Monday, September 14, 2009

Ghosts of Holidays Past - Korea

Monday before Lunar New Year, we had to teach and I went along with the kindergarten and preschool classes on the sledding field trip in the morning. it was fantastic, fake hills and fake snow alongside the Han river, but the kids were so enthusiastic, we had fun.

i stayed up far too late Monday night cleaning and packing, so getting up at 4.45 am to go to the bus station was difficult. however, the bus ride wasn't bad. we keep hearing horror stories about traffic on holidays here, but it was maybe a half hour longer than usual. going home was fine too-turns out there is a special lane for buses, so we flew by all the stopped cars. we slept and listened to music. six white girls on the bus attracted a fair amount of attention. Kim, kaileen and i went home on a different bus than the others, turns out the only difference between a regular bus and an express bus is how nice the seats are. it wasn't bad at all, but since express buses don't cost much more, i think i will splurge from now on.

when we arrived we just wandered looking for a hotel. we walked into a really nice place, assuming it would be too expensive, but it was so dead we ended up paying half the room rate. on our first excursion into the city, we headed down towards downtown and found a restaurant for lunch. the place we ate was called "Second Choice, but a good choice" and had a beautiful courtyard and good food. yum, pork cutlet. Saw an interesting lingerie store with an English sign that involved the line "yes, yes, yes!" Took a picture, of course. wish i could scan my photos on, but c'est la vie.

We then found Tumuli park, with a bunch of old tombs that are built up like hills. No one had really had much sleep, so we were all pretty giddy. We went into a coffee house and then went back to the hotel for a nap. two hours later, we ordered pizza, bought some soju and stayed in playing cards. auction 45 is a fun game, next time i am together with 6 friends at the same time, I'll be teaching you all!

Wednesday we took a tour bus around the main sites, again the only white girls in sight. the tour was entirely in Korean. Bulguksa Temple was beautiful, and at one point we saw a group of monks putting on their robes on their way to pray-one of those moments that will live in my memory forever. We are all obsessed with taking photos and each seem to have taken all the same shots. I'm the only old schooler, still using film. once someone else puts their photos on the web, I'll send everyone the link.

We went to a bunch of tombs, temples, pagodas, the Gyeongju Museum, a drinking palace archaeological site (took us a long time to figure out what that one was, considering the Korean commentary), and had a traditional Korean lunch (galbi). We met a family and the father was a Korean high school English teacher, so we chatted with him and played with his adorable 3 year old daughter.

We had intended to go to a Korean restaurant for dinner but found most things closed for the new year, so we had another evening of pizza, soju and cards in our room. Then Thursday morning we took forever to get ready, before heading out to Seokguram Grotto to see a Buddha statue. It was my favourite part of the trip, we had a bus ride up a very windy road and had a great view of the hills, then had to walk up a path bordered by lanterns before seeing the Buddha. We wrote a quote on a tile and signed our names- I came up with the quote, a bastardization of this from the Little Prince: "One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes."-it's for good luck in the new year, i think. The monk was sweet and gave us all a banana. Then we had lunch, bulgogi, and headed to Schuman and Clara, a coffee shop popular with university students. the cheesecake there was fabulous.

i really needed this break. sadly we don't have another 3 days off in a row until June.

here's a travel story to tell the grandkids...

our trip to jeju has been one craziness after another. i got to daejeon to meet Kendra easily enough, and she and i walked to a mall to have a neb and see catwoman (not a very good film). we got back to her place, only to have her director call at 10pm and say that her sister had now decided to go away for chuseok, so we couldn't stay with her. considering we had to leave for our flight at 8am the next day, short
notice is putting it mildly.

so, we made it okay to the airport and met up with a guy named chancy, who lives right near Kendra (though she didn't know him). chatted with him as our plane
was delayed. on the plane we chatted with our seat mate, a Korean guy in the air force. when we arrive, he offered to call the car hire people for us and
translate. then we discover that someone has accidentally taken Kendra's bag at the airport. so we wander over to see if we can rent a car-nope, because Kendra doesn't have an international license. the air force guy rents the car for us (yep, way dodgy, as he ought to be the only driver but we were sooooo grateful.) we go back to the luggage place and the guy who took Kendra's bag has returned it.

so, since air force guy has been so nice, we offer to drive him to meet up with his family in the south part of the island. we are supposed to be meeting up with
some girls Kendra knows, but can't get ahold of them. air force guy drives and we go to the teddy bear museum with him and meet his family briefly. then we go to
see some famous waterfalls, and four Korean girls are really sweet, wishing us a good stay on jejudo in English and they end up giving us a coconut (with a
straw, so you can drink the milk). yes, we are having a wee bit of an odd day. then we bump into air force guy and his family again.

now, we have managed to get in contact with Kendra's friends and find out their hotel, cause it's evening and we still have nowhere to stay. however, we've got
a car, so we figure if everything really is as booked up as we've been told, we'll just sleep in it. we don't have a clue where the hotel might be, so we drive back to the airport to the tourist information. we end up driving pretty much up and over mount halla, the highest peak on jeju, rather than taking the highway. so, after a few turns around the block, we find the other girls' hotel. we call them, they are
lost on the island somewhere having rented scooters, and when we ask about a room is it far too expensive. however, we had parked the car in the lot of the motel
across the street, so we ask there. it's 15,000 won a night each and it's so nice here-free Internet too, which I'm using right now.

so, to sum up-everything that could go wrong, pretty much has. at one point today we were homeless, without Kendra's luggage and without a form of transport. now we're awesome. it has all worked out better than we ever could have planned. and to top it
off, we are navigating around Korea in a car like pros, i am so proud of us. and we get BBC world on the telly :)

the island is beautiful, the falls are incredible. not the best ever weather, but it isn't that bad.

it turns out we're staying in a love motel... very amusing.

Kendra annoyed me a bit, she's driving the car so i think she thinks that she gets to do only what she wants. i have only suggested one place so far, and she didn't want to go, though we did. i liked it.

anyway, I've got one day left on the island. it's really fun here. today we visited the manjanggul lava tube, a hedge maze, udo island, a folk village and a crater. Kendra is very, very weird about food, she won't eat anything Korean and she's on some weird diet, so she won't eat most western food either. she barely eats before dinner time.

The trip back involved a ferry ride where everyone else puked due to the rough waters and a long bus ride, with beautiful scenery and lots of naps. and some free food, from my very kind Korean fellow-passengers.

Busan Part 1
So, if you were exhausted after not getting enough sleep the night before and walked through the door at 9.30 pm the night before going away on a trip that you'd have to be up at 5 am for, AND you needed to do dishes and pack still, what would you do? Because, of course, the best answer to that question is that you'd go and drink a bottle of Black Tower until 3 am right? Right? Anyone?

I was feeling a little tender when I woke up this morning. Tired. Dehydrated. A bit silly. Because, upon consideration, perhaps a bottle of wine wasn't really the way to go. I managed to get out the door in my allotted half hour, with the dishes washed, the bag packed, and the garbage taken out. And I did it all just in time to... miss the bloody bus. The problem with buses isn't so much with them per se, but my amazing ability to miss them by mere seconds, to be able on such a regular basis to watch them slowly drive away from my bloody bus stop. So, I waited. I had a big debate with myself about perhaps taking the subway instead. See, I only had 75 minutes then to get to the train station and the one and only time I've ever taken this bus there (to buy the tickets) it took a bit over an hour. and I couldn't remember how much that bit was. but i hate taking the subway and having to make all those transfers, when i could be sitting on my lazy ass listening to my Walkman and eating the bananas that Kim gave me for breakfast. So I waited. And then as soon as I got on the bloody bus, lo and behold, the discman's batteries die. which left me plenty of time to contemplate all of the important things I left behind, due to my five minutes of packing time. like an alarm clock, or my Korean phrasebook. perhaps you are all thinking to yourselves, why didn't she pack earlier??? why didn't she wake up in time to at least have more than five rushed minutes to pack??? perhaps you read the above paragraph?

The funny thing about the wine drinking last night, in a totally unrelated to Busan ramble, is that it made me feel really drunk. I was staring at the vines on my jeans, which have been there since I bought them, and getting all weirded out by them. kinda like i was doing pot, rather than cheap European red. And I've noticed that while i can pound back the sojus like there's no tomorrow, other alcohol, especially beer, makes me plastered fairly quickly. and soju just leaves me feeling sober, or mostly sober, right up until that critical moment when i suddenly feel that i have lost complete control of my ability to move my legs and arms in intentional ways. soju is weird. and sometimes they make it out of cats. i don't know how, god knows i don't want to know, but there you are. at least the British readers of this blog can rest easy knowing that both dogs and cats are equally treated in non-pet ways over here.

so, back to getting to Busan. So, it's monsoon season. I get off the bus, and it is pouring, but for whatever reason, my thought pattern has come up with the terribly stupid and illogical conclusion that it will be more pleasant to get wet than to have to deal with a wet umbrella later (don't ask, i have no idea where this piece of idiocy came from - perhaps i should refer you back to that first paragraph again?) And in my enthusiasm to get to the underground crossing area, i somehow ended up in an underground feeding area. I am not sure what exactly was going on, but there were lots of men sitting around eating and i was in the wrong underground thingy. back out to the monsoon again, finally i am in the right place, heading to the train station. and looking for a family mart to try to buy some batteries. normally, you can't swing a cat (or even a bottle of cat soju) in Seoul without coming across a family mart or its like. today however, i was getting no love. finally one appeared, and i grabbed a coffee too. the neurons weren't exactly firing all at once at that point in the day.

After all that worry about making it in time, i of course manage to arrive a half hour early. taking a train in Korea is a bit like taking a plane - you have to wait until you are called to board the train. of course, to me these announcements sound like "blah blah blah hamida, blah blah blah blah blah hamida." They could be wishing us all a nice morning; they could be telling my fat white ass to get on the train. who knows really?

So I got on, and yes, the KTX trains are nice. Not as nice as some people's gushing would have you believe, but nice all the same. I like the Korean countryside, and I find it very amusing that every city outside of Seoul, even rather little town like ones, all have the exact same apartment buildings, just less of them. it's a bit freaky really. like, in Canada or Scotland, you'd have houses, or cottages, or smaller building at least, but not here. and the buildings all seem to be set against beautiful green mountains. reminds me a bit of Ireland-very lush green, what with all this lovely monsoon rain. I'm sure you'll all be unsurprised to hear that i slept through a considerable portion of the ride.

Busan has a train station that is eerily similar to Seoul's. And then there are all those identikit buildings... However, I like Busan. I suspect I could live here quite happily. The buildings are all nicely against the mountains, which today are all covered in mist, and there are only two subway lines, so it must be smallish, but it feels big enough. I have a hotel room, a bit on the pricey side for a hostel-lover like myself, but it is nice. And about five minutes from the train station, which will be handy when I have to leave for my 8 am train (with no alarm clock, but concerned about that one.) After sorting out accommodation, I hopped on the subway.

My first trip was to Beomeousa temple. It was quite a distance by subway, and then I got off, with no idea where to actually find bus 90, which I knew I needed to take. I no sooner had my map out, than a nice man asked where I needed to go and walked me up the street to the bus terminal. And that is why I love Korea. People may be a bit pushy, they may spit on the ground constantly, but they also go far more out of their way for a visitor than any other country I have ever been to. The bus went up into the hills, getting more and more surrounded by fog, and then we arrived. It was a bit of a hike up, and I was given a wee English map to keep me in the touristy areas and away from the monks' personal space. The mist made the whole thing amazing-felt like being in a dream, or in the clouds, with the monks chanting and bells and drums in the background and the smell of smoke from a fire near the food offering. It is a beautiful temple and had far more personality to any other I've been too-lots more Korean Buddhists there to worship, more activity, and perhaps also the fact that I was on my own and the only non-Korean in the crowd. I went into a wee museum after and had a look at old Buddhist books and printing techniques and then bought myself some postcards and hightailed it back down to grab a bus.

Back at the terminal, it occured to me that I was starving. I had some good kimchee mandu at a little restaurant, while reading Michael Moore's "Dude, Where's my Country?" It's okay, though I think I am less interested than I might be because the information is old and I heard most of his arguments in the movie. It was left behind by one of the other teachers though, and I do want to read it. Back to the subway, and I was off to visit the Jagalchi Fish Market. It wasn't as exciting as I had thought it might be-not especially crowded either. However, I got an interesting photos of some squid/octopus thingies and then ended up completely by chance on Youth Street.

I decided, due to the fact that I'm rather tired and the weather is rather dreary, to go and see Mr. and Mrs. Smith. I thought it was very good, but having seen all of 5 movies in the theatre in the past year, I might not be the best judge. But, even if I am a totally crap movie reviewer, I will say that I thought it was very funny and I liked that Mrs. Smith totally kicked Mr. Smith's ass. The shoot out at the end was cool-together they also apparently kicked the asses of something like 50 people. I didn't see the whole plot coming, which is funny. I never seem to do while watching movies, but I often do when reading books (especially of the airport variety of book). After the film ended I wandered around Youth Street, which is packed with shops and restaurants, bars and PC rooms, tons of food stalls and everything else you might want. I even was thinking to myself that what I really miss is walking into a HMV and browsing through the CDs and not five minutes later I found a CD store. I am now the proud owner of the best of Guns and Roses. There are always lots of English selection, it's just that the English selection is always so odd. And since I have been totally out of the loop musically, I haven't a clue what I might want to buy anyway. Picked up a few t-shirts too, which is starting to become some sort of addiction.

after i post this, i am off to my hotel, a five minute walk across the train station square, and i might just check out my TV for English channels before i hit the sack. I'm hoping, though without much actual real sense of hope, that it might be nicer weather tomorrow. I'd like to take the cable car up to the fortress, see one of the beaches, and perhaps finally get over my fear of saunas, and just go and be naked with a room full of Korean people. we'll see what tomorrow brings i guess.

Busan Pt. 2
Sunday morning I woke up early-I wanted to have time to do something in the morning before going to the beach in the afternoon. I decided that looking at the tiny tourist map (which didn’t have a scale) that climbing up and around Geumgang Fortress would take maybe 3 hours, especially if I took the cable car up at the beginning. Well, it was a great hike, with lots of little peaks to climb up and some fortress gates, but three hours it was not. It took me more like 7.5, because I was an idiot and decided to walk down instead of taking the cable car. Because the genius mind that decided that a tourist map would provide an adequate idea of the scale of a mountain hike, apparently also decided that if the cable car only took five minutes, it couldn’t possibly take long to hike down. Apparently there is a reason they built that cable car there. However, on a Sunday morning, going hiking means that you get to see tons of people-hiking is very popular here. As is shopping, and even at the top of the mountain you can buy clothes, food, and of course, soju.

At the bottom, back in Geumgang Park, I blundered into a presentation of traditional Korean dance, songs, and music. It was nice to sit down and rest for a bit. To say that I was too tired to get all the way across the city to see the beaches was putting it mildly. I feel a bit silly having visited a city known for its beaches, only to never see them, but all I wanted was to relax. So, I went to Asia’s biggest bathhouse, and relaxed. There are warm pools, cold pools, hot tubs, saunas of various temperatures, salt water pools, rose water pools-you name it, they’ve got it. I had an exfoliation and massage, which included having a woman walk on my back. And all I can say is that massages here are… very thorough. Read into that what you will. I was there for about three hours, my massage was an hour at least, and all for $50. Even cheaper than Seoul.

I went and watched crappy TV that night and got the hotel guy to arrange a wake-up call for me, as I had forgotten my alarm clock. However, the next morning I dreamed that I got my wake-up call, so I got out of bed and got ready two hours too early. Watched more crappy TV and then headed to Busan station for a coffee before my 8am train ride back to Seoul. I got back to my apartment with fifteen minutes to change into work clothes and grab something to eat.

All in all, a great trip. Can’t say my mind was working at high speed, in fact I didn’t appear to have two neurons rubbing together at the same time ever, but I had fun. It was good to get out of Seoul for a bit.

1 comment:

White Rice said...

Quite an enjoyable romp. I enjoyed it very much.