trap city Pyeongchang

trap city Pyeongchang

It’s not just Americans who are obsessed with the Olympics. Olympic fervor had been heating up in Korea since at least the beginning of fall 2017, so by solar new year the advertisements and merch, including full-on curling-themed wraps covering the entire inside of subway carriages in line 2 trains, were in full swing.

That being said, I’m not a Winter Olympics person. All the sports I love, swimming, water polo, volleyball, track and field, are all summer sports. I’m living during summer Olympics time when, for a few short weeks, everybody pretends to care about swimming for a hot minute before it fades into obscurity again. (I’m sure that professional curlers feel the same way about the winter Olympics.)  Basically, I was salty it was a winter Olympics in Korea and not a summer one.

I didn’t plan to buy tickets, but a few things changed my mind: first, my dad politely ridiculed me for thinking of not going, saying that it’ll never be this “easy” to go again, nor will the Games be this close to my backyard. Second, one of the friends in the squad acquired an insane amount of tickets and offered to sell them off to us. Finally, when Aidan came to visit he was also hell-bent on going to see the Games. In this way, I somehow ended up with tickets to events on two subsequent weekends.

My dad wasn’t wrong. The tickets for Pyeongchang were chronically undersold, so it was not difficult to get into any event you wanted as long as it wasn’t figure skating. The trouble, it turned out, was getting transport to the games. After spending billions of dollars on the venues and infrastructure leading up to the Games, there should be more ways than just the KTX to get to the events. Instead, the KTX trains to the Pyeongchang mountains in the east and Gangneung on the coast were booked up for months and months. I’d thought it would be okay to just buy bus tickets there. After all, we had taken the bus to Gangneung and Sokcho last year with no hitches, so I figured it’d be okay.

Haha… nope.

I still followed the proceedings on social media eagerly. There seemed to be lots of controversy beforehand over the expense and extra trouble of the two Koreas going to the Games under one flag. Lots of South Korean athletes were angry about their places on the team being given to, in their opinion, less-accomplished North Korean athletes. In hindsight, that may have started us off on the road to peace that we’re currently navigating.

The first week, I had tickets to go see snowboarding slopestyle. As the event started at 10 or 11, and it was functionally impossible to get tickets to stay in Gangneung or Pyeongchang on short notice, that meant taking the first subway to get the first bus out of the city. I took squadmate Rachael, who was an unexpected boon in my stressed planning of this event. Her eternal calm, positive unflappability, and good humor helped when we were late to the bus station, running across the street, and arriving to be the last ones on the bus.

It’s not any great leap of logic to assume that a bus to Pyeongchang would take you to Pyeongchang, right? And that you’d be able to see the Olympic venues from there? Instead, we disembarked in a still-asleep town in front of the bus station, where there was no sign of the Olympics being held there other than an advertising standee telling about the shuttles to the events. We ended up taking a 50-minute taxi to another town, Jangpyeong; from there we would be able to take a shuttle to the slopes. I was salty AF but Rachael managed to talk me down.

The shuttle was easy, and as we already had the tickets, it was easy to get through the lines and climb up to the slopes. It was wicked cold, but at least the huge crowd standing helped to block the biting winds a bit. At snowboarding slopestyle, the spectator area is at the bottom, after the last jump, so most of the event is watched on a Jumbotron screen. Being short, I struggled to be able to see both the screen and the jump, but the energy of being at the games was infectious. We were a bit annoyed with the overly loud and enthusiastic Americans in the crowd, so we were cheering for the Canadians, saying who we thought would win. It turns out that Canadian Mark McMorris’s parents were next to us, so our cheering for him was a nice coincidence. Luckily, I didn’t miss Red Gerard’s legendary last run, despite being so short I had to stand on my toes the whole time.

We returned to Jangpyeong, and knowing that I’d be starving to death if we waited all the way until back in Seoul to eat, we found a beef BBQ place which was super delicious. It was a sit-on-the-floor kind of place with nice windows that had views of the mountains. After lunch, we were able to buy tickets and walk directly onto the bus back. It turned out later that the tickets were also good for women’s slopestyle, but because of the cold weather, that event was postponed anyway. So, no harm done in leaving early.

The next weekend with Aidan went similarly. We had tickets to men’s hockey and skeleton luge. Planning-wise I was already nervous that at the end of the skeleton event, it would be nearly midnight, and we might not be able to get back to Seoul. Once we got off in Gangneung, it was easy enough to follow the crowds of people going to the hockey match. The match was Canada versus Czech Republic, and nearly everyone assembled was cheering for Canada, with the exception of the little boy next to us, who kept yelling in Korean “Czech! Czech!” (It sounded more like “재거!재거!” Mine! Mine!) I never stopped telling Aidan about how nice it was to sit down, to not be freezing our butts off in the wind, to be able to see everything. I sounded like an old lady, but never overlook the nice privilege of having your own seat at a sporting event. Canada was pretty soundly beaten, and after we searched for food.

There’s a big events tent near the venues where you’re supposed to get food (a.k.a food-court-style dining in a big, white, noisy tent), but we bypassed that in favor of something better. Keep in mind that this was also Seollal, Lunar New Year, weekend, so many actual restaurants were closed. But after walking around for a while we managed to find a good spot, ordering up some budaejjigae and watching Yuzuru Hanyu’s stunning gold-medal figure skating performance on TV. A Korean boy, Cha Junhwan, had also skated that day, but his routine didn’t go off as hoped and he didn’t medal. His performance played over and over in the background wherever we went. Near the end of the meal, we managed to help out an Aussie family, perhaps one of the athletes’ family, with their ordering in Korean. Over coffee and bingsu afterward, we somehow both agreed that we didn’t want to have to stay for skeleton and  stand outside in the cold, so we left after that, taking a taxi and a bus back to Seoul.

The takeaways, of course, were that I was glad I went to the Olympics, winter or otherwise. I just wish they had been more user-friendly. It certainly gives perspective to all future Olympic Games that I’ll watch on TV, and of course I’ll still hope to watch a Summer Games in person one day. I’ll forever refer to Pyeongchang as a “trap city,” as will Aidan.

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fireflies, kiln firing, and friends who break up the lonely stretches

fireflies, kiln firing, and friends who break up the lonely stretches

Lonely is good sometimes, but not all the time. I do a lot of travelling by myself these days, many of the books I’ve read in my more recent years are about solo travels e.g, Sailing Alone Around the World, On the Road, etc.) However, when you travel with someone, your experience takes on a different flavor. Instead of keeping your observations to yourself, you blurt them out to the other person. The learning curve in a new city is shorter. Two heads truly are better than one (sometimes), when travelling.

I might have never paid the Muju Firefly Festival a second glance, but my friend Stephanie found it and asked me to go. After a disappointing try at teaching in Shanghai, she came back to Korea after a few weeks and ended up moving into my same apartment building. As such, we have a very college dorm-like setup, where we pop up or down to ask for favors and often have dinner or go out for coffee together.

That morning we got up early and grabbed coffee, nearly dying from lack of bathroom breaks due to so many late people at the various pickup points between Seoul and Muju city.

Before arriving at the festival grounds, we took a winery tour outside the city, venturing through a “wine cave” to get to the special wine tasting room at the back. At this point, there was supposed to be a wine footbath experience, but I didn’t have much faith in either my ability to get through that experience with any kind of speed or my ability to tolerate people touching my feet, so I opted out of that one. When we finally got to the front of the wine-tasting line, the sommelier gave Steph an extra portion of wine because she said she was pretty. Good marketing, so we bought a bottle of wine, naturally. It was sweet and very easy to drink. I could see people having weddings or cool parties in the wine tasting room of the cave; it was very secretive and atmospheric down there.

After the wine tasting experience, we were let loose on the fairgrounds. There was supposed to be a water gun fight, but as it was September, the time for comfortably walking around outside soaking wet had passed several weeks before. Neither of us were particularly sad about missing it. We wandered up the hill to see the traditional kiln-firing ceremony, which we found by following the sound of traditional dancers who were performing while they set up the kiln.

Slowly, more and more people gathered while the pottery studio people set up the food and artifacts in front of the kiln. Somehow, we had acquired front-row places to watch the ceremony. They set up fish, fruits, makgeolli, a pig’s head, and other offerings on a white-clothed table in front of the terraced kiln. It was explained to me that they have the different levels of the kiln so that different potters can use different sections of the kiln at once, rather than having to light the entire kiln every time they want to fire a batch of pottery. A white-robed priest came down the steps into the pit, sat in front of the kiln, and beat a drum while chanting a prayer. The prayer was written on several sheets of paper, which he then lit on fire and used it to light the kiln. The best part was the mayor (or some other high-ranking city official) in a bolero tie came up to greet us, and I got to greet him back in Korean. (To my chagrin, I used the less-polite form of the phrase, which still haunts me to this day).

The kiln-firing ceremony was a lot of standing, so we headed back down the hill to find somewhere to sit and some coffee. We found a little coffee outfit amongst the craft stalls and sat down on some beanbag chairs. The beanbag chairs? Ideal. Being assaulted by ants? Less-than-ideal. We relocated to a pavilion with lots of chairs, and as it turned out we happened to catch the warm-ups for the b-boy dance competition.

Heading down to the river, we witnessed a traditional Korean wedding ceremony performance as they walked across a very precarious bridge.  Then out came the jesters who contrasted the dignity of the ceremony with raucous dancing.

One or two coffees is not nearly enough for me, so we got another and ate some peanut pastries (ddang-kong gwaja, 땅콩과자),and made friends with the café’s cute dog. We got some dinner in one of the huge pavilions near the river. Since it was almost the end of the festival, there wasn’t much choice as to what to eat. It was becoming dark, so we headed back to the bus for the firefly sighting.

My home state, Pennsylvania, is renowned for fireflies, so far as to name the insect as our state bug. Nothing compares to a night around the Fourth of July when you can see all the fireflies in your backyard. We used to catch them in jars as kids, the lids perforated so that the bugs didn’t immediately die (our parents would let them out after we went to sleep). It was cold and cloudy in some farmer’s field, and we thought we might not see any fireflies at all, but we did get to see a few. The moon was full and the mood was pensive. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have never seen a firefly before. They and ladybugs are the only bugs I’m not afraid of touching with my own two hands.

We headed back to the hotel to check in. Our other roommate decided to go right to bed rather than go out again, which is a shame, because what followed was arguably the best part of the weekend. We put on more layers and headed back to the riverside to watch traditional Korean fireworks, kind of like sparking candlewicks tied to long ropes spanning the river. They resemble the ubiquitous “snow” lights that hang from in many Korean buildings, but these are way cooler. They are calming and less dramatic than the fireworks we know, but still retain the same spirit.

The best part was getting to write our wishes for the new year on big lanterns, lighting the base on fire, and watching them fly into the sky slowly. The sight of all those lanterns, all those wishes, floating slowly was incredibly inspiring and calming. We, of course, know the lanterns from the Disney movie Tangled, but people have been releasing lanterns like this in this part of the world for hundreds of years.

I slept terribly that night, but in the morning we had a beaut buffet breakfast of mixed Korean food and Western food (the western food mostly being toast and coffee). We got to see a masterful taekwondo performance. It’s cool to see these athletes who are at the top of their game do all the perfectly-timed kicks, flips, and aerials. Some boards were 10 full feet off the ground and filled with confetti that exploded into the air when broken, flying into the crowd with the force of their kicks.

There were less people on the way back from Seoul. I got two seats to myself and got a good rest. We had fried chicken and ddeok rice cakes at the rest stop, and when we arrived back to Hongdae we went to a café we’d had our eyes on a long time and got some galaxy lattes, galaxy cake, and pink tiramisu.

Overall, it’s good to have somebody to travel with sometimes. The festival would have been painfully awkward and lonely with just me, so I was really glad to have Steph there to make me do stuff. Many weekends it’s like that, one or the other of us pushing to go do something. Since then, I haven’t taken any major trips in Korea, and after Chuseok in October it got cold really fast. It’s also always fun to contrast the more traditional elements of Korean life with our life in the fast-paced capital city. Coming soon to a blog near you is my account of my Taiwan trip, and coming soon to Korea is my family (7 days!).

 

A toast, to friends who break up the lonely stretches.

Homeworld 2

Homeworld 2

2: Seoul – what is home

Georgia, after graduating the University of Pittsburgh in 2015, is nearing the end of her second year of teaching English in Seoul, South Korea. Besides teaching, she has kept busy this year, traveling to Vietnam, Taiwan, and around Korea, as well as taking a rigorous Korean language course at the Seoul-based Yonsei University over the summer. We were happy to have her back at Myrtle Beach for our annual vacation this year, although the jet lag can’t have been easy. This year for Christmas, we are excited to fly over to spend time with her in Seoul and have her show us her world. As for next year, she is not quite sure where the winds will take her. A trip to China after she finishes her contract is in the works, after which she will return to America, hopefully “for good.”

A week or so back, I wrote the previous paragraph for our family’s annual Christmas letter. How do you condense a whole year into a few sentences? How do you convey the utter vastness of a year’s worth of experiences in a foreign country (or several), but also convey the utter normalcy of everything? How do you put things that are so wildly different from home into terms that even my grandmother could understand? The last post was concerned with what was home. This one is focused on what is home.

My family will arrive here in Seoul in about 10 days. How do you even cram all of those experiences, all the “‘essentials,”” into a week and a half?

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My friends asked me if I will take my family outside of Seoul, and I rationalized against it (plus, although I don’t work for long each day, I still don’t have a proper “”vacation”” during that time, so we wouldn’t be able to go far.) I think that, even though it’s one of the largest cities in the world, Seoul is a pretty accurate microcosm for Korea as a whole. What will you do when they’re here, the next question always comes. Foods, drinks, palaces. Noraebang, jjimjilbang. Hikes, if we can manage it. Trying to give a sense how Seoul has both the ancient and modern coexisting right next to one another, nature and high-rises competing for space within the city, and tradition and innovation in the cultural sphere.

What follows is a Cliff Notes version of what to do in Seoul, curated by me, of course.

Food

I think food is central to Korean life for all, foreigners and Seoulites alike. It’s unique in that everybody has to choose together what they want to eat, rather than agreeing on a general restaurant and all ordering separate dishes. Most of my days are planned around what’s for dinner.

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Samgyeopsal – It’s well-documented (as I mention it in almost every blog post here) that this grilled pork-belly dish is my favorite meal. It’s filling and fun to eat, and comes with enough vegetable side dishes and lettuce wraps to mostly cut through the grease of the pork. If your little lettuce wrap “burrito” bite is well-made, the combination of flavors is nothing short of perfection.

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Duk Galbi (닭갈비) – This spicy mixed chicken dish is wonderfully filling, often cheesy, and all of the friends can eat their fill without necessarily feeling like dying at the end of the meal.

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Salmon – Technically salmon sashimi, my friends and I are kind of addicted to salmon, especially the “infinite refill” (all you can eat) variety. Usually the salmon comes with tasty sides of mixed rice, beef soup, or raw beef called yuk-hoe.

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Bulgogi – While this Korean “fire meat” (the literal translation) is gaining popularity, or at least visibility, in the West, I’ve found that I never really liked it much until coming here. There’s a place in my neighborhood that does a wonderfully simple version – just beef, green onion, mushrooms, and japchae glass noodles – that is perfectly filling and definitely worth scalding the roof of your mouth for.

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Kimbap restaurant – These restaurants, described to me as the “McDonald’s of Korean food” when I first got here, serve so much more than just kimbap, the Korean answer to sushi. In fact, I find them closest to an American-style diner: open 24/7 and serving a wide range of food from snacks to full meals. This is the best place to try a “little bit of everything” without making the commitment of going to a dedicated restaurant for each dish.

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Budaejjigae – This Korean “army stew” came out of frugality during war times, originally: the American soldiers stationed in Korea would give their extra food, like packets of ramen, Spam, and hot dogs to the Korean citizens, who would then whip it up into a filling and flavorful stew with kimchi, rice cakes, tofu, and whatever veggies they wanted. Everyone tends to favor different parts of the stew, so there’s usually little fighting over who gets the spam or hot dogs.

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Samgyetang – A dish traditionally eaten during the summer, this whole chicken, ginseng root, and jujube soup is supposed to be very good for your health. Even though it’s supposed to only be around in the summer, the dish most closely resembles American chicken noodle soup, making it good for winter, too.

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Mandu – It might not be my favorite food, but there’s no denying that the traditional Korean-style dumpling, often filled with cabbage, noodles, and meat and veggies, is one that is important to everyone’s daily life here.

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Ddeokbokki – These rice cake dumplings in a spicy sauce can be at times a wonderful side-dish to your meal, a cheeky drunk food on the street, or a meal by themselves. My first week here, without even any chopsticks to eat with, I got a ddeokbokki from the stall near my house and took it home to eat sitting on the floor.

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Hoddeok – These brown sugar and nut-filled pancakes are the most delicious dessert you can crave in the winter here in Korea. I know that there are also savory varieties, but the sweet one is the only one I go for. However, the scalding brown sugar dripping from the pancake can turn into a deadly weapon if you’re not careful.

 

Drinks

Equally important to life here is drinking, maybe even more important. Almost every person here at any given time will either have a coffee, tea, or alcohol in their hand.

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Cafes – My love of Korean cafes is also well-documented. Before I came here, I made a resolution to try at least one new cafe a week. The real average is probably closer to 1.5 or 2 new cafes a week. There’s a cafe for all tastes, whether you crave a quiet place to camp out and study, a pretty dessert for your instagram, or a kitchy environment that captivates your interest.

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Makgeolli – Many people abroad know what soju is by now, but really, Korean rice wine makgeolli is my jam. A traditional drink after hiking or when it’s raining, it’s a hard sell for some. It’s tangy like a soda but a bit milky like a yogurt, usually drunk from a bowl, and makes for a perfect accompaniment to pajeon, the green onion pancake. After trying all different kinds, I can say with absolute confidence that I prefer makgeolli to soju.

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Soju – There’s no denying soju‘s reign as the most popular alcohol in the whole world. How else could you get completely trashed off of $4 USD’s worth of alcohol? That it comes in different flavors (my favorite is the “toucan soju”), certainly makes it more palatable to many more foreigners. The unflavored kind pairs well with beer, cider, and other things.

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Beer & other things – That Gordon Ramsay endorsed Cass beer was an unfortunate debate topic for a few weeks, but it makes sense: you need a smooth, relatively flavorless beer (water-like, almost) to wash down the strong and spicy flavors you’re consuming. Everybody here, Korean and foreign alike, has their favorite “mix”: somaek, the most common soju and beer mix, soju-cider-beer mix, soju-beer-cola mix, or even soju mixed with the yogurt drink that they give to children. (My favorite is soju, cider, and beer in equal measures).

Traditional Seoul

Some things haven’t changed much in decades. You get the sense that the same noraebangs and jjimjilbangs have stuck around for years and years, the old tried-and-true standbys of Korean life.

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Noraebang – Again, my love for noraebang is no secret. The singing room is a cheap and fun way to while away an hour or two while waiting for the train to start up, or keep the party going when everybody’s a little too drunk to keep dancing but doesn’t want to go home yet. Most people sneak their own drinks or snacks in, and the theatricality of the lights and secluded room really call to me. (It’s also been suggested to me that I only like the sound of my own voice, which.. no comment). You better bet I’m going to spend this New Year’s the same way as last year, singing in a noraebang and drinking toucan soju.

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Jjimjilbang – The Korean-style bathhouse was unlike the Japanese-style I knew about previously. You get a little gym uniform and some towels and go into salt-, charcoal-, or crystal-bedecked heated rooms to sweat out your impurities. You can rest from the heat in the cold room or in the middle room, where many people take a snooze, read magazines, or eat hard-boiled eggs. When you can’t take the heat anymore, you go into the bath area and scrub off all your skin at least three times with a rough cloth, then dip into the baths. Lots of foreigners are weirded out by the nudity (even though it’s segregated by gender), but as a swimmer I don’t find it that weird. At the end you truly feel like you’ve got baby skin, and it’s quite the treat in the winter.

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Hiking – “What, you like hiking? I never noticed,” said nobody, ever. I think that the hiking culture is one of the best representatives of Korean culture as a whole. The healthy practice of hiking mixed with the unhealthiness of drinking at the top of the mountain, generosity with individualism, the tradition of monks and priests walking into the hills to meditate balanced with the modernity of taking all the selfies at the top. Everyone says “hi,” in a mixture of Korean and English, and wants to help you get where you’re going. Young kids hiking with their parents, couples, and old people all coexist happily on the mountain. (We will probably not get to go hiking because it will probably be too cold in a few weeks’ time.)

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Palaces – Seoul’s palaces are a well-known fount of history knowledge for foreigners and Koreans alike. Although there are many palaces in Seoul, two very close to one another are my top picks. While I think that most foreigners know about Gyeongbokgung, the main royal palace, I argue that Changdeokgung is the best palace to visit in Seoul, as it is larger and more well-preserved (and also a UNESCO World Heritage site).

Modern Seoul

Sitting right alongside the many centuries of strong tradition are the modern high-rise skyscrapers and other amenities of city living. Arguably the best transportation system in the world gets millions of Seoulites from place to place every day and anything you can ever want is available at the touch of a button.

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Malls – Boy, do Koreans like to shop. Clothes, electronics, homewares, everything. While there are lots of malls in the recognizable Western sense, many more are underground in subway stations or under other buildings.

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Libraries – Speaking of shopping malls, there’s a huge library inside of a mall in Jamsil area. I haven’t gotten to go yet, but I’m eager to take my family, all avid readers, to see what all the fuss is about.

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Lotte World Tower – The new tallest building in Korea, this tower, well, towers over the Seoul skyline. They were just building it when I got here, and now you can ride up to the top to get a view of all of Seoul (although in my opinion, the view from the top of a mountain is better, and more well-earned). I use this building as a weather gauge each day when on my commute to work: if I can see the tower from the river, the smog isn’t too bad, if it’s obscured, the air quality is pretty bad (and certainly should not run in that weather).

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Namsan Tower – The former most famous tower in Seoul, Namsan tower is a common place for young couples to go and put a “love lock” up on the fence. You can hike up the mountain (not recommended, but that’s what I did, and on the way I met an opera-singing Italian man who was part of an international biking team), take a cable car, or bus to nearly the top. It may be a little overrated, but it’s still a cute way to see your Seoul vista if you don’t want to hike.

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Movie Theaters – Movies are something else here in Korea. While it’s a common and almost mundane part of American life, movies here retain their special-ness. You can see a 4D movie that rocks and shakes your seat or get a set that includes beer, coffee, or dried squid. I’m excited that we might see the new Star Wars soon on the big screen.

Museums

My family is also a big museum-going family, so besides some palaces, no trip would be complete without at least a little bit of outright “”educational”” experience.

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DMZ tour – Not for lack of desire, but rather all of my friends are either Americans who had already done the tour before, or non-American citizens who don’t care much to be so close to the North Korean border. It seems almost a rite of passage for many Americans who visit Korea to go on a tour like this.

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Arario Museum – Located between Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung Palaces, I found this modern art museum quite by accident. It’s in the most unique building, and the maze of exhibition rooms are fascinating. It combines a modern glass building with traditional Korean hanok-style building and a 1970s office building with art pieces that really make you think. I’ve been twice already and can’t wait to go back. After you’re done with the art spaces, you can catch a coffee, dessert, and an art magazine in the museum cafe, which has a great view of the busy city life outside.

Neighborhoods

It’s hard to describe Seoul like other cities (like, say, Rome), where you have a checklist of things to see that are clearly defined. For me, Seoul is more a collection of unique neighborhoods to be strolled through at your own leisure. Each area has its own specialties and its own history, its own flavor. I usually go to different areas for different purposes, but find other reasons to stay.

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Hongdae/ Sangsu – My current home neighborhood is a young university-age area dripping with cafes and cute boutiques. I find it hard to go other places when everything I need and all of my favorite bars and restaurants are now within walking distance of my house. Hongdae is a hopping nightlife area whereas Sangsu is more of the quiet restaurant area.

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Insadong, Bukchon, Samcheong-dong, Gyeongbokgung – There’s a long walk that I like to do through all of these neighborhoods, and in it, you can take in the traditional arts-and-crafts street of Insadong, the boutiques and street food of hanok-lined alleyways in Bukchon, or the high-end shops of Samcheong-dong all in one walk. I could never give directions on this walk, but some of the best restaurants I’ve discovered in Seoul have been found on these walks.

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Gangnam – I roll my eyes, but no trip to Seoul would be complete without taking in Gangnam’s high-rises and bright lights, and yes, even the “Gangnam Style” sign that put South Korea on the map for most Americans. Gangnam may be expensive and crowded but it is quintessential modern Korea.

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Itaewon, Noksapyeong, HBC – The cornerstone for most foreigners in Korea is Itaewon. I have spent many a weekend drinking there, and many of the best restaurants I know of are in this area. My favorite cafe in all of Seoul is located in the quieter hillside area of Noksapyeong, and some really excellent restaurants line the quiet “kimchi pot” street of Haebangchon, usually known as HBC. Nestled right next to the U.S. army base, many foreigners work and play in this area, which makes it comforting in some ways and more dangerous in others.

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DDP/ Cheonggyecheon – The Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) is such an amazing sight, hovering like a spaceship in north central Seoul. Housing exhibition spaces, special events, and a design “market,” DDP is a celebration of modern creative thought. Within spitting distance of DDP are many Korean-style shopping malls (cheap clothes, no changing rooms), boutiques, movie theaters, and the Cheonggyecheon stream, which I first heard about when my urban planning-major friend, Earl, did a project on the excavation of the stream from underground and its elevation into a public park. At present, there will be a Christmas light festival going on which we will visit.

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Myeongdong – Quite frankly, Myeongdong stresses me out a lot, but it is the most typical and famous shopping street in Seoul. Geared towards mainly foreigners, the shops are always blaring k-pop songs and trying to get you to come in. The street food stalls are wonderful here and it’s always busy and bustling. The most famous church for foreigners is also located here, but it’s a bit hard to find if you don’t know what you’re looking for.

Well. That concludes the Cliff-Notes. I’m not sure if it was short or concise at all, but it’s hard to keep in my enthusiasm sometimes.

 

A toast, to introducing new people to old things that you love.

 

Sore toes, sad kicks, and samgyeopsal

Sore toes, sad kicks, and samgyeopsal

How should we be able to forget those ancient myths that are at the beginning of all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave.  Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.

So you must not be frightened if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloudshadows, passes over your hands and over all you do.  You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall.  Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any miseries, or any depressions?  For after all, you do not know what work these conditions are doing inside you.”

You learn over time that a lot of travelling and living abroad is literally just being in the right frame of mind.  It’s easy to do this when it’s a relatively short period of time like studying abroad, but it’s harder to maintain in the long run.  In the intervening months and years.  It’s about three weeks ago that most of this saga occurred, but the attitude parable is always relevant.

I’m currently trying to woo this boy, Sam-sshi.  Many of my current anxieties revolve around this situation, so we’ll just lay this out there.  So I knew him from before I left because we met when we both went to school in Pittsburgh.  He’s Korean-American and I was in Korean class so it was an easy extension.  We only met once or twice before I left after the summer ended.  I thought that was the end of it.  I returned home, took the TEFL course, and then went to Korea.

Months later, Chris-sshi comes into the bar and announces that Sam-sshi will be coming to Korea for work in June.  Well, June passes, and finally halfway through July he comes.  We’re scheduled to meet one Sunday, and I’m assailed by doubts.  We only met twice, what if I blew this up to be way more than it is?  What if he’s not as wonderful as I remembered?

Fear not, dear reader.  He’s every bit as wonderful as I remembered, and seeing people from home is always a sight for sore eyes.  We talked as if we’d known each other for half a decade and not just met a few times nearly a year ago.  We took a taxi to the university, where his cousin was having an architecture exhibition.  Later, he had more people to meet so he had to leave early.  Fast forward to the next weekend.  After substantial waffling, we agreed to meet in Myeongdong.  Seoul is far from where he lives in Ansan, but I was willing to wait.  I waited at home a bit, since it was Friday and we get off early on Fridays.  Then I waited at Starbucks.  After a while, I continued to Myeongdong.  I apparently have no idea how long it takes to get to Ansan.  I wait in the Myeongdong station, and then take a stroll down the shopping street.  Let me tell you, that is a depressing amount of foreign tourists on that street.

Finally, as soon as I was on the farthest possible part of that street, he had arrived.  We had to find a bathroom, so we settled on some sort of beer taphouse, which turned out to be expensive and underwhelming.  While there, a guy spilled his beer on me, Sam-sshi’s Guiness was ridiculously flat, and he admitted to me that a) he’s seeing a girl from Tinder, but b) that as soon as he discovers that a girl fancies him too much, he immediately loses interest.  Just bro talk or warning me off?  I don’t know.  After the single beer, he had to return to Ansan.  Should I  be flattered that he made this 1.5-hour trip up to Seoul for such a short meeting or disappointed that he wouldn’t hang out for longer?  We’ll see.  The goon has barely responded since after that, and it’s been two weeks.  This is often my kind of luck.

Anyhow, we’re here to say that love-life things are not anything that can necessarily be solved by “””having a good attitude,”””” unfortunately, which is kind of sucky.  But that’s life.

It’s like this.  This past week, my teeth had been hurting me.  I’m a hypochondriac when it comes to teeth things, because I’m terrified that something’s going to happen to them and I’ll need to get a root canal or something else awful.  But here’s the thing, it was just because I was focusing too much on them, worrying my gums and overbrushing and things, and when I stopped worrying, my teeth took care of the problem, whatever it was, by themselves.  Worrying too much often blows up the problem to be way worse than it is.

The morning after our underwhelming Myeongdong date (I call it underwhelming in the same breath as being appreciative that it happened and I would have waited much longer for even a date at Macca’s, but it was sadder that it was cut so short), we were set to go to the Boryeong Mud Festival.  I usually say “we” as in “The Royal ‘We,’” but for once I literally mean that a lot of people I know were set to go, including my coworker friend Jenn, another group of coworkers on a separate tour, and Sam-sshi, but with Tinder girl. (He said that he lowkey didn’t really want to go with her, after his aforementioned hangup, so he was going to just hang with us and get barbeque and ditch Tinder girl. I approve.)  I was on a different tour so that I could get both the bus and hotel booking in one shot, as well as being signed up for something called a “mud marathon” and other activities which sounded awesome.

That morning I woke up at 6:30 to pack, since I didn’t the night before.  It was pouring rain, but also pouring in were the excuses from all my friends as to why they didn’t want to mud festival in the rain.  All of them were ludicrous for many reasons, but mainly you’re anticipating being wet and covered in mud, so why should a little extra rain hurt?  Nonetheless, I was doubting a bit my choice to go.  Usually in these situations, though, I say, “I paid for it and I said I would do it, so I’m going.”  The 8am meeting time was very reasonable, anyway.  While I was on the bus trying to catch some sleep, Sam-sshi, too, backed out of the deal.  Only I remained of this huge group originally promised to come.

The Boryeong Mud Festival is one of those things that you read about, when you’re sitting back at home in your home country, that makes you say, “yes, of course I want to go to a country that has something like that, it sounds awesome.”  Go play in the mud in one of the largest festivals in all of Korea, sounds fun.  Although I was momentarily discouraged by the claim that it’s basically a big frat party for foreigners, I still wanted to go based on the initial impression alone.

So I’m sitting on this bus, caught between listening to the other bus riders’ stories, worrying about Sam-sshi and work things, and trying to get some sleep, my big umbrella propped up like a samurai’s katana, when I had a thought.  For once, I was faced with a situation that would be 110% what I made of it.  Nobody is going to make a trip in the rain fun for you.  But I really do tend to like rainy days, and if you told 8-year-old me that she would get to play in the mud and rain for a weekend and nobody would yell at her, she’d be overjoyed.  So really, if you resolve that the rain is going to ruin your time there, then yes, obviously, you’re going to have a bad time.  But if you determine that you’ll have a good time, despite being all wet and cold?  Well, that’s where the magic happens.  So I did an experiment: what would happen if you go into a potentially bad-time situation with an attitude that you’re going to have a good time regardless?

Spoiler alert: you’re gonna have a blast.

Sometimes travelling alone on the tour is helpful: you’re not stuck with work mates or family and can move between the groups freely.  Or if you just want to be by yourself for certain things?  That’s okay too.  You can sit with whoever you want and do whatever.  That’s my kind of style.  Nevertheless, good things happen when you branch out.  This is hard as an introvert, so it comes very slowly, but it’s easier in this frame of mind.  It helps that a lot of the people on the tour are either English teachers or travelers, so it’s easy to compare notes on our experiences.  While we drove and talked, there were about 120 people on the trip on three buses, the clouds cleared up and the sun came out.  Ridiculously pathetic fallacy.

We started off the trip by watching/kind of walking through the parade in Boryeong.  Then, there was a watergun fight organized by our tour group.  While it was a little weird feeling like the foreigner entertainment guild, the spirit of the place seeped through after a little bit as random Korean boys came through and we got to douse them with water, too.  Anyone who got too close to the refilling pool would get pushed in or splashed.  It ended up being a ton of fun.  After being thoroughly soaked, we moved on to the next part: the mud marathon.  I’ll admit I was a bit nervous for this part, as when civilians call something a marathon it might be anything from a 1-mile fun run to the full 26.2-mile shebang.  Civilians have no idea how long a marathon is.  We arrived at the mud flats in the afternoon.  It was cloudy but not rainy, and we got our socks and outfits ready.  As a proper swimmer, I’d had my suit on all day, ready to jump in at a moment’s notice.  Nonetheless, I did not come prepared with the proper socks and I had to borrow money from one of the kindly Aussies on the trip to buy some new socks that would actually stay on my feet (the mud’s suction is insane, you see).

The mud is so, so fun to play in, but this was business.  You got a really cool prize if you won, which I was confident I could do at first but after seeing the collection of really, really athletic-looking girls who were arrayed around, I wasn’t so sure.  The top 100 finishers got a medal, though, so that was the goal.  It was only a 3-kilometer race, so no big deal.  Except that it was hard.  The mud sucks your feet in and saps your strength (although it’s refreshing to be able to just run in your socks, no shoes), but you also have to be careful to not bring your feet down too hard in case of any rocks or sharp shells.  It was cool to see the procession and the different levels of undress of the participants.  There were some Boryeong residents who you can tell trained for the event, they smoked everybody easily.  At the farthest point they stamp your arm as you go by to show that you’ve run the full way, then you round the corner and head toward the finish.  I always end every race by a mad dash to the end, as I learned from my friend during my time in water polo.  I got the medal!!

After that was mud wrestling.  I always talk a big game for one so small, always saying stuff like “fight me” or something, but I got in that ring and honestly there’s something to be said for tallness.  I literally got picked up and thrown out of the ring, despite all of my attempts to get down low and use my center of gravity for my own advantage.  Since I got out so fast, we ended up playing soccer with the mud flat hyungs.  Now, I’m not wonderful at soccer with shoes on and on dry land, so kicking the ball with my bare feet and into puddles ended with some very sore toes and sad kicks.  But I did score a goal and the hyungs were really nice, when they weren’t trying to score on us.  The rest of the “marathoners” and “wrestlers” slowly joined, but at one point I got mud in my eyes and had to step out.  My toes were so sore at this point that I couldn’t be of much use, anyway.  It was an ordeal to get as much of the mud out of our clothes as possible, but that’s one of the joys of playing in the mud, I suppose.

After going back to the motel (the traditional kind where you sleep on the floor and stuff) and showering, a group of people went out for samgyeopsal.  It’s always weird not being necessarily the oldest but the most experienced in a group.  Afterwards, we attempted to chug as much soju as possible while walking on the beach trying to find a spot to watch the concert.  PSY was the act of the festival, and I was quite skeptical because he seems like kind of a goofy human, but wow, he is a wonderful performer.  The crowd was electric, and he knew how to work the crowd to get everybody pumped up.  The Aussies left and returned at one point with huge armfuls of soju bottles for everyone.  It was pretty crazy how everybody was drinking them like they were water.  The last encore was Psy doing covers of older songs, and he covered Big Bang’s “Sunset Glow” and my friend and I absolutely lost it.  It was an amazing atmosphere.  Afterwards, some air force men from Wisconsin tried to get me to get pizza with them and go home with them, but even free pizza was not enough to keep me from going back to the hotel to fend off the impending hangover.

Turns out, I succeeded.  I was trying to get this friend to go to brunch with me, and while we failed in going to the promised brunch place for actual brunch, we actually returned later for a very decent lunch.  (In the meantime we had pizza and waffles at another café for our breakfast.)  We were supposed to go to the “real” mud festival at this time, but it ended up being quite disappointing.  It was a bunch of activities and games set up in the plaza, but there was barely any mud!! I don’t know if it was all dried up or used up, but it was just not worth it to get all dirty for so little payback.  In addition, it ended up being quite sunny and nobody was feeling standing in 2-hour lines just to go down a water slide.  We ended up going to the beach and listening to the rave-like music and floating around with everyone in the water.  The water was really warm and the atmosphere was really chill despite the intense rave music.  After some time we actually continued into the concert part of the rave, where disinterested-looking volunteers in facemasks pelted the crowd with huge water hoses.  We caught it just before the end, and that part was wayyyy more fun than I imagine the actual mud festival was.  We also caught some Popeye’s chicken before I left, something I miss immensely from home.  Sometimes KFC just doesn’t cut it.

So anyhow, this would have been a very boring and un-notable weekend if it hadn’t been for that experiment.  When they say attitude is everything?  Yeah, they’re not lying.  Perspective makes a huge change in how you go about your daily life, and sometimes you gotta take the setbacks as just another challenge for growth.

A toast to seeing obstacles not as stumbling blocks, but rather as stepping stones to the next big thing in this life.

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