Monday, October 12, 2015

Adventure Time: Part 4

That's right, the adventures didn't end with the last post. These are from February through May.

Boseong Green Tea Fields

The Green Tea Fields in Boseong are a huge plantation filled with rows and rows of green tea bushes. There is also a beautiful bamboo forest with trunks bigger than my hand. While February isn’t the peak time for green tea plants and none of the bushes were flowering, they were still surprisingly green for the middle of winter. I went as part of Enjoy Korea to see the light festival there, and I was quite excited to see each row lit up in different colors. Sadly I didn’t actually get to see the main lights—I was in the wrong section until the very end—but I was still able to enjoy the Fields’ famous green tea ice cream, which was better than expected. The gift shop also had lots of interesting green tea-flavored things, like cookies, candy, and chocolate.

Jindo Sea-Parting Festival

In March I went with my favorite travel group, WinK, to an island off the southwestern coast of Korea for the annual Jindo Sea-Parting Festival. Once a year, the morning and evening tide there goes so low that it reveals a rocky path all the way from the mainland to Modo Island (모도). We traveled overnight and arrived just in time for the first crossing at 5am. We all rented a pair of super stylish thigh-high yellow boots and were given tiki torches that looked awesome but were a little frightening considering the number of people and the slipperiness of the rocks. (Thankfully no one's hair caught on fire.) It was quite crowded for so early in the morning, and we had to wait for some time with the mass of Koreans and other foreigners before the precarious path through the sea was even walkable. In the meantime, my friend and I were interviewed by a Korean newscaster trying to promote the event. He essentially told us to act as excited as possible and made us try again because the first time wasn't enthusiastic enough. Thanks, camera dude.

We weren’t able to make it all the way across to the smaller Modo Island during the morning parting, but we were tired and used the extra time to retire to a pension for the next few hours. The afternoon festival was bustling with tourists, and the road leading to the crossing site was lined with street food and various other booths. Our group got an “exclusive” (but very delayed) boat ride to Modo Island to await the evening crossing so we could walk back against the tide of people from the mainland. While we waited for the sea to finish parting, we were treated to several traditional Korean performances by Modo locals, including the Korean fan dance, lots of traditional singing/wailing, endless drum-beating and pan-banging, and those maddening Korean mini trumpets. I think I got enough traditional Korean music to last a lifetime that weekend.

The path across the sea opening up

We were finally able to cross back to the mainland around 5pm, and it was a much lengthier and more difficult journey than I expected. A long red banner with people’s handwritten dreams and wishes was carried across as we walked back to Jindo, along with yet more pan-bangers. There were several ajumas and ajishis (old Korean women and men) crouched close to the ground amid the crowds while digging furiously in the mud for clams that they could sell later in the market. There were also some families digging together, kids and all. What a strangely cute family tradition.

Anyway, the first part of our 45-minute trek involved lots of sharp, painful rocks, followed by larger, duller rocks with plenty of slippery seaweed that required very careful footing. At the end was good ol' gray sludge and water that was surprisingly deep at points. We all quickly learned that our ridiculous-looking boots were absolutely essential. I was quite tired by the end of the journey but felt accomplished nonetheless. I might not do it again myself, but I would still recommend the experience to anyone interested.

Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival

As in Japan (and to a lesser extent my hometown in Georgia), cherry blossoms are very popular in Korea and can be easily spotted all over the country when in bloom. In May I went again with WinK to see the famous Cherry Blossom Festival in Jinhae, known for its abundance of cherry blossoms and the picturesque railroad running through them. It was quite crowded and everyone vied to get that famous picture of the Jinhae train emerging slowly from a tunnel of cherry blossom trees. In fact, they were so eager to get the perfect picture that many people kept getting dangerously close to the tracks, and I could barely see the train over all the heads and selfie sticks.

Afterwards we went to a stream that was supposed to be lit up with pretty lights at night. There was also a military parade with soldiers twirling guns and marching in different formations. Unfortunately, it started pouring down from the afternoon until we left in the evening (my first Korean thunderstorm!), so I spent the rest of my time trying to find shelter. At one point I ventured up to a tower that had this hilarious sign on the ground. The arrow to the right pointed to the cable car back to the surface; the arrow on the left pointed to the stairs. Oh Korea. I admire your bluntness.


Buddha’s birthday on May 25th was another holiday we don’t have in the States, and there were many lantern festivals to celebrate the occasion. I spent the three-day weekend in Pohang, a city on the east coast. It was nice to enjoy the beach, despite the cold water and the giant steel mill (POSCO) sitting across the water, which actually lit up in multicolored neon at night. I also happened upon this very cool statue of two intertwined dragons (left) while exploring the city. But one of the main attractions of Pohang is the mysterious “Hand of Harmony” on Homigot Beach on the easternmost point of Korea. If you stay up all night to catch it right at sunrise, it looks like it’s holding the sun between its thumb and forefinger. You might even see some birds landing gracefully on its fingertips. Unfortunately I only caught it at sunset, but it was still beautiful and a little haunting, like there was some giant trapped underground, struggling to get out. Its other hand was situated on the mainland nearby.

Geoje Island

The paragliding site
In June I signed up for my very first paragliding trip and was quite proud of myself for it. I've already vowed never to go skydiving, but I figured a slow float through the sky would be a less terrifying way to enjoy the scenery. The location was Geoje Island off the southern coast of Korea. We were taken up the mountain in a rickety old van driven by seasoned Korean paragliders, whose head-to-toe covering made them look a bit like colorful ninjas. And then we waited…and waited…and waited. After an hour the wind still wasn't blowing hard enough or in the right direction, and we were told to go home and try again later. My group was sorely disappointed but unwilling to make the trip again the next day. So much for being spontaneous and trying something new.

Nevertheless, at least we had plenty of time to see the other pretty sites on the island, including a giant Dutch-style windmill and some of the most fascinating rock formations I've seen. Each layer was a different color and looked like it had been cut into blocks by a knife. My favorites were those that had an amazingly rich, purple hue. I could've sat there for hours in the warm sunshine, surrounded by those rocks and with the vibrant blue sea in front of me.


And now, for all the people who say they're not interested in visiting Korea, I hope these adventure posts have shown you how beautiful of a country it really is. ♥︎

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Adventure Time: Part 3

It’s been quite a while since I posted about my adventures around Korea, so I have lots to catch up on! This time I'll take you through Daegu, Busan, and Seoul.


83 Tower

While the 63 Building is a famous landmark in Seoul, Daegu has its own 83 Tower overlooking E-World, the city’s main amusement park. (Just a note that while I have taken the stairs both up and down the 83 Tower on separate occasions, I also found out the hard way that it’s not technically allowed.) The 83 Tower includes several restaurants, an ice rink, a photography exhibit, a lookout room near the top, and a bungee-jumping platform for more daring souls. But most interesting is the “trick eye” museum within the tower, where you can pose in front of paintings on the wall that are specifically meant to look 3D in pictures. While making weird poses was embarrassing at first, I quickly loosened up and had a pretty awesome time. 



Rose Garden

Something I really like about Daegu are the random gardens, parks, and hiking trails scattered around the city, which the government does a wonderful job of keeping maintained. I had passed by the Daegu Rose Garden several times on my way back from various hikes, but I got lucky when I decided to pay it a formal visit in the middle of May. The garden was in full bloom and was filled with more varieties of roses than I even knew existed, some of which were almost as big as my hand and put traditional Valentine’s Day roses to shame. Although the garden was very crowded with families, couples, and selfie-takers, it’s definitely something I’d want to see again.


Suseong Lake & the Airplane Cafe 

This picturesque lake, now accessible by Daegu’s awesome new monorail*, is surrounded by mountains and is the home of random small parades, a basketball court, a huge fountain, and dozens of duck boats. (I have yet to ride one.) I’ve been told that it’s even prettier at night. However, I’m more interested in the large passenger plane parked nicely beside the lake that has been transformed into the Snow Factory, a full dessert cafe. The inside is sleek, modern, and even has its own balcony with palm trees (though I’m fairly sure that wasn’t part of the original plane). While the desserts are overpriced, it doesn’t matter because you’re eating ice cream in a giant plane. End of story.

*A note about Daegu's monorail: It’s definitely the cleanest, smoothest, and most futuristic-looking public transportation I’ve been on, and it’s just as cheap as the normal bus or subway. But the coolest part about it is that all the windows turn opaque when it passes by an apartment building to give the residents some privacy. And the transition back to transparency once it’s passed the building is amazingly fast. Pretty neat, right?


Haedong Yonggungsa Temple (해동 용궁사)  

Rub this Buddha's belly
and you might be granted
a son! You can tell it's been
rubbed quite a lot.
This sprawling, colorful, and intricately designed temple in the coastal city of Busan faces the open water and is truly gorgeous in the afternoon light, despite the hundreds of people milling around and ruining its serenity. What struck me the most was the vast number of big-bellied Buddha statues scattered all over the place: stone statues, huge gold statues, mini porcelain statues. I was also surprised that, despite the temple's transformation into a popular tourist destination, some people were still earnestly trying to pray and pay their respects. 

On a side note, I’m still a bit startled when I see the symbol for a Buddhist temple on a map or on the side of a building. Although these temples were built way before WWII, their symbol still looks like a Nazi swastika in reverse. The effect is slowly fading the more I see it, though. 

Buddhas everywhere!

Lantern-covered ceiling
of a temple room

Golden piggies of wealth

Gamcheon Culture Village

I had seen pictures from friends of this very colorful "culture village" in Busan and decided to check it out myself. Located at the top of a small mountain, this place reminded me of the rows and rows of brightly colored villas one might see in Italy. I took the harder route and chose to walk up the steep but well-paved streets instead of riding the bus. Before I even reached the main village, I got to explore the Biseok Culture Village on the way up. While less touristy and not as well-known, it was filled with the same kind of old, slightly run down but brightly colored houses. Some of them had paintings on their stone walls that were very detailed and truly beautiful. 

Wall painting in Biseok
Culture Village

Ajuma flower pots!

    Each step was a different "book."

The Gamcheon Culture Village was much busier and was so high up that it was noticeably colder and we were almost in the clouds. (It was overcast that day.) It was filled with touristy places like food stands and expensive art stores. However, it offered a really awesome view of the houses below, along with some unique artwork that also boasted many vibrant colors. People do actually live in the village, so there were occasional signs reminding us to keep quiet and respect the residents.

All the black dots in this
sculpture are actually the
bottoms of beer bottles.

We followed this little guy
up the mountain.

                      This iconic fish is made of all
                    different handmade plaques.


Directly before the hell that was Winter Intensives, my coworkers and I got one of our rare 5-day vacations for the New Year. Once again the tickets to other countries were sky-high, so a couple of friends and I decided to spend several days touring around Seoul instead. Here were some highlights from the trip:

-Gyeongbuk Palace (경복궁) is easily one of the most famous landmarks in Seoul. By chance I was able to witness the changing of the guards outside the palace gates, which was quite a long affair. After enough staring I finally decided that the guards were wearing very convincing face masks to make them look, I don’t know, more ancient?


-Insadong is a well-known touristy area in Seoul with lots of small stores that sell old, traditional Korean things, as well as the usual bookmarks and decorated chopsticks that you can find in most tourist shops. One of the most famous sites in Insadong is the majestic statue of Sejong the Great, the fourth king of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897). He’s known for creating the system of Hangul—Korea’s alphabet—in 1446 to make reading and writing more accessible to the lower classes. Hangul is said to be one of the world’s most logical alphabets because the letters are supposed to mirror the shape your mouth makes to create each sound.

-While the most famous of Korea’s traditional villages is probably the one in Jeonju, Seoul has two of its own hanok villages. Hanoks were Korean houses of the past, with many rooms, lots of open space, ornate roofs, and holes in the floor for toilets (the predecessor to modern squatter toilets). The houses in Namsangol Hanok Village (남산골 한옥마을) were modeled after hanoks from the Joseon Dynasty. Tourists can walk around, look at (but not go into) the various rooms, and take part in traditional Korean games. One of these that I've seen in multiple places is called Tuho (투호), a Hoopla-like game where you throw sticks into a jar or pot a set distance away. It's actually really hard.


A traditional Korean hanok
In one of the hanok bedrooms

One unexpected feature of Namsangol Village was a huge time capsule buried in 1994 to celebrate Seoul’s 600th anniversary. It's set to be opened again in 2394. On the surface is a large stone disk engraved with both Korean and English. I’m very curious as to what’s actually inside it—time capsules are such strange, fascinating things.

-One of the most interesting places we went to was surprisingly the War Memorial of Korea, which is really just a huge war museum. On the outside are dozens of war planes, tanks, and even missile launchers. (A sign in front of one of the model tanks says, “How to operate K-1 Tank: Insert one 500-won coin into the slot. Tank operates for 2 minutes." Who knew giant military tanks were so easy to use?) Inside the museum are various displays, memorabilia, and very realistic models from the Korean War but also from older times. In addition, there are some very touching videos about veterans and the bonds that were formed between foreign soldiers and Korean children during the Korean War.

      Creepily realistic models of
      Koreans learning English
       during the war
           This "teardrop" hanging from the
             ceiling, made of 1300 ID tags, was
             created in remembrance of those
            who lost their lives in the Korean War.

American outfit and equipment
 from the Korean War 

-My favorite part of the trip was our tour of the Secret Garden (후원). This extensive garden is set behind Changdeok Palace (창덕궁), the second palace built after Gyeongbuk Palace during the Joseon Dynasty. The main palace itself is huge, colorful, and a true work of art, but sadly we weren’t allowed inside. The garden behind it used to be exclusively for kings and queens and can now only be accessed by tour. Because it was winter when we went, there was snow still covering some of the garden, which made it very beautiful. The tour guide’s English was excellent and she rattled off facts about the palace and garden like she’d practiced it a hundred times before. (She probably had.) It was definitely worth the 90 minutes and 8,000 won (~$8). I only wish I had taken better pictures!

         Inside the palace

          I'm sure it's even prettier in spring. 

Walk under this small arch
and you'll gain eternal life!

Stay tuned for more adventures from Korea! ~