Sunday, June 12, 2011

Korea Memories - Tuesday, May 24th part 1

Note: Sorry for the delay in posts. I've been trying to load the videos from our hike on Halla-San for the last couple weeks and for some reason Blogger hasn't been accepting them. But it looks like they're loading back to it!

The last post was a little long, so I didn’t describe our accommodations in Jeju. We stayed at Hwang To Mae Ul ( Hwang To means orangish dirt, and this dirt is full of minerals and is supposed to have healing capabilities when you stay in the huts made out of it. Worth a shot, right? At the very least, it was a really cool, picturesque, unique, and authentic place to stay for a couple nights.
Tuesday was our hiking day. Our goal: the Halla-san volcano rim. This volcano is nearly 2,000 meters tall and hasn’t erupted for probably about 1,000 years, so we figured we were pretty safe. Hiking in Korea is just a little different (should I just create an autotext in this series of posts for “a little different?”). The mountains are definitely steep and challenging, but most of the trails aren’t what I grew up hiking on in the Rockies. They are actually boardwalks and steps made out of wood or stone.

Before we began we had received a number of well intended warnings from locals about trying to hike all the way to the top. People said it was extremely long and difficult. The trail to the top was a little over 6 miles, so we were prepared to do more than just a short walk around the block. But I wasn’t sure how to take the warnings, especially since both Susie and I have pretty extensive hiking backgrounds. The guidebook and locals said to prepare for 8-9 hours each way.

It turned out to be a challenging, but really fun hike. The scenery was beautiful, and it was the best weather day in quite some time to hike up to the rim. Susie was wearing shorts and a jacket, and I was wearing jeans and a cotton shirt. We (especially Susie) got quite a few comments about our dress since most of the Koreans were outfitted in super technical gear with hats, gloves, balaclavas, nice boots, and hiking poles – everything name brand. The North Face is very popular in Korea. I bet some of them had a thousand bucks tied up in what they were wearing.

I don’t know if it’s because we have longer legs, or because we’ve hiked quite a bit in the past, but Susie and I generally hiked quite a bit faster than most of the Koreans on the trail. But we were impressed at the number of senior citizens making it to the top. They took it slower but they still had the stamina to pull it off. We finished in about 5 ½ hours, and to hear some of the comments in the parking lot you would have thought we’d just won Olympic gold.

We couldn’t see the summit from the trailhead due to quite a few clouds, and we spent a lot of the day hiking up and back through the clouds. Despite the boardwalks and stairs, there were a couple of challenging sections to the trail.

This next picture is the beautiful Halla-san volcanic cone. Pretty impressive, huh?

We didn’t stay too long at the top since it was super windy. We figured that we needed to keep moving to keep from getting cold. The air wasn’t cold by itself, but because of the high winds, we didn’t want to take a chance. These are our best “Hold still in gale-force winds for one picture” faces. And then I don’t think these videos do the wind justice, but I was holding the camera right next to my face and hollering into the mic and you still can’t really hear too well. Welcome to Jeju!

At one point just below the summit, the clouds whipping by suddenly broke for maybe twenty seconds. The view down to the ocean was stunning, and I was able to get a couple quick pictures. Then it closed back up and we were in the clouds again for most of the way down.

This is what a lot of the hike down looked like. It was kind of an eerie setting, but still beautiful the whole time.

After we got back down and were driving around near the water, the clouds opened up briefly once more. Here’s a picture of the volcano from below. During our few days in Jeju, this was the only time we could actually see the top. We later discovered that we were extremely fortunate to be able to get up to the top, since the recent weather hadn’t been very cooperative at all. As someone who grew up in Colorado, this was really one of the highlights of the trip for me.

Since this post is a little longer, I’m going to finish up the 24th in a different post. Later that afternoon I got a great picture of a phenomenon that I hope never makes it to America. (at least that I have to take part of). But it was something that was humorous for us to see while in Korea.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Korea Memories - Monday, May 23rd

On Monday morning we packed up and took a short flight south to Jeju Island. Jeju is one of Korea’s provinces, and it is a volcanic island just south of the mainland of Korea. Jeju is a huge vacation spot for Koreans and Japanese. Like Hawaii for Americans, many Koreans go to Jeju on their honeymoon. Jeju is legendary for a plentiful supply of three things: rock, wind, and hardy women. The rock is pretty self-explanatory since the island is volcanic in nature and made of lava rock. They weren’t kidding about the wind either: lots of it, and consistent. And the hardy women? There is a group of Jeju women that dives for sea creatures year round. They dive pretty deep and they stay under for over two minutes. We didn’t get to see any demonstration while we were there, but I guess it’s pretty entertaining.

The flight down was interesting because it reminded me of flying out of Owensboro in that nobody acted like they’d been on an airplane before. The flight attendants at the front were constantly on alert to jump up and tell people to sit down when they were supposed to. I saw quite a few people wandering around the plane before the flight looking for their seats. It was kind of amusing.

The first stop we made was at O’Sulloc tea farm. Jeju has perfect conditions for tea growing (porous and mineral-rich volcanic soil, plentiful rain, and proper temperatures), and in Korea and China they don’t speak of drinking tea – they talk about the rich and historical tea culture. These cups were from the three kingdoms dynasty, so probably about 1000 years old.

This is a roaster. They roast the green tea leaves, turning them over by hand in this basin that is heated from underneath.

Here are a few pictures of the tea fields. It was peaceful, beautiful, and the smell was exquisite. Mom, I know you would have been in paradise.

Ok, it’s time to interrupt with a story. The first couple of days, I was a little self-conscious because people really stared at us a lot. I only saw one Korean person my height the whole time I was there, so I literally stuck out because of my size. And Susie’s blond hair is really a rarity in Korea, so she stuck out as well. At first I was very aware of it, but after a few days I kind of got used to it. Near the end of our trip I occasionally had one of two thoughts: “Come ON, we can’t be the only white people you’ve ever seen.” Or: “We’ve been here 10 days, and this country is so efficient, so I know some kind of government notification memo had to have been sent out about us to the entire country, so we really shouldn’t be that much of a surprise.” Still, it was definitely a different feeling being a true curiosity everywhere we went. It was usually little kids or old people who stared at us, and occasionally people would ask to take pictures of us or with us. I will say, though, that it wasn’t a feeling like we were intruding and the Korean people made us feel unwelcome. I definitely didn’t feel unsafe at any time because of our difference. And there was no feeling like we were being singled out in requests for handouts or assistance like what you may encounter in some Latin American countries. It really felt like a genuine sense of innocent curiosity, nothing more.

So it didn’t really get under my skin when we were walking around the tea farm gift shop and I noticed that Susie and I were being followed around by a few people with high end photo cameras and a video camera. After a bit, one of them approached Sungwon and asked her in Korean if we were uncomfortable. We said no, so they asked if we would look at specific items or areas while they took pictures/video. No big deal so far, right?

Then they asked if they could take pictures and video of this place down the road that was a bonsai garden. As we walked out of the tea farm the leader said we could follow him in our car. Then he said he could just drive our car for us since he knew the way and his associates would follow. Then he just said that we could ride with them in their bus. Keep in mind that all of this is in Korean with Sungwon and we were getting loose, rapid translations. I couldn’t decide how concerned I should be, especially when they loaded us up in their bus and gave us snacks and drinks (some preopened). I leaned over to Susie and asked her jokingly if this is how foreigner abductions usually begin?

The whole story is that they worked for a travel/tourist part of the main Korean Broadcasting Company (KBC), and they preferred to have foreigners in their shots of popular tourist attractions for their ads. There was a British guy in the bus as well, but he actually had been living in Seoul for some time and could speak Korean and was helping us translate as well.

We were bused to this bonsai garden and our admission was taken care of. The place was beautiful, but it was windy and raining. Here are a couple pictures. In the first, you can see the cameraman filming the British guy, Susie, Sungwon, and myself walking across a stone bridge.

Because it was raining, and because it was right around lunchtime, the crew took us inside and bought us lunch at the park’s main hall. It was a huge Korean buffet and was outstanding. After eating for a while, they came back to us and said that since it was raining they couldn’t do any more shooting and offered to take us back to our car. As we loaded onto the bus, they told us that since some of their crew had to fly back to Seoul we were going to stop somewhere so they could pick up their bags before dropping us off. Once again, that kind of got my feelers up, but I didn’t want to let that on at all, and we were already committed. Turns out, they dropped us off, and we got to see the bonsai park and had a free lunch, all for playing interested white tourists for a few frames. Can Susie and I put model/actor on our business cards now?

After the tea farm we went to visit Cheonjeyeon falls in south Jeju. It was a series of three falls that emptied out into the ocean. Here’s a picture of us in front of the middle of the three falls. Very lush, tropical, and green.

To top the evening off, we went to dinner at a famous seafood restaurant near the beach. When I say seafood restaurant, please understand that the Korean version and the American version are two different things. At their roots, they are the same – serving things from the sea, but the presentation of those things are where they differ. I never actually saw this, but I heard that at some seafood restaurants you can actually choose your fish from the tanks in front of the building. Quite a few restaurants in Jeju and elsewhere in Korea had these tanks.

The other difference is that many times in Korea you just eat the whole fish. I’ll be honest. This was not the culinary highlight of my trip, and I think Susie would agree. But we both tried it (we have proof of Susie here). I think they want you to eat the head first because it would just be creepy if the fish got to watch you eat the rest of him. Luckily for us these fish were cooked, because it would have been a lot harder to do this if it was raw. We ate some raw whole fish as part of a kimchi, but they were much smaller.


Sunday, June 5, 2011

Korea Memories - Sunday, May 22nd

Sunday morning Susie had to do some work when we woke up, so I took off down the hill to see what I could find for breakfast. I am happy to report that Koreans are world leaders when it comes to waffles. Take a look at this next picture and tell me that doesn’t look good for any meal. They generally make their waffles from scratch (no Bisquik), then pile them high with ice cream and a ton of fresh cut fruit (no canned pie fillings, take that IHOP!). Sooooo good. All I know is that at least one house in Owensboro will be changing their waffle routine for good.
After I had breakfast, we headed to the Hanok traditional village to see what life was like in ancient Korea. On the way in we stopped at a traditional tea house and had a traditional tea setting, complete with Korean goodies. Another thing Koreans set the bar at is tea. We tried a number of different teas while in Korea, and even visited a tea farm on Jeju Island (that’s what those in the biz call “foreshadowing”).

As you can see, traditional homes were constructed very similarly to temples and palaces. The major difference, aside from size, was that only temples, palaces, and shrines were painted for the most part. In the front left of this picture you can see the chimney. More on that later.
The Koreans were very efficient with their indoor climate control from a very early time. See the hole near the ground in the picture below? Koreans used what is known as “ondol” heating, which is locating the furnace under the house at one end, then passing the flue gas under the house, which heats the floors, then passes out the chimney at the other end of the house. This picture shows wood, but most of the time coal was burned as the main source of heat. The floors were generally made from paper that was soaked in sesame oil. Koreans were historically light years ahead of other cultures when it came to making paper, so it wasn’t like curly fax paper on the floor. It was sturdy paper, and you can see it in the picture below as well.
This is a typical traditional Korean kitchen. Actually, this is a very large kitchen. You can see that they also routed the flue gas from the cooking fires out through the ondol system for home heating as well.

Ever heard of kimchi? If you go to Korea, you will. It’s fermented vegetables, usually cabbage or radish, that is served with every meal, bar none. If you like it, you can make any Korean meal taste good. This picture is of a kimchi refrigerator. They would take the raw kimchi, add seasonings, then put it in large ceramic pots that were buried in the ground up to their tops. I think it usually took a few weeks for the fermentation to finish. Nowadays they just use refrigerators just like what is found in western homes.

You can’t tell from this picture, but this is the room where they would sleep during the summer. This room is cantilevered out so it has good air flow underneath it to help keep it cool in the summer. Another kind of funny thing is that hanging up on the back wall is what our tour guide called the “bamboo wife.” It’s like a big hollow oblong basket shape, and they would hold it to their chests. This created another passageway for air to flow around them during hot summer nights. (It should be noted that even though traditionally the husband and wife slept in separate rooms or buildings, those families were still generally pretty large.)

This is a traditional kids game. Susie and I looked at each other and said “Korean cornhole.” It had bamboo shoots that had dull weighted tips. Think lawn darts, but not as lethal.
The day we were at the Hanok village there was also a traditional Korean wedding ceremony, and it was open to the public. It was very interesting to witness, and even though it was all in Korean I think we still comprehended the basics. The groom was a white guy, and I don’t think he understood everything that was going on either, because he made a couple whoopsies like bowing at the wrong time or bowing incorrectly. That usually brought a bunch of giggles from all the old Korean ladies.

After the wedding we went to a traditional tea ceremony. The woman hosting it only spoke slightly more English than I did Korean, but she was a very peaceful and kind person, and I think eventually most of the important messages were communicated. The traditional Korean tea ceremony is very specific, and we enjoyed getting to learn the different parts of it. It's a very relaxing time. You can see a demonstration here if you want.

The final thing we saw at the traditional village was a group of Korean dancers. They were extremely athletic and it was impressive to see them flying around while keeping a steady beat. There is a leader, and he is one of the guys that has a two-sided drum (in the middle of the first photo). Apparently, this traditional drum leader is legally allow to be tripping on some sort of chemical enhancement in an attempt to achieve nirvana, or an altered state of mind while leading the rhythms. There isn’t a specific order to the rhythm/dance, and the rest of the group reacts to beat and tempo changes made by the leader. I guess if you ask a leader what was played during the last performance there’s a good chance they won’t be able to tell you. What is impressive is how seamlessly the ensemble reacts to the tempo and rhythm changes and how athletic they all are. Susie and I were commenting that they really resembled some of the traditional dances done by Native Americans. Makes you wonder if the northeastern Asians weren’t at least partially responsible for populating North America way back in the day.

We stopped by Insa-dong, which is a traditional Korean street market filled with lots of native things. If you can guess what the next picture is, I’ll figure out a way to order you some online and get it to you. I’ll give you a hint: it was the one thing I saw in Korea that I refused to try. Answer at the end of the post.

After the market, and after regaining our appetite, we went to eat dinner at Sungwon’s parents’ house. Sungwon’s parents were incredibly generous and hospitable and helped facilitate an extremely wonderful time for us in Korea. We are very grateful to them. Gamsahamnida! Sugo hashyeoseumnida!

(In case you were wondering, the picture up above is earthworm stew. Yep, imagine how bad you think earthworm stew would smell. Then multiply that awful smell by about two thousand. I didn’t actually see anyone eating it, but the smell honestly turned my stomach.)

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Korea Memories - Saturday, May 21st

Our third day in Korea was a busy one. Susie and Sungwon had conference activities to do, so I spent quite a bit of the day exploring Seoul on my own. Seoul public transportation is very intelligently set up. The subway system is easy to use, even if you don’t speak any Korean, and it’s very cheap.

The first place I visited was Nam-san. This is a small mountain right in the middle of the city. When Seoul was first settled, they chose the spot because they had mountains to the north and a river to the south. In fact, many Korean cities are situated in this same configuration. The mountains to the north help protect from invasion and block the cold winds during the winter. The river (or water) to the south is another form of protection and assists with travel and commerce. Now, the Han river runs east/west through the middle of the Seoul area since the city has expanded south so much. But just north of the river sits the small mountain of Nam-san, and on top of this mountain sits the Seoul Tower, sort of a mini version of the Seattle space needle.

I took the cable car to the top of the mountain, and it was great to see the city kind of unfold in front of me (looking north).
This is the Seoul Tower standing at the top of Nam-san.

This picture is looking south over the Han river. Unfortunately it was a pretty rainy/cloudy/foggy/hazy/smoggy day. The view was still pretty outstanding.

I sort of took this picture as a joke. Many times the English in Korea would be loosely translated, which would result in some humorous grammar at times. I figured I was in for a pretty cool bathroom if it was entitled PLAZA toilet and had it’s own dedicated elevator.

Well, the plaza bathroom turned out to have the best view while relieving oneself I’d ever seen.

After leaving Nam-san I headed for Deoksu-gung, a palace used back in the late 1500’s. There are a few large palaces right in the middle of Seoul, and the juxtaposition of this ancient architecture with a modern skyline backdrop is stark.

This picture is of the Deoksu-gung throne room. I was continually amazed at the attention to detail in the painting on the palaces and temples. The colors were beautiful and the craftsmanship was second to none. I’ll post some more close-up pictures in a later post. Not only was the painting impressive, but except for a few rafter beams, all of the palaces and temples were constructed sans nails. All the pieces were interlocking. Unbelievable.

After meeting up with Susie and Sungwon, we walked over to Gyeongbok-gung, which is probably the most impressive and largest palace in Seoul. The buildings, fence, residences, etc., were mostly the same, but they were just much bigger. Also, there was a beautifully manicured garden in the back part of the palace.

We finished up the day at a Japanese restaurant and then walked along the Cheonggyecheon stream in downtown Seoul. This was a waterway that was actually uncovered during some construction work. They turned it into a very nice waterway with walking trails and lights.

Whew. We did a lot that day. With that much walking I wasn’t having much of a problem falling asleep on the floor in the hotel room.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Korea Memories - Friday, May 20th

Day 2 started pretty early since our bodies didn’t know what was going on. Seoul is 14 hours ahead of Central Daylight Time, so it took a few days before we were quite right from a sleep perspective. We walked around a bit and sort of took in our surroundings. We were staying in the Nakseongdae area of Seoul, and there was a shrine in a park built to the General Gang Gamchan. He lived way back around the year 900 and the name Nakseongdae carries meaning. Nakseongdae means the place where the star fell to earth, and according to legend, where that star fell is where he was born. And that’s where they built the shrine. What I kept coming back to was the fact that as Americans, we really don’t have a long historical perspective compared to most of the rest of the world.

This is a pagoda that dates back to the time of Gang Gamchan. I was continually amazed to be around artifacts that were at times 1500+ years old.

That day for lunch I met up with some fellow Air Liquide employees in the Air Liquide Korea office in Seoul. It was very interesting to see where our experiences and practices line up and where they differ. For me, doing this at the outset of the trip was a great way to almost center myself and have a stake in the ground. It was reassuring to see that even though we were far from home and in a strange country, I had something in common with a number of Seoul residents. I even met a guy that had graduated from Mines a few years before I did. The world is truly small.

After lunch I met back up with Susie and Sungwon at the National Museum of Korea. You could probably spend 2-3 days in that museum and not see it all. The best part: it was all free. We focused on the three kingdoms historical artifacts. I won’t post all the pictures here, but I do want to point out a couple things I found interesting.

This is a pair of shoes for a warrior. They are made of bronze and have spikes on the bottom for traction. I bet Ty Cobb would have had a heyday with a pair of these.

This is the headgear for a warrior. Look at the piece in the middle. I can’t imagine wrapping that around my head. I couldn’t have been comfortable, but it sure had to beat taking a sword to the earhole.

This is a gold crown that is about 1000 years old if I remember right. Pretty ornate. And the gold is extremely thin, so it wasn’t heavy to wear.

This is a bronze incense burner and is one of Korea’s national treasures. It was made maybe in the 600s and is incredibly detailed. It’s hard to see the detail in the picture, but each of the bumps on the top half of the burner is a different figure or character formed out of the bronze.

The museum was showing a special exhibit on traditional Korean musical instruments, so it was interesting to see those. Here are pictures of a drum, a “bass guitar,” a “12 string acoustic guitar,” and scores of music from sometime in the 1500’s.

For dinner we went to a famous restaurant called Yangmani and had a very traditional Korean dish called tae chang. Most Koreans we talked to were surprised that we had even tried it. Depending on what I read, it’s either intestine or stomach from a cow. They marinate it, then bring it out and cook it on a grill set down in the table. It really had a pretty good flavor, but the consistency was just a little too rubbery for my taste. I wish I’d taken a picture of it…