Sunday, September 22, 2013

Beijing, China

How It All Began

Ah, China. Home of tea, good food, communists, and a really big wall. I had originally only planned on two big trips during my stay in Korea--one during summer break and one during winter break. But when it came to my attention that the Chuseok holidays would give us a long 5-day weekend, I figured it would be a nice opportunity to go somewhere close and interesting. And how many times in your life are you this close to the Great Wall of China that you could literally hop on a plane for 90 minutes and be like within a short bus ride's distance away? (Well, assuming you're not from any of the Asian countries around China…)

So my next discovery was that you need a tourist visa in order to enter China. And to do that, I had to go through a travel agent. This particular travel agency--Soho--came pretty highly recommended from other foreigners, as they seemed to work almost primarily with foreigners through a Seoul office. For their China package, they also offered the option of signing up for a 2-day tour hitting basically all the major Beijing hotspots (including the Great Wall). I figured that, especially since I was wanting to go to the Great Wall (which is a good distance outside of the main city), it would be best to go with a program rather than try to wing it alone. I remember how well that went in Tokyo (…not too bad, but stressful). So, long story short (too late), I filled out the paperwork, paid the agency, and got my tourist visa, plane tickets, hotel, and tour all taken care of.

But then came the first worry--apparently, the main hotel this agency works with is some tiny little place hidden in some alley and is difficult to find. And we all know how good I am at getting lost. But I just crossed my fingers and hopped for the best.


Day One - Thursday (September 19)

For a day when trains are supposedly on a limited schedule, I caught trains so much easier and faster on Chuseok Day than the usual schedule! Simply put, I made it to the airport easy, had just as much trouble trying to find the check-in area as I did going to Tokyo, and then eventually made it through security easily. After a 90-minute wait, and a bit of Dunkin Donuts for breakfast, I hopped on the plane.

And that's when the annoyances began. First, they didn't really call you into line by any section number as usually happens, so it was very unclear who they were letting on the plane or if it was just line up and get on (turns out it was the latter). Then as you get on, you quickly discover how face-meltingly hot it was in that cabin. As the captain informed us shortly after, one of the small back engines/turbines (whichever one they usually use to circulate air while on the ground) was broken. Yeah, Mr. Captain, the first thing I want to hear before we take off is that something isn't working because an engine is broken. But they eventually got some air circulating before telling us we had to wait for clearance for our turn to take off. He said like 15 minutes. But our flight was originally supposed to take off at 1:05 PM, and we didn't get into the air until 1:50 PM. On top of that, it was really nerve-wrecking when you could--for some reason--hear every little mechanical movement of the plane.

So we eventually touch down in Beijing and end up in this super long line at Immigration. I'd say I waited in that line for at least 30 minutes or more, but was passed through in like 10 seconds. I got my luggage and found my way outside. Now my directions for the hotel said I needed to hop on a shuttle bus from the hotel to the Beijing Railway Station. I paid 16 yuan for that, and the lady was mildly dismissive about the whole thing. I waited for about 15 minutes or so for the bus to show up. And as I go to put my bag in the containment area underneath, the bus driver starts angrily yelling at me in Chinese. I have no idea what he's saying, but I'm clearly doing something wrong. He then takes me over to a sign of his route and I figure out he's asking where I'm getting off. I point to the last stop. He nods and lets me put my bag in the bus. The whole trip, after picking up 2 more sets of people from different terminals, took about 40-45 minutes.

Now, the directions I had said to get off the bus and go straight in the direction the bus is facing toward the first set of stoplights. Sadly, my bus decided not to go where the other buses were, but pull into a back parking lot. So I had no idea if I had to turn left or right. I assumed right because that's where the other buses were facing and there was a stoplight not too far. So I take maybe 10 steps in that direction before a herd of taxi drivers surround me. I can't really get around them, so I show one my hotel's address--printed in Chinese… and he has no idea where it's at or how to get there. He starts drawing a box with his fingers, and I figure he wants a map. So I show him a printed out voucher for the hotel which has a map and more hotel information on it. He ends up calling the hotel to find directions on how to get there, then gets me in the taxi.

So… he goes straight to that stoplight (which was maybe a 15 second walk) and turns right, which is what my directions said. He drives for about 10 seconds and finds himself at the entrance of an alley--and my hotel is in an alley. He talks to the guys standing there for a minute before heading down it. And then we hit the construction area. They're digging some big ol' hole in the middle of the road and there's no way to drive around it. So we get out of the taxi. He actually takes my bag and walks me the rest of the way to the hotel. And then makes me pay him 100 yuan (which is like 16 bucks or something). It was an insane rip-off. I could have paid 100 yuan for a taxi from the airport to the hotel, but to literally just turn a corner? Still, he did go through a lot of effort to get me there and was always pleasant, so he worked for that money regardless.

So I enter the hotel and go to check in. At the same time, there's a young African American woman checking in, as well, and she seems to have very similar papers to me. We chat for a minute and turns out she used Soho, as well, and got the exact same deal I did. So we both check in and have to give a 200 yuan deposit for the room key… another strike for the hotel. Because…

I decided to only bring roughly 200 bucks with me on this trip. I'd only be here like 3 and a half days and almost every single thing had already been paid for. I figured I wouldn't need much more than 200 bucks. So if you're keeping track, I had paid 16 yuan for the bus, 100 yuan for the taxi, and 200 yuan for the deposit. This basically brings me down to about 115 or thereabouts. And this is before I even do anything on the trip.

So I finally find my room and… I have no idea how to use the freakin' key card. There's no slot or anything. So I'm standing around like an idiot trying to figure out how to use this plastic card on a lock system with no discernible place to put it. I find some vague directions on the back of the card and eventually figure out you have to hold the card slightly away from a particular spot on the door, which will turn a light green and you can open it.

The first thing I notice upon entering the room is the bathroom… being right out in the open with the rest of the room. It's actually a pretty decent room all things considered. I took some pictures:

The next thing I realized? Well, first, that the hotel internet is painfully bad. It barely works, and when it does connect you, it's slow and not on for long. Second, China has a country-wide block on Facebook, Youtube… basically any kind of major social media. So I knew I was basically gonna be totally cut off for the entirety of the trip.

At this point I decide I need some food, so I go down to check out the hotel restaurant and bump into my new friend again. They seat us together at a table, and the waiter literally stood there and watched us try to figure out what we wanted to eat. I figured mine out pretty fast, but she took a while. But it was really uncomfortable with him just standing and waiting there. We eventually picked our food, and he wandered off to go get it started. And me and my new friend, whose name turned out to be Monique, started talking.

We chatted for about 45-60 minutes before they brought out our food. I got this sweet and spicy chicken thing. It was basically popcorn chicken with these red and green roasted bell peppers inside this cornucopia thing. The chicken was just mildly spicy, but it also had a kind of lemony zest to it. It was actually very good. Sadly I did not take a picture.

I returned to my room to relax a bit before bed… and got a phone call. Turns out it was Justin, our tour guide for the next day (I'm assuming Justin is his English name, as he was from Beijing). He wanted us to meet him at some other hotel or something since ours was basically impossible to get to (no kidding). But I had no idea where that was, so he just said he'd meet us in our hotel lobby at 7:20 AM. Right-o.

Day Two - Friday (September 20)

So I set my alarm on my phone for 6:30 AM. I woke up exhausted, got ready, and went and sat in the lobby by like 7. Except by the time 7:20, and eventually 7:30, came around… Justin didn't. Nor did Monique, for that matter. That's when I peeked up at the world time clocks above the front desk and noticed Beijing said "6:30." I looked at my watch, which agreed with that assessment. And then it hit me… my phone didn't automatically change its time when I got here. China is an hour behind Korea, so I had actually gotten up at 5:30 AM instead. Ugh.

Luckily, breakfast began service at 6:30, so I just went over next door and had a few little things. Then I just kinda hung around the hotel until Justin eventually showed up and took Monique and I a good distance away to the tour bus. And then we also stopped by a couple other hotels to pick up some other people. In all, including the two of us, there were 13 of us (15 if you included Justin and the bus driver). We all became somewhat close throughout the day, so let me introduce you to them…

-Turkish family. A married couple and a 7-year-old boy from Turkey. They were nice, though the boy really straddled that line between cute and painfully annoying… usually tipping into the latter. And you could tell any adult who made contact with this kid was struggling to stay nice.

-YapYap Man and/or Bridge Master and his little friend. OK, so there was this guy sitting in front of me and Monique on the bus. Asian--originally born in Taiwan, i believe. Older gentlemen with stark white hair. He's lived 40-something years in London, so he had a bit of a mixed accent and spoke perfect English. He has two nicknames for a reason. First, he never. shut. up. The dude was seriously getting on everybody's nerves, but he was really nice, so nobody wanted to really say anything. He's also a world champion Bridge player (you know, the card game). He does it for his profession and actually holds world records and whatnot. He's apparently one of the best in the entire world. He's in town for a tournament that he was late for because of plane trouble or something, and one of his teammates was in the hospital and another stuck at the airport and… I really have no idea. I tried to tune him out all 5 million times he told the same 3 stories. But he was also one of those guys who, when Justin didn't give every little detail on something, he'd step in and be "that guy" to try and give tour information himself. Yeah. Oh, and his little friend was a older Asian fellow dressed in some German-looking outfit. It was really bizarre. But he was quiet and mainly kept to himself and Bridge Master.

-Then there was IT Assistant from Singapore. This dude was really nice and cool. I want to say his name was Eric or something, but I didn't catch it. He also spoke perfect English, but also perfect Mandarin, so people would think he was actually Chinese. At the wall, we ended up walking most of it with him. (But I'm getting ahead of myself.)

-Australian Girl and her Japanese(?) friend. The Australian girl works for Goodyear and has to come to different countries for the company. She's currently been living in China for about 5 months and has to be here until the end of the year. Her Asian friend with her was, I believe, Japanese, but I'm not 100%. They were pretty nice.

-The Canadians. A group of 3--2 guys and 1 girl (who appeared to be of middle eastern descent of some sort). They basically kept almost entirely to themselves. Though one of the guys kinda looked like a grungier James Franco.

Anywho, we hit traffic on the way out of town and it takes a while to make progress. But we eventually make it to the Ming Tombs--Changeling. I'll be honest… this was the least exciting this we did the whole day. Of all the stuff I'll think about during my visit to Beijing, this will probably end up at the far end of the list. It wasn't bad, but it just wasn't all that special. But here are a few pictures anyway:

From there we hit up the Jade Carving Factory, which I admit was pretty cool. We had a lady take us through and give us different presentations on all things Jade. Then we were free to walk around and buy stuff. It was all a bit too expensive for my taste (especially since I didn't have too much to spare). I *almost* went with a small painting done with Jade powder, though, because those were really cool and pretty.

We also ate lunch at this place. The food was decent. It was a mix of really basic things--rice, some kind of chinese chicken, salad, dumpling, etc. And, strangely, french fries… just like chinese places in the States. Anywho, here are some pictures I took here:

Of course the next stop was the Great Wall. Once we got there, we paid an extra 80 yuan for a gondola up the mountain to the actual start of the wall rather than climbing the mountain first (well, 80 for there and back). We waited in a huge line for about half an hour and finally made our way up the terrifyingly high gondola ride. But the scenery was gorgeous. And eventually made it to the wall itself.

This was simply stunning. Yeah, it was packed with people, but it's the Great Wall of China. For most people, it's a once in a lifetime opportunity. Everything about this was amazing. Even if we had to walk some crazy steep slopes and steps, it was worth it. We only had an hour or so before we had to be back to meet Justin. So Monique and I first headed for one direction which took us to the end of the road (as far as you could go on this part of the wall). We bumped into our Singapore friend during this as well. We eventually turned back and went the other way and started up the other end and eventually caught back up with our Singapore friend again (who had gone ahead of us at one point).  And people kept wanting to take pictures with Monique, I guess because they'd never seen a black person before (I'm not joking). But I got tons and tons of pictures and video here. I won't put all the pictures here, but I'll choose a select few and also put up the video footage. The rest will go up on Facebook, as usual (along with other pictures of the other stuff we did today). Oh, and I got swindled by an old lady. As we're waiting in line for the gondola down, an old lady is trying to sell shirts to us in line. She's very aggressive about it. At first she tries to sell it to me for 120 yuan, but I say no. Then she tells our Singapore friend in Chinese that she'd sell to him for 80, but to us foreigners for 120 (not realizing he wasn't Chinese… because even to Asians, all Asians look the same). He tried to tip me off to that, but it was too late. She dropped the pice to 100 and almost literally shoved the shirt into my arms. Feeling obligated, I just gave her the 100 and proceeded to get made fun of for the remainder of the trip for being a terrible haggler. But anyway, here are some pictures and whatnot:

We thought we were done for the day, and we were all pretty exhausted despite it only being like 3 PM. But on the drive back, we did a moving tour where he pointed out different olympic stadiums and even the famous Bird's Nest, which I got a picture of:

Then we stopped by at Dr. Tea's tea house where we were treated to a free tea tasting. Two were really good, and two I didn't care much for. But the whole thing itself was entertaining… except for the little Turkish boy who was basically being an excitable kid, but was getting incredibly annoying to most of the rest of us.

And you'd think my day was over… but you'd be wrong. So Australian Girl and her Japanese Friend talked about a famous Night Market near their hotel. You know, the kind that serves, among normal things, spiders and insects and other gross stuff. So of course we had to check that out. Monique decided she was gonna ask to get dropped off there (as Justin asked if we'd prefer to be dropped off in other places). I decided to tag along. The atmosphere was nice, though the people were a bit aggressive. When we did eventually reach the bug stuff, the guy was so adamant I try spider, he seemed angry and offended when I said no. I did eat three things, though. First were these friend banana balls… which were basically just dough. I didn't taste any kind of fruit in it whatsoever. Then I tried this peking duck/vegetable wrap that we'd been told was good. It wasn't. I couldn't even get through half of it. It was stuffed with this onion stalks that were basically raw, and the onion flavor was so overpowering you couldn't taste anything else. I decided to cleanse myself with fruit and got a fruit stick with a strawberry and alternating cantaloupe and kiwi. The cantaloupe was easily the most bitter fruit I've ever had in my life. The kiwi was just kind of hard. It wasn't bad, but it was way too crunchy. So I couldn't even finish that, either. At this point, we decide to head on out. But first, some pictures!

Now, I was particularly afraid of doing anything outside my tour since it's basically impossible to find your way back to the hotel. I mean, when even taxi drivers who are parked a 5-minute walk away have no idea how to get there, you know it's trouble. But I had to do this market thing. It was just a cultural thing I couldn't pass up.

So we're walking up and down the streets trying to find directions to the Beijing Railway Station (because if we could get there, it would be easier for us to find our hotel). We end up going into another hotel to ask for directions. We start by asking the lady behind the counter, but soon a hotel guest who speaks perfect English and also happens to be a Beijing native decides to help us out. He said to walk would take about an hour from where we were. Our best bet was a taxi. Our next best bet was a bus. So we get the lady to write the Chinese for "Beijing Railway Station" on a card for us to show a taxi driver…

…It was just unfortunate we couldn't get a taxi. Literally no cab would stop for us. We walked around for at least 15-20 minutes, and nothing. Oh, there were taxis. But we couldn't get one to save our lives. So we go back to the hotel and ask if the lady could call one for us. She gets a worker to do it, and he goes outside to find us one. After about 5-10 minutes, he comes back and says even he couldn't get us a taxi and our best bet was to take a bus. We had been told which bus numbers we could take, and he pointed us in the general direction of the bus stop and told us it would only cost 1 yuan.

We didn't have to wait long for our bus, and we were only on it for maybe 10 minutes before we hit end of line at the railway station. We walked to the station (which was all lit up and really pretty, and tons of people were just sitting about the lot as if some kind of show was about to happen).

I followed Monique as she had a better idea how to get to the hotel from the railway station itself than I did. But she took a wrong turn and we ended up having to backtrack quite a bit. Even after ending up on the right path, it took us a while, and we even did a big kind of circle before making it into the alleyway. But we reached the hotel once more, and we were both utterly exhausted. And we'd learned our lesson… that's what we get for wanting to be adventurous in Beijing.

Day Three - Saturday (September 21)

Boy was this a long day. It starts off with us being unsure where our new tour guide is going to meet us. Justin first told us the hotel lobby at 7:40. But then he somewhat changed on us and then said next to a bigger hotel down the road that's easier to get to. So we had no idea where to go. 7:40 comes around and the tour guide hasn't shown up yet. We walk toward the other hotel, but he's not around there, either. So I go back to our hotel while Monique stays at the bigger one. I stick around for a few minutes and keep peeking outside when I see a guy rushing up towards me. We confirm that he is the tour guide, but asks where "the lady" is. So I took him in her directions. In the meantime, he introduced himself with his English name being Bob. He's so not a Bob, but it was funny, so we went with it.

We get to the bus/van thing, which is a different one from the day before, as well. Much smaller. After we picked up our last two of the group, there were 12 of us total (14 including Bob and the driver). There were…

-Indian family. I'm not quite sure what the dynamic was, but there was an older woman, a younger woman, a mid-to-late 40s-ish man, and a boy who was probably roughly 13 or so. Oh, and an older man who had some sort of skin condition. They kind of kept to themselves, though the younger woman talked to me once or twice and was nice. She was the one who broke out of the family circle most often.

-European couple. We never figured out where they were from. The husband had a fancy camera and was addicted to using it. He barely paid any attention to Bob during the tours. Most often, he'd walk off and do his own thing taking pictures and just return when we moved on to whatever next area.

-The Turkish Family. Yeah, they're back! And the kid was still as annoying as he was the day before.

So our first stop was Tian'anmen Square and the Forbidden City. Sadly, we didn't go into the actual main Square itself, because the queue was enormous and it was totally packed with people. But I snagged some pictures. And the actual square is more than just that one area, apparently, and extends even across the street to the area we were at, I believe. Next up was the Forbidden City, which is the massive palace complex. Inside were actually 6 different palaces plus a garden area. It was pretty cool, but took forever to get through. Though it reminded me of a bigger version of Gyeongbokgung in Seoul (which is saying a lot). I think we were all pretty exhausted after this alone, and it was only 10-ish when we finished here. Here are some pictures and a video of both of these things (well... parts of both):

After that we went to this Chinese Medicine center that was partly interesting but mostly dull. And you'll never guess where it was! Literally right behind the Night Market vendors from the night before. Yeah… can't escape this place. Anyway, inside, the lady was going on and on like it was a biology class (though for Chinese methods). But then these physicians came in to do their little trick where they can tell what's wrong with your body just by putting three fingers on each wrist and having you stick out your tongue for a few seconds. Most of the group was impressive (they figured the boy had asthma and the dad had high cholesterol, for instance, which were both true). But when it eventually came to me, they basically just said I'm fat and have a slow metabolism. Yeah, no kidding. You don't need to be a doctor to figure that one out.

Oh, and they talked Monique into buying some herbal meeds, but she didn't have the money with her at the time. So Bob paid for it, with her needing to pay him back at the end of the day. Remember this… it's coming back later.

It took forever for us to get out of there, but when we did, we all went to lunch at a more local place not catered to Westerners. This allowed us to taste actual Chinese food, and it's quite a bit different than what we have back in the States. But it was good. Oh, and guess who else was there with a different group? Yup… Bridge Master and his little buddy! Anyway, I got a picture of the food and stuff:

After lunch was the Temple of Heaven. It had some pretty interesting buildings and stuff. Here are some pictures:

After that was the Pearl Market, which was lame. The most exciting thing about it was some ice cream they were selling at the front. Unfortunately, we killed a lot of time here for some reason. This part of the day was so dull I couldn't even be bothered to take pictures.

So from there we moved on to the quite beautiful Summer Palace. If for some reason I ever came back to Beijing, I wouldn't mind checking out the Summer Palace again. There were some buildings we didn't get to go to… not to mention it's just a gorgeous place. Here's some pictures:

The tour was basically over at this point, so they started dropping everyone off one by one. It came down to us and Turkish Family, and Bob dropped us off at our hotel to put our things away before heading to the theater for the Acrobatics Show. During this time, the Turkish Family decided against going to a certain restaurant and just had them drop them off near their hotel instead.

This leaves me and Monique. But before we can go to the theater, Monique needed to get some money to pay back Bob. We stop at this bank/ATM/something-or-other. To give the very, very short version… she couldn't get the money, Bob got pretty frustrated, and they ended up settling on her returning the herbal meeds to the front desk of the hotel for him to pick up the next day so he could get a refund on them. But it took a lot of time to come to this conclusion.

By the time we get to the theatre, it's about 6:45 PM or so. Bob gets the tickets for us and we head on inside, find our seats, and say our goodbyes to Bob. We were so cramped in those seats. Let me put it this way--even the little Asians were too big the space they gave you, so just imagine how I was. Anyway, the show started about 7:20…

…and it was the perfect way to end this whole trip. It was pretty awesome. Think a kind of Cirque act with big feats, a story, and digital backgrounds. There was tightrope walking, a juggling tap dancer (which was even more epic than it sounds), two different contortionist acts, a pole climbing act, a Chinese fan/bicycling act, and probably something else I'm forgetting. It was all insanely impressive and a lot of fun. The basic story was a clown who gets caught up in some Indiana Jones type adventures, but even crazier than that. And he has to collect these treasures from different monsters and/or creatures and whatnot. Pictures were not allowed during the show, but I did get a couple of the outside of the building, at least?

From there, we headed to the subway where we traveled back to the Beijing Railway Station and walked back to our hotel. And that was that!

Day Four - Sunday (September 22)

The previous night, I had started to feel a bit sick. Sinus stuff and minor sore throat. This seems to be common when I travel for some reason. Anyway, this led to an uncomfortable sleep through the night. I'd set my alarm for 9 AM but got up in the 7 o'clock hour. Keep in mind that through the rest of this day, I'm not feeling all that great. Anyway, I decided to take this free time to upload pictures and edit some footage and whatnot. After a while, I started to debate whether or not I wanted to just head for the airport early or just do nothing for an hour. So I decided to just check out and head to the airport. Better to be safe than sorry and all that.

So I headed for the airport shuttle bus, which was near the Beijing Railway Station. I'd seen tons of the shuttles around there, and I saw signs pointing to where to go. But then I saw this enormous line. And all the signs pointed to that spot. Turns out it was the taxi line, despite the fact there was a sign that said "Airport Shuttle Bus" with an arrow pointing into this line. Oh well. I waited in the line for about 45 minutes, during which I was bombarded by taxi drivers trying to get me (and only me) out of line and rip me off. I declined every time. The first guy tried to get me for 350 yuan. The second guy said 150. I still knew that was too high. The last guy said meter, but I didn't trust him. The taxi I did get had a pretty nice guy who actually used his meter. He didn't speak much English, but we got the point across, and it only ended up costing 107 yuan (plus an extra 10 for an airport toll). That's roughly what I figured it would be. It only took about 35 minutes or so.

So I tried to find my way through the airport and check in, which was an annoying process, especially since they don't have Self Check-In here, apparently. Then began the massive trek to the gate. First I had to walk down to a train which took you to the right concourse area. Then I had to walk a distance before waiting in a huge line for Immigration and Security (which were kind of lumped together in that order). After that, I had to basically walk for 10 minutes--stopping at a Starbucks to get an overpriced and not that good sandwich--before heading down an escalator to sit and wait in a tiny gate room for a shuttle bus that would eventually take us to the plane. Yeah.

This Air China flight had some issues, too. Instead of taking off at 1:50 as we were supposed to, we don't take off until about 2:30 because they had to find the luggage of someone who didn't make the flight… or something. The flight itself was fine. We landed right around 5 PM Korean time (remember, there's a time shift). But then after we get to the airport, I get stuck in the immigration line that takes FOREVER.The kind of line that takes 15 minutes to check 10 people through for what should be a 45-second job. So by the time I get through the line and grab my luggage, it's already 6 PM. I'm sick and exhausted and just want to go home. I didn't feel like dealing with the whole bus thing, so I just decided to catch the train. It's only 30 minutes longer than the bus, right?

Ha. To skip forward a bit, let's just say I got on the train at about 6:20. I didn't get home until 9 PM. Why, you ask? Well, it was going fine (albeit a bit crowded) until I hit Sindorim Station and had to transfer. I somehow got turned around, so a nice Korean guy decided to help me out. Unfortunately, the direction he pointed me in… OK, let me side-note for a minute and explain a couple things about the Seoul Subway system.

1) A Rapid Line is a line in which you don't have to worry about hitting all the stops. It just hits bigger ones and speeds by all the others. It generally saves time.

2) Sindorim is right before Guro. Now, Guro is a station which goes in a fork despite staying on the same numbered line. So you have to be sure you get on the right train or else you end up going in the complete opposite direction you intended.

I think you can see where this is going.

After waiting 15 minutes for the train to even show up, I get on… and end up on a Rapid Line going in the complete opposite direction I need to go. This means I bypassed about 5 stations in between Guro and where we ended up stopping. This means I had to get on a regular train and spend the next 10-15 minutes backtracking to Guro so I could switch to yet another train and take the next 20 minutes standing in a cramped position to get back home. In other words, I was not having a fun day.

Final Thoughts

The tour stuff was awesome, and the Great Wall was amazing (as was the acrobatics show). If I had to compare Beijing to, say, Seoul and Tokyo, though? Well, let's look at some important categories:


Seoul: Generally friendly, but in an average kind of way. When they're workers, they're nice. When it's just average people… just normal. Some are very friendly and helpful, and others ignore you completely (and some will just stare).

Tokyo: Super friendly. Probably one of the friendliest places I've ever been. The workers go out of their way to be kind to you and even try to speak English even if it embarrasses them. I'm not sure I met a single rude or unfriendly person in Tokyo.

Beijing: Uh… not very friendly. Well, let me expand on that. The common person is generally friendly. During the tours, the other touring Chinese people (usually females, though) were really nice and friendly. However, the customer service here is really bad. The hotel staff was nice, but that's about where it ended. Most workers were super aggressive and would try to rip off foreigners. But even when they did that, they weren't nice about it. They would basically yell at you, follow you around, and even if you told them no, wouldn't stop. The worst was if you were stuck in a line and couldn't get away. I also generally found younger women and kids to be the most pleasant. The majority of the men and older women I came across were not very pleasant at all. This was one of the biggest detriments to this city, in my opinion.

Winner: Tokyo
Loser: Beijing



Seoul: The entire Seoul metro system is pretty dang perfect. And even outside Seoul, it's easy to get a taxi and the bus systems, though sometimes confusing if you don't speak the language, is solid.

Tokyo: Tokyo comes close, though. I was able to pick up the metro system on my own after like a day. The bus system was easy enough when I needed it.

Beijing: Uh… not very good. I don't want to judge the Beijing Railway system much, because I only used it once. That one time was relatively easy. Where I will judge it, though, is that finding an entrance area is not easy, unlike the other two cities, where entrances are everywhere. I've had two experiences with taxis. And unless they're out to rip you off, it's incredibly, incredibly difficult for a foreigner to catch a cab here. As for the buses… similar to Korea, if you know the language and bus schedules, it could be easier. Otherwise, it's not too friendly to travelers.

Winner: Seoul, but with Tokyo in a close second.
Loser: Beijing



Seoul: I'm not a huge fan of the Seoul aesthetic, or really Korean aesthetic in general. It's not ugly, per se, but it's not all that pleasant or appealing. Granted, there are some really nice areas, but as for the city itself… eh, it's OK.

Tokyo: It's really cool and every major area offers an entirely unique look. You can go to Harajuku, Akihabara, and Shibuya and have 3 completely different feels.

Beijing: However, I absolutely loved the look of Beijing. It's hard to describe the look and feel of the city, but it's a really cool place on this front.

Winner: Beijing, with Tokyo in a close second.
Loser: Seoul.


Cultural Offerings

Seoul: Temples and a shrine… and that's about it. Otherwise, it's basically your average huge city.

Tokyo: Similar to Seoul, it has a temple/shrine or two, but this is a city much more focused on the future rather than the past. I think that's why Kyoto is much more popular for those looking for cultural stuff.

Beijing: Everywhere you look is a cultural experience. Even in the modernization of the buildings are cultural touches. It's a city rooted in its past but building for the future.

Winner: Beijing
Loser: Tokyo


Stuff to Do

Seoul: This place is so massive you could do something in Seoul every day for an entire year and probably still not do everything possible.

Tokyo: Like Seoul, there's just so much you could see and do. That being said, I think the stuff in Tokyo is much grander and a little more fun than Seoul. So while it might have an equal amount of things, it really comes down to quality or what you're looking for.

Beijing: Yet again, you'd be hard pressed to find nothing to do. Best attraction, though? Uh… the Great Wall of China. Yeah, it's really hard to beat that.

Winner: I think this is a three-way tie. It's really tough and mostly depends on what you're looking for. You want culture and history? Beijing. You want fun, games, and fashion? Tokyo. You want a big city adventure mixed with a bit of culture? Seoul.

As for my hotel in Beijing… I can't recommend it to anyone. The rooms themselves aren't bad, and the staff is actually pleasant and helpful. But it is not worth the headache to get to. And it's definitely not worth not being able to tell the address to a taxi and still not being able to get where you need to go. Get a better hotel. Hands down. Zhangan Hotel in and of itself isn't bad, but its location is terrible, terrible, terrible.

Overall, though, I think my favorite city so far is Tokyo, with Seoul in second, and Beijing in third. I enjoyed practically everything I did in Beijing, but the friendliness and transportation factors were a big turn-off. However, that being said, it's all worth it just to see the Great Wall. I also think part of my outlook on Beijing is due to exhaustion and over-stimulation. I did a lot in just two days, and they were two very long days at that.

And I think that's about it for this trip! 

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Planned Beijing Itinerary

If you didn't already know, I have a big break this coming week. It's for Chuseok, which is basically Korean Thanksgiving. It falls on a Thursday this year, and you always get the day before, the day of, and the day after off. Which means i have a 5-day weekend. So I decided to make a short trip out of it and head on over to Beijing. You know, China.

It was a bit tricky to get everything ready for it, though. To visit China, you need a special tourist visa, which is even trickier to get if you're not in your home country. But I found an English-friendly Travel Agent in Seoul that specializes in this kind of thing. So I filled out like 6 pages of paperwork and sent it in with my ARC (which couldn't be less than 6 months from expiration, which thankfully it wasn't at that point), my passport, and a passport-sized photo (which I thankfully still had one left over). After roughly a week and a half, I got everything back with said tourist visa in my passport.

The Travel Agency also set me up with plane tickets, a hotel, and a tour package. So as far as I know, here is how my Beijing trip is gonna go:

Thursday (Sept 19)
-Leave Seoul
-Arrive in Beijing at 2:10 PM
-Find hotel
-Tiananmen Square, which isn't too far from my hotel (and not on the tour for some reason)

Friday (Sept 20) - TOUR DAY 1
-Ming Tombs - Changling
-Possible Jade Carving Factory
-Great Wall of China (Badaling)
-Possible Silk Art Factory

Saturday (Sept 21) - TOUR DAY 2
-Forbidden City
-Temple of Heaven
-Pearl Market
-Summer Palace
-Acrobatics Show

Sunday (Sept 22)
-Leave Beijing
-Arrive in Seoul at 4:50 PM

And that's my rough itinerary for the trip!

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Rafting the Hantan River!

I honestly don't have that much to share on this one. A bit of backstory, first, I suppose: About a month ago (or so), I saw a link to a group called Adventure Korea. They do all sorts of stuff around the country. The particular one that caught my eye was a white water rafting trip. I wasn't sure about it, so I brought it up to my sister (who had done white water rafting herself), and she talked me into it. (The next part is actually a much longer story, but I'll keep it short.) I asked Naomi, Tim, and Kira if they wanted to join me. The first two couldn't, and Kira said yes. But as time got closer, Kira's plans shifted and she couldn't join me, so I ended up doing this alone.

So as the day came, I had to be at the meet-up point at 7 AM, which means I had to be awake at about 5 AM... which if you know me, is not a pleasant or welcome experience whatsoever. I ended up leaving my place by 6, and thanks to my luck, my first train was like 15 minutes late. I got really worried I wasn't going to make it. In fact, by the time I got to the meet-up station, I had about 3 minutes to find and get to the bus. I had to go to the complete opposite side of the station and out onto the street, but I found it. Luckily they waited an extra 10 minutes for others, as well. So we left around 7:12 AM.

To cut down on the following story, as well, the trip--with 2 short rest stop breaks--took about 3 and a half hours, as we got to the Hantan River/rafting area by around 10:40-ish. And it was our turn to start gearing up around 11. The most annoying part here was they kept changing out my life vest. They would keep having me take one off and put another on and strap me all in. Then take it off and put another on (for size purposes). I did this switching game about 5 times before they were happy with how it looked, I guess.

Oh, and before all that, most people were buying water shoes at the little shop there. Though I couldn't because my feet are too big for Korea (so I just wore my old pair of shoes). I did, however, buy a waterproof baggie thing so I could take my iPhone for pictures. They also split us into 3 groups with 8-9 people in each raft. We carried our raft down to the water (which was freezing, by the way).

They placed me and another guy roughly my same size in the very front, as they balanced the whole thing out by size/weight. We got the raft into the water and our rather young captain guy went over some basics with us. Then we were off. ONE. TWO. ONE. TWO. ONE. TWO.


Oh, rocks. I feel I cursed this particular raft. For those that aren't aware, my family and I usually go tubing on the Frio River every summer. And I'm notorious for a few things, including hitting and/or getting stuck on every rock, going backwards, and getting behind so needing to play catch-up. I thought I missed it this year. But to spoil the rest of this adventure--nope! It was just like old times.

Throughout the float, we got stuck on not one rock, not two rocks, not three rocks... but four rocks. The first three, our captain guy actually had to get out of the boat (and for the first two, we were in rapids) and wiggle and push with great effort (he was a little guy) and hop back in the boat before it left him behind. And, yes, we would even go backwards or sideways at times. And at the very first rock we got so far behind the rest of our group that we had to tire ourselves out playing catch-up.

We stopped 3 times throughout the trip. The first was to jump off a big rock into the water, which I didn't do. The second time was to go down a makeshift slide into the water, which was just two rafts put together with water splashed onto it. I did do this one, and it was fun (and freezing). The third time, we stopped in the middle of a deep area, and he made us fall as a group into the water (did I mention it was a bit nippy?) and swim to a very small/narrow beach area where we waited for ages before heading to the end of the line... where the three boats raced each other toward the finish. I knew we were gonna lose because we were so exhausted from playing catch-up the whole time. And we did. Though another funny tidbit was about halfway through the whole rafting journey, our boat decided to try and outdo another boat on our "ONE! TWO!" chant in how loud we did it. So it became a funny contest between everyone.

So anyway, we finished, and I've never had that much sand in my shoes ever in my life. We head up a super steep hill and then a super steep, winding road and make it to the waiting zone where a shuttle bus takes us back to the starting area. We're directed to the shower area... which was a communal shower, and I wasn't prepared to see so many naked dudes on this trip.

Then we ate some rather delicious food before we were taken to the next area--the bungee jump bridge. I didn't do this (even if I wanted to, I was over the weight limit). I sat in an area under the bridge with the guy who I was with at the front of the raft, and we hung out and talked while watching all the bungee jumpers (he'd done this whole trip about a dozen times, so he wasn't as interested in the jumpers as I was).

And then we were gone by about 4 PM. Traffic was apparently really bad in Seoul, so they gave us the option of stopping at a station on the east side of the city or else spend another 1-2 hours driving to the original areas. We all decided to stop at this station (which I quickly realized was the station I got out at when I used the Seoul Bus Terminal to take my day-long trip to nowhere months ago).

So overall, what did I think? This was a pretty awesome trip. Yes, I'm exhausted. Yes, I'm a bit sunburned. But the scenery was stunning--even more so than any of my visuals will be able to show. And the rafting, while not super exciting white water stuff like something of the Colorado River, was basically a slightly more intensified version of tubing the Frio. So nothing remotely dangerous, but still fun. This was a very good idea, and probably one of my favorite things I've done.

Now... here are some pictures (and one video)!

The makeshift slide that was pretty fun!

The bridge for bungee jumping.

View from under the bridge.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

My Day At Everland

So KorVia offered us through Facebook free coupons for Everland--the biggest theme park in Korea--that gave us close to a 50% off discount. Tim ended up being the only person of the group to get his, but the coupon covered up to 4 people... so him, Naomi, me, and Kira decided to finally check it out yesterday. We decided we would all meet at the park at 11 AM (the park opens at 10 AM). But let's, as usual, start at the beginning.

Obligatory "How I Got There" Section

The park is on the outskirts of Yongin and is a good 2 hours away from me. So I left my place about 8:50 and made my way to the train station. No train transfers needed today, though. I took the train to Suwon, which takes about 15 minutes. Naomi had made me a set of directions of how to get to the bus stop since she makes this trip often. So I get to the bus stop and wait for the Number 10 bus that will take me to Giheung Station in Yongin. Due to traffic, this trip took close to an hour. And I had to listen close for the Korean announcement for the right stop as there was no sign or anything telling me what stop this was.

Luckily, earlier this year, the "Everline" opened up, which is a new subway line that will take you from Giheung to Everland. So I hopped on that and spent the next 30 minutes getting there. When you get there, you're in the huge parking lot with shuttle buses that take you to the main entrance of the park, so I waited in line for that and eventually made it there where I only had to wait about 10 minutes for Tim and Naomi to arrive. Kira was running late, though, so we didn't actually get into the park until about 11:45-ish.


Unfortunately, I had my recent trip to DisneySea on the brain the entire time I was there, so it was very difficult not to make mental comparisons the whole time. And comparing any other theme park to a Disney theme park is not a good idea, as it will make your current theme park not as exciting. But I tried to push that aside to the best of my abilities. And to get it out of the way now--no, Everland is absolutely not as great as DisneySea, but that doesn't mean it wasn't fun in its own way. So let's talk about the day and what all we did there. I doubt I'm going to get everything in exactly the right order, since it was a bit of a whirlwind day, but I'll recount to the best of my abilities.

Human Sky

The first thing we did was basically a lift that took us down to a section of the park downhill. The wait was about 15-20 minutes for a trip we could have walked in 5, and we really didn't see anything but trees. Not too terribly exciting.

Animal Area

When we stepped off that, we found ourselves in what was basically a kind of mini-zoo. There were polar bears, penguins, sea lions, monkeys, etc. Pretty nifty, though not the most humane zoo ever by the looks of the cages and/or living quarters. The highlight of this area was definitely a chimp who saw me and Tim by the window and walked on over, pushing its hands against the window and looking right at us. That was pretty cool.

Amazon Express

Then Kira really wanted to do a water-type ride, so we ended up on this "rafting" ride that fit about 10 people per raft (two per seat) and covered you up with this waterproof sheet then sent you into these minor rapids. It was pretty fun, though I think I was the only one who didn't even get mildly wet. Though it was hilarious when the workers there got really into the spirit of things and all danced together to the music to entertain everybody waiting in line.

Bird Show

Our timing was also pretty good as we stumbled upon a bird show in this open area. We weren't sure how exciting it was going to be, but it turned out to be really cool. A big variety of birds doing all sorts of tricks, including catching things fired into the air. And the show ended with at least a hundred turkey-like birds (I don't think they were turkeys, but they looked similar) flying right at us and coming to a halt on the ground. Some couldn't stop themselves and flew over the safety netting in front of us and onto the trees behind us. And after the 100 or so of those came some parrots and then doves and it was this big flood of birds surrounding the host guy. Pretty entertaining all around!

Water Show*

*We didn't actually stay for the whole show, but they played it frequently throughout the day. It was some really cheesy, almost Power Rangers-esque fantasy play that included fireworks, animatronics, and large blasts of water that got lots of people wet.


We ended up in a cafeteria where we all got some Korean food. Though if we would have just held off a bit, we would have stumbled into a much bigger variety of food options throughout the park that were more hidden in the back. Still, the food was good and not overly expensive.

Rotating House

The next big ride was another big thing on Kira's list. We were all a bit nervous at first to go into something called "Rotating House" right after we'd eaten. But the wait time for the line only said 20 minutes and we were curious. That wait time totally lied to us, though. We were in line for at least an hour for some reason. At it turned out when we eventually got to the attraction, it only took about 5-10 minutes from start to finish and took a big group of people each time, but it felt like we had to wait 20 minutes in between each group of people that went in.

Anyway, as we're waiting at the front of the line, we see a sign that tells us not to go on if we get motion sickness or have epilepsy or anything like that, which worried Tim and Naomi (on the motion sickness bit, anyway). And we wondered why they didn't have this warning sign on the outside of the building we were in. Oh, and some creepy voice kept saying "Hakuna Matata!" every now and then over the repeated audio they were playing.

But as we finally go in with our group, we end up in a tiny room where the lights go down and we see these animatronic gargoyles talking to us and/or each other. We couldn't tell because they were speaking in Korean, so whatever story they were setting up was lost on us. But then we entered the next room which was rows of seats facing each other on opposite ends of the room. They strapped us in and the lights went down. All the scary music and evil laughter and stuff started up. Then the whole auditorium area we were sitting in started shifting back and forth as if to simulate spinning. To help with this, the walls all around us were shifting, as well. So everything mixed together gave off the illusion that you and the room around you were spinning in circles. It wasn't fast, so it wasn't really all that dizzying. But it was pretty fun and a cool effect. We were laughing the whole time. And to add to it, they had this little air hose that blew against our legs and then something else under our seats that moved against our butts at the very end.

Overall, it was a pretty entertaining attraction!

Magic Swing

On the opposite end of the spectrum from the dancing workers at the rafting ride was the poor guy who worked here. You could tell he was bored out of his mind and just sick of this song he had to listen to over and over again. He gave the most unenthusiastic clapping to go along with the beat, and his eyes were close to completely glazed over.

Basically this ride had you in a kind of boat thing that started going back and forth into the air (not very high), but then shifted off the track and started spinning you (a bit slowly) as it went back and forth, as well. A bit fun, but more fun for littler kids, I'd imagine.

Sky Dancing

This one was more of a basic carnival attraction. It was like a carousel (but with benches instead of animals and stuff), and it lifted you up and tilted as it spun. Easy and relaxing and pretty fun.

Racing Coaster

This was one of my favorites of the day. There were about 3-4 roller coasters in the park, and this one was the least scary while still being really fun (this park is also famous for having the biggest/steepest wooden roller coaster in the world. Kira really wanted to go on it, but none of the rest of us did, so we ended up passing on that one). This one didn't have huge drops or loops, but it moved really fast and had the big sideways tilts and whatnot. The whole thing lasted maybe 30 seconds to a minute, though, which was disappointing. But we ended up going on it twice throughout the day (it was the last thing we decided to do again before leaving). It was a lot of fun.

Spooky Fun House

On the other hand, this was the lamest thing we did all day. It's a "haunted house" that even little kids wouldn't find scary. It was basically a walk-through building with goofy cartoon ghosts who did silly things. And you pressed buttons that made noises. Our reaction upon leaving was "Well, that was something we did."

Dragon Coaster

But right across the way from it was this kiddy-coaster. It was a Figure-8 that you spun around in twice. We were the oldest people on it without kids, but we figured what the heck. We made it our own type of fun!

Horror Maze

And then... there was this. The whole time in the park, we were making our way back around to the front area of the park to get back to this attraction that we'd passed up but wanted to see. And we finally got there and noticed it was one you had to be about 5 bucks extra for. So we did it and got in line. Now this was a line worth waiting in.

Let's set this up. You're in this shaded outside waiting area moving slowly through the line for this haunted house maze. There's a TV hanging overhead playing some simple backstory to what happened inside. Something about a fire and mental patients and blah blah blah. Horror movie stuff that you can understand even not knowing Korean. But then you see there are no kids in this line. And in actuality, it turns out no kids under 14 are even allowed. Then you notice they have separate lockers for you to put your purses/bags/loose valuables before going in. So that's Part 1 of the setup.

Part 2 of this setup is while you're waiting in line, all you hear is groups of Koreans inside screaming their heads off--legitimately freaked out. And they come bursting out of the exit curtains disoriented, half terrified, half laughing. There were some young women who were actually crying they were so scared. So we're standing there in line, hearing these creepy sounds from inside, listening to all the horrified screaming, and seeing them RUSH out of the exit, totally freaked out and happy to be free.

And then... the best part of the entire day happened. There was a group of 3 young Korean men. They come bursting out the exit, two of them hitting the ground and trying to crawl their way to freedom. The third actually LEAPT OVER the roped area and made a mad dash away from the building and down the main park area, screaming his head off, until he basically disappeared from site.

Needless to say, I had actually become a bit nervous. The anticipation was starting to get to me, and I'll admit that I was kind of freaked out about going in. Oh, and they even have a safety precaution where if you get too scared and want an emergency exit, you sit on the ground and put your hands in an X shape over your head and somebody will help you outside. And I knew something was up when the worker guy by the entrance was whispering into his mic about something and looking and smiling at Naomi in the back of our line. We also saw they gave you this little flashlight that gave off this really dim, low red light that wasn't much help. Kira ended up holding that. And then they had the four of us go in conga style where we had to keep hold of each other's shoulders.

And when you go in, you understand why. They pretty much have all the lights turned completely off. The inside of the building is just a few notches above complete pitch blackness. So the order we're in is Kira, me, Tim, and Naomi. The short version of this story: Kira becomes so freaked out that she doesn't want to move forward--especially when people start running directly at her. Then you have Naomi freaking out in the back with people chasing after her and pushing Tim forward against me. He's basically feeling me up and/or nearly taking my shirt off due to Naomi's pushing and me not moving forward from Kira not moving forward. So it was a real start-and-stop-and-RUNRUNRUN! kind of situation.

Here's the longer version about the house itself (forgive me if I don't get the order right. It's a huge blur): You start in a kind of hallway, going through what is some kind of freaky mix of cobwebs and hair. You enter a room with what looks like a hospital bed, and somebody reaches out from under the bed to grab you. You rush into another hallway that looks like a prison area where somebody appears at the cell bars and starts hitting a metal pole or something against the bars, and I'm sure somebody appeared behind Naomi at this point, too. There's another room, kind of like a study, full of body that has some kind of giant wolf beast that comes at you from behind this couch. There's at least 1-2 rooms with dead bodies or autopsy tables and stuff. And then there's the hall of bags. This part was really freaky, as we can see these hanging plastic bags, which I think are supposed to have dead bodies inside. And it's really disorienting because they're so close together and you can't see around them and you have to try and figure your way through them. But of course there are at least 1-2 people in there with you to grab at you or chase you. And at one point Kira was like "What is this?!" and some creepy voice actually repeated her from the shadows somewhere. After we got through the bags, we ended up in this long hallway that you could tell was an empty mental ward hallway. So we were like "Ready to run?!" And we took this mad dash down the hall, but then people burst out and starting running towards Kira, and somebody else was chasing after us with Naomi freaking out in the back. And we finally burst through the exit curtains and out into daylight, and this really freaky dude in scary makeup almost chased us all the way outside, as he (I think he) poked his head out and glared creepily around at everybody before slowly sliding back inside (the first time we saw any of the cast show themselves outside like that).

It was totally freaky, but really, really fun. Easily a highlight of the whole day.

Flume Ride*

*We wanted to do this multiple times throughout the day, but the lines were often over an hour long wait time, so we never ended up going on it. It's basically like a Splash Mountain from Disney. So when we decided against this the final time, we ended up doing the Racing Coaster again before we left.

Candy Shop

Before heading out of the park, Naomi wanted to check out the sweets shop. I was tempted to get some myself. Even the air was like pure sugar. It was the sweetest smelling room I've ever been in, and probably akin to something like Willy Wonka's factory.

Leaving and Final Thoughts

So we ended up heading out about 7:10-ish, I think. My trip home was pretty easy. Kira and I took the Everline back to Giheung, and she pointed me back to the bus stop to return to Suwon. I had to wait about 10 minutes for the bus, but it showed up just fine. And in Suwon, I got off at the Suwon Station AK shopping center area (because I heard "Suwon Station" though I'm pretty sure that was one stop too early). It took me a little bit to find the underground entrance that would take me to the actual train station, but I found it easy enough. And I was home by 9-ish or 9:30-ish PM.

As for the park, it was a fun day. Our biggest complaint was that the lines were too long for attractions that weren't always worth the wait. And the rides were way too short. At DisneySea I complained when rides were only 3-5 minutes, but these were only 1-2 if you were lucky. I would definitely go back to see a few of the ride or attractions I missed this time, and we do have a plan to visit Caribbean Bay, which is part of the Everland Resort, in October. So if you're in Korea and want a fun theme park to go to, Everland makes for a fun day, especially if you're with friends. Unlike DisneySea, I don't think I would have had nearly as much fun at Everland had I gone alone. The atmosphere wasn't the same, and the queues weren't as engaging for a solo traveler. So make sure you at least have one friend or family member with you if you ever go. But it was definitely a fun day.

And here are some other pictures from around the park: