Thursday, August 25, 2011

Dried Squid for Breakfast? Yes, Please!

The dried squid was my own fault. I was grocery shopping in Incheon, South Korea, in preparation for my overnight ferry to Jeju, South Korea, and got a little carried away with the weird foods. Having eaten all the "normal foods" of dried fish and noodle bowls for dinner as we left Incheon, I was left with a packet of dried squid staring at me for breakfast. I opted out. I'll keep it in my bag in case of an emergency.

Of course South Korea has weird food - I knew that coming into it. I have eaten some weird stuff on this trip: lamb heart in Urumchi, cow pancreas in Diyarbakir, shark in Iceland, etc., but South Korea, in the first 24 hours, put them all to shame. Food here is downright unidentifiable. In China, I was able to get away with just pointing at stuff and I always left satisfied. My first attempt at this in Incheon got me what I could only imagine to be pig ear soup with some other, totally mesmerizing intestinal wraps. I only wish that I had taken pictures. I ate about half of the soup and then was more than eager to turn my attention to the infamous (but at least known) kim-chi.

Weird food has had it's place on this trip, but I feel like that is all territory that has been covered before in other blogs, books and reality TV shows. I think what's more striking and, maybe less obvious, is how I somehow returned to western Europe by sailing east from China.

This may not have come out fully in my last blog, but China is chaos. Traffic is going in every direction, things are being sold, organisms eaten and lights flashing everywhere you look. People are also everywhere. A typical arrival to any train, bus or ferry station will require picking your way through crowds of hundreds of passengers sleeping on their luggage waiting in line for either a ticket, their train or who knows what. All this chaos and action certainly makes China a very energetic place, but it can be exhausting. I think it would take some time for a westerner to get accustomed to experiencing humanity as it is in China.

But just a few hundred miles across the Yellow Sea, humanity has taken a chill pill. All of a sudden, vehicles and people regard traffic signals. Food is cooked in actual kitchens in restaurants instead of in discarded wheels on the street. You sit in the ferry terminal and you notice that it's strangely quiet. There is adequate seating for the people there and the bathrooms are REAL bathrooms with doors and working plumbing and all. South Korea feels much more similar to Germany than China. As I was walking down the street for the first time in Incheon, i was overcome with relief when I realized that cars stayed in their lanes and respected pedestrians. I feel more at ease here - despite the fact that English is not as pervasive here and I speak zero Korean. (I had made an attempt to learn a few Chinese basics, which helped out a lot.)

But today, walking around Jeju, I noticed that I missed the Chinese chaos a little. Waiting at a crosswalk for the light to turn green felt absolutely ridiculous - there were no cars coming and it was clear that we could cross without getting killed or slowing down anyone else. Nobody else budged though, and I was not feeling inspired enough to upset Korea's more temperate mood by giving them a dose of the wild Chinese street.

I'm here in Jeju, South Korea for a swing dance weekend that starts tomorrow. It will be my fifth international swing dance experience. I had hoped to have had more by now, but I missed the dance in Beijing and Central Asians apparently prefer the salsa of their fellow Latin American socialists to the free-market swing of the USA.

Speaking of Koreans being more temperate and quiet, the girl next to me at the internet cafe is playing some kind of cheesy cartoon game that involves lots of loud cymbal crashes and techno music. She has the volume turned up all the way. I may need to reassess...

Saturday, August 20, 2011


I have been in China for about 11 days now and have had COUNTLESS adventures that have deserved to go up on this blog. Unfortunately, the Chinese authorities don't find it prudent to allow computers in this fine country to be able to connect to blogspot. Ahem.
New Xining with its crane skyline

Friday, I woke up in Xining, China - a city fairly in the center of China and like every other city in this country, gigantic with people everywhere you look. And a lot of those people, I discovered, were trying to move further east just like me. There were no train or planes out of Xining until August 23. I need to be in South Korea for a swing dance event by August 26, so waiting around was not an option. My host had found a way out though.

My host in Xining over dinner

I woke up at about 6:30am after a bad night's sleep. I was anxious about the day to come. My plan that day included a 10 hour bus ride east to Xian, where I would catch a plane two hours after my intended arrival to Beijing. If there were any delays at all in my bus ride, the flight would be compromised and I'd be stuck. 

The first 7 hours of the bus ride as smooth as they could. We were cruising down the four lane, divided highway at 70 miles an hour with hardly any other traffic on the road. Even though transit schedules in China are merely suggestions, I was feeling good about my gamble to get to Xian in time.

Then disaster hit in the form of a detour. For some reason that was not clear to me, the highway was closed and we had to spend about 40 minutes driving very aggresively through city traffic before we could get back on the highway. Later, a long line at a toll station prompted our driver to take a voluntary detour along the old road that hugged cliff faces lining the river in a valley below. Our driver wagered that the time lost in bypassing tunnels and slow going along the windy road was less than the time lost waiting in a toll station line.  Obviously, there was not time for a scientific enquiry into the benefits of the driver's decision.

The result though, after these two detours, was that we were 180 miles outside of Xian 4 hours before my flight was scheduled to depart the airport. My nerves tightened. My head started working all kinds of calculations about how much longer it would take and how many people I'd have to push aside in the security check line.

Every time our driver hit the breaks for a tight turn or for a slow moving truck in front of us, I cursed the obstacle and, for once, cheered when our driver recklessly swerved in and out of lanes, ruthlessly hurrying our arrival. When our driver stopped for a pee break about 60 miles out of Xian, about an hour before my departure time, I was livid. I actually got off the bus to look for a taxi to take me the final stretch. But thankfully, someone pulled me back onto the bus. The brief increase in attention the stunt gave me provided an opportunity to explain my situation. In the best chinese I could muster and by passing around my ticket, I was able to communicate how dire my situation was. One woman spoke a little english and told me after some deliberation amongst themselves, that I should follow the guy sitting next to me. Ok.

It was 9pm, 30 minutes before departure and we were just on the outskirts of Xian. My brain had changed gears, from calculating my arrival time to trying to figure out where to spend the night and how to get a flight out of Xian as soon as possible in order to salvage my weekend of swing dance in South Korea. All of a sudden, the bus pulled over on the side of the highway and my neighbor started pushing me out of the bus. The bus had stopped just short of a highway exit and my neighbor started walking up the ramp, encouraging me to follow. The bus had left. My brain switched gears yet again to figuring out how to avoid getting robbed blind and left in the ditch. But my neighbor was honest. He led me to a road and flagged down a taxi. It was 9:10 and I was on my way to the airport, 10 miles away. I recognized the futility of my mission, but figured I had nothing to lose.

We drove, and drove, and drove. Several times I was convinced that I saw the lights of a runway, but was let down. Cities in China are just too big. You'd be amazed.

But finally, I started seeing signs for the airport and suddenly we were there at Terminal 2. I fled the cab at 930, not having seen any planes take off during our approach the airport: A tiny ember of hope emerged from the ashes.

As I ran to the ticket counter, I glanced at the departure board and saw that my flight had been delayed to 9:50 and that they were boarding! My heart skipped several beats. I handed the ticket and passport to the woman at the ticket counter, expecting her to hand it back to me and apologize for not letting me board so late, but instead, she looked up at me and told me, "I'm sorry, but this flight has been delayed. You'll have to wait an hour or so in the terminal."

This was the best "bad news" I think I've ever heard. I passed through the security check elated and sauntered up to Gate number 8, full of agitated passengers and flustered airline agents. I had made it. The airline even gave me a free meal to compensate for the delay. HA!

I ended up in Beijing at 3 am, which was not ideal, but at least I made it. It was intense day and luck was definitely on my side. But I still have a train trip and two ferry rides before I get to Jeju, South Korea, so it's not over yet.


Monday, August 8, 2011

Taking the Train in Kazakhstan

It's raining in Almaty, Kazakhstan today, which has given me a nice opportunity to update the blog. I've had really good luck with weather so far on this trip - the is the first rain day I've had in over a month.

I've had some pretty memorable experiences on trains in Kazakhstan in the past two weeks I've been here. As you'll remember, I was thwarted from taking a train across the steppe from Aktau to Shymkent so I was very excited as I stood on the platform in Shymkent, valid ticket in hand, ready to board the train for Taraz.

Passenger trains are few and far between in Kazakhstan. The train station in Shymkent (Kazakhstan's third largest city) only had two platforms and saw about 12 passenger trains come through per day. So, when two trains pulled up at the same time, I was a little perturbed that they had to make this seemingly simple task of getting on the train to Taraz more complicated. I started asking people around me which was the train to Taraz and, fairly confident that the two people I talked to were right, presented my ticket to the train steward on the second platform to confirm I had made the right choice. He waved me on, I found my seat and settled in with my book for the four hour ride to Taraz.

But, about 20 minutes after we left, a group of three ticket checkers came through the cabin and, upon inspecting my ticket, excitedly expressed that something was not right. It turned out that I was on the train to Tashkent, Uzbekistan - not Taraz.

Dusty road in Taraz similar, but not identical, to my walk of shame after getting kicked off the train to Tashkent. 

I was very frustrated. How could three people all have pointed me to the wrong train? Why was the ticket steward who let me on the train and was part of the group informing me that I was bound for Tashkent not fessing up and apologizing? Of course, he left me out to dry as the dumb American. I can't imagine the consequences of me showing up at the Uzbekistan border without a visa and unable to explain myself.

I got out at the next train stop after spending fivec minutes as the center of attention in the carriage. I hopped off the train and followed a dusty road across the Steppe to a main highway about half a mile from the train station. Luckily, I was able to flag down a bus going to Shymkent within a few minutes. In Shymkent, I found a bus that got me to Taraz faster and cheaper than the train, but the driver played was playing bad, loud dance music at full blast the whole ride. It made me miss my train to Uzbekistan.

A few days later, now set and determined to have a proper train ride across the Kazakh steppe, I boarded the train in Taraz bound for Kazakhstan's largest city, Almaty. I checked FOUR times to make sure that this train (at the time, the only train in the station) was in fact going to Almaty. The "Almaty" sign in the window, the confirmations of several stewards and the people I shared my cabin with all confirmed that I was, in fact, on the right train.

But that didn't stop me from having further adventures on the Kazakhstan rail network.

I shared my cabin with an Uzbek man headed ultimately for St. Petersburg, Russia and an older couple who were going to a spa for a week long vacation. The woman took interest in me and, as she spoke a little English, served as my spokesperson for the trip. At one point, she pulled out her cell phone and made a call. She spoke in Kazakh for a few minutes before handing me the phone. Her daughter was on the line and had all sorts of questions for me about the US and what I was doing in Kazakhstan. Moments after I took the phone, her parents exited the cabin, leaving me alone with the Uzbek (now drunk and passed out on the bed above me) and their young, very much SINGLE daughter.

Interesting brick work on a house in Taraz. I can't tell if this is supposed to be artistic or laziness. Artistic expression is rare here, from what I can tell.
After ten minutes of talking to this girl, her parents came back, giving me an excuse to hand back the phone. Her mom went on and on telling me how beautiful she was, that she was 22 and needed to find and husband and -oh! wasn't her English just so good?

I made many attempts to make it clear that I had a girlfriend back home and that I wasn't interested in her daughter. Kazakhs don't really seem to have an understanding of "girlfriends" though. It seems that inter-gender relations here are either familial or matrimonial - not much space in between for friends or girlfriends or the like.

Avoiding the marriage sack, I stepped out of my cabin into the corridor to watch the endless Kazakh steppe slip by us. After a few minutes of soaking in the fact that I was finally on a train across Kazakhstan, the door behind me opened and a Kazakh man looked up and asked, "Amerikanski?" I nodded yes and he waved me excitedly into his cabin saying "Also Amerikanski!" It seemed I was not the sole American on this train after all.
Turns out I was. The Kazakh, in his excitement, seems to have confused the Ugandan in his cabin for an American. Kazakhs don't have much experience with black people so I can imagine how he might have mistaken the Ugandan for an American. The Ugandan turned out to be Andrew Mwesigwa, a soccer player for the team in Shymkent on his way to meet his family in Almaty. He explained that he wouldn't want his family to suffer through a train ride as the lone black people, unable to communicate at all. I saw firsthand the unwanted attention he gets in Kazakhstan - not as a soccer player, but just as a black person - when a group of kids came up trying to take his picture. Few people in Kazakhstan have ever seen a black person live and up close before.

A few hours later, sharing a cab ride into Almaty from the train station, I learned that Andrew was also the captain of the Ugandan national soccer team! What?! He made me promise to watch him in the African Cup next year. I told him that the last person I had expected to meet in Almaty was the captain of the Ugandan soccer team. He was a really nice guy.

There were more shenanigans on the train, like they guy who offered to fight the drunk Kazakh for me, or the guy who offered to buy my iPhone off of me for $100. When I refused, he asked if I could send him back two once I got to the US. One of the train stewards shared a melon with me while speaking to me in Kazakh, persistent that if he only spoke loud enough, I would eventually understand him. He lost interest in me after a few minutes of non-comprehension so he sent me back to my cabin.
Tonight, I get on the train to Urumqi, China - my longest train trip yet at 31 hours. I'm going to have to stock up on food before I go. This trip will be sure to yield plenty of more stories, too, which I'll be happy to post later.