• Sarah Royal

Busan Driving Tour, Tokyo Karaoke, and Beijing Beer

I’ve been on even more of a whirlwind than I usually am in the past few days. Currently I’m clean (relatively) and rested from a 12-hour bullet train ride to Guilin, China today, and so while I sip a Tsingtao beer, I thought I’d write up a tidy little update of Busan, Tokyo, and Beijing.

As noted, the boat was quite late, and so while I got to experience an inordinate amount of Canada, I had to sacrifice Korea and Japan a bit. Lucky for me, while I was leaving the ship and being ‘fetched’ to customs, as the officers called it, and supposed to have gone straight from there to the airport, I was able to accidentally snag a driving tour of Busan by my customs agent on account of having to use a credit card machine back at his office, deep in the heart of the city. He was a 20-something uber-hip, Armani-wearing, Lucky-Strike-smoking, listens-to-Eminem-and-Jay-Z-as-well-as-'Hit-Me-Baby-One-More-Time’-in-the-car kinda guy, and we had a great time chatting about Busan traffic, working at the port, and how much he loathes Psy.  At immigration at the airport, I stood by while a stone-faced agent inspected my passport and sought to find the page with the entry stamp into Korea. He flipped open to a page that had a big Machu Picchu stamp on it (I honestly don’t remember why the hell we got a souvenir stamp at the site in our actual passports) and audibly gasped as he looked up at me with his mouth open. We both said, “Machu Picchu” at the same time, and he then turned another page, stamped my passport and folded it, and handed it back to me with a small smile. He said, “My dream.”

Next up, I hit Tokyo at a hostel in the Asakusa district, complete with a ton of neat alleyways and people riding bicycles while holding clear umbrellas for the three drops of rain coming down. I planned to head out to grab a beer as soon as I got settled, but I found a Dutch gal in my hostel room who was looking to grab some food and then a beer, so I decided to tag along. Due to her not being an adventurous eater and thinking of food as a mere practicality, she was aiming to swing by McDonalds on our way to the bar. “Some people look at me like I’m insane, but for me eating the food isn’t the core reason, or evenareason, why I love traveling,” she said, and I was comforted in my allergic-to-Asian-cuisine travel lifestyle just because someone finally said that shit out loud.

Loads of sake and free expensive sake shots from a crazy bar owner lady – who took one with us – later, I settled in for some sleep for my day of walking Tokyo for about 13 hours the next day. And I nailed that shit.

I was loving this – everyone waits for the green light to cross, no matter if there are no cars anywhere in sight. Everyone.

… and some nonsensical English for good measure.

Also, everyone in Tokyo was insanely good looking and dressed to the nines. Even the skater punks appeared to be wearing $50 T-shirts. I played a game where I tried to find someone looking grubby, and failed until I saw my reflection in a store window. Later in the evening, my Dutch buddy and I were aiming to find some karaoke where we could sing with some local strangers – which, of course, is a tad hard to come by, seeing as the market is dominated by private box karaoke (shoutout to VOICEBOX). We got a tip from our hostel that on the second floor of a bar in one of the nearby alleys they sometimes do karaoke, and so we ventured in and foresook the happening downstairs bar to head up a creepy, dark staircase to a tiny bar-within-a-bar, where two young Japanese guys were playing darts and one very bubbly bartender was anxious to have more customers. As soon as we said 'karaoke’, she immediately got excited and took out a little hand-held computer screen, placed it on the bar, and showed us where the English songs were. With a flatscreen behind her, we could just sit at the bar and drink and sing at the same time. I asked the bartender what her favorite American artists were, and she said Michael Jackson and Madonna. So, with four audience members, I selected the TriSarahTops favorite The Way You Make Me Feel and started 'er up.  This bartender was made to work in a karaoke joint, because she immediately got SUPER into it and started dancing. The dart guys played it cool but gave me thumbs up as they were vaguely bopping along to the song, and halfway through an older Japanese man and woman literally walked in mid-dance. One Like A Prayer later and we were all on the dance floor, the dart boys were ordering their own karaoke screen to chime in, and instant friends were made. Right as my Dutch friend was killing it on Just A Girl, a very drunk friend of the bartender (or just a regular drunk, I couldn’t tell which) walked in and started celebrating the fact that we were singing karaoke with 87 'WHOOOO’s and by grabbing a tambourine and playing it terribly off beat. She worshiped us, and several drinks later appeared to be conferring with both the bartender and the older Japanese couple as to whether or not to ask me something, and with their encouragement, she asked me if I would sing I Will Always Love You. I did – it was objectively terrible but subjectively the best thing that ever happened to that girl. So inspired was she, as a matter of fact, that she belted out a broken-English Celine Dion and was quite good. When we left that night, she gave 14 hugs and said, “You are Whitney and I am Celine.” I said, “No fair – I’m dead,” but I don’t think she got it. Following the Tokyo frenzy was Beijing, which was navigating a world of less English and far more don’t-get-hit-by-scooters. The subway was a breeze to figure out, thanks to the Western spellings under each name, but the squeezing by the wild crowds was something to get used to. Later in the day I spoke with an ex-pat, and she hit the nail on the head: “I used to live in New York, so I think the hardest thing for me to get used to in China – after four years of living here – is still the subway and crowd navigation,” she told me. “In New York, there are different rules about who you let through and who you don’t, and different choreography for selecting how to move through a crowd and who to push and who to let off. Here, it’s all bizarre, and it’s really hard to shake your natural urges. Almost everyone I talk to that first moves here says that they almost got into 12 fights in the first few weeks.”

After wandering the Hutongs (the alleyways all over the city)(I resisted the urge to tell you they were right up my alley)(dad joke), making friends with an Australian, checking out the Forbidden City and surrounding parks, and getting asked for a photo with my blonde hair & whiteness three times in Tiananmen Square, I hustled back to the hostel to meet up with a Bike & Build friend of a friend for after-dinner drinks. He lives in Beijing, did a trip with a few friends of mine, and had other guests in town that he was entertaining, so they were swinging by to grab me before heading off to a whiskey bar down a nearby Hutong. I spotted him immediately – as he looked like a Bike & Builder, of course – and he and I and his two buddies (who he knew from studying abroad) played the 'where are you from’ game. This girl he was with said, “New York City area,” so of course I said, “Where at?” She said, “Western New Jersey,” and I said, “Where at?” She told me that I probably didn’t know it – it was a little place called Union Township. I then confessed that I actually went to Union Township School from half of sixth grade til eighth, and yada yada her fucking brother was in my class.

This. Actually. Happened.

As if that weren’t enough ridiculous excitement for a few days, the next day I climbed along 6K of the Great Wall of Goddamn China with maybe four extra folks besides our group of 10 spotted the entire time. The impossibility of it all is insane to fathom, but even more amazing is how the wall is literally along the absolute peaks of these pointing mountains, so that at times you’re rock climbing instead of just 'hiking.’ Let’s just say I’m still staying in shape for the 100 miles in Death Valley in October.

(selfies have been specifically requested – so here you go, assholes) Fried chicken, beers with Aussies, and one bullet train later, I’ll be back to report from Guilin and the Longji rice terraces shortly. Cheers Salud Prost Kanpai arriba / abajo / al centro / adentro

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