Wednesday, August 19, 2015

9/24/11. Peak 4.

Hong Kong definitely has a more relaxed, Westernized feel to it. We woke up and snacked on the leftover pastries from the bible study before heading out to the Goldfish, Flower, and Bird Markets in Mong Kok East.

In summary: the Goldfish Market was sad, the Flower Market was interesting, and the Bird Market was sad. Something about the way the animals were locked up in the Goldfish and Bird Markets wasn’t right…

Brought to mind this Calvin and Hobbes strip:

They had some interesting specimens at the Flower Market, though. My favorite: Mimosa pudica, aka the Ticklish plant. It has leaves like a fern, and the leaves collapse when the plant is touched or shaken. In more detail, the cells of the plant are able to rapidly lose turgor pressure in response to being disturbed, by modulating ion flow. The leaves also close and open with Circadian rhythm. Plant biology is pretty fascinating.

We picked up some coconut buns (Gae Mae Bao) and preserved plums for my mom, and then headed to Central to take the tram up to Victoria Peak. There were some nice views at the top, but again, the height + lack of tall railing at the top of the viewing deck made me a little antsy. It was a hazy day, too, which always makes things a little depressing.

We had lunch at Bubba Gump, of all places, which actually wasn’t that bad. I think being starving overrode our desire to wait for a more authentic HK food experience.

After lunch, we ran into a random Bruce Lee wax sculpture that people were lined up to take pictures with. Everyone was doing Kung Fu poses, so I decided to ham it up instead and made people behind me in line chuckle:

This is the boring part of the day. We headed down to Temple St for some last minute souvenier shopping. Boxes of Hi-Tec pens for the fam (they have a nib that’s 0.3mm thick for super thin handwriting), a few more oil paintings of places in HK, coin purses for my baby cousin Sophie and Ghyrn’s niece Marina, an Angry Birds sling shot game for my cousin Robbie, and a laser pointer for Ghyrn’s nephew Connor.

Dinner was at a noodle soup place that had chicken and beef skewers.

We headed back to Carrie’s to change, and then headed out to go to Ozone, the bar at the top of of the ICC. There’s a little bit of a funny story on how we got in. Carrie and Kenneth were at a wedding somewhere in the ICC, but she wanted to meet us for a quick drink before we had to take off in the morning. The bouncer at the door said that the rooftop was full and that we wouldn’t be able to get in tonight, but Carrie somehow worked some magic in Cantonese and soon enough, we were all in the elevator on the way to the top.

The bar was at the 118th story, and I’d highly recommend the place for the open air balcony (which is key in humid HK) and views. The lighting in the lounge was cool too. In retrospect, it feels like one of our major goals in Asia was to get as high in elevation as we could, everywhere we went haha.

After a few $12 Coronas, we headed back to Carries to pack and sleep.

I can’t believe we’re already heading home tomorrow :(

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

9/23/11. Peak 3.

It’s hard to believe the Japan and Korea parts of the trip are over. This is usually when I start to get the "end-of-the-trip blues"...

After sleeping in a bit (we deserved it!) and getting ready, we headed to a dim sum place for breakfast. The place was decent, but my Chinese was not. That being said, it’s nice that most of the people speak broken Mandarin here or English, in addition to Cantonese. I don’t feel as lost as we were in Japan, and it was definitely a blessing to have Andy show us around in Seoul, on the language barrier front.

I don’t remember the name of the place we went to, but we’re saving Din Tai Fung for a meal with Lucy later on in our stay here. Lucy and I started at the same time, but in different programs at Stanford. You’ll “meet” her later :)

We headed to the jade market and picked up some more souvenirs – eight pieces of jade, two lapel pins, and 10 coin necklaces, to be exact. I think we did good on our bargaining because after we paid the man 600 HKD (about $70), his wife came out, they talked a bit, she in a progressively louder tone, and then she smacked him on the arm. Our win at the expense of the man made me feel kind of bad though. Hopefully his wife makes a bigger profit off of the next person who comes by :p

Leaving the jade market around 2PM, we headed to the metro and got off at Tung Chung to pick up a late lunch of buns, roast duck, apples, and chips before our trip up to the Big Buddha. I’m a sucker for local snacks everywhere we travel. 

We had some time to kill, so we watched the kids play in the fountains (the midday humidity is no joke here!), and went into a mall. There was nothing worth getting, so we headed to the gondolas for Lantau Island.

The gondola system is the Ngong 360, and it’s pretty impressive. Anchoring points of the infrastructure are at intermediate summits on the way up to Lantau Peak, but there are some pretty long stretches where there’s literally separating you from the island below, other than the floor of the cabin. I’m really glad we didn’t opt for the crystal cabin, which has a glass-bottom.

The ride to Lantau Peak was pretty stunning, though, and it was nice to get a preview of the Big Buddha on the way up:

Even from afar, this thing is pretty impressive, and it makes you wonder how it was built/assembled on site. SCIENCE.

We finally made it to the top, and the first thing that hit me was how touristy and Disneyland-like the place was. For some reason, I was expecting it to be quieter and more peaceful, with monks walking around. In retrospect, this was pretty stupid, because the signs of the emphasis on tourism where all there from the moment we got in the gondola line.

I think we may have behaved slightly offensively, but discretely so. Something about the massive amount of tourism just made me feel a little bit less respectful, which I somewhat regret…but these pictures make me smile and I’m banking on the fact that most deities have a sense of humor.


The ride back down wasn’t as bad for some reason. We picked up some pastries on the way home for Carrie’s bible study, and then headed back out to meet Edwin, another one of my colleagues from Stanford. Edwin was in the structural engineering group, acronymed “SEG”, and has been working at a civil engineering firm out here. We headed down Ladies Street (not what you think – it’s a shopping district that was historically geared toward women, not a place to buy them), to a café for some baked dishes. I got egg, beef, and tomatoes over rice, and devoured it. It’s sad. Dinner was only a few hours ago, and I don’t remember what Edwin and Ghyrn got. I must have been hungry haha.

After catching up a bit more, we parted ways with Edwin and headed home to plan out tomorrow. Preview: More markets, and a trip up to Victoria Peak!

Friday, August 7, 2015

9/22/11. Seoul -> HK

Our alarms woke us up at 6AM, and after getting ready quickly, we caught a train back to Incheon. We arrived at the airport at 8AM.

This is where the stress kicked in. Our flight to Hong Kong was at 9AM, and after having to cross the entire airport, we ran into a ridiculously long security line. CRAP.

I’d probably have been more hesitant to do this without Ghyrn there, but we ran as close to the front of the line where the security agent was, showed them our boarding passes, and told them that we’d miss our flight if we didn’t get through security quickly. This somehow worked, and they shuttled us through to the front of the security line. This was lucky moment #1.

Lucky moment #2 was when they weighed my backpack (most of the souvenirs were in it because G brought a smaller pack) and it was overweight, but they hand waved that too.  Phew.

We made it just in time to our seats, last ones to board. Close calls seem to be a theme of this trip…

My heart rate started to settle back to normal, and soon after takeoff, the Asiana flight attendant rolled by with a cart of bibimbap. Score. We REALLY need food service on the shorter flights in the States.

After chowing down and using the whole tube of gochujiang, I crashed for about 2 hours, and then watched part of the Scooby Doo movie. Missed the ending, but meh.

We landed and then caught the E22 bus to Lam Tim, per Carrie’s instructions. Carrie was a Post-Doc in my lab back at Stanford for the majority of my first two years there, and it was really awesome to work with her and be mentored by her. She got married toward the end of my Master’s degree and moved back to Hong Kong with her husband, who is a professor at the University of Hong Kong. She’s an awesome person, and we’re really blessed to be hosted by her, her husband Kenneth, and her parents during our last leg of the trip.

We were surprisingly a little hungry by the time we landed in Lam Tim, so we found a café called Laguna Pearl below Carrie’s condo (she was still at work, but said her dad could meet us in a bit). I initially thought we ordered too much – nian gao (rice cake), wonton noodle soup, HK style onion cakes, glutinous rice balls – but we devoured everything.

Stuffed, we headed up to the condo, where Carrie’s dad met us at the door. His English isn’t great but he knows some Mandarin, which put mine to the test. I was able to communicate that we should probably take a shower (after all the running around and Hong Kong humidity) before we were out the rest of the day. I have no idea what he and Ghyrn talked about, but while Ghyrn was in the shower Carrie’s dad kept saying (in Mandarin), “I’m a big dummy. You guys are smart.” He reminds me of my dad in this regard – really values education, and is expresses extreme humility to those who have more letters after their names than he does. I told him he’s probably smarter than I am because Carrie is so smart, and he laughed :)

It was hard to keep up with him – he’s really spry for his age – as we raced through crowds toward the ferry, and then hopped on a bus to Carrie’s work.

She ran out of the hospital, where she is a research director, smiling. It’s always nice to see someone doing well after a big life transition :)

We headed to Causeway Bay for some sushi, got caught up on her job and life out here, post-wedding and move, and finished just in time to catch the light show that the skyscrapers around Victoria Harbor put on. Look up Youtube videos. It’s pretty cool.

After the show, Carrie took us toward Temple Street, where we got some tea and milk toast. The food adventure continues! Temple Street also features some street markets, so we picked up some inappropriately funny souvenir magnets, one of which says: “Distance far you look like model. Near you look like animal”. It was hard to choose from the many options, but these are going to the Cal homies. They also had some canvas oil paintings of Hong Kong for ~$10. I am a sucker for these when I travel internationally, and bought two.

Meals seem to come in pairs here. After shopping, we got second dessert at a place that is known for their sweet soups. Carrie ordered an egg dessert, a green bean dessert, and a potato dessert, and even though we were still pretty full, it’s hard to stop me from trying everything when food is in front of me.

Due to exhaustion, the trip back to Carrie’s is a little bit of a blur, but we set up our bed and started a much-needed load of laundry. Tomorrow we will be meeting some people, eating some stuff, buying some stuff, and doing some stuff. Sounds about right.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

9/21/11. The Sea, the River, and the Sky.

We headed out to Sinchon in the morning for breakfast at the Hyundai Department Store. Conglomerates in Korea are interesting. Hyundai, for instance, has a motor group, which most people in the U.S. are aware of. What most don’t know, however, is that Hyundai also has a department store group, a heavy industries group that includes heavy equipment and shipping businesses, and a development company that has subsidiaries in construction, petrochemicals, retail, property management, healthcare, musical instrument production, and sports. A lot of the conglomerates are family-owned, meaning that there are top families in Korea that have a buttload of money. If you watch any Korean soaps (e.g., Boys Before Flowers), you might already be aware of this and its effects on socioeconomic structure in South Korea.

The bottom level of the department store had groceries and sweets, so we picked up some more Hot Deokk, along with some mocha and Jeju tangerines. Jejudo, an island off of the coast, is known for its sweet tangerines and is a World Heritage Site. We won’t have enough time to visit on this trip, but it’d be nice to come back another time. According to the interwebs, it seems pretty interesting – it’s a volcanic island with lava tubes, and also features an erotic sculpture park called Jeju Loveland. Don’t Google Search that at work.

After breakfast, we hopped back on the subway to Electronics City, which features bootleg/knockoff consumer electronics. Think fake iPhone 5’s, pre-release date in the U.S.:

There wasn’t really much to see there, so we left to meet Andy at the Noryinjin Fish Market. The fish market was laid out as one would expect, but in addition to the typical fish you’d see at a Japanese fish market, you can also get sashimi from “lower tier” fish. Still ocean-caught and fresh, but nothing you’d find on menus in the States. Andy and Ghyrn didn’t want to try any, so we left to grab lunch at a Kimchee Chiggae (Kimchee soup) place. In retrospect, I’m kind of regretting not experiencing some of the foods here, so I need to be a little bit more aggressive on that front.

After lunch, we said our goodbyes and parted ways with Andy. It’s been really nice getting to know him and hang with him here. Next time we see him will probably be back in the U.S.

Next on the itinerary was the Cheonggyecheon Stream near Gwanghwamun Square. If you’re a civil engineer, you might find this interesting. After the Korean War, immigrants to Seoul trashed the stream, so the government decided to cover it up with concrete over a period of 20 years. Some political figure in the early 2000’s pushed for restoration of the stream to promote eco-friendly urban design in Seoul. This is what it looks like now:

We got some funny pictures of tourists and tried to take some cool shots of the stream.

The plan for the evening was to meet Phil, one of my childhood friends from church for dinner, but we had a little time to kill so we headed to Bukchon Hanok Village. The village is a traditional Korean village that was preserved from its state 600-some years ago. Everything was closed by the time we got there, but it was still cool to see and watch the sunset from.

Dinner was back at Sinchon because Phil wanted to us to check out a Korean fried chicken place (HECK YEAH!). It was really good to see him after 7+ years and catch up over fried foods at Frying Pan Chicken. Even though I’m not as good of a church-going Christian as I used to be, it’s still nice to have “familial” connections whenever I travel. Actually, I’m not sure if quotes are appropriate. Some of the bonds I formed when I was a kid really do feel like familial bonds.

After dinner we left for Namsan Tower, another popular landmark in Korean pop culture due to the fact that it marks the highest point in Seoul. The cable car ride to the top was fun and a nice preview of the views we’d have at the observation deck, which offers 360 degree views of the city.

These are some pictures of the tower and observation deck. I’m really appreciating the ability of this Sony point-and-shoot’s handheld night mode, which I’m using to capture the “bright lights in the big cities”.

Also, this is one of the coolest places I’ve ever peed at:

Felt a little creepy taking a picture in the bathroom, but worth it!

We headed down from the tower, said bye to Phil, and went to Dondemun for some more last minute souvenir shopping. I touched a beanie and got yelled at by the vendor. Definitely didn’t buy anything from that guy. Also, puppies!

Even though we were full, I had to get one last fix of Deokk Boki for good measure. I’m really going to miss how good, available, and cheap it is here.

At home, packed, and fading now, but excited to head back out to Hong Kong tomorrow. Seoul's been good to us.