Monday, March 9, 2009

Episode 5: In Which DFM Acts Korean And Subsequently Gets Himself Into Trouble But Also Has An Adventure

I awoke today with a knocking at my door.  Actually, it was a knocking on the door of the next room over, which is so close to me that the sound entered my room too.  When I looked at the clock though, it was 9:00 AM.  Hurray! I've finally adapted to the time difference.

Today I had my first experience with washing laundry in Korea.  They have a nice washer, but no dryer at my place.  Instead I am to hang my clothes up in my room on a rod above my bed.  There is a fan like you'd find in a bathroom with a shower to suck the moisture out, but it isn't very powerful and for some reason (perhaps because of the fan) my room smelt like someone  had been smoking in it, for the rest of the day.

I went out to buy some cereal for breakfast the  next morning and decided to stop back in to see Mr. Choi and get a pre-paid long-distance/local calling card.  The card he sold me had the best rates on it, but on my way back home I found the exact same card in some back-alley shop for three dollars less.  Mr. Choi is ripping me off!  Actually, it's not his fault, he works for a major mobile service provider, SK Telecom, which sets the prices I'm sure.  I see the shops all over the place and they specialize in high-end phones.  LG Telecom (a rival service) didn't even offer pre-paid phones or cards, so I guess they're not too worried about cheap travelers who don't want to spend money.  Mr. Choi is very kind and helpful though (go figure), and gives me great personal service so it's not all bad.

It was about 5:30 PM now, so I went out to catch the "Yellow #3" bus to the base of Namsan Park in the center of Seoul.  I just missed my bus by seconds though, and some Korean in very poor English (better than my Korean though) tried to offer my help.  "Is-uh there anything-uh I can help-uh you with-uh?"  We eventually worked out that the Yellow #3 bus was the only bus going to the Park, and that it would be around again in half an hour.  Having adopted the Korean motto of life (bali bali, or "hurry hurry") I couldn't wait half an hour, so I set off on a trek to find Namsam Park on my own... on foot.

I headed off around the corner to where I knew I could see Namsan Tower,   John had taken me this way on my second day here, but before I could make it to the end of the block no less than five different shop keepers tried to sell me a custom made suit or pair of shoes.  (Remember what I said about Itaewon being a pushy tourist trap?)  I wish I had brought my camera back when John had taken me because the view was spectacular then.  Today however, it was either very foggy or very smoggy, or both, because the view was awful (and the air quality wasn't the best either).  I wasn't sure where I was going exactly, but I could see the tower and decided to start walking in that general direction.  The closer I got, the better I could see how many roof tops were between me and the tower... a lot.

Eventually I found this sign post.  The Korean hangul at the top reads "Nam-san gong-wan" which, as you'd expect from the sign, means Namsan Park.  I headed down the street to the right like the sign said, but next time I will definitely take the street to the left and stick to the main roads.  Keep reading, you'll see why.

I snaked in and out of buildings and down side streets until I came to one of those pedestrian overpasses where I was stunned by this massive church way up on a hill overlooking the city.  This church is visible from almost every neighbourhood near my place (unless you have a large building in the way... which is most of them) and apart from Namsan tower, elevation wise it is the highest building I've found so far.

I passed a driving range in the middle of a residential area (they're all over the place; you can see them by the massive green net tents used to keep the balls inside).  It was kind of funny because the cars were parked underneath the netting, and the people were basically hitting golf balls at their cars.  I should have taken a picture.

I kept going and thought I was getting close but wound up stuck in an apartment building complex.

This cute little girl playing around in the apartment buildings wanted to try out her small amount of English on me, and asked me my name.  A boy, who I assume was her brother, was playing with her and they both took turns asking me questions.  It felt like being in an ESL class.  "Where are you from?  What is your name?  How old are you?"  I asked them how I could get to Namsan tower.  They pointed at the tower looming over our heads (yes, I know that's Namsan Tower.  I want to get there!).  I asked again in a slightly different manner.  "A car," was the response I got from the boy.  "Ann-yo" I replied and pointed at my feet and mimed a walking movement.  "WALK!" The girl squealed in delight and mimed my marching movement with me.  I just laughed and took a picture of her. (Annyeo means "no," and is not to be confused with annyoeng, which sounds similar but means "hello"... I've already made that mistake before.) 

The apartment complex had a massive play area which absolutely blew me away.  You can see from the accompanying video that there is room for an entire soccer field in the area, and I'm standing under shaded bleachers.  It all must be very nice for the residents of the complex.  But then again, unlike where I live the city planners in Seoul actually think about their citizens when constructing buildings/neighbourhoods.  If you listen carefully you can hear the golf balls being whacked from the nearby driving range, at the beginning of the video clip.

Just on the other side of the apartment buildings I could actually see the entrance to the park, but there was a locked gate between me and the street.  I could have jumped the fence, but didn't want to do anything to offend the locals.

So, back I went down the severely sloped street to Namsan Tunnel 3.  This tunnel heads right through to Namsan Park (where I wanted to go), but is closed to pedestrians.  The problem was that  I couldn't find a way to get to the other side of the road.  There was no overpass/walkway that I could see (this one I'm standing on to get this overhead shot is to cross a different road right beside it), and there is no crosswalk on the street.  In fact there is a sign that says no crossing.

There was however this beautiful park, which was shockingly situated right beside the major road you just saw.  (Look, you can see the road through the trees!)  These parks are all over Seoul and are one of my favourite things about Korea (besides the Seoul subway).

Then I found it.  I had spent five minutes contemplating a jay-walk across the free way and admiring the park, when all that time this tunnel was right behind me.  Under the road I went.

On the other side I promptly took another wrong road and got stuck in the same position that I was in on the other side of the road when I was in the apartment complex, but one block over.  Back down I went.... again.

Eventually I ran into a building I thought looked kind of familiar.  I thought about it for a second and then I remembered something Nelson had told me the day before when we were taking the bus back from the mountain and he had pointed out that we were in Haebangchon.  Wouldn't you know it?  I was exactly in the same street that I had first explored on my first day here.  I found the side street where I had stayed and snapped this picture of my first night place.

Success!  After an hour of taking wrong turns I had finally found the entrance to Namsan Park.  What a great feeling.  Now I only had to hike up the mountain.

Right at the top of that first ramp there was an amazing workout park.  There were no fewer than three of these parks on my side of the mountain alone.  I'm not sure how many there are in the park in total, let alone the city, but they're very popular with Koreans on their early morning exercise outings (or so I've read).  In the top picture you can see two barbells on stands (about 25-30 lbs a piece including the bar), a set of parallel bars, three separate heights of pull-up bars, a slanted and flat bench with handles at the top for doing leg raises, and these crazy devices where you hold onto bars and stand on a turntable and twist your hips to work your abdominal muscles.  You may not see it all because my picture is bad, but they're there, trust me.

In the second picture there are some more twisty plates, some even lower pull-up bars, a spring-loaded see-saw/teeter-totter, and these therapeutic back massagers (they're the blue things way at the back).  There are also some more dips bars and even more pull-up bars and a bench press station along with badminton courts.  I couldn't get any decent pictures of these though because at this exact moment the sun went down and all of my pictures looked awful after this.

I headed off into the dusk up the mountain.  There were all sorts of trails and I had a blast trying to figure out the most direct path to the top.  I spent some time trying to get a good picture of a small stream, but to no avail as the light was just too poor.  Then I looked up through the trees and... wow!

I had taken shots of the tower earlier, but the smog made the view less than perfect.  This was the first time I'd seen the tower with its lights on, and the base was aglow with a bright aura (the picture doesn't do it justice).  Renewed with vigour I dashed up the rest of the way.

N Marks the spot.  Namsan Tower is now officially called N Seoul Tower, but all the Koreans I know or have met still just refer to it as Namsan Tower.  This is a view of the tower from its base, at the top of the mountain.  At the top there is the obligatory restaurant and an observatory tower.  I didn't go up though because it costs money, and... well we've already covered how cheap I am.

Beside the tower is this beautiful pagoda.  I watched the weapons demonstration the day before from up there on top of the steps (the demonstration occurred where I was standing when I took this picture).

Koreans have a love-hate relationship with dogs.  One hand they eat them, but on the other hand they're quite worried about their well-being.  Apparently there is a big problem with abandoned dogs in Korea because I have seen lots of website ads asking for donations to help lost/abandoned dog societies (or maybe Koreans just care more about lost dogs than Canadians do).  These pictures show the latest idea being showcased by the Tower.  A Korean furniture designer feels that dogs want to be with humans, and s/he has built this chair that allows the dog to sleep under you while you work/rest so that it will always be around its master/friend.  The idea (explained in the accompanying placard) is that if the human master can see how much the dog wants to be around him/her, then he/she will not abandon the dog.  I love how Koreans always boil things down to black/white solutions.

All around the top of the mountain are these flying/floating wire mesh figures of humans performing different feats.  There are bright lights being shone directly on them to make them glow like they do.

Ah yes, the famous BE&CH of Love.  Here you see the slanted benches I wrote about in Episode 4, and the locks attached to the fence.  Each lock has a message written on it (I assume it's the wish).  There are literally thousands of these locks around the entire "beach."

By this time it was getting quite late and so I figured it was time to head back home so that I could go climbing.  When I first arrived at the top, I saw the Yellow #3 bus just leaving.  When I started to head back I saw it just leaving again!  Second time I had just missed it.  I couldn't believe it.  I started to run back home, but by this time my legs had turned to mush and it was far too dark to safely make my way back down the side of a mountain.  I turned around and decided to wait it out since it was a nice night anyways, and this would probably be much faster in the end.

It turns out my entire journey was unnecessary (but still fun), because the next bus came fifteen minutes later.  How could I possibly think that a bus could take 30 minutes to come around again in Seoul?  There's no way the Seoulites could wait that long for anything.

The bus drove past Namdaemun market, and a library and some other neat sites that I promised myself I would visit again sometime.  This was the first time I had taken a Seoul bus by myself and I was quite proud of the "achievement."

In Seoul there is a device called a "T-Money card."  You pre-load money on the card (I may have talked about this already, I'm not sure) and use it as your bus ticket each time you ride.  You get a discount on a regualr ticket if you use it, and unlike with a normal Seoul bus ticket you can use your T-Money card as a transfer.  On the way back out of the bus you scan the card again and it will give you 30 minutes to get on your next bus/subway for free.  That meant I had 30 minutes to get home, eat, and get back on the subway to go climbing (I also had to hurry before the gym closed).

This is my bottomless supply of rice I keep talking about (you can see the bottom here, but it will get filled up, don't worry).  Usually I'd have kimbap, but no time for that, so I used my can of "hot pepper tuna" that John urged me to buy my first day here.  It was amazing.  Made me choke when I had it on its own, but with the rice it was Biblicly good.  I am definitely taking some of this hot pepper tuna back home with me to Canada when I'm done here.

The climbing gym was very busy tonight (just as "Yoon" had promised).  There were two main groups as far as I could tell.  One was a "climbing school" that "Yoon" was running and contained a bunch of raw beginners being  worked into a sweating heap of worn out flesh by Yoon and his non-stop rotation of climbing and calisthenics.  The other group were a bunch of climbers in their forties who were busy working each other to death on some made up problems.  This older group invited me over to join them and would point out challenges for me to complete.  I was worried that I wouldn't be able to keep up and would embarrass myself, but it turned out I was the most experienced climber there (besides "Yoon").  I easily dispatched most of the problems they set out for me (I had been climbing twice as long as most of them), and each time I did I was met with an uproarious round of applause from the other climbers.  It actually started to get embarrassing and I had a lot of practice saying "kam-sa-hap-nida" which means "thank-you" and bowing.  Everyone was very friendly and some of them tried to talk to me in what little English they posessed.  

After climbing I asked "Yoon" if there were going to be any competitions at the gym.  He said that he holds competitions every three months, and that the next competition would be the last Friday of this month.  I plan to swim with sharks on the Saturday, so if I can get my high-speed train ticket (bali bali) for Saturday morning I should be able to compete and still make it to Pusan for the shark scuba adventure.

I still plan to climb at this gym about once a week because its been so welcoming to me, but I need to say "ann-yo-hee keh-say-yo" to Astroman and find out what the other gyms in Seoul are like.

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