Dream as if you'll live forever, live as if you'll die tomorrow.

James Dean

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Happy birthday Budda! My adventures in Jeolla Nam Do

Last friday was Budda's birthday and since there are many buddists in South Korea, it was a holiday. This was the first long weekend since I have been here so I decided to take advantage of the extra day off and do some travelling. My friend Kristina and I booked seats on a 3 day tour to Jeolla Nam Do, which is one of Korea's southern provinces.
The tour was scheduled to leave from Seoul at 11:30pm on thursday evening. After school on thursday I raced home, grabbed my pack and my sleeping bag and hiked over to Daejeon station to catch a train to Seoul. It seemed that everyone in Daejeon had the same plan to get out of town because the train station was insane. Fortunately we had the foresight to prebook our train tickets, so while others were scrambling to find rides and waiting in massive lineups, we were sitting on an air conditioned KTX train. We arrived in Seoul at 8:30 and since we still had 3 hours we caught the subway over to Itaewan for a send off Mexican meal. Itaewan is a strange area of Seoul because it is so packed with foreigners that you don't even feel like your in South Korea. At 11:30 we met the other 43 people on our tour (mostly other teachers from various parts of Korea) and by midnight we were on our way.
After driving all night we arrived at 6am at our first destination, Hyang - Iram. We were supposed to be there at 4:30am in time to see the sunrise but traffic prevented that. It was a long and sometimes scary bus ride. There were a few times when I was convinced that the bus driver was falling asleep as the bus seemed to swerve on the road quite frequently but we made it alive.
Hyang - Iram is a small temple and monastery perched high on a cliff on the southern tip of Dolsando Island. We disembarked from the bus and started to make the trek up to the temple - and what a trek it was. First we walked up a steep hill to reach the bottom of the stairs. From there is was 350 steps up to the temple. The steps wound through the mountain and at times it was just a narrow passageway through the rock. Given that it was Budda's bithday the entire trail was lined with decorations and lanterns and all the way up you could hear the chanting of the monks. Despite the hard climb it was very peaceful and serene and the views from the top made it well worth the effort. Upon reaching the temple you could look down over the harbour below and the views were spectacular. After appreciating the views Kristina and I pulled out our sleeping bags and had a little nap until it was time to leave.
After leaving the temple we headed to Yeosu harbour for a 2 hour boat cruise. Once again we were rewarded with spectacular views of the water and the rocky cliffs on the shore. The breeze from the boat were much appreciated as it was turning out to be the hottest day I have seen here yet. Thank God I had packed some sunscreen or I am sure I would have been burnt to a crisp.
After the boat cruise we headed out in search of some lunch. We were given two choices, a place that sells raw crab or the food court of a local department store. Since I am not a big fan of raw seafood I opted for the chicken burger at the Lotteria.
Our departure from there found us going to Odongdo Island. This island is basically a large park or botanical garden, with fountains that move to the music and trails through the woods. At this point we were all exhausted from the bus ride and heat so we didn't explore the island too much but instead found a shady spot to wait until it was time to leave.
Our last destination of the day was to a place called Sun Cheon Bay, which is an ecological park surrounded by rice fields. This park has a 2km hike up to the observatory where we had planned to view the sunset. We headed out on the trail to the observatory and then saw the thousands of people headed on the same path. We could barely move the path was so packed with people so we decided that it wasn't worth it. We instead walked along another trail that ran alongside some rice fields. We realized as we were walking that we would get spectacular views of the sunset right where we were so parked our butts and decided to wait. We were not disappointed.

Finally we headed to our destination for the night outside the Nagan Folk Village. We occupied 3 guest houses and I shared a room with 4 others. The rooms were Korean style which basically means no beds and just a mat on the floor. At this point we were so exhausted that none of us cared. I woke up earlier than the others and decided to explore around the folk village.
Nagan folk village is one of the best preserved fortress towns in South Korea. It is a village consisting of tradition Korean houses surrounded by a stone wall. Originally this wall was built as protection against Japanese pirates. The houses are still used. Some of them are restaurants and gift shops, others can be rented to stay in and others are lived in by families. You can walk along the tops of the walls and get glorious views of the village below.
Eventually my friends joined me. It had started to rain so Kristina and I bought straw hats to keep the rain off. We ended up being the envy of everyone else on the trip and my hat is now hanging on my wall as a souvenir.

After the folk village we went to an organice green tea making farm where we would learn the art of making green tea. First we were sent out into the fields to pick the green tea leaves. Armed with our baskets, hats on head, we ventured into the pouring rain to gather our leaves. It was so wet that we ended up soaked to the skin but it was worth it for the experience. After we picked enough leaves we headed inside where we were served hot green tea and were taught the proper way to drink it.
Then the fun began. We were divided into groups, given special aprons and gloves to wear and began making green tea. First we had to cook the leaves in a big pot. You don't want them to burn so 2 people have to constantly be turning the leaves with their hands. After about 10 minutes the leaves are taken from pot and laid on a special mat where they have to be rolled and pressed inorder to get the waxy film off the outside. From here they are again cooked and then again rolled. This process is repeated numerous times. It was hard work and I have great respect for those who do it daily.
Our stop for that night was at a beachside condo but it was raining so hard that we couldn't appreciate either the beach or the views. However, there was a sauna in the basement that we made use of. The sauna was fabulous and contained a green tea bath which felt so good after being in the rain all day. Once again the rooms were Korean style which meant we slept on the floor, but that was ok.
In the morning we woke early, paid another visit to the sauna and then headed to the Boseong Daeha Dawa Green Tea Hills. For me this was the highlight of the trip. When we arrived it was green tea hills everywhere you looked. Since it had been raining it was very misty out and you couldn't see the tops of the hills through the fog. The only way I can describe it is breath taking.

We wandered around the green tea hills for a while and then headed over to the Juk Nok Won bamboo forest. This was essentially a bamboo forest with various trails that you can follow through the bamboo. It was rather busy there but it was still beautiful.

After the bamboo forest it was time to head back to Seoul. At this point Kristina and I started scheming about ways to get the driver to drop us off in Daejeon, since we were going by there anyway and it seemed silly to go all the way into Seoul and then come back. We eventually stopped at a roadside stop near Suwon, south of Seoul where we decided to leave the group. The traffic into Seoul was bad and this way we could get a taxi to the subway, which we could take to the Suwon train station where we would catch a train to Daejeon. There were 5 of us that opted for this. However taxi's would not come to the rest stop as it was on a toll road so we had to find a way to get across the freeway to a gas station that had a back road leading to it. We hiked along the side of the road, in the rain, for about a km to an overpass that we could see in the distance. We thought we could climb up it and walk across. I am sure we were the talk at many dinner tables that night. You won't believe what we saw while we were driving on the freeway - some crazy white people walking in the rain. The overpass turned out to be a railway crossing so we headed back to the start but along the way found a path to a tunnel that led under the freeway. We made our way to the gas station somehow got the attendant to understand that we needed a taxi and were on our way home. We got back to Daejeon 2 hours earlier than we would have, had we travelled into Seoul.
It was an exhausting but thoroughly enjoyable weekend.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Destination DMZ

So, after having been here for 2 and 1/2 months I have finally left Daejeon and ventured into other parts of Korea. I came to Korea with the intention of travelling as much as I can. Afterall that is what I do. Having visited 30 plus countries I believe I have earned the label of world traveller and yet I haven't seen much of Korea. When you live in a foreign country it's very easy to allow yourself to become cocooned in the area in which you live. Afterall you've become familiar with that place and the thought of adventuring beyond those borders is a little scary. However I took my first steps this weekend, mind you they were baby steps, but they were steps nonetheless. I went to Seoul for the night on saturday and then went on a DMZ tour on sunday. I will leave my impressions of Seoul for another blog and focus today on the more interesting part of the trip, the DMZ tour.
For those of you unfamiliar with this term, the DMZ is the demilitarized zone seperating North and South Korea. Since the Korean War has never officially ended, they are only at a ceasefire, this border heavily guarded by both sides. The DMZ itself is a 4km wide stretch of land seperating the 2 countries. Since this area is virtually sealed off from people it has become an environmental mecca and a haven for wildlife. The views of it were spectacular.
We started the tour at ImjinGak which is as far north as civilians can go without permission. When the war ended there were there were many families that got seperated, some in the North and some in the South. This place was established to console those who had to leave their homes and families in the north behind. Within ImjinGak is an alter called Manngbaedan, which is where people who have been seperated from their families get together and pray. It is mostly visited on New Years Day and Chusock (Korean Thanksgiving).
Also in ImjinGak is the peacebell which was erected during the 2000 millinium and is meant to signify a wish for peace and reunification between the 2 countries.
We were also able to walk on the freedom bridge which was given it's name because it was where prisoners were exchanged after the war ended.

After ImjinGak we visited the 3rd tunnel. This was a tunnel that was discovered in 1978 and was built by North Korea to infiltrate South Korea. They also found 3 other tunnels but they believe that there are many more. The tunnels all go under the DMZ and into Seoul and could allow 30,000 soldiers to invade South Korea within 1 hour. Their discovery was by accident when S. Korean soldiers disccovered vapours rising from the ground. When they started digging they found the tunnels and were immediatly fired on by N. Korea. The walls inside the tunnels had been marked with coal so that they could argue that were actually coal mines. Other tunnels were found after an engineer from North Korea escaped and gave out the information on other tunnels. It is believed that North Korea, to this day, is continuiing to build tunnels under the DMZ.
We were able to walk down inside the 3rd tunnel and what a walk it was. We were given helmets to wear because of the low ceilings, which of course didn't bother me - I didn't even have to duck. We then walked down an extremely steep hill for about 10 -15 minutes. When I say steep, I mean steep. When we got to the bottom we entered into the tunnel. The tunnel was about 2 feet wide and very damp. Basically we walked to the end, maybe another 10 minutes, saw some barbed wire that was blocking the exit, turned around and walked back. We then had to climb back up that extremely steep hill and it was not easy. Although the story of the tunnels was very interesting, it was not worth the effort of going down and seeing them.
After the tunnels we headed to the most interesting part of the tour, the Dora observatory. This is the closest that you can come to North Korea and given that it was a clear day you could actually see Kesung City, which is the 2nd largest city in N. Korea. Unfortunatly you weren't allowed to take pictures of the DMZ here but the views were spectacular. Since the area is virtually uninhabited, it was very serene and beautiful. It looked like a painting. I won't even try to describe it here because words won't do it justice. Off in the distance you could see the only 2 towns in the DMZ zone. The first one is called Daesungdong or freedom village, which is located on the S. Korea side. The people who live in this village pay no taxes and the men are exempt from military service (in South Korea all men must serve 2 years in the military before they turn 40). The other town you can see is called Kijongdong, which is a propoganda village built by North Korea. No one actually lives here but it was designed to give visitors the impression that North Korea is prosperous. Apparently it contains giant loud speakers that blare out propoganda messages 6 - 10 hours a day, although we couldn't hear anything while we were there. According to one of the soldiers that we spoke to neither country is allowed to enter the DMZ zone or do anything in it without telling the other, however North Korea continously breaks this rule.

After the observatory we went to our final stop which was the Dorasan Train station. This is the most northern train station in S. Korea. It has trains that leave once a week to Pyongyang. It was very surreal because, of course, the train station was completely empty. It is under construction with tracks eventually being opened to connect to China and Russia. Someday if the 2 countries are reunited then this will be the station used to reunite families that have been seperated.
It was a very interesting tour and it made me realize just how real the tension is between the 2 countries.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Sport's Day at Wadong Elementary School

Today was sports's day at Wadong Elementary school. I was told over a month ago that this was happening today, so unlike most things in Korea, it didn't come as a surprise. What did surprise me was the amount of preparation and ceremony involved. I shouldn't have been surprised by that, afterall this is Korea, a country that prides itself on ceremony and tradition.
I arrived at school this morning expecting a fun day with the kids playing a few games and having some good natured competition. I was taken aback when I had to walk past the food vendors and cotton candy stands to get to my school. It was no longer a school but rather a carnival. The playground had been transformed from a dirt field to a stadium. There was a stage at one end for the Principal, Vice-Principal and other important people to sit (the royalty of the school). There were tents set up along the edges of the field for parents, grandparents and other visitors to watch the games.
At exactly 9am the ceremony began. The kids marched onto the field, dressed in the schools colours of blue and white, where they lined up in perfectly straight lines, according to their grades and teams. The entire school had been divided into 2 teams (blue and white) with students from every grade level on each team. Let the competition begin and in Korea there is no such thing as good natured competiton.
The ceremonies started with the national anthem followed by a speech by the principal welcoming the families and officially opening the games. This was followed by warm up exercises led by a teacher who was formally in the military, and it looked like a small army on the playground. They did calisthenic exercises all in complete unison. It was a little wierd and reminded me of the propoganda videos you see from N. Korea with everyone moving in sync.
Finally it was time for the fun. The kids competed in a variety of events some of which were similar to games in Canada and some that were very different. They had relay races and 100m dashes to see who was the fastest. They had one game where they had long poles with balloons on the top. On top of the balloons there were giant balls and the kids threw bean bags at it until the ball broke open. The first team to break their ball would win. It was different. I think the most exciting part of the day was the last relay race between the grade 5 and 6 students. It was a close race and the winning team only won because a girl on the opposing team dropped her baton.

Overall it was an excellent day, the kids had fun, and I was impressed with the number of parents that came out to cheer on their children and participate in the games. The day ended with another round of calisthenics and the children singing the school song.