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Ming Tomb...I should have paid attention

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Entrance to Ming Tomb in Beijing China

We hired a tour guide to take us to a few places in Beijing. We figured we should let a professional navigate us for a couple of days since it would be more time consuming on our own. Sun wen juan…or "Cindy" became our guide. Chinese people generally pick an american name because most of us (Americans) have trouble pronouncing anything  outside of a chinese menu…and even that is questionable (as I found out while visiting my relatives in Oklahoma).

Ming Tomb in Bejing China

Cindy, was fantastic. She was so bubbly, funny, adorable and very intelligent. She informed us that she spoke "Chinglish" and had been studying the english language for years. I think she was about 26, but no matter how hard Billy and I tried to trip her up with questions about China, China politics, imports, religion, oil prices…or Britney Spears music…she knew the answers. She had a great sense of humor and educated us (Billy) extremely well on the history, artifacts and historical sites that we visited.

Ming Tomb in Beijing China

Here's the embarrassing part…I don't remember a darn thing she said about Ming Tomb or The Temple of Heaven. This is certainly not her fault. China is very overwhelming and I think at this point when I saw Ming Tomb, all my mind could process was "ohhhhh…pretty!!!". Of course Billy clung to every word and date, but…well, I have no excuse for him. Anyway, I think the best that I can do at this point is to ask him some questions and write what he says.

Ming Tomb Dragons in Bejing China

So….Billy says…"(Yawn!)" whatever….forget it…he just started rambling on about history or something, so you're going to have to look it up on Wikipedia. Meanwhile. I have to report that Ming Tomb and the Temple of Heaven were both beautiful sites and wonderful architecture. There is one funny thing though. At the Temple of Heavenpark area, there are numerous Chinese Karaoke machines that are being used every so many feet by local amateurs who have decided that they can sing Chinese Opera. There is a long line of them down this corridor that you have to walk by to get to the exit. We were told that this was an ongoing tradition (which also includes Ballroom dancing out in the open) I have to admit that one or two had good voices, but dot dot dot, most of it was like watching the audition out-takes for American Idol. Not to mention
that the Karaoke machines they had were loud and over amped.
Bless their hearts for putting their all into it, but it was a little louder than I could handle. Please don't let me discourage you from finding out more about these two sites, they were quite amazing, but I'm afraid that I'm just not a good source for this one. By the way, there are some pictures HERE (Ming Tomb) and HERE (Temple).

The Great Wall of China...Best... Stairmaster...EVER!!!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Great Wall of China

I was ecstatically happy that our first day in Beijing was going to be spent on The Great Wall! In fact, this was my most desired stop on this multi-month trip. From Tianjin, we drove about three and a half hours to Beijing. It was interesting that the drive through the countryside of Eastern China was basically what you’d see driving on any state highway, except for everything being in Chinese…and that Chinese drivers are suicidal. Period. Not being rude here, in fact, they are proud of their ability to drive like bats out of hell and ignore every sane highway rule that was ever invented. One of our chinese friends informed me that this is why Chinese acrobats are so good…they have years of training behind the wheel. Let me tell you, those highways and city streets are scary.

The Great Wall of China

My first impression of Beijing was that I was seeing Dallas, but overseas. We have all of our fantasies about ancient Chinese civilization showing itself around every corner..rickshaws, red lanterns and cinematic music coming from somewhere. Well, I hate to tell you, but that doesn’t exist in Beijing.

The Great Wall of China in Beijing

Beijing has grown into a large, spread out, crowded “Dallas” of the East. So let me add some things before someone gets offended. Beijing has come into the future. They have built themselves a very modern city that doesn’t have one main skyline, but many buildings over miles and miles. They’ve built upwards and did a pretty darn good job of it. I’m not sure if the romantic imagery that we have about Beijing is purposely perpetuated, or if it’s something we’ve just done to ourselves. None-the-less, I’ll repeat…Beijing is big, modern and spread out. Now the good news. Beijing has preserved the important things such as The Great Wall, and a number of other places I’ll post about later.

The Great Wall of China

Traffic in Beijing is worse than L.A…by far. It took us hours to get from point A to point B. Once we were on the outskirts of the city though, it only took us about 20 minutes to get to The Great Wall. It was wonderful driving into the mountainous area and you could see the wall in the distance. I believe it is something like 10,000 Kilometers long, so you can only see parts of it. There is more than one area that you can access the wall at, so we chose to drive to the closest location to the city.

The Great Wall of China in Beijing

I’ve been considering this my summer/tropical vacation simply because at some point over the months, I will be in a tropical climate…see the logic there? However, Beijing, specifically the mountains where we drove to, were freezing. Our first day In Beijing was met by a wind storm. It was odd being in hurricane type winds, but no rain. Once we reached the wall, it felt like winter. Of course, we had shorts on. Is there anything else a red blooded American would wear to all parts of the world?

A Climb Straight up on The Great Wall of China

My friends, I tell you the truth, not what the T.V wants you to think…so here’s the fun part. The Great Wall of China, is way…way…way…up a LOT of steps. Now, I think that there’s a wimpy section somewhere further out that’s “Popular”, but where we went…let’s just say I almost tinkled myself halfway up. Okay, when I say “half-way”, I mean a quarter of the way. When we walked from the parking area towards the entry steps to our section of wall, I proudly exclaimed to a grinning tourist “We’re climbing the wall today”…and it was met with “HA! Good luck!”…and they walked on. You’d think I would have taken a hint, but no such luck.

The Great Wall of China in Beijing

So let me see if I can explain this. The Great Wall dips down at one point where you can enter and begin to climb some steps on the wall to the different watch towers at the top of the mountain. Of course the wall keeps going, but the goal is to reach the top and tell your friends you did. As it were, we were pretty high up. Now, the “Steps” are original and made of stone, but these were made by men who didn’t understand that steps need to be a consistent height and for normal human beings. So, as you begin to climbs a few steps, you realize that some strides are different than others. This wouldn’t be so bad, if they were naturally tiered upward…but they’re not…they’re very, very, very, very steep. Did I mention steep??

The Great Wall of China

You still don’t believe me about the steps, so I should have gotten testimony from the Filipino lady that was clinging to the railing while she tried slowly descending the steps with what I thought were her tiny little legs (turns out that it was just BIG steps). I laughed at her (good natured of course) and she laughed back, but said she’d rather cling like a baby than fall to her death….I snickered again and began to climb more.

The Great Wall of China in Beijing

There were a number of people going up and down these stairs. Generally, very slowly. Everyone is energetic until about a quarter of the way up the first section. At this point, it almost appears that people were crawling on their bellies to go up further, but maybe I was hallucinating. Finally, after multiple intervals of start and stop, I couldn’t make it any further. Yes, I admit, I could not do it anymore. I was up far enough though that when you turn around and look back, it’s very high and pretty scary.

The Great Wall of China
Coming down the wall. This was a whole new event in itself. Boy, did I feel bad about making fun of our sweet Filipino mom type character. Go with me for a moment…think about standing on the very edge of a high mountain cliff. There’s a drop thousands of feet below you and the only thing you can think about is the numerous, unstable and cranky New York tourists coming down the wall behind you (embracing/clinging to/ glued to the same railing).…and any minute one of them is going to trip and you’re going to roll the rest of the way down….and die. Okay, you’re not on a cliff, but the fear is still the same.

The Great Wall of China in Bejing

I never fully understood the term “Rubber Legs” until my experience at The Great Wall. I could barely walk back to the lot after spending a long, long time making it back down the steps. Overall, it was amazing. Spectacular even. I think I got some great shots. However, I could not, no matter how hard I tried…capture how incredibly steep these steps were…so you’ll have to take my word for it. Some of the pictures I've posted are of the various sections of the wall, you can see some people on the top of the wall here and there. (just so you know, we hate those people). If you ever get the chance to visit this part of the world, don’t pass it up. In all seriousness, it was one of the most fulfilling feats that I have ever experienced, especially thinking about the amazing history behind it all, and that I walked on a wall that the sentries did up to 2000 years ago. By the way you can access the additional photos of the area HERE. (Sorry that my photos are a bit washed out, I don't have any way to really edit them well on this trip.)

Chinese Military and Law Enforcement

Friday, October 23, 2009

Chinese Military in Beijing

I am jumping ahead here a little, but I recently was able to capture some photos of the Chinese Military, along with some various Law Enforcement personal. There is such an interesting presence about them.

Chinese Military in Beijing

Although some may look quite intimidating, most of the policemen and military people that I have photographed have been quite nice and helpful.

Chinese Officer 

There are more photos of Military, Law Enforcement and Various Officer in other countries that I photograph and place in my Flickr photo album HERE. I am frequently adding to it so check back often.

Dalian, China. Where's that? And bonus points for Americans!

Dalian, China

So, here we go.....Dalian sits at the tip of the Liaoning Peninsula (yes, you'll need to find it on a map!) It's actually not too far from Korea and was a logical first stop for us in China. It has a Russian history and you can clearly see Russian influence in the architecture, but it is a part of the People's Republic of China. Russia ruled Dalian from the time that they liberated northern China from the Japanese, until it was returned to China under Mao Tse Tung. Even though the Russian's ruled this city in the past, it was not a hostile situation for the Chinese, and also it allowed the Russian's to have a place to port during harsh winter freezes in Vladivostok (upper Russia). Okay, enough of the history stuff.

Dalian, China

I am struggling, trying to figure out what to say about Dalian, so I'll tell you my basic impressions. Dalian, is a beautiful, cosmopolitan city. I was very impressed with its layout, design and obvious wealth. The funny thing is that even the KFC was fancy (and no I didn't eat there). That being said, as with most cities, it does get a little gritty as you walk further away from the city center. The main center square is huge. There are fantastic buildings surrounding you on all sides as you stand in the middle. A major boulevard stretches out in both directions which makes the city feel like it goes on forever.

Dalian, China

The one thing that demanded a learning curve in Dalian was the method to which one has to cross the street. Dalian is a big city, but very walkable (well, with certain restrictions as you'll soon read about).  It seems that once you leave the main square, all the crosswalks and traffic lights are gone. So, this means that if you want to cross the street, you have to do it at your own risk. I realized this when I was trying to
cross a very busy two way street in order to get to Russian Street. I stood there horrified as I watched locals literally walk into oncoming traffic in both directions in direct defiance of motorcycles, cars and trucks. It was a game of "Chicken" and no one seemed to give. I watched as people on foot were almost hit within mere inches each time they stepped forward. It was a strange ballet of street crossing.

Dalian, China

After watching this for a bit, I decided that if I wanted to see any more of the city, I was going to have to brave it. I was a little concerned that the point system for hitting a westerner might be a little higher than a local in this game of dodge car. So, being the wimp that I am, I waited until the next person was crossing to use them as a human shield…unfortunately it was a young school girl…so I had mixed feelings about letting her be in the in line of fire…..okay, I didn't…I just had to say that so you wouldn't think that I was a terrible person! The good news is that we both made it across the street safely while weaving in and out of oncoming traffic. One lady told me that she subconsciously grabbed onto the elbow of a local Chinese woman as she braved across the traffic…apparently this was met with a strange look (I can't imagine why). I am proud to say that after many crossings throughout Dalian, I became an old pro.

Dalian, China

Russian Street was pretty amazing. All of the buildings on this particular street were designed with Russian influence. It was strange seeing Russian architecture with Chinese writing on it. There were multiple vendors lining the streets with various odds and ends. As usual, I had to ignore the constant call of "Hello! You looky". I'm NOT being rude, that is exactly what they say, so I'm just reporting here. Apparently they think that I could never have enough plastic dolls, wind up bicycle toys and leather purses.

Dalian, China

I think I walked a million miles around Dalian. Each corner was fascinating and each street provided more culture or modern asian design to enjoy. I think one of the highlights though was watching the KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) employees standing outside of the store in military precision having their pep talk for the day…apparently they take chicken very, very seriously. I have posted quite a few pictures in my gallery HERE. I did a bit of people watching in Dalian, so there are a number of people photographs as well.

Dalian, China

Eeeewwwww...Fish Markets...and the delectable Korean delicacy

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Seagull in Busan, Korea

Okay, so here’s were we get into the slightly graphic photos. Now, keep in mind that I don’t mean to be culturally insensitive. I respect different cultures and enjoy learning from them. However, what I encountered today was a little more than my American nose and tummy could handle.

Busan Harbor

We had taken the boat between Nagasaki and Korea and it was an overnight trip. The arrival port was for the city of Busan (which is pronounced Pusan and means “Mountainous Cauldron”). Busan is a large and busy city. It sits on the tip of South Korea and has many more people than I would have imagined. Downtown Busan sits on a harbor then comes inland from the sea port. The most prominent building is the main Fish market, which can be seen from all sides. It’s very modern and inside there are rows of market stalls full of fresh fish.

Busan, Korea Harbor

We had been told that the Korean fish markets were world famous and we must visit them, so off we went. As we came up from the subway stop, we saw a large archway that seemed pretty inviting and the Fish market building could be seen in the distance. We crossed the street and walked under the arches. There were many cars, motor scooters and bikes that kept zipping past us on the narrow street. Every few seconds, someone was honking or willing to run over you if you didn’t move.

Vendor on the way to the fish market

There were a lot of people talking, laughing, yelling and general noise making which was a little disorienting. Along this street we began to notice a few venders on each side with pallets of veggies or greens. Then a block later, a few buckets of fish became visible here and there as we weaved in and out of the crowd. Ahead, wecould see what looked like an entrance to a street market that was spilling over with more locals darting about.

Fish market in Busan Korea

As we reached the entrance it was obvious that it was fish…fish like things and things from the ocean which I had never witnessed before. The first thing to hit you was the smell. Now, you would expect a fish market area to smell like fish, so we were fine and going with the flow. Although there were people going in and out of the main fish market building, it seemed that the street market was much more appealing.

Fish market in Busan Korea

There were so many varieties of fish and sea creatures that I couldn’t even tell you what they all were. I recognized the obvious clams, large squid, and multiple bowls of smaller squid and small shells of something. People were scrambling to pick out handfuls of everything and placing them in bags or paper. This must be a wonderful way for the locals to get their fresh meals every day. While I appreciate fresh seafood, there is no way that I could cut up and cook something with it’s head still on, or while it was trying to slime from my fingers. There were some buckets that were so disgusting that I couldn’t even describe what I saw…but I’ll try as we go along.

Fish market in Busan, Korea

We began walking down this tiny, narrow path between the many, many pallets and buckets of sea life. I say life, because much of it was still alive. In fact, at one point I ran across my first bucket of live squid. Ahhhhhh….I wanted to pet one so bad. They were about 10 inches long and kept swimming around the little bucket, sometimes they would open up their web of tentacles and push forward in the few inches of water they had. They were so cute and I felt really sorry for them. I wanted to buy them all and take them with me. I’m sure there would be some logistical problems with that, but at the moment, I was in love. I dare not stick my hand in there though because Korea market ladies look really mean. I’m sure they’re not…okay, I’m not sure, but I was afraid that I would get yelled at, so I didn’t.

Fish Market in Busan Korea

Even when I took photos, I held the camera down and snuck photos from fear of being mobbed by little Korean mothers who were running these booths. You’re thinking I’m being really rude right now…but I have to tell you, one of them literally shoved…and hard…my friend out of the way because he was in the middle of the path where she wanted to move one of her umbrella stands. Yes, you would have been scared too!!!

Fish market in Busan, Korea

We kept walking…and walking. Ten minutes of fish viewing….slain manta rays…20 minutes of walking….slimy, bloody tube-like creatures that keep writhing around inside of clear plastic bags (what the hell???)….30 minutes of walking…where’s the exit? No exit. Yes, my friends, we were in the world’s longest fish market. The smell started to become very overwhelming. Oh…I left out a few things.

Fish Market in Busan Korea

Okay…first, each vendor would pick up cups of water and splash it over their dead (or alive) catch..then the water would run down into the street and create large puddles….and you have to walk through these puddles…in your brand new Sketcher walking shoes.

Fish Market in Busan Korea

Hungry?? Of course you are…so, a friend of ours decided to be brave and pet a sea slug…or the ancestor of a sea slug. A friendly Korean man who happened to be running this booth, picks it up in front of him…chop, chop, chop and offers a nibble to our friend (after a dollop of hot sauce). Another man gets into a “dare you to eat it” romp with our friend, and after a few childish back and forths…our friend plops it in his mouth. I know what you’re thinking…YUM!!! Right?” Chew..chew…chew…nothing was happening, it couldn’t be chewed up,so he walks away from the grinning Korean man and promptly spits it out when he was out of sight.

Fish Market in Busan Korea

Now, in case you have worked up a good appetite, we are stuck blocks inward in this market (fish on both sides) and began noticing little kitchen like set-ups that contained a couple of burners, a couple of woks and the smell of fresh cooked seafood. As we discovered, you can simply pick through your choice of variety buckets of whatever happens to be laying there and they cook it for you on the spot. Lots of Kimche (I don’t know if I spelled that right) to be added if you like. Okay, maybe this is a cool idea, but it really, really didn’t seem sanitary.

Fish market in Busan, Korea

Anyway, I apologize if I have offended anyone with my colorful description of the Korean fish market, as this is their way of life and certainly acceptable and respectful in their culture.

Exit from the Fish Market

However, after walking for an hour through this we finally found the way out and I was very happy to breath in some fresh air. By the way, I have LOTS of colorful photos of the fish market that can be viewed by clicking HERE. Keep in mind that there were hundreds of these booths and I could only photograph a few.

Korean Temple and Evil Billy

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Monk at the Korea Buddhist Temple
I have to admit that I was a little nervous about going to Korea, at first. I think it stems from the problems that lie with North Korea…but that has nothing to do with South Korea, so I know it makes no sense. Perhaps it has something to do with a smaller amount of tourism than other asian countries which might lead to the same sort of nerve racking problems I had in Prague (Czechoslovakia) years ago…when no one knew english and everything kept going wrong.  Regardless, my worries about Korea were all in vain.

Busan, Korea
Don’t get me wrong, Korea was a little confusing and a bit overwhelming. My first impressions of the city of Busan was that it was exploding with color from absolutely millions of signs advertising god knows what…everywhere.  A bus dropped us off  in the middle of insanity central. There were people everywhere and it was somewhat early. The ONLY thing that looked familiar was a Starbucks that nestled itself in next to a hotel and some other shop. The traffic was worse than a NYC block.

Busan Korea
Billy and  I managed to find some stairs that led down to where the subway would be. There were some deserted hallways that went off in different directions as we entered the underground system. It was obvious that this part was for underground shops that had not opened yet. A nice Korean policeman happened to be down there and realized we were trying to figure out how to get to the train. He motioned in one direction and we marched off for a city block or two (underground) until we finally found the subway entrance. Next came the computerized machines where you buy tickets. Thank God there was a button that said “English”. As I was trying to put Korean money into the machine, a nice young man came over and tried to explain in one or two english words, that I would have to get change from another machine to use smaller bills. 

Busan Metro Station
After all was said and done, we walked further down some stairs and managed to catch a train . All we knew was that there were a bunch of symbols on the train map showing where we were and there were some symbols showing were we needed to be…..about 20 stops further….out in the middle of nowhere. 

Suburbs of Busan, Korea
So, what I can’t figure out is if it’s always my fault that we’re tracking off to ridiculous places to see temples….or if Billy is using some kind of Jedi mind trick on me to make me think that I want to see temples. I like temples, but there are lots of them and I have to tell you…most of them are upwards. They don’t EVER seem to build them on flat ground. 

Train ride to the temple
We rode for a long time on the train. Hundreds of Koreans got on and off the train and eyed us curiously. There were no other tourists…I’m thinking it’s not a norm for this particular subway. After about 15 train stops, an older man approached us and said “Hello” in English.  I am ALWAYS suspicious. I’ve learned my lessons over the years about people trying to take advantage of tourists. However, as he began to talk, it became clear that he was a nice man and simply wanted to practice his english. He was a retired professor from the local university. Then came the questions…..lot’s of questions. 

Busan Korea Metro...just a few more stops
Perhaps Koreans are comfortable with asking  probing questions of each other or complete strangers, but he wanted more detail than I would even tell my mother. No harm done though, we just smiled and answered as best as possible. 

Passing train
Now, on the map, it shows that such and such temple is at the end of the subway exit. Very simple…ride the train, get off see big temple. Not so. As we walked up the stairs to above ground, we looked up and down the street and it was clear that we had ventured into a suburban outskirt that looked nothing even remotely Zen.  I saw a random car repair shop, a small bakery and a few signs I couldn’t decipher. We decided to walk up the block a ways to try and find a direction sign for the temple, and a cab driver jumped out…”Take you to temple!!” he exclaimed.  As usual..I say no…I don’t trust anyone…let alone cab drivers. “No thank you”  I nodded. Now we’re nasty Americans.  I walked on confidently and rounded a street corner. There is a sign that says…”such and such temple” with an arrow pointing that way. We keep walking….and walking….”There’s no temple here Billy…lets go back to the subway.” Yeah, right…like that ever works. No we must keep walking., why would I bother pretending otherwise? After walking another few blocks…we see a sign that says “such and such temple….3.5 Km s” Ahhhh!!!!

Taken on our hike up the hill
Okay, so…I’m not a wuss….I can handle a good walk, but I have to explain…the sign pointed uphill…up a mountain road. I’m going to leave out the endless whining, complaining, arguing and colorful explicits that ensued, but let’s just say that I didn’t get my way and ended walking up the mountain road…ahead of Billy (evil Billy) in a huff and bitched the entire way. (I don’t want to hear it Leslie!!!). In my defense, it was hot..humid..mosquitos…trees on both sides so that you could not see anything and I had walked for eight hours the day before. We had no water....but doofus HAD to go see the temple.  

Entrance to the Temple
So….after what seemed like hours of mountain trekking, sweating and plotting Billy’s future demise, we finally reached the top. A gate appeared before us and it was clearly our temple. Yes, folks, I have to report that there were hundreds of more steps involved in our temple viewing process. The monks feel much, much more at peace at zero oxygen levels. 

Entrance to the Temple
After we reached the top of those stairs, I hear…“Water…1 dolla”….those were never sweeter words. There was a little old Korean man with rusty english selling  various items out of a cart. I would have given him 20 dollars for that darn bottle of water. 

Korean Temple outside of Busan
Now, here’s where I eat humble pie. Although Billy (evil Billy) didn’t know what we would end up seeing at the end of my torturous trek up mount ridiculous, the results were worth it. The temples were beautiful. There were mountains surrounding us on three sides, filled with trees turing the color of fall. 

Temple grounds

There was a wonderful breeze that you can only seem to get that high up and a quietness that made it all special. The smell of incense was blowing through the area, along with the fresh smell of trees and nature. Luckily, at this height, the oppressing humidity from the city was not as present.

Temple Grounds

It was interesting watching the people meditate in various temples buildings (including outside on some mats) and watching monks lead a meditation chant along with incense and chimes. 

Temple Grounds

There was an upper and lower courtyard area to the compound, but the sounds of chanting and bells were heard everywhere.

Buddhist praying at Temple

I was very quiet as a snapped a few photos here and there. I tried to be respectful to the people and their customs. I used a telephoto lens to capture shots where people were partaking in their rituals. There were people inside out outside of the various buildings. These Buddhists (below) were sitting outside in front of a small Temple.

Buddhist at the Temple

There were a number of buildings on this mountain that made up the temple compound.  These buildings were hundreds of years old, but rebuilding and maintenance were obviously necessary. 

Temple Grounds

There were men who were re-roofing some areas.  It was possible to buy a roof tile which would have your name signed on the underside by a temple representative and it would be placed in the reconstruction. The grounds were actually quite a bit larger than what I'm showing in these photos. You could easily spend quite a while up there just walking around. 

Temple Grounds
What I really liked were the multiple colored lamps that were strung along the lower pathways of the main entrance of the Beomosa Zen temple. 

Lanterns on the Temple Grounds

Once you reach the second tier, there were multiple yellow lanterns. I’m not quite sure if there was any significance to the color (like there is in China).  I have placed multiple photos of the temple in my Flickr album HERE.

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