Guys Meeting — Mans Meeting Round Two

It seems that my offhand comment – at home we would call this guys night – a month ago partially took. Last week, I was invited to “guys meeting” for the Friday night. An odd blend of Korean and Canadian idiom I suppose. Like that blend of idiom parts of the evening were familiar and comfortable, others were new experiences.

We went to the same restaurant and ate more or less the same food which was familiar.  It was also nice to be recognized. As I walked in the door I was greeted by several calls of Blake-uh and waving hands.  Then, the new and surprising: as I greeted the table in general (“annyong haseyo”), I slid into a bench seat next to one of my older colleagues who speaks essentially no English but is always very nice to me (as is everyone really). As I settled in, he reached out, grabbed my hand in his, patted it, and then continued to hold it for the next five minutes while the conversations continued.  Now, I have been here long enough now to take this as the very sweet and accepting gesture that it was.  Having said that, it was still a little bit hard to take in stride.  Men here can show public affection for each other without fear of stigma.  You will often see two men walking down the street holding hands or with linked arms.  I actually think that this lack of stigma is generally a good thing.  People should be able to show they care about one another.  But, it is easier to say that when it doesn’t sneak up on you!

To follow up on the above, I was moved out of my seat after the first half hour when an older teacher arrived (they wanted to seat the two most senior members of the group together). The man I was then seated next to was also super friendly. He spent much of the conversation with his arm draped around my shoulders.  For some reason this was much easier for me to simply accept.  Possibly because it is similar to what happens when friends at home are drinking as well.

I also discovered that on your second outing “I don’t like soju” is not a good enough reason not to drink it when offered to you by a Hyung Nim (older brother). Thankfully, I had been drinking sparingly in case I had to go another round of serving beer to everyone. I escaped with only two soju shots which only confirmed my distaste for that particular substance. Super lucky that I escaped with only two drinks.

Dinner was immediately followed by billiards.  We wandered a block down the street and climbed into a third floor pool hall.  We were one of the first groups there, but it rapidly filled up. Smoking in billiard halls is still legitimate in Korea and the place quickly became hazy and left me hacking.  Korean pool is different as well. The balls are larger, there are only four of them, and no pockets. Our only form of communication was broken English and sign language so I was very, very confused for a while.  But eventually I figured it out.  There are two red balls, a yellow ball, and a white ball.  When it is your turn, you may choose to play either the yellow or white ball for that turn. The object is to have your cue ball hit both red balls without it hitting the other ball.  Every time you hit both red balls your team gets a point. If you hit the other yellow/white ball you lose a point. If you hit nothing, you add one point to the amount you must get to win. It is actually pretty fun, and rather hard. Especially since the final two points must involve the cue ball hitting three cushions before hitting both red balls!

One game was all I could manage before the smoke drove me out, but it was really good fun. I am glad that I decided to stay after dinner this time.  I think it really helped the others become even more comfortable with me. Plus, it is always a ton of laughs trying to do anything through a massive language barrier.

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Jirisan — Third (and Final) Installment

We awoke to find ourselves perched high up a mountain valley in a day of drifting fog and intermittent sprinklings of rain. The boys managed to sleep completely through breakfast arrangements and were only awakened an hour before we were scheduled to depart for our first attraction of the day.  Breakfast was a quick affair and we packed a few of our things before we jumped in the van and headed deeper into the mountains.

Our destination was a beautiful shrine further up the mountain called Samseonggung.  It is a shrine to the three founders of Korea. The legends around them vary depending upon who you talk to, but basically they are the Emperor of Heaven (Hwan-in), the Emperor of Heaven’s Son (Hwan-eung) who provided civilized and fair government, and finally the Grandson of Heaven (Dan-gun) who was the mythical half-human half-divine founder of the first Korean kingdom Gojoseon in 2333 BCE. Samseonggung itself is relatively new, dating back only as far as 1983, but the ideas upon which it is built are hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. Here, students can practice many of the traditional arts and spend time in prayer and meditation.  Samseonggung itself is still an ongoing project.  We were not able to see the full extent of the complex as large parts are closed to visitors. Some accounts note that the residents required all visitors to wear traditional hanbok clothing, but there was no sign of that being enforced during our visit.

Our first sight of Samseonggung was a little shocking.  We were greeted by a massive blue winged bird building.  We now think that it must be a nod to the nearby Azure Crane village, but it was certainly surprising at first.

The newly discovered Tamara crane

The newly discovered Tamara crane

It was even more shocking coming down from behind it.

It was even more shocking coming down from behind it.

We spent the better part of 45 minutes wandering our way through a maze of paths surrounded by stone walls and bordered by a beautiful creek complete with cascades of waterfalls.

We finally reached the entrance to the main settlement which you access through a final tunnel between boulders.  Just outside the entrance, and spotted in throughout the complex, was a Jangseung to ward off evil spirits. The interior of the temple complex is really gorgeous, and was made even more so by the low hanging mist drifting around the surrounding mountains and valley, creating an ever-changing landscape of green hills and blue sky.

View across the main compound

View across the main compound

Looking down the valley

Looking down the valley

There were many pools, streams, waterfalls, areas for quiet contemplation, a main shrine with images of the three founders (called the Cheongung), hundreds of Bangsadap (guardian mounds) to ward off evil, and best of all very few people.  This is a place worth seeing if you are ever anywhere in the vicinity.  We wandered and lounged there for over an hour.

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Once we got back into the van we headed to Cheonghakdong (The Azure Crane) village, which is home to another semi-religious sect. When it was originally founded, the village was well beyond the end of the last dirt road.  Residents lived in a traditional way through farming and making their own small wares. They were largely self-sufficient. In recognition of this adherence to tradition, this was one of the only places exempt from military service in Korea.  With the arrival of paved road access, this community has become a blend of old and new. Satellites hang from the side of traditional thatch roofed houses.

Peaceful village crossroads and houses.

Peaceful village crossroads and houses.

main street - cars are not allowed up here.

Cheonghakdong main street – cars are not allowed up here.

Near the top of the road there is a small school building where students young and old practice reading Chinese characters.  They work on one passage until they are able to completely memorize it. To help with this the recitation is a sort of sing-song chant that is actually really soothing. Tamara sat with Pedro and a few others from our group for the better part of half an hour listening to the students’ recitations, as well as asking questions. All of the foreigners (the boys were outside) were near tears at one point, when a little girl (maybe 5 or 6) in traditional clothing took her turn with the teacher and began to chant what looked like her homework assignment.

Max and Hendrik waiting at the school house where the students practice Chinese.

Max and Hendrik waiting at the school house where the students practice Chinese.

The view from the school house porch.

The view from the school house porch.

We spent only an hour or so in Cheonghakdong and then piled back into the van to return to our pension where we had a very quick lunch before heading back to Gwangju.

Shirubongyo (sp?) pension on the slopes of Jiri mountain

Shirubongyo (sp?) pension on the slopes of Jiri mountain

Our pension back porch

Our pension’s back porch

View from the road in front of our pension

View from the road in front of our pension

It was a great trip and Jirisan National park is certainly somewhere we hope to revisit.  The park is so massive that we have only scratched the surface of it. Thanks to Pedro for a great trip!

Jirisan — Second Installment

Our second day of the Jirisan trip saw us waking up relatively early to head up the mountain for a hike. We made a quick breakfast, or rather Pedro made a quick breakfast with some minor help from us, and we helped clean up.  Originally, it had been planned that we would move camp the second day for a change in scenery. This plan had been altered the night before, but we still had to pack up our gear and move tents.  This was not entirely unwelcome news as Blake had been kept up most of the night by the snores of one of our neighbours.  We tossed everything in one of the tents that remained upright and headed into the park.

The hike we were heading out on was in the south west corner of Jirisan which is in Jeollanamdo. Pedro had selected a hike that did not involve any of the major peaks in the park (the park is quite large and stretches into three different provinces).  We were heading up the Piagol valley, which is especially popular in fall as the leaves turn colour. We meandered up along a creek. It really was picturesque and an amazing walk.

It was a relatively small creek,but the rocks made it very intriguing.

It was a relatively small creek,but the rocks made it very intriguing.

It was nicely broken up by tempting little pools like this one.

It was nicely broken up by tempting little pools like this one.

We stopped once or twice to relax by the pools and take pictures.

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Groups shot from across the creek.

Group shot from across the creek.

Tamara relaxing on a rock  by one of the pools.

Tamara relaxing on a rock by one of the pools.

Blake exploring the rocks and pools at one of the rest stops.

Blake exploring the rocks and pools at one of the rest stops.

After about three hours we reached the Piagol Mountain hut (basically a picnic shelter) where we had lunch.

Several points had metal walkways and this one came complete with an archway.

Several points had metal walkways and this one came complete with an archway.

From here, Pedro informed us, it was a steep hike up to the next natural break point. Originally, the plan was for those not interested in a difficult hike to wait at the picnic shelter for the others to return. As it turned out everyone wanted to go on.  In light of this, he changed the plan. We would do a loop and Pedro would head back down, retrieve the van, and meet us at one of the other entry points into the park.  This appealed to everyone so we strapped on our packs and headed up the mountain towards Nogodan, which appears to be a minor summit.

The size of the trees was pretty surprising, not to mention impressive.

The size of the trees was pretty surprising, not to mention impressive.

He was not kidding when he said it would be steep and there were about 2.5 km that necessitated a lot of stairs.

So many stairs.

So many stairs.

Of all varieties.

Of all varieties.

We hit the summit after the final section zig-zagged along the ridge for a distance.

Near the peak.  This was the only place with a decent view.

Near the peak. This was the only place with a decent view.

Looking one peak over.

Looking one peak over.

From there started winding our way down through increasingly busy trails past the Nogodan Mountain Hut (which appears to have a full-on cafeteria, and out the park entrance in the vicinity of the Sangseon-Am temple.

The view from the parking lot where we were picked up.

The view from the parking lot where we were picked up.

Finished!

Finished!

Thankfully it was not very hot that high in the mountains.  Sadly, the day was a hazy one and much of the trail is very much enclosed by the foliage, so there were not a lot of great picture opportunities. It was a nice hike though, and certainly got the blood flowing!

After the hike we headed out for the Jirisan spa.  This was Blake’s (and Hendrik and Caitlyn’s) first experience in a jimjilbang.  Because this was a spa, it also had a unisex outdoor hot spring area.  There are a ton of different pools including Rooibus and Mint tea options.  The inside is divided into several areas. The jimjilbang itself is an area where you wear your uniform (issued as you enter) and men and women mingle, chat, sleep, or relax in dry saunas. You can actually stay the night in a jimjilbang if you so choose. The wooden blocks actually proved relatively comfortable as pillows as long as you lay on your back. There are men’s and women’s changing rooms, shower rooms, and public baths where everyone just strips down and relaxes in pools and steam rooms of various temperatures.  Having Max to guide the boys through the maze that made up the structure was a huge help.  We were also able to get snacks in the hot spring area and we gobbled down several boiled eggs, ramen, and bottles of cold coffee after our strenuous morning.  We spent most of our time in the spa area, but it was sure interesting to sample the rest of the jimjilbang experience.

Rain was definitely threatening when we exited Jirisan Spa and, in light of this, Pedro decided it would be best if we could find a pension instead of camping for another night.  As we headed back towards camp, the better part of a 45 minute drive, he was constantly on the phone looking for new accommodation.  No easy feat last minute on a long weekend, but somehow he pulled it off. Back at the campsite, we smashed down camp in what must have been record time, threw it all in the vehicles, and headed off to drive half way around the park to our new accommodation.  Ten minutes into the drive it was nearly full dark and half of us were asleep.  Our pension was on the other side of Jirisan, in Gyeongsangnamdo province, tucked way back in the mountains.  It was not clear if it was within the park or just right on the edge of it, but those windy, narrow switchbacks (complete with crazy Korean drivers) were certainly interesting in the dark.

Upon arrival, we unloaded all the gear into the two rooms (men’s and women’s) at the pension and started cooking dinner. By this time it was raining pretty hard so there was not much exploring happening.  We stayed on the covered porch, relaxing and gorging ourselves on Korean BBQ.

This massive moth was our porch companion all night.  Tamara was a little skttish at that end of the table.

This massive moth was our porch companion all night. Tamara was a little skittish at that end of the table.

By the time the guys had finished cleaning up, everyone was already in bed. It had been an awesome, but exhausting day.

Jirisan — First Installment

This past weekend was a long weekend.  The Friday was Buddha’s birthday so we were looking forward to three straight days of no school. Our Korean instructor was kind enough to move our Saturday morning class to Thursday evening so we could travel without missing anything (Blake needs all the help he can get). So Friday morning found us meeting up with our small tour group at U-Square.  Five of us were from our intake and are all good friends, (Caitlyn, Hendrik, and Max) and although the rest were new faces, we soon discovered that we had a pretty solid travelling group.

The drive was about an hour and a half before we rolled into a little camp-ground along the edge of Jirisan National Park. We were right on the Seomjin River in the Chuko (sp?) canoe campground which was filling up fast.  Apparently camping is a rapidly expanding pastime in Korea.

Korean campgrounds are very close-knit communal affairs.

Korean campgrounds are very close-knit communal affairs.

How many people does it take to set up a tent? Apparently at least five.

How many people does it take to set up a tent? Apparently at least five.

Once we got camp set up (no mean feat as Koreans take enough gear for a week-long winter hunting trip regardless of the duration of their excursion), we headed out to look at an old Korean house.

There are many reconstructions of historic houses and landmarks, but few are truly old.  The Korean war destroyed a ton of this country’s heritage.  However, Unjoru House of Gurye was actually built in 1776 – and is still in use!! Apparently it was built by a magistrate and is a pretty good look at how upper-class Yangban people would have lived during the Choson period.  An elderly lady was moving around the grounds while we were there and it was clear that she lives in the house.  Some rooms appeared very much lived in, including some sketchy looking wiring to accommodate modern appliances, so we steered clear of these.  At one point the Ajima came into one of the court yards and took a fermented soy bean paste from one of the earthenware jugs outside.  We’ve had it in restaurants, but in raw form It smelled foul!

After visiting Unjoru House, the group headed further into the park to the species rehabilitation centre.  This is where they keep the bears!  The half moon bear was thought to be completely extinct in South Korea from the 1980s until 2000 when they found a single bear in Jirisan National Park. Several more bears were imported from Russia and North Korea and a breeding program was begun.  Now there are closer to thirty bears, most of which have been reintroduced into the wild.  Those that proved incapable of adapting to the wild were returned to the centre and, for now, they serve as a tourist attraction and as breeding stock.

The tour was pretty interesting even though we were unable to understand most of what was said.  Max, who is fluent in Korean and has been a massive help to us since we arrived here, gave us a summary, so we have some idea as to what it is all about.  And, we did get to see half moon bears which was pretty cool!

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The white markings on the chest are where the name half moon bear comes from.

The white markings on the chest are where the name half moon bear comes from.

Back at the campsite, we relaxed for a few minutes before heading onto the river for a kayak trip. For us, this was the highlight of the day. The river is quite shallow and is a very easy paddle with only a few minor rapids to descend.  It was a really peaceful drift and we were surrounded by beautiful scenery.

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A truck from the rental company met us as the take-out point and we stacked all the kayaks on the back. There were not enough seats for everyone in the cab so Blake, Hendrik, and Max rode back to camp standing on the edge of the truck and hanging onto the headache rack and boats.  There was a fair bit of ducking branches on the side roads, but things got really exciting when the truck pulled out onto the main road and started picking up speed.

Hang on boys!

Hang on boys!

Looking out through the back window.

Looking out through the back window.

Once we got back to the camp site, Blake and Hendrik went for a quick dip in the river.  This drew some interesting reactions from the Korean children paddling around off the dock. Apparently they don’t often see westerners just start plunging into the water.  We did notice that nobody else was swimming.

Korean style BBQ was the dinner order for the day followed by a great marshmallow roast.  We attracted several Korean kids from the site just across from ours and invited them to join us.

Our guests around the fire.

Our guests around the fire.

Two of them had English names from one of their schools, Paul and Sam, and the other one was really young and awfully cute. We taught them how to roast marshmallows (Sam said that he had only ever seen it in movies) and then played games that tested their English and our Korean vocabulary (they are definitely more bilingual than us).

Marshmallow lessons with Max and Hendrik.

Marshmallow lessons with Max and Hendrik.

Pedro had also brought a Korean English teacher along who was helping out on the trip. She had also never roasted a marshmallow so it was an evening of firsts. Tamara spent quite a bit of time with the two younger ones playing catch off to one side.

Quick game of catch.

Quick game of catch.

Blake taught the little ones how to use burning sticks to write their names in the air. This is much harder to do using Korean letters, but they still had a blast.

Now write your name...

Now write your name…

Language barrier = miscommunication about safety rules around flaming sticks!

Language barrier = miscommunication about safety rules around flaming sticks!

Because we had all their kids over at our fire, the parents kept bringing us an apparently never-ending stream of food and drinks. They put potatoes in our fire to bake, gave us Korean chips, brought over dried squid which we warmed over the fire, and even brought a bottle of Soju. Apparently Korean etiquette is learned very young.  The littlest child grabbed the bottle and started offering it around, carefully pouring drinks with two hands.  This was adorable until we saw him take a quick hit for himself when he thought no one was looking! He was maybe six years old.  Based on the reactions of the other Koreans around the fire that is not usually allowed, so it appears he got away with one there.  As a side note, at one point the mom said that this was better than sending her kids to Hagwon.  She probably had a point — best teacher-to-student ratio ever!

The last bit of excitement for the day was watching people light and launch sky lanterns along the river bank. We first noticed several floating above the trees and dashed down to the riverbank to check it out.  They really are beautiful to watch, especially when you are close enough to actually see the shape and different colours.  These were being launched in honour of Buddha’s birthday, so it was probably happening all across Korea, but in the comparative quiet along the river with no light pollution it was really gorgeous.

Sky Lanterns being launched along the river.

Sky Lanterns being launched along the river.

This one hung just above the river for a minute before heading skyward.

This one hung just above the river for a minute before heading skyward.

Near the end a whole cluster of them started to lift off together.

Near the end a whole cluster of them started to lift off together.

We were in bed relatively early after a full and exciting day knowing that we had another to follow.  Long weekends are awesome!

Sports Day!

Friday, May 3rd was Sports Day at my elementary school. The students had been preparing their performances (yes, performances) all week, and the day had finally arrived, complete with glorious sunshine and warm weather. While I was told I could “help out” in some form or other, there really wasn’t much to do but watch the fun unfold before my very eyes.

Because my school has somewhere near 1500 students, Sports Day was necessarily split up into two sessions: the first for grades K, 1, 3, and 5, and the second for grades 2, 4, and 6. Each grade had their own race (select individual students in several heats), a tug-of-war match, a large-group game, and a performance. Each session concluded with a relay that included students from each of the participating grades, starting with the youngest and working up to the oldest. The parents also competed in a tug-of-war match (one in the first session and another in the second), as well as a relay race. The whole school was divided into teams: white versus blue. This was denoted by headbands or some other accessory. Points were (creatively) kept on a scoreboard hung from the slide. I say creatively kept because, having been sworn to secrecy (please don’t tell my students!), I learned that the score is rigged!! You read that correctly. They adjust the score (such that the white team and blue team each win one session) so that students won’t be too disappointed.

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Some of my wonderful co-workers standing by the oh-so-accurate scoreboard.

The few times where I did get to help out (just a little) was in holding the ribbon at the end of the first session’s parents’ relay.

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Parents’ Relay!

Anyways, here are a few other fun notes about Sports Day:

First and foremost, ceremony is a BIG thing here, and, according to some of my co-workers, it used to be even bigger. The day started out with the students marching, two lines per class, into the dirt field, wearing their colour-coordinated outfits, to Korea’s classic marching music. Along with opening speeches from the Principal, VPs (there are two at our school), and the head teacher, everyone also sang the national anthem, hand over heart. Essentially, to enter or exit the field, students were expected  to form up and march.

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A little piece of home flying above me.

Following the initial march and anthem-singing, the entire student body participated in a group stretch. Actually, there was a group stretch to start each session, and one to end each as well. The opening one was the national stretching routine (complete with the appropriate song – click here for a link to a YouTube clip. This is not my school or my video, but the song and stretches are the same http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xOXxomRCYR4), while the closing music and stretch were kind of a synthesis of old and new music and moves (I believe it’s call the millennium stretch?).

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The opening stretch for the second session.

The races were entertaining to watch. I loved that most of the students ran with huge grins on their faces – or other such entertaining expressions.

The tug-of-war matches reminded me of home. I loved tug-of-war on sports day at Mac 1!

3rd grade tug-of-war!

3rd grade tug-of-war!

It was fun to watch the group games unfold. Although each grade had their own game, I’ll only mention a few here.

Performances. Imagine approximately seven to ten classes of 25-30 students, all performing a choreographed dance to various songs (of course both of Psy’s hits, “Gangnam Style” and “Gentleman, featured prominently). Many classes had props. The fourth graders even used umbrellas!

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A glimpse of the impressively synchronized fourth grade performance. This photo does not do their hard-practiced efforts any justice.

The sixth graders’ performance utilized traditional 한삼 (hansam), as well as a mix of music: traditional, then “We Will Rock You”, followed by upbeat Korean quasi-techno/ k-pop, and finally Psy’s “Gentleman”. Bizarre? Yes. But also pretty darn cool.

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Dynamic Korea embodied by 6th graders.

Given how much I miss indoor relays from my childhood, here is a tribute photo of one hand-off during the second session’s relay.

Relay!

Relay!

Evidently, Sports Day is a big thing for parents. I mentioned to my co-workers how, at least for me, Sports Day back home was comprised mostly of station-based activities through which students rotated in smaller teams. Apparently, something like this was attempted last year, but at year-end, parents in the Korean equivalent of a PAC petitioned the principal to resurrect the sort of Sports Day they would have attended when they were students. Two reasons were given for this: nostalgia and the desire of parents to have something to watch. Station-based activities are fun for the kids, but tough for spectators to enjoy. So, old-school Sports Day it is!

Finally, here are just a bunch of cute shots of my students throughout the day. I work with some pretty great kids!

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5-18 Park

Last weekend we opted to stay around Gwangju.  Blake was still recovering after being ill most of the week and we didn’t really have the energy for a major expedition.  Sunday afternoon we decided that it was time to check out the 5-18 park.  This park contains the memorial to those who were killed in the uprisings 18 May 1980.

The memorial commemorates the events that began on May 18 and continued for nine days.  Pro-democracy protesters clashed violently with police and Korean paratroopers.  The protestors raided local armouries and used these weapons to push the military out of the city for several days.  Eventually, the various organised militias were crushed and the military resumed control of Gwangju.  Depending on the source, the number of casualties ranges from hundreds to thousands.

Although the entire park is known as the 5-18 park, only a small portion of it is taken up by the memorial.  It is an interesting memorial.  Unfortunately, our inability to understand Hanguel meant that we were not fully able to grasp the symbolism surrounding it.  We think that each of the silver rods represents one person who was killed in the uprising.  Behind the main statue is an underground area with a wall covered in the names of those who were killed.  We did not take any photos in this area but it was actually quite stark.  A fitting reminder.

As you approach the memorial from the main entrance.

As you approach the memorial from the main entrance.

Up Close

Up Close

The rest of it is green paths, seating areas, a temple, and a big pagoda.

These flowers were everywhere this weekend

These flowers were everywhere this weekend

Stairs up to a small temple in the middle of the park

Stairs up to a small temple in the middle of the park

We wandered through these for a time and then settled in to read on the top (third) floor of the pagoda.  The view of Gwangju is beautiful and it is surprisingly peaceful up there.

This was near the top of the park on the South side.

This was near the top of the park on the South side.

 

View over Gwangju

View over Gwangju

One amazing thing about the park is that it actually has open lawn areas where you can relax and kids can play.  90% of the recreational areas we have seen until now have been dirt, not grass.  The temple is also gorgeous and was especially pretty with all the lanterns strung up for Buddha’s birthday.

Lanterns in the central temple courtyard.  Seen through the main entrance.

Lanterns in the central temple courtyard. Seen through the main entrance.

It was nice to just wander through the park without any real sense of urgency or major strain.  Despite the relaxed nature of our wanders, the excursion was enough for Blake to pass out as soon as we got back to the house.  Glad that we opted to spend the day close to home.

Yangdong Market

A few weekends ago we decided to visit the Yangdong market which is near the far side of Gwangju. Mica was down visiting and the previous day we had climbed Chulwolsan, so we were in the perfect mood for a cloudy day wandering through a traditional market.  We had heard Yangdong mentioned several times and decided it was time to check it out.

We headed down to Usquare first to get Mica’s ticket home and then caught the 31 to Yangdong.  As soon as you get off the bus you are in the periphery of the market.  All along the street there are people set up selling things.  Some have store-fronts and some just have carts with goods on them.

After a half a block of this we turned into the main market.  Yagndong market is Gwangju’s largest traditional market and has been voted the best traditional market in South Korea several times.  It originally opened in 1910, moved to its current location in 1940, and was renovated in the 1970s.  The market consists of four buildings with nearly 350 shops.  Basically, its old and huge!

It was super interesting.  The entire place is sort of half lit and has a thrown together feel.  It looks as though you can purchase pretty well whatever you want in here.

Looking down the main aisle of the market you can get a sense of the atmosphere of the place.

Looking down the main aisle of the market you can get a sense of the atmosphere of the place.

Down the main aisle there are booths selling vegetables, or freshly made doughnuts, next to tanks of live, flopping fish, or cases with pigs’ heads and chicken feet for sale.  Eclectic really does not capture it.

Chicken feet anyone?

Chicken feet anyone?

Anyone want fish on a rope?  And who puts all these fish on a rope anyway.

How about fish on a rope? And who puts all these fish on a rope anyway…

We sampled some of the fresh doughnuts (delicious) and headed further in.  As we walked further into the market, licking the sugar from our fingers, it became increasingly difficult to avoid bumping into people and goods.  Motorbikes ripped back and forth, people pushing carts of goods and calling out took up big parts of the aisles, spilled water and who knows what else made puddles in the walkway, and there was always the threat of a flopping fish smacking against our legs.  Basically, it had a really fascinating atmosphere.

Peppers for sale.

Peppers for sale.

Gwangju

Jarred fish and bugs?

There were many smaller hallways and aisles branching off from the main areas and these all seemed to be organised type of goods.  Down one hallway were lots of older ladies who were making traditional Hanbok on sewing machines while sitting on the floor.

Hanbok aisle.

Hanbok aisle.

Another was lined with basins of dried goods: beans, wheat, whole oats, lentils, and some stuff we did not recognize.

Korea's bulk aisle.

Korea’s bulk aisle.

Dried grains etc. for sale.

Dried grains etc. for sale.

Around the market there are other buildings filled with stalls and booths. It would appear that you can buy pretty well anything you want down here.  We only bought a few veggies and did not bother to try bartering, but with the amount of competition in the surrounding area, it seems like that might be a legitimate option. A pretty great way to spend an afternoon.

Saturday in Damyang

One of Tamara’s co-teachers, who is also the school’s head teacher, invited us to spend last Saturday with her and another teacher from Tamara’s school. We eagerly agreed. The plan was to meet up at the school at 2pm, visit the bazaar at Tamara’s co-teacher’s church, and then head out to Damyang for a walk in the bamboo forest and coffee at a local art gallery/ café.

The church bazaar was small, but fairly well-attended. Its focus was on food, which meant we got to enjoy a bunch of delicious Korean food, all generously purchased by Tamara’s co-teacher. We ate some delicious 잡채 (pronounced “Japchae”, and comprised of clear noodles and vegetables), as well as a type of 국 (pronounced “guk,” which means soup) with little square patties of pressed fish paste and vegetables in it. We also ate two styles of deep-fried doughnut for dessert: long, skinny braids (covered in sugar) and regular shaped doughnuts filled with purple bean paste (also covered in sugar).

After lunch, we all piled back into Tamara’s co-teacher’s car and headed off to Damyang. From Gwangju, Damyang is approximately a 30-minute trip, most of which is spent making your way through traffic out of Gwangju. By the time we reached the outskirts of Damyang, it had started to rain. We did not let foul weather deter us, however: Tamara’s co-teacher had a stash of umbrellas in her trunk. When we saw a pretty-looking side-of-the-highway forest walk with a path through it, we stopped to take a look. However, we opted out of actually making our way down the path when we discovered that we would need to pay admission! We got back in the car and headed into Damyang to check out their famous 죽녹원 (Juknokwon) Bamboo Garden. Apparently, many Korean movies and television dramas are filmed there. After a short wander down a few of the paths, and a little impromptu lesson on Korean history and politics, we made our way to the little round shop in the middle of the park. In addition to selling hot and cold beverages and various treats, tables are set up around the inner perimeter, both upstairs and down, selling various bamboo products, including fans, bookmarks, bowls, child-size bow and arrows with suction-cup tips, decorations, walking sticks, musical instruments, good luck charms, back massagers, strainers, baskets, and more. Many items are hand-painted or hand-burned (something like wood-burning), and most are produced locally in Korea (ie. they are not fake little souvenirs mass-produced in a foreign factory).

After our wander through the shop, we headed back out in the rain to continue our walk. Given the weather, we did not endeavor to see the entire park, but we were able to stroll down several trails in our short time there. We also got to listen to the tall bamboo rustling in the wind, which, if you’ve never had the chance to hear it, is almost as soothing as the sound of rain on a tin roof. Beautiful. We then  took a few last pictures by a waterfall, and admired the many sorely misplaced panda statues (there are no pandas in Korea).

Ladies' photo op.

Ladies’ photo op.

B&T

B&T

Photo-bombed by miniature geographically confused pandas.

Photo-bombed by miniature geographically confused pandas.

When we’d had our fill of bamboo for the day (and our feet were soaked), we headed out for a delicious dinner of 떡갈비 (pronounced “tteokgalbi”), for which Damyang is well-known. Every city has it’s own special culinary claim-to-fame, and for Damyag, 떡갈비 is it. Made from ground beef and pork, formed into little patties and grilled, tteokgalbi is served with lettuce leaves, green onion, and bean paste, and is eaten a little like a lettuce wrap. Of course, in typical Korean style, there are also tons of side dishes to sample and share.

Following dinner, we headed off to Tamara’s co-teacher’s favourite spot: Art Center  대담 (pronounced “Daedam”) which is a beautifully landscaped little café/ art gallery. After a tour of the mostly traditional Korean house built on the grounds (a traditional Korean “house” was usually comprised of several separate buildings for living/ sleeping (one for each part of the extended family), a kitchen building, and a lavatory building, as well as some sort of shed, all in one sort of compound), we returned inside.

A night shot of the traditional Korean house area at Art Center Daedam.

A night shot of the traditional Korean house area at Art Center Daedam.

We had hoped to tour the gallery, but it was in the middle of renovations. Art Center Daedam is also a place where you can make your own art pieces, as well as buy locally made art. We sat for well over an hour in the café, chatting about language, school, and travel. We then opted to check out the roof (and peek in the window to the private suite they have for rent at about ₩300,000 (approximately $300) a day/ night), and, afterwards, to admire the view of the river on the way to the car. We made our way back to Gwangju around 9:30pm.

If you look carefully, you can see hundreds of bamboo lanterns, each with a coloured light inside, strung above the bridge across the river, all reflected in the water below.

If you look carefully, you can see hundreds of bamboo lanterns, each with a coloured light inside, strung above the bridge across the river, all reflected in the water below.

Many thanks to Tamara’s co-teacher for a lovely and relaxing Saturday, and to both teachers for all their hospitality and their insights on life in Korea.

Jogyesan Provincial Park

For some reason Sunday has become our hiking day.  It really makes no sense.  Most of our friends are too busy or hungover to come. Fortunately, we don’t let that slow us down, which is why we found ourselves arriving at Usquare at 8:20 AM this Sunday, ready to catch a bus to our next hike.  We were heading for Jogyesan Provincial Park which is somewhat South and East of Gwangju.

Jogyesan is most well-known for the two temples that sit on either side of the mountain.  These were established well over 1,000 years ago, although they have undergone several reconstructions since.  It seems that temples are always destroyed during invasions or war.  Songgwangsa is the temple on the western side of the park and is considered one of the three most important Buddhist temples in Korea.  This temple has produced 16 national masters and continues to serve as one of the main Buddhist training centres in Korea.  It is still an active temple even though it is continues to undergo renovations and reconstructions after its total destruction during the Korean war.  

The second temple on the east side of the park is Sonamsa Temple.  This is a smaller temple complex and is in some way affiliated with Songgwangsa.  One person told Blake that it is sort of a hermitage to Songgwangsa, where the monks can study with fewer interruptions. Sonamsa’s main entrance gate is unassuming compared to the pavilion bridge entrance to Songgwangsa, but the smaller temple complex still contains a multitude of national treasures and plays an important role in the lives of local Buddhists.

We caught a direct bus to Songgwangsa Temple on the western side of the park where we would begin our hike.  After a very visually appealing roller coaster ride (a.k.a. bus trip) through some windy country roads, we were dropped off in a small parking lot in a distinctly rural area.  We wandered our way up a rather pretty path, following the other walkers, and eventually stumbled our way into the Songgwangsa complex.  It was certainly an impressive complex. Unfortunately it was still being renovated so there were several areas that were completely off limits to visitors.

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Looking at the visitor map we discovered that the hike would be significantly longer than we had thought, so we were quite a bit more rushed than we had hoped to be, heading through the temple complex. As we were leaving, we bumped into a monk who has lived at that temple for over forty years.  He is 83 years old and is one of the higher ranks among Buddhist monks.  We did not fully catch the details, but it was pretty neat to talk with him.  He welcomed us to his temple, wished us well, and gave us business cards.  It was a really nice send off.

The first section of the trail winds along a gorgeous creek that is really one long series of small waterfalls and pools.  The trail criss-crosses the stream on bridges of stepping stones and is surrounded with newly-budded leaves and foliage.  Very pretty.  We had lunch on a rock by a secluded little pool.

Tamara looking patient.

Tamara looking patient.

There were bridges of all shapes and sizes over the creek.

There were bridges of all shapes and sizes over the creek.

Sadly, we broke through the ‘leaf line’ before we hit the first ridge and spent most of the hike in areas where the trees were still bare.

There was a bit of climbing to the first ridge.

There was a bit of climbing to the first ridge.

Parts of it were a bit steep.

Parts of it were a bit steep.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On this first ridge we were presented with a choice: head for the highest peak in the park, or skirt the peak and head past a barley restaurant and straight down to Seonamsa Temple.  We opted for the peak. As it turned out, we hit the second highest peak, Yeonsanbong (851 meters), first and then went way out and along the ridge to summit Jaggunbong at 884 meters.  Basically, we walked over 4 km to get to the peak that was likely less than a km away in a straight shot.  Granted, we saved ourselves descending into the main valley and climbing again, but we did a ton of up and down on the ridge anyway.

A  cherry tree in bloom is a stark contrast with its barren surrounds.

A cherry tree in bloom is a stark contrast with its barren surroundings.

At one point along the ridge, we suddenly heard the sound of classical music blaring from up ahead.  For those who live here, it is the exact same music that they play in the subway when the train is arriving at the platform.  It was baffling as we were able to see the ridgeline ahead of us and there were no other hikers in our vicinity. (We had originally thought it would be a Korean hiker playing music through their phone – a common practice).  On the last hilltop before the summit we came across this little device.

Random music maker in the woods.

Random music maker in the woods.

We tripped the motion sensor (at least that’s what we assume happened) and all of a sudden it starts blaring music.  Partway through, a woman’s voice cuts in speaking Korean and the entire thing continues for the better part of two minutes. No idea what she was saying.  And why on the secondary hill and not the peak?  Why a speaker at all?  Very odd.

We summited Jaggunbong and had a brief snack on top.  One thing to by said for Jogyesan is that it seems to be largely free of the Korean hiking hordes we have encountered elsewhere.  There was only one family up there with us.  They were even kind enough to snap a few pictures.

Summit

Summit

Snack break.

Snack break.

Pile of wishing rocks at the summit.

Pile of wishing rocks at the summit.

Unfortunately, the views were not spectacular.  The sides of the trail are, for the most part heavily treed, restricting the opportunities for looking out over the valleys to the occasional gap.  Combine this with a cloudy, hazy day and scenery pictures were bound to have some issues.

Looking across from Jaggunbong at the ridge we hiked between peaks.

Looking across from Jaggunbong at the ridge we hiked between peaks.

View from Jaggunbong

View from Jaggunbong

View of the built up area below Somsama.

View of the built-up area below Sonamsa.

 

From the peak it was a relatively short hike down to Sonamsa temple.  This is one of the steeper parts of the trail that we encountered, but is still not a big effort.

Descent from

Descent from Jaggunbong

We passed by the ruins of Hyangnoam Monastery which were not that impressive.  There appears to be very little information about this location and only a few stones to show that there was anything there at all.

Remains of Hyangnoam. She looks so happy doesn't she?

Remains of Hyangnoam. She looks so happy doesn’t she?

A spring near Hyangnoam.

A spring near Hyangnoam.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just before we hit the main temple complex we encountered a Buddha carved into the rock wall. They don’t know the exact date of carving, but they are guessing that it was in the Goryeo dynasty.  Sonamsa Temple was really gorgeous.  Not as large or complex as Songgwangsa, but definitely prettier.  It is nestled in between the mountains and has a ton of cherry trees and other blossoming plants all over the place. When we arrived the trees were in full bloom.

Seunseongyo is an ancient stone bridge just below Sonamsa.  This dates back over 300 years and has a dragon’s head in the upper arch above the water. Dragons seem to be a bit of a theme in these two temples and their surrounds.  The bridge’s base is natural stone from the creekside and the rest is made of granite.  Apparently, if you arrive at Seunseongyo when the sun is out, the reflection of the arch in the pool creates a full circle appearance.

Seunseongyo from downstream

Seunseongyo from downstream

Seunseongyo from upstream

Seunseongyo from upstream

When we were just leaving the temple to start looking for the bus that would take us to Suncheon (a lady that worked there had told us that there were no more running that day, so we were getting concerned about getting home) when we bumped into one of Tamara’s colleagues.  She was taking a couple of students on a trip to several temples to look at the weathering on some National Treasures made of stone (on her own time) and immediately offered us a ride home.  We gratefully accepted (although we later figured out where to take the bus and that it would have taken at least two hours) and then lounged until they were finished.  The ride back was nice and fast as well as entertaining with the two little fourth grade boys to keep us laughing.  It was a reminder about how kind Korean people are.  No hesitation, we are going back to Gwangju too, obviously you will ride with us.

For those wanting to visit

There are several ways to go about visiting Jogyesan.  From Gwangju there are buses directly to Songgwangsa every hour or so.  There is also a single bus from Usquare to Sonamsa that runs early in the morning. Other options include taking a bus to Suncheon and then catching local buses to either of the temples.  Apparently, these run about every hour and there is even a way to catch a local bus from one temple to another in the event you don’t feel like hiking between the two.  The park has an extensive network of trails and the route we took is only one option.  You can actually hike between temples without climbing the peak.  This trail also takes you past a restaurant serving a local barley dish that is supposed to be delicious.  We can’t really say the mountain views are worth the hike, but the temples are certainly worth taking the time to visit. If you do decide to hike, it seems that going from Sonamsa to Songgwangsa would be a better trail.  The steep part is going up and the last part of the hike will be along a nice refreshing creek.