Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Mid-Winter Break: Anyone Been to Hong Kong?

Those of you who have either:  a)been reading this blog; or:  b) lived in Seoul in the winter will be aware that it is Very Cold here.  Snow-on-the-ground-for-weeks cold.  Takes-your-breath-away cold.  Frozen-fingers-without-gloves cold.

Last year, I coped with the shock of my first real winter in 11 years by writing a lot about how cold it was, whining a lot, and escaping with my family for two weeks to Thailand.  A couple of weeks in steamy Bangkok and Phuket did wonders for my mood and my outlook.  Unfortunately, this year, due to a number of factors beyond our control, we did not book a Christmas getaway, which resulted in my mood and outlook not having wonders done for them.  I will leave it to your imagination, Gentle Reader, as to what that looks like on a daily basis.  (I should add, that, when I moved to Arizona with its nearly endless sunshine and warm, sunny winters, I was stunned to discover what a pleasant person I could be in January and February, so you can just imagine what I'm like right now.)

It should come as no surprise to you, then, that when I suggested we spend our upcoming Lunar New Year holidays somewhere warm, MrLogical agreed with alacrity.  Although the actual holidays are only three days long, they translate into a 5-day long weekend, which - to my way of thinking - was more than ample time to travel anywhere somewhere warm warmer.  In fact, I had no particular destination in mind, as long is it was:  a) a fairly short flight    b)somewhere warmer than Seoul and c) somewhere we hadn't been yet*.

After juggling our three schedules, checking flight costs and times, hotel availability, and reading far too many  reviews on TripAdvisor, I finally booked a trip to Hong Kong, after which I immediately began second-guessing my decision.  This was because, while TripAdvisor is 99% awesome (real advice, real people, real input,) it is 1% overwhelming for someone like me, who takes something like hotel bookings way too very seriously.  This person complains that the concierge was rude. This person says the staff treated them like family.  This person says the beds were hard. Someone else says the beds were par for the course in Asia.  This person says the hotel is too far from the MTR.  This person says the MTR is within easy walking distance.  This reviewer says, 'By all means, stay on the Island."  That reviewer says, "By all means, stay on the Kowloon side."

Every time I started to click 'Book,' I began to second-guess myself.  I envisioned us trapped in a nightmarish hotel full of monstrous concierges, sneering bellboys and rock-hard beds, pitifully waving our iPads around the lobby trying to log onto the WiFi because it would turn out that I'd not noticed that this particular hotel probably didn't offer WiFi in the rooms**, but only in the lobby, and which would turn out to be 'really slow' instead of 'lightning-fast!'(actual descriptions from actual reviewers.) I saw us wearily traveling for hours on trains just to get to the nearest Dim Sum restaurant or tourist destination due to my poor hotel choices. ( Of course, my choices were relatively limited anyway, since all the really smart people had booked their holidays in Hong Kong back in October-but I digress.)  Finally, after a certain amount of anguish, I did the cyber-equivalent of closing my eyes and sticking a pin in a map and fatalistically booked us flights and a hotel.

Once I'd done that, I immediately felt better, since it was more or less out of my hands.  But then - because I am an inveterate planner - I got busy deciding what we needed to do.  Had I simply confined my research to reading TripAdvisor comments, I probably would have been fine, but -never satisfied - I began soliciting opinions from human beings.  Our friend T, who had been to Hong Kong twice, recommended that we go to Macau while we were there, which we decided to do. Just as I was about to book a tour, another friend  told me that she had not included it in their itinerary because they had heard it was just a big Casino.  My mother reminisced about High Tea at the Peninsula - although I question whether MrL and Son#2 will wax equally enthusiastic.  Points of agreement by all included some sort of a Harbour Tour, a trip to Victoria Peak, and a visit to the Temple Street Night Market, but others suggested Lantau Island, the Fishing Village, and a Pink Dolphin Tour were must-dos.

After rocking back and forth and slowly banging my head on the table a period of reflection, I finally decided to turn to another resource:  my readers.

Have any of you been to/lived in Hong Kong?  What's really worth seeing and doing? What's overrated? We'll be there during the New Year's Celebrations (Dragon Parade, but not the Fireworks) and plan to try and see that, but otherwise, we're open to suggestions.  I'm not a shopper (and besides, Seoul is full of high-end retail) so not interested in malls or shopping centers, although outdoor markets are on the list.  Historic/Cultural/Natural things are more our cup of tea.

I should also be perfectly honest here for a moment:  if I travel to Hong Kong and do nothing but sit on a park bench for 5 days and appreciate the fact that the temperatures are above freezing, I will return home a satisfied woman.

But I'd love to hear what you have to say anyway.

*It is entirely possible that MrL and I  - with our Asian upbringings - have been in or through Hong Kong before, but, if so, neither of us remembers it.  
**We are a very wired sort of family, so this is an important issue.  Even more so because we're traveling with a teenager.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Winter Weekends in Seoul: Part III: Tim Burton Exhibition

Note:  This is part III of a three-part weekend.  You can read Parts I and II  here and here.  Let me also add, if it seems to you like this weekend has gone on forever, try being the one blogging about it.  That is all.

Since MrLogical and I had spent our respective Saturdays out in the ice and snow, we had agreed ahead of time to spend Sunday doing something with Son#2 en famille instead of leaving him to his own devices two days in a row (guess which one he would have preferred? You're right.)  In this case, the decision was very easy, since all 3 of us had been looking forward to seeing the Tim Burton Exhibition at the Seoul Museum of Art ever since we'd found out it would be coming to Seoul.  While we aren't Tim Burton fanatics or anything, I would say we have seen just about every movie he's ever been involved with, and are huge fans of his work.  If this gives you any new insights into MsCaroline and her personality, so be it.

Accordingly, we all got up bright and early on Sunday morning and readied ourselves to be at the museum right when it opened at 10.  Actually, what really happened, is we all moved quite slowly, especially MrL, who had gone out  drinking makgeoli after his day hanging from the waterfall and found waking up to be a bit -shall we say -challenging.  However, having promised to go with us, he loaded up on ibuprofen and coffee and accompanied Son#2 and me out into the cold to the Museum.  (That, Dear Readers, is an example of True Love.)

The Museum had gone all out to make sure that you knew that the Tim Burton exhibit was there, because as you approached the pathway leading up to the museum, this is what you saw:

That actually says 'Tim Burton' not 'MBurton' - stupid afternoon light.

Creaky old gateway, overgrown vines, - extremely Tim Burtonesque.

If you still had any doubts as to what was going on, once you arrived at the museum itself, they were put to rest:

The best exterior decoration was probably the windows:

Once inside, the entrance to the exhibit was quite clearly marked, and much of the downstairs featured quite a bit of Burtonobilia - both background info and photo ops - I realized later it must have been there to keep people entertained while they waited for their turn to enter the exhibit, which supposedly had been known to have waiting times for up to an hour.  We must have gotten there just before that happened, which is good, because MrL probably wouldn't have lasted that long.

Looking appropriately serious, as befits companions of a Corpse Bride.

  I kept wondering if Tim Burton had had anything to do with the decor.  If he didn't, my hat is off to the exhibit decorators or curators (or whatever they are called) because they captured Tim Burton's hilariously disturbing - yet genius - vibe quite perfectly:

See that red thing? It's a tongue.

Like I said:  a tongue.

And it belongs to this guy aka 'exhibit entrance'.


Once inside the exhibit, no photos were allowed (sigh.)  The exhibit was divided into three sections:  basically Burton's childhood and growing up years, his years at CalArts and early years working for Disney(really.  Disney - who knew?)  and his later/present work.

The early work was really pretty fascinating, since it included things like high school essays, photos, and even a couple of posters that he had drawn for contests (including a fire safety one that was pretty amusing.) Even in some of his early doodles, you can see hints of things to come (Jack Skellington and Frankenweenie come to mind here.)  

The exhibit also includes sculptures of many of his animated characters, including pretty much the whole cast of "Nightmare Before Christmas." There were also many of the models used for stop-animation films, as well as dozens of concept sketches.  There was also plenty of film memorabilia, including the Catwoman suit that Michelle Pfeiffer wore in the 1992 Batman Returns, Johnny Depp's suit and razor glove from Edward Scissorhands(1990), the razors used in Sweeny Todd (2007), and the carousel that Michael Keaton wears on his head in Beetlejuice (1988,) not to mention dozens of mock ups, sketches, and even Burton's desk blotter (covered with doodles.)  

The exhibit was well-organized and well-marked in English, and audio tour headsets were available for an extra fee at the desk outside the exhibit, although we chose not to use them this time around.  Our biggest gripe was with the crowds, which - as I experienced at the Tut Exhibition last year - were crushing, even though we arrived only 45 minutes after the museum opened. We did arrive early enough that we were able to buy tickets quickly and only had to wait for about 5 minutes to get into the exhibit, although once inside, the crowd was fairly heavy and moved fairly slowly, especially if you were behind someone listening to an audio tour. However, after living in Seoul for a year and a half, I shouldn't have been surprised to find that an extremely popular exhibit was crowded on a weekend morning.  As I've said before:  If there's something in Seoul worth seeing, you'll be seeing it with 2 million other people.

Dates:  December 12th-April 14th 2013
Cost:  KRW12,000 per adult
Hours:  Weekdays, 10am-8pm;  Weekends and National Holidays:  10am-6pm. Closed Mondays. Check here for more details about closings.  
*note:  the earlier you arrive, the more time you'll have to look at the exhibit in relative peace and quiet.  Weekends are the most crowded.
How to Get There:  Take Subway line 1 or 2 to City Hall.  Go out Exit #2 (in Subway line 1,) walk straight ahead, and you'll see Deoksogung palace (on your right.)  Turn right  into the road (it looks more like an alley) just past the palace   Follow that road as it curves around and you'll see the Museum of Art on the left.  

Monday, January 21, 2013

Winter Weekends in Seoul: Part II: Nami Island

In yesterday's post, I talked about this past Saturday, when MrLogical and I headed out on our separate adventures in the ice and snow.  While MrL was hanging precariously by ropes and hacking his way up a waterfall with deadly-sharp axes, I was:  a) wandering around a ski resort; and:  b) experiencing Nami Island for the first time.  As far as I can tell, Nami is a fairly popular tourist destination with Koreans and foreigners alike.  Its tree-lined pathways, gardens, bridges, and playgrounds make this tiny island a combination of park, playground, and outdoor art gallery.  For this reason, Nami is very popular with visitors in the spring, summer and fall, when the lush plantings and parklike setting can best be enjoyed.

It stands to reason, then, that I would end up visiting in January, when much of it was covered in a layer of snow and ice.

It is, however, a testament to Nami's quirky charm and the creativity of its managers that I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent there, despite temperatures hovering around freezing.

Nami is about 90 minutes south of Seoul by bus or car, and was only about a 20-minute drive from the Elysian Gangcheon Ski resort where we had spent the morning. Our group of teachers was visiting to get an idea of the various activities offered and to see what (if anything) there might be for kids to do.

We arrived at the ferry parking lot around noon, and it was quite crowded.  As we made our way toward the ticket booths, I noticed this sign, and began panicking because I didn't have my passport with me:

I needn't have worried, though.  Part of Nami's charm is that it pretends to be a bit of a whimsical little imaginary country of its own, called "Naminara Republic."  The gentle facade begins as soon as you arrive at 'Immigration'(ticket booths) and continues while you are on the island.  We paid KRW8,000 each for a ticket that included a round-trip ferry ride to the island and admission to the island.

The ferry dock where we waited was decorated in a whimsical winter theme.  Whimsy is everywhere on Nami, and it starts before you even get on the ferryboat.

We waited on the ferry dock for a very short time and then trooped onto the ferryboat with the rest of the crowd.  The boat was decorated with colorful flags of the world, and the brief ride was smooth and pleasant, although chilly.  We chose to stay outside on the deck despite the cold:  it was just too pretty, in an arctic sort of way.

Two of MsC's colleagues, well bundled up against the cold.  Note ice floating on the water.

We arrived within 5 minutes at the dock, where a departing crowd (and some interesting ice sculptures) were waiting for us:

Not really sure what to expect, we walked onto the island and found ourselves in an open area that featured several low buildings - information booth, shops, kiosks, toilets - lots of trees, and paths flanked by towering trees leading off in several different directions.  No cars, no billboards, no telephone poles.

Everything was marked well in English, and we immediately noticed a theme that would continue throughout Nami:  art and sculpture everywhere, much of it made out of repurposed and recycled items.  First up was this Christmas tree made out of empty soju* bottles:

Another nice touch was the firepits that we found strategically located throughout the island where chilly tourists could huddle and warm themselves up before doing a little more sightseeing:

If you're wondering - like I was - why the little snowmen aren't melting, it's because they aren't snowmen.  They're little Nami Island people (sort of like mascots of the island, I guess) and we would see them perched in various locations - in varying sizes - as we walked around the island.

Keeping in mind that we'd come here to scout out things for kids to do, we realized pretty quickly that you could probably spend all day on Nami with a group of kids without hearing those dreadful words:  "I'm bored."  In addition to supporting the arts, and environmental efforts, Nami is also involved with international nonprofit organizations such as YWCA/YMCA, UNICEF, and UNESCO:

Everywhere we walked, we found broad, tree-lined paths, quirky art and sculptures, and interesting things to do for young and old alike.

Train rides:

Note plastic curtains to keep riders (sort of) warm.

Ostrich-viewing (yes, ostriches.  No, I do not know why.)  I was initially concerned about the ostriches, who I had always thought of as desert dwellers, but they seemed to be perfectly happy in their snowy paddock.

Bridges, ponds, ice formations, and more recycling- based art:

Bridge leading to a hidden butterfly garden.  No butterflies at the moment, but  still lots of hopeful kids exploring it.

Along the way, we ran across what looked like a series of small thatched huts on stilts, flanked by benches.  Turned out the huts (complete with plastic curtains to protect against the weather) held dozens of children's books (many in English) as part of an educational initiative.  Kids could seek out a book that interested them, in sit themselves right down to read.  You can imagine how excited a group of teachers got about this particular feature:

We finally came across the Holy Grail for parents (or teachers):  a big playground, complete with magical castle.  My photo doesn't show much detail, but the looming hulk behind the slide is a large building that looks just like a castle.  Wish I'd had enough time to go explore it.  

Since we had to be back on the bus to Seoul soon, we had to cut our visit short, but we all agreed that the kids would absolutely love it.  We also agreed that, despite the ice, the snow, and the cold, it had been an enjoyable outing to a magical, whimsical 'world,' and that we'd all love to see it again in the spring.

We'll be back.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Winter Weekends in Seoul: Part I: Ice and Snow

MrL, 'representing the old dudes'  - and no, I was not involved in this particular activity.

(Note:  MrL and I had an extremely busy weekend at various sites in and around Seoul.  So much so that I can't fit it all into one blog post without boring all of us to death.  Here's Part I.)

So, we're just about halfway through January and the temperatures here in Korea are slightly more reasonable - a few degrees above freezing during the day - which means that you can go outside without your face freezing before you've taken more than a few steps. Not exactly a tropical heat wave, but after the last month or so, 'above freezing' seems quite pleasant to me.  And the improved temperatures mean that going out to do things doesn't sound quite so much like a punishment anymore.

This is a good thing, since MrLogical and I spent the first half of our weekend out in the elements.  MrL - who, as you all know, only enjoys sports that require him to buy lot of equipment - was  heading out to his first ice climb in 11 years. He was delighted to be able to once again dig out his ice-climbing equipment- which had not seen use since the Bush Administration- and which would undoubtedly be classified today as 'vintage.'  He and his friend had signed up for a climb with Sanirang Alpine Networks and were looking forward to it.  They spent the day with a group of others at (on?) a frozen waterfall about a 40 minute-drive south of Seoul, 'representing for the old dudes' - an accurate statement, considering that most of MrL's gear was older than some of his fellow climbers.  The point is, that MrL spent most of his day doing this:

In my case, the outing was somewhat less extreme, but still included a significant amount of ice and snow.  The school where I teach has schoolwide 'Ski Days' coming up this week, and all staff and parents who would be traveling to the resort with the children were asked to come to the resort on Saturday to look around, familiarize themselves with the facilities, and (in some cases) remember how to ski/snowboard as a sort of dry run before coming back to do the same thing  later in the week  with their youthful charges. (Since I have both a back and a knee injury, I was red-shirted for skiing and assigned to the 'ground team', half of whom would be assigned to the lodge as contact personnel, and the other half who would be escorting non-skiers to a nearby outdoor tourist/cultural venue.)

After an early departure from Seoul and a 90-minute bus ride, we checked into the main lodge at Elysian Gangchon Ski Resort  with the rest of the faculty and parents, where we got details for our various responsibilities and a tour of the building.

Approaching the main lodge building.

 Elysian is the closest ski area to Seoul - an easy 90-minute drive the day we went -and seems used to catering for international crowds. Kiosks for lift tickets and lessons were on the main floor, as well as a spacious restaurant overlooking the slopes.  Lockers, equipment and clothing rental areas were located downstairs on the ground floor, where you also exited to the lifts.  The resort and lodge were quite empty when we arrived around 10am Saturday morning(although crowds were heavy by the time we left around 3), and check-in, equipment rental, and lift ticket purchases went quickly and very smoothly.   Reports from my colleagues who skied that day were positive;   the resort was well-equipped, there was extensive English signage, and skiers and snowboarders alike seemed to have had an enjoyable experience.

Not having been on skis for more years than I could remember, I spent some time assessing the lifts and the runs with a potential future visit in mind, and decided that I could probably navigate the beginner and intermediate runs comfortably - after a refresher lesson or two.  I was also fascinated to see a conveyor-belt style lift leading to the beginner slopes.  I wasn't even aware that such a thing existed.

Conveyor belt to the  beginner slopes

Given the fact that the hardest part of learning to ski - for me, at least - was getting on and off the tow bar or the lift without maiming myself, the idea of a slow-moving conveyor that allowed you to just ski right off seemed just short of miraculous.  Another nifty gadget I spied was a number of compressed-air hoses that you could use to spray the ice and snow off your skis or snowboard.  Maybe they're standard equipment at ski resorts now, but - as I mentioned earlier - it had been a while since I'd skied, so they looked pretty high-tech to me:

When the rest of the group headed out to the slopes, four of us got on a bus for the next leg of our adventure - a brief 20-minute ride to nearby Nami Island, which - while it is referred to as an 'amusement park' in the translated Korean literature - is not the sort of roller-coaster type of place that most Americans think of when they hear 'amusement park.'  Our goal was to familiarize ourselves with the island and select some age-appropriate activities for our charges - a task which turned out to be pleasantly easy, since Nami Island seems to have been developed with children in mind.

The small island seemed to me to be a cross between a park, a playground, a zoo, and an art gallery. Woodland paths under towering trees, a butterfly garden, an ostrich paddock (yes, really an ostrich paddock,) ponds, and playgrounds dotted the landscape.  Of course, since we were visiting a primarily outdoor venue at the peak of winter, it wasn't quite the verdant green parkland that's usually pictured in the advertisements.  But you should be used to me doing this sort of thing by now.

Nami Island Igloo.

More details to come in part II.

Silent Sunday

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Silent Sunday

You never know what you'll see at the market.

I know it's supposed to be 'silent' Sunday, but just couldn't resist pointing out the 'on' button on his hand and giving you three guesses as to what song you'll hear when you press it.  First two guesses don't count.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

On The Bright Side

"When you're chewing on life's gristle,
Don't grumble, give a whistle
And this'll help things turn out for the best...
And always look on the bright side of life...
Always look on the light side of life....

-Eric Idle

We're just a week or so into 2013, and MsCaroline is keeping a positive attitude, mostly through escapism reading and trying to stay busy.  It is truly amazing how little subzero temperatures and a blanket of snow bother if you just stay inside and alphabetize the DVD collection.  Once you've finished cross-referencing by date and production company, you'll find that the time simply flies by.*

But all joking aside, as I mentioned in my last post, we here in Korea are experiencing a winter of record-breaking cold, which is - according to the experts - not even halfway over yet.  Knowing that she has weeks (or months) of bone-chilling temperatures ahead of her, MsCaroline is trying to do doing what the experts recommend and focusing on the positive, which she is finding damned hard challenging.

Nonetheless, she finds that she is making progress, and, with any luck, she won't have descended into gibbering idiocy by the time the cherry blossoms appear again.  What does she think about on those days when the bone-chilling cold, the isolation, and the generally challenging nature of winter in Seoul crush her spirit and sap her will to live?

This stuff - some very little, some big:

  • Not having to pack up and move with 4 weeks' notice:  Although MsC did not discuss this on her blog, much of Autum was shadowed with clouds of anxiety and uncertainty as MrL's company engaged in weighty contract renewal negotiations with their client.  A negative outcome could have meant the dismantling of MrL's office in Korea and a short-notice mid-year move - either back to somewhere in the US (with no guarantee we'd be returning to the city we'd come from) - or another overseas location.  Given that MsCaroline has a contract at her work through July 2013 and Son#2 would have been leaving before semester exams, the potential for a lot of trauma and confusion was very high.  Fortunately, the negotiations concluded positively (with just under two hours to go before the deadline -nothing like the last minute) and the AsiaVu family did not have to make a short-notice international move 3 weeks before Christmas.
  • Being together as a family again:  MsCaroline enjoyed every minute of Son#1's Christmas break in Seoul.  She loved the time she spent with him, and was even more glad that her two sons enjoyed their time together.  (This is what she was hoping for all those years ago when she was living the life of Don't Touch That and That's Mine and  He's Looking At Me.) 

 She does not want to discuss how it felt to watch Son#1 go through the security gate at Incheon when he headed back to the US, though.  She is glad there is Skype.

  • Fantasizing about Lunar New Year and Spring Break Trips to Anywhere Somewhere Warmer:    It is amazing how looking forward to wearing a t-shirt in a few weeks can boost your spirits.  MsCaroline is trying not to think about all the things she has heard about the sheer chaos of traveling anywhere in Asia during Lunar New Year and is, instead, imagining herself sitting outside on a bench in a warm park -not even a beach, just a park - somewhere for 5 straight days.
  • Winter Footwear:  Discussed in detail in another post, and turning out to be the burning issue of The Winter of 2012-2013
  • Perfect Christmas Stuff:  My always-thoughtful and creative sister-in-law, who sent this Christmas ornament to Son#2 to commemorate his trip to London last spring:  

In the same vein, Son#1 - knowing that MrL and MsCaroline are hopeless Game of Thrones fans - got them both GoT-themed coffee mugs.  MsCaroline's is heat-sensitive, which means that, when filled with something hot, it changes from a dark, opaque blue to a white background upon which you can see the phrase, "Winter is coming." MsCaroline knows that it is sad that she is so excited about this, but she doesn't care.

  • Tokens of Esteem:  As long as we're already talking about gifts, MsCaroline is going to go ahead and include the most recent piece of artwork presented to her by one of her little English students.  It was presented - shyly - to her on the first Monday back from Christmas break.  As you can imagine, waking up at 5:15 for the first time in 3 weeks, slogging through the ice and snow to school, and being greeted by a classroom full of loud and energetic children had not done anything for MsCaroline's general state of mind. She was dismissing her class with a certain amount of relief when one of her favorite 2nd-graders appeared before her, waving a crumpled, folded piece of paper.  "Here, MsCaroline," he said, presenting it with a flourish, "I drew this for you when I was on holiday in Singapore. "  MsCaroline, touched and flattered to be thought of by anyone while on holiday in Singapore (by the by, it's 88F/31C in Singapore right now - in case you were wondering) graciously accepted the offered artwork and unfolded it. While she is somewhat perplexed as to the connection between herself and vampires, she is not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, and stated delightedly that the artwork would be hung with all due ceremony on her fridge that very evening.
          And it was.

First gift of the New Year.  Note excellent use of perspective by 8-year-old.  I don't know if he's just going through a vampire phase or if he felt somehow that a vampire somehow suited me.

*This may be a slight exaggeration