Monday, November 27, 2006

And so it goes, in the midst of spelling bees hosted at my school. A rather fitting example through which to describe the educational experience here in Korea. Kids here become subject at a young age to the competitive rigours demanded of them by schools, family life - 21st century affluent-asian society in general. These kids spend an unreal amount of time at desks and behind texts, memorizing grammar and the correct spelling of "aggressive" and "mischief."
South Korea's "economic miracle" is without doubt a product of a workforce willing to spend 13 productive hours a day on the clock. These kids in school are just getting ready to become a part of the machine. GNP as a measure of progress just looks so hot on a country this season!


Some pretty nifty-looking climbing to be done in Seoraksan, though Sara and I stuck to hiking between caves and syrup-on-a-stick wielding ajummas. After a few hours the rain made things a bit miserable and so it was back on the bus to Seoul. Perhaps the funniest episode occured the evening before, when a fairly sauced Korean man left us with his puppy in the pub. Soon he returned with a freshly-pulled cabbage, petting it and holding it up for others to see as if he were already over the disappearance of his pet. Obviously he had discovered a tastier substitute, one less apt to pee all over the bar anyways. Though I still havent tried boshintang so I should not compare deliciousness.


East Coast Road Trip - Sokcho and Seoraksan National Park

Sokcho - a city of 90,000 sandwiched between the Sea of Japan and the granite peaks of Seoraksan park. Its not disney land you see but a fairyland castle motel, perfect for bottom-budget honeymooners and English teachers looking to spend a night for less than 20 bucks. A pretty cheap weekend trip to get out of the big smoke and into some real mountains. South Korea is really not a very large country, but on account of congested freeways a 150km trip to the opposite coast still may last a 5 hour bus ride. Turns out other people want to use the roads as well! At least here there's no -36C w/ windchill and ice-glazed highway 2's to contend with.... drive safe you Calgarians!

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Some extra pictures from Bukhan-san and Suwon, courtesy of Trevor and Rachel


Sunday, November 19, 2006

Weekend Snap-shots

A beautiful afternoon winds down in Suwon

Archery along the city's walls was a humbling but exciting discovery, next time those target boards had better watch out....

Justin Ginn - Renaissance Man

Evenings out on the town take me back to the geography field school in Hinton, Alberta, where I first met Justin. Justin arrived in a neighbourhood fairly close to mine about 3 weeks before I left Calgary. After a particularily disastrous Wednesday night affair with Soju about a month ago, we typically keep our mid-week meetings under control. Weekends are still open season. This Saturday night's festivities included subway gymnastics, broken bottles, ripped pants, soju and koolaid, late night korean pancake, and and an expensive (and sleepy) cab ride home. I still havent figured how to direct the cab to my exact building, however unimpaired I can usually land within the general vicinity. Last night was a different story. Along the early-morning wander however I did manage to find a desk which I thought would fit nicely within my own apartment's motif. (that is to say, random, otherwise unwanted furniture found streetside) It was a bit heavy and could not offer any help with directions, but was (and remains) a faithful listener to my slurred rantings.

Shoes off inside


Escape from Seoul - Saturday in Suwon

Headed to Suwon this past saturday morning to explore along the city's unique defensive wall. Suwon is a small city (only a million people) south of Seoul, but still lies within the metropolitan area and is connected within the transit system. In fact, getting there took about 1.5 hours of standing-room-only crowded subway cars, but cost only about 2 dollars with 1 transfer between my neighbourhood and Suwon. The wall was pretty impressive and it felt great to have gotten out of the capital to explore a bit more of what this country has to offer.
The wall was built only 200 years ago but walking along it make crossbow exchanges and cannon-fire battles colourfully imaginable.

One of the day's highlights would most definitely include catching the last few minutes of a drum-dance preformance outside of the city's restored palace. The heavy layers of make-up these boys were wearing didnt seem to weigh them down all too much - some of the jumps and spins they were pulling off were stunning. Its so reassuring and delightful to witness proof of a real and sustained Korean culture, other than the heavily westernized city life I've seen so far. Discoveries like this validate my mission to see as much of South Korea as possible while I'm here - because its not all just rush-rush cities full of honking Hyundaes and Outback steakhouses.

King Jeongjo seems like a pretty nice guy, despite what the others say about him.


Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Bukhansan National Park
This past Saturday morning found Mike, Trevor, Rachel and I in a taxi outside the Suyu subway station, trying to pronounce "to the mountain over there" by pointing our fingers. If the cab had dropped us anywhere close to the trailhead we would have missed the dozens of outdoor gear shops and charming restaurants lining the road, so we were lucky, really. Suyu lies along the edges of Seoul's inner city mountain park, and melts from high rise apartments and businesses to much much more quaint dwellings, shops and kiosks. The smell of woodsmoke on a crisp bluebird morning takes me back to Alberta alpine mornings in a heartbeat.

We spent the afternoon scrambling towards Insadong, the park's most prominent peak. What looks like a small nub from my apartment in Nowon becomes a hugely impressive bulb of granite, hosting over a hundred climbing routes mostly multi-pitch. This could be considered Seoul's very own El Capitan! Once you get close to the rock you can see how much climbing would actually be required to reach the top. I hope to soon make ammends with slab scaling, as it appears that most of the climbs in Korea are of the smoothest variety :)

Mike, too wild to be harnessed, makes a desperate attempt for the summit. Luckily we managed to lure him down with granola bars and peppero sticks.


Korean Cuisine: The low down as it goes down....
After spending a little over a month now in South Korea I feel I've sampled enough of the culinary treats to give you a bit of an idea on what to expect should you quit your job and move to this friendlier end of the peninsula. The food here is excellent, healthy for the most part and full of meat. Though for lunch today I had bibimbap, shown above, and it's protein comes from a fried egg, instead of meat, which is tossed into the melange of rice, carrots, sprouts, and these funny brown things which I think may be from the mushroom family. I'm not sure.
Anyways from what I've read its a bit faux pas to rest a spoon or chop sticks in your rice, but I've kept it there for the sake of scale. Lunch lady really piled it on today.
The food usually arrives in metal bowls. This apparently is a hold back from the Joseon dynasty when the kings, ever fearful of ambitious underlings, favoured silver bowls and chopsticks as they tarnish in the presence of toxins. It's good to know when someone is trying to kill you, especially at foreign restaurants or at the school you work in.
Besides eating at school for free, most of my meals have been at restaurants around the neighbourhood. There is just no way I could figure out some of these recipes on my own! Sitting around on the floor sharing food you've never imagined with new friends has been a great way to unwind after teaching. Below is dwaejigalbi, essentially plate fulls of rolled bacon that you spread out and fry yourself, wrap into a lettuce leaf and eat. Ok so maybe I've imagined that much bacon before, but only in my wildest dreams.

Restaurants serving Galbi offer meats that you cook yourself on the table you sit at. This makes possible food poisoning due to undercooking your own perogative! Along with the sizzling meat are anywhere from 6 to 16 different side dishes. These could be dried salted minnows, onions, garlic, pickled radish, tofu, acorn jelly, or diced cabbage salad, and you always know kimchee will be in there somewhere. Kimchee is the dark orange stuff in the bowl bottom left. Koreans love the stuff, even kids. North Americans could really learn something from a culture who has managed to convince children to pick fermented cabbage as their favorite food, over more seductive treats like pizza or KFC chicken. I'm still working on enjoying the stuff myself, its really not all that bad. I still love pizza though.

I've had mandu on several occasions, these are either fried or steamed dumplings - both very good. Mandu you can find served from street vendors, thankfully, as well as skewered chicken (dakkochi - AKA pigeon-on-a-stick) and sausage (on-a-stick). You could spend 5 dollars US a day and live like a king on street meat here. Yes, a very happy king headed for imminent cardiovascular/gastrointestinal meltdown.

Farewell to the west now. My mind is open to the east
To all the new faces, new minds, and things to see
But I am alone here
And my heart at times it weeps, I will see you through the colours
As the sun sinks in the sand.
-Xavier Rudd

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Bulam-san in Autumn

Trevor, Rachel and I went searching for sport climbing Sunday, on the mountain across from our apartment. The hail storm sometime the night before scrubbed the dust and smoke from the skies, leaving us a bluebird fall afternoon. Not a whole lot of climbing but a few fun rappels and some serious downstepping on slab.

Still the skinny kid with army pants you knew a month ago.

Bulam-san seems to have a lot of smooth sloping granite, known as slab in climbing circles. While few people I know seem to have grown really comfortable walking or climbing slab, I'll just put this out there straight..... It scares the shit out of me. While moderate inclines may provide enough friction to keep your feet from sliding, an unprotected fall here would leave only square centimetres of your skin still attached (at least you'd get off the slab fast....). Walking upright on a 45 degree angle provides the greatest downforce on your feet, while the tendancy to want to hug the rock will start you sliding, with all of Seoul below, watching. The worst part of all of this are the 45 year old Korean men walking by with hiking boots, wool socks pulled up to their knees and an ice axe, asking if you are OK. If I can't beat them, I'd better join them. Or at least make a last-ditch frantic grab for their helping hand.

Fall has arrived in Seoul, bringing cooler nights, occasional lightning storms and brilliantly coloured leaves. The earthy smell of grounded leaves on Bulam-san is a powerful reminder of the 2-day autumn back home, before wind or snow whips the golden cotton-wood leaves from their branches. Two days of glory.

Yongsan, Namdaemun and Hyehwa

After a long Friday night of fried chicken, tall cans of smuggled Cass Maekju and noraebang (3rd time, you should hear me wail Cyndi Lauper with a cold and tambourine), Saturday afternoon found Justin and myself scouting new neighbourhoods, new marketplaces, and expensive student nightspots (expensive means 5 dollar drinks). Yongsan hosts an ultramodern department store jammed to the ceiling with cell phones, computer parts, cameras and anything else you can find with more that 2GBs of memory.

After sorting out Justin's new mobile we headed for Namdaemun, which is a more traditional neighbourhood with alleyways lined with street vendors selling small dead pigs alongside knock-off Louis Vuitton (the correct spelling required research) handbags, munch-able silkworm larvae in front of Korean soccer jerseys. Quite a mishmash! Namdaemun also is the site of one of Seoul's ancient gates, a part of the fortified wall that once encircled the city. Its now in the middle of a traffic circle. God bless progress!

I've been to Hyehwa twice now, its a rather busy area full of restaraunts, bars, pubs and shopping. Lots of lights and people, but lots of fun as well.

BBQ Pork (Korean Style!) in Hyehwa - cook it yourself, cut it with scissors, roll it up in lettuce and mint leaves and enjoy. Check out all the side dishes! Thats fermented cabbage front/right - Watch for the Korean Cuisine blog installment... coming soon