Any discussion of Harbin must be prefaced by the fact that I’ve had a bit of an obsession with seeing this city for myself for quite some time. I’ve even looked at jobs in the area, to which any questions on the job board have been met with responses from ex-pats like, “Why the hell do you want to move to that industrial iceblock?” It still holds some interest for me, but the mystique has definitely lessened. Even Anthony Bourdain admitted that the No Reservations filmed in Harbin was largely staged because nothing they tried to do worked. I can relate.
Harbin is described as a cold city with a warm heart. But given that we were traveling back south from a place where it was getting cold and snowy even in October, and people had REALLY warm hearts, we were a little heart leery. My kind of gut assessment of the city is that it’s low on foreigners (a positive in my travel book) and high on shopping, smoggy, congested, and for some reason, really, really hard to find food. It appears to be everywhere, but we couldn’t figure out how to order it, or what it was. There was a lot of resorting to dumplings.
The central square houses the St. Sophia Church, now a lovely architectural museum definitely worth checking out. Built over time during the 20s and 30s by Russians living in the area. Harbin’s claim to fame is the Russian influence in the architecture and a bit in the food.
We spent a lot of time walking. And that clearly wasn’t going to work. Harbin is a huge city. A city proper population of 3million, but with 10million frequently quoted for the larger city area. We walked and walked and walked looking mostly for food. When that failed, we started riding buses. When they didn’t go where we thought, we just stayed on the bus until it got back to where we started from. If you have time to kill, it’s actually a pretty great strategy. We got to see huge chunks of the city, and realized it doesn’t have a lot to offer in diversity. It’s a concrete jungle of the largest magnitude. Huge run down looking apartment buildings, each with a little balcony and a air unit, for as far as the eye can see. I was very curious to see the inside of one of these buildings, there are many things in China where the outside doesn’t at all match the inside.
We rode the 14 bus, the wrong way the first time, to a gorgeous temple.
More architecture from around the city:
We also took a long bus journey to the very, very south of the city to find the Germ and Warfare Museum. I can attest that the directions in Lonely Planet are both accurate, and fairly easy to follow. Even if we did spent the entire journey convinced we were going to end up in an industrial zone at the end of the earth. Again it gave some great views of the city, and proved the point that there probably isn’t any area worth living in outside of the central downtown.
The Germ and Warfare Museum was a little hard to stomach, but definitely worth seeing. It documents a time in photos, artifacts, and film of a time when Japan occupied the area and kidnapped thousands of Chinese citizens to perform experiments on. Most notably, dissecting them alive, or giving intentional frostbite, and then manipulating those body parts to see what happens. Apparently, it was also a time when Japan was developing biological weapons, and they would drop shells carrying contagious diseases on groups of people (protected by riot gear to ensure that they weren’t injured by shrapnel, but did indeed contract and die of the intended disease.)
I’m really glad I got to see Harbin, but I’m not sure I’ll jump at that teaching contract anytime soon. I’d be really curious to see it in winter, when temperatures are close to lethal, but the river can be walked across, and the ice festival is happening.
We hitched a ride into UB from Tariat with our hosts. After a day of negotiations, and seeing that we really weren’t going to get what we wanted, which was to be dropped off in Tsetserleg, we agreed on a price and to spend a couple of hours in Tsertserleg before heading to UB. Well, since the van didn’t even leave until 6pm, it was well after midnight before we made it there. Not exactly good timing for sightseeing. We realized the family that was driving never had any intention of allowing us to hang there, they just wanted to make sure we paid the whole fare to UB instead of getting dropped off where we wanted. We needed to get to UB in the next day or two, so it didn’t really matter, it was just a little disappointing.
There were also five cows in the back. Slaughtered and ready for the black market. Five cows and five foreigners. Not bad business for our friendly drivers.
There is a really unique temple in the northeast part of town down a little winding road.
A private language school in UB is looking for four teachers: Job posting.
Well, mostly bussing it, but walking quite a bit as well. Not quite as much as Simon Winchester did though. He started in Jeju Island and walked the entire length of South Korea, and then part of North Korea (highly supervised of course). Bybee reminded me how much the western male falling prey to the wiles of Korean women came into that book. I had completely forgotten about it, but now that she read it recently and brought it up, examples from the book keep seeping into my mind. Winchester epitomizes the different experiences that men and women have living in Korea. Living in Asia has taught me nothing if not that the vast majority of western men prefer having a relationship where they don’t actually have to talk to their partner as long as she looks hot and is the right amount of needy. Simon Winchester is normally an extremely intelligent and insightful travel writer, but even he was reduced to drooling in his beer and going on long winded rants that had nothing to do with the rest of the story when offered the attention of a gorgeous lady. Korea is a place where men get distracted to the point of losing their minds.
Somehow I avoided going to PC rooms the entire time I’ve been in Korea until today. They are every bit as disgusting and sleezy as I thought they were. My first attempt was foiled when I walked into what was labeled as a PC Resting room – which actually meant private booths with I’m not sure what all going on behind closed doors.
While the rest of Korea is getting hit by a monsoon, I’m in a sunny haven in Jeonju. But inside the PC room, there is nothing but cigarrette smoke, dark lighting, and games. I thought I’d take a minute to share a little travel tale while I checked to see if my flight to Jeju is cancelled. So far it’s not, but I’m not sure it’s worth going to typhoon island this weekend.
I started the weekend at bookclub in Seoul, which got an invite that I took full advantage of to go to Sinchang and stay with Bybee for a couple of days. She lives in an apartment complex in the middle of nowhere that is crawling with foreigners and we had a great night watching TV and eating western food at her friend’s house.
From there I went to Gongju, which overall is not what it says it is. It was the same, albeit dingier, as the rest of Korea, and except for the fortress doesn’t have much to show for itself. The map the info booth hands out shows a quaint, pretty town with a gorgeous river flowing through it. Really it is a dirty, run down place, with a trickle of water down the middle lined by the seediest of love motels. I did do some interesting things here, but since this PC bang has let me think it is uploading pics for the last hour, when really it hasn’t, I’ll have to save the walking stories for another day.
It was really too hot to be walking around like a mad person trying to see all the sights. I made it to the UN park, which I don’t recommend walking to unless you happen to be in the area, or you are particularly personally interested in the cemetery. The park itself wasn’t that impressive, and was completely uncared for. There were some folks using it to run and walk their dogs. I took advantage of some green grass to take a nap, which I got called out for by another foreigner later, “Hey were you that chick sleeping in the park…..”
The statue park has donated statues from all over the world as a sign of unity. My favorite one was this one from Columbia:
At night I enjoyed some Makali with my friend Val and a real Makali house. Not that disgusting over fermented crap from a bottle. We couldn’t figure out how to order much off the menu, but the waitress was more than accommodating and picked a couple things she thought we’d like, and we did.
Incheon and Seoul don’t really remind me of much. They are their own cities in their own right. But Busan reminded me a lot of Boston. Maybe it’s the ocean, or the feel, but it just felt right at home.
Since I have exactly four weeks of teaching left in Korea, it seemed fitting to take the rare few days off work to travel in the country. I weathered the heat, a little redder and sore, and took a whirlwind tour of Busan, on the southern coast and Gyeongju, one of the historical capitol cities. Sometimes it’s better to travel alone as no one in their right mind would have tried to stuff in all I wanted to see in this kind of heat.
It was pouring rain when I rolled off a five hour bus ride in Busan. In the scheme of life, it’s funny how quickly something can go from disappointing to wanting it back. Although I had to change my plans, for the rest of the weekend, I would have done a rain dance in the street to get a break from the heat and unbearable sun. Winter in Korea is pretty bad. Summer is much, much worse.
Since I was only a few subway stops away, I checked in at Heosimcheong Spa in the Nogshim Hotel (Oncheonjang station exit 1). It claims to be the largest hotspring sauna in Asia. Although it was big, I wouldn’t consider it much more special that most jimjillbangs I’ve been to. It did have a nice outdoor rooftop hottub where you could get steamed, and on this day, rained on at the same time. I got a scrub-down complete with cucumber face treatment.
There were a ton of different pools, some quite large, but I really liked a side room all done in stone that had pools of different medicinal scents. I spent a while in the “philosopher’s pool” with pine and a giant stone carving of an old bearded white man’s face spitting water into the pool.
The rain took a reprieve and I headed to Haeundae Beach, which was gorgeously uncrowded and had huge waves from the storm.
A little jaunt into the aquarium. I don’t remember the last time I’ve been to one. It was worth it, especially the underwater tunnel.
There’s a gorgeous walking trail along the ocean off the western side of the beach.
There is a great train system in Busan. The subway is great, but I had no idea how much I liked trains. For all of 2,500W I took the train from Bukjeon station to Songjeong beach. From there you could take the 181 bus, but, me being the adventurous type, decided it didn’t look too far and walked. The ocean view was great, and then turned into a Korean construction view, and then a, wow, the hill to the temple is steep, why-did-I-decide-to-walk view. It is the only temple in Korea that I know of that is on the ocean, and is stunningly gorgeous and a little crowded and touristy, but well worth it.
Haedong Yonggungsa – Great Seawater Goddess of Mercy – Temple
And that is just the beginning. I’m having a borderline panic attack about how little time I have left, and how much stuff is in the air. I’m considering moving everything into suitcases and living out of them to remind myself how to do it, and also so I know how much stuff I have to get rid of since I need to pare everything down to one suitcase and a guitar once again.
Oh yea, and I also have to read the first third of Watership Down, which I’m not entirely looking forward to. Live of Pi was a challenge for my ESL students, I’m not sure what they’re going to do with this one.
I thought I was leaving Korea for good in September, so I’ve been putting myself under some pressure to see the places in Korea that I hadn’t made it to yet. Moka Buddhist Museum in Yeoju is one of those places that I had circled in the guidebook before I ever came to Korea. After more than year, I finally made the bus trip down there with a new teacher at school who is actually interested in cultural things and not just drinking until they turn into a new form of Asian Cocktail.
My guidebook said Yeoju was forty minutes from Seoul Express Bus Terminal. After the actual two hours it took in the cluster of extraneous status symbol, I mean car, traffic, we finally made it to Yeoju by 2pm after leaving the house at 9am. As much as I love travelling around Korea, some days it’s hard to convince myself to leave the neighborhood knowing that even a simple trip to Seoul is going to take over an hour on either end. Why so many people insist on driving their own cars when the public transportation is arguably one of the best the entire world, I know, but refuse to understand.
Moka Museum is a really cool little place though. Well worth the visit. It’s a bit outside of town, the number 10 bus goes by it, or a taxi ride is about 10,000W.
The museum grounds are a statue park of different religions, mostly buddhist. It was a really gorgeous and relaxing place to be.
The highlight is the actual museum, but of course, you can’t take pictures inside. I did sneak this one of the child of Samsara (the circle of living and dying with attachment) for my travel buddy.
With no concrete plans for a weekend in the fist time in ages, I set out to do what ruby does best. Pick a subway stop or two and explore. On Saturday, I barely made it out of the front door before the first adventure began. There is a particularly seedy looking building in our neighborhood that, although it appears to have a Buddhist temple on top, I was a little hesitant to explore. The building itself is one of the more ranshackle in our area. There is a billiards hall on the second floor, and on my walk home from work, it’s one of the places that always has particularly drunk men loitering around outside.
But since I was in exploring mode, camera in hand, daring wits about me, I decided to brave it past the filthy stairwell to see what it really is.
On the third floor is a beautiful shrine room. Even though part of the reason I came to back to Asia was to re-immerse myself in Buddhist culture, it doesn’t feel like part of everyday life here. Consumerism and an extreme materialism to the point of being disgusting has taken over, leaving the less than a third of the population that still even considers itself Buddhist on a shelf somewhere behind last years’ cellphones. There are still some great cultural holidays, and the occasional monk on the subway, but it doesn’t “feel” like a Buddhist country the way other places I’ve travelled do.
With no one around I did a few prostrations and sat for a few minutes, and then nosed around trying to find the rooftop shrine that I was pretty sure existed. On my way through the door to the rooftop I literally ran into a monk. He was at first shocked, and then pretty happy to see me. He even gave me a zucchini from their rooftop garden. I speak almost no Korean, and he speaks almost no English, but I did glean that he was in the Korean war from pictures he showed me and was quite happy to meet a young American.
We had tea together and a gorgeous little girl full of smiles came in. As far as I could tell, she said the monk is her uncle, and it seems like she almost lives at the temple. I got to thinking how different my life in Korea would be if I had become involved with these people earlier in the year.
The rest of my subway hopping weekend paled in comparison to hanging out with the monk and his niece. Even with such promising names as Imhak, Beagun, and Dong Incheon, it’s a little bit of a disappointment to get off at any subway station and just see more of the same. I know this is going to happen already, but still, there’s usually one little gem that was worth finding. The Mexican restaurant in Songnea for example, or the acupuncturist I want to try again when they are open in Imhak.
After a second day of rambling and going to the grocery store, I was on the final stretch home carrying a bag full of exotic cheeses from Home Plus, when a little tiny hand grabbed my arm. It was the girl from the temple. It appears what I’ve been looking for in Korea has been on my street all along.