Sunday, August 23, 2009

Mountains, Movies, Myeongsashimni, and so Much More!

Breath, relax, let your mind wander away to the recent past...(trying to get caught up, here's a very brief summary of events in May and June and a bit of July.)

Thanks to May hosting Buddha's Birthday, Children's Day, Midterm Exams and the school Field trips, I had an astounding number of days off work. I used the "float" day in my contract to make room for a long-weekend trip to Seoul at the beginning of the month with a bunch of Suncheon friends, intending to take in Buddha's birthday parades and lantern celebrations. Unfortunately, we were there the weekend after all the really big stuff went down (oops) but we still had a great time shopping (English bookstores and Costco!), eating (thin crust pizza, Indian, Coldstone Creamery, Subway...*drools on keyboard*), touring Changdeokgung Palace, and catching the Nanta stage show (think "STOMP" in a kitchen). We even saw a parade, accidentally! And all of the lanterns from the previous weekend were strung up along the streets of Seoul, making for some beautiful late night strolls. Of course, some of the great highlights of the weekend came from just hanging out in our hotel rooms watching hilarious movies, including a very funny adaptation of a popular Korean folk tale about... well ask me if you really want to know.

The next weekend was time for me to pay the price of signing up for the "Fun Run" category of the "King of the Mountain" race, held at Mt Wolchulsan to raise money for the Yeosu orphanage. However, some important details about the course were not included in the event announcement, like "your average Korean mountain hike will feel like a walk in the park compared to this", "make sure you bring 6 litres of water because you'll sweat at least twice that much out" and "if you are not in excellent physical condition you will regret this race for the rest of your life". Look up "contradictory statement", "misnomer", "self-flagellation" or "oxymoron" in the dictionary and you will find "Mt Wolchulsan Fun Run" as a definition. The mountain is a mere 809m tall and we spent the first 3 hours of the hike climbing straight up it. The kindly Korean government did install railings, ladders and stair cases en route so that we weren't scaling the rocks themselves but that hike was the most difficult thing I have ever done physically. It is the first time I have seen KOREANS sweating and panting while hiking a mountain (they're human after all!). At the summit, I gratefully received a hearty round of applause from those who had already arrived. I'd never felt like I deserved applause more in my life. However, now we had a much longer trail to travel that would take us down the other side of the mountain to the finish line. And while the descent had a much less vertical angle to it, it also had less railings and staircases to help you out. Once in a while there was a rope anchored to help you down a large boulder and more than once I used the old butt-scoot to get down in places where I didn't trust my ruined legs to support me if I jumped down. My hike companions, Amanda and Jennifer, were real troopers. Being in better shape than me, they were very patient: they never complained about waiting for me or how many minutes I was adding to our final run time. And against all odds, and the desire to lie down in the brush and die, we finished the hike six and a half hours after we began. Last team to finish, but there was some satisfaction in the fact that not all teams who start the climb completed it. In all seriousness, it was an incredible day and the view from the top was amazing. It's a beautiful place for a hike. FYI - there was an actual "race" category, and the jerk who won it ran up and over that mountain in 2 hours and 15 minutes. The nerve!

At the end of the month, we packed up some gear and headed to Myeongsashimni Beach on the island of Wando. It was a really fun weekend. A large group of foreigners from around the area were there and we all enjoyed being away from our students for a few days. We camped on the beach, played games, cooked samgypsal and tin foil dinners, and had a big bonfire on the beach. Unfortunately, camping so close to the water had the downside of it becoming excessively chilly at night. We wound up shivering the night away in our sleeping bags wearing whatever layers we could find in our packs! Luckily, the next day gave us beautiful weather and plenty of time to nap in the sun.

The first weekend in June was another wonderful getaway, this time to Sangbulsa temple in a small mountain range near Gwangju. Lower on the mountain from where this temple sits, a mountain stream has carved away at the rock for centuries and created a beautiful swimming hole. We gathered there for a swim and a picnic with a few foreigners. The water was fresh, clear and cold. The temple was charming, quiet, and just full of beautiful paintings, new marble statues and wooden carvings. We did get caught in the rain on the way back down the mountain, and had a bit of an adventure finding cabs way out there, but we did make it home eventually.

The next weekend found me on the road again, this time to Gwangju to go to my first pro/semi-pro (?) Korean baseball game. We bought thundersticks on the way in for 1000KRW and a few in a group even in invested in cardboard sun visors when faced with the setting sun. It was a really enjoyable game, even thought the game itself was a little dull. In South Korea, sports are extremely competitive (like the school system) and baseball has become what I've heard referred to as a "pitchers game", meaning if you enjoy the technique of pitching, you'll it. But otherwise it's pretty much a whole lot of strikes and the occasional walk. What was entertaining though, was the enthusiasm of the Gwangju crowd, who regular broke out into song and synchronized thunderstick dance moves. Also entertaining, matching couples and, even better, matching families; pre-schoolers jazz dancing before the game started and an old lady in our section who refused to give up enthusiastically leading cheers even when it was clear that our team was going to get thoroughly beaten. That's quite alright, there's plenty of other reason's to go to Gwangju (a large city 1 hr away from Suncheon by bus). Reason #2: Ethnic Bar - a really cool basement cafe that is almost entirely lit by large pillar candles, is draped floor to ceiling with beautiful iridescent fabrics that must originate from India and Thailand, features a small pond for lack of a better word) in the centre of it all with candles in it, and it's only furniture are low tables and large pillows lining the floors and walls. We went there for drinks and snacks (birgin pina colada juseyo!) and then headed out to Noraebang (of course) before calling it a night and heading back to the Windmill hotel. Reason #3 Great Food - Gwangju is host to the underground grocer (a tiny shop that stocks granola bars, sour cream, Dr Pepper and sharp cheddar!), a delicious authentic Indian food restaurant, and in the bus station alone: Burger King, TGIFridays and Cold Stone Creamery! I really enjoy Korean food, but sometimes you really want a taste of back home. Gwangju delivers the goods.

The NEXT weekend in June (still with me?) was my good friend Kate's birthday bash at String bar in Gwangyang. The theme for the party was "Anything Bought at a Korean Street Market", which we decided to go all out for. We headed into Yo-young-dong shopping district and picked out only the finest Korean attire that Won can buy: Ajumma pants, crazy Konglish tshirts, and sparkly Ajumma visors. String is a great little bar that is dominated by foreigners. So much so that the sweet Korean couple that runs the place let the regulars "work" behind the bar when it gets busy and happily give over control of the dance music. We had a great time celebrating and of course, topped of the night with a good long round of Noraebong.

Pics from all of these events can be found on my facebook page, or by clicking here

Now I do believe the next weekend I stayed at home and relaxed with my cat, she was probably feeling a bit neglected after all that. The first weekend in July though, Amanda A and I were on a bus from Daegu to Cheorwon, in Gangwon-do on weekend tour package from Adventure Korea. On Saturday we enjoyed rafting on the Hantan river, bungee-jumping (no, I didn't *hangs head in shame*) and a midnight tour of the war memorial situated near Odaemi village where we homestayed with a Korean family. This village area was one of the fiercest battle points during the Korean war and today most of its residents and farmers are paid handsomely to live on the land so close to the DeMilitarized Zone (DMZ), only 6 kilometers away, and keep it populated thus protecting it from any North Korean attempts to infiltrate undetected. On the Sunday, we toured the 2nd infiltration tunnel (a tunnel blasted 3.5 kms long by the North to invade ROK), Unification observatory (which overlooks the Iron Triangle Battlefield and was the headquarters and front line of the North Korean Army, through observation goggles you could their outposts), Wolcheongri Station (which shows the remains of the last train that used to run to border, which was bombed out) and the Labor Party Building (a three-story building constructed in 1946 and used as The House of the Labor Party, many people who were here during the anticommunist movement were later tortured and killed, the remains of the building are eerily pockmarked by bullet holes).

The next couple of weeks saw my school semester come to a close on July 14th and then I had a week to relax before getting on plane back to Canada for my home leave! (Well technically a plane to Tokyo, which then sent me to Canada...). I'm going to take a rest here. But I'll do my best to shortly get a summary of my trip home and how things have been since returning to Suncheon posted. Thanks for reading!

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