One of the places I had most wanted to visit in Korea is the city of Gyeongju. Gyeongju is referred to as a “museum without walls,” and contains several UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Although I had wanted to visit badly, Gyeongju is a 3.5 hour bus ride away from Jeonju. Given the fact that there is so much to see and do there, I felt I needed several days in the area to really make the trip worthwhile. In February, I had a three day weekend, and decided it was the perfect time to finally see what Gyeongju has to offer:
I woke up Sunday morning to a concerned note from a friend back home. This friend returned back to the US last fall after working in South Korea for several years. Watching the latest reports out of Korea, he was worried for the safety of his friends still living on the peninsula. I sent a message back telling him not to worry, and thanking him for the sweetness of his concern.
Returning back to Jeonju after the Holi Festival in Busan, I decided I should probably call my family. My father, a Korean War Veteran, worries about the situation in Korea, and has never trusted the actions of the North. My mother is my co-conspirator in trying to keep my father from the latest news and needless worry. With the situation at hand, this has been impossible. Regardless of what may appear on the news at any given moment, my Korean friends and neighbors carry on as if everything is normal. Indeed, for a country still technically at war since 1953, this is truly the case. North Korea has a long history of heightened rhetoric, and occasional aggressive and unprovoked action. The people of South Korea carry on and make the best of things despite their neighbors to the North.
I reassured my mother, and told her that there were two things that, if they were to happen, would signal to me that the situation was growing more dangerous. The first of these would be the closing of Gaesong. Gaesong is the factory park that is jointly run by North and South Korea. This area produces quite a bit of revenue for North Korea. I have found it humorous that Kim Jong Un has closed ties with South Korea, but has continued to allow workers from the South into this area for economic gain. It has been hard to take any threats seriously when that has been the case.
The second occurence that I thought might signal a need for concern would be if the US moved more war ships into the region. This would not necessarily indicate immediate action or need for alarm, but it would signal a much more serious concern on the part of the US. Given the fact that their Intelligence is far superior to mine, I would take this action as a truer sign of potential aggression.
Within the last 24 hours, both of these things have occurred:
Also of note, Richard Engel, famed chief foreign correspondent, is currently in Seoul. Engel is usually in the midst of any breaking global aggression.
Life in South Korea continues as usual. None of my Korean friends or co-workers have even mentioned the latest events. I wake up. I teach my children. I make plans for festivals, and for travel. I go about my normal life. I am not too overly concerned. I am paying close attention to the news now. I check the US Embassy in South Korea’s website periodically for any travel advisories or warnings. So far, there is only a strong warning not to travel to NORTH Korea.
After today’s news, I did decide to register with the Embassy. It is probably a needless precaution, but I think it wiser to prepare for any possible eventuality.
I plan to travel out again this weekend and play with my new toy, a Cannon SX50 HS. It is terribly hard to worry when spring has arrived, flowers are in bloom, and fun festivals abound.
Also of note, Richard Engel is in town. He’s handsome, brilliant, brave, and has a passport full of stamps. How can a girl be blue when the perfect man has landed in her backyard?
Indians In Korea hosted Holi Festival in Busan on March 31st. Holi in India has long been on my list of things I really want to experience. Obviously unable to book a flight to India, I jumped at the chance to attend the festival in Busan.
Each year, thousands of Hindus participate in the festival Holi. The festival has many purposes. First and foremost, it celebrates the beginning of the new season, spring. Originally, it was a festival that commemorated good harvests and the fertile land. Hindus believe it is a time of enjoying spring’s abundant colors and saying farewell to winter. It also has a religious purpose, commemorating events present in Hindu mythology. During this event, participants hold a bonfire, throw colored powder at each other, and celebrate wildly.
There were no bonfires in Busan. We met at the beach at 9:30, and waited for events to unfold. There was a last-minute change in the starting time. The festival was moved from 10:30 to 9:30. We arrived at 9:30, but apparently most of the participants missed the change. People were slowly trickling in for the rest of the morning. We were given Holi caps and colored powder, and instructed to please not play Holi until 11:00. By 11:00, many, many people were still straggling in, so we were given beer and samosas to snack on.
Although it took a little time for the main event to begin, we had a lovely time on the beach dancing to Bollywood tunes. Once it was time to “play Holi,” nearly 1000 people pelted and wiped one another with brightly colored powder. There were kites in the sky, people being tossed in the air and buried in the sand, and costumes and merriment. This was a beautiful day and place to celebrate the renewal of Spring.
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 3,000 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 5 years to get that many views.
"Thou shalt not plan. Thou shalt not hurry. Thou shalt not travel without backpacks, on anything other than backroads. And thou shalt not, ever, in any circumstance, call thyself a tourist." (Golden Commandments of The Overlander) 'Video Night In Kathmandu' Pico Iyer
I had a five-day weekend over Chuseok, and couldn’t decide where to go. I kept checking flight prices and times, and most flights were either too expensive, or the travel times were too inconvenient. I have a couple of countries on my list to visit that are reserved for short breaks. Taiwan is always an easy and viable option. I also considered Thailand. Typically, a return flight from Seoul to Bangkok is around $400.00. There are many, many places I want to see in Thailand, and although I wouldn’t be able to see much in five days, I knew I could see Bangkok and take an overnight trip to Ayutthaya. Excited with my plans, I started checking airfare.
Tickets to Thailand, normally so cheap and plentiful, had skyrocketed to $800.00!
The more I travel, the more I come to realize that sometimes trips pick you. This holds especially true for ESL teachers in South Korea. Read any blog by any English teacher in Korea and you’ll discover endless jokes and lamentations about the lack of planning, scheduling and notice most schools give their teachers. This is completely true. A fortunate teacher may be given notice of the exact dates of a break a month beforehand. Many times, teachers are given just a couple of weeks. Add short notice to peak travel times in Asia, and chaos is sure to ensue.
There I was checking every travel site. I was checking my dream destinations, and destinations I had given little thought to. I knew I wanted to see Angkor Wat, but five days would just not be enough time. I had wanted to visit Mongolia and do a ger stay, but I thought there was probably no way that flights would be affordable. Also, Mongolia is on the other side of China from Korea, and after my problems with Chinese airlines coming back from Hong Kong, I wanted no more worries of delays on short trips. Quickly running out of options, I decided to throw Ulaanbataar into the flight search, and was amazed at the price and ease. For just a little over $600.00, I could take a direct flight from Seoul to Ulaanbataar!
I bought my limousine bus ticket ahead of time. I had an 12:30 flight and, fearing the worst in Chuseok traffic, arranged a 5:00 am bus ticket to Incheon. The morning of my flight, I woke up at 5:05! I had turned my alarm off in my sleep. I rushed to find a cab and make it to the bus terminal. When I showed the man behind the desk, and motioned that I overslept, he just laughed and put me on the 6:00 bus. I did not even have to pay an additional charge. I really don’t think that would have happened many places outside of Korea.
I met some wonderful people in Mongolia, both local as well as fellow travelers. There were many English teachers, like myself, who were taking advantage of the Korean holiday. I spent the next several days exploring temples and Communist squares. I spent two nights in a ger with some lovely friends I made from Korea, Ariel and Mallory. We rode horses in the mountains. We milked cows and helped lug water. We quite probably ate horse meat sausage, and most definitely used a scary squatter outhouse. We could not take showers.
This was one of the best trips I have ever taken!
I will let the pictures tell the story, but I would like to make one recommendation. Many of the hostels in Ulaanbataar arrange ger stays and tours. They push this, and it can be very convenient. However, I strongly recommend Stone Horse Expeditions and Travel at http://stonehorsemongolia.com/. Stone Horse will pick you up at your hotel or hostel, and you only pay them for transportation. The money for the ger stay goes directly to the family. This does not seem to be the case with most of the hostel tours. It made me feel better to know that my money was going to the family, and helped them maintain their land and livestock.
Lost in the vastness!
Photo by Ariel Schoenhuth
We’re in Mongolia! We’re in a ger!
With Mallory Thornberry
Photo by Ariel Schoenhuth
I have really neglected my blog for several months. So much has happened, and there wasn’t a lot of time or words to describe everything. I’ll be adding new posts frequently to try to catch up. In the past five months I have managed to:
1. Travel to Mongolia.
2. Perform in two more productions, as well as be involved in a new, emerging performance troupe in Jeonju.
3. Have a pretty major surgery.
4. Change jobs. I am no longer working for Avalon!
5. Moved to a new apartment in a different area of Jeonju.
I’ll also be heading to Hanoi, Vietnam for a week over New Year’s!
Thanks for your patience and continued interest. I promise there will be many stories and far more pictures in the near future!
It was my final full day in Hong Kong, and I decided that no trip would be complete without a visit to The Tian Tan Buddha. This Buddha is the largest seated bronze Buddha in the world, and is located on Lantau Island. I navigated the subway system, and made it to Lantau with no problems. I arrived very early, and decided to buy a package that included a tour of Tai O, a stilted fishing village. There was a wait before the crystal cabin cable cars started running to Ngong Ping, the village that is home to the Buddha. I grabbed a cup of coffee, and located a post office to mail some post cards home. Finally, I found myself in a crystal cabin cable car headed to the Buddha!
I must say I am not a huge fan of heights, but the cable car ride over the mountains and beaches was amazing! This ride alone made the trip to Lantau completely worth the effort.
After a twenty-minute ride through the mountains, we finally got our first view of the Tian Tan Buddha!
There was also a very pretty waterfall visible from the cable car.
I had some time to kill before meeting the tour, so I wandered around the village of Ngong Ping. Ngong Ping is mostly a series of gift shops, restaurants and coffee shops. Finally, it was time to meet the tour, and they loaded us onto a bus to take us to Tai O.
Apparently, dolphins love to swim near this rock formation. We were lucky enough to see a dolphin jumping, but the only photo I got was of the splashing. (TIP for travelers: If you are on a boat with others, DON’T stand at the front and block the view of everyone behind you! There was one really obnoxious girl on my tour who did this. )
After the boat ride, we were allowed to roam the small village:
There was another very old temple that we had the chance to explore:
I wish I had a small deity dancing on the tip of my middle finger!
Once we had finished wandering around Tai O, we were driven back to Ngong Ping. There are 260 steps to reach the top of the Tian Tan Buddha, and I climbed them all! The views were beautiful!
This is one of my favorite photos. If you look closely at the top right, there is a praying mantis in “prayer” at the top of the pagoda.
Can you tell how much I love photographing Buddhas?
After I climbed the Buddha, and took far too many pictures, I checked out the temples and restaurants located in the same area as the Buddha.
This temple complex obviously receives many more tourists and a great deal of tourism dollars than most of the temples in Korea. The temples are very well maintained. Many temples in Korea tend to have peeling paint, and an air of age and disrepair to them. Not so in Ngong Ping!
If you continue past the temple complex, there is a hiking trail that leads you into the mountains. If you hike for a mile or so, you will come across The Wisdom Path. The hike itself is quite easy and gentle. You will pass a couple of very small, traditional tea houses, and you will eventually come to a clearing. When I entered the clearing, a large bull was napping on the path, and seemed not to care that I was near.
Once you enter this area, the Wisdom Path is on a hill to your right. The Wisdom Path is a series of 38 timber columns that are inscribed with Chinese characters. These characters form a 260 word prayer which is the Heart Sutra, a well-known Buddhist prayer. The timber columns are also arranged in a figure eight representing Infinity.
This area was one of my favorites on the trip. It was quiet, peaceful, and completely beautiful!
On the hike back, I grabbed another shot of the Buddha:
Hot and tired, I decided to relax for a bit before heading to one of the night markets. I didn’t take many pictures of the market, but I had a lot of fun trying the street food, and shopping for souvenirs.
During the trip home I ran into a few problems. The flight out of Hong Kong was delayed. We sat in the plane, on the tarmac, waiting for approval for take off. Apparently, there were many planes ahead of us also waiting. I was worried, because I only had a small window of time to catch my connecting flight from Beijing to Seoul. I explained this to my flight attendant, and she moved me to business class so I could get off the plane quicker. Beijing can be a nightmare when you are in a hurry. You must go through immigration just to change planes. My flight finally arrived 15 minutes before my next flight was to take off. The lines through immigration were long, and I was starting to panic. I finally found someone who would look at my flight schedule, and he rushed me through, and stamped my passport. I ran to the customer service desk on route to my plane to have her call ahead to the gate, but they had already closed it. There was the (now) hilarious but (then) rather tedious task of being sent back and forth by security and the ticketing counter while they tried to decide what to do with me. There were no further flights to Korea that day. I was stuck in Beijing for the night. The airline arranged for a room for me at a nearby hotel, The Golden Phoenix.
There is Tiananmen Square, The Great Wall of China……and there is the Golden Phoenix Hotel.
I had a 6:30 am flight to Seoul. I would just barely have time to get into Seoul and catch the four-hour bus ride back to Jeonju. Guess what? The flight out of Beijing was delayed as well. Chinese airlines are notorious for delayed and cancelled flights. My experience was no exception. If you plan to travel in or through China, allow for extra time because there will more than likely be problems along the way.