Jumping in Jecheon

weeeee!
Weeee!

What else is there to do on Thanksgiving weekend when you’re 6000 miles away from home and you can’t find any turkey or pumpkin pie?

It all began several months ago, when I was on an
Adventure Korea trip last spring. Taking a ferry across the beautiful, yellow-dusted waters of Chungju Lake, our peaceful journey was interrupted by terrified screams as we came across ChungPung Land’s bungee jump. I later discovered that this was the biggest jump in Korea at 62 meters (203 feet), which also makes it the third highest jump in Asia. And I immediately vowed not to leave the country until I had made the jump.

Unfortunately, ChungPung Land isn’t very close to Ulsan, and so it was another 6 months or so before I was able to make it back – just in time for the last jump of the season, and my last chance before leaving Korea.

Cheong Pung Land

ChungPung Land is in or just outside of Jecheon, a 4.5-hour, aggravatingly slow train ride from Ulsan. The website had suggested taking a local city bus out to the bungee jump, but other blogs reported the bus could take an hour, a highly unappealing prospect after just getting off the train. Instead we opted for the easy option and got a couple taxis, who probably ripped us off a bit charging 25,000 won, but at least it was quick.

The taxi ride out to the jump was adventurous in itself, down a narrow road with a daring taxi driver, passing in no-pass zones and rounding sharp curves recklessly. It was a good warm-up for the events to come!

When we got there it wasn’t very crowded, with only one other group of foreigners around. We bought tickets for the “big 3” which included an Ejection Seat, Giant Swing, and the bungee jump. The bungee itself was 40,000 won, and adding the other two for only 20,000 more seemed like a pretty good deal.


The ejection seat was up first. It didn’t look like much at first, but looks can be deceiving. The two-person seat is in a little metal frame suspended between two bungee cords, which is sling-shotted by a giant metal arm, launching you incredibly high into the air and spinning in circles before gradually making your way back to earth.

I felt very secure, with no details being spared in fastening us to the seat. We wore a safety belt and harness, something over our legs and they even had me cross my arms over my chest, harhar. According to my friends, there was a very likely danger of my boobs getting stretched, which I hadn’t found any backing evidence of on the internet but better safe than sorry!


Next we were suited up for the Big Swing, which seemingly required the help of 1-3 staff members per person. The staff was entirely university-aged Korean guys, of whom there seemed to be way more than necessary working for the slow customer-flow of that afternoon. Lucky for us, they spoke some English, which went something like this: “You, here. Step. Catch. Go. Now.” Where they learned this blunt manner of speaking, I have no idea.

As we headed over to the swing, a group of people had gathered to watch. To start, you were hooked in at the shoulder and ankle and suspended at a rather awkward angle as they finished securing everything. Then it was a slow, slow ascent, which suddenly (and terrifyingly) jerked to a halt at the top. But the scariest part was having to pull the release cable yourself to start your fall. Which required a bit more force than expected, and so there were several false starts of tugging and not falling. Quite terrifying. But also ridiculously fun! Although my description may not do the experience justice.

Finally, it was time for the bungee! We changed into bungee gear and were weighed, each of us getting a little card of a different color. We took a very tiny elevator up to the top of the crane, where there were already people waiting. It was a bit cold and windy at the top, and the view looking through the crane beneath our feet did nothing to comfort our nerves. Unfortunately, we had quite a while to wait for everyone in front of us to jump.

The color of our cards determined the order we could jump, which apparently meant I would go last. After watching so many people go, I was incredibly impatient for my turn to come. When it finally came time to strap the giant cables around my ankles, I wasn’t really nervous. It was exciting to finally be doing something I’d been looking forward to for so long. They led me to the edge of the platform, between some hand rails. Even then, I still felt quite secure and ready to go. Then they instructed me to put my feet halfway over the edge of the platform. Ok, no problem. And then I was told to look up. And take my hands off the handrails to hold them above my head while they counted to 5 for me to jump. Which is where the nerves kicked in.

As soon as I’d look away from my feet and took my hands off the handrails, I’d lose my sense of balance and it was as if my feet were on something as thin as a tightrope. Haphazardly flailing over the edge was not the way I wanted to go. After a lot of false starts of putting my hands up and back down, we eventually worked something out where I did a one-arm up kinda dive.

And. it. was. AWESOME!

Safe landing
Actually, as soon as I landed I felt like I forgot everything about what it felt like to bungee jump. And I wanted to go again. The fall was somehow less scary than the fall on the swing. The bouncing around part after the initial bit was strange, as you’re like a ragdoll at the end of the cable being snapped back and forth. But it was also ridiculously fun!

After a while, it got pretty annoying to be upside down. Especially because after you finish bouncing you get lowered very slowly down to the guy in the raft, whose been waiting for you in the ‘safety pool’ under the crane. It felt like I’d been upside down for far too long by the time I made it to the raft, but that was the only negative feeling of the whole experience.

The view from the jump
The calm view from the jump.

Besides Chungpung Land, the area around Chungju Lake is beautiful and must be amazing during the summer. Although it is very resort-y, with prices to match. We went to a cool-looking restaurant for some post-jump dinner where we found dalk kalbi for 20,000 won per serving! Which was a bit much, to me. The owner of the restaurant was a Korean man with impressive English speaking abilities and equally impressive long, wild gray hair – a rather unusual site in the country. He was curious about what we were doing in town and how we had found his restaurant, and then was incredibly considerate in having someone drive us back into town for free. I’d recommend his restaurant but I’ve forgotten the name. It’s the really cool looking place on the way to Jecheon though, and if you ever get the chance you should go.

We found a ridiculously cheap love motel (50,000 for two rooms!) near the train station and headed out in search of the local nightlife. And then we spent about an hour or so wandering around without any luck. There seemed to be a highly disproportionate number of shady-looking girly bars for such a small town, but I guess for the resort season. Eventually we found some young people in a trendy cafe who sent us to the part of town where all the bars were. From there we met some other foreigners who took us to a big party at “Foreigner Bar”, and our night was set.

Unfortunately I didn’t get any good close-ups of my bungee jump, which just means I’ll have to do it again! Perhaps in Macau

23.5 hours in Shanghai

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The Bund looks like the future.

As an American, getting a visa for China sucks – it’s $200 for a dual-entry visa that’s only good for six months. (And as an American in Korea, there’s a extra stipulation about how much time you have left on your Korean visa for some reason.) But there is a small exception – Americans can spend up to 48 hours in Shanghai visa-free. Which was good news for me, as I ended up with a 23 and a half hour stopover in the city on a flight from Korea to Taiwan for my summer vacation.

With so little time to spend in the city, the was no time to waste. Luckily, the process of getting into the country without a visa was relatively hassle-free, with only a small delay waiting on a special passport stamp. Hopping onto Shanghai’s extreme high speed “maglev” train took us the 18.5 miles into downtown in under 8 minutes. Not bad.

Originally, my travel buddy and I had thought we’d try to spend all 23.5 hours exploring the city without sleeping, but after a late night of packing, we decided to check into a hostel. The Blue Mountain Youth Hostel was just off a busy shopping section of East Nanjing Road, not too far from the Bund. We immediately headed out to start exploring, only to be greeted by a torrential downpour, and so sought shelter in a cozy little restaurant resembling an American diner. There we ordered some awesome dim sum, which was served ala carte. Many dumplings, some pink guava green tea and kumquat juice later, the rain had let up enough for us to head over to the Bund.

On one side of the river, the skyline on the Bund looks like the future. I think the architecture would be much better accompanied by some flying cars and hovering space stations than the ordinary accoutrements of the present. On the other side, the Bund is lined with buildings that seem better suited to Europe a couple hundred years ago:

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It’s an interesting contrast.

Probably the most fun way to get across the river is the Bund sightseeing tunnel. The sign at the entrance gave us some pretty high expectations:

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We headed down a sizable escalator to the tunnels’ entrance. An usher quickly pushed us into what looked like a tiny, glass-walled subway car with 6 other passengers and away we went. The awesomeness of the ride itself was simply too great for my measly camera to capture, so instead I will provide you with as close of an approximation as could be found on the internet:


It was basically the same, just a bit less psychedelic (and a bit less Gene Wilder).

The city on the other side of the Bund was all newly built-up from the city’s World Expo in 2010. There was an elevated pedestrian walkway that reminded me a bit of the Highline in New York City. It took us right past several western fast food eateries, including a Dairy Queen, where I enjoyed a black tea and red bean Blizzard. Which may sound strange, but was actually really good.

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From there we headed back to our hostel to see if we couldn’t find some fellow travelers to join us in checking out the nightlife. The hostel was a nice enough place, but also gigantic, with tons of rooms spanning a couple floors in a giant apartment building, so it didn’t have much atmosphere. That night they were having a “luau party”. We met some local college students, who recommended a rooftop bar on the Bund. We headed over with a 19 year-old from the nearby city of Hangzhou, which I was rather embarrassed to admit I had never heard of after learning it was bigger than NYC.

The Captain’s Bar was actually on top of another hostel, but was unlike any hostel bar I’ve ever seen. It was very fancy and quite expensive. The bar was completely dark, only illuminated by the lights of the skyline. The view was great, so we decided to stick around for a couple Tsingtaos despite the expense. After so many months of Korean beer (not my favorite), Tsingtao tasted pretty good.

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East Nanjing was packed with people making their way to the Bund. Despite the crowds, I did notice there was quite a bit less pushing than what I’m used to in Korea.

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A bit further down the street, there were some open-air dance lessons. It made me miss living in New York, where coming across these sorts of random happenings on the street is an everyday occurrence (not so much in Ulsan):

Open air dance lessons

Another interesting mix of old and new:
Old meets new in Shanghai

The street back to the hostel off of East Nanjing was lined with food vendors selling durian and other unfamiliar fruits, meat on a stick, and dumplings. If I could, I would spend more time in Shanghai just to eat more dumplings. But with only 23.5 hours, so many dumplings, so little time…

A bit of an aside about Shanghai: the road traffic there is crazy. I thought the driving in Ulsan was bad, but it’s nothing compared to Shanghai. So many scooters and bicycles, going every which way, and loaded up with anywhere from 2-5 people. I think the record number of people I saw on a scooter in Shanghai was 5: one adult and four children. I’d never seen anything like it.

The next morning, we woke up early to check out the old French area. It was early enough that the city was just starting to wake up: old women washed vegetables on the sidewalks, next to old men in their undershirts chasing children stacked three to a bicycle down the street. We bought some dumplings and spicy sesame pancakes for breakfast from a street vendor for under $1. I was extremely happy to find a sesame pancake, as it’s something I’ve been searching for since having them at my favorite dumpling store in New York.

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The French district was incredibly ritzy, with tree-lined streets and a super-expensive pedestrian-only shopping area.

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It was almost as if we had stumbled into Europe.

Speaking of which, I’ve heard a lot of people say that Shanghai “isn’t really China.” I get what they mean, as the city is in no way a representation of the rest of the country. East Nanjing Road has more expensive shopping malls and designer stores than I’ve ever seen, probably in my entire life combined. When we first hopped off the subway, I saw a giant advertisement for BOSS with Ryan Reynolds and one for Avril Lavigne’s new album. But Shanghai isn’t just like a European or western city, either. I don’t see why people feel the need to classify its culture as one way or the other, as “authentically” Eastern or not. Shanghai has its own culture, entirely different from anything else. It’s “authentically” Shanghai, and I don’t see why people seem to think it should be any less a city for not being something it’s not.

Just down the street from the French district was a big antiques market, where old men were selling all kinds of interesting knick-knacks and old communist propaganda. I wanted to stay to look around, but unfortunately we were out of time and had to head back to the airport.

In 23.5 hours in Shanghai, we didn’t make it very far from the Bund. But it was definitely worth the detour.

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!

Soul-Shopping

The second matter of utmost importance for my trip to Seoul: shopping. Seoul has many famous markets and shopping districts selling all manner of all kinds of things at all hours. But I really just wanted to go to H&M. My work clothes situation was getting a little desperate, and being an American-proportioned female in Korea makes it very difficult to shop for clothes (as Korean women tend to be tiny tiny). To make things more difficult, most shops don’t have fitting rooms, and shopkeepers will just visually size you up and let you know if something will fit. My washing machine also tends to tear clothes apart. So I was pretty eager to do some shopping.

Myeong-dong is a gigantic shopping district, especially popular among ex-pats for its two H&Ms and Forever 21. It has tons of international chains as well as discount stalls and boutiques. Stacked on top of these multi-level shops are floors of coffee shops and restaurants, and all of this is packed into a few dense blocks. Even on a Thursday early afternoon, Myeong-dong wins for the craziest crowds I encountered in all of my time in Seoul, and the craziest, most crowded H&M and Forever 21 I’ve ever been in (which includes NYC…quite a feat).

Please note the car in the midst of the crowds in that photo. ‘Pedestrian’ streets don’t really exist over here.

To add to all this shopping madness, the streets were still icy from the other day’s blizzard, and so people and cars were sliding all over the place. Many methods were employed to get rid of the ice, including the more familiar (a snow shovel), to the more tedious (chipping away with a hammer) to the …extreme:

Taking Care of the ice in Myeongdong

Next to Myeong-dong is Namdaemun, a perhaps equally gigantic shopping district featuring a more traditional-style market. I’m pretty sure you could find most anything you could ever need at a traditional Korean market.


Namdaemun had all the crazy, crowdedness of Myeongdong, although a bit more single-level.

Three points of interest:
1. I found these guys in both Myeong-dong and Namdaemun:
Blues Brothers in Namdaemun Market

More Blues Brothers in Namdaemun Market
It’s been a while since I’ve seen the Blues Brothers anywhere, and haven’t noticed them anywhere else in Korea. Also, the red looks kind of tacky.

2. It is impossible to find cheap, cute shoes that fit my ‘gigantic’ American-sized feet in Myeong-dong, no matter how long you spend looking.

and

3. Face/body stores use men to advertise make-up to women. Why this is a selling point, or attractive, I don’t understand.

Even after a couple of days devoted solely (ha) to shopping, I still have some shopping to-do’s in Seoul: Yangsan Electronics Market, Dongdaemun’s 24-hour shopping, and Hongdae’s weekend street fair will all have to happen sometime this summer.

Ho-ho-ho-Hongdae

It wasn’t until the third or fourth night of my week-long vacation in Seoul that I made it to Hongdae, the famous university area. Almost instantly upon exiting the subway, I wished we had made it out that way sooner.

Coming from the US, I’m used to ‘college towns.’ Despite the proximity of all the universities, Hongdae does not have a ‘college town’ kind of a vibe. Hongdae is an impressive sprawl of bars, restaurants, hofs, nightclubs, shops, coffee shops, street vendors, lights, music, and general madness going on into all hours of the night. Even after three nights of exploring, it stills feels never-ending.

Hongdae

As it was a Wednesday, I wasn’t expecting much. But even early on in the evening, the streets were quite packed with university students, slipping around on the icy streets, in and out of bars.

(This obviously isn’t Hongdae on a December night – I borrowed this picture from the internet – but look at the crowds!)

Our evening started with some Hoolala chicken:
Hoolala!

I was very happy to find some street art, which I hadn’t seen any of anywhere else in Korea:

Hongdae

Hongdae

We embarked on a quest for a recommended Club FF, which proved rather difficult to find in the never-ending maze of bars and clubs (which becoming increasingly difficult to navigate as the evening wore on). Trying to find a ‘Club FF’ is especially difficult in Korea, as asking the locals about ‘FF’ is tricky in a language without an F sound.

Although our search for Club FF proved fruitless, we did find many other worthy drinking places, auch as this German-style brewery:
Good brews in Hongdae
in which we accidentally ordered that giant cask of beer. Fortunately, it was delicious and so it didn’t go to waste!

We also found a Rock’n’Roll bar playing western indie rock that was excellent because it 1.) served pretzels and 2.) let you request your own songs. We found some French study-abroad students, and I discovered my traveling companion Mark was an avid French student. Our new friends led us to an underground bar in a gigantic cellar, which we closed down and then headed to a chain called ‘Ho Bar’ which is open until 6am every day. Which seems quite ridiculous.

Our Wednesday bar crawl was enough to convince us that Hongdae was where we should be on New Years Eve. And so, two days later we headed back with a few more English-teacher friends.

Bars in Ulsan just don’t have this kind of atmosphere:

Bar Decor

…or this kind of trendy way to serve soju cocktails:
Fancy soju cocktails

This must be why they serve their soju cocktails like that

New Years Eve also unfortunately took me away from Hongdae, to a hipster party in the ritzy neighborhood of Apgujeong on the other side of the river, where a DJ wearing a giant mouse head played electronic music at a bar only that served Absolut Vodka and Budweisers for 10,000 won/~$10 a bottle. (!!!)

After spending a bit of time in Hongdae, we regretted our decision to stay in Itaewon. Luckily, we would be returning to Seoul a few weeks later to correct our mistake…

DMZ

At the DMZ (sorry mom and dad!)
(Sorry Mom and Dad!)

Living in South Korea for a year, it was necessary to pay a visit to the DMZ (that’s te DeMatiliarized Zone that separates the North and South, for anyone not in the know). And so I booked a tour with the US Army, which according to rumors did the best tours.

Our day started bright and early at 7am at the army’s Itaewon outpost. We joined the groggy tourists and boarded a couple of buses o take us on the hour trip north to the DMZ.

The crowd seemed to be primarily American tourists, with many military or military families (they get to do the tour for free – for everyone else it’s 70,000ish won). I was quite surprised to see so many Americans, as I thought they may be too afraid to get so close to the scary North (like some Americans I know).

The tour started at the “Joint Security Area,” a section of the DMZ controlled by the American and South Kroean militaries.
Joint Securty Area

They started us out with a briefing, in which this very stern-faced military guy showed us a powerpoint that explained a bit about the US army’s role in ‘maintaining’ the DMZ, what we’d be seeing on our tour, and told us about a terrible attack from the North a few years ago.

DMZ Briefing

We also had to sign something like a waiver, that said we wouldn’t talk or make gestures at any of the North Korean soldiers. And wouldn’t sue the military if we were shot, etc.

The first stop on the tour was a fancy, fairly recently completed building that had been constructed as a meeting place for families separated by the North/South division. However, it’s not in use because the North won’t allow their citizens to meet with their families. 😦

Behind this building was ‘the dividing line’ that separates the North and South. The line is straddled by this row of low office buildings that you’ve probably seen pictures of before:

Face off

That bigger building in the back is on North Korean soil. There’s a soldier standing guard at the entrance, and our guide explained that he was always there when the tours came through, sometimes with binoculars.

As we stood taking pictures, our American military guide pointed out all of the hidden North Korean soldiers that were (supposedly) watching us at that very moment. He told us to be sure not to make any gestures towards these (invisible) soldiers, as they would very possibly retaliate.

We were taken into one of the meeting rooms, which was very unspectacular on the inside with just a boardroom table and chairs. A couple of South Korean military had to accompany us. One had to stand in front of the door on the other side of the room, which lead to the North. Our American military guide sternly instructed us that if anyone tried to go behind the soldier, he was under order to use whatever physical force was necessary to make sure we didn’t get through the door.

This door leads to North Korea.

Crossing over to the other side of the meeting room, I technically entered North Korea! NOur guide was sure to let us know where the dividing point was.

By this point the tour was getting a bit…well, contrived feeling. Sure, maybe there were North Korean soldiers watching us, and I’m sure the South Korean guard couldn’t let us pass through the door and into North Korea. But, it’s just the way certain aspects were emphasized that made it feel a bit stretched out of proportion. At times it almost felt like it was catering to the American fear of the North, and what people would expect from watching all the scary news. Not that I’m any authority to judge on how tense things are or are not, but I just would’ve appreciated a bit less of the ‘spectacular.’

I think it would be interesting to get the tour from the North’s perspective, which I hear you can do if you tour the North. Not that I’m going to be doing that as an American any time soon.

North Korea - 'Propaganda Village'
The next stop on the tour was an overlook with a great view of the small village on the North Korean side. There are two villages where civilians live in the DMZ – one on the North side and one on the South side. The US Army has named the one on the South side “Freedom Village” and the one on the North side “Propaganda Village”. (how “American” do those names sound?)

The giant structure awkwardly looming above the rest of the village is a ginormous North Korean flag. A bit of a battle went on between the North and South about who would have the bigger flag in these two villages, spurred by the South getting a new flag that was supposedly a bit bigger than their old one. After the North constructed this monstrosity, the South kind of let it go. That flag is 595 pounds, stands 525 feet tall, and is the second tallest flag in the world.

When I was younger, I used to watch this video all of the time of Dr. Seuss’ the Butter Battle Book. It was written about the Cold War, but I think it applies even better to the North/South situation at the DMZ. The Butter Battle Book is about a town divided into two irreconcilable camps: those who spread their bread with the butter side up and those who spread their bread with the butter side down (the way that latter method works for anyone has plagued me since I was 7). But anyways, they go to war. One side builds a weapon, and the next side tries to outdo them, and so and so on into giant Suess-icle proportions. I forget how it ends, but I do believe they come to some kind of an agreement and refrain from blowing each other up.

We left the “Joint Security Area” through the gift shop, which sold all kinds of DMZ t-shirts, postcards, and the other expected things.

DMZ tourist center

From the JSA we were taken to a sort of tourist center of the DMZ, which was done up quite cute.

Cute soldiers

Here we watched a video, displayed across three gigantic screens, about all of the tunnels South Korean military has caught the North trying to dig into the South. The North claims they’re just mining, but they all seem to be leading directly towards Seoul. One of them has been turned into a museum, and so got to put on some hard hats and head underground to check it out.

The last stop on the tour was Dorasan Station, built to connect the North and South by train. As of today, trains only run north to Drasan, although the tracks lead further north.

Dorasan Station

Dorasan Station
The tracks are there, but no trains…


The sign at Dorasan Station. Pyongyang side non-operational, obviously.

Not many people talk about the situation down here in Ulsan, as it’s pretty far away. But the last thing I read about reunification of the North and South said that it would cost 2.9 trillion US dollars to do, which is a bit disheartening.

Western Comforts

At the three month mark of living in Korea, there were some things I was starting to miss. Particularly certain food things. Like burritos. And hummus. And so, for my winter vacation, I decided to head to the ‘big city’ to remedy some of this homesickness. I never thought I’d be heading to Seoul to search for Mexican food and H&M.

And so I met up with my British friend Mark, who was coming up from Busan. The first thing we did was get a place to stay in Itaewon, the international/foreigner neighborhood, which I figured was the prime location for finding Mexican food. The next thing we did was find a burrito.

Los Amigos' waiter signals
Upon entering ‘Los Amigos,’ I was insantly transported home, with the attempt at Mexican authenticity that’s obviously so far from the real thing, common in all places trying to imitate that are really far away from the real thing (be it South Korea or suburban Michigan). The place even had all the familiar cheesy decor.

That picture is of Los Amigos’ waiter signalers. I was very amused. (Quick note to anyone not familiar with dining out in Korea: waiters don’t check by your table, you have to use a little call button to summon them. Usually it’s a small and nondescript electronic button…)

In Itaewon, I was also able to find hummus at a Moroccan restaurant, although it was kind of awful and didn’t tase anything like any hummus I’ve had before.

Perhaps the best feat in curing my food-homesickness came in finding one of these:

Caribou in Korea!

Yes, a Caribou Coffee! And in close proximity to Starbucks, too. I was pretty surprised to find one in Korea, as they haven’t even spanned across the US yet. And normally I’d be all ‘blargh blargh globalization blargh’ but considering the kind of espresso I normally find in Korea, this was a welcome taste of the familiar (and superior, in my opinion).

The next order of business was to find some good beer, another thing that can be rather difficult to come by. And so we embarked on an international bar crawl down a street lined with bars representing countries from all over the world (but mostly Ireland). The evening ended with a snowstorm –

Snowing!

one final reminder of home after a December full of my complaining that I missed snow (which brought me more than I could have ever asked for for the rest of the week).

While I called it a night, Mark stayed up long enough to finish off a couple bottles of soju, make some friends at the hostel and create all of this on the roof:

Snow on the roof of our hostel

Despite my search for reminders of home in Seoul, I did manage to have some more ‘authentic Korean’ experiences. The next day we braved the snow and blizzarding to hit up the touristy district, Insadong:

Insa-dong

Buddha

The neighborhood is full of traditional restaurants. We opted for the one with the best name:

Lunch at 'Sound of Korean lute without cords' restaurant

…and enjoyed some makkoli (rice wine) to fend off the cold. Makkoli is best drank out of a small bowl.

Nothing beats makgeoli on a cold, snowy afternoon
makoli

The streets in Insadong are lined with stores selling souvineers and traditional, crafty Koeran things, like this pink feather boa fan:
Shopping in Insa-dong
I’m not exactly sure who this is for…

After a while, the snow finally got to us and we ducked into an arcade. Arcades are everywhere in Korea, but I’d somehow never been into one. The first game we attempted was this Chinese drumming game:
Arcade!

I was incredibly excited to find this Rock Band-reminiscent drumming game that had “You Give Love A Bad Name”
"You Give Love A Bad Name"
Unfortunately it was a bit too difficult for my limited drumming abilities. Also, please note the tiny individual ‘recording studio’ style noraebang in the background.

The most difficult DDR game in existence
Of course there was also DDR, which happened to be the most difficult (and unalterably so) DDR game in existence.

Behind all these fancy games was an area with small machines where you could play old school games, like this one:
Bubble Bobble!
bubble bobble!

Mark was really excited to find Tekkin, which is apparently a big deal in Korea:
Tekkin!

I found it amusing that he was eventually killed by a boxing kangaroo and her baby.
Mark gets beaten by a kangaroo

One of my favorite parts of Insa-dong was this four-story shopping center selling all kinds of crafty, gifty things:
ssamziegil

One of the popular sellers was this:
Dong-Dong Bread
‘poop bread’ (dong-dong bread). I’m not sure why this was appetizing to people…

Happy New Year!

Insa-dong is popular for traditional tea houses. And its “Beautiful” Tea Museum:
'Beautiful' Tea Museum

Although the neighborhood, like seemingly every other area in the country, is being overrun by coffee shops as well:
Suh-tah-bok-suh Ko-pee
(For anyone who may not be able to read Korean, this sign says: suh-tah-bok-suh keo-pee)

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