Ruby Ramblings

A long way to Qingdao
September 8, 2010, 12:19 am
Filed under: China, Qingdao, Travel

For the dozens upon dozens of times I have travelled with absolutely no snags, plenty of time to grab a coffee before boarding, and all the time in the world, my self-confidence in travelling finally caught up to me. Thinking I could roll into Incheon airport an hour before my flight on a busy Tuesday business morning was not the best move.

Thanks to all the work folks who came out to dinner, and especially to Adam, Dan, Tyler, and Jon for a final beer soaked conversation at the tables outside the Family Mart. It still cracks me up that the tables outside of a convenience store are equally as legitimate a meeting and drinking spot as a bar. After a couple of hours rest at the sauna, I jumped on the subway to the airport to find that it both takes a lot longer to get around the magnitude of that airport, and that it was packed. I missed my flight by a good half-hour by the time I could talk to anyone, but they very graciously bumped me to the next flight to Qingdao for no charge (China Eastern Air).

When I checked back in again, I was told that my visa was not renewed in the fashion that I was lead to believe it was. Because I’m past my initial year, I had to go to the immigration office and get a re-entry permit, even though I was under the impression that my visa and everything was renewed and good to go. That wouldn’t have been such a big deal, except no one would tell me what to do in full. I get a ticket. The first lady says I need to fill out a form “over there.” I fill out the form. Get a ticket. The second lady says I need “permit stamps” to go with the form. Well why didn’t the first lady tell me that? I go to get the permit stamps – which are really just those, three nice stamps. I’ve already changed all my money to Yuan and US Dollars though, so I have to go to an ATM, get more Won, come back, buy the stamps from the lady who is doing Korean yoga in her seat and trying to ignore me, and then: get a ticket.

I don’t know what they do with those lovely stamps. All I know is that they didn’t end up as nice decoration in my passport.

After a final bulgogi bibimbop and some coffee, I make it without further snag onto the plane, and pass out for the brief hour and a half ride to Qingdao.

So far things are going well, and I am extremely grateful that people here are so helpful. There were no maps of the city to be found at the airport, and without the bus drivers prompting, there would have been no way for me to know which stop to get off at. The first thing I notice is that the visibility is horrible. Probably less than 1km. Another thing is the diversity in cityscape compared to Korea. To me, every Korean city and town essentially looks the same. I don’t know if one major developer has dibs on the entire country, or if all the developers build in the same style, but really, the whole country is a carbon copy of itself. Here there are the same highrise apartments in clusters, but the style of each cluster is a little different. The skyline is diverse with some unique buildings, and there is a much more liberal use of color here that doesn’t involve neon signs.

Instead of being a coastal industrial town, Qingdao has taken the route of making money by attracting people to the coast with beaches and parks along the water. It’s really nice, refreshingly clean, and a super friendly city. I’m going to hang out for an extra day and relax. The downfall is that I’m having trouble figuring out where the buses go, and other than taxis, there isn’t another form of public transportation. I have an aversion to taking taxis, even when they are cheap, unless absolutely necessary as a budget backpackers and exploration rule.

Walking Taipei and the Taipei 101 Building
May 2, 2010, 8:41 am
Filed under: Taiwan, Travel | Tags: , ,

At some point during the second day of my trip in Taipei, I realized the city is much smaller than it appears. After taking a little rest for the morning, I headed out on foot to find the next relic of my religious architecture tour. A mosque that was built in Taipei in 1960 and today serves as a worship place for the small number of Muslims living in Taipei, as well as a Chinese/Muslim cultural exchange center. I thought it was a lovely building, and it wasn’t a far walk from the hostel I was staying in at all.

When I got to the Mosque, I had a clear shot of the Taipei 101 building, another destination for the day, so I decided to walk there, just using the building as a guide. It ended up taking only a couple of hours to walk all the way across town. I’m really glad that I did it and had a few nice detours on the way. I stopped at a Sat./Sun. flea market that is one of those places that people who only stick the subway would never find. A parking lot for the surrounding businesses during the week, it turns into a great local wares market on the weekends. An older man who spoke fantastic English invited me to sit down for a cup of tea. It turned out he used to live in Texas for a few years, and was happy to meet a travelling American. We had a great conversation about Asian relations, teaching English in Taiwan, and a little comparison of Taiwan to Korea. He couldn’t help making a little jab at Korea when I mentioned how friendly I found Taiwanese people. “Korea is a colder place, so Korean people are a little bit colder.” I’m not sure if this is justifiable, but his small showing of Taiwanese loyalty was appreciated.

The warmer nature of Taiwan definitely shows in the landscape. The parks are filled with palm trees, and it was a good 15F warmer than Korea. The vegetation was completely different, and after hearing horror stories of what a crowded, industrial place Taipei is, I actually found it to be amazingly green and lush. They’ve done a lot of work to create gorgeous public spaces, and the hills surrounding the city were already completely green compared to the barely sprouting spring at home.

All over the city orchids hung from trees in front of the nicer arpartments.

Following the 101 building.

Considering how crowded Taipei is, it’s actually a much, much smaller city than Seoul. By some accounts Seoul is the second largest city in the world at 20 million people. But I almost never feel crowded in Seoul (well, except for yesterday, the Saturday holiday in Myeongdong – that was kind of nightmarish). It’s a spread out city that covers a huge geographical area. Taipei was a rather small city, and at less than 3 million isn’t that populated, but at a density of 10,000 people per square km, it feels a lot bigger. Seoul’s population density is less than half that at about 4,000 people per square km.

The Taipei 101 building is a feat of engineering. Taiwan gets frequent earthquakes (they had a 6.9 the morning after I left), and this is literally the only tall building in the city. But they didn’t build it to be the only tall building, until the Burj Dubai was finished last year, it was the tallest building in the world. (Korea has a Lotte World building in Busan planned that is proposed to be taller than Taipei 101, but shorter than then Burj Dubai). So much planning had to go into the anti-earthquake technology, that an entire Discovery documentary was done just on this building.

Don’t hate me for saying this, but my honest opinion of the 101 building is that it looks like a bunch of Chinese take-out boxes stacked up on top of each other. I had a great Indian food lunch in the international cafe on the basement floor of the building. One really nice thing is that there is a free shuttle bus from the 101 mall to the closest subway station (which to someone who just walked across the entire city, was not really all that close.)

Andrew Zimmerman’s show Bizarre Foods did an episode on Taiwan. It was cool to go back and watch this after I had been there. It’s always exciting to see an exotic street you’ve walked down on TV. There was a horrible, horrible rotting stench that existed on almost every food street. I assumed it was rotting trash, but I was informed that it is actually the smell of “stinky tofu” the national “treat” of Taiwan. A highly fermented half-rotten delicacy of tofu.

A tour of the food court in Taipei 101. There was actually a ton of Korean food.

Zhishan Cultural Park – Taipei
April 30, 2010, 3:07 am
Filed under: Taiwan, Travel

If I lived in Taipei, this is a place I would spend a lot of time. It is a hill in the north part of the city that is like a haven from the noise and urban scenery. You are transported into a natural area with wooden-plank paths, benches, and protected wildlife.

One part of the park is a temple, and the path to the temple is lined in statues that I’ve read tell the story of a Chinese classic called Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

I really thought this guy looked like he was giving himself a little nip-rub, but I think he’s just showing off the enlightened being residing on his chest. Overall, I thought this statue park and walking around the mountain (erm, hill really) were the nicest things I did in the city.

The temple at the top

Taipei is a really low city because of the likelihood of earthquakes. The exception is the Taipei 101 building. I could see it from the top of this hill, but it didn’t really come out in the picture because of the haze. It’s on the left side near the mountain and the crane. I’ll post more about that building soon.

The morning after I left there was a 6.9 earthquake recorded, and although the buildings swayed, there was no real damage, and from what I’ve read no casualties.

Confucius Temple – Yuanshan, Taipei
April 28, 2010, 2:34 am
Filed under: Taiwan, Travel

Longshan Temple – Taipei Day One Cont’d
April 27, 2010, 2:47 am
Filed under: Taiwan, Travel | Tags: , ,

After going to the World Religion Museum, it seemed fitting to head over to one of the major temples in the city. Taipei has temples tucked into corners between apartment buildings and store fronts everywhere, and it was really exciting to stumble on a vibrant, colorful space in the midst of all the chaos. The Longshan Temple though is a very famous destination for tourists and locals both. Famous enough to have a subway stopped named after it, which made it exceedingly simple to find. Surrounding the area are winding alleys of street vendors, and I slurped down an amazing papaya milkshake before heading into the temple grounds.

The details on the Taiwanese temples are more ornate and specific than any I’ve seen in the world.

I wandered down the alleys a bit, and came across another really beautiful little temple. There were some boys eying me suspiciously, but while I may have only been there to sightsee, I got the distinct impression they were only after the public restroom. One thing that Korea does brilliantly is having sufficient and CLEAN public restrooms almost everywhere. I rarely have a hard time finding a bathroom when needed. In Taipei, there was a little more desperation involved. It appears the only places that consistently have restrooms (sometimes not even restaurants) are the temples and the subway stations. But since the restrooms in the subway are mostly INSIDE the gates, you either have to waste a fare, or wait until you are actually getting on the subway to go somewhere. Even then the lines were really long, and for some reason there seemed to be an issue with people not flushing. Ah-hem.

Taipei – part one
April 26, 2010, 3:55 am
Filed under: Taiwan, Travel | Tags:

Since we get so little vacation time with my current contract, one extra day off, I thought, warranted a quick trip out of the country. Part of my goal of living in Asia again is to see as many places as I can while I’m over here. Passport stamps and subway cards to different cities are like little treasures to me.

Although Taipei’s economic success has a longer running history than Korea’s, one of the most striking things about the city is that it still has all the rabbit warrens of snaking alleys, side streets, and numbered lanes that run off the main streets. It’s a city with a huge amount of character, and good maps (and even a couple folks spotted in alleys with GPSs) are a necessity for getting around without losing too much time. The first day was a little rough getting around, but by Sat., I felt like I already knew the basic layout. It has a great subway system, and even more useful, extremely helpful and talkative people.

Taipei shows a lot more wear and tear than I feel like Seoul would allow.

I stayed at the Eight Elephantshostel, which although a little college dorm like, had some great people staying at it. There are some folks that live there all the time, and some local folks from other Taiwan cities that use it for a weekend launching pad. It was eclectic and the staff was extremely helpful, and like everything else, down a maze of numbered lanes (off of Jinjang street).

I took a wrong turn at first at stumbled on something that turned out to be really common in the city: little temples tucked in between concrete walls. Much like the Hindu street temples in Nepal, they seemed to be in constant use, with folks dropping in for a few minutes to light incense and pay respects. The scent of incense mingles throughout the city with the scent of rotting stinky tofu. Actually, I thought Taipei in general smelled a lot like Beijing, although it is infinitely cleaner.

It was pretty hazy, so these pics didn’t come out that great, but you can see the detail of the largely Confucius temples here surpasses most places for the detail of their artwork.

Since it was so rainy on Friday, I decided instead of heading to the park I wanted to see, to use the back-up plan of hitting one or two of the museums in town. My interest in religious architecture, and role religion plays in both comforting and controlling the masses brought me to choice number one: The Museum of World Religions. This museum was designed by the same folks who made the incredibly powerful Holocaust museum in Washington, DC. I’d say they are both well worth the visit if you happen to be in their respective parts of the world.

The museum is a little hard to get to. The closest subway station is Dingxi, but the museum (and the Pacific Department store next to it, which is the most useful landmark) are quite a few blocks away. I couldn’t find the free shuttle bus to the Dept. store, and was pretty hungry, so I wandered into a market are to find some noodles. The guy at the noodle shop that had pictures I could point at turned out to not only be super friendly, but super fluent in English as well. Something that turned out to be much more common than in Korea. Loads of people not only spoke English, but were willing, and even seemingly happy to use it. When I asked if he could help me with directions, he hadn’t heard of the museum, but called them for me, and wrote down the address in Chinese and said if I got lost again, just to ask anyone on the street. I’m telling you, Taipei is a weekend ramblers dream.

The museum is gorgeous, with relics from every major religion, and a few smaller ones in a stunning main hall. It also has models of some of the world’s most amazing religious structures. I snuck a picture of this one, which is going to be next top of my list of things to visit. The Borobudur Buddhist shrine on Java in Indonesia. You can also see models of the Dome of the Rock and Notre Dame in the background.

Street Duck

The Forbidden City – Beijing Last Day
October 14, 2009, 3:39 am
Filed under: China, Travel | Tags: , ,


For five-hundred years the Forbidden City was a huge section of Beijing that was strictly off-limits to common folk.  Occupied by emperors who rarely left it’s grounds, it used to be instant death to try and pass through it’s gates.  Now it costs a mere 60 yuan, and several hours of your time.  I honestly found it to be quite touristy and hoaky, although my view was tainted by the fact that it was our last, and exhausting day of walking, and that because of the 60th anniversary party of the country, it was obnoixsly crowded.

DSCF1192_medThe “city” itself is a maze of walls that has been reconstructed into a two mile long walking museum.  Each alcove is outfitted with artifacts behind glass, restored rooftops with fancy imagery, and some buildings that are actual museums specific to a subject.  I particularly liked both the calligraphy and the ceramics museum.


Even though it seemed like an endless maze, only about half of the grounds are actually open to the public right now.  It would take a very long day to see everything, especially if you wanted to include Tiannamen Square.  (If you do both the Forbidden City and Tiannamen Square, they are three miles long as the bird flies, never mind how much walking around you do inside the City to see all the little sites and museums.)  Luckily there were tons of public restrooms, and little “hot lunche” being sold inside the City walls.  Little boxes full of rice with veggies and chicken on top.  They kind of reminded me of airplane food, but they were fun to eat outside in the northern garden.

One mistake we made was starting at the north end of the Forbidden City and working our way south.  Since we had spend the morning at the Lama Temple, geographically at first this seemed to make sense.  But because of the massive crowed control they were doing because of the influx of Chinese tourists for the 60th anniversary, we were walking against the flow all day, and couldn’t get into Tianneman Square and had to take a tuk-tuk ride around to the south gate.  Maybe I’m not a good haggler, but I thought that the tuk-tuks were far more expensive than taxis.  Then again, they are pedaling your around as opposed to just driving, and they can do crazy things like go up over the curb and yell at other tourists to get out of the way.

The amazing number of people coming out of Tiannamen Square's north gate.

The amazing number of people coming out of Tiannamen Square's north gate.




The Summer Palace – Beijing
October 12, 2009, 4:53 am
Filed under: China, Travel | Tags: , ,
Summer Palace

Summer Palace

If I lived in Beijing, I would probably spend a lot of time at the Summer Palace. It’s in the northern part of the city, and is basically a gigantic public park with a lake in the middle. We had no idea how majestic and truly huge the park would be before we went, and luckily we had our walking shoes on. One thing Beijing has really done right is their parks (and their public bathrooms that accompany them.)


For someone who lived in the congestion and busy-ness of Beijing everyday, this park would be like heaven. For someone who was just visiting such as myself, I found it to be a little too touristy, with a large focus on shops, vendors, and these cute headband things with giant flowers that all the girls were wearing. I wish I had gotten a picture, but I’m more of an architecture snapshot person, I feel weird about nabbing shots of strangers without their permission.

Our guidebook informed us that we could take a boat from downtown Beijing to the Palace, and although this was once a plan, our hostel staff informed us that, “the mountain did not love the lake enough, so it is not possible.” Which I’m taking to mean there wasn’t enough water to pull it off.


We spent almost all of the third day in Beijing just walking around the lake. I took a nap at one point, as many folks were doing, on some rock piles, and lost Michelle, my travel partner. Being the kind of travellers we are, this wasn’t a big deal, we just finished the tour at our own pace and met up when the park closed at the front gate. It’s so nice to travel with level-headed people for once.


There were tons of little bridges and connecting archways, and each one had it’s own name and unique design over the arch. I believe this one is Quan Yin, the Chinese Goddess of Compassion (her name is romanized in many different ways, so you might recognize her name in a different form.)

The palace at the top of the hill is the Buddhist Incense Pavillion, which housed a very old Buddhist statue at the top that I was not allowed to take a photo of. It was a gorgeous building, and yes, I did climb all those stairs.



A view of Beijing from the top.



Beijing Continued….The Lama Temple
October 10, 2009, 4:31 pm
Filed under: China, Travel | Tags: , , , , , ,

I learn things from my kids everyday.  One of the best things about the school that I work at is that we have each class twice a week for three hours at a wack.  A lot of the English teachers in Korea see their kids once or twice a week for 45 minutes.  If a kid misses a class, you don’t even have time to learn their name, never mind that they hate Harry Potter (contrary to popular convention), or what aspect of speaking they may need help with.  I love really getting to know my kids, and I love that kids I had last semester come visit me in my classroom this semester.

This week I learned that people can induce rain.  I was not aware of this.  We were doing a project on the desertification of the Gobi Desert and how that creates dust storms that affect S. Korea and Japan with “yellow dust.”  One group asked me what the name is for when we make rain.  My eyebrows bunched up, while I was inwardly thinking, WTF?  I had no idea.

It turns out that Beijing has the ability to make rain.  Or, at least they think they do.  They have a giant machine that shoots packets of silver iodide into cloudy skies that is supposed to induce rain.  This article says they induced 4/10ths of an inch of rain, the heaviest rainfall at one time in that year.

Rain Machine

Although I still couldn’t figure out what we would call that in English, so “rain machine” had to do.

We do a lot of geographically specific projects, so I’ve started loading my classroom computer with youtube videos and music that is relevant to the lesson. While working on the Gobi Desert, I found some great stuff to listen to, that at least some of the kids were enjoying as much as I was. I found these videos at a blog called Mongolian Music.

So last weekend, even more than the great wall, my favorite place that we visited was the Lama Temple. For someone who doesn’t study Buddhist philosophy, or who can’t pick out a few of the key figures, I imagine a visit to this park would be interesting for the architecture, but overall would end up being a tedious stroll through an endless number of offshoots, with each temple dedicated to a different group of unknown deities. To me, it was a wonderland of art and familiar images. Highly, highly influenced by Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhism, I just loved it. The classic Tibetan mixture of magenta, cobalt, and gold was everywhere, a subtle, but noticeable difference to the colors of Korean spiritual architecture which don’t feature the gold tones.


Unfortunately, but typically, I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside the temples. There were some spectacular statues ranging from the Taras, bodhisattvas, with a particular focus on the wrathful deities. Outside, people were lighting incense and praying. Although it is a tourist attraction, it was clearly a place the locals frequent as well.


It was originally built in 1694, and became a monastery in 1744, housing monks from Tibet and Mongolia. It was closed for 30 years during the cultural revolution, but somehow the grounds did not get destroyed.




Notice the woman on the right. Even though there were explicit signs in many languages saying not throw coins at the statue. People just couldn’t resist. The Buddhist version of a wishing well.

The highlight of the temple, which I couldn’t manage to sneak a picture of was the 60 foot (18 meters) tall Maitreya Buddha purported to be carved out of a single sandalwood tree. Although, this pinnacle of the statues was also a reminder of why I prefer to travel alone. Just as I was beginning to feel really inspired and debating whether I was going to risk looking like a fool as the only foreigner to do prostrations to this particular Buddha, my travel partner walked up behind me and said, “Well, what’s so special about him?”. Sigh.

Strangely enough, although it is 2,000 years older, the story of Maitreya Buddha is similar to that of the second coming of Jesus. “The Buddha” as most western people think of him, is believed to be just one of thousands of Buddhas (beings that have reached enlightenment) that exist. Maitreya is believed to be the next Buddha who will appear on earth, supposedly when humanity has destroyed itself to the point of no return, Maitreya will come bringing peace.

Now here is an instrument I could learn. Oh yes, I see myself in Mongolia very soon.

The Great Wall
October 9, 2009, 3:21 am
Filed under: China, Travel, War

All told, the Great Wall of China is 6,259.6 km (3,889.5 mi) long.  Started in the 5th Century BC, it is actually a series of walls and trenches interwoven with the natural landscape that also uses rivers and mountains to create barriers. One of the surprising things in visiting the wall was how low the actual walls are, espeically compared to the gorgeous, rolling mountains that surrounded the area we visited.  It seemed those mountains would be more of a barrier than the actual wall.  I believe the intermittent fortresses where more the point than most of the wall itself.


Our Frist Glimpse of the Wall.

We had originally signed up for a typical great wall tour before leaving Korea. They changed our pick-up time to six am, and feeling that was a little excessive, on a tip from a Spanish backpacker staying at our hostel, we signed up for the “Secret Wall Tour” offered by the Emperor Guesthouse instead. This was archaeologist heaven. While our counterparts were getting harrassed by venders, and hiking up completely reconstructed pieces of the wall renovated for the purpose of attracting tourists, we were hiking around on the original wall with a delightful 73 year old guide.   He didn’t speak a word of English, but was very effective at demonstrating where the good areas to relieve your bladder might be.

Our Fearless Leader.

Our Fearless Leader.


We left Beijing at 7:30 for a little over two hour drive to the location. At some point the mini-van driver pulled over in the middle of nowhere and started honking the horn. This was quite confusing to us, as he inched along the road, honking and looking around. There were donkeys passing us, fresh air like I haven’t breathed in months, and suddenly a very small, very happy looking old man bounded out of a corn field seemingly from nowhere. With a loud “Ni Hao” and a wave, we met our tour guide.



Besides our tour group, the only other people we saw on the hike were some local folks out for a stroll. Our tour guide never seemed short of breath, never took a sip of water, and raced ahead of our chubby foriegn rears on every stretch. In other words, he put us to shame. Interestingly, our tour group, except for one great, chatty, Swedish dude, was all English teachers living in Korea on vacation for Choesok. We had a good time comparing our experiences and ranking the most common question I hear in Korea, “So are you going to sign on for another year?” It was interesting to hear people’s varying opinions based on where they are stationed and who they work for.

Our group.

Our group.



We ran into a group of early college students on a field trip. They were ecstatic to see us and we ended up spending quite a long time posing for pictures and chatting in basic English. I can’t tell you how many times in China local folks asked us to please come teach in China when they found out we were working in Korea. I’m very seriously considering a job in Beijing for next year.






Our tour ended back at our tour guide’s village where a delightful, largely vegetarian lunch was waiting for us.