Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Asian Tour - Korea and China

It's been a week now since I came home, but the memories of my great Asian adventure are still fresh in my mind.  I was on tour for two weeks with the Lübeck Choir Academy, singing Orff’s Carmina Burana and Mendelssohn’s Elijah.  It would be impossible to capture everything I experienced in one blog post, but I'm going to try at least to paint a good picture.

After a long journey, we arrived tired and disoriented in the city of Tongyeong, South Korea.  Although it was the middle of the afternoon (Korea is 8 hours ahead of Germany), to us it felt like very early morning.  And unless we were lucky enough to possess the freakish ability to sleep on a plane, we had missed a night's sleep.  Now, I know in theory that at this point you're supposed to combat jetlag by powering through the afternoon and going to bed early.  But really, who can resist the siren call of the afternoon nap?  Sure enough, I regretted my nap later, when I found it impossible to sleep at bedtime.

 It didn't take long for me to realise Korea is not a great place for vegetarians.  My Korean friend had kindly written out a little card for me, explaining that I couldn't eat meat or fish.  But when I presented this to waiters in restaurants, I was usually met with blank stares.  My first night in Tongyeong, I subsisted on beer and kimchi – a favourite Korean appetiser of spicy pickled cabbage.  As the week continued, I didn't fare much better, although I was delighted to discover the delicious variety of meat-free snacks at the local convenience store.  It was a revelation when I discovered the Italian restaurant outside our concert hall.  Much pizza eating ensued.

Korean appetisers - just about the only Korea food I ate.

Two vegetarians saved by the power of pizza!

But while I missed out on the wonders of Korean cuisine (apparently the barbecue is something special) I really enjoyed meeting the people.  Everyone I came across seemed very open and friendly, and it was easy to connect with them despite the language barrier.  I'll never forget the funny little lady who served us at a restaurant our first night.  One of us asked if they served chicken, to which she replied "chicken NO", making a cross with her arms for emphasis.  When it was getting late and she saw more singers looking into the window, she closed the blinds on their faces, making it humourously clear that the restaurant was closing.

Chicken NO!!!

Of course, being tall and white with blonde hair made me something of a local curiosity.  I don't think they see many foreigners around Tongyeong, and people made no bones of pointing, staring, and even taking pictures of me and my European companions.  At times it felt like being an animal at the zoo.  But it was never meant badly – it was simple curiosity.  When my friend and I – both fair-haired – sat in the back of the concert hall for a schools concert, we were anything but inconspicuous.  All the children turned around to look at us, and one brave boy even started a small conversation in English.  It was obviously an exciting novelty for him to speak English to real foreigners.  He managed to ask our names and where we came from before dissolving in a fit of giggles.  Mostly though, the children just waved at us.  There was a lot of waving.

In our free time we explored the city of Tongyeong and the local islands.  Tongyeong is a colourful city, with hills of houses and shops sporting impressive murals on their sides.

One of the many murals in Tongyeong

The city also boasts an extensive fish market, with tubs full of live squid, eels, octopus, stingray, sharks, and… other sea things.

Do I even WANT to know what these are??

Those of us who were out and about on a Sunday noticed there was some kind of shamanistic festivity taking place.  Nobody was really able to explain to us what this was.  All we know is there was some praying and incense and a lot of dead pigs involved.

I don't get it.

A small group of us explored the insides of the big sturdy "turtle boats" in which the Koreans once fought the Japanese.  We then travelled by boat to the beautiful Hansando island, where there was a temple dedicated to the commander of one of these battles.  The island and the temple were beautiful, but I was surprised to see a lot of extremely drunk middle-aged men riding the ferry.  Apparently this is a thing people do in Korea.  Get drunk and go to the temple.

Many of the men wanted pictures with us, while the women were fascinated by the tall German baritone in our company ("handsome!").  Some of the drinkers were quite determined to share a swig from their bottle – "Korean whisky!"  It took some convincing before they finally gave up on us.

Exploring Hansando Island

Our visit culminated beautifully with our final concert.  As we finished the final chords of the famous O Fortuna, the Tongyeong audience didn't wait a millisecond before bursting into uproarious applause!  I had never seen such a warm and open-hearted response from an audience before, and I couldn't help being moved to tears.  As we began our second encore – a well-known Korean folksong – the audience smiled and clapped in appreciation.  It was a beautiful moment of connection.  I think right then we all felt the power music has to join people's hearts together.

The next day we flew to Shanghai, where we were joined by more singers and began rehearsing Elijah with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, as well as preparing the fully orchestrated version of Carmina Burana with their conductor Long Yu.  The orchestra welcomed us in their new state-of-the-art concert hall, and it didn't take long before we felt right at home.

Shanghai is an incredible city.  The word "cosmopolitan" doesn't even begin to cover it.  It's like the whole world has gathered to live in one place.  Name any food or retail chain in the world, and you can probably find it in Shanghai.  If you're visiting China, I would highly recommend starting here.  Due to its colonial history, the city feels very European, and people are well accustomed to seeing foreigners.  So while it definitely feels Chinese, you don't experience quite the same culture shock.  It's kind of like China Lite(TM).

Shanghai is full of contradictions.  You'll see amazing juxtapositions of new world and old, such as an ancient Buddhist temple nestled amongst skyscrapers.

The Jing'an Temple in downtown Shanghai

And in the middle of this supposedly communist country, you'll see rampant displays of capitalism.  I've never seen more consumerist culture than I did in Shanghai.  The main shopping street, Nanjing Road, is something like Times Square on crack.  Everything is bigger, louder, brighter, and faster than you can imagine.

One of the favourite things I saw on Nanjing Road was the "dancing aunties" – groups of older ladies who get together and do choreographed aerobic-style dances in the street.  Imagine walking down the street and seeing a big group of women dancing in unison.  This is a totally normal occurrence in Shanghai!

Trying to keep up with the dancing aunties' moves

Outside of the pedestrian shopping streets, things get a bit crazier.  I've never seen such blatant disregard for traffic lights in all my life!  Back in Canada, people rarely honk their horns unless they're being extremely rude.  Most of the time they follow traffic lights with a quiet, polite obedience.  In Shanghai the street is a messy cacophony of honking horns, speeding motorcycles and deadly juggernaut buses.  If you're crossing the street, you better pray to God you'll make it safely to the other side.  Because nobody here cares about your safety – or your right of way.

The streets were worth braving, however, because there were some amazing sights to see in the city.  From the lights of the towers on the Bund to a wall of flowers, to the friendly local bars with resident cats and novel cocktail recipes, Shanghai was full of pleasant surprises.

Oscar, of Oscar's Bar, surveys the cocktail menu.

Standing in front of the wall of flowers (which had rather unfortunate lighting choices)

The Bund at nighttime

Basil drop cocktails - made with vodka, lemon juice, and crushed basil.

The food in China wasn't much better for me than in Korea.  I was delighted to find a tofu dish on one menu, only to find there were big chunks of sausage mixed in.  Apparently the Chinese don't see tofu as a meat-substitute the way we do.  Nevertheless, simply by nature of being in a bigger city, I was usually able to find something I could eat.

The exchange rate from euros to Yuan is pretty generous, so many of us felt some degree of financial release.  It was kind of like being rich for a week.  I splurged on a massage and a manicure – luxuries I would never allow myself back in Germany.  And at the markets were full of a variety of inexpensive quality goods – once you argued the price down, that is.  Many of us became adept at haggling, which could turn into a very dramatic exchange.  I often saw people walk away, pretending to lose interest, only to be chased down and dragged back into the shop by the salesman "no wait, I give you best price.  Cheap-uh cheap-uh!"  I suppose it was very good practice for contract negotiation (although with contracts you would want to argue the money in the other direction).  Some people had jackets and concert dresses custom-made at the textile market, while others bought excellent imitations of brand-name items at the "fake" market.  I bought a wireless "Bose" speaker for my boyfriend, and had a beautiful set of concert jewelry made at the pearl market.  And all for less than 35 euros!

Custom-made dresse at the textile market

There was one less glamorous aspect of Shanghai though – the toilets.  The toilets in Korea had ranged from the pedestrian to the extraordinary.  Some of the toilets in the concert hall had looked like something out of science fiction, and offered various options on an attached remote control (I was not brave enough to sample these myself, but I heard they were rather.. exhilarating).  In Shanghai, however, most of the public toilets were holes in the ground.  These are probably more hygienic in a way (who wants to sit on a seat when so many butts have been there before??).  But when you're not used to squatting, it's quite an unexpected workout for your thighs!

The squatting didn't bother me so much.  After all, like any red-blooded Canadian girl, I've done my share of peeing in the woods.  What really bothered me was the lack of flushing.  Most of the toilets – even the ones in our hotel, which were conventional Western toilets – never really flushed properly.  So instead of throwing used toilet paper in the toilet, most people simply throw it in the bin.  Now, don't try to tell me that that's more hygienic.

Moving on to more savoury topics, both our concerts in Shanghai went very well.  It was thrilling to perform Carmina with a full orchestra, and our conductor was full of energy and intensity.  His enthusiastic counting to the orchestra ensured we all knew how to count to three in Chinese – ee ar suh, ee ear suh, ee ear suh!  And we were joined by an adorable children's choir, who looked absolutely angelic in their white-and-gold sailor-style uniforms.

Performing Carmina Burana with the SSO and our angelic children's choir

While Carmina ran pretty smoothly from the get-go, Elijah had a few hiccups in the beginning.  The alto soloist had learned her part in English.  Luckily, thanks to some coachings from one of our basses, she was able to re-learn it pretty quickly auf Deutsch.  Meanwhile one of our altos helped her out by jumping in as the Königin, a very dramatic and wordy part which would have been rather difficult for a non-German speaker to learn at the last minute.  We were all stunned by the Königin's intense and skilful performance.  It was awesome to see one of our own get a chance to shine!

The hall was less full for Elijah than for Carmina – I suppose German oratorio is not really Shanghai's thing.  But we still had a good-sized audience, and following a successful performance from orchestra, choir and soloists, we received a very nice standing ovation.

Finally it was time to go home, and after picking up some last minute souvenirs at the markets we headed to the airport for a midnight flight to Frankfurt.

Everyone's settled back into their respective homes now, and we've been making up for a week without facebook by posting millions of awesome photos and videos from the trip.  My jetlag may have faded, and my suitcase may be unpacked, but I still feel as though a part of me remains in Asia.  I certainly hope I'll get the opportunity to visit again.

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