Search This Blog

Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Dorm . . .

Part of the employment package here is housing, complete with furnishings and utilities. A friend worked here many years ago so I’d already seen what was on offer and I do like my new place. I like it most because it is mine. (Yes, I do realize it isn’t really, but read on.)

Sometimes (most times?), I’m the world’s best chameleon, or perhaps a cuckoo. I learned the skill while young. When you grow up in a dysfunctional household, you learn to find other places to be safe. My older brother turned to God, the next older brother turned to crime and charm, we all found our own ways to survive. (Irish families tend to tend toward God and crime, when you merge the two, you get to work at the Vatican.) I made myself welcome at friends’ homes, where their parents were happy they had a friend with such nice manners. I watched, listened, and learned to fit in.

It’s a skill that has served me well in my subsequent travels.

I’ve never really felt at home though. I’ve always (almost always) been welcome and I have homes all over the world that I am part of, but they belong to someone else. So I watch, listen, and bring to the table the version of myself that best fits the environment. I don’t even realize I’m doing it most times, it’s an unconscious survival technique, but it works. It’s taken me across oceans, countries and professions, and won me surrogate family across the world, but it’s always been someone else’s home.

This home is mine. Not technically, of course, it belongs to my employer, so probably belongs to the State, but it’s mine as long as I do my job competently. I plan to do my job much better than competently, so this is mine while I do. And I like it.

I have a good friend who teaches at Hanguk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul and she lives in also, and she has half the area I have, plus has to pay her own utilities (if you’re monitoring this, dear employer, please don’t get any ideas). I’m in the same complex as the paper (two minutes walk) and in a 10-story “Foreign Expert Building.” With seven apartments on each floor, that’s a good number of foreign experts, but I don’t know my own neighbors yet. I do know the cool kids and the problem children – those are the ones to meet first.

So, welcome to my home. I’m on the 7th floor and overlook a middle/high school, which is kinda cool. I especially like the sports days – having grown up watching Chinese gymnasts on TV, I expected it to be an innate trait. It isn’t. Chinese youngsters are just as clumsy as the young of every other species, but I like that they laugh with each other when they fail to achieve the elegant dismount from the parallel bars (I like even more that the gym teacher smiles and pats them on the back for trying).

I have a large fridge/freezer, which I am covering with pictures. There’s a Ranger banner on the front that I was given at the VFW in Leesville, Louisiana, and pics from Bonnie and Granddot that were waiting for me when I arrived. Also some pics from a palace in Korea that I wrote a story for before I left. I went to IKEA yesterday and bought containers so I now have food in there also. The freezer? So far, just vegetable scraps to make stock for soups – I hear it gets kinda cold here in winter.

Then we have the kitchen. I may need to purchase more storage space here. It came with utensils and a pot or two, but few people cook here so I’ve already replaced a few things. I cooked last night for my Seednee friends, which needed a new wok and some kitchen tools. It’s a little less than I would design, but I can do dinner on a camp stove if needed, so can cope with this. Let’s call it a work in progress.

Bathroom – adequate, I need to replace the skanky shower curtain and get the fan fixed.

Spare room – where I will sleep when visitors vist – two large bookcases, writing desk, coffee table, sofa, flat screen TV. I tested the sofa by lying on it to see if it was comfortable enough to sleep on, and promptly fell asleep. I guess that’s a “yes.” I haven’t worked out the TV yet, but just noticed it isn’t plugged in – could that be the reason it doesn’t work? Oh, I forgot, curtains and air conditioning, this is okay.

My room – a king size bed, two bedside cabinets and two huge closets. And air con.

A colleague told me I could choose to live out and get a housing allowance instead of staying in “the dorm.” I see no reason to do so and have to negotiate all that is involved in paying rent and utilities in a language I don’t yet know, and until I do, the comfort of living in works for me.

Accepting guests, if anyone wants to visit . . .  

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Beijing Shopping 101 . . .

With all the costs involved in relocating from Korea to China, I’ve arrived here with enough to get by until my first payday, but with a need to be frugal. That has not only been easy to do here, but has turned out to be a great thing as I have spent my first few weeks perusing the many markets and stores making notes and comparing prices, rather than simply buying the first item I see and regretting it when I find a much better deal. I’m also taking notes and making lists for the friends who come to visit so I can steer them to the best places for whatever it is they want to buy, see or do.

Again, my colleague Brian, who leaves Monday, has been an enormous help not only with directions to the places the Chinese go to shop, rather than the more expensive Western haunts, but by demystifying Beijing’s bus system for me. The city also has an excellent subway system, but traveling by bus allows me to get more of a sense of where I am and the ability to more easily navigate the city. That will be crucial if I do decide to buy a motorbike here but, for now, I prefer to travel by foot and bus where possible, so I have the time to observe and become part of my new environment.

On Tuesday, on my first bus ride, Brian escorted me to a food market at Liangmaqiao where we didn’t see another Westerner but where many of the vendors knew him. He pointed out the best stalls to buy mushrooms (so many varieties to be had), vegetables, foreign food items (yes, there are some things I can’t do without), fish, chicken and pork. There is also a fantastic fruit store immediately opposite that also sells nuts and seeds. All only 5 stops from my home by bus, at the cost of only 1 or 2 kwai (the local word for yuan or renminbi, with 1 kwai being equal to about 16 cents US). 

I was initially impressed that the small supermarket right near the China Daily complex had such a good selection of things, but have now found a hypermarket (Wu Mart) 15 minutes walk away and an upmarket Japanese department store with supermarket (Ito Yokado) another five minutes beyond that. There’s a Carrefour four bus stops away in one direction and an Ikea six stops away in another. I’ve spent much of this week walking up and down aisles seeing what each place stocks and noting down prices. Wu Mart is where I’ll do most of my day to day shopping and Ito Yokado is a good option for special treats. Carrefour and Ikea both have things I plan to buy, including imported food items, but I also have a Chinese market that sells household goods, clothes and shoes to check out, now that I’ve noted the prices in the stores.

One thing I’ve been blown away by is the selection of fresh produce available here. I’d been worried about what I could eat before I arrived, and listened to and read too many horror stories of what I daren’t eat. Some of them were sensible, and I’ll no doubt continue to avoid street food, but there is so much else available. My breakfast each morning, despite watching my kwai, has been fresh fruit – always mango, lychees and blueberries plus either nectarine, peach, banana or whatever looks best and is cheapest when I’m buying and yoghurt. Lunch is either a quick stirfry of vegetables or a sandwich or wrap and most nights I eat dinner at the canteen, which is reasonably healthy, tasty and, best of all, free (we get one free meal there a day, Monday to Friday). 

A typical breakfast tray, before preparation

Tomorrow will be my first time cooking dinner here for friends, the Australian couple who live one floor down from me, and I look forward to visiting the market to get all I need to make a Thai vegetable curry -- mushrooms, eggplant, green or snake beans, tomatoes and maybe some squash -- and fresh fruit to follow.

the vege vendor at the market

the mushroom lady's offerings

a selection of tomato types at Carrefour

part of the fruit selection at Carrefour

This is a gourmand’s paradise, at least in summer, and I look forward to making yummy soups to keep me warm through winter.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

One week in . . .

It’s been just over a week since I landed in Beijing, something I realized yesterday when the morning routine in the schoolyard my apartment watches over changed. Each weekday morning, I’ve watched the school assemble for mass calisthenics, coached by a teacher on the stage, pepped up by a few of their peers joining him to lead the routines and overseen by what must be class leaders or monitors, fellow who wear armbands and stand at the front of each group observing (perhaps not completely the synchronized fun I first took this for, but I’m still all for the daily exercises).

Yesterday was different, and a colleague whose apartment also oversees the school told me each Monday is the same. This time, when the music announced assembly (the day is broken up by musical interludes, which I guess mark different lesson times or breaks – they continue into the evening but the school also continues into the evening, with what look to be classes or meetings of adults), it was for a more solemn occasion. The students again formed into lines before the stage, but this time the national anthem (I assume) was played as three students raised the national flag behind the stage. There was then a type of prize-giving ceremony, with some students called to the stage where they were given what appeared to be a certificate of some sort.

It’s interesting being here as an observer, especially at this stage when I have almost none of the language with which to communicate, and I can’t help but compare and contrast what I see and am told with Korea, as well as other countries in which I have lived and traveled. I watch the students as they play and interact in the schoolyard and on the street, watch the men (it always seems to be men) play board games on the street (yesterday I passed two who had used broken brick to draw a board on the road and were using pieces of brick and torn up paper as their pieces), the grandparents and parents play with the children and family members care for the elderly. Much of life is lived on the streets, particularly in the heat of summer, and the many parks near my home and further afield are filled with people playing, talking, exercising or simply resting in the shade. Of course, there is also food everywhere, from fully-decked restaurants through shop-front eateries, take-out windows and street vendors. (There’s going to be a lot of blog posts about food – it’s an important part of my life.) It’s not unusual to see a couple or group find makeshift chairs and picnic on the sidewalk or wherever they happen to be.

Beijing is chaotic, noisy and undeniably dirty, but I feel very much at home here. There’s not the sense of pali, pali (hurry, hurry) one finds in Korea, nor do I sense the same anxiety one often encounters there. If I were to describe how the Chinese I have seen appear to live their lives, and this is definitely only a first impression, I would say they do so with gusto. They seem to grab this crazy world we all share and try to squeeze every last drop from it. I’ll be the first to admit that can cause a multitude of its own problems, but I see every day in the stories we run how the country as a whole is trying to come to terms with itself and apply reasonable limits. I watch the process with great interest.

Perhaps that is why I feel so at home here, apart from the welcome and professionalism I have experienced from my colleagues and work superiors – I am by nature an observer and there is so much to observe here. One friend teased me, when I announced I was moving here, that only I “could see moving to China as the route to freedom. Or sweetness, or even taste.” But so far, that is exactly what I am finding, the freedom to be myself without expectations from anyone else, because I am completely unknown, the freedom to work well and to the best of my ability, because that is why I was employed (it’s a sad indictment of many workplaces that that is often not the case) and the freedom and inspiration to write. As for sweetness, I find that each day in my interactions with my Chinese colleagues, neighbors and strangers on the street, who are often transformed by a simple smile and greeting from this laowai who can’t even speak their language, in watching workmates practice Tai Chi in our beautiful garden or Chinese practice in the park, and in watching the families care for each other and spend quality time together.

As for taste, that’s a whole other blog or 50, but suffice to say, I’m living well and loving life.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Positive vibes . . .

I have a sweet, young Korean friend who is about to head overseas to study and is, understandably, a little worried about leaving her home, family and friends for the unknown (and Canada seems a scary place, judging by some of the bears I’ve met from there). I and other more-traveled friends (that makes us sound shop-worn) have been reassuring her that good people attract good people and she is very definitely good people.

Another dear friend, who is neither sweet nor young but very dear to me, worried about my own decision to move to China. So too did many of my acquaintances, but most of my friends understood the move to be a positive step and one that would continue my adventure. That friend’s life experiences are vastly different than my own and I can understand why he tends to look for the danger in people and things, rather than the good and opportunities.

As for me, I not only believe good people attract good people (and I am far from good, often) but that if you expect the universe to treat you well, then it will, at least for the majority of the time. The times that it doesn’t, in my view, are just a necessary dark backdrop to set off the brilliance of when it does. If life were perfect, we’d neglect to notice how good it is and I, for one, would get bored very quickly.

All of which is a long lead in to the fact that the Kiwi-cat seems to have landed on her feet yet again.

Job-wise, I am still highly impressed by the professionalism and caring of the people I am working for and I look forward to quickly learning the quirks of the system and the style wanted so I can repay their appreciation of me.

Personally, I’ve already met some amazing people, a few of whom I can already tell will become lifetime friends. I sat with one of my colleagues at dinner my first night working (we have a canteen that serves reasonably good food, if you like Chinese, of course, with lots of vegetable dishes and fruit to end each meal) and met another colleague who will leave at the end of this week. He offered me his ironing board and some guide books and maps and steered me to his blog if I want to venture off the beaten path. As a fellow traveler, writer, journalist, blogger and adventurer, we recognized each other as like minds and he spent the time to give me excellent directions to many places tourists seldom go, as well as his personal phrase book/bus compendium that he put together over his two years here. I’m starting off ahead of the crowd already.

Another two people I was lucky to have arrived just after, so we spent much of the week together as the staff took us to do medical checks, get phones, Internet, bank accounts and other necessities, lived here about 18 months ago so know the employer, job, neighborhood, city and much of the country. They’re also Australian, so we speak the same language. I’ve just returned home from an enjoyable day with them where we ventured out in the rain with one minor mission in mind and a more major mission to explore and have fun. Which we did, amazingly well. After almost six hours of walking, herbal tea and a light lunch at an amazing restaurant to which I plan to take my house guests (don’t forget to book, friends – first come, first hosted), I’m at home tired and hungry, but very content.

Time to make some dinner, then a little light reading before I fall into bed . . .

Hot and sour soup at Xiaowang’s Home Restaurant in RiTan Park. The single person serving came in a tureen so small I felt I was at a doll’s tea party, but it was just enough for a snack and wonderfully tasty.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Synchronized Fun . . .

On my first morning living in Beijing, I went on an early morning walk, exploring the neighborhood that will be my home for the next year and possibly longer. I saw one local shepherding his two young daughters out of their apartment, one wearing a fairy princess dress as if she was going to a party. I’d noticed when I visited China before that families, and especially children, are very important here. In that, they don’t differ much from Koreans, but the Chinese seem to make more time to play with their kids. My first and most lasting memory of Tiananmen Square in person was of the many family groups flying kites together.

A little later on my first full day, while on my way to the local supermarket for more of the necessities one needs when setting up a new home, I heard loud music and saw a crowd of people gathered on the street. I joined them, expecting to see a party, but instead found the local kindergarten doing their morning exercises, with almost perfect choreography. The most noticeable thing, as they ran and danced and jumped, was the huge grin on each child’s face. This was no mass calisthenics a la the southern neighbor’s Mass games, but a game the children were enjoying and a great way to get them exercising at an early age.

This morning, my second day of waking here, I saw a similar thing at the high school that my 7th Floor apartment overlooks. I had wondered what the structure in front of the basketball courts was, and realized this morning it is a stage. What appeared to be the whole school was doing routines together, some led by their student peers on the stage. Imagine, if you can, a cheerleading practice that includes the entire school, not just the “cool” kids.

I have yet to visit one of the parks that hosts morning tai chi routines but have seen many Chinese and others doing the same thing in Sydney parks, and hope very much to find somewhere that has the Chi Kung (Qigong) form I used to practice myself while in Sydney. I’ll happily join the group for that . . .

All's well on the Eastern Front . . .

Dusk is falling on my first afternoon in China. The streets are teeming with people eating out and the yard of the China Daily has families playing. A young girl is playing badminton with her grandmother while two small boys play with their trains while their mothers chat – one has the classic Thomas while the other has a sleek hi-tech hi-speed model.

I arrived about 1430 after a mildly turbulent but uneventful two-hour flight from Seoul – probably the shortest distance traveled to get here by any of the foreign experts, I was told. (I’ve gone from being a registered alien in Korea to a foreign expert here and it certainly feels like a promotion, so far.) Jingwei, the admin girl I’ve been communicating with to arrange everything met me at the airport with a car and driver – another sign I’ll be valued more here than at my last gig.

 My apartment is a little tattier than I expected but is perfectly serviceable, once I work out a few logistical problems. The last occupant obviously had a cat and wasn’t too hot on cleaning so my first trip to the supermarket just down the block was to stock up on cleaning supplies. I’m working my way through cleaning the rooms one at a time – the bedroom and spare room/living room/study are reasonable but the kitchen needed a good scrub and all the floors needed sweeping. Browsing the market also made me realize I probably do need to learn more Chinese than I did Korean, just to know what I’m buying.

I’ll probably do a lot of my own cooking once I’m content with the state of my kitchen, and was pleasantly surprised at the variety of fruit and produce available. Lots of amazing sauces, also, some of which I recognize, so I’ll have no problem doing stir-frys that are heavy on the veg component.

I’d been impressed with the professionalism of everyone on staff I’d spoken to and dealt with since I was first considered for the job, and today has only made me more so. Jingwei had stocked the fridge with bottled water, milk, bread, sausage and pears, and also bought some ramen, a toothbrush, toothpaste, tissues, toilet tissue and soap. She also gave me “pocket money.” Tomorrow morning she will take me to open a bank account, set up an Internet collection and prepare to get my residence permit. She has made everything as easy as is possible, and I appreciate her care immensely.

After dropping off my luggage and getting my key, I accompanied her back to the office (the building next door, which has a beautiful garden and a wonderful lobby) to get my bearings and say hello, and was again impressed by everyone I met. The chief copy editor (who Jingwei said told them to employ me as soon as he got off the phone interview I had with him) invited me to sit in on the evening news meeting and I was asked for my opinion on the stories discussed. I very much look forward to working with him. The international desk head also seems a highly capable journalist, and the fact she is female makes me even more positive I won’t have to deal with the sexism prevalent in Korea.

The air quality, today at least, seemed better than Seoul, or perhaps it’s just that there are different things that trigger my allergies there. I’ve been warned it won’t stay that way in winter, but will try to minimize any ill effects as best I can. Both the apartment and office building are non-smoking, and I react to cigarette smoke more than anything else.

I’m not na├»ve enough to believe everything will be idyllic, but I’m happy I will be working with people who care about their product and actively want me to help make it better. On top of that, I get to live in one of the most fascinating countries for a writer to be at the moment, as it grows and evolves. Even the stories talked about for tomorrow’s edition excite me, as the country positively and consciously seeks a balance between maintaining its rapid growth and looking after its residents and beauty. Yes, mistakes will be made along the way, but no country is free of mistakes.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Relationship 101 . . .

I'm going through this interesting phase right now, where I'm still head over heels in love with the wrong person. The wrong person for me - we're all the wrong person, it's just a matter of finding flaws that mesh. But still head over heels, and trying to get the friendship back. Not going too well, judging by this morning's e-mail, but I'm stubborn.

So, having established that I know zero about retaining a relationship, I know lots about how to lose one. 

Here's what not to do (and few of these are aimed at you, dearling)

Don't be stalky

If the guy, gal or goat you are interested in indicates disinterest, step away. Do not share sexual comments with them (this may be okay with the goat), do not tell/allow them who they may be with instead, simply step away. It's much more classy.

Do not treat them as less than friends

Seriously? Let's just be friends? 

Friends give each other much more leeway and tolerance than significant others often do. 

I'm not sure about the rest of you, but I don't want to commit to somebody who isn't my friend.

Do not, I repeat NOT, give their fecking pets away

Okay, accepted, I'm not the best gal in the world at staying around to water and feed. 

BUT, do not give the pet away without consulting me. Just don't.

The first engagement did this and, in justification, said he had tried to call me. He probably did - I was in a Korean hospital recovering from a subdural hematoma and surgery and did not have my phone or mind. When I regained both, I was pissed.

As were the best friend couple who owned the brother of the Sukhi cat, and the father of the best friend whose cat had birthed Sukhi. Any of them would have happily taken her. Instead, she was given to a friend of the new girlfriend (yep, apparently he tried to call me about that also) and none of us had visiting rights.

I'm not going to talk about the pup or the next cat, but it shows how much you consider my opinion if you don't consult me (did I mention I view engagements and not-quite-engagements as testing periods?).

Do not be mean

 There's enough of that in the world. It's not what anyone needs to come home for.

Do not expect the significant other to complete you

If you can't manage that yourself, you're kinda lost.

- more to come, have to go collect the visa, lunch, ship stuff, dinner . . . 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Future Adventures, Part III . . .

Having had enough cynicism and political debate this morning over the Snowden/Manning betrayals and the lack of privacy we opt into when we share everything about ourselves on social networks, it's time for a little more wide-eyed anticipation of the wonders that await in my older, more experienced kingdom . . .

16: Hiking Jiangxi

China has some serious hiking trails, with spectacular scenery and lots to see. I'm thinking lots of mini-trips to such spots may be the perfect complement to the hubble/bubble of Beijing. Matt and Delores - this is just west of Shanghai - want to go see the Taoist spires of Sanqing Shan?

And yes, it's another UNESCO World Heritage site . . .

17: Yuangyang Rice Terraces, Yunan

WOW! Google this for images - it is spectacular!

I may have to buy a real camera but I'm always conflicted about that. If I have visual pictures, I may not paint word pictures. For this landscape, it might be worth it.

18: Li River Scenery, Guangxi

Oh. My. Buddha. The images for this are equally stunning, in a different way. Stunning karst mountain backdrops to scenes of rural domesticity - water buffalo, farmers, fishermen.

The point and shoot may not do this justice, though I do have a few photographer friends who want to visit. I may just have to schedule trips accordingly.

19: The Great Buddha, Leshan, Sichuan

Another UNESCO World Heritage site, but one I may choose to skip. It's impressive for many, many reasons, but a little dour for my taste.

I prefer my Buddha to be happy . . .

20: Taichi

I will definitely watch and photograph this martial art form, but want to return to one I practiced while in Sydney many years ago, with the most charismatic Chinese master one could imagine (who looked a little similar to the buddha above - old, with a bit of a belly and an easy smile. I've also seen him take down a group of young Kung Fu students without seeming to even move, just a gentle sway, an acceptance of their attack and a tap to render them immobile.

Qigong, or Chi Kung, is similar to taichi but adds the focus on moving the qi/chi around the body and is used primarily as a healing art. Every move is also a block or attack if speeded up, and China is the perfect place to start learning this again.

Martial, medical and spiritual - sounds like a perfect balance to me.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Too much awesome . . .

I (kinda) apologize if the blog has bored you of late, but I'm excited, a little daunted and also a little scared about the next step in the adventure, so I'm overplanning what I may or may not do.

I'm also a little pissed off . . .

I'm tired of people, particularly American people, telling me all the reasons I should NOT go to China.

Mostly, they are people who know nothing more of the world than what they watch on FOX or read on their facebook feeds.

Heads up, America, China owns most of your foreign debt. Mainly because you ("the people") wanted to own more than you needed and pay less than you needed. It's okay, China is unlikely to call that debt in, because it knows you can't pay and a bankrupt America is no more what China wants than a failed-state North Korea. But, really . .. .

As for the other main reasons - the pollution and the state control . . .

China knows it has a problem with pollution. It does care and it is trying. It's a huge problem, and they know it. And are doing everything possible to fix it. Phasing out charcoal in favor of gas, bringing in electric vehicles rather than petrol.

I'm not quite sure the country that gave us the Exxon Valdez and the Gulf spill have the right to lecture.

State control/censorship?

Yes, I know. Because that was part of the negotiation/interviews for the job. I've been working elsewhere lately where they are not so open about the fact.

Then we go back to America - FOX, CNN. MSNBC - do you really believe what they're telling you?

And how is your current (and former) administration going with that personal privacy thing?

Maybe you should travel a little more - may I recommend China . . .

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Future adventures, Part II . . .

Today's going to be a busy day so I'm up and about early to fit in all I need to do. I had breakfast about 0530 (on the balcony of my friend's penthouse apartment - I am thankful for the wonderful friends I have) and want to work out, shower, do laundry, sort and repack clothing (I need to ship another box), write this post (I'll fit it between other things this morning) and eat an early lunch before a busy afternoon.

I'll start by visiting with a wonderful coffee shop owner I met Monday while trying to find the medical clinic I needed to get to for my tests, and who went out of her way to help me. When she called the clinic, they told her I needed to get there in five minutes before they closed for lunch so I had to leave immediately, but I returned after being poked, prodded, x-rayed and blood-let to thank her and we had a long chat. She traveled a lot when younger, she told me (she's younger than me, of course, but now married and running a business), and many people helped her so she tries to help others in return. I love that spirit of passing good things on.

Then back to the clinic to collect my results. Assuming I'm cleared (and I passed a much more extensive round of tests late last year), I'll then drop all my documents at the travel agent in order to get my working visa for China. Then I'll arrange to have my phone unlocked, pick up a packing box from the Post Office, drop that back at the penthouse and get ready for a Girl's Night Rooftop Party at Jen's apartment in Gunja.

For now, on to the Lonely Planet guide's 11-20 "Top Experiences" in China, and whether they make my list:

11: Kashgar's Sunday Market, Xinjiang

LP recommends the Sunday Livestock Bazaar in Kashgar, where Uighur farmers trade sheep, camels, horses, donkeys and cows, saying, "It's dusty, smelly, crowded, disorientating and wonderful all at once." I suspect I'm going to get plenty of that feeling in Beijing and doubt I'll travel to China's western frontier, officially the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region just to see that.

Although, researching outside of LP makes me realize it must be a fascinating region, as it shares borders with Mongolia, Russia, a number of stans (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan), Kashmir, Tibet, Qinghai and Gansu.

Not surprisingly, there's a fair bit of unrest in the region and the Kiwi may let discretion be the better part of valor and skip this one, at least if traveling alone. I'm sure I'll find plenty of adventure during my travels without seeking out danger deliberately.

Having written that, I realize I may have another reason to want to visit Kashgar, but that is LP's No. 25, so will have to wait for another blog post.

12: Huangshan and Hui Villages, Anhui

According to Unesco, which has it on its World Heritage List, Mt. Huangshan is known as the "loveliest mountain in China" and has been acclaimed in art and literature throughout history. It is shrouded in mist and light rain more than 200 days a year, but that has its own beauty in the photos I've been viewing. If it has inspired painters, poets and writers for millennia, I may have to seek spiritual renewal there myself.

The nearby Hui villages feature well-preserved residences and ancestral halls in a distinctive architectural style. The bridge at the entrance to the village of Hongcun, another Unesco World Heritage site, featured in Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," one of many Chinese-flavored movies I need to rewatch.

13: Diaolou in Kaiping, Guangdong

Another World Heritage site!

These look surreal - multi-storied defensive residences, communal towers and watch towers built in an eclectic mix of European and Chinese architectural styles scattered across farmland.

The fortified buildings were a response firstly to raiding bandits, then later to protect residents from Japanese troops. Many were built by returning emigres who had gone to work in the United States, Canada and Australia and returned home after amassing their fortunes.

I expect there are a lot of stories to be written there, even though many of the residents have again moved away.

NB: I'm doing much more additional research today, so will end this blog post at No. 15, simply so I can get on with the rest of my day.

15: Cycling Hainan

LP recommends cycling China's tropical island and it does seem a wonderful way to relax from the hustle and bustle I know is Beijing. This one is a definite maybe, though I may prefer to spend a few quiet days outside of China, in neighboring Thailand, Laos or Vietnam.

Time to get moving - more to come tomorrow . . .

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Future adventures, Part I . . .

Now I'm no longer working and have done most of my packing, I have time to peruse the enormous Lonely Planet guide to China (1,054 pages) and am planning places I really want to see while in the Middle Kingdom. Lonely Planet has a "30 Top Experiences" list, most of which I agree look amazing. The first 10  follow, with my own comments, rather than LP's:

1. The Great Wall

Of course the Great Wall is a must-do in China and, even though I've been there before, I know i'll accompany friends when they come to visit (bring good walking shoes, guests). I'll probably link it with a return visit to the Ming Tombs, but will be careful to avoid the tours that take you briefly to such places of interest but spend most of their time at giant warehouses where you're pressured to buy "at cheapest rates."

I have no trouble bypassing the vendors at the Wall itself, I'm an old hand at that.

2. French Concession, Shanghai

I haven't been to Shanghai before but am eager to go. I have friends (a fellow journalist and his lovely wife) who live in the French Concession so look forward to having the inside scoop on where not to miss. Another Chinese friend and former colleague here, who is an expert on North Korea, is now lecturing at a university in Shanghai so I'll get to visit with him and his family also.

It's only an hour and a half flight from Beijing, so easy to get to.

3. The Forbidden City, Beijing

I'm sure I'll be a regular visitor here, as well as at Tiananmen Square opposite. I especially like Tiananmen on weekends, when it's filled with family groups flying kites. (Note to self: Get another fighting kite?)

There's also a fabulous rooftop garden opposite with great views of the Forbidden City that is a perfect place to enjoy a cool beverage while watching the sun set over the city.

4: Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan

This looks stunning but will probably be left until about this time next year, if I can find the time even then. Where I'd like to go even more is nearby Zhongdian, now known as Shangri-la. It was renamed after James Hilton's Shangri-la in "The Lost Horizon," rather than being the inspiration for it, but is home to the Ganden Sumtseling Gompa - a 300-year-old Tibetan Monastery considered the most important in southwest China.

As a fan of "The Lost Horizon" and its wise monks ("Everything in moderation, including moderation"), I will try hard to make it here.

5: Yangzi River Cruise

For me this is a would-like-to-do, rather than a must-do, simply because of the time involved. As much as I'd love to experience the Three Gorges on a relaxing river cruise, a four to five day tour may not fit into my itinerary or schedule.

I'm saving a chunk of time instead to travel the Trans-Mongolian Railway with a group of friends, during which we'll spend five days taking the train from Beijing, across China and up through Mongolia to Moscow. One of those friends also wants to do the train trip to Tibet, which tempts me also, but I'd even more like to take the train to Pyongyang if I can get a visa.

6: Terracotta Warriors, Xi'an

Another perhaps only, as I'd love to see them but only if I have time with all the other things I want to see more.

7: Hiking Dragons Backbone Rice Terraces, Guangxi

These I want to see, walk and photograph as these terraced rice paddies rise to 100 meters high and are spectacular. Guangxi also borders Vietnam so I'll try to time this to take a few days there also.

8: China's Cuisine

Obviously, this is a definite for me while living in China. There are many things the Chinese eat that I'll politely decline (yes, I'm a wimp when it comes to food, or at least very fussy), but I look forward to exploring teh wide range of cuisine's across the country.

I also plan to continue to prepare many of my own meals, and look forward to learning new ingredients and recipes.

9: Fenghuang, Hunan

Lonely Planet describes this as, "Houses perched on stilts, ancestral halls, crumbling temples and gate towers set amidst a warren of back alleys . . . " and shows the town set on the banks of the Tuo River. Another town I will try to find time to visit.

10: Changbai Shan, Jilin

This is China's largest nature reserve, with the centerpiece being the Heaven Lake, a vast body of water in a volcanic crater that straddles the border with North Korea. Known as Mt. Paekdu to Koreans, this area is revered by them and the Chinese and is the claimed birthplace of Kim Jong-il.

As said above, I hope to be able to visit North Korea during my time in China - if that isn't possible I'll just have to look across from the Chinese side, as I have from the South Korean side.

The next 10 recommended experiences will be in my next blog post . . .

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Reuniting Good Neighbors . . .

Yesterday I got the chance to attend an event I helped put in motion almost a year ago, and one I was happy to see occur before I depart Korea again.

At that time, one of my senior editors at Yonhap News Agency invited me to dinner and I suggested we go to a restaurant I enjoy on Yongsan Garrison - home of United States Forces Korea. After I signed him in, he turned to me with a look of delight and told me he served there 30 years earlier as a KATUSA (Korean Augmentation to the U.S. Army). He was excited to be back and as we walked to the restaurant, we passed the dental clinic where he served.

Over the next week, he spoke with some of his KATUSA alumni, and they asked whether it would be possible to visit the Post, tour their old place of work and meet the current staff and KATUSAs. It seemed to be exactly what the Good Neighbor program exists to do, so I contacted the personnel who run the program to see what could be done.

Phone calls were made, e-mails sent and the waiting began. And stretched, with the alumni becoming impatient and me trying to explain that big bureaucracies move slowly, and it doesn't come much bigger than the Army. I went off traveling, but checked in occasionally to see if there'd be any action and continued to ask for updates from my USFK contacts.

Who, it was eventually discovered, had been given an outdated point of contact for the Dental Clinic. As soon as that was discovered and an e-mail sent to the correct person, things started happening very quickly. My editor friend had a meeting with the officers who run the clinic, and a ceremony and dinner were planned for yesterday. I was informed and asked if I could attend.

The former KATUSAs, all of whom are now in positions of power in South Korea and who include a professor, a banker and prosperous businessman, were excited to be back on base and proud to be honored by the Dental Command. One was accompanied by his son, a 19-year-old university student who has yet to begin his mandatory military service, but who now knows where he wants to do it.

The officers and NCOs of the command were proud to host what they think is the first such visit by former KATUSAs, as they have no official organization, and answer questions on the changes over the past 30 years.

As for the young KATUSAs, they got a glimpse of their potential futures and realized the importance of maintaining the friendships they make at the outset of their adult lives. I sat at dinner with the son and two KATUSAs who told me they had the worst English of the entire group, but we were soon conversing easily, with much laughter.

I made new friends, including an officer who was promoted that day and has family living in Beijing - my next home - and the alumni of my editor friend. I was happy to see the plan come to fruition and to learn it will continue to flourish after I depart, as the older Koreans intend to form an organization to mentor and assist their descendants, and to stay in touch with their U.S. counterparts.

Mission accomplished . . .

Former KATUSAs from the 10th Med visit the 618th Dental Company.
Photo by Chuck Yang

Receiving a coin from 618th Dental Co. commander, COL David Mott.
Photo by Chuck Yang

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Love and loss . . .

I went to a ball game yesterday with some incredible friends, hung out with a fabulous Russian friend at VFW, then found my way home. Great memories, many stories to be written, pictures already on facebook.

Woke this morning, soon heading to see my dear friend who probably won't be here when I next touch down (although I pray he will be) and realized I'm grieving my lost love and not living my life. I've been posting pictures of me having fun, rather than having fun.

And I am grieving. I thought he was my future, and was willing to become a tame(-ish) Kiwicat to be beside him.


It is what it is.

I love him, I wish him all the happiness, success and joy the world can offer, but it's time for me to continue to find my happiness, success and joy.

Maybe, like Alice (an in-joke for a very small circle of friends), I'll find another Eddy . . .