Decidedly urban couple who quit their jobs and successfully backpacked their way through Asia for a year. They met Buddha, drank baijiu and learned to master the squat toilet. Now appearing in a new life as ex-pats in Singapore.

Monthly archive October, 2010

Qingdao: Beer, Beaches and Brides

German Church in Qingdao

Qingdao was a great place to slow down and chill out. October is certainly the off season in this beach town, so we had all the space we needed to sit back, reflect and absorb.  And while there was no map English, Qingdao is a tourist city so a lot of the menus had pictures (!!!!) and it was super easy to get around by cab. What a relief!

Qingdao was a German concession town so all the architecture in the old city is strikingly European. Like all good Chinese cities, Qingdao is undergoing mega-construction, but unlike other cities we’ve been to this one is preserving the existing architecture.  Instead of bulldozing, Qingdao is actually building a completely different business district where a lot of the new businesses, bars and nightlife are located.  Walking along the beach is visual treat – gleaming new skyscrapers at one end and at the other end, rolling hills dotted with idyllic bavarian-style and a pagoda in the distance.

Tsingtao Beer

Tsingtao Beer, the first the NO. ONE

Being a good German colony, Qingdao is known for it’s famous beer – Tsingtao. (Tsingtao is the old school romanization of the city, both the beer and the city are pronounced Ching-Dao).  We headed off to the Tsingtao Brewery to check out what was on tap.

This may be the only brewery in the world to have more pictures of politicians than of how the beer is made. We saw hundreds of photos of politicians auditing the brewery and a lot of descriptions about the profits, revenue and brand management. It was hysterical abut maybe not worth the cost of the tour. But hey!  They gave out free samples, so we were happy.

Free sample

We also discovered something that had previously caused us such pain – the  Chinese drink at restaurants, not bars.  After leaving the  brewery we wanted a full pint of beer and figured there must be a bar close by.  Well, we were wrong and there is no bar close to the brewery. This caused a minor tantrum from both of us and we stormed away in a cab. We’ve come to realize that bars are a pretty western concept, and thinking about even more, perhaps even in hite-heaven, the ROK, we drank at restaurants.

Before storming away in a cab, I snapped this pic of the street outside of the Tsingtao brewery.  Notice all the restaurant tables lining the street.  We were in too big of a cultural huff to want to spend time eating but it turns out these were the “bars” that we have been hunting for since Shanghai.

(Internet painfully slow, will upload later. FEEL MY PAIN)

Beaches and Brides

Ba Da Guan

The beach stretches from one end of the city all the way to the other. Some beaches are super touristy with tons of vendors, street food and people.  Other beaches seem quiet, more natural and better preserved.  No matter which beach you choose, I’m sure they’re all crazy in the summer. Even in 45 degree cold, we noticed dozens of speedo wearing chinese men playing hacky sack on the sand.

Between the two distinct downtowns is a gorgeous area called Ba Da Guan, which is where we stayed. Ba Da Guan is made up of eight boulevards, and each boulevard has a different tree lining the street.  It’s gorgeous. It turns out that we’re not the only people who thought so…

Everywhere you turn in Qingdao there is a bridal photo shoot, with tons of gorgeous brides lining up for their photos.  There were so many brides in Ba Da Guan that I thought there must have been a fashion shoot going down.  What bride has her wedding photos taken while other brides stand around waiting for their turn?  This may have been the first bet with Vinnie that I have ever lost.

In China the photographer provides the white wedding dresses used for the photos, which are taken well before the wedding. The brides have a more traditional dress for the actual ceremony.  What’s crazy is that these white wedding dresses for the photos don’t necessarily fit.  We saw women pinned into their gowns, we saw women who couldn’t zip the back of the dress, we saw photographers lying on the dresses in the street to get the perfect shot. It reminded me the old timey pictures that you have taken at Cedar Point.

Holy Brides! (outside of the German Church)

Qingdao was a great place for us to grab some fresh sea air and see a softer, friendlier side of China. We were, however, sternly scolded by an American living in China.  He was disappointed in our current itinerary (and the fact that we were paying $7 a beer) and told us that Qingdao isn’t “real” China.  By his reasoning we have been catching all the bright and shiny “new” China and needed to get out ass out of the eastern seaboard and down to the real deal in Yunnan. He slurred, “You haven’t even SEEN China yet.  Just wait until your shitting on your ankles after eating the food in Sichuan.”

With that word of warning, which I am prone to believe, we continue our trip northwards to Beijing.  From there, who knows.

Brief Programing Note

Go Giants!

World Series excitement is palpable and my facebook feed is going kra-zy with Giants fever.  It’s even caught on in Korea where just weeks ago we spotted a sword-wielding fan.

Giants fan in Seoul

We also want to Rally for Sanity with all of you other liberals and moderates so today we’re going to Tiananmen Square with a sign that says:

“Affordable Health Care Is Exactly The Same Thing As Communism

The protestacular pics to come later when we head back with our little 8×11 sign and hopefully aren’t noticed by the ubiquitous cameras and deported.

Vinnie in Tiananmen Square

Communist Kris

Cameras in T-square

As promised:

"Affordable Healthcare is exactly the same thing as Communism"

PS: This looks like such a little statement but it really scared the shit out of us! Protesting anything is super illegal, particularly in Tiananmen Square where there are tons of guards, plainclothes police and cameras watching your every move.

Chinese Hospitality

I can now firmly state that there is nothing in the southern USofA that can compete with the Chinese when they’re out to make you feel at welcome in their country.  After a straight two weeks of frustration and culture shock we were taken in by insanely hospitable Miss Yu, the aunt of a friend in San Francisco. (Thanks Bonnie!)

Typically in the US as the guest you say thanks by treating your hosts to lunch or buying a small gift.   But in China it’s the reverse.  The host pays for everything, and we’re not just talking about lunch. We had no idea what we were in for when Miss Yu came to pick us up from our beach front hotel in Qingdao.

Miss Yu and the UH

At 9am there’s a knock at the door, Miss Yu is standing there, cute as a button, holding a piece of paper that states her name in and some instructions that she read outloud in halting English, “please come with me to the car.”  In the driver’s seat sits a mysterious silent man whose sole purpose was to drive us around all day. We then swung by the local University area to pick up ‘Helen’, a tiny spitfire who spoke english at a million miles an hour, peppering her sentences with typical chinese expressions translated into English. Adorable.

So the day starts off with a driver and a translator. Unexpected but very, very nice.

Vinnie and Helen

The driver drops us off at “old man beach” and stays with the car while the four of us dip our toes in the East China Sea and enjoyed the surprisingly warm Fall air.  We got to know each other, and a little bit about the area.  Helen decided that we needed to learn basic Chinese and Miss Yu wanted to know what we wanted to buy. This is a key phrase that I keep turning over in my mind, what did I want to buy? I mentioned that I was looking for a silk scarf for my mom, but that’s really all I can carry around in my pack.

After some time going from beautiful beach to beautiful beach, we ended up at the grocery store where Miss Yu took us down each aisle, encouraging us to pick up the things we might need.  I poked around, checking out the crazy fish section, the dumpling section and generally choosing the few things that would be nice to have (crackers and processed cheese).  The entire time Helen encouraged us to buy more, “You’re welcome to buy this. If you want this, you buy this, it is not a problem! No problem!” It took Vinnie and I a while to catch on that Miss Yu was grocery shopping for us and was going to pay for all our stuff.

Kris at the Navy Museum

Clue number one that this was not a typical day of sightseeing. We hit every destination listed in our guidebook, ate a Qingdao roasted sweet potato and headed to one of the oldest restaurants in the city for lunch.  Every time we tried to say thank you, instead of saying, “You’re welcome”, Helen would bust out with “Oh, no, no, no, no, NO!”

Shopping for Cheap Clothes

But our gracious host wasn’t done yet.  The next day the weather in Qingdao turned terribly cold. I got sick and we both desperately needed warmer clothing. When Miss Yu heard about this, she took the day off of work and took us around all of the local shops where we bargained for winter jackets, vests and hats. She took us by the hand (to help avoid oncoming bikes and cars) and we went from shops to markets to malls until we were purple with shopping exhaustion.

And it doesn’t end there.  Miss Yu heard that we took a hard seat train into town, and firmly insisted on buying our train tickets out. On our last day, she picked us up at 6:30AM to take us directly to the train station.  She didn’t just buy the ticket and drop us off at the station, OH NO!

Miss Yu took us into the station, and showed us onto the train! Before she left, she insisted that I take some Chinese medicine for my cold and presented me with a silk scarf.  I was overwhelmed.

I can honestly say that I have never been treated so kindly in another country. When was the last time your host offered to wash your clothes?!?  This was pure Chinese charm and we were so lucky to be on the receiving end.

And Bonnie, yes.  I wish I had listened to your wise advice and gone to Qingdao first. From the gorgeous seaside setting to the unbelievable hospitality of your family, Qingdao changed so many of my first impressions about China.  But more on that later….

Pop quiz- Guess what country we’re in!

I hope you’re asking, ‘could this possible be China?’ because from these pictures we should be in Germany.  But just to assure you that we haven’t left, here’s one final shot.

That’s one way to travel

One the reasons we gave for wanting to take this trip was that it was going to be a great test for our relationship and for ourselves. I have to admit something: in the face of that lumbering beast named China, I lost my shit. I may have failed my first serious test.

But like all good institutions, the school of life gave me another chance in the form of a thirteen hour train ride to Qingdao.

Just buying the ticket would have been enough to put Kristine BC (Before China) over the edge: the non-existent lines, the pushing and the screaming would have firmly sent Kristine BC into a panic attack.

But Kristine AC handled this with aplomb. When after a 40 minute wait, we finally reached the ticket box, and when the woman did not understand our pronunciation of the city Qingdao (Ching-dao) and proceeded to wait on the next person in line, Kristine AC held it together.  KAC stood there, not giving  up her hard fought place in front of the ticket box, pushing back at the hordes of elbows in her back, and screamed, “Qingdao. QINGDAO. QINGDAO!!!”

Finally an unexpected voice spoke from the crowd, “You’re going to Qingdao?” With the help of that heavenly being, we were able to book a train out of Nanjing.

This was not the test that life gave to us.  Instead the test was to survive this overnight train ride.

We had booked the cheapest tickets on the slowest moving train in China.

There are several seats that you can buy on a train, and for some reason they’re labeled hard and soft.  They should be labeled “first class” and “economy,” but they’re not.  “Soft” indicates first class and “hard” indicates economy: the seats are not actually hard at all, they’re all physically soft. You can book sleeper seats which are bunk beds.  You can also buy standing room seats, but why would you ever do that?

13 hours is a relatively long ride. We were prepared to read, write and nap our way through it.  We were not prepared to be shoved into a box car filled with half the population of China.

Our tickets were a step above standing room: we had a soft bench seat that faced our seat mate with a small table in the middle.  Our cabin was the place where the standing room people stood. We had people sleeping on top of us, people eating over us, and of course, people screaming around us.  The air was perfumed with cigarette smoke and steam from the local favorite, beef ramen.

Thirteen hour train ride

Occasionally American music would blare from the train speakers, competing with the music that each person was already playing from their phone. As the train rolled into each stop (and there were A LOT OF STOPS), there was never any indication of where we were – no station announcement, no conductor message.  The only “train officials” we saw were the ones rolling carts up and down the alley, selling air-tight packets of chicken legs and hotdogs.

Hard Seat from Nanjing

If you got up from your seat, it wouldn’t be yours any longer.  It would be immediately poached by a standing-only person, who would be asleep on your table by the time you got back.

Did I mention the roaches?

Kris and Vin

Reality check in Nanjing

We left Shanghai in a hurry. The combination of sleeping in a windowless hostel and the everyday battle with millions of tiny elbows did us in.  Or maybe it was because we couldn’t find a decent place to get a drink?  In any case, we made a decision, and booked it outta there, heading to Nanjing.

Welcome to China

China has been one big lesson in misplaced expectations and outright misunderstandings.  I don’t want to say that we haven’t done our homework – we’re devouring books on China, couch surfing to meet locals and we have our (banned) Lonely Planet guidebook – but what we’re reading and what we’re seeing don’t exactly match. And herein lies the problem.

In Nanjing we expected the “leafy boulevards” touted in the book and were surprised to see crowded streets, smog and heavy ongoing construction. Anything less crowded than Shanghai would have been awesome, but Nanjing isn’t a village, it’s a city of 8 million people and 2 subway lines.  The density of Nanjing doesn’t rival Shanghai, but it’s bike traffic does. The same etiquette frustrations in Shanghai exist in Nanjing, which was a bummer until a fellow couch surfer gave us this sage advice: China is a mess. Join in and laugh or you’ll go nuts. And make sure to elbow right back on the train.

We expected to see a city littered with ancient historical sites and traditional buildings.  But we’re slowly learning to put our expectations in check, particularly because it feels like in China the future looks brighter than the imperialist past.

This future that we see is surprising.  It seems that the Chinese have a very mercantile approach to life: it’s an even bigger rat race here than in NYC.  In every city we’re seeing rows of clothing stores on every block, enterprising individuals hawking the kitchen sink out of their hole in the wall, and alleys of restaurants one mimicking the other all the way down the road.   It’s all about the RMB, baby!

Confucius Temple, Nanjing

Our first stop in Nanjing was the Confucius Temple where we could absorb the history in the form of a river cruise or feast on delicacies like McDonalds and KFC.   The whole area used to be a college where students would study for years to pass the imperial exams. Although it’s been rebuilt, the ancient history is all but lost.  Today this area is a glorified shopping mall. For those of you who have been to the Alamo, it’s a little like that but even more commercial.

We’re also in the process of discovering just how much of the culture was destroyed by the Japanese or by the Chinese themselves during the Cultural Revolution.  Nanjing was totally destroyed by the Japanese when they conquered the city.  The torture leveled against the Chinese is on par with the Nazis and is considered the Asian Holocaust – check out the book Rape of Nanking for more  brutal details.

When we do have a chance to catch a glimpse at ancient China, it always comes with a plaque explaining how this area or this artifact was  “liberated from former imperialist powers by the CPC”.  It’s begining to get repetitious.  The fact of it’s current existence is proof enough that it was valued by the CPC, as they destroyed everything else.

Cold dead body of Sun Yat Sen

Among the historic sites we saw in Nanjing included the Sun Yat Sen mausoleum. Sun Yat Sen is considered by both communists and the Kuomintang (the other side in the civil war, now in Taiwan) to be the National Father of modern day China and every city has a street named after him. Zhongshan lu is my favorite street in every city, because it’s the only word I recognize.

Sun Yat Sen set up his government in Nanjing and is entombed here. Nanjing was also the Kuomintang capital and the capital during the Ming Dynasty. With that checkered history, I had to expect that the city lost a lot of it’s history during the cultural revolution.

Kris at the Mausoleum

The 15th century Ming Dynasty walls, Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum survived and so did the Presidential Palace – which has a crazy history.

In the years before Sun Yat Sun, the Qing Dynasty was falling apart and this character, Hong Xiuquan, arrived on the scene.  Possibly mentally ill, he thought that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ and his followers united to fight the ruling dynasty. His dynastic challenge resulted in one of history’s highest death tolls – more than 20 million people were killed!  During this rebellion, Nanjing was conquered by Hong’s Taiping Revolution forces and the Ming-era Presidential Palace in Nanjing was undated to be his palace, until it was once again recaptured by the Qing, leveled and reconstructed.  In the 20th century Sun Yat Sen was sworn in as president of the Republic of China and years later it became the HQ for the Kuomingtang.

Throne of the Heavenly King

Why is this so weird?  Because the palace had rooms for the “Heavenly King”, the flag from the Republic of China (formerly the Kuomintang flag, now one flown in Taiwan) and the residential buildings where Sun Yat Sen lived.

That’s a lot of history to take in, particularly when you’re trying to understand the history from the plaques on the wall.

In China it’s pretty hard to root out the truth, and there are always omissions and outright falsehoods (like China won the Korean war).

One of the places that we purposely decided to skip was the Nanjing Massacre Museum. What you won’t find out in the museum is that the Chinese gov’t told the citizens to stay inside the city walls, and then fled.  The entire situation was a huge human disaster (Japan raped, and brutally killed 300,000 Chinese) and remains on of the huge issues between China and Japan even today.

So we did find a bit of history in Nanjing and we’re growing into China.  It hasn’t been the smoothest transition but we’re beginning to enjoy the chaos. And maybe our expectations of an ancient civilization were a little off base, we’re adjusting because god knows China isn’t going to change because I don’t like the spitting!

Feeling the Great Firewall of China

I’m feeling the pains of the great firewall of China. Sure there are ways to get around it, but that’s not always available, like now, when I’m on my iphone, or when I use a public computer. Every Internet connection I’ve used in China feels like it’s crawling through a dialup modem – and then I’m supposed to run all that traffic to another computer in the US of A just to slow it down even more?

Right now, I would love to be able to read my friend Woody’s blog about his travels through China (vachina.blogspot.com) but I can’t. And just entering that feed into my google reader which performs a google search freezes my access to google for a few minutes. This is not a communist policy, this is the policy of an immature adult adding insane rules to their parental locks on their computer. Are we all just a bunch of children?

Take for instance all of our photos: although uploading them to flickr works, it’s at painful speeds. But want to share a big zip of those photos with some friends on dropbox.com? Forget it, it’s BLOCKED.

Want to watch that latest funny video on youtube? BLOCKED.

Want to post something insiteful about your travels on twitter? BLOCKED

Want to have any sort of social interaction with your friends around the world on facebook? BLOCKED

Find a community of like-minded people to meet with on the community powered site meetup.com? BLOCKED

Found a great link from google to a travel forum that answers your question? PROBABLY BLOCKED

This is not a People’s Republic, this is not Communism, so what is it?

Lesson on Shanghai: Have an expense account

We headed to Shanghai to catch the last few days of the World Expo. For anyone that has lived, visited or even read about China you might have said to us: “Perhaps heading to the most populous city in the world, during the last week of their largest event when they’re trying to break the world record for attendance, is not the very best of ideas.”

You would be right.

Blurry pic of the Bund

Shanghai is clearly a city for business people. I’m pretty sure the more money you have to throw at it, the more you would get out of Shanghai. For foreigners this is a serious MBA crowd.

Shanghai-Vinnie and a million Chinese

In the fancy area of Shanghai we were surrounded by hundreds of off duty middle-aged white finance guys in belted khaki pants and button downs. Titty bars. Mercedes that run you over at the crosswalk. $10 beer. Whaaaaa this is China?

Shanghai has the culture of mid-town Manhattan and the skyline of Vegas.

The fun thing for people who don’t have expense reports (aka: chinese people) is to take a walk along the Bund, head to the river or check out the Yuyuan Garden (formerly private garden, now an incredibly commercial shopping area). Unfortunately there were a million people visiting Shanghai without expense accounts, so all of this required a Jesus-like ability to walk through crowds.

And the CPC was born

But in some respects Shanghai also gave us the best insight into modern day China – 5 blocks from the birthplace of the Communist Party is Jaguar dealership.

We were lucky – super lucky – to have a local friend, Jialin, show us around. Without him we would never have experienced the world famous Yang fried dumplings.  We wouldn’t have ordered the best food we’ve had in China – sweet bean soup, crispy fried rice with seaweed, and a delicious rice and fruit desert.  They don’t offer this food on the English menu (that’s a joke, there is no English menu).

Rice Desert

What are you going to order?

Rice Desert

Don’t head to Shanghai expecting 1,000 year old cultural relics or even a mad crazy fun nightlife (unless you’re really willing to shell out some dough). Shanghai all about sky scrapers, lame business chatter and hordes of chinese tourists.

Check it:

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dog

Today I was in the back seat of a car sitting with a stuffed dog on my lap.  I mentioned that this stuffed animal looks just like my dog who I’m really starting to miss.  Our translator, Helen, looked at me like I had two heads.

“This is not a dog!….”(pause to look up the word in English) “This is a TIGER!”

There are other things that are infinitely more confusing, for instance, what could this possibly taste like?

Mexican Tomato Chicken Flavor

From the cover I was hoping it was actually potato with hollandaise sauce topped with a delicious tomato.  (Can you tell that I’m missing american-style brunch?)

Here’s what it tasted like: Tomato and Chicken. I still don’t know what the yellow sauce indicates.

And we’re not exactly sure what we’re supposed to do in this garden:

A relaxing place for visitors to recreate

And did you know that Confucious has his own cruise?

Cruise Terminal of Confucius Temple

Yin & Yang of Urban Hikers

Some thoughts from Vinnie.

China is a bit of a shock, especially coming from South Korea – as Seoul could fit right into Europe.  So far, our experiences in China have been a little more difficult, but I’m loving the difficulties – Seoul was a bit too easy for a worldwide trip.

Yes, it’s been a while since I’ve stayed at a youth hostel, and as a married couple, it can put some stresses on the relationship, but I’ve been seeing a part of the world that has only been images and imagination to me – it’s pretty fucking amazing to be here.

China has been harsh, crowded, and loud.  By loud, I mean horns constantly honking (and they make them louder hear then in Korea), people constantly screaming (mostly older folk), and lots of push or be pushed aside in order to navigate the subway system.  But as one couchsurfer, Ian, that we had dinner with in Shanghai said – “A great social experiment is to get on the #2 line at rush hour and try to get off at People’s Square – try it, you’ll release any anger you have”  It’s true, within hours, you will go from a mild manner person, to somebody who says I’m getting off this train, move or get an elbow to the stomach or a shoulder to the chest (and it for some reason feels a little relieving).  Very few people follow common subway rules about standing off to the side to let people out first.  So I can understand why everybody is like this, if you weren’t, you would never get anywhere in Shanghai.  But from my talking to locals – I think that’s just Shanghai, and not like the rest of China.

Talking to some Chinese students at our Shanghai hostel, they didn’t like Shanghai either.  They ditched university for a 4 hour bus to come check out the expo.  I met these two friends over beer and take out chinese street food (here they just call it street food).  As I was eating on the steps, enjoying a 50c beer (which you can find in 24 hour marts, however a bar will run you $8 since only foreigners go there), they asked me where I was from and commented that I used chopsticks very well – although their english was broken and they didn’t say chopsticks, I got the gist of it.  They were super nice kids, I was the first foreigner they ever spoke to, and we made a night out of drinking TsingTao and communicating by drawing, pointing, hand waving, chinglish, and translations on one of their cell phones.  The more beer we drank, the more comfortable they became with their English.  I learned a few Chinese words that night, including the Chinese characters spelling of my name, which is pronounced Wen-cen-te.

They invited me to get some food with them and I’m glad I did, we went into a little shop that I would have never gone into on my own and ordered food I would have never picked on my own. I couldn’t tell if it was balls of fish or balls of meat, I don’t even think they knew, so we ordered a bunch and the chief cooked us a soup.

So that’s the little parts of China I’ve liked so far.  We also were introduced to a Shanghai native, Jialin, via Bonnie back in SF and he welcomed us on our arrival – trekking out to our Hostel, and spent the day with us on Saturday to take us to all the great food spots and sample everything from excellent soup dumplings to rice cake.

IMG_2124

IMG_2125

IMG_2141

IMG_2178


So I’m intrigued, fascinated, and yes, sometimes frustrated by China.  But I always had in the back of my mind that this trip would be a little frustrating – that’s why I wanted to do it.  Life isn’t fun unless your challenged!

And now we’re in Nanjing, China, about 2 hours north of Shanghai, we escaped for a less crowded city, which it is, but are still having difficulties settling in.  For instance, in Korea, you could always find a great place to eat with interesting food, so far in China, that’s been a little harder to do, it’s much harder to gauge the quality of the food from the establishment, the food is much greasier/oily, and the only restaurants we see packed with people are KFC and McDonald’s – my theory here is that Chinese people don’t eat out cause it’s expensive, so that leaves very little options.  And we’re still  pressed to find a bar that servers $2 beers, it’s either 50c at the convenience store, or $6-$10 at the bar.

And construction here is amazing, literally the street is being built underneath you, there are dozens of people laying bricks, planting flowers, and hammering away at buildings.  One sidewalk we walked on when we first arrived was half brick, half dirt, the next day it was completely finished.

How the mighty do fall

And by mighty, I mean me.

When “planning” this trip much of the time was spent dreaming about huts on the beach, $8 thai massages and indian food.  Our thinking was, and is now, that we can just figure it out as we go – from which countries we’re going to visit, to where we’re going to stay and how we’re going to get there.  With our laissez faire approach to this trip there are some things that I just failed to consider- like housing, clean clothing and being constantly on the go.

Kristine the Backpacker

Wow.  Those are some pretty gigantic things to forget!  I haven’t been on a long-term backpacking trip since 2001 and the only thing that’s changed is my personal lifestyle.  It’s super easy to pack up and leave college when what your really leaving behind are shared dorms, communal bathrooms and canteen food.

But at 31 I’ve come to really enjoy a few basic elements of my life – notably I’ve indulged in a queen sized bed, great home cooked meals and bi-monthly visits from the best cleaning woman in the world, Angela.

Not anymore!

Clothing

The first few weeks we were pretty pampered: we had a homebase in Pohang where we could ditch our larger bags and head out to see the environs. Even though housing in Samsung town is a little like section 8, with dirty outdoor concrete stairs and front doors made of metal, we were clean. We had a washing machine.  We had hot water.

Vinnie the backpacker

The longer I backpack, the lower my standards have become.  Clothes are never really clean.  You will end  up wearing the same shirt once, twice, five times – why not? Just smell it first because sometimes clothes don’t fully air dry before you have to shove them in your pack to leave. Then you’re not only dirty but you smell as well. Thank god for my fast-dry underwear that I struggled with at first (so uncute!).  At night I wash them in the shower with shampoo and they’re ready to wear the next day.

And the places we’ve stayed. Ohhhh, the places we’ve already stayed.

Round Beds with no sheets

Samsung Town’s dirty outdoor concrete stairs and metal doors would be considered high class now.  Our first love motel was great – at least it was clean and didn’t advertise prostitutes.  It’s gone downhill from there.

We’ve stayed at crack den love motels with paint chipping off the wall and water dripping from the ceiling.  We’ve crashed on bunk beds, on mats on the floor and on beds with NO SHEETS.  Most of the rooms have no windows. The worst was the love motel with pink rooms and a round bed.  That night I slept in my clothes with a scarf wrapped around my head.

Finally, a hostel

It was only a matter of time, I just wasn’t prepared emotionally. It’s not a laughing matter to go from Angela-quality to shared squat toilets.

The hostel environment is just like I remember – tons of different types hanging out downstairs, chatting, chain smoking and enjoying life. And upstairs is exactly the same as well: communal mildewy showers, small shared rooms and  a row of public toilets with heavy competition to get to the only sit down toilet.

I admit, I cried.  Maybe I was suffering from travel shock or maybe I  just wasn’t ready to downgrade all the way back to  college.

I’ve been talking about this trip for years but the reality of being on the road was not part of those dreams.  It’s laughable to think that we would be staying in high end hotels, eating top notch food and casually strolling around a city.   The reality is that we’re staying in questionable locations, probably eating cat meat and we haven’t washed our pants in a good week.

After a month on the road, I’m beginning to get the hang of this.

Trying really hard in China

South Korea was a blast. The people were warm, friendly and even if most folks didn’t speak English, they smiled, had a laugh at my attempts at Korean and tried to communicate.  Not so much in China.

In fact everything that I really loved about South Korea is totally absent in China: the delicious food, the crazy nightlife and the fun loving people. I’m trying really, really hard not to let China bring me down and I’m not doing a great job.

In Korea respect was a big deal – respect for elders, respect for unspoken rules, and bringing respect onto Korea.  For example, on the subway in Seoul a woman started incessantly poking me and trying to tell me that I had broken a rule by sitting in the “infirm and elderly” section of the train.  Don’t break the subway rules! Koreans themselves prevent foreigners from being ripped off by invoking the “What will the world think of Korea if you overcharge this innocent person” act.  And don’t ever, ever disrespect the bathhouse rules. Jumping into a tub without showering is case for explusion.

So with that in mind, I’m finding China to be the exact opposite. There is no such thing as respect on the road – cars, scooters, bicycles all fight for supremacy and the right to run over pedestrians.  There is no such thing as a safe crosswalk, there is no such thing as a green light, there is no such thing as a sidewalk. These concepts just don’t exist.

It feels like restaurant, store owner, cab driver – everyone – is out to rip you off. It’s demoralizing to pay $30 for a meal worth $5 in the US. Everywhere you walk someone is there to repeatedly poke you, asking you to buy fake watches, purses and iPads. If it’s not the poking people, it’s people screaming at you over a microphone to come into their store – “EVERYTHING 10 RMB!! EVERYTHING!!!”

And then there’s the spitting.  I just can’t handle hearing someone begin to gurgle in the back of their throat, getting their saliva nice and thick, then hawk a massive logie onto the sidewalk.  In fact, this might be OK if it were just outside, but it’s everywhere.  In the train station people are spitting into waste bins, on the train people spit into bags and IN RESTAURANTS people prepare their spit at the table and then walk outside to let it rip.

I’m repulsed.

The repulsion isn’t just the dirty streets, the spitting and the outright deceit – the food is not good 🙁

I was so excited to feast on real Chinese food with exotic names like “two fish dancing at midnight” or “The smell of sunset on a plate”.  In fact I’m eating oil cake covered in oil after being fried in oil – price is only 9 dollars!  When I say everything is covered in oil, I don’t mean like deep fried KFC (which are everywhere btw), I mean oil broth soup or pork with oil sauce.

I’m absolutely frustrated, disappointed and want to crawl into my dumpy hotel room bed and pull the covers over my head.

– Kristine