Seonyudo

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Memorial Day weekend came a week late for this American this year, as Korea’s version of the holiday is June 6th. Luckily, it’s still celebrated with a Monday off of work, and I decided it would only be fitting to usher in the spirit of summer with some camping – on a small island off the west coast of Korea. Seonyudo caught my attention way back in November, when I stumbled across some random blog raving about the islands’ beauty and enticing combination of bike paths, scooter-rentals, and lack of cars. I didn’t want to get my hopes up or anything, but online reports made it sound like our trip would be nothing short of an epic adventure.

About camping: I am by no means an experienced camper. Luckily for me, hiking and general outdoorsy-ness are incredibly popular in this country, so cheap gear is everywhere. I picked up the cheapest tent I could find – 30,000 won at Lotte Mart (Korea’s Wal-mart). Combined with a 10,000 won waterproof picnic blanket from Home Plus and the cheap sleeping bag left behind from the previous tenant of my apartment, I hoped I’d be set.

Getting to the islands from Ulsan is no easy task, to say the least. It required 3 buses, 1 train and 1 ferry, starting on a late Friday evening KTX to Daejeon. Travel wisdom from the weekend: book trains well in advance on a holiday weekend in Korea. In Daejeon, we stayed at my favorite love motel (my favorite for its name – the Bijou Motel, close proximity to the train station, kind ajumma who runs the place, and being the only place I’ve stayed in Daejeon). After one stop at a chicken and beer hof, we called it an early night in anticipation of waking up to catch a 9:30am bus to Gunsan.

Gunsan is a small port city in the middle-ish of the west coast. There were a surprising number of foreigners milling about the bus station for such a small city; apparently we weren’t the only ones taking a weekend island trip. We had a bit of trouble tracking down the #7 city bus to the ferry terminal, which we never would’ve found without the help of a very friendly young Korean woman. After a 30 minute wait for the bus and a painfully slow 45-minute ride all through town, we finally made it to the ferry.

Seonyudo & Gogunsanislands map

Waiting in the ferry station, we found a rather intriguing English map of the islands, featuring what appeared to be several small villages, some beaches, no fewer than three ‘Mud Flat Experiencing Fields’, and the mysterious Golden Rain Tree Colony. Oooooooh.

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The ferry ride was a pleasant but rather unexciting hour and a half. Apparently it’s also possible to ferry to China from Gunsan, which – considering the speed of our ferry – must take about a week! But something fun to think about nonetheless.

And finally! We were on Seonyudo. Many golf cart-taxis waited around the port, taking people to pensions or on island tours. We walked over to the beach to set up our tents. On the way, we came across a big group of scantily-clad, already drunk foreigners, and decided to set up our tent far, far away.

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The camping area was a small strip of beach separating the sea.

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Tent set-up successful, ready to tackle the wilderness.

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Our camp-site. Perfect! Except for the lack of showers…

By the time we got our tents set-up, we were hungry and eager to sample some of the island’s seafood. We chose the most inviting seafood restaurant on the main road and ordered three of the cheapest things off the menu – raw fish with rice, seafood noodle soup, and 산낙지. For those unfamiliar, 산낙지 (san-nak-ji) is live octopus. It’s not actually alive, but just recently chopped up so that the legs are still wriggling about. Like how chickens run around after their heads have been chopped off. This more or less made the dish look like a plate of live worms. Yummmm! But it actually tasted great – much better than worms, I’d imagine. By far the freshest tasting octopus I’ve had in 8 months!

Here they are in action:



Eating live octopus can be a bit of a challenge. The tentacles still suction to the plate, and also the insides of your mouth. Apparently they can also suction to your throat on the way down, which is a potential choking hazard (but mainly only if you’re really drunk). The tentacles very conveniently wrap themselves around your chopsticks, which makes picking up the thin little ends much easier. All in all, considering my rather recent 4.5-year stint as a vegetarian, I wasn’t nearly as grossed out as I expected. I’d even do it again!

Our energy sufficiently replenished, we decided we couldn’t be there another minute without getting on some scooters. I was pretty anxious about getting them, as the walkways were pretty packed with golf carts and people walking and biking, but the excitement of driving a scooter quickly triumphed over any anxieties.

The process for renting a scooter went like this: find bike/scooter rental stand. Wait while the owner tracks down five scooters/borrows one from random guy riding past. Pay 15,000. Get a 30-second demo of how they work, and a quick reminder not to drink and drive. And go!

No license? No ID? No insurance? No problem. Seonyudo is perhaps the easiest place to rent a scooter anywhere. I guess the scooters aren’t allowed on the ferries, as they didn’t seem at all concerned with us running off with them. They also didn’t seem particularly concerned with anyone’s safety, but I guess people don’t really sue each other so much over here.

Aside from a near-crash trying to avoid a golf-cart-taxi on a steep hill approximately 45 seconds after starting, I found scooter-driving to be pretty easy, and very fun. There’s nothing quite like zooming along the coast, wind blowing through your hair, nothing but ocean as far as the eye can see to either side…

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Scootering around, we passed many groups of touring Koreans, the older and drunker of which thought it was very funny to wave and shout hello! and cheer us on. The people we met on the island all seemed to be on vacation, and much friendlier than normal.

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Seonyudo connects to two other islands by small bridges, which are bikable, and pose an interesting challenge when full of other tourists.

In an hour, we found we were pretty much able to explore all the island paths reachable by scooter. The islands are beautiful, but certainly not very big. As far as the strange sights listed on the map, I’d say Korean Tourism advertising has a tendency to give a name to every little spot that doesn’t necessary merit such a significant title. There was unfortunately no “Golden Rain Tree Colony” to be found (although perhaps there was and we just didn’t spot it). There were plenty of mud flats open for experiencing, but we did not partake.

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Returning to our beach at dusk, we were surprised to find this land bridge connecting the beach to a small island. Many people were out with flashlights, seemingly scavenging for something. Oysters? Seaweed? We weren’t sure.

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I quickly realized I had forgotten to bring bug spray, a potentially very hazardous mistake. Apparently unavailable anywhere on the island, we settled for some bug-repellent incense and hoped for the best. Burning that while hanging out in the evenings, and staying inside my tent for the rest of the night, I came away from the weekend with only 4 mosquito bites – a record low for me and camping weekends! Maybe I’m not as attractive to Korean mosquito, or there’s something in this bug-repellent incense – either way, I like it.

We spent our evenings on Seonyudo making our own entertainment on the beach with some drinks, some music (in particular this one), and a deck of cards. At one point we were joined by some jolly, drunk and bicycling Seoul National University professors, who I was surprised to find had recently moved back from Ohio. Apparently, the pensions back in the main part of town provided more entertainment – bonfires, drumming, fireworks and noraebangs all night. But I was much happier to have some peace and quiet on the beach.


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Is there anything better to wake up to? I think not.

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And on the other side of our tents: some mud. Prime for experiencing!

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The morning sun blanketed the beach in mist. Many people were out on the sand in the low tide, digging for more things. You could actually rent little shovels for 1,000 won to dig for things, right next to the bike rentals.

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“The ghosts of Seonyudo”

After a rather ridiculously long breakfast/lunch at the single restaurant we could find that served something other than seafood (which we all agreed we couldn’t stomach before noon), where we met a few more groups of vacationing foreigners – including one from Birmingham, my neighbor! – we rented some bicycles from the scooter guy.

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“We are on a tandom bicycle.” Cute.

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I was stuck on a small ridiculous bike for some reason, completely inept at handling the island’s steep hills. It’s name was “The Raging Dwarf”, as given by us.

On our bike ride, we found many interesting things:

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A lighthouse shaped like two praying hands.

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Being reclaimed by nature.

Some big rocks beckoned us off-trail for a while, where we found many giant gross bugs. Luckily, they were quick to scatter wherever we were walking. There were so many running over the rocks, it reminded me of the masses fleeing from Godzilla or some such.

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They ranged in size from 1-3 inches. Really. Eeeeewwwww.

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Our private beach on the other side of the buggy rocks.

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A refreshing foot bath in the sea.

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A view of our beach, or what would be a view of our beach if you could see it through the mists.

Midway through our second day on the island, we were all feeling a bit in need of a shower. But without any sign of a jimjilbang or public facilities anywhere, the only option seemed to be the ocean. The water wasn’t very warm – quite freezing, actually – and it was a rather gray day, but we could not be deterred. Bathing in the ocean in your clothes is a surefire way to attract a lot of attention, by the way.

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The islands rise out of the mists…

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…and into more mists.

Our bike tour ended with the steepest hike in my life, which involved going both up and down on (mostly) all fours.


More island eats”

The most popular seafood on the island appeared to be cuddlefish, sea slugs, and these giant, flat, crazy-eyed guys–

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Mmm…looks…delicious?

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These kinds of fish were hanging up drying everywhere. I think they look super gross all mangled together in that bag. Blech.

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Our last night on the island got really cold. Unfortunately, the camping area doesn’t really have anywhere to build a fire, or much to use to make one. Some guys had one going in a big oil can, but unfortunately we hadn’t come so prepared. We gathered what sticks and dry things we could find and were given some charcoal by nearby picnicers. Alas, pine needles only last for so long, and so I spent the night shivering in my sleeping bag. Next time, I’ll be better prepared!

The only other thing we needed to complete our American-style Memorial Day weekend was some barbeque. Lucky for us, bbq is ridiculously omnipresent in this country. While searching for a spot, we found some older Korean men who insisted on giving us all shots of whiskey and some raw fish. It was extremely fresh, as they were taking the fish still wriggling from a bucket and slicing them up right in front of us. I’m not sure why Korean people tend to be so willing to share their food with strangers, but that’s one cultural difference I’m a pretty big fan of.

Our last morning on the island, we had a very nourishing breakfast of Korean-twinkies and Doritios, quickly packed up and went for one last walk. Where we came across a rather startling sight:

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It’s difficult to see, but this is a group of ajummas, high up the side of a mountain, climbing a sheer rock face sans any harnesses. I wish I could describe this scene better. They were cackling away as their friends scrambled up to join them. There seemed to be some ropes you could hold on to for support, but from our view down below it looked like a climb better suited to climbing harnesses and ropes. Crazy ajummas.

Seonyudo had a whole nother breed of ATV-riding, rock-face-scaling ajummas, really not to be messed with.

On the ferry home, many people had water bottles and containers filled with things from the sea – small crabs, shellfish, some animal that looks like a little stick. It was interesting. We sat next to a woman who kept offering us shrimp-flavored snacks. She didn’t want anything to do with our Doritos. Again, I’m a big fan of the Korean food-sharing culture.

And thus began our somehow-11-hour journey back to Ulsan… Book train tickets ahead on holiday weekends! Lesson learned. A 3-hour delay in Daejeon can be improved by checking into a Love Motel for a shower.


Quite a long post for such a small island, I realize. While they’re a bit touristy, the islands are a ton of fun and I’m definitely glad I made the trek out to visit!

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Fall in Ulsan

Fall in Ulsan

It’s a bit of a late update, but this is was I was up to all fall in Ulsan…

Onggi Pottery Festival
My first weekend: in which I am introduced to “Dynamic Korea” at the Onggi Festival

Onggi is a type of traditional Korean pottery that is commonly used to prepare and store kimchi and other fermented things (like makoli). My arrival in Ulsan coincided with a festival in honor of Onggi and fermenting in a village on the southern outskirts of the city. The Metropolitan Office of Education (my employer) organized a visit for interested native English teachers, including a special kimchi-making class that my co-teacher assured me was an important cultural experience.

Within my first few weeks of teaching, communicating with my Korean co-teacher was still rather difficult, so I never determined where exactly I was supposed to catch the bus to the festival. And so on Saturday morning, I gathered in between Ulsan’s two main bus stations with a group of 30-some other uncertain foreign teachers to find our shuttle bus. We figured a giant group of foreigners would be easy enough for our bus driver to spot (we certainly weren’t unnoticed by the other natives passing by).

Thirty minutes passed. No bus. Teachers started to grow impatient, some decided to leave. We noticed a sign across the street in Korean, that someone was able to read said ‘Onggi Festival Shuttle Bus.’ So we moved across the street. Another hour passed, and still no bus. More and more foreigners gave up and left. One Korean-American teacher with some Korean language skills finally ended up on the phone with a very concerned and upset festival organizer, who assured us a bus was on its way. And sure enough, a bus did pull up. We quickly piled on, and then someone determined the bus wasn’t going to be leaving for another two hours. Everyone off the bus. At that point, most of the rest of the group left, just as a second bus was pulling up. The bus driver was able to communicate to the girl who could speak Korean that he was here to take us to the festival. It was now about two hours after our initial point of departure. Half the group decided it wasn’t worth it and just walked away. But me, feeling guilty about leaving the bus driver without anyone to take to the festival, and still wanting to get in on my free Korean cultural experience, climbed aboard.

When we arrived at the festival, we were greeted by a couple of young Koreans in name tags. They threw some name tags at us and ran us across the festival into a tent where a bunch of foreign teachers were already making kimchi. They quickly set us up at a kimchi-making station, where an ajumma brought over a few bowls of ingredients. My appointed ajumma brusquely guided me through the process, doing most of the work herself. The entire thing was over in 10 minutes, after which they judged the best foreigner kimchi, took several pictures of us with our kimchi, and then took back our name-tags and sent us on our way.

The 10-minute whirlwind experience didn’t quite justify the 2 hour wait, but I did get a free onggi pot and enough kimchi to last me for months.

Making some kimchi
mmmmm…kimchi

Post-making some kimchi

Fall was rather pretty around Ulsan’s Taehwa River.

Ulsan's cute mascots
Ulsan’s dolphin mascots

Exercising ajumma
An exercising ajumma: one of the most common sites on the Taehwa.

More exercising ajummas
More exercising at the bamboo forest. Exercise stations are common around well-trafficked places in Ulsan.

Bamboo Forest
Inside the bamboo forest: one of the ‘twelve scenic locations of Ulsan’

My fall in Ulsan was greatly improved by the purchase of a bike.
First Day with the bike
This is my bike on it’s first day out on the town.

Ulsan is a very bike-friendly city. There’s a big bike path along all of the rivers, as well as along every major road-way. Bicycling on the sidewalks when there isn’t a bike path is completely acceptable. Actually, biking wherever you want is pretty acceptable – but it’s the same for scooters and parked cars. Traffic rules seem to be more like guidelines, especially for smaller vehicles, which makes biking around a bit chaotic, but also easier.

My first day biking, I headed with my friend Dave from Canada to the west part of the city. This is ‘Standing Rock,’ another one of Ulsan’s “Scenic Locations.”
'Standing Rock'
I imagine it must look a bit more scenic at times other than winter, when everything is not brown.

Another important discovery of the fall was that Ulsan has a micro-brewery! The Trevi Brauhaus. This is a terrible cell phone picture of their hefeweizen:
Trevi Brewery
As is the case in most of the world, German beer is very popular here. I believe all of the micro-breweries I’ve come across make German-style beers. Not that it’s anything to complain about – the Germans make some good beers.

Having a bike also makes the eastern part of the city (and the ocean!) much easier to get to. Buses go between the city center and the ocean as well, but it takes about forever with all of the stops along the way, and I always seem to end up on the wrong bus (or in some cases, multiple wrong buses).
Seuldo Lighthouse
Seuldo Lighthouse in Bangeojin

Looking south to the sea
Looking south into the East Sea

And of course, as a native English teacher, my weekends in Ulsan have had plenty of ‘going out.’ Going out in Ulsan almost always happens at one of the two downtown areas. ‘Old downtown’ is on my side of the river, and has most of the city’s foreigner bars.
Entrance to the 'Old Downtown' area
The entrance to ‘Old Downtown’

Seognam-dong (Old Downtown)
In addition to foreigner bars, Old Downtown has many, many fish restaurants. This street happens to specialize in eel restaurants. Outside of each storefront is a tank full of eels, next to which there is usually an older woman or man slicing one up for diners waiting inside. 😦

Seognam-dong (Old Downtown)
(You can also eat these fish.)

industry city
Ulsan tends to get a bad rap amongst the foreign English teachers in Korea, and is generally overlooked for it’s bigger sister city, Busan. As a city, I find it is lacking in some aspects – there isn’t really any music or art culture to speak of, and the majority of the young adult population leaves to go to university in a city with better schools. But it is very scenic, being full of mountains and rivers and coastline. While I appreciate the nightlife and culture of Busan, I do think Ulsan has a unique character and certain charm that shouldn’t go entirely overlooked.

Sangju – a weekend in small town Korea

Thanksgiving weekend I headed out of Ulsan to visit another friend from my EPIK orientation. She was placed at an all-girls’ high school in Sangju, a rather small rural city (120,000 people) located not too far away from Andong, about three hours north of Ulsan. Rumor had it there was a restaurant that served turkey, and even though only two of us were from the US (among a Canadian, a Brit and two Irish), we were pretty determined to find some turkey for the holidays.

According to my coworkers, Sangju is famous for bicycles and persimmons. It also has some historical significance, according to Wikipedia: it was an important fortress during the Shilla dynasty, and home to some famous rebellions during the fall of the dynasty in the late 9th century.

So my visit to Sangju was in search of turkey, bicycles, and persimmons – all of which we failed rather miserably in finding. But this did not affect the awesome-ness of the weekend.

Sangju has a bike museum that provides free (!!) bike rentals. So Saturday morning, we hopped in a cab and headed to the museum on the outskirts of the city, quite a ways from my friend’s apartment. When we got there, we found the museum was closed and the entire area was deserted.

Bike Museum
Cute design!

But nearby were a bunch of persimmon farms, and supposedly a temple, so we decided to walk the route we had planned to bike.

This guy could use some dental work
On a farm next to the bicycle museum.

Frankenstein?
On the side of the road. Frankenstein?

Unfortunately, it was winter, and Saturday, so the farms were quite barren and deserted. We had just missed persimmon season. Had we been there a few weeks earlier, our route would have been lined by persimmons hung up to dry. Unfortunately, it was cold and everything was pretty shut down.

We did find a few:
Persimmons, hung up to dry
We bought a bag of them, and they were incredibly delicious.

Disgarded persimmon bits
Someone dumped all their peels on the side of the road.

We continued up the road, which lead up a hill to the temple. Just as we arrived at the temple, it started to rain.
A temple in Sangju

A temple in Sangju

Frozen and wanting to get into the rain, we were let into one of the temple rooms by a woman/Buddhist who worked there.

Seeking shelter from the rain in a temple

The temple smelled like incense. It had heaters, but they weren’t turned on, so it was still quite cold. But at least we were dry.
Cold feet

Left on our own in the temple, we laid down on the floor, ate more dried persimmons, and goofed around a bit. Eventually we noticed the cameras in every corner of the room. Just then, the woman who had let us into the temple came in. She asked us some questions in Korean, which none of us understood. Then she led us in some bows. I don’t know anything about Buddhism, but the bows consisted of standing with your hands pressed together in front of you, then getting down on your knees, kneeling completely forward to press your forehead onto the floor, and then standing up to repeat. We did this three times in front of the big Buddha statue, then three more times each in front of two pictures of some other guys.

After we had ‘prayed’, or whatever, the woman led is into the building next door, which seemed to be the head office. Behind her desk (which was of course on the floor – all of the tables in the rather large room were down on the floor) was a TV showing images from all of the security cameras. Oops.

We sat on the squishy floor and she gave us some coffee and extremely dry rice cake. There was another monk in the room, a Sri Lankan man visiting for a few months. He was studying Korean. Unfortunately none of us spoke enough Korean to really communicate, and so after a little while we tried to call a cab. But because of the weather, the cab company was booked. So the monk lady helped us call a cab. I tried to offer her some of our dried persimmons in thanks, but considering she lived in the land of dried persimmons she wasn’t really interested.

Waiting to catch a cab back into town
Cold, waiting for the cab.

As Sangju isn’t that much bigger than the small suburban city I grew up in, I didn’t expect much for a Saturday night out. But I was pleasantly surprised.

First of all, I found this shop downtown:
New York hot dogs! and coffee!
They seem to have more hot dog options than I remember ever seeing in NYC.

Bowling!
Then we went bowling! I even managed to break 100 (barely) on my second game! Also, please note the red, white and blue banners in the background.

The other most awesome thing about Sangju: the noraebangs come with wigs! And masks! And some even have costumes! Supposedly this is pretty popular in Korea, but I have yet to find another noraebang with such accoutrements, and I would consider my self a frequent noraebang-er.

Sangju's awesome noraebangs

Sangju's awesome noraebangs
Mark channels his inner-Freddie Mercury.

Sangju's awesome noraebangs

Akosua noraes

I don’t know why noraebangs in Ulsan don’t provide you with wigs and masks and costumes, but I’m determined to find more that do.

One of the best things about all of these private room-type places (DVD Bangs, noraebangs, play rooms – which are like DVD bangs but have Nintendo Wii or Playstation and internet hook-ups) is that you can sneak in your own alcohol, and they provide you with free snacks. Which make them significantly cheaper than drinking at a bar.

Sangju was very easy to get to from Ulsan. We thought we’d have to bus to Gumi and change buses, but as it turned out the bus went all the way through to Sangju. It wasn’t that cheap, or quick, but well worth the visit! I’ll be back again in the spring to hopefully find some biking and more operational farms.