Seoul, and The Trip Home

By now you might have heard these stories, but I already wrote them so I wanted to get it posted. I still plan on writing about our road trip through the South West on our way back to Seattle also so stick around! (as with most of these blogs this was written on my Iphone so please excuse the formatting, words, etc)

Seoul was another one of the destinations we threw in last minute. We went primarily because my friend Heedae was living there now. Heedae and I first met in Lancaster Pennsylvania when I was interning at hope international. This was also when I met Bobbie for any of you keeping track of these things. We had an awesome time in Seoul. We found Korea to be so kind and welcoming. It felt much more formal and respectful than other countries we had traveled to in the region. Bobbie and I both really enjoyed it. Heedae took us to his hometown of suwon, got us lots of traditional food, and toured us around almost everyday. He was a great host. We stayed in the hongdae area and found an awesome coffee shop right by our hostel, deep coffee. Their cups were massive, the guys there were always fun and remembered us every time. The place was decorated with Jordan’s, action figures and all sorts of strange and awesome pictures. My favorite part though was their massive copper espresso machine they used.  Our hostel was also pretty great. Their idea of providing breakfast meant there was a stovetop, five dozen eggs in the fridge, juice, cheese, bread etc. we got late starts everyday because of feasting on eggs, but who could complain about that?!  Seoul was one of our favorite big cities in Asia. It was really nice. Everyone was kind, and of course having Heedae to show us around helped a ton. We left Seoul and flew about ten hours to Vancouver where we had an 11 hour layover. Lucky for us Brandon drove up and we spent the day exploring Vancouver together.  It was great to see him after being gone for so long and to here about his engagement etc, of course we got chipotle. After Vancouver we flew about five hours to Toronto where we had another 3.5 hours of layover, which was almost entirely occupied with going through immigrations. I’m not sure why we went through US immigrations in Canada, and I’m not sure why we did not have a priority line for entering our own country, all I know is it took forever, I was jet lagged, exhausted, and crabby. A short hour and a half later we found ourselves in Boston. Lisa picked us up from the airport, Bobbie fell asleep covered in dauschands and Lisa listened to me ramble as I tried to stay awake. She is nice like that. Boston was a lot of fun as always. We took a trip up to Vermont, toured the harpoon, and Sam Adams breweries. Sometimes we walked around in the bitter cold trying to take in sights.  Mostly though we hung out at home with the dogs listening to Paul play banjo.  After several days in Boston, we boarded an overnight bus and drove ten hours to DC.

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Halong Bay, Hong Kong, & Beijing Pictures

Finally got around to uploading pictures from Halong Bay, Vietnam; Hong Kong; & Beijing, China!  Click the link below.

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Hong Kong & Beijing

Fallen behind a bit because so much is happening! Here is Hong Kong & Beijing

Hong Kong or Bluurgleblar (The Sound of Vomiting)

photoWe arrived in Hong Kong after our miracle layover (We Experienced A Miracle Blog) and made it to our hostel. The hostel room was slightly larger than a janitors closet (never actually spent time in one, so it is hard to say). We stayed there two nights before moving to stay with our Couchsurfing host, Ana. The hostel was in Chunking Mansion which basically felt like the projects. People were constantly offering me drugs, but that is pretty standard now really with this massive beard.

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We spent a day walking around Kowloon in central Hong Kong and shopping. This is not super common for us, but we found a Patagonia store that had bear shirts, so Bobbie bought me one (yay). That night we watched the light show, which was much worse than I remember. The buildings are really cool and lit up at night anyway, putting it to music and firing a few lasers off really was not worth the wait. Oh and we found bear beer, but it was not super tasty.

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The next day we went out to do a hike called Dragon’s Back which was really beautiful. It was super windy and relatively clear, so we got a few good views. I would recommend it if you are in the area. That night we met up with our host and had dim sum. She let us know her roommate was very sick so we might not be seeing much of him. No problem we thought. He stays in his room, us in ours, and we stay healthy.

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We wanted to do some more hiking, so the following morning we went to Lantau to hike up to the “Big Buddha”. It took us quite some time to find the start of the trail. Once we did, we started a 10km slog up near constant stairs. Now sometimes the trail did go down, but that was just to make us climb up again. After a lot of sweating and marital stress we reached the top. We took a long cable car ride back down in terrifyingly high winds (Bobbie enjoyed it). That night we made a salad at our hosts and turned in for the night. The following morning we found out our host was feeling sick. It was our anniversary so I planned on taking Bobbie to the Hong Kong Art Museum before going up The Peak for cocktails overlooking downtown. The harbor was totally fogged in, so the peak didn’t seem like a good idea. At this point, we were both feeling a little ill. So we headed back to take a nap and venture back out for dinner. We were both throwing up within two hours. We were sick for only about 12 hours thanks to some antibiotics and a lot of prayer. Thankfully neither of us threw up on the plane the next afternoon headed for Beijing.

Beijing: Shopping and Reconnecting with Friends

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We reconnected with Pam and Nikki, some English teachers in china who we had met in Malaysia earlier on our trip for a short weekend. China will allow you to stop over 72 hours in Beijing without a visa so that is what we did. The immigrations officer made me go speak to his manager, because they did not believe I was the person in my passport picture. We spent our first full day at the Great Wall. Still a little noxious with a lot of gurgling stomachs, we enjoyed a beautiful day. Sadly we didn’t have the energy to hike too much.

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That night we went with Nikki and Pam to get Peking duck and take in some night life on one of Beijing’s walking streets. The street food consisted mostly of scorpions, starfish, seahorses, centipedes, and tarantulas on a stick. The scorpions were still alive and moving on the sticks. Terrifying. When I told the vendor I was eating non of it, he called me a chicken I told him I would not fold to peer pressure. The next morning we hit the Pearl Market. Nikki and Pam helped us get everything we wanted for very good prices in about 2.5 hours. Huge life savers.

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We got to the Temple of Heaven after lunch then made a dash for the Forbidden City. Sadly it was already closed when we got there. We checked out Tiananmen Square and headed back to our hostel.

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Feelings On Coming Home

Hard to believe that around this time last year Bobbie and I were debating the merits of taking this trip. In case you didn’t know, Bobbie and I had wanted to work abroad since before we were married. At first we talked about teaching. We were not sure how our jobs would go, so we thought we might just leave and teach abroad for a year in Asia. As time wore on, our jobs were doing better and we reconsidered. First Bobbie would want to travel, and I would want to stay. Then she would want to stay, and I would want to travel. Eventually we decided it would be a better idea to buy a house/condo. We were praying about the decision a lot and decided to get a realtor. That week we read an article about home prices being up 10% since the beginning of the year, rates jumped a full percent, and we had to lay off three employees. Suddenly it seemed buying a house was not a good idea. So we started planning again.

The goal was to volunteer two months in Europe then travel a month, volunteer two months in Asia then travel more. As it turned out, only Europe really worked for volunteering. We never found a good fit for teaching or volunteering in Asia. So now about seven months after leaving home we are setting out towards America again.

I am so glad we did this. I don’t know if it was smarter than buying a home. I don’t know if it was wise to leave our jobs. I don’t know if I’ve grown…I’ll leave that to you to decide. I don’t know how it will have affected our careers negatively or positively. I don’t know if we are “better world citizens” or if we are more culturally sensitive. I do know we had an amazing adventure. I know we struggled though language barriers, countless airport transfers, scams, strange meals, sea urchins, and sometimes sickness. I hope that Bobbie and I are closer than we were when we left Seattle. I think we are. I hope the rest of our life as we face new challenges we can look back at what we have overcome, see how God has been faithful, and press on together. I hope we can take more risks together as a couple.  I hope we can encourage others to do something crazy, and I hope we have encouraged people we have met along our travels. I really hope anyone who wants to take a similar trip will talk to us so we can help them out.

I do know I’ve learned a few things along the way. I’ve learned God has blessed me with incredible friends, a great wife, and a massive beard. I’ve learned again how much I love our home in Seattle, and how much I miss our church. I’ve learned I like gyros more than I thought and bibimbap less than I remember. I both want to stay gone and rush home. I can’t wait to see Brandon in Vancouver and Willow and Kepler in Boston (and Paul and Lisa, I suppose). But at the same time, I wish there was another country to go to now. I’m both tired of the adventure and craving more. So I keep telling myself to find the adventure in the states and in Seattle. Don’t be happy to just sit on your couch (not that we have one) but to go out and do new things. Be more spontaneous, surprise your wife, sound more like a dove chocolate wrapper, etc.   This is just a few “thoughts”. Bobbie told me to write about my feelings for this blog. I don’t really know what she meant, so this is what I did. Hope you liked it.

We fly to Vancouver at 6pm today and arrive at 11am today. Cool huh? International date line people. 11 hours in Vancouver then fly to Toronto, four hours there then fly to Boston. Maybe more later, with less feelings.

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We Experienced A Miracle

God answers prayers. Some of you had heard Bobbie and I booked flights to Hong Kong from Vietnam through Bangkok. The tricky bit was that we would fly into one airport in Bangkok (BKK) and leave from another (DMK). All of you know we like to save money, so the rational for this was simple: it would save us about $230.  I originally thought we had 4.5 hours between the flights. This seemed like enough time to deplane, go through immigrations, collect our bags, stand in a taxi queue, navigate Bangkok’s traffic (remember those protests?), check our bags into the next flight, go through immigrations again, go through security, and make our flight. Turns out we had closer to 3 hours, and you have to check your bag 10 minutes before boarding starts, or something silly like that, so it was even shorter. We figured if anything went wrong (flight delayed, luggage lost, bad traffic, etc), we would miss our flight. 

 
I was pretty stressed about making the flight and prayed about it all morning. I wasn’t sure why we thought it would be a good idea to travel to three countries in a single day. The morning arrived, and we walked about a half mile to where the bus was supposed to take us to the Hanoi airport. We were taking one of the airline buses. I had read these buses rarely left on time and almost never leave unless they are almost full. We were the only people waiting for the bus. Maybe we would just miss both flights and be done with it. Sure enough eight am rolled around and after a short conversation, of gestures of course, we informed the bus driver we would not pay 100k Dong for tickets that were clearly marked as being 40k each right on the ticket and got the right price. After that we were on our way. Private transfer to the airport on this big empty bus. Thank you, Jesus.  There was still time for things to go wrong.  Immigration must have taken five minutes to let me out of Vietnam. The officer kept looking at my passport, looking at my beard, then sitting back and thinking. He asked me to take off my glasses, put them back on etc. I am clean shaven in my passport photo and don’t have glasses, so I really don’t resemble myself. Finally, he let me through. Our flight got off the ground on time. Things were looking good. We arrived in Bangkok on time, after having filled out our immigrations cards on the flight we ran through BKK to immigrations. Lucky for us, we were about as far from immigrations as physically possible. There was a long line. Of course we had tried to do this on a Saturday, so there were plenty of other people in the airport. After standing in line for a while, one of the officers checked our paperwork and asked why we had not filled out the address for our Thailand entry forms. I explained we had to catch a flight at DMK at 3:40pm and were not actually staying in Thailand. The officer pulled us out of line and put us into a “diplomatic\express” line so we would get through faster.
 
After getting stamped through to Thailand, I ran for baggage. As soon as Bobbie caught up, our bag had arrived. Pretty seamless, really.  So far so good. We dashed for the taxi queue. No line here either! Considering we had waited in line for a taxi for almost forty minutes in Bangkok when we came back from Cambodia, this was incredible. We jumped in the cab and promised to give the driver plenty of money if he got us to DMK fast. That man could drive. Bobbie and I has about 550 Baht left from our last crazy airport transfer (Krabi to Phuket for those who have been following our story) and figured this would be enough for fare, tolls, and a tip. The tolls were more than we thought: 25, then 50, then 60. The taxi fare ended up being about 375, which meant we had almost exactly enough money to pay everything. We walked right in to the airport and right up to the counter to drop our bags with Air Asia. On to immigration, where again there was no line. Security had two lanes with no lines. It was incredible. Nothing could have gone smoother. Bobbie even commented after coming through security that she could eat some chocolate.  The next thing we know the duty free shop was handing out samples of chocolate. We had plenty of time sitting at our gate marveling at how well the transfer went. We got into Hong Kong a half hour early and checked into our hostel for the night. That’s all really, just a small story about an answered prayer.
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Sa Pa Picture are on Shutterfly!

Check out our pictures from our trek in Sa Pa.  We had a great time!

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Sapa: Rice Terrace Trekking

Hanoi is a wet, cold, city. This is the first time people have been right about a place being cold. To the credit of the locals, people have only told us two cities would be cold. One out of two isn’t bad. Hanoi seems to rain endlessly. Since we had more time here than first planned, Bobbie and I immediately started looking into what we could do in the north of Vietnam. We booked tickets for a train to Sapa to go trekking. Bobbie had wanted to take me there at the beginning of the trip, but as we added countries and cut time in Vietnam, it fell out of our itinerary. Sapa is about 300km north of Hanoi. Overnight trains run daily to Lao Cai which is then about an hour bus ride from Sapa. The train takes about 11 hours to cover the 300km. At a blistering pace of less than 30km/h these are obviously not the slick high speed trains of Europe, although that does not stop travel agencies from depicting them as such on their fliers (caveat emptor reigns supreme here I suppose.)

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We booked a “hard sleeper” for roughly 44$ each round trip. I was very excited to take my first sleeper train. When we arrived at the train station, we found we were firmly placed in the “scum class” with the very last car on the train. Sleeper births are the cheapest at the top, so naturally we had those. Each small room sleeps six, with each bunk having about half the height of the one below it. This left us with maybe sixteen inches of headroom on the top bunk. I had to perform contortionist exercises worthy of a Dan Carnahan warm-up to lay out the blanket on my bunk. At first we thought we might actually have the room to ourselves, but in about twenty minutes Bobbie pointed out there was 8 people in this 6 bed room. As the train got under way one person left. The car bumped and swayed fiercely, especially considering how slow it was moving. Bobbie commented “This is how we will die.” which is possibly the 15th time she has said this in many weeks. I thought the room started smelling like smoke. Later, we learned that the group in the cabin next to us had stayed up all night gambling, drinking, and smoking. We figured this out when we walked by at about 5 am to find them all shirtless, and the floor in their room, as well as most of the hallway, covered in cigarette butts.

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DSC_0051Our train arrived about three hours late to Lao Cai. Our guide called us while we were still on the train saying something about not being able to make it because she was getting married. Of course we were confused by this because we had talked to her about two days prior and confirmed the date with her. She connected us with another guide who explained to us she got married last night, and in her culture the women doesn’t get to say “no”. They were both members of one of the ethnic minorities in the area where apparently a man has to simply grab your hand and say, “We are going to get married.” for it to be so. Our new guide explained that at 16 this would actually be the second time this girl had been married and she, “…cried like a baby” as people had to literally pick her up and carry her to the ceremony.  Her first marriage ended with her running away at night to get away from her husband.

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The weather was amazing, and we hiked two hours out of town together with six other tourists. Along the way, I noticed about eight other local women were walking along with us trying to make conversation. When we stopped for lunch we immediately found out the reason for our escort as they all started to shove trinkets and things in our faces, demanding we buy them. After a while, they gave up. After lunch we moved on for another three or four hours to another village where we would stay the night. Most of us managed to get a sun burn along the way. I think we all really welcomed the break from Hanoi’s gloomy skies.

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The following morning we feasted on banana crepes before heading out for more trekking. The scenery was really lovely, steep hill slopes covered in rice terraces and grazing buffalo. Sadly we never got too far from civilization. We were reminded of this regularly by power lines and roads along the way. I got to sit on a water buffalo after I flailed my way up onto its back, which was a goal for Vietnam. I’m not entirely convinced it was alive though, because throughout the whole time of me sitting on it, it’s legs did not move an inch. Bobbie stepped into some deep mud around the paddies twice and each of her shoes were covered in mud.  To which the guide commented, “You got new brown shoes!” Around one in the afternoon on the second day, we got to a third town where we had lunch and were beset upon by local women again selling us trinkets that were, “Cheaper for you.” Another bus ride later, we were back in Sapa.

After shopping a bit and finding Bobbie a sweet North Face jacket, we grabbed a van headed back to Lao Cai where the train station was. Several things to note about this transfer for your future travels… the price seems to be set around 50,000 Dong. We saw locals paying this amount in our van, although we did manage to make a scene and get it for 40,000 (I’ll explain in a moment). The operators will of course try to get you to pay 100,000. Walk away and the price will magically drop. We had one operator follow us for 15 minutes when we arrived in Lao Cai trying to get us onto his van. The van operator will try to get you to pay upfront. He then hops off as the van leaves. If anything goes sideways along the way, you are then SOL. This is probably a coincidence as the operator surely has your best intentions at heart. Don’t pay up front if you can avoid it. Which leads us to the last point, these vans only leave when they are full. If you are the only ones, and you pay up front, expect to be treated to a nice joyride as the driver takes you all over town looking for other passengers to fill the van. We didn’t pay up front and after the driver started to circle a second time, I got up and opened the side door of the van. The driver looked at me like I was crazy. We told him he could take us to our destination immediately or we would leave. He then took us to another van where we demanded a lower fare (at this point I was really glad we had not paid when they asked for money). Bobbie was fed up with this, and we walked away from the second van after we could not ascertain if they were actually leaving. We decided maybe we would give hitch hiking a shot or even pay for a taxi (gasp). We were over the vans. After walking about three minutes and having little idea where the road out of town actually was, the same van showed up again with more people in it. This time the driver told us we go now and told us 40,000 was okay. Not totally convinced we wouldn’t be dropped off in a completely wrong town, we got in anyway and started driving out of Sapa. We arrived in Lao Cai and waited a few hours before boarding our train. We got back to Hanoi without any incidents and managed to make it in time to catch our bus to Ha Long Bay.

DSC_0269Sapa was really lovely. We had great weather and would strongly recommend it to anyone coming through Vietnam. If we had more time we would have been interested in taking a longer trek. With that being said, we were pleasantly surprised by how much ground we did cover in the two day trip.

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