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.

Party Like A Westerner

I mentioned earlier that Noel & Jonathan do a lot of entertaining, and a large part of that is providing the American experience for their Chinese friends. This means throwing five Thanksgiving dinners, and enough Christmas parties to entertain almost two hundred guests. They have these events down to a science. Each Christmas party takes exactly two hours with a thirty minute break in between to undecorate the tree and set fresh gifts under it.

This works well because parties of the Western style do not exist in China. A program is mandatory; without one people will just stand around wondering when the party is starting. Their parties are more like learning sessions with very specific requirements: trim the tree, explain American Christmas traditions, eat Christmas treats, hold a white elephant gift exchange, read the Christmas story. Within five minutes of the last program item ending the entire group clears out.

On Sunday night Noel was throwing a birthday party for her Chinese friend Monica who had never celebrated her birthday before. Monica is boisterous and cheerful, always laughing and enjoying herself. The guests were myself, another church friend, and a woman visiting from another part of China.

True to formula, Noel had a plan. While I chatted with the other guests (both Americans), Monica and Noel created the decorations and cooked dinner and dessert. We went around the circle and each said something we like about Monica. When the visiting woman had to leave, Noel made sure that Monica understood that the party was still going and she musn’t go home. Games and dessert completed the evening. Not a minute went by where Monica did not know exactly what was expected of her.

Over coffee the next morning, I got to hear more details about how their event planning has changed over the years. The first time they did the gift exchange none of the guests understood the directions and they brought gifts for the hosts instead. Many of them took it personally when the gifts they had carefully chosen for their hosts were given to other guests. They also discovered that their guests didn’t actually seem to like turkey, so she started making only one and just giving each guest a bite. This was a relief since a turkey in Beijing can cost upwards of a hundred dollars.

In the five years they’ve lived in Beijing, they have only successfully integrated one friend in to a Western style party. They were teaching English at the time, and they invited their friend Jimmy to join a Christmas party with their fellow teachers. They explained what he should expect but he still spent the first part of the evening standing to the side waiting patiently. Noel was eventually able to get through to him by explaining that while he may be feeling awkward, anyone standing alone is probably feeling the same. Going up to them to start a conversation is like giving them a gift of companionship. She gave him a few lines to work with, and he ran with it by himself for the rest of the night.

Musical Interlude

Noel & Jonathan are well established in Beijing and it seemed like every day they were either hosting or invited to something. Often, I was invited to participate. On Saturday when I asked them about extending my stay they said “Of course!” and invited me to see a performance of Fiddler on the Roof Jr.

The play turned out to be a pretty special experience. A friend of theirs from church is employed at the Beijing Experimental School and had devoted the last three months to working on this production with her students. The kids had worked hard to create the costumes, sets, and learn their lines. When you consider that none of them spoke English as a first language it was especially impressive.

Watching a group of Chinese teenagers acting the parts of such a foreign culture was undeniably amusing. It was with great effort that I refrained from cracking up, but my hosts were both consumed with giggles. As they performed “The Wedding Dance,” Noel joked that this would start a new rage of Chinese kids incorporating Jewish traditions in to their weddings.

All the kids sang and acted well, but the boy who played Tevye stole the show. He affected a particularly strong accent, exaggerated movements, and had impeccable comedic timing. Coupled with the goofy fake beard it was entertainment gold.