Archive for June, 2009


Week 13: Going West

   Posted by: Rhona    in China

We tried to take care of a few things before leaving Beijing but were relatively unsuccessful. One pretty important thing we looked into was extending my Chinese visa to allow me to stay in China while Brett goes back to work. The longest visa I could get in Seoul was 30 days and while it’s possible to extend that for up to 60 extra days I need to open a Bank of China account and deposit US$100 per day that I want an extension. So for a 30 day extension I need to deposit US$3,000. I assume this is to prove that I have “sufficient funds” though most countries would be happy with a print out of my Australian bank statement (which I think is completely reasonable). Personally I remember opening a Bank of China account to be a process taking many hours and resulting in much frustrated pulling of hair. It’s not a process I want to go through again and it’s not a process I’d wish on any unsuspecting tourist who happens to want to spend more than 30 days exploring this massive and varied country.

Thankfully for me China’s ridiculous rules go hand in hand with rampant corruption, and for a certain extra “fee” there is a company that will “take care” of my extension without me opening a bank account. It will cost me 860 yuan (about US$125) for a 1 month extension and I’ll need to do this twice. China has just priced itself out of the backpacker market, but maybe they want to? Backpackers stay too long, talk to people and want to understand the country; maybe they’d prefer high end, short stay group tourists who only see smiles? It’s hard to tell what they’re aiming to achieve sometimes. Maybe they don’t understand that making people feel unwelcome will drive them away?

I’mgoing to spend the time Brett’s away working on my Mandarin in Beijing, though sometimes it’s hard to see the point of further study (see above). It’ll be nice to be based in one place for a while though, hang out with some friends I have there and hopefully do some photography. I’ll also be sorting out visas for Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and maybe Kazakhstan for Brett’s next break. We’ll be heading to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan for 6 weeks then I’ll hang out, maybe in Almaty or come back to China (if they’ll have me). The break after that we’ll go to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Then maybe Iran, the Middle East and Egypt. Who knows where after that?

At the moment we’re in Turpan, Xinjiang province. It’s like a different country here, the people, the language and the food is all completely different to China. Depending on who you talk to Xinjiang should be an independent country, though the Muslim Uyghur minority group don’t seem to get the same sympathetic support as Tibetans from the international community. Personally I think they rock, they’re such a breath of fresh air. The smiles are genuine and I’m always treated well here.

We stopped at a few places on our way west, first at Jiayuguan in Gansu province, the Western end of the Great Wall and China’s last major stronghold on the road west. One is asked to politely overlook the fact that Xinjiang is west of here. It’s in the Hexi corridor, a narrow strip of flat land between the Mazong, Longshou and Heli mountains in the north and the Qilian mountains in the South. All overland trading caravans heading west from China came through here and during the peak of the Silk Road jade, silk, porcelain, spices and horses made their way around the Taklamakan desert to reach as far as India, Persia and the Mediterranean.

A little further west was Dunhuang and the nearby Mogao Caves. There are 735 caves in total, 492 of which are painted with Buddhist art from a massive variety of eras. The first cave is said to have been painted in 336AD and the site was active until the 19th century. A little further west of Mogao the Silk Road split into the northern and southern routes around the Taklamakan desert. Travellers stopped at Mogao to pray for a safe journey or give thanks for a journey safely completed. Our guide took us in to a small selection of caves and told us some of the history. The artwork was incredible, the detail and the line work in the figures are breathtaking and even an ignoramus like myself can see differences in the styles of different eras. In some of the earlier caves the figures are more slender and almost feminine while later ones are more solid and masculine. Many of the caves were built on behalf of wealthy patrons and there are often images of the sponsors as well as details about them painted on the walls. Of course we were taken to the library cave where various foreign devils made off with about 40,000 priceless manuscripts, paintings and scrolls that were discovered sealed in a secret room. There were another 12,000 items left behind, the best of which were divided up amongst various Chinese officials and are lost to unknown private collections. The foreign devils donated their findings to museums and public institutions where most of them remain, albeit not in the country they were discovered in.

The day before yesterday we arrived in Turpan, our first stop in Xinjiang. We spent the day hanging out, exploring the bazaar and sheltering from the heat of the day in our hotel room (it was about 36 degrees celcius and baking hot in the sun). At the market we discovered tangzaza, triangles of sticky rice that are squashed a little and covered with syrup. Totally delicious. We also tried samsas, baked dumplings filled with mutton and maroji, ice cream with a rich vanilla flavour and a hint of an unidentifiable spice. Back out in the cool of the evening we bought ourselves a watermelon from a small stand, cut it in half and asked the shopkeeper for 2 spoons.

We went to bed at 10pm Xinjiang time and were up at 6:30am Beijing time. Beijing time is 2 hours ahead of (unofficial) Xinjiang time because Beijing prefers to ignore the fact that Xinjiang is so far west that it needs a different time zone. We’d organised a car to drive us around the sites near Turpan and spent the morning at Tuyoq and Bezeklik caves. Tuyoq is a small Uyghur village which is near an important pilgrimage site for Muslims in Xinjiang. The Chinese government makes it close to impossible for Uyghurs to get passports and so they’re not able to fulfil their obligation to make the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. According to our guide the pilgrimage to the symbolic tomb of the first Uyghur Muslim, on the hillside nearby, is regarded as close enough. We met a man who had come from Kashgar on pilgrimage with his family and bought 3 goats to be sacrificed. The internal organs and head of one of them lay around on the dusty ground as another one was skinned. A goat costs 500 yuan, about US$75, quite a price for a local. As far as we could tell the villagers sell the goat to the pilgrim, it is sacrificed and then the pilgrim distributes the meat amongst the villagers. Not a bad deal for the villagers really.

Bezeklik caves are largely empty. The walls were once covered with Buddhist murals but most has been lost to pesky foreign devils, vandalism or the general wear and tear of time. Again, to be fair to the foreign men who quite literally cut out many of the frescos and left gaping holes in the walls, the ones that remained had their faces gouged out, their golden halos scraped off and were covered with wads of mud thrown where vandalising hands couldn’t reach. Unfortunately for many of the stolen frescos they were taken by a German, Albert Von le Cog, and were lost in the bombing of his country in WW2. Pass the blame to the Allies I suppose.

In the afternoon we visited the ancient city of Jiaohe, on an island between two rivers. Settled in 108BC and lived in until the end of the 14th century, many buildings are still recognisable and the main monastery still has partial statues of Buddha visible. We wandered around the streets and then headed back to our driver who took us to see the karez irrigation system. Water is channelled from the mountain snow melt into channels that run underground to villages. Oases like Turpan rely on these channels for their water and the underground tunnels are cleaned out once a year by men who drop down into the holes that are spaced every 5-10m along the channel. Grapes are an important crop in Turpan and our driver took us to his family’s grape plantation. Harvest is in about a month so the grapes were still a little sour but I’d love to be here in grape season. We might be able to buy some early harvest grapes before we leave Xinjiang.

Today we catch the train to Kasghar to get there for the Sunday market, then we head down to Hotan and across the Taklamakan desert to Urumqi. From there it’s back to Beijing in time for Brett to fly out to work.

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Week 12: Bye bye Korea

   Posted by: Rhona    in China, South Korea

We spent a little while longer on Jeju before waving goodbye to South Korea to land in Beijing. For two days we hiked along the Jeju Olle trail, a 12 day trail which follows the south coast of the island. It was nice to explore some of the less popular areas of the island and get away from the tour buses, which is exactly how the trail makers planned it. Along the coast we saw columnar jointing where lava had cooled fast when it hit the water and inland we stumbled across a massive area of aircraft hangers where the Japanese had an airport in the Second World War. In the cliffs along the coast long tunnels were their first defence of the Korean mainland as they started losing the war in the Pacific. Another find was a village of abandoned traditional houses typical of Jeju which was overgrown with weeds. Sheltered behind walls made of black volcanic stone the low houses were also built from the local stone. The rooves were made with thatch and securely tied down to stop them blowing away in high winds.

On the first day we ate at a Haenyo house, where Jeju’s famous women divers sell their catch to hungry tourists. On our second last day we watched some of them go out diving with their rudimentary wetsuits and low tech gear. They brought back seaweed, sea urchins, some fish and octopi. Historically men did the diving but in the 19th century women started going out in order to circumvent high taxes on the male divers. While the rest of Korea lived under strict Confucianism where women were subservient to men the Haenyeo of Jeju became the breadwinners in families on the island. These days there are less and less Haenyeo as the daughters of the tenacious divers choose easier jobs on the mainland or in the tourism industry on Jeju.

Another memorable meal was a soup that came out with ice cubes floating in it. We ordered it at a place that had no English or English speakers so we just pointed at something in our price range. We managed to work out that I was getting something with shellfish and Brett would have the same thing but with fish. The soup itself was quite vinegary, had cucumber and radish strips floating in it and my shellfish was both chewy and crunchy in turn. Some parts were so hard I didn’t think I could bite through them. Interesting but we probably don’t need to have it again.

Our last two days in Korea were lazy – on one we just went back to Seongsan Ilchulbong and saw the Haenyeo go out diving and on our last day we went back to Jeju si and ate nearly 2kg of citrus fruit. We left Jeju early on the 15th and flew up to Seoul where we managed to get on an earlier flight to Beijing.

It’s quite strange being back in Beijing, things have definitely changed around here in the past two years. On arrival at the airport there were no shonky taxi drivers hassling for their chance to fleece the new arrivals and when we caught the subway today there were electronic gates and queues! Not only that, but there are now 8 subway lines! It’s hard to believe but when I left China 2 years ago there was 2 lines open and one under construction. Now there are 8 open and 7 under construction. There’s a bridge over the road near where we’re staying that wasn’t there before and even though we know it’s less than 2 years old it looks like it’s been there forever. Online I can look at BBC and Wikipedia (though Youtube is still blocked) and on TV a reporter mentioned “the political incident of 1989”. Admittedly overseas one would call that the Tiananmen Square Massacre but it’s still a step in the right direction. And just as I think that China has changed immeasurably I step outside and see someone mopping the carpet. Aaaaah, the China I remember hasn’t disappeared quite yet.

It remains to be seen whether these changes are restricted to Beijing, host of the 2008 Olympics or whether the rest of China will have changed as much. We’ve decided to head to Xinjiang this time around as Tibet was just too difficult and all the restrictions made the trip ridiculously expensive. We might spend the winter in Central or South East Asia then come back early next year and try Tibet again. It’s going to be great to head back to Xinjiang, I’ve been twice as a tour leader and love it out there. Brett’s never been there before so it’ll be nice to be able to share it with him and spend some good time exploring.

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Week 11: To Jeju

   Posted by: Rhona    in South Korea

From Suwon we headed to Jeonju, the birthplace of bibimbap (our staple dish of rice and vegetables in a big bowl) and the Joseon dynasty which ruled Korea from 1392-1910. We were in town to explore the hanok village, a historic neighbourhood of houses belonging to the yangban (aristocratic) class. Traditionally built using wood they have many small rooms around a central courtyard and we visited some of them in our explorations. We were a bit disappointed by the area though, as many of the hanok open to tourists seemed to be recently built and there wasn’t much information (in English or Korean) to help us understand the history or significance of what we were seeing.

I have to admit that I was suffering a little tourist tiredness too. After 2.5 months of sightseeing sometimes it seemed like all I wanted to do was sit in front of the TV and watch brainless English language TV. That’s changed since we got to Jeju Island though, as there’s so much to see here and we’re running out of time in South Korea. We caught the ferry across from Mokpo after spending a night because we missed the afternoon ferry by 8 minutes. 8 minutes! Our guidebook said it left at 3pm but in fact it was 2:30pm.

The next day the 9am ferry left at 9:30 on the dot and took 4.5 hours. It deposited us at Jeju Si, the main city on Jeju Island. Korea’s largest island, Jeju is 70km long, 30km wide and has 250km of coast. It’s completely volcanic with Mt Halla rising in the centre. On our first full day on the island we hiked to the summit of Mt Halla, South Korea’s highest peak (1,950m) though the weather was cloudy and grey so the view was non-existent. Unfortunately we’d also hit it on a weekend and the women’s toilet block was like a spiky pink marshmallow – bristling with hiking poles and pink gear. Female hikers in Korea seem to have a fixation on hot pink which I don’t really understand. The brighter the better. The hike itself was an easy grade as Mt Halla is a shield volcano (a broad base as it’s formed from flows of molten lava) and we ended our hike to the north of the peak.

Nearby was a section of road known as the “mysterious road” due to the fact that things seem to roll uphill. On the way down from the hike we tested various stretches of the road only to find a very well signposted area (“Mysterious Road starts here”) with a souvenir shop. The optical illusion occurs because the road seems to be going up to a crest but in fact is sloped down. We experimented with a full can of cider but it was also popular with drivers who put their cars in neutral and rolled “uphill”. A bike rider coasted uphill looking puzzled as Brett and I gingerly opened our explosive can of cider.

At our minbak (cheap guesthouse) in Jeju Si the owner was very enthusiastic about having an American staying, explaining to Brett (through pantomime and a few English words) that the U.S. forces had saved South Korea from North Korean attack during the Korean War. “USA number one!” was enthusiastically repeated. Meanwhile I, from the little known country of Australia, had trouble  explaining to a man at the museum where I was from. “Italia?” he asked. “No, Au-stra-li-a”, I replied, enunciating every syllable as clearly as I could. “Austria?”. Ah hell, close enough, I guess I am half German… another man thought I said Israel…

While in Jeju Si we decided to take care of getting ourselves to China by the 15th of June. Both of us have only been given 30 day visas for China so timing our arrival is very important to maximise time in the country before Brett goes to work and I have to do a visa run. Unfortunately the ships from southern South Korea no longer run to China so we were looking at the ferry from Incheon to Tianjin (near Beijing). Timing was off though as they only run twice a week, not on a day we wanted and at a time that we’d have to spend a night in Incheon beforehand. All told it was going to take us 4 days to get from Jeju to Beijing and on top of that (possibly more importantly as Brett hasn’t worked since December) it was going to be quite expensive. So we looked at flights. Yes, within 3 months of leaving I’m already breaking my “no flights” rule but the main reason for that policy was to travel slowly through countries instead of zipping from place to place. The Jeju-Seoul-Beijing flight is costing us quite a bit less than the Seoul-Beijing ship alone, taking 1 day of transit time and getting us there on the 15th. Now we’re just working on trying to get a Tibet tour organised that doesn’t cost an arm, a leg, half a torso and the life of our firstborn.

Yesterday we visited some lava tubes, hollow tunnels formed when a lava flow cooled and hardened on the outside but kept flowing in the middle. The Geomunoreum Lava Tube system system is the longest in the world (15km) and resulted from the eruptions 100,000 to 300,000 years ago of a secondary volcano associated with Mt Halla. There are different sections of the system that you can visit but unfortunately for us only one is currently open to the public. We were pretty disappointed by this as the other sections looked really cool, with limestone formations covering the dried lava and all sorts of unique formations.

The Manjanggul section that we visited was pretty impressive though, and we walked for 1km through a wide tunnel with a variety of features that occurred as the lava flowed through tunnels formed previously. Lava shelfs occur when the lava doesn’t fill the tunnel and layers on the top cool. Some sections of the system have a 2 level tunnel where the crust on the top of a lava flow has solidified so much that a more recent flow went over the top of an earlier tunnel. Using our headlamps as extra light we examined solid rock that looked like molten chocolate and decided to have chocolate fondue for dinner.

Our minbak room near Seongsan Ilchulbong had its own kitchen and we melted the chocolate before dipping in bananas and tangerine slices. Citrus fruits are a specialty of Jeju island (there are apparently 350 different species grown) and in our first 3 days we ate more than 3kg of delicious tangerines. On our first day near Seongsan Ilchulbong we climbed the remains of the tuff cone though the iconic photo that’s used to advertise Jeju Island is impossible to get as it’s an aerial photo. It’s a pity, from where we looked out from our kitchen window the remains of the crater weren’t all that impressive.

We’re now in Seongwipo, to the south of Jeju Island and spent this afternoon checking out two waterfalls nearby – Cheonjiyeon and Jeongbang. 23m high, Jeongbang is touted as the only waterfall in Asia to fall directly into the sea, and it does come pretty close to that claim apart from the fact that it falls into a pool a few metres from the sea. Am I too picky with my facts? Anyway we’re sticking around the south of Jeju for another few days before heading back to Jeju Si to fly to Beijing on the 15th. We plan on spending most of our time exploring the coastline and hopefully doing some more hiking if the weather cooperates (not so fantastic at the moment).

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Week 10: People

   Posted by: Rhona    in South Korea

On our final day in Seoul we went to the public memorial of Roh Moo-Hyun, the ex president who committed suicide last week. His body was brought from his hometown of Bongha to Seoul in the early hours of Friday May 29 and the funeral was held at Gyeongbokgung, a palace which was once the main royal residence. Around 2,500 dignitaries attended and hundreds of thousands of mourners packed the streets. From there the coffin was taken to Seoul Plaza, the biggest open space in the city, then to Seoul station and to the crematory in Suwon, an hour to the south. The main ceremony was earlier than we expected and so we watched the news over breakfast and saw the incredible crowds. We hurried over and saw the remnants of the crowds (still impressive) and actually managed to get around and see some stuff so in a way it was the best of both worlds. Roh Moo-Hyun certainly seemed to be well respected and we’ve seen footage of lawyer types getting into egged buses, they might be the ones who were prosecuting him for corruption. There has also been a few signs of anti-government sentiment with signs saying “MB Out” being waved about. (Lee Myung-bak is the current president).

From Seoul we headed to Suwon where we spent a few days walking the UNESCO world heritage listed fortress wall, watching traditional performances and exploring the Korean Folk Village. The 5.7km fortress wall was originally built between 1794 and 1796 by King Jeongjo (1752-1800), the 22nd king of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) who seems to have been quite active around here. He also built Hwaseong Haenggung, a palace that he built in honour of his father, Crown Prince Sado. Prince Sado had been killed by his own father by being sealed in a rice chest after it was reported that he had a mental illness and was behaving erratically. We visited the palace where this reportedly happened, Changgyeonggung in Seoul (see this post). The wall itself was nothing overly exciting though the UNESCO listing might be more for the fact that there are full records of its design and construction, pretty impressive artefacts 200 years later.

On weekends there are free traditional performances outside Hwaseong Haenggung and we managed to catch three of them. On Saturday we arrived just in time to see a style of percussion called samul nori which originated in farmers music. Dressed in basic but bright blue red and yellow some of the men also wear black hats with long white ribbons attached. The ones with the ribboned hats often play a small hand held drum which doesn’t make all that much noise, probably because the coordination needed to spin their head as they hit the drum means that they’re not always accurate. The main music comes from two types of larger drums, gongs, an Indian sounding bugle and a shallow metallic instrument that sounds like a pot lid being hit. The leader of the band is one of the pot lid players and he seems to decide when to change the rhythm or speed. The ribboned hat players are the most active, dancing around, spinning their heads so that the ribbons twirl as if it were rhythmic gymnastics.

There was also a performance of martial arts used during the Joseon dynasty, with various gruesome looking weapons wielded artfully and gracefully. They demonstrated a charge and the various uses of each weapon in a battle situation including a pitchfork like weapon which was used to guard against fighters with spears. It could also, handily, be used to impale someone when they were relinquished of their spear.

It was truly a performance rich week as I saw even more at the Korean Folk Village. Brett was in need of a day of sleeping and relaxing (and I think he wasn’t overly enthused about yet another folk village) so I explored on my own. I saw another two performances of samul nori, a horse riding show and a traditional wedding. The horse riding show was cool but I realised that to a Montana man like Brett fancy tricks like hanging down on one side of the horse or having a person stand on the shoulders of another man while at full gallop can be seen at any rodeo. I didn’t quite scream as loud as the high school groupie girls as the strapping young men galloped past but I was impressed. In some of the houses at the village there were people doing some traditional crafts like spinning silk, weaving bamboo baskets and making straw sandals. It was cheesy but the photographer in me loved having a place where it was possible to poke my head into and photograph every corner.

Needless to say this post is going to be short on writing (well I thought it was) and longer on photos. It’s been a busy week for my camera. Today we arrived in Jeonju where we will spend a few nights before heading on to Jeju island and China.

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