Category Archives: travel

What I wish I knew about Suwon before I went

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I’m home again–a bit muzzy from the jet lag, but nothing too bad. (I have a portable light box I bought during our massive gloom this year, so I brought it along to help with the jet lag. I think that worked–I haven’t been to Asia before, so maybe this is just because of the location, but my jet lag wasn’t nearly as bad this trip as it has been in the past.)

Anyway, it was super-easy to get around Seoul–the subway is great–but while it was easy to get to Suwon, and while I really liked Hwaseong Fortress, getting around Suwon was a little tricky. Obviously I managed, but I would have appreciated having some more guidance–whereas Seoul’s transportation system is very much set up with the non-Korean speaker in mind, that is not the case with Suwon.

So, let’s say you subway, Korail, or KTX it down to Suwon Station. (There’s also a $12 shuttle bus that goes between Incheon Airport and Hotel Castle in the hotel district.) That’s great, but your hotel probably isn’t near the station. The cool stuff isn’t there, either.

 

How do you get to the cool stuff and the hotels? Luckily there are a number of buses (the 10, the 66, and the 83-1 are three, there may be more) that run up and down the big east-west street connecting Suwon Station to the hotel district (and passing just south of the cool stuff)!

But here’s the tricky bit:

Suwon Station

There are two big exits out of Suwon Station. The one to the west takes you out to an enormous roundabout where you can catch all sorts of buses!

This is the wrong exit.

Those are not the buses you need–they are express buses that will zip you off to God only knows what faraway corner of Korea. You want to go out the opposite way, to the east. You will come out onto a great big street. Make a left (don’t cross the street) and walk up to the local bus shelter (local buses are green). They pull in and pull out again at about 100 miles an hour, so get ready! (But if you miss one, don’t panic–the buses come often, and there is a display telling you when the next is coming.)

You can use your T-money or CashBee card on the buses, and I suggest you do. I also recommend that, while in Suwon Station, you make sure that your card has plenty of money on it. Why? Because I still have no idea what the fucking bus fare is–it was not displayed on the buses anywhere that I could see, and the information I got on-line was obviously out of date, which is why my card ran out of money.

OK, so now you’re on your way! And you want to see the cool stuff!

That’s a satellite picture of the wall–you can see that it’s quite something! The little castle marker down where the circle doesn’t quite complete itself is Paldalmun Fort. (It’s in a roundabout.) The long dark north-south line between the fort and the beginning of the east wall is a river, which has been channeled and has a park around it. The treed area where the west wall is is actually a pretty steep hill!

The famed Joseon Stairmaster.

You can see that the wall runs right through the city. The neighborhood just between Paldalmun Fort and the beginning of the east wall is a traditional market where you can get street food; the neighborhood west of the fort is very pretty and more touristy, with crafts shops and cafés. Also in the area is, no lie, the chicken district–as in the kind you eat. Apparently there’s also a soondae district, although I did not see it myself. In short, many food options lie about the fort. Yum-yum!

As you walk along the wall, you will sooner or later come upon a tourist information center. There, you can pay the whopping $1 fee it costs to visit the wall (if you’re too cheap for that, 1. you’re an unbelievable jerk, and 2. you’re SOL because they will check for the ticket if you’re a foreigner). You can also pick up an English-language map, which I should note focuses on the wall and the tourist attractions, not the city itself–the blank spaces are actually full of buildings.

I walked, so my map got all beat to hell.

If you’re not up for the hike, you can pay to ride a trolley–less physical labor, but the downside is that you won’t get see things up close, and the trolley road doesn’t go to the attractions at the top of the hill. I should note that, if you walk, you usually have a choice of two trails–one is right up next to/on the wall and is more rugged, and the second is a little bit away from the wall and is more level and smooth (a lot of locals, including many seniors, walk or jog the smoother trail for exercise). I walked the wall east-to-west (counterclockwise on the map), but I think it would be better to go west-to-east–that way you get the big hill done with early in your hike, you end your hike right at the market, and you can just follow the river back down to the bus. I was not up for visiting the temporary palace after walking the wall, but I would assume it’s a good option if a long hike is not your cup of tea.

All right! So, I hope that helps anyone thinking of making the visit to Hwaseong Fortress to navigate the trip. I really thought it was worth doing!

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OK, I no longer regret leaving Seoul

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I went to Suwon, which I had to look up back when I was first putting together BlockB.com (it’s where U-Kwon was born), and I discovered that it was a walled city, which sounded really cool. The Hwaseong Fortress is a World Heritage site, and you can take the freakin’ subway to Suwon from Seoul, so I decided to go.

First things first: Even Suwon has one of these:

Only five stories, not eight.

Better yet: The fortress is awesome! You can walk the wall (cost: $1), and there’s just an incredible variety of posts and command centers and gates and things. The city has outgrown the wall of course, so the wall goes through it, which is really cool. The wall is mostly lined with parks, and it’s definitely a major hangout for locals looking to get some exercise in a beautiful environment. (It’s also where school groups go, including one filled with hyper young boys who screamed “HELLO!” at me at the top of their lungs.)

I took, like, a million photos, so these are just some random highlights in no particular order.

So, definitely if you’re a great big history nerd like I am, Suwon is worth the trip. But while it’s not the country, you’re definitely dealing with a population that isn’t as used to dealing with foreigners and will just rattle off a bunch of Korean at you at top speed like there’s any chance in hell you’re going to understand it. (“Hanguk mal jal moteyo” has gotten a lot of exercise today.) Also there’s no subway, and the buses are kind of stimulating to get on and off of because the drivers don’t mind opening the doors before the bus has actually stopped.

Nonetheless, I have dealt with some very lovely people today, including a bus driver who let me skimp on the fare when it turned out my T card had run out of money, and a young woman who went to the effort to look up the English word for refrigeration in case I didn’t eat my pork sandwich right away.

Guess where I am!

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Hint #1: In the past few days, just walking around, I have heard the following songs, which were not being blasted out of any musical equipment that I own:

“H.E.R”
“Red Sun”
“Yozm Gang”
“Fanxy Child”
“Oppa’s Car” (yeah, that’s not Block B-related–except for this–but God did it make me happy)

Hint #2:

It’s HUMID!

Yes, I’m in Seoul! I’ve been here for three days–today I go to Suwon for a day and then back home. All I can say about Seoul is WOW–I realize I’m here during a holiday period, so it probably isn’t quite this awesome normally, but in terms of fantastic public spaces, Seoul really takes the cake. I think it’s probably better even than New York City, and that’s a pretty high bar.

I’ve seen the guard ceremony at Gyeonbokgung Palace (the people in hanbok are just other visitors who dressed up for the holiday):

Communed with Nature along the quiet banks of the peaceful Han River:

(Yeah, that one didn’t quite go as planned–I found a seat and listened to a busker instead.)

Went up to Namsan Tower, where couples “lock” their love (there’s a huge compound up there, with restaurants and arcades and what have you).

And toured the garden at Changdeokgung!

So, yeah, I’m really enjoying myself! Everything’s been MORE than I expected–I walked myself to exhaustion at both Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung, and I still didn’t see either compound in its entirety. The only disappointing thing was when I went to Apgujeongdong to see the K-Pop Bears: I couldn’t find them (there wasn’t any kind of guide when you left the subway station, although that might have been because things were closed for the holidays), and OH MY GOD is Apgujeongdong a dump. Wow. The stuff inside the stores is cool, but it’s definitely the shittiest-looking “nice” neighborhood I have ever seen.

I wish I had booked a longer trip, and I’m trying to remind myself that the plane ticket was very expensive so I can’t come back over and over again. Once you get here, though–my God are things cheap. (Except granola. Granola is imported from Europe and shockingly expensive.) The palaces were mostly free because of the holidays, but the all-palace pass is about $10. The garden tour of Changdeokgung, which is a freaking World Heritage Site, set me back a whopping $5. That was for a guided tour, in English.

My Korean is terrible, but it’s Seoul so most cashiers speak a little English and I’ve been able to get by without major problems. If you are not Asian you WILL get stared at, and people will also ask you where you’re from and how long you’ve been in Korea. The kids are really cute about it; I wave at them, and they excitedly report that fact to their bemused parents and then drop their snacks. Elderly people seem to go to extremes, tending to be either incredibly friendly–“I love America!”–or quite rude (so far not in English, so it’s easy to ignore). I guess it’s also a little unusual to be a non-Asian tourist here, although Seoul is definitely a great tourist destination. Still, I get the impression that most Westerners here live here, and that the expat community is pretty tight–they don’t approach and interrogate you directly like the older Koreans do, but they do stare at you like they’re expecting (and expecting) you to start talking to them, which is a little awkward when you’re just passing through….

Thanks, Trump

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Well, I was wonderings when all the border bullshit would affect K-Pop, and yeah: Artists couldn’t get into South by Southwest, and JerrykMusic is saying that Don Malik’s group dealt with some racist crap as well. (I once saw a TSA agent call an entirely inoffensive older Asian gentleman a “fucking Chink”–this was maybe 10 years ago?–so I don’t find that account unbelievable. These are the same lovely people who handcuffed a 5-year-old, for Christ’s sake.)

This is on top of what Dean dealt with just after the election, so–yeah. The wonderful folks “protecting” America’s borders are really feeling their oats these days (and things will get even better once Trump finishes eviscerating the budget of the agency that actually does most of the drug interdiction).

So: Don’t be shocked if a whole lot of K-Pop groups decide to stick to touring Europe for the time being. It’s what the tourists are doing.

Cultural experiences!

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If you drop by BlockB.com, you know that I’m back at home and on the good computer. (Can I take a moment to express my disappointment that the iPad Pro is just a humungous iPad and not a non-crappy version of the craptacular travel notebook/tablet I have? Because if I could buy the same hardware with better software, I would do it in a heartbeat.)

Since luck and Hotwire put me in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, it seemed like a good opportunity to try some Korean things. (Some day I do intend to actually go to Korea, but–and this is the problem with having a perfectionist streak–because I’m slowly but surely learning Korean, I don’t want to go until I can speak it better.)

Since San-E forced me to beat the shit out of my feet, I decided to start with a massage, which (since I really wanted to avoid the “happy ending” sort of place) meant going to a Korean spa. I chose a women’s spa because I figured (and I was right) that whatever robe or clothing they gave me would not be big enough to actually provide decency. This is an issue at the co-ed spa I go to for massages at home, but at least there I’m wearing underwear–the small robe + nudity combination meant that a large number of disinterested strangers got to know my exact philosophy toward pubic-hair maintenance.

The massage itself was my first experience with shiatsu. I have to say: OW. When you hear people talk about a massage therapist “attacking” knots, they are very likely talking about shiatsu. Around Seattle the Swedish approach of kneading is, not surprisingly, dominant, and I’ve had lomi-lomi, where they use the edges of their arms and palms like rolling pins (I didn’t think that would work because they don’t dig into the muscle, but it totally does). In shiatsu, however, they go at you with their knuckles and the points of their fingers like Ty Lee in Avatar.

Sometimes the massage therapist also used rocks–not big rocks that you lie on or that lie on you, but little rocks dug into your body even further than the knuckles and fingers.

Still, while the massage wasn’t the most pleasant experience, my feet and legs felt much better afterwards.

I also ate traditional Korean food in Koreatown, but you can do that pretty much anywhere. What I ate that you can’t eat just anywhere was: Korean pizza!

Yes, there is a Mr. Pizza (two, even!) in Los Angeles–the only ones in the country! Given the reactions some people have had to it, I was expecting something pretty extreme. I ordered a half-and-half–half Potato Gold (yup, that’s a flavor) and half Shrimp Gold. They were on a sweet-potato crust, and the Potato Gold had bacon, corn, and mayonnaise on it, so whoo-hoo! I was ready to be weirded out!

What I got was a pizza where both halves were tasty and made me wonder what got people so upset. I should mention that I do have an open mind when it comes to pizza–traditional Italian is great of course, but I’m happy when people experiment with various flat breads and sauces.

If you’ve had corn meal or polenta pizza crust, you’ve had something that is very close to the Mr. Pizza sweet-potato crust–a little sweeter and crunchier than a wheat crust. Top it with mild cheese, tomatoes. ground beef, corn, and pork fat, and you’ve got the Potato Gold, which is an awful lot like the Mexican pizzas I have had. (If you’re flailing around on the ground, stroking out at the very concept of Mexican pizza, then I am sorry–I am no food purist, and it tastes good. Naan pizza is also yummy. And I make blueberry ice cream pizza for my nephew.) Top it with shrimp and sweet pepper, and you’ve got the more Italian-tasting Shrimp Gold–and no, it doesn’t have a hugely flavorful sauce, but most polenta-and-shrimp Italian dishes are pretty mild because strong flavors overwhelm shrimp.

It was pricey, but a single regular pizza wound up being two meals, so…again, I’m not understanding the agita.

I feel like, in general, this is my issue with purists: They get so focused on something being the “right” way that if there’s the least deviation from what is expected, they lose their shit. And while I think that it’s good to know how a traditional dish is supposed to taste, the key to being a good cook (especially the kind of cook who isn’t a total slave to recipes and can make do with whatever’s in the pantry, in season, or on sale) is understanding how to make different flavors work together regardless of whether the exact combination of ingredients is traditional or not.

Show Me the Concert!

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I got a ticket to the Show Me the Money 4 concert in Los Angeles! Whoo!

It’s bizarre, because I was thinking of getting the Early Entry ticket, but it didn’t show up, so instead I got General Admission 2. Then later I realized that, in order to buy Early Entry tickets, there’s this “special offer” button you have to click–if you click the normal “I wanna buy a ticket” button, Early Entry doesn’t show up.

I’m actually fine with that: It saves me some money, and the concert is going to be open-floor and standing-only (…oh joy…), so I think I’ll be happier away from the crush.

I booked the hotel on Hotwire back when K-Con was going on–I figured that even if the SMTM concert didn’t come off, I could figure out fun things to do in Los Angeles. My grandparents lived there, so I visited a lot as a kid, but my memories mostly revolve around exploring their basement (we didn’t have a basement or an attic, so I tended to assume that all basements and attics held SECRET TREASURE) and reading their extensive collection of surprisingly gruesome fairy tales. (Did you know that Cinderella’s stepsisters cut their toes and heels off to fit their foot into her slipper? And that the prince didn’t notice the blood–twice–until some birds told him? Why did they all want to marry him, again?)

Anyway, I’m interested in visiting the place as an adult (although part of me worries that I’ll be bored, what with the absence of SECRET TREASURE-containing basements and Truly Grimm Fairy Tales). One thing that became obvious from Hotwire is that Los Angeles doesn’t have an overwhelming abundance of inexpensive hotels that people don’t absolutely hate. I was poking around, and poking around, and poking around, and finally Hotwire’s algorithms figured out that they’d better do something or I might bail on the whole deal, so I got offered up a special on a hotel people seem to like, and I took it.

And it turns out that I’m going to be staying in a hipster hotel in Koreatown. That’s…kind of eerie, you know?

ETA: I do find it ironic, though, that they’re holding SMTM concerts in the United States while at the same time not giving SMTM English subs AND yanking down the subs generated for free by third parties.

Going to Peru

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In September of last year, I and my mother took a trip to Peru. Seeing Machu Picchu was a bucket-list request of my mother’s, who is having problems with memory loss. I myself am not an experienced international traveler. So it was kind of a daunting proposition to me, but on the other hand I had seen the Lord of Sipan exhibit when I lived in New York, and I was really excited about seeing not just Machu Picchu but (if I could) the many other Mesoamerican ruins in Peru.

Under the circumstances, we were definitely going to go with a tour. But my feeling is that, if you just want to go see Machu Picchu (and you should; it is amazing), you can do it fine on your own–but I’ll talk more on that further down.

Anyway, we did this tour with Road Scholar, and they were excellent. They really do try to make the trip as educational as possible (and that tour might as well be called Archaeology Nerds Visit Peru, so that was a good thing).

We started out in Lima. I have friend who is a tall, red-headed, white Midwestern man and who visited Machu Picchu a few years ago, and he had a horrible time in Lima–he was on his own and everyone assumed he wanted cocaine, hookers, or some combination of the two (and it didn’t matter where he was or if there were small children nearby). I was with a tour group of older people, so I had a wonderful time in Lima–we saw some very cool museums (the quality of the artifacts are just much higher than what you’ll see in the U.S.) and cathedrals, and we never got hassled.

So I do think Lima is worth spending some time in, but you’ll definitely want to arrange for a driver and a guide (the city is HUGE and pretty hard to get around in) or maybe hook up with a tour for that part of your visit.

Then we flew up to the north coast of Peru, which is just studded with ruins. It has the same magical combination as Egypt: A dry-as-dust desert where everything is preserved, combined with large rivers coming off the Andes that allow for some very productive irrigated agriculture.

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The Brujo Complex is in the background–the ground is so dry it looks like the moon, and the woman buried in there was so perfectly preserved that her tattoos are still visible. In the foreground is a freakin’ SUGAR CANE field. The other big crop is freakin’ RICE. (If you don’t know anything about agriculture, those are two of the most water-intensive crops around.)

You MUST have a guide to go to most of these ruins. Don’t screw around with that–Peru is sick and tired of having its treasures looted, and Americans with bad attitudes are not looked upon with favor. Before you buy any ceramics in the north coast, check to make sure there is some kind of stamp on the bottom to indicate that they are of modern manufacture–they go through all your luggage when you fly out of there, and if you’ve got something questionable, you’re going to be missing your flight and spending some quality time in a room explaining to the nice men there that you are not a smuggler.

(I should also note that they do NOT mess around when it comes to objects in your carry-ons that might be used as weapons–tiny scissors, crochet hooks, you name it. They are much more diligent about this than in the United States.)

So, was it cool?

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Yes, it was very cool. Our guides were great. It’s not like there’s tons of signs around explaining every last thing, so having an informed guide is really key. Ours had some kind of license/seal of approval to indicate that they actually knew what they were talking about. Unfortunately I don’t know what that’s called or what to look for, but if you’re on your own down there, maybe talk to one of the museums and see who they recommend? Like nerds everywhere, Peruvian Archaeology Nerds all seem to know each other, and you definitely want one as your guide.

Then we went to

MACHU PICCHU!

Why bold? Because Machu Picchu is awesome.

Beautiful country:

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Impressive buildings:

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And the Incas’ genius for combining the two:

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When you go to Machu Picchu, look out the windows and into the caves–there is all kinds of awesomeness to be discovered.

We spent two days there, and I could have happily spent many more. Our first day there we spent with the group and a guide, which was a nice introduction to the site. (Our tour group provided our guide, but they are available on site as well.) The second day was a free day, so my mom and just went poking around the site, as you are free to do (within limits).

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Hi Mom!

Machu Picchu is totally the kind of place where you could just go there on your own and pick up a guide or explore on your own as you see fit. Just be aware that it’s popular (the U.S. summer is the high season), so you usually need to get tickets in advance. If you want to go off the main site to, say, check out Huayna Picchu (we didn’t have the time, but I would love to in the future), you need a ticket for that, too. Also, it’s pretty rugged, so dress appropriately.

The main thing you need to be very, very aware of when you go to the Andean region of Peru is

THE ALTITUDE.

The altitude is NOT to be trifled with. When we went to the region, we flew into Cusco (11,000 feet) and spent the first night in the Sacred Valley of the Inca (9,000 feet). People in our party immediately got sick, and they were sick for days. Thankfully my mother and I were fine (we had planned ahead and spent some time at high altitudes in the U.S.), but “fine” is a relative term–we didn’t need a doctor, but we were staying on the second floor of the hotel, and climbing up that one flight of stairs was just excruciating.

I do hope to go back to Machu Picchu one day, and here’s how I would do it.

1. Fly into Lima. Sea level.

2. Fly to Cusco. 11,000 feet.

3. Immediately flee Cusco for Machu Picchu Pueblo (the town at the base of the ridge Machu Picchu is on). 7,000 feet.

4. Spend a leisurely day recovering from all that travel and acclimating in Machu Picchu Pueblo, which is a very pretty little resort town. 7,000 feet.

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Seriously, people bitch and moan about this place like it was the Seventh Circle of Hell. “The shopping sucks!” “It’s expensive!” Get a grip–it’s delightful!

5. The next day, start visiting Machu Picchu itself. 8,000 feet.

Only after gorging myself on the glory that is Machu Picchu would I move on to the Sacred Valley of the Inca and up to places like Chinchero (12,500 feet!!!) and Cusco. Those places are well worth a visit, but oh my God are they high, and you will feel it no matter how fit you are.

What about coca-leaf tea?

Go ahead and drink it–it contains so little cocaine that you would have to drink it by the gallon to get any effect. Green tea is more stimulating. I drank coca-leaf tea in the morning and still had to drink as much coffee as I usually do. People drank it, got on the bus, and fell right asleep.

Is it some kind of miracle cure for altitude sickness? My mom would say yes–she felt much better after drinking it. I’m going to point out, though, that one of the main causes of altitude sickness is dehydration–that’s why you’re supposed to start drinking a lot of water in the two weeks before you go to the Peruvian Andes, and why you’re supposed to really guzzle water on the flight there. My mom didn’t do any of that, because drinking a lot of water means that you always have to pee. I drank a lot of water, plus I drank a lot of coca tea (because I wanted to encourage my mom to drink something), and I didn’t feel like coca tea did anything special. (It may have helped, but I didn’t feel some instantaneous or dramatic benefit.)