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Korea: Mountain Temple Stay

We started off on this sunny, unseasonably warm day with a tasty, inexpensive Korean breakfast of bibimbap. A dish of rice, vegetables, and egg or tofu that you stir together with a red pepper sauce. It’s a good thing it’s tasty because it’s one of the only vegetarian meals that isn’t really spicy. Next it was time to pack up and get on with our travels to a buddhist temple on a mountain.

Prior to our bus ride of under three hours to the base of Mt. Sorak (Soraksan), James had purchased some interesting lunch items: banana milk, roasted eggs, apple yogurt and a steamed bun. The milk was surprisingly delicious (tasted like a banana milkshake), the brown, rubbery roasted eggs were edible, although less than delicious, especially for James. During the bus ride I saw many uniformed young men. Military life is the norm for most Korean men, due to the armistice with North Korea and the mandatory service after high school.

We arrived at our destination (ish) because we didn’t know how exactly to get to the foot of the mountain. After a 10 min walk (with our heavy bags), we arrived at the shuttle stop. The bus ride was fairly short (7km) but on a winding and narrow road. Memories of some sketchy trips in India came flooding back. At the mountain base we were helped by some very kind people. Two workers in the gift shop and two fellow hikers. Although it took some convincing that we’d be OK to hike so late (leaving after 3PM for a supposed 5 hour hike), we were off at a rapid pace, having to make it to the top before sundown.

We made it our mission to get there on time, even running on some of the flat bits. We didn’t take the leisurely option but were able to appreciate the rich orange and deep green hues in the rock faces and water pools that flanked the trail. We were also entertained by the pictures of cartoon bears and squirrels that cautioned hikers about the dangers of rock slides and cliffs.

After passing a few fellow late hikers, we arrived at our destination by 6PM, as we proclaimed we would. We were just in time for dinner, but were sadly too late for the roasted chestnuts. We “feasted” on seaweed soup, rice and spicy cucumber… good thing we were hungry! James asked about the chestnuts. I think they could see how excited I was about them. They pulled out about five and handed them to us. We asked a couple of times if we could eat them and were told “yes”. So, after a disappointing main course, I pried open the shell and took a huge bite of the very crunchy flesh. It was during the second bite that I realized it was raw. I couldn’t swallow that 2nd bite. It went into the bowl with the remains of the seaweed soup. Turns out they gave us raw chestnuts thinking we just wanted them for souvenirs.

Normally women and men sleep separately but luckily, because we were foreigners, they gave us our own room to share. The floor was heated so the temperature was comfortable, despite the cool mountain air outside. We slept on mats with blankets on top of us. It wasn’t the most comfortable sleep and the call to prayer at 3:30AM didn’t help.

Friday, November 4th

The atmosphere was tranquil and the company very friendly but when we were served seaweed soup, rice & spicy cucumber again for breakfast, I knew I wanted to make it to the base of the mountain for lunch. So, we climbed to the peak (the total climb was 12km from base to peak), took pictures at the summit (unfortunately with a foggy, viewless background), and then began our descent.

I’ve never greeted so many people in a foreign language before. I tried using the Korean niceties that James had taught me- “Annyeong haseyo” and “Ban Gap Sumnida”; the second which was often met with a strong response because it was a less known greeting to foreigners. I was lucky to have James’ inside scoop.

On the trip down, we took a bit more time to notice the rock faces, cobblestone paths, friendly squirrels, waterfalls, pristine water pools, and rock-stack offerings along the way. Still, we made it down in just over three hours, with a small stop for congee and kimchi, on the invitation from monks at another temple.

Once at the bottom, the friendly gift shop women welcomed us back again. One of them hustled us into a building behind the centre of the activity where the BEST buddhist meal was being served: mild mushroom curry, moist rice bread and veggies, with red bean paste sweets for dessert. We filled our bellies with this feast before strapping on our large travelling back packs to shuttle, walk, hitchhike, bus, metro and walk back to our Seoul hotel.

Several hours later and we found our hotel. It was one that James had found online and its first impression didn’t let us down. There were bright lights and pastel cartoon drawings everywhere. Overstuffed teddybears sat in the chairs in the lobby. When we entered our room, the bright pinks, yellows, and surreal visions were compounded. It felt like Alice in Wonderland. An electric pink table and chair set were beside the window that overlooked the city. A walk- in shower with two shower heads was speckled with vibrant pink and orange shiny tiles. The heated bidet bathroom seat topped off the experience.

Korea: Final Reflections- I’m not in Vancouver Anymore

On our second to last day in Korea, James was out at an invitation-only men’s ultimate game and I was getting caught up on writing in my journal back at the apartment. I received an email from James indicating that the field was easy to get to and that I should grab a taxi and come to take pictures and watch. I thought why not; better to be out exploring this new culture and city, rather than just writing about it.

So, I headed out and easily hailed a cab. With the park name in hand and James’ friend Jacob’s cell number just in case, I headed for the field. It was meant to be a fairly short journey – maybe 15 minutes at most – but it was an hour later that I arrived at the field, with some pretty angry words for James. Here’s why:

I got in the cab and greeted the driver in my one of three known Korean phrases: Annyong Haseyo! Then I told him the name of the park. He replied with what sounded like a slightly different name so I repeated the name. He said “ok ok” and we were off. As we got closer to where I hoped was my destination, we were at a fork in the road and the driver asked me which way he should turn. Of course I had absolutely no idea. All I could do was repeat the destination that I had initially requested.

To make a long story short, the next 45 minutes included the driver stopping to ask for directions four times, me getting out of the cab to ask at an information centre, me crying with frustration and fear, which made the cabbie very anxious that I stop the tears. I think he was worried he’d get in trouble. There was also some humorous (in retrospect) charades in which I tried to explain that I was looking for a sports field. I stupidly started with ultimate, which he mistook for tennis. After him going through a handful of other sports, including handball, I gave up. Every time the driver asked for directions, he gave me hope with his “ok, ok”. I naïvely thought this meant he knew where he was going.

Each time we ended up more lost than ever as he pulled up to a variety of incorrect locations. We even called the translation service that is designed for circumstances such as these. I gave the person on the phone the same location name I had given the cabbie and somehow the cabbie reported to know better after that interaction. He didnt. After the first 30 min, he indicated “discount” to me, recognizing that he was lost, and reassuring me that he wouldnt charge me for his mistake. At the 45 minute mark he turned off the meter and pointed that out to me. I don’t think he realized that whether the ride cost $6 or $60, I was not reassured, I just wanted to get there, and would have paid anything to make it happen.

All’s well that ended well, I found James just as the final point of the game was being played. Not to say I didnt give James an earful first! It wasn’t really his fault but it definitely felt that way at the time.

Our final day – Monday, November 7th

A second incident occurred that cemented some ideas that I had about Korean culture. James called the airport a day ahead to find out if we could store some belongings for a fee while we went to Indonesia. The response he got from information was that yes, we could store a large bag of items for a cost of $55. We thought that was reasonable so arrived at the airport with our extra bag ready for storing. When we arrived, we were met with the alarming charge of $168. This was more than triple than what we expected. Again, to make another long story short, we were anxious to check in for our flight, and therefore checked our extra baggage before heading to the information desk to inquire and complain.

After 30 minutes of waiting and talking, we were able to speak to the same person James had talked with the day before. From her we learned that the storage staff the day before didn’t speak English, so instead of transferring James (who would also have been able to converse in Korean), she blindly made up the rate of $55. Surreal to me; who does that at an international, world-renowned airport? She assured us that she was very sorry.

After fuming about how this would cause us to have too much stuff to travel with around Bali, I asked James if it’s in the Korean culture to never say no. He said yes. So, I learned that you may end up on a frustrating adventure, at any time, if someone doesn’t know the answer to your question. Lesson learned: ask the same question at least twice before you accept it as the truth.

I can see how Korea would be an interesting place to live and teach English. James has some amazing friends from his adventures and his eyes light up when he has the chance to speak Korean and eat the food, even in Vancouver. Unfortunately for me, having not lived there, I can’t really imagine a place I’d rather be less.

Firstly, especially in the city, it’s ugly. There’s a lot of pollution and few trees. The culture is one that values nonsensical English words that they display everywhere, from their clothing to their shop names. They also seem to love cartoons and what I find to be very childish accessories.

Certainly most people are nice and will go out of their way to help you if you ask, but they’re also very aggressive, akin to other Asian countries, such as India. Top that off with the food – mostly spicy, fermented, and either meat laden or almost devoid of protein, and you really couldn’t describe a place I’d rather visit less. Every country and every culture have unique and beautiful things about them. I feel honored and lucky to have travelled as much as I have. This is simply the first time I have no desire to return. At least I know that future trips to Korea will be had by James alone, and I’ll sip on a coconut until he’s had his fill and can join me at the beach.

Korea: First Impressions

After 14 hours and approximately 7 times zones, we arrived in Seoul, Korea. Still in the airport, one of the first prominent images I noticed was a restaurant with the sign “Craze Burgers” in neon green. A perfect example of the sensational and nonsensical usage of the English language that I’d heard about. That experience was preceded by the sight of four purple matching running shoes standing in front of me on the escalator. That’s right, two people, dressed exactly alike, down to their shoes. Apparently, wearing “couple clothing” is another popular Korean trend.

During our bus ride into town, I noticed that the streets were very busy, especially for a generic Monday evening. This city of 14 million has a density that we cannot fathom in Vancouver. After stopping to ask directions (well, James asking in his refound Korean) twice, we found our way to the Seoul Guest House. Our noses were pleasantly filled with the strong smell of ginseng tea and our eyes were drawn to the traditional cobblestone road, greenery, and clay winged roofing. I was hopeful for a fabulous night. Unfortunately that was not the case but things can only get better from here, right? Our room cost 100,000 won ($100 CAD) for one night. For the first night of our honeymoon, that was fine, but, not only were we unbearably hot in our room, sleeping under thick comforters, mosquitoes also swarmed us all night. Oh and the kicker was that we had no towels and were woken at 4AM by a rooster! We were less than impressed.

So, the next morning it was time for a completely different Korean experience, as you’ll see in the next post.