Monday, February 15, 2010

Episode 55: Final Day

My final day was spent frantically trying to get my luggage, my money, and then get on my plane, followed by a 25 hour journey home. In short, it was the most hectic day ever.

When I left Tyler’s home for Busan last week, I had only taken one small suitcase for the trip and had left my other, larger suitcase there (at Tyler's home). I had planned to get the suitcase last night when I came back from Daejeon, thus saving me a trip in the morning, but due to Jun’s test I had to push back my departure from Daejeon, subsequently arriving in Seoul too late to get my luggage.

Tyler works during the morning and the afternoons, so I only had a small window of opportunity to meet him at his home today to get my luggage back before my flight back to Canada. The trip to his home takes an hour each way, and so I did not arrive back to Jin Guesthouse (where I was staying again) until 2:30 PM.

I still had to get to the airport for a 5:20 boarding call, and the trip to Incheon takes about an hour and a half. Before I could leave for the airport though, I had to first collect my salary for December from my boss. My salary had not been available before I left, because all the schools were on holidays, so I had to wait until today to get my salary.

Unfortunately, there were some issues with the bank, and the money did not clear until the last minute. I was too late to catch the unbelievably comfortable airport limousine (bus), so I had to hail a cab. I made sure this time to get a grey cab, instead of one of the unbelievably expensive black cabs like I got tricked into taking on the trip to Seoul from the airport back in August.

Thanks to my driver going 140 km/h in 80 km/h zones (Korean "bullet taxis" rule), I was able to make up considerable time and actually beat the airport limousine bus I would have been taking back to the airport (we passed it on the Incheon bridge). Unfortunately, a group of ten Koreans tried to buy tickets at the last minute in the Baggage Check-in Line, and so I was forced to spend 45 minutes waiting as I watched my extra time waste away. Just as it was my turn to approach the desk, the employee decided to shut down his station, and so I had to go to the end of another line and wait there as yet more precious minutes ticked away.

When I did finally get my luggage checked in, I had about 5 minutes until my plane started boarding on the other side of the airport. I was told to "hurry there", but I still had to exchange my massive wad of Korean won for Canadian dollars (I had about two month’s worth of salary in the equivalent of $10 bills to exchange).

Some may wonder why I would not just exchange my money in Canada and head to my plane, but The Royal Bank of Canada buys Korean won at about 75% of the going rate, and I wasn't about to lose half a month’s worth of money to the fat cats at the RBC. I did bite the bullet in the end and go to a currency exchange place at Incheon International Airport, because I didn't have time to find the right bank amidst all the duty free shops and restaurants. However, it didn't really matter because the rates at this booth were only 5/1000 of a dollar, per dollar, than the bank's rate to which I would have gone, and only 1/100 of a dollar, per dollar, more than the going exchange rate for changing Korean won to Canadian dollars.

After the man at the exchange booth took his sweet time exchanging my money (I can’t blame him too much, as he needed to find a suitcase in which to store it all), I had negative three minutes to get across the airport and board my plane.

At the security area, another plane was boarding at the same time, and so I got stuck in a swarm of people. To make matters worse, the line I was in shut down three people before I got to the conveyor belt to scan my carry on luggage, and so I had to go to the back of a different line and wait all over again.

When I finally did make it through security, I then had to get through immigration, race across the airport and down four stories to the monorail train that would take me to the International departures area, where I then had to race back up four floors to finally make it to my gate, where I made it on the plane with just six people to spare.

Unlike my flight from Canada to Seoul in August, the trip back across the ocean was quite comfortable. I even made it to the luggage carousel at the Vancouver International Airport and picked up my luggage in time to get to check it on my next plane (during my trip in May I nearly missed my flight because I forgot my carry-on in the overhead compartment of the plane from Seoul).

However, the young Korean I had met on the plane could not find one of his bags because another passenger had mistaken it for his/her identical piece of luggage earlier. Add to this delay the fact that I misplaced my customs declarations slip and had to retrace all my steps to find it again, and I once again found myself in another tight race to board my next plane. Eventually though I made it home, and my second journey to Korea finally came to an end.


Many people ask me what my plans are now, or if I’ll ever go back to Korea. At the moment I have 8 Korean textbooks, and when I have mastered each book and committed them all to memory I plan to return to Korea to study Korean as a Second Language.

Eventually my goal is to master Korean so well, that I can become one of the few, if not the first ever Westerner to teach a subject in Korean in a Korean public school. In short, I hope to become a real Korean school teacher.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Episode 54: Daejeon

On Tuesday, January 12th, I left Busan for Daejeon to meet my friend Seong-jun (henceforth to be referred to as the name he used in Canada, where I met him – Jun).

Jun was busy writing an important test when I arrived at the station, so I had to wait about an hour and a half for him to come pick me up. However, it didn’t take but one minute after I stepped off the train for yet another Jehovah’s Witness to corner me and try to spread the good news about knocking on people's doors and stopping them in train stations.

I read the man’s Watchtower magazine as I waited for Jun. As I passed the time reading about how important it was to continue to knock on people’s doors, even though the author’s insistence to do so caused him to be kicked out of his refugee colony after WWII, I noticed that the homeless people of Daejeon have their own way of passing the day - gambling games.

Even in Seoul I’ve never seen as many homeless people in one place as I did out in front of Daejeon station this day (Jun later told me Vancouver was worse). Unlike some of those "less fortunates" in Seoul station though, the homeless people of Daejeon weren’t kicking my suitcase or yelling at me. Instead, they were busying themselves by playing a gambling game.

The specific game they were playing was called “coin toss.” Two lines are drawn on the ground about 4 metres apart. Each player competing in that round lines up at the throwing line with his or her 100 won coin (about the same value as a dime, but the size of a quarter). Each player then gets one chance each to throw his or her coin at the line. The player whose coin is the closest to being directly on the line wins all the other coins thrown that round. Not only does this make for a great opportunity for the homeless to earn a little money, it also provides great entertainment for the community's old men who have nothing better to do than stand around at the train station watching homeless people play coin toss.

When Jun finally arrived we went to visit his friend at the pool hall. Because of the suffocating population density, Korean youth tend to become quite adept at games which do not require a lot of space to be played. One of these small space activities is pool (billiards). Almost every street has a pool hall stuffed away on the third floor of some dirty, old building, and consequently Koreans tend to play pool as well as Canadians play hockey.

The type of pool you may be used to playing in Canada - 6 pockets, 15 balls - is also played in Korea, but the most popular type of pool is called carom billiards, or three cushion billiards.

Thought to have been developed in France, during the 18th Century, carom billiards is played on a table with no pockets, and there are only four balls. Each team (of one or two players) has its own cue ball. To score a point, the player shooting attempts to shoot his/her cue ball at the first of two scoring balls, and then have the cue ball ricochet off three cushions before striking the second scoring ball. If the player succeeds in accomplishing this feat, he/she scores one point and then gets to try again. The feat of scoring a point is so difficult though, that professional level players average only one point before failing. Even world class players average less than two points before failing.

To make things easier on ourselves, Jun and I, and Jun’s friend, and Jun’s friend’s friend (a friend of a friend of a friend of mine) decided to simply count a point if you could get your cue ball to hit one ball and the other ball in succession. Even this was incredibly hard, but later of the three friends mentioned managed to score five points in a row during one inning (turn).

(Jun's friend, on the right, and Jun's friend's friend, on the left, during a short break from our pool match - Jun had disappeared to make a phone call just before this picture was taken.)

After a short game of billiards, we left the two pool sharks to go back to Jun’s place for supper. His mother had prepared yet more Korean food for me, and I was again able to show off my chopstick skills and spicy food eating ability, which for some reason always seems to surprise Koreans even when they know I lived in Korea for five months. At about 7:30 PM, Jun drove me back to the train station where he bought me a ticket on the Saemaul train.

Now, this (the Saemaul train) is the way to travel! Not nearly as fast as the KTX, and more expensive than the Mugunghwa train, the Saemaul train I rode on was far less crowded than either of my journeys on the Mugunghwa (to Busan, and to Daejeon), and much more comfortable than both the KTX and Mugunghwa trains. I can’t believe I confused the Mugunghwa train for the Saemaul train; never again.

(This is a structure built for the 1993 Worlds Expo held in Daejeon. The Expo was held in Daejeon to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Korea's first appearance at the 1893 Expo in Chicago. Now though, the Expo site in Daejeon looks like a ghost town, as there were no people there at all on this day.)

Episode 53: Busan Day 6

On Monday, January 11th, Ji-hyun took me to get a $6 hair cut, and also to see Haeundae beach for the last time. As this was my last day in Busan, Jeong-pil and Yeon-gyeong came over for dinner and to say good-bye.

Yet another great part of living in Korea is the cost of cutting hair. I found a barber's shop in my home town upon returning to Canada that gave hair cuts for men for $15, and I have Korean friends in Canada who refuse to have their hair cut because of the exorbitant price of doing so. What we need in Canada now is a National Haircutting Plan.

(You can never have too many pictures of Haeundae Beach.)

(You can also never have too many videos of Haeundae Beach.)

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Episode 52: Busan Day 5

On Sunday, January 10th, I woke up in Jeong-pil’s house, just outside of Busn, after Ji-hyun and I had spent the night there. When I exited my room, I found Jeong-pil’s fiancĂ© hard at work making an incredible “fusion” breakfast - as Jeong-pil called it.

The breakfast consisted of the traditional Korean side dishes like kimchi, rice, and yellow bean sprouts. However, it also contained a delicious fruit salad with red and green peppers, apples, tangerines and some other fruit, mixed together in a pineapple sauce; and there was also a green pumpkin (smaller than the orange variety) hollowed out, then filled with mushrooms, some meat (probably beef), with some other vegetables, which had all been cooked together like this and then topped with melted cheese.

(Fusion breakfast'd! Oddly enough, Jeong-pil didn't like it.)

After breakfast I sat down to watch some TV, and Yeon-gyeong (Jeong-pil’s fiancĂ©) made me some delicious, freshly-juiced apple/carrot concoction. This was then chased with a homemade apple tea. Both were delicious.

The show I was watching on the telly that morning featured a group of young Korean men, called “The Dream Team,” travelling around Vancouver/Whistler, trying a number of Olympic sports and challenges. It was obviously a promo for that TV station’s upcoming coverage of the Winter Olympics, but it was also rather interesting from a cultural perspective.

The members of The Dream Team proceeded to dance, scream, fall down, and generally make a hash of whatever sport they were trying to do (not necessarily on purpose). As I watched, I wasn’t sure what it was that I was feeling. It could have been embarrassment for The Dream Team, or it could have been the bitter taste of indignation at seeing such buffoonery in my home country. However, I soon remembered all the times a Canadian comedian has traveled to another country during the Olympics to make a fool of himself on TV for the entertainment of Canadian viewers, not to mention all the Western English teachers here who tend to make a mockery of Korean customs on a regular basis, and that helped put things in a different perspective.

After we had packed up, Jeong-pil drove us out to one of the easterly most points in Korea. I'm not sure exactly what the name of the place is, but it was definitely a popular destination, and a giant mail box and tiger existed as if to show evidence of that.

(See the mail box? You don't get to build something that big unless you're already a big deal. Right? I mean, it's not like a town would build a giant statue of an animal or other object just to attract tourists unless the tourists already wanted to come there. Everyone knows that.)

(Apparently you can push letters in the small slot at the bottom. I'm not sure if they actually get sent anywhere though.)

(Psst... Jeong-pil, Ji-hyun, don't look behind you...)

After soaking in the fresh sea air (I had forgotten how pollution free air tasted by this point), Jeong-pil, Ji-hyun and sat in one of myriad cafes lining the parking lot. These cafes were basically wood shacks, with a plastic tent attached to them. However, despite the less than five-star interiors, at the Black Cat Cafe where we ate, the hot chocolate was some of the best in Korea (and I know my hot chocolates) so I was filled with a deep satisfaction.

(Cafes by the sea.)

After our snack, we all went to Yonggungsa - a temple in north-east Busan. Unlike most temples in Korea, which are built high in the mountains (to protect them from Japanese invaders bent on arson), Yonggunsa is built right beside the sea. Hopefully my pictures will say a thousand words for me, because I seem to be having trouble sufficiently describing the experience in my own words.

(This is a big Buddha statue. A normal person's head would come up to around the its toes.)

(Ha! You didn't believe me, did you?)

(In the bottom of the picture is a stone bowl, on the lower terrace. I'm not sure why, but many people were attempting to throw coins in it. It probably means they'll have a son, who in turn won't be able to get married because every other couple threw a stone in a bowl to get a son too.)

(Looking down from the top of the temple.)

Friday, February 12, 2010

Episode 51: Busan Day 4

In the 7th Century AD King Taejong Muyul of the Silla Dynasty used to practice his archery in a forest on an island near the East Sea. On Saturday, January 9th, 2010, Ji-hyun and I walked through the same forest on the same island, now called Taejongdae.

The obvious highlight of Taejongdae is the magnificent white light house, and the cliffs on which you can walk, to get as close to the sea as good sense will allow. I of course, walked out on the cliffs, but I also attempted to get an even better view of the sea by walking to the top of the light house. Unfortunately, once I got there my view was obstructed by the dirty safety glass keeping me from jumping over the rail and killing myself and so alas, the best view of the sea and Oryukdo - a collection of five islands that sometimes look like six, depending on the level of the water, hence the name, which means “five or six islands” – is only from the cliffs beside the light house.

(The lighthouse at Taejongdae, complete with old man waiting to take your picture on a Polaroid camera.)

(Another view of the lighthouse, from below. The red hoop with the needle sticking out of it has a placard describing the meaning of the structure. However, like all representative art, it made absolutely no sense.)

(The cliffs.)

(One of the many stunning views from the cliffs around the lighthouse.)

(The rainbow tent on the rock at the bottom of the picture is home to a restaurant which I assume sells fresh fish caught from the sea right beside it. At one point a wave was so big it came crashing over the edge of the rock and covered about half the top. It's tough to tell from the image, but everything on this rock is actually raised up to avoid getting soaked when this happens.)

After touring all of Taejongdae Park with Ji-hyun, Jeong-pil picked us up, and we drove to another beautiful cliff area called Igidae Park. Igidae is perhaps even more scenic and peaceful than the famous Taejongdae, but because there’s no lighthouse, very few people come to visit. (Even Jeong-pil had to admit that despite its beauty, this was the first time he had ever been to Igidae.) Come to think of it, the fact that no one goes to Igidae is probably the reason it is so scenic and peaceful, so I shouldn't complain too much. After visiting all the major cliffs of Busan, we drove back home for a raw-fish dish called sashimi. (Sorry, it was too dark by this time to get any decent pictures.)

I had first eaten sashimi during my visit to the Ulsan area back in April/May. At that time, I had already eaten a few crabs and three other sea food courses, so when the giant platter of raw fish came I just didn’t have the stomach room left to down too many of the large rubber-like fillets without first half cooking them in my bowl of maeuntang.

This time though, the cuts were much smaller and so I was able to wrap them with garlic and other sauces in ssam (any lettuce-like food stuff used for wrapping other food stuffs) thus adding some much needed “oomph” to what I can only describe here as small, cold, pink pillows, with the "chew-ability" of a pencil eraser, but containing much less flavour. In one of the great mysteries of Korea though, despite my relative aversion to sashimi, most Koreans (especially those from the Busan area) can't get enough of it. Considering Korea is the home of that most delicious of dishes - bulgolgi, the fact that more than zero people would rather eat raw, tasteless fish is something I'll never understand.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Episode 50: Busan Day 3

On Friday, January 8, Ji-hyun planned to show me Haeundae beach, the most famous beach in Busan. She told me it would take about 30 minutes, but it ended up taking about an hour.

Once we arrived, and after having some lunch, we explored Haeundae. Because it was winter, we more or less had the beach to ourselves like at Gwangalli the day before.

(Long time readers will recognize the hill and buildings of Haeundae beach from my visit here back in March.)

(Waves crashing onto Haeundae beach.)

(Even the buildings behind Haeundae are beautiful. Notice the blue colour on this building and the interesting architecture. You won't find either of those things in Seoul - the city of '60s-era Soviet-style apartment buildings.)

My last time visiting Haeundae beach was back in March, and because I was frantically searching for the shark diving course at the time, I failed to realise how peaceful and therapeutic the crashing of the waves against the shore can be, which is something I'll be looking forward to enjoying more if I return to Busan again. What I also failed to realise is that not every wave crashes into the beach with the same momentum, which can give some tourists a nasty shock if they're not prepared (see video below).

After I got my shoes soaked, we walked over to the nearby Nurimaru APEC House. "Nurimaru" translates to "world summit," and the Nurimaru APEC House on Dongbaek "island" (it's more of a peninsula) was a building built specifically for the 2005 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit. The building and location were stunningly beautiful, but you can see that for yourself from the pictures.

(The Nurimaru APEC House. Home of the 2005 APEC Summit.)

(One of my favourite pictures from the whole trip. You can see the famous, on my blog at least, buildings of Haeundae beach in the back ground, a ferry-like boat that made regular trips past this point, but seemed to move more seagulls than people, and a solitary fisherman enjoying the beautiful weather and waves on his own rock.)

(Nurimaru was easily accessible from Haeundae and vice versa. Here Ji-hyun and I cross a small swinging bridge.)

(The famous Mermaid of Dongbaek Island.)

By this time we were getting a bit hungry again, so Ji-hyun suggested we go get a waffle at a cafe called BeansBins. I was expecting a $1 "dutch taco" style of waffle like I was used to buying in Seoul, but at BeansBins waffle creation is taken to a new level. It's not cheap though, as this elaborate looking, mediocre tasting waffle costs around $11.

(An $11 waffle. I wish I could say it tastes as good as it looks.)

After supper, Ji-hyun's brother, Jeong-pil, came over and we went to the nearby Shinsegae department store. The Shinsegae department store was completed in early 2009, at which time it became the largest department store in the world (taking over first place from the Macy's store in New York). While I have been to a number or large department stores in Korea already (Lotte and Hyundai), and I generally find nothing of interest inside, this department store was different. This department store, Shinsegae (literally, "new world") had a massive jjimgilbang called Spaland.

In the past I had limited all of my Korean bathing experiences to the Hamilton Spa in Itaewon. While the tubs there were as nice as any, it lacked the massive size and ridiculous amenities of the jjimjilbangs I had read about in books about Korea. Not Spaland though. Spaland is the Mecca of jjimjilbangs.

In Spaland, there are two floors featuring a great many different "relaxation rooms." There was the Pyramid Room, whose four walls were tapered to a point designed to focus ones energy. There was the Fomentation Room, which seemed to me to just be a room that was really warm, and induced a light sweat. There was a "Cold" Room, whose temperature was 13 degrees centigrade (not quite freezing, when you consider the temperature outside was around 2 degrees). There were rooms that had walls made of yellow ocher, and rooms made of charcoal. There were rooms that played relaxing sounds, and rooms that projected images of waves onto the ceiling and walls, and many more rooms. There were just many rooms.

While all the rooms listed above, along with those I did not list, were described as having some special effect on the body - like de-acidifying the internal organs - I can't imagine anything being more effective at relaxing the mind and body as just sitting in one room and lying down to have a nap or to meditate. However, it seemed like most of the people (including myself) felt pressured to rush from room to room to get the "whole experience," subsequently receiving no experience at all.

After exploring all the rooms, Jeong-pil and I went to the baths section to experience the real reason to come to a jjimgilbang: the baths. As I had said about the experience of jumping back and forth between 49 degree centigrade water to 13 degree water and back to 49 degree water again on my first visit to Korea: it is invigorating.

Actually, invigorating doesn't even begin to describe the sensation. In April of 2009 I had run a mountain half-marathon in Seoul. After that race I went to my usual sauna at he Hamilton Hotel in Itaewon. While I would have normally been hobbling around for a few days after a race like a mountain half-marathon, the Korean sauna helped prevent almost all of the normally occurring DOMS (that muscle stiffness and pain you feel after exercising) in the next two days. But I digress...

At the Spaland baths, there were also a number of steam rooms of varying temperatures that made the Fomentation Room seem like a joke. I'm frankly not sure why the relaxation rooms even exist, when you can go to the baths section and sit in the the 80 degree centigrade Swedish Sauna.

Admittedly, the Swedish Sauna room was so hot that the wood floors and benches scorched my skin after less than 3 seconds of contact. That may have something to do with the lack of people I saw when I went in... and then immediately back out again. After hopping around on my toes a few times I had to exit and run for the cold tub to soothe my burning feet.

At this point it was midnight, and Spaland was closed. It was definitely an experience, and I can see why many young Korean couple go here for dates (you can hang around all day and the owner doesn't give you a dirty look if you don’t buy anything else after you come in). That said, I found the overwhelming amount of choice of rooms to be... well, overwhelming. What I really want to do when I come to the sauna is, come in, build up a sweat in the steam room, and then jump back and forth between a hot and cold pool a few times. For this reason I prefer the simple, more traditional saunas, to these... (insert shuddering here) spas.

I know what you’re thinking now, and that's okay, because Hank Hill has an answer for you: “yes, (I’m) ‘old fashioned.' Old fashioned as in good!”

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Episode 49: Busan Day 2

Finally I'm back. Sorry for the long delay, but my computer had been down, and with it all of my pictures which are necessary for the next few posts. When I last posted I was on my way to Busan to stay with my friend Ji-hyun. Let us continue...

On Wednesday, January 6 (Episode 48), I had travelled to Busan to stay for six nights with my friend Ji-hyun (not to be confused with Ji-hyeun from Ace, although the two names are pronounced the same). Like Charles, I had met Ji-hyun in Canada, where she had been studying English, before I left for Korea. Again I thought it was an amazing turn of events that would allow me to meet my friend again, on the other side of the world.

On Thursday, January 7th (the next day) I was reminded again that Korean breakfasts consist of more or less exactly the same thing that was served for supper the night before. On this morning that meant I ate fish, rice, kim, and kimchi. Following breakfast, Ji-hyun took me out for a tour of Busan.

First up was a visit to Yongdusan park, and Busan Tower located at the top of the hill. Yongdusan is essentially Busan's version of a smaller Namsan, with Busan Tower the counterpart to N Seoul Tower (Namsan Tower). Like Namsan, Yongdusan also contains a Pagoda at the top, but the pagoda atop Yongdusan contains a bell on the inside and a number of old men offering to take your picture in front of the bell and tower for a fee.

(Busan Tower, atop Yongdusan.)

(The pagoda in front of Busan Tower. I cropped the old men out of the picture.)

After Yongdusan park, Ji-hyun and I went to the area of Busan that plays host to the Busan (Pusan) International Film Festival (PIFF, for short). There wasn't much to see at this time of year though, except for the sidewalk with the hand prints of famous stars. The only name I recognized was Jeremy Irons (Scar, from The Lion King, and Simon Gruber from Die Hard 3).

(Jeremy Irons has huge hands.)

About this time, Ji-hyun and I became hungry, so we stopped at one of the street vendor stands for lunch. I have also seen and frequented a number of these street vendors in Seoul, and have written about my experiences many times. However, in Busan the food at such vendors (and even in restaurants), on average, is much cheaper than in Seoul. We were both able to fill up on ddeokbokki and odang (some sort of fish on a stick snack) for $5 total. I was both pleasantly surprised and greatly relieved - if I come back to Korea again I'll now be further able to stretch my budget simply by avoiding Seoul.

One of the things Busanites are most proud of is their seafood. In a nation that loves seafood, Busanites claim to have some of the best tasting seafood around. If that last statement is true, I'm not surprised; when Ji-hyun took me to the Jagalchi raw fish market, all the vendors have to do is turn around and buy a bucket of freshly caught fish from the fishermen taking it off the boats about 25 metres behind them. It's quite an incredible scene, to say the least, and subsequently it's hard to eat fresher fish unless you're a penguin.

(Women selling fish at the Jagalchi raw fish market.)

(The boats that the fish come off before travelling all of twenty metres to the fish market.)

My favourite part of Busan though, are its beaches. There are three main beaches in Busan - Songdo, Gwangalli, and Haeundae. Today Ji-hyun rounded out my tour with a visit to Gwangalli.

In the summer, the beaches in Busan are filled with people, but today I was able to stroll along the sand of Gwangalli beach as I fancied, while listening to the peaceful, monotonous sounds of the waves crashing against the shore.

(Walking along the nearly deserted Gwangalli beach, with the small waves crashing against the shore, and Gwangan bridge in the background.)

Gwangali is also famous for its night view of Gwangan bridge. The massive suspension bridge is not the longest in Asia, or even in Korea - that honour goes to the Incheon bridge that takes passengers from the airport to the mainland. However, at night it is lit up, and it creates quite a view from the beach, and from the air, too, as you can see from the photo at this link.