Dokodemo Door!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Day trip to Awaji Island

The other weekend, we finally had an excuse to go on a little visit to see Awaji Island.

Awaji is a mountainous, pork-chop-shaped island which forms the western edge of Osaka bay. During the tides, natural whirlpools appear at its southwesternmost tip, the point at which the Inland Sea is forced to drain into and out of the Pacific Ocean. Remember the 1995 Great Hanshin earthquake which flattened Kobe and killed about 6,400 people? Its epicenter was under Awaji's northern tip; the entire island supposedly shifted by about a meter during the event.
Since 1998, it's been accessible from Honshu via the Akashi-Kaikyō bridge, the world's longest suspension bridge. The central span is over 6,500 feet long. Not only is it a pretty impressive feat of engineering, it's also one of the three highway connections that link Shikoku with Honshu.
At first, I thought it might be a cool idea to film what it was like to drive over the world's longest suspension bridge. But unless you think it's interesting to watch 3 minutes of riding in a bus over a bridge in a light drizzle, it'll be sort of a let-down. Feel the magic, bay-bee:

Rather fortuitously, Awaji island is one of the main places where the cows for Kobe beef are raised. Half-price, this was:

Though, I might've used a bit too much tare on that one.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Ah Hearts Me Some Seoul!

It was a whirlwind visit with no rest for me at all on Sunday, but I managed to pack an awful lot of stuff into a short period.

Namsan Park really is one of the more remarkable sights in downtown Seoul. A steep wooded hill inexplicably rises-up out of nowhere, like a sore thumb, and it's visible from miles around. Namsan is so centrally-located that three road tunnels go underneath it. Sticking-up from one side of the hill, as if it was lodged there by a giant blob of epoxy, is Seoul Tower, which provides the best views of the city. I haven't had a chance to go up there yet but, God willing, I will take the cable car up there some day.

I briefly stopped-by the Myeongdong district just north of Namsan Park. Myeongdong occupies what has to be the best retail space of the city, and is something of a major locus of modern Korean pop-culture. I thought it'd be cool to take some videos there:

One weekend wasn't enough, dammit!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Kimchi price crisis

Dag-nabit! Just before I'm scheduled to go to Seoul, this catastrophe has to happen...

The price for one head of long-leafed Napa cabbage grown in Korea has skyrocketed in the past month, to as much as $14, from about $2.50. Domestic radishes have tripled in price, to more than $5 apiece, and the price of garlic has more than doubled.

Kimchi has become so expensive that some restaurants in the capital no longer offer it free as a banchan, or side dish, a situation akin to having an American burger joint charge for ketchup, although decidedly more calamitous here.


The president of South Korea, Lee Myung-bak, has said that until the crisis eases he will eat only the cheap and inferior kind of cabbage — the round-headed variety...

How can you have a good barbecue without unlimited, free banchan?

It can't be done!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Journey to Bishkek #3: Weekend in Chong-Kemin

Over the weekend, I had a chance to go on an overnight trip to visit Chong-Kemin (big valley), a national park in the north of the country. It was a 3 hour trip outside of Bishkek, and it provided a decent opportunity to shoot some pictures and videos. Most travellers who come to Kyrgyzstan do so in order to get a taste of the mountains and the traditional nomadic lifestyle.

To get to Chong-Kemin, you drive up the Chu Valley, the largest segment of flat agricultural land in the country. Along the way, you pass a few villages and former kolkhozy which were once peopled by ethnicities forcibly trucked-in from around the USSR when the ever-paranoid Stalin decided they were state security risks. In the late '30s Koreans in the far east were thought to be a hotbed of spies; in '41 the Volga Germans were perceived as pro-Nazi fifth columnists; in '44 the Chechens seemed suspiciously unenthusiastic about fighting the Wehrmacht... and so on like that. The unluckiest were sent to Siberia, the remainder were dumped in Central Asia and nobody knows how many millions perished-- hey, mountains!

The guesthouse in Chong-Kemin was in a little village and was more comfortable than you'd imagine. There, we had a chance to do a bit of hiking, try the sauna and occasionally peer-over the border into southern Kazakstan. It's hard to see on the vid, but in the northeast there's a teeny bit of snow on some of the mountains.

Then, on the way back the next day, we happened-by a livestock market. I thought this bit was pretty cool to watch, so turn-up the volume and full-size the screen:

I suppose that's it for Kyrgyzstan stuff. This upcoming weekend, I'm off to Seoul (again) for a conference.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Journey to Bishkek #2: The thrill of plov, the agony of besh barmak

Now it's time to compare the national dish of Uzbekistan with that of Kyrgyzstan. In the right corner, we have plov, the pride of the Uzbeks...

You want to dive-in and swim around in it, don't you?
...Plov is where we get the word pilaf (via Russian). And let me tell you, no one in Central Asia does plov like the Uzbeks. You've had fried rice before, yes? Well, plov is, head and shoulders, a full step above that.

Plov is fried rice mixed with shredded carrots, onions and chunks of lamb amid raisins and, sometimes, dried apricots. And perhaps a few other surprising things. All of it lightly tossed and fried in cottonseed oil.

This is, I would say, absolutely memorable. What a treat! Everyone in central Asia agrees that the Uzbeks have the best plov, and dudes jostle over who gets to drink the oil in the bottom of the fry-pan. It is said to increase the sperm-count, you know. (I am not making that up.)
And in the left corner, we have the national dish of Kyrgyzstan... besh barmak...

Really, you never want to eat this. Trust me.

In Kyrgyz, besh barmak literally means "five fingers." Because that's what you eat it with.

It is a plate of mushy flat noodles studded with chunks of horsemeat and horse-sausage. What that means is that the sausage casings up there are made of horse intestines. And if you look closely, you'll see the sausage cross-section contains pure, 100%, horse-fat. People with heart problems are advised not to partake.

I will not kid you. This dish was the among most unpleasant things I've ever had on my plate. Getting through it was like an ordeal.

I've eaten horsemeat before, okay? It's actually quite palatable. But besh barmak? Jeez, I don't know what the hell they did with that horse. Maybe they force-fed it a diet of thin-chopped linoleum shreds in lieu of hay, but I swear I will never eat that... that thing again in my life. Ever.

After one helping, I had to desperately swish-out my mouth with vodka a few times to kill the taste. Forgetting about the whole thing will take a few more mouthfuls.

I suspect it's a prank they play on foreigners.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Journey to Bishkek #1

Although getting there was something of a pain, the city of Bishkek can be rather pleasant when you arrive. Flying-in, one is treated to row upon row of snow-tipped serrated knife-edges stretching south for a hundred miles. From the city on a clear morning, one can spot part of the Ala Too mountains, one of the northwestern ridges of the Tian Shan range. The Tian Shan is, in turn, the northwesternmost portion of the massive geological knot in which the Hindu Kush meet the Pamirs, the Pamirs meet the Karakorams and the Karakorams meet the Himalayas. So maybe you ought to bring some good hiking boots...

Bishkek, however, is at the point where the steppe meets the mountains. Everything to the north into Kazakstan is flat as a board with amber waves of grain and all that.

There's not much history to Bishkek and there's certainly no Silk Road legacy to speak of. Like Almaty in neighboring Kazakstan, Bishkek was built around a fort in the 1860s as the Tsar's empire marched to the southeast. For a few decades during the Soviet years, the city was called Frunze, after the bolshevik bigwig Mikhail Frunze who led the Red Army against the Whites and basmachi during the Russian Civil War. (His statue, incidentally, still stands outside the Bishkek train station while his ashes are within the Kremlin wall.)

Bishkek itself is a mixed bag but some parts are quite pleasant. Almost all of the buildings in town are, naturally, holdovers from the Soviet era and many are in varying states of disrepair. There are also a number of idle sites with cranes in which you aren't quite sure if the buildings are being put-up or ripped down. Apart from that, the city itself has plenty of broad trees lining its streets and a park-like feel, while down the minor streets one can find potholes, uncollected garbage, abandoned buildings and the like. Here's a gander at Prospekt Chuy, one of the better avenues:

Kyrgyzstan, the poorest country in Central Asia (apart from neighboring Tajikistan), has more recently suffered a few spates of political violence over the last few years, including one in April, 2010. The minor miracle is that, following the Tulip Revolution of 2005, Kyrgyzstan currently has what international observers consider to be the most open political system in the region. Considering the neighbors, that's not a terribly difficult feat to pull-off.

The conflicts of recent years need to be put into context, however. The borders of the nation were drawn by Stalin in the early '30s, and Stalin knew how to draw borders that'd guarantee conflict were the Soviet Union to break-apart (remember the little wars between Georgia and South Ossetia in '91 and in '08? Nagorno-Karabakh? Transdnistria? Of course you know about those. Who doesn't? What are ya, friggin' ignoramuses or something??)

About 69% of Kygyzstan's population is Kyrgyz; the remainder are Uzbek (14%) and Russian (9%), with a few spill-overs from western China (Uighur, Dungan) thrown into the mix. Little enclaves of Uzbeks were gerrymandered within the borders of Kyrgyzstan on the best farmland in the Ferghana valley salient with the Kyrgyz traditionally being up in the mountains. The Kyrgyz people themselves are divided between north and south, with northern social and economic activity being organized around Bishkek while southern life is centered around the city of Osh; these cities are separated by about 200 km of mountains and connected by a single road.

The previous president (Bakiyev), had his primary base of support among Kyrgyz people in the south. He resigned in the midst of massive demonstrations by northerners in early 2010 (largely about harsh economic austerity measures and corruption). He fled the country (supposedly with the remainder of the treasury in his suitcases) and resigned in neighboring Kazakstan while his supporters manipulated the ethnic fault line in the south when the incoming government tried to exert its authority in order to screw them over. Hence, there was ethnic violence earlier this year and, well, the whole situation was kind of a mess.

Ala Too square honor-guard, complete with bulletproof glass and comically-large caps.

Ala Too square happens to be the most nicely-kept part of the city

On April 7th, 2010, the area looked slightly different when a noisy crowd outside the presidential palace demanded that Bakiyev leave office. Snipers in neighboring buildings opened fire, killing an estimated 70+ people. The following video was shot slightly to the west of the square:

Today, one can see a memorial on the fence.