Marble Tears

Agra is the best and worst of India in one place.  The city is home to the Taj Mahal, a magnificent site that is absolutely stunning and truly exceeds expectations, especially when one grows up seeing pictures of it in books and on the Discovery Channel.  The eponymous Agra Fort, arguably India’s best preserved fort, and several other smaller mausolea, temples, and parks call the city home.

However, the city is part of the so-called Golden Triangle, including Delhi and Jaipur, which marks the typical tourist path in north India.  As the principal site for foreigners in the entire country, the touts are relentless.  I like to think myself good at simply smiling and ignoring, or politely saying no with a wave of the hand, but after a while, one begins to get a little annoyed.  “I just want this jade (not jade) elephant (made in Taiwan) for 10 rupees, not 15!”

Frustration aside, the Taj Mahal is one the world’s beautiful treasures.  Kipling called it “the embodiment of all things pure” as it basked in the jasmine glow of the setting sun.  The Taj is beauty and decadence entwined in one, ivory inlaid in marble.

From Agra, another train, to the famed Rajasthan of princely lore.

A shorter train than the last one; this time, a 12-hour overnight trip from Varanasi to Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal

I first viewed the Taj from across the river Yumuna, the same river that runs through Delhi, in a park at sunset

Approaching

Though it is monsoon season, the river is shallow here

Pink and darkness

The next morning, I wake before sunrise to view the Taj from its traditional westward entrance

So many people, Indians and Europeans alike

Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore described the Taj Mahal as “a teardrop on the face of eternity”

Sun rising

Before the inward exodus

On the actual Taj Mahal platform, one is not allowed to wear shoes

Mosque on the north side of the platform

The next day, I visit some of Agra’s other sites. With moisture on my camera lens, I approach the Agra Fort, my favorite fort in India

This man would not stop haranguing me about being from America, asking me to explain every decision the country has made. Uhh bye.

Large battlements

UNESCO sign

Inside the Agra Fort

Desolate

Morning view of the Taj from the Agra Fort

View of the walls

Gardens

The interior of the fort is large and spacious

Quiet

The back part of the Agra Fort is blocked off to tourists and is reserved for training of the Indian military

Side view of one of the pavilions

Sandstone red

Me in front of ruins at the Agra Fort

I also visited Itmad-Ud-Daulah’s Tomb, affectionately known at the Baby Taj, a 20 minute auto-rickshaw ride from the Taj Mahal

Agra (and India) is full of historic and beautiful mausolea like the Baby Taj

This “hotel” is the closest one to the main gate of the Taj Mahal – perfect for waking up and visiting before dawn – but it was rough, even more than I have been accustomed to

Lunch of pakora – fried onions, potatoes, carrots, and cauliflower – an incredibly popular street snack across the subcontinent

Nordic backpackers share the narrow “lanes” with everybody and everything in Agra

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Elephant and Stream

Varanasi is a crumbling city.  Built upon the west bank of the river Ganges, the city slides, slowly, serenely, into the cinereal waters.  Narrow boats slip between pilgrims and palaces to reach the holy ghats, the Hindi word for steps leading down to water.  On some ghats, the dead are burned in massive pyres, filling the narrow alleys with sweet smells of spices, wood, and flowers.  Lord Shiva is said to have founded the city and placed his mighty trident beneath its earthen foundation; the city is sacred for Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists.

I arrived here after a 14-hour overnight train ride from Delhi.  Negotiating an auto-rickshaw ride in India is always an unusual experience for foreigners, as one haggles over what amounts to be a sliver of a single USD.  Arriving at the hostel, with a room and balcony overlooking the Ganges, I turn south – the city appears muted against the harsh glare of the wide river.  Pinks and greens and blues melt to the blinding white of the sun and the sandstone buildings turn the same ash color of the river.  After the sunset, however, the color once again reemerges, set amidst thousands of candles floating in the river on flower wreaths and the hum of even more pilgrims bathing and chanting in the water.

Varanasi, halcyon and smooth, rests as it has for millennia, as the spiritual and the curious walk its ancient steps.

So bright outside – first view of hostel after 14 hour train tide from Delhi

Across

Room balcony overlooking the Ganges

Hungry and thirsty

Exploring the ghats, a South Asian term for steps leading down to a holy water source

Crumbling yet colorful

Escaping the heat by the river

Unusual water tower structure jutting into the Ganges

The famed Dashashwamedh Ghat. According to legend, Lord Brahma sacrificed 10 horses in a sacred ritual on this spot. I return here later at night.

Flowers and incense to set upon the river at dusk

Slowing sliding into the muddy flats of the Ganges

Busy temple

Chaotic and colorful

Don’t wait for others to let you cross or else you never will

Tea salesman

Dramatic prayer flag shot

Sunset

Back at Dashashwamedh Ghat, people gather for a festival

Candles set upon floating wreaths of flowers

Yes, OK

Gathering for the show

Rooftop dinner

Chapati, biryani, vegetables, and sauces

The next morning, I wake before sunrise to take a boat ride on the Ganges as the morning glow lights the sinking city and the devout wash themselves in the holy river

Negotiation a price as the boatboy sits at the boy

Sunrise

Paddling east

Boats and the holy

Busy

I visited Varanasi during monsoon season; here, the water marks itself high upon the riverfront buildings

Others enjoying the city light up

Bathing in the (not-so-clean) river

Hindus believe it is auspicious to die in Varanasi. The dead are sometimes covered in linen, weighted with stones, and thrown into the holy Ganges. However, the ropes often break, leading to bodies of the dead floating slowly down the lazy river.

People and boats alike awash in the morning light

Varanasi is especially popular with Israeli tourists, especially those finishing their mandatory military service

Sign

Breakfast of shakshuka and chai; good, but the dish is better in Israel

Another night, another train; this time, 12 hours from Varanasi to Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal

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The Rajpath

Last summer I read William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns. Part travelogue, part love affair with his favorite city, Mr. Dalrymple discusses his six-year sojourn in the Indian capital, Delhi. The city is said to be the eight iteration of a long line of past cities to inhabit this particular spot on the shifting bank of the River Yamuna. Depending on whom you ask, however, the crumbling ruins date back to twenty former cities. “Though it had been burned by invaders time and time again, millennium after millennium, still the city was rebuilt,” Mr. Dalrymple writes, as “the djinns loved Delhi so much they could never bear to see it empty or deserted.”

I landed at Indira Gandhi International Airport at 17:30 local time following the now-discontinued American Airlines flight 292 nonstop from Chicago. Greatly expanded and modernized for the start of the 2010 Commonwealth Games, the airport hummed with voices, people from across the subcontinent descending upon their once and future capital.

To say Delhi is frenetic would be a mischaracterization. The Indian capital teems with bicycles, rickshaws, beggars, the devout of several religions, the horribly maimed, gaunt children swatting flies from their brows, people selling the distinctive South Asian flatbread naan, wealthy women dressed in silk and lace and gold, dogs, a few chickens, and sweaty men hawking maps and car parts and sweet Indian deserts made of butter, sugar, yogurt, and apricots. And cows. The horns of a thousand cars and of even more tuk-tuks fill the wet and heavy air, smelling of petrol. There is a certain smell in developing countries, the mixture of humidity and gasoline, combusted by auto-rickshaws and chicken buses and cars-that-were-only-supposed-to-hold-five-but-now-seat-eleven. You can smell it in Cairo, in Guatemala City, and definitely in Delhi.

Very few cities can claim as much extant history as Delhi. Tombs of Mughal emperors leave a lasting imprint upon the architecture of the city. Humayun’s Tomb challenges even the Taj Mahal for the most intricate and beautiful mausoleum. Great forts of ages past – the crumbling Purana Qila (Old Fort) and Delhi’s most visited site, the Red Fort – speak of a bygone time when camels and men swept eastward across the Indus Valley, bringing with them the strange things called coffee and Islam. The nation’s national symbol, the India Gate which marks the death of 90,000 Indians who fought for the British Raj in World War I, and the Birla Bhivan, the spot on which Mahatma Gandhi was killed and uttered his final words – “oh Raam” (“oh God”) – mark India’s sometimes turbulent capitulations into modernity. Mr. Dalrymple describes this unusual layering effect of Delhi’s distant past and recent past as “a city disjointed in time, a city whose different ages lay suspended side by side as in aspic.”

Delhi was not my favorite city upon arrival. It was dirty and hectic to the point of exhaustion. Lately, I have given thought to Mr. Dalrymple’s ardent fervor for this place in north India. Under a copper sky, one can see the illuminations of past visions of Delhi dating back to the famed Indraprastha of the great Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata.  Even in British-designed New Delhi, crumbling mosques and ruins built a thousand years prior obscure a view of the golf course. Delhi is chaotically resplendent, beautiful and bizarre in its own unkempt and unrestrained way. Just as the Hindus believe a body is reincarnated until it becomes perfect, Delhi too has been razed and rebuilt, cities upon cities upon cities, seemingly fated to one day reach its crowning state. It is on its way.

The now discontinued 15-hour nonstop flight from Chicago to Delhi

Almost there?

Landing in the Indian capital

Oh hey, Mohandas

My hostel was right near the Red Fort, Delhi’s most visited site

The exterior

The PM addresses the nation every year on Indian Independence Day (August 15) from the Red Fort

Everywhere

Foreigners pay 250 Rs. (4.5 USD) while Indians pay 10 Rs. (about .18 USD)

Color and human profusion outside the Lahore Gate, the main entrance to the Red Fort

The path into the fort is now lined with (junk) shops

Further in

As the ruins crumbled, at least the lawns were well kept

The fountains are turned off in overwhelming heat of monsoon season

Nice gardens

Taking a rest

Exploring

This type of Mughal architecture – arched entrances around the sides of a building, inlaid ivory, and understated minarets – came to define classical Delhi

The map of the complex

Making my way out

Outside the Red Fort, trying to find a ride across town

Auto-rickshaws abound in Delhi

Curious onlookers

The driver stopped for water…

…and petrol. Here is a shot of the entire tuk-tuk as we wait for it to be gassed

Made it to Humayun’s Tomb, my favorite site in Delhi

Mughal rulers entombed within Delhi have such elaborate mausolea

Huge

Sandstone and ivory

Humayun’s actual tomb; he died in 1556

Me at Humayun’s Tomb

The Lotus Temple is a recently constructed Bahá’í Temple. I have been to the Bahá’í HQ in Haifa, Israel.

Another auto-rickshaw…

Safdarjung’s Tomb is another site of an entombed Mughal ruler, though his mausoleum is far less visited than more famous ones

Small yet stately

Incredible detail

Still, the premises could use some upkeep

The Purana Qila, or the Old Fort, was the inner citadel of one of Delhi’s past incarnations

Grand entrance

Huge, ruined halls

Mosques centuries old that are barely visited today

Ah yes, OK

Again, crumbling ruins set amongst pleasing gardens

The Qutub Minar is a UNESCO site that dates back 800-2000 years ago

The base of the mighty Qutub Minar

It really is gigantic, especially considering the tower was built over 800 years ago

Farsi prayers inscribed on the middle reaches of the Qutub Minar tower

Me at the India Gate, built by the British to mark the 90,000 Indians who died fighting in World War I

Soldiers

Vendors abounded near the base of the India Gate

The Rajpath is the road connecting the India Gate with the President’s house, the Rashtrapati Bhavan, and the Indian Parliament

Parliament

The legislature of the world’s largest democracy

A sidestreet market in New Delhi

Vendor

Connaught Place is a massive roundabout marking the center of British-designed New Delhi

The Delhi Metro is new and comfortable and is absolutely packed with everyone but foreigners

Leaving the Metro, making my way back to the hostel

Delicious

In my final few hours before embarking on a train to Varanasi in the east, I visited the Jama Masjid, the largest mosque on the subcontinent

Men must wear pants and women must be covered up ever more; shoes are not permitted, either

A dark sky frames the mosque

Sandstone

The devout and the homeless share shade

Me and children

Walking around the Jama Masjid

My hostel was on this street

Hungry

In a cycle-rickshaw to the train station

I don’t think I’ve ever been as hot as I was at the Delhi Central Train Station

14 hours to Varanasi…

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Portugal’s Napoleon Complex

The sound of rain hitting the siding of the ship almost drowns out the footsteps on the metal plank. People begin to stow their luggage as attendants hand out immigration cards. Located about 40 miles to the east of Hong Kong, Macau is China’s other Special Administrative Region (SAR). The city-states function essentially as independent countries and maintain international borders between themselves and China proper. On my final day in the South China Sea before returning to Beijing, I boarded a ferry from Hong Kong to explore the former Portuguese colony.

Macau served as Portugal’s last holdout in Asia until 1999, when it was handed back to China. Portugal’s other former Asian strongholds, Goa and Malacca, had long before been claimed by neighboring powers. As the final stop on the eastern sojourn from Lisbon, Macau became the terminal destination for many of the Crown’s conquered people. The Lusophone was at its peak in Macau – Brazilians brought açaí, Africans from Mozambique brought spices, Indians from Goa brought basmati, and Malaysians from Malacca brought Javanese noodles. Globalization, for better or worse, became an economic and political reality in Macau, 300 years before the British wrested Hong Kong from the Chinese.

Less than twelve square miles, Macau is exceptionally small and can very easily be covered on foot. While not well-known in the West, Macau is the world’s gambling mecca. With annual profits that eclipse Las Vegas’, the SAR attracts (mostly mainland Chinese) tourists from all over Asia that come to enjoy many of the vices outlawed in other parts of continent. While the city is almost exclusively known for gambling, the old city is one of the most fascinating I’ve visited. At the end of day, I found myself wishing Macau, along with its unusual blend of cultures and people, was larger.

The Portuguese influence is everywhere: cobbled back streets, baroque churches, stone fortresses, art deco buildings and restful parks and gardens. It’s a unique fusion of East and West that has been recognized by UNESCO, which in 2005 named 30 buildings and squares collectively as the Historic Centre of Macau World Heritage Site. Grand mansions and cobblestone roads are filled with Buddhist temples, Catholic churches, jade sellers, incense houses, and the sounds of clicking chopsticks and songbirds in a grand and lofty city that was built to resemble Lisbon. The old downtown of candy-colored colonial buildings, banyan trees, narrow hilly streets, and low-key neighborhood restaurants serve as living vestiges of the nearly 500 year Portuguese rule. The unique blend of Chinese and Portuguese culture, architecture, and food are irresistible for the peripatetic traveler.

A city with two faces, it is this fusion of Mediterranean and Asian peoples, lifestyles, temperaments, and food that makes Macau such an interesting place.

After waiting out the rain a bit at the international ferry terminal, I took a cab to Macau's central plaza


I used my (very limited) Portuguese!


At Macau's Plaza do Senado. Though the city is a gambling mecca with annual revenues quite a bit higher than Las Vegas, Macau is full of vestiges of Portuguese colonialism.


Candy-colored buildings all throughout the SAR make Macau a really neat place


The Macanese flag!


Trying to find St. Paul's Church...


The Plaza do Senado is completely tiled with black and white wave pattens


Catholicism, unlike neighboring Hong Kong or the PRC, continues to play a strong role in Macanese society - thanks colonialism!


Winding streets


Had some Macanese noodles flavored with coconut milk, turmeric, pulled pork, and African spices. Macau was heavily influenced by the other Portuguese colonies in Africa and India. Many of these people were indentured and traveled to Macau from Mozambique and Goa and fused their own cuisines with the Chinese.


Cloudy and pretty desolate day - perfect for exploring


Once a home for a Portuguese governor, now a court


Inside the "Portuguese Museum"


This cured pork is amazing. From these large sheets, it's cut into strips. Again, lots of African spices make these awesome snacks.


Narrow


There is is - the ruins of St. Paul's Church


Built in 1602 by Italian Jesuits, the church (and the rest of the walled city) was destroyed in a typhoon and an ensuing fire in 1835, leaving only this impressive façade

At the top of hill facing away from the ruins, one can see modern Macau. The Hotel Lisboa can be seen in the distance.


Profile


Some of the walls of the old city remain


Oh, ni hao 你好

The ruins of St. Paul's Church are a UNESCO site; here, a parting shot


Just passing by

I love these buildings

A tiny temple behind St. Paul's Church


Wandering


Empty park


The Eastern Foundation...?

Like moss in a stone crack, people live near and on colonial ruins


A lonely graveyard on a rainy day


Mailbox


Mansion


I liked this store - the owners kept talking to me in Cantonese and ending up giving me some of their pork strips for free


I love slowing walking through these streets


Coconuts painted with Chinese characters


Very narrow between homes


Like a more run-down version of Lisbon


Street vendors are pretty much my favorite


Stately


More pastel-colored plazas


Government building. As Macau is technically a SAR like Hong Kong, it enjoys a huge degree of autonomy from the mainland


Deserted pathways


Cool tree


In different senses of the words, old meets new


Trash can sign!


Jorge Álvarez, the first Portuguese explorer to reach Macau in 1513, is memorialized in the commercial district of the SAR


In the distance, the Macau Tower. Apparently the locals overwhelmingly dislike it, as it it just another attempt by local authorities to turn their city into a gaudier version of Las Vegas.


Tiled sign


Having walked over two miles, I finally reached the best preserved mansion in the city. Here, the circular entryway.


Decorated wood portico


I want to live here


Central green space


Now, trying to find my way out...


Macanese life


The the southern tip of the Macau Peninsula, the A-Ma Temple pays homage to the Taoist goddess Matzu, the protector of seafarers.


Lighting incense


Praying


Like in HK, circular incense makes the area really hot!


Open and large circular windows


The land across the water is China, essentially a different country, as Macau, like HK, has an international border between itself and the PRC.


Finding a cab back to the ferry terminal was really difficult...back to Hong Kong, and from there, Beijing

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Into the Fragrant Harbor

Suddenly there was blue.  A sky patched with a few ivory clouds gave way to verdant hills and cerulean waters.  In the distance, one could make out the faint outline of the skyline; down below, the world was lost in a forever blue abyss.  The sound of zippers and the click of pens – passports and immigration cards emerged as the plane began its downward arc.  The late afternoon sun was blinding as China Eastern 503 from Shanghai-PuDong touched down on the runway – farewell, China.  “Ladies and gentlemen, we have arrived at Chek Lap Kok International Airport.  Welcome to Hong Kong.”

Hanging under the belly of the People’s Republic in the mouth of the Pearl River Delta, Hong Kong is an unusual place.  Officially referred to as a Special Administrative Region (SAR), it is de jure part of China but in reality, it is far from such.  Hong Kong has a Beijing-appointed governor, but its citizens enjoy a wide array of freedoms and civil liberties not found on the mainland.  Hong Kong is among the freest capitalist economies on the planet, a far cry from even the not-really-Communist-anymore guys up north.  It has a partially democratically-elected legislature (with a fully democratic one being phased in over the next several years), maintains an international border between itself and China, can join world bodies independent of its overlord, mints its own currency, and has a separate immigration, visa, and customs regime.  PRC citizens need a special permit to travel to the SAR and it was not until 2004 that PRC citizens could visit the city without a government-organized group.

Hong Kong is one of the most iconic and well-known cities in the world.  Traditional Chinese junk boats ply Victoria Harbour alongside ferries as supertankers from the Gulf and cruise ships bound for Bangkok and Osaka lay idle in the distance.  Cantonese, an odd sounding language related to Mandarin that also flies under the banner of “Chinese,” seems out of place spoken under signs for quays, carriageways, and WCs.  The jewel in the British Empire’s East Asian crown, Hong Kong sits geographically on a peninsula physically part of the Chinese mainland as well as on a series of islands, most famously the aptly-named Hong Kong Island. 

On the southernmost tip of Kowloon peninsula facing Hong Kong Island, the hectic Tsim Sha Tsui area is the embodiment of that vapid cliché “East meets West” but also of the entire SAR:  Sheratons and herbalists, Guccis and Indian hawkers, Earl Grey and coconut water, and Sunday morning buffets and durian fruit stalls all coexist here.  It’s artery, Nathan Road, is a never-ending flow of foreigners and developing-world migrants, each seeking something different in a city tinged with a drop of Asia.

After all, Hong Kong is as much Milan as it is Minsk.

After four amazing days in the Chinese capital Beijing, we left for Hong Kong via Shanghai. From the Tsim Sha Shui (TST) promenade facing south towards HK Island.

Obligatory pose

Mi madre

One of the last physical remnants of the Crown on the TST promenade


HK may not be my favorite place, but sunset produces one of the best views in the world

The HK version of Hollywood Boulevard; here is Jackie Chan's handprints.


Bruce Lee


Zoomed in on the eastern part of Hong Kong Island near the area called "North Point." So many Japanese companies!


Leaving the TST promenade at nightall, we head up Nathan Road, the main commercial artery of the district. Unlike Orchard Road in Singapore, Nathan is full of high-class Western stores as well as more traditional elements, from herbalists to durian vendors


Dried roots and seeds


Dried anchovies . Hong Kong uses its own currency, not the Chinese renminbi. HK$8 = USD$1


The next morning, we get up early for a long (and hot) day of exploring HK Island (in the distance)

In front of HK Island


A tribute to Hong Kong cinema, much of which is immensely popular in the PRC. Yay capitalism.


Boarding the Star Ferry to cross Victoria Harbour. This has to be the best cost-to-value ride of anywhere - HK$2 (25 cents in USD) for a boat ride across one of the most iconic places on the planet


Our incoming boat


Crossing


From the ferry pier, we walked to the Peak Tram, the colonial cablecar that takes people up to the top of Victoria Peak


Hello colonialism - the St. James Cathedral


The view from the top of the Peak. HK is often considered the most vertical city in the world due to space constraints.


In the other direction, tankers from the Gulf wait


Lots and lots of boats waiting for port clearance


After the Peak, we took a cab to a town called Aberdeen on the south side of Hong Kong Island. The world's largest floating restaurant, the aptly-named Jumbo Restaurant, is here.


After lunch, we paid a boat-woman to take us around Aberdeen's infamous harbour, filled with traditional boat people live and work entirely on their ships


Amid the glass and steel, a glimmer of traditional HK life


More


Leaving Aberdeen, I noticed a sign for a tour guide...in Hebrew! !מתל–אביב...להונג–קונג

Back from HK Island, we seek out the Peninsula for the famous (and a necessary evil as a foreigner) tea time


We waited for about an hour - but the tea and snacks make it worthwhile


Evidence

Later that night, a walk down busy Nathan Road to...


...the nightly laser show. The skyline of Hong Kong Island as viewed from the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade.

Blurry, but you can sort of see the lasers on the top of the buildings


The next day, we took a massive walking tour of the central and western parts of HK Island. In the Admiralty district, I was getting juice made from...


...rambutans (the "hairy fruit")


Up narrow streets


We found our way to a traditional dim sum house. With signs only in Cantonese, we were the only Westerners there. As ladies like this come by, you pick the dim sum you want its recorded on a card.


View of the busy restaurant


Off to find the snake store


Two young people came in while we were taking pictures. The man grabbed a snake from the wire cage, cut with a knife, and then drained some blood into a white fluid. The people drank it like a shot - nothing like warm snake blood!


All kinds of birds' nests


I love signs


Ambling to the western coast of Hong Kong Island


Neat sign


Used in Chinee traditional medicine; also sighted in Beijing


The famous Cat Street, a narrow alley in the SW part of HK Island that sells all sorts of knick-knacks and gaudy Chinese stuff. Apparently selling on the street in front of the actual stores is illegal - the police officers make the stall owners "shut down" but really it's just a coded message for "wait till I'm gone."


Hanging ornaments on Cat Street


Nearby is the Man Mo Temple. Man Tai and Mo Tai were gods thought to bestow academic prowess and were worshipped by students.


Circular incense on the roof


Local art


Pressing sugar cane into a drink (had some in Korea - it's good!)


Bamboo scaffolding doesn't seem too safe...

The world's longest escalator transits people who live in the Mid-Levels but work further down the slope


Signs from the escalator


Bamboo


The Yuen Po Bird Market, a place where local traders come to buy and sell songbirds, a symbol of luck in Chinese traditionalism


Oops


Crickets for sale


For sale


Lots for sale - where do they go at night?


Durians are known for their putrid odor (they are banned on the Singapore MRT!) but after having one as a pancake in Kuala Lumpur, they actually are pretty good


Fish, also a lucky animal, for sale at the Lei Yu Mun Fish Market


The next day, we went to Hong Kong's largest island, Lantau, to take the cable car to the world's largest Buddha


The wait for the car


Going up


Glass bottom!

The view of the airport from the ride up

The entire ride took about 30 minutes

A sign pointing to world monuments upon arriving at the top


View of the Buddha


In front of one of many statues encircling Buddha

The sun actually came out

Buddha's birthday was a few days before, so lots of incense sticks lay on the stone stairs and around these heavy torches

The nearby Po Lin Monastery


Incense holder


Neat sign


Inner circular door to the main complex


The shrine to Buddha


Praying to Buddha in the distance


Bye, Buddha! 再见!

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Flash and Fervor

The glimmer of glass and steel competes against the buzz of neon signs.  Hushed streets, whispering of a bygone age of monks and swordsmen, intersect the city.  Asymmetrical beauty – a Korean vision for planning their once and future capital – create winding passages in decorated palaces.  The mountains and the Han River provide a fitting backdrop for the Hermit Kingdom.  Long isolated from the world but pushed into the global economy by the edge of a blade, South Korea is now one of the most developed countries in world, rivaling the West and even its former imperial ruler Japan for international accolades. Seoul, its gleaming capital, has emerged as one of the leading financial centers in Asia, one of the most populous cities in the world, and one of the greenest and most eco-friendly metropolitan areas on the planet.

I had been wanting to visit Korea for a long time.  Korea has something that China does not – it’s own tastes.  Maybe due to its rapid industrialization relatively late, young people in China want Nikes, an iPhone, and BMWs.  That definetely exists in Korea.  But what is different is that along with well-known Western brands, there exists an entire collection of distinctly Korean stores, music, and other cultural identifiers that make Korean culture different than any other.  It’s not just that these items exist, it’s that people actually want them.  It’s refreshing to hear K-pop when exploring Seoul by night; the homogenization of the world thankfully skipped a few steps in Korea.

As the taxi whizzes you through a city surging with energy, you’ll witness cherry blossoms blooming in a desolate park, the crystalline outline of skyscrapers upon the sidewalk, ornamental tea shops steeping flowers and herbs the same way they have for nearly a millenium, and the scars of a war that split a people once forever unified.  As you can discover pretty quickly, Seoul is disarming – bright lights and a swarm of people and a crazy language.  But that’s part of it.  It’s quirky and a little bit weird.  However, Seoul itself is a timeless birthright of a people and culture that transcends modernity.

A long post like this would usually have an even longer body of text, but I think the pictures here give a good progression of my time in Korea.

Taken from the DMZ on our way back to to Seoul - finally exploring the Korean capital!

Leaving the DMZ tour HQ, we start walking through downtown Seoul

Odd statue

Along the banks of a small stream offshoot of the Han River, a local arts "district" has emerged

The Statue of Admiral Yi Sun-sin is dedicated to the new type of turtle boat, geobukseon, that helped in defeating the Japanese navy in the late 16th century

The façade of the Korean Museum of Art

An ancient ruler of Korea in the middle of a wide boulevard

The entrance to Gyeonbokgung (literally the Palace of Shining Happiness), one the ancient citadels to a Korea long gone

Closer shot of the Gyeonbokgung gate; it was closed now, but we return it to the following day...

Antiquity meets modernity

An English sign!

Lanterns adorn practically every street

Finally, Gyedong-gil, a local food street in Seoul. Here, the Korean take on hot pot. All meals in come with a healthy potion of side dishes, like kim chi, radish, and dried anchovies.

The next day, Korean BBQ for breakfast! Koreans prefer metal chopsticks to wood or plastic ones found in other parts of East Asia. Allegedly this is because back in the days of the Joseon dynasty, the kinds used silver chopsticks as silver as thought to retard potential toxins. The local populace, unable to afford silver, used cheaper iron to emulate their leaders.

Back at one of the main things I wanted to visit in Seoul, Gyeonbokgung Palace. Built in 1394 by King Taejo of the Joseon dynasy, Gyeonbokgung suffered heavy damage during the Japanese occupation of Korea, as did all of the other royal residences.

Looking back at the entrance gate

Passing through a series of gates leads to...

...awkward photo op.

Most of the palace consists of empty spaces like this - the Japanese destroyed almost 75% of all the royal palace structures in the city.

Another photo with soliders who recreate how Gyeonbokgung used to be like 800 years ago

Neat stairway statue

Beautiful latices on the the lower side of the roofs

Even in the face of the Japanese torch, the beauty of the original design is evident

In the distance, rain begins to fall

A slanted picture, but even something as insignificant (at least to the Western perspective) as a doorway is intricately detailed

Walking along a small waterway within Gyeonbokgung

Restored mahogany, but still representative of what the palace was

Island temple

A dragon on the roof...?

A parting shot as we left Gyeonbokgung Palace for...

...the Noryangjin Fish Market on the south side of the city. I love going to local food/fish markets and have tried to in many of the places I go - Khan al-Khalili in Cairo, Bazurto in Cartagena, Colombia, and the Sydney Fish Market in Australia.

From the upper floor looking down

Typical vendor

Sea cucumbers

What are these?

Squids in tank

The walkway

Octopi

Looking back

Grilled fish at a local restaurant directly adjacent to the Noryangjin Fish Market

Next stop - Gyeongdong Market, specializing in Eastern medicines

Some sort of wriggling worm

Ground vegetables and roots

Herbs wrapped like hay

Ginger and other roots form the staple of Korean ancient medicine

Making our way to the second-largest royal palace, but the best well preserved and a UNESCO World Heritage site, Changdeokgung Palace

Me in front of the main hall

Inside

One of the many halls in Changdeokgung

Another

Sliding doors form the entrance to all of the main palace buildings

The paths in Changdeokgung are elevated so all of the palace buildings and halls are in small "valleys"...

...like this

Our hostel, almost every restaurant, and the main historic sites all required visitors to remove their shoes

The Joseon prices' placenta is based inside this large stone capsule. People came and prayed to it.

Walking around the king's lake, still in Changdeokgung

Ancient stone tower

Leaving Changdeokgung Palace from the east gate

Lunch (also the only time with non-metal chopsticks) of spicy ramen

Our next stop was the Seodaemun Prison, a symbol of Japanese cruelty and aggression during the occupation of the Korean peninsula

The Japanese brutally tortured their Korean captives in this building

The bark of this tree has scratches all over it - the Japanese took people to the building behind to be hanged, so the inmates grabbed onto this tree to resist

The main prison grounds

At the Seoul Antiques Market, I got some ginseng tea. Eh, at least it is supposed to be healthy.

A snack made from beeswax - the bees themselves are still clearly in encased within the treat

In front of a giant South Korean flag on the side of a building

The Seoul Metro uses specially designed trains that are really wide, much wider than any subway system I've ever used

A final dinner at a Korean BBQ restaurant, with the typical collection of Korean side dishes. We sat on the floor with our shoes off here.

The restaurant

Crazy ad

Goodbye South Korea, back to Beijing

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Tattered Flag

Like a twisted scar, the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea is a living relic of the war that divided the peninsula and on a larger scale, it epitomizes the Cold War.  The DMZ is the literal flashpoint for something that weighs heavily in the Korean psyche.  Since a peace treaty was never signed by both parties, the two states remain in a technical state of war.  The DMZ represents, physically and emotionally, the national traumas of the past and now with the sinking of the Cheonan and the bombing of Yeonpyeong island, the present and future security situation of living next to an increasingly violent neighbor.

To visit the DMZ, you must be in a tour – independent travel is prohibited.  The UN, manned by around 95% South Korean soldiers (the remaining are US troops), has jurisdiction over the southern side of the Joint Security Area (JSA).  Called Panmunjom, the JSA used to be a small area where soldiers and negotiators from the North and South would move about freely in an albeit small area.  Due to the Ax Murder Incident in the 1970s (captions explain), the JSA exists in name only.  Instead, it is a harshly demarcated area where the opposing soliders stare at each other behind opaque glasses, where the border is drawn to the centimeter, and where every move is recorded, literally.

The entire area weaves together a story of something that perhaps is hard for an outsider to grasp, myself included.  Guns are not drawn and bullets are not whirling through the air.  Sunlight peaks from behind clouds as the spring breeze lazily wafts across the landscape.  In an odd way, the DMZ is at peace.  However, it would be a mistake to confuse topical calm for a deeper halcyon root.  In the same way that violent sites of the past, such as Nazi concentration camps, are tranquil but evoke strong and palpable emotions, the same idea can be applied to the DMZ.  But in Korea, the conflict still rages.  Through the relative calm, there is urgency and discord, tension that is part of Korea and the Korean people.

The weary flag limps on…

There will be a a larger post on Seoul itself, but the captions with these pictures tell the story pretty well.

These blue houses, set up by the UN for face-to-face dialogues between the two sides, straddle the border to the centimeter. In the foreground, South Korean soldiers are only 20 meters from their North Korean counterparts. The building in the background is in North Korea, and according to our guide, is full of soldiers taking pictures of us from the upper floors.

Another view - South Korean soldiers face North Korean soldiers in the background. Here you can see the top of a tour group on the North Korean side, probably from Russia.

Yup, a Russian your group on the North Korean side. It was odd being in a tour on the South Korean side and seeing another group in the North taking pictures of us.

Inside the blue houses, a South Korean solider guards the opposite door. Behind him is North Korea.

South Korean soldier

Me with a South Korean solider, literally 5 feet from North Korea

Though the blue houses (where I was for this picture) are technically UN territory, I was on the North Korean side of the border. This concrete barrier is the exact line of demarcation, with the North being on the left and South Korea on the right.

Before we could actually visit the Joint Security Area (JSA) with the two sides' soldiers facing each other, we received a briefing of the current state of the conflict by UN soldiers.

The badge

The outside of the UN briefing building near the actual JSA and line of demarcation

This monument honors the spot where two American soldiers were killed in 1976 in what is called the Ax Murder Incident. Instead of the current situation in which the JSA is clearly and harshly divided between the two sides, it used to actually be a joint security area. Both North Korea and South Korea had operations throughout this area. However, a tree was blocking one of the South's observation posts. Two soldiers began to chop it down as North Korean soldiers observed. Suddenly, they were attacked with axes by other soldiers from the North. This led to a serious deterioration of relations between the two Koreas and led to the current arrangement of the split JSA.

Within the DMZ, there are two villages with large flags on both. The largest, which is the second-largest flagpole in the world, sits on the North Korea side. The South calls this a propaganda town, as the North Korean regime plays positive sayings about Kim Jong-Il and says the town is paradise. Instead, it is merely a facade of empty buildings (and in my opinion, old Soviet-style buildings don't exactly exude images of grandeur). This picture I found online as taking pictures on the bus is nearly impossible, but it was really eerie to see the North Korean flag flying in the near distance. Oddly, in order to counter the propaganda messages spewing from the North, the South drops empty ramen canisters from the air.

The Bridge of No Return - in 1953, the two sides agreed to exchange prisoners of war. The only stipulation the captives were given was that if you cross this bridge, you will never be able to return.

The town of Imjingak located directly outside the DMZ is now dedicated to providing visitors with information but more importantly, personal stories, about the Korean War and the zone

A monument dedicated to those who have lost their lives defending the border

Ribbons with messages of hope for reunification line the chain-link fence

Another

The most militarized place in the world, the Korean DMZ, is over the fence.

From an observation post, we were told that taking pictures past this line was not allowed. Also from our guide: at almost all of these sites, we were being watched and recorded by similar North Korean observation posts.

From behind the line, North Korea hazily appears in the distance

One of our final sites was the Third Tunnel. In the 1990s, the South Koreans discovered four tunnels dug by the North Koreans under the DMZ in order to facilitate a large and secret attack on Seoul. The North Koreans covered the walls in coal and said it was a mine, though the Korean peninsula has almost no coal. Presumably there are more clandestine tunnels that have not been found. We descended into the 3rd Tunnel to see how they were built and how an advancing North Korean army would proceed in invading the South. Here, an statue at the entrance to the tunnel shows the world pushing the two Koreas together.

Our final stop was the Dorason Train Station. Built in the early 2000s during a relative thawing of relations between the North and the South, and visited by former US President George Bush, the train station is the northernmost train station within the South Korean side of the DMZ with plans to link Seoul and Pyongyang. It's strange to walk into a modern but completely deserted terminal with signs for "Trains to Pyongyang." Times surely have changed...

I love signs

A sign showing the proposed train reunification across the DMZ linking Seoul and Pyongyang

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