Pulling a Moses and Parting the Korean Seas

Parting of the SeasOne of Korea’s many odd festivities is the Parting of the Seas Festival that takes place every spring on Jindo Island.  Once a year the tides go down so low that the seas “part” and Jindo Island connects with another island.  While crossing the tidal flats probably wasn’t as dramatic as parting the Red Sea a la Moses, my trip to Jindo was entertaining nonetheless and gave me a chance to see a part of Korea I know I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

Sea life! When we got to the Parting of the Seas Festival the sea was still a few hours from parting and we had just finished a grueling 6-hour bus ride on the world’s least comfortable bus in existence.  To stretch our legs and revel in the joy that comes with having room to move again, we set out and explored all the booths and had a few drinks by the beach.  From the beach we could see countless Koreans filling bags with seaweed.  As someone who detests the taste of seaweed, these giant bags looked about as appetizing as the mud that was slowly emerging as the tide lowered.

Stripper Rain BootsWhen it was about time for the tide to reach its lowest point, we headed to the spot the path to the other island would soon emerge from.  Before we could cross we had to put on thigh-high, neon orange rain boots as part of the crossing involved trudging through seaweed marshes.  Once we had our new, ever-so-sexy footwear on, we pushed our way through the crowd and raced across to the other island before the tide came back in.  As we got further out the ground became rockier and tide pools revealed starfish and octopuses that were bottom dwellers about a half hour prior to me seeing them.

In addition to seeing various forms of aquatic life slithering about the rocks and shells, I was also able to witness even more seaweed harvesters lining up the path from island to island.  Many of them had sailed to a spot they knew the water would be completely receded from and waited for their boats to eventually be lowered to dry land where they could maximize their seaweed scavenging without having to push past the thousands of other festival goers.  In the spirit of the festival, I took a piece of seaweed from the water but lost it somewhere in the crowd.  Somehow, I think I might find a way to live.

The tide was only out for about an hour and a half so we were only at the festival for a few hours.  Once we crossed back to Jindo Island, we had to get back on the Medieval torture device known as my bus back to Seoul.  Despite the short duration of the actual Parting of the Seas, the festival was well worth the long bus ride.  After all, any experience that involves a festival with a biblical name pun as a title is a-okay in my book.

Pulling a Moses

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Fall

LeavesPeople don’t really put Korea’s weather in guidebooks, praising it like they might do with places like Southern California or the Mediterranean.  It turns out there’s a very good reason why:  Korea has a truly horrendous climate.  On this side of the Pacific the days of the week bounce between the boiling heat and sweltering humidity more associated with Miami in August to the undeniably chilly days that require jackets and sweaters.  However, as of lately there have been more pleasantly crisp fall days than anything else.

With the onset of fall, the leaves have started turning yellow, orange, and red and Seoul’s color palate transforms every few days into something entirely new.  Despite the fact that Seoul’s metropolitan area has around 20 million inhabitants and spreads out for miles and miles, the city is filled with what often seems like just as many trees as people.  I took advantage of the changing of the season and wandered through one of my favorite parts of the city, Changdeokgung Palace, to get a better look at those trees.  The photos below are what I saw in the palace gardens.

Palace and PondThis is Changdeokgung Palace, a palace in Seoul famous for its gardens.  I had already seen the gardens in the summer so I thought it might be worth revisiting them to see the new colors.

Palace WallsThe gardens are on the other side of the palace walls.

CourtyardThe courtyard in the Changdeokgung Palace gardens has a pond, Asian architecture, and (of course) leaves of all colors.

Little Building, Big TreesHere’s to hoping this pleasant fall lasts a little while longer before the Siberian winter inevitably takes hold.

My Trip to Some Islands You Have Never Heard Of

Monday on my side of the world was Chuseok, a holiday in Korea that is sort of a combination of Thanksgiving and Labor Day.  It is a big fall harvest feast people go back to their hometowns for and it marks the end of summer.  Since my family is on another continent right now I decided to leave Seoul and go to Ulleungdo and Dokdo, two islands halfway between Korea and Japan.  Ulleungdo is an island famous for two things: pumpkins and squid.  It’s an odd combination but that’s just Korea for you.  Dokdo is a rock way out in the middle of the ocean that is important for political reasons to both Korea and Japan.

Ulleungdo

The first stop was Ulleungdo.  To get to Ulleungdo my group took an overnight bus to Donghae, a town on the east coast about five hours away from Seoul.  The bus got to Donghae a little bit before 5:00 AM and our boat to Ulleungdo left at 7:00.  While everyone else stayed on the bus catching some sleep before we got to the island I decided to go out and watch the sunrise over the beach.  Donghae is apparently famous for it’s beautiful sunrises but the overcast skies unfortunately meant that all I saw was a black sky gradually turning into a lighter shade of grey.

After a three-and-a-half-hour boat ride from Donghae, we arrived in Ulleungdo, about a hundred miles off the coast of the mainland.  When we got off the boat, we were welcomed by a rainstorm.  The entire time on the island would be interrupted by on-and-off rainstorms.  Because we were all already soaking wet we went right from the hotel to the water.  The coast in Ulleungdo is absolutely gorgeous.  It’s not very beach-y.  Cliffs go straight into the water and there are trails carved right into the cliffs.  To get from the trails to the water there are bridges scattered about to jump from.  Because the water is so clear and blue it would be easy to assume it would be like the tropical water found elsewhere in the Pacific but, sadly, it ended up being freezing.  Thankfully there were plenty of distractions from the beauty of the rock formations and water that kept my mind off how cold I was.

Cliffs in Ulleungdo

The next day was just as rainy but we had a tour around the island scheduled.  The tour took us along the coast and stopped at various rocks that supposedly look like animals, lookout towers, traditional houses, and spots along the coast.  By the time the tour was halfway over I was just as wet as I was when I jumped into the ocean because of all the rain.  When the tour was over I dried off and went hiking up Seonginbong Mountain, the highest point on the island.  The hike started off on a paved road that made the hills of San Francisco look like the plains of Kansas.  The steep slope wasn’t short either.  It lasted for about a kilometer.  When it finally turned into an unpaved path it leveled off for about twenty feet until the seemingly 90 degree angles started up again.  After another four kilometers of torture, we reached the top and were treated to a near-360 view of the island.  As neat as the view from Dobongsan was, with all of Seoul underneath it, the from from Seonginbong was definitely the better of the two.  You could see all the mountains plunge into the sea and many of the trees beginning to turn colors.

Seonginbong View

After a disappointingly short night’s sleep, I woke up early with one of the other people on the trip and went to Dokdo, an island about three hours east of Ulleungdo.  Dokdo is disputed territory with Korea and Japan both laying claim to it.  The island itself is tiny and not much more than a giant rock sticking out of the water but it’s located in rich fishing grounds so both seafood-loving countries see the water around the island as economically important.

The boat to Dokdo is in no way able to handle big waves, and with the heavy rainstorms going on there were lots of waves.  I’m not being remotely sarcastic when I say that about three quarters of the passengers were on the floor clutching their seasickness bags for dear life.  I saw more vomit on this boat ride than I ever care to see again.  People were lying on the floor looking like death was imminent and others were leaning over the side of the boat letting their projectile drift away wherever the wind and water took it.  About an hour into the boat ride I started feeling like an Italian immigrant coming to Ellis Island in the 1800s.  I was on a crowded, rocking boat filled with seasick passengers who were all looking out to sea, hopeful for any trace of land.  Luckily, I was not one of the miserable majority although I did start to feel pretty dizzy towards the end.

Seasick in Dokdo

As luck would have it, land eventually popped up on the horizon and we docked on Dokdo Island.  There really is nothing to do on Dokdo other than admire the scenery.  It’s too small and steep for anyone to live there.  The fact that there is even a ferry that takes people out to the island is really just a symbolic “Screw You” sent out to the Japanese who also think they own the island.  From what I was told, the vast majority of the trips do not dock on the island.  They merely sail around it.  I think the captain realized his boat full of seasick Koreans would have probably organized a mutiny and decided he needed to let them touch solid ground before heading back to Ulleungdo.

Since the island is so tiny the short time we had in port was long enough to see just about everything.  This pretty much consisted of tall rocks, clear water, green moss covering everything, and lots of birds.  I had never seen an island quite like this.  As I said before, this is really more of a big rock than an island so it was just a different experience being on land that remote.  Any other time I’ve seen an “island” of comparable size, it was located right off the shore of a bigger piece of land but this was out at sea with no other land in sight.  It was a very Gilligan-esque feeling.

Dokdo Rocks

The ride back to Ulleungdo was a bit easier as were traveling with the current this time, although I did still see my fair share of people who did not look like they were having the time of their lives.  After we landed in Ulleungdo we went back to the hotel to get our bags and got on another boat to go back to Donghae.  Four hours later we were back on the Korean mainland and in a bus headed for Seoul.  I got back to my apartment around midnight, passed out, and had probably the best sleep of my life.  When I woke up I had rotated 90 degrees in my sleep, my head and arms were hanging off one side of my bed and my legs were dangling off the other side.  All-in-all, it was a successful escape from the crowds of Seoul that had the prettiest geography I’ve seen in Korea; even if the sky was spouting rain as the people around me spouted their breakfasts into the sea.

Dokdo

The Hills are Alive With the Sound of Makgeolli

At the top of DobongsanToday I had my first Korean hiking experience.  I went to Dobongsan, which is the mountain I have a view of from my apartment, with two of my American co-teachers and one of the Korean teachers.  I went hiking pretty frequently in Arizona before coming to Korea but hiking in Seoul is completely different from what I became accustomed to back home.

The first, and probably biggest, difference between hiking in the US and Korea is the crowds.  In America I think most people like to go hiking to experience nature and get away from the city; at least I like to go.  On Dobongsan there were people all around me, even in the more remote parts of the trail.  At times the trail could feel more like a steeply inclining line in Disneyland than a mountain.  With the crowds came what can best be described as a flea market.  The lower reaches of the trail had vendors selling everything from hiking gear to cotton candy.  As a culture, Korean’s don’t always care about being in nature.  Instead the great outdoors takes a backseat to being comfortable in the outdoors.  While roughing it might be expected for hikes in the US, the millions of other people on the trail with me proved that that is not the case in Seoul.

Another major difference between hiking in Seoul versus Arizona is the humidity.  Seoul in general can feel like a steam bath during the summer and today was no exception.  Arizona might be hot, but at least the dry heat means your can find relief in the shade.  In Seoul it doesn’t matter if you are under a tree or the glowing sun.  It’s always hot.  The humidity thankfully let up the higher we climbed but the bottom half of the trail was like hiking over a boiling pot.

View from Dobongsan

My favorite part of hiking in Korea is definitely the makgoelli.  When hikers here reach the top of a mountain it is tradition to drink makgeolli, an extremely delicious rice wine.  My American co-teachers, Paul and Sean, and I were told by Lily, our Korean co-worker, to put a bottle in the freezer the night before and it would be nice and slushy when we got to the top.  We did as we were told and also brought along food for a picnic up on the top.  The whole group ended up staying on the summit hanging out with our makgeolli and looking out at the scenic view for quite a while.

The hike down was much easier.  After coming off the very top, we took a different route back and passed a Buddhist temple tucked into the mountains.  Though I’m not Buddhist I always take great pleasure in seeing the temples.  They’re usually ornately decorated and, at least the ones I’ve seen, blend in with the surrounding environment in a very organic way.  I also think that seeing them just reinforces the fact that I’m in Asia, especially when I’m living in a city as Westernized as Seoul.

Temple on the Trail

Soon after passing the temple we were back at the entrance to the park, and in true Seoul have-all-conveniences-you-could-ever-want-with-you-at-all-times fashion, the subway and bus terminal were placed right outside the gate.  At this point my legs aren’t killing me yet but come tomorrow morning I fully expect them to feel like they’re on fire.  But despite the massive crowds of people and unrelenting humidity, spending the day hoofing it up a mountain turned out to be a lot of fun.  I mean, just about any day with makgeolli is a good day.  Hiking a mountain just adds to it.

Taiwan: The Tropical Paradise Your Toys Come From

Grand Hotel

It’s been a couple of weeks since I last updated my blog and in that time a lot has happened both at work and outside the office.  I’ll start off with the boring work related information just to let everyone at home know that I have not fallen off the face of the earth.  At school we have started what are called “intensives.”  Intensives are just extra English classes students take in the summer.  Students in Korea go to many different schools throughout the day, each one specializing in a certain subject.  In July and August their main school goes on vacation and a lot of those students fill up the time they would be at their main school by taking extra classes at another school.  My day normally goes from about noon to 7:30 but with intensives my days now start at 9:00 AM.  This schedule lasts for a couple more weeks, and even though it hasn’t been as bad as I thought it would, I’m still looking forward to having my mornings back.

After the first week of intensives, my school had a week of vacation so I went to Taiwan with some of my co-workers.  In all honesty I didn’t really know what to expect when I went to Taiwan.  It’s one of those places I knew existed, but I never really thought that much about it other than when I saw that “Made in Taiwan” stamp on clothes or toys.  When the plane touched down in Taipei and the group left the airport, the only thing we could see were grey, run-down buildings that blended in with the grey, rainy skies.  After about half an hour or so the clouds gave way and a change of scenery showed that Taipei is actually a very pretty city that looks much more stereotypically Asian than Seoul does.  Asian architecture was plentiful and food carts lined the streets.

After a very brief first encounter with Taipei the group went to the train station and boarded a train to Hualien.  Hualien is a city about two hours south of Taipei nestled between cloud-covered mountain peaks and a clear, wavy sea with plenty of palm trees and tropical plants in the middle.  The first night in Hualien was spent at the beach playing in the pounding waves as the sun set.  After a couple hours of night swimming we went to one of Hualien’s night markets.  Night markets are very popular in Taiwan and they sell all kinds of food at very cheap prices.  Taiwan has amazing food, even better than Korean food in my opinion.  There were so many different fruits, vegetables, and sauces, and they even use lots of tofu which is something I have been missing in Korea.  When we had sampled as much as our stomachs would allow, we went back to the hostel and got some much needed rest before Taroko Gorge the next day.

Hualien

Hualien is the gateway to Taroko Gorge, or the Grand Canyon of the Pacific as one brochure put it.  Taroko Gorge consists of mountains and cliffs all impressively cut away by a clear, turquoise river.  We spent our time at the gorge walking along the trails, playing in the water, and taking in the scenery.  Taroko Gorge is far and away one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen so just looking around at the geography was enough to keep me occupied.  That night after spending the entire day at the gorge we ate authentic Chinese food.  The owner of the hostel told me what she liked, which was a very spicy tofu and noodle dish.  It definitely was not Panda Express but I would probably go as far as to call it my favorite food from Asia thus far.

Taroko Gorge

The next day we hired a driver to take us a few hours further south to Kenting, a beach town on the southern tip of the island.  The drive between Hualien and Kenting followed the coast and the scenery was exactly what I imagine a desert island in the South Pacific looking like, with the soaring peaks falling straight into the ocean.  The group stayed in Kenting for a couple of days for some beach time.  The beach in Kenting was right by our hostel and it had golden sand and deep cerulean-colored water.  The vast majority of my time in Kenting was spent on the beach, soaking in the sun while Korea was being destroyed by massive rainstorms.  Seeing that big, blue sky was worth the price of getting out of Korea.

The second day at the beach was very wavy.  Apparently there was a typhoon in the Philippines and Indonesia which sent the waves north to Taiwan.  My co-worker Aliya and I decided to sign up for surfing lessons to take advantage of the situation.  Another co-worker of mine, Paul, is from San Diego and has been surfing forever so while he was further out on the bigger waves, Aliya and I were on surfing’s equivalent of the bunny slopes.  While I am most likely never going to be a pro-surfer, I did learn to keep my balance, paddle with the waves, and ride to shore without falling off.  In my book that is a major accomplishment.

Kenting

After the second day in Kenting we took the high-speed train back up to Taipei where we did all the sightseeing we could fit in.  Taipei is much smaller than Seoul so it was pretty easy to get around the city in short periods of time.  As I said before, Taipei looks much more along the lines what I imagined Asia being like than Seoul does.  The red roofs, temples, and Chinese-style architecture were universal in the city.  During my time in Taipei I was able to see the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial (which was probably my favorite thing in Taipei), the Grand Hotel, Longshan Temple, the 101 Tower (the second tallest building in the world), and another night market.  Overall I loved Taipei and visiting the city made me regret not looking more into teaching in Taiwan as opposed to Korea, even though I still do really love Korea.  Most of the time.

Taipei