Northern Ireland: Game of Thrones

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


Game of Thrones Touring Exhibition: Belfast

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

Dark Hedges

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

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


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

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Downhill Demesne & Mussenden Temple

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

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

Dunluce (again)

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

Castle Ward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inch Abbey

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

 

Myths and Legends of China 09: Mountains & Lakes

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


The Goddess of Mt. Wu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Split the Mountain to Rescue the Mother

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Legend of Sun and Moon Lake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Doolin & The Aran Islands

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Doolin Cave

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

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

Doolin Music House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Very Very Brief History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Natural Wonders:

Taipei:

Yehliu Geopark 野柳地質公園

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shifen Waterfall 十分大瀑布

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

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

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

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Kaohsiung:

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

Maolin Butterfly Trail 茂林賞蝶步道

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Temples

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

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

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

Taipei:

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

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

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

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

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

Kaohsiung:

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Dingle Peninsula

The joy of planning any vacation is discovering new things. Naturally, I had a list in Ireland of sites I knew I wanted to see, but there were whole swaths of countryside between the known destinations for me to fill in. Going from the Ring of Kerry directly to the Aran Islands was just too long a drive. When I looked at the map, the Dingle Peninsula came up as a must see for it’s beautiful coastline, charming local culture, and one special local resident named Fungie.


Fungie the Dingle Dolphin

I love dolphins. This makes me basic, but I don’t care. I struggle sometimes because they can be real jerks (BBC article, TW: rape), so I don’t go in for the “dolphins as spiritual healing animals” line, but like many intelligent wild animals, I find them fascinating. I was in Florida in middle school, and we went to local marine parks a lot. I wanted to be a marine biologist – or a dolphin trainer – but then we moved away from the sea and I learned about the horrible things that happen to dolphins in captivity.

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Since then, I have sought out responsible interactions with fascinating wild animal. Although some animal protection extremists say there’s no such thing, I go with “as responsible as possible”. My swim with the wild dolphins in New Zealand is a good example. The NZ government limits the number and type of boats that can legally interact with the dolphins and it reduces random tourists and boats from interfering with them while raising money and awareness for environmental preservation.

Fungie is an entirely unique case and there’s not really another dolphin like him in the world. He’s a solitary middle aged bachelor who lives in the Dingle Bay and likes hanging out with the humans. He was never a captive, never “trained”, isn’t fed by people or enticed to stay in any way other than through social interaction. And if he’s tired of people, he can swim out of the bay and the small boats can’t follow him into the unsheltered Wild Atlantic.

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I ran into people (Irish people, not just tourists) outside of Dingle who thought that he was a myth, or an exaggeration, or one of a long line of different dolphins that the town named Fungie to keep up the tourism, but Fungie is actually the subject of some scientific interest because he is so unique among dolphins. He’s a little bit like a “wolf child”. In the sad case where a human baby isn’t socialized with other humans before a certain age, they don’t learn language or basic social skills… ever. Fungie was separated from his pod at a relatively young age, just old enough to feed himself, but not fully socialized… think about Mowgli or Tarzan? He came into the Dingle Bay because it’s extremely sheltered and safe, plus lots of food (good fishing). He never got reconnected with his pod or any other, and now he tends to hide from pods passing through the area. Scientists who study him think that he can’t communicate well with other dolphins, sort of like having a speech impediment.

However, dolphins are very social, much like humans, and whatever his reasons for avoiding other dolphins, Fungie discovered he could get some degree of socialization from humans. I suspect it’s similar to the way that we interact with our pets. Fungie has lived in the Dingle bay for about 36 years, and they think he was about 4 when he moved in. For a long time, he was only known to the locals, but in more recent years, he has become a mainstay of Dingle tourism.

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I chose my tour boat because of the timing. Partly because I wanted to do two things that day, and partly because dolphins are most active early in the morning. This is the only boat that goes out in the early morning and it only holds 10 people, so book in advance. The good news is that this smaller boat inside the bay is unlikely to be impacted by the weather, unlike the larger boats, which as I will relate shortly, definitely are. Plus, the tiny boat means you get quite close to the water, and consequently, the dolphin.

There’s also the option to swim, but the Atlantic Ocean there only gets up to 15C/60F in the warmest month, and that’s still colder than most people who live south of the 60th parallel want to swim in without a wet-suit. The water I went in NZ was 13C and even with a short wet-suit, I just about stopped breathing when I went in. I didn’t have a wet-suit in Ireland, and I hadn’t figured out how to rent one in advance, so I was SOL. There was a family on the boat with us who decided to just go in in swimsuits. I think they were Swedish. The children turned blue, and Fungie never really got that close.

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The tour company kitted us out with outerwear, pants and jackets, that was super warm and waterproof. I am so glad they did, because however pleasantly cool the weather on land was, it was insanely cold out on the water, plus we got boat spray and rain. It was a gray, wet morning, I got some nice photos (as seen in the first part of the post) as we pulled out of the harbor, although the visibility was limited. I was a bit sad I couldn’t see the cliffs around the bay, but all was forgiven once Fungie showed up.

Our guide told us a bit about Fungie’s history and the studies I briefly outlined here, and then we set about trying to play with him. The guide said later in the day, there would be dozens of boats in the area all competing for his attention, so going in the early morning we got him all to ourselves. The best way to play with Fungie is to run the boat quickly, creating a wake, then pumping the breaks so the wake passes the boat. Fungie loves to race the boat and then body surf in the wave the boat creates. We did this over and over to the delight of everyone on board, and apparently Fungie as well.

When he was done with us, he just swam off. Even with our guide trying to lure him back, he was ready for a break. I point this out, because it’s really important that Fungie isn’t being exploited. He doesn’t want to live with other dolphins, and if humans stopped playing with him, he’d probably get really depressed (which happens to all social animals in isolation).

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We had a quick run out of the bay just to feel the difference in the weather, which is intense. It was wet, cold, and insanely fun. We bounced like a roller coaster and although I got splashed many times, the waterproof outerwear did a good job of keeping me warm and mostly dry. This is very important, because I the next day I ended up on a boat with no waterproof clothes and it was an entirely miserable experience. Crazy wet splashing raining Wild Atlantic boats WITH warm waterproof clothes = fun. Crazy wet splashing raining Wild Atlantic boats in regular clothes = soaking wet underwear. Choose wisely.

As we came back toward the harbor the other tour boats were starting to gather. We spotted Fungie a few more times, but even just having a few other boats around made me really appreciate the time we got with him while we were the only boat on the water.

The Weather

I mentioned our morning was gray and rainy, with an extra side of nose numbingly cold on the water. This was August, by the way, the warmest month although not the driest (that’s June). The morning’s short excursion out of the bay and onto the ocean gave me my first taste of why it’s called the Wild Atlantic. Even doing the speed up/sudden break trick with Fungie in the bay was a smooth calm ride compared to the unsheltered open ocean.

I did not actually think the weather that day was bad. It did rain on us a bit, but it wasn’t anything like a storm. Nonetheless, shortly after we were back on land from our morning visit with Fungie, I got an email from my afternoon tour that the boat trip was cancelled due to bad weather. I have to say I was very surprised. I didn’t think a light rain was enough to warrant a cancellation, but this just goes to show how little I understood about the Wild Atlantic. Yes, I’m going to keep calling it that, because the Atlantic Ocean is big and has different temperaments on different coasts, but what goes on along the west coast of Ireland can only be understood in terms of elemental forces.

The afternoon tour was meant to be a visit to the Blasket Islands, an eco tour where we could see some of the wildlife and get to have a short walk on the island. It was meant to be the alternative to missing out on Skellig Michael. When the tour company cancelled, I asked around at some of the other boat operators to see if anyone would be going. Please remember, in my ignorance, the slightly overcast, intermittent light rain just didn’t seem like a weather obstacle, and I thought, surely a saner company would still be going. One company operating a smaller boat said they were planning to go, but were all booked up, and we could be on the alternate list in case anyone backed out. I left them my number and went to the tourism office around the corner to see what else I could do in Dingle that afternoon.

There were a few things, caves, churches, museums and I probably could have made a go of it, but in the end, I didn’t have to. The small boat company had a family of 4 drop out, so all of us who were waiting got to go after all. The upshot is that I got to go out on the Wild Atlantic on a day when all but one tour boat was docked for bad weather. Let me say again, “bad” meant a little windy, and a little rainy. Honestly, it got downright sunny and pleasant over lunch. The ocean is a crazy place.

Why did the small boat go when the big boats dared not? Smaller, lighter weight boats are more maneuverable, and also lower to the ocean surface, with less surface area. They’re less impacted by high waves and high winds. So, there I was, all bundled up in the waterproofs again, and holding on to a boat that was more inflatable life raft than seaworthy vessel for a 3 hour tour, and trying not to hum Gilligan’s Island under my breath.

Is there a way to be sure of a good boat ride? Sadly, no. Ireland just rains a lot. I honestly do not know how people out there made a living at fishing… well, I do… a lot of them died. Even in the “driest” months, the weather can turn ugly and it can last your whole vacation. We didn’t see nice weather for 4 more days. This is not to say it was all miserable. The sun comes out a lot between the raindrops. If you’re on land, it’s fine with an umbrella and some waterproof shoes/shoe-covers. Maybe a water proof jacket if you’re on the coast, because wind does make umbrellas useless. If you don’t mind a wild wet ride, it can be great fun, but if you are counting on a beautiful clear sunny day like the brochure photo either be prepared to hang out all summer or go somewhere that isn’t famous for rain.

The Blasket Islands

Once I got over the weather, it was pretty good. I think it would have been stunning in sunlight, but we got some nice up-close views of the cliffs, and some history about the pirates, which were really more like smugglers, but pirate sounds cooler. We passed by another Star Wars film site, where Luke leaps from rock to rock to harvest the green milk.

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The Blasket Islands are a little series of Islands that were occupied by a very small (100 or so people) population of very traditional Gaelic speaking Irish. I gather there was a lot of tension between them and the occupying British/Anglicized Irish, hence maybe some of the pirating. In the 1950s, the last 22 occupants were relocated to the mainland for safety reasons. In the high season, it is still possible to spend the night on one of the islands, but most people who want to visit, go for a single afternoon, much as I had hoped to do.

I was starting to understand why a 70 person ferry wasn’t going to navigate around a bunch of huge jagged rocks in high wind and waves, but I wasn’t sure why we weren’t allowed to land until I saw the dock. The dock that was a nearly vertical stone stairway up the cliff. I have to say, that if it had been a sunny day, I would have fought through it, and climbed, but I’m slightly glad I didn’t have to. I also very much understand why no one wanted to try and navigate that with rough currents and winds.

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After a couple hours on the rough seas, I was slightly beginning to regret my choice. For safety, the boat’s seats were basically saddles with backs. They were very stable, and I never once felt like I might fall off, but if you’ve ever ridden a horse at a trot or canter, you know that saddles aren’t super comfortable at speed. There’s a reason racehorse jockeys don’t sit. You aren’t actually supposed to sit, but rather put your weight in the stirrups and use your thighs to stay balanced and level. Otherwise, your internal organs bounce all around and  your sitting area gets very sore. The waves of the Wild Atlantic were not unlike a bouncing trot. At first, I could handle it, I planted my feet and bent my knees and kept myself pretty well stable. As my legs got tired, I had the choice of three positions: stand, which is bouncy and awkward and requires a lot of core strength, sitting, which is comfortable when the boat goes up, but painful when the boat meets the water, and the saddle squat which gives the most control over the bouncing but uses the most extra muscles.

We didn’t get to see the puffins, I don’t really blame them, but we did stop in a little sheltered beach to see the seals. I am very curious as to why there isn’t a nice easy dock on or near this beach, because it was obviously sheltered, and much flatter than the vertical cliff face the actual dock is built into, but I’m sure there’s a reason involving winter storms or wildlife preservation.

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The seals like to sun themselves on the beach, which was obviously not happening that day, so we drifted to a slow stop in the smooth glassy waters and I realized that the water around us was positively filled with seals. Children of the corn style.

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I’m a bit spoiled on wildlife after living in the Pacific Northwest. The average sail around the sound will result in several seal, porpoise, and even whale sighting. People on the ferry see orcas on the regular. My last visit to Seattle, we got to see some humpbacks breaching as well as a little pod of dolphins, and a seal pup hanging out on a little bit of driftwood waiting for mom to come back. On a single sail. Nothing I have seen compared to the colony of seals *watching us from the water.

In all the photos and videos and they just look like driftwood or waves or shadows. First I noticed one or two as they bobbed a bit higher out of the water to get a good look at the weirdos in the boat. Then, like one of those 3D pictures or an optical illusion suddenly changing from duck to rabbit, I realized the sea was full of these animals and they were all staring at our boat. I am super happy that seals are much more like chocolate Labradors than sharks. They were just curious, but in that super foggy weather it was a spooky moment.

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Despite the gray skies, near constant rain, kidney jostling waves, and view obscuring fog, I am still glad I went. There were moments that the ocean sparkled turquoise, which I didn’t think it could do without sunlight. There were times as the islands came toward us out of the fog and sea spray that it felt like magical lands emerging from the mist. And there were times when I was really glad that staring at the horizon works for seasickness. As stunning an experience as a ride on the roughest possible while still being safe seas was, I was very happy to return to dry land and dry clothes.

Leaving Dingle that evening, the sun came out once more and I was treated to a beautiful roadside rainbow as I drove on to my next destination, Doolin and the Aran Isles.

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Fall in Korea

During my first two years in Korea, I took almost every opportunity to go to a festival or event. In large part, it was because as an EPIK teacher, I had very short holidays, so I spent my weekends seeking fun. Now that I have great big holidays, I find I’m saving my money for those long trips abroad. Plus, it is a bit repetitive to go to the same festivals and events each year. This year, my favorite tour group, Enjoy Korea, changed up the line-up on their fall foliage trip, so instead of going to the DMZ and Seoraksan, we would visit a famous penis park, a coastal railway, and Seoraksan- a mountain that’s quite large enough to visit twice and see totally different sights. I decided to sign up, and as luck would have it, some other ladies I know from around the country also signed up so we got to hang out together. Although it was a lot of riding in buses, the weather was everything we could have asked for, and I had a lovely time.


Haesingdang Penis Park (해신당 공원)

It is a constant source of curiosity and amusement among the foreigners that in such a conservative country as Korea there are multiple overtly sexual and outright pornographic sculpture parks. I visited the famous Love Land on Jeju Island a few years ago, and so I was curious to see the similarities and differences with that very modern invention and what was ostensibly a more historical park at Haesingdang.

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The legend of Haesingdang has some inconsistencies, but basically there was a young maiden who’s fiancee (new husband? she’s supposed to be a virgin, though so they can’t have been married long) is a fisherman and through a series of unfortunate events he ends up leaving her on a large rock rather far from the shore (perhaps to harvest the edible seaweed?) while he takes the boat to fish, promising to return for her at the end of the day. However, a horrible storm arises and he is unable to fetch her and she drowns.  The next day, there are no fish to be had, nor any the day after that. The people believed that the spirit of the drowned maiden was ruining the fishing.

Here’s where it gets extra confusing. There’s a group of three statues up on the hill overlooking the ocean that are supposed to be a part of the legend. The are very… um… priapic. I’m unclear as to whether they were masturbating into the sea, or simply showing this poor virgin girl what a good dick looks like. Many versions of the myth also state that it was a man urinating into the ocean that caused the spirit to be appeased and the fish to return, and anyone who knows the function of a prostate knows you can’t urinate when you’re .. um.

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All the legends agree that it was the sight of a penis that made this virgin maiden relent and bring back the fish… I guess she was really horny? I don’t really know. Since then, the locals carved several wooden phalluses to put along the seashore and twice a year they have a religious festival to show big wooden penises to the maiden in the sea.

It’s really hard to get any hard data about this park or the statues in it. It’s likely that the myth and the rituals are hundreds of years old, but given the near total destruction of everything in that region during the Korean War, it is highly unlikely that those are genuine historical statues. More than likely they are modern reproductions and best guesses combined with truly modern art pieces like the golden penis on the stairs that was made in 2006, and a row of new statues that seems to be growing one penis a year down the path (the latest one was dated 2019).

Most of the museum looks like it was either made in the 70s or by someone aesthetically stuck there. The fishing village museum included a series of arrows leading nowhere past some large fake aquariums (plastic fish, no water) and a large diorama of a historical fishing village, plus some interactive video games and “fishing” toys.

There are plenty of photo ops where you can sit on a giant penis, or sit on a bench and look like a large erect penis and hanging balls are sprouting from between your legs. There’s a small temple dedicated to the maiden who drowned in the legend. And there’s about 50 or so wooden carvings of exaggerated penis shapes, or people with penises for heads, or penis totem poles. A star attraction is the 12 zodiac animals in penis pillars.

Aside from the overwhelming collection of dick, there is a stunning view of the sea from the top of the stairs which is in my opinion, one of the best parts of the whole park. You can actually see the rock from the legend in this photo. There’s a statue of the maiden on the rock you can see with binoculars.

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Normally conservative and reserved Koreans take these kind of parks as a place to cut loose. Although no one did anything inappropriate like public exposure, there’s plenty of lewd gestures and old ladies laughing while their husbands look a bit uncomfortable. It’s not all bad for the guys, though, they get to pose next to unrealistic dicks and dream.

Yonghwa Coastal Rail Bike (삼척 해양레일바이크)

Also known as Samcheok Costal Rail Bike, it’s the same thing because there is only one rail bike in all of Korea.

“the one and only coastal rail bike in Korea and it runs on 5.4km-long double tracks through beautiful rocks and special type of pine trees called Gomsol (Bear Pine)”

I love the coast. Sandy beaches, rocky shores, sweeping cliffs, I don’t care I love it all. So when I heard this trip was going to include a leisurely hour long rail bike up the coast, I was pretty stoked. Now, I won’t say that this wasn’t hilarious fun, but if you’re expecting an hour of beautiful ocean views you will be disappointed.

A rail bike is basically a little car that is mounted on rail tracks and powered by pedaling. Thankfully, these cars had real seats and we were not mounted on bicycle style seating. Myself and the other short person had a very hard time both sitting and reaching the pedals, but with 4 people working on it, and some motorized assistance, the trip is not especially exerting.

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The beach that we left from (Yonghwa) is quite pretty, but it is dominated by the rail bike station, and by the time we pedaled out of the building we only had a few moments of beach before we were leaving it behind. The beautiful view of the sweeping coastline is also partially obscured by those special pine trees and a fence. I had hopes that with the better part of an hour still to go, we would get more sea views, but the next part of the ride took us into a tunnel.

There was some distinctly Korean attempt to make the tunnels more interesting by adding colored lights and some neon underwater scenes, all set to strange 80s music in English. I think it would have been ok for a short tunnel, but it soon became droning and repetitive. My peaceful, sunny, seaside bike ride had turned into some hellscape of neon, concrete and bad club music. I didn’t even think about taking video at the time, so I’m borrowing my friend’s which is unforgivably shot vertical… sorry! I did at least replace the horrible 80s music with something less aggressive.

I know there’s probably no way we could have stayed outside in the mountainous terrain, but I feel like there is much more they could have done to make the tunnel more enjoyable. I was so relieved when it ended… only to have us go into a second tunnel! In the end, I’d say we spent at least 1/3 of the “coastal” ride underground.

Another 1/3 was spent outside with little to no view of the sea. We saw some cute pensions (a kind of Korean hotel), and a few resort attractions, and even a large sculpture of a battleship covered in some found art objects (I was moving to fast for a decent pic). The woods were randomly dotted with the leftover remains of the summer glamping (glam+camping) season, a few heavy machines, and a LOT of debris.

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I know we had like 3 typhoons in three weeks and the coast did get a bit messed up, but it really seemed like zero effort had been made to collect the rubbish. There was a brief stop at a little “rest area” after the tunnels and the beach there was pretty and clean, but we had only a few minutes to enjoy it before we were rushed back to the rail bikes and sent on our way.

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Although you and your group pedal yourselves, there’s not any wiggle room to slow down to see nice things or speed up to get past boring things because it seemed like 50 cars were on the tracks at the same time and although we’d been told to keep 10m between cars, it was often closer to 2. On the plus side, when we passed a group coming the other way, it was a lot of fun because they were excited to see a large group of foreigners and we got lots of greetings, big smiles, and high fives in passing.

Overall, I’d say it’s a fun but silly way to spend an hour, and not a calm bike by the sea. As long as you go into it knowing what you’ll get, it’s worth it.

Seorak Mountain and the Fall Foliage

Also known as Seoraksan, san simply means “mountain”, Seorak is one of the premier places in Korea to take in the fall foliage. It’s pretty far north, and close enough to the sea that you can see the ocean from the peak on a clear day. Plus, it’s elevated. This means that the conditions for beautiful leaf colors are really promising. It’s a little like driving up to Connecticut for Americans.

I went once three years ago and had a gray drizzly day which made the leaf colors really pop, but made the sweeping views pretty much a misty, uh, mystery… I also struggled a lot with the ajuma and ajoshi (Korean’s of a certain age) who all showed up in their special hiking clothes and walking sticks and charged up the path like it was a race to the top. I personally wanted to meander and enjoy the trees, take some pictures, admire the little details. They wanted to walk. Quickly. I was elbowed so frequently that it made it almost impossible to enjoy anything, let alone obtain any sense of serenity. I was almost knocked off the mountain (down a steep ravine) and when I slipped and fell on some wet rocks, people just shoved past me instead of giving me room to stand up or heaven forbid, helping. I did not want a repeat of this experience this year.

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I am spoiled by the PNW mountain hikes which are quiet and often very private. I love forest bathing in Japan, and the peaceful mountainside temples. There is a temple at Seoraksan, but it’s a bit tricky to find. On my first visit, I managed to get a ticket to ride the cable car up and from the crowded platform, I followed a small trail with signs I recognized from the Chinese characters up and around to a small temple. There was no one else around, and I finally got some of the peace and serenity I was looking for. I was very much looking forward to visiting that place again.

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This year, we had amazing weather. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, and it was just warm enough not to need a jacket but not hot enough to make us sweat. Upon arrival, we charged straight for the cable car ticket office only to find that everything was sold out until 3pm. Our bus was leaving at 4, and we couldn’t reasonably expect to get up and get back unless we rushed, which was counterproductive to my reason for going -eg to relax and meditate in that beautiful temple. I suppose we could have tried to race up for the chance to see the clear weather view, but neither my friend nor I were particularly interested in stress or speed that day.

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I think that the park is gorgeous in any weather, but I’m glad I got to see it in the sun. I’d like the chance to hike it one day, but clearly the fall foliage isn’t the right time for me. It makes me think of the mountains I climbed in China, Tai Shan and Hua Shan. There were certainly other people climbing those days, and I was inevitably the slowest, but the Chinese were so much more relaxed about going around me, some liked to stop for a chat or a photo, but even those in a hurry didn’t run me down. It’s been a recurring issue for me in Korea that I feel like the frog in Frogger any time I’m anywhere crowded. I really don’t think it’s only crowds as other large cities, even mega cities like Beijing and Tokyo do not have these problems. It can make it a struggle to go to an event here knowing that being shoved around all day will definitely be part of it.

My goal for this trip was to try and find the part of the park that wasn’t going to make me play elbow dodge-em. We decided to stick to the less popular paths that wandered the foot of the mountains and just to enjoy ourselves and take a million photos. It was lovely. There were still a lot of people on the “boring” trails, but with only one or two hiking-gear clad racing groups it was easy to step aside and let them by. The rest of the people on our path seemed to share my idea that it was a lovely day for a stroll. Plus the walkways were smooth and wide, so there was plenty of space to go around / step aside and no risk of being knocked off a steep slope!

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I got to spend a long time with the giant Buddha and even go to the small temple beneath it which had not been open the first time I visited. It wasn’t quite the same as my mountain peak temple, but it was nice to soak in the beautiful chanting and just still my breath and mind for a while. There was a monk inside performing a ceremony. It seemed like visitors could donate to the temple to have a prayer recited for them. I hadn’t realized it while I was above ground, but the chanting we were hearing all around the statue wasn’t a recording. It was the monk below chanting live. If you’ve never had a chance to hear a Korean Buddhist chanting, here’s a sample:

Most of the colors were higher up the mountains, we could see them from where we were, but still declined to hike up. Instead, I scampered off the path after the lone red tree or orange branch and ended up with a lot of close up photos. The effect of the sunlight streaming through the colored leaves was so stunning that I really didn’t mind that being my primary subject.

We came upon a clearing near the river about the time we were ready for a break. I sat down on the rocks overlooking a beautiful little valley view and just enjoyed life for a while, the trees made a perfect picture frame for the mountains beyond. When I had a bit of energy back, we climbed a little down to into the river bed. My friend actually went out on a huge rock in the middle of the river for photos, but I settled with a rock that was a bit closer to shore.

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Next we explored the large (aka main) temple in the park. It had beautiful carvings of flowers on the buildings and bright blue ceramic tiles on the roofs. I think that my best overall landscape photo of the day came from a small grassy knoll just behind the temple compound. Bonus, I got to refill my water cup at the sacred mineral spring! Along the way, I also found several balanced rock towers left by previous tourists, any number of glittering spiderwebs, a few really beautiful spiders that hadn’t given up for the fall yet (they hibernate in the cold, I think because I never see them), and even a stray mushroom patch.

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We walked a short way past the main temple toward the base of another arduous uphill hike. We had no intention of going up, but we thought it might be nice to walk along and see what else was on ground level. I’m glad I did because we found the Legend of Ulsanbawi Rock. The hike we were avoiding would have taken us up to this famous rock, but we could see it pretty well from the ground that day.

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According to the legend, a looooong time ago, the gods ordered all of the rocks to gather together to create the 12,000 peaks of Geumgangsan. Also sometimes spelled “Kumgang”, this is the most famous mountain in North Korea. Obviously the myth predates the 38th parallel. However, it’s only about 50km (30 miles) north of Seoraksan. Ulsanbawi was a very large and heavy rock, travelling from Ulsan, about 350km (217 miles) from Kumgang. He had only got as far as Seoraksan when it became dark and he laid down to have a rest. The next day when he awoke, he learned that Kumgang was all finished being made, and he was no longer needed there. However, he was too ashamed and embarrassed to return home to Ulsan, so he curled up on Seoraksan and has remained there until this day.

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On the way back from our low ground view point of Ulsanbawi, we found yet another small temple, and passed a number of beautiful bridges criss-crossing the rivers. Lunch was only slightly challenging as we looked for a keto-option. I had hoped for the famous seafood pajeon for myself, but there was such a large back order at the restaurant, they said it would take over 30 minutes. I ate bibimbap instead, and it was still delicious sitting on the patio staring out at the mountains as a backdrop.

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We rushed to grab more last minute photos of the park entrance we had raced by on our arrival (hoping to get those cable car tickets), and made it back to our tour buses with about 1 minute to spare. It wasn’t an action packed adventure, but it was almost everything I could have hoped for. I was still a little sad about the cable car situation, but I saw so many other beautiful things, and I didn’t get run into by a speeding ajuma even once.

Amsterdam: Cheese, Gin & Canals

I chose to do Amsterdam as a day trip from Den Haag. I looked at rooms in Amsterdam, and even the possibility of renting a flat for longer, but the city is just so insanely expensive, I couldn’t justify it. I left Den Haag as early as I could in order to cram as much Amsterdam as possible into one day. I enjoyed the canals, and the beautiful architecture while walking around.  My top priority was the Van Gogh museum (posted elsewhere), but I also enjoyed a cheese tasting class, and a tour of the Bols distillery where I learned the true meaning of Dutch courage, and a nice stroll along the canals.


Landmark Photos

Right outside the Van Gogh museum is the main entrance to the far more famous Rijksmuseum (which I did not have time for on this trip), as well as the “I Amsterdam” sign that EVERYONE needs a selfie with, and a rather large sculpture of an astronaut floating over a nice shallow pool where everyone was playing and splashing on the hot summer day. I don’t have a story because I didn’t try to fight the crowds to climb the letters, but I thought you’d like to see the photos anyway.

 

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Cheese Tasting

Dutch Gouda cheese is famous. Well, cheese famous anyway. I am a cheese-a-holic, and gouda is at very least in my top 10 favorites. I couldn’t visit the home of gouda without doing a cheese tasting. I managed to find something that was a little bit more than just a taste however when I stumbled on to Reypanaer. I signed up for a cheese tasting CLASS.

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This was no mere cheese taste, it was truly a learning experience. The woman instructing us reminded me of Minerva McGonagall if she were Dutch instead of Scottish. We were given a paper to record our impressions of each of the cheeses, and we were taught to recognize common notes in cheese like “wood”, “grass”, “caramel”, “alcohol”, “salt”, “butter”, “cream”, “vanilla”, and “nutty”.

Each cheese was paired with an appropriate wine or port to enhance the experience. Our teacher had us examine the color first, while she would tell us about the cheese itself. When we sliced, we were told to slice thinly, not because the shop was being stingy with samples, but because thin slices of cheese allow you to taste the more complex flavors more fully (we were allowed as many slices as we liked until it was time to move on to the next flavor, but really they were so rich I couldn’t eat much and didn’t feel like I needed to). Next we were asked to smell the cheese and think about what kind of smells we got. Finally we were allowed to taste it and asked to think about both flavor and consistency as we took our notes.

When everyone had tasted and jotted down some basic impressions, we talked about what we had experienced and our teacher guided us toward a better understanding of the complex flavor experiences of each cheese. I think a lot of the people in the room just wanted to eat cheese and drink wine, but I very much enjoyed the classroom environment and the chance to learn more about the traditions of Dutch cheese making. I think the informative instruction enhanced my experience of the flavors and textures of the cheeses by making me more aware of what I was consuming and how I was perceiving it.

Our first cheese was a chèvre affiné, a 4 month aged cheese made from goats milk. My mother thinks she hates goat cheese because she’s never eaten this. It was not the most amazing cheese I’ve ever eaten, but I could eat it regularly with a side of sliced fruit and not be sad. It had notes of butter, grass, and bread. The color was almost pure white, and the texture was quite smooth while still being firm.

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The next cheese was a chèvre gris, a 10 month old goat cheese with notes of hay, caramel, and bread. The color was nearly identical, but the texture was more crumbly and there was some presence of salt crystals (as cheese ages, salt crystals form in the cheese, no extra salt is added, this is a natural process as the moisture slowly evaporates over time). The flavor was strong enough that I would choose to eat this in moderation, or as a meal finisher with some nuts.

From here we moved back to cow’s milk cheeses in the Gouda family.

Taste #3 was a 6 month old Gouda the color of a fall harvest full moon. It was very creamy and highly munchable. Another great option for a finger food platter or a sandwich cheese.  Taste #4 was the Reypanear 1 year aged Gouda. It was recorded in my notes as “zomg spicy zingy full on wow”. It was amazing how much another 6 months on the shelf could change the flavor of the cheese. Salt crystals were beginning to form, the texture was a little dryer and the flavor was a million miles higher.

If I thought taste #4 was amazing, my tongue was not prepared for taste #5, a 2 year aged Gouda from the Reypanear fromagerie. I really believe my taste buds died and went to heaven and reincarnated back into my mouth. I recorded the color as “smokey topaz”, the smell as “caramel, alcohol, chocolate, nuts, and vanilla”, the taste as “all the flavors on a magical journey”, and my overall impression as “could eat it forever”. It’s strong, with a crumbly texture and visible salt crystals, and it is one of the most amazing things I’ve put in my face.

And lest you think I was just getting a cheese high and every taste was better and better, I did come back from the edge of ecstasy on the last cheese of the class: #6, the 3 year old Gouda. I still enjoyed it very much, but it was far more sharp with almost a citrusy overtone, and something I would only eat occasionally. While everything else was served with wine or port, this was appropriately served with scotch whiskey.

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Not all Gouda are produced alike. Please don’t read my reviews and get some random 2 year gouda and then get mad when it doesn’t change your life. Like most foods, the quality of ingredients count for a lot, and in the case of aged foods, the environment has a big impact.

Reypanaer uses as much grass fed cows milk as they can to get the best tasting milk. Much like Cantillon, Reypanaer allows the curds to rest in trays and collect unique wild microbes from the environment that will be crucial to the flavor of the finished cheese. In addition, their cheese is aged in old-fashioned warehouses where the only controls for temperature and humidity are opening and closing various doors around the space. The warehouse itself is considered a micro-climate because of it’s long tradition of aging cheeses and the accumulation of special bacteria, fungi and molds that add to the flavor of these naturally aged cheeses.

Cheaper, mass produced cheeses use sterilized climate controlled rooms to age the cheese and get a fast, inexpensive, and easy way to get a consistent product. The old fashioned techniques at Reypanaer are labor intensive since cheeses must be checked regularly during the aging process and the warehouse environment must be carefully balanced by humans instead of machines. In the end, there’s nothing wrong with using a factory produced cheese on your sandwich, but the difference in quality and gustatory experience is so significant that I must recommend to every cheese lover to try such a traditionally made cheese at least once in your life. Take my word, I’m officially an expert in cheese tasting 😉

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I got a steep discount by purchasing my Reypanaer and Bols tour tickets together, anb after the cheese class, I took a nice walk to clear my head and my palate. On the way, I passed an enormous and imposing building that I thought must surely have been some kind of castle or government building, but it turned out to be a shopping mall… Europe has too much extra architecture!

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Bols

Ever wonder where the expression “Dutch Courage” comes from? Well, I found out at the Bols Distillery.  Upon presenting my ticket at the main counter, I was given an audio guide, a little vial of liquid, and a token.

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This tour was totally self guided and I could play, pause, skip or repeat portions of the pre-recorded audio guide as I wanted. The first room was a timeline history of the distillery and the evolution of their product over time.

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As you might guess from the photo, the history starts in 1575 when the Bols family started making flavor infused liquor with cardamom, orange and cumin. In 1664, the family started producing Genever, a kind of distilled spirit made of “long fermented rye, wheat, and corn”. By 1700, Bols became a major shareholder in the Dutch East India trading company, giving them access to so many spices from around the world, and leading to the development of more than 300 unique flavors, as well as untold post-colonial damage to the cultures that originally grew those spices. It’s still weird to me how proud the Dutch are of their role in that part of history…

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In the 1800’s they got really good at making a totally unique version of Genever with a proprietary distilling technique and the addition of a secret recipe of botanicals – mostly juniper berry, but also anise, ginger, hops and angelica (an herb described as “earthy, herbal, and reminiscent of wormwood, so no I don’t know what that tastes like either). Later that century they began to also age the Genever in oak barrels. During the Anglo-Dutch wars, British soldiers would drink Genever before battle to steady their nerves and it became known as “Dutch Courage”. When the war was over, they missed the beverage and English Gin was born. Although the original Bols recipe was discontinued for a while, it was resurrected in 2008, so you can still taste it today.

The next room was filled with a display of tiny delft pottery houses. The Dutch Royal Airline (KLM) gives out these collectible and limited edition bottles to their first class passengers since the early 1950s.

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Once the history and art lessons were past, the museum took a decidedly sensory turn. Instructions on the wall as well as in the audio file told me to enter one of the small experience rooms and to keep my flask at hand. It was time to use the little bottle of liquid I’d received at the beginning of the tour. I couldn’t help but feeling a bit like Alice holding a “drink me” bottle, but I figured if it wasn’t safe, then it wouldn’t be legal either. Once in the room I was given a countdown and told to consume the whole bottle’s contents (it was a large swallow, nothing crazy) when the counter reached zero. With trepidation and a leap of faith, I did as instructed and was rocked to my core with a whole body multi-sensory experience. 

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As soon as the timer hit zero, the experience began. I slugged my liquid and the whole room erupted in sound, light and vibration. The vial was not alcohol, but pure flavor. It started berry fruity, went on a trip through spicy, and finished with citrus and mint. As I was tasting these intense flavors, my eyes were treated to a series of colors, my ears were regaled with changing sounds, and my body tingled from the vibrations of the floor coming up through the soles of my feet. It was like someone just flipped the ON switch for all my senses at once.

And lest the sense of smell feel neglected (though that liquid was so strong, I’m pretty sure it came up my sinuses anyway), the next room on the tour was a rainbow smelling room. The Bols Distillery was starting to seem less like a museum and more like an alcoholic version of the Wonka factory! More than 30 smells were ranged on the wall, and by squeezing the bulb, a puff of scented air would come forth. The bottles were labeled by number, and the name of each flavor was revealed if you lifted the number. It was fun to play sniff and seek, trying to guess each one of the Bols flavors as I went, and it also gave me a good idea of which ones I liked the best, so I could choose my cocktail later on.

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The final display room got into more details about the ways in which infused liquor is made. I’ve actually had the chance to play with making my own infusions with fruit, spices, and vodka, so I knew a little, but it was a very thorough display. There were jars of spices and fruit peels on display, as well as a mad scientists laboratory worth of glass jars, copper pipes, and mysterious floating things.

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You can see “maceration” and “percolation” in this photo because the main goal of this display was to show the ways that flavor is extracted from fruits, nuts, herbs, and spices and turned into delicious drinks. Maceration is just soaking your stuff in the alcohol (this is what I did at home). Percolation is basically how coffee is made, you drip the liquid through the ingredient. And because no mad scientist lab would be complete without a big red button…

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Don’t worry, it doesn’t do anything sinister. Once the tour shenanigans were over, I was released out into the Bols cocktail bar where I was able to redeem my token for one free cocktail. I ordered the Spring Amour, a lavender colored, floral, lemony drink. I had been intrigued by the fragrance of the Parfait Amour in the smelling room, and this drink seemed to be a good mix: 40ml original Genever, 15 ml Parfait Amour, 30ml lemon juice, and 10ml simple syrup, with a sprig of fresh mint. I chose the Parfait Amour based solely on my olfactory experience on the tour, but later I found this description, “a beautiful dark purple liqueur flavored with flower petals and vanilla, together with orange peel and almonds. The Parfait Amour liqueur flavor is centuries old and probably one of the most fascinating and complex of all the Bols liqueurs.” I chose well.

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Walking Around Amsterdam

After my Bols tour, I tried to walk to the antiques area but it was all closed up by the time I got there. It really is amazing how much of Europe closes up at 6pm. When I read about the quaint area of Nieuwe Spiegelstraat, the blogger I read recommended going in the evening to see the shops lit up, but I think they must have gone in the winter when the sunset / street light time is before closing rather than 3 hours after it. Summer days are looooong. 

I had also planned to do a walk from Nieuwe Spiegelstraat through the Red Light District on my way to the train station but I was pretty wiped out from heat, walking, and day drinking. I looked at a lot of restaurant menus before I managed to find a place to eat for less than 15€. Amsterdam is, as I may have mentioned before, insanely expensive. I wasn’t looking for a fancy meal, just a simple sandwich and beer! In the end, I was very happy with my choice. I tried a local specialty of ossenworst, an Amsterdam local raw beef sausage. It’s beef spiced with salt, pepper, cloves, nutmeg, mace and lightly smoked. OM NOM NOM.

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After dinner, I walked through what should have been the Red Light District according to my maps, and while I did see more ads for clubs and sex shows and smelled a lot more pot fumes, I was either on the wrong street or it was too early. I’ve heard it only comes alive after sunset and during the summer dark is not until around 11pm. At 7-8 in the evening, I didn’t see anything risque. I did find China Town and closed Buddhist temple, and took plenty of photos of the beautiful Amsterdam canals before returning to the train that would eventually get me back to my Airbnb in Den Haag.

 

 

 

 

Antwerp: Architecture, Beer & Sewers

I will admit that the main reason I was interested in going to Antwerp is because it featured in one episode of the animated version of The Tick (a ridiculous super-hero parody from my early college years). In his nigh-invulnerable state, The Tick smashes up Antwerp while chasing some bad guy and his side-kick (not to mention the Belgian police) laments the loss of such amazing, unique, and historical architecture. It stuck with me, and when I realized that Antwerp was a viable day trip from Brussels, I decided I had to go. When I started searching around for what else I could do in Antwerp besides look at amazing, unique and historical architecture, I discovered a Sewer Tour. Who does that? Me! To the underground!!


Amazing, Unique and Historic Architecture

The architecture in Antwerp is truly stunning but so much of it is hidden by advertising and construction. Plus the streets are so narrow it’s hard to get a full view of the remarkable buildings. Just the train station alone is a stunning work of art.20180712_125014

Given the challenges I was facing with transit and my desire to see more architecture, I decided to take a leisurely walk to my tour starting point. I got to see the market square and famous statue that I’d first seen depicted at the Mini EU.20180712_142303The statue is that of a Roman soldier named Silvius Brabo throwing a giant hand into the distance. The story goes that long ago a giant named Druon Antigoon was charging a toll to those who wished to cross the river. When people couldn’t pay, he would cut off their hand and throw it into the water. Brabo rescued the people by cutting off Antigoon’s hand in turn. Now it’s the most famous statue in the whole city. Europe: Where the history lives!

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I also passed by an enormous cathedral which is another famous Antwerpian landmark, however, unlike every other cathedral I’ve ever been too, this one charged an entry fee of  6€. I don’t know what makes this place cooler than Notre Dame (free to enter), but I also didn’t pay to find out.

Not to mention some of the fun and interesting street art, like this sidewalk these nappers and a life size tiger that was part of the zoo’s promotional materials.

 

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It was a longish walk and I stopped for coffee and a rest on the way. I got in trouble for sitting at the wrong cafe patio. Not big trouble just “you can’t sit here because you bought that coffee from the stand with the same name as us”. If I’d known, I would have bought coffee from them, but really who knew two cafe’s on the same block with the same name didn’t share seating? It reminded me of the waffle shop in Brussels that wouldn’t let patrons use their seating if they ordered from the counter inside instead of from the waitstaff outside. Belgians are really picky about where you sit, but once you have ordered something from the correct place/person then you can sit there as long as you like.

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Finally I made it to the sewer tour, but I was a little early. It took me a while to find a public place to sit and wait. There were plenty of restaurants, but I only had 15-20 minutes. You’d think I could find a bench or something, but I think Belgians hate free chairs the way that Dutch hate free water. In the end I sat on a bench that was half occupied by a street busker with an accordion. Not ideal, but I really needed the rest before another long walking tour since the heat was swelling my feet quite badly.

In the Sewers

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The underground tour was great. They decked us out with boots and coveralls to protect our clothes, gave us sturdy packs to cover our own handbags/etc, and kitted us out with tour tablets that had videos for each stop explaining the history in Dutch with English (and other) subtitles. The guide was dressed more comfortably, but also probably changed at the end of his work day. He spoke English well but as I was the only English speaker on the tour I often had to remind him to translate for me, which he was totally willing to do, he just had to be reminded.

It was basically a tour of Antwerp from below. Very different from other city underground tours, De Riuens are what became canals in other cities like Amsterdam, but in Antwerp Napoleon covered them over because the smell was too awful. The sewage itself runs in pipes alongside the passages, but we still waded through brackish runoff water with compost and rat droppings in it. Good call on the galoshes and coveralls.20180712_153504

 

The tour took us around the main part of downtown Antwerp, and every so often we stopped to watch a video on our tour tablets. It was a great way to get informed about the history and to put into perspective what was going on above us, but it was also a bit difficult to watch the screen AND look around. The Dutch tourists could listen and let their eyes wander, but I had to read subtitles if I wanted the information. Only after the videos were done would the guide then add a few tidbits or answer any questions.

Along the way, between video stops, he would also pause briefly to point out interesting little bits of sewer trivia. My only complaint is that it was a bit fast for my tastes. Not walking too fast, that was almost impossible to do since we had to walk carefully, but not enough stops for photo-ops! I was the only one trying to take photos and look at details.

This is the fungus that grows like fine white hair in the rat poo.

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That is the rare spider that doesn’t live anywhere else in Belgium because the environment in the sewers here is so unique. (the photo is only spiderwebs because the spiders were very very small). These are the rats (couldn’t get a photo of them because they ran away too fast).

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Over there is the part where the church was built it so it looks nicer because they had more money than the civil government.

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This is the part where they built air vents that look like chimneys from the topside because workers were dying from bad air down here.

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Here’s where the locks were lowered so the tunnels could be flooded at high tide rinsing them clean. That’s why the walls sparkle sometimes from the salt water residue/salt crystals.

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Over there is the water overflow so the human waste can stay in the smaller tubes when it rains and the water can gush out the top leaving the heavier materials (human waste) behind. Also here are the wet wipes that don’t dissolve when flushed but accumulate as a kind of really gross felt. Don’t flush wet wipes.

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That’s a secret passage the Jesuits used for who-knows-what in the past but for smuggling provisions and people during the Great War even though they were often arrested by the Germans.

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Over there a stalactite it starting it’s life and in a few hundred years may really amount to something. Those black clouds that churn up with every step we take in the gray opaque water, grateful for having loaner boots, that’s compost. Here is where we used to let the cows out. Here’s where hundreds of thousands died from disease related to unclean water. Here’s how beer saved the water because breweries wanted clear beer.20180712_160139

 

Yeah… Antwerp (and probably a bunch of places) had horrible water quality that caused rampant disease and death, but nobody did anything about it until it was about BEER (or more likely about beer money). Brewers who were fed up with shitty (literally, ew) water messing up their product demanded that the city do something about it. Beer saved clean water.

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Since it was another underground tour, I thought it would be cooler but it turned out to be humid and hot. I felt like I was melting inside my coveralls. Unlike other underground tours where the streets of previous versions of the city were gradually built up around (looking at you Seattle) the De Ruien’s tunnels were never streets. They were canals where everyone dumped all waste until it smelled so bad it had to be covered. It took hundreds of years to go from open sewer canals to a healthy system that keeps the city, the river, and the drinking water clean today.

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Despite the crazy humidity, compost water, and rat droppings, it was an incredible and unique experience that I’m glad to have had.

Antwerp Beer And Street Life

Once the tour was over, I didn’t really need to worry about getting anywhere on time, so I decided to meander slowly back to the train station by a slightly different route to see more stuff. I walked down to the river to see the castle but it was sadly closed for construction.

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On one of my frequent “it’s too hot” breaks, I sat down to try the local beer, De Koninck, and get a plate of fries which is a huge snack or small meal depending on the size of your appetite. I don’t know beer language well, you can see from the pic it’s not pale even though it’s called blonde. The flavor is pleasantly nutty, and not at all bitter or sour. After that I had to try a coconut beer because some guys at the next table ordered it and I was intrigued. That was one of the best beer decisions of my life, right there. Like a piña colada and a delicious beer had a love child. 

There was a lot of busking in Antwerp. In the other cities I’ve encountered begging in droves, but here it was hordes of buskers. A new one every block, sometimes 2-3 in the same block. I especially loved a lady dressed as an oxidized statue who came to life whenever she heard a coin in her bucket. I thought she was a statue when I first saw her, and only when I paused to take a photo did I realize she was a person. She played with some little girls and blew kisses at people who gave her coins before winding down to her starting pose.

I also paused to listen to a young man sing Hallelujah soulfully, but there were more performers than I could have ever imagined outside an actual festival.

The Down Side of Street Life

The unpleasantly unique street life in Antwerp was the randos. I got approached twice by random dudes. While I was walking. Who does that? I mean, that’s not how you have a conversation. It’s weird and creepy. I was walking and suddenly there is a guy walking next to me trying to chat me up.  Ew gross go away. I don’t know if they were building up to a scam or trying to get a date or what… I can’t actually imagine doing that to another human, and I talk to strangers all the time. I have never engaged anyone who is already walking unless a) we are in a tour together, or b) I’m in a great deal of distress and need help pronto.

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These dudes were just chatting me up. I tried to tell them ‘no thanks’ as politely as I could but it took several tries, and what do you do when you’re already walking and they come up and walk with you? How do you walk away? I’m already walking! Dudes, don’t do this shit! It’s bad enough when you come up or of nowhere at a pub or when we’re sitting at a bus stop or park (also hella awkward btw), but to start walking with me made me feel hunted. It’s not “being friendly”. As a person who talks to strangers constantly, as a person who does randomly have conversations with dudes as well as women, I won’t talk to you if you give off creeper vibes and that shit is creepy AF.

Ending on a Positive Note

Once out of range of the creepy dudes, my walk back to the station was much nicer than my walk from the station had been. By that time in the evening ¾ of the shops were closed and all the people were sitting in restaurants instead of crowding the sidewalks. I could see a little bit more of the buildings without feeling like I was going to be run down by pedestrians in a hurry.

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The architecture and street performance isn’t even the end of it, since there’s plenty of beautiful mural art on the sides of the more modern and less interesting buildings.

Lastly, returning to the station cooled off and full of delicious beer and frites, I took a little more time to enjoy the Antwerp train station in all it’s architectural glory. The station is truly a work of art. I wasn’t even sad about missing out on the castle and cathedral after seeing more of that station.img_20180712_224539_138

 


If you want to watch the cartoon that first brought my attention to Antwerp, YouTube has your answer.  “The Tick vs Europe”

 

Winter Vacation 2019

Happy New Year! I’m so excited to start my new year off with a lovely holiday adventure. Thanks once more to my fancy Korean University Job™, I get a nice long break from the students lasting from about Christmas until March 1st. While I did have some fiddly bits of professorial paperwork that keep me at my desk for part of that time, there’s no unending deskwarming like I was subjected to at that EPIK job.  I’ve scrimped and saved on rent, food and local expat parties in order to treat myself to another 6 weeks on the road!


Jan 10- 19: Taiwan – I won’t get to see the Chinese New Year here, but I’m hoping to see some beautiful temples, museums, mountains, street food, and above all, the winter migration home of the Purple Crow Butterflies!!!! (pictured below) I’ll be in Taipei, Taichung, and Kaohsiung. I’m brushing up on my Mandarin in DuoLingo!

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Jan 20-28: Jordan – I’m meeting up with a friend who teaches in Japan to tour my old Middle East stomping grounds again. Last time I went, I didn’t get to see everything in Petra, and almost nothing else at all. This time, we’re spending a full three days in Petra to see everything, plus a day and night at a Dead Sea resort to take in the mud, and a couple days of wandering around Amman (below) to see the ruins and the markets.

Jan 29 – Feb 11: Egypt – In a complete turn around from my normal travel patterns, my friend and I booked a 13 day almost all-inclusive tour (a few meals are not covered). I actually found one that is in line with my desired budget and it will be a relief not to have to think about transport or scheduling while I’m there. I’m brushing up on my Arabic, too, but Egyptian Arabic is nothing like what I learned, so having a guide around will come in handy. We’re supposed to get to see Cairo, Luxor, Aswan, Alexandria, and Sharm el-Sheik. We’ll even be taking a 5-star Nile River cruise for a few of those days. Considering how limited my time was last time I was in Egypt, I’m really excited!!!

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Feb 12-22: Malaysia – specifically, Penang. I’ve booked an Airbnb in one place for the whole time. I was only there one day last time I passed through but it seemed like the kind of town I’d enjoy for longer. I’m staying in Georgetown where I can wander around to see the street art, shopping streets, and amazing food, but I may rent a scooter and head off on a mini road trip around the small island. Plus, my host says that the Lunar New year celebrations last 2 weeks or more, so even though the official day is Feb 5, there should still be lots of decorations and events while I’m there.

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While I won’t be on the blog during my vacation time, I’ve written a lot more posts about last summer and set them up to auto-publish during January, February and March by which time I hope to have some new stories from the winter adventure for you. If you want to get a real-time experience of my travels, you’ll need to hop over to the Instagram or the Facebook page where I will do my best to post something cool every day. Thanks for following ❤

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”.