Korea – A Turn For The Unexpected

 

We thought that we spent enough time in Moscow, come on guys it was almost 6 weeks there. If the weather was nicer maybe our stay would have been much more pleasant, but the fall in Moscow is short, summer can turn into winter in a matter of days. Of course the Russians don’t consider it winter, but if it looks like its about to snow outside…i’m out.

During the spring visit to Korea I made a foolish promise…more of a joke that “yes, of course, we will fly out to your wedding in Seoul”. I should be more careful with wishes and promises i make, they seem to come true…somehow.

We flew in to Seoul from Moscow on late Friday night, got home to Heyin’s parents, had AMAZING korean food and passed out. Morning came sooner than expected as mommy’s voice rang from the outside calling us to yet another delicious meal. Korean families do not differentiate breakfast food from dinner or lunch, so in the morning you could have awesome stew with a side of grilled fish and all the regular kimchi fixings.

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Quick breakfast, eyes fall closed through most of it, jet lag majorly kicking in, out of the door and to the store. The wedding is in 8 hours – we have to get a suit, shoes, etc. But since this is Seoul we were done with the whole thing, even the suit was tailored in less than 3 hours.

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Jeongwon’s big day. We have been in the country for lass than 24 hours, already suited up (you ALWAYS suit up) and went to a wedding. Jeongwon, Hyein’s friend from college was super happy that we managed to catch her wedding, she was even surprised that i kept my promise. Hyein and I got married in Korea in 2012 in a church, many of my friends managed to fly in from the states to attend the event (thanks guys!), so they know the general layout of the thing. Korean weddings are fast, super effecient, they have to be. When i talk about Korea, i mostly mean Seoul, the city dominates most of Korean culture, maybe out in the countryside they do things different. Imagine a city with 20 million residents, everyone wants to get married during nice warm weather, so thats half a year gone, then mostly on Saturdays. So a wedding venue (church, wedding hall, restaurant) will do multiple weddings at a time with everything sticking to a strict plan, most weddings being done in under 2 hours. Guest arrival, hand in your present, quick ceremony, lunch/dinner and then go home.

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That means there is no dancing, no drunken debauchery, no throwing up in the washing machine (yeah, happened in our California wedding), no toasts… basically all the fun parts. Although i have to admit that my friends did try to get properly sauced at the reception during our Korean wedding and I applaud your efforts guys!

I’m happy for the newlyweds, good luck to them and happy marriage!

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We got all dressed up for a party, we can’t let a good suit go to waste. Date night in Seoul with my beautiful wife!

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Friends from South America! Back in Bolivia we spent a week traveling together and exploring Salar de Uyuni. The Cho Family finished their trip in July and are settling back in to normal life in Korea. They wrote a book about their travels and it should be out in bookstores soon, we are told that there is even a bit about us in there!

Check it out http://book.naver.com/bookdb/book_detail.nhn?bid=11283558

Yeah, its all in Korean, what did you expect?

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And more amazing Korean food, all that exercising we did back in Moscow is going to waste.

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Hopefully in the future we can do another trip together…somewhere. Shit did i just make another promise or a wish? Now its going to come true and i’ll HAVE to do it.

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Go stop with Jeongmi and Jiny (they came to San Diego with Hyein for exchange student program back in 2010).

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Mom and dad, they are always happy to see us. Worried for us, but always support our stupid ideas, there when we need them. I’m happy i got to spend more time with them during spring, almost 6 weeks we lived together, ate breakfast together, hang out, played cards, hiked. I got to know them so much closer than before, without getting all mushy on you guys, i’m happy they are my parents-in-law.

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More friends and more drinking, it might be harder to recognize them without the dress and suit, but thats the newly wed couple on the right. We met with them at their new apartment for a little house warming party after they got back from their honeymoon trip to Spain. These guys have all known each other for 9 years…i’m the knew one here, thanks for welcoming me with open arms.

And just like that, the two weeks in Seoul flew by. We got super lucky with the weather, in the last weeks in Moscow the snow was starting to fall, it never really stuck around, but still nothing too pleasant. In Seoul we were warm, dry and happy. Can’t wait to visit again.

China

Its hard to hide the plan now…we are going to spend the winter travelling to warm places while we wait for the spring to give us a chance to travel Europe in comfortable places. Our original plan was to fly to India for a month, were we would meet up with a friend and travel together. Then we looked at the tickets and realized that just like in Singapore we could do a stop over in Beijing. This is a good, very good, thing. Trying to travel China with our own car is a complicated, expensive mess. Sure, people do it all the time but it requires being a part of group, planned itinerary…things that we don’t know how to do.

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How to be a local. Step 1 – get a cool looking face mask. Step 2 – put it on and pretend to be Subzero! Step 3 – forget how to focus your camera.

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Expectations of China…anyone? Just think to yourself what you know about Beijing, about Chinese culture. Is there a subway, how clean are the streets, are there streetfood hawkers everywhere, do people drive on the sidewalks and can you get a cup of decent coffee?

From the news we know that Chinese economy has grown to be the largest in the world…but what does that mean to you as a person, as a traveler?

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Such rapid rise to success is not without consequences. I remember of talk in the 90’s of two promising economic powerhouses in the emerging markets: China and India. Funny, we will visit them back to back and see what happened to those aspirations in 20 years.

Back to Beijing, the rapid industrialization of the country didn’t leave any room for silly cleanup technologies, so China majorly and royally fucked up their environment. On the first day we arrived, it was inadvisable to even go outside. The air was so thick with smog that by the end of the night, i felt like i smoked a pack of cigarettes.

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But the streets are clean at least. People still throw cigarette butts on the ground, but by the morning they are all gone. A friend of mine said that cleanliness of a place depends on culture and stability. Stable government can employ and encourage people to clean up and culture can prevent littering. The Chinese culture is not there yet, but the government is there…solid as a rock.

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Just like Eiffel Tower, Big Ben and Red Square if you didn’t go there and take a picture then your visit doesn’t count. Also, isn’t it crazy that we go on a pilgrimage to see a beautiful ancient gate with a tacky picture of a guy who supposedly murdered 78 million people? Mao is considered to be worse than Hilter and Stalin combined, yet he is just hanging there for everyone to see. I think in Russia they removed most of Stalin photos from everywhere, when they found out about the repression and political killings. But only after the fall of the union…China never went through such a drastic change, so he is still chilling there.

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In the Tiananmen square it hard to see the surrounding buildings because of the smog. I’ve never seen anything as crazy as this, it literally feels like you are walking through a forest fire. I’m told that Delhi can be just as bad, we will find out soon enough.

 

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There is a range of attitudes by locals towards the smog in Beijing. Some play it cool and go bareskin, while others have been spotted with a full on mask with a tube and what looked like an independent air supply. I would say that 1 out of 10 people on the subway will be wearing a mask, no matter what the air looks like outside.

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At night around 6pm the flag is lowered in an elaborate ceremony that requires blocking of traffic around the Tiananmen Square. For a few brief moments the center of the city is dead quite, the smog adding an eerie feel to it.

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After the flag is lowered the square is official closed for business and the police very politely kicks you out.

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You know when the marine layer comes in from the Pacific and you are afraid to drive because you can’t see anything past the hood of your car? The smog is almost as bad here, but the though that is not just water is the most terrifying part.

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The place we call home for a few days is called Saga Youth Hostel in the Hutong district of Beijing. For $25/night you get a private room, a few beers at check-in and even some fun activities. Tonight we are learning how to make dumplings, unlike the dumpling class in Miass, it did not involve toasts, vodka and caviar – I miss Boris and Marina.

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The morning brought a bit cleaner air and we went back to Mao, because just beyond life the Forbidden City. What you see in the photo is called the Tiananmen (“Heavenly Gate”).

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This is the next structure after you walk through the “Heavenly Gate” and get your ticket, this one is called the “Meridian Gate”.

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The Forbidden City has been walled off from general population for over 500 years, shrouded in mysticism it was the magical palace of the rulers.

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The first country i visited in Asia was Korea, so all my reactions are biased on my previous experiences. Don’t judge this as the whole truth more like a comparison.

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The architecture seems to be nearly identical, just much bigger in Beijing. There is a central line down the whole palace on this the gate, the emeperor’s buildings, his wife’s chambers and ceremony halls are located.

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The Forbidden city is aptly named as a city, its much bigger than the Korean palace and you definitely get tired walking around. One interesting thing that has been in my mind since the Korean palace and was even further reinforced here is the openness and simplicity of the palaces.

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Here we are in a place that was the center of the Chinese dynasties for 5 centuries and all we see around are empty rooms, some paved courtyards and a moat. Plus it just feels cold to be here, yes physically cold.

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We visited Beijing in early November and the weather was already getting to be chilly, i wore my down jacket and loved having it with me. The buildings are constructed with large windows, minimal insulation and little protection from the elements. This is not India, this is not Thailand…Beijing gets very cold in the winter time. So why would you not have closed architecture where everything is under a roof, with walls and heating systems? Although Seoul and Beijing do not experience the harsh Siberian winters, it still seems to me that better planning could have made for a more comfortable life for everyone. I’m sure the emperor was warm, but everyone around could have done with a heater.
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And just like that you end up outside of the palace. We didn’t spend much time here, i’m not an architectural buff so looking at patterns on the roof for hours is not my cup of tea. I dont know there was just not that much to see, not that much for your eye to catch on to. Yes, this place has grandeur…but thats not enough. I’m more keen on the European castles and forts. Look no further than the Russian Peterhof in St. Petersburg or the French Versailles. There is elegance and complexity in the design, there is beauty and opulence, engineering challenges, water fountains, gardens. And this looks a bit simpler. But maybe there is beauty in the simplicity, although separated by a river moat the emperor was still one with the world, he experienced it himself, there was no hiding anywhere here.

Remember how in all the stories about castles and palaces there are always secret passageways, hidden doors and auspicious listening rooms for spying? Not here, unless you could walk unseen through thin air…you had to be out in the open. There is no place to hide here or spy on your emperor’s plans, maybe that IS the reason?

 

I dont have any answers, not some…none.

I could be reading more history about this, but not now. Visiting so many places around the world you start to appreciate whatever history you know, really start to miss all the chances that you could have learned more and didn’t. I feel like when I come back I will be addicted to Wikipedia and history books for a while. All that we have seen just makes you wonder how it all came to be. Why some cultures seem to be inward looking, while others have an itch for exploration. Why there is peace in one land and just across the river people are killing each other. If all the stories that i have heard on this trip are true then i only have one conclusion that i can draw for sure – we live in a single inter-connected world. Actions of a single country or region have global repercussions. No longer can we have an isolated incident, now the world is more tightly bound than ever before. So the pollution in China is not only their problem, its ours as a planet. The astronomical murder rates in Central America are a direct result of US’s policy on convicted criminal deportation. Wars in the Middle East move dislocate millions of people and have a direct impact on Europe.

Many large governments, *cough *cough  US, China and Russia, think that they can survive without each other just by focusing inward. I dont wish anything bad to any of these great countries, but i hope that we can work together rather than apart. Lets work and hope that we will.

2 Comment

  1. qin-hong says: Reply

    How did my student do with her language skill in China?

    1. irazinkov@gmail.com says: Reply

      She was amazing, i think people even thought she was Chinese! I’ve always secretly suspected that, but now i have proof 🙂

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