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Archive for August, 2011


“Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travelers don’t know where they’re going.”

-Paul Theroux

I recently said to a friend of mine that the reason I love Korea is because every single day at least one thing happens that is so funny or surreal I feel that I am either at a carnival, or in a David Lynch movie. Sunday was absolutely no exception! I was sitting at GS early in the morning, waiting to head to a new part of Korea with my friend Brigitte, when this appeared out of nowhere to greet me in English:

Yes. You are seeing correctly, and your computer screen does not need adjusting. That’s right. A Korean guy in a full pig costume.

I knew then that this was going to be a day to remember.

Brigitte and I were heading to the Temple of 1000 Buddhas in Seonggoksa. In all of my research, I had never heard of this temple site, so I jumped at the chance when Brigitte invited me. We first boarded a bus to Yuseong, and then took a much shorter bus to Gongju. From there, we caught a cab to Seonggoksa. I wasn’t sure what to expect as the cab carried us up a very narrow road up the very steep side of a mountain. We were definitely in an extremely remote, but incredibly beautiful part of Korea. Imagine my surprise when we rounded a curve and saw this over the treetops:

This Buddha complex contains several Buddhas that tower at two and three stories over the trees, around the mountain. I cannot begin to express how beautiful this area is, so I will allow the pictures speak for themselves:

Brigitte and I were the only Westerners at the site. We met a solitary monk that lived in the complex, and he gave us a private tour of one of the temple sites. He spoke almost no English, but managed to communicate much of the history of the site, and the prayer rituals. He was very kind and patient, and seemed pleased by our interest.

After we had walked this beautiful area and taken many pictures, we tried to call the cab that had brought us out to the mountain. When the taxi dropped us off, I had asked him for a card so we could get a ride back. Brigitte tried to call on her cell phone and was unable to get through. We walked back to the one small shop in the complex, and found that it was closed. Faced with walking an incredibly long way back to the nearest town, and unsure what to do, we decided to try to ask someone on a tour bus that was visiting the area. I approached one man, and handed him the card and tried to communicate our situation. The man pulled out his cell phone, called the number and realized what our problem was. We soon found ourselves surrounded by Koreans from the bus trying to help us call a cab. Eventually, the tour guide told us in broken English that we were too far in the country to call a taxi. We were then invited onto the bus, and offered a ride to the closest town:

 

The interior of the bus was quite pink and festive, and even had a mirrored ceiling. An older Korean lady (ajumma) moved out of the front seat to let us sit there.

I spoke to one woman as she boarded the bus and a few minutes later she offered us a red bean and rice cake dessert. It was quite dense and filling. Since neither one of us had eaten the entire day, this was very much appreciated.At one point, I heard a very soft, wondrous, “Megooken?” (Americans?) spoken behind us. I think the tour group was surprised to see two American females so far away from the big cities, and in a religious site.  The bus then dropped us in the nearest town.

I will never in my life forget how kind the Koreans were to us. This was not only the most beautiful place I have seen in Korea so far, it really confirmed my faith in the kindness of the Korean people. I have talked to many Westerners who have lived in Korea for years, and they all say that the best experiences are by far the ones you encounter when you get off the beaten path. After this trip, I must say I strongly agree.

If you decide to visit or teach in South Korea, you must find a way to visit Seonggoksa and the Temple of 1000 Buddhas.

 

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After we finished our lunch, we were bussed back to Imjimgak. Here, we were allowed exactly twenty minutes to take pictures before we had to catch the bus to the second part of our tour: The Joint Security Area (or JSA). Twenty minutes were absolutely not enough time to see everything that this area had to offer. Imjingak is a park and monument built in 1972 in consolation for North Koreans living in the South who were unable to return to their families and friends. There are many monuments and memorials here, but we only had time to see The Freedom Bridge, and a few other sites along the way.

The Freedom Bridge was used by Koreans to flee to the South during the war:

This was as close as we were allowed to get to The Freedom Bridge. The entire area was fenced off and separated by barbed wire. All along the fence, there were prayers for peace, and notes left for family members on the other side.

There is also a railroad car that came under heavy artillery during the war:

I was disappointed in the lack of time we were allowed to spend here, and plan to return by myself at some point in the future to take more pictures, and see everything that I missed during this trip. One of the most striking things about this area was the juxtaposition of the raw emotion, and the sheer commercialism. It is almost shocking to walk along seeing such powerful testaments to the atrocities of war and prayers for reunification and then see an amusement park complete with rides standing in the parking lot. My mind still boggles at the site. In almost every area, there is a gift shop set up to buy your DMZ t-shirt.

There was a very nice peace concert taking place the day we were there:

We quickly explored the area, and caught the bus to the JSA. We had been warned that if we missed our JSA tour bus we would not only miss the JSA tour, but we would have to find our own way back to Seoul. There was a momentary scare when we realized that five of our friends weren’t on the bus, as it started moving. Luckily, they appeared and the driver was nice enough to let them board.

I have read many blog entries, and seen countless pictures of the Joint Security Area. Nothing prepared me for the intensity of the experience. It probably didn’t help that our new tour director explained that the tour could be called off at any point. He also told us that there had been another ship fired upon just the day before, and that tensions were running high along the border. We had our own South Korean security guard with us at all times. Our private security boarded our bus, checked our passports, and then made a second trip to check our clothing and footwear. It was explained to us that we were only allowed to carry our cameras and nothing else. Anyone not wearing closed, appropriate shoes would not be allowed to continue. We were then informed that if anything were to happen we would need to run, and they were not responsible for what may happen.

Definitely not your normal, every day tour….

We were given a list of rules of things we were not allowed to do, interspersed with history of crazy actions the North has taken to try to provoke the South. We were not allowed to point at anything, as that could be taken as an act of aggression. We learned that one soldier now stands at the door on the Northern side of the room because the North has tried to drag tourists from the South into the North. We also learned that the South Korean soldiers must wear military issued mirrored Ray Bans to prevent eye fights from breaking out between North and South Korean soldiers when they are facing off in the courtyard.

Again, I found myself wondering why the South had turned this highly dangerous area into a tourist attraction:

At this point, I was in North Korea.

We were then led outside, and were lined up on the stairs facing the North. I couldn’t help but think what amazing targets we would be all lined up in a row:

We were being observed by North Korean soldiers.

Our private security guard. Notice his earpiece. He could have been ordered to call off our tour at any point.

On our way our of this area, our tour guide showed us the Bridge of No Return which was used to exchange prisoners:

We were also shown the monument of the 1976 axe murder incident:

(For more information, please see http://www.associatepublisher.com/e/a/ax/axe_murder_incident.htm)

We were then allowed to shop before returning to Seoul. I refused to buy t-shirts and Ray Bans, but I must admit I couldn’t resist the chance to try blueberry wine made in North Korea:

Although I am still torn on whether I believe this area is really safe enough to turn into a tourist attraction, I am definitely glad I had the chance to go. I would also recommend seeing this while there is the opportunity to do so. There is no other border like this on the planet, and I have to admit it was a pretty exciting and awesome experience.

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Okay. That’s not exactly true, but a large group of my friends and I went to the DMZ last weekend. Today I sit, laptop on knees, and struggle to find the words to describe the experience. I have spent countless hours researching the area and the Korean War, trying to find my “hook” for this entry. I considered giving a brief history of the war, but soon realized that the war, the ensuing cease-fire and  present relations between the two Koreas are far too complicated to try to detail here. For the sake of those who may not be aware, the DMZ (demilitarized zone) is the border that separates North and South Korea, plus an additional 2 kilometers on either side. Since North and South Korea are still technically at war, this area, situated along the 38th parallel, is considered the world’s most dangerous border. Very few people, aside from military personnel, the civilians who work there, and guided tour groups are allowed within the DMZ. I found the tour by turns amusing, emotionally stirring, and intense and chilling.

We began the trip by traveling to Seoul Friday night. We arrived around 1:30 am, and soon realized we would be unable to find an affordable hotel. As much as many of us were opposed to the idea, we decided to spend the night in a jimjilbang. Kiran and I had just undergone this experience when we returned from Japan (see: http://wp.me/p1gRND-bu), and knew it was going to be another long, and restless night:

Hundreds and hundreds of people sleeping in every crevice and cranny of the seven story bathhouse. With hardly any sleep, we were up and out looking for coffee by 7:00 am, and caught cabs to Lotte Hotel to meet our tour group by 8:00. We were loaded into our bus, and not too far outside the city we began seeing barbed wire and checkpoints.

Our first stop was the Third Tunnel where we watched a brief film detailing the history of the war, and describing the tunnels that have been found since the cease-fire began. After the peace treaty was signed in 1952, the South discovered four underground tunnels the North had built as part of a planned military invasion of Seoul. We were loaded into little railway cars, and rode down into  the tunnel. It was interesting to learn that the North (after the tunnel was found) claimed that the tunnel was actually built by the South to invade the North. The train took us to the bottom of a steep incline where we were directed out, and walked quite a few meters through the actual tunnel. The tunnel was quite narrow and low, and the taller among us had to walk stooped through much of the site to avoid banging our heads. Throughout the walk, many areas on the rock walls were marked to show where the dynamite was placed to blast through the rocks. All of the blasts indicated that it was in fact the North that blasted the tunnel. At the end of the line there was a blocked off wall, rigged with cameras and blasting equipment in case the North ever tries to enter the South through the tunnel again.

Unfortunately, we were only allowed to take pictures in the parking lot:

After we finished the tour of the Third Tunnel, we were bussed to Dorasan Station. This train station, which once connected North and South Korea, has been fully restored in anticipation of reunification, and in hopes of establishing a trade route through China, Russia and into Europe.

We were also allowed to buy a railway ticket, and were given a passport stamp for North Korea:

Our tour guide for this part of the trip had a very amusing and disturbing habit of delivering horrible news, and then saying, “Is that okay? Okay!” in the most chipper voice possible. One such example of this was when she was explaining to us that there were landmines all around the area. “If you step on a landmine, you will lose a foot, or a leg, or an eye. We do not have a way to get you out of here, and there is no doctor. Is that okay? Okay!”

Another example, was when we were breaking for lunch, and she was explaining that we should not drink the water in the restaurant:

“The water is ground water, and can cause terrible diarrhea. Is that okay? Okay!”

No.

That is absolutely not okay….

We had a fantastic lunch, and to my knowledge, no one lost an appendage OR suffered from horrendous diarrhea.

Stay tuned for Part II, in which we visit Freedom Bridge, are allowed into the North and experience firsthand the true creepiness of the Joint Security Area, and I explain the perils of eye fighting!

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I am running very behind in finishing my DMZ posts. This week has been very busy due to it being the last week of summer intensives. I also have several friends leaving in the next few days, so I have been spending all of my free time with them.

In case you are craving your update of all things strange and unusual in South Korea, I bring you this:

UFO fleet spotted in Daejeon

Written by Barun Friday, 19 August 2011 20:31

On Wednesday night, a group of 20 alleged UFOs were spotted above Daejeon, 90 minutes north of Jeonju. Pictures and videos of the sightings are causing quite a stir on the internet. An unnamed witness claimed to see 20 brightly-lit objects floating in the sky for 30 minutes before they started moving. The Air Force reported no flights at the time of the sightings, nor did it detect anything on its radar. The last major sighting was in 2008 above central Seoul. Courtey, The Korea Times

 

 

 

 

 

 

Apparently, even Korea is not above its share of visitors from the outer reaches…. and I don’t just mean Djibouti!

I will be finishing the DMZ posts this weekend. Pinky swear! Now I’m off to Taekwondo, then dinner at Lexi’s, and then to see Carpe Delirium!

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I spent Saturday touring the DMZ, and am presently writing a very long, detailed blog on the experience. It was such a moving and intense experience, it is taking me some time to work out my own thoughts and feelings on, and I want to do it justice. I did want to give a small preview, and also mention a few things that happened this week.

First, I earned my yellow belt in Taekwondo:

I am loving this class so very much. We spend about 15 minutes stretching, and then proceed to kick and punch at one another for the next 45. I have found this is the perfect way to relax and/or work out stress after a crazy day of teaching. Also, it just fully occurred to me how awesome it is to have an actual Korean Taekwondo uniform:

Next, we spent the night in another jimjilbang in Seoul before meeting our tour group for the DMZ:

Seven floors, with Koreans sleeping in every possible nook and cranny.

And finally, a DMZ teaser:

Look for the full entry in the next day or two!

Have a great day, wherever you may be!

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I didn’t do much this weekend. I was incredibly tired after our trip to Japan, and the two work days of proctoring term tests and mounds of grading. It’s so hard to believe we are nearing the end of our first semester! I also realized while in Japan that I had not spent a single weekend in Jeonju for the entire month of July: Seoul, Daejeon/Daegu, Busan, and then Japan. Whew! What a crazy and awesome month, but it is no wonder I am dragging a bit.

Friday night I left work and headed to Houston’s to hang out with the gang, and to see one of the final two shows of the jazz trio. Ryan is leaving next weekend, and Robert the following week. Last night, I met Kiran for a small dinner of kimbap, and then she and I met Kyle at our favorite cafe for coffee. I love the owner there so much. He is always incredibly kind to us. He periodically gives us pizza or cake just because, and has insisted we borrow umbrellas when it unexpectedly rains on us. We were thrilled last night when he told us he was moving to Australia next year, and would like to practice his English with us.

Today, I met several of my friends and we headed out to brunch at Deep Into. Afterwards, Kiran and I went to Deokjin Park and took pictures of all the lotus flowers in bloom. The park is beautiful, and it was a nice, cool and blustery day thanks to the typhoon coming up the shore near us.

Afterwards, I headed to a dinner party hosted by my dear friend Lexi. She put on a feast of homemade pasta, risotto balls, salad and garlic bread. We all brought wine, and sat around and laughed, and talked and played guitar. The perfect end to a lovely weekend at home!

Have I mentioned lately how much I love my friends and life here in Jeonju?

Next weekend is going to be another crazed one. We are heading to the DMZ on Saturday. I had originally planned to stay in Seoul the rest of the weekend, but I found out this morning that the Rock Tigers are playing here in Jeonju on Saturday. My friend Ryan’s going away party is that same night, and Carpe Delirium (Patrick, Brent and Michael’s band) are playing two shows that night as well.

Guess who will be bouncing that night!?!

Tomorrow, I have my yellow belt test in Taekwondo….Fingers crossed!

I hope you all had fantastic weekends! Thanks for reading!

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After we decided to stay, Kiran and I pooled the last bit of change we had and the three of us caught a cab back to the port to exchange our final few won. We converted 80, ooo won (approximately $75). One of the men running the hostel told us that the only restaurants that accepted international cards were the western chain restaurants. We walked and walked, and finally found a Subway. They did not accept cards, but we decided to use some of our yen to get subs, especially when Kiran and I saw they had turkey. ( We have not seen turkey since we’ve been in Korea.) We ordered three, foot-long subs and three large drinks, and it cost about $60.00.

Japan apparently has not heard the ” 5 Dollar Foot Long” jingle……

Full and happy, if poor, we decided to explore some more. Patrick and I were excited to see a Tower Records, and had to stop.

My favorite band, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, just released a cd of Japanese songs!

We continued exploring the shopping areas, and wandered through some more temples and shrines:

A beautiful modern, minimalist temple:

Back on the busy streets of Fukuoka:

We stumbled upon this odd creature, and then discovered why he had the plaque wired to him:

We ran into James Brown:

He is not holding up so well.

We headed back towards Canal City as the sun was going down. Kiran and I ate the other half of our subs in a park next to the river, while Patrick took a nap on a bench.

We walked along the river at night:

We headed back to our hostel, where Kiran and I researched hostels in Busan while Patrick played the guitar in the common room. We headed for our rooms, where Kiran and I were offered small Japanese red bean or chocolate cakes by our Japanese and Japanese American dorm mates.

The following morning, we woke up and had Patrick call the port to switch our return tickets to that day. We were scheduled to leave out at 3:15, so we decided to walk to an area of Fukuoka that had a lot of temples. This area was also on route to the port, so we thought we would save a couple of dollars (or a few hundred) in cab fare.

The trip back across the sea was an uneventful one. Once back in Korea, there was a tense moment as Patrick waited to see if he would have problems getting back into Korea on his single entry visa. Kiran and I held our collective breath, and then erupted into laughter when we realized we were thinking the same thing: Neither one of us had any remaining cash to get Patrick back into Korea if there were problems. Luckily, Patrick was stamped back in and waved on through! We immediately hit the ATM’s and were rich again, at least in terms of being able to find our way around, and eat Korea’s delicious and cheap food.

We were starving since it had been over 24 hours since Kiran and I had eaten the second halves of our Subway sandwiches (and even longer for Patrick since he had inhaled his immediately). Luckily, I had spent the previous weekend in Busan with some friends, and knew of great Mexican and Indian restaurants in the Haeundae Beach area. We decided on Mexican for dinner, and set off for Fuzzy Navel, where we enjoyed burritos and chimichangas. We then decided to head to a PC bang to check our messages. I had sent an SOS message to several of our friends vacationing in Busan the prior evening to see if anyone knew of hotels or hostels with rooms available in Busan. They all replied with the numbers of their hostels, and we spent some time calling the hostels, and researching others. The nice guy running the PC bang was very kind once he realized what we were doing, and came back with some numbers and directions for us.

Korea and its wonderful people are home and family to us!

All of the hostels were booked for the night, so we made the executive decision to spend the night in a jimjilbang. A jimjilbang is a Korean bathhouse, and this one was the largest one I have ever seen. It contained six floors of showers, saunas, snack bars, pc rooms, dvd rooms, and one entire floor dedicated to co-ed sleeping. Imagine having a slumber party with several hundred complete strangers! There was one awkward and hysterical moment when Kiran and I were completely chastised loudly and in Korean when we tried to sneak upstairs to find Patrick. Patrick had just taken off once we paid for the night, even though Kiran and I had told him we planned to go to the beach. Because his cell phone was dead, we couldn’t call him, and the only way to get to him was to go to the 6th floor sleeping area. We bypassed the showers, and headed up the women’s only elevator, and ran into the Korean man who was stretched out on his mat in front of the elevators. He was so disturbed by the appearance of fully clothed, Western women he began to demand loudly and in Korean that we go downstairs and change. Kiran and I were embarrassed and completely amused by this, especially when we almost sent the poor man into cardiac arrest when we almost stepped into the men’s only elevator by accident.

We tried to sleep after returning from the beach, but it wasn’t easy with so many people sleeping and walking around next to us all night. Many people were getting up to snack at all hours. There were also people playing on their cell phones all night long. It’s an odd feeling to have so many strangers sleeping mere inches from you, and many stepped on us throughout the night as they made their way to the snack bar or outside onto the terrace. We got up the next day, and made our way to Shinsengae, the world’s largest department store.

We headed back to the beach and ate at Ganga, the best Indian restaurant I have found in Korea so far. I can live on Indian curry, and Ganga is phenomenal, if slightly pricey. Afterwards, we decided to return to Jeonju and spend a day relaxing before returning to work and the insanity of term tests.

So our adventure was not without pitfalls, misadventure, and hunger pains. Regardless, we managed to have a great time, and shared a lot of laughter… and all of our resources. There were some moments that were a little frightening, such as receiving a call from Kiran’s dad that a typhoon was heading straight for us. We really learned a lot about being resourceful while traveling, and how strong we really are. We did manage to see most of the things we wanted to in Fukuoka, and there was also this:

New stamps in the passport!

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