24/7 Jjimjilbang

On Friday, Jon had to go in to school again so it occurred to me that it was the perfect day to check out a Korean bathhouse. I got a recommendation from his roommate, packed up some toiletries, and headed out.

I’ve been to Russian co-ed bathhouses, all-women bathhouses, and even a Korean bathhouse in America but the ones in Korea are on another level. You can opt for either just the hot tubs and sauna or the entire package which is called jjimjilbang and costed me about $9. A good bathhouse is equipped with a restaurant, TVs, a computer room, an exercise room, spa services, and heated floors for sleeping on.

That’s right, many people go to the bathhouse to nap and you can even spend the night. Since the trains shut down around midnight so partiers will pay the entrance fee just to have a safe place to crash. One of Jon’s friends told me that he had slept in a bathhouse for several weeks while in between apartments.

On entry, you are issued a pair of pants and a shirt, two small towels, and a locker key with an RFID tag. You lock up your shoes at the locker room entry with the key, and use the RFID to access your locker. One towel is for drying off and the other can be used to wrap your hair or to sit on.

I’m pretty comfortable in a locker room but I get a little paranoid about etiquette so I went through some confusion over whether I should don my issued clothing to enter the baths. The solution: spy on the other ladies to figure out how to behave. I quickly confirmed that the outfit is for the lounging part of the experience. Unfortunately, I hadn’t googled how to wrap the hair towel so I gave up on that pretty quickly. Now I know to use the sheep head method– look it up!

After finishing my bath, I wandered around to experience the rest of the jjimjilbang. Sure enough, there were nappers everywhere. I arrived around 1pm and probably saw 40-50 people sleeping on the floor. I found giant saunas that looked like kilns, one of which had a floor of rock salt. There were also massage chairs and books available for reading. I didn’t get a chance to eat (they were out of everything I wanted) but I later found out that they slow-cook eggs in the hottest sauna and sell them for eating. Jjimjilbang is truly a Korean tradition worth experiencing.

Seoul Interpretation

Months ago I downloaded a PDF titled “Learn to Read Korean in 15 Minutes” and the flight to Seoul seemed like the perfect time to give it a read. It would be more accurate to say you can read the PDF in 15 minutes, but it’s actually a surprisingly simple alphabet to pick up. I spent the train ride to Sangsu-dong practicing reading by comparing the Korean and English names for each station as they were displayed on the electronic display.

Just learning to read it won’t take you too far of course, but it can still be very useful. Google Maps was only giving me the station names in Korean, so it was a big help for buying my tickets. I was also able to read English words written in Korean such as “Beer” or “Wine”. Important stuff like that.

With the help of free airport wifi and my new language abilities, I was easily able to navigate the transit system to the neighborhood that my cousin resides in but that is where my navigation skills became insufficient. It turns out that Korean addresses are very confusing. The address I received had no street name. Wandering around the neighborhood I could perceive no clear pattern to the numbering, and ended up far astray.

My confusion stemmed from the lack of a grid system. A major road will have 20+ smaller streets in the area awith the same name appended with a number. The layout somewhat resembles half of a disorganized spider web. Most addresses are located on roads that would more aptly resemble alleyways, and some have no name at all. Houses are identified with their house number and neighborhood, but house numbers are assigned based on which buildings were built first. The official looking sign on his apartment wasn’t even the address – rather the numbers were scratched by the gate in pen. Even Koreans use the popular search app Naver to find their destinations.

I walked about fifteen minutes off target with my bags before settling in at a cafe to message my cousin on Facebook to let him know I was lost. After killing the hours until he returned from his teaching job, I met up with him at Sangsu station. Only to have him lead me exactly to the spot that Google had pinpointed in the first place.

Seoul Fixins

Korea wasn’t high on my list of must-visit countries but fortunately I remembered during trip planning that my cousin Jon has been living there for the last five years. He went there to teach English almost on a whim, and hasn’t left since. My dad and his mom are cousins, and we lived in the same region. I usually saw him a couple of times a year and I’ve always felt affection for him and his brother Guy.

I’m glad I made the visit because I loved Seoul. It’s a bustling, cosmopolitan city. My cousin lives an area called Hongdae which is named after the University located there. It has a lively youthful atmosphere, full of food, music, partying, and most importantly coffee shops. My favorite was The Galapagos, a charming space with a large pet tortoise wandering around.

Seoul has fabulous options for food, mostly around stateside prices but you can get Korean dishes for dirt cheap. Lots of noodle soups, fried things, grilled meats, and kimchi. Food stands abound, and even the late night kebab wrap was delicious.

The only thing I wasn’t thrilled about was oh boy do they like things sweet. One morning I ordered a ham and cheese sandwich thinking it was a safe bet but they added a layer of jam and sprinkled powdered sugar on top. Not what I had in mind. Quite a few of the food stand items I tried were unexpectedly dessert items.

Another surprise was the espresso stands that offer a shot of alcohol with your coffee for takeout. My cousin’s coffee and Jameson was pretty tasty, but not something I’d want to make a habit of. Someone was practicing a little hair of the dog!


I was exhausted after the Great Wall Hike but since it was my last night in Beijing I wanted to at least go out for a drink. I had in mind a little bar called Amilal, hidden down a tiny passageway off of Jiaodaokou. It would be almost impossible to find if they hadn’t put up the brightly lit sign that can be seen from the main street.

Amilal is a charming little bar with a patio and a cat asleep on the bar. They have a nice selection of whiskey, wine, and beer, and I was surprised to see Dead Guy Ale in the fridge.

I walked through the courtyard and up to a bar when a woman who had been drinking wine outside followed me in.

“I’m sorry, the owner has stepped out. I don’t work here but he asked me to look over the bar.”

The owner had run off to handle an art transaction, and left a patron in charge. She apologized profusely but said she could still pour me something if it wasn’t too complicated.

While I was trying to choose between whiskeys, a British man and his friend came in and she explained the situation to them. The woman just wanted a glass of wine, easy. The man saw a British beer in the fridge and ordered a bottle, but insisted that it be served correctly warm. The first-time bartender rummaged around to see if she could find a bottle outside of the fridge, but no luck. After a bit of brainstorming, she heated up some water in a tea kettle and used it to warm the beer.

With the couple finally satisfied, attention was back on me. I asked her if she knew how much the whiskies were, but she had no idea and there was no list. We even checked under the cat. I didn’t want to cause her further duress so I just ordered a glass of wine and joined her with her friend in the patio.

The two women were originally Brits, although the bartender lived in New York for a time. They had attended the same school and had lived in Beijing for five years. One worked for a healthcare related NGO and the other worked with environmental protection. We had a nice long discussion about politics, feminism, and the environment, before I had to hustle back home and pack.

A Great Day For A Wall

On Wednesday, it was finally time to see the Great Wall. There are loads of packages available but I chose to go with Beijing Downtown Backpackers Association (BDBA). Most tourists head over to Badaling because it is the most conveniently located, and it can be crowded. Other options have you doubling back on yourself. The BDBA hike covers the segment between Jingshanling to West Simatai, for about 3 1/2 hours of hiking.

There were about fifteen other people headed out for the Great Wall that morning, but with an 8:30am departure time we weren’t exactly energized yet. The drive would be 3 hours each way, so there was no way I wanted to entertain myself the full trip. Fortunately, The World Cup is a wonderful international ice breaker (after asking about their travels). Even people who don’t watch soccer will usually have some things to say. We had a great mix of nationalities – Netherlands, Spain, Canada, New Zealand, Germany, U.S., France, and Taiwan – so some friendly rivalries were soon struck up.

When we arrived at the Wall we were thrilled to see we had beautiful blue skies. This is not always the case, as I learned a German girl I met on the hike. Even this far away from the city the area can be consumed by smog, ruining the views. That would have been a huge shame, because the views are stunning. The rolling hills, the sky, and the Wall seem to go on forever. My favorite segments were unrestored, and they seemed even more at harmony with the landscape. There were 22 towers on our hike, and each one was unique.

The main group was sluggish, preoccupied with posing for photos, so I soon took off on my own. For a little, anyway. I ran in to a pair of German women who were making the trek solo, and we helped each other with photos and chatted for awhile. A bit further on I bumped in to a Québécois, who was keeping a similar active pace. We became hiking companions for the rest of the trip, keeping up an active discussion about favorite cities, politics, traveling, and anything else we could think of. He also took the lead for negotiating for beers.

After the hike was finished, the ride back home was much quieter. Most of the bus needed a nap after all that exertion. The Québécois and I continued our conversation for the ride home, and then over a nice sidewalk skewer meal before parting ways.

Art Attack

Just before I left New York City, I visited the Brooklyn Museum and experienced the Ai Wei Wei exhibit. His art is grand and provocative, and I wanted more.

Beijing is home to a number of art districts, but Caochangdi is unusual in that rather than artists reclaiming existing spaces, many of the buildings were designed to house art. In fact, they were designed by Ai Wei Wei. I knew I had to visit, even if a part of me strongly resisted the effort it takes to get to outer districts of Beijing.

It took me two trains and a taxi to reach the place, and when the cab driver let me off I had no idea where to start. The village itself looks tiny and rundown and you can’t see a trace of the treasures hidden there. I quickly discovered that my planning efforts were insufficient, and this segment of my visit was almost a failure. I found one gallery, the Amy Li Gallery, which happened to be housed in one of the buildings designed by Ai Wei Wei.

The building itself is gray brick built with soft curves, giving an illusion of motion. There are few windows and doors, but the accents are clean and simple, with a color palette limited to teal, black, and white.

Inside, was a show by Luo Wei intended to address the question “What is an artist?” There were three or four parts to it, but the first section was the most striking. Strange ghost like images, disembodied dolls, x-ray effect lightboxes, and lots of white.

I wandered around a bit longer but couldn’t find anything else that was open that day so with the help of Google Maps I found my way to the only gallery that was a sure bet, Three Shadows Photography Art Centre. Three Shadows is a massive space with a separate smaller building for a featured artist, and it was also designed by Ai Wei Wei. He used the same gray brick for this building but experimented with texture in a completely different fashion. Sections of bricks jut out in relief, creating interesting patterns with more roughness. Other bricks are left out entirely, and I saw a bird slip in to one of these little cubbies.

I would guess there were at least twenty artists on display at Three Shadows, with great representation of different styles, techniques, and personality. One artist created hybrid creatures using multiple exposures, another recreated scenes from her childhood to address her inner demons

When I’d finished at Three Shadows, I popped in to one more studio before grabbing a bus to 798 Art Zone. 798 is the most popular art destination, and the zone is massive. I didn’t actually see that much that interested me, so I made it a mission to track down some interesting street art instead.

While I did find some pieces I liked, I was a little disappointed (but not surprised) to see that street art in Beijing hasn’t evolved to the stage it has in New York and especially London. It’s almost entirely straight up graffiti art, rather than the refined painting techniques and mixed media that have been popping up in other cities. A couple examples worth googling are Vhils and Shok-1.

I didn’t get to see as much of 798 as I would have liked, because I needed to save my feet for the Great Wall trip. I would definitely recommend hitting up both districts, just make sure to plan ahead for Caochangdi so you can actually find things when you are there.

World Cup Mania

For my entire visit to Beijing, I was unable to sleep in past 5:30am. This was the perfect scenario for viewing the 6am World Cup Games so I decided not to mess with it. Sunday morning I took off to find a bar showing the England vs Italy match.

It was more difficult than expected, apparently not many people want to wake up that early. As I wandered down the trendy foreigner street I kept bumping in to the same Chinese woman. Our third encounter she invited me to join her friends. They were a group of old schoolmates who had reconnected at their high school reunion and made plans to meet up that morning.

Only two of them were comfortable speaking English with me, but they were all friendly. One of the women works in HR, and the other is a stop-motion animator. She studied animation in Newport, UK, because she had to be at the birthplace of Wallace & Gromit. I learned that she is an avid climber and her boyfriend was originally her climbing instructor.

After the game ended, not only did I find my bill settled up but they invited me to join them for breakfast. Just my luck, they had a dim sum restaurant in mind. This was the perfect scenario because dimsum does not work well as a solo diner. I gathered my courage and got in a car with strangers, in a country where people are regularly scammed by friendly English-speaking Chinese. Of course I wasn’t actually worried; I’d really enjoyed their company and I’ve never heard of a scammer buying your coffee.

There was almost no English during dim sum but I didn’t mind since as I was happily enjoying my food. There were a few funny moments, one of the women was peppering her language with random Japanese words– not unlike myself as a teenager. I asked her “Nihongo wo hanasemasu?” which threw her in to confusion and it took three people to straighten it out. I also asked if her tattoo was Pusheen but she laughed and said no. It’s a caricature of her own pet cat, but I have to say the resemblance is strong.