Using Public Transit in Europe

I am completely spoiled by Asian transit. In Korea, my transit pass is linked to my bank card and so I just tap to get on any bus/subway/train in any city in the whole country. Tourists can buy a transit card from any convenience store that will work the same way, and also let you buy things at most convenience stores like pre-paid debit cards. I kept my transit card from Japan and used it again 3 years later with no problems. Again, they work on all the transit country-wide. I knew that visiting 8 countries in Europe would mean I’d have to navigate multiple public transit systems, but I had no idea how complex they would actually be.

This post is part rant, and part hopefully useful information for future travelers who encounter the same obstacles I did.


Paris, France:

Paris has a huge subway system, and tickets are priced by zone. It’s a good idea to look at the map and decide what zones you actually need before you buy. Buying tickets one trip at a time is the most expensive way. You can also buy a ticket book for a slight discount, which is what I did my first visit that only lasted 2 days. This summer, I was in Paris for 6 days, and wanted a better option, and one that would include buses, not only the metro.

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In the end, I bought a week long transit pass for cheaper than the 5 day tourist pass. When I asked about it the teller told me there’s no benefit to the tourist pass, that it’s basically there to bilk tourists, and I should stick to the cheaper option. Most cities have some version of the tourist card which includes “unlimited transit” and a few free attractions or discounts, however every single one I checked into was not worth it. In order to actually save money, a person would have to be running around like crazy and do 4+ activities a day!

You can see there’s a spot for a photo there, so it’s a good idea to have one ready when you buy your card. The lady who was working when I bought mine said I could add the photo later, but advised me to carry my receipt with me in case the metro authority asked to see my card and to prove it was not stolen. No need to get a fancy passport photo made, however, you can make a photocopy of your passport or other ID and use that.


Belgium:

In Brussels I got a Mobib Card with ten trips which is cheaper than buying your each trip one at a time. I was able to buy it easily in the subway station nearest to my arrival spot. The tickets are per trip, regardless of distance, and that if you have to go above ground and pass back out of the ticket scanning devices, or use a tram, there’s no transfers. Most of the Metro stations have a way you can connect underground, but be sure you get out on the correct side of the train car, since in some cases one platform leads OUT and the other leads to connecting tracks, while at other stops, it’s all the same.

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It is also worth noting that the doors on the subway cars have to be manually activated. You have to tug the handle or it doesn’t open. I was a little panicked the first time thinking I couldn’t get on, but then I saw someone else open a door and followed suit. When in doubt, watch the locals.

The only downside is that the Mobib Card is exclusively for Brussels, and I needed to figure out transit again and again when I went out to nearby cities like Ghent and Antwerp.

In Ghent I could not find the tram for a while I thought about just taking a taxi from the train station to my boat but I did eventually find it, then realized I had no idea how to use it and no way to look that information up online since the SIM I bought in Paris wasn’t working in Belgium.

I managed to get change from a convenience store and buy a tram ticket at a machine near the stop, but I couldn’t find instructions on how to use it. I got on the tram with my ticket but didn’t see any place to use it so I just sat down. Of course I was doing it wrong but no one challenged me or corrected me. I’m sure if I didn’t look like a middle aged white tourist it could have gone differently. Although I did see a lot of barrier hoping in France….

In retrospect, I think the paper tickets have RF chips in them that you tap just like a plastic transit card. *shrug, they got my money anyway.

At the Ghent train station returning to Brussels, I got confused because it looked like nothing was going back to the “Midi station” in Brussels. It turns out that there are just too many languages in Brussels. Midi is the name I had seen in Brussels, but Zuid is another name for the same thing!!!

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Overall, I think the transit issues in Ghent would have been avoided if I’d had mobile data. I did wonder how people navigated these transit options before smart phones, but I also think the technology of the trans, trams and metros has upgraded from paying cash and paper tickets to having RF chips in tickets dispensed by a machine and read by another machine. It’s great automation until you don’t know how to use it.

In Antwerp I decided to walk. The places I wanted to see were all within 30 minutes walking of the main train station and I wasn’t in a hurry. As a result, I have no idea how the transit inside the city works. On my out, the trains were running late but the kind conductor lady helped me hop off and change to a faster train at one of the stops. The tickets are somewhat flexible as to which trains you use to get to your destination.20180712_124849


The Netherlands:

First, in Maastricht, the bus company that runs the bus between Lanaken and Maastricht is the Belgian company De Lijn, and I was able to buy a ticket at the Maastricht main station. The front of the buses had a space to insert the ticket and a date/time/remaining balance was printed on it each time. I think I ended up with about 0.60€ left unused on the ticket at the end of the week, but it was much easier than trying to buy a ticket every time.

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I needed a different transit card (the OV Card) to get around the city of Maastricht, but at least I was able to use that transit pass to buy my passage into Aachen. Once I figured out the basic system it was not too bad, and the people in the Maastricht station were quite helpful in getting me the best prices when I was getting my cards set up on the first day.

The only complaint is that because Lanaken and Maastricht are smaller towns, the buses do not run often and there is no metro at all. This requires more careful planning to get to and from places, to get back to my room at night, etc. It also requires more walking since bus stops are fewer and farther between than in big cities.

Later, in Den Haag

I need to preface this by saying Den Haag was the single WORST transit system I encountered in Europe. I was not a huge fan of Maastricht because the infrequent bus schedule, and that was not an issue in Den Haag, but what turned my brain completely inside out was the pay structure and it’s deep deep bias against foreigners. In the Netherlands, you can use the OV Card everywhere, so I was able to use the same card from Maastricht, which I thought would be a convenience…. ohhhhhh no.

When you ride in Den Haag, you have to tap in and out every time because the price of your trip is based on distance traveled; however, sometimes it double tapped or didn’t tap at all so I suddenly found myself completely out of credit on my OV card with no way to get more!

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There are almost no recharging kiosks for OV in Den Haag either. I found one in the grocery store near my Airbnb, but it wouldn’t take my credit card and the cashier didn’t seem to care much. She eventually just stopped trying to even speak English which was only annoying because everyone else there had been like “of course we speak flawless English!” So, it seemed a little implausible she is the only one who doesn’t…

I tried to use the OV website to find kiosks in my area, but the website map wasn’t working… of course.

I tried to go out anyway, thinking I’d just buy a ticket on the bus but they don’t take cash and a 1hr ticket is 3.50€! I’d end up paying 7€ to go out and get back? I left the bus with sticker shock and stood around cursing the entire transit system that had robbed my card and left me with no way to top up and charged exorbitant fees to get to a top up place. Finally I decided to take the tram back to the train station and sort it out. Then the ticket box on the tram refused to take my debit card! How is a person supposed to pay for this????

I asked a ticket monitor about it because just at that moment I was feeling too honest to steal a ride. She directed me to the app where I bought a ticket then told me I didn’t need to ride all the way to the station I could just stop at Centrum and use the machine there. Great! Except when I got off to use it, it was out of order. I waited for the next tram and got on as my e-ticket was good for an hour, then realized it was going the wrong way, got off and waited again to go the other way. The only good news is they run every 10 minutes instead of 30 like in Maastricht.

I finally got to the train station and put more money on the card. I looked at my transactions history and realized that one point I was charged 4€ for a trip. If you tap in and don’t properly tap out, it’s 4€ no matter how far you go. That’s right, it costs more to mess up your transit card than to just buy the flat ticket. Gouge much?

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My tram ride back from the station? .90€! It cost me 3.50€ to go using the app, and 0.90€ to go using the card. It’s worth using the OV Card, it’s just hard to use correctly. Eventually, I was able to go online to the OV website and submit a request for a refund of the over-charges and it was granted, although I still had to get to the train station kiosk to actually claim the credit.

I specifically say it’s biased against foreigners because most people who live there have their OV linked to their bank account directly, and can easily contest overcharges or incorrect charges at their leisure without worrying about not being able to pay for a trip. Meanwhile, visitors who front load the cards can still contest overcharges, but have no recourse for getting to a charging kiosk if a mistake has drained our account.

Returning from Amsterdam

The OV card isn’t evil in and of itself. I had very little issue using it in Maastricht and Amsterdam. It was nice to be able to move from city to city without having to invest in yet more transit passes (glares at Belgium and France).

However, the vaunted European train system turned out to be a massive disappointment. I know I’m kinda old, but I remember when the dream was “get a Eurail pass and back pack around Europe for your gap year”. My parents had good things to say about the trains. The trains are 2-3x the cost of a bus in most places there. I expected the trains to be GOOD. It was not true.

I hopped on my train back to Den Haag thinking I’d had a wonderful if over-budget day and then about halfway back the train just stopped.

There was a problem with some other train stuck on the tracks (I heard because of the heat) and we sat there for about 90 minutes. The main problem with this is that I only had a small bottle of water, enough for the anticipated one hour journey but not longer after a long day in extreme heat (it was averaging 35-37C that week), and several alcohol drinks (wine with the cheese tasting, Bols distillery tour, and beer with dinner!). I even thought about buying a larger bottle in the train station and thought “no I’m ok, it’s not far.” FML.

There was a toilet in the train but no potable water. I tried to distract myself with Netflix, but I was getting insanely thirsty. We finally moved backwards to Harlem and I was told to ride to Leiden and transfer there to another train. My ticket would cover all my transfers to get me back to Den Haag, but nothing would make up for the extra hours added to what should have been a short and direct trip. At least I got to watch a beautiful sunset from the unmoving train?

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When we got to Harlem, my first priority was water and I even willing to buy some but by 10:30 at night, most places weren’t open (Europe closes at 8pm) and the one I went to wanted 2€ for a tiny bottle!!! I pulled up my reusable and asked about tap water. It’s safe to drink from the tap in Europe. The sales clerk looked at me like I had suggested eating his grandmother and said “it’s not free” with the most contempt I have ever heard in regards to being asked for water.


A Little Rant About Water

20180705_121804Ok, a business pays fees to have water, but there is no way customers are going to drink a tenth of what you use operating a food stand. Washing a single load of dishes is more water than all your customers could drink if you gave them each a cup. Water is basically free in a drinking capacity, and even if you wanted to charge me for using your tap water, 20-30¢ would way more than cover my water bottle and not be actual extortion. In a record setting heat wave. While the whole country is having train delays.

I know I was raised in the US where the first thing a waitress gives you is water and it’s bottomless and always free, but I’ve traveled a lot and never encountered such water stinginess as exists in Europe. I’ve also lived in places where the tap water is not safe and never had trouble buying drinking water at very reasonable prices, and many businesses still give away clean drinking water and public water fountains are available in parks and public spaces.

I thought France was stingy with the water but at least you could get it if you asked and in France and Belgium I was able to find some public drinking water (the photo above is a public drinking fountain in Paris). The rest of the time I filled my bottle in bathroom sinks… the bathrooms are very clean because there are no free bathrooms.

I just don’t understand the water hoarding going on here. I don’t think it would be hard to install cheap water stations like the paid public toilets to let people refill their own bottles and reduce plastic waste. If you must make people pay for water then keep it affordable. Besides, free water in tourist areas makes people stay longer. In the end the EU is calling for clean drinking water to be a human right, but F.U. if you’re travelling in a heat wave and get stuck when the infrastructure breaks!

End Rant.


Hamburg,  Germany:

I had been using Flix Bus to get between my main cities up to this point, and it’s about as advertised. It’s a cheap bus. There is usually a bathroom, and sometimes WiFi. It’s nothing to write home about, but it’s ok. Additionally, it’s often less than half the cost of the trains. When it came to getting in and out of Germany, however, the costs were suddenly inverted and the train became the cheaper option by half. Germany + trains? That has to be efficient and on time right? Oh, stereotypes, you fail me again. The trains are expensive, overcrowded and often late. Take a bus.

The train ride on DB Bahn from Den Haag was long. It took three trains and I always had to be aware of my stop because there are lots and no one will tell you where to get off. There is no WiFi on the trains in Germany. And outside the main cities I didn’t get good reception either. There was some air-con on the trains but only between stops, so it would get hot again while people got on and off. By the time I got to Hamburg 7.5 hours later I was soaked in sweat and tired. 

The good news is HVV (the transit authority in Hamburg) is great! Although the website is total gibberish, I went to their office in the station as soon as my train arrived, and the kind woman behind the counter helped me figure out what zones the places I wanted to go were in and helped me to save money on the week long transit pass. It was a tremendous relief to have unlimited transit and not have to worry about tapping in and out and possibly running out of credit due to a computer error!

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In fact, there’s no RF readers or tapping in and out at all. The HVV transit pass is just piece of paper in a plastic sleeve that you can show to the bus driver or ticket checker and it’s all good. 

However! The one time I went outside my pass’s zone, I did have to buy a single use ticket. It was supposed to be cheaper this way… it turned out to be a royal pain. I still don’t know the correct way to buy a single use ticket across multiple zones. I thought I got the correct multi zone pass to head out to Blankenese, I got on the first leg ok, but the bus driver at Blankenese refused to let me on, saying I had purchased the ticket in the wrong zone. I don’t know if he was just being a jerk or what, because otherwise it seems I’d have to buy one ticket to get from downtown to Blankenese and then ANOTHER to get around Blankenese. I ended up walking to the beach.

On the way back from Blankenese, I decided to take the ferry, which was an excellent choice. It’s recommended to use the public transit ferry as a cheap tour of the Hamburg harbor and they’re not wrong. At 10.80€, it was certainly more expensive than using land transit, but much cheaper than a cruise up the Elbe with all the same wonderful views.

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Leaving Germany, the last train

The original train I booked with DB Bahn was a single train from Hamburg to Copenhagen on Saturday, but the heat wave in Germany was KILLING ME, so I changed to a Friday ticket instead and left a day early. The new train route had two transfers, each giving me less than 10 minutes to change trains. A situation I would have thought could only be offered if the trains were reasonably on time. Silly me!

My first train was 10 minutes late in arriving, but that was ok because my second train was 15 minutes late departing, so I did at least get on it. However, so did EVERYONE ELSE. I’ve seen less crowded trains in China. Oh, and the platform wasn’t clearly marked so, even though I was standing under the sign for my train, my train actually pulled up at a totally different part of the platform and we only realized it when the hordes of people started running past us to get to it.

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The first several cars were so full that I couldn’t even get in the door. I mean, seats all full, aisles all full, stairs all full, entryway all full, full. I finally found one car I could squeeze into and found myself standing on the stairs (with all my luggage) compressed by bodies. There was an option to buy a reserved seat on the website, but I thought it was just for if you wanted to be sure you and your group had seats together or if you wanted to be sure to get one of the ones with tables. I didn’t realize they oversold the trains by so much that it was the equivalent of the Beijing subway. If you find yourself forced to take a train in Europe, pay the extra 4$ to get a reserved seat or else be prepared to stand.

As the tiny stops went by, and people got on and off, I was shuffled off the stairs and into an actual compartment where a very kind man getting off at the next stop gave me his seat and I was able to rest at last. By about halfway, most of the standing people were gone or seated, but it was still ridiculous.

That train was, of course, also late to my second connection, and I missed my connecting train altogether. The conductor gave us instructions on where to find connecting trains to various destinations and I stepped out onto the platform to wait for the last train of the day. It was going to be about 20 minutes later than my first scheduled train, but I didn’t think that was too bad.

I met a young American lady, just graduated from college and off for her summer in Europe with her Eurail Pass and we got to chatting in the station. When we boarded the next train it seemed that too would be standing room only, and two bicycles blocked off 4 folding seats entirely.  Luckily, as the train filled up, and started moving, a kind lady pointed out that there were two empty seats after all and we rushed over to grab them gratefully.


Copenhagen, Denmark:

The train took 90 minutes longer to arrive than the one I was supposed to be on, and instead of arriving in Copenhagen around 10pm, it was almost midnight. I expected the train to let us out into a train station where I could find shops, an ATM, and ticket machines for the public transit system. Instead, the train let us off basically on the street. I had no idea which building was likely to contain the train station/atm/ticket machine so I began to cast about for any ticket machine at all.

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I found one at the bus stop but as far as I could tell, the only option I could do with a credit card was to buy the Rejsekort transit card. For this you must pay for the card (80kr), then pay a minimum of 100 danish krone as a balance. So it cost me about 24 euro to get a transit card. But it was midnight and I was exhausted so I just bought it and got on the bus. Being extra sure to tap out as I exited and see the fare, I was pleased to note that even the fairly long journey out to the diplomatic quarter was about 12 kr and figured I’d be able to use that 100kr for a while yet (foreshadowing!)

The Rejsekort transit card worked similarly to the Netherlands OV Card in that each trip required a tap in and out and money was deducted from the card. However! There are two types of cards, registered and unregistered. Guess what? Of course since I bought mine from a machine at midnight it was unregistered which meant I had to maintain a minimum balance of 70kr in order to USE the card. Please remember that the trip between our Airbnb and the main train terminal is only 12kr, so that’s a little more than 5 trips in and out of town that I have to load up and NEVER USE. I was not amused.


Gothenburg, Sweden:

The local transit company here is Västtrafik. The transit in Gothenburg is good, but Google Maps has the wrong names for almost everything, so it says “get on the 10 going to abc-Swedish name” but none of the bus stops match that name on the sign. You can’t just guess by which side of the street it’s on because they use bays to remove the transit from the flow of traffic (very cool idea) so the stops are all together on an island in the middle of the roads. They have stop letters, so Google could just say take the 10 from Bay A but no. I blame Google for this failure, not the city of Gothenburg. 

Most of my time in Sweden was in a rental car, but for the time I spent in Gothenburg before getting my car, I was able to use the public transit easily enough by purchasing a three day pass which included unlimited use of buses, trams, and ferries. This is especially worthwhile since the archipelago near Gothenburg are PHENOMENAL.

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Driving in Sweden was great. The roads are in good condition and the signs are very easy to follow. It is likely going to rank in my top 5 all time road trips. 10/10 would do again.

Even with the car, when I was in Stockholm, I opted to leave the rental at the hotel parking lot and take the bus around the city. In a surprising turn of absolute convenience, I downloaded the transit app on my phone and used that to buy my tickets for the day. I’m sure there are longer term options, but I was happy to just get the single use tickets since I was only using it for two trips and it was drastically cheaper than paying for parking.


Olso and Nesodden, Norway:

I was only in Norway because I was flying out of Oslo. My Airbnb was on Nesodden, one of the fjords a ferry ride away from Oslo. A single trip transit ticket is only good for an hour, but would take more than that to reach my Airbnb from the bus station where I arrived. Do I really have to buy two tickets for this? Turns out… no.

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I took the local bus to the ferry terminal, but the buses on the fjord considered anyone getting OFF a ferry to be transferring and did not require an additional ticket. Whew. The ferry tickets were only mildly confusing, and with minor investigative skills I was able to navigate the ticket kiosk at the ferry terminal.

Once the bus dropped me off at the stop closest to my Airbnb, I was truly worried however since it was very rural, with no signs of any ticket machines near the bus stop. I had no Norwegian cash on me and was not walking distance from anything. I tried to use the transit app for Oslo, but it refused to accept my Korean bank card OR my American credit card (which was a much bigger surprise). Unlike the ultra convenient Stockholm app, the Oslo app would only accept payment from a limited number of EU countries.

In the end, I just went to the bus stop when it was time to leave and explained my situation to the driver. Of course he had a solution, and I was able to get to the ferry terminal, then from the Oslo side of the ferry, I was able to walk to the nearest train station that would take me to the airport…. where I promptly bought the wrong ticket.

Bus Terminal in Oslo, Norway (Oslo bussterminal) tickets (billettautomater) for Ruter nettbuss Bus4You IMG 6050

I’m still not sure I completely understand what happened. I went to a ticket kiosk and bought a ticket to the airport, then followed the signs and got on the train. There is no place to have the tickets checked on the way to getting on the train. Once I left the train at the airport, our tickets were checked on the way out. The ticket checker told me I had bought the wrong ticket, and that I’d bought the city public transit ticket, but gotten onto a private company express train (not clearly marked, and don’t check tickets on the way IN?). The money I’d spent went to the city transit authority (Ruter) and there was no way for the private train company to get it. I tried to offer to fix my mistake, but it seems there’s no way to fix it on the back end and she waved me on through exhorting me to pay more attention to the trains in future.

I would never have hopped on the wrong train intentionally, but it wouldn’t hurt if they had some kind of a barrier to scan tickets on the way in?


Moscow, Russia:

Ironically, as in counter to expectations, Moscow had the best running and least expensive public transit. I was only in Moscow for 20 hours, and I got a 24 hour unlimited pass for less than the cost of a single trip ticket in any European city. The ladies at the ticket counter spoke enough English for me to easily get the one I wanted.

I had a little trouble finding my first Metro station (I should have got a SIM card so my Map would work better) but once I realized what to look for in a Metro entrance, getting around Moscow was a breeze. The stations are so well labeled and the metro maps are clear (if you know how to read a metro map). Plus, Moscow is famous for it’s beautifully decorated stations. Even when I got lost because I read the stops wrong there were helpful people to turn me around and help me find my way.

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I also used the airport express train here which was crowded, but reasonably priced and running on time with no surprises. I guess there are some things communism does well?


I have come to realize that I’m a novelist, not a blogger. I think other people would have made each country a separate blog post in order to spread out the words, and get more posts out there. At 5200+ words, I gave some serious thought into dividing this post up into bite size chunks… but tbh, I’m not that thrilled to be writing about transit, and I’m mainly including it because these were hard won lessons that I hope can spare at least one other human my trials and tribulations. I also think it helps sometimes to see that the adventure life is not always one of joy and excitement, and that we must also contend with learning basic life skills over and over in each new place we visit.

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Back in the USSR? This time with a visa!

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


Airports Are Ugly

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

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

You Need a Visa To Get In

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

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

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

Midnight Arrival

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

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

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

Hostile Hostel?

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

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

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

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

The hostel included WiFi, which did work well, yay, and a free “breakfast”. In the morning I discovered this meant a choice of two sugar cereals, luke-warm milk, watery coffee, and packets of what I really think were yogurt powder. I couldn’t read the Russian labels and I didn’t try to eat it, but they were packets filled with what felt like a powder with pictures of bowls of yogurt and fruit on the front. And somehow this breakfast is rated 7.7 on Booking.com. In fairness, that is the lowest internal rating and every other criteria is rated 8.4 or higher. I don’t know what your life has to be like for this to be a 7.7/10 breakfast, but I never want to live it.
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Just, please, if you see me talking about booking a hostel dorm in a developing country or a current/previous communist country STOP ME. I’m not trying to be a snob, but sleeping properly is so important to my well-being and my ability to enjoy waking activities and I just can’t sleep properly in those conditions. I envy the people who can.

Metro Mishaps

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

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

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

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

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

Red Square Obscured

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

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

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

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Tourist Stuff

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

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

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

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

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

What’s With All These Lines?

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

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

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

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Fun With Costumes

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

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

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Thwarted at Every Turn

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

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

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

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

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

The WiFi Is a Lie

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

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

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

Lunch is Saved!

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

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

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


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

Nagoya Castle: Now with 10% more Ninja!

If there is one famous place that exemplifies Nagoya, it is the sprawling grounds of the reconstructed Nagoya Castle. I couldn’t possibly visit Japan’s fourth largest city without spending some time at it’s most famous historical monument! I was hoping to get a sunny day and take some sweeping landscape photos of this majestic structure, but the weather was not on my side. Even without the sun, Nagoya Castle was beautiful, fun and educational to visit. Plus, there were Ninjas!


I woke up Tuesday to the sodden realization that the weather forecast had changed again, and the rain was not going to stop until I was back in Korea. It wasn’t as bad as Monday, however, mostly cloud cover and the occasional sprinkle. I had forgotten my umbrella at the katsu restaurant the night before, but I wasn’t worried since umbrellas are for sale in every subway station and convenience store (right next to a huge steaming pile of foreshadowing).

Golden Bus or Subway?

I looked into the possibility of doing the Golden Tour Bus day pass. The Me-Guru is a kind of hop on hop off bus that runs around the most popular places in Nagoya. You can get a Me-Guru day pass for 500 yen which is great if you are planning to hit up several tourist hot spots in one day. Unfortunately for me, there wasn’t a stop anywhere near my friend’s house, so I was going to have to take the subway at least 2 times (out and back) making the 500 yen ticket less attractive to me. If the Me-Guru isn’t getting you where you want to go, you can also get a city day pass for subways for 740 yen, or subway bus combo for 850 yen.

Nagoya Subway ticket machines

Photo Credit: Nagoya Station.com

The main attraction of the Me-Guru Golden Bus is that it drops you very close to tourist attractions that might otherwise be a hefty walk from the nearest regular bus or subway stop. Atsuta Jingu is very central and easy to access, but the Nagoya Castle and Tokugawa Gardens are rather out of the way. Lucky for me, the Me-Guru bus also offers single ride tickets for 210 yen which you can buy on the bus just like any other city bus. I would recommend the Me-Guru day pass if you happen to be staying anywhere near one of the bus’s stops, however I opted to take the subway (270 yen trip) to Nagoya Castle, then the Me-Guru to Tokugawa (210 yen), and finally the subway again (270 yen) back to my ersatz home base for a grand total of 750 yen.

I mention all this because it’s acutely important to figure out transit in Japan before you go unless you are made of money and time. Since most of us aren’t… Data plans and mobile WiFi hot spots are expensive and not really necessary given the proliferation of free WiFi, but it does mean you can’t to a Google search any time anywhere, you have to find the WiFi first. I like to research my routes over breakfast and take screenshots of the map and directions to reference later when I’m out of WiFi range. So, Tuesday morning, while I was enjoying my “morning service” again, I pulled up a million maps to see where I would go and how far I would have to walk/wait between each one. The public transit options between the Castle and the garden are dreadful. Hence the one stop Me-Guru ride.

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If you don’t plan ahead, you may not know where the next bus stop/subway station you need is (it might not be the one you came out of or the closest one may not go where you want to go). You could find yourself walking farther than you want, which doesn’t sound like much, but we tracked our walking on Sunday and got almost 10 km in one day of aimless tourist meandering. It adds up fast, and while I don’t mind walking for health or enjoyment, I don’t want to waste vacation time and energy walking extra to the bus stop when I could be using it to walk through something cool! Plus, if you suddenly find yourself knackered from unexpected heat, humidity, and ridiculous amounts of walking (this happens to me at least once per vacation), taking a taxi back to your hotel in Japan could cost 50-100$, that’s US dollars, folks. Taxis are EXPENSIVE in Japan. Ubers are not better.

Let Them Eat Gold

From the nearest subway station, the walk into the Castle compound is down a little restaurant corridor that sells everything from Nagoya specialties to the Castle’s very own gold plated ice cream. Yes, gold plated ice cream. It’s not actually very expensive, and it’s highly Instagramable, but I couldn’t bring myself to buy one as I have recently been complaining about the out-of-touch rich people in America eating gold plated tacos while children can’t get fed in school… soooooooo…. no gold ice cream for me.

The ice cream isn’t trying to be Richie Rich, it’s actually meant to imitate the golden tiger-fish that is the symbol of the castle. During my post vacation research phase, I got curious about how they could afford to sell these golden ice creams for 6-9$ a pop, and I discovered that you can buy edible gold sheets for surprisingly cheap. One seller on Amazon is selling 10 sheets for 7$. The gold taco I was upset about? 25,000$… US….At 0.70 per sheet, it may be silly to eat a golden ice cream cone, but it’s not actually Louis XVI levels of decadence and class warfare. Eat the rich.

Fire Bombing Damage

Nagoya Castle is the number one tourist stop in Nagoya and it’s not even finished! Almost everything you see there was destroyed by Americans in WW2 during the fire bombings. A fact the informative signs will not let you forget since everything you read will tell you how the original was destroyed and whether what you’re looking at is a transplant or a reconstruction.

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Traveling around Asia, you inevitably see signs like this because nearly every temple, castle and historical site has been sacked during one war or another. In China and Korea, you find things that were destroyed by the Japanese. In Japan, you find things that were destroyed by the Americans.

The castle and grounds were still heavily under construction during my visit, but I’m told with some degree of excitement by the locals that the reconstruction should be finished this (2018) summer.

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Hommaru Palace

The first sight that greeted me walking in the gate was the tower of Hommaru Palace. The tower is done in a similar style to the main castle, but is much smaller. Once you get around the corner and over the moat, there is a beautiful brand new palace. According to the literature I was given to take home, the Nagoya Castle was declared a National Treasure back in 1930, but sadly destroyed in the 1945 air raids… ok they don’t call out America by name, but we all know. The palace compound has been undergoing reconstruction on and off since 1959, but the Hommaru palace reconstruction only started in 2009!20180508_134013

I am not an architecture buff, but I do enjoy a beautiful building. I especially appreciate that Nagoyans decided to use all traditional materials and craft techniques to remake the structure. It doesn’t just look like the original, it preserves the artistry and history of Japanese culture — not only the woodwork, but also the fittings, metalwork, and paintings. There was an intense research project designed to microscopically and chemically analyze the original scraps that survived the fire bombing (have we mentioned that recently, because Nagoya Castle does not want you to forget) so that the paintings could be replicated as authentically as possible.

Despite the chronic reminders of our history of conflict, the restoration process is fairly interesting. If you want to see more details, they’ve got a lovely website.

As I approached the palace proper, there was a group of Japanese businessmen having a chat in front of a very photogenic area. However, my faith in Japanese politeness was rewarded. As soon as one noticed me holding my camera (phone) nearby, they gestured to the others to move out of the way and we all smiled and bowed to each other before I went on to take the photo. So much politeness!

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Following the path, I noticed an area where a few other visitors were lining up and entering the building so I paused to check it out. The staff were sooooo excited to share with me. They showed me a little video of how to tour the building correctly (no touching, no flash photos, etc) and explained the character in costume stopping all the bad behavior on screen was the father of the famous king who had ruled from this palace and a famous general.

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I was asked to wear my backpack on my front to avoid bumping anything, and all of us were asked to remove our shoes before going inside. Slippers were available, of course, and there were free shoe lockers as well. For an extra 100yen, an audio tour of the palace was availble in several languages. I thought about getting the English one, but it was taking the staff 10+ minutes to set up the couple at the front of the line, and I wasn’t second in line. I decided to risk moving on less informed.

The palace itself is bright and open. Although the day was cloudy, the inside of the palace somehow still managed to feel sunny with the warm wood halls, paper windows, and gold accents. Drifting sock footed through the hallways, I felt a sense of what visiting the royal palace might be like. Everything was hushed and clean. The halls were made of the same pale wood on all 4 sides creating an effect of being inside a tree. Every few meters, the interior hall wall would open up into an opulent room. The 3 visible walls inside each room were covered with the ornate and painstaking replicas of the Edo period paintings.

In practice, each of the rooms would have had a specific ceremonially significant purpose. A room for receiving guests of a certain social standing or another. A room for dining, one for tea, one for drinking sake and listening to music. One room had a fire pit built gracefully into the floor and a hidden vent in the ceiling to carry the smoke of roasting meat and fish up and out. The low wooden bars are just to keep people from walking into it, not an actual part of the function. Indoor fire pit is now added to my list of things I want in my imaginary dream house of the future.

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The palace doesn’t take long to explore and it’s included in the park entry fee. I highly recommend a walk through. On my way out, I ran into the very helpful staffer again. It turns out she had lived in America a while ago and was happy to practice English with me (although I don’t think she really needed “practice”) She told me some more about the restoration process and said I really needed to come back after the construction was complete to see it at it’s best. It made me happy that the people working there take so much pride and interest in the history and culture of the site. Enthusiasm is highly contagious and just talking with her made me more excited to be there.

Surprise! Ninjas!

Just after leaving Hommaru, the path turns a slight corner and suddenly there’s the first real view of the Castle proper. This was the real moment I was sad about the weather. Nagoya Castle is elevated, and huge, so any photo will have plenty of sky in the background. My cloudy, rainy day resulted in a very plain light gray sky instead of a fluffy cloud filled azure backdrop. Is it cheating to use filters?

Did I mention there are ambulatory ninja on the castle grounds? It’s part of a cultural and historical show. According to the ninja website, two words I never thought I would string together in a non-hyperbolic fashion, there are performances every weekend, but weekdays are listed as “hospitality”, a kind of meet and greet.  I was there on a Tuesday, so I only met the two posing for photos and promoting their future shows.

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No Nagoya Castle for Me

Sadly, the castle was closed for the finishing touches of construction, so I couldn’t go inside, but I’ve heard there’s an excellent view from the top. Looking at other people’s photos online, it seems the decoration style is very similar to that of Hommaru palace. The only truly distinctive thing I missed out on seems to be the huge Shachihoko (the tiger fish) that you can sit on and pose with, and the tall geometric stairwell. Next time.

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photo credit: Matcha Magazine

Since the castle proper and some of the other areas were closed off for construction, I was encouraged to wander a little off the beaten path. In addition to stopping for teeny tiny flowers which earned me some very strange looks. (Why is she looking at the grass when the castle is right there?) I also wandered off into a little forest grove filled with large, semi-flat stones. It was not cordoned off, but also not really connected to the main walkway either. After some assistance from the Google oracle, it seems I discovered a stone tomb of unique historical properties.

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I’m still unclear if it’s an original or a replica given the whole bombing debacle, and I don’t know why it was over there all by itself in an extremely unmaintained state in the middle of what were otherwise meticulously maintained grounds. The only informative sign was in Japanese and it mostly focused on the description of the architectural style, geography and time period with no mention as to its context near the castle. Still, it was pretty, and from inside the trees, I got some fun new perspective angles on the castle itself that don’t look identical to every other tourist shot on the web, so yay!

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A large chunk of the grounds were completely blocked off during my visit. I found a few more interesting goodies like ancient gates and the working tea house where you can stop and have a traditional cup of matcha green tea and a sweet. Of course the souvenir shop would never be closed for construction, but I found the gardens to be a bit lackluster, as though they had not been tended to yet this year, so even though they were not blocked off, they weren’t exactly visitor ready.

Samurai and Shachihoko

20180508_131428On my way back toward the main gates, I happened to run into the Samurai. Ninjas AND Samurai. It’s like cosplay meets museum, so very Japanese. Much like the ninja, the Samurai pace the palace grounds daily for photo ops and perform shows on weekends and holidays. My desire to avoid weekend/holiday crowds may have backfired here, but the guys I met were pretty cool nonetheless.

The last important sight before my path led me outward was the Shachihoko – the fish tiger. What’s up with that? Well, it’s a mythological creature that is half fish (specifically a carp) and half tiger. The Japanese characters that make up the name of the creature is also a combination of “fish” and “tiger”. 鯱 (shachi) = 魚 (sakana, fish)+ 虎 (tora, tiger) Some argue that the fish is really an orca because “shachi” also translates as “orca” in Japanese.  I love language.

It’s often put on temples and palaces to ward off fires, but in Nagoya it has become the special symbol of Nagoya Castle due to the two large golden Shachihoko on the roof. Most of the souvenirs, or omiyage, of the castle involve this magical creature in some way, and of course, so does the golden ice cream.

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I do hope that I’ll have the opportunity to return to Nagoya again after the construction is complete. I would not only enjoy seeing the inside of the Castle proper, I suspect I would greatly enjoy the gardens and side buildings that were inaccessible during my visit. What little I could see through the scaffolding looked intriguing. Plus, next time I won’t feel guilty about trying that glittery frozen treat now that I know more about the edible gold market.

Due to the weather, there is no accompanying photo album to this trip, but I hope you’re enjoying the Instagram photos in the mean time. As always, thanks for reading ❤

Oh, and the umbrella foreshadowing? I’m afraid you’ll have to read the next post to find out about that adventure. 🙂

Shop ’til You Drop in Nagoya: Sakae, Osu & Studio Ghibli

I am not normally a shopping oriented tourist, but it can be fun to shop in some of Japan’s more unique markets. You can find good bargains in the street markets and second hand shops, and you can explore unique parts of the town that are just gushing with Japanese charm. Every city has it’s shopping centers and for Nagoya that’s Sakae, Osu, and Nagoya Station, with a side of Oasis 21. I managed to hit up all four of these while I was in town. Plus, a visit to the unique Studio Ghibli theme store where all things Miyazaki reside.


Sakae

20180507_181345Sakae was my first non-airport sight in Nagoya where I disembarked the airport shuttle bus and met up with my friend. It’s a large and bustling neighborhood in Nagoya with lots of trendy shops and restaurants.  While waiting for our dinner restaurant to open, we decided to do a little shopping.

Department stores in Japan (and Korea for that matter) are really just large buildings where a bunch of shops get a few square meters. It’s a very open floor plan, so it can be hard to tell where one shop ends and another begins, but each shop has it’s own cashier as well, so while it may look like a Macy’s or Harrods, you can’t just wander around collecting things and take them to one register at the end. I don’t usually shop at the cutesy boutique places inside such department stores because their prices are INSANE. I can’t really wrap my head around 300$ blouses or 500$ shoes. At first, I got currency confused because Korean Won are (as a very loose rule of thumb) USD + three zeros. So 10USD is about 10,000 KRW. It’s not exact, but it helps us to think about what things cost. Many Korean places have simply stopped writing those three zeros on menus and advertisements, too. 14,500 won might be written as 14.5 on a menu.

Japanese yen are, by a similar rule of thumb, USD plus two zeros. So 10 USD is 1,000 yen. This cause my brain to do some flips since I’ve been thinking in Korean won for the last 2+ years. Seeing things that cost 30,000 yen, at first I was like, oh that’s not bad, about 30$. Until my brain caught up and went, no wait, that’s Japanese money, that’s 300$, not 30$. Eeek!

Instead, I prefer to shop the bargain racks. Daiso is a famous Japanese store full of cheap but relatively decent quality basic necessities and cute extras. In fact, you can outfit everything you need for a home from Daiso except the furniture without breaking the bank and most of it will last for years. Another great place is Book Off.

Photo credit: Bookoff.co.jp

You wouldn’t know from the name, but that’s a second hand clothing shop in Japan, like Goodwill or Value Village in the US. I was able to find my-size clothes at the one near my apartment back in 2015, so I was happy to waste a little time perusing the cheap rack with my friend while waiting for the restaurant to open. The front of the store is still a little pricey since it’s all brand names, but the farther back you go, the cheaper things get all the way to the 200 yen rack. I was able to get a nice summer blouse for 500 yen (5$) which will help me avoid dressing in unprofessional T-shirts at my new job as the weather warms up.

Bonus Street Performance

On most good weather weekends, there is at least one part of Sakae hosting outdoor performances. We passed one briefly on Saturday, and since we had some time to kill on Sunday, we made a small detour to see where all the beautiful costumes were coming from. Once we got through the crowd, we found a small stage set up under some elevated train tracks where groups were performing song and dance numbers dressed up as various anime shows. Sadly, we also got there in time for only the last two numbers, but it was still fun to watch. I love that people in Japan will just randomly have full costumed dance competitions on the sidewalk.

Osu Kannon

Osu is one of the many shopping districts that combines the feel of an outdoor market with a bustling mall. It’s technically blocks and blocks of shops, but many of the busy streets are covered with semi-permanent or even permanent covers to protect shoppers and strollers from sun and rain. It’s a great place to find more famous food shops, cheap souvenirs, discount shoes, and second hand yukata (summer weight kimono). It’s also home to a beautiful Buddhist temple known as Osu Kannon.

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I honestly do not know why so many shopping centers like this are close to famous Buddhist temples in Japan. I remember going to Asakusa in Tokyo, which is a stunning temple, and finding not only the corridors leading up to the temple covered in temporary carts and stalls selling to tourists, but a very similar covered multi-block shopping district. I don’t get the impression that it’s new, either. Cursory historical prodding indicates the shopping districts grew up side by side with the temples over decades, if not centuries.

I did a fairly quick walk through of the temple. It’s usually not permitted to take photos inside, so I refrained. It was small but glittery. Most of the walls are painted bright red, and every available surface is covered with an assortment of golden statues of various Buddhas and Bodhisattva. There is a small area where one can give donations in exchange for prayer papers or beads. The temple, like many, is actually dedicated to Guanyin (pronounced Kannon in Japanese). Originally, Guanyin was Avalokitesvara (a male) in India, but sometime in the move to China, she transitioned and is now the stand in for the goddess of mercy, compassion, and childbirth. I like her because she’s either Trans or NB and is one of the most popular subjects of reverence in Buddhism around the world.

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The temple at Osu isn’t that big, and the atmosphere of commerce nearby detracts a bit from the usual sense of serene calm I enjoy in temples, so after a few photos, we wandered out into the shopping streets.

Side note about Buddhism:
This religion is, like all religions, super complex with a long history and many cultural twists and turns. When I talk about it, I’m both generalizing and filtering it through my own lens. Not every Buddhist will agree. Typically, although the Sakyamuni Buddha was the one who discovered the four noble truths and the path to enlightenment, not many people actually turn to him directly. I personally think this is because the Buddha was way into self-responsibility and most people can’t really dig that, but the official story is that he’s basically gone because enlightenment.

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Instead, Buddhism has developed something of a saint class called “Bodhisattva”. These are beings who have attained enlightenment, but then decided to stick around and help others. Many of these slid conveniently into the role that local gods and goddesses had been filling culturally prior to the introduction of Buddhism. So, Guanyin didn’t so much come from Buddhism as put on a Buddhist dress when the times changed. There are actually plenty of stories of gods, goddesses, demons, spirits and the like who followed the teachings of Buddha. No shame in converting. Nonetheless, for those who feel like enlightenment is too far out of reach this lifetime, praying to Bodhisattva like Guanyin can provide some relief from the suffering of this world, and maybe a boost into better circumstances in the next life. Reincarnation, after all.

And Shinto Shrines:
A small Shinto shrine can almost always be found a stone’s throw away from any Buddhist temple in Japan. Shinto is the indigenous religion to Japan, while Buddhism was imported from China (who got it from India). The Japanese don’t see any particular need to separate their religions and the same individual may pray/make offerings at Shinto, Buddhist and Christian places of worship without any sense of conflict. It’s actually a very fascinating aspect of Japanese culture that they are able to be so syncretic without actually seeing themselves as “religious” at all. One of my professors in grad school taught a whole class about it.

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Osu is no exception. We ran into a little Shinto shrine moments after leaving Osu Kannon. I enjoyed the beautiful red toori gates, the paper lanterns, the stone fox spirits in their jaunty red kerchiefs, and of course the gardens. Shinto is strongly connected to the gods (kami) of the land, trees, rivers, and other aspects of nature, so the shrines tend to reflect that. To give you an idea of how many shrines can be found in a small area in Japan, I went back to Google maps later to get the name of the place we visited and I had to check the street view of no fewer than four before I finally found the one that matched my memory. It’s Fujisengen, by the way. It seems there are more than a thousand shrines across Japan with the same name, all dedicated to Princess Konohanasakuya, the kami of Mount Fuji, and possibly volcanoes in general. Now that I know that, I feel like it was much cooler to have visited a volcano goddess shrine…

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See the rest of my photos of the temple and shrine over on the Facebook Album.

Ok, Back to the Shopping:
Everyone complains about how expensive Japan is, and I know it certainly can be. I will never take a taxi there for anything other than a true emergency, but even taking public transit, it’s easy to spend 7-10$ a day. (good news is, if you know you have a lot of trips planned, you can get a day pass for about 7$, but still). We had visited Daiso and Book Off on Saturday, so on Sunday we hit up the other great dollar store (100 yen store), Siera. I thought Daiso was full of great bargains, but man this place was epic. I heavily considered getting some of my summer prep goodies there before I remembered that I have Daiso here in Korea. I did pick up a usb splitter because I had cleverly forgotten my second charger (one for the phone, one for the back up battery). That 1$ splitter worked a dream, by the way, so it’s not just cheap crap in the store either!

Photo credit: Japan-guide.com

If you’re looking for traditional Japanese styles and/or J-pop fashions you can find them both in Osu. I poked around a few shoe shops looking for summer sandals, and almost bought an insane pair of super cute Lolita platform shoes before remembering I will wear them exactly nowhere.  Finally, we popped into a Kimono shop to try on some things from the discount rack. A brand new high quality kimono or yukata can cost hundreds of dollars (or thousands). However, older models, used models, or items with small flaws in the cloth or stitching can sell for as little as five dollars. What! So, if you like kimono/yukata it’s worth it to peruse the discount rack at the shops here in Osu where you might find a real treasure!

Ghibli Store

One of my other goals for this trip was a stop off at the Studio Ghibli shop. It’s called “Donguri”. I’ve never seen a permanent one anywhere but Japan, but they do occasionally  pop up when Ghibli shows go on tour. I went several times when I lived in Yokohama in 2015 and bought much swag for my stateside friends.

20150823_171542The shops in Yokohama and Tokyo had a huge array of Ghibli goodies and I wanted to go back and see if I could get something unique for my niblings (gender neutral for the children of siblings, I did not make it up but I love this word). I’ve been sending them one Ghibli movie a year along with a few themed toys. Every other family member is drowning them in Disney, so I claimed Miyazaki. So far they’ve gotten Totoro, Kiki, and Ponyo (they are still quite young). My niece especially loves the lace bracelet I got at the shop, but mine is from Mononoke which they are not old enough for yet. I did manage to find a Totoro online, but it was twice as pricey as mine had been, so I figured I’d hit up the shop in Japan and have extra prezzies. Cool Auntie!

The Problem of the Train:
My friend recommended the one at Nagoya Station, which wasn’t so much bad advice as incomplete advice. With no data plan in Japan, I was reliant on WiFi for internet. Sipping my latte in Starbucks (free WiFi) outside Atsuta Jinju , I tried to plot my route through public transit to Nagoya station. It’s the main hub in Nagoya, so you’d think that would be easy. But it meant getting off the subways and onto the trains. I learned it in 2015 and then I forgot again because in Korea the trains are only between cities (going from Seoul to Busan) and the subways are all inside a single city, often even stretching to suburbs and neighboring smaller satellite cities. I was able to take the Busan subway all the way to Yangsan for dental appointments. It was the end of the line, but still.

In Japan, trains do run between cities, but they also run within cities. And they don’t work like subways. You can still use a general Japan transit card on any train, so visually it’s very similar to the subway system. Tap your card and walk through the turnstyle. The platforms also look like subway platforms, but unlike a subway where only one route will come and stop at your platform, train stations have LOTS of routes sharing a single platform. So not only do you have to find the right platform (which can be one of 20 or 30, I still have eye-twitches about the Yokohama station), but then you have to carefully observe the digital readout to see what train is coming at what time. Your train may be scheduled for 3:16, but some other train is going to pull up at 3:13 and you MUST NOT GET ON. It will take you to the wrong place.

Assuming that you have correctly found your platform and patiently waited for the correct train, you must now pay vigilant attention to the announcer (all Japanese) because while the subway cars all have maps with LED lights to show what stop you’re on, and digital readouts, and often announce stops in 3-4 languages, the trains are ooooooold and do none of this.

I made a horrible error in reading my directions and somehow got “ride 7 stops” when it actually said “ride 7 minutes”. I take full responsibility for this flub of my native language. Lucky for me, I figured out my error about 3 stops in and was able to get off and turn around. No trip to Japan would be complete without ending up on the wrong train platform in the middle of nowhere.

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Takashimaya

I finally made it to Nagoya station and went in search of the Takashimaya department store. It is a hike. The signs are not awesome. And the “department store” breaks the mold and spreads out over several buildings more like an American mall than a Japanese depato. I walked a lot, and asked directions more than once. Fortunately Donguri is a popular store, so people knew what I was talking about. Finally, drifting outdoors, looking at bus stops, taxi stands and the subway entrance I spotted the Disney store out of the corner of my eye. Only because my friend mentioned that the Ghibli store was across from the Disney store did I find it at all. That place is bonkers. I think it would have been a wonderful place to wander through shopping, but it’s kind of a nightmare if you’re just looking for one specific shop.

I was excited to find the shop and the giant Catbus out front. I’ve seen them at other places with signs that it’s only for children but this one was up for grabs so I headed on in. While I was admiring the interior, petting the fur, and generally being a silly fangirl, one of the other customers offered to take my picture. So now I have a pic of me riding Catbus. I look on this as a win.

There was also a rather large Totoro, only slightly smaller than “life size”. Loads of fun. Unfortunately when I got inside the actual shop I realized that a lot of the lower priced swag I’d picked up in Tokyo was remarkably absent. There was a section of children’s clothes, bathroom stuff, lunch boxes and other dishes, soaps and perfumes, posh grown up jewelry, school supplies, a billion stuffed toys and VERY EXPENSIVE display figurines. I was looking for things like kids jewelry (charms, fabric, rubber, etc), maybe a coloring book (there were “art” books… not for kids, just collections of Ghibli art), smaller toys, games or activities… ? It seemed like the only things for kids in the age range I was looking for was stuff like lunch boxes, chopstick kits and pencil cases. And most of it started at 20$ and went up from there.

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I was so confused because the shop in Tokyo had masses of stuff that was under 10$ which is why I was able to bring things back for so many people. Nothing in the shop that day was especially jumping up and down and saying “buy me” so I decided to have a quick look at the one other Donguri in town before giving up.

Oasis 21

20180507_181041The other shop is at a place called Oasis 21 which is ostensibly a bus station, but is really a shopping center. It’s much easier to find and less crowded than Takashimaya. It’s part of the lovely greenbelt in Sakae and it has a great view of the Nagoya TV tower which Nagoya loves to brag about like it’s the Tokyo Tower. It’s a little adorable. The Donguri in Oasis 21 isn’t as decked out in plush petable Totoro characters, however, so if riding the Catbus is on your bucket list, you better go to Nagoya Sta instead. I didn’t really have much time to see the other stores in Oasis 21, but it looked cute. It’s a big oval with an open center and covered shops on two stories around the outer rings.

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The selection at the shop wasn’t much of an improvement. I don’t know if it’s just Nagoya or if the whole chain is going through a change in inventory. (Seriously, I went to 3 or different ones in 2015 and they all had a wider range of items and prices). In the end I settled on some water safe Ponyos and some mystery rock Totoro (the niblings have recently discovered the joys of rock collecting, it tracks). For myself, just some very practical binder clips in Totoro theme to liven up my work environment. I hope it’s better next time I’m in Japan.


I would never have expected to spend so much time in shopping districts, but it was fun. Even without a lot to spend, Japan has great dollar stores and second hand options and window shopping can be it’s own reward in a culture where there is so much chibi cuteness everywhere you turn. Happy to be back writing more about my travels, and counting the days until I hop a plane to the EU for the summer! I hope you’re enjoying Japan as much as I did. Stay tuned for more Nagoya soon, and as always, thanks for reading! ❤

Letters From China (First Month 2007)

As September 2007 continued I began to find my feet in China, getting the swing of things in the classroom and learning to navigate Beijing on my own. These letters include my trips into town, my adventures in coffee, my first bout of homesickness (maybe ever), and some glimpses into the lives of my Chinese students.


Sep 13, 2007 at 10:08pm

Sooo, today was kinda interesting. It started off with early morning downpours, and me having no umbrella. By the time I got to class I was totally soaked. Not too bad tho, it cleaned out the air a bit and cooled down a lot.

The power went out this afternoon.

And… drumroll please… I found a place that serves COFFEE here in Yanjiao! It took me a while to get across that I just wanted black coffee, since it was like a dessert shop and they did mochas and cappuccinos and the like, but in the end, I did get a real cup of coffee… not great, but real. I still intend to try to get some beans in the city so I can make my own, but it is nice to know there’s somewhere I can go nearby.

Sep 14, 2007 at 7:34pm

I’m sitting here grading homework, and I want to share what one of my students wrote. The assignment was to describe a person.

“When I am happy, I like a person who is of medium build, a little chubby. I think she is very optimistic, stoic and conservative. She likes reading, listening to music and so on. Sometimes she would write a very good passage.

But when I am sad, very sad, I begin to hate her. I think she is very pessimistic, stingy and grumpy. She always does something wrong which made a lot of person even her friends misunderstood her and dislike her.

I eagerly hope she can do everything carefully and become excellent. Because that person is me.”

The English is a little rough, but I think the message is amazing, so I had to share.

Sep 15, 2007 at 11:25pm

Today I finally felt well enough to do some exploring. We decided to go into Beijing. The bus ride takes about 40 minutes, but its reasonably comfortable, and really cheap, about 5 yuan¹ as opposed to say a taxi which would cost over 100. This lets us out at Dawanglu. There we discovered a Super Walmart center and a guy in a penguin suit.

After Walmart, where I was able to find actual coffee, though its very finely ground and a little acidic for my tastes (I may however have over-brewed it, due to its completely wrong grind for a french press, and since I have a whole bunch, I’ll keep trying to get the timing right), we got on the subway (3 yuan) http://www.urbanrail.net/as/beij/beijing.htm and went on the red line (see the link for a map²) from Dawanglu to Xidan where we found a huge mall and some interesting architecture.

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This mall looks a little like an American mall, but of course there’s lots of room for bargaining. We also found a Starbucks where I was able to purchase the aforementioned french press. We didn’t stay long because one of the guys was looking for a winter coat and we didn’t see many clothing stores there, but I want to go back and explore more… one of the nicest things about it was that no one was trying to sell me stuff actively, and later I’ll explain why that’s so nice³.

We then took the subway back to Yong’anli and the infamous Silk Market. The silk market is a huge multistory shopping complex made up of hundreds of stalls selling goods.

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Its a heavy bargaining experience. Erwin found a jacket he liked and argued the price from 2300 to 450 (300usd to 60). While this market has plenty of nice stuff for cheap if you argue well, the sales girls are really grabby, literally, they kept grabbing my arm to stop me and try to drag me to look at their stuff. Not all were like this, but enough that it got on my nerves. I’m sure I’ll go shopping there myself when I need winter things, but its really a high impact shopping experience.

We stopped at a cafe to refresh ourselves before the long trek home. Kevin had a sort of duh experience today. His water supply† at home ran out like 2 days ago and for whatever reason a new jug never arrived, so he basically stopped drinking water, and of course today, he got pretty sick… he’s fine now, and its probably just as well we had to come home early, cause I am totally wiped out. In the end, we took the subway back to Dawanglu, then the bus back home. So I shall leave this post with the final picture from the window of our bus.

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¹ Chinese currency has a lot of names… I was not consistent in how I called it because the Chinese themselves are not. RMB, Yuan, and Kuai (remember back then it was 7.5 RMB to 1USD)

² That link doesn’t work. Try this one. TheBeijing subway has gotten SO much bigger since then. There were 4 active lines and they were building the 5th for the Olympics… today there are 15. But you can still see the red line on the map.

³ I did not ever explain that. In China (and oh so many places in the developing world) visiting (white) people are assumed to be richy richersons and someone always has a hand out or is trying to sell you something useless and overpriced. Often a simple “no thanks” in the local language is enough, but I’ve had people on the street grab my bags or even my arm before trying to get me to buy. It was very overwhelming before I learned how to deal with it.

†Do not drink the tap water. 

Sep 16, 2007 at 10:56pm

To paraphrase Rob, I finally hit the wall. It really hit me where I am and how long I’m going to be here, and the fact that I sat in my apartment today and couldn’t talk to any of you because you were all gone, just made it that much harder. Don’t get me wrong, I know it was Saturday night and all, but I went out to Beijing yesterday instead of chatting with ppl, and I’ve been kind of scarce on contact this last week anyway, and I keep looking at this board hoping someone will have put up something while I was asleep or away, and its happening less and less…

I realise you’re all going on with your lives and that I’m not as much a part of them as I was 3 weeks ago, and there’s a definite tendency for “out of sight out of mind” but when I was talking to you all, at least someone, every day, I wasn’t lonely, and I felt like I could DO this. But today, for the first time, I began to wonder if I really can.

So, I guess I’m just asking that you try not to let me be out of mind, just because I’m out of sight. I don’t think I can do this without your help, all of you. I’m gonna try to shift the Beijing outings to Sundays (your Saturdays), to make it easier. Google Talk has a free voice talk function that all you need is a cheap mic to use, and I can’t tell you how much it helps to hear your voices.

I’ve never really been “homesick” before, because having moved so much as a kid, I never really felt like I had a home, and when I left Memphis, I was only leaving a few people behind, and I could always just call them if I missed them. But I’m homesick now, for Seattle, and while I can’t be there, and you can’t be here, if we can meet out in Cyberspace its not as bad.

P.S. Its not really the city I’m homesick for, but the people who made it a home, the ability to walk down the street to hang out at Belinda’s or drive over the water to Toni’s or just hang out and shoot the breeze after game. The closest I can get to that here is talking online, and that I need more than coffee or pine scent or home-cooking. I think its important for me to be ok with the accommodations, food and entertainment that China has to offer, because trying to make my life here like Seattle not only defeats the purpose of being here, but just highlights the differences and reminds me how hard it is to bring that here. Things are just things, but people are irreplaceable.

Post by Ross on Sep 19, 2007 at 7:09am

Weeeeee’re off to see the Chairman, the most respectable Chairman of OZ!

We hear he has some wonderful Chi, if ever some Chi there waaaas!

If ever oh ever a respectable worker there was, the Chairman of OZ is one because. Because, because, because, because, becaaaaause!

Because of the glorious wealth and respect in common effort to the workers he does!(doo da da da dum da doom, da!)¹

¹Nearly everything here is something I wrote, but I just couldn’t leave this creative comment out.

Sep 19, 2007 at 6:11pm

As part of teaching conversational English, I give the kids¹ little activities to do. Today was a talk show, the topic of which was “teens and their parents”. While several of the skits were standard fare: “dad won’t let me date”, “mom treats me like a child” etc. One group had a fantastically Jerry Springer-like show.

It started out with the “mother” bursting into tears (real ham acting sobs) and relating the deep tragedy of her husband disappearing from their life when her daughter was only 6 and their mother/daughter relationship is now suffering.

The “daughter” then breaks in to tell her side, the relationship isn’t bad because the father left, its bad because she is a lesbian and her mother refuses to let her marry the woman she loves!

It further develops that, although she has become a lesbian because of her deep distrust and hatred for men (causing the male “host” to back up a bit), she truly loves the woman she is with.

The only un-Springer-like action is that after the psychologist has told the mother that her daughter’s sexual preference is a result of a combination of genetics and environment, and she must support her daughter (nice and liberal), the mother and daughter make up in another flood of hamitup tears.

The skit was funny and socially relevant and very creative. It really is amazing to watch these young people grow and change.

¹ “kids” = university students, ages 18-22

Sep 21, 2007 at 1:27pm

With my cold finally gone (well mostly) and the beautiful weather, I finally got off my butt and took some pictures of the campus. Be warned, there are a lot of them¹.

We begin our virtual tour today with an aerial view of campus in order to give you a big picture from which to put the details in perspective. I went to the ninth floor of a teaching building in the middle of campus and took pics starting from the south, moving west, north,  and east.

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Now you have the 180 aerial tour, lets move onto the ground. From the south view, you can see the zigzag looking bushes, the red potted flowers and the cactus garden.

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Next, we’ll take a look inside the class building from which I took the pics. First is the view of the building from the south, standing on the same road bordered by the zigzag bushes, then some classrooms and the stairwell.

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…a public toilet and some chalkboard art.

Next we shall move to the north, and see the basketball courts, the fantastic concrete pingpong tables and some more chalkboard art.

Now to the east, a sight not easily visible in the tall view because of trees, but nice nonetheless: A fountain (not currently flowing) and some student dorms.

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And as we move to the southeast, we find a lovey garden path and gazeebo.

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Interesting architecture, well sort of, I have no idea what this smokestack thing is for, but hey, its a feature.

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The main south gate into campus (the one I come in thru every day).

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this garden is near my apt. on south campus

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Now for the entertaining bits. I’ve mentioned to a few people the amazingly big and architecturally inclined spiders here, and while I can’t get a web to show up on my camera, I thought these pics might give you some idea of what I’m talking about. The spiders themselves are about 2 inches (including legs) and the webs are usually 3-4 feet in diameter. The webs are not as patterned as say an orb spider, but they tend to be three dimensional, being a few inches deep in addition to the many feet wide. Thankfully, there are enough regular cleaning staff that no webs ever wind up on the paths, but they can be seen from the road. The pictures below are of a spider perched in his web (not one dangling in midair). You can just see the edges of the trees he has built his web between, and these are TREES not bushes, the whole thing was about 8 feet in the air. The thumbnails do not do it justice, since the spider is a little black dot, so I suggest to those who really want the full effect to go get the full size pics.

73 freaky spider 3.jpgAnd last but not least, the army kids. Some of you may be aware that military participation is mandatory in China. So all the freshmen, rather than starting their classes, are participating in military training, which seems to consist mostly of learning how to march in formation. They have been shouting outside the classrooms all week, and I often have to yell to be heard over them in class. I took some pictures of their drilling practices, and tonight I’m going to some kind of show which is being held in the football field (apparently that they’ve been preparing for, hence the yelling), that thing that looks like a bunch of colored squared on the north west corner of campus is actually a football field that they’ve covered with a plastic tarp and chairs. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you, the People’s Army…

Peace out!

¹ So many more pictures. If you want to see more, check out the album on Facebook (where picture storage is free).

Sep 28, 2007 at 2:40pm

I’m a little behind in posts this week, but I finally got the pics off my camera, so here we go. I moved my weekly exploration outing to Sunday (rather than Sat) to better coincide with chatting and game times in Seattle.

After my last trip into Beijing being so hectic, I was planning a nice relaxing day of browsing through one of the quieter shopping centers, however, this did not turn out to be the case. Adam, the anime fanboy foreign teacher here, heard of my planned outing and asked to come along. I agreed and expressed my desires for a quiet shopping trip, alas, it was not to be. After only a few minutes at the shopping center I scouted out last time (the one under the big glass cone in the previous pics), Adam wanted to show me a nearby center he’d been to before… OK… so we hit the streets. Where I saw some interesting signs, and a few examples of native wildlife.

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When we finally found his shopping center, he decided he was hungry, and asked if I’d rather go to MacDonald’s or KFC. Grrr. After waiting for him to get American junk food, I finally found a street vendor and got some REALLY tasty squid in a sauce that tasted a bit like bbq and cocktail sauce mixed together, and some grilled mutton with what tasted like cumin and cinnamon for spices.

We went into the shopping center. I found a nice Tiffany knock off chain for the pendant Miriam gave me (BTW I get compliments on that pendant, and one of the other teachers wants to know if that company has a website). I captured an interesting example of Chinese fashion, and spent a lot of time waiting around the geek area of the mall while Adam perused the entire anime toys/keepsakes collection.

Finally nearing the end of my energy and my patience, we sojourned to Starbucks and had a short break before getting back on the subway to head to a bar where one of Adam’s “friends” was DJing. The bar is called Club Obiwan, and I didn’t get any pics of the interior, cause I was tired and grumpy when we showed up, in no small part because the directions were vague and we got a little lost looking for it. But it turned out to be a really neat place, most of the clientele were ex-pats, westerners living in Beijing. I had a Mojito which was very refreshing and had a basil undertone to it, and there was free BBQ. The theme of the evening being reggae; it was not Chinese bbq. I think it was supposed to be Jamaican, but it was very mild, and oh so tasty. The music was also very nice, being that breed of reggae that is more chill out than rock out. Here is the view from the rooftop dining area.

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We totally cheated and took a taxi back to the bus stop, but it was worth it not to have to face the subway at the end of such a long day.

On Tuesday, all the teachers had to go back into Beijing to file for our residence permits, which ordinarily would not bear a place in a post, but on the way home we passed a mule drawn cart, and I had to share.

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Reflections?

I can see how much my approach to photos and descriptions has changed in 10 years. Clearly, I used to rely on the photos to tell the story, only explaining enough for context. These days I find I really enjoy describing what I see, as so often my experiences simply can’t be captured on camera, but are a blend of all the senses and of my feelings. Subsequently, I write much longer posts, but then the photos can support my story rather than the other way around.

I can also see how what I look for first in a new country hasn’t changed too much: coffee, a good place to shop for the necessities, and the best places to get local food. I haven’t focused as much on my school here in Korea, but I think that has more to do with the fact that it’s not ok to put other people’s children online without permission and I’m teaching actual kids instead of young adult “kids”. But, if it’s something you’d like to hear about, I could certainly work on a school/work post for Korea, too.

Finally, I’ve become much more self conscious about taking photos of people, no matter what age. I suspect that living in Saudi and travelling in the Middle East made me this way, since there is is at best rude and at worst illegal to take or post pictures with faces in them without permission. I don’t know if that’s something I want to change or not, yet, but it’s interesting to think about. As always, thanks for reading! 🙂

Letters from China (Getting Settled 2007)

I arrived in China about a week before the job started because I wanted time to get settled into my apartment and do things like find the grocery store. Barring a summer camp gig 2 years previous, this was my first real job abroad and although I didn’t pack quite as many unnecessary things in my luggage, I was still far from being the veteran hit the ground running traveler that I am today. After discovering my LiveJournal account was blocked by the Great Firewall of China, my friends help me set up a message board where I could write home with the harrowing tales of my life in China. The footnotes are a recent addition for the republication.


Aug 29, 2007 at 11:40am

I braved the streets. Well, the alleys anyway. I thought I was going to be on my own, but I ran into the only other teacher who’s arrived. He’s totally American, but is of Taiwanese descent, so he gets treated pretty bad here. Everyone expects him to speak Chinese fluently, and he can’t. But we wandered down to the local supermarket, which is situated in a “walk street” where no cars are allowed, nestled among the shops and vendors, including the Famous California Noodle King. Don’t ask, cause I have no idea.

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I found a vendor selling some kind of melon¹ on a stick which turned out to taste like cantaloupe while looking nothing like it. So I had a tasty fresh fruit breakfast. (for about 13 cents)

The supermarket is 3 stories tall, but the third story was a separate store, a bit more like a department store, with shoes and clothes and stuff.

I picked up a variety of goods, some trash bags and cleaning stuff, some dried and frozen food, some really fascinating chocolate (Dove orange and hazelnut), but as of yet no Icy Mint Sprite²… tho I have not given up hope. This fantastic trip cost about 10$.

I’m sure I’ll be going back soonish, as I figure out what I need, but its not far away, about 2 blocks, and its a good excuse to get out. I got to see the other teacher’s schedule (tho I haven’t gotten mine yet) and it looks like we really do have fairly light loads. I’ll let you all know when I have a schedule what it is.

TTFN

¹It’s the Asian Melon. No really, that’s it’s name. They have it in Korea, too.

²Icy Mint Sprite was a beverage I discovered on my first visit to China in 2005 that tasted like non-alcoholic mojitos. I have never found it again.

Aug 29, 2007 at 8:11pm

We went into actual Beijing today. I live in a subcity (like a suburb, but more urban) called Yanjiao (pronounced yen-jaow). We took the bus to the main terminal, a 5 kuai trip (less than 1$)¹ and about 30-40 minutes. Then we took the subway a little further. The subway is actually fairly nice, and it goes both in a line through and a circle around the heart of Beijing. (A 3 kuai trip, less than 50c). We came out under a shopping mall, and when we went out onto the street it was apparently a main shopping drag, and full of shops for everything. I took some notes on how to get there, and I should be able to get back on my own. Even if I don’t want to go back to the same shopping center, there is a stop for Tienanmen, that might be nice to explore, and of course, once downtown, I can also take taxis around if I really need to. I won’t get paid till mid September, so I probably won’t do much shopping beyond basic needs till then, but its still nice to know how to get around.

The only other teacher here yet is rather nice, but totally out of place. I mentioned before that he’s Chinese descent, but American raised. He’s also an I.T. guy and apparently doesn’t really like exploring. He said he’s going to look at this year like a year in prison, and use it to keep a perspective on how great life in America really is. I find this a little depressing, since I look at this whole thing as a great adventure, but it does really put some perspective on this for me to know that so few ppl really want adventure.

Still, he’s a sci-fi geek and a Joss Whedon fan, and he wants to work for the feds too², so at least we have stuff to talk about. I hope some of the other teachers will want to explore more, since I prefer to explore in company… not that I won’t go off on my own if there’s none available, but its nice not to have to.

Finding ppl online at all hours has also been really nice. It means I have a little piece of home whenever I need it, and it makes me feel like i’m not so far away. I hope you all won’t get tired of talking, IMing, posting etc.

loves, Me

¹The Chinese currency is the Renminbi (RMB), also called the Yuan, and colloquially called “kuai”. At the time I was living there, 1USD was about 7.5RMB (kuai). 

²I had this strange notion that I would take my degree in International Studies and work for the US government to uphold democracy, international security, and diplomatic relations. Still, dodged a bullet there, eh?

Aug 30, 2007 at 12:54pm

I met my TA this morning, who had the dubious task of explaining my schedule and responsibilites to me. At least she spoke pretty good English.

The schedule is bizarre all by itself. To start, it is a 20 week semester. Simple enough. The 5th week is a holiday week. OK. All the class times AFTER the holiday move half an hour earlier….uh huh. SOME of my classes don’t start until after the holiday; some end on the 15, 17 or 19th weeks. I have a paper schedule, but I’m thinking of redoing it all so I can understand it.

Monday I’m teaching 2 classes until after the holiday, then 3. one from 1005-1150, another from 230-415 and the third, although written from 430-615 is presumably from 4-545 since that will not start until after the holiday, when the other classes change to 925-1120 and 2-345…I think.

Tuesday its just 2 classes back to back in the morning, from 8am-1150, with the same loverly time shift.

Wed is only one class from 230-415

Thurs theres one at 8 and another at 430, 2 hrs each

Fri just one at 8am

Now, the fun starts:

I have 5 CLASSES, and only 3 COURSES

Course 1 has classes a, b, and c, each of which meet only once a week, and while they will all have different students, they all use the same book and lesson plan.

Courses 2 and 3 have only one class but they meet 2x a week.

There’s also the late starting class, but I’m not sure what that is yet, since I’ve been told they’ll explain it later.

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Then there is the PAPERWORK:

For each class meeting I have an attendance sheet, which the class monitor will write each students name in Chinese and English according to a numerical assignment, and I will track attendance and homework (a combined 30% of the grade I might add)

There is also the course schedule which has a sort of overview of the entire semester’s lesson plan for each class, meaning I have to fill out 5, and they need 4 copies of each.

Then there are the “preface to the lesson” forms which must be filled out for every single class meeting and stapled to my lesson notes.

There are also forms for the final assessment (70% of the grade) but my TA took mercy on me and said we could go over them later in the semester.

I’ll be getting some electric copies of these forms which I shall endeavor to transmit to you all so you can share my pain.

Oh!, and I have to give a lecture in the 9th week, 2 hrs, and i’m thinking of giving it on RPing and the Sci-fi fantasy community, since I can’t think of anything else I can talk about for 2 hrs without getting in trouble here.

Note: I am so jealous of past me’s schedule…12-15 hours a week of teaching time? To put it in perspective, in KSA I taught 27.5 hours of class a week, in Japan I taught 35 hours of class a week, and in Korea I teach 22 hours of class a week. In case you’re curious, never take a job with more than 25, aim for less than 20.

Aug 31, 2007 at 8:01pm

By request, I shall talk about all the interesting food I have experienced so far.

My first meal here was Tuesday’s lunch in the restaurant adjoining the hotel here on campus, where we were taken by the coordinator. It was a buffet and I could not begin to name the dishes, but they were all tasty. My favorite appeared to be eggplant and some kind of root vegetable (I won’t swear to potato). I think I could have eaten a mountain of it.

The next day I went to the store and got the melon onna stick spoken about in earlier posts. From the store, food-wise, I got some chocolate (of course) but of an unusual flavor: orange and hazelnut, which turned out to be bits of candied orange and bits of hazelnuts in Dove milk chocolate (its the most popular chocolate brand here, and comes in MANY more flavors than Dove makes in America). I bought some black rice crackers that I became fond of the last time I was here. They are light and crispy with a little bit of sugar frosting on top. I also got some oatmeal, because, as boring as it is, its good for upset tummies. I experimented a little by picking out a bag from the frozen food section. It had a picture of (raw) meat on skewers on the front, as well as of cows in a meadow, though I’m reasonably sure from the characters that its actually sheep, I keep meaning to look it up but haven’t¹. (more on this later, as I didn’t actually eat it on Wed). I discovered that there was a fresh soy product center in the store and bought some marinated tofu and fresh soy milk, which tastes nothing like the soy milk in the states, but it nonetheless tasty. The marinated tofu was ok, but a little bland, marinated tofu usually has more taste. And lastly I bought some apples, which were reminiscent of fuji or braeburns, crisp, fresh and lightly sweet.

Thursday I went back to the store in quest of more supplies (not wanting to carry too much all at once, I’m taking my time), but found that the store was not yet open, so I partook of some rice dumplings from a nearby vendor. These are sticky rice squished around a filling of some kind and wrapped in bamboo leaves then boiled or steamed. Not knowing the difference between the two types she offered, I got one of each (at a kuai a pop). One was definitely filled with red bean paste, a kind of sweet mush of a distinctive yet mild flavor, and the other I could not identify… it was fruit of some kind, reminiscent of dates², but very strong in flavor with an almost caramelized (almost burnt sugar) aftertaste. I think it would have been better if there were less of it, but I found it too strong.

For lunch I decided to cook up some of those mystery meats, and it turned out they were cooked and spiced and only needed heating up. Once warm, they revealed a mostly tender meat with a few bits of stringiness, but in small chunks so not unpleasant, very moist and spiced predominantly with garlic and cumin (again lending credence to the sheep theory as cumin and mutton are a common combination). They were quite surprisingly tasty.

Later in the evening, past the midday HOT, I returned to the store, got more chocolate (surprise) and experimented more. I found a packet of cookie/cake things with English ingredients which revealed it to be made of mung bean and pea flours with floral essences and a bit of sugar. They are very dry, but not crispy, they’re soft, almost powdery, and go very well with tea (hot or iced) and I’d bet coffee as well. I found some rice cookies with chocolate filling, and I am a bit underwhelmed. They are crispy, but a little oily and the chocolate is barely tasteable. I will not be buying those again. I broke down and got some Nescafe, at least until I get back into Beijing downtown to a Starbucks for some ground coffee and a machine of some kind. I will not discuss Nescafe.

I got some more mystery meat skewers (same kind as before, its good to have something at home I know I can eat³), some fried tofu puffs which were nice, but need a sauce of some kind, which I will look for next time. I also got a coffee cola (not Coke Black but something else) but I haven’t opened it yet, so I don’t know how it tastes. And finally, fantastic peaches (omg). The fruit here is so fresh and so good. They were that perfect peach texture, not too hard, but not mushy, lightly sweet with a thin skin that was only lightly tart and not at all bitter. Juicy enough to make you slurp, but not so juicy you need a napkin. Perfect.

On the way out, I stopped to buy a roasted chicken from another street vendor and I think he teased me about not going to KFC next door, but I couldn’t really tell… regardless, the chicken was fantastic! A light sweet and spicy sauce had been used in the roasting and coated the chicken with its baked on goodness. It was a little small by American standards, but soooo much better and not injected or anything, just chicken. The meat, even the white, was quite moist and tender, and lead me to think I will risk more KFC jokes to get more†.

Today (Friday) I quested out to a restaurant on my own for dinner. (Currently all my ventures have told me that I have forgotten a lot about Chinese language, and really need practice, so I’ve been reticent to dine alone). Not being cognizant enough to try to decipher the menu, I ordered xi hong shi chao ji dan (that egg and tomato dish‡). It was a little saltier in the egg than I would have liked, and used green onions instead of cilantro, changing rather seriously the overall taste of the dish. I don’t know as of yet if this is regional or merely restaurant specific, but I’m sure i’ll find out eventually. There was easily 2 servings on my plate (no rice) and the meal was still less than 1$….ah I love the economy of food here.

So I think that’s it on food for now, hope you food fans enjoyed the descriptions, I’m sure there will be more to follow.

¹ I studied Mandarin Chinese in university for two years and a bit, but hadn’t had any classes during my final year, so I was a bit rusty.

² These are jujubes, also known as Asian dates, or Chinese dates. Hence the date flavor.

³ I was gluten and dairy free when I moved to China and didn’t discover my ability to tolerate the wheat and milk there for several months.

† The best chicken, the Chicken of Tasty. It is still spoken about with awe and reverence. I went there once a week at least the entire time I lived there, and it became a point of pride for the owner that the American girl liked his food better than KFC.

‡ Probably still my favorite Chinese food. It’s made of eggs and tomatoes stir-fried in garlic, ginger, cilantro and probably some soy sauce. I ate it as often as possible and miss it like crazy.

Sep 10, 2007 at 6:12pm

Sorry I haven’t posted in a while, I’ve been sick, as many of you know. I think (knock on wood) its getting better.

In any case, my first week of school was ok. My students are reasonably bright, but pretty shy. The textbooks are fairly easy to use. The schedule is not to stressful, as most days I only have one class and never more than 2 in a a day¹.

The three classes I’m teaching are:

1) a basic Sophomore required English conversation class, we start out by discussing vocabulary and new concepts and move into listening and speaking exercises. I think they’re having fun.

2) a Junior level advanced conversation class, that I’m still trying to wrap my brain around how to teach because the book is strangely organized. Last week I tried to teach blind, having not gotten the book in advance and borrowing one of the student’s books to teach from. I hope it gets better.

3) a reading comprehension class, which was a little tough last week because I don’t think the students really prepared, but I told them they had to read ahead and look up new words on their own if they didn’t know them in order to be prepared to discuss the readings in class. We’ll see.

As for the rest of my life last week, well, sickness ate a lot of it. I’ve been a couch potato. Watched “Heroes” and started “Lost”, omg what a messed up island… there’s a pretty reliable source of cheap but bad dvds around here.

I met more of the other teachers.

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Kevin (right) is from Wisconsin. He arrived last Sat. with no Chinese money or language skills, and not even an ATM card to get Chinese money. Poor guy. So I bought him dinner, and we’ve been hanging out, usually having at least one meal a day together, cause its nice to have company, and he has at least a passing chance of knowing what he’s about to eat if I order. He’s a bit of a frat boy type, beer, pizza, ultimate Frisbee, but he was never in a frat, and was also a drama nerd occasionally. He’s super excited to be here and he’s pretty good company.

Adam (not pictured) is also from Wisconsin, tho they didn’t know each other. He’s an anime geek and brought like 400 dvds with him, cause he’s afraid he won’t be able to get anime here… or at least not in English. He talks more than anyone I’ve ever met (including me), even I had trouble getting a word in edgeways. He says he studied Chinese, but I’ve never heard him speak it, he either points to what he wants on the menu or lets me order. He’s also a really picky eater, but I guess that’s his loss. He seems like he means well tho, I mean, he’s not an asshole, he just lacks some social polish, but hey, we all know how gamer/anime geeks can be about that. I’m hoping some of its nervousness about being here and meeting new ppl and will wear off soon.

Erwin (not pictured) came out of his hole to have diner with us yesterday and was actually smiling. (this was the guy who was all depressed about being here, and said he was comparing this year to a year in prison, so yay for smiling). I think maybe his initial yicks are wearing off.

Not much excitement, mostly resting, teaching and going to dinner with the other teachers. I hope that my cold will be gone soon, I really want to go exploring more, and I just don’t have the energy for it right now.

We’re going into Beijing on Wed. I have to get a medical exam, and I’m going to try to open a bank account², but I won’t have time to explore, cause I’ve got class Wed afternoon. I suppose that the upside is that if I’m late that day it won’t be my fault since the department scheduled the Dr. appt. Oh, and don’t panic, its a routine exam required by the gov’t to make sure i’m not going to infect the country. I’m not THAT sick…

my love and hugs, k

¹ So. Jealous.

² I never did open a bank account in China. It turned out to be nearly impossible for a foreigner to do so, since we had to undergo a waiting period and keep the equivalent of 500 USD in the account at all times. That was nearly a whole month’s salary, and I sent half my salary back to the US every month to pay bills, so I could never save enough to open the account.


It’s almost painful for me to leave these letters minimally edited (some punctuation and spelling got fixed). I know I was writing causally to friends but it’s not unlike reading high school poetry… really? I wrote that? I took a lot of pictures in the early days, but didn’t actually post them until later. Sorry for the wall of text.

Reflections? I really miss university teaching, and am glad I’ve decided to go back to that next school year! I miss having English speaking co-workers. EPIK teachers in Korea are fairly isolated. We can make friends and attend group events outside of work, but it’s hit or miss if we have anyone in the same neighborhood, and we’ll never have someone at the same school. I miss real Chinese food so much. The Korean idea of Chinese food is limited to sweet and sour pork and a noodle dish I’ve actually only encountered in Korea called Jajangmyeon (they insist it is Chinese food). Taiwan is seriously looking good for the next country.