Sunday, June 30, 2013

Top Ten Reasons You Should Visit Tibet this Year

So after a very, VERY long week, I've crossed over from Tibet to Nepal.  Tibet, in case you didn't realize it (and you should, since I mentioned it in the last few posts), is technically part of China, so I was ecstatic to sit in front of a guesthouse and check my facebook this morning while waiting for a jeep to take me to Kathmandu.  Now, whether it is right or wrong that China owns Tibet's ass, I won't go into, so if you are here looking for one of my classic angry blogs, you're going to be disappointed.  A few days before I set off on my adventures my blog registered a hit from China.  Now, as I mentioned before, China blocks blogs as well as facebook, so I'm guessing whoever read it was somehow involved in the government, and that freaked me the heck out.  Now that I've been to Tibet, I'm not as worried about whether or not they will turn me away at the airport, but on the other hand, my guide and driver were fantastic, and they never said a bad word about the government, and I'd hate for them to get in trouble because I went shooting my mouth off for your entertainment. 
Anyways, without further ado, here's your top ten list, according to me:
10. Because people will smile at you, laugh at you, smack your ass...basically they will be thrilled you're there.
9. Because there's nowhere else on earth you will find people so dedicated to living what they believe.  Trust me, I know; I've seen quite a bit of this planet.
8. Because you've never tried yak.  And you should.
7. So that you can fully appreciate the wonder of toilets...well, basically anywhere else.  I'll dedicate a whole blog to toilets later.
6. Because you love colorful shit.  (I do - as an artist I can proudly say that I'm a whore for color, and everything from the walls to people's hair is colorful).
5. Highest mountain in the world.  'Nuff said.
4. Because "Temple Fatigue" is a real condition, and we need to spread awareness.  Did you know that long-term travel in Buddhist countries can lead to a syndrome called "Temple Fatigue?"  In an upcoming blog I will share the symptoms, and what you can do if you are suffering from it.
3. So that you will realize - when you are getting pissed off at being pushed in a huge crowd of worshippers at Tashillunbo Monastery - that as devoted as they are, Tibetans are still just people.  And people everywhere are pretty much the same (annoying!)
2. So you can have a better understanding of the situation.  So you can see the good things that have happened as a result of Tibet being part of China as well as getting pissed off over what isn't so great about it.

and the number one reason you should visit Tibet this year:

Because you can, dumbass.  The government has pretty much dropped all the permit restrictions.  How long do you think that's going to last?

Saturday, June 29, 2013

North Question, South Answer


There is a Korean proverb I learned when I was living there my first year: tong mun, seo dap.  The literal translation is, "East question, west answer," and it means that the answer is unrelated to the question.  Looking back, a lot of times I think this describes the relationship between North and South Korea.  Nobody gets it.  Damned if the American media does - I don't.  And what the hell am I going to write that will add anything meaningful to the conversation?  If I were still in Korea, teaching my students about the purposes of writing, the primary purpose of my blogging would be to "entertain," with "inform" serving as a secondary goal.  And most of the entertaining I do comes from gratuitous swearing and the occasional lewd joke.  And as my mother will gladly tell you, North Korea is most certainly not entertaining (unless you are scrolling through Kim Jong-Il Looking at Things), especially when your daughter is working in their backyard. 

Well, I'm not sure what I'm going to write, but I feel like the time has come, especially since I'm doing this ghost posting thing for when I'm in Tibet, and it just so happens that Korea is in the news again.  Government officials are meeting.  The factory in Kaesong (that's in the DMZ) may reopen.  Who knows?  Geumgangsan tours might even resume.
I had my first taste of North Korea in fall of 2004, less than four months after I'd moved there.  The DMZ tour is one thing you must not miss if you're in Seoul.  This is one of those times when you want to live by the mandate, "Don't be a dumbass."  When they bring you to the middle of the Joint-Security Area (or JSA, which is a fantastic movie if you get the chance to watch it), the American officers escorting you (if you are on the USO's tour) warn you not to point at the North Koreans.  Not to make faces at the North Koreans.  Don't do anything to provoke them in any way, because they have orders to shoot you if they feel it is warranted.  Straddling no-man's land is a blue building in which talks used to happen in the good old days, when Kim, Jr. played the carrot-and-stick game like a boss.  Inside this building you can cross over and actually be on the North Korean side.  The South Korean soldiers are constantly at attention, holding a tae-kwon-do ready pose.  The air is thick with tension.
You get to see other things besides the JSA on the tour, though.  The bridge of no return is one of them.  According to our guide, this was the route that families took to switch sides as the war was finally coming to an end, and once you crossed over, there was no looking back.  Reunification is always held up as an ideal, is mentioned from time to time, but as time passes, I think it becomes less and less likely.  Not only would it cripple the South's economy to be rejoined with the North, but the rising generation does not have the emotional ties to the North that their parents and grandparents had; they are simply not as invested in the idea.
And since Kim, Jr's death in 2011, the atmosphere has taken a turn for the worse.  Projects like the railway to link the two countries seem hopelessly naive.  I was on the bus from Incheon into Seoul the first time I realized Kim Jong-Il had died; the tv was flashing his picture, a lot of Korean, and dates.  There wasn't a huge celebration or anything, but there was a slight feeling of hope.
For sure he was not the best neighbor, but the South never took his posturing as seriously as America did.  In the summer of 2006 the North launched its first missile test during the time that I was there.  The following weekend, Bronte, Curly Sue, and I visited - with only a little trepidation on the part of our Dark Lord and Master, and no trepidation at all from my mother, as I put this under the heading, "Things My Mom Will Needlessly Worry Over if She Knows About Before They Happen" - Geumgangsan, the "diamond mountain" where Hyundai Asan had established a tourist area (read: paid a crapload of money to Kim, Jr's government so Koreans from the South could visit).  Partly this was because the mountain has cultural significance to both sides of the peninsula - it has its own proverb, Geumgangsan do ku gyeong, or "Even Diamond Mountain should be seen after eating."  Partly it came from the philanthropic notion that family reunions could be held here, although I'm not sure that they ever were.

As with the DMZ, Geumgangsan came with warnings.  Do not so much as take your camera out of your bag while crossing the border.  There are North Korean soldiers stationed every - what, 100 meters? - to watch the convoy of tourist buses as you pass impoverished villages.  They don't want photos of children playing in the dirt, or the farmers working the fields by hand just as their great-grandparents did being published.  If they see a camera, they will stop the convoy and search the bus, to make sure no such pictures get taken.  We were told not to speak Korean.  At all.  Partly this is so non-native speakers don't cause a linguistic clusterfudge...Korean is a hierarchical language, and you can insult someone by not saying "-yo" when you're supposed to, or saying it when you're not.  We were told not to speak either Kims' names, since there was no way for the North Koreans surrounding us to know what the context was, since we were dutifully not speaking Korean.  Finally, we were instructed to give the military installment we came near at one point a wide berth.  Two years after our trip, the seriousness of this rule was made clear when a South Korean woman was shot after entering the military area.  Supposedly she was warned to stop and go back before she was killed; who knows if that is the truth, as a request for a joint inquiry by the South was denied.  Regardless, please see mandate #1: Don't.  Be.  A Dumbass!
Once you are at the resort, you're allowed to take all the photos you like.  Provided you don't give your camera to a friend, which is what I did...these last four are actually Curly Sue's photos, taken on my camera, while Bronte and I were exploring at a more sedate pace...aka, visiting the bathhouse.  Hitting the jjimjjilbang continues to be one of my favorite things to do in Korea, and the North is no different.  The Oncheonjang hot spring's waters are piped into the baths, which are sparkling clean.  Did it cure all my ills?  Well, no - I was 26 and as fit as I've ever been back then, and I didn't have a whole lot of ills to speak of.  It sure did feel good, though.  There was also a performance by the Moranbong Acrobatic Troupe,  and let me tell you, if anyone can do these things like the Chinese, it's their North Korean neighbors.  That night we went to a North Korean restaurant for dinner.  In Shanghai, I always liked to laugh at the so-called North Korean restaurants.  Just because you've got waitresses in hanbok serving bibimbap doesn't mean you're North Korean.  However, I have a feeling the restaurant IN Geumgangsan was a little more authentic.  We were served wild boar on a grill.  The skin of the meat still had bristles on it.  Curly Sue and Bronte I think both refused to eat it.  I tried some, and it tasted gamey, but was otherwise good.
One last thought I just remembered - our makeshift passport.  Curly Sue here is modeling the neckwear we were to have on at all times.  Rather than stamping our passports when we went through at immigration, we had identification cards that were stamped in lieu of it.  I was never entirely clear on why that was - possibly to save us some grief coming back into our home countries - but we had to present it on arrival and departure, and woe unto the person who lost it or got it wet.  Unfortunately, as I mentioned before, tours to Geumgangsan have been defunct for several years.  If you're really interested in visiting North Korea, try checking out Time Travel Turtle's blog.  And with that, I must go finish packing - it is creeping up on one in the morning and I fly out in about nine hours.  See you soon with tales from the roof of the world.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Lonely Planet: GDA

As you should know by now (unless you are JUST tuning in) I'm off in the Himalayas for another two weeks.  As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, there's a lot of stuff I did in Korea that I never blogged about.  I did, however, begin this tongue-in-cheek guide to working for a hagwon at the end of my second stint there, and I've never done anything with it.  So I reckon the time has come for me to use it, by way of intro to the next few posts.  I hope you'll enjoy it...and for starters, that classic Lonely Planet Caveat, about prices changing and things closing, etc, is definitely true for this post - which I have not edited much - because it was written seven years ago...
The Author
Becky the Great worked as an indentured servant for GDA for sixteen months before returning to America to seek a position in art education with an international school.  Having accomplished this she returned to Korea for five months; Heaven only knows why, but you're free to speculate.  She is currently in the Kingdom of Bahrain (that's in the Persian Gulf, for all you geography majors out there) trying not to be abducted on camelback by rich oil sheiks.  If you want to contact her for information on directions around Korea, information on getting the hookup with an international school, or negotiation tips when it comes to leasing your soul to Satan, feel free to email her at (actually, if you really want to email me, you should look at my profile).

Introduction
Welcome to a little corner of the world called Bundang!  You are about to enter a fantastic, frustrating, fulfilling, and often futile world where parents will have a huge influence on your life and you will (probably) get your first grey hair.  If you think that this life is going to be a cakewalk, you've got another thing coming.  However, the growth that you experience - personally and professionally - will be such that at the end of the year, you will look back fondly on all challenges.  Or if that doesn't do it for you, the money you've made, or the travelling you've done, or the fun nights you can't remember after one too many bottles of soju might.  So strap on your helmet and kneepads (the helmet is for the kindergarteners...you might not need the kneepads if you're not planning on kissing ass, it IS optional...) and get set for a year (or more) that can best be summed up in one word:  random.

FACTS ABOUT GDA
History
GDA (Great Dreams Academy) Junior was opened in Bundang in 2002, after the Powers that Be decided they should expand.  The original school is in Seocho, and was known for a number of years as SLP.  I have no idea what that means, but apparently someone (presumably Mr. Jin) decided if they were paying that much to run under someone else's name, they should just shell out and become their own company.  Since then, GDA has become "the" hagwon for intensive kindergarten in Bundang, for a number of reasons that I'm sure you have no interest in.
Climate
Since GDA is one of the satellite regions of Hell, you'll find that the weather alternates from bitterly icy and cold to blisteringly hot, depending on your proximity to the inner circle and whether or not the Powers that Be are in a mood.  Seriously, though, Korean weather is much like the American midwest.  Spring and fall are pleasant, summer is sweltering (the air is so humid you can swim through it), and the winter is bitterly cold, with dry Siberian winds blowing down from the north.

Yes, you are going to be working for these crazy mother-father-gentlemen...
Government and Politics
GDA Bundang is owned by our queen, Park Ji-Soo.  She is a lovely lady but a bit like a ghost.  If you see her, you will probably mistake her for a parent (actually, she does have a son, but he's way too old for our school now).  Mostly your life will be annoyed by these assholes.  The Korean ones will be passive-aggressive and never directly tell you what is wrong.  The kyobo (Koreans raised abroad) ones will get in your face and tell you that if you mess with them they WILL F^CKING END YOU.  You may have different management preferences depending on the day.  Behind closed doors they are just as annoying to each other.  Just try to do your damn job and you'll do fine.

Population and People
The majority of people who go overseas to teach English are freaking crazy ass black sheep.  GDA is no exception.  Everyone from the monkey man you'll be calling "Master" down to the lowliest IK-1 baby class teacher is nuts.  If you were relatively sane when you first came, by the time you leave this will have changed (the author had been in Korea for six months the first time she stomped into the staffroom and swore like a sailor.  Seriously.  My family hardly recognized me on my return).  The stories about teachers at GDA - of which there are 15 foreigners - are too numerous to go into here; someday I hope to write a complete book about it.
Language
Korean and broken English.  You should learn to read Han-geul, not only because it will help you and look really impressive (nine years later and I'm still banking on this skill!) but also because it's a totally kick-ass alphabet.  The Koreans LOVE the king who invented it, Sejong Dae-Won, who saw that his people were illiterate because the pain-in-the-ass Chinese characters they were using and rectified the system.  Here are some phrases you may find useful:
Annyeong haseyo: Hello
Kamsahamnida: Thank you
Sillye hamnida: Excuse me
Chuseyo: Please
Annyeongi kaseyo: Goodbye
Yang-o seon-ssaeng-nnim: English teacher
Hagwon: private academy
Chuggollae: Do you want to die?

FACTS FOR THE VISITOR
Visas and Immigration
Congratulations, you've just become an alien.  Immigration is the office in charge of making sure you're not in the "illegal" category.  Specifically you're a resident alien, which means that the government knows you're here, you'll be here for a while, and it's kosher.  In your first 90 days you have to go to the immigration office and declare your residency or something.  Usually this falls under Mr. Han's jurisdiction (and is done in the first month), so when he asks you for three pictures and your passport, it's not because he plans to sell you into white slavery.  It will be about 2 weeks before you get it back, and he'll also give you your alien registration card which you should have on you ALL THE TIME.  P.S. Losing it is a bad idea. 
If you are a Canadian, and you want to leave the country during your contract, you will need a re-entry permit.  It costs - well, who the hell knows?  Do I look Canadian to you? - and is obtained through the immigration office, where you got your resident card and whatnot.
If you are American, you automatically have a reentry permit with your original visa.  If you choose to extend or renew your contract, you WILL need to get a re-entry permit if you plan to leave and come back.  This can be done at the same time as the visa extension, if you make a point of asking for it, and will you an indeterminate amount of money - ask Mr. Han (or Mr. Bae, or whoever the hell is doing that job at this point).  You can get it at the airport, but you're better off having it ahead of time, since there is no guarantee that you or the necessary officials will have the time to take care of it then.
MONEY

Exchanging Money
You can exchange money at the airport when you first arrive in Korea, but you will not get the best rate this way.  Banks give a better exchange rate, and Woori (where you will have your account in Korea) is just down the street from the school.  If you are in a pinch in Seoul, you can exchange money after bank hours in shops in Itaewon (recognizable by the "Money Exchange" signs on their windows, dumbass) or in the markets (there are ajjummas with black bags sitting in the alleys of Namdaemun and Dongdaemun...this probably isn't entirely legal and you won't get a good exchange rate, but in a pinch...)

ATM's and Credit Cards
Not all ATMs will take your foreign card.  You'll find more in Itaewon as a rule.  In Bundang, the closest is in Samsung Plaza.  Go down the escalators from the 3-2 bus and hang to the left in the atrium.  Go down the hall to the right after you pass the jewelry section, and you'll be able to use the ATMs next to the door.  As a general rule, if you see the Visa/Mastercard/etc. sign on a shop, they will take your foreign credit card.  This is not a hard and fast rule, though.

International Transfers
Depending on your spending habits, you may never send a dime home the whole time you are in Korea.  In case you do, you will need your paystub, passport, and the routing and account numbers for your bank back home (most easily located at the bottom of your check).  The boys upstairs at Woori bank speak English well and will help you through the process.  Woori charges W20,000 for international wires.  You will also (probably) pay $15 to an international clearinghouse, which receives the money before sending it to the bank where your foreign account is held, who will take another $10 (at least, this is how it works for Bank of America).  Sending home money orders is supposedly cheaper (I have never done this because no one at home has access to my bank account), but there is a $10,000 limit on exporting money this way.

COMMUNICATION AND POST

Email and Internet Access
The school has a computer lab that you can use for your basic computer needs (no, pornography is not a basic need).  They can also help you establish an internet connection for your apartment.  If, like me, you are technologically deficient (ie, you don't have a computer), you can use an internet cafe (PCbang in Korean), which is recognizable by the letters PC.  They are, literally, everywhere, because Korean gamers prefer not to game themselves to death at home for some reason.  It's around W1500 for an hour (or W1000 for 40 minutes).

FOOD
Pizza: Pizza Hut (1588-5588), Papa John's (1577-8080), and Pizza Itariana all deliver and speak enough English to call in an order.  Mr. Pizza, Nilli, Basta Pasta, and Pasta Roll are all in Samsung Plaza and have pizza as well as pasta dishes that are pretty good (I'm a big fan of Pasta Roll's lasagna). 
Mexican: La Merce (in Samsung Plaza)...I don't like it, but I'm not a big fan of crazy stuff in my burritos...I suggest Dos Tacos in Gangnam and Chili Chili in Itaewon for a straight up burrito, and Pancho's in Itaewon has a good variety of dishes as well as salsa dancing, but is a little more expensive.
Thai: Yuldong Park is home to one of the best Thai restaurants you could ever hope for.  It's called Thai&Joy; be sure to save room for dessert, because their steamed bananas in coconut milk is to.  Die.  FOR.
Indian:  There's a place out beyond Yuldong Park, as well as Thali (second floor of the Outback building in Samsung Plaza), and Ganges.
Vietnamese:  Pho Bay, behind Krispy Kreme.
American Restaurants: Bennigan's is near Samsung Plaza (walk back to the corner from getting off the bus coming from Seoul, turn a left and you'll see it ahead).  TGIFriday's is a large block north from the bus stop on Bus Street.  Get off the 3-2, walk to the corner, go right, and you'll come to it.  For Outback (Should this be considered Australian?  Well, whatever, all us white people look the same, right?), walk forward to the corner after getting off the bus coming in from Seoul, and you'll see the sign on the corner of the building.
American Chains: Subway, McDonalds, KFC, Krispy Kreme, Dunkin' Donuts, and Baskin Robbins are the main ones, and all have locations in or around Samsung or closer.
Korean Food: Where you want to go depends on what you want.  The Kimbap Palace (actually Kimbap Cheon-guk in Korean), had a wide range of food.  It is completely acceptable to see what all the Koreans are eating, and point out what you want to eat to the ajjushi or ajjuma who takes your order.  There is a restaurant that does galbi on the Seohyeon Road as you walk toward McDonald's, before the HiOB.  Be warned: Korean food is often very spicy.  Watch out for dishes with a reddish-orange color; they are flavored with gochu-jang, a red pepper sauce.  If you only want a little spiciness, ask for "chokkeom mae-hwa!"  Some of the most popular Korean foods are bulgogi (marinated beef with veggies), kimbap (Korean "sushi"), samgyeopsal (barbecued fatty pork - like extra thick-cut bacon - eaten in a wrap of lettuce), dolsot bibimbap (veggies, rice, and an egg served in a sizzling hot stone pot), dalkgalbi (spicy stir-fried chicken), mandu (dumplings), and chap-chae (glass noodles served with meat, usually pork).

GETTING THERE AND AWAY
Someone (almost definitely Mr. Han) will meet you at the airport.  He actually speaks some English, so don't be shy!  If he doesn't talk to you, take it as a bad sign (I'm just joking).  It will take a while to get to Bundang, because Incheon is hella-out-of-the-way, and if, for some reason John picks you up, he will probably get lost (no, he's not some random psycho who is kidnapping you right "off the boat" so to speak...or at least, he's not kidnapping you right off the boat).  In future trips out of the country and back, you will either need to get a cab (expensive) or take the airport bus to/from Samsung Plaza.

GETTING AROUND
Samsung Plaza is going to be a big part of your life here.  To get there, take the 3, 3-1, or 3-2 bus from about a block away from the school (or at strategic points around the back of Taehyeon Park) until it gets to a big building that says - surprise! - Samsung Plaza.  Or you can get into a cab and say "Somsung Puhrajah" or "Seohyeon Yuck."  Bus costs W650, cab fare should be between W2500-4000.
There are two streets people will give directions with reference to: the Bank Street and the Bus Street.  The Bank Street (thus named for the location of our branch of Woori Bank) has two saunas, a grocery store (GS, beneath Woori bank), the closest Kimbab Palace, a Japanese place called Miso-ya, and a jjajjang restaurant.  There really isn't very much on the Bus Street except for the buses.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

M50: Art in Shanghers

There are times when I am not a very good art teacher.  I lived in Shanghai for two years and only made it to M50 once, in spite of the fact that one of the local stream art teachers, Cécile Girard, exhibited work there at least once in those two years.  I could make excuses, but it just boils down to the fact that I'm lazy.  However, I did make it there one Saturday afternoon before I left, and I always meant to blog about it...since I mentioned it in my final Tatym blog, I suppose I'll make this my first ghost blog.

(Why am I ghost posting?  Well, I guess my blog has sort of become like a child to me.  I can't imagine leaving it alone for the three weeks I'll be gone, or even for the one when I'll be unable to access it on the other side of the Great Wall.  So I'm writing these flashbacks from Mongolia, to babysit for me while I'm gone.  I hope you enjoy them).
M50 is a collection of art galleries on Moganshan Lu, not far from the Shanghai Railway station.  It's not quite big enough to call a gallery district (not like the Crossroads area in my hometown, Kansas City), and because I was not the most proactive art teacher during those two years, I can't tell you if they have one big opening night during a month, or what.
Much of the art that I saw that afternoon was not particularly original.  Which is not to say it wasn't good, but I had seen the likes of it before, such as the photographs of different ethnic minorities and street scenes that you'll see ad nauseum in Tianzifang or even the Hongqiao pearl market.  This artist, whose name I regretfully didn't write down, was one of my favorite exceptions.  His depictions of China under apocalyptic skies in dull, polluted colors matched my two-years experience (I was particularly vitriolic in the last few months of my contract...you should watch this video for a more balanced perspective).
If I'm remembering correctly, the buildings of M50 used to be factories.  As you wander from building to building there are sculptures to see.  The day I went I ran into a student whose mom is an artist - it's fairly kid-friendly.  This was one of my more favorite sculptures - it reminded me of my high school lit teacher, Drim, who made us read the existentialist short story "Rhinoceros," by Eugene Ionesco.
However, I mentioned M50 last weekend because of the street art there.  If you walk north along Moganshan Lu from the main entrance, you will see the best collection of murals in the city.
As I was refreshing my memory on a few points to write about, I read that some of these walls were supposed to be demolished by the end of last year.  I didn't revisit M50 while I was in Shanghers in April, so I don't know if that happened or not.  It is not particularly surprising to me.  Shanghai is one of those cities where anything that is not neat and clean is rapidly being mowed down and done away with, and street art has always been a little bit anti-establishment.  The fact that it exists at all in a country so very pro-establishment is the real surprise.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Grub Club: The Castle

Okay, so I lied a little.  This is not a proper grub club post.  Grub Club has disbanded for the summer.  However, the school took us to The Castle Restaurant at the Children's Park for the seniors' graduation dinner, so I'm working with it.
I was really proud of the seniors.  I taught maybe half of them in my art elective this year, and two of those are going on to study art related careers - architecture and fashion design.  However, I would have much preferred a graduation dinner like we took the 8th graders for on Friday - just me and the other homeroom teacher, and 24 kids at another castle...the Irish Castle.  This is because some of my esteemed colleagues annoy the everliving crap out of me, and when the speeches started it got real old, real fast.  I mean, who the hell quotes the Qu'ran at a graduation dinner in a Buddhist country?!?  I could understand if it was particularly relevant or inspiring, but it wasn't.  It made my brain hurt so I won't go on.
I don't particularly care for these formal dinner event type things, even without taking into account my annoying colleagues.  There's the fact that you have to wait and wait to be served, and you don't get to pick what you're going to eat (I know, bitch, bitch, bitch - hey, it's a free dinner, I know I shouldn't complain).  They brought out bread first, which was good, and had some variety.
There were a variety of drinks on the table when we arrived, some of which were warm.  There was ONE coke on the table, and since I got to my table first (we were assigned tables to sit at - also not my favorite thing, although since I didn't have to sit with any of the aforementioned annoying coworkers I shouldn't bitch about that, either) I stole it.  Fire Marshall brought another one over, because he loves me so much (either that, or he knows what I'm like if I don't get my coke).  The second course was a salad, and although I wasn't too sure about the salmon, the little basket thing it's served in is made of parmesan cheese and that was awesome.
The main course was beef with vegetables.  It had a nice flavor but did get lodged in our teeth.  Also note the bone served with it.  Apparently you're supposed to eat the marrow.  I'm an unrefined hick and I felt no need to eat the marrow, no matter how good it was or how good for you.

There was also a dessert, which was good, but not unforgettable, since I have, in fact, forgotten what it was, only that it did not suck.
As far as ambience goes, it wasn't really all that special on the inside.  This clay relief sculpture was the best thing it had going for it, and you only saw it as you walked into the main seating area.  The outside, however, really does look like a castle, straight out of Disney.  If princesses aren't your thing, there's a pirate ship just next door.
Someday my prince will come...

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Taking it to the Streets: Part III


I am not really into the club scene.  I don't drink.  I don't smoke (admittedly, not a hindrance here since they outlawed smoking in public places a few months back).  I don't really dance unless the music involves tabla, mizmar, oud, and/or Arabic lyrics.  And - let me be totally and completely blunt - I don't particularly care for what music becomes at the hands of your typical DJ.  There are exceptions, of course.  Let's say you dropped me at one of the DJ parties at Katharos.  I'd be okay with that.  Bronte has excellent taste and her lounge attracts talent (also, I'd listen to the worst off-key warbling to be back in Greece, eating her cooking!)  But on the whole, give me a good book and a warm blanket rather than punish me with hours of loud, repetitive "music."

However, I decided that I was going to see this street art festival thing through, even if Wednesday's field trip didn't turn out the way I was hoping.  Yesterday Geek and I went to the kick-off party for the public part of the festival with a DJ party at iLoft.  There have been workshops taking place there all week as well, including DJ workshops by l'Homme's brother, DJ No Breakfast (ooh, look at my journalistic integrity, there...bringing attention to the fact that I kind of know someone and may have personal bias!  I almost feel like a real writer!)

For once this year, I didn't take pictures, other than the one above of some of the new art decorating the walls of iLoft.  I know the limitations of my phone's camera - there is not much use posting blurry photos of a club.  I could describe iLoft to you, but you'd need to be a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (if you ARE, think of the Bronze).  As for the music, I really kind of liked it.  It was not deafening - Geek and I could actually talk while we were there.  It had a good beat.  I could recognize parts of some of the music, but it was not so repetitive that I wanted to beat my head against a wall.  Is that considered good for a DJ party?  Well, how the hell should I know - I began with the admission that it's not really my scene, didn't I?  But when we left around midnight, it was because I was about to turn into a pumpkin (it was an emotional last day at school and I couldn't sleep in this morning because we went out to Gachuurt with Five for the last time today), and not because it sucked.  I actually enjoyed it a lot.
Today was the main event at the Children's Park.  After getting back from Gachuurt I met up with Domestic Goddess and Fire Marshall at the Black Market (easier said than done!) and we walked over to check things out.  In spite of liking the music last night we skipped straight over to the art part.  Fire Marshall likes street art as much as I do, and was thrilled to tell me he'd found a new Renard this afternoon.  He also agreed that the best street art is site-specific.  This piece of sticker art was probably my favorite, because it worked with what was already there.
After having a good look around, we met their spawn and Five at Gyengbokgung for dinner.  En route, Fire Marshall showed me the new Renard he'd found, and I got to see this one as well.  I mentioned that I'd never seen so much street art in an Asian city, especially considering Ulaanbaatar is NOT that big.  The closest thing was the murals near M50 in Shanghai, and that's gallery central (I should write about that sometime.  Maybe I can do that for one of my flashback ghost blogs).  They told me that last year was different - there wasn't as much to see.  When I told them that this was the second year for Tatym, we realized that made a lot of sense.  This year's festival has already had its impact on the city at large - walking down the plaza between the Beatles monument and the Circus, we saw where someone had stickered the barriers with some of the stickers my students were given on Wednesday.  I hope next year makes the third year...but my students will have to go experience it on their own.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Taking it to the Streets: Part Deux

I have not taken students on a single field trip all year long.  We were warned, at the beginning of the year, to consider other teachers, that basically they would bitch about losing class time, and so I didn't plan anything.  I didn't mind too much.  However, we did have a day this week, Wednesday, when testing was over and nothing was really planned, and it was suggested that this might be an excellent day for a field trip.  So at the beginning of May, when l'Homme told me that the Alliance Française would be holding their second Tatym Street Art Festival, I decided that this was the perfect field trip at the perfect time.  After all, I teach the 9th graders about street art, so it would be relevant, and it would give me the chance to do something fun with my homeroom class.
I LOVE these kids.  They are sweet and funny - they seriously crack me up everyday.  I was not looking forward to being a homeroom teacher, because I am not the most organized, responsible sort of person, but starting every morning with these kids has been a delight to me all year.  In fact, I would be hard pressed to say who I loved more - wild and crazy 8B, or my original class of anklebiters, on the 4th floor at GDA (actually, my anklebiters are about this old now...time flies...)
Thus, I was more than normally mortified when my awesome field trip turned out to be a fail.  When we got to the Children's Park, which was hosting the art workshops, the organizer wasn't there.  The artists weren't there.  The guards didn't want to let us in.  We stood out in the sprinkling cold rain for more than a half hour before the guards decided to go ahead and sell us tickets, and then we still didn't know where we were supposed to go, because the organizer still wasn't there.  When she finally got there, she didn't really know what to do with us.  The kids were impressed with what they saw, and she was going to let us paint, even though the artists weren't there, but before she could get us set up, it started raining again.  Eventually the sticker artist (I'm leaving names out of this, because I'm hoping that this was just one of those days where things just fall apart - it does happen here a lot, and in fact happened to the sixth graders' field trip when they went to the planetarium and the government just decided that they needed to use the telescopes that night - and NOT incompetence that led to this fiasco) showed up, and he passed out a book of his work and some stickers for my kids to use.  However, we had already gotten permission to leave the park for lunch by then, and we were just waiting for the bus to come take us.
And that's another reason why I love these guys so much.  Instead of complaining and making me feel bad, they embraced the chaos.  No art?  Okay, let's go play on the playground of an empty amusement park (I only wished I'd had make-up...we would have filmed a zombie movie!)  No food?  "Ms. M, could we maybe please go somewhere to eat?"  So we finished our field trip by having the bus driver take us to Millie's, where they put a bunch of tables together for us - luckily there was no one there when we arrived! - and had a delicious lunch, just me and my awesome kids.  And when they finished, we waited for the bus across the street, outside the Choijin Lama Temple Museum, where we took a bunch of goofy photos and joked about going to the wedding palace next door and getting married, singing that ridiculous Bruno Mars song.
Which freaking made me wonder - what the hell have they been doing in music all year?!?  I understand that NO ONE can sing some songs (such as "Diamonds" - Rihanna doesn't even sound good singing it and it's her damn song), but c'mon - this is "Jingle Bells!" Anyways, I'm not quite done with Tatym - I'm going to the opening DJ party tonight and will try to revisit the park tomorrow to see how the murals turned out.  Stay tuned.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Taking it to the Streets: Part I

Years ago, when I worked in UMKC's Financial Aid office, one of the coordinators warned me off Athens.  She complained that it was a "dirty city," that she hadn't liked it at all.  Well, by the time I made it there, they'd hosted the Olympics, and of course this had an impact on the state of the city.  However, I couldn't help but feel that the crumbling buildings and the graffiti were part of what she found objectionable, and these were partly what I found charming (also helping: the friendliness of the Greeks in general, the hotness of their men, in particular, their food - OH GOSH THE FOOD! - I could go on.  I love Greece).  But then, I AM an art teacher, which not only means I have a tendency to be a little weird, but also that I've studied street art before.
Over the years as I've traveled, I've taken pictures of the street art I've seen.  There's not as much in Asia as there is in Europe.  However, I was pleased to discover Ulaanbaatar - which, admittedly, seems more European at times than Asian - has a flourishing street art scene, and a lot of it is quite good.

I particularly love the clever ones, such as this one.  I love the use of the location, the pairing of something 3-dimensional with the painting.  Perversely, because sculpture is not something I am good at, I love sculptural installations most of all, such as Slinkachu's miniature installations.  Most of them have such an amazing sense of humor about them, and it's so unexpected to run into something like that - it's like the art equivalent of a street festival or a flash mob.

This one and the next were - presumably - by the same artist, since they bear the same style, sense of humor, and tag - Renard - although I can't seem to dig anything up about him.  The second example, Monsters Everywhere, is right around the corner from this random statue of the Predator.
I have been excessively lazy today (I ditched church, read, and baked enchiladas), and yesterday I went exploring and watched a jazz show, but nothing I could flesh out a full blog over.  So here we are.  It's not a total coincidence as the Alliance Française is hosting a street art festival this week, and I'm taking my darlings, my 8B students, to see it, so you can expect Part II later this week.  Stay tuned.
Also, I've begun to prepare/panic in earnest over the summer.  In two weeks from now I should be in Lhasa.  I'll also be hitting Nepal and Bhutan before coming back here.  The panic is because I'm going to be squeezing blood from stones by the time September 20th rolls around, a date that I am sulking over but I'll say no more on that, because it wouldn't be professional.  I'm also looking for someone to ghost post for me while I'm in Tibet and don't have access to blogger.  If you're a friend and not a random reader and you're interested, I'll send you postcards or something.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Grub Club: Tuul Restaurant

Tonight was the penultimate Grub Club for the school year, and it was Joanne's choice.  She had been wanting to take us to CCCP, a Russian restaurant, but after failing to get ahold of anyone we have come to the conclusion that it is defunct.  This is how we ended up going to Tuul, which is kind of an international fusion restaurant, instead.  I've been curious about this place for a while, mostly because they have salsa night every Friday, and I'd love to start salsa dancing, if I can find someone to go with me (strangely enough, going out dancing is one of the few things I don't really want to do alone.  Movies, restaurants, no problem, but dancing is a kind of a social activity and I would feel awkward going it alone).   
Finding nothing much more tempting, I decided I wanted khuushuur (having them on Sunday may have swayed me a little).  However, I decided khuushuur alone was not healthy enough, so I ordered the Chinese garlic and cucumber salad as well.  The khuushuur was delicious - the mutton was neither too muttony nor too fatty...the salad was awful.  It didn't have much flavor to it, although it looked and smelled delicious.  I tried adding some salt and pepper, but it didn't do any good.  Do yourself a favor and give this one a miss.
Domestic Goddess was disappointed, because the website said that Tuul had pad Thai, but she couldn't find it on the menu.  Geek ordered what we figure was approximately the same thing, although it went by a different name on the menu.  It was delicious.  Domestic Goddess went with the Bangkok chicken instead, which came with a delicious chili sauce, but that was the best thing about it.  Otherwise it was fairly lackluster.
By far the best dish ordered tonight was the burger that Engrish and PE shared.  It was big, juicy and flavorful, and came with a side of what Fire Marshall declared "the best fries in Mongolia."  They were cut fairly thin and had a nice seasoning on them - I can't argue with him on this one.
Finally, there's the pizza.  Domestic Goddess ordered a pepperoni one, but Mad Science, who apparently LOVES balls, went for the meatball pizza.  I was fortunate enough to have some of Domestic Goddess' and it was so-so.  Overall, Tuul was a hit-or-miss restaurant.  Some of the food was great, other dishes were lackluster.  Be prepared to strike out.  And if you do, hope that it starts raining as you're on your way out the door, because rainbows make everything better.  Five (who made it to dinner tonight, presumably because she loves Engrish more than me) pointed this one out to me as our taxi was on the Peace Bridge.  It was a great one, stretching unbroken all the way across the sky.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Spectacular, Spectacular!

Acrobats on the flying trapeze = not passé

"...no words in our vernacular,
can describe this great event,
you'll be dumb with wonderment."

Acrobats, contortionists, even dancing bears...tonight's performance at the state circus could not HELP but remind me of Moulin Rouge, one of my very favorite movies.  I didn't begin the night in a stellar mood.  I am becoming jaded, I think.  The Chinese acrobatic thing where they haul themselves up with strips of silk has become passé.  The guy who did the balancing act with the big pot at Shanghai Circus World had a bigger pot, and everyone knows that size DOES matter.  At least when it comes to pot balancing acts.  And beyond all that, I paid for the freaking VIP seats, but they are NOT the front ones.  They are big and cushy and the one I was sitting on was not broken (unlike the one I sat in for the international circus, but behind the front three rows.  I am ALL about the front row, rock fans.

I've been to the circus three times now in as many months.  Why did I go again, especially admitting the fact that I'm becoming bored with some of it?  This circus was special.  It wasn't the trapeze artists, which were, admittedly NOT passé.  It wasn't the jazzy contortion number (actually, their jumpsuit costumes annoyed me), or even the woman who could twirl ten hula hoops at one time (the student who did that with three hoops at SUIS' talent show a couple years back would have been eating her heart out).  I wasn't kidding about the dancing bears...this circus had animals.  Which, I guess, means it wasn't supposed to be performed in the state circus building, which is a member of the World Society for the Protection of Animals, but somehow, here it was.  There were not as many animals as were originally advertised by the UB Post, but I was most interested in seeing the bears, anyways. 
There's the usual question of animal cruelty.  Nobody really wanted to come with me, because they didn't know how they felt about that.  Should wild animals be trained?  And if they are, can you guarantee that they will be well-cared for?  The bears in the circus tonight seemed healthy, at least.  It's hard to guess at their mental state.  They did their tricks - tumbling, balancing, carrying a dog around the arena - without hesitation, and their trainers seemed affectionate toward them.  They were amazing to watch; they're beautiful creatures, and huge, and absolutely lethal looking.  They had muzzles on their mouths, but their claws were terrifyingly long.
In the end, I decided VIP seating was okay.  When I left the Hill, I decided not to bring my "big guns" (my DSLR), since it was sure to draw more attention to myself, and I hate that moment when the usher taps on your shoulder and shakes his finger at you for taking pictures.  Either the ushers didn't care that we were snapping away, or they didn't bother me because I paid for the privilege, because I did take some photos, and even decided that I would take a video.  So enjoy!

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Internations Bonne Vivante

Once upon a time, I'd never been abroad (it's been eleven years and about eleven months since I could say that).  I've never written in the blog about that first trip, because it was way before blogging; perhaps I should work on that, because the month I studied abroad in Venice had a HUGE impact on me, beginning with the moment at the Kansas City Airport when my Dad said that I was about to become an international bon vivant..."Or whatever the feminine version of that would be."  (I haven't studied any more French since then, but I'm pretty sure it's bonne vivante, which would sound the same, anyways).  I really liked that title - meaning something along the lines of "someone living the good life" - and if you go back and read my posts, I'm pretty sure I've referred to myself as such before.
You're not doing too badly if you're living in a calendar

Well, I figure I've been doing a pretty good job living the good life since coming to Mongolia.  Or a helluva lot better than I did in Shanghai, at any rate.  And the biggest part of that, as I've mentioned before, is the awesome friends I have here.  Unfortunately, one of the things that sucks the most about the expat lifestyle is the turnover rate.  Of the people I spend regular amounts of time with, about 70% will be gone next year, and that sucks the big one, because if there's one thing I've learned as an international bonne vivante, it's that friends (or the lack thereof) will either make or break your experience.  One word says it, if you know me at all: Bahrain.

And this is why I decided about a month ago to join Internations.  I had seen they had a UB group when I was first getting ready to come here, but I thought it was strictly a paid site, and I wasn't sure that it was worth it.  Well, Domestic Goddess and Fire Marshall cleared up my fallacy - it IS a paid site, but it is also possible to have a low-level free membership, which is what I'm currently taking advantage of.  Because although it is true that there are a helluva lot of new people coming to our school next year, and probability would suggest that some of them will be awesome, there is no guarantee that they won't be complete and utter...well, let's just leave it at that, suffice it to say that I thought it might be nice to have options.  In fact, this weekend I chose to ditch said (leaving) awesome friends (who are ger camping right at this very moment) in order to attend an event I found on Internations, and ended up going to a second one as well.
What kind of event would be tempting enough to drag me away from my friends in our final weeks together?  Cooking class, of course!  Not just any cooking class, though - cooking class in Terelj National Park.  I hadn't been there yet (actually, it is where my awesome friends were going ger camping this weekend), so it was an added bonus.  Getting to the family who was teaching us, though, was a trip - we drove pretty far into the park, got out, went "over the river and through the woods" before getting into what I would like to call a "steppe bus," which freaked out a lot of my fellow chefs (mostly French, with a Mongolian, Russian, and another American thrown in) but which to me felt just like being back on my grandparents' farm, feeding the cows.
When we got to the family's ger, we were treated to milk tea, bread, and tarag (homemade Mongolian yogurt) for breakfast.  Then the real work began.
On the agenda for the day: making khushuur and buuz, which are Mongolian fried and steamed dumplings, respectively.  Back at Tsagaan Sar (Mongolian New Year) when I asked my students what they were doing on the holiday they told me "eating lots and lots of buuz."  These dumplings are central to Monglian cuisine and are made essentially the same way - you mince a LOT of mutton, add in some garlic, onion, salt, and seasoning, wrap it in a bit of dough (there are different wrapping styles for each), and either deep fry it or steam it. 

The wrapping is, beyond a doubt, the hardest part.  I've made Korean mandu before, and hell, I'm an art teacher, so I thought I'd do quite well.  I couldn't have been more wrong.  There is some sort of pinchy-foldy technique that results in a beautiful pattern along the edge, and I couldn't for the life of me figure it out, no matter how many times our hostess showed me, or how many khushuur I made - although they looked a little better by the time I made my last one, and I was getting faster at sucking.

Our only man on the trip also happened to be in Mongolia pursuing a doctorate in anthropology, and he regaled us with a story of a Mongolian VIP - I can't remember in what field - who traveled to China.  The Chinese fed him their best cuisine and said, "Isn't this tasty, isn't it better than what you eat in Mongolia?"  To which he replied that it was tasty, but the Chinese eat like rabbits while the Mongolians eat like wolves.  Well, us Westerners like our rabbit food, too...a typical Mongolian family could eat JUST khushuur for a meal, but we had to have our salad, and we chopped up cabbage to put into the dumplings.  Our host family kind of thought we were crazy because we cut the biggest pieces of fat off; they were happy to keep them.  Anyways, I was exhausted by the end of the day and I've rarely been so happy to see my bed (which is why I didn't finish this last night, faithful reader), but it was a good trip.  If you're interested in that sort of thing and read French, it was organized through EcoVoyage Mongolie.

Did I mention a second event?  Yes, I did.  Having nothing better to do on Saturday, at the last minute I joined a paintball expedition.  A couple of Russian guys (Alex and Andrei, if I caught their names correctly) run a paintball course south of the Tuul, west of Zaisan, and one of the UB Internations Ambassadors decided this would be a great activity for us.  Although I am NOT, by any means, the most athletic person in the world, I was raised with Shaggy, and he's into that sort of stuff, so I've played paintball a time or two, and I was pretty eager to give it another try.
I was hoping, based on the map of where the course was, that they would be set up in some trees (the last time I paintballed was in the woods on my parents' property.  It's a LOT of fun when you've got that kind of cover).  Actually, it was a constructed course, with pallets knocked together and stacks of tires to hide behind, which is not as fun, but not bad, either.  We got into "bulletproof" vests, and camouflage suits with more protection built in (for both our skin and our clothes), and got gloves, masks, and guns.
It was 30,000 tugrugs to play, which included 100 bullets.  You could buy 50 more bullets for 5,000 tugs, or 100 for 10,000, which all seems pretty reasonable to me.  The worst part by far was getting out there (especially on Children's Day - have I mentioned that Zaisan is starting to get busy?).  If you are on the Zaisan Rd, turn right at the Minii Supermarket - this is the road that you'd turn left on for the Buddha Park or Zaisan.  After the road turns to dirt, watch on your left for a spray-painted Cyrillic word (pictured above) and follow the arrows.

As far as Internations goes, I will probably end up paying for a membership.  I kind of hate trying to meet new people, which means it would be very good for me to do it anyways.  And with that, I have to finish getting ready for school.  Peace out, people.