Category Archives: Korea

Taean Haebyeongil

You can see my joy at finally being here.
You can see my joy at finally being here.

Ever since the “gils” had become a thing, I had wanted to hike the Haebyeongil—the Taean Coastal Walk. It’s a bit out of the way, on the west coast. So, it kept getting pushed back as other, easier to get to, places took priority. With our departure from Korea imminent, it finally became a now-or-never event. The trail has five sections, and we decided to tackle the first (or maybe the last), a 12km section from Kkoti Beach to Baeksajahang.

Everyone was happy to be there.
Everyone was happy to be there.
I shouldn't complain. At least I was there by choice.
I shouldn’t complain. At least I was there by choice.

We arrived to find a cold, windy, gray beach and wondered if this was really the best we could have come up with for that weekend. We found a map and set off. That is one thing I miss about Korea—you could always find a map. I imagine it comes as a shock to Koreans when they turn up for a hike in the US or England and end up needing Search and Rescue to find them.

You won't see this in the US.
You won’t see this in the US.

When the drizzle turned to rain, we took that as a sign to find a hotel, despite having only covered the 2km, or less, to Bangpo Beach. Fortunately, there were a few to choose from along the beach, as the rain was falling steadily by then. I really, really, really don’t like being out in the rain. Knowing my “dry” clothes are getting as wet as I am doesn’t help, either.

The first place we came to seemed nice enough.  Really, a bed and en suite bathroom are all we look for. That it was clean, had a fridge and cable, and a lovely view (in lovely weather, anyway, when we checked in, visibility was about 50 feet) was just gravy.

Given the weather, we decided the best restaurant in town must be the one in front of the hotel. We got our favorite: exploding shellfish. That’s another thing I’ll miss about Korea. The US and the UK don’t trust diners to cook their own food, over an open flame, especially food prone to explode while cooking and/ or cause illness if eaten before fully cooked.

That looks like the best place in town for fresh seafood!
That looks like the best place in town for fresh seafood!

In the morning, we set off of the remaining 10km in the sunshine. It was a nice enough hike, but for a “coastal path”, there were a lot of wooded bits. We did get to have a little giggle here and there at Korea’s attempts to have handicapped accessible areas.  Along the beachy bits, there were random sections of sidewalk which either led to nowhere or would have required a second (at least) person to lift a wheelchair up and over obstructions in the path.

Our last sighting of old women doing hard labor.
Our last sighting of old women doing hard labor.

On the other hand, it didn’t seem to be a popular trail. The somewhat accessible sidewalks were adjacent to tour bus parking lots, but no one seemed interested in straying too far. So, we were able to enjoy the peace and quiet. If we had had more time, we could have continued on to the next section, but Craig had a game to see. So, we caught the one bus to Taean and that was that for our hiking in Korea.

We were the youngest people to ever use that bus terminal.
We were the youngest people to ever use that bus terminal.

Juwangsan National Park

Way back in April, Craig and I were on a mission to check off all of the national parks in Korea before his contract ended. Juwangsan was the last on the list, mainly because it’s in Gyeongbuk and one of the few places in Korea that is a pain to get to from Seoul. The best thing I can say about the transportation is that I didn’t accidentally act like a jerk in someone’s car.

After a long bus ride made even longer with numerous stops in one-horse towns and towns which wished they had a horse, we arrived at the gates of Juwangsan National Park. Okay, I guess it could have been worse– you can take a single bus from Dong Seoul to the gates of the park. Anyway, we started by checking out departure times, hoping to sort our tickets in advance. No dice– the tickets are sold by machine, but they are the old style “admit one” kind which are only good on the the day and are strictly first come, first served.

We were able to pick up the thinnest, most over-priced poncho available outside of a sporting event. Craig had packed his wet weather gear, but I had not, and the weather was looking a bit iffy. As we left the bus terminal, we passed a pile of at least one hundred discarded ponchos, so I could have saved myself a few thousand won, if I hadn’t been so proactive.

The latest in hiking fashion.
The latest in hiking fashion.

It was already mid-afternoon, so it was too late for any real hiking, anyway. We decided to just stretch our legs a bit before getting a room. We found the entrance easily enough– a coffee vendor had cannily put up a sign.

The Korean says "Entrance".
The Korean says “Entrance”.

We walked for about two hours, taking in the waterfalls, and planning the “real” hike the next day. It was nice enough, but we had been on a bus for five hours– I wanted to see something a bit more impressive.

I wonder why we're bothering to see Victoria Falls.
I wonder why we’re bothering to see Victoria Falls.

After the somewhat disappointing tour of waterfalls, we left the park in search of a yogwan. Point of note: there are no yogwans in front of the park. We walked for about 30 minutes, asking each of the very eager women standing in front of their minbaks if they had beds, only to be knocked back at every turn. Finally, one took pity on us and drove us to a nearby competitor with A BED (yes, that’s singular).

That room was already taken, but we gave up and took what she had left. A few minutes later, she knocked on the door, and instructed me to give a sour-looking man 10,000 won. She then moved all of our stuff into the room with the bed, at which point his sour expression became understandable. Sometimes, it’s good to be a foreigner. Sorry, Charlie!

Finally unpacked, we did a bit more searching to find an open restaurant and had one of our final giant hiking meals. I’m not sure why Koreans seem to think you need four days’ worth of food in one meal when you go to a mountain, but they do. So, we ate until we were ready to burst. All the while, the ajjuma  interrogated us and cheerfully reminded us half a dozen times that she served breakfast.

In the morning, we walked past her place at a brisk pace, wondering if she would come running after us. She had at least explained why everything was closed: we were there a month early. Koreans like to do everything together and at the same time every other group is doing them, and May is month to visit Juwangsan. There is an azalea festival and everyone comes out to see the flowers.

I’m from Louisiana, I’ve seen azaleas. So, I’m happy to miss them if it means avoiding the crowds. Fifteen years in Korea couldn’t make me assimilate.

So, over five hundred words in, and I haven’t mentioned the hike. That’s because it was pretty underwhelming. The lack of crowds meant the restaurants along the trail were being manned by desperate ajjumas. Nobody likes an aggressive ajjuma. I did appreciate the one who stood out by offering hikers a cup of hot tea on their way up as her way of advertising. More flies with honey, and all that.

Sunday morning while it was safe to walk past.
Sunday morning while it was safe to walk past.

There was a requisite temple, Daejeonsa. It looked like all the rest, but with a rock formation in the background. We took one or two photos on our way to our planned hike. Our plans were quickly scuppered by glorified police tape blocking the path. We thought maybe it was just that one bit, and headed to the other path leading to that peak, but it was the peak that was closed off.

Daejeonsa and rocks
Daejeonsa and rocks

By this point, the tour busses had started arriving, so we quickly headed up the open trail, trying to get ahead of the strolling masses. For the most part, we were able to avoid the crowds. I suspect that is largely because the crowds were pretty thin by Korean hiking standards. At any rate, I was thankful we hadn’t waited a couple of weeks to make that trip.

Where's Jenniferteacher? Just kidding, I'm easy to spot-- I'm not wearing a giant visor.
Where’s Jenniferteacher? Just kidding, I’m easy to spot– I’m the one not wearing a giant visor.

Odaesan

Craig and I took the bus to Jinbu, a small town in Gangwondo. He skipped out of work a bit early, so we could get out of town before rush hour. We arrived just before 8PM, and wandered around for a bit looking for a motel that looked… um… not terrible. I’ll be honest, it was a bit of a struggle, and in the end, we just decided to take a chance on the one we were closest to at that moment. It was pretty basic, as expected, but the owner gave us extra blankets, so I didn’t die in the night.

Craig was keen to go out, even though the town looked like it had already gone to bed. We were able to find a 70/80 bar and gave it a try. I knew they were supposed to play 70s and 80s music, but it hadn’t really occurred to me that that would be more trot and less The Eagles. Lesson learned. We were the only customers, and when we walked in, a guy jumped up and started singing (hits?) with some electronic music as back up. The menu was just as dire as the music, so we drank two drinks (quickly) and cleared out of there.

In the morning, we were up bright and early and took the 6:30 bus from Jinbu to the entrance of Odaesan. We were there so bright and early, in fact, the driver dropped the only other passenger off at the toll gate, where he presumably works.

It was quiet enough to meditate, once you got away from the parking lots.
It was quiet enough to meditate, once you got away from the parking lots.

The walk begins not far from Woljeongsa temple, which is slightly larger than average, but overall, a pretty standard Korean temple, so we only paused long enough for Craig to snap a few quick photos.

Same old same old: Woljeongsa Temple.
Same old same old: Woljeongsa Temple.

From there, we walked along the river 9 km to Sangwonsa temple. There were numerous river crossings, some over bridges (one of which was made of sticks and logs to resemble bridges from the days of yore), but more often than not, the crossings were over stones. The man-made ones were fine—they were high enough to be dry, uniform height, and narrowly spaced.

Easy peasy
Easy peasy

The natural rock ones were a bit trickier. Water nearly covered some of the rocks and the air was just cold enough to create a thin layer of ice. Add in their natural slope, and I was sure I was going in the water more than once. As usual, Craig helped me across and didn’t even laugh at my terror, which was somewhat disproportionate to the actual danger of the situation. Yes, the water was cold, but it wasn’t deep or particularly fast, so even if I had fallen in, it would have only meant that I would be cold and wet.

I'm very proud of not getting a concussion here.
I’m very proud of not getting a concussion here.

About 2 ½ hours later, we got to Sangwonsa temple, where we stopped in at the café for a coffee. Only Craig was able to get one, though, because the café had no milk. According to the barista, that is because Koreans don’t like milk in their coffee. I translated that for Craig, and he somehow managed not to laugh in her face. His inability to get a satisfactory black coffee at work has been an ongoing pet peeve of his here in Korea.

Once he had drunk his coffee, and I had warmed up by the fire gas heater, we headed back out to walk the route in reverse. There were several buses in the temple parking lot, but, as suspected, none of them were there to walk. On the way back to Woljeongsa temple, we saw few hikers, but we did see a group of people picking up litter.

As much as we hike, that’s only the second or third time we’ve seen people picking up litter on the hiking trails. On the other hand, I’ve seen people casually toss bags of lunch trash to the side as they walked on more occasions than that.

Six hours after we began, we arrived at the start/ finish point just after one of the infrequent buses back to town had left. So, Craig stuck out his thumb and within a few minutes, an older couple stopped to give us a ride.

They were very friendly and told us about their kids who all lived in the US. While they were talking, I checked my email. At some point, I realized that music was coming from two sources, but I didn’t think anything of it, until they turned down their radio. Finally, Craig asked me about it. A website I had been looking at the day before had started playing music (which it had not done before). It took me several minutes to figure out what it was and how to turn it off. So, I can only imagine that this lovely couple thought that I had deliberately turned on the music I wanted to listen to while riding in their car. Yay, me.

Woraksan: That Which Doesn’t Kill You…

Now that Craig and I (seem to) have a departure date, the pressure is on to get to the final few national parks. Woraksan is the fourteenth of fifteen, so we should be able to do it.

Getting down there seemed easy enough, with frequent buses from Central City. However, apparently, it’s a popular destination, so we had three hours to kill between buying our tickets and actually getting on a bus. No problem. Central City is basically a mall that includes several bus stations. So, we found a steamed chicken restaurant and worked our way through the good parts. That killed an hour.

Next, we found the one empty table with a single chair at a coffee shop (the second or third we visited). Craig grabbed a chair from a nearby patron, and we were set for the next few hours. It was so packed, that the two tables nearest us were 2-person tables with 4 ajumas sitting at each. I’m surprised my hearing wasn’t permanently damaged.

Finally, it was time for our bus. The ride took less than two hours and deposited us at a bus station/ HomePlus. We took that as a sign and stocked up on provisions for the night and the next day’s hike before looking for a room.

The station is sadly bereft of yeogwans, but the train station is only about 1 km away, so we could see the bright lights of accommodation and followed them, like a seedy Star of Bethlehem. We quickly settled on one which looked recently refurbished. That’s always kind of a gamble, becomes sometimes they seem to run out of money/ interest after redoing the exterior. This one was fine, though, and we had a quiet evening in with our chips and snacks from HomePlus.

In the morning, we were able to flag down a taxi as soon as we stepped out the door, and 40k later, we were at Deokjusa, the starting point of the hike. Well, actually, everyone else seemed to think the starting point was about 1 km farther down the mountain, but I didn’t mind cutting out 15 minutes of walking up the road with dozens of other hikers. So, we passed them while only making a little effort to hide our faces.

Craig had prepared me for the worst with this hike– he had read there was a steep decline near the peak, meaning we would have to go down, then up again, then do the reverse on the way down. That is NOT the way I like to hike. In reality, it all seemed fairly steep with very few bits of respite level ground. As we gained elevation, the snow got quite a bit deeper, and I was thankful Craig had remembered our crampons. Unfortunately, neither of us remembered our walking poles, and they would have come in quite handy as well. Live and learn.

The crampons did make me feel superior to the group of high schoolers not only hiking without crampons, but without even proper hiking shoes. One was clearly working on a Darwin Award, and nearly careened off the side while trying to show off. Luckily for him, he smacked into a tree and his friends were able to rescue him. While they were thus occupied, Craig and I got around them, mainly to avoid their shenanigans.

Kids. Even without proper footwear, I bet they made it down faster than me.
Kids. Even without proper footwear, I bet they made it down faster than me.

After a final massive set of stairs (not the ones in the above photo), we made it to the top. At some point, the kids had gotten around us again, so we had to wait for them to each take about 100 photos of the group on their phones before we could get our obligatory shot with the elevation marker. They were kind enough to take the photos of us before wandering over to the faux peak 20 feet away.

The easy part was getting to the top.
The easy part was getting to the top.

The trip down was not nearly so straightforward. There is a crossroads not far from the peak, and we chose to take the shorter path down, rather than retrace our steps. You may not be surprised that it was shorter because it was steeper. Waaaaay steeper. So steep, there were rails most of the way down. This is when the poles would have come in handy.

It was way steeper than this.
It was way steeper than this looks.

I am not the most fleet-footed of souls. In fact, I am usually gingerly picking my way down a hill as 90-year-old women race past me. This was ridiculous, though. I fell four times. It would have been more, but I caught myself on the rail a few times and held myself up as my feet lost contact. Craig managed a medal-winning save, keeping me upright and not losing his own balance in the process. It was truly a miraculous maneuver.

Despite all the awe-inspiring saves and numerous other close calls, I bit it four times. One left me with a goose egg on the back of my head and the other three left me with bruises on all four limbs, my ribs, and my butt. I even did a full head-over-heels triple axle of slip and falls. Too bad I wasn’t in a grocery store. I could have bought a house with the payout from that. I’ll just be grateful I didn’t break anything or end up with a concussion.

All of the twists and turns in the path and my fear of more falls meant our decline was completed at the impressive speed of less than a mile an hour. I’m surprised we didn’t leave a cloud of dust in our wake. Juwangsan is the sole remaining national park hike for us. Hopefully, I can do it a bit faster with fewer falls. We’ll see.

Udo Olle Trail

We somehow managed to get a late flight out of Jeju which left us with the entire day to enjoy. The hike up Halla hadn’t been too taxing, so this ended up being a rare occasion when we planned and followed through with consecutive hikes. Although we often go on extended walks in England, in Korea, we can rarely manage two consecutive hikes, regardless of advance planning. So, yay for Halla’s shallow climb.

After our early start the day before, I insisted on a bit more of a lie in, and we arrived at the ferry terminal just in time to fill out the necessary paperwork and board. That was a stroke of luck, because the ferry terminal is waaaaay out of the way of pretty much anything, and the taxi ride was far longer than we had expected. Anyway, we sailed at 10 and arrived on Udo about 15 minutes later.

The ferry had been fairly full, so I was expecting the trial to be packed, since Udo is quite a small island. I needn’t have worried. Everyone else headed straight for a pair of tour buses. Seriously. The entire island is less than 6km².

Approaching Udo. It doesn't look much like a cow from this angle.
Approaching Udo. It doesn’t look much like a cow from this angle.

We weren’t there for the tour, though. We wanted to walk another section of the Olle Trail. Udo is section 1-1 and covers between 14 and 16km (depending on the map), circumnavigating the entire island in a roundabout way, much like the other sections of the trail we have walked. This meant that we would leave sight of the coast for short periods, only to rejoin it no more than 50m further on, despite having walked several hundred meters along the path. No matter, we had more time than we needed for the fairly flat walk.

Cows on Cow Island
Cows on Cow Island

While most of the trail is very clearly marked, the beginning/ end at the ferry terminal is not really clear at all. Fortunately, the policeman/ teen imposter loitering outside/ patrolling was more than happy to point us in the right direction and give us a few pointers on adding a the only hill to the route.

The weather could not have been clearer. We were able to see Halla clearly, for instance. Haha. I expressed my disappointment more than once during the day and Craig may have gotten a little sick of me asking if he thought we would have been able to see Udo from Halla, had we switched our itinerary around. He’s a patient man, fortunately, and played along each time.

Clear skies.
Clear skies.

About halfway around the island, we came across a restaurant that was open, had food we wanted to eat, and chairs. The trifecta! We stopped for about an hour to enjoy a giant pot of maeuntang (Korean fish stew). I think Craig’s favorite part was watching the cook choose and catch the fish. My favorite part was eating boiling hot stew. Have I mentioned it was cold? No?

Ten minutes early, he'd been swimming happily.
Ten minutes early, he’d been swimming happily.
He was attracted by my cool hat.
He was attracted by my cool hat.

Well, it was. Very cold. And windy. I wore the same dorky Elmer Fudd cap I had worn on Halla. It was so windy that tears were running down my face at some points. But I’m a weak waegoogin. The diver grannies were hard at work.

I live a charmed life.
I live a charmed life.

We completed the trail with perfect timing to catch the penultimate ferry of the day. Nice-uh. The terminal was unheated and the ferries were an hour apart. I also suspect the last ferry would have been full of the bus tourists. I was happy to be on the boat out of the wind, but there were gulls outside, so Craig spent most of the 15 minute journey feeding them a donut he had been carrying all day.

 

Hallasan

It turns out the fourth time is the charm. Craig and I have been to Jeju three times before, but have bypassed Halla in favor of the Olle Trail on the past trips. With our departure from Korea (probably) imminent, we realized we couldn’t keep putting it off to “next time”.

Craig, as usual, had done all of the research and knew we needed to arrive early enough to make certain check points before cutoff times. Since we are always slower than the time estimates, we arrived before dawn to be on the safe side. We had no trouble getting a cab despite the early hour and arrived to a full parking lot at 6:30. The restaurant was packed with hikers grabbing breakfast, but we thought it would be better to get ahead of the crowd and eat on the trail.

The trail is unmistakable, at least in winter, since it’s packed down while the surrounding area snow is piled high, but that didn’t stop 90% of the other hikers from using their miner’s caps. (I’m sure they have a hiking name to justify whatever crazy price hikers pay for them, but they look like miner’s hats minus any protective qualities.) All that really did was kill everyone’s night vision. Well done!

Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to work we go.
Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work we go.

Soon enough, the sun was up and not long after, people turned off their headlamps. (I’m a dork, I know, but I couldn’t resist.) Halla isn’t a steep mountain, so we made pretty good time. It didn’t hurt that there were relatively few people on the trail at that time. The trail was never more than two people wide, so it was just as well. Whenever we met a hiking group, we had to step off the trail to let them pass, or get around them, if they had decided to take a break.

We reached the first checkpoint in about three hours and Craig rewarded himself with a nice bowl of ramyeon. I chose not to have any for two reasons. 1) It was standing-room-only, since most people seemed to think their bags deserved a comfy seat. 2) There is no trash disposal on Halla. Craig got to carry his ramyeon bowl back to the parking lot. Ramyeon bowls are giant, so I knew I’d never finish one. Carrying half a bowl of ramyeon the rest of the way up and all of the way down might hold more  appeal if it were more enjoyable to eat, but it’s not, so it didn’t. I guess that’s three reasons.

As fun as standing in an unheated roomful of people is, we were once again on our way as soon as Craig finished eating. By this time, we were gaining elevation quickly. Just as quickly, the temperature was dropping and the wind was picking up. By the time we were above the treeline, it had started snowing just enough to obscure what must normally be an amazing view.

By the time the end would have been in sight, if we could have seen more than a few meters, it was a gale. I was trying not to have a panic attack that my crampons would fail and I would slide off the side. This part is like stone steps, but not really steps, just step-like. There were a few times I’m sure I annoyed other hikers, but I was pretty scared.

Look at me, not flying off the sides.
Look at me, not flying off the sides.

Finally, we were on the top. By then, it was snowing hard enough to obscure everything and so we only stayed there long enough for the obligatory peak photo. The wind seemed to have gotten stronger during those few minutes, so I had to stop and hold onto the ropes a few times, because I was sincerely terrified.

On a clear day, you can see forever. On that day, I could see snow on my eyelashes.
On a clear day, you can see forever. On that day, I could see snow on my eyelashes.

Soon enough, we were below the wind again and it was smooth sailing from there. Until we hit the wave of late starters. By the time we got back to the cut off checkpoint, it was the deadline and bedlam doesn’t even begin to describe it. I’m pretty sure there have been more orderly prison riots.

This is what we passed for over 30 minutes.
This is what we passed for over 30 minutes.

Thinking the hut would be nearly empty, what with everyone trying to beat the cut off, we nipped in for a short break. LOL It was jam packed with people who seemed to have chosen cup ramyeon over completing the hike. For the next half hour or so, everyone we passed was rushing to beat the cut off. An hour later, we were still passing people on their way up. I can only assume that the posted cut off time is fake, or they were planning to ignore it. After all, there only seemed to be two rangers and literally hundreds of hikers waiting.

The cut off point at the cut off time.
The cut off point at the cut off time.

Since the trail is so narrow, hikers going up had to wait at the cut off point for room to move. Picture a security line at a major airport and you get the speed I’m talking about. Now picture it hundreds of meters long and everyone is wearing hiking gear. That seems a good trade off for an extra hour or two in bed…

The crowd was moving in the other direction, so we reached the Seongpanak parking lot quickly and were able to get a cab at only a slightly extortionate rate.

Overall, it was a great hike. It wasn’t steep, and the crowds were always moving in the other direction. It was a huge shame that we didn’t get to enjoy the view at the top, though. If we get the chance, I’d love to go back. Preferably, on a work day while school is in session.

Our yeogwan. This is the smallest bed I've ever seen not called a twin.
Our yeogwan. This is the smallest bed I’ve ever seen not called a twin. Notice all the blankets. Even Craig conceded the room was cold.

Jagalchi Fish Market and Busan Basketball

In January, I finally made it to a KOTESOL Seoul Chapter monthly workshop for the first time in ages. I really should clear my schedule more, since I’m the treasurer, but life more fun travel opportunities seem to get in the way. I always enjoy the workshops and leave feeling motivated, but when Craig makes some travel plans which conflict, they always seem more fun. But anyway, January is a slow time for sports and I am trying to limit my risk of frostbite, so I had  a free Saturday. Ironically, Stafford was presenting on a topic we used to teach at Gyeongin.

After the meeting, I met Craig and we whisked ourselves to Busan. I really can’t overstate how much I love the KTX. How did I bear traveling without it? More importantly, what will I do after I leave Korea?

Not only is the KTX fast and reliable, you can take awesome photos like this at the train station.
Not only is the KTX fast and reliable, you can take awesome photos like this at the train station.

As ever, I digress. We got to Busan and set ourselves up in a reasonable hotel, after being knocked back from the presumably posher “tourist hotel” outside the station. Bags deposited in the room, we headed straight back out for some lamb at Samarkand. We did not hold back. We had lamb dumplings, lamb skewers, and lamb chops with potatoes.

We also decided to try a bottle of Uzbek wine. Note to self: pomegranate juice= good, pomegranate wine= gross. I am pretty sure the proprietor high fived everyone in the kitchen when he was able to foist that on our unsuspecting selves. As we were drinking, we noticed a heavy film of sediment on the bottle and eventually noticed a long-passed sell-by date. At least the lamb was good.

After dinner, we had a few more refreshing beverages at a self-serve bottle bar. This is one of the things I love about Korea. Each refrigerator has a clearly marked price and you take whatever you want. There are even chilled glasses, if you don’t want to drink from the bottle. When you are ready to go, you tell the cashier what you drank and pay up. In the US, people would sound like xylophones as they walked out with half of their empties in their Ryanair coats and diaper bags.

Full of lamb and bottled refreshments, we eventually called it a night. In the morning, we slowly pulled ourselves together and made our way to the Jagalchi Fish Market. A few years ago, it was gussied up for tourists and is now a bright, clean fish market on the first floor. Most of the fishmongers speak at least a little English and are friendly. You find what you want to eat, tell them how much you want to eat, and they will carry it upstairs where it’s cooked and served with side dishes. It’s a bit pricy, but you know it’s fresh, and it’s always delicious.

We met up with one of Craig’s friend’s there and had a nice lunch, while everyone around us cooed over his baby and demanded turns holding him. I don’t think Alan was too impressed with that, but his wife is Korean and knows the drill. She dutifully passed him around and took him back as quickly as possible. Eventually, Craig held him while they ate. I’m sure his grandkids wouldn’t be jealous…

Don't tell the grandkids, but Craig's been cheating on them.
Don’t tell the grandkids, but Craig’s been cheating on them.

They had arrived late and finally we had to leave them to it, because there was basketball to be watched. The Asiad Sports Complex is about a half hour drive away. So, we grabbed a cab and arrived just in time, or at least, only six points had been scored by the time we found seats. We were meant to meet up with another of Craig’s friends, but we were late and the place is too loud for telephones. Craig managed to find him at halftime and he and his daughter joined us for the second half. SK beat KT, not surprising given that they are on top of the league, but it was a good game with an enthusiastic crowd.

It's entirely possible that Charlie's young daughter took this photo.
It’s entirely possible that Charlie’s young daughter took this photo.
Hillbilly Korean cheerleaders, or something.
Hillbilly Korean cheerleaders, or something.

Wonju and Chiaksan

On our first trip of the new year, Craig and I headed over to Wonju for some basketball and hiking. My favorite player, former Harlem Globetrotter, Shanghai, is now playing for Wonju. I guess there aren’t enough half-Korean basketball players to go around, so the teams have to share them. Note to half-Korean amateur basketball players around the world: this is your chance to go pro.

We didn’t go to Wonju the night before for a change, but did check into a yeogwan before the game. We got a room that looked like a castle, as decorated by a little girl. When we went out, we took the stairs and found that the faux-classiness didn’t extend too far beyond the bedroom walls.

Nothing says class like a sex toy vending machine.
Nothing says class like a sex toy vending machine.

We took a cab, but the stadium was actually only a ten or fifteen minute walk. Live and learn. We lined up for tickets behind a number of people who seemed unsure of the ticket-buying process: decide the number of tickets, the desired section, and payment method; prepare payment method while waiting. Really not too hard, but one woman got tickets after a huge discussion on the phone at the ticket window, then cut back in (directly at the window) to get one more ticket a few minutes later. The couple in front of us seemed just as perplexed, but at least they knew they only needed two tickets.

By the time we were up, Craig had had enough of the rabble and asked for Royal (aka floor) seats. No go. Special seats, then. No problem. We made our way to the “Special” section, wondering what could make seats in such a small arena special. Our question was answered as soon as we sat down.

Super Special
Super Special

The ticket girl also failed to mention that our seats were only together in the sense that we could see each other. I had brought some knitting, so I didn’t mind the view so much. Craig had actually planned to watch the game, though. Silly man.

Why doesn't Shanghai have the ball?
Why doesn’t Shanghai have the ball?

The next day was far more successful. While in England, I spent an obscene amount of money at a hiking shop. As an aside: if you spend way too much money while in England because you are planning to get the VAT back, make sure the shop participates in the rebate scheme. Live and learn. One of my purchases was several pairs of long johns meant for skiing. They are double layer. I also got a pair of lined hiking pants. They aren’t much thinner than ski pants and cost more than any single item of clothing I’ve ever bought in my life, but they keep me warm.

When we got to the park entrance, there was a sign with the elevation marked. Maybe this is a new thing and eventually all of the parks will have them. Too bad it won’t be of much use to me. On this occasion, we were able to see that no matter which path we chose, there would be some very steep climbing ahead. Steep to me. It’s all relative.

He walks on (frozen) water
He walks on (frozen) water

We chose the path less taken and were rewarded with an uncrowded path. Our favorite kind. At the top, there was a bit of a crowd, as usual, but most of them had used the other path. At least they hadn’t driven up to within a ten minute walk.

Animals and children love him.
Animals and children love him.

The hike up wasn’t so bad. It was challenging enough to feel like you are achieving something, but not so steep that you (I) just want someone to carry you (me). This was the debut hike for our walking poles and they came in quite handy. On the way down, I slipped a couple of times, but nothing too major. There were plenty of ropes, some of which I used to back myself down the hill when it got too steep.

We made it to the top!
We made it to the top!

Overall, it was a good weekend. If we have the chance to go back, Chiaksan is a hike I would like to do again.

On a clear day, you can see forever.
On a clear day, you can see forever.

 

Sobaeksan

One of the many wonderful things about Korea is that elections are national holidays. Since foreigners can’t vote, I just get an extra day off work with no guilt that I haven’t participated in the political process. The election this past November was actually quite a tight race between Park Geun-Hye, the daughter of Park Chun-Hee, dictator extraordinaire (now recast as “strongman” by the local press) and Moon Jae-In. The race was mostly interesting in the clear divide among age lines: the older a voter, the more likely to vote for Park and the younger, the more likely to vote for Moon. In the end, she won with 51% of the vote, but Craig and I were off enjoying our freedom in the countryside, Sobaeksan to be exact.

This was a rare return visit for us. We had planned to hike there last summer, but Craig got a heat rash and nearly burst into flames, so we settled for a trudge through the jam-packed caves.

I wasn't amused by the fart jokes the woman in front of me kept telling.
I wasn’t amused by the fart jokes the woman in front of me kept telling.

As usual, we headed up the night before. For the first time, we took the train from Cheongnyangni Station which with the extension of the yellow line northward is only 30 minutes away. It was a slow train, but there was an old-style first class with the plush velveteen seats. A little more than an hour after departure we pulled into Danyang Station. A shortish cab ride later and we were back at the same yeogwan we had stayed in before. This time, we even got the real rate, 30,000. We paid double last time. Make hay when the sun shines, I guess.

We got a late start in the morning, despite our best intentions, and took a cab to the park entrance. The driver helpfully pulled out a map of the park and made some recommendations, and we were happy to defer to his experience. I do like it when cab drivers go above and beyond in the small towns. They know we aren’t from around there and they seem genuinely concerned that we have the best experience possible.

Anyway, it wasn’t that far to the Eolgok entrance he had suggested, and from there we set right off, since he warned us we would need to hurry to be back down by dark. Uh-oh. Craig and I are always far slower than the estimated times given for hikes. I was a little concerned, but knew that we could always turn back early if need be.

We didn't get to the top, so this is all you get.
Spoiler alert: We didn’t get to the top, so this is all you get.

We ran into a ranger almost immediately, who made sure we were wearing crampons and then warned us to hurry if we were going to complete the hike before dark and added that we wouldn’t have time for a picnic at the top. No problem. It was freezing and any food we had would have been no more enjoyable if consumed while sitting on a rock than while walking.

The hike was meant to take six hours to get up about 1000m. The peak is about 1400, but the park entrance was about 400m. Well, over two hours in, and we were only 2.5km along and had another 500m elevation to go. By that point, I had pretty much had enough fun. I had long stopped feeling my legs and was having to remind myself that frostbite was unlikely. Craig, being the wonderful man that he is, and slightly hungover, was willing to call it a day at that point, too.

We headed down slightly defeated, but looking forward to being warm again. Unfortunately, the restaurants at the park entrance were all closed and there really was nothing around. Well, there were a couple of houses, but we were reluctant to knock on doors to ask someone to call us a cab. Enough Koreans think foreigners are crazy as it is. So, we started walking along the road, hoping for signs of life a business which could call us a cab.

A few minutes, we saw a bus waiting at one of those imaginary stops they have here, you know, where there is nothing to indicate to the casual observer that a bus stops there, you just have to know. When I say we didn’t hesitate to take it wherever it might go, I mean that I ran just in case the driver’s break was almost over. Luckily for us, it was headed right for our yeogwan. A short wait later, we were on our way.

The bus ride was far more interesting than the hike. Everyone who got on seemed excited to see all the other passengers, and kids would actually gather to wave as it passed. That is when you know you are in a small town.

Fireworks and Football

I realize I haven’t written about my awesome trip to Thailand to see Stephanie, but those photos are at home, and my students are taking standardized Korean tests all morning, so I’ve got a bit of free time. Sure, I’ve got some journals to mark, but that’s not nearly as fun.

This past weekend, Craig and I headed down to Pusan (Busan if you’re new to Korea or Fusan if you’re really old) for the FA Cup final between Suwon and Pusan. I didn’t get around to booking the tickets until mid-week, so left with the choices of 7am or 10:20am, I went with the latter.

We got into town around 1:30 and headed toward our Saturday destination: Gwangalli Beach, which was having a fireworks festival. After the longest cab ride I’ve ever had that didn’t begin with me taking the wrong bus to parts unknown, we arrived at a strip of sand which seemed to have been named “beach” by the same folks that have labeled every hill in Korea a “mountain”. At any rate, we were ready for lunch and could see the ocean, so some seafood seemed in order. I was cold, of course, so I wanted soup.

So, the local Nolbu Budaejjigae seemed a decent choice. I don’t eat spam, so budaejjigae wasn’t an option (to me, anyway, I think Craig was game). Fortunately, they had dak kalbi with seafood. Not soup, I know, but warm, delicious, and containing seafood, so it met our requirements. It turned out to be a great choice. There were mussels, shrimp, and baby octopi aplenty. I went for the first two and generously saved the cephalopods for Craig. I have agreed to try san nakji with him, but no need to rush things.

Once we’d eaten until we were ready to hibernate, we braved the cold once more in search of a room. The one place we’d looked at before lunch had posted a sign announcing they were booked up. Fortunately, one street back from the beach was all yogwans, so we were confident we wouldn’t be sleeping on the sand. As soon as we saw some people standing on a roof, we knew where to check next: the Hilton/ Hill Top (depending on which sign you read). They had a room, and so we were set. Of course, once we saw what our (by which, I mean, Craig’s) 100k had bought, it wasn’t much of a mystery why they still had rooms available.
Yep, that’s a round bed. See that thing that looks like a mattress pad? Under there was enough hair that it looked like someone had cleaned their brush. We slept on top of the covers.
After our eventful morning of sitting on the train and eating lunch, we were ready for a little rest. So, in the early evening we set out to find a place to sit and enjoy the fireworks. Since people had already been staking out their territory before we had lunch several hours earlier, we thought we might have a fair task in front of us. As it turned out, most places had reserved all their good seats. So we ended up at a “beer garden” (the sidewalk in front of a bar that had been roped off and set up with lawn furniture) which was offering their tables for 150k at the lower level or 200k on the deck. We went for the lower level, and this is what we got:

Well, that plus one more pitcher of beer. Yes, that’s two glasses you see. I helped Craig by having half a glass of beer. I live on the edge, I know. I hope he doesn’t think I’m a lush now… Being a more adventurous eater than I, Craig tried a bite of the dduk kalbi (my kids complain bitterly when they have to eat it at lunch, so I wasn’t too tempted, even with the honey mustard sauce). One bite was enough for him, and we picked at the fries until they were nearly refrozen in the night air. We ended up leaving the soju in our yogwan fridge– something to help the next occupants overlook the standard of housekeeping. The Pepsi and Cider we left behind, because who would even drink that for free?

After a couple of hours, it was time for the main event: fireworks. By this time, the beach, the road, and the sidewalk had been filled to capacity to the point that the entire waitstaff was standing guard pushing the rabble out of the roped off area. Meanwhile, we sat in comfort (I was even lent a blanket by the bar).

After a pitcher or so of Korea’s finest ale, I don’t think Craig was feeling the cold as much as I was.
The fireworks were launched from barges literally right off the coast, probably less that 100 yards or so from the beach. They were also launched quite low, so most of them seemed to be right over our heads. We had planned to meet another group of people, but at the last minute, they decided to watch the show from Haeundae Beach. I haven’t had a chance to confirm my suspicions that the fireworks were not nearly so spectacular from even that short distance.

It’s kind of dark, but you can see the ropes the hoi polloi are jammed up against, as well as how low the fireworks were. From my seat, I missed some of them completely, because they were aimed to line up under the bridge right off the coast.

The grand finale seemed a little like someone had a look at their watch and realized they had run over time. All in all a good show and a good time was had by all, or at least the two of us, with chairs, food and drink, room to breathe, and a blanket. 🙂

The real reason we had gone down south was for the FA Cup final, which didn’t start until late Sunday afternoon. So, we whiled away the morning with some cultural pursuits, namely the Pusan Museum followed by a stroll around the UN Cemetery. As it turned out, it was UN Day or some such, and we arrived just as a group of important-looking military officers were gathering for a ceremony.
If we’d stayed longer, we might have seen a 21-gun salute. We left just as they were playing the Korean national anthem, and headed to our final destination: the soccer ground.

Since the World Cup and the many new facilities built for it, the host cities mostly have at least two soccer stadiums (stadia?) now. We had a bit of luck and arrived at the correct one on the first try. Upon arrival, we were offered free tickets. After seeing Seongnam for free earlier in the week, I was feeling a bit spoiled and happy to be a foreigner.

After not meeting up with the other group the night before, I was looking forward to seeing them at the game. About five minutes after kick off, I got a panicked call from my coworker which I could barely hear over the announcements and cheering crowd. I thought I heard, “My friend is dead. He’s coughing up so much blood.” I later learned that one of the guys in the group had had more than his share of refreshments and in his haste to get to a bathroom, he tried to jump across a partition and fell several stories. He survived, but needless to say, they spent the game at the hospital, where he is now recovering.
Our outing was much less eventful. We had also planned to meet up with a guy Craig sometimes goes to matches with– you know, ones he wants to watch with someone a bit more knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the game. He arrived late, though, and ended up on a different tier than we were on. So, despite initial plans to watch the match with ten other people, we ended up on our own.
We headed back to the station after the awarding of the various medals and the cup and I got home with six hours to spare before my school day started.