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.

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