Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Colorful Daegu

Re: 2013/10/04-2013/10/07

After Seoul, we traveled to Daegu via bus. Now if any of you are familiar with South Korea, you may be asking why would we go to Daegu? Well, I have a good college friend, Colleen, who settled there, teaching English as a second language. The tourist theme for Daegu is Colorful Daegu, which seems apt after visiting. So on Friday, we arrived at Daegu’s bus terminal. After lunch at a pizza place, we called up several hostels. No one had a room for us, so we went with a love motel that was listed online. Unfortunately it was all the way across town and about a mile from the subway. It took us a while to get there. Fortunately, prices were cheaper than they had been listed online. For 30000 won ($30), we got a room with a queen-sized bed, TV with cable, internet, a couch, and a private bathroom with tub (tubs are a big deal in Korea—they mostly just have showers in apartments). Plus they normally had white bread and jam available for snacks (or breakfast). It was quite reasonable, especially if you can put up with the gaudiness, but $30+/day for housing only really starts to add up. We really missed having our van.




Colleen wasn’t able to meet us on Friday, but she arranged to meet us on Saturday to go to a Korean wedding she had to attend—she was chosen to catch the bouquet. At this point, I had run out of clothes, especially nice ones. We looked for a laundromat and asked around, but we couldn’t find one. So, out of desperation, I threw my clothes in the bathtub with some shampoo and turned on the jets and agitated the clothes. If not clean, at least they smelled better. I hung up the clothes on the various hooks around the room, but didn’t have time to get my nice clothes dry. So Jonathan pulled out the room-supplied hair dryer and got them mostly dry for me.

It has been two years since I have seen Colleen. She looked really good. And I got to give her several hugs.


Then we went to the Korean wedding. It was interesting. Korean weddings have evolved to reflect Western weddings a bit, but with a strong Korean twist. For example, they have big, fancy weddings, but they are at designated wedding halls. The one we went to was the Renaissance Wedding Hall. Then, instead of a reception, before the wedding, they have the groom stand at a table to greet guests and receive gifts (which are only cash offerings—probably a result of the shopping therapy they do combined with small homes). The bride gets to sit in a salon and take pictures with guests. Then when it is time for the wedding, everyone files into the designated hall (there are several there with many other weddings going on at the same time). Wedding-hall attendants escort the mothers to light candles and to their seats in the front, then the groom walks down the aisle. Then the music changes and the bride gets to walk down the aisle. For the bride, they had these hanging decorations rise up and down as she walked, really a bit overdramatic or corny. After the bride and groom are at the front, the guests are welcome to leave and eat their meal and return as they see fit. As this was a Christian wedding, they had a pastor say a few (actually a lot of) words followed by a trio of guys (groomsmen, I guess) singing karaoke to the bride. When the groom chimed in at his part, the trio started popping up at cues during the music. Very hilarious. Then of course, the bride and her gals had to do their song. At the end, the most emotional part for those involved, is the thanking of the parents, when the couple bows down and thanks each of their parents. Then everyone files out, only to return immediately for pictures. This is when the bride “throws” the bouquet. They only do the toss as a picture opportunity, and a woman is designated to catch it. Colleen was the lucky choice, as she has a wedding coming up. Those who stayed for the whole wedding now get to go eat lunch at a cafeteria in the hall serving multitudes of foods in a buffet line.

DSC06369 The mothers are in traditional Korean garb, bowing to each other, after they have lit the candles and before taking their seats. You can also see the wedding-hall attendants in the orange scarves.

DSC06372 They put a spotlight on the couple. Those hanging decorations along the aisle will raise up and down at dramatic points, like the bride walking down the aisle.

DSC06379The groom singing while his groomsmen jump up and down. 

DSC06383 Thanking the parents.

DSC06384 Oh, and the hanging decorations also “popped” and sent forth shiny streamers.

DSC06396 Posing and catching the bouquet.

After the wedding lunch, we (Colleen and her fiancé and Jonathan and I) went into downtown Daegu to watch a 4D movie. Ended up that they were sold out, so we decided to try another Korean experience: DVD-bbahng. These are places that you basically rent a DVD and a room to watch it in. They have big couches and project the DVD onto the wall. It was a cool experience. Then we went for dinner and had more gogigui. That is where we found that young man passed out from alcohol. After that, we went home to bed, but as we were walking back to the subway, we passed a sock vendor. I was able to pick up some cute lacy socks that go perfectly with my ballet shoes.

DSC06402In South Korea, many towns, especially Daegu, look like Las Vegas at night with their bright lights and signs.

On Sunday, we met Colleen and Leslie and went to their church, where Colleen and her fiancé lead worship for the English services. I guess Christian services are pretty much universal, so nothing to report there. Colleen had told me that I needed to try honey bread, so after the service, we went in search of some. It took us two or three coffee shops, but eventually we found one that had it. Pretty much glorious. They take a loaf of white bread and slice it into 9 cubes and warm it; then cover with honey or caramel and whipped cream. Pretty tasty and highly recommended.

After that, Colleen had to back to church for the second service. So Jonathan and I went back to our place to get ready for a hike. We had been considering to go to Apsan or the mountain with the giant buddha, but since it was starting to get late, we decided to go to the Arboretum. However, the buses took a while, and I missed the correct stop (phone froze), and Jonathan had misread the schedule of the arboretum. When we were finally on the street walking to the entrance, there was a stream of people leaving the area. Jonathan checked the schedule again and realized it had just closed. About that time, my purse finally decided to give way. The last clip that held on the strap completely gave out an broke off (the other had done that a year ago). Jonathan used the wrist strap on my camera to connect the strap to the purse again. And, to add to the trouble, when my purse fell to the ground, it lost my sunglasses holder. I didn’t notice it in the scramble and the darkness. So we returned to our room.

DSC06411 Since I wanted use of my camera strap for my camera, we eventually just connected both strap ends to the carabineer on one side.

Monday, Colleen was already back working. On our own, we decided to go to Palgongsan (a mountain on the outskirts of Daegu) and hike to the Gatbawi Buddha. It is a 17m (55ft) stone statue of Buddha with a flat rock hat. The trail was classified as easy, but man was it tiring. It was a 2km (1.2mi) trail of stairs, directly up the mountain (not very many switchbacks). But it was a pretty trip.

DSC06418 Hand-carved stone bridge.

DSC06421 A bell at the Buddhist temple there.



DSC06430 There were hundreds of people praying here.

After we finally made it back down the mountain and back into town, we were pretty hungry and tired. We grabbed a bite to eat and thought we might try to catch the 4D movie were had planned on catching Saturday. They had seats available, and we dished out the cash. It normally costs 36000 won ($35), but kind Leslie (Colleen’s graduate college friend and my acquaintance) had given us some gift certificates she said she would never use. (Thanks, Leslie!) That dropped the price down to something just like going to the movies in States, much more reasonable. The experience was interesting. The 4th “D” is sensory feeds. The seats move in coordination with the movement on the screen occasionally send jets of air at you. It is a bit distracting; but it was a good experience. I think my favorite way to watch movies is still 2D.


By that time, it was time to return home. We spent the evening trying to arrange flight plans to get to Jeju Island. Over various talks with Leslie, she had convinced us to visit Jeju Island while we there. The island is the top honeymoon and vacation spot in South Korea. It is largest South Korean island, and has a mild climate, warm enough to grow citrus trees. After many calculations and discussions, we decided to fly out of Daegu on Asiana Airlines. I believe that Asiana has the worst airline website ever. I never was able to get it to work. We had to go and buy our tickets at the airport on Tuesday morning. So we left Daegu on an Airbus 320, the first one on which we had ever been. Asiana had filled it completely with economy seating, but I felt like there was more space both left-to-right in the seat and seat-to-seat knee space than typical US carriers.

HL7776-Asiana-Airlines-Airbus-A320-200_PlanespottersNet_232644 Notice the “sharklets” instead of “winglets” on the wings. That is an easy way to tell the difference between Airbus and Boeing.

Seoul-ful Travels

Re: 10/21/2013-10/24/2013

Monday, we left Kansas via the tiny, one-gate airport in Garden City, KS, to which American Airlines (via American Eagle) now flies. After a short flight to DFW at 6:05am, we hopped on the 10:05am flight of 10,999km (6834.5mi) to Incheon, South Korea. For this flight, we scored business class seats! We were separated and in the middle seats, but it was much better than being in economy. During the flight, we had several delightful meals (one of them a four-course meal) and got to watch several movies for the 14-hour flight, besides starting to learn Hangul (the Korean alphabet).

DSC06271 Shrimp Escabeché with seasonal greens. I am apparently fond of hearts of palm.

DSC06266 Lemongrass Chicken. 

3968335_700b Click on this picture to try it. Really, it isn’t hard.

Immediately upon arrival in South Korea, we discovered how foreigner-friendly the country was. All the signs in the airport had multiple languages on them, including English, Chinese, and occasionally Japanese, besides Korean.


An old friend from high school and college, Steven, was planning on meeting us at terminal to get us settled in Seoul for our first night. I contacted him via the free wifi and followed his instructions to go to the subway. We followed signs to the subway, and between the signs, a helpful train assistant, and verifying info with Steven, we made it to the train and got on the right one. We made it to the station and finally met up with Steven, a welcome sight. We went on a quick tour of Gangnam (yes, the very same one from the viral song—it is a social commentary of the Seoul suburb), mostly to grab a meal before Steven helped us find a hostel to stay. Steven also provided us a spare smart phone with data and minutes, a socket adapter, and a translation booklet. Pretty much our savior for this trip.

Gangnam Style.

Thanks, Steven!

On Tuesday, we had bakery pastries for breakfast. One of which was a sweet red-bean-paste bun. In case you didn’t know, I am a big fan of anime. In anime, the characters always enjoy these sweet, red-bean-paste buns. I have often wondered what that would taste like, and I finally got the chance to try one. It tasted like Hawaiian bread stuffed with a slightly-sweetened paste (similar to refried beans, but a bit thicker). Surprisingly very delicious without being overwhelming.

DSC06275 Sweet Red-Bean-Paste Bun.

After purchasing tickets to tour the “secret garden,” Huwon, at the palace of Changdeokgung, we were considering relocating to a cheaper hostel before the tour at 11am. So, at 10 am, we checked out of our apartment and started walking towards the next one. We are apparently slow walkers. We thought we would have plenty of time to walk to the hostel, but as we got closer and watched the time, we decided that we didn’t have time to go all the way. Very unfortunate, as we had our heavy backpacks with us. Not having time, we decided to enter the east entrance to the palace grounds where the secret garden. Turns out the east and west halves of the palace grounds aren’t the same facilities, and you have to buy another $10 ticket. And, on this side, they didn’t speak English at all. As we somehow communicated, it turns out we needed to go the west entrance, which would have taken us 40 minutes at which to arrive. We only had 10 minutes. As we tried to communicate the dilemma to the gate person, she began to understand. She made some calls and then got us an escort to take us to the tour location on time. Very accommodating people. We arrived just as the tour group was leaving, so we tagged along to tour.

DSC06277 The king’s private fishing spot.

It wasn’t really a secret garden. The garden was just off-limits to anyone but the royalty or government officials. It was a nice, peaceful garden. At the time, the tree leaves were just starting to turn colors. For two weeks in the fall and the two weeks in the spring, they open up the secret garden for unguided tours. You are allowed to wander freely through the garden and even sit in the pagodas and read (provided you take off your shoes).

DSC06298 Too much work to take off the shoes, but I thought I would take a chance to read and pose.

DSC06292 I loved the architecture, especially the roofs and the rice-paper partitions; just beautiful.

DSC06291 And again, ancient Korea favored short people. Fortunately, most of the modern design is standardized similar to the US.

After our tour ended, we decided to return to our original hostel and stay there again. After checking back in, we met Steven for lunch. We had Japanese Fusion food. And, I even tried the traditional Korean kimchee, which is spiced cabbage. Waaayyyy too spicy for my tastes.


Jonathan’s pork cutlet. My udon noodles. Trying kimchee. 

After lunch, Steven had to leave us to back to work, while we went back to Gangnam to visit the world’s largest underground shopping mall, COEX Mall. On the way there, we passed through a flower exhibit. They seem to be fond of those there in Korea. It was one of my favorite things in South Korea.

DSC06307 This is a dolphin. There were also swans, cows, and a Cheshire cat.


Sadly, most of the underground stores were closed due to reconstruction. However, the Hyundai department store was open and busy. It had a full 13 floors, with a garden on the rooftop. The bottom floor was my favorite, though, as it was the food floor, housing bakeries, cakeries, candy shops, pizzerias and more. This was where we first started realizing how expensive things are in Korea. Half a gallon of milk was just short of $6 (6000 won). A package of four, under-ripe tomatoes was just under $10 (10,000 won).


DSC06315 Made out of chocolate.


Rooftop garden.

DSC06318 The US does NOT know how to do cakes. Look at these beauties!

By then, we were ready to go back to the hostel and get ready for bed. 14 hours of time difference is awfully difficult to which to adjust. You wake up even when tired. You are hungry at hours that don’t make sense for either time zone. With just a few days of diligence, though, probably assisted by all the walking we did outside, we were able to completely adjust.

Thursday brought us to a visit of the Namdaemun (officially the Sungnyemun) Gate. It was just a quick stop. This gate was one of the few things that survived over the centuries, including the Japanese occupation, until an arsonist severely burned the pagoda in 2008. Reconstruction efforts only ended this April.


After that, we made our way to the N Seoul Tower.


DSC06337 To give you a scale of distances…

DSC06340 Koreans seemed to have an obsession with teddy bear museums. 

Apparently disposing of old locks and keys are a big problem in Korea, so they came up with a solution of locking them to a fence at the tower. Doing so would strengthen your love, securing yourselves together for all time. They also formed Christmas trees out of them. There were a lot of locks.

DSC06345  They also have an obsession with romance there. These love benches and trees are a testament to that.

After that, we made our way towards the Yoido Full Gospel Church, meeting my old college friend, Nathan M., along the way. He took us to the church. On they way, he explained that the church was located in the government offices district. As such, there were a lot of disillusioned people in the area who committed suicide by jumping off the bridge there, making it the most popular suicide spot in Seoul. They ended up putting up signs along the bridge saying that you are loved. Apparently it helped reduce the rate.

DSC06349 This church has over a million members.

Following this stop, we ate a traditional Korean meal of grilled meat, gogigui. Despite its simplicity, it was a very tasty meal. I think we ate a lot more than expected as we expended so much energy trying to eat with chopsticks. Then, as we left to go back to our room, Nathan introduced us to silkworms. I suppose they wouldn’t be too bad if they weren’t insects, but just know that, combined with their texture, I just wasn’t impressed.

DSC06351 Eating gogigui. You grill it yourself.

DSC06353 Eating silkworms.

DSC06355 Thanks for hanging out, Nathan!

After a good night’s sleep, we started to make our way out of town towards Daegu. Of course, before we left, I needed to buy a souvenir for myself. I had seen some fans and still needed to replace the one I lost in Utah.

There were way too many to choose from, especially since they were colored.

Then we made our way through to the Express Bus Terminal. We had been debating whether to take the bus or the train to Daegu. The high-speed train was rather expensive, though it came highly recommended by everyone. I asked about the cheaper option, but it was not recommended. Supposedly, It is slow, hot, and smelly. I asked about the buses, and they was some encouragement for that. So we ended up taking the “Excellent” buses to Daegu. They were comfortable buses that sat 3 across. They were as quick as the slow train, and about the same price. I highly recommend the "Excellent" bus transportation.

Monday, November 25, 2013

On South Korea

In case you have been in one of the many remote parts of this world lacking the amazing Internet, we have recently returned from a two week jaunt through South Korea.  In preparation for a series of posts covering our experiences there, I will be providing you with some background on South Korea.

From Wikipedia:
South Korea (About this sound listen), officially the Republic of Korea (Korean대한민국Hanja大韓民國Daehan Minguk About this sound listen), is a country in East Asia, constituting the southern part of the Korean Peninsula... It shares land borders with North Korea to the north, and oversea borders with China to the west and Japan to the east. South Korea lies in the north temperate zone with a predominantly mountainous terrain. It comprises an estimated 50 million residents distributed over 99,392 km2(38,375 sq mi).[6] The capital and largest city is Seoul, with a population of 10 million.

File:South Korea (orthographic projection).svg
You can see South Korea here, sandwiched between Japan and China.  The latitude of Korea is approximately the same as the southern US states.  Its land area is less than half of the State of Kansas in which I currently am.

Like several countries in this region, Korea's earliest written history starts as early as 2000 BC.  It is difficult to comprehend but like China and Japan, South Korea has a extensive history and several millennium of cultural development which influences its people.  It is also hard to comprehend for Westerners, but Korea's racial diversity is nearly non-existent with most Koreans being highly homogeneous for many generations.

In addition to a long and large ancient history, the Korea of today is heavily influenced by a series of wars and occupations.  Most notably were the Korean War, which resulted in the splitting of the Korean peninsula along the 38th parallel, and the occupation by the Japanese from 1910-1945.  This occupation was accompanied by extreme cultural suppression, to the point of requiring Japanese to be the official language, suppressing Korean completely. 

Suth Korea is a modern country with a high standard of living and individual income.  South Korea ranks 15th worldwide in nominal GDP according to Wikipedia.  Despite the high level of development and presence of western influences South Korea is decidedly non-western.  From where Koreans shop to how they live and eat, shows strong and somewhat striking differences to the various lifestyles we have encountered in our travels.

The next few posts will be devoted to covering the two weeks we spent roaming Korea.  Due to our exclusive use of public transit, we spent more time in the urban environments there.  This should provide a bit of a break from the often rural settings for our travels.