I started to search the various destinations that are within range of Korea to visit. While I would LOVE to go somewhere tropical (say, the Philippines or Thailand), that isn't practice time-wise. I only have 4 days, and why spend that much money to spend half your vacation in transit! So, with the distance filter on, I narrowed it down to Japan, Taiwan, or China.
Erin, my desk-mate and very good friend, has been to Japan and loved it. However, she would not be able to go with me because she is leaving Korea at the end of February and wouldn't want to spend more money right before she leaves. Also, while the plane ticket is super cheap to Japan, once you are in the country it is quite expensive. So, while Japan was still an option, it wasn't too appealing. Tickets to Taiwan were not quite as cheap, and again I wouldn't have anyone to go with. So that left China.
At first, I was worried about the weather. It's winter here; Shanghai is further south than Seoul, so it would possibly be warmer, but Beijing, which is more northern, has much more of what I wanted to do. I researched the average temperatures and while it IS cold, I have adjusted my definition of "cold" (nights here in Seoul have gone as low as 2°F, many days average in the 20's). So, it would be about the same as Korea.
My second concern with China was the ease of entry. I had heard that it is quite expensive to get a visa as an American living in Korea. After some additional research, I confirmed that it is 195,000W (or about $190). So, figuring in the cost of the ticket would be around 400, I figured it was a bit high. However, talking with a coworker who visited China last year, he informed me that while the price to get to China was a bit more than other close places, once you are in the country it is incredibly cheap.
My last concern was company. Since everyone I have been working with (including Erin) has LESS than 6 months left on their Alien Registration Card, none of them could apply for the visa. (Another pro for China: it's my last vacation where I will have 6 months left on the ARC). That leaves Sean (who has a plane ticket for Tokyo booked), and the 2 new teachers. Well, the new teachers don't even have ARCs yet, so they couldn't apply. I was at quite an in-pass....
Until I remembered a website I had signed up for a year ago (or more) called CouchSurfing.org. It calls itself a social network of hospitality exchange. The concept is simple, a website designed where you can find people in particular places and bunk up with them (or host others in your neck of the woods). Of course, if you haven't heard of this before it probably sounds crazy and unsafe. Well, you can be verified by the company and the people you stay with or that you host can recommend you or not. The idea is that while you are in a foreign country to be able to get to know locals rather than just be a tourist. The bonus is that you get a free place to stay.
I started to search in the Beijing circle of CouchSurfers, filtering by age (less than 30), gender (female please), and recommended average (100% positive). I was lucky to find a girl that I felt would be perfect. She is 28, lives in Beijing with her parents, has traveled and been recommended as both a host and a surfer. Her personality as expressed on the website seemed very fun and easy-going. I went out on a limb and emailed her immediately (rather than risking that I lose her profile by the time I got home from work). The next morning I had a response!!!!
Hi Chelsea,I couldn't believe my luck! Not only was she available and agreeing to host me, she was excited about it AND available to show me around. BONUS: she basically invited me to a holiday event with her family ("a big feast" I am assuming has something to do with Chinese New Year!) I had been concerned that most people would be too busy to host me due to the holiday's extreme family nature. (In Korea, families make pilgrimages to their ancestors graves and bow to their ancestors.)
How r u?
Just when I thought this Chinese new year's gonna suck, your request came to my mailbox!! Yes I would like to host you. You chose a right time to be here, since all the crowds will be gone for the holiday at their own hometown, therefore Beijing won't be so packed as usual. At at time I will finish my GMAT test, so I will definitely have the time to host you, lol.
Don't plan any visits during the night of Feb 9 or you're gonna miss a big feast :p
So, with a host set up, now all I needed was a flight and that pesky visa. I immediately began emailing travel agents to get some quotes. I got a reply from one place (Ken at Unique Travel) and he quoted 210,000 for the visa and right under 450,000 for the flight. I got another email the next day quoting 195,000 for the visa and 428,000 for the flight. PLUS the cheaper flight was into/out of a more convenient (and smaller) airport (Gimpo). This better deal was from Soho Travel.
So, today I gathered my paperwork for the visa, which included asking my supervisor for a certificate of employment, 2 applications, my passport and my ARC, and a passport photo. After work I went to the bank and transferred the payment for the flight to the travel agent! I will be mailing him my paperwork (registered mail of course; wouldn't want to lose my passport or ID card!!!) and will pay for the visa separately in a few days. The visa should take about a week to complete, and then I'm all set!
I can't believe I am actually doing this. I feel a bit like I wasted some of my time here, not traveling for either Chuseok or Christmas. I am also quite proud of myself; I have done the entire process by myself. I've gotten quotes, figured out requirements, done what was needed to meet those requirements, researched, planned, and PAID for the whole thing myself! I don't think I've ever done something this extensive (which, in all reality, is not that extensive) by myself. Coming to Korea was a TON of paperwork and quite a process, but I had my mom's help the whole way. Every other trip I've taken has been handled at least in part by my mom or dad. This one, though, is all me. :D
Another awesome thing about this trip is that the flight is only 2 hours, meaning I can travel and do stuff on the same day! My flight will be leaving Saturday morning, giving me all day Saturday, Sunday, and Monday to explore. Tuesday I will fly back late morning and be home by the afternoon. That way I can unwind, relax from my whirlwind vacation, and get ready for work the next day.
So, I officially have something to look forward to in the immediate future. It will be cold, and probably a bit uncomfortable in a stranger's house, but I will see the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and tons of other awesome Chinese things. It's shaping up to be quite a perfect little plan...