Friday, August 28, 2009

The Final Leg, Part 3 of a 3-Part Series

After leaving Andong for the last time. My parents and I set out for the big city. And when I say big city, few in the United States who have not been to Asia can really understand just how large the cities here can be. Seoul is like another country, another continent, an entirely different existence altogether. Conservative estimates of the city's population place it around 10 million people, but if you include the entire metropolitan area, it could be much larger. I certainly feel small in this sprawling megalopolis of a city. So when mom and dad set foot in Seoul, it was obvious that they were small fish in a very big pond.

Day 1: Lotte Hotel and Sightseeing

Since navigating Seoul can be difficult for out-of-towners, we wanted to stay near most of the things we wanted to see. Since we were planning to go to the DMZ, we decided to stay at the luxurious, 5-star Lotte Hotel. Lotte is one of Korea's biggest corporations and they definitely show it in their hotels. The newly remodeled Lotte Hotel is one of Korea's best, and possibly the best hotel I've ever stayed in. The price tag may be hefty, but we got lucky when we got there and were automatically upgraded to a junior suite because our rooms were overbooked for the night. The result was a stunning hotel suite with a gorgeous mountain view, automatic toilet, mirror/TV in the bathroom and a console next to the bed that controlled everything from the lights to the blinds. I will post a video tour of the room a little later, but for now here's a picture of the view.
On our first day, we stayed near the hotel and went out to see the town. Since the hotel was in Jung-gu, the heart of downtown Seoul, there was no shortage of things to see. We went to nearby marketplaces, down the high-profile shopping streets, stopped to watch street merchants make exotic deserts and, yes, even found Dr. Pepper. Our first night there is a blur of lights and people, making it hard to render in words.

Day 2:The DMZ and Gyeonbokgung Palace
On the second day, we fulfilled one of dad's (and my) wishes for their trip to Korea. We visited Korea's foreigner's-only de-militarized zone. In order to take a tour there, you must present a passport from a foreign country. Very few Koreans, outside of military and tour guides, ever see the DMZ. What are they missing? A surprisingly developed tourist attraction.
(See, the DMZ's only a LITTLE scary, with plenty of bright colors and flowers. :-D)

The entire area is full of small museums, gift shops, sculptures, and other paraphernalia related to the Korean War and ensuing stand-off between the North and South. Another surprising aspect of the DMZ was the downplayed nature of the US involvement in the Korean war. If you didn't already have intricate knowledge of US-Korean ties, you would never know the USA ever set foot in Korea. Still, the tour was enjoyable, and we got to see some very interesting things. One of them, of course, being North Korea.
The mountains you see there are in North Korea. I would have gotten closer, but the observatory where you can look into the reclusive, communist nation (Dora Observatory) has a strict policy about getting to close with your camera. Right at my feet was a yellow "no cameras" line. I could hold up my camera for a shot at this point, but couldn't go to the railing with it. The girl in the white dress with the umbrella was our tour guide.

We were told that you can clearly see the different between North and South when you get to this spot by looking at the mountains. That was true, as the North Korean mountains are far more bare than the South's. N. Korea has used up many of the trees on their mountains for fuel, since they have a painful lack of infrastructure and modern energy sources.

From the Dora Observatory we went to Dorasan Station, a train station built with the sole purpose of one day connecting North and South Korea by rail. A map inside the station showed how, with the North's cooperation, people could travel to and from South Korea from any point in Asia or Europe by rail. Today, because of the strict regulations on immigration, there is no rail service passing through North Korea, and South Koreans must travel by sea or air to leave the country. But Dorasan Station serves as a tangible example of how serious South Koreans are about eventual reconciliation with their Northern brethren.After the DMZ, we took a taxi to Gyeongbokgung palace, which I blogged about when Sara and I first got here. It is a reconstruction of one of Korea's oldest and largest palaces, where the head of state lived for many years during the dynasties of Korea. Unfortunately, due to the repeated Japanese occupations, it was destroyed time and again until it was finally totally leveled during World War II. The current compound, while expansive and beautiful, is newer than many of Seoul's skyscrapers.
Day 3:
Back to Busan
On our third day in Seoul, the only thing left to do was leave. But not wanting to waste a single moment, we decided to go back to Busan the most interesting way we could. So instead of a bus, we decided to take the KTX (Korea's cross-country bullet train) from one end of the peninsula to the other.With most of our travels behind us, and mere hours left on the trip, mom, dad, Sara, the Eagles and I set out for one last dinner, as close to the hotel as we could possibly manage. We ended up having a delicious beef soup at a nearby restaurant famous for its bulgogi.

And so, after one of the best vacation of all of our lives, there was only one thing left to do.


And sing we did, for hours until every one of our voices were strained from shouting out the most intense ballads and musical masterpieces to ever graze our ears. We sang everything from the Beatles to Johnny Cash, and from Grease to Phantom of the Opera. What a wonderful way to end a splendid vacation--and no vacation in Korea is complete without a trip to nore bang.

Mom and dad made it back to the states safe and sound, and things here are back to the way they were a month ago. Classes have started and the summer warmth is finally starting to cool away. I don't know if we'll ever make it back here as a group, but if we don't, at least we made a damn good time of it while we could.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Scott and Sara's Korean TV Debut

While Sara and I were watching the Andong International Mask Fashion Show today (a bloggable experience in it's own right), we were approached by a very friendly gentleman carrying a microphone and a woman with a clipboard. Since it's not unusual to have a conversation sprung upon us by a Korean wondering what we're doing in Andong, we dismissed the microphone and clipboard. However, after a few minutes of talking, the man quickly asked us if we would give an "interview." We told him of course, at which time we were told what to say.

It was less than a minute before we were in front of a TV camera shouting:

Scott: Andong City!
Sara: Is very exciting!
Together: Andong ro oseyo! (Welcome to Andong!)

Now, we assume, we will soon be on a some random TV news program welcoming people to our fair city. Hopefully people at our school will see it. We also think that by the end of this week people will probably be screaming for our autographs while sobbing and trying to rip our clothes off.

Unfortunately, we won't be able to see ourselves since we opted not to have cable installed when we came here.

Ah. Such is life.

Mom, Dad, and The Capital of the Korean Spirit, Part 2 of a 3-Part Series

It didn't take long after our return from Jeju-do for my parents to experience what many people call the real Korea. Resort towns like Jungmun (where we were in Jeju) and big cities like Daegu and Busan certainly have a different, more international, feel than the "little city" of Andong. Andong, though a frequent tourist spot for Koreans, is unusual territory for westerners. The city's slogan, "Capital of the Korean Spirit," refers to Andong's long-standing and deep-rooted tradition of Confucianism and Hahoe Village's status as one of Korea's oldest and most traditional folk villages. When we returned to my Korean hometown, my parents were definitely thrown into the deep end.

Our first stop was visiting downtown Andong. I wanted my parents to be familiar with their surroundings since I wouldn't be able to be with them 24 hours a day. I gave them enough know-how to navigate a few spots and showed them where they could get an English menu if they needed a bite to eat. Still, we ended up eating almost all of our meals together, so translation wasn't a problem.
During the downtown tour, my parents were introduced to our very Western downtown (Dunkin' Donuts, Baskin Robbins, Pizza Hut), as well as some of the more traditional nooks and crannies. We walked down "Chicken Street," which is Andong's largest traditional market. It's called chicken street because you can eat Andong Jjimdak there, an Andongian twist on a traditional Korean spicy chicken dish. Though our market is a bustling intersection in Andong, mom and dad were unimpressed due to their previous visit to the Busan fish market, Korea's largest.

Korean Hospitality and Mrs. Lee
On day two in Andong, we were scheduled to meet one of my co-teachers, Mrs. Lee, for dinner at her mountain art studio, which I have blogged about previously. The plan was to go to the Jebiwon Stone Buddha in the morning and head to her house in the mid-afternoon. On our way to the bus, I got a call from Mrs. Lee, during which I quickly figured out that the plan was for LUNCH, not dinner. Ohhhh Korea...

So with a limited time-table, but an urge not to waste a minute of my parents vacation, we hopped in a cab to visit Yeonghoru, a traditional wooden pavilion overlooking the Nakdong river and all of downtown Andong. The pavilion's history is a little cloudy, but what is known is that it's over 500 years old. Around the ceiling are planks of wood with poetry written on them in Chinese and Korean. Apparently, Confusian scholars would come from all over Korea after hearing of the view from Yeonghoru and would compose poems to be hung on the ceiling. Years later, the poems still hang there, a constant reminder of the transcendent nature of some places.

On the way out, my parents and I ran into a Korean family who were very eager to talk to us. We told them where we were from and what we were doing in Andong. The father, we found out, had only been studying English for a few months. But he spoke far better English than all of my students who have been studying for several years.
Afterward, we headed back downtown for lunch with Mrs. Lee. The meeting lived up to my mother's expectations (my mom repeatedly told me that she was most interested in how Koreans lived at home), as Mrs. Lee cooked us a traditional (and delicious!) meal of sam gyeop sal with an array of side-dishes. Unfortunately, she had bought enough food for six (as she thought the Eagles, who were still in Busan, would be there), so my parents and I could hardly walk at the end of it all.
After lunch, Mrs. Lee suggested that we go to Hahoe Village (pronounced hah-hway) and the nearby Confucian academy, Byeongsan Seowon with her. Though we already felt as though she had done enough, I know better than to refuse an offer like that from a Korean person. If they offer to do something for you, it's not just a formality here. So we found ourselves touring Andong with Mrs. Lee for most of the afternoon.

Though a wonderful experience, my parents both felt a little overwhelmed by the excessive hospitality they were receiving, as they both thought Mrs. Lee was doing too much. I wholeheartedly understand, even if I am more used to it now. A perfect example of the overwhelming generosity of Korean people toward their guests and the difficulty that we westerners can sometimes have of accepting it.

The Rest of Andong
During my parents remaining days here, we visited many of the local hot spots such as Dosan Seowon, which was under construction:
The Jebiwon Stone Buddha, a HUGE statue of Buddha carved into a hillside (he's in the back there):
And Mask Dance Hall, which mom took very seriously:
On one of our final nights in Andong, my parents finally met Hyeon-beom when we all went out for Andong Jjimdak. Unfortunately, since we were in a small backroom of the restaurant (with 8 people), I don't have any good pictures of that meeting. In short, my parents loved meeting HB, and HB loved meeting my parents.

The Final Day and The Sky Bridge From Hell
Due to dad's persistence that he visit the sky bridge detailed in one of Sara's blog posts, we found ourselves visiting Cheongnyang-san Provincial Park on mom and dad's last day in Andong. For a detailed account of the climb to the top of this "small" mountain, see Sara's earlier blog post. To completely understate the entire experience, this mountain is steep. This is the kind of place where real mountain climbers go for a good time, and Average Joes like Sara and I and our parents go to see just what we're made of. Let me just say, dad decided to go back after a mere 15 minutes due to some chest pains, and he was most certainly the lucky one. If I'd known what we were getting ourselves into, I might have joined him. Here are some pictures that don't even begin to give you a scope of what we went through:
When we finally reached the Sky Bridge, we were lucky enough to have a view of absolutely nothing. The fog was so thick, we could barely see the other end of the bridge.
Down below us was a beautiful view of--well, more fog:
Still, we had a good time, and we had fun teasing dad when we got back down for sending us all up there. In the meantime, dad had a lengthy conversation with some young Korean girls who wanted him to visit their traditional house. As cool as it would have been, he decided to stay and make sure he was waiting for us when we got back down. What a guy!
And now, after a week in one of Korea's most traditional cities, I can say that my parents are truly and thoroughly Korean.
After a good night's rest, my parents and I packed up and sped off to Seoul during my extended vacation. (I was allowed to use two of my winter vacation days now so I could spend a little more time with the 'rents!) Come back soon for more details about the last leg of our journey.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Act II

Today is the first day of the second half of my first year in Korea.

Catch all that?

To explain, today is the first day of the second semester for Korean schools. The kids come back to school on Wednesday, but I'm here today to get ready for the semester. I thought perhaps that I would feel a similar pressure to the start of my term here--that some insurmountable feeling of potential failure would take me over, and I would curl up in a ball in the corner of my classroom hoping that school never starts.

But instead...there is nothing. It's another day at work. Only a few people are here today, as most of the teacher's are given this time off (due to their seniority). And I'm here, with a few colleagues, getting ready for the semester.

After nearly a month of English camps and traveling, I feel like I'm so acclimated with this culture, these people, and this job that the whole thing has become routine. Not boringly so, mind you, just routine enough to feel comfortable. I'm not worried about the semester start, and I'm certainly not worried about teaching anymore. It's nice to be able to relax.

As for the blog, consider this the official reboot. Later today, I'll post some pictures and tidbits from part 2 of my parents visit to Korea.

See you in the funny pages!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Vacation's Over

After a 2 week vacation from work and (unexpectedly) this blog, I am now back in action with a whole slew of new stories, recaps, pictures and videos from the past few weeks.

My apologies for being lax on the updates recently, but I promise to make up for it in the next few days with a barage of posts.


Sunday, August 9, 2009

Parents' Arival and Jeju-do, Part 1 of a 3-Part Series

I guess it's about time I poured some much-needed life into this desert island of a blog. My extended absence from the world of web logging has been mostly due to the exciting arrival of my parents in Korea. But now that they have gone back to the states, I would like to update you all on the exciting first week of our adventure.

Mom and Dad flew into Busan the evening of Thursday, July 30th and were pleasantly surprised to find that jet lag never truly hit them. They were a little tired for some time on the second evening, but handled the transition like pros. Though I only got to spend a night with them in Busan, Korea's second largest city, we took some time to appreciate the nightlife and have dinner at a local Pizza Hut. I figured I would leave the traditional food to the traditional-oriented Andong. It astonished me to find that both of my parents were immediately enamored (and maybe a little overwhelmed) with the culture I've now gotten used to.
Arrival in Andong
Upon finally getting to the Capitol of the Korean Spirit (Andong), I checked my parents into the highly disappointing Hotel California. What was supposed to be the chic downtown alternative to the Andong Park Hotel (the most well-known of Andong accommodations) quickly turned into an exercise in futility, since the nightly air conditioning didn't come on in the day or night, several of the room's amenities didn't work, and hot water wasn't turned on until 8 o'clock each morning. My parents insist that everything was fine, but they spent the rest of their Andong tour at the Andong Park Tourist Hotel.

Regardless of the hotel situation, our two day stint in my Korean hometown was well-spent. We explored the area near the Andong Dam, toured Andong's charming downtown area, and sampled some of Korea's finest dishes in the local restaurants. Without a doubt, the biggest surprise of our first few days was that Mr. Larry "please bring a fork along" Williams is actually a chopstick champion to be reckoned with.
My parents introduction to Andong was short lived, though, as we set off for Jeju island, often referred to as "Korea's Hawaii." On Jeju, we stayed in the luxurious Hyatt Regency Hotel, where we were pleasantly surprised to find that our ocean view room gave us both extraordinary views of the ocean:
and the mountains:
We spent half of our time enjoying the posh ameneties of our five star hotel, such as delicious western breakfast with a gorgeous backdrop:
and a drink or two in the calming, lobby-set cafe:
The other half of our time was spent climbing, clawing, hiking and otherwise killing ourselves through the island's many walking tours.
We visited the black sand beach near our hotel, which was set against stunning cliffs.
And climbed our way down through one of the island's parks in pursuit of glistening waterfalls.
Dad was slightly unhappy when we thought we were going back to the parking lot, but instead wound up at a very sudden dead-end.On our final day in Jeju, the entire crew (me, mom, dad, Sara, and Linda) trekked out to a Buddhist temple and mountain grotto that was purported to have some of the finest views in all of Jeju. Our guidebook simply said the path would be a climb "...about halfway up Sanbang-san mountain." Enter Sanbang-san:
Still, we braved the steep climb:
And arrived at the breathtaking grotto, where we drank from a cistern filled with fresh, cold, and clean mountain water, flowing directly from the rock itself. And the book was right, the view was to die for.
Stay tuned in the coming days for the second update from mom and dad's trip to Korea!