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OK, I will pick up where I left off about the Seoul trip. So, it was Saturday evening and we were going to meet up with a friend of a friend, Laylani (Leylani, Lalani, idk which) and her boyfriend James. We went to a very Korean place for dinner, a dak galbi place, which is the super traditional Korean BBQ. Basically, its a hot plate that you cook a bunch of different food on, usually thick noodles, chicken, peppers, covered in a BBQ sauce. I love this stuff and was glad we got to have some. Our friends were both army folk, which represents a large number of the Westerners in Seoul. I knew that Seoul was the second biggest city in the world in terms of the greater metropolitan area, but it was remarkable how spread out the city was. Our friends came from hours away to Seoul for the weekend, which seemed to be a very common theme for people we met. It was cool meeting some people living a similar adventure to us but in Korea. If I were in the army, it would be pretty great getting stationed in South Korea than most other places (large understatement alert). I had heard that Koreans loved to get drunk, even more than Chinese, which I thought was going to be a stereotype. I can now confirm that the stereotype is completely accurate. I don’t mean a “little tipsy having a few beers with friends”, I mean “chugging rice and grain alcohol to the point of total intoxication.” Again, we were in a popular area to party and filled with university students, so they were perhaps more wild than others, but lets just say that the general population we saw was loud and drunk (and wearing baseball apparel). Dinner was great and we headed to another bar to meet up with some other friends.

One thing about the area that we noticed was tons of live music. People were playing on the streets and pretty large crowds formed around them, making the area a lot more lively. We went to another bar and met up with some other people, one of whom went to my friend’s alma mater, Western Kentucky University, played some electronic darts, hung out for a while, and then headed home. It was a fun night out and it was great meeting James and Laylani. We are hoping they decide to come to China so we can repay their hospitality. We headed back to the hostel to get ready for another festival that was happening that weekend, celebrating the birth of Buddha.

Sunday morning was our last day to tour, so we tried to hit up some of the other hot spots. Luckily for us, there was the festival we went to the day before and the Lotus Lantern Festival going on. We went to Jogyesa Temple, which seemed to be the center of the Buddha Bday celebration, and looked at the booths on Asian medicine, crafts involving Buddhism, got our picture dressed like Buddha, and marveled at the Korean celebrities that we didn’t know. The temple was covered in lanterns of all different colors, and there was some sort of prayer ceremony going on inside the temple. It was cool to see but it seemed a little strange that people could walk into a temple and just take pictures of people praying on seemingly such an important day. I don’t think it would fly in the USA if on Easter Sunday or Christmas if a bunch of loud Chinese/Korean tourists stumbled to the front and started snapping pictures. We did it anyway and nobody seemed to mind. We were close to the famous street and tourist spot called Insa-Dong, which is basically a big street with shops and restaurants on both sides. Similar to China, it made you realize that you were in Asia, because there just aren’t places in the West that have that many people around all the time. Erin mentioned in the last post about the Turkish ice cream vendors, and I will try to put a video of one of them playing with the kids. These guys should be in every major city in the world because it was pretty hilarious to see them messing with the kids. Big crowds gathered just to watch each kid take their turn being faked out and fooled by the ice cream man.

We walked into some tea shops and other places looking for clothes or presents, eventually stopping at a pretty authentic looking Korean place for lunch. We had to take our shoes off and sit on the floor, and the place was filled with only Koreans, so it seemed authentic to me. I got a bibimbap, a great little Korean dish that is rice inside a hot stone pot, filled with vegetables, seaweed, an egg, and sometimes meat. Of course the meal came with kim chi (as did every meal), and the prices were pretty solid for a lot of food. 5 bucks to get completely full on fresh food…I was impressed. Erin found a tea shop where she bought some “naturally” sweet tea called Snow Dew tea, which is green tea that is supposedly sweet on its own. It is good and sweet. We walked around a famous shopping area with a weird name (Ssamziegil), then headed back to the heart of the city to try to see some palaces.

We walked back to the palace we had started at the day before (where the changing of the guard ceremony took place), but it wasn’t the palace I wanted. I am very anti-taxi and would basically walk until I couldn’t anymore, but at least they are reasonably priced in Asia. I should mention how amazingly nice the taxis in Seoul were. They were all nice Hyundais, pristinely clean on the inside, modern on the outside, and with some pretty amazing innovations to boot. All of them had visible GPS’s that showed exactly the route you would take, and if you say the words “interpreter” or “English”, the cabbie will make a call, get you a translator in a few seconds, and off you go. This city is so modern it is insane. Anyways, the cab dropped us at Changdeok Palace, which is known for its gardens. It looked a lot like Chinese palaces, but it had some cool features and looked “older” than most other palaces we have seen. The royal family from Korea must have been real short, because my head would have smashed through just about every doorway that we saw. It was a beautiful palace, remarkably quiet considering how close to downtown it was, and offered some amazing views of the city. The garden was pretty “meh” (a word I use commonly on the internet to express apathy), but it was a nice escape. Plus I saw a chipmunk, a very rare wildlife sighting! We left the palace and headed out for dinner.

We met a teacher named Demond in Tangshan, the city in China we used to live (I know you all probably know this). He taught right after we left, and I wrote the new teachers a long note if they needed any help or if they ever visited Beijing to email me. We met up with him and the other teachers in Beijing, and I remembered that he mentioned he would be going to Seoul to get his PhD, and luckily we were able to meet up. We went to a place called Yeti, a Nepalese/Indian fusion restaurant that was GOOD. I am starting to really fall for Indian and Pakistani food…I find myself craving it as much as Italian or Mexican these days. We were with Demond, his roommate from Chicago and girlfriend from South Africa, and it was a lot of fun. They all seemed to love Korea and it did seem like a great city to be in. A huge difference between Korea and China is the internet. The internet in Korea is foolishly fast. 5 or 6 times the speed of our internet at home was what I was getting on the wireless at the hostel we were staying. Faster than the USA. The place is paradise I tell ya. We finished dinner, walked around and talked at another bar for a little while, met the insane “Makgeolli man”, a guy that drags a cart with awful South Korean liquor around, saying “I love you”, “Obama” and other hilarious English phrases (see the photos of the insane looking Korean man in the last post). After that, it was bedtime, back to the airport, one more bibimbap for David while waiting, then on the plane. Trip was short but sweet, but hopefully I will be back.

South Korea is a great place. The people were friendly to us, but we were told that they have an overall bad attitude towards foreigners, especially Americans. It seemed that the older generations really respected and appreciated Americans and realized that they would be part of North Korea without help from the USA, but the younger generations seem to lean strongly to the socialist side of the political spectrum. Combine that with the heavy presence of American military and you have cooked up a pretty good batch of anti-American sentiment. The city of Seoul, the food, the culture, and technology are incredible though, showing the ingenuity, intelligence, and resolve of the Korean people. I was really pleased with the trip and really impressed with the city. Definitely one of the favorite cities that I have ever been (Barcelona, Hong Kong, Seoul, Rio de Janeiro, San Diego and DC of course!).

Hope everyone is doing well. Ready to be an uncle. Bye for now.

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It was obvious upon arrival in Seoul that food and drink would play a major part in our 48-hour whirlwind trip. So, I aimlessly tried to document all of the local specialties. The thing that first struck me upon arriving downtown was the sheer amount of coffee shops. I’m used to coffee shops on every block in DC, but this put the district to serious shame. Not only were coffee shops located one right next to the other, but they were open 24 hours and patrons were sipping happily at 11pm.

Similar to most of Asia, there were lots of snack stalls around. The vendors in the Hongik University area were mostly selling different types of omelet-style foods that consisted of various vegetables and meats fried together with egg. Our first night we tried a “Japanese pancake” that was really dough covered in mayonnaise, A-1 sauce and some type of paper-thin seafood topping. I found it pretty disgusting, but was hungry enough to take a few bites. After the meal, David was happy to visit his first Taco Bell in quite a while.

In the tourist spots like the DMZ and Insadong we found rare delicacies like fried fish skin pancakes and corn on a stick, and on quite a few occasions we saw vats of steaming bugs that looked like mini silk worms and conch shells. The DMZ shops were also packed with their own unique goods like beer from North Korea, chocolate-covered soy beans (loved these) and a porridge mixture that soldiers would often eat for their daily dose of heartiness.

The food at the HeySoul Festival was awesome. About 50 vendors representing different countries sold everything from baklava to tacos. My favorites were the El Salvadorian fried bananas and Paraguayan ceviche.

On many streets we were delighted by Turkish ice cream vendors, who used their sticky ice cream to play tricks with customers. Kids especially got a kick out of their act, which included jokes centered around making the ice cream “disappear” by skillfully using a long metal pole and some quick hands. There were vendors who steamed dough in deep vats, and others who sang clever songs as they wound long strands of thin sugar into candy.

We ate traditional Korean BBQ, which consists of frying lots of ingredients on a cast-iron pan in the middle of the table. The dish often includes really thick noodles, veggies and meat, and everything is cooked in a reddish, sweet, bbq-like sauce.

We also had a lunch of Bibimbap at an authentic Korean restaurant where we sat on the floor and ordered one of three options. The food wasn’t anything special, (Kimchi with noodles, miso soup, an egg, vegetables and rice, servied in a cast-iron bowl) but the ambience was nice and quaint.

Despite the fact that there’s a good amount of variety in Korean food, I didn’t necessarily love any of it. My favorite meals were the International food at the HeySoul festival and an Indian-Nepalese feast we ate in a fabulously adorned basement restaurant after meeting up with another former Tangshan English teacher.

I was pleasantly surprised to find lots of great, unique teas in Seoul as well. I sampled the naturally sweet, “Sweet Dew” and paid a small fortunate in Insadong to take some home. It tastes like honey and is just amazing! I also bought a brown rice and green tea mixture, and sampled another to-die-for iced cinnamon tea from the Bizeun rice treats shop in the airport on the way home.

We also ran into some local celebrities on our last night in Hongjik. First up was the huge dog that has accompanied his cotton-candy selling owner for years, and is a laid back component to this buzzing university bar area. We were also beckoned by the comical calls of the local traveling rice-wine salesman, so we sampled his goods and took some hilarious photos.

We didn’t have time to stop at a “Cat Café” on this trip, but were sufficiently amused at the trend of having cafes full of friendly cats to play with while sipping a drink! It’s actually a great idea, as most of these cats were abandoned and now have loving patrons who are constantly visiting. Perhaps next time!

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So last weekend Erin’s visa needed to be stamped outside of China, so we decided to take a little weekend trip to South Korea. Lots of foreigners live in China with tourist visas and need to leave the country every 90 days, a so called “visa run”, but it gives people a good excuse to travel. I got off of work a little bit early and we headed to the airport. Beijing’s main airport has 3 terminals, and the majority of international flights leave out of terminal 3, the biggest terminal. The terminals are a decent distance apart, and it is always confusing which terminal your flight leaves out of. In one of the more bizarre scenes of my life, I jumped off of the train at the last second because I saw a flight leaving for Seoul on the electronic board. Erin, however, did not jump off the train. We had plenty of time, so I exchanged money and then went to check in. I waited for a bit and was waiting for Erin to come back to terminal 3. When I got to the front of the line, they told me we needed to go to terminal 2. Erin was already on the bus back to terminal 3, and I frantically darted off in the direction she had just left. I told Erin we needed to go to terminal 2, and she tried to hail a cab back to terminal 2, in tears and feeling like the trip wasn’t going to happen. I checked in at terminal 2 and told them Erin was on her way, and she made it about 10 minutes after. We walked on the plane just in time, with phase one of our journey complete. It seems like a dream now that I am writing this, I almost didn’t remember because I guess I tried to forget it. I was flush with 600k Korean Won as the pictures can attest, and we were relieved to even be going.

We arrived in Seoul an hour and a half later and hopped on a bus towards our hostel. Within a few minutes on the bus, I noticed some things different about Korea. First, the bus driver came by to check everyone’s seatbelts! WHAT?! Bus drivers in China don’t care if you walk on the bus with chickens, and Chinese taxi drivers sometimes urge you to undo your seatbelt since they are a safe driver. Second, the bus driver bowed to us before we started. Chinese don’t bow to anyone (that I have seen). Third, baseball was playing on the bus TV. Baseball, you ask? I knew that Japan liked baseball, but we came to learn that Korea LOVES baseball. There are a few Koreans playing in the major leagues, but this was a Korean league game, between the SK Wyverns and the LG Twins. As you can see, the teams are named after companies like in Japan (the Nippon Ham Fighters is my favorite), and I was pretty impressed with the play overall. The game was very different though, and the strategy seemed to slant much less towards power and hitting home runs, and more towards trickery and speed. I watched about 15 batters on the bus, and EVERY SINGLE BATTER acted like they were going to bunt on every pitch. It was ridiculous, and I can only imagine how quickly you would have your head thrown at if this were MLB. 2 out of 3 pitchers I saw had a submarine delivery, which means they basically throw underhand, and there are maybe 2 submarine pitchers in the entire major leagues. I know this is boring for anyone that doesn’t like baseball, but it was still pretty surprising to me that Korea liked baseball so much.

We got to our little hostel run by Jun, a Korean guy who spoke about 20 words of English. We walked around the neighborhood to get some food and the lay of the land, and luckily Erin put us smack dab in the heart of the hippest area of Seoul, Hongik University (right where we belonged…). It was mobbed with people under the age of 25 and we could start to see big differences between Koreans and Chinese. Hygiene, fashion, size, face structure, and skin color were all pretty different, with the Koreans being more “modern” in regards to fashion and hygiene. The Koreans are known in Asia for being fashionable, but I guess I’m really not fashionable (not I guess, I am not fashionable (and proud of it)), because the Koreans clothes were pretty laughable in most cases. About 20% of girls looked like Amish people, wearing long, country America style dresses, 30% looked fairly normal, and the other 50% looked like total trash that you would find at clubs in Beijing. We were in a young area, so that skewed the results, but even still these girls were not trying to look wholesome (barring the Amish impersonators). A lot of people were wearing hats and shirts with American baseball team logos, even though many of them had no idea what they were. The vast majority of people were wearing Cleveland Indians apparel, because Shin Soo Choo, Korea’s baseball champion, plays for them (and is really, really good). A lot of Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, and some Phillies were seen too. We ate some nasty food and slept for our early trip the next morning.

As you should know, Korea is divided into two parts, north and south. The North is a dump ruled by tyrants that seem to only want to hurt their own citizens, citizens of other countries, and remain in power. The South is awesome and has the misfortune of having only one border, the DMZ, or demilitarized zone. The Koreans actually are still at war with one another, but signed a cease fire that the North loosely adheres to, and the DMZ was created after the Korean war in order to maintain peace between the two nations. The 38th parallel is the center of the DMZ, with 2 kms on either side of it serving as a buffer between the countries. There are tons of landmines inside, and it is the most heavily militarized border in the world. We got to see some interesting things on the tour, such as guard posts, the only train station in South Korea that goes to Pyongyang (has only made two trips ever and hasn’t gone in years), an observatory where you can look over the DMZ into North Korea (and see NK’s 3rd biggest city, which was basically a few factories), and go into one of the many tunnels that NK dug in failed attempts to invade the South secretly. I should mention that all South Koreans have mandatory 21 month military service (not Shin Soo Choo), but the North Koreans…mandatory 10 years for men, and 7 for women! The tour guide, CK, was a jolly South Korean guy who spoke great English, and although the tour itself wasn’t super interesting, it was pretty incredible to be able to see such an important part of history. It is a bit cliche, but you could “feel” the tension, and it is amazing that these two countries need to be divided physically just to maintain peace. Because of the lack of humans (due to the abundance of landmines), the DMZ has turned into an environmental wonderland, where animals and plants have been able to thrive without any human intervention. That is the positive from the story. We ate some soy bean chocolate, went to a ginseng store, and then were dropped off downtown.

We were dropped in front of one of the many palaces in downtown Seoul, just in time to witness the changing of the guard ceremony. The guards were dressed in traditional military clothing which was pretty cool, and again we noticed some differences between Chinese and Koreans. The Koreans not only waited in lines to take their picture with the fake soldiers, they also let us go before our turn in some cases! Don’t get me wrong, the Chinese are hospitable people and I love them, but this would be basically unheard of in a touristy location. We walked towards a giant festival that had booths and food from basically every country in the world, and were really enjoying our time in Seoul. Festivals everywhere you went and international food from everywhere on Earth? Yes, please. We ate falafel, pretzels, ceviche, and other stuff, while walking around a bit more and seeing Gyeongbokgung Palace before heading back to the hostel.

I guess I am in a writing mood because this is already pretty long. Somehow I wrote 1400 words already, so I will finish the remainder of the trip tomorrow. Also, my brother and his wife are going to have a baby in just a few days! Can’t wait to meet it and have a new member of the fam. For now, to be continued…

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This may be a bit of a pipe-dream, but it doesn’t hurt to try! David and I have already been talking about visiting home in June…so when I saw this competition I figured we may as well try.

Please vote for us in Rand McNally and USA Today’s Best of the Road Rally!

*More photos below of TuTu at the Guang-Ai Orphanage Big Day Out in Chaoyang Park!

During Christmas of 2009 Andrew and Christine (edit) had a good feeling we would be headed for China and gifted us a book called Oracle Bones, by Peter Hessler. We didn’t have a chance to read the book before coming to China, but brought it because it was highly recommended by everyone and The New York Times. I started the book during our first week in Jinan, but got too caught up in teacher training and jet lag to read more than a chapter.

I mostly forgot about the book until another teacher mentioned that he had just finished Hessler’s first book, River Town, and that I should definitely read it. As soon as I opened this novel I fell in love. In 1996 Hessler had joined the Peace Corps to teach English at a University in Fuling, China, and despite the geographic distance, so many of his stories were identical to David and my experiences in Tangshan. We were treated like celebrities, taught students with hilarious English names and were interested in completely immersing ourselves in Chinese culture. It felt good to know that for many years lao-wais had been experiencing the same trials and triumphs in China, and it was comforting to hear an intelligent foreign perspective on the whole experience.

After reading River Town I picked up Oracle Bones again, but again stopped halfway through to move to Beijing. And again, Hessler was right along side us in his own migration to the “big city.” He also finished teaching and moved to Beijing to pursue a new career; although at that point his Chinese was vastly superior to ours and he published a lot higher quality written work. (But hey, we still have another year to catch up, right?) It didn’t seem like Hessler’s difficulties with obtaining a visa quite matched mine, but they were certainly there, and I even coincidentally found myself eating in the same restaurant he frequented in the Russian district of Beijing. (Hollywood in Yabaolu, if you were wondering.) I read about his visits back to Chinatown in Washington DC, a few short blocks from where I worked prior to coming to Beijing, and I have even taken an “oracle bones” class at The Hutong, the history of which is much-discussed in his novel.

So, when I saw that Peter Hessler would be visiting the Bookworm Literary Festival in March, I instantly reserved two spaces at his talk. Although I hadn’t read his newest book, Country Driving, I knew I would just love the chance to meet the guy whose footsteps we somewhat followed. The presentation about his book was interesting and I thought he spoke a lot like he writes, often dense and information-packed with moments of * but hilarious humor. Overall, an excellent story-teller. The most funny anecdote of his talk had to be how the Chinese government adapted the image on the Chinese version of his novel (the first of the three to be openly available in both languages) to look “more like China,” by enhancing his photo of a grey and dusty roadside to an image with bright blue skies and trees in full bloom. Through this presentation I also learned that Hessler would soon be traveling to the Middle East with his family to begin a new adventure and to study Arabic, which, as you may remember, is the other language I have always mentioned in conjunction with Chinese as vitally important in understanding today’s world.

After the event I was nearly devastated to hear that Hessler wasn’t signing books or staying to chat, but had to leave immediately. So, I dropped off my book to pick up later and headed home. Fortunately for me, some young Chinese attendees didn’t take no for an answer, and I found Hessler standing outside being coerced into a far too detailed conversation than the situation warranted. After some coercing on David’s part I got over my fear of ignoring his polite requests and asked for a quick photo. We quickly told him our story about moving from Tangshan to Beijing, and the story was complete. Now I just have to read his next book. China road trip anyone?!

*Fair warning, this post will make you salivate.

I have just finished up my marketing/PR project at The Fig Tree in Chaowai SOHO www.thefigtree.cn, and have a minute highlight some of the awesome creations and knowledge I have gained from the experience. Although I’m nowhere near the level of a Le Cordon Bleu-certified pastry chef (I enjoy eating and talking too much), I have developed quite a refined palate and appreciation for all things sweet and gourmet since meeting Chef Lin. From the time and labor involved in baking, to balancing the variables behind the science of pasty, I never had any idea how difficult it was to be a pastry chef. Did you know that using different brands of almond powder will totally alter their ability to “create feet” and a perfectly smoothi texture? Or, did you know that Ikea sells the best small quantities of dark chocolate for home bakers in Beijing? My only current concern is that I have been catapulted into the category of food snob…and there’s not turning back!

Just to clarify, at this point I’m not being compensated in any way for commenting about The Fig Tree, so you can take my word when I say that this school truly produces the best-tasting and highest quality pastries in Beijing. My personal favorites have been the chocolate decadent cupcakes and cake, New-York Style Cheesecake, and savory Spinach Quiche. Here are some of my favorite Fig Tree creations:

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I have been wanting to buy a juicer and blender for a while now, so the Raw Food Potluck lunch at the World Health Store in Beijing provided as good of motivation as any to make the purchase. After a fierce battle between two saleswomen at Century Mart, I went with the Joyoung blender for 199RMB. It came with attachments for juicing, grinding and making soy milk, so I’m pretty excited to try out all of the functions. After buying the blender I went to Lohao Organic food store to pick up some ingredients for two raw food recipes I read about online. Upon arriving home I had a brief photo shoot with my blender and all items I had purchased or already had in the house which would soon be used to make blended creations.

My first recipe for the raw food potluck was lettuce wraps. Although the avocados I bought were unripe, so I added one instead of two, the end product tasted more like salsa than guacamole but still tasted great. The recipe went as follows:

Raw Food Diet Lettuce Wraps

-Diced tomatoes (I used a combination of cherry and regular)
-Diced avocado
-Diced onion
-Diced jalapeno
-Cilantro
-Fresh lemon and lime juice
-Dash of salt
-Big leafs of lettuce to wrap contents up!

*Recipe adapted from www.living-foods.com/recipes

Part 2 of the raw food lunch consisted of raw pumpkin pudding. I was very skeptical that raw pumpkin would taste alright, and I had to cut the pumpkin into pretty small pieces before the blender would take them…but this dish turned out even better than the first!

Raw Pumpkin Pudding

-Cut skin off one small, sweet pumpkin
-Dice into small pieces
-Fill blender about 1/10th full with coconut milk and blend with pumpkin
-Pour into bowl
-Garnish generously with flaxseeds, finely chopped dates, banana and walnut
-Sprinkle with cinnamon to taste

*Recipe adapted from Gina on www.goneraw.com

It took quite a while to source all of these materials and ingredients in Beijing, but after visiting a few stores and markets I found all of the necessary ingredients. David and I also tried spinach-banana smoothies and no-bake coconut-date biscotti made by local Raw Food chef, Jennifer McCLelland (http://www.jennifermcclelland.com/)

In principle I think the Raw Food Diet makes a lot of sense. It doesn’t advocate entirely uncooked or unheated foods, but promotes eating as much raw food as possible. In practice it’s very difficult to maintain this diet with an active lifestyle, as you must constantly be planning your next meal and making daily trips to buy fresh fruits and veggies. Despite the fact that I’ve already had pasta for dinner, I am going to continue to try some of these recipes and aim to eat raw when possible. For more information about a raw food diet, About.com has a pretty good overview: http://altmedicine.about.com/od/popularhealthdiets/a/Raw_Food.htm

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