Over the weekend, one of our best friends here said, “For a blog about China you sure haven’t written much about China.” OKAY I KNOW. The truth is, I have been paralyzed with indecision about how to start, because we’ve lived here kind of a long time now, and a lot of things have happened, and it just seems sort of overwhelming to write 2,000 word blog posts about every single one of those things, you know? Thanks for being my therapist. I feel better.
In order to overcome my psychological issues, I’m gonna employ an old lifestyle journalism trick I like to call the countdown series. That is, I’m gonna write about my 100 favorite things in Beijing, counting down from 100 to 1. (These are actually in arbitrary order, listed as I think of them, as are all countdowns in lifestyle journalism. DO NOT tell anyone I let you in on that secret.)
Anyway. Number 100: The Muxiyuan fabric market and Number 99: Fei Fei Tailor
Our friend Ami (who deserves her very own entry in this countdown because she has been integral in my enjoyment of life here) first took us to Muxiyuan last summer when she was looking to have a pair of shorts copied. As happens to me at all wholesale markets, I felt immediately overwhelmed to the point of despair: basically, Muxiyuan refers to at least a couple of disparate markets, each of which has rows and rows of stalls where people hawk all kinds of fabric, from boring old men’s shirt patterns to pettably soft jersey to brain vomit-y silks. I cannot discern a logic to where things are located in the market — it’s sort of just all mixed together — which means if you don’t buy a fabric when you first seize upon it, good luck ever finding it again. I have horrible commitment-phobia when it comes to picking out a bolt of material for a dress I will then have to conceptualize and describe to a tailor, so shopping like this sort of made me want to take an entire bottle of Xanax and then maybe lie down on the dusty, dusty cement for awhile. Luckily, Ami is an old pro who has a can-do attitude and a slate of favorite vendors, and she was nice enough to show us a jersey shop for tee-shirting needs, the best silk outlet, and a couple of places for wild prints (at one of those, we bought three meters of fabric that is covered in turtles that have burgers for shells). Then we walked through rows of buttons that were so sparkling I wanted to eat them (I don’t know), and petted all of the furs, which were hanging menacingly from racks, swinging in the wind.
A few months later (yes, months, I am that slow), I actually took some of my fabric to Fei Fei Tailor and had some bespoke dresses made. Fei Fei has been around for like three decades, and you can tell she is good because she is surrounded by a bunch of other shops that are also called Fei Fei and trying to profit off of her name. How does that old saying go? Blatant plagiarism is the highest form of flattery? (Actually, it’s entirely possible that she owns all of the shops, but I like to believe that I am going to the OG Fei Fei, who is superior to her imitators.) The important thing here is that she can turn out a brand new wardrobe for you, with some seriously nice stitching, in a matter of days.
I’d never had bespoke clothing made before, and so I cannot explain what happened in my brain when I slipped on my perfectly fitted royal blue silk shift, but it was a terrifying and electrifying sense of power and self-worth that I am somewhat ashamed and horrified to admit came from an article of clothing. But that’s what happened, and this year is all about soul-searching and self-discovery, and I have discovered that my soul is actually that simple.
Anyway, the fabric market-tailor one-two punch has become a full-blown addiction, despite the fact that the market is located about 100 years from the nearest subway. I no longer feel anything but true excitement about the idea of wandering the Muxiyuan labyrinth and looking for hot deals, which is a really surprising turnaround in attitude that I think underscores my personal growth here. Also, the vendors are great: They climb all over stuff and rip the fabric away from the bolts and occasionally ask you for extremely granular details about your height that turn out to have nothing to do with your purchase. One measured out shirt fabric for Rob and then turned to me and said, “This isn’t enough. He’s too tall and too fat.” Rob didn’t think that was very funny.
Pro tip for actual Beijingers or tourists that might want to give this place a shot but, like me, feel sort of overwhelmed: I have discovered that the best way to shop here is to think about a specific thing you might want to have made (I’m no designer, so usually I find a photo of a thing I like, or pattern something off of an article of clothing I already own) and then wander the rows looking for the right fabric for that thing. Buy when you see it, because unless you’re a diligent note taker, you’re possibly never going to see it again. Also, the turtle burger fabric shop is in the western market, along the western wall.
About a week ago, I told you about our trip to Yangon. In absolute record timing for an update on www.christenhunks.com, I’m now ready to tell you about Bagan. A day after landing in Myanmar, Rob, fellow Lucer Diana, and I went back to the airport to board our plane for Bagan. The domestic side of the Myanmar airport is significantly more…lax…than the international side. For example, this is what our ticket looked like:
And we did not have to show ID of any form to retrieve it. We just gave a lady our name, and she gave us a sticker and checked us off on a list, as if we were attending a neighborhood luncheon. Security was like old-school security — the kind where you leave your shoes on and your laptop secured in its bag, and you just walk through the possibly-not-on metal detector. Boarding the plane entailed some random dude shouting into the plastic seat-lined waiting room that anyone on Golden Myanmar that was going to Bagan should saddle up and ride (okay, he did not say saddle up and ride, but you get the idea). I am 78 percent sure that a couple of dudes snuck on our plane by loitering around the runway and waiting to see if there were any empty seats. There were empty seats, so they went to Bagan, because no one stopped them. (Excuse me, sir! Let me see your official sticker!)
All that aside, I recommend Golden Myanmar if you are flying around this country — the planes were brand new and felt like corporate jets, which allayed my fears of perishing in a fiery crash in a country that clearly does not take flight safety quite as seriously as I’m used to. Because everyone knows you can’t die in a corporate jet.
We booked a hotel in New Bagan called Thumbula, which is not notable in any way except as context for a story I’ll tell you in a little bit. Basically, the three of us crammed into a fluorescent-lit and linoleum-floored room that resembled a college dorm — Rob and me on the full-size, Diana on a little cot near the door. I heard a crash and a scream when I was in the bathroom, and I was legitimately worried that Rob had fallen off the tiny and probably-not-to-code balcony that was outside of our window. Turns out Diana’s bed had just collapsed.
That hotel did help us procure ebikes for the next day, which were to be our noble steeds for seeing the magnificent pagodas. For that is why you go to Bagan — to see pagodas.
Circa the 11th century, back in one of Myanmar’s many heydays, Bagan was a magnificent and massive city of wood structures that housed like a million people. Those people erected a bunch of pagodas from brick, which were basically neighborhood churches, probably jazzed up with a white or golden paint job. The wooden houses are long gone, but those pagodas still exist and are now just the faded color of earthenware. (Ah, yes, the classic earthenware comparison.)
But because there were so many pagodas, and because the topography of Bagan is fairly flat, you can look across the scrub brush-dotted plains and see dozens and dozens of little conical temple ruins. The quantity and scale is mind-boggling. So is the fact that you can interact with these thousands-of-years-old architectural wonders by climbing all over them. (Side note: that is changing. Rob says Myanmar closed a bunch of them to foot traffic like the week after we left.)
If you are fairly wealthy, or into blowing a lot of money on one morning, or possibly are about to propose to your significant other, I think the highlight of your trip is seeing this landscape from a hot air balloon, which lifts off at sunrise and gives you a stunning (I am guessing, because we did not go) and comprehensive aerial view of things. If you are kind of poor, or sort of frugal, then you are still doing something wrong if you do not go catch the sunrise, but you take it in from one of the larger temples instead.
After Diana and I went to bed, Rob apparently stayed up for a lot of hours and did a lot of research on which temple to go to for the best sunrise viewing, but I did not know this, so the next morning, when sunrise time was bearing down on us like a relentless herd of angry buffaloes, I panicked and asked the front desk woman for her recommendation, and then insisted to Rob that we should just go there.
“I mean, I did hours of research on this, and that one’s going to be packed with tourists, but that’s fine,” he said cheerfully. But it was late, and we needed to get somewhere quickly, so that became the plan, and the three of us rode there in silent rage, which distracted me from the fact that my ebike had no headlight and I was not wearing a helmet (“Sorry,” the renter had offered halfheartedly, while handing over my keys).
The temple was packed, but not so packed that we couldn’t find a peaceful spot and enjoy it. We camped out, took some photos of the luminescent landscape, oohed and ahhed about the hot air balloons bobbing serenely over the scene, and generally marveled about how awesome our lives are. And then Rob pulled me in for a kiss and whispered softly into my ear, “I should’ve come alone.”
And then Rob laughed and laughed.
We spent the rest of the morning cruising around to different temples on our bikes before having a lazy breakfast at our hotel and then a lazy lunch at a really great restaurant called Star Beam. It was here that I first discovered the simple Burmese salad that combines tomatoes, peanuts, and shredded chicken beneath cilantro, lime, and maybe a little sesame oil, but I hope to eat this combination many more times in my life.
Most of the rest of the day was about waiting around for sunset, so in between wandering around the ruins, we had a couple of beers overlooking the banks of the Irrawaddy River.
Because Rob is constantly vigilant about skin health, we picked up some thanaka, which is what everyone in Myanmar (well, all the women and children), from Yangon to the most rural areas, wears as sunscreen and bug repellent. It’s made from a tree and you’re supposed to dampen it and then apply it like cream, forming two thick clown-like patches on your cheeks into which you can etch designs. (This is also how I apply blush. Am I doing it right?) A nice lady put some on us at one of the temples, and then because I’m a sucker, I forced Rob to buy it. We have a tub of it, untouched, if anyone wants a souvenir.
We also checked out a little lacquerware, fondling bowls admiringly while pretending like we knew what we were looking for in lacquerware.
Too soon, it was time to cruise to our sunset viewing location, which was as far away from New Bagan as we could go. This was inconvenient because post-sunset, we planned to have dinner with a couple from San Francisco who we’d met in an airport lounge, and we’d given ourselves just 45 minutes from dusk to get home, shower, and link up with them. It became especially inconvenient, though, when Rob’s ecycle battery died in the sandy back trails of our last temple.
We parked the bikes, saw the sunset with a giant French tourist group that was real possessive of the view, and then got to the task of solving the problem. After some panicked threats of poor decision-making — “Okay, we’ll just split up, and leave Rob here in this dark shady lot to wait for the new battery, while the others try to find their way home without navigational tools or a headlight” — we decided to just be late to dinner, which our new friends George and Marsha were extremely gracious about. In fact, they invited us to come to their hotel for drinks and dinner instead of bothering with trying to venue-hop in town.
Plan shored up, a very nice Burmese man helped us negotiate a new battery from our rental shop, and once that was replaced, 45 minutes later, we just had to make the treacherous journey home, made more difficult by blind rage associated with not being able to see the road (oh, that was just me — did I mention my broken headlight?).
All’s well that ends well, though, and things ended well. From our dorm room, we hitched a “cab” (read: ride in the back of a pick-up truck) to George and Marsha’s hotel, which we knew was going to be a little different from our hotel the moment we turned down a quiet lane lined with street lights. (There were no other street lights in Bagan that I can remember.) After a few minutes, security checked us out suspiciously, possibly because of our mode of transportation, and then the road opened up into a massive compound filled with resort-y bungalows AND PRIVATE PAGODAS AND A TOWER. So basically the same as our hotel.
George and Marsha were having Manhattans poolside, because what else could you possibly do when your resort has private pagodas, and so we all had Manhattans poolside, and admired the private pagodas. (I know. I sound like a simple idiot. I really could not get over the private pagodas.) And then because they are the nicest people in the world, George and Marsha bought us dinner, including the round of Manhattans I tried to pay for, and gave us a tour of the tower, which probably had a better view than the hot air balloons, frankly, although I think it was sort of a controversial construction project because it is so not part of the historical feel of the rest of the landscape. Then they tucked us into a private car home. Which I tried to haggle over, because I’d had a couple of Manhattans and I was LIVID that the private car was going to charge us TWICE what the flatbed truck had (approximately $11, if you must know).
I guess if I want you to take anything away from this rambling story it’s that despite the emotional tumult of our day, Bagan is a stone-cold stunner (actually, it’s quite hot there — this is probably a poor descriptor), and you should go there immediately. But stay where George and Marsha stayed, which is called the Aureum. Or try to befriend your own George and Marsha in an airport lounge on the way to Myanmar. And save up for those hot air balloons. I’ll bet they’re worth it.
In our next episode: Inle Lake.
BONUS! A quick little pronunciation lesson, because basically the whole time we were in Myanmar, I felt like we were shamefully butchering words and mildly offending our hosts.
When I wrote about Yangon (the emPHAsis goes on the second syLABble, which is sort of in between a hard o and a not hard o — I think? I don’t know, I just watched a 15 second ad and then a six second clip on YouTube, and I’m still confused), I told you that Rob never really figured out how to say Schwedagon Pagoda, which everyone found entertaining enough to basically never help a brother out.
Here’s how you pronounce it: SHWEH-deh-gahn
The rest of the trip took us to Bagan, Inle Lake, Hpa-An, and Malawmyine. I know. Gazundheit.
Bagan: Buh-GAHN (as opposed to Bilbo Baggins or Pagan witches; the second is confusing because sometimes you see Bagan spelled Pagan)
Inle Lake: IN-lay (I still say this IN-luh all the time and feel mildly embarrassed, like when I realize I’ve had food in my teeth for four hours and no one has said anything because you’re all terrible people)
Hpa-An: Pah-AHN. You can sort of breathe that silent H at the beginning, or make the p a little softer.
Malawmyine: Mah-LAH-mee-eye-n (I just learned that one second ago — I avoided saying it for the entirety of our trip because I didn’t want to embarrass myself).
Alright, people. Here’s a recommendation for you: go to Myanmar. Like, for your next trip. Scrap whatever you were planning to do and book your tickets. It might be significantly more complicated than hopping over to a Mexican beach, but holy [emphatic expletive], it is worth the long flights, the logistical difficulty, and the potential gastrointestinal discomfort (we actually had very little of the latter, because thank you Pepto, but we hear ours is an uncommon experience).
Myanmar was highest on our list of places we wanted to visit this year (along with Mongolia, which, hopefully, we’ll still have opportunity to cross off, once it’s not, uh, frozen tundra), and it’s the only place we’ve been so far where I’ve had real, true, actual placement envy. I’m still pretty into China (someday, perhaps, you’ll hear all about why), but I experienced some fleeting but real jealousy toward the scholars who are spending their year in Yangon. Generally, this is because Myanmar is in the midst of a pretty fascinating historical moment — after decades of reclusive, autocratic rule, Myanmar is opening up to outside investment and influence. Like, there’s a super trendy Mexican restaurant there now. And also one of our cab drivers treated us to a windows-down ride while bumping some early 90s hip hop.
More monumentally than those developments, the opposition under Aung San Suu Kyi (who won a Nobel Peace Prize and endured house arrest for a long ass time) gained control of government via elections last year, and the civil war that has been more or less raging since the fifties (or sixties? or earlier if you count all the warring under the Brits?) is abating, and a lot of the political exiles are finally getting the chance to return. The Luce scholars there have gotten to witness the resulting changes firsthand, and they say it’s been nuts — the city of Yangon, they say, has changed significantly, even in the few months they’ve been living there.
Aside from all that key moment junk, the country also has a fascinating history that’s developed over a couple of thousand years, and a wide diversity of climates and cultures that feel totally distinct from one another (this is also the crux of a lot of the internal strife). On a much more personal level, Burmese food is THE BEST. Fragrant curries, tart and bitter salads, beautifully crisped fish — we ate well, and on a cuisine that’s pretty unfamiliar in the States.
A week really isn’t enough to see Myanmar, even if you’re only doing the typical tourist circuit of Yangon – Bagan – Inle Lake. Our pace was even more psychotic because we did those things and then also glommed on to our friends’ excursion to Hpa-An at the end of the week. I could probably write 20,000 words about what we saw. Ain’t nobody got time for that. I’m gonna attempt to break this up into smaller posts, because I just really loved that trip so much, so right now, I’m just gonna cover Yangon.
Man, I wasn’t expecting Yangon to be such a CITY. I thought it would feel more like Phnom Penh — i.e., basically an overgrown village. NOPE. It has skyscrapers, decrepit colonial architecture, shiny new malls, a couple of lakes where the rich people live and do leisure activities (they’re pretty nice — the lakes, I mean, though I’m sure the people are alright, too), and the particular brand of ferocious traffic that is particular to southeast Asia. Public transportation, though, is mostly limited to the slow but charming (if you’re not running late to something, Rob) circular train where women sell pineapples to passengers, and some dilapidated buses that, from what we hear, were shipped in from Japan and Korea and bought up by private operators, who just yell the general direction they’re going when they pick people up. Helpful.
Our main sight highlight was the Shwedagon Pagoda (which Rob still hasn’t learned how to pronounce – schweaty dragon? Shweee diggony?), a gleaming golden temple that’s hard to look at in the direct sunlight (seriously, I think you could probably go blind).
I liked the sassy haloed deities and the birthday corners, where I think you’re supposed to wash some stuff to bring yourself luck. I’m sorry that this is the most technical explanation I can provide of a key religious site. Anyway, the day of the week on which you’re born is very important in Myanmar — our friends Paul and Lanier said their Burmese teachers were horrified when one of them didn’t know their day. I was born on a Tuesday and so was, fun fact, Aung San Suu Kyi. So my birthday corner has a video camera so that the nation can watch her do her ritual thingies when she visits.
Also: Rob wore his turtle burger shirt to this key religious monument, and learned how to tie a longyi, which is basically a long skirt that everyone hangs out in. He wore it for the rest of the trip, and the Myanmar people we encountered thought that was pretty rad.
Paul gave us a tour of some of the old streets, which are lined with colorful colonial apartment buildings, and walked us by the old Secretariat building, which is this grand structure that once housed the colonial government. It was the center of official business in Myanmar, too, but then Aung San (father of the current leader and a key figure in Myanmar politics) was assassinated there, so it’s been empty and closed for years. Tragic.
Other than that, we mostly had fun hanging out with Paul, Lanier, Diana (another Lucer who joined us on this trip), and Sandy, one of my old friends from Claremont. Sandy now has arguably the most interesting job of everyone we went to school with, which is to introduce the people of Myanmar to Coca-Cola, which wasn’t there until about three years ago. Now you can buy even a Coke Zero, which Rob fiends after in China, in the most remote corners of the country. I find this incredible. They took us to a really happening party at the French Alliance, where we all stood around in a courtyard drinking beer while a DJ tried to make us dance. This is like everywhere we go in Brooklyn.
Oh, also, we ate. Did I mention the food is incredible? Oh, yes? Okay. Night one, we hit a Kachin restaurant called Jinghpaw Myay. Kachin is the northernmost part of Myanmar, and it’s a part of the country still embroiled in fighting. The people there are from a different ethnic group, and they’re mostly Christian. Highlights included a pounded beef with some ginger and chilies, rice with chicken (apparently, this is called shat jam, a name that makes me giggle like a ten-year-old boy), and mashed potatoes. THOSE POTATOES, THOUGH. I don’t know exactly what the kitchen was putting IN the mashed potatoes, but I do know there were crispy shallots on top, and that they tasted like happiness and food comas. We ordered five platters for like eight people. I was gunning for a sixth, but someone else, thankfully, took the wheel away from me. The server at this restaurant also taught us an incredibly valuable life lesson, which is that beer bottles have a handy little lip on the mouth, and if you place that lip on the rim of the glass and pour slowly, you get a perfect, head-less pour of beer. I mean, a decade in the restaurant industry, and I feel like my world was turned upside down with that knowledge drop.
A little gun shy about the most popular Burmese restaurant in town (the Rangoon Teahouse), Lanier took us to a bomb-ass alternative, a Burmese joint called Khaing Khaing Kyaw, where you walked around what looked to me like basically a buffet and ordered the highlight tour of dishes. Which is to say, tea leaf salad, bean salad, about a half dozen other seriously excellent salads, rich beef curry, fish curry, griddled prawns, sautéed veggies, a impulse-purchase bowl of mohinga (more on mohinga in a second), and then some sugary treats.
And finally, on our last day in town, Paul took us to get some street samosas and then a bowl of mohinga, which is like a fish noodle soup that everyone eats for breakfast. I’m a strong buy on the morning time noodle soups, so I thought mohinga was genius. My favorite line about it, though, comes from another Lucer, Lauren, who apparently took one bite and then said, “I’m sorry, but I really hate this.” A polarizing food stuff, to be sure, but the restaurant selling it was a gem: the whole neighborhood was sitting around, watching each other’s kids run around, yelling for more mohinga and tea, and reading the papers.
And we ate Mexican food, hoping it would be hilarious, but it was actually good. Good Mexican food is everywhere, you guys, everywhere. Place was called Tin Tin, if you need a fix when you’re in Yangon, and they make some decent margaritas and nachos. Think we missed the boat, though, on not going to a place called Sai’s, which apparently does Mexican and Shan (another Myanmar cuisine) FUSION. Reason to go back to Myanmar, I say.
Okay, over and out on this missive. I’ll get to Bagan, Inle, and Hpa-An soon!
True fact: I got horrendous food poisoning and/or the stomach flu on my 30th birthday, and in addition to being brutally ill on the night I entered this new and exciting decade, I couldn’t get out of bed for any festivities for the next five days, which means I missed my birthday weekend. It’s like my body was like, THINK I’LL JUST STAY 29, THANKS. Anyway, no big, because a friend and I’d already planned a joint 30th birthday shindig in Singapore in late January, when the majority of this year’s Luce class descended on that city for a music festival. So I just decided to wait to turn 30 until that weekend.
To make the occasion really super special, Rob gifted me enough airline miles that we could both fly the Singapore Suites to the party. If you want a really good synopsis of what it’s like to fly the Suites, you should read this dude’s hilarious account of his long journey in the Singapore Airline’s version of first class. Basically, instead of a measly seat, you get your own cabin. If you’re a couple (or I guess good friends), you can book cabins next to each other, and then sit together in one mega cabin. This is especially fun if you ever want to lie down in the bed your seat converts to, because adjoining seats can convert into a double bed. Where you can, you know, cuddle. And really only cuddle. Because despite the Do Not Disturb sign you can illuminate, the suites don’t actually fully close — there’s a gap at the top.
None of that really matters, because despite the fact that our flight was seven hours long, I never actually made it to a point when we could lay our seats down flat and cuddle. We boarded the plane accompanied by a handler, who delivered us to flight attendants who knew our names without looking at our boarding passes (like, did they google us?). When we sat down, they handed us a wine list that started with Dom Perignon and ended with a very old Port. Casual. I’ll start with the Dom, I said, trying to act like that was a thing I often say. My plan was to pivot into a glass of Riesling, coast into a little Premier Cru Burgundy, and then land in Singapore the tune of that aforementioned Port. My plan was foiled when they kept refilling my glass of Champagne. At least a bottle deep and no dinner later, I was holding onto my armrest, “reading” my Kindle through my one open eye, and thinking, WHAT IS REALITY. In other words, I flew too close the sun, like the high school kid discovering peach schnapps for the first time.
Next it was time for a seven course meal, for which my inhibitions were loosened enough to greedily ask for the Asian celebrity chef menu but still also have the cheese and dessert from the western menu. As the plates rolled out, I managed to shift into the Pinot, but then, as soon as the dishes were cleared, I passed out on my non-converted-to-a-bed seat and slept like a baby for two hours, only to awaken when we were descending. I figure I consumed about $500 worth of wine, but I still lament all the value lost on my one brush with a lifestyle I’m not likely to revisit anytime soon.
Only stressful thing about flying in that cabin: the flight attendants freshen up the bathroom right after you use it. I know this because the toilet paper was always refolded into a neat triangle when I went in, and it smelled like heaven and orchids. A pleasing experience for the occupant, but it caused me undue anguish and performance anxiety. Like, what if I need to, you know, USE the bathroom? Could you not go in there the SECOND I leave? Then there’s no way to shift blame to the group.
Anyway, we met up with the crew the next day and got down to business exploring restaurants. I’m sure there are other lovely things to do in Singapore, but I did basically none of those things, with the exception of going to the zoo at night, a highly recommended activity if you believe the guidebooks. I would also highly recommend it if you need something to do that’s not just stuffing your face all day erryday for like five days. The animals are more active at night, and, so long as you are not prone to panic, you can walk through a flying fox cage where dog-sized bats chill like seven inches from your head and eat fruit. Sometimes they fly, and then you want to scream and run, but you have to control yourself and walk quietly to an exit, trying not to throw up. Pretty fun. Our friend Christian gave the zoo a six out of ten, but the flying fox cage a nine or ten. After reflecting on the experience for a few weeks, I think that’s pretty accurate.
Back to the food. Here’s a fairly complete list of the things we ate and drank in Singapore: fancy coffee, fancy kefir soda, raw vegetables in trendy combinations, vegetarian Indian food from the best restaurant in Little India, fish curry soup called laksa from a Hawker market (supposedly the best laksa in Singapore), roasted suckling pig at a music festival, frozen margaritas, terrible nachos, fries topped with salty egg, more frozen margaritas, killer huevos rancheros, an acai bowl, more fancy coffee, a fancy ice cream bar, gummy mochi filled with chocolate, fried bits and bobs acquired from the street, burgers, fried crab sandwiches, wings, more frozen drinks, achingly good dim sum at 1 a.m., and custard buns, which a couple members of our group spent basically all of their free time trying to hunt down. The ones we found were so good, we ordered like four rounds of them. And we ate that Indian food at East Coast Park, which hugs the waterfront — that’s where we celebrated our birthdays, welcoming in a new year as the sun set. Surreal.
And then I got food poisoning. Along with half of our group. In Singapore, which is so clean you can basically eat off the bathroom floor. Because apparently this is how my 30th year is going to go.
But let’s not dwell on that! In the middle of all of this, we went to a music festival at a park that overlooks the wackily shaped Marina Bay Sands where we danced our little hearts out and got sparkly temporary tattoos (a nice complement to the sparkly temporary tattoos we applied by our ownselves before the show). Rob had a euphoric moment seeing CHVRCHES. I thought it was pretty good, but was busy raging at the girl next to me, whose backpack was jammed into some rather intimate areas of my torso. GET OFF MY LAWN I’M OLD NOW.
Reflection time: Singapore was SIGNIFICANTLY more charming than I expected. You hear a lot of people in this part of the world calling Singapore “Asia Light” — it’s full of expats, clean, and incredibly functional, and the language of business is English. I thought, therefore, that it was going to feel a little soulless and strip-mally, or super futuristic, like the skyscraper part of Pudong in Shanghai. Not so. It’s colorful and diverse, and a lot of colonial architecture is slipped amid more modern buildings. The city is legitimately pretty. There are food markets everywhere, and there’s plenty of green space for recreation. The frozen drinks are on point, too. I think it was a nice break for our buds who’ve spent their year in less developed parts of Asia — you can get all the creature comforts of the west in Singapore, and it seems like you don’t have to work to do basic things (cabs are metered, prices are set, pharmacies are stocked with familiar brands, you can get passport photos taken in the subway station). We heard a lot of Mandarin spoken around town, too, which was kind of fun. Downside is that it’s expensive, but not so much more expensive than Beijing in a lot of ways. Probably the best indication of how we felt about it: we kept our metro cards instead of cashing them in for our deposit, reasoning we’d likely be back in time to use them before they expired.
A bunch of you have sent concerned messages about Beijing’s recent pollution struggles, and others have asked what it’s like to live under a red alert. So six months into our China journey, Imma take a break from posting only about our vacation lifestyle and talk a little about the pollution here.
Let’s set the stage for a sec first: We touched down in Beijing in a thick cloud of haze, and that haze didn’t abate for four days. At the time, we were wide-eyed with trepidation about that, but people told us that this was unusually bad. A bartender we met, in fact, asked us on our third day in town, “Don’t you think the pollution talk is all pretty overblown?” We were a bit taken aback, given we had to prance (or walk slowly, so as to not inhale too much air) around outdoors in our face masks, but the cloud blew off the next day, and we had a couple of weeks of glorious blue sky. Then the haze returned for a couple of days, and blew off for a couple weeks. Rinse, repeat, with an extended period of beautiful blue skies thanks to the military parade, until last week, when the worst pollution of the year descended on the city: the sky turned a murky yellow color, and it was hard to make out buildings across the street.
This state lasted approximately three days, and then a cold Mongolian wind blew it out. It’s a super odd feeling to go to bed in a toxic cloud and wake up in what is basically equivalent to crisp mountain air, but that’s exactly what happened. (Side note: another time, a few days’ worth of bad smog blew off during our dinner – we emerged from a restaurant to star-studded skies that had only two hours earlier been completely hidden by thick haze. What a trip.) The pollution count on that blissful reprieve of a morning was about 10, which is pretty much pristine. During the dark days of last week, the pollution count passed 600 (or higher, no real idea, since the scale basically maxes out at 500; most of the U.S., for comparison, rarely tops 50). Not great timing, since Paris was hosting global climate talks rightthatverysecond. Also, the public was so rattled about the pollution that when another polluted period was approaching earlier this week, the government declared a red alert — the first ever. This shut down schools, banned outdoor cooking (lots of restaurants roast lamb on the streets here), and required cars to drive on alternating days. The air never got as bad as last week, but it was bad enough that most people wore masks when they were outside, and you definitely wouldn’t want to do much more than walk from your house to the subway, for instance. No jogging. No running for the bus.
So what is it like to live in this cycle, and what is it like to function when the air is that bad?
Well, for one thing, everyone here, or at least everyone that I interact with, thinks about the air on a daily basis. All of the foreigners and most of the Chinese people I know have air filters in their homes. Most people have apps on their phones that tell them what the pollution count is, and they’ll frequently comment on the state of the air. They’ll say this year is less bad than years past, or talk about what the air was like here when they were young. Talking about the air, at least with us foreigners, is smalltalk fodder. I never thought much about how odd that is, but today I remembered that despite living there for three years, I had no idea what the New York City air pollution was like until I moved to China and looked it up for comparison with Beijing. Pollution went from being a thing that never really crossed my mind to something almost always on my mind. And that goes for when the air is good, too — the mood lifts visibly in this city on blue sky days, and people carpe the effing diem. Beijing is one of the best cities in the world when the air is nice. It feels effervescent.
More personally, for the first couple of months here, my mood was directly correlated with the pollution. If the sky was blue, I felt like my life was together, my future was bright, and the songbirds were basically gonna come over and do my laundry while whistling zippity doo dah. Levity, in other words. No task too hard, no obstacle too great. When the smog hit, everything was terrible — I hated the crowds, I hated riding my bike, I hated that I dropped a chopstick and didn’t know how to ask for a new one, I hated that my future plans are nebulous at best, I hated that I couldn’t find a damn smoothie bowl in the whole city of Beijing, because HOW WILL I EVER BE HEALTHY AGAIN. I was basically an adult version of Reasons My Son Is Crying.
I was eager to break that cycle, and Rob was eager for me to stop bitching about the smog all the time, so he did a bunch of research on how bad breathing the air actually is. Some story he dug up said being outside all day on bad days is sort of the equivalent of smoking half a cigarette a day. That helped. I don’t want to smoke half a cigarette a day forever, but I’m probably not gonna die if someone forces me to do so for the next year or five. It allayed my fears enough to brazenly ride my bike in 200 pollution weather, thinking, “bad air, don’t care.”
Then airpocalypse hit, and The Economist posted a story about how breathing Beijing’s air is actually like smoking 40 cigarettes a day, and I promptly lost my mind. “THIS IS A PROBLEM,” I declared to my Chinese teachers. They were like, yeah, duh, but what do you want us to do about it? I was like, “I’M NOT LEAVING MY HOUSE.” And they were like, enjoy dying alone. Anyway, since Rob is a much more skeptical internet user than I am, he did some research on that figure and learned that it’s way off, sort of — air pollution does not actually compare well with smoking cigarettes, it’s just that if you live forever in Beijing’s air, you can expect to die three years early, which is how early you’d die if you smoked 40 cigarettes a day. Not sure that makes me feel better, but it does make me feel like I overreacted a little by posting that questionable article on Facebook in a woe is me moment. Beijing air: somewhere between half a cigarette and 40 cigarettes. In real life absent of hypothetical analogies, I hyperventilated every time I climbed a staircase from the subway to the outdoors, and I was convinced that I actually got winded quicker. Also, my face mask turned gray, which is gross. I got a new one.
As for the red alert, living through airpocalypse made the red alert feel relatively mild. Because the government pulled a bunch of cars off the road, the pollution hit the high 300s, but not for long. Probably for the best that delicate-lunged children were more or less required to stay inside, though.
For all the pollution awareness in Beijing, though, my biggest and most depressing revelation this year has been how pervasive this problem is — this is not just about Beijing, or any given city in China. This first dawned on me when we drove from Beijing to Inner Mongolia — and never broke free of the haze (although it thinned out). Same went for taking a high speed train from Beijing to Shanghai. But this is also not just about China. With the exception of Taipei and Chiang Mai, every city we’ve been in so far this year — and this includes cities outside of China, like Seoul, Bangkok, Hanoi, and Ho Chi Minh City — has suffered at least one bad pollution day when we were there (and I’m inclined to think we just got lucky on Taipei). Even Krabi was soaked in a cloud of fumes for the first several days we were there, because the Indonesian fires were raging, and the blow-off was seeping waaaaay beyond its borders. One of the bleak factoids we all traded last week to get through our funk was that Dehli’s scale had topped out at 999 — which means the pollution was likely much higher. That is hard to fathom.
What’s more, it’s likely going to get worse elsewhere — China’s economy is evolving, and it’s getting richer, which means manufacturing is moving to cheaper countries. And with it, so moves the pollution. And in case I need to spell it out for you, that implicates all of us in this problem — we don’t have the pollution problem in the U.S. in part because our manufacturing sector is relatively small. We have, effectively, exported our pollution.
In my opinion, that makes China the least of our worries. China is actually working on this problem, and it’s cleaning up its air faster than the west did when the west was the manufacturing center of the world — the country improves each year. This is likely why we’re all fixated on China — because China can and appears to be actually dealing with this. India, on the other hand, seems kind of hopeless — a decentralized government and miles of bureaucratic red tape make a policy-based solution all but impossible.
I guess the too long didn’t read version of this rambling post is that living in Asia has made my environmental convictions less theoretical and more of the we-need-to-act-now variety: we’re destroying the planet, y’all, and I see it, in real time, every day. We gotta knock it off. ASAP. And it’s gonna take regional and global cooperation, and large-scale clean energy innovation, to do it.
In Vietnam part one, we told you about Hanoi, which is vibrant, full of history and architecture, and generally worthy of a considerable amount of time
stay-wise. Sadly, we had only a couple of days before we took a $30 flight to Hoi An (yes, $30, and here is where I tell you I’m insanely jealous of our fellowship counterparts in southeast Asia, who can jet around the region for almost nothing).
We decided to go to Hoi An almost exclusively based on the fact that our friend Sarah went there five years ago and loved it. We remembered almost nothing about why she loved it, but I’m happy to report that she did not lead us astray. Hoi An is in the center of the country (Hanoi is in the north), situated on a delta that abuts the East Vietnam/South China Sea. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, which means that its old town is protected goods, and a number of old buildings have been preserved. Hanoi has Indochinese architecture, but it’s unabashedly layered into a modern hive of activity, so that sometimes you have to squint to see the bones of a particular building. Hoi An, on the other hand, has had its look totally preserved. Old houses along winding alleys are now home to restaurants and shops, which sell everything from tourist kitsch to art to bespoke clothing to fair-trade handiwork. Probably goes without saying that it’s a tourist mecca. Imagine the well-preserved little villages of, say, Italy or France, and you have some idea what Hoi An is like. SUPES CHARMING, is what I’m trying to say, if a little overrun.
Hoi An was an excellent place to relax, so our activities included poolside coconuts, a bike ride to the beach, and eating at some fantastic restaurants (Hoi An is known, in particular, for its food). Best meals were at Phuong, a just-outside-of-Old-Town banh mi shop made famous by Anthony Bourdain (Tony got this one right — damn good banh mi — although I liked the bread at Banh Mi 25 in Hanoi a bit better) and Morning Glory, a stalwart of the dining scene here that turns out upmarket versions of Vietnamese street food. The cao lau, a Hoi An specialty of fat noodles and tender pork, was particularly good here — it was studded with crackling pork skin and sown with cinnamon.
I (Laura) also had a massage that bruised both my back and my ego: I went post-workout (but also post-bathing because I’m not an animal), and was still sweaty, so the nice lady at the front asked timidly if I’d like to have a shower before I got started. Somewhat baffling, given I’d paid extra to sweat in the sauna pre-massage (turned out that was money down the drain — almost passed out from the extra heat…delicate workout flower).
We had to buy a ticket to get into old town (I think? Possibly just to walk down one street? Unclear), which included entrance into some of the old temples, houses, and the assembly hall. Those were cool glimpses inside some of the buildings, but the thing that really stuck with me was at one old house, the guide told us every year the delta floods and the entire bottom floor of this building is under water. Nothing they can do about it; they just move the furniture upstairs when it’s been raining really hard for a couple of days. Then I noticed the dates of the annual floods pretty much aligned with the dates we were in Hoi An.
So I probably shouldn’t have been surprised when the next night, we were caught in an unbelievable downpour — I swear the river rose like six feet in basically seconds, but I am a terrible judge of things like that, and Rob gently scoffed at that analysis. We were attempting to check out the night market when the sky opened up, and we suddenly found ourselves standing in inches of water. Sadly, the rain also meant we couldn’t bike to the surrounding villages, which are known for things like pottery. A future trip.
Onto Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) (on another $30 flight). What a contrast! You can still certainly see some remnants of French influence in HCMC, but this is really a city — vibrant, growing, modernizing quickly. We had a lot of people tell us HCMC is the least interesting place in Vietnam, so that’s what we’d axed, and while I don’t totally regret our choice given our insane time constraints, I certainly think that’s an unfair categorization. Hanoi and Hoi An definitely have more sites to see, but HCMC strikes me as a place you want to try on for a while.
So how did we deal with our unfortunate lack of time? We ate, of course. First order of business was a beer at Pasteur Street Brewing Company, whose brewers came from Colorado’s Upslope. Really one of the only craft brewers in the country, I think — we looked for craft beer in Hanoi, but didn’t really find it. Solid suds, and a nice pairing menu that included a good crispy fried chicken.
Then we attempted to hit Cho Lon, Saigon’s Chinese market, for lunch, only to find, sadly, that the food stalls had pretty much shut down for the afternoon. Cue another downpour. We wandered through the massive labyrinth of the market, exploring spices and nuts, shoes and kitchenwares, for a little while before bailing into a cab and making good on our goal to eat Mexican food in every country we visit.
Scouring the internet for a promising spot led us to La Fiesta, a Tex-Mex joint that, it turns out, is owned by a native Texan and his Vietnamese wife. Dish authenticity, therefore, was both completely on point yet totally Vietnamified — for example, because it’s hard to get tortilla chips in Saigon, I imagine, La Fiesta made its own, I’m assuming right down to grinding the corn into masa, because the chips in the nachos were oddly thick. The queso, too, had clearly been made not by melting Velveeta, as I’m sure it is in much of Texas, but by making an approximately correct homemade molten cheese sauce. We found this oddly charming — somehow better than if the restaurant had been a by-the-book authentic Tex-Mex experience. Helped that its frozen strawberry margaritas were 100 percent money and on happy hour. I wanted a pitcher — Rob said no because marathon, not sprint.
Our gastro-tour concluded with dinner at Cuc Gach Quan, an appropriate finale. This restaurant is tucked into a colonial mansion, which has been romantically reimagined into a maze of low-lit rooms that look like they walked out of an Anthropologie catalog (and if that means nothing to you, imagine a space built with wall-to-wall lovingly collected artifacts, some creatively repurposed into chandeliers, table dividers, or wallhangings; also, the dishes do not match, and everyone dining there looks like they walked off a movie set — including the French people next to us, some of whom were actually in tuxes and ball gowns). The massive menu offered refined takes on Vietnamese home-cooking, so we dipped into clay pot pork, sautéed morning glory, and fish with lemongrass.
Then we rolled home to our windowless hotel room (last time Rob gets to book the hotel for us — we saved, like, $7 by not having a window) and out to Thailand the next day. More on Thailand in another post or two. I leave you with this photo of Rob in a sweet hat, which, regrettably, he did not buy.
We met all of the Luce Scholars in Thailand last month, and because it takes a long time (and costs a relative fortune) to travel to Southeast Asia from Beijing, we decided to take the week before our meeting and do this insane thing where we attempted to see all of Vietnam in like six days. Fool’s errand, y’all — despite its relatively small size, it turns out there’s a lot (a LOT) to do in ‘nam, which is a thing I should have remembered, given I’ve been there before. We realized this, though, after we’d booked a flight into Hanoi and out of Ho Chi Minh City, so we whittled our trip down to a couple of days and change in Hanoi and Hoi An, and then an overnight in Ho Chi Minh (HCMC, from here on out).
‘Nam is great. It’s cheap and cheerful, the people are rad, the food is achingly delicious, the history and culture are plentiful, and once you get over the insanity of the roads, it’s a cakewalk of a country to maneuver in. (Related: Rob was not even that impressed with the traffic jams since he’s already been to Jakarta, which contends for the worst traffic on the planet. I’ll admit the streets were not as snarled as I remembered — the Hanoi I remember required a leap of faith to cross the road in front of the motorbikes — but more on that in a second.)
I’m gonna break our trip up into two posts, mostly so you don’t ruin your work day reading a 17,000 word story all at once. So up first, Hanoi.
We touched down in Hanoi late and hit our hotel, which I’m only mentioning because this place deserves a little internet lionizing. I stayed at the Hanoi Elegance Ruby five years ago when I went to ‘nam with my friend Ben, and we’d marveled at the shower orchids, in-room laptops, and breakfast pho — all provided for a nightly sum that’s cheaper than most Super 8s in the States. Over the years, I talked this hotel up a lot to Rob, and we booked the same place. He was skeptical when we arrived — our room was small (but the bathroom walls were not made of glass, so no idea why he didn’t think this was the lap of luxury!). But let me tell you, he became a believer. The staff here just gets it: they all remembered our names and details, and they looked for little ways to deliver. Like upgrading us to a suite for the last night. Or calling our room and offering to pack me breakfast the last day when it became clear that I was not going to make it down before our car to the airport arrived. Hashtag nailing it, who needs the Four Seasons. Okay, TripAdvisor review over, but seriously, should you someday find yourself in Vietnam, I hope that this blog post ignites something in your memory and you book this joint — the Elegance chain is the way to go.
Before I give you the bullet point list of highlights, I’ll say that the real crowning moment of Hanoi (and the whole Vietnam trip, frankly) was the dinner with our friend Nick’s host family. Nick is also a Luce Scholar, and he’s working on environmental policy junk in Hanoi (sorry I still don’t know exactly what you do, Nick! Even after all that time spent together!). He’s a lot of fun, and an excellent host, and he’s living with a Vietnamese family at the moment, which means his Vietnamese puts our Chinese to serious shame (I harbored some intense jealousy at how well he speaks a language that has MORE tones than the one I’m purportedly learning).
The family had us over for a home-cooked meal, which involved some killer crispy spring rolls, rice paper wraps stuffed with thin rice noodles and herbs, sautéed vegetables, roasted duck, and a bamboo soup, which they say they eat because it makes you full fast. No need to make me full fast — I was already dying, and Nick’s host mom kept being like, “eat, eat!” (She had other advice for us, too, like don’t eat the fruit in China — the Vietnamese, it seems, harbor some ill feelings toward their northern neighbor over what’s happening in the South China Sea.) We also met Nick’s host parents’ daughter and her husband, who offered us insight on HCMC. Mostly, it was fun to watch Nick interact with his host parents, who poked a lot of good-natured fun at him for a litany of pretend offenses. Nick played it up, rolling his eyes and responding dramatically. Above is a picture of the fam. Note that Rob is actually twice the size of Nick’s host mom, who had amazing teeth.
Here’s what else we did in Hanoi that was cool:
-Rob ate his first street side banh mi sandwich at Banh Mi 25. This is a trumpeted sandwich in Hanoi, and I think that’s because of the crisp yet delicate bread. Also, the owner was really insistent on us taking a tiny banana at the end of our meal, which was nice.
-Checked out the requisite sites, including the one-stilt pagoda, the citadel, the Women’s Museum (a good ethnic museum, but there’s a lot of info there), the Hanoi Hilton (which you might know as the prison John McCain was held in when he was a POW), West Lake (which we walked part way around), Hoan Kiem Lake (which we walked around), and Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. We didn’t actually go in the mausoleum, though, because Ho Chi Minh himself is currently in Russia getting a touch-up of some sort. The citadel was pretty cool — part of it was used as a bunker and planning base for the French war and then the American War of Aggression (otherwise known as the Vietnam War). Strangely reminiscent of the hospital in the rock in Budapest, actually — like the whole thing could be basically hermetically sealed to the outside world.
-Wandered around the old quarter, where ladies sell fruit from bicycles and people perch on tiny stools for food. Also, each block seems to be devoted to a specific industry or item. One block we walked down sold metal shelves and kitchen gear. Others seemed rich in clothing.
-Rob ordered a Vietnamese pastry (no idea what it’s called, though we later saw it translated as floss bread) that tasted like a waffle, except that it was bun-shaped and filled with chocolate. Rob has not stopped talking about this fortuitous find since.
-Saw a water puppet show. Wikipedia tells me this is a thing that dates back about a thousand years. The puppets glide over a pool of water (they’re operated from behind a screen by people standing in that water) while an orchestra provides a soundtrack built on drums, some sort of monochord thing, and bamboo flutes. Pretty spectacular art form, at least to my uncultured eye. And some fiery special effects, like when the dragons shot sparks out of their mouths.
–Ate Cha Ca, a dill fish dish unique to Hanoi that I have not stopped talking about since I was in Vietnam the first time. I went to Cha Ca La Vong that time, which is the most famous spot. This time Nick took us to Chả Cá Thăng Long, where we met up with Noey, a friend from New York who now lives in Hanoi with her boyfriend Peter. I don’t remember enough about La Vong to compare the two, but I will say that at Thang Long, after we finished our five portions of fish, we ordered five more portions. Because we are fat Americans.
-Drinking light beer from tiny stools at a Bia Hoi, one of Hanoi’s beer gardens. Talking about things (feelings, mostly) with Nick until the place shut down and kicked us out.
-Marveled at the architecture — Vietnam has that old French feeling, thanks to the fact that the French were taking up space in the country from the 19th century until 1954, when the Vietnamese kicked them out. In those days, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos were collectively known as Indochina. So now you know where to place that Indochinese architecture, which is, basically, French colonial, but Southeast Asia style — leafy trees, tropical flowers, teak. Also, when you think about the fact that the Vietnamese had just kicked the French out of their country and then had to take on a war with the Americans, it puts into context how much a generation of people suffered here. The message of a lot of the Vietnamese war museums is not so vehemently anti-French or American as it is anti-war — war is bad.
-Learned some Vietnamese slang from Nick. A young guy dating an older woman is “a pilot flying an old plane”.
That’s all for now! Ho Chi Minh City and Hoi An coming in part two.
You guys, it’s really been forever since we went to Seoul. Like, since then, I got a whole new visa, one that allows me to live in this country without having to make trips like the one we made to Seoul. I started my job. Rob went to America and came back. We also bought bikes, which has been life-changing, and figured out how to order water for our water cooler. SMALL WINS.
I totally meant to write about Seoul earlier. In fact, I did write about it earlier, but then I attempted to save it in WordPress, and it didn’t save — it got erased — and then I wept silently and slammed my computer shut and vowed to never make that mistake again. And then I made the same mistake again, with another post, like three days later. And now you know why our blog has been idling silently.
Anyway, now that I’ve basically forgotten everything, I’m going to try again, and this time with only the high hard points, because I don’t remember any other kinds of points.
Here is my short analysis of Seoul: Modern and international, with charming old architecture tucked into parts of the city, and tons of restaurants. Like, I have never seen so many restaurants in one municipality. I do not understand how they all remain open.
All that said, you should really go here if the outdoors make you feel warm and fuzzy — there are massive parks in the city of Seoul, and they make Central Park look silly. Seoul raises you a mountain in the heart of the metropolis, NYC. Apparently, you can also go rock-climbing, biking, running — anything you want, really. This was a major selling point for our friend Amarynth, a fellow Lucer who’s spending her year in Seoul. She has already made a lot of rock-climbing friends. She also runs, like, an Ironwoman daily (disclaimer: I do not know how far you have to run for an Ironman), and in Seoul, she does this by running UP to the top of that mid-city mountain. I hiked to the top of that mountain and turned purple and felt quivery. Color me impressed.
We only hiked one day, the last day. I immediately wished, however, that we’d skipped many of the other things we did to experience Seoul’s nature, because it’s really unique.
Not that the other stuff was bad — the next best things to do in Seoul are to eat and wander around neighborhoods. As you can imagine, we did a lot of that.
Fellow Lucer Diana and her cousin took us to a pig trotter restaurant 만족오향족발 (not even one single clue what that is in English, but it’s near City Hall, if you’ve happened upon this blog post while attempting to plan a trip to Seoul), where you wrap succulent hunks of pig foot in lettuce with bean paste and garlic. Sort of like Korean BBQ you may have had, only, you know, foot meat is delicious. Pig trotter restaurants are a Seoul specialty, too.
Diana also took us to the Tongin Market, where you can buy a ticket and get a tray heaped with a bunch of different food, sort of like a street food buffet. I imagine, anyway, because Tongin Market doesn’t sell those tickets on Monday, the day we went, so we wandered the quiet lanes and I stuffed my face with tteobokki, which sort of tastes like fatter and chewier gnocchi (or mochi, if that’s a good reference for you) coated in that spaghetti-o’s sauce that’s been hit with a lot of spice. I could probably live on it for a few days. Or weeks. It’s great.
We ordered Korean fried chicken from the banks of the Han River. Then some dude on a motorbike cruised up with our spicy poultry and bottles of beer, which we ate while watching a very expensive-looking light show and watching a very young couple share a “private” romantic moment inside a translucent tent.
We hit a BBQ joint with Irish, Jim, and their twins. We randomly picked one off the street, and it happened to be part of the Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong empire, which also has a location in NYC.
Our Luce crew hit Ojang-dong Heungnamjip, one of the oldest and most famous bibim naengmyeon restaurants in Seoul. Bibim naengmyeon is a cold buckwheat noodle dish made with chili broth and pear. Apparently, it’s actually North Korean. I love bibim naengmyeon, though this version was somewhat milder than what I’ve had in the past.
One of our fearless leaders, David, sent us to a dumpling shop called Bukchon Mandu, located in a busy shopping district called Insadong. As fried food pilgrimages go, this one is totally worthy. People line up outside, where a lady on a fryer makes dumplings by the dozen. Best bet is to get a seat inside and order a sampler; dumplings get stuffed with pork, noodles, shrimp, kimchi, magic…
Amarynth and Diana made sure we had bingsu, which is basically shaved ice with condensed milk and delicious toppings. Available all over Seoul.
We had a multi-course Korean feast, about which I can remember almost zero details, except that it was quite good. A traditional way of eating, I think I remember. Hey, I told you it was high hard points!
We also drank a lot of beer in Itaewon, which is the old American army base ‘hood. There are a lot of Americans there, and a lot of other foreigners in general (also a lot of craft beer — so win). On Saturday night, we felt like olds when we left a bar at, like, 2 a.m., exhausted, only to find the streets crawling with hammer-timed people looking for clubs.
And I demolished an acai bowl (basically a fancy and expensive smoothie) because hatefully, it’s the thing I’ve been craving most since I left the U.S. (well, besides Champagne). I don’t even know who I am anymore.
-Getting a blueberry-flavored beer outside the Dongdaemon Design Center. You order this thing from a food truck. They fill the glass from the bottom. BUT HOW DOES IT WORK?
-Going to the hologram music experience with Irish, Jim, and fam. This was supposed to be a way to see a KPop concert in hologram, but we missed the showing. Made some sweet tape art, though.
-Checking out the Leeum, which has a sizable collection of contemporary art and an even larger collection of traditional pottery. I was pretty interested in the pottery for about seven minutes, and then I realized our audio tour was saying almost nothing unique about each piece — “This is a plate with nice blue paint. This is a bowl with really good detail.” Too many nicely painted bowls and plates. I learned nothing. The contemporary stuff is a bunch of pieces from the usual contemporary suspects (Damien Hirst, Rothko, Warhol) plus stuff from Korean artists. The piece that stuck with me most is a photo of a bunch of people in a North Korean stadium, minus any flags or logos. Of course, I can’t actually remember the name of the artist nor find a photo of it on the internet, so this information is somewhat useless to you. Also, I think you mostly go to the Leeum for its architecture — three wings, designed by three architects, including Nouvel and Koolhaas. The pottery space, designed by Mario Botta, is one of the best spaces for viewing art I’ve seen anywhere — it’s round, which gets rid of that annoying momentary hesitation that comes from wandering connected galleries and rooms in most museums.
-Wandering a Hanok (traditional houses) neighborhood with Diana as our guide, and then getting invited by a random lady on the street to check out her pottery studio. It was in a basement, so for like, five seconds, we were like, are we gonna get murdered by this nice old woman? But then we met her son and grandson (I think?) and they explained their process and tried to give us a gift. They made really beautiful things, so that was cool.
-Seeing some of the Victory over Japan day celebrations. This is a national holiday, so it was sort of like 4th of July — parade, concerts, general reflection on triumph over evil. We caught a high production-value concert at City Hall. Lots of KPop stars (I think?) and one apparently famous older lady who got major cheers from the crowd when she came out to croon with some young scantily clad lass. Lots of lights. Lots of dancing. Lots of animated video. Blinking bracelets that synchronized to the beat. Pretty impressive.
-Strolling through the palace (pictured at top there), although this was a lot like the Forbidden City in Beijing (of which someday maybe you’ll get to see a photo on this very blog), and it was hot, and we were tired, so we sort of just zombie trotted through the grounds and then left.
-Going to a tea ceremony with Amarynth’s friend who also makes traditional Korean formalwear. A Korean tea ceremony is quite complex — you pour the water through many different pots before the tea makes its way to your cup. We were pretty honored that this woman, who we barged in on in the middle of her entertaining customers, thought we were worthy.
-Staying in yet another hotel room where the bathroom is encased in glass. So far as we can tell, this one did not have a privacy curtain — just privacy frosting around the bottom half. Probably works fine for average-heighted people, but barely comes up to our torsos. We’re the big couple. Traveling in Asia is not for new relationships.
One lowlight: Took a bus tour to try to knock out the major Seoul sites. Turns out, the best architecture in Seoul is not really viewable from the bus. So mostly we paid for a nap in the sun. Here’s a photo from our ride, though!
It was fun to see some of the architectural and linguistic similarities between Seoul and Chinese cities, and to think about the different types of development that have happened in these countries over the last few decades. It was especially interesting to hit Seoul the weekend after we went to Shanghai — both cities have amenities that make them feel like they could be just about anywhere in the world, but each has its own cultural undercurrent.
Rob pointed out that Seoul seems to have Korean-ized many familiar symbols — western restaurants have a distinctly Korean flavor, for instance, making them both familiar and totally foreign at once — which probably speaks to the exportability and strength of Korean pop culture and other cultural symbols (and to this point, I went to a music festival in Shanghai a few weeks after this trip at which the KPop act pulled crowds of fans that started lining up eight hours before the doors opened).
After a long weekend, I’m not going to take on that analysis, because it’ll probably just make me look like a fool, but looking forward to seeing how other cities in this region have been touched by globalization and regional interaction. I guess what I’m trying to say here is that thanks to its unique feel and norms, and the international symbols it’s appropriated, Seoul made me feel like the world is both small and large at once.
You guys, I started work. I work in China. That is weird. Also, this makes me feel like I really live here now; the “I’m on vacation and have no real responsibilities” part of this year feels over. I have a lot of responsibilities now. I think it’s going to be a productive year.
For those of you who don’t know, I’m working with the Beijing Farmers’ Market because I’m in China to try to understand what’s happening here in the realm of sustainable agriculture. Even before I started spending all my time at the market, I could tell it was going to be a fruitful year — we went to Inner Mongolia with the market, where I got to see traditional agriculture first hand, and since landing in China, I’ve had intermittent meetings with the woman who runs the market, through which we’ve had an incredibly fascinating ongoing discussion about food here. In addition to my own research, I’m going to work on raising awareness of the market among the expat community, and forging partnerships with restaurants and other food industry players. Should be fun. I already feel busy.
Anyway, starting my job here was not that different from starting my job anywhere — like most jobs I’ve had, there’s a lot of food involved with this one: we all take turns making lunch and dinner for each other (I am intimidated to take my turn, because these people are really good cooks), and we snack on samples from our suppliers all day long.
Only thing that really sticks out so far is that the very first thing I did was go to a two-hour meeting conducted entirely in Chinese. And then I realized that despite two months of intensive language training and many small wins, I do not, in fact, speak Chinese. I basically spent half an hour being like, why are we talking about sentences? How could possibly have this much to say about sentences?
We were not talking about sentences, dear reader. We were talking about Mandarin oranges, the word for which is nearly identical to the word for sentence, but said with a different tone. Feeling good and confident about my skillz.