Tokyo, Japan July 14 - July 22, 2010
Tokyo was very unforgetable! The move from Seoul went smoothly, we had to leave fairly early. Luckily I got about two more hours of sleep than Viktor. But, because of a few train delays, and a local only option to the airport, I felt rushed and only made the boarding call by about forty-five minutes.
I flew into Narite while Viktor flew into Haneda, so we had to meet somewhere in the middle. Luckily I got a direct limited express train straight to our meeting point. But the ride seemed to take way longer than expected, and I wasn't recognizing any stops along the way, but it was all good in the end. At the airport I got stuck behind a pack of young French students at the ATM, then nearly again at the train ticket counter. I had to rush ahead of them to buy my seat that was scheduled to leave in less than seven minutes. Good times at the airport.
The first few nights in Tokyo we stayed in a Capsule Hotel. Partly because we wanted the experience and partly because it was hard to find good accomodations on the short six day notice we'd alloted ourselves in Seoul. It was such a good idea though, probably the most revealing part of my time in Tokyo was spent living at the Capsule Hotel. We brushed shoulders with Japanese business men, and in effect a part of the culture that would be difficult to experience if staying at a hostel or western hotel. The Capsules were more than adequate. They were surprisingly private compared to the previous nine nights of a shared room. Each Capsule was equipped with it's own TV, medium thick mattress and bedding, a unique control panel, and a dimming light; all of which were accessible from a control deck located near the rear of the space. It was eerily similar to the hotel room I stayed in at Narita, except it was just a bed space and not a complete room. Everything else was communal. The Hotel was in a good location and we had roof access for night photos. All in all a very nice find!
The last four nights in Tokyo we migrated to a hostel that was only a few metro stops away. I was weary of the hostel prior to checking in; I had read some not-too-pleasing reviews during booking. But, it was great! The hostel was actually one of the cleanest hostels I've ever stayed in. I was very pleased. Our room was a bit hot, but it was on the fourth floor so that probably had something to do with it.
In Tokyo we didn't have a solid agenda. We visited the popular districts: Shinjuku, Shibuya, Akihabara, ect. I think this city is fascinating enough to do nothing but people watch for days at a time! We did a lot of walking around as usual, finding things as we went. Saw the Tokyo Tower, did a little shopping, saw the arcades, saw the lights, heard the sounds, rode the crowded-ass Metros, ate fresh delicious sushi; just an all-around good Tokyo immersion!
Seoul, South Korea July 11 - July 14, 2010
Right now I'm in Tokyo, but I have a few more pictures of Seoul to add to the bunch!
Not much else to say about Seoul though, except I did a little digging into the English Teaching jobs that everyone seemed to be doing there; it's a good paying gig! There seems to be a handful of companies who hire and place English Teaching young people for six to twelve months. They will pay for roundtrip airfare, accomodations, and a decent wage... a little under $30K USD per year. Geez, lets all go to Korea for a while...
I don't exactly remember what we did the last few days, not much though. We went back to the World Cup Park for an evening, and just did some more wondering around the city. Everynight during the last half of our time in Seoul we would take a break at a Family Mart (convenience store) on the way back to the hostel. Convenience stores in Korea are just like little neighborhood bars or restaurants. Most have tables and chairs so you can buy food or drinks inside and relax outside with friends. After eating a hot cup of noodles, the store has a place to separate and dispose of the remaining noodles and broth so you can throw away the empty cup in the trash can, very civilized! And they offer free spoons for ice cream, chopsticks for food, and cups for beer. I'm gonna miss my little Family Mart!
Seoul, South Korea July 4 - July 11, 2010
Seoul is great; bland, but great. Arriving from China early in the morning I didn't know what to expect from Seoul. I was anticipating the hot and humid climate again; the busy scooter and bus traffic again; the busy, dirty, in-your-face, smoky, meat-smell streets again... But I was pleasantly surprised! Seoul is none of the above. It's a very nice climate with temperatures in the lower eighties with lower humidity, it's only been a little rainy a day or two. Traffic is polite, busses and scooters don't ignore traffic lights or walk signals. People are friendly and helpful, and most speak at least a little English.
Prices are higher than Shanghai by about thirty to forty percent. And the Metro is noticeably more expensive as we've had to add value to our T-Money cards twice so far.. or we've been using it more often than anywhere else before. Navigation is a bit cumbersome because the city doesn't label it's streets; instead we use a landmark based navigation system and commonly reference Metro stops, civic buildings, and shopping areas instead of intersections. It's pretty interesting. Taxi cabs have navigation systems to guide drivers.
We've done a lot of stuff since arriving in the city. It seems there is lots to do that doesn't jump out at you right away, and some of the most interesting parts of the city can't be found in any guide books. We visited the N Seoul Tower, Seoul World Cup Stadium and Park, the Seoul Forest, many points along the Han River, some shopping places, a Koolhaus building, the Korean War Memorial and Museum, and a few skyscrapers.
The N Seoul Tower was a treat. It has views of all parts of the city as it sits on a hilltop smack in the middle of Seoul. We opted out of climbing the stairs and took the tram instead. Up top there is a lookout platform or you can pay extra and go up to the top of the tower. At the platform level there are thousands of locks attached to the railings. Apparently this place is a lovebird hangout where couples hang a lock marked with their names on the guardrail then take a picture with the city and the lock in the background. Interesting.
We found a really interesting park near the Seoul World Cup Stadium. It's a park sitting atop a reclaimed landfill site. The park is surreal, with tall grasses and winding pathways that lead to distinct look-out points along the river and toward central Seoul. It's like a whole different world up there, I will definitely visit this park again if I ever come back to Seoul. I think all my Landscape Architect friends would love this place too!
We spent an afternoon trodding around the Korean War Museum and Memorial. There is lots of stuff to see there and it was free of charge. I hadn't known a whole lot about the Korean War, so it was nice to take in all the information as we went. I didn't realize how big the United States involvement in the war really was. We wanted to visit the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone along North and South Korea) but found out we need a little more time for booking proper tours.
The city and the people have a very good vibe. It seems like the South Korean government does everything it can to make it's people healthy, happy, and educated. There are dozens of Universities in Seoul alone. And it seems like around every corner you can find a running track, exercise equipment, or park to suite the needs of the people. Partly by accident we discovered Seoul's intricate biking community and infrastructure. Seoul seems very bike friendly. Along the river and streams you'll find quite grand walking, running, and biking trails that boast signage, proper lane striping, people selling bike gear and food, lighting, water fountains, and restroom facilities. Very impressive Seoul!
The area we are staying is near Hongkik University so it's bustling with young people during all times of the day. People are friendly and helpful. We had a stranger ask us if we needed directions once when we pulled out a Metro map in one of the stations; I would never have expected that in Shanghai. The Hongkik Universtiy area is a party mecca for the city, hosting night clubs, bars, and restaurants galore. Street after street is filled with hot-pot restaurants, bright neon club signage, and tons and tons of Asian college kids. Really fun place, wish the UNM area was as vibrant!
The hostel we are staying at is decent. The room we're staying in is the coolest in the house--temperature wise, hehe. We've had some interesting bunk-mates. Most travelers are from the US, which is surprising. But it turns out a lot of younger folks come to Korea to teach English for a year. It's very easy to find work and the pay ain't to shabby. So most of the people are either going to school in the area, or work as English teachers. They might be staying in the hostel for months, or just a few days while the shuffle in or out of their Seoul residences. The staff at the hostel are very friendly and speak great English. Overall a good place.
So yeah, Seoul's been great! We've got a couple more days here before flying out to Tokyo. I think summing up the city can be done quite honestly: Utopian. Everyone is part of the whole, the systems of the city work, and people generally seem to like living here; I would too.
Shanghai, China June 28 - July 4, 2010
As of right now I'm actually in Seoul, but I'm going to finish up my experience in China in this entry.
Sadly the biggest news of the second part of the visit in Shanghai is that I lost my flippin' wallet... yes, thinking about all the crap I've already been through getting here, the absolutely last thing I'd expect is to lose my wallet in a Chinese mall. But I did; and it's gone gone! I lost it somewhere between the Jin Mao Tower shopping mall and the Park Hyatt Cloud 9 Bar in the Shanghai World Financial Center building. I, with the help of Viktor and Amanda, searched frantically for two hours re-tracing every step with no avail. Luckily I didn't lose very much cash, and no one used my plastic before I was able to cancel. Had to get a new room key for the hostel, and I'll have to get a new gate key for Albuquerque and another new drivers license.
We spent an evening at the World Expo. I think the actual experience very much fell below our expectations. We knew the crowds were going to be incredible, so we bought evening tickets at discount prices hoping to avoid long lines and daytime heat. We beat the heat, but not so much the crowds. Long lines awaited, as did underwhelming Expo pavilions. According to a Metro daily count updater, nearly 500,000 people were visiting the grounds per day during the weekends. The Expo is not the place to be if you want to beat the crowds!
The second to last night we wer in Shanghai we had dinner in a food market that consisted of grill restaurants serving numerous on-a-stick food items. Amanda's friend Andy spoke Mandarin so he insited on treating us to a proper Shanghai meal of baby lobsters, fish, rice patties, chicken hearts, lamb, beef, eggplant, and chile peppers all served fresh and hot from the fire. It was a very tasty meal to say the least, especially with a corn flavored ice cream popsicle topping off for dessert!
Oh yes, and then there's also the Australian bunkmates story... this is a good one. We had three Aussies check into our room a few days into our stay. Nothing out of the ordinary except they liked to play ping pong shirtless and walk around the hostel in underwear and socks... and enjoyed Bacardi Breezers in the shower. Seriously these guys were the quintessential Australian party-backpackers. The night before 'the episode' I swear I trailed about fourteen bottles of Bacardi Breezer spread throughout the entire hostile, ending with an emply bottle propped up on the shower dividing wall, haha! But anyways, nice guys. The morning of 'the episode' Viktor and I were awaken early in the morning by a crowd of people in our room led by the Chinese police. They were waving hysterically the passport scans of the Australians as required by the hostel at check in. They demanded our proof of identiy and our knowledge of the Aussie's whereabouts. It was somewhat amusing wondering what the heck happened that night; either they were missing or wanted. When we left for food that morning, we swam through a bath of Chinese police and hostile eyes on our way out the door. It had to be something serious. Turns out they were involved in a mad bar fight that erupted after a speaker supposedly got broken in a night club. It was calm at first, but the club owner went on a tirade and the situation escalated into a full out brawl on the streets of Shanghai. Bottles were being thrown by the club owner and bouncers, and knives were being drawn. One of our bunkmates got his nose broken and had to go to the hospital, while the club owner suffered a gash on his face from a broken bottle. One Aussie was taken to jail on the spot while the others ran away to get help at the Australian Embassy. Another was arrested when he tried to pay the 3,000RMB bail at the police station. Finally, with an Australian lawyer, the situaion found a end. For both people to get released from prison, and all charges to be dropped, the Chinese police demanded 70,000RMB the group. That's about $12,000USD, just because someone wanted to request a song from the DJ and accidentally tripped over a speaker wire! Pooooor duded! But hey what a story to tell in five years, haha!
So the last part of the trip We just did a lot more wondering around, dipping in and out of narrow alleyways and dim lit streets. Shanghai is a city with fascinating strata. The modern storefronts and glass facades are merely cosmetic upgrades to barricade still-in-use single room apartment housing and somewhat decrepit living condidions. The city has two competing egos inside out from each other. One is old, slow, and calm; the other is new, fast, and crowded. And, according to my limited knowledge of Shanghai, the dichotomy represents the image and social struggle of all of modern China.
Shanghai, China June 24 - June 28, 2010
...the internet in Shanghai has been painfully slow. It's difficult to update photos as often as I'd like. I will add more photos of each city as I go, probably not in any order!
I made it to Shanghai with no problems. We arrived late at night and took a taxi from the airport which seemed like forever. We found the hostel tucked away in a dark, quiet alley. It's a decent place. It's got all the stuff you'd expect to find in Europe: ping-pong table, poot table, common areas, television rooms, etc. The beds are awfully hard, Viktor and I think the matress is just a wrapped piece of 3/4 plywood, haha! We're in a shared room so privacy is hard to come by right now. We've had a few guests in the room over the past few days.
We've spent a good amount of time in the city already. Viktor has a freind here in Shanghai so we've been exploring while she was off for the weekend; mostly just wondering around from district to district taking photos and enjoying the amazingly cheap food. It's much cheaper to eat in the streets than to buy groceries. For example, we were out with with a group of five people the other night and shared six courses of food and beers to drink and only spen 31 Yuan, or about $5 USD. And we've been eating dumplings for brunch that only cost 1 Yuan, or about $0.18 US. Pretty awesome, and such good food too!
The weather has been rainy and foggy as you'll see from the pictures so far. Have had umbrella on hand everyday. The humidiy makes everything sticky and wet all day long, much like Hong Kong, but not as hot.
Shanghai has much more scooter and bike traffic than Hong Kong, probably because it's pretty much flat so hills aren't an issue. Shanghai seems to go on forever and ever. Every new district we explore has towering residential blocks and busy streets. It's amazing how many people live here. The subways are fast but crowded and usually hot.
The most famous part of Shanghai for visitors is the Bund. It's a pedestrian walkway along the river which bisects the city. Along the Bund you can find magnificent vistas of the skyline.
Hong Kong June 21 - June 24, 2010
I finally made it to Hong Kong! It's very unfortunate that my time here was cut short. With the delays in travel, I was only able to enjoy two full days in the city. Viktor and I stayed in the Chungking Mansions on Nathan Avenue. What a place! It's not dangerous as we had heard, but it could be overwhelming for some people. Everything we read about the Chungking Mansions area was true; the entrance is teaming with Nigerians and Indians trying to either sell you a room or sell you a suit. Unfortunately for them I had a room and it was too hot for a suit, hah! The hostel was fantastic! Our room was a bit small, but it had all the amenities we needed; including a TV, refrigerator, our own bathroom, a window, air conditioning, and even travel adapted power outlets. The generous owners also offered cold and hot water in the hallway for drinking canisters and instant noodles. They were also very friendly and patient with all of the travelers. I think it's going to be hard to beat the accomodations we had in Hong Kong.
As for the city, it is unbelieveable. There is so much to experience. Just a walk down the street presents endless photo opportunities. Hong Kong Island had more than a handful of distinct districts, each with different kinds of shops and patrons. The city presents a very exotic mix of old and new, young and old. On the Island side the city creeps up the mountain slopes giving the city layout a third dimension. Every inch of space is used in some way. Shops and restaurants are crammed into small spaces along the streets below towering residentail towers. The mixed use fabric is everywhere except in the new areas of finance and banking. I think there is so much more to see here. I didn't have enough time to truly explore.
One of Viktors former professors (named Clover) lives and works in Hong Kong. She was gracious enough to invite us to see her architecture office, and later, to here home for drinks and snacks. It was nice to see a Hong Kong apartment from the inside out. I imagine her place was quite nice compared to the majority of residences in the area, however it was not extaordinary. All the expressions of the people living in these Hong Kong residences can only be seen from the inside.
Toward the end of the night we shared a Taxi with some of Clover's employees to another part of the city to watch USA beat Algeria. What a game it was! We went to a lively district called Lan Kwai Fong, it is filled with ex-pat bars and eateries. It was mostly teaming that night with English football fans, but we managed to find a USA friendly place!! It was very exciting to watch the game with fellow soccer people. Though very fun and interesting, this area of Hong Kong felt more as a tourist destination for travelling, affluent young people from all over the world; thus making it a bit pricy.
But overall Hong Kong is affordable and very easy to navigate. A good number of restaurants have English menus available, and a good number of public employees and shop owners knew at least a little English. I spent a little less money than I budgeted for the days I was there. I ate at restaurants the majority of time, and actually indulged with beverages and snacks other than water and bread, haha. I'm hoping Shanghai has similar affordability, but I don't think it will be as easy to navigate... we will soon see!
...the internet in Shanghai has been painfully slow. It's difficult to update photos as often as I'd like. I will add more photos of each city as I go, probably not in any order!
Albuquerque, United States to Narita, Japan June 18 - June 21, 2010
My adventure began at 5:50am MST, a truly early start. I think I was the last person to check in for the fligt, as I heard my name being called to board the plane as I headed for my gate. I made it through though! I caught up with an episode of Breaking Bad on the way to San Francisco and enjoyed a tomato juice as usual.
Once at the airport I looked around for a suitable place to watch the US Mens team play agains Slovenia in the second round of group play. Every bar and restaurant had the game on. I chose a place with an empty seat at the counter; I orded a bagel with cream cheese and jam, orange juice, and a side of tomato. I ate as the US went down 2-0 at halftime... not good at all! I headed out to find my gate, then wasted a little time on the internet checking email and watching the end of the game. Internet was $8.00 for the day.
For the 12 hour flight to Tokyo I brought along my computer and bags of candy. As we settled in, it was announced that a doctor onboard would be greatly appreciated. Uh oh.. sounds like we have a problem. In fact we did, and we were informed about two hours later we would be re-routing to Seattle to attend to an ill passenger. Once in Seattle, we were lined up and given hotel accomodations for the night. I shared a cab with a Japanese man working from San Francisco on the way to our hotel.
I combed the Seattle Sounders' schedule once at the hotel hoping to be stuck during game time, but I wasn't. So instead I re-booked my flight from Tokyo to Hong Kong and checked email once again. I ate a good prime rib dinner at Sharp's Roasters courtesy of United, and decided to drink a few beers and hang out at the restaurant bar until about 10pm.
Back at the airport the next day everyone was very anxious to board and get to Tokyo. But more problems... first catering issues then weather delays pushed back out departure time from 3:00pm to 6:30pm. I would miss my connection again! I thought everything was all squared away. I had Viktor informed and nothing else was supposed to go wrong. As I realized I'd be in Tokyo without a room and without a plane ticket to Hong Kong, I began to worry for the first time on my solo adventure across the Pacific. Upon arrival I had missed my connection by about two hours, and Viktor had gone to the airport in Hong Kong without notice that I didn't make the flight. Sorry buddy! Luckily United made sure they took care of the stranded passengers once again. I received a ticket and instructions from a partail-English speaking United employee shortly after stepping off the jetway. Going through customs and immigrations took about 45 minutes. Then it was off to the bus and off to the hotel.
The Japanese hospitality I must say was much better than the American hospitality. The hotel sent an employee along with the shuttle bus to gather passengers and make sure we were taken care of. Arriving at the hotel we were greeted with smiles and meal vouchers in three varieties: Chinese, Japanese, and Western, haha too bad I forgot my cowboy hat! The room I stayed in was fairly small, though I've been in much smaller rooms in the US. The bathroom looked like a plastic insert, and the endtable between the two beds had a funky old school electronic do-it-all appliance. You could control the whole room from your bed! Pretty awesome! I watched a little television before going downstairs for dinner. I must say Japanese TV is pretty interesting. Everything IS bright and colorful! The commercials are flashy and quick, and a lot more fun to watch than American commercials. The room smelled a little funny and I felt pretty alone that night. I slept in the next morning and missed breakfast.
At the airport I finally got my first real taste of the Japanese social environment. I like it! People are VERY friendly and helpful. Everything is very neat. Things work. Stuff is logical. Signage is everywhere, and utilizes awesome pictorals along with descriptions.nI can't wait to come back in a few weeks and spend some time in the city!