31 December, 2006


ringing in the new year can be a lot different depending on where you are in the world. up until 1993 i'd only seen how it was done in the UK, mostly at family parties. after that we learned the ways of the Americans, usually celebrating with friends; one year a couple of mine and i went to Las Vegas to see how it was done down there. then three years ago i got to be among the very last people on Earth to welcome 2004, passing midnight at a very sticky hot party in Samoa.

for two of the last three years, however, including this one, i've been over here in Asia, being among the first to see the new year in. in Taiwan it wasn't a very big deal, given that the lunar calendar is followed there, making Chinese New Year the big event; i can't even recall what happened just a couple of years ago. this year Jill and i engaged ourselves in a truly memorable celebration, in Seoul, Korea. by the time we showed up in the Jeonggak area of downtown about an hour before midnight, the roads had been closed and were crammed with pedestrians, all of whom seemed already to be firing off hundreds of roman candle fireworks almost indiscriminately, loading the air with debris and threatening the safety of all around. Jill and i were awestruck by this chaotic display that would surely never have been allowed to take place in Japan.

of course, we had to be involved in the frenzy, so we stumped up many thousands of Won for some roman candles of our own, sold to us by the vendors who had each brought suitcases full of the explosive sticks, and had as good a time as anyone shooting off projectiles just over the growing crowd with reckless abandon. Each firework carried about a dozen or so charges, one of which Jill managed to capture perfectly on film.

when the party was all over, we were both covered in ash and smelling like fireworks, and the streets were strewn with roman candle casings, but the atmosphere of fun and merriment still hung in the air alongside the smoke. but the party itself was a lively one. there had been all kinds of groups dancing and banging various drums when we had arrived, and it looked as though they were broadcasting a national show from the stage they had set up for famous performers. for much of the time we in the live audience had a hard time hearing those performers over the din of the crowd, despite the car-sized speakers they were using. it was a pretty surreal scene, all that chaos in the trendiest part of Seoul, then literally ringing in the New Year with a bell hung in an ancient Buddhist temple just behind the stage. for a better idea of just how excited a Korean crowd gets over a new year, check out the video below, taken by Jill just seconds either side of the big moment, and then please accept thejayfather's wishes for a very happy one of your own.

18 December, 2006


no trip to Beijing would be complete, one supposes, without a visit to the Great Wall of China, one of the alleged wonders of the modern world. i understand that many people also allege that said Great Wall can be seen from space, but according to the sources i consulted, either those people had never been to space or had been relying on powerful optical enhancement devices while they were there. i imagine the former is generally the case, and while i, too, fall into this category of person, i can say that at times the smog was so bad that it was difficult to see the wall half a mile away. so i suggest that the common perception may be a myth.

the wall itself, however, is most certainly not a myth; nor, unfortunately, are the epic crowds that ply it day in and day out. we went on a weekday in November and there were so many Chinese tourists that some sections were almost impassable.

Jill and i on a mercifully uncluttered section of the Great Wall, and then a section that was, at this moment in time, visible some distance away.

the Great Wall is classified into various geographical sections, and in order to avoid the dozens of "student" tour guides who offered us a private car for the day, we took the bus and had to go to the most crowded (and least-authentic) section of all, at Badaling. oh well, we just wanted to say we'd seen it. of course, just because we'd managed to steer clear of the "tour operators" didn't mean to say we didn't get taken a couple of times. even the official city bus we took pitched us tickets for this weird "cable car" that was was more like a chain of plastic toboggans that hauled us up to the base of the wall. upon arriving we discovered we could have walked in a matter of minutes. still, we would then have had to traipse past dozens more sidewalk vendors trying to sell us all manner of junk, from Chairman Mao quotation books to near-life size brass replicas of the wall. on the way back down we did indulge ourselves in several of their wares, including a couple of Mao hats and some awesome T-shirts. one of them had a screen printing of Mao's head on it, which image came off in the dryer, and another dyed all my clothes in its bright red ink when i threw it in a regular load. i can't remember the last time i bought a garment that wasn't color-fast, so i was pretty upset about it. given that the shirt only cost a buck, i guess i should have known though.

clockwise from top left: Jill rides the cool toboggans to the base; the hordes of tourists even on an "off day"; an artisan prepares a traditional Chinese watercolor of the wall; and a remote view of a high section of the wall. too many others lay between us and this section for us to bother trying to reach it.

in any case, the Great Wall was pretty cool. it snakes over the hills as far as the eye can see, occasionally punctuated by watchtower-looking structures. it's hard to imagine how it could have been continuous actually, but since so much of it has been reconstructed it makes sense that there is much missing. among the high points of the trip, though it wasn't actually on the trip to the wall itself, was having a picture of it painted on a scroll later in the day.

our Great Wall scroll being painted, and us with the artist who produced the work for us very much on the spot.

the bus back to town dropped us near a kind of trashy shopping area which we decided to exploit, and where we found a place selling traditional Chinese watercolor scrolls. already having a couple of those from Taiwan, we weren't really in need of more, but thought it would be a good way to memorialize the Great Wall trip since the souvenirs there had been so awfully gaudy. the only picture they had of the wall however, was on a loose piece of rice paper that had not been fastened into a silk scroll, so we made for the door. not wanting to lose a sale, the woman who sort of ran the place without really seeming to do anything herself quickly volunteered a guy to paint one for us, on the spot. as he prepared to do it, we both thought he was going to back out, because he kept making like he was going to begin and then stopping. but the lady gave us each a handful of sunflower seeds and pulled up a couple of chairs and pretty soon the guy was knocking out a very impressive rendition of the picture that obviously he had originally painted on the rice paper. i'm a bit bummed we didn't get his name, but we did get a picture with him, and the picture he created now hangs on our wall to remind us of what you really don't need to go all the way to space to see.