility and ease of defense. It turns out that these “forts” were probably more like farmsteads where people and livestock lived full time. The double ring looks like a good way to keep the animals safe in the outer ring, and the humans in the inner ring, with a ragged stairway up to a walking path. The strong stone walls would protect from weather, predatory animals, and rival clans. The livestock could be let to roam and graze in the day / good weather, and then gathered in, like a barn or paddock, as needed. The double ring with livestock would mean the inner circle of humans would be much warmer than the surrounding countryside. 

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Many historians think that the size of the ring indicates the owner’s social standing, which makes sense if you consider that richer families would have more livestock and more (living) children. The one at Cahergall is about 70 ft / 25m across.  It also makes a lot more sense why there are 45,000 of them if you think of them as farms/homes rather than military forts.

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Cahergall is one of the more famous rings because it has recently been restored and is quite beautiful. Some people think that the restoration is “cheating”, but it’s 1400 years old and was made by dry stacking flat stones (no mortar of any kind). The restoration makes it safe to climb and gives a good idea of what it would have looked like.

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On our way back to the car, a farmer had come down to greet a tour bus with a young lamb in his arms. He wasn’t “charging” for the privilege of holding and petting this adorable soon-to-be-dinner, but everyone was giving him a Euro or two as a tip/thank you. We beat the tour bus by only a few minutes and figured that farmer would probably get 50 Euro or more from that bus alone for sheep petting… not a bad deal for him.

Valentia Tetrapod Trackway

There’s a trope in the story of evolution of the first “fish” crawling out of the sea and onto land. This is a very oversimplified version of how evolution works, but it’s a good story because it helps us visualize and understand the process. There was a period known as the Devonian between 350 and 370 million years ago where that process occurred and sea creatures gradually developed legs from fins and began to explore the food and safety options of damp land.

There are only 4 locations of earth where you can go and actually see the footprints of one of those animals and one of them is in Ireland along the Ring of Kerry.

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I spent an inordinate amount of time in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History as a kid and I even did a few amateur fossil  hunts. I was delighted to find stones with the imprint of life that was millions of years old, and growing up did not reduce that delight. I recall finding fossilized seashells in the desert of Saudi Arabia, and being completely awed. So, when I found out that this level of rare fossil was available for the viewing, I had to go.

We had variable weather on the day of this drive, and were mostly lucky that the rain came down while we were driving and let up when we parked, but this stop was the one big exception. The tracks, like everything outside a city in Ireland, are not super easy to find, but Google Maps helped and there are also plenty of websites with landmark based directions. There’s a decent parking lot, but it is a bit of a walk down to the water from there. On the day I went, there was a documentary film crew on site, and they thought we were crew too because they just couldn’t imagine any tourists crazy enough to come down in that weather.

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It was only a light drizzle when I started the walk, but turned into a serious downpour about half way down. I decided that since I was going to get just as wet walking back to the car as down to the shore, I might as well carry on. I got entirely soaked. Only my shoe covers kept my feet dry. Waterproof shoes or shoe covers are an absolute must in Ireland.

It’s a beautiful rocky shore, and the steps down are a little tricky in the rain, but not too bad. There are several informative signs with models of the tracks (so you know what to look for) and a bit of history about the site itself. 385 million years ago, Ireland was actually south of the Equator, and what is now a cold and rocky shore was a warm, silt laden river delta. In addition to the footprints, there are also fossilized ripples (below) made as the muddy silt dried in patterns and was covered over by layers of different soil. Both ripples and prints were compressed over millions of years as the landmass drifted north. Finally, the erosion of rain and sea revealed this layer of the strata.

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The footprints are accompanied by a tail drag, since tetrapods were still heavy and low to the ground with long, broad tails for swimming. I think without the informative signs showing me what to look for, I (not a paleontologist) might have missed it entirely. Once you get all the way down to the shore, you know where to look because one area is roped off. Since this isn’t a restorable relic, we can’t walk on it or touch it lest we erode it away completely.

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Before I went, I was thinking these footprints might be much larger because in my head, dinosaurs are huge. However, the Tetrapod was only about a meter long (3ft). For perspective, the average alligator is about 4x that size. The footprints are tiny little polka dots with a sidewinder looking divot between them (lower left quadrant of the photo above). They look not unlike a close up of a sewn edge with the thread removed. Once I got over the fact that I was soaking wet and that these were really small dinos, it was a very cool experience.

It’s not that you can’t see these kind of tracks in a museum, but there’s something… deep and connecting about seeing it where it happened, to know that this piece of rock was once thousands of miles away, and that your feet are there on the same ground that this ancient ancestor and key link in the evolution of life on land once walked.

Skellig Ring: St. Finian’s Bay & Skellig Chocolates

Skellig Ring is not part of the Ring of Kerry. It’s a little side loop down a peninsula and closer to the coast. While looking at the map, it seemed rather silly to go to Valentia and then backtrack to the official ring, so we kept hugging the coastline, which made for some lovely views.

I think we stopped at St. Finian’s because it was pretty and I needed a place to pull over and check the map. We were on our way to the Skellig Chocolate store and I was struggling to navigate the narrow roads, strange turn offs, and Google Maps all while driving a car on the “wrong” (to me) side of the road in the rain. It is a beautiful little beachfront, and I while it makes for a gloomy and picturesque photo op on the rainy afternoon I stopped there, I am sure it’s also stunning in nicer weather.

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As for the Chocolate store, it’s a cute little chocolate shop, and they have lovely tastings where you can sample all the flavors before you decide which ones you want to buy. It was good, but not spectacular. I think I’m spoiled on chocolates. I’ll generally avoid the slave labor chocolate companies like Hershey’s, but I can order my fair trade online easy enough, so chocolate shops aren’t usually on my travel itinerary.

Theo’s Chocolates in Seattle is a stop I always recommend because they roast their own beans and actually make the chocolate from scratch (unlike most shops which buy chocolate then remelt it to add flavors and shapes). Plus, I love their factory tour which makes me feel like oompa loompas are hiding just around the corner. I also spent more than a glorious day in Brussels making my way around all the famous, historical, and newly excellent chocolate shops, chatting with makers and sampling a variety of confections, some of which were “meh” and others sent me over the moon with chocolate joy.

Skellig Chocolates are certainly better tasting than Hershey or Nestle. I enjoyed the flavors, but I wasn’t over the moon. Also, although they are making some confections on site, there is no tour or museum where you can learn about chocolate making. If you happen to be passing by, and have time, great, but you can buy the same chocolates in most Ireland gift shops or at the airport if you really want to try it and don’t fancy stopping your driving tour of natural/historical wonders for this tourist money trap.

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If you want to see Valentia without driving the Skellig ring, I’d recommend taking the ferry (5 Euro/car one way) from Reenard Point and drive off the island via the bridge next to the Skellig Experience center, then follow R565 East back to the N70. I personally wish I’d been able to spend more time on Valentia to take in things like the Glanleam Gardens or the Fogher Cliffs, so even though I only wrote about the Tetrapod tracks, there’s a lot more to see there.

Staigue Fort

I like ruins. They are one of my favorite things to see. I like the stretching sense of history, and of being connected to other humans who lived and built things hundreds or thousands of years ago. I will almost never pass up the chance at a ruin. I wasn’t planning to see any stone rings after the Ring of Kerry, so I was happy to have an opportunity to compare two.

The Staigue Fort is considered one of (if not the) largest stone rings in Ireland. It is even larger than the Cahergall Fort, but it lacks the inner ring. It is older by about 300-500 years, and it hasn’t been restored as heavily, so it’s a little rougher around the edges. However, I did think that it was much easier to climb and walk on than Cahergall. The steps were wider and the path at the top was wide and smooth.

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Unlike Cahergall which was on high ground, the Staigue Fort is surrounded by higher hills. It was deeply foggy when I was there, and so the whole place had that kind of ancient, spooky, mysterious vibe. I got to climb to the top and walk around.

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I also learned what nettles look like for the first time from a local lady who was there showing her family around. I’m actually really glad I found out, because they sting if you grab them (or fall on them) so it’s nice to know what to avoid. I’ve read about nettles, stinging nettles, nettle tea and such in a wide variety of books, particularly by British authors, starting from childhood. I got so used to not knowing what they were, it never even occurred to me to look them up once Google was invented, and so now I know. Sadly, later on this trip, I was destined to find out how their sting feels… ow.

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There is a sign at the gate stating that there is a 1 Euro charge, but there is no one to collect it, only a collection box, which was jammed by two coins in the slot when we were there. The local lady who told me about the nettles, also said it wasn’t really necessary to pay, but we left a coin anyway because I like to support the care and maintenance of historical relics.

The final bid to collect some coins is a small “waterfall” and “wishing well” which is really a cute little stream where coins can be thrown with a wish, so if you want to contribute in a more creative way than the collection box, you can always toss a coin in the water. If you’re lucky, you might even see some of the famous “rainbow sheep” up close!

Kenmare Stone Circle

Stone circles are quite distinct from stone forts. The most famous stone circle in the world is, of course, Stone Henge in England, but there are thousands of stone circles around the British Isles and northern Europe (France, Germany, etc). Stone circles are much older than stone ring forts, and most date from around 5000 years ago. They show no signs of habitation (leftover bits of pottery, food, or tools) and that has led most archaeologists to believe they serve a religious or ceremonial purpose. Lots of the stone circles are also aligned with the sunrise or sunset on the equinox or solstice, which lends some credence to their use as annual calendars.

Some archaeologists think anything they don’t understand must be about religion, but there are other possibilities, one of which is that these were meeting places for nomadic or semi nomadic groups to come, exchange goods and stories, perhaps even find spouses. The solar link of the stones would make it easy for everyone to agree on the right meeting day. Maybe there was some liturgical aspect to this as well, but think about how many of our modern holidays that focus on commerce, gift exchange, and extended family visits started out as and still involve at least a little bit of a religious day. (*cough*Christmas*cough)

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Maybe if I went to a stone circle in the countryside on a dim gray misty day, it would feel more druidic or sacred, but the Kenmare Stone circle is in a town, and when we arrived, the town was also setting up for a fair and there were carnival tents and rides being built all around. I gave up trying to find real parking and just put the car down out of the way on the side of the road. There’s a small booth asking for a 2 Euro fee to view the stones, but like the other places, there is no attendant or enforcement, so donate or not as your conscience dictates.

I put the Kenmare circle on my list because stone circles are cool, and this one is considered quite large. It would have been silly to drive so close and not stop, but it was so strange to see this 4-5000 year old monument in such a cute suburban garden setting. The trees and lawn are well manicured, and there’s even an attempt at some flower beds nearby. Finally, there’s a wishing tree where people can write their wishes on paper and tie them to the tree branches.

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As an American, it can be strange to me to see things that are more than 400 years old. When I do see ancient things, it is almost always in the context of a heritage site or museum or such, but there’s just so much old stuff in northern Europe that it isn’t at all uncommon to see it integrated into modern day life. I was watching a British interior design show, and one of the houses was 800 years old. It wasn’t some special historical site or museum, it was one of many homes in the village that was still being lived in by totally average people. The designers were looking at the wooden beams in the walls and roof and talking about when those beams were put in place 800 years ago and still in people’s living rooms. That kind of thing blows my mind.

The Kenmare Stone Circle is just that kind of thing: it’s a millenia old site that has been built into a modern public garden. It’s wild to see the contrast, and it’s amazing to contemplate the stretch of human civilization between the people who buried these enormous boulders and the people who mow the lawn and plant the peonies today. What it isn’t, is a magical connection to my druid ancestors, real or imagined, and that’s ok. Not every stone circle has to be a mystical experience.

Torc Waterfall

I love waterfalls. I will make a day of waterfall hunting, or drive miles out of my way to visit a waterfall. I honestly have to say, I could have skipped this one. The national park is gorgeous, and the waterfall itself is quite beautiful, since Ireland rains enough to keep the rivers full. However, this might be the single most popular stop in the whole south-west of the island. The car park was enormous, filled with tour buses and private drivers like myself. I’d seen almost no one all day (except at the chocolate store) and suddenly it was like the mall at Christmas. We had to circle the parking lot several times waiting for a spot to open up, and when we did finally find a place, and embarked on the short 5 minute walk to the falls, I was accosted by the noise of the crowd.

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After a full day of quiet (often empty) Irish countryside and coast-way, it was a real shock. On top of that, it was our last stop of the day and we were tired, hungry, and in a hurry to get to our beds that were another 2+ hours away. I think on the whole, I would have been more satisfied to stop at one of the other viewpoints like Moll’s Gap or the Ladies View and skipped Torc. That, or spend more than one day on the ring so that Torc could be part of a greater exploration of the national park. There are several nice walking trails of different lengths and difficulty that would be a nice way to spend a day (or at least a half day), but sadly not a great way to end one. It should also be much more empty earlier in the day since all the tours end their day at the falls.

In Conclusion

The Ring of Kerry is a lot to do in a single day. If you are going to try to be crazy like me, carefully pick your stops in advance and plan rests since long periods of driving on those roads can be tiring. GPS and cell service gets spotty outside the towns, so load up your maps and make sure they’re available offline before you hit the road. Expect to have to turn around and ask directions, and know it will take you longer than Google says. Regardless of the expectations of speed limit, unless you are a very skilled/reckless driver, it is likely that the narrow curving roads will slow you down, and inevitably you will have to do some back up, drive around, wait for sheep.

Follow the advised direction (counterclockwise). I looked at the idea of going clockwise to avoid the tourists and I am SO GLAD I did not. There were several sections of the ring that would have been terrifying if not impossible to navigate going the “wrong” way. Everything is set up to make it easy for drivers following the route, and clever dicks online who advise you to go the other way are mad.

Take 2 or more days if you can. If I had it to do again, I’d still start from Killorglin, but I’d slow down, and stay in one of the small towns maybe 2/3 of the way through (Sneem or Kenmare) then spend the second day exploring the rest of the ring and the Killarney National Park. Live and learn.

What is Up with 2 Irelands Anyway?

One of the things that bothered me most while I was on the Emerald Isle was realizing how little I knew about Irish history between the potato famine and now. Like, I know some fun things about the pre-history, and the Celts and druids, and how those terrible Anglo-Saxons invaded and enslaved … well impoverished anyway, the native Gaelic people. And I know that Ireland is free now… and somehow also 2 countries, but, I really had no idea how that happened. So, this post is going to be all about my discovery of Irish history, how many and what kind of countries it is today, and how we got there.


Pre-History & Myth

A while ago, I got a book of Irish Folk Tales that I have long since passed on to other needier readers, but one of the stories toward the beginning has stayed with me. Irish pre-historic tradition tells of a series of invaders that came and conquered the island in waves. They’ve been Christianized now so that some of the earlier inhabitants are the descendants of Noah, but earlier versions describe them as gods or demi gods, followed by the kind of super-humans that do things like discover how to plow or build tools. There’s a race of monsters and one of giants.

The 5th wave of invaders is known as the Tuatha Dé Danann, which is a familiar word if you ever watched Willow. The Tuatha were described as beautiful, blonde and wise, skilled in magic. Their enemies were the Formorians, described as ugly, deformed and monstrous. It really could be Tolkien’s elves and orcs.

The 6th and final wave were the humans that make up the Gaelic people, also called Milesians, a name which means “soldier of Hispania” because the Milesians were said to have sailed to Ireland from Hispania (Spain) after wandering the world for centuries. They defeated the Tuatha Dé Danann, but didn’t kill them all. The remaining Tuatha went underground and became the fairy folk of Irish folk lore.

I was completely fascinated by the notion of this tiny island with zero decent natural resources being invaded by wave after wave of supernatural races before finally being settled by humans. It explained so much about the modern persistence of Irish fairy-tale beliefs well into their Christian conversion and even the Enlightenment and modern age.

20190803_095046.jpgI’ll be sharing some of my own experiences with Irish pre-history in the form of ring forts and museums in a later post.

Here There Be Vikings

Recently, some archaeologists found a whole ton of Viking relics around Ireland, especially in Dublin. Previously, historians thought the Vikings just came to raid the settlements and monasteries in Ireland before returning home, but the recent digs show that there were full on Viking settlements in Ireland as early as 759. If I ever get around to writing about the Viking Splash Tour or the Dublin History museum, I’ll go into more detail there, but I thought it was worth mentioning that after the 6 mythical waves of settlers, there was also a real wave of tall, blonde, fair skinned, skilled at metalwork and… wait, they kinda sound like the Tuatha Dé Danann, don’t they? But, no, the Vikings didn’t appear in Ireland until well after the semi-mythical defeat of the Tuatha Dé Danann, aka the much less mythical arrival of the settlers from Spain.

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The British Invasion

I am not a historian, I’m not trying to write the definitive work. I’m not even going to try to compete with the 17 Wikipedia articles about this. I am just writing a short, hopefully oversimplified, series of events for perspective.

The Lordship

From the 12th-16th century, there was an almighty struggle for the soul of the island. The Normans (aka the English) really wanted to introduce landlordship and feudalism to Ireland, but the Gaelic chief system was more about people (clans) than land because sheep move around, and not much grows in Ireland that’s edible, so the whole feudal peasants farm the land and pay taxes thing (think Robin Hood, right?) did not go over well. Dunluce Castle (below) is an example of the kind of medieval castles used by the lords during this time.

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The Kingdom

In 1542, King Henry VIII of England was made King of Ireland. Yes, that Henry the 8th. The one who 8 years prior had taken his whole country out of Catholicism because he wanted a divorce. There was an almighty row between the Protestant and Catholic countries, and many catholic countries refused to acknowledge his (Anglican) rule over (Catholic) Ireland, but eventually it sank in. One example of this struggle can be seen at the the Ross Errily Friary (below). It was a highly contested property from Henry VIII’s invasion until it was finally abandoned after the Franciscans were forced into hiding by the Popery Act of 1698, which placed a bounty on Catholic clergy. From then, the monks lived in hiding, pretending to be a textile factory for a while, and taking up residence on a now vanished nearby island. The last of the friars died in the early 1800s.

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Cromwell

They SAY it was the Kingdom of Ireland until 1800 (remember this year, it will be important later), but there was the little matter of Oliver Cromwell, and his Irish invasion. Cromwell was an ambitious and possibly crazy dude who led a very early anti-royal rebellion in the 1600’s, got King Charles I beheaded and lead England as a Commonwealth (no king = no kingdom). He also invaded the fuck out of Ireland.

To be honest, before this, I really only knew about Cromwell from the Monty Python skit/song, and now that I’ve learned more about him, it’s almost too hilarious not to share. I went looking for the skit, but all I could find was the song (with lyrics). I definitely remember watching it as a younger person, and it’s probably somewhere on the internet still, but not on the Monty Python YouTube channel. Regardless, it’s still Monty Python and funnier than any other version of history. Have a listen:

Cromwell finally got Charles I executed in 1649, whereupon Ireland and Scotland were like, “okay, Charles II is king now!”, so of course he had to invade and do terrible war to spread his anti-royalist sentiment for all of… 4 years. It really was horrible and mostly because of how much he hated Catholics, and only slightly because of how much he hated royalists. Anyway, Cromwell kicked the bucket in 1658, and I don’t usually go in for exact dates, but in this case it’s important cause this dude only ruled (um, commonwealthed?) England for 9 years… slightly more than 2 American election cycles… and he is STILL remembered for the atrocious mess he made. I got to see some of his leftover forts while I was there. This one is on the small western island of Inish Bofin in Galway county… yes that is on the opposite side of the country that’s close to England. Cromwell was a dick.

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People hated him SO MUCH that 3 years after his death by natural causes, they dug his body up so they could have a public execution posthumously. WHAT? True.

Aside from Cromwell’s pogrom of oppression, there were multiple violent occurrences (aka wars) during this time because of the systemic oppression of the Catholics under Protestant rule including: the Irish Confederate Wars (1641–53), the Williamite-Jacobite War (1689–91), the Armagh disturbances (1780s–90s) and the Irish Rebellion of 1798. Feel free to read more about them at your leisure. I’m not going to.

Unification

Remember that year I told you to remember? What’s so special about 1800? Interesting you should ask. The Irish Parliament actually voted to erase Ireland! It was ratified by the British Parliament and they officially became ONE dysfunctional country. Why did the Irish agree to such an obviously dick move? Weeeeell, it seems the British might have lied slightly about the quid pro quo. Most Irish who supported unification thought that the horrible, yet very legal, discrimination going on would finally stop.

For those of you who think that I mean like, oh people just didn’t like them, no. They couldn’t own land. They couldn’t inherit wealth. They couldn’t GO TO SCHOOL. They couldn’t gather for worship and prayer. The clergy had bounties on their heads and lived as fugitives in the woods. Catholics were cut out of government entirely with no possibility to ever get a member in Parliament. They were also outright forbidden from certain jobs.

This oppression started with Henry and continued until 1829… that’s like… almost 300 years. The Irish Catholics are bitter for a reason. Even after 1829, there was still a lot of the more “everyday” sort of discrimination like people not wanting to rent to them, or hire them, or let them in the pub or whathaveyou, and there was no such thing as the ACLU.

Also, I swear to all things I hold dear, if ONE person tries to use this as some reason why the Irish/white ppl are “as bad off” as the African Americans/former slaves — I will scream. It is NOT the same. Please don’t even.

The Potato Famine

Everyone with even a drop of Irish blood probably knows about this at least a little. This 4 year period from 1845-49 was one of the greatest losses of life in the 19th century, and it didn’t only affect Ireland. Everyone that relied on potatoes as a food staple was affected. This whole mess was generally blamed on the oppressive British rule that left the Irish farmers super poor and reliant on a single crop for food. Almost all the other food around was taken by the landlords or exported (also by the landlords, so the people got no money from it).

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It’s a long and complicated socio-economic mess, and again, I’m not going to try to explain it all here. Suffice it to say that if you have Irish ancestors, it’s likely they left Ireland as a result of this famine. More than 2 million Irish left following the famine, many going to America. The diaspora is still felt in modern day Ireland. Ireland is the only country to have fewer residents TODAY than they did in 1840. All other countries experienced a massive population boom as a result of the industrial revolution and improved travel/economic factors. Ireland had a bit over 8 million people before the famine hit, and only slightly more than 6 million today. There are literally more sheep than people in Ireland today. Those sheep pictured above are special Connemara sheep. You can tell because they have curly horns. Apparently they taste better, too.

Easter Rising, The IRA, & Irish Independence

Back up a minute….  Ireland and England never stopped struggling over class, religion, and land. In 1916 there was the Easter Rising, which was a mostly political move (yeah, there was definitely fighting and dying, but there was also some election stuff) to establish some degree of Irish independence. While I was visiting Trinity College in Dublin, I got to see one of the original declarations of independence that was put up on the post office during the Easter Rising as well as a number of random bullet holes on buildings and statues around town that were left as reminders of the event.

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The upshot of this was that in the 1918 elections, the political party known as Sinn Féin won 73 out of 105 seats in parliament, but then REFUSED to sit with the British. Instead, in January 1919 they formed the ‘Teachta Dála’ and declared the Independent Irish Republic, of which the IRA (Irish Republican Army aka Army of the Irish Republic) became the guerrilla military.

These guys fought the Irish War of Independence 1919-1921, and eventually won “dominion” status for Ireland… well southern Ireland… Northern Ireland opted to stay part of the UK at that time. What is “dominion” you ask? Me too! Apparently it’s the baby step between being part of an empire and being totally independent. Canada did it, and I guess maybe Austria too? It wasn’t until 1937 that (southern) Ireland created it’s very own shiny constitution and became a real boy, er, country.

The IRA had it’s first of many splits over that dominion treaty, since some of them thought it wasn’t good enough and it was still just British rule with a nose job. So, the OLD IRA who accepted the dominion treaty went on to become the National Army, while those who opposed the treaty remained the Republican Army, and they rejected both the new Republic of Ireland (south) and the still-part-of-Great-Britain Northern Ireland.

I know, I always think of the IRA as being part of North Ireland, too. I’ll get there. For now, this iteration of the IRA hated everyone for being too British and kicked off the Irish Civil War. Even after they lost the war, IRA 2.0 continued to cause trouble, a little bit like some other civil war losers I know.

The Troubles

The Troubles are a very sensitive topic. I am going to make jokes, but not because I don’t take it seriously. Rather, I need some humor to keep from screaming at the sheer bloody-mindedness of the human race.

Aaaaanyway. There was a (probably) non-violent protest about Catholic rights in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland was at the time mostly protestant and still part of the UK, and while the big huge discrimination laws had ended… the actual discrimination had not. Go figure. The British police responded with violence and the whole thing got way outta hand, and the IRA was like, “fight the man” — with bombs.

In 1969, the IRA split again, giving us the “Official” IRA (OIRA or as I will call them, IRA 3.0) and the “Provisional” IRA (PIRA aka IRA 3.5). I *think* the OIRA were Marxists who wanted total abolition of British involvement in a united Ireland and also participated in politics as the Workers Party. And. I *think* the PIRA were not-Marxist but still left leaning folks who wanted total abolition of British involvement in a united Ireland and practiced a kind of politics known as abstensionism, whereby one runs for and wins seats in a legislature, but then doesn’t participate, rendering said seats… obstructive, and I guess maybe also preventing things like quorums or majorities. Honestly, I’m kind of freaked out by that tactic and I think it might be what the Republicans are doing in America right now.

Bloody Sunday

While I was in Northern Ireland, I took the opportunity to pass through Derry and see the Bloody Sunday bog murals (one of which is pictured below), which was certainly a large part of what piqued my interest in learning all this history. Bloody Sunday, also captured in a U2 song, was a brutal example of police violence in 1972 when 13 unarmed men were killed by police in a civil rights protest.

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Now, maybe they were “not angels” in the sense they may have belonged to one or more violent groups, but at the time they were killed by police, they were unarmed and not committing any violent acts. They were killed without an arrest or a trial. By the police.

I swear to all my gods, if you wanna compare this shit to what is happening re Black Lives Matter in America, please do so only within the context of shitty ass policing and do not try to say shit about the white people being victims too. It is NOT the same.

Sigh.

Then in 1986, yet ANOTHER split created the Continuity IRA (CIRA, or IRA 3.8). I gather their main objection to the PIRA was that around this time the PIRA stopped practicing the rather shady tactic of abstentionism, and the CIRA thought that was not cool. Other than that, the CIRA didn’t really do anything until 1994, when the rest of the IRAs were gearing up for peace.

The Northern Ireland Peace Process

Getting to a part of history I sort of remember! In 1994 there was a real movement to create some kind of peace and to end the decades of violent clashes between the various IRAs and the British forces in Northern Ireland. This went on for a while, and it danced around a lot, which I think is how I ended up with such a wildly confused idea of modern Irish history. Although the Good Friday Agreement of 1997 supposedly fixed things, it wasn’t until 2005 that the IRA actually declared they would stop fighting, and not until 2007 that the Troubles were declared officially over.

And yet…

What’s with Northern Ireland now that they stopped bombing stuff?

The IRA lives on. I saw quite a bit of pro-IRA graffiti (below) while I was looking around the bog murals in Derry. A new splinter group called the “Real” IRA (IRA 2011), came about as a faction who rejected the peace process decided to remain active. They are considered by all governments  to be a terrorist organization and have no legitimacy as a political party or national military force (unlike previous incarnations of the IRA which had one or both). Attacks this year (2019) have included Derry, Belfast, London, and Glasgow.

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As long as Ireland remains split, there remain unionists (who are for British union) and the nationalists (who are for a single non-British Ireland). Nowadays most nationalists are far from violent, and prefer to imagine they can either persuade the Northerners to vote themselves out of England or (as one of my tour guides told me) that the Catholic minority in the north will overtake the Protestants by virtue of birthrate (Catholics don’t go in for any of that “family planning” after all) and that on that day, they’ll have the pure numbers to push a vote through. The spirit of the IRA and the goal for a single free Ireland lives on, but nowadays it’s (mostly) just talk.

Beware venturing your opinion in earshot of an Irishman though. However much they may feud with one another, like any family, they can take exception to outsiders choosing sides. I recommend a pint of Guinness and a willingness to listen more than talk as the key to smooth international relations. 

Don’t let the politics put you off a visit. Northern Ireland is insanely beautiful, that’s why they shot Game of Thrones there, after all. Just look at this stunning coastline! Plus, it really is quite safe, especially outside the major cities. I’ll go into more of my personal experiences there in my futures posts so you can be charmed like I was.

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Myths & Tales from China 04

Last time we read about Shen’nong dedicating his life to identifying all the plants in the world to help humanity grow and thrive. Now Shen’nong has won the title of Flame Emporer and changed his name to Yan Di. He must fight for the fate of his kingdom against a newcomer, Huang Di. Make no mistake, the outcome of this battle will determine the history of all China!


Huang Di Battles Chi You

Around at the same time as Flame Emporer Yan Di there was another ruler called Huang Di, the Yellow Emperor. Because he was born on the shore of the Ji waters and lived on Xuan Yuan Hill, he used Ji for his family name and Xuan Yuan as his given name, so he is also called Yuan Huang Di. While they fought over territory, the tribes of Huang Di and Yan Di had three great battles at Banquan near Zhuolu (in Hebei). In the end, Yan Di was defeated; he retreated to the South and ruled there.

There was a Tribal Chief under Yan Di’s command with a cruel and warlike nature named Chi You. Under his command were eighty-one brothers. Each one had the head of a man and the body of a beast. They had copper heads and iron foreheads, and four eyes and six arms each. They were not only good at making weapons, but their magical power was also very strong. Chi You often tried to persuade Yan Di to face Huang Di again in battle and take back the land they had lost. However, Yan Di did not have the heart to make the common people suffer such calamity so he did not listen to Chi You’s suggestions. Chi You became angry; he ordered his people to craft a large number of weapons, and to gather Feng Bo (wind god), Yu Shi (rain god), and the Kuafu Tribes-people and go immediately to challenge Huang Di.

Huang Di had a kind nature, and was unwilling to fight. He pleaded with Chi You for a truce, but Chi You didn’t listen at all and attacked the border again and again. Having no other choice, Huang Di personally led his soldiers into battle and prepared to fight Chi You.

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Huang Di first ordered his Great General, the Dragon Ying Long to attack. Ying Long could fly and spray water from his mouth. When he entered the battle, he flew up into the air, then, occupying the high ground, he sprayed water. In the blink of an eye, a huge flood surged forth and crashed in great waves towards Chi You. Chi You quickly sent out Feng Bo and Yu Shi. Feng Bo blew up a fierce wind that filled the sky, Yu Shi gathered up all the water that Ying Long sprayed and sent it crashing back down on Huang Di’s own troops. Ying Long could only spray water, he couldn’t collect it, so as a result of this attack, Huang Di was defeated and had to surrender.

Before long, Huang Di once again lined up his troops to fight Chi You. Huang Di lead his soldiers from the front, rushing into Chi You’s lines. This time, Chi You used magic. He spat out billows of smoke and fog so that Huang Di and his troops were completely covered. Huang Di’s men could not tell one direction from another. Trapped this way in the smoke and fog, they could not get out to fight again. At this critical moment, Huang Di looked up and saw the Big Dipper in the sky and was inspired. That same night he quickly made a device that would face Southward no matter what. Then he was able to lead his army out and rejoin the fight.

In order to inspire his army to their full strength, Huang Di decided to use the beat of an army drum to raise morale. He heard that in the East China Sea there was a floating mountain, and on this mountain lived a beast called Kui, the one legged demon of the mountain, whose howling voice was like a peal of thunder. Huang Di sent some men to go and capture Kui and use its hide to make the drum. Huang Di further sent people to go and capture the Thunder Beast of Thunder Pond and take his big bones to make a drumstick. When this Kui-hide drum was struck, its trembling sound would reach five hundred miles, and several hits in a row could make the sound reach three thousand and eight hundred miles. Huang Di also used eighty cow-hide drums, and greatly roused his army’s strength. In order to completely defeat Chi You, Huang Di called specially on his daughter Nu Ba to help fight. Nu Ba is the goddess of drought; she specializes in collecting clouds and stopping rain.

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Huang Di gathered his troops, and once more entered into battle with Chi You. Both armies were poised for battle when Huang Di gave the order to beat the war drums. Immediately the sound shook Heaven and Earth. When Huang Di’s soldiers heard the drums, their courage doubled, but Chi You’s soldiers were frightened by the sound and their spirits sank. Chi You saw the circumstances were grave, so together with his own 81 brothers they began to unleash their magic powers, and fought ferociously in front of the troops. 

Huang Di saw that Chi You truly could not be dealt with in this way, so he had Ying Long spew forth water. Chi You had no way to defend against it and was knocked off his horse by the blast. He hastily dispatched Feng Bo and Yu Shi to fire up a campaign of fierce wind and torrential rain right in the middle of Huang Di’s forces. The face of the earth was suddenly flooded, the situation was desperate. Just then, Nu Ba entered the battle. She cast a spell, and from her body radiated a wave of heat. Wherever she went, the wind stopped and the rain vanished; her head was like a scorching sun. Feng Bo and Yu Shi had no strategy left, and ran away in a great hurry. Huang Di lead his troops forward into a huge battle. Chi You was defeated and ran away.

Chi You could fly through the air, and also could run so fast over sheer cliffs and rock faces that it was just like flying. Huang Di seemed unable to capture him. He chased Chi You into the middle of Jizhou. There, Huang Di had a sudden insight, and ordered his men to beat the Kui-hide drum with all their might nine times in a row. Chi You’s spirits sank immediately. He could no longer move and was captured by Huang Di.

Huang Di ordered his men to put a wooden collar and shackles on Chi You, and then let them cut off his head. After Chi You died, his shackled body was thrown onto a desolate mountain top, where it transformed into a grove of maple trees. Each leaf was covered with the spots, just like the blood spattered on the collar and shackles.

After Huang Di defeated Chi You, the vassals all venerated him as the Emperor, son of Heaven. Huang Di lead the common people, turned wild lands into farmland, settled the lands of Central China, and established the foundation of the Cathay peoples.


NOTES:

Cathay may refer to all of China, or simply the northern parts of China.

Huang Di is also known as the Yellow Emperor and is credited with being the first true Emperor of China (there is no historical evidence he existed, but he is mythologized as a human and not a god). He is credited with inventing most of the trappings of complex civilization including writing, mathematics, and astronomy.


Xing Tian Dances the Ganqi

Among Yan Di’s troops was a man called Xing Tian. He greatly revered Yan Di and followed him everywhere. Xing Tian and Chi You were alike. After Yan Di retreated to the South he tried his best to persuade Yan Di to send the army for revenge; however, Yan Di remained unmoved. When Chi You was fighting Huang Di in the North, Yan Di would not allow Xing Tian to help him, and Xing Tian became very depressed.

Later, Xing Tian heard that Chi You was defeated and had his head cut off. He was unable to hold back the grief in his heart and decided to kill Huang Di in order to avenge all of Yan Di’s people. He secretly left Yan Di. In his left hand he carried a shield and in his right hand he wielded a broad ax, then he ran like the wind to Xuan Yuan Hill. The whole way, he crashed through the mountain passes set up by Huang Di one after another and went straight to launch an attack on the front gate of Huang Di’s palace.

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When Huang Di heard that Xing Tian had broken through his mountain passes one after another and was rushing in to kill them all, he was very surprised. He picked up his double edged sword at once and went out to personally face Xing Tian in single combat. Just as he came out of the palace gate, Xing Tian’s broad ax rushed down at him, Huang Di barely dodged to avoid it. Xian Tian hurled insults at Huang Di while ferociously brandishing his broad ax. Huang Di also brandished his sword back. They clashed sword against ax high in the clouds, back and forth, fighting with all their might, fighting so hard that black clouds rolled forth making a dusky patch between Heaven and Earth.

They fought for three days and three night and still could not determine a winner. Huang Di gradually began to weaken, but Xing Tian was young and vigorous, and while brandishing his broad ax, the more he fought, the braver he became. Huang Di knew that this kind of bravado could be a disadvantage, so when he saw an opening, he sliced his sword at Xing Tian’s neck. There was a snapping sound — Ka Cha! — and Xing Tian’s head was chopped off, fell to the ground and bounced up three feet, then rolled — gu-lu-lu — to the foot of the mountain.

Xing Tian felt the base of his neck where his head no longer was and panicked. He crouched down and felt around on the ground with his hands. As a result, the trees that reached into the sky and the towering rocks were swept aside by his giant hands. They all snapped off and shattered one after another, filling the air with smoke and dust and sending fragments in all directions.

When Huang Di saw that Xing Tian had lost his head but had not died he stared dumbstruck. He worried that Xing Tian would find his head and reattach it to his neck, so he raised up his sword and split open Changyang Mountain with all his might. With a loud rumbling sound –hong-long-long — Changyang Mountain was split in two, Xing Tian’s head rolled — gu-lu-lu — into the opening, and the big mountain immediately closed back up.

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Xing Tian stopped and crouched there blankly. He knew his own head was already buried in the mountain and could not be brought out again. But he was not resigned to defeat in this manner, he felt angry beyond compare, and suddenly erupted in astonishing power. He sprang up fiercely, used the two nipples on his chest for eyes and his bellybutton for a mouth, gripped his broad ax and raised his shield, and proceeded to slash wildly at the air.

Who knows how long this went on before Xing Tian finally used up all his energy and collapsed like a mountain, his hands still tightly gripping his ax and shield. Huang Di was so moved by his loyalty and perseverance that he commanded that Xing Tian would be buried under Changyang Mountain.


Chinese onomatopoeia or 象声词 (xiàng shēng cí):

You may have noticed some sound effects in the last story. I didn’t make them up, they came that way in the original text. If you’re curious –

咔嚓一 ka chaaaa!
gu-lu-lu
隆隆 hong-long-long

Vincent and Me

I know I said I was going to tell you about Ireland, but… We passed through Paris for a few days on the way because CDG is in the middle of everything and I love Paris. Another visit to the Musee d’Orsay got me thinking about the impressionists I love, especially Van Gogh. So, this post isn’t about Ireland OR Paris, it’s about my experience at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.


In the summer of 2018, I passed through Amsterdam for a single day. You can read about the rest of the day here, but this post is dedicated 100% to the Van Gogh Museum.  It was such an inspiring and emotional experience for me that I paused to take notes about my thoughts and feelings as I was walking through the collection. Usually, I write reflections afterward, but my mind was racing with insights and inspirations so fast, I was afraid I might forget. I mentioned in my essay about the Musee d’Orsay how connected I feel to Vincent, but it wasn’t until I toured this museum in Amsterdam that I really understood the depth of my feelings.

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I didn’t include this in my original stories about that summer because I wanted to watch the movie “Loving Vincent” before I finished writing it. I finally got that chance when it turned up on Netflix for a short run earlier this year. The movie was beautifully hand painted in Van Gogh’s signature style, but I was surprised to find it’s almost entirely about his death rather than his life. The point of view character is charged with delivering a letter and gets caught up in the mysterious circumstances of Vincent’s supposed suicide.

I’ve always loved Van Gogh, and it seems everything I learned about him at that museum only made me love him more.

The Museum

The museum is so crowded. I had the very earliest time slot available and I still felt hemmed in by bodies. I went backwards from his death on the third floor to his youth on the ground level. I’m glad I started at the top because after 3 hours of wandering the displays, I felt all itchy skinned at having to deal with mountains of bodies, mostly focused on their audio tours, and many trying to take photos even though it’s not allowed except at special photo-op areas. Even then, the museum took my photo for me, and sent it later by email.

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That was a big contrast over the d’Orsay. There everyone queued up to snap photos of famous painting (yeah, me too), while in Amsterdam, people are just clumped around, usually plugged into headphones and oblivious to the presence of other visitors. I’m not sure which is better/worse. I think it would just generally be better if it were less crowded. It’s hard to get time with a painting when being jostled and stepped around. I’m glad everyone wants to experience the art but it feels like it looses something to my “oh my God get the humans off me” response. I can’t even imagine how it is during “peak” times.

I’ll talk about the main displays in a moment, but one little fun mention is the tactile sunflowers near the gift shop. Art museums are not usually targeted to the blind or visually impaired, but someone had created  a reproduction of the famous sunflower painting that can be touched. Along with touch, the senses of sound in the form of violin music with amplified sounds of the flower growing, blooming and dying (listen below), and the sense of smell with some sunflowers in a box. Interestingly, it was not only the smell of the flower but the smell of the painting as well. It’s not a part of Vincent’s art, but I thought it was an amazing way to experience art in a new way.

On to Vincent — backwards.

He died July 29, 1890, two days after receiving a bullet wound to the torso, possibly self inflicted.

Auvers-sur-Oise (May–July 1890)

 The works at the end of his life were frenzied like he knew his time was almost out of time, and he had to get as many paintings done as possible. He finished 75 paintings in 70 days, many of which are his most famous works: like Wheat Fields with Crows in Amsterdam, or Church at Auvers in Paris. There is impatience in the brush strokes and they looked massively different from a few feet away and across the room.

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The way he is attracted to the colors of night, the intense deep blue of the sky on days it gets so blue it becomes dark. The blue and pale gold of all his wheat fields that is a color scheme I would live inside if I could. He did scores of these kind of blue and gold themed paintings during his last days, but it wasn’t the first time he hit on the intensity of those countryside colors.

Saint-Rémy (May 1889 – May 1890)

Although Starry Night and Almond Blossoms were both made during this time, the paintings on display for this part of his life are drab compared to his other colors. Almost painfully dominated by brown and dark green with pale skies. He was in pain and unable to escape.

Part of the display in the museum here are audio recordings of some of his letters. We could pick up an ear piece and listen. I was entranced. Listening to his letters I could hear my own thoughts, yearning for something best called “religion”. He says that he doesn’t go to church, but he goes outside at night to look at the stars and the sky that is cobalt blue. He muses about color, that all things appear colorless when looked at too closely (sand, water, air), but that doesn’t make it true. He talks about his friends: that the bonds of friendship are one of the best things in life even if we resent those bonds in our times of depression.

I don’t know the best way to explain it other than to say his words resonated with me on a very deep level. I think we all struggle to be understood in some way and in a moment when you realize someone you admire and respect understands the way you think and feel, what’s more, understood it long before you were born… I suppose it could make someone feel less special or unique, but for me it’s like finding a friend across not just space, but also time.

Arles (1888–89)

This is where Vincent painted the famous Sunflowers, and where many people feel he truly found his voice as an artist, taking what he’d learned and finally becoming free. Van Gogh’s treasured friendships also started here where he sought an artists commune and cultivated a joyful and supportive relationship with several painters. They frequently sent letters, sketches, and even paintings to one another the way that we sent Snapchats and Memes across social media today. There is a painting by Gauguin of Vincent painting sunflowers. It is an imagination since Gauguin was not present when the sunflower paintings were made, but it reminded me of the “taking a picture of someone taking a picture” fashion in modern photography. It seems friends play the same games with images whenever they can.

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Vincent asked Paul Gauguin and Émile Bernard to each send him a portrait of the other. Instead, they sent self portraits but had a portrait of the other hanging on a wall as part of the background.  It’s such a wonderful and lighthearted sense of humor. Sadly, Gauguin was such an arrogant ass that he never granted his true friendship, and instead left Vincent always chasing after his affection and respect, contributing to his anxiety and depression, and to his eventual mental breakdown, self-mutilation, and hospitalization. I don’t like Gauguin for a lot of reasons, this is really just one more.

On the other hand, Paul Signac, a neo-impresionist I only recently discovered in 2018 and one who has rocketed to the top of my all time favorite paintings list, visited Vincent in the hospital twice while Gauguin was busy avoiding him, so that’s nice to know.

Paris (1886–1888)

Moving to Paris was the best thing he could have ever done. Watching him develop his color palette reminded me of the first time I realized I was allowed to paint whatever colors I wanted. I didn’t have to make it realistic. It was so freeing and I finally started to like some of my paintings. Looking at his early bright-color works they all have an awkward, exploring feeling which is quite different from the bold and confident colors later.

He used a grid for perspective, which was a thing I struggled with, and he spent years doing just drawings because he wanted to focus on shapes and poses. He didn’t only consider them sketches but full works of art which he signed. I did very much the same thing. He also had a brief but torrid love affair with Japanese culture in 1887, and that was the first foreign culture I was drawn to before I really went full globe trotter. I have never been able to afford as much paint and canvas as I want, and the advent of digital photography and graphic design gave me a much cheaper way to pursue my artistic inclinations.909px-Vincent_van_Gogh_-_Bloeiende_pruimenboomgaard-_naar_Hiroshige_-_Google_Art_Project

While many of his artist friends preferred to paint from imagination, Vincent  preferred to paint from life. I wonder what he would have thought of color photography. It’s a way to capture a scene, a moment of light and color. Modern digital effects even allow us to manipulate the colors and light of a captured image. You can make a blue sky bluer, or over-saturate the colors of a cafe at night… I think he might have enjoyed it?

The Netherlands (1881-1885)

At the outset of his artistic career, he was trying to create a look that was popular at the time and that he genuinely admired, that of artists like Jean-François Millet and Jules Breton. Millet and Breton (left) were famous for dark and drab paintings of peasant life. They were very stark and brutal depictions of what life was like for poor and hard working, technically lovely, but emotionally ugly. Of course, art historians refer to this style of painting as revealing “the beauty and idyllic vision of rural existence”. I think that’s only true if you’ve never been poor. VanGogh (right) was determined to be like them.

He did an enormous body of work sketching local peasants and farm workers, the centerpiece of which is The Potato Eaters (below). It’s all done in the same color palette and mood as Millet and Breton, but the faces look almost cartoonish in his effort to capture feelings over accuracy.

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Seeing his still life of fruit in all brown tones, I was shocked to see it was Van Gogh and not Millet’s or Breton. 

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Just looking at the church in Nunes (left) next to the church in Auvers (right), you can see the change and growth. Yes, I promise, they’re both Van Gogh, but from drastically different stages of his artistic development.

I don’t know if he liked it, but it’s definitely a period of drab and dark colors maybe the landscape was more drab or maybe it was the influence of being near his father. He stayed enamored of Millet (left) for most of the rest of his life, and recreated many of those idyllic, pastoral scenes in his own brightly colored impressionistic style (right).

Life Before Painting (1853-1881)

It’s said that his mother never recovered from the loss of her firstborn child and that her relationship with Vincent was strained, but he was also recorded as being a “serious, quiet and thoughtful” child. His father was a minister, and two of his uncles were art dealers. He tried both careers with little success. His father was constantly disappointed in his inability to make it as an adult. Perhaps it was his time as an art dealer that made him try his hand at creating art, and why he spent so much time and effort trying to replicate the style and subject of the famous and successful artists of the time.

Reflections

Going backwards was an interesting choice. I realize that I, like most people, love best his works from 1888-1890. It seems like such a brief time span, but he practiced art for less than 10 years before he died. It is astonishing the amount of work he produced. When people say “practice” this is really what they mean. On the other hand, he was constantly trying to improve, so the fact that he clearly did is a testament to his devotion to self cultivation.

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Watching him evolve was a rushing, intimate roller-coaster of creativity and self-expression under difficult circumstances. He didn’t have formal art training, but taught himself by studying others. He experienced enormous frustration that his attempts to imitate the respected artists he was familiar with failed. Eventually, he found a community of like minded people and permission to explore color and shape on his own in Paris. It was the beginning of finding his own true self, and yet it destroyed his mind to the point that he landed in the hospital more than once. And yet, that Parisian community is what would sustain him in the form of letters, art exchanges, and the oh-so-important stability that even distant friends can offer. 

There’s a misconception that great artists are never appreciated in their own time, but that’s simply untrue. Most famous artists throughout history were superstars of their own day, like Hollywood actors and TV stars today. That Vincent never gained any recognition or respect until after his death was likely a contributing factor to his suffering in life.

Did he kill himself? Maybe. I know that the episode of Dr. Who where Amy and the Doctor visit Vincent is one of my favorite. That it helped me process the suicide of my own dear friend to realize that we can do everything right to be supportive and yet mental illness can still take someone away as surely as cancer. “Loving Vincent” made me question his death all over as suspicious information came to light regarding the gun, the wound, and the strange behavior of the people in Auvers. Officially, his death is still ruled a suicide, but his life remains a brilliant and sad mystery in many ways. According to his brother who was there at the end, Vincent’s last words were: “The sadness will last forever”

In some ways I’m glad I did not read about his life when I was younger. If I’d discovered all our similarities at the age of 20 I might have developed a complex. I might have worked less hard to get help and spent more time glorifying what was happening to me. Instead, when I learned that we shared a diagnosis, I was content just to know there was someone else with my brain trouble.

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I remember when things were very bad thinking that if cutting my ear off would make it stop, I would gladly do so, but Vincent had already proven it wouldn’t work. I could understand the feelings that drove him to see the world in colors and swirls, that drove him mad enough to drink and self-harm, that landed him in an asylum and eventually dead. I understood the sentiment, but I didn’t know anything else about him beyond a few paintings and his suicide. Back then, I looked only at his art and at the very most well known facts about his life and felt a connection.

Now that I’ve learned more details, from his family life, to his progress through art, to his views on the universe and human relationships? I’m blown away by it.

I’m not trying to say I’m channeling van Gogh, but I’ve always felt a kinship with him. I didn’t move to Paris and join an artist commune, so I don’t have a tiny fraction of his nearly 1,000 finished works. I probably never will, because I was able to manage my state of mind better, whether from support of my community or improved medical care, who can say. The end result is that I got it under control and now I not only have a lot more responsibilities than Vincent did, I have also avoided multi-year stretches of confinement under a doctor’s care. Despite this divergence, I can say that trying to be “normal”, “acceptable”, or “popular” in his own lifetime was something he desperately wanted and could never achieve is a feeling I know all too well.

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You can see photos of the complete works of Vincent Van Gogh on this wiki.

You can explore the collection at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsteram here.

Viking Country 3: Road Trip Treasures

One of the more endearing things about the road trip in Sweden was the sheer volume of cool stuff to see that is really close to the main highway. I feel a deep cultural attraction to “the road trip” which I’ve always sort of assumed was part of my American heritage. After all, as a child, my father took me on summer road trips in the RV to all the beautiful national parks of the West. My mom took us on weekend road trips up and down the coast or the town next door. When I got a car, I took repeated road trips with my friends. Loading up on road snacks, blasting your road music and pulling over when some random sign says “world’s largest ketchup bottle” is a basic part of Americana that thrives in my soul no matter how long I’m away.


Sweden is the only other country I’ve been to that I feel really gets it as far as road trip culture goes. Don’t get me wrong, I loved driving across Germany. Those people have amazing gas stations. The New Zealand drive was great and I loved having my own wheels in Bohol. The main difference is that, however beautiful the roadside scenery was in all those places, the road was just a way to get to places that public transit didn’t go. In Sweden, they not only have great gas stations, but also STUNNING rest stops that are basically parks and attractions on their own, AND they have the most wonderful series of roadside attractions.

On the day I fled the not-a-murder-house-we-promise, I found a cool viking church, another old-timey village replica, the most beautiful rest stop I’ve ever seen, and a giant statue by Pablo Picasso.

Viking Church

The Swedish people were late to the Christianity conversion party. After all, the religion’s spread originated in Rome, and the Roman Empire never quite managed to get a foothold in the land of the ice and snow. Vikings were worshiping Odin and co. right up to the 12th century, and even when they finally did “convert” it was… very halfhearted. A lot of the viking cultural and artistic trappings stayed almost entirely the same but with a little “for Jesus” footnote.

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I stopped in at Glanshammar Church in Örebro to see a little bit of how the Viking and the Christian met in the middle. I have to say, I wasn’t much impressed by the exterior of the building. There was an interesting watchtower construction, but the church was remarkably plain for something supposedly Catholic. I mean, think of all those Romanesque arches and Gothic cathedrals in Europe. What was this little white nub of a building?

Fortunately, I stuck it out and found the door. The interior of the very plain white building is filled end to end and top to bottom with highly intricate artwork that uniquely combines the traditional Christian art and architecture from the continent with the Swedish styles seen in earlier Viking tradition.

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Outdoor Museum of Provincial Life

Next, still in Örebro, I stopped by the 18th century village reproduction called Wadköping. According to the sign, many of the buildings were actually transplanted from their original home to create the open air museum. I began to wander the town, noticing once more the extreme prevalence of red buildings. I saw some ladies doing needlework with laundry drying, and I went into buildings for kids that had plaster animals and pretend food.

I found the home of Hjalmar Bergman (Ingred Bergman’s father), a famous if often misunderstood writer who wrote about a mythical town of  Wadköping as a kind of Anytown, Sweden representing a middle class provincial life. The recreational is named after his literary invention as there was no such village in reality.

There was a replica school house which showed a typical education plan for students including Christianity, native language, arithmetic, “knowledge of nature” (the natural sciences), gymnastics, gender segregated crafts, and drawing.

There were a startling number of little artisan shops inside the buildings. Some were simply souvenir and ice cream shops, but others included traditional arts like woodcarving and a silversmith. The Historiska Butiken was particularly filled with the kind of beautiful Norse styled witchcrafty goodies that I know at least 30 people in my immediate friend group would have loved to fill their homes with. Even I had a hard time resisting. Tiny luggage space saves me money again!

A Fully Functioning Castle?

My last stop in Örebro was the Örebro Castle. This was the only place I ever really had trouble finding parking since the castle is quite central and Örebro is not a tiny village. After a few drives around the block, I found some street parking and headed over. It was mainly an exterior photo-op because the castle is not decorated in antique royal furniture the way so many of the castles on the continent were. A small part of the castle was set up as a kind of tiny museum, and much larger parts of the castle are actually used as government and business offices. The governor even lives there. Functional castle!

While exploring, I also found a hiking trail sign that indicated a “walking with death” level of trail difficulty, and a dramatically oversized park bench, just for fun.

Roadside Picasso

Waving good by to Örebro, I hit the highway for another longer stretch in search of the Picasso. That’s right, there’s an original Picasso standing out in the Swedish countryside… or… lakeside anyway. I’m not actually a big Picasso fan, for complicated reasons involving art history and feminism, but this seemed like the Swedish equivalent of “the world’s largest bottle of ketchup” and I could not drive so near it without stopping by. It was a long slow drive down a thin, low speed limit road, but it was such a beautiful day, and the road ran along the waterfront. A worthy side-trip.

On my way, I paused at one of Sweden’s many beautiful and amazing roadside rest stops. This one was a small lake surrounded by beautiful evergreen trees. The water was so still that the perfect blue and fluffy white of the sky were reflected like a mirror. I ate my sandwich and watched the beauty, just feeling overwhelmed by Sweden.20180815_160148.jpg

When I finally arrived at the Picasso, I was not disappointed. It’s clearly his work, and it’s GIANT. I wandered all around taking photos from various angles before I realized that the absolute best angle for the late afternoon sun also contained a couple having a nice fika (cup of coffee & snack) on a bench below the statue. I tried my best to shoot around them, hoping they might finish and move, but in the end I had to go in for politely asking if they would mind stepping away from the bench for just a moment so I could get the best picture. I do hate asking people to move their picnic, but it’s not like I’m going to be back again any time soon. They were quite gracious about the request, and I got my “shot”.20180815_172959.jpg

Fine Dining

I had reserved a cabin in a campground for the night, but was slowly learning to plan dinner before checking into the more remote accommodations. With no desire for another grocery store dinner, I decided to stop in Karlstad for a nice restaurant meal. Thanks to Google, I found a place called Elektriska. It’s built in the remains of an old electro-technical plant and focuses on high quality, sustainable, local, ethically sourced food cooked with an eye for haute cuisine. It is not cheap, but it was just inside my price range, and sounded right up my alley. Not to mention, it was in an adorable neighborhood.

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Their cocktail menu alone could have kept me happy. In the end I chose a lingonberry Gin and Tonic made with Stockholms Branneri Pink Gin, lingonberry, grapefruit, and Mediterranean Tonic. ($15)

The appetizer menu also looked like something I could just happily graze my way through, but the waitress advised that even the larger sampler was unlikely to be quite enough for a dinner. I settled on the “16 Ampere” appetizer platter which included rainbow trout with dill and vinegar, truffle salami with ricotta and sunflower, and wild boar with plum and tellicherry. ($17) The menu is seasonal and based on what’s available, so don’t go expecting to get exactly the same.

The wild boar sausage and the wild trout sashimi were entirely delicious, but the star of this dish was absolutely the salami. I would never in 10 million years have thought to combine salami, ricotta cheese, AND sunflower butter. I love all three of these, and I have probably had salami and ricotta together, and might have tried ricotta with sunflower seeds in a salad or something, but… wow. I can’t even explain how amazing this flavor combo is. Get u sum.

My main course was more rainbow trout, and if you like fish you know you just can’t go wrong with fresh caught local rainbow trout in season. This was skin fried rainbow trout with root vegetables, sundried tomatoes, and crayfish tails in a buttered crayfish broth. (28$)20180815_202844.jpg

I included the prices because this was the MOST expensive meal I ate on holiday, and I kind of wanted to put in perspective what that means for me. A high quality meal and cocktail at a fancy restaurant is not something I do often, but I’d been saving by eating in grocery stores and local delis, and this was a splurge that was 100% worth it. Amazing food isn’t cheap, but it sure does make the pleasure centers in my brain light up like Christmas and New Year’s all at once.

Cabin In the Woods

I got to my “campsite” in Värmland after dark and had a little trouble finding the bathrooms, but fortunately I was the only one there, and I’m not afraid to pretend to be a bear. The cabin itself was very plush with wall to wall carpet and a sort of beach house all white linen decor, as well as excellent WiFi. Despite being an actual cabin in the woods, the whole vibe of the campsite was homey and friendly which was a nice change after the farmhouse fright night.20180815_220708.jpg

The next morning I was able to easily find the bathroom and kitchen, make myself a cup of coffee and prepare a bit of breakfast from my grocery supplies. Traveling in a car means I can stock up on food for most meals and snacks more easily than when I’m traveling by bus and train. I was in no particular hurry to hit the road, and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at the little table and chairs out front of my cabin while watching the sheep across the road.

Once I felt full and rested, and put all my bedding in the laundry room, I hit the road once more. The cabin rules had included a rather extensive list of guests cleaning responsibilities and it wasn’t the first time I encountered such. The Langholm hostel had similar rules instructing guests not only to strip the sheets for the laundry staff, but also to take out the trash and sweep the floor before checking out! I try to be a good guest and never leave a big mess behind, but for me that usually means putting all my waste IN the garbage and cleaning up any big spills. I know pretty much all US hotels/hostels have housekeeping that have to clean the rooms between guests, but I’ve never seen the need to make extra work for them. Still it was a stretch even for me to be told that I had to go to the main building and get the vacuum cleaner, haul it over to the cabin and vacuum, then take it back, and also fold all the bedding after removing the duvet covers. I guess I’m just saying if you go to Sweden, expect to be your own housekeeping.

Winging It and Winning

I was getting used to following the roadsigns to roadside attractions by this point in my road trip and I happily turned off to explore Borgvik and Hyttruin without really knowing what I’d find. Hytta means “foundry”. Hyttruin is therefore the ruins of a foundry. I’m not a person who is typically interested in ironwork, and I think if the sign had said “iron foundry” I might have kept driving, but then I would have missed these wonderful ruins, and you know how much I love ruins.

Looking at the size of the defunct forge, I could imagine mythical dwarves making Thor’s hammer there. It was enormous, but it’s not from the days of antiquity, it’s just from the 1800s. Alongside the ruins ran the waterfall that was created to supply the foundry with hyrdropower. There were signs around the place explaining the history of pig iron, and the ins and outs of manufacture, but it turns out I’m still not interested in iron production. Very cool ruins, though.

Art & Lunch

Next I popped into a little art gallery nearby (still in Borgvik) called Sliperiet. It turned out to be a restaurant/art gallery and I opted to do both. Being hungry, I started with the restaurant and once again indulged my salmon habit. It was another highly artisan place with only a few chef chosen dishes on the menu each day. The salmon and veg were perfectly lovely, but what made the dish sing was the lemon cream. I don’t know how he made this stuff, but it was absolutely lemon and cream in the best possible way. Both are great with salmon but together it was heaven. I could eat that lemon cream every day on everything.20180816_130950.jpg

While I was eating, the staff brought me a booklet with little biographies of all the artists on display in the gallery which gave me a chance to think about what I was going to see. I decided to do the museum as a break between lunch and dessert, and I was pleasantly surprised by the variety and quality of art on display in what was really the “middle of nowhere”. I took photos of absolutely everything, but I’m only going to share some of my favorites here.

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In case you want to follow up on any of these fine creators, I’ve tried to include relevant links: Albin Liljestrand, Kjell Engman, Stephan Westling, Ann Lillqvist, Rodney Smith, Christian Coigny, Nino Ramsby, Ylva CederTim Flach, Sara Nilsson, Jonas Rooth, Eka Acosta

After a lovely dessert of crème brûlée, I asked the very kind and helpful staff people where to go next. I had planned a day “in Varmland” but had no idea what was there, and had been going off of roadside stands and Google Maps markers with some success so far, but it never hurts to ask a local. They told me about an artist commune called NotQuite and I resolved to include it as my last stop in Varmland for the day.

An Artist Commune

20180816_161751NotQuite is an artist community built in an old paper factory in the middle of nothing. The art on display is far more experimental and boundary pushing than anything else I’d seen that summer, and not all of it was good, but all of it was sure trying to BE something. I wandered into the abandoned factory floor where art installations were scattered around almost as though they had been abandoned along with the paper. Small bright displays stood alone in large concrete rooms, and almost all of the signage was only in Swedish.

I found a mattress with some cobbled together VR goggles and a vague sort of “play me” note. It was an odd distorted and block color reality with a voice over in English of a person of indeterminate gender exploring the concept of sexuality. Very much everything you might stereo-typically think of when you think of experimental art commune.

It was mostly empty, but I’m not sure if that was because of the time of day or time of year. After spending a while wandering through the factory buildings and trying out the art, I headed back to the main gates. I stopped in at the gift shop on the way out where some of the more polished and “ready for home consumption” kind of art was on sale. I had a chance to ask a few questions about the place to the lady behind the counter. She explained that while a few people did choose to live on site, that most simply came there to work, and that they were funded by a grant from the government to support the arts. You can learn more on their website.


Sweden still makes me sigh with longing when I think of these days. Staring now down the barrel of planning another summer holiday, I’m deeply tempted to return and explore a new part of the country. While I’ve enjoyed my time in Korea these past few years, it lacks the freedom, the nature, and the stunning variety of culture and food that I yearn for. Still, until I have a stable landing pad for my next “home base” I guess I’ll take what I can get in the holidays.