Sunday, February 28, 2010

South Korea (Feb-Mar 2010)

28 FEB 2010 Korea - Seoul, days one and two

So yes, I am currently in Seoul.

I left Hong Kong three days ago, when my marvelous roommate and friend Debra brought me to the bus stop that goes directly to HK international.
The temperature on the day I left was that of a jungle - that is to say, so hot that even a late February day made everybody sweat. It sucked - but it had a good side ( apart from the fact that it made me glad to fly North). On the way to the airport, the humidity created a sort of fog over the waters of the Victoria Harbor and along the Hong Kong River. It gave an eerie-romantic glaze to the now familiar scene - as if the normally monstrous transpacific cargos that invade the harbor had turned into misty souls floating on clouds.
I wanted to take pictures, but of course, my stupid camera died.
Anyways, so went there, took the flight to Beijing.
Arrived in Beijing half an hour before midnight, which made so that I sorta realized then that there was 9 hours between my flights.
So, that made it the second nuit blanche of my life I spend in PEK. Wonderful.
Everything is closed in Beijing International during the night - thus, I could not even 'shop' in duty frees, nor get out of PEK, as it would have taken me a Chinese tourist visa.
So, I was stuck for nine hours drinking can cold coffee from machines, fighting sleep and the terrible cold of the non-heated airport. And outside, it was snowing (it was very pretty, under the orange lights).
The flight was delayed as well, which made so I only landed in Incheon at 2PM and got to the subway station next to downtown hostel at 3h30PM, completely brain-dead from the lack of sleep.
As I had just learned from reading the Lonely Planet guide overnight, most of the streets in South Korea do not have a name. Thus, when people give directions, they go like: go to exit X of Subway station Y, turn left at the 7/11 and walk 100 meters, turn left , etc. In normal times, it works and it makes sense, however...
Mine was a terrible Babelfish-like translation from Korean to English: 'go through the Dunkin’ Donut and t-mart., walk 3 minutes, turn right' - and since I don't know how to go THROUGH a building, and couldn't even find a T-mart, I obviously got lost.

Here is where I have to thanks the great lord God and his son Jesus Christ for his great mercy.... Or something.

I was approached by two individuals who spoke perfect English who asked me if I was lost and needed help. I did, and was grateful for their seemingly gratuitous generosity... just to realize that in fact, these were two recruiters for one of the 1000000 Christian-ish Churches/sects that this country has.
They tried really hard to get me to go the mass with them the day after - even luring me with a grand argument: "if you come tomorrow, we are going to party and go get wasted on soju right after!!!".
While this argument did stir something in the depths of my heart, the empirical problem - which is that I cannot go to Church without getting wasted before - remained. Whatever, they were cool.

After thanking them, checking in and whatnot, I decided that brain-dead or not, I had to go and explore/get lost a bit more in the city.
So off I went.

I walked around for a while, and I seriously cannot tell you where I ended up. Everything was in Korean - and even if I can, technically, read it, it still sounds like Tching-Tchang-Tchong to me.
I took the Subway (twice, getting the wrong direction), and arrived at some place were there were shops and whatnot - that's the most accurate definition I can tell you. I was pretty hungry by then so I went to some restaurant (looked like a chain, with a yellow sign with a turkey on it - anyone knows the name??) were I ate my first "proper" Korean meal: Bulgogi of skid and Chicken. The lady even cut it up for me and everything.
One thing about Korea: it is practically impossible to eat alone. People look at you weird when you do (not so much when you are a foreigner, though, because you are obviously backpacking/ traveling and they are more flexible towards you). In any case, all the dishes on the menu are meant for multiple people (unless you get bibimbap).
Korean food = NUMBER ONE! :)
I loved it :) It's my new favorite food - before Thai and before Japanese... But eating not alone would have made it better.
Went out and watched all these crazy chicks going even crazier over buying oversized glittering "cute" (cute as in: for a 5 years old, not a full grown woman) hair accessories with their oppa.
I walked along the River that crosses downtown Seoul and whose name is infamous worldwide: the River.
It was pretty cool: watching all these cute Korean kids running and screaming with their parents walking hand-in-hand behind them at a more normal pace; there were even step-like rocks that permitted kids and crazy moffos to cross the River without using a bridge :D Which I obviously did.
I got lost again. Actually, I played a game with myself: just walked around without directions, following the Ads that had Korean celebrities that I knew of on it: Rain, Big Bang, BoA, Lee Hyori, 2PM, Super Junior... And that KPop brain-attack must have lasted a long time; because when I "came back to my senses", the night had completely fallen and it was very dark.
Awesome: that means N Seoul Tower time.
I made my way to the N Seoul tower (which was easy, even if I was lost: it's a colorfully lit tower in the middle of Seoul, built on the top of a mountain; therefore from wherever anyone is in Seoul at a time, it is impossible to miss it). Walking uphill, I found my way to the cable car entrance (no way am I climbing a mountain in pitch dark). In the queue, I could have sworn I was the only one who did not go with their boyfriend/girlfriend, or wife/husband+kids. It made me feel a little bit alone - OK, so a little bit more than a little bit. But the scenery - apart from the people - was grandiose. Just as that thought entered my mind, my stupid camera died again. But the cable car was crowded anyways, so taking pictures from there would have been useless. Whatever - I took them with my eyes.

{That makes me think: due to an over consumption of stupid cameras, I've taken a lot of pictures with my eyes in the last few years. Hopefully, I will not get Alzheimer too early in this life...}

After the beautiful cable car ride, we got on top of the mountain, exactly at the feet of the NSeoul Tower. That's where, in my opinion, the most interesting people-watch in Seoul can be done.
NSeoul Tower is the No#1 dating-spot in Seoul: therefore, on top of the mountain, you will encounter only (almost, like 98%) young, before-the-guy-goes-and-does-his-military-service couples. Therefore, that - along with the darkness and the alien-like colorful lights from the Tower (which in itself looks like a spaceship anyways) - makes it feel like another planet.
Or maybe it's just me.
After watching kids jumping in circles of light and having my camera take, as if in a last breath, a picture of a part of a fence where couples attached thousands (or millions? I could not tell) locks with both their names engraved on them – as an engagement to their undying love - I decided that up was the only way to go.
If you've been on top of the CN Tower (in Toronto) or the Gherkin (which my English friends lovingly call the "London Boner"), or any other tower in the middle of a big city, then there should be nothing very interesting about the top of the NSeoul tower... apart from one thing: from there, you can see the North Korean border. Added to this you can tell, very clearly, exactly where that border is at night: indeed, it is where all the street and home lights stop. North Koreans do not use electricity at night; which leaves the other side of the border but as a black, desolate, opaque mass of a land, lying right in front of you, but at the same time, it would seem, million miles away. It was like glimpsing into another world – which just added to the whole spaceship feeling I had been having that night.
I came down the tower and climbed down the mountain, watching numerous out-of-breath couples climbing it up on the way, and took the crazy incomprehensible subway back to my hostel.
It made me realize that not only the Tower, but the whole city of Seoul, is a very romantic place – more than Venice, or Paris, or wherever else I’ve been before. And it was a beautiful evening, albeit a bit lonely. Whatever: I promised myself very solemnly that I would come back here one day, with someone who would mean it to me.


On day two, I decided to go to the Korean Folk village, in Suwon.
But not before getting lost for 3 hours – seriously, 3 hours!!! - in the Seoul metro.
Finally emerging from the subway – which I then made a mental note to surname the Minotaur-, I arrived at Suwon station. At the tourist office from where the buses to the Folk Village were departing, I met Brian and John: two super nice Canadian and American guys from Philly teaching English there together. That couple was the first people outside my hostel that spoke to me first – so it felt pretty refreshing.
It took me years to understand the Chinese psyche – how the people in China thought, interacted amongst each other as well as towards foreigners – so at that point, I started to realize that it would be foolish of me to think that I would come and understand the Korean paradigm in two days.
I was about to spend an awesome day with two awesome guys; however, Brian realized he had forgotten his camera at the tourist office, which made so that they had to go back. With a very sad face, we exchanged Facebooks and off I went by myself to the Korean Folk Village.
This sad episode was quickly erased and I had an HYPER NICE time. I ate kimchi jjigae in an Hanok, sitting directly on the ondol, next to a cute young family of two adults and two kids smiling and waving at me (Kimchi Jjigae is my favorite dish in the world: and this beautiful moment was to be remembered and engraved forever in my skin when I burned myself with the dolsot). I ate traditional Korean rice toffee. A lover of architecture, I learned and recorded quite accurately about the regional differences of Hanoks. I watched men doing traditional pottery and women weaving silk directly using silkworm cocoons. I was a bit manic on the picture taking, so my camera died again – but it did not waiver me, so took notes instead. Finally, I bought a super nice, Korean-food-institute Korean food cookbook in English (try to find books in English in Seoul, and you’ll know what I mean!) at one of the museums- just to loose it two hours later on the bus back. It made me feel like Brian! It was definitely the day of lost things.

After taking the bus back, I walked around the very lively Suwon area for a bit and then went to City Hall for a coffee, then back to the Hostel.
Tomorrow is National holiday for liberation from the Japanese, so everything will be closed. I do not know what to do yet.. but that probably means…. SHOPPING.!
There is supposed to be bullfighting events (???) in certain parts of the country, but I do not know whether they have that in Seoul - I will let you know.

March 6th, 2010

Quelques jours plus tard. Alors que j’écris, je suis dans un autobus qui part de Gyeongju, “beautiful Gyeongju”, et qui retourne à Séoul. Je regarde le reflet des montagnes dans les plateaux de rizières autour de moi. C’est vraiment beau. Bien sûr, ici c’est l’hiver, et bien tôt le matin (7h30 AM); donc il se doit que les couleurs des arbres et du ciel soient un peu fades.. qu’importe.

Gyeongju est un endroit vraiment magnifique – féerique. Non, féerique n’est pas le mot – celui-ci se référant, me semble-t-il, è une mythologie celtique ou occidentale quelconque. Je dirais donc un endroit mystique. Zen.
Je suis arrivée en Corée le 27 et ai déjà discuté de mes deux premiers jours à Séoul dans mon blog – donc, je continue là où j’en étais. Jour 3.

Je me suis réveillée tard, le jour 3. Qu’importe : il pleuvait. Je me suis donc dit que c’était l’occasion rêvée pour faire du shopping.
Je me suis rendue à Gangnam Station, sur les recommandations de mon amie Canado-Coréenne Annie Song. J’ai commencé par aller me chercher un café et une crème glacée (malgré le froid hivernal!) faite devant vous chez Coldstone. Ensuite, je suis allée manger du bibimbap de calmar dans un endroit tout à fait fantastique dont le nom m’échappe complètement; puis ai acheté quelques vêtements au niveau du métro Gangnam.
J’étais (suis) bien attristée d’avoir perdu mon livre de cuisine coréenne dans un autobus la veille; donc, je me suis rendue dans une librairie qui a, selon LP, la plus grande sélection de livres en anglais à Séoul – mais en vain. J’ai par contre acheté le livre Dracula, de Bram Stoker, pour survivre aux infinis moments d’attentes dans le Minotaure.
La visite à la librairie ne fut pas en vain; aussi, j’ai pu observer des hordes de fashionnistas dévorer des magazines de mode dont je ne pouvait lire un traître mot – et qui ressemblaient plus à des briques qu’à des magazines, facilement 5-10 fois plus épais que les magazines Français et pesants plusieurs kilos.
Comprendre un peuple commence par comprendre leurs intérêts; je me suis donc glissée dans la foule et en ai ouvert un. Celui-ci était intéressant car il m’apprit que :
1. Focus sur les modes très passagères (tout comme le consommateur Japonais, le consommateur Coréen moyen fait donc preuve d’une consommation, ou d’une surconsommation impulsive de produits de luxe);
2. Obsession pour les idols. Il semble que tous les emplois liés à la publicité dans ce pays soient occupés par eux. C’est un réel culte!!! Ils occupent de toutes les sphères du Showbiz : en effet, une personne n’est pas seulement actrice, mais également chanteuse, animatrice, modèle, et j’en passe! Ce que ça me dit sur la Corée : encore une fois, comme pour les Japonais, le culte de la jeunesse est extrêmement présent dans la sphère culturelle des Séoulites. Sans doute parce que le nombre d’heures de travail par semaine par personne est le plus élevé au monde… la jeunesse et le rêve en sont l’échappatoire.
3. La division entre les potins/modes coréennes, et ensuite Hollywoodiennes. Même chose dans leur journal Métro… alors qu’au Québec, le tout est mélangé!

J’ai acheté de très bon macarons et suis rentrée à l’Hostel. Sur le chemin, il neigeotait. J’ai pris ma douche et me suis préparée car le lendemain matin je devais aller visiter la DMZ (De-Militarized Zone) au sud de la Corée du Nord.
Ce soir-là, moi, Brian (un autre Brian : celui-ci, un Américain d’environ trente ans, avocat, qui a tout lâché du Droit pour venir travailler dans une auberge de jeunesse en Corée – le Backpackers Inside - et apprendre le Coréen. Très drôle, gentil et intelligent), Jacky Chan (banquier Hongkie, i.e. qui travaille et vit à Hong Kong et que je vais recontacter quand je vais y revenir), Edward (un Taïwanais de Taipei venu à Séoul juste pour voir le concert de Girl’s Generation!) et un couple de Californie venu s’installer à Séoul quelques mois pour apprendre le Coréen (une fille Coréo-Américaine et son copain blanc) devions aller au Norebang (la version Coréenne du KTV, ou karaoké dans une salle privée) ensemble.
Toujours de prime enthousiasme, Brian et moi avons décidé de commencer la soirée avant tout le monde en allant acheter du soju normal – cette fabuleuse boisson à 20% qui goute l’eau et sans laquelle, j’en suis certaine la société et l’économie Coréenne ne fonctionneraient pas! – ainsi que du soju aromatisé à la pêche/prune. Nous nous sommes mis à pre-drink à l’hostel. Rapidement, Jacky Chan et Edward nous ont joints. Nous avons parlé de la fascination que nous avions tous pour le hallyu – Korean Wave – qui poussa même Edward à venir de Taipei pour un concert – les fans en Asie sont, soyons honnêtes, hardcores.
On a bu jusqu’à 11-11h30 PM en faisant des drinking games – dont une que j’ai inventée avec le crocodile auquel il faut pousser des dents (une fortement meilleure utilisation de celui-ci que dans les salles d’attentes chez le dentiste); puis nous nous sommes rendus au Norebang. Le couple Californien nous a joints peu après. Je devais être bien réchauffée, car j’ai dansé et chanté et sauté partout, donnant mon 100% dans ma ‘performance’ – alors que les autres se contentaient de rester assis ou de se lever simplement pour chanter. Whatever. Cela ne m’a pas refroidie. Can’t take the Annie out of the Annie.
Edward est rentré tôt car il avait trop bu, suivit de Jacky Chain qui devait prendre un vol le lendemain vers 2PM. Le couple a suivit, et il ne restait que moi et Brian.
La pensée que je devait me lever à 6 heure pour aller visiter la DMZ m’a alors effleuré l’esprit.
Après une performance superbe/plusieurs solos désastreux qui me firent perdre la voix, on est sortit du Norebang passé 4AM, et Brian m’a amené dans une chambre pour me donner un Chocopie, que j’insistais de manger le lendemain sur la DMZ. (En effet, pour les Nord Coréens, les Chocopies sont prétendument le symbole du capitalisme – voir le film JSA pour référence – car cette compagnie distribue officiellement des Chocopies aux troupes sud-Coréennes depuis 20-25 ans… et donc, puisque la frontière sud-coréenne – et les soldats qui s’y trouvent – sont la seule fenêtre sur le monde pour les Nord Coréens, la seule chose qu’ils voient du sud ‘capitaliste’, ce sont des soldats qui mangent des Chocopies).
Cependant, j’avais l’impression que Brian n’attendait pas de moi qu’un sourire de remerciement… alors j’ai décidé de call it a night vite et suis retournée dans la chambre à 5AM. Je me suis réveillée une heure plus tard, encore saoule.
Deux autres personnes de l’hostel se devaient de visiter la DMZ avec moi ce matin-là : Martin (1/2 Japanese, 1/2 Austrian) et Miriam, sa petite amie Autrichienne, dont l’ossature, rappelant celle d’un oiseau, la faisait paradoxalement ressembler beaucoup plus à une Japonaise que son petit ami qui lui, en était vraiment un. Tous deux faisaient un B.A. Japanese Studies en Autriche et étaient en année d’échange à Yokohama.
La van qui nous amenait à la DMZ allait aussi chercher d’autres touristes à d’autres hostels/hôtels – et c’est ainsi que j’ai rencontré Marc-André, un Québécois du Ministère des Finances qui venait juste d’assister au somment des Ministres des Finances des pays du G-20 à Incheon. Ca tomba bien, puisque j’avais une présentation mardi prochain là-dessus à faire devant ma classe à Hong Kong University. Je me suis donc mise à lui poser plusieurs questions!
On a commencé notre route vers la frontière Nord-Coréenne, le guide nous expliquant sans détail le déroulement de la guerre de Corée, que je connaissais déjà (une chance, car j’étais bien trop brain-dead pour l’écouter parler). La frontière Nord-Coréenne serait facilement détectable, même s’ils décidaient d’enlever les barricades et les barbelés; en effet, alors que la Corée du Sud a des Montagnes couvertes d’arbres, celles de la Corée du Nord sont complètement nues – tout le bois ayant été coupé afin de chauffer les maisons, l’emploi de l’électricité étant rare et restreint par l’état. Parce que c’était encore l’hiver, les monts étaient donc tous enneigés en Corée du Nord (CdN).
On est arrivé dans un immense parking sur le bord de la frontière où il y avait un parc d’attraction (!) incluant un minipot et un manège avec des tasses géantes qui tournent. Martin, Miriam, Marc-André et moi en ont rit – mais on a arrêté quand le guide nous a amené à une grande cloche qui, nous a-t-il expliqué, sonne une fois l’an, lorsque près de 10 000 000 de visiteurs viennent ici pour le jour du Nouvel An. En effet, dans la tradition coréenne, les gens sont supposés retourner dans leur hometown pour le jour de l’An – cependant, pour 10 000 000 Coréens du Sud, celle-ci se trouve au nord de la frontière – et donc, puisqu’ils ne peuvent pas aller en CdN, ils se retrouvent ici.
C’est vraiment là que la tragédie qu’est la guerre de Corée – la division de ce peuple, de cette culture si vieille et si homogène – m’a vraiment frappé. Sur le mur, en arrière de la cloche, il y avait des milliers de rubans accrochés, chacun ayant écrit dessus des souhaits et des vœux de santé envers la famille et les proches vivants de l’autre coté de la frontière, dont ils n’ont pas eu de nouvelle depuis 60 ans.
C’était vraiment émouvant.
Après un café très requis, nous sommes retournés dans le bus afin de visiter un des 6 tunnels d’invasions NCoréenne découverts par les SCoréens (il est estimé, selon l’Intelligence SCoréeene, qu’il y en a au moins 24-30 en tout, mais que ceux-ci n’ont pas encore été découverts).
On a eu droit a une courte explication de l’endroit et nous nous sommes fait "expliquer" les preuves trouvées par la CdS que le tunnel avait bien été bâti par la CdN. Mais bien sûr, comment gober toute l’Histoire lorsqu’elle ne vous est racontée que par un seul des deux partis? Mon impression était que certains détails – dont le fait que les NCoréens auraient enduit les murs d’une fine couche de charbon pour faire croire que c’était une mine et non une invasion – m’ont semblés tirés par les cheveux et peu crédibles. Mais que sais-je? J’ai bien peur que seul le temps – c’est-à-dire la réunification – va nous le dire.
On a ensuite monté une montagne d’où on pouvait clairement voir la CdN – incluant son drapeau hérissé (sic) bien plus haut que celui de la CdS (une « flag race » - immature, c’est vrai, mais oh combien moins stupide qu’une « arms race », qu’en pensez-vous?) ainsi que le « faux » village NCoréen (un village fait comme un décor de set de film hollywoodien; soit de la propagande de dissuasion [« deterrence »] pour faire croire que l’économie de la CdN fonctionne bien).
Au sommet de la montagne, il y avait plein de schoolgirls in uniforms venues parfaire leur éducation sur la DMZ et qui giggled [il n’y a pas de traduction en français pour ce mot, merci seigneur!] en pointant vers les soldats SCoréens qui étaient visiblement à leur goût.
On est ensuite allé visiter la seule gare au monde qui part de Pyeongyang vers l’extérieur du pays – qui a été construite sous les bonnes augures de la Sunshine Policy de l’administration de Kim Dae Jung (1998-2008), précédente à la présente, qui y mit fin. L’administration de Lee Myung Bak est donc très peu populaire auprès des SCoréens (tel que le guide et The Economist l’affirment), qui pour la plupart désirent réellement la réunification des deux Corées.
J’ai personnellement trouvé très « disturbing » le message « and let the DMZ live FOREVER! » è la fin du vidéo qui nous a été montré avant de visiter le tunnel – comme si, avec l’excuse que c’est maintenant une réserve naturelle de la faune et de la flore, la DMZ devait être « conservée ». WTF???
Enfin bref. J’ai l’impression que ce sujet, de toute façon, comprend bien des contradictions au sein de la pensée nationale SCoréenne.
J’ai acheté du soju NCoréen à la frontière et nous sommes rentrés à Séoul.
J’ai mangé une soupe très fade avec Marc-André, Miriam et Martin et nous nous sommes séparés après avoir regarde la cérémonie du changement de la garde à 2PM devant le palais de Changdeok (Changdeokgung). J’ai ensuite visité celui-ci et ai fait dix milles détour avant d’aller faire du people-watch au centre-ville (? - en fait, je n’ai aucune idée où le « centre-ville » de Séoul se situe) proche de City Hall Station en allant prendre un café au 3e étage d’un Coffee Beans, où j’ai entamé la lecture de Dracula.
Je suis rentrée à l’Hostel, ai fait mes réservations pour Gyeongju et me suis couchée, complètement crevée, mais très heureuse.
Le lendemain, 3 mars, j’ai pris le bus de 8h50 AM pour Gyeongju. Quelques jours loin de Séoul/ ou de tout autre grand centre urbain me paraissaient alors nécessaires, - et aussi, tel que Paris n’est pas la France, je me suis dit que je n’avais pas vu la Corée du Sud si je n’avais visité que Séoul.
J’ai bien fait.
Le premier jour, après avoir checké-in au HanJin Hostel, j’ai visité le parc des tombes royales de la Dynastie Joseon. Ce sont en fait des pyramides enterrées des rois et reines Joseon/Silla. J’ai fait ça en écoutant du Sigur Ros – c’était vraiment très Zen.
Puis, j’ai marché vers Banwolseong – la forteresse Silla dont il ne reste aujourd’hui que les ruines de la « Ice House ». Enfin, j’ai visité le Gyeongju National Museum.
Juste pour cette visite, le voyage en Corée en valu la chandelle.
J’ai loué un audio-guide et me suis fait inonder d’information sur l’Histoire du peuple Coréen, en particulier sur la dynastie Silla, dont Gyeongju était la place forte.
Je suis retournée vers le centre-ville de Gyeongju et ai mangé des sushis dans un restaurant Japonais-version-Coréenne, aka. le PARADIS, et suis rentrée à l’hôtel.
Le lendemain était ma journée de visite. Malheureusement, il pleuvait et la température approchait zéro degré Celsius. Est-ce que ça arrêterait Indy J? Non. Je suis donc allée avec la musique.
Après un ‘déjeuner’ de kimchi et d’onigiri au 7/11, j’ai pris le bus 10 proche du Express bus Terminal et me suis rendue jusqu’au temple Bulguksa. C’était un endroit vraiment mystique. Je me suis alors sentie très calme et me suis rendue compte à quel point j’étais chanceuse d’être là et d’avoir la possibilité de visiter un endroit aussi fantastique. Mon prof d’East Asian Studies, qui nous a enseigné les principes de base du Zen Buddhism, aurait été fier de moi. Je suis redescendue de la colline du temple pour aller prendre l’autobus 12, qui m’amènerait à la grotte de Seokguram – celle avec le Bouddha qui fut construit au 6-7 siècles et qui est largement considéré comme étant le Bouddha qui « veille » sur la Nation Coréenne, son orientation étant vers la mer (et vers le Japon, ennemi traditionnel de la nation Coréenne).
Le froid et la pluie avaient alors créé une brume épaisse qui faisait en sorte qu’on ne voyant que quelques mètres devant soi. Résultat : j’avais l’impression d’être dans une peinture à l’encre zen.
À la fin de la route très sinueuse et ascendante qui m’amena (j’étais seule dans l’autobus) au sommet de la montagne – dont je n’avais aucune idée de la hauteur, ne pouvait pas voir l’horizon -, je suis arrivée dans un parking avec un chemin menant au Bouddha de la grotte Seokguram.
Il y avait, devant l’entrée du chemin, une grande cloche devant laquelle un couple coréen s’entre-photographiait. Je leur ai donc demandé de me prendre en photo devant (avec des gestes car leur anglais/mon coréen était très primaire). Puis, parce que la courte marche vers le bouddha fut faite ensemble, et parce que j’avais été la première à leur parler en leur demandant de prendre une photo avec moi, ils m’ont approché et ont tenté d’engager la conversation.
Avec la barrière linguistique, c’était un peu difficile, mais avec un peu de patience l’essentiel du message passe. J’ai appris qu’ils s’appelaient Chang Hun et Ok Hee, et qu’ils étaient mariés.
Chang Hun était celui dont l’anglais était le plus développé (ou encore, était-il le moins gêné?) alors c’est à lui que j’ai le plus « parlé ». Après avoir visité la grotte, il m’a demandé où je désirait aller par la suite. « Munmu Underwater Tomb », j’ai répondu, « with the public bus … ». Sur ce, il m’a offert de m’y reconduire. J’ai accepté.
Sur le chemin, Chang Hun a voulu me faire plaisir et a changé le disque de KPop pour les Beatles (s’il savait seulement!!!!). Je l’ai laissé faire, respectant son effort pour me faire plaisir.
Après environ 40 minutes de route et de semi-silence (comment converser avec quelqu’un qui a les yeux rivés sur la route et qui ne parle aucune langue que je parle???), nous sommes arrivés au bord de la mer du Japon.
La tombe de Munmu ne s’avère être – du moins en apparence – qu’une pile de rochers au large. Chang Hun m’a pris en photo instantanée devant, m’a donné la photo et nous sommes partis, le froid et le vent étant trop intenses.
Ok Hee m’a alors demandé ce que je voulais voir ensuite. N’aillant pas la traître idée, je leur ai demandé ce que, eux, désiraient faire. Ok Hee a répondu avec grand enthousiasme : « Silla Millenium Park !!!!! ». C’est donc ce que nous avons fait.
Êtes-vous déjà allés dans un parc d’attraction sous la pluie, à zéro degré, dans une langue que vous ne parlez pas et qui est basé sur un télédrame populaire Coréen – « Queen Seon-Duk » - que nous n’avez pas vu????
Sounds promising, doesn’t it? Bon, je dois être un peu étrange car moi, je trouvai cette idée excitante.
Malgré mes protestations, ils ont payé pour mon entrée. Nous avons commencé par aller voir une présentation donnée par des simili-Hwarang (« Flower Boy » - c’est-à-dire un peu l’équivalent des chevaliers de la Reine dans la tradition Européenne, mais qui étaient aussi, tel qu’il est cru aujourd’hui par les historiens, "with benefits". Ça donne le goût d’être reine… :) ).
Nous avons par la suite marché pendant une heure sous la pluie glaciale dans le parc d’attraction – complètement désert, évidemment – avant que mes deux compagnons se rendent compte à quel point c’était cinglé – même dans mes standards – d’aller dans un parc d’attraction avec cette température. C’était vraiment sauvage : en effet, en lavant mes mains avant de quitter, je ne pouvais même plus plier mes doigts tellement ils étaient pétrifiés par le froid.
Il était maintenant près de 5PM alors Chang Hum m’a demandé si j’avais faim. N’ayant pas encore diné, c’était le cas.
Sur l’air de « Let It Be », on s’est mis en route pour un restaurant reconnu de la région, qui servait du bean curd jjigae ainsi qu’une sorte d’omelette aux fruits de mer – dont j’ai essayé de retrouver le nom depuis, en vain!!! C’était vraiment, vraiment bon, et on a mangé encore dans cet étrange demi-silence et demie conversation qui, bizarrement, ne m’étaient alors plus inconfortables.
Ils ont encore une fois payé pour moi et, embarrassée, je leur ai demandé de venir me visiter au Canada afin que je puisse leur rendre la pareille (quand est-ce que sera la prochaine fois où je serai au Canada? Je ne le sais pas moi-même). Ils m’ont raccompagnée à mon Hôtel, et nous nous sommes dit au revoir.
J’aime vraiment beaucoup Gyeongju – j’ai donc décidé d’y passer une nuit supplémentaire afin de pouvoir consacrer une journée à mes travaux scolaires – et oui, je suis étudiante, après tout! :).
Je vais vous épargner les détails sur ma journée de travaux scolaires – et seulement vous dire qu’en cette journée, j’ai eu l’occasion de manger au restau Kuro Ssabap, qui sert du bœuf que l’on mange avec des feuilles de salade (et six autres types de verdures) avec 28 – 28!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! – banchan (side dish). Je pensais bien mourir d’avoir tant mangé! – mourir et aller au Paradis, bien sûr.
Et voilà. Me voici, le lendemain, de nouveau en route pour Séoul.

(Quelques heures plus tard)
Rendue à Séoul, j’ai checké-in au Hey Backpackers, dans le cartier à coté du campus de Hongki University (and accidentally walked in on people having sex – hey, not my fault, there was no sock on the door!). But that’s OK – first, they didn’t see me; second, I knew it would not last long with the fake tone the girl used to scream « oppa » over and over, so I didn’t have to wait more than 5 minutes to walk back in; and third, the owner (who was one of the person I walked in on) seemed to feel so bad about still being out of breath / having his hair everywhere when I walked back in, that he gave me a private room for the same price… :)
Après, je suis allée manger du junju bibimbap dans ce qui semble être le cartier Chinois (Eujinam il (1) ?), encore une fois avec la recommandation de mon amie Annie Song (Annie: I also ate these little red bean fish patries on the street, it was awesome! Thank you!!! :D )
Was then bored and wanted to head over to Contemporary Museum of Art. Lady at the Gates said was closed. Went to the Seoul National Museum instead. Lady at the counter did not get it, gave me tickets not to the permanent exhibition but to the temporary one,… which was of course
ANDY WARHOL! 4rth time I am dragged into going to one!!!!!!!! And this time, it’s just circumstances , not people, who are dragging me there. The problem being that
I HATE, HATE, HA-TE ANDY WARHOL! Dear Lord Jesus Frigging Christ.
There, I said it. But I had paid and realized what was going on only once I entered the gates, so no cigar. Decided to go along with it.
Needless to say, it sucked. Big time. Complete waste of money, time and mental space.
The only thing Warhol did good was the Campbell Soup and the Marilyn. No, putting Mao’s face in red, is NOT, I repeat, NOT revolutionary art. Oh, wait, Warhol did HAVE a second accomplishment – not dying any sooner from alcoholism and/or whatever else he was poppin’. Seriously.
And don’t tell me the commercialization, « brand naming » of contemporary Art was Warhol. IF it was a 20th Century phenomenon, than it’s most definitely Dali – i.e. Dali shat into a formol bottle before Warhol peed on a canvas and sold it. So Yeah. Whatever.
I’m out of here.
PS. Sad consternation @ how people looked at Warhol’s BS as if pure genius… art lovers, intelligencia, dear people who still have a brain attached to their eyes, where, oh, where have you gone????

2 jours plus tard

Dernier jour en Corée. Je suis bien triste de ce fait. C’est un pays vraiment fantastique…
Après être allée à l’expo de Warhol (et m’être calmée!!! lol) je suis allée au cinéma voir Alice au Pays des Merveilles en 3D. La chose la plus fantastique du film? On pouvait garder les lunettes.
Le lendemain, je me suis levée tard, je suis allée au Lotte Department Store manger des sushis et du bento japonais, pour finir ma journée au War Memorial Museum of Korea.
Ce qui est intéressant de ce musée, c’est qu’ils présentent la guerre 1950-3 comme une partie intégrale de la culture coréenne – les deux premiers étages du musée étant dédiés aux guerres datant des 3 royaumes coréens (-57 avant JC à 668 après) et aux conflits auxquels fit face l’empire Silla unifié. Seul le troisième étage est dédiée à la « guerre civile » de Corée, c’est-à-dire celle qui sépare encore aujourd’hui le nord du sud.
Cette structure invite à penser que :
1. les Coréens sont un peuple guerrier; et
2. que la guerre de Corée est une continuation des multiples séparations qui ont eu lieu en Corée dans les deux derniers millénaires. Cette idée me semble un peu étrange, et je ne suis pas certaine d’en comprendre la logique profonde – oui, je comprends qu’ils essaient de dire par rapport à l’éventuelle réunification d’une seule Corée; cependant, de le couler dans le roc de la sorte par la structure même du musée, il me semble, peut s’avérer devenir un couteau à double tranchants.

Aujourd’hui, j’ai pris ca relax, puisque je retourne à Hong Kong demain. Je suis allée à Gangnam et Samseong sans rien acheter (go me!) puis ai décidé de finir ma journée à Insadong, dans un petit salon de thé traditionnel, qui s’appelle tout simplement « Old Tea Shop », dans le fin fond d’une allée perdue. Je suis en train de boire un « thé à cinq saveurs » (tel que celui que la princesse boit au début de « Goong »!) C’est vraiment, vraiment très bon, et très joli! Tout rose, avec deux noix de pins qui y flottent.

Je pense que j’ai finalement compris ce que le calme existentiel signifie, ici, en Corée : écouter du Sigur Ros, se tenir avec de gentils Coréens au grand cœur, plonger dans l’épique Histoire ancienne Coréenne, essayer de mieux comprendre la réalité de la division des deux Corées comme celle de la jeunesse Coréenne et Asiatique; et bien sûr, se tenir loin de tout ce qui a trait à Andy Warhol.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

January 2010 - Hong Kong - On the road yet again

..."On the road yet again" is a way to put it, of course, because I will be living in Hong Kong for the next year, not doing some sort of world tour or something.

Hey, it could have been the case. I've been there before.

So yes, after a whole year (2009) that can be summarized as having been swallowed by a black hole in my memory, I am back at doing what I really love, that is: study in Political Sciences.

There are a few things that led me back on the PS track - even though I went, say, pretty astray, studying in a completely different field in 2009 -, but I think reading the Prince again and watching the entire House of Cards BBC series have something to do with it.
(What can I say: I love you, F.U.).

This is, of course, loads of bolcheviks. In fact, I just came to realize that my crazy side - or whatever you want to call the desire not to settle down in a reliable,-prestigious,-well-payed,-yet-somewhat-not-fulfilling-job - was not going away anytime soon. So there. I'm doing a Masters in International and Public Affairs (another fancy name for an M.Sc. International Relations) in Hong Kong University.

I'll spare you all the silly details that come with such a sudden life change and I'll just give you the juicy part - the "chicken essence" (as my roomate would put it) of my crazy month changing countries, changing careers and changing life.
  1. I got the acceptation letter at 3:00 AM on December 29th, 2009. At 3:10AM, my mind was set. The courses were to start 12 days later.
  2. I spent my NYE moving out of my appartment.
  3. I didn't sleep for a week with various pre-departure preparations - and flew out on the 8th.
  4. I could have never done anything without the help of my mother. She didn't get any more sleep than I did - and she even drove me to the Albany airport. So a great big thank you to you <3
  5. I told my Canadian faculty/University I was leaving the programme (as well as my friends!) the day before my flight to Hong Kong.
  6. I was lacking sleep so much that I forgot my wallet - yes, with all my cards - in my mother's car in a parking in Albany, New York, USA. Of course, I only realized it when in the Narida (Tokyo) airport in Japan. My first thought was that it had been stolen ( I was beyond passed out on the plane). Hence at that point, I "Sorta" freaked out. Thus, I called Montreal and realized I was actually just the biggest clutz since Chaplin (and then again, in defense of his case he only was a fictionnal character).
  7. Did you know, entering a country for an extended period of time (one year) with only your passport and 500 CAD on you is not exactly a battle won in advance? Fortunately, when I told the border agent I forgot my wallet in my car, he just looked at me with these eyes - you know, the "you are just a small and idiotic white girl" stare? Outch. But still, better than "I KNOW you really came here to make bombs blow" stare. So thank you, Mr-douane-guy.
  8. I didn't have a place to stay when I arrived. All in all, Residence halls applications in Hong Kong are probably more competitive than getting into Harvard Business School, or something. People apply 1 year+ in advance, so I tried and obviously failed. Thus, I just booked the closest thing to Uni on and decided to stay in whatever hostel I would find until I found an appartment. That Was a mistake. Because of course, it was in the most sketchy thing Hong Kong has to offer: the Chung King Mansions (CKM) .Have you seen the movie Chung King Express? Well if not, do it, fools. If you did, do you remember the place where there are loads of stalls and Indians and there is the lady with a blonde wig doing a gun shotting? That would be there. After I crossed the HK border/remembered how to breathe, I took a taxi downtown to the CKM. And Oh. My.First thing greating me in Hong Kong - that is to say, first impression of it - are "brown" guys (that's how they call indians/pakistanis here) running after my taxis, asking me if they can carry my luggage and if I want to buy fake brands watches."This is going to be a long year", I told myself. But of course, this ended up being another loads of bolcheviks. A girl alone in a country I didn't know, and not getting where in the world was my guesthouse in that maze, I was on my guards, let's put it this way. So some guy comes up to me and says he had been waiting for me. I just give him a 'yeah, right' look, just like the one I gave all the other people coming to me in the last 20 minutes. After walking around for a while I got sick of it and decided to test my luck and follow the guy. And I must have a guardian angel or something: the thing was he ended up really being the receptionnist of the Guesthouse I was staying in - and thus he was really, really waiting for me when he said he was. His name is Toby and he ended up being a pretty cool guy. And yes, if you you were wondering, he actually knew it was me because I was sporting a hoodie with "CANADA" written on it (for the 2010 Vancouver Olympic games) and all he knew about me was that I was a canadian girl arriving at that time. Even though the staff of the New China Guesthouse was neat and all, the Mansions themselves have a pretty bad reputation in HK. Everybody I've spoke to so far knew what it was - and Asian some guy I had just met asked me if I needed a hug after I told him where I lived. Yes, a random Asian guy, giving a HUG to someone he's never met before.
  9. But it ended up being a good thing that I lived my first week in such a place. After I told the Student Affairs of HKU where I lived, Iris, the adorable Student Affairs lady, just made a horrified face, made me fill a form of some kind and offered me a non-campus accommodation the next day.
  10. After a little over a week spent in the CKM, I moved into my new place.And I love it :)I had 3 rockin' roomates originally - Kisson, Debrah and Citrine - but Citrine just moved out to a bigger place yesterday. Kisson is a "mainlander" while the two others are Malay-Chinese. I don't have any excuses not to practice my putonghua now, do I? The flat is 5 minutes walk from Uni (ok, maybe 8-10 mins, with all those stupid stairs and people walking in the middle of the road just like des vaches tyroliennes).
  11. My classes started on the 11th and they are awesome. So are my classmates :) However, I don't feel I really got to enjoy it yet because of all the
  12. PAPERWORK I HAD TO FILL. Student card, accommodation form, survey of services, application, department, faculty, visa, official, form, office, registration, documents, statements, acceptation letter, fill, send to, scan, copy, email to, approved. I'm surprised I don't look any more tan on my passport picture from all the times it has spent in photocopy machines. You went to McGill and thought their administrative process was the epitome of road apples? Well, welcome to HKU. Just the process to get my student card - which I need to do practically anything - took over 2 weeks. And so was the student visa. I finally got the latter yesterday!! Just need to apply to the HK ID card now, but it should (?) be daisies.
  13. And you know what? I promised myself once all of this would be done, I would just sit back and relax for a couple of weeks - you know, just enjoy the quietness, the tranquility, the routine, the absence of waiting rooms, paperwork, transportations, disruption from daily life...
  14. But - oops. A few minutes ago, I just bought a flight to South Korea.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

June 2008 (3/3): Xi'an and Qingdao

The rest of June was spent going out at the Hou Hai lake ($$$), hanging around the sushi place, going to Lush all the time, going to Xi’an with the programme group, enjoying Beijing Kaoya, Sanlitun, The bookworm café with 小Laura, trying to find more information about the recent History of Beijing, and counting the construction cranes that kept on appearing from my bedroom window (for the record: 14).

Xi'an is an amazing city, but because our visit was done in a very, very touristy manner (we had a tour bus with a guide called "Hi! Mike" and it was practically impossible to venture away from the group), I fear that my retelling would be sort of boring to the reader. Nevertheless, I'll just mention that I finally saw the Terracotta warriors (YES!!!), the Wild Goose Pagoda (beautiful), the ancient city walls, the Arab quarters - and I also ate delicious food, including the reknown Xi'an dumpling place (they made special vegetarian ones just for me! :D ).

(Terracotta warriors / Wild Goose Pagoda)

(Awesomeness / Paraish represents!)

It was very fun in a way, but I was starting to be very sick of this whole "hanging out as a group of white people" tourism. Thus, the last weekend of June, I decided to venture by myself and go to Qingdao.

Most of my programme friends, including my roommate Connie, were going to a rave on the Great Wall that weekend - to which I refused to go because 1. a rave on one of the 7 Wonders? Hello, preservation of human heritage??! and 2. A rave= 就是一个白人的东西。So no, thanks.

So I was telling myself: yes, finally a weekend away from anyone I know, venturing into the unknown; on the other side of the planet. Can't meet anyone I know, can I? Well guess what? Ah. Ah. Ah.

I took a train on June 26th that left from Beijing Central to 四方 (Qingdao Station).

Qingdao is well known for two things. First (at least according to the Lonely Planet Guide), it's "German Architecture" is "remarkable" (what? I've been to Germany and let me tell you - there has been no "German-like" infrastructure left in Qingdao since the Cult. Rev. - well there was this one Church, but they were re-building its entire facade because they wanted it to actually look"German" for the Olympics. Go figure.). Second - and this is something I am pretty sure you know about already- is that it is the home of the Jewel of Northern China, it's greatest achievement since the invention of maths, gunpowder and war tactics (I'm making this part up): that is of course, TSINGTAO BEER.

(The reason why I didn't find the ocean on the first day: endless construction sites. / Whatever - I made a 小朋友! :DD)

These were the two reasons for which I picked this city for the weekend. These, and the fact that Qingdao is a port, read: BEACHES. I arrived in the afternoon the first night and got lost for 3 hours in dédale-like streets that never ended and with the entire horizon blocked by construction sites for Hotels, complexes and other Olympics-related buildings. It was even madder than in Beijing ...!!! So mad in fact, that no matter how hard I tried, I never got around to find the ocean that day (crazy, uh? One would have thought it is a pretty big thing to miss!).

(The "German" Church being re-Germanized; a bride taking wedding pictures in front of the church, i.e. in the middle of the construction site)

So on the morning of the second day, my mind was made up. There was no way I would fail at finding the Ocean again. Therefore, like a complete idiot, I put on a bikini under my Tee and managed to show up on the beach after another hour or so of wandering around town.

Retrospectively, I would say it was a pretty funny experience - but at the time, it really wasn't. So with a feeling of triumph, I show up there on this beach (the one with the Zhanqiao Pier), where I am the only foreigner, with practically nothing on, no water, no sunblock, and where I am clashing with the surroundings of Chinese girls with long sleeves, hats, and umbrellas (hiding every inch of skin from the Sun), who are looking at me as if I was a complete weirdo / an American. Whatever, I remind myself - I want a tan. So I stay there in the sun for forever, watching these little cute kids who are way too young to be working pulling out the pollution algae from the water and loading them in dozens of huge trucks. Apparently, they had been hired by the city so that the fact that the water is THAT polluted would not show for the Olympics - as Qingdao had been assigned as the center for all the water-sport competitions.

(kids picking the algae next to the Pier / clashing with Chinese beach clothing)

Like I often do, I passed out from the sun - only to wake up 4 hours later with a headache the size of Arkansas, my whole body unresponsive to mental orders sent to get up and with two Chinese Guys sitting on long chairs angled not towards the ocean but towards me, AND watching me creepily (for how long had they been doing that? I guess I'll never know). Anyways, so this is how I got the worst sunstroke/sunburn of my whole life.

I got back to the hostel and was sick from the sunstroke. I slept two hours, met this Isaac character I wrote about earlier and went for a Tsingtao beer in the Qingdao Fish Market (which was way, way more lively/messy/fun than the Fischmarkt I had seen two years prior in Hamburg with Aude - aka. from where it got its name).

(Isaac with Tsingtao Beer / Qingdao Fish Market)

I can't recall the exact details of the next day, but I do remember that it started with a mission for aloe gel the moment my eyes opened. I then left without a map and forced myself to get lost in the city for a few hours, just wandering, going in residential areas far from the center of the city, just watching women hanging clothes on wires, kids running in the streets and laughing, and old men playing Chinese Chess on low tables set on dusty sidewalks. These familiar scenes reminded me of childhood memories, growing up in the suburbs - and it also reminded me of a similar excursion I had done years earlier in Paris - getting off at Montmartre métro, but walking away for several hours from the tourist spots and towards the “Paris noir”, the ghetto part of it. When you do get away from the tourist spots, from the landmarks sites, where no Métro line and no frequent bus lines can bring you, you do find that everywhere in the cities of this world, people live the same life: it is the same women hanging clothes, the same kids laughing and running in the middle of the streets, and the same old men watching the world pass them by - in all the quiet residential streets of all the cities of this planet.

(A quiet residential street)

It gave me a particularly warm feeling, I remember. I told myself that no matter how far I was from understanding Chinese language, culture and worldview, there was still this part, this common parts that all urban humans share - the small routine tasks and habits, at the very core of human intimacy - that I could understand, and that I experienced as well.

At the end of the afternoon I went back to the Hostel again (?), where I just happened to bump into people speaking Québécois French - that is to say, the Université de Montréal programme group.

I learnt that they had been studying at Tianjin Uni for the summer and they were too, taking a weekend off from the city. They were staying at another Hostel, called the Old Observatory - which is a MUST if you ever go to Qingdao, because it’s the coolest Hostel ever (closely followed by the Edinburgh Castle one, the Hamburg church one, the Luang Prabang River Spa one and the ChiangMai spa-massage one, to be more precise). Qingdao is a city on the top of a hill that falls into the sea - and on top of the hill sits.. the old observatory. It was being repaired when I was there, but the view from the rooftop was just grand. OK, I’ll stop talking about it, because it makes me miss it too much.

(On the beach with Québécois/inside the Old Observatory)

After we spent the rest of the day on the beach again, I decided to spend the night with these fellow Montréalais Qingdao-style - that is to say, by drinking Tsingtao beer STRAIGHT FROM A PLASTIC BAG. And you know, not just the thick, milk-pint plastic bag we get in Québec - but the thin, cheap transparent plastic bag you get in grocery stores when you buy vegetables. It might look cool (see picture), but once you’ve taken the picture and laughed a bit, the real question is: how the hell do you drink it???

(Beer, Qingdao style, ft. Gabriel Dion)

(The solution to the highly philosophical issue:::)

We were still pondering on this highly philosophical issue when someone behind me screamed: “ANNIE??!”. I turned around - and it was my friend Jolyanne from my CEGEP years! Seriously, what the hell!!! I haven’t seen her in three years living in the same city and now I see her on the other side of the planet, by pure coincidence??? She just happened to have meet the Université de Montréal group that day as well, and decided to hang out with them for a while. Seriously. Jolyane and I caught up a bit and we spent the night playing pool and getting drunk with some American boys who were drinking Smirnoff - SERIOUSLY guys, you are in Qingdao - drink Tsingtao! Amateurs.

The ride back to Beijing was HELL. At that point I was feeling like a lobster, with a crust/shell of something that felt like 3rd degree burnt skin. It was pretty miserable, I wanted to die from the pain - seriously. Anybody who has been there before will tell you - it is an acute and terrible pain. But I guess Dog was not satisfied with the degree of pain I was in, because not only was I hurting so badly I did not dare to move a millimeter, the ride back was a very packed, hot and humid night train, on a hard seat. Also, I was sitting next to a guy who kept nodding off and putting his head ON THE SKIN OF MY BACK, which would make me instantly wake up screaming in pain. The Chinese people around me, that I would have just then woken up, would then look at me like I was a complete psycho, for I lacked the language ability at the time to explain to them that I had a sunburn. This happened three times before I decided to give up sleep, and vowed to adopt a vampire lifestyle from now on.

Friday, November 20, 2009

June 2008 (2/3): My weekend in Datong

What I forgot to show you guys in the last entry...

Xu BeiHong, (Horse)

Now that this is stated, I will give you my part 2 of 3 of June 2008. If is actually something that I have written back in June 2008, so you can see that the style differs considerably from my previous entries. Have a nice week, enjoy and keep an eye open for June 3/3!


I thought that I would share with you what I wrote about my week-end in Datong, China.
Just to warn you, this is no literature material, just notes I took for the book I'm writing that's inspired by my travels, but it's good enough to stand as an update as to what I'm up to these days.
I miss all of you dearly. Take care, let me know about how you are doing and talk to you soon!

Annie ;)


I looked up at the street intersection signs. Nanchizi Dajie and Dongchag'an Jie, the crossroad right outside Tienanmen Dong subway station. "There's no error to be made, you are at the right place", confirmed the Lonely Planet guide I was holding in my hands. Well, ok; but then, where was Carlo?

I know what you're thinking: Lonely Planet guide? After living in a city for five weeks, doesn't one starts to get his way around it? Doesn't one get the 'feel' of the geography, and therefore can easily get from A to B? I'm afraid the answer's no, not so - not with Beijing anyways.

Before I set foot in Asia, I took great pride in the fact that when I am walking around London, Montreal, Warsaw, New York, Berlin, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Krakow, I feel just as at ease as a fish in the sea. I even spent a whole week in Paris two years ago without even ever looking at a single map, getting from la Gare St-Lazare to l'Eglise St-Sulpice on foot without much more than a second thought. "I guess I'm one of these lucky people who, just like migrating birds, are born with a compass attached to their brain", I used to think. Beijing brought up a new challenge for me: because even after more than a month, I'm still at lost.

The city is so large and spread, and everything looks exactly the same (in my foreigner's eyes). Given the fact that they destroyed and rebuilt it with a pace that no occidental city has ever known, there was no creation of particularly central and recognizable places or things (fountains, statues, funky road sign??) within each districts, because these things are those that often only Time can bring about. Also, there was no such phenomenon as the one of polarization of 'smaller buildings' being built right next to X or Y 'big building', something that only a slow process of clustering around a center can bring about. Instead, what happened is that the Beijing civil engineers just build a big square of 15, 25 big indistinguishable buildings in one go, in the lapse of a few months. This resulted in giving the city of Beijing an eery feel – like something is missing from view, something unspoken of, a silenced presence hanging in the air; something that was once out there everywhere, but that's now covered in plaster, highways, plastic static smiles adverts and concrete.
I was still pondering about the latter point of my reflections, sitting on this street corner waiting, when my friend Carlo decided to finally show up. I gave him a great big enthusiastic hug, not having seen any of my Montreal friends in more than a month, and missing all of them so dearly. We started chatting right away about this and that – trying to get a taxi at first, but failing to do so - you know when you walk with somebody and you haven't set on where you are going, but just keep on talking and walking because the conversation is too interesting to be cut with silly details such as where you are actually going?

(In front of a "Chinese Gate", ft. Carlo)

We ended up walking to this 'Peking Duck Restaurant » Carlo's guide recommended – and that actually served food 10 times the price anywhere else I have eaten in town so far. But Carlo was inviting me and the duck was good – though a bit too greasy –, so no complains on my part. After our meal and a lot of catch-up convo, we decided to go venture a bit into the night market.

You know these pictures that at least one of your Facebook friend has taken, where street vendors sell Scorpios, sea horses, sea stars, crickets, boxer frogs, snakes etc. on a stick ready to be eaten ? Well, guilty as tourists may be, we took several of them too. We then set up to buy a two kuai red pastry that was sitting in the window of a small shop in the night market. In a very broken mandarin, I asked the vendor what kind of pastry was the small round red thing, but instead of answering, he just smiled at me, and said « liang kuai, liang kuai! ». I gave him two kuai, and once we bit into it, we realized that it actually was just a piece of dry bread crump painted over; a fake pastry! I had never seen, nor ever heard of such a scam before. The place screamed 'tourist trap' altogether. But we didn't care – we smiled, laughed it off, and had a great time walking around the kiosks.

(Yummy stuff, ft. Carlo and the Dead Impaled Jiminy Crickets. Would that not make an awesome metal band name???)

We then decided to go for a beer on a terrace nearby, where a perfectly normally constituted man was begging, holding his arms close to his body and out his sleeves to make himself look handicapped. He was holding onto two pieces of plastic that sortof – but not really – looked like amputee arms. I just gave him a knowing smile when he approached me, which resulted in him instantly going away from us and ask some other tourists for money, his face unchanging, without any reaction to the fact that I had just seen right through his little game.
« so, do you have another Montreal friend coming to visit you during the rest of your trip? Eight months is kinda long. » Carlo said after a couple of sip of his Tsingtao beer.
« No, no Montreal friend. My friend Mikey from England is supposed to come visit me in a couple of weeks, but other then that, nope. Nobody ». I answered.
« Well, there's always Alain, Did you know he's also traveling in China right now? »
I knew I had heard this name before, but when trying to think about a face, my mind drew a blank. "No, and I don't think I've ever met Alain", I answered.

It was getting late. Carlo was tired from all his travels, and I didn't know until when the subway lines ran, so we both decided that it was the right time to call it a night. He walked me to the next metro station – which I later found out to be already closed, which made me have to taxi back - we hugged, said goodbye and walked in opposite directions.

(Artistic-ish picture, ft. Carlo. Wait, this is not satisfying....)

(....Ahhhh, that's a lot better. Don't pictures always look much more "artistic" when they are in black and white, overexposed and with bad grain?)

It was Friday night, and the week-end had started with a tint of bittersweet humor. Friday morning, my mind was set on going camping on the great wall with Xiao-Laura and Abbey, but our plans "sont littéralement tombés à l'eau".

(Exploring the Hutongs: a cute dog/ Abbey and I/ Charlotte at the restaurant we went to to hide from the rain/ Little Tsunami, Paraish and Charlotte, peaking in somebody's hutong)

Indeed, Friday afternoon, Paraish, Abbey, Charlotte, Shiao-Jiun, Xiao-Laura, JinKenh and I set upon exploring the hutongs North of the Bell Tower. However, we were suddenly caught in the midst of a tropical rain starting - and rain it was! It was literally as if buckets where poured upon our heads that forced us back towards campus. I had never seen such thing before [note from 2009: and I never saw anything the same after - that is, before going to Singapore!] Two hours later in Wudaoku, after a taxi ride, a 20 minutes walk in a foot of water (NO jokes), a bus ride and yet another taxi ride, I was sitting with Abbey and Shiao-Jiun in front of oh-so rewarding sushis. Abbey suggested a back-up plan to the week-end to come, which consisted in going someplace « where there was an « hanging Buddhist monastery - or something like that ». I just looked at her without saying anything; I wasn't terribly thrilled by the idea to say the least. To be completely honest, thoroughly drenched and tired after our journey through the rain, my hair glued all over my cold, wet forehead, my two elbows on the table and my two hands holding onto my face, I much rather pictured myself staying in Beijing, sleeping twenty hours straight and then taking it easy. Plus, the rain was supposed to be a little bit lighter on Sunday, so I could just go shopping around for these pearl necklaces that I had planned to go buy since I landed in this city (like any good tourist).
Shiao-Jiun cabbed back to the hotel to sleep and Abbey and I set up to go for « one beer » at Lush, a cute bar inside a bookstore on the other side of the street with a mixed crowd of foreigners and Chinese. I really liked this place and had been going there often for a while; the food was good, there was exported beer and there were often live music being played, as it was the case on that particular night.
That's where Abbey and I met Carter – a Chinese guy whose 'real name' I have no clue of – as well as Yang Liang – whom gave me the honor of giving him an English name. I choose Brian (Why? Why not?). These two looked like nothing but nice Chinese pals at first: one 27 and the other either 27 or 33 years-old (he did not make it very clear once I told him I was 21). Plus, they were very willing to feed us free beers, hookah and cigarettes in exchange of smiles - which is all that Abbey and I could ask for.

They both had been working for the same company whose name escaped my understanding due to the very loud music. Carter started to chat with Abbey because she was the one sitting the closest to him, and I started to tak with the other guy, Brian. I was surprised about the extent to which he was willing to talk about Chinese politics, getting on the subject of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 himself and talking about the pros and cons of a single-party system. I knew I had made a friend right there. A bit drunk both from the MaiTais I ordered and the Tsingtaos Carter kept putting in front of me, I excused myself to go to the ladies. Once I came back 5 minutes after, Carter asked my number – he really wanted Abbey's, but since she didn't have a cellphone, took mine instead in order to contact her.
I ended up regretting this last bit dearly, because from that very moment he started texting me 5 to 10 times a day and calling me at least 3 times a day, wanting to know « if Abbey was with me » or if « Abbey received his email » and « how Abbey was doing ». How annoying was this weirdo raising up my phone bill and calling me during class!!! I wanted to tell him to fuck off, but Abbey liked the idea of a sugar-daddy buying her beers (that's what she said), so I let it go for a couple of days. Besides, once or twice I just turned off my cellphone and we'd have a laugh at all the pathetic things he'd text me at the end of the morning. Poor Guy. To this day I still wonder what exactly Abbey did to drive this guy so nuts about what she did during the 5 minutes I left to go to the Ladies'... Oh well. I guess I'll never know.

I wanted out around midnight, and giving « the glance » to Abbey, she asked me if « I was all set », I said yes and we left. The first thing I did getting off the cab we took to go back to the hotel, still wet to the core, was to take a hot, long-awaited shower and to scrub off the brown-ish dirt the acid rain left on my skin, a typical gift from the Beijing skies. I didn't do much more that night; my body felt as heavy as a potato bag, and my eyelids closed themselves even before my head hit the pillow.


I woke up at ten, much later than I'm used to, because I had woken up at five AM first and, realizing that such an hour didn't make sense for me to be awake, I ended up going back to bed. And yes, that's when you typically oversleep. My body was still a bit sore and I could feel a slight cold coming up. Outside, it was still pouring cats and dogs, so no big motivation arose in me to hit the road that day. I ended up just going around the rooms in the hotel, chatting with a couple of friends from the programme who were equally unmotivated to go outside the halls of the hotel. Besides, many of them had taken a train to Shanghai a few days before, so the lobby on our floor was quieter than it uses to be. The only things that could be heard really was how the TV from one of the Chinese guest rooms was blasting the news from afar, as well as a loud snore. There was nothing to do. Before I realized it, I fell asleep again.

I was awoken by a death-scream from 大Laura who came up into our room without me being aware of her presence. Apparently, she hadn't seen me at first, and had quite a scare when she saw a hand hanging out from inside the covers just as she was about to go and sit down on me. That was very far from the most pleasant way to wake up, let me tell you. After excusing herself and calming down (well, at least to the extent this girl has the capability to ever calm down, hehe), she told Connie and I, in her typical cute slurr-like accent, that her initial week-end plans were ruined, much like many of us. She then told us she wanted to go to the "hanging monastery thinger" instead, and asked us if we wanted to join her.
« sounds interesting », I said rubbing my eyes with my thumb and my index, not having a clue what she was talking about, my mind still hazy after this shock awakening. « I'm going to go get more informations about it then », she said before I even finished my sentence, bouncing out the door in a very 大Laura manner. When I opened the door to our room 45 minutes later, I was greated by a piece of paper three centimeters away from my face and a shrilling « HERE'S YOUR TRAIN TICKEEEET!!!! ».
Well then, I guess I'm going to that place after all. Even though I have no clue what it's called, or even where it is. All I knew was that it was somewhere in China. Well, hopefully?


We met at 21h45 later that night in the lobby downstairs to go take a train to Datong. By 'we', I mean Connie, 大Laura, 小Laura, Abbey, Mathias, Jinkenh and I. Datong is in the Shanxi province; and it is the closest city to where the Yingxian Wooden Pagoda is (aka. the 'Buddhist hanging monastery thinger'). That would be the extent of the information I had the time to Google in the couple of hours since I had been given a ticket.
It would be a night ride on soft-beds of 6 hours, arriving Sunday at dawn and coming back on Monday by another night-ride taken on a Sunday night. Someone jokingly came with the idea that we should all get drunk enough to pass-out so that we would for sure sleep and be awake for the whole day coming up. I smiled, but I knew I didn't really need to drink to sleep, so I set up on taking it easy instead. However, not everybody took this idea lightly. Already at ten o-clock in the lobby, Connie, 大Laura and Matias had, let's say, a head-start on us – and by head-start, I mean they had been drinking since 3 in the afternoon. Matias was particularly plastered, drinking his remaining six bottles of Tsingtao out of his bag in the same fashion a fish would have had to drink water if it's intentions were to survive living outside the ocean.
Once in the train, Matias was acting like a star – running around everywhere, stumbling, talking and hugging random strangers (poor, poor Chinese people), dancing, and generally being incredibly loud; the whole wagon was looking at him. Even some Chinese folks took pictures of him with their cellphones while he was trying to walk a straight line in their direction, screaming « PENGYOU!!! » every time somebody came within his field of vision. He had an uttermost genuine smile, and he was doing the whole « duibuqi-duibuqi-duibuqi » thing and curling in a ball every time he was standing in the way of somebody in the hallway. I mean, how cute is that? I was having quite a blast watching him. He'd go nuts every time he'd see a small Chinese kid; later on (once he was sober), he told me how much he really wanted to adopt one (or many) Chinese baby someday.

There are some things you need to know about Matias. Matias is an adorable person. He's French Canadian, but once he's drunk, he is only able to speak English – with an English accent from North London, at that. Believe me, I have tried talking to him in French, but not a single word en français was able to escape from his lips. Matias is a lot of fun altogether; so full of energy and happiness, once you know him it's impossible to hate him – unless you are a stuck-up homophobic idiot, of course.

Even though we probably pissed off the half of the train who wanted to sleep by being so rowdy and loud, Mathias did end up making a lot of « pengyous », and we all got to talk and laugh with many nice Chinese people that night. Not to mention, that's how we met Harriet.

Harriet is a nice 25 years old girl from Wales who took up on herself to quit her two years old job to fulfill her dream and go backpacking thorough Asia for a couple of years. On that Saturday night train ride from Beijing to Datong, our happy cheers and clearly distinctive from afar English language made her approach the part of the train where we were. At first, she was just shyly standing there, looking at us a couple of meters away, not saying anything; but a quick smile and 'hi, how are you doing, where are you from' from my part made her set her mind on sitting with us. We all chatted for a while about the usual introduction subjects, and since we realized that she was really sound and had similar plans to ours for the day after, we invited her to spend the following day with us going to the hanging monastery and the Yungang Grottoes. She just smiled very wide, and we welcomed her in our small group by handing her a beer.


We arrived in Datong at 6:30 in the morning. After we bargained down a van for the day at 55 kuai per person at the train station tourist information center, the seven of us went for breakfast while Harriet went on a quest for an Hostel. The only restaurant opened at this hour and location only served beef noodles, so I set up on getting something vegetarian-friendly at a convenience store instead while people chewed on their meat meal. Connie, finding a dead cockroach in her bowl a few minutes after having started to eat, ended up following my lead. We met up with Harriet and the tourist information center guy again at eight in the entrance of the hotel the guide had pointed at us. In front of it there was the van, in which a smiling, yet a bit timid driver was already sitting waiting for us to board.
After testing the first (and last) sitting-down toilet of my life that could be converted into a shower, or a bath (a very gross affair), we all embarked on the van and started our trip to our first destination, the hanging monasteries. Matias was still acting fabulous, still drunk, and of course still drinking.

I fell asleep on the ride to the hanging monastery, which was about an hour long. The mountains popped out of nowhere from the until then flat scenery – « like mountains in China always do, because they are so old », as Los-Angeles-Jesse once explained to me. Let me tell you, this place, niched in a turning part of a valley with a river running at the bottom, is just like heaven on Earth. A thin, sinuous abrupt road into the valley leads to it; and suddenly, out of a particularly sharp turn, it pops out in front of your widening eyes. On this side of the mountain, the surface is almost completely vertical, without any cracks or plateaus for at least a good 400 meters of height; this makes it look very slippery. However, the wooden structure, with its seemingly fragile typical Chinese architecture, managed to courageously clung to the rock for the last 1500 years. The thought that its fingers must be damn hurting go through my brain, plastering a smirk on my face as we start climbing towards it. The monastery, I later find out, has rooms that are directly dug inside the sedimentary rock, with many tunnel and labyrinth-like en suites that we tourists unfortunately cannot access. Still, it's a sight to see.

(Yingxian Wooden Pagoda, ft. 小Laura and I)

After a bland meal at a local restaurant and another two hours drive, we get to the second and last place we had planned to visit that day – the Yungang Grottoes. This is just as much, if not more, impressive than the first part. All in all, 51000 Buddhas sculpted out of a mountain rock facade, some 5 centimeters high, some 50 meters high. best part: although one and a half millennium old, many still had colorful paint over them! Worst part: many statues where covered by a thick black cover of black pollution dust, due to the national road running nearby the site. I saw that as a real shame: in Canada, the only tourist attraction we have are the Niagara Falls, and we take care of them as they are the sole jewel around the country's neck; it might be naive on my part, but I feel like if we had something as culturally significant as the Yungang Grottoes in Canada, we would not treat it as badly as the Chinese government does.
But obviously, 'The Government' has other priorities than cultural preservation. That's something anybody who ever heard about the disappearing hutongs dilemma in Beijing understood pretty quickly.

(51000 Buddhas in the rain: Connie, 大Laura, Abbey & 小Laura)

(Lighting Incense sticks, ft. Jinkenh, Abbey and I)

After exploring all the Buddha caves and giving into many more 'woahhs', we drove back to Datong and had some Peking Duck for dinner. Matias had sobered up a bit by then, so of course we thought the best thing to do in order to kill the time before our train back to Beijing was to go out and get wasted.
This is when we hit a technical problem: Datong, although having a population of 3.1 million people, felt much like a ghost town and didn't really have any bars. Therefore, I suggested we go buy many bottles of Tsingtao and go get drunk in Harriet's hostel lobby, since it started to pour out outside again. Matias had already curled up on one of the big chair in the entrance of the restaurant in order to silently dozed off, so I went to wake him up and out we went.
The hostel was one of the most drab I ever went in – that is, it looked more like a one or two stars hotel with bland off-white walls, no decoration and a humid air that seemed to make your clothes cling to your body in the least pleasant way. One of these off-the-road hotels you get in America of which you can know, just from looking at the run-down reception desk, that they are crass dirty with a vermin problem. One of these place that you accept to sleep in only because you are in the middle of nowhere and you don't have any alternative. And in this case, for Harriet, it was the language barrier that made so she indeed was in a situation that did not have any alternative. At this early point in her trip, she didn't know how to say things such as "sorry" or "where are the toilets" in Chinese yet. Can't be blamed, it is the hardest language to learn in the world, after all.

There were three beds in the Hostel room she was staying in, on the 6th floor. Her roommates, which she had never met, were not back from their day's activities yet. Un-bashfully we sat on their beds and started to drink our senses away, playing drinking games and talking about our mutual plans after this. Harriet told me she wanted to go from village to village until she'd reach Shanghai, and then backpack a bit through Southeast Asia – the latter part much like what I wanted to do further in my trip. – and then go work for a year in Australia, another year in New Zealand, then set the cap for South America. I knew then that we could get along in the long run and therefore I asked her if we could exchange emails and numbers.

That's about then that the two other roommates came back in. Two guys – one white and one Asian. They looked like easy-going people and they didn't seem to care much that we had already filled their bedroom floor with empty beer bottles and the likes. They could both speak English, and even decided to join us with our drinking games. Since I was sitting on his bed, I started to talk with the white guy first- David, an Aussie guy who didn't study, just 'took it easy, enjoying life as it came' - like much of the Aussies I had met so far in my life in Hostel thorough Europe. He was a very nice guy, and also was supposed to head north towards Beijing in the next couple of days. Therefore, we exchanged numbers so that we could meet again later in the coming week.

Then, taking out a card from the pack spread face down on one of the beds, Connie stated a new rule for the drinking game where I had to drink every time the Asian guy was drinking, It was the ice breaker for the conversation, and that's how I found out he was Canadian. After a couple other sips from him followed closely by me, I also found out he was quebecois, and French-speaking. And after much, much, much more pijiu, that he had just graduated from studying in engineering at Concordia and that he was the Alain that Carlo had been talking about. What are the odds! We happily chatted about the incredible coincidence that made so that we met, in the small town of Datong, somewhere China, after having heard about each other before from common friends. Had it not been raining, had Da-Laura not bought me a train ticket, had Mathias not been drunk on the train, had we not met Harriet, and had this town not have bars, we would have never met this way. We took pictures together as a reminder of the weird coincidence in which we had met, him holding bottles of Tsingtao and me of the 56% rice alcohol bottles which killed me later on the train in order to prove our friends that it indeed took place in China. Once it was time for us to leave in order to go to the train station, we set up on meeting again in Montreal once I would come back, that is, around Christmas time.

(Alain and I, in case you didn't believe me. Also featuring Mr. Fabulous (Matias))

The ride back was a pain. The only spots that were not sold-out where hard seats instead of the soft sleepers we took on our way to Datong. Therefore, we set up on buying even more three kuai rice alcohol bottles to be able to handle it. Having no chaser at first, I to eat marshmallow to try to erase the intensely disgusting taste from my mouth, but to no avail. I don't recommend rice alcohol to anyone, even though I think my friend Patrick back home would probably love it. I can't tell you to which extent it is an awful concoction, but the closest comparison I could come up with is that it is like going ten times to the dentist in a three second period. But anyways, it did do the job, and made me very, very drunk in a very, very short amount of time. Again, we were really loud and made a lot of « train pengyous », playing cards all night until we passed out from both the heat and the alcohol. The journey was both a real pain in terms of comfort and a lot of fun. I woke up sore all over and it's not exactly with a smile that I greated the bright sun, which decided that it was then the best timing to finally show itself after 3 days of hiding behind the heavy cover of raining clouds. I was to completely skip class that day in order to sleep the pijiu away. After all, it's not in order to see yet another classroom that I decided to expatriate myself on the other side of the world, right?

( Drunk on Baijiu? Bring it on! (We look terrible, don't we?))

Another moral to this story? In case you didn't get this part by now, I heart you, 大Laura.