Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Vladivostok was far more interesting than I thought it would be. I pictured a grimy city built around a network of bays, covered in gray skies and populated by gray people.

The weather was actually sunny and the buildings downtown were beautiful pre-Soviet monsters. Well, not that one above. We arrived Monday and checked into a hotel around the corner from the ferry and train stations, along with Alex, Mark, and Rob.

We all ate at a swanky cafe and restaurant called Belle Bazaar, and not knowing what the deal with tipping in Russia is, left what turned out to be an unnecessarily large tip for our English-speaking waitress. It paid off later in the evening.

Adam and I checked email and ran into the brick wall that are Russian train ticket sellers. Adam asked one of the women if she spoke English, in terrible Russian no doubt, and the woman didn't even look up while she shook her head grimly.

I guess we shouldn't have been surprised after how hard it was to even get into the station. The doors must've weighed 2,000 pounds. We pushed and pulled and thought they were locked until some babushka dropped her bags and nearly tackled one open. At least the Russians standing on the stairs watching us fail were entertained.

We managed to get onward tickets after a nap and writing down the pertinent info in Cyrillic, and getting some help from the lovely ladies at the front desk of our hotel. We felt very accomplished once we knew we were moving on from the city in two days.

We met up with the other Americans again and went back to Belle Bazaar. I said earlier our large tip from lunch paid off, along with the other unnecessary tip we left on our second trip - to keep up appearances since we'd already set the bar so high - because when we finished and asked the same waitress where she would go if she were getting out of work, she came through for us big time.

She mentioned something incoherent about bars and restaurants and cinemas as she was twirling her hair around after I put the question to her. She then told us to wait five minutes until she could bring us herself.

When she and her friend led the five of us out into the drizzly dark, up and over the hill our hotel was on, I thought they were so kind to do that for us. When we turned a corner and found ourselves on a somewhat happening street, I thought things were looking up. But when she turned down a dark tunnel that smelled like piss toward a dimly lit courtyard full of cars, I wasn't so sure.

"Don't worry, it's okay!" she said.

Then we turned a corner or two I figured we were taking a short cut to the opposite side of the block. Turns out we weren't. She stopped in a doorway between a Russian jalopy and a hill of trash, unlit and unsigned, and said, "This is the place," and knocked on the door.

We were all thinking what Rob said: "You're not going to kill us are you?"

I held onto my kidneys and went inside to a warm living room. I was introduced to the proprietor of this place and was told he wouldn't kill us either. Behind a curtain was an underground cinema restaurant pub. Apparently the waitress meant it was all one place when she was explaining earlier.

There were overstuffed chairs and hookahs, "Four Rooms" projected onto a screen and over-dubbed in Russian, draft beer, and exposed brick walls above the dusty worn rugs. Candles were dripping down wax waterfalls in a bashed-out section of the wall.

Needless to say, it was the last thing we expected, and almost surreal as we tried to pick out the English dialog below the dubbing. The other Americans stayed out and got hammered, but Adam and I weren't feeling so hot so we went to sleep.

The next day we went on a roundabout walking tour, around the harbor and above, all while I was chugging water to drown out a cold, and having to piss every 20 minutes. The view at the top of the funicular was particularly impressive.

Wednesday was our last day. We had plans to meet a girl from the ferry. Sasha showed up with her friend who was impressively dressed in a bright blue dress and matching overcoat, and we walked around the city some more, mostly around their university before Irina had to take off and Sasha brought us back to the station and helped me pick up food for the overnight ride that was ahead of us.

It'd been years of thinking about it, but I finally got on the Trans-Siberian. If you can go to Vladivostok, do it. And don't forget to tip generously.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Boat

Adam and I stepped off the boat in Vladivostok about 24 hours after we left Korea. It was a lot more relaxing and comfortable than I thought an overnight ferry would be. The biggest problem was the excessive air conditioning inside.

There weren't a whole lot of people on the boat. Maybe about 40 passengers. There weren't many Koreans, but a fair amount of Russians and a few other Americans.

Adam and I spend the early afternoon hanging out on deck in the sun. As I was going inside to get my camera, Adam called me back with "dolphins!" and I ran back. There were maybe half a dozen right next to the boat, cresting the water by the wake and sometimes shooting out like a spear. Farther off, it seemed like dozens were doing the same thing.

We got talking with a group of 3 American guys about our age who were doing a two-month tour through China, Japan, Russia, and Europe. We had dinner with them, Rob, Alex, and Mark. It was a Korean/Russian buffet, not bad, but not great.

I guess the highlight of our evening was the nightclub. Some Korean man noticed us watching a group of Russian girls walking by and said they were headed to the night club. The American guys had been there the night before, from Japan to Korea. Despite the fact that the boat was almost to capacity then, the club was empty.

It wasn't much better when we showed up. The three Russian girls were dancing alone on the gently swaying dance floor, and a slightly older Russian couple showed up soon after. We got a table and tried not to be too obvious that we were watching them all dance. Eventually we went up and efficiently emptied the floor with our horrendous dancing.

Alex eventually got the girls to come over and sit with us, where they were safe from our dancing. They were students coming back from three months of study in Japan, and all spoke English fairly well. I talked mainly with a blonde girl named Sasha who told Adam and I the things to do and see and where to go in Vladivostok.

The nightclub closed down two hours early, at ten o'clock, and we moved ourselves into the common area on deck three where we were all staying. Adam and I were both starting to catch a cold and he went off to bed earlier than the rest, and I followed him not long after.

The bunks were stacked without a lot of storage room eight to a room, but for sleeping were surprisingly comfortable and cozy. I chugged water before I went to bed and everytime I woke up to piss to fight off the budding cold. I closed my eyes and felt the gentle rocking of the boat and listened to a special playlist I made for the occasion, themed partly for sleeping on a boat:

  1. Alizze - J'en Ai Marre

  2. Bob Dylan - Lay Lady Lay

  3. Christopher Cross - Sailing

  4. Duke Ellington - The Star Crossed Lovers

  5. ELO - Can't Get It Out My Head

  6. Jack Johnson - Symbol In My Driveway

  7. Jeffrey Lewis - Roll Bus Roll

  8. Jeffrey Lewis - Sea Song

I slept late and showered in the sauna with views of coastal Russia passing through the picture windows and ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for breakfast. Everyone stood on deck to watch Vladivostok slowly surround us. It's a city like an industrial Russian San Francisco. The crystal clarity of the rusted boats and naval cranes directly to our sides slowly faded the further you looked in the hazy distance, with smokestacks darkening the sky and massive bridges under construction between the islands and hills.

Adam and I stepped onto Russian soil after waiting for what seemed like a disproportionately long time in customs. I'd hate to wait there if it was a full ship. A massive and shaggily-groomed black Russian dog sniffed for drugs, and when we cleared the first desk, two more dogs of two more breeds sniffed some more. We had no hotel reservations but had a few places to check out, and scored with the first place we looked for, the Hotel Moryak, just around the corner from the port and train station.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Onward to Russia

I really don't know what to expect in Russia. Maybe it will actually be like this. Maybe there really will be bears everywhere. Either way it's bound to be much harder to travel in than Korea.

While I'm writing this mostly insignificant blog, Adam is helpfully researching the ins and outs of Russian tourist registration, something everyone is subject to when staying anywhere more than two or three days. Not registering and getting caught by the police, say, in a random document check on the street could be bad. Fines, almost certainly. Bribes and jail? Maybe a little extreme, but who knows?

We didn't even have to give our names at the motel we stayed in last night. We didn't even get a receipt. According to the guidebook, one must keep all train tickets and hotel registrations on them at all times in the event police stop us to inspect our papers and visa information.

Russia certainly won't be as cheap as Korea. Any simple search through travel forums will bring up multiple claims of it being the country with the worst value for your money. Sounds great for a couple of guys trying to make their money stretch as far as possible.

Language won't be fun either. Beyond the fact that neither of us can speak Russian (we can sorta read though), you don't come across a lot of stories of helpful Russian officials or ticket agents when doing some basic research before heading there. I'm sure it will be a far cry from the over-friendly train master we talked with last night.

We'll certainly be traveling through interesting places totally new to both of us, something I haven't experienced since I went to the Philippines, and something I'm really looking forward to. I expect unforgettable train rides and an appreciation of how vast the country is. I just hope to make some Russian friends who can give me something more positive to think about rather than what I just wrote further up, and who hopefully won't get too offended about my ignorance and throw me to the bears.

Onward from Korea

We left Daegu on a train yesterday, on our way to leaving Korea for good. Staying in Daegu to heal and rest was nice, but not so much actually part of traveling for me. It was more of an epilogue to the two years working and living there. I did get to see all of my friends again, but I also had to say goodbye to Miju, and we both knew it was for good.

I don't want to elaborate any more than saying it didn't make for a very happy train ride, and not made any easier by the fact that my cell phone was deactivated, something I had asked my ex-co-teacher to do in the morning before I realized I couldn't go to the bank and transfer all my money home and close my account. I still had unreturned phone calls and text messages to respond to, and goodbyes to make, and I had to pull myself together enough to borrow the phone of a stranger to call her up and get it reactivated for a day so I could say yet more goodbyes.

And it would have been a great train ride. We were on a slow train north and east through the countryside and the mountains were green and rice paddies were deep. The air was incredibly clear and brought the tiny villages and land they occupied into such sharp clarity that I don't recall seeing before in Korea. It may have been the sentimental chemicals running through my brain, or maybe just the long, humid, and very hazy summer air from just weeks before.

Neither of us got much sleep the night before. We didn't get to bed until 6AM, and drenched in cigarette smoke, because we were celebrating Adam's birthday out on the town. I got up at 9:30AM to do some errands only to find that banks don't open on Saturdays in Korea. I napped a little on the train, and we played a game of cribbage to pass the time once the sun dropped below the mountains in the west and we couldn't look at the scenery.

The train master would speak to us in broken English every time he walked through the car, and a few stops before we got off, he planted himself across the aisle from us to have a conversation with us, whether we wanted to or not. His English wasn't great, and my Korean is not good, but we managed to communicate.

He was a jolly enough guy, but had terrible breath when he got in close enough to show us a video of his wife pulling out of a parking space on his cell phone. His oldest daughter was in Ireland for the last four years and never came back. He lived in Yeongju and rode on slow trains 11 days out of the month for a salary of 6.5million won. That's a job, schedule, and paycheck that's hard to beat.

It was easy finding a cheap motel once we stepped off the train. Donghae is a small city with nothing more than a port, at least according to the guidebook and our impressions from simply looking around. The ATM was closed when we arrived last night but open this morning when I sent money to my ex-co-teacher to pay for my phone.
We got some food and went to a smoky PCbang. I couldn't upload any photos. I brought a worthless SC card USB adapter that doesn't let me access my photos, or even register with any computer I've used. I'll have to use Adam's plug in the future. We were left with only a few hours in the morning and early afternoon to kill before we make our way to the ferry and whoknowswhat after that.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Back in Daegu

It's been a week healing, in Daegu again. I spent a night in a guesthouse by Yeungnam University, two nights in the clinic, two nights in the incomparable Herotel, and am currently residing in my friends apartment while she's on vacation. I can walk almost normally now, though I'm still a bit sore where they cut me open. I guess there's a lot Adam can see and do around here, but I mostly want to sleep and read and recover.

I'm yet to start on my epic travel ballad, but that'll happen soon. I just finished reading Kristin's copy of Shakespeare by Bill Bryson in two days, which has kind of put me in an appropriate mood.

I must say, reading his Shakespeare was a joy compared to reading Bryson's In A Sunburned Country/Down Under. In the former book, Bryson mercifully left out the unbearable novelty and cuteness of phrase that he seemed to think was so entertaining to read from the latter. The upshot was I finished Shakespeare because it was interesting and informative, rather than because I felt obliged since I had started it.

My former co-teacher was kind enough to help me arrange ferry tickets to Vladivostok. Adam and I originally planned to leave from Sokcho, but found that leaving from Donghae was half the price on a nicer looking boat. Then we found it was the same price when we actually reserved the tickets, and that I was just looking at prices for children when I was doing my research. In my defense, the browser only allowed me to check that option at the time. And the boat is still nicer.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Epic Travel Song

I generally hate what's happened to the word "epic" these days. Somehow it got bastardized to mean "cool" or "awesome", as in hearing some frat boy say:

"Brah, I did the most epic kegstand last night!"
It's an insult to the original meaning of the word, and as such has almost entirely eliminated the grandeur and scale of what the word "epic" is supposed to mean.

I, however, intend to write a travel ballad that truly deserves the title of epic. My idea is to write a five or six line verse about each place I go to, or about each Couchsurfing experience I have. I figure this will give me between 2-4 verses per week. Over a period of six months, that's a lot of verses; I'm not going to do the math.

All right, a rough conservative estimate is somewhere above 50 verses. I'll sing them with my trusty travel guitar which I still can't play very well. I don't think anyone will notice though, because I can't sing very well either.

Now you may ask, how does such a song truly qualify as epic, in the classical sense of the word, beyond being extremely long? Well, let me answer you, as per the above dictionary definition.
  • the song will pertain to a long poetic composition. I intend to maintain a regular rhyme scheme, perhaps similar to Poe's The Raven, though my song certainly won't be as good as that masterpiece.
  • it will focus on a hero and a series of great events. Well I suppose I'll have to be the hero, unless Adam really starts kicking ass, then I'll have to write about him.
  • it will be written in an elevated style. I possess a degree in English, so that automatically proves I've practiced reading and writing and speaking English a wicked lot, and I will compose this song with the most impressivist of my finely honed abilities.
But I'm not finished yet! Allow me to elaborate even further upon more elements of classical epics not contained in the pedestrian internet-dictionary definition:

  • a lengthy catalog of ships, or warriors, or other stuff. I'll probably only be on a few different ships, and I doubt I will encounter other warriors as noble and fierce as Adam or myself, so I'll stick with cataloging Couchsurfing hosts and other notable characters I meet.
  • repetitive literary devices. Classic epics such as The Iliad and Odyssey were originally oral poems and contained repetitive elements of composition to make things easier for Homer and his homies who would recite it. I'll probably run out of interesting rhymes and imagery, so I'll just keep reusing old stuff in new stuff.
  • a trip to the netherworld. A bunch of classic epics see their heroes making excursions to the land of the dead. No promises on this one...

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Iodine Jesus!

There's a graphic picture of me getting cut open below! Watch out!

I got my operation on Tuesday, two days ago. They stuck an IV in my arm, wheeled me into the operating room, had me curl up in the fetal position while they injected anesthesia into my spine, and splayed me out on the operating table, legs straight and arms out wide like a horizontal Jesus. I didn't get nails in my hands and feet of course, I instead got half of my pubes shaved and my entire crotch coated with iodine.

A nurse popped some earbuds in and played an intersting combination of Simon and Garfunkel, the Black Eyed Peas, and some other incongrous Western stuff. Through some strange trick of the anesthesia, which made me feel like my lower half of my body was asleep, right before the pins and needles set in, it felt like they were cutting up near my belly button, which would've been the totally wrong area. That thought sort of frightened me a bit, but after the surgery when I was lying in bed, the anesthesia also made my right leg feel like it was bent upward when it was very clearly lying flat, so I knew it was just causing some strange, inaccurate, sensations.

Here's a picture of what the surgery looked like, though I couldn't see it at the time thanks to a sheet they put up in front of my face.

I mostly sat around in bed for two days. I couldn't eat or even lift my head the first day, but could walk around the second day. Adam showed up not long after my surgery on the first day, it was good to finally see him again. I also got visits from Miju, Moe, Paul, Kristin, and Dustin; what a great bunch of friends. And it's hard not to appreciate guys like Dustin when he says touching things like "I'm not even bangaweoyo to see you. It's too soon." To be fair, I knew what he meant, it's not like I had really been gone long enough for anyone to miss me.

It's Thursday now and I'm out on the streets, moving to a guesthouse for a couple days before taking over Kristin's pad when she goes on vacation. It's tough walking, I kind of shuffle like Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, but I should be in better shape soon.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Under the Knife

I found out I had an inguinal hernia before I left Korea for some time at home. It was small, didn't bother me much, and from what several doctors told me, wasn't really a big deal. However, surgery is the only way to deal with hernias and I thought it was probably a good idea to get it fixed before I went off to the middle of nowhere in Mongolia or China, to avoid rare but serious complicatons. Too bad I didn't have enough time to do it before I left Korea. It would've cost about $300 when I had insurance.

Getting it at home was out of the question. I have no American insurance, and an average figure I found on the internet put the cost at about $7,000. I called a local hospital just to be sure, and they assured me that it would be between $9,000 and $13,000.

So my first order of business in Korea is getting cut open and sewn back up. Even without insurance here, it will cost me less than $1,000, and I get a swanky private room with my own bathroom and flatscreen TV for two nights. In fact the room is so nice that I may stay another night or two since the room itself is costing me little more than a hostel.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Easy Start

Attempting to board the plane in Manchester, my boarding pass set off a strange tone from the machine and the chubby guy told me I needed to step aside and have my travel documents reviewed. Apparently he was afraid of being fined for letting me on the plane without an onward ticket, like I was going to sneak into Korea on a tourist visa and never leave.

I sorted it out, showing him my Russian and Chinese visas and official Russian tourism invitation. He had to call up and ask someone a bunch of questions that clearly betrayed his inexperience while I looked out the window to make sure the plane didn't leave without me. I got on, only holding the plane up a few minutes, though I feel like the crew and passengers resented me for it. A stewardess banged my knee with a beverage cart and maybe I just wasn't awake enough, but I don't think she bothered to apologize.

I barely had to wait for either of my layovers in Detroit and Tokyo. On the two international legs I sat next to two university professors. Maybe it's a sign, along with working 20 hours a week and having three or four months off per year.

I didn't know how I'd feel about coming back to Korea as a tourist after living and working here for two years, but it felt perfectly normal when I zoomed through customs and got into a cab that drove way too recklessly without providing seatbelts and brought me to a "hostel" illegally located in some guys apartment. I did know that starting a trip in Korea would be easy for me to slide into a traveling mindset, but first things first: I need to find a surgeon to fix me up because it's too damn expensive in America.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Plan

Right to left, that's the plan. When I step off the plane in Korea, I won't step back on one until I get the European Atlantic at the very earliest. I'll take a boat to Russia, and trains and buses from there on out, with maybe another boat or two across the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. And maybe a bicycle or motorcycle for good measure.

I leave tomorrow, and so far I have plenty of room in my pack. I'm foregoing a large backpacking pack in favor of a smaller and more manageable day pack, along with the case for my travel guitar. I've yet to pack with a sense of finality, but it seems I never do. I'll throw everything in at the last minute tomorrow, I'm sure.

Beside my guitar, ready to go in its case I have a book of scales and arpeggios, a fat guidebook for China, a small daily planner that I've been using as a mini journal, and in the outside pocket, a small padded box containing mini travel games such as backgammon, cribbage, checkers and chess. I'm going to have to learn some of those games so Adam and I can stay sane if we're held up in some godforsaken place waiting for a train or a sign or our salvation. I also have some pencils and pens in a case given to me by a student, a tuner, capo, string winding tool, and picks. One of the picks was used by B.B. King when I saw him at the Whittemore Center; I hope I don't lose that one.

In my bag I have my camera and case and cords, a lightweight down windbreaker, Gore-Tex outer shell, and pack towel in the bottom pocket. I have two extra pairs of boxers, three extra pairs of socks, two extra T-shirts, and pair of running shorts, a short sleeve shirt and a long sleeve shirt. I have a couple small gifts to give to my girlfriend on the occasion of our last time seeing each other, perhaps, for good. I have a small bag of toiletries and I have some important documents and an alarm clock, Korean cell phone and charger, spare boot laces and insoles, flip-flops, decoy wallet, buckle strap, and other small miscellaneous things. In the outer pocket I have a mostly empty journal and a copy of Three Cups of Tea next to my shades and glasses.

With the exception of a sweater, and maybe a hat and some gloves purchased here or there, those things should get me from right to the left side of that map. Should, however, is a very unreliable word.